Essential recent event in New York with Glenn Greenwald of The Intercept, Laura Poitras, filmmaker and Barton Gellman of The Washington Post, talking about Edward Snowden, surveillance, censorship and brave reporting:
My weekly Guardian column is published today:
Official, government-mandated story telling should be treated with suspicion. How else to to separate the truth from hagiograhy?
Australian prime minister Tony Abbott was in Darwin last week-end to attend a welcome home ceremony for soldiers who fought in Afghanistan. “Australians don’t fight to conquer”, he said in a voice filled with emotion. “We fight to help, to build and to serve. So yes, it was worth it. The price was high but the cause was great and the success has been sufficient.”
Abbott announced that a national day of commemoration for the Afghan war will be held for the first time on 21 March 2015. It’s hard to imagine that this occasion will be anything other than a chance for the state to praise the soldiers who fought in the war, rather than any serious examination of our legacy in Uruzgan province, where 40 men died during our deployment and 261 were seriously wounded. Around 400 “military personnel” remain in the country.
On the ground in Afghanistan, the evidence for any long-lasting and positive legacy is lacking, with many infrastructure projects now abandoned. Britain faces a similar desultory result in the Helmand province.
The coming years will see plenty of celebration and reflection on the contribution of Australia (and Britain) to countless conflicts since the first world war. Author Thomas Keneally recently said he hoped that “no one says ‘Australia was born at Gallipoli’. Australia was born in 1901, and there needs to be a certain amount of de-mythologising. Let’s hope the historians win out over the politicians, who strike me as fairly jingoistic.”
Keneally was correct to call for a rational recollection of the horrors of war (“we let them down when they came back”) though it’s arguable whether Indigenous Australians would agree the country started in 1901. Aboriginal people already feel ignored by official historians, as shown in John Pilger’s documentary Utopia, when he visits the Australian War Memorial in Canberra and finds no recognition of Aboriginal involvement in our foreign or local, frontier wars.
Ask any soldier about the brutality of war – and I’ve spoken to many in Afghanistan – and few of them idealise the battle. Yes, tales of heroism are guaranteed and the latest Hollywood blockbuster Lone Survivor proves that there’ s still an appetite for an Afghan war movie without any Afghans. But the toll of post-traumatic stress, mental health problems, lost limbs and suicide, now an epidemic amongst returning US war veterans, cannot be ignored. Moreover, far too often in the western consciousness local, ethnic voices are diminished or ignored.
War isn’t glorious or beautiful but messy, bloody and destructive. Victory isn’t clean or pretty, a fact that any objective observer will recognise when assessing the the US occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, two wars with a very questionable outcome (an indisputable victory would perhaps embolden Canberra, London and Washington to embark on yet more colonial adventures). Instead, as Dirty Wars author Jeremy Scahill explains, the Obama administration now prefers covert assassination squads and drones to defang an unseen enemy.
So how should we, as a nation, remember the fallen and living, the disabled and broken, both our own victims and the ones we’ve created in foreign lands?
The job of governments who send men and women into battle is to insulate the public from the bloody mission, but our focus surely must be on avoiding futile and costly foreign wars for the sake of backing our bigger allies. I hope for a day when an Australian prime minister, along with both major sides of the political divide, have the moral fortitude to reject an American request for soldiers or grunt. The world is not designed to be conquered by newest weapons, fastest satellites, deadliest missiles and metadata-acquired intelligence.
James Brown, a former Australian army officer who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, argues in his new book Anzac’s Long Shadow that the lack of skeptical thinking, and excessive spending on first world war commemorations, is “creating a culture in which critical analysis is rare and difficult. That is very dangerous for a military that should be adapting to face new threats.” He’s right, to a point. And yet his vision remains narrow, as Brown then argues that, “it is bizarre and inexcusable that there is as yet no commissioned official military history of the conflicts in East Timor, the Solomons, Iraq or Afghanistan … Serving generals should be making the case to government for the urgent completion of these histories so that the military can learn and improve, but they are not.”
This is exactly the wrong way to approach history. The “official” version of wars are guaranteed to ignore what the public needs to know and feel (look at the Pentagon’s deeply dishonest rendering of the Vietnam war to commemorate the conflict’s 50th anniversary). The 2013 New York Times best-selling book, Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam, uncovers new research by journalist Nick Turse that torpedoes the idea that the infamous My Lai massacre was an anomaly. Instead, we discover that US forces routinely killed Vietnamese non-combatants on an industrial scale. Former US army medic Jamie Henry is just one man who tried to detail the atrocities committed by his unit, but the military ignored his allegations and shunned him.
