When Bernie Sanders took the stage in Washington Square Park in New York City on a cold April night in 2016, he faced a crowd of approximately 25,000 adoring fans, many of whom were young, progressive, and desperately seeking a political alternative to the seemingly ineluctable game of Russian roulette that was a Clinton-Trump crapshoot.
They waited for hours, listened to progressive celebrities like Spike Lee and Tim Robbins give rousing speeches, and were finally rewarded when the self-proclaimed democratic socialist from Vermont approached the podium with his characteristic lack of flair and precisely crafted economic populist stump speech which he had delivered a thousand times.
And yet, the energy coursing through the crowd told the story. They didn’t care they’d heard it all many times before, that Sanders was reading from the same cue cards as he had a hundred times in the weeks and months prior; they just wanted a glimpse of the man who, even if he wasn’t going to be president, had ignited a political revolution on the progressive left.
That night, Sanders’ voice carried to the 50,000 ears in the park, and the millions of eyeballs watching on the live feed and reading in the paper the next morning,
And when Sanders spoke, his words were like sustenance to young progressives who came of age in a time of political hopelessness, despite President Hope and Change sitting in the Oval Office. In The Bern, they saw a Moses-like figure, carrying the words of the true progressive gods to smite those worshiping the golden calf of Wall Street and the Democratic Party elite.
But that night Sanders said something that wasn’t part of his usual sermon about income inequality, free trade, and working people. In what was something of a departure, Sanders placed into context what the movement he ignited was seeking.
“It is not just about electing a president, it is about creating a political revolution. It is about creating a government which works for all of us, not just wealthy campaign contributors,” Sanders explained, his voice carrying through the night like so many angry taxi horns.
Of course, we all know what happened next: Sanders lost the Democratic Party nomination to Hillary Clinton under rather dubious circumstances, and spent the next few months gritting his teeth as Clinton blundered her way into losing a slam dunk election against the political equivalent of an old can of orange play-doh.
But, precisely as Sanders had bellowed that night in Greenwich Village, the campaign was only the beginning. In the time since then, the progressive left has seen an upsurge in candidates seeking to unseat establishment Democrats in districts throughout the country. Democratic incumbents from Texas and Illinois to New York and California now suddenly find themselves facing challenges from their left, forcing them to try to save their jobs by adopting progressive talking points.
While this upsurge could be seen as a welcome development for anyone interested in progressive causes, there is a dark side to the burgeoning left movement, one that remains mostly shrouded behind a veil of secrecy and omission.
For it seems that progressive candidates aren’t the only ones who learned the lesson of Bernie Sanders in 2016; the neoliberal Clintonites have too. So, while left-wing campaigns crop up in every corner of the country, so too do astroturf faux-progressive campaigns. And it is for us on the left to parse through it all and separate the authentic from the frauds.
Co-Opting Progressive Politics: A Case Study
Nestled in the heart of New York’s beautiful Hudson Valley, the 19th congressional district (NY-19) encompasses some of New York’s most appealing scenery and towns: Woodstock, Kingston, New Paltz, Hudson and the majority of the Catskills Region. It is littered with historic sites dating back to the Revolutionary War, and boasts names like Oneonta and Shawangunk as a reminder of the indigenous peoples of the region. From artist retreats to an endless labyrinth of hiking trails and small farms, this area represents a microcosm of the state with its New York City expats and its upstate lifers.
And it is here in NY-19 that one of the more interesting congressional races is shaping up as a number of Democrats vie to win the party nomination and try to unseat the Republican incumbent, the loathsome John Faso who, according to Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight, has voted in line with President Trump nearly 90% of the time.
One candidate currently generating some buzz in the race is Jeff Beals, a self-identified “Bernie democrat” whose campaign website homepage describes him as a “local teacher and former U.S. diplomat endorsed by the national organization of former Bernie Sanders staffers, the Justice Democrats.” And indeed, Beals centers his progressive bona fides to brand himself as one of the inheritors of the progressive torch lit by Sanders in 2016. A smart political move, to be sure. But is it true?
