Post #94: Manipulating Reality: Facebook Is Listening to You

One thing our generation has become all too used to is how reality can be manipulated to create the appearance of something else entirely. Invading another country is defensive, rigged elections are passed off as democracy in action, more guns (or more nuclear weapons) ensure the peace, trade and foreign investment increase jobs at home.  Orwellian logic has become commonplace.

What I am reporting on here is another kind of manipulation: How Facebook and other social media use the information we for the most part unknowingly provide it—including even words we speak in the privacy of our own homes—to advertise products that we didn’t request and almost certainly don’t want, and pass data on to the government.

I am hardly the first to discover this extraordinary capability.  A number of other people have expressed their astonishment and anger when they became aware that key words they used in Facebook and Twitter communication, such as messaging, location, and status, as well as in private conversations anywhere in their homes, were being picked up and almost instantly converted into ads.  You mention a particular sport and a ticketing agency’s ad appears.  You say you would love to drive a Lexus and up pops a Lexus ad.  You talk about a vacation, and a Facebook ad refers you to a Hawaiian beach or a small Paris hotel that—lo and behold—you had actually mentioned just yesterday!

Is this paranoia?  Is Facebook (or Instagram, Google, or Yahoo) really capable of listening in on our conversations?  Facebook readily admits that its business model relies on the data we enter or transmit online, that once we join the data essentially becomes Facebook’s property, and that (as Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, has argued) most people don’t care all that much about their privacy anyway. Of course Facebook et al. defend their model by telling you they are merely responding to your wants, and that if you wish they can reduce (but not eliminate) advertising if you’ll simply check a list provided in their program settings.  But as to actually listening in, Facebook contends that only you control the microphone, and (according to the head of Facebook security) you must give permission to Facebook to activate it.  Does anyone recall being asked for permission  (

You apparently can disable the microphone function in Windows or the Facebook mobile app on your smart phone or tablet (  But does “off” actually mean completely off?  Apparently not, for here are my wife Jodi’s and my own experiences after we turned off the microphone on her computer.  Note that the ads appeared within seconds of our speaking.

  • Jodi made a remark about Robin Wright Penn, the actress. Ads for Sean Penn movies instantly appeared.
  • We discussed T-shirts for grandchildren. Ads for just such T-shirts appeared.
  • Jodi mentioned our unfinished Scrabble game. Immediately, an ad for the game Yahtzee came up.
  • Jodi was discussing hotels in Portland with her sister on the telephone, and encouraging her to stay in a private home. An ad for a site that facilitates home swaps for vacationers instantly appeared.
  • Jodi was describing her appearance relevant to her age, such as laugh lines and grey hair, and an ad for Maybelline “Age Rewind” popped up.

(For other people’s similar experiences, see

So now you say, OK, but isn’t this snooping illegal, an invasion of privacy?  There have been fairly large-scale protests of Facebook’s smartphone snooping (–listening–feature-is-a-problem-of-trust.html), but no policy change by Facebook so far as I’m aware.  At a legal level, a careful Belgian study points out—and by the way, the Europeans are far more upset with and focused on Facebook’s shenanigans than are Americans—“opting out” of advertising is not the same as informed and direct consent (  Moreover, Facebook does not ask for our consent to its acquiring data from other sources, for collecting location data provided in smart phones, for using photos or other data (such as “like”) entered by the user.

I think a fair reading of the Belgian report and Facebook’s most recent (2015) clarifications of policy is that Facebook may collect any and all information stemming from your use of Facebook and from the device you use to access Facebook.  “Any information” means absolutely any data you enter, whether about yourself or third parties, and whether provided in writing, by voice, or in pictures. Even if you elect to terminate your Facebook account, it retains all the information you’ve provided.

