Intro: This is Citations Needed with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson.
Nima Shirazi: Welcome to Citations Needed a podcast on the media, power, PR and the history of bullshit. I am Nima Shirazi.
Adam Johnson: I’m Adam Johnson.
Nima: This is the first show of our fourth season. Welcome back, everyone. Welcome back, Adam. Good to be with you again. Of course you can follow the show on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed, become a supporter of our work through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson. All your support through Patreon is so appreciated and allows the show to keep going. It has allowed us to now have had three great seasons. We are back for a fourth season and thrilled that you are with us again.
Adam: Yes, and as always feel free to rate and subscribe to us on Apple Podcast. Any feedback there is very much appreciated and as always, you can subscribe to our Patreon which has 60 or so little mini-episodes that we do just for patrons that helps keep the episodes themselves free and subsidize the show.
Nima: The Guardian proclaims, “U.S. military tactics falling behind those of adversaries, Pentagon official warns.” “Russian Propaganda Is Pervasive, and America Is Behind the Power Curve in Countering It,” reads a report from the RAND Corporation. “U.S. falling behind in new space race, says CIA’s former head of science and tech,” cautions CBS News.
Adam: Repeatedly, US media characterizes the United States — a country with nearly 800 military bases worldwide and an ever-climbing annual defense budget north of one trillion dollars — as the world’s scrappy underdog. Somehow we are always quote-unquote “lagging behind” perennial bad guys Russia, China and evil Muslim terrorists in everything from nuclear weapons, psy-ops, internet security, ice cutters, missiles, drones, outer-space exploration, and the always reliable and equally vague ”military readiness.”
Nima: Now this scam typically goes something like this: a weapons contractor and military-funded think tank writes a supposedly neutral “report” or a handful of “US officials” run to a media outlet insisting the US is “lagging behind” in a sector that incidentally coincides with said “report’s” funders or government entity’s interests, American media mindlessly reports on this report or these wordings and everyone acts panicked, treating these reports or military brass’ warnings like a work of sober objective analysis. Congress then reacts and uses this media coverage and secondary cable news coverage to rationalize more money flowing to the very funders and sources of said warnings, further bloating the Pentagon, State Department or CIA budget. Rinse and repeat, rinse and repeat, all the while portraying the US’s gargantuan defense expenditures as insufficient.
Adam: On today’s episode, we’ll parse the trope of the always “lagging” American empire, who pushes it, who funds it, who benefits from it and ask why the inverse question — what if the United States is too powerful and exerts too much domination over the rest of the world? — is never broached by US media, much less honestly discussed.
Nima: Later on the show, we’ll be speaking with Jim Naureckas of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, where he has edited FAIR’s print publication Extra! since 1990.
Jim Naureckas: Corporate media relies super heavily on think tanks for their quote-unquote “matters of military and security.” They pose as academics without a college, but in reality, they are set up by corporate funders to launder their promotional pitch through the veneer of an academic think tank and it is the quintessential story that you want to tell if you are in the business of not just selling arms, but selling more arms, because as a capitalist enterprise, it’s not enough to make the same profit year after year, you have to increase your profit, because that’s how capitalism works.
Adam: This episode is the spiritual successor to Episode 13: The Always Stumbling US Empire, where the American Empire is portrayed as sort of bumbling around looking for the light switch in the dark without any evidence to really support that. Just the same, a similar narrative of an inadequate and under-resourced American Empire is common in the trope of the US lagging behind, an almost entirely artificial and constructed and completely relative concept that the US empire is just not keeping up with the Joneses.
Nima: I think the textbook example of this kind of trope is the well-worn missile gap myth that really started during the Cold War, of course. Now, during the Cold War, as the United States grew progressively hostile toward the Soviet Union, American lawmakers and media sought to portray the United States as a sympathetic underdog, just struggling to keep pace with its mammoth adversary. The concept of the “lagging” US war machine as a justification for increased spending on military and intelligence didn’t actually originate in this context; examples can be found dating back to at least the 1920s, but the narrative accelerated in the middle of the 20th century, as the US sought to spread its post-WWII global dominance.
Now, in 1954, President Dwight Eisenhower requested a report from Lieutenant General James H. Doolittle on the covert operations of the CIA, which was then only seven years old. The report argued that the Soviet Union was a formidable and, at the time, impenetrable threat to the nascent US intelligence agency, the CIA, and because of this, US intelligence needed to be massively strengthened.
For instance, here’s one excerpt from the report, quote:
The acquisition and proper evaluation of adequate and reliable intelligence on the capabilities and intentions of Soviet Russia is today’s most important military and political requirement. Several agencies of Government and many thousands of capable and dedicated people are engaged in the accomplishment of this task. Because the United States is relatively new at the game, and because we are opposed by a police state enemy whose social discipline and whose security measures have been built up and maintained at a high level for many years, the usable information we are obtaining is still far short of our needs.
Adam: The Doolittle Report offered a basis for a narrative that the US was lagging behind the Soviet Union. A 1954 memo authored by then-CIA director Alan Dulles alluded to the “large gaps in our Intelligence coverage of the Soviet Union which prevent us from obtaining adequate knowledge of Soviet intentions.” Dulles added, “The members of the Doolittle Committee in their report, expressed their belief that every known technique should be used and new ones developed to increase our Intelligence…and that no price would be too high to pay for the knowledge to be derived therefrom. Thus, there is a definite and urgent National requirement for photographic and electronic reconnaissance overflights of the Soviet Bloc.” So, after the successful 1957 flight test of the Soviet R-7 Semyorka — the world’s first intercontinental ballistic missile known in the West as the SS-6 Sapwood — and the launch of artificial satellite Sputnik, neither of which the US had accomplished at the time, the US began to accelerate the narrative that there was a gap in military and intelligence resources of the USSR and the US.
Nima: 1957 also saw the publication of a presidentially-commissioned review of US nuclear policies, chaired by RAND Corporation attorney and former Ford Foundation president Horace Rowan Gaither. The Gaither Report warned that the Soviet Union could have a “significant” missile capability by the end of 1959, making the US vulnerable to surprise attack, quote, “during a period of lessened world tension” end quote. Despite a total lack of evidence for this, the report’s estimates of Russia’s potential arsenal of ICBMs — that is intercontinental ballistic missiles — were as follows: by September 1959 it was estimated they would have 50, two months later, November ’59, they were going to have 100, and a year later by November 1960 they’d have 500 ICBMs. Subsequent intelligence reports later warned that the Soviet Union would have 500 to 1,000 missiles by the 1960s.
Adam: US media swiftly adopted and packaged the Gaither Report’s warnings, along with a broader Missile Gap narrative. Some examples include the Schenectady Gazette in November of 1957 with the headline, “U.S. Lags Behind Russia in 2 Missile Fields, Chairman Of House Inquiry Unit Says.” The Daily Sentinel, December 1, 1957 ran the headline, quote, “Presidential Committee Says U.S. Lagging Behind Soviets.”
A presidential committee reported Saturday that America is lagging dangerously in training scientists while Russia is ‘bending every effort’ to achieve world domination in a scientific revolution.
The Washington Post, December 20, 1957, quote:
[The report] pictures the Nation moving in frightening course to the status of a second-class power. It shows an America exposed to an almost immediate threat from the missile-bristling Soviet Union. It finds America’s long-term prospect one of cataclysmic peril in the face of rocketing Soviet military might.
Nima: John F. Kennedy is actually credited with introducing the pearl-clutching, fearmongering and military budget boosting term “missile gap” into the American political lexicon when on August 14, 1958, he stated, “Our Nation could have afforded, and can afford now, the steps necessary to close the missile gap.”
During his 1960 presidential run, then-Senator Kennedy continually attacked the outgoing Eisenhower administration from the right on this issue, asserting time and again on the campaign trail that Eisenhower had been too weak on defense and not “tough” enough on “the Soviets.” During one stump speech in Portland, Oregon on September 7, 1960, Kennedy declared that “the people of the world respect strength. In former years they were grateful to the United States for the military protection that we guaranteed them.” Kennedy continued with this:
John F. Kennedy: But now they are no longer certain that America’s lead will continue in the future when they see the missile gap widen, and once our atomic monopoly begins to cease, and they are uneasy about a military strategy that relies so heavily upon massive retaliation, because they are not interested in seeing their house preserved, only to see it blown up. (Applause.)
Secondly, the people of the world respect achievement. For most of the 20th century they admired American science and American education, which was second to none. But now they are not at all certain about which way the future lies. The first vehicle in outer space was called Sputnik, not Vanguard. The first country to place its national emblem on the moon was the Soviet Union, not the United States. The first canine passengers to outer space who safely returned were named Strelka and Belka, not Rover or Fido, or even Checkers. (Laughter, applause.)
Adam: Checkers, of course, was Richard Nixon’s dog.
Nima: Which makes that hilarious.
Adam: During an October 1960 debate between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy, Kennedy would go on to say this:
John F. Kennedy: …the strongest country in the world. I think we are today. But we were far stronger relative to the Communists five years ago, and what is of great concern is that the balance of power is in danger of moving with them. They made a breakthrough in missiles, and by nineteen sixty-one, two, and three, they will be outnumbering us in missiles. I’m not as confident as he is that we will be the strongest military power by 1963.
