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Dr. Binoy Kampmark is a senior lecturer in the School of Global, Urban and Social Studies, RMIT University. He was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, University of Cambridge. He is a contributing editor to CounterPunch and can be followed at @bkampmark.

Encircling China and Praising India: The US Strategic Framework for the Indo-Pacific

The feeling from Rory Medcalf of the Australian National University was one of breathless wonder. “The US government,” he wrote in The Strategist, “has just classified one of its most secretive national security documents – its 2018 strategic framework for the Indo-Pacific, which was formally classified SECRET and not for release to foreign nationals.”

Washington’s errand boys and girls in Canberra tend to get excited by this sort of thing. Rather than seeing it as a blueprint for imminent conflict with China, a more benign reading is given: how to handle “strategic rivalry with China.” Looming in the text of the National Security Council’s US Strategic Framework for the Indo-Pacific (SFIP) is a generous doffing of the cap to Australia’s reckless, self-harming approach towards China. As an unnamed senior US official (of course) toldAxios, the Australians “were pioneers and we have to give a lot of credit to Australia.” Australian senior intelligence advisor John Garnaut is given high praise for his guiding hand. When war breaks out between Beijing and Washington, we know a few people to thank.

The SFIP, declassified on January 5, is very much a case of business as usual and unlikely to shift views in the forthcoming Biden presidency. The timing of the release suggests that the Trump administration would like to box its predecessor on certain matters, notably on China.

In a statement from National Security Advisor Robert C. O’Brien, the SFIP “provided overarching strategic guidance for implementing the 2017 National Security Strategy within the world’s most populous and economically dynamic region.” The National Security Strategy, in turn, recognised “that the most consequential challenge to the interests of the United States, and those of our allies and partners, is the growing rivalry between free and repressive visions of the future.” Beijing is cast in the role of repressive force in “pressuring Indo-Pacific nations to subordinate their freedom and sovereignty to a ‘common destiny’ envisioned by the Chinese Communist Party.”

The imperium’s interests, according to the SFIP, must be guarded (“strategic primacy in the Indo-Pacific region”); a “liberal economic order” must be promoted while China is to be prevented “from establishing new, illiberal spheres of influence.” North Korea is deemed of high importance in terms of whether it threatens the US and its allies, “accounting for both the acute present danger and the potential for future changes in the level and type of threat posed” by Pyongyang. The US is also to retain “global economic leadership while promoting fair and reciprocal trade.”

One of the “top interests” of the US in the Indo-Pacific is identified in pure power terms: retaining “economic, diplomatic, and military access to the most populous region in the world and more than one-third of the global economy.” Washington is keen to preserve “primacy in the region while protecting American core values and liberties at home.” But there is the spoiling presence of China, aspirational superpower, and keen for its bit of geopolitical pie. “Strategic competition between the United States and China will persist, owing to the divergent nature and goals of our political and economic systems.”

China is ever the cheeky opportunist, seeking to “circumvent international rules norms to gain an advantage.” Beijing “aims to dissolve US alliances and partnerships in the region” exploiting “vacuums and opportunities created by these diminished bonds.” With this in mind, US defence strategy should be “capable of, but not limited to: (1) denying China sustained air and sea dominance inside the ‘first island chain’ in conflict; (2) defending the first-island-chain nations, including Taiwan; and (3) dominating all domains outside the first island-chain.”

The document also acknowledges an untidy region of shifting power balances and increased defence spending, which will “continue to drive security competition across the Indo-Pacific.” Japan and India are singled out for special mention in that regard. A measure of angst is registered: “Loss of US pre-eminence in the Indo-Pacific would weaken our ability to achieve US interests globally.”

The authors of the SFIP are unashamed about the fistful of principles that will maintain US power, the sort that masquerades in popular language as the “liberal rules-based order.” Desirable objectives include the US being the “preferred partner” of “most nations” in the region; and that these powers “uphold the principles that have enabled US and regional prosperity and stability, including sovereignty, freedom of navigation and overflight, standards of trade and investment, respect for individual rights and rule of law, and transparency in military activities.” No wobbling will be permitted; allies will have to get in line.

India, “in cooperation with like-minded countries,” figures as a shining hope. Its rise is deemed essential, serving as “a net provider of security and Major Defense Partner.” What is envisaged is a strategic partnership “underpinned by a strong Indian military able to effectively collaborate with the United States and our partners in the region to address shared interests.”

For its spiky anti-China message, the nature of the economic relationship with Beijing is hard to ignore, provided it is conducted on US terms. The strategy is, to that end, most Trumpian in character, emphasising the need to “prevent China’s industrial policies and unfair trading practices from distorting global markets and harming US competitiveness.”

In what has become a tradition of the Trump administration, the Framework document does not tally with messages from other equivalent national security assessments. The officials of empire are not speaking with a coherent voice. The 2019 Indo-Pacific Strategy Report by the Department of Defense, for instance, makes good mention of Russia as a “revitalized malign actor.” (Pentagon pundits can never seem to give the bear, or their paranoia, a rest.) Despite tardy economic growth occasioned by Western sanctions and a fall in oil prices, Moscow “continues to modernize its military and prioritize strategic capabilities – including its nuclear forces, A2/AD systems, and expanded training for long-range aviation – in an attempt to re-establish its presence in the Indo-Pacific region.”

The authors of the Framework document are, in sharp contrast, barely troubled by Moscow and, surprisingly, sober on the issue. “Russia will remain a marginal player in the Indo-Pacific region relative to the United States, China and India.” Abhijnan Rej of The Diplomat could not help but find this inconsistency odd. “So Russia is a threat in a public document but not one in a classified one?”

As for India, the 2019 IPSR does much to avoid exaggeration and elevation. “Within South Asia, we are working to operationalize our Major Defense Partnership with India, while pursuing emerging partnerships with Sri Lanka, the Maldives, Bangladesh and Nepal.” The Pentagon notes an increase in the “scope, complexity and frequency of our military exercises” with India. But for all that, New Delhi hardly remains a jewel of defence strategy relative to such traditional allies as South Korea and Japan.

The SFIP, in contrast, makes a bold stab at linking the goals of maintaining US regional supremacy with New Delhi’s own objectives. This is bound to cause discomfort in the planning rooms, given Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s rhetoric on regional multipolarity. An article of faith in Indian policy on the matter is ensuring that no single power dominates the region. Another potential concern is the prospect that India is being thrown into the US-China scrap.

Medcalf concludes his assessment of the framework document with his own call for what promises to be future conflict. “America,” he insists, “cannot effectively compete with China if it allows Beijing hegemony over this vast region, the economic and strategic centre of gravity in a connected world.” The conflict mongers will be eagerly rubbing their hands.

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Julian Assange, WikiLeaks and Australia’s Complicity

Australia’s Foreign Minister, Marise Payne, said little in the statement from her department, which was a good thing, as it might have been dangerously useful. The finding of a UK court on whether Julian Assange would be extradited to the United States was made “on the grounds of his mental health and consequent suicide risk.” She does not care to mention the actual details of the case, the fact that the decision by District Judge Vanessa Baraitser, while blocking the extradition, was nastily focused against journalism.

Payne insists on objective distance from the proceedings. “Australia is not a party to the case and will continue to respect the ongoing legal process, including the UK justice system’s consideration of applications for release, or any appeals.” Superficial regard for due process is thereby preserved and acknowledged.

What follows from the statement is a cover excusing the feeble efforts by Australian governments over the years of all stripes to assist Assange in his monumental battle against the US imperium and the proxy torments inflicted by Britain and Sweden. “We have made 19 offers of consular assistance to Mr Assange since 2019 that have gone unanswered. We will continue to offer consular support.”

Such a statement sticks to the steady line that Australian officials have always been there, always ready and eager to assist a citizen beleaguered, persecuted and haunted by the agencies and instruments of an ally. But the position is sacredly supine: do not rock the alliance with either the US or the UK; do not disturb the good offices of Washington or raise hackles in Downing Street.

In the past, Australia, with a few dubious exceptions, has shown scant regard to shielding citizens in a monumental pickle, especially those accused of grave crimes of a political nature. The Howard government’s lamentable response to David Hicks and Mamdouh Habib, both accused of terrorism offences by the US in the misnamed global war on terror, has been documented. Hicks found himself facing that most dubious of legal experiments with cheery Australian approval: US military commissions established by the administration of George W. Bush.

When the US Supreme Court struck down the legality of the commissions in Hamdan v Rumsfeld (2006) for violating the Uniform Code of Military Justice and the four Geneva Conventions signed in 1949, then Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer remained unmoved. “Prior to that the military commission process had been upheld by other courts including the US court of appeals, so it had been, until it went to the Supreme Court, a process that was upheld by American civil courts.”

Hardly the sharpest legal analysis ever offered, and one leaving Australian officials flatfooted in their treatment of an Australian citizen. “Our advice has been, as had the American Government’s advice had been, that it was lawful,” explained a less than contrite Prime Minister John Howard. “Now, the court has said no, well, we accept that – you get advice and you act on it.”

The case with Assange is no less dire. When President Barack Obama’s Vice President and soon to be US President Joe Biden was asked about the release of US State Department cables by WikiLeaks in 2010, the response was unequivocal: Assange was a species of “hi-tech terrorist.” Republican Rep. Peter King of New York insisted that he be charged under the Espionage Act of 1917 (corks must have popped at the release of the Department of Justice indictment doing just that) and WikiLeaks designated a terrorist organisation. Obama’s Secretary of State Hillary Clinton merrily floated the idea of using a drone against Assange that same year, though claimed not to recall doing so in 2016. “It would have been a joke, if it had been said, but I don’t recall that.”

Rather than defend an Australian national against the positively homicidal and kidnapping disposition of US politicians and agencies, Canberra has been generally reticent, hiding behind the fiction of due process. In some cases, Australian officials have gone so far as to level their own accusations against the Australian national, hinting that Assange might deserve trial and incarceration. Former Prime Minister Julia Gillard stumbled into a trap of her own making in asserting in 2012 that it was an “illegal act” to leak documents to WikiLeaks. “It would not happen, information would not be on WikiLeaks, if there had not been an illegal act undertaken.”

Unfortunately for Gillard, she had not reckoned with the corrective assessment of opposition legal affairs spokesman George Brandis. Gillard, he said reproachfully, had been “clumsy” in her use of language. “As far as I can see he (Mr Assange) hasn’t broken any Australian law.” Shadow Foreign Minister Julie Bishop similarly pointed out that Gillard was unable to identify “any Australian law that Mr Assange has broken. Nor has she apologised for pre-judging him in that way and making that prejudicial statement.”

