The ban on travel to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is primarily an attack on the people in the northern part of the Korean Peninsula. It is a move to further isolate the DPRK, and prevent tourist dollars from flowing in, while also preventing fraternization between Americans and citizens of the country. However, the State Department’s decision also has another target in the crosshairs, one much closer to Washington DC.
According to reports in the press, roughly 5,000 US citizens visit the DPRK each year. Most are tourist youth attracted to the mystique and adventure of traveling to a country so widely demonized in the US media. Communist organizations send political delegations and Christian sects such as the Mennonites often send missionaries and aid workers. However, one can be sure that among the 5,000 people who visit the country each year is more than a few American spies, posing as tourists.
When one looks over the recent history of Americans being arrested in North Korea prior to the tragic death of Otto Warmbier, the reasons for the arrest almost always indicate activities that could be described as espionage. Merrill Newman, for example, was a former member of the US military’s “White Tigers” division during the Korean War. The 85 year old man was arrested in the DPRK as he wore a ring with the insignia of this anti-DPRK fighting and intelligence unit. After being arrested he confessed to participating in some of the war crimes against the Korean people during the 1950-1953 war. Newman stated “I did not realize North Korea was still at war” after his eventual release.
The State Department ban on travel to the DPRK is far more extreme than the widely challenged ban on travel to Cuba, enacted as part of the blockade. Officials say that any American who visits DPRK will automatically have their passport invalidated. The constitutionality of such an extreme ban is likely to be challenged.
In the meantime, however, any efforts by the CIA to gather information inside North Korea, or to manipulate or maneuver within its internal affairs, are greatly limited.
Two divisions of the US Federal Government that have long been at odds in issues of foreign policy have been the military and the Central Intelligence Agency. The nature of the two entity’s work lays the basis for their constant disagreement and conflict. The new State Department policy has essentially declared that the DPRK will be handled with military operations, not with “color revolutions,” plots of a coup, manipulation of the youth, or the other shenanigans carried out by the intelligence agencies.
A Longstanding Fight – CIA vs. Pentagon
The US military brass is trained at West Point, and though a great deal of history and background is provided, the focus of their training is military science and the “art of war.” Meanwhile, the Central Intelligence Agency’s administrators come from Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, and are trained in the subtle art of expanding US influence and quietly neutralizing those who challenge it.
The favorite word of those who extoll the military and disfavor the CIA is “strength.” The strategies favored by the Pentagon involve demoralizing opponents of US power with “shock and awe” style crushing of enemies. The mass bombing campaigns in Vietnam and Korea did not win credibility and respect for the US internationally, and this was not their intention. The same can be said for Bush’s unilateral invasion of Iraq. The Pentagon does not concern itself with winning friends and influencing people, but with blowing things up, and its favored foreign policy reflects this.
The CIA, on the other hand, tends to favor soft power, negotiations, and internal subversion of global rivals, all done covertly, with the USA looking like a benevolent “Mr. Nice Guy” on the surface. The CIA favors arming and training third party proxies to fight their enemies, while waging a fierce battle in the field of public relations and propaganda.
The clash between the military and the intelligence agencies has played out dramatically in recent US history. It is widely understood that John F. Kennedy began enacting policies that overwhelmingly favored the CIA prior to his death. Kennedy resisted the efforts to escalate military involvement in Vietnam, while funding and emphasizing CIA-linked operations like the Peace Corps. Kennedy’s often quoted the phrase “those who make peaceful revolution impossible make violent revolution inevitable” stated the CIA’s exact strategy for fighting Communism during the Cold War. The CIA favored “reforms” in US aligned third world regimes that made Marxist-Leninist revolution less appealing, while also presenting the US as a benevolent, charitable country that did not seek to intervene in other countries domestic affairs. The CIA worked to make sure that the hands of the USA during the rise of military dictatorships and the toppling of pro-Soviet world leaders were well hidden.
