Bill Binney on the WSJ’s NSA-telecom revelations

There was only one person I wanted to contact when I read the Wall Street Journal’s astonishing report that the NSA has built a surveillance system capable of spying on 75 percent of all U.S. Internet traffic: Bill Binney.

Binney is the NSA whistleblower who spent nearly 40 years at the agency developing ways to track and analyze foreign intelligence flowing over the global telecom system. That was before he left in disgust over the NSA’s unconstitutional, post-9/11 warrantless wiretapping and its corrupt relationship with contractors. “Got lots of thoughts,” Binney began, after I emailed him the Journal article this morning and asked him for his take on the story.

Here’s key point of the WSJ piece:

The NSA, in conjunction with telecommunications companies, has built a system that can reach deep into the U.S. Internet backbone and cover 75% of traffic in the country, including not only metadata but the content of online communications.

To begin with, Binney said, that underscores everything he’s been saying all along about his former agency and its alliance with the private telecommunications industry. “They copy and store everything that the ‘Upstream’ system gets for them.” he said. What we see in the report, he added, “is the San Francisco AT&T NSA room with Narus, which copies everything on the line.”

Binney was referring to the infamous “secret room” at AT&T discovered by the technician-turned-whistleblower Mark Klein. He confirmed in 2003 what many suspected at the time: that NSA had basically set up a pipe to the U.S. Internet system and was downloading – using equipment made by Narus, now owned by Boeing – everything it could get its hands on for later analysis. One Narus device on a fiber optic line, Binney once told me, could download 1.2 million one thousand-character emails every second, or over over 100 billion emails a day. Imagine how many messages and phone calls one of those could suck up when placed by NSA at one of hundreds of telecom nodes around the country run by the likes of AT&T and Verizon (see Binney’s list of potential nodes below).

In recent weeks, the Guardian and the Washington Post have been reporting on top-secret documents leaked by Edward Snowden that largely confirm these claims. They’ve shown that the NSA downloads and analyzes huge streams of domestic intelligence obtained through court orders to telecom companies and, through software programs such as PRISM, indiscriminately collect communications records on people in the United States, the European Union, Brazil, Latin America, South Korea, Japan, India and many other countries.

It’s a privatized global dragnet – I’ve wrote about it in detail in SPIES FOR HIRE and many articles over the past five years (for the telecom-NSA angle, see in particular this piece I wrote for The Nation in 2006, “Watching What You Say: How are AT&T, Sprint, MCI and other telecommunications giants cooperating with the National Security Agency’s warrantless surveillance program?”)

The Journal report, written by the crack team of Siobhan Gorman and Jennifer Valentino-Devries, significantly advanced the Guardian and Post stories by getting former intelligence officials and former and current executives with key telecom companies to talk. The NSA, Gorman and her partner wrote, has “built a surveillance network that covers more Americans’ Internet communications than officials have publicly disclosed.” Here’s their key points:

The system has the capacity to reach roughly 75% of all U.S. Internet traffic in the hunt for foreign intelligence, including a wide array of communications by foreigners and Americans. In some cases, it retains the written content of emails sent between citizens within the U.S. and also filters domestic phone calls made with Internet technology, these people say…

The systems operate like this: The NSA asks telecom companies to send it various streams of Internet traffic it believes most likely to contain foreign intelligence. This is the first cut of the data.

These requests don’t ask for all Internet traffic. Rather, they focus on certain areas of interest, according to a person familiar with the legal process. “It’s still a large amount of data, but not everything in the world,” this person says.

The second cut is done by NSA. It briefly copies the traffic and decides which communications to keep based on what it calls “strong selectors”—say, an email address, or a large block of computer addresses that correspond to an organization it is interested in. In making these decisions, the NSA can look at content of communications as well as information about who is sending the data…

The surveillance system is built on relationships with telecommunications carriers that together cover about 75% of U.S. Internet communications. They must hand over what the NSA asks for under orders from the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. The firms search Internet traffic based on the NSA’s criteria, current and former officials say…

In our email conversation, Binney cautioned that the court restrictions on the NSA, as limited as they are, don’t necessarily affect other agencies. The NSA, he said, doesn’t consider information collected “until someone at NSA looks at it. But that doesn’t mean that that applies to the FBI or the CIA.”

He referred me, as he has done before in discussing government surveillance, to the March 2011 testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee of former FBI Director Robert Mueller. In that testimony, Mueller said the following in response to a question from Senator Herb Kohl about how the FBI may have missed certain information about Major Nidal Malik Hasan, the shooter at Fort Hood:

What we found as a result of the Hasan incident was that there were gaps that we had to fill. Immediately afterwards, we looked at our procedures. We found that we could do much better — a better job in information sharing with DoD [the Department of Defense, which includes the NSA]. And consequently, today elements of the Department of Defense serve on our National Joint Terrorism Task Force…

We put into place technological improvements relating to the capabilities of a database to pull together past emails as – and future ones as they come in, so that it does not require an individualized search, so putting together a technological improvement to enhance our capabilities. Lastly, we…have not just one office that is reviewing, say, communications traffic but have a redundancy of review at headquarters as well to make certain that we don’t miss something.

“Remember Mueller’s testimony, where he said with one query he can get all past and future emails as they come in,” Binney reminded me today. “Unless an NSA person looked at a U.S. email, it would not be a violation of any rule. And here again, that doesn’t count FBI or CIA or [Britain's] GCHQ or any other of the ‘Five Eyes’ partners [which also include Australia, New Zealand and Canada] using XKeyScore to query data in the NSA storage, either for upstream collection, or data added by PRISM.”

