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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.

Challenging Orthodoxies: Alabama’s Anti-Abortion Laws

It seems like a grand ploy of massive distraction. On the surface, the move by Alabama to place the most onerous restrictions on the granting of an abortion has become a lightening-rod of conviction for Democrat agitators. And not just them.

The fear, and one with suggestive implication, is that various legislatures are paving the way to push Roe v Wade into the domain of a Supreme Court so conservative it is being touted as reactionary. Colorado lawmakers, earlier this year, made a similar attempt to pass a bill banning elective abortions every bit as nasty as the Alabama version. The feeling is that the 1973 decision will be terminated in the name of foetus worship taking way the injunction against states from interfering in a woman’s right to an abortion within the first trimester.

Roe was never, in truth, such a radical innovation in the field of social reform. It, for one, heavily circumscribes the way choice operates for a woman in terms of her relationship with the foetus. Its celebration of a woman’s autonomy leaves the designation of how it is used, not in the hands of the carrier, but the Supreme Court.

What certain stone throwing conservatives have repeatedly disliked about it is that the decision was reformist at all. “Roe,” tut tuts Rich Lowry of the National Review, “is judicially wrought social legislation pretending to the status of constitutional law.” It was a product of such judicial activism that produced the Miranda and Griswold cases, “as much a highhanded attempt to impose a settlement on a hotly contested political question as the abhorrent Dred Scott decision denying the rights of blacks.”

Lowry’s swipe belies the broader problem facing anti-abortion advocates, many of whom simply think that the legislators in that good red state have lost the plot. The Alabama move is being seen on the part of some on the right as too extreme, painting advocates who favour limiting abortion into a narrow, extreme corner. In the words of conservative pundit Jonathan V. Last, having such a law was the very counter-reproductive thing the movement feared, “the most damaging development to the pro-life movement in decades.”

HB314 is a heavy artillery shell for the anti-abortion movement, reclassifying abortion as a Class A felony. The implication of this is gruesome enough: those found guilty of falling foul of the law, notably those providing such services, may spend up to 99 years in prison.

Alabama governor, Kay Ivey, ennobled bill HB314 with words mindful of the great Sky God that continues to mark significant stretches of US political thought. (In Freedom’s Land, the unseen and unknowable have traditional anti-democratic tendencies). “To the bill’s many supporters, this legislation stands as a powerful testament to Alabamians’ deeply held belief that every life is precious and that every life is a sacred gift from God.” HB314’s sponsor, Rep Terry Collins, was attempting to be more pragmatic in a political sense, claiming that HB314 was part of the grand plan to subvert and ultimately sink Roe v Wade.

The media presses in Alabama have been filled with pungent responses, many indignant, others glazing in their holy reflection. A Guest Voices segment for AL.com, part of the Alabama Media Group, made rich reading. Rene Washington of Birmingham refused to accept the anti-abortion rights law as one of protecting life. “The abysmal statistics on children’s health and welfare prove that.” The ban was a traditional, based on old issues of control, be they “religious, patriarchal and cultural.”

Savannah Crabtree, keen to remind us of her age (23 years old), wrote of having a uterus and living in the state of Alabama. “And I am scared.” A troubled Crabtree was puzzled that the governor had expressed no reservation, racing the bill into law. “I hoped that maybe, because she is a woman, she’d empathise with a 12-year-old rape victim seeking an abortion more so than the 25 men who voted on the bill in the Senate did.”

The worriers and activists have come out. “This,” laments Democratic strategist Jess McIntosh, “is the endgame of many years chipping away at our freedoms.” For McIntosh, a tyrannical instinct is finally being played out in US jurisprudence – a play, as it were, to alter the court’s reformist agenda. “They’ve waited for the moment they believed the courts would overturn precedent and go against the overwhelming will of the people.”

For a strategist, McIntosh is far from sharp. (She did work for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign). The Alabama law, along with any aspiring facsimiles, risks falling at the first hurdle, given that an appellate court is bound to give defenders of the bill a good going over. The issue of placing “undue burdens” on a woman’s access to abortion services would come into play. As Kim Wehle explains, the Alabama law is “by any stretch” an “undue burden” because it entails no abortions except in instances where the “unborn child has a lethal anomaly” in order “to avoid serious risk to the unborn child’s mother” or in instances of “ectopic pregnancies” (where the fertilized egg finds itself implanted outside the uterus, often in fallopian tubes which might burst causing bleeding, infection and death to the mother).

Keeping the Democrats noisily busy is a Trump tactic, and he has kept markedly reticent on not wishing to push views on the Alabama move. A tweet re-iterated his stance as being “strongly pro-life, with three exceptions – rape, incest and protecting the life of the mother.” It was, he suggested, “the same position taken by Ronald Reagan.” Similar exceptions can be found in thirty-three states and the District of Colombia, which allow funding for the tripartite list of exceptions. A range of superstitions dot the legislative provisions of other states: five, for instance, demand that women be counselled on a claimed link between abortion and breast cancer, one firmly lodged in the realm of fantasy.

Alabama’s HB314, however, in its crudely blanket application, leaves minimal room for exceptions.  It is savagely onerous, even for conservatives. The wheels may well be in motion for certain brands of foetus defenders, but citizens with uteri can well be comforted that they will move in retarded fashion.

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The Victory of Small Visions: Scott Morrison Retains Government

Australian politics since the 1990s has been marked by a dedicated loathing of the “vision thing”. For those keen to see policies lasting beyond the life of the Mayfly, disappointment lies. Federal governments, at best, have shelf lives of three short years. Governments are effectively encouraged to be agents of small change if, indeed, they are to be agents of any change whatsoever. Anything beyond that is bound to be what Sir Humphrey Appleby in Yes Minister terms “courageous”, so brave as to be an act of folly and a discouragement.

Opposition leader Bill Shorten of the Australian Labor Party never quite had it. He had, it is true, overseen the end of two prime ministers – Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull – and came close to sneaking in during the 2016 election. But his stewardship of the federal Labor Party never cured that sense of a permanent “trust deficit”. Not even a phalanx of credible female politicians, aided by his wife’s support, were able to protect him against a highly personalised campaign that stressed the simple, the visceral, and, the importance of self-interest. The world might be burning, but what did that matter to retirees concerned about their share income from franked dividends?

Labor’s strategy had been geared towards a battle of details kept in a stuffing of income distribution. But the campaign got bogged down. Documents and policy statements were designed for the deposed Turnbull. With the coming to power of Scott Morrison after a palace coup in 2018, a sense of hopeless fun pervaded proceedings. This was not an election for him to win – keeping losses to a minimum would have been seen as an achievement of sorts.

Shorten, in contrast, exuded agitation and weariness. He seemed to wear the spectral crown of an impending coronation with discomfort. Morrison, in turn, revelled, getting his hands dirty, donning a baseball cap, making sporting analogies and being seemingly everywhere.  A fossil he might have been, but a very enthusiastic campaigner he proved to be, leaving his opponent ragged.

The election was an object lesson of personal politics. Morrison made the election a matter of himself. He became a ventriloquist for the “quiet Australian voters”.  He muzzled other ministers, and patched over the fact that Coalition government had done away with two of its own prime ministers since winning power in 2013. Astonishingly, he could use the term “stability” and get away with it, masking the party’s own dysfunction and lurch to the right.

Climate change disappeared from coalition discussions; the environment minister, Melissa Price, went into hermetic hiding. Having given Indian mining giant Adani approval on water management plans in the long battle of the Galilee Basin, the onus was on Labor to show their colours. In the process, they were wedged: to oppose Adani for environmental grounds sounded like a rebuke to miners, however fictional and disingenuous the projected figures of the Indian company were. Pro-Adani Labor members of parliament such as Cathy O’Toole in the North Queensland seat of Herbert were left in outer orbit from the metropolitan centres of Sydney and Melbourne.

There have already been attempts to see the Australian federal election of 2019 as a version of Trump 2016 or Brexit.  Predictably, similar venting has taken place at the result, with despondent voters snorting on social media that they would move to New Zealand to escape the ignoramuses of the Australian populace.

The comparisons, and the responses, have been facile, and can only be sustained if you remain a continuing believer in the flawed witchdoctor’s art of opinion polls. In other senses, the Australian federal election was won, and lost, along lines markedly similar to the 1990s. Queensland always tended to be out of reach, with Labor hugging the metropolitan regions and incapable of convincing rural and less urbanised dwellers that they were a safe option. When Labor did return to power in 2007 with Kevin Rudd at the helm, it did so with a leader from Queensland, and a figure billed as the ALP version of John Howard.  

Throughout the Howard years, federal Labor found itself constantly incapable of recovering the “aspirational” blue-collar voters who had found comfort in the arms of the conservative Coalition government.  Howard’s book-keeping ruthlessness and refusal to countenance abstract notions stood him in good stead. If you cannot reduce policies to spreadsheets and ledgers, forget it. This came with a good dose of fright – terrorists, boat people, refugees – when needed.