The danger signs are here if we care to look, and a true reckoning of any military past is incomplete without hearing the testimony of all participants, not just our own.
This is the kind of real history that the late Howard Zinn tried to capture in A People’s History of the United States; unvarnished, honest, truthful. Is Australia even willing to begin a similarly sober conversation about our eagerness to join distant wars?
My weekly Guardian column is published today:
Years after America officially withdrew from the country it invaded in 2003, Iraq remains in chaos. The issue is largely ignored in the press these days, except for the occasional horrific tale of carnage. Nobody senior in the western world has found themselves in the dock defending their justifications for the war.
While examining the lack of legal oversight, the lack of planning or concern for the aftermath of the inevitable fall of Saddam Hussein, and the lack of parliamentary scrutiny preceding what amounted to a US war of aggression, it’s worth reflecting on the viability of making a peaceful, citizen’s arrest on former Australian prime minister John Howard for his central role in this story.
This idea has a clear and principled pedigree. In 2010, Guardian columnist George Monbiot initiated the ArrestBlair.org campaign for the purpose of rewarding anybody who made a peaceful citizen’s arrest of the former British leader. Blair was accused of “crimes against peace” and the crime of aggression. Because the political and media elites continue to insulate Blair and his colleagues from legal culpability over the Iraq war, alternative methods were required.
To this day, Iraqis are enduring insecurity, violence, kidnapping, sexual violence, extremism and terrorism. The legacy of the conflict is absolutely devastating. And yet the politicians who took America, Britain and Australia into the conflict work and play openly.
Howard, who led Australia into Iraq in 2003, remains a free man, lecturing around the world. He was given an award at Tel Aviv University this year for his “unwavering, courageous advocacy of the state of Israel spanning decades”, is often quoted in the media, and gave a talk at Sydney’s Lowy Institute in 2013 defending the morality of removing Hussein from power.
No apologies, no mea culpas and no serious questions followed. The vast bulk of the political elite prefers to ignore what transpired in 2003, and there are no serious calls to hold Howard accountable for alleged breaches of international law in joining George W Bush’s operation (Campaign for an Iraq War Inquiry is a notable exception).
In Britain, the Downing Street memo revealed the illegality of the war without a UN resolution. In Australia Howard’s government, according to countless interviews with insiders at the time, had no interest in gaining advice about the legality of the enterprise. Blindly supporting the US alliance, and a desire to crush a former American ally, was paramount. Then defence department head Ric Smith has said that he “was not aware of any senior official advising against it [going into Iraq] in my time .” In reality, John Howard ministers took no advice before joining the war.
The head of the department of prime minister and cabinet, Peter Shergold, told journalist Paul Kelly in his 2009 book The March of the Patriots that “it would be wrong to think they [Howard and then foreign minister Alexander Downer] were not interested in advice but the advice they wanted … was about the conduct of the war and capabilities, not the decision to go to war.”
Britain’s Chilcot inquiry, yet to release its report amidst accusations of political interference, heard in 2010 that every senior legal advisor at the Foreign Office before the war concluded that it breached international law. Despite these damning facts, Blair and his foreign secretary Jack Straw are seemingly immune from prosecution or even serious investigation.
This is where the power of the people becomes vital, if for only symbolic reasons, to highlight the institutional failure of our nominally democratic system to hold the highest office bearers to account. International law must apply to all.
This January, Monbiot praised the latest individual who confronted Blair, at a restaurant in London, and wrote that:
It has already succeeded in doing two things: keeping the issue – and the memories of those who have been killed – alive, and sustaining the pressure to ensure that international law binds the powerful as well as the puny.
The evidence against Howard is long and detailed. He has continued to claim it was “near universal” that Saddam had WMDs and Iraq was therefore a threat to the world. In fact, countless officials, insiders,weapons inspectors and secret services questioned the accuracy of these “slam dunk” assessments. The head of Britain’s MI6 told Blair in 2002 that “the intelligence and facts are being fixed around the policy.” In Australia, senior intelligence officer Andrew Wilkie resigned in 2003 over his claims that Howard was abusing intelligence reports over Iraq. No independent legal advice was sought, and therefore the party cabinet decision on war was not a transparent process .