He added that this “also applies to DHS, with their word lists for searches. And if they are using their word lists to pull data out of upstream or PRISM or any other program, it is for sure they are getting a match on just about everything.”

In other words, the NSA is downloading and storing 75 percent of all U.S. domestic Internet traffic. And analysts – many of them contractors – at the FBI, CIA, DHS and other counter-terrorism agencies get to root around in these communications for anything they deem of interest. But basically, they’re downloading it all, storing it (in Utah, for example) and then going back and analyzing it all, content included (not just metadata), and “sharing” that intelligence throughout our massive national security state.

Binney first made these arguments to me in 2012, and I was astounded. Almost afraid to know the answer, I asked him for assurance: “So you’re saying that all calls are being stored for later? We really do have a surveillance state, don’t we?” And I’ll never forget what he said in response.

My point is it’s better than anything than the KGB, the Stasi, or the Gestapo and SS ever had. Even the Chinese can’t do anything to match this, although they’re trying to get there I know. The Libyans did it. They bought some equipment from a French company to monitor all the calls in their country. Same thing: monitoring their population. The Chinese want to do it, the Syrians, all of them. This is what totalitarian states want to do. When you set up this kind of thing you are setting up the foundation for converting to a totalitarian state…People over there [at NSA] are afraid to talk about, and I don’t blame them. They have kids in college. My kids are gone. I don’t have anything to lose here. But I have a lot to stand up for. I don’t have any fear.

Today, Binney continues to speak out, without fear. His last point on the Journal report was the most intriguing.

In their Journal story, Gorman and Valentino-Devries wrote that, even before 2001, the NSA set up special Internet intercept programs “through arrangements with foreign Internet providers,” and “still has such arrangements in many countries, particularly in the Middle East and Europe.” Then, after the 9/11 attacks, “these intercept systems were expanded to include key Internet networks within the U.S. through partnerships with U.S. Internet backbone providers.” And most amazingly, “for the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, the FBI and NSA “arranged with Qwest Communications International Inc. to use intercept equipment for a period of less than six months around the time of the event. It monitored the content of all email and text communications in the Salt Lake City area.”

All of this is very familiar territory to Binney. Remember his last title at NSA: “Technical Director of the World Geopolitical and Military Analysis Reporting Group.” According to his bio at the Government Accountability Project, Binney “mentored some 6000 technical analysts that eavesdropped on foreign nations, collecting private phone calls and emails for NSA databases.” So he knew the technical, fiber-optic side of this territory better than anybody else at NSA. And probably still does.

In fact, Binney told me, he’d recently been studying the global fiber optic networks mentioned in the article. If he was working at the NSA, he said, he would identify “major points” in the lines “where he’d put Narus or Verint devices, or similar collection equipment to acquire most of the WWW [Internet] data. I have identified these convergent points in fiber optic lines.”

So imagine, if you will, the NSA’s global listening network, brought to you by AT&T, Verizon, BT, and Deutsche Telekom (AKA T-Mobile), as well as all those contractors (Booz Allen Hamilton, SAIC, etc.) who supply the software and analytical services. What follows, and posted on the map at the top of this story, are all the cities where your conversations – email, phone, everything – are being monitored, in Binney’s opinion. Folks, I think we have reached new levels in surveillance and privatization.

Bill Binney’s list of the most likely surveillance nodes:

AT&T — See a map of its backbone domestic network here.

Seattle, San Francisco, San Jose, Los Angeles, San Diego, Denver, Phoenix Kansas City, Dallas, Salt Lake City, Chicago, St. Louis, Nashville, Cleveland Atlanta, Orlando, Miami, Boston, New York, Newark, Washington Toronto, Amsterdam, Frankfurt, Paris, London Bangalore, Tokyo, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Singapore, Sydney


Seattle, San Francisco, San Jose, Los Angeles, San Diego, Portland Las Vegas, Phoenix, Salt Lake City, Denver, Dallas, Houston, Kansas City St. Louis, Chicago, Atlanta, Detroit, Orlando, Miami, Charlotte, Richmond Washington, Philadelphia, New York, Boston London, Paris, Amsterdam, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Singapore

BT Group (British Telecom — North American network map)

Stockholm, Frankfurt, London 1, London 2. Seattle, Sunnyvale, Burbank, Los Angles, Salt Lake, Denver, Phoenix, Tucson, Houston, Chicago, Kansas City, Atlanta, Tampa, Washington Newark, New York, Miami Buenos Aires, Rio De Janeiro, Santiago, Lima, Mexico City, Bogota Tokyo, Hong Kong, Singapore, Sydney, Mumbai

Deutsche Telekom (which owns T-Mobilenetwork map)

Stockholm, Copenhagen, London, Paris, Marseille, Amsterdam, Hamburg, Hanover, Frankfurt, Nuremberg, Zurich, Vienna New York, Philadelphia, Dallas, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Tokyo

UPDATE I: A federal judge has rebuked the NSA for “repeatedly misleading the court that oversees its surveillance on domestic soil, including a program that is collecting tens of thousands of domestic e-mails and other Internet communications of Americans each year.”

UPDATE II: Everything is fine: the NSA said this (and more) about the WSJ report:

The NSA does not sift through and have unfettered access to 75% of the United States’ online communications.

OK, then. But whatever you do, don’t ever believe this guy.

Former NSA Director Michael J. Hayden: Whenever he speaks, keep this image in mind.

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“CACI and Its Friends,” Revisited

Read this unbelievable story from today’s Washington Post: There’s not much lower you can go as a company, or a contractor, or a country.