Morrison’s own words suggest a re-incarnation of Howard on several levels. Those who voted for him “have their dreams, they have their aspirations, to get a job, to get an apprenticeship, to start a business, to meet someone amazing, to start a family, to buy a home, to work hard and provide the best you can for your kids, to save for your retirement.” This was cradle-to-grave simplicity.

Morrison’s positioning of Labor as a penny-pinching tax agent with a spending agenda writ large did the trick. And even if the effect of their income distribution policies would have had virtually no impact on the blue-collar vote let alone a good number of young voters, the damage was done: they were said to be going after hard earned cash and the precious share income of retirees. Rumours abounded in the state of Queensland that Shorten’s Labor party might also be considering bringing back the unpopular death tax. (Nothing of the sort had been planned, but rumours have remarkably agile wings.)

The victory of Morrison was, at its end, not for an idea, but an absence of ideas. There were no Periclean orations, and no concerns about the fate of humanity beyond elemental, immediate desires. Future elections are bound to repeat this pattern. The lengthy dossiers and policy manifestoes are bound to be scrapped, and targets kept small. But even as Morrison celebrates, his hardnosed strategists such as Liberal Senator Arthur Sinodinos are thinking how best to pinch the ideas of substance from the defeated Labor opposition. Even ad men need some tincture of substance from time to time.

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Bob Hawke: Misunderstood in Memoriam

What a cheeky way of going. Death is rarely a matter of good timing but it can be part of a good career move or, as Robert J. Hawke’s passing might prove, the perfect conclusion to his political party’s attempt to reclaim office. Having shuffled off his mortal coil a few days out of an Australian federal election, his Labor counterparts will hope so.

At a time when Australian politics suffers from dull atrophy and an entrenched dreariness, Hawke, virtue and vice, seems nostalgically stellar. He cried on public occasions; he bellowed at his opponents with fury; and was fundamentally vulnerable to the usual failings: drink and women. He wore his errors and his broken promises (with notable exceptions, particularly towards his treasurer and ultimate usurper, Paul Keating), lending himself to a whole assortment of descriptions.

Rather gratingly, the term larrikin is being used, or misused, in describing Australia’s twenty-third prime minister. Originating in the Australia of the 19th and early 20th century, the word was hardly flattering, alluding to the hooliganism and violence of youths who came together in “pushes” and wrought mayhem upon the citizens of Melbourne and Sydney. The taming, and domestication of the larrikin was an Australian historical achievement. Urbanised and turned to sporting mania, Australian society vanquished the larrikin, only to see the form re-appear in hologram form and shoddy cultural analysis.   

Hawke was careful of his image, nursing and adjusting it for the negotiating muscle needed for the worker’s movement. His stint at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar minted him as a candidate for the political establishment, a Commonwealth man, if you will.  Not that he would mention it. Stress was placed, instead, on the macho, the Herculean: Hawke could drink you under the table and down a yard glass in record time.  As he remembered, revealingly enough, in his autobiography, “The feat was to endear me to some of my fellow Australians more than anything else I ever achieved.” In 1954, he made it into the Guinness Book of Records downing 2.5 pints of beer in 11 seconds.  

He became an exaggeration of the common man with gifts, the everyday man with otherworldly talents. But many of his instincts were standard political attributes: vanity, a lust for power, a desire for the top position. As the Labor government of Gough Whitlam shuddered through its short burst of occupancy between 1972 and 1975, Hawke was having meetings with US embassy sources.

This was hardly accidental. He smelled trouble, and wanted to put his oar in; with Whitlam’s days numbered, Hawke sowed the seeds of confidence: any future Labor leader, namely himself, would be more accommodating to Washington. Embassy officials, and a few US intelligence personnel, had gotten edgy over Whitlam’s concerns with the US-Australian alliance in various respects. Fears were floated that the leasing arrangements of the joint Pine Gap facility might not be renewed; the Nixon administration also pondered the prospect of downgrading its relationship with Canberra. US embassy accounts, revealed through cables available via WikiLeaks, show Hawke, then the federal president of the ALP, keen to rubbish his doomed prime minister.

In a cable dated August 12, 1975, Hawke’s agitation is clear. Whitlam had left the party in “bad financial shape”; credibility had been “eroded by ‘Whitlam stupidity’.” The prime minister was deluded, incapable of appreciating the imminent “parliamentary disaster” he and his party “surely faces at the next election”. Subsequent embassy cables noted the tense relations between the two men, with Whitlam seen as the dreamer before the apocalypse, and Hawke, the level headed realist in waiting.            

When it became clear in the early 1980s that the Liberal Party’s Malcolm Fraser was winding down his government for the fall, Hawke saw his chance: the opposition Labor Party, nurtured by then leader Bill Hayden, would have to make way for him. This was bruising to Hayden – Hawke had only been a member of Parliament for three years; Hayden was a tried, loyal veteran. It also showed the other side of Hawke avoided, and forgotten in the tear-watered eulogies: Hawke as brute and political slayer. While Labor’s return to power in 1983 after being banished in the crushing election defeat of December 1975 was seen as a glowing achievement, a memorable remark by Hayden remains: even a drover’s dog could have won that election.

Yet for a person described by punters as “a voice for the working man”, Hawke saw Labor go along the way of its equivalents in other countries: embrace neo-liberal canons, the sawdust of microeconomic reform, and succumb to the temptations of privatisation. Selling the public silver had one fundamental trickledown: governments at every level in Australia began doing it to balance the books and grab some ruddy cash.

The floating of the dollar, the cutting of tariffs, and the deregulation of the stodgy Australian banking system signalled the yielding of government responsibility to the irresponsibility of the corporate boardroom. The commonwealth would be tied to the corporation. As this was happening, Hawke was attempting to boost the social welfare state, marked by universal health care, and encourage an accommodation between the interests of business and labour, in what became known formally as the Prices and Incomes Accord. Consensus, not bludgeoning, was the solution.

With the body still warm, Australian politicians from across political affiliations have been reflecting. “He was true to his beliefs in the Labor tradition and defined the politics of his generation and beyond,” claimed the conservative Prime Minister Scott Morrison rather blandly.

Prime Ministerial aspirant Bill Shorten spoke of the saluting, by the labour movement, of “our greatest son”. “The Australian people loved Bob because they knew Bob loved them.” But it was in Hawke’s collaborator, rival and foe Keating, that we get one of the better reflections of Hawke’s stewardship in political life. The Hawke-Keating partnership of the 1980s is seen as one of farsightedness mixed with stab-in-the-dark modernisation. Keating recounted “the rationale we employed in opening Australia to the world.”  Less than a larrikin, Hawke was an all-seeing politician and gifted performer, a ventriloquist of the Australian mood. He could be consummately venal when he wanted to be and tenacious in what he thought was realism. It came with its far-reaching consequences.

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Fantasies of Humanity: The Christchurch Pledge and a Regulated Internet

It had to come. A massacre, broadcast in real time and then shared with viral automatism; the inevitable shock, and the counter from the authorities. The Christchurch shootings, inflicting fifty-one deaths upon worshippers at two mosques in quiet New Zealand on March 15 this year, have spurred Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. Laws have been passed regulating guns in her country. Interest has increased in monitoring white nationalist groups. But Ardern was never keen keeping the matter local.

In Paris, the NZ Prime Minister, meeting French President Emmanuel Macron, brought other leaders and US tech giants to make a global pledge to “eliminate terrorist and violent extremist content online.” The cheer squad feel behind the “Christchurch Call to Action” was unmistakable. Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau highlighted the “deadly consequences” of “hateful content online” and his enthusiasm behind the project. “Together, we can create a world where all people – no matter their faith, where they live, or where they are from, – are safe and secure both on and offline.”  Stirring stuff.

The opening of the pledge starts with a description: “On 15 March 2019, people looked on in horror as, for 17 minutes, a terrorist attack against two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, was live streamed.” The emphasis is significant here: not merely the atrocity itself but the means of its dissemination. Stress falls upon the fact that “the live stream was viewed some 4,000 times before being removed.”

The premise of the call is exaggerated and forced: that the events were caused by online content the way a child’s violence can be caused by gormless hours of glued-to-screen viewing. Ignore the tingling motivating factors of the shooter in question, a view that was nurtured in the atmosphere of acceptable intolerance. Ignore, as well, the contested, troubled literature on the “contagion” thesis behind mass shootings and killings. The shooter becomes less significant than the act of streaming his exploits, or sharing unsavoury matter with chatty dolts on certain chat forums. “The attack was live-streamed, went viral and remains available on the web despite the measures taken to remove it.”

The call is framed is a clunky exercise pillowed by the language of openness, only to then flatten it. It articulates “the conviction that a free, open and secure internet offers extraordinary benefits to society. Respect for freedom of expression is fundamental.” But there is an unqualified injunction: “no one has the right to create and share terrorist and violent extremist content online.”

It seems fluffy, the stuff of head-in-the-cloud enthusiasm, but lodged in such calls is a desperate, confused message with sinister implications. Commitments, outlined by Trudeau’s office, include “building more inclusive, resilient communities to counter violent radicalisation” and “enforcing rules, laws that stop the production and dissemination of terrorist and extremist content online.” Media outlets would also be told “to apply rules when reporting on terrorist events” to avoid amplification of the content.  This is ignorance as antidote, not reason as a solution.

