Archives for September 2013

Israel puts ‘Iranian spy’ on display but has yet to charge him after 20 days of detention

Ali Mansouri, an Iranian-born Belgian citizen also known as Alex Mans, was arrested by Israel’s internal security services Shin Bet on September 11. His possession of a couple of nondescript photographs in which the U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv can be seen, has been presented as evidence that he was engaged in espionage. (Anyone who wants to find better photos of the embassy just has to use Google.)

The fact that after 20 days in detention (during the first nine of which Mansouri was prevented from consulting a lawyer) investigators don’t appear to have found sufficient evidence to put him on trial, might explain why he has yet to be charged.

At the same time, Israeli authorities were shameless in trying to exploit the political value of holding an Iranian in handcuffs as he was put on display for the press today.

Reuters reports: A man arrested on suspicion of being an Iranian spy appeared in an Israeli court on Monday and some Israeli analysts questioned the timing of the affair, suggesting it was being showcased as part of efforts to discredit Tehran’s new opening to Washington.

As Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu flew on Sunday to the United States for a visit focused on Iran’s nuclear program, Israel’s Shin Bet security service announced that Ali Mansouri had been arrested on September 11 on suspicion of spying for the Iranian Revolutionary Guards.

It said Mansouri, a 55-year-old Iranian-Belgian national, had photographed the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv and intended to establish business ties in Israel as a cover for espionage.

An Israeli official told reporters on Netanyahu’s flight that Mansouri’s picture-taking outside the embassy – whose exterior can be seen in numerous images on the Internet – was an attempt “to collect intelligence for a possible terror attack”.

That allegation was challenged by Mansouri’s lawyer, Michal Okabi, after a hearing on Monday in a court in the Tel Aviv suburb of Petah Tikva in which the suspect, who did not speak, was ordered held for eight more days.

“The apocalyptic picture that the Shin Bet is painting is a lot more complicated and the attempt to claim that our client came here in order to carry out attacks in Israel is far from reality and without foundation,” Okabi told reporters.

Some Israeli media commentators questioned the timing of the news, released in a Shin Bet statement that included photographs it said he had taken outside the beachfront mission and at Tel Aviv’s Ben-Gurion airport. No formal charges have been filed.

Asked by Reuters whether the decision to publicize Mansouri’s arrest was influenced by Netanyahu’s U.S. trip, the Shin Bet declined to comment.


Netanyahu’s Iran dilemma

Larry Derfner writes: By all appearances, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrived in New York Sunday in a state of near desperation over Iran. By his reckoning, the Iranians are now within arm’s reach — a few months or even just weeks short — of having a stockpile of enriched uranium that, if re-enriched, would be enough for a nuclear bomb. Reports in Israeli media even quote an unnamed government official claiming that Iran already has a bomb. And Netanyahu — who addresses the U.N. General Assembly Tuesday a day after visiting the White House — believes the Obama administration is falling for an Iranian ruse fronted by President Hassan Rouhani to get the West to drop sanctions in return for a deceitful demonstration of nuclear innocence.

But if the Israeli leader is feeling desperate, don’t expect him to show it in his U.N. speech; that, after all, is what his opponents expect. There will likely be no over-the-top gimmicks this time, no cartoon bomb audio-visuals. Neither should anyone wait for explicit, drawn-out analogies to the Holocaust. Instead, Netanyahu is likely to speak very quietly and starkly as he lays out his case that it’s too late to slow Iran’s advance to nuclear capability, that the only remaining choice for the world’s leaders is to force Iran to relinquish its capability to build nuclear weapons, or live with a nuclear-armed regime in Tehran.

Netanyahu’s dilemma is this: Not only does he have no trust in Tehran’s peaceful declarations, he is not confident that the U.S. and Europe are willing to escalate a confrontation in order to force Iran to give up its enriched uranium and dismantle its key nuclear facilities. It is not sufficient for Netanyahu for Iran to accept caps on its enrichment levels, because it’s nuclear infrastructure puts it within “a turn of the screwdriver” of weaponization if it followed North Korea’s example and broke out of the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

The Israeli leader believes the only acceptable scenario is for Iran to be presented with the choice of either dismantling its nuclear program or being bombed to ruins — and that’s not a likely outcome of renewed negotiations between the West and Iran, which are focused on limiting but not entirely eliminating Iran’s capacity to enrich uranium. [Continue reading…]


Video — Brzezinski: The U.S. can negotiate successfully with Iran


Iran hawks gear up

Mitchell Plitnick writes: Not everyone shares the optimism surrounding the recent communication between Presidents Barack Obama and Hassan Rouhani. From Israel, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf Monarchies and, of course, Washington, DC, voices of war are in a panic that tensions between the U.S. and Iran might be reduced by some means other than further devastation of the Islamic Republic.

