AWPR are Australians who believe that any decision to take Australia into international armed conflict should be made by our Parliament, not by the PM [Prime Minister] or the the Executive.
We aim to create a climate of opinion among the public and opinion leaders supporting war powers reform.
US outlet Truthout has picked my book, Disaster Capitalism: Making A Killing Out Of Catastrophe, as an important title. Here’s my Q&A:
The following is a Truthout interview with Antony Loewenstein, the author of Disaster Capitalism: Making a Killing Out of Catastrophe.
Mark Karlin: Naomi Klein praises your book effusively. How were you galvanized by her book, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism?
Antony Loewenstein: I’ve long been interested in the intersection between politics, money and conflict. My early years as a professional journalist in Australia from 2003 were spent focusing principally on Israel/Palestine, immigration and the Iraq war. In every case, this revealed dark forces making money from misery.
I was inspired by a book, such as Iraq, Inc.: A Profitable Occupation by Pratap Chatterjee, on private contractors in Iraq. I investigated the private companies and nations making huge profits from warehousing mostly Muslim refugees in remote Australia (and also in the Pacific). Increasingly, Israel was successfully selling its occupation of Palestinians to other nations keen to behave similarly toward their own minorities (something that has become even more overt in the last years across Palestine). My first book in 2006, My Israel Question, traversed some of these latter questions.
When I read Naomi Klein’s book, The Shock Doctrine, and Jeremy Scahill’s Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army, it helped join the dots — especially the ways in which they explained how US imperialism, a term too rarely used in the 21st century, was central to exploitation in the far corners of the world. I began working on Disaster Capitalism from around 2010, along with the documentary of the same name (still a work in progress but hopefully, finished this year). My aim was to expand Klein’s thesis, especially around immigration, and show readers how the most vulnerable people on the planet were being turned into dollar signs on a scale never seen before in history.
To what degree do corporations exceed the power of many states today?
The corporation has become more powerful than the state because the state has allowed it to happen. Over decades, by both Democrats and Republicans, unaccountability has become normalised, barely opposed by politicians or the media class. In Disaster Capitalism, I investigate the role of Western and indigenous private contractors in Afghanistan since 2001. They have left a trail of destruction and killed countless civilians. Barely anybody has been held to account, fuelling the insurgency still engulfing the country. President Trump may widen the war there but his chances of success are negligible.
Successive Afghan administrations have done little to prosecute contractor crimes and Washington has pressured Kabul to protect US contractors from legal trouble. Meanwhile, Afghan civilians are killed and maimed and anger grows.
Perhaps the most obvious, contemporary example of unhealthily powerful corporations, allowed and encouraged by Western governments, are tech firms, such as Apple, Microsoft and Google, often paying little or no tax in various jurisdictions. This is justified as allowing enterprise to thrive and employment to be created but these multinational corporations get away with murder because there’s little domestic political pressure or global accountability architecture to change it.
You traveled far and wide to write the book. Is there anything that flat-out surprised you?
I was often shocked by what I saw and heard — from the devastated island of Bougainville in Papua New Guinea where a Rio Tinto copper mine ruined the environment and caused one of the Pacific’s most brutal wars of the last 40 years, to refugees living in squalor in Britain while waiting for their asylum claims to be assessed.
What kept me from losing all hope was seeing people resisting seemingly overwhelming political and economic odds. I remember meeting refugees in Greece who were being abused and chased by the far-right, neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn (currently the third biggest party in the Greek parliament). They were fleeing persecution in Afghanistan, Iran, Syria and Iraq. My guide into the secretive world of isolated, Greek detention centres was a blind, Iranian man, Chaman. He was kind, full of stories and optimistic. We have maintained contact and he’s now a recognised refugee in a European country, working, travelling and building his life.
How does Haiti, for example, represent a nation that the developed West tried to make it appear it was helping, but really was just offering, in large part, corporate opportunities without structural improvements?
Haiti is the poorest nation in the Western hemisphere and for most of the 20th century was ruled by US-backed dictatorships. Today, after failed elections, natural disasters and constant US meddling, the nation is occupied by both a UN “stabilisation mission” and international NGOs. After the devastating 2010 earthquake, killing around 200,000 people, an influx of foreigners, contractors, US evangelical Christians and charlatans descended on the nation. It wasn’t ready — with little regulation or control over who was doing what and where. The Clinton Foundation pledged the world to the people of Haiti but Hillary, Bill and Chelsea have left a trail of disappointment and lies.
The US Red Cross raised half a billion dollars after the earthquake and only built a handful of homes. It was the kind of failure that should have led to prosecutions but little has changed.
In my book, I investigate why this happens and why it’s so hard to change. It’s principally because very few seem to care about Haiti in the US: It’s a poor state with virtually no political power in Washington, and too few journalists visit there. In short, Western contractors can exploit a beautiful country without overly worrying about training locals or leaving a legacy after they leave because nobody is telling them they have to. Haiti is still waiting on financial compensation after the UN brought deadly cholera to the country after the 2010 earthquake.
Talk a little about the Middle Eastern wars since 9/11 costing more than four trillion dollars and how much of that money went to contractors.
