My weekly Guardian column:
Freedom is difficult to resuscitate once extinguished. Australian attorney-general George Brandis recently chastised journalists for criticising his government’s new laws aimed at preventing reporting about “special intelligence operations”. Because he’s a culture warrior brawler, Brandis damned the “usual suspects of the paranoid, fantasist left” but also “reputable conservative commentators” for questioning his judgment over what citizens should and should not learn through the media.
It’s a tragic irony that the loudest voices backing the current war on whistle-blowers are the very politicians who are theoretically elected to protect and enhance free speech and disclosure.
“Never believe anything until it’s officially denied” was a favourite expression of the Irish journalist Claud Cockburn, father of the British reporter Patrick Cockburn. It’s a motto worth remembering as we’re faced with a barrage of state-led and private interest attacks on leaks and leakers.
The examples are many, but what occurred on Thursday raises grave concerns for whistleblowers in Australia. Take the case of Freya Newman, a young and part-time librarian at Whitehouse School of Design in Sydney. She accessed information on the institute’s computer system that showed prime minister Tony Abbott’s daughter, Frances Abbott, received a “chairman’s scholarship” worth $60,000.
Newman has pleaded guilty to the offence of unauthorised access to a computer system, and on Thursday appeared in court. The prosecution appeared not to be pushing for a jail sentence but a record of the crime. The fact remains that Newman has been aggressively pursued for a noble example of exposing a matter of public interest.
Newman’s whistleblowing was defended by lawyer Julian Burnside as vital insights into secret access and clearly should be designated as in the public interest. Crucially, he notes that she would have been likely protected by whistleblower protection if working for a government organisation but she was exposed to legal censure because she was employed by a private organisation.
Independent news website New Matilda has released a slew of leaks this year and faced heavy, but predictable criticism. New Matilda operates differently, aiming to piss off the pompously positioned. The current controversy over Sydney University’s Barry Spurr, a consultant to the Abbott government’s review of the national curriculum, is yet another case of smearing a whistle-blower who released a slew of racist and sexist emails to New Matilda.
In an outrageous attack on press freedom, Spurr has tried to legally force New Matilda to reveal its sources and prevent them publishing anything else related to the story. It’s a case of attempted intimidation that New Matilda has happily challenged, and later on Thursday Spurr dropped his bid to expose the source, although the case is still continuing. I’m yet to read other media outlets offering support for the small publisher.
Rather than address the issues raised by Spurr’s compromised position as a man who longs for colonial times, The Australian’s Sharri Markson reported that the emails may have been obtained by hacking, allegations slammed by editor Chris Graham.
The source of the leak is again questioned in an Australian editorial: “the [New Matilda] website maintains [the story] is based on leaks from a source, rather than hacking, as Professor Spurr alleges”. Even entertainer Barry Humphries has damned the release of the emails, wilfully ignoring the political significance of such a man with vile views to perpetuate white Australia in the education system of the 21st century.
There are many other examples of this war on whistleblowers in Australia. Immigration minister Scott Morrison has maintained a medieval seal on details over his border security policy and yet has been happy to find friendly, News Corp Australia reporters to smear critics of his policy. The government has now referred Save the Children workers to be investigated by the Australian Federal Police over “unauthorised” disclosures of information. It was clear intimidation, designed to make employees shut up.
In a haze of claims and counter-claims, with Operation Sovereign Borders celebrated as saving taxpayer dollars, the detail of a breach of security within the department is ignored or dismissed as insignificant. The source of these allegations against Save the Children was first reported in a Daily Telegraph story as being from an intelligence report that they also appear to have been leaked, and which was published on the day of Morrison’s announcement about the investigation. Leaking to obedient journalists doesn’t indicate a healthy whistle-blower culture but rather a docile political environment that rewards favouritism. It reduces democracy to sanctioned drops into reporter’s in-boxes.
Amidst all the fury over angry ideologues concerned that their bigoted conservative values are under attack lie the importance of whistle-blowing without fear or favour. It’s a global problem that’s being led by Nobel Peace Prize winner himself, US president Barack Obama. His administration is publicly supportive of disclosure while prosecuting countless people including the New York Times’ James Risen and perfecting the selective leak to cosy reporters. It’s a particular problem with national security journalism, where the vast bulk of writing is left to stenographers of the bloated intelligence and military apparatus.
