Archives for June 2013

Key US-EU trade pact under threat after more NSA spying allegations

The Guardian reports: The prospects for a new trade pact between the US and the European Union worth hundreds of billions have suffered a severe setback following allegations that Washington bugged key EU offices and intercepted phonecalls and emails from top officials.

The latest reports of NSA snooping on Europe – and on Germany in particular – went well beyond previous revelations of electronic spying said to be focused on identifying suspected terrorists, extremists and organised criminals.

The German publication Der Spiegel reported that it had seen documents and slides from the NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden indicating that US agencies bugged the offices of the EU in Washington and at the United Nations in New York. They are also accused of directing an operation from Nato headquarters in Brussels to infiltrate the telephone and email networks at the EU’s Justus Lipsius building in the Belgian capital, the venue for EU summits and home of the European council.

Without citing sources, the magazine reported that more than five years ago security officers at the EU had noticed several missed calls apparently targeting the remote maintenance system in the building that were traced to NSA offices within the Nato compound in Brussels.

The impact of the Der Spiegel allegations may be felt more keenly in Germany than in Brussels. The magazine said Germany was the foremost target for the US surveillance programmes, categorising Washington’s key European ally alongside China, Iraq or Saudi Arabia in the intensity of the electronic snooping.

Germany’s justice minister, Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger, called for an explanation from the US authorities. “If the media reports are true, it is reminiscent of the actions of enemies during the cold war,” she was quoted as saying in the German newspaper Bild. “It is beyond imagination that our friends in the US view Europeans as the enemy.” [Continue reading…]

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Europe furious over NSA spying on EU facilities

Der Spiegel reports: Europeans are furious. Revelations that the US intelligence service National Security Agency (NSA) targeted the European Union and several European countries with its far-reaching spying activities have led to angry reactions from several senior EU and German politicians.

“We need more precise information,” said European Parliament President Martin Schulz. “But if it is true, it is a huge scandal. That would mean a huge burden for relations between the EU and the US. We now demand comprehensive information.”

Schulz was reacting to a report in SPIEGEL that the NSA had bugged the EU’s diplomatic representation in Washington and monitored its computer network (full story available on Monday). The EU’s representation to the United Nations in New York was targeted in a similar manner. US intelligence thus had access to EU email traffic and internal documents. The information appears in secret documents obtained by whistleblower Edward Snowden, some of which SPIEGEL has seen. [Continue reading…]

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Washington Post ignores threat to national security and publishes new NSA slides

Back in early June when the Washington Post published four slides from the NSA’s PowerPoint presentation on PRISM, reporter Barton Gellman wrote: “If you saw all the slides you wouldn’t publish them” — even though Edward Snowden had pressed the Post to publish all 41 slides.

Now, in spite of Gellman’s insinuation that publication of any of the remaining slides could undermine national security, the Post has gone ahead and published four new slides.

Does this reflect newly found boldness on the part of the paper’s editors? Unlikely. Much more likely is that the Washington Post is now publishing classified information at the request of the NSA.

So, when the information in question is information the public needs to know, the Post is reluctant to publish it. But when the government decides that the release of the same information will now serve its own interests, then the Post is only too happy to oblige.

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A privacy board was supposed to protect Americans from NSA spies

Bloomberg reports: In the weeks since former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden exposed government spying into millions of Americans’ phone calls and e-mails, the Obama administration has reassured the public that there are restraints on U.S. espionage. One check against Washington’s vast counterterrorism efforts is supposed to be the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board. In a June 17 interview with Charlie Rose, the president said, “I’ll be meeting with them, and what I want to do is to set up and structure a national conversation” about privacy.

The board is staffed with five presidential appointees who get top secret security clearances and, in theory, the power to shape both legislation and regulations to assure that espionage undertaken in the name of the Patriot Act or the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act doesn’t trample on the public’s privacy rights. That’s how the 9/11 Commission, which proposed the board in 2004, envisioned it would work.