The cost of America’s post 9/11 wars is so huge that they’re literally impossible to calculate. It’s the price Washington is willing to pay for endless war. The logic behind the Bush, Obama and now Trump administrations all relying on contractors is because they’re able to operate in the shadows, often conducting illegal or violent activities beyond the law, and without official oversight. Attacks on civilians are common, undermining local laws and customs, and being overly trigger-happy leads to unstable nations. In 2014, the Pentagon spent US$285 billion on federal contracts. War is good for business.
While the Bush and Obama eras were remarkably profitable years, the Trump administration is already filling Pentagon and Homeland Security positions with defense contractors. Disaster capitalism is a bipartisan approach.
Although some NGOs do good, discuss how many of them work hand-in-glove with the corporatization of disaster capitalism.
This is an issue I’ve spent many years considering, especially when visiting nations that rely so heavily on NGOs. In 2015 I was living in South Sudan, the world’s newest country. It’s now collapsed due to extreme violence, corruption, unaccountability, an almost nonexistent functioning oil industry and too little international interest. NGOs and the UN are providing essential services, food and water, without which the population would likely face even greater problems. Yet, nobody elected these people to essentially rule the country because the Juba-based government is incapable and unwilling to do so.
I’m not arguing that NGOs are in South Sudan just to make money, but the humanitarian community needs to ask itself serious questions about whether they’re helping resolve conflicts or perpetuating them. It’s a key issue in my film, Disaster Capitalism, shot over five years in Afghanistan, Papua New Guinea and Haiti.
In January, my book, Disaster Capitalism: Making A Killing Out Of Catastrophe, was published globally in a paperback edition by Verso.
I wrote a piece for my publisher’s popular blog this week on the ever-growing industry of privatised immigration:
The unaccountability of privatised immigration had rarely been so brazen. Australia is the only country in the world to have fully outsourced the detention of all asylum seekers to the private sector. In January, its officials were found to have spent $2.2 billion on offshore detention without necessary authorisation. The Australian National Audit Office damned the Department of Immigration and Border Protection for handing out contracts to corporations on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea and Nauru in the Pacific that established dangerous and excessively expensive facilities.
The story broke over a long, hot Australian summer. After a few days of headlines, the issue disappeared down the memory hole. No ministers or authorities were fired or reprimanded. Although the wasted billions of dollars were taxpayers money, the public outcry was almost non-existent because many Australians supported its country’s draconian treatment of refugees in far-away, secretive camps. Almost any amount of money is justified to manage these fears and prejudices. Occasionally, journalists report from Manus Island, including Roger Cohen from the New York Times, who reveal the horrors inflicted by indefinite detention on the hundreds of refugees trapped there for years, but too few reporters make the journey.
For more than 20 years, Australia has devised increasingly harsh penalties for asylum seekers who claim their legitimate right to request asylum when fleeing repressive regimes. These are often states that the Australian government has waged war against such as Iraq and Afghanistan. Corporations such as Serco, G4S, Ferrovial and International Health and Medical Services, amongst many others, have made huge amounts of money from the warehousing of refugees despite decades of evidence proving inadequacy and criminality. Boycotting and targeting these firms should be the priority for every committed citizen.
The political winds around the world in 2017 indicate a hardening of minds and hearts towards refugees and Australia has become a global model in how to isolate, target, privatise and demonise asylum seekers. The EU now wants to establish centres in northern Africa, including in war-torn Libya, to process refugees. This is a carbon copy of Australia’s off-shoring of asylum seekers in remote locations away from prying media.
Australia nationalists must be so proud. As I wrote in the Guardian in early 2016:
“In early 2014 I called for UN sanctions against Australia for ignoring humanitarian law and willfully abusing refugees in its case both on the mainland and Nauru and Manus Island. I still hold this view but must recognise facts; the international mood in 2016 for asylum seekers is hostile. As much as I’d like to say that my homeland is a pariah on the international stage, it’s simply not the case.When Denmark recently introduced a bill to take refugees’ valuable belongings in order to pay for their time in detention camps, this was remarkably similar to Australia charging asylum seekers for their stay behind bars. Either directly or indirectly, Europe is following Australia’s draconian lead.”
It’s not hard to see why. In the last few years, many European leaders and the European Union made a conscious decision to belittle asylum seekers and make their lives miserable. Unaccountability rules. In my book, Disaster Capitalism, I investigate the reality for refugees in Britain and Greece during these challenging times. It’s only getting worse. Think of the recent, shocking images of refugees freezing and dying in the Balkans and Greece, unwanted and ignored.
It’s a humanitarian catastrophe with men, women and children fleeing Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Africa. But it’s also a unique way to make money. A revealing report released in late 2016 by the Transnational Institute and Stop Wapenhandel, Borders Wars, found that profits were soaring in the defence and border security industries. The EU border management organization Frontex had a 2016 budget of €238.7 million, a 67.4% increase compared to the €142.6 million in 2015. The report went on:
“It [the Frontex budget] is expected to grow to an estimated €322 million in 2020, 50 times its budget of €6.3 million in 2005. The 2016 budget for the EU’s Internal Security Fund was similarly increased by €116.4 million in October 2015 to a total of €647.5 million. A substantial proportion of these budgets have benefited arms and security corporations in a border security market that is growing at roughly 8% a year. Airbus, Leonardo, Safran and Thales were all in the news in 2016 for border security contracts. IT firms Indra, Advent and ATOS won significant contracts for projects to identify and track refugees.”
