The Solution to ISIS Is the First Amendment

Matt Stoller
Sep 16, 2014 · 14 min read

As the elite panic about ISIS — the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant — continues apace, it’s worth looking at how violations of the First Amendment have allowed this group to flourish, and just generally screw up US policy-making. The gist of the problem is that Americans have been lied to for years about our foreign policy, and these lies have now created binding policy constraints on our leaders which make it impossible to eliminate groups like ISIS.

Let’s start by understanding what ISIS actually is. First, ISIS is a brutal fascistic movement of radical Sunni militants, well-armed and well-trained, and bent on the establishment of an Islamic Caliphate throughout the Middle East. Second, it may also be and almost certainly was an arm of a wealthy Gulf state allied with the United States. This contradiction probably doesn’t surprise you, but if it does, that’s only because it cuts against a standard narrative of good guys and bad guys peddled by various foreign policy interests. The reality is that ally and enemy in post-colonial lands is often a meaningless term —it’s better to describe interests. A good if overly romanticized Hollywood illustration of this dynamic is the movie Charlie Wilson’s War, about the secret collaboration between Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Pakistan Israel and the CIA to undermine the Soviets in Afghanistan. This foreign policy apparatus is usually hidden in plain sight, known to most financial, political, military, and corporate elites but not told to the American public.

ISIS, like Al Qaeda, is an armed and trained military group. Guns and training cost money, and this money came from somewhere. There are two Gulf states that finance Sunni militants — Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Both states use financial power derived from oil to build armed terrorist groups which then accomplish aims that their states cannot pursue openly. This occasionally slips out into the open. German Development Minister Gerd Mueller recently blamed Qatar, for instance, for financing ISIS. Qatar itself swiftly denied the charges and claimed it only funds Jabhat al-Nusra. Al-Nusra is the other radical Al Qaeda offshoot militant group fighting in Syria. In other words, Qatar denied funding ISIS by saying it funds Al-Qaeda. It’s a sort of ‘we fund the bad guys who want to kill Americans but not the really bad guys who behead them on social media,’ a non-denial denial by geopolitical psychopaths.

Steve Clemons, one of the few members of Washington’s foreign policy establishment who sometimes speaks clearly about what is actually going on with the American empire, believes Qatar. According to his sources, while the Qataris funded the radical group Al-Nusra in Syria, “ISIS has been a Saudi project.” Clemons goes further, and discusses a very important American and Saudi figure, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, then the head of Saudi Arabia’s intelligence services and a former ambassador to the United States (as well as a Washington, DC socialite). Clemons writes, “ISIS, in fact, may have been a major part of Bandar’s covert-ops strategy in Syria.”

In other words, ISIS got its start in Syria as part of the Arab Spring uprising, and it was financed by Saudi Arabia to go up against Assad. The Gulf states were using Syria to fight a proxy war against Iran, and the precursor of ISIS was one of their proxies in that war. It’s hard to imagine that today ISIS isn’t at least tacitly tolerated by a host of countries in the region, though its goodwill from neighboring countries may be running out. Today, ISIS may be self-sustaining, though it’s quite possible that money is still coming from conservative wealthy individuals in the Gulf states, money which originally comes from the West in the form of oil purchases.

In other words, Middle Eastern politics, and much of Western politics, is organized around oil money. In its economic consequences, the oil gusher of Saudi Arabia was similar to the Chinese trade in the 19th century that led to the opium wars. In the that episode, the British bought tea from China, but China didn’t want anything but precious metals from England, leading to a drain of what was then reserve currency to China. This wasn’t sustainable, so England attacked China in what was known as ‘the opium wars’ and forced the government to allow them to trade opium, which addicted large segments of the Chinese population (and eventually led to today’s drug war). Revenue from opium then balanced the cost of tea. The money that went from England to China was ‘recycled’ back to England by the opium trade. International monetary arrangements require such recycling, though it does not have to be so brutal.