Weeks after winning dismissal of a case alleging that CACI International employees directed mistreatment of Abu Ghraib detainees, the company has asked its accusers to pay a $15,580 bill for legal expenses. Lawyers for the plaintiffs, all Iraqis who served time at the prison, opposed the request in a federal court filing on Monday…

According to a recent court filing, nearly two-thirds of the $15,580 bill relates to depositions CACI took, including costs for witness per diem fees and travel allowances as well as deposition transcripts. About $3,500 of the total would cover the costs CACI said it incurred for medical examinations and to hire an interpreter for plaintiff depositions. That figure, the filing added, includes a fee the company paid when examinations were canceled without enough advance notice. The plaintiffs oppose the move, arguing that CACI is out of time and that the request is unjust.

It gets worse. The Center for Constitutional Rights, which has fought for the Abu Ghraib victims since the awful story about contracted interrogation and torture was first revealed in 2004, said the effort “appears to me an attempt to intimidate the plaintiffs.” Exactly. But then Public Citizen chimes in with its typical white-privilege, amoral judgement.

However, Michael T. Kirkpatrick, an attorney in the litigation group of nonprofit advocacy group Public Citizen, said a bill of costs is standard court procedure. “There’s nothing unusual at all about it,” he said, noting that a bill of costs covers only limited expenses, not the entire cost incurred.

Must be OK then, Naderites.

I’ve been writing about CACI for years, and I’ve never been more disgusted (read my profile of it here). But it was this company that drew me into writing about outsourced intelligence in the first place. And here is that first article I ever wrote about the subject – “CACI and Its Friends,” published in The Nation, on June 21, 2004 (I post it here because The Nation‘s on-line version is for subscribers and is only available behind its paywall).

Thanks to Katherine Hawkins, the former investigator for the Constitution Project Task Force on Detainee Treatment, for alerting me to this story today.

The Nation: “CACI and its friends.”

By Tim Shorrock

In his now-famous report on Abu Ghraib prison, Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba identified Steve Stefanowicz, a civilian interrogator employed by CACI International, as having “allowed and/or instructed” MPs to abuse and humiliate Iraqi prisoners and as giving orders that he knew “equated to physical abuse.” Taguba charged that Stefanowicz was one of four people, including a contract interpreter employed by Titan Corporation and two military intelligence officials, who were “either directly or indirectly responsible” for the abuse. On May 21 the Justice Department opened a criminal investigation into an unnamed civilian contractor in Iraq after receiving a referral from the Defense Department.

Unlike Titan, which fired a translator suspected by Taguba of sexually humiliating detainees, CACI, which has twenty-seven interrogators working under Army command in Iraq, has taken a defiant stance on Taguba’s allegations. On May 27, J.P. “Jack” London, CACI’s longtime chairman and CEO, told securities analysts that CACI is unaware of “any specific charges” against its employees but is “working diligently to get the facts.” He added, “We feel we’ve done a fine job for the United States Army,” and said that “our work and integrity will come shining through.” CACI declined comment for this article. Stefanowicz, through his attorney, has denied any wrongdoing.

CACI’s history and operating philosophy provide valuable clues to its activities at Abu Ghraib. Based in Arlington, Virginia, the company was founded in 1962 by two men affiliated with the Air Force’s RAND Corporation. For the next thirty-five years, it grew steadily by providing specialty software to the Pentagon and other government agencies, and in the late 1990s it plunged into the military-intelligence market. With the assistance of friends in high places, including Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage-a CACI director and consultant from 1999 to 2001, when he joined the Bush Administration–CACI entered the small universe of companies providing information technology and services to military units devoted to countering terrorism, a strategy once known to military planners as “asymmetric warfare.” Since 9/11, CACI has emerged as one of the most unabashed corporate backers of Bush’s foreign policy and a key supporter of the military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“Even as I speak, men and women from CACI are forward deployed, worldwide, where the Army finds itself fighting this new century’s most heinous war–the war on terrorism,” London declared last October upon receiving a special award from the Association of the United States Army (a nonprofit organization that describes itself as “fostering public support of the Army’s role in national security”), according to CACI’s website. “We will be successful and victorious in eliminating this fanatical horror.” In 2002 London said he had come up with a “simpler way” to define asymmetric warfare: “Not fighting fair.” Those engaged in such tactics, he said, “embrace barbarism. And their ultimate goal is not victory, but absolute devastation.” One of CACI’s specialties is “social networks” analysis, which involves mapping relationships among terrorist networks and their civilian supporters–exactly what the US Army interrogators at Abu Ghraib were after. Such techniques are also embraced by the Israeli army in its confrontations with Palestinian militants in the West Bank and Gaza, and may explain the special award London received in January from Ariel Sharon’s defense minister, Shaul Mofaz.

CACI’s relationship with Armitage–a veteran of US covert operations who worked undercover with the CIA’s infamous Phoenix assassination squads in Vietnam–underscores its political savvy. When he was elected a CACI director in 1999, Armitage was a member of the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board and president of Armitage Associates, a consulting firm with a long list of powerful clients that included Boeing, Unocal, Texaco, Goldman Sachs and the Brown & Root subsidiary of Halliburton. Price Floyd, Armitage’s press officer at the State Department, said Armitage played a minor role at the company and “didn’t consult with CACI on its contracts.” But the company itself indicates that Armitage’s advice was critical to CACI’s growth. After he joined the Bush Administration, CACI said Armitage had provided “valuable guidance on CACI’s strategic growth plans and the federal government and Defense Department markets.” CACI’s current directors include Barbara McNamara, former Deputy Director of the National Security Agency, and Arthur Money, former Assistant Secretary of Defense for Command, Control, Communications and Intelligence.

