Snowden, Putin, Wyden, and Clapper

Imagine the tension inside the studio on Russian state television when Vladamir Putin was confronted by Edward Snowden. How would Russia’s president handle a direct challenge from the world’s most famous whistleblower?

Was the most powerful man in the world going to cower like DNI James Clapper did a year ago and wipe sweat from his forehead as he nervously tried to evade pointed questions from his interrogator?

It turned out the Putin remained as calm as the Buddha.

I guess it’s hard having the same impact when you can’t ask any follow-up questions, the person being questioned has no fear of perjuring himself, and he enjoys the popular support of a 71% approval rating.

The Moscow Times reports:

Most of the more than 2.5 million questions that were sent via telephone, web and text message concerned social policy, housing and infrastructure. But most of the show was occupied by questions about the ongoing crisis in eastern Ukraine and Russia’s recent annexation of Crimea.

Since Snowden’s question was among the 81 questions that made the cut, it’s safe to say that Putin and his handlers recognized that it would serve their interests. In Putin’s posture of speaking “spy to spy” there was no hint of the merciless way he deals with defectors.

The investigative journalist Andrei Soldatov, welcomed Snowden’s appearance:

Whether a debate of any consequence in Russia ensues, remains to be seen:

And while Snowden might want to applaud his own challenge to Putin, Soldatov reminded the American of an invitation he has yet to accept:

Speaking to the Washington Post, Soldatov explained why Putin’s denials on mass surveillance don’t stand up to scrutiny.

In fact, Soldatov says, Russia even has its own version of PRISM, the clandestine mass electronic surveillance program that Snowden uncovered. It’s called SORM, and has been around since 1995. During Putin’s 14 years in Russian leadership, the scope of SORM has been expanded numerous times.

Soldatov argues that there were three key points made by Putin, each of which was a half-truth or a lie. First, Soldatov says, Putin argued that the FSB, the successor agency to the Soviet era’s KGB, needs to get a warrant from a court before surveillance can begin. This is true in theory, Soldatov admits, but in practice the warrants are not required to be shown: Telecoms agencies and Internet providers do not have the necessary security clearance to view the warrants, in any case.

Secondly, Putin seemed to suggest that the Russian legislature, the Duma, has oversight over the FSB. This is not true, Soldatov says, arguing that while the State Duma does have a Special Committee for Security, it has no actual oversight for secret services.

Finally, Putin argued that Russia doesn’t have the “hardware and money the United States has.” Soldatov says this is “not entirely correct.” The biggest limitation on FSB’s spying is that Russian communication systems – for example, the social network VKontakte – are rarely used abroad, unlike U.S. systems (for example, Google and Facebook). This gives the U.S. a clear advantage in international surveillance, but it is mostly irrelevant for the discussion of domestic mass surveillance, Soldatov argues.


Former intelligence officials and false flags

In May 2008 I received an email from a former senior intelligence officer who I was working with at that time. The subject line: “same senario like in iraq/big lies.”

Naturally, I was eager to see the details in what turned out to be an analysis of the photographic evidence on the alleged Israeli strike on an alleged nuclear facility in Syria in September 2007.

I had followed this story closely since it was first reported and initially had been very skeptical about the idea that Syria would take the risk of attempting to develop nuclear weapons.

By late April 2008, however, it seemed to me (and many other independent observers) that the evidence supporting most of the allegations was thoroughly convincing. At that time I wrote:

As someone who voiced great skepticism about the initial claims that Israel destroyed a nuclear facility in the Syrian desert on September 6, 2007, I’ll be the first to admit that the evidence provided in the DNI background briefing presents proof that Syria was in fact close to completing the construction of a Calder-Hall type of nuclear reactor producing plutonium.

Even if one was to have dismissed all the intelligence as having been misinterpreted or fabricated, the fact remained that when Syria had the opportunity to demonstrate to the world that it was the innocent victim of an unprovoked act of aggression by its neighbor, Israel — IAEA inspectors could have immediately been called in to certify that the recently bombed site was “clean,” showing no evidence of nuclear materials or construction of a reactor — instead of calling in inspectors, Assad sent in the bulldozers to cover up the remains.

Nevertheless, athough in my mind it seemed like the case was closed, then as always, I was open to consider new evidence — especially if it was being passed on to me by someone who had served and advised at the most senior levels of government and been privy to the highest levels of classified information.

So what kind of “intelligence” did this email contain?

It was an article from a website and the first red flag jumped straight out:

For those who have never come across this site, it’s run by an American radio talk-show host called Jeff Rense. It is notorious for promoting conspiracy theories and the article in question, “Another Fake Syria Nuclear Site Photo?”, was no exception.

The article’s author was a man called Ted Teietmeyer. My immediate reaction to his method of analysis was that he seemed to be approaching this subject in the way someone might argue that the moon landings were faked. Sure enough, Teietmeyer believes that NASA faked the 1969 lunar landing.

Had the former intelligence official been taken in by what to my eye was transparently a bogus piece of analysis, or did he think that I could easily be duped? I’ll never know, because as soon as I told him this was a piece of nonsense he dropped the subject.

What I have observed over the intervening years is that this former intelligence official’s allegiances have become increasingly transparent and this perhaps explains why he sent me that article. He can at this point be fairly described as a loyal supporter of Bashar al-Assad. That’s not a slur — it’s an objective assessment.

Now let’s consider another former intelligence official. This one left a comment here on Tuesday evening. I recognized his name. He used to be a CIA analyst, now has his own blog and based on his style of writing comments, I think he can reasonably also be described as a “troll.”

His comment appeared under the post “Seymour Hersh as Dorian Gray,” where I had written that had such a thinly-sourced report as Hersh’s latest been written by anyone else, the London Review of Books (LBR) wouldn’t have touched it.

Since I have no intention of feeding this troll, his comment will remain in moderation — why should I or anyone else approve being addressed in this way? I did however write directly to the author using the email address he provides on his blog and he swiftly confirmed that he had indeed left the comment. The former intelligence official had commented:

You are a moron. Thinly sourced? Quoting from an actual Top Secret document, which the LRB thoroughly fact checked, is quite a distance from thinly sourced. Further evidence that you are a frigging tool is to assert that Hersh’s article is somehow pandering to the left and Obama supporters. Really? If you had actually read the article you would understand why the left hates him — it is a devastating indictment of Obama as a liar and a fraud.

The first thing I would say to anyone who wants to sustain the brand value of “former intelligence official” is this: It’s probably better to refrain from throwing around insults in public. It detracts from the authoritative voice most people associate or want to associate with those who have been entrusted to maintain national security.

I’ll break down what this former CIA analyst said both in order to address the specifics, but perhaps more importantly to show that when assessing the credibility of what someone says, we should never allow ourselves to be dazzled by their credentials.

I’ll leave it to others to decide whether I’m a moron and move on to the question of sourcing. Hersh, the former CIA analyst says, is “Quoting from an actual Top Secret document, which the LRB thoroughly fact checked” — that’s “quite a distance from thinly sourced.” Right? Not really. Here’s why.

Firstly, to say that this document was thoroughly fact-checked by the LRB implies that the fact checkers were able to confirm that the document was what Hersh claims it to be: a highly classified five-page ‘talking points’ briefing for the DIA’s deputy director, David Shedd.