In the 1970s, Saudi Arabia had something the West wanted — oil — but it didn’t want that much from the West. So we used a different kind of recycling arrangement (detailed by Tim Mitchell in his exquisite book Carbon Democracy). Saudi Arabia got dollars, and those dollars piled up in Western banks like Citigroup, which started lending that money out to South American countries in the early 1980s. There were several other mechanisms to recycle what was called “petrodollars”. The arms trade really picked up in the 1970s, and continues today. Gulf states buy a lot of fancy weapons, which moves some of the dollars back to the West. They also have huge sovereign wealth funds, and buy Western corporations, banks, real estate, and assets, as well as the politicians that come with all of that. This ‘recycles’ dollars back out of the Middle East — Saudi Arabia returns some dollars, and in return it gets power and influence in the US.

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Foreign policy in the Gulf states is also organized around petrodollars. The Saudis don’t have to fight externally, they can simply fund terrorism against those they dislike. The Saudi state, like all states, isn’t a coherent whole, but a set of elites that interact with each other. There are thousands of ‘princes’ who basically just get oil income, but any of them can act independently and many of them do. It’s a bit like the CIA doing things without the President’s explicit permission; there’s a reason it was the CIA, the Saudis, and the Israelis financing the Taliban jointly in the 1980s. This has benefits, because then the Saudi state can have constructive ambiguity around its own role in financing terrorism. It also risks blowback, in that groups like ISIS or Al Qaeda can decide to take on the Saudi establishment itself.

The relationship between Saudi Arabia and the United States is the most important diplomatic and military relationship that we have. The Saudis are the slush fund for whatever the US wants to do when it doesn’t want that activity on the books. It also fulfills an important role in the oil markets akin to that of the IMF in the international financial markets, by managing its oil surplus to ensure financial and economic stability. This means shifts in a mercurial theocratic kingdom where the Saudi monarch is in his 80s, and most of the population is young, poor, and extremely religious conservatives, can turn world politics on a dime.

Right now, the Saudi government is still attempting to manage fallout from the war in Iraq and the Arab Spring uprisings, as well as the vacuum of power left when the United States withdrew from Iraq. It’s likely that at certain points it funded ISIS as one part of that strategy. Now you might think that the Saudi government financing a terrorist group with stated aims to attack the United States is a one-off, an accident. I mean the United States funded the Taliban in Afghanistan in the USSR in the 1980s. But you would be wrong.

For some reason, attacking the United States seems to be a goal of certain elements of the Saudi Arabian government and financial establishment. Parts of the Saudi government helped organize the attacks on the United States on 9/11 (or least that’s what Lawrence Wright of the New Yorker alleges). That, at least, was apparently one conclusion of the “Joint Inquiry into Intelligence Community Activities Before and After the Terrorist Attacks of September 2001", better known as the 9/11 Commission Report. Why wasn’t this front-page news? Because this particularly portion of the report, these 28 pages, were classified. Periodically members of Congress gripe about this. As early as 2003, Senators were demanding the Bush administration declassify this section of the report — Chuck Schumer, who has a security clearance and can read the report, pretty much said outright that Saudi Arabia was behind the attacks.

Former Senator Bob Graham continues to complain about the public being kept in the dark. Who in particular in the Saudi government? I don’t know precisely who, but people in the United States government certainly do. It probably has something to do with the Saudi Arabian prince who associated with the hijackers being ‘spirited’ out of the US days after the attacks, even as all planes were grounded. Somehow, the FBI ‘mishandled’ the investigation of this prince and his companions.

The Saudi Ambassador to the US at this point was that same geopolitical sage we are already familiar with through his covert strategy with ISIS: Prince Bandar bin Sultan. Bandar, a colorful Talleyrand-like arms dealer and diplomat who deals with terrorist groups and DC power player alike, is so close to the Bush family that his nickname is ‘Bandar Bush’. The rumors I’ve heard in DC is that his house was a weird fanciful scene where food was served on gold plates. DC journalist Mark Leibovich wrote about the importance of Bandar to the Washington scene, “a most sacred of Official Washington shrines”.

Yup, the Saudi who funded radical Sunni Muslim group ISIS once hosted Reagan’s former Chief of Staff to erev Yom Kippur festivities.

