The Secret You’re Not Being Told About ISIS

The media shies away from corruption and the economic interests of politicians and commentators when peace is at stake.

This photograph from May shows an ISIS flag flying on top of a ruined Syrian helicopter at Tadmur military airbase, Homs, Syria, after ISIS captured it. Sweden's foreign minister evoked protest this week by drawing a parallel between formative experiences behind ISIS and the Palestinians.
An ISIS flag flying from a ruined Syrian helicopter. AP

The United States woke up in May 2005 to another barrage of criticism about Gitmo. Guantánamo Bay is “a gulag of our time,” said Amnesty International’s general secretary, Irene Khan, accusing Britain and the United States of condoning torture while trying to keep their consciences clear. Human-rights experts at the United Nations cried for Gitmo to be shut down.

Washington reacted swiftly, whacking a bunch of generals onto Vice President Dick Cheney’s plane on a Friday morning and sending them to tour the site, which is in Cuba.

The American public knew these generals (“military analysts”) well, from their countless appearances on TV, radio and the press. Their experience and knowledge gives them the cred needed for the U.S. media, which has thirsted for anything smacking of military analysis since 9/11.

But three years later, in the summer of 2008, New York Times correspondent David Barstow exposed the system. It turns out that many of these generals are part of a broad system set up by the Pentagon to influence the American public.

Those guys who flew to Cuba, and the countless other “military analysts” gracing the screens, aren’t just delivering information tailored by the Pentagon’s hand. Big money is involved. Some 150 of them served as lobbyists, contractors, managers, directors or advisers to arms companies or the Pentagon itself. These commentators, it turns out, make a rich living off the war industry.

At first, the Pentagon denied the NYT report about these ties between big money, big security and the media. But the report turned out to be accurate. American TV networks were embarrassed at the revelations of their commentators’ underground contacts, and either claimed they hadn’t known or chose not to respond.

A week after the NYT exposé, the Pentagon shelved its “secret” program – the one it had claimed didn’t exist. An inquiry by the U.S. Department of Defense showed that improprieties had occurred.

All this came to mind as the Western media cast their spotlights on the terror in Paris, and prated about how to bring Islamic State down before its terrorism spread to the United States and the rest of Europe too.

One thing was missing: A reminder of how ISIS arose; who finances it; and what the graph of global terrorism has looked like since George W. Bush declared war on terror and conquered Iraq.

Arab-affairs commentators speak learnedly about the sects, cults and factions in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Syria and elsewhere; who’s in and who’s out; and who will yet spring a surprise. Sometimes they sound like football commentators.

There is little discussion about the contribution of Western money – especially American money – to the growth of this terrorism. That anecdote about the Pentagon and Gitmo and the generals may help us understand why that is.

The industry of war, terrorism and peace is one of the largest in the world. It starts with America’s vast spending on security, the military, weapons and all its espionage agencies – $1 trillion a year. Then there are the hundreds of thousands of people, from lobbyists and journalists to aid organizations.

Making war and striving for peace not only suck up vast budgets that could have been used more beneficially; they also confer legitimization on corrupt politicians and generals. The media tends to look away from corruption and the economic interests of politicians and commentators if peace is at stake. Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert talked again recently about how he would have brokered peace if he hadn’t been arrested en route for accepting bribes, fraud and breach of trust. And ex-Mossad chief Shabtai Shavit took an $11-million commission from brokering an Egyptian gas deal, but the press prefers to discuss his comments on ISIS.

The press does publish stories about corruption among politicians, generals and the weapons makers occasionally, but what shapes public opinion is the quantity, prominence and contexts of the stories. The more terrorism and war rule the front pages, the more corruption is relegated to the back ones. One becomes part of the collective “good guy” against the “bad guy.”

Following the money

People who rise to power in politics have one thing in mind: paying the people who got them there and are preserving their seats. The general public is amorphous and uncaring, the economic elite is busy looking after its own interests and the corruption runs riot.

A month ago, writing in the Forward, U.S. philanthropist Jay Ruderman published an unusual opinion, “Stop enabling donors’ outsized influence on Jewish life,” that wouldn’t surprise insiders but might open eyes elsewhere. Too often the agenda isn’t being led by the professionals or authentic leaders, but by people with money, he writes. “I can confidently tell you what does not, by itself, constitute a good Jewish leader: money,” Ruderman begins.

One can confuse “leader” with “rich.” Often the rich can write checks and automatically become leaders, if they want, even if they understand little about leading or the issues.