Last year, CACI earned $ 507 million in IT revenues from the government, making it the country’s seventeenth-largest federal IT contractor–behind the multibillion-dollar leaders Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman but ahead of prominent contractors like Halliburton, Bechtel and AT&T. Sixty-five percent of its revenues came from the Defense Department, where CACI’s clients include the Army’s Intelligence and Security Command and V Corps, which has several units in Iraq that have been deeply involved in US counterinsurgency operations. Indeed, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been very good for the company: In late May London predicted that CACI’s revenues for the first quarter of the 2005 fiscal year will top $ 360 million, a 50 percent improvement over the same period the year before.

With its earnings, CACI has gone on an acquisition binge, buying eight companies since August 2002. One of those companies, Premier Technology Group, which CACI acquired in May 2003, is the source of its current troubles. In what appears to have been a byzantine bit of bureaucracy, the contracts CACI inherited are managed by the Interior Department’s National Business Center, which has the authority to extend those contracts under “blanket purchase agreements.” Frank Quimby, Interior’s spokesman, said the US Army in Iraq specifically requested CACI’s interrogation and intelligence support services at the prison; the purchase agreements for those services, he said, were signed on August 13 and December 3, 2003-a time when the worst abuses were taking place. As of mid-May, neither Interior nor the Army had “found any indications of faulty performance” with CACI, Quimby said. Those contracts and agreements, however, are being investigated by the Interior Department’s Inspector General and the General Services Administration and could force the government to terminate CACI’s ability to bid on future contracts.

Any investigation of CACI should also focus on the higher-ups who approved these contracts, as well as any Administration officials who may know about CACI’s relationship with military intelligence. The military’s abuse of Iraqi prisoners is bad enough, but the privatization of such practices is simply intolerable.

Posted in Corporations, Intelligence, Spies for Hire | Leave a comment

Obama’s Militaristic Tilt in Korea

A Korean activist in an Obama mask at a rally and march calling for a peace treaty with North Korea, July 27, 2013

My latest, in The Nation:

[On July 27], President Obama became the first US president to attend the official armistice commemorations at the Korean War Memorial. Addressing a phalanx of US and South Korean generals and hundreds of veterans, he delivered one of the most militaristic speeches of his presidency. “Here, today, we can say with confidence that this war was no tie,” he declared. “Korea was a victory.”

Obama ended on a note of hubris, pledging that “the United States of America will maintain the strongest military the world has ever known, bar none, always. That is what we do.” Not once did he mention the fact that, for both North and South Korea, national unification has been a cherished—albeit distant—goal since 1972, when the Kim Il Sung and Park Chung Hee governments first laid out the principles for unification.

Obama’s embrace of the term “victory” marks a sharp and disturbing turn in US policy towards Korea. The Korean War, which has its roots in the tragic division imposed by the United States and the Soviet Union after World War II, was one of the most brutal conflicts of the twentieth century. It ended where it began in 1950, with the two sides bitterly divided. It also left the country a shattered ruin; North Korea was literally bombed into cinders by the US Air Force. In the end, 38,000 Americans, 180,000 Chinese and 3 million Koreans died.

Click here to read the rest.

Posted in Asia, Korea | Leave a comment

Time to End the Cold War in Korea

On July 26, I spoke in Seoul at the “International Peace Symposium to Establish a Peace Treaty on the Korean Peninsula.” It was organized by the Progressive Policy Institute of the Unified Progressive Party, a coalition of peace, labor and civil liberties activists that holds six seats in South Korea’s National Assembly. Here are the remarks I gave at a panel that also included writers and activists from Japan and Korea; links were added later. You can read more about my visit here.

Good afternoon. Many of you in this room know me from my 1996 expose in the Journal of Commerce of declassified documents showing the previously hidden role of the United States in the 1980 military coup in South Korea and the Korean military’s suppression of the Kwangju Uprising. That was a big story for me – in part because the day after it was published, activists in Seoul organized a demonstration at the U.S. Embassy. It’s not often that a journalist gets such an immediate response to an article.

I want to thank the organizers of this conference for inviting me, and appreciate this opportunity to greet friends and allies from Korea, Japan and China in our joint quest for peace.

The question before us today is how to work together to end the hostility between the United States and North Korea, or the DPRK, and find a way to build peace and reconciliation on the Korean Peninsula at a time of great stress but also great opportunity. I speak to you as a journalist, trade unionist and political activist with roots in both America and East Asia, where I spent most of my youth.

I want to begin with the image you see on the opening page of my website at It is a magnificent photograph taken on April 19, 1960, at the height of the 1960 peoples’ revolution against the rule of Syngman Rhee. I was living here in Seoul at the time, as the son of Protestant missionaries, and that uprising influenced me deeply. For the first time in my life I saw students, workers and ordinary citizens take to the streets to demand democracy and an end to repression – and win. At the time, the United States seemed to play a neutral role, and even flew the dictator Rhee out of the country in a CIA plane. For a brief 12 months, there was a possibility of reconcilation with North Korea and an end to Korea’s tragic division.

But as we know too well, when General Park Chung Hee seized power in a military coup a year later, successive U.S. administrations backed him with extensive financial and military aid that lasted until he was assassinated in 1979. During that time, the US and South Korean military formed extremely close ties, starting of course in the destructive and immoral war in Vietnam. Today, as a result of this relationship, South Korea is the only country in the world where a foreign general takes command during times of war.

The Cold War relationship between the US and South Korea had severe economic repercussions as well. The years from the 1970s through the late 1990s were marked by intense U.S. pressure on South Korea to open its markets to Japanese investment and buy U.S capital goods, such as fighter jets and nuclear power plants, exclusively from American companies. After the financial crisis of 1997, the U.S. used the IMF to force open South Korean financial markets so U.S. banks such as the Carlyle Group could take over Korean firms. Even when military tensions have been high with North Korea, the U.S. and South Korea have clashed repeatedly over economic and trade issues. The current dispute over extending the U.S.-South Korean nuclear energy agreement is a case in point.

