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Chasing the Scream: Harry Anslinger, Arnold Rothstein and the Genesis of the War on Drugs

chasing-the-scream-3By Kevin P. Kelly

The War on Drugs, now in its 100th year, is an unqualified failure. Escalating drug use, continued dehumanization of the addict, increasing breakdown of the family unit, growing violence, and staggering incarceration rates are the results we have to show for our current $41 billion/year, taxpayer-funded course of action.

In his latest work Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs, renowned journalist and author Johann Hari invites readers on a three year journey in his quest to understand how the War on Drugs has brought us to such a point and whether there is hope for the future. To Hari’s surprise, countless interviews and research taking him across nine continents and through a wide spectrum of socio-economic circumstance returned a familiar story, time over time. He realized that most assumptions we have about drugs and drug use are wrong. Further, that the War on Drugs, far from strengthening moral foundations and keeping us safe has actually served to erode the family, feed criminal enterprise, and change us into a society willing to accept our fellow suffering human beings as unworthy of compassion and disposable. Wondering whether one hundred years of that devastation is enough time to realize that prohibition is neither enforceable, nor the solution, Hari muses: “We can’t  keep drugs out of our prisons and we have got walled perimeters around them. If you can’t keep drugs out of a super-max prison, what hope do you have of keeping them out of the United States?”

Chasing the Scream opens with the introduction of Harry Anslinger, Billie Holiday, and Arnold Rothstein- three very different individuals thrown together in history for their involvement with drugs. Portrayed by Hari as pivotal players in the origination of the War on Drugs, their true value to the story is in the reader’s ability to see them in countless others. In this way, the early 1900′s Anslinger, Holiday and Rothstein- enthusiastic prohibitionist enforcer, dehumanized addict, and criminal beneficiary of the Drug War, respectively, represent the very same pattern playing out all over the world today.

“Harry Anslinger is the most influential person no one has ever heard of,” began Hari during our recent conversation. “He is the inventor of the modern War on Drugs, not just in the United States, but internationally. Anslinger was a racist government bureaucrat who took over the Federal Bureau of Narcotics just as alcohol prohibition was ending.”

Anslinger, seeking both to reenergize a demoralized agency and to ensure/expand his own status, shifted the focus of his department. Although narcotics including heroin and cocaine had been prohibited since the Harrison Act of 1914, a loophole existed that still allowed physicians to write prescriptions as they saw fit. The Act further mandated that addicts be dealt with compassionately. Anslinger, whose personal crusade was the complete eradication of all drugs, saw to it that any physician who dared write such a prescription would be arrested, even given the terms of the Harrison Act. His absolute authority then undeniable, Anslinger undertook a campaign of fear and misinformation regarding marijuana, which he believed to be used with much greater frequency than cocaine or heroin, and largely so by Mexican immigrants and African Americans. Playing perfectly into Anslinger’s ambitions of increased Bureau necessity and racial division, he ordered his department to begin aggressively targeting cannabis. The strategy worked. Within a short period, people began demanding that the Bureau of Narcotics be further funded in order to save them from the cannabis threat.

Having ensured the Bureau’s wellbeing with his “reefer madness” operation, Anslinger turned his attention and efforts to undermining the jazz industry. Billie Holiday represented all that Anslinger so despised- the freedom of jazz music, heroin addiction, African-Americans, and galling defiance of his authority.  That made her the perfect target. Anslinger undertook a mission to publicly destroy Holiday, sending agents to stalk her and to eventually orchestrate her arrests and incarcerations.

Anslinger would continue his harassment of Holiday, even up to the end of her life when she was diagnosed with liver cancer. “She is taken to a hospital in New York City and they refuse to take her because she is an addict,” said Hari. “So, she is taken to another hospital and…the Federal Bureau of Narcotics arrests her on her death bed.” Hari goes on to describe the Bureau’s malicious treatment of Holiday, refusing her the company of friends, her beloved music, and any comfort. Beautiful, talented Billie Holiday died in agony upon being removed from heroin withdraw-relieving methadone.

And what of Arnold Rothstein? Hari characterizes Rothstein as an angry, violent child who grew into an angry, violent gangster. Anslinger, one of the few government officials who believed in the existence and criminality of the mafia at the time, held that the Drug War he was waging would bring about the downfall of organized crime. In reality, drug prohibition actually fed the criminal empire, leading to the creation of drug gangs and ensuring gangster kingpin Rothstein’s escalating power. Referencing two enlightened sibling-physicians of the early War on Drugs, Henry and Edward Smith Williams, who both fought for humanizing treatment/medical withdraw options for addicts, Hari offered, “So, that loophole…where doctors could prescribe heroin for addicts, it was shot down state by state…One of the last states to shut it down was California, probably because it was hugely popular in California…We now know why it was shut down…An agent of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics was bribed by the local drug gangs to enforce the Drug War and shut down the clinics because they were pissed off that the criminals in Nevada got all of the drug addicts going to them, but in California they could go to the doctor.” According to Hari, this is most telling- that from the very beginning, armed criminal gangs wanted the Drug War, so much so that they would pay for it to be introduced and enforced.

Anslinger, blind to the Rothstein(s) that his Drug War was creating and seeking to even further expand his influence, began looking outside of his country’s own borders. “You have a situation where at the end of the Second World War the United States had incredible diplomatic might and he forced it [the Drug War] on countries that didn’t want to do it…” Threatening to sever diplomatic ties and halt the flow of foreign aid to decimated nations following the War if they did not implement his prohibitionist drug regimen, Anslinger ensured adoption.

