Archives for March 2012

Afghanistan: Anatomy of a massacre


The Arab Spring’s online backlash

The Economist reports: A bill on “information-technology crimes” with extraordinarily broad wording and harsh punishments is due to come before Iraq’s parliament in April, once the dignitaries and television cameras at this week’s Arab League summit in Baghdad have departed.

The bill is one of four proposed laws that could severely restrict basic freedoms. (A fifth, on journalists, was passed last summer.) Access Now, a human-rights group with a focus on technology, has a report on it out today. According to an English translation from last August, it includes mandatory life sentences for using computers or the internet to “compromise” the “unity” of the state (Article 3), promote “ideas which are disruptive to public order” (Article 4), or engage in “trafficking, promoting or facilitating the abuse of drugs” (Article 5), which could include merely blogging about them.

Some of the most egregiously loose definitions make it a crime—though at least not one carrying a life sentence—to cause “damage, defect or obstruction to computer hardware, operating systems, software or information networks”, even by mistake; to “intrude, annoy or call computer and information network users without authorisation”; to “benefit unduly from telecommunications services” (all these from Article 14); or to “relate words, images or voices to someone else involving cursing or slander” (Article 22).

The law on journalists and the other three bills, which cover public assembly, telecoms and political parties, are similar in style, notes a report from the Centre for Law and Democracy (CLD), another human-rights group: filled with vague references to “public morals”, “public order”, “national interests”, “threatening” or “insulting” messages, and so on.

Several governments tried temporarily restricting or shutting off the internet during the Arab Spring, and it should be no surprise that they are now looking for more permanent ways to limit its influence. Yet these stem from more than a simple desire to repress.


Syria eyewitness dispatch: ‘I watched as Assad’s tanks rolled in to destroy a rebel town’

John Cantlie, an independent photojournalist, reports from the Syrian town of Saraqeb: The sound of the caterpillar tracks could be felt as much as heard, a deep rumble that sent a rattle through windows and a tremble of fear through the guts.

Then we saw them. Huge Soviet-made T72s, accompanied by troop carriers driving slowly into town, extra plates welded onto the sides to deflect rocket-propelled grenades. It was just after 9.30am, and the tanks were coming to Saraqeb.

“Light the tyres!”

The rebels of the Free Syrian Army in Saraqeb, a farming town of 30,000 in northern Syria, are better organised than many in the surrounding Idlib province. Squaring themselves away into formation around the central marketplace, they poured petrol on to truck tyres and lit them sending plumes of thick black smoke into the air, obscuring the sun and – hopefully – the tank gunners’ visibility.

Still the tanks came, driving into town one after another. The troop carriers stopped to take up holding positions, while the T72s turned in pairs to face towards the centre.

I had been smuggled into Saraqeb last weekend by a local guerrilla unit, keen to show the world that despite playing along with international efforts to broker a ceasefire, President Bashar al-Assad was continuing to use all-out force to crush his opponents. While he agreed last week to a six-point peace plan brokered by the veteran diplomat, Kofi Annan, what I saw for myself suggests the Syrian leader intends anything but.


Libya says 147 dead in week of southern tribal clashes

Reuters reports: A week of fighting between rival tribes deep in Libya’s south has killed 147 people, the government said on Saturday, but it said it had brokered a fresh ceasefire agreement between the two sides.

The clashes in the desert oasis city of Sabha were between members of the Tibu ethnic group, many of whom are originally from neighbouring Chad, and local militias from Sabha.

The fighting underlines the fragility of the government’s grip on Libya over six months after a revolt ended Muammar Gaddafi’s rule, as well as the volatility of a country awash with weapons left over from the rebellion.

Minister of Health Fatima al-Hamroush said on Saturday that 147 people had been killed and 395 injured since the clashes broke out a week ago.

She said the government had sent 20 cars filled with medical supplies to the Sabha region and had transported 187 people from both sides of the clashes to Tripoli for medical care.

Interim prime minister Abdurrahim El-Keib told reporters a truce was now in force. The government has previously announced ceasefires over the past few days but these have collapsed.


ElBaradei describes Egypt’s situation as “heart breaking”

Ahram Online reports: On his official twitter account, former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Mohamed ElBaradei stated on Saturday “Egyptians sacrificed their lives for freedom and dignity not for military or religious authoritarianism nor for tyranny of any one majority. It is heartbreaking…”

ElBaradei’s comments came amidst rising conflict between the ruling military council, the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated parliament, and liberal forces over the formation of the constituent assembly set to draft Egypt’s new constitution.

