My weekly Guardian column:
Libya was sold as a glorious, liberating war. London’s Tory mayor Boris Johnson wrote in March 2011 that the overthrow of dictator Muammar Gaddafi was “of course … a good idea”. He was cautiously optimistic that a Western-led military campaign would not be a “disaster” like Iraq in 2003. “What kind of democracy do we hope will bloom in the desert soil, after decades in which political parties have been banned?” he mused.
Johnson was joined by a host of world leaders, journalists and humanitarian interventionists calling for overwhelming firepower to be deployed against the Libyan army. The western-backed Misrata militias killed Gaddafi and optimism about Libya’s future was in the air. The subject of Libya and the left was much-canvassed, including by Australian writer Guy Rundle, who wrote:
“For my money once a request was made for support [from Libyan rebels], and in explicit terms, honouring it was simply delivering on an implicit promise made by the notion of international solidarity.”
Current events prove this sentiment was badly misplaced, if not naïve. Libya is now divided by civil war, armed groups roam the streets and violence is ubiquitous. The United Nations and American ambassador have fled.
The New York Times last weekend explained the failure of the intervention instigators to invest enough time and energy in nation-building. “In the absence of a strong government,” journalist Kareem Fahim wrote, “a monstrous shadow state was emerging, centred on the power of militias made up of men who fought Colonel Gaddafi and never put down their arms.”
The delicate job of constructing an inclusive democracy since the fall of Gaddafi has been complicated by the extremism of Islamist forces, incompetence and corruption in the political class and the shift in global interest to other conflicts. Amnesty International reported just before the 2012 election that democratic institutions were weak, and were struggling to cope with the Misrata militias, who were engaged in ethnic cleansing and conducting arbitrary arrests and torture. This report was barely covered in the global press.
Libya is mostly ignored today because foreign correspondents are busier than ever. Although an army of brave freelancers and citizen journalists are invaluable when it comes to covering war, mainstream resources are dwindling. In a new book by reporter Anjan Sundaram, on his experiences as a stringer in Congo, he explains how the site of one of the worst genocides in modern times was largely ignored by editors in Western capitals.
“The Western news media are in crisis and are turning their back on the world”, he argued recently in the Times. “We hardly ever notice. Where correspondents were once assigned to a place for years or months, reporters now handle 20 countries each. Bureaus are in hub cities, far from many of the countries they cover. And journalists are often lodged in expensive bungalows or five-star hotels. As the news has receded, so have our minds.”
Libya has suffered this fate. After initial fascination with the Arab Spring reaching Tripoli, media interest dwindled and moved onto other places, such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and Palestine. There was little talk of the pragmatic reason London, Paris and Washington wanted access to Libya: huge oil reserves.
With chaos now descending across the state, and Libyan weapons spreading to Syria, Mali and beyond, the silence from those who backed the 2011 war is deafening. They’ve simply moved onto the next conflict, the next place to advocate intervention, the next editor and journalist guaranteed to completely ignore their record of backing the last disaster. Amnesia and eternal forgiveness are hallmarks of corporate punditry.
One of the leading arguments in favour of bombing Libya and overthrowing Gaddafi was the concept of “responsibility to protect” (R2P). It was constantly cited as a key justification for assisting the beleaguered Libyan population. David Cameron, the British prime minister, and former Australian foreign minister Gareth Evans, were just two of the prominent advocates of R2P in 2011.
Three years on, the crisis in Libya barely rates a mention, and R2P reeks of selective application. When British journalist Mehdi Hasan asked French philosopher Bernard Henri-Levy, a supporter of Western military action against Muslim states, whether he took any responsibility for the troubles in Libya in 2013, he ducked and weaved. He preferred to boast of his desire to bomb Syria. When asked whether a military force should be stationed in Palestine to defend its civilians, he admired Israel’s inherent humanity.
I feel like I’ve been writing this same column for over a decade, reminding politicians, journalists and commentators that the internet is the ultimate record of their advocacy for violence against unarmed peoples in Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine or Libya. With a record like this, it’s no wonder humanitarian intervention is associated with creeping colonialism.
We never hear any R2P backers pushing for a military intervention in Gaza to protect the Palestinians from Israeli missiles. Nobody is talking about protecting Egyptian civilians from the brutal, US-backed dictatorship in Egypt. Barely a word is raised to protect the repressed activists in Bahrain or Saudi Arabia. Whether it’s dressed up as solidarity, a responsibility to protect, or an intervention to prevent breaches of human rights, from Iraq to Libya these are grotesque experiments on helpless civilians, the conclusions of which are clear for us to see.
My following feature appears in the January edition of Britain’s New Internationalist magazine:
Outsourcing detention to private companies is a recipe for a disaster, says Antony Loewenstein.
Imprisoning immigrants is good for business. In the US it’s common for lobbyists hired by leading prison companies to magically convince officials to write legislation that benefits their bottom line.
US magazine The Nation revealed in June 2013 that the massive corporation Geo Group had used the firm Navigators Global to lobby both houses of Congress on ‘issues related to comprehensive immigration reform’. It’s obvious why: billions of dollars are there for the taking with bi-partisan support for locking up thousands of undocumented migrants.
Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the collusion between big business and government are the clauses inserted into contracts that ensure people remain behind bars. In 2012, a letter to 48 state governors from the country’s biggest for-profit private prison company, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), offered to purchase and run public state prisons. However, the deal required the states to sign a 20-year contract guaranteeing 90-per-cent occupancy during the period. The states refused to accept this lousy deal, but in Arizona three privately run prisons require a 100-per-cent occupancy or fines are incurred. This is vulture capitalism of the crudest kind.
The past 30 years have seen a global trend towards outsourcing prisons, detention centres, juvenile justice facilities, hospitals and a range of other essential services. Under the guise of ‘efficiency’, major political parties of the centre-left and centre-right have rushed to embrace the least transparent companies such as Serco, G4S, Dyncorp, Blackwater and others.
Politicians are seduced by the idea. Lavishly appointed trips organized by the contractor help to convince them that the state has no business managing public services. Democracy has suffered; services have not improved.
The problem is particularly acute in Australia. In 2011, I visited the Curtin Detention Centre, a desert camp for asylum-seekers, in the remote West. Around 1,000 men were warehoused there; Afghans, Iranians, Sri Lankans and others. British transnational Serco, which runs all of Australia’s detention centres, managed the place with ruthless efficiency. Australia has the dubious honour of being one of the few nations in the world that has outsourced its entire refugee network to private contractors.
I met Yugan, a Tamil asylum-seeker, in Curtin. He was in his mid-20s, spoke good English and was already knowledgeable about Australia after more than 18 months locked up in mandatory detention. He was warm, funny and inquisitive. Australian immigration officials and Serco guards gave him little information about his application for asylum – thousands of Tamils have arrived on Australian shores since the brutal end of the long-running Sri Lankan civil war in 2009 – and he did not know when he might be released into the community or forcibly returned to his unsafe homeland.
Why was Yugan locked up for so long in a high-security prison environment? Luckily, his story ended well. Granted a protection visa a few weeks after we met, he now lives in Perth, the capital of Western Australia. I saw him in October 2013 and he was adapting well to his new life. He regularly visited asylum-seekers who remained in detention, continued to campaign for justice in Sri Lanka and spoke at public rallies calling for a change in Australia’s asylum-seeker policy.
Not every story ends like this, of course. There are high incidences of self-harm, with many asylum-seekers languishing in detention for years and/or returned to unsafe countries. Post-release, many suffer mental trauma due to the extended time away from normal life.
The quest for profit can aggravate poor conditions in detention. When I spoke to Serco staff in Australia and a senior company whistleblower, they detailed the corporation hierarchy’s contempt for spending appropriate funds on support for staff or asylum-seekers in their care. Countless guards told me that they were suffering mental trauma after receiving little or no appropriate training before being thrust into remote centres alongside fragile refugees. The whistleblower explained that ‘there is no care about conditions [in detention], such as people sitting or lying in shit in tents, but it’s all about whether the right forms are filled in’.
Privatization lies at the heart of Australia’s asylum policy. In 2009, the then Labor government, under Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, signed a contract with Serco for AUS $370 million ($342 million). By 2013, that figure ballooned to over AUS $1.86 billion ($1.7 billion) though the exact figures are not known, such is the deliberate obfuscation of the contractual agreement (‘commercial-in-confidence’ agreements are the antithesis of transparent democracy).
The new conservative government of Tony Abbott has every intention of maintaining the outsourcing agenda and is expanding secretive camps for asylum-seekers on Nauru and Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island. Australia’s border policy is neo-colonialism with a cheque in one hand and a stick in the other.
Conditions in offshore detention are said to be even worse. A former detention manager on Manus Island told TV station SBS in July 2013, ‘in Australia, the facility couldn’t even serve as a dog kennel. The owners would be jailed.’
Of course, this is the neoliberal model, applied globally, so we should not be too surprised at the results. Despite the troubled records of Serco and G4S in Britain and beyond, successive Australian leaders are seduced by the concept of ‘efficiency’ and seem willing to outsource their own responsibility to firms that rarely exercise any of their own. It’s a recipe for human rights disasters.
In Britain, both Serco and G4S are currently being investigated by the country’s Serious Fraud Office for allegedly charging for tagging criminals who were imprisoned, dead or did not exist. The contracts were worth millions and Serco’s chief executive resigned.
Such news should disqualify the firms from being able to bid on other contracts. But David Cameron’s government is allowing G4S to run for future work, including probation services worth around $800 million. G4S earns roughly 10 per cent of its annual revenue from British government contracts, while Serco receives 25 per cent of work from the British tax-payer.
The list of human rights abuses by both companies is long. It includes the death of Angolan refugee Jimmy Mubenga at the hands of G4S guards in 2010. The fact that a private company is paid to deport people using rough, physical restraint shows the woeful state of government responsibility for the most vulnerable.
It does not have to be this way. In the US, growing numbers of states – including those run by Republicans – are ditching a failed model of enriching private prison corporations, and are sentencing fewer people to long prison terms. It’s hardly revolutionary, but it’s a start. Warehousing asylum-seekers is not reducing the number of desperate citizens globally searching for a better life and it only helps the bottom line of companies like Serco.