In fact, we can say that the Cold War created an unequal relationship between Washington and Seoul that has few precedents in the modern world. The United States frequently using its clout to further integrate South Korea into its global exercise of power. U.S. military and economic interests continually define U.S. ties with South Korea. In 1979 and 1980,  when the Korean people rose up to demand an end to military rule, those interests proved to be far more important than human rights or democracy in determining U.S. policy. And unfortunately, they define it now.

Today, I’m afraid to say, most Americans see South Korea not as an independent nation that was tragically divided in 1945, but as 1) as the country we “saved” from communism during the Korean War and 2) an economic competitor to be feared. Little is known or understood about the origins of the Korean War or the terrible destruction caused by U.S. firepower. The U.S. backing for the dictators Park Chung Hee and Chun Doo Hwan are forgotten. As a result, too many Americans see South Korea as a junior partner to the United States, with little to offer except for “Gangnam Style” music. But their view of North Korea is much worse.

As reflected in the U.S. mass media, the DPRK is widely seen as a country run by mad men with no claim whatsoever to national sovereignity and a vassal of China that has no right to exist. These views, framed by decades of anti-communism and fed in part by racism, deny the true history and nature of Korea on both sides of the DMZ and are in my opinion the biggest barriers to peace in Korea. We see it reflected in U.S. foreign policy and, unfortunately, we see it reflected by the American progressive movement.

Let’s look first at American policy. Under President Obama, the United States has launched its largest military buildup in Asia since the Vietnam War. The policy is publicly aimed at “containing” China and North Korea, but is in reality another way to expand U.S. hegemony and power in Asia. U.S. bases in South Korea and Japan also serve as “aircraft carriers” that help U.S. forces extend their reach to Iraq and Afghanistan. These bases explain why the Pentagon continues to stall and resist South Korean efforts to win control of the U.S.-ROK Joint Command.

Moreover, the U.S contempt for South Korea is illustrated by the NSA’s surveillance of the South Korean embassy in Washington; if this is how allies are treated, who needs enemies? As people committed to peace and long-term stability, we need to organize against the joint command structure, which in my opinion deprives South Korea of its sovereignity. That must be part of our agenda to build conditions for a peace treaty that would end the current state of war on the Korean peninsula.

Now let me turn to the U.S. peace movement. Unfortunately, many Americans who should be our allies in building peace in Korea have adopted Cold War thinking as well. This is especially true of the press, which – as I’ve said – always portrays North Korea as the evil instigator and rarely mentions how U.S. policies, including threats to use nuclear weapons against the DPRK, have contributed to the tensions. But it’s also true of progressives as well.

Many of you fought against the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement known as KORUS. You correctly saw KORUS as a treaty that will make it easier for capital to move across borders and hurt the interests of workers, unions, farmers and consumers. This view is shared by many U.S. trade unionists as well.

But the organization that led the fight against KORUS and is in the forefront of the fight against [the Trans-Pacific Trade Agreement known as] TPP seized on only one issue: the Kaesong Free Trade Zone (that, ironically, is about to reopen). In its literature and campaigns, this U.S. organization argued that Kaesong is a “slave labor” camp that will finance North Korea’s acquisition of nuclear weapons, and therefore its inclusion in KORUS had to be opposed.

This Cold War, simplistic view put this organization and many U.S. trade unions to the right of the most extreme elements of the Republican Party and even to the right of the very right-wing South Korean presidents Lee Myung-Bak and Park Geun-hye. Worse, it completely denies South Korea’s sovereign right to reduce tensions and build economic ties with North Korea on its own terms. With “friends” like this, you do not need enemies.

If we are to convince the U.S. government to even consider a peace agreement and end the Korean War, we must begin an education program to help Americans from left and right understand America’s historical role in Korea. We must also explain how a peaceful Korea moving towards reconciliation could benefit both the United States and East Asia by reducing military tensions and spending.

I encourage my Korean friends to seek out the U.S. media here, which has expanded considerably in recent years. Talk to American reporters, and correct them when they’re wrong. Come to the U.S. and explain to the peace and labor movements that Korea is more than “Gangnam Style” and Hyundai cars, but is a sovereign nation with a long history as a united country. Cold War ideology is a creature of the past: let’s work together to end 60 years of division and war and create a zone of peace and economic cooperation in Korea and beyond.

Thank you for your attention. I would be happy to consider any questions.

Posted in Asia, Korea, Kwangju Declassified | Leave a comment

Marking the Armistice: Dispatch from South Korea

I was in Seoul during the July 27 commemorations of the 60th anniversary of the armistice agreement that brought an end to the fighting in the Korean War, one of the most brutal conflicts of the 20th century. My visit was hosted by the Unified Progressive Party, a coalition of peace, labor and civil liberties activists that holds six seats in South Korea’s National Assembly. On July 26, its Progressive Policy Institute sponsored an international symposium on “concluding a peace treaty on the Korean peninsula,” with participation from activists and writers from South Korea, Japan and China as well as the United States and Canada. I was proud to be among the three Americans invited to the event. The others were Gregory Elich, a foreign policy analyst affiliated, as I am, with the Korea Policy Institute (see his Counterpunch article on North Korea) and Hyun Lee, a Korean-American activist with the community organization Nodotul in New York City (she produces radio shows for Asia Pacific Forum on WBAI.) I want to thank the organizers of the symposium, particularly Kyoung-Soon Park, the vice president of the institute, and Je-Jun Soo of the Korean Alliance for Progressive Movements. Here’s a report on my visit – my first to Seoul since August 2001:

South Koreans gather at Imjingak near the DMZ.