All that the fact checkers appear to have been able to establish is that the DNI says: ‘No such paper was ever requested or produced by intelligence community analysts.’

Moreover, as the CIA analyst may not be aware but as Hersh revealed in an interview on Tuesday, the LRB did not use its own fact checkers — it relied on fact checkers who came with Hersh from The New Yorker.

However celebrated the latter publication’s fact checking process might be, for the LRB to outsource fact checking in this way seems to defeat its purpose.

During the interview, Hersh brandished the “actual Top Secret document” but since he’s only revealed 134 words from its five pages, I don’t believe that he has in fact advanced much distance from thinly sourced. Wafting around a few sheets of paper hardly compares to reading their contents.

Whoever provided the veteran investigative journalist with this intelligence should be perfectly capable of determining how it might need to be redacted in order to preserve his own anonymity while also protecting national security.

Hersh’s choice to act as an intelligence gatekeeper raises reasonable doubts about whether he’s withholding information that might undermine his own narrative. Only by being able to review the document will we be able to determine whether he cherry-picked his quotations or used the information in a misleading way. Likewise, information he left out including dates, could turn out to be significant. Moreover, only by putting the document in the public domain will it be possible to determine whether it is genuine.

As for the former CIA analyst’s reference to “the left and Obama supporters,” anyone who has read my posts would know that I have not spoken once about Obama supporters. The former analyst’s comment seems to emanate from someone firmly stuck inside the Beltway who imagines that all of politics revolves around Democrats and Republicans.

Finally and significantly, the former analyst who jumped in here belongs to a group that has been promoting a false-flag narrative about the chemical attacks since soon after they occurred.

Like many former officials, they seem to engage in a practice commonplace among people who find it difficult to reconcile themselves with their own diminished status once outside government. They would have their audience believe that even if they no longer hold any positions in any government agency, their informal ties to the intelligence community and the Pentagon, provide them with a level of access and insight into the current workings of government, to which others are not privileged.

The secret that the former whatevers are often most reluctant to reveal is that the former commonly says much more than the whatever.

Those who were once inside the loop but are now stuck on the outside, can contrive all sorts of ways of resuscitating their insider status.

Consider for instance the Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS), the group I alluded to above.

On September 6, this group of former intelligence officials took it upon themselves to offer President Obama a briefing about what really happened on August 21 near Damascus.

In several interviews Hersh has portrayed the president as a victim of his own power. Which is to say, everyone around the president only tells him what he wants to hear.

It would appear that VIPS were assuming a role as what might be called intel elders, who hoped they could break through the bubble and inform Obama about what was really going on.

We regret to inform you that some of our former co-workers are telling us, categorically, that contrary to the claims of your administration, the most reliable intelligence shows that Bashar al-Assad was NOT responsible for the chemical incident that killed and injured Syrian civilians on August 21, and that British intelligence officials also know this. In writing this brief report, we choose to assume that you have not been fully informed because your advisers decided to afford you the opportunity for what is commonly known as “plausible denial.”

Now here’s the strangest element in this appeal for sanity. The members of this group supposedly alerting the president, also apparently believed that the United States was implicated in the false flag operation about which they were alerting him.

In their September 6 memorandum to the president, VIPS wrote:

[O]n August 13-14, 2013, Western-sponsored opposition forces in Turkey started advance preparations for a major, irregular military surge. Initial meetings between senior opposition military commanders and Qatari, Turkish and U.S. intelligence officials took place at the converted Turkish military garrison in Antakya, Hatay Province, now used as the command center and headquarters of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and their foreign sponsors.

Although these former intelligence officials say they wrote this, it would appear to be more accurate to say they repeated it.

The original author was Yossef Bodansky. In “Did the White House Help Plan the Syrian Chemical Attack?” published on August 28, he wrote:

On August 13-14, 2013, Western-sponsored opposition forces in Turkey started advance preparations for a major and irregular military surge. Initial meetings between senior opposition military commanders and representatives of Qatari, Turkish, and US Intelligence [“Mukhabarat Amriki”] took place at the converted Turkish military garrison in Antakya, Hatay Province, used as the command center and headquarters of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and their foreign sponsors.

It turns out that Bodansky, an Israeli-American who has served as a Defense Department consultant (as did one of Hersh’s sources) also has links to the Assad family.

Foreign Policy reported last September:

Yossef Bodansky

Yossef Bodansky

Bodansky is an ally of Bashar’s uncle, Rifaat al-Assad — he pushed him as a potential leader of Syria in 2005. Rifaat is the black sheep of the Assad family: He spearheaded the Syrian regime’s brutal crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood in the early 1980s, but then was forced into exile after he tried to seize power from his brother, President Hafez al-Assad, in 1983. Despite his ouster, however, Rifaat is just as hostile to a Sunni Islamist takeover as other members of the Assad family — a position Bodansky appears to share. Ending Alawite rule in Syria, Bodansky wrote on another pro-Assad website, “will cause cataclysmic upheaval throughout the greater Middle East.”

While for Hersh, his narrative may seem to go back no further than one or two seemingly well-informed former intelligence officials, the story may in fact trace all the way back to Damascus, not as the center of events but to a factory of a kind; not one in which sarin is produced but one in which “intelligence” gets fabricated.

(Thanks to Clay Claiborne and Scott Lucas.)


Seymour Hersh as Dorian Gray

The following piece by Louis Proyect is the sixth article I’ve posted in response to Seymour Hersh’s “The Red Line and the Rat Line” which appeared in the London Review of Books on Sunday.

How can one article merit this amount of attention and criticism?

In terms of its substance, it does not. Had such a thinly-sourced report been written by anyone else, the LRB wouldn’t have touched it — it would more likely have appeared somewhere like Mint Press or Alex Jones’ Infowars.

But whenever the byline “Seymour Hersh” appears in the media, shock-waves ripple across the planet. His latest blockbuster always commands that governments respond. Within hours official statements get circulated to the press.

It’s an unfortunate effect because this reaction to Hersh lends his reporting more gravity than its most recent examples deserve. Moreover, the fact that he can prompt such swift responses reenforces the perception that this is a man who through telling the truth, has the power to shake the establishment. Thus, there seems all the more reason to treat his “revelations” as authoritative.

However, for me (and a few others) the reason Hersh’s work demands attention at this time, is because it reveals a malaise on the Left.

A fear of “Islamic terrorists” or “jihadists” which a decade ago served as the fuel powering the neoconservative enterprise, has since then percolated across the political spectrum and turned into a widely accepted means to delegitimize the Syrian revolution.

It is now not uncommon to hear people suggest that after Bashar al-Assad has killed tens of thousands of his own people and turned cities to rubble, for him to remain in power would be the lesser of two evils.

It’s either Assad or the wild men who eat human hearts for breakfast, many on the Right and the Left now believe.

Islamophobia which used to reside on the Right has now acquired a veneer of cosmopolitan “realism.”

This is why the attention I’m giving to Hersh is not all about the veteran investigative reporter. He merely highlights a much wider corruption of thought.

Louis Proyect’s choice of metaphor is both provocative and appropriate.