Prior to Kennedy’s assassination, a hard, right-wing mass movement against him, involving the John Birch Society and many Pentagon linked political figures, called the “Camelot” President a traitor and Soviet agent. Many sections of the military thought Kennedy’s “soft power” strategy for confronting Communism, and his ultimate refusal to invade Cuba with US troops after the CIA’s failed “Bay of Pigs” operation, showed weakness. Films like “Dr. Strangelove” widely mocked the well-known fanaticism of the military brass, which distrusted the intelligence agencies and the ability of politicians to make military decisions. Kennedy’s subtle alliance with the Civil Rights Movement, though inconsistent and widely criticized by activists, also threatened a military brass packed with the sons of wealthy southern families.
After the death of Kennedy, the US military seemed to be on top in the power struggle. Richard Nixon’s electoral victory in 1968, and his “secret plan” to win the Vietnam War with massive bombing, showed the military and its allies as the dominant force in setting policy.
But the demoralizing and unpopular war in Vietnam reversed this by the mid-1970s. Nixon found himself listening and depending more on the advice of Henry Kissinger, opening relations with the People’s Republic of China, and eventually being driven from office. Jimmy Carter took office in 1976 calling himself a “student” of CIA strategist Zbiegniew Brzezinski. Under Reagan, the CIA got stronger, with CIA chief George H.W. Bush rising to be Vice President and eventually Reagan’s successor as commander-in-chief.
The often repeated narrative that the US military’s escalation of the arms race was the key factor in defeating the USSR is said with absolute defensiveness by the Pentagon’s right-wing allies. Though the “strong man Reagan” explanation is more widely understood among the US public, within the circles of power in the USA, the CIA takes more credit.
Under the direction of Brzezinski, who boasted that he “gave the USSR a Vietnam” by funneling money and weapons to insurgents in what he called the “Afghan trap,” the CIA manipulated political situations in Eastern Europe causing unrest and a crisis that eventually toppled the USSR. The CIA widely credits itself for terminating the Soviet Union by manipulating internal problems and applying less blatant forms of external pressure.
The CIA is not a “Conservative” Organization
Many leftists and anti-war activists assume that the CIA is staffed with jingoistic conservatives due to the nature of the job. While the rank-and-file of “the company” may attract a more rightist crowd of Mormons and military types, the leaders of the CIA are not conservative in any sense of the word.
John Brennan, the director of the CIA under Barack Obama admits that he voted for Communist Party Presidential Candidate Gus Hall in the 1976 Presidential election. Brennan was stationed in Riyahl for many years, and at the time of his appointment, many voices came forward to allege that he had actually converted to the Wahabbi brand of Islam. The allegations remain unproven.
The CIA strategist who was most influential between the 1960s and the 1990s was Zbiegnew Brzezinski. To call Brzezinski conservative would be deeply mistaken. Zbeignew’s daughter, Mika Brzezinski is a host on liberal leaning MSNBC’s TV program “Morning Joe.”
Brzezinski developed the art of propaganda, presenting the USA to the world as the homeland of Beatles Music, the paintings of Jackson Pollack, and sexual hedonism. In Eastern Europe, Brzezinski’s policies convinced millions of alienated young people that overthrowing the Marxist-Leninist governments would transform their countries into Disneyland playgrounds packed with consumer goods and never ending rock and roll concerts.
In Afghanistan, Brzezinski worked with a young Saudi billionaire named Osama Bin Laden to fight against the People’s Democratic Party. With US made weapons and funding, complimented by heroin revenue, the insurgents poured acid on women’s faces and hanged literacy campaign volunteers. Brzezinski’s slick propaganda work convinced the world that these Wahabbi extremists were actually Che Guevara-esqu freedom fighters, battling the “Soviet Empire” for freedom. CBS news was even caught airing staged, fake battle footage.
