American ‘justice’

This morning’s Observer column.

Do you think that, as a society, the United States has become a basket case? Well, join the club. I’m not just thinking of the country’s dysfunctional Congress, pathological infatuation with firearms, addiction to litigation, crazy healthcare arrangements, engorged prison system, chronic inequality, 50-year-old military-industrial complex and out-of-control security services. There is also its strange irrationality about the use and abuse of computers.

Two events last week provided case studies of this…

It’s the metadata, stoopid

This morning’s Observer column.

“To be remembered after we are dead,” wrote Hazlitt, “is but poor recompense for being treated with contempt while we are living.” Cue President “George W” Obama in the matter of telephone surveillance by his National Security Agency. The fact that for the past seven years the agency has been collecting details of every telephone call placed in the United States without a warrant was, he intoned, no reason for Americans to be alarmed. “Nobody is listening to your telephone calls,” he cooed. The torch was then passed to Dianne Feinstein, chair of the Senate intelligence committee, who was likewise on bromide-dispensing duty. “This is just metadata,” she burbled, “there is no content involved.”

At which point the thought uppermost in one’s mind is: what kind of idiots do they take us for? Of course there’s no content involved, for the simple reason that content is a pain in the butt from the point of view of modern surveillance. First, you have to listen to the damned recordings, and that requires people (because even today, computers are not great at understanding everyday conversation) and time. And although Senator Feinstein let slip that the FBI already employs 10,000 people “doing intelligence on counter-terrorism”, even that Stasi-scale mob isn’t a match for the torrent of voice recordings that Verizon and co could cough up daily for the spooks…

While we’re on the George W. Obama theme, John Perry Barlow claimed this morning that the Obama administration has now prosecuted seven officials under the Espionage Act and goes on to point out that the total for all his predecessors since 1917 is 3.

Stuxnet, Obama and the necessary hypocrisy of statecraft

This morning’s Observer column.

When Stuxnet was first discovered in 2010, it attracted a great deal of attention for several reasons. For one thing it was so remarkably sophisticated and complex that its creation would have required a large software team. This led many of us to suppose that it must be the work of the security services of a major industrial country: it was hard to imagine run-of-the-mill malware authors going to all that trouble when they could be harvesting stolen credit-card numbers without getting out of bed. But the most intriguing thing about Stuxnet was the way it targeted a very specific piece of equipment: the Siemens Simatic programmable logic controller. It is commonplace in industrial operations everywhere – oil refineries, chemical plants, water-treatment facilities and so on. And it is also the device that controlled the centrifuges of the Iranian nuclear programme. Stuxnet could – and did – instruct the Siemens controller to cause the centrifuges to accelerate until they disintegrated.

All this pointed toward one conclusion – that Stuxnet must have been the creation of either the US or Israel. But no one knew for sure. Now, thanks to some fine investigative reporting by David Sanger, we do. The Stuxnet project – codenamed “Olympic Games” – was actually started by the Bush administration and accelerated by Obama in his first months in office. What’s more, Sanger claims that Obama took a detailed, personal interest in the progress of the Stuxnet attack and that there were some agonised discussions in the White House when it was realised that the worm, instead of remaining inside the Natanz nuclear plant, had escaped into the wild, as it were…

A Festival of Lies

Great NYTimes column by Tom Friedman about the crazed futility of US policy in the Middle East. Sample:

What ails the Arab world is a deficit of freedom, a deficit of modern education and a deficit of women’s empowerment.

So helping to overcome those deficits should be what U.S. policy is about, yet we seem unable to sustain that. Look at Egypt: More than half of its women and a quarter of its men can’t read. The young Egyptians who drove the revolution are desperate for the educational tools and freedom to succeed in the modern world. Our response should have been to shift our aid money from military equipment to building science-and-technology high schools and community colleges across Egypt.

Yet, instead, a year later, we’re in the crazy situation of paying $5 million in bail to an Egyptian junta to get U.S. democracy workers out of jail there, while likely certifying that this junta is liberalizing and merits another $1.3 billion in arms aid. We’re going to give $1.3 billion more in guns to a country whose only predators are illiteracy and poverty.

