November 28, 2013 § Leave a Comment
History can be a dangerous thing, for two reasons: 1) because it is often the victors and/or dominant sectors of society who write official history, it is subject to the usual distortions and falsifications, and 2) because once you begin to study it seriously, you might actually learn something. So here is a history lesson to go with your turkey, stuffing and mashed potatoes, all true (except for Burroughs’ fanciful “laboratory-developed AIDS,” which, as far as we know, seems to have originated in present-day Cameroon a century ago, spread partly as a result of European colonial adventurism). Oh, and don’t talk politics at the table, it’s not polite.
For John Dillinger
In hope he is still alive
Thanksgiving Day, November 28, 1986
Thanks for the wild turkey and the Passenger Pigeons, destined to be shit out through wholesome American guts
-thanks for a Continent to despoil and poison
-thanks for Indians to provide a modicum of challenge and danger
-thanks for vast herds of bison to kill and skin, leaving the carcasses to rot
-thanks for bounties on wolves and coyotes
-thanks for the American Dream, to vulgarize and falsify until the bare lies shine through
-thanks for the KKK, for nigger-killing lawmen feeling their notches, for decent church-going women with their mean, pinched, bitter, evil faces
-thanks for “Kill a Queer for Christ” stickers
-thanks for laboratory AIDS
-thanks for Prohibition and the War Against Drugs
-thanks for a country where nobody is allowed to mind his own business
-thanks for a nation of finks — yes,
-thanks for all the memories (all right, lets see your arms, you always were a headache and you always were a bore)
-thanks for the last and greatest betrayal of the last and greatest of human dreams.
— William S. Burroughs
American Holocaust: The Destruction of America’s Native Peoples
David Stannard, professor and chair of the American Studies Department at the University of Hawaii
September 13, 2013 § Leave a Comment
Yesterday it was reported that Ketchum, a public relations firm, had placed a September 11 Op-Ed by president Vladimir Putin into the New York Times, which Buzzfeed editors characterized as “controversial.” The Times‘ public editor promptly issued an explanation, the editorial page editor stating that “[v]ery few Op-Ed articles have received as much immediate attention;” hyperventilating patriots were “horrified” that the journal was “aiding and abetting a long-term foe of the United States” by printing Putin’s dangerous sorcerer’s incantations. Max Fisher declared that it contained “undeniable hypocrisy and even moments of dishonesty” — which begs the question as to why anyone would therefore be surprised to see it in the Times, which employs a scribbler such as Thomas Friedman. Such fact-checking is indeed welcome, no doubt, but there have been episodes where it would have been much more helpful. Justin Elliot writes that Ketchum has a history of placing articles at the behest of the Kremlin, with the goal of, among other things, promoting Russia “as a place favorable for foreign investments.” So, what we have learned here, hardly news, is that governments will do anything they can to further their interests, including influence campaigns in foreign media outlets.
Despite the predictable howling from those still clinging to an outdated, fanatical cold war ideology, in its substance the Op-Ed was banal, the only striking element being that it was — supposedly — penned by a foreign head of state. In its tone rather conservative, called “A Plea For Caution From Russia,” it claimed that “there is every reason to believe it [gas] was used not by the Syrian Army, but by opposition forces, to provoke intervention by their powerful foreign patrons, who would be siding with the fundamentalists.” It should be clear that Putin, as a head of state with clear interests at stake in events unfolding in Syria, and capable of marshaling vast resources for a propaganda campaign, should no more be taken at his word than anyone else. However, while the evidence from the UN has still not been presented, and no chain of custody has apparently been established for whatever weapon(s) was (or were) used, such an explanation should be seen as no less plausible than the claims of the U.S. government (which possesses little credibility itself on this matter) as to the nature of its “proof” incriminating the Assad regime.
Words often have several meanings depending on the context, and here “controversial” simply means “that which does not toe the Party Line” — the Party Line being that the Syrian government unambiguously carried out the recent August 21 attacks on the Damascus suburbs — rather than “that which sparks robust debate,” or “that which is unsupported by evidence.” Such a definition creates the circumstances for some startling leaps in logic, and discipline can be enforced to such a degree that if the Party Line dictates that the Earth is flat, stating that it is in fact spherical will be considered “controversial.”
Other words are often, and have always been, employed, not for their intrinsic meaning, but rather for their utility as ideological cudgels against opponents. John Schindler, former NSA analyst and counterintelligence officer who now teaches national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College, theorizes that Edward Snowden and Wikileaks are likely fronts for an elaborate Russian intelligence operation (a rather convincing dissection by Tim Cushing of this conspiracy theory may be found here). Notwithstanding that such a scenario is possible, and shouldn’t be completely ruled out, Schindler’s theory is reminiscent of the paranoia to which intelligence agencies themselves can fall prey, while assuming the worst of their adversaries, leading them to erroneous conclusions, due to their own ideological bias. He believes that journalists mediating the slow trickle of revelations gleaned from leaked documents are waging a “propaganda offensive,” and “have masked their radical activism under the (thin) guise of post-modern journalism.”