The figure known as George Soros has become a favored talking point of right-wing activists in the USA. They present him as the sinister bank-roller of leftist activism. Long before Soros was promoting Democrats and Liberals in the USA, he was bank-rolling CIA supported anti-Communist “color revolutions.” Soros is known to have funded anti-communist, pro-capitalist and pro-western protest movements in the USSR, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, and elsewhere.
During the Cold War, the CIA launched a program called the “Congress for Cultural Freedom.” The program funded the art of Jackson Pollack, as well as the Trotskyist magazine “Partisan Review.” The CIA also launched a project called MK-Ultra which involved distributing hallucinogenic drugs on college campuses.
Obama’s Administration – The White House Stood With Langley
Barack Obama’s grandparents were prominent executives of the Bank of Hawaii. Obama’s grandmother Madelyn Dunham, actually became the first female Vice-President of the bank. The Bank of Hawaii was key in transferring money to US intelligence operations across Asia.
Obama’s mother, Ann Dunham, was married to Lolo Soetoro, a figure in Indonesia who openly supported the 1965 CIA backed coup d’etat against President Sukharno. Soetoro eventually became a military officer under US backed dictator Suharno. It should be noted that the 1965 coup, which Obama’s grandparent’s Bank of Hawaii was involved in financing, was particularly bloody, and involved mass slaughter of ethnically Chinese people. Some estimate that as many as 500,000 people died.
Obama’s family connections aside, his Presidency was very much favorable to the CIA’s strategy for international relations. Obama’s middle name is Hussein. He attended an Islamic elementary school as a child. Long before becoming President, Obama famously had a meeting with Palestinian scholar Edward Said. He maintained a hostile war of words with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
One is reminded of how Napoleon Bonaparte sent out proclamations saying he was a Muslim as he attempted to seize Syria and Egypt for France. To the Arab world, a key region in US foreign policy strategy, Obama gave the illusion of possibly being a Muslim and an ally against Israel.
The fact that a dark skinned man, whose middle name was “Hussein” occupied the White House probably played a key role during the Arab Spring. The uprisings of youth in Islamic countries did not become a repeat of the 1979 Islamic Revolution of Iran, where western capitalism was replaced by a government proclaiming “war of poverty against wealthy” and “Not capitalism but Islam.”
The USA was able to maneuver within the Arab spring to topple the Islamic Socialist government of Libya, and to reduce the Baath Socialist country of Syria to civil war and chaos. Meanwhile, the US backed autocracies in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and elsewhere remained thoroughly intact. The continuation of the Yemeni revolution against a pro-Saudi regime now faces on an onslaught of bombs and foreign troops.
The establishment of diplomatic relations between the USA and Cuba, with friendly words while intel operatives worked behind the scenes to plot social media unrest with a “Cuban Twitter,” fits the CIA playbook and strategy completely. The JCPOA negotiations with Iran fit into a similar strategy.
In the final weeks of the Obama administration, desperate “Mr. Nice Guy” maneuvers to increase the credibility of the USA on the global stage were carried out. John Kerry gave a speech criticizing Israel, and the US did not protect Israel from a harshly worded resolution at the UN Security Council.
Trump Stands With The Pentagon
Even before Trump took office, his presidential campaign was loaded with subtle hostility to the CIA. Trump castigated the results of US foreign policy, specifically in Syria and Libya where the CIA had been instrumental. During his debate with Hillary Clinton he criticized the funding rebels in Syria. He repeatedly said that the policies of Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had created ISIS.
Trump repeated perspectives that would be popular with the military. The key word repeated in Trump’s foreign policy speeches was “strength.” The idea that a huge military budget and direct military interventions make the USA look stronger as a country has long been a talking point of the military brass, against proponents of soft-power and subtle influence.
At times, Trump seemed to be contradictory when talking about foreign policy. It is no secret that among rank-and-file soldiers, and the white, working class, rural communities they often originate in, right-wing isolationist sentiments are widespread. Trump appealed to those sentiments when talking about the bad results of “toppling regimes” and employing the slogan “America First.”
