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Peter Van Buren

Politics, Justice, and the Surveillance State


The role pervasive surveillance plays in politics today has been grossly underreported. Set aside what you think about the Trump presidency for a moment and focus instead on the new paradigm for how politics and justice work inside the surveillance state.

Incidental collection” is the claimed inadvertent or accidental monitoring of Americans’ communications under Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act. Incidental collection exists alongside court-approved warranted surveillance authorized on a specific individual.But for incidental collection, no probable cause is needed, no warrant is needed, and no court or judge is involved. It just gets vacuumed up.

While exactly how many Americans have their communications monitored this way is unknown, a significant number Trump staffers (no evidence of incidental surveillance of the Clinton campaign exists) were surveilled by a White House controlled by their opposition party. Election-time claims the Obama administration wasn’t “wiretapping” Trump were disingenuous. They in fact gathered an unprecedented level of inside information. How was it used?

Incidental collection nailed Michael Flynn; the NSA was ostensibly not surveilling Flynn, just listening in on the Russian ambassador as the two spoke. The intercept formed the basis of Flynn’s firing as national security advisor, his guilty plea for perjury, and very possibly his “game changing” testimony against others.

Jeff Sessions was similarly incidentally surveilled, as was former White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon, whose conversations were picked up as part of a FISA warrant issued against Trump associate, Carter Page.Paul Manafort and Richard Gates were also subjects of FISA-warranted surveillance; they were surveilled in 2014, the case was dropped for lack of evidence, then re-surveilled after they joined the Trump team and became more interesting to the state.
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What Mueller Has, and What He is Missing


Each week brings a new indictment from Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller along with the same question: when will he produce evidence that the president of the United States committed treason?

Because that’s what this is really about; Some Russians somewhere may have meddled in the election. But what Mueller has to answer is whether Trump knowingly worked with a foreign adversarial government to help get himself elected in return for some quid pro quo. Mueller is tasked with proving the president, now in his 13th month in office, purposefully acts against the interests of the United States because of some debt to Russia. Here’s what Mueller has, and does not have, so far in his case.

Manafort and Gates

Last Friday saw a 32 count indictment charging Paul Manafort and Richard Gates with a variety of money laundering, tax evasion, and wire fraud crimes, going back eight years or more, all related to the men’s work Ukraine. Manafort and Gates were indicted by Mueller on similar charges in October. There’s a lot of money involved, and the details in the indictment don’t look good for Manafort.

A day after the indictment, Gates pled guilty to the very minor charges of participating in a financial conspiracy with Manafort wholly unrealted to Trump, and lying to the FBI about the details of a 2013 meeting. An associate of Gates, Alex van der Zwaan, pled guilty earlier last week to false statements about contacts with Gates regarding Ukraine.
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Christopher Steele: The Real Foreign Influence in the 2016 Election?


Leaving aside the validity of what has become known as the “Steele dossier,” it’s important to look at how Christopher Steele was able to guarantee that the information in it would play a significant and ongoing role in American politics. 

Steele, who is British, did far more than simply provide opposition research to the Democratic National Committee. He was able to make sure it reached the most influential people possible in politics, media and government to shape and influence the growing narrative of the 2016 presidential election. In other words, as a skilled professional intelligence officer, Steele ran a full-spectrum information operation against the United States. One could even call it information warfare.

This is what separates his work creating the dossier  (which a decent journalist with friends in Russia could have done) from his work insinuating the dossier into the highest reaches of American government and political society. For that, you need a real pro, an intelligence officer with decades of experience running just that kind of operation. Looking for foreign interference in the 2016 election? Let’s take a closer look at Christopher Steele.

Steele’s skill is revealed by the now familiar Nunes and Grassley memos, which show he used the same set of information in the dossier to create a collaboration loop, every intelligence officer’s dream, which is his own planted information used to surreptitiously confirm itself, right up to the point where the target country’s own intelligence service re-purposed it as evidence in the FISA (Foreign Intelligence  Surveillance Act) court.
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The People v. Trump: Is There a Case for the 25th Amendment?


The media is of one mind: Donald Trump is mentally incompetent and must be removed from office before he blows us all to hell. It says so on Vox, New York Review of BooksCNNThe InterceptCNBCThe NationBill MoyersSalon, and theNYT. A new book, The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump: 27 Psychiatrists and Mental Health Experts Assess a President, concludes “Trump’s mental state presents a clear and present danger to our nation and individual well-being.”

The solution is in the 25th Amendment to the Constitution. The 25A creates a mechanism aside impeachment to remove an “incapacitated” president, and Trump’s mental state, some believe, qualifies him. Is there a case?

Dr. Bandy Lee, one of the editors of The Dangerous Case of Donald Trumpsays yes. Her primary evidence is tweets Trump sent threatening Kim Jong Un. She really has no other ammunition: no doctor who says Trump is insane, including Lee, has examined him. No doctor that has examined him says he is insane. Third party anonymous accusations of incompetence are shot through with gossip. A book written by a Hollywood trash reporter is otherwise held up as critical evidence of the inner workings of the president’s mind.

