Thursday, December 4, 2008

Obama’s Plan to Reform the CIA—Who’s In Charge Here Anyway?

Now Mr. Obama must take charge of the C.I.A., in what is already proving to be one of the more treacherous patches of his transition to the White House.

-- “After Sharp Words on CIA, Obama Faces a Delicate Task,” New York Times, Dec 2, 2008

Barack Obama has just been elected president of the United States. Contrary to the popular illusions of liberals and many on the Left, he is not in charge of the system; the system is in charge of him.

He has many options, great room as an organizer to change the system. But I imagine he must wake up and think, “As brilliant as I am, it is pretty amazing I am president of the United States. I have clear plans, great confidence, an iron will, but how the hell do I deal with all these idiots, liars, lobbyists, Blue Dog Democrats, Clintonesque saboteurs, the capitalist class (and yes, I know it exists) the Pentagon, FBI, and CIA. Sheeet, so now I understand what Kennedy went through. The damn CIA and FBI are already investigating and spying on me. Maybe I shouldn’t have jettisoned Reverend Wright after all. The racism is pretty “endemic” and this damn place has more palace intrigue than the Roman empire.”

So let’s be clear. Barack Obama may be able to impact the Department of Commerce and the Department of Education but as he gets closer to the police state, the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, the CIA, and the Department of War (it’s original correct name before it Orwelled itself to the “Department of Defense”), remember that he is an elected civilian dealing with a group of armed thugs. We have to wish him well but we also have to get our own organizing selves in gear, for it is up to him to manage the system and it is up to us to change it.

It may seem contradictory but he is on the one hand one of the most powerful men in the world, in perhaps the most powerful individual position, but on the other, do not think for a minute that he is now “in charge.” If we on the Left, and I mean that in the broadest most popular sense of anyone who sees themselves, inside or outside of the Democratic Party, to the left of Obama—if we don’t understand that the system is far more powerful than him, and that he is both a product of the system and a change agent within it, then we are limiting our own historical role. But within that understanding, we have every reason to demand he stand up to the system and be the change agent he ran as. While it is a materialist analysis of history to understand that Obama is the commander in chief of the empire, it is also true that his job is to push it as far to the left as he promised, and as far to the left as we can demand and enforce as a social movement.

Understanding the functioning of the system does not absolve us from making judgments of him or his actions, nor absolve him from historical responsibility—after all, he ran on a “change” platform. History is moving fast and so is Obama, so while we should not rush to judgment we also have the responsibility to look in the mirror; for those of us like me who enthusiastically endorsed his candidacy we have to look at some important early trends and developments. You don’t want to make “left errors” jumping all over him and second guessing every move before he even takes office. But you don’t want to suspend too much disbelief as he appoints Hillary Clinton Secretary of State and brings Robert Rubin and Larry Summers, two of history’s biggest losers, out of disgrace for fiscal mismanagement and fraud into the bowels of the White House to inflict their pain again.

It’s a fact. I wrote Ten Reasons to Get Out the Vote for Barack Obama. My first reason was that he was a Black man, an intelligent, qualified, liberal Black man attacked by a white lynch mob. My second was that John McCain was a war criminal and Sarah Palin was a fascist. I stand by those arguments. But one of my arguments was that Obama’s victory would limit the power of the Clinton machine. Boy, did I mis-assess that. I had no idea he would simply ask the Clinton’s to bring their entire extended family of war and economic criminals back into the White House with him. So, I’m down to nine good reasons to turn out the vote for Barack Obama. My bad, but you learn as you go along.

In subsequent blogs I want to address some other early trends of concern:
1) Obama’s tendency to reward his enemies and punish his friends. Not a great character trait and already something to be worried about.
2) Obama’s tendency to blow off the Left including left Democrats who gave him his main base of support and volunteers.
3) Obama’s fiscal stimulus package as an anti-environmental pork barrel.

But for the moment, knowing you can barely contain yourself waiting for those other blogs. I want to focus on Obama’s efforts to reform the CIA.

I think we should offer strong support to Obama in his fight with the Right. (And do not forget that the Republicans and Palin are already plotting for a counter-revolution in 2010 just as Newt Gingrich pulled off with his Contract With America against Clinton in 1992, from which Clinton never recovered, choosing to join Gingrich rather than fight him.)

So as we follow the battle with the CIA, we have to remember that Obama ran for and was elected president of the U.S. empire. We have every right, as organizers, to hold him responsible for his actions, but I reject the thinking of some in the liberal and left punditocracy who talk about him is if he has unfettered free will and judge him based on a bizarre sense of voluntarism that reflects more illusions than the average voter. “Why doesn’t he do this, no he should do that?”

Aren’t we the ones who talk about the capitalist system, the white power structure, U.S. imperialism, the U.S. empire, the military-industrial complex, the racist re-enslavement complex, the U.S. as a white settler state? At least I do. So if that is the case, what in the hell do we expect him—the president-elect of U.S. empire—to do? Have a socialist revolution, smash the state, free the slaves, empty the prisons, close down 750 U.S. military bases all over the world, end the war in Iraq and end the occupation of Afghanistan, curb the corporate monsters, put them all in jail for their gross crimes against the people?

Now look. If I was elected president I can promise you I would immediately imprison Robert Rubin and Lawrence Summers, the Mutt and Jeff, the Jack Spratt and his wife, of corporate malfeasance. They would be serving life in prison for deregulatory fraud and grand theft that has cost millions their jobs, life savings, pensions, and caused untold death and destruction in the Third World. How did these bastards, these discredited losers land on their feet? I do put that at the feet of Obama, there is nothing about “the system” that required those choices. It is his call and already a slap in the face for any economists who argued against the deregulatory assault led by Clinton, again, led by Bill Clinton and taken even further by George Bush.

I’ll go further. If I were president I would appoint Fidel Castro as Secretary of Defense. No one has more brilliantly defended his nation from the assaults of the devil to the North, a tiny island of sanity and socialism that has beat back invasions, assassinations, and the brutal blockade (which we must demand Obama ends immediately). I would appoint Hugo Chavez ambassador to the U.N. so he could pillory U.S. imperialism every day from an international pulpit. (I just talked with President Chavez and he respectfully declined. He explained to me that he is already in a far more powerful position as the head of successful state, elected with mass support, with its own army, his own far greater voice in the world. He reminded me to resist any careerist fantasies, for in fact, we already hold higher positions than president of the Empire—“organizer” as in “left organizer.” I told him, “My bad. I agree, I was just thinking out loud. Bourgeois day dreaming.”)

So Obama wants to end torture and the abuses of the CIA. He really does. He tries to appoint John O. Brennan, an insider at the CIA to bring about some small but important reforms. Now of course there are a few problems with Brennan. As the New York Times reported, “Mr. Brennan withdrew his name from consideration after liberal critics attacked his alleged role in the agency’s detention and interrogation program. Mr. Brennan protested that he had been a “strong opponent” within the agency of harsh interrogation tactics, yet Mr. Obama evidently decided it was not worth a battle with some of his most ardent supporters on the Left.” Good for the liberals for protesting, and good for him for listening. But now what should he do? Apparently the CIA folks are pissed. The rejection of Brennan seems to indicate “that if you worked in the CIA during the war on terror, you are now tainted” and has created anxiety in the ranks of the agency’s clandestine service.

Gee, I wonder why they have anxiety? So now what does Obama do? He has to find someone to reform the CIA who will not be met by an armed revolt by these clandestine terrorists who call themselves counter-terrorists. Imagine the speech of the new reform director of the CIA.

“Don’t worry guys. You just have to work with the new guidelines. You cannot use waterboarding. But relax, you can set up front groups in Venezuela to try to overthrow Chavez, spread disinformation campaigns, foment counter-revolution but boys, be careful on that torture thing. You can tell the prisoners you will rape and kill them or their wives and children but don’t actually do it. On the other hand, if you absolutely and positively need to, remember about ‘plausible deniability’ you did not hear it from me.”