Hamstrung by Congress and ignored by two presidents, the board has been powerless. After neglecting it during his first term, Obama met with board members for the first time on June 21. They never weighed in on the NSA’s Prism program, and had they tried, it’s questionable whether the board would have gotten very far. Its recommendations aren’t binding; the White House, spy agencies, and lawmakers aren’t required to take its advice. And its mandate is virtually impossible to carry out: It’s supposed to tell the public if the government’s secret programs are overreaching, yet it can’t reveal any classified details. [Continue reading…]

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Egypt on the brink: How did we get here?

Evan Hill writes: Families have stockpiled food and water, drivers have slept nights in petrol lines that snaked for city block after city block, and power cuts have rippled across the governorates and major cities. Half a dozen people have died in a spasm of violence that threatens to become a full-blown seizure when mass protests against President Mohamed Morsi break out today. Headquarters of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party have been attacked and burned throughout the Nile Delta, and his supporters’ rallies assaulted. Brotherhood toughs have banded together outside their offices wearing hard hats and makeshift shields and carrying homemade guns, ready to bludgeon or blow away what they fear is a coming wave of paid street thugs, the very embodiment of the counter-revolution.

Morsi’s opponents, sometimes backed by police, have also taken to the streets with firearms. Longtime revolutionaries uneasy with the violent omens and new, questionable allies have swallowed their hesitation and prepare to march on the presidential palace. As protesters sacked a Brotherhood office in Alexandria on Friday, someone in the crowd stabbed to death a young American teacher filming with his camera. In beleaguered Port Said, already subject to gun battles between citizens and police that killed dozens in March, a gas tank exploded at an anti-Morsi rally, reportedly killing one man and horribly maiming many more. Rumors flew that the protest had been bombed.

The country is gripped by expectant hysteria, like a Twilight Zone version of the hours before a World Cup final: nearly 90 million penned-in bystanders waiting on the opening whistle of a match to be played for keeps with guns and knives by partisans they hardly recognize as their own. One online commentator described the impending movement to oust Morsi on the one-year anniversary of his election as the birth of a new political order that may kill its mother. A journalist said it was as if Egypt’s body politic were rejecting a transplant and killing the nation in the process, a fledgling democracy’s auto-immune system gone haywire.

How did the country get here? How did the January 2011 uprising and its young, made-for-TV activists spin out into another zero-sum game for control? The story is complicated, and the strategic and tactical failures by both the secularist opposition and the Brotherhood so profoundly, majestically short-sighted and self-defeating that some have retreated into that most time-tested of rationales, the conspiracy, to explain how things could have gone so wrong, so fast. In their narrative, the crisis has been stage managed by the military, Egypt’s eminence grise and ultimate power-broker, beginning on the day in February 2011 when the generals opportunistically seized on the mass protests to quietly but forcefully escort Hosni Mubarak, his family and his cronies from the stage. [Continue reading…]

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Video: Shadi Hamid on the divisions inside Egypt

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Foreign media portrayals of the conflict in Syria are dangerously inaccurate

Patrick Cockburn writes: It is difficult to prove the truth or falsehood of any generalisation about Syria. But, going by my experience this month travelling in central Syria between Damascus, Homs and the Mediterranean coast, it is possible to show how far media reports differ markedly what is really happening. Only by understanding and dealing with the actual balance of forces on the ground can any progress be made towards a cessation of violence.

On Tuesday I travelled to Tal Kalakh, a town of 55,000 people just north of the border with Lebanon, which was once an opposition bastion. Three days previously, government troops had taken over the town and 39 Free Syrian Army (FSA) leaders had laid down their weapons. Talking to Syrian army commanders, an FSA defector and local people, it was evident there was no straight switch from war to peace. It was rather that there had been a series of truces and ceasefires arranged by leading citizens of Tal Kalakh over the previous year.

But at the very time I was in the town, Al Jazeera Arabic was reporting fighting there between the Syrian army and the opposition. Smoke was supposedly rising from Tal Kalakh as the rebels fought to defend their stronghold. Fortunately, this appears to have been fantasy and, during the several hours I was in the town, there was no shooting, no sign that fighting had taken place and no smoke.

