Sunday, 22 November 2015

Hell Comes to Paris, by John Wight

Years spent depicting head chopping fanatics as rebels, moderates, and revolutionaries in an effort to effect the toppling of another secular government in the Middle East.

Years spent cultivating Saudi Arabia as an ally against extremism and fanaticism rather than treating it as a country where extremism and fanaticism resides.

Years spent treating the Assad government, Iran, and Russia as enemies rather than allies in the struggle against this fanaticism.

And years spent denying any connection between a foreign policy underpinned by hubris and its inevitable blowback.

All this together has succeeded in opening the gates of hell.

The aforementioned hubris was on display just hours prior to the horrific events in Paris, when British Prime Minister David Cameron elevated the killing of Mohammed Emwazi by US drone strike in Raqqa, Syria, to the status of a major military victory in the war against ISIS.

Out came the podium from Number 10, and out he came to proclaim that the killing of Emwazi (aka Jihadi John) had “struck at the heart of the terrorist organization [ISIS].” 

That Cameron could venture such a fatuous boast the very day after an ISIS suicide bomb attack in southern Beirut killed 43 and wounded over 200 people was yet more evidence of the extent to which Western governments are detached from the reality of the Frankenstein’s monster their foreign policy has helped create and let loose upon the world. 

There is also the truth that in the minds of people whose worldview is grievously impaired by a Western prism, the deaths of Lebanese, Syrians, Iranians, and Kurds – in other words those engaged in the struggle against ISIS on the ground – constitute a statistic, while the deaths of Europeans and Americans to the same barbarism are an unspeakable tragedy.

In years to come historians will prepare such a scathing indictment against this generation’s leaders of the so-called free world, it will make the indictment prior generations of historians have leveled against the authors of the Sykes Picot Agreement, the Balfour Declaration, the Treaty of Versailles, the Munich Agreement, and the Suez Crisis seem like a playful tap on the wrist in comparison.

In fact, the only issue of debate in the course of preparing it will be where it should begin and where it should end.

As things stand, it is on track to be open-ended. In response to 9/11 the decision by the Bush administration, ably assisted by the Blair government, to crash first into Afghanistan without an exit strategy, followed by Iraq in the mistaken belief coalition troops would be greeted as liberators rather than occupiers, marked the day not when a new dawn of democracy and freedom was about to break across the Arab and Muslim world, but the day the hand of the West first reached for that rusty bolt securing in place the gates of hell, and slowly started to pull it back.

Over the succeeding decade back ever-further the bolt came, inch by inch, until in 2011 the gates finally, and inevitably, flew open with the West’s ill-fated intervention in an Arab Spring in Libya that by then had arrived at the end of its reach.

NATO airstrikes succeeded in dragging the Libyan ‘revolution’ from Benghazi all the way to Tripoli and victorious completion, whereupon the aforementioned David Cameron and his French counterpart at the time, Nikolas Sarkozy, descended to hail the Libyan people for “choosing democracy.” 

The hubris of those words, the military intervention which preceded them, have sent thousands of men, women, and children to the bottom of the Mediterranean in the years following, marking a tragic end to a desperate attempt to escape the democratic paradise the British Prime Minister described. 

Regardless, on we continued, driven by a myopic and fatal rendering of the brutal conflict in Syria as a revolution, even as legions of religious fanatics poured into the country, most of them across the border of our Turkish ally while Erdogan looked the other way. 

In the course of the long years of total war that has engulfed the country since, the world has witnessed every conceivable variety of bestiality, carried out under the black flag of ISIS.

But wait a minute, the barrel bombs, you say. Assad is killing his own people. He is the cause of all of this mayhem and carnage. 

Allowing for a moment the idea that the Assad government was the main cause of the Syrian conflict when it began in 2011, in 2015 the same government is without any shadow a necessary part of it ending with Syria’s survival. 

Barrel bombs are an atrociously indiscriminate weapon, for sure, and their use rightly comes under the category of war crime.

However just as the war crime of the allied firebombing of Dresden in 1945 did not invalidate the war against European fascism then, neither does the atrocity of Syrian barrel bombs invalidate the war against its Middle East equivalent today. 

When the survival of a country and its culture and history is at stake, war can never be anything else but ugly, which is why the sooner it is brought to a conclusion in Syria the better. 

This is where we come to Russia’s intervention, which came at the point where the Syrian government was slipping towards the abyss. 

President Putin’s forensic accounting of the perfidious calamity of events leading up to Russia’s arrival, in his address to the UN General Assembly, should have heralded the glaringly and obviously necessary volte face required to turn a Western policy responsible for disaster into one approximating to coherence. 