In the last seven days, more than 24 of the elected assembly members have declared they will be resigning from the assembly to protest what they have called Islamist domination of the body.

Several demonstrations have also taken place last week, and protesters claimed that the constituent assembly members will only be approving a constitution already drafted in an agreement between the Muslim Brotherhood and the ruling military council.


The Islamist-secular battle is under way

Rami G Khouri writes: Three great battles over political power have been unleashed across the Arab world and will persist for many years, until a new political order stabilizes in every country. One in particular is now reaching an important point that will reveal much about the current political character of Arab societies. The three battles are those between military and civilian authorities (democracy vs. autocracy), between Islamists and secularists (the authority of God vs. the citizenry), and between narrow ethnic/tribal/sectarian identity and a more inclusive national identity (tribe vs. state).

These contests will take years to play themselves out, because they comprise such complex factors as identity, allegiance, collective solidarity, access to state power and resources, and self-preservation. Some of them will endure for decades or more, as we have witnessed in the lively American context between fundamentalist Christians and more secular politicians vying for presidential power, over two centuries after the American independence years first defined religion-state ties.

In the Arab context, we are at an important station in the long road to the new, more participatory, democratic and accountable, national political governance systems. The issue at hand on this stop is about the balance between Islamists and secularists.

This is not a turning point, but simply a stop along the long road, a point at which some decisions will be made by society as a whole, and the march forward will continue, with other decisions to be made at other stops. Many in the region and abroad often jump to hasty conclusions that the various Arab revolutions and uprisings have been reversed and nullified because the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists have now taken over political systems in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, and are in the process of dominating the opposition movements in Syria. This is a premature rush to judgment.


‘Judaizing’ Beit Hanina in East Jerusalem, with backing from Americans

Jeff Halper writes: Driving Palestinians out of their homes in “east” Jerusalem is, as you can imagine, a dirty business. But its not terribly difficult. The Palestinians are a vulnerable population, poor (70% subsist on less than $2 a day), completely unprotected by the law or Israeli courts, and targeted by determined Jewish settlers with all the money and political backing in the world – much of its coming, of course, from the US, mainly from orthodox Jews and Christian Zionists.

Over the past few days settlers led by Arieh King have been harassing Palestinian residents of Beit Hanina where, according to King, settlers will “very soon” take over four houses, plus an additional two houses in the Palestinian neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, where violent nighttime evictions aided by the Israeli police have become commonplace. The immediate target of window-breaking, curses, violent encounters and now a police search of the home “for weapons” is the Natche family of Beit Hanina.

King is the front-man for Irving Moskowitz, a wealthy owner of bingo casinos in Hawaiian Gardens, a poor Latino community near Los Angeles, who is bankrolling some 17 settlements around East Jerusalem to “buffer” the Old City and “Judaize” East Jerusalem (see the StopMoskowitz website.) A friend and benefactor of Netanyahu, Moskovitch was behind the opening of the tunnels under the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem in 1996 that resulted in the deaths of 80 Palestinian protesters.

The Moskowitz/King strategy is to establish settlements in the heart of Palestinian neighborhoods, often in houses acquired by dubious and violent means. Among the settlements established or on the way are the City of David (Silwan), just below the al-Aqsa mosque; Ma’ale Zeitim and Ma’ale David in the Ras-el-Amud quarter on the southern side of the Mount of Olives; Beit Hoshen on the Mount of Olives, where several Palestinian families were violently evicted from their homes and which flies an enormous Israeli flag; Beit Orot, on the northern part of the Mount of Olives, where last year Mike Huckabee laid the foundations for an expanded settlement; the Shepherds Hotel and Sheikh Jarrah, now renamed Shimon Hatzadik; a plot in the village of Anata to the east of the Hebrew university; and now the homes in Beit Hanina. [Continue reading…]


George Galloway’s Respect could help Britain to break the political impasse

Tariq Ali writes: George Galloway’s stunning electoral triumph in the Bradford by-election has shaken the petrified world of English politics. It was unexpected, and for that reason the Respect campaign was treated by much of the media (Helen Pidd of the Guardian being an honourable exception) as a loony fringe show. A BBC toady, an obviously partisan compere on a local TV election show, who tried to mock and insult Galloway, should be made to eat his excremental words. The Bradford seat, a Labour fiefdom since 1973, was considered safe and the Labour leader, Ed Miliband, had been planning a celebratory visit to the city till the news seeped through at 2 am. He is now once again focused on his own future. Labour has paid the price for its failure to act as an opposition, having imagined that all it had to do was wait and the prize would come its way. Scottish politics should have forced a rethink. Perhaps the latest development in English politics now will, though I doubt it. Galloway has effectively urinated on all three parties. The Lib Dems and Tories explain their decline by the fact that too many people voted!

