Why there’s still reason to doubt North Korea was behind the Sony attack

Why would the FBI say it has “enough information to conclude that the North Korean government is responsible for these actions,” if that’s not really true?

Firstly, the FBI and the U.S. government as a whole is always reluctant to present itself as ignorant. Presenting itself as having privileged access to secret information is something every government does in order to bolster its image of power. The FBI can’t tell us exactly how it knows what it claims to know because “the need to protect sensitive sources and methods precludes us from sharing all of this information” — trust us; we know; we’re the FBI.

Secondly, the only way that North Korea can convincingly refute the accusation is to identify the real culprits — and they have no means of doing that.

Given the appalling reputation of the leaders of the hermit kingdom, there is a prevailing assumption of guilt even in the absence of compelling evidence, which makes the FBI’s accusation an easy sell.

Sean Gallagher recently wrote: “Based on the amount of data stolen, and the nature of the malware itself, it’s likely the attackers had physical access to the network and that the attack may have been ongoing for months…”

Are we to imagine that North Korea not only instigated the attack but was also able to recruit inside collaboration?

I can see this as central to the plot that numerous Hollywood screenwriters must currently be working on for a blockbuster thriller about how an evil dictator tries to destroy Hollywood, but I can’t really see it in real life.

Michael Hiltzik writes:

The North Korea/”Interview” narrative is comforting in several ways. It feeds into the tendency to attribute almost God-like capabilities to an adversary, especially a secretive one; that’s very much a scenario favored by Hollywood. (Think of the all-time definitive James Bond movie line, from “Dr. No”: “World domination–same old dream.”) And it helps Sony executives deflect blame — how could anyone expect them to defend against an attack by such a sinister, all-powerful enemy? You can expect to see more coverage, like this piece from CNN, about North Korea’s shadowy “Bureau 121,” purportedly its Cyberattack Central.

There are great dangers in mistaken attribution — it shifts attention from the real perpetrators, for one thing. A counterattack against North Korea could needlessly provoke the regime, wrecking the few diplomatic initiatives taking place.

Here’s a rundown of the counter-narrative.

–“Whitehat” hacker and security expert Marc W. Rogers argues that the pattern of the attack implies that the attackers “had extensive knowledge of Sony’s internal architecture and access to key passwords. While it’s plausible that an attacker could have built up this knowledge over time … Occam’s razor suggests the simpler explanation of an insider,” perhaps one out for workplace revenge. (N.B. “Occam’s razor” is the principle that the simplest explanation for something is often the best.)

–The assertion that the attack was uniquely sophisticated, which is an element of the accusation against North Korea, is both untrue and incompatible with the North Korea narrative. It presupposes that a nation-state without a native computer infrastructure could launch an unprecedented assault. More to the point, very similar hacking technology has been used in earlier hacks in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere. The consulting firm Risk Based Security has a discussion of these and other aspects of the Sony affair.

It’s worth noting that Risk Based Security’s team isn’t entirely convinced by the FBI statement. In an update to their commentary Friday, they observed that the agency has “not released any evidence to back these claims.” They add: “While the FBI certainly has many skilled investigators, they are not infallible. Remember, this agency represents the same government that firmly stated that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, leading the U.S. into a more than ten year conflict, which was later disproven.

Finally, Caroline Baylon from Chatham House, in an interview with ITN, laid out the reasons why the North Korean government was probably not behind the hack:

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Who hacked Sony? It probably wasn’t North Korea

Regardless of who is responsible, the president views this as a serious national security matter — that is a very close paraphrase of White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest answering questions this afternoon about the Sony hacking.

OK. That’s it. The United States can now be declared certifiably insane!

The hacking may well have nothing to do with North Korea — it may indeed involve disgruntled Sony employees — and yet this is a serious national security matter?!

The only way that claim could marginally make sense would be if one fudged the definition of national security and said that it should include cybercrime committed by Americans targeting Americans — though by that definition, all crime would thence become an issue of national security.

Hollywood, the media, and the public all like stories. Narratives convey meaning in its most easily digestible form: a plot.

Sony Pictures made a movie, The Interview — a political action comedy which ends with the assassination of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un — and the North Koreans didn’t think it was funny. Indeed, they were so outraged they set about trying to make sure the movie would never be released. By yesterday afternoon they seemed to have succeeded.

The problem with this story is it’s probably a work of fiction — and maybe that shouldn’t be any surprise, given its source.

There’s one compelling reason to believe that the real story here has nothing to do with North Korea: in all likelihood the hackers were busy at work before anyone in the Democratic People’s Republic had even heard of Seth Rogen and James Franco.

Sebastian Anthony writes:

The hackers managed to exfiltrate around 100 terabytes of data from Sony’s network — an arduous task that, to avoid detection, probably took months. Given how long it would’ve taken to gain access to Sony Pictures, plus the time to exfiltrate the data, I think the wheels started turning long before North Korea heard about The Interview.

Even if we take the movie out of the equation, the hack just doesn’t feel like something that would be perpetrated by a nation state. The original warnings and demands feel like the attacker has a much more personal axe to grind — a disenfranchized ex employee, perhaps, or some kind of hacktivist group makes more sense, in my eyes.

So far, the sole purpose behind the Sony Pictures hack appears to be destruction — the destruction of privacy for thousands of employees, and the destruction of Sony’s reputation. Much in the same way that murder is a crime of passion, so was the hack on Sony Pictures. Bear in mind that the hackers gained access to almost every single piece of data stored on Sony’s network, including the passwords to bank accounts and other bits of information and intellectual property that could’ve been sold to the highest bidder. The hackers could’ve made an absolute fortune, but instead opted for complete annihilation. This all feels awfully like revenge.

Really, though, the biggest indicator that it was an inside job is that the malware used during the attack used hard-set paths and passwords — the attacker knew the exact layout of the Sony Pictures network, and had already done enough legwork to discover the necessary passwords. This isn’t to say that North Korea (or another nation state) couldn’t have done the legwork, but it would’ve taken a lot of time and effort — perhaps months or even years. A far more likely option is that the attack was carried out by someone who already had access to (or at least knowledge of) the internal network — an employee, a contractor, a friend of an employee, etc.

Before the hacking became public, Sony executives received what looked like a fairly straightforward extortion demand — a demand that made no reference to The Interview.

In the digital variant of a note pasted together from letters cut out of a newspaper, the extortion note came in broken English.

We’ve got great damage by Sony Pictures.
The compensation for it, monetary compensation we want.
Pay the damage, or Sony Pictures will be bombarded as a whole.
You know us very well. We never wait long.
You’d better behave wisely.
From God’sApstls

Maybe there are indeed some telltale signs in the syntax or maybe the author took advantage of Google and Bing’s translation-mangling capabilities by writing in English, translating in Korean (or any other language) and then translating back into English.

If the story here is really about extortion, then to recast it as political probably serves the interests of all parties — including North Korea.

No corporation wants to be publicly exposed as having capitulated to extortion demands — it would much rather hand over the money in secret while portraying itself as a political victim of the hostile foreign government. The North Koreans get the double reward of being credited with a hugely successful act of cyberwar while also getting removed from Hollywood’s list of favorite countries to target. And the Obama administration is able to sidestep a much larger a thornier issue: how to protect the American economy from the relentlessly growing threat of from global cybercrime whose points of origin are notoriously difficult to trace.

Finally, there is another theory about the real identity and motive of the hackers: they are Sony employees begging that no more Adam Sandler movies be made.

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U.S. links North Korea to Sony hacking

The New York Times reports: American officials have concluded that North Korea ordered the attacks on Sony Pictures’s computers, a determination reached as the studio decided Wednesday to cancel the release of a comedy movie about the assassination of Kim Jong-un that is believed to have led to the hacking.

Senior administration officials, who would not speak on the record about the intelligence findings, said the White House was still debating whether to publicly accuse North Korea of what amounts to a cyberterrorism campaign. Sony’s decision to cancel release of “The Interview” amounted to a capitulation to the threats sent out by hackers this week that they would launch attacks, perhaps on theaters themselves, if the movie was released.

