In part 1, I traced the history of Havana Syndrome phenomenon and argued that it is best understood not just as mass hysteria, but a mass hysteria informed by larger developments of the US state and those within it. In Part 2, I continue the narrative where part 1 ended chronologically: with the development of the nuclear deterrent as well as the many smaller but equally important covert actions that took place beneath this nuclear umbrella.
Nuclear Strategy and the Costs of Deterrence
Though putting them nominally under the control of a democratically elected president was often touted in US propaganda by way of contrast with the USSR, nobody working within the new national security state sincerely believed that the US voting public should actually exert much democratic influence over nuclear weapons policy. United States Policy on Atomic Warfare, also known as NSC 30, was published in September 1948, just before the USSR tested their first nuclear weapon. It states that even discussion of the issue on moral grounds is inherently dangerous and unpatriotic:
Were the United States to decide against, or publicly debate the issue of the use of the atomic bomb on moral grounds, this country might gain the praise of the world’s radical fringe and would certainly receive the applause of the Soviet bloc, but the United States would be thoroughly condemned by every sound citizen in Western Europe, whose enfeebled security this country would obviously be threatening.p.627
Perhaps part of the reason they were not keen to entertain real democratic input on this issue is that they already had a pretty good idea of what the policy should be:
[The Soviets] should in fact never be given even the slightest reason to believe that the U.S. would even consider not to use atomic weapons against them if necessary. It might take no more than a suggestion of such consideration … to provoke exactly that Soviet aggression which it is fundamentally U.S. policy to avert.p.626
It’s fitting that the first attempt to create nuclear policy relied on this cagey and awkward double negative: the Soviets must always never not believe we would absolutely use our nuclear weapons, though only defensively of course. To even entertain the idea of any international limits on the use of these weapons was not just antithetical to US interests but risked the security of western Europe, which the US had invited under its nuclear umbrella with the establishment of NATO.
The doctrine of containment as laid out by George Kennan was embodied in the strategy of deterrence. Within this simple formula were many complex tactical and engineering challenges. The placement of weapons in particular locations was both a military maneuver and a political gesture.
In the US, the task of implementing nuclear weapons policy fell to a newly-reorganized military bureaucracy. Each branch competed to ensure their role in overall US nuclear strategy. Bombers had to evade always-improving defenses and reach more distant targets. Missiles needed to carry more warheads and be able to strike targets around the world within minutes. Submarines must dive longer while also maintaining a more compact but also always-ready missile. This became known as the nuclear triad, and continual improvement in all three was necessary to maintain a credible deterrent. And credibility don’t come cheap.
Prior to the US entry into World War I, US military spending had never gotten far above or below 2% of GDP except during the US Civil War. The First World War caused a spike to 15%, but afterwards it returned in line with the pre-war trend. World War II not only led to a much larger increase—well above 35% at its peak—but also a permanent increase in US military spending. It remained at least above 5% of GDP from 1941 to 1975 and has hovered around there to this day, never coming close to returning to the pre-World War II trend even as overall US GDP has skyrocketed. Even if one might quibble with the specific numbers here, it’s easy to see that this represents a considerable structural fiscal adjustment in favor of military and intelligence spending.
Inter-service rivalry became a matter of institutional survival within the also-new Department of Defense. Similar turf battles between the CIA and FBI have been a constant, and the addition of new agencies over the years has only fed this dynamic. Over time battles over budget lines would become as important as the overall mission to those who would make their careers in this deep state. Some of this went to nuclear weapons. Some of it went to protect US nuclear secrets. Some of it went to intelligence gathering. A lot of it has never properly been accounted for.
All this was, at least in theory, under the control of the president. The unique role of the president as both elected head of state and commander in chief gave the office a powerful and singular role in the strategy of deterrence. The technical capability to launch either a first strike or deliver a second strike was moot if US adversaries did not believe threats of nuclear attack would actually be carried out. The president’s perceived attitude and public comments were therefore not just a matter of policy but could, at least in the eyes of some, have a direct and immediate impact on the credibility of the US nuclear deterrent itself.
Deterrence through nuclear weapons as US policy created a lacuna between the existential threat of mutual nuclear annihilation and the everyday interests of money, resources, and power. First the Soviets were to be contained, but over time this was extended to other countries in the decolonizing world, especially when the postcolonial governments sought to harness the resources of their country for economic development.
Hints of this kind of intrigue were visible from before World War II even ended in the plot to rescue Nazis from prosecution at Nuremberg so they could work for either US weapons development agencies or the newly formed West German state. Covert efforts to keep the Italian Communist Party out of power in the 1948 elections and overthrow governments in Iran and Guatemala just a few years later were but the opening salvos in the war against communism that would be fought by and on behalf of the elite of the new corporate national security state.
Desire to achieve these ends without provoking a larger nuclear conflict encouraged the use of secrecy and cultivation of plausible deniability. The use of private proxies kept operations at arms length, but it also creates new risks. Illegal actions by these proxies must be covered up, including from investigations by other arms of the US state itself. Those entrusted with state protection could use this relationship to pursue their own agenda independently, which may lead to unforeseen or undesirable consequences that in turn must also be kept from public view.
Those in charge of these operations often came from wealthy and well-connected families, which no doubt only encouraged the elitist premise that their actions were of such vital importance to America that they should not have to disclose them to the common rabble. Even those who did not come from such a pedigree would not advance very far in trying to push against this upper crust consensus.
Understanding the history and structure of the national security state itself is important for the Havana Syndrome story because while the symptoms themselves are commonly found in psychogenic illnesses, that a hostile power wielding an as-yet unknown device to cause them is still considered to be a credible explanation is itself a direct outgrowth of the reflexive paranoia within this national security state combined with the disproportionate power that individuals within this state wield over US policy.
Despite sharing many ideological goals and interests, factions emerged within this state that, while in power, could use this national security apparatus to achieve their own political and economic goals. In order for these groups to be victorious, the operations of the state itself would become weapons against both their political enemies and the American public. To pursue an aggressively anti-communist agenda using only defensive rhetoric meant that any US goals would have to be shown to the public through the distorted lens of an always-escalating fight between the US and its adversaries.
Team B and the Delicate Balance of Terror
Albert Wohlstetter was a leading nuclear strategist at the RAND Corporation in the 1950s. In 1958 he published an essay titled The Delicate Balance of Terror in which he critiqued the idea that both the US and USSR possessing thermonuclear weapons had created a “thermonuclear balance.” He argued that in an age of hydrogen bombs, it was not sufficiently powerful offensive weapons that created an effective deterrent but the capability to retaliate. “To deter an attack,” he wrote, “means being able to strike back in spite of it.”