There is an additional and even more pernicious issue: the gathering and use of social media data by US government agencies, notably the National Security Agency (NSA).  This practice, which Edward Snowden brought to light, includes the participation of Facebook, Apple, and several other technology companies in the NSA’s PRISM program to collect data directly from the companies ( rather than simply via the Internet.  The same practice is now being contested by the European Union.  In 2000, the EU accepted the US proposal to establish a “Safe Harbor” program for transferring personal data collected in Europe by Facebook, Google, and Amazon to the US.  That agreement was reevaluated by the European Court of Justice Advocate-General, who maintained that it violates Europeans’ basic rights.  The A-G finds that the data can be “accessed by the NSA [National Security Agency] and by other United States security agencies in the course of a mass and indiscriminate surveillance” (

The ECJ has just upheld that opinion (, declaring Safe Harbor invalid. The court’s ruling is that Safe Harbor “must be regarded as compromising the essence of the fundamental right to respect for private life.” It’s a big blow, though not necessarily a fatal one, to Facebook and others engaged in data transferring in Europe.  The Europeans have been pressing these companies, especially Google and Amazon, on other issues as well, such as with anti-trust legislation ( Ideally, the ECJ ruling and other European actions will embolden Americans to stage their own fight for greater privacy and more transparency in the way the technology giants conduct their business.

Does social media’s invasion of privacy bother you, or do you consider it the price of socializing?  How have you handled your privacy with your computer, phone, or tablet?  Have you had the kinds of listening-in experiences I mentioned?  I’m sure readers of this blog would like to know.


Post #93: A Tale of Two Visitors

What a strange week it was: Pope Francis arriving in the east and President Xi Jinping arriving in the west.  One had just come from preaching in Cuba in the wake of US-Cuba normalization of relations, which the Vatican was instrumental in arranging; the other had come from preaching order in China—in the markets, in the streets, and in the communist party—in the wake of mounting US criticism of Chinese cyberattacks and human-rights violations.  The pope offered a moral message linked to preservation of freedom, support for immigrants, and hopes to save the earth’s environment, while China’s president reassured the titans of US technology and other businesses of his country’s economic strength.  Profit or morality, obligations to growth versus obligations to people and the future—a quick description of the crossroads at which the world stands.

Francis is often praised for being humble, modest, and—as President Obama put it—for having “generosity of spirit.”  While the Vatican can be as opaque as Zhongnanhai (Chinese Communist Party headquarters in Beijing), Francis clearly enjoys being with ordinary people and speaking on their behalf.  Since being anointed pope, he has constantly spoken of the need to fight poverty, the links between poverty and environmental destruction, and the excesses of capitalism.  Xi, a mysterious and secretive figure who struggles to present himself as a man of the people, is busy cracking down on lawyers, protesters, journalists, and other actual or potential troublemakers.  To me this repression suggests an insecure leader determined above all to protect the party-state’s power.  (The contrast may also reflect their different backgrounds—Francis, whose father emigrated from Italy to escape Mussolini; Xi, from a family within the communist party elite that was victimized by the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution.)

Both men head a huge bureaucracy and seem determined to clean houses marked by major scandals.  But Xi’s anti-corruption campaign has been accompanied by protection and promotion of the financial interests of his circle of family and friends.  He punishes rivals and wields extraordinary control over all major policy levers.

It may seem silly to compare these two visitors, who come with such different leadership responsibilities and represent vastly different constituencies.  Still, it is noteworthy that the pope received lavish attention everywhere he went, with enormous crowds and extraordinary media coverage.  Xi Jinping, no match for Francis, was practically invisible while Francis was around; and when he did appear in public, protesters had to be kept at a distance from him. As Howard French observes, Chinese leaders have yet to master so-called soft power.  Unlike the pope, who always comes across as a real person, with Xi “everything is scripted. There’s little give-and-take.  Speeches are full of stock phrases” (  Instead of getting hugs, Xi got considerable criticism for acts that at the least raise questions about China’s respect for basic human rights at home and uncompromising actions abroad (I’m thinking especially of repression in Tibet and unilateral moves—the Wall Street Journal called them instances of “Chinese aggression”—to assert China’s claims in the disputed South China Sea islands).

What did these two visitors accomplish?  The pope, as expected, pushed a mostly progressive agenda that no doubt left Republican leaders gnashing their teeth.  After all, as one close observer has written, Pope Francis “has embraced liberation theology, and its deep critique of structural economic injustice and oppression, with open arms” (Wen Stephenson,  China’s leader probably paved the way for new high-tech deals and may for the time being have placated Obama by calling for a cooperative approach to cyber security (  More significantly, Xi indicated that China, starting in 2017, would implement a cap-and-trade system to deal with carbon emissions from industry—the same idea Obama tried and failed to get Congressional agreement on in 2010.  And at the UN, Xi pledged $2 billion to aid the poorest countries, though it is unclear if the money will be in loans, grants, or debt relief.