Officials said it was not clear how the White House would decide to respond to North Korea. Some within the Obama administration argue that the government of Mr. Kim must be directly confronted, but that raises the question of what consequences the administration would threaten — or how much of its evidence it could make public without revealing details of how the United States was able to penetrate North Korean computer networks to trace the source of the hacking.

Others argue that a direct confrontation with the North over the threats to Sony and moviegoers might result in escalation, and give North Korea the kind of confrontation it often covets. Japan, for which Sony is an iconic corporate name, has argued that a public accusation could interfere with delicate diplomatic negotiations underway for the return of Japanese nationals kidnapped years ago.

The sudden urgency inside the administration over the Sony issue came after a new threat was delivered this week to desktop computers at Sony’s offices that if “The Interview” was released on Dec. 25, “the world will be full of fear.” It continued: “Remember the 11th of September 2001. We recommend you to keep yourself distant from the places at that time.”

Sony dropped its plan to release the film after the four largest theater chains in the United States — Regal Entertainment, AMC Theaters, Cinemark and Carmike Cinemas — and several smaller chains said they would not show the film. The cancellations virtually killed “The Interview” as a theatrical enterprise, at least in the near term, one of the first known instances of a threat from another nation pre-empting the release of a movie.

While intelligence officials have concluded that the cyberattack on Sony was both state sponsored and far more destructive than any seen before on American soil, there are still differences of opinion over whether North Korea was aided by Sony insiders with an intimate knowledge of the company’s computer systems. [Continue reading…]

Jason Koebler reports: North Korea has denied playing a role in the hack, but called it a “righteous deed.” There’s nothing, really, beyond hatred of The Interview, to tie Guardians of Peace [as the hackers have dubbed themselves] to North Korea, but it’s still a narrative that has played out in the media.

And it’s a narrative that both sides are happy to embrace, [cybersecurity expert Bruce] Schneier speculated in an interview with me. Sony execs can say they’ve been targeted by a dictatorship, and the hackers get to have some fun.

“It’s really a phenomenally awesome hack — they completely owned this company,” Schneier, who is regularly consulted by the federal government on security issues, said. “But, I think this is just a regular hack. All the talk, it’s hyperbole and a joke. They’re [threatening violence] because it’s fun for them — why the hell not? They’re doing it because they actually hit Sony, because they’re acting like they’re 12, they’re doing it for the lulz, no one knows why.”

“Everyone at Sony right now is trying not to get fired,” he added. “There are going to be a lot of firings for Sony at the end of this.” [Continue reading…]

A TMZ headline on Sony Pictures Chief Amy Pascal says ambiguously, “I’m going nowhere” — she’s staying or she’s finished?

Underlining her conviction that everyone inside Sony is blameless, Pascal told Bloomberg News: “I think continuity and support and going forward is what’s important now.” Continuity = no one gets fired. Support = no criticism. Going forward = don’t look back.

But screenwriter Aaron Sorkin is in no doubt about who deserves blame: the press.

If you close your eyes you can imagine the hackers sitting in a room, combing through the documents to find the ones that will draw the most blood. And in a room next door are American journalists doing the same thing. As demented and criminal as it is, at least the hackers are doing it for a cause. The press is doing it for a nickel.

The cause of the hackers being? To defend the image of Kim Jong-un?

I don’t buy it. Much more likely this is an ongoing test of power with the hackers flexing their muscles and now demonstrating that they have the power to torpedo the release of a movie that cost $44 million to produce.

What next?

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Finding meaning in meaningless violence

Man Haron Monis had a gun and no future — a dangerous combination.

But he was also a fake sheikh with a black flag and that made his actions newsworthy for the global media.

Newsworthy is an ambiguous concept — so much that is deemed news seems worthless.

What made the actions of Monis so newsworthy — at least for a few hours — was that they supposedly signified much more than the actions of a single man. He represented the unpredictable reach of a global movement.

The message — scripted by the media more than the man — was that ISIS might come and kill anyone, anywhere, at any time.

The experts were quick to describe Monis as a “lone wolf,” saying that this is the scariest development in the metastization of terrorism: that ISIS now has the power to conduct its own form of remote warfare, inspiring individuals with whom it has no direct connection and thus whose identities can never be predicted.

Our predator missiles offer no protection against their elusive lone wolves.

But what Monis really represents is the fact that we live in a world where unpredictable things happen — all the time.

If ISIS thought Monis had some propaganda value, that thought probably evaporated when he asked the police to provide him with an ISIS flag.

The self-styled ISIS’s-man-in-Sydney lacked the wherewithal to procure a flag without the help of the police. He seemed destined to end up looking more like a deranged gunman than a threat to the world.

As if to say, “this is how we really operate,” ISIS yesterday released photos of a mass execution and a double beheading.

Even though Monis claimed to have planted several bombs around Sydney, Australian special forces apparently thought it was safer to shoot him than torture him, and yet his threat illustrated the reality of the so-called ticking time-bomb scenario.

This scenario — the situation that in the minds of some makes torture imperative — is a construct of pure fiction.

In the Hollywood construct, the audience is left in no doubt as to whether the bomber’s threats have foundation. We see the bomb. We hear it ticking.

But in the real world, the police have more reason to doubt the bomber’s threats than to believe him.

The bombs about which they get forewarning are most likely none existent, whereas if the bombs were real there would most likely be no forewarning.

We will likely never know exactly what was going through Monis’s mind yesterday, but of this much we can be sure: he knew that by throwing together the right ingredients — Islam, a black flag, hostages, a gun, and talk of bombs — the world would snap to attention and watch his performance.

This after all is the trick of terrorism: it commands perfect obedience.

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The questions about torture that don’t need to be asked

What is torture?

Torture is like rape and pornography. Even though lawyers might argue over the definition, everyone knows what it is.

The timidity of American journalists around using the term torture has little to do with the mystery of how it’s defined and everything to do with their obsequious deference to political power.

Imagine if Bill Cosby was to respond to the allegations swirling around him and said: “Sure, I drugged several women and then had sex with them, but I didn’t rape them,” would he then have interviewers asking him how he defined rape?

Of course not. Likewise, it’s irrelevant how Dick Cheney defines torture.

Cheney can hide behind definitions conjured up by the Office of Legal Counsel no more legitimately than Adolf Eichmann could use his “just following orders” defense for his role in the Holocaust.

Did the CIA engage in torture?

Suppose there was no evidence — nothing more than unsubstantiated allegations that the CIA had engaged in torture — then it would be reasonable to ask whether these allegations had any basis. But the evidence is abundant and comes from official records.

The fact that this question is still even being raised shows the extent to which the CIA and its defenders have successfully manipulated political discourse around this issue.

Does torture work?

Torture defenders, recognizing that despite the efforts of Cheney and others to deny that torture was used by the CIA, have mostly moved on to their second line of defense: it saved lives. For legal reasons they will not explicitly confirm that torture was used, but they do so implicitly by asserting this justification, that it “saved lives.”

The media and many in Congress have bitten the hook in this argument by legitimizing the question: does torture work?

If torture can be shown to “work,” its alleged efficacy reinforces the claim that its use is imperative.

This then becomes an emotive argument of necessity. It suspends any serious analysis of the morality of torture by appealing to the simplistic, populist rationale that desperate times call for desperate measures.

Torture’s an ugly thing, but when the future of America was at stake, sacrifices had to be made — so the argument goes.

In an interview broadcast this weekend, former CIA director Michael Hayden said: “This was done out of duty. I mean, it’s hard to suppress your humanity.”

In other words, those who engaged in torture had such a deep sense of duty to their country that they were indeed able to suppress their humanity.

Aside from the question as to whether it’s ever a virtue for patriotism to trump a sense of humanity, the purported sense of necessity which legitimized torture apparently never actually rose to the level that anyone was willing to knowingly break the law. In other words, no one came to this conclusion: We have no choice but to break the law and engage in torture because we put the interests of our nation above our own.

On the contrary, the apparent necessity of using torture was made contingent on guarantees that those who authorized its use and those who engaged in it, would not place themselves in legal jeopardy.