In 2012, when he was Australian Foreign Minister, Bob Carr also waffled in accusation, casting a spear at Assange for releasing “secrets… for the sake of being released without inherent justification.” In doing so, he threw in his lot with those who considered the release by WikiLeaks to be nothing like the Pentagon Papers, that jewel of exposure released by US Defence Department analyst Daniel Ellsberg. The WikiLeaks exposures were “not like Daniel Ellsberg’s Pentagon Papers which revealed huge American deception, huge deception by the American government of the American public.”

This was horrendously off the mark, not least given the assessment by Ellsberg himself since 2010 and at Assange’s extradition trial. In December 2010, Ellsberg released a co-signed statement remarking that, “Every attack now made on WikiLeaks and Julian Assange was made against me and the release of the Pentagon Papers at the time.” In giving his testimony as a defence witness for Assange in September 2020, he further argued that his “own actions in relation to the Pentagon Papers and the consequences of their publication have been acknowledged to have performed such a radical change of understanding. I view the WikiLeaks publications of 2010 and 2011 to be of comparable importance.”

Carr was also irritated by those nuisance accusations that Assange had not received sufficient consular assistance. In his diary entry of June 2, 2012, he notes being, “Fed up with complaints from [Assange’s] family suggesting he hasn’t been supported by Australia and the opposition spokesperson saying the same thing.” Disingenuous to a fault, Carr made the adventurous suggestion at a press conference that the WikiLeaks publisher “has had more consular support in a comparable time than any other Australian. Strictly speaking, I don’t know whether this is the case.”

Carr has since undergone the sort of transformation that the Czech dissident playwright Václav Havel found inherent in politics. The very nature of the practice – one can hardly call it a discipline – produces a divorce between truth and the human being. When it is convenient, these might meet, human might and solidarity marshalled behind verity. Carr, for a time, found it inconvenient to consider the truth of Assange’s situation. Now, he has become Assange’s late-to-the party standard-bearer and defender. His extradition to the US, argues the converted Carr, “would set an ugly precedent.”

In the aftermath of the court decision, Carr suggested on Twitter that Australia was “entitled to tell Trump in his last days that Assange is one of us and his extradition is wrong. He exposed US war crimes exactly like our own in Afghanistan which we are prosecuting.” He also had words for Payne: raise the matter of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in forceful and proud fashion to defend an Australian case. “Or does your view of the [US-Australian] alliance mean you never do that?” Havel would have rolled his eyes.

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Twitter Nukes Trump

This was Twitter Safety’s January 8 post, full of noble concern: “After close review of recent Tweets from the @realDonaldTrump account and the context around them – specifically how they are being received and interpreted off Twitter – we have permanently suspended the account due to the risk of further incitement of violence.”

Is it ever wise for a social media platform to suspend the accounts of political representatives, especially if they are of such character as Donald J. Trump? The question is a big tangle, though anything to do with the exiting US president encourages hotted up simple binaries, most of it emotive rather than cerebral. As with any forms of expression, the inner censor starts taking hold against content that is disliked, considered offensive or, as in the recent round of Trump tweets, delusionary and inciting in character.

The reaction of Representative Jamaal Bowman (D-NY) to Twitter’s suspension of Trump’s account was but one example of the censor writ large. Bowman had taken to the platform to demand that Twitter suspend the president’s account, and asked why he was “still out there tweeting after inciting a fascist mob.” This streakily hyperbolic statement was nothing compared to the joyous, ghoulish note he posted on learning of the suspension: banning the president from Twitter had been as significant as the capturing Saddam Hussein. Wonderful of Bowman to remind voters of a catastrophic, illegal invasion of a country supposedly armed to the teeth with weapons of mass destruction, and eager to deploy them against the US and its allies.

The reasons for Twitter’s suspension of the account were themselves political acts initiated by a market actor. Barring the most powerful office holder in the United States from having an avenue to his supporters is an open admission to political interference. It is a position on restricting and suppressing forms of communication to constituents and voters, notably ones deemed unsavoury in accordance to piecemeal rules made by market considerations.

The company actually identifies the culprit tweets as well. One was the announcement that Trump would not be attending President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration on January 20. (Is it even their business to be worried about ceremonial protocol?) The second involved praise for “75,000,000 great American Patriots who voted for me,” and were not to be “disrespected or treated unfairly.” The timing was important here, given the march on and into the US Capitol a few days prior.

Twitter duly editorialises, disapproves and dispenses. “Due to the ongoing tensions in the United States, and an uptick in the global conversation in regards to the people who violently stormed the Capitol on January 6, 2021, these two Tweets must be read in the context of broader events in the country and the ways in which the President’s statements can be mobilized by different audiences, including to incite violence, as well as in the context of the pattern of behaviour from his account in recent weeks.”

The virtue of having Trump vent his spleen all over Twitter should be palpably obvious: to open a door to his indignant, at times adolescent world, one unvarnished and uncontaminated by any advisory circle. Conventions could be trashed; the acceptable could be sullied and soiled. This did wonders for instability and bedevilled the Washington establishment, but it was an inspiring weapon for his supporters and a shock to the business-as-usual cadres who think democracy is good as long as it is conveniently correct. The president was no longer kept within the cage of sober expertise and cautious control. He was, quite literally, in global circulation.

Trump supporters are naturally indignant about the move, and have, erroneously, drawn the wrong conclusion about whether his free speech has been affected or not. The First Amendment was intended to protect citizens from government action vis-à-vis that speech, not the inconsistent, bumbling decisions of well-moneyed social media behemoths. Jeremy Mishkin of Montgomery McCracken in Philadelphia, an advocate versed in First Amendment jurisprudence, suggests that the protection does not apply if Twitter “decides it is not going to participate in disseminating someone else’s message.” A newspaper, he analogises, is not obligated to publish the news release of a politician.

The more salient, and concerning conclusion to draw from the ban is the control of political content as it is shared on such private corporate platforms. That remains the troubling preserve of Mark Zuckerberg, Jack Dorsey and company. Fashion, whim and being in the good books of the moment are their guiding lights. “It’s about the free market,” Jake Millar tells us in GQ, “not free speech.”

As it happens, that fashion and whim favours the Democrats, who are ecstatic that social media companies have finally discovered their censoring mettle. Jennifer Palmieri, former White House Communications director and director for communications for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign made no secret of the alignment of interests. “It has not escaped my attention that the day social media companies decided there actually IS more they could do to police Trump’s destruction behavior was the same day they learned Democrats would chair all the congressional committees that oversee them.” Cosy times lie ahead.

Trenchant criticism of the ban has been marginalised as apologias for domestic terrorism and the rants of pro-Trump fanatics. More measured analysis has been, as always with assessing Trump, absent. The ACLU did state, if tepidly, that such moves were dangerous to expression. “It should concern everyone when companies like Facebook and Twitter wield unchecked power to remove people from platforms that have become indispensable for the speech of billions.”

The reaction in other countries was also one of concern. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, as she so often does, had a punt both ways. Her spokesman, Steffen Seibert, accepted that social media platforms “bear great responsibility for political communication not being poisoned by hatred, lies and by incitement to violence.” But freedom of opinion was “fundamental” and should only be tampered with in accordance “to the law and within the framework defined by legislators – not according to a decision by the management of social media platforms.” To that end, Merkel, he explained to reporters, found the decision to block the accounts of the US president “problematic.”

In Australia, government ministers have taken issue with Twitter’s erratic approach to hosting content. Why kick Trump off the platform, yet host offensive, doctored material by Chinese outlets featuring a bloodthirsty Australian soldier, knife pressed at the throat of an Afghan child? That image, fumed Michael McCormack in a one week spell as acting prime minister, “has not been taken down, and that is wrong.”

Australian government backbencher Dave Sharma, while agreeing in principle that banning Trump from the platform might have been appropriate given the facts, feared “the precedent of big tech making decisions about whose speech, and which remarks, are censored and suppressed.”

In the guise of Twitter, the US has found a political agent of interference of its own. It has become a gatekeeper curating material that is released to the public. Other big tech giants are doing the same, cleansing platforms of the unfashionably scurrilous. Move over, you foreign rascals; Silicon Valley is here to shape and determine the content of US politics and, if necessary, the politics of other countries.

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Trump, Insurrections and the 25th Amendment

How strange it must have seemed for US lawmakers to be suddenly facing what was described as a “mob”, not so much storming as striding into the Capitol with angry purpose. A terrified security force proved understaffed and overwhelmed. Members of Congress hid. Five people lost their lives.

With the US imperium responsible for fostering numerous revolutions and coups across the globe during its history, spikes of schadenfreude could be found. China’s state paper Global Times found it irresistible to use the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong as a point of comparison. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s remark that the Hong Kong protests were “a beautiful sight to behold” was rubbed in the face of US lawmakers. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hua Chunying, remarking on the gloating reaction of Chinese netizens, also referred to remarks by US lawmakers on the Hong Kong protests.

It did not take long for carelessly chosen words such as “coup” to find their way into the political stuttering, as if President Donald Trump had somehow been having beer hall meetings in an atmosphere thick with plotting. Presidential historian Michael Beschloss was one. “This is a coup d’état attempted by the president of the United States.”

Many members of Congress concurred. “What happened at the US Capitol yesterday was an insurrection against the United States, incited by the president,” concluded Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer in a statement. “This president should not hold office one day longer.” Republican Senator Mitt Romney also stated that “an insurrection, incited by the president of the United States,” had taken place. Republican Rep. John Curtis went further, calling the move on the Capitol “an act of domestic terrorism inspired and encouraged by our president.”

Meaty words for scenes more nastily absurd than politically planned or devised, despite assertions by Republican Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming that “the president formed the mob, the president incited the mob, the president addressed the mob.”

This summation is all too tidy. It would have been far better to see the rioters much as the commander-and-chief himself: disposed to chaos, unrepentant in petulance. There was the QAnon conspiracy theorist Jake Angeli, sans shirt but donning a fur hat with Viking horns and spear, treating the occasion like a Christmas panto. There was Richard “Bigo” Barnett, who occupied, for a moment, the chair of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, leaving a note reading: “Nancy, Bigo was here, you bitch.”

There is no denying that such protestors had been offered rich encouragement by the president to protest the certification of the election results by Congress. “You’ll never take back our country with weakness,” he said coaxingly. Preoccupied with his own version of the stab-in-the-back theory involving a “stolen” election, Trump is crafting a version of history that, should it stick, will propel him for a future campaign to retake the White House.

