Ukraine intelligence chief says 100 Russian officers are leading eastern Ukraine’s uprisings

Atlantic Council: As many as one hundred Russian military intelligence officers and special forces troops are leading the seizures of towns and local governments in Ukraine’s Donetsk province, the Ukrainian intelligence chief said today in his first public account of the crisis.

Russia’s military intelligence agency, the GRU, has spent years building covert networks that its officers now are using to help seize cities such as Slaviansk and Kramatorsk in the north of Donetsk, said Valentyn Nalyvaichenko, the head of Ukraine’s State Security Service (the Sluzhba Bezpeky Ukrainy, or SBU). Nalyvaichenko, a career diplomat and security official, gave one of the broadest descriptions of the conflict by a Ukrainian official during an online discussion hosted by the Atlantic Council. [Continue reading...]

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American journalist, Simon Ostrovsky, taken hostage in eastern Ukraine

The Guardian reports: Pro-Russian gunmen in Ukraine confirmed on Wednesday that they had taken hostage an American journalist, whom they were holding according to “war rules”, they said, in the town of Slavyansk.

Simon Ostrovsky, a correspondent for Vice News, had not been seen since early Tuesday. He had been covering the crisis in Ukraine for several weeks, first in Crimea and then in the east of the country. He had been following the activities of masked gunmen as they seized government buildings.

Ostrovsky had visited Slavyansk several times. The town has been under the control of a heavily armed pro-Russian militia since 6 April.

The rebels have seized the nearby police and security station, as well as the city hall, turning it into a sandbagged garrison, complete with sniper positions. Men suspected to be Russian soldiers have also been spotted in Slavyansk, together with irregular “Cossacks” from southern Russia.

Stella Khorosheva, a spokeswoman for the pro-Russian insurgents, said on Wednesday that Ostrovsky was being held at the local branch of the rebel-occupied Ukrainian security service. Separatists have blockaded access to the building with a large wall of tyres and debris. Outsiders are not admitted.

“He’s with us. He’s fine,” Khorosheva told the Associated Press on Wednesday. Asked why Ostrovsky was being held hostage, she said he was “suspected of bad activities”. She did not elaborate but said the insurgents were now conducting their own investigation.

Khorosheva later told journalists that Ostrovsky was suspected of spying for Right Sector, a far-right Ukrainian nationalist party, or other possible “enemy groups”.

Since an apparent shoot-out at a Slavyansk checkpoint on Sunday left three dead, the separatists have become increasingly aggressive. They have harassed western journalists turning up at checkpoints into the city. [Continue reading...]

This is the most recent report Ostrovsky filed for Vice News:

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‘Russian Facebook’ is now effectively under state control

Moscow Times reports: Pavel Durov, the founder of Russia’s largest social networking website, fled the country on Tuesday, a day after he said he was forced out as the company’s CEO for refusing to share users’ personal data with Russian law enforcement agencies.

Durov, who created Vkontakte seven years ago, first announced his intention to leave the company on April 1 but withdrew his resignation letter two days later. On Monday, he announced that he had been fired and that the social network would now fall under “full control” of Kremlin-linked Rosneft CEO Igor Sechin and Vkontakte billionaire shareholder Alisher Usmanov.

The move to oust Durov is widely seen as part of a wider campaign by the Kremlin to tighten its grip on the Internet, and observers said the authorities aimed to “cleanse” the management of Russian Internet companies in the hopes of gaining control of their content.

Last week, Durov said in an interview with the New Times that the Federal Security Service had turned up the pressure on Vkontakte employees dramatically in recent months, demanding that Durov release personal information about Euromaidan activists. He said the Prosecutor General’s Office ordered him to shut down a group on the website dedicated to anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny, though he refused to do so.

“I am out of Russia and have no plans to go back,” Durov said Tuesday in an interview with Techcrunch, a news website focused on technology. He said he intended to launch a mobile social network outside Russia. [Continue reading...]

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U.S. won’t give Egypt its blessings but will deliver Apache helicopters

The Guardian reports: The US has given the go-ahead for the delivery of 10 Apache helicopters to Egypt that the Obama administration had withheld since the military-led overthrow of Mohamed Morsi last year.

