Blowback and the Sorrows
An interview with Chalmers
by Steve Dalforno
Z magazine, November 2003
Chalmers Johnson is a professor of political
science and has taught at UC Berkeley and UC San Diego. He founded
and is currently president of the Japan Policy Research Institute
in Cardiff California. He is the author of many books on Japan
as well as two books on U. S. imperialism. His first, Blowback,
spoke of coming retaliation for past U.S. intervention in all
corners of the world and was released only a year and a half before
September 11, 2001. His second, The Sorrows of Empire, revolves
around militarism in the United States.
Shortly after September 11, the dialogue began about why anyone
might hate us enough to carry out these atrocities. Would you
explain the term "blowback, " and the part it may have
played on September 11 ?
"Blowback" is CIA jargon. It means the unintended consequences
of American covert actions abroad against foreign governments
that were kept secret from the American public. It was a term
first used by the CIA in a report on the overthrow of the government
of Mohammed Mossadeq, the prime minister of Iran in 1953, basically
to serve the interests of the British Petroleum Company. It was
instead put out that Iran and the government of Mossadeq was Communist
dominated, which was not true and was absurd.
In the report, the CIA said we are likely
to see some blowback from this operation and that this retaliation
may take the form of terrorist attacks. Terrorism involves attacks
on the innocent in order to draw attention to the crimes of the
invulnerable-the president, his advisors, and his private army-the
CIA. When the innocents are attacked, they have no context, they
have no sense of cause and effect, and it does lead to questions
such as, "Why do they hate us?"
Having written a great deal on American covert operations and
proxy wars, do you have "insider" sources for this type
of information ?
I don't want to claim special knowledge, but I do have some. Between
1967 and 1973 I was a consultant to the office of national estimates
of the Central Intelligence Agency. It was an old system that
Kissinger and Schlesinger broke, but it existed from the early
days of the Cold War. The CIA brought in about 20 outside experts,
gave them very high security clearances and allowed them to read
everything they wrote to test whether there was an internal house
bias. The problem with intelligence estimates is that you can
always be misled by some preordained idea, some theory, and some
expectation. Intelligence estimates are based on three things:
past behaviors, current capabilities, and intentions. Intentions
are the hardest things to estimate.
The experience gave me some insight into
how information is never neutral. It's probably an error in the
National Security Act of 1947 that created the Central Intelligence
Agency, which was the misconception that you could produce information
for the president that would be totally objective. The information
is important to vital interests, such as interests of the military
industrial complex, and bureaucratic interests within the armed
forces. Of course, they look for information that they want to
hear and they try to disprove or suppress information they don't
want to hear. It happens all the time and it requires a great
deal of scrutiny and attention on the part of the president and
his advisors to test and confront the information they are getting.
For example, we are now told that Dick
Cheney, as vice president, made a dozen or so visits to the CIA
in the lead up to Gulf War II, asking for the latest intelligence
on Iraq. As far as I know, no vice president in the history of
the United States actually went to the CIA and asked the intelligence
analysts for raw data. It clearly intimidated them a great deal.
They were basically being told, you better tell us what we want
to hear or your job is on the line.
Moreover, there was real competition because
the Department of Defense was about to create its own intelligence
agency. They were largely getting their information from unbelievably
suspect sources that the CIA had already denounced.
Ahmed Chalabi, who heads an Iraqi group
in exile, was quite clearly inventing the intelligence that he
thought the Pentagon wanted to hear. How do I know this? The most
obvious reason is the difference between what we were told before
the war with Iraq, and what we know today. There is such a huge
discrepancy. We were told by the president that we were in acute
danger of a mad lunatic in Iraq who possessed weapons of mass
destruction. He spoke of drones that could be flown from Iraq
to the United States. This is absurd once you start thinking about
it; how would the drone even get across the Iraqi border.
The secretary of state may have destroyed
any credibility he may have as a result of his performance at
the United Nations on February 5, 2003. He came in pretending
he was Adlai Stevenson in 1961 showing the famous U-2 pictures
of Soviet missiles in Cuba that led to the confrontation with
the Soviet Union. He seats George Tenet immediately behind him,
so that any picture you take you see the director of the CIA.