Adam: So, lo and behold, you’ll be surprised to learn the missile gap turned out to be totally bullshit. It was later revealed to be a total fabrication used to justify fortifying US military power. Stuart Symington, a former Secretary of the Air Force who was later a Missouri senator, reportedly leaked an Air Force report to Kennedy, his Congressional colleague at the time, about inflated Soviet missile capacity that informed Kennedy’s campaign and presidential policies.
According to space historian Dwayne A. Day, the USSR at the time only had four ICBMs, not the reported several hundred. In addition, the US far exceeded the USSR in nuclear weapons; the Soviet Union never had more weapons than the US did. A September 1961 National Intelligence Estimate concluded that the USSR had stockpiled no more than 25 ICBMs and had no indication they were producing any more.
According to the Arms Control Association (ACA), quote:
For the most part, the missile gap misperception grew from an ‘apples and oranges’ comparison. The intelligence community projected how many missiles the Soviets could deploy in the future, not how many they would be likely to deploy. This number was only an estimate, less certain than the number planned for U.S. forces over the same time frame. Moreover, the projection for Soviet forces represented a worst-case estimate.
Nevertheless, the missile gap canard endured, due in no small part to the US media, as the Cold War raged on. This headline is from July 1978: “U.S. falling behind Soviets with weapons.”
Nima: Unsurprisingly, that was written by William F. Buckley (laughs).
Adam: William F. Buckley Jr., who sort of is very open about fabricating Soviet threats to justify neoconservative ideology. The missile gap narrative had a measurable impact on public opinion. A Gallup poll from the early ’80s asked US respondents about their perceptions of the missile gap. It’s interesting that respondents feared war would start because the US is falling behind, not because it was the aggressor. The survey asked:
At the present time, which nation do you feel is stronger in terms of nuclear weapons, the United States or the Soviet Union — or do you think they are about equal in nuclear strength?
In March of 1983, 42 percent said the Soviet Union was a greater threat, the United States was 15 percent, 35 said they were about equal and 8 percent having no opinion. Then they ask:
In your opinion, which of the following increases the chances of nuclear war more — a continuation of the nuclear arms buildup here and in the Soviet Union, or the U.S. falling behind the Soviet Union in nuclear weaponry?
The US falling behind the Soviet Union won a plurality of 46 percent.
Nima: Now this kind of perception didn’t wane come the ’80s of course, so for example you have from Spokane, Washington’s Spokesman-Review you have an article from May of 1986 that reports on, quote, “The greater risk of war” and it says this, quote:
Most people in the U.S. feel that one of the major problems facing this country is the threat of war. Forty-five percent of the respondents to a recent Gallup poll thought that the U.S. falling behind the Soviet Union in weaponry would increase the chances of nuclear war the most. Thirty-three percent thought that the continued arms race posed the greatest threat to peace.
Now, despite the erroneous nature of the missile gap narrative, the US continued to sow fear about other countries capacities through baseless, alarmist speculation. So again, according to the ACA, the 1999 National Intelligence Estimate on the ballistic missile threat relied on “most likely” as well as “could” projections, right? So, not declarative, definitive statements, but things that were “most likely” or “could” happen, as evinced in the first two bullets of the NIE’s report on Iran and it said this:
Iran could test an ICBM that could deliver a several-hundred kilogram payload to many parts of the United States in the latter half of the next decade, using Russian technology and assistance.
Also said this:
Iran could pursue a Taepo Dong-type ICBM and could test a Taepo Dong-1 or Taepo Dong-2-type ICBM, possibly with North Korean assistance, in the next few years.
Now, shockingly, this may come as a gigantic surprise for all of you listening, but Iran didn’t wind up testing either Taepo Dong system “in the next few years” or ever, and still has not tested an ICBM despite the consistent, terrified warnings of numerous right-wing think tanks and speculative NIE reports. This has never happened and yet we still hear that, of all the countries in the world, the United States has to worry about Iran’s missile capabilities, which don’t actually exist.
Now, even when it first started, the missile gap narrative was thought by some to be a bit overblown. And so for example, this narrative being so ubiquitous it was even parodied in Stanley Kubrick’s 1963 classic Dr. Strangelove, when Buck Turgidson, the US General of course in the War Room, worries that following a nuclear war and fallout, the US could still lag behind in its ability to survive in secret government mine shafts.
So there is this famous part of the movie:
[Begin Dr. Strangelove Clip]
Turgidson: Supposing the Ruskie stashes away some big bomb, see. When they come out in a hundred years they could take over!
General: I agree, Mr. President. In fact, they might even try an immediate sneak attack so they could take over our mineshaft space.
Turgidson: Yeah. I think it would be extremely naive of us, Mr. President, to imagine that these new developments are going to cause any change in Soviet expansionist policy. I mean, we must be increasingly on the alert to prevent them from taking over other mineshaft space, in order to breed more prodigiously than we do, thus, knocking us out in superior numbers when we emerge! Mr. President, we must not allow a mine shaft gap!
[End Dr. Strangelove Clip]
Adam: You’ll be surprised to learn that the variations of the missile gap — the X gap, the Y gap — are still around today, and in fact, they’re quite common and very documentable. So the Cold War laid this foundation but today we have a sort of different variations of it and we’re going to break those into five categories for the purposes of this episode, which is military readiness, nuclear weapons, space exploration and militarism, information and quote-unquote “counter-propaganda,” cybersecurity and other forms of digital technology. So one example of this was one of the earlier articles I wrote for FAIR which detailed pretty much a textbook example of how this scam works. So in 2015, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the CSIS a quote-unquote “think tank” located in the District of Columbia, who counts among its funders major weapons contractors like Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Raytheon, it’s funded by the US military, US State Department, other foreign governments, the Embassy of Japan, Saudi monarchies used to be a major funder, although I don’t think they are anymore, mostly NATO countries, and CSIS we’ve referred to on the show before as a global NRA, their job is to push weapons and weapon systems. They wrote a report in 2015 warning that the US was lagging behind in the quote-unquote “Scramble for the Arctic.” The New York Times, which got an embargoed version of this report, breathlessly published an article with the headline, “U.S. Is Seen as Lagging Behind in Scramble for the Arctic.” “Some analysts and officials say the United States is behind other nations, particularly Russia, and preparing for the new realities.” It had this kind of liberal hook about the melting Arctic, and how we need to sort of scramble for the resources in the Arctic. An updated New York Times headline would say, “US Is Playing Catch-Up With Russia in Scramble for the Arctic.” This is followed three days later by, you’d be shocked to learn, the Obama administration announcing that they were going to ask Congress for more icebreakers for a US foothold in the Arctic. Now, CSIS talked about how the US only had two operating ice cutters and Russia had seven at the time.
Nima: Oh, my God, the Soviet ice cutter gap!
Adam: So ice cutters are what you use to, it is a ship that you use in the Arctic that’s a ship that can literally cut through ice, it can go through ice. Now what The New York Times failed to mention and what President Obama and Congress all failed to mention, and all the subsequent write ups all failed to mention is that Russia has 14 times the Arctic coastline than the United States has by total mileage. So it logically would make sense they would have a seven to two ratio, it would make sense they had a 14 to one ratio, since they have 14 times more Arctic, because Russia is fucking huge. This context was completely left out. In fact, you obviously can’t see it because it’s a podcast but The New York Times had this very distorted map that was at an angle that made Alaska look roughly two thirds the size of the Russian coastline and this was part of their like icebreaker fears that the US was losing competition to Russia, and this had the desired effect it was supposed to, there was the breathless coverage, then Congress then used that coverage and used the CSIS report hyping the quote-unquote “Arctic gap” as CSIS and others called it, later pay dividends with Congress allocating in the next NDA defense budget a billion dollars for the Navy budget to increase its icebreaker ships. There was another bill, the Icebreaker Recapitalization Act, which called for Congress to fully fund “six heavy-duty polar icebreaker ships,” which had been introduced by Maria Cantwell, Democrat from Washington. Later, you’ll be shocked to learn, Lockheed Martin — one of CSIS’s top five donors — won the contract and is in the process of building the ice cutters in question. Lockheed Martin was of course the funder of the initial lagging behind, “Arctic gap” CSIS report. So this is sort of an unseen, sort of very subtle, now five years old, prototypical example of how this scam works. They fund the organization that is extensively neutral, right, you’re laundering corporate propaganda through these think tanks which are just glorified weapons contractor lobbyists, they write the report. So I emailed CSIS for this article, by the way, I later did a follow-up report after it was revealed by The New York Times themselves that CSIS, they found leaked emails that showed CSIS was getting in trouble for lobbying for drone manufacturers and corporate clients, JP Morgan and others, think tank ethic watchers noted, and so okay, we now have an evidence that CSIS is basically just a lobbying firm. So I emailed CSIS in this report, and this was also when they did another article about CSIS hyping the THAAD missile system in South Korea, the quote-unquote “defensive missile system” that was also made by Lockheed Martin that CSIS insisted that South Korea had to buy if they were going to ward off the evil North Korean regime. I said has CSIS ever produced a report that has recommended the US not buy more weapons or defend a weapon system? And I sent them two emails, you’ll be surprised to learn they never got back to me, my guess is because they never have.