A spokesman for the US defence department said the helicopters would be sent to help Egypt quell a wave of militancy in the country’s northern Sinai desert, where Islamist extremists have been fighting a cat-and-mouse insurgency since Morsi’s overthrow last July, and have since made a series of bomb attacks on the Egyptian mainland.

Hundreds of police and soldiers have been killed in the attacks. In turn, Egypt’s security officials have been criticised for its scorched-earth counterinsurgency tactics that have seen innocent Sinai residents killed, and their homes destroyed.

The Apaches’ delivery will please Egyptian military officials who had previously claimed in private that the withholding of the helicopters was in effect siding with the government’s opponents. But it will further anger Morsi’s supporters, who feel the US has always given tacit approval to the ex-president’s overthrow.

Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said the delivery simply recognised Egypt’s commitment to its 1979 peace treaty with Israel, the terms of which dictate that the US supply Egypt with annual deliveries of military aid. But he cautioned that the move should not be seen as a blessing of Egypt’s political process. [Continue reading...]

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How American drone strikes are devastating Yemen

Whenever President Obama orders summary executions through drone strikes, the easiest way of knowing that the CIA doesn’t actually know who was killed is that the dead all carry the same name: militants.

In the latest wave of attacks, 55 “militants” are said to have been killed.

It would probably be much more accurate to report that approximately 55 people were killed, few if any of their names are known and they are suspected to have been members of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.

Rather than calling these targeted killings, they should probably be seen as speculative murders — the act of terminating someone’s life when the U.S. government has the suspicion that person might pose an unspecified threat in the future.

McClatchy reports: A series of U.S. government drone strikes in Yemen over recent days has brought into sharp relief divisions among the country’s rulers over how to rein in a program that they’ve long supported.

Only last week, a top Yemeni military official told McClatchy the government had placed the drone program “under review” in hopes of persuading the United States to limit strikes.

The most recent strikes — one Saturday morning in the central province of al Bayda that hit a vehicle carrying more than a dozen suspected militants from al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, another roughly 24 hours later in the reputed AQAP stronghold of al Mahfad in the southern province of Abyan and a third Monday that killed three in Shabwah province — show that such a review has yet to limit the attacks.

Yemen’s government has long assented to the strikes — privately, in the case of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, but openly under the country’s current leader, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who took power in February 2012.

But a rising number of civilian casualties, particularly the December bombing of a wedding party that left 15 dead, has unnerved some Yemeni officials.

“We’ve told the Americans that they’ve been going about things the wrong way,” the high-ranking Yemeni military official said last week, speaking only on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic. “When it comes to the current drone policy, there have been too many mistakes.” [Continue reading...]

Reuters reports: A U.S. national security source said on Monday that the U.S. government believed that AQAP is currently plotting attacks against American targets, including the U.S. embassy on Sanaa.

But analysts say drone strikes do only limited harm to AQAP.

They say the group will remain a serious menace unless the government can address challenges such as poverty and inadequate security forces, and curb the occasional civilian casualties inflicted by drone attacks that inflame anti-U.S. sentiment.

“The U.S. can’t simply kill its way out of the terrorism threat,” said Letta Tayler, Human Rights Watch’s senior researcher on terrorism and counter-terrorism.

“The U.S. and other concerned nations should address all the drivers of terrorism including poverty, illiteracy, political marginalisation and lack of opportunity for young people.”

Vivian Salama writes: The people of Yemen can hear destruction before it arrives. In cities, towns and villages across this country, which hangs off the southern end of the Arabian Peninsula, the air buzzes with the sound of American drones flying overhead. The sound is a constant and terrible reminder: a robot plane, acting on secret intelligence, may calculate that the man across from you at the coffee shop, or the acquaintance with whom you’ve shared a passing word on the street, is an Al Qaeda operative. This intelligence may be accurate or it may not, but it doesn’t matter. If you are in the wrong place at the wrong time, the chaotic buzzing above sharpens into the death-herald of an incoming missile.