The New York Times editorialized in November 2013 that European prisons are a model the US should consider. However, Europe shouldn’t be idealized. Countries in the European Union, reflecting the continent’s rightward political shift, are hiring private detention centre companies to house asylum-seekers.
Ireland, Spain, Italy and France are already utilizing this failed approach and Greece, a nation with neo-Nazis in parliament, will be following shortly. The Greek Ministry of Public Order recently announced it would issue public tenders – designed for private security companies – to outsource six temporary detention facilities.
Treating refugees with respect, and releasing them into the community while their claims are processed, is a practical and humane way for states to behave towards individuals who deserve patience and investment. We have a choice between becoming insecure ghetto-dwellers, with private corporations to hide our dirty secrets; or a truly globalized world with inspiring values.
Antony Loewenstein is an Australian independent journalist and author of many books, including the 2013 Profits of Doom: How Vulture Capitalism is Swallowing the World’.
Strong piece in this weekend’s New York Times by Palestinian Omar Barghouti on the logic and increasing power of BDS [boycott, divestment and sanctions] against Israel:
The landslide vote by the American Studies Association in December to endorse an academic boycott of Israel, coming on the heels of a similar decision by the Association for Asian-American Studies, among others, as well as divestment votes by several university student councils, proves that B.D.S. is no longer a taboo in the United States.
The B.D.S. movement’s economic impact is also becoming evident. The recent decision by the $200 billion Dutch pension fund, PGGM, to divest from the five largest Israeli banks due to their involvement in occupied Palestinian territory has sent shock waves through the Israeli establishment.To underscore the “existential” danger that B.D.S. poses, Israel and its lobby groups often invoke the smear of anti-Semitism, despite the unequivocal, consistent position of the movement against all forms of racism, including anti-Semitism. This unfounded allegation is intended to intimidate into silence those who criticize Israel and to conflate such criticism with anti-Jewish racism.
Arguing that boycotting Israel is intrinsically anti-Semitic is not only false, it also presumes that Israel and “the Jews” are one and the same. This is as absurd and bigoted as claiming that a boycott of a self-defined Islamic state like Saudi Arabia, say, because of its horrific human rights record, would of necessity be Islamophobic.
The B.D.S. movement’s call for full equality in law and policies for the Palestinian citizens of Israel is particularly troubling for Israel because it raises questions about its self-definition as an exclusionary Jewish state. Israel considers any challenge to what even the Department of State has criticized as its system of “institutional, legal, and societal discrimination” against its Palestinian citizens as an “existential threat,” partially because of the apartheid image that this challenge evokes.
My weekly Guardian column is published today:
2013 was the year of Edward Snowden. The former NSA contractor, voted the Guardian’s person of the year (after Chelsea Manning the year before), unleashed a vital global debate on the extent of mass surveillance in the modern age. “Among the casualties”, writes one reporter, “is the assumption that some of the nation’s most carefully guarded secrets will stay secret.”
This is a uniformly positive development, despite the bleating from countless intelligence insiders, media commentators, the vast bulk of the US Washington elite and a media class that has largely forgotten how to operate without being on the official drip feed. The general public does not accept patronising claims by NSA backers that its tools are used to protect us from terrorism.
A mature debate about post 9/11 spying is essential, something that’s almost impossible to offer when politicians who should know better – I’m looking at you, Australian minister for communications Malcolm Turnbull – slam journalists for doing their job.
So in 2014, reporters have a choice: to either continue being regarded as untrustworthy pariahs (a recent Gallop poll in the US confirmed this belief amongst the general population), or as investigators on power. In this spirit, here are my suggestions for reporters to regain trust – so that all of us finally remember what adversarial journalism looks like in a robust democracy.
Be deeply skeptical of anonymously-sourced stories
Too many stories appearing in the mainstream media are sourced to one, often anonymous source. The Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance union states in its code of ethics that a reporter should “aim to attribute information to its source. Where a source seeks anonymity, do not agree without first considering the source’s motives and any alternative attributable source.” This is routinely breached as journalists prefer to receive sanctioned leaks from officials, government and opposition ministers and advisors and sympathetic business players. It’s lazy and counter-productive, because the story becomes little more than propaganda dressed-up with a byline. Journalists don’t need to leave their air-conditioned offices, and they rarely do.
Think of this year’s main story: Syria reportedly using chemical weapons against its own civilians (despite serious concerns about the truth of the claim and President Obama’s questionable use of intelligence, as raised in a recent article by legendary reporter Seymour Hersh that has barely raised a ripple). When the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights – a one-man operation in Britain – is so routinely cited as a source of Syrian casualties in the media, it becomes problematic. The truth from inside Syria is notoriously tough to get, but editors should acknowledge that they often do not know what’s happening on the ground.