So those who now trumpet their patriotism by declaring that they did what they had to do in order to save lives, should really be saying, we were willing to do whatever we could to save lives without risking losing our jobs.

For American torturers and their overseers, job security and legal impunity were more important than national security.

And let’s be clear: President Obama understands that this was the deal and he is glad to keep his end of the unspoken bargain not only to honor the expectations of those who tortured in the line of duty, but also because he expects for himself similar protection in the future. That is to say, Obama currently shields torturers from prosecution, so that a decade from now he will not be charged with murder — having ordered hundreds of summary executions through drone strikes, this being Obama’s alternative to the legally messy problem of handling suspected terrorists.

Did the CIA’s use of torture prevent future attacks?

Cheney says that the fact that the U.S. has not faced another large-scale attack since 9/11 is proof that the program “worked.”

Anyone with half a brain should be able to see that this is a bogus line of reasoning. The absence of such an attack can be attributed to multiple causes, such as improved airline security, improved surveillance, and the diminished abilities of al Qaeda to organize such an attack. Yet the fact that there hasn’t been another 9/11 for thirteen years doesn’t preclude there being another surprise attack tomorrow. If that happens, then the alleged success of Cheney’s program will instantly be exposed as a delusion.

The only way in which future attacks can be shown to have been foiled is by plans and planners being intercepted. In and of itself, the absence of another 9/11 proves nothing.

Were innocent people tortured?

Paradoxically, this is a question that perhaps more than any other legitimizes torture since it implies that the greatest injustice in torture is for it be applied unfairly — to the innocent. Thus, those who were not innocent could, it seems, perhaps justifiably have been tortured.

The insidious effect of this question is evident in the fact that in the midst of a massive amount of media attention on the subject of CIA torture, the focus of that attention has been on the perpetrators rather than the victims of America’s torture programs.

Torture is in the spotlight and yet somehow the victims remain in the shadows.

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American identity, torture and the game of political indignation

Adversarial Journalism™ is a gimmick that far from serving as an agent of change, functions much more as an opiate of the people, sustaining the status quo.

Whenever politics is reduced to us and them, it goes without saying that the problem is them.

And when this polarity is between a powerful political establishment and weak but loud voices of dissent, dissent becomes inclined to follow the path of least resistance. The path of least resistance is one that leads nowhere because it predicts that change is impossible.

Those taking a stand against imperial power do so while insisting it is deaf to its critics.

Thus the master du jour of adversarial journalism, Glenn Greenwald, wrote this in response to the release of the Senate torture report:

Any decent person, by definition, would react with revulsion to today’s report, but nobody should react with confidence that its release will help prevent future occurrences by a national security state that resides far beyond democratic accountability, let alone the law.

Even though there is some truth to this conclusion it nevertheless employs a polemical deceit which is to implicitly absolve America culturally and nationally for the use of torture and locates them — the bad guys — all inside the national security state.

Ironically, this is the same strategy for damage control so often used inside government: avoid facing systemic problems by focusing attention on a few bad apples.

In American adversarial journalism, America’s bad apple is Washington.

In an interview in Salon today, Elias Isquith asks Greenwald whether he sees in the torture story, the story of “a society-wide failure,” but Greenwald frames his response in terms of the culpability of the political and media establishment and a society that has passively become desensitized. Rather than see society-wide failure, he seems to prefer to cast American society as another victim — a view that supports the us vs. them mentality of his American audience, which has a strong preference for railing against Power rather than looking in the mirror.

Dissent which opposes and yet never proposes is ultimately a game that justifies apathy and cynicism. It presents a picture of a rotten world in which our power extends no further than our ability to occasionally express our outrage.

But there is an alternative.

The starting point here is to acknowledge that the torture story is not just a story about the CIA, or the national security state, or Washington, or the media establishment, or post-9/11 America, but rather it is a story about America itself, its people and its history.

Those who remain stuck in the deeply worn tracks of political discourse are not so inclined to speak and think in such broad terms because once you start looking through the prisms of culture, history, and psychology, politics itself loses much of its dramatic significance.

The wide-angle view to which I allude is uncommon but thankfully I just stumbled across an example from Philip Kennicott.

During the thirteen years that I have been running this site, some of the most interesting and insightful commentaries I have highlighted came from Kennicott, the Art and Architecture Critic for the Washington Post.

His interest in form, its construction and its effect, naturally translates into a consideration of the contours of American identity in light and shadow.

Kennicott writes:

Our belief in the national image is astonishingly resilient. Over more than two centuries, our conviction that we are a benign people, with only the best of intentions, has absorbed the blows of darker truths, and returned unassailable. We have assimilated the facts of slavery and ethnic cleansing of Native Americans, and we are still a good people; we became an empire, but an entirely benevolent one; we bombed Southeast Asia on a scale without precedent, but it had to be done, because we are a good people.

Even the atrocities of Abu Ghraib have been neutralized in our conscience by the overwhelming conviction that the national image transcends the particulars of a few exceptional cases. And now the Senate torture report has made the unimaginable entirely too imaginable, documenting murder, torture, physical and sexual abuse, and lies, none of them isolated crimes, but systematic policy, endorsed at the highest levels, and still defended by many who approved and committed them.

Again, it has become a conversation about the national image, this phoenix of self-deception that magically transforms conversations about what we have done into debates about what we look like. The report, claimed headlines, “painted a picture of an agency out of control,” and “portrays a broken CIA devoted to a failed approach.” The blow to the U.S. reputation abroad was seen as equally newsworthy as the details themselves, and the appalling possibility that there will never be any accountability for having broken our own laws, international law and the fundamental laws of human decency.

He concludes by saying: “we must learn that the national image is a hollow conceit. What we desperately need is a national conscience.”

For America to re-envision itself, for it to shed its vanity, maybe this doesn’t just require questioning how America defines itself but also who defines what it means to be American.

There are millions of Americans who (like me) are not Americans.

The process of so-called naturalization, even though it involves a ceremonial rebirth — acquiring citizenship and making the pledge of allegiance get staged like a religious conversion — doesn’t erase history.

Every American who grew up somewhere else, knows another culture and knows what America looks like from the outside.

America welcomes its immigrants, calls itself a nation of immigrants and yet those who were not born here are somehow not fully qualified to say what it means to be an American. The naturalization process can only ever be partially successful. We inevitably remain sullied by some impurities and the Constitution ensures that the sanctum sanctorum of American identity, the White House, will never be tainted by an occupant born on foreign soil.

America’s self-aggrandizing tendencies, it’s need to see itself as exceptional, what to the outsider can often look like simple arrogance, seems to me more like a relentless self-affirmation driven by an unspoken insecurity.

The myth of America’s greatness needs to be perpetually propped up as though if it was not pronounced often enough and not enough flags were flown, the image would swiftly collapse. America’s grandiosity is not matched by self-assurance. What other country is there whose leaders and citizens expend as much energy telling each other and themselves about the greatness of their nation?

This sense that America can only be sustained by its own self-worship, speaks to the fact that a society made up of people who virtually all came from somewhere else — directly or indirectly — has a national identity held together by weak glue.

Still, America’s disparate roots are in fact its greatest strength and its identity problem stems from a struggle to be what it is not while denying its real nature.

Those Americans who became torturers, thought they were defending America, and yet what they were really clinging onto was an identity that constructed an unbridgeable gulf between American and foreign. The only thing about which they had no doubt was that their victims were not American.

For Americans to stop dehumanizing others, they need to start embracing their own otherness.

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Globalized torture and American values

What’s wrong with torture?

That might sound like a question that doesn’t need asking, yet given that there are so many answers circulating right now, it’s worth treating this as a question whose answer is not obvious. Moreover, the question needs to be broken down since we need to examine its two components: wrong and torture.

In their public statements, Bush administration officials always tried to duck the issue by claiming that their use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” did not involve torture. The spineless American press corps was complicit in facilitating this PR maneuver by also refraining from using the term torture.

But even while the administration denied approving the use of torture, it simultaneously developed a legal defense on the basis that torture might be a necessity for saving lives.