The Capitol incident had tickled and teased out the prospects of a real coup, currently being hatched by a rerun of the impeachment narrative and suggestions that the 25th Amendment of the US constitution be invoked. Section 4 of the amendment establishes a process by which the president can be declared “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office” provided the vice president and a majority of “the principal officers of the executive departments” think so. The prospect of a hazardous use of that amendment is in the offing.

The wording of the amendment is broad and undefined, even though the original intent of it remains one of removing an executive who suffers true incapacity. The idea of medical emergency lies at its core. Even then, a letter has to be signed to the speakers of the House of Representatives and the Senate. The president is also given a chance to offer a written response contesting the finding, leaving it to Congress to decide. A supermajority of two-thirds in both congressional chambers would then be required.

Press outlets such as the New York Times and Washington Post, and organisations such as the National Association of Manufacturers have not bothered themselves too much about the original nature of the provision and its purpose. President and CEO of the latter, Jay Timmons, took the broadest interpretation for the sake of urgency. “Vice President Pence, who was evacuated from the Capitol, should seriously consider working with the Cabinet to invoke the 25th amendment to preserve democracy.”

Various lawmakers have also adopted an expansive, if cursory interpretation. In the view of Vermont’s Republican Governor Phil Scott, “President Trump should resign or be removed from office by his Cabinet, or by the Congress.”

 

 

Democratic members of the House Judiciary Committee, in their note to Pence, urge him along with a majority of Cabinet secretaries, to find Trump unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office. They even go for a layman’s diagnosis of his mental wellbeing. “Even his video announcement this afternoon, President Trump revealed that he was not mentally sound and is still unable to process and accept the results of the 2020 election.”

When the Democrats refused to believe the results of the 2016 elections, showing a persistent inability to process and accept it, they could never be said to be mentally unwell. Unhinged and delusional, maybe, but hardly a case of mental corrosion.

Law academic Brian Kalt, a keen student of the 25th amendment, advances two scenarios where section 4 might be used. The first involves “a president whose impairment is severe enough that the helm is, effectively, unmanned, even if he is still somehow able to claim that he is able to discharge his powers and duties.” Examples might entail severe strokes, a psychotic break or moderate dementia.

The second instance, which still suggests psychotic behaviour, would involve impairment “to the point of teeing up a disaster,” much like General Jack D. Ripper’s flight of murderous fancy in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove. “Consider, for example, an unhinged president who orders a capricious nuclear strike against another county – the problem here is not that the president is ‘unable’ so much as all too able to wipe out millions of lives.”

While Kalt was writing this in 2019, his views convinced Jack Goldsmith of Harvard Law School and David Priess, chief operating officer at Lawfare, that Trump had met the standard of removal set by the 25th Amendment. He had shown an “inability or unwillingness for weeks to distinguish reality from fiction about the results of the election” and had shown a “detachment from exercising the basic responsibilities of the office.”

Andrew C. McCarthy in the National Review prefers, with much justification, that this is simply pushing things too far, confusing delusion and character flaws with incapacity and inability. He has pointed out, with some accuracy, that the amendment was “not applicable to a situation in which the president is alleged to be unfit for reasons of character, or due to the commission of political offences that may arise to the level of high crimes and misdemeanours.” Trump might be delusional and self-interested, but these were not “competent diagnoses of mental instability.”

Within the various disturbed readings of the 25th Amendment lie the same rages that caused Caliban to despair at seeing his own face. Trump is the symptom, the agent of chaos, the disrupter making much of a bedridden Republic, a good deal of it the making of his opponents. To use the language of constitutionalism masquerading as an insurrection is intended to finally entomb Trumpism. What this risks doing is politically martyring a man who will leave office on January 20.

So far, Pence is resolutely opposed to using the measure and has the support of various Trump cabinet officials. According to the New York Times, “Those officials, a senior Republican said, viewed the effort as likely to add to the current chaos in Washington rather than deter it.” Utilising it would add the most combustible fuel to the argument Trump has been making all along: that establishment forces, always keen to box him during his administration, are now intent on removing him.

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Proxy Jailor: Denying Assange Bail

History, while not always a telling guide, can be useful. But in moments of flushed confidence, it is not consulted and Cleo is forgotten. A crisp new dawn can negate a glance to the past. Having received the unexpected news that Julian Assange’s extradition to the United States for charges of breaching the Espionage Act of 1917 and computer intrusion had been blocked by Justice Vanessa Baraitser, his legal team and supporters were confident. All that was left was to apply for bail, see Assange safely to the arms of his family, and await the next move by wounded US authorities.

Former UK ambassador Craig Murray, human rights activist and veteran reporter on the Assange case, was initially buoyant in his column. “I fully expect Julian will be released on bail this week, pending a possible US appeal against the blocking of his extradition.” He further got “the strong impression that Baraitser was minded to grant bail and wanted the decision to be fireproof.”

That fireproofing never came. On Wednesday, January 6, the application for bail by Assange’s legal team was rejected. Counsel for the US government, Clair Dobbin, built the prosecution’s case around the strong possibility that the publisher might flee the clutches of UK authorities even as the US was gathering its wits for an appeal to the High Court. “His history shows he will go to any lengths to get away.”

Forums would welcome this disreputable character: Mexico, for instance, had offered to “protect Assange with political asylum.” The defence might well say that he would not flee due to poor health, but could they be sure? A “flight risk” had little to do with mental wellbeing. Remember, she pressed, what he did during the Swedish proceedings, how he “ruthlessly” breached the trust of those who fronted the bail money. Those who had offered surety for him, such as the Duchess of Beaufort, Tracy Worcester, had also failed in ensuring that Assange presented in court in 2012. Beware, warned Dobbin, of sinister networks of operatives he could call upon to aid him vanish. WikiLeaks had, after all, facilitated the escape of Edward Snowden.

Dobbin’s tone and manner – gloomy and Presbyterian, as Murray described it – was all judgment. She insisted to the court that, “any idea that moral or principled reasons would bear on Mr Assange’s conscience turned out to be ill-founded indeed.” And she had much to go on, as Baraitser’s own judgment had essentially accepted virtually everything the prosecution had submitted bar grounds of mental health and the risk posed to him in US prison facilities.

As for the basis of whether an appeal would succeed, Dobbin was convinced the prosecution were onto something. The judge, she respectfully submitted, had erred on a point of law in applying the incorrect test on the prison conditions awaiting Assange. The test was not whether measures taken by US prison authorities would make suicide impossible; the only issue was for authorities to put measures in place to lessen its prospects. Reprising her role in attacking various defence witnesses who had put together a picture of grotesque danger awaiting Assange, including the ADX supermax prison in Colorado, Dobbin was convinced that the US system stood the test.

Sidestepping the defence evidence on this, more thorough than anything supplied by the likes of US Assistant US Attorney Gordon Kromberg during the trial, Dobbin argued that no thorough assessment of the facilities for treatment and prison conditions had taken place.

Baraitser proved accommodating to Dobbin’s whipping submission. “Notwithstanding the package offered by the defence, I am satisfied he might abscond.” Having discharged Assange, she promptly repudiated her own ruling in a fit of Dickensian jurisprudence. “The history of this case is well known… Assange skipped bail and remained in the Ecuadorian Embassy to avoid extradition to the US.” Assange would remain in Belmarsh prison pending the US appeal.

In her Monday judgment, Baraitser had acknowledged the signs of potential suicide shown by Assange during his stay in Belmarsh. The prison adjudication report confirmed that, on May 5, 2019 “during a routine search of the cell solely occupied by Mr Assange, inside a cupboard and concealed under some underwear, a prison officer found ‘half a razor blade’.” Baraitser even went so far as to accept, based on the assessment of defence witness Professor Michael Kopelman, that the finding of the razor was not merely a “disciplinary infraction” but one of the “very many factors indicating Mr Assange’s depression and risk of suicide.”

On Wednesday, her tune was indifferent to the consequences of sending Assange back to a maximum security prison stocked with Britain’s most notorious inmates. Continuing her long spell of denial on the seriousness of COVID-19 in the UK prison system, she swatted the submission by defence counsel Edward Fitzgerald QC that there had been 59 cases specific to Belmarsh before Christmas and that the prison remained locked down. Dobbin demurred on this point, showing an email sent by prison authorities at 10.49 pm the previous night claiming that only 3 positive tests for COVID for Belmarsh had been returned.

The result is that Assange continues to be punished, facing brutal carceral conditions while he awaits the next move by US prosecutors, despite having already served his sentence of skipping bail. As a dejected Murray wrote, “Julian is living his life in conditions both torturous and tortuous.”

Amidst the banal cruelties of Wednesday’s proceedings came a smidgen of hope for Assange. G. Zachary Terwilliger, the US attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia handling the prosecution, had to admit to being uncertain about what a Biden administration would do. Speaking to NPR, Terwilliger suggested that any decision taken on Assange would “come down to resources and where you’re going to focus your energies.” But he is not waiting to find out: a position at the law firm Vinson & Elkins awaits.

The UK, having adopted a position as Washington’s proxy jailor, is not about to quit its sordid role. Assange’s wellbeing and health continue to be jeopardised by his stay in Britain’s most notorious prison, where determined despair, as Baraitser herself has acknowledged, can take their toll.

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In Diversity We Trust: Joe Biden’s Cabinet Choices

Perfumed and tailored for a certain brand of folksy, identity politics, Pete Buttigieg hoped to blast his way to the White House having run a community of 102,000 constituents in South Bend, Indiana. Mayor Pete was hoping for the best, though his effort did not so much stall as fall over early on before the somnambulist who eventually won both his party’s nomination and the Presidency.

With President-elect Joe Biden hoping to give the impression of full-blooded diversity in his Cabinet, Buttigieg was a natural choice for transport secretary. At least New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and the US Conference of Mayors thought so. He spoke well, much like a textbook Rotarian who wishes to justify the club fee. He comes across as tutored, yet to be jaded. And there was that wonderful bonus thrown in: his sexual politics.

Biden has gone where many a US president has gone before, pushing up the hill of exceptionalism, proudly claiming that he has gotten his appointments the way no other president before has. “This Cabinet will be the most representative of any Cabinet in American history.” Meretriciously, he claimed it would be a “Cabinet of barrier breakers, a Cabinet of firsts.”