At the same time, he appealed to the Pentagon’s calls for strength, saying that Obama’s “red line” around chemical weapons had “meant nothing.” It may sound contradictory to favor isolationism, while criticizing a president for not making good on threats to attack a country, but it fits into his overall appeal to sentiments within the military.
At the same time that Trump critiqued foreign policy and echoed isolationist talking points, he consistently called for an increase in military spending. In Trump’s foreign policy rhetoric, the isolationism of rank and file soldiers, the Generals’ lust for strength, and the military-industrial complex’s desire for more profits were all re-assured.
The spat between Trump and the CIA is no secret, and is widely acknowledge, even in mainstream US media. The intelligence agencies continue to repeat, without proof, that Trump received assistance from “Russian meddling” in the 2016 elections. A series of leaks from within the administration have found their way to the press.
The Trump administration fought back first by dramatically crippling the CIA’s operations in the Middle East. The executive order banning travel from 6 countries was widely called a “Muslim ban” in the US press. In reality, it targeted all citizens, Muslim or not, from 6 specific countries. (Note: The ban originally included 7 countries, but Iraq was removed from the list.)
Sudan, Iran, Syria, Yemen, Libya, and Somolia are all the site of ongoing conflicts, and in each of these countries US intelligence agencies are working to influence and coordinate with certain forces. As was pointed out by an opponent of the ban on FOX news, the “travel ban” prevents the CIA from rewarding those who do its bidding with visas. A key “soft power” bribe has been taken away from the CIA for its operations in the Middle East.
Trump ultimately shut down the CIA’s training program for anti-government fighters in Syria, according to reports. Trump has accused Obama of wiretapping him during the Presidential campaign.
Trump has even discussed designating the Muslim Brotherhood, an organization that works closely with the CIA around the world, as a Foreign Terrorist Organization. The Muslim Brotherhood was key in undermining and fighting against Arab Socialism during the cold war. More recently, the Muslim Brotherhood was key in aiding US activities to manipulate the Arab spring, and the create turmoil in Libya and Syria.
The Turkish government, which draws its support from the Muslim Brotherhood, is far less friendly to the United States than just a few years ago. The current spat between Saudi Arabia and the Muslim Brotherhood-supporting state of Qatar may reflect difference within the power structure about relations to the Muslim Brotherhood and its use in the fight against independent governments.
Despite presenting himself as an isolationist, Trump ultimately did what Obama was unwilling to do, and launched direct US attacks on the Syrian government. Many in his base were furious, and even longtime hawks like Ann Coulter denounced Trump’s move. However, the more well connected members of the Republican establishment praised it, using the military’s favorite word, calling the bombing a demonstration of “strength.”
As Donald Trump remains President of the United States, the press is solidly against him. This should be no surprise as the US Central Intelligence Agency, not the Pentagon, is primarily involved with influencing media. From the days of “Project Mockingbird” to today, the CIA works very hard to influence and craft public opinion, especially on issues of foreign policy. The flow of ‘anonymous leaks’ from the intel community into the press reflects the longstanding relationship between the intelligence agencies and the media.
The Specter of Economic Crisis, Greatest Danger to Trump
Right now, spending in the USA is down. Wal-Marts are shutting their doors, and suburban malls, which employed thousands, are becoming a thing of the past. The post-2008 “new normal” of low wage retail jobs replacing good paying jobs for the next generation is rapidly fading away, as retail itself is being pushed aside by online shopping. Jeff Bezos outstripped Bill Gates as the richest man in the United States in terms of directly traceable assets.
Meanwhile, home ownership is still declining. The basic ability of American families to own houses has widely been eroded, home ownership has not been restored to anywhere near the pre-2008 levels. In neighborhoods across the USA, family homes are not being resold to American families, but to renting institutions.
