Focal Points Blog

What if Nuclear Terrorism Were Just a Mouse Click Away?

Excuse the sensationalistic head: the subject lends itself to hyperbole both because of its urgency and the imperative to draw reluctant readers. Of course, the “What if” doesn’t actually figure to materialize any time soon. Still, it hints at what a Pandora’s box the development of nuclear weapons has been for over six decades. Actually, it’s starting to look more like a clown car — an evil-clown car.

At Politico, Laura Rozen monitored the engineering failure at F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming that knocked 50 nuclear ICBMs (intercontinental ballistic missiles) offline. She referred us to fellow Politico reporter Gordon Lubold, who wrote:

Tony Cordesman of CSIS told Morning Defense that, based on preliminary reports, there was not a crisis: “Unless something is released that somehow indicates that you broke through every known barrier to a system that is not connected to the Internet or outside command-and-control, it is a warning that you need to look at the particular system failure, but that is as far as it goes,”

Cordesman’s words that we’ve highlighted are an allusion to hacking. Ms. Rozen also cites Marc Ambinder at the Atlantic (again, emphasis added).

It is next to impossible for these systems to be hacked, so the military does not believe the incident was caused by malicious actors.

However reassuring it is to hear that a nuclear-weapons launch system can’t be hacked, it nevertheless plants the seed of a fear in us that most never knew existed. The worm Stuxnet that infiltrated Iran’s nuclear program is considered a state-supported project. But what if a terrorist group were to take a shot at the impossible and attempt to hack into a nuclear-weapons launch system?

In his recent New Yorker piece, The Online Threat, a cautionary tale about the dangers of allowing the intelligence communities and the military to hype cyberwarfare, Seymour Hersh also downplays the threat of terrorist hackers. “There is surprising unanimity among cyber-security experts on one issue,” he writes, “that the immediate cyber threat does not come from traditional terrorist groups like Al Qaeda.”

He quotes John Arquilla of the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School: “Terrorist groups are. . . . not that interested in. . . . attacking our computer system.” When it comes to cyber security, ther priority is to “protect their operations.” Still Hersh warns: “As terrorist groups get better at defense, they may eventually turn to offense.”

When that time comes, they may also choose to make one of their dreams come true — attacking the Western world with nuclear weapons. (Even if essentially they would be fouling their future caliphate by turning it into a nuclear wasteland.) At which time, they’ll ask themselves: Is hacking into a nuclear weapons system more daunting a challenge than acquiring or developing a nuclear weapons program? Bear in mind that trafficking in the hardware and not the software also requires terrorists to transport bombs to the West and light the fuses, as it were, themselves.

In his 2007 book On Nuclear Terrorism, Michael Levi, now of the Council on Foreign Relations, demonstrated just how difficult it is to pull off nuclear terrorism the old-fashioned way. Failure at just one of any of the innumerable stages — especially if it’s made more likely by a defense strategy that incorporates the military, law enforcement, intelligence, border control, and port security — stops them dead in their tracks.

Dim prospects for success acquiring or developing their own system might factor into a decision by terrorists to try their hand at hacking into a nuclear weapons system instead. Still sounds too sci-fi to be real? In July this year, the International Commission on Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament (ICNND), which described itself as “a joint initiative of the Australian and Japanese Governments” intended to “reinvigorate” international efforts on nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament, closed up shop.

One of ICNND’s products was an exhaustive report titled Eliminating Nuclear Threats: A Practical Agenda for Global Policymakers. Another useful paper it commissioned was one it published in 2009 by Chinese cyberwarfare expert Jason Fritz titled Hacking Nuclear Command and Control. Among the advantages of going that route are . . .

. . . its relatively low cost, only requiring an off the shelf computer and an internet connection. . . . Cyber terrorism allows greater anonymity than traditional terrorism, as tracking the source of attacks is hindered by proxies, spoofed IP addresses, botnets, [not to mention] legal hindrances. . . . Cyber terrorists can strike an enormous number of targets around the globe without having to be physically present, thereby reducing the risk of death or injury to the attacker. . . . Reducing the risk of death, and the physical or psychological demands, makes it easier to recruit new members for their cause.

Wait, isn’t the computer component of nuclear command and control a closed network? Yes, but, Fritz explains, it may be . . .

. . . compromised by various hacker methods, such as privilege escalation, roaming notebooks, wireless access points, embedded exploits in software and hardware, and maintenance entry points.

A closed network may also be breached via e-mail “spoofing,” in which the sender address and/or header are changed to hide the source of the email. Targeted at individuals “who have access to a closed network, [it] could lead to the installation of a virus on an open network. This virus could then be carelessly transported on removable data storage between the open and closed network.”

Fritz is effectively foreshadowing Stuxnet, the worm thought to have infiltrated Iran’s nuclear-weapons program via a flash drive. As for the maintenance entry points mentioned above (emphasis added) . . .

Efforts by militaries to place increasing reliance on computer networks, including . . . autonomous systems, and their desire to have multiple launch options . . . enables multiple entry points for terrorists.

Though Fritz does not present an attack scenario, he concludes:

Despite claims that nuclear launch orders can only come from the highest authorities, numerous examples point towards an ability to sidestep the chain of command and insert orders at lower levels. [Early] warning and identification systems. . . . are placed at a higher degree of exploitation due to the need for rapid decisions under high pressure with limited intelligence. . . . Lastly, if a nuclear device were detonated, its destructive power can now be magnified by computer network operations, such as misinformation or shutting down key infrastructure.

Though un-cited by Fritz, hacking nuclear command and control presents yet another threat. Even if cyberwarfare is much less expensive than acquiring nuclear weapons, the resources of al Qaeda central (such as they are today), not its small “franchises,” are required. Michael Levi and others emphasize that al Qaeda is notoriously reluctant to stage massive attacks that have a high degree of failure. But when it comes to loss of life and funds — not to mention face — cyberwarfare presents fewer risks. In other words, terrorist computer geeks can hack away all day every day.