Such quite literal existential uncertainty is coming at a deep psychological cost for the Yemeni people. For Americans, this military campaign is an abstraction. The drone strikes don’t require U.S. troops on the ground, and thus are easy to keep out of sight and out of mind. Over half of Yemen’s 24.8 million citizens – militants and civilians alike – are impacted every day. A war is happening, and one of the unforeseen casualties is the Yemeni mind.

Symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, trauma and anxiety are becoming rampant in the different corners of the country where drones are active. “Drones hover over an area for hours, sometimes days and weeks,” said Rooj Alwazir, a Yemeni-American anti-drone activist and cofounder of Support Yemen, a media collective raising awareness about issues afflicting the country. Yemenis widely describe suffering from constant sleeplessness, anxiety, short-tempers, an inability to concentrate and, unsurprisingly, paranoia.

Alwazir recalled a Yemeni villager telling her that the drones “are looking inside our homes and even at our women.’” She says that, “this feeling of infringement of privacy, combined with civilian casualties and constant fear and anxiety has a profound long time psychological effect on those living under drones.” [Continue reading...]

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Russia displays a new military prowess in Ukraine’s east

The New York Times reports: Secretary of State John Kerry has accused Russia of behaving in a “19th-century fashion” because of its annexation of Crimea.

But Western experts who have followed the success of Russian forces in carrying out President Vladimir V. Putin’s policy in Crimea and eastern Ukraine have come to a different conclusion about Russian military strategy. They see a military disparaged for its decline since the fall of the Soviet Union skillfully employing 21st-century tactics that combine cyberwarfare, an energetic information campaign and the use of highly trained special operation troops to seize the initiative from the West.

“It is a significant shift in how Russian ground forces approach a problem,” said James G. Stavridis, the retired admiral and former NATO commander. “They have played their hand of cards with finesse.”

The abilities the Russian military has displayed are not only important to the high-stakes drama in Ukraine, they also have implications for the security of Moldova, Georgia, Central Asian nations and even the Central Europe nations that are members of NATO.

The dexterity with which the Russians have operated in Ukraine is a far cry from the bludgeoning artillery, airstrikes and surface-to-surface missiles used to retake Grozny, the Chechen capital, from Chechen separatists in 2000. In that conflict, the notion of avoiding collateral damage to civilians and civilian infrastructure appeared to be alien.

Since then Russia has sought to develop more effective ways of projecting power in the “near abroad,” the non-Russian nations that emerged from the collapse of the Soviet Union. It has tried to upgrade its military, giving priority to its special forces, airborne and naval infantry — “rapid reaction” abilities that were “road tested” in Crimea, according to Roger McDermott, a senior fellow at the Jamestown Foundation.

The speedy success that Russia had in Crimea does not mean that the overall quality of the Russian Army, made up mainly of conscripts and no match for the high-tech American military, has been transformed.

“The operation reveals very little about the current condition of the Russian armed forces,” said Mr. McDermott. “Its real strength lay in covert action combined with sound intelligence concerning the weakness of the Kiev government and their will to respond militarily.”

Still, Russia’s operations in Ukraine have been a swift meshing of hard and soft power. The Obama administration, which once held out hope that Mr. Putin would seek an “off ramp” from the pursuit of Crimea, has repeatedly been forced to play catch-up after the Kremlin changed what was happening on the ground. [Continue reading...]

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It’s clear that Turkey was not involved in the chemical attack on Syria

Eliot Higgins and Dan Kaszeta write: Last week the London Review of Books published an article by the respected Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Seymour Hersh, The Red Line and the Rat Line, in which he details the alleged involvement of the Turkish government with the Syrian opposition group Jabhat al-Nusra in last August’s sarin attack in Damascus. Between 1,000 and 1,400 people are estimated to have died.

The US, Britain and other western governments have pinned the blame on the Syrian government; Russia has accused the rebels. Hersh describes this as part of a “false flag” operation designed to draw the US into a conflict with Syria.

