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  • On the Afterglow of Historical Fairy Tales

    Posted on February 13th, 2012 Helian No comments

    We are fortunate to be living in an age in which historical source material is becoming increasingly abundant and difficult to destroy, because we are also living in an age that has been prolific in the rearrangement of historical fact to suit ideological ends.  I just ran across yet another data point demonstrating the process whereby the myths created in the process are transmogrified into “historical fact.”  It turned up on Atomic Insights, a blog penned by nuclear power advocate Rod Adams.

    The reason this particular “historical fact” turned up in one of Rod’s articles is neither here nor there.  As far as I know he’s perfectly sound politically, and has no ax to grind outside of his nuclear advocacy.  It was apparently reproduced without any malice or intent to deceive as a “well known fact” in an article about the mutual hostility of the U.S. and Iran.  According to Rod,

    On the other side of the issue, Iranians date their hostility to America to 1953, when the United States CIA took actions to stimulate the overthrow of the democratically elected leader named Mohammad Mosaddeqh. Our main beef with him was the fact that he had decided that the oil and gas under his country actually belonged to the people, not to the companies that had arranged some sweet deals during a colonial era. When he moved to nationalize the oil reserves, the UK and the US took action to install a dictator who was more compliant with our “interests.”  That part of the controversy is pretty well known and discussed.

    In fact, that part of the controversy isn’t discussed nearly enough.  If it were, this version of “history” would have been relegated to the garbage heap long ago.  I wrote a series of articles debunking it some time ago that can be read here, here and here.  The “official” version of this particular historical fairy tale, entitled All the Shah’s Men, was written by New York Times reporter Steven Kinzer, apparently in the proud tradition of Walter Duranty’s glowing accounts of Stalin’s Russia.  Kinzer’s “history” was based largely on a CIA source document, which is available to anyone on the web.  Evidently he assumed no one would actually bother to read it and the other easily available source material, because the idea that they “prove” the great Mossadegh Coup myth is palpably absurd.  The CIA activities described were so dilettantish they wouldn’t have seriously undermined the flimsiest of banana republics, not to mention Iran.  On the very day that the coup happened the supposedly miraculously effective CIA plotters in Tehran, convinced that the coup had failed, sat meekly on the sidelines, taking no significant role in directing events whatsoever.  To believe the claim that their actions were undertaken solely to mollify evil US and UK oil and gas cartels it is necessary to willfully blind ones self to the possibility that Communist aggression ever actually existed or that the US government ever honestly believed that it was a threat at the time.  Of course, I cannot prove that I am any less prone to historical distortions than Mr. Kinzer et. al.  However, I can suggest that anyone interested in the facts read the source material.  It speaks for itself.  I suspect that anyone reading it with an open mind will conclude that his yarn about the mind boggling effectiveness of the great CIA plot and the reasons it happened are baloney.

    That hasn’t prevented these myths from gelling into historical “facts.”  Rob’s blog is hardly the only place you’ll find similar disinformation.  The more a given myth serves ideological ends, the faster the gelling process proceeds.  In this case it was doubly effective.  It stroked the egos of the CIA supersleuths who had no trouble convincing themselves that they really had “killed seven at one blow,” and it also had just the right “anti-imperialist” touch for the ideologues of the left.  But heaven forefend that you should take my word for it.  Look for yourself.

    One could cite many other similar instances of rearranging history.  For example, there’s the old southern schoolmarm’s yarn about how the Civil War wasn’t about slavery, the anti-nuclear activists’ yarn about how the atomic bomb had nothing to do with ending World War II, the Nazi yarn about how the German army lost World War I because it was “stabbed in the back” by revolutionaries on the home front, and so on and so on.  One often hears the old bromide that “history is written by the victors” from the creators of these fantasies.  That may be, but in all the cases cited above, and many more like them, there is no lack of source material out there for anyone interested enough to dig it up and read it.  In the case of the Civil War, for example, it reveals that common people in the north thought it was about slavery, common people in the south thought it was about slavery, foreign observers uniformly concurred it was about slavery, and southern politicians made no bones whatsoever about the fact that it was about slavery in their declarations of secession.  Under the circumstances, based on the unanimous testimony of the people who actually experienced it, I tend to believe the Civil War was, in fact, about slavery.  If you make the effort to “go to the source” with an open mind, you’re liable to find a lot more fossilized historical “facts” that aren’t quite what they seem.

  • Wapo’s “Top Secret America” Extravaganza

    Posted on July 27th, 2010 Helian No comments

    The Washington Post’s editors were singularly unfortunate in their choice of weeks to publish their “Top Secret America” series, as it was quickly upstaged by Wikileaks. It’s just as well, as the content was pretty lame, and probably elicited many a sardonic scoff from the folks who work for the NSA and CIA. I’m certainly receptive to the serie’s central theme that “The government has built a national security and intelligence system so big, so complex and so hard to manage, no one really knows if it’s fulfilling its most important purpose: keeping its citizens safe.” Unfortunately, the articles are written in the time-honored “expose” style with its insinuations that the reader is being let in on “confidential” information that, like the dead tree media itself, has become an anachronism since the invention of the Internet.

