Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Assange v. Snowden - how to leak

There is a lengthy account in a recent London Review of Books by writer Andrew O’Hagan on his job ghosting an authorized autobiography of Julian Assange, the Wikileaks star now holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London. Together with the Alex Gibney film on Assange’s doings, We Steal Secrets, it paints an unflattering picture of the architect of leaking as a modern antidote to our increasingly Orwellian world. Assange is described in exasperating detail faking his way through the collaboration, shirking his chores and deadlines, speaking imprudently and then disclaiming himself, abusing his aides and generally acting like a brat.

What emerges from all this information about the first round of massive revelations via electronic contraband is how brilliantly Edward Snowden, by contrast, has managed his contribution to it. Snowden, unlike Chelsea (ex-Bradley) Manning, Assange’s alleged megasource, entrusted his files to seasoned reporters with strict instructions to vet and cull the material to prevent potential harm to intelligence sources. Snowden is being trashed anyway as a traitor, turncoat, foreign mole and whatnot, but those hysterical accusations are easily seen as the flailings of the secret spy state as being caught out.

Greenwald in this summary piece posted at his new outlet, The Intercept, lays out with precision how it worked: Snowden made the files available, Greenwald and many others working on specific pieces of the data (The Guardian, O Globo in Brazil, Der Spiegel in Germany, etc.) then turned it into reportage as an appropriate utilization of the public’s democratic right to know what is being done in our name. While the revelations are embarrassing to the powerful, they are no more damaging than the Pentagon Papers harmed the Vietnam war effort. By showing us how we are being lied to, we, the sovereign people, can determine whether we want to pursue things like the destruction of Vietnam or mass vacuuming of cellphone data—or not.

Nonetheless, it could be argued that Assange and Manning made Snowden possible and illustrated, through their errors, how better to bring needed information to the light of day. It must have dawned on Snowden that he was sitting on a cache of information at least as devastating to the hidden schemes of our rulers as Manning’s video of U.S. soldiers mowing down a cameraman or embassy cables on the Tunisian dictator’s massive thefts.

I’m not a fan of the personality theory of history or the psychological interpretation of people’s reasons for doing the right thing—we’ve heard too much about how the abolitionists were somehow oddballs for wanting to eliminate slavery. But reading about Assange’s erratic approach to something as clearcut as producing a book to outline his life and work is awfully telling. The contrast is stark: Snowden is prudent, systematic and astute in his choice of allies; Assange is none of those things. Yet each has had tremendous impacts, the outcomes of which will only become clear in time.

Saturday, 22 March 2014

Ukraine kerfluffle a reminder of biped species-cide

Ukrainians trying to make a life for themselves and their descendants must view the future with trepidation and pessimism, but the rest of us are merely a few kilometers and pending crises removed from their unenviable fate.

If we were living in the 1920s or the 1830s, it might make sense to ponder the geopolitical consequences of Russian irredentism and the breakdown of the rules of international behavior—initiated, to be sure, by the U.S. and its Israeli ally long ago. But to watch world leaders fight over territory today when the underlying fact of there even being territory for humans to inhabit remains in doubt is a sure sign of species dementia and pending collapse.

U.S. diplomats use the hoary language of yore to paint Putin in disadvantageous terms and settle in for the next round of jousting. For example, Strobe Talbot, a State Department figure from the Clinton years said,

We now have overtly and pugnaciously a leader in the Kremlin who does not believe that the fundamentals of the U.S.- Russian relationship and the relationship between Russia and the West is one of partnership. He sees it as adversarial and competitive. So it’s a new ballgame.

This is patented bullshit, but predictable in the chords struck: the other guy is trying to get the better of us whereas we, innocent as the driven snow, only want to get along. No hint here of the drive to push the eastern boundaries of NATO right up to the ex-Soviet doorstep in violation of the Gorbachev-Bush accord not to do that.