Thousands of young people infected with apathy, contempt, despair and a disgust with mainstream politics were dynamised by the Respect campaign. Galloway is tireless on these occasions. Nobody else in the political field comes even close to competing with him – not simply because he is an effective orator, though this skill should not be underestimated. It comes almost as a shock these days to a generation used to the bland untruths that are mouthed every day by government and opposition politicians. It was the political content of the campaign that galvanised the youth: Respect campaigners and their candidate stressed the disasters of Iraq and Afghanistan. Galloway demanded that Blair be tried as a war criminal, and that British troops be withdrawn from Afghanistan without further delay. He lambasted the Government and the Labour party for the austerity measures targeting the less well off, the poor and the infirm, and the new privatisations of education, health and the Post Office. It was all this that gave him a majority of 10,000.

How did we get here? Following the collapse of communism in 1991, Edmund Burke’s notion that “In all societies, consisting of different classes, certain classes must necessarily be uppermost,” and that “The apostles of equality only change and pervert the natural order of things,” became the commonsense wisdom of the age. Money corrupted politics, and big money corrupted it absolutely.


Video: How deep will austerity cut Spain?


Neoliberals, not Islamists, are the real threat to Tunisia

Matt Kennard writes: I meet Mustafa and Kamal on Avenue Bourguiba, where they protested in January 2011 to get rid of the dictator who ruled their country with an iron-fist for 23 years. Tunisia has changed a lot since then – and celebrated its 56th independence day last week as a free nation. Both men said they will be out again to consolidate the gains of the revolution. “We couldn’t have [talked like this] before, no way,” says Mustafa, a 25-year-old originally from Tabarka in the north of Tunisia. “The only thing I could have told you is how great Ben Ali is, what a good man he is.”

But how independent is free Tunisia from the grips of its former colonial master and its allies? A demonstration last week by a group of fringe fundamentalists calling for sharia law has got some secular Tunisians in a funk again, as well as worrying the French, who are opposed to Ennahda. An opposition politician told me there are even rumours of a French-supported coup. It is clear that the next stage of western connivance in the subjugation of the Tunisian people is the widespread media and political fear over the democratically elected Ennahda party, which is Islamist. But despite constant derision by the western media, Ennahda revealed on Monday that they would not make sharia, or Islamic law, the main source of legislation for the new constitution. Wouldn’t it be better to judge them on their actions rather than conspiracies about their intentions? “We realise we have a historic responsibility to get this right, we are genuinely inclusive,” Said Ferjani, who sits on the Ennahda politburo, told me.

The course from actively arming a kleptocratic dictator to pushing for the Tunisians to support “western values” is familiar. As Frantz Fanon wrote in The Wretched of the Earth: “As soon as the native begins to pull on his moorings, and to cause anxiety to the settler, he is handed over to well-meaning souls who … point out to him the specificity and wealth of western values.”


Video: Germany and Europe’s path to the 19th century


Music: Vieux Farka Touré – “Ali”


As Clinton arrives, UAE closes down U.S.-financed democracy group

The New York Times reports: On the eve of a summit meeting here between the United States and Arab nations of the Persian Gulf to deepen security ties, one of those countries, the United Arab Emirates, announced that it had shut down an American-financed organization that promotes democracy, State Department officials said.

The United Arab Emirates announced the shutdown on Friday of the office of the National Democratic Institute, State Department officials said, a day before the meeting on Saturday attended by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

The country, which has good relations with the United States, did not explain the action, which seemed especially provocative with Mrs. Clinton in the region.


Incarceration America

Fareed Zakaria writes: Something caught my eye the other day. Pat Robertson, the high priest of the religious right, had some startling things to say about drugs.

“I really believe we should treat marijuana the way we treat beverage alcohol,” Mr. Robertson said in a recent interview. “I’ve never used marijuana and I don’t intend to, but it’s just one of those things that I think: this war on drugs just hasn’t succeeded.”

The reason Robertson is for legalizing marijuana is that it has created a prison problem in America that is well beyond what most Americans imagine.

“It’s completely out of control,” Mr. Robertson said. “Prisons are being overcrowded with juvenile offenders having to do with drugs. And the penalties, the maximums, some of them could get 10 years for possession of a joint of marijuana. It makes no sense at all.”

He’s right. Here are the numbers: The total number of Americans under correctional supervision (prison, parole, etc.) is 7.1 million, more than the entire state of Massachusetts. Adam Gopnik writes in the New Yorker, “Over all, there are now more people under ‘correctional supervision’ in America. . .than were in the Gulag Archipelago under Stalin at its height.”