As property values remain low and home ownership drops in suburban and rural areas, another aspect of the “new normal,” the “prosperous urban centers” hopping with young workers in high tech jobs, are also seeing a new decline in property values. Unemployment is low, but so are wages.
In the unfolding atmosphere of eroded spending power and decreasing incomes, banks in the USA are now cutting back in lending. When banks stop lending, it is generally based on an understanding that bad times are ahead and they may not be able to collect.
Between 2000 and 2008, Alan Greenspan and the Federal Reserve did everything possible to hold off a crash. Greenspan legalized all kinds of previously illegal credit card and housing mortgage lending, in order to keep the US public spending money they did not have. While the spending power of the US public was drastically reduced by deindustrialization, automation, and shifts in the global economy, Greenspan spent his final years working tireless to keep sales up. Many will recall how George W. Bush urged Americans who wanted to help their country in the aftermath of 9/11 to “go shopping.”
Greenspan’s maneuvers worked only until 2008. With deregulated banking laws, Americans could keep buying houses and maxing out their credit cards, keeping the economy that faced turmoil from 2001 afloat, until the “bubble burst.”
Alan Greenspan was a high ranking member of the Council on Foreign Relations, a think tank often described as “the CIA’s brain.” He did not make his decisions in isolation, but most likely consulted with other figures in the intelligence community about the need to hold off the crisis as long as possible. Greenspan’s decision to legalize credit and keep the public spending, and temporarily hold off the crisis, was not a decision he made by himself.
As the economy crashed and burned in 2007 and 2008, Bush and his cronies, widely viewed as soft on big money, packed their bags, and Barack Obama was able to ride to the White House almost on a white horse, presented as the savior who offered “hope and change.” Greenspan’s efforts did not prevent a the financial crisis, but enabled it to come at a more convenient time, with less political fallout.
However, the political situation facing the USA is far different today. The intelligence community and a large section of the rich and powerful are adamantly opposed to Donald Trump’s presidency, there may not be any specific motivation to work to hold off a financial catastrophe.
If a financial crash were to occur again, Donald Trump would be the ideal scapegoat. The fallout could be blamed on his unpopular presidency which is already routinely ridiculed and demonized by the press.
Will Trump Come Out On Top?
The fact that Trump’s “infrastructure week” contained so few concrete actions may not have hurt Trump at the moment, but a failure to vastly improve the lives of the rustbelt working class that voted for him could be the ultimate undoing of his presidency.
As Trump battles the intelligence community, and seems to side with the Pentagon, he is facing an uphill battle. Allies of the Pentagon brass are disappointed and opponents of Trump are emboldened. However, Trump has proven that he has the ability to unpredictably reverse circumstances that are hostile to him, and come out victorious. The unexpected 2016 elections results are the most concrete example.
If anything was proven by Trump’s surprise victory or the Brexit vote, as well as the rise of Jeremy Corbyn and Scottish Nationalism in the UK, it is that anti-establishment sentiments are stronger and deeper than ever in western countries. People in the west realize that things are deeply wrong and are looking for answers. The answers offered by the status quo, often answers that are engineered and delivered in coordination with the intelligence community, are proving to be unsatisfactory.
In the age of easy access to information, the intelligence community may have both an advantage and disadvantage in the face of their opponents in the US power structure. On the one hand, their deceptions and crafting of public opinion can be more widely and cheaply disseminated than ever before. However, an audience that once had nowhere else to look can easily find alternative views, and debunk their claims. The economic decline and rising police state repression are making the US public more and more partisan toward opposing the establishment and entrenched power that the CIA’s propaganda activities seek to defend.
Trump and his allies in the Pentagon are in a weaker position as they face off with the Intelligence Community, however, the underlying shift in public opinion and the changes in the global economy give them a competitive edge.
Caleb Maupin is a political analyst and activist based in New York. He studied political science at Baldwin-Wallace College and was inspired and involved in the Occupy Wall Street movement, especially for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.