Even former Howard government minister, Nick Minchin, admitted in 2010 that he regretted Australia was “not able to be more successful in persuading the Bush administration to remain focused on Afghanistan rather than in opening up another front in Iraq.” Minchin argued that he “knew that the decision [to invade Iraq] having been made, Australia had to support it.” There was no mention of legal advice supporting Canberra’s entry into the conflict.
Margaret Swieringa, a senior Australian public servant who worked as a secretary to the federal parliamentary intelligence committee from 2002 until 2007, wrote in 2013 that Howard’s use of intelligence reports was fundamentally flawed. She knew, as an insider, that, “none of the government’s arguments [of Iraq’s apparent immediate threat] were supported by the intelligence presented to it by its own agencies. None of these arguments were true.”
A campaign to hold Howard to account wouldn’t be a stunt. It would be a serious attempt to keep the most devastating war in a generation in the public arena by reminding those most implicated that there is a price to be paid if such actions are ever repeated again.
A full public inquiry into the Iraq war, including the war powers used by Howard to take Australia into a conflict opposed by a great number of Australian people, is required.
A stunning work from the new investigative site The Intercept – founded by Jeremy Scahill, Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald, the articles already speak for themselves; critical, punchy and unafraid to take on power – reveals the British and American attempts to destroy Wikileaks and attack its supporters. As a backer of Wikileaks since the beginning, in 2006, I continue to believe its documents are some of the most important this century:
Top-secret documents from the National Security Agency and its British counterpart reveal for the first time how the governments of the United States and the United Kingdom targeted WikiLeaks and other activist groups with tactics ranging from covert surveillance to prosecution.
The efforts – detailed in documents provided previously by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden – included a broad campaign of international pressure aimed not only at WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, but at what the U.S. government calls “the human network that supports WikiLeaks.” The documents also contain internal discussions about targeting the file-sharing site Pirate Bay and hacktivist collectives such as Anonymous.
One classified document from Government Communications Headquarters, Britain’s top spy agency, shows that GCHQ used its surveillance system to secretly monitor visitors to a WikiLeaks site. By exploiting its ability to tap into the fiber-optic cables that make up the backbone of the Internet, the agency confided to allies in 2012, it was able to collect the IP addresses of visitors in real time, as well as the search terms that visitors used to reach the site from search engines like Google.
Another classified document from the U.S. intelligence community, dated August 2010, recounts how the Obama administration urged foreign allies to file criminal charges against Assange over the group’s publication of the Afghanistan war logs.
A third document, from July 2011, contains a summary of an internal discussion in which officials from two NSA offices – including the agency’s general counsel and an arm of its Threat Operations Center – considered designating WikiLeaks as “a ‘malicious foreign actor’ for the purpose of targeting.” Such a designation would have allowed the group to be targeted with extensive electronic surveillance – without the need to exclude U.S. persons from the surveillance searches.
In 2008, not long after WikiLeaks was formed, the U.S. Army prepared a report that identified the organization as an enemy, and plotted how it could be destroyed. The new documents provide a window into how the U.S. and British governments appear to have shared the view that WikiLeaks represented a serious threat, and reveal the controversial measures they were willing to take to combat it.
In a statement to The Intercept, Assange condemned what he called “the reckless and unlawful behavior of the National Security Agency” and GCHQ’s “extensive hostile monitoring of a popular publisher’s website and its readers.”
“News that the NSA planned these operations at the level of its Office of the General Counsel is especially troubling,” Assange said. “Today, we call on the White House to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate the extent of the NSA’s criminal activity against the media, including WikiLeaks, its staff, its associates and its supporters.”
Illustrating how far afield the NSA deviates from its self-proclaimed focus on terrorism and national security, the documents reveal that the agency considered using its sweeping surveillance system against Pirate Bay, which has been accused of facilitating copyright violations. The agency also approved surveillance of the foreign “branches” of hacktivist groups, mentioning Anonymous by name.
The documents call into question the Obama administration’s repeated insistence that U.S. citizens are not being caught up in the sweeping surveillance dragnet being cast by the NSA. Under the broad rationale considered by the agency, for example, any communication with a group designated as a “malicious foreign actor,” such as WikiLeaks and Anonymous, would be considered fair game for surveillance.
