Focal Points Blog

Note to Al Qaeda in Iraq: How Does Attacking Your Own People Undermine Their Confidence in the Government?

“Insurgents unleashed attacks across Baghdad on Tuesday night, setting off more than a dozen coordinated bombs,” reports Jack Healy for the New York Times. “It was among the fiercest assaults on the capital since the United States invaded in 2003. . . . At least 63 people were killed and about 285 were wounded. . . . The explosions — devastating car bombs and roadside blasts — struck . . . Shiite . . . Sadr City, a Sunni mosque, public squares . . . and middle-class shopping districts. . . . They tore across divisions of sect and class.” [Emphasis added.]

No group has yet claimed responsibility, but the U.S. military suspects Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia (the late Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s group, also know as Al Qaeda in Iraq [AQI]). Why include Sunnis then? Healy writes that the attacks “took dead aim at the sheen of normalcy that had settled over Baghdad” and were an attempt to “undermine popular confidence in the government,” as well as “a bloody declaration of their ability to thwart the government’s efforts to secure” the city.

That’s it? Attacking your own people is supposed to undermine confidence in the government? Sounds more like a mindless admixture of anarchy and nihilism. I picked up this quote off the Internet by the nineteenth century Russian nihilist Dmitri Pisarev:

Here is the ultimatum of our camp. What can be smashed must be smashed; whatever will stand the blow is sound, what flies into smithereens is rubbish; at any rate, hit out right and left, no harm will or can come of it.

Besides, doesn’t attempting to make the case that the government is unable to keep the peace suggest that you’re an insignificant opponent that the government should be able to contain? Doesn’t that reflect poorly on your status as a threat?

Just for a moment, let’s set aside the role of the United States in lighting Iraq’s fuse by invading and occupying the country. Instead, let’s ask: Is AQI trying to alienate — sociopaths like themselves excluded — every last Middle-Easterner? If Focal Points readers have more profound insights into their strategy, or lack thereof, than the author does, he would be in your debt if you shared them with us in the comments column.

Brazil’s First Female President Expected to Carry on Lula’s Work — for Better or Worse

President Dilma RouseffWhile the election of a former Marxist guerrilla has captured attention, prospects for further advances in Brazilian democracy largely lie outside of the electoral arena.

As expected, Dilma Rousseff won the Oct 31st runoff to become the next president of Brazil. Lula’s chosen successor has captured attention abroad for her past as a Marxist guerrilla and torture victim during the years of the dictatorship.

Her former life as a militant advocate for societal change and democracy may mislead as to her contemporary political positions. No radical, she downplays her early years and is expected to continue Lula’s center-left policies.

For many Brazilians, that was reason enough to vote for her. Certainly, the election of the first female president in the world’s fourth largest democracy, and one with her past, is indicative of the progress Brazil has made since military rule.

However, one should not judge Rousseff by the standards of the United States. As Greg Grandin has noted, the entire spectrum of political discussion in Brazil is well to the left of the U.S. The leading opposition candidate, the nominee of the Social Democratic Party, and standard-bearer for the right, nonetheless made a name for himself as health minister for promoting cheap generic medicines and, during the campaign, favored lowering interest rates – a position to the left of Rousseff. And the Green Party candidate (though not as consistently left-leaning as might be supposed) secured 19% of the vote in the first round. In some respects, the country is also more democratic: social movements are vast – the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra (MST) has, adjusting for U.S. population size, the equivalent of 2.3 million members; the homeless are organized (for instance, in preparing for the wave of evictions predicted in the wake of the 2014 FIFA World Cup and 2016 Olympics); labor is stronger – and the candidates are more interesting. In sharp contrast to the Ivy League pedigrees of most U.S. presidents, Dilma’s predecessor never went beyond the 4th grade and began his career as a shoeshine boy-turned-factory worker and union organizer.

Her agenda inevitably reflects the balance of power within Brazilian society. She plans to continue with the massive Belo Monte hydroelectric dam construction project opposed by many indigenous populations and environmentalists. Further, she is expected to maintain the neoliberal policies of Lula. In her acceptance speech on Monday, she uttered the proper words to soothe international financial markets and appointed a “market friendly” team of advisors. Nor is she likely to undertake comprehensive land reform of the sort demanded by the 1.5 million strong MST, or discontinue Lula’s favoritism towards multinational agribusinesses. Brazil’s highly inequitable land holdings, now more concentrated than in 1920, have not seen a serious governmental effort at redistribution since João Goulart was overthrown in 1964.