He never once winced as he listened to things that the secretary
of state said what he knew were outright lies-to a world audience
on television in every country, not just the United States. He
talked about 6,500 tons of VX nerve gas. No, it hasn't been buried
or anything else, that's something you'd find. You'd find it pretty
damn fast, given how fast we invaded the country.
I know what classified data looks like
and I'll tell you the chief reason it's classified is that it
is so banal and is usually classified to protect somebody's bureaucratic
interests against somebody else's bureaucratic interests in our
own government, not from some enemy who is trying to uncover our
secrets. Secrets actually need not be classified. Genuine secrets
are simply closely held by prudent people. It's not the stuff
that comes out in the mountainous piles of junk that is called
Many still believe that military service is an honorable undertaking.
What would you say to a young person joining the military today
I believe that they are misled into believing they are performing
an honorable function by the United States playing an Imperial
role. It is not combat to sit 20 miles off shore in a cruiser
and fire a cruise missile into a poor country like Afghanistan.
Most of the commanders in the Iraq War were located 300 miles
from the front, in the city of Qatar, sitting in air-conditioned
tents looking at cathode-ray tubes and giving their orders. This
is a very peculiar kind of warfare and one of the things it doesn't
include is combat. What it does include is slaughter of the innocent.
The Geneva Treaty on war crimes says specifically that you do
not attack civilians. The United States has been systematically
attacking civilians since high altitude bombardment began in WWII.
In Blowback, you speak of the massive amount of influence held
by the military. Explain the role of the military today.
The military are perhaps the most important institution in our
society. The entire intelligence budget and 40 percent of the
defense budget is secret. It makes it impossible for Congresspeople,
U.S. citizens, anybody to make informed decisions on foreign policies
when the most elemental information is unavailable-contrary to
an article of the Constitution, which says, "Annually, the
American public must be given a full accounting of how their tax
dollars are spent." That has not been true since the Manhattan
project, since the building of the atom bombs during World War
II. Right now, in our budget devoted to international affairs,
93 percent goes to the Pentagon, 7 percent goes to the State Department.
Our military has 1.4 million people, with a huge apparatus of
camp followers, dependents, and Department of Defense civilians
spread all over the world from Iceland to Japan. I don't see the
need for it. Above all I know that the United States is never
going to need a total mobilization again that would actually draw
upon the citizens to defend the country.
We now have something we recently created
called the Northern Command, which is a large military command
located in the United States. It is very powerful, very influential
and, more or less, unconstrained by the Congress.
Explain what you believe to be the Sorrows of Empire.
I think four sorrows inevitably accompany
our current path. First is endless war. The vice president has
spoken of 50 countries he would like to invade. The president
has spoken of 60 he would like to invade. That is a long record.
Second is the loss of constitutional freedoms as we know them.
As it stands right now, since 9/11, Articles 4 and 6 of the Bill
of Rights are dead letters. They are over. You are not secure
from searches in your home and your private life. Habeas Corpus-the
demand that government must spell out charges against you if they
arrest you, they must give you the right to defend yourself, have
an attorney help you prepare your defense, let you see the evidence
offered against you-doesn't apply right now if the president exercises
his totally arbitrary powers to declare you an enemy on his say
so. If you are either an enemy combatant, or another phrase he
likes to use, a bad guy, he could put you in a federal prison
and throw away the key. The third thing is a tremendous rise in
Iying and deceit.
That is what we have been talking about
here in the case of the Iraq war. The difficulty to believe anything
that the government says any longer because they are now systematically
Iying to us on almost every issue. The fourth is bankruptcy. Attempting
to dominate the world militarily is a very expensive proposition.
The United States may be the world's largest military power, but
it is assuredly not rich enough to do what it is claiming to do.
The British Empire on the eve of the World War I had a trade surplus
running at 7 percent of the GDP. The United States, for the last
15 years, has had trade deficits running at 5 percent every year.
We are on the edge. If the rest of the world decides not to cooperate
with us or just the rich people of East Asia decide the Euro is
a better currency to put their money in than the dollar, we become
a junkyard almost at once. The stock exchange would collapse and
we would have a howling recession. All four of those things are
likely to prevail.
If we were having this conversation in
1985 and I said to you, the other super power, the Soviet Union,
is going to disappear. You'd think I was not very reliable. In
1991, the Soviet Union collapsed. Why? The Soviet Union was brought
down by three things. The first was ideologically driven economic
contradictions that made their domestic institutions almost impossible
to reform. They had an overly rigid interpretation of Marxism
and Leninism. Do we have that in the United States? That's Enron,
that's Anderson, that's World Com, that's Tyco. Ten, twenty years
ago a chief executive officer in an American company maybe made
fifty to seventy times more than the lowest ranking employee in
his firm. Today, the number is around 450 times. There is no explanation
for it except for outright theft.
Second, imperial overstretch. We have
been doing it too long, we have too many commitments, too may
places that simply sap our resources. That is why I keep citing
that the Department of Defense, with every incentive to disguise
what it is doing in its annual reports, acknowledges 725 American
military installations in other people's countries. I send my
students to Korea to study at Yonsei University. Young men write
back that if you are a young man in Seoul today, the very first
thing you must do is grow a ponytail. Make sure you look like
a hippie, not like you belong to the Second Infantry Division.
If you wear shined shoes and something that looks vaguely like
a military hair cut and you come up on the street and meet three
young Korean men, they will just beat the living crap out of you
with great thrill. They don't like having these military-looking
foreigners in their country anymore than we would like a couple
of Turkish military divisions located in downtown San Diego. That
is imperial overstretch.
The third is the inability to reform.
I think it is quite easy to imagine the defeat of George Bush
as president. I do not find it easy at all that any successor
to George Bush would make any difference. I believe he would,
like Gorbachev dealing with the vested interests built up over
the Cold War in the Soviet Union, run into the military industrial
complex. The Pentagon, the intelligence services, people who have
been living off the warfare state so long, would do anything in
their power to stop him and probably would succeed. As a historian
of national relations of the Soviet Union, I understand that the
CIA devoted $28 billion to study the Soviet Union. Throughout
the 1980s, they never noticed that the place was collapsing economically.
This is the greatest waste of money that I can imagine.
Once the Soviet Union disappeared, we
started to get these neo-conservative characters in our government
today who are talking about how we are the new Rome. We are not
constrained by anything, by anybody, by international law, by
the United Nations. We don't need allies. The Europeans were never
going to unite until they had something to unite against. They
do now, it is the United States. It is hard to believe that France
is the leader of the free world. The English have no, they are
out of it.
One could imagine a different outcome.
A resurrection of democratic reformist thought in America that
causes people to take back Congress and turn it into a general
elected body of representatives of the people. One could imagine
that the anti-war and the anti-globalization movement could continue
to grow and becomes a mass movement that stops the war machine.
I think that it is a utopian thought, though it has gone much
further than anyone could have logically predicted, say 10 years
One of the important things that led to
my work in these two books was that I was a cold warrior. I believed
that the Soviet Union was a genuine menace. I was truly flabbergasted
and still am that when the menace of the Soviet Union disappeared,
the United States didn't disarm. We instead did everything in
our power to shore up the Cold War system. We had to find a substitute
for the Soviet Union to excuse our military spending and our Roman
pretensions around the world. People were saying the end of the
Cold War meant the end of history. It meant that all ideological
alternatives to the U.S. way of life had been defeated. Well,
they were wrong. The Cold War wasn't the end of history. It is
not that history ended, it is that history started again. That
leads me to the conclusion that we are probably going to reap
what we have sown. That is blowback.
Steve Dalforno is a graduate of ZMI. This
interview was conducted for the Community Media Access Project
in San Diego, California; www. orgsites. com/ca/cmap.