Moreover, journalists should only grant anonymity to sources if it’s absolutely essential. The New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan chastised her paper for failing to learn the lesson of history (hello, Iraq and WMDs?) and continuing to allow officials to give a clear agenda without attribution. “ One part of the solution”, she wrote, “is for reporters to push back harder against sources who request anonymity. This may not work on high-stakes national security coverage, but it certainly will in other areas.” Too often journalists will allow a source to be quoted anonymously because they’re desperate to find legitimacy to boost their stories’ credibility. The result is a yarn that will please those in power, yet strong journalism should always bring discomfort for those elected to rule us.
No more opinion pieces by sitting politicians
Our media landscape is polluted by politicians pushing a partisan line. An example: on Christmas Eve, Australia’s Liberal assistant treasurer Arthur Sinodinos wrote in The Australian that the economy was once again booming after Labor administration’s apparent mismanagement. It’s a press release that any self-respecting editor would refuse to print. Likewise, ABC TV’s Q&A should ban politicians, because they offer little more than hackneyed lines produced by overpaid PR agents.
Decent media outlets would tell politicians (and the advisors who often write the columns) that political point-scoring is tiresome. The job of a robust press isn’t to simply provide a carte blanche for our leaders to freely pontificate.
Increasing the ‘Snowden effect’
The rolling coverage of documents leaked by Snowden will continue into 2014 but the big challenge, as Dan Gillmor articulates in the Nieman Journalism Lab, is to:
“use the documents to identify and amplify an issue of such importance and scope that it doesn’t flame up and out in the manner of most stories … In 2014 and beyond, journalists should be inspired by the Snowden effect. They should focus more on critical mass – how to achieve it and how to sustain it. If journalism is to matter, we can’t just raise big topics. We have to spread them, and then sustain them.”
Wikileaks pioneered this publishing model, with countless media outlets around the world covering documents that relates directly to their country. Many others should follow this inspiring lead. It’s the opposite of parochial reporting, and it forces often reluctant competing publications to collaborate on key stories. Competition for leads, and a refusal to recognise that the internet makes such old traditions close to obsolete, hampers innovative journalism.
Cherish the importance of public broadcasters
Who can forget James Murdoch, himself involved in the British phone hacking scandal, telling the Edinburgh TV festival in 2009 that the size of the BBC was “chilling” and that it was mounting a “land grab” in a competitive media market? “The corporation is incapable of distinguishing between what is good for it”, he said, “and what is good for the country.” Such sentiments are routinely mouthed by Murdoch hacks in Australia, where innumerable editorials dare to demand the ABC prostrate themselves before the surveillance state and not damage the “national interest”.
The BBC has its issues – more scrutiny should be applied to its war coverage – but its existence is a challenge to commercial interests and a threat to market fundamentalism. In Australia the ABC, successfully bullied during the Howard years from 1996 to 2007 and intimidated from pursuing countless controversial stories, faces renewed pressures to kowtow to government whims. Constant pressure works, often through self-censorship – something I examined in my book My Israel Question over the Middle East issue. Producers, journalists and editors must resist any attempt to remove or soften stories with the potential to embarrass the powerful. The inherent dangers of taxpayer funded media in such a climate are clear.
Please share below your ideas about how to bring greater strength to the media and mechanisms to hold journalism, governments and business to account. We’ll all benefit from sharing ideas rather than believing one person or group has all the answers.
This news is big and important (and ignore the typical and utterly tiresome accusations of anti-Semitism) and signals a growing shift to tackle Israel where it hurts; legitimacy. When you occupy Palestinians for decades, expect to pay a price.
An American organization of professors on Monday announced a boycott of Israeli academic institutions to protest Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, signaling that a movement to isolate and pressure Israel that is gaining ground in Europe has begun to make strides in the United States.
Members of the American Studies Association voted by a ratio of more than two to one to endorse the boycott in online balloting that concluded Sunday night, the group said.
With fewer than 5,000 members, the group is not one of the larger scholarly associations. But its vote is a milestone for a Palestinian movement known as B.D.S., for Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions, which for the past decade had found little traction in the United States. The American Studies Association is the second American academic group to back the boycott, movement organizers say, following the Association for Asian American Studies, which did so in April.
“It’s almost like a family betrayal,” said Manuel Trajtenberg, a leading Israeli scholar. “It’s very grave and very saddening that this happens, particularly so in the U.S.,” he said.
Dr. Trajtenberg, an economics professor at Tel Aviv University, earned his doctorate at Harvard and like many Israeli academics has had frequent sabbaticals at American universities.
Israel has strong trade ties with Western Europe, where the B.D.S. campaign has won some backing for economic measures, a particular concern for Israelis. Last week a Dutch company, Vitens, announced that it would not do business with Israel’s national water company, Mekorot, because of Israel’s policies in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
Israel recently faced a potential crisis when it seemed its universities and companies would lose out on some $700 million for research from a European Union program after new guidelines prohibited investment in any institutions operating in territory Israel seized in the 1967 war. Israeli academics were reeling at the possibility that they would be punished over government policy toward the Palestinians, until Israeli and European officials struck a deal late last month to allow Israel to participate.
In April, the Teachers’ Union of Ireland endorsed an academic boycott of Israel, and several times in recent years there have been strong efforts within Britain’s largest professors’ group, the University and College Union, to do the same.