The concern that Iran might emerge with a better relationship with the United States is quite vexing for the Gulf rulers and for Israel. For some years now, the drive to isolate Iran has focused almost entirely on the nuclear issue. In fact, regionally, much of the concern has been the ascendancy of Iran as a regional player more broadly, with revolutionary rhetoric that challenges the dominance of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States. Since the destruction, by George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq, of the dual containment policy, the issue for these parties has been how to contain Iran and its regional influence.

Iran has been cast as an “aggressor nation,” and this has been sold by illustrating Iran’s support for Hezbollah and other militant groups, its often bombastic rhetoric, and for the past decade, Iran’s ducking from some of its responsibilities to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). What gets left out is that Iran has never initiated an attack on another nation, its threats to “wipe Israel off the map” are factually known as (just not in mainstream discourse) to be a de-contextualized mistranslation of former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s words, and even Iran’s failures with the IAEA have been part of a back and forth exchange, where they refuse or neglect to comply with some things in response to what they see as US-led unfair sanctions or restrictions. That doesn’t mean Iran has not caused some of these problems itself, it has. Lack of transparency on nuclear issues tends to raise the hackles of one’s enemies. But all this has hardly been the one-way street that’s been portrayed. [Continue reading…]


Syrian militant Islamists denounce SNC and form ‘Islamic Alliance’

Charles Lister writes: In a video issued late on September 24, the chief political leader of Liwa al-Tawhid, Abdulaziz Salameh, speaking on behalf of 12 other Islamist militant groups in Syria, condemned the “unrepresentative” Western-backed Syrian National Coalition (SNC) and called explicitly for “an Islamic framework based on sharia [Islamic law].”

The video was issued along with a scanned statement, personally signed by the senior leadership of all 13 groups, encorporating existing members of the SNC, members of the hardline Salafist coalition the Syrian Islamic Front, and also Jabhat al-Nusra. As such, a new “Islamic Coalition” was formed.

All 13 groups – specifically, Jabhat al-Nusra, Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiyya, Liwa al-Tawhid, Liwa al-Islam, Suqor al-Sham, Liwa al-Haq, Harakat Fajr al-Sham al-Islamiyya, Harakat al-Nour al-Islamiyya, Kataib Nour al-Din al-Zinki, Liwa al-Furqan, Liwa al-Ansar, Tajamu Fastaqm Kamr Umrat and Forqat al-Tisaa Ashr – represent Syria’s most sizeable and powerful insurgent groups. The inclusion of the core of the SNC force – incorporating Liwa al-Tawhid, Liwa al-Islam and Suqor al-Sham – effectively depletes the SNC’s armed wing, the Syrian Military Council (SMC). As all four groups were also members of the SNC-linked Syrian Islamic Liberation Front coalition, with Suqor al-Sham leader Sheikh Ahmed Abu Issa its leader, it is likely that that moderate Islamist coalition has ceased to exist as a single organisational structure.

The announcement is potentially extremely significant for the long-term nature of the Syrian opposition. The SNC has long been accused of retaining minimal on-the-ground control of insurgent groups technically under its command, and this public renunciation of its leadership and its political foundations will likely prove extremely damaging for its long-term role inside Syria. The group’s 13 signatories currently play the lead roles in insurgent theatres across Syria, particularly throughout the north, in Homs, Damascus and as far south as al-Quneitra governorate.