Today, however, many foreign countries are seeking alternatives to the Drug War. “There are countries that have moved beyond the War on Drugs and none of them have ever regretted it” explained Hari, offering several nations, including Portugal, as example: “Fifteen years ago Portugal had one of the worst drug problems in Europe. One percent of the population was addicted to heroin…They tried the American Drug War approach and every year it got worse. So, they decided to do something differently. The leaders of the main political parties got together and said, let’s set up a panel of scientists and doctors to figure out what we should do, and let’s agree in advance that we will abide by whatever they recommend…What the panel came back and recommended was…let’s decriminalize everything from cannabis to crack. But crucially, let’s use all the money that we currently use on arresting drug users, trying drug users, imprisoning drug users…on really good drug treatment to reconnect drug addicts with society -things like subsidized jobs for addicts…housing for addicts…really good and honest drug education.” It is easy to understand why Portugal does not want to return to American-style drug laws. Since accepting the panel’s recommendations, Portugal has cut its national drug use, along with the rate of overdoses and HIV infections.

And there is hope for the United States as well. Startling statistics at home and abroad have spurred conversation and grassroots action, and progress is being made. Activists in Colorado and Washington have succeeded in proposing ballot initiatives to legalize recreational marijuana use. Further, several prospective candidates seeking the Republican Party’s presidential nomination such as Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, Texas Senator Ted Cruz, and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie have discussed the possibility of either repealing mandatory minimum laws or of treating drug addiction as a public health crisis. Traditionally seen as “zero tolerance,” movement by the Republican Party is very extremely significant.

Obviously, the War on Drugs is a failure. The questions can no longer be “how do we stop drug flow and keep people from using drugs?” One hundred years has shown that to be a moot avenue-drugs are here, and drug use and cost to society is growing. The question we need to now address is “how do we contain drug use and its devastating consequences?”

When asked whether he thought that the United States would ever implement decriminalizing alternatives resembling those of Portugal or other forward-thinking countries, Hari was quite optimistic: “Yes, it is very achievable, but it will require a lot of people to organize, fight and demand it. Legalization and ending the Drug War does not mean that everything will be sold openly…No one wants a crack aisle at CVS. It means different routes for different drugs. So, for example, with heroin it would return to what happened in California when it worked well-with prescriptions coming from doctors…With cannabis, we would sell openly. There [sic] is a range of things.”

An unchallenged bully, determined to implement his vision of a Drug War-one founded on “the deepest fears in American culture-of racial minorities, of intoxication, of losing control”-Harry Anslinger provided the United States a drug policy that was compromised from the very beginning. Yet, one hundred years later, it is still being enforced. In Chasing the Scream, Johann Hari challenges us to consider the opportunity cost of our actions over the past century-the cost in dollars, humanity, life-and to imagine a new reality, one in which addiction is met with compassion, the family unit is nourished while organized crime is starved, and taxpayer funds are used responsibly. Such reality, he assures us, is well within our reach.

For more information on how you can end the War on Drugs, visit

kevinkellyphotoKevin Patrick Kelly is a columnist for Oliver Stone’s Untold History website. He was previously a columnist for The Washington Times Communities. You can follow him on Twitter @TheKevinPKelly.


Young Readers’ Edition Makes 2015 NCSS-CBC Notable Books List

We are proud to announce that the Young Readers’ Edition of Untold History has been included on this prestigious list.

Notable Social Studies Trade Books for Young PeopleBronzeNotable_400px is an annual reading list of exceptional books for use in social studies classrooms, selected by social studies educators.

It is an annual project of the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) and the Children’s Book Council (CBC).

Keeping Hope Alive: A Call to Action

kevinkellyphotoBy Kevin Kelly

As a country and as a people, we have decisions to make- the very same decisions faced by those who came before us: Are we prepared to surrender ourselves to the purposes and rule of arrogant government and corporate alliances, or are we willing to undertake the very hard work necessary to challenge power that has grown beyond conscience and duty to the people? In troubled times, hope is an elusive, fragile thing, but it may yet be rekindled by commitment to country through grassroots social movements.

The American people are becoming hopeless in the face of the nation’s current tailspin and, yes, the reasons to despair are innumerable: Republicans and Democrats remain anemic in the face of unfettered corporate power, civil and constitutional rights are eroding at a geometric rate, investigative journalists and whistleblowers are under unprecedented attack, income inequality is at its worst, and the U.S. remains in a state of perpetual war abroad. Stir into this repellent mixture a political system erected to convince the American people of their own political impotency and designed to exclude those who would challenge the status quo, and- viola- the perfect recipe for apathy. Yet, even in spite of such seemingly overwhelming odds, hope may still be kept alive and change undertaken through understanding of our insidious conditioning to indifference by government/corporate conspiracy and through the organization of committed, coordinated grassroots social movements. The American people must awaken and mobilize to restore the republic, immediately, or resign themselves to an ever-decreasing voice in their own governing.

By now, it should be obvious that no political messiah is coming to save this country-our solutions are not going to come through electoral politics or the voting booth.  As evidenced by our most recent midterm election- one of the most expensive in history- politicians are becoming increasingly beholden to their corporate benefactors and less so their constituency. The Supreme Court rulings “Citizens United” and “McCutcheon vs. FEC”, removing any cap on private or corporate campaign donations, guarantees the escalating indenture of our elected officials by corporations and special interest groups.  Perhaps the greatest recent example of the need for grassroots social movements to apply pressure and counter this trend is the election of Barack Obama, once heralded by millions of Americans as the charismatic, progressive culmination of their hopes and dreams. Today, with 26 months remaining in his presidency, Obama has sadly disappointed, continuing and even dramatically expanding some of the worst programs of his predecessor. The Guardian’s Gary Younge offers his thoughts regarding Obama’s ineffectiveness: “He sits at the center of a system that is openly gerrymandered and in which you have to pay to play. He might have done better, but there was insufficient pressure from below. His tenure proves just how little progressive change is possible through the ballot box in the absence of social movements. It is not about him. But it is through his presidency that these aspirations have been filtered.”