Beals describes himself as a “former U.S. diplomat,” touting his expertise on international issues born of his experience overseas. In an email interview with CounterPunch, Beals describes his campaign as a “movement for diplomacy and peace in foreign affairs and an end to militarism…my experience as a U.S. diplomat is what drives it and gives this movement such force.” OK, sounds good, a very progressive sounding answer. But what did Beals actually do during his time overseas?
By his own admission, Beals’ overseas career began as an intelligence officer with the CIA. His fluency in Arabic and knowledge of the region made him an obvious choice to be an intelligence spook during the latter stages of the Clinton Administration. According to a 2007 New Yorker article:
“The [US Embassy in Iraq’s] political counsellor, Robert Ford, his deputy, Henry Ensher, and a younger official in the political section, Jeffrey Beals, spoke Arabic, had worked extensively in the region and spent most of their time in Baghdad talking to a range of Iraqis, including extremists. They gave Firas and other “foreign-service nationals” more authority, encouraging them to help write reports on Iraqi politics that were sometimes forwarded to Washington. Beals would be interviewed in Arabic on Al Jazeera and then endure a thorough critique by an Iraqi colleague—Ahmed, a tall, handsome Kurdish Shiite who lived just outside Sadr City, and who was obsessed with Iraqi politics. When Firas, Ali, and Ahmed visited New York during a training trip, Beals’s brother was their escort.”
Robert Ford would later become a high-ranking Obama Administration official whose work included being at the center of anti-Assad protests at the outbreak of the war in Syria in 2011. A few years earlier, Ford was mentored by infamous Latin American death squad organizer John Negroponte who, upon being appointed Ambassador to Iraq by the Bush Administration, immediately made Ford his deputy and moved to employ the death squad model. As The Times (UK) reported in 2005, “The Pentagon is considering forming hit squads of Kurdish and Shia fighters to target leaders of the Iraqi insurgency in a strategic shift borrowed from the American struggle against left-wing guerrillas in Central America 20 years ago.”
Ford tried the same death squad tactic vis-à-vis Salafists in Syria as he continually advocated for U.S.-support to Ahrar al-Sham and other extremists both during and after his tenure as Ambassador to Syria. He ultimately became something of a mentor to the younger Beals who was, at least in name, a State Department employee, though where his time at CIA ends and State begins is hard to pin down.
Beals shrewdly attempts to portray himself as an opponent of neocon imperialism in Iraq. In his interview with CounterPunch, Beals argued that “The State Department was sidelined as the Bush administration and a neoconservative cabal plunged America into the tragic Iraq War. As a U.S. diplomat fluent in Arabic and posted in Jerusalem at the time, I was called over a year into the war to help our country find a way out.”
This is a Master’s class in blatant historical revisionism and outright dishonesty. Beals was not a soldier unwillingly drafted into service, but an intelligence officer who voluntarily accepted an influential and critically important post for the Bush Administration in its ever-expanding crime against humanity in Iraq.
Moreover, no one who knows anything about the Iraq War could possibly swallow the tripe that CIA/State Department officials in Iraq were “looking to help our country find a way out” a year into the war. A year into the war, the bloodletting was only just beginning, and Halliburton, Exxon-Mobil, and the other corporate vultures had yet to fully exploit the country and make billions off it. So, unfortunately for Beals, the historical memory of the anti-war Left is not that short.
Beals also claimed in his CounterPunch interview that he “turned down a lucrative job offer from Exxon because of my opposition to the fossil fuel industry.” OK, let’s examine that a little further. How exactly did Beals receive the lucrative offer from Exxon?
Enter Ali Khedery who, according to his own statements and his Wikipedia page, was a high-ranking U.S. official in Iraq who ultimately became the longest continuously serving U.S. official there (2003-2009). He acted as a bridge between the U.S. diplomatic, intelligence, and business worlds in Iraq, deftly maneuvering between them and serving the interests of every exploiter in that ghastly war.
According to Khedery, writing in the Washington Post in 2014:
“After the December 2005 parliamentary elections, U.S. Embassy officials combed the Iraqi elite for a leader who could crush the Iranian-backed Shiite militias, battle al-Qaeda, and unite Iraqis under the banner of nationalism and inclusive government. My colleague Jeffrey Beals and I were among the few Arabic-speaking Americans on good terms with the country’s leading figures. The only man we knew with any chance to win support from all Iraqi factions — and who seemed likely to be an effective leader — was Maliki… Although Maliki’s history was known to be shadowy and violent, that was hardly unusual in the new Iraq.
