There’s really nobody in the Australian Parliament quite like Greens Senator Scott Ludlam, a constant voice against excessive government surveillance and the national-security state. His speech this week is a cracker, covering Michael Hastings, Bradley Manning, Wikileaks and Edward Snowden. If only more politicians saw their role like Ludlam, questioning the ever-increasing role of the state into our daily lives:
Yesterday the world was greeted with the tragic news that 33 year old, US investigative journalist Michael Hastings died in a car crash in LA. Apart from being a fearless reporter, he was also a friend. I’m still in shock.
We weren’t overly close but met years ago at a writer’s festival in Brisbane and re-connected around once a year in New York in the following years. We would email irregularly about what we were working on, various investigations or books. He was also generous and personable. He never let fame go to his head. His warmth, dry humour and contempt for most corporate journalists (something we shared) was infectious. The last time we hung out was in September 2012. We spent hours walking across New York, stopping now and then for a bite to eat, while we discussed publishing, war, Barack Obama, the media, his marriage and how we make the tough decisions in life.
Tributes have been flowing in over the last 24 hours. Rolling Stone and Buzzfeed (the two, recent places he worked), journalist Marc Ambinder (who comments on Michael’s bravery in not being interested in keeping powerful interests happy), Democracy Now!, CNN’s Piers Morgan, The Guardian’s Spencer Ackerman and The New Yorker’s Jon Lee Anderson. The New York Times couldn’t even fairly remember Michael without questioning some of his fearless reporting (something challenged by his wife, Elise). It’s an establishment publication to the end. I love Rachel Maddow’s tribute:
All the details of Michael’s death are unclear though Wikileaks tweeted the following this morning:
Michael Hastings contacted WikiLeaks lawyer Jennifer Robinson just a few hours before he died, saying that the FBI was investigating him.
For me, Michael was that truly rare journalist who didn’t give a fuck what the establishment thought about him. He reported fearlessly from Iraq, Afghanistan and beyond. He wasn’t, like so many of his colleagues, keen to romance the military or government sources. He saw first-hand the disaster that US-led wars caused since 9/11 and he had no intention of offering cover for these crimes. As an independent journalist myself, there are very few compatriots who I respect for never siding with the state and always remembering that our job is to be adversarial and not complacent. Michael is one of the few journalists I cite as an inspiration in my upcoming book, Profits of Doom. I was excited about the prospect of him reading it.
One of the reasons I always admired Michael was that he could have taken a very different route. Being a national security reporter since 9/11 presents a few options. The first is to become embedded psychologically with the system and the other is to challenge every step of the way. Michael chose the latter and I see myself in the same mould. He was vigorously attacked for this stance, especially after his sensational scoop on Stanley McChrystal that resulted in his resignation. I reviewed Michael’s book, The Operators, for the Sydney Morning Herald in 2012 and noted the following:
“I went into journalism to do journalism, not advertising,” independent American journalist Michael Hastings told The Huffington Post in 2010. ”My views are critical but that shouldn’t be mistaken for hostile – I’m just not a stenographer.”
Such a mindset is what makes this book a compelling read and ensures its status as one of the most devastating and incisive works on the Afghanistan war since Washington and its allies invaded in 2001.
Hastings concludes, after spending extensive time with generals and military advisers, as well as reporters who hang on their every word, that the conflict was lost years ago. The warped logic of the war, the author states, is that, ”we’re there because we’re there. And because we’re there, we’re there some more.”
Afghanistan today has nothing to do with September 11, 2001, ”terrorist havens” or al-Qaeda. ”It didn’t matter that in Afghanistan, the US military had come up short again and again,” Hastings argues. ”What mattered is that they tried. The simple and terrifying reality, forbidden from discussion in America [and mostly in the mainstream media in Australia], was that despite spending $600 billion a year on the military, despite having the best fighting force the world had ever known, they were getting their asses kicked by illiterate peasants who made bombs out of manure and wood.”
Hastings is that rare journalist who doesn’t believe in venerating military figures who give him access in Washington and American war zones. A key aspect of his investigation is its brutal excoriation of embedded media and the lack of accountability in the pundit class. His staccato writing feels immediate in today’s war debate.
And here we are. The journalistic world and democracy is weaker today without Michael. He’s that rare breed that should inspire a generation of reporters to be gutsy and recognise that great reporting should upset the powerful. Be fair and truthful. Be honest. Take risks. Visit trouble spots and don’t re-publish press releases as news.
I miss him already.
RIP, my friend.
The importance of leaking to ensure transparency in a democracy is something we should never forget.
The great Al Jazeera media program The Listening Post this week tackles Edward Snowden, Bradley Manning and Wikileaks. They asked me to comment on the ways in which the Snowden story unfolded in the press. My clip is at 10:28. Previous contributions here:
Real journalists should be celebrating the leaking of information that provides invaluable background and focus into how our world is really run (Wikileaks and Edward Snowden being two good examples).
Equally important is the recent work by The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists:
The ICIJ Offshore Leaks Database cracks open the impenetrable world of offshore tax havens. Users can through more than 100,000 secret companies, trusts and funds created in offshore locales such as the British Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands, Cook Islands and Singapore.