Simply electing the “best” candidate is not enough- the solution must involve organization designed to produce mass pressure and drive promised reform.  Make no mistake, however, driving necessary social involvement will not be an easy undertaking, for several reasons.

First, the youth, long considered one of the most important elements of any social movement, have become accustomed to, and consequently passive, in the face of injustice.  College campuses, historically lightning rods of civil disobedience and social movement, are now hives of future worker bees increasingly preoccupied with grades, graduation and good job.  Reluctant to give voice to government/corporate criticism, lest it taint their prospects for ever-more competitive employment or lead to ostracism by potential networking peers, they remain silent witness. The very reasonable worries of the youth about the practicalities of life- food, shelter, career- notwithstanding, such fears are not exclusive to this time and economy.   In one of his most overlooked sermons, “On Being a Good Neighbor,” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke to these same concerns when he told congregants why they must cast aside their own personally vested interests in their march for civil rights: “We so often ask, ‘What will happen to my job, my prestige, or my status if I take a stand on this issue? Will my home be bombed, will my life be threatened, or will I be jailed?’ The good man always reverses the question. Albert Schweitzer did not ask, ‘What will happen to my prestige and security as a university professor and to my status as a Bach organist, if I work with the people of Africa?’ but rather asked, ‘What will happen to these millions of people who have been wounded by the forces of injustice, if I do not go to them?’”  For any social movement to initiate, gather momentum and become formidable, the youth must be convinced of the importance of becoming more than just spectators in America’s political process. They must be made to understand the enormous power they wield in bringing about change.

Another deterrent to organization/action is unrealistic timelines and discouragement by routine disappointment. In today’s hustle-bustle, “I want it now” society, instant gratification and results are expected. Meaningful change, however, is accomplished neither overnight, nor without overcoming the often-overwhelming obstacles set forth by those who benefit from a current system and oppose change.  Therefore, while those within a social movement wish to see their vision implemented in their respective country or community during their lifetime, this is often not the case. For example, many American abolitionists did not live to see wrongly enslaved Africans emancipated. Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated before he could see his dream of an India free from British rule. Martin Luther King Jr. was also struck down by an assassin as he attempted to organize a Poor People’s Movement to lift the voices of every poor and working class American. Students who peacefully protested in China’s Tiananmen Square along with millions of other Chinese citizens may never bear witness to the birth of a democracy in their country. Understanding and accepting the life cycle of a social movement is essential to its success, as protest and demonstration exist not only to correct/bring attention to present conditions, but to ensure fairness, freedom and peace for future generations, as well. It must be understood that every meaningful effort put forth today is just as essential, necessary and heroic as that put forth on the day when a cause comes to fruition.

Disillusionment is yet another impediment to social movement, and while it is often a product of the inability of the current political order to produce meaningful reform, it is just as often a result of our own inability to recognize and celebrate progress when it occurs.  Even as the country continues to disappoint both economically and politically, there are still magnificent examples of the triumphs of social activism coming to fruition within the past few years.  Independent Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders recently observed on “Moyers and Company:” “Bill, if you and I were chatting here 30 years ago and we would say, you said to me, you know, ‘I think that the United States, people of our country are going to overcome the deep racism in this country and elect an African American,’ you said that 30 years ago, people would say, ‘Bill, you’re crazy. That’ll never happen.’” But, it did.  Likewise, as recently as ten years ago, Americans were overwhelmingly opposed to gay marriage. President George W. Bush and politicians swept to victory in 2004 supporting a constitutional amendment to ban same sex marriage. Today, the proposition of an amendment barring gays and lesbians from marrying would be considered political suicide.  Further, civil libertarians once virtually alone in their condemnation of constitutional erosion during both Bush and Obama’s presidencies now enjoy the support and understanding of the American people, assisted through revelations by brave activists/whistleblowers such as Edward Snowden, William Binney, Thomas Drake, and Chelsea Manning, among others. We must take at least a small amount of time to “drink in” the sweet satisfaction that comes from victory during a bitter, often prolonged fight. And we must honor those who have made particular effort and sacrifice over the course of those battles.

History offers a wonderful collection of “powers that be” and their “social conscience” without whom reform might not have occurred. Would President Lincoln be heralded “the great emancipator” without the great efforts, conscience and pressure of Frederick Douglass and the abolitionists?  Would President Franklin Delano Roosevelt have issued executive order 8802 banning discrimination in the defense industries during World War II without the insistence of civil rights leader A. Philip Randolph and other labor leaders? Would General Motors and other large corporations have implemented the costly safety measures we now enjoy without the demands of Ralph Nader and likeminded consumer advocacy groups? Would Presidents Kennedy and Johnson have made civil and voting rights an integral priority of their administrations without the demands of Martin Luther King, Jr., Bayard Rustin and the commitment of the civil rights movement? The examples are as numerous as they are impressive.  Were these groups or individuals so very different than we who enjoy the benefit of their work?  Were they any less fearful for their families, careers or reputation?

What are we prepared to do?

Kevin Patrick Kelly is a university student majoring in History and Political Science.  Previously, he was a columnist for Washington Times Communities.  Follow him on Twitter @TheKevinPKelly

Untold History does not subscribe to any specific agenda and seeks to promote independent commentary about history and current events. 

New York Times on Untold History Young Readers’ Book

YRimageNYTimesPlease read today’s New York Times article about our Young Readers’ Edition. Volume One will be released in time for Christmas.