The highlight was a trip to the DMZ, the border area which I first saw as a boy in 1961, The day I was there it was extremely hot and humid, but hundreds of people came out to mourn Korea’s division and express their hopes for a unified and peaceful future. That day our delegation also participated in two demonstrations in downtown Seoul. In the afternoon, we marched and rallied for peace in front of the Yongsan Garrison, the huge U.S. military headquarters in Seoul (where I went to 4th grade in a U.S. Department of Defense school). In a speech that was well-received by the audience (I channeled John Lennon with “Power to the People, Right on!”) I spoke out against U.S. policy and for a peace agreement. You can see parts of my speech at about 2:15 in this clip.

The crowd I spoke to at the demonstration at Yongsang and the War Memorial.

That evening, about 25,000 people – including a few Americans – attended a very moving and colorful rally at the main Seoul Plaza to protest South Korea’s intelligence agency’s intervention in domestic politics, a major issue in South Korea today (sound familiar?). One of the speakers was a housewife who created a website on politics critical of the South Korean government. She has sued the KCIA (which has been renamed the National Intelligence Agency) for its sleazy tactic of using social media to viciously undermine opposition voices.

July 27 rally for peace and against KCIA intervention in domestic politics.

At one point, she received postings with pictures of her 10 year-old daughter threatening her with rape and worse. These abusive tactics have become a powerful issue, and the people are fighting back.

The other highlight was a tour, led by our Korean hosts, of two important symbols of South Korea’s path from a Japanese colony to a democratic nation – albeit with lingering signs of authoritarianism.

The prison where Japanese colonialists held Korean independence fighters.

They were the Seodaemun Prison, where the Japanese colonial authorities held Korean independence fighters and South Korea’s postwar military governments imprisoned democratic activists; and the War & Women’s Human Rights Museum, a tribute to the sex slaves (known in Asia as “comfort women”) kidnapped and imprisoned by the Japanese Army during World War II. Many of the exhibits and photos at the prison were difficult to see, particularly those showing the Japanese use of water torture – a practice that the U.S. government and the CIA shamefully adopted during the “war on terror.”

At the museum for "comfort women."

The women’s museum includes incredibly realistic animation of the experiences of the sex slaves at Japanese military bases scattered around the Pacific (the victims also included women from the Philippines and Holland). It was tremendously inspiring to see the photos and testimony of the brave Korean women who came forward to tell the stories of the comfort women in the 1980s, when the veil was first lifted on this terrible story of human trafficking.

Some of the incredibly brave "comfort women" who've come forward to tell their stories.

It’s unbelievable and shocking that the Japanese government continues to deny these crimes, and that prominent politicians there downplay and even ridicule the accounts of those who suffered. (click here for an excellent historical analysis of these museums).


Before describing the details of my visit and the reasons so many of us believe a peace treaty is critical to peace in Korea, it’s important to remember the horror of the Korean War. I lived in South Korea from 1959 to 1961, when my father was working for a church relief organization, and I have strong memories of its impact on the south – hills denuded of trees, thousands of widows and orphans, vivid stories of families fleeing the fighting and split by the division, a polarized and repressed society. Here’s what David Carter, a British journalist and historian in Korea, wrote about the war in 2010 in Contemporary Review:

Seoul, after the destruction - the same site as the anti-CIA demonstration.

[The Korean War] was a total disaster for the entire Korean peninsula. The historian Bruce Cumings has described the effects in shocking and gruesome detail: the entire country was a “smouldering ruin,” hardly a building was left standing anywhere, and the capital, Seoul, presented a nightmarish landscape with hollow shells of buildings as far as the eye could see…Cities everywhere, including also the northern capital of Pyongyang, were piles of rubble and ashes. People were living in tunnels, caves and makeshift shacks: they had to start rebuilding their lives using only the refuse of war. In the War Memorial Museum in Seoul you can walk between life-size dioramas of cityscapes wasted by the war, which make it difficult to re-enter the normal world outside with an easy conscience. About a tenth, three million, of the entire population of Korea at the outbreak of the war, had been wounded, killed, or were missing; ten million Koreans were wandering around disorientated, separated from other members of their families.Virtually all industry, North and South, had been destroyed, dams had been blasted and the already devastated landscape inundated.

This is "victory"? AP: "This U.S. Army photograph, once classified top secret, is one of a series depicting the summary execution of 1,800 South Korean political prisoners by the South Korean military at Taejon, South Korea, over three days in July 1950."

The gruesome toll of the dead includes three million Koreans, 186,000 Chinese and 38,000 Americans (as I reported in The Nation this week, President Obama had the audacity and arrogance to call the war a “victory,” reviving a right-wing trope that has long been discredited by historians).

And in their generally terrible reporting on North Korea, U.S. journalists rarely mention the incredible destruction wrought on the North by the U.S. terror bombing campaign – click here and here for two well-documented accounts of these actions, which left North Korea, quite literally, in cinders.


Lee Jung Hee, chairperson of the UPP, speaks at the Seoul symposium.