The Guardian gives a pretty comprehensive insight into the thinking of Snowden and his skepticism towards the corporate press. Read the whole thing:
As he pulled a small black suitcase and carried a selection of laptop bags over his shoulders, no one would have paid much attention to Ed Snowden as he arrived at Hong Kong International Airport. But Snowden was not your average tourist or businessman. In all, he was carrying four computers that enabled him to gain access to some of the US government’s most highly-classified secrets.
Today, just over three weeks later, he is the world’s most famous spy, whistleblower and fugitive, responsible for the biggest intelligence breach in recent US history. News organisations around the globe have described him as “America’s Most Wanted”. Members of Congress have denounced him as a “defector” whose actions amount to treason and have demanded he be punished to the fullest extent of the law.
His supporters argue that his actions have opened up a much-needed debate on the balance between security and privacy in the modern world.
So is he whistleblower or traitor? That debate is still raging.
Snowden, aged 29, had flown to Hong Kong from Hawaii, where he had been working for the defence contractor Booz Allen Hamilton at the National Security Agency, the biggest spy surveillance organisation in the world. Since Monday morning, he has gone underground. Hong Kong-based journalists, joined by the international press, have been hunting for him. At the height of the search, reporters recruited Twitter followers to see if they could successfully identify the lighting and other hotel furnishings shown in the video in which he went public. They did: the $330-a-night Mira Hotel, on Nathan Road, the busy main shopping drag in Kowloon district.
Knowing it was only a matter of time before he was found, Snowden checked out at lunchtime on Monday. It is thought he is now in a safe house.
What happens now? The US is on the verge of pressing criminal charges against him and that would lead to extradition proceedings, with a view to bringing him back to the US for trial and eventually jail.
If America is planning to jail for life Bradley Manning, who was behind the 2010 WikiLeaks release of tens of thousands of state department memos, what retribution lies in store for Snowden, who is guilty of leaking on a much bigger scale? The documents Manning released were merely “classified”. Snowden’s were not only “Top Secret”, but circulation was extremely limited.
For an American, the traditional home for the kind of story Snowden was planning to reveal would have been the New York Times. But during extensive interviews last week with a Guardian team, he recalled how dismayed he had been to discover the Times had a great scoop in election year 2004 – that the Bush administration, post 9/11, allowed theNSA to snoop on US citizens without warrants – but had sat on it for a year before publishing.
Snowden said this was a turning point for him, confirming his belief that traditional media outlets could not be trusted. He looked around for alternative journalists, those who were both anti-establishment and at home with blogging and other social media. The member of this generation that he most trusted was the Guardian commentator Glenn Greenwald.
In January, Snowden reached out to a documentary filmmaker and journalist, Laura Poitras, and they began to correspond. In mid-February, he sent an email to Greenwald, who lives in Brazil, suggesting he might want to set up a method for receiving and sending encrypted emails. He even made a YouTube video for Greenwald, to take him step-by-step through the process of encryption. Greenwald did not know the identity of the person offering the leaks and was unsure if they were genuine. He took no action. In March, in New York, he received a call from Poitras, who convinced him that he needed to take this more seriously.
Greenwald and Snowden set up a secure communications system and the first of the documents arrived, dealing with the NSA’s secret Prismprogramme, which gathers up information from the world’s leading technology companies.
Listen to his words on the ever-growing US surveillance state and why his whistle-blowing is so essential to accountable democracy; clear, concise, passionate, angry and truthful:
There’s been countless vital stories on the role of Snowden, his talking to the Guardian’s Glenn Gleenwald and how so many in the corporate media fail to hold power to account. A good selection here, here, here, here and here.
One of the most interesting details of this case is the role of US film-maker Laura Poitras, one of that country’s finest chroniclers of the post 9/11 world. In this interview with Salon, she explains why independent journalists and minds are so vital in this age:
So how did this all begin?
I was originally contacted in January, anonymously.
By Edward Snowden?
Well, I didn’t know who it was.
What was the format?
Via email. It said, I want to get your encryption key and let’s get on a secure channel.
And he didn’t say what it was about?
He just said — that was the first, and the second was, I have some information in the intelligence community, and it won’t be a waste of your time.
Do you get a lot of those kinds of requests?
No, I don’t.
Did you immediately know what was the best, most secure protocol to go about it?
I actually did. I have a lot of experience because I’ve been working with — as you note in your thing, I’ve done filming with WikiLeaks, I know Jacob Appelbaum. I already had encryption keys but what he was asking for was beyond what I was using in terms of security and anonymity.
How did it proceed from there?
So that’s where I’m not going into a lot of details, but sort of ongoing correspondence. I didn’t know, I didn’t have any biographical details or where he worked, had no idea. He made claims and said he had documentation. At that point it was all completely theoretical, but I had a feeling it was legit.
Why do you think he contacted you? Were you the first person he contacted?
I can’t speak for him. Glenn and I just touched base about, what was your story, because we connected later in the spring. He, I think, got an email in February. But I didn’t know he’d gotten an email.
He told me he’d contacted me because my border harassment meant that I’d been a person who had been selected. To be selected –and he went through a whole litany of things — means that everything you do, every friend you have, every purchase you make, every street you cross means you’re being watched. “You probably don’t like how this system works, I think you can tell the story.” … Of course I was suspicious, I worried that it was entrapment, it’s crazy, all the normal responses you have to someone reaching out making, claims. He said he’d seen a piece that I’d done on Bill Binney in the Times.