In his 6,000-word article Hersh relies heavily on single, unnamed sources for each of his claims, and constructs a narrative in which the Turkish government was responsible for the largest chemical attack since the one carried out by Saddam Hussein on Halabja in 1988. But Hersh’s story is full of holes, and it brings the reliability of his sources and conclusions into question.

Hersh makes no mention of the munitions used on 21 August, something that is key to understanding the attacks. In an interview for Democracy Now! he states that the weapons were both homemade and not in Syria’s arsenal. Both these claims are wrong.

Two types of munitions were used on 21 August and are linked to the dispersal of sarin gas. Both were recorded in a report by the UN and the Organisation for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and tested positive for signs of sarin. One was a Soviet-era M14 140mm artillery rocket, certainly not a “homemade” munition, and the second was a munition that was widely unknown. [Continue reading...]

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Todd Miller: The creation of a border security state

Sometimes you really do need a map if you want to know where you are.  In 2008, the ACLU issued just such a map of this country and it’s like nothing ever seen before.  Titled “the Constitution-Free Zone of the United States,” it traces our country’s borders.  Maybe you’re already tuning out.  After all, you probably don’t think you live on or near such a border.  Well, think again.  As it happens, in our brave, new, post-9/11 world, as long as we’re talking “homeland security” or “war on terror,” anything can be redefined.  So why not a border?

Our borders have, conveniently enough, long been Constitution-free zones where more or less anything goes, including warrantless searches of various sorts.  In the twenty-first century, however, the border itself, north as well as south, has not only been increasingly up-armored, but redefined as a 100-mile-wide strip around the United States (and Alaska).  In other words — check that map again — our “borders” now cover an expanse in which nearly 200 million Americans, or two-thirds of the U.S. population, live.  Included are nine of the 10 largest metropolitan areas.  If you live in Florida, Maine, or Michigan, for example, no matter how far inland you may be, you are “on the border.”

Imagine that.  And then imagine what it means.  U.S. Customs and Border Protection, as Todd Miller points out today, is not only the largest law enforcement agency in the country you know next to nothing about, but the largest, flat and simple.  Now, its agents can act as if the Constitution has been put to bed up to 100 miles inland anywhere.  This, in turn, means — as the ACLU has written — that at new checkpoints and elsewhere in areas no American would once have considered borderlands, you can be stopped, interrogated, and searched “on an everyday basis with absolutely no suspicion of wrongdoing.”

Under the circumstances, it’s startling that, since the ACLU made its case back in 2008, this new American reality has gotten remarkably little attention.  So it’s lucky that TomDispatch regular Miller’s invaluable and gripping book, Border Patrol Nation: Dispatches from the Front Lines of Homeland Security, has just been published.  It’s an eye opener, and it’s about time that “border” issues stopped being left to those on the old-fashioned version of the border and immigration mavens.  It’s a subject that, by definition, now concerns at least two-thirds of us in a big way. Tom Engelhardt

They are watching you
The national security state and the U.S.-Mexican border
By Todd Miller

With the agility of a seasoned Border Patrol veteran, the woman rushed after the students. She caught up with them just before they entered the exhibition hall of the eighth annual Border Security Expo, reaching out and grabbing the nearest of them by the shoulder. Slightly out of breath, she said, “You can’t go in there, give me back your badges.”

The astonished students had barely caught a glimpse of the dazzling pavilion of science-fiction-style products in that exhibition hall at the Phoenix Convention Center. There, just beyond their view, more than 100 companies, including Raytheon, General Dynamics, and Verizon, were trying to sell the latest in futuristic border policing technology to anyone with the money to buy it.

The students from Northeastern Illinois University didn’t happen to fall into that category. An earnest manager at a nearby registration table insisted that, as they were not studying “border security,” they weren’t to be admitted.  I asked him how he knew just what they were studying.  His only answer was to assure me that next year no students would be allowed in at all.

Among the wonders those students would miss was a fake barrel cactus with a hollow interior (for the southern border) and similarly hollow tree stumps (for the northern border), all capable of being outfitted with surveillance cameras. “Anything that grows or exists in nature,” Kurt Lugwisen of TimberSpy told a local Phoenix television station, “we build it.”

[Read more...]