With other colleagues, Beals and I hashed over the options with U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, who in turn encouraged Iraq’s skeptical but desperate national leaders to support Maliki.”
So, Khedery and Beals were the two individuals most responsible for the creation of what Washington hoped would be a puppet government in Iraq that would do its bidding, carrying out U.S. policy like a dutiful satrap. As it turned out, Maliki’s authoritarianism and sectarian aims were not as amenable to the Washington agenda as Bush, Cheney, & Co. had hoped. Still, Khedery and Beals had done their job.
Fast-forward to 2011 and Khedery, now an executive with Exxon Mobil, negotiated that company’s entry into the Kurdistan Region of Iraq against the wishes of the Maliki government in Baghdad. Indeed, the move, spearheaded by the future Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, was seen as incendiary, and today stands out as a prime example of how the fossil fuel industry dictates, directs, and otherwise influences U.S. policy.
And it was at this point that Beals allegedly was offered the “lucrative position” with Exxon. Why? It seems likely that it was Beals’ connection to Khedery and other influential people within the U.S. bureaucracy and intelligence establishment that landed him the offer. So, considering this information, we’re to believe that Beals, who worked side by side with oil executives, weapons contractors, and CIA operatives, somehow grew a conscience and turned down the opportunity to make a boatload of money?
Or is it possible that Beals, already in 2011, had a political career in mind, and he knew that Exxon on his resume would be an irreversible stain? This seems plausible considering the fact that Beals’ burgeoning political trajectory, presented as progressive in the Sanders tradition, is in fact carefully managed by one of Hillary Clinton’s most loyal henchmen.
Beals and the Clinton Machine
It is self-evident that Beals has a laundry list of things in his past that he must answer for. For those of us, especially Millennials, who cut our activist teeth demonstrating and organizing against the Iraq War, Beals’ distortions about his role in Iraq go down like hemlock tea. But it is the associations Beals maintains today that really should give any progressive serious pause.
When asked by CounterPunch whether he has any connections to either Bernie Sanders and his surrogates or Hillary Clinton and hers, Beals responded by stating:
“I am endorsed by Justice Democrats, a group of former Bernie Sanders staffers who are pledged to electing progressives nationwide. I am also endorsed for the Greene County chapter of the New York Progressive Action Network, formerly the Bernie Sanders network. My first hire was a former Sanders field coordinator who worked here in NY-19.”
However, conveniently missing from that response is the fact that Beals’ campaign has been, and continues to be, directly managed in nearly every respect by Bennett Ratcliff, a longtime friend and ally of Hillary Clinton. Ratcliff is not mentioned in any publicly available documents as a campaign manager, though the most recent FEC filings show that as of April 1, 2018, Ratcliff was still on the payroll of the Beals campaign. And in the video of Beals’ campaign kickoff rally, Ratcliff introduces Beals, while only being described as a member of the Onteora School Board in Ulster County. This is sort of like referring to Donald Trump as an avid golfer.
Beals has studiously, and rather intelligently, avoided mentioning Ratcliff, or the presence of Clinton’s inner circle on his campaign. However, according to internal campaign documents and emails obtained by CounterPunch, Ratcliff manages nearly every aspect of the campaign, acting as a sort of éminence grise behind the artifice of a progressive campaign fronted by a highly educated and photogenic political novice.
By his own admission, Ratcliff’s role on the campaign is strategy, message, and management. Sounds like a rather textbook description of a campaign manager. Indeed, Ratcliff has been intimately involved in “guiding” Beals on nearly every important campaign decision, especially those involving fundraising.
And it is in the realm of fundraising that Ratcliff really shines, but not in the way one would traditionally think. Rather than focusing on large donations and powerful interests, Ratcliff is using the Beals campaign as a laboratory for his strategy of winning elections without raising millions of dollars.
In fact, leaked campaign documents show that Ratcliff has explicitly instructed Beals and his staffers not to spend money on food, decorations, and other standard campaign expenses in hopes of presenting the illusion of a grassroots, people-powered campaign with no connections to big time donors or financial elites.