Did either visitor leave an indelible mark on this country?  Doubtful; but at least we may say of Francis that he impacted the lives of many individuals who were fortunate enough to see or hear him. His call for action on climate change, global poverty, and immigration was insistent and eloquent; it advanced the cause of environmental rights (which he identified as such in his speech at the UN) and social justice.  President Xi did not bring a hopeful message; he came mainly to do business and vigorously defend Chinese policies.  If the cap-and-trade plan on carbon emissions is faithfully implemented nationwide, it would be a worthy accomplishment.  But that’s a big “if.”  He and certain people along the Beltway would do well to heed the pope’s message in his speech to the US Congress: “If politics must truly be at the service of the human person, it follows that it cannot be a slave to the economy and finance.”

Post #92: Two Cheers for Humanity

In the last few days the notion of a common humanity, a cornerstone of human-interest thinking, has received strong support from two very different but highly visible sources: Pope Francis’ encyclical ( and the Rising Star expedition’s discovery in South Africa’s Cradle of Humankind of a new hominin species (  These two events are not going to get the constant attention that the media reserves for tragedies such as the refugee crisis in Europe and wars in the Middle East.  Yet the encyclical, titled On Care for Our Common Home, and the discovery of Homo naledi are of deeper significance in the sense that they remind us—and we do need constant reminding—of our interconnectedness, as well as of the fact that we—Homo sapiens Americans, Chinese, French, Africans—are merely transients in millions of years of evolution.  As passengers on Lifeboat Earth, we have a clear duty, as the Pope’s encyclical emphasizes, to conserve and preserve the planet’s delicate ecological and environmental balance.  On that lifeboat, there is no first class.

The evolutionary chain is long, and each generation—each species—has precious little time to make its mark—as well as clean up its predecessor’s mess.  While it is often said that spiritual leaders and scientists are worlds apart when it comes to social issues, the great majority of them share common ground when it comes to the fate of the earth, the most urgent issue of our time.  Both see the certainty of climate change and its human causes; both identify the forces of environmental destruction in greed, consumerism, and erroneous notions of “development”; and both agree that we have very little time in which to reverse course. Our species is at great risk.

Pope Francis has shown himself to be a common man with an uncommon vision.  His encyclical traces a long history of the Catholic Church’s concern for the global environment and humankind’s “misuse of creation.” The encyclical can be read as an indictment of capitalism and economic globalization, as the Pope cites his predecessor Pope Benedict’s critique of “dysfunctions of the world economy” and “models of growth.” Reciting the many facets of environmental destruction, Francis underlines its particular impact on the poor, and writes that any solution must address “both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.”  His message incorporates both good science and deep morality when he says that “we look for solutions not only in technology but in a change of humanity; otherwise we would be dealing merely with symptoms.”  I think most climatologists would agree.

The finding of Homo naledi may also show, as many anthropologists and scientists now insist, that the evolutionary line leading to us isn’t as straight as we might think, nor that we humans are as uniquely capable of thought and action as we have been led to believe. One of them, Frans Waal (, proposes that we “overcome our anthropocentrism” and see ourselves as “one rich collection of mosaics, not only genetically and anatomically, but also mentally.”  To Waal, that means embracing our larger hominoid family, which Rising Star’s discovery in fact supports.  By extension, we should also embrace people in our more immediate neighborhoods.  Plenty of “mosaics” there.  Welcoming refugees and migrant workers into our neighborhoods—people who are fleeing incomprehensibly horrific conditions—would be equally meaningful.

Thus, what I take from Pope Francis and Rising Star is simply this: It’s time to celebrate the unique diversity of life on our planet.  The Rising Star expedition was a great success owing to collaboration by younger and older paleoanthropologists.  Likewise, Pope Francis writes that humanity must work together and start a “new dialogue” that “includes everyone” if we are to save the planet.

(Thanks to Michael Marien for his thoughts on the encyclical, and to my daughter Alia Gurtov, one of the six spelunkers in the Rising Star expedition, for hers.)