As João Pedro Stédile, a leading member of the MST and Via Campesina, put it:

“During the Lula administration, we didn’t have the space to discuss true land reform and didn’t have the mass forces to pressure the government and society. Thus, on the one hand the current policy is insufficient, yet on the other, it is a clear expression of the social forces that exist in society.”

Yet Stédile is clear about the value of the Lula-Dilma administrations:

“The Lula government carried out a progressive foreign policy on the level of State policies. And on the economic level, it carried out a policy in the interests of Brazilian companies. Compared to the neoliberal policies of Cardoso, who were totally subservient to the interests of imperialism, this is a huge advance.”

Certainly, on the level of electoral politics, a continuation of the Lula agenda under Rousseff’s helm is a good thing, approximately the best outcome that could be expected. The handover of power cements the developing norms of parliamentary democracy. The economic realities facing laborers saw modest but real improvements under Lula. Inequality declined. The social safety net was extended. Twenty-one million people rose out of official poverty. Lula also guided Brazil on an independent trajectory, loosening the strictures of United States hegemony in the region.

However, if we permit ourselves to depart from the demarcated boundaries of polite discourse and cast a glance outside of the electoral arena, Rousseff’s presidency represents little forward momentum for the left and in fact poses the significant danger that her administration will facilitate the assimilation and neutering of the social movements. It is the expectation of leaders within the MST that Dilma will create a political environment “more conducive to social struggle.” Yet, much as the election of Obama in the U.S. potentially opened up space for the further expansion of left movements but has heretofore had the effect of demobilizing the left, Rousseff’s election and strong coalition of legislators creates both opportunities and threats for the left.

There is reason for optimism, however, as Brazilian people’s movements are not only larger than those in the U.S., but more politically sophisticated. Stédile observes that, “Brazilian society is not democratic…. So even when we elect governments with progressive proposals, they lack sufficient strength to change the laws of the market and the nature of the bourgeois state.”

As in most contemporary democracies, the elections present sharply constrained choices for voters, leading the prominent Indian journalist and agricultural policy analyst Devinder Sharma to remark: “Today, the so-called democracies across the globe, including India, Brazil and the United States, have turned into ‘of the industry, by the industry, for the industry.’” Rousseff’s ascension to power should not obscure the reality that, for the people of Brazil, the future will be determined more by the path chosen by social movements than by the outcome of Sunday’s election.

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

Was Church Attack Blowback for Would-Be Koran Burner?

Upon reading about the the church in Baghdad that was attacked and seized, it was hard not to think of Beslan. The New York Times reported:

A day after Iraqi forces stormed a church in Baghdad where gunmen had taken close to 100 hostages, Interior Ministry officials said on Monday that at least 58 people, including two priests, had been killed and 75 wounded in an afternoon of chaos that became a bloodbath. The death toll was considerably higher than initially reported.

Reading on, the comparison becomes more fitting as we see that, like Beslan, it nudged barbarism into the realm of ghoulism. Happy Halloween indeed.

Abdul-Kader Jassem al-Obeidi, the defense minister, said that most of the hostages were killed or wounded when the kidnappers set off at least two suicide vests as they took over the church.

One pictures the besiegers apparently unfazed by operating in proximity to the corpses, blood, and body parts they created. It’s difficult to refrain from speculating whether they, in fact, represented not the Islamic State of Iraq, affiliated with Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, but a satanic cult. Oh, right Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia is effectively a satanic cult.

No disrespect intended for the dead, but you could make a case that its founder Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was possessed. (If you’ll recall, his greatest hits included beheading Nicholas Berg, the UN bombing in 2003 that killed 22 (including the beloved UN secretary-general’s special Iraqi envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello), and the attacks on the Shia shrines in Karbala and Baghdad in 2004 that killed over 180 and helped turn the sectarian strife into a civil war.

Another person for whom the case can be made that possession by the devil is his problem, too — if it weren’t construed as making excuses for him — is Reverend Terry Jones. Returning to the Times article . . .

