Honour among spies

I’m genuinely perplexed by pretensions of morality among representatives of espionage agencies. Today various news outlets are reporting that Russia and China have gained access to the Snowden files, and so found details of western agents and methods. Now, a certain skepticism is required: No details are offered, only that “sources” “believe” this to be so. Even if this information has reached Russia and China, the US government has shown itself to be so inept at network security lately that it wouldn’t be hard to imagine that they gained access through a different route.

That doesn’t stop the grandiloquent sermonising. According to the Sunday Times,

One senior Home Office official accused Snowden of having “blood on his hands,” although Downing Street said there was “no evidence of anyone having been harmed”.

Imagine if it were discovered that Edward Snowden were actually Eduard Snowdinsky, a Russian sleeper agent whose parents had been smuggled into the US to raise an agent with US background. Now that he has successfully completed his mission and returned to the motherland, what could American officials (and their running-dog lackeys) say but “Good on you. Impressive operation.” After all, everyone does it, if they can. That’s what they say when they spy on our allies, who (they say) are only putting on a show of saying they feel the Americans betrayed their trust. Or when they spy on their own citizens, who they say are simply naive in not recognising the force majeure. They wouldn’t say he had “blood on his hands”, or any such nonsense smacking of bourgeois morality that they’ve all moved beyond when they saw the higher purpose of spying on the whole world. So, are they just putting on a show?

Perhaps more to the point, should I be more appalled by the actions of a Snowden, who revealed US secrets in an attempt to defend universal principles of democracy and human rights, and the US constitution in particular; or by the actions of the NSA, who were so busy breaking into video-game chats that they couldn’t be bothered to make appropriate efforts to defend the US against having the complete set of US government security clearances hacked? That’s information that definitely puts people at risk of harm.

Is it a coincidence that these stories are coming out at the same time?

A walk in the park

A land without serious problems, Australia is worrying about the pampered dogs of a pampered movie star, who were smuggled in on a private jet without proper medical screening. Agriculture minister William Joyce has declared that the dogs must be returned to California forthwith or be put down. These dogs are of particular concern because they “come from a country that has rabies.”

The reason you can walk through a park in Brisbane and not sort of have in the back of your mind – what happens if a rabid dog comes out and bites me or bites my kid – is because we’ve kept that disease out.

Obviously he is not aware that Californians always put on their bite-proof body armour to protect themselves when they leave their fortified bunkers. Rabies is pretty much all anyone thinks about when they walk through a park in San Francisco.

Keeping focus

Angela Merkel is caught in a political struggle over the German government’s relationship to the NSA. One element of the struggle is the government’s attempt to suggest, without explicitly saying so, that the US was open to negotiating a “No-Spy” treaty, whereas they knew that the Americans had made absolutely clear that no such treaty would be entered into. What I find fascinating in this affair is how blatant the US is willing to be about its contempt for the sovereignty of other nations:

Doch bereits im Juli 2013 hatte die Europa-Strategin im Weißen Haus, Karen Donfried, in E-Mails an Merkels Berater Christoph Heusgen trotz dessen nachdrücklichem Bitten vermieden zuzusichern, dass sich US-Geheimdienste in Deutschland an deutsches Recht halten würden. Die “SZ” zitiert etwa aus einer E-Mail vom 19. Juli 2013:

“Bei uns liegt der Fokus natürlich darauf, ob wir das US-Recht einhalten. Unsere Experten fühlen sich nicht dafür gerüstet, die Einhaltung des deutschen Rechts zu beurteilen.”

[Already in July 2013 the White House European-strategy expert Karen Donfried had refused to give assurances to Merkel’s advisor Christoph Heusgen, despite his explicit request, that US espionage agencies in Germany would follow German laws. Süddeutscher Zeitung quotes from a July 19, 2013 email:

Our focus is naturally on whether we obey US laws. Our experts do not feel qualified [literally, “adequately armed”] to evaluate our conformity with German laws.]

What admirable modesty! It’s only natural that their number one concern is whether they are obeying US law, and given their very limited success in achieving that goal, they have no excess capacity for anything as complicated as trying to simultaneously obey both sets of laws. The expertise budget is really not unlimited. Not to mention that the German laws aren’t even written in English!