Meet the hackers who sell spies the tools to crack your PC (and get paid six-figure fees)

Andy Greenberg writes: At a Google-run competition in ­Vancouver last month, the search giant’s famously secure Chrome Web browser fell to hackers twice. Both of the new methods used a rigged ­website to bypass Chrome’s security protections and completely hijack a target computer. But while those two hacks defeated the company’s defenses, it was only a third one that actually managed to get under Google’s skin.

A team of hackers from French security firm Vupen were playing by different rules. They declined to enter Google’s contest and instead dismantled Chrome’s security to win an HP-sponsored hackathon at the same conference. And while Google paid a $60,000 award to each of the two hackers who won its event on the condition that they tell Google every detail of their attacks and help the company fix the vulnerabilities they had used, Vupen’s chief executive and lead hacker, Chaouki Bekrar, says his company never had any intention of telling Google its secret techniques—certainly not for $60,000 in chump change.

“We wouldn’t share this with Google for even $1 million,” says Bekrar. “We don’t want to give them any knowledge that can help them in fixing this exploit or other similar exploits. We want to keep this for our customers.”

Those customers, after all, don’t aim to fix Google’s security bugs or those of any other commercial software vendor. They’re government agencies who ­purchase such “zero-day” exploits, or hacking techniques that use undisclosed flaws in software, with the ­explicit ­intention of invading or disrupting the computers and phones of crime suspects and intelligence targets.

In that shady but legal market for security vulnerabilities, a zero-day exploit that might earn a hacker $2,000 or $3,000 from a software firm could earn 10 or even 100 times that sum from the spies and cops who aim to use it in secret. Bekrar won’t detail Vupen’s exact pricing, but analysts at Frost & Sullivan, which named Vupen the 2011 Entrepreneurial Company of the Year in vulnerability research, say that Vupen’s clients pay around $100,000 annually for a subscription plan, which gives them the privilege of shopping for Vupen’s techniques. Those intrusion methods ­include ­attacks on software such as Micro­soft Word, Adobe Reader, Google’s ­Android, Apple’s iOS operating systems and many more—Vupen bragged at HP’s hacking competition that it had exploits ready for every major browser. And sources familiar with the company’s business say that a single technique from its catalog often costs far more than its six-figure subscription fee.


The truth about Keystone

Alyssa Battistoni writes: When President Obama announced his support for the southern half of TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline last week in Cushing, Okla., it was a blow to the environmental groups that had worked to stop the pipeline from going forward and succeeded in delaying approval of its northern half. In particular, Obama’s statement that his administration had already approved “enough new oil and gas pipelines to encircle the earth” seemed intended to remind anti-pipeline campaigners that Keystone XL is just one of many pipelines with the potential to transport Canadian tar sands oil to the United States, and TransCanada just one of many players in the energy game.

Cushing was a particularly appropriate setting to convey that message: It’s the crossroads for much of the nation’s oil and gas infrastructure, and inadequate pipeline capacity has made the town a bottleneck for fossil fuels, particularly with the recent influx of oil coming from Alberta. At any given time, between 30 and 40 million gallons of oil sit there, awaiting transport to Midwestern or Gulf Coast refineries. This means that the chunk of the pipeline that connects Cushing’s surplus to refineries along the Gulf Coast — the chunk of the project that’s moving forward — is the one that TransCanada really cares about in the short term.

Other companies aren’t waiting around to see what happens with Keystone XL either: Enbridge, a Canadian energy company, has already purchased a stake in a pipeline that currently transports crude from the Gulf Coast to Cushing, with the intention of reversing the pipeline’s flow in order to carry tar sands oil south from Alberta. In conjunction with Houston-based company Enterprise, Enbridge is also planning to construct a new pipeline that would expand an existing route to bring tar sands oil to the Gulf; because the new pipeline would not cross international borders, it would not require State Department review. Those two projects combined would add the capacity to transport 850,000 barrels of tar sands oil each day by 2014, according to Enbridge’s CEO; by comparison, Keystone XL would transport around 700,000 barrels daily.

And there are plenty of other ways to get tar sands oil into the country: Other pipelines in the extensive network of fossil fuel infrastructure built to transport regular crude could begin carrying tar sands oil instead, while existing tar sands pipelines could ramp up the amount of oil they transport. Tar sands oil could also be transported by rail, though it’s less economical to do so; nevertheless, Canadian railroads have long been eyeing the fuel, and a report commissioned by the U.S. State Department estimated that railroads could transport up to 1.25 million barrels per day. In short, Obama’s announcement was a reminder that delaying, or even derailing, Keystone XL is a temporary victory, and one more important in symbolism than substance.