Another steady chorus will be how the “international community,” that paper-maiché construct trotted out as required, is appalled at such-and-thus behavior. It’s a rule of the diplomatic game that one’s unilateral acts must be festooned with the ribbons of consensus and coalition, such as the bogus Coalition of the Willing that provided such pathetic fig leaves for the invasion and conquest of Iraq in 2004.

None of which matters much and will be seen in future years—by those few left to see anything—as massive distractions by the various teams of swinging dicks who all preferred their traditional wrestling contests over any focus on the threats to human society in general. Because sadly, there is no “in general,” only clans, nations, grupuscules, tribes, and whatnot. If there were, world leaders would be seeking peaceful solutions to our urgent survival needs rather than squabbling over who will rule over what square mileage of real estate.

No doubt we will hear much rhetoric in coming weeks about the need to ignore the dangers of shale gas fracking now that Russian fossil fuel earnings must be undermined through an increase in supplies. Few will be so bold as to question whether the accelerating destruction of our habitat should be ignored in the pursuit of temporary advantages over foreign rivals.

As many commentators have noted, there were ways to head off this sorry state of affairs along the way had anyone cared to do so. In my humble view, the statements by former Secretary of State H. Clinton are the most telling: her decision to compare Putin with Hitler was purposefully provocative (she repeated the metaphor later when given a chance to soften it). The validity of the reference aside, this is a powerful signal that the U.S. wants greater, not lesser, confrontation with Russia over the European boundaries and was eager for provoke the crisis that has now occurred.

That is the only possible explanation for the open and defiant presence of western diplomats and politicians on the side of Ukrainian oppositionists in the waning days of the Yanukovych government, not to mention its silent acquiescence in the presence of neofascist elements in the new Ukrainian state. While the westerners may not have anticipated the seizure of Crimea, it is clearly not, for them, the worst possible outcome.

For reasons not yet entirely clear, friendly cooperation was the real danger, and that possibility now has been eliminated with this unnecessary power game. Despite the howling of outrage in Washington, the current state of affairs is exactly what our leadership sought and obtained. I suspect that the underlying cause is the need to justify continued austerity and a major military build-up and that this will become clear gradually.

Sunday, 16 March 2014

Crimean "vote"

It is sad and scary to see tanks roll into a European country over a sovereignty dispute, especially one that has had far more than its share of suffering through war and upheaval. While the blame for this egregious breach of international law is obvious and singular—and should not be diminished by odious comparisons with other, equally culpable acts—Putin’s behavior is not the only reason things have come to this pass.

The Ukraine debacle—for that is what it is, no matter what the outcome—is a reminder that our leaders confuse power with control. Having a lot of weapons and plenty of money can make you a big player, but those things don’t mean you always get your way. It’s amazing that despite the sorry performances in Iraq and Afghanistan over the last decade, to name only two, that the folks in charge here still show no capacity to revise their thinking based on past experience.

Looking back over the months of late 2013 when the Ukrainians were in the streets expressing their legitimate outrage about corruption, authoritarian practices and repression, a prudent approach by the western powers might have been to offer moral support based on the principles of democratic rule and the rule of law while steering clear of direct involvement. Instead, we had the spectacle of western politicians like John McCain and assorted Europeans parading in the streets of Kiev denouncing the Russians and hoping for a revolt.

Bush Senior did something similar after the first Gulf war when he encouraged the Iraqi Shiites to rise up against Saddam Hussein. When they did, it turned out the Americans were all hat, no cattle; Saddam massacred them.

Rowdy anticommunists were on hand in the 1950s too when the Hungarians tried to throw out their Soviet overlords. It’s easy to call for revolution on Radio Free Europe, less so to offer a practical response to Russian tanks rolling in. We can express abhorrence at all these acts, but we can also ask who should have thought things through before shooting off their mouth.

The pattern is readily recognizable: blowhards denounce anyone who counsels prudence and caution as cowardly appeasers, spineless enablers of the next Hitler. Munich is inevitably mentioned as proof that diplomacy is destined to failure, one must thumb one's nose at all times instead. They drum up mediatic hysteria, especially if the Democrats are in charge, conveniently forgetting what the neocon geniuses got us into last time they had a chance. This appeals to people because we bipeds are emotionally and intellectually limited and like the sound of a tough guy.