I can say from conversations I had with him after that, I think he had a suspicion of mainstream media. And particularly what happened with the New York Times and the warrantless wiretapping story, which as we know was shelved for a year. So he expressed that to me but I think also in his choices of who he contacted. I didn’t know he was reaching out to Glenn at that point.
And you and Glenn were already colleagues, right, you sit on a board together?
At that point the foundation had just opened. So we knew each other and we were colleagues and friends.
How did it get to the point where you knew it was going to be a story, and how did you decide where it was going to be published?
Those are the details I’m not going to go into. What I can say is that once I had a few pieces of correspondence, I said, let me ask a couple of people about this, people who have experience, and I sat down with a couple of people, one of whom was Bart Gellman … and he said, it looks like this person could be legit. And that was probably February.
These disputes that have been played out on the internet about who got in touch with whom and who needed assurances –
In a situation like this, this is a confidential source and has been until very, very recently, actually has been a person whose identity I did not know. To actually go on the record and talk about — it seems to be a violation of a lot of relationships with someone who’s trusted you. There’s partly that, so I’ve been hesitant. I’ve asked, you know, like, Bart, don’t go try and tell my story. I’ll tell my story, you know, about my reporting. I don’t need reporters reporting on my reporting. So maybe that stuff contributed to different timelines. But that seems now — I’m not quite sure, what makes the most sense. Because I don’t want to tell the whole story now, I don’t think it’s the right time. And I want to tell it in my own words. I’m a storyteller. I’ll tell it when I’m ready to tell it, in detail.
But it makes sense to go on the record to explain why I was attached to both of those stories.
So you ended up getting in touch with Bart and Glenn because you wanted their help to vet the claims in documents?
There weren’t documents yet … I wanted to know if this correspondent — it was possible something else would be entrapment or just crazy, that’s always an option. I had an instinct that it was legit. I wanted to talk to people who knew.
So then they said, my paper would be happy to publish it?
No, it was just colleagues saying, this was happening, what do you think. There was nothing to — it was just somebody wanting to start a conversation and claiming to have information … There was no material at that point.
So how did it then become two separate stories in the Washington Post and the Guardian?
The source also has a relationship with Glenn. Which I can’t speak to.
I know that Glenn said he had more stories to come. Do you have more footage you’re planning on using in your documentary?
Of course. I’m here working.
Are you still in touch with him?
I’m not going to comment on that.
Do you know where he is?
Not going to comment.
Are you going to be working on more stories in print before your documentary comes out?
I really can’t predict.
Are you going to be sticking around Hong Kong for awhile or do you think you’ll come to the U.S.?
I haven’t decided. I’m trying to figure that out right now. But I’m actually based right now outside the U.S.
Are you worried about retaliation in any investigation that goes forward?
You know what? I’m not. I’ve been harassed for a long time, I wouldn’t be surprised if that continues. Being here and seeing the kind of — actually, Glenn was really inspiring. Really incredible courage in journalism and just saying, we need to talk to him about these things. It’s not OK that we have a secret court that has secret interpretations of secret laws; what kind of democracy is that? I felt like, this is a fight worth having. If there’s fallout, if there’s blowback, I would absolutely do it again, because I think this information should be public. Whatever part I had in helping to do that I think is a service.
People take risks. And I’m not the one who’s taking the most in this case.
And you feel like the person who is taking the most risk — meaning Snowden — is aware of all the possible ramifications of it?
You can see it in the video, right? I think he is. I think he wanted to reveal his identity because he didn’t want to create a situation where he was anonymous and everyone would have been investigated. In these investigation cases, there are repercussions for many, many people. I think he wanted to take responsibility.
Did he always plan to reveal his identity?
I don’t know. At some point I became aware of that but I don’t know what his intention was.
It’s this complicated situation because we have a source who decided to reveal himself. I still feel like I have journalistic obligations to the source even though they’ve made that choice … There’s something that Glenn said that I actually want to contradict. He said we began “working with” him. There was no working with. We were contacted. It was totally cold contact.
Since he contacted you before he started working at Booz Allen, the implication people were drawing was that he went to Booz Allen with the express intention of leaking this.
That’s completely absurd. I had no dialogue about what the information was — there were claims, that’s all I received.
So the implication that you sent him into Booz Allen to spy was incorrect.
Are you kidding? I didn’t know where he worked, I didn’t know he was NSA, I didn’t know how — nothing. There was no like, Oh do you think you …, no nudging. It’s like the crazy correlations that the NSA does. There’s no connection here. We were contacted, we didn’t know what he was up to, and at some point he came forward with documents.
Here’s a recent interview on UK’s Sky News:
Assange was also interviewed on ABC TV’s Lateline last night.
This is a classic show trial by an embarrassed and vindictive US government that doesn’t like the world seeing how it rules the world with impunity.
Wikileaks founder Julian Assange released a statement on 3 June:
As I type these lines, on June 3, 2013, Private First Class Bradley Edward Manning is being tried in a sequestered room at Fort Meade, Maryland, for the alleged crime of telling the truth. The court martial of the most prominent political prisoner in modern US history has now, finally, begun.
It has been three years. Bradley Manning, then 22 years old, was arrested in Baghdad on May 26, 2010. He was shipped to Kuwait, placed into a cage, and kept in the sweltering heat of Camp Arifjan.
“For me, I stopped keeping track,” he told the court last November. “I didn’t know whether night was day or day was night. And my world became very, very small. It became these cages… I remember thinking I’m going to die.”