Tavis Smiley: Dr. King’s Uncomfortable Truth


By Kevin P. Kelly

“The reason I wrote this book is because Martin has been so sanitized and so sterilized that the truth about who he really was, at some point, is going to be irrecoverable…we have frozen him in this frame at the Lincoln monument giving his “I have a Dream” speech.  That was in 1963. He lived 5 years after 1963 and his views on America were dramatically different in ’68 than they were in ’63…”

So began my conversation with PBS broadcaster and author Tavis Smiley about his latest book Death of a King: The Real Story of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Final Year. Smiley’s work marks a departure from other biographical efforts about Dr. King, both in scope and content.  Focusing on the tumultuous year leading up to King’s assassination, Smiley challenges the widely-held, media-perpetuated view of Dr. King  as simply an idealistic civil rights “dreamer,”  introducing instead a sentient and discerning King focused on expanding his message.  While 1963 King dreamed of integration, 1968 King recognized that the malignancies of war, intolerance and penury were all inextricably linked, and that successful continuation of our democracy demanded attention to all three.  According to Smiley, it was the promotion of this belief- that racism, militarism and poverty were three legs of a stool upon which sat most of the ills of the world- to which King devoted the final years of his life.

How is it, then, that Americans are so unaware of King’s daring Vietnam-era challenge to militarism and poverty, and his resulting struggles and suffering?  Smiley points to several responsible parties, including those who do not want the story to change because they are “vested in the story that we do tell, so there is money to be made…”,  those who are simply made too uncomfortable by King’s truth, and  “…a media that has been complicit…in perpetuating this fairytale of Martin King for the last 50 years…”.

Death of a King opens with King’s delivery of his “Beyond Vietnam” speech, one in which he heavily criticizes President Lyndon Johnson’s role in the Vietnam War.  Against the advice of friends and advisors, King appeared at Riverside Church on April 4, 1967, exactly one year to the day prior to his assassination, to issue the forceful condemnation.  Smiley explains that this address marked a turning point for King because it “was the most controversial speech he had ever given, and ….in ‘Beyond Vietnam,’ he used a phrase that got him in a world of trouble… a reference to America as ‘the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.’”

Overnight, King went from civil rights icon to pariah as the once-affable White House and the media turned on him.  “When Dr. King gave the speech he knew there was going to be some pushback, but he had no idea how extreme and how volatile it was going to be,” said Smiley. Newspapers such as the New York Times characterized King’s approach to Vietnam as “wasteful and self-defeating…” The Washington Post joined in the chorus of criticism, saying of the civil rights leader: “He has diminished his usefulness to his cause, to his country, and to his people.”

King continued his vociferous criticism of the war, pointing out that many American soldiers who had been conscripted for Vietnam were from impoverished homes or communities; further, that these men were being asked to fight overseas for freedoms and equalities that they did not themselves enjoy in the United States.

Long an advocate of the poor, King undertook what Smiley terms the “Poverty Tour” during which he traveled across the United States, meeting with the disadvantaged in order to better understand their plight.  Within Death of a King, Smiley describes these encounters with families trapped in poverty of differing degrees, but emphasizes King’s life-altering visit to Marks, Mississippi, “… where he just broke down in tears…King had always been concerned about the issue of poverty, but once he got a chance to have the experience of seeing this kind of abject poverty in his own country he decided he was going to engage in what he called a Poor People’s Campaign.” Only weeks before his assassination, King began planning travel to the nation’s capital in order to create “Resurrection City”. Striking in its similarity to the contemporary Occupy Movement, Resurrection City was to include thousands of tents that would occupy the capital until such time as the federal government adequately addressed the issue of poverty. Smiley explains, “King’s viewpoint was that not only is poverty threatening our very democracy, not only is poverty a matter of national security, but the money that we are wasting on this Vietnam War ought to be spent here at home. So, King said, and I quote: ‘War is the enemy of the poor.’”

While King grappled publicly with racism, militarism, poverty, a hostile White House and an antagonistic media, he privately battled crippling internal divisions. His “Beyond Vietnam” speech had succeeded in creating a civil war within King’s own SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference).  Advisors and board members became increasingly worried about the direction that King was taking the organization. Many opposed his antiwar activities and his Poor People’s Campaign, believing that he should focus purely upon civil liberties and race.  Meanwhile, J. Edgar Hoover’s unfettered FBI spied upon the preacher under the pretense of investigating communist sympathies. FBI informants had even infiltrated the SCLC, as James Harrison, SCLC Treasurer, was later discovered to be spying for the Bureau.

Smiley notes that in the year between King’s infamous “Beyond Vietnam” speech and his assassination,”… a national poll indicated that 75 percent of the American people thought he was irrelevant, and nearly 60 percent of black people thought he was ‘persona non grata.’”  King, heartbroken and forsaken by even those he loved most, continued on with his fight against militarism, racism and poverty until the day of his death.

Tavis Smiley speculates that if King were alive today, he would still persist in this battle because “…almost 50 years after his death, in Ferguson, Missouri, what do we see on display?  Racism, poverty, and militarism…” King, no stranger to challenging authority at the highest level, had successfully lobbied the support of Kennedy and Johnson on civil rights and that of Eisenhower during the 1957 desegregation of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. Smiley believes that King would have continued this practice, as well, challenging Barack Obama to do more, as President: “…He would do it in love, as he always did…He would be lovingly critiquing Barack Obama. He would appreciate the fact, and I am sure applaud the fact, that Barack Obama is the first African-American President, but on the issue of poverty, he’d be pushing him to do more. It took him six years to give a major address declaring that income inequality is the defining issue of our time…It has taken him six years to even get him fighting for an increase in the minimum wage… He’d be pushing him on racism and why he’s been so eerily silent on race, even when he could have an impact…Third, he’d be challenging Obama on the issue of militarism. Barack Obama is engaging a policy of drone use that is on steroids. The fact that he has used more drones and killed more innocent women and children than George Bush did, King would not tolerate that…”

Smiley ended our conversation with the idea that we all have responsibility to make conditions favorable for King’s legacy of “… justice for all, service to others, and a love that liberates.”   When pressed to offer the name of any person that he felt embodied King’s vision today, Smiley hesitated, saying “…there are so many people who fit that bill, people who are in the trenches everyday whose names we do not know, but who are doing the heavy lifting, trying to redeem the soul of this nation that is lost in so many ways…people doing the work needed to make America a nation that is one day as good as its promise.”