As long as nothing disastrous happens, the aggressive talk looks like a formula for success. After all, reneging on the promises not to expand NATO into Poland and the Czech Republic worked fine, why not push on?

Inevitably though, our leaders and the rah-rah brigades among the commentariat go too far; they forget that despite the punishment they can dish out, sometimes peoples and countries will sustain it and still not give up. (Vietnam springs to mind as a forgotten example.)

This comes as a shock to the policy establishment though it shouldn’t. They consistently confuse U.S. national interest with that of the rest of the world, that old strain of American exceptionalism that continues to plague us. It’s inconceivable to them that people elsewhere not gripped by ideological hatred or resentful jealousy might not concur.

Stephen Walt, a wearily realistic political scientist, says no one in Washington seemed to be paying attention to what the Russian response might be:

Nobody in Washington or Brussels seems to have asked that question as they watched (and helped) Ukraine unravel, and that’s why their options today are limited to angry denunciations and symbolic protests. It’s possible that Putin has bitten off more than Russia can comfortably swallow, and the economic costs may prove to be too much for the fragile Russian economy to bear. But great powers are usually willing to suffer when their security is on the line, and that’s likely to be the case here.

It’s a pity the Ukraine had deteriorated to the basket-case economy and syndicate state that it is today. Had it done as well as neighboring Poland, say, political instability very likely would have been far less, and the troubles with Russia kept in check. If Crimeans had jobs and felt they were not at the mercy of oligarchs and mobsters, they, like human beings anywhere, probably would eschew warmaking and upheaval.

Not that falling into the embrace of Mother Russia is going to help much on that front. Ukraine is famously broke, and whoever scoops up the “prize” of its sovereignty is going to have to figure out what to do about it. Some experts see no grounds for optimism.

Meanwhile, we can expect and anticipate that the entire issue will become a demagogue’s dream as the Fox-ites trash Obama mercilessly for “losing” Ukraine, and Hillary positions herself as Madame Toughness with provocative comparisons of Putin with Hitler. As a civilian politician, she can throw red meat to the neocon audiences without having to deal with the fallout.

The arms manufacturers also can now celebrate given that the arguments for shifting spending priorities back to social needs will easily be trumped by the New Threat. Time for more useless armaments and $600 gold bathtub faucets! Dwarf-throwing parties and lines of coke on women’s abdomens!

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Torture has to be kept secret

At long last, the shameful decision of the United States government with, sadly, the endorsement of most of its citizens to unleash torture on helpless detainees is coming home to roost. Because torturing people is repugnant to human decency and must remain deniable, its practice can only flourish in secret. But the facts ultimately tumble out.

As all accounts confirm, the sustained bureaucratic ground war deployed by the CIA against congressional oversight has the principal and essential goal of suppressing all evidence of what the U.S. secret police actually did, to whom, where and how. The Agency cannot afford Abu Ghraib-type photos or revelations to trickle out, which was confirmed by their decision to destroy the video evidence (no doubt after having used the torture tapes for training purposes—can’t wait for that detail to emerge.) Torture was used, and the act of torturing must be kept in the shadows; cover-up is essential.

The Feinstein episode illustrates once again how little party affiliations mean when it comes to the national security state and its spy/snooper apparatus. Note that Obama has shown no inclination to rein in the CIA or its NSA counterparts (nor the FBI/DEA/ICE/Homeland brethren) in defense of the Constitution he supposedly knows something about. His promise to stop torture is meaningless if those who engaged in it are not sanctioned.

Once again, I cannot help but notice the parallel with the Chilean experience post-Pinochet. The ostensibly democratic forces talked a good game about restoring the nation’s moral core and quickly dismantled the repressive apparatus. But they had no stomach for going after the perpetrators. Nonetheless, the facts simply refused to go away, and the judiciary eventually took charge as the tens of thousands of torture victims pursued justice. Now with the facts in the open, the lingering balance of credibility of the military dictatorship in which a sizeable fraction of the polity still clung to a defense of its record finally toppled into a deep repudiation. The revivified student movement is both a cause and an effect of this shift in the zeitgeist.

