Roger’s note: who is writing the script for this horror movie, Joseph Goebbels or George Orwell? Who else could come up with such winners as “Operation Enduring Freedom” which has now morphed, thanks to War-Criminal-in-Chief Obama, into “Operation Resolute Support?” To describe aggressive warfare and the murder of innocent civilians? To maintain control over oil pipelines?
Why does that 1960s chant ring in my head: “Hey, Hey, LBJ, How many kids did you kill today?”
Last May 27, in an announcement in the White House Rose Garden, President Obama said:
“2014, therefore, is a pivotal year. Together with our allies and the Afghan government, we have agreed that this is the year we will conclude our combat mission in Afghanistan… America’s combat mission will be over by the end of this year. Starting next year, Afghans will be fully responsible for securing their country. American personnel will be in an advisory role. We will no longer patrol Afghan cities or towns, mountains or valleys. That is a task for the Afghan people.”
The president has now quietly authorized an expanded role for the U.S. military in Afghanistan.
The New York Timesreported last night that Obama’s decision is the result of “a lengthy and heated debate” between the promise Mr. Obama made to end the war in Afghanistan, versus the demands of the Pentagon.
The Pentagon won. An official told the Times that “the military pretty much got what it wanted.”
Obama has also given the war in Afghanistan a new name: Operation Resolute Support.
Obama’s secret decision will keep American troops on the ground and fighting for at least another year and the US will continue using F-16 fighter jets, Predator and Reaper drones, and B-1 bombers.
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Roger’s note: Solitary confinement is torture, is dehumanizing, is an abomination, is barbaric. Please sign the petition.
CCR (Center for Constitutional Rights) is challenging the constitutionality of long-term solitary confinement in its class-action suit Ashker v. Brown, filed on behalf of prisoners in California’s Pelican Bay prison. The suit is part of our longstanding work opposing all forms of torture, and it is also part of the movement here in the U.S. specifically to end the epidemic use of this particularly cruel form of punishment. As a part of that effort, CCR has partnered with Amnesty International and others in a call for the U.S. State Department to invite to UN Special Rapporteur on Torture Juan Mendez to carry out a fact-finding visit to US super-maximum security prisons, both state and federal. Please sign their petition here.
Roger’s note: One of the overwhelming disadvantages of obtaining information from only the U.S. corporate mass media is that what you are getting is the government’s justification for its actions shrouded in its own world view populated with half truths and outright lies. A sort of political ethno-centrism. This is true especially with respect to political hot spots like Venezuela, the Middle East, North Korea, etc. The picture of the Ukraine situation projected by western governments and mass media shows Russia as a blatant aggressor when the reality is provocative US/NATO expansionism in eastern Europe; that is a stark example of this phenomenon. This article provides an antidote.
Let me add that I am no fan of or apologist for Putin or Russian foreign policy. But fair is fair.
By Finian Cunningham, http://www.informationclearinghouse
“Press TV“- Has Russia reached the limit of its diplomatic tolerance of the US and its NATO allies? The announcement this week that Moscow is to begin deploying long-range bombers in the Gulf of Mexico – America’s own backyard – suggests so.
The move may seem like a reckless ratcheting up of tensions between the old Cold War rivals. The Tupolev Russian strategic bombers in question are nuclear-capable, and as expected the decision to patrol the Caribbean seas sparked a stern response from Washington, warning Moscow of risks.
But the first point to note is that Russia is not doing anything illegal. It has a legal right to fly its warplanes in any international airspace it chooses, as do all nations, to perform training maneuvers.
Even Washington officials have begrudgingly acknowledged Russia’s legal right to do so. The Christian Science Monitor quoted Pentagon spokesman Col. Steve Warren as saying, “Russia has a right to fly in international airspace”.
However, we can be sure that the hawks in Washington will be fuming at what they see as Vladimir Putin’s “audacity” to order warplanes within striking distance of the US. For the de facto American War Party of Republicans and Democrats, the latest Russian move confirms their accusations that President Putin is trying to flex “Soviet-era muscles”. Or, as American NATO commander General Philip Breedlove put it, Russia “is messaging us that they are a great power”.
That’s typical arrogant mis-reading by Washington of the situation. This is not Putin trying to be provocative or flaunting expansionist ambitions. It is simply Russia giving a taste of American medicine back and in language that the arrogant warmongers in Washington will understand.
Since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the US-led NATO military alliance has embarked on a relentless campaign of encircling Russia. In complete defiance of binding agreements, such as the 1997 Founding Act between NATO and Russia, the American military alliance has encroached on Russian borders with warplanes, warships, missiles and troops. It is Washington that is on an expansionist threatening drive, not Russia.
The destabilization earlier this year of former Soviet republic Ukraine to install an illegal, anti-Russian regime that is massacring the ethnic Russian population in the east of that country – in spite of a putative ceasefire – is seen by Moscow as a red line.
Washington has sent military aid to the regime in Kiev and is to step up its training of neo-Nazi brigades that have been involved in crimes against humanity on the people of Donetsk and Luhansk; simply because these people refuse to recognize the illegal regime-change operation in their country.
Latest reports this week say that the Kiev regime is preparing to escalate its military assault on the eastern regions in violation of a ceasefire it signed up to on September 5. Last week, its forces deliberately shelled a school in Donetsk city killing two teenage students. This was just the latest in a long list of such crimes committed by the Western-backed regime since it launched its offensive back in April.
That offensive followed days after CIA director John Brennan secretly visited Kiev and had behind-closed-door meetings with the regime’s leadership, including the so-called Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk. Yatsenyuk has referred to the Russian-speaking population in the eastern regions as “sub-humans” who need to be “cleansed”. After nearly seven months of Western-backed state terrorism by Kiev forces, more than 4,000 people have been killed and up to one million turned into refugees.
Yet in the face of this aggression, Washington and its NATO allies in Europe continually turn reality on its head and accuse Russia of fueling the conflict, slapping on punitive trade sanctions to boot.
With the servile help of the Western corporate news media, Washington, its European lackeys and their stooge regime in Kiev shamelessly invent stories of Russian military forces invading Ukraine. Images of army convoys are played over and over again without verifiable dates or locations. Based on NATO say-so and outrageous double think, Russia has allegedly violated Ukrainian sovereignty.
This week, Russian foreign ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich again reiterated Moscow’s denial that it has sent troops or military equipment into eastern Ukraine. He said of the latest NATO claims: “Instead of giving the facts, all they have to present is unfounded accusations. It would be far better to ask the [Western] officials who make such statements in order to fan tensions and justify their actions.”
Russian ministry of defence spokesman Igor Konashenkov was even more blunt. He said: “We have already stopped paying attention to unfounded statements by NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander in Europe General Philip Breedlove about his ‘seeing’ Russian military columns that are allegedly invading Ukraine.”
It seems as if Moscow has finally got tired of dealing with idiotic Americans and their European puppets through normal diplomatic discourse. Putin may have met Obama briefly at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit last week and during the G20 gathering this weekend in Australia, but it has been reported that the Russian leader no longer takes phone calls from his counterpart in the White House – much to Obama’s chagrin.
When up against an irrational, arrogant bully, the only language he understands is in-your-face force.
Russia is right to put warplanes on patrol near US airspace. After all, American warplanes have been doing just the same towards Russia or years. Only the arrogant, exceptional nation thinks it has the right to do so without consequences. And no amount of diplomatic reasoning will ever prevail on such an arrogant monster.
Put it another way, to keep pandering with futile diplomacy and to not reciprocate the show of force with Washington and its minions would be the really reckless option. You don’t encourage a bully. Instead, you have to square up and push back.
Finian Cunningham (born 1963) has written extensively on international affairs, with articles published in several languages. He is a Master’s graduate in Agricultural Chemistry and worked as a scientific editor for the Royal Society of Chemistry, Cambridge, England, before pursuing a career in journalism. He is also a musician and songwriter. For nearly 20 years, he worked as an editor and writer in major news media organisations, including The Mirror, Irish Times and Independent.
Roger’s note: this article demonstrates the upsidedown Alice in Wonderland world we live in. It asks the question: “It’s a scenario that’s long confounded law enforcement: How do you crack down on extremism without creating more of it?” Dear Law Enforcement, here is the answer: stop invading Muslim countries and bombing their civilian populations. Then, in referring to those the Americans have put in prison, it notes with straight faced incredulity: “Many were guilty of attacking American soldiers.” Again, Dear Law Enforcement, when invading foreign countries, would it not be logical and expected for the citizens to attack the invading American soldiers?”
During the Iraq War, the U.S. locked up thousands of radicals in Camp Bucca. That gave the future leaders of Islamic State the opportunity to meet — and plan
DAVID FURST / AFP/GETTY IMAGES FILE PHOTO
At the height of the Iraq War, Camp Bucca had 24,000 inmates. Many of Islamic State’s leaders were incarcerated and likely met at the sprawling detention centre, located near the Kuwait-Iraq border. Photo taken May 19, 2008.
By:Terrence McCoyThe Washington Post,Published on Sun Nov 16 2014
WASHINGTON—In March 2009, in a windswept sliver of Iraq, a sense of uncertainty befell the southern town of Garma, home to one of the Iraq War’s most notorious prisons.
The sprawling detention centre called Camp Bucca, which had detained some of the Iraq War’s most radical jihadists, had just freed hundreds of inhabitants. Families rejoiced, anxiously awaiting their sons, brothers and fathers who had been lost to Bucca for years. But a local official fretted.
