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June 01, 2017

McCarthyism — Then and Now

Writing about web page https://www.forbes.com/sites/paulroderickgregory/2017/05/23/there-remains-no-evidence-of-trump-russia-collusion/

On Forbes on 23 May, my co-author Paul Gregory worries about America's risk of a new McCarthyism. He warns:

Joseph Welch, the lawyer for the army in the McCarthy-Army hearings brought the McCarthy Era to an end by asking McCarthy, who had gratuitously ruined the reputation of a young colleague: “Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last?” We are beginning to see the use of these guilt-by-association practices.

In picking up this theme, Paul echoed an exchange between US President Trump and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov earlier in the spring. As the controversy over his campaign links with Russia intensified, on 3 March 2017 (at 2:38AM) Trump tweeted that leaks of information were turning into:

a total "witch hunt"!

Lavrov adopted and extended Trump's metaphor later the same day:

I can refer to a quote spread in the media today: all of this looks very much like a witch hunt or the days of McCarthyism, which we long thought have passed in the US, a civilized country.

And the following day, Trump returned the compliment:

Terrible! Just found out that Obama had my "wires tapped" in Trump Tower just before the victory. Nothing found. This is McCarthyism!

What is McCarthyism? For readers who are not sure what that's all about, Senator Joseph McCarthy was Republican Senator from Wisconsin from 1944 to his death in 1957. He played the leading role in a postwar search for undercover communists and Soviet agents in US public life. With or without reasonable cause, this search placed tens of thousands of people under suspicion, many of whom lost their jobs and careers, and some of whom were eventually imprisoned on criminal charges.

Wikipedia defines McCarthyism as:

the practice of making accusations of subversion or treason without proper regard for evidence.

So, that's McCarthyism. Now for the parallel. Those who raise fears of a new McCarthyism suggest that we should compare today's beleaguered Trump campaign and White House officials to McCarthy's victims after the war. How well does that hold up? The comparison is reasonable up to a point. The chief similarity is the fevered atmosphere of suspicion and finger-pointing, inflamed by a widespread belief that America's public life has been penetrated by hidden enemies, who now lurk just beneath the surface of things.

On Vox on 18 May, Zack Beauchamp noted the spread of fake news about the Trump campaign and presidency, the Congress, and Russia connections:

President Donald Trump is about to resign as a result of the Russia scandal. Bernie Sanders and Sean Hannity are Russian agents. The Russians have paid off House Oversight Chair Jason Chaffetz to the tune of $10 million, using Trump as a go-between. Paul Ryan is a traitor for refusing to investigate Trump’s Russia ties. Libertarian heroine Ayn Rand was a secret Russian agent charged with discrediting the American conservative movement.

These are all claims you can find made on a new and growing sector of the internet that functions as a fake news bubble for liberals.

That same evening, my own Facebook feed provided a near-perfect illustration. The evening's news was that investigations into the Trump campaign's Russia links were homing in on a "current White House official" as a "significant person of interest." But who would that be? Nobody knew. I came across some comments by people, not my friends, or even friends of friends, just ordinary, good-hearted, liberal-minded Americans, whom I'll call A, B, and C:

A. Bannon I hope

B. Nope. He's not important. It's Kushner.

A. I wish it could be Pence just to get him out of the picture. So that makes sense why he got so close to top.

C. Please oh please oh please be Jared.

What struck me was not just how interested we have become in the hidden workings of the White House. It was more than that; it was the hunger and thirst for one or another hate figure to be found out for what, in our imagination, they really are -- or what we need them to turn out to be, if the hatred is to be justified.

Common to the new and old McCarthyisms is the burning desire of many to see proven what they feel they already know, in the absence of any hard evidence, to be true. We've made up our minds about Trump and his circle, and what sort of people they are. All we need is the facts that confirm it.

That is not all, however.

