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Long-time political activist Rahul Mahajan has had a busy year. He completed his Ph.D. in physics at the University of Texas at Austin, wrote over 20 articles on the war on terrorism, authored a widely acclaimed book, The New Crusade: America’s War on Terrorism, and entered the Texas gubernatorial race as the Green Party candidate.
Famed media scholar Robert McChesney called his book "mandatory reading for anyone who wants to get a handle on the war on terrorism." After years of working to end the sanctions against Iraq, Mahajan has emerged as a leading voice of dissent in these conformist times. He has critiqued the mainstream media’s coverage of the so-called "war on terrorism" in an article for the media watch group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, and even more extensively in his new book. With the recent barrage of news stories about what happened before 9-11 and the new warnings of future attacks, the Current interviewed Mahajan to see if he could clarify some of the realities behind the mainstream media myths.
DM: What do you think about the mainstream media’s coverage of America’s "war on terrorism"? Has the media helped the American public understand what has been happening?
RM: Media coverage of U.S. foreign policy, especially when talking about war, is atrocious at every level. For example, when there were finally a couple of little reports about civilian casualties in Afghanistan, you had Brit Hume on Fox News saying, "Well, in a war you expect there to be casualties, so that is not really news, is it?" There has been a systematic bias in extreme form, shown by almost the entire American mainstream media.
The media has also not helped at all to understand the full story. The transmission of the statements by [National Security Adviser] Condoleeza Rice basically said, "Well, yes, we had some warnings about a hijacking, but no one could have imagined passenger planes would be used as weapons." This is as close to an out and out falsehood as you can come. It was being reported simultaneously that there was a CIA report from 1999 which openly speculated about exactly that — using passenger planes to crash into the Pentagon or the CIA headquarters in Langley. Rice’s claim still passed without criticism. That is the standard way that the media operates. There is a consistent pattern of subservience to power and of not asking the difficult questions.
DM: What do you think of the media’s coverage of new documents that have been released or the new information about what happened before 9-11?
RM: The new information that has been released is not new information. The difference is that right now, these documents, which were known of long before, are being widely reported in the U.S. media. The reason is that Congress is finally saying something about them: For example, that the war in Afghanistan was being planned well before 9-11. This has now come out, and the Administration has admitted it.
You could have found this story in the British media last summer. The media is playing the disgraceful role of not revealing these things when they come out, or at least reprinting those things when they see them, and now pretending that these things are all new when they’re finally reported.
DM: What’s behind this systematic negligence? The French and British media have been reporting for a while now that John O’Neill, the FBI agent in charge of investigating Bin Laden/Al Qaida network, resigned from his post last year out of frustration that his investigation was thwarted by U.S. corporate interests in Saudi oil. Was it U.S. oil interests in the region that led to this systematic negligence?
RM: If you look at the larger picture in both the Bush and the Clinton administrations, including, of course, past U.S. history as well, you see a systematic pattern of privileging corporate interest and corporate profits more than any questions of real security. When U.S. officials talk about national security, it is usually a code word for protecting corporate profits and U.S. military dominance abroad.
Once again, with Afghanistan, it is very clear that a lot of balls were dropped in the investigation of Al-Qaida, in part because they were more focused on getting the Taliban to agree to establish stability in the country so Unocal could have its pipeline (which they are now again moving forward with) and getting a foothold on the immense potential oil and natural gas reserves of all Central Asia, not just Afghanistan.
There is a consistent story here. U.S. officials are much more interested in their dealings with corporations and shilling for them than they are in the safety of the average American.
DM: One of the things I have noticed is the media’s framing of the issue as the U.S. vs. Islamic fundamentalism. What historically has been the U.S. relationship to radical Islam?
RM: The U.S. has been the biggest single force in promoting the rise of radical Islamist movements throughout the Middle East and in Central Asia. The Afghan jihad, which is the first international jihad in history, was created and funded by the U.S. There is widespread speculation among students of Iran that the United States helped Khomeini against the Iranian left during the revolution (afterward, the CIA definitely helped the Khomeini government eliminate leftists).
There is also evidence pointing to a U.S. role in helping to foster the Islamic jihad in Egypt and Hamas in Palestine, although, in the latter case, it was more Israel than the United States. There is a consistent pattern of deliberate U.S. support of Islamic movements as a counterforce to the left, which they saw as a bigger threat to their own perceived interests.
DM: You mentioned that the U.S. government was planning a war in Afghanistan months before 9-11. Why did the U.S. plan to go to war against Afghanistan last summer?
RM: The pretext for any war against Afghanistan was the harboring of Osama Bin Laden. For example, U.N. resolutions imposed sanctions on Afghanistan (in 1998). A lot of people thought those U.N. sanctions were imposed because of the Taliban’s treatment of women. This is not true and you can see it in the documents. The sanctions were actually imposed because of the harboring of Osama bin Laden — which is to say that because one man was living in a country, the entire country was subject to international sanctions. This was quite an amazing form of collective punishment.