The operative phrase here is “radical activism,” and it is meant, among other things, to differentiate what people like Poitras, Greenwald and Barton Gellman are doing from the “authentic” and “objective” journalism which would be more to his liking. The phrase is in fact a smear, and as a smear, it carries little content, but is intended to vilify political opponents in order to marginalize and discredit them. The tactic is a staple of ideological warfare with a long tradition, the palette of insults offering such terms as “communist,” “isolationist,” “liberal,” “anarchist,” “traitor,” and countless other epithets, the purpose of which is to render objects of vilification, and the ideas represented, toxic by attaching stigmata, thereby isolating them, and preventing any substantial debate on the issues themselves. What the words actually mean, or whether the objects of scorn actually demonstrate such qualities, is wholly irrelevant.
One could, for example, ask whether it is not the policies themselves that are extreme and not those criticizing them — but that would require a modicum of honesty. A brief overview of some examples of this and past U.S. administrations’ “radical” policies will suffice: John Yoo’s radical executive theories, which authorize the president to act virtually without constraint, the global rendition and torture network initiated after the September 11 attacks, the 2003 invasion of Iraq, now acknowledged by anyone with a pulse to have been illegal and immoral, the highly destructive consequences of which are still resonating in the region, the continued deployment of nearly two thousand nuclear warheads, including the latest nuclear posture review, which retains the doctrine of “counterforce” and a hypothetical first strike capability, the Kennedy administration’s terrorist campaign against Cuba, the near destruction of Indochina, the Reagan administration’s arms transfers supporting a campaign to destroy parts of Latin America, including the more recent expansions of a presidentially authorized UAV assassination program and sprawling surveillance/security state, to name just a few. If these aren’t considered “radical,” then the word indeed has no meaning, and can be used for whatever purposes one wishes.
The National Security Agency’s invasive, global spying network, not to mention U.S. intelligence agencies’ collaboration on more offensive “cyberwarfare” capabilities, exemplified by the Stuxnet virus (along with Israel), appropriately takes its place among such extreme policies. Regarding the ongoing NSA disclosures, I have seen some who are of the opinion that such secret information must be kept “out of the hands” of “radicals” (meaning, the public), the responsible gentlemen like General Keith Alexander presumably being the more appropriate guardians of an aggressive surveillance apparatus — such a person is incapable of even entertaining the possibility that the radicals do indeed already have control of the apparatus, as they seem to be the ones running it.
September 8, 2013 § Leave a Comment
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, while in Paris on a European tour among other things to garner support for overt military action against Syria, in addition to the usual bromides and rhetoric one would expect from a travelling salesman, sternly warned that “this is not the time to allow a dictator unfettered use of some of the most heinous weapons on earth.” Strong words coming from the world’s largest arms dealer. Alluding to the 1938 Munich agreement, in which several European nations agreed to let Nazi Germany annex the Sudetenland, Kerry stated that this was “our chance to join together and pursue accountability over appeasement.” The reference, besides being inappropriate, is interesting; at the time those designing policy in the U.S. and Britain saw fascism as a more palatable alternative to communism, and therefore believed that it should be encouraged, especially in Germany and Italy, in order to “stay the advance of Soviet Bolshevism in Europe.” Believing he represented “the more moderate section of the [Nazi] party,” the State Department observed in 1933 that “it is perhaps well that Hitler is now in a position to wield unprecedented power.” In 1937, a year before the famous agreement — which it has become fashionable for hawks to cite whenever advocating military action over diplomacy — the U.S. State Department issued a thorough report on German fascism. David Schmitz writes, in The Triumph of Internationalism:
Contrary to the prevailing wisdom on bolshevism and the Soviet Union, the department found fascism as a system compatible with free trade and liberal governments. Means, therefore, could be developed to convince Germany to reject territorial expansion and economic self-sufficiency for international cooperation. The report explained that the rise of fascism stemmed from a threat from the Left brought about by the Great Depression. “When there is suffering, the dissatisfied masses, with the example of the Russian revolution before them, swing to the Left. The rich and middle classes, in self-defense turn to Fascism.” Defining fascism as the natural movement by the respectable classes to defend order and property from communism, the department believed that where fascism was in power, “it must succeed or the masses, this time reinforced by the disillusioned middle classes, will again turn to the Left.” [...]
As the State Department concluded, “economic appeasement should prove to be the surest route to world peace.” Appeasement was essential if war was to be avoided. “If Fascism cannot succeed by persuasion” to solve Germany’s problems, “it must succeed by force.”
Putting aside the fact that those in Washington have been more than happy to be “spectators to slaughter” in the past, depending upon who the victims were, there is one sense in which Kerry’s statement rings true: they indeed don’t wish to be “silent spectators to slaughter” here — rather, they wish to participate in it directly.
September 6, 2013 § Leave a Comment
No laws define the limits of the N.S.A.’s power. No Congressional committee subjects the agency’s budget to a systematic, informed and skeptical review. With unknown billions of Federal dollars, the agency purchases the most sophisticated communications and computer equipment in the world. But truly to comprehend the growing reach of this formidable organization, it is necessary to recall once again how the computers that power the N.S.A. are also gradually changing lives of Americans – the way they bank, obtain benefits from the Government and communicate with family and friends. Every day, in almost every area of culture and commerce, systems and procedures are being adopted by private companies and organizations as well as by the nation’s security leaders that make it easier for the N.S.A. to dominate American society should it ever decide such action is necessary.