Financial capacity to donate is not the same as leadership, but treating funders as leaders results in a lack of authentic visionaries, warns Ruderman, and brings it home: “Being a good businessperson does not necessarily make you an effective lay leader.” Among the problems with the system: “It makes us look like an elitist community catering to the few.”

When the power is handed over to the funders, irrespective of their skills or understanding, “we are cheating our community of what we all deserve. We can do better,” Ruderman concludes.

Like the Jewish institutions Ruderman spoke of, which quake at the thought of confronting government forces, civil society in Israel is trapped in a vicious circle that makes it frightened and weak. Legal and illegal corruption is growing and the government is shaking off its responsibility for the weak, and transferring it to civil society.

The government transfers small amounts of money to various associations supposed to handle the unfortunates. The alternative to government support is tapping charity and the rich, which takes up most of the CEOs’ time at the associations. The upshot is that the civilian aid organizations are in the same position as the poor and middle class, as they struggle to contend with the impossible cost of living in Israel: It’s a daily rat race that leaves no time for critical thinking, let alone action. Thus, the corruption goes on and on. As said, it’s a vicious circle. And the very funders who are supposed to – and who want to – help the poor and the weak can all-too-often wind up being the very ones who suffocate the criticism.

How to rob the public

Opposition chairman Isaac Herzog delivered a belligerent speech in Knesset a few weeks ago, noting that tens of thousands of Israelis left their warm homes on a Saturday night to protest in the rain against the natural gas agreement. They can’t afford to buy homes and can’t tap their parents for help any more, Herzog said. They can’t afford a damn thing, and left their warm homes for that rainy night despite the terrorism in the streets to protest against the government.

“They are calling on you,” Herzog told fellow lawmakers, “to open your hearts … but you are turning your backs and walking on. They are demonstrating against you.”

They are protesting because they feel invisible, Herzog said. They are protesting because parliamentarians prioritize the interest groups. They are protesting because they are tired of dreaming about having a home, or even reasonable disposable income. They are taking to the streets in the rain and will do so again and again because the gas agreement, like the budget, like everything else the government does, doesn’t serve them.

Well said. But sadly, the Zionist Union party he heads is doing nothing to make itself look like a real alternative to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in respect to the interest groups Herzog mentioned. Likud has interest groups of its own and Labor, which morphed into Zionist Union, has its own set of interest groups. There is no opposition to this government’s method. Most of the interest groups to which Netanyahu connected in recent years – the banks, tycoons, big labor – were nurtured by none other than Labor.

The fact that rhetoric on left and right concentrates on the settlements exposes the system: Lead the debate to a genuinely controversial area and one can ignore the robbery of the public.

Take the Jewish National Fund. Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon emotionally announced a historic agreement with the JNF, under which it will pay the state 2.2 billion shekels ($565.7 million). But that’s money it got from the state in the first place.

Jay Ruderman - Tamar Geva - 03022012
Tamar Geva

The very need to reach an agreement with the JNF reflects that institution’s independence within the state body. The same applies to the Finance Ministry’s need to reach an agreement with the defense establishment. These bodies are de facto independent tax militias: they live off money they grab from the public, even though the public has no ability to supervise them – because either they operate in symbiosis with the government, or can coerce it. For decades, the JNF has been bribing officials from all of the parties with jobs. As for the defense establishment, it controls the information about security threats and, meanwhile, systematically hides where the billions go.

The depth of the defense establishment’s corruption and its alienation from the people screams especially from the budget for the Defense Ministry’s procurement mission in New York. That delegation burns up some 200 million shekels a year and, time after time, state comptrollers have wailed about the egregious waste. Most of the employees there are superfluous and each costs the Israeli taxpayer $250,000 a year.

As finance minister, Netanyahu vowed to shut down that New York procurement mission. In 2005, a resolution was made to start scaling back that and other superfluous representations. But a report from the Knesset Information Center last year revealed that while one hand cut, another lavished and the people in New York partied on.

“In parallel with reducing the number of representatives and delegates and local workers in the procurement missions from 2008 to 2014 by 15.5%, the number of jobs in Defense Ministry representations and offices (delegates and local workers) grew – by 19.3% and 29.3%, respectively – during that time,” wrote economist Eyal Kaufman. “Also, the budget of the procurement missions, IDF attaches and Defense Ministry representatives was similar in 2014 to what it had been in 2008 (in current prices).

Left, right, centrist – no government has had the spine to even touch that gigantic oozing pork barrel in New York. That’s because the government is peopled by politicians with ties to the tax militias.