The [Coptic] church, with a huge cross visible from hundreds of yards away, was already surrounded with concrete bollards and razor wire, and church leaders have been fearful of attack since the Rev. Terry Jones in Gainesville, Fla., threatened to burn a Koran on the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

It’s true that, in retrospect, leaving the oversized cross in place might have been tempting fate, but deflecting blame onto the church is heartless. Meanwhile, are Focal Points readers inclined to accept the rationale that the Islamic State of Iraq was extracting revenge on Christianity for Rev. Jones’s act? If you are, do you blame the reverend for not anticipating this kind of blowback at a Christian target?

Proposition 19 Is a Vote Heard ‘Round the World

The world will be watching as Californians go to the polls on Tuesday and vote on Proposition 19, which would legalize and regulate marijuana in that state. Regardless of the outcome of the vote, however, it has already sparked an intense international debate, particularly in Latin America where the U.S. has long waged its “war on drugs.” Drug war critics and even some who have supported the U.S. approach to date are asking how the U.S. government can continue to call on Latin American governments to implement harsh drug control policies when at least some of those policies are being called into question in the United States itself.

If passed, Prop 19 would allow those over 21 to possess and cultivate small quantities of marijuana for personal use. Local governments would determine how to regulate its sale, production and taxation. Its immediate impact – in a state where possession of small amounts of marijuana is already the equivalent of a traffic violation – would likely be less than its proponents claim. However, its symbolic importance abroad cannot be under-estimated.

Prop 19 has already sparked intense criticism, support – and some confusion. A recent declaration by leaders of key Latin American countries calls for “consistent and congruent” drug policies on the part of consuming nations, pointing out that, “They cannot support criminalizing these activities in this or that country, while at the same time (supporting) the open or veiled legalization of the production and consumption of drugs in their own territories.”

Presidents such as Mexico’s Felipe Calderón and Costa Rica’s Laura Chinchilla have spoken out against Prop 19. Even Russian “drug czar,” Viktor Ivanov, got into the act, going to Los Angeles where he met with Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Sheriff Leroy Baca to “conduct a campaign against legalizing marijuana in California.” Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos has criticized Prop 19, but has also hinted that its victory could lead to calls for a new approach: “If we don’t act consistently in this matter, if all we’re doing is sending our citizens to prison while in other latitudes the market is legalized, then we should ask ourselves: Isn’t it time to revise the global strategy towards drugs?”

Others have openly supported Prop 19 and cannabis decriminalization more broadly. The Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy, headed by former presidents Fernando Henrique Cardoso (Brazil), César Gaviria (Colombia) and Ernesto Zedillo (Mexico), called for serious consideration for decriminalizing the possession of cannabis for personal use. Its February 2009 report sparked a region-wide debate on the issue that has only intensified since Prop 19 was put on the California ballot.

More recently, Argentine drug policy expert, Juan Tokatlian, bluntly stated: “One way to begin the domestic dismantling of the ‘war on drugs’ rationale and to signal to the world that the United States is willing to initiate a realistic, frank and effective debate on narcotics is to support Proposition 19, on which Californians will vote on 2 November…This would represent a real advance in dealing seriously and effectively with the narcotics issue – and a bold new step towards broadening the global debate on the effectiveness, or otherwise, of drug prohibition.”

Since 1970, more than 20 million people in the United States have been arrested for cannabis possession; while such statistics are not available for Latin America, many analysts point out that excessively harsh drug laws are one of the primary reasons for the region’s crisis of prison over-crowding. The impact of marijuana use on public health and society more broadly is minimal – far less than alcohol or tobacco – but the consequences of being arrested with it can be devastating for individuals and their families, leading to loss of employment and educational opportunities and even imprisonment. Decriminalizing the possession of marijuana for personal use is one leap forward in reforming misguided and ineffective drug laws across the hemisphere.

The likely outcome of Tuesday’s vote on Prop 19 is too close to call. But regardless of the final results, the genie has been let out of the bottle. As succinctly pointed out by WOLA’s John Walsh: “So whatever Californians decide on November 2, the fact that literally millions of voters will be considering an approach to marijuana that is quite distinct from prohibition is already invigorating the drug policy debate, usefully bringing to the fore basic questions about the suitability of the global prohibition framework for marijuana. ”

Prop 19 has furthered an international debate on alternatives for regulating cannabis that will no doubt continue and even expand after the polls close on November 2.

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:


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.

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