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Taking sides in Ukraine

By Charles Turner, Open Democracy, April 21, 2014

Shortly before her death, Susan Sontag published an essay on that indispensable chronicler of Stalin’s rule, Victor Serge (1890-1947). Reflecting on the fact that works like Serge’s The Case of Comrade Tulayev (1949) were for some time regarded with hostility on the American left, she writes:

‘The decades of turning a blind eye to what went on in communist regimes, specifically the conviction that to criticise the Soviet Union was to give aid and comfort to fascists and warmongers, seem almost incomprehensible now. In the early 21st century, we have moved on to other illusions – other lies that intelligent people with good intentions and humane politics tell themselves and their supporters in order not to give aid and comfort to their enemies.’

It’s a typical late Sontag passage, challenging and measured. Yet it doesn’t quite hang together. Indeed, the second sentence gives the lie to the first: she says that turning a blind eye persists, albeit now directed at – or away from – new targets (she was probably thinking of militant Islam), but if that is true then what happened before may be all-too-comprehensible, the continuity of practice suggesting that turning a blind eye may be a standard feature of a certain type of political commitment. After all, the first version of it that seemed incomprehensible in 2004 had persisted into the 1970s, decades after people had felt the need to choose communism as the lesser of two evils; though the two most notorious right-wing regimes of the 1930s and 1940s had gone, there were still other examples aplenty of ‘fascist’ regimes. So Trotskyists, for instance, uneasy heirs of Victor Serge, didn’t so much turn a blind eye to what went on in communist regimes as squint at it through a lens that allowed them to call it ‘state capitalism’, thereby making themselves critics of Moscow without aligning themselves with cold war hawks and their dictator friends.

The current Ukrainian crisis has seen blind eye turning on all sides. Much of it has been directed by left liberals at or away from Russian foreign policy, on the basis that open criticism of Russia might make one a bedfellow of those hypocrites in the White House. Hence Russia’s armed seizure of Crimea and organisation of a farcical referendum is regarded as troubling, but not something we need to shout too loud about because Crimea is really Russian anyway (or at least has been since 1783); hence Putin’s support for the despotic regime of Bashar-al-Assad is passed over in silence for fear that criticism of it will make one a supporter of the Syrian opposition, and hence the United States that is arming it; and when Putin calls the extremists in Kyiv who ousted President Yanukovych ‘fascists’, it rings alarm bells loud enough to cancel out the sound of those that Putin himself triggers.

From the other side there is not so much blind eye turning as dewy-eyed romanticism, led by the Yale historian Tim Snyder: where Putin saw only extremists in Maidan square, Snyder implies that Ukraine is already ready to join the EU because the leader of a group of frightening looking men in combat fatigues is really a gay hairdresser from the Donbas, while the new deputy minister for whatever is a Jewish transvestite whose mother was a disabled German preacher. I was never much impressed by this sort of argument: in 2000 a Polish friend tried to impress me with the fact that in that Catholic country the president was a former communist (Aleksander Kwaśniewski), the prime minister a Protestant (Jerzy Buzek) and the foreign minister a Jew (Bronisław Geremek). Five years later it was being ruled by a coalition of the surreal Kaczyński twins, Andrzej Lepper’s thuggish Self-Defence party and the far-right League of Polish Families.

I have also seen articles that begin with questions like ‘how should people on the left respond to events in Ukraine?’, but these are worse than useless: the real task is, with old Kant, to think for oneself. In the current crisis I think that that entails more than seeing faults on all sides, easy though that is. The charge of ‘hypocrisy,’ for instance, can be directed everywhere: John Kerry invokes the sanctity of territorial boundaries while approving drone attacks in Pakistan, Vladmir Putin warns that the (temporary) Ukrainian government might wage war on its own people while he himself supports Assad in Syria, and the new EU-friendly Ukrainian prime minister was on television a few years ago advocating a blanket ban on the use of the Russian language.