Julian Sanchez, a research fellow at the Cato Institute who specializes in surveillance issues, says the revelations shed a disturbing light on the NSA’s willingness to sweep up American citizens in its surveillance net.
“All the reassurances Americans heard that the broad authorities of the FISA Amendments Act could only be used to ‘target’ foreigners seem a bit more hollow,” Sanchez says, “when you realize that the ‘foreign target’ can be an entire Web site or online forum used by thousands if not millions of Americans.”
My weekly Guardian column is published below:
The sight of Australian citizens associated with the WikiLeaks party sitting and chatting with Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad during their recent “solidarity mission”, along with their comments about the regime, is a damning indictment on a party that ran a dismal election campaign in 2013 and has never bothered to explain its subsequent collapse.
For WikiLeaks supporters such as myself (I have been backing the group since 2006), this latest PR exercise is nothing more than an act of stunning political bastardry. It does nothing to push for true peace in Syria, and essentially amounts to a propaganda coup for a brutal dictatorship. It’s also a slap in the face to the WikiLeaks backers who are still expecting answers about why the party imploded without public review or reflection.
The problem isn’t meeting Assad himself. He’s the (unelected) leader of Syria and an essential part of any resolution of the conflict, still supported by many Syrians who fear Islamic fundamentalism. Saudi Arabian-backed extremism across the Middle East, implicitly supported by the Western powers now focused on Assad’s butchery, is spreading sectarian carnage by pitting Sunni against Shia, leading to the death of thousands. Syrian civilians are suffering the full brunt of this madness. Saudi funding for Syrian “rebels” – in essence backing Al-Qaida terrorism – is repeating the playbook used against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, enriching militants in a battle that will inevitably come back to bite the Saudis and their Western allies.
A third way is, for the time being, out of sight. And in this context, it’s hard to see how the WikiLeaks party can judiciously show solidarity to Syria’s besieged people.
When the WikiLeaks party delegation returned to Australia, various members expressed their views about the trip. Activist Jamal Daoud, who wrote in 2012 that he supported Assad, blogged that he had heard while in Syria that “the alternative to the regime is total chaos.” Although acknowledging that meetings were held with both regime and rebel representatives, Daoud clearly believes that the regime remaining in place is the ideal outcome.
John Shipton, chief executive of the party and the father of Julian Assange, spoke to ABC Radio in Melbourne to defend the mission. He mouthed the talking points of the regime itself – that they’re fighting terrorism in cities and towns across the country – and claimed that the WikiLeaks party is planning to set up an office in Damascus in 2014. “We’ll continue to expose the truth to the Australian people and to our international audience”, he said. Shipton added that as the delegation walked around Damascus, they found “a lot of support for the government” – which is undoubtedly true, but likely to be similar to journalists being taken around by minders from Saddam Hussein in Iraq and finding nearly universal backing for the dictator.
Sydney University academic Tim Anderson – who wrote in 2007 that Cuba is a democracy and the US is not, ignoring the lack of an open press and the Castro brothers’ authoritarian ruling in the process – also defended his participation in the mission after The Australian newspaper attacked him. He went on to state: “forget the absurd myth of a single man [Assad] ‘killing his own people’. That line is designed to pull the wool over our eyes. This is a ‘regime change’ exercise that went wrong, because Syria resisted.”
It is deeply problematic that Anderson and other side players downplay or brush aside the gross abuses committed by the regime, which have occurred both during the war and during Bashar and his father Hafez’s decades-long rule.
Considering how the mainstream media will spin such a trip must be a major consideration when talking about “truth” in a modern, complex war. How support for a peaceful resolution practically occurs when facts on the ground are notoriously difficult to assess should be the heart of the matter. Instead, it appears that the WikiLeaks party was caught up in an inevitable maelstrom of their own naive making. If you visit Syria and are pictured meeting Assad, you should make damn sure you’re on the front foot to rebut the likely criticisms and provide a cogent and detailed rebuttal to what you saw, and why a few WikiLeaks party members from Australia can make any difference to the war. You should also know that any “solidarity mission” to Syria will be used by either side as a way to bolster their claims and defend their own crimes, of which there have been plenty by all sides.