— “The Silent Power of the N.S.A.,” The New York Times, March, 1983
The Guardian, ProPublica and the New York Times published yesterday what seems to be the most important story to date on the NSA/GCHQ global surveillance system, the Times remarking that the NSA is “winning its long-running secret war on encryption.” I wrote earlier that the central purpose of such surveillance, and I still believe this is true, is to create a world with no blind spots, in which those in power have total access to any communications at all times, an information environment in which no one is hidden or beyond their gaze, to “maintain unrestricted access to and use of cyberspace” — and it’s about control. To maintain such a worldview, everyone must be seen as a potential enemy. And it’s about you: The major deciphering projects — Bullrun (successor to Manassas), and Edgehill — are named after famous civil war battles fought in the U.S. and Britain; any target of surveillance, whether it be foreign or domestic, friend or foe, is deemed an “adversary” in the parlance. In June, the legal procedures followed to determine whether communications emanate from U.S. persons, and the procedures to minimize data collection of such persons, were revealed. Communications emanating from an unknown physical location “will not be treated as a United States person, unless such person can be positively identified as such, or the nature or circumstances of the person’s communications give rise to a reasonable belief that such person is a United States person.” Communications determined to emanate from U.S. persons must be promptly destroyed, with the exception of ”communications that are enciphered or reasonably believed to contain secret meaning, and sufficient duration may consist of any period of time during which encrypted material is subject to, or of use in, cryptanalysis.” In other words, according to these documents, the use of anonymisation techniques and cryptology will heighten your chances of being caught up in the NSA dragnet.
Part of the intelligence community’s “black budget” (a more complete version [PDF] was leaked to Cryptome), The Consolidated Cryptologic Program, employing 35,000 people, has received more than $10 billion annually over the last four years — 21% of the total funding. Although the intelligence agencies appear to be concentrating most of their efforts at code breaking and SIGINT (signals intelligence), they also engage in HUMINT (human intelligence) collection; it was reported that the British GCHQ also created a Humint Operations Team (HOT), responsible for “identifying, recruiting and running covert agents in the global telecommunications industry.”
The most pernicious and far-reaching aspect of the NSA’s drive to destroy privacy is the vast public/private partnership, a collaboration with industry in which the government has succeeded through force of law in introducing weaknesses into security standards, and introducing backdoors into commercial encryption products, rendering them accessible to government eavesdropping. Though the C.I.A. receives the bulk of the intelligence “black budget,” we now know thanks to Edward Snowden, with $254.9 million allotted to it this year, it is clear that this collaboration is a priority. In such a tandem agreement, private enterprise provides the tools and access necessary, while the government provides the legal authority — that is, together they accomplish what one or the other could not separately. The particular companies are not named, such information being “guarded by still higher levels of classification.” That is, while such companies offer supposedly secure methods of encryption to the public, they are simultaneously granting access to the government to their communications. Such a partnership is not new: the NSA’s project SHAMROCK, which took over the massive telegraph-reading program begun during World War II, exposed in 1975, was also built upon a cooperation with private industry leaders: RCA Global, ITT World Communications, and Western Union International. Concerns were the same as they are now: “Tordella insisted that the companies not be named in any Church Committee report, since that might subject them to ‘embarrassment’ and to lawsuits. It might also make it difficult for the NSA to convince other private companies to help out on future schemes.” The desire to introduce compromised communications devices onto the market for easy access is not new either; such a scheme had already been attempted, in the form of the “Clipper Chip”:
Anticipating such a boom, the N.S.A. devised a strategy for the 90′s. It would concede the need for strong encryption but encourage a system with a key-escrow “back door” that provides access to communications for itself and law enforcement. The security agency had already developed a strong cryptosystem based on an algorithm called Skipjack, supposedly 16 million times stronger than the previous standard, D.E.S. (Data Encryption Standard). Now the agency’s designers integrated Skipjack into a new system that uses a Law Enforcement Access Field (LEAF) that adds a signal to the message that directs a potential wiretapper to the approriate key to decipher the message. These features were included in a chip called Capstone, which could handle not only telephone communications but computer data transfers and digital signatures.
Supposedly, this technology was designed for Government use, but in 1993 the National Security Agency had a sudden opportunity to thrust it into the marketplace. AT&T had come to the agency with a new, relatively low-cost secure-phone device called the Surity 3600 that was designed to use the nonexportable DES encryption algorithm. The N.S.A. suggested that perhaps AT&T could try something else: a stripped-down version of Capstone for telephone communications. This was the Clipper chip. As a result, AT&T got two things: an agreement that Uncle Sam would buy thousands of phones for its own use (the initial commitment was 9,000, from the F.B.I.) and the prospect that the phone would not suffer the unhappy fate of some other secure devices when considered for export. There was also the expectation that AT&T would sell a lot more phones, since private companies would need to buy Clipper-equipped devices to communicate with the Governmment’s Clipper phones.
It was an ingenious plan for several reasons. By agreeing to buy thousands of phones, and holding out the promise that thousands, or even millions more might be sold, AT&T phones gained a price advantage that comes with volume. (The original price of the Surity 3600 was $1,195, considerably less than the previous generation of secure phones; Mykotronx, the company making the Clipper chip, says that each chip now costs $30, but in large orders could quickly go as low as $10.) That would give the phones a big push in the marketplace. But by saturating the market, Clipper had a chance to become the standard for encryption, depending on whether businesses and individuals would be willing to accept a device that had the compromise of a government-controlled back door.