Wohlstetter’s emphasis on second-strike capability flows from his worries over a possible surprise nuclear attack by the Soviets:
the risks of not striking might at some juncture appear very great to the Soviets, involving, for example, disastrous defeat in peripheral war, loss of key satellites with danger of revolt spreading — possibly to Russia itself — or fear of an attack by ourselves. Then, striking first, by surprise, would be the sensible choice for them, and from their point of view the smaller risk.
Wohlstetter eventually left RAND but continued this work at the University of Chicago. In 1964 he met a graduate student named Paul Wolfowitz. Wohlstetter had been primarily concerned with nuclear strategy against the Soviet Union, but of interest to Wolfowitz was the threat of nuclear proliferation in the Middle East given America’s reliance on oil from the region.
Wohlstetter became convinced that the CIA suffered from a chronic optimism with regard to Soviet nuclear strategy. Wolfowitz, who had been appointed to the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, was pushing a similar line from inside the government along with Donald Rumsfeld, Ford’s chief of staff. What these men and others wanted was a team of outside analysts to be given access to the same intelligence that the CIA used to create its National Intelligence Estimates (NIE) to see if different conclusions could be reached.
These efforts were also advocated for by the reformation of a group which had first come together in the 1950s: the Committee on the Present Danger (CPD). The first iteration had lobbied the public and those in government to pursue the strategies outlined by Paul Nitze in NSC 68. Nitze was a member of the 1970s iteration along with other national security luminaries like William Casey, Richard Perle, George Shultz, and Andrew Goodpaster.
Initial attempts to convince then-CIA director William Colby of the necessity for an alternative assessment of Soviet capabilities were rejected. Colby was apparently skeptical of the idea that these outside analysts would be able to see something missed by the CIA’s own analysts. Or perhaps he saw this campaign for what it was: an attempt to give the agency’s imprimatur to the agenda of people opposed to detente with the Soviets.
Colby was eventually fired as CIA director by Gerald Ford in 1975 along with Kissinger and James Schlesinger. Brent Snowcroft, another member of the CPD, replaced Kissinger as National Security Advisor while Schlesinger was replaced by Donald Rumsfeld. George H.W. Bush was appointed to replace Colby as CIA director under the false premise that he was an outsider with no prior connection to the agency. When Bush became CIA director he gave enthusiastic approval to the Team B plan. According to an article in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists from 1993, he approved the Team B plan by writing in a note: “Let her fly!”
The official title of the Team B report was Soviet Strategic Objectives: An Alternative View, and the introductory remarks of the report give some hint as to the rigor that these men would bring to their work:
The report concentrates on what it is that the Russians are striving for, without trying to assess their chances of success. Nor has Team ‘B’ sought to produce a full-fledged counterpart to NIE 11-3/8 , covering the same range of topics: its contents are selective, as befits the experimental nature of the Team’s assignment. Failure of the Team to address itself to any given subject should not be taken to mean that it necessarily concurs with the NIEs’ treatment of it
In other words, this was an exercise in narrative creation, bolstered by cherry-picked information designed to fit a predetermined policy. As contrived as the conclusions of Team B were, reading them illuminates the ingrained reflexes of those who were ultimately successful in determining US national security policy in the following decades:
“Communist ‘grand strategy’ requires that a variety of weapons be utilized to stimulate the process of Western decline and to seize such opportunities as may present themselves while it is in progress. Thus, for example, the establishment of close Soviet economic ties with Third World countries or Soviet direct or indirect involvement with these countries can help weaken the links connecting the ‘capitalist’ economies with their essential sources of raw material and cheap labor and thereby help to accelerate ‘capitalism’s’ economic decline.”
The Soviet record of supporting its Third World allies hardly corresponds to the Team B account, especially compared to US efforts to influence events in these same countries, but remember that everything the US is doing is only out of concern for what the Soviets might do first if they haven’t begun already.
They get to the heart of the matter later in discussing how the Soviets are promoting the policy of detente to reduce the influence “of those elements in U.S. society which desire greater military preparedness and military R&D, resulting in a weakening of the United States precisely in that sphere where lies its particular strength”. They are, of course, speaking of themselves and the others who would come to be known as the neoconservatives. To them, their critics were not just wrong but in fact acting as perhaps unwitting dupes of Soviet influence.
Notably in the context of Havana Syndrome, among Team B’s objections to in the NIE was the discounting of Soviet R&D into “directed energy” weapons, writing “it seems a reasonable conclusion based upon the expense and vigor of Soviet R&D in these areas that the Soviets attach greater probability to eventual success over a shorter period of time than does the U.S.” (emphasis in original).
Their findings fit nicely into Reagan’s campaign against Carter as evidence that more military spending was required to keep America and its allies safe. One can gauge the importance of the re-formed CPD and Team B by what happened to its members following Reagan’s defeat of Carter in the 1980 election. Paul Nitze became the lead negotiator for the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty from 1981-1984 before he became a Special Advisor on arms control. Wolfowitz was appointed to be the Director of Policy Planning in the State Department. Historian Richard Pipes left a position at Harvard to join the staff of Reagan’s National Security Council, where he wrote influential policy documents such as NSD-75, which identified a desire for regime change within the USSR as a national security priority for the US.
Though we cannot yet see many internal documents related to the official investigations into Havana Syndrome, we can get a close enough approximation from the Washington Post opinion page. From an October 28, 2021 column by David Ignatius about Havana Syndrome:
The Russian playbook has emphasized deniable “gray zone” operations over the last decade. Networks of “illegal” operatives, such as those the KGB sent abroad a generation ago, are now reportedly used by the GRU and FSB, Russia’s military and domestic security agencies. Mark Galeotti, a Russia analyst who heads an intelligence consulting firm, describes the networks of criminal organizations that operate in Europe to support the Kremlin’s interests as the “Crimintern.” Russia analyst A.E. Goldberg has used the Russian word bespredel to describe these reckless operations. It’s a word used by Russian criminal gangs that means “anything goes.”
With its freewheeling network of mercenaries, hackers and thugs, Russia is an obvious suspect. But that’s not the same thing as having proof. So, what should the Biden administration do about these anomalous health incidents to make sure they stop, when it lacks the evidence to support a potential military confrontation?
What Ignatius argues is that the lack of evidence for Russia’s ties to Havana Syndrome is all the more reason to suspect their involvement, just as Team B argued with Soviet threats almost 50 years ago.
In addition to the similarities in rhetoric, the Team B episode also demonstrates that despite sharing many of the same major premises, the national security state has its own internal factions and divisions. This also appears in the Havana Syndrome story.