We’re a long way from that, but the attacks on the liberals and centrists who have looked the other way was inevitable, will escalate and is bracingly clarifying for both them and us. Feinstein never fluffed a feather when mere citizens were at risk of sneakery and dirty tricks—that only happened when her own staffers were targeted. Suddenly she can see the danger that was obvious to anyone not sunk in a rotting morass of power, wealth, and kowtowing underlings.

Admittedly, undermining a co-equal branch of government with spy techniques and illicit access to virtually all electronic information is a grave escalation, but what genius could possibly be surprised by it? The fact that Obama hasn’t moved to defend the legislature speaks volumes about his enabling role to the dictatorial executive. Can’t wait to see the hard-line reactionaries back in charge using all the tools Obama has built up for them and hear the howls of outrage among all those who remain silent today.

Meanwhile, even the ineffable Lindsey Graham piped up with a surprising call to ‘declare war’ on the CIA for its subversive behavior. Graham must somehow think he’s also immune, or should be, which I very much doubt. It will be fascinating to see if he’s declared unreliable and dragged before a party purity tribunal for his harsh language.

And like clockwork, Greenwald set off another grenade from the relative safety of Rio de Janeiro today, displaying more NSA documents about how the spymasters are vacuuming up anything that moves in cyberspace. It’s just great to see that the complex Internet and computer tools with which we are just barely familiar generate both enormous danger and a faint but irrepressible resistance.

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

How dare you spy on ME?

California senator Dianne Feinstein’s tardy but nonetheless welcome denunciation of the CIA’s domestic snooping—of Congress itself, no less—is a watershed moment in our slow descent to rule by the secret state. We usually can only surmise what is going on in the shadows of power and what tools of coercion, intimidation and threat are being deployed to get the ostensible guardians of our civil polity to do what the military-industrial-corporate complex wants done. But this time, it’s right out in the open.

Feinstein reacted to the CIA’s attempt to criminalize oversight of its behavior. It’s repugnant enough, though hardly surprising, when the spymasters try to crush someone like Edward Snowden or John Kiriakou, employees, in-house or contracted, who blow the whistle on what is happening from inside. But when the secret state deploys the same tactics against another branch of government, i.e., the legislature explicitly charged with keeping tabs on executive power, we are looking at potentially a constitutional crisis.

Feinstein herself said as much in her Senate speech today. She referred to the Constitution, citing the “separation of powers principles.” You can hardly get more direct than that, and it’s only a pity that it took Feinstein this long to realize the danger to the republic of letting the CIA get away with everything for so many years—for which she personally has a lot to answer for.

One of the most amazing aspects of the CIA threat against the staff of the Senate oversight committee is that the author of this gambit is none other than one of the targets of their lengthy investigation of the practice of torture. Robert Eatinger is mentioned by name throughout the vast torture report that the CIA is trying to keep under wraps, so far successfully. It’s quite a commentary on the debasement of our legal system that someone so personally interested in the outcome of an investigation is the main lawyer for the outfit suing to suppress it.

It’s at least ironic that Feinstein would finally drag out the Fourth Amendment after she and her president have done everything they could to dismantle the sentiments embodied in that worthy phrase. Better late than never, but the question now is, Is it TOO late?

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Further thoughts on the Ukraine

Item: Following an ancient playbook, Putin sends troops into the Crimea “reserving the right to protect ethnic Russians.” So which Ukrainian genius decided that one of the first acts of the new, questionably legal regime in Kiev after the ouster of Yanokovych should be to retract the law making Russian a second official language? Talk about handing Putin an excuse on a platter. Conclusion: the unsavory Ukrainian nationalist elements figuring prominently in the upheaval are not only anti-Semitic and creepy, they are really, really stupid.

Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski, one of the three diplomats who tried to head off the crisis, said Ukrainian MPs were wrong to cancel the law.

The new Ukrainian government should signal very eloquently to the ethnic minorities in Ukraine that they are welcome in Ukraine, that they are going to be part of the new Ukraine, and also Ukraine is a member of the Council of Europe, [with] its laws on protecting minorities.

So much for that wise counsel.

Item: Bush the First told Gorbachev as the Soviet Union was crumbling that the U.S. would not try to take advantage by moving the eastern borders of NATO into the former Warsaw Pact countries, Poland, Czechoslovakia, etc. Lest we forget, the Cold War ended remarkably peacefully after many of us spent our childhoods wondering if the endgame of international rivalry would be nuclear war.

But once there was no USSR, Clinton promptly reneged on this promise, a move even old George “Mr Containment” Kennan thought was a huge error. It’s probably not realistic to expect countries not to push their geopolitical advantages whenever they can, but lying and betrayal do have their long-term costs, as we are seeing.

Item: The neocons [photo above] permanently eager to put on the tough-guy act, preferably including new wars, always default to swagger, and Obama is incapable of confronting them. He defaults to lecturing, which Democrats for some reason think makes them look like statesmen rather than fusty pushovers easily caricatured as Neville Chamberlains in top hats. It would probably take an Eisenhower to rein in the howling wolves given Americans’ cowboy self-image and our long jingoist tradition.

But if Obama from the start of his presidency had made a habit of facing them down over both domestic and foreign policy, rather than appeasing and enabling armchair warriors like Lindsey Graham and whores for the rich like John Boehner, he’d have a chance of turning the rhetoric against them today.

Meanwhile, the Marlboro Man discourses pouring out of Washington are just the thing to exacerbate the situation rather than defuse it. If our leaders are seeking constructive discussions with the interested parties, Putin included, does it make sense to call him “delusional”? Or to compare him to Hitler as Hillary Clinton just did?

Item: It would be useful for understanding where we are now to retrace the events leading up to the departure of Yanukovych. There was a deal brokered by three EU foreign ministers (Poland, Germany, France) that could have maintained the legal order through a power-sharing arrangement between Yanukovych and opposition figures. Could the security forces have been reined in and the country kept intact? Did Russia offer to cooperate as some commentators insist? If so, did the U.S. push for a putsch? Inquiring minds want to know.

Raúl Ilargi Meijer, Automatic Earth:

As the new self-appointed authorities in Kiev dictate terms and push legislation through a rump parliament, the reluctance of western capitals to address the clearly dubious legitimacy of the new regime suggests that the US and EU condone what is effectively a coup d’état with no constitutional validity.

The suspicion that the U.S. wants the situation to deteriorate further is only reinforced by the latest oratorical belch from Hillary, who said Russian movements in the Ukraine are “population transfers” and “what Hitler did back in the 30s.” Great way to stoke resentment among a people who buried 25 million during the last war. That’ll help along diplomatic action. Not to mention that grotesque hubris of the main enablers of Israeli population transfers over the last 50 years.

Item: Speaking of which, how about ditzy John McCain—whose ill-timed visit to Kiev last year helped pump up the Ukraine’s role as an East-West standoff--addressing the AIPAC convention to remind his zionist audience that the Russian ethnic presence in Crimea was a direct result of the removal of Crimean Tatars and the repopulation of their lands with outsiders. This to an audience completely intransigent on the issue of Israel’s right to ethnically cleanse its own unwanted populace and build exclusive settlements for Jews on seized lands. We need a new word for this performance given that ‘hypocrisy’ doesn’t come close.

That supposedly seasoned diplomats are issuing such inflammatory statements gives us every reason to think that they’re less upset by the unrest in Ukraine than delighted with the chance to kickstart a new Cold War. How much easier it will be to justify removing any hint of the sequester from the Pentagon now that domestic programs already have taken huge hits. Just when the military was supposed to be next up for across-the-board cutbacks, we have a big face-off with an historical enemy. Coincidence?

