Barry Eisler has had many jobs. He was a covert operative for the CIA’s Directorate of Operations, an attorney in an international law firm, in-house counsel at the Osaka headquarters of Panasonic, an executive in a Silicon Valley technology startup, and a best-selling author.
This week Barrett Brown talks to Eisler about the future of the United States, whether the CIA is relevant anymore, and whether the US even has a future as a representative democracy, given the way politics, especially participation in local government, has changed.
In Brown’s commentary, he looks back at an old Tom Friedman column and its not-so-wise assessment of the future of Russia and President Vladimir Putin.
Barry Eisler is the author of numerous thrillers, all published by Thomas & Mercer, including Zero Sum (June, 2017), The God’s Eye View (February, 2016), A Lonely Resurrection (August, 2014), A Clean Kill in Tokyo (October 2014).
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|Barrett Brown:||This is Barrett Brown. Thanks for listening to our WhoWhatWhy podcast. Barry Eisler is a former CIA Director of Operations official and a best-selling thriller novelist. He’s also a long time critic of CIA practices and a here-and-there sort of pundit who’s weighed in a number of issues facing the republic over the last 15 years.|
|Barry, let me ask you this. Are we facing a different politic fundamentally, a different civic situation than we were 10 years ago?|
|Barry Eisler:||The short answer, I guess, would be yes but not necessarily so much because our civics have changed as much as our circumstances have. Changing circumstances would require changing civics and if the circumstances change and the civics don’t, then that’s going to create a problem for the republic. The circumstances that have changed, as I see it, is the increasing metastasis of surveillance technology, such that the government is able to know more and more about the citizenry, even as we the citizenry know less and less about the government. That’s going to require a different kind of civics, but I don’t think a different kind of civics has adequately emerged to meet those changing circumstances.|
|Barrett Brown:||Is our republic viable?|
|Barry Eisler:||I can’t say I feel terrible optimistic at the moment. In part, just because I try to place most of my confidence in patterns I see rather than particular historical moments. And the pattern is, how long do empires last? The American experiment has now been around for close to 250 years, that’s a reasonably long run, and I see a pattern in which the kinds of fights our ruling elite are willing to engage in have changed from fights you could at least reasonably argue were more important from any sort of reasonable national security perspective, to ones that are primarily petty and have more to do with ego than any kind of substantive national security concerns.|
|I look at that as kind of the psychology of an increasingly old and senescent empire, it’s just what happens. I think there’s even an expression that empires start off fighting big opponents, big enemies and end up fighting small ones. And I think that pattern tends to fit what we see here in the American empire.|
|Barrett Brown:||Sort of a two part question. For one thing, do you believe that, aside from its expanded surveillance capabilities, that the CIA plays less of a central role in these fights than it did, say, in the ’50s and ’60s? If so, does that reflect what you’re referring to regarding the lessening of what these struggles are about? The struggles among the elites.|
|Barry Eisler:||When you’re talking about the ’60s and ’70s, or I guess even earlier, the ’50s, are you talking about CIA-inspired coups like in Iran and Guatemala, that sort of thing?|
|Barrett Brown:||Yeah, in general. Both in terms of its ability to exert power domestically within … We had that complicated situation with Nixon where of course the CIA played some role in surveilling the White House, just as the Pentagon did, and over time obviously had some degree of influence. In addition to that, also, it’s power projection, with governments abroad and that sort of thing, influenced policies, splashed-back information. Has its role, or has its ability to serve as the policy-making tool of one or more people, a handful of people, has that diminished since the ’60s and ’70s?|
|Barry Eisler:||It’s a good question, and the short answer I guess is, well, it would be hard to know, right? You wouldn’t know necessarily what’s going on inside the CIA, you’d have to try to work backwards from results in the external world and then try to deduce from that what sort of power the CIA might be able to wield. And one way of looking at one side, at least arguably of diminishing CIA ability to influence the outcome of elections is of course the 2016 election in America, where the CIA establishment seemed intent on stopping Trump. Now, I wouldn’t call this a slam-dunk argument, there are different ways of looking at this. I think most of what self-confused as the American national security establishment has been against Trump because he seems psychologically unfit, he’s erratic, he’s a threat to the kind of stability at home and abroad from which American elites, the American establishment profits and derives its power. From that standpoint, the CIA establishment would be expected to be against Trump and indeed, various former high-level CIA people like Mike Morell were actually writing New York Times and Washington Post op-eds criticizing Trump, saying he’s unfit and praising Hillary Clinton as being an experienced, trustworthy, foreign policy hand.|
|On the other hand, Trump seems fairly easy to manipulate when it comes to military, intelligence, and security budgets, that sort of thing. So from that standpoint you might think that the intelligence establishment, the deep state, would welcome a Trump. But overall the evidence is, it seems to me, the American deep state has not been in favor of Trump. And yet despite whatever efforts they were able to try to pull off, Trump was still elected president. So I would look at that as an example of … in the heyday, back in the 1950’s in Iran and Guatemala, the CIA was able to successfully install minority governments that America favored in those countries. It seems that in 2016 it has lost some of that mojo.|
