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.
My weekly Guardian column:
The details shocked. Shackled prisoners were treated like cattle, watched by their CIA interrogators. Testimony from one observer stated that men blindfolded and tied “were made to run down a steep hill, at the bottom of which were three throws of concertina barbed wire. The first row would hit them across the knees and they would plunge head first into the second and third rows of wire”.
This wasn’t CIA torture after the September 11 attacks, exposed in detail in a recent Senate report, but the Phoenix programme, instituted by the CIA and US, Australian and South Vietnamese militaries in Vietnam between 1965 and 1972 to “neutralise” the Vietcong. The result was more than 60,000 people tortured and killed. No senior politicians, generals or decision-makers were prosecuted for these crimes. A culture of immunity, despite occasional media and public outrage, thrived across the US.
Questioned before a US House operations subcommittee in the late 1960s to investigate widespread Phoenix-inspired torture, future CIA head William Colby used language that sounds familiar today. It’s just the official enemy that has changed. The “collateral damage” was justified, he said. Phoenix was “an essential part of the war effort … designed to protect the Vietnamese people from terrorism.”
In 2007, decades after its cessation, the CIA was still worried that the public felt Phoenix was an “unlawful and immoral assassination programme targeting civilians.” Instead, they claimed, it was “pacification and rural security programmes”.
Compare this to today’s CIA head, John Brennan, who defends his agency’s behaviour in the “war on terror” as doing a “lot of things right.” This arrogance only exists in an environment that doesn’t punish those who sanction abuses at the highest level and a mainstream media that gives equal time to torturers while virtually ignoring the victims. American torture’s grim legacy in Afghanistan is one of the least reported aspects of the last decade.
While it was the French who first introduced electrical torture to Vietnam, it was the Americans, writes journalist Mike Otterman in his book American Torture, who advised the Vietnamese “how to make the torture more painful and effective. Under American supervision, Vietnamese interrogators often combined electrical torture with sexual abuse”.
Otterman reminds us that US torture wasn’t an invention after the terror attacks of 2001 but part of a continuum of unaccountable US cruelty from Latin America to Asia, the Middle East and beyond. It’s revealing that this pedigree is so rarely explained or investigated in the rush to condemn (or praise, depending on your worldview) Washington-directed brutality under George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
This history is relevant during the current debate over post September 11 torture. The Senate report is an important contribution to the public record but the lack of any prosecution, censure or official condemnation goes to the heart of modern political culture. Obama has acquiesced in this position. The effect, writes journalist Andrew Sullivan, is that America has ensured that these crimes will occur again: “That will be part of his legacy: the sounds of a torture victim crying in the dark, and knowing that America is fine with it.”
A culture that celebrates television shows such as 24, Homeland and Spooks, where torture is central to capturing the bad guys and glamorises its use, makes real-life torment easier to justify or ignore. An Amnesty poll this year found 29% of Britons, higher than in Russia, Brazil and Argentina, believed torture could be justified to protect the public.
A Washington Post-ABC News poll taken after the release of the Senate torture report found that 59% of Americans felt that the CIA’s treatment of suspected terrorists was justified. This is in spite of the fact that one of the key findings in the US Senate report was that CIA torture was ineffective in hunting down extremists. Evidence from a US Senate armed services committee report into torture in 2009 found that such abuses were only guaranteed in bringing false confessions.
The Senate torture report has brought a handful of politicians demanding full transparency of their government’s role since 2001. The head of Britain’s Commons intelligence and security committee, Sir Malcolm Rifkind, wants Washington to release all documents showing London’s role in the CIA’s rendition programme though it’s sad he acknowledges London’s relative weakness when “requesting” the USA to hand over the details.
The silence has been deafening in Australia with no major politicians demanding openness from Canberra on its role under former prime minister John Howard in sanctioning the illegal incarceration of David Hicks and Mamdouh Habib. Independent MP Andrew Wilkie is one of the few modern politicians with a history of questioning the pernicious role of group-think in government. In 2004, he published a searing book, Axis of Deceit, on Australia’s real reason for overthrowing Saddam Hussein, and it wasn’t weapons of mass destruction. Thus far Wilkie has not commented on the CIA report, although he has accused the Abbott government of crimes against humanity for its treatment of asylum seekers.
The failure to punish torturers in the US fits neatly into a wider social malaise. The powerful don’t go to jail; it’s the weak that suffer for their foibles. The lack of any substantial prosecutions for Wall Street illegality is symptomatic of the rot inside the political class. Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi’s shows in his book The Divide how this occurs. “Obsessed with success and wealth and despising failure and poverty”, he argues, “our society is systematically dividing the population into winners and losers, using institutions like the courts to speed the process.”
When “we” break the law, it’s with benign intent and good intentions (an editorial in the Australian makes this spurious case). But when “they” do it, they’re criminals who should be punished. Elites protect elites. Where was the outcry when the CIA hired private mercenary company Blackwater after 9/11 to assassinate “enemies” in Afghanistan?