Ratcliff is a consultant for Take Back our Republic (TBOR), a well-funded, well-connected campaign finance reform NGO founded by Republican strategist John Pudner. The organization has written a “People’s Democracy Playbook.” As TBOR’s own website noted:
“Take Back Our Republic is teaming up with the Bridge Alliance and the Pluribus Project to work with Pudner’s long-time data and analytics guru, who launched the data effort for President-elect Trump, an original organizer of Occupy Wall Street, and a team that helped defeat Congressional Majority Leader Eric Cantor to create the People’s Democracy Playbook.”
Got that? Ratcliff and Pudner are using the same kinds of data-mining that we now know Cambridge Analytica (and possibly others) used to help Trump win the presidency. While this may simply be good strategy to some, it certainly raises serious questions about the authenticity of Beals and any other candidate connected with Ratcliff, Pudner, and the other Beltway ghouls and political lifers.
Essentially then, it seems that Ratcliff is the wizard behind the curtain, leveraging his decades of contact building and close ties to the Democratic Party establishment while at the same time manufacturing an astroturfed progressive campaign using a front man in Beals.
But how exactly is Ratcliff, and by extension Beals, connected to Clinton and the Washington power elites?
Ratcliff made his career working under Bob Squier, one of the founders of modern political advertising and campaigning. Squier worked for nearly every prominent Democrat from the late 1960s through the nineties, with then President Bill Clinton and then Vice President Al Gore even delivering eulogies at his funeral in 2000. Squier launched Ratcliff’s career, and even passed the torch to him when Ratcliff left Squier’s firm after having become Senior Vice President; Squier gave Ratcliff his client list which included nearly every influential Democrat.
And those relationships carried through to Ratcliff’s lucrative lobbying career when he became a point man for the Clintons on numerous occasions.
One of Ratcliff’s most infamous, and indefensible, acts of fealty to the Clinton machine came in 2009 when he and longtime Clinton attorney and lobbyist, Lanny Davis, stumped around Washington to garner support for the illegal right-wing coup in Honduras, which ousted the democratically elected President Manuel Zelaya in favor of the right-wing oligarchs who control the country today. Although the UN, and even U.S. diplomats on the ground in Honduras, openly stated that the coup was illegal, Clinton was adamant to actively keep Zelaya out. Clinton admitted as much in her book Hard Choices where, in an excerpt that was subsequently removed from later editions, Clinton wrote:
“In the subsequent days [after the coup] I spoke with my counterparts around the hemisphere, including Secretary [Patricia] Espinosa in Mexico… We strategized on a plan to restore order in Honduras and ensure that free and fair elections could be held quickly and legitimately, which would render the question of Zelaya moot.”
But it was Ratcliff and Davis who enabled Clinton’s coup in Honduras by acting as a bridge between powerful interests in Washington, and actors on the ground in Honduras and the region broadly. As Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, wrote in the LA Times in 2009, just weeks after the coup:
“[Lanny] Davis is working with Bennett Ratcliff, another lobbyist with a close relationship to Hillary Clinton who is a former senior executive for one of the most influential political and public relations firms in Washington. In the current mediation effort hosted by Costa Rican President Oscar Arias, the coup-installed government did not make a move without first consulting Ratcliff, an unnamed source told the New York Times.”
It’s clear that Ratcliff was acting as Clinton’s surrogate and proxy in the management of the coup in Honduras, and acting as principal salesman of the coup in Washington to everyone from lawmakers to the Chamber of Commerce.
Essentially then, Ratcliff is a chief architect of the right-wing government in Honduras – the same government assassinating feminist and indigenous activists like Berta Cáceres, Margarita Murillo, and others, and forcibly displacing and ethnically cleansing Afro-indigenous communities to make way for Carribbean resorts and golf courses.
And this Washington insider lobbyist and apologist for war criminals and crimes against humanity is the guy who’s on a crusade to reform campaign finance and fix Washington? This is the guy masquerading as a progressive? This is the guy working to elect an “anti-war progressive”?