“These men weren’t planting flowers in a garden,” police chief Saad Abbas Mahmoud told The Washington Post’s Anthony Shadid, estimating 90 per cent of the freed prisoners would soon resume fighting. “They weren’t strolling down the street. This problem is both big and dangerous. And regrettably, the Iraqi government and the authorities don’t know how big the problem has become.”
Mahmoud’s assessment of Camp Bucca, which funnelled 100,000 detainees through its barracks and closed months later, would prove prescient. The camp now represents an opening chapter in the history of Islamic State — many of its leaders, including Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, were incarcerated and likely met there.
According to former prison commanders, analysts and soldiers, Camp Bucca provided a unique setting for both prisoner radicalization and inmate collaboration — and it was formative in the development today’s most potent jihadist force.
In all, nine members of the Islamic State’s top command did time at Bucca, according to the terrorist analyst organization Soufan Group. Baghdadi spent five years there; the leader’s No. 2, Abu Muslim al-Turkmani, as well as senior military leader Haji Bakr, now deceased, and the leader of foreign fighters, Abu Qasim, were also incarcerated at Bucca, Soufan said. Though it’s likely the men were extremists when they entered the detention centre, the group added, it’s certain they were when they left.
“Before their detention, Mr. al-Baghdadi and others were violent radicals, intent on attacking America,” wrote military veteran Andrew Thompson and academic Jeremi Suri in the New York Times last month. “Their time in prison deepened their extremism and gave them opportunities to broaden their following … The prisons became virtual terrorist universities: The hardened radicals were the professors, the other detainees were the students, and the prison authorities played the role of absent custodian.”
It’s a scenario that’s long confounded law enforcement: How do you crack down on extremism without creating more of it? From the radicalization of white supremacists in U.S. prisons to the United Kingdom’s disastrous bid in the 1970s to incarcerate Irish Republican Army members, the problem is nothing new: prisons are pools of explosive extremism awaiting a spark.
And at Camp Bucca, there was no shortage of sparks. As news of al-Baghdadi’s tenure at Bucca emerged, former prison commander James Skylar Gerrond remembered many of them. “Re: Baghdadi,” he wrote on Twitter in July, “Many of us at Camp Bucca were concerned that instead of just holding detainees, we had created a pressure cooker for extremism.” He worked at the prison between 2006 and 2007, when it was glutted with tens of thousands of radicals, including al-Baghdadi.
Many were guilty of attacking American soldiers. But many more were not — “simply being a ‘suspicious looking’ military-aged male in the vicinity of an attack was enough to land one behind bars,” according to the Times opinion piece.
Shadid reported as much in 2009, confirming that many viewed it “as an appalling miscarriage of justice where prisoners were not charged or permitted to see evidence against them (and) freed detainees may end up swelling the ranks of a subdued insurgency.”
That this subdued insurgency eventually caught fire isn’t much of a surprise. At the height of the Iraq surge in 2007, when the prison had 24,000 inmates, it seethed with extremism. Inhabitants were divided along sectarian lines to ameliorate tension, a military report said, and inmates settled their disputes with Islamic law. “Inside the wire at these compounds are Islamic extremists who will maim or kill fellow detainees for behaviour they consider against Islam,” the military report said.
“Sharia courts enforce a lot of rules inside the compounds,” one soldier quoted in the report said. “Anyone who takes part in behaviour which is seen as ‘Western’ is severely punished by the extremist elements of the compound … It’s quite appalling sometimes.”
Prison commanders such as Gerrond observed the growing extremism. “There was a huge amount of collective pressure exerted on detainees to become more radical in their beliefs,” he told Mother Jones. “ … Detainees turn(ed) to each other for support. If there were radical elements within this support network, there was always the potential that detainees would become more radical.”
But the unique setting at Bucca, which thrust together Saddam Hussein’s Baathist secularists and Islamic fundamentalists, set the stage for something perhaps worse: collaboration. At the prison, the two seemingly incongruous groups joined to form a union “more than a marriage of convenience,” Soufan reported.
Soufan found each group offered the other something it lacked. In the ex-Baathists, jihadists found organizational skills and military discipline. In the jihadists, ex-Baathists found purpose. “In Bucca, the math changed as ideologies adopted military and bureaucratic traits and as bureaucrats became violent extremists,” the Soufan report said.
From the ashes of what former inmates called an “Al Qaeda school,” rose the Islamic State. Indeed, when those inhabitants freed in 2009 returned to Baghdad, the Post reported, they spoke of two things: their conversion to radicalism — and revenge.
Roger’s note: If you are just getting over your Halloween frights, here is something that should really scare you. Only in a world that is controlled by politicians who follow the dictates of generals and CEOs (as opposed to “the people.” which is what democracy is supposed to be about) could such a danger to the very existence of the biosphere and humankind be put in jeopardy. Of course, when I refer to generals and CEOs you know that I mean the capitalist economic system that will doom us if we don’t do something about it. I hope this does not cause you to lose too much sleep.
JANUARY 17, 2014
BY ERIC SCHLOSSER
This month marks the fiftieth anniversary of Stanley Kubrick’s black comedy about nuclear weapons, “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.” Released on January 29, 1964, the film caused a good deal of controversy. Its plot suggested that a mentally deranged American general could order a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union, without consulting the President. One reviewer described the film as “dangerous … an evil thing about an evil thing.” Another compared it to Soviet propaganda. Although “Strangelove” was clearly a farce, with the comedian Peter Sellers playing three roles, it was criticized for being implausible. An expert at the Institute for Strategic Studies called the events in the film “impossible on a dozen counts.” A former Deputy Secretary of Defense dismissed the idea that someone could authorize the use of a nuclear weapon without the President’s approval: “Nothing, in fact, could be further from the truth.” (See a compendium of clips from the film.) When “Fail-Safe”—a Hollywood thriller with a similar plot, directed by Sidney Lumet—opened, later that year, it was criticized in much the same way. “The incidents in ‘Fail-Safe’ are deliberate lies!” General Curtis LeMay, the Air Force chief of staff, said. “Nothing like that could happen.” The first casualty of every war is the truth—and the Cold War was no exception to that dictum. Half a century after Kubrick’s mad general, Jack D. Ripper, launched a nuclear strike on the Soviets to defend the purity of “our precious bodily fluids” from Communist subversion, we now know that American officers did indeed have the ability to start a Third World War on their own. And despite the introduction of rigorous safeguards in the years since then, the risk of an accidental or unauthorized nuclear detonation hasn’t been completely eliminated.
The command and control of nuclear weapons has long been plagued by an “always/never” dilemma. The administrative and technological systems that are necessary to insure that nuclear weapons are always available for use in wartime may be quite different from those necessary to guarantee that such weapons can never be used, without proper authorization, in peacetime. During the nineteen-fifties and sixties, the “always” in American war planning was given far greater precedence than the “never.” Through two terms in office, beginning in 1953, President Dwight D. Eisenhower struggled with this dilemma. He wanted to retain Presidential control of nuclear weapons while defending America and its allies from attack. But, in a crisis, those two goals might prove contradictory, raising all sorts of difficult questions. What if Soviet bombers were en route to the United States but the President somehow couldn’t be reached? What if Soviet tanks were rolling into West Germany but a communications breakdown prevented NATO officers from contacting the White House? What if the President were killed during a surprise attack on Washington, D.C., along with the rest of the nation’s civilian leadership? Who would order a nuclear retaliation then?
With great reluctance, Eisenhower agreed to let American officers use their nuclear weapons, in an emergency, if there were no time or no means to contact the President. Air Force pilots were allowed to fire their nuclear anti-aircraft rockets to shoot down Soviet bombers heading toward the United States. And about half a dozen high-level American commanders were allowed to use far more powerful nuclear weapons, without contacting the White House first, when their forces were under attack and “the urgency of time and circumstances clearly does not permit a specific decision by the President, or other person empowered to act in his stead.” Eisenhower worried that providing that sort of authorization in advance could make it possible for someone to do “something foolish down the chain of command” and start an all-out nuclear war. But the alternative—allowing an attack on the United States to go unanswered or NATO forces to be overrun—seemed a lot worse. Aware that his decision might create public unease about who really controlled America’s nuclear arsenal, Eisenhower insisted that his delegation of Presidential authority be kept secret. At a meeting with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, he confessed to being “very fearful of having written papers on this matter.”
President John F. Kennedy was surprised to learn, just a few weeks after taking office, about this secret delegation of power. “A subordinate commander faced with a substantial military action,” Kennedy was told in a top-secret memo, “could start the thermonuclear holocaust on his own initiative if he could not reach you.” Kennedy and his national-security advisers were shocked not only by the wide latitude given to American officers but also by the loose custody of the roughly three thousand American nuclear weapons stored in Europe. Few of the weapons had locks on them. Anyone who got hold of them could detonate them. And there was little to prevent NATO officers from Turkey, Holland, Italy, Great Britain, and Germany from using them without the approval of the United States.