Proyect writes: Like his last article for the London Review of Books, Seymour Hersh’s latest continues to demonstrate that he is no longer a trenchant and truthful investigative reporter. Instead the portrait of a decaying and sloppy propagandist is taking shape, just as damning as the one that caught up with Dorian Gray. While Gray recoiled in horror from what he saw, it is likely that Hersh will persist in his ways since so many of his fans are also committed to demonizing the Syrian rebels and rallying around the “axis of good” in Syria, Iran and Russia. With this 77 year old reporter so badly in need of correction, it is almost tragic that none will be made.

To start with, he likens Barack Obama to George W. Bush as if the rhetoric about “red lines” were to be taken seriously. Hersh believes that he was held back by “military leaders who thought that going to war was both unjustified and potentially disastrous.” I often wonder if people like Hersh bother to read the NY Times or — worse — read it and choose to ignore it.

In fact there was zero interest in a large-scale intervention in Syria in either civilian or military quarters. All this is documented in a NY Times article from October 22nd 2013, written when the alarums over a looming war with Syria were at their loudest, that stated “from the beginning, Mr. Obama made it clear to his aides that he did not envision an American military intervention, even as public calls mounted that year for a no-fly zone to protect Syrian civilians from bombings.” The article stressed the role of White House Chief of Staff Dennis McDonough, who had frequently clashed with the hawkish Samantha Power. In contrast to Power and others with a more overtly “humanitarian intervention” perspective, McDonough “who had perhaps the closest ties to Mr. Obama, remained skeptical. He questioned how much it was in America’s interest to tamp down the violence in Syria.” In other words, the White House policy was and is allowing the Baathists and the rebels to exhaust each other in an endless war, just as was White House policy during the Iran-Iraq conflict.

These pacifist military leaders, Hersh assures us, were suffering sleepless nights over Turkey’s bellicose role in the region.

‘We knew there were some in the Turkish government,’ a former senior US intelligence official, who has access to current intelligence, told me, ‘who believed they could get Assad’s nuts in a vice by dabbling with a sarin attack inside Syria — and forcing Obama to make good on his red line threat.’

With all these unnamed military leaders and spooks at his beck and call, who are we to question Hersh’s analysis? I don’t know, maybe it’s just me, but I don’t put much store in unnamed inside-the-beltway sources after putting up with Judith Miller’s “reporting” in the NY Times back in 2003:

Having concluded that international inspectors are unlikely to find tangible and irrefutable evidence that Iraq is hiding weapons of mass destruction, the Bush administration is preparing its own assessment that will rely heavily on evidence from Iraqi defectors, according to senior administration officials.

I understand that most people on the left are willing to take Hersh’s word at face value but I suppose that is to be expected when they are also partial to and Iran’s PressTV. Like the Obama voter who takes Rachel Maddow by the loving spoonful, these “radicals” find their bliss in media outlets that do not pass the smell test. [Continue reading...]


Russia resuscitates ‘Greystone in Ukraine’ story

The Guardian reports: Ukraine’s leaders have shown unusual restraint in the face of multiple Russian provocations during and since last month’s seizure of Crimea. But their restraint is unlikely to survive an attempt by Moscow to provoke a similar separatist insurrection in south-east Ukraine, which officials in Kiev believe may already be under way. An escalating confrontation in the east could in turn draw in the western powers.

On Tuesday, Ukraine’s fightback began. The acting interior minister, Arsen Avakov, deployed police special forces to eastern cities where pro-Russian activists have occupied government buildings and appealed for Russian military intervention. And yet even now Kiev is exhibiting extraordinary self-control. Demonstrators in Kharkiv were arrested but protests in Lugansk, Mariupol and Donetsk were allowed to continue unmolested.

Ukraine’s calibrated approach contrasts with that of Moscow, which quickly denounced the arrests in Kharkiv as confrontational. The official news agency Ria Novosti claimed that the official Ukrainian deployments included Right Sector radical nationalists and freelance American Blackwater (Greystone) mercenaries. There was no independent confirmation of this claim. [Continue reading...]

As shameless practitioners in disseminating disinformation, the Russians know exactly what they are doing. Promote the story about Greystone (which is actually the rebirth of an earlier conspiracy theory), knowing that it will prompt a swift denial:

“We do not have anyone working in Ukraine nor do we have any plans to deploy anyone to the region,” said Coreena Taylor, a Greystone representative at the company’s headquarters in Chesapeake, Va.

Those who are receptive to the idea that the U.S. might be intervening in Ukraine in this way, will of course dismiss Greystone’s statement. Likewise any statements from the State Department will be disregarded.

A resolute unwillingness to believe anything coming from any American speaking in an official capacity, now gets coupled with a stunning willingness to take seriously virtually any claim coming from Russia.

No doubt the representatives of Western governments bear the primary responsibility for the fact that they have come to be viewed with such suspicion, but everyone is responsible for sustaining and refining their own critical awareness.

There’s no value in learning how not to be fooled by your own government if you then easily get fooled by another government.


Does Seymour Hersh understand how hexamine fits into Syrian sarin?

On Democracy Now! today, Amy Goodman provided Seymour Hersh with an opportunity to summarize the contents of his article which appeared at the London Review of Books yesterday.

The only juncture in the interview where Goodman challenged Hersh on the substance of his claims, came when she cited a post written by Scott Lucas which appeared at EA Worldview yesterday. In that post, Lucas reiterated a point he had made last December in response to Hersh’s first article on the chemical attack, referring to one of the many reasons that the scale of the attack was an indication that only the regime had such capabilities:

Reports on the day and subsequently indicated that 7-12 sites were attacked with chemical agents at the same time. In other words, whoever was responsible for the attacks launched multiple surface-to-surface rockets with chemical payloads against opposition-held towns in East Ghouta and one town in West Ghouta, near Damascus.

In part of his response to this challenge, Hersh said:

You have a UN report, you have this independent report, saying [the missiles used in the chemical attack] went no more than one or two kilometres and so I don’t know why we are talking about multiple launched rockets. These were homemade weapons and it seems very clear to most observers, as I say even to the UN team that did the final report — the UN because of whatever rules they have, wasn’t able to say that, who fired what, they could just say, they could just describe the weapons and never make a judgement, but I can tell you, I quote somebody from inside that investigation unit who was very clear that the weapons [that] were fired were homemade and were not Syrian army. This was asked and answered.

Hersh has a habit of making stronger claims in interviews than he is willing to make in writing.

Although on Democracy Now! he said “I quote somebody from inside that investigation unit” in the article itself he merely quotes a “person with knowledge of the UN’s activities.”

If this person was actually inside the investigation unit, why didn’t Hersh put that in print?

In the interview, Hersh says this person “was very clear that the weapons [that] were fired were homemade and were not Syrian army,” yet quoting this individual he wrote: “Investigators interviewed the people who were there, including the doctors who treated the victims. It was clear that the rebels used the gas.”

Note: Hersh’s source refers to “investigators,” not “our investigation” — a suggestion that the source was not in fact inside the investigation — and the source makes no direct reference to the construction method of the weapons.

In tune with the interests of his audience, Hersh prefers to tell political stories. Technicalities serve as nothing more than stage props and for this reason, it should come as no surprise that his televised engagements are generally solo performances, which is to say, he doesn’t get interviewed alongside experts who could quickly expose the weakness of his arguments.

For instance, a pillar of the argument that Hersh is making about the chemical attacks in Ghouta was that the weapons and the sarin they contained were homemade.

hexamineNow if Amy Goodman had wanted to pose a really tough question to Hersh she could have asked: How do you explain the presence of hexamine found on the remains of the missiles used in the chemical attacks?

That’s not the kind of question Hersh is likely to have thrown at him by Goodman or any other interviewer since neither he nor the interviewer would be likely to understand its significance.

Still, when the subject is chemical weapons and the media is able to see whether Hersh’s claims can withstand expert analysis, then that is exactly how his reporting should be tested.

It’s safe to assume that Hersh will never divulge the identity of any of his sources and so their credibility cannot be separated from his credibility. But Hersh’s assertion that the weapons and warheads used in the attack were homemade and that they lacked the identifying characteristics of Syrian army weapons, is a substantive claim that has to be supported by evidence.

The only physical evidence Hersh cites is sarin collected by Russian military intelligence operatives and passed on to British military intelligence at Porton Down.

This is worthless. For Hersh to attest to the reliability of this evidence by citing his own source’s claim that “the Russian who delivered the sample to the UK was ‘a good source – someone with access, knowledge and a record of being trustworthy’” is a joke.

Russia is an ally of Syria. The whole point of having UN weapons inspectors gathering evidence is that they are international and independent.

Dan Kaszeta, a former US Army and US Secret Service specialist on chemical, biological, and radiological defense, last year laid out the reasons why neither al Nusra nor any other non-state actor would have the capabilities to produce sarin in the quantity used in the Ghouta attacks.

Having presented the technical reasons why rebel-produced sarin was highly implausible, Kaszeta went on to make an important discovery about a unique feature of the sarin produced by the Assad regime — something that has never been observed before: the use of hexamine.

Sarin used in chemical weapons contains hydrogen flouride — “one of the most corrosive chemicals in existence.” Although hexamine has a diverse array of applications, Kaszeta suspected that Syria was using it as the acid reducer in sarin to mitigate the corrosive effects of hydrogen flouride. That suspicion was confirmed by the UN/OPCW inspection mission.

Ake Sellstrom, the head of the mission, was interviewed by CBRNe World magazine in February and asked:

CBRNe World: Why was hexamine on the list of chemical scheduled to be destroyed – it has many other battlefield uses as well as Sarin? Did you request to put it on the list or had the Syrian’s claimed that they were using it?

Sellstrom: It is in their formula, it is their acid scavenger.

To summarize:

  • The Syrian government has never claimed that it lost control of any of its CW arsenal.
  • It has acknowledged that hexamine was part of its formula for producing sarin.
  • Nobody else has previously used hexamine as a sarin additive.
  • Hexamine was found in the field samples collected by CW inspectors in Ghouta after the attacks.
  • Syria included 80 tons of hexamine in its declared inventory for CW destruction.

Add these facts together and there can be little doubt that, as Dan Kaszeta says, “the Assad regime did the wicked deed.”

Then again, who wants to hear about hexamine when instead they can listen to Seymour Hersh spinning tales about false flags?


Seymour Hersh’s alternate reality

The Pulitzer Prize winning veteran investigative journalist Seymour Hersh was once a regular contributor to the New Yorker. He also wrote for the Washington Post. No more.

Last December he had to turn to the London Review of Books to publish, “Whose sarin?” and his latest piece on Syria appears at LRB today.

A truth-teller shunned by the American mainstream media!

I have little doubt Hersh revels in the image — it plays so well among those who revere him.

But just pause for a minute to think about this: Is Hersh’s reporting so radical, such a threat to the political establishment, that he couldn’t get published by Rolling Stone, or Vanity Fair, or the Boston Review, or Mother Jones, or any of the dozens of new long-form online publications that don’t seem lacking in boldness or creativity?

I doubt it. On the contrary, I think the image of a journalist-in-exile is simply Hersh’s latest vanity.

But if it turns out that there really is no publication this side of the Atlantic that will touch his work, maybe that would say less about a decline in the standards of American journalism and a lot more about the demise of Hersh’s credibility.

When it comes to Hersh’s reporting on Syria, one story that really deserves deeper investigation is whether he has become a stooge for Michael Maloof, a former senior security-policy analyst at the Pentagon who helped gather the bogus intelligence that lay the foundations for the war in Iraq. The fact that both of them have been spinning such similar yarns in recent months seems like more than a coincidence

The most inexcusable feature of Hersh’s reporting is that he effectively functions as his own source. In other words, for readers smitten by his reputation, what he reports is treated as fact for no other reason than the fact that he reported it.

Each time he comes out with a new piece, it’s like Moses coming down from the mountaintop. No one dare ask whether he really heard the voice of God, because no one questions Moses.

For his latest piece, Hersh’s primary source is a “former intelligence official.”

I can picture the two leaning against a bar somewhere in DC as the old hack furiously takes notes. What makes this former official’s word unimpeachable, we’ll never know — suffice to know is that just as Hersh unquestioningly believes his source, we are supposed to believe Hersh, without corroborating sources, without any hard evidence.

Just by chance, a few days ago, Bashar Ja’afari, Syria’s ambassador to the U.N., sent a letter to the Security Council on March 27, saying:

The competent Syrian authorities intercepted a wireless communication between two terrorists in the Jawbar area of Damascus governorate. In that communication, one of the terrorists said that another terrorist named Abu Nadir was covertly distributing gas masks. The authorities also intercepted another communication between the two other terrorists, one of whom is named Abu Jihad. In that communication, Abu Jihad indicates that toxic gas will be used and asked those who are working with him to supply protective masks.

This information … confirms that armed terrorist groups are preparing to use toxic gas in Jawbar quarter and other areas, in order to accuse the Syrian government of having committed such an act of terrorism.

“Terrorists” talking about gas masks who knows when and this “confirms” another gas attack is on the way.

The false flag industry remains as busy as ever — or so the Syrian government’s interlocutors would have you believe.

Those who find Hersh persuasive will probably find the ambassador’s warnings equally persuasive, but in each case it’s not that either is presenting a compelling case. On the contrary, they merely know how to feed their target audience exactly what it wants to hear.


Syria seen through the eyes of a British journalist and a Dutch jihadist

Emblematic of the feeble condition of Western political thought these days are the indications that there is more agreement about the evil of terrorism than there is about the value of democracy.

Witness an observation made recently by Patrick Cockburn, a British journalist admired by many on the Left, who wrote in The Independent:

The “war on terror” has failed because it did not target the jihadi movement as a whole and, above all, was not aimed at Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, the two countries that had fostered jihadism as a creed and a movement.

For those who want to distance themselves from the crude lexicon of Bush and Cheney, jihadism is supposedly a word with less charge, signalling that the term’s user is not on a crusade. Yet under this veneer of objectivity there is sometimes a surprising concordance with the neoconservative perspective.

Over a decade ago, I wrote:

Richard Perle, in quasi-theological terms, posits a “unity of terror.” In the same spirit, an editorial in Sunday’s Jerusalem Post, in reference to the terrorists who killed three Americans in Gaza this week, goes so far as to say:

Whether it was Hamas, Islamic Jihad, or perhaps even al-Qaida itself matters little and in fact tends to distract from what the West knows but often does not like to admit: The tentacles all belong to the same enemy.

Within this conception of terrorism, a phenomenon that is scattered across the globe has been turned into a beast of mythological proportions. The explicit connection is militant Islam, but whether the “tentacles” linking Islamic terrorists amount to concrete connections through finance and organization, or whether we are looking at bonds that have no more substance than a common cause or simply the common use of particular techniques of terrorism, these are all distinctions that the unitarians dismiss as distractions.

Cockburn now writes:

These days, there is a decreasing difference in the beliefs of jihadis, regardless of whether or not they are formally linked to al-Qa’ida central, now headed by Ayman al-Zawahiri. An observer in southern Turkey discussing 9/11 with a range of Syrian jihadi rebels earlier this year found that “without exception they all expressed enthusiasm for the 9/11 attacks and hoped the same thing would happen in Europe as well as the US”.

When a veteran reporter makes this kind of observation, even though he does not identify his source in any way at all, there will be many readers who treat Cockburn’s word (and thus that of an unidentified “observer”) as definitive. In so doing, they ignore the fact that this characterization of the Assad regime’s opponents perfectly mirrors the regime’s own propaganda.

One can treat Assad’s claim that he is fighting terrorists as a statement of fact. Or, one can treat it as a cynical and effective piece of political messaging — messaging one of whose purposes is to corral some sympathy from those in the West who, paradoxically, both vehemently reject the military adventurism that the neoconservatives initiated after 9/11 and yet also fully embrace a neoconservative view of unified terrorism.

When labels like jihadist and terrorist get used with sufficient frequency, the mere fact that the terms are used so frequently solidifies the sense that we know what they mean.

Any label applied to a person, however, calls out for a corrective: the voice of that person — a voice which may reinforce or undermine the stereotypes that repetition has created.

When it comes to the jihadists in Syria, we rarely hear what they have to say about themselves and if Cockburn is to be believed there’s little reason why we should be interested in hearing such individuals speak, since they all think alike and are all enemies of the West.

Earlier this year, a rare glimpse of foreign jihadists in Syria came in the form of an interview with a Dutch jihadist. Speaking in English, he provided a more nuanced picture of what has led young men like him to leave their families and join the fight against the Assad regime. Indeed, he spoke at length characterizing this more as a fight for Syrians than as one against their government.

His is just one voice. To what extent he can be taken as representative of others is open to question. Young men can easily be blinded by their own convictions or become servants of the agendas of others.

But while it’s perfectly reasonable to view with skepticism anyone’s claim that Islamic law would provide the panacea that can heal all of Syria’s wounds, the account that this former Dutch soldier gives of himself suggests to me that he knows his own mind.

He’s the kind of jihadist that both Patrick Cockburn and Bashar al-Assad would have you believe does not exist.


Under militia rule, Libya is beginning to disintegrate. Are the interventionists to blame?

o13-iconOwen Jones writes: It’s called the pottery store rule: “you break it, you own it”. But it doesn’t just apply to pots and mugs, but to nations. In the build-up to the catastrophic invasion of Iraq, it was invoked by Colin Powell, then US secretary of state. “You are going to be the proud owner of 25 million people,” he reportedly told George W Bush. “You will own all their hopes, aspirations and problems.” But while many of these military interventions have left nations shattered, western governments have resembled the customer who walks away whistling, hoping no one has noticed the mess left behind. Our media have been all too complicit in allowing them to leave the scene.

Libya is a striking example. The UN-authorised air campaign in 2011 is often lauded as a shining example of successful foreign intervention. Sure, the initial mandate – which was simply to protect civilians – was exceeded by nations who had only recently been selling arms to Muammar Gaddafi, and the bombing evolved into regime-change despite Russia’s protests. But with a murderous thug ejected from power, who could object?

Today’s Libya is overrun by militias and faces a deteriorating human rights situation, mounting chaos that is infecting other countries, growing internal splits, and even the threat of civil war. Only occasionally does this growing crisis creep into the headlines: like when an oil tanker is seized by rebellious militia; or when a British oil worker is shot dead while having a picnic; or when the country’s prime minister is kidnapped.

According to Amnesty International, the “mounting curbs on freedom of expression are threatening the rights Libyans sought to gain“. A repressive Gaddafi-era law has been amended to criminalise any insults to officials or the general national congress (the interim parliament). One journalist, Amara al-Khattabi, was put on trial for alleging corruption among judges. Satellite television stations deemed critical of the authorities have been banned, one station has been attacked with rocket-propelled grenades, and journalists have been assassinated. [Continue reading...]

Jones concludes: “No wonder western governments and journalists who hailed the success of this intervention are so silent. But here are the consequences of their war, and they must take responsibility for them.”

Once again we are offered a picture of Libya, the uprising against Gaddafi, and the chaos that has followed, as something in which the interventionists are all powerful and the Libyans themselves are like headless chickens set loose by Western overlords.

But here’s a radical idea: Maybe the anarchic state into which Libya has fallen is primarily the responsibility of its militia rulers.

If the only way of holding a country together is through the force of authoritarian rule, is that an argument in favor of authoritarianism or does it merely reveal the flimsiness of national identity?

The anti-interventionists who seem to feel nostalgic about the stability of Libya and Syria pre-2011, also seem to find it very easy to tolerate oppression which they themselves do not face.

No one enjoying democratic freedoms has the right or should have the audacity to believe that they can instigate someone else’s revolution. But the one thing on which most observers agree is that the uprisings in Libya and Syria were homegrown.

Facing well-armed government forces, the revolutionaries sought foreign support, just as Americans fighting for independence from Britain gladly accepted weapons and money from France.

Beneath a facade of anti-interventionist harmlessness (“It’s none of our business to interfere in the political affairs of others”) lurks an Orientalist contempt for Libyans and Syrians — populations whose political aspirations could apparently have continued being effectively suppressed by Gaddafi and Assad were it not for the meddlesome interference of Western neo-liberal interventionists.

When Owen says that those who supported NATO intervention in Libya should now “take responsibility,” it sounds like he’s expecting mea culpas in the form like this: intervention turns out to be a terrible thing. I promise to never support it again.

Yet those who argue that intervention in Libya was a terrible thing, need to present a credible supporting argument which I have yet to hear: why they believe Libya would now be in a better condition had NATO not become involved.

Absent the intervention, would Libyans now be living in relative peace, or, on the contrary, might Libya now more closely resemble Syria?


Devasting consequences of losing ‘knowledgeable elders’ in non-human cultures


Culture — something we generally associate with its expressions through art, music, literature and so forth — is commonly viewed as one of the defining attributes of humanity. We supposedly rose above animal instinct when we started creating bodies of knowledge, held collectively and passed down from generation to generation.

But it increasingly appears that this perspective has less to do with an appreciation of what makes us human than it has with our ignorance about non-human cultures.

Although non-human cultures don’t produce the kind of artifacts we create, the role of knowledge-sharing seems to be just as vital to the success of these societies as it is to ours. In other words, what makes these creatures what they are cannot be reduced to the structure of their DNA — it also involves a dynamic and learned element: the transmission of collective knowledge.

The survival of some species doesn’t simply depend on their capacity to replicate their DNA; it depends on their ability to pass on what they know.