Moral and political clarity is vital – which is why, for example, the late Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez was rightly condemned in my view after he voiced support for Iran and Syria in the process of opposing ”US imperialism“, and refused to oppose human rights abuses in both nations. Equally, being a supporter of the Palestinians’ right to self-determination shouldn’t automatically lead to backing Fatah or Hamas, two groups with a documented record of abusing their own citizens.
The situation in Syria is dire, with dirty hands on all sides. As it stands, the solution is not with the Baath party, nor the Al-Qaida-aligned rebels – but this is a decision for the Syrian people to decide. Encouraging a peaceful settlement and negotiations must be the goal. The WikiLeaks organisation remains an essential tool in holding governments to account, but its Australian-based party’s visit to Syria exposes the dangers of believing that the “enemy’s enemy is my friend”. It is not.
Nick Turse is one of America’s most concise chroniclers of empire.
His latest essay in TomDispatch attempts to gain information about the real number of US special operation forces operating across the globe. It’s a tough task but goes to the heart of what America has become:
This year, Special Operations Command has plans to make major inroads into yet another country — the United States. The establishment of SOCNORTH in 2014, according to the command, is intended to help “defend North America by outpacing all threats, maintaining faith with our people, and supporting them in their times of greatest need.” Under the auspices of U.S. Northern Command, SOCNORTH will have responsibility for the U.S., Canada, Mexico, and portions of the Caribbean.
While Congressional pushback has thus far thwarted Admiral McRaven’s efforts to create a SOCOM satellite headquarters for the more than 300 special operators working in Washington, D.C. (at the cost of $10 million annually), the command has nonetheless stationed support teams and liaisons all over the capital in a bid to embed itself ever more deeply inside the Beltway. “I have folks in every agency here in Washington, D.C. — from the CIA, to the FBI, to the National Security Agency, to the National Geospatial Agency, to the Defense Intelligence Agency,” McRaven said during a panel discussion at Washington’s Wilson Center in 2013. Referring to the acronyms of the many agencies with which SOCOM has forged ties, McRaven continued: “If there are three letters, and in some cases four, I have a person there. And they have had a reciprocal agreement with us. I have somebody in my headquarters at Tampa.” Speaking at Ronald Reagan Library in November, he put the number of agencies where SOCOM is currently embedded at 38.
“Given the importance of interagency collaboration, USSOCOM is placing greater emphasis on its presence in the National Capital Region to better support coordination and decision making with interagency partners. Thus, USSOCOM began to consolidate its presence in the NCR [National Capitol Region] in early 2012,” McRaven told the House Armed Services Committee last year.
One unsung SOCOM partner is U.S. AID, the government agency devoted to providing civilian foreign aid to countries around the world whose mandate includes the protection of human rights, the prevention of armed conflicts, the provision of humanitarian assistance, and the fostering of “good will abroad.” At a July 2013 conference, Beth Cole, the director of the Office of Civilian-Military Cooperation at U.S. AID, explained just how her agency was now quietly aiding the military’s secret military.
“In Yemen, for example, our mission director has SVTCs [secure video teleconferences] with SOCOM personnel on a regular basis now. That didn’t occur two years ago, three years ago, four years ago, five years ago,” Cole said, according to a transcript of the event. But that was only the start. “My office at U.S. AID supports SOF pre-deployment training in preparation for missions throughout the globe… I’m proud that my office and U.S. AID have been providing training support to several hundred Army, Navy, and Marine Special Operations personnel who have been regularly deploying to Afghanistan, and we will continue to do that.”
Cole noted that, in Afghanistan, U.S. AID personnel were sometimes working hand-in-hand on the Village Stability Operation initiative with Special Ops forces. In certain areas, she said, “we can dual-hat some of our field program officers as LNOs [liaison officers] in those Joint Special Operations task forces and be able to execute the development work that we need to do alongside of the Special Operations Forces.” She even suggested taking a close look at whether this melding of her civilian agency and special ops might prove to be a model for operations elsewhere in the world.
It’s the first day of 2014 and what a way to begin the new year.
Today’s Australian newspaper features this story on page one by Jared Owens and Rick Morton. As a Wikileaks supporter since 2006, right from the beginning (and I remain a public backer of the organisation), it’s tragic to see the Wikileaks Party in Australia, after a disastrous 2013 election campaign, descend into political grandstanding. My comments below were based around tweets I sent a few days ago to former Wikileaks Campaign Director Greg Barns.