After protests from his lawyers, Bradley Manning was then transferred to a brig at a US Marine Corps Base in Quantico, VA, where – infamously – he was subjected to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment at the hands of his captors – a formal finding by the UN. Isolated in a tiny cell for twenty-three out of twenty-four hours a day, he was deprived of his glasses, sleep, blankets and clothes, and prevented from exercising. All of this – it has been determined by a military judge – “punished” him before he had even stood trial.
“Brad’s treatment at Quantico will forever be etched, I believe, in our nation’s history, as a disgraceful moment in time” said his lawyer, David Coombs. “Not only was it stupid and counterproductive, it was criminal.”
The United States was, in theory, a nation of laws. But it is no longer a nation of laws for Bradley Manning.
When the abuse of Bradley Manning became a scandal reaching all the way to the President of the United States and Hillary Clinton’s spokesman resigned to register his dissent over Mr. Manning’s treatment, an attempt was made to make the problem less visible. Bradley Manning was transferred to the Midwest Joint Regional Correctional Facility at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.
He has waited in prison for three years for a trial – 986 days longer than the legal maximum – because for three years the prosecution has dragged its feet and obstructed the court, denied the defense access to evidence and abused official secrecy. This is simply illegal – all defendants are constitutionally entitled to a speedy trial – but the transgression has been acknowledged and then overlooked.
Against all of this, it would be tempting to look on the eventual commencement of his trial as a mercy. But that is hard to do.
We no longer need to comprehend the “Kafkaesque” through the lens of fiction or allegory. It has left the pages and lives among us, stalking our best and brightest. It is fair to call what is happening to Bradley Manning a “show trial”. Those invested in what is called the “US military justice system” feel obliged to defend what is going on, but the rest of us are free to describe this travesty for what it is. No serious commentator has any confidence in a benign outcome. The pretrial hearings have comprehensively eliminated any meaningful uncertainty, inflicting pre-emptive bans on every defense argument that had any chance of success.
Bradley Manning may not give evidence as to his stated intent (exposing war crimes and their context), nor may he present any witness or document that shows that no harm resulted from his actions. Imagine you were put on trial for murder. In Bradley Manning’s court, you would be banned from showing that it was a matter of self-defence, because any argument or evidence as to intent is banned. You would not be able to show that the ’victim’ is, in fact, still alive, because that would be evidence as to the lack of harm.
But of course. Did you forget whose show it is?
The government has prepared for a good show. The trial is to proceed for twelve straight weeks: a fully choreographed extravaganza, with a 141-strong cast of prosecution witnesses. The defense was denied permission to call all but a handful of witnesses. Three weeks ago, in closed session, the court actually held a rehearsal. Even experts on military law have called this unprecedented.
Bradley Manning’s conviction is already written into the script. The commander-in-chief of the United States Armed Forces, Barack Obama, spoiled the plot for all of us when he pronounced Bradley Manning guilty two years ago. “He broke the law,” President Obama stated, when asked on camera at a fundraiser about his position on Mr. Manning. In a civilized society, such a prejudicial statement alone would have resulted in a mistrial.
To convict Bradley Manning, it will be necessary for the US government to conceal crucial parts of his trial. Key portions of the trial are to be conducted in secrecy: 24 prosecution witnesses will give secret testimony in closed session, permitting the judge to claim that secret evidence justifies her decision. But closed justice is no justice at all.
What a stunning piece. Julian Assange writes the following review in the New York Times on the kind of mundane yet dangerous “debates” sucked up by many in the mainstream media when it comes to the supposedly liberating nature of the internet. When the corporation becomes far more powerful than the state (and they work together):
“The New Digital Age” is a startlingly clear and provocative blueprint for technocratic imperialism, from two of its leading witch doctors, Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen, who construct a new idiom for United States global power in the 21st century. This idiom reflects the ever closer union between the State Department and Silicon Valley, as personified by Mr. Schmidt, the executive chairman of Google, and Mr. Cohen, a former adviser to Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton who is now director of Google Ideas.
The authors met in occupied Baghdad in 2009, when the book was conceived. Strolling among the ruins, the two became excited that consumer technology was transforming a society flattened by United States military occupation. They decided the tech industry could be a powerful agent of American foreign policy.
The book proselytizes the role of technology in reshaping the world’s people and nations into likenesses of the world’s dominant superpower, whether they want to be reshaped or not. The prose is terse, the argument confident and the wisdom — banal. But this isn’t a book designed to be read. It is a major declaration designed to foster alliances.
“The New Digital Age” is, beyond anything else, an attempt by Google to position itself as America’s geopolitical visionary — the one company that can answer the question “Where should America go?” It is not surprising that a respectable cast of the world’s most famous warmongers has been trotted out to give its stamp of approval to this enticement to Western soft power. The acknowledgments give pride of place to Henry Kissinger, who along with Tony Blair and the former C.I.A. director Michael Hayden provided advance praise for the book.
In the book the authors happily take up the white geek’s burden. A liberal sprinkling of convenient, hypothetical dark-skinned worthies appear: Congolese fisherwomen, graphic designers in Botswana, anticorruption activists in San Salvador and illiterate Masai cattle herders in the Serengeti are all obediently summoned to demonstrate the progressive properties of Google phones jacked into the informational supply chain of the Western empire.