In December, 1960, fifteen members of Congress serving on the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy had toured NATO bases to investigate how American nuclear weapons were being deployed. They found that the weapons—some of them about a hundred times more powerful than the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima—were routinely guarded, transported, and handled by foreign military personnel. American control of the weapons was practically nonexistent. Harold Agnew, a Los Alamos physicist who accompanied the group, was especially concerned to see German pilots sitting in German planes that were decorated with Iron Crosses—and carrying American atomic bombs. Agnew, in his own words, “nearly wet his pants” when he realized that a lone American sentry with a rifle was all that prevented someone from taking off in one of those planes and bombing the Soviet Union.
* * *
The Kennedy Administration soon decided to put locking devices inside NATO’s nuclear weapons. The coded electromechanical switches, known as “permissive action links” (PALs), would be placed on the arming lines. The weapons would be inoperable without the proper code—and that code would be shared with NATO allies only when the White House was prepared to fight the Soviets. The American military didn’t like the idea of these coded switches, fearing that mechanical devices installed to improve weapon safety would diminish weapon reliability. A top-secret State Department memo summarized the view of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1961: “all is well with the atomic stockpile program and there is no need for any changes.”
After a crash program to develop the new control technology, during the mid-nineteen-sixties, permissive action links were finally placed inside most of the nuclear weapons deployed by NATO forces. But Kennedy’s directive applied only to the NATO arsenal. For years, the Air Force and the Navy blocked attempts to add coded switches to the weapons solely in their custody. During a national emergency, they argued, the consequences of not receiving the proper code from the White House might be disastrous. And locked weapons might play into the hands of Communist saboteurs. “The very existence of the lock capability,” a top Air Force general claimed, “would create a fail-disable potential for knowledgeable agents to ‘dud’ the entire Minuteman [missile] force.” The Joint Chiefs thought that strict military discipline was the best safeguard against an unauthorized nuclear strike. A two-man rule was instituted to make it more difficult for someone to use a nuclear weapon without permission. And a new screening program, the Human Reliability Program, was created to stop people with emotional, psychological, and substance-abuse problems from gaining access to nuclear weapons.
Despite public assurances that everything was fully under control, in the winter of 1964, while “Dr. Strangelove” was playing in theatres and being condemned as Soviet propaganda, there was nothing to prevent an American bomber crew or missile launch crew from using their weapons against the Soviets. Kubrick had researched the subject for years, consulted experts, and worked closely with a former R.A.F. pilot, Peter George, on the screenplay of the film. George’s novel about the risk of accidental nuclear war, “Red Alert,” was the source for most of “Strangelove” ’s plot. Unbeknownst to both Kubrick and George, a top official at the Department of Defense had already sent a copy of “Red Alert” to every member of the Pentagon’s Scientific Advisory Committee for Ballistic Missiles. At the Pentagon, the book was taken seriously as a cautionary tale about what might go wrong. Even Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara privately worried that an accident, a mistake, or a rogue American officer could start a nuclear war.
Coded switches to prevent the unauthorized use of nuclear weapons were finally added to the control systems of American missiles and bombers in the early nineteen-seventies. The Air Force was not pleased, and considered the new security measures to be an insult, a lack of confidence in its personnel. Although the Air Force now denies this claim, according to more than one source I contacted, the code necessary to launch a missile was set to be the same at every Minuteman site: 00000000.
* * *
The early permissive action links were rudimentary. Placed in NATO weapons during the nineteen-sixties and known as Category A PALs, the switches relied on a split four-digit code, with ten thousand possible combinations. If the United States went to war, two people would be necessary to unlock a nuclear weapon, each of them provided with half the code. Category A PALs were useful mainly to delay unauthorized use, to buy time after a weapon had been taken or to thwart an individual psychotic hoping to cause a large explosion. A skilled technician could open a stolen weapon and unlock it within a few hours. Today’s Category D PALs, installed in the Air Force’s hydrogen bombs, are more sophisticated. They require a six-digit code, with a million possible combinations, and have a limited-try feature that disables a weapon when the wrong code is repeatedly entered.
The Air Force’s land-based Minuteman III missiles and the Navy’s submarine-based Trident II missiles now require an eight-digit code—which is no longer 00000000—in order to be launched. The Minuteman crews receive the code via underground cables or an aboveground radio antenna. Sending the launch code to submarines deep underwater presents a greater challenge. Trident submarines contain two safes. One holds the keys necessary to launch a missile; the other holds the combination to the safe with the keys; and the combination to the safe holding the combination must be transmitted to the sub by very-low-frequency or extremely-low-frequency radio. In a pinch, if Washington, D.C., has been destroyed and the launch code doesn’t arrive, the sub’s crew can open the safes with a blowtorch.
The security measures now used to control America’s nuclear weapons are a vast improvement over those of 1964. But, like all human endeavors, they are inherently flawed. The Department of Defense’s Personnel Reliability Program is supposed to keep people with serious emotional or psychological issues away from nuclear weapons—and yet two of the nation’s top nuclear commanders were recently removed from their posts. Neither appears to be the sort of calm, stable person you want with a finger on the button. In fact, their misbehavior seems straight out of “Strangelove.”
Vice Admiral Tim Giardina, the second-highest-ranking officer at the U.S. Strategic Command—the organization responsible for all of America’s nuclear forces—-was investigated last summer for allegedly using counterfeit gambling chips at the Horseshoe Casino in Council Bluffs, Iowa. According to the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation, “a significant monetary amount” of counterfeit chips was involved. Giardina was relieved of his command on October 3, 2013. A few days later, Major General Michael Carey, the Air Force commander in charge of America’s intercontinental ballistic missiles, was fired for conduct “unbecoming an officer and a gentleman.” According to a report by the Inspector General of the Air Force, Carey had consumed too much alcohol during an official trip to Russia, behaved rudely toward Russian officers, spent time with “suspect” young foreign women in Moscow, loudly discussed sensitive information in a public hotel lounge there, and drunkenly pleaded to get onstage and sing with a Beatles cover band at La Cantina, a Mexican restaurant near Red Square. Despite his requests, the band wouldn’t let Carey onstage to sing or to play the guitar.
While drinking beer in the executive lounge at Moscow’s Marriott Aurora during that visit, General Carey made an admission with serious public-policy implications. He off-handedly told a delegation of U.S. national-security officials that his missile-launch officers have the “worst morale in the Air Force.” Recent events suggest that may be true. In the spring of 2013, nineteen launch officers at Minot Air Force base in North Dakota were decertified for violating safety rules and poor discipline. In August, 2013, the entire missile wing at Malmstrom Air Force base in Montana failed its safety inspection. Last week, the Air Force revealed that thirty-four launch officers at Malmstrom had been decertified for cheating on proficiency exams—and that at least three launch officers are being investigated for illegal drug use. The findings of a report by the RAND Corporation, leaked to the A.P., were equally disturbing. The study found that the rates of spousal abuse and court martials among Air Force personnel with nuclear responsibilities are much higher than those among people with other jobs in the Air Force. “We don’t care if things go properly,” a launch officer told RAND. “We just don’t want to get in trouble.”
The most unlikely and absurd plot element in “Strangelove” is the existence of a Soviet “Doomsday Machine.” The device would trigger itself, automatically, if the Soviet Union were attacked with nuclear weapons. It was meant to be the ultimate deterrent, a threat to destroy the world in order to prevent an American nuclear strike. But the failure of the Soviets to tell the United States about the contraption defeats its purpose and, at the end of the film, inadvertently causes a nuclear Armageddon. “The whole point of the Doomsday Machine is lost,” Dr. Strangelove, the President’s science adviser, explains to the Soviet Ambassador, “if you keep it a secret!”
A decade after the release of “Strangelove,” the Soviet Union began work on the Perimeter system—-a network of sensors and computers that could allow junior military officials to launch missiles without oversight from the Soviet leadership. Perhaps nobody at the Kremlin had seen the film. Completed in 1985, the system was known as the Dead Hand. Once it was activated, Perimeter would order the launch of long-range missiles at the United States if it detected nuclear detonations on Soviet soil and Soviet leaders couldn’t be reached. Like the Doomsday Machine in “Strangelove,” Perimeter was kept secret from the United States; its existence was not revealed until years after the Cold War ended.
In retrospect, Kubrick’s black comedy provided a far more accurate description of the dangers inherent in nuclear command-and-control systems than the ones that the American people got from the White House, the Pentagon, and the mainstream media.
“This is absolute madness, Ambassador,” President Merkin Muffley says in the film, after being told about the Soviets’ automated retaliatory system. “Why should you build such a thing?” Fifty years later, that question remains unanswered, and “Strangelove” seems all the more brilliant, bleak, and terrifyingly on the mark.
You can read Eric Schlosser’s guide to the long-secret documents that help explain the risks America took with its nuclear arsenal, and watch and read his deconstruction of clips from “Dr. Strangelove” and from a little-seen film about permissive action links.
Eric Schlosser is the author of “Command and Control.”
I believe in magic, the magic of an incredible sunrise, the magic of a tender kiss. I do not believe in the magic of bending spoons with the mind. This is not magic, it is fraudulent pandering to human susceptibility, to mindless superstition. I believe that those who claim to have paranormal powers are not simply entertainers, but rather dangerous frauds. Despite the unbelievable advances in all branches of science and the equally unbelievable expansion of human knowledge, we live in an a “dark” age where unscrupulous agents of enormous economic power and interests take advantage of the credulous instincts of human beings in order to override scientific fact (evolution, climate change) in favor of superstition and “faith.” This often in the service of profit, war and environmental degradation.
