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Fred Branfman: Excesses of Executive Branch Eroding Democratic Institutions

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JAISAL NOOR, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jaisal Noor in Baltimore.

The leaks by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden have sparked a discussion about the expansion of government spying under the Obama administration and whether the government has been truthful to the American public about the extent of this spying. Our next guest argues this discussion needs to include whether the expanding powers of the executive branch protect national security.

Now joining us is Fred Branfman. He’s been studying U.S. secret wars since he brought the secret U.S. bombing of Laos to world attention in 1969. He has published a dozen articles on present U.S. secret war-making in the Muslim world. And his book, recently republished, Voices from the Plain of Jars, is the only book on the Indochina War written from the perspective of the peasants who suffered.

Thank you for joining us.


NOOR: Fred, why is it important to have a discussion about whether this national security state protects national interests?

BRANFMAN: What we’ve got to understand is that the United States government is today failing to protect America and endangering national security because of its assassination strikes, both from the air with drones and on the ground with the first unit of American assassins in American history, called the Joint Special Operations Command, is actually making our enemies far stronger. It’s destabilizing ally governments, provoking thousands of potential U.S. suicide bombers for possible attacks against Americans. And most importantly, it’s endangering our ability to control Pakistan’s nuclear stockpile.

And this is not my opinion only. Let me just quote to you General McChrystal, our previous commander in Afghanistan. He says: “What scares me about drone strikes is how they are perceived around the world.” “The resentment created by American use of unmanned strikes … is much greater than the average American appreciates. They are hated on a visceral level, even by people who’ve never seen one or seen the effects of one.”

Now, what he’s talking about is we are provoking hundreds of millions of Muslims in dozens of countries to hate us, creating far more enemies than we kill. This is endangering us. We’re so worried about the possibility of Iran getting a nuclear bomb. Well, Pakistan already has 100 of them. And U.S. Ambassador Anne Patterson revealed in the WikiLeaks cables that the Pakistani government is refusing to cooperate with us on safeguarding their nuke materials because we’re so hated in Pakistan.

What would enhance U.S. national security more than anything else is, number one, stop provoking most–the entire Muslim world to hate us. Halt the drone strikes, halt the ground assassinations, we’ll reduce the number of people who want to kill us. Right now, the U.S. government is increasing exponentially the number of people who want to kill us.

Now, in the context of this very serious–this is a serious national security issue–the notion that the NSA has to spy on millions of Americans to protect us is ridiculous. The first thing out of their mouth: they said they’d captured the New York subway bomber from this spying. In fact, The Guardian had a story two days later that it was the British who had stopped the subway bomber, and the spying on Americans had nothing to do with protecting us from potential suicide bombers.

And I think what we really need to understand–let me, for example, quote another source, the former director of national intelligence Dennis Blair. He was the director of national intelligence, which coordinates all of the intelligence agencies in the United States, just before Mr. Clapper, who just lied by saying that the NSA was not spying on Americans. Mr. Blair said the drone strikes have increased hatred of America, is damaging our ability to work with Pakistan on eliminating Taliban sanctuaries, encouraging India-Pakistan dialog, and making Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal more secure. So what he’s saying is that because of the drone strikes, it’s hampering our ability to make Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal more secure.

Now, compared to these kinds of issues, which do pose a threat to us, the notion that we’re somehow being protected by having the NSA or anyone else spying on us is completely ridiculous.

NOOR: So, Fred, you argue that the Obama and Bush administrations have built this massive surveillance state through private and public programs, and now they have to justify their continuation, justify the massive cost that it’s taking on U.S. tax dollars.

BRANFMAN: Yes, exactly. People in this country are going without jobs, they’re going without food, because we’ve thrown hundreds of billions of dollars since 9/11 at a top-secret America–which is the name of an important book that every American ought to read–that consists of 1,000 government agencies and 2,000 private companies that have to justify every year their budgets. They have to come up with new reasons why we should fund them to so-called protect us.

So, for example, NSA, in order to justify its budget, has to claim that by spying on millions of Americans it needs more budget, which will then protect us. But in fact that’s absolutely not true. In fact, the money we’re giving them is endangering us, particularly the money that we’re spending right now on waging these assassination wars abroad.

NOOR: And, Fred, the expansion of drones, some could argue it’s a way to avoid having U.S. troops on the ground, which did–during the Vietnam War, the massive civilian death toll in the Vietnam War did help bring U.S. public opinion against that war. Do you feel that this expanse of this drone war is a way of the elites to make waging war easier?