Israelis have long seen Europe as more hostile — even anti-Semitic in some pockets — but a slap from the United States has a particular sting.
“Rather than standing up for academic freedom and human rights by boycotting countries where professors are imprisoned for their views, the A.S.A. chooses as its first ever boycott to boycott Israel, the sole democracy in the Middle East, in which academics are free to say what they want, write what they want and research what they want,” Ron Dermer, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, said Monday.
America is viewed not only as Israel’s staunchest ally, but its best friend, and many analysts have fretted publicly in recent weeks that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s outspoken opposition to the interim Iran nuclear deal had damaged relations with Washington.
Next month, the Modern Language Association’s annual meeting will debate a resolution calling on the State Department to criticize Israel for barring American professors from going to Gaza and the West Bank when invited by Palestinian universities.
People on both sides of the issue acknowledged that despite the heat it generates, the requested boycott will have little practical effect, at least for now. The American Studies Association resolution bars official collaboration with Israeli institutions but not with Israeli scholars themselves; it has no binding power over members, and no American colleges have signed on.
In fact, the American Association of University Professors, the nation’s largest professors’ group, said it opposed the boycott. A number of American scholars, while angry at Israeli policies in the West Bank, say they oppose singling Israel out over other countries with far worse human rights records. Others say it makes little sense to focus on Israeli universities where government policy often comes under strong criticism.
“O.K., so a couple of Israeli researchers will not be invited by a couple of American researchers,” said Avraham Burg, a leftist former Labor Party lawmaker who was one of the founders of Molad, a research group that recentlypublished a report on Israeli isolation. “That for me is awful, because the academic community is the last one with the freedom of thought and freedom of expression.”
But Omar Barghouti, a Palestinian activist and a founder of the B.D.S. movement, said the boycott vote shed light on the close collaboration between Israel’s universities and its government and military, and it put those universities on notice that they will become unwelcome in international academic circles.
“It is perhaps the strongest indicator yet that the B.D.S. movement is reaching a tipping point, even in the U.S., the last bastion of support for Israel’s unjust system,” he said.
This latest article in the New York Times highlights the ongoing suffering in Syria:
Fifty miles off the southeastern coast of Sicily, the refugee boat first appeared as a gray spot on the horizon, rising up or dipping away with the churn of the Mediterranean. Then, as an Italian Coast Guard rescue ship drew closer, the small boat came fully into view, as did the dim figure of a man, standing on the bow, waving a white blanket.
A child wore a SpongeBob life jacket. Smugglers had left them alone with a satellite phone and an emergency number in Italy: Save us, they pleaded to the Italians before the phone went dead. We are lost.
Capt. Roberto Mangione shouted for everyone to stay calm as he positioned his Coast Guard ship alongside the listing trawler. The Syrians, pale and beleaguered, started clapping. They had been at sea for six days, drinking fetid water, enduring a terrifying storm. One man combed his hair, as if preparing to greet his new life. A woman named Abeer, dazed and exhausted, thought: salvation, at last.
“I had nothing left in Syria,” she explained after stepping onto the rescue boat. She had fled with her husband and three teenage children. “We came with nothing but ourselves to Europe.”
The Syrian exodus has become one of the gravest global refugee crises of recent decades. More than two million people have fled Syria’s civil war, most resettling in neighboring Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon. But since this summer, refugees have also started pouring into Europe in what became for many weeks a humanitarian crisis in the Mediterranean. Over five months, Italy’s Coast Guard rescued thousands of Syrians, even as hundreds of other migrants, including many Syrians, died in two major shipwrecks in October.
Understanding the mentality, background and reason for asylum seekers coming to Australia is vital to humanise their stories.
The New York Times magazine has an incredible feature in its magazine this week, written by Luke Mogelson (background to the story here) and photographed by Joel Van Houdt, that stunningly captures the challenges, heartache and uncertainty of refugees desperately wanting to settle in Australia from Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and beyond.
This is one of the most lyrical and moving pieces of journalism I’ve read in ages:
It’s surprisingly simple, from Kabul, to enlist the services of the smugglers Australian authorities are so keen to apprehend. The problem was that every Afghan I spoke to who had been to Indonesia insisted that no Western journalist would ever be allowed onto a boat: Paranoia over agents was too high. Consequently, the photographer Joel van Houdt and I decided to pose as refugees. Because we are both white, we thought it prudent to devise a cover. We would say we were Georgian (other options in the region were rejected for fear of running into Russian speakers), had sensitive information about our government’s activities during the 2008 war (hence, in the event of a search, our cameras and recorders), traveled to Kabul in search of a smuggler and learned some Dari during our stay. An Afghan colleague of mine, Hakim (whose name has been changed to protect his identity), would pretend to be a local schemer angling for a foothold in the trade. It was all overly elaborate and highly implausible.
When we were ready, Hakim phoned an elderly Afghan man, living in Jakarta, who goes by the honorific Hajji Sahib. Hajji Sahib is a well-known smuggler in Indonesia; his cellphone number, among Afghans, is relatively easy to obtain. Hakim explained that he had two Georgians — “Levan” and “Mikheil” — whom he wished to send Hajji Sahib’s way. Hajji Sahib, never questioning our story, agreed to get Joel and me from Jakarta to Christmas Island for $4,000 each. This represents a slightly discounted rate, for which Hakim, aspiring middleman, promised more business down the road.