The conflict in Syria is filled with Western and Saudi hypocrisy and brutality on all sides:
Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has condemned the WikiLeaks Party’s “extremely reckless” meeting with Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, warning the foray is “deeply counterproductive” and undermines sanctions placed on the pariah regime.
But John Shipton, who is Julian Assange’s father and chief executive of the WikiLeaks Party, defended his decision to meet Assad, saying it was better than siding with “the liver-eaters and the head-choppers” of the rebel opposition.
Some of WikiLeaks’ most steadfast supporters, however, joined the government and opposition in condemning the “solidarity mission” to Syria that toured Damascus and was shown in state-run media visiting senior members of the regime.
Police also disputed the regime’s claims to the delegation that Canberra had “turned a blind eye” to a prominent Sydney imam who was allegedly “responsible for” the kidnapping of 106 women and children during a massacre of civilians by jihadi rebels on August 4.
The Foreign Minister warned that the WikiLeaks mission, which claimed to represent Australia, “could be interpreted as a show of support for President Assad’s behaviour”.
“I find it extraordinarily reckless that an organisation registered as a political party in Australia would seek to insert itself into the conflict in Syria and engage with a leader accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity, including using chemical weapons against his own people,” Ms Bishop told The Australian.
“Their actions could be interpreted as a show of support for President Assad’s behaviour. Further, the Syrian regime is subject to wide-ranging sanctions and WikiLeaks’ actions are deeply counterproductive.
“Australia, as a member of the UN Security Council, is actively pursuing humanitarian efforts in Syria. It is not a place for political parties to pursue their political ends.”
Mr Shipton insisted his party’s enemies would attempt to smear the “fact-finding” mission to Syria.
He claimed the mission mirrored international efforts to find a peaceful solution to the conflict after almost three years of bloodshed and more than 125,000 deaths.
“We’re clearly on the right side of history here, and who would want to be on the side of the liver-eaters and the head-choppers that plague the poor people of Syria?” Mr Shipton said.
“I have no interest in supporting the Syrian government at all, or the opposition. That’s their thing they fight about.
“I’m interested in the effect on the people of Syria and the strategies the contending (regional and world) powers are putting into place there.
“In Damascus they’ve got four hours of electricity a day and random mortar fire at night … You could smell the aftermath of gunfire in the air.”
Mr Shipton was spending New Year’s Eve with Mr Assange, who is being harboured in the Ecuadorian embassy in London.
Ecuador supports the Syrian government and has offered asylum to Assad and his inner circle if they ask for it.
Author Antony Loewenstein, a supporter of WikiLeaks, backed “peaceful dialogue” with Assad but insisted the WikiLeaks Party’s solidarity mission “whitewashes the crimes of the regime”.
“It’s sad to see the WikiLeaks Party visit Syria and show ‘solidarity’ with Assad, a brutal dictator who is responsible for the death of countless civilians. The Saudi and Western-backed ‘rebels’ are equally complicit in war crimes,” Mr Loewenstein said. The head of the Islamic Friendship Association, Keysar Trad, accused the WikiLeaks Party of blatant hypocrisy for giving Assad the publicity coup of being visited by an Australian delegation.
“It’s very disappointing to see WikiLeaks, which supports openness and human rights, to be meeting with one of the biggest human rights abusers of our time,” Mr Trad said.
“It’s disrespectful to all the families who have been victims of the Assad regime.”
Mr Trad defended the prominent Sydney imam whom Syrian officials claimed was involved in the kidnapping of 106 women and children during a massacre of civilians by rebels in the province of Latakia on August 4.
These claims were made to the WikiLeaks delegation.
Mr Trad said he personally knew the imam, describing him as an eminent scholar and respected member of the Australian community.
It was implausible that the sheik would have been involved in any form of violent activity in Syria, he said.
NSW Police Deputy Commissioner Nick Kaldas yesterday said NSW Police had not heard of any such claims against the imam. Mr Kaldas said federal agencies would routinely alert NSW Police about any such allegations concerning someone from NSW.
Opposition frontbencher Chris Bowen described the WikiLeaks mission as an “extraordinary” and “irresponsible” development that was “surprising even for them”.
“The Assad regime has been widely criticised, and correctly criticised around the world, and for an Australian political party to think it’s sensible to go and have discussions and try to provide some legitimacy is something which they have to explain and they would find very difficult to explain how that’s a sensible, responsible or appropriate thing to do,” Mr Bowen.