With the end of the Cold War, nuclear terrorism has displaced an attack by the Soviet Union as the prime nuclear fear in the minds of most Americans. What’s most frightening about hacking nuclear command and control is how it not only revives the specter of a traditional nuclear attack, but combines it with nuclear terrorism.

WikiLeaks: An Inventive New Threat to the Propaganda System (Part 2)

Iraqi policePart 1 here.

In an effort to foil a repeat of that response, WikiLeaks has taken a “more vigorous approach” to redaction for the Iraq occupation logs, “not because,” WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange says, “we believe that approach was particularly lacking [but] rather just to prevent those sort of distractions from the serious content by people who would like to try and distract from the message.”

In fact, CNN found that, “An initial comparison of a few documents redacted by WikiLeaks to the same documents released by the Department of Defense shows that WikiLeaks removed more information from the documents than the Pentagon.”

The other tactic employed by opinion shapers, coming to the foreground in light of the extensive redactions of the Iraq documents, is to smear the messenger. The reader of the American press cannot help but be struck by one thought while reading the various reports discussing Assange’s reputed authoritarianism and psychological health, the molestation charges he faces, and the factional strife at WikiLeaks: the allegations are of virtually no public policy significance. They amount to scarcely more than gossip column fodder.

Tim Shorrock and Glenn Greenwald have already pointedly noted the tactic in action. The strategy was so transparent that, before the Iraq logs were even published, one of the members of the Infantry Company depicted in the April leak of a U.S. Apache helicopter attack upon two Reuters journalists and others, pleaded with pertinent Congressional bodies: “For every question you ask of Manning and Assange and their characters, the much greater question needs to be asked of where the accountability in U.S. foreign policy has gone.”

Greenwald, one of the most valuable commenters on contemporary American politics now writing, pointed out the divergence between coverage in the Times (the only U.S. media outlet to receive advance access to the files) and foreign media. In contrast to the rest of the world’s media, the Times chose to downplay angles related to the U.S. forces “summarily hand[ing] over thousands of detainees to Iraqi security forces” in what is likely a “serious breach of international law” (in the words of Amnesty International).

Take Der Spiegel’s summation of the German media reaction. The leaks “raise fresh questions over why the US justice system has done so little to probe war crimes committed during the conflict, write German commentators.” They, “provide a shocking portrayal of the brutality of the conflict and its impact on civilians, embarrass the White House and Pentagon and cast doubt on the integrity of the Iraqi government.” Further, the files:

also highlight the failure of the US justice system to investigate war crimes committed during the George W. Bush administration, commentators say, adding that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has done democracy a service by publishing the logs despite attempts by the US government to intimidate him with unsubstantiated claims that he his (sic) putting the lives of soldiers and civilians at risk.

The business journal, Financial Times Deutschland, editorialized:

Wikileaks has presented evidence of the brutality of the war and has thereby done freedom of information a service. The online platform makes it possible for armies that wage war on behalf of nations to be controlled by the citizens of those countries. The people who run the platform should therefore ignore attempts to intimidate them.

No such blunt assessments appeared in American editorial pages. To the contrary, the Washington Post belittled the leaks as “reckless and politically motivated,” guilty of “causing tangible harm,” and of “shed[ding] relatively little light” on “incidents were extensively reported by Western journalists and by the U.S. military when they occurred.” The other major papers simply ignored the story in their opinion pages.

The biased framing of the Iraq occupation logs by the Times is clearly evident from a glance at the headlines on the front page of their feature on the leaks. In an editorial note to its Iraq leaks coverage, the Times comments that, “The documents illuminate the extraordinary difficulty of what the United States and its allies have undertaken.” Employing the same rhetoric, starvation and misery in North Korea would merely illuminate the difficulties of what Kim Jong-il has undertaken.

Needless to say, the call from the Danish daily, Politiken, for a “Truth Commission” has not been taken up on this side of the Atlantic.

Moreover, the most pervasive technique for dealing with unwanted stories – ignoring them – appears to already be in effect. Domestic coverage is quickly evaporating. Unlike the Afghan logs, there is no ‘bloody hands of WikiLeaks’ angle, nor the novelty of the first leaks to extend coverage.

No follow up investigations are likely. The media ‘echo chamber’ will not rehash the unwelcome gory details. As respected military historian Andrew Bacevich puts it, Assange’s “offense is that he is subverting the careful effort, already well-advanced, to construct a neat and satisfying narrative of the Iraq war, thereby enabling Americans to consign the entire episode definitively into the past.”

The Pentagon Papers, of course, received extended coverage. As Ellsberg notes, much of the reaction to the Pentagon Papers actually was due to the heavy handed White House attempts to stifle their publication. This time the White House is savvier.

Whether the current leaks are likely to substantially limit Washington’s military adventures going forward, as former C.I.A. analyst Ray McGovern believes, is uncertain. McGovern recalls the significant policy changes forced by Ellsberg’s first leak to the Times in 1968:

On March 25, President Johnson complained to a small gathering, “The leaks to the New York Times hurt us…We have no support for the war. This is caused by the 206,000 troop request [by Westmoreland] and the leaks…I would have given Westy the 206,000 men.” On March 31, Johnson introduced a bombing pause, opted for negotiations, and announced that he would not run for another term in November 1968.

However, unless the establishment press are compelled by further developments to treat the story with the gravity it merits, there is little indication the White House will in any way curtail its aggression in the Middle East.

Meanwhile, in Britain, there is already political fallout. American democracy is not flattered by the comparison.