Buttergieg had been his ninth “precedent-busting” pick. To keep him company was, of course, the Vice President-elect herself, Kamala Harris; Alejandro Mayorkas (Department of Homeland Security) – the first Latino to occupy that position and defense secretary appointee Army Gen. Lloyd Austin – the first Black American for the role. Avril Haines is pencilled in as chief of the US intelligence committee – the first woman to take the reins. The world’s citizenry can rest assured that they will be monitored, bombed and tortured by a most inclusive set of Cabinet appointees.

Biden’s choices are certainly brimming with the rehearsed lines and testimonials. Haines, to take but one example, claims to “have never shied away from speaking truth to power… I’ve worked for you for a long time and I accept this nomination knowing that you would never want me to do otherwise.” Former CIA director John Brennan is also taken by her “willingness to speak up and speak out if she sees something that needs to be said, so she is not somebody who hesitates to be contrarian as necessary.”

This barely squares with her approval of an “accountability board” that exonerated CIA personnel from conducing espionage on investigators charged by the US Senate for investigating claims of torture. Far from speaking truth to power, she took a shovel and sought to bury it. Haines also threw in her lot in backing Gina Haspel for the role of CIA director, despite Haspel’s torture speckled resume.

The appointments have certainly propitiated the devotees of diversity across a number of publications and fora. The New Republic, making specific reference to court appointments, suggested that it “may actually be an essential move […] to make after the Trump era.” Biden’s “diversity promises” were “identity politics at their best.”

Jodi Enda of the Center for American Progress wrote glowingly of the president-elect’s appointment of an all-female communications team. It was “a particularly stunning move”; women, for the first time in history, would “have the chance to weigh in on every important White House decision. Women will be advising the president and speaking for him.” Making much of this, the network had to justify the soggy praise. Having such a team was good because women’s priorities were “different” from men. “In general, women are more often focused on issues such as healthcare, pay equity and education, which directly affect their families, and are more concerned about equality for immigrants and people of color.”

Such a vulgar politicisation of multiculturalism and identity also serves another function. Not only is it meant to convince the multicultis and identitarians that they are onto a good thing with Biden; they can also scorn those voters who backed the soon-to-be-exiting Donald Trump. That’s a huge number to scorn, suggesting that change is something bound to be left in cold storage. As conservative commentator Daniel Henninger has suggested, “diversity in practice is preponderantly political, which is to say, divisive.”

The diversity drive has become a creature of itself, a lobbying tool, pressing Biden into making appointments to satisfy investors. Asian American and Pacific Islander lawmakers, for instance, wish for their share of the diversity pie and would be deeply disappointed “if several AAPIs are not nominated.” Texas Rep. Vicente González has demanded no less than five Latinos to occupy Cabinet positions.

Consolation prizes are being doled out to candidates with neither the expertise nor the interest. Ohio Rep. Marcia Fudge had hoped to head the Department of Agriculture but instead got the call to fill the role of secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Ironically enough, it was Fudge who toldPolitico in November that, “You know, it’s always ‘we want to put the Black person in labor or HUD.”

The racial-gender-sexual arithmetic has entailed ensuring a plastering and splash of shallowness, a squeezing of rhetoric that, on closer inspection, fractures with the clichés. In such cases, history suddenly has eyes and is looking at Biden. “The eyes of history,” he insists, “are gazing at my diversity inclusion.” This does not necessarily do him any favours. This is fashion show politics, not substantive thinking about how best to ameliorate a fatigued, broken state. We await the achievements of the appointees in due course, but a good number of the ills of the US Republic will continue to be ignored by the practices of the establishment.

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“It’s not as bad as Iwo Jima, I suppose”: The Julian Assange Extradition Verdict

The barrister-brewed humour of Edward Fitzgerald QC, one of the solid and stout figures defending a certain Julian Assange of WikiLeaks at the Old Bailey in London, was understandable. Time had worn and wearied the parties, none more so than his client. Fitzgerald had asked for water, but then mused that its absence could hardly have been as bad as the horrors of war in the Battle of Iwo Jima. What mattered was the decision on extradition.

Kevin Gosztola of Shadowproof also gave us a sense of the scene. “I see a bench of a glass container, where Assange will be isolated during the announcement of his extradition decision. This has been standard practice during this case, even after he complained about how it infringed upon his ability to participate in his defense.”

As it transpired, District Justice Vanessa Baraitser went against her near perfect streak of granting extraditions by blocking the request by the US government for 17 charges based on the Espionage Act of 1917 and one of conspiracy to commit computer intrusion. Crudely put, she accepted the grounds of poor mental health, evidence that Assange was a suicide risk, and that his conditions of detention in a US supermax prison facility might well accentuate it. She also noted a “real risk that … Assange will be subject to restrictive special administrative measures [SAMs].”

Should the publisher be “subjected to the extreme conditions of SAMs, [his] mental health will deteriorate to the point where he will commit suicide with the ‘single minded determination’ described by Dr [Quinton] Deeley.” She was further “satisfied that Mr Assange’s suicidal impulses will come from his psychiatric diagnoses rather than his own voluntary act.” Accordingly, “it would be oppressive to extradite [Assange] to the United States of America.”

But for those unwilling to digest the headline act and specious highlights, the decision of Justice Baraitser was also an expansive effort to salvage the credibility of state-sanctioned persecution while dishing it out to the defendant. Central to her judgment was reasoning crafted to deny the exceptional, political nature of the Assange case and its threat to journalism.

She did not accept, for instance, that Assange would be treated differently – in other words, “be subject to harsh detention conditions on the basis of his political opinions or nationality.” She further failed to accept that the case against Assange might be “manipulated for political purposes at the behest of the executive or the CIA.”

The mountain of evidence submitted by defence witnesses demonstrating the markedly politicised nature of the Department of Justice’s actions, left little impression. As Reprieve’s board president Eric Lewis stated during the trial, individual prosecutors might well be acting in good faith but “the [DOJ] is highly politicised and many Americans would agree with that sentiment.” Baraitser’s response: “there is no credible evidence” to reach a conclusion “that federal prosecutors have improper motives for bringing these charges or to find they have acted contrary to their obligations and responsibilities of impartiality and fairness.” Things remain perennially micro with some judicial minds.

Baraitser pays homage to state power and dirties the role played by WikiLeaks and whistleblowers. The defence had argued Assange engaged in activities as an investigative journalist, and that such conduct would be protected by Article 10 of the European Charter of Human Rights providing the right to freedom of expression and information.

But the judge evidently had different ideas uncritically focusing on the alleged conspiracy to commit computer intrusion between Chelsea Manning and Assange. In doing so, there was little engagement with the defence’s demonstration that the hacking allegation is deeply flawed and speculative, both in terms of attributable identity and on the matter of execution. The testimony from Patrick Eller, formerly of the US Army Criminal Investigation Command headquarters at Quantico, was particularly damning. Manning, Eller revealed on September 25, 2020, “already had legitimate access to all the databases from which she downloaded the data.” To have logged “into another user account would not have provided her with more access than she already possessed.”

Baraitser merely accepted the prosecution submission that Assange had “agreed to use the rainbow tools, which he had for the purpose of cracking Microsoft password hashes, to decipher an alphanumeric code [Manning] had given him.” The code was tailored for “an encrypted password hash stored on a Department of Defence computer connected to the SIPRNet [Secret Internet Protocol Router Network].” But Eller’s testimony, referring to Manning’s court martial records, makes the point that she never supplied the two files essential in generating the decryption key for the password hash. “At the time, it would not have been possible to crack an encrypted password hash, such as the one Manning obtained.” In any case, Manning already had access, making any conspiracy needless.

None of this mattered a jot. “This is the conduct which most obviously demonstrates Mr Assange’s complicity in Ms Manning’s theft of the information, and separates his activity from that of the ordinary investigative journalist.” Assange had also allegedly engaged in conduct that would amount to offences in English law, not only with Manning, but with “computer hackers Teenager, Laurelai, Kayla, Jeremy Hammond, Sabu and Topiary to gain unauthorised access to a computer.”

The judge also took a withering view to the publisher’s “wider scheme, to work with computer hackers and whistle blowers to obtain information for WikiLeaks.” She latched onto the US prosecution’s keenness to target Assange’s philosophy, citing the “Hacking at Random” conference held in August 2009 and the “Hack in the Box Security Conference” in October that year. “Notwithstanding the vital role played by the press in a democratic society, journalists have the same duty as everyone else to obey the ordinary criminal law.” The right to freedom of expression was mediated by imposed responsibilities and the “technical means” used in gathering information.

Clearly keeping in mind the deterrent function of such stifling instruments as The Official Secrets Act of 1989, Baraitser remained staunchly establishment in relegating journalism to the lowest pegs of significance. Motivation is irrelevant, the public interest merely a construction best left to the paternally learned. Those with secrets had to be prevented from disclosing them; the role of whether information should be made available for public consumption had to be left to “trusted people in a position to make an objective assessment of the public interest”.

The credulous acceptance of most of the evidence by Assistant US attorney in the Eastern District of Virginia, Gordon Kromberg, boggles. Kromberg made a good go of convincing Baraitser that the case against Assange was far from “unprecedented” and would not attract the free speech protections of the US First Amendment. Criminalising the intentional disclosure of names of intelligence agents and sources, by way of example, was still consistent with First Amendment rights. Weakly, the judge claimed that, “Cases which raise novel issues of law are not so uncommon.”

Untroubled by any potential desecration of press freedoms, Baraitser resorted to vague hypotheticals. Whether the prosecution would raise the issue of excluding Assange from the protections of the First Amendment for publishing national defence information or otherwise did not raise “a real risk that a court would find that Mr Assange will not be protected by the US Constitution in general or by the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment in particular.” Convoluted understatement chokes the dangerous implication.

The “harm” thesis – that Assange’s publishing activities supposedly put people at risk – was seen as credible. Little stock is put in his redaction efforts, many of which were extensively documented at the trial. Instead, an opportunistic, careless figure emerges, one who endangered “well over one hundred people” and caused “quantifiable” harm – loss of employment, the freezing of assets. Even if Assange had been “acting within the parameters of responsible journalism” he had no vested “right to make the decision to sacrifice the safety of these few individuals, knowing of their circumstances or the dangers they faced, in the name of free speech.”

The reasoning of the judge on the US-UK Treaty would have also caused shudders across the fourth estate. Extradition treaties, she affirmed, confirmed no enforceable rights. And Parliament, in its wisdom, had taken “the decision to remove the political offences bar which had previously been available to those facing extradition.” She accepted, in whole, the US submission that the regime upon which extradition would be dealt with obligated the court to follow a set of “imperative steps” which did not “include a consideration of the political character of the offence.”