A few days later, we visited Sarai Shahzada, Kabul’s bustling currency market. Tucked behind an outdoor bazaar on the banks of a polluted river that bends through the Old City, the entrance to Sarai Shahzada is a narrow corridor mobbed with traders presiding over stacks of Pakistani rupees, Iranian rials, American dollars and Afghan afghanis. The enclosed courtyard to which the corridor leads, the exterior stairwells ascending the surrounding buildings, the balconies that run the length of every floor — no piece of real estate is spared a hard-nosed dealer hawking bundled bricks of cash. The more illustrious operators occupy cramped offices and offer a variety of services in addition to exchange. Most of them are brokers of the money-transfer system, known as hawala, used throughout the Muslim world. Under the hawala system, if someone in Kabul wishes to send money to a relative in Pakistan, say, he will pay the amount, plus a small commission, to a broker in Sarai Shahzada, and in return receive a code. The recipient uses this code to collect the funds from a broker in Peshawar, who is then owed the transferred sum by the broker in Sarai Shahzada (a debt that can be settled with future transactions flowing in reverse).
Edward Snowden, a hero not a traitor, has provided the world with an invaluable insight into the scope of NSA spying. Surveillance is rampant and literally everything is being scooped up. Resistance is both vital and timely.
No investment seems too great if it adds to the agency’s global phone book. After mounting a major eavesdropping effort focused on a climate change conference in Bali in 2007, agency analysts stationed in Australia’s outback were especially thrilled by one catch: the cellphone number of Bali’s police chief.
“Our mission,” says the agency’s current five-year plan, which has not been officially scheduled for declassification until 2032, “is to answer questions about threatening activities that others mean to keep hidden.”
The aspirations are grandiose: to “utterly master” foreign intelligence carried on communications networks. The language is corporate: “Our business processes need to promote data-driven decision-making.” But the tone is also strikingly moralistic for a government bureaucracy. Perhaps to counter any notion that eavesdropping is a shady enterprise, signals intelligence, or Sigint, the term of art for electronic intercepts, is presented as the noblest of callings.
“Sigint professionals must hold the moral high ground, even as terrorists or dictators seek to exploit our freedoms,” the plan declares. “Some of our adversaries will say or do anything to advance their cause; we will not.”
The N.S.A. documents taken by Mr. Snowden and shared with The Times, numbering in the thousands and mostly dating from 2007 to 2012, are part of a collection of about 50,000 items that focus mainly on its British counterpart, Government Communications Headquarters or G.C.H.Q.
While far from comprehensive, the documents give a sense of the agency’s reach and abilities, from the Navy ships snapping up radio transmissions as they cruise off the coast of China, to the satellite dishes at Fort Meade in Maryland ingesting worldwide banking transactions, to the rooftops of 80 American embassies and consulates around the world from which the agency’s Special Collection Service aims its antennas.
The agency and its many defenders among senior government officials who have relied on its top secret reports say it is crucial to American security and status in the world, pointing to terrorist plots disrupted, nuclear proliferation tracked and diplomats kept informed.
But the documents released by Mr. Snowden sometimes also seem to underscore the limits of what even the most intensive intelligence collection can achieve by itself. Blanket N.S.A. eavesdropping in Afghanistan, described in the documents as covering government offices and the hide-outs of second-tier Taliban militants alike, has failed to produce a clear victory against a low-tech enemy. The agency kept track as Syria amassed its arsenal of chemical weapons — but that knowledge did nothing to prevent the gruesome slaughter outside Damascus in August.
The documents are skewed toward celebration of the agency’s self-described successes, as underlings brag in PowerPoints to their bosses about their triumphs and the managers lay out grand plans. But they do not entirely omit the agency’s flubs and foibles: flood tides of intelligence gathered at huge cost that goes unexamined; intercepts that cannot be read for lack of language skills; and computers that — even at the N.S.A. — go haywire in all the usual ways.
That creates intense pressure not to miss anything. When that is combined with an ample budget and near-invisibility to the public, the result is aggressive surveillance of the kind that has sometimes gotten the agency in trouble with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, a United States federal court that polices its programs for breaches of Americans’ privacy.
In the funding boom that followed the Sept. 11 attacks, the agency expanded and decentralized far beyond its Fort Meade headquarters in Maryland, building or expanding major facilities in Georgia, Texas, Colorado, Hawaii, Alaska, Washington State and Utah. Its officers also operate out of major overseas stations in England, Australia, South Korea and Japan, at overseas military bases, and from locked rooms housing the Special Collection Service inside American missions abroad.
The agency, using a combination of jawboning, stealth and legal force, has turned the nation’s Internet and telecommunications companies into collection partners, installing filters in their facilities, serving them with court orders, building back doors into their software and acquiring keys to break their encryption.