Do we really understand who the CIA is, and what is its job? The CIA is a bunch of murderers and assassins who are spying on you and me and spying on each other, assassinating foreign leaders and assassinating each other. Hey, even if you don’t read history, don’t you go to the movies? Didn’t you see “The Spook Who Sat by the Door,” “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold,” “Three Days of the Condor,” “The Good Shepherd,” “Syriana,” or “Bourne Identity?” These folks are seriously murderous.

So here is Obama really trying to rally the CIA troops around his reform message. “Listen guys, I want to reform you. I also want you to protect me, and by the way, please don’t assassinate me by coming up with some crazy story about, ‘You see, there was a lone gunman, and he was a friend of Fidel Castro or maybe against Fidel Castro, but anyway, we let him walk down the street and geez, a guy shot him dead so we could never figure out if he acted alone, but believe me, it was a lone gunman, you gotta believe that story, a crazy guy, a fluke.’ And by the way, I am protected by the Secret Service so please do not infiltrate them. And tell your friends—oh I forgot—tell your enemies at FBI to stay out of this one out as well. Do not mess with me because I am president of the United States, I know I am because I had this great interview with Steve Croft on Sixty Minutes. Did you know he even shined my shoes during the commercial breaks? That is the level of loyalty I want.”

Then Obama meets with his top advisors. He asks David Axlerod, “What the hell should I do? I try to appoint “a CIA centrist,” that is, a guy who led the torture but secretly opposed it all the time. Now those damn liberals in Congress tell me he is tainted by his association with what? Of all things, the CIA. So what do I do now? Who isn’t tainted by the CIA? I thought about appointing George Bush Sr. but then I remember he was the head of the CIA. Only a CIA agent or an army general would understand the world of armed struggle and how to have an armed discussion with these guys. David, how do I reform the agency we ask to spy, ask to infiltrate, ask to destabilize and overthrow governments? And if I appoint a master of dirty tricks, who the CIA guys will respect, how do I know he won’t pull dirty tricks on me?”

Obama reads a lot of books. He should read State and Revolution by this guy V.I. Lenin. Lenin said that once you take power you have to smash the state or it will smash you. You have to set up your own intelligence agency to spy on the spies. As Mao explained, threatening to the liberal mind, “a revolution is not a tea party.”

Is Obama going to change the system? I think he will try. He will bring back civil rights as a serious concept, appoint far better judges than the Bush hangmen, defend women’s right to choose, regulate runaway capitalism at least enough to try to save it, throw lots of money at a dying economy, using public funds to bail out the privatizers. He is a liberal, regardless of how he chooses to self-describe. But remember, the New Left was built out of the liberals half-heartedness on civil rights and murderous war in Vietnam—the Democrats’ war. We have to understand Obama’s agenda. In my view he sees that his job is to liberalize, regulate, humanize, and rationalize a dysfunctional empire—he is a reform for the ruling class, not for us. His election offers great opportunities. His contradictions with some of those in power will create openings and his reforms real improvements in people’s lives.

A bit of free advice to President Obama, who I know wakes up every morning to see if I have a new blog post and hangs on my every word. If you proceed with militaristic adventures to prove your anti-terror, anti-Russian, anti-Chinese, anti-Cuban and anti-Venezuelan credentials, you risk more shame and defeat for the empire, and a continued crisis of overextension. You will contribute to the growth of a world Left that is already on the ascendancy and a militant Islam that would have every right to see the U.S. as the main danger. If I was you, and of course I am not, I would consider a real revolution, ending the fundamental drive of U.S. imperialism to take over the world. What? You don’t agree? I understand. But I would proceed with great caution. Remember, I was there when John Kennedy squandered his legacy by selling out the civil rights workers in the South and invading Cuba, how Johnson ended in military and political disgrace by his war crimes in Vietnam. I was a part of Obama’s Army and attended Camp Obama. I turned out the vote for you, phone banked, and my wife Lian and I gave early and often to your campaign. We got great emails from you, Michelle, David Plouffe (a truly gifted organizer) which we returned with money, and even got emails from Joe Biden (whose emails I never returned and almost made me ask for a refund).

