Russia, Syria and the New Political Objectivity

On September 30th, The Brown Daily Herald ran an article about an analysis of an alleged Russian disinformation campaign on Twitter. The analysis was performed by two undergraduates, Ethan Fecht from Brown University and Jack Nassetta from George Washington University, as part of a report issued by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, California. The authors examined the sudden appearance of seemingly fake pro-Trump Twitter accounts after the alleged chemical weapons attack in Douma, Syria, on April 7th, 2018. The Nassetta-Fecht report, totaling 50 pages, claims these accounts were created by the Russian Federation to discourage US intervention in Syria after the attack. Evidently, this supposed disinformation campaign was not enough to prevent a US-British-French coalition from bombing three Syrian government installations on April 14th.

Nassetta and Fecht call the reader’s attention to what they claim is the grander Russian “counternarrative” campaign to “defame Western institutions”, and for this they have received national acclaim. On September 17th, Nassetta and Fecht published an article in The Washington Post which included a “cheat sheet” which can be used to identify Twitter trolls seeking to deceive Americans. Later, The Brown Daily Herald spoke approvingly of the report, one of the authors being a Brown student. The Herald article quotes William Potter, head of the Center for Nonproliferation Studies, who lauded the two students’ “significant contribution” to our understanding of social media.

There would seem to be no questioning the merit of the Nassetta-Fecht report, which, like other recent attempts to detect propaganda and “fake news” used statistical and supposedly objective methods. Searching through a data set of 850,000 tweets, the authors discovered the alleged Russian disinformation campaign by examining graphs of Twitter account creation, tables of word frequency and a very Trumpian “word cloud” with a large “MAGA” in its center. Accordingly, their report uses some technical terminology:  the authors conclude that “synthetic actors” displaying “inorganic activity” on Twitter used “counternarrative messaging” to engage with political leaders on a “linear plane”. This is a far cry from the vague and imperfect methods of traditional journalism, relying instead on objective measures, “big data”, and convincing “visualizations”.

Yet, closer inspection reveals that the methods of Nassetta and Fecht are a thin veneer covering what is a remarkably explicit endorsement of American military interventionism. Indeed, the report’s unsubtle premise is that wholehearted support for the anti-government opposition seeking to oust President Bashar al-Assad at any cost is the only sensible and safe resolution to Syria’s beastly war. Until recently, this was essentially the White House line on Syria, a position treated with rolling eyes by serious journalists and basically anyone outside of highly indoctrinated American foreign policy circles. Though claiming to use new and fashionable methods, the Nassetta-Fecht report is actually a very traditional exercise in American foreign policy discourse: a myopic endorsement of US military domination and a disregard for its victims. Continue reading Russia, Syria and the New Political Objectivity

The Hypocrisy of Blasting Trump While Cheerleading For General Dynamics

Anyone who has ever read coverage in The Providence Journal of a keel laying at General Dynamics knows there’s a better chance of being struck by lightning while riding a unicorn than seeing Gov. Gina Raimondo and our congressional delegation pass up a photo opportunity at the Quonset submarine shipyard.

Raimondo, along with fellows Democrats Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, Sen. Jack Reed, Rep. Jim Langevin, and Rep. David Cicilline, have trumpeted GD’s subsidiary Electric Boat as a valued corporate “partner,” a “jobs creator,” and a reliable ticket to the “middle class” for “hardworking Rhode Islanders.”

Their PR messaging, of course, ignores the company’s role in producing advanced weaponry, submarines included, that intimidates nations and destabilizes the globe, while simultaneously pushing said countries to pursue nuclear weapons programs in hopes of maintaining some sense of security against the U.S. war machine—never mind General Dynamics’ status as a corporate welfare giant that’s secured, through political strong-arming, nearly $480-million in state subsidies nationwide on top of the billions it gobbles up in federal taxpayer dollars every year. Meanwhile, much of that money—nearly $11-billion since 2013—has gone to dubious share repurchasing that inflates executive compensation at the expense of workers.

But the extent to which Rhode Island politicians are willing to turn their heads to General Dynamics’ rapaciousness and the moral bankruptcy of the company’s leadership took on a new dimension this week, when it was widely publicized that GD holds a lucrative contract to track detained immigrant children separated from their parents under Donald Trump’s deplorable immigration policy. Continue reading The Hypocrisy of Blasting Trump While Cheerleading For General Dynamics

An In-Depth Look at the U.S. Nuclear Arsenal and Modernization Program With Weapons Expert Hans Kristensen

I first came across the work of Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists, while reporting a series for The Providence Journal on the new fleet of ballistic missile submarines due to be built by General Dynamics-Electric Boat at its Connecticut and Rhode Island shipyards. The Navy currently has 14 nuclear-armed Ohio-class submarines in service and plans to replace them with 12 Columbia-class ships. Kristensen, however, had analyzed publicly available information and found the Navy may need only eight operational subs, with an additional two in refueling, to meet the demand of its deterrence missions—a conclusion that, if acknowledged and acted upon, would mean cost savings for taxpayers and lost revenue for Electric Boat. “Of course, the Navy vehemently denies that [its submarine fleet is too large],” Kristensen later told me in an interview.