The authors offer an expertly banalized version of tomorrow’s world: the gadgetry of decades hence is predicted to be much like what we have right now — only cooler. “Progress” is driven by the inexorable spread of American consumer technology over the surface of the earth. Already, every day, another million or so Google-run mobile devices are activated. Google will interpose itself, and hence the United States government, between the communications of every human being not in China (naughty China). Commodities just become more marvelous; young, urban professionals sleep, work and shop with greater ease and comfort; democracy is insidiously subverted by technologies of surveillance, and control is enthusiastically rebranded as “participation”; and our present world order of systematized domination, intimidation and oppression continues, unmentioned, unafflicted or only faintly perturbed.
The authors are sour about the Egyptian triumph of 2011. They dismiss the Egyptian youth witheringly, claiming that “the mix of activism and arrogance in young people is universal.” Digitally inspired mobs mean revolutions will be “easier to start” but “harder to finish.” Because of the absence of strong leaders, the result, or so Mr. Kissinger tells the authors, will be coalition governments that descend into autocracies. They say there will be “no more springs” (but China is on the ropes).
The authors fantasize about the future of “well resourced” revolutionary groups. A new “crop of consultants” will “use data to build and fine-tune a political figure.”
“His” speeches (the future isn’t all that different) and writing will be fed “through complex feature-extraction and trend-analysis software suites” while “mapping his brain function,” and other “sophisticated diagnostics” will be used to “assess the weak parts of his political repertoire.”
The book mirrors State Department institutional taboos and obsessions. It avoids meaningful criticism of Israel and Saudi Arabia. It pretends, quite extraordinarily, that the Latin American sovereignty movement, which has liberated so many from United States-backed plutocracies and dictatorships over the last 30 years, never happened. Referring instead to the region’s “aging leaders,” the book can’t see Latin America for Cuba. And, of course, the book frets theatrically over Washington’s favorite boogeymen: North Korea and Iran.
I have a very different perspective. The advance of information technology epitomized by Google heralds the death of privacy for most people and shifts the world toward authoritarianism. This is the principal thesis in my book, “Cypherpunks.” But while Mr. Schmidt and Mr. Cohen tell us that the death of privacy will aid governments in “repressive autocracies” in “targeting their citizens,” they also say governments in “open” democracies will see it as “a gift” enabling them to “better respond to citizen and customer concerns.” In reality, the erosion of individual privacy in the West and the attendant centralization of power make abuses inevitable, moving the “good” societies closer to the “bad” ones.
The section on “repressive autocracies” describes, disapprovingly, various repressive surveillance measures: legislation to insert back doors into software to enable spying on citizens, monitoring of social networks and the collection of intelligence on entire populations. All of these are already in widespread use in the United States. In fact, some of those measures — like the push to require every social-network profile to be linked to a real name — were spearheaded by Google itself.
THE writing is on the wall, but the authors cannot see it. They borrow from William Dobson the idea that the media, in an autocracy, “allows for an opposition press as long as regime opponents understand where the unspoken limits are.” But these trends are beginning to emerge in the United States. No one doubts the chilling effects of the investigations into The Associated Press and Fox’s James Rosen. But there has been little analysis of Google’s role in complying with the Rosen subpoena. I have personal experience of these trends.
The Department of Justice admitted in March that it was in its third year of a continuing criminal investigation of WikiLeaks. Court testimony states that its targets include “the founders, owners, or managers of WikiLeaks.” One alleged source, Bradley Manning, faces a 12-week trial beginning tomorrow, with 24 prosecution witnesses expected to testify in secret.
This book is a balefully seminal work in which neither author has the language to see, much less to express, the titanic centralizing evil they are constructing. “What Lockheed Martin was to the 20th century,” they tell us, “technology and cybersecurity companies will be to the 21st.” Without even understanding how, they have updated and seamlessly implemented George Orwell’s prophecy. If you want a vision of the future, imagine Washington-backed Google Glasses strapped onto vacant human faces — forever. Zealots of the cult of consumer technology will find little to inspire them here, not that they ever seem to need it. But this is essential reading for anyone caught up in the struggle for the future, in view of one simple imperative: Know your enemy.
Australian publication New Matilda published my interview with journalist and author Jeremy Scahill yesterday.
Our recent conversation covered many areas so I’m publishing below a full transcript of the interview conducted by phone on 15th May:
Where are the main places US is using armed drones outside Yemen, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Somalia?
One area that has received far too little coverage in the role that it’s playing in the broader US wars around the globe is Africa. In Djibouti, the US several years ago took over this old French army outpost called Camp Lemonier and began building up a capacity to do covert actions throughout Africa but also have used it to strike in the Arabian Peninsula. Teams from the CIA and JSOC and the broader conventional US military and they use Djibouti as a jump off point not only to strike in Somalia but also Western Africa. There’s definitely a drone base in Djibouti. In Ethiopia, the US has been training these Agazi commando units, special operations forces of Ethiopia, to use them as a proxy force. It’s not confirmed that the US has a drone base in Ethiopia. US likely has a drone base in Mali for the targeting of the Al Qaeda of the Islamic Magreb and other militant groups in northern and western Africa will become a serious focal point for US special forces and the CIA. Drone base in Saudi. The drones used to kill Anwar al-Awlaki and Samar Khan seemed to have flown out of Saudi Arabia. Also reports that US has staging ground in Oman, not sure if drones fly from here. Just yesterday I was talking to somebody who was connected to Yemeni intelligence who told me that there’s a base inside Yemen that the US uses sometimes to launch drones and other attacks. In East Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, over the past 5 years, the Obama admin has both intensified operations and expanding the archipelago in Africa for US actions and intelligence.