Post #91: Rethinking Syria

The horrifying images from central Europe of tens of thousands of Syrian and other refugees seeking new homes in the west underscore several conclusions about the human interest these days. One is the extent of the refugee crisis and the failure of the global community to respond to it over recent decades. That crisis long precedes today’s focus on Europe.  As I’ve noted before (see Post #37), we’re talking about 45 million people who are on the run, crossing international borders or fleeing to a safer part of their home country in search of a better life and freedom from violence.

A second conclusion, which applies universally, is that mass immigration spawns the ugliest sort of racism.  Potential host countries for refugees and migrants will say that they simply cannot accommodate so many new arrivals.  But we know better: White-run governments often don’t want dark-skinned, non-Christian others.  That’s the message that has been openly sent by Donald Trump and Viktor Orban, Hungary’s president.  Trump would simply deport people, no questions asked. Orban wrote for a German newspaper: “Those arriving have been raised in another religion, and represent a radically different culture. Most of them are not Christians, but Muslims. This is an important question, because Europe and European identity is rooted in Christianity” (  Is there any doubt that many other national leaders privately believe the same?

Third is the imperative of a negotiated settlement of the Syrian civil war. There is, after all, a limit to how many new arrivals from the Middle East can be accommodated by European Union countries.  The EU and others, including Russia and the US, must focus on Syria, from which an estimated 49 percent of the current mass exodus originates.  As one authority has put it, “The migrant crisis in Europe is essentially self-inflicted,” said Lina Khatib, a research associate at the University of London and until recently the head of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut. “Had European countries sought serious solutions to political conflicts like the one in Syria, and dedicated enough time and resources to humanitarian assistance abroad, Europe would not be in this position today” (

The nuclear agreement with Iran may help in that regard by initiating movement toward an international deal on Syria that would refocus the conflict there on ISIS.  Discussions that reportedly include Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the US are considering how to consolidate the anti-Assad opposition and create a transitional government in order to present a unified front against ISIS, which already controls substantial territory in Syria and Iraq (

Needless to say, the roadblocks to a cooperative approach to the Syrian civil war are many and formidable, including the future political role (if any) of Bashar al-Assad, the state of US-Iran and US-Russia relations, Russian aims in Syria (amidst reports of increased Russian military aid to the Assad regime), the extent and purposes of each party’s military operations in Syria, and the fractured and ineffective opposition to Assad.  How these roadblocks can be overcome in order to cobble together a legitimate new Syrian government is anyone’s guess, but the very fact of discussions about Syria’s future is one of the few hopeful signs in the Middle East.

Russia and Iran have been Assad’s principal backers, and if any parties are going to convince Assad that he must loosen his iron grip on power, it is they.  The alternative is seeing ISIS and its terrorist companion, the Nusra Front, continue to gain ground to the point where Syria shrinks into nothing more than greater Damascus.

Iran has made a proposal on Syria that I think is worth considering.  The plan calls for a cease-fire, formation of a national unity government, a constitutional amendment guaranteeing the rights of all ethnic and religious groups, and elections under international supervision.  How a cease-fire and eventual elections can be arranged are, of course, enormous challenges; but again, the fact that the Saudis and the Iranians, deadly adversaries on just about every other Middle East issue, are giving thought to a common position is striking.  Saudi Arabia and Russia are also in conversation, which adds substance to the possibility of cooperation against ISIS.

There was a time not long ago when the Syrian situation was all about getting rid of Assad by supporting the armed resistance.  That possibility is dead.  The resistance is divided and largely ineffective, despite US arms and training to so-called moderates.  Meantime, ISIS grows stronger.  The only practical alternative to the US eventually putting boots on the ground—an option no one other than Donald Trump dares mention—is a deal that would define Syria’s immediate political future and put the focus on stopping the advance of ISIS.  This does not amount to engaging Assad; but it would have to mean accepting a place for him in an initial period of political transition.  The current US policy of simultaneously seeking to overthrow Assad and push back ISIS is simply unworkable.