Prince Bandar’s dazzling hosting abilities in the DC social scene were an important part of his geopolitical arsenal. But just because he painted his private jet in Dallas Cowboys colors, and just because his son was a guest of Jerry Jones for the NFL draft, doesn’t mean he abandoned the other more traditional Saudi tools for geopolitical statecraft, such as supporting Muslim extremists that would engage in violent attacks on Westerners. It turns out that money for the 9/11 hijackers may have flowed through Bandar’s wife’s account at Riggs bank. Riggs was a haven for money launderers and dictators, and was controlled by the Allbritton family, “dear friends” of Ronald Reagan. It was also an instrument of CIA policy, “which included top current and former Riggs executives receiving U.S. government security clearances.” This relationship “could complicate any prosecution of the bank’s officials, according to private lawyers and former prosecutors.” The Albritton family later created Politico, which was arguably the most influential political publication in DC from 2008–2010.

In other words, the Saudi ambassador, who may have funneled money to 9/11 hijackers, also advised the Bush administration on U.S. foreign policy, and had deep and profitable relationships with U.S. media, banking, and political elites. He was also a social luminary in DC. This helped lay the foundation for the American foreign policy establishment consensus position, often forged at think tanks funded by foreign governments. From there, this consensus emanated outward into Politico-like publications, and then outward onto the television networks and into the homes of the remaining Americans will to pay attention to an infantilized deceptive version of American foreign policy.

And so, almost immediately after the attacks, Saddam Hussein became the designated bad guy and the Bush administration, supported by the entire Republican Party, foreign policy establishment, and a substantial chunk of Democrats (Bill and Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, for starters), prepared for war in Iraq. The Bush administration alluded many times to a supposed link between 9/11 and Hussein, which was a ludicrous conspiracy theory, but an acceptable one because it served the interests of the Bush administration and a coddled foreign policy elite. But rather than expose the entire secret deal by which elites conducted a shadow foreign policy through Saudi petrodollars, most journalists told Americans that Saddam Hussein had to go. Those journalists who didn’t subscribe to this, especially on TV, were fired.

As we’ve by now noticed, America has been on a glide path of dishonest policy-making since 9/11. One can imagine a different way of doing this. Imagine if the public had known that it was elements of the Saudi government who actually supported this attack. Imagine if they knew of the incredibly tight intertwining of Saudi elites with US elites, the Saudi extra-constitutional slush fund, petrodollar terrorism diplomacy, the long alliance with theocracy, and so forth. There would have had to be a reckoning for this mess of contradictions. Perhaps the public would have endorsed this deal. Perhaps the public would have accepted cheap gasoline in return for, as Ken Silverstein calls it, “The Secret World of Oil.” Rick Perlstein, in the book The Invisible Bridge, showed how the public tried to reckon with Vietnam, but then decided to turn away from truth in the 1970s, and to Ronald Reagan’s narrative of an America without flaws or limits. Perhaps that’s what would have happened, again, after 9/11.

But the public never got the chance for a reckoning. As in the 1970s, we never got a chance to understand the real costs of our geopolitical arrangements, and to examine alternatives. That was left to the fringes, for another ten years or so.Instead, what happened was a mixture of propaganda and censorship.

The propaganda was the organization of the culture for war with Iraq, perhaps the least popular introduction of a war since World War I. This included not only the social salons of Bandar Bush, but also Colin Powell’s show at the UN, false claims of evidence of Weapons of Mass Destruction by the Intelligence Community, and a shifting rationale for the invasion of Iraq.

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It also included the explicit destruction of the reputation of anyone who attempting to understand 9/11 in the context of ‘blowback’, or what the CIA calls the consequence of secret foreign policy moves. Andrew Sullivan, for example, led the way on Sept. 16, 2001. He wrote:

A whole series of neoconservative leaning pundits — Mickey Kaus, Tom Friedman, Bill Kristol, Jeff Jarvis, Glenn Reynolds — bathed in this slur-fest. Anyone casting doubt on the official version of 9/11, some variant of ‘they hate us for our freedom’, was dubbed a conspiracy theorist and subjected to McCartyite smears. Even as late as 2009, Van Jones resigned under pressure from the Obama White House ostensibly because he lent credibility to one of their theories by signing a petition about 9/11 he says he didn’t understand. Clearly the theory the Bush administration orchestrated 9/11 is ridiculous, but the campaign to elevate having stupid opinions or even associating with someone with stupid opinions into something closer to treason was just that — a campaign.