There is a deeper point that is buried in the history of the old McCarthyism, a problem that those who warn of the new McCarthyism appear to forget. They hold, and I agree, 100 per cent, that McCarthy and his supporters did despicable things. The McCarthyites ruined the lives of many people who had done nothing wrong. They injected a poison into American political life that persists to the present day.

But there is more. The suspicions that fuelled McCarthyism were not unfounded in fact. McCarthyism was not about nothing. And McCarthyism, in its time, was not technically a witch hunt, although I understand most of its victims felt it like that. For in fact witches do not exist, whereas the traitors that McCarthy hunted in his blind, destructive way, really existed.

Since the end of the Cold War, historians have been able to reconstruct the deep history of which McCarthyism was an evil outgrowth. During the 1930s and 1940s, particularly during World War II when the Soviet Union and the United States were allied, and so before the Cold War began, the American government was penetrated by hundreds of Soviet spies and undercover agents. It was easy for this to come about because many educated Americans had a spark of sympathy for communism, which made them susceptible to Stalin's fake news about the Soviet Union, and also because America at that time lacked the traditions and institutions of counter-intelligence.

By the late 1940s, by means of partial decryption of Soviet diplomatic cables, the FBI knew of the existence of up to a couple of hundred Soviet agents in and around a variety of government departments and projects, including the Manhattan Project. But the FBI mostly did not know who these agents were. This was because the agents' identities were protected by cover names, which the FBI could not crack except by good luck, which did come around occasionally. Meanwhile, the FBI could only protect its limited capacity to decode the Soviet signals by hiding the authoritative source of its suspicions.

Beneath the surface of the McCarthyite search for traitors, in other words, lay two things. First was a pattern of covert collusion by American citizens with the Soviet Union, a country that was operating an intelligence assault on its wartime ally consistent with a state of undeclared war between them. Second was an investigation into them that could not be completed and would remain unfinished and undisclosed for half a century. It was in this context that public suspicion and the desire to expose traitors took hold, with the destructive results that we know.

There are three clear lessons for today.

First, justice is not served when guilt is determined in advance of the facts, or when evidence is sought only to confirm prior beliefs. That is why we should worry about a new McCarthyism.

Second, calling it McCarthyism doesn't mean there is nothing there. The allegations of underhand dealing between the Trump campaign and Russia need to be substantiated or cleared out of the way, based on evidence.

Third, nothing will fuel popular suspicion more than an unfinished investigation. The investigation of Russia's role in the 2016 US presidential election needs to be seen through to the end.


February 10, 2017

Torture: How Far Will the Trump Administration Go (Part 2)

Follow-up to Torture: How Far Will the Trump Administration Go? from Mark Harrison's blog

My recent blog on torture received an interesting comment from Mr Paul Thompson. If you want to see it in the original, go here and scroll down. I thank him for it. I would have replied beneath it, but my reply turned out to be too long for the box. (One of the risks of blogging, is that there is no one to say no to you.) So, here it is, point by point:

Torture or even the threat of torture, when employed on a large scale, often leads to the victims giving up a large volume of information,

I agree.

some of which is useful for intelligence operations.

Hmm. It depends what is meant by "some." How much? Five percent? The interrogator's problem is then: which five percent? It's not enough for information to be useful. You also have to identify it as such, against the 95 per cent that is not useful. If five per cent is the proportion, the odds on identifying it correctly are just one in twenty. That's not good.

Given the relative technological backwardness of the Nazis and the Soviets, they understood well that mass torture was one the most effective methods they had available to find those of their opponents who had gone into hiding.

I have no specialist knowledge of the methods and results of the Gestapo. But the Soviets: that's wrong. The historical records of Soviet counter-intelligence suggest an entirely different story. The Soviet authorities did believe that their opponents had gone into hiding. The primary method of identifying enemies was not information gleaned through torture, but markers of social origin, kinship, acquaintance, and past behaviour. The products of torture were used mainly to confirm the "guilt" of those already identified by other means. There are many historical accounts, from Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago to Joerg Baberowski's Scorched Earth, published just last year. (Or would you believe, say, that Marshal Tukhachevskii, whose blood was found on his signed confession, was actually an agent of the Gestapo, as he confessed?)