Effective whistleblower legislation in democracies isn’t enough because governments have proven their willingness to protect anything that embarrasses or shames them. The persecution of Julian Assange, Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning and Thomas Drake, amongst others, is about saving face and not lives. Journalists, aggressive media companies and citizens must revolt and challenge the very fundamentals of our secretive age. This means publishing state and business secrets and widening the overly narrow definition of what constitutes being in the public interest.
Rejecting the criminalising of journalism should be in every reporter’s DNA. The Snowden releases have fundamentally altered the ways in which we understand digital journalism and how we must protect sources away from prying private and government eyes.
Over a year ago I wrote an article outlining the range of documents and stories that need to be told by the invaluable work of whistle-blowers. Today I’m calling for all documents that reveal the operational details of Operation Sovereign Borders, the legal justification for providing Iraqi immunity for Australian special forces in Iraq and the evidence of Australian acquiescence in abandoning citizen Julian Assange at London’s Ecuadorian embassy.
In August I was involved in an IQ2 Squared debate in Sydney (and my side won, for the record, despite the audience starting off backing the other team.) This was broadcast by ABCTV1’s Big Ideas:
Are we becoming enslaved to our technology?
This was a decent Intelligence Squared debate with the audience split between the oldies, some middle aged hipsters and a bunch of law students.
The biggest drawcard was Peter Singer, Professor of Bioethics at Princeton, who turned in a good performance for the negative. That is, we are not enslaved by technology. He was backed by journalist, filmmaker and blogger, Antony Loewenstein, and Asher Wolf, a self-described ‘information activist’.
On the affirmative was Crikey’s Bernard Keane, Alastair McGibbon, an Associate Professor at the University of Canberra and Katina Michael. Michael is an Associate Professor in the School of Information Systems and Technology at the University of Wollongong. Consequently hers is a surprising stand and she does a decent imitation of a rapper in a great big spray on the ‘evils of technology’.
This debate was moderated by Simon Longstaff and recorded at the City Recital Hall in Sydney.
This Friday the Lebanese Muslim Association has organised an event titled, “From Iraq to Gaza: The Politics of Fear”. I’ll be speaking alongside many others.
Daring to be critical of the dominant narrative over Palestine or terrorism has upset Rupert Murdoch’s resident race-baiter Andrew Bolt.
There’s also a “story” in today’s Murdoch Australian that features a comical statement from the Zionist lobby, showing how they only want society to hold events that praise Israel under their terms. In other words, never. It’s no wonder they’re regarded as censorious fringe dwellers. And thanks, Rupert, for calling me a “noted anti-Zionist author”:
Liberal MP Craig Laundy will pretty much front any public forum no matter who’s on the panel if it gives him the chance to discuss government policy and break down the “them and us” mentality he says is being perpetuated against the Muslim community.
The western Sydney member for the culturally diverse seat of Reid has been lambasted for agreeing to take part in a Lebanese Muslim Association event tomorrow titled From Iraq to Gaza: The Politics of Fear, which will also be attended by a number of anti-Israeli commentators.
The panel includes pro-international boycott, divestment and sanctions academics Peter Slezak and Jake Lynch and noted anti-Zionist author Antony Loewenstein.
Also on the panel are interfaith activist Aftab Ahmad Malik, who is often highly critical of Israel, Labor MP Tony Burke and journalism academic Peter Manning.
Mr Laundy was a key voice arguing against the Abbott government’s ultimately scrapped plan to overturn section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act.
“I knew Tony Burke was going, but I’ve never met the other people on the panel. I don’t know their views on things and I don’t care,” Mr Laundy told The Australian. “They’re entitled to their view. I’m going to explain what we as a government are doing and why we’re doing it and to answer questions about it.
“When I’m invited to go somewhere and explain government policy I will do so.”
Last night a spokesman for the Executive Council for Australian Jewry told The Australian the forum had “questionable intellectual and moral credibility”.