Online providers, in turn, are urged to, “Take transparent, specific measures seeking to prevent the upload of terrorist and violent extremist content and to prevent its dissemination on social media and similar content-sharing services”. The qualifying point is that such measures are “consistent with human rights and fundamental freedoms.” Transparent processes would include “publishing the consequences of sharing terrorist and violent extremist content”.  

Livestreaming is the true bugbear here, with the need to implement “immediate, effective measures to mitigate the specific risk that terrorist and violent extremist content is disseminated”. Algorithms that might magnify the spread of material should also be reviewed.

A more “humane” internet is central to Ardern’s vision which, read another way, is one more regulated and policed of its content and uses. This lies more in the realm of social engineering than it does in free self-correction, the call for presbyters of cyberspace to cull and remove what states, or the tech enforcers, deem inappropriate. Given that “extremism” and “terrorism” remain very much in the eye of the censoring beholder, the dangers of this should be apparent. Dissidents, contrarians and commentators are bound to fall foul of the project.

The regulatory attitude outlined in the pledge has been twinned with a business object. Silicon Valley, to remain in clover, has been convinced to make overtures and moves dealing with the sharing of “terrorist” and “extremist” content. Having become a punching bag for anxious regulators, Facebook announced that Facebook Live would be barred to those who, in the words of company official Guy Rosen, “have broken certain rules…including our Dangerous Organizations and Individuals policy”.  A “one strike” policy would be introduced. Technical advances to combat “adversarial media manipulation” and improved “image and video analysis technology” were needed.

With such high minded calls for regulation and control from government voices, a seminal warning is necessary. John Perry Barlow, in A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace, began his call quite differently. Traditional states were the problem. “Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us.  You have no sovereignty where we gather.”

Such governments, with efforts to bring in the behemoths of Silicon Valley, have stated their clear purpose: to intrude upon Barlow’s world of the cyber mind and clip any sovereign pretext that might have ever existed. The internet, for them, remains a vigilante playground, difficult to police with its bursts of anarchic sentiment and primeval insensibilities. While Ardern’s sentiments are probably genuine enough, their authenticity hardly matters before the dangers such initiatives will create.  Symptoms have been confused, if not totally muddled, with causes; technology has been marked as the great threat.

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Modern Merchants of Death: The NSO Group, Spyware and Human Rights

Arms manufacturers of old, and many of the current stable, did not care much where their products went. The profit incentive often came before the patriotic one, and led to such dark suspicions as those voiced by the Nye Committee in the 1930s. Known formally as the Special Committee on Investigation of the Munitions Industry, the US Senate Committee, chaired by US Senator Gerald Nye (R-ND) supplies a distant echo on the nature of armaments and their influence.

The Nye Committee had one pressing concern: that the United States might fall for the same mistake it did in 1917 in committing to a foreign conflict while fattening the pockets of arms manufacturers. As Chairman Senator Nye promised, “When the Senate investigation is over, we shall see that war and preparation for war is not a matter of national honour and national defence, but a matter of profit for the few.”

Despite the current sophisticated state of modern weaponry, along with modern offshoots (cyber tools, spyware, the use of malware), the principle of ubiquitous spread is still present. Companies in the business of developing malware and spyware, modern merchants of disruption and harm, face charges that their products are being used for ill, a nastiness finding its way to hungry security services keen to monitor dissent and target contrarians. While the scale of their damage may be less than those alleged by Nye’s Munitions Committee, the implications are there: products made are products used; the ethical code can be shelved.

The NSO Group, a tech outfit based in Herzliya, a stone’s throw from Tel Aviv, specialises in producing such invasive software tools as Pegasus. The reputation of Pegasus is considerable, supposedly able to access data on targeted phones including switching on their cameras and microphones.

NSO’s spyware merchandise has now attained a certain viral notoriety. When Mexican investigative journalist Javier Valdez Cárdenas was butchered in broad daylight on a street in Culiacán, the capital of the Mexican state of Sinaloa, something reeked. The killing on May 15, 2017, had been designated a cartel hit, an initially plausible explanation given Valdez’s avid interest in prying into the affairs of organised crime in Sinaloa. But the smell went further. As Mexican media outlets reported in June 2017, the government of former president Enrique Peña Nieto had purchased the good merchandise of Pegasus. Three Mexican agencies had purchased spyware to the tune of $80 million since 2011.

Since then, Canadian research group Citizen Lab, in collaboration with Mexican digital rights outfit R3D and freedom of expression group Article 19, have made the case that the widow of the slain journalist, Griselda Triana, became a target of Pegasus spyware within 10 days of her husband’s death in 2017. According to the report, she was also targeted “a week after infection attempts against two of Valdez’s colleagues, Andrés Villareal and Ismael Bojórquez.” The group behind the infection attempts, named RECKLESS-1, is alleged to have links with the Mexican government.

Canadian-based Saudi dissident Omar Abdulaziz can also count himself amongst those targeted by Pegasus. In 2018, he claimed that his phone was tapped by NSO-made spyware, leading to a gruesome implication: that the Saudi authorities would have had access to hundreds of messages exchanged with the doomed Saudi journalist and fellow comrade-in-dissent Jamal Khashoggi.  

In December, a suit was filed in Israel by Abdulaziz’s representatives Alaa Mahajna and Mazen Masri, alleging that the NSO Group had hacked his phone in the service of Riyadh. In court papers, it was alleged that the dissident was harangued by the same individuals behind Khashoggi’s murder, insisting that he pack his bags and return to Saudi Arabia.

Buried in the court documentation was the receipt of a text message purportedly tracking the shipment of a package; instead, it masked a link to the NSO Group. Once clicked, the link installed the spyware, turning the phone into an effective agent of surveillance. Soon after this took place, Abdulaziz’s family home in Jidda was raided by Saudi security forces. Two brothers were subsequently detained.

Last January, Maariv, an Israeli daily, investigated reports about telephone spyware supposedly used to bug the phone of the murdered Khashoggi. Khashoggi’s ending at the Saudi embassy in Istanbul, facilitated by a death squad, was not handiwork NSO wanted to be associated with. The group had been, according to a statement in December, “licensed for the sole use of providing governments and law enforcement agencies with the ability to lawfully fight terrorism and crime”. Misuse of products would lead to investigation and, depending on appropriate findings, a suspension or termination of the contract.

Shalev Hulio, the company’s CEO, was clear to emphasise his humanity, before distancing himself and his company from the killing. “As a human being and as an Israeli, what happened to Khashoggi was a shocking murder.” Hulio was also adamant that “Khashoggi was not targeted by any NSO product or technology, including listening, monitoring, location tracking and intelligence collection.” Could such precise denials be inadvertent confessions?

The cooperative umbrella for Israel is broadening. It seeks allies, or at least some form of accommodation with regional powers, to counter common enemies. With Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, one common foe remains a constant: Iran. The Israeli state’s licensing of such companies as the NSO Group implicates the policy of permitting the distribution of Pegasus and such products.  License their use; license their consequences. Molly Malekar, of Amnesty International’s Israeli office, puts it simply: “By continuing to approve of NSO Group, the Ministry of Defence is practically admitting to knowingly cooperating with NSO Group as their software is used to commit human rights abuses.” Monitoring and killing dissidents and intrepid journalists tend to be nasty by-products. They, in a sense, have become the modern merchants of death, whose clients remain unsavoury regimes.

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Maximum Pressure in the Strait of Hormuz: The US-Iran Standoff

Hegemons are never going to sound too sensible when they lock horns or joust in spats of childish anger. Power corrupts, not merely in terms of perspective but language, and making sense about the next move, the next statement, is bound to be challenging. Otherwise, justified behaviour can be read as provocative; retaliatory moves duly rattle and disturb.

The Iran-US standoff is finding a surge of increments, provocations and howlers. Since the Trump administration withdrew from the 2015 Iran Nuclear deal (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) last year, Tehran has gnawed and scratched at the arrangements. Threats to close the Strait of Hormuz as a retaliation for frustrating Iranian oil sales have been made. President Hassan Rouhani last week made it clear that the Islamic republic would scale back on certain JCPOA commitments. Limits on building up stockpiles of low-enriched uranium and heavy water would be abandoned. A 60-day period has been stipulated in the hope that the E3 (Britain, France and Germany), China and Russia provide relief for the Iranian oil and banking sector. More suspensions of compliance orders threaten to follow if the powers do not muck in.

Despite not being part of the JCPOA anymore, the Trump administration persists in sticking its oar in the matter. On May 3, the State Department explicitly warned it would sanction individuals and entities involved in swapping permitted uranium (enriched or natural) with Iran. Nor would excess heavy water limits be permitted.

With such moves to strangle Iran’s economic feelers, it is little wonder that Rouhani has called on “surgery” to be performed on the JCPOA, one far more effectual than “the painkiller pills of the last year”. Such a process, he promised, was “for saving the deal, not destroying it.”