Tavis Smiley’s Death of a King presents to us a much different Dr. King than our high school textbooks did – “the public servant, not the perfect servant”- and we are better for the introduction.  Far removed from the elevated and untouchable dreamer, Smiley’s pragmatic, flawed, very human King is suddenly one of us, and all the more relatable, beautiful and worthy of emulation for his struggles.

kevinkellyphotoKevin Patrick Kelly is a university student majoring in History and Political Science.  Previously, he was a columnist for Washington Times Communities.  Follow him on Twitter @TheKevinPKelly.

Untold History does not subscribe to any specific agenda and seeks to promote independent commentary about history and current events.


Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick in Little Rock 9/20

littlerockGoing to Little Rock, Arkansas Friday for a big 1500-person Saturday screening at Thompson Auditorium inside Central High School. Invited by the school and National Park Service, in connection with the Reel Civil Rights Film Fest, we will be showing Chapter 5 of “Untold History” covering Eisenhower years, including Ike’s sending the 101st Airborne (to Little Rock) to enforce Brown vs. Board of Education.This was a key victory in the Civil Rights struggle, and many of those kids, particularly members of the “9,” are aging and won’t be around forever. In light of Ferguson, we need these conversations so this new generation can recognize their rights and how to combat police neglect and brutality with effective action. We also need to understand how our Government’s militarism abroad has spilled over into local police departments that once again are reinforcing racial division.

Event is free starting at 6:00PM, Saturday, 9/20


Nixon’s Pardon: Here’s Why It Still Matters


By Kevin P. Kelly

Today marks the 40th anniversary of President Gerald Ford’s pardon of former President Richard Nixon.  Ford pardoned Nixon after he resigned the presidency when it appeared impeachment was inevitable, given his complicity in the wiretapping of the Watergate building. Nixon’s exoneration infuriated Americans and would ultimately sink Gerald Ford’s prospects for a second Presidential term in 1976, a fact which Ford later acknowledged.

Whether borne of conspiracy or friendship, Ford’s pardoning of Nixon has had far-reaching implications. As award-winning journalist Glenn Greenwald substantiates in his book, With Liberty and Justice for Some, the pardoning of Richard Nixon fashioned an appalling precedent in Washington that exists to this day; that is, that elected representatives, national security officials, and those within future administrations might now act with impunity. According to Greenwald, this newly assumed posture of authority beyond reproach first became exercised during the Reagan and Bush presidencies.

In 1986, it was revealed that State Department officials had sold armaments to Iran in order to secure the release of six American hostages; further, that the proceeds of the sale were used to finance rebels who were attempting to overthrow the Sandinista government in Nicaragua. Americans have come to know this scandal as Iran-Contra. The deal was in direct violation of the Boland Amendment, which specifically prohibited any government assistance to the Nicaraguan rebels. During his last month in the White House, President George H.W. Bush pardoned various figures who had participated in, or had knowledge of, the transfer of weapons and the disposition of resulting monies. This exonerated group included former Assistant Secretary of State Elliot Abrams and former National Security Advisor Robert McFarlane after the two pled guilty to withholding information during the investigation.  Former Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, accused of perjury and obstruction of justice upon discovery of journals he had kept during the Iran-Contra affair, was pardoned by Bush pre-trial. Weinberger’s journals, demanded by the prosecution but never relinquished to their possession, were eventually made public in 1991.  Within its covers lay a collection of evidence which both contradicted Weinberger’s claims of ignorance about various transactions and implicated other officials, including Ronald Reagan. Akin to Ford, Bush justified the pardons as an attempt to move the country forward by putting the “bitterness behind us.”

George W. Bush would follow in his father’s magnanimous footsteps, rescuing Lewis “Scooter” Libby from prison after he was found guilty by a federal court in 2007. Libby had been accused of outing CIA operative Valerie Plame. The debate to pardon the Senior Aide to the Vice President had been one of the most contentious within the administration. Originally, it appeared that the President would not interfere with the jury’s verdict. As New York Times White House Correspondent Peter Baker documents in Days of Fire, when Bush informed Cheney that he would not pardon Libby, the Vice President exploded: “You are leaving a good man wounded on the field of battle.”  Eventually, the President capitulated and commuted the former aide’s sentence to zero. Barack Obama, then a candidate for President, decried the decision made by Bush. The Associated Press reported: “’How is it Scooter Libby isn’t behind bars and we’ve got a young man in jail right now sentenced to 10 years for something that isn’t even a felony?’ Obama said during a speech at an awards banquet for the Atlanta-based Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the civil rights organization founded by Martin Luther King Jr.”

Scooter Libby’s infractions would pale in comparison to the Bush administration’s warrantless domestic spying and torture programs. In 2004, the New York Times’ James Risen was one of the few journalists who revealed that the administration had been secretly eavesdropping on the communications of American citizens with neither the knowledge of Congress nor the approval of the FISA Court. Two years later, Washington Post reporter Dana Priest published an investigative report that showed the CIA was transporting detainees to “Black Sites” in foreign countries to be tortured.