Furthermore, security fences are being built on many European borders, benefitting private firms with the expertise in building them (including from Israel with years of caging Palestinians). The Israelification of security is already upon us, with Western police and army getting training from Israeli forces who have decades of experience occupying, targeting and isolating Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. In the last years, Israeli firms have expanded their global reach, exploiting the worldwide desire to copy the Jewish state’s treatment of minorities and its own Arab citizens. The Trump administration is likely to hire Israeli companies to build a wall along the Mexican border.
Mistreating refugees rarely incurs a political price in the 21st century. From Britain to Australia and Afghanistan to Germany, officials are increasingly tasked to look “tough” in the face of legitimate asylum claims. Far-right populism, infused with rampant nationalism, patriotism and anger, has supplanted any strong and viable left-wing alternatives. There are exceptions, of course, but the current worldview trend is towards insularity and punishment of the least fortunate.
President Donald Trump’s announcement to withhold visas for people coming from select Muslims nations – not coincidentally places that the US has bombed for years – is not affecting close US-allies like Pakistan and Saudi Arabia with a higher level of extremism. Along with aggressively kicking out refugees already in the US – many of whom are fleeing US-backed, repressive states such as Honduras, where I visited last year – Trump and his government are heralding an extreme version of disaster capitalism. Private prison companies are licking their lipswith joy. Rich Silicon Valley types are preparing for the end of the world by buying living quarters in redesigned, underground nuclear bunkers. Their tech utopianism apparently has its limits; they fear societal breakdown.
Since my book Disaster Capitalism was released in 2015, I’ve witnessed the deterioration of refugee rights across the world and growing hatred towards them. Corporations sense the public mood and political opportunity and behave accordingly. For example, European Homecare (EHC) is a German company employed by the German government to manage asylum seekers but it’s been engulfed by scandal. In late 2016, a Syrian refuge living near Dusseldorf emailed me information, photos and videos about the abuses being committed by EHC that he had personally witnessed when in detention.
‘Ahmed’, 26, told me about his daily life:
“Every person had a small room with no locks ‘because they cost too much’ and you can’t put locks over the locker to keep your important documents and stuff because it was forbidden and we had something called control. Every morning around 6 am till 8 am, security members and a social worker from EHC enters everyone’s room and look through all the personal things and ask for ID. Sometimes even at midnight. But the daily control happened every morning. Although it’s a military base with perfectly secure gates, security cameras, electric fences and over a hundred security staff, it was tough and humiliating for about 3 months. Not mentioning the multiple times we had robberies inside the camp nearly everyday because of their policy on locks. So you’re basically in the middle of nowhere by the borders. The nearest market is in the Netherlands and you’re not allowed to go there. But you can walk 3 hours back and forth to get your grocery locally. No network coverage. And worst of all was the water issue. You start your day with the lovely control and then head to shower with mud, followed by a nice walk to the cafeteria for a meal. For each meal you have to walk 2 km to get to the cafeteria inside the camp. Of course you need to manage hiding your personal belongings while being away from the room. … The bottled water we had was extremely high in minerals and from a personal experience I know what damage it can cause to the infant’s kidneys. It’s absolutely not meant for babies.”
In an age of walls, militarised fences and attacking minority rights, refugees are both the most vulnerable and easiest target for insecure populations and desperate politicians. Rich, Western democracies sending back asylum seekers to danger, a trend perfected by Israel, Australia, Britain and Germany despite its illegality, is surging. It’s why civil disobedience, company boycotts and divestment and more direct action is essential to resist the global war on asylum seekers. It’s unsurprising that nations with a colonial past, such as Australia, Britain, the US and Israel, are leaders of the pack.
Antony Loewenstein is a Jerusalem-based, independent journalist who has written for the Guardian, the New York Times and many others. He is the author of many books including his most recent, Disaster Capitalism: Making a Killing Out of Catastrophe, now out in paperback.
My essay in UAE newspaper The National:
The defence industry has never been happier. With sales at unprecedented levels – US$65 billion (Dh 238bn) in 2015, according to the Global Defence Trade Report – France, the United States, Canada and Britain have become global leaders in arms exports. The Middle East is the largest importing region and weapons companies such as Raytheon, Oshkosh, Thales, General Dynamics, Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin are benefiting from continuing conflicts in Syria, Iraq and beyond.
These economic advantages are now expanding further afield. The refugee crisis engulfing Europe over the past 18 months has caused untold misery, with thousands drowning in the Mediterranean, racist attacks against Arab arrivals and restive populations increasingly turning against migrants fleeing Syria, Afghanistan, Libya, Iraq and Africa.
But largely ignored in the commentary and reporting from European countries struggling to cope has been the financial beneficiaries of huge migration: the arms manufacturers, private security corporations, and intelligence and surveillance multinationals. For them, Europe’s desperate desire to militarise and monitor its borders has led to a huge surge in profits.