I know I find it more than I can manage to decide, on any given day, whether I’m going to obey US or UK law. I imagine finding myself some day in court, having to say, “I’m sorry Judge, but my focus is on whether I obey US laws. I do not feel qualified to evaluate my conformity with UK laws.”

Of course, someone might say that representatives of the US government who feel themselves incapable of keeping within the confines of German law do have the option of staying out of Germany…

Which ageing monster?

The New Statesman has a review of a new book, Blair, Inc., about the money grubbing post-Downing-Street career of a certain former Prime Minister. Among Blair’s unsavoury activities, he received £8m a year for providing PR advice and speechwriting services to “an ageing monster whose regime is mired in allegations of torture and murder.” But before you wonder where Gordon Brown came up with that kind of money it’s explained that this is Kazakhstan’s President Nursaltan Nazarbayev, “We learn that a number of people from Blair’s Downing Street team, including Alastair Campbell and Jonathan Powell, also provide services for Kazakhstan.”

Is Netanyahu auditioning for a bigger role?

Many people are wondering why Israel’s Prime Minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, has decided to wreck Israel’s relationship with its superpower patron, a relationship that has been almost absurdly favourable to Israel, uniquely bipartisan and almost unchallenged within the US political establishment. For years he has appeared to be going out of his way to break this bipartisan link, working to undermine US foreign policy, embarrass the president, and show himself and his government to be allied not with the United States, but with the Republican Party. Why? Is it psychopathology or an ingenious scheme? Or both?

Most people who try to explain it (including those who write articles with titles like The real reason Netanyahu is willing to risk Israel’s relationship with the U.S.) tend to posit that the reason has something to do with Israel: Either he is doing it either out of a genuine belief that Obama’s negotiations with Iran threaten Israel’s survival, so demand desperate measures; or that it is a cynical short-term political calculation, intended to shore up his position with the Israeli electorate, particularly now, two weeks ahead of an election. But what if it has nothing to do with Israel’s future, or Netanyahu’s position in Israel, but with Netanyahu’s position outside of Israel?

My thinking here is inspired by a very insightful comment on Greek politics by Matthew Yglesias:

Normally you would think that a national prime minister’s best option is to try to do the stuff that’s likely to get him re-elected. No matter how bleak the outlook, this is your dominant strategy. But in the era of globalization and EU-ification, I think the leaders of small countries are actually in a somewhat different situation. If you leave office held in high esteem by the Davos set, there are any number of European Commission or IMF or whatnot gigs that you might be eligible for even if you’re absolutely despised by your fellow countrymen. Indeed, in some ways being absolutely despised would be a plus. The ultimate demonstration of solidarity to the “international community” would be to do what the international community wants even in the face of massive resistance from your domestic political constituency.

One constant of Netanyahu’s career has been his (for an Israeli politician) exceptional venality. Of course, Netanyahu (or any Israeli leader) has no future in Europe, or major international bodies; but the US is another very big world, and making himself the pet anti-terrorist Jew of the Republican Party could be a highly remunerative post, far more valuable in Shekels than anything that his home country can offer. And if he ends up destroying Israel in the process, he’s all set up to blame left-wing anti-Semitism allied with Islamo-fascism. It will be brilliant for business.

The next war

The BBC reports that education secretary Nicky Morgan “wants England to be in the top five in the world for English and maths by 2020. It is currently 23rd.” They quote her:

Returning us to our rightful place will be a symbol of our success. To achieve this, we will launch a war on illiteracy and innumeracy.

So, I’m thinking about wars that Britain has prosecuted over the past half century or so, often with the goal of “returning us to our rightful place”. Suez. Falkland Islands. Bosnia. Iraq. Yemen. Cyprus. Kenya. Afghanistan. Northern Ireland. Not all disasters, but not an unbroken record of glory either. Not really a set of memories you want to activate if you want your audience to think “overwhelming success” rather than, say “useless drain on national resources”, “antiquated racist ideology”, or “undermining democracy and human rights”.

