Noam Chomsky, author and Institute Professor Emeritus at MIT, where he taught for over half a century. He is author of dozens of books. His most recent is Hopes and Prospects.
In a national broadcast exclusive interview, we speak with world-renowned political dissident and linguist Noam Chomsky about the release of more than 250,000 secret U.S. State Department cables by WikiLeaks. In 1971, Chomsky helped government whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg release the Pentagon Papers, a top-secret internal U.S. account of the Vietnam War. Commenting on the revelations that several Arab leaders are urging the United States to attack Iran, Chomsky says the latest polls show "Arab opinion holds that the major threat in the region is Israel, that’s 80 percent; the second threat is the United States, that’s 77 percent. Iran is listed as a threat by 10 percent... This may not be reported in the newspapers, ... but it’s certainly familiar to the Israeli and the U.S. governments and to the ambassadors... What that reveals is the profound hatred for democracy on the part of our political leadership." [includes rush transcript]
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: For reaction to the WikiLeaks documents, we’re joined now by world-renowned political dissident and linguist Noam Chomsky, Professor Emeritus at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, author of over a hundred books, including his latest, Hopes and Prospects.
Well, 40 years ago, Noam and the late historian Howard Zinn helped government whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg edit and release the Pentagon Papers, the top-secret internal U.S. history of the Vietnam War.
Noam Chomsky joins us now from Boston.
It’s good to have you back again, Noam. Why don’t we start there, before we talk about WikiLeaks. What was your involvement with the Pentagon Papers? I don’t think most people know about this.
NOAM CHOMSKY: Dan and I were friends. Tony Russo also, who also who prepared them and helped leak them. And I got advanced copies from Dan and Tony, and there were several people who were releasing them to the press. I was one of them. And then I, along with Howard Zinn, as you mentioned, edited a volume of essays in an index to the Papers.
AMY GOODMAN: So, explain, though, how it worked. And I always think this is important, to tell this story, especially for young people. Dan Ellsberg, Pentagon official, top-secret clearance, gets this U.S. involvement in Vietnam history out of his safe. He xeroxes it. And then, how did you get your hands on it? He just directly gave it to you?
NOAM CHOMSKY: From Dan and — Dan Ellsberg and Tony Russo, who had done the xeroxing and the preparation of the material, yes, directly.
AMY GOODMAN: [inaudible] exactly did you edit?
NOAM CHOMSKY: Well, we didn’t modify anything. The Papers were not edited. They’re just in their original form. What Howard Zinn and I did was — they came out in four volumes. We prepared a fifth volume, which is critical essays by many scholars on the Papers, what they mean, their significance and so on, and an index, which is almost indispensable for using them seriously. That’s the fifth volume in the Beacon Press series.
AMY GOODMAN: So you were then one of the first people to see the Pentagon Papers.
NOAM CHOMSKY: Outside of Dan Ellsberg and Tony Russo, yes. I mean, there were some journalists who may have seen them. I’m not sure.
AMY GOODMAN: So, what are your thoughts today, as — for example, we just played this clip of New York Republican Congress member Peter King, who says WikiLeaks should be declared a foreign terrorist organization?
NOAM CHOMSKY: I think that’s outlandish. The materials — we should understand — and the Pentagon Papers is another case in point — that one of the major reasons for government secrecy is to protect the government from its own population. In the Pentagon Papers, for example, there was one volume, the negotiations volume, which might have had bearing on ongoing activities, and Dan Ellsberg withheld that. That came out a little bit later. But if you look at the Papers themselves, there are things that Americans should have known that the government didn’t want them to know. And as far as I can tell, from what I’ve seen here, pretty much the same is true. In fact, the current leaks are — what I’ve seen, at least — primarily interesting because of what they tell us about how the diplomatic service works.
AMY GOODMAN: The documents’ revelations about Iran come just as the Iranian government has agreed to a new round of nuclear talks beginning next month. On Monday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the cables vindicate the Israeli position that Iran poses a nuclear threat. Netanyahu said, quote, "Our region has been hostage to a narrative that is the result of 60 years of propaganda, which paints Israel as the greatest threat. In reality, leaders understand that that view is bankrupt. For the first time in history, there is agreement that Iran is the threat. If leaders start saying openly what they have long been saying behind closed doors, we can make a real breakthrough on the road to peace," Netanyahu said. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also discussed Iran at her news conference in Washington. This is what she said.
SECRETARY OF STATE HILLARY CLINTON: I think that it should not be a surprise to anyone that Iran is a source of great concern, not only in the United States, that what comes through in every meeting that I have, anywhere in the world, is a concern about Iranian actions and intentions. So, if anything, any of the comments that are being reported on allegedly from the cables confirm the fact that Iran poses a very serious threat in the eyes of many of her neighbors and a serious concern far beyond her region. That is why the international community came together to pass the strongest possible sanctions against Iran. It did not happen because the United States went out and said, "Please do this for us." It happened because countries, once they evaluated the evidence concerning Iran’s actions and intentions, reached the same conclusion that the United States reached, that we must do whatever we can to muster the international community to take action to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear weapons state. So, if anyone reading the stories about these alleged cables thinks carefully, what they will conclude is that the concern about Iran is well founded, widely shared, and will continue to be at the source of the policy that we pursue with like-minded nations to try to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Secretary to Hillary Clinton yesterday at a news conference. I wanted to get your comment on Clinton, Netanyahu’s comment, and the fact that Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, the King, who’s now getting back surgery in the New York, called for the U.S. to attack Iran. Noam Chomsky?
NOAM CHOMSKY: That essentially reinforces what I said before, that the main significance of the cables that have been released so far is what they tell us about Western leadership. So, Hillary Clinton and Binyamin Netanyahu surely know of the careful polls of Arab public opinion. The Brookings Institute just a few months ago released extensive polls of what Arabs think about Iran. And the results are rather striking. They show that Arab opinion does — holds that the major threat in the region is Israel, that’s 80 percent; the second major threat is the United States, that’s 77 percent. Iran is listed as a threat by 10 percent. With regard to nuclear weapons, rather remarkably, a majority, in fact, 57 percent, say that the region will be — it would have a positive effect in the region if Iran had nuclear weapons. Now, these are not small numbers. Eighty percent, 77 percent say that the U.S. and Israel are the major threat. Ten percent say that Iran is the major threat.
Now, this may not be reported in the newspapers here — it is in England — but it’s certainly familiar to the Israeli and the U.S. governments and to the ambassadors. But there isn’t a word about it anywhere. What that reveals is the profound hatred for democracy on the part of our political leadership and, of course, the Israeli political leadership. These things aren’t even to be mentioned. And this seeps its way all through the diplomatic service. So the cables don’t have any indication of that.
When they talk about Arabs, they mean the Arab dictators, not the population, which is overwhelmingly opposed to the conclusions that the analysts here, Clinton and the media, have drawn. There’s also a minor problem. That’s the major problem. The minor problem is that we don’t know from the cables what the Arab leaders think and say. We know what was selected from the range of what they say. So there’s a filtering process. We don’t know how much it distorts the information. But there’s no question that what is a radical distortion is — or not even a distortion, a reflection of the concern that the dictators are what matter. The population doesn’t matter, even if it’s overwhelmingly opposed to U.S. policy. This shows up elsewhere. There are similar things elsewhere.
So, just keeping to this region, one of the most interesting cables was a cable from the U.S. ambassador in Israel to Hillary Clinton, which described the attack on Gaza, which we should call a U.S.-Israeli attack on Gaza, December 2008. It states that — correctly, that there had been a truce. It does not add that during the truce, which was really not observed by Israel, but during the truce, Hamas scrupulously observed it. According to the Israeli government, not a single rocket was fired. That’s an omission. But then comes a straight lie: it says that in December 2008, Hamas renewed rocket firing, and therefore Israel had to attack in self-defense. Now, the ambassador surely is aware — there must be somebody in the American embassy who reads the Israeli press, the mainstream Israeli press, in which case the embassy is surely aware that it’s exactly the opposite: Hamas was calling for a renewal of the ceasefire. Israel considered the offer and rejected it, preferring to bomb rather than to have security. Also omitted is that while Israel never observed the ceasefire, it maintained the siege in violation of the truce agreement. On November 4th, the U.S. election, 2008, the Israeli army entered Gaza, killed — invaded Gaza and killed half a dozen Hamas militants, which did lead to an exchange of fire, in which all the casualties, as usual, are Palestinian. Then in December, Hamas — when the truce officially ended, Hamas called for renewing it. Israel refused, and the U.S. and Israel chose to launch the war. What the embassy reported is a gross falsification and a very significant one, since it has to do with the justification for this murderous attack, which means either the embassy hasn’t a clue what’s going on or else they’re lying outright.
AMY GOODMAN: And the latest report that just came out from Oxfam, from Amnesty International and other groups about the effects of the siege on Gaza, what’s happening right now?
NOAM CHOMSKY: A siege is an act of war. If anyone insists on that, it’s Israel. Israel launched two wars, '56 and ’67, in part on grounds that its access to the outside world was very partially restricted. That very partial siege they considered an act of war and so justification for — one of several justifications for what they call "preventive" or, if you like, preemptive war. So they understand that perfectly well, and the point is correct. The siege is a criminal act, in the first place. The Security Council has called on Israel to lift it. Others have. It's designed to, as Israeli officials have stated, to keep the people of Gaza to a minimal level of existence. They don’t want to kill them all off, because that wouldn’t look good in international opinion, but, as they put it, "to keep them on a diet."
The justification — this began very shortly after the official Israeli withdrawal. There was an election in January 2006, actually the only free election in the Arab world, carefully monitored, recognized to be free. But it had a flaw: the wrong people won. And the U.S. — namely, Hamas, which the U.S. didn’t want and Israel didn’t want. Instantly, within days, the U.S. and Israel instituted harsh measures to punish the people of Gaza for voting the wrong way in a free election. The next step was that they, the U.S. and Israel, sought to, along with the Palestinian Authority, try to carry out a military coup in Gaza to overthrow the elected government. This failed. Hamas beat back the coup attempt. That was July 2007. At that point, the siege got much harsher. In between, there were many acts of violence and shellings, invasions and so on and so forth.
But the basic — Israel claims that when the truce was established in the summer 2008, Israel’s reason for not observing it, withdrawing the siege, was that there’s an Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, who was captured at the border. And this is — you know, international commentary regards this as a terrible crime. Well, whatever you think about it, capturing a soldier of an attacking army — and the army was attacking Gaza — capturing a soldier of an attacking army isn’t anywhere near the level of crime of kidnapping civilians. Just one day before the capture of Gilad Shalit at the border, Israeli troops had entered Gaza, kidnapped two civilians, the Muamar brothers, spirited them across the border. They’ve disappeared somewhere in Israel’s prison system, which is — there are hundreds, maybe a thousand or so, people sometimes there for years without charges. There are also secret prisons. We don’t know what happens there. This alone is a far worse crime than the kidnapping of Shalit. And in fact, you could argue that there was a reason why it was barely covered. Israel has been doing this for years, in fact decades — kidnapping, capturing people, hijacking ships, killing people, bringing them to Israel sometimes as hostages for many years. So it’s regular practice. But the — Israel can do what it likes. But the reaction here and in the rest of the world of regarding the Shalit kidnapping — not kidnapping, you don’t kidnap soldiers — the capture of a soldier as an unspeakable crime, a justification for maintaining a murderous siege, that’s disgraceful.
AMY GOODMAN: Noam, so you have Amnesty International, Oxfam, Save the Children, eighteen other aid groups calling on Israel to unconditionally lift the blockade of Gaza. You have in the WikiLeaks release a U.S. diplomatic cable, provided to The Guardian by WikiLeaks, laying out, quote, "national human intelligence collection directive" asking U.S. personnel to obtain "details of travel plans such as routes and vehicles used by Palestinian Authority leaders and HAMAS members." The cable demands "biographical, financial, biometric information on key PA and Hamas leaders and representatives, to include the young huard inside Gaza, the West Bank and outside," it says.
NOAM CHOMSKY: That should not come as much of a surprise. Contrary to the image that’s portrayed here, the United States is not an honest broker. It’s a participant in — a direct, crucial participant in Israeli crimes, both in the West Bank and in Gaza. The attack in Gaza was a clear case in point: used American weapons, the U.S. blocked ceasefire efforts, gave diplomatic support. The same is true of the daily ongoing crimes in the West Bank. We shouldn’t forget that. Actually, in Area C, the area of the West Bank that Israel controls, conditions for Palestinians have been reported by Save the Children to be worse than in Gaza. And again, this all takes place because of — on the basis of crucial, decisive, U.S. military, diplomatic, economic support, and also ideological support, meaning distorting the situation, as is done again dramatically in the cables.
The siege itself is simply criminal. It’s not only blocking desperately needed aid from coming in, it also drives Palestinians away from the border. Gaza is a small place, heavily, densely overcrowded. And Israeli fire and attacks drive Palestinians away from the arable land on the border and also drive fishermen in from Gazan territorial waters. They’re compelled by Israeli gunboats — all illegal, of course — to fish right near the shore, where fishing is almost impossible because Israel has destroyed the power systems and sewage systems and the contamination is terrible. This is just a stranglehold to punish people for being there and for insisting on voting the wrong way and for just refusing — Israel wants — they decided, "We don’t want this anymore. Let’s just get rid of them."
We should also remember that U.S.-Israeli policy, since Oslo, since early '90s, has been to separate Gaza from the West Bank. Now that's in straight violation of the Oslo agreements, but it’s been carried out systematically, and it has a big effect. It means almost half the Palestinian population would be cut off from any possible political arrangement that would ever be made. It also means that Palestine loses its access to the outside world. Gaza should have and can have airports and seaports. And the West Bank, what’s being left — I mean, right now Israel has taken over about 40 percent of the West Bank. Obama’s latest offers granted even more, and they’re certainly planning to take more. And what’s left is just cantonized. It’s what the planner, Ariel Sharon, called Bantustans. And they’re imprisoned, too, as Israel takes over the Jordan Valley, drives Palestinians out. So, these are all crimes of a piece.
The Gaza siege is particularly grotesque because of the conditions under which people are forced to live. I mean, if a young person in Gaza, a student in Gaza, let’s say, wants to study in a West Bank university, they can’t do it. If a person in Gaza needs advanced medical training, treatment from an East Jerusalem hospital where the training is available, they can’t go. Medicines are held back. I mean, it’s a scandalous crime all around Gaza.
AMY GOODMAN: What do you think the United States should do in this case?
NOAM CHOMSKY: What the United States should do is very simple: it should join the world. I mean, there are negotiations going on, supposedly. They’re presented here as — the standard picture is the U.S. is an honest broker trying to bring together two recalcitrant opponents — Israel, Palestinian Authority. That’s just a charade.
I mean, if there were serious negotiations, they would be organized by some neutral party, and the U.S. and Israel would be on one side, and the world would be on the other side. And that is not an exaggeration. It shouldn’t be a secret that there has long been an overwhelming international consensus on a diplomatic political solution. Everyone knows the basic outline. Some details, you can argue about. And it includes everyone except the United States and Israel. The U.S. has been blocking it for 35 years, with occasional departures, brief ones. It includes the Arab League. It includes the Organization of Islamic States, which happens to include Iran. It includes every relevant actor except the United States and Israel, the two rejectionist states. So if there were to be negotiations that were serious, that’s the way they would be organized. The actual negotiations barely reach the level of comedy. The issue that’s being debated is a footnote, minor footnote: expansion of settlements. Of course it’s illegal. In fact, everything that Israel is doing in the West Bank and Gaza is illegal. That’s been —- it hasn’t even been controversial since 1967 -—
AMY GOODMAN: Noam, we have to break, but —
NOAM CHOMSKY: — when Israel’s own highest legal — yes.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to come back to this in a minute. Noam Chomsky, author and Institute Professor Emeritus at MIT, as we talk about WikiLeaks and the state of the world today. This is Democracy Now! Back in a minute.
AMY GOODMAN: Our guest is Noam Chomsky, world-renowned dissident, author of more than a hundred books, speaking to us from Boston.
Noam, you wrote a piece after the midterm elections called "Outrage Misguided." I want to read for you now what Sarah Palin tweeted, the former Alaskan governor, of course, and Republication vice-presidential nominee. This is what she tweeted about WikiLeaks. Rather, she put it on Facebook. She said, “First and foremost, what steps were taken to stop WikiLeaks director Julian Assange from distributing this highly sensitive classified material especially after he had already published material not once but twice in the previous months? Assange is not a 'journalist,' any more than the 'editor' of the al Qaeda’s new English-language magazine Inspire is a 'journalist.' He is an anti-American operative with blood on his hands. His past posting of classified documents revealed the identity of more than 100 Afghan sources to the Taliban. Why was he not pursued with the same urgency we pursue al Qaeda and Taliban leaders?”
Noam Chomsky, your response?
NOAM CHOMSKY: That’s pretty much what I would expect Sarah Palin to say. I don’t know how much she understands, but I think we should pay attention to what we learn from the leaks. What we learn, for example, is the kinds of things I’ve said. The most — perhaps the most dramatic revelation is the — I’ve already mentioned — the bitter hatred of democracy that is revealed both by the U.S. government — Hillary Clinton, others — and also by the diplomatic service. To tell the world, to tell — they’re talking to each other — to pretend to each other that the Arab world regards Iran as the major threat and wants the U.S. to bomb Iran is extremely revealing, when they know that approximately 80 percent of Arab opinion regards the U.S. and Israel as the major threat, 10 percent regard Iran as the major threat, and a majority, 57 percent, think the region would be better off with Iranian nuclear weapons as a kind of deterrent. That doesn’t even enter. All that enters is what they claim has been said by Arab dictators, brutal Arab dictators. That’s what counts.
How representative this is of what they say, we don’t know, because we don’t know what the filtering is. But that’s a minor point. The major point is that the population is irrelevant. All that matters is the opinions of the dictators that we support. And if they were to back us, that’s the Arab world. That’s a very revealing picture of the mentality of U.S. political leadership, and presumably elite opinion. Judging by the commentary that’s appeared here, that’s the way it’s been presented in the press, as well.
AMY GOODMAN: Your piece —
NOAM CHOMSKY: It doesn’t matter with the Arabs believe. Yeah, sorry.
AMY GOODMAN: Your piece, "Outrage Misguided," back to the midterm elections and what we’re going to see now — can you talk about the Tea Party movement?
NOAM CHOMSKY: Well, the Tea Party movement itself is maybe 15, 20 percent of the electorate. It’s relatively affluent, white, nativist. You know, it has rather traditional nativist streaks to it. But what is much more important, I think, is the — is its outrage. I mean, over half the population says they more or less support it or support its message. And what people are thinking is extremely interesting. I mean, overwhelmingly, polls reveal that people are extremely bitter, angry, hostile, opposed to everything.
The primary cause undoubtedly is the economic disaster. It’s not just a financial catastrophe, it’s an economic disaster. I mean, in manufacturing industry, for example, unemployment levels are at the level of the Great Depression. And unlike the Great Depression, those jobs are not coming back. U.S. owners and managers have long ago made the decision that they can make more profit with complicated financial deals than by production. So, finance — this goes back to the '70s, mainly Reagan escalated it, and onward — Clinton, too. The economy has been financialized. Financial institutions have grown enormously in their share of corporate profits. It may be something like a third or something like that today. At the same time, correspondingly, production has been exported. So you buy some electronic device from China. China is an assembly plant for a Northeast Asian production center. The parts and components come from the more advanced countries, and from the United States, and the technology. So, yes, that’s a cheap place to assemble things, sell them back here. And it's, you know, rather similar in Mexico, Vietnam and so on. That’s the way to make profits.
It destroys the society here, but that’s not the concern of the ownership class and the managerial class. Their concern is profit. That’s what drives the economy. And the rest of it is a fallout. People are extremely bitter about it but don’t seem to understand it. So, the same people who are a majority, who say that Wall Street is to blame for the current crisis, are voting Republican. Both parties are deep in the pockets of Wall Street, but the Republicans much more so than the Democrats. And the same is true on issue after issue. So the antagonism to everyone is extremely high. Actually, antagonism — they don’t like — population doesn’t like Democrats, but they hate Republicans even more. They’re against big business. They’re against government. They’re against Congress. They’re against science.
AMY GOODMAN: We only have 30 seconds, Noam. Noam, we only have 30 seconds. I wanted ask if you were President Obama’s top adviser, what would you tell him to do right now?
NOAM CHOMSKY: I would tell him to do what FDR did when big business was opposed to him: help, organize, stimulate public opposition and put through a serious populist program, which can be done. Stimulate the economy. Don’t give away everything to financiers. Push through real health reform. The health reform that was pushed through may be a slight improvement, but it leaves the major problem untouched. If you’re worried about the deficit, pay attention to the fact that it’s almost all attributable to military spending and the totally dysfunctional health program.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to leave it there, but we’ll continue the conversation after and post it online at democracynow.org.
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