After the attacks in Paris last November, share prices in some of these defence firms rose strongly. Lockheed Martin executive vice president Bruce Tanner told a Credit Suisse conference in West Palm Beach in the US in December that there were “indirect benefits” from the war in Syria. There was “an intangible lift because of the dynamics of that environment and our products in theatre”, such as F-22s and F-35 jets.
A recent report from NGOs Stop Wapenhandel and Transnational Institute, Border Wars, provides comprehensive evidence of Europe’s zeal to outsource its border security and explains the direct link between wars in the Middle East and profits from European policies.
The European Commission wants to reform its border security agency Frontex into a more influential European Border and Coastguard Agency. This will mean even greater windfalls for defence multinationals. The report explains that the European border security industry was estimated at €15 billion (Dh61.6bn) in 2015 and is predicted to rise to more than €29 billion annually by 2022. The budget of Frontex increased 3,688 per cent between 2005 and 2016 from €6.3m to €238.7m and European states are obliged to strengthen their borders as a condition of membership.
“There is one group of interests that have only benefited from the refugee crisis, and in particular from the European Union’s investment in ‘securing its borders’,” the Border Wars report finds. “They are the military and security companies that provide the equipment to border guards, the surveillance technology to monitor frontiers, and the IT infrastructure to track population movements.”
Crucially, the report shows that “far from being passive beneficiaries of EU largesse, these corporations are actively encouraging a growing securitisation of Europe’s borders, and willing to provide ever more draconian technologies to do this”. The large defence players in Europe include Airbus, Finmeccanica, Thales, Safran and Indra.
Finmecannica, Thales and Airbus are key lobbyists with the privately run European Organisation for Security and they push for tighter border security. Many of their suggestions, including the establishment of a cross-border security agency, have been adopted by the EU.
These companies are also three of the top four European arms traders selling weapons to nations in the Middle East and Africa that are experiencing the greatest unrest and fuelling refugees fleeing for their lives. In other words, these companies are making money from both selling weapons to repressive regimes and benefiting from the human fallout in Europe.
It’s a convenient convergence of interests and has generated virtually no public outcry. This is because populations across Europe are increasingly voting for political parties that believe in tight border controls and express little sympathy for outsiders trying to get in. The recent Brexit vote in Britain was won largely on a small majority of citizens wanting to “take back control of our borders”. The fact that this can only be achieved by privatising the border security network – states don’t have the technology or expertise to do it themselves – is either unknown or seen as a necessary evil.
Israeli firms are the only non-European receivers of research grants for border security under a 1996 agreement between Europe and Tel Aviv. This has already led to Hungary and Bulgaria expressing serious interest in 2015 of establishing high fences reminiscent of the barrier separating Israel and Egypt and Israel’s separation barrier through the occupied West Bank. Israel’s decades of experience controlling millions of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, through drones, fences, walls, weapons and surveillance, is the perfect experience Europe craves during its current crisis.
Writer and activist Jeff Halper calls this the “global pacification industry”, parlaying years of occupation and battle-tested technology in the service of controlling borders and people. For example, Israel Aerospace Industries has worked with Airbus to create a surveillance drone, used in Gaza, to track refugees in Europe.
The privatisation of Europe’s borders is accelerating even as the number of refugees arriving on the continent has fallen this year. The EU has a long-term plan to militarise its borders and be prepared for any further influx of unwanted migrants. Defence firms making a fortune from migration flows should make us question the morality of the world’s obsession with the outsourcing culture.
Antony Loewenstein is a Jerusalem-based independent journalist and author
My Guardian book review appears this weekend:
In October 2015 a Saudi prince was arrested at Beirut international airport accused of trying to smuggle nearly two tonnes of the amphetamine drug Captagon through the country. Two months later, Lebanese officials claimed to have confiscated 12 million Captagon pills heading to the Gulf. The synthetic drug, invented in 1961, has become a major recreational drug of choice in the Middle East and favoured stimulant in the Syrian civil war. Kurdish survivors from the Syrian city of Kobane reported Islamic State fighters being “filthy, with straggly beards and long black nails. They have lots of pills with them that they all keep taking. It seems to make them more crazy if anything.”
In this compelling book [Shooting Up: A History of Drugs in Warfare] about the history and prevalence of alcohol and drugs throughout the history of warfare, Lukasz Kamienski reveals in copious detail the countless ways “intoxication, in its various forms, has … been one of the distinctive features” of human life.
Rather than focusing on the draconian methods used by governments to restrict and regulate drugs in the modern age, Shooting Up examines how “warriors have always dreamt of gaining superhuman abilities that would bring them estimable victory, particularly when meeting their enemy in a decisive clash”. Without some tool to distract or mask the horrors of war, how can fighters tolerate the barbarity, fear, stress and intensity of combat?
Alcohol remains the most commonly used drug during and after war. Kamienski explains that the ancient Greeks and Romans probably went into battle drunk. The Roman method also involved getting their opponents inebriated before battle. By the late 19th century, the British army was regularly and proudly drunk. Its 36,000 men required 550,000 gallons of rum annually plus allowances for more booze to celebrate victory. Soldiers expected to be provided with alcohol by the army. Without it, their morale, determination and camaraderie would suffer. Japanese kamikaze pilots in the second world war were known to drink heavily as their final day approached.