On January 20, 2022 NBC News reported that a new CIA assessment has concluded that most of the reported instances of Havana Syndrome were not the result of “a sustained global campaign by a hostile power”. The finding was met with anger and disappointment from a group called Advocacy for Victims of Havana Syndrome:
In a statement, a group that represents U.S. officials who have reported suspected incidents said, “The CIA’s newly issued report may be labeled ‘interim’ and it may leave open the door for some alternative explanation in some cases, but to scores of dedicated public servants, their families, and their colleagues, it has a ring of finality and repudiation.”
“We have reason to believe the interim report does not even represent the consensus of the full CIA,” said the group Advocacy for Victims of Havana Syndrome, “instead reflecting the views of a subset of officials most interested in resolution and closure
Personally speaking, I would be psyched to learn I am not the target of a sustained global campaign by a hostile power, but I guess that’s why I don’t have any national security clearance.
One of the reasons Mark Lenzi believes he is being retaliated against is that he went public after being frustrated at the lack of action by his superiors at the State Department. The people interviewed in the NBC report and elsewhere suggest much the same feeling. It’s difficult to address the medical aspects of a psychogenic illness when members of the intelligence agencies and foreign service are able to go directly to journalists who are already inclined to take US State Department and CIA employees at their word when they say someone is out to get them.
Media and war are closely intertwined throughout history, but this symbiosis between members of the press corps and those working in various capacities within the national security state grew in fits and starts throughout the latter half of the twentieth century. The Team B experiment harnessed the power of the national security state to help Reagan into the presidency and win domestic political support for a renewed cold war through manipulation of the intelligence process. Once in office, the intense drive for massive military spending was matched with an equal effort to bring an end to the tarnishing of this corporate national security state by both journalists and legislative oversight while also expanding the reach of US covert power.
Iran-Contra and Project Democracy
In 1982, CIA director William Casey and Walter Raymond began work on a public diplomacy program within the NSC. Raymond was a veteran CIA officer with experience in psychological operations and Casey had been Reagan’s campaign manager prior to becoming CIA director. This led to the creation of the Office of Public Diplomacy for Latin America headed by Otto Reich, who had previously worked for US Agency for International Development (USAID).
In January 1983 Reagan issued National Security Directive 77, establishing four specific working groups within the NSC. The document states that the “Public Affairs Committee” would be responsible for “planning and coordination of major speeches on national security subjects and other public appearances by senior officials … This committee will coordinate public affairs efforts to explain and support major U.S. policy initiatives”.
Though ostensibly justified to counter Soviet disinformation efforts, as Robert Parry and Peter Kornbluh document in their article Iran-Contra’s Untold Story, these public diplomacy efforts were in fact propaganda efforts aimed at convincing the American people to support its anti-communist agenda and fall in line behind their efforts, no matter how sleazy. They quote a deputy assistant secretary of the Air Force J. Michael Kelly speaking at a 1983 forum on low-intensity warfare apparently attended by Oliver North:
“The most critical special operations mission we have … today is to persuade the American people that the communists are out to get us. If we win the war of ideas, we will win everywhere else.”
There were efforts to discredit stories of contra atrocities by smearing the journalists who reported them as Soviet and/or Sandinista misinformation. In one instance the office dismissed reports of contra slitting the throats of civilians by claiming that it could not be true because the contras were not issued combat knives.
The Reagan administration was determined to bring the US press corps to heel. Efforts to suppress criticism was coupled with planted positive stories written by either administration officials or nominally outside voices who had close ties to the administration. This arrangement proved highly effective and might not have been uncovered for years if not for a few chance events. From Parry and Kornbluh:
If the plane carrying the American mercenary Eugene Hasenfus had not been shot down on October 5, 1986, and if the Beirut weekly Al Sbiraa had not leaked the U.S. arms sales to Iran a month later, the discovery of the Iran-contra diversion might have been deferred for years and the American public kept ignorant about key elements of U.S. foreign policy. The domestic campaign had proved so successful that the traditional checks and balances had failed. Despite its image of abrasive independence, the American press corps had turned quiescent and compliant. Congressional oversight had failed to pierce the veil of deception. Many members of Congress were simply worn down by the constant Red-baiting that characterized the administration’s hardball lobbying strategy.
In 1983 a symposium titled “The Role of Special Operations in US Strategy for the 1980s” was held in Washington D.C. Among the attendees was George Bailey, then the head of the US government sponsored-Radio Liberty. In his response to a paper on psychological operations, Bailey captures the attitude of the Reagan types towards adversarial journalism:
[T]errorists exploit the publicity provided by an indiscriminately sensationalist Western press to use murder as an element of political power, and with increasing effectiveness. The coverage (particularly by American television crews) afforded the hostage takers occupying the American Embassy in Tehran did more than any other factor to increase the political leverage of the hostage takers and to weaken the position of the US government.p.254
It is ironic that Bailey would lament positive coverage of Iran during the hostage crisis given what we now know, thanks to Parry’s later reporting, about efforts of William Casey during the 1980 campaign to sink Carter’s negotiations with the Iranians over releasing the hostages in order to ensure Reagan’s victory in the 1980 election.
The Iranians had inherited a large US-made arsenal from the deposed Shah. Then at war with Iraq, they were in urgent need of US military equipment. Building on ties forged during these campaign efforts, the Reagan administration arranged for sales of US weapons to the Iranians. The funds for these Iranian sales were then deposited in a Swiss bank account managed by Adolfo Calero, the head of the largest contra group. Oliver North’s notes from 1985 indicate that even then he knew that a plane being used by Adolfo’s brother Mario was “probably being used for drug runs into U.S.” These efforts in support of the contras were in clear violation of amendments to Defense Appropriations bills which limited US military aid to the contras, known as the Boland Amendment.
At almost the exact same time as this operation is well underway, the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 was passed, creating among other things a 100-1 disparity in sentencing between crack cocaine and powder cocaine. Because crack was often a way to stretch the same amount of powder cocaine further, it meant that those on the lowest end of the international drug trade faced the steepest legal consequences. In addition to the general disparity between the two drugs, some of those moving powder cocaine from South and Central America were also under the protection of the US government because of their role in carrying out the covert operation to overthrow the government in Nicaragua. The ideological agenda of expanding US prisons to contain all those arrested on low-level drug charges at the same time that large-scale traffickers were being protected in order to subvert the Sandinista government are not exactly subtle.
In his opening statement at the beginning of the hearings on the Iran-Contra affair, Rep. Cheney described the events as a “case study” in US foreign policy. Cheney’s remarks amount to an prefatory defense of the scandal that was just then being investigated:
The development of a private support network to assist insurgents fighting the civil war in Central America makes little sense considered in isolation. But it takes on a whole new significance when placed in the context of the following developments: the establishment of a communist government in Nicaragua, an outpost of the Soviet empire on the North American continent … The issues raised by these events are not new; we have had previous debates over the role of covert action, the power of the president, the role of private individuals and the appropriate role of Congress in the conduct of US foreign policy. Some will argue that these events justify the imposition of additional restrictions on presidents to prohibit the possibility of similar occurrences in the future. In my opinion, that would be a mistake.