Scuola Internazionale Superiore di Studi Avanzati: Small changes in a population may lead to dramatic consequences, like the disappearance of the migratory route of a species. A study carried out in collaboration with the SISSA has created a model of the behaviour of a group of individuals on the move (like a school of fish, a herd of sheep or a flock of birds, etc.) which, by changing a few simple parameters, reproduces the collective behaviour patterns observed in the wild. The model shows that small quantitative changes in the number of knowledgeable individuals and availability of food can lead to radical qualitative changes in the group’s behaviour.

Until the ’50s, bluefin tuna fishing was a thriving industry in Norway, second only to sardine fishing. Every year, bluefin tuna used to migrate from the eastern Mediterranean up to the Norwegian coasts. Suddenly, however, over no more than 4-5 years, the tuna never went back to Norway. In an attempt to solve this problem, Giancarlo De Luca from SISSA (the International School for Advanced Studies of Trieste) together with an international team of researchers (from the Centre for Theoretical Physics — ICTP — of Trieste and the Technical University of Denmark) started to devise a model based on an “adaptive stochastic network.” The physicists wanted to simulate, simplifying it, the collective behaviour of animal groups. Their findings, published in the journal Interface, show that the number of “informed individuals” in a group, sociality and the strength of the decision of the informed individuals are “critical” variables, such that even minimal fluctuations in these variables can result in catastrophic changes to the system.

“We started out by taking inspiration from the phenomenon that affected the bluefin tuna, but in actual fact we then developed a general model that can be applied to many situations of groups “on the move,” explains De Luca.

The collective behaviour of a group can be treated as an “emerging property,” that is, the result of the self-organization of each individual’s behaviour. “The majority of individuals in a group may not possess adequate knowledge, for example, about where to find rich feeding grounds” explains De Luca. “However, for the group to function, it is enough that only a minority of individuals possess that information. The others, the ones who don’t, will obey simple social rules, for example by following their neighbours.”

The tendency to comply with the norm, the number of knowledgeable individuals and the determination with which they follow their preferred route (which the researchers interpreted as being directly related to the appeal, or abundance, of the resource) are critical variables. “When the number of informed individuals falls below a certain level, or the strength of their determination to go in a certain direction falls below a certain threshold, the migratory pathway disappears abruptly.”

“In our networks the individuals are “points,” with interconnections that form and disappear in the course of the process, following some established rules. It’s a simple and general way to model the system which has the advantage of being able to be solved analytically,” comments De Luca.

So what ever happened to the Norwegian tuna? “Based on our results we formulated some hypotheses which will, however, have to be tested experimentally,” says De Luca. In the’50s Norway experienced a reduction in biomass and in the quantity of herrings, the main prey of tuna, which might have played a role in their disappearance. “This is consistent with our model, but there’s more to the story. In a short time the herring population returned to normal levels, whereas the tuna never came back. Why?”

One hypothesis is that, although the overall number of Mediterranean tuna has not changed, what has changed is the composition of the population: “The most desirable tuna specimens for the fishing industry are the larger, older individuals, which are presumably also those with the greater amount of knowledge, in other words the knowledgeable elders.” concludes De Luca.

Another curious fact: what happens if there are too many knowledgeable elders? “Too many know-alls are useless,” jokes De Luca. “In fact, above a certain number of informed individuals, the group performance does not improve so much as to justify the “cost” of their training. The best cost-benefit ratio is obtained by keeping the number of informed individuals above a certain level, provided they remain a minority of the whole population.”


The NSA, flight MH370, and the unknown

A few days ago I saw this headline: “Why don’t we just ask the NSA where the plane is?”

I expected a piece of pointed commentary or even that it came from The Onion. I assumed someone thought the international search for a missing plane should serve as a reminder that the NSA is not actually able to monitor everything happening on this planet.

It turned out, unfortunately, that the question came from a conspiracy theorist who was convinced that the only possible explanation for the NSA’s lack of helpfulness during the ongoing search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 was that the agency must be guarding some dirty secret.

For the rest of us — which is to say, people not inclined to believe that this plane was either shot down by the U.S. or that its passengers were abducted by aliens — the link to the NSA should provide a reality check.

However advanced the NSA’s capabilities are for globally tracking the movement of millions of microscopic electronic packets of information moving at close to the speed of light, it turns out that the movement of a great big hulk of metal carrying 239 people at less than 600MPH took place outside the NSA’s line of sight. (Neither is there any reason to assume that the US National Reconnaissance Office, through its satellite imagery, has secretly been the guardian of the truth about MH370.)

Those of us who spend too much time on the internet can easily succumb to a worldview within which the movement of information forms a global matrix to which seemingly everything is tied. We lose sight of the fact that what is known is dwarfed by an infinitely larger unknown.

We forget that most of what is forgotten is lost forever, and most of what is happening everywhere is never known.

I live in a region clad by vast tracts of forest where every day, trees fall unheard, unseen. Societies whose laws we may never learn govern the undergrowth. And beneath the forest, the skeletal remains of mountains whose height could never be measured have been ground into clay.

Earthquakes and volcanoes show the magnitude of events that can catch people by surprise, telling us that we don’t even know what is happening under our own feet. We don’t know what’s happening inside each cell in our body. We don’t know which neural networks are firing inside our brains right now or what these interior firework displays signify. We can’t remember everything we’ve ever said or heard. The events that form the fabric of our lives, turn out to be like glistening dew drops on a spider’s web. They disappear under the glare of a rising sun, never to be seen again.

* * *

The NSA and Google are co-conspirators, not in a formal sense, but in as much as they are jointly invested in the prevailing delusion of this age: that it is possible to know everything.

For the NSA, this fantasy is a tool for manipulating Congress — it implies that the only real obstacle to perfect security is adequate funding.

For Google, its mission to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful” implies we live in a world governed by information (and Google’s beneficent hand) and that this information truly encompasses the world — and that its uncharted territories will soon be mapped.

This worldview not only fails to recognize the incomprehensible vastness of the unknown, but it also reinforces a view of human agency that makes us imagine we have the power to control all things.

Instead of seeing an issue like climate change as a consequence of our reckless behavior, which is to say, seeing it as an industrially triggered planetary convulsion, we risk seeing it as a technical problem which sooner or later is bound to yield to a technical solution.

But to see the true relationship between the known and the unknown is not only a vital form of realism; it’s also the only way of holding human grandiosity in check.

We do not live in a world that calls to be mastered; it demands to be met with humility. The Earth can survive without us, but we can’t survive without this planet. Only by recognizing that we are not on the brink of becoming all-seeing gods can we see our real place in the scheme of things.


How long before Palestinian nationalism gives way to the pursuit of equal rights inside a single state?

A Palestinian nationalist movement that has endured decades of failure is probably not about to expire. Indeed, the one thing that can be reliably inferred about the lesson of continuing failure is that failure, far from necessitating change, seems to inspire persistence.

If we have failed for this long, that’s no reason to give up now, since last year, the year before that, and the year before that, and on and on, dedication to this heroic fight has meant the willingness to enjoy no rewards.

Some might call that resistance; others might see it as an exercise in futility.

It’s perhaps worth remembering Thomas Kuhn’s succinct analysis (reiterating Max Planck) of the most common cause of a paradigm shift: the proponents of the old paradigm drop dead.

[A] new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.

The New York Times reports: When President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority visited the White House this week, he again heard dire warnings that the current moment could be the last chance for a two-state solution through negotiations with Israel.

Back home in Ramallah, Mr. Abbas’s own son has been telling him that last chance is already long gone, the negotiations futile. The son, Tareq Abbas, a businessman who has long shied away from politics and spotlights, is part of a swelling cadre of prominent Palestinians advocating instead the creation of a single state stretching from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea in which Jews and Arabs would all be citizens with equal rights.

“If you don’t want to give me independence, at least give me civil rights,” Mr. Abbas, 48, said in a rare interview at his well-appointed apartment here as his father headed to Washington. “That’s an easier way, peaceful way. I don’t want to throw anything, I don’t want to hate anybody, I don’t want to shoot anybody. I want to be under the law.”

President Abbas, in a separate interview last month, said Israel’s continued construction in West Bank settlements made it impossible to convince Tareq that the two-state solution was still viable.

“I said, ‘Look, my son, we are looking for two-state solution and this is the only one.’ He said, ‘Oh, my father, where is your state? I wander everywhere and I see blocks everywhere, I see houses everywhere,’ ” the elder Mr. Abbas, 78, recalled. “I say, ‘Please, my son, this is our position, we will not go for one state.’ He says, ‘This is your right to say this, and this is my right to say that.’ Because he is desperate. He doesn’t find any sign for the future that we will get a two-state solution, because on the ground he doesn’t see any different.”

Such intergenerational arguments have become commonplace in the salons of Palestinian civil society and at kitchen tables across the West Bank as the children and grandchildren of the founders of the Palestinian national movement increasingly question its goals and tactics. [Continue reading...]


Russia’s apocalyptic nuclear Perimeter (aka ‘Dead Hand’)

“Russia is the only country in the world realistically capable of turning the United States into radioactive ash,” TV anchor Dmitry Kiselyov said on his weekly news show on state-controlled Rossiya 1 television on Sunday evening.

Kiselyov isn’t a household name in the U.S. but to describe him as Russia’s Glenn Beck would be a major understatement. Having been appointed by President Putin as head of the official Russian government-owned international news agency Rossiya Segodnya (Russia Today) which has 2,300 employees, Kiselyov is now one of the most prominent figures in Russian state media.

Kiselyov said that the creation of the new media entity was necessary to redress what he called an unfair international perception of Russia.

“The creation of a fair attitude toward Russia as an important country with good intentions – this is the mission of the new structure that I will be heading up,” he said in December.

The Associated Press reported in December:

When Ukrainians flooded the streets last week to protest their president’s shelving of a treaty with the European Union, Kiselyov lambasted Sweden and Poland, accusing them of encouraging massive protests in Kiev to take revenge for military defeats by czarist Russia centuries ago.

Kiselyov, who earned his degree in Scandinavian literature, rolled a clip of a Swedish children’s program called “Poop and Pee,” designed to teach children about their bodily functions. After the clip finished rolling, Kiselyov turned to the camera to suggest that this was the kind of European decadence awaiting Ukraine, if it signed a deal with the EU.

In Sweden there is “the radical growth of child abortions, early sex — the norm is nine years old, and at age 12 there is already child impotency,” he said after the clip rolled.

That reportage gained him few friends in Ukraine, where one man bounded over to hand “an Oscar for the nonsense and lies” of Dmitry Kiselyov to the state television correspondent standing on Kiev’s main square. He was brusquely pushed out of the shot before finishing his speech.

Kiselyov has also proven an avid attack dog on the issue of homosexuality, as international criticism over a Russian law banning gay “propaganda” reached a fever pitch this summer. The TV anchor said that homosexuals’ hearts should be buried or burned, and that gays should be banned from donating blood or organs, which were “unsuitable for the prolongation of anyone’s life.”

In Kiselyov’s comments last night, he highlighted the existence of the Soviet-built system of nuclear retaliation known as Perimeter which still exists and if ever activated would launch a devastating nuclear attack on the United States through commands controlled by artificial intelligence.

(Before anyone here starts writing some inane comment about why Russia has a right to destroy the U.S. if it has already been destroyed by the U.S., pause for second and think about what it means to have computer-controlled nuclear weapons. That opens up whole new nightmarish vistas in the domains of cyberwarfare, faulty algorithms, and the inadequate maintenance of aging systems. Personally, I have little confidence in human-controlled nuclear arsenals and even less in those that can be unleashed automatically.)

The system was reported on by Nicholas Thompson in 2009:

Valery Yarynich glances nervously over his shoulder. Clad in a brown leather jacket, the 72-year-old former Soviet colonel is hunkered in the back of the dimly lit Iron Gate restaurant in Washington, DC. It’s March 2009 — the Berlin Wall came down two decades ago — but the lean and fit Yarynich is as jumpy as an informant dodging the KGB. He begins to whisper, quietly but firmly.

“The Perimeter system is very, very nice,” he says. “We remove unique responsibility from high politicians and the military.” He looks around again.

Yarynich is talking about Russia’s doomsday machine. That’s right, an actual doomsday device — a real, functioning version of the ultimate weapon, always presumed to exist only as a fantasy of apocalypse-obsessed science fiction writers and paranoid über-hawks. The thing that historian Lewis Mumford called “the central symbol of this scientifically organized nightmare of mass extermination.” Turns out Yarynich, a 30-year veteran of the Soviet Strategic Rocket Forces and Soviet General Staff, helped build one.

The point of the system, he explains, was to guarantee an automatic Soviet response to an American nuclear strike. Even if the US crippled the USSR with a surprise attack, the Soviets could still hit back. It wouldn’t matter if the US blew up the Kremlin, took out the defense ministry, severed the communications network, and killed everyone with stars on their shoulders. Ground-based sensors would detect that a devastating blow had been struck and a counterattack would be launched.

The technical name was Perimeter, but some called it Mertvaya Ruka, or Dead Hand. It was built 25 years ago and remained a closely guarded secret. With the demise of the USSR, word of the system did leak out, but few people seemed to notice. In fact, though Yarynich and a former Minuteman launch officer named Bruce Blair have been writing about Perimeter since 1993 in numerous books and newspaper articles, its existence has not penetrated the public mind or the corridors of power. The Russians still won’t discuss it, and Americans at the highest levels — including former top officials at the State Department and White House — say they’ve never heard of it. When I recently told former CIA director James Woolsey that the USSR had built a doomsday device, his eyes grew cold. “I hope to God the Soviets were more sensible than that.” They weren’t.

The system remains so shrouded that Yarynich worries his continued openness puts him in danger. He might have a point: One Soviet official who spoke with Americans about the system died in a mysterious fall down a staircase. But Yarynich takes the risk. He believes the world needs to know about Dead Hand. Because, after all, it is still in place. [Continue reading...]


Which march would you join?

A reader here just left a comment complaining about my “frothing support for the heathens who took Kiev by force,” and said, “I wish the people of Crimea the best and hope the vote tomorrow goes for separation from the u.s. / e.u.”

I can only imagine what kind of Manichean worldview lurks behind the reference to “heathens,” but the general sentiment here seems to one that is not uncommon among stalwart critics of American power. It seems to work like this:

If a prominent political leader antagonizes the U.S. and its European allies (I refer of course to the well-known demons de jour: Fidel Castro, Slobodan Milošević, Hugo Chávez, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Muammar Gaddafi, Bashar al-Assad, Vladimir Putin) and that individual is then vilified in the media, the mere fact that this person is being targeted in this way is taken as a sign that he must be doing something right. He symbolizes the rejection of Western hegemony and is conferred honorary membership to a select group of über-rebels who have the courage take a dramatic stand defying Western imperialism.