This compromise, of course, is the essence of Clipper. The Government recognizes the importance of keeping business secrets, intimate information and personal data hidden from most eyes and ears. But it also preserves a means of getting hold of that information after obtaining “legal authorization, normally a court order,” according to a White House description.
Regarding the publishing of leaked documents, a dilemma exists. There is a debate as to whether such Top Secret (and beyond) documents should be filtered, vetted and released gradually, so as to give the public time to absorb the information, or released in toto to the public regardless of any unintended consequences for NSA employees or backlash against Snowden and the recipients of the liberated data. The irony is that Snowden and the small coterie of journalists and analysts — Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras, Barton Gellman, Bruce Schneier and those at ProPublica and the New York Times — to whom he has entrusted the documents detailing the surveillance programs find themselves now in a position similar to the very governments they are confronting for the abuse of their powers. That is, they are now in possession of secret information to which they alone have access, and presume to be uniquely qualified to determine what is in the public interest and what is not. We have no choice but to trust them. So, those journalists must choose between honoring any agreement with Snowden to publish the documents in the way that he intended, which is not trivial — after all, it was he who took such risks upon himself and will pay the highest price — and a more radical strategy, which would make all of it immediately available by betraying Snowden’s trust. It is true that one bears responsibility for the predictable consequences of one’s acts, and if the public perceives that releasing all the documents were to cause damage to a significant number of people, such a move could prove counterproductive, as the government could mobilize that opinion to further demonize leakers as “troublemakers” and “vigilantes” — such a consequence would have negative effects on whistleblowing and press freedoms in general, enabling the government to prosecute such behavior even more aggressively than it already is, unless a mass movement became powerful enough to confront it. It is also probable that releasing the documents in their entirety, or enlarging the circle of those reading and interpreting them, would bring that much more scrutiny to bear on the NSA’s activities, and above all speed the process of finding remedies and building the tools necessary to confront such power. The risks must be weighed against the benefits, but I see no easy answers.
In a similar way, freedom of expression must eventually be dissociated from a strict adherence to any definition of “journalism,” to be enjoyed by all, even if it entails some risks. Joel Simon provides a convincing argument in the Columbia Journalism Review:
But any effort by governments to grant privilege and protection to one class of journalists while excluding others is, in fact, a form of licensing, which is anathema to journalism. Moreover, the global information environment has become so complex that the traditional media—including the international media—is now just one source of news and information, and in some cases not the most objective one. [...] Rather than erect barriers in the form of special laws, journalists should be breaking barriers down, recognizing that their ability to do their job depends less on defining a separate realm in which they operate and more on finding ways to ensure that freedom of expression is broadly defended and preserved—for journalists and non-journalists alike.
The mathematics of encryption are complicated, and Edward Snowden has stated that it is the best available protection: “Encryption works. Properly implemented strong crypto systems are one of the few things that you can rely on.” There is a learning curve involved in implementing such a solution, however, and even some experts such as Schneier admit that they don’t use all encryption methods consistently, due to the inconvenience of time and effort involved. It is possible that effective encryption or anonymity, due to inherent complexities, will never be effortless to implement. Several self-defense guides have been published, including at the Freedom of the Press Foundation (here), the Electronic Frontier Foundation (here), as well as other independent organizations. This is not enough, however. The liberating power of cryptography needs to be democratized, and made accessible to everyone using an electronic device, because — and this is vital — everyone is concerned by this, whether they are aware of it or not. It is unacceptable that the right to privacy be made to be solely dependent upon one’s proficiency at concealing one’s activity. Surveillance is a global phenomenon which transcends national borders and cultures, and just as NSA surveillance extends beyond its original mandate to spill over onto the domestic U.S. population (whatever lies officials may voice), the need for strong privacy protection extends beyond just those who think they might have “something to hide.” As long as strong encryption and speech protection remain the domain of the select group of experts — the hacker, the engineer, the accredited journalist — and not for the rest of us, I believe that the fight for privacy, the free flow of information and against surveillance will be lost.
Update: Ken White at Popehat emphasizes what I’ve been saying about surveillance targeting the “other,” and how anyone who seeks to hide his/her activity must be viewed as an “enemy;” the quote is from an official statement from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence’s recently created tumblr:
It should hardly be surprising that our intelligence agencies seek ways to counteract our adversaries’ use of encryption. Throughout history, nations have used encryption to protect their secrets, and today, terrorists, cybercriminals, human traffickers and others also use code to hide their activities. Our intelligence community would not be doing its job if we did not try to counter that.
August 31, 2013 § 1 Comment
LUCY: This time you can trust me. See? Here’s a signed document testifying that I promise not to pull it away.
CHARLIE: It IS signed. It’s a signed document! I guess if you have a signed document in your possession, you can’t go wrong.