American forces in Vietnam were given government rations of two cans of beer per man per day but the open secret was that destroying the Viet Kong should be rewarded. It’s a war that still remains mired in mystery; American journalist Nick Turse’s 2013 book Kill Anything That Moves made a rare departure from secrecy by highlighting the extreme violence unleashed on Vietnamese civilians by US forces. Kamienski powerfully shows how “alcohol was issued as a reward for proven proficiency in enemy kills. This largely explains why soldiers cut off the ears and penises of their dead enemy, because showing the trophies on their return to base camp entitled them to more reward – alcohol.”
This book details the Nizari Ismaili, founded in the 1080s as a radical group of Shia Muslims. Its members were accused of smoking hashish to claim supernatural powers, but it’s possible that their “truly powerful intoxicant was their deep religious faith, coupled with crazed fanaticism”.
In the 21st century many Islamic extremists are surviving thanks to the drug industry. The Taliban’s main source of income is from Afghanistan’s opium trade, the world’s biggest. Militants, child soldiers, narco-guerrillas and terrorists all often raise revenue while also using the product themselves.
But what turns some soldiers into monsters? Kamienski tries to answer this question with evidence that the use of intoxicants contributes to the propensity of extreme violence on the battlefield. However, it may not that be that simple – racism is a curious omission in the book’s argument. For example, there are countless examples of American forces in Iraq and Afghanistan treating local people with contempt because of their different skin colour, religion or belief. This mentality was bred long before arriving for combat.
Nonetheless, the book questions the generally accepted belief in almost all societies that soldiers are brave warriors and act like “rabid dogs”. It may often be true, with magic mushrooms and marijuana being part of a soldier’s arsenal, but it’s also an effective myth different nations tell themselves about the invincibility of their armies.
During the cold war, many governments searched for the most effective use of increasingly powerful and disabling drugs. Washington considered the idea of dispersing LSD over enemy forces, “paralysing even the best trained and disciplined units without killing or injuring them”. After the second world war Army Chemical Corps Major General William Creasy imagined the use of psychoactive substances for a “war without casualties”. He told This Week magazine in 1955 that Washington should consider using chemical weapons, asking “would you rather be temporarily deranged, blinded or paralysed by a chemical agent, or burned alive by a conventional fire bomb?” It was a question that few Americans ever knew their government was considering at the highest levels.
From developing truth serums to elicit answers from enemies during the cold war and distributing stimulants during the Vietnam war, drug development, use and abuse have always been central to humankind’s pursuit of conflict. Kamienski details the devastating civilian toll that drug abuse by soldiers can cause. In Vietnam, amphetamine use “was to blame for some incidents of friendly fire and unjustified violence against the civilian population”.
There’s no blatant anti-war message in this book, written by an academic and published here in a solid translation by the author, but its position is clear: that “soldiers are often doped by war in a twofold manner – not only can war itself be a true narcotic for them but an engagement in combat may also result in their becoming addicted to real drugs.”
• Antony Loewenstein’s Disaster Capitalism: Making A Killing Out Of Catastropheis published by Verso.
Before the 2003 Iraq war, I feared the seemingly inevitable conflict would be a disaster. Based in Sydney at the time, I watched as the general public massively opposed the impending invasion while most politicians and many in the media celebrated the prospect of “shock and awe”.
The last 15 years have seen untold bloodshed from the fateful decision to invade Iraq. It’s why I was honoured to be asked, and have now joined, the group Australians for War Powers Reform:
AWPR needs your help to spread the word that Australia can currently be taken to war by the decision of one person, and that needs to change. Please tell your friends and relatives and get them to support this campaign too. Write to the paper about it. Contact your MP.
My new book, Disaster Capitalism: Making A Killing Out Of Catastrophe, is now out and last week I was interviewed by the great Californian radio show, Middle East in Focus. We talked about war contractors making money in Afghanistan, privatised immigration centres in America and beyond:
My story in the Guardian:
We don’t know whether the Australian military has killed or injured civilians in Iraq, and if so, how many. Since Canberra joined the US-led mission against the Islamic State (Isis) on 8 October 2014, the Australian Defence Force (ADF) has provided barely any information about its operations.
So the new report by Airwars, a British organisation comprised of journalists and researchers, is welcome. It aims to demystify the war against Isis and document how many civilians are dying in Iraq and Syria.
Airwars has found at least 459 non-combatant deaths, including 100 children, from 52 airstrikes. Over 5,700 airstrikes have been launched since 2014.
Yet the US military central command cites the deaths of only two civilians. The discrepancy between these figures – two deaths, or 459 – should be startling. The US State Department pledged to “review its findings” after Airwars issued its report, with a spokesman saying “That’s why we’re looking into them and trying to see where the – what the right number is, to be frank.”
Australia’s role in the anti-Isis coalition is shrouded in secrecy. Operation Okra is described as “conducting air combat and support operations in Iraq and is operating within a US-led international coalition assembled to disrupt and degrade ISIL.”