I have faith. I have faith in those who have shown themselves reliable enough to merit belief. I do not have faith in fairy tales and myths that were created as metaphors but are taken as literal scientific truth by those who enjoy power through manipulation.
I have long followed the life and work of Henry Gordon, another Canadian magician (unfortunately not mentioned in this article) who dedicated his life to debunking the paranormal frauds. These men are heroes in my opinion.
A few minutes before 8 o’clock one Sunday evening last July, around 600 people crowded into the main conference hall of the South Point casino in Las Vegas. After taking their seats on red-velvet upholstered chairs, they chattered noisily as they awaited the start of the Million Dollar Challenge. When Fei Wang, a 32-year-old Chinese salesman, stepped onto the stage, they fell silent. Wang had a shaved head and steel-framed glasses. He wore a polo shirt, denim shorts and socks. He claimed to have a peculiar talent: from his right hand, he could transmit a mysterious force a distance of three feet, unhindered by wood, metal, plastic or cardboard. The energy, he said, could be felt by others as heat, pressure, magnetism or simply “an indescribable change.” Tonight, if he could demonstrate the existence of his ability under scientific test conditions, he stood to win $1 million.
The Million Dollar Challenge was the climax of the Amazing Meeting, or TAM, an annual weekend-long conference for skeptics that was created by a magician named the Amazing Randi in 2003. Randi, a slight, gnomish figure with a bald head and frothy white beard, was presiding from the front row, a cane topped with a polished silver skull between his legs. He drummed his fingers on the table in front of him. The Challenge organizers had spent weeks negotiating with Wang and fine-tuning the protocol for the evening’s test. A succession of nine blindfolded subjects would come onstage and place their hands in a cardboard box. From behind a curtain, Wang would transmit his energy into the box. If the subjects could successfully detect Wang’s energy on eight out of nine occasions, the trial would confirm Wang’s psychic power. “I think he’ll get four or five,” Randi told me. “That’s my bet.”
The Challenge began with the solemnity of a murder trial. A young woman in a short black dress stood at the edge of the stage, preparing to mark down the results on a chart mounted on an easel. The first subject, a heavyset blond woman in flip-flops, stepped up and placed her hands in the box. After two minutes, she was followed by a second woman who had a blue streak in her hair and, like the first, looked mildly nonplused by the proceedings. Each failed to detect the mystic force. “Which means, at this point, we are done,” the M.C. announced. With two failures in a row, it was impossible for Wang to succeed. The Million Dollar Challenge was already over.
Stepping out from behind the curtain, Wang stood center stage, wearing an expression of numb shock, like a toddler who has just dropped his ice cream in the sand. He was at a loss to explain what had gone wrong; his tests with a paranormal society in Boston had all succeeded. Nothing could convince him that he didn’t possess supernatural powers. “This energy is mysterious,” he told the audience. “It is not God.” He said he would be back in a year, to try again.
After Wang left the stage, Randi, who is 86, told me he was glad it was all over. For almost 60 years, he has been offering up a cash reward to anyone who could demonstrate scientific evidence of paranormal activity, and no one had ever received a single penny.
But he hates to see them lose, he said. “They’re always rationalizing,” Randi told me as we walked to dinner at the casino steakhouse. “There are always reasons prevailing why they can’t do it. They call it the resilience of the duped. It’s with intense regret that you watch them go down the tubes.”
The day before the challenge, Randi was wandering the halls of the casino, posing for snapshots and signing autographs. The convention began in 2003 in Fort Lauderdale, with 150 people in attendance, including staff. This year, it attracted more than 1,000 skeptics from as far away as South Africa and Japan. Often male and middle-aged, and frequently wearing ponytails or Tevas or novelty slogan T-shirts (product of evolution; stop making stupid people famous; atheist), they came to genuflect before their idol, drawn by both his legendary feats as an illusionist and his renown as an icon of global skepticism.
One fan, in his early 20s, with a thick mop of dark hair, introduced himself with, “So, I read that you spent 55 minutes in a block of ice.”
“A cinch,” Randi replied.
Ajay Appaden was 25 and had come from the Indian city Cochin. He was attending the conference for the second year with the help of a travel grant from the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF), which was established with donations from the Internet pioneer Rick Adams and Johnny Carson. In addition to offering grants, JREF holds the $1 million in bonds that back the challenge, and pays Randi’s annual $200,000 salary.
Raised as a Catholic, Appaden told me that he discovered Randi in 2010, when he watched the magician in an online TED talk discussing homeopathy. At the time Appaden was a student at a Christian college, struggling with his faith; two years later, during Randi’s first visit to India, he took a 13-hour bus ride across the country to see Randi in person. “It literally changed my life,” he told me, and explained that he now hopes to help teach skepticism in Indian schools.
The magician looked small and frail, lost in the folds of his striped dress shirt, leaning on his cane, but he mugged gamely for every acolyte. For many of his most zealous followers, the opportunity to meet Randi at TAM may be as close as they will ever come to a religious experience. “It’s an obligation, it’s a very heavy obligation,” he said. “I can’t stand one person being turned away and not being given the same attention that others have been given.”
A few days before the conference, I visited Randi at his home, in Plantation, Fla. The modest octagonal house was almost hidden from the street by a lush garden of finger palms, elephant ears and paperbark trees. As we sat upstairs, surrounded by some 4,000 books — arranged alphabetically by subject, from alchemy, astrology, Atlantis and the Bermuda Triangle to tarot, U.F.O.s and witchcraft — he said that he disliked being called a debunker. He prefers to describe himself as a scientific investigator. He elaborated: “Because if I were to start out saying, ‘This is not true, and I’m going to prove it’s not true,’ that means I’ve made up my mind in advance. So every project that comes to my attention, I say, ‘I just don’t know what I’m going to find out.’ That may end up — and usually it does end up — as a complete debunking. But I don’t set out to debunk it.”
Born Randall James Zwinge in 1928, Randi began performing as a teenager in the 1940s, touring with a carnival and working table to table in the nightclubs of his native Toronto. Billed as The Great Randall: Telepath, he had a mind-reading act, and also specialized in telling the future. In 1949 he made local headlines for a trick in which he appeared to predict the outcome of the World Series a week before it happened, writing the result down, sealing it an envelope and giving it to a lawyer who opened and read it to the press after the series concluded. But no matter how many times he assured his audiences that such stunts were a result of subterfuge and legerdemain, he found there were always believers. They came up to him in the street and asked him for stock tips; when he insisted that he was just a magician, they nodded — but winked and whispered that they knew he was truly psychic. Once he understood the power he had over his audience, and how easily he could exploit their belief in the supernatural to make money, it frightened him: “To have deceived people like that . . . that’s a terrible feeling,” he said.
He turned instead to escapology — as The Amazing Randi: The Man No Jail Can Hold — and feats of endurance. He broke a record for his 55-minute stint encased in ice, and bested the time his hero Houdini had spent trapped in a coffin on the bottom of the swimming pool at the Hotel Shelton in Manhattan. But Randi never forgot the believers, and how susceptible they were to exploitation by those who lacked his scruples. And so, as his reputation as a magician grew, he also began to campaign against spiritualists and psychics. In 1964, as a guest on a radio talk show, he offered $1,000 of his own money in a challenge to anyone who could show scientific evidence of supernatural powers. Soon afterward, he began broadcasting his own national radio show dedicated to discussion of the paranormal. He bought a small house in Rumson, N.J., and installed a sign outside that announced randi — charlatan. He lived there alone, with a pair of talking birds and a kinkajou named Sam. Although Randi had known he was gay since he was a teenager, he kept that to himself. “I had to conceal it, you know,” he told me. “They wouldn’t have had a known homosexual working in the radio station. This was a day when you had to keep it completely hidden.”
During the late ’60s and early ’70s, popular interest in the paranormal grew: There was a fascination with extrasensory perception and the Bermuda Triangle and best sellers like “Chariots of the Gods,” which claimed Earth’s ancient civilizations were visited by aliens. There were mystics, mind-readers and psychic surgeons, who were said to be able to extract tumors from their patients using only their bare hands — and without leaving a mark. Randi continued on his crusade. Few of his fellow illusionists were interested in exposing the way that conjuring tricks were used to dupe gullible audiences into believing in psychic abilities. “Everybody else just kind of rolled their eyes,” Penn Jillette, a good friend of Randi’s, told me. “’Why is Randi spending all this time doing this? We all know there is no ESP. It’s just stupid people believe it, and that’s fine.’ ”
Randi kept up his $1,000 challenge — and eventually increased it to $10,000 — but found few takers. Then in 1973, he met the nemesis who would define his struggle: Uri Geller, who had recently arrived in the United States from Israel. Geller was a charismatic 26-year-old former paratrooper who performed mind-reading feats similar to those with which Randi baffled audiences as a young mentalist. But Geller said that his powers were real and also claimed to have psychokinetic abilities: He could bend spoons, he said, using only his mind. His supposed gifts were studied by a pair of parapsychology researchers at Stanford Research Institute, who were persuaded that some of them, at least, were genuine. Randi told me that he met Geller soon afterward. “Very flamboyant,” he recalled venomously. “Very charming. Likable, beautiful, affectionate, genuine, forward-going, Handsome — everything!” His manner, Randi explained, was the key to the techniques employed by Geller and others like him. “That’s why they call them con men. Because they gain the confidence of the victim — and then they fool ‘em.”