“All the speakers are on record as taking a generally antipathetic view of Israel. Some of them have even called for its destruction,” AJAC executive director Peter Wertheim said. “The entire event is designed as an opportunity to polemicise against Israel and its western allies.”
Mr Burke told The Australian: “It’s an important time for a constructive dialogue with the community about events in these parts of the world.”
Mr Laundy, who said his colleagues backed his move to speak at tomorrow’s event, said overall the reaction in his electorate had been mixed to the latest suite of anti-terror laws — which included requiring travellers prove their trip to designated areas in the Middle East was legitimate — but the dialogue needed to continue.
“There is a lot of detail still to come and the job of a local MP is to front up and speak to a local community … to be that two way-conduit,” he said.
Mr Laundy said he “believes fundamentally in free speech”. “My argument on 18C was pragmatic — with rights come responsibility,” he said. “The people that argue against me over that, are now the same ones who want to persecute someone because of their religion. “They want to criticise me. I should have freedom of association on Friday night but they want to criticise me for doing my job as a local federal MP.”
Mr Laundy, who became the first Liberal to win his seat at the last election, said the message he was taking to the community was that “with rights come responsibility — practise your religion, live within the law”.
He condemned the actions of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria as nothing more than “sectarian terrorism”.
The Western media prides itself on self-criticism but the fact remains that very journalists routinely challenge the inherent power structures of government and the press.
RT host Abby Martin this week damned Russian incursions into Crimea and meddling in Ukraine (she maintains her job thus far) and in this interview with CNN’s Piers Morgan she highlights the narrow perspectives on US commercial TV when debating war and peace:
My weekly Guardian column is here:
Australia has an identity crisis that has never been resolved. Are we a US client state, happy to host any number of American troops and spying assets, or a fully integrated part of Asia? Do we crave true independence, or are we happy to remain America’s ‘deputy sheriff‘ in the Pacific region?
There’s nothing stopping Canberra from having close relations with both worlds, but our regional posture over the last decades has shown a muddled understanding of how to achieve this. We usually arguably prefer to remain tethered to an arrogant Anglosphere whose influence is waning.
When we do look to Asia, it’s not solely about business ties enriching Australian corporations. We too often back the most autocratic regimes imaginable, such as Indonesia’s Soeharto (fans of former prime minister Paul Keating should recall his fondness for one of the most brutal leaders of the 20th century). Canberra’s complicity in the Indonesian occupations of East Timor and West Papua also signals a willingness to ignore human rights for the sake of political expediency.
Australia’s love of foreign conflicts are infamous; this is noticed across (particularly Islamic) Asia. We marched in unison with the US in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq – three devastating wars which we comprehensively lost. A decent nation, unlike our own, would offer an apology and compensation for having civilians pay a hefty price for our aggression, or for polluting the ground with deadly chemicals. Our brutishness is not forgotten by the millions of occupied people who experienced it first-hand; terrorism is born this way. Billions of dollars in annual foreign aid isn’t enough to buy us the forgiveness that’s required.
The current diplomatic storm between Australia and Indonesia highlights the myriad of problems with a country Tony Abbott claims is “our most important relationship.” The ability of president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY) to disrupt Australian government policies on asylum seekers, the live cattle trade and intelligence sharing shows how vulnerable Canberra is in its relations with our northern neighbour.
We deserve the embarrassment and awkwardness and yet surveillance state backers, such as Rupert Murdoch’s The Australian, claim to be confused over Jakarta’s anger – but just imagine the outrage in Australia if leaks emerged showing SBY snooping on Abbott’s mobile phone (which may well be happening now). Also never forget that Jakarta already operates a brutal network of spies on its own citizens in Papua; nobody’s hands are clean.
Abbott’s response has been predictable; this is a man who sees nobility in the anglosphere, conveniently ignoring the colonial legacies of their rule. As for the Labor party, it has no credibility on the issue because the spying occurred under their watch. A Royal Commission into Australia’s out of control intelligence and security services is the least Abbott should be doing. With new revelations appearing almost daily following Snowden’s leaks, only the most loyal propagandist for unlimited state power would claim that his documents haven’t led to a vital public discussion over the excessive scope of state intrusion on privacy and liberty.