CSIS and these think tanks, RAND Corporation, Brookings Institute, they never ever, ever, ever, ever — and this is the take home point — they never say ‘Nah, we’re good. We don’t need any more ice cutters. No, we don’t need any more missiles, drones, we’re actually set for this fiscal quarter. We’re good. We’re totally adequate.’ By definition they’re always going to say they need more weapons because if I ask a ice cream man what I should have for dessert, we all know what he’s going to say, if I ask a used car salesman whether or not I should buy a new car, we know what they’re going to say, this is what they do, these think tanks are in the business of pushing weapon systems and the primary mechanism with which they do that is by contriving manufactured panics around the US somehow losing to some other baddie who was always just behind us and whatever the sort of sector that we’re failing in.
Nima: Well exactly and that’s why you get narratives consistently reported in the press that, you know, oftentimes come from alarmist politicians talking about ‘Time is running out to stop Iran from building a nuclear weapon’ — which they’re not doing — or ‘Time is running out to stop Iraq.’ There’s always this false sense of urgency because what you need to do is you need to stoke the fear before the next military budget is due because we always need to be increasing the budget, right? There’s this consistent growth narrative. We haven’t seen the budget go down, it has to keep going up and so, you know, at the end of the Cold War, when Soviet influence is waning, you have new threats pop up, right? Then it’s Iraq, and it’s Iran and it’s Syria, and it’s North Korea and so you keep perpetuating this alarmist posture so that budgets can always be inflated, there’s always the next threat, the newest threat, the most existential threat right around the corner, and that therefore justifies it and then when you have “expert” think tanks publishing reports that they’re getting paid to do by weapons contractors and oil companies, well, the cycle just perpetuates.
Adam: Well, right,because there’s absolutely zero incentive to say ‘We’re actually good’ or God forbid, ‘You know what? I think we have too many missiles, I think we probably should cut our missiles by like 10 percent.’ The only time anyone even nominally entertain that concept is when we had so many nukes we could destroy the world fuckin’ 50 times over. So the most popular go-to is this very vague idea of military readiness, which is my favorite because, and by the way, you’ll notice in all these the sort of normative debate about whether or not either the US or even these other countries should have all these weapons or these online psychological operations or militarizing space, the normative discussion is just skipped past and we go straight to the idea that it’s inherently good that we sort of keep up with the Joneses and that the death spiral towards military buildup is sort of just a fact of life. It’s like the tides of gravity. It just is. There’s nothing we can do about it. From The Guardian in April 2015, quote, “US military tactics falling behind those of adversaries, Pentagon official warns.” Politico, January 2019, “If Anything, America’s Defense Budget Is Too Small.” This was authored by a former Republican senator and the director of the Ronald Reagan Institute. There’s a quote:
We believe current funding is inadequate to realize the military’s objectives — with the president’s announced intent to cut the defense budget by 5 percent, he would effectively be hollowing out his own strategy.
You’ll be surprised to learn the Ronald Reagan Institute receives funding from defense contractors.
Nima: Defense News, February of 2019 had this headline, “America’s greatest advantage against China is slowly eroding.” It warns that the US is losing its lead over China on, quote, “training and doctrine for its war fighters.” Now, unsurprisingly, that article was written by Aaron Mehta, who incidentally was a Next Generation National Security Fellow just a few years ago for the Center for a New American Security, that’s CNAS, which lists among its funders, Northrop Grumman, the US State Department, Chevron, Goldman Sachs, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, it goes on and on.
Adam: Noted CIA stenographer and Saudi court scribe, David Ignatius, for The Washington Post wrote an article in May of 2020, entitled, quote, “Think we have military primacy over China? Think again.” Where he of course talked to nothing but deeply conflicted think tank lanyards and military brass who lo and behold told us we were lagging behind China. Repeatedly China’s cast as the aggressor and the US is simply defending itself. So this is a framing we see over and over and over again, which is that every single time without exceptions and we’ll cite you more examples here, US military buildup is framed as a response to a threat, right? We’re lagging behind, we’re sort of either being threatened or we’re falling behind some normative benchmark of militarism, right? And military buildup from other countries, even though it’s oftentimes one fifth as big, one fourth as big, in Russia’s cases roughly one eighth to one tenth as big. Those military buildups are seen as a pending aggression.
Nima: Those are all aggressive moves to which we just respond defensively. I know we’ve talked about this on the show before, but it definitely bears repeating here, the United States military budget is larger than the next ten countries defense budgets combined. That includes China, India, Russia, Saudi Arabia, France, Germany, the UK, Japan, South Korea, Brazil. The United States is larger than all of those combined and yet, we are perennially seen as trying to catch up lest we fall behind.
Adam: More to the point, the US military budget in 2017, the increase in real dollar terms, not nominal terms, not adjusting for inflation, the real increase in the military budget from fiscal year 2016 to fiscal 2017, the increase in our budget was greater than the entire Russian military budget. So the increase was $70 billion, at the time the Russian military budget was roughly $59 billion, it has now increased. So that sort of tells you something, the actual real terms dollar increase from year to year was bigger than the whole Russian budget. And when you have this scenario, it gets increasingly more difficult to convince the public and lawmakers that we are somehow losing this sort of sole superpower position, right? The sort of cherished and arguably good sole superpower designation.
So we have DefenseOne magazine, “China’s Defense Spending Is Larger Than It Looks” and it insists that China’s covering up and manipulating information, this is sort of the —
Nima: If numbers look low it’s just because they’re sneaky and suspicious and hiding the real numbers from us.
Adam: Right and of course, this was written by Federico Bartels, who is a Senior Policy Analyst and Defense Budgeting Expert at the Heritage Foundation. The Heritage Foundation, one of their major donors is — you’ll be shocked to learn — Lockheed Martin and other weapons contractors and far right groups including the Koch brothers.
Nima: Yeah, Bartels produces these kinds of reports endlessly. For instance, in January of 2019, he was responsible for a piece titled, “Pentagon Waste Shouldn’t Stop Congress From Fully Equipping the Military.” So, we see where this is going.
Adam: These are fucking salesmen, they’re salesmen, they sell weapons. Again, if this was done by people funded by weapons makers, like Smith and Wesson, and they were saying it’s super important that we keep police in schools, and it’s super important that fucking Junior has an automatic weapon, we would be rightfully outraged, but when the weapons are used to kill people overseas, it’s just sort of taken for granted as the natural course of things.
Nima: Right. The next example of this constant hand wringing about lagging behind comes to us in the form of worrying about other country’s nuclear arsenals. Not only is the United States the only country to ever use nuclear weapons, but they also reserve the right to increase their arsenal. Oftentimes, we hear about it with the term “modernize” the nuclear arsenal whenever there may be the threat or worry that another country may be building more of their own nukes, which will, except maybe in the case of Russia, never actually outpace ours.
Adam: Yeah. So there was a 60 Minutes segment in 2016 headlined, “Risk of nuclear attack rises.” I wrote a critique of it in The Nation at the time and long story short, it’s basically David Martin, the CBS Pentagon’s stenographer let Supreme Allied Commander of Europe, Philip Breedlove, basically curate a eight minute infomercial for why the US needs to invest more money in its nukes by quoting him at length about the dastardly Russians. And there’s sort of one really kind of sleazy section that really gets to this idea of first blood, right? So who starts the conflict and who responds to the conflict? And the impetus is that in late 2014 there was this shift in foreign policy where Putin was going to somehow change the nuclear policy of Russia and I want to listen to this clip real quick to sort of show you how sleazy it is.
[Begin 60 Minutes Clip]
Man: Looming in the background were nuclear weapons.
David Martin: Was there ever any indication that Vladimir Putin was prepared to use his nuclear weapons in any way?
Philip Breedlove: Vladimir Putin said himself that he considered raising the alert status of his nuclear force.
David Martin: He had considered it?
Philip Breedlove: He said it himself.
Man: Putin said he had given an order to his military to be prepared to increase the readiness of his nuclear forces if the US and NATO tried to block his takeover of Crimea. “We were not looking for a fight,” Putin said in this interview, “but we were ready for the worst case scenario.”
Philip Breedlove: They see nuclear weapons as a normal extension of a conventional conflict.
David Martin: So to them nuclear war is not unthinkable?
Philip Breedlove: I think to them, the use of nuclear weapons is not unthinkable.
Man: It says so in their military doctrine signed by Putin in 2014. “Russia shall reserve the right to use nuclear weapons in the event of aggression when the very existence of the state is in jeopardy.”
[End 60 Minutes Clip]
Adam: So a few things about this —
Nima: When else would you reserve the right to use nuclear weapons?
Adam: Yeah, the idea that a country would use nuclear weapons in the event that the existential survival of their country was at stake is the policy of literally every country who has nukes: Israel, China, US, France, UK, you name it. That is the policy of every country. There’s only one country that reserves first strike capacity, which is to say the right to use nuclear weapons even if they themselves are not attacked by nuclear weapons and that is —
Nima: Wait for it.
Adam: The United States.
Adam: Now, in Obama’s defense, he vaguely said he wanted to get rid of this policy because it is considered very hostile. Most countries view it as a hostility.
Nima: Considering it is literally genocidal.
Adam Which is to say like if Russia was to say invade Myrtle Beach tomorrow, we would just nuke the fucking shit out of him, which is an escalation not reserved by any other country, which is pointed out in my Nation piece — which you can read on the show notes — and the second thing to note here is that this idea that there was this huge shift in Russian policy in December 2014 or that when Russia got involved in Ukraine in February of 2014, missing from this is in January of 2014, there were reports that the US was beginning to, quote-unquote “modernize” its nuclear arsenal.
Nima: To the tune of $1 trillion.
Adam: Now, everyone knows modernization is a euphemism for building more nukes. So again, this context is left out, right? So everything that Russia does is sort of seen as instigating and aggressive —
Nima: And the US is only responding, right? We can’t fall behind the alert status of Putin’s nuclear Russia. So we have to, basically whatever the United States does, whatever Supreme Commander Breedlove then suggests that the US posture turn into, is tethered to this Russian aggression that preceded it, and so nothing that the US does to amp up its own aggressive posture to send more nuclear submarines around, to change its own alert status, to build more nukes, that has all been hand waved away as a response to the initial aggression even though the timeline, of course, does not actually bear that out.
Adam: Yeah and of course, the NATO bombing of Libya in 2011, which got rid of a Russian ally, of course, the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Russia’s always kind of, the context is omitted, obviously, right? And any reporter worth their salt, who wasn’t just a pentagon stenographer, as David Martin is and has been for some time, would say, ‘Okay, what’s the context here?’ Any editor looking at this would say, ‘Well, you have to say what other countries do?’ So they present a Russian nuclear policy that is no different than any other country, except for the United States and they present it as unique and sinister and so the logical sort of counter to this, that I think a skeptical viewer would say, as you say, ‘Well, okay, Russia is not, you know, they’ve had nukes forever. They’ve never used them. What’s the inciting incident?’ Again, we talked about this military brass and think tank pundits, their job is to sort of create false urgency, to create inciting incidents. That’s the first thing you do when you sit down to write a screenplay. What’s the inciting incident? Why is the story starting now? Why are we reporting on this now? We’ve had a cold war with Russia for, you know, 70 years, why now?
Adam: So David Martin is sort of like, oh, ‘Well, what sort of changed?’ So then Lieutenant Rear Admiral Steve Parode of the United States Navy, he busts out the calipers and gives us this explanation:
David Martin says, “So they have a belief that they’re just tougher than us?”
And he [Steve Parode] says, “Oh, that’s definitely true.”
David Martin says, “And if they have to use nuclear weapons, we can’t, we can’t take it?”
He [Steve Parode] says, “I think that some people might think that.”
Oh, some people. Okay. So here, without any sort of logical explanation as to why we’re —
Nima: It’s just like dick measuring and also the genocidal Russian mind and so, how does the United States in all of its rational masculinity respond to that?
Adam: And Parode would say that the Russians view us as sociologically weaker. So we get this, we pull at the calipers, we do a little skull measuring that the Slavic brain is just sort of tough and is not a rational actor, right? And of course, the entire narrative is driven by Supreme Allied Commander Philip Breedlove, who has a long history of inflating threats. The Intercept reported in 2015, quote:
Der Spiegel reported that Breedlove ‘stunned’ German leaders with a surprise announcement in 2015 claiming that pro-Russian separatists had ‘upped the ante’ in eastern Ukraine with ‘well over a thousand combat vehicles, Russian combat forces, some of the most sophisticated air defense, battalions of artillery’ sent to Donbass, a center of the conflict.
This later turned out to not be true. And many of the European commanders were understandably upset at him for this. So this is someone with a history of inflating threats. It’s what he does. And of course, he does the thing ‘we’re falling behind with tactical nuclear weapons’ and lo and behold, CBS shows up to print that and to publish that. And so this of course, rationalizes and justifies an expansion of US nuclear capacity.
Nima: So a similar kind of fear mongering happens consistently about China as well. So for example, you have this “Special Report,” an extensive article published by Reuters in May of 2020, entitled this quote, “U.S. Rearms to Nullify China’s Missile Supremacy.” And here’s one example of what it says, quote, “The United States has largely stood by in recent decades as China dramatically expanded its military firepower.” End quote.
So, the entire piece, and it’s rather long, goes into missile arsenals, goes into naval weaponry, it basically just paints the United States as a passive and very weak-kneed observer to China’s military build up and therefore makes the case the United States has no choice but to defend itself by amping up its own military arsenal in response to the growing Chinese menace. So the sources that are quoted throughout this article are mostly US military brass and as Reuters says it, “senior US and other Western strategists.”
Adam: A major source for the piece is the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, if that sounds like a spook-show laundromat for US military interests, you are correct, it is described by Reuters as a quote “security research group” without noting its funded entirely by the Defense Department. The Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments talking head featured Ross Babbage, who moonlights as the CEO of Strategic Forum Ltd, an-Australian based consultancy firm with a black box of corporate clients.
Nima: So one example of what Mr. Babbage brings to this particular special Reuters report is this quote, which comes on the heels of the article saying this:
“The biggest immediate threat to the PLA,” that’s the People’s Liberation Army, that’s the Chinese military, “comes from new, long-range anti-ship missiles now entering service with U.S. Navy and Air Force strike aircraft.”
So basically, in the article that says how terrifying China is, it’s already talking about the threat that US military hardware poses to China and therefore, you have Mr. Ross Babbage, again, former senior Australian government defense official and now a non resident fellow at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment, saying this:
The Americans are coming back strongly… By 2024 or 2025 there is a serious risk for the PLA that their military developments will be obsolete.
So what’s the threat? (Laughs.) Already the US therefore has ample military hardware that it is threatening the Chinese military yet the entire article, thousands of words of it, is about how the Chinese pose such a threat to US military supremacy.
Adam: Another vertical where we see this constant lagging behind narrative is around online information and propaganda. An AP article from March of 2015 was titled, “NATO commander: West must fight Russia in information ‘war’.” Here’s an excerpt:
NATO’s supreme commander says the West must do more to counter Russia by employing a rapid-reaction approach to internet communications that counteracts Russia’s ‘false narratives’ spread on social media.
The article, of course, never questions government assertions, it just repeats what NATO is saying. The article also doesn’t mention the fact that the US has a history of social-media manipulation themselves. I wrote about it for FAIR at the time in 2015, “The Pentagon’s efforts alone — to say nothing of other US intelligence agencies or other NATO nation states — spent at least 200 times more than Russia, according to the last available figures.”
In 2011, The Guardian reported that the Pentagon was developing a $200 million program called Operation Earnest Voice that would let the Defense Department “secretly manipulate social media sites by using fake online personas to influence internet conversations and spread pro-American propaganda.” That’s the language The Guardian used. The DoD later clarified this was not used in English, only foreign audiences. Whether or not that is true, I don’t know.
Nima: Because then that’s okay. (Laughs.)
Adam: Again, at the time when this article was written in 2015, according to BuzzFeed, Russia’s IRA, which does sort of online propaganda, their budget was $1-$2 million. Meanwhile, we have articles coming out about Israel running troll farms, we have the US Defense Department $200 million dollars, so we’re out spending 100 to one, but somehow we’re always sort of lagging behind and we saw this again and again with ISIS as well. 20,000–40,000 ISIS people running around in Toyota trucks in Syria were always ahead of us, we were always fumbling behind, we could not keep up no matter what. The International Business Times in 2015, quote, “US To Blunt Russia’s Edge In Propaganda War: Introduces $30 Million Bill To Finance Counter Campaigns Against Russia And ISIS” this will later go on to be the Global Engagement Center who have since raised $250 million to fight online propaganda using unattributed social media posts that are run by the US State Department. Who knows what the CIA does. Who knows what Canadian Intelligence or Israeli intelligence or British intelligence do. We don’t really know, when it comes to online propaganda the one thing you really need to know is that everyone’s sort of guessing, and to the extent to which we can infer it, it’s either leaked by other intelligence communities, or it is badly done, right? So bad online propaganda is easily discernible when it’s like a pro-Trump count that’s like, @Alex574775559 and it’s, you know, repeating text. This is sort of low quality. The good quality we don’t know, it’s an epistemological black hole. We don’t actually have any clue. Anyone who says they do is lying to you, and the panic around Russian social media or social media propaganda, which is something that certainly happens, anyone who’s been on social media can tell you that, was never contextualized with where this fit into a broader online manipulation done by other nation states because the enemy nation states, of course, are always selectively highlighted and this bill was proposed by Mac Thornberry, representative from Texas, who we hear all the time in these stories. Texas Congressman Mac Thornberry — you may be shocked to learn — out of anyone in Congress whether the house or the senate, received the most donations from the defense industry roughly $400,000 in the 2016 election cycle. Historical side note: he was also the first person to propose the creation of a Homeland Security Department, which he called at the time a Homeland Security Agency and he actually proposed that roughly six months before 9/11 in March of 2001.
Nima: Whether it’s terrestrial military superiority or propaganda that goes in our brains, we also have extraterrestrial militarism, right? So like articles that talk about space exploration and space colonization and militarization, does this same kind of, you know, age old Space Race, bullshit propaganda. So you have from The Telegraph in April of 2010, an article that talks about, quote, “US faces losing space race to Russia and China.” It cites a Boeing representative to talk about how the United States can’t afford cuts to its space program because it’s going to slow it down, it will fall behind Russia and China. The article says this:
China this week announced that it intends to leapfrog the US by putting a large spacecraft in orbit before the end of this decade, at which point American astronauts are still likely to be riding to the ISS on Russian vehicles.
God forbid. A couple years later you have CBS News in December of 2018 with this article, quote, “U.S. falling behind in new space race, says CIA’s former head of science and tech.” So you have this article, which is really an interview with Glenn Gaffney, the former head of the CIA’s Science and Technology Directorate speaking with Intelligence Matters host and CBS News senior national security contributor Michael Morell and in this interview Gaffney said the overall network of U.S. capabilities in space — including its communications and observations systems and other infrastructure vital to United States intelligence community resources, that all of these things, quote “need to be paid attention to” end quote. Basically, just talking about falling behind again, falling behind in the new space race, and what is the inevitable thing that needs to happen to counteract falling behind? More money. More equipment. More weaponry. More technology which flows directly to defense contractors that are basically putting out the scare stories about falling behind in the first place.
Adam: CNN, February 2019, headline is, “New Pentagon report warns of Russian and Chinese laser threats to US satellites.” This was a somewhat dubious report. It cites a Pentagon report on space programs in Iran, North Korea, China, and Russia claiming that China and Russia were developing capabilities to, quote, “threaten the US’ preeminent position, including lasers that could target and destroy US satellites.” So we have Star Wars 2.0 here. The Chinese government called the report, quote, “completely without foundation.”
Nima: But we’re not supposed to believe them.
Adam: The report quotes Representative Mike Rogers, conservative chairman of the US House Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee, quote, “Russia and China are surpassing us in space capabilities, and we need to dedicate a separate force solely with a space mission.” This later of course became the Space Force, which was sort of mocked as a Trumpian thing, but it actually was totally bipartisan and voted for by the overwhelming majority of Democrats and Republicans. CNN’s Jim Sciutto also authored a few scare pieces about Chinese missions in space. He loves a good potboiler about the US lagging behind, it’s kind of his beat, again he is just a Pentagon spokesperson basically, it’s not really any different, he just repeats whatever they say. So he wrote a book called The New Face of America’s Enemies in the Muslim World in 2008 that talked about the perma-threat of Muslim terror and that kind of fell out of fashion. Last year he wrote The Shadow War: Inside Russia’s and China’s Secret Operations to Defeat America about the dire threat of Russia and China. Needless to say both books, and his CNN and Wall Street Journal reporting hype up the threat to US military supremacy which is of course always sort of taken for granted as a good, they are littered up with nothing but quotes from spooks, weapons contractors and Defense Department-funded think tanks, military brass. And worth noting that between his stints as a reporter for ABC during the Obama administration and his status as a senior reporter at CNN in the mid-2010s, he spent two years working for the US State Department in China working for the US government which, apparently, is a normal thing journalists do, they stop their ABC reporting career and go fork for the State Department for a couple years and then just go back to CNN. So they’re not biased or anything, totally objective news, we want to make sure we don’t label that state media at all because it’s been laundered through this corporate apparatus.
CNN Business followed this later in July with an op-ed by Charles Beames that said this, quote: “The second space race is underway. America is already losing it.” He was shocked to learn America is still lagging behind.
Nima: We just can’t win, can we?
Adam: We just can’t win. We’re perma-lagging. So this was written by Charles Beames. The bio in the op-ed says Beames, quote, “is executive chairman at York Space Systems” which is kind of buried, without mentioning that York Space Systems at the time was up for a major government contract that would have benefited greatly from the policies the piece was lobbying for. In Spring of 2020, Beames’s small firm was awarded a $450,000 contract for “SPACE VEHICLE MAINTENANCE, REPAIR, AND CHECKOUT SPECIALIZED EQUIPMENT V126 TRANSPORTATION/TRAVEL/RELOCATION- TRANSPORTATION: SPACE TRANSPORTATION/LAUNCH.” So that’s just one contract, they may have others. So here you have someone who’s, I mean, so much of these things, again, whether or not they’re laundered through think tanks are directly the corporate CEOs themselves or they are military brass whose careers are based on the acquisition of funds, they’re just marketing tools basically. This is just like any other, anyone who’s ever worked in marketing, getting an op-ed on CNN saying, ‘Man, we really need to buy all this stuff. Oh, incidentally, my firm happens to sell this’ would seem like a sort of conflict of interest you’d want to disclose but again, if you sort of keep it a half a degree removed, then it’s just normal journalism.
Nima: Right now I know we’ve mentioned the United States outspending every other country on the planet by a lot when it comes to military spending. It’s very similar in terms of the US outspending its supposedly adversaries like China and Russia when it comes to this space race. You wouldn’t know it from these articles — we’re always lagging behind — but according to account by the Massachusetts-based Union of Concerned Scientists, the US military and other government agencies, universities and private companies together operated over 1,300 satellites as of March 2020. China, in contrast, operates 363 satellites and Russia itself has 169 satellites. So the United States has exponentially more satellite capability. NASA’s 2020 budget was more than $22 billion, while the White House’s 2021 federal budget request allotted $15.4 billion to the newly formed Space Force. So yeah, the US leads the world in space spending. It’s not even close. Closest behind the US budget in this regard is China, which spends a mere $8 billion, according to the Space Foundation, a US nonprofit that tracks these things, and despite the impression that China wants to accelerate military combat in space, China is actually called the Space Force a, quote, “direct threat to outer space peace and security” end quote. Meanwhile, Russia’s own government run space agency has kind of pulled back on its own budget. In 2014 it was about $5 billion, six years later, this year, 2020, it is only $1.7 billion.
Adam: So one of the things I can’t do is I can’t tell you how many times in the stories the US has simultaneously said to be lagging behind, and then the very next section they say, the US’s dominance is being threatened.
Nima: (Laughs.) Right.
Adam: And I think what they mean by lagging behind, they mean if I’m the LA Lakers and I’m playing a high school basketball team, and we’re only up 20 points, they’d be like we’re lagging behind the expectations to be up 40 points. So of course no one’s really being lagged behind here but the average reader reads that and they think, ‘Oh my gosh, you know, we’re going to lose primacy to the evil Chicoms and Ruskies.’ This is also very common in cyber security and other technology. CNN in November of 2017, quote, “US risks losing artificial intelligence arms race to China and Russia,” reads the headline. Note the headline doesn’t even bother with “according to US officials” or “according to NATO” or “according to US military spokesman,” it’s just asserted as fact. The whole premise is propped up by statements from Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work. Quote, “More than 60 years after a space race rivalry with the Soviet Union ushered in a new era of ballistic missile development, the US is facing another ‘Sputnik moment.’” A lot of these articles talk about the Sputnik moment. It’s sort of think-tankese for ‘Oh, we could be caught off guard by being inferior. We were beaten for 10 minutes in 1957.’
Nima: It’s the same way any article about Iran talks about the hostage crisis. It’s that kind of poke in the eye that will never be forgiven, and therefore the US foreign policy of vengeance will continue in perpetuity.
Adam: Other sources of the article in fact, the only other sources included in the article, are a September report from the RAND Corporation, which of course is 90 percent funded by the Defense Department, State Department and, quote, “former Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel.” So again, it’s just the military saying the military needs more money. Not a surprise. I wish citations had more money. Marketplace.com, August of 2018, headline reads, “U.S. lagging behind in race for tech supremacy.” The article uncritically cites a report from the Atlantic Council, which was done in tandem with the company Qualcomm.
CNBC, the next year, the headline read, “The US is falling behind China in crucial race for AI dominance.” This was written by Frederick Kempe, President and CEO of the Atlantic Council who was the main source of the previous article we mentioned. The Atlantic Council, of course their major funders are, aside from oil companies and US and state governments are very much weapons contractors. Major donors include Lockheed Martin, Boeing, BAE Systems, Raytheon, Palantir, as well as direct financing from NATO itself.
So you’ll be surprised to learn that the Atlantic Council always thinks we’re behind. The Hill, July 2019, the headline reads, “US risks falling behind China on technology and innovation, if we don’t reset our priorities.” It’s potentially a paid op-ed. The Hill’s unusual in that it actually lets people pay you to write for them, which is not usually standard practice. It’s actually very frowned upon. But this is an op-ed by Robert Hormats, who’s VP of Kissinger Associates, a global consultancy firm with a ton of weapons contractor clients and government clients, sort of a who’s who of the deep state as it were.
Nima: Don’t let the name fool you, it actually does mean Henry Kissinger.
Adam: He is a former vice president of Goldman Sachs and is on the board of directors of, you guessed it, the Atlantic Council. So again, you have this idea that we’re always lagging being because that’s what they get paid to say. As one would expect the US budget exceeds that of the countries we’re allegedly falling behind. The US is legitimately lagging in some areas of technological development, we should be clear, and there are certain aspects like we have less naval ships than China, for example, but we also have far less naval ships than North Korea, because naval ships includes little tiny little boats, we also have far more aircraft carriers than China, which is really what matters. So people always sort of find it, you know, Mitt Romney did this line where he says the US’s Navy is smaller than it was during World War I and Obama replied, ‘Well, we also have less horses and buggies and bayonets.’ So like, you can always sort of twist anything and make it look like we’re behind but the one sort of objective reference point is how much money is allotted to it. That’s sort of a good way of looking at it and no matter how you look at it, the US out spends everyone on nukes, on ships, on AI capacity, on online disinformation, you name it, we spend more money. So either we’re spending the money badly, or we’re just pissing away money, or the US isn’t actually really lagging behind, it’s just a kind of permanent threat.
For example, the US cybersecurity budget in 2020 was $17.4 billion, almost $800 million increase over the previous year, whereas China’s government cybersecurity project was $7 billion. So again, we go back to the budget, we’re sort of not lagging behind. Before we talk to Jim, I want you to envision a headline, in cnn.com, you open your browser window and you see the headline, ‘US government officials: Actually we have all the money we need.’ Or imagine this headline in NPR, ‘NATO spokesman or the RAND Corporation New Report: US’s Military Supremacy in Pacific is Fully Funded and Totally Okay,’ you would never see that. God forbid you would even see this, which is, you know, a headline in NBC.com. ‘US General: We actually have more money than we need, we’d like to give this excess billion dollars to healthcare or to give to first responders of coronavirus healthcare,’ this would just not happen right? Because all they do all the time is say they don’t have enough money, because what the fuck else would you say? That’s what your job is, your job is like any other startup or any other business, which is you’re always fundraising, you’re always raising money and think tanks provide the foe academic veneer of an industry who’s like any other industry, especially ones that are totally parasitic, which they mostly are, which is to just keep fucking sucking the blood off of the public till.
Nima: And that’s why everything is always positioned as a race. There’s a space race, there’s an arms race, there’s an AI arms race, the cybersecurity arms race, the propaganda arms race, we don’t want to lose the race and so when you position things as a race, we’re always trying to catch up and overtake and win and when you position things like that, you can just continually make the argument that we need more power, more speed, more money. So to talk more about this, we are going to be joined by friend of the show Jim Naureckas of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, FAIR, where he has edited FAIR’s print publication Extra! since 1990. Jim will join us in just a moment. Stay with us.
Nima: We are joined now by friend of the show Jim Naureckas of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, or FAIR, where he has edited FAIR’s print publication Extra! since 1990. Jim, it is so great to have you back on Citations Needed.
Jim Naureckas: Thanks for having me on once again.
Adam: You’ve been in this business a long time. I’m sure you’ve seen countless stories of the US supposedly lagging behind official bad guys. Now, one would think that if there were legitimate neutral academic assessments of US readiness or relative strength, that all things being equal, and I know that’s a huge qualifier, but all things being equal, roughly half the reports would say the US is doing okay or maybe even ahead of their enemies, and the other half would maybe show that we’re lagging behind, right? But like 99 percent of the reports show we are lagging behind, which implies a little bit of I think venality or sort of institutional venality in terms of the the actual neutrality and sort of academic rigor of the supposed reports and articles about how we’re behind on everything from nukes to psy-ops to Internet Security, ice cutters, missiles, drones, and of course, the all encompassing military readiness. So we detail the dozens of different conflicts of interest in these reports, showing the formula from weapons contractor, military funded think tank to media report about said think tank report to then using that New York Times, Washington Post or CNN reporting to then go to Congress and say, ‘See, we need more money for this thing, because we’re lagging behind’ and it sort of gets laundered through the media and we just end up going back to putting more money in the pockets of those that funded the report in the first place. You’ve seen this happen a million times. Is that genuinely your understanding of the formula? If you were a prosecutor trying to convince a jury that this was a corrupt practice, how would you frame this?
Jim Naureckas: Well, I think that you are zeroing in on the key reason why you keep seeing this story over and over again, is because corporate media relies super heavily on think tanks for their quote-unquote “matters of military and security.” They pose as academics without a college but in reality, they are set up by corporate funders to launder their promotional pitch through the veneer of an academic think tank. And it is the quintessential story that you want to tell if you are in the business of not just selling arms, but selling more arms because as a capitalist enterprise, it’s not enough to make the same profit year after year, you have to increase your profit because that’s how capitalism works. And so the story cannot be we are spending enough money and there by keeping ahead of our enemies, the story has to be we are behind our enemies and need to spend more to keep up.
Nima: That’s right.
Jim Naureckas: The lagging, I think it’s important, the metaphor of a race, we can’t be in a hopeless position where our enemy is intrinsically outclassing us. It has to be something where if we spend more money, if we give more money to the sponsors of the think tank, then this problem will go away. It has to be a solvable problem that can be solved by applying money to the think tank sponsors.
Nima: Yeah, I think, you know, it kind of also reminds me of this sort of messaging contradiction. You see it when there’s talk about immigration, you know, ‘Oh, no, immigrants are so lazy, they’re going to take all our welfare services, but also they are such incredibly productive workers that they’re going to steal all our jobs,’ and there’s like a similar thing going on here when looking at the US superpower conundrum, right? We are asserting total global dominance and yet we also have to convince the American public that we need more and more and more military spending. It’s never enough. You need to encroach on civil liberties. You need more state sanctioned quote-unquote “counter propaganda,” which is actually just regular propaganda. Therefore we can, you know, keep up with the global enemies, right? War machines, as we’ve been saying are like any business or like this cynical concept of the GDP, if you’re not growing, you’re dying and so the old adage that America’s enemies, whether they be Muslim terrorists or Russia, it’s simultaneously bumbling and incompetent, but also super ruthless, bloodthirsty and ever menacing and there’s like an inverse thing going on here with US military spending. It’s both the US is simultaneously the world’s policeman and should be so but also somehow always right on the verge of being one-upped by a scrappy upstart. So how does this need to present the US as both omnipotent and also completely stumbling and bumbling? How does this play out in the public mind through the media?
Jim Naureckas: Well, one of the things that you can’t talk about very often is how much more the US government spends on the military in comparison to its rivals and competitors. With Russia it’s eight times as much, with China I think it’s three times as much and despite spending vastly more money apparently the US government gets far less for its money than Russians do because they have, if anything, a better military with their one eighth size military budget and so the eight times is not enough. It’s got to be, we need to go ten times or twelve times but of course they don’t talk about it in these terms, because it’s self-evidently ridiculous. You have to ignore the fact that the United States is spending so much more money and just posit that there is this gap that needs to be filled up. We need to spend more money because we just need to spend more money. It’s really a solution in search of a problem. You start with a solution which is to give money to people who fund a think tank. That’s the solution. Then it’s the think tank’s job to come up with the problem.
Nima: To just work backwards. Exactly.
Adam: Like the old Don Draper line ‘advertising is creating an itch and then handing them the calamine lotion and saying you really need this thing that five minutes ago, you didn’t really know you needed’ just as, again, the average American is not sitting around saying, ‘God, I’m super worried about ice cutters in the Arctic, whether or not we have enough ice cutters to do something or other I guess or some potential war over maybe natural resources or to defend Alaska from an invading Russian Army,’ whatever it is, like this isn’t something the average person because shit about so you have to basically get a bunch of eggheads, a bunch of mercenary academics or quasi academics in a room and you need to say, ‘Okay, we need a moral narrative here. We need to create urgency where there really isn’t any.’ And this is kind of what nonprofits do in general. Sometimes I think for the good, you know, the average American also doesn’t care about, for example, you know, immigrants dying in the desert in Mexico, but there are scrappy nonprofits that have no money that tried to get them to care. But this is sort of more about getting people to care about something that they have no real reason to sort of give a shit and one thing I want to ask about is the whole lagging behind narrative, again, a sort of very stark contradiction, which is that the specific agencies in charge of doing this task are failing and have failed for some time and I’m reminded of a 2011 example, which we touched on earlier where the Defense Department, The Guardian revealed the Defense Department had a $100 million dollar operation called Operation Earnest Voice that was designed to manipulate social media or to influence social media, supposedly non English, social media, right? Or media influencing non English speakers outside of America, although that’s up for debate and then in 2014, we’re told that ISIS was sort of running circles around America’s online misinformation and disinformation and so you think a logical question would be where the fuck did the hundred million dollars go? And why they couldn’t use the, I mean a hundred million was a lot of money versus a military of 30,000 people running around in Toyotas in West Iraq, they were being outclassed, supposedly, by ISIS and so the people who are constantly fucking up and getting all these huge budgets, but somehow always perpetually behind the enemy, that contradiction is never really reconciled. Nobody says, ‘I don’t know, should someone get fired? Should we replace the Secretary of Defense or whoever’s in charge of online disinformation?’ And you see this again and again and again with nukes, with ice cutters, what did the last trillion dollar military budget go towards? And it seems like this is sort of highlighting that everyone sort of knows it’s kind of bullshit, right?
Jim Naureckas: Right. That is a question that you don’t ask. You don’t ask, why didn’t we catch up last time this happened? Because it’s not a question that you ask because your experts are never going to ask that question. You’re never going to go to CSIS and have them say, ‘You know what’s odd is that we spent a lot of money on this in the past and it didn’t seem to do anything.’
Adam: I mean, even today, you get the US lagging behind Russia in online misinformation. I’m like, we just allocated $160 million over two years from 2017 to 2019 to supposedly combat online information with the Global Engagement Center via the State Department and now we’re still behind?
Nima: It’s not enough, Adam, because Russia invented American racism. Didn’t you know that?
Adam: Meanwhile, in 2016, Putin allegedly spent only $1 million on his anti-Hillary, it’s like, we out spent them 180 to one and we’re still losing? You know what I mean? It’s just none of it makes any sense. It’s such obvious claptrap.