But even that vast American-run web is only part of the story. For decades, the N.S.A. has shared eavesdropping duties with the rest of the so-called Five Eyes, the Sigint agencies of Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. More limited cooperation occurs with many more countries, including formal arrangements called Nine Eyes and 14 Eyes and Nacsi, an alliance of the agencies of 26 NATO countries.
The extent of Sigint sharing can be surprising: “N.S.A. may pursue a relationship with Vietnam,” one 2009 G.C.H.Q. document reported. But a recent G.C.H.Q. training document suggests that not everything is shared, even between the United States and Britain. “Economic well-being reporting,” it says, referring to intelligence gathered to aid the British economy, “cannot be shared with any foreign partner.”
As at the school lunch table, decisions on who gets left out can cause hurt feelings: “Germans were a little grumpy at not being invited to join the 9-Eyes group,” one 2009 document remarks. And in a delicate spy-versus-spy dance, sharing takes place even with governments that are themselves important N.S.A. targets, notably Israel.
The documents describe collaboration with the Israel Sigint National Unit, which gets raw N.S.A. eavesdropping material and provides it in return, but they also mention the agency’s tracking of “high priority Israeli military targets,” including drone aircraft and the Black Sparrow missile system.
The alliances, and the need for stealth, can get complicated. At one highly valued overseas listening post, the very presence of American N.S.A. personnel violates a treaty agreed to by the agency’s foreign host. Even though much of the eavesdropping is run remotely from N.S.A.’s base at Fort Gordon, Ga., Americans who visit the site must pose as contractors, carry fake business cards and are warned: “Don’t dress as typical Americans.”
“Know your cover legend,” a PowerPoint security briefing admonishes the N.S.A. staff members headed to the overseas station, directing them to “sanitize personal effects,” send no postcards home and buy no identifiably local souvenirs. (“An option might be jewelry. Most jewelry does not have any markings” showing its place of origin.)
Glenn Greenwald has set the bar high for provocative, original and challenging journalism (his latest interview on Democracy Now is here and here discussing NSA revelations and his new, online media venture).
He engages with New York Times columnist and former editor Bill Keller in a revealing exchange that highlights the fallacy of “impartial” and corporate journalism:
We come at journalism from different traditions. I’ve spent a life working at newspapers that put a premium on aggressive but impartial reporting, that expect reporters and editors to keep their opinions to themselves unless they relocate (as I have done) to the pages clearly identified as the home of opinion. You come from a more activist tradition — first as a lawyer, then as a blogger and columnist, and soon as part of a new, independent journalistic venture financed by the eBay founder Pierre Omidyar. Your writing proceeds from a clearly stated point of view.
In a post on Reuters this summer, media critic Jack Shafer celebrated the tradition of partisan journalism — “From Tom Paine to Glenn Greenwald” — and contrasted it with what he called “the corporatist ideal.” He didn’t explain the phrase, but I don’t think he meant it in a nice way. Henry Farrell, who blogs for The Washington Post, wrote more recently that publications like The New York Times and The Guardian “have political relationships with governments, which make them nervous about publishing (and hence validating) certain kinds of information,” and he suggested that your new project with Omidyar would represent a welcome escape from such relationships.
I find much to admire in America’s history of crusading journalists, from the pamphleteers to the muckrakers to the New Journalism of the ’60s to the best of today’s activist bloggers. At their best, their fortitude and passion have stimulated genuine reforms (often, as in the Progressive Era, thanks to the journalists’ “political relationships with governments”). I hope the coverage you led of the National Security Agency’s hyperactive surveillance will lead to some overdue accountability.
But the kind of journalism The Times and other mainstream news organizations practice — at their best — includes an awful lot to be proud of, too, revelations from Watergate to torture and secret prisons to the malfeasance of the financial industry, and including some pre-Snowden revelations about the N.S.A.’s abuse of its authority. Those are highlights that leap to mind, but you’ll find examples in just about every day’s report. Journalists in this tradition have plenty of opinions, but by setting them aside to follow the facts — as a judge in court is supposed to set aside prejudices to follow the law and the evidence — they can often produce results that are more substantial and more credible. The mainstream press has had its failures — episodes of credulousness, false equivalency, sensationalism and inattention — for which we have been deservedly flogged. I expect you’ll say, not flogged enough. So I pass you the lash.
There’s no question that journalists at establishment media venues, certainly including The New York Times, have produced some superb reporting over the last couple of decades. I don’t think anyone contends that what has become (rather recently) the standard model for a reporter — concealing one’s subjective perspectives or what appears to be “opinions” — precludes good journalism.
But this model has also produced lots of atrocious journalism and some toxic habits that are weakening the profession. A journalist who is petrified of appearing to express any opinions will often steer clear of declarative sentences about what is true, opting instead for a cowardly and unhelpful “here’s-what-both-sides-say-and-I-won’t-resolve-the-conflicts” formulation. That rewards dishonesty on the part of political and corporate officials who know they can rely on “objective” reporters to amplify their falsehoods without challenge (i.e., reporting is reduced to “X says Y” rather than “X says Y and that’s false”).
Worse still, this suffocating constraint on how reporters are permitted to express themselves produces a self-neutering form of journalism that becomes as ineffectual as it is boring. A failure to call torture “torture” because government officials demand that a more pleasant euphemism be used, or lazily equating a demonstrably true assertion with a demonstrably false one, drains journalism of its passion, vibrancy, vitality and soul.