In Afghanistan, I laugh out loud whenever I hear Obama administration officials explaining that we just need to train more Afghan soldiers to fight and then we can leave. Is there anything funnier? Afghan men need to be trained to fight? They defeated the British and the Soviets!

The problem is that we turned a blind eye as President Hamid Karzai stole the election and operated a corrupt regime. Then President Obama declared that our policy was to surge U.S. troops to clear out the Taliban so “good” Afghan government could come in and take our place. There is no such government. Our problem is not that Afghans don’t know the way to fight. It is that not enough have the will to fight for the government they have. How many would fight for Karzai if we didn’t pay them?

And so it goes. In Pakistan, we pay the Pakistani Army to be two-faced, otherwise it would be only one-faced and totally against us. In Bahrain, we looked the other way while ruling Sunni hard-liners crushed a Shiite-led movement for more power-sharing, and we silently watch our ally Israel build more settlements in the West Bank that we know are a disaster for its Jewish democracy.

But we don’t tell Pakistan the truth because it has nukes. We don’t tell the Saudis the truth because we’re addicted to their oil. We don’t tell Bahrain the truth because we need its naval base. We don’t tell Egypt the truth because we’re afraid it will walk from Camp David. We don’t tell Israel the truth because it has votes. And we don’t tell Karzai the truth because Obama is afraid John McCain will call him a wimp.

En passant: What is truly amazing is the capacity of politicians to talk utter baloney when in office. In the case of Afghanistan, for example, it’s patently obvious that (a) the US/UK/Nato mission is doomed to failure, and (b) that being in that godforsaken country has nothing to do with Britain’s “national security”. And yet — day in, day out — we have to listen to Cameron & Co denying (a) and asserting (b).

Same thing for “austerity” and the deficit.

The power of metaphors

My Observer column for today.

At first sight it looked like an April Fools’ joke. A branch of the US intelligence service called the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA) announced that it would be pouring millions of dollars into a “Metaphor Programme”. “Perhaps it’s a red herring,” observed a colleague, entering into the spirit of the thing. But then we remembered that the US intelligence establishment doesn’t do jokes, on account of it comprising lots of smart folks whose sense of humour was surgically removed at birth. So I read on.

“The Metaphor Programme,” said the solicitation (ie call for research proposals) from IARPA’s Office of Incisive Analysis (I am not making this up), “will exploit the fact that metaphors are pervasive in everyday talk and reveal the underlying beliefs and worldviews of members of a culture. In the first phase of the two-phase programme, performers [IARPA’s intriguing term for researchers] will develop automated tools and techniques for recognising, defining and categorising linguistic metaphors associated with target concepts and found in large amounts of native-language text.”

Ah! So it’s computational linguistics on steroids. But why would US spooks suddenly develop an interest in an area that has hitherto been the preserve of humanities scholars?

Trumping Trump

As the Donald Trump “candidacy” for the presidency unfolded, most people in the UK must have been astonished that such a buffoon could be taken seriously. Part of the reason is that an idiotic proposition on the scale of a Trump presidential bid would never have survived the unruly British media. But American journalism is either irredeemably partisan (e.g. Fox News and talk radio) or obsessed with strange notions of ‘impartiality’ that allow absurdities to flourish. (The old “balance as bias” problem.)

Anyway, after a bad few weeks in which one watched with incredulity as Trump raised the ‘birther’ fantasy to new heights, it was just lovely to see Obama, for a change, take the idiocy on. And what made it really delicious was that Trump was in the audience, as a guest of the Washington Post, no less. Which makes one wonder what the hell an allegedly serious newspaper is doing having him as a guest. It’s a strange come-down for a paper that once brought down a crooked president.

Clueless in Cairo

This is the headline on a great column by Nicholas Kristof in the NYT. What was obvious from the beginning was that the Egyptian popular uprising posed terrible problems for the US, which has spent 30 years cosying up to Mubarak and his thugs (who, among other things, have been very obliging in providing torture services in circumstances where the CIA has been too squeamish). It seems only yesterday that Hilary Clinton was describing the Mubarak regime as “stable”. Kristof points out that not only are the Obama crowd way behind the Egyptian curve, but by making a big deal of their success in persuading the old brute not to run for election they have actually made a bad situation worse for US interests in the longer run. It’s astonishing to watch a powerful and supposedly intelligent Administration make such idiotic decisions. First their response to WikiLeaks. Now this. But let’s hear Kristof on the matter:

I’m afraid that too many Egyptian and American officials have been spending their time talking to each other, and not enough time talking to grassroots Egyptians in Tahrir Square and elsewhere. Everybody I’ve interviewed in Tahrir has said that as a starting point, Mubarak has to resign. Now! People aren’t going to be placated by him saying that he won’t run again – especially since it was never clear that he planned to do so anyway.

