It Pays to Have a Nuke

Remember when the two Chinese American journalists, Laura Ling and Euna Lee,  were first convicted earlier this year and given 12-year prison terms in one of North Korea’s  labor camps? Working for a tv channel owned by former vice president Al Gore, the two had crossed North Korea’s border with China, intent on investigating the alleged trafficking of North Korean women as sex slaves in the People’s Republic.

There were wall-to-wall headlines, screams on all the talk shows. Was there ever a failed state as barbaric as North Korea? Not only is this rogue nation endangering the security of the planet in its efforts to elbow its way into the exclusive club of nuclear powers, but now it had dispatched two Chinese-American journalists to camps notorious for their brutality and appalling conditions.

It was always obvious that the harsh sentences faced by Ms. Ling and Ms. Lee were tied up in the evolution of relations between North Korea and the new Obama government and this judgement  has been vindicated by the speed with which they were sprung, once Bill Clinton paid a visit.

So now let us let’s try and achieve some sense of balance on the charge of barbarism.

Let’s suppose a country has endured half a century of continuous attack by assailants based in the United States, with nearly 4,000 dead and 2,000 wounded. Let’s further suppose that when this country, trying to expand its tourist industry, listens to widely broadcast plans by these assailants to sabotage these plans by attacking the tourists – which they duly do, killing one. Now let us suppose that this country sends investigators to infiltrate the assailants, and hands the results of their probe to the FBI and…

I’m talking about the Cuban Five – courageous men who went to southern Florida, and penetrated the Cuban gusano gangs, specifically Alpha 66, the F4 Commandos, the Cuban American National Foundation, and Brothers to the Rescue.

In 1998, after Fidel Castro dispatched Gabriel Garcia Marquez as an emissary to the Clinton White House, the United States sent an FBI team to Havana to discuss the attacks. Cuba handed over 64 files on 31 different terrorist acts and plans against the island in the decade of the ’90s.
After this effort to enlist the U.S. government in stopping terrorist acts (abetted and maybe initiated by the U.S. government), Cuba expected the FBI to start arresting the terrorists. Nt for the first time, Fidel Castro gravely underestimated the good faith of the US government. The Cubans  had underestimated President Bill Clinton’s and Al Gore’s over-riding desire to service the Cuban right in Florida. On  September 12, 1998, the Bureau arrested the very investigators who had come to Miami to probe the activities of the Miami terrorists. Gerardo Hernandez received a double life sentence, and Antonio Guerrero and Ramon Labañino received life sentences. The remaining two, Fernando Gonzalez and René Gonzalez, received 19 and 15 years respectively.

It’s true that the Five weren’t sent to a labor camp akin to those in the North Korean gulag. Where they were sent was described in CounterPunch earlier this year by Hernandez who was interviewed by the filmmaker Saul Landau, who is making a documentary about the Cuban 5.

Hernandez: They took us to the prison, the Center of Federal Detention in Miami and put us in “the hole.”

SL: For how long?

GH: 17 months.

SL: Describe “the hole?”

GH: It’s an area that every prison has, where they put prisoners for disciplinary or for protective purposes, if they can’t be with the rest of the population. In those first 6 months in “solitary confinement,” we had a shower inside the cell so you can bathe whenever you want. But you get everything in the cell wet when you take a shower. You’re in the cell 23 hours a day. And one hour a day of recreation where they take you to another place. In Miami, it was a bit bigger and with this grid through which you could see a little piece of the sky. You could tell if it was day or night, and a bit of fresh air would come through. The regimen was strict. They used to punish prisoners who commit a serious indiscipline. There we were 23, some times 24 hours a day, inside those 4 small walls, with nothing to do. It’s very difficult from a humane point of view.  And many people couldn’t take it. You could see them start to lose their minds, start screaming.

SL: Did you do something bad?

GH: No, we were sent there from the beginning. They told us it was to protect us from the general population. But, in my opinion, it had more to do with their attempt to get us to turn. After fear and intimidation didn’t work, they thought: ‘Well, let’s put them in solitary for a few months and see if they change their minds.’

Then, after the sentencing, the Cubans were sent to different penitentiaries. Hernandez was sent to Lompoc in 2003, and into “the box.” That happened to the Five in all 5 prisons on the same day. It still isn’t clear why, or who gave the order. Lompoc is a very old prison, apart from “the hole,” which is where they send people who attack guards or set fire to mattresses; for the incorrigible, “the box,” a basement below “the hole” — 10 double-doored cells.

They put me down there, in my underwear, barefoot for a month. I didn’t know if it was day or night, because you’re inside for 24 hours. There’s no hour of recreation or anything. A leak dripped from the cell above. Whenever that person flushed the toilet, dirty water would run down my cell’s walls.