It is a matter of common knowledge that more technologically advanced tyrannies, like modern Russia, still use torture on a mass scale,

I'll give this a pass, but I'm not happy. Even under authoritarian rule there is a distinction to be drawn between torture as a centralized policy and torture in the more decentralized form of the abuses that are enabled when the abusers know they will not be called to account. This distinction may not matter to the victim, but it is certainly germane to the instrumentality of torture. Still, for the sake of argument, let's move on.

and sometimes gain information that they deem important by this means.

That's fascinating. Is that really common knowledge? How would we know about it? (We should think about modern tyrannies that have collapsed, so that their records are available.) And, how often is "sometimes"? And, shouldn't we ask whether "the information that they deem important" turned out to have at least some external validity? I'd certainly like to know more about this.

The Eighth Amendment explicitly prohibits "cruel and unusual punishments".

Absolutely. (But we are not discussing torture as a punishment. We are discussing torture as an instrument for gathering information. The victim is being interrogated, not punished.)

The US political system is duty-bound to enforce the constitution,

Near enough. The President swears to "preserve, protect and defend" the constitution. Enforcement relies on the courts. See below.

so there the matter rests.

Yes, that's what I hope. But enforcement relies on the judiciary. So I am disheartened to find the President, who just swore to "preserve, protect and defend," attacking "so-called judges" and calling the courts "political." He doesn't seem to feel the call of duty as strongly as he might, and he encourages his supporters to believe that the situation calls for a strong leader willing to break rules. As I said, it's disheartening. I understand I'm not the only one to feel this way.

For all the hysteria about waterboarding, the US has not and will not ever have a policy of inflicting permanent physical harm on prisoners.

These words mislead, I think. First, they seem to limit torture to those methods that might lead to "permanent physical harm." So methods leading to physical harm that is only temporary, such as rape or the local bruising or burning of soft tissues, are not torture? And permanent psychological trauma, such as that arising from simulated execution, is also not torture?

And then "the hysteria about waterboarding." A line is drawn, apparently, between waterboarding (done before and perhaps could be done again) and "inflicting permanent physical harm" (not done, and never will be, at least as a matter of policy). But everyone can read the account of waterboarding written by my friend, the late Christopher Hitchens, who was required beforehand to sign a contract of indemnification that included the words:

Water boarding is a potentially dangerous activity in which the participant can receive serious and permanent (physical, emotional and psychological) injuries and even death, including injuries and death due to the respiratory and neurological systems of the body.

See the words "permanent" and "physical"?

Based on his experience Hitchens concluded: "Believe me, it's torture."

Perhaps you will find time to write about the mass torture and mass murder at Saydnaya prison,

Probably not. It's horrifying, of course. But my aim is to comment only when I can add something based on expertise. On Saydnaya I have none; I can add only what anyone can add who has skimmed the serious media. It's a topic on which others can add more value than me, so why should I compete with them for attention?

a rather more important topic.

Maybe. In terms of immediate human consequences, you're probably right. In terms of what is added to knowledge, perhaps not. I'm a social scientist, so I'm always interested in surprises, because by definition they tell us something we did not know. We already knew that Syrians lived under a vile tyranny. No surprise there. But to hear "What about Saydnaya" as a response to "Let's not go back to waterboarding": that's a surprise.

Before this, I always believed that US constitutional checks and balances were robust. On this matter I still hope not to be surprised.


January 30, 2017

Torture: How Far Will the Trump Administration Go?

Writing about web page https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2017/01/26/donald-trumps-brazen-first-interview-as-president-annotated/?utm_term=.aea7ee7c3ace

In his 25 January ABC interview, US President Trump was asked about the use of torture in the interrogation of terrorist suspects. He said:

I have a general who I have great respect for, General Mattis [new secretary of defense], who said — I was a little surprised — who said he's not a believer in torture. As you know, Mr. Pompeo [a defender of waterboarding] was just approved, affirmed by the Senate. He's a fantastic guy, he's gonna be the head of the CIA ...