Secretary of State John Kerry announced yesterday before the world that the U.S. possessed intelligence — presented with ”high confidence” in the latest unclassified intelligence report — which undeniably linked the Syrian government to the alleged gas attacks in the suburbs of Damascus. Since it is not specified, such intelligence most likely emanates from, among other sources, signal interceptions by Unit 8200 of the Israeli Military Intelligence Corps, as it was reported in the German online magazine Focus. It is known that there is a tight relationship between Israeli and U.S. intelligence services, but it is also known that Israel is the probable source of the fraudulent “smoking laptop” documents on the alleged Iranian nuclear weapons program, which seemed to have been laundered through the Mujahedin-e-Khalq (MeK) — consequently, the credibility of such statements should be questioned by any rational person. The logic operating here is simple, expressed in my opinion clearly by Barbara Tuchman in her book The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam, by way of Arthur Silber:
Acquiescence in Executive war, he wrote, comes from the belief that the government possesses secret information that gives it special insight in determining policy. Not only was this questionable, but major policy decisions turn “not upon available facts but upon judgment,” with which policy-makers are no better endowed than the intelligent citizen. [...] The belief that government knows best was voiced just at this time by Governor Nelson Rockefeller, who said on resumption of the bombing, “We ought to all support the President. He is the man who has all the information and knowledge of what we are up against.” This is a comforting assumption that relieves people from taking a stand. It is usually invalid, especially in foreign affairs.
It behooves us to recall how the politicized intelligence surrounding Iraqi Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) was intended to provide a pretext for invasion rather than an objective appraisal of Saddam’s capabilities. The September Dossier from Downing Street is but one example among many. Stating the case bluntly, Major General Michael Laurie reportedly admitted during the Chilcot Inquiry that he had understood the ”purpose of the dossier was precisely to make a case for war, rather than setting out the available intelligence.” Repeating the events preceding the 2003 invasion of Iraq, U.S. officials recently privately urged UN experts to leave Syria, confident that such inspections were “pointless because the chemical weapons evidence already was conclusive.” Such a signal was a clear message that the U.S. is impatient, and has the firm intention to launch strikes, before an independent investigation could determine with precision what happened — which is, of course, the point.
Leaving aside any determination of guilt, despite the propaganda from all sides, it will take some time to run the tests on samples to even determine what substance was used. A recent UN inquiry [PDF] into the Syrian civil war states that, although both sides in the conflict are alleged to have used chemical weapons, conclusive findings ”may be reached only after testing samples taken directly from victims or the site.” Days after an initial Medecins Sans Frontieres press release, in which MSF director Bart Janssens is quoted saying that “MSF can neither scientifically confirm the cause of these symptoms nor establish who is responsible for the attack,” an August 28 press release expressed concern that their earlier statements were being used for political purposes, and that with the investigation underway, it was too early to determine with any certainty responsibility for the attacks. It’s a reasonable concern, and will therefore probably be ignored. No matter, when the righteous mission of punishing an enemy comes into view, there is little time for investigating facts. Trust us!
Although a timid but unexpected outbreak of democratic ideals in the British parliament has somewhat frustrated U.S. plans to immediately launch attacks against the Syrian government, the UK’s legal justification for triggering military action was already laid out: humanitarian intervention: “the aim is to relieve humanitarian suffering by deterring or disrupting the further use of chemical weapons.” The paper asserts that there is “no practicable alternative to the use of force” — a dubious assertion, given that one alternative might be to stop fueling the conflict by giving aid, intelligence and training to opposition groups with the goal of removing Assad from power, a project lavishly supported by the Saudi monarchy, among others. Humanitarian intervention (or “R2P”, Responsibility to Protect), however, is not currently an accepted doctrine of international law, and the UK attempt to bypass the UN Security Council is described by lecturer in international law Dapo Akande as nothing short of “fanciful.”
What cannot be claimed with any credibility is that Washington opposes the use of chemical weapons on principle. Putting aside its own abuses in the past, allies are also immune from such public condemnation: adding to an already rich record of declassified documents relating U.S. support for Saddam Hussein throughout his worst crimes, including the regular use of gas against Iranian forces and Kurdish civilians, recently declassified C.I.A. documents further emphasize that the use of gas — when serious interests are at stake — is surely, in the words of Col. Walter P. Lang, ”not a matter of deep strategic concern.” During his statement Kerry did accurately express the primary concern, though: that “it matters here if nothing is done. It matters if the world speaks out in condemnation and then nothing happens.” Echoing Kerry’s statement, Washington Post columnist David Ignatius warned that U.S. “credibility” is at stake if the world begins to “doubt the credibility of U.S. power.” Former Ambassador to Morocco Marc Ginsberg similarly scolded the Obama administration for “putting ‘the United States’ credibility’ on the line.” The particular credibility mentioned here, however, has little to do with demonstrating to the world that statements emanating from Washington can be reasonably assumed to be accurate, and more to do with demonstrating that threats of punishment will indeed be carried out. In other words, failing to occasionally act on his promises will undermine the master’s authority, which is indeed a very real problem.
Update: The Daily Record has revealed that Britain issued export licenses for potassium fluoride and sodium fluoride, both chemical precursors which can be used to synthesize nerve agents such as sarin gas, as late as January 2013, well into the Syrian civil war. Although such chemicals also have other industrial uses, fluoride is the “key to making these munitions,” according to an environmental toxicology expert at Leeds University. It seems they would be characterized as “dual-use” items, and the licenses were revoked only after the European Union imposed sanctions on the Syrian government. Although the irony of the UK government’s military intervention being ostensibly triggered by events (chemical warfare) to which it may well have itself directly or indirectly contributed is not lost on observers, it should not be so surprising. The events fit into a general pattern of Western hypocrisy, whereby leaders publicly denounce repressive actions in one place while indirectly contributing to them elsewhere — such as David Cameron’s acting as a “travelling salesman for the arms industry” to several Gulf states, as he did in 2012, to cite but one example.