But three other senior WikiLeaks party figures – former Senate candidates Alison Broinowski, Gerry Georgatos and deputy chairman Omar Todd – backed the delegation’s motives.
Mr Georgatos likened it to the first olive branches offered to South African leaders that ultimately dismantled apartheid.
The Greens declined an opportunity to comment.
Mr Shipton said individual delegates – himself, University of Sydney academic Tim Anderson (who was acquitted of the 1978 Sydney Hilton bombing), Sydney Shia activist Jamal Daoud and WikiLeaks activist Gail Malone – paid the “pretty weighty” cost of the tour. But he declined to estimate how much he had paid.
He denied seeking any favours from the Syrian regime, saying they “were getting impatient with us and were glad to see us gone”.
Mr Shipton said he had asked a team of Syrian journalists to become their Damascus “transparency office”, sending “proper information” back to Sydney about the conflict.
“We did find, wandering around the place talking to people, a lot of support for the government. They seemed to be quite warm towards their government and as the crisis has unfolded their support has grown,” he said.
Their translator, western Sydney-based Mr Daoud, is a well-known opponent of the anti-Assad insurgency.
Mr Shipton said there were no formal links between the WikiLeaks Party and Dr Anderson, a former member of the Ananda Marga religious sect who was jailed and later acquitted of the terrorist bombing of the Sydney Hilton that killed two council workers and a police officer in 1978.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING: EAN HIGGINS, CAMERON STEWART
UPDATE: The Guardian published the following story about this Wikileaks story on 1 January by Oliver Milman:
WikiLeaks has revealed it did not “know or approve” of its Australian political party’s visit to Syria to meet Bashar al-Assad, amid criticism from both the government and Labor over the trip.
A WikiLeaks party delegation, reportedly including its founder Julian Assange’s father, John Shipton, held talks with a number of high-ranking Syrian officials, with a picture released by the Syrian government of ameeting with the president himself.
Before the visit, the party stated it was going as part of its “peace and reconciliation” efforts, as well as warning over the dangers of western intervention into the bloody three-year Syrian civil war. Shipton said he wanted to show “solidarity” with the Syrian people and told a local TV station that WikiLeaks would be opening an office in Damascus this year.
But WikiLeaks has distanced itself from the trip, saying via Twitter that while peace brokering is a “good idea”, it “did not know or approve” of the delegation’s visit to Syria.
Julie Bishop, the Australian foreign affairs minister, said Syria was not a place for “political parties to pursue their political ends”.
“I find it extraordinarily reckless that an organisation registered as a political party in Australia would seek to insert itself into the conflict in Syria and engage with a leader accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity, including using chemical weapons against his own people,” Bishop told The Australian newspaper.
“Their actions could be interpreted as a show of support for President Assad’s behaviour. Further, the Syrian regime is subject to wide-ranging sanctions and WikiLeaks’ actions are deeply counterproductive”.
Labor has also criticised the visit, with Chris Bowen, the shadow treasurer, calling the decision “extraordinary”.
“The Assad regime has been widely criticised and correctly criticised around the world,” he said.
“And for an Australian political party to think it’s sensible to go and have discussions and try and provide some legitimacy, is something I think which they have to explain.”
It’s understood that the visit was initially intended as a “fact-finding” mission before meetings with Syrian government officials were brokered. Members of the visiting group, which included the academic Tim Anderson and activists Jamal Daoud and Gail Malone, are expected back in Australia next week.
Several former members of the WikiLeaks party have told Guardian Australia the trip has caused further consternation within the party, which was formed last year but endured a fraught federal election campaign after several of its candidates resigned amid dissatisfaction over preferencing and internal party processes.
Antony Loewenstein, an author and long-term supporter of WikiLeaks – although never a member of the political party – told Guardian Australia the situation was a “sad state of affairs”.
“I don’t think meeting Assad is the issue, although he is a brutal dictator, no doubt about it,” he said. “The problem is the optics of it, that they are being used as a prop by a regime that has undeniably killed tens of thousands or more civilians.”
The WikiLeaks party has been contacted for comment on the trip but not responded.
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.
2013 is undeniably the year that former NSA contractor Edward Snowden released documents to challenge the fundamentals of the surveillance state.