So here, for what it’s worth, is what I think. Firstly, the absurd spectacle of John McCain and some naïve Euro MPs in Maidan Square notwithstanding, and while there may be many Russian speakers in Eastern Ukraine who do wish to be citizens of the Russian Federation, the use of military force – and that is what the seizure of government buildings in Eastern Ukraine is – to make the latter point is no more justified than would be Hungary’s occupation of southern Slovakia to protect the rights of the Hungarian minority, and is no more right than was the use of military force in Iraq. Anyone who marched in London against that, on principle should march against this. Secondly, Putin’s Eurasian Union project, devised by an admirer of Carl Schmitt, can only work – and here Snyder is right – if it consists of a series of autocracies: what he fears above all is not fascism in Ukraine or the spread of NATO; he has had that on his doorstep since 1999 when the accession of Poland took it up to the border of Russia’s Baltic Sea enclave of Kaliningrad, formerly Prussia’s second city Königsberg, and the home of old Kant; and his late lamented Soviet Union had NATO on its doorstep for thirty years with Turkey’s membership. No, what Putin fears more than anything is even more of his doorstep being occupied by democracy, the rule of law, freedom of speech and a respect for human rights. Were Ukraine to enter the EU, or even prepare to do so, its people might at least have a hope of aspiring to these. As part of the Eurasian Union – or as is possible if Russia invades, part of the Russian Federation – that hope would vanish. The third alternative, being put about by people in the West who enjoy these benefits already, namely that Ukraine might act as a buffer state between the EU and NATO and the Russian Federation, is grotesque. The interwar period alone shows that the history of weak European states going it alone without being part of a larger economic and security structure is dismal: this is why when they were invited to join the EU and NATO in the 1990s the governments of Eastern Europe of all stripes were not the victims of soft power but rather accepted with alacrity. Ukraine, the Ukrainian people, should be given the chance to choose which way it wants to turn. It can be given that chance, and that might include either the federalization of the country, or the option to split in two, with Russian speaking Eastern Ukrainians not free but secure under Putin’s gathering wing, and a rump Western Ukraine a full member of the EU and NATO with all the risks – and possibilities – that that entails. But it cannot do this with a gun pointing at its head. On this occasion the one pointing the gun is in Moscow, not in Washington.

Charles Turner is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Warwick. This article was originally published in the independent online magazine www.opendemocracy.net

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The living death of solitary confinement

Lisa Guenther writes: I first met Five Omar Mualimm-ak at a forum on solitary confinement in New York City. He wore track shoes with his tailored suit. ‘As long as the Prison Industrial Complex keeps running, so will I,’ he explained. After hearing him speak about the connections between racism, poverty, mass incarceration and police violence, I invited Five to speak at a conference I was organising in Nashville, Tennessee. He arrived, as always, in a suit and track shoes. As we walked across campus to a conference reception, I worked up the courage to ask him how he got his name. He told me: ‘I spent five years in solitary confinement, and when I came out I was a different person.’

In an article for The Guardian last October, Five described his isolation as a process of sensory and existential annihilation:

After only a short time in solitary, I felt all of my senses begin to diminish. There was nothing to see but grey walls. In New York’s so-called special housing units, or SHUs, most cells have solid steel doors, and many do not have windows. You cannot even tape up pictures or photographs; they must be kept in an envelope. To fight the blankness, I counted bricks and measured the walls. I stared obsessively at the bolts on the door to my cell.

There was nothing to hear except empty, echoing voices from other parts of the prison. I was so lonely that I hallucinated words coming out of the wind. They sounded like whispers. Sometimes, I smelled the paint on the wall, but more often, I just smelled myself, revolted by my own scent.

There was no touch. My food was pushed through a slot. Doors were activated by buzzers, even the one that led to a literal cage directly outside of my cell for one hour per day of ‘recreation’.

Even time had no meaning in the SHU. The lights were kept on for 24 hours. I often found myself wondering if an event I was recollecting had happened that morning or days before. I talked to myself. I began to get scared that the guards would come in and kill me and leave me hanging in the cell. Who would know if something happened to me? Just as I was invisible, so was the space I inhabited.

The very essence of life, I came to learn during those seemingly endless days, is human contact, and the affirmation of existence that comes with it. Losing that contact, you lose your sense of identity. You become nothing.