I complained about health dangers. But they had planned to keep us there for one year for “special administrative measures.” They had warned me I wouldn’t have any contacts, no visits, no nothing. To communicate with my lawyer, I had to submit a letter. I had to make an envelope out of a piece of paper, and seal it with toothpaste. Nothing to read, nothing to write with, nothing! That was quite a difficult month. They [prison authorities] told us we’d be there for a year, and at the end of that year they’d review our cases; we could be there indefinitely. When the guards planned to take me for a bath 3 or 4 guards would handcuff me. The other cells had their exterior doors open. The interior door was like a closed fence, but the iron exterior door that isolated you completely, was left open, so people wouldn’t go crazy. But mine was always closed. When they’d take me to shower, they’d close the other doors so no one would even see me — because one of the rules was that I could have contact with no one. I was there for a month, not knowing if it was day or night, dirty water running down my walls, barefoot, with the light on 24 hours a day; hearing screams of people around me, some of whom gone crazy. One day, a Thursday, they brought me papers to sign, saying I would be there for one year. The following Tuesday, without explanation, just as they’d brought me there without knowing anything, they took me out. We found out that lots of people had protested outside the prison. Members of Congress had inquired about us.

Having set North Korea barbarity in a larger perspective, let us turn to the dangers its testing program and intermittent detonations pose to world security. On May 25, North Korea conducted its second underground nuclear test, two and a half  years after its first. Obama promptly denounced it as “a grave threat to the peace and stability of the world.” He added that North Korea’s actions had “flown in the face of United Nations resolutions” and were inviting deeper international isolation.

Almost four months earlier, Obama had nothing to say when, on February 3 or 4, two nuclear-powered submarines, one British, one French, each carrying at nuclear missiles, collided in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Unlike the North Koreans, who immediately reported their test to the world, Britain and France said nothing. Neither did the United States. All three clearly hoped that this indubitable threat to world safety would remain a secret.

On February 16, the British, Murdoch-owned Sun was the first to disclose the crash. Then, and only then an anonymous British official said the Vanguard’s “deterrent capability remained unaffected and there was no compromise to nuclear safety.” No members of the crew were injured.
France’s Defense Ministry said in a brief statement Feb. 6 that the Le Triomphant had struck “a submerged object (probably a container)” during a return from a patrol, damaging the sonar dome on the front of the submarine.” The French ministry did not confirm the date of the collision, and didn’t mention the British sub. The Vanguard limped back to homeport, seen by observers to be considerably dented. The French sub, Le Triomphant, blind because of the damage to its sonar dome, was escorted by a frigate back to its base on France’s west coast. There is no reason to believe a single word of either the British or French governments on the incident.

Given Obama’s silence on this manifest threat to world security, I invite CounterPunchers to prepare appropriately sarcastic statement to be read out by North Korea’s president or his latest designated successor, perhaps beginning with the statement by one British navy man that  “it was a millions-to-one unlucky chance” both subs were in the same patch of sea.’
That’s how the world could end, not with a bang, but a millions-to-one unlucky chance. Rogue nation?

What’s the lesson for Iran in this story? It pays to have a nuke. You get some respect, even a visit from Bill Clinton.

Progressive Illusions: From our first black president to “Our First Black President”

In retrospect we can see what a lucky fellow Barack Obama was to have had, during his run for the presidency last year, a radical black pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, as his opponent in an argument about race and racism in America. Obama scored big with whites for his measured put-down of Wright as the embittered voice from an angry past, now being thankfully overtaken by a mellower and more sensible age of racial reason. And in an added irony, the most supportive black voice for this hopeful posture was that of the Harvard prof, Henry Louis Gates, who shot into the headlines last month after being arrested by a white Cambridge cop,

Sergeant James Crowley, for allegedly abusing Crowley for racist conduct. In an amazing lapse in his usual steely self control, Obama said in a press conference that he thought the cops had acted “stupidly” in this incident which began when a neighbor called the police saying two men were trying to break into the house. Actually this was Gates and his driver trying to recoup from that familiar misfortune, the missing front door key of Gates’ own home.

The irony stems from the fact, as Ishmael Reed, author of two marvelously acrid and funny pieces on the Gates affair on this site, points out that Gates had become the darling of white liberals for putting down blacks in exactly the same manner as Obama had adopted with Wright. In the New Yorker and kindred outlets Gates would serve up anodyne pottage about race being “a social construct” and would whack deadbeat black dads, cuing Obama to the same sort of grandstanding, all of which fell like music upon the ears of white opinion-formers always receptive to black people prepared to utter “difficult truths” – viz., that blacks – African Americans – had and have only themselves to blame for most if not all of their problems. The presiding deity over this nonsense for many years was the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who won hundreds of admiring editorials in the New York Times for his supposed courage and intellectual integrity in serving up “difficult truths” to white Americans eager for scholarly reassurance that they had nothing to apologize for.

Then suddenly here were Gates and Obama both catching a torrent of abuse from whites for shouting at white cops and calling them racists and stupid. We can safely stipulate here that a very large number of white cops are violence-prone racists, both by upbringing and by assigned role, since they are the whites’ first line of defense, furnished with awesome firepower, complicit prosecutors, indulgent forensic laboratories, mostly-white juries and a mostly-white press in the endless battle to keep the dangerous classes generally and the blacks specifically in their place. If the job requires you to be “stupid” – by over-reacting to the level of shooting an elderly black woman holding a cellphone on the grounds you thought she was armed and about to shoot to kill – then so be it.