News this week that Saudi Arabian oil tankers had been sabotaged near the Strait of Hormuz had its effect, even if the Trump administration has yet to pin its colours to the claim that Iran is responsible. Give it time, and not much at that. As the Wall Street Journal put it, “The assessment, while not conclusive, was the first suggestion by any nation that Iran was responsible for the attack”.

To reporters in the Oval Office, Trump was keen to make his usual remarks about happiness, or its absence, if things turned out to be darker than he thought. “It’s going to be a bad problem for Iran if something happens, I can tell you that.” What, pressed reporters, did the president mean by a “bad problem”? “You can figure it out for yourself. They know what I mean by it.”

Brian Hook, the US State Department’s special envoy on Iran, has been doing the circuit in Europe with Washington’s allies, hoping to stir some action against the meddling mullahs in a campaign of “maximum pressure”. “Everything we are doing,” Hook tried to reason with the Sunday Times, “is defensive.” Secretary of State Mark Pompeo also journeyed to Brussels to stir the matter.  According to Hook, “The secretary shared information and intelligence with allies and discussed the multiple plot vectors emerging from Iran.” What a boon Iran is proving to be for the parched hawks, an endless well of threat, much of it imaginary, to draw upon in the hope of actual military engagement.

National Security Advisor John Bolton is making do with the situation, creating much mischief, turning the furniture and belongings of the entire diplomatic stable inside out like a brat in search of attention. He blames Iran, naturally, for “a number of troubling and escalatory indications and warnings”. As is the manner with all chicken hawks, he craves the blood of others and is not shy pushing it. The problem with this attitude is that having a playmate such as Iran is bound to get you, and your fellow playmates, hurt on the way. The schoolmistress should intervene, but her sense, and sensibility, is yet to be found.

Washington is certainly keen to make it a bad problem, a habit it has fallen into during stretches of its violent and imperial history. At Bolton’s instigation, an aircraft carrier and B-52 bombers are being deployed to the Persian Gulf on the supposedly clear grounds that Iran and its proxies are readying themselves for a strike on US forces in the region, bringing to mind similar provocations sought to stoke a potential conflict.  

The planning of Operation Prairie Fire was one such ignominious example, designed to provoke Muammar Qaddafi’s Libya into a military incident in 1986. In what seemed to be a true overegging of the pudding, US Navy Task Force 60 involved three aircraft carriers operating in the Mediterranean off the Libyan coast. They were involved in exercises falling within that most stretched of terms: freedom-of-navigation. Prairie Fire turned out to be a bellicose affair, with Task Force 60 put on essentially a wartime footing. Military exercises were duly conducted to stir the beast; patrols along the coast were conducted. The beast responded with some six surface-to-air missiles. A Libyan patrol boat was duly obliterated with some satisfaction, along with two more naval vessels and a missile site in Sirte. “We now consider all approaching Libyan forces,” claimed the White House note with some smugness, “to have hostile intent.”

US-Iran encounters in the Strait of Hormuz are also not new: the Iran-Iraq War, one which saw the US throw in its lot with Saddam Hussein’s invading armies against the Iranian Republic, featured a fair share of attacks on merchant shipping. The importance of the Strait to shipping and international traffic is again coming into play.

Trump has remained inflexible and obstinate regarding Iran. (In his wheeler-dealer world, every crook with a silver lining must be matched by a Lucifer who will be given no quarter.) In these calculations, the silver lining of North Korea’s Kim Jong-un shines far brighter than any the Islamic Republic of Iran might have. But by any referee’s estimate of recent conduct by Trump and company, Washington must be seen as responsible for the most aggravating fouls.

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Cleaning out the Nutters: Paul Keating, China and Australia’s Security Establishment

Inimitable to a fault, former Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating had been fairly quiet on his party’s policies till an impromptu press intervention last week. Catching two journalists of the ABC off-guard, Keating took little time to land a few blows against Australia’s foreign and domestic intelligence security officers. They had, in Keating’s view, “lost their strategic bearings”. The security agencies were effectively “running foreign policy”; when such matters eventuate, only one conclusion can be reached: “the nutters are in charge.” 

For the former Labor prime minister, the China Syndrome had clotted the grey cells of the security wonks, blocking perception and clarity. Security chiefs were knocking on the doors of Parliamentarians; prejudices were doing the rounds. Australia, the United States and other like-minded powers had been in denial about the Middle Kingdom and its aspirations, seeing them as defence and security threats in various guises. They had to “recognise the legitimacy of China”; it had to be respected for rising from poverty even if that particular story did not sit well with the United States.

Keating took a particularly sharp interest in John Garnaut, foreign correspondent and former national security advisor to former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. That particular China hand written in August 2018 that any spirit of democratisation worth its salt died with the protestors at Tiananmen Square in 1989. “Belatedly, and quite suddenly, political leaders, policy makers and civil society actors in a dozen nations around the world are scrambling to come to terms with a form of China’s extraterritorial influence described variously as ‘sharp power’, ‘United Front work’ and ‘influence operations’.” In Garnaut’s view, the world’s many eyes were upon Australia to set an example.

Keating advocated a cleaning operation, a large broom applied with swiftness removing the likes of Garnaut and the carriers of paranoid whispers. “Once that Garnaut guy came back from China and Turnbull gave him the ticket to go and hop into the security services, they’ve all gone Berko ever since.”

On some level, Keating’s comments are bound to be relevant, even if they put the noses of such types as Peter Jennings at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute out of joint. (No, especially if they do.) Security chiefs and their cronies can get long in the tooth and worn in thinking. Wrinkled and crusted, a clear-out is far from undesirable. A salient reminder from Napoleon comes to mind: move your bureaucrats around once every five years; sedentary practices often result in unhealthy concentrations of power.  

Labor opposition leader Bill Shorten was far more diplomatic, suggesting that his party had a good working relationship with the current chiefs, claiming respect and a co-operative working interest. The potential prime minister is mindful who he will have to work with. “The three Bs are the biggest threat to Bill Shorten once he’s in office: boats, bombs and bytes,” came an opinion from a senior official to the ABC.

A chance of sorts had been presented to the Liberal-National government. Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton, generally quiet in this election, smelled an opportunity to use the Keating intervention. “Since September 2014, Australia’s law enforcement agencies have disrupted 15 major terrorist attack plots and conducted 41 counter-terrorism operations, with 93 people charged.” Such a statement reads like the body-count figures from the US effort in Vietnam: they are units of poor measure rather than attributes of effect. But Dutton, like many a plodding police officer, misses the picture in favour of the stabbing daub.  

Another effort was made by campaign spokesperson and Trade minister Simon Birmingham, speaking in a debate held in Adelaide. Keating, he claimed, had insulted “the heads of our intelligence services”. He did note that “Labor have distanced themselves from the remarks by Paul Keating” but found it hard to resist the point that the former PM “is not an isolated figure in terms of… Bob Carr and others who sit within the (Labor) ranks.”  

Did the Coalition government have a better approach? “We make sure we maintain a firm and consistent approach (towards China) and in doing so make sure we keep Australia’s economic interests strong (and) our national security interests strong too.” Suitably weasel-like, in other words.

Labor’s Senator Penny Wong, also at the same event, expressed a degree of disgust (“really desperate,” she fumed), though it should only be treated in the context of her desire to be Australia’s next foreign affairs minister. The China psychosis in Australian political thinking can be unpredictable, swaying between a “come and buy my coal” to “stay out of my backyard, Huawei”. Seeing the prospect of having to deal with the foot soldiers of the Middle Kingdom in a new government, Wong is attempting to play that Janus-faced game Australian politicians have proven rather bad at, whatever the likes of Garnaut and Jennings might think.

Not wishing to be either pleasing harlots or submissive doormats, yet wishing to keep a hand in the voracious Chinese market (Cathay, I hear you say!), the Australian political class has had to tailor, trim and modify their traditional fears of the Yellow Peril while still shouting from the rooftops about it. Only the likes of mining magnate Clive Palmer can express unvarnished dislike for people he sees as his business competitors and hungry beyond satiation. The rest, notably those wallahs buried in the security establishment, can rest easy that Keating’s eminently sensible suggestion will not come to pass.

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A Great Flushing Out: Social Media Footprints and Electioneering in Australia

It has been an uninspiring election, punctuated by occasional moments of madness on the part of various candidates. Their sin was to be incautious in their previous use of social media, a form of communication that reveals everything and nothing about a person. In a political sense, the erring tweet and the injudicious remark on an online forum have laid waste to incipient political careers and ambitions.

This is a far cry from the supposedly mighty role the use of social media was meant to have in participatory politics. Now, the chickens have come home to roost in various unexpected ways. Social media outlets are condemned for being platforms for misinformation and manipulation (the horror!) and tech giants are given daily tongue lashings by politicians and representatives for not being online Bobbies.

Paradoxically, these are the same critics who have been more than happy to embrace such media to access voters at virtually no cost. As President Donald J. Trump once explained on his use of Twitter, “I like it because I can get my point of view out there, and my point of view is very important to a lot of people that are looking at me.” Various surges in the polls by presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders in 2016 were occasioned by a conspicuous and aggressive presence on social media relative to his rival, Hillary Clinton. In Britain, the rise of Jeremy Corbyn to the position of Labour leader was very much boosted by a dedicated social media following.

Social media in this Australian federal election has done quite the opposite: rather than advancing profiles and improving visibility for the candidate, mistakes have been noted, and previous misbehaviour drawn out as grave errors of judgment. Bad speech has been picked up and prosecuted by the machine men and women of various parties. Resignations have been encouraged, and, in some cases, forced.

These instances have provided marvellous distractions from policy, fitting for those who do not have any. “The offensive remarks,” noted The New York Times, “have forced at least six candidates for Parliament to quit, while many more linger like zombies – most of them from the conservative governing coalition and other parties on the right.”

The range of comments, for all the unsavoury nature, would not have seemed out of place in previous elections. Susan Harris-Rimmer, a law academic at Griffith University, expressed amazement “that these people are being asked to resign because a lot of this stuff would have been seen as normal a few years ago.” It was “a bit of a sign of success that they’re being forced to leave.” Harris-Rimmer ignores that obvious point that such individuals do not leave so much as a retreat to the party undergrowth.

Has Australian politics suddenly become righteous? A sense of proportion is in order, and social media is precisely the medium that distorts it. Rage is magnified, as are errors. Idiotic behaviour, probably mandatory for a teenager, is rendered immutable if it touches on rape humour or sexual observation. Luke Creasey, an urchin-looking Labor candidate running in Melbourne, expressed contrition at doing so but ultimately fell on his sword. He acknowledged making “those awful comments many years ago and they in no way reflect the views I hold today,” claimed Creasey in a statement. He understood“, especially as a member of the LGBTIQ community, that we need to be careful about what we share or like on social media.”

Others have been somewhat fresher in their sins. Jessica Whelan, formerly a Liberal candidate running in the seat of Lyons, came undone with the airing of various social media posts in the Tasmanian parliament. In 2017, Whelan’s response to a woman regarding public housing waiting lists was piquant: “Given that your profile states that you went to college at ‘never lose hope in Allah’… I hope you’re not bloody on our housing waiting list.” Another, addressed to a Facebook video purportedly showing American Muslim and non-Muslim women praying together, was similarly direct. “Round them up Donald, cut their clitorises off and sell them to Muslims in Muslim countries and cancel their passports. You’ll make a mint.”

Jeremy Hearn, also of the Liberal Party, was binned for anti-Muslim remarks made in 2018. Those sinister warriors of Allah (“people of bad character”), he said pointedly, had been insinuating themselves into the landscape, concealing their true intentions in wishing to overthrow the Australian government.

Not to be outdone, Peter Killin, another Liberal candidate, resigned after attacking his own colleague and member for Goldstein, Tim Wilson, in a comments thread of a blog post by Christian conservative blogger Bill Muehlenberg. While contesting the seat of Wills in Melbourne’s inner-north, Killin made no secret of the fact that he was against the pre-selection of Wilson for Goldstein, who had won by “one lousy vote” in 2016. “Many of us will recall [Wilson] was the openly homosexual who proposed to his boyfriend in parliament [sic].”

One of the last hold outs – and there are no doubt a few more lurking – was Gurpal Singh, Liberal candidate for Scullin. What eventually pushed him? Not remarks made in 2017 equating same-sex marriage with paedophilic tendencies. It took Facebook comments to an SBS article written in 2018 expressing disagreement with an allegation of rape made by a Punjabi woman against her husband. “Based on new information that has come to light,” explained a Liberal party spokesman, “Mr Gurpal Singh has been asked to resign as the candidate for Scullin.” Singh called it “shameful that a married woman suffering family violence can go to such extent” having “skimmed her lover, husband and father of her two children for all these years.”

Perversely, in an era characterised by episodic Twitter deluges by a US President, many bruising and scornful of political correctness, Australian politics shows a far more regulated concern for the red mist of online commentary. The social media scrubbers within the parties have gotten busy. Tweet and be damned; share, and face the consequences. In Creasey’s own warning, “this is a really important lesson for young people that your social media footprint will follow you.”

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The Democrats and Muellerisation

The psychic problems facing the Democrats continue to bite, and with their foiled efforts to see the full, unredacted report of the Mueller Report, they look distracted, confused and bitter. In politics, the sense of vengeance and retribution has a place, but without some restorative balance, cripples the actor. The Democrats can point to numerous contenders for the presidential election, but these are either going to peter out or result in public acts of self-harm before an awful realisation sets in: that Donald J. Trump may well win a second term.

Leaving aside that troubling, and mind-racking thought for the holy initiates of the Tweedle Dum Party there is a serious danger of a condition so enervating it risks submerging it. Experience, according to the classicist Gilbert Murray, should dull the edges of all our dogmas, but Muellerisation is a powerful condition. It may well be irresistible, and any survivors struggling to make it to the shoreline risk being dragged in by the tide, drowning in their angst about the monster in the White House and his all-inculpating Russian connection. In the meantime, the party can make good its duty to avoid anything remotely resembling policy.

The Democrats must have the document and more, pure and whole. The point here is a vain hope that something, somewhere hidden will have the weapon they can use against Trump.  But the obvious point in all of this, one pointed out by Glenn Greenwald, is one of degree: if there was evidence of Kremlin collusion (and the extent of it) suggested by some Democrats, Mueller would most certainly have had it by now. If he had not shown it “he would almost be guilty of treason.”  

The latest target of this entire endeavour is the Attorney General William Barr, adding yet another episode to the Mueller bonanza. The House Judiciary Committee took aim at the AG, drafting a resolution finding him in contempt of Congress for not complying with the subpoena to provide the full, unredacted version of the report and linked materials.

The subpoena itself is broad; the smell of sheer desperation that something, somewhere, will blow smoke or emit an incriminating odour is palpable. In addition to seeking the “complete and unredacted version” of the Mueller report, it also demands “all summaries, exhibits, indices, tables of contents or other tables or figures, appendices, supplements, addenda, or any other attachments” and, “All documents obtained and investigative materials created by the Special Counsel’s office.”

Trump, as he always does, went on to spoil their efforts, formally asserting protective executive privilege on Barr’s advice. The warning had been made in a Tuesday letter to the chairman, Jerry Nadler, from Assistant Attorney General Stephen E. Boyd.  “In face of the Committee’s threatened contempt vote, the Attorney General will be compelled to request that the President invoke executive privilege with respect to the materials subject to this subpoena.”

With the committee not being particularly responsive, Barr’s advice to President Trump followed in his May 8 letter.  “In cases such as this where a committee has declined to grant sufficient time to conduct a full review, the President may make a protective assertion of privilege to protect the interests of the Executive Branch pending a final determination whether to assert privilege.”  

What strikes Barr as relevant is broad-brush nature of the claim, a grab-for-all in demanding “all of the Special Counsel’s investigative files, which consists of millions of pages of classified and unclassified documents bearing upon more than two dozen criminal cases and investigations, many of which are ongoing.” Details embedded in such material cover “law enforcement information, information about sensitive intelligence sources and methods, and grand-jury information that the Department is prohibited from disclosing by law.”

Such a protective assertion of privilege has precedent. President Bill Clinton did so, on advice from then-Attorney General Janet Reno, in 1996 in what is officially titled Protective Assertion of Executive Privilege White House Counsel’s Office Documents, 20 Op., O.L.C. 1 (1996). Nor is it, explain the legal boffins, a “conclusive”, actual assertion. In the hair-splitting world of jurisprudence, this is merely “protective”, ensuring, in the words of Boyd’s letter, “the President’s ability to make a final decision whether to assert privilege following a full review of these materials.”  In this Alice in Wonderful linguistic tangle, the president is effectively asserting executive privilege in order to determine whether he needs to assert executive privilege.

The legal fraternity, pouring over the details of this battle, have much to work through. While Barr’s reasoning is, on the face of it, orthodox, not all redacted material falls within the protection granted by executive privilege. Using redactions to protect privacy, according to Tennessee Assistant Solicitor General Jonathan Shaub, is an awkward fit. “In particular, grand jury material has never itself been considered a component of executive privilege.”  

The House Judiciary committee, refusing to surprise, duly voted along party lines to hear contempt proceedings against Barr. Attempting to fan the flames of drama, Nadler called such conduct on the part of attorney general the solid basis for a “constitutional crisis” affected by a “lawless administration”, ignoring the enormously broad scope of the initial subpoena.

The Mueller Report, and all that is incidental to it, has ceased being a matter of evidence, but an issue of manic principle. The premise is already coined; what matters is finding the appropriate evidence to justify the claim, wherever it may be. That claim, as we all know, is not merely Trump-Russia collusion but a Manchurian Candidate styled fantasy that risks turning the Democrat effort come 2020 into a Disneyland escapade. Nothing would warm that master in distraction Trump more than such a development.

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A Matter of Independence: Equinor and Drilling the Great Australian Bight

Such companies advertise themselves as slick and professional, the best in the business, all things to men, women and everyone in between. They insist that we can all have that vast cake of wealth and eat it too.  Equinor, a Norwegian multinational beast of an energy company with its headquarters in Stavanger, has been doing much in the way of making cakes and eating them. It seeks “to be the world’s most carbon-efficient oil and gas producer” but at the same time a sound investor in renewables. The earth may well be heating up, but there is no point in not having a bet each way as the frog boils. Whatever its formula, the company is boastful. “We energize the lives of 170 million people. Every day.”

Interest has now shifted to the Great Australian Bight, an area deemed by the Great Australian Bight Alliance “one of the most pristine ocean environments left on Earth, supporting vibrant coastal communities, jobs and recreational activities.” The Norwegian company is determined to drill for oil at a location some 476km west of Port Lincoln, a site which is intended to become the Stromlo-1 well with an intended depth of 2,240m. A period of 60 days is anticipated, with commencement taking place for late 2020. A submitted proposal to do so is currently being assessed by the National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority (NOPSEMA). 

The company has every reason to be confident that hiccups will be few and far between.  As Coalition campaign spokesman Simon Birmingham told reporters in Adelaide last week, “There are a large proportion of constituents who want to see jobs and opportunities created, as long as there is no environmental harm.”

Outside the good offices of NOPSEMA, disputes over the science feature. For Equinor, all is manageable and realisable. For James Cook University marine biologist Jodie Rummer, a utopia reconciling drilling and sustainability is questionable: environmental frameworks need to be far more sensitive. Her own research showed that “even small boats and the noise that motors make are disturbing fish and the way they develop.” Rummer’s descriptions are of marine communities at risk and trauma; even a few drops of oil, she asserts, would cause “massive effects on behaviour and even physiological performance.” The terror for concerned citizens such as the Wilderness Society’s South Australian director Peter Owen is clear: “It’s very remote where they’re proposing to drill, so if it all goes wrong out there, there’s nothing they can do.”

A typical formula in Australian environmental regulation is its sense of devolution, a polite way of deferring problems best resolved at the highest levels. Federal bodies prefer their state counterparts to masticate over the issue, thereby passing any potential scandal down to a more local level; state politicians, in turn, refer the issue to the relevant state regulator, bound to be praised for its sound assessments. “The bottom line,” says South Australia’s treasurer Rob Lucas, “is it cannot proceed and won’t proceed unless the most stringent safety environmental standards are met.”

Opposition groups numbering some 20 councils and a range of environmental concerns have not been assured by either the Liberal or Labor parties. Ever spooked about the prospect that denying such a company, access to the Australian environment might prevent a jobs opportunity, voices of concern tend to fall silent. Such silence is assisted by the power of cash and wooing: Equinor and the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association, a self-touted “voice” for the industry, have been busy spruiking their case to members of the South Australian parliament.

In March this year, both groups were given access to parliamentarians and interested parties at two fora in Adelaide. APPEA South Australia director Matthew Doman extolled the industry’s aspirations to sustainable operations and engagement with “coastal communities” and those using the marine environment. To push the claim for drilling, Doman dreamily spoke about an “independent” report from 2018 commissioned, naturally, by his own outfit along with the assistance of ACIL Allen Consulting. 

Dollar signs flashed with seductive calling: oil exploration in the Great Australian Bight could see “more than 2,000 jobs in South Australia” while generating some $7 billion in average annual tax revenue for state and federal governments.  As is often the case in such soothsaying, a future indirect effect is also praised: between 2020 and 2060 (time is never an issue for those in this business), additional activity and “associated tax revenue” would see the creation of 5,000 jobs.

For those claiming the unimpeachable nature of any independence in the process, ACIL Allen Consulting prides itself on having experience in the resources business covering “all aspects of the minerals and energy sector, from iron ore and coal industries to onshore and offshore petroleum.” Now that’s independence for you.

Even more troubling to environmental activists was the presence of NOPSEMA’s own head, Stuart Smith, at the Adelaide events. There was little in the way of objective distance: Smith was there to be impressed and chew the fat with industry participants. Greenpeace Australia Pacific chief executive David Ritter was not taking chances, pointing out in a letter to the regulator that such proximity was inappropriate. “Australian and international integrity bodies have long raised concerns that close relationships between regulators and the industries they are regulating can lead to ‘regulatory’ capture’.”  It was “not appropriate for the chief executive officer of an independent regulator to actively participate in events that are set up to endorse the ‘opportunity’ related to activities that is the authority’s role to independently regulate.”

It has fallen to Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young to provide reassurance that the issue will make its way to the federal parliament. “The campaign is growing and growing, but we have to stop this project in Canberra and in the parliament.” With the regulator watered and dined, that, assisted by ferocious public protest, may well be the only route open to concerned parties.

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Disproportionate Sentences: Julian Assange, Bail, and Extradition

Should journalism ever have a deity worth His, Her or Its salt, looking down upon the recent proceedings against Julian Assange will provide endless choking fits of confusion and dismay? The prosecution continues in the twisted logic that engaging a source to disclose something secret while also protecting anonymity is somehow unnatural in the world of journalism. Most prosecutions in this regard tend to be ignorant of history and its various contortions; theirs is to simply fulfil the brief of a vengeful employer, in the now, in the falsely clear present. If their reasoning could be extended, the likes of those in press land would spend far more time in prisons than out of them.

The savagery being meted out to Assange is evident by him receiving the maximum sentence for skipping bail. Fifty weeks may not seem like much in the scheme of things, but when you consider relative punishments, it smacks of a certain state of vindictiveness. What the decision also ignores is the entire context of Assange’s escape to the Ecuadorean embassy in 2012. Since then, Britain has abandoned that beastly instrument, known as the European Arrest Warrant, the Swedish allegations against him for sexual assault have been withdrawn and he, importantly, was found to be living in conditions of arbitrary detention by the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention.

The refusal to take the decision of the UN Working Group seriously has been a hallmark of British justice, one skewed in favour of handing out to Assange the worst treatment it can find. In 2016, the body, chaired by Seong-Phil Hong, found that “various forms of deprivation of liberty to which Julian Assange has been subjected to constitute a form of arbitrary detention.” The Working Group further maintained “that the arbitrary detention of Mr Assange should be brought to an end, that his physical integrity and freedom of movement be respected, and that he should be entitled to an enforceable right to compensation.”

The UK Government, for its part, decided to rebuff the decision. “The original conclusions of the UN Working Group are inaccurate,” came a scoffing statement, “and should be reviewed.”  Foreign Office minister Hugo Swire insisted at the time that the working group had erred for not being “in possession of the full facts.” Assange had remained in the embassy purely on his own volition, a fantastic form of reasoning that denied the broader context of US efforts to seek his scalp, and the prospect of extradition should he have been sent to Sweden. On this issue, WikiLeaks and Assange have proven to be right, but critics remain deaf and dumb to the record.

The same Working Group also expressed bafflement at the stiff sentence, noting that the Swedish allegations had been withdrawn, meaning that the original bail terms be negated as a result. The entire treatment “appears to contravene the principles of necessity and proportionality envisaged by human rights standards.” It was also “further concerned that Mr Assange has been detained since 11 April 2019 in Belmarsh prison, a high-security prison, as if he were convicted for a serious criminal offence.”

Kristinn Hrafnsson, who currently holds the reins as editor-in-chief of WikiLeaks, told gathered press members that Assange had been confined for periods of 23 hours a day at Belmarsh. The publisher was, effectively, keeping company with the less savoury while facing the damnable conditions of solitary confinement.

Only a day after the rough determination, Assange faced an extradition hearing in which the UK legal system, pressured by US lawyers and officials, will again have a chance to display its ignominious streak. The hearing, lasting a few minutes, took place via video link in Westminster Magistrates Court.

“I do not wish,” Assange told the court, “to surrender myself for extradition for doing journalism that has won many, many awards and protected many people.” (Perhaps Assange might have eased off on his accolades, but history has its callings.)

Assange’s legal team is clear: focus the issue on publishing, thereby bringing the work of their client within the ambit of free speech and traditional journalism. As his lawyer Jennifer Robinson has explained, to accept the validity of the US charge would result in a “massive chill on investigative journalism.”  Assange’s involvement with Chelsea Manning was “about a journalist and a publisher who had conversations with a source about accessing material, encouraged that source to provide material and spoke to that source about how to protect their identity.”

The prosecution team, aided in the wings by hundreds of press vultures who seem intentionally malicious or keen to distance Assange from such protections, are obsessed by the hacking argument. Even left as it is, the effort here seems skimpy at best.

Hrafnsson, on a worried note, does not shy away from the consequences to Assange’s own being. “What is at stake here could be a question of life or death for Mr Assange.”  And more than that, it involved “a major journalistic principle.” The former point is salient: the moment Assange is rendered into the clutches of the United States, the prosecution is bound to bloat with various charges.

With Assange being treated as a felon of grave importance; and Manning’s continued detention for her ongoing refusal to cooperate with the investigative grand jury in the United States, the press corps of the world should be both revolted and alarmed. What a delightful World Press Freedom Day it turned out to be.