Jim Naureckas: One of my favorite examples of this is one that Adam wrote about in 2018. There’s a New York Times story, “Russian Threat on Two Fronts Meets an American Strategic Void” by David Sanger and William Broad, and the subhead says, “Russia has ramped up its arsenals, the US has done little in response.” And Adam goes into the fact that the US military was in the process of spending $1.2 trillion on modernizing its nuclear arsenal —
Adam: Quote-unquote “modernizing.”
Jim Naureckas: Right. Yeah.
Adam: Which is to say building more nukes.
Jim Naureckas: That’s a lot of money. But to The New York Times, that’s little, it’s little in response, because it has to be, the answer can’t be we’ve spent a lot of money on this and that didn’t seem to help. It can’t be the answer. The answer has to be ‘we haven’t spent enough money’ because the point of all this, the point of the whole apparatus that the corporate media rely on to produce expertise is to sell more weapons, that’s the purpose and so the answer has to be ‘buy more weapons.’
Adam: No matter what the question is the answer is always ‘buy more weapons.’ I mean, I’ve literally never seen —
Jim Naureckas: Unless it’s ‘spend more money on disinformation.’
Adam: And then when they say we need more, the question I would want to ask if I was a journalist and I was in whatever, you know, the military brass at the Pentagon and the RAND Corporation was like, ‘Oh, we need $200 million more to fight a strategic gap and the hundred and fifth fleet Western Hemisphere, whatever sort of cool-looking Tom Clancy-like bullshit they vomit out, I would say, ‘Okay, how much exactly do you need?’ And there’s never like a specific number that’s given that’ll sort of end the conversation like even adjusted for inflation, because like you said every single year, there’s another report about some alleged discrepancy. So it’s, again, the whole thing is just a racket, it’s like extortion. Extortionists will always ask for more until they can no longer ask for more because they have zero incentive not to.
Jim Naureckas: Right. It’s like the pharmaceutical business, you’re selling a product that people need to stay alive and so you can charge whatever. The only thing that limits how much, how fast you can raise your prices, is public outrage.
Adam: Right. You have to keep the public constantly conditioned to think that you’re needed.
Jim Naureckas: You figure how much can you jack up the price for security every year without people being outraged? It’s akin to the pharmaceutical industry, except the threats of disease are real mostly and the threats from foreign enemies are mostly fake, but it’s the same idea. You’re saying ‘this thing’s going to kill you, spending this money is going to keep you alive.’ The promise in both cases.
Nima: No, exactly and so that’s why you have the constant alarmism about existential threats and why you link the US military machine and empire that dominates the entire globe as protecting our way of life, right? You’ve been hearing that for decades and decades, but that never wanes because you need that constant, literal threat to your either, you know, personal health in the realm of pharmaceuticals, or societal health like to actually survive. And one of the other things that I think is really fascinating here is how in that article you referenced earlier, The New York Times piece from 2018, part of the premise is that Trump and his administration didn’t have a coherent strategy for dealing with, you know, the ongoing threat from Russia, and therefore, more money needed to be pumped in. So it didn’t matter that the Trump administration’s been in charge of that money and is incompetent, right? You still need to pump that money in or at the same time you have the GOP and Republican presidential candidates when vying against Obama years earlier, saying like, ‘Oh, well, now our military is so depleted and so we need so much more and we can’t trust Obama’ but you’re just going to give Obama’s administration more money because it’s not actually ever about the argument “Why?” It’s just to get to the solution, as you said, which is increasing the budget.
Jim Naureckas: Yeah and you do sort of, given that, obviously, if you go to a think tank that’s funded by weapons manufacturers, the answer that they are going to give you is always going to be ‘give weapons manufacturers more money’ and you sort of wonder, and it’s not it’s not like The New York Times is unaware that this is what these think tanks do. I remember at least one really good expose that they ran talking about just how much of a marketing enterprise these think tanks are. So you might ask, why don’t they go instead of to these weapons manufacturer funded think tanks, why don’t they go to like actual academics who study this stuff as their academic job that are actual experts and you can check to see if they have conflicts of interest because obviously, academics are funded by the military as well, but presumably, you could find some people who are not, who don’t have a conflict of interest, who would give you a straight answer and I think the reason that the media don’t go to people like that is because the idea that there is this big scary threat out there, it serves the media’s interests as well. You know, they want people to be reading their newspapers or watching their programs, and the people are going to be much more compelled to read the news that tells them that there’s this scary threat that needs to be met. Then to be told, you know, you really don’t have that much to worry about.
Adam: Yeah, and obviously even aside from that, the news that everything’s actually fine and that the US’s role as a sole superpower is more or less Jake, is not really news. I mean, everything’s golden, we’re doing well, you know, things are looking solid.
Nima: Still dominating over here.
Adam: That’s not really a story. So, you know, we’ve seen the emergence of some think tanks recently, like the Quincy Institute, who unfortunately gets Koch money but also gets George Soros money, but also has some writers with a history of skepticism towards the military, you obviously have things like CEPR, these smaller, less well-funded think tanks that are that in the last couple years, I mean, obviously, CEPR has been around for a while, I know in the last couple years others have emerged that are kind of trying to pump the brakes a little bit. What would a non weapons contractor, ideally not Koch brothers funded, think tank look like? Is there maybe even a vision of having an assortment of academics on call who weren’t on the payroll of people who are incentivized to push war? Let’s be a little bit prescriptive here. What in your mind would that even look like and is that even possible?
Jim Naureckas: Well, I mean, there have always been think tanks that are not part of the military industrial complex and they have never gotten a whole lot of attention from the media. I think for the reasons that we were just talking about, they don’t fit with a narrative that is particularly useful for the media for their own interests, because they are also capitalist enterprises that are trying to maximize their profits and to go to people who are telling you that threats are overblown, it’s just not that compelling. So I think aside from the lack of funding, the fact that the materials that you use will not be as ready to air, CSIS produces good graphics, which is something that maybe you need, the better funded your think tank is, the more likely it is that they will produce material that you don’t have to do much work to turn into a program or an article. They write the articles for you. The more shoestring an operation is and really the more integrity that institution has the less likely that they’ll be able to serve as ghost writers for you, which is, you know, unfortunate for the cause of peace. The media has an incentive to do the least amount of work for what they’re producing. That does give them a great incentive to go to the slickest, best operation that they can find which is the people who get the most money from the military industrial complex.
Nima: Yeah, I mean, so in your experience, what is the frequency at which articles that appear in mainstream newspapers and magazines and cable etc, that cite these weapons contractor funded think tanks et cetera, at what frequency are they kind of noted as such, described as such in the articles in which they appear? And I guess my corollary to that is when they are, does it matter? Are we so trained as a news audience to just hear about RAND, hear about CSIS, hear about CNAS, et cetera, et cetera and just to be like, ‘Oh, yeah, right, that’s just a, those are experts over there,’ even if we hear that they’re funded by Lockheed Martin and Raytheon, kind of how do those work? Do we ever hear that and then when we do, does it matter?
Jim Naureckas: It is very seldom that you will see that the funding of something like CSIS will be mentioned when they’re being used as experts in the media because it really would undermine the whole exchange. They’re producing expertise for the media to use free of charge, for the media to then say, this free expertise that we’re giving is actually funded by people who have a conflict of interest, it spoils the whole scam.
Nima: Yeah, it kind of ruins the ruse there, it lifts the veil.
Adam: Because that’s what I said. I mean, I’ve always said like, look, if you want to have a conflicted think tank they should say, you know, report by CSIS, a think tank funded by Lockheed Martin who’s very likely to get the contract if we do buy more icebreakers or more missiles in South Korea, put a little disclaimer there, and then I actually don’t really have a huge problem with it. But as you say, you know, it’s sort of like when the IWW tries to push minimum-wage laws in prison, and a lot of anarchists and abolitionists try to push minimum-wage laws in prison, not necessarily so they’ll make more money in prison because they’ve run the numbers and they realize that if you pay prisoners minimum wage, you literally can’t run prisons, it’ll bankrupt the prison by definition, it will undermine the entire point of prisons by definition and just the same, if you disclose this that would be it. That would be the whole scam. The lack of disclosure and laundering it through, you know, again, it would be like having a front Italian restaurant for the mob and there’s a huge sign outside saying this is run by the mob. Well, that defeats the purpose of the laundering of it, right?
Jim Naureckas: Exactly. Well, you know what the exception to that is, is when a think tank like the Economic Policy Institute is quoted in corporate media, they are usually described as labor backed, they get money from labor unions is presented as an important fact about EPI and in a way that the American Enterprise Institute is funded by corporations, it’s not considered an important fact about it.
Nima: It never goes the other way.
Jim Naureckas: Yeah. Which is, it’s an unusual phenomenon how labor is seen to take money in a way that corporate money is not, which you have to assume it’s because the media rely almost entirely on corporate money and so, if you treated that as a taint, you’d be self-indicting. Whereas the media do not take a lot of money from labor unions, they’re not a major source of advertising revenue and so you can point that out without self-incriminating.
Adam: Yeah, and just the same, of course, foreign money if it’s not an ally, I mean, you know, Japan, NATO countries, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, they routinely give to many of these think tanks and that’s not noted but if it, you know, if it so much as gets a cent from Russia or from China or some sort of official enemy then that money corrupts —
Nima: Well, then it’s Russia-backed, right? So yeah, ‘Russia-backed source says this,’ but then ‘Nonpartisan think tank says this.’