The ADF issues very sparse monthly reports on how it is going about this mission. Australian jets are spending thousands of hours in the air, and have completed over 100 airstrikes, dropping more than 400 bombs and missiles, yet we are told only about the jets’ capabilities, and given pretty pictures of them in action.
I asked the ADF a number of questions, including why the public wasn’t being told more, whether Australia was aware of its actions causing harm or death to civilians, and whether its “rules of engagement” aimed to minimise civilian casualties and damage to infrastructure. My questions were largely ignored. I was told:
For operational security reasons, the ADF will not provide mission-specific details on individual engagements against Daesh. The ADF will not release information that could be distorted and used against Australia in Daesh propaganda. Australia’s Rules of Engagement are designed to avoid civilian casualties and damage to civilian infrastructure.
A spokesperson for the Minister for Defence, Kevin Andrews, added that, “the Abbott government has every confidence in the professionalism of the Australian Defence Force to act in accordance with Australia’s Rules of Engagement, which are designed to avoid civilian casualties and damage to civilian infrastructure”.
When Airwars questioned Australia’s lack of information sharing – unlike, say, Canada, which releases information on a timely basis – it received the same, pro-forma response from the ADF.
Airwars project leader Chris Woods, a British journalist and author of “Sudden Justice: America’s Secret Drone Wars”, told me that Australia’s lack of transparency was worrying.
“Of the 12 nations in the Coalition which have bombed Daesh in Iraq and Syria over the past year, Australia is pretty much near the bottom in terms of transparency and accountability”, he said.
“The Saudis and the Belgians are worse, though not by much. Once a month we get a chart saying how many bombs have been dropped – and that’s it. No details of locations struck. No word of the dates on which strikes occurred.”
Woods condemns Canberra’s reason for secrecy as inappropriate for a democracy.
“The excuse for this paucity of information is that Daesh might use any improved reporting ‘for propaganda purposes’. That’s absurd, of course. Canada, the UK, France and others all report happily on where and when they strike,” he says.
“And transparency really does matter. The Coalition tells us that each member nation is individually liable for the civilians it kills. If Australia refuses to say anything about its strikes, how can there be any justice for those affected on the ground if something goes wrong?”
This ADF obsession with secrecy and obsessively trying to control the message is nothing new. Remember that in 2013, the ADF tried and failed to isolate Fairfax reporters Paul McGeough and Kate Geraghty during their time in Afghanistan. As McGeough put it, they were “effectively denying our right as journalists to cover any of the story”.
Successive Australian governments have long demanded secrecy in matters of war, immigration and trade. It’s an attitude that presumes the public either doesn’t really care about what governments do; or that enough journalists are willing to swallow spin in exchange for access, embeds with Australian troops or spurious “exclusives” with the military and strategists.
Australia’s current war against Isis has continued this tradition of secrecy. As former army intelligence officer James Brown wrote recently in The Saturday Paper, “how much progress is Australia making against Daesh? It’s painfully hard to tell.” Yet there is no demand for the ADF to open up.
Paul Barratt, former secretary of the Department of Defence and president of the campaign for an Iraq War inquiry, says that the Abbott government’s attitude “reflects both its habits of secretiveness and the lack of a coherent strategy – more policy on the run.
“What started out as humanitarian relief using existing assets in the Middle East was rapidly transformed into boots on the ground in a training role, and aircraft both flying combat missions and refuelling other coalition aircraft for combat missions in Syria. There is little sign that this has been thought through or that it is heading in the direction of an achievable goal.”
I’ve long argued that reporters and media organisations should collectively push back against restrictive ADF methods by refusing to be embedded without greater freedom in the field. Apart from visiting the troops for state-managed photo ops, independent reporting of the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan is preferable because it’s civilians who bear the brunt of the conflict.
Journalists should also ignore “exclusives” from the ADF until it recognises it’s creating an unacceptable mystery around actions undertaken with taxpayer dollars. Would the ADF loosen its rules? I’m confident it would, not least of all because it craves publicity.
If it doesn’t, we would at least have the spectacle of the ADF defending its tenuous position on disclosure.
My Guardian column:
The creaking Russian helicopter lands in an open field in remote Wai, a town in South Sudan’s Jonglei state. The sky is perfectly clear; the temperature reaches 45 degrees. Women wave the South Sudanese flag to welcome the UN’s top humanitarian official, Valerie Amos, who arrives with Unesco peace envoy and American actor Forest Whitaker. His peace and development initiative, founded in 2012, works across the region.
They’ve come with a small group from the capital Juba to see how the UN is managing around 25,000 women, men and children who arrived in late December, fleeing a civil war that has entered its second year and claimed tens of thousands of lives.
It’s a remarkable operation, establishing basic but workable services. Local leaders press Amos for more help – especially for digging bore-holes for water – and complain that the central government isn’t listening to their demands. I’m observing as a journalist, as Amos is leaving her position in March and touring nations with the most desperate needs.
Her visit was my introduction to South Sudan since moving here recently with my partner, who works for an international aid organisation in advocacy and campaigns.