When Barack Obama, the former constitutional scholar, entered the White House, progressives and civil-libertarians that had supported the charismatic Senator were hopeful he would begin the process of convening investigations/prosecutions of former officials of the Bush administration who had supervised or participated in illegal spying and torture. Instead, just as his predecessors had done before him, Obama began clearing former Bush officials of any criminal conduct.

When the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) brought a suit against former Bush cabinet members in relation to the illegal surveillance program, Obama’s Department of Justice (DOJ) argued that they could never be held to task for their participation in the program and granted them immunity. While lawyers on behalf of the Obama administration were arguing against prosecuting former Bush officials, the President was expanding the National Security Agency’s (NSA) spying apparatus. Thanks to NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, Americans now know that Director of National Intelligence James Clapper lied to a Senate committee when he told Oregon Senator Ron Wyden that the NSA was not collecting the personal data of the American people. When asked during a Congressional committee hearing by Wisconsin Congressman James Sensenbrenner why Clapper had not been prosecuted for perjury, Attorney General Eric Holder responded: “I’m really not in a position to confirm whether the department is investigating any particular matter.”

In 2010, the Obama DOJ cleared both Bush legal advisors John Yoo and Jay Bybee of any misconduct. Yoo and Bybee had written the infamous memos to justify the administration’s use of torture. Yoo had even disturbingly argued publically that the President could order the torturing of children.

Where are our former policy makers that evaded indictment and sentencing? Elliot Abrams, pardoned under George H.W.’s administration, became Deputy National Security Advisor during the George W. Bush administration, recently arguing on Bloomberg that the United States should be launching airstrikes in Syria. Scooter Libby surfaced recently to offer an editorial criticizing Obama’s foreign policy which he characterized as weak. John Yoo, author of the torture memo, is molding the minds of our youth as a professor of law at the University of California at Berkley. Dick Cheney, who offered during a speech at American University in March of this year, “…If I would have to do it (waterboarding) all over again, I would….The results speak for themselves.”,  continues to be a media favorite, invited regularly onto the circuit to deliver speeches and make appearances on cable channels offering his prescriptions for combating terrorism. James Clapper remains the Director of National Intelligence, and unindicted for his known perjury. Meanwhile, government whistleblower Chelsea Manning is serving a thirty five year sentence for passing along State Department cables which included the “Collateral Murder Video”, and Edward Snowden remains grounded in Moscow for his part in revealing NSA abuse of power.

The great tragedy of Gerald Ford’s pardon of Richard Nixon is not simply that it allowed criminal activity to go unpunished. It is that it created two separate classes of justice, the first of which includes those simply “too big to jail,” too important to be held accountable, too beloved to be reproached, and a second class in which ordinary citizens are held to a code of conduct/law. Within the entitled class, government and financial institutions operate with brazen disregard for the law, free from recrimination. It is within the latter class that everyday law abiding people, including the heroic who would take on government and corporate abuse, are issued swift, sometimes incomprehensibly severe consequence.

Yes, forty years ago today, a President was pardoned and the second class citizen was born.

kevinkellyphotoKevin Patrick Kelly is a university student majoring in History and Political Science.  Previously, he was a columnist for Washington Times Communities.  Follow him on Twitter @TheKevinPKelly.

Untold History does not subscribe to any specific agenda and seeks to promote independent commentary about history and current events.

Andrew Bacevich: The Fantasy of American Foreign Policy

Andrew Bacevich Photo

By Kevin P. Kelly

Bestselling author and Boston University professor Andrew Bacevich took time recently to discuss with me his belief that partisan politics, media bias and policymaker defiance have set in motion an American national and foreign policy that is both counterintuitive and costly.  A retired US Army Colonel, Bacevich maintains that in order to be successful in the future, United States policy must be grounded in reality with a true appreciation of the changing global political landscape and our position therein.

So, where are we headed?  Bacevich predicts that America’s longstanding position as world superpower is diminishing as the globe shifts from a unipolar (one sole superpower) to a multi-polar world: “…There will be several nations, or in the case of the European Union, conglomerations of nations that will exercise great influence in the way that the planet is governed. None of these nations or conglomerations will be able to call the shots. Therefore, prospects for stability will depend on the ability of the conglomeration- of this collection of states- to find some way of accommodating one another’s interests.” He points out that an American diminishing of power does not mean that the US will suddenly find itself poor and weak; rather, that other emerging nations are growing wealthier and strengthening more rapidly, relative to US growth.  The delta between the US.and others is, therefore, becoming less significant and should be a variable in any equation for future foreign policy.

Hindering us from recognizing and pursuing a comfortable place in this changing world order is Washington’s inability to have a judicious discussion based in truth.  According to Bacevich, it is simply unimaginable in political circles for one to suggest that the United States is anything but sole superpower- the “indispensible nation” as described since the Clinton administration- without which the rest of the world cannot do.  As a result, federal and foreign policy officials choose to overlook failed undertakings in order to reconcile them with our own, infallible self- image.  “Just asserting that position requires you to discount or ignore the results achieved by military actions not only in Iraq, but in Afghanistan and elsewhere, particularly in the Islamic World over the past 20 to 30 years…I am always amazed at the unwillingness of our political class to simply deal in the real world of fact… they insist upon living in something of a fantasy world.”

Perpetuating this fantasy is a media that continues to disproportionately favor and give voice to familiar-faced, partisan personalities.  Bacevich believes this is because “the people who book the guests on the Sunday talk shows and the gatekeepers for the op-ed pages of major newspapers are creatures of Washington themselves. They tend to see things through a partisan lens…American journalists are not really interested in non-partisan analysis…”  As a result, the American public is subjected to the same, tired rhetoric that would have them erroneously believe that only one political party is responsible for our current state of policy failure, rather than appreciate a timeline of failed implementations and decisions for which both parties are responsible.  Precious energies and attention that could be employed to embrace the global metamorphosis occurring around us and to proactively ensure our seat at this new, round, multi-polar table are currently wasted on partisan finger-pointing and denial that the table is anything but rectangular and that we are firmly entrenched at the head.