He’s remained relatively out of the media but in this exclusive Washington Post interview he eloquently explains the importance of a free society and what unaccountable power looks like (and why it must stopped):
The familiar voice on the hotel room phone did not waste words.
“What time does your clock say, exactly?” he asked.
He checked the reply against his watch and described a place to meet.
“I’ll see you there,” he said.
Edward Joseph Snowden emerged at the appointed hour, alone, blending into a light crowd of locals and tourists. He cocked his arm for a handshake, then turned his shoulder to indicate a path. Before long he had guided his visitor to a secure space out of public view.
During more than 14 hours of interviews, the first he has conducted in person since arriving here in June, Snowden did not part the curtains or step outside. Russia granted him temporary asylum on Aug. 1, but Snowden remains a target of surpassing interest to the intelligence services whose secrets he spilled on an epic scale.
Late this spring, Snowden supplied three journalists, including this one, with caches of top- secret documents from the National Security Agency, where he worked as a contractor. Dozens of revelations followed, and then hundreds, as news organizations around the world picked up the story. Congress pressed for explanations, new evidence revived old lawsuits and the Obama administration was obliged to declassify thousands of pages it had fought for years to conceal.
Taken together, the revelations have brought to light a global surveillance system that cast off many of its historical restraints after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Secret legal authorities empowered the NSA to sweep in the telephone, Internet and location records of whole populations. One of the leaked presentation slides described the agency’s “collection philosophy” as “Order one of everything off the menu.”
Six months after the first revelations appeared in The Washington Post and Britain’s Guardian newspaper, Snowden agreed to reflect at length on the roots and repercussions of his choice. He was relaxed and animated over two days of nearly unbroken conversation, fueled by burgers, pasta, ice cream and Russian pastry.
Snowden offered vignettes from his intelligence career and from his recent life as “an indoor cat” in Russia. But he consistently steered the conversation back to surveillance, democracy and the meaning of the documents he exposed.
“For me, in terms of personal satisfaction, the mission’s already accomplished,” he said. “I already won. As soon as the journalists were able to work, everything that I had been trying to do was validated. Because, remember, I didn’t want to change society. I wanted to give society a chance to determine if it should change itself.”
“All I wanted was for the public to be able to have a say in how they are governed,” he said. “That is a milestone we left a long time ago. Right now, all we are looking at are stretch goals.”
‘Going in blind’
Snowden is an orderly thinker, with an engineer’s approach to problem-solving. He had come to believe that a dangerous machine of mass surveillance was growing unchecked. Closed-door oversight by Congress and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court was a “graveyard of judgment,” he said, manipulated by the agency it was supposed to keep in check. Classification rules erected walls to prevent public debate.
Toppling those walls would be a spectacular act of transgression against the norms that prevailed inside them. Someone would have to bypass security, extract the secrets, make undetected contact with journalists and provide them with enough proof to tell the stories.
The NSA’s business is “information dominance,” the use of other people’s secrets to shape events. At 29, Snowden upended the agency on its own turf.
“You recognize that you’re going in blind, that there’s no model,” Snowden said, acknowledging that he had no way to know whether the public would share his views.
“But when you weigh that against the alternative, which is not to act,” he said, “you realize that some analysis is better than no analysis. Because even if your analysis proves to be wrong, the marketplace of ideas will bear that out. If you look at it from an engineering perspective, an iterative perspective, it’s clear that you have to try something rather than do nothing.”
By his own terms, Snowden succeeded beyond plausible ambition. The NSA, accustomed to watching without being watched, faces scrutiny it has not endured since the 1970s, or perhaps ever.
Green Left Weekly asked me to name my best book of 2013. Easy choice:
The corporate media are filled daily with stories of “terrorists” being killed, captured and droned in the far corners of the globe. Since 9/11, the Bush and Obama administrations have pursued a ruthless policy of global assassination and counter-insurgency in the name of democracy. It’s been a costly and deadly sham and leading American investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill reveals in this detailed book, along with a stunning documentary of the same name, why these actions are making the US and the West a far more dangerous place. We are facing terrorism because we are committing terrorism. Scahill uncovers some of the darkest aspects of the “war on terror’ by speaking to the civilians, victims, contractors and undercover agents in Afghanistan, Somalia, Yemen and beyond. America has the most sophisticated technology in the world but excessive and illegal policies are creating a walled ghetto that provides illusory security.