Worst of all, this model rests on a false conceit. Human beings are not objectivity-driven machines. We all intrinsically perceive and process the world through subjective prisms. What is the value in pretending otherwise?
The relevant distinction is not between journalists who have opinions and those who do not, because the latter category is mythical. The relevant distinction is between journalists who honestly disclose their subjective assumptions and political values and those who dishonestly pretend they have none or conceal them from their readers.
Moreover, all journalism is a form of activism. Every journalistic choice necessarily embraces highly subjective assumptions — cultural, political or nationalistic — and serves the interests of one faction or another. Former Bush D.O.J. lawyer Jack Goldsmith in 2011 praised what he called “the patriotism of the American press,” meaning their allegiance to protecting the interests and policies of the U.S. government. That may (or may not) be a noble thing to do, but it most definitely is not objective: it is quite subjective and classically “activist.”
But ultimately, the only real metric of journalism that should matter is accuracy and reliability. I personally think honestly disclosing rather than hiding one’s subjective values makes for more honest and trustworthy journalism. But no journalism — from the most stylistically “objective” to the most brazenly opinionated — has any real value unless it is grounded in facts, evidence, and verifiable data. The claim that overtly opinionated journalists cannot produce good journalism is every bit as invalid as the claim that the contrived form of perspective-free journalism cannot.
My following article appears today in ABC Religion and Ethics:
Cholera is killing Haitian men, women and children. For three years the United Nations has refused to take full responsibility for its Nepalese peace-keepers bringing the deadly disease to a nation they were tasked to protect. More than 8,300 people have died and more than half-a-million citizens have been made sick. Even today, with overwhelming evidence of UN complicity, the organisation refuses to pay compensation to the victims.
The New York Times editorialised last week:
“there is no denying that the United Nations has failed to face up to its role in a continuing tragedy. It should acknowledge responsibility, apologize to Haitians and give the victims the means to file claims against it for the harm they say has been done them. It can also redouble its faltering, underfinanced response to the epidemic, which threatens to kill and sicken thousands more in the coming decade.”
It’s hard to get past the tragic irony of the situation. A devastating earthquake hits the nation in January 2010 and kills tens of thousands of people. Already weakened infrastructure is destroyed and the world rushes to help. More than three years later, the country remains mired independence on foreign aid and USAID contracts. Haiti is independent in name only.
When I visited Haiti in 2012, I saw a once proud people struggling to adapt to handouts. Poverty was rampant.Wikileaks documents prove that the United States uses Haiti as a battering ram against perceived enemies and demands authorities keep the minimum wage criminally low to benefit American multinationals.
My new book, Profits of Doom, aims to show that unparalleled amounts of aid and development routinely contributes to a nation going backwards, and that private corporations have a strong incentive to maintain the status quo of replacing the role of governments while providing inferior services. In reality – as I demonstrate in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea and across Australia – what I call vulture capitalism has led to unaccountable activities in the areas of war, intelligence, detention centres, aid, resources and mining.
Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop have pledged to reduce Australia’s aid budget. This was met by a wave of outrage by aid organisations and advocates, all claiming the most vulnerable across the world would be negatively affected.
Politicising Australia’s aid budget is nothing new – all governments use foreign assistance to push Australian business interests, such as Canberra backing Rio Tinto’s plans to re-open its polluting mine in Bougainville in Papua New Guinea – but there ismounting evidence that valuable programs will be cut by the new Coalition government. This should be challenged, but not without questions being raised about the effectiveness of Australia’s aid spending.
Across PNG I hear about organisations, like the Madang-based Bismarck Ramu Group, who are questioning successive PNG governments that are reliant on an Australian development model that has failed to lift the country out of poverty and instead backs environmentally destructive mining, such as BHP’s Ok Tedi mine.
There are alternatives – like tourism and agriculture – but they’re rarely as financially beneficial to Australian corporations. AusAid’s Mining for Development is implementing the wrong kind of assistance, something Australian NGO Jubilee is challenging through its #NotOnMyWatch campaign, demanding accountability for mining firms operating in challenging overseas environments.
Afghanistan is another country facing immense challenges, and yet Western involvement since 11 September 2001 has largely made the problems worse. Millions of American dollars has been mis-spent on failed programs and the Afghan people, once the vast bulk of Western troops leave by the end of 2014, will wonder what has been achieved over the last decade. A growing middle-class exists, enjoying bowling and frozen yoghurt, but only a tiny minority are able to afford these luxuries.
Copper mining, at the Mes Aynak site outside Kabul, is being touted as the possible saviour of the country, reaping billions for a select few elites. In reality, I can’t think of one developing country that has wisely extracted its resources to benefit the bulk of its population.
Aid isn’t the answer to Western guilt; it’s merely the beginning of a conversation.
Antony Loewenstein is an independent journalist and author of Profits of Doom: How Vulture Capitalism is Swallowing the World. You can listen to Antony in conversation with Andrew West on RN’s Religion and Ethics Report.