- Would it make any difference in your opinion if the US Army (as opposed to CIA/JSOC) were solely responsible for the drones?
The ascent of John Brennan to CIA director has been a dog and pony show, a farce. It’s staged theatre. The fact is that the US military essentially runs the drone program. The CIA doesn’t have pilots, these are mostly US army personnel from the airforce that are piloting the drones. The US military already has a drone program that it’s running. JSOC has operated drones in Pakistan, Yemen and probably elsewhere. The idea that you can simply tweak the program, move it from the CIA over to the Pentagon, and that’s going to result in any greater transparency is not based in reality. The military can conduct covert operations. People tend to think that the CIA is conducting covert operations and the military is more public. There’s a difference between a clandestine and covert operation. Clandestine operation means that the US military is engaged in an operation where the planning of the mission and the mission itself is kept secret until it’s done but eventually the US will own that it did it. Covert action means that the entire mission itself needs to be deniable so the raid on Bin Laden, although it involved US military forces, was a covert action is because if something went wrong, there was a disaster, if US troops got killed, if Bin Laden escaped, the US would never have to publicly own it and the US would say their soldiers died in a training exercise. At the end of the day, whether it’s CIA or military, the issue is not the technology, it’s not who is in operational control, it’s not even the weapon itself, it’s what do we believe about this program where the US is asserting its authority to assassinate people in countries without any permission from the home government in some cases or without any effective oversight from its own body of law makers. When people talk about drones or cruise missiles or night raids, the more central question is why is the program continuing unabated with very little scrutiny from the very people who are supposed to overseeing US government activities.
- Have you ever been given an explanation (formal or informal) as to why Pakistan govt has consistently refused to give you a visa?
I recently received communication from the Pakistani Ambassador to the US, I’ve tried repeatedly over the last years to get a visa to Pakistan and have been denied, and I was told by a senior Pakistani official that I would not be getting a visa. So I said, are you saying I’m banned and he said you can read into that what you want. The Interior Minister Rehman Malik made all of these ludicrous statements how Blackwater has never been operating in Pakistan. He said at one point that if anybody shows proof that Blackwater is in Pakistan I’ll resign. Shortly after he made that statement I did an expose about Blackwater in Pakistan. Blackwater’s relationship with Pakistan involved very powerful and wealthy Pakistanis, the Pakistani equivalent of Halliburton. I wrote about what Blackwater was doing with the Pakistani Frontier Corp, how they were doing actual operations. I don’t think my banning has anything to do with my reporting on drones but a private company that has caused death and destruction across the Muslim world but about a company that is working with the Pakistani government. They don’t want me poking around powerful Pakistani families and US mercenary companies. One of the problems with reporting on Pakistan is that there’s such hysterics about the role of the US, the CIA and military and you often have exaggeration. The truth is bad enough but there’s a need to take it five steps further and it makes it very difficult to offer a credible argument to what the US is doing in Pakistan because there’s a lot of conspiracy theories. There are some fantastic journalists in Pakistan and some insane conspiracy theories. My reporting has been misused by people who are trying to exaggerate the situation in Pakistan. I don’t know if Blackwater still operates in Pakistan but many US private military companies are there.
- Who are the main corporations that build drones and drones ordinance like Hellfires? Any campaigns going on at the moment to bring legal cases against these companies? What else can citizens do to address the US assassinations program?
One company that has escaped public scrutiny for its role in all of these wars is Lockheed Martin. It’s a parallel US military. Blackwater is a parallel CIA/special operations force. LH is like a government unto itself. Their commercials celebrate that they’re involved in every possible aspect of the US war machine. It’s involved from the production of weapons to intelligence to logistics.
- Thoughts on Obama’s attitude towards the secret war he is prosecuting?
I don’t think Obama is all that conflicted about these secret wars. Obama had no military experience, very little foreign policy experience outside of his short stint in the US Senate, he comes into office after campaigning on a pledge to reverse the Bush era excesses but he’d refined his message to the point where he was going to escalate the war in Afghanistan and taking the fight to the terrorists, which means waging offensive/pre-emptive war. He comes into office and the people he’s surrounded with are the people who ran the most covert aspect of Bush’s wars. Stanley McCrystal, who ran JSOC, Admiral William McRiven, original member of Seal Team 6, who helped the Bush admin formulate its kill/capture program in the early days after 9/11 and then the head of JSOC under Obama and David Petraeus, Cheney’s general and somebody who had pushed for a policy to strike in countries around the world not just in declared battlefields. Those three men pitched to Obama that if we don’t give authority to US military forces to strike at will in countries around the world there’s going to be another attack, that there are people plotting to blow up airliners or poison the US water supply or attack public transportation systems or attack US embassies, if we don’t take the fight to them, and take them out, then this is going to be a one-term President who’s going to be responsible for another terror attack on US soil and he would have been eaten alive by the Republicans. So Obama said he would draw down from Iraq, surge in Afghanistan, and decapitate these terror networks, then once we get into that game, of whack-a-mole, a war of attrition. I think they believed that by killing the heads of various militant groups around the world that they’re actually keeping America safe. I think Obama and Cheney are very different people. Cheney is a caricature sitting in his lair plotting the destruction of the world but Obama has bought into this idea that America needs to wage pre-emptive war to keep itself safe. The result will a state of perpetual war for many years to come.