But, no, instead a moral equivalence has continued to be drawn between a secular and sovereign government under which the rights of minorities were and are protected, and a medieval death cult intent on turning the country into a mass grave of said minorities, along with others deemed superfluous to the requirements of the Caliphate. 

This shorthand history of the elemental conflict currently raging across Syria, and also northern Iraq, and which has now come knocking on our door, places the crassness of David Cameron’s boast of ‘striking at the heart’ in its rightful context. 

We – i.e. the West – are in truth striking at the heart of nothing when it comes to the struggle against ISIS. Russia on the other hand is striking them, along with the Syrian Arab Army, the Kurds, and Iran. 

The extent to which their efforts are succeeding can be measured in this shocking series of attacks that have been carried out beyond Syria’s borders – starting with the downing of the Russian passenger aircraft over the Sinai, followed by the recent suicide bombing in southern Beirut, and now with this latest grisly episode in the heart of Europe. 

They reflect the desperation of a group that has suffered significant reverses in Syria and Iraq in recent days and weeks.

No matter, if terror was the aim of the Paris attack, it has undeniably succeeded, leaving the French, British, and US government with a dilemma over how to respond, both in terms of security measures at home and their ongoing role in the conflict in Syria. 

Responding to this latest atrocity in the French capital, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev expressed Russia’s condolences and said: “The tragedy in Paris demands that we all unite in our fight against extremism.” 

These are no mere empty words. The longer Russia’s call for unity in this struggle goes unheeded and ignored, the longer it will take for the gates of hell to be bolted shut again – assuming, of course, they ever can be.

This article originally appeared here, and is reproduced at the kind suggestion of the author.

Friday, 20 November 2015

Ordeals of Whistleblowers in a “Democracy”, by Victor Wallis

The more extreme the crimes of state, the more the state seeks to shroud them in secrecy. The greater the secrecy and the accompanying lies, the more vital becomes the role of whistleblowers – and the more vindictive becomes the state in its pursuit of them.

Whistleblowers are people who start out as loyal servants of the state. Their illusions about the state’s supposed moral agenda – and the wholeheartedness of their own patriotic commitment – make them all the more shocked when they discover evidence of the state’s wrongdoing.

Given the extreme concentration of weaponry (as well as surveillance capabilities) in the hands of the state, and given the disposition of the state to apply such resources even against nonviolent mass movements, the type of defection practiced by whistleblowers – an option available to military and intelligence operatives at all levels – is crucial to any eventual triumph of popular forces over the ruling class.

Whistleblowers thus not only embarrass the government, disrupt its policies, and (assuming adequate diffusion) educate the citizenry; they also are harbingers of a broader crumbling of the capitalist state and the order it defends.

Acting largely in isolation and at great risk to themselves, they embody the conviction – or at least the hope – that basic decency has a more universal grounding than does any possible scheme of oppression.

Whistle-blowing’s principal near-term function is educational. It demonstrates the undemocratic character of the regime whose secrets it lets out; it is thus an essential ingredient of investigative journalism.

The documents it brings to light reach the public through those who practice such journalism, whom the government then threatens with prosecution unless they disclose their sources.

The novelty of Wikileaks is that it provided a new form of protection for the anonymity of sources. This, together with the facility of electronic transmission, has made the potential for disclosure greater than ever before.

It accounts for the extraordinary fact that the US government has been pursuing draconian charges against someone who not merely is only the recipient rather than the “leaker” of sensitive information, but someone who is not even a citizen or resident of the United States – Julian Assange.

Disclosure is particularly embarrassing when it documents the fact that government officials have lied.

The Director of Central Intelligence lied under oath to the US Congress – a felony for which he was never prosecuted – when he denied that the National Security Agency monitors the communications of the entire US population.

This lie was the culminating event in Edward Snowden’s decision to blow the whistle. As we all know, of course, it is Snowden who was then criminalized by the government.

This parallels the experience of John Kiriakou, who publicly confirmed, on the basis of his first-hand knowledge, that the CIA practiced torture by waterboarding. Kiriakou then became the only government official to be prosecuted and imprisoned in connection with CIA and military practices of torture.

The debate over whistleblowers reached tens of millions of viewers when the presidential candidates of the Democratic Party were asked (on Oct. 13) their views about Snowden.

Hillary Clinton falsely asserted that he could have used established channels to transmit his disclosures of excessive surveillance, presumably at no risk to himself. This claim is refuted by the experience of previous whistleblowers who had taken just that approach.

One of them, Thomas Drake, retold his story two days later, at a news conference ignored by most of the corporate media (video), which was organized on behalf of yet another whistleblower, Jeffrey Sterling, who recently began a 42-month prison term on a conviction of “espionage.”