It is notable that the massive leaks of this year have all gone to WikiLeaks rather than directly to one of the major news agencies. Either the corporate press did not adequately make itself available to potential whistleblowers, or there was a perception (quite possibly accurate) that these institutions would have done little with the leaks.

There is plenty of precedent for whistleblowers to conclude that the media are an unreliable vessel for leaks. A Washington Post reporter was present during the events depicted on the video of the Apache helicopter attack (and apparently possessed the video before it was released) yet found the events of the day too unremarkable to report upon. Incidentally, the Iraq logs reveal that the same helicopter and unit also gunned down two surrendering combatants several months earlier, in violation of the fourth Geneva Convention.

Similarly, Ellsberg points out (in minute 107) that the top secret files Bob Woodward has had access to would constitute high-level planning documents that would enrich the public record considerably. He could have leaked the documents but, as a member of the establishment, has chosen not to.

And CNN actually declined WikiLeaks’ offer to obtain advance access to the documents “because of conditions that were attached to accepting the material.” Yet the only known condition was to respect a press embargo until last Friday to allow time to redact sensitive information. More likely, it would appear that CNN was uncomfortable with disobeying the wishes of the White House, even in such a minor way. Perhaps they feared a tarring by rival Fox News.

Indeed, WikiLeaks deliberately leaked the material to multiple agencies in several nations, which has the effect of compelling the Times, for instance, to run the story. Compare the Times’ ready publication of the leaks with the paper’s agreement, at the behest of the White House, to sit on its scoop about the National Security Agency’s domestic eavesdropping practices for a full year.

The establishment media are simply not willing to publish politically incorrect truths forthrightly and in the sort of stark terms that an upstart organization like WikiLeaks is, and for that reason the organization represents a novel threat to the propaganda system.

It is hard to imagine an opinion column or editorial in a major paper quipping, as Assange recently did (see the tail end of the video), that “the Pentagon’s public statements are about as credible as that of North Korea.” Those who think Assange’s characterization extreme might consider the statement of the Pentagon spokesperson in response to Friday’s leaks documenting that U.S. forces are complicit in the Iraqi detainee torture: “There is nothing in here which would indicate war crimes. If there were, we would have investigated it a long time ago.” The dungeons of Iraq no doubt roiled with laughter at that one.

As for the most recent batch of leaks, they have contributed greatly to a detailed evidentiary record of the crimes of the occupation. Without the Iraq logs, the public would never have access to grisly details like that which a June 26, 2006 dispatch records:

EVIDENCE OF UNCHECKED TORTURE WAS NOTED IN THE IRAQI POLICE STATION IN HUSAYBAH, [GREEN ZONE]. LARGE AMOUNTS OF BLOOD ON THE CELL FLOOR, A WIRE USED FOR ELECTRIC SHOCK AND A RUBBER HOSE WERE LOCATED IN THE HOLDING CELL.

To its credit, the Times observes that, at least in one respect, the outcome of this incident was too positive to be representative of most incidents because, “Unlike in other cases, in this case Americans officers took action, including ordering a soldier to spend the night in the prison to prevent further abuses.”

Steven Fake is coauthor with Kevin Funk of The Scramble for Africa: Darfur — Intervention and the USA, Black Rose Books (2009).

Republican Sees 50 Nukes Knocked Offline as a Chance to Recoup Lost Ground

No doubt you heard about the engineering failure at F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming which knocked 50 nuclear ICBMs (intercontinental ballistic missiles) offline last Saturday. Then, on Thursday, Marc Ambinder of the Atlantic reported:

Senate Republicans plan to seize on the news [of said failure] to delay or even block ratification of the new strategic arms reduction treaty (START).

“The recent failure reinforces the need for the United States to maintain 450 ICBMs to ensure a strong nuclear defense,” said Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY). “If new START had been in place on Sunday, we would have immediately been below an acceptable level to deter threats from our enemies.” . . .

“We’re talking about one hour, and 50 missiles from one part of our triad . . .” a senior administration official said. . . . “And nothing in START prevents us from upgrading that part of the nuclear deterrent.”

Needless to say, we personally derive no consolation from the news that “nothing in START prevents us from upgrading that part of the nuclear deterrent.” At first we thought this was an attempt on the part of the Republicans to extort even more money from the Obama administration, already generous to a fault towards the nuclear-industrial complex. But, as you may have noticed above, Senator Barrasso is an “R-WY.” As Tom Z. Collina, writes in an Arms Control Association press release:

It should be noted that Sen. Barrasso’s state is host to Warren Air Force Base and its 150 ICBMs, and that New START could reduce that force.

The Obama administration has pledged a staggering amount of money — ballpark figure: $11 billion over the next decade — to the nuclear-weapons industry for “modernization,” in part to convince Republican senators to ratify START. But, in this instance, Sen. Barrasso is more concerned with a holding action in his own backyard.

Argentina’s Once — and Might-Have-Been Future — President Dies, to the Rejoicing of the Corporate Sector

Nestor KirchnerCross-posted from the Dissent Magazine blog Arguing the World.

Rarely do you see it put in such crass terms. On Wednesday Néstor Kirchner—former Argentinean president, projected contender in next year’s elections, and husband of current president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner—died suddenly of a heart attack. Business rejoiced.

A Reuters article headlined “Argentine assets rise on death of ex-President Kirchner” read:

A market holiday in Argentina muted local prices, but investors immediately bid higher Argentine credit-related and equity-related assets trading in global markets following the news Kirchner, 60, husband to current President Cristina Fernandez, died suddenly on Wednesday….

“Sincerely, for Argentina and from a market perspective there is nothing better than knowing that Kirchner will be out of the presidential race of next year. For years his confrontational, resentful style towards investors, companies and bond holdouts deprived Argentina of much-needed capital,” said Roberto Sanchez-Dahl, who oversees $1.1 billion in emerging market debt for Pittsburgh-based Federated Investment Management.