For perspective, Bacevich offers comparison between the current state of American power and the diminishing of the British Empire, which began post WWI, upon the dismantling of the Ottoman Empire and the creation of the Middle East by the British and the French.  Unrecognized by British lawmakers as the “beginning of the end”, Britain persisted in operating and enacting injudicious policies under a continued misconception of superpower status.  The end of WWII brought about an abrupt and public understanding of the end of Britain as superpower.  It also marked the beginning of many challenges to its less significant position in the world order, including independence movements from established colonies seeking to terminate British rule. India, notably, rebelled under the leadership of non-violent icon Mahatma Gandhi, who lived to witness British expulsion in 1947, only two years after the end of WWII.

But it was the Suez Crisis that forced the British to finally recognize themselves that they were no longer a superpower. In 1956, Egyptian President Nasser nationalized the canal.  Britain responded with a military campaign against Egypt which precipitated threats from the U.S.S.R.  Fearing that Britain’s military campaign would ultimately lead to war between the United States and the Soviet Union, President Dwight Eisenhower threatened to sell all American reserves of the British pound, an action which would devastate the British economy.  He further promised to employ nuclear weapons against the U.S.S.R. Richard Nixon, Vice President at the time, later recalled how the United States was able to use its arsenal of nuclear weapons to threaten the Soviets and to control the Middle East: “In 1956 we considered using the Bomb in Suez, and we did use it diplomatically…Eisenhower…got Al Gruenther, the NATO commander, to hold a press conference, and Gruenther said that if Khrushchev carried out his threat to use rockets against the British Isles, Moscow would be destroyed ‘as surely as day follows night.’ From that time on, the U.S. played the dominant role in the Middle East.” Following pressure from the United States and the United Nations, Britain withdrew from the Canal. Considered such a humiliating defeat for Britain, Prime Minister Anthony Eden resigned and “the empire on which the sun never sets,” was forced to recognize its decline.

According to Bacevich, America is following suit, having misinterpreted the end of the Cold War as the world entering a “unipolar moment” wherein there would exist only one superpower, the United States, and “…that general sense of preeminence…which they thought would last for generations, led to a particular approach to foreign policy that was shared by both democratic and republican administrations…”  Not unlike the British Empire after WWI, Bacevich believes that our basic reading of the situation post cold war was fundamentally flawed at the time- that it should have been seen as highlighting the failures of communism rather than as extolling the virtues of liberal democratic capitalism- and that it was foolish of us to believe that out of the cold war we would reign supreme over the planet.

The similarity does not end there; the United States is continuing to build a foreign policy based upon faulty reasoning, responding inappropriately to challenges in order to convince the world of our status as sole superpower.  Of course, the most obvious example of this is our continued engagement in Middle East:  “By declaring a global war on terrorism and making the pacification of the Middle East the number one strategic priority, at least in terms of where we are willing to spend blood and treasure, we missed the larger transition to a multi-polar order” said Bacevich. “And therefore we wasted resources, we wasted time, and I think that here in 2014, the circumstances which we face globally are, in some sense, comparable to what Great Britain faced in the wake of World War I.”

Having had the benefit of watching the effect of denial play out in the British Empire, will the United States eventually concede and embrace the emergence of a multi-polar world?  Bacevich thinks not: “We won’t deal with it. We will resist it.”  He does, however, allow for the potential of two  “interesting” possible 2016 Presidential candidates, former Virginia Democratic Senator Jim Webb, and Kentucky Republican Senator Rand Paul, both of whom express concern regarding our current foreign policy: “It seems to me that Rand Paul is not a clone of his father, but he is somebody… who is skeptical of interventionism, wary of an over-militarized foreign policy…now, how those inclinations will play out as he is obliged to lay out a set of positions, I don’t know, but he’ll be an interesting candidate to watch.”

Andrew Bacevich brings to the American people a message of warning and opportunity.  What will we choose to do with it?   Shall we simply continue to ignore an indisputably changing global landscape and go the way of other superpowers, cloaked in denial and arrogance until some future, possibly catastrophic event forces us to accept the truth?  Or shall we demand that our elected officials put aside ego and partisanship immediately in favor of candid conversation and pragmatic solutions?  According to Bacevich, the die has already been cast- the question now is whether we wish to enter this multi-polar world as willing, proactive, valued citizen or be dragged into it as reluctant appendage.

kevinkellyphotoKevin Patrick Kelly is a university student majoring in History and Political Science.  Previously, he was a columnist for Washington Times Communities. Follow him on Twitter @TheKevinPKelly.

Untold History does not subscribe to any specific agenda and seeks to promote independent commentary about history and current events.

Whistleblowers Welcome! Norman Solomon and

By Kevin Kelly

At a time when freedom of the press is under assault and the Obama administration has invoked the World War I era Espionage Act more than all previous administrations combined, whistleblowers have few places to turn. Author and political activist Norman Solomon, concerned by this escalating attack upon the First Amendment, has quietly excused himself from inane conversation and armchair pontification, opting instead for action.

At a press conference on June 4th in the nation’s capital, Solomon unveiled to the public, a “news organization run by journalists…about whistleblowing, independent journalism and democracy…” Launched by the Institute for Public Accuracy in response to “concerns…about the flow of information to the public,” allows for whistleblowers to electronically and anonymously submit documents using encrypted Secure Drop software provided by the Freedom of the Press Foundation.  These secure materials are then reviewed by the ExposeFacts advisory board and, if appropriate, released through the website itself or through other independent journalists and media outlets.   Although still in its infancy, the organization has already achieved visibility through cooperative partnerships with like-minded, membership-rich groups.  It has also quickly garnered support from an impressive array of intellectual heavy-hitters. Recently, Solomon took time to share his thoughts with me regarding the makeup of ExposeFacts’ board and future strategy, and to offer advice to potential whistleblowers.