But the other part of the 9/11 narrative, aside from propaganda, was censorship. In America it’s not popular to talk about censorship, because it’s presumed that we don’t have it, as such. There are no rooms full of censors who choose what goes into newspapers, and what doesn’t. Our press is free. It’s right there in the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law… prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press..”

Somehow, though, Senators, Congressmen, and intelligence officials are not supposed to talk about those 28 pages in the 9/11 Commission report which are classified. And why not? Well because according to President Bush (and now President Obama), doing so would compromise “national security”. But what, exactly, is censorship, if it’s not a prohibition on individuals to speak about certain topics? Traditionally, First Amendment law gives the highest protection to political speech, allowing for certain restrictions on commercial speech (like false advertising). But there is no higher form of speech than political speech, and there is more important form of political speech than the exposition of wrongdoing by the government. So how is this not censorship?

It clearly is. In other words, explicit government censorship combined with propaganda helped prevent the public from having a full discussion of what 9/11 meant, and what this event implied for our government’s policies. Explicit censorship, under the guise of national security, continues today. While there are people in the U.S. government who know which Saudis financed and organized 9/11, the public at large does not. No government official can say ‘this person funded Al Qaeda in 2001, he might be funding ISIS now’, because that would reveal classified information. He or she can’t even say that to the wrong Congressman or bureaucrat that has classified clearance, because that could annoy his or her superior and cause him to lose his job. Being thrown out of the national security state, a state of 5 million people with special clearances, is painful and can, as Edward Snowden recognized, lead to banishment or lifelong imprisonment.

This is by design. As Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan put it in a commission about the classification system in 1997, “It is now almost routine for American officials of unquestioned loyalty to reveal classified information as part of ongoing policy disputes—with one camp “leaking” information in support of a particular view, or to the detriment of another—or in support of settled administration policy. In the process, this degrades public service by giving a huge advantage to the least scrupulous players.” He continued, “Excessive secrecy has significant consequences for the national interest when, as a result, policymakers are not fully informed, government is not held accountable for its actions, and the public cannot engage in informed debate.”

What all this means that the reality of ISIS and what this group seeks is opaque to the public, and to policymakers not clued into the private salons where the details of secrets can be discussed. Even among those policymakers, the compartmentalized national security establishment means that no one really grasps the whole picture. The attempt to get the US into a war in Syria a year ago was similarly opaque. The public cannot make well-informed decisions about national security choices because information critical to such choices is withheld from them. It is withheld from them at the source, through the classification-censorship process, then by obfuscations in the salons and think tanks of DC and New York, and then finally through the bottleneck of the mass media itself.

This is what happened after 9/11, a lack of an informed debate due to propaganda, media control, and a special kind of censorship. Our policy on ISIS is the price for such ignorance. Polling shows Americans want something done on ISIS, but they have no confidence that what is being done will work. This is a remarkably astute way to see the situation, because foreign policy since 9/11 has been a series of geopolitical duct tape and costly disasters. Despite the layers of gauze and grime pulled over our foreign policy viewfinder, the public itself is aware that whatever we’re doing ain’t working.

Adopting a realistic policy on ISIS means a mass understanding who our allies actually are and what they want, as well as their leverage points against us and our leverage points on them. I believe Americans are ready for an adult conversation about our role in the world and the nature of the fraying American order, rather than more absurd and hollow bromides about American exceptionalism.

Until that happens, Americans will not be willing to pay any price for a foreign policy, and rightfully so. Fool me once, shame on you. And so forth.

Unwinding the classified state, and beginning the adult conversation put off for seventy years about the nature of American power, is the predicate for building a global order that can drain the swampy brutal corners of the world that allow groups like ISIS to grow and thrive. To make that unwinding happen, we need to start demanding the truth, not what ‘national security’ tells us we need to know. The Constitution does not mention the words ‘national security’, it says ‘common defense.’ And that means that Americans should be getting accurate information about what exactly we are defending.

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