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Doubts at the NSA: Shelving a Mass Surveillance Program

Earlier this year, Luke Murry, national security adviser for Republican House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, revealed that the National Security Agency had been averse over the last six months to using the phone surveillance program that hoovers information from millions of US phone calls and text messages. This was hardly a comforting point; the issue spoke as much to competence as it did to any broader issue of warrantless surveillance of the good people in Freedom’s land. Vast, cumbersome, and generally self-defeating, the essence of such programs is paranoid inefficiency. Put it down to “technical issues”, suggested Murry.

The Call Details Records (CDR) program, hostile to liberties in its warrantless nature, has been a fixture of the US security landscape since 2001, when that nasty piece of legislation known as the USA PATRIOT ACT found its way onto the statute books. The program was given legal approval by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court pursuant to Section 215 of that dastardly piece of penmanship.

The extent of its operation was unveiled in dramatic fashion by Edward Snowden to media outlets in 2013, the surveillance system specific to gathering the metadata of domestic phone calls, a mosaic of caller, recipient and time of contact, has been the subject of scrutiny. There are numerous others, but this one came in for special attention.

As Elliot Harmer of the Electronic Frontier Foundation explains, “While these records don’t contain the actual contents of telephone calls, they do include phone numbers and call times and length – more than enough information to prove the NSA with a clear picture of our social relationships, interests and affiliations.” 

Murry was by no means the first to take issue with its effect and effectiveness. There is a growing library of stocked criticism against such bulk storage systems both from the perspective of feasibility and effect, and the broader ethical and legal issues of surveillance and civil liberties. The President’s Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies, published in December 2013, recommended, “that Congress should end such storage and transition to a system in which such metadata is held privately for the government to query when necessary for national security purposes.” 

Hardly a sentiment sympathetic to privacy, but one that went some way in questioning the bulk storage of telephony metadata. Besides, according to members of the Review Group, the whole appearance of it seemed an affront to defenders of privacy. “In our view, the current storage by the government of bulk metadata creates potential risks to public trust, personal privacy, and civil liberty.” Leave it, instead, to “private providers or by a private third party” to deal with such matters. The abuse might continue, but at least, in a good American tradition, it would be privatised.

The Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (PCLOB) also considered the scope of such a system in its 2014 report, deeming it unduly “broad” and incompatible with broader issues of proportionality. “If Section 215’s relevance requirement is to serve any meaningful function, however, relevance cannot be premised on the government’s desire to use a tool whose very operation depends on collecting information without limit. We believe that a tool designed to capture all records of a particular type is simply incompatible with a statue requiring reasonable grounds to believe that ‘the tangible things sought are relevant to an authorized investigation’.”

In 2015, Congress had a minor change of heart with the USA Freedom Act, which mandated phone companies to keep collected telephony data that might be relevant for law enforcement authorities in terrorism investigations. This had the effect of reducing the records kept – from billions per day to a few hundred million in a year. Even then, the process proved erratic. In 2016, the NSA accessed 151 million call logs, though the returns were miserly: court orders for a mere 42 targets. The following year was even less impressive from the standpoint of efficient prosecution: 534 million records for a pittance of 40 suspects.

Even then, the NSA remained cagey about the extent of the CDR program, giving it room for fanciful prevarications. It has refused to, for instance, supply unique identifiers in an annual transparency report required by the Office of the Inspector General over the course of three years. Its reasons for that are charming. “As of the date of this report [2017], the government does not have the technical ability to isolate the number of unique identifiers within records received from providers.”

In May 2018, the Agency gave the game away by admitting that it has overstretched itself in its surveillance remit. Section 215 of the Patriot Act as amended by the USA Freedom Act of 2015 was effectively misused to collect records the NSA had no authority to gather. The following month, the Agency revealed that hundreds of millions of collected call records would vanish into the ether due to “technical irregularities”.  These deletions were considered reprehensible enough for Senators Ron Wyden (D-Or) and Rand Paul (R-Ky) to request an investigation from the Inspector General of the NSA, Robert P. Storch.

While the NSA is using its own singular and constipated way of reconsidering a program more conducive to causing headaches than granting relief, its fate lies with the White House. Till then, opinion amongst US lawmakers remains mixed. The NSA remains, for some, a jewel in the national security crown, one which must shine, however dully. Let them be, however competent. “If we have technical problems or challenges that the NSA has to take into account, that’s okay,” claims Republican Senator Richard Burr of North Carolina and chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. “It’s not something we easily shelve.”

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Corporate Joe: Biden Enters the Presidential Race

Values, values and more values.  Another dreary dish added to the smorgasbord of Democratic hopefuls for the White House. This one is a bit cured and worn, smoked by history. Biden, having performed the role of Vice President for Barack Obama and senator for Delaware, is making his third attempt to not so much gallop as crawl into the US executive.

That said, there was the initial promise, a teaser sent out to media outlets that the venue of his launch on Wednesday would be Charlottesville, Virginia. Memories of August 2017, with the death of protestor Heather Heyer at the white-supremacist riot, hung heavy. “That’s daring,” thought Joan Walsh at first blush, writing in The Nation.  “Maybe he’s going to run a campaign that’s in step with the new, multiracial, progressive Democratic Party.” Not so, as Walsh and the rest of the campaign watchers found out. First came the video launch on Thursday. Then it was Pittsburgh. Unions; blue-collar focused.

His video was far from impressive.  For one, it did the inexplicable by actually giving a platform for the very individuals he wished to condemn: far right, torch-bearing yahoos which he associated with the vile history of 1930s Europe. Then he did what many a US politician has done: thrown in good lashings of Thomas Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence. Taking such a moral high ground suggests that he has little intention of winning Trump supporters so much as seducing them; they remain, in Democratic-speak, that thatched “basket of deplorables”. (Biden’s own words referred to President Donald Trump’s “very fine people”.)

Another term of Trump, he warns, “will forever and fundamentally alter the character of the nation.” This is undue flattery, given that the inexorable decline of the US Republic was well and truly fast-tracked by Biden’s own legislative record across a range of social policies, one that left the ground rich for Trump’s debut.

Then comes the more insidious element to the Biden campaign. To woo the unions, he will have to tantalise and deceive by enlisting the bidding of corporate America.  He will throw in references to the spirit of D-Day and Iwo Jima while embracing, warmly, the robbing titans on Wall Street. For Biden, USA Inc. is a political home from which he can speak to distant, blue-collar folk who are less people than electoral units. In his 2008 campaign, he gave a prototypic example, fed by Washington lobbyists and PACs nourished by the likes of T-Mobile, eBay and Bank of America.

His love affair with credit and its agents is known and, if not, should be run on an incessant loop through the advertising campaigns of his opponents.  MBNA, a financial services company with Delaware origins, has been particularly keen to oil the wheels of Biden’s efforts. In 2008, the company had already been supplying largesse to the then Senator for two decades. Mutual back scratching extended to Biden’s son, Hunter, gaining a position at MBNA and becoming a lobbyist for the company. But that was not all.

As is a matter of legislative record, Biden threw in his lot with the Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act of 2005. He was one of the first Democrats to the plate in supporting it, and added his vote four times through the course of its final passage in March 2005. The bill made it harder for consumers to file for bankruptcy protection, a measure cheered on by those in the financial services industry concerned that profits were being eaten into.

David Wade, a spokesman for then-Senator Barack Obama suggested that the level of enthusiasm shown by the Delaware senator for the bill was constructive, designed to blunt its sharper edges in the name of accommodation. (Obama, for his part, did oppose the legislative measure.) “Senator Biden took on entrenched interests and succeeded in improving the bill for low-income workers, women and children.” But Wade did not stop there, adding a few more fictional baubles to his sale: “Senator Biden has a 35-year record fighting for people against powerful interests, whether it’s drug companies, oil companies or insurance companies.”

Such obfuscation did not trick The New York Times. His voting record was more than amenable to those “entrenched” interests he had supposedly battled with avid courage; Biden “joined Republicans to defeat attempts by his Democratic colleagues, including Mr Obama, to soften the bill’s impact on those same constituencies.” In one instance, Biden, along with five other Democrats, voted against a proposal mandating credit companies to more effectively warn consumers about paying only the minimum due each month. Protections for those forced into bankruptcy by being deep in medical debt, and even those in the military, were also deemed unnecessary.

The tradition is set to continue. On Thursday, Biden kept company at a fundraiser in with Comcast Senior Executive Vice President David Cohen and health insurance executive Daniel Hilferty. Within twenty-four hours, he had netted $6.3 million in contributions, $700,000 of which came from the Philadelphia fundraiser.

His appearance as a contender for the Democratic nomination stirred rival Senator Elizabeth Warren to tell those attending an event in Iowa that, “Joe Biden was on the side of the credit card companies.” Her 2014 autobiography broadened that claim. Split in the Senate, “Democratic powerhouse Joe Biden” and a few other Democrats were keen to back the bill. “Never mind that the country was sunk in an ugly recession and millions of families were struggling – the banking industry pressed forward and Congress obliged.”

Biden’s entry into a race that now chokes with some 20 Democratic contenders is unlikely to put President Trump off his stroke. It is another sign that the Democrats will, when the time comes, consume themselves in acts of self-mutilation and Saturnalia, something they have become rather adept at doing. With Biden weakening the progressive line, the likes of Warren and Senator Bernie Sanders have herculean feats to perform.

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Continued Detentions: The Intended Role for Chelsea Manning

The noose is tightening around the WikiLeaks world, yet another dedicated attempt to strangle the channels of information that might cast light over the dastardly deeds of state.  Connections are being targeted; associates are being brought in. Officials of the United States, having found heart in the revocation of Julian Assange’s asylum courtesy of Ecuadorean weak-will and an accommodating United Kingdom, still deem it appropriate to keep Chelsea Manning in custody.

The object here, given the indictment against Assange, seems clear: the conspiracy charge is set to expand, not merely including the current allegations against Assange, but roping in Manning to assist in the endeavour. The project, in other words, will be expanded. Josh Gerstein, writing for Politico, made the obvious point: “Prosecutors appear to be pressing for Manning’s testimony in order to bolster their case against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.”

Even now, the prosecution persists on an absurd tack; the alleged hacking of a classified government computer system pursuant to conspiracy supposedly did not work, even though Manning did supply WikiLeaks with classified documents from the US government’s Secret Internet Protocol Network (SIRPNet) in 2010.

Such sloppiness has been encouraged, in no small measure, by the US-UK extradition treaty.

The document is an exquisite piece of unequal drafting, making UK prosecutors furnish “such information as would provide a reasonable basis to believe that the person sought committed the offence for which extradition is requested” while making no such demands of US prosecutors.  As former Home Office Minister Baroness Scotland of Asthall QC warned, “If this order is approved, the United States will no longer be required to supply prima facie evidence to accompany extradition requests that it makes to the United Kingdom.”

What may save Assange is the hope that greed and vanity prevails in the prosecution effort; with more charges, the case starts looking distinctly political in the extradition process.  If so, “political” offences are excluded from the extradition treaty between the US and the UK under Article 4(1). Paragraph 3 of the same section further notes that, “extradition shall not be granted if the competent authority of the Requested State determined that the request was politically motivated.”

A good number of US politicians have made it clear that Assange’s role as publisher, or even his disposition as a hacker, is less relevant to their jaundiced worldview than making him account as an annex of Russian meddling in the 2016 elections. Assange poked the US national security establishment, and must pay. “So now he’s our property,” rejoiced Democratic Senator Joe Manchin, “and we can get the facts and truth from him.” That, it would seem, is a purely political affair. Assange’s lawyers, take note.

Manning, quite rightly, had asserted her rights not to answer another round of vexatious questions from a grand jury upon a subject the US court-martial system deemed fit to convict her on. Having seven years of her sentence, one reduced by President Barack Obama, she is now being kept further as Assange warms the cold environs of Belmarsh prison in the United Kingdom.

Manning, for her part, has been in Alexandria, Virginia jail since March 8.  Since then, her spell has been marked by periods of prolonged solitary confinement. After 28 days, her period of “administrative segregation” was concluded, and it was reported that she had “finally been moved into general population at Truesdale Detention Center.”

Her legal team have been busy trying to find a means of freeing her since US District Court Judge Claude Hilton found her in contempt for not testifying. A few voices of support in Congress have also been forthcoming. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez claimed that the conditions of Manning’s imprisonment amounted to torture. “Chelsea is being tortured for whistleblowing, she should be released on bail, and we should ban extended solitary [confinement] in the US.”

Manning’s reasons – the stifling secrecy of the grand jury process itself, not to mention the fact that she had already been through the entire affair in 2013 – did not impress the judicial ear. Prosecutor Tracy McCormick, keener on process than principle, explained that this whole fuss could be dispensed with by simply testifying. “We hope she changes her mind now.”

On Monday, the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals considered, if you can even use that term, arguments from Manning’s counsel that Judge Hilton had “improperly denied her motion concerning electronic surveillance, failed to properly address the issue of grand jury abuse, and improperly sealed the courtroom during substantial portions of the hearing.”

Her attempt to overturn the contempt order was given short shrift. The 4th Circuit Court of Appeals did not tax itself too much, giving no reasons for swallowing the conclusions reached in the lower court. In a two-page ruling, the bench found that Judge Hilton had not erred. “Upon consideration of the memorandum briefs on appeal and the record of proceedings in the district court, the court finds no error in the district courts rulings and affirms its findings of civil contempt. The court also denies appellant’s motion for release on bail.” Not exactly the high water mark of US jurisprudence.

Manning can appeal the ruling in taking her case via the full Fourth Circuit bench, or the Supreme Court itself. Given the latter’s current conservatism, the chances for release seem slim. Manning may have to wade it out and hope the prosecutors slip in their efforts to lard their case against Assange. And that has been known to happen.

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Lethal Bungling: Sri Lanka’s Easter Bombings

The number of dead is bound to rise, already standing at more than three hundred. The bombs, worn by seven suicide bombers, struck at three churches during the period of Easter Sunday worship, and three hotels. As the dead were counted and the wounded accounted for, the situation through the glass darkly was a troubled one. Information relayed had either been ignored or discounted. In some cases, it never reached the necessary recipients.

While the individuals behind the bombings were hardly forthcoming about their handiwork, there were suggestions as early as April 4 from Indian security sources that one group was readying to initiate various attacks. National Thowheeth Jama’ath, an Islamic group, had piqued the interest of police enough to lead to the identification of members and their addresses on April 11.

One of the suicide bombers, it transpired, had also been arrested some few months prior on suspicion of vandalizing a statue of Buddha. Such acts of serious desecration were not alien to the NTJ; the use of bombings on such scale was, however, not their forte.

On Monday, Health Minister Rajitha Senaratne, confirmed what had already been a fast held suspicion: even after the warning of April 4, the prime minister and his associates had been “completely blind to the situation.” 

The picture painted by the minister seemed a gruesome admission of defiance in the face of detailed warnings. Intelligence agencies had “informed, from time to time, starting from April 4, 48 hours before the attacks and finally ten minutes before the tragedy struck. They gave warnings about a possible attack on April 4 for the first time.” From then on, the National Intelligence Chief Sisira Mendis kept the Inspector General Police (IGP) abreast of the “imminent attacks” having “actually informed that an organisation called ‘Thowheed Jamath’ planned suicide attacks and had even mentioned their names.”

Scenes of confusion and dangerously comic dysfunction unfolded in the government. Despite various organs being informed about the threat – the ministerial security division (MSD), the judicial security division, and security divisions of former presidents and the Diplomatic Security Unit, there was a failure, according to Senaratne, “to warn the Prime Ministerial Security Division (PMSD) and the Presidential Security Division (PSD) of the attacks.”  When the PM attempted to convene a security council meeting, no one turned up. When the President had made a previous effort to do the same thing, there was a delay of 20 minutes. He had to “sit in the State Defence Minister’s room for some time.” Nor was the Tourism Minister, John Amaratunga, briefed. “Unfortunately, I did not know anything about it.”

Efforts to minimise, contain and deflect have become standard fare, with blithe ignorance forming the central defence. Rich lashings of blame are also in full circulation. This gives the air of monstrous acceptance: we bungled, but haven’t we before? Defence Secretary Hemasiri Fernando, on Monday, felt that the intelligence assessments had not warranted a serious, full security response, despite the level of detail supplied, and their frequency. “Intelligence,” he stated disingenuously, “never indicated that it’s going to be an attack on this magnitude. They were talking about isolated incidents. Besides, there is no emergency in this country. We cannot request the armed forces to come and assist as we can only depend on the police.”

Having claimed the received intelligence pointed to mere potential “isolated incidents” (the suggestion here is that a monstrous act, when seen as an isolated one, can be rationalised according to a security and ethical calculus; in short, more permissible), Fernando proceeded to normalise the entire episode. “It’s not the first time a bomb went off in this country. During the height of the war, when emergency regulations were in force and roadblocks installed at every two kilometres, bombs went off. Why are you trying to isolate this unfortunate incident?”

At the highest levels, the Sri Lankan government has suffered political sclerosis. President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, have been waging wars cold and hot against each other for some time.  When Wickremesinghe was re-appointed after being sacked by the cranky Sirisena in December last year, in turn replacing a cantankerous Mahinda Rajapaksa, the President extolled his own democratic credentials. While he held a personal dislike for his appointee, he also respected “the parliamentary tradition”.

The post-attack reaction is also proving to be an unhinged affair.  Sri Lankan authorities immediately imposed a social media blackout. Dazed and confused as officials are, the idea of not containing an agitated public as inquiries are conducted seemed a grave threat. Besides, a country bathed in the blood of decades of communal violence continues to teeter before the next provocation, the next inflammatory message of inspired retribution.

There was little pride in asserting that the group was “a local organisation”, with all suicide bombers having been Sri Lankan citizens. But not wishing it to be an entirely indigenous affair, Senaratne wished to speculate that, “there was an international network without which these attacks could not have succeeded.” Another source of blame had been identified.

As Fernando surmised, it would be foolish to put too much stock in future efforts on the part of the government. Yes, assistance was being sought from Interpol, the FBI and the Australian Federal Police. But he could not “take confidence with terrorism. No country in the world can assure that it’s not going to happen. But we are trying our best.” A brutally frank response, though hardly a cleansing exculpation.

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