Neither of us had been to East Africa before we arrived, but we knew something of the country through friends who worked with the South Sudanese community in Sydney. The country’s political strife felt like a distant issue. I saw the occasional news about communal violence, pleas for Canberra to play a larger role in resolving the crisis and events such as the one organised by my friend, photographer Conor Ashleigh, which helped teach young South Sudanese and Afghan youth how to use a camera (aside from taking selfies).
At first, the idea of relocating to a war zone elicited curious and confused stares from friends and family, but both of us have spent time in challenging nations. We’d both discussed for a long time our desire for a change of scene, away from Australia.
It wasn’t such a leap, then, to leave the comforts of home. We wanted to be more than just temporary bystanders, and had the chance to experience the inner workings of the world’s newest nation. It didn’t take long for my girlfriend to convince me that her job in South Sudan would give me the opportunity to deepen my experience as a journalist, while avoiding the usual fly-in fly-out habits.
Juba, where we live, has poor infrastructure, few paved roads and an excess of dust, but there are also bars on the Nile and a growing use of social media. We live in a simple apartment in a compound in the middle of the city. There’s a strict nightly curfew. Security isn’t excessive – this isn’t Iraq or Afghanistan – but streetlights are almost non-existent and it’s unwise to walk alone when the sun goes down.
It’s safe to walk the streets during the day, though, and I’ve already lost count of the times I’ve been asked whether I know relatives living in Melbourne or Sydney’s big South Sudanese populations. Over 19,000 South Sudanese live in Australia – many refugees, who arrived over the last decade. People I meet are happy that their family members are safe and thriving away from South Sudan.
A government worker last week quizzed me on the Socceroos’ career prospects. He knew far more about them than me. Like many places I visit, apart from areas in the Middle East, Australia is seen as a benign force in the world.
Many of us know Africa as the place Bob Geldof used to visit, a continent defined by aid. That image was false, but it remains the case that without humanitarian aid, South Sudan – created with huge fanfare in 2011 – would likely collapse in many areas.
There are other descriptions: journalist Ken Silverstein wrote in February this year that after its creation, the country became the “world’s emotional petting zoo”. Alex De Waal, writing in African Affairs, argued that “South Sudan obtained independence in July 2011 as a kleptocracy”. The Guardian’s Daniel Howden wrote that the country was born from a “seductive story that could be well told by handsome movie stars” like George Clooney.
I’ll be exploring other questions during my time here, too. What role did Washington’s desperation for an African success story play in creating the current mess? Why is the African Union dragging its feet on human rights? Wikileaks cables confirm that US administrations were deeply involved in funding all sides of the brutal war that led to the 2011 independence; US Christian Evangelicals were key to building support for the soon-to-be independent Christian nation back at home.
Being in South Sudan will also force me to face the complex relationships that exist in a developing nation: between journalists and NGOs, and Western aid donors and their recipients. How much money stays in the pockets of foreign contractors and how much reaches the locals?
During my visit to Wai, the military governor of the rebel-held area said: “We are at war but at the end of the day we are one nation.” It was a hopeful plea, despite all sides committing horrendous abuses, at a time when South Sudan needs unity, reconciliation and accountability. It also leads to the most crucial question of all: what hope is there for a durable peace agreement between the warring parties, to avoid the ongoing displacement of millions of people and save billions of dollars?
My following story appears in today’s Guardian (I’m currently based in Juba, South Sudan):
Valerie Amos has joined calls for an arms embargo against South Sudan, the most senior UN official to back growing international demands for action against the country as it enters a second year of civil war.
“Anything that takes weapons off the streets, out of countries and out of communities will help us because ultimately for us it’s about bringing peace,” the UN humanitarian chief told the Guardian. “If there are no weapons, it’s harder for people to fight, peace will come sooner and we can get more aid to the people who so desperately need it.”
The United States has so far resisted efforts to implement an embargo, although the secretary of state, John Kerry, and senior members of the Obama administration have recently spoken in support of one. An arms ban would target both the South Sudanese government and the opposition, with both sides being accused of war crimes after fighting broke out in December 2013.
Tens of thousands of lives have been lost and millions of citizens forced to flee their homes during the civil war in the country. Aid group says about 2,5 million people are at risk of famine.
Amos, who leaves her position as UN under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator after five years in March, was speaking in Wai in Jonglei state at the end of a three-day visit to South Sudan with Unesco peace envoy and actor Forest Whitaker.
The UN is assisting around 25,000 people in rebel-held Wai, providing food, water, some shelter and basic medical care. Amos praised the resilience of the refugees she met, adding: “I just wish that those that are really pursuing this conflict would take time out to come and see what the impact of this is, particularly on women and children.”
The economic cost of war has already reached billions of dollars and a recent Frontier Economics report found that ending the conflict this year would save the international community about $30bn.
Amos said both sides should be held accountable for human rights abuses and expressed concern about an “economic crisis” in the country. “It’s a country dependent on oil and we have seen production halved,” she warned.
After meeting the South Sudanese president Salva Kiir and many of his ministers in the capital Juba, Amos both praised and criticised authorities. “The government does not want to admit hunger figures of 2.5 million people facing severe food shortages. We have to keep the pressure on,” she said, adding that the government had improved access to aid in many areas.