Crowley became the overnight darling of the right-wing Talk Radio and Roundtable TV hosts, just as Joe the Plumber did last fall. Obama’s senior aides, aghast at the uproar which took the big battle over health insurance off the front pages, successfully urged Obama to say that Gates might have acted unreasonably and to recapture the high ground by inviting Gates and Crowley to the White House for a manly beer and constructive chat, duly hailed in its aftermath last Wednesday by the President as “friendly, thoughtful and positive.” It would have required Gates and Crowley to be carried out on stretchers after bloody combat for Obama to have said anything else.

The entire event was positive only for Crowley. Cops are notorious liars in the accounts they give to prosecutors, juries or the press of their conduct as guardians of the peace, and Crowley’s account of what happened chez Gates had plenty of improbabilities in it, such as his claim that Gates uttered a slur about his, Crowley’s, mother. Boston and Cambridge has been suffused with acrid racist divisions for decades, and the cops there have ugly reputations, as vividly evoked by the Boston cop, Justin Barrett, who was fired by the city’s mayor for calling prof Gates “a banana eating jungle bunny”. Barrett and his lawyer are suing the city and the mayor for damages for causing him “pain and suffering, mental anguish, emotional distress, post-traumatic stress, sleeplessness, indignities and embarrassment, degradation, injusry to reputation and restriction on his personal freedom.” Barrett’s lawyer says “banana-eating jungle bunny” were terms used by his client to evoke Gates’ words, not his African American essence. Barrett told Larry King he doesn’t know what made him say that.

White America is never more vividly and comically racist than when trying to excuse impromptu racist utterance or deny the racism of American society , which is manifest in every number, every graph and scatterplot in the annual Statistical Abstract of the United States. It was a former governor of Massachusetts, Michael Dukakis, regarded as an impeccable progressive in matters of race, who denied any racist motive for launching his final presidential drive in 1988 by appearing at the Neshoba county fair in Philadelphia, Mississippi, where three civil rights workers were murdered in the 1960s and where Reagan wooed the white south in 1980.The great and courageous black attorney, J.L. Chestnut, one of two black people in the huge audience, recalled Reagan crying that “ ‘ the South will rise again and this time remain master of everybody and everything within its dominion.’ The square came to life, the Klu Kluxers were shouting, jeering and in obvious ecstasy. God bless America.” So eight years later Dukakis visited the Fair, to give the white voters a tacit message. It didn’t do him any good. His campaign blew up amid race-baiting first by his Democratic rival Al Gore, who denounced Dukakis for giving a weekend furlough from prison to a black criminal called Willie Horton. George Bush Sr soundly whacked Dukakis using the same charges.

White progressives have been cheering Obama’s “tough love” homilies to delinquent black dads, content that he spared white or Spanish dads any such reproof. Maybe the support for Sergeant Crowley and the vilification Obama and Gates will come as a wake-up call, though I doubt it. Bill Clinton was probably the most disastrous president for blacks in postwar history, in terms of criminal justice policies, removal of social safety nets and systematic vilification of young black mothers for having babies (at an optimal time for the babies’ care and survival ). Yet if you call Bill worse as an effective racist than Reagan they’ll quack with incredulous raillery and remind you that it was a black writer, Toni Morrison, who called Clinton our first black president. So? It was Gen. Colin Powell who stepped up to criticize Gates and thus endorse Crowley. Can we hope Gates has learned a lesson? Nope. He’s back at his crowd-pleasing antics, pledging more beers with Crowley and seeing he’ll see what he can do about getting his kids into Harvard. Ishmael Reed asked caustically here, “Maybe the officer who killed a black man in Oakland the other night should send in her children’s application to Gates. Is Gates a candidate for the Stockholm Syndrome?” Scarcely a candidate, Ishmael. Stockholm Syndrome captured Prof Gates long, long ago and did his career no end of good.

New York Times Director Probed for “Breach of Trust”

To the Sulzberger family that controls the New York Times he has been the ultimate Good German. High-flying Thomas Middelhof took New York by storm, buying Random House for Bertelsmann, invited onto the NYT board, a member of its compensation committee. Read Eamonn Fingleton’s exclusive on how Middelhof  has crashed to earth and how the NYT has buried the story. Amid New York’s savage fiscal crisis, guess what? The city ponies up $50 million for a nice new park for rich people in Manhattan. Read Carl Ginsburg on the High Line. PLUS Elyssa Pachico on how rural revolution in Colombia has gone digital. PLUS co-editor Cockburn on how, in Obama Time, the Israel lobby is carrying all before it. What a surprise.

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ALEXANDER COCKBURN can be reached at










Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined!, A Colossal Wreck and An Orgy of Thieves: Neoliberalism and Its Discontents are available from CounterPunch.