You have a unique moment in which you were elected by the Black community, elected by Latinos, and yes, elected by liberals and the Left. If you disrespect that base you may bet away with it for a while. Unfortunately, we are not strong enough to make you pay very much right now. But as someone who made history, remember that those of in the civil rights and anti-war movement made history too. History sometimes moves slowly but sometimes moves rapidly. If there is a period of disillusion with your campaign and a sense of broken promises, then that will help build the grassroots movements and it will, I am sure, bring many of Obama’s Army into a new civil rights and anti-war movement, an anti-racist, anti-imperialist united front. At least that is my hope and what I organize for.

So, I root for Obama, root for him to “reform” the CIA and the army. But I also understand the profound challenges he faces. Let me tell you something I learned about Black elected officials who want to in any way reform the police, the military, and the CIA.

I’m in Newark, New Jersey in 1974 doing an article for the New University Press about what the hell happened in Newark with the betrayal of the election hopes of Kenneth Gibson, the first Black mayor of Newark. It turns out that Puerto Rican militants marched on city hall demanding jobs and an end to police brutality and the Gibson administration put the cops out on them and beat them up. Great, so much for my support for Gibson when he was elected mayor in 1970. But I did not go back to Newark to get my vote back. I came to change the system as a radical journalist at the time.

Earlier, I had organized in Newark in 1965-1967 with the Newark Community Union Project (NCUP), going door-to-door to build an “interracial movement of the poor.” I worked with Black residents of the South and Central wards on rent strikes, police brutality marches. NCUP was a great organization led by “community people” meaning the Black residents of the community and “the students” that is, the Black and white students who came to Newark as others came to the South with CORE and SNCC. It was an exciting time. Eventually Black people decided that the best reform tactic was to burn the city down, and the system responded by killing 32 unarmed residents. So out of that “fire next time” a mass united front was created to elect Kenny Gibson. I never liked Gibson, he was from Prudential Insurance and didn’t even pretend to be a liberal, let alone a leftist (and at that time in history it was not absurd to dream a Black candidate could be on the Left) but I strongly supported his election and the broad united front that brought him to office.

So, eight years later I am back in Newark to see my old friends and doors opened. I interviewed 30 Black leaders, residents and city council people to figure out what the hell happened. How could a reform mayor end up turning on the poor? By this time I was not shocked, at all, I just wanted to know the specific story of how this sell-out happened, by now I had come to understand the painful reality of many Black mayors and power structure’s capacity to coopt and subvert the most modest liberal agendas (and as such, appreciated the greatness of Richard Hatcher in Gary and Harold Washington in Chicago even more).

So I’m interviewing a city hall insider about Ken Gibson. “Why doesn’t he control the police? Why isn’t he bringing about reforms?” And the brother tells me, “Listen. When Kenny got into office he goes into the office of Dominic Spina, the Mafioso chief of police, the Black-hating, gun-toting, racist mf who we all wanted out of there. So before Kenny can open his mouth Spina takes out his gun and says, ‘Look, congratulations on getting elected. So let me tell you how it’s gonna be. I am the general of an army. I am armed, my folks are armed. Do you have an army? Who will protect you? I tell you what, I will. I’ll make sure somebody doesn’t shoot you. In return, stay the fuck out of the Police Department business. As long as you know you work for me everything will be fine.”

So, I imagine that is what Obama’s conversations are like with the CIA and I know he is a tougher guy then Ken Gibson. But the structural challenge remains. I hope the best for Obama, I really do, I think he is an amazing version of himself and I strive to be as good at my strategy as he is at his. I strive to be as good an organizer as he is, as he out-organized McCain and Hillary and now my job is to both ally with and at times, try to out organize him.