Such events might also recall the sale of dual-use items and technologies to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war, sales rising to a figure of $1.5 billion during the period between 1985 and 1990, as documented in a February 1994 GAO report. In 2002, it was reported that U.S. and German companies were among the major suppliers of Saddam Hussein’s regime, including Hewlett Packard, Honeywell, Rockwell, Bechtel, ICS and Unisys, as well as Daimler-Benz, MAN and Siemens, according to the German daily Die tageszeitung. U.S. export controls “suffered a massive breakdown” preceding the first Gulf War, according to Gary Milhollin of the Wisconsin Project, and much of the equipment subsequently destroyed during the strikes was in fact made in the U.S.A. We also know that, although the U.S. had an official policy of neutrality during the Iran-Iraq war, the C.I.A. was in fact tasked with ensuring that Iraq continued to be supplied with the necessary components to maintain its military weaponry.
An added irony is that the Obama administration is seeking vague Congressional authorization to use military force — the powers of which, as Jack Goldsmith states, are dangerously broad (where ever have we seen that before?) — in order to “prevent or deter the use or proliferation (including the transfer to terrorist groups or other state or non-state actors), within, to or from Syria, of any weapon of mass destruction, including chemical or biological weapons or components of or materials used in such weapons” [emphasis mine] — such an authorization, though, as b at Moon of Alabama points out, would not guarantee that such military action complies with international law.
— h/t Marcy Wheeler (@emptywheel)
Update II: Disinformation and misinformation assume such a large role in the discussion around armed conflict because propaganda is always an integral part of the war effort, but also partly because there are always individuals who are more than eager to accept information which fits their preconceived notions, even if there is little evidence to support it. The gruesome photograph published by the BBC in 2012, mistakenly linked to the Houla massacre, recently recycled and spread on Facebook, is but one striking example of the pitfalls awaiting those impatient to have their beliefs vindicated. One should never underestimate the imagination and capacity of either side in a conflict to fabricate and spread propaganda, and the Syrian civil war has shown all sides using it skilfully to their advantage.
Those who would like to discourage any foreign military intervention, aware that the U.S. and the UK have aligned themselves with the various rebel groups (which comprise jihadist elements close to al-Qa’ida), will readily accept as accurate reports attributing the recent gas attacks to opposition groups, even if evidence is minimal or nonexistent. Such thinking is understandable, as any portrayal painting the various Syrian opposition movements in a negative light will discourage the public, and politicians, from supporting policies which only appear to strengthen a band of extremists and fanatics. Such concerns aren’t without merit — the simple fact of the matter is that, the U.S. government, in its overriding objective to curb Iranian (and therefore Shiite, and by extension, Hezbollah) influence, seems to have inserted itself into a complex regional sectarian conflict, in which it has, in the words of Patrick Cockburn, entered into a “de facto alliance with al-Qa’ida.”
An article penned by Seymour Hersh in 2007 for the New Yorker magazine paints a picture which anyone following events in the Middle East even casually might recognize:
To undermine Iran, which is predominantly Shiite, the Bush Administration has decided, in effect, to reconfigure its priorities in the Middle East. In Lebanon, the Administration has coöperated with Saudi Arabia’s government, which is Sunni, in clandestine operations that are intended to weaken Hezbollah, the Shiite organization that is backed by Iran. The U.S. has also taken part in clandestine operations aimed at Iran and its ally Syria. A by-product of these activities has been the bolstering of Sunni extremist groups that espouse a militant vision of Islam and are hostile to America and sympathetic to Al Qaeda. [...]
Nasr went on, “The Saudis have considerable financial means, and have deep relations with the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis”—Sunni extremists who view Shiites as apostates. “The last time Iran was a threat, the Saudis were able to mobilize the worst kinds of Islamic radicals. Once you get them out of the box, you can’t put them back.”
None of this, however, is proof of anything, much less a substitute for actual scientific evidence relevant to the 21 August attack in the suburbs of Damascus, on which Eliot Higgins (Brown Moses blog) has provided useful discussion from several chemical weapons specialists, responding to allegations in a recent article. Also of interest is the recent claim by Secretary of State Kerry that “first responders” have provided “samples of hair and blood” which “have been tested and they have reported positive for signatures of sarin” — which seems to contradict recent statements by chemical weapons expert Rolf Trapp, who states that the operation is much more delicate than Kerry’s statement implies: “The analysis itself cannot be done in two or three days. The quality requirements are considerable. Small mistakes can render the whole report useless. Somewhere around two to three weeks is probably realistic.” Kerry might be telling the truth, but we’ve seen the Secretary of State lie before.
What I would like to emphasize more generally is that military intervention is not necessarily justified, regardless of who the perpetrator is — and therefore asserting that opposition groups may have been responsible is in my opinion no argument against intervention, which would remain immoral, unwise and illegal, no matter how many elaborate theories are concocted by subservient legal advisers or congressional authorizations rubber stamp the aggression.