Despite fund managers’ claims, Kirchner was no raving radical. Social movements in Argentina tended to have conflicted relationships with the Kirchners. And even those foreign analysts who have followed the strategy, popular in the Bush White House, of dividing Latin American progressives into a “good” left (Chile, Brazil, Uruguay under Vázquez) and a “bad” one (Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador) have sometimes been ambivalent about how to classify Kirchner’s Argentina.

However, the accomplishments that Néstor Kirchner will be remembered for, at least on the international scene, are progressive ones. On the human rights front, he supported the repeal of amnesty laws that protected military officers guilty of grotesque abuses during the country’s “Dirty War” in the 1970s and early 80s. His willingness to see captains of the past dictatorship brought to trial stood in bright contrast to the behavior of previous administrations, and it opened the door to high-profile prosecutions.

Kirchner’s most consequential policy decisions, moreover, were economic. I have previously written:

In 2003 the left-leaning Néstor Kirchner took office in Argentina—in the aftermath of the 2001 collapse of the country’s economy and the popular uprisings that forced several successive governments from power. The neoliberal policies supported by the IMF and implemented by President Carlos Menem in the 1990s were widely seen as responsible for the collapse. Since then, Argentina has set an important example by breaking with the IMF and playing hardball with international creditors.

In 2003, the country made a credible threat of defaulting on its payments to the IMF—something previously unheard of for middle-income countries. In response, the Fund backed away from demands for austerity and higher interest rates. It did so for fear that other countries would follow Argentina in defaulting. The exchange shook the international standing of the IMF and allowed Argentina to finalize a renegotiation of over $100 billion in foreign debt in 2005. The renegotiation drastically reduced the value of the country’s outstanding obligations to private creditors.

And further:

The strategy worked, allowing his government to negotiate a very favorable restructuring of its loans. Argentina standing up to the IMF was like an underdog knocking down the schoolyard bully. The aura of invincibility surrounding the Fund was dispelled, and the institution will likely never again inspire the same begrudging awe.

Given that there is no international mechanism for countries to declare bankruptcy, and that the poor in many nations are held hostage by international creditors who ruthlessly demand payment even for clearly illegitimate debts, the president’s stand was a pivotal one. Mark Weisbrot comments on the same key moment in his remembrance of Kirchner at the Guardian:

His role in rescuing Argentina’s economy is comparable to that of Franklin D Roosevelt in the Great Depression of the United States. Like Roosevelt, Kirchner had to stand up both to powerful moneyed interests and to most of the economics profession, which was insisting that his policies would lead to disaster. They were proved wrong, and Kirchner right….

Argentina went on to grow at an average of more than 8% annually through 2008, pulling more than 11 million people, in a country of 40 million, out of poverty. The policies of the Kirchner government, including the central bank targeting of a stable and competitive real exchange rate, and taking a hard line against the defaulted creditors—were not popular in Washington or among the business press. But they worked.

Of course, the very same policies earned him scorn among money managers, who continue to frame events entirely in terms of losses to well-heeled investors. As the Reuters article states of Kirchner:

His combative and outspoken criticism of big business and political rivals did not endear him to international investors. He refused to settle with hold-out investors who sued the government over the 2002 default, keeping Argentina from freely raising capital in the international markets.

“This reduces political risks. If there is a possibility that this could lead to a more market-friendly and transparent leadership in time, that could be beneficial for economic policymaking,” said Richard Segal, analyst Knight Libertas in London.

Seeing such analysts dance on Kirchner’s grave is hardly the most dignified sight one could imagine. Then again, for those trying to measure their lives by service to justice, rather than service to money, the celebration of the bankers upon your death may be a most fitting homage.

Mark Engler can be reached via his website, Democracy Uprising.

WikiLeaks: An Inventive New Threat to the Propaganda System (Part 1)

Iraqi policeOn Friday evening, WikiLeaks published “the largest classified military leak in history” – nearly 400,000 documents totaling some 800,000 pages. The files pertain to the U.S. occupation of Iraq. The Washington Post called it a “chilling, pointillist view of the war’s peak years.”

The logs are “low-level field reports that reflect a soldier’s eye view of the conflict.” Among the most interesting pages is documentation of “hundreds of …cases in which prisoners were subjected to electric shock, sodomized, burned, whipped or beaten by Iraqi authorities.” The BBC adds that torture techniques include the use of electric drills as well as executions.

In one instance, “Three Iraqi officers poured acid on the hands of a man and cut off some of his fingers.” In another case, a U.S. medical officer examined the corpse of a man named Sheik Bashir, who police claimed “had died of bad kidneys,” and concluded that “There was evidence of some type of unknown surgical procedure on Bashir’s (sic) abdomen. The incision was closed by 3-4 stitches. There was also evidence of bruises on the face, chest, ankle, and back of the body.”

A BBC correspondent commented, “The US military knew of the abuses [of Iraqi detainees], the documents suggest, but reports were sent up the chain of command marked ‘no further investigation.’”

As veteran journalist Patrick Cockburn writes:

The leaks are important because they prove much of what was previously only suspected but never admitted by the US army or explained in detail. It was obvious from 2004 that US forces almost always ignored cases of torture by Iraqi government forces, but this is now shown to have been official policy.

One of the leaks is a memorandum, entitled Frago 242, which establishes that official policy. Al Jazeera managed to unearth a November 2005 clip (starting at about minute 3:30) from one of Washington’s innumerable military press conferences that depicts then-head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Peter Pace, averring that U.S. soldiers have a responsibility to “intervene” if they witness inhumane treatment. Donald Rumsfeld, made honest by arrogance, corrects him: “I don’t think you mean they have an obligation to physically stop it. It’s to report it.”