BRANFMAN: Absolutely. The more secret they can keep it, the less Americans who die, the more freedom they have to kill people all over the globe in the name of protecting us. And, again, it’s a former director of national intelligence, a former general, McChrystal, and dozens of other experts, by the way, are quoted in an alternate article I recently wrote–I just repeat these quotes–who were saying it’s not protecting us.

Now, you have to ask yourself, if it’s not protecting us, why are they doing it? And let me give you an example. Let me first mention Laos and then come back to the present day. When I interviewed over 1,000 refugees from northern Laos who had had their homes and villages destroyed, tens of thousands of people murdered by U.S. bombing, the one thing I couldn’t figure out was why the bombing had so increased after November 1968, when the U.S. had halted bombing over North Vietnam? All the peasants were telling me that the bombing had suddenly become four or five times greater. And I knew there was no military reason for it.

It was only a few months later that I read–and this is a very important quote from the deputy chief of mission to Laos testifying to the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee–this is an exact quote–when he was asked why they quadrupled the bombing of northern Laos, he said, quote, well, we had all those planes sitting around and couldn’t just let them sit there with nothing to do, unquote.

Now, the situation we have today is very similar. The Bush and Obama administrations have created the first U.S. force of American assassins in our history. They’ve also created automated machines of war called drones. They have to come up with new missions.

For example, President Obama stated as recently as last month that the drone strikes are only aimed at people whose names we know who are plotting to kill us back in America and who we can’t get any other way. This was an absolute falsehood. The evidence is overwhelming that most of the strikes, drone strikes in Pakistan, in Yemen, in Somalia are what they call signature strikes. These are strikes against people whose names they don’t know. They have no idea what their names are. They’re bombing–they’re drone-striking them on the basis of there’s a crowd of people who they decide might be hiding a militant.

Now, you might ask yourself, why did they go from striking named people to striking unnamed people? Why did they go–they’ve only been able to name 77 senior al-Qaeda leaders and Taliban leaders by name, and they’ve killed 3,000 to 5,000 other people. Well, the reason is obvious. There were all these drones sitting around out there. They don’t know the names of that many, quote, senior al-Qaeda leaders. They ran out of targets. So they then decided to start killing nameless people, which both General McChrystal and the former director of national intelligence now tell us is infuriating the Muslim world.

You know, in Pakistan, a nuclear-armed nation, a recent Pew poll said that 80 percent of the people in that country regard us as their enemy. Is this the goal of foreign policy, to make nuclear-armed Pakistan regard us as their enemy? And among the people who regard us as their enemy are the people guarding their nuclear facilities. These are the issues we should be discussing.

NOOR: Now, Fred, you touched upon the issue of credibility in these NSA leaks. The statements of U.S. officials have, you know, proven to be lies, to be false. Why isn’t there more skepticism of government claims about U.S. foreign policy, about these drone strikes?

BRANFMAN: Well, you have to understand that it’s the way the mass media in this country is structured. If you’re working for The New York Times or The Washington Post, your bread and butter is your, quote, sources within the executive branch. If you start pointing out that they’re committing war crimes, murdering people constantly, that they’re failing in their basic job of protecting us, these sources won’t talk to you. They will talk to your competitor, and you lose your job.

The mass media–people don’t realize that the mass media, on a minute-by-minute, hour-by-hour basis, is conveying to them what the executive branch officials, who lie as a matter of course, are telling them. Once in a while there’s a scoop. Once in a while they–something is revealed that the government doesn’t like. It gives us all the illusion that we have a free press. But in fact the media functions as the PR arm of the United States executive branch. Same thing with Congress. If a congressman were to stand up, you know, Senator Udall and Senator Wyden have said, if the American people knew what was going on, they’d be appalled, but we can’t tell you, because we’ll go to jail; we can’t tell you, because–secondly, because if they go too far, campaign contributors will dry up and they won’t be in office.

The executive branch is the most powerful institution in the history of the world and the most powerful institution in America, and it degrades every aspect of American democracy because it is not a democratic institution. It’s an authoritarian institution. It operates in the dark. There’s no accountability. And that’s our fundamental problem as a nation today.

NOOR: Fred Branfman, thank you for joining us.

BRANFMAN: Thank you so much.

NOOR: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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Fred Branfman (1942-2014) was an American anti-war activist and author of a number of books about the Vietnam War. He brought the secret U.S. bombing of Laos to world attention in 1969. He has published a dozen articles on present U.S. secret war-making in the Muslim world. And his book, Voices from the Plain of Jars, is the only book on the Indochina War written from the perspective of the peasants who suffered. Fred passed away in 2014 at the age of 72