August 26, 2013 § 1 Comment
Yesterday an excerpt from the forthcoming book Enemies Within by Associated Press journalists Matt Apuzzo and Adam Goldman appeared in the New York magazine website. The book concerns the extensive and intrusive surveillance apparatus erected by the New York Police Department (NYPD), in liaison with the C.I.A., directed at New York’s Muslim population. Highlights of the investigation, which was awarded a Pulitzer Prize, can be found here. The whole article is worth reading, but I’d just like to focus on one aspect here, and that is the way in which a colonial logic underpins the program. According to C.I.A. analyst Larry Sanchez, who was borrowed from the agency to assist the NYPD — along with former C.I.A. officer David Cohen — the idea of restructuring the NYPD’s Intelligence Division to monitor elements of the Muslim population was “borrowed” from “Israeli methods of controlling the military-occupied West Bank.” Cohen compared the concept to “raking an extinguished fire pit,” in which one might uncover “an ember—a hot spot waiting to catch.” That is, certain communities were honeycombed with spies and informants, effectively penetrated in much the same way enemy or colonized territory would be during conflict. We’ll return to this.
Similarities to the National Security Agency’s approach to information collection — summarized by General Keith Alexander’s wish to “collect the whole haystack” of information available in order to supposedly raise the odds of locating a needle — can’t be ignored. In both cases, the lack of terrorist attacks actually detected and thwarted by the respective programs highlights the problematic relationship between the total amount of information collected versus the amount of useful information collected, where after a certain point on the curve an inverse correlation is probably observed, an area of diminishing returns. To conclude, therefore, that the programs have failed at their ostensible missions, to protect against terrorist attacks, would be logical — if that is indeed the primary goal. Such programs also recall Admiral John Poindexter’s and Brian Hicks’ brainchild, the Information Awareness Office, established at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the prototype Total Information Awareness system (TIA), eventually discontinued subsequent to Congressional legislation concerning privacy rights of U.S. citizens. The seal emblazoned on the program stated “Scientia Est Potentia” — Knowledge is Power. Such programs continued, though splintered like different shards of what was previously one mosaic, in the form of collecting biometric data from facial recognition technologies and iris scans — a technology tested by NATO forces in Afghanistan as part of a wider counterinsurgency program, as but one example.
Poindexter stated his concerns in an August, 2002 speech:
The intelligence collection targets are thousands of people whose identities and whereabouts we do not always know. It is somewhat analogous to the anti-submarine warfare problem of finding submarines in an ocean of noise – we must find the terrorists in a world of noise, understand what they are planning, and develop options for preventing their attacks. [...] We must become much more efficient and more clever in the ways we find new sources of data, mine information from the new and old, generate information, make it available for analysis, convert it to knowledge, and create actionable options. We must also break down the stovepipes – at least punch holes in them. By this, I mean we must share and collaborate between agencies, and create and support high-performance teams operating on the edges of existing organizations.
Similar concerns had already been addressed a century earlier, during the U.S. colonial counterinsurgency campaign in the Philippines, from which emerged the tools and methods necessary to pacify and control a civilian population. After his tour in the Philippines, Colonel Ralph Van Deman, the “father of Military Intelligence,” would later compile a large database of U.S. citizens targeted for surveillance, effectively employing at home the techniques which had been developed abroad. In his voluminous study on U.S. colonial pacification in the Philippines, worth quoting at length, Alfred McCoy writes:
During the social ferment that surrounded World War I, a mix of emergency legislation and extralegal enforcement removed the restraints of courts and Constitution that had protected Americans from surveillance and secret police for over a century. With the fear of spies and subversion everywhere, police methods that had been tested and perfected in the colonial Philippines migrated homeward to provide both precedents and personnel for the establishment of a U.S. internal security apparatus. Transformed by colonial warfare from a conventional army careerist into “the father of U.S. military intelligence,” Van Deman applied his experience of empire to establish the army’s Military Intelligence Division (MID) in 1917 as a comprehensive espionage and counterespionage agency. After years of pacifying an overseas empire where race was the frame for perception and action, colonial veterans came home to turn the same lens on America, seeing its ethnic communities not as fellow citizens but as internal colonies requiring coercive controls. [...]
In building a U.S. intelligence capacity, empire’s stamp on the nascent national security apparatus was both broad and deep, from data management to larger design. In both colonial Manila and wartime Washington, counterintelligence was characterized by similarities large and small. [...] Covert operational procedures for surveillance and infiltration. An ethnic or racial template for perception of threat. Mass relocation of suspect populations. The systemic use of scandal as political disinformation. And, above all, a sense of omnipotence over peoples deemed alien and therefore lesser. [...] In this process of imperial mimesis, a state such as the United States that creates a colony with circumscribed civil liberties and pervasive policing soon shows many of those coercive features in its own society. As the metropole’s internal security apparatus starts to resemble the imperial, so its domestic politics begin to exhibit many attributes of the colonial. [Policing America's Empire, pp. 294-295]
As well as the gaze of the surveillance apparatus, though, there is also the microphone. Indeed, sometimes the entire population becomes the target, this “other” onto which the propaganda apparatus turns. Miami Herald journalist Alphonso Chardy was told in 1987, refering to State Department activies during the Iran-Contra scandal, that “[i]f you look at it as a whole, the Office of Public Diplomacy was carrying out a huge psychological operation of the kind the military conducts to influence a population in denied or enemy territory” (“N.S.C. supervised office to influence opinion,” Miami Herald, July 19, 1987). Referring to the same OPD, Robert Parry and Peter Kornbluh stated in the Washington Post that ”the campaign came to resemble the sort of covert political operation the C.I.A. runs against hostile forces overseas but is outlawed from conducting at home” (“Reagan’s Pro-Contra Propaganda Machine,” Washington Post, September 4, 1988).