But I will tell you I have spoken to others in intelligence. And they are big believers in, as an example, waterboarding. As far as I'm concerned we have to fight fire with fire. Now, with that being said I'm going with General Mattis. I'm going with my secretary because I think Pompeo's gonna be phenomenal. I'm gonna go with what they say. But I have spoken as recently as 24 hours ago with people at the highest level of intelligence. And I asked them the question, “Does it work? Does torture work?” And the answer was, “Yes, absolutely” ...

I wanna do everything within the bounds of what you're allowed to do legally. But do I feel it works? Absolutely I feel it works. Have I spoken to people at the top levels and people that have seen it work? I haven't seen it work. But I think it works. Have I spoken to people that feel strongly about it? Absolutely.

According to a draft order on Detention and Interrogation of Enemy Combatants, obtained by The New York Times and published on the same day as the ABC interview, but as yet unconfirmed by the administration, the President intends to allow the CIA to reopen extra-territorial sites for the detention and interrogation of terrorist suspects outside the ordinary legal protections of US domestic law. The draft order specifically orders the secretary of defence, James Mattis, to carry out a review of the interrogation practices authorized by the Army Field Manual since 2006 and to modify them towards the "safe, lawful, and effective" interrogation of "enemy combatants."

Taken together, these disclosures have heightened reasonable fears that the Trump administration is on a course to restore such practices as waterboarding, if not worse.

Torture is wrong. A problem is that many Americans believe that it works. A big influence has been spy movies and TV shows based on a "ticking time bomb" fantasy in which intelligence extracted by torture saves lives. Many viewers have concluded that such scenarios are reality-based, although they are not. In reality torture is unproductive, if not counterproductive, at least on average (I don’t exclude that exceptionally it might give rise to useful information). Worse, just as depictions of torture corrupt the viewer, the practice of torture corrupts those that use it: once you start, it’s hard to stop. For all these reasons, President Trump’s reported willingness to faciliate a return to torture is reprehensible.

Still, if the President intends to change American practices, as opposed to striking an attitude for his voter base, he will encounter significant obstacles. It is notable that in his ABC interview Trump himself acknowledged the first two obstacles. One is the law, including the Detainee Treatment Act 2005, and related court rulings. Another is Mattis, his secretary of defence. Beyond that lie other resisters. His CIA director-designate is not opposed, but it seems the CIA as an organization does not want to go back there. Leading congressmen are opposed, including some Republicans. Finally, America’s allies will not cooperate.

What does Trump really want to achieve? To strike an attitude or to radically change US practices? If the latter, what price is the President willing to pay to achieve it? Is he willing to take on Congress and the courts? To sacrifice Mattis? We don't know. How strong are the checks and balances of the US political system? Again, we don't know.

It will be an interesting time.


I am a professor in the Department of Economics at the University of Warwick. I am also a research associate of Warwick’s Centre on Competitive Advantage in the Global Economy, and of the Centre for Russian, European, and Eurasian Studies at the University of Birmingham. My research is on Russian and international economic history; I am interested in economic aspects of bureaucracy, dictatorship, defence, and warfare. My most recent book is One Day We Will Live Without Fear: Everyday Lives Under the Soviet Police State (Hoover Institution Press, 2016).



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  • I asked a friend and colleague, Mark Kramer, to look at my column on McCarthyism and tell me what he… by Mark Harrison on this entry
  • Thank you for your response, Professor. I will reply here in brief, because of the limit of permissi… by Paul Thompson on this entry
  • Thanks for your thoughtful remarks. You will find my (overlong) reply here: http://blogs.warwick.ac.… by Mark Harrison on this entry
  • Mr. Harrison, Your view of torture is confused. Torture is certainly morally abhorrent and therefore… by Paul Thompson on this entry
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