Geller provided Randi with an archenemy in a show-business battle royale pitting science against faith, skepticism against belief. Their vendetta would endure for decades and bring them both international celebrity. Recognizing that the psychic’s paranormal feats were a result of conjuring tricks — directing attention elsewhere while he bent spoons using brute force, peeking through his fingers during mind-reading stunts — Randi helped Time magazine with an exposé of Geller. Soon afterward, when Geller was invited to appear on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson,” the producers approached Randi, who had been a frequent guest, to help them ensure that Geller could employ no tricks during his appearance. Randi gave Carson’s prop men advice on how to prepare for the taping, and the result was a legendary immolation, in which Geller offered up flustered excuses to his host as his abilities failed him again and again. “I sat there for 22 minutes, humiliated,” Geller told me, when I spoke to him in September. “I went back to my hotel, devastated. I was about to pack up the next day and go back to Tel Aviv. I thought, That’s it — I’m destroyed.” But to Geller’s astonishment, he was immediately booked on “The Merv Griffin Show.” He was on his way to becoming a paranormal superstar. “That Johnny Carson show made Uri Geller,” Geller said. To an enthusiastically trusting public, his failure only made his gifts seem more real: If he were performing magic tricks, they would surely work every time.
Randi decided Geller must be stopped. He approached Ray Hyman, a psychologist who had observed the tests of Geller’s ability at Stanford and thought them slipshod, and suggested they create an organization dedicated to combating pseudoscience. In 1976, together with Martin Gardner, a Scientific American columnist whose writing had helped hone Hyman’s and Randi’s skepticism, they formed the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal. Csicop, as it became known, was funded by donations and by sales of a new magazine, which became The Skeptical Inquirer. Randi, Hyman and Gardner and the secular humanist philosopher Paul Kurtz took seats on the executive board, with Isaac Asimov and Carl Sagan joining as founding members. Soon Randi was traveling across the globe, often “as the ambassador” of Csicop, Hyman told me recently, “the face of the skeptical movement all over the world.”
In his new role as a paranormal investigator, in books and on TV shows, Randi debunked everything from fairies to telekinesis. But he also stalked Geller around the chat-show circuit for years, denouncing him as a fraud and duplicating his feats by levering spoons and keys against the furniture while nobody was looking. In 1975, Randi published “The Magic of Uri Geller,” a sarcastic but exhaustive examination of the psychic’s techniques, in which he argued that any scientist investigating the paranormal should seek the advice of a conjurer before conducting serious research. The campaign helped make them both more famous than ever. Even today, Geller credits Randi with helping him become a psychic phenomenon — “My most influential and important publicist,” as Geller described him to me.
In 1989, Randi and Geller were booked to appear together on a TV special, “Exploring Psychic Powers, Live!” According to Randi, before the broadcast, Geller pulled him into his dressing room and offered to end the feud. “There’s no way that we are going to make peace until you level with your audiences,” Randi replied. “Until you say that you are a magician like the rest of us, and that you don’t have supernatural powers.” Geller refused. (Geller says he does not recall the incident.) Soon after, Geller brought the first of several libel actions against Csicop and Randi — who, among other things, had characterized him as a sociopath and suggested his psychic feats had been learned from the backs of cereal boxes. Geller’s suits in the United States were eventually dismissed. But the legal costs of fighting the cases were overwhelming, and Randi went through almost all of a MacArthur Foundation grant of $272,000 awarded to him in 1986 for his paranormal investigations. Finally, the struggle with Geller even cost Randi his place in Csicop; when Paul Kurtz told him it had become too expensive to keep going after such a litigious target, and demanded he stop discussing Geller in public, Randi resigned in fury.
Geller, who now lives in a large house beside the Thames River in England, says he long ago put the feud with Randi behind him. He claims to have used his show-business career as a cover for paranormal work on behalf of Mossad and the C.I.A., but he no longer calls himself a psychic. “I changed my title to ‘mystifier,’ ” he told me. “And I love it — because it means nothing.” But Randi’s contempt for him still burns brightly. “He knows he is deceiving these people — individuals, in most cases — and he doesn’t care what damage he does to them,” Randi said. “They depend on the paranormal after they have met Geller, and you cannot talk them out of it. And that has crippled them for life.”
Early one morning last summer, on a visit to Randi’s house in Florida, I drew up outside a few minutes later than we had agreed. Randi, wearing a canary yellow sweatshirt, was waiting at the front door, holding his watch in his hand. “You’re late!” he barked, and it was hard to tell if he was joking. We sat down in the living room to talk, and Randi spent half an hour laboriously adjusting his watch, winding the hands to display the correct date. “I am a little bit obsessed with having the right time,” he said. “I’ve always been very, very, big on knowing what time it is. That’s one of my connections with reality.”
Randi has never smoked, taken narcotics or got drunk. “Because that can easily just fuzz the edges of my rationality, fuzz the edges of my reasoning powers,” he once said. “And I want to be as aware as I possibly can. That may mean giving up a lot of fantasies that might be comforting in some ways, but I’m willing to give that up in order to live in an actually real world.”
That fixation on science and the rational life — and a corresponding desire to crusade for the truth — has a long history among magicians. John Nevil Maskelyne, who founded a dynasty of English conjurers in 1855 and became a prolific inventor, began his career by exposing fraudulent spiritualists and reproducing their tricks. Houdini turned to debunking mediums in his middle age as his career as an escapologist went into decline. He offered his own $10,000 reward to any spiritualist who could perform a “miracle” he could not duplicate himself. Martin Gardner, whose book “Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science” is a founding text of modern skepticism, was also fascinated by magic, and became well known for his books explaining how many conjuring and mind-reading tricks rely upon strict laws of probability and number theory. Penn and Teller have since followed Randi down the path of conjurers who have become debunkers.
Randi now sees himself, like Einstein and Richard Dawkins, in the tradition of scientific skeptics. “Science gives you a standard to work against,” he said. “Science, after all, is simply a logical, rational and careful examination of the facts that nature presents to us.”
Although many modern skeptics continue to hold religious beliefs, and see no contradiction in embracing critical thinking and faith in God, Randi is not one of them. “I have always been an atheist,” he told me. “I think that religion is a very damaging philosophy — because it’s such a retreat from reality.”
When I asked him why he believed other people needed religion, Randi was at his most caustic.
“They need it because they’re weak,” he said. “And they fall for authority. They choose to believe it because it’s easy.”
In the 1980s, Randi turned his talent for deception to debunking the supernatural. He set out to expose New Age channelers, mediums who — on shows and in profitable public appearances — purported to be possessed by ancient spirits. One, JZ Knight, a former cable TV saleswoman, claimed to be the terrestrial mouthpiece of Ramtha, a 35,000-year-old warrior from Atlantis who could predict the future.
To show how credulous audiences could be in the face of such claims, in 1987 Randi collaborated with the Australian version of “60 Minutes.” He invented Carlos, a 2,000-year-old entity who, his publicity material stated, had last appeared in the body of a 12-year-old boy in Venezuela in 1900 but had now returned to manifest himself through a young American artist named José Alvarez. He prepared to take Alvarez on a tour of Australia.
Alvarez, at the time a 25-year-old student at the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale, was in fact Randi’s boyfriend, and also his assistant. They met the year before in a Fort Lauderdale public library, where Alvarez was seeking visual references for a ceramics project. Randi, who had only recently relocated to Florida from New Jersey, struck up a conversation with him. They talked all afternoon and moved in together soon afterward.
Randi coached Alvarez carefully for his role as Carlos, rehearsing him through mock news conferences and TV appearances. He taught him how to squeeze a Ping-Pong ball in his armpit so that his pulse would appear to slow as he became “possessed” — “an old, old thing from Boy Scout camps,” Randi told me. Before the trip, Randi sent out press kits to Australian TV networks and newspapers, filled with reports charting the apparently sensational — but fictional — progress of Carlos across the United States.
Soon after they arrived in February 1988, Alvarez was booked on many of the country’s leading TV shows. Through an earpiece, Randi fed him answers to interview questions and the lines of doomsday prophecies. The climax of his tour was an appearance at the Sydney Opera House, after which the audience was invited to place orders for crystal artifacts, including the Tears of Carlos, priced at $500 each, and an Atlantis Crystal, offered at $14,000. Each proved popular — though Randi’s team never accepted any money for them.
When the hoax was revealed a few days later on “60 Minutes,” the Australian media was enraged at having been taken in; Randi countered that none of the journalists had bothered with even the most elementary fact-checking measures.
Afterward, Randi and Alvarez returned to Florida together, and Alvarez’s reputation as an artist blossomed. For the next 14 years, he toured the Carlos persona around the world as part of a performance piece, appearing onstage in Padua, Italy, and sitting for photographs on the Great Wall of China re-enacting the hoax. In 2002, the work Alvarez created from the Carlos episode was exhibited at the Whitney Biennial in New York.
Meanwhile, the establishment of the James Randi Educational Foundation in 1996 allowed Randi to continue his own pursuits with the foundation’s headquarters, a Spanish-style stucco building in Fort Lauderdale, as his base of operations. He created the Million Dollar Challenge and regularly wrote bulletins for the foundation’s website, where the message boards formed an online hub for skeptics worldwide. In recent years, he began making regular podcasts, and he also created his own YouTube channel to discuss everything from Nostradamus to cold fusion. In 2007, during his TED talk taking aim at quackery and fraud, Randi delighted his audience by gobbling an entire bottle of 32 Calms homeopathic sleeping tablets — which Randi speculated was certainly a fatal dose.