Of course, all sides in a war pretend that no position is lost without a heroic defence against overwhelming numbers of the enemy. But obscured in the media’s accounts of what happened in Tal Kalakh was an important point: the opposition in Syria is fluid in its allegiances. The US, Britain and the so-called 11-member “Friends of Syria”, who met in Doha last weekend, are to arm non-Islamic fundamentalist rebels, but there is no great chasm between them and those not linked to al-Qa’ida. One fighter with the al-Qa’ida-affiliated al-Nusra Front was reported to have defected to a more moderate group because he could not do without cigarettes. The fundamentalists pay more and, given the total impoverishment of so many Syrian families, the rebels will always be able to win more recruits. “Money counts for more than ideology,” a diplomat in Damascus told me. [Continue reading…]

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Syrian army launches offensive in Homs

The Washington Post reports: Syrian fighter jets and heavy-artillery units pounded rebel-held areas of the central city of Homs on Saturday, in what activists described as the fiercest push to take full control of the city in more than a year.

The bombardment of districts including al-Qusoor, Khalidiya, Jouret al-Shiya and the ancient Old City began about 9 a.m. and continued for three hours before the army deployed ground troops, activists said.

The government has been pressing a campaign against pockets of resistance in central Syria since taking control earlier this month of the town of Qusair, which lies between Homs and the Lebanese border. Once known as the capital of the revolution for its early role in the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad, Homs is divided between government-controlled and rebel-held areas, which have been under siege for the past year.

“It’s the worst day since the beginning of the siege,” said Abu Rami, a spokesman for the opposition Syrian Revolution General Commission and a resident of al-Qusoor who uses a pseudonym. “Civilians can’t leave. We are trapped.” [Continue reading…]

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Taking outsize role in Syria, Qatar funnels arms to rebels

The New York Times reports: As an intermittent supply of arms to the Syrian opposition gathered momentum last year, the Obama administration repeatedly implored its Arab allies to keep one type of powerful weapon out of the rebels’ hands: heat-seeking shoulder-fired missiles.

The missiles, American officials warned, could one day be used by terrorist groups, some of them affiliated with Al Qaeda, to shoot down civilian aircraft.

But one country ignored this admonition: Qatar, the tiny, oil- and gas-rich emirate that has made itself the indispensable nation to rebel forces battling calcified Arab governments and that has been shipping arms to the Syrian rebels fighting the government of President Bashar al-Assad since 2011.

Since the beginning of the year, according to four American and Middle Eastern officials with knowledge of intelligence reports on the weapons, Qatar has used a shadowy arms network to move at least two shipments of shoulder-fired missiles, one of them a batch of Chinese-made FN-6s, to Syrian rebels who have used them against Mr. Assad’s air force. Deployment of the missiles comes at a time when American officials expect that President Obama’s decision to begin a limited effort to arm the Syrian rebels might be interpreted by Qatar, along with other Arab countries supporting the rebels, as a green light to drastically expand arms shipments.

Qatar’s aggressive effort to bolster the embattled Syrian opposition is the latest brash move by a country that has been using its wealth to elbow its way to the forefront of Middle Eastern statecraft, confounding both its allies in the region and in the West. The strategy is expected to continue even though Qatar’s longtime leader, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, stepped down last week, allowing his 33-year-old son to succeed him. [Continue reading…]

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The water is running out in Gaza: Humanitarian catastrophe looms as territory’s only aquifer fails

Reuters reports: The Gaza Strip, a tiny wedge of land jammed between Israel, Egypt and the Mediterranean sea, is heading inexorably into a water crisis that the United Nations says could make the Palestinian enclave uninhabitable in just a few years.

With 90 to 95 per cent of the territory’s only aquifer contaminated by sewage, chemicals and seawater, neighbourhood desalination facilities and their public taps are a lifesaver for some of Gaza’s 1.6 million residents. But these small-scale projects provide water for only about 20 per cent of the population, forcing many more residents in the impoverished territory to buy bottled water at a premium. The UN estimates that more than 80 per cent of Gazans buy their drinking water. “Families are paying as much as a third of their household income for water,” said June Kunugi, a special representative of the UN children’s fund Unicef.

