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Unless Otherwise Directed …


I’ve worked in journalism for 35 years. I did graduate study in journalism, I’ve worked as a daily newspaper reporter and I’ve freelanced magazine articles and newspaper op-eds. Now I blog.

I’ve learned that certain ideas are not permitted in the mainstream press. Well-paid gatekeepers might say these ideas are misguided, wrong or irresponsible, but that’s not really the reason. It’s because certain ideas are not in alignment with the middle-brow assumptions our mainstream press operates within. It also has to do with a commercial inclination for celebrity journalism and a fetish for scorekeeping over analysis.

Here’s a personal example. For three weeks, since the Times Square bombing attempt, I’ve been in a back-and-forth exchange with the op-ed editor of a major city newspaper over a 900-word piece focused on the motivations of would-be bomber Faisal Shahzad.

Over the years I’ve had numerous op-eds in this newspaper, most of them critical of the current wars and all leaning to the political left.

Based on remarks the editor emailed to me, I re-wrote the piece twice. Now I’m getting silence. It seems I have hit the wall of verboten ideas; I think he’s ashamed to tell me “no” outright.

Here’s the paragraphs that contain what I submit is an unacceptable idea for mainstream US minds:

There is no indication Shahzad calculated becoming a citizen to pull off a terrorist act. His decision to kill seems to have come later, a combination of his life coming apart and anger at US drone attacks in northwest Pakistan where he was raised.

Discussion of this case often assumes the interests of the Pakistan Taliban to attack America occurred outside history, that somehow the change in their attitude is not a result of our escalating drone attacks and our pressure on the Pakistani military to assault northwest Pakistan. It’s as if the United States is exempt from history and our actions don’t have consequences.

It’s exactly the same brand of denial that pushed 50 years of military and political intervention and oil exploitation in Saudi Arabia from the minds of Americans as to why 16 Saudis drove planes into our buildings on September 11th.

The idea in these sentences – that a history of US military intervention is a prime motivation of “terrorist” attacks on us here and around the world — is effectively embargoed from mainstream discussion. Instead, the working assumptions supporting stories must be Fear Of Attack and Support The Troops – and that we are being attacked due to the evil of those attacking us.

Sure, there’s evil in the world and a share of it resides in the hearts of our declared enemies. But a share of evil also lies in our hearts. That’s not the point.

The point is to get at the roots of the conflicts we are involved in so we can begin to ratchet them down, get out of places like Iraq and Afghanistan and focus our resources on neglected needs here in our own country.

Making this case is extremely difficult and frustrating because the deck is stacked against those who would seek to break the powerful momentum of war. Top-down power in America is constantly reinforcing itself and pushing the other way.

This week it was revealed that, in a secret directive, General David Petraeus, leader of Central Command, has ordered a significant expansion of US covert military action around the world. Unlike CIA covert actions, these covert military missions do not require presidential approval or congressional oversight.

Barton Gellman, in his book Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency, describes Petraeus as a masterful practitioner of UNODIR, military shorthand for putting a scheme in practice and, at the perfectly timed moment, sending a communiqué to a superior saying, “unless otherwise directed, I will continue to…” Dick Cheney, a major fan of Petraeus as he rose in the ranks, was the undisputed master of UNODIR in the Bush White House.

Critical discussion and analysis of such secret decisions is kept from Congress and the American people. By the time a recalcitrant congress member or senator fashions a bill to cut funding for the war in Afghanistan, things like the Petraeus directive are already in process — subject to the laws of UNODIR and the fact it’s harder to stop a train at full speed than to prevent it from leaving the station.

The legal realm works just as insidiously in keeping analysis and debate from the minds of mainstream Americans.

A federal appeals court just ruled that three detainees at Bagram AFB in Afghanistan have no recourse to habeas corpus, which is internationally considered a fundamental human right. The court ruled their detention by the US military on foreign soil was not reviewable because the detentions were on foreign soil.

Joseph Heller wrote the book on this kind of absurdity, and it’s called Catch 22.

The Obama administration was delighted with the decision, which legalizes the broad powers of detention they inherited from the Bush administration.

Senator Lindsey Graham, a former military JAG officer, said, to let these men review their detentions by the US military “would be the ultimate act of turning the war into a crime.”

If giving these detainees the fundamental human right to question their detention would make it clear our war in Afghanistan is illegal, then the court was in essence silencing the expression of ideas critical of the war.

Like the game of whack-a-mole, it’s all hands on deck to whack down inconvenient and dangerous ideas that call into question our endless state of war. Keep the ideas and the argument marginalized.

You can see this at work in the recent firing of Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair, who found himself at odds with his subordinate CIA Director Leon Panetta and, it seems, General Petraeus.

According to The New York Times, Blair “has been outspoken about reining in the CIA’s covert activities, citing their propensity to backfire and tarnish America’s image.” The escalating stealth CIA drone war in northwest Pakistan was reportedly part of his concern. It seems logical the Petraeus expansion of unaccountable covert activities also fit into these concerns.

When it was created following a recommendation of the 9/11 Commission, one of the prime purposes of the intelligence director role was, according to The Times, “to provide strategic direction.” Telling the President his covert activities may backfire on him seems a vital element of the job description.

Again, we see the top-down shutting out of ideas.

The prime motivation for Faisal Shazad’s failed Times Square bombing was the escalating covert CIA drone attacks on his homeland in northwest Pakistan. I‘d say his actions qualify as a “backfire.”

The Obama/Petraeus policy is as fundamentally inconsistent as it is out of control. It seeks to counter a problem – attacks on the US – by escalating the very thing – US military intervention — that motivated the attacks and created the problem in the first place. And as it escalates the problem, it shuts out critical ideas and analysis.

It’s a déjà vu moment. This time “the best and the brightest” are Pentagon celebrities, and they’re leading the nation down a road to escalating global conflagration … unless otherwise directed.

JOHN GRANT is a founding member of the new journalist-owned, journalist-run news collective and online newspaper Read his stories and stories by colleagues Dave Lindorff, Linn Washington and Charles Young, at




JOHN GRANT is a member of ThisCantBeHappening!, the new independent, uncompromised, five-time Project Censored Award-winning online alternative newspaper. 

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