Fundamentally, what Egyptians want is not just a change in the individual at the top – although they want that – but also a change in the system. They want a democracy. They want a voice. They want an end to corruption. And now that they’ve found their voices, I don’t think they’re going to be easily silenced.

I’m also struck that the anger at Mubarak is growing. At first, the demands were simply that he leave office. But today on Tahrir, I heard people say and saw signs saying that he should be exiled, put on trial, or even executed. One dramatic sign showed Mubarak in a hangman’s noose.

The point is that there is zero confidence in Mubarak. So the idea that Egyptians would trust him to rule for months more, and possibly engineer a succession to a Mubarak clone, is preposterous.

I also fear that this choreography – sending former diplomat Frank Wisner (whom I admire) to get Mubarak to say he won’t run for reelection — will further harm America’s image. This will come across in Egypt as collusion between Obama and Mubarak to distract the public with a half step; it will be interpreted as dissing the democracy movement once again. This will feed the narrative that it’s the United States that calls the shots in the Mubarak regime, and that it’s the United States that is trying to outmaneuver the democracy movement. In effect, we have confirmed to a suspicious Egyptian public that we are in bed with Mubarak and trying to perpetuate his regime (even without him at the top) in defiance of a popular democratic movement.

Great stuff.

LATER: This interesting piece by Craig Scott in openDemocracy:

On the Egypt front, Luke Johnson in the American Independent reminded us of Secretary of State Clinton’s interview with Al Arabiya TV in Egypt in March 2009.2 Clinton engaged in downplaying to the point of virtual dismissal the relevance of the annual Department of State’s country report on the human rights situation in Egypt. That 2008 report (published in early 2009) discusses in considerable detail the extensive and systemic use of torture by the police and security services in Egypt. That apparatus has been instrumental to sustaining Mubarak in power for the past 30 years (not to mention to the US’ outsourcing of torture-for-intelligence). In response to a journalist’s question, Clinton commented, “We issue these reports on every country. We consider Egypt to be a friend and we engage in very forthright conversations with our friends. And so we hope that it will be taken in the spirit in which it is offered, that we all have room for improvement.”

Obama’s Finest Hour

Further to my post about Obama’s Tucson speech…

During the 2008 presidential campaign, Gary Wills wrote a piece in the New York Review of Books in which he compared Barack Obama’s Philadelphia speech on race with Abraham Lincoln’s Cooper Union address during his own 1860 campaign. Wills noted that both men had had to separate themselves from embarrassing associations—Lincoln from John Brown’s violent abolitionism, and Obama from Jeremiah Wright’s black nationalism. They had to do this without engaging in divisive attacks or counter-attacks. They did it, Wills argued, “by appeal to the finest traditions of the nation, with hope for the future of those traditions. Obama renounced black nationalism without giving up black pride, which he said was in the great American tradition of self-reliance”.

On the NYRB blog Wills says:

The New York Review wanted to publish a booklet printing the Lincoln and Obama speeches together, but the Obama campaign discouraged that idea, perhaps to avoid any suspicion that they were calling Obama a second Lincoln. Well, I am willing to risk such opposition now, when I say that his Tucson speech bears comparison with two Lincoln speeches even greater than the Cooper Union address. In this case, Obama had to rise above the acrimonious debate about what caused the gunman in Tucson to kill and injure so many people. He side-stepped that issue by celebrating the fallen and the wounded and those who rushed to their assistance. He has been criticized by some for holding a “pep rally” rather than a mourning service. But he was speaking to those who knew and loved and had rallied around the people attacked. He was praising them and those who assisted them, and the cheers were deserved. He said that the proper tribute to them was to live up to their own high expectations of our nation. It was in that context, and not one of recrimination, that he called for civility, service—and, yes, heroism—in the country.