Putting aside the absurd-sounding ambition for England to be among the top 5 for English, (I’ll just guess this wording reflects the slightly vague British awareness that foreigners tend to speak Foreignish, and so might have literacy skills to be tested that aren’t literally “English”) the battle plan for maths all comes down to tables:
Continue reading “The next war”

Pardons instead of prosecutions

Anthony Romero, director of the American Civil Liberties Union, has published in the NY Times a plea to pardon the officials who approved or conducted torture. This seemed to me ridiculous at first, but on reading his argument I find that it makes a certain kind of perverse sense. Given that the US government has shown itself incapable of prosecuting these atrocities, the only way to assert the principle that these were in fact crimes, and not simply exuberant excesses of patriotic zeal, is to issue pardons. It would also have the salutary effect of making explicit the intention of the US not to prosecute, opening the way for other governments and international courts.

But when you let that sink in, it makes clear how close the corruption of the American state has come to making the US ungovernable. A state that is incapable of punishing officials who conspire to commit some of the most heinous war crimes of recent times is either a tyranny or constitutional anarchy; and the US is definitely not a tyranny. The US constitution has had a good run, but it seems to be coming apart at the seams. Continue reading “Pardons instead of prosecutions”

“The same terrorists”

Andrew Sullivan quotes conservative journalist K. T. McFarland:

According to media reports, the report concludes that we tortured terrorists.

These are the same terrorists who blew up the World Trade Center, bombed the Pentagon, and tried to level the U.S. Capitol. These are the same terrorists that today have beheaded Christians, Westerners and, just this past weekend, another American citizen.

It’s a bizarre and revealing statement. Putting aside the fact that some of the people tortured by the CIA and its confederates were completely innocent and not any sort of terrorists, they obviously weren’t the same terrorists who did any of the things on that list. A few of them were involved in planning the World Trade Center attack, but none of them was anywhere near beheading Americans last weekend. This notion of collective guilt expresses very well the sense of indiscriminate impotent rage that led to the disasters of the first decade of the 21st century. It’s simply inconceivable that something terrible can happen to America, and that they are unable to strike back. If the perpetrators are dead — and that’s the frustration of suicide attacks — then someone else must be punished. And if it has been decided that the barbarians wouldn’t mind dying, then they’ll have to dig deeper to find a way to assert dominance.

Mutually reinforcing headlines in Munich

I’m spending a couple of weeks in Munich, and I had to burst out laughing when I saw this tabloid on sale from a stand. The headlines seem to be unintentionally commenting upon one another:

New war in Iraq

followed by

This is your true legacy!

TZ headline

(I have to admit that my translation above, while literally more or less correct, and corresponds to the way I first read it due to the juxtaposition, is not really idiomatic. In the context of large tabloid headlines it’s clear that an appropriate translation would be “This is the right way to leave an inheritance”, and the article is all about how to write your will and avoid paying inheritance tax.)

The death of irony: Snowden edition

I have commented before on the self-contradictions in the attempts by the US to portray Edward Snowden as a common criminal, while themselves taking an “everybody does it” approach to flouting other countries’ laws, and, indeed, its own Constitution.

Now comes a report in Der Spiegel, on a legal opinion presented by the US to a German parliamentary investigatory committee that is considering inviting testimony from Snowden:

Es sei bereits eine “strafbare Handlung”, so der US-Jurist, wenn der “Haupttäter” (gemeint ist Snowden, Anm. Redaktion) etwa durch deutsche Parlamentarier veranlasst werde, geheime Informationen preiszugeben. Gegebenenfalls könne das als “Diebstahl staatlichen Eigentums” gewertet werden. Je nach Faktenlagen könnten Strafverfolger gar von einer “Verschwörung” (conspiracy) ausgehen.

It would be in itself a “criminal offence”, according to the US lawyer, if the “offender” (meaning Snowden) were induced by, for example, German members of Parliament, to reveal secret information. This could be considered “theft of state property”. Depending on the exact circumstances, it could even be prosecuted as a “conspiracy”.

Are US intelligence services really advocating the principle that acquiring secret information from other governments is a criminal offence, one for which individual legislators or indeed an entire parliamentary committee (and why not the whole German Bundestag, and the government to boot?) could be prosecuted? I think it shows the extent to which the US government is, in the Age of Obama, sees international law as a set of rhetorical tricks for expressing the hopelessness of any resistance to US government interests, rather than any set of rules and principles to which all might be subject.

But maybe they really mean to establish the principle that asking for information is illegal. The only valid way to obtain information is theft or torture.