Pipeline protesters know this: As Bill McKibben, one of the most prominent leaders of the anti-Keystone movement, told Joe Nocera, “Keystone, by itself, won’t make or break the environment.” On the other hand, nor will it create jobs, reduce our reliance on foreign oil, or affect gas prices. In sum, the pipeline itself will have remarkably little effect on any of the issues it’s come to symbolize. Nocera and others have used that fact to argue that we might as well just go ahead and build it — that is, to shut down the debate over Keystone XL and tar sands instead of opening it up.

But anti-Keystone forces have always been upfront about the fact that they see the battle over the pipeline as a political one. McKibben has repeatedly described the pipeline protests as the start of a broader fight against climate change, and as a means to galvanize a public conversation about climate change, fossil fuels and carbon emissions — topics that American politicians have for the most part tried desperately to avoid.


What if Israel bombs Iran?

Gary Sick writes: Imagine that you wake up tomorrow morning and discover that during the night. Israeli planes had conducted a bombing raid on Iran. How would your world have changed?

Apart from the sensational headlines and breathless reports, the initial change might not be very significant. You would probably want to know whether the United States approved or assisted in the attack on Iran’s nuclear sites. In fact, it doesn’t really matter. Just about everyone in the world will assume that the U.S. was complicit, regardless of what Washington says.

Let’s assume that Israel notified the Obama administration about the same time the planes were taking off, if only to ensure that U.S. aircraft and missiles in the Persian Gulf region would not interfere with the bombers and refueling aircraft as they passed over one or more Arab countries. But for Iran and just about everyone else, the fact that most of the Israeli aircraft and bombs were made in the U.S. would be all they needed to know.

On that first morning, the U.N. Security Council would convene in emergency session to consider a resolution denouncing the Israeli raid. If the United States vetoed the resolution, that would remove any lingering doubt of U.S. complicity.

Perhaps more significant, however, would be European support of the resolution. This would signal the beginning of the collapse of the sanctions coalition against Iran that had been so laboriously assembled over the past several years. Both the Europeans and the Americans had operated on the tacit belief that crippling sanctions were an alternative to war. With the outbreak of war, that assumption would no longer be valid.

What would Iran do? Everyone would be poised for a massive military response. They might be surprised.

Iran would almost certainly give the required 90 days notice of its intention to quit the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and terminate inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency. Iranian officials would not necessarily announce that they intended to proceed with development of a nuclear weapon, but they would certainly make clear that as a nonnuclear state that had been attacked by another state with nuclear weapons, that was a decision that was entirely up to them. All enriched uranium stocks would be removed from IAEA seal, and all monitoring cameras would be removed.

A different twist would be introduced if Iran had succeeded in shooting down one or more of the Israeli planes. One or more Israeli pilots in Iranian hands would sharply increase the risk of further escalation by either the United States or Israel.

Of more general significance, the markets would realize that some two million barrels a day of Iranian oil were now removed from the world market for an indeterminate period of time, and the price of oil would jump. The head of the IMF has suggested that an immediate increase of 20% to 30% could be expected.


Obama to clear way to tighten Iranian oil sanctions

The New York Times reports: President Obama said on Friday that there is enough oil in world markets to allow countries to rely less on imports from Iran, a step that could increase Western actions to deter Tehran’s nuclear ambitions.

Mr. Obama is required by law to decide by March 30, and every six months after, whether the price and supply of non-Iranian oil is sufficient to allow for countries to cut their oil purchases from Iran.

Mr. Obama’s decision was announced Friday afternoon in a conference call. He made the decision after consultations with a number of oil exporters that had agreed to increase production. The decision comes even as gas prices have risen in recent months, a rise that his political advisers say could hamper his re-election efforts.

The new sanctions, passed as part of the defense budget and mandated by the Senate in a rare 100-to-0 vote, penalize foreign corporations or other entities that purchase oil from Iran’s central bank, which collects payment for most of the country’s energy exports. The penalties are meant to pressure Iran to curb its nuclear program.

The law includes loopholes that allow Mr. Obama to waive the measures if they threaten national security or if gas prices increase.

Gas prices in the United States have climbed about 19 percent this year on worries about a confrontation with Iran, investor speculation about higher prices and other factors. A gallon of gas currently costs an average of $3.93, up from about $3.30 a gallon in December. The rising prices have weighed on economic confidence and cut into household budgets, a concern for an Obama administration seeking re-election.