For human rights organisations and those defending press freedom, the judgment remains rewarding in terms of outcome, unsatisfactory in terms of reasoning. It leaves the appalling treatment of Assange, at the hands of UK authorities guided by US instruction, unaccounted for. As Amnesty International described it, the verdict “does not absolve the UK from having engaged in this politically-motivated process at the behest of the USA and putting media freedom and freedom of expression on trial.” WikiLeaks editor-in-chief Kristinn Hrafnsson was characteristically blunt in his assessment. “It is a win for Julian Assange – but it is not a win for journalism.”

The US Department of Justice, keen to prolong Assange’s suffering, promises to appeal, though the grounds on mental health will prove hard to impeach. A bail application is due to be submitted by the defence in a few days.

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Environmental Capitalism and Climate Change Wars: Australia in 2000

The Australianwas convinced. “Australia could have avoided two decades of climate change wars had the Howard government pushed ahead with its majority view of an emissions trading scheme (ETS), newly released documents reveal.” Historian Chris Wallace is not as unequivocal in this assertion, but nonetheless observes in The Conversation that “a working consensus among cabinet ministers” is discernible, “with one exception, that an emissions trading scheme (ETS) was not only a possible but a likely route by which Australia would eventually fulfil its international environmental obligations.”

These views came in light of the release by the Australian National Archives of the 2000 cabinet papers. Climate change sceptics are not in the ascendant; the Australian Greenhouse Office is working on a variant of the ETS, and requested funding for its operations in the May budget.

This is a far too rosy reading. The Howard government had already argued in December 1997 at Kyoto (Conference of the Parties COP3) that greenhouse gas emissions growth would be permitted to 108% of its 1990 baseline. Along with Iceland and Norway, it was one of three countries granted an increase in emission levels from its 1990 base. To this could be added Australia’s refusal to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, though Prime Minister John Howard was still boastful of his environmental measures, including the creation of the Australian Greenhouse Office.

How to even meet Australia’s singularly generous targets was a source of concern among ministers. Environment minister Robert Hill’s submission in May to his colleagues drew attention to two projects – the coal-fired Kogan Creek power station in Queensland and Comalco Alumina – that would together account for 25% of emissions growth allowed by the Kyoto undertakings.

Issues of efficiency were raised: the Kogan Creek power station would only be half as efficient as a gas-fired version. Hill suggested the imposition of various conditions, one of which would be a commitment to abate the carbon arising from the projects. Three departments – the Prime Minister and Cabinet, Treasury and the Department of Finance – pooh-poohed the idea. In the curt response from PM&C, it was “desirable to clarify future greenhouse policies as soon as possible to reduce the uncertainty faced by investors in projects such as these.”

But there was one figure looming large, an aggressive paladin for the resource sector sceptical about the climate change narrative. Nick Minchin was the Howard government’s Industry and Resources Minister. He had big, aggressive dreams for gas. His goal: to blunt any emissions trading scheme through large compensation packages across carbon-intensive industries.

This is not to say that any ETS would not have been gravely deficient in either its philosophy or its realisation. At COP6 at The Hague, a vocal lobby for the marketing of greenhouse gases, groups seeking to corporatize the ostensible reduction of emissions through free trade environmentalism, were much in evidence. These included the International Chamber of Commerce and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development. The Kyoto Protocol risked becoming a corporate friendly charter.

Australia’s less than heroic contribution at The Hague was important in ensuring that no agreement was reached between participating countries, largely due to disagreements between the US and European Union. Hill was charged with easing his country’s feather light burden of environmental responsibility further, with a brief that would seek additional carbon sinks already agreed to under the Kyoto negotiations.

The minister would “minimise the cost of implementing Kyoto and the impact on Australian trade competitiveness.” Should the spectre of disproportionate costs to Australia arise at the COP6 negotiations, Hill was to become a committed saboteur, working “with like-minded countries to block consensus or failing this, make a statement of Australia’s position.” Australia, as part of an Umbrella Group including Canada, Japan, New Zealand, Russia, Iceland, Norway and Iceland duly concurred with US proposals favouring the use of carbon sinks.

The fact that Minchin would not even accept a market model for emissions trading suggested an encampment, an ideology pre-heliocentric in nature. Most of the cabinet ministers in the Howard government did, on some level, accept the gravity of anthropogenic induced climate change. But a survey of Minchin’s opinions over the years reveals how his militant stance on climate has become the orthodoxy of Australian governments from Abbott to Morrison. Along with Abbott, he is a fan of carbon dioxide, “more of a friend than an enemy to the earth’s flora and fauna.” Climate change was a natural process of complexity requiring “prudent and cost-effective adaptation.” He remained unconvinced “about the theory of anthropogenic global warming.”

In July 2013, Minchin launchedTaxing Air: Facts & Fallacies About Climate Change. Written by Bob Carter and a host of other sceptics, including Stewart Franks and Bill Kininmonth, Minchin was “flattered” at being asked to launch a book he felt should be “in every school, every university and every community library.” Carter was “a terrific and leading voice in combating the scare mongering we have all been subjected to on the theory of anthropogenic global warming.”

In 2009, Minchin was a cardinal knife wielder in the Liberal Party coup against then leader and future prime minister Malcolm Turnbull. Turnbull was an ETS convert; his replacement, a certain climate change denialist Tony Abbott, was not. Abbott became prime minister in 2013 cresting on promises to dismantle carbon-pricing schemes. Australian climate change policy, flawed as it was, had been effectively, and comprehensively, jettisoned.

In 2021, Minchin’s legacy is holding firm and fast. Australia retains a near manic ambivalence to the reduction of emissions. The mining lobbies remain boisterously strong, the environmental portfolio in the Morrison cabinet, weak. The government’s lack of ambition has seen it keep company with Saudi Arabia and Brazil in being excluded from the latest United Nations Climate Action Summit. That trend was already set at the start of the new millennium.

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Tinkering with National Anthems: Australia’s Patriotic Song for Children

It was a New Year gimmick that would have warmed advertising executives across the country. For the first time since it was proclaimed as Australia’s national anthem on April 19, 1984, Advance Australia Fair has been tinkered with. The jarring words from the second line, “For we are young and free” have been amended to “For we are one and free.”

Australia’s Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, beamed with smugness at his first press conference for 2021. “We live in a timeless land of ancient First Nations peoples, and we draw together the stories of more than 300 national ancestries and language groups.” Rhetorically, he asked, “How good is Australia?” The change to the anthem “simply reflects the realities of how we understand our country and who we will always hope to be and the values that we will always live by.”

This change put Morrison in the good books of Indigenous singer Deborah Cheetham, a Yorta Yorta woman. “It is an important acknowledgment. The word young underestimated the lives that have lived on this continent for some millennia.” First Nations Foundation chairman and Yorta Yorta man Ian Hamm was also warmed by the change. “In terms of culture, society, and population, we go back 60,000 years. We’re very definitely not young.”

It was also encouraged by New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian, who suggested the altered wording last November. “I think it’s about time we recognise the tens of thousands of years of the First Nations people of this continent.”

Spending time in Australia is an experience, not with strapping youth but extended age. The continent exudes the severity of the critically worn and experienced. It suffers surly changes of mood: punishing droughts overcome by vengeful flood; fires that burn with incandescent fury. But in human and cultural terms, age has become a fetish of mourning in Australia. The words “continuous, uninterrupted civilisation” is a grieving statement, commemorating a past rudely disrupted by European invasion.

In keeping with anthems that are skim reads rather than deep evocations of national character, Advance Australia Fair fails to impress. The work of Scottish-born composer Peter Dodds McCormick, it was first performed in the late 1870s. A short note heralding its arrival on the music scene can be found in the Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners’ Advocate. “The song is in the key of C, is simple in its accompaniment, and has a fairly decided air. The words are essentially patriotic, and are well selected.”

The original version is unmistakably Britannic, colonial and childish. It features rejoicing sons (daughters are secondary and absent) and golden soil (that was a bit off the mark) and wealth for toil; it mentions James Cook’s voyages, the raising of “Old England’s flag, The standard of the brave.” The fourth verse suggests that, however distant Australia might be, Britannia’s outpost will “rouse to arms like sires of yore, To guard our native strand”.

There is no mention of the horrors of penal servitude, the fatal shore and such, no hint that the land was populated. If one is to believe a descendant of McCormick, one G. Murrow, it was never intended as a national anthem but “a simple melody for children.”

It was certainly no competition for that more accurate telling of Australian character found in Waltzing Matilda (1895), featuring an outlaw swagman, theft of livestock, and eventual, drowning suicide. It is also apt that the consumed sheep is itself the property of a squatter, that great symbol of frontier appropriation. Thieving comes in degrees. “I put it to you,” asserts writer Patrick Marlborough, “that Banjo Patterson’s banger and monster-mash, about an outlaw swagman gone troppo, epitomises the madness that haunts the Australian psyche.” But a plebiscite in 1977 favoured the less revealing version of McCormick, replacing God Save the Queen.

Australia’s current anthem sounds like the outcome of a committee process marred by endless meetings of crushing dullness. It is a statement of underachievement, saying little. What little it does say is disingenuous. The old “golden soil and wealth for toil” remains. Australia’s home is “girt by sea.” Disquietingly, “For those who’ve come across the seas/ We’ve boundless plains to share.” A dedicated concentration camp system to deter boat arrivals suggests other emendations are in order.

Prosaic and hardly inspiring for school ground parades, the national anthem has struck such songwriters as Shane Howard as “racist on so many levels, written for a white Australia that is irrelevant, or should be. Apologies to the writer but it’s also poorly crafted lyrically, is largely meaningless sentimentality and is a substandard melody.”

Howard’s views came in response to the very public refusal of a then nine-year-old schoolgirl Harper Nielsen in September 2018 to stand to the anthem. “When it says ‘we are young’ it completely disregards the Indigenous people,” she explained. As school children are discouraged from having strong opinions, Harper was given detention for “blatant disrespect” in refusing to participate in the anthem ritual with classmates at Brisbane’s Kenmore South State School. One Nation Senator Pauline Hanson preferred even harsher treatment. “We have a kid that has been brainwashed and I tell you what, I would give her a kick up the backside.”

Defenders of the anthem include such former public servants as Frank Cassidy. In a letter to the Canberra Times last November, Cassidy insisted on the uniqueness of Australia’s anthem (they always do) and praised the revision of the lyrics, which “were rewritten in 1982 to make them politically correct, totally inclusive and widely reflective of the modern nation Australia was then and still is today.” Only a bureaucrat softened by lengthy meetings could express such satisfaction.