Post #90: Memorandum from President Trump


January 21, 2017

To: All Intelligence and Diplomatic Personnel

From: The President

We are about to embark on a new era in the conduct of US foreign policy.  Forget your previous sensitivity training; forget previous commitments made in the name of the United States. We’re going to do business differently—in fact, operate like a business—so get on board.  Following are some of our new principles and practices.  Learn them.

  • No more “Mr. Nice Guy.” We are the strongest country in the world; it’s time to act like it. We want peace, but we don’t fear war. That’s our new mantra; that’s how we recover the respect of our power that has been frittered away.
  • We have no permanent allies, only governments that either serve our interests or must be shoved aside.
  • The military and intelligence communities will be getting more money, the State Department less.  We’ll cut State’s budget by reducing staffs abroad and in Washington, particularly those positions (such as visa officers and translators) that do routine work of no great urgency.  But we will increase the number of military attachés.
  • We will secure our borders with additional personnel, better weapons, and more formidable barriers.  This will occur at the same time that we deport all individuals illegally in the US.  And yes, that includes children born here.  Unfortunate, but necessary.
  • In the Middle East, our main enemies are Iran and ISIS.  At the first sign that Iran may be violating the nuclear agreement concluded by the previous administration, we will terminate the agreement and issue a one-time warning to Iran to stop what it’s doing.  We will deploy military forces in the region to reinforce the warning, and we will work with Israel on the most effective enforcement action.  (Same goes for North Korea: No more “strategic patience.”)  As for ISIS, we will begin amassing appropriate military forces, including US ground forces, to destroy it.
  • China and Russia are our principal rivals; we must and will reduce their influence and their power.  We don’t need China; it must be put in its proper place as a second-rate dictatorship. For example, instead of telling the Chinese how much we wish them “peace and prosperity,” let’s keep prodding them to act lawfully toward their citizens and neighboring countries—and punish them if they don’t! We will confront China in the South China Sea and anywhere else in East Asia where it challenges us and our friends.  And we will put obstacles in the way of its investments here and elsewhere.  Same with Russia; we will show by forceful demonstration that it cannot get its way with Ukraine or any other European country.  In short, we must be tough both in language and policy.
  • We will stop giving multinational companies advantages that our other businesses don’t have. If multinationals want to put assets abroad, and export US jobs, they’re going to have to pay a price for it—no more tax advantages, in other words.
  • Enough speculation about climate change. The science is uncertain, and there is plenty of time to do something about it if necessary.  But we must not let fear of climate change hinder our search for new sources of energy.  We need all the oil we can get, whether from the Saudis, the Arctic, or Alberta.
  • Last point, but perhaps the most important: Loyalty to me is the key to effective foreign policy.  If you cannot accept that, and doubt what we’re doing, leave now.

Post #89: China’s Insecurity

Several developments in China over the past few weeks have shown us a country quite different from the one often portrayed by outsiders—an emerging superpower, with global economic reach and ambitions to challenge American predominance, at least in Asia.  The real China, the one most familiar to its citizens, faces serious, long-term problems at home.  In just the last few weeks these include a major industrial chemical explosion in Tianjian (just the latest in a string of industrial accidents), successive currency revaluations, a stock market crash, an anti-corruption campaign that has landed quite a few big names, and a widening net to catch lawyers and anyone else who speaks for human rights and the rule of law.

Every one of these developments has international implications, directly or indirectly.  But we should mainly be concerned with their internal implications.  What ties these problems together is that they expose China’s weaknesses and vulnerabilities, and underscore the leadership’s insecurity when it comes to dealing with them.  Concern in the US, Japan, and elsewhere about China’s international ambitions diverts us from the reality that China’s leaders must cope with social, political, economic, and environmental problems on a scale that demands a significant share of the country’s resources and prestige.  When toxic chemicals spread over a major city as the result of an entirely preventable accident and local government-private investor collusion; when tens, even hundreds of thousands of people lose their savings in a stock market crash; when members of the communist party elite are jailed while many more live a privileged life built on corruption and connections; when protesters and their lawyers risk all in efforts to right certain wrongs—not only do ordinary Chinese suffer.  The system itself is under the microscope.

The leadership’s restrictions on media coverage of these events reflects full awareness in Xi Jinping’s inner circle that the party-state’s legitimacy—its right to rule without competition—is at stake.  Power exercised in ways that convey greater concern about social “stability” than about people’s livelihoods risks unleashing mass anger, expressed not only in violent incidents directed at local authority but also in social media that even the public security bureau’s “great firewall” cannot completely shut down.

China’s leaders also understand that the danger to themselves lurks within their own ranks.  Purges of thousands of officials at various levels of authority may make the system less corrupt, and may weed out people loyal to previous leaders.  But purges probably also cause resentment among the bureaucratic survivors who see their careers and traditional ways of operating under assault.

In a political system that has established, transparent, and effective outlets for addressing injustice, these kinds of developments can be contained and resolved.  But China, as many of its own intellectuals freely and forthrightly acknowledge, falls well short when it comes to providing such outlets.[i]  In fact, Xi Jinping’s administration is moving in the opposite direction, imposing further social controls to prevent citizens from organizing to create change. A primary example is the new national security law, which codifies and attempts to legitimize the crackdown that has been going on for some time, now labeled ideological and cultural “security.”  One Chinese academic is quoted as saying that the law’s language is troubling for the obvious reason that it is so all-encompassing; the dragnet can be used (and is being used) to suppress independent voices of many kinds.  (From a foreign policy standpoint, the law stretches “core interests” in new directions. Here I see the same kind of problem Americans often face when presidents arbitrarily identify “the national interest,” “vital interests,” and “national security.”  Whatever the leader decides is “core” or “vital” becomes such, whether it’s the South China Sea islands or Iraq.)

Underscoring Xi’s sense of the communist party’s vulnerability is his assumption of powers that extend even beyond Chairman Mao’s. As Roderick MacFarquhar at Harvard has written, Xi not only heads the new Central National Security Commission in charge of implementing that law ( He has taken over every important leadership position in the party and government: general secretary of the party and president of China, posts Xi assumed on taking power; the Central Military Commission; and “leading groups” in charge of economic reform, foreign affairs, Internet security, and information technology.  Believing that the Soviet Union collapsed because “their ideals and conviction wavered,” and because no “real man” emerged to resist collapse, Xi is engaged in a Mao-like attempt to create a “China dream” and revive an ideology that no longer resonates among citizens.  Very much in the Mao mold, Xi (to quote MacFarquhar) “has been forced to go negative, listing alien doctrines to be extirpated. According to a central Party document, there are six ‘false ideological trends, positions, and activities’ emanating from the West that are advocated by dissident Chinese: constitutional democracy; universal values; civil society; economic neoliberalism; Western-style journalism, challenging China’s principle that the media and the publishing system should be subject to Party discipline; and promoting historical nihilism, trying to undermine the history of the CCP by emphasizing the mistakes of the Maoist period.”

Thus, “the West” once again is China’s bogeyman, providing a convenient target whenever a lawyer or protesting farmer must be dragged from home.  Promoting this kind of negative nationalism—that is, strong national feelings built on an external threat rather than internal pride—can only work for awhile.  The economy remains the key to popular loyalty, and right now it is faltering, with slower growth and declining exports.  As one Chinese commentator observes: “Everyone understands that the economy is the biggest pillar of the Chinese government’s legitimacy to govern and win over popular sentiment,” said Chen Jieren, a well-known Beijing-based commentator on politics. “If the economy falters, the political power of the Chinese Communist Party will be confronted with more real challenges, social stability in China will be endangered tremendously, and Xi Jinping’s administration will suffer even more criticism” (  China’s economy may well be fundamentally sound, as one expert writes (  But “the economy” is not people, and as we all know, GDP and other macro figures can be quite misleading when it comes to issues of social inequities.

President Xi will soon visit Washington.  President Obama can either press China hard on currency valuation, human rights, and cyberhacking, or he can engage in a dialogue of equals and pursue common ground on climate change, Iran, the South China Sea dispute, and North Korea.  In choosing the latter course, Obama would be recognizing that Xi is plagued by domestic problems largely of his own making.  US pressure on him now would not only be strongly resented; it would be quite counterproductive.  Let the Chinese people determine the fate of what Xi Jinping calls the “China dream.”