So is there a case without the tweets? Not really. Lee adds while Trump has not committed violent acts against himself or others, his “verbal aggressiveness, history of boasting about sexual assault, history of inciting violence at his rallies, and history of endorsing violence in his key public speeches are the best predictors of future violence” and thus concludes he will destroy the world. Lee also weakly points to Trump “being drawn to violent videos.” Oh my.
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Iraq War 3.0, the War to End All Wars, is Over


America’s serial wars in Iraq are ending with a whimper, not a bang. And in the oddest of ironies, it may be President Donald Trump, feared as a war monger, the fifth president to make war in Iraq, who has more or less accidentally ended up presiding over the end.

Here’s how we ended up where we are, and how a quarter century of American conflict in Iraq created the post-Vietnam template for forever war we’ll be using in the next fight.

Iraq War 1.0+ The Good War

The end of the Soviet Union transitioned the Middle East from a Cold War battleground to an exclusive American sphere of influence. George H. W. Bush exploited the new status in 1991 by launching Iraq War 1.0, Desert Storm, reversing decades of U.S. support for Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.
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State Department, Meet the New Boss, Same/Worse as the Old Boss?


The rumors of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s demise may finally not be greatly exaggerated.

A marked man, it was only about a month ago the media speculated on how soon United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley would replace Tillerson. Two weeks ago a trial balloon floated up with Mike Pompeo’s name in trail. But a burst of nearly-identical stories over the last few days,spearheaded by the New York Times, signals the end for Tillerson and names Pompeo, currently Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, as his successor. What lies ahead?

The unique interplay between the Civil Service (non-diplomats largely stationed in Washington DC) and the Foreign Service (who have primary responsibility in Washington and who staff the embassies and consulates abroad) complicates Secretary of State transitions. Engaging both sides, with their different vested interests, can be tough. And unlike the military, where chains of command and internal procedures are written on checklists, State is a hybrid, half foreign and half domestic, with a structure that either conforms to a new Secretary or is conformed by a new Secretary. State is a vertically-oriented bureaucracy, with layers below the boss’ office waiting for bits of policy to fall so as to inform them of what their own opinions are. One academic referred to this as “neckless government,” a head and a body in need of an active connection.

A huge part of Tillerson’s failure was in missing that last point. The traditional way of engaging the bureaucracy is for a new Secretary to fill key positions with political appointees, who will shape the rank and file below them. Bonus points to the Secretary who can pluck out career Foreign Service people with the approved ideological bent to act as a virtual political appointees, a strong point of Hillary Clinton’s. Tillerson left too many slots vacant too long, and now finds himself without allies inside Foggy Bottom.
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The Trump Era and Weaponization of the Media


Donald Trump's victory was so loathsome to many journalists that instead of acknowledging their cultural and partisan blindness lead to them misreport the election, they doubled down, growing two overlapping myths to delegitimize a presidency they never wanted to happen. Psychiatrists call this denial; political scientists may call it a kill shot to democracy.
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Sour Grapes: Iran Wins the Iraq War, and I Scooped the NYT by Six Years on the Story


The New York Times is featuring a piece stating Iran is the big winner of the US-Iraq wars, 1991-2017.

So what does winning in Iraq look like, asks the Times? About like this:

A Shia-dominated government is in Baghdad, beholden to Tehran for its security post-ISIS. Shia thug militias, an anti-Sunni and Kurd force in waiting, are fully integrated into the otherwise-failed national Iraqi military. There are robust and growing economic ties between the two nations. An Iraqi security structure will never threaten Iran again. A corridor between Iran and Syria will allow arms and fighters to flow westward in support of greater Iranian geopolitical aims in the Middle East. And after one trillion in US taxpayer dollars spent, and 4,500 Americans killed in hopes of making Iraq the cornerstone of a Western-facing Middle East, American influence in Iraq is limited.

It seems the Times is surprised by the conclusion; it’s “news” for some apparently. The newspaper ran the story on its hometown edition front page.

But sorry, it wasn’t news to me. I tried writing basically the same story in 2010 as a formal reporting cable for the State Department. Nobody wanted to hear it.

At the time I was assigned to Iraq as an American diplomat, with some 20 years of field experience, embedded at a rural forward operating base. All the things that took until 2017 to become obvious to the New York Times were available to anyone on the ground back then with the eyes to see.

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How to Sustain Perpetual War (It’s Easy!)


Sustaining America’s state of post-9/11 perpetual war requires skillful manipulation of the public at home. The key tool used for this purpose is the bloodless narrative, a combination of policy, falsehoods and media manipulation that creates the impression that America’s wars have few consequences, at least for Americans.

How can the American government sustain its wars in the face of dead soldiers coming home? Why is there no outcry among the American people over these losses? The answer is the narrative of bloodless war.

The Dead

The bloodless war narrative’s solution to the dead is a policy of don’t look, don’t tell.

Dick Cheney, as Secretary of Defense for George H. W. Bush, helped decide in 1991 the first Iraq War would play better if Americans did not see their fallen return home. He recalled the images of coffins from the 1989 invasion of Panama on television, transposed against the president speaking of victory, and banned media from Dover Air Force Base, where deceased American personnel would arrive from the Persian Gulf.
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