We only have to look at what the U.S. has done since the war to see what the real reason for the war planned last summer would have been. One is to establish a foothold in Afghanistan, and build this pipeline from Turkmenistan through Afghanistan for natural gas. But the much bigger objective is that the U.S. military wanted a foothold in a part of the world where they had never managed to have one before. That includes Turkmenistan, which has the third largest natural gas reserves in the world, and Kazakhstan, which has tremendous untapped and unexplored oil reserves. So this is the first major U.S. foothold on the Caspian basin oil from the east. It is also a U.S. military wedge between Russia and China. This is part of their larger imperial interests in the region and that would have been the reason for the war even before 9-11. It goes with out saying that this imperial expansion, not only doesn’t benefit us, but puts Americans both in those countries and in the rest of the world more at risk, not less.
DM: What did you make of the Administration’s attempt to turn Cuba’s pharmaceutical research into a threat to the United States? Was it just an attempt to undermine Carter’s trip and his message to lift the embargo on Cuba?
RM: Carter’s trip was the proximate cause. But, essentially, everything the Bush Administration has done since 9-11 has been a tremendous power play and in everything they’ve done, fighting terrorism has been the excuse for the steps they took, not the reason. They actually want not to just avoid lifting the embargo — they want to tighten it. They want to strangle Cuba more, so they trump up these absolutely insane charges. There is not even the slightest evidence that Cuba is involved in making biological weapons, and the only evidence that they have provided is that Cuba does its own medical research, instead of relying on the noted beneficence of American pharmaceutical corporations. If you’re not going to rely on American pharmaceuticals, you must be actively producing biological weapons.
DM: What is their concern in Iraq?
RM: Well, if you just list some of the countries that they’ve been targeting right now, you see a pattern. Let me just list some for you: Colombia, Venezuela, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Iraq. What’s the common thread? Oil. What they really want in Iraq is not a democratic regime, but a <U.S.-friendly> dictator in place of Saddam Hussein. The sanctions on Iraq, which have continued now for over 10 years, have killed over 1 million innocent Iraqi civilians. But what the sanctions have also done is help break Iraqi control over Iraqi oil — right now Iraq has to get permission to sell its oil. The money from that oil has to go to a <U.N.-administered> account, which really means a <U.S.-administered> account. If the U.N. lifts the sanctions, which have become a political albatross for the Administration, Saddam Hussein will make his deals with French and Russian oil companies, not with the U.S. To change that fact, we need to have a <U.S.-friendly> dictator, instead of Saddam, and then US oil companies get the first cut.
DM: Do you think the U.S. will go to war with Iraq again? If so, when?
RM: I think a war against Iraq is almost certain, unless there is massive opposition in the United States. The current indications that it will be late next spring seem more like a feint than a revelation.
There is a history of selective leaks of disinformation in order to control opposition. I could imagine seeing a war as early as November. But they could only go into a war before the election if they were sure they had the end game all planned out and a nice, easy, containable operation. If they’re not absolutely certain about that, I think they’ll hold off until after the election, sometime between November and February. Again, it’s really hard to predict.
Simultaneously, and this is also not being talked about in the media, there is a tremendous increase in domestic militarization. The Bush Administration doesn’t just have other countries in their target sights. They have American people in their target sights. In other words, they have American democracy in their target sights and this is something that ought to be concerning people a lot more than it seems to.
DM: Just last week, Attorney General Ashcroft announced the lifting of restrictions placed on domestic surveillance established in the 1970s. These limits came from the exposure of COINTELPRO operations, the FBI’s covert operation to "neutralize" progressive social movements. In some cases, COINTELPRO targets were murdered, such as Black Panther leader Fred Hampton. What do you think about the lifting of these restrictions?
RM: John Ashcroft has made a number of decisions by fiat. One day we had attorney-client privilege, then the next day Ashcroft tells us that this was a figment of our imaginations. The Administration is not even obeying the dictates of the USA PATRIOT Act, as bad as it is. It says that, for example, you can hold non-citizens for seven days incommunicado in detention, if it has the slightest thing to do with terrorism. Seven days is bad enough; I mean, 24 hours is a civilized standard, but they have held some prisoners for months and months and months, much more than seven days. They are simply ignoring that when they wish to.
We must remember that this is one of the most anti-democratic administrations in U.S. history. Bush came into office showing open contempt for democracy. He came into office, not just through the butterfly ballot and the "Jews for Buchanan" phenomenon, but by having his brother selectively disenfranchise large numbers of African Americans — a reinstitution of Jim Crow in Florida– that’s how he got into office.
I really think people should be much more scared than they are. Bush’s assault on democracy, sometimes creeping, sometimes hurtling, is every day taking a little bit more of our basic democratic freedoms, and people have got to wake up before it’s too late.
Rahul Mahajan is the Green Party candidate for Governor of Texas and author of "The New Crusade: America’s War on Terrorism," (Monthly Review Press, April 2002). He serves on the National Board of Peace Action and is a founding member of the Nowar Collective.