Instead of trials for those accused of endorsing torture, we’re left with articles, essays and works like The Trial of Donald Rumsfeld, “a prosecution by book”, written by the Centre for Constitutional Rights’ Michael Ratner. It’s a solid tome but desperately short of what’s required in a healthy democracy for individuals at the highest levels of government who order harsh crimes.
The ability of the state to retroactively justify illegal behavior when caught is a feature of every nation on earth, not just the US. But demanding other countries abide by international law, when western nations so blatantly ignore it, is the height of hypocrisy. The shocking details in the US Senate report demand accountability but there’s little public appetite for it.
Retired Navy JAG John Hutson warned in 2008 against trials for post 9/11 crimes because “people would lawyer up”, a tacit admission that the legal system is gamed by the wealthy and powerful to escape justice. There’s hardly a more illustrative example of the modern state’s failure.
My weekly Guardian column:
It’s a good time to be in the weapons business. Three of the leading US defence contractors, General Dynamics, Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin, are all making unprecedented profits.
In December, Northrop will host an event at the Australian War Memorial to mark the company’s expansion into the Asia-Pacific region. It will be launched by Federal defence minister David Johnson. It’s a curious location because, as Crikey’s tipster drily noted, “without the endeavours of arms companies stretching back centuries, there’d be significantly fewer Australians for the War Memorial to commemorate”.
Northrop’s US-based corporate HQ decided in the last 18 months to open a major office in Australia. In March the company purchased Qantas Defence Services, a firm that provides engine and aircraft maintenance to the Australian Defence Force and global militaries. It was an $80m deal. In September 2013, Northrop bought M5 Network Security, a Canberra-based cyber-security outfit.
Northrop appointed Ian Irving as CEO of the Australian outfit in June, as part of a plan to capitalise on the “strategically important market” of the Asia Pacific. The centrepiece of that plan is to give smaller enterprises in the defence space access to Northrop’s global supply chain. That’s nothing to be sneezed at: they’re a vital defence contractor for the US military and the company’s weapons have been used in Iraq, Afghanistan and beyond.
Irving explained to Australian Defence Business Review in July that he was pleased to sell the Australian government the firm’s MQ-4C Triton surveillance drones. The machines will be used to monitor the nation’s borders and protect “energy resources” off northern Australia. Northrop Grumman Australia is set to make up to $3bn from selling the drones. Countless European nations are equally desperate to use drones to beat back asylum seekers.
Despite all this, a Northrop spokesman assured me that the company’s growing presence in Australia has no connection to the Abbott government’s increase in defence spending.
As Northrop’s Australian expansion makes clear, arms manufacturing thrives in an integrated global defence space. Australia is an important market for that other military powerhouse, Israel. In 2010 leading Israeli arms company Elbit Systems sold a $300m command control system to the Australian military. In August 2013 Elbit announced the $5.5m sale of “an investigation system” to the Australian federal police that was tested in the occupied Palestinian territories of the West Bank and Gaza.
That’s a trend that has become commonplace since the 9/11 attacks. As the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported in August, “[Weapons companies] need to sell in the large international defence markets – where the products are scrutinized partly on the uses the IDF makes of them on the battlefield.”
In August pro-Palestinian activists climbed on the roof of Elbit’s Melbourne offices to protest its involvement in the recent Israeli military incursions in Gaza, after which the company’s share price soared. Amnesty International recently accused Israel and Hamas of committing war crimes during the war.
Defence contractors rarely stop with the profits from war and colonisation. In Britain, Lockheed Martin is now reportedly bidding for a massive National Health Service contract worth $2bn. In the US, Northrop was a presenting sponsor at a recent Washington DC event for honouring war veterans.
It’s rare to read about arms trading in the Australian press; even the country’s largest privately owned small arms supplier, Nioa, rarely registers beyond the business pages. Our politicians are also loathe to speak out, and are happy to have factories and bases in their electorates, and donations for their parties.
The Greens do oppose military trading with Israel. Leader Christine Milne tells me that, “given the continuing disregard by Israel of international calls to halt settlement expansion in the occupied Palestinian territories and the disproportionate response used against the people of Gaza, the Australian Greens have repeatedly called on the Australian government to halt all military cooperation and military trade with Israel”.
Greens senator Lee Rhiannon spoke in parliament last year, saying “if any of the military equipment that Australia has sold to Israel has been used in Israel’s deplorable wars in the Gaza strip which has killed thousands of civilians, the Australian government should be held accountable for this”.
Australia, the 13th largest spender on arms globally, has a choice. We can keep embracing these merchants of death, and the botched deals and waste that they bring. Or we can reject the the rise of Northrop and its associates, and refuse to participate in an investment culture that continues a cycle of violence both at home and abroad.
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.