In his effort to reform the CIA and outlaw torture, Obama is already being sabotaged by his fellow Democrats. (So what else is new?) Before Obama can even find an acceptable head of Murder Incorporated, his great buddy Senator Diane Feinstein from California undercuts him big time. She tells the press, “I think you have to use the non-coercive standard to the greatest extent possible,” raising the possibility that an imminent terrorist threat might require special measures. So Obama is thinking, “With friends like Feinstein, who needs enemies?” And based on this clarification of the policy, imagine the new head of the CIA explaining the guidelines, “Now remember, the president has issued a strict prohibition on any torture…except in rare cases where imminent national security is involved. You guys use your judgment. Hey, stop the damn laughing, this is as serious as a heart attack.” His grunts reply, “OK boss, so why are you cracking up, you can’t even lay down the law with a straight face.”

In this context, I support Obama’s efforts to reform the CIA. I am deeply moved by his resolute statement: “There will be no torture. I will close down Guantanamo prison.” I don’t know what he should do with the CIA, except abolish it, but in the world of the present, his proposals on torture and Guantanamo are small but important reforms.

I know it sounds Orwellian to support “the reform of torture” but I do. I know that some who propose this just want to stabilize the empire or feel that torture is “counterproductive.” But maybe, just maybe, it will prevent some real people, some real prisoners of war, some real Iraqis, Afghanis, some real Blacks and Latinos from not being tortured, or not being tortured as much. And in a world I can’t control I don’t dismiss this reform and hope it can be carried out.

I am an organizer. I try to understand what I think from practice, that is how my mind works. I was in prison for a year and a half. I did 30 days in solitary. I was in prison because of my participation in militant demonstrations against the war in Vietnam. So, I can tell you, a year in a half in prison is worse than 12 months. Getting out on parole would have been a very good reform for me but my parole board did not think so, and denied me twice. They did not like my anti-war actions and wanted to teach me a lesson. So, I’m talking to my fellow prisoners, who call guys like me, “short-timers.” They told me, that they were sorry I had to do a year and a half but it sure beats 25 years to life. We understood the small but significant gradations of reform. Being in the general population able to play basketball and lift weights and have your own cell is a lot better than being in a dorm with 20 prisoners half of whom are great and some of whom are crazy. It is a lot better than 23 hour lock ups in tiny cells, with the lights on, food like shit, and screws who wake up in the morning to drive you insane if they can succeed. Some guards, screws, are a lot better than others. Some are actually decent, many are cruel, and some are downright sadistic psychos. So pardon me if I still believe in reforms, for those who don’t I suggest you remember that the next time they are torturing you, I want you to repeat, “Shit, I don’t care, you’re all imperialists anyway, why would I want the CIA to eliminate torture.”

As an organizer you learn from the people. If you care about those who live in slum housing, you work for rent control, or just to force the damn landlord to provide some heat. It is not enough, it is a building block of a revolution, and yet it can be a critical part of a revolution. You have to talk to folks about how their experience is part of their race and class experience, how slum landlords are part of a broader capitalist system, how the landless in Brazil and those fighting for water rights in indigenous communities are their allies, and yes, how the Democrats are not. But you can’t argue, “Look, this candidate wants to institute rent control and this one wants to evict you but it doesn’t matter ‘cause they’re both imperialist pigs.” Well, you can argue that, but I can assure you you’ll be a pretty lonely. By my definition, “an organizer never walks alone.” If you can’t relate to the people’s needs you will never be a successful organizer.

So, I understand the limits of Obama, and try to build a movement to his Left. I can understand Obama’s dilemmas but I can’t understand or tolerate his liberal pundits and apologists who try to explain reality to us, as if they themselves have no role in changing it. “The mayor, the senator, the president, is under a lot of pressure from the Right, so let me explain why we can’t do what you want.” Soon you come to see that former leftists in the Department of Apologia come to see you and the movement as the main danger. They keep talking about pressure from the Right as inevitable and legitimate, but they hate pressure from the Left and often are in bed with the Right more than they are its captives. Former leftists in power can often be your worst adversaries. I prefer those who have no illusions or pretensions that they are on your side. In that sense, I often get along far better with corporate capitalists than Democrats. The capitalists at General Motors, Trailways, Texaco and many others I have boycotted and negotiated with are less pretentious and more right to the point. They want to make a profit, and you have a movement. They just want to know, “What can you do to hurt me and what do you want?” Sometimes you even can find some level of communication with them. As with the mafia, they explain, “I may be discriminating or polluting the environment or trying to close down your plant and lay you off, but it’s nothing personal, it’s just business.”

I believe in the role of people and the role of systems. I hold Barack Obama responsible for his actions and the system responsible for setting the parameters of his actions and the movement, if and when it reconstructs itself, as responsible for changing the system, putting pressure on the system, getting people in power to do what they don’t want to do because we are holding some cards.

So, I wish Barack Obama well. As my grandmother Sarah would say, “You wouldn’t want his problems, you have enough of your own.” He is trying to reform the system; I am trying to reform it myself in more radical ways. I do not have the hubris to say I want to overthrow it, but I would if I could. But right now I don’t know how that is possible, and I am more than happy to believe we in the U.S. can bring revolutionary ideas and radical movements into the scope of history and fight to stop the excesses of the empire as forces far more powerful than us in the Third World take on the heavier lifting of a more frontal battle. Our job is to push the empire as far as we can from the inside; the Third World does it from the outside. (This is my inside/outside strategy.)

Obama is trying to fight for civil rights, for environmental progress, for civil liberties. He is trying to reform a system that he understands too well is evil (thus, Michelle Obama’s wonderful slip of the tongue, “For the first time I am proud of this country.”) Now in fact I was proud of Nat Turner and Sitting Bull, proud of the slave revolts and the abolitionists proud of the Communist Party the New Left, proud of SNCC, and CORE and the Panthers, and yes, proud of George McGovern, one of the true decent liberals. And I put Obama in that camp, at least I can hope. But I do not want his job nor was I elected to carry it out.

He is the first Black president of the United States. He is a proud Black man who did not have to tell the white folks he was Black, they understood too well, as did 98% of the Black community that voted for him. He has his work cut out for him, and we have our work cut out for us. Obama is an ally and an opponent. (It is contradictory but that is why Mao wrote On Contradiction.) It is a pleasure to work to support him against the Right and put big time pressure on him from the Left. Welcome to the system, brother. I wish you all the luck in the world because my people need you to succeed, as we need to succeed on our own terms.

Eric Mann is a veteran of the Congress of Racial Equality, Students for a Democratic Society, and the United Auto Workers. He is working on his next book, The Twenty Five Qualities of the Successful Organizer: A Journey in Transformative Organizing. He is a co-host of Voices from the Frontlines, KPFK Pacifica, Los Angeles, 90.7 FM, Mondays at 4-5 PM PST, and streaming live on the web at


  1. This blog was well written, it was poetic yet historic. For this reason I was sadden at the author's false sense of facism. Facism takes its population by surprise. Palin was obvious and therefore inelligible. The popularity of leadership required for facism must include the 'left'. Look at the historic models and recalibrate the blog.

  2. This is about as terrific a statement on Obama in relation to the empire and to the U.S. Left as I have seen anywhere. Been trying to explicate the need for "pushing" Obama to fellow peace and justice activists here in backwoods Oregon--and for that matter to some on the SNCC list--who believe we now should wait and "give the man a chance, see what he does," as if being Black and liberal made him a savior; you have said it far better. Just wish you'd included more on how the "bailout" relates to this.

  3. I agree with Anonymous I on both points.

  4. I think it far more useful to focus on what we need to be doing, rather than Obama's quandries, quagmires and dilemmas. Who, after all, would be a 'good' head of CIA? Anyone with any competence for the job has skeletons in his closet.

    (Although, I've often said to my friends, half in jest, that in a revolutionary government, I had my eye on that post myself!)

    So as organizers, our task is pulling together the local alliances, networking them outward and upward, and mobilizing their popular power to make them do what has to be done. Like the man says, change comes from below. So let's discuss what WE have to do.

    'Progressives for Obama' has a proposal on the table, but others are welcome as well.

  5. I hope you are going to keep posting here.