Disappointed by what he saw as the media’s indifference to the Million Dollar Challenge, that same year Randi revised the rules and announced a plan to take the challenge to high-profile psychics, including Sylvia Browne, John Edward and — once again — Uri Geller. None of them agreed to participate. He had more success in 2008, when he invited James McCormick, a British businessman, to take the challenge. McCormick had built equipment that could supposedly detect explosives from afar, which Randi recognized was simply a telescoping antenna swiveling on a plastic handle — a dowsing rod. Randi publicly offered the million-dollar prize to McCormick if he could prove that the device worked as claimed. McCormick, who was selling his product to security forces in the Middle East, never responded. But the British Police began an investigation, and last year McCormick was found guilty of fraud and sentenced to 10 years in prison, having sold at least $38 million worth of his miraculous device to the Iraqi government.
Recently, age and illness have begun to slow Randi down. In 2009, following chemotherapy for intestinal cancer, he presented the opening address at TAM from a wheelchair. Earlier this year, JREF’s Fort Lauderdale building was sold, and its reference library and collection of memorabilia were boxed up and relocated to Randi’s home. When I visited, many of the cartons remained unpacked; the portrait of Isaac Asimov that once hung above the fireplace in the JREF library was propped against a wall.
Randi was all but marooned in the house — he was forbidden to drive while he awaited cataract surgery — and Alvarez had been forced to surrender his driver’s license, after a series of events that began on Sept. 8, 2011. That morning there was a knock on the front door. When Randi opened it, a pair of federal agents stood before him. They asked to speak to Alvarez. Outside, Randi could see two unmarked S.U.V.s blocking the driveway and at least half a dozen agents surrounding the perimeter of the property. When Alvarez came downstairs from his room, the agents explained there was a problem. They wanted to talk to him about passport fraud. They cuffed him and took him out to the car. Randi was left alone in the house, holding business cards from State Department agents, who, Randi said, gave him instructions to wait 24 hours before calling them.
The agents took Alvarez directly to Broward County Jail, where he was photographed, issued a gray uniform and registered as FNU LNU: “first name unknown, last name unknown.” In an interview room at the jail, he told an agent everything: He had fled homophobic persecution in Venezuela and had come to the U.S. on a two-year student visa. He met Randi and knew he wanted to stay with him. But when his visa expired, there was no way to renew it. He said he was given the name and Social Security number of José Alvarez by a friend in a Fort Lauderdale nightclub, and used it to apply for a passport in 1987. Alvarez told the agent he was deeply sorry for the trouble he had caused the real Alvarez — who he believed was dead but turned out to be a teacher’s aide living in the Bronx. FNU LNU said his real name was Deyvi Orangel Peña Arteaga.
Charged with making a false statement in the application and use of a passport and aggravated identity theft, Peña faced a $250,000 fine, a sentence of up to 10 years in prison and deportation to Venezuela. After six weeks in jail, he was released on a $500,000 bond, and he subsequently agreed to plead guilty to a single charge of passport fraud. At a sentencing hearing in May 2012, the judge considered letters of support from Randi and Peña’s friends from the world of art, science and entertainment, including Richard Dawkins and Penn Jillette, as well as from members of charities to which Peña had given his time and work. The judge considered Peña’s long relationship with Randi, and Randi’s failing health. He gave him a lenient sentence: time served, six months’ house arrest and 150 hours’ community service.
But Peña still had to contend with the immigration authorities. After the sentencing hearing, he had been home for five days when Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents appeared at the door. “Say goodbye,” they told him. Peña assured Randi he would be back that afternoon. He was taken to the Krome detention center in Miami, and remained there while his lawyer tried to find a way of keeping him in the United States. After two months of incarceration, Peña was finally released from Krome on the evening of Aug. 2, 2012, to find that Randi had spent half the day waiting outside the front gate for him. The couple were married in a ceremony in Washington the following summer.
Today, Peña remains on probation and no longer holds any identity documents except a Venezuelan passport with his birth name. United States immigration authorities have agreed not to deport him for now, but he has no formal immigration status in the United States: were he to leave the country, he would be unable to return. Since his arrest, Peña has not entirely shrugged off his former persona. He signs his paintings with the name he has exhibited under for 20 years — but now followed by his true initials, D.O.P.A.
Sometimes when Randi forgets himself, he still refers to his partner as José. Yet exactly how much Randi — the master of deception and misdirection — knew about his partner’s duplicity, and how complicit he may have been in it, is unclear. When Randi first met him in the Fort Lauderdale public library, it seems certain that Peña would have introduced himself by his real name: A profile of Randi published in The Toronto Star the following year describes the magician’s young assistant, named David Peña, struggling through La Guardia Airport with Randi’s luggage. When they traveled to Australia together for the “60 Minutes” stunt, Randi may have been masterminding a deception one level deeper than he ever acknowledged: Deyvi, pretending to be José, masquerading as Carlos, the 2,000-year-old spirit from Caracas. What followed might be the longest-running hoax of The Amazing Randi’s career.
When I asked Randi how much he knew about Peña’s true identity before the federal agents came to his door, he demurred, citing legal concerns. “This is something I don’t think I’d like to get into detailed discussion about,” Randi said. “Simply because it could prejudice our status in some way.”
When he was still a young man appearing in Toronto nightclubs and pretending to predict the future, Randall Zwinge created what he hoped would be his greatest trick. Each night before he went to bed, he wrote the date on the back of a business card along with the words “I, Randall Zwinge, will die today.” Then he signed it and placed it in his wallet. That way, if he were knocked down in the street or killed by a freak accident, whoever went through his effects would discover the most shocking prophecy he ever made. Zwinge kept at it for years. Each night, he tore up one card and wrote out a new one for the next day. But nothing fatal befell him; in the end, having wasted hundreds of business cards, he gave up in frustration. “I never got lucky,” he told me.
Since then, Randi has had several brushes with death. But nothing has shaken his steadfast rationalism: neither the heart attack he suffered in 2006, nor the cancer that followed. Nor, for that matter, did a conversation he had with Martin Gardner a few years before Gardner’s death in 2010, when his friend confessed to having chosen to believe in the possibility of an afterlife. “That really surprised me, because he was the rationalist supreme,” Randi recalled. “He said: ‘I don’t have any evidence for it, you have all the arguments on your side. But it brings me comfort.’ ”
Randi told me that he now feels mild trepidation each time he goes to sleep at night, and pleasant surprise that he wakes up in the morning. But he insists he does not need the sort of reassurance that Gardner sought in his own last days. “I wouldn’t have any comfort from it — because I wouldn’t believe in it,” he said. “Oh, no, I have no fear of my demise whatsoever. I really feel that sincerely.”
Most mornings, Randi is already awake at 7 o’clock, when Peña comes in to check on him; sometimes he’s up at 6. “I’ve got a lot of work to do, still,” he told me, “and I’ve got to make use of my viable time.” He is currently completing his 11th book, “A Magician in the Laboratory,” and spends several hours a day responding to emails from his desk in the chaotic-looking office he maintains upstairs. He Skypes with friends in China or Australia once a week. Peña likes to cook, and paints downstairs, beside the framed lithograph recalling the triumphs of the Man No Jail Can Hold. The couple have spent much of the last year traveling to film festivals and screenings across the United States, helping to promote a new documentary about Randi’s life, “An Honest Liar,” which will be released in February. Randi has been surprised by the response. “Standing ovations, the whole thing,” he told me.
In July last year, Randi came closer than ever to the end. He was hospitalized with aneurysms in his legs and needed surgery. Before the procedure began, the surgeon showed Peña scans of Randi’s circulatory system. “Very challenging, a very difficult situation,” the surgeon told him. “But he lived a good life.” The operation was supposed to take two hours, but it stretched to six and a half.
When Randi began to come to, heavily dosed with painkillers, he looked about him in confusion. There were nurses speaking in hushed voices. He began hallucinating. He was convinced that he was behind the curtain before a show and that the whispering he could hear was the audience coming in. The theater was full; he had to get onstage. He tried to look at his watch, but he found he didn’t have it on. He began to panic. When the hallucinations became intensely visual, Peña brought a pen and paper to the bedside. It could prove an important exercise in skeptical inquiry to record what Randi saw as he emerged from a state so close to death, one in which so many people sincerely believed they had glimpsed the other side. Randi scribbled away; his observations, Peña thought, might eventually make a great essay. Later, when the opiates and the anaesthetic wore off, Randi looked at the notes he had written.
Roger’s note: This is direct action. These are people taking their destiny into their own hands, perhaps the government and oil monopolies have left them no alternative. I can foresee a violent and tragic confrontation. I am sure they are expecting in and are ready for it, perhaps ready to die protecting their land and people. A lesson to all of us.
With a newly elected Congress gearing up to pass Keystone, the inspiring story of the Unist’ot’en Camp, an indigenous resistance community established in northwest Canada to protect sovereign Wet’suwet’en territory and blockade up to 10 additional proposed pipelines aimed at expanding Alberta Tar Sands operations. The Uni’stot’en Clan, which has families living in cabins and traditional structures in the direct pathway of the Northern Gateway and Pacific Trails fracking lines, argues that “since time immemorial” they have governed Wet’suwet’en lands, which thus remain unceded and not subject to Canadian law “or other impositions of colonial occupation” – an argument that has been sustained in court cases, and bolstered by the camp’s recent peaceable ejection of a drilling crew..
Camp leaders note that delays caused by their and other grassroots blockades are said to be costing Kinder Morgan and other companies up to $88 million a month, one reason the companies have filed multi-million suits against camp leaders that are still pending. But with Wet’suwet’en law requiring consent from the traditional indigenous governments in territories where indigenous people probably outnumber “settler people,” opponents appear to have the law on their side. “Our Chiefs have said no to these projects, and no means no,” says Freda Huson, Unist’ot’en Clan member and camp spokesperson. “You can’t continue to bulldoze over our people. Our lands. Our final say.”
Roger’s note: It is refreshing, if rare, to see a main stream media outlet publish an opinion that flies in the face of the official narrative (only war is the solution), one that is sold in the proud tradition of the Big Lie by governments and corporate media alike. The author of this article himself finishes with this: “The long-term solution to ending terrorism by some Muslims, homegrown or otherwise, is to end Western wars on many Muslims. Yet, curiously, this statement of the obvious is rarely if ever mentioned by our politicians and pundits.”
Syria is the seventh predominantly Muslim country bombed by the U.S. during Barack Obama’s presidency
KUTLUHAN CUCEL / GETTY IMAGES
An explosion follows an air strike in the Syrian town of Kobani on Oct. 28, 2014.
Laura Bush was all for saving Afghan women and children from the evil Taliban. So were some feminists, becoming unwitting enablers of America’s long and botched occupation of Afghanistan. So were Stephen Harper and acolytes — until our military mission there came to an end.
Now Harper and Co. are saving Christian, Yazidi and Kurdish minorities from the axes and knives of the evil Islamic State.
But the American-led bombing campaign is already running out of targets, as the jihadists have moved away from open spaces into populated areas. Canadian F-18 jets are bombing trucks and sundry equipment.
Barack Obama, Harper and other allies concede that the caliphate cannot be obliterated without deploying ground troops, which they are unwilling to commit. Instead, they will arm the Iraqi Kurdish militia and train Iraqi forces. The latter will take years, with no guarantee that the newly minted battalions won’t do what the previous batches of American-trained troops did — abandon their posts and cede territory, and their American arms, to the marauding jihadists.
In fact, there’s no military solution. What’s needed is a political settlement in both Iraq and Syria, which is nowhere on the horizon.
An inclusive government in Baghdad would have to entice away two key groups that joined the Islamic State only to protect their interests — several Sunni tribes and former Baathist army officers. The latter have been the brains behind the jihadists’ military strategy of controlling water resources, oil refineries and border posts between Iraq and Syria.
In Syria, a solution is not likely without the help of Russia and Iran. Neither would help without getting something in return — in the case of Iran, a nuclear deal and the lifting of economic sanctions, which Israel, Saudi Arabia and other American allies vociferously oppose.
The longer the current bombing campaign lasts, the more legitimate the Islamic State will become and attract more wannabe jihadists from around the world, including the West.
Why? Not because Muslims are savages and Islam is “a violent religion,” as we are repeatedly told, but because Syria is “the seventh predominantly Muslim country bombed by the U.S. during his (Obama’s) presidency” — Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Libya and Iraq — “and he is the fourth consecutive U.S. president to order bombs dropped on Iraq,” writes Glenn Greenwald , well-known American commentator (his italics).
Plus, there have been “the bombing and occupation of still other predominantly Muslim countries by key U.S. allies such as Israel and Saudi Arabia, carried out with crucial American support. It excludes coups against democratically elected governments, torture, and imprisonment of people with no charges.”
By another measure, the latest bombing is the 14th time the U.S. has attacked a Muslim nation since 1980, writes American military historian Andrew Bacevich in the Washington Post.
He notes that in trying to keep its hold on the Middle East, especially its oil and gas, the U.S. has been good at toppling governments and destroying countries and civilizations, but singularly inept at nation-building — leaving behind chaos and power vacuums.
Bacevich: “By inadvertently sowing instability, the United States has played directly into the hands of anti-Western radical Islamists intent on supplanting the European-imposed post-Ottoman order with something more to their liking. This is the so-called caliphate that Osama bin Laden yearned to create and that now exists in embryonic form in portions of Iraq and Syria.”
Obama seemed to grasp this, which is why he resisted getting entangled in Syria and re-entangled in Iraq. But the gruesome beheading of two Americans and the ethnic cleansing of minorities galvanized public opinion and forced his hand on the eve of the American mid-term elections (which the Democrats have lost, anyway).
Washington is sending mixed signals — Obama’s half-hearted bombing campaign and the Pentagon’s assertions of a multi-year commitment of more American and allied military “advisers.”
Harper used to say that we were in Afghanistan to ensure the Taliban terrorists didn’t come to Canada. Now he says that if we are not in Iraq, the Islamists will come to your neighbourhood. The reverse is more likely. They may come here because we are attacking them there. Or their sympathizers here will do the job for them. This prompts the response, already used by Harper, that we are not going to be frightened off the war we have chosen to wage. Fine — but what’s the end game? That’s what Thomas Mulcair and Justin Trudeau should be demanding of Harper. That’s what all Canadians, regardless of ideology or partisan preference, should be asking.
The long-term solution to ending terrorism by some Muslims, homegrown or otherwise, is to end Western wars on many Muslims. Yet, curiously, this statement of the obvious is rarely if ever mentioned by our politicians and pundits.
Roger’s note: How encouraging to see young (white and apparently middle class) students giving a lesson in democracy to the Neanderthal cristofascists who de facto govern their (the students’) formal education. That this kind of action is taking place in Colorado and not Berkeley is also a hopeful sign. Watch the video.
An image from one of the student protests in September. (Photo: John Lebya/Denver Post)
Protesting the conservative school board’s efforts to censor their history curriculum, more than a dozen students were escorted out of a Jefferson County Board of Education meeting in Colorado on Thursday night after disrupting proceedings by reading from their history textbooks and reciting the Pledge of Allegiance.
The students employed one of the very tactics that school board member Julie Williams was seeking to downplay through a proposed curriculum review committee: civil disobedience. In late September, Williams’ proposal—to establish a committee to ensure that the district’s history texts promoted positive aspects of the United States and avoided encouragement of “civil disorder, social strife or disregard of the law”—prompted mass student walk-outs and teacher ‘sick-outs.’
“You want to limit what we learn so you can push your own political opinion. Our problem is that the nation you want to build consists of people who cannot think critically.”
—Ashlyn Maher, JeffCo Student Network for Change
Many of the students involved in Thursday evening’s action were organizers of the September protests.
According to Chicago Public Radio, “the disruptions started when board members refused to let students speak, after they didn’t speak in the order they were called. A few minutes later, one student after another stood up in the public meeting, reciting historic acts of civil disobedience from history textbooks.”
The report continues:
When asked to leave the room, students at the podium left or were escorted out peacefully. After another group of students read aloud from history books and were escorted out, about a dozen students stood up in the packed meeting to read the Pledge of Allegiance. They then filed out.
Along with the students were “legal consultants,” law students taking descriptive notes of the scene. That didn’t please one security guard who lobbed several insults at the law students.
Standing in a circle outside the education building, a set of sprinklers suddenly came on. When the students moved out of the way, those sprinklers came on. The pattern repeated until all the sprinklers were on but the students didn’t leave. A security officer came out and informed the group that they were trespassing.
Student organizer Ashlyn Maher, a member of the recently formed JeffCo Student Network for Change, didn’t get a chance to speak at Thursday’s meeting. She posted her speech on Facebook.
“Our problem is that you, the board majority, passed a redundant, and highly opposed curriculum review committee because you have other motives,” Maher said. “You want to limit what we learn so you can push your own political opinion. Our problem is that the nation you want to build consists of people who cannot think critically. We as students want to develop our minds. Critical thinking is our ticket to the future. Do not limit what we learn…Do not try to fool us…Do not pretend that patriotism is turning a blind eye and a passive mind to the changing world around us.”
Chalkbeat Coloradoreports that “as part of their demonstration, the students said they had four demands: a public apology from the school board’s conservative majority for referring to students as ‘union pawns;’ a reversal of an earlier decision to amend content review policies; proof from the board that they listen and act on community input instead of what students called an ‘ideological’ agenda; and more resources for classroom instruction.”
Watch security guards take books away from the students in the video of the action below:
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Roger’s note: This is one critic’s analysis of the geopolitical realities that maintain the Bush/Obama doctrine of permanent war, Middle East division. Whether or not all the players (Shia, Sunni, Isis, Isil, Kurds, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey etc.) are correctly ordered and the power relationships perfectly defined, what is true is that it is all about markets and oil. That is, the business and profit making elements of capitalist economy, backed by governments’ foreign policies and military might, are what determine the course of action. The needs, desires, dreams, rights, etc. of living human beings are trumped by the capitalist Behemoth. I for one cheered when Obama was forced not to attack Syria earlier in the year (remember sarin gas?) and opened for the fist time in decades a dialogue with Iran with the possibility of resolving the nuclear issue and thereby ratcheting down the tensions between the U.S. and a major middle east power. But as it turns out, it was too good to be true. The drive to protect economic interests (read: corporate and military) wins out again.