Sunday, 2 March 2014

Sorting out the Ukraine narratives

Here’s an edited reader comment from a blog on economic and finance news:

Two sides of the tale about the situation in Ukraine:

1) A freedom-loving, democratic people instigated a genuine Peaceful Revolution against a totally corrupt oligarchy who were then beaten down and massacred until their will prevailed and the green-clawed Oligarch fled in shame to join the supreme evil – Putin. Whereupon Russia riposted by invading the country (Crimea)! The free world has to defend the Revolution! (Budapest agreement, etc. etc.) Help us, oh free world, with your arms!

2) A provoked and paid for Color Revolution, organized and instigated mostly by the US [via AID and neocons masquerading as NGOs] with the EU in cahoots, featuring paid students, prime-time videographers, and fascist-led armed groups hungry for domination and power. Putin remains hands off, careful, finally within his rights to send troops under xyz agreements, etc.

That’s a pretty good sum-up of the competing story lines about what is happening in the Ukraine, and it illustrates the heavy-handed ideologizing that underlies the jaundiced, even tendentious reports. I am rarely accused of being middle of the road about such things, but my lay reading of these events brings me to conclusions that incorporate elements from both 1) and 2). Hey, suddenly I’m a Christian Democrat, so shoot me! But as Ian Welsh aptly says, “This isn’t about choosing sides, this is about understanding them.”

That there are fascist groups and nazi sympathizers pululating in the Ukraine is undeniable and should hardly come as a surprise given that these entities are popping up and thriving all over Europe, most notoriously in the Greek case where Golden Dawn now has members in parliament. It’s the sort of thing that happens when youth unemployment creeps above the 50% mark and stays there. The only curiosity to date is that similar formations haven’t made much headway in Spain, Italy and elsewhere in Europe—yet. Given that the Ukraine has had Greek-like economic conditions of complete dysfunction, a kleptocratic state, and generalized misery since the fall of the USSR, the fascistic seeds have had lots more time to germinate.

That doesn’t mean that people who take to the streets to demand an end to their shitty lives are all blackshirts and stormtroopers. Nor does it mean that they need the U.S. State Department to manipulate them into doing so through nefarious transparency and citizenship programs financed by foundations that are considered suspect due to their home addresses. On the other hand, it doesn’t preclude the misuse of NGO assistance to further the interests of foreign powers (especially if the $5 billion figure turns out to be accurate). But the crazy railings of some African presidents about western colonialism via AIDS-related support to gay groups should alert us to the demagoguery that surrounds this type of accusation.

Far more damaging, dangerous and short-sighted IMHO was the U.S./European decision to push all of eastern Europe into the NATO alliance, which militarized the entire tug-of-war about influence unnecessarily. How much different would the Ukrainian internal instability look if there were no likelihood of the country’s eastern border becoming the forward line of western military power? At the end of the Soviet era, there was a fairly explicit agreement, as I recall, not to pull Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary into the military planning arm of Russia’s historical adversaries, which sounded like good sense at the time. But triumphant neocons in both parties quickly kaboshed that, and now the Ukraine is a geopolitical billiard ball.

Speaking of bipartisanship, the State Dept poobah Victoria Nuland, notorious for her bugged “Fuck the EU” call to the U.S. ambassador, is married to Bush neocon favorite Robert Kagan. So no one gets off the hook—this is U.S. national policy. Did the geniuses in D.C. really think the Russians would stand by and permit the rise of a hostile regime in Ukraine that might want their navy out of the Crimea? Or to put it another way, would the U.S. be okay with a Russian-backed overthrow of the president of Mexico?

We should have seen this coming when people like John McCain appeared in the streets of Kiev to propel further attacks against the Yanukovych government. Whatever healthy, reasonable, homegrown demands were involved in the popular uprising could then easily be obscured by people quick to detect the hand of the enemy—or was this the intention all along? We can safely assume that neither side has any particular interest in whether the Ukrainians live in a secure, prosperous country. But the rest of us can think about that and leave our Manichean certainties aside.