Cheney and others who came to the defense of the actions of the Reagan administration would contend that Congress had somehow forced their hand by cutting off aid to the contras. Building off the original policy around nuclear weapons, this essentially amounts to an argument that Congress should not interfere with US foreign policy at all. Richard Secord perhaps put this dismissive posture most succinctly in his opening statement: “if we had been successful, I would not be here today.”
Even before any formal investigation took place, many were skeptical of the official story, which posited this as a some kind of rogue operation led by Oliver North. Rep. Jim Wright of Texas gave a press conference after meeting with the president when the story was first breaking and before any formal investigation had begun:
Reporter: Doesn’t this strike you as a classic case of plausible deniability where you’ve got planes going down in Nicaragua, you’ve got all this stuff pointing to North, to the White House, to the NSC, and repeatedly the White House is saying “we don’t know what’s going on”. Wasn’t it set up so they could say that?
Wright: Well, uh it does appear that way. The president is a positive thinker. I want to say that in a way that is perhaps both compliment and criticism. Mr. Reagan, of almost all the people I have met in high government positions, is unique capable of psyching himself up into a frame of mind in which he can believe whatever he wants to believe and can just utterly reject factual information which does not fit comfortably with his preconceived predilection. I think that’s just a characteristic of Mr. Reagan. It makes it very difficult for those who have information which is unpleasant to him to get through to him and get him to accept that it is fact. That truth is truth.
Other reporter: Are you suggesting that the president is not always aware of reality?
Wright: I didn’t put it in quite those terms. […] I think I prefer my own description of the situation, and I think I have given you to the best of my ability an accurate description of what could cause a situation of this kind in response to the question that was asked, [that is] how could all this go on and the president be unaware of it? The answer is, basically, I think the president is able, in his own mind, to reject information that he doesn’t want.
Though eventually the foreign aspects of this operation would become at least partially revealed through an official investigation, there was a concerted effort to limit disclosures of the domestic propaganda aspects. An initial draft of the committee report included a section discussing the public diplomacy efforts, but these were kept out. According to Parry and Kornbluh, sources on the committee told them that Cheney lobbied the chairman of the committee, Rep. Lee Hamilton (D-IN), to focus the report on the arms transfers and money laundering and leaving the public diplomacy efforts out of their final report.
Following the Iran-Contra hearings, a 1987 Gallup report found that while the scandal had tarnished Reagan’s popularity somewhat, there was a simultaneous decline in trust of the press, especially among his base. It had been a major scandal and news event, but its political implications were less clear. A year later, his vice president George H.W. Bush was elected president. It seems the public in general had also developed a case of Reagan’s “positive thinking.”
In 1998, about 10 years after the Iran-Contra hearings took place, Parry and Kornbluh gave an interview to KPFA about the changes they’d seen in their years covering the national security state throughout the Iran-Contra affair and into the 1990s. When discussing the role of investigations and transparency, Parry describes the changing dynamic with respect to the press and covert activities:
The CIA knew about 50 or so contra entities and contras who were involved in drug trafficking. They had a thousand or so cables that provided evidence that it had been hidden through the 80s, but here it was being made public and the Washington press corps chose almost across the board to ignore it. … even when the information comes out you still need a media that is willing to do it, has the courage to do it, and has the knowledge to do it and that we don’t have right now.
What developed in the Reagan years was the notion that manipulating the perception of controversial events or scandals could lead to better results than complete coverups. Framed in the correct way, even scandals could be used to create new attacks against your domestic and foreign political enemies. Reagan would give this new capability a clear mission by changing US doctrine from one centered around deterrence and containment to a more aggressive promotion of its own brand of democracy and rolling back communism as an ideology.
Despite receiving most of its funding directly from the US government, the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) was founded as an independent non-profit. There are four primary recipients of NED grants: the International Republican Institute (IRI), National Democratic Institute, the Center for International Private Enterprise, and the American Center for International Labor Solidarity. Each group is awarded grants that are in turn awarded to activists and NGOs all over the world.
Establishing NED was part of a larger shift to not merely contain but rather “rollback” communist powers in the world. The US would now not just be protecting western liberal capitalism from the communist menace. “What I am describing now” Reagan said in a famous 1982 speech to British Parliament, “is a plan and a hope for the long term—the march of freedom and democracy which will leave Marxism-Leninism on the ash-heap of history.” This meant giving weapons to anti-communist paramilitaries but also support to civil society groups, protest movements, and other efforts to destabilize socialist and communist governments.
Mark Lenzi was working at the IRI in 2005 they were involved in training and funding various activist groups in Russia. This was the same period that Mueller’s team had questioned Lenzi about during their investigation. Lenzi’s testimony to the Mueller investigation, given around the same time he and members of his family began experiencing symptoms, is specifically cited as one of the links between Paul Manafort and Russian intelligence. According to Lenzi, it was well-known that Kilminik had been fired from his position as a translator at the IRI in 2005 because his intelligence ties were too strong. Then-director for Eurasia Programs for the IRI Stephen Nix, who incidentally seems to have disagreed with Lenzi’s characterization of Kilminik according to the Mueller report, described the work of the IRI in 2005 testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations committee:
Hundreds of thousands of human rights and political party activists continue their work in the regions regardless of pressure applied on them by the FSB and the Kremlin. IRI has worked with a number of these activists and the organizations they represent. Using innovative means to reach out to the public, they communicate their messages through forums, press releases, internet sites, newsletters, rallies, and even leaflet campaigns. They are fighting to make sure that dissenting voices, no matter how small, are heard. … This is not a government that the Russian people deserve. This is not a government that the Russian people should tolerate. I say this because I firmly believe that our friends, the Russian people, are capable of creating a democracy that offers them the stability, the prosperity, and the freedom they so richly deserve.
After working at the IRI and before he joined the State Department, Lenzi worked as deputy communications director for John McCain, chairman of the IRI from 1993 until his death. According to his initial complaint to the State Department, filed as part of his ongoing lawsuit after his experience with Havana Syndrome, Lenzi joined the State Department only after the nature of his work with the IRI was exposed:
Approximately ten years ago Wikileaks illegally released my name and detailed some of the political work I was doing in the former Soviet Union for the International Republican Institute with U.S. Government funding. After this release I could not work safely doing political activities in certain former Soviet republics so I formally joined State Department to continue working on and in former Soviet countries with a diplomatic passport and diplomatic privileges.