Today, of course, Korea remains bitterly divided, and the clouds of war are still present. North Korea, which is committed to a military-first policy known as “song-gun,” has built and tested several nuclear weapons, and the U.S. and South Korea regularly hold massive military exercises where they practice nuclear strikes on the North and even stage mock run-throughs of regime change. As I wrote in Salon during the most recent “North Korea Crisis” in April, the Obama administration’s refusal to negotiate with North Korea at any level has exacerbated the situation. At the symposium, the dire situation was summarized by Jung-Hee Lee, a lawyer and feminist activist and chairperson of the UPP who ran for president in 2012:

Sixty years have passed since the armistice agreement was signed by Korea is still at war. The two military drills, so called Foal Eagle and Key Resolve, that were carried out in the spring of this year pushed the Korean peninsula into a serious nuclear crisis. A large number of nuclear weapons such as the U.S. nuclear-capable B-52 and B-2, and nuclear aircraft carrier Nimitz were deployed on and around the Korean Peninsula. North Korea forward-deployed its missiles as well. As such, the potential for military confrontation has reached its climax. We could learn from these experiences that peace cannot be attained in an unstable environment under the armistice agreement. We need to declare an end to the war and conclude a peace treaty on the Korean Peninsula immediately. Our challenge is to create a stable peace system now.

There were lots of cops at the Yongsan demonstration. Note the U.S. security guy, on the phone.

One of the best things about the conference was the participation by a large group of Japanese peace activists. They were there in part to protest the role of the Japanese government, the most conservative since World War II, in the ongoing tensions in Korea and particularly in the U.S. military buildup in Asia.

The Japanese delegation marches in solidarity with their Korean comrades.

Hottori Ryoichi, who was until last year a member of the Japanese House of Representatives from Osaka, offered a withering critique of Japanese policy. He started out by reminding the audience what the Korean War meant to Japan – primarily that it was “not possible without the Japanese military bases” controlled by the United States, and that Japanese sales of vehicles and munitions to U.S. forces in Korea helped revive the postwar Japanese economy. “That ‘special demand’ from the Korean War was only made possible by the Korean peoples’ blood,” he said.

Ryochi Hattori: "“The Abe government is not even conservative; it’s an ultra-rightwing regime."

Hattori denounced Shinzo Abe’s new LDP government, which is desperately seeking to change Japan’s peace constitution so it can participate in America’s global wars (and, not suprisingly, join the lucrative export of weapons). “The Abe government is not even conservative; it’s an ultra-rightwing regime,” he said. “Overturning Abe would directly contribute to peace. His followers want to revive the Emperor’s Army.” He added that “to abandon the peace constitution would be unforgiveable to people around the world.” (Later, Byung-Ryul Min, a member of the UPP’s supreme council, declared that “the logic of Japan in 1941 was not that different from today’s ruling conservatives.”)

Kenji Watanabe: "A new era of the Cold War is upon us."

“A new era of the Cold War has come upon us,” added Watanabe Kenji, the chairperson of the Japan-Korea Peoples’ Solidarity National Network and a historian on Japanese militarism. He described how Japan is trying to “revise and distort history” with false accounts of the comfort women and by claiming “ownership” of islands claimed by Korea and China. He slammed recent joint military exercises held by the U.S. and South Korea as “provocations themselves,” and noted that the 1953 armistice agreement stipulated that, within three months, all foreign forces were supposed to be withdrawn. “The Korean War must end to achieve a permanent peace in Korean and Northeast Asia,” he concluded. “We now have a vicious cycle were no one trusts the other parties. We must give North Korea assurances against military provocations.” Other Japanese speakers linked the struggle against militarism to the ongoing battles to remove U.S. forces from Okinawa and stop South Korea from constructing a naval base in the southern island of Jeju (a movement recently joined by movie director Oliver Stone).


Je-Jun Joo was very active in the movement against KORUS.

The strongest arguments for an end to the war came from the Koreans themselves. Je Jun Joo of the Korean Alliance and a key figure in the movement against the Korea-U.S. Trade Agreement, summed up the costs of the war build-up to the Korean economy.

The defense budget of South Korea this year is about 35 trillion won (about $35 billion), which is about 15 percent of the whole countrys’ budget for a year…If the salaries of South Korea’s 600,000 soldiers were included in the budget, defense spending would easily place South Korea in the top five of the world. What we should also know is the fact that the ratio of importing foreign weapons is dramatically getting higher. In 2011, it exceeded one-third of the defense budget and was close to 30 percent of the arms exported by the United States. It is so clear who makes profits from the situation on the Korean peninsula.

In a serious escalation, the U.S. sent this B2 nuclear-ready bomber over Korea last April.

In a serious escalation, the U.S. sent this B2 nuclear-ready bomber over Korea last April.

Joo also offered a sobering overview of the military exercises that North Korea claims its nuclear deterrence is aimed at.

These exercises, also known as “Team Spirit,” “Ulchi Focus Lens,” “Key Resolve,” and “Ulchi Freedom Guardian,” have taken place for decades to practice attacking North Korea. And about 50,000 to 200,000 forces are currently mobilized for these exercises. On top of this, South Korea and the United States have established operational plans including “destroying the North Korean structure,” “North Korea leader assassination operations,” and “preemptive attack against North Korea’s major facilities,” OPLAN 5027 (Total War), OPLAN 50230 (psychological warfare against North Korea). As you can see, it same hard to realize such ideas as “mutual equality,” “realizing peace,” or “solving the problem by having conversations,” in this peninsula.

That, of course, is a direct shot at the Obama administration, which defends its Asia policies, including its massive shift of military resources to the Pacific, as a giant peace-keeping operation. Koreans at the conference and in general are already fed up with

Guy with an Obama mask protesting in front of the US Army Garrison in Seoul.

Obama’s hardline policies towards the North and his warm embrace of South Korea’s conservative presidents, including the current leader, Park Geun-hye, the daughter of the former dictator Park Chung Hee, and Lee Myung Bak, the right-wing Hyundai executive who preceded her and under whose reign tensions with the North rose to record levels (to their disgust, Obama, who got along famously with Lee, once called him “his favorite president.”)