[i] For readers of Chinese, I would particularly point to a recent roundtable in the pages of the historical and political journal Yanhuang chunqiu, “Five People Discuss Constitutional Governance,”

Post #88: Consorting with the Devil

Throughout the Cold War, and doubtless right down to the present, professional people with skills relevant to “national security” have been secretly recruited to work for the Central Intelligence Agency and the Department of Defense. Universities are among those particularly targeted.  Scholars and campus research centers have received CIA and DoD funding for conferences and publications, for collecting intelligence while abroad, and even for spying, all under cloak of secrecy. A good brief review of these activities in earlier days is at (Also recommended is Noam ChomskyLaura Nader, and Immanuel Wallerstein, The Cold War and the University: Toward an Intellectual History of the Cold War Years [The New Press,1998].)

Among the more notorious examples is the 1985 scandal at Harvard, in which the head of its Center for Middle Eastern Studies Center was found to have a financial contract with the CIA for research and conferences (  He was forced to resign. Yale has had unusually close ties with the CIA dating back many years, contributing student recruits and directors (

Universities are hardly alone in having intelligence ties to government agencies. Foreign affairs specialists working at think tanks, living abroad, or serving in nongovernmental organizations are also prey. I was one of those people. In 1966, following my graduate education, I was hired by the RAND Corporation in California to work in a classified, DoD-sponsored project to assess “Viet Cong Motivation and Morale.” The project aimed at finding weaknesses in the enemy’s thinking that the US military could exploit through psychological warfare and bombing.  I and others read field interviews with captured Vietnamese soldiers to try to discover what drove their dedication and willingness to fight no matter the hardships.  Like some other of my RAND colleagues, I wound up concluding exactly the opposite of what the Pentagon funders of the project wanted, namely, that the “enemy” was us, and that Viet Cong motivation could not be overcome by napalm, Agent Orange, or carpet bombing (and in fact was heightened by such actions).  The best US strategy, we concluded, was to get out of Vietnam.  But most colleagues at RAND did not see things that way, and, the RAND-DoD partnership continued.

Telecommunication companies, starting with AT&T and Verizon, are also part of the intelligence network.  Thanks to Edward Snowden, they are now known to have had a long and friendly relationship with the National Security Council under the NSC’s Special Source Operations. AT&T for over a decade (at least to 2013, perhaps still today) collaborated with the NSC in collecting billions of emails and wiretapping United Nations Internet communications. The companies received hundreds of millions of dollars for allowing the NSC to tap communications between foreigners and between US citizens and foreigners (

The latest revelation concerning those who “consort with the devil” concerns psychologists in the American Psychological Association.  In utter disregard for professional ethics, a number of prominent psychologists worked closely with the CIA’s and the Pentagon’s torture programs in Afghanistan.  They not only condoned but personally profited from torture, all in the name of supporting the US war effort ( It was a case of first-class collusion, abuse of authority, and conflict of interest—and it went largely unnoticed until recently.

The report on the psychologists cited above finds that at every fork in the road, when choices had to be made about participation in the torture programs, they rationalized participation on the basis that the various torture tactics employed really didn’t amount to torture. Left unsaid was that some of the decision makers were under contract with the CIA or the Pentagon, or served on one of their advisory committees.  Several of them used approval of participation in torture to then contract with the Pentagon or CIA for profitable work, including ways to improve interrogation techniques.

You would think that such unethical, indeed disgraceful behavior would warrant a complete overhaul of the APA’s ethics guidelines, dismissal from APA posts of those psychologists who participated in the torture programs, and public naming and shaming of others who were involved.  But so far, despite not one but two major reports on the APA’s involvement —the other is at—the APA reportedly is merely considering what to do. As though the honorable thing to do is somehow unclear.

Private professionals working secretly on projects that enhance war making is a problem that is likely to get worse as opportunities outside government to pursue one’s chosen academic craft diminish.  Anthropologists who can’t find tenure-track teaching positions are working for DoD in Afghanistan.  Lawyers find government positions more lucrative than private practice—and then, as under George W. Bush, authorize torture and other illegalities. Think tank experts shill for the government in hopes of landing on the inside.  All these people will, of course, vigorously assert their independence of mind, when in fact they have been coopted.  The question then is, Who speaks for peace and what are the rewards for it?

Critical appraisals of foreign affairs from a global-citizen perspective.


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