Last night I appeared on ABCTV News24’s The Drum talking about ISIS, terrorism and Gough Whitlam’s collusion in the occupation of East Timor:
My weekly Guardian column:
It’s the swaggering and unthinking bravado that hits you. Australian prime minister Tony Abbott threatens to “shirtfront” Russian leader Vladimir Putin when he arrives in Australia for the G20. Moscow responds via Pravda by comparing Abbott to Pol Pot and Hitler. Australian senator Jacqui Lambie then praises Putin as a “strong leader” with “great values”.
This is what passes for mainstream political dialogue in 2014. It’s unsurprising that a recent Griffith University study found Australians are deeply disenchanted with the political process.
“We are no longer citizens, we no longer have leaders”, NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden told The New Yorker last week: “We’re subjects, and we have rulers.”
He articulates a feeling many of us have about the modern world, of the political and media elites merely shifting deck chairs on the Titanic while powerful interests consolidate power and reduce our privacy. It’s inconceivable today that a leading Australian politician would publicly condemn ubiquitous, global spying undertaken by the US through the Five Eyes intelligence sharing alliance. Apart from showing the effectiveness of the US lobby, it’s a sad reflection on our unquestioning subservience to US military and commercial interests.
Daily politics is often little more than theatre designed to distract us from the real issues of the day. Because parochial politicians have little power or willingness to challenge the fundamentals of our world – mass surveillance, vulture capitalism and endless war against ever-changing enemies – they prefer playing verbal games in futile attempts to protect us from the vagaries and unpredictability of the outside world. They fail because they benefit too much by maintaining the existing, unequal economic order.
Too many reporters are happy to play along, endlessly debating whether “shirtfronting” is appropriate language for a prime minister to articulate. It’s not, but what matters is how Australia celebrates ignorance on issues of truly great importance.
Take the recent discussion around the Abbott government’s changes to terrorism and surveillance laws. Apart from being supported by the Labor opposition – frontbencher Anthony Albanese’s belated and pointless disquiet over the laws was political posturing of the most transparent kind since his party had already acquiesced with them – it appeared that most politicians who heard the words terrorism and ISIS just waved the legislation through.
This week’s ABC Q&A featured Labor MP Kate Ellis and Liberal MP Kelly O’Dwyer and neither woman could adequately explain it. Co-panellist Julian Burnside tweeted: “Tonight’s #Qanda showed that at least two MPs had not actually read or understood the national security legislation they supported.”
In a healthy political culture, unlike ours, O’Dwyer and Ellis would be slammed for giving away our freedoms so casually. But this won’t happen because shows like Q&A elevate the art of banal conversations to an artform by expecting all guests to have opinions on issues over which they have no clue. That’s “democracy in action”.
This is not an argument for only “experts” to be heard in our media, far too often these are the same people who advocate war against any Muslim entity, but a call for public accountability of elected officials and journalists. Instead, we’re expected to believe that News Corporation’s Daily Telegraph tabloid, in a new TV ad featuring Liberal premier Mike Baird, isn’t a shameless attempt to proudly claim that Murdoch’s journalists aren’t insiders.
After all, Rupert’s great vision, expressed again recently to G20 finance ministers, is damning socialism, praising deregulation, small government and unfettered capitalism. Such thinking has helped him and his mates handsomely.
Australia is undergoing a Tea party revolution without the colourful Confederate flags. Apparently a t-shirt that reads, “if you don’t love it, leave” is a stirring paean to patriotism. Thanks, Miranda Devine. Liberal backbencher Cory Bernardi, here seen suspiciously smiling while sitting alongside real-life Muslims, is one of the most effective spear-carriers for the local movement. Like its American cousins, supporters talk of small government (except when it comes to finding money for defence and bombing Islamic nations), endorse hyper partisanship, oppose action on climate change, distrust non-Christians and non-Zionists and embrace insularity.
The past is celebrated, the future is feared and the present is up for grabs. Bernardi’s recent statements about his fear of Muslims and the supposed security threats of the niqab or burqa were a perfect Tea party tactic, allowing xenophobia out of the bottle with its message spread by reliable media courtiers. Abbott then rushed in to restore order and condemn the move while still expressing unease with the head-wear.
While some dissenters vehemently oppose Abbott’s worldview and his willingness to utilise stereotypical macho imagery, in reality this problem is bipartisan. Getting past the inconsequential rhetoric flourishes, Labor and its journalistic supporters offer a remarkably similar vision of fealty to Washington’s dictates. One of the central ways to break this predictable cycle is resisting the dishonest and incendiary Murdoch agenda that rewards mates and celebrates a blokey, Anglosphere myopia. It’s no wonder his publications are so keen to dutifully join any conflict with a new Muslim foe.
Yesterday I was interviewed by Melbourne’s Triple R Spoke program about the current war against ISIS, the Middle East and media blindness and complicity: