Trudeau kowtows to Tricky Dick; Chomsky on secrecy & power

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The revelation that Pierre Trudeau phoned Richard Nixon at the height of the Watergate scandal to offer warm support is interesting news, but it’s not especially surprising. Canadian prime ministers often suck up to their masters in Washington, although they usually try to hide it.

A few days before the release of the Nixon/Trudeau tape, Noam Chomsky condemned Prime Minister Lester Pearson for secretly supporting massive American bombing raids on North Vietnam in the 1960s.

During a 24 minute interview on CBC Radio, Chomsky said that Daniel Ellsberg’s leak of the Pentagon Papers exposed Pearson, the Nobel Peace Prize winner, as a Cold War super hawk.  Chomsky was countering the notion that government secrecy is needed to protect national security. He argued that secrecy usually protects government officials, like Pearson, from exposure to their own people:

So, for example, exposure of Lester Pearson who was approached by President Johnson when he was planning the bombing of North Vietnam, a major crime of course, and he approached Pearson and Pearson responded, I don’t remember his exact words, but something like, well it’s a fine idea, but just don’t use atom bombs, just keep to iron bombs. Well, that’s the kind of thing that governments want to keep secret. They don’t want their population to know that their Nobel Peace Prize winner is a super war hawk who’s supporting massive aggression against another country.

An account of Pearson’s encounter with Johnson can be found here.

Here’s the full transcript of the Chomsky interview:

Monday, August 19, 2013. CBC Radio’s Studio Q. Guest host Kevin Sylvester (KS) interviews American linguist and activist Noam Chomsky (NC).

KS: Well, for years the Central Intelligence Agency in the United States denied that it had been keeping tabs on Noam Chomsky. After all, gathering information on domestic activities of U.S. citizens is something the CIA is specifically forbidden from doing unless there’s a reason to believe they are engaged in espionage or international terrorism. But considering the fact that the CIA spied on U.S. peace activists in the early 1970s along with the MIT professor’s longstanding criticism of U.S. foreign policy, many felt the CIA’s denials strained their credibility. Well it appears the CIA did in fact have a file on Chomsky. Last week, the website for Foreign Policy magazine published a memo that the FBI sent to the CIA in 1970 asking for information about a planned trip to North Vietnam that included references to Noam Chomsky. An expert who studies CIA-FBI information-gathering confirmed that at a minimum, Chomsky’s file would have contained that memo and the CIA’s response. We have reached out to esteemed linguist, philosopher and political activist Noam Chomsky to see what he makes of these revelations. Mr. Chomsky welcome to the show.

NC: Glad to be with you.

KS: What did you make of the FBI memo published by Foreign Policy magazine. Did it confirm your suspicions?

NC: First of all, I should say that just to give a little background, the release of it was the result of long and up-till-now failed efforts by Frederic Alan Maxwell who’s been trying to obtain FBI and CIA records and has been rebuffed at every turn, but apparently, I don’t know how this finally came out. The interesting part is what isn’t said. The CIA is legally barred from domestic surveillance of domestic activities and they destroyed the file, which raises the obvious question, how many more illegal acts have they carried out and how much more have they destroyed. That’s I think, the interesting part. Another question is, judging by the little that was released, it’s a little unclear why they even cared. The trip was perfectly public. In fact, even before the trip was announced, the State Department called me. They’d obviously picked up a personal interchange of some kind. There was no email then, but probably [a] telephone interchange in which it was discussed. The State Department called me, very friendly, they wanted me to meet with them when I came back. They were obviously interested in case I had some information that they could use somehow.

KS: Was this a trip you were going on?

NC: Yeah. I was invited actually, it was during a bombing halt, there was a brief bombing halt and I was invited to lecture at the Polytechnic University in Hanoi, actually the ruins of the Polytechnic University. People were able to gather there from various parts of the country to which they’d been dispersed because there was a brief pause. I spent several days, I suppose three full days, lecturing on just about any topic I knew anything about and also a couple of other things, travelled a little. I spent a week in Laos which was much more revealing in fact, but there was nothing secret about it. As I said, the State Department called me even before it was announced.

KS: What kind of activism were you up to at the time though that might have drawn the attention of these officials?

NC: I was involved, very actively involved in resistance against the war, resistance activities of various kinds, which are technically illegal. I was facing a very likely long jail sentence at that time. The trials were later called off.