While the significant Aleppo-based Asifat al-Shamal did not sign into the alliance, it issued a written statement expressing support for its objectives. Meanwhile, moderate forces Alwia Ahfad al-Rasoul and Jabhat al-Asala wa Tanmia will likely remain the SMC’s most significant multi-governorate-level actors, although the latter notably without one of its key constituent groups, Kataib Nour al-Din al-Zinki. [Continue reading…]


Libya: In search of a strongman

Nicolas Pelham writes: It is perhaps a measure of how close Libya is to breaking apart that two years after ousting one dictator, many Libyans are craving another. Rapacious brigades of armed volunteers, who are based in Misrata and Benghazi in the east, and the creaking military inherited from the old regime, which is based in the capital city of Tripoli and the west, are hurtling toward a new civil war, and the country’s ineffectual authorities seem unable to stop them. Local militias have captured the oil fields and ports, starving the government of 90 percent of its revenues; Benghazi is rife with political assassinations; in the south, Colonel Qaddafi’s kinsmen have plugged the Great Man-Made River that funnels water from the Sahara’s vast aquifers to the coast; and tribesmen across the country sporadically cut off the roads or close the airports that tie the provinces to the capital. Libya’s current prime minister, Ali Zeidan, threatens to restore order with force, but his men retreat after a few shots. Confusion about whether to rely on the armed irregulars who revolted against Qaddafi or the instruments of the old regime only compounds his powerlessness.

Libyans overwhelmingly aspire to the dream of a new democratic order that animated the ideals of the revolution. But increasingly many consider such a system too delicate to overcome the country’s deep fissures. Since antiquity Libya has been a composite of separate principalities—Tripolitania in the west, Cyrenaica in the east, and Fezzan in the south—a division that has played out not only geographically and historically, but also ideologically, with the west gravitating towards the more laissez-faire Maghreb, and the east spawning religious movements, from early Christian communities to Omar Mukhtar, the warrior Muslim mystic who led the revolt against Italy’s colonial conquest. In July 2012, great numbers of the country’s six million people braved the lawless streets—where alarming numbers of weapons have proliferated since the revolution—to register and vote in the first free national election in half a century. As multiple forces assert power in different parts of the country, however, the old regional divisions have reemerged. Only a strongman, many feel, can hold Libya together. But who could it be?

The souqs buzz hopefully with names. Khalifa Haftar, Colonel Qaddafi’s old commander-in-chief, who led Libya’s army into a brutal but woefully unsuccessful invasion of Chad in 1987, appeals to those nostalgic for the old order. After abandoning his men in the Sahara, he fled to Virginia, and, backed by the CIA, schemed with little apparent success to usurp Libya’s crown. When Libya’s revolution erupted in February 2011, he returned with pomp and a convoy of plush cars as commander of Libya’s rebel ground forces.

Raised in the ways of Qaddafi, however, Haftar has failed to shake off criticism that he acts like him. A Western spy recalls meeting him during the revolution in a Libyan oil company’s offices in Benghazi, where he proudly displayed his battle plans for the assault on Tripoli on a tourist roadmap of Libya. Might the agent have a few radios to spare, he asked, so that he could talk to the front? His convoy continues to circle Libya like a medieval travelling court. [Continue reading…]


Libya: Must it get worse before it gets better?

The Economist reports: “The only road to paradise,” runs a joke doing the rounds in the cafés of Tripoli, Libya’s seafront capital, “is the one to the international airport.” Most Libyans still revel in the freedom and sense of possibility brought on by the NATO-backed war that ousted Colonel Muammar Qaddafi two years ago. “Yet before, when someone disappeared, you knew they were with Qaddafi forces,” reminisces a rebel-turned-security man. “Now we have no idea.” That was made clear earlier this month when the government denounced the kidnap of the daughter of Abdullah al-Senussi, Qaddafi’s former spy chief, only to discover that one of its own forces had nabbed her; she was freed a few days later.

Libya has hit its rockiest patch since Qaddafi’s demise. No one has managed to reassert full authority over the tribes, regions and groups welded together under the colonel’s iron rule. Institutions of state, absent under Qaddafi, have yet to take firm shape. In the past few weeks the country’s key oil ports have been blockaded by disgruntled workers and militias. Assassinations and carjackings are rife. Water and electricity have been cut off in Tripoli for the past week. On September 11th a bomb was defused in Tripoli; another went off in Benghazi, the cradle of the anti-Qaddafi revolt and the main city of the east.

Security is the biggest complaint. “A state at its most basic has a monopoly of force,” says Anas al-Gomati, who runs Sadeq, a Libyan think-tank. “Here you can argue that the government works for the militias.” The authorities, with Western help, are in the process of building an army and police force which are supposed to take over from the militias on its payroll, most notably the Supreme Security Committee (SSC), a collection of former rebels which functions as a temporary police force, and the Libyan Shield, a group of Islamist militias that form a quasi-army. But a third of the men in these groups will refuse to drop their guns and come under the authority of the new security forces, reckons Hasham Bisher, who heads Tripoli’s SSC. Islamists in particular are loth to disband, fearing they may then be suppressed, as they were under Qaddafi.

So the government’s ability to keep law and order outside Tripoli is weak—“and arguably within it too,” says Claudia Gazzini of International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think-tank. The starkest illustration of this is the authorities’ inability to end the blockade that has reduced oil exports, the government’s main source of revenue, to under a tenth of the 1.6m barrels a day produced before the uprising. Some factions appear to be trying to sell oil to fund a campaign for federalism, with Benghazi as the capital of an autonomous eastern region. Others are protesting against the government’s general incompetence. [Continue reading…]


NSA stores metadata of millions of web users for up to a year, secret files show

The Guardian reports: The National Security Agency is storing the online metadata of millions of internet users for up to a year, regardless of whether or not they are persons of interest to the agency, top secret documents reveal.

Metadata provides a record of almost anything a user does online, from browsing history – such as map searches and websites visited – to account details, email activity, and even some account passwords. This can be used to build a detailed picture of an individual’s life.

The Obama administration has repeatedly stated that the NSA keeps only the content of messages and communications of people it is intentionally targeting – but internal documents reveal the agency retains vast amounts of metadata.

An introductory guide to digital network intelligence for NSA field agents, included in documents disclosed by former contractor Edward Snowden, describes the agency’s metadata repository, codenamed Marina. Any computer metadata picked up by NSA collection systems is routed to the Marina database, the guide explains. Phone metadata is sent to a separate system. [Continue reading…]


For scientists in a democracy, to dissent is to be reasonable

George Monbiot writes: It’s as clear and chilling a statement of intent as you’re likely to read. Scientists should be “the voice of reason, rather than dissent, in the public arena”. Vladimir Putin? Kim Jong-un? No, Professor Ian Boyd, chief scientific adviser at the UK’s Department for Environment.

Boyd’s doctrine is a neat distillation of government policy in Britain, Canada and Australia. These governments have suppressed or misrepresented inconvenient findings on climate change, pollution, pesticides, fisheries and wildlife. They have shut down programmes that produce unwelcome findings and sought to muzzle scientists. This is a modern version of Soviet Lysenkoism: crushing academic dissent on behalf of bad science and corporate power.

Writing in an online journal, Boyd argued that if scientists speak freely, they create conflict between themselves and policymakers, leading to a “chronically deep-seated mistrust of scientists that can undermine the delicate foundation upon which science builds relevance”. This, in turn, “could set back the cause of science in government”. So they should avoid “suggesting that policies are either right or wrong”. If they must speak out, they should do so through “embedded advisers (such as myself), and by being the voice of reason, rather than dissent, in the public arena”.

Shut up, speak through me, don’t dissent – or your behaviour will ensure that science becomes irrelevant. Note that the conflicts between science and policy are caused by scientists, rather than by politicians ignoring or abusing the evidence. Or by chief scientific advisers. [Continue reading…]


Audio: Proto-Indo-European reconstructed

Here’s a story in English:

A sheep that had no wool saw horses, one of them pulling a heavy wagon, one carrying a big load, and one carrying a man quickly. The sheep said to the horses: “My heart pains me, seeing a man driving horses.” The horses said: “Listen, sheep, our hearts pain us when we see this: a man, the master, makes the wool of the sheep into a warm garment for himself. And the sheep has no wool.” Having heard this, the sheep fled into the plain.

And here is “a very educated approximation” of how that story might have sounded if spoken in Proto-Indo-European about 6,500 years ago:

(Read more at Archeology.)


Music: Vinicius Cantuária & Bill Frisell — ‘Calle 7’


Netanyahu’s fight against Middle East peace

Daniel Levy writes: On Monday, Sept. 30, U.S. President Barack Obama will welcome Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the White House for the first time in 18 months. Much has changed in the intervening period — both leaders have been re-elected, Obama has made his first visit as president to Israel, Israeli-Palestinian peace talks have been relaunched, and that rather pragmatic-sounding Hasan Rouhani chap has been elected president in Iran.

In what might be called an anti-“Asia pivot” speech, Obama announced to the U.N. General Assembly this week that the United States is engaged in the Middle East “for the long haul” and that “in the near term, America’s diplomatic efforts will focus on two particular issues: Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons and the Arab-Israeli conflict.”

That message will be viewed as a mixed bag in Jerusalem, which is keen for a greater American footprint in the region but is less enthusiastic about the idea of peacemaking with the Palestinians and deal-making with the Iranians taking top billing. For that reason, the upcoming White House meeting will likely find the two leaders back on familiar terrain, more focused on testing each other’s underlying intentions than on working together as close allies.

The U.S. president is something of an open book, but Netanyahu’s approach requires a little more interpretation and context. Too much of that analysis has been consistently wrong, and thankfully so. If prominent Netanyahu watchers had gotten it right, we would be marking the second or third anniversaries of Israeli bombing campaigns against Iran.

Netanyahu is indeed back in threatening mode. His latest rhetorical flourish is to quote Hillel’s ancient maxim “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” — an upgrade of his previous refrain regarding Israel’s “right to defend itself by itself.” That language is being widely interpreted by Israeli commentators as a reaffirmation of Israel’s willingness to strike Iran alone if Netanyahu’s red lines on Iran’s nuclear program are deemed to have been crossed.

This debate has taken on a new urgency given the diplomatic opening seemingly created by the election of Rouhani. It is no secret that Netanyahu has been dragged out of his comfort zone by the possibility of a U.S.-Iran rapprochement. Former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s aggressive and insulting behavior made him a convenient adversary for Israel; Rouhani and his diplomatic team, notably polished Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, present a challenge of a very different order of magnitude. [Continue reading…]


Israel releases ‘Iranian spy’ story as Netanyahu heads to Washington

netanyahu-rouhaniOn September 11, Israel’s secret police (Shin Bet) arrested a Belgian windows and roofing salesman who is alleged to be an “Iranian agent … sent to Israel to set up a base for Iranian intelligence and terrorism networks”.

The Israeli government delayed releasing information about the arrest until Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu set off for Washington on his mission to counter the “the onslaught of smiles” that Americans have been subjected to over the last few days.

Reasons the Israelis give for regarding Ali Mansouri with suspicion, include:

  • The fact that when he became a Belgium citizen in 2006, he changed his name to Alex Mans. Were it not for the fact that the father of Israel’s prime minister shed his Polish identity when he migrated to Palestine, Bibi might now be generally known as Benjamin Mileikowsky. As millions of Americans can attest, the adoption of a new name in a new homeland is far from unusual.
  • Mans was found in possession of photos of the U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv. Much more detailed photos can be found on Google Maps.
  • “Iran offered him a million dollars in exchange for his activities.” But did he take a dime?

Mans left Iran the year after the revolution and has spent most of his adult life living in Turkey and Belgium.

The Jerusalem Post reports:

Public defense lawyers representing Mansouri said that their client is a Belgian businessman who is not motivated by any pro-Iranian agenda.

The attorneys, Michael Orkavi and Anat Yaari, said their client had been denied access to a lawyer for nine days. They added that a more complex picture exists than the one being presented by security forces, and that the full details would emerge in court after Mansouri is charged.

Mans’ cover as a ‘salesman’ seems quite convincing. But maybe that’s because he’s just a salesman. The only thing he’s definitely ‘guilty’ of is having been born in Iran.


Ret. Gen. Boykin promotes End Times view of war in Syria

Mother Jones: Lt. Gen. Jerry Boykin, a top executive at the influential Family Research Council, has joined the chorus of religious conservatives touting the Syrian conflict as a prelude to Armageddon. On Wednesday, Boykin appeared on Prophetic Perspectives on Current Events, a talk show hosted by dominionist preacher Rick Joyner (see the video above). The pair discussed a passage in Isaiah 17, which predicts Damascus will be reduced to “a ruinous heap.”

“One of the scriptures that has never been fulfilled and has to be fulfilled before this age can end is that Damascus will be destroyed, never inhabited again,” Joyner explained. “What in the world could cause a city to be destroyed and never inhabited again?” Boykin didn’t hesitate. “One of the ways Damascus could be destroyed, never to be re-occupied, would be through a chemical attack,” he replied. ” So let’s just take a scenario: The Free Syrian Army takes Damascus and Bashar al-Assad is in a desperate mode now…. What would be his final act? Well it may very well be to unload all his chemical weapons on the population center there in Damascus. Destroy the city and destroy it in a way that he just kills maybe millions of people. But the byproduct is that he has residue there that could make Damascus uninhabitable and for a very long time.”

This is not the first time Boykin has embraced the notion that war in the Middle East will lay waste to the Syrian capital—and pave the way for Jesus’s return. He recently wrote an endorsement for Damascus Countdown, a fictionalized account of the looming biblical conflict by best-selling author Joel Rosenberg. And he has spoken at several of Ronseberg’s annual Epicenter Conferences, which explore the Middle East’s role in biblical prophesy.


Syrian opposition groups stop pretending

Rania Abouzeid writes: The pretense that the so-called Syrian opposition-in-exile speaks for those inside the country, never firm to begin with, was further exposed late on Tuesday, in a two-minute video statement called “Communiqué No. 1,” which was issued by eleven armed rebel groups that are influential in northern Syria. Their message was simple: the Western-backed hotel revolutionaries jetting from capital to capital, claiming leadership in the political National Coalition and an interim government-to-be, don’t speak for them—and they won’t listen to them. The new coalition, which has yet to announce its name, also said it wants Islamic Sharia law to be the basis of any future government, and that the various opposition parties should unite within “an Islamic framework.”

There has long been a disconnect between those fighting and bleeding inside Syria and the political and diplomatic machinations of those in exile. What is new here is that at least three of the eleven groups—Liwa al-Tawhid, Liwa al-Islam, and Suqour al-Sham—are aligned with the military wing of the National Coalition, the Supreme Military Council, which is supported by the West and is what passes for the leadership of the loose franchise outfit known as the Free Syrian Army (F.S.A.). Now they have publicly thrown in their lot with Jabhat al-Nusra, which also signed on to the statement and is connected to Al Qaeda.

This public alliance of affiliates of the F.S.A. and of Al Qaeda, however, is more of a shift on paper than a marked change in how things work on the ground. There has long been operational coördination on a local level—for a particular battle or in a certain geographic area. All that has really happened at this stage is that a fig leaf has dropped.

The fighting men within Syria have long despised their political and military leaders-in-exile. It’s common to hear them say, “We are in the khanadik”—trenches—“and they are in the fanadik,” hotels. In late August, four of the leaders of the F.S.A.’s five fronts said that the National Coalition—their own political counterparts—had no legitimacy. They threatened to resign from the Supreme Military Council because of, among other things, “the lying promises of those states who claim to be friends of Syria,” who have not provided assistance “worthy of the sacrifices of the Syrian people.”

The disunity goes deeper. Colonel Abdul-Jabbar Agaydee, the top F.S.A. commander in the northern city of Aleppo and a man who doesn’t spend his time in hotel lobbies, has lambasted the Supreme Military Council, of which he himself is a member, saying it is “completely disconnected from reality.” [Continue reading…]


The No-Fly List: Where the FBI goes fishing for informants

ACLU National Security Project: Over the last three years, the FBI has dramatically expanded its No-Fly List of suspected terrorists, including blacklisting innocent Americans who present no threat to security.

The Americans we represent in Latif v. Holder, the ACLU’s challenge to the government’s No-Fly List procedures, provide a prime example. They were each denied boarding on planes, deprived of their right to travel, and smeared as suspected terrorists. Yet the government continues to deny them any after-the-fact explanation for their blacklisting or any meaningful chance to clear their names.

The FBI’s violation of these Americans’ due process rights is, in and of itself, abusive and unlawful. After all, preventing people from correcting the errors that led to their inclusion on a blacklist does not make our skies any safer, but it does harm constitutionally protected rights to travel and reputation — as a federal court recently recognized. And a closer look into the experiences of several ACLU clients shows another, even darker side to the No-Fly List.

FBI agents have tried to use the No-Fly List as a draconian tool to coerce Americans into spying on their communities.

FBI agents put this pressure on ACLU clients Abe Mashal, a Marine veteran; Amir Meshal; and Nagib Ali Ghaleb. Each of these Americans spoke to FBI agents to learn why they were suddenly banned from flying and to clear up the errors that led to that decision. Instead of providing that explanation or opportunity, FBI agents offered to help them get off the No-Fly List — but only in exchange for serving as informants in their communities.Our clients refused.