Amos has urged the international community to embrace a “more interventionist” approach towards global conflicts but urged caution against military involvement. “One of the things I’ve become more conscious of as I’ve been working in places like Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan is that we have this whole international framework of law and norms, but those rules are being broken every single day. We talk about the importance of protecting civilians yet it’s about those civilians being killed as a result of barrel bombs or women being raped.”
She said it was shameful that these abuses were tolerated. “So my question is, where is the accountability? Countries have signed up to these rules so how do we hold them accountable? When you talk about interventionism, everybody thinks about war and putting troops from another country on the ground. That’s not what I mean. When we see this happening, how do we stop it? One of my jobs is to raise these questions.”
My weekly Guardian column:
The secret CIA files appeared just before Christmas. One detailed how CIA operatives could maintain cover, using fake IDs, when travelling through foreign airports. Israel’s Ben Gurion airport was said to be one of the hardest to trick.
The other document, from 2009, was an assessment of the CIA’s assassination program. It raised doubts about the effectiveness of the program in reducing terrorism. Likewise with Israel’s killing of Palestinians.
In Afghanistan, the CIA discovered that murdering Taliban leaders could radicalise the militants, allowing even more extreme actors to enter the battlefield. The Obama administration ignored this advice and unleashed “targeted killings” in the country. Unsurprisingly, the insurgency is thriving.
These vital insights into the “war on terror” were released by WikiLeaks and received extensive global coverage.
Since 2010, when WikiLeaks released Collateral Murder, showing American forces killing Iraqi civilians, there have been multiple covert – and public – attempts to silence the organisation. Julian Assange has now been stuck in London’s Ecuadorian embassy for two and a half years fighting an extradition order from Sweden over allegations of sexual misconduct. There is an ongoing US grand jury examining the organisation’s role in publishing war and State Department cables. On Christmas Eve, WikiLeaks revealed that Google had turned over the Gmail account and metadata of a WikiLeaks employee in response to a US federal warrant.
The organisation’s ability to stay afloat – and continue to source and release insightful documents – among all this is remarkable.
There is some good news: Visa and MasterCard are being sued for refusing to allow funds to flow to WikiLeaks, and Assange’s lawyers are confident that the current impasse with Sweden will be resolved (although the irregularities over the case are deeply disturbing).
But the reality remains that the public image of Assange has taken a beating after years of legal fights, the botchedAustralian WikiLeaks political party and constant smears by journalists and politicians. We apparently want our heroes to be mild mannered and non-combative. We supposedly need them to be polite and not uncover countless, dirty abuses by western forces. We clearly don’t forgive them for not being perfect. Or perhaps we have a limit to how many war crimes we want to hear about with nobody facing justice? That’s hardly WikiLeaks’ fault. The group has made mistakes, and will make many more, but as a supporter since its 2006 inception, I’m struck by its resilience.
WikiLeaks has been warning against the dangers of mass surveillance for years. The 2014 Assange book, When Google Met WikiLeaks, features an insightful essayon the dangers of Google’s desire to lead American interventionist foreign policy. The book gained headlines across the world. In the month of its release, the organisation offered new documents on German company FinFisher selling its spying equipment to repressive regimes.
The emergence of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden and his ability to live a relatively free life in Russia is partly thanks to WikiLeaks, which helped him escape Hong Kong and claim asylum in Moscow. Snowden remains free tocontinue campaigning against the dangers of global surveillance, unlike Chelsea Manning who is now suffering in an American prison for bravely leaking American cables. WikiLeaks’ Sarah Harrison, a British citizen, lives in exile in Germany due to fears of returning home after working to protect Snowden. This is the definition of heroism.
Just because WikiLeaks’ Assange and Harrison no longer appear in the media daily doesn’t mean their contribution isn’t significant. Take the recent report published by Der Spiegel that showed western policy in Afghanistan aimed to kill as many Taliban leaders as possible, regardless of the number of civilians caught in the crossfire. The thinking was summarised by the head of the International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) intelligence in Afghanistan, who once said during a briefing: “The only good Talib is a dead Talib.”
This story built on the 2010 WikiLeaks release of Afghan war logs and uncovered yet another level of the “kill everything that moves” mentality that’s been unofficial US military policy since at least Vietnam.
The danger of discounting or ignoring WikiLeaks, at a time when much larger news organisations still can’t compete with the group’s record of releasing classified material, is that we shun a rebellious and adversarial group when it’s needed most. The value of WikiLeaks isn’t just in uncovering new material, though that’s important, it’s that the group’s published material is one of the most important archives of our time. I’ve lost count of the number of journalists and writers who tell me their work wouldn’t have the same insights without the State Department cables. My recent books have been similarly enriched.
States across the world talk of democracy and free speech but increasingly restrict information and its messengers.
“This war on whistleblowers is not ancillary to journalism, but actually it directly affects it,” says Trevor Timm, executive director of the Freedom of the Press Foundation. “It’s making it much more difficult for the public to get the information they need.”
WikiLeaks remains at the forefront of this struggle.