What is important to realize, in my opinion, is that both surveillance and propaganda are ultimately about control, not information. Propaganda itself usually carries very little useful information, and blanket surveillance, we have seen, no matter how comprehensive, provides no absolute guarantee against every possible threat. As the revelations about NSA surveillance continue (here [PDF] is a good discussion by Susan Landau), my overall impression is that the concern is, and has always been, to prevent the existence of any private space inaccessible to the gaze of those in power, to create a world without shadows and blind spots, in which absolutely no one is exempt from scrutiny — in order to accomplish this, it is necessary to effectively have the option to treat the bulk of the world’s population as if it were the enemy. In other words, similar to a one-way mirror, a world in which certain institutions insist on a certain level of opacity through secrecy and classification, but endeavor to render the world around them as transparent as possible. Anyone even remotely concerned about living in a free society should vigorously resist this with all the tools at their disposal.
Update: Another important aspect of surveillance, closely linked to the central theme of control highlighted here, is the psychological effects it has on those subjected to it. It has been shown in numerous studies that the simple awareness of being monitored can alter one’s behavior, attitudes and mental performance. In order to engage in creative, innovative activities, allowing for people to reach their full potentials, it is essential to have recourse to private spaces where one is free from external influence and uninhibited. We need room to experiment, without fear of retribution caused by performing “before the eyes of others,” resulting in people “tailoring their behavior to fit what they believe the observer wants.” A researcher at the Cardiff University School of Psychology reminded readers, in an article penned for the Guardian yesterday, that “a future of universal surveillance will be a world bereft of anything sufficiently interesting to spy on – a beige authoritarian landscape in which we lose the ability to relax, innovate, or take risks.” I propose that this effect can be an intended consequence of surveillance, and not simply an unwanted artifact — that is, one purpose of the surveillance state is to transform a society into one where conformity of thought is encouraged, in which indeed no one really does have “something to hide.” Unfortunately, most people will accept a modest level of surveillance when “their security is being bought with someone else’s liberty” — a reminder that it is often the more denigrated and outcast members of society, or dissidents, who are subjected to repressive measures, which, once accepted in theory by the broader public, can then be applied more generally. In other words, much like the imperial gaze, totalitarian thinking always begins by targeting the “other” before turning on the rest of us, at which point we may realize that it’s too late.
For the effect to function, however, the population under surveillance must be aware that it is under surveillance, which may seem contradictory, as we tend to think of surveillance as being a mostly covert activity. Power centers must balance their need to continue operating by remaining in the shadows with the need to make their chilling presence felt to the wider public. In the interests of shaping and controlling a society, it may be desirable for a certain amount of surveillance to be openly acknowledged. One need only think of Britain’s ubiquitous CCTV cameras, whose simple existence, whether functioning or not, can have a deterrent effect, thus transforming their environment. In this way, surveillance can be considered an active presence as well as a passive one. Episodes from highly repressive societies, such as the former Soviet bloc countries, further illustrate the debilitating effects of surveillance on individuals, where the simple knowledge is “enough to prompt them to take extensive measures to guard against such spying, and cast a pall of suspicion over their lives.” We can find such illustrations closer to home as well: documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras, the person first contacted by the NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, has recently relocated to Berlin while editing her next film ”because I do not feel I can keep source material safe in my own country.”
Update II (Sept. 3): An interactive map with original documents from the NYPD’s Intelligence Division are now on the website promoting Apuzzo and Goldman’s book Enemies Within. It includes slides with information detailing the Demographics Unit’s surveillance of “ethnic hotspots,” monitoring of web activity, and the mapping out of “ancestries” and “communities of interest,” among other things.
April 26, 2013 § Leave a Comment
A word of history is in order. Indispensable element of year’s end festivities, the papillote is a confection originating in Lyon, France during the late 18th century, consisting of a chocolate treat wrapped in glistening paper, usually accompanied by a paper featuring a phrase, or image, reminiscent of the Chinese “fortune cookie.” Found in the Lyon chez moi monthly publication from December 2007 is this concise explanation(Fr) [PDF] of how the papillote came about — like many momentous discoveries, a completely fortuitous event, the original motives for the innovation being completely unconnected to subsequent developments.
If the legend proves true, and it seems likely that it is, Monsieur Papillot was a confectioner of candies in the Terreaux quarter of Lyon whose company had employed a young man who, as young men will do, became enamored of a young woman. At the same time that Papillot began noticing that a certain amount of merchandise was missing from his stock of chocolates, he surprised the young apprentice disappearing certain items for his own personal use, enveloping them in wrapping, concealing secret messages to be given to the object of his passions. The apprentice was swiftly reprimanded and thrown out of the enterprise by his ears.
Though the young man was removed from his service, not someone to let a good idea go to waste, the inspiration wasn’t lost: Papillot developed the notion of enveloping messages along with the chocolates, transforming the love letters into jokes or puzzles, which were then commercialized in the form of “papillotes.” Now an exceedingly popular item, a concept subsequently taken over by numerous other chocolatiers, annual production presently reaches nearly 3,000 tons per year nationally (France). If Papillot was able to profit from his former employee’s idea, another lesson surely didn’t go unnoticed by the young apprentice, who, after some time, must have realized that having a good idea is not enough: one must also be in a position to capitalize on it.
— Cette leçon vaut bien un fromage, sans doute.