Blowback and the Sorrows of Empire

An interview with Chalmers Johnson

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.


Steve Dalforno
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 ?

Chalmers Johnson
"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 classified information.

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 ago.

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.

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