The diverse advisory board is comprised of more than forty journalists, activists, whistleblowers and attorneys, all dedicated to building “ an independent organization that will not cower, will not be intimidated, and definitely will fight for the independence of the press and the necessity of whistleblowing in our society.”  Solomon is humbled by the “depth and breadth” of  experience and dedication of the ExposeFacts board, which boasts such notable figures as The Nation’s Chase Madar, Black Agenda Report’s Glen Ford, Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg, NSA whistleblowers Thomas Drake and William Binney and Edward Snowden attorney Jesselyn Radack, among others. “These are idealistic people. Many have paid a high price for living out their idealism…,” explains Solomon, “We’re under the same roof because there is a shared recognition that if whistleblowers are crushed, if confidentiality of sources prevents it, then overwhelmingly all that the American people will get is the ‘official story,’ and that situation would be antithetical to the free press provision of the First Amendment.”

Solomon describes whistleblowing as integral to the well-being and growth of a society: “Whistleblowing is another way to say truth-telling, and if truth-telling is circumscribed and then vilified, and suppressed, then what’s left?  The official story- the false story.”  He wonders aloud what type of society would be possible if truth-telling is portrayed as something to be avoided, leaving lies to reign supreme:  “What’s at stake is our futures and that’s true of the environment, our capacity to have meaningful democracy, and certainly in terms of issues of war and foreign policy.”   ExposeFacts is a carefully-coordinated initiative designed to counter this current climate of suppression and “to shed light on concealed activities that are relevant to human rights, corporate malfeasance, the environment, civil liberties and war.”

The immediate priority for ExposeFacts is to “expand public outreach” through a series of actions, one of which involves billboards that will be displayed throughout the nation’s capital. Already, the organization has posted its first billboard, featuring Daniel Ellsberg, at a bus stop adjacent to the State Department building. Similar billboards will appear across D.C. as early as the 4th of July.  Additionally, billboards dedicated specifically to corporate malfeasance will be displayed in Silicon Valley and on Wall Street.

“We also will be building a grassroots organizing component,” said Solomon. Together with, a previously-established group chaired by Solomon, emails will be sent to hundreds of thousands of members in an attempt to mobilize different parts of the country. “We are also looking at ways that people in different parts of the country can actively participate in building what we might call a whistleblower movement, and one of the exciting aspects of ExposeFacts is that it’s building coalitions.” Solomon offered an example of how ExposeFacts might hypothetically use community organizing potential in tandem with  “We might, for instance, email the thousands of people who are part of RootsAction who live in the state of West Virginia and we might say, ‘well, do you know people who, or do you yourself work at an agency or a corporation that has had some role in this terrible degradation of the rivers and streams inside the state of West Virginia and, if so, please call attention to and consider the role of with its Secure Drop mechanism that can confidentially receive documentation.’”

According to Solomon, information regarding the inner machinations of a corporation or government agency serves several purposes, both direct and indirect.  In the hypothetical West Virginia scenario, ExposeFacts outreach may produce information to prevent future environmental catastrophe but may also, ultimately, help to propagate a culture of openness, free flowing information and ideas. Solomon explains the importance of both building relationships with established initiatives and bringing new agencies to understanding and transparency in order to drive momentum:  “Those of us who are working at…. are under no illusions that our one organizational effort can turn this around, but in coalition and synergy with many other groups, the potential is really there for independent journalism, for the free flow of information, for whistleblowing that can breathe life into institutions that have in many ways gone dark and gone silent, and reinvigorate our country.”

As example of this synergy, Solomon offers The Government Accountability Project (GAP) and The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)- two complementary, protective organizations vital to the whistleblowing process in the event that identities should ever become compromised. In the past, GAP has provided legal assistance to well-known NSA whistleblower and ExposeFacts board member Thomas Drake, and The ACLU is currently assisting Edward Snowden.  Solomon explains: “We can’t be, as a news organization, in the position of saying, ‘you give us this information and we’ll pay your bills, for your lawyers, your house’…There are, fortunately, some wonderful organizations that are devoted to materially and legally supporting whistleblowers and we would certainly inform any of our sources who raise this question in case they are not aware of the existence of such organizations.”

Solomon concludes the conversation with advice to future whistleblowers: “ I would urge potential whistleblowers, first and foremost, to continue to reflect deeply and personally about her or his own priorities and values. Also, I urge people to recognize the sad fact that there is no perfect solution….to remain silent has some plus and minuses, especially personally, and to become a whistleblower has some pluses and minuses…All of that said, I would remind people that we very intentionally chose two words for the keynote of, and those words are: ‘Whistleblowers welcome.’”

kevinkellyphotoKevin Patrick Kelly is a university student majoring in History and Political Science.  Previously, he was a columnist for Washington Times Communities.  Follow him on Twitter @TheKevinPKelly.

Untold History does not subscribe to any specific agenda and seeks to promote independent commentary about history and current affairs. 

Breaking Today: Oliver Stone to Make Edward Snowden Feature


Stone:  “One of the greatest stories of our time”

The Guardian:  ”Director of Platoon and JFK will direct a big budget adaptation of Guardian journalist Luke Harding’s book about Snowden’s role in exposing the NSA’s surveillance culture.”

More Coverage:  Time, The Wire, The Verge, New York Times, IGN, Variety, San Jose Mercury News, Washington Post, New York Magazine, Politico, Mashable, Breitbart, L’Expansion, Globo, NU, El País, IndieWire