In the anthem debates, Morrison has economised. The change is cosmetic, the timing fine. The prime minister has even gone so far as to admit that it “takes away nothing… but adds much.” In truth, it adds very little to an anthem best confined to a substandard reliquary of colonial knickknacks.

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Same Procedure as Every Year: The Story of ‘Dinner for One’

Memories are thick of this: the respectful, even reverential German introduction of a comedy sketch; the scratchy string orchestral music that adds a layering of anticipation. Black-and-white film. Dining room, white tablecloth, silver chandeliers. The names Freddy Frinton and May Warden. An English show broadcast on German public TV networks without subtitles. Family members, perched, sprawled, slumped, comfortable, lightly sozzled, eyes glued to an 18-minute sketch with only two actors: the attentive butler by the name of James, played by the roguish Frinton; the spinster lady of the birthday moment, Miss Sophie, played by Warden.

This 90th birthday is characterised by notable absences. After nine decades, mortality has done its bit of gathering. The venerable lady has been left the sole survivor of a circle of beloved friends. The bawdy subtext here is that they are all males and must have been a rather naughty crew at that. She misses them, and longs for their company.

The task for James seems, at least initially, innocuous. The table, with Miss Sophie at the head, is set for the spectral guests: Admiral von Schneider, Mr Pomeroy, Sir Toby and Mr Winterbottom. James assumes the role of each of the departed, standing before each empty seat for each course that will be served. “They are all here, Miss Sophie,” begins James. But his task is not merely to mimic them and assume their persona with conviction; he is also required to drink their share. The task is formidable, challenging both sobriety and liver. A different set of drinks must accompany the servings for the phantom guests: sherry with the mulligatawny soup; white wine with the fish; champagne with the bird; port with the fruit.

Through the course of the sketch, there are the tireless favourites for the audience. James trips over the head of a tiger skin rug with stubborn, unfailing regularity. Drinks are poured and drunk with gusto. Drinks are spilled. There is slurring. Before each course, the butler always inquires with increasing desperation: “The same procedure as last year, Miss Sophie?” The insistent reply follows: “The same procedure as every year, James.”

Dinner for One, or the 90th Birthday, was recorded in 1963 and found a ceremonial home across Germany’s regional public TV channels. Scribbled by Lauri Wylie in the 1920s, it had its London premier in 1948, making its way to Broadway in 1953. Frinton secured the rights in the 1950s. Both he and May had been performing it as a routine seaside resort gig, very much a music hall staple destined for modest obscurity. In 1963, German TV presenter Peter Frankenfeld, on a mission of cultural reconnaissance, was in one of those audiences in Blackpool. He fell in love. Frinton and May were invited to perform on his program Guten Abend before a live Hamburg audience at the Theater am Besenbinderhof, where it was recorded by NDR (Norddeutscher Rundfunk). In 1972, the ritual of showing the program as a New Year’s Eve special was established.

The date, Dinner for One retains the Guinness World Record for the most repeated program in history. It has created a commemorative industry in Germany. It spurs drinking competitions and inspires cookery. It has even inspired productions in various dialects: Hessian and Kölsch.

In 2017, more than 12 million Germans saw the show. But it remains unknown, for the most part, to audiences in the US and UK. Of the Anglophone states, Australia has had a decent, smattering acquaintance. Northern European states in Scandinavia and the Baltic are also familiar. It took till December 31, 2018 for the production to be shown in Britain.

Dinner for One has managed to emerge from its subcultural cocoon in music hall entertainment and heavy German consumption. Netflix took interest in it in 2016, if only to promote its own programs with a parody. The imaginary guests, on that occasion, were Saul Goodman (Michael Pan in Better Call Saul); Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey in House of Cards), Pablo Escobar (Wagner Moura in Nacros) and Crazy Eyes (Uzo Aduba in Orange in the New Black).

As with all rituals, viewing Dinner for One comes with its presumptive historical and cultural baggage. For German audiences, this is a British museum piece with perennial relevance. There is more than a tang of hierarchy to it. Frinton and May converse in a setting of nostalgia and the whiff of a departed empire. Stefanie Bolzen, the UK and Ireland correspondent for Die Welt, was not wrong to wonder if the sketch had re-enforced such assumptions celebrated by the staunchest Brexiteers. The UK is leaving the European Union, but this little jewel of British slapstick remains the emotional preserve of German audiences, so much so it has become indigenous.

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The Julian Assange Pardon Drive

The odds are stacked against Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks publisher who faces the grimmest of prospects come January 4. On that day, the unsympathetic judicial head of District Judge Vanessa Baraitser will reveal her decision on the Old Bailey proceedings that took place between September and October this year. Despite Assange’s team being able to marshal an impressive, even astonishing array of sources and witnesses demolishing the prosecution’s case for extradition to the United States, power can be blindly vengeful.

Such blindness is much in evidence in a co-authored contribution to The Daily Signal from this month. The authors are insipidly predictable: national security and technology types with comic strip names (Charles “Cully” Stimson; Klon Kitchen) and rule of law advocates who seemingly campaign against their own brief (John G. Malcolm). Having not bothered to read the evidence submitted at the extradition trial, the authors are obedient to a fictitious record. This includes allegations that WikiLeaks harmed US diplomatic relations; the stubborn libel that Assange’s actions, far from exposing US atrocities, led to a loss of life; and the disruption of essential “intelligence sources and methods.” (Accountability can be expensive.)

The authors fail to appreciate the dangers of the Assange case to the First Amendment, free speech and the publication of national security information. They merely claim to be free speech defenders, only to neatly hive Assange’s activities off from its protections. Free speech is a fine thing as long as it is innocuous and inconsequential. “Suppression of speech, in a free society, is wrong. But Assange is not a free-speech hero.”

By internationalising the reach of the Espionage Act, the indictment against Assange threatens the global documentation and reporting of classified information in the public interest. To put it in elementary terms for the legions of ignorant security hacks, granting the request will legitimise the targeting of US citizens. Bruce D. Brown, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, summarises the implications. “If the UK grants the request to deliver Assange, UK prosecutors could make similar arguments in an effort to extradite a journalist in the US for violations of its Official Secrets Act, which explicitly criminalizes the publication of leaked military or intelligence information.”

Of central importance in the Assange pardon drive is the cultivation of vanity and, it follows, the appeal to posterity. “We write to request that you put a defining stamp to your presidential legacy by pardoning Julian Assange or stopping his tradition,” urge the signatories of yet another letter to Trump on the subject. The heavy artillery is impressive, including five Nobel Prize laureates: Northern Irish peace activist Mairead Maguire, human rights activist Adolfo Pérez Esquivel, Iranian political activist and lawyer Shirin Ebadi, feminist campaigner Rigoberta Menchú Tum and Austrian novelist Peter Handke.

Appropriately, the signatories impress upon Trump that the case “threatens the constitutional protections that Americans hold dear” and suggest that history will be kind should he show sound judgment in the case. “By offering a pardon, to put a stop to the prosecution of Assange, your presidency will be remembered for having saved First Amendment protections for all Americans.”

The approach taken by the UN Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment is more expansive and detailed. In his appeal to Trump on December 22, Nils Melzer outlines the high price Assange has paid “for the courage to publish true information about government misconduct throughout the world.” The deteriorating health condition of the publisher is noted, including the risks posed to him by the COVID-19 pandemic at Belmarsh prison in London.

The relevant pointers are there: that Assange is not an enemy of the American people; his work and that of WikiLeaks “fights secrecy and corruption throughout the world and, therefore, acts in the public interest of the American people and of humanity as a whole.” He had not hacked or pilfered the information he published, having “obtained it from authentic documents and sources in the same way as any other serious and independent investigative journalists conduct their work.”

Melzer then seeks to appeal to Trump the man, pleading for Assange’s release as the president had “vowed… to pursue an agenda of fighting government corruption and misconduct; and because allowing the prosecution of Mr Assange to continue would mean that, under your legacy, telling the truth about such corruption and misconduct has become a crime.”

Finally, the personal touch is being fashioned for the president, spearheaded by Assange’s fiancée Stella Moris. Her appearance on Fox News with host Tucker Carlson was primed for Trump’s hearty consumption, laden with hooks of catchy lingo. This made perfectly good sense; there is still some time to go before the world’s first Fox News president vacates the White House. “Once he [Assange] gets to the US,” feared Moris, “he will be in the hands of the Deep State. That’s why I pleaded with the President to show the mercy the Deep State will not show Julian if he is extradited.”

Carlson was certainly convinced, taking a position at odds with various national security wonks that pullulate the US airwaves. “Whatever you think of Julian Assange and what he did, he is effectively a journalist. He took information and he put it in a place the public could read it.” The Australian was spending time in prison for releasing documents “he did not steal,” merely providing a platform for their dissemination, showing that “the US government was illegally spying on me, and everybody else in this country.”

The seeds for a stinging provocation against the US imperium have been sown. Whether they take firm root and grow in the self-absorbed mind of the commander-in-chief is another matter.

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The NDAA, Trump and Vetoing the Military Industrial Complex

For decades, the National Defense Authorization Act has been the lifeblood of the US imperium, guaranteeing a flow of money across the military. A better term for such a bill would use the word offence in it, but lawmakers and industry lobbyists find that granting reserves of cash is better justified when one is constantly threatened and vulnerable. Be it midget adversaries, deviant non-state actors or an enemy yet to be born, defence will have its share of funding provided the threat is sufficiently inflated.

Mindful of this cardinal principle, Northrop Grumman CEO Kathy Warden toldDefense News last month that defence spending was “largely threat-driven and today’s threat environment warrants strong defense.” It would come as little surprise that Warden sees threats everywhere, “intensifying” in nature. Peace is distinctly not her business.

The NDAA for 2021 allocates $740 billion for national defence spending. Congress passed it without much fuss this month, the House favouring it by 335-78-1, and the Senate 84-13. On December 11, it wound its way to the desk of President Donald Trump.

Trump proved moody. In another swansong act of defiance, the president stroppily vetoed the bill. “My administration recognizes the importance of the Act to our national security,” he outlined in a message to Congress. “Unfortunately, the Act fails to include critical national security measures, includes provisions that fail to respect our veterans and our military’s history, and contradicts efforts by my Administration to put America first in our national security and foreign policy actions.”