In a twisted way it makes sense. Ratcliff has the blood of tens of thousands of Hondurans (among others) on his hands, while Beals is a creature of Langley, a CIA boy whose exceptional work in the service of Bush and Clinton administration war criminals is touted as some kind of merit badge on his resume.
What also becomes clear after establishing the Ratcliff-Beals connection is the fact that Ratcliff’s purported concern with campaign financing and “taking back the Republic” is really just a pretext for attempting to provide a “proof of concept,” as it were, that neoliberal Democrats shouldn’t fear and subvert the progressive wing of the party, but rather that they should co-opt it with a phony grassroots facade all while maintaining links to U.S. intelligence, Wall Street, and the power brokers of the Democratic Party.
But Wait, There’s More…
Beals isn’t the only candidate for NY-19’s Democratic nomination with ties to the Iraq War and the intelligence establishment. Patrick Ryan, who served two tours in Iraq as an intelligence officer after graduating from West Point, is also running in the primary against Beals.
As The Intercept reported in February 2018:
“Seven years ago, Ryan, then working at a firm called Berico Technologies, compiled a plan to create a real-time surveillance operation of left-wing groups and labor unions… The pitch, a joint venture with a now-defunct company called HBGary Federal and the Peter Thiel-backed company Palantir Technologies, however, crumbled in 2011 after it was exposed in a series of news reports.
Years later, Ryan pivoted to a startup called Dataminr, a data analytics company that provided social media monitoring solutions for law enforcement clients. Dataminr, which received financial support from the CIA’s venture capital arm, produced real-time updates about activists for law enforcement. For example, according to documents obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union of California and reported by The Intercept for the first time, Dataminr helped track social media posts relating to Black Lives Matter.”
Interestingly, Ryan has gone the traditional fundraising route, and is orders of magnitude more flush with cash than Beals ($900,000 as of the end of 2017 versus Beals’ $174,000). In a sense, these are two very similar, odious candidates following two divergent campaign models utilizing different elements of the Democratic Party machine.
Ryan is backed by right-wing elements of the Democratic Party, as evidenced by his receiving support from the New Democrat Coalition PAC, a conservative, pro-business element of the party. In contrast, Beals doesn’t have such overt institutional support, and is instead handled by a Clinton surrogate who actively discourages large-scale fundraising as part of his strategy to build up his candidate as the true voice of the grassroots.
As such, Beals is attempting to craft an image as a progressive who stands in contrast to the Blue Dog conservatism of Ryan. What can you call this farce? It is the primary equivalent of professional wrestling. A rigged game.
Beals and Ryan represent a disturbing trend taking place across the country: intelligence insiders and military officers running as Democrats in an election year that expects to see triumphs for Democrats in reaction to the Trump shit show.
The World Socialist Website’s Patrick Martin has compiled a rather exhaustive list of other candidates who fall into this trend as well, including, but not limited to:
*Elissa Slotkin (Michigan’s 8th District) – served three tours with the CIA in Baghdad
*Gina Ortiz Jones (Texas’s 23rd District) – Air Force intelligence officer in Iraq
*Abigail Spanberger (Virginia’s 7th District) – served as CIA operations officer for nearly a decade
*Jesse Colvin (Maryland’s 1st District) – Army intelligence officer in Afghanistan and Korea’s DMZ
*Shelly Chauncey (Pennsylvania’s 5th District) – CIA undercover officer in Latin America, East Asia, and, unsurprisingly, within the borders of the U.S.
These candidates represent only a small sample of the more than dozen races in which U.S. intelligence and/or military operatives are running as Democrats. Many of them directly participated in war crimes and crimes against humanity. And a significant number of this rogue’s gallery are posturing as “progressives” in the Bernie Sanders tradition.
What we are witnessing is the inevitable counter-insurgency by the forces of entrenched political power in Washington, and capital more generally. While Bernie Sanders was no revolutionary, his campaign ignited a grassroots upsurge that now threatens the power of the neoliberal wing of the Democratic Party and the neoliberal Clinton political machine that, for all intents and purposes, controls it.
By presenting real progressive voters with manufactured, faux-progressive candidates like Jeff Beals, the Clintonites think they’ll pull the wool over the eyes of the progressive left.
Will the Left allow them to? That depends on us.