Five’s experience of solitary confinement is extreme, but it’s not atypical. His feeling of disconnection from the world, to the point of losing his capacity to make sense of his own identity and existence, raises philosophical questions about the relation between sense perception, sociality, and a meaningful life. Why does prolonged isolation typically corrode a prisoner’s ability to perceive the world and to sustain a meaningful connection with his own existence? The short answer to this question is that we are social beings who rely on our interactions with other people to make sense of things. But what does it mean to exist socially, and what is the precise connection between our relations with others, our perception of the world, and the affirmation of our own existence?

My response to this question is shaped by the philosophical practice of phenomenology. Phenomenology begins with a description of lived experience and reflects on the structures that make this experience possible and meaningful. The main insight of phenomenology is that consciousness is relational. [Continue reading...]

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Israel’s Mordechai Vanunu is as much a hero as Edward Snowden

Duncan Campbell writes: Ten years ago today, a man emerged from prison to be greeted by a crowd of his supporters embracing him with carnations and a crowd of his enemies drawing their fingers across their throats. He had served 18 years in prison, 11 of them in solitary confinement.

The man was Mordechai Vanunu, the whistleblower who, in 1986, came to Britain to tell the Sunday Times the story of the then secret nuclear weapons facility at Dimona in Israel. Out alone in London and disillusioned with the length of time the story seemed to be taking to reach publication, he was lured by a woman from Mossad to Italy. There, he was kidnapped, drugged and smuggled out of the country to Israel, where he was convicted of espionage.

On his release from prison, he was led to believe that he would soon be free to leave the country where he is vilified and regarded as a traitor. When I interviewed him in Jerusalem six months later, back in 2004, he was still hopeful that, having served his time, he would be able to start a new life abroad. It has turned out to be an empty hope. Last December, he failed in the high court of justice in his latest bid to be allowed to leave. Does Edward Snowden, as he adjusts to life in Moscow, wonder whether he will still be haunted and hunted by the US government for decades to come?

No one seriously claims that the man who was exhaustively debriefed by the Sunday Times nearly 30 years ago has any secrets up his sleeve. The decision to restrict his movements seems to be based more on a desire to inflict punishment on an unrepentant man than for security concerns. A pacifist who has urged the Palestinians to pursue their aims by non-violent means, he was not a spy but was driven to his actions by a horror of Hiroshima and the possibility of a nuclear war in the Middle East. [Continue reading...]

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Fear in America

A pencil is a sharp instrument. It could be used in a threatening way. Someone could be stabbed with a pencil. But no one’s ever been shot by a pencil.

Instead of sending off Ethan Chaplin for psychiatric evaluation after he “twirled a pencil like a gun,” it sounds like it’s his teachers and the school authorities who need their heads examining.

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The silent ‘little green men’ stalking eastern Ukraine

AFP reports: The expertly armed, masked men in matching camouflage stripped of all insignia are tough, taciturn and tactically devastating.

And according to President Vladimir Putin, they are not — absolutely, categorically not — elite Russian special forces.

So who are the members of this mysterious military or paramilitary force operating in eastern Ukraine, nicknamed “little green men” by many here?

For Kiev and its Western backers, the units, observed moving in lightning-fast and cohesive team formation, are indisputably Russian commandos sent by Moscow to sow trouble, no matter what Putin says. They also appear to be almost identical to those who operated in Crimea before the peninsula’s annexation by Russia last month.

For separatist insurgents whose fealty lies with the Kremlin, they are simply preternaturally good examples of their rag-tag, homegrown “self-defence volunteer brigades”.

In many of the 10 towns in the east controlled by the rebels, the fearsome fighters guard seized public buildings and offer few, if any, words to the curious.

They do, however, easily stand out from their less disciplined brothers in arms.

They wear camouflage uniforms, black ski masks, sports shoes and bullet-proof vests. That is a far cry from the hodge-podge of military surplus and camping attire thrown on by the ordinary separatists — who are also more likely to chat proudly.

On Wednesday, when the Ukrainian military sent an armoured column to confront the rebels, it was the (not so) “little green men” who sprang into action after the vehicles were stopped by angry locals.