In their minds, one of the most important steps to peace would be the dismantling of the U.S.-Korean Joint Command, led by a U.S. general. As I said in my speech to the conference, South Korea is the only country in the world in which a foreign general is in command of its army at times of war.  The UPP and much of the popular movement also want to see the withdrawal of the 28,000 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea. “Voters here have to make that decision to drive U.S. forces out of Korea,” said Park, the institute’s vice president. During the demonstration at Yongsan, the crowds chanted for U.S. troops to get out. Such open displays of antipathy towards the American military would have been unheard of during South Korea’s dictatorial past, which lasted from 1945 to 1988.

George Bush and Kim Dae Jung celebrating the North-South railway, 2003.

Another demand is a return to the more conciliatory policies that dominated during the presidencies of Kim Dae Jung and Roh Moo Hyun, roughly from 1998 to 2006.  During that time, extensive agreements were made with North Korea (then led by the first hereditary dictator, Kim Jong Ill) on cultural, sports, education and political exchanges. Major projects included a railway linking North and South (it was even blessed by George Bush in a 2003 visit), and a joint industrial zone established in Kaesong, just north of the DMZ (the same one that North Korea shut down in April and has been the subject of recent negotiations between Seoul and Pyongyang).

I heard stories of the fruits of this rapprochement from my friends, including a specialist in nano-technology who was involved in joint seminars organized by top North and South Korean universities. One UPP activist told me how, on one trip, he was even allowed to drive his own car through the checkpoints at the DMZ all the way to Pyongyang. Looking at the border today, that seemed like a faraway dream. Min of the UPP, which has extensive political ties in Japan and China, laid out in detail some of the political exchanges that took place during the “Sunshine policy” years. His contact in North Korea, he said, was not Kim Jong Il’s ruling (in the absolute sense) communist party, but the North Korean Social Democratic Party.

Byung-Ryul Min of the UPP

The UPP, he said, had working group-level talks with the North Korean Social Democrats in 2004, then “made an official visit to Pyongyang and had an official meeting among delegations from both sides between August 22 to 27, 2005. The second bipartisan talks were held between November 15 to 19, 2008. The working group contacts were in progress until 2009. Unfortunately, the current inter-Korean relation is at an impasse and is blocking further inter-party exchanges.” As one friend of mine put it, “when Lee Myung Bak came into office, everything stopped.”

As Gregory Elich pointed out, South Korea’s rightward turn is a blessing for the Pentagon and the U.S. national security elite. “South Korea’s geostrategic importance to the U.S. means that if the expression of popular will is strong enough, it may be difficult to ignore,” he said. “In the years ahead, if a more progressive government comes to power in South Korea, the United States may not be able to exclude a peace treaty from a denuclearization settlement, nor indeed to say no to engagement in the first place.”


Elich quoted from a revealing report published by the Center for a New American Security, the corporate/contractor-funded think-tank of Washington’s global counterinsurgency warriors. It complained bitterly about the South Korean left and its ability to mobilize thousands of people in the movement against the U.S.-South Korean military alliance. A key “challenge for the [military] alliance,” the paper states, “relates to managing populist fervor in Korea.” (coming from Bush and Obama foreign policy hacks Victor Cha and Kurt Campbell, that’s not surprising; but the report is truly astonishing in its triumphalism and complete arrogance towards the Korean people – read it here).

My take on Korea and its relationship with the United States is very much along the lines expressed at the symposium. In my speech, I was extremely critical of Obama’s policies, but also focused on the failure of the U.S. press to report either objectively or accurately about Korea, North and South. But I reserved much of my critique to the U.S. left – of which I am a part. It seems to me that after the Vietnam War, which the left fiercely opposed, American progressives basically forgot about Asia. Worse, progressives have, with rare exceptions (Oliver Stone, Code Pink), treated the South Korean movement for democracy with disdain and even contempt. Here’s part of what I said:

Unfortunately, many Americans who should be our allies in building peace in Korea have adopted Cold War thinking as well. This is especially true of the press, which – as I’ve said – always portrays North Korea as the evil instigator and rarely mentions how U.S. policies, including threats to use nuclear weapons against the DPRK, have contributed to the tensions. But it’s also true of progressives as well.

Many of you fought against the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement known as KORUS. You correctly saw KORUS as a treaty that will make it easier for capital to move across borders and hurt the interests of workers, unions, farmers and consumers. This view is shared by many U.S. trade unionists as well. But the organization that led the fight against KORUS and is in the forefront of the fight against TPP seized on only one issue: the Kaesong Free Trade Zone (that, ironically, is about to reopen).

In its literature and campaigns, this U.S. organization argued that Kaesong is a “slave labor” camp that will finance North Korea’s acquisition of nuclear weapons, and therefore its inclusion in KORUS had to be opposed. This Cold War, simplistic view put this organization and many U.S. trade unions to the right of the most extreme elements of the Republican Party and far to the right even of the Korean conservative presidents Lee and Park. Worse, it completely denies South Korea’s sovereign right to reduce tensions and build economic ties with North Korea on its own terms. With “friends” like this, you do not need enemies.

I would encourage progressive Americans to heed my words and find out for yourselves what South Koreans have to say about North Korea, their hopes for a more democratic society, and the U.S. role in their country. We should assist our counterparts in South Korea pressure the Obama administration to change its policies away from war and towards peace. As a singer at one of the protests sang – inspiring my own quotations from John Lennon – “Imagine.” Imagine a less militaristic America. Imagine a North Korea without nukes and a South Korea without foreign troops on its soil (yes, we’re the only ones). Imagine a peaceful Korea. Imagine an eventually united Korea. It could be done.


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