What Sterling had done was report to the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence about a counterproductive CIA attempt (in 2000) to feed misleading technological data to Iranian scientists.

What he was prosecuted for was his subsequent conversations with New York Times journalist James Risen, although no evidence was available as to the content of those conversations, since Risen refused to testify.

Sterling’s story is recounted in a letter from his wife, seeking presidential clemency from Obama. Sterling had been fired from the CIA in 2002 after filing a complaint against the agency for racial discrimination (an episode on which Risen wrote a news story).

After Risen’s book State of War (2006) came out, the FBI raided Sterling’s home, but it was not until more than four years later – under Obama – that he was arrested (2011).

The latest whistleblower, who documents the “normalization of assassination” via drone warfare, is wisely seeking to remain anonymous. The US government will surely take all possible steps to track him down.

The work of whistleblowers, as well as their personal safety, is obviously an issue that cuts across national borders. Support for US whistleblowers will need to be as global as the reach of the policies and the weapons that they expose.

This is the original text of a column written on 20th October and posted on the Norwegian website It is reproduced here at the kind suggestion of Norman Solomon, the editor of, where it has already appeared. Victor Wallis is managing editor of the journal Socialism and Democracy.

Thursday, 19 November 2015

Labour Holds the Future of Surveillance in its Hands, by Loz Kaye

Even with operations ongoing, attention has started to turn to what the political response to the horrific Paris attacks should be. Already the pressure has been to push through new surveillance laws in the Investigatory Powers Bill.

Some like Lord Carlile, with ghoulish speed exploited the tragedy to push their own pro-surveillance agenda. This is despite France's having passed measures similar to the Bill. There is no hard evidence that encrypted communications were used, despite media claims.

The Home Secretary resisted calls to fast-track the bill. She can after all afford to be measured; as things stand, its passage is a done deal. That is, unless Labour has a significant change of heart.

Bluntly, since the General Election, that is the only prospect that civil liberties campaigners have of a law that properly balances liberty and security.

With the new parliamentary mathematics, the future of surveillance really does lie in Labour's hands. Going by recent history, it is fair to say a dramatic change of heart seems like something of a long shot.

One of the legacies of the Blair-Brown era is a well entrenched view in a section of the electorate that Labour is authoritarian, that it is still the party of ID cards, of 90-day detention, of former Home Secretaries who queue up to support ever more intrusive intercept powers.

So far it has been business as usual from Andy Burnham, who was keen to underline that the Investigatory Powers Bill isn't a “Snoopers' Charter” in his eyes, and even pressed for its passage to be speeded up due to the Paris attacks. 

This is despite some new signals coming out of the party, not least with digital rights champion Tom Watson being voted in as Deputy Leader. 

The recent thrust of the Labour Party has been much more pro-civil liberties, opposing scrapping the Human Rights Act, defending freedom of information, highlighting Tory threats to trade unionism.

Addressing the legitimate concerns about the bill would make complete sense in this context, not least as it relies on the Human Rights Act for its operation.

The Labour Party should reflect on the reality of what is being proposed.

It would keep the records of the councillor emailing residents about potholes, scoop up details of the activist planning by-election leafleting on social media. It would keep visits to trade union or cooperative society websites.

Without proper checks on how the security services use the immense amount of information generated by our on-line lives, it could build up a frighteningly accurate picture of any of us; of our political affiliations, for example.

Andy Burnham may not think this is mass surveillance, but it is clearly surveillance en masse

There is currently a genuine political opportunity for Labour on the issue.

The Liberal Democrats have been the most high profile and best informed of mainstream parties challenging the rush to blanket surveillance. But they are now tainted by being in government during the Snowden revelations scandal.

Their most high profile parliamentarian with relevant experience on the intelligence agencies is Lord Carlile, who is defiantly in favour of the Snoopers' Charter agenda. 

The possibility is there for Labour to demonstrate a break with the past which has seen the party, both apparently uninterested in contemporary digital politics, and unwilling to engage with the tech community's concerns on subjects ranging from intercept to the digital economy.

What ought to make an impression is that the people who have been most vocal about their concerns on the Investigatory Powers Bill are the very people who are supposed to carry it out – communications service providers and digital business.

The current turmoil in the party is a significant danger for campaigners who want to see an Investigatory Powers Act that is fit for purpose, and that does not hand away freedoms that were so hard won by the Labour Movement.

The number one narrative on Corbyn's leadership is that the party is weak on security, and even his most ardent supporters will surely concede the Leadership have done themselves no favours. 

We run the risk that arguing for the right measures on intercept powers will be sucked in to the vortex of tabloid hysteria. 

That is why the argument on surveillance must be made just as much on security grounds as on grounds of citizens' rights.