- Implications of future electronic warfare? US dominance won’t last so what does this mean for the wars of the future?
It’s important to not just fight drone program. We’re living in a country in America right now where Sarah Palin has come out against drones. Why? Because the scary black man is president. They’ve created this theory that Obama will kill US citizens who are members of the Tea Party for publishing their little web zine in the mountains of Montana. A lot of this mood from the right-wing is that this Kenyan, socialist, black president is going to hunt them down with a drone strike in whatever strip mall they’re hanging out in. When a Republican is back in office they’ll become the most enthusiastic backer of the kill program. However, because the Tea Party is a significant feature in US politics the issue has come more into the public light. Senator Rand Paul, when he filibusted the nomination of John Brennan, broke the discussion wide open. His filibuster caused big, corporate media outlets to actually talk about the kill program, some for the first time ever.
On Capitol Hill they don’t even ask the right questions. It was wonderful seeing this young Yemeni guy, Farea al-Muslimi, who I know and spent time with in Yemen, came over to testimony in front of the US Senate. 6 days before he testifies his family’s village had been hit by a drone strike and he was live tweeting text messages from his relatives who were at the scene. He described who the target was of the strike and explained how he could have been handed over to the US if they’d wanted to extradite or charge him. Do we have a kill/capture program or just a kill program? As an American, I want people stopped who want to blow up the subway system. Terrorism is a crime. This isn’t a war. I don’t want our response to a relatively minor threat, a real threat, to put us in greater danger. At the US Senate, this Yemeni guy sat next to 3 professors, most of whom could walk to the capitol on any given day and give testimony, and instead asking him about his views nearly the entire hearing is spent talking about theoretical war philosophy by the blowhard professors.
Al Franken and other Democrats are saying we should have drone courts, a judiciary who decides who lives and dies. If that’s the level of discussion in official Washington, it’s probably better not to have hearings on this. If you’re just looking for a more efficient way to kill people or we’ll give it the veneer of legitimacy by involving the courts. Obama admin’s war on whistleblowers is causing a chill through the military and intelligence communities and speaking out.
Anyone who is doing this work is subjected to some degree of surveillance. I try and be careful in protecting sources. My computer was hacked a few years ago. A message was left on my desk top that revealed the actual name of a source of mine that I’d only referred to with code names in my digital life. I think it was a warning. I’m not sure who did it but it suggested that we know who you’re talking to. After that I changed my behaviour online and protected my information. But short of becoming a Luddite, those of us involved in international journalism need to use a computer and have to find a way to use it in the safest way possible. My biggest concern is not somebody snooping into my life but protecting the people I talk to. We’re up against powerful forces.
- Failures of MSM post 9/11, too many journalists embedded physically and psychologically. Importance of alternative/indy media? Have you ever been tempted to take a bigger salary and work for the big media players? Personal philosophy towards journalism?
I started off in community media being a coffee runner for Amy Goodman, host of Democracy Now! I’d never taken a journalism class, I begged my way into a job with Goodman and learned journalism as a trade, like you’d learn to be a carpenter or plumber rather than a course of academic study or viewing it as a career. I don’t view journalism as my job, it’s my life. It’s a way of life I believe in independent media to the core of my being. When I’m at an event and a young person comes up to me and asks how do I get involved, I’ll always stop and encourage them to get involved because we need fiercely independent people serving as reporters around the world. Part of my bigger mission in life is to built independent media. I’m not interested in going to a bigger publication because it will bring fame or a bigger pay cheque. I stick with an independent publisher when I write a book, I work with independent media outlets because I believe in building them up. I support independent media that has truth and justice at its core. We’re all trying to figure out how to sustain independent media with the economic situation in the world with the consolidation of corporate media outlets, infotainment media culture, pictures of cute cats, we need to create a culture where citizen journalists, the ones you see on Twitter doing a fantastic job, often better than corporate journalists, how do you take the energy of citizen journalist movement and combine it with the necessary components of good journalism; fact-checking, peer review, editing, old school muckraking techniques, document diving.
How do we merge the energy of new, creative media folks with the proven old school tactics? To fund it, unless you want to sell out to click bait with cute cat pics, we have to look at alternative ways to funding our media. My advice to young journalists, if you don’t have obligations or have to look after a sick parent, is to find a job that doesn’t drain your brain, like picking apples or working the night shift somewhere, and spend 6 or 8 months saving up money, with the goal of trying to go somewhere for 3 months that you’re interested in reporting on, whether it’s Palestine, Egypt or somewhere in Africa. And even if you don’t have an employer and nobody is sending you there, act like you do have an assignment and develop a discipline. Even if all you’re doing is starting a newsletter to send back to your friends or your community, you treat yourself like you are working for a real media outlet and you get that experience. The best journalists I’ve met in the world almost never have degrees in journalism. They’re united in one thing, a passion for the truth. We need to mainstream that kind of program, where we develop apprenticeships for young people. Journalism isn’t rocket science. It should be a working class course of work where you are getting your hands dirty and not the [New York Times’] Thomas Friedmans of the world about what taxi drivers he’s met. If I hear about one more taxi driver or concierge he’s met I want to shave off his mustache.