    In the first article, entitled “A Hidden World, Growing Beyond Control,” for example, we are presented with this spine-tingling description of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the National Counterterrorism Center at Liberty Crossing in McLean:

    Outside a gated subdivision of mansions in McLean, a line of cars idles every weekday morning as a new day in Top Secret America gets underway. The drivers wait patiently to turn left, then crawl up a hill and around a bend to a destination that is not on any public map and not announced by any street sign.

    Liberty Crossing tries hard to hide from view. But in the winter, leafless trees can’t conceal a mountain of cement and windows the size of five Wal-Mart stores stacked on top of one another rising behind a grassy berm. One step too close without the right badge, and men in black jump out of nowhere, guns at the ready.

    Now, if Liberty Crossing “tries hard to hide from view,” it’s rather hard to divine how the second hit in a Google search of the words “Liberty Crossing Intelligence” could be the homepage of the National Counterterrorism Center itself, but it is.  Apparently the folks at NCC are singularly inept at hiding.  As for not being on any public maps, the first hit takes care of that problem by providing a satellite image of the campus and surrounding area.  The “men in black” are, no doubt, some of the ubiquitous security guys the enterprising tourist can find at any number of the Defense, Intelligence, and other federal agencies in the Washington area, many of them a block or two from the mall.  They don’t commonly “jump out of nowhere,” because, as I can confirm after having visited any number of secure facilities, they have no reason to hide.  I doubt that it would ever occur to one of them to draw their weapon because someone took “one step too close without the right badge.”

    The article treats us to the first of several implausible anecdotes that run through the entire series. For example, one of the Department of Defense’s “Super Users,” the upper echelon guys who supposedly have access to everything, is quoted as complaining because,

    at his initial briefing, he was escorted into a tiny, dark room, seated at a small table and told he couldn’t take notes. Program after program began flashing on a screen, he said, until he yelled ”Stop!” in frustration.

    As anyone with even a passing familiarity with classified information would have been aware, he had merely to ask for a classified notebook.  Such a “Super User” would surely have known this.  I’ve been to many classified briefings, but never in a room I would consider “tiny.”  Maybe he works for the wrong agency?  As for the darkness, he probably wouldn’t have committed a security infraction by switching on the lights.  He might not have seen the Powerpoint slides as clearly, though.

    We are treated to more of the same in the remaining two articles.  The next in the series, entitled “National Security Inc.,” focuses on the supposedly baleful influence of the many contractors supporting the nation’s Intelligence programs, all of them apparently just waiting for the opportunity to betray their country to promote the interests of the evil corporations that employ them.  The authors never get around to explaining exactly why it would be in the best interests of the shareholders of these companies to supply government with a stream of traitors, nor does it attempt to enlighten us concerning the reasons that virtually all of the real traitors employed by federal intelligence agencies who have been exposed in recent years have not been contractors, but federal employees.  I happen to be a contractor with a clearance myself, but it seems to me these questions are germane to the points at issue. 

    The authors claim that contractors are more expensive than federal employees.  However, if that’s true, it’s only true on the basis of a head-to-head salary comparison.  It doesn’t count the generous pensions and health care benefits that feds get when they retire, all of which must be paid for by the taxpayers in the same coin.   It also doesn’t count the fact that, while feds who don’t pull their weight are almost impossible to fire, contractors can be and are dismissed at a word from the federal officials who support them.  The author’s revelation that the firms providing contractors to government are actually in business to make a profit may be shocking to the editors of the Washington Post, but it hardly proves that contractors are more expensive or less effective than federal employees at performing their jobs.

    The final article in the series, entitled “The Secrets Next Door,” is the most puerile of the lot, containing such silly stuff as,

    Even the manhole cover between two low-slung buildings is not just a manhole cover. Surrounded by concrete cylinders, it is an access point to a government cable. “TS/SCI” whispers an official, the abbreviations for “top secret” and “sensitive compartmented information” – and that means few people are allowed to know what information the cable transmits.

    From this one can only assume that the official in question was grossly imposing on the author’s credulity.  One Jeani Burns, “who lives in the Fort Meade cluster,” is quoted as saying about top-secret workers,

    I can spot them. They have a haunted look, like they’re afraid someone is going to ask them something abot themselves.

    Guess I’d better take a better look in the mirror to see if I can pick out that “haunted look.”  Stuff like this does not leave one with a high opinion of the intellectual calibre of the rubes who still read the Wapo.  That’s not to say the author’s should loose heart.  They may score a Pulitzer yet.  After all, they’ve been awarded for stuff that was a lot worse.

    UPDATE: From Stewart Baker at The Volokh Conspiracy, “If there’s no big story to write, and the database puts readers to sleep, why did the Post spend scarce resources on these things at a time when newspapers are in desperate shape?”  According to his theory, it was part of a complicated scheme to carve out market share.  It seems to me Stewart is over-analyzing this.  I suspect it’s more likely the editors at the WaPo are simply dinosaurs who haven’t noticed the meteor has landed.