The substantive reasons are various, not all of them focused on shrinking the imperium’s waistline. They are mixed with spite and personal irritation and prove to be, at points, typically erratic. Consider his objection regarding Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, left untouched by the NDAA. That this provision, providing legal immunity to social media platforms for hosting the content of users, should have ever arisen in a defence bill suggests a mind gone awry. But relations between the president and social media platforms have been icy of late.

Hoping for a blow to be struck, the NDAA would have been Trump’s sock to the jaw of Silicon Valley. “Your failure to terminate the very dangerous national security risk of Section 230,” he scolded lawmakers, “will make our intelligence virtually impossible to conduct without everyone knowing what we are doing at every step.” He also took issue with the section for facilitating “the spread of foreign disinformation online, which is a serious threat to our national security and election integrity.”

On other matters, Trump is already mounting the stump and hollering to voters. He called the bill “a ‘gift’ to China and Russia.” The NDAA also included “language that would require the renaming of certain military installations.” Names from the Confederacy era are set for the scrubbing in a moral fit of historical erasure, because militarism has to keep up with the trends.

Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) was the key figure behind the provision, extolling the fetish of the mystical Union while denigrating the separatists for their dubious moral code. On the Senate floor, she claimed that it was “time to put the names of those leaders who fought and killed US soldiers in defence of a perverted version of America where they belong, as footnotes in our history books, not plastered on our nation’s most significant military installations.” Ten military bases are up for the cleansing, among them Fort Bragg in North Carolina, Fort Lee in Virginia, Ford Hood in Texas and Fort Polk in Louisiana.

Trump, for his part, was against “politically motivated efforts like this to wash away history and to dishonour the immense progress our country has fought for in realising our founding principles.” Up to a point, he is right. The US imperium, as with other empires, was most principled in devastating indigenous populations while appropriating and buying land along the way.

While reserving the most important reason for vetoing the NDAA for last, Trump at least takes the position of opposing those “endless wars, as does the American public.” In his reading of the bill, the president’s discretion in reducing garrison numbers across the globe would effectively be stymied by a consultative process. It was not for Congress to say “many troops to deploy and where.”

While US presidents tend to be the permissible and public face of the military industrial complex, Trump has been unwilling to play the role consistently. Troop reductions have been promised in Afghanistan, South Korea and Germany. The Pentagon is both nervous and agitated. So is Congress, which wishes to keep its oar in when it comes to international military engagements.

Restating the imperial orthodoxy, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman James Inhofe (R-Okla.) wished for all his fellow lawmakers to keep the empire running on gas. “The NDAA has become law every year for 59 years straight because it’s absolutely vital to our national security and our troops.” He hoped that all his “colleagues in Congress will join me in making sure our troops have the resources and equipment they need to defend this nation.”

The House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.) is also keen to keep the machine moving, trumpeting a familiar militarist theme. “By choosing to veto the NDAA,” claimed Smith in a statement, “President Trump has made it clear that he does not care about the needs of our military personnel and their families.” Smith has become something of a golden boy for the military industrial complex, raking in donations from such defence contractors as Textron, a leading producer of cluster bombs.

Trump’s reasons for vetoing the bill are not philosophically rigorous or cerebrally hefty. But those opposing greater and deeper funds for the military industrial complex should always find some room to salute a commander-in-chief willing to obstruct the passage of bills that foster aggression and feed a complex that serves to hinder, rather than advance, security. Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) is happy to go along with delaying and blocking the NDAA. “I very much am opposed to the Afghan war, and I’ve told them [fellow senators] I’ll come back to try to prevent them from easily overriding the president’s veto.”

Congress, in the main, has no such wish. The bill is in step with the incoming Biden administration’s promise of a more meddlesome brand of US interventionism. Suitably bribed, the respective chambers have till before noon on January 3, 2021 to override the presidential veto, prior to the 117th Congress being sworn in. The House is already considering overriding the veto. Devotees of endless wars will be lobbying with determination and intent that this takes place.

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Never Belonging: George Blake’s Spy Exploits

Filling the espionage ranks with legions of the non-belonging comes with its share of risk. The process is counter-intuitive, putting stock in skill and aptitude above the potential compromise of loyalty and divergence. Eventually, such a recruit might find a set of closely guarded principles.

The son of a Sephardic Jew and Dutch Protestant might well count as excellent material for British intelligence but George Behar ended up condemned in Britain and the toast of the now defunct Soviet Union. George Blake, as he came to be known, along with that other great British export of betrayal, Kim Philby, was always convinced that to authentically betray, you had to belong. That belonging came in loyalty to the Soviet Union. As Russian President Vladimir Putin declared solemnly on Blake’s passing this month, “The memory of this legendary person will be preserved forever in our hearts.”

The clandestine world of the Rotterdam-born Blake began early. He joined the Dutch resistance during World War II, serving as a courier after obtaining a set of forged papers. Under British instruction, he travelled through Brussels and Paris to unoccupied France, and made his way through neutral Spain, enduring a three-month period of imprisonment before making it to Britain via Gibraltar in January 1943. A spell with the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve led to his enlistment into the ranks of British intelligence in 1944. There, he was charged with deciphering coded messages from the Dutch resistance.

After the war, his intelligence brief followed the pattern that would lead to his imminent conversion. He was tasked with keeping an eye on the Soviet forces in occupation of East Germany, a task he excelled at. He undertook courses in Russian at Cambridge. Then came the Communist states to the east: North Korea, the People’s Republic of China, and the Soviet Far East. Stationed in South Korea just before the outbreak of the Korean War in November 1948, he was given the herculean mission of creating networks within North Korea itself. In June 1950, he was captured by forces of the DPRK and interned with a coterie of diplomats and missionaries.

The internment period of 34 months proved critical. Blake claimed that his push towards the communist cause came during this time, a reaction to particularly brutal war methods, notably those used by the US Air Force. “It made me feel ashamed of belonging to these overpowering technical superior countries fighting against what seemed to be quite defenceless people.” The destruction of Korean villages, and a reading diet of Karl Marx, granted him alibis for the cause. “I felt it better for humanity if the communist system prevailed, that it would put an end to war.”

The credulous might think this to be the case, but Rebecca West, in her eminently interesting study of treachery in The Meaning of Treason, suggests a conversion during his time in the Dutch underground. Blake himself remained cryptic in his later days. “It is no longer of particular importance to me whether my motivations are generally understood or not,” he told the BBC’s Gordon Corera a decade before his death.

On his return to England in 1953 as a free man, Blake had already been recruited as a Soviet agent. His status as a full-blooded double agent was affirmed from his time in Berlin, where he was sent in 1955 with the mission of recruiting Soviet double agents.

For almost a decade Blake passed on information to his KGB handlers both bountiful and rich. According to a US estimate, 4,720 pages of documentary material made its way into Soviet hands between April 1953 and April 1961. It unmasked 40 MI6 agents in Eastern Europe. Highly placed agents working for Western agencies such as General Robert Bialek, Inspector General of the People’s Police in East Germany, were captured, suffering death or imprisonment.

Image from pressreader.com

Blake’s work also enabled the Soviets to score successes against the US Central Intelligence Agency. The late CIA case officer William Hood is convinced that Blake played a salient role in unmasking Peter Popov, an officer of the GRU, the Soviet Union’s military intelligence service and, it so happens, a CIA agent.

The greatest of blows, however, came in the exposure of the CIA Berlin Tunnel, which featured the tapping of three Soviet communications cables, an operation lasting 11 months and 11 days over 1955-6. Conducted jointly with British intelligence, Operation Gold involved the digging of a 1,476 feet tunnel six feet in diameter from West Berlin into the communist eastern sector of the city. Blake had foreknowledge of the tunnel, but a decision was made by the Soviets to prevent its initial exposure so as not to draw suspicion to their valuable mole. The discovery of the project was duly engineered as an accident; British and US intelligence were left out of pocket, furnished with a trove of useless disinformation.

Blake’s undoing came with the defection of Polish secret service officer, Michael Goleniewski. On his recall to London, he was arrested and pleaded guilty to five counts of passing information to the Soviet Union, breaching the Official Secrets Act. The case proved exceptional in a few respects. There was the severity of the sentence: 42 years. There was the breach of convention: the call made by the Lord Chief Justice Hubert Parker, to the then British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan to discuss the case. Even Macmillan was shocked by the decision. “The LCJ has passed a savage sentence – 42 years!” The Lord Chief Justice thought the time fitting, as Blake had, in his opinion, rendered much of the best efforts by British intelligence useless.

The sentencing came as a rude shock to Blake, having expected a term of 14 years. It also served to inspire support for his cause. “As a result, I found a lot of people who were willing to help me for the reason they thought it was inhuman.”

He would not be disappointed. In 1966, with the assistance of two anti-nuclear campaigners, Michael Randle and Pat Pottle, aided by Sean Burke, a colourful Irish petty criminal, Blake made his escape from London’s Wormwood Scrubs. Both Bourke and Blake were smuggled out of Britain and to East Germany. Blake’s final destination would be the Soviet Union, where a colonel’s rank with the KGB, awards and belonging awaited.

The British establishment was left reeling. Randle and Pottle went on to justify their actions to save Blake from a sentence “vicious and indefensible, reflecting no credit on British justice but rather the obsessions of the Cold War, and the hypocrisy and double standards over espionage by ‘our’ side and ‘theirs’.” To have spied for the Soviet Union was “no more reprehensible, morally or politically, than much of the activity of Western Intelligence Agencies.”

One CIA note on Blake’s escape is sour. “The facts of the escape demonstrated beyond doubt that it was engineered by the Soviets. The buoying effect upon the morale of Soviet spies everywhere can be easily imagined.” Once in the business of espionage, everything must have a sinister design, an architectural base upon which to reap success and failure. One could always blame those other worthy agents of history, incompetence and complacence. The journalist Philip Knightley, an accomplished student on the subject of espionage, points to a third: opportunity.

The exploits of the Cambridge set – Anthony Blunt, Guy Burgess, Donald Maclean, John Cairncross and Philby – soiled British intelligence. But Blake proved more devastating than all of them, though measuring that contribution is a near impossible task. Britain’s secret services, as Andrew Boyle concludes, were embarrassed for both the harsh judicial sentence against Blake and the fact that his case “made, and still makes, the SIS the laughing-stock of the world.” The skilled spy outwitted the SIS and CIA; the KGB gave him deserved recognition. Had it not been for Blake’s own confession – the SIS having authorised him to maintain close connections with the Soviets – he might never have been nabbed.