I quickly discovered Kristensen’s work—which includes the comprehensive FAS “Nuclear Notebook”—was among the most detailed and fact-based analysis on worldwide nuclear weapons arsenals available to the public. His reports are empirical and objective, to a degree that seems almost detached given the implications of the subject matter. Consider, for example, this passage from a 2017 article he co-authored with Matthew McKinzie and Theodore Postol on advancements in U.S. nuclear warheads and their potential impact on perceptions of possible nuclear scenarios: Continue reading An In-Depth Look at the U.S. Nuclear Arsenal and Modernization Program With Weapons Expert Hans Kristensen

General Dynamics and the Undermining of Democracy in Rhode Island and Connecticut

If you’re a Connecticut resident who was caught off guard last week by Democratic Gov. Dannel Malloy’s announcement of an $83-million subsidy package to U.S. Navy contractor General Dynamics-Electric Boat, don’t worry—you weren’t alone.

That’s because, while Malloy’s self-described “historic long-term partnership” with Electric Boat had been in the works for months, the giveaway to cover infrastructure expansion and workforce development costs at Electric Boat’s Groton shipyard was virtually impossible for the public to follow and weigh in on in any meaningful way.

From what the public could see, it all started in January when Sen. Cathy Osten (D-Sprague) announced her plan to introduce a bill offering $100-million to Electric Boat for facility expansion, and another $50-million for employee training. A placeholder for the “Act Concerning Funding For Submarine Jobs and Opportunities” was posted online with zero details and then never updated. Continue reading General Dynamics and the Undermining of Democracy in Rhode Island and Connecticut

Matt Brown Says General Dynamics is ‘Strong-Arming Rhode Island Taxpayers,’ and the State Needs to Move Beyond Its Military Economy

When I heard Matt Brown was considering a run for Rhode Island governor, the first thing that struck me was how he’s spent the last decade since leaving office as secretary of state: founding and then running Global Zero, an organization dedicated to the elimination of nuclear weapons worldwide by 2030. That work was certainly in direct contrast to a key focus of the state’s Congressional Delegation, which has thrown its political capital into development of a new class of nuclear-armed, ballistic missile submarines to be built at local Navy contractor General Dynamics-Electric Boat at the cost of up to $104-billion to U.S. taxpayers. Gov. Gina Raimondo, Brown’s opponent in this year’s Democratic primary, has also latched onto EB’s good fortune, dedicating more than $4-million in government funds to train the company’s workforce, labeling it one of the top jobs opportunities for the state.

I spoke to Brown by phone earlier this week, touching on his thoughts about nuclear weapons and Rhode Island’s role in producing them. The conversation evolved into a discussion on corporate power and the role of government in recent decades in enabling the most inequitable economic climate in America since the Gilded Age. As Brown sees it, his campaign will be about educating the public on these challenges with truthful and robust debate. The former founder of Rhode Island’s City Year school improvement program, Brown says his view of economic development distinguishes him from Raimondo, a former venture capitalist who has largely built her jobs growth plan around corporate subsidies and tax incentives—or what Brown characterizes as “giveaways.”

Below is an edited and condensed version of our conversation.                                                                                           Continue reading Matt Brown Says General Dynamics is ‘Strong-Arming Rhode Island Taxpayers,’ and the State Needs to Move Beyond Its Military Economy

Chris Murphy is Selling Us On ‘Empire Lite,’ and We’re Falling For It

This story plays out consistently in American politics: a lawmaker or candidate comes along and advocates for one or a few positions activists of some sort have been waiting years for a public figure to get behind.

Encouraged, those activists whole-heartedly embrace the politician without first looking closely into the nuances of his or her record and positions.

That’s what’s going on right now with Chris Murphy, the Democratic U.S. senator from Connecticut. He took the lead on challenging the U.S. military’s role in the Saudi war on Yemen, something few other members of Congress were willing to do, and he’s backing that up with calls to rethink U.S. policy abroad.

He’s started a website titled “Chance for Peace” and positioned his political brand around “A Progressive Foreign Policy.” The reaction, from what I’ve seen, has mostly been applause.

But, if you talk to peace activists in Murphy’s home state—people much more familiar with his track record—they’ll tell you to be much more skeptical.

“Progressive doesn’t mean pacifist,” Joanne Sheehan, a Norwich, Conn., activist with the War Resisters League, told me recently. “It doesn’t even mean anti-militarist.” Continue reading Chris Murphy is Selling Us On ‘Empire Lite,’ and We’re Falling For It

Connecticut’s General Dynamics Giveaway and Its ‘Astroturf’ Supporters

The term “astroturfing” comes to mind when reading recent testimony given in favor of a bill under consideration in Connecticut, titled, “An Act Establishing the Apprenticeship Connecticut Initiative,” a proposal with a seemingly well-intentioned name and an obscured agenda: to handout government money to the highly lucrative defense contractor General Dynamics-Electric Boat.

The Trojan Horse here—the bill, among other “investments,” would result in the allocation of $100-million in state grants to fund infrastructure projects at the submarine maker’s Groton shipyard—is not lost on skeptical and genuinely grassroots organizations such as the Connecticut Association of Smaller Manufacturers, which said taxpayers have reason to “fear the complexity of this bill is masking a hidden agenda.”

“The Federal government pays submarine manufacturers billions of dollars to deliver and service their products and these manufacturers can well afford their own capital spending,” the organization said in written testimony recorded April 2. “During a time of fiscal distress, this is an insult to the Connecticut taxpayer. Imagine what we could accomplish if we gave our technical highs schools a $100M grant.”

The organization concluded: [T]he deck seems heavily stacked toward large corporations.”

But you’d never get that sense from reading testimony given by the innocently titled Connecticut Center for Advanced Technology, which never mentions Electric Boat by name or the $100-million grant to subsidize “acquisition of lands, buildings, machinery, equipment or any combination thereof.” Continue reading Connecticut’s General Dynamics Giveaway and Its ‘Astroturf’ Supporters