Adam: Yeah, I mean, the Atlantic Council’s funders are entirely Western corporations, oil companies, banks, governments and weapons contractors and that is never mentioned once and they, of course, are the sole arbiter of, by the way, what is and what isn’t state media backed or corrupt media. So it’s, if you sort of spread it out enough over enough Western entities, I guess, then it doesn’t really count as corruption? It’s not quite clear how it works.
Nima: It’s how the laundering works. But, Jim, before we let you go, tell us a little bit about what FAIR is up to. We obviously really enjoy the work of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting. We’ve both written for you and for Janine, but tell us about what you have going these days before we let you go.
Jim Naureckas: Well, the most recent study that we did had to do with the commentary that followed the George Floyd protests and who the people that the Washington Post and The New York Times turn to to comment on the protests and the big reveal is that protesters are almost never asked to talk about the protests. They were about 1 percent of the people who wrote about the protests were actual protesters or people affiliated with the protest movement, which I think is revealing of what is thought to be a conflict of interest in corporate media and what is not to be involved in society altering protest movements, makes you kind of too involved to get too much of an agenda to really be considered someone worth hearing from whereas if you are funded by a weapons manufacturer that does not in any way limit your ability to speak impartially and knowledgeably about the need to give those weapons manufacturers billions and billions and billions of dollars.
Nima: It’s almost like there’s an agenda at work, Jim. I don’t want to say it, but it’s almost like all this makes sense. But that I think is a great place to leave it. Jim Naureckas, of course, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, he has been the editor of FAIR’s print publication Extra! for the past — oh, I don’t know — 30 years and Jim, it is so great to have had you on the show again. Of course you are welcome back anytime, friend of the show, Jim Naureckas.
Jim Naureckas: Thanks a lot.
Adam: Yeah, I think when you do media criticism long enough as Jim has, and frankly, as you and I have now, I guess we’re starting to become seasoned veterans, you just see lagging behind, lagging behind you see it all the time. And again, anytime you sort of have an asymmetrical moral urgency like that where we’re always behind, but never the inverse of saying we’re actually good I think that also that sort of calls into question the neutrality of these claims, right?
Nima: Well, yeah, of course, because it’s also falling behind from being so dominant that no one else exists, right? So like, there’s no question that the United States is still dominant in these spaces even regardless of what the headlines may say ‘US is falling behind,’ ‘US is already not up to it,’ ‘US is trying to claw back,’ when you actually read these articles, it oftentimes says how powerful the US is and that is only a matter of like losing a qualitative military edge and that that is envisioned by, you know, former military officials or weapons contractor funded think tanks. It’s all based on this kind of forward looking, are we going to be losing the race that is ongoing so that we can still get more money, bloat budgets, not give to social services.
Adam: Yeah, because it’s not a real job. None of these people have a real job. They’re not making a longer lasting light bulb or a faster locomotive or whatever, sort of, they’re not actually making anything of meaning, you know, they’re not curing cancer. It’s a job, especially the think tank industrial complex, which is about further bilking the public coffers because we will spend as much money as humanly possible, especially with debt funding and running up deficits as a federal government. They realized that they could just make it go from $600 billion, $700 billion up to $1 trillion depending how you frame it because why not, right? So there was a report in CNBC from February of this year that showed that US aerospace and defense stocks had been up 83.3 percent since Trump won the election in 2016, a 57.5% increase from the S&P 500 during that same time period, so it’s an over 50 percent increase relative to the S&P 500 which is to say relative to the economy, this is before coronavirus crashed the market. But the last five years, you want to be too reductionist but stock market, the defense stocks have skyrocketed because our military budgets have skyrocketed and military budgets have skyrocketed because we have new fears. This isn’t a kind of post-Cold War malaise. This is Russia, Russia, Russia, evil China, evil China, North Korea had a good run. We dusted off the classics. We had North Korea, we had Iran for a while, this constant fervor of panic and fear translates into a public who was willing to in general allow pretty much endless military budget and there is no incentive again for someone to say, the barrier ideological assumption and all this which is never questioned is that why is it important that the US be ahead of China, why is the important the US be ahead of Russia? Why are we not concerned about Costa Rica or Germany or Sri Lanka being ahead of Russia? Why is the assumption that the US has both a moral right and an obligation to constantly be spending more money and having ships in the South Pacific and ships in the South China Sea as the kind of arbiter of what is, this is never a question obviously, right?
Nima: The US policeman status of the world is never, never, ever, ever questioned.
Adam: Again, if someone wants to make the argument and say, ‘Okay, it’s important America is the policeman here’s why. Here’s the first principle. We’re better than this empire’ okay, but there’s never not a single one of these articles, that is a hundreds of these articles I’ve read in my time as a media critic, not one is like, ‘Oh, well, of some people say here’s this,’ you know, because we went to the photojournalists thing where he sort of interview ‘here’s this anti-war group, it says that this whole premise is bunk.’ There’s just no intellectual curiosity. The ideology is just baked into the fucking cake that the US has to have complete global hegemony and if we don’t get some dereliction of duty.
Nima: Then we’re lagging behind, Adam.
Adam: We’re constantly lagging behind which, again, if you’re living in a state of paranoia, and neuroses about your imperial dominance, everybody —
Nima: It’s like constantly looking over your shoulder to a horizon where no one is even visible and yet being so terrified that all you’re doing is running faster and faster and the arguments made by these think tanks and others to run up budgets for the military that then flow back to the weapons contractors that they work for, this isn’t mere marketing because you have a product to sell and you want to do that, there is that element, but the money is government spending, right? And so the argument has to be back to the people whose money it is, the government’s money, to then have that be okay that military budgets keep going up and up and up and up when still healthcare costs are exorbitant, people can’t go to school, can’t pay their rent, there’s no public transportation, you can’t buy a house, all of these things need to be made insignificant in comparison with the existential threat, that military action by a so-called adversary would pose to our society. So you have to amp up that threat to be able to extract all of that money, instead of having it go to saving people’s lives.
Adam: Right. Because if one of these lanyards were here at the Raytheon Institute of Oriental Meddling, they’d say, ‘Well, Adam, you smug leftist prick, we are really analyzing and assessing real threats.’ And I’d say okay, sure, but if that’s the case, if this is really a sober assessment of real threats, again, why do we never hear them say, actually, we’re fine. The fact that there’s no symmetry at all like zero, it’s 100 percent, ‘Oh, my God, the sky is falling,’ indicates to me that this is just bullshit, this is just a way of extracting more money and that even if I accept the premise of like US borders, if I’m a sort of liberal and I’m not a leftist radical, I’m not a Maoist, I don’t wanna destroy America, I sort of accept the premise that there needs to be some baseline national security, certainly it should be, if not on par with every other country or every major country, it should be like twice as much, or three times as much, but eight times as much, ten times as much? NATO’s 14 times bigger than Russia, that seems a little gratuitous to me and any attempt to sort of even broach a reduction of defense spending, or intelligence spending or soft power spending, there was a, an amendment sponsored by Mark Pocan and Barbara Lee, and co-sponsored in the Senate by Ed Markey and Bernie Sanders, to reduce the defense budget by 10 percent, which would put it still very, very high, but like it would be, they’d be felt we’d all be fine. There would be no, again, no Chinese invasion of Oakland, we’d be okay and there was a total meltdown. 65 percent of Democrats voted against it. It was a total non starter. So, even any attempt to even question the supremacy of the endless, bottomless piggy bank of defense spending, it’s heresy. You just can’t even come close to the place of talking about it and the reason why that is because there is an entire cottage industry of journalists and credulous Pentagon stenographers and the whole lot, who sort of will always write these lagging behind stories.
Nima: Right, and the media will then just push them out and there’s that feedback loop because empire itself is extremely gratuitous.
Adam: Indeed it is.
Nima: Well, that will do it for this first episode of season four of Citations Needed. Thank you, everyone, for joining us again after our break. Thrilled to have you back.
Adam: Yes, we’re excited to be back, we took a break which consisted of me being locked in a cage by Nima and doing nothing but watching CNN and MSNBC while being fed raw meat and fish heads while I did nothing but sit-ups and got angry at the world and then we unleashed the beast —
Nima: And then we let you back on Twitter, let you out of the cage.
Adam: That’s true I’m officially back on Twitter. I was too emotionally healthy and happy with spending too much time with my wife.
Nima: That’s right, we had to ruin it.
Adam: I was reading too much, you don’t want to do that. That’s super lame. So now we’re back on, we unleashed the beast, I’ll probably go off again though because I do enjoy not being on it and I am totally manic and unable to control myself.
Nima: You are back on all platforms. (Laughs.) So yes, thank you, everyone, for listening to Citations Needed. Of course you can follow the show on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed and become a supporter of our work through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson. And as always, a very special shout-out goes to our critic level supporters on Patreon. I am Nima Shirazi.
Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.
Nima: Citations Needed is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. Associate producer is Julianne Tveten. Production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Newsletter by Marco Cartolano. Transcriptions are by Morgan McAslan. The music is by Grandaddy. Thanks again, everyone, thrilled to be back. We’ll catch you next time.
This episode of Citations Needed was released on Wednesday, September 9, 2020.
Transcription by Morgan McAslan.