Though in many ways Reagan’s execution of this policy was a continuation of previous cold war tactics, the idea of using American covert power to overthrow governments in the name of democracy would become important as a domestic rhetorical tool. No matter how cynical and sleazy the US policy was in the particulars, it was always reduced to a necessary act in the eternal struggle of democracy against tyranny, freedom against dictatorship, America vs the forces of evil.
“The strength of the Solidarity movement in Poland,” Reagan told British Parliament in the same speech quoted above, “demonstrates the truth told in an underground joke in the Soviet Union. It is that the Soviet Union would remain a one-party nation even if an opposition party were permitted, because everyone would join the opposition party.”
Joint Special Operations University Press recently published a book called Support to Resistance which describes the various efforts taken since World War II to provide financial, military, and political support to groups in other countries with the aim of coercing or overthrowing governments. Though incomplete and of course sympathetic to the US government policy, it is nevertheless candid about how these operations work and how they fit into the overall strategy. By the end of 1982, the program to support Solidarity was well underway:
In addition to money for the payment of fines and legal assistance for Solidarity leaders brought into court, the United States provided advice, food, clothing and tons of other nonlethal support, primarily in the form of communications equipment: computers and word processors, printing presses and ink, fax machines and copiers, telephones and telex machines, shortwave radios, transmitters, video cameras and other office equipment. Equipment bound for Solidarity usually arrived at the Polish port of Gdansk by ship from Denmark and Sweden, packed in mislabeled crates. Dockworkers unloaded the crates, which were then separated from the other cargo by the shipyard manager before Polish authorities were able to complete their inspections. The crates were then transported by truckers who were all secretly working in support of Solidarity. Support provided to Solidarity by the USG grew from $2 million to $8 million during the mid 1980s.(p.32)
In September 1982 Reagan signed National Security Directive 54 outlining its policy towards governments in eastern Europe like Poland. The overarching strategy was to separate these governments from the influence of the USSR.
In implementing its policy, the U. S. was to calibrate its policies in favor of governments which:
— Show relative independence from the Soviet Union in the conduct of foreign policy as manifested by the degree to which they resist associating themselves with Soviet foreign policy objectives and support or refrain from obstructing Western objectives; or
— Show relatively greater internal liberalization as manifested in a willingness to observe internationally recognized human rights and to pursue a degree of pluralism and decentralization, including a more market-oriented economy.
Promoting democracy would create a powerful tool for mobilizing the US public in favor of US involvement, military or otherwise, in the politics of other countries. Building off of the successful efforts to convince Americans that presidential control of nuclear weapons and national security strategy was superior to the single-party Soviet model, operatives within this corporate national security state set about working against enemy governments using whatever tools were at their disposal. Within a decade, all the countries named in NSD 54 would no longer be led by the same governments. Indeed, the USSR itself would no longer exist.
Though they may have been effective domestically, reliance on simple moral binaries to whip up domestic support for utterly sleazy operations like Iran-Contra would feed growing alienation around the world as many saw these covert and often non-lethal activities as essentially war by other means. It also made it increasingly difficult to see precisely where the US support for opposition groups ended and the genuine grievances of people around the world against their governments began. The most effective of these campaigns were capitalizing on genuine local discontent, but the scale of US influence was such that some began to suspect US influence behind any protest movement of sufficient size with plenty of historical precedent on their side.
Few governments in the world, regardless of their structure, remain in power solely through the iron handed grip of a single dictator. Even those who do not like their government tend to resent when an outside power exerts its influence, especially when it can often be clearly linked to the self interest of the US and the multinational corporations which reside here. The caricatures that the US created of both its enemies and friends to sell their policies to the voting public, supposedly the source of sovereignty in the US, distorted not only events abroad but also how those in the US saw the rest of the world. Even if successful in the short term from a US perspective, these accumulated distortions, combined with the fact that much of the violence which resulted from them was kept mostly out of sight, created a picture of the world within much of the US that is as indelible as it is inaccurate. Eventually, the US public would have to be fully absorbed into the hall of mirrors created by the growing power of the national security state.
9/11: from National Security to Homeland Security
One day in fifth grade, while I was busy perusing the nature guides for made up birds, our teacher told us that there had been an attack on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. Some of my friends were picked up early because their parents worked in the IDS tower, the tallest building in Minneapolis, evacuated out of safety concerns. I did not have any fully-formed political beliefs to speak of, but the idea of there being anything in Minneapolis important enough to run a plane into seemed a little silly. Then again I had never heard of the World Trade Center until I was watching it collapse on TV.
It took only a few days for the FBI to release the names of the 19 suspected hijackers. At a press conference on September 14, the same day the names were released, FBI Director Robert Mueller, the same man who led the inquiry into the Trump campaign and Russia, took questions from reporters:
Reporter 1: [of the hijackers] Have they been connected to organizations connected to Bin Laden?
Mueller: I can’t get into the details of that.
Reporter 2: Does it astonish you that all their training came from the U.S. There were so many of them trained as pilots and that they lived in the open. They weren’t hiding their identities here. Did any of that astonish you or shock you?
Mueller: Well the tragedies quite clearly astonish and shock me and the country. The fact that there were a number of individuals that happened to have received training at flight schools here is news quite obviously. If we had understood that to be the case we would have perhaps, one could have averted this.
In fact, the Minneapolis FBI field office had already been investigating Zacarias Moussaoui, who would later be charged with conspiring with the hijackers, after a tip from a company providing flight simulator training. The company told them that Moussaoui had paid cash for the lessons and provided no pilot’s license, which was odd considering the simulator they offered was primarily used to train newly hired airline pilots on flying large commercial jets. The FBI opened an intelligence operation in on August 15, 2001 and it was quickly discovered that he had overstayed his visa, which allowed him to be arrested on immigration charges on August 16, 2001.
According to an Inspector General’s report into the FBI’s handling of intelligence, the FBI agent leading the case filed a report on August 20, 2001 outlining the result of their investigation into Moussaoui that had led them to believe he was plotting to commit a terrorist attack:
The numerous inconsistencies in his story, his two month long trip to Pakistan which ended less than three weeks before his coming to the U.S., and his inability to explain his source of financial support all give cause to believe he is conspiring to commit a terrorist act, especially when this information is combined with his extremist views as described by Al-Attas [Mossaoui’s roommate] in his sworn statement.
As Moussaoui was in the process of gathering the most knowledge and skill possible in order to learn to fly the Boeing 747-400, Minneapolis believes that his plan involved an aircraft of this type. This is especially compelling when considering that the 400 series of this aircraft has a smaller flight crew and is more automated than other versions, lending itself to simpler operation by relative novices. His request of Pan Am that he be permitted to fly a simulated flight from London’s Heathrow Airport to New York’s JFK Airport is suggestive and gives Minneapolis reason to believe that he may have been attempting to simulate a flight under the conditions which he would operate while putting his plan into motion in the future.
Despite the FBI’s findings, there was skepticism that it was sufficient to obtain a criminal search warrant for his belongings and so the FBI chose to request a warrant under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), a 1978 law that created the United States Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. The request was met with initial skepticism as it was unclear to some how Moussaoui was connected to any foreign power.
On August 22, the Minneapolis FBI office received information from the French government about Moussaoui, which they had requested because Moussaoui had entered the US with a French passport. From the OIG report:
On August 22, the FBI’s Paris Legat reported to the Minneapolis FBI and FBI Headquarters that the French government had reported that Moussaoui was purportedly associated with a man who was born in France and died in 2000 in Chechnya fighting with “the Mujahideen.” We call this person “Amnay.” The Legat’s EC stated that while in Chechnya, Amnay worked for Emir Al‑Khattab Ibn (Ibn Khattab), the leader of a group of Chechen rebels. According to the EC, the French authorities, after Amnay’s death, had interviewed a person who we call “Tufitri” who had known Amnay. That person stated that Amnay was recruited to go to Chechnya by Moussaoui and that Moussaoui was “the dangerous one.”
This was apparently still considered an insufficient link to any recognized terrorist group according to the FBI agents evaluating these reports. One agent described the “situation in Chechnya as dissidents engaged in a “civil war” and that he was not aware of any insurgency/rebel group ever being pled as a foreign power.” In other words, these foreign connections were insufficient to justify surveillance because they needed to be connected to a foreign government, not just people from a foreign country.
Some may say all this only looks obvious through the lens of hindsight, but considering the massive changes to the structure and power of the US state following the attacks it is remarkable that the existing law enforcement apparatus seems to have picked up lots of relevant information prior to the attacks taking place without any such powers. Nevertheless, discussion of wide-reaching changes to national security policy were frequent points of discussion by Attorney General John Ashcroft and others in the immediate aftermath of the attacks. Ashcroft had begun restructuring the counterterrorism aspects of the Department of Justice by creating new task forces that would show the outline of the new national security apparatus being constructed. From a press conference on September 18, 2001:
At my direction last week, each US Attorney’s Office identified an experienced prosecutor who will serve as the anti-terrorism coordinator for that district. That coordinator is to convene a meeting of representatives of the federal law enforcement agencies. That would be the FBI, INS, the DEA, the Marshalls Service, Customs, Secret Service, and ATF. Together with those federal officials there would be the invitation to primary state and local police forces in that district. That group headed by the US Attorney would be the Anti-Terrorism Task Force in that US Attorney’s district. These task forces will be a part of a national network that will coordinate the dissemination of information and the development of a strategy to disrupt, dismantle, and punish terrorist organizations throughout the country. […]
In sum, the implementation of the task force coordinated by the US Attorney in each district, working with the FBI, will provide the operational foundation for a concerted national assault against terrorism. This system will provide law enforcement with a comprehensive, seamless approach to attack terrorism within our borders.
I understand this is an aggressive and an ambitious agenda. It represents a more preventative approach to doing business in the US Attorney’s offices together with the FBI than perhaps has been the case in the past. We must all recognize that our mission has changed. It has been changed by the events of this last week. The threat that seemed fairly remote to most Americans seven days ago is now felt in every heart and every home in the United States.
In these press conferences, Ashcroft repeatedly stresses the already ongoing efforts to lobby Congress, particularly those on committees related to intelligence and national security, to pass new laws granting enhanced surveillance powers. These efforts would prove successful when the USA Patriot Act was signed into law on October 26, 2001 with no public hearing and little discussion of the text prior to its passage.
In addition to this law, the structure outlined by Ashcroft would help to inform the structure of a new cabinet-level agency: the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). DHS was created with the passage of the Homeland Security Act on November 25, 2002. The new agency combined 22 existing agencies formerly held by the Departments of Treasury, Justice, Transportation, Agriculture, Energy, Defense, and the General Services Administration into this new agency.
Though these changes were largely premised on the idea that the US military and intelligence apparatus was not suited to this new task, in fact the major premise resembles the justification offered by Douglas Stuart in his history of the National Security Act of 1947 discussed in Part 1. Stuart, who is no ideological critic of US power, argued that the National Security Act of 1947 reoriented US military and intelligence policy around the concept of national security, with all decisions now needing to be articulated in terms of how they did or did not support this mission, even when they were clearly offensive rather than defensive. Evaluating the NSA in the context of the newly-created DHS, he writes:
The 1947 NSA overturned the long U.S. tradition of thinking about peace and war as distinct phenomena requiring different institutional responses. For the next experiment in comprehensive reform to be effective, it will have to overturn the long tradition of treating domestic and international security as distinct realms. But this poses unprecedented problems for the American people. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor has warned, ‘‘It can never be too often stated that the greatest threats to our constitutional freedoms come in times of crisis’’. But this is the first time in American history that a domestic crisis has no foreseeable end date.Douglas T. Stuart, Ministry of Fear: The 1947 National Security Act in Historical and Institutional Context, International Studies Perspectives, Volume 4, Issue 3, August 2003, Pages 293–313, https://doi.org/10.1111/1528-3577.403006, p. 311
The US entered World War II as a state which considered war and peace to be separate states requiring their own specific institutions. In the aftermath of World War II, this distinction was scrapped in favor of a permanent baseline mobilization of the military and the creation of a permanent foreign and domestic intelligence apparatus that would take on more aggressive foreign and domestic operations over the course of the 20th century. Now, in the aftermath of 9/11, a massive expansion of not just executive power but specifically military and intelligence power was considered essential for keeping us safe from the supposedly omnipresent threat of terrorism.
At around the same time as the Homeland Security Act was passed, Donald Rumsfeld created the Office of Special Plans (OSP) and tapped Douglas Feith and Team B veteran Paul Wolfowitz with staffing the group. The group made sure that all intelligence related to Iraq would go through them instead of being vetted through the normal military and intelligence channels, including the State Departments Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR). The OSP stovepipe ensured that intelligence from Ahmed Chalabi and others who supported a US invasion reached the highest levels of the Bush administration without any internal dissent. Just as Team B bypassed the typical intelligence estimate process, then-head of the INR Greg Thielman knew nothing of this group. He told the Guardian in 2004:
“I didn’t know about its existence,” said Thielman. “They were cherry picking intelligence and packaging it for Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld to take to the president. That’s the kind of rogue operation that peer review is intended to prevent”
Another veteran of the Reagan and Bush Sr. administrations who loomed over these proceedings was John Bolton. In W. Bush’s administration he was appointed assistant deputy for arms control from 2001-2005 and then served as UN ambassador. In these roles he repeatedly stressed the connection between terrorist groups and weapons of mass destruction as well as dismissed concerns for international law.
According to CBS, two of Bolton’s staffers were struck with symptoms during a 2019 trip to London while he was working in the Trump administration. He told CBS:
Bolton: That it was on a floor completely taken up with personnel from the White House and White House agencies struck me as being pretty good evidence of a deliberate attack.
CBS: You believe it was an attack?
Bolton: I don’t think there’s any other hypothesis when you begin to look at the number and the pattern that we’ve experienced.
Miles Taylor, who later was revealed to be the author of a 2018 New York Times opinion piece titled I Am Part of the Resistance Inside the Trump Administration, experienced his attack in 2018 right as he was about to assume a new leadership role at DHS:
Taylor: It was late one night in April 2018. I’d just become Deputy Chief of Staff of the department, taking on some additional sensitive issues at DHS, and woke up in my apartment that night, a row house on Capitol Hill, to a really strange sound. … It was sort of a chirping, somewhere between what you would think is a cricket or sort of a digital sound. I didn’t know what it was but it was enough to wake me up. What was really strange about it was I went to the window, opened up my window, looked down at the street. And keep in mind, Scott, that this probably 3, 3:30 in the morning, and I see a white van and the van’s brake lights turned on and it pulled off and sped away.
Reporter: How long did it last?
Taylor: this whole episode only lasted about 7-10 minutes.
Reporter: How did you feel the next day?
Taylor: Off. Off, not ready to go to work. You know kinda wanting to take the day off. You know sick.
Reporter [voice-over]: then about 5 weeks later Taylor says it happened again.
Taylor: The next day, feeling off balance. Feeling just out of it. Again sort of those concussion like symptoms … that incident stood out to me because I was just about to leave to go to Israel on a Congressional delegation. We were going to meet the Israeli Prime MInister Benajmin Netanyahu, have some sensitive conversations with the Israelis on important cybersecurity issues.
The counterterrorism bona fides of those who have been struck by this mysterious disease are stressed repeatedly throughout the CBS report and others. The implication is that these are people who have worked in war zones and confronted terrorist groups but are nevertheless helpless in the face of this mysterious attack. They claim a number of these attacks occurred near the White House, including one member of the National Security Council, who declined to go on record but was happy to describe his experience to his “close colleague” John Bolton, who described their ordeal as “disorientation, and ringing in their years, and just a general inability to function.”
Others profiled in this report include former CIA officers and State Department officials, many of whom experienced their ordeals on US soil. After dismissing the prospect of mass hysteria, the CBS report accepts the idea that it is caused by “pulsed microwave energy” and ends on an ominous note:
The iron gates of West Executive Avenue went up in 1951 after the attempted assassination of Harry Truman. 70 years later, there is evidence the gates may have been breeched by an invisible threat.
The post-9/11 consolidation of the national security state overtly fused domestic and foreign operations in a way that was previously kept covert or semi-covert and represents a culmination rather than a break with previous efforts. The very fabric of the state had been set up to frame the aggressive pursuit of US interests, or at least the interest of those who matter, as a purely defensive struggle that required constant mobilization. This was supported by a massive adjustment of public spending towards military and intelligence efforts. Executive authority gradually dismissed and ignored any oversight by Congress at the same time that domestic propaganda efforts reinforced the idea that US state power was always and everywhere a force for moral good.
In May 2020 I lived about five blocks from where George Floyd was murdered by officers from the Minneapolis Police Department. The protests sparked by his death rippled around the world, which made the events in my neighborhood feel all the more surreal. Helicopters circled overhead of any gathering of size in our neighborhood and even overnight when no protests were occurring, continuing with less frequency up to the present. Police and elected officials claimed roving armed bands of people from outside the city were committing widespread arson in order to justify a complete shutdown of the highways and a curfew. Stories of flammable liquid being left near dumpsters and suspicious people in the area abounded throughout the many text and chat groups that formed among neighbors. At one point, having heard a story of this on our block, I went out to see if I could find anything near our trash cans only to look down the alley and see someone doing the same thing.
A few days into this I attended a neighborhood meeting to discuss safety measures the community could take as well as to share information about what we’ve seen. I asked if anybody here had actually found any of the gasoline or other arson materials. Nobody had, but one attendee then mentioned that she had “actually worked at Homeland Security for 10 years” and in her experience this was indeed a serious threat that we needed to continue to monitor.
Though I’m sure some people did find these dangerous substances, the constant surveillance and spreading of this kind of story had the effect of reinforcing the need for strong police action despite the fact that police violence had set the events in motion in the first place. Efforts to replace the Minneapolis Police Department with a new Department of Public Safety were ultimately defeated in a ballot referendum in 2021. During the campaign, a man named Winston Smith was killed by a federal task force. Because it was a federal task force, even the name of the officer has not and will not be released.
9/11 led to a similar explosion in military spending, but now this money could not just be used for domestic operations by federal military and intelligence but also gave new tools and powers to local police as well. The result has been further militarization of US society with even less transparency, let alone accountability, for the use and abuse of this state power. While many still cling to the idea that it can be only used against their enemies, the grim reality is that this power remains one of the primary obstacle to practically any progressive development in US politics.
In the conclusion of their book on Havana Syndrome, Baloh and Bartholomew discuss mass hysteria in a military context:
Over the past 150 years, soldiers returning from combat have been diagnosed with a novel syndrome for which no organic cause could be found. Despite the array of names given to it, the symptoms have remained remarkably uniform. Some of the most common complaints include headaches, dizziness, disorientation, forgetfulness, difficulty concentrating, fatigue, insomnia, chest pain, and impaired sight and hearing … These psychogenic symptoms associated with American soldiers living under continuous stress are virtually identical to those reported by the US diplomats (p.182)
Those treating soldiers showing these symptoms have found simple interventions like rest and supportive psychotherapy are the most effective treatments. They also stress that doctors must also recognize that from the patient’s perspective the symptoms are completely real. “If a physician shows even the slightest hint of skepticism towards a patient’s symptoms,” they write, “there is little chance of helping the patients.”
By contrast, if the patients are referred to a specialist then they are not only less likely to recover but may in fact develop chronic conditions related to the specialty to which they were referred. When the State Department employees were sent to a specialist in acoustic weapons based on reports of an odd noise accompanying some of the symptoms, it all but ensured that some of those afflicted would become more convinced that they were under attack from just such a weapon.