Does this look like a government that cares much for civil liberties? Weakening encryption, even by signalling we want communications to be able to decrypted by service providers, lays us open to devastating cyber attack.

The lack of focus and targeting in the bulk approach have left our country vulnerable by an inability to concentrate on the real present threats.

The government is considering spending an estimated £2.5 billion over a decade on storing information that all acknowledge will be mostly useless in protecting us, when £2.3 billion has been cut from policing.

When it comes to armed response units, it is Theresa May, not Corbyn, who is the immediate threat to them. She is happy make cuts to them while pouring money in to the bottomless pit which is blanket surveillance.

After all, being critical of the Investigatory Powers Bill could unite both sides in Labour right now, a radical new vision and strength on protecting the nation.

For all our sakes, it must.

Monday, 9 November 2015

The Digital Dog Ate Our Civil-Liberties Homework: “It’s Just the Way It Is”, by Norman Solomon

Of all the excuses ladled out for the Obama administration's shredding of the Fourth Amendment while assaulting press freedom and prosecuting “national security” whistleblowers, none is more pernicious than the claim that technology is responsible.

At first glance, the explanation might seem to make sense. After all, the capacities of digital tech have become truly awesome. It’s easy to finger “technology” as the driver of government policies, as if the president at the wheel has little choice but to follow the technological routes that have opened up for Big Brother.

Now comes New York Times reporter Charlie Savage, telling listeners and viewers of a Democracy Now interview interview that the surveillance state is largely a matter of technology: “It’s just the way it is in the 21st century.”

That’s a great way to depoliticize a crucial subject -- downplaying the major dynamics of the political economy, anti-democratic power and top-down choices -- letting leaders off the hook, as if sophistication calls for understanding that government is to be regulated by high-tech forces rather than the other way around.

In effect, the message is that -- if you don’t like mass surveillance and draconian measures to intimidate whistleblowers as well as journalists -- your beef is really with technology, and good luck with pushing back against that. Get it? The fault, dear citizen, is not in our political stars but in digital tech.

When Amy Goodman asked Savage about the Obama administration’s record-high prosecutions of whistleblowers under the Espionage Act, he summed up this way:

“Because of technology, it’s impossible to hide who’s in contact with whom anymore, and cases are viable to investigate now that weren’t before. That’s not something Obama did or Bush did. It’s just the way it is in the 21st century, and investigative journalism is still grappling with the implications of that.” 

A more astute and candid assessment of such matters can be found in “Through the Looking-Glass," where Lewis Carroll wrote this dialogue:
"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, "it means just what I choose it to mean -- neither more nor less."
"The question is," Alice replied, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."
"The question is," Humpty Dumpty responded, "which is to be master -- that's all."
The surveillance state is not the default setting of digital technology. The surveillance state is a failure and suppressor of democracy. A surveillance state or a democratic system -- which is to be master?
Norman Solomon is co-founder of  and executive director of the Institute for Public Accuracy. He is the author of many books including “War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death.”

Tuesday, 3 November 2015

The Hairy Ape by Eugene O’Neill, The Old Vic, London; reviewed by Ian Oakley

This is the play of a young playwright experimenting with form and finding his artistic feet. That the playwright is Eugene O’Neill is why the play still has power and resonance 90 years after it was written.

The story opens in the bowels of an Ocean Liner and we are introduced to the central character, Yank, the strongest stoker on the ship.

He is immune to his shipmates’ complaints and socialism, until an encounter with the ship’s owner’s daughter, who wanted to slum it in the depths of the ship (I suppose the modern equivalent is Samantha Cameron and her awful tattoo), sends Yank on a journey through 1920s American society.

The scenes of Yank being beaten up by the New York police show how little certain things have changed in American society.

Some critics, mainly from the right wing papers, have objected that the piece is somehow left-wing propaganda, thereby proving that media bias is not just a left-wing phenomena and the review pages are not immune from it.

It is a much more interesting piece than a form of propaganda, in that O’Neill’s natural scepticism shows through in Yank’s rejection of a political solution to his situation and his embrace of violence and anger.

You can feel the shadow of the Russian Revolution over the piece; the fact that O’Neill refuses to endorse a political solution to Yank’s situation is measure of his understanding of the human condition and of the fact that he never embraced the Revolution in the way that many of his friends and associates did.

The production is excellent, the burden of the play falls on the actor playing Yank, and Bertie Carvel is more than equal to the task.

It is a measure of his abilities as an actor that I last watched him playing Nick Clegg in the Channel 4 drama Coalition. The thought of Nick Clegg working as a stoker in an Ocean Liner is appealing, but somehow I don’t think Cleggy would last an hour, let alone a full shift.