The real scandal of Canberra’s current problems with Indonesia is that we are helping the US with its dirty work. Tapping SBY’s phone and gaining its contents has interest for both the US and Australia, but SBY and his wife aren’t the only targets – in all likelihood, Indonesian civilians with no connection to terrorism or extremism are also being monitored. Snowden documents prove that close allies of the US, such as Britain, allow Washington open access to potentially millions of their own citizens. Australia could be equally supine.
The sheer scale of worldwide snooping, assisted by compliant allies such as Australia, has been exposed by Snowden’s leaks. He should be immediately granted asylum in Australia (his liberty is undeniably threatened in his homeland) for such services to local and international understanding of US behaviour (much of which is illegal, something that doesn’t seem to bother the NSA’s most passionate supporters). An adversarial media should interrogate governments and officials of all stripes and not make life comfortable for those in power.
So where to for Australia’s relationship with Asia? A mature nation treats its neighbours with respect and engagement. Trust takes more than presidential or prime ministerial visits. Speaking out against human rights abuses should also be crucial for Australia. An independent stance means having constant public discussions about the role of a former colony entering the 21st century in a region that likes the idea of declining US hegemony.
And in the meantime, let the leaks continue, and increase – for sunlight always scares the powerful who act in secrecy, too often outside the law.
It has nothing to do with endangering national security (ignore the bleating of far too many corporate journalists who simply repeat talking points from their intelligence sources) but the profound shame of US hegemony being challenged and revealed.
The U.S. government seems outraged that people are leaking classified materials about its less attractive behavior. It certainly acts that way: three years ago, after Chelsea Manning, an army private then known as Bradley Manning, turned over hundreds of thousands of classified cables to the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks, U.S. authorities imprisoned the soldier under conditions that the UN special rapporteur on torture deemed cruel and inhumane. The Senate’s top Republican, Mitch McConnell, appearing on Meet the Press shortly thereafter, called WikiLeaks’ founder, Julian Assange, “a high-tech terrorist.”
More recently, following the disclosures about U.S. spying programs by Edward Snowden, a former National Security Agency analyst, U.S. officials spent a great deal of diplomatic capital trying to convince other countries to deny Snowden refuge. And U.S. President Barack Obama canceled a long-anticipated summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin when he refused to comply.
Despite such efforts, however, the U.S. establishment has often struggled to explain exactly why these leakers pose such an enormous threat. Indeed, nothing in the Manning and Snowden leaks should have shocked those who were paying attention. Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who dissented from the WikiLeaks panic, suggested as much when he told reporters in 2010 that the leaked information had had only a “fairly modest” impact and had not compromised intelligence sources or methods. Snowden has most certainly compromised sources and methods, but he has revealed nothing that was really unexpected. Before his disclosures, most experts already assumed that the United States conducted cyberattacks against China, bugged European institutions, and monitored global Internet communications. Even his most explosive revelation — that the United States and the United Kingdom have compromised key communications software and encryption systems designed to protect online privacy and security — merely confirmed what knowledgeable observers have long suspected.
The deeper threat that leakers such as Manning and Snowden pose is more subtle than a direct assault on U.S. national security: they undermine Washington’s ability to act hypocritically and get away with it. Their danger lies not in the new information that they reveal but in the documented confirmation they provide of what the United States is actually doing and why. When these deeds turn out to clash with the government’s public rhetoric, as they so often do, it becomes harder for U.S. allies to overlook Washington’s covert behavior and easier for U.S. adversaries to justify their own.
Few U.S. officials think of their ability to act hypocritically as a key strategic resource. Indeed, one of the reasons American hypocrisy is so effective is that it stems from sincerity: most U.S. politicians do not recognize just how two-faced their country is. Yet as the United States finds itself less able to deny the gaps between its actions and its words, it will face increasingly difficult choices — and may ultimately be compelled to start practicing what it preaches.
Hypocrisy is central to Washington’s soft power — its ability to get other countries to accept the legitimacy of its actions — yet few Americans appreciate its role. Liberals tend to believe that other countries cooperate with the United States because American ideals are attractive and the U.S.-led international system is fair. Realists may be more cynical, yet if they think about Washington’s hypocrisy at all, they consider it irrelevant. For them, it is Washington’s cold, hard power, not its ideals, that encourages other countries to partner with the United States.