Despite official complicity in the torture, there have been attempts to halt the abuses. The Washington Post notes that “The logs do record attempts by U.S. and coalition forces to stop the abuse…. But U.S. soldiers often could do little…”

Additionally, Al Jazeera reports (minute 4:15) that, “Some senior Iraqi police officers did try to act against the torture. But were warned off [by U.S. forces], making the U.S. position even more worrying.” This further demonstrates what was already evident – that U.S. policy went beyond indifference to active complicity with the torture chambers of “truly shocking scale.” The efforts to intervene by Iraqi police have, however, received no attention – in contrast to the efforts of some U.S. personnel, which can be spun as an illustration of superior American humanity (witness the New York Times’ headline: “Detainees Suffered Most In Iraqi Custody, U.S. Logs Say”).

Much like sifting through the accumulated evidence of a legal proceeding, the Iraq files make tedious reading. Unlike the kind of human interest stories favored by the press, particularly television news, that profile the plight of individuals – the Chilean miners being the most striking recent example – the victims in the Iraq occupation logs will not be humanized. The journalistic outfits with the resources to send foreign correspondents will not attempt to interview the families of those documented as killed in the leaks, or otherwise flesh-out the brief, acronym-filled accounts in the military logs into comprehensible stories of human suffering.

Nonetheless, the bare details in the entries can be striking. The leading German daily, Der Spiegel, highlights the reports from a particularly violent day, Thursday Nov. 23, 2006. On that date, the tally reads: “Incidents: 360. Deaths: 318. Minimum injured: 373.” One file from the day records, in the “dry military lingo” that is characteristic of these bureaucratic forms that comprise most of the leaks:

1:45 p.m.: A watch post at Camp Summerall in Bayji, northwest of Baghdad, discovers a man digging by the side of the road 300 meters (985 feet) from the base and fires warning shots. “The individual dropped the shovel and ran away. No BDA,” which means “body damage assessment.” The log also notes that the individual was estimated to be between 10 and 12 years old.

The response to the new leaks from Washington has been predictable. The Pentagon affected to “deplore” the release of the files to the global public “including our enemies.” Hillary Clinton announced that “We should condemn in the most clear terms the disclosure” of any information that would endanger lives.

The public posture was straight out of an old playbook. Daniel Ellsberg himself noted that the same dangers to national security were invoked when he leaked the Pentagon Papers in 1971.

The corporate press, taking their cue from Washington, have treated the claims of dire security threats posed by the leaks with somber credulity.

Reportage has also failed to provide proper context for the documents. The media, virtually across the board, domestic and international (Robert Fisk in the London Independent being an exception), included no cautionary note that the fatality totals are surely an undercount and amount to a small fraction of the best estimates using epidemiological methodology. The fatalities recorded in the leaked files total 109,000 violent deaths in the 2004-2009 period, 66,081 of whom were civilians. The London Guardian did note that, even within the narrow framework of the logs:

the US figures appear to be unreliable in respect of civilian deaths caused by their own military activities. For example, in Falluja, the site of two major urban battles in 2004, no civilian deaths are recorded. Yet Iraq Body Count monitors identified more than 1,200 civilians who died during the fighting.

The media response to the Afghan occupation logs that WikiLeaks released in July was to deftly redirect the debate onto WikiLeaks, following the Pentagon’s talking points. Fisk, an esteemed journalist on the region, noted the remarkable spectacle of the Pentagon earnestly accusing WikiLeaks of having “on their hands the blood of some young soldier or that of an Afghan family” (Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff):

The Pentagon has been covered in blood since the dropping of the atom bomb on Hiroshima in 1945, and for an institution that ordered the illegal invasion of Iraq in 2003 – wasn’t that civilian death toll more than 66,000 by their own count, out of a total of 109,000 recorded? – to claim that WikiLeaks is culpable of homicide is preposterous.

Weeks later it was privately admitted by the Secretary of Defense that no “sensitive intelligence sources and methods [were] compromised” (and thus, presumably, no one has died as a result of the leaks, though that apparently was not the topic of concern). NATO confirms in more direct terms that no individuals in Afghanistan are known to be threatened.

However, the subsequent corrections were given a scarcely detectable sliver of the prominence of the original accusations. In this manner, the propaganda system handily deflected most of the damage from the leaks.

Part 2 tomorrow.

Money Wars: Beating up on Beijing? (Part 2)

Chinese banknotesJohn Isbister, the author of Promises Not Kept: Poverty and the Betrayal of Third World Development (Kumarian Press, 2006), responded to Conn Hallinan’s essay in an email which we reproduce here.

The United States is blowing hot and cold on this issue at the same time, for an additional reason beyond those that Conn cites.

The U.S. federal government is running a huge deficit. Where does it get the funds to finance that deficit? From borrowing, or selling bonds. Who buys the bonds? There are two possibilities — U.S. residents or foreigners.

If U.S. residents buy them, this reduces the funds available for domestic private investment, which in turn hurts economic growth. As it turns out, however, U.S. investors are not much buying these bonds. Foreigners are buying them. But not just any foreigners. In fact, almost no foreigners.

If you look at U.S.-dollar-denominated assets as an investment, they are pretty crummy. Because of the huge foreign trade deficit, the only direction the U.S. dollar has to go is down. Would you buy an asset where downside movement was likely, and upside movement extremely unlikely? That’s right, you wouldn’t.

It turns out that virtually the only foreigners buying U.S. bonds are the central banks of China and Japan, maybe a bit from South Korea. Why are they doing it? Not because they think the value of the dollar is going to appreciate and they will make a killing. Rather, by selling their currency, and buying U.S. currency, they keep the value of their own currency relatively low, and the value of the U.S. currency relatively high. This in turn, as you explain, helps their exports, which in turn are one of the drivers of their economic growth.