KS: Then were you ever aware, you said you were contacted but were you ever aware that the CIA was keeping a dossier on you?

NC: I wasn’t aware, but I’m hardly surprised. I’m sure there’s plenty in the FBI files.

KS: Is there a Freedom of Information request for those?

NC: Mr. Maxwell has. I haven’t.

KS: I should mention by the way, we did reach out to officials at the CIA, trying to get a response from them. They did not have any comment for now, but we’ll let listens know if we hear back from them. Around this time you mentioned you were very active in, you said technically illegal things. Do you see any rationale that the CIA could have under their, I don’t know, grey area to have kept a file on you and not have it be an invasion of your privacy?

NC: Well as I say the CIA is theoretically not allowed to be involved in domestic activities. I can see why the FBI might have had a file [and I’m sure] surely did. CIA, I have no idea, maybe because it was some international affair, but they didn’t have to have any secret inquiries. They could have called the State Department. The more interesting part, to me at least, is that the State Department knew that I was going before it was public. Remember, no email in those days, no electronic surveillance, but presumably phone tapping of some kind. I never really looked into it.

KS: Did you ever feel paranoid?

NC: No. I mean you take for granted that uh, I mean there was much more serious things than this going on at the time. Got revealed later, but you could see bits and pieces of it. This was in the middle of the COINTELPRO period. Finally, a couple of years later, in the early 70s, documents on COINTELPRO were released under court order and they were pretty serious.

KS: COINTELPRO was a program where they would infiltrate organizations that were opposed to government policies, right?

NC: More than infiltrate. It literally went as far as FBI-ordered political assassination. Fred Hampton, a black organizer was murdered in his apartment in a 4 a.m. raid by the Chicago police that was set up by the FBI. That’s pretty serious. And there was a lot more disruption, concocted scandals, all kinds of things. For example, in the Hampton assassination case, a couple of months before the assassination, the FBI had written a letter to the head of a Chicago gang, the Blackstone Rangers, in kind of fake black dialect, telling the Rangers that Fred Hampton was going to try to assassinate their leader, so they should retaliate. They were hoping the Rangers would kill him. Well, it turned out that by then, there were already contacts between the Rangers and the Black Panthers so they knew that it was an FBI fraud and didn’t do it. So then, the murder was set up by the FBI themselves. They sent the Chicago police fake information that this apartment had guns in it, which wasn’t true. They had, Fred Hampton’s bodyguard was an FBI infiltrator. I mention this one case because it was the most serious, but there were plenty of others.

KS: Now, around this time, you were well known as a professor of linguistics. What was it about, I guess, the state of the world, the state of the United States, that made you speak out on politics and foreign policy?

NC: Several things. For one thing, the, I was involved in the Civil Rights Movement earlier and in fact, had been politically active long before, but when Kennedy invaded South Vietnam, which is what happened in 1961-62, it became quite serious and within a couple of years the invasion of Vietnam, of South Vietnam, later North Vietnam and all of Indochina became the greatest postwar crime. That was an horrendous crime. So, not to be involved was pretty remarkable.

KS: You told one interviewer this week that compared to today’s standards of government malpractice, the case, the keeping of files on you was a minor peccadillo.

NC: That’s correct. Compared with what’s going on now. Keeping files and illegally destroying them was pretty minor.

KS: So, let’s turn to today and what’s going on. You’ve been a very vocal critic of NSA surveillance programs and a vocal supporter, particularly of Edward Snowden. Do you see parallels, you say it’s a minor peccadillo in comparison, but do you see parallels between the NSA surveillance programs today and what was going on when you were an activist beginning in the 70s?

NC: Well, today there’s a massive program, which conceivably is legal, but it’s unconstitutional, a huge program of data collection and surveillance which is extremely intrusive into personal privacy. I’m sure you’ve seen the reports. I don’t have to review them and they’re conceded, there’s no question about them. And these data are, in fact, used [for disrupting activities] whether they have any connection to terrorism we could question. It’s worth noticing that while the government, of course, pleads security, but that’s meaningless. Every government pleads security for whatever they’re doing. So that claim actually carries no information whatsoever…so we can disregard that. The question is, is it real? Well, that’s a little hard to accept. For one thing, Obama himself is carrying out the world’s greatest global terrorist campaign, nothing like it anywhere. The drone campaign. I mean, that’s a terrorist campaign. If you’re sitting in your town and you don’t know whether two minutes from now somebody across the street is going to be blown up along with anyone nearby by some invisible object up there that’s controlled from thousands of miles away, you’re terrorized. Just think about it. And that’s going on over large parts of the world, Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia, other places. That’s a massive global terror campaign.

KS: There’s not really a denial on behalf of the Obama administration that that’s going on though.

NC: They don’t deny it. They say that they’re proud of it. They don’t call it global terrorism, but that’s what it is. If you want to get a sense of it, there’s a report by two universities, Stanford University and New York University law schools which runs through some of the details of it. They make it perfectly clear, which, in fact, is clear by reading the newspapers that it’s a terrorist campaign. And they’re murdering suspects. They talk about the problem of collateral damage, you know accidentally killing someone else, but what about the people they’re targeting? The people they’re targeting are suspects. There are principles of Anglo-American law which we like to forget. They go back 800 years to Magna Carta. As they’ve gradually been elaborated over the years in the American constitution and elsewhere, they effectively formulate the principle of presumption of innocence. You’re innocent until proved guilty in a speedy trial by peers. That’s the foundation of Anglo-American law. We’ll be commemorating it in a couple of years, the 800th anniversary and we won’t be celebrating it, we’ll be mourning it because it’s being torn to shreds. This campaign is one example of that.

KS: You brought up the central thing here, which is, is maintaining the privacy or the secrecy, I should say, the secrecy of these documents that Snowden released, is that, does that have something to do with security? I just want to, John Kerry, for example, the Secretary of State, said that he believes that people may die because Snowden released some information, that it puts real people at risk, I guess American troops in foreign locations, at risk. Is there not a reasonable reason or reasonable rationale for holding onto secrecy in some of these situations?

NC: There might be sometimes a rationale for secrecy, but it has to be shown. As I mentioned, governments always plead security. Constant. No matter what they’re doing. When they’re caught up in some improper or illegal activity, they say security. The fact that Kerry repeats it doesn’t mean anything. But there are such considerations. For example, when Dan Ellsberg released the Pentagon Papers, he kept one volume secret, a volume on ongoing negotiations. I was actually helping him distribute the documents so I was able to read them in advance. I was also able to read the negotiations document, which did appear later, and if you read it, you’ll find that there was an issue of security namely, security of government officials from exposure. So, for example, exposure of Lester Pearson who was approached by President Johnson when he was planning the bombing of North Vietnam, a major crime of course, and he approached Pearson and Pearson responded, I don’t remember his exact words, but something like, well it’s a fine idea, but just don’t use atom bombs, just keep to iron bombs. Well, that’s the kind of thing that governments want to keep secret. They don’t want their population to know that their Nobel Peace Prize winner is a super war hawk who’s supporting massive aggression against another country. That’s secrecy. If you look over the volumes, you can read them, they’re public, you’ll find that there’s virtually nothing in them that had to do with authentic security other than security of the government from its own population. And in fact people who have worked, I’ve done a lot of work on declassified documents, the U.S. happens to be an unusually free society, more so than any other that I know of, so we have a treasure trove of declassified documents and when you read them you find that occasionally there’s some authentic justification in terms of real security, but for the most part, it’s protecting the government from exposure. We just saw an example of that yesterday in fact. There was an interesting CIA leak yesterday, a much more interesting one than in my case. The CIA finally released, partially released, documents that it’s been keeping secret for 60 years about the CIA involvement in the overthrow of the parliamentary government of Iran in 1953. It’s kind of been known. Scholarship has dug out bits and pieces of it, but they’ve been keeping their own records secret for 60 years. That’s security. That’s security of the US government from exposure by its own population of its crimes and incidentally, those are crimes that are very much alive today. The overthrow of the parliamentary government by a military coup in 1953 has resonances until this moment. That’s security.

KS: One of the interesting things out of particularly, Snowden’s leaks is that the reaction from so many of that population you mentioned has been a kind of a shrug, a kind of a we expect this in this day and age that privacy doesn’t really exist anymore.

NC: Not only that privacy is limited, but the population of the United States, more than any other country I know, is really terrorized. They’re in fear of terror. Osama bin Laden won that victory. The propaganda has, in fact, intimidated the population. The United States is a very secure country by comparative standards, but it’s probably one of the most frightened countries in the world. So people are afraid of terror.