|Barrett Brown:||From the outside, from the public space, it looks like the caliber of say presidents and other high figures in this country and throughout the west are of a smaller stature, setting aside morality, a smaller stature in terms of their ability to achieve tremendous change, compared to the 20th century. Like we have smaller presidents now than Lyndon Johnson and Nixon and that sort of thing. Do you think the same is true in the intelligence establishment and the rest of the peripheral bureaucracy around them? So that their leadership — George Tenet is no Allan Dulles, is that correct in terms of capabilities?|
|Barry Eisler:||It seems fair to say, doesn’t it? The reason I hesitate is because there seems to be a tendency to look back and recognize that presidents were more capable than people thought at the time. So I know for example, when FDR died and Harry Truman became president, people thought he was a lightweight and now there’s been this revisionist approach where people look back at Truman as really capable, a good president. Eisenhower also, at the time was looked at as someone who didn’t have a lot of brains, which is kind of weird when you consider his accomplishments growing up from nothing, he was nobody, grew up poor and wound up commanding Overlord in World War II. President Eisenhower, I think, actually played it a bit dumb in front of the press. When there was something he didn’t want to acknowledge, he would garble the syntax and everybody thought he was stupid. But still, at the time, he was considered a bit of a lightweight compared to someone like Adlai Stevenson and now in retrospect, people realize this guy knew exactly what was going on, whether you agreed with his policies or not.|
|Reagan would be another example. There’s been… when Reagan was elected, at the time, he seemed a bit dim. Now people look back and think he was this great manager who ended the cold war. There’s even a revisionist approach right now with George W. Bush, which I personally find really surprising. Almost the best proof I know of, certainly the most recent, the tendency to look back at almost any former president is with a degree of nostalgia. So it’s hard for me to imagine people looking back at the Trump presidency and saying, you know what, he was more capable than we thought. I think this … it’s hard for me to imagine that this is not some sort of nadir of incompetence and unfitness, psychological unfitness, but maybe people will find a way to rehabilitate him too.|
|So I don’t really know, my sense is that yes, there has been a decline in the quality of leadership at the national level, and if that’s the case, why wouldn’t it be true in some of the lower-ranking roles in the national security apparatus, the deep state as well. It would seem to follow if the head is dying, why would the body be thriving. That wouldn’t necessarily make sense to me.|
|Barrett Brown:||If there’s a problem with the body itself, it seems like we’re not entirely in agreement on whether or not there has been a clear deterioration of the presidency. I would say, it would be hard to point to someone like Woodrow Wilson or Theodore Roosevelt in terms of mental power, not in terms of whoever we agree with their policies. But to the extent that we acknowledge it, to the extent that we say there has been some deterioration in it, enough to decide that yet, has there been a similar deterioration among the body politic, since say the ’30s and ’40s?|
|Barry Eisler:||I think the answer is yes. And to the extent I would hesitate at all, it’s in recognition of a pattern, and the pattern is every generation thinks that the new generation, the one coming after it, is doomed. So I’ll bet if you go back 200 years in American history, you’ll have people … John Quincy Adams, who’s probably saying “Oh, this next generation is doomed. They’re lazy, they’re thoughtless, they have no idea how hard we had it, or how hard we had to fight for everything that they take for granted, and the republic is now doomed.” It just seems like it’s always like that. The parents always think the children’s generation is lazy or has it too easy and is just going to spell doom for civilization. So there’s that pattern, and that pattern to some degree gives me some hope because it makes me think maybe I’m wrong in what I’m about to say, which is, yeah, it does seem like there’s just a kind of bread-and-circus mentality in America, a distractibility that reminds me almost of the way prison guards set prisoners against each other so that they can divide and rule. It’s almost just a reflex on the part of any ruling establishment to do that with the numerically superior prisoners or polity, or whatever.|
|So when I look at the kinds of arguments that citizens are often having, I find it astonishing. I think a Martian certainly would be astonished, is this a democracy? And just off the top of my head a couple of quick examples: it’s amazing to me, three years ago, four years ago now, when Edward Snowden first came forward and shared his trove of secret documents with Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras. I was amazed at how many journalists were pushing the propaganda line that Snowden violated his oath of secrecy.|
|First of all, there is no oath of secrecy, that’s pure propaganda. There’s only an NDA that CIA employees, NSA employees and other people who have top secret clearance in the American government, do in fact sign a non-disclosure agreement, an NDA. But there is an actual oath that is sworn, and that is the oath to protect and defend the constitution. So the fact that journalists, I don’t even think it was deliberate, I think it was out of ignorance, like Josh Marshall and TPM I remember, were talking about this oath of secrecy, and I was thinking “what are you talking about?” But I don’t think Marshall understood that he was just parroting a line of government propaganda, he just wanted to believe that Snowden had done a terrible thing because Josh Marshall himself believes that secrecy is in some way sacrosanct. So because he has that framework, he believed it when someone told him: “Hey, there’s an oath of secrecy.” Makes perfect sense to him that secrecy is something someone might swear an oath to. So when I look at journalists adopting that kind of line, I find it really concerning. But then similarly when the citizenry, at least at the outset, seemed equally divided on the somewhat simplistic question of whether Snowden was a hero or a traitor, and I thought, the government is abusing its secrecy powers. No one actually disputes this. Literally no one would argue that the government doesn’t over-classify.|