The capable fighters quickly took control of six of the armoured personnel carriers and drove them into the centre of the town of Slavyansk — where one of them displayed his mastery of the tracked machine by sending it spinning in high-speed doughnuts. [Continue reading...]

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U.N. docs expose Assad’s starvation campaign in Syria

Foreign Policy reports: Internal United Nations documents show modest improvements in the delivery of desperately needed food inside rebel-controlled areas of Syria. But the documents also point to a mass exodus of Syrians into areas controlled by President Bashar al-Assad in part because the dictator is the only reliable source of life-sustaining food.

The documents obtained by Foreign Policy track the success of the U.N.’s World Food Program in the two months since the U.N. Security Council passed a resolution demanding that Assad provide immediate access for relief workers. The new data shows that the years-old U.N. effort has made some recent progress, with food supplies reaching a total of almost 415,000 people in hard-to-reach areas since the resolution was approved in February. In the country as a whole, WFP was able to reach 4.1 million persons in need in March, up from 3.7 million in February. However, in a country where 9.3 million people are in need of steady humanitarian assistance, that means that many more remain outside the U.N.’s reach.

More distressingly, the documents show that Assad’s campaign to bring rebels to heel by cutting off food supplies in opposition-controlled areas is succeeding. [Continue reading...]

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The statues of Lenin and Stalin still stand, not only on Russia’s squares and plazas, but in the minds of its citizens

Vladimir Sorokin writes: In the course of three days in August 1991, during the failed putsch against Gorbachev, the decaying Soviet empire tottered and began to collapse. Some friends and I found ourselves on Lubianskaya Square, across from the headquarters of the fearsome, mighty KGB. A huge crowd was preparing to topple the symbol of that sinister institution — the statue of its founder, Dzerzhinsky, “Iron Felix” as his Bolshevik comrades-in-arms called him. A few daredevils had scaled the monument and wrapped cables around its neck, and a group was pulling on them to ever louder shouts and cries from the assembled throng.

Suddenly, a Yeltsin associate with a megaphone appeared out of the blue and directed everyone to hold off, because, he said, when the bronze statue fell, “its head might crash through the pavement and damage important underground communications.” The man said that a crane was already on its way to remove Dzerzhinsky from the pedestal without any damaging side effects. The revolutionary crowd waited for this crane a good two hours, keeping its spirits up with shouts of “Down with the KGB!”

Doubts about the success of the coming anti-Soviet revolution first stirred in me during those two hours. I tried to imagine the Parisian crowd, on May 16, 1871, waiting politely for an architect and workers to remove the Vendôme Column. And I laughed. The crane finally arrived; Dzerzhinsky was taken down, placed on a truck, and driven away. People ran alongside and spat on him. Since then he has been on view in the park of dismantled Soviet monuments next to the New Tretiakov Gallery. Not long ago, a member of the Duma presented a resolution to return the monument to its former location. Given events currently taking place in our country, it’s quite likely that this symbol of Bolshevik terror will return to Lubianskaya Square.

The swift dismantling of remaining Soviet monuments recently in Ukraine caused me to remember the Dzerzhinsky episode. Dozens of statues of Lenin fell in Ukrainian cities; no one in the opposition asked people to treat them “in a civilized manner,” because in this case a “polite” dismantling could mean only one thing — conserving a potent symbol of Soviet power. “Dzhugashvili [Stalin] is there, preserved in a jar,” as the poet Joseph Brodsky wrote in 1968. This jar is the people’s memory, its collective unconscious.

In 2014, Lenins were felled in Ukraine and were allowed to collapse. No one tried to preserve them. This “Leninfall” took place during the brutal confrontation on Kiev’s Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square), when Viktor Yanukovych’s power also collapsed, demonstrating that a genuine anti-Soviet revolution had finally occurred in Ukraine. No real revolution has happened in Russia. Lenin, Stalin, and their bloody associates still repose on Red Square, and hundreds of statues still stand, not only on Russia’s squares and plazas, but in the minds of its citizens. [Continue reading...]

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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.

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