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Endings for Beginnings: Reaching a Brexit Deal

It was a hurried dash and came just before the end of the transition period. The UK and the European Union have reached an agreement on the torturously long road of Brexit. UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson can take the deal back to his constituents and Parliament, claiming he achieved something less horrendous than a no-deal Brexit. EU diplomats can claim to have also chalked up some vital concessions.

Johnson’s lectern mood was stubbornly confident. On December 24, he reiterated the reclaiming of British sovereignty, making the dubious assertion that “we left on Jan 31 with that oven-ready deal.” (The ingredients for the meal still had yet to be gathered.) Now, he could boast that, “we have completed the biggest trade deal yet, worth £660 billion,” likening it to a “Canada style free trade deal between the UK and the EU” that would preserve jobs in the country.

UK goods and components could continue being sold without tariffs and quotas within the EU market. There would “be no palisade of tariffs on Jan 1. And there will be no non-tariff barriers to trade.” But even better, praised Johnson, the deal “should allow our companies and our exporters to do even more business with our European friends.” Keeping in mind his Brexit audience, he insisted that Britain had “taken back control of laws” and “of every jot and tittle of our regulation.” British laws would not be subjected to EU scrutiny; the European Court of Justice would no longer be an irritating final arbiter of UK cases. British standards – from the biosciences to financial services – would be British and British alone.

From the start, the negotiating strategy of the Johnson team was askew. Spanish Foreign Minister Arancha González Laya underlined the point in an interview with Politico earlier this month. At its heart, Brexit had revealed “the illusion of independence and the need to manage interdependence.” Trade agreements, to that end, were designed to shore up the latter, not assert the former.

The concept of interdependence, that great evil of the harder Brexiter line, survives. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen emphasised the point in her remarks on the deal. While the debate had “always been about sovereignty,” the substantive question to ask was what sovereignty meant in the twenty-first century. Little Englander types would have found her thoughts on this disconcerting, even menacing. “For me, [sovereignty] is about being able to seamlessly do work, travel, study and do business in 27 countries.” It entailed a collective voice and “pulling each other up – instead of trying to get back to your feet alone.” The deal had not altered that reality. “We are one of the giants.”

When it comes to the level playing field argument, the European Commission could also claim that fair competition would endure, and that “effective tools” were on hand to deal with market distortions. Cooperation with the UK would continue “in the fields of climate change, energy, security and transport.” But the equivalence arrangement will be problematic for that most vital of UK exports, the financial services industry. Matters of data protection and other financial standards will have to fall into line with the EU. On such matters, the UK can hardly claim to have embraced total, unadulterated freedom.

The same goes for the European Court of Justice, which will continue to retain a small foothold in the UK. The ECJ will be the highest tribunal of appeal for Northern Ireland, which has been given special status in the agreement. That trouble plagued province will also continue to be subject to EU single market and customs union rules.

In cases where the EU and the UK have disagreements – for instance, on the issue of harmful divergence from common standards as they stand on December 31, 2020 – a dispute resolution mechanism will be triggered. A binding arbitration system will come into play. This dampens the sovereign mad enthusiasts in Britain. Yes, the agreement speaks against tariffs, but they can still be used and will link the EU and Britain for years to come.

On the nagging point of fishing rights, UK negotiators had to relent. The value of fish caught by EU vessels in UK waters will be reduced by a more modest 25%. Von der Leyen expressed satisfaction, as well she might: “We have secured a five and a half years of full predictability for our fishing communities and strong tools to incentivise it to remain so.” Johnson could only call the period “a reasonable transition period,” and assure “great fish fanatics in this country that we will as a result of this deal be able to catch and eat quite prodigious quantities of extra fish.”

In reality, this means that the spirited message of taking back control of the seas has failed, at least for the period when adjustments will have to be made. This caused considerable displeasure to Nigel Farage, leader of the Brexit Party, who accused British diplomats of dropping “the ball before the line” in a “fisheries sell-out.”

While the deal is unlikely to be sabotaged when Parliament is reconvened, members will only have the shortest of time to consider a bulky document. As one MP told Fraser Nelson of The Spectator, the UK’s chief negotiator David Frost “might have missed something. He’s a good negotiator but he’s not Einstein.” The EU also had the better legal eagles; those from the UK had never wanted Britain to leave the EU in the first place.

Staunch remainers such as Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon see little to merit the arrangements, positioning her nation for the spring. “Before the spin starts, it’s worth remembering that Brexit is happening against Scotland’s will.” No deal would be able to “ever make up for what Brexit takes away from us. It’s time to chart our own future as an independent, European nation.”

 

 

In concluding her statement, von der Leyen drew upon T.S. Eliot: “What we call the beginning is often the end. And to make an end is to make a beginning.” Johnson preferred a rather less profound formulation. “That’s the good news from Brussels, now for the sprouts.”

 

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Trump’s Pardons for the Festive Season

A flurry of them has been expected, and just prior to Christmas, US President Donald Trump waved his wand of pardon with vigour. On December 22, the president issued fifteen pardons and five commutations. The choices so far have been, to put it mildly, problematic.

The power to pardon can be found in Article II, Section 2, Clause 1 of the US Constitution, a provision, which states, in part, that the President “shall have Power to grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offences against the United States, except in Cases of Impeachment.” That most eminent of judicial heads Chief Justice Marshall described a pardon as “an act of grace, proceeding from the power entrusted with the execution of the laws, which exempts the individual, on whom it is bestowed, from the punishment the law inflicts for a crime he has committed.”

Those of curious legal mind will detect the residue of the monarchical prerogative in all of this. The great synthesising authority of English law, William Blackstone, praised the monarchy for having a distinct advantage: “there is a magistrate, who has it in his power to extend mercy, wherever he thinks it is deserved: holding a court of equity in his own breast, to soften the rigour of the general law, in such criminal cases as merit an exemption from punishment.” Justifying the mirroring of this power in the US Constitution, Alexander Hamilton’s Federalist 74 argues that, “Humanity and good policy conspire to dictate, that the benign prerogative of pardoning should be as little as possible fettered or embarrassed.”

The Supreme Court has not been blind to the potential abuse of the power, noting in the prohibition case of Ex Parte Grossman that exercising it “to the extent of destroying the deterrent effect of judicial punishment would be to pervert it.” But Chief Justice William Howard Taft, having himself been a president, thought it unseemly to limit the presidential prerogative. “Our Constitution confers this discretion on the highest officer in the Nation in confidence that he will not abuse it.”

The quality of mercy in Trump’s decisions has been peculiar and personal. Jack Goldsmith and Matt Gluck go so far as to claim that “no president in American history comes close to matching Trump’s systematically self-serving use of the pardon power.” In doing so, the president has also managed to circumvent the 125-year-old Justice Department office of the Pardon Attorney. The pardon attorney acts as sage and counsel in preparing a recommendation on the particular pardon or commutation, conveyed through the Deputy Attorney General. By July 2020, Trump had made 29 of his 34 pardons without the tempering involvement of the pardon attorney.

Consistent to form, his latest round is heavy with the personal. There is Alex van der Zwaan, who was charged with one count of making false statements in connection with the investigation of Special Counsel Robert Mueller on possible Russian interference in the 2016 election. There is George Papadopoulos, also of false statement fame in connection to the Mueller investigation. “Notably,” goes the White House statement, “Mueller stated in his report that he found no evidence of collusion in connection with Russia’s attempts to interfere in the election. Nonetheless, the Special Counsel’s team still charged Mr Papadopoulos with the process-related crime.”

Former Republican lawmakers Chris Collins and Duncan Hunter could also count themselves fortunate. Collins, a firm backer of Trump, pleaded guilty in 2019 to insider trading and was serving a 26-month prison sentence. Such an offence was never going to trouble Trump too much. More interesting was his “particular focus on the wellbeing of small businesses, agriculture, and sciences.” For his part, Hunter was found guilty of one count of misusing campaign funds. This “could have been handled as a civil case via the Federal Election Commission, according to former FEC Commissioner Bradley Smith.”

By any moral or ethical stretch of the imagination, the most execrable use of the pardon power would have to be those issued for the four security guards of the private military firm Blackwater, convicted for the killing of 14 Iraqi civilians in 2007. The butchering took place at Baghdad’s Nisour Square, when the contractors deployed sniper fire, machine guns and grenade launchers at a busy traffic circle. The justification by Nicholas Slatten, Paul Slough, Evan Liberty, and Dustin Heard was crudely predictable: they opened fire only after being ambushed by Iraqi insurgents. The slain and injured women and children, some with hands in the air as they fled the scene, suggested a different account.

Rather banally, the White House statement praises their record: they were inspired to serve their country; they did so in various capacities in Iraq. As security contractors tasked with protecting US personnel, they were merely responsible for “the unfortunate deaths and injuries of Iraqi civilians.” The reputation of the lead Iraqi investigator is also impugned, as he “may have had ties to insurgent groups himself.”

The murderous feats of the four did much to point a finger at how the military security complex had been outsourced to private security firms more concerned with pay packages than the enfeebling irritations of international law. Their convictions were considered by Paul Dickinson, a legal representative for the Nisour Square families “significant” for showing “that paramilitary contractors who commit crimes abroad can be held accountable for their criminal actions.”

But the lobbyists had been busy bringing out the white wash, making the point that the four were sacrificial lambs for appeasement. A website dedicated to defending their cause dubbed them “The Biden Four,” who “were sacrificed for politics and convicted by lies.” Brian Heberlig, lawyer for Slough, was convinced by his brief. “Paul Slough and his colleagues didn’t deserve to spend one minute in prison.” Heard’s attorney, David Schertler, babbled on about honour and his client’s “well-deserved freedom.”

Such softening in the rigour of the general law seemed like a grand reversal in jurisprudence. Hina Shamsi of the American Civil Liberties Union was quick off the mark in condemning the pardons. The actions of these men had “caused devastation in Iraq, shame and horror in the United States, and a worldwide scandal.” As if it was possible, the office of the president had been further degraded.

Marta Hurtado, spokeswoman for the UN Human Rights Office, was more extensive in her criticism. “Pardoning them contributes to impunity and has the effect of emboldening others to commit such crimes in the future.” The victims of such egregious human rights violations and violations of humanitarian law also had “the right to a remedy. This includes the right to see perpetrators serve punishments proportionate to the seriousness of their conduct.” Taft’s confidence in the probity of executive restraint seems comically quaint.

Consideration for the victims was conspicuously absent in Trump’s reasoning. The Blackwater Pardons are yet another effort on his part to look good with gun toting personnel who served the United States and erred. In the gesture, a faint electoral message could be detected.

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