Suppose this system stopped. Suppose the United States still runs a big government deficit, but the Chinese refuse to finance it. There are several possibilities, but the most likely, in my view, is that the current account deficit would be brought into balance by a huge decline in the value of the U.S. dollar. This would give us massive stagflation, 1970s style — and worse. Foreign goods, including investment goods, would be much more expensive. This would reduce real economic activity in the United States, while leading at the same time to massive inflation.

In other words, the United States can talk all it wants about how irresponsible the Chinese are in manipulating their currency. But if the Chinese ever stopped doing it, at the same time that the United States is running a big deficit, the U.S. economy would explode. Right now, the Chinese are saving our bacon — no one else is willing to do it.

Incidentally, this whole issue was and I think still is a matter of controversy in many university economics departments. Some of the more right-wing members think there is no problem, that the Chinese are essentially trapped. They have to keep propping the dollar up, not only to keep their exports growing, but also to maintain the value of their dollar-denominated assets. Many other economists think the opposite, that at some point the Chinese are going to stop throwing good money after bad, and will allow the exchange rate to adjust. And this, in turn will have the catastrophically bad effects on the US economy
that I just described.

John Isbister is the Dean of Humanities and Social Sciences at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada.

WikiLeaks: Decisive Evidence of the Bush Administration’s Criminal Liability

Cross-posted from Iraq Veterans Against the War.

The American public now knows that the Bush administration authorized the CIA to employ torture against suspected high level Al Qaeda operatives in the name of national security. The public was told that these techniques were necessary to protect American citizens and that they were carefully calibrated in order to minimize any harm beyond what was absolutely necessary to fulfill the government’s mandate.

The Bush administration has never been able to actually prove that its use of torture was necessary however; nor has it been able to extricate itself from the moral dilemma it created by engaging in tactics that previously distinguished this country from its enemies. For those who remain spellbound by the administration’s rhetoric, the classified Iraq documents published in October by Wikileaks demonstrate the depths to which it lowered itself in its cynicism and hypocrisy.

Prior to the 2003 invasion, the American public was treated to a relentless propaganda bombardment focused on the evils of Saddam Hussein, including most notoriously his use of torture against his enemies. It was America’s responsibility to stop this evil, so the narrative went, increasingly so after the intelligence community failed to find any trace of WMDs in post-invasion Iraq.

On October 22, Al Jazeera reported that from at least as far back as 2005, U.S. military policy regarding allegations of torture by Iraqi security forces was to shift investigatory authority from frontline units to higher headquarters, effectively ensuring that Iraqi forces would be permitted to operate in flagrant violation of international law.

Why did we “turn a blind eye to torture,” as Al Jazeera so unequivocally put it? In light of the Bush administration’s moral flexibility on so many other matters of national security policy, it is almost impossible not to draw the conclusion that for them, torture was only an issue of concern if perpetrated by an unfriendly government. In the case of the U.S.-aligned Iraqi government, allegations of torture would only be investigated at the discretion of “higher headquarters”; i.e. when it became politically necessary or useful to do so. Though Al Jazeera does not specify where the military’s torture reporting policy derived from, as the proverb goes, “The fish rots from the head.”

There is still a great deal to be known about the Bush administration’s Iraq policies. Courageous and indefatigable investigators and whistleblowers including James Bamford, Karen Kwiatkowski, Naomi Klein, Greg Palast, Greg Muttitt, Antonia Juhasz and numerous others have already uncovered a great deal of those pieces which will in time give us the complete set of answers about why the Bush administration took the United States to war. And as we continue to uncover the pieces, we will build the case for Bush officials’ criminal liability for subverting the Constitution and for the deaths of over one hundred thousand Iraqis and 4,400 Americans.

Those who have sacrificed their lives in the effort to keep Iraq from fragmenting into civil war through seven years of continuous conflict deserve nothing less than the full and undistorted truth about why their commander-in-chief ordered them into battle. And the Iraqi people, victims of a war of aggression, are owed what justice America can offer and more.

TJ Buonomo is an energy program associate at Global Exchange and a board member of Iraq Veterans Against the War.

Money Wars: Beating up on Beijing? (Part 1)

Chinese renminbiAre the U.S. and China on a collision course? Consider the following:

During the 2010 mid-term elections, some 30 candidates for the House and Senate are blasting China for everything from undermining America’s financial structure to fueling the U.S. unemployment crisis.

The Obama Administration is accusing China of manipulating its currency to sabotage the U.S. exports trade, and the U.S. House of Representatives just passed a bill to slap huge tariffs on Chinese goods unless Beijing allows the renminbi, China’s currency, to appreciate.

A recent Financial Times article on the failure of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to resolve the currency issue says, “The hostility between Washington and Beijing has escalated into something resembling trench warfare.” Last year a CNN poll found that 71 percent of Americans thought China was an economic threat, and 51 percent of those polled thought Beijing represented a military threat as well.

If one adds to the above the growing tensions with China in the South China Sea and the Taiwan Straits, some kind of dust-up seems almost inevitable, though any “collision” would be a diplomatic one. But a major diplomatic fallout between the world’s two largest economies has global implications.

What is going on here? Is China indeed manipulating its currency to beggar the U.S.? Does it bear some responsibility for the high jobless rate and the inability of the American economy to recover from the deep recession?

The answer is both yes and no, and thereby hangs a tale.

The U.S. charges that China is deliberately undervaluing its currency, the renminbi, which makes Chinese export goods cheaper than its competitors and thus undermines other countries’ exports.