The Gaza Strip, governed by the Islamist group Hamas and in a permanent state of tension with Israel, is not the only place in the Middle East facing water woes. A Nasa study of satellite data released this year showed that between 2003 and 2009 the region lost 144 cubic kilometres of stored freshwater – equivalent to the amount in the Dead Sea – making a bad situation much worse. [Continue reading…]

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Challenging the ruling bureaucracy

In 1969, Hannah Arendt wrote: Violence, being instrumental by nature, is rational to the extent that it is effective in reaching the end which must justify it. And since when we act we never know with any amount of certainty the eventual consequences of what we are doing, violence can remain rational only if it pursues short-term goals. Violence does not promote causes, it promotes neither History nor Revolution, but it can indeed serve to dramatize grievances and to bring them to public attention. As Conor Cruise O’Brien once remarked, “Violence is sometimes needed for the voice of moderation to be heard.” And indeed, violence, contrary to what its prophets try to tell us, is a much more effective weapon of reformers than of revolutionists. (The often vehement denunciations of violence by Marxists did not spring from humane motives but from their awareness that revolutions are not the result of conspiracies and violent action.) France would not have received the most radical reform bill since Napoleon to change her antiquated education system without the riots of the French students [in May 1968], and no one would have dreamed of yielding to reforms of Columbia University without the riots during the [1968] spring term.

Still, the danger of the practice of violence, even if it moves consciously within a non-extremist framework of short-term goals, will always be that the means overwhelm the end. If goals are not achieved rapidly, the result will not merely be defeat but the introduction of the practice of violence into the whole body politic. Action is irreversible, and a return to the status quo in case of defeat is always unlikely. The practice of violence, like all action, changes the world, but the most probable change is a more violent world.

Finally, the greater the bureaucratization of public life, the greater will be the attraction of violence. In a fully developed bureaucracy there is nobody left with whom one could argue, to whom one could present grievances, on whom the pressures of power could be exerted. Bureaucracy is the form of government in which everybody is deprived of political freedom, of the power to act; for the rule by Nobody is not no-rule, and where all are equally powerless we have a tyranny without a tyrant. The crucial feature in the students’ rebellions around the world is that they are directed everywhere against the ruling bureaucracy. [Continue reading…]

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The myth of secrecy

Leaf Van Boven, Charles M. Judd, and Mark Travers write: The revelation that the National Security Agency has been secretly amassing huge amounts of data about Americans’ phone and Internet use has sparked a lively debate about the proper role of secret information in a free and open society.

The crux of the debate is whether the value of secret information justifies the sacrifice of personal privacy. If secret information yields valuable intelligence that can be used to protect Americans, the reasoning goes, then it is worth sacrificing privacy for security.

But there is a major problem with evaluating information labeled “secret”: people tend to inflate the value of “secret” information simply because it is secret.

In a recent series of studies that we will present in a forthcoming issue of the journal Political Psychology, we have shown that people apply what we call a “secrecy heuristic” — a rule of thumb, in other words — when evaluating the quality of information related to national security. People rate otherwise identical pieces of information as more accurate, reliable and of higher quality when they are labeled secret rather than public. And people tend to think that national security decisions are wiser and better-reasoned when based on the same information labeled secret rather than public. [Continue reading…]

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Video: Glenn Greenwald addressing Socialism 2013 conference

Glenn Greenwald spoke via Skype to the Socialism 2013 conference in Chicago on June 27, 2013.

