The Oldest Game in Washington

You can see how seriously Obama is taking the hot populist temper of the American people and their eagerness to strangle every banker in the entrails of every insurance executive.  In an altogether welcome departure from past presidential form in State of the Union addresses at least since 1973  (the first time I listened to one) he shoved the rest of the world into less than five minutes near the end of an oration that lasted well over an hour, giving over at least 90 per cent of his time to various pledges for economic clean-up on the domestic front.

Of course there ritual backslapping for Uncle Sam’s benign role in the planet’s affairs, starting with valiant rescue work in  Haiti, a nation for which every US intervention since the time of Thomas Jefferson has been an unmitigated disaster. But on Wednesday night, there was barely time for even a swipe at Iran and North Korea, reduced to offhand mentions, as opposed to the starring roles they formerly enjoyed as members of the “Axis  of Evil”  in George Bush Jr’s State of the Union  speech in 2002 Yemen, surely a strong  contender strongly for Axis ranking, wasn’t even mentioned. Plucky little Guinea elicited a nod for its corruption.

Instead,  Wednesday’s night’s Axis of Evil featured a  home team, of  the banks and the US Supreme Court, whose  members were mustered in a small clump almost directly under Obama’s lectern. Last week the Court kicked away most of the few remaining restraints on the ability of corporations to buy the legislators and the laws they desire, and Obama – gazing down at Chief Justice Roberts, leader of the conservative majority of five out of nine on the court which overturned a century’s worth of laws and precedents – called on Congress to redress the situation with new laws.
It was amid Obama’s speech  last September to a joint session of Congress  about health reform it that  a cracker congressman for South Carolina, Joe Wilson,  shouted “You lie” at the president.  This time Associate Justice Samuel Alito, an ultra-right Catholic  on the Court, started mouthing objections and I thought we’d be treated to the lively  spectacle of a member of the US Supreme Court heckling Obama  but  Alito, warned perhaps by the stiffening back of Roberts, who was sitting directly in front of him, shut his mouth.

As campaign speeches go, albeit dressed up as a State of the Union, Obama delivered his with jaunty aplomb, sometimes light-heartedly, matching the open merriment of Vice President Joe Biden, sitting directly behind him, next to House Majority leader Nancy Pelosi.  It wasn’t always clear exactly why Biden was laughing, though I assume it was the same reason that stirred many in the chamber to snigger when Obama started urging them to pass laws ending fiscal excess, along with deficits, earmarks, and undue lobbyist influence on lawmakers.  Obama himself seemed to chortle at the manifest absurdity of requesting Congress to do any such thing, and the legislators felt thus empowered to chortle along with him, at the one of the oldest Washington sports of all: running against Washington.

Obama got elected by pledging hope and change and calling for the nation to unite and banish divisiveness. This time he did admit room for  undefined  philosophical differences which he promptly tried to bridge by offering an anthology of pledges, culled from Carter (green energy),  Reagan (line item veto and reducing the world’s nuclear arsenal to zero), earmarks (John McCain), plus the usual commitment to lower the deficit (mandatory in every state of the union speech in living memory.)

There was some fancy political footwork here, which may explain why in the wake of the Massachusetts debacle last week, Obama precipitously proposed a spending freeze on most domestic spending starting in 2011. His proposal was promptly savaged by leftish economists such as Joe Stiglitz and Robert Reich as being the worst possible wound one could inflict on a tottering economy, which is certainly true. It seems, so the economist James Galbraith suggests, that the freeze plan might have been quickly boiled up to head off  a proposal for a bipartisan commission empowered  by Congress to promote mandatory  legislation involving politically horrifying tax hikes and budget cuts. Under cover of the unrealistic “freeze” the deficit busters will now have to content themselves with a mere “presidential commission” on deficit reduction, whose recommendations will be entirely toothless.

Neither bankers specifically nor corporations generally are popular right now. On Tuesday voters in Oregon , in the Pacific Northwest,   voted to raise taxes on corporations and the rich. The  measures romped through 54 percent to 46 percent, hiking taxes on households with taxable income above $250,000, and setting  higher minimum taxes on corporations, with increased  tax rates on upper-level profits.  In Oregon, there hasn’t been this kind of popularly–sanctioned tax bite out of the backsides of the rich since the 1930s.

This sets the political stage for the November mid-term elections, and every politician sniffs the popular mood. Hence Obama’s belated dash to head the populist jacquerie.  But there’s virtually no chance of any serious financial reform transpiring. Already, in dead of night, Wall Street lobbyists in December — as reported by Andrew Cockburn here on this site — crushed legislative language in a financial reform bill to ban Wall Street’s “dark markets” trading in over-the-counter derivatives such as credit default swaps. These were what impelled the financial crisis in 2008.