China is indeed manipulating its currency, although it is hardly alone. In one way or another, Brazil, Japan, Switzerland, Thailand, South Korea and others have recently acted to keep their currencies competitive. Nor is currency manipulation something new. During the 1980s the Reagan Administration and Japan jimmied their currencies to deal with a huge trade gap. Indeed, the current free market orthodoxy regarding currency is a recent phenomenon in world finances, a reflection of the “Washington Consensus” model that has dominated institutions like the IMF and the World Bank for the last two decades.

How one sees the current dispute depends on where one sits. With U.S. unemployment above 10 percent, Americans are focused on policies that will bring that rate down. But from China’s point of view, any major upward evaluation of the renminbi would simply transfer U.S. jobless rates to China.

Since it would also reduce the value of the dollar, it would lower the value of the massive debt the U.S. owes China. “And that, to the Chinese, would feel suspiciously like a default,” says Stephen King, chief economist for HSBC.

In short, a lose-lose deal for Beijing.

From the Chinese side of the equation, the U.S. is essentially trying to unload the consequences of the economic meltdown that Wall Street caused them. And they dispute the fact that the huge trade surplus are all that relevant to the current crisis.

According to Avinash D. Persuad, chair of Intelligence Capital Limited, even if China’s $175 billion trade were to somehow vanish, it would only have a 0.25 percent impact on global GDP. “The Chinese economy is one quarter of the U.S. economy, and at the peak of the U.S. trade deficit, China’s surplus was less than a third of it. David may have toppled Goliath, but he couldn’t carry him,” says Persuad.

Exports have certainly been important to China, but they have only accounted for 10 to 15 percent of growth over the past decade. The main engine for Chinese growth has been investment. According to the World Bank Growth Commission, of the 13 countries that have enjoyed 7 percent growth rates over the past 10 years, all had high investment rates. These countries suppressed consumption by keeping wages low, allowing them to amass enormous pools of capital to pour into upgrading infrastructure or subsidizing industry.

The Chinese economy is booming—it never fell below 8 percent growth during the recession—but it has some vulnerabilities. The Chinese recognize that they need to shift their economy, away from an over-reliance on exports to one based more on internal consumption. To this end, private wages and consumption have been growing at a respectable 8 to 10 percent yearly. The thinking is that as consumption goes up, China will absorb more of its own products, and thus the trade deficit will go down.

China’s new five-year plan is trying to do exactly this. Shifting some of the economy away from the wealthy coastal areas toward the more depressed inland part of the country will help alleviate some of the wealth gap between city and country, and encourage urbanization in the interior. All of these moves will increase consumption.

If China were to suddenly raise the value of its currency, however, it would tank a number of export industries and flood China with unemployment. Since the jobless have no money, consumer spending would fall, setting off yet another round of layoffs and plant closings. This is, of course, exactly what Americans are discovering.

Beijing has begun raising the value of renminbi—it has risen 2.5 percent since June—but the slow pace has not satisfied Washington. The Americans are making other demands as well. For instance, the U.S. would like China to lower its interest rates, which the Americans argue would encourage consumption.

But as Michael Pettis, a professor of finance at Guanghua School in Beijing University and a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment, points out, “This would be terrible for China. Lower interests rates and more credit will fuel a real estate boom and boost both capital-intensive manufacturing and infrastructure overcapacity—all without rebalancing consumption.”

From China’s point of view the problem is not its currency, but the lack of controls over American finance that can lead to tsunamis of money flooding into underdeveloped countries. In 1997, waves of international investment money poured into Thailand, tanking the currency and spreading a recession, the so-called “Asian Flu,” throughout the region. The Thais took action Oct. 12 to block a similar “hot wave” of money pouring into the country by imposing a 15 percent withholding tax on capital gains and interest payments on government and state-owned company bonds. Besides Thailand and South Korea, other countries in Asia, including Singapore and Taiwan, have also intervened to keep their financial ships on an even keel.

Europeans are blowing hot and cold on currency intervention. Last year and this past winter and spring, the EU had good reasons for remaining quiet about the subject of undervalued currencies. The Euro lost 17 percent of its value vis-à-vis the dollar over the Greek financial crisis, which had the effect of powering up European exports, in particular, by Germany.

Germany—the world’s second biggest exporter after China—is as much concerned about the dollar as the renminbi. “We expect the U.S. to continue its policy of printing money,” Aton Borner, president of the German exporters’ association, BGA, told the Financial Times. “This will trigger a currency devaluation spiral that will hit Europe the most.” The dollar has dropped 20 percent against the Euro since June, and German exports have fallen for two months in a row.

The Europeans are certainly concerned about the currency crisis, although they are a good deal more sotto voice than the Americans. “It’s not helpful to use bellicose statements when it comes to currency or to trade,” says French finance minister Christine Lagarde.

Governments that don’t take care of their own during an economic crisis will eventually pay a price at the polls. Brazilian Foreign Minister Celso Amorim is certainly concerned about defending Brazil’s currency, but he is careful about applying pressure as a way of finding solutions. “We have good coordination with China, and we’ve been talking to them,” he said, adding, “We can’t forget that China is our main customer.”

China charges that the U.S. is scapegoating it for problems that the U.S. created for itself, and there is certainly a strong odor of China bashing these days, even from intelligent and thoughtful people like Paul Krugman, Nobel laureate and New York Times columnist.

Krugman says that while he wants to avoid “hard ball policies,” he says “China is adding materially to the world’s economic problems at a time when those problems are already severe. It is time to take a stand.” Krugman suggests the U.S. should put a 10 percent surcharge on imports from China, a move more likely to ignite a global trade war than bring China to heel.

Last weekend’s meeting of the G20, representing the world’s leading economies, firmly rejected an American proposal aimed at the Chinese (and also the Germans) and opted for a less confrontational approach. The meeting in Seoul, South Korea essentially asked everyone to play nice. Whether they will or not remains to be seen. The subject is sure to come up again in November when G20’s heads of states get together.