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When the democratic process isn’t enough

Rami G. Khouri writes: The fascinating, simultaneous demonstrations and challenges to democratically elected regimes in Egypt, Turkey and Brazil this month suggest that we need to look for an explanation for all this in something structural in newly democratized societies, rather than in cultural explanations. The silliest common cultural line of analysis asks about the compatibility between “Islam and democracy,” without our ever hearing an analogous discussion of, say, “Judaism and democracy” or “Christianity and democracy.”The mass demonstrations in these three countries are particularly intriguing because their leaderships are democratically elected, and therefore unquestionably legitimate. Also, all three countries were passing through moments of great hope and achievement; these included significant mass economic improvements in people’s well-being in Brazil and Turkey, and a democratic transition in Egypt that created a new global icon of the popular will for mass dignity and civil rights: Tahrir Square. Politically mummified Egypt set a new benchmark against which other political agitation around the world would be measured, whether in Madison, Wisconsin, in 2011 or in Turkey this month where analysts debated whether the Turkish people were about to create a new Tahrir Square.

The hundreds of thousands of people who took to the streets in Turkey and Brazil, and those millions in Egypt who promise to hold a mass national demonstration on June 30 to seek the ouster of President Mohammad Mursi on the first year anniversary of his arrival to power, raise reasonable questions that relate to several aspects of the two most compelling dimensions of governance: the policy and the style of the ruling incumbents. If the legitimacy of the leaderships in these three countries is not directly in question – after all, they were elected in free and fair democratic elections – then why have dissatisfied citizens taken to the streets to show their concerns?

I suspect that what we are witnessing is a dramatic expression of the weaknesses inherent in two simultaneous processes that are slowly expanding across the world: One is democratic rule based on majoritarianism, and the other is the continued diffusion of neoliberal capitalism, which turns citizens into consumers and gives corporations much greater power in the public realm than it does to the mass of ordinary citizens. The convergence and the initial globalization of these two forces can be traced to the early 1980s, under the leaderships of President Ronald Reagan in the United States and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in the United Kingdom. [Continue reading…]

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Video: Snowden, Greenwald and the media saga

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Senators accuse government of using ‘secret law’ to collect Americans’ data

The Guardian reports: A bipartisan group of 26 US senators has written to intelligence chiefs to complain that the administration is relying on a “secret body of law” to collect massive amounts of data on US citizens.

The senators accuse officials of making misleading statements and demand that the director of national intelligence James Clapper answer a series of specific questions on the scale of domestic surveillance as well as the legal justification for it.

In their strongly-worded letter to Clapper, the senators said they believed the government may be misinterpreting existing legislation to justify the sweeping collection of telephone and internet data revealed by the Guardian.

“We are concerned that by depending on secret interpretations of the Patriot Act that differed from an intuitive reading of the statute, this program essentially relied for years on a secret body of law,” they say.

“This and misleading statements by intelligence officials have prevented our constituents from evaluating the decisions that their government was making, and will unfortunately undermine trust in government more broadly.” [Continue reading…]

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WikiLeaks volunteer was a paid informant for the FBI

Wired: On an August workday in 2011, a cherubic 18-year-old Icelandic man named Sigurdur “Siggi” Thordarson walked through the stately doors of the U.S. embassy in Reykjavík, his jacket pocket concealing his calling card: a crumpled photocopy of an Australian passport. The passport photo showed a man with a unruly shock of platinum blonde hair and the name Julian Paul Assange.

Thordarson was long time volunteer for WikiLeaks with direct access to Assange and a key position as an organizer in the group. With his cold war-style embassy walk-in, he became something else: the first known FBI informant inside WikiLeaks. For the next three months, Thordarson served two masters, working for the secret-spilling website and simultaneously spilling its secrets to the U.S. government in exchange, he says, for a total of about $5,000. The FBI flew him internationally four times for debriefings, including one trip to Washington D.C., and on the last meeting obtained from Thordarson eight hard drives packed with chat logs, video and other data from WikiLeaks.

The relationship provides a rare window into the U.S. law enforcement investigation into WikiLeaks, the transparency group newly thrust back into international prominence with its assistance to NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. Thordarson’s double-life illustrates the lengths to which the government was willing to go in its pursuit of Julian Assange, approaching WikiLeaks with the tactics honed during the FBI’s work against organized crime and computer hacking — or, more darkly, the bureau’s Hoover-era infiltration of civil rights groups. [Continue reading…]

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Video: Has capitalism failed the world?

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