- Significance of Wikileaks/Bradley Manning connection?
It would be impossible to quantify the significance of Wikileaks not just to my or your work but to the world’s understanding of US covert and overt operations. It was the most significant document dump in modern history. It altered history. It was like an earthquake. It was the most real confrontation of American empire certainly since the Pentagon Papers but it may prove to be more significant. The idea that you had a democratisation of classified documents and access to them, you can go in and search any country and figure out what the US relationship is with various political forces or factions. I dug deep into the relationship between the US and Somalian warlords. I found individuals who were on the CIA payroll because of Wikileaks and went and found them and got them on record. I would never have known that these people even existed but for Wikileaks.
The smear campaign against Wikileaks is clearly politically motivated, it’s retaliatory, there’s an attempt to portray Wikileaks as responsible for putting America in jeopardy. I would argue that Wikileaks has done a tremendous public service, not only to the American public but to the world. We have a right to understand as Americans what is being done in our name. But the rest of the world has a right to understand how they’ve being targeted economically or militarily by the most powerful nation on earth.
I had hesitated to praise Bradley Manning or discuss Manning’s actions until I heard the leaked recording of him at his court martial owning responsibility. What we’ve become very good at in the American media is litigating cases against people through leaks and we don’t allow evidence to be presented against them. I get asked all the time what I think of the Boston marathon bombers and I say that we don’t know the facts yet. There has to be a judicial process that plays out and evidence. We can’t have a state of justice where for certain kinds of people or crimes you call out the mob with their pitchforks and deliver citizen’s justice. You’re either governed by the rule of law or you’re not.
Once Manning came out and owned that he did it. Every one should listen to that young man’s testimony that he offered at his court martial because there has been a smear campaign against him to portray him as a moral degenerate or to constantly focus on his sexual orientation. This was a guy who calmly stood up, facing potentially the death penalty, and owned his actions as an act of conscience. Once he said that I felt comfortable telling my own small story involving Manning which was that before the Collateral Murder video was published, he had emailed me and I didn’t know it was him. I get emails all the time tipping me off to something. Another journalist had contacted me about a project on Bradley Manning and I’m reaching out to people who have been in touch with him. I said I’ve never been in touch with him and he said that he must have been mistaken because I was told that you were. I said no and that I think I would remember that. He calls me back a few days later and asks me to search my email with this address. So I search it pulls up an email very clearly from Bradley Manning. What’s remarkable about the email is that Manning did not offer me any classified information, he didn’t say he was in the US military, he told me he had a personal connection to someone that had information about the movements of Erik Prince, the founder of Blackwater.
Through Bradley Manning I discovered that Prince was leaving the US at a time when Blackwater was falling apart and they were multiple investigations against them and 5 people under Prince got indicted. Manning when he wrote to me was concerned with the idea that if Prince was trying to flee the US to avoid accountability for the activities of his company, Manning found this deeply offensive and he was writing to me just as an ordinary person saying I have this tiny piece of information and I want to offer it to you. It wasn’t a short email and clearly motivated by someone with a conscience. It was very well-written. The point of it was that I don’t want people to get away with potential crimes. I felt stupid later when I realised it was Bradley Manning and reminded me how many people stick their neck out for journalists and we maybe don’t even know their names. When I spoke to that journalist who called me about Manning I didn’t confirm or deny that I got an email from Manning because I considered him to be a source. I didn’t realise who he was. He wasn’t writing to me to interview me.
The reason I feel comfortable talking about that initial communication with him is that because it’s relevant to how Bradley Manning is. My motivation for talking about it is that Manning should be treated as a serious prisoner of conscience. There’s a pattern that’s borne out in his history of believing what he was doing was moral and necessary and he probably was terrified of what it would mean for him but ultimately felt that the greater good being served by him going to prison was so important that he couldn’t not blow the whistle. Manning will face the consequences of his actions, he knew what he was doing was against his oath as a soldier but he felt what he was did served a greater good and I certainly admire this young man’s courage and it’s shameful that only three journalists, none of whom worked for big corporate media outlets in the US, are covering that trial with any regularity. The New York Times should be ashamed of itself. They sold newspapers based on the documents Manning provided to Wikileaks and they had it splashed across its front pages for days on end and when Manning goes down they ignore his situation.
Julian Assange is living in a small room in the Ecuadorian embassy in London. I would like to see Assange be able to respond to the allegations against him in Sweden. I don’t know the facts of what happened there but I believe that he should be able to respond to those allegations. The issue here is if I was Assange I’d be concerned about my life. You have prominent political commentators in the US going on TV to call for his assassination on the most powerful media outlets in America. There have been rumblings about grand juries. Perhaps there’s a sealed indictment against Assange. Whatever you think about him as a person, and I want to hear his explanation for what happened in Sweden, but this is a guy who has been threatened by the most powerful nation on earth for having been responsible for the significant exposure of secret, covert US activities around the globe in history. The idea that the New York Times has tried to turn this into a twisted tale of sex and ego misses the entire point of it. This man was responsible for an epic exposure of the empire and of course he has reason to be concerned. But for the New York Times, when Assange was convenient to their agenda to scoop other US media outlets and to break this incredibly significant story, then he was a legitimate partner. But then the pile on begins against Assange and [New York Times’] Bill Keller and others throw him under the bus and act as though they don’t owe him some debt for what he did for them, it’s shameful.