Among the issues Lenzi raises in his lawsuit is the damage to his reputation as a result of the State Department stating publicly in September 2018 that his own symptoms did not correlate with those afflicted in Havana. “This decision,”, Lenzi writes, “especially after State Department management tried to steer a Bureau of Medical Services Psychiatrist towards diagnosing me with a “mental illness” caused and continues to cause immense harm to my reputation and was done in a discriminatory manner.” Here we see the intense hostility to any implication that the source of his symptoms is psychological rather than technological despite all evidence to the contrary.
The State Department has asked that the case be dismissed, but says little about the actual phenomenon of Havana Syndrome itself in their filings. They argue that not only were his accommodations implemented, but the argument that denial of particular overseas assignments that Lenzi was seeking constitutes employment discrimination is without merit.
When I began doing research for this essay, I thought it was an interesting coincidence that Lenzi’s symptoms seemed to emerge around the same time he was being interviewed as part of the Mueller investigation. Therefore I was fascinated to see that Lenzi himself connects the two in his own filings. Though he does not name the country he believes to be behind the attacks against him, read this keeping in mind his role as former official with the International Republican Institute and see if you can guess who he is talking about:
The country alluded to in Attachment 1 (not China or Cuba) is the same country that committed these standoff RF microwave attacks against my apartment and the adjacent apartment of my medevac’d neighbor. It is a country with which I have had a contentious multi decade history with. DS [Department of State] and the U.S. Government writ large have given me numerous awards for my expertise working in and on this country – often in hazardous working environments. Because of this expertise, and as DS management is fully aware, at the time of my injury in 2018 I was involved in a high-profile FBI counterintelligence investigation concerning this particular country.
I should state now that I am no more a doctor than I am a lawyer. I am simply a regular guy with a PACER account and a library card who likes reading documents. However, that someone with connections to many different branches of the US national security state in Russia would be under significant stress while being interviewed as part of an investigation into potential manipulation of US elections by a nuclear-armed state on behalf of the sitting president seems reasonable. Such stress might even cause headaches and sleep issues. That someone experiencing such an ordeal with a background in technical security would consider a sophisticated radio frequency attack before other potential explanations also would be perfectly in line with the description of mass hysteria laid out in Baloh and Bartholomew’s book.
Though Lenzi’s ordeal has been more publicized because of his decision to take the matter into the courts, recent reporting by the Telegraph identifies a CIA officer in Havana as the “Patient Zero” for Havana Syndrome. In fact, that is his codename among those investigating these cases. The Telegraph’s reporting describes how his experience led to others reporting symptoms:
Fulton Armstrong, a former CIA man then working in Havana, remembers Patient Zero’s own zealous campaign: ‘He was lobbying, if not coercing, people to report symptoms and connect the dots,’ Armstrong has said. The concerned officer went to the embassy’s chief of mission, Jeffrey DeLaurentis, who called a general meeting in the Havana embassy. ‘If you have any doubts about anything,’ DeLaurentis urged the gathered staff, ‘step forward and we’ll have you evaluated.’
The steady accumulation of power by the national security state and its gradual movement from the foreign to domestic front means that anyone who hopes to influence US politics will also have to confront this apparatus. This means understanding both those within this state as well as the effects their actions have on the rest of us and the world. Though this makes the task much more daunting, successfully challenging the paradox of increasing militarism and aggression justified in the name of defense and promotion of simplistic ideas of democracy could have positive ripple effects for both foreign and domestic policy.
One issue that has attracted considerable attention within this state recently is the danger of disinformation and conspiracy theories. In recent testimony to the House Homeland Security Committee, Rep. Lauren Underwood (D-IL) asked DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas what the department was doing to counter misinformation. Mayorkas identified a number of efforts by the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) to alert the public to this threat.
CISA has released some infographics aimed at helping people counteract disinformation titled Disinformation Stops With You. In it they define three different kinds of false information. In addition to false information not created to cause harm (misinformation), they also describe material that is deliberately meant to “mislead, harm, or manipulate a person, social group, organization, or country”, otherwise known as disinformation. Finally, they define “malinformation” as information that is “based on fact, but used out of context to mislead, harm, or manipulate.”
The danger of false information, according to CISA, is that it undermines “democratic institutions and the power of facts … polluting healthy conversations about the issues and increasing societal divisions”. The implication of this is that an otherwise healthy polity cannot solve its problems democratically because the normal mechanisms have been corrupted by various kinds of false information. If only a common set of facts could be established, so the thinking goes, then the solutions to our problems would present themselves as if by logical induction.
It’s hard not to notice that “malinformation” is basically just inconvenient information to the US but which is now treated as essentially the same as completely false information. I hope that by the end of this long essay I have convinced you that those working in these roles have little reason to be given the authority to determine what information is true or false.
This panic occurs, not coincidentally, alongside signs of a severe political crisis domestically. US police are facing increasing calls for their outright abolition at the same time that both political parties seem to be doubling down on their vital role in society. As reports of insider trading in Congress become more common, these same legislators express bafflement at the suggestion of basic social democratic policies like paid sick leave, universal health care, and public education. As private spending on influencing politics in the form of campaign donations, think tanks, and front groups grows, so too does lack of trust in the results of elections and belief in credible news and academic authorities.
I chose to start this narrative in the aftermath of World War II because I believe the establishment of these new national security structures which were designed to be constantly mobilized had a profound effect on the social and political life of the US. Though it was not necessarily a predetermined outcome, the result has been an increasingly resolute and expansive executive branch taking more and more authority from an increasingly shambolic and ineffective legislature, with the judiciary following behind to grant the imprimatur of legality to the proceedings. Though I harbor no illusions about the realities of what happens in Congress, it seems a glaring structural problem when the branch granted the most expansive powers in the constitution because it is purported to be the closest to the electorate faces difficulties passing laws by simple majority. Exhortations for more people to participate in elections will cause only greater resentment if compliance is rewarded with only more inaction.
Sometimes thinking about all this gives me headaches, sleeplessness, nausea. At times, it becomes difficult for me to perform my regular job duties.
Towards the end of the Long Telegram, Kennan described the Soviet state in a way that curiously parallels the operations of the US national security state which had then just been established:
it has an elaborate and far flung apparatus for exertion of its influence in other countries , an apparatus of amazing flexibility and versatility, managed by people whose experience and skill in underground methods are presumably without parallel in history. Finally, it is seemingly inaccessible to considerations of reality in its basic reactions. For it, the vast fund of objective fact about human society is not, as with us, the measure against which outlook is constantly being tested and re-formed, but a grab bag from which individual items are selected arbitrarily and tendenciously [sic] to bolster an outlook already preconceived. This is admittedly not a pleasant picture.
Not a pleasant picture indeed. In fact, I think I might be sick.