I want to repeat something I posted yesterday from an article by Murray Dobbin about the Ottawa shootings, a quote from Zbigniew Brzezinski :
We are supposed to learn as children that actions have consequences so I suppose we are left to conclude that current leaders of the Anglo-industrialized countries (in particular) were badly neglected by their parents. A monstrous and catastrophic failure of imagination on the part of the West has led us to this point. The first failure belonged to Zbigniew Brzezinski one of the key architects of the mujahideen war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. Before the US armed, financed and trained the then-handful of religious zealots opposed to the godless Soviets, they were a threat to no one.
In an interview that appeared in CounterPunch in 1998 Brzezinski revealed his limited imagination when asked if he regretted creating Islamic terrorists: “What is most important to the history of the world? The Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet empire? Some stirred-up Moslems or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the cold war?”
How did Obama manage to botch U.S. foreign policy so stunningly? The promising speeches he gave in 2008 earned him the Nobel Peace Prize. But his inspiring words have since been buried in the rubble of Libya, Palestine, Iraq, and Syria. The region that once viewed Obama as a peace messiah now rejects him as a warmonger. And with every new foreign policy zigzag Obama only finds fresh “threats” while never managing to find the path to peace.
Obama would like peace in theory, but doing so requires he shake up his Middle East alliances. The U.S. stands pigeonholed in tightly-wound alliances with the most hated regimes in the world, sandwiched between the global pariah Israel and the brutal totalitarian dictatorship of Saudi Arabia. The other important U.S. ally is war-hungry expansionist Turkey, while the smaller U.S. allies are the remaining Gulf state monarchy dictatorships.
Allies like these make peace impossible. Obama recognizes that these friends restrict the ability of the U.S. to retain regional credibility. Consequently, there has been much speculation about a massive shift in U.S. alliances that hinges on peace with Iran, possibly supplemented by strengthening the alliance with Iraqi Kurds.
Americans and Iranians would celebrate a peace between nations, but this scenario now seems off the table. After “talking” peace with Iran for the first time in decades, Obama chose the warpath yet again.
This decision was finalized recently when the “ISIS deal” was struck between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, again cementing this ugly alliance. In exchange for Saudi Arabia attacking ISIS, the U.S. would commit to war against the Syrian government, which the Saudis want toppled to undermine their rival Iran. The Syrian rebels that Saudi Arabia agreed to train — with $500 million from U.S. taxpayers — will be used against the Syrian government, not to fight ISIS. The U.S. allies in the region understand the war against the Syrian government as a first step to war against Iran. Even if a nuclear deal is struck between the U.S. and Iran the path to war will have been set.
Economics is a key reason that U.S. allies want Iran destroyed. Iran stands as a competitor for markets and investment throughout the region, and the destruction of Syria and Iran would open up new markets for the vulture-like U.S. allies. The economic oil war between Saudi Arabia and Iran has recently heated up, with Saudi Arabia selling oil at extra low prices to put political pressure on Iran. This, coupled with the ongoing “economic war” that Obama is waging, has the potential to weaken Iran via internal chaos, softening it up to possible invasion if the Syrian government falls.
Iran’s military is another reason the U.S. wants regime change. There are U.S. military bases scattered around the Middle East, though none in Iran, which has a powerful regional military force that patrols the strategic Strait of Hormuz, jointly controlled by Iran and Oman. It’s intolerable for the U.S. and Saudi Arabia that one fifth of the world’s oil production must pass through this Iranian controlled area.
Iran’s regional power is bolstered by its political and religious connections throughout the Middle East. Not only does Shia Muslim Iran exert automatic authority over Shia majority Iraq, but also over Shia Hezbollah and Shia-led Syria. This region-wide dynamic is often referred to as the “Shia Crescent.” There also exist sizable oppressed Shia populations in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Yemen, and Turkey that act as intrinsic political thorns in the sides of these Sunni sectarian governments, giving Iran a powerful political base in each case.
For example, when Saudi Arabia recently announced a death sentence for a popular Shia cleric, Iran responded that there would be “consequences” if the sentence were carried out, thus re-enforcing Iran’s self-portrayed position as “defender of the Shia.”
In Yemen there already exists a strong Shia insurgency against the pro-U.S. Sunni government that is using al-Qaeda-linked fighters against the Shia; the results of the conflict will either empower Iran or weaken it.
These regional religious tensions have been exponentially deepened by the U.S.-led coalition against the Syrian government, which has relied on systematic Sunni Islamic sectarianism to attract jihadist fighters and a flood of Sunni Gulf state donations.
The Sunni fundamentalism in Syria — loosely based on the Saudi fundamentalist version of Islam — views Shia Muslims as heretics worthy of death. The executions of Shia in Syria have reverberated throughout the Middle East, acting as an implicit threat to Shia Iran while increasing tensions in the Shia populations of Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and beyond. The regional Shia backlash against the Sunni fundamentalists have strengthened Iran’s regional influence, one likely reason why Obama made the peace-killing deal with Saudi Arabia against ISIS and the Syrian government.
Saudi Arabia and Israel are adamant that the U.S. make no peace with Iran. Both sent strong messages after Obama’s 2013 last minute decision not to bomb the Syrian government, and his brief flirtation with Iran. Saudi Arabia went as far as refusing a seat on the UN Security Council. Israel protested the decision too, after it had lobbied heavily in the U.S. Congress through AIPAC to ensure the bombing took place.
The Kurdish Question
Turkey has long assisted the U.S. in attempting to topple the Syrian government, and has recently been insisting on a U.S. enforced “no-fly zone” in northern Syria, which would be directed against the Syrian government, since ISIS has no air force. Turkey has no good intentions in Syria, and has long wanted to grab easy oil-rich land for itself; which happens to be where the Kurdish population in Syria resides.
The call to enforce a no-fly zone to “protect the Kurds” on Turkey’s border, if achieved, will be similar to the no-fly zone in Libya — to create a “humanitarian corridor” — that was used instead to create a massive U.S.-led bombing campaign for regime change.
The Kurdish people face the same situation they’ve faced for hundreds of years: other nations have used the Kurds for their own self-interest. The Kurdish people want and deserve their own independent nation state, but they’ve been betrayed countless times in the past and the situation now seems no different. Promises are made and arms given to the “good” pro-U.S. Iraqi Kurds, while across the border in Turkey another faction of Kurds are labeled terrorists and repressed by the government.
Recently, the Kurdish Syrian town on the border of Turkey was invaded by ISIS and militarily defended by the “bad Kurds” of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) an affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) who are based in Turkey. The Turkish military watched across the border as ISIS relentlessly attacked Kobani, while the Turks used military force to prevent Turkish Kurds from crossing the border into Syria to help defend the Kurdish city.
This reinforced perceptions that ISIS was, in part, a Turkish creation, since Turkey’s border has long been an uncontested point of entry for foreign jihadists to enter Syria. Turkey defended its actions by essentially equating the Kurdish PYD and PKK with ISIS, dismissing all of them as “terrorists.” In Turkey, Kurdish protests erupted against the government’s actions and inactions in Kobani, leaving 40 dead. Protests also occurred in other Kurdish regions including Iran.
Turkey ultimately proved that it fears the Kurds more than ISIS, and further proved that negotiations with its domestic Kurdish population will never result in an independent Kurdistan on any inch of Turkish territory. Turkey will likewise be violently opposed to any creation of an independent Kurdish state in Iraq or Syria, since it would empower the Turkish Kurds while preventing Turkey from grabbing the oil-rich regions for itself.
This dynamic acts as an impossible barrier for the Obama administration to “re-balance” its Middle East alliances by using the Kurds. No nation with a sizable Kurdish population — Iran, Turkey, Iraq, Syria — will buy in to a possible U.S. policy of Kurdish statehood, since they would lose the oil-rich territory that the Kurds live on.
Not only would the U.S. lose regional allies by advocating Kurdish independence, but if such a state were to emerge, it would be a weak nation, since the Kurds are already divided into various factions, and thus not strong enough for the U.S. to rely on to achieve regional objectives.
Consequently, Obama feels compelled to continue down the same war-torn path as his predecessors. But Obama’s perspective is colored by his assumption that the United States must remain the regional power in an area thousands of miles from its border, and that U.S. corporations should dominate the oil, banking, weapons selling, and other markets in the region.
The U.S. is long past the point where it can claim that its Middle East goals are “peace, stability, and democracy,” especially after invading and destroying Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and now the dirty war against Syria. The oil, minerals, and other wealth that attracts the U.S. corporations that steer U.S. foreign policy prevent any real lasting peace to be achieved. The logic of corporate America is to crush the competitor by any means necessary.
Peace with Iran and Syria could be achieved if Obama told the world the truth about the above dynamics in the region, and treated Iran and Syria with the respect that an independent nation deserves, while working to curb the power of Israel and Saudi Arabia, who both depend on U.S. financial, military, and political support.
But instead Obama has dug in his heels and re-enforced alliances that demand the continuation of the Syrian war, and after that Iran. A war-shredded region remains on the bloody path to a potentially even wider war, while the billions of U.S. tax dollars funding this genocide will remain unusable for domestic projects like job creation and climate change reduction and preparedness. During this election season both Democrats and Republicans agree on continuing Middle East war.
Shamus Cooke is a social service worker, trade unionist, and writer for Workers Action (www.workerscompass.org). He can be reached at email@example.com