The solution is not a quick re-evaluation of the currency, says the Carnegie Endowment’s Pettis, but “statesman-like behavior, in which the major economies agree to resolve their trade balances over several years.”

“Statesman-like behavior” is not exactly what is coming out of Washington these days.

WikiLeaks: U.S. Shattered Its Only Plausible Pretext for Iraq War

As we all recall, in attempt to justify the Iraq War, the Bush administration claimed that Iraq still possessed weapons of mass destruction and that it harbored al Qaeda. While those didn’t pass the smell test, there was truth to their illegitimate reasons for the invasion: staking a claim to Iraqi oil, establishing a security base in the Middle East other than fickle Saudi Arabia, and just putting the fear of God (or Allah) into the Middle East.

One other justification, deposing a serial human rights violator, suckered in many, even some liberals. Deep down, they must have known that the Bush administration would never launch a war out of ethical considerations. What country does really? They seemed to embrace the result, though, even if it wasn’t done for the right motivation.

But the recent WikiLeaks document dump shows the extent to which Bush & Co. failed at even halting human rights violations. As part of its incomparable coverage, the Guardian reports that the documents record (emphasis added) . . .

. . . the case of a man who was arrested by [Iraqi] police on suspicion of preparing a suicide bomb. In the station, an officer shot him in the leg and then, the log continues, this detainee “suffered abuse which amounted to cracked ribs, multiple lacerations and welts and bruises from being whipped with a large rod and hose across his back”. This was all recorded. [The outcome?] “No further investigation.” . . .

This is the impact of Frago 242 . . . a “fragmentary order” which summarises a complex requirement [ordering] coalition troops not to investigate . . . the abuse of detainees, unless it directly involves members of the coalition.

It gets worse, as another Guardian report explains:

[A] series of log entries in 2004 and 2005 describe repeated raids by US infantry, who then handed their captives over to the Wolf Brigade for “further questioning”. [The] feared 2nd battalion of the interior ministry’s special commandos [, the] Wolf Brigade was created and supported by the US in an attempt to re-employ elements of Saddam Hussein’s Republican Guard, this time to terrorise insurgents.

How did this help the cause of the United States? Returning to the first Guardian report (emphasis added) . . .

Frago 242 appears to have been issued as part of the wider political effort to pass the management of security from the coalition to Iraqi hands. In effect, it means that the regime has been forced to change its political constitution but allowed to retain its use of torture.

In other words, the United States may have deposed the human rights violator but kept the violations. After all, they were only a couple of degrees more barbaric than what the U.S. military and contractors were doing in bases Iraq and at Guantanamo.

WikiLeaks: U.S. Soldiers Left Wondering “What’s the Moral Code This Week?”

The newly released documents from WikiLeaks reveal massive falsehoods, cover-up and abuse in Iraq. The President, Vice-President, and Commanding Generals — including the iconic General Petraeus — have knowingly conveyed false and deceptive information to the American people and the Congress of the United States regarding the invasion and the aftermath of Iraq.

The American people know about the falsehoods that were established as reasons for the invasion of Iraq. We now know that falsehoods have continued throughout the war, especially regarding the treatment of prisoners and overall conditions in Iraq. For example, the Bush administration consistently informed us that the military does not keep track of the number of Iraqi deaths, both civilian and military. The WikiLeaks release proved this to be false. Moreover, the number of deaths was intentionally underestimated. President Bush repeatedly denied knowing the number of deaths — yet the numbers were there. Now the Pentagon does not dispute that the total number of deaths between 2004-2009 (from the WikiLeaks revelation) is 109,000 with 65,000 of those being civilians.

The arbitrary killing of nearly a thousand Iraqi civilians at checkpoints, our handing over of Iraqi prisoners to Iraqi security forces and silence while knowing prisoners are tortured and raped is now a part of the historical record. American administrations’ acquiescence to our contractors’ free rein in killing Iraqis is disturbing. The cover-up of civilian deaths, the shooting of children and the claims of ignorance about the abuse at Abu Ghraib simply debase what we tout as our American values.

What is the consequence of four-star generals telling the American people falsehoods with a straight face? How does that reverberate throughout the ranks of the military, and throughout American society as a whole? Imagine a 20-year-old soldier forced to lie about his military actions, contrary to his upbringing. The values our soldiers grew up with in their homes, houses of worship and schools — honesty, integrity, honor, duty — all have been debased. The policies of our politics have forced our military personnel, down to the soldiers’ level, to practice and perpetuate falsehoods, or at the very least, come close to that in order to remain in the military. The very definition of war crimes has been altered.

When American soldiers are faced daily with such stark moral dilemmas, it is no surprise that over a half million returnee soldiers from the current wars demonstrate mental health issues. We have over 300,000 returnee soldiers with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Moreover, a very large number of our veterans have a very difficult time adjusting to regular civilian life. War has always been hell. But our soldiers suffering the additional burden of a rewritten moral code that demeans the values they thought they were protecting face an even greater burden. Yet no one at the Pentagon wants to talk about the contribution of this moral stress on our soldiers. Military leaders will not address these moral values issues for their soldiers, since in so doing, the entire system that has been built on these tall tales is dismantled.

It is inevitable that we will now find ourselves lost in the details of the vast sea of documents that have been exposed through WikiLeaks. But we should step back from the details and ask ourselves some bigger questions presented by the documentation. For example, what does the rest of the world see as emblematic of American actions abroad? Does this reputation serve us well as we engage other nations in the quest for basic human rights and democracy? Does it show us to be a trustworthy partner in economic negotiations?

This is a defining moment for our identification as Americans. Do we fully understand the implications of our acceptance of the status quo, never questioning the veracity of reports that now have been proven false? Or are we going to investigate our crimes to embark on a path that restores American honor and leadership in the world?

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