KS: But isn’t it also a little bit of indifference? There’s a kind of a loss of the sense that privacy means anything in North American discourse.

NC: It’s dangerous when people are willing to give up their privacy which is supposedly guaranteed by the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution. That was taken very seriously until recently. The idea that the government should probe into your private affairs was considered scandalous not long ago and the same is true of many other things. So, for example, shift over to Britain. Two days ago Glenn Greenwald, who was the journalist who’s been exposing the Snowden revelations, his partner who’s a Brazilian, was stopped at the Heathrow airport, London airport, interrogated for nine hours, which is the legal maximum, all of his electronic equipment was confiscated, his video games, his CDs, everything. Documents were taken from him. That reveals the extent to which Britain is subordinating itself to US power. The British, the people of Britain should be embarrassed by this subservience to the master across the seas. The Brazilian government protested. I don’t see other governments protesting because they’re intimidated too. I mean when several European countries, France, Spain, Italy, Portugal, blocked their airspace to a plane, a presidential plane, the presidential plane of Evo Morales, President of Bolivia, they prevented it from entering their airspace because the master across the seas has them so intimidated that they’re afraid to allow a presidential plane to cross their airspace if it would annoy the masters in Washington. That’s shocking. Latin America protested. In fact, the Organization of American States protested strenuously with two exceptions, the United States and Canada refused to join in the protest. Europe didn’t protest. And this tells you something about the world.

KS: To look at the surveillance that was taking place when you were talking about this trip back in the 1970s and what Snowden has revealed today, is the difference in approach or do you think the difference is just in scale?

NC: Well, it’s hugely different in scale. But, you know, partly that’s just because of the change of technology. I mean traditionally the governments have tended to use whatever technology is available to try to control their own populations which is their major task, their major enemy in a way. So if you go back, to say the Woodrow Wilson administration at the end of the First World War1, it carried out a vicious repression, the Red Scare, which is probably the worst repression in American history and it made use of the highest technology of surveillance and control of the day, not what we have, but what they had then and that technology had, in fact, been developed for surveillance and control by the US Army in their pacification efforts in the Philippines. The U.S. invaded the Philippines in the early 20th century, killed a couple hundred thousand people, it was a brutal war and then they had to run a counter-insurgency campaign to control the country and they developed very high, highly sophisticated surveillance and control and disruption and other operations. There’s a very important book about this by Alfred McCoy who’s a historian…and he points out that the technology that was developed there was very quickly applied domestically and the same’s true here. The technology that’s being devised in the US wars abroad, sometimes terrorist wars like Obama’s, that’s very quickly coming back home. We’ll see the same with drones. Drones are already being used by police departments. If you read the technology magazines as I do, you’ll see that for years, robotics labs have been seeking to develop tiny drones that the military wants, maybe even drones the size of a fly, which in principle if they complete the development, it’s improving, it would be able to be up on the ceiling of your living room and you wouldn’t even notice it and could be recording what you’re doing.

KS: If the population that’s being monitored right now is, as you said, both fearful but also in some ways have given up on privacy, what advice would you have for people who are concerned about their privacy rights, who would like to bolster those privacy rights in this environment?

NC: Defend your rights. That’s the way people have protected themselves from governments from time immemorial. When governments are intrusive, disruptive, denying rights, people struggle against it. And there have been many victories. I mean right now happens to be the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s famous speech on the day of the march on Washington. [That was] people defending their rights against the government, state governments primarily in those cases, but the federal government too and that [led to] a great increase in freedom.

KS: Professor Chomsky, thank you very much for talking to us today.

NC: Yeah, thank you.

KS: That is Noam Chomsky, philosopher, political commentator and emeritus professor of linguistics at MIT.

1Chomsky actually said Second World War

About Bruce Wark

Bruce Wark is a freelance journalist and retired journalism professor who lives in Sackville, New Brunswick, Canada. He taught the history and ethics of journalism at the University of King's College in Halifax, Nova Scotia for 15 years. Before that, he worked for 19 years at CBC Radio news serving as a producer in charge of such network programs as World at Six, World Report and The House. He also produced Media File, a national program that looked critically at the performance of the news media. Along the way, Wark also worked as CBC Radio's legislative reporter in Ontario and as its National Reporter in Canada's Maritime provinces.
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