|So in the face of all this, the situation, this dynamic I mentioned earlier where the government knows more and more about us and we know less and less about the government, in the face of all that, to be on the side, to be a citizen, to be the one who knows less and less and is more and more exposed and yet when finally somebody shines a little bit of light on government activities that actually turned out to be criminal or unconstitutional and still to say, oh it would have been better if we didn’t know that? That makes me feel like there may be something rotten in the citizenry itself. To be so, in the grip of some sort of Stockholm Syndrome that you would actually take the side of your oppressors when someone tries to give you information that can better enable you to govern yourselves, as you’re supposed to be able to do? Yeah, that really does make me very concerned about the state of American politics.|
|Barrett Brown:||Barry Eisner, thank you for joining us.|
|Barry Eisler:||Thank you, Barrett.|
|Barrett Brown:||In December of 2001, the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman took a trip to Moscow in order that the American citizenry might be better informed regarding the nation with which it had previously been locked into a half-century struggle that had ended millions of lives and threatened a billion more. The resulting column began with two observations: it seemed that “Sushi bars are opening all over, yes from Borscht to Big Macs to California-Kremlin rolls in one decade! And so many people have cars now that traffic is permanently stalled.” One could have perhaps described such growth to the 1998 devaluation of the ruble, several years of significant increases in the price of oil and other Russian exports, or to the economic reforms that had been spearheaded largely by former prime minister Primakov a few years prior to Friedman’s writing. But such things as those lack a certain thematic oomph.|
|The Russians, Friedman explained, had finally gotten themselves a leader worth having in the transformative person of Vladimir Putin. “He’s not a tougher Mikhail Gorbachev, or a more sober Boris Yeltsin, he is Russia’s first Deng Xiaoping, Mao’s pragmatic successor who first told the Chinese that to get rich is glorious and put in place the modernizing reforms to do it.” He went on to summarize Putin’s thought process vis-a-vis Russia as “Passing real reform legislation, so we can get real investment to build a real modern economy.” Friedman therefore ends his column with the following call to action: “So keep rooting for Putin, and hope that he makes it to the front of Russia’s last line.” The last line, established earlier in the column, is a line for money, for some reason.|
|Friedman wrote his sushi-oriented pro-Putin column in December of 2001. In March of that same year, Friedman had written another column on Russia in which he summarized our post Cold War espionage efforts by way of the following framework: “What is it that we and Russians are actually spying on each other about? This whole espionage affair seems straight out of MAD Magazine spy versus spy cartoon. The Russians are spying on us to try to find out why we are spying on them. I mean, to be honest, is there anything about the Russians today that you want to know? Their navy is rusting in port. Their latest nuclear submarine is rusting on the bottom of the ocean. We know they’re selling weapons to Iran and Iraq, because they told us. And their current political system, unlike communism, is not exactly exportable, unless you think corruption, chaos and KGB rule amount to an idealogy. Khrushchev threatened to bury us. Putin threatens to corrupt us.”|
|Having made such an unusual assertion, Friedman’s next quote notes the following conundrum: “How you pull a country like Russia away from being an angry failed state, acting out on the world stage, and making a responsible member of the world community, has no easy formula.” We have here two assertions then. Allow me to organize them into a list. Number one, we now have good reason to be covertly gathering intelligence on Russia. Number two, unless it is somehow “pulled away” from doing so, Russia is set to become an “angry, failed state acting out on the world stage.” Remember that these two assertions are both made in the space of a single column.|
|In 2008 the large adversarial and nuclear-equipped nation upon which we apparently need not bother to spy, launched a military incursion into Georgia. Friedman responded with a column entitled “What Did We Expect?” It begins thusly: “If the conflict in Georgia were an Olympic event, the gold medal for brutish stupidity would go the Russian Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin. The silver medal for bone-headed recklessness would go to Georgia’s president Mikheil Saakashvili, and the bronze medal for rank short-sightedness would go to the Clinton and Bush foreign policy teams.”|
|The bronze medal winners in this case had advocated NATO expansion after the end of the Cold War, whereas Friedman and other leading foreign policy experts, Friedman explains, had opposed such a move on the grounds that it might antagonize the Russians without providing the west with any particularly crucial benefits. As he concludes, “the humiliation that NATO expansion bred in Russia was critical in appealing Putin’s rise after Boris Yeltsin moved on.” So March of 2001, Friedman mocked the US intelligence community for wanting accurate information about Russia. Later that year, he explained to us what was going on in Russia. They had just elected a great, reformer president, of whom we should strongly support. Years later, when Putin turned out to be a tyrant and invaded Georgia, he criticized the US intelligence community for being unprepared. Thomas Friedman is a Pulitzer Prize winner. He now sits on the Pulitzer prize board. Thanks for listening to our WhoWhatWhy podcast.|
Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from Barrett Brown (courtesy of Barrett Brown) flag (PACAF / Flickr – CC BY 2.0).