The bankers will resign themselves to a glancing blow like Obama’s proposed $30 billion levy. But they will surely fight off Paul Volcker, for months languishing in obscurity as head of Obama’s Economic Recovery Advisory Board, until mustered last week  to the president’s side to preside over the White House’s Great Leap Sideways into economic populism. He’s been assigned the task of promoting legislation that will haul the banks back into the Glass-Steagall era when the paltry sums in one’s  checking account weren’t immediately securitized and packaged into a CDO squared. Already the Los Angeles Times – normally in Obama’s corner – has editorially savaged Volcker’s plan, as have the Washington Post and, needless to say, the Wall Street Journal.

State of the Union addresses are mostly political window dressing. All those fine proposals have to become laws. It’s one thing to hail Michele Obama, as her husband did on Wednesday evening, for spearheading a movement to combat child obesity. It’s quite another to get through Congress a law banning Chicken McNuggets.

The longer Obama solemnly lectured the Joint Session about the need to change the way Washington does business, the more one had time to study the faces of the legislators and burnish one’s utter confidence in Washington’s unchanging ways. It was the one fact that evening that commanded total agreement, from Republicans, Democrats and the President himself.

Spooks on Campus – and a New Orleans connexion outside  Senator  Landrieu’s office

David Price has a major scoop in our latest subscriber-only newsletter.  He describes how, across the past five years, without a word of public debate, let alone concern the CIA, has successfully implanted spy schools on 22  university campuses across the country, many of them labeled “Intelligence Community Centers of Academic Excellence” – ICCAE, pronounced “Icky”.

It began in 2004,” Price reports,  when “a $250,000 grant was awarded to Trinity Washington University by the Intelligence Community for the establishment of a pilot ‘Intelligence Community Center of Academic Excellence’ program.  Trinity was in many ways an ideal campus for a pilot program. For a vulnerable, tuition-driven struggling financial institution in the D.C. area the promise of desperately needed funds and a regionally assured potential student base, linked with or seeking connections to the DC intelligence world, made the program financially attractive.”

Price’s timing is impeccable. Last Monday, the day we were preparing to send his story to press, came news that a group   of Fox News’ free-lance buggers  – the same who set up ACORN – had been arrested, trying for phone sabotage in Senator Mary Landrieu’s New Orleans office.  Three of the team were caught inside Landrieu’s  office. A fourth was arrested as he sat in a car a few blocks away with what the police described as “a listening device that could pick up transmissions.” Another anonymous official told MSNBC that the man in the car was Stan Dai.

Dai is a veteran  of Trinity Washington University’s spook school,. funded by the “Intelligence Community”.  In 2008, Dai served as associate director of ICCAE at Trinity Washington.

How many wannabe Howard Hunts and G. Gordon Liddys are being turned out by the spook schools? As Price writes, “Even amid the extreme militarization prevailing in America today, the public silence surrounding this quiet installation and spread of programs like ICCAE is extraordinary.  In the last four years ICCAE has gone further in bringing government intelligence organizations openly to multiple American university campuses than any previous intelligence initiative since World War Two.  Yet the program spreads with little public notice, media coverage, or coordinated multi-campus resistance.”

Did any tenured faculty member at the 22 campuses now hosting spook-schools publicly raise the alarm?  Twenty years ago there would have been furious demonstrations. Not now. Faculty, most notably at the University of Washington, did write anguished, even angry  memos. Price quotes them. But as he writes,

“it’s far from clear that these private critiques had any measurable effect, precisely because they remained private…

“Tenured professors on ICCAE campuses, or on campuses contemplating ICCAE programs, need to use their tenure and speak out, on the record, in public… the split between the public and private reactions to ICCAE has helped usher the CIA silently back onto American university campuses. The intelligence community thrives on silence.”

Price can be reached at

Our newsletter features Price’s full, exclusive story. Also in this same newsletter Peter Lee reports on the sequel to Zbigniev Brzezinski’s supremely cynical plan back in the late 1970s to fund the largest CIA operation in its history to back fundamentalists like Osama bin Laden and local opium barons in Afghanistan to overthrow the leftist regime in Kabul, supported by the Soviet Union.

The sequel has involved catastrophe for Afghanistan. It’s also led to Afghanistan becoming the world’s prime opium exporter (90 per cent of world supply) – a large portion of which is spreading addiction and death across Iran, Russia and the central Asian republics.  At the urging of Richard Holbrooke, civilian supremo of Obama’s Af-Pak operations, the US has now formally abandoned the goal of opium eradication in Afghanistan, happy to have Iran and Russia expend huge sums in battling what one Russian bitterly describes as a “new opium war”.

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ALEXANDER COCKBURN can be reached at

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