I am not immune to experiencing this sentiment, since power needs to be poked in the eye occasionally, yet that doesn’t mean that we should ignore the failings of those who are doing the poking.

But that’s what all too often happens when criticism of the US/the West becomes an obsession: it makes authoritarian rule become excusable.

To anyone who thinks that tomorrow the people of Crimea are about to release themselves from the stifling grip of European influence in exchange for a warm embrace from Russia, I simply ask: who do you imagine you would have felt more comfortable marching alongside in Moscow today?

The disciplined young men in the “Brotherhood and Civil Resistance March,” or with activists like Ilya Yashin who have the guts to say: “We are patriots and Putin is Russia’s enemy”?


Reuters: “The pro-Russian patriotic procession was held to express support to Russian speakers living in Crimea and Ukraine and protest against the policies conducted by new Ukrainian authorities, according to organisers.”


Should Ukraine have given up its nuclear arsenal?

e13-iconThe Guardian reports: Ukraine’s prime minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk has accused Russia of demonstrating unacceptable “military aggression” which has “no reason and no grounds”.

Moscow has deployed 10,000 troops along its border with Ukraine, deepening the crisis in Crimea ahead of a last desperate effort by the US secretary of state, John Kerry, to broker a deal with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, in London on Friday.

Yatsenyuk told the UN security council on Thursday he is convinced Russians do not want war. He urged Russia’s leaders to heed the people’s wishes and return to dialogue with Ukraine. “If we start real talks with Russia, I believe we can be real partners,” Yatsenyuk said.

He said Ukraine gave up the world’s third-largest nuclear arsenal in 1994 in exchange for guarantees of its independence and territorial integrity. After Russia’s recent actions, Yatsenyuk said, “it would be difficult to convince anyone on the globe not to have nuclear weapons”. [Continue reading...]

In an op-ed for the New York Times yesterday, John Mearsheimer wrote: The West has few options for inflicting pain on Russia, while Moscow has many cards to play against Ukraine and the West. It could invade eastern Ukraine or annex Crimea, because Ukraine regrettably relinquished the nuclear arsenal it inherited when the Soviet Union broke up and thus has no counter to Russia’s conventional superiority.

No doubt, if Israel’s leaders are ever pushed into a position where they need to defend retaining their own nuclear arsenal, they will surely be tempted to cite Professor Mearsheimer’s position — that giving up such weapons can turn out to be regrettable.

Let’s suppose, however, that Ukraine was still bristling with nuclear weapons — at its peak its arsenal was larger than those of Britain, France, and China combined — are we to imagine that its interim government would now be making veiled threats to incinerate Moscow? Are we to suppose that Russian forces would have stayed out of Crimea? After all, how many wars have Israel’s nuclear weapons prevented?

It seems just as likely that in the current situation, Putin would be arguing that Russia had no choice but take over the whole of Ukraine — not under the pretext of protecting ethnic Russians but in the name of defending global security, his argument being that in an unstable Ukraine, “loose nukes” pose a threat to everyone.

What seems regrettable is not that Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons but that the security guarantees it was given for doing so appear to have been worthless.


Yarmouk and a contagion of doubt

U.N. Denies That Syria Image Was Faked” and “U.N. Denies Altering Image of Palestinian Refugees in Damascus” — both headlines appeared in the New York Times on Tuesday and referred to doubts that have been expressed about the authenticity of what has become an iconic representation of suffering in Syria.


As the following screenshot taken from a video that the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) posted on YouTube and filmed at the same time as the photo above makes clear, the photograph’s authenticity is beyond doubt.


Paradoxically, the fact that UN officials were put in a position where they needed to refute accusations that the photograph had been faked, and the New York Times’ own headlines, will quite likely have had the opposite of the intended effect. Where doubts may have previously been few, they are now just as likely to continue growing.

We live in an age of doubt and the internet is its engine — the very notion that something can be “beyond doubt” has itself become an object of doubt.

As someone who from a very early age was taught to question — I was lucky enough to have parents and teachers who recognized that questioning is a vital instrument of intelligence — the proliferation of doubt might to my eye look like a positive development. It might seem like a sign that people are less susceptible to manipulation by the political and corporate forces which shape popular thought. But I see little evidence that this is indeed the case.

On the contrary, the doubt that spreads so easily has less to do with critical intelligence and much more to do with suspicion and fear. The “fake” meme is much more contagious than any sober analysis.

Doubt and cynicism are held onto because they offer psychic armor for shielding ourselves from the dark forces controlling the world. The price, however, for those who employ this form of protection, is that it tends to render them immobile.

Yet clearly, the image of Yarmouk’s starving residents that got retweeted more than eight million times was not being passed around primarily by those who had doubts about what the photograph depicted.

As Chris Gunness, the spokesman for UNRWA said: “I saw that image and said, ‘This has the wow factor.’”

It is an image that resonates and does so for multiple reasons. Strange as it may sound, this is not only a news image but also a work of art.

In accordance with the principle of the “golden ratio” (or divine proportion), it is a perfectly balanced composition. It is a photograph that could just as easily be a painting.

More than simply capturing a moment of one day for one particular group of people, it seems to represent something timeless about the vulnerability of all people throughout history in times of war.

Within the skeletal remains of a city shattered by human brutality, we see that reinforced concrete is easier to destroy than the will to live.

Hope and desperation come together.


Blackwater in Ukraine? No, it was Alpha

Yesterday I laid out a timeline suggesting how the Blackwater-in-Ukraine story may have evolved. I did not, however, attempt to identify the armed men in the video that has kept this rumor alive in social media.

Thanks to a reader who said that the Ukrainian press identified the armed men as “Спецназ (Alpha) СБУ,” I have been able to piece together the story.

The elite Alpha special operations unit is attached to the Security Service of Ukraine.

The reason for their appearance outside the regional administrative building in Donetsk was given in the following local press report, Преступности.Нет (English version):

In Donetsk day 3 March during the seizure of the regional state administration of protesters attacked the ex-Governor of area Andrey shishatskiy.

It is reported by channel «Donbass» on his Youtube page.

So, the footage shows a group of people, among them people with the Russian flag in his hands, and beat former Governor of Donetsk region Shishatskiy.

According to the TV company, beat it from the attackers, interferes with the police and the special forces of the security service of Ukraine covers of his departure.

As is known, today the building of the Donetsk regional Council were captured by a group of Pro-Russian activists, who declared about the illegitimacy of Kyiv and declared himself the new authorities in Donetsk region.

This is the video showing former Governor Shishatskiy being attacked. Although the Alpha unit is not shown, they can be seen in another news report on the same incident.


Before any of the dozens of copies of the video labelled “USA military mercenary BlackWater in Ukraine (Donetsk)” appeared on YouTube, the same video had been posted with this title: “Alpha” – Donetsk. 03/03/2014. The video’s description says: “After the Russian provocations, Special Forces of Alpha security appeared in Donetsk.”

No mention of Blackwater.