The ACLU’s report, Unleashed and Unaccountable: The FBI’s Unchecked Abuse of Authority, explains what happened to Nagib Ali Ghaleb. [Continue reading…]


Ruling Islamist party in Tunisia to step down

The New York Times reports: Tunisia’s governing Islamist party, Ennahda, thrust into power by the Arab Spring, has agreed to step down after months of political wrangling with a hard-bargaining opposition.

In three weeks, the Ennahda-led government is to hand over power to an independent caretaker government that will lead the country through elections in the spring. The deal comes as part of negotiations to restart Tunisia’s democratic transition after secular opposition groups, protesting the assassinations of two of their politicians, stalled work on a new constitution and an election law this summer.

The two sides will enter discussions this week mediated by the Tunisian General Labor Union, the nation’s largest. Its deputy secretary general, Bouali Mbarki, announced Ennahda’s acceptance of the plan on Saturday.

The move comes less than three months after the Islamist government of President Mohamed Morsi of Egypt, also elected during the Arab Spring uprisings, was ousted by the military.

Ennahda officials have repeatedly made statements in recent weeks signaling the party’s readiness to resign as a way to break the political impasse. The opposition, and the union, have until now pressed for more concrete action. [Continue reading…]


Americans aren’t exceptional — they are weird

Ethan Watters writes: In the summer of 1995, a young graduate student in anthropology at UCLA named Joe Henrich traveled to Peru to carry out some fieldwork among the Machiguenga, an indigenous people who live north of Machu Picchu in the Amazon basin. The Machiguenga had traditionally been horticulturalists who lived in single-family, thatch-roofed houses in small hamlets composed of clusters of extended families. For sustenance, they relied on local game and produce from small-scale farming. They shared with their kin but rarely traded with outside groups.

While the setting was fairly typical for an anthropologist, Henrich’s research was not. Rather than practice traditional ethnography, he decided to run a behavioral experiment that had been developed by economists. Henrich used a “game”—along the lines of the famous prisoner’s dilemma—to see whether isolated cultures shared with the West the same basic instinct for fairness. In doing so, Henrich expected to confirm one of the foundational assumptions underlying such experiments, and indeed underpinning the entire fields of economics and psychology: that humans all share the same cognitive machinery—the same evolved rational and psychological hardwiring.

The test that Henrich introduced to the Machiguenga was called the ultimatum game. The rules are simple: in each game there are two players who remain anonymous to each other. The first player is given an amount of money, say $100, and told that he has to offer some of the cash, in an amount of his choosing, to the other subject. The second player can accept or refuse the split. But there’s a hitch: players know that if the recipient refuses the offer, both leave empty-handed. North Americans, who are the most common subjects for such experiments, usually offer a 50-50 split when on the giving end. When on the receiving end, they show an eagerness to punish the other player for uneven splits at their own expense. In short, Americans show the tendency to be equitable with strangers—and to punish those who are not.

Among the Machiguenga, word quickly spread of the young, square-jawed visitor from America giving away money. The stakes Henrich used in the game with the Machiguenga were not insubstantial—roughly equivalent to the few days’ wages they sometimes earned from episodic work with logging or oil companies. So Henrich had no problem finding volunteers. What he had great difficulty with, however, was explaining the rules, as the game struck the Machiguenga as deeply odd.

When he began to run the game it became immediately clear that Machiguengan behavior was dramatically different from that of the average North American. To begin with, the offers from the first player were much lower. In addition, when on the receiving end of the game, the Machiguenga rarely refused even the lowest possible amount. “It just seemed ridiculous to the Machiguenga that you would reject an offer of free money,” says Henrich. “They just didn’t understand why anyone would sacrifice money to punish someone who had the good luck of getting to play the other role in the game.”

The potential implications of the unexpected results were quickly apparent to Henrich. He knew that a vast amount of scholarly literature in the social sciences—particularly in economics and psychology—relied on the ultimatum game and similar experiments. At the heart of most of that research was the implicit assumption that the results revealed evolved psychological traits common to all humans, never mind that the test subjects were nearly always from the industrialized West. Henrich realized that if the Machiguenga results stood up, and if similar differences could be measured across other populations, this assumption of universality would have to be challenged.

Henrich had thought he would be adding a small branch to an established tree of knowledge. It turned out he was sawing at the very trunk. He began to wonder: What other certainties about “human nature” in social science research would need to be reconsidered when tested across diverse populations? [Continue reading…]