Despite the fact that for years, American journalists acted like dummies incapable of labeling something as torture unless given permission to do so by the political establishment, there was never much real debate inside the administration about whether its interrogation practices involved torture. The only question was whether they could use torture without risking prosecution.

The so-called “necessity defense” was one that attempted to absolve torturers of moral and legal responsibility for their actions by claiming that they had no choice — that they needed to torture in order to “save lives.”

As soon as the question gets raised — does torture work? in the sense that it might yield life-saving intelligence — the question of the morality of torture has been muddied.

The implication is that if torture could be shown to work, then even if it might be deemed wrong it is nevertheless justifiable because the wrong serves a greater good.

In this regard, many among the American Right — which otherwise postures as the stronghold of moral absolutists — turn out to be moral relativists.

The bipartisan argument against torture is one rooted in nationalism posturing as morality. Thus in her introduction, Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Chairman Dianne Feinstein, writes:

The major lesson of this report is that regardless of the pressures and the need to act, the Intelligence Community’s actions must always reflect who we are as a nation, and adhere to our laws and standards. It is precisely at these times of national crisis that our government must be guided by the lessons of our history and subject decisions to internal and external review.

Instead, CIA personnel, aided by two outside contractors, decided to initiate a program of indefinite secret detention and the use of brutal interrogation techniques in violation of US. law, treaty obligations, and our values.

In its use of torture, the CIA failed to “reflect who we are as a nation,” and it betrayed “our values.”

Torture is wrong — supposedly — because it is un-American.

Ironically, one of the distinguishing features of American values is that they are frequently cited yet rarely articulated.

This habit of invoking American values without spelling out what they are, indicates that to a significant degree, American values are not so much values as they are a form of national vanity.

To offer, “because we are American,” as an explanation for anything is to offer no explanation at all but rather to assert that there is some special virtue in being American.

No doubt, all those who now assert that the use of torture conflicts with our values would say that those values dictate that prisoners should be treated humanely.

Yet to suggest that humane treatment is in some sense a distinctively American virtue implies that it cannot be expected to prevail elsewhere.

Given the lack of human rights across much of the world, there is indeed some commonsense truth to this assumption — but there is also a contradiction.

The contradiction is this: a sense of what is humane rests on a sense of humanity, which is that on a fundamental level human beings are all endowed with the same capacities, and yet if there is a distinct virtue in being American, then supposedly Americans are in an important way different from everyone else.

If America must abstain from torture because it conflicts with America’s self-image, does a non-torturing America assume that torture will continue elsewhere — business as usual in a world that can’t be expected to live up to American values?

Even while the Bush administration refused to acknowledge that it had institutionalized torture, according to an Open Society report published in 2013, it nevertheless managed to win the cooperation of 54 countries in the following ways:

[B]y hosting CIA prisons on their territories; detaining, interrogating, torturing, and abusing individuals; assisting in the capture and transport of detainees; permitting the use of domestic airspace and airports for secret flights transporting detainees; providing intelligence leading to the secret detention and extraordinary rendition of individuals; and interrogating individuals who were secretly being held in the custody of other governments. Foreign governments also failed to protect detainees from secret detention and extraordinary rendition on their territories and to conduct effective investigations into agencies and officials who participated in these operations.

Those countries were:

Afghanistan, Albania, Algeria, Australia, Austria, Azerbaijan, Belgium, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Canada, Croatia, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Djibouti, Egypt, Ethiopia, Finland, Gambia, Georgia, Germany, Greece, Hong Kong, Iceland, Indonesia, Iran, Ireland, Italy, Jordan, Kenya, Libya, Lithuania, Macedonia, Malawi, Malaysia, Mauritania, Morocco, Pakistan, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, South Africa, Spain, Sri Lanka, Sweden, Syria, Thailand, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom, Uzbekistan, Yemen, and Zimbabwe.

That the U.S. could find so many willing partners is clearly a reflection of American power and the fears that many governments justifiably harbor about being penalized if they were to resist American pressure.

But this also says a lot about prevailing attitudes towards torture. It’s use is always seen as expedient (or inexpedient) and the harm it does tends to be measured more in terms of how it will politically harm the perpetrators rather than the actual victims.

A few months ago, Congress received another report on torture, but this one gained only a fraction of the media and public attention that is being given to the current report.

That lack of attention followed from the fact that neither the torturers nor their victims were American — they were Syrian.

In July, the Daily Beast reported:

The regime of Syrian President Bashar al Assad is holding 150,000 civilians in custody, all of whom are at risk of being tortured or killed by the state, the Syrian defector known as “Caesar” told Congress on Thursday.

According to a senior State Department official, his department initially asked to keep this hearing — in which Caesar displayed new photos from his trove of 55,000 images showing the torture, starvation, and death of over 11,000 civilians — closed to the public, out of concerns for the safety of the defector and his family. Caesar smuggled the pictures out of Syria when he fled last year in fear for his life. Caesar’s trip had been in the works for months.

There was no audio or video recording allowed at the hearing; the House Foreign Affairs Committee said that decision was made in consideration of Caesar’s safety. He sat at the witness table disguised in a baseball cap and sunglasses, with a blue hoodie over his head. “We recommended to Congress a format for today’s briefing that would have allowed press access while addressing any security concerns,” said Edgar Vasquez, a State Department spokesman. A committee staffer alleged State had tried to prevent the hearing from happening at all.

The packed committee room sat in silent horror as new examples of Assad’s atrocities were splashed on the large television screens on the wall and displayed on large posterboards littered throughout the hearing room. Caesar spoke softly to his translator, Mouaz Moustafa, the executive director of the Syrian American Task Force, a Washington-based organization that works with both the Syrian opposition and the U.S. State Department.

“I am not a politician and I don’t like politics,” Caesar said through his translator. “I have come to you honorable Congress to give you a message from the people of Syria… What is going on in Syria is a genocidal massacre that is being led by the worst of all the terrorists, Bashar al Assad.”

The international community must do something now or the 150,000 civilians still held in regime custody could meet the same bleak fate, Caesar said. America had been known as a country that protected civilians from atrocities, he argued, referring to past humanitarian crises such as ethnic cleansing in Yugoslavia.

Following the release of the Senate report on torture, President Obama said: “I hope that today’s report can help us leave these techniques where they belong — in the past.”

Move on, don’t look back, and ignore the rest of the world — these are the prevailing American values and they express no guiding morality, but instead an abiding indulgence in ignorance.

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The death of tree-cutting journalism

As The New Republic imploded last week, the vanity of its editors and former editors was on full display when they claimed — on Facebook — that, “The promise of American life has been dealt a lamentable blow.”

Seriously?!

The magazine’s Wikipedia entry already captures the spirit of national mourning by referring to TNR in the past tense.

But did a publication with a circulation of 50,000 really have such a pivotal role in the life of the nation?

Are today’s media moguls — Chris Hughes, Jeff Bezos, Pierre Omidyar, et al — any worse than old ones like William Randolph Hearst, Rupert Murdoch, and Ted Turner?

The death of journalism can be overstated if it’s mostly about the loss of self-importance for those whose words once reliably became enshrined in the permanence of print — writers whose words now float freely as digital ephemera, all too easily lost.

For writing to be print-worthy, implies a certain value independent of whether it’s being read, yet this value is much more culturally ascribed than inherent.

The written word, through its permanence, is invested with the legal power of ownership.

The demise of printing press ownership, since print no longer requires paper, has reduced the value of journalism as it has expanded its availability.

Peter Beinart et al write:

The New Republic cannot be merely a “brand.” It has never been and cannot be a “media company” that markets “content.” Its essays, criticism, reportage, and poetry are not “product.” It is not, or not primarily, a business.

I’m with them in spirit — kind of.

Journalism should go in pursuit of truth — not profit. But those who dedicate themselves to this higher calling while also having the comfort of receiving a regular pay check, are being disingenuous about their lack of interest in money. The only reason they haven’t had to care too much about where the money comes from is because until now it has conveniently kept showing up in their bank accounts.

Emily Bell writes:

When an increasing number of Americans reach news on their phones, and 30% find their news through Facebook, so-called “legacy” journalism is over, at least as an independently constructed and distributed cultural good. So the question for Hughes, and would-be billionaire saviors like him, is what’s next.

“I think we have seen a number of things happen in the last 18 months which are moving things along,” Hughes told me, “from the ‘innovation’ report at the New York Times, what Ezra Klein is doing with Vox.com, the longform journalism that BuzzFeed has started to produce, and even Medium – which on the face of it is bringing a community around a spectrum from very serious longform journalism to bloggers and other diverse voices.”

Still, in rattling off the journalistic competition he admires, Hughes audibly winced over including BuzzFeed, which has become a Pavlovian stand-in through which the uninformed – even among former TNR staff – encapsulate the idea of “declining standards” in journalism. But BuzzFeed has achieved what every journalism organisation needs to: Buzzfeed is successful because of the internet, rather than in spite of it.

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The thoughts of our ancient ancestors

The discovery of what appear to have been deliberately etched markings made by a human ancestor, Homo erectus, on the surface of a shell, call for a reconsideration of assumptions that have been made about the origins of abstract thought.

While the meaning of these zigzag markings will most likely remain forever unknown, it can reasonably be inferred that for the individual who created them, the marks had some significance.

In a report in Nature, Josephine Joordens, a biologist at Leiden University whose team discovered the markings, says:

“We’ve looked at all possibilities, but in the end we are really certain that this must have been made by an agent who did a very deliberate action with a very sharp implement,” says Joordens. Her team tried replicating the pattern on fresh and fossilized shells, “and that made us realize how difficult it really was”, she says.

Saying much more about the engraving is tricky. “If you don’t know the intention of the person who made it, it’s impossible to call it art,” says Joordens.

“But on the other hand, it is an ancient drawing. It is a way of expressing yourself. What was meant by the person who did this, we simply don’t know, ” she adds. “It could have been to impress his girlfriend, or to doodle a bit, or to mark the shell as his own property.”

Clive Finlayson, a zoologist at the Gibraltar Museum who was part of the team that described cross-hatch patterns linked to Neanderthals, is also agnostic about whether to call the H. erectus doodles art. What is more important, he says, is the growing realization that abilities such as abstract thinking, once ascribed to only H. sapiens, were present in other archaic humans, including, now, their ancestors.

“I’ve been suggesting increasingly strongly that a lot of these things that are meant to be modern human we’re finding in other hominids,” he says. “We really need to revisit these concepts and take stock.”

Palaeoanthropology, by necessity, is a highly speculative discipline — therein lies both its strength and its weakness.

The conservatism of hard science recoils at the idea that some scratches on a single shell amount to sufficient evidence to prompt a reconsideration about the origins of the human mind, and yet to refrain from such speculation seems like an effort to restrain the powers of the very thing we are trying to understand.

Rationally, there is as much reason to assume that abstract thinking long predates modern humans and thus searching for evidence of its absence and finding none would leave us agnostic about its presence or absence, than there is reason to assume that at some juncture it was born.

My inclination is to believe that any living creature that has some capacity to construct a neurological representation of their surroundings is by that very capacity employing something akin to abstract thinking.

This ability for the inner to mirror the outer has no doubt evolved, becoming progressively more complex and more deeply abstract, and yet mind, if defined as world-mirroring, seems to have been born when life first moved.

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Prisons, terrorists, rehabilitation, and social justice

Saudi Arabia says 80 percent of its ‘rehabilitated’ terrorists have not returned to terror, the Washington Post reports: It’s often argued that the people who commit acts of terrorism are troubled and vulnerable individuals. In Saudi Arabia, the government takes that thinking further: In 2004, it set up a high profile “rehabilitation” system for terrorists which hoped to deradicalize them through religious education and psychological counseling.

The goal is for these people to reenter mainstream society. Sometimes, however, they do not. This week, Maj. Gen. Mansour al-Turki, a spokesperson for the Interior Ministry, told reporters that some 12 percent of people who had been involved in the rehabilitation programs had relapsed and returned to activities related to terrorism, according to Arab News.

Turki said the country’s Mohammed Bin Naif Counseling and Care Center is now looking into ways to lower that number, although the government still felt that the program was overall a success. “Without the program, thousands of those who were released would have been exploited by terrorist organizations,” he explained.

Saudi Arabia isn’t the first country to try and rehabilitate terrorists; Its program followed earlier versions implemented in Singapore and Yemen. However, its well-financed system soon earned the plaudits of the international community. In 2008, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown shook the hands of two former al-Qaeda members who were in the program, and the United States looked to it as a model for Iraq and Saudi Arabia. [Continue reading…]

The Post’s headline says, “Saudi Arabia says 12 percent of its ‘rehabilitated’ terrorists have returned to terror” — as though any amount of recidivism represents a failure.

But rather than impose an unrealistic standard of success for an endeavor such as this, the more relevant context is the fact that it has long been evident that prisons in the Middle East and the West have long functioned as the preeminent schools of terrorism.

Prisons have served not only as places inside which violent ideologies can be promoted, but the widespread use of torture has itself been an unwitting instrument of radicalization.

The conventional wisdom among war critics is that ISIS is a product of the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq, but that’s only partially true. The more important ideological component for ISIS is its hostility towards Shias.

Yet neither hating the Shia nor the American occupation provided the glue for the creation of a radical organization. This came from bringing the individuals who formed the core of ISIS into one place where their ideological drives could be translated into a carefully planned and structured enterprise. That place was unintentionally provided by the U.S. government in the form of Camp Bucca.

Viewed from this perspective, the Saudi effort is a success merely by virtue of the fact that it exists.

In contrast, America’s treatment of suspected terrorists, at Camp Bucca, Guantanamo, Bagram and at CIA-run “black sites” have had little discernible success other than through the unintended effect of promoting more terrorism. And this doesn’t merely represent America’s failure in counterterrorism but more broadly a failure in the U.S. approach to law enforcement where the primary purpose of incarceration is punishment rather than rehabilitation.

American prisons here and overseas are first and foremost places where men get thrown away. The fact that this country has the largest prison population in the world — over 2 million prisoners — and almost 3% of the population under correctional supervision, is a social failure of staggering proportions. And the fact that two-thirds of prisoners after being released go on to commit further offenses shows that the American system of justice is broken.

It is broken for a simple reason. It’s foundation is a baseless assertion: that punishment deters crime. Stupid politicians pander to stupid voters with their promises of being tough on crime.

It hasn’t worked.

As in so many other ways, the United States could learn a great deal from Scandinavia. Contrasting the two approaches to running prisons, Doran Larson writes:

the most profound difference is that correctional officers fill both rehabilitative and security roles. Each prisoner has a “contact officer” who monitors and helps advance progress toward return to the world outside — a practice introduced to help officers avoid the damage experienced by performing purely punitive functions: stress, hypertension, alcoholism, suicide, and other job-related hazards that today plague American corrections officers, who have an average life expectancy of 59.

This is all possible because, throughout Scandinavia, criminal justice policy rarely enters political debate. Decisions about best practices are left to professionals in the field, who are often published criminologists and consult closely with academics. Sustaining the barrier between populist politics and results-based prison policy are media that don’t sensationalize crime — if they report it at all. And all of this takes place in nations with established histories of consensual politics, relatively small and homogenous populations, and the best social service networks in the world, including the best public education.

Which is to say, it’s impossible to have an effective justice system without also building a society based on social justice.

While the Saudis merit some praise for attempting to rehabilitate terrorists, they nevertheless are indisputably proponents of a multiplicity of the worst forms of social injustice on the planet.

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Who made Apple successful? America’s deification of the entrepreneur

Strictly speaking, Tim Cook is not an entrepreneur since he didn’t start Apple — he simply replaced the irreplaceable Steve Jobs. Since then, the company has increased in value by $350 billion.

Since Apple’s success has continued without Jobs, is this a reflection of the talent of the less charismatic Cook?

“Tim Cook has created as much value as Steve Jobs,” says a headline in Quartz above a photo of a triumphant Cook.

“How high can he go?” asks the caption.

Buried down in the report is a note of realism: “How much credit does a CEO deserve for the performance of his company?”

I guess Apple’s 98,000 employees deserve to share some of the credit alongside their new leader.

And then there are the people who actually make the products that Apple sells, but who don’t even get the honor or financials rewards of being Apple employees.

Apple doesn’t make anything. It simply designs products and unless those designs were transformed into physical devices by human hands and machines operated by people, the designs themselves would remain nothing more than wonderfully intricate dreams.

While Apple has come to embody the dream of American free market capitalism, the people who turned that dream into a reality aren’t American — they’re mostly Chinese — but from Apple and its admirers, they receive virtually no credit.

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What will advance the Palestinian cause?

After today’s bloodshed in Jerusalem, has the Palestinian cause advanced?


I agree with Ali Abunimah — condemnations of violence have become a hollow political ritual.

On the other hand, what is accomplished by the cold rationalism of someone like the Palestinian politician, Mustafa Barghouti, who is a proponent of non-violent resistance? He said today’s violence was “a normal reaction to the Israeli oppression.”

Mushir al-Masri, a Hamas spokesman, went further and wrote: “The new operation is heroic and a natural reaction to Zionist criminality against our people and our holy places. We have the full right to revenge for the blood of our martyrs in all possible means.”

There’s a problem with arguing that whatever any Palestinian does is a reaction to Israeli oppression, because this gives all the power to the Israelis. It treats Palestinians as pure victims, capable of doing little more than rattle the chains that hold them down.

Yet oppressive as occupation indeed is, it does not strip individuals of freewill and for that reason it’s possible to look at what Odai Abed Abu Jamal and Ghassan Muhammad Abu Jamal did today and conclude that they made a bad choice.

No doubt there are many who react to violence against Israelis such as that which occurred today and think that it pales in comparison with Israel’s periodic assaults on Gaza, along with the day-to-day violence committed by Israeli soldiers and settlers in the West Bank that gets ignored by the media.


OK. But the success of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement, depends on its ability to widen its support, which is to say, its ability to win support from people who are not committed political activists.

Today’s attack will not have helped BDS.

On the contrary, the dubious accomplishment of the Jamal cousins, even though they belong to the Marxist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, is that in the eyes of many Western observers the hatchet-wielding Palestinians must look like members of ISIS. And since they happen not to have been Islamists, the popular perception that violence runs in the blood of men across the Middle East will have been further reinforced.

Major political advances always require the fostering of solidarity around a political consensus. It’s not enough to know what you are fighting against. You have to know what you are fighting for.

As easy as it is to attribute today’s killings to Israeli oppression, I suspect that they can be seen as the product of a movement that currently lacks any clear sense of direction.

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Exposing the myth of American power

Lots of conspiracy theorists, anti-imperialists and many of those who have positioned themselves as leaders of America’s diverse movements of dissent — truth be known — are unwittingly the most loyal supporters of the status quo.

How so?

The power before which they valiantly declare the truth, is a power which in their eyes is so mighty, it is utterly impervious to these acts of defiance.

Empire is denounced mostly and most vociferously by those who believe their denunciations will be of no effect.

Successes in this quixotic struggle are not measured by changes in law or social transformations. They are reduced to symbolic forms — an interruption in a Senate hearing or a good turnout for a demonstration. Fighting the good fight has less to do with pursuing victories than it has with simply showing up.

Those who wrap themselves in the flag and those who burn it are equals when they elevate American power and see the U.S. government as an indomitable force.

For that reason, I have always believed that there is nothing more instructive about the way government works than the occasional detailed view of its malfunction — the moments where we catch a precious glimpse behind the facade of power.

The latest example comes courtesy of the Secret Service, the men and women who zealously guard the very heart of American power — at least in the movies.

The Associated Press reports: Secret Service officers chasing a Texas Army veteran across the White House lawn in September figured they had him cornered when he encountered the thick bushes on the property.

To their surprise the bushes were no match for the fence-jumper, who dashed into the executive mansion through a pair of unlocked doors, knocking aside an officer physically too small to tackle him. She would then fumble with her own equipment as the man carrying a knife ran deep inside the president’s home, according to a Homeland Security review of the Sept. 19 incident.

The incident occurred shortly after 7 p.m., only minutes after President Barack Obama and his daughters, along with a guest of one of the girls, left the White House aboard Marine One on their way to Camp David, the presidential retreat in Maryland where Obama and his family were to spend the weekend. First lady Michelle Obama had traveled separately to Camp David and was not at home.

The folly of errors and missteps by Secret Service officers were revealed in a nine-page summary of the government’s investigation of the break-in at the White House by a disturbed Army veteran.

The government determined that lack of training, poor staffing decisions and communication problems contributed to the embarrassing failure that ultimately led to the resignation of the head of the Secret Service, Julia Pierson. The report did not specify any disciplinary actions.

The new report said Omar Gonzalez, 42, cleared the fence where a trident, or ornamental spike, was missing. An officer in the joint operations center who tried to raise the alarm was unaware his warnings weren’t being broadcast to uniformed officers stationed at the executive mansion.

Some officers at a gate on Pennsylvania Avenue failed to see the fence-jumper because their view was obstructed by a construction project. A Secret Service canine officer parked on the White House driveway was using the speaker function on his personal cellphone without his radio ear piece, and a second, tactical radio was stashed away in his locker as the intruder made his way into the secure area.

Two officers wrongly assumed Gonzalez wouldn’t be able to get through thick bushes on the property, the report said. Another officer posted on the portico outside the wooden White House doors mistakenly assumed the doors were locked.

The intruder was able to run into the building before a female officer seated just inside could lock a second set of doors.

That officer tried twice to take Gonzalez down but was unable to because she was smaller than him. She reached for her metal baton but mistakenly grabbed a flashlight. As she dropped the light and drew her gun, the intruder made his way into the East Room before heading back down a hallway on the State Floor deep within the White House.

Gonzalez was eventually tackled by another officer, who was helped by two plainclothes agents just finishing a shift, the report said.

Investigators also said members of an emergency response team didn’t know the layout of the White House and hesitated to go into the mansion after the break-in.

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The internet data miners pose a bigger threat than the NSA data buccaneers

In an interview with LA Weekly, documentary-maker Laura Poitras — who along with Glenn Greenwald introduced Edward Snowden to the world — contrasts the difference between NSA surveillance and data mining by the likes of Facebook and Google by saying:

I do think there’s cause to be concerned about what Google can do with the information it has on you. It’s frightening, but in a different way, because Google has less power than the government. The relationship with Google is consensual.

No one has to use Google, just as no one has to use the internet — at least that’s one argument that some observers want to push when painting Silicon Valley data-collection as a cause of less concern than government surveillance.

But there reaches a point where the use of a new technology becomes so ubiquitous that choosing not to use it is more difficult than using it. By default we all use electricity and have become dependent on its availability. And even among the tiny segment of the population who have chosen to live “off the grid,” most use alternative systems of electricity generation. Electricity, in the modern world, is something that most people believe they need.

After 25 years, the internet has rapidly moved in the direction of becoming a public utility — a service that most Americans not only find useful but increasingly view as a necessity. During the same period, the commercial use of the internet has come to be dominated by a handful of companies and their individual and collective power makes it debatable whether we should see ourselves as consensual technology users.

Technically, Google might not be a monopoly, but it has so much market dominance it has become synonymous with search. That means that for most people, choosing to use Google is no different from choosing to use the internet.

Even while it’s hard to argue that Google has more power than the U.S. government, the giants of the internet should really be viewed as a collective entity in that they are all focused on the same goal: maximizing the commercial value of the time people spend using the internet. In pursuit of that goal their unwavering intention is to maximize their ability to control the behavior of internet users.

While the NSA glances over everyone’s shoulder on the miniscule chance it might glimpse something interesting, Google, Facebook, and Twitter want to get inside your brain, change the way it operates, and impact the way you live.

If that impact in its minutiae — buying songs on iTunes, clicking “like” buttons on Facebook, or crafting tweets that don’t even merit retweeting — seems largely trivial and thus innocuous, we are failing to see the extent to which technology companies have become like textile mills weaving the fabric of our lives.

We choose the threads, but they make the design.

This is a totalitarian project designed to change whole societies, but since it is guided by commercial imperatives rather than state control, most Americans seem to regard this as fundamentally benign.

Adam Bain, Twitter’s President of Global Revenue, sees his company’s goal as being to “monetise emotions.” Twitter wants to be able to train its users to spend money without thinking by triggering purchasing choices “in the moment.”

The fears about what the NSA could do with your data that have been generated by the Snowden revelations, involve legitimate concerns about privacy and surveillance, but they have also had the effect of turning attention away from larger issues.

Among Americans, nothing is easier than capitalizing on fear of government, but the powers that exercise more influence over most people’s daily lives in this country are now based in Silicon Valley, not Washington DC.

Every shred of information they can gather about everyone, they are right now putting to use as they engage in the largest exercise in social engineering ever undertaken in human history.

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ISIS — a faceless organization that stands for nothing

Icons are inescapable — even for those who make it their business to destroy them.

For Al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden was an iconic figure. The American effort to hunt him down had more to do with the need to destroy his image than to thwart a terrorist.

So who or what stands as the central symbol, the image around which ISIS gravitates?

In early July, ISIS released a short video showing the stone-faced Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi preaching in a mosque in Mosul. Even if this man happens to be a brilliant military strategist, he possesses no obvious charisma. He looks somewhat less personable than Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin.

Caliph-Ibrahim

Badhdadi’s brief appearance carried much less significance than the arrival of a new caliph and seemed to have more to do with proving the existence of what was and remains a shadowy figure.

Based on the little he has revealed about himself, his followers have clearly committed themselves through acts of blind allegiance.

The head of ISIS is for all practical purposes invisible.

Moreover, in spite of the fact that ISIS has recruited fighters from dozens of countries, many from the West and many speaking English, from throughout its ranks it appears they have no one competent to serve as a spokesman. Instead they rely on the face and voice of their British hostage, John Cantlie, whose BBC-English offers them credibility they fear they would lack if they dared represent themselves.

ISIS has no face of its own.

Likewise, their media offerings unintentionally pay homage to American cable news and Hollywood, as though there could be no means of communication superior to the crude aesthetic conventions that have been globalized by CNN and Warner Brothers.

On the battlefield, nothing appears to have been a source of greater pride than ISIS’s ability to capture and use American-made military hardware.

ISIS is not American-made in the sense intended by conspiracy theorists, yet in ways its followers would be loath to acknowledge it is in large part an American product — first and foremost as a product of America’s misadventure in Iraq, but also in the multiple ways in which in leans upon American culture.

If there is one image that ISIS has made its own and that serves to symbolize everything ISIS stands for, it is that of grinning men holding aloft freshly severed human heads.

Thanks mostly to Twitter, these are the images we get confronted by with a frequency that would until recently have seemed unimaginable.

Ask anyone in the world about ISIS and the one thing everyone knows is that decapitation is the ISIS signature.

As a symbol of the enemy vanquished, the severed head represents a victory more absolute than unconditional surrender. As such, ISIS presumably engages in these acts of ritual slaughter in order to display its uncompromising, ruthless power.

But the symbolism also cuts another way: the organization with an invisible head and no public face of its own, through decapitation represents its own headlessness.

Furthermore, through its subjugation of women by slavery and rape, ISIS manifests its relationship with the powers of creation: its powers are solely destructive.

What does ISIS ultimately stand for? Death, and little else.

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In the West, a growing list of attacks linked to what?

Linked to “Islamic Extremism” says the headline in the New York Times.

Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, Martin Rouleau-Couture, Alton Nolen, Mohammad Ali Baryalei, Mehdi Nemmouche, Michael Adebolajo, Mohammed Merah, Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, Abdulhakim Mujahid Muhammad — all Muslims in the West, all involved in deadly attacks, all linked to Islamic extremism. The link is surely clear-cut, right?

And now comes the latest on the list:

New York Daily News reports: A man armed with a hatchet who attacked a group of rookie cops on a Queens street, critically injuring one, was shot dead by the officers on Thursday afternoon, and a female bystander was hit by an errant round.

Police are investigating the possibility that the attacker killed on a rainswept shopping corridor, identified by police sources as Zale Thompson, 32, had links to terrorism. A Zale Thompson on Facebook is pictured wearing a keffiyeh and had a recent terrorism-related conversation with one of his Facebook friends, according to a police source.


Radio Free America and the New York Daily News, please take note: The man in the photo above is not Zale Thompson and he’s not wearing a keffiyeh.

The photo is of a Tuareg Berber warrior and was taken somewhere in the Sahara in the nineteenth century. His head garment is called a tagelmust which provides essential protection for those living in a region subject to frequent sand storms. The Arabic text is the Sūrat al-Fātiḥah, the first chapter of the Quran.

CNN reports: Authorities are looking to see if the unprovoked attack, in the New York borough of Queens, is tied to recent calls by radicals to attack military and police officers, law enforcement officials say.

Asked about a possible connection to terrorism, Bratton said, “There is nothing we know as of this time that would indicate that were the case. I think certainly the heightened concern is relative to that type of assault based on what just happened in Canada.”

On Wednesday, Cpl. Nathan Cirillo was shot and killed as he stood guard at Canada’s National War Memorial before shots erupted in the halls of the country’s Parliament minutes later.

The Ottawa gunman had “connections” to jihadists in Canada who shared a radical Islamist ideology, including at least one who went overseas to fight in Syria, multiple U.S. sources told CNN on Thursday.

Connections, ties, links — human beings have an insatiable need to try and understand how things fit together; how to discern coherence when confronted by chaos. This drive is at the core of the creative impulse. Without it there would be no science or art.

At the same time, discovery is more popular than exploration. Most people would rather have answers than be left with questions.

When with disturbing frequency on the relatively peaceful streets of Western cities, men identified as Muslims who appear to be acting alone, attack soldiers and police officers, it’s hard to avoid seeing these acts of brutality all being connected. But there are multiple problems in jumping to this conclusion.

Firstly, in attempting to identify a trend there is always the risk that the imputed trend is actually a function of the act of labeling. The trend might be more of a construction than a discovery.

How many isolated incidents need to occur before they are seen as connected? That determination is subjective, often arbitrary and can easily be affected by whatever happen to be the competing news stories of the day.

Consider for instance something that threatens the lives of all Americans — a threat far greater than that posed by terrorism.

Physicians for Social Responsibility note: “About 6% of cancer deaths per year — 34,000 deaths annually — are directly linked to occupational and environmental exposures to known, specific carcinogens.”

Yet when legal efforts are made to hold the manufacturers of those carcinogens responsible for any of those deaths, the legal process most often leans in favor of commercial interests. Epidemiologists have to painstakingly document all the evidence that clusters of cancer cases can indeed be linked to an industrial polluter before courts are persuaded that the connection is irrefutable and criminal responsibility has been proved.

Some connections are scientifically established years before they become legally accepted.

It’s one thing for an individual to be tied to Islamic extremism because they are in direct communication with members of organizations such as ISIS or al Qaeda, but what if they are merely inspired by such groups?

If the ties have been formed and sustained purely through social media, mainstream media, and the popular obsessions of a particular era, then for the individuals listed above, their links to Twitter and Fox News, for instance, played just as instrumental role in their radicalization as the ideology to which their actions are being ascribed.

Moreover, in spite of the fact that the media is attached to one narrative — a narrative that sells well because it exploits popular xenophobic fears — another link that might be even more important than ideology is the psychology of conversion.

Most of these men converted to Islam and religious conversions of any kind are fraught with psychological risks.

The convert invariably has a much deeper personal investment in the object of their faith than someone for whom their religion was simply a dimension of their upbringing. The convert is always more self-conscious about their religious identity.

This might make the convert more devout, but often it also unleashes a vindictive self-righteousness. A fractured ego can be empowered by an acquired religious authority that purges self-doubt and provides a zealous sense of purpose. Those who once felt downtrodden and demeaned may decide that they are going to teach the world to show them respect after having concluded that with their new-found faith they have God on their side.

This says much more about the psycho-dynamics of conversion than it says anything about the nature of Islam.

That Zale Thompson, having been kicked out of the U.S. Navy, chose the image of an African warrior as his avatar on Facebook, probably says more about his experiences as an African-American and a desire to identify with men who once conquered Spain rather than those who were once enslaved, than it says about the extent of ISIS’s influence.

Even though 9/11 taught about the importance of “connecting the dots,” it’s equally important not to connect too many dots or the wrong dots.

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Terrorism exists in the eye of the beholder

Should a man who believes he’s being chased by the devil, shape pubic policy and guide international relations?

Dave Bathurst was a friend of Michael Zehaf-Bibeau — the gunman whose brief shooting rampage yesterday led to the Canadian capital city, Ottowa, getting locked down for several hours.

The Globe and Mail reports:

Mr. Bathurst said he met Mr. Zehaf-Bibeau in a Burnaby, B.C., mosque about three years ago. He said his friend did not at first appear to have extremist views or inclinations toward violence – but at times exhibited a disturbing side.

“We were having a conversation in a kitchen, and I don’t know how he worded it: He said the devil is after him,” Mr. Bathurst said in an interview. He said his friend frequently talked about the presence of Shaytan in the world – an Arabic term for devils and demons. “I think he must have been mentally ill.”

Nevertheless, Mike Morell, CBS News senior security contributor and former CIA deputy director, seems to believe that Zehaf-Bibeau represents a threat to the United States:


Unlike Morrell, I’m much more concerned about what his own reaction reveals about thinking inside the CIA than what Zehaf-Bibeau reveals about Canada.

In 2012 there were seven murders in Ottawa (population close to a million), 2013 nine murders, and so far in 2014 there have been five (including yesterday’s).

The overwhelming majority of the crazy men running round shooting innocent people are on this side of the border. What makes them dangerous is much less the ideas in their heads than the ease with which they can lay their hands on a gun.

It’s often hard to be clear about what should be described as terrorism. What’s much easier to discern is hysteria.

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Negotiate with ISIS?

Offering the latest iteration of one of the cardinal truths that has supposedly become irrefutable over the last decade or so, Robert Fisk writes: “For every dead Isis member, we are creating three of four more.”

Through its hydra-like capacity to self-replicate, ISIS is apparently more contagious than Ebola and the method of transmission is martyr-producing U.S. airstrikes.

In anticipating the proliferation of violence in an expanding war against ISIS, Fisk seems more perturbed about what a “murderous bunch of gunmen” might do — those being private security contractors ostensibly destined to be “let loose” in Syria — than the apparently overstated capabilities of that other murderous bunch of gunmen who like to be known as Islamic State.

It remains to be seen whether ISIS will grow in the way Fisk anticipates. What has been widely reported is that so far this year, its rapid growth has been driven not by U.S. airstrikes; it has come from the group’s success in capturing territory and creating a rudimentary Islamic state.

The allure of the caliphate and battlefield victories seems greater than the allure of martyrdom. For these holy warriors the promise of an afterlife with virgins in heaven probably figures less in their imagination than the prospect of acquiring slaves in this life.


The glaring problem with the thesis that killing members of ISIS can only make the problem worse is that it discounts the gruesome toll each of these fighters continues to ratchet up.

Just as we might fear that with each ISIS member killed, another three or four might be created, we should include in our calculations those who have already become ISIS’s victims and those whose lives are in imminent danger.

When Kurdish fighters say that we either kill them or they will kill us, they are simply stating a fact.

In spite of this, an old argument that has in the past in different circumstances been relevant and valid is being pressed once again — the argument that our perspective on ISIS has been skewed by misleading rhetoric about terrorism.

This comes from Tomis Kapitan:

To put it bluntly, by stifling inquiry into causes, the rhetoric of “terror” actually increases the likelihood of terrorism. First, it magnifies the effect of terrorist actions by heightening the fear among the target population. If we demonize the terrorists, if we portray them as evil, irrational beings devoid of a moral sense, we amplify the fear and alarm generated by terrorist incidents, even when this is one of the political objectives of the perpetrators. In addition, stricter security measures often appear on the home front, including enhanced surveillance and an increasing militarization of local police.

Second, those who succumb to the rhetoric contribute to the cycle of revenge and retaliation by endorsing military actions that grievously harm the populations among whom terrorists live. The consequence is that civilians, those least protected, become the principle victims of “retaliation” or “counterterrorism.”

Having been desensitized by language, the willingness to risk civilian casualties becomes increasingly widespread. For example, according to a CBS/New York Times poll of 1216 Americans published on September 16, 2001, nearly 60 percent of those polled supported the use of military force against terrorists even if “many thousands of innocent civilians may be killed,” an echo of the view taken by Netanyahu in his book.

Third, a violent response is likely to stiffen the resolve of those from whose ranks terrorists have emerged, leading them to regard their foes as people who cannot be reasoned with, as people who, because they avail themselves so readily of the rhetoric of “terror,” know only the language of force. As long as groups perceive themselves to be victims of intolerable injustices and view their oppressors as unwilling to arrive at an acceptable compromise, they are likely to answer violence with more violence. Their reaction might be strategic, if directed against civilians to achieve a particular political objective, but, with the oppression unabated, it increasingly becomes the retaliatory violence of despair and revenge.

There’s a problem with on the one hand attempting to deconstruct the terror rhetoric while at the same time persisting in the use of the category: terrorists.

To do this is to sustain the notion that, for instance, “Hamas, Hezbollah or ISIS” — a grouping Kapitan employs — have a sufficient number of common features that we can start making generalizations about better ways to “tackle terrorism” and then assume they could be employed in each instance.

The most commonly promoted alternative to using military force to combat terrorism is negotiation. Indeed, many governments directly or indirectly talk to Hamas and Hezbollah, so why isn’t anyone talking to ISIS?

An American ex-servicemen who has joined the ranks of the Syrian Kurdish YPG and is now fighting against ISIS provides a blunt answer:

“You can’t talk to people like that. There’s no reasoning at all. There’s a war and we have to eliminate them.”

Obviously, those who argue that violence begets violence will reject this soldier’s position. Some may argue that he is himself a victim of the terror rhetoric which has demonized ISIS.

Perhaps. But if this argument against war is to acquire more weight, then those who imply that there are viable alternatives need to spell out in greater detail what those alternatives are.

The only willingness to negotiate displayed by ISIS up to this point has been on the terms for releasing hostages. If that’s the extent of its flexibility, it’s not worth much.

But let’s imagine, just for the sake of argument, what the terms might be for political negotiations.

Can we imagine some kind of compromise caliphate? Sharia with due process? No female under the age of 18 can be enslaved? No one can be decapitated without first receiving an anesthetic?

Maybe if the negotiations went particularly well, ISIS would be willing to make a major gesture of conciliation and reach out to the West by implementing an outright ban on crucifixions.

There is of course another alternative approach for dealing, or to be more precise, not dealing with ISIS — a common ground that unites a significant number of Americans across the political spectrum.

It’s an approach that’s voiced more freely on the Right than the Left since it expresses a cold-blooded nationalism. It simply says: ISIS poses a threat to Syrians, Kurds, Iraqis and others in the Middle East. It poses little threat to Americans. Why should we care? Why should we get involved? It’s not our problem.

In its progressively tempered form, this sentiment gains a little warmth and says: we do care, but as much as we get involved, we’re sure to make things worse. Sorry, we feel your pain, but look at the mess we’ve already created in the Middle East. You’re really better off without our “help.”

I don’t believe there are any avenues available to negotiate with ISIS, but neither do I think it can be ignored. If its growth was to remain unchecked, a region already deeply fragmented will only become more violent.

The Kurds on the frontlines fighting against ISIS deserve America’s full support, but Obama’s war against ISIS thus far lacks an real strategic foundation.

The growth of ISIS stems as much as anything else from a pernicious cycle of American engagement with the world, oscillating between efforts to exercise too much control, followed by periods of withdrawal. Either America is in charge or it won’t play.

At some point America needs to outgrow this cycle of domination and isolation, acting as one nation among many to pursue goals that serve global interests. America can’t save the world but neither should it try to escape from it.

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