Of course, the United States is far from the only hypocrite in international politics. But the United States’ hypocrisy matters more than that of other countries. That’s because most of the world today lives within an order that the United States built, one that is both underwritten by U.S. power and legitimated by liberal ideas. American commitments to the rule of law, democracy, and free trade are embedded in the multilateral institutions that the country helped establish after World War II, including the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the United Nations, and later the World Trade Organization. Despite recent challenges to U.S. preeminence, from the Iraq war to the financial crisis, the international order remains an American one.
This system needs the lubricating oil of hypocrisy to keep its gears turning. To ensure that the world order continues to be seen as legitimate, U.S. officials must regularly promote and claim fealty to its core liberal principles; the United States cannot impose its hegemony through force alone. But as the recent leaks have shown, Washington is also unable to consistently abide by the values that it trumpets. This disconnect creates the risk that other states might decide that the U.S.-led order is fundamentally illegitimate.
As the Israeli occupation of Palestine worsens and Zionist racism against Arabs in general becomes far more known globally (examples here and here), Israeli groups are trying to stamp out dissent through dodgy legal means. One Israeli group, Shurat HaDin, is going around the world attempting to silence critics of Israel. In Australia, two academics from Sydney University, Jake Lynch and Stuart Rees, both friends and colleagues, are under attack for daring to back BDS. Al Jazeera and Haaretz have covered the story.
There is growing realization amongst hardline Zionist groups that critics of Israel and its brutal occupation are winning over the public across the world … [so] groups such as Shurat HaDin dare to pursue legitimate advocates of Palestinian justice. In Australia, with barely any public support … the tiny organization is attempting to shut down the few outspoken backers of BDS through tribunals and the courts. Public opinion polls now show in Australia that a majority of the population supports Palestine so Shurat HaDin are fighting a losing battle.
A sad state of affairs that a serious media (which most of the corporate press is not, too keen to wine and dine with the powerful) would vehemently oppose (via the Guardian):
Speaking in the wake of a series of revelations in the Guardian about the extent of the National Security Agency’s surveillance operations, Rusbridger said: “Orwell could never have imagined anything as complete as this, this concept of scooping up everything all the time.
“This is something potentially astonishing about how life could be lived and the limitations on human freedom,” he said.
Rusbridger said the NSA stories were “clearly” not a story about totalitarianism, but that an infrastructure had been created that could be dangerous if it fell into the wrong hands.
“Obama is a nice guy. David Cameron is a nice social Democrat. About three hours from London in Greece there are some very nasty political parties. What there is is the infrastructure for total surveillance. In history, all the precedents are unhappy,” said Rusbridger, speaking at the Advertising Week conference.
He said that whistleblower Edward Snowden, who leaked the documents, had been saying: “Look, wake up. You are building something that is potentially quite alarming.”
Rusbridger said that people bring their own perspectives to the NSA revelations. People who have read Kafka or Orwell found the level of surveillance scary, he said, and that those who had lived or worked in the communist eastern bloc were also concerned.
“If you are Mark Zuckerberg and you are trying to build an international business, this is dismaying to you,” Rusbridger said.
Zuckerberg recently criticised the Obama administration’s surveillance apparatus. “Frankly I think the government blew it,” he told TechCrunch Disrupt conference in San Francisco.
The Facebook founder was particularly damning of government claims that they were only spying on “foreigners”.
“Oh, wonderful: that’s really helpful to companies trying to serve people around the world, and that’s really going to inspire confidence in American internet companies,” said Zuckerberg.
Here’s Rusbridger speaking to Democracy Now! this week:
Last night at the Sydney Opera House I witnessed a truly unique event. 1.5 hour discussion with Wikileaks’ Julian Assange, The Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald, indy reporter and key documenter of the Chelsea Manning trial Alexa O’Brien (with whom I did an event tonight on Manning and dissent), Manning lawyer David Coombs, academic Robert Manne and moderator Crikey’s Bernard Keane.
They discussed mass surveillance, Edward Snowden and why dissent is so vital in an age of ever-growing government and corporate intrusion: