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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.

Julian Assange and Albanese’s Intervention

The unflinching US effort to extradite and prosecute Julian Assange for 18 charges, 17 of which are chillingly based upon the Espionage Act of 1917, has not always stirred much interest in the publisher’s home country. Previous governments have been lukewarm at best, preferring to mention little in terms of what was being done to convince Washington to change course in dealing with Assange.

Before coming to power, Australia’s current Prime Minister Anthony Albanese had made mention of wishing to conclude the Assange affair. In December 2019, before a gathering at the Chifley Research Centre, he described the publisher as a journalist, accepting that such figures should not be prosecuted for “doing their job”. The following year, he also expressed the view that the “ongoing pursuit of Mr Assange” served no evident “purpose” – “enough is enough”.

The same point has been reiterated by a number of crossbenchers in Australia’s parliament, represented with much distinction by the independent MP from Tasmania, Andrew Wilkie. In a speech given earlier this year to a gathering outside Parliament House, the Member for Clark wondered if the UK and Australia had placed their relations with Washington at a premium so high as to doom Assange. “The US wants to get even and for so long the UK and Australia have been happy to go along for the ride because they’ve put bilateral relationships with Washington ahead of the rights of a decent man.”

The new Australian government initially gave troubling indications that a tardy, wait-and-see approach had been adopted. “My position,” Albanese told journalists soon after assuming office, “is that not all foreign affairs is best done with the loudhailer.”

Documents obtained under freedom of information also showed an acknowledgment by the Albanese government of assurances made by the United States that the WikiLeaks founder would have the chance to serve the balance of any prison sentence in Australia. But anybody half-versed in the wiles and ways of realpolitik should know that the international prisoner transfer scheme is subordinate to the wishes of the relevant department granting it. The US Department of Justice can receive the request from Assange, but there is nothing to say, as history shows, that the request will be agreed to.

Amidst all this, the campaign favouring Assange would not stall. Human rights and press organisations globally have persistently urged his release from captivity and the cessation of the prosecution. On November 28, The New York Times, the Guardian, Le Monde, El País and Der Spiegel published a joint open letter titled, “Publishing is not a Crime.”

The five outlets who initially worked closely with WikiLeaks in publishing US State Department cables 12 years ago have not always been sympathetic to Assange. Indeed, they admit to having criticised him for releasing the unredacted trove in 2011 and even expressed concern about his “attempt to aid in computer intrusion of a classified database.”

Had the editors bothered to follow daily trial proceedings of the extradition case in 2020, they would have noted that the Guardian’s own journalists muddied matters by publishing the key to the encrypted files in a book on WikiLeaks. A mortified Assange warned the State Department of this fact. Cryptome duly uploaded the cables before WikiLeaks did. The computer intrusion charge also withers before scrutiny, given that Chelsea Manning already had prior authorisation to access military servers without the need to hack the system.

But on this occasion, the publishers and editors were clear. “Cablegate”, with its 251,000 State Department cables, “disclosed corruption, diplomatic scandals and spy affairs on an international scale.” They had “come together now to express [their] grave concerns about the continued prosecution of Julian Assange for obtaining and publishing classified materials.”

Very mindful of their own circumstances, the media outlets expressed their grave concerns about the use of the Espionage Act “which has never been used to prosecute a publisher or broadcaster.” Such an indictment set “a dangerous precedent, and threatens to undermine America’s First Amendment and the freedom of the press.”

The same day of the letter’s publication, Brazil’s President-elect Lula da Silva also added his voice to the encouraging chorus. He did so on the occasion of meeting the WikiLeaks editor-in-chief Kristinn Hrafnsson and Joseph Farrell, an associate of the organisation, and expressed wishes that “Assange will be freed from his unjust imprisonment.”

The stage was now set for Albanese to make his intervention. In addressing parliament on November 30 in response to a question from independent MP Monique Ryan, Albanese publicly revealed that he had, in fact, been lobbying the Biden administration for a cessation of proceedings against Assange. “I have raised this personally with the representatives of the US government.”

The Australian PM was hardly going to muck in on the issue of the WikiLeaks agenda. Australia remains one of the most secretive of liberal democracies, and agents of radical transparency are hardly appreciated. (Witness, at present, a number of venal prosecutions against whistleblowers that have not been abandoned even with a change of government in May.)

Albanese drew a parallel with Chelsea Manning, the key figure who furnished WikiLeaks with classified military documents, received a stiff sentence for doing so, but had her sentence commuted by President Barack Obama. “She is now able to participate freely in society.” He openly questioned “the point of continuing this legal action, which could be caught up now for many years, into the future.”

For some years now, the plight of Assange could only be resolved politically. In her address to the National Press Club in Canberra delivered in October this year, Assange’s lawyer Jennifer Robinson acknowledged as much. “This case needs an urgent political solution. Julian does not have another decade to wait for a legal fix.” This point was reiterated by Ryan in her remarks addressed to the prime minister.

The telling question here is whether Albanese will get any purchase with the Washington set. While enjoying a reputation as a pragmatic negotiator able to reach agreements in tight circumstances, the pull of the US national security establishment may prove too strong. “We now get to see Australia’s standing in Washington, valued ally or not,” was the guarded response of Assange’s father John Shipton.

 

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Tuvalu, Climate Change and the Metaverse

When lost to climatic disaster and environmental turbulence, where does a whole nation go? History speaks about movements of people, whether induced by human agency or environment, finding sanctuary and refuge on other terrains, or perishing altogether.

In the case of the Pacific Island state of Tuvalu, the response is seemingly digital or, as its officials prefer to call it, creating the Digital Nation. This particular entity, according to its government, will operate in the increasingly fashionable idea of the metaverse, a 3D virtual space marked by avatars of ourselves roaming through immersive experiences.

This does not sound particularly useful for flesh and blood refugees fleeing the flood, but this is partly the point, moving beyond the finite issues of territory and statehood. And it has given Tuvalu a moral pretext to scold wealthy countries lax about climate change. In the emphatic words of Tuvalu Minister of Justice, Communication and Foreign Affairs Simon Kofe, “As our land appears, we have no choice but to become the world’s first digital nation. Our land, our ocean, our culture are the most precious assets of our people. And to keep them safe from harm, no matter what happens in the physical world, we’ll move them to the cloud.”

The minister’s address was delivered from the digital twin of the Te Afualiku islet. And he has dramatic form, having delivered an address to attendees of COP26 standing knee-deep in the sea.

Tuvalu is by no means the first out of the blocks on this one. The Caribbean Island nation of Barbados and the South Korean capital, Seoul, have both ambitions to provide consular and administrative services from the metaverse.

In November 2021, the Barbadian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade signed an agreement with Decentraland, with a view of finalising agreements with other Metaverse platforms such as Somnium Space and Superworld. The range of contemplated are various: how digital land will be purposed to house the relevant virtual embassies and consulates; how e-visas will be granted; and the construction of teleporters enabling users to move their avatars through the metaverse. The appeal of the program to the ministry was one of numerical reach with minimal logistical problems: why stop at the 18 embassies and consulates now when you could have a base in 190 or so countries?

This year, the Seoul Metropolitan Government, after its November 2021 announcement about moving some of its functions into the metaverse, released a beta version of its “virtual municipal world” touted as Metaverse Seoul. As Cities Today reports, the city “aims to have a metaverse environment for all administrative services, including economy, culture, and tourism” in place by 2026.

Addressing the legal context of a submerged state will raise novel problems. The issue is very much at the forefront of Kofe’s mind. What is one to do with maritime boundaries and the resources located within the relevant waters, notwithstanding inundation? And that’s just the start of it.

This issue has already preoccupied a number of legal authorities and bodies. In November 2012, the International Law Association (ILA) established the Committee on International Law and Sea Level Rise to study the possible impacts of rising sea levels and its “implications under international law of the partial and complete inundation of state territory, or depopulation thereof, in particularly of small island and low-lying states.” The second part to the Committee’s mandate is to develop proposals to develop international law regarding such losses of territory, the impact on maritime zones “including the impacts on statehood, nationality and human rights.”

The implications of such losses are clear enough. Should the loss of a state to inundation and submergence also result in a loss of citizenship? The risk of statelessness is genuine enough, and it remains a source of much debate whether treaty law or international customary law is capable of addressing the issue. As legal scholar Marija Dobrić concludes in a 2019 study, “it is unclear whether the people affected may be considered ‘stateless people’ within the meaning of the Conventions on Statelessness and, even if they did, how far that would serve to protect their rights effectively.”

Transferring the actual, tangible world to the metaverse with all its official and legal implications will induce a number of headaches. This near mystical transition to the ether of the virtual world sounds remarkable and, on some level, dangerously misguided. It relocates one set of challenges for another. Issues of privacy (yes, where did that go?), moderating what content goes into such a model, and how people are to conduct themselves, are pressing points that are simply not being addressed seriously.

Works such as Matthew Ball’s The Metaverse: And How It Will Revolutionize Everything, do little to clear this up, focusing on something approximating to religious dogma. As one reviewer accurately puts it, the work not only minimises the importance of ethical, political and legal issues but also fails to address “how to construct the metaverse responsibly.”

The problems of the metaverse, insofar as they are being articulated, are in their infancy. But we have seen that architects of that scheme, including such manipulative luminaries as Mark Zuckerberg, suggest that a degree of healthy suspicion is required. The response from Tuvalu’s politicians is, on some level, understandable: they made me do it.

 

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Football Capitulates at Qatar

It did not take much. The initial promises of protest from a number of footballers and their teams at the Qatar FIFA World Cup were always suspect and hollow. There was Denmark’s less than impressive form of camouflaged protest via merchandise, supposedly defiant with its logo free monochrome colours. There was the barely threatening promise that armbands about love would be worn.

Then came Australia’s own uniquely celluloid performance: videos from the players claiming sympathy with the various efforts made by Qatar in improving the record on human rights in various areas yet frowning about the fact that more could be done.

From the moment the first ball was kicked, even these feeble efforts were bound to be found wanting. FIFA President Gianni Infantino made his position clear from the outset, playing the role of defender of the Qatari state and mocking detractors for obsessing with such niggling things as human rights.

In a letter sent to all 32 participating teams at the start of this month, Infantino and secretary general Fatma Samoura wrote that football, despite acknowledging that it did “not live in a vacuum” should not be “dragged into every ideological or political battle that exists.” The organisation tried “to respect all opinions and beliefs, without handing out moral lessons to the rest of the world. No one people or culture or nation is ‘better’ than any other.”

Having pretended to relativise all such positions, thereby making protest essentially meaningless, Infantino and his apparatchiks were keen to press home the point that footballers needed to focus on the ball. Gestures of protest on the pitch would not be tolerated – except through officially sanctioned FIFA channels.

Of particular interest were hardly earth-shattering threats that the captains of a number of sides would be wearing “One Love” armbands. Various national football federations baulked, noting that FIFA had “been very clear that it will impose sporting sanctions if our captains wear the armbands on the field of play.”

The national federations could not put their “players in a position where they could face sporting sanctions including bookings, so we have asked the captains not to attempt to wear the armbands in the FIFA World Cup games.” The bureaucrats behind the joint statement, in a weak effort to save face, insisted that they would have paid the fines normally applicable “to breaches of kit regulations and had a strong commitment to wearing the armband. However, we cannot put our players in a position where they might be booked or even forced to leave the field of play.”

The teams of England, Wales, Belgium, Switzerland, Germany, Denmark and The Netherlands, duly complied, falling nine pins. It really was just about the football. Prior to their opening match against Iran, it had been reported that England’s captain Harry Kane would be braving the unsanctioned arm band. He barely managed that. Former Manchester United player Roy Keane offered his two bits worth by suggesting that Kane and his team should have done it for the first game and accepted the punishment. “Take your medicine and in the next game move on. You don’t wear it because you don’t want to get suspended but, I think it was a big mistake because both players – Wales and England – should have stuck to their guns and done it.”

What FIFA got was exactly what it wanted: cowed teams and captains who would wear only approved protesting apparel. In a statement dated November 21, the organisation confirmed that “its No Discrimination campaign has been brought forward from the planned quarter-finals stage in order that all 32 captains will have the opportunity to wear this armband during the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022.”

While this was a victory chalked up to the grey suits in Zürich, other forms of protest had more serious implications. In the case of the Iranian team, the stakes were far more serious. Not singing the Iranian anthem in the first match in solidarity for protestors back in Iran was not a gesture appreciated by the clerical authorities. But then again, some Iranian spectators have been less than impressed by a perception that the team is not supportive enough for the cause back home. As a result, the side known as Team Melli has been given another name: Team Mullah.

Iran’s footballers have come fair game and are being subjected to something a bit more serious than yellow cards and on field scolding. A number of arrests have been made against figures supposedly sympathetic to the protests. The footballer Voria Ghafouri was recently arrested for allegedly “insulting and sabotaging” the country’s team and spreading “propaganda against the regime.”

Besieged and beleaguered, the plight of the players has left the coach, Carlos Queiroz, incensed. “To those who come to disturb the team with the issues that are not only about the football opinions,” he told a news conference, “they’re not welcome because our boys, they’re just simple football boys.”

While sounding a tad condescending, Queiroz revealed an understanding paternalism that sees the tie between ball and player as the only relationship that really matters. “Let the kids play the game. Because this is what they’re looking for. The wanted to represent the country, to represent the people, as any other national team that [is] here. And all the national teams, there are issues at home.”

The perennial issue: let footballers be footballers and leave the politics and moralising to those off the pitch. To FIFA and the Qatari authorities, this must sound like the sweetest of music.

 

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Silicon Valley Fake: Elizabeth Holmes and the Fraudster’s Motivation

It has been one noisy time for the paladins of big tech. Jobs have been shed by the thousands at Meta, Amazon, and Twitter; FTX, the second-largest cryptocurrency company, has collapsed. Then came the conviction of Elizabeth Holmes, founder of the healthcare company Theranos, for fraud.

Pursuing the steps of the college drop-out turned billionaire, Holmes claimed that her company had remarkable technology, capable of diagnosing a number of medical conditions from a mere drop of blood. The ruse of the blood analyzer known as the Theranos Sample Processing Unit (TSPU), Edison or minilab, worked – at least for a time. All the way, Holmes was very consciously promoting herself in the mould of Steve Jobs, initially mocked only to become mighty. Investment flowed into the company coffers. By 2014, Theranos was valued at $10 billion.

Some noses were detecting a strange smell in such success. The Wall Street Journal picked up a scent in 2015. Unreliable results arising from ineffectual blood-testing technology from Theranos, made available across dozens of Walgreens stores, actually posed a risk to patients.

The response from Holmes regarding suspicions was pure Apple, which is to say, copied. “This is what happens when you work to change things. First, they think you’re crazy, then they fight you, then you change the world.”

Cliché followed cliché, platitude bolstered platitude. At the Forbes 30 Under 30 Summit, a gathering bound to be unreliable if not questionable in ethics, she was there to add to the show, only this time sounding like Chumbawamba. “You’ll get knocked down over and over again, and you get back up…I’ve been knocked down a lot, and it became really clear that this was what I wanted to do, and I would start this company over 10,000 times if I had to.”

In 2018, the US Securities and Exchange Commission rather punctured the balloon of hubris by charging Theranos, Holmes, and former President Ramesh “Sunny” Balwani “with raising more than $700 million from investors through an elaborate, years-long fraud in which they exaggerated or made false statements about the company’s technology, business, and financial performance.”

As the Commission’s media release continued to explain, the allegations focused on false and misleading statements across investor presentations, product demonstrations, and media articles claiming that the “portable blood analyzer – could conduct comprehensive blood tests from finger drops of blood, revolutionizing the blood testing industry.”

Theranos, Holmes and Balwani had also claimed that company products were used to effect by the US Department of Defense in Afghanistan and on medevac helicopters. This fabulous fib was complete by assertions that $100 million in revenue would flow back to the company. In the Commission’s words, “Theranos’ technology was never deployed by the US Department of Defense and generated a little more than $100,000 in revenue from operations in 2014.”

After a trial lasting a month, Holmes was found guilty on three counts of wire fraud and one of conspiracy. She was found not guilty on four other counts, and the jury failed to reach a unanimous verdict on the remaining three counts. This month, she received a prison sentence of 11 years and three months. (Lawyers for the government had asked for 15 years.)

“I am devastated by my failings,” Holmes stated. “Looking back there are so many things I’d do differently if I had the chance. I tried to realise my dream too quickly.” And there, the rationale of the fraud was set out, the fine line between tolerated crookedness and the crookedness that gets you found out.

Big fraud is an indispensable element to society. To succeed, a presumption must work: the fraudulent behaviour can only hit a mark with the collusion of the gullible, those willing to fall for the outrageous suggestion, the astonishing proposition. The world of art forgeries is the best illustration of this fact: is the purchaser intent on collecting the original, or merely a signature? Throw in a few experts to sign off on authenticity and provenance, and we can forget the reality.

Orson Welles, in characteristically brilliant fashion, drew out this point in his idiosyncratically subversive F for Fake (1973). The two stars are the Hungarian aristocrat – or so he purported to be – Elmyr de Hory, and Clifford Irving. Both figures perpetrated, in their own way, frauds of daring.

Irving made his name by convincing McGraw-Hill, Inc. that he had worked with billionaire Howard Hughes to produce his life story. To substantiate the account, Irving forged Hughes’ handwriting, which was, as it were, authenticated by the publishing house. It took the sceptical approach of postal inspectors to change tack and ask for samples of Clifford’s own writing.

Elmyr’s own contribution to fakery came with art forgeries verging on genius. With breezy effortlessness, he would whip up a Picasso, a Monet or a Modigliani. Art collectors and galleries acquired them by the dozens. Along the way, the armies of the duped and cheated, refusing to do their own critical research and even ask the basic questions, grew.

While the most gullible are often thought of as the weakest and most vulnerable in society, they can sometimes be the most powerful. The most acute illustration of this is the fact that those in power, at the very least those with supposed expertise, hate being fooled so blatantly.

Fraud, for it to be committed to scale, comes with a certain style, a fashion. Make it plausible, make it receivable. Holmes did that to a tee, aping, mimicking the Jobs factor, even dressing in his fashion.

Engineer Andy Hertzfeld’s own account of Jobs is relevant in this regard. The founder of Apple had a “reality distortion field, a confounding mélange of a charismatic style, an indomitable will, and an eagerness to bend any fact to fit the purpose at hand.” Holmes was exploiting the notion of dropout chic, but she was also operating in a world of evangelical hustling and truth-stretching.

The dupes, to some extent, deserve it, and Holmes, as egregious as her behaviour might have been, merely fed it. To that end, the sentence she received was harsh, even vengeful. Former New York federal prosecutor Andrey Spektor is one who thinks as much. Federal sentencing, while seeming arbitrary, “requires a humane and common sense result: Defendants must not be punished more than necessary.” To lock up Holmes in a federal penitentiary till her 50s, was not necessary. But such is the vicious retaliation that comes from the duped.

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Ginger Sufferings: Gianni Infantino’s Sportswashing Performance

Gianni Infantino, president of FIFA, the most famous 52-year-old brat of the world football federation, has not been much in the news of late. Such creatures of authority do their best (and worst) work in the shadows. But given that the FIFA Men’s World Cup is upon us, he thought it wise to address a few issues that had irked his pure, troubled self. They were addressed to the naysayers and critics, those critical of Qatar’s human rights record, its approach to sexual minorities, its lamentable labour safety record, its successful bribing efforts to secure the bid in the first place. In short, the joke that is this World Cup.

What followed was almost gruesome in its hilarity and could be summed up with the old biblical injunction against casting the first stone. Perhaps there was something of US President Woodrow Wilson about it, who claimed in 1915 that no one nation could judge another. (Fabulous as this was, the president proceeded to judge Imperial Germany and Kaiserism, committing the United States to World War I.)

FIFA has always been of that restricted view of judgment, for good reason. It hardly counts as a sporting organisation and should be likened to a mafia-styled corporation. For its officials, corruption has been naturalised to the point of habit, and anyone willing to cast stones at it would need a quarry.

What took place at this press conference in the lead-up to the tournament was an exemplar of sportswashing at its grotesquely finest, a sure sign that Qatar’s Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy had really struck a chord and gotten to the infantile, unhinged Infantino.

In his attempted flaying of critics of Qatar’s record, the tournament, and by implication, his organisation’s credibility, and competence, Infantino listed a range of groups who had been disadvantaged and abused, claiming kinship with all of them. “Today I feel Qatari, today I feel Arab, today I feel African, today I feel gay, today I feel disabled, today I feel [sic] a migrant worker.”

This promised to become a very poor performance in stand-up identity politics, but Infantino qualified his remarks by revealing a psyche troubled in childhood. “I’m not Qatari, African, gay, disabled and I’m not really a migrant worker but I know what it means to be discriminated and bullied, as a foreign[er] in a foreign country, as a child at school I was bullied because I had red hair and freckles. I was bullied for that.” It all came down to being a persecuted ginger.

Throughout his speech, he scolded the criticism as “moral lesson-giving”, one-sided and hypocritical. “I don’t want to give you any lessons of life, but what is going on here is profoundly, profoundly unjust.”

Europe itself needed to own up to its less than enviable record. “For what we Europeans have been doing for the last 3,000 years we should apologise for the next 3,000 years before giving moral lessons to people.” How convenient.

In salesman’s mode, Infantino urged the press and the baffled to engage, help and unite. “The world is divided enough. We are organising a FIFA World Cup, we’re not organising a war. We organise a FIFA World Cup where people who have many problems in his or her life try to come and enjoy.” The tournament would also “open the eyes of many people from the Western world to the Arab world.”

Much of this delusional address, apart from a plea not to see the obvious, was based on the idea that societies can change with generous dollops of sporting endeavour. But there is no reason why they should, nor much historical evidence that this has ever happened. The reverse is true: the regime of the day takes in the kudos of putting on a show and feels rewarded.

It is a false equation to assume that holding the Olympics in, say, Nazi Germany in 1936 could make societies more understanding and tolerant. It certainly did not, nor did it change the pathway to war and genocide pursued by Hitler and his murderous henchmen. The odious nonsense stemming from Infantino is the sort spouted by managerial classes from universities to sports administrators. Police states and sport can exist and thrive side by side without any fuss.

Often, the very sporting endeavour itself is appropriated, advanced as part of the state’s agenda. Which is precisely why Qatar has been so busy, and profligate, hiring ethically dim footballers and amoral PR specialists to spruce its tattered image. The authorities also know that no single team promised to boycott the tournament, leaving the players to engage in faux moralising about the country without effecting change.

Infantino’s own role is clearly that of well-moneyed servitude, the administrator’s toadying answer to David Beckham’s prostration, and those players who happily receive the largesse of the Qatari state.

Infantino best get back into the shadows, where he can grease palms and speculate about his past as a tormented, freckled ginger. He will also be getting four more years as the head of FIFA. “Repulsive. Dangerous. Damaging,” came the assessment from journalist Melissa Reddy, who was nonetheless there to cover the tournament. “Yet this is a man being re-elected as head of FIFA unopposed.” For someone bullied, he has done rather well for himself.

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Thuggish Ways: Mike Pompeo, Punishing Leakers and Getting Assange

Poor, silly, protuberant Mike Pompeo. The stocky, irritated former CIA director and former Secretary of State is rather upset that those who worked under him dared wag their tongues about Julian Assange. The wagging so happened to relate to contemplated plans of abduction and assassination, something the US executive formally disallows though permits via various devious mechanisms.

It’s not every day that officials of the Central Intelligence Agency open up about their operations but on the occasion of the Yahoo! News report, it was clear that Assange had driven a number to sheer distraction. Had these security types caught the bug of transparency? Unlikely, but it might have been a slight rash of irritation doing the rounds in the clandestine community.

Having first designated WikiLeaks a “hostile non-state intelligence service” in April 2017, Pompeo evidently thought that the laws of engagement would have to change. The publishing outfit would have to be subject to “offensive counterintelligence”, while Assange himself would be given special treatment.

Suggestions varied, with Pompeo leading the pack on the idea that the Australian publisher be seized from the Ecuadorian Embassy in London and rendered to a second country where he would be subjected to interrogation. In that way, the war on terror could be reincarnated, only this time deployed against a publishing organisation’s founder.

Through his tenure as CIA chief, Pompeo showed an increasing irritation against the tendency of intelligence services to leak. Some few months after his open declaration of war against WikiLeaks, he complained to MSNBC that a phenomenon had taken root, “the worship of Edward Snowden, and those who steal American secrets for the purpose of self-aggrandizement or money or for whatever their motivation may be”.

Now no longer in the limelight, Pompeo made a modest attempt to step into it, in appearing on Megyn Kelly’s podcast, where he was asked to respond to the Yahoo! News account. His target on this occasion: those thirty or so officials in the intelligence community unable to shut their traps on the Assange affair. “I can’t say much about this other than whoever those 30 people who allegedly spoke to one of these [Yahoo! News] reporters – they should all be prosecuted for speaking about classified activity inside the Central Intelligence Agency.”

 

 

US governments of whatever stripe have shown fanatical zeal in pursuing whistleblowers and leakers in the context of national security. Justice Department attorneys have even opined that the leaker does more harm than the foreign spy. In the 2019 prosecution of Daniel E. Hale, an intelligence analyst who disclosed classified documents on the US drone assassination program, this view was put starkly: “While spies typically pass classified national defense information to a specific foreign government, leakers, through the internet, distribute such information without authorization to the entire world.”

The government attorneys go on to argue that such a “broad distribution of unauthorized disclosures may actually amplify the potential damage to the national security in that every country gains access to the compromised intelligence.”

Leakers are also afforded different levels of treatment, often depending on rank and the nature of what was leaked. One would think that the higher the rank and position, the heftier the sentence. All leaking, it should also follow, should be targeted with equal fairness and judgment. But we know this not to be the case.

General David H. Petraeus’s pillow talk with his biographer and former lover Paula Broadwell led to a misdemeanour charge of mishandling classified materials, a fine of $100,000 and a two-year probationary period. This was markedly generous, given his standing as a wartime general and his own stint as CIA director.

Senator Dianne Feinstein, then Senate Intelligence Committee Vicechair and an early advocate for prosecuting Assange using the Espionage Act of 1917, publicly urged the government to avoid indicting Petraeus. He had “made a mistake” and had “suffered enough in my view.”

A less charitable view was reserved for former CIA officer Jeffrey Sterling, who was charged with seven counts under the Espionage Act and three related charges. Prosecutors argued that Sterling had provided classified details about an Agency program designed to disrupt Iran’s nuclear plans to New York Times reporter James Risen for a chapter in his 2006 book, State of War. Again, we saw the prosecution logic that such disclosures “may be viewed as more pernicious than the typical espionage case where a spy sells classified information for money.” Sterling was convicted and sentenced to 42 months in prison.

All of this conformed with the assessment made by Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan in a letter to President Bill Clinton in September 1998: “An evenhanded prosecution of leakers would imperil an entire administration.”

As to the issue of how accurate the contents of the Yahoo! News story was, Pompeo confirmed that elements of it were “true”, including efforts by the CIA to target WikiLeaks in the aftermath of the Vault 7 publication detailing hacking tools and methods used by the organisation. This was a rather different tune to that initially struck: that the story made “for pretty good fiction.”

For Pompeo, the purpose was clear. “When bad guys steal those secrets we have a responsibility to go after them, to prevent [that] from happening.” He and other officials “desperately wanted to hold accountable those individuals that had violated US law, that had violated requirements to protect information and had tried to steal it.”

He also reiterated that the CIA was not permitted to conduct assassinations. “We never acted in a way that was inconsistent with that.” There had never been any “planning to violate US law – not once in my time.”

Other observations seem to suggest a rogue at play, a vigilante intent on cracking skulls and moving away from the law. Except that for Pompeo, pursuing the likes of Assange was very much part of “a deep legal framework”, where “actions” were taken “consistent with US law to try to achieve that.”

This peculiar viewpoint can only shock the more legally minded. The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture, Nils Melzner, stated it with bone dry precision. “This is not about the law. It is about intimidating journalism; it’s about suppressing press freedom; it’s about protecting immunity for state officials.”

The thirty intelligence and national security officials hardly deserve medals or citations of honour; but their information cast light into dark spaces, revealing a thuggish mentality at play in the National Security State. While the revelations were not brand spanking in their freshness, they served to back up previous accounts of surveillance and contemplated abduction and violence submitted in the Assange extradition trial.

As for Pompeo’s actual state of knowledge, further material promises to make the light of day. On October 29, the unsuspecting figure was served by plaintiffs including such legal luminaries as human rights Margaret Ratner Kunstler. The lawsuit, which names the CIA, Pompeo, David Morales Guillen and Undercover Global, S.L. as defendants, is seeking monetary and injunctive relief for violations of the Fourth Amendment – the right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures.

As the case involves targeted surveillance of the plaintiffs at the Ecuadorian Embassy, including during consultations with Assange, and the forced surrender of electronic devices on entering the embassy, the gaps in Pompeo’s account may well be given further stuffing.

 

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Privacy Woes: Google’s “Location History” Settlement

It all speaks to scale: the attorneys general of 40 states within the US clubbing together to charge Google for misleading users. On this occasion, the conduct focused on making users assume they had turned off the location tracking function on their accounts even as the company continued harvesting data about them.

The $391.5 billion settlement was spearheaded by Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum and Nebraska Attorney General Doug Petersen. “For years Google has prioritized profit over their users’ privacy,” stated Rosenblum. “They have been crafty and deceptive. Consumers thought they had turned off their location tracking features on Google, but the company continued to secretly record their movements and use that information for advertisers.”

The investigation was prompted by revelations in a 2018 Associated Press article “that many Google services on Android devices and iPhones store your location data even when you’ve used a privacy setting that says it will prevent Google from doing so.”

Despite Google’s claim that the Location History function could be turned off at any time, thereby not storing the data, the report found this assertion to be false. “Even with Location History paused, some Google apps automatically store time-stamped location data without asking. (It’s possible, though laborious, to delete it.)” As Jonathan Mayer, a Princeton computer scientist and former chief technologist for the Federal Communications Commission’s enforcement bureau reasoned, “If you’re going to allow users to turn off something called ‘Location History,’ then all the places where you maintain location history should be turned off.”

What the company failed to explain was that another account setting, the Web & App Activity, was automatically switched on the setting up of a Google account, irrespective of activating the “off” function in Location History.

Google’s explanation at the time proved typically unpersuasive. “There are a number of different ways that Google may use location to improve people’s experience, including: Location History, Web and App Activity, and through device-level Location Services,” a company spokesperson said in a statement to AP. “We provide clear descriptions of these tools, and robust controls so people can turn them on or off, and delete their histories at any time.”

Since then, the company’s misleading approach to location data has been found wanting by the Australian Federal Court. The case, brought against Google by the Australian Competition & Consumer Commission (ACCC), noted that the account setting “Web & App Activity” allowed the tech giant “to collect, store and use personally identifiable location data when it was turned on, and that setting turned on by default.”

Last month, the Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich entered an $85 million settlement with Google for allegedly using “deceptive and unfair” practices regarding location tracking. It was the outcome of a lawsuit inspired by the Associated Press report from 2018.

The settlement, the largest internet privacy settlement in US history, makes it clear that Google must make its disclosures on location clearer starting next year. Additional information for users must be made whenever a location-related account setting is “on” or “off”. Tracking location that is unavoidably gathered must be made clear, along with the types of location data Google collects, and that data is used “at an enhanced ‘Location Technologies’ webpage.”

It also signals the growing scrutinising role played by states in the US unhappy with lax federal approaches to Silicon Valley. The state of Oregon, to cite an example, set up a dedicated Consumer Privacy Task Force in 2019, and consumer data privacy legislation is promised for the 2023 legislative session. Privacy breaches is one of a number of areas of focus, including harmful speech, illegal labour practices and antitrust violations.

In response to the settlement, Google spokesperson José Castañeda did what those of his ilk do: minimise the conduct, and cloak it in inoffensive garble. “Consistent with improvements we’ve made in recent years, we have settled this investigation, which was based on outdated product policies that we changed years ago.”

The entire profit-making premise of most big tech companies lies in using personal data. It’s the digital world’s fossil fuel, buried in unmolested reserves – till they are extracted. Location data is, to that end, invaluable, being, the Oregon Department of Justice notes, “among the most sensitive and valuable personal information Google collects.” A limited amount of location data is sufficient to “expose a person’s identity and routines and can be used to infer personal details.”

The ignorant and those labouring under the false assumption they have consented to the exercise are merely told they are dealing with products of sophistication. It’s all about the experience, and such abstract notions as privacy are duly treated as old hat and tat.

Millions have been expended by tech giants via their platoons of lobbyists to battle the trend towards greater privacy protections, notably those blowing in stern judgment from the European Union. Key targets have been the EU’s Digital Markets Act (DMA) and Digital Services Act (DSA), notably in the areas of surveillance advertising and access to platform data. The intent here, as Natasha Lomas writes, is one of “shielding their processes and business models from measures that could weaken their market power.”

According to lobbying documents obtained by Corporate Europe Observatory and Global Witness via freedom of information applications, the tech behemoths expended $30 million alone in 2020.

The Google Settlement may well be the largest of its type in the United States, but it hardly gets away from the central premise of why such companies exist. Apple has been particularly keen to throw cash at the effort. The lobby tally bill is striking: 3.5 million euros in 2020, followed by 6.5 million euros in 2021. The runner-up so happens to be Facebook (Meta), which added half a million euros to its EU lobbying budget for 2021. The previous year, the total was 5.5 million euros.

Such efforts show that the lawmakers within the United States and beyond can hardly afford to be too self-congratulatory. The battle is very much in progress, and Google, while bruised, is hardly defeated.

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Saudi Blood Money, Golf and Adelaide

Peter Malinauskas, the South Australian Premier, has been the latest convert to the LIV Golf circuit, showing little to no awareness about where the lion’s share of funding is coming from. When confronted with that, he paddles away the prospect of being compromised. With LIV Golf Adelaide, scheduled for April 21-23 next year, he has made an undeniable statement on priorities.

The press release from the premier’s office claimed that the rights to host the LIV Golf event had been “hotly contested” (governments across the world are gagging for it – queue up and wait your turn). It would take place over school holidays, thereby boosting the economy with the arrival of international and interstate visitors. They would fork out and help “pack out restaurants, bars, hotels, shops and other businesses, many of which suffered through the pandemic.”

The glitz of the programme, an “innovative new format featuring team and individual play,” was also something to point out, not to mention the celebrities who would be turning up: Dustin Johnson, Phil Mickelson, Brooks Koepka, Bryson DeChambeau, Sergio Garcia, Patrick Reed. Dishonour boards in sports have rarely been so long.

South Australian voters can also be assured of state government money from the Major Events Fund co-mingling with Saudi cash. By implication, it means that Malinauskas has linked the treasury of his government with a regime that continues to attack freedom of expression, association and assembly, target dissidents and women human rights defenders, indulge the death penalty with relish, run sham trials and subject migrant workers to horrendous abuse.

Riyadh is also prosecuting a vicious war in Yemen which has led, according to the latest UNDP report, to the deaths of 377,000. Of those, 60% were attributed to hunger and preventable disease, much of it arising from the coalition’s blockade. The death toll amongst children has been astonishing, notably amongst children under the age of five.

All these ghastly blemishes have been touched up by one of the world’s most expensive public relations campaigns. The campaign has been particularly aggressive in sports, where the Public Investment Fund has played a big part. To that end, sportswashing is all the rage as investments are made towards buying sporting clubs and host tournaments in the hope of winning weak hearts and even weaker minds.

Norman revealed the news to members of The Grange Golf Club. It was wonderful for him, the place where he secured his first ever victory in professional golf in 1976. His comments, as one has come to expect from a man called the Great Shark, are stripped of any ethical or moral awareness. He is the well remunerated useful idiot, a dolt who fantasises about golf instead of mourning the death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, murdered on orders by his employer, the usurping crown prince Mohammed bin Salman. “Passion for sport is at the core of Australian culture, and LIV Golf is proud to bring its global league to a country deserving of the world’s top competition.”

Norman’s approach is that of a child oblivious to the hangman who passes by. “This is an opportunity to grow the game with generations of Australians while connecting them with star players like Cameron Smith who are building a new platform for golf around the globe. There is massive potential for Australia to play a bigger role in this great sport, and I couldn’t be more excited to showcase Adelaide for our league’s debut year.”

The Grange Golf Club’s President Nicolle Rantanen Reynolds was also all about the golf. As the moral vacuum tightened around her remarks, the familiar themes emerged: South Australian pride, “fantastic for our state,” and the fact that, “All golfers love to see great golf, and we will get to see the best in the world.”

The Shark’s charm, aided by a huge cash reserve from a murderous desert regime, has convinced the premier that he could not do without the event. Such is the nature of cash: it automatically creates its own irrefutable premise. “Securing the first Australian LIV Golf tournament is an exciting coup for South Australia.” The tournament was “exactly what our economy needs as we emerge from the pandemic, in particular our hospitality sector which has done it tough over the past couple of years.” In full promotions mode, the premier could merely iterate that, “LIV Golf will bring some of the world’s best golfers to SA for an event the likes of which our country has never seen before.”

When the large elephant in the room could no longer keep quiet, the Premier revealed a moral calculus common among leaders across the Western world. In dealing with Saudi Arabia, economic considerations should always come first. “I just encourage a moment of pause and caution, and a rational analysis of basic facts and what our nation’s relationship is with other countries around the world.”

What did such a rational analysis reveal? “The simple truth is this is an unparalleled opportunity for our state and our country in a way that is utterly appropriate and one that we’ve got an obligation to pursue.” When engaged in unprincipled conduct, the defence of duty and obligation is never far away.

 

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The Secret Wars of the US Imperium

To get to where they are, imperial powers will deceive, dissimulate and distort. The US imperium, that most awesome of devilish powers, has tentacled itself across the globe, often unbeknownst to its own citizens.

In a report released by the New York University School of Law’s Brennan Center of Justice titled Secret War: How the US Uses Partnerships and Proxy Forces to Wage War Under the Radar, there is little to shock, though much to be concerned about. The author of the report contends that the list of countries supplied by the Pentagon on US military partnerships is a savagely clipped one. The list is so wrong that 17 countries have been omitted.

Katherine Yon Ebright, counsel in the Brennan Center’s Liberty and National Security Program, betrays a charmless naivete in remarking that the “proliferation of secret war is a relatively recent phenomenon”, something she regards as “undemocratic and dangerous.” She is certainly right about the last two points, but distinctly wrong about the novelty.

The United States, since its inception, has schemed, through purchase, conspiracy and force of arms, to spread its power and embrace an empire without declaring it. Along with that embrace came the perceived need to wage secret war.

The illegal, covert engagement by US forces in Laos was one of the most brutal examples of a clandestine conflict waged unawares to many politicians back home. It was, as the dark title of Joshua Kurlantzick’s book on the subject suggests, a great place to have war.

It began with a Central Intelligence Agency outfit training and arming members of the Hmong ethnic minority who would, some 14 years later, partake in full scale engagements with Communist allies of the North Vietnamese.

This development was accompanied by an aerial campaign that saw more bombs dropped by the US than used by its air force in the entirety of World War II. Between 1964 and 1973, more than 2.5 million tons of ordnance from over 580,000 bombing sorties was dropped.

US lawmakers tend to express much surprise that US forces should mysteriously appear in countries they can barely find on the map. But to a large extent, the circumstances arose with their own connivance. The authorising backdrop to such engagements centre on a number of instruments that have proliferated since September 11, 2001: the US Title 10 authorities, the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF), deployment notifications under the War Powers Resolution, and the souped up idea of the right to self-defence.

Of concern here is the broad umbrella of “security cooperation” programs that are authorised by Congress under the AUMF against designated terrorist groups. Codified as 10 U.S.C.§ 333, the provision permits the DoD to train and equip foreign forces in any part of the globe.

Section 127e, or 10 U.S.C. §127e, stands out, as it authorises the DoD to “provide support to foreign forces, irregular forces, groups or individuals engaged in supporting or facilitating ongoing military operations by United States special operations forces to combat terrorism.”

The 2001 AUMF has become an instrument of vast elasticity, stretched by every administration since its inception to cover a list of terrorist groups that remains secret to the public. The executive had long withheld the list from Congress, something it was bound to do given its cavalier interpretation as to what “associated forces” in the context of terrorist groups are.

The DoD has also kept quiet on the specific circumstances US forces operate under these authorities. As Ebright puts it, the reasoning at play is “that the incident was too minor to trigger statutory reporting requirements.” Confrontations deemed “episodic” and part and parcel of “irregular” warfare do not amount to “hostilities”.

Another accretion of secrecy, and one aided by its important premise of deniability, is the Presidential Approval and Reporting of Covert Actions, 50 U.S.C. § 3093 (1991). Again, the 9/11 terrorist bogey has featured in targeted killings and assassinations, despite assertions to the contrary.

Perhaps the most startling nature to such cooperation programs is the scope granted by Section 1202 of the National Defense Authorization Act of 2018. While it mirrors Section 127e in some respects, the focus here is not on counterterrorism but supporting “irregular warfare operations” against “rogue states”. Ebright strikes a bleak note. “Far beyond the bounds of the war on terror, §1202 may be used to engage in low-level conflict with powerful, even nuclear, states.”

Every now and then, the veil of secrecy on such operations has been pierced. In 2017, four members of the US Army Green Berets, along with four soldiers from Niger, were killed in an ambush outside the village of Tongo Tongo. It was the highest loss of life for US military personnel since 1993, when 18 Army Rangers perished in the Somalian Black Hawk Down incident.

What was head shakingly odd about the whole affair was not merely the surprise shown by members of Congress by this engagement, but the nonplussed way the Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, General Joseph Dunford, called for an investigation. His sole objectives were to ascertain whether US forces had “adequate intelligence, equipment and training” and whether there was “a pre-mission assessment of the threat in the area” of appropriate accuracy. Surely the more relevant question would have been what these modern kitted-up Roman legionnaires were doing without broader awareness back home?

The findings of the summary report, and those of Pentagon officials, was that militants in the area had “superior firepower”. For every US and Nigerien soldier came three attackers. Again, this misses the overall point about clandestine operations that even some in the upper echelons of Washington know little about.

Despite a number of public statements claiming that the US military role in theatres such as Africa are confined to “advising and assisting” local militaries, the operational reality has occasionally intruded.

In 2018, the now retired General Donald Bolduc, who commanded US special forces in Africa till 2017, had enough boastful candour to reveal that the army had “guys in Kenya, Chad, Cameroon, Niger [and] Tunisia who are doing the same kinds of things as the guys in Somalia, exposing themselves to the same king of danger not just on 127 echoes. We’ve had guys wounded in all the types of missions that we do.”

Ebright recommends that mere reform of “outdated and overstretched AUMFs” will not do. “Congress should repeal or reform the Department of Defense’s security cooperation authorities. Until it does so, the nation will continue to be at war – without, in some cases, the consent or even knowledge of its people.”

That’s hardly going to happen. The security establishment in Washington and a coterie of amnesiacs are keen on keeping a lid on the fact that the US has been a garrison, warring state since 1941. And the next big conflict is just around the corner. Appearances must be kept.

 

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Micronations: Eccentric and Unthreatening

A trolley load of books, chapters and treatises have been written on the subject of sovereignty. Usually, the concept entails control and power, the latter a corollary of the former. In international law, sovereignty finds some form of expression in the Montevideo Convention of 1933 but can hardly be seen as exhaustive. In truth, the concept is a fruit-salad and medley, an “organized hypocrisy”, as Stephen D. Krasner describes it.

All of this leaves some room for the pantomime element sovereignty might allow: the eccentric who declares his own principality; the refusenik determined to avoid the taxing authorities; the clerical error that might spawn a new creation. That such entities are permitted to exist, however, lies in an enduring conceit. No army in modern times – barring, exception – is going to expend its resources against daft declarations of sovereignty over randomly picked stretches of land. The problem lies, however, in the risks, or lack of them, such declarations pose to the central authorities.

An exceedingly colourful personality, streaked with lunacy, is probably key to this. Take Louis Marinelli, a figure long associated with efforts to make California secede from the United States. Following the 2016 US election, Marinelli decided to open a foreign embassy in Moscow to represent the Independent Republic of California. The embassy shares the same office building with the Russian Anti-Globalization movement, which has also thrown in a measure of support.

In creating the centre, Marinelli acknowledged its limitations. It did served no “diplomatic function” at the time and Russians wishing to travel to California had to go through the US Embassy. But he dared dream of independence. “That notion is embedded in the very question we intend to put before the voters: ‘Should California become a free, sovereign, and independent country’.” This remains, to put it mildly, a work in progress.

Marinelli’s efforts are hardly fleeting, nor remotely odd. The micronation experiment flutters and snaps in the wind, a persistent phenomenon. One need only recall the efforts of the Segway inventor Dean Kamen, self-proclaimed ruler of the Kingdom of Dumpling off the coast of Connecticut, to convince President George H.W. Bush to sign a faux non-aggression pact.

Sociologist Judy Lattas could only wonder in 2005 why there was “no significant study in the scholarly press on the micronationalism that is the contemporary phenomenon of ordinary people (however quirky), in long-established democracies, getting the idea to create their own countries.”

Of all the countries on planet Earth most addicted to the concept of micronations, Australia is exceptional, a truly idiosyncratic wonder. Size, a blood-soaked frontier history and an addled penal past may account for why a third of them have found a home there, giving Australia the title of being “Micronation Central”. Matt Siegel, writing for The Atlantic, suggested that such a micronation obsession might have arisen from that tired description of larrikinism supposedly inherent in the Australian character.

In 1970, perhaps the most famous of these colourful upstarts, the Principality of Hutt River, was founded by Leonard Casley. A 76-square-kilometre property in Western Australia’s mid west became the subject of interest for Casley, who had bickered over wheat production quotas in 1970.

That year, in letters addressed to Australia’s Governor General, the West Australian Premier, and the Governor of Western Australia, Casley claimed to be formally seceding and called upon all parties to “resolve co-operatively and mutually successfully this problem.” In time, his curious entity secured some 13,000 citizens worldwide, even though never having more than a population of 30 or so. Hutt River currency was issued, along with entrance visas to curious visitors. Residents were exempted from income tax, though this proved unenforceable.

In December 1977, Prince Leonard even made a declaration of war via telegram to the Governor-General of Australia, hoping that the gesture would grant his principality serious standing. The true inspiration for that was his perennial bugbear, the Australian Tax Office. The declaration was ignored in Canberra and withdrawn a few days later without a single shot fired.

In 2020, the Royal Hutt River Legion Major Richard Ananda Barton announced that his principality would re-join the Commonwealth of Australia. “His Highness, Prince Graeme, has informed me that the Government of the Principality of Hutt River has decided to dissolve the Principality, which will, once again, become part of the Commonwealth of Australia.”

Two legal academics, Harry Hobbs and George Williams, recently considered this curious subject and concluded that Australia, in contrast to many states, “largely ignores micronations (and Indigenous nations) provided they comply with taxation and other laws.” They advance three reasons why this might be so: that Australia has a culture appreciative of those who thumb “their nose at authority”; that the country’s sense of sovereignty is secure and stable; and a combination of factors relating to demography and geography.

The implications of the last two factors should be clear enough. Australia remains one of the most urbanised countries on the planet, with 89% of individuals concentrated in urban centres. And given that there are 25 million or so individuals spread across a continent spanning 7.6 million square kilometres, the room for threatening and meaningful declarations of independence seems rather small.

This is not, however, to say that overt threats to secede have not ruffled a few feathers. Western Australia’s effort in the 1930s, spurred on by the Dominion League and the Great Depression, was considered serious enough to require obstruction by both the Australian Commonwealth and Britain. The 1933 state referendum result was overwhelmingly in favour of secession, emboldening a state delegation to journey to the British Parliament to make their case of becoming a self-governing Dominion within the British Empire.

Westminster’s response was fairly typical: the establishment of a Joint Select Committee that concluded that the delegation’s petition could not be legally entertained. The 1931 Statute of Westminster had granted Australia dominion authority, thereby making Canberra the arbiter as to whether WA could secede.

In the end, the only reason why such micronations are tolerated must lie in their unthreatening, idiosyncratic nature. Their ineffectualness is what saves them from destruction and prevents their official recognition. President Abraham Lincoln showed the Confederate States how a threatening effort backed by force of arms to separate from the United States could play out. The Civil War that followed cost 620,000 lives and entrenched the holy mystery of the compact that is the Union.

From Turkey to China, secessionist movements are targeted as genuine threats to the national unit, its advocates to be put down, incarcerated and crushed. But in the absence of guns, a coherent ideology, and the presence of maddening humour, the micronations of the world can only multiply.

 

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Extradition Clouds: The Duggan Case and the Chinese Angle

Soon, the US government may be making waves regarding another extradition request for a figure connected with that oft exaggerated notion of national security. While the high profile and insidious effort to extradite Julian Assange from the United Kingdom continues, the case of former US pilot, Marine Corps major and flight instructor Daniel Edmund Duggan has crossed the radar of reporters and international lawyers.

On October 21, Duggan was arrested by Australian authorities in the New South Wales town of Orange at the request of Washington. He appeared in Orange Local Court and was refused bail.

After his formal tenure as a military pilot, Duggan moved into the field of aviation consultancy, running AVIBIZ Limited, “a comprehensive consultancy company with a focus on the fast growing and dynamic Chinese Aviation Industry.” He moved to Australia in 2005, where he founded Top Gun Tasmania, providing customers flights in the British military jet trainer, the BAC Jet Provost, and the CJ-6A Nanchang, a Chinese propeller-driven trainer. His staff consisted of former US and UK military pilots.

From Australia, he moved to Beijing in 2014 after selling Top Gun Tasmania, working with a Chinese businessman, Stephen Su, also known as Su Bin. Su had been convicted for hacking charges in the US, having been arrested in Canada in July 2014 regarding the theft of US military aircraft designs. Duggan’s residential address from December 2013, an apartment in Beijing’s Chaoyang district, was also of interest given that it appears on the US Entity List in August 2014 as belonging to Su and his technology company, Nuodian Technology.

Duggan’s own expertise is being babbled about in some circles: as a former Harrier pilot, his expertise in vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) fighters such as the F-35B and AV-8B is considered of interest to some powers.

That same week, a stir had been made of Chinese mischief regarding certain pilots keen to make some post-retirement cash. British intelligence had flagged the issue of 30 ex-RAF pilots working with the PRC military, though a South African flying school damped matters in claiming that no classified information had passed hands.

According to a statement from the Test Flying Academy of South Africa (TFASA), “none of its trainers are in possession of legally or operationally sensitive information relating to the national security interest of any country, whether those from where its employees are drawn or in which it provides training”. Since 2013, “British tutors have been in direct contact on an individual basis with the UK MoD and other UK government agencies prior” regarding training duties, including Chinese clients. No objection had been raised.

The whirligig of time is, however, a strange thing. UK Armed Forces Minister James Heappey thought that enough smoke had risen to warrant a comment on loyalties. “It certainly doesn’t match my understanding of service of our nation – even in retirement – to then go and work with a foreign power, especially one that challenges the UK interest so keenly.”

Much of this is stringent codswallop, given the vast array of consultancies and training connected to old military hands and a multitude of foreign powers. Such old dogs rarely go quietly in retirement, and are, at the best of times, happy to offer their services at a consultative level. That surprise should even register at this point suggests that something more is afoot.

Without a wisp of evidence and basis, Duggan, a former US marine and naturalised Australian citizen, is already being treated as a target for extradition. He has been advised that he will be moved to Goulburn Supermax, described by his lawyer Dennis Miralis as “dramatic and aggressive” and “without any proper foundation”. “There is no factual material that has been provided supporting the way he was indicted secretly in the US.”

The authorities have been disturbingly reticent. “As the matter is before the courts, it would not be appropriate to comment further,” claim the Australian Attorney-General’s department and police authorities. Beijing has also decided to shed little light on the matter. “I’m not aware of the situation you mentioned,” came the response of Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Wang Wenbin to a query on the issue.

The US Navy has also stated that it was “not aware” of the pending arrest of Duggan, while the US Marine Corps would only confirm Duggan’s service record. In a response to Forbes, the US Air Force noted that, “At this time, we aren’t aware of any ex-Air Force pilots working with the Chinese.”

Former USN captain Bill Hamlet was more forthcoming, noting that the issue of having former US military pilots working with Chinese authorities had never made an appearance between the sacrosanct covers of the Naval Institute’s journal Proceedings. “There’s growing concern that this is a problem and people are wondering to what extent. How many NATO pilots have been helping the Chinese improve the proficiency of their airforce?”

Miralis has made it clear that a complaint will be filed with the Australian Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security, which should leave little room for optimism. Duggan had returned from China “a few weeks prior to his arrest and in the intervening period a number of interactions occurred with those agencies that the inspector-general of intelligence has the capacity to investigate.”

The will is there, but the flesh is weak; the IGIS, as with many other oversight bodies in the Australian bureaucratic canon, is scandalously understaffed. The 2020-21 annual report is unreserved about the nature of the staffing problems, unable to achieve “well-developed and effective complaint and PID [Public Interest Disclosure] management processes”. As of June 30, the office has 33 working individuals, which is 22 short of what is recommended.

The US Justice Department, for its part, has 60 days from the date of Duggan’s arrest to request extradition. Miralis is cognisant about what this case entails. Throw out the legal protocols and the jurisprudence: brute power is at stake. “This has nothing to do with law, this has everything to do with international politics and international relations.”

 

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Rishi Sunak: A Thatcherite in Downing Street

They are falling like ninepins, and the Tories have now given the weary people of Britain yet another prime minister. And what a catch: stupendously wealthy, youthful – the youngest in two centuries – and a lawbreaker. As Chancellor of the Exchequer in the government of Boris Johnson, he was fined for breaches during the partygate scandal, despite telling the Commons that he had attended no illegal gatherings.

The statement released in response to the fine was ice cool, belying the fact that he had become the first Chancellor ever charged with an offence while in office. “I understand that for figures in public office, the rules must be applied stringently in order to maintain public confidence.” He respected “the decision that has been made and have paid the fine.” The outcome was always likely: not paying could have landed him in an even stickier situation.

Being sly with regulations is obviously something that runs in the family. Sunak’s wife, Akshata Murty, ran into some trouble earlier this year when attention was brought to her non-domiciled (non-dom) status in the UK. She owns a jaw dropping £700 million in shares in the Indian IT giant Infosys, from which she received £11.6 million in dividend income last year.

Declaring one’s domicile to be in another country can be a fine money saver: in this case, £2.1 million a year. But Murty wanted to be generous and gracious – at least for her husband’s political ambitions. “I understand and appreciate the British sense of fairness and I do not wish my tax status to be a distraction for my husband or to affect my family.”

The new prime minister’s coming to power is a perfect statement of the leader estranged and continentally distant from voters, a person evidently bored by his time as a banker and keen to make a showing in parliament. “In his technocratic aloofness,” George Eaton suggests, “Sunak resembles an IMF official poised to impose a ‘structural adjustment programme’ on a stricken developing world economy.” The analogy is not out of place, given what Trussonomics has done to Britain in a matter of weeks.

While Sunak distanced himself from his predecessor’s loopy variant of steroid-fed Reaganomics, the inner Thatcherite’s heart continued to beat to the rhythm of nostalgia. As Thatcher’s own Chancellor, Nigel Lawson, said of Sunak, he was “the only candidate who understands Thatcherite economics.”

He is, to illustrate the point, very much in favour of fiscal tightening and keeping public spending thin, and, like the Iron Lady he so adores, happy to tout tax rises if needed. Thatcher, it should be remembered, raised the Value Added Tax (VAT) from 8 per cent to 15 per cent and imposed the infamous poll tax otherwise advertised as a “Community Charge.”

Sunak’s belief in redistribution is of that rather distasteful variety. As Labour had, in his ill-chosen words of a leaked video, “shoved all the funding into deprived urban areas,” it was incumbent on the Tories to undo it. “I managed to start changing the funding formulas to make sure areas like this are getting the funding they deserved.” The area in question was the rather well-heeled town of Tunbridge Wells, Kent.

During Sunak’s tenure and the “levelling up” programme of Johnson, the wealthiest parts of Britain received amounts of money up to 10 times more per capita than the poorest, showing how Tories can be socialistic to the class of their own choosing. Sajid Javid’s wealthy constituency of Bromsgrove in Worcestershire was earmarked to receive £15 million, or £148 a head. Eight local authorities counted as some of the poorest in Britain received less than £10 a head from levelling up funds.

His economic embrace of Brexit was filled with hubristic assessments, some of this evident in a report authored for the Centre for Policy Studies in 2016. “Brexit will provide the UK with new economic freedom, and the Government should take the opportunity to create Free ports across the nation.” Such ports would “increase manufacturing output, create employment regionally where it is most needed, and promote trade.”

The report obsesses over the presence of 3,500 Free Trade Zones spread across the globe, with the US deserving a special mention: 250 FTZs “which employ 420,000 people and handle £750bn of merchandise.” Airy predictions about what free ports would do to the unshackled British economy are offered, including 86,000 jobs “if they were as successful as the US Foreign Trade Zone programme.”

Such a rarefied market world says little about civic duties and citizenship. It speaks volumes that Sunak expressed scepticism about lockdowns and has preferred to take climate change less seriously than others, even within his own party. The issue of whether planning permission is going to be given to opening the UK’s first coal mine in a generation – in Cumbria – has been dismissed by the new PM as a “local issue.”

Sunak even had to be persuaded to change his mind attending the upcoming COP27 conference to be held in Egypt. On Twitter, he rationalised his about face, characterised by Green MP Caroline Lucas as a “screeching U-turn” on the climate change conference: “There is no long-term prosperity without action on climate change. There is no energy security without investing in renewables.”

 

 

The change of heart suggested a weakness to the Labour opposition. “The prime minister,” according to the party’s climate policy spokesperson Ed Miliband, “has been shamed into going to COP27 by the torrent of disbelief that he would fail to turn up.” The only reason for putting in an appearance was “to avoid embarrassment not to provide leadership.” There is still much time for the markets, and everybody else, to be spooked.

 

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The Bond Vigilantes Get Busy

While the levels of schadenfreude will be going through the roof given the unfolding farce in British politics, the resignation of Liz Truss as UK Prime Minister was troubling in one vital respect. True, her juvenile salad understanding of economics, which involved spending billions on tax cuts and energy subsidies, was lamentable. To cope with the beast of aggressive inflation, she was advocating a policy that would feed it.

Then came the not-very-invisible hand of the market, which decided to throttle her government and its policies with petulance. While the vigilantes of the market have, depending on the occasion, burst into song at the announcement of tax cuts, thereby stimulating growth, the reaction was far different this time. Trussonomics had the effect of sending a spike in bond yields so serious it threatened the British pension system. The pound also received a mighty battering.

In one vital respect, this was yet another savaging blow for democratic, or at least representative control vis-à-vis the market. Never mind what those silly politicians do, the buccaneers in London City and Wall Street and other such engine rooms of finance know better. They, not the world’s treasuries, can dictate policy for the commonweal by driving up borrowing costs. Central banks the world over are also complying, implementing monetary policy aligned with the bond market.

With the sacking of Chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng and his replacement in the resurrected form of Jeremy Hunt, the task of appeasing the bond vigilantes, a term minted by economist Ed Yardeni in the 1980s, gathered pace. Hunt even went so far as to announce a few Economic Advisory Council consisting of Rupert Harrison, former chief of staff of ex-Chancellor George Osborne; former Bank of England members Sushil Wadhwani and Gertjan Vlieghe; and JPMorgan strategist Karen Ward.

As Yardeni puts it, the bond vigilantes, active in the 1980s and early 1990s, went into something of a hibernation, largely because of subdued rates of inflation, negative interest rate policies and quantitative easing. They terrorised such figures as President Bill Clinton into throwing out a promise of tax cuts and cheered the arrival of Robert Rubin from Goldman Sachs who insisted that budgetary restraint was needed to keep interest rates on US government bonds low.

It was such threatening conduct that inspired Clinton’s political advisor James Carville to revise his assessment on what he would like to return as were reincarnation possible. Initially, he had thought of returning as president, the Pope, or a .400 baseball hitter. “But now I want to come back as the bond market. You can intimidate everybody.”

Along with others, Yardeni remarks that the stimulative fiscal and monetary policies implemented in response to the pandemic saw inflation “roaring back in 2021 and 2022 forcing central banks to tighten their monetary policies, while fiscal policies continued to run amok.”

In truth, the bond vigilantes were already poking around at the first stirrings of the Global Financial Crisis in 2007, taking issue with the way countries were handling the debt crisis. Those keen on austerity and severe budgets, Ireland being notable among them, were given different treatment to those governments needing to raise funds to prop up much needed stimulus programs.

The tragicomic irony of Truss’s demise was how it proved to be the logical outcome of the ideological script she and her colleagues had contemplated in the previous decade. Along with her friend, colleague and ultimately sacked Chancellor Kwarteng, the animal virtues of rampant market freedom were qualities to be praised. In Britannia Unchained, a 2012 tract that never ceases in its oddness and inaccuracies, the image is one of freedom from bureaucracy and the swiping freedom of markets. They urge the invigorating “frontier spirit” to fight the “risk-averse society” that had come to shackle Britain. They praise the risk-taking venture capitalists as ingenious libertarians.

At the core of such a misreading is the steadfast refusal to accept that the market is a set of relationships and decisions, many linked through public and private investments and ventures. Far from being an expansive, unaccountable force to be worshipped, the market is the sum set of policies that involves, rather than rejects, the role of government.

Such capitalist phenomena as Silicon Valley and the Big Tech Wonderland arose precisely because of government support through contracts and state-funded research, with much of the impetus coming from the US military. The venture capitalist tends to wait for the seed to take root before swooping in. Jacob Soll of the University of Southern California also remarks that even such a “self-styled libertarian” figure as Tesla CEO Elon Musk received an enormous government hand to the value of US$6 billion worth in contracts, with another US$6 billion in electric-vehicle rebates. This is not to mention billions more in terms of grants, loans and $US60 million in subsidies from the state of Texas.

Unfortunately for Truss, her own neoliberal nonsense, ill-informed and historically inaccurate, ended up hoisting her. Her belief in the correcting market, as opposed to a correcting government policy, was so profound it destroyed her brief premiership. In a very true sense, she got her just desserts. Democracy, however, did not.

 

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Camelot’s Slurs: The Libelling of Adlai Stevenson

How do you bury responsibility for a decision inspired by a pilfered idea? Blame someone else, especially if that person came up with the idea to begin with. This tried method of distraction was used with invidious gusto by US President John F. Kennedy, who recast his role in reaching an agreement with the Soviet Union during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962.

The stationing of Soviet nuclear capable missiles in Cuba, and the response of the Kennedy administration, took the world to the precipice of nuclear conflict. Its avoidance, as things transpired, involved dissimulation, deception and good, old-fashioned defamation.

In a crucial meeting on October 27 between Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy and Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin, the first intimations were made that a quid pro quo arrangement could be reached. If the Soviets were to pull out their missiles in Cuba, the US would return the favour regarding their missiles in Turkey. That part of the agreement would, however, remain secret. RFK, as the administration’s emissary, informed Dobrynin that his brother “is ready to come to agree on that question with N.S. Khrushchev.” For the withdrawal to take place, however, some four to five months had to elapse. “However, the president can’t say anything public in this regard about Turkey.”

Time was pressing. A U-2 spy plane had been shot down over Cuba that day; the hawks in the administration were baying for blood, demanding US military retaliation. “A real war will begin,” warned RFK, “in which millions of Americans and Russians will die. We want to avoid that any way we can, I’m sure that the government of the USSR has the same wish.”

In his subsequent account of the meeting with the Soviet ambassador, documented in a report to Secretary of State Dean Rusk, RFK ducks and weaves. Recalling the urgency with which he impressed upon Dobrynin on removing the Soviet missiles, he also offered a slanted reading. When the ambassador had asked about the US missiles in Turkey, “I replied there could be no quid pro quo – no deal of this kind could be made.” Mention is made to the elapse of four to five months, by which time “these matters could be resolved satisfactorily.” (In the draft version, that reference is scrawled out by RFK.)

Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s response on October 28 to President Kennedy did acknowledge, in an uncharacteristically subtle way, “the delicacy involved for you in an open consideration of the issue of eliminating the US missile bases in Turkey.” He appreciated the “complexity” involved and thought it right that it should not be discussed publicly. Any mention of the quid pro quo agreement would be kept secret, to be only communicated via RFK. The Soviet Premier then made intimations about “advancing the cause of relaxation of international tensions and the tensions between our two powers.”

Within hours of Khrushchev’s announcement that he would be ordering the dismantling and withdrawal of the missiles in Cuba, Kennedy made a call to former president Herbert Hoover. The message is distinctly, to use that immortal phrase from the charmingly slippery Alan Clark, economical with the actualité. Moscow had supposedly gone back “to their more reasonable position” in accepting a pledge that Cuba would not be invaded in return for the withdrawal of the missiles.

The train of fibbing continued chugging in another call made that same day to former president Harry Truman. To Truman, Kennedy suggests, falsely, that his administration had “rejected” trading the Jupiter missiles in Turkey for the Soviet withdrawal of their missiles in Cuba.

On October 30th, Robert Kennedy returned the quid pro quo letter to Ambassador Dobrynin instead of conveying it to his brother. Brother Jack had not been “prepared to formulate such an understanding [regarding the missiles in Turkey] in the form of letters, even the most confidential letters, between the President and the head of the Soviet government, when it concerns such a highly delicate issue.”

Such an attitude could hardly be explained as noble or even reasoned; the Kennedys were concerned that any moves seen as conciliatory towards Moscow could ruin their electoral fortunes and those of the Democratic Party.

Dobrynin’s own summary reveals a political animal contemplating his future prospects. RFK was against transmitting “this sort of letter, since who knows where and when such letters can surface or be somehow published.” The reasons had little to do with averting nuclear catastrophe or preserving the human species. Such a document, were it to appear, “could cause irreparable harm to my political career in the future. This is why we request that you take this letter back.”

With such manoeuvrings achieved, the Kennedys went to work on covering their tracks and scrubbing the fingerprints. On December 6, 1962, Stevenson received a letter from JFK about a story soon to be published by the Saturday Evening Post titled “In Time of Crisis.” The article, authored by Stewart Alsop and Charles Bartlett, promised an insider’s overview of how Kennedy and his circle resolved the Cuban missile crisis. In the true tradition of insiders, the overview was utterly compromised.

The decorative account came with the baubles and splendour of Camelot, depicting the president as calm and collected in the face of crisis. He only ever “lost his temper on minor matters” but never his nerve. “This,” the authors remark, “must be counted a huge intangible plus.”

The very tangible plus, for the Kennedys, came in the form of former Democratic presidential candidate and US ambassador to the UN, Adlai Stevenson. Stevenson had, according to a “non admiring official” – later identified as National Security Council staffer Michael Forrestal – “wanted a Munich.” His heretical proposal entailed trading Turkish, Italian and British missile bases for Soviet missiles in Cuba. Forrestal had himself been urged by the Kennedys to feed that version to Bartlett and Alsop, despite their embrace of the idea.

Alsop’s brother, Joseph, went so far as to argue in a column that this revealed a president keen on finding some basis to fire Stevenson. Special aide McGeorge Bundy, on being made aware of the article in advance, had talked him out of doing so.

As things transpired, the origins of the “Munich” slur against Stevenson came from the president himself. As historian Gregg Herken noted in his book, The Georgetown Set: Friends and Rivals in Cold War Washington, “The president had pencilled in the ‘Munich’ line when he annotated the typescript of the draft article.” Alsop’s son, Joseph Wright Alsop VI, also claimed that his father had told him “that it had actually been JFK who added the phrase ‘Adlai wanted a Munich’ in his own handwriting.”

In Alsop’s correspondence with his editor at the Saturday Evening Post, Clay Blair Jr., there is a pungent warning: the president’s role was to remain concealed and had to “remain Top Secret, Eyes Only, Burn After Reading, and so on.” If Alsop “so much as hinted that JFK was in any way involved, I’d be run out of town.”

In his delightful, if severe dissertation on presidential mendacity, Eric Alterman makes the admirably radical suggestion that the US commander in chief should not lie. Doing so triggers “a series of reactions in the political system that builds on itself and can easily spiral out of the control.” One lie becomes many; the drop becomes an ocean. And Kennedy showed, not only a willingness to be mendacious, but a certain aptitude for it.

 

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Virtuous Hypocrisy: The Socceroos and the Qatar World Cup

For a time, the confused and muddled approach from Australian football (soccer to some) did much of a side-step regarding the human rights imbroglio and Qatar’s hosting of the FIFA World Cup. There was ample cash and participation in one of the world’s biggest tournaments on the line. There was FIFA’s reluctance that footballing sides show any political streak; such figures, it was hoped, should best focus on kicking a ball on a pitch. And then there was the sport itself. Here was a chance to take football to the desert reaches and build new bastions.

Qatar, for its part, has taken a softening voice in disguising reform. The number of deaths among the toiling workers behind the various venues and stadia for the World Cup has been calculated to be in the order of 37 between 2014 and 2020. The Guardian report from February 2021, using records from a number of embassies, suggests that 6,500 Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Sri Lankan nationals had perished since 2010.

A number of footballing teams, however, could not contain themselves. While not wanting to seem totally complicit in a regime’s atrocious labour practices and archaic punishments, there was the sense that something had to be done. But how could disagreement with Doha’s policies possibly take place alongside continued attendance?

A stretch of air-gun salutes filled with vanilla anger has been the answer, a measure of displeasure from teams who would still be participating in Qatar 2022. Yes, of course they would go, and never mind such silly notions as a boycott or any naff idea of staying at home. All those contracts; all that publicity! They would put in an appearance and keep the broadcasters happy. Such players merely wanted to let those organising the festivities and sponsorships know about a moral awakening.

Denmark decided to use a form of protest so stealthy as to be unnoticeable, a case of monochrome shirts freed of logos and integrity. Such a protest was also free of sense and strength, but that did not bother the manufacturer Hummel, which had a product to promote on the world stage.

The teams of other footballing nations, including Germany, France and England, are promising an even meeker response: wearing rainbow coloured armbands as part of anti-discrimination campaign featuring the message “One Love”.

As has been the case before, Australia wanted to go one step further in foolishness; and mightily foolish its players turned out to be. Sixteen were given a chance to vent at the host country, salving their troubled consciences without so much as lifting a finger. In video recordings, the players claimed to “stand with FIFPro, the Building and Wood Workers’ International, and the International Trade Union Confederation, seeking to embed reforms and establish a lasting legacy in Qatar.”

Policy suggestions follow. “This must include establishing a migrant resource centre, effective remedy for those who have been denied their rights, and the decriminalisation of all same-sex relationships.” The players insist that, “These are the basic rights that should be afforded to all and will ensure continued progress in Qatar – a legacy that goes well beyond the final whistle of the 2022 FIFA World Cup.”

Such venting came with mighty qualifications and veiled praise. No player wanted to suggest that Qatar had not made genuine steps to improve the state of labour rights. There was even a heaving acknowledgment that the kafala system has been dismantled, which raised the question why migrant workers have engaged in strike action, with others promising to do so during the tournament.

The statements had their cinematic effect. They even caught the interest of a number of Australian politicians, including the Treasurer Jim Chalmers, whose interest in football is scant relative to his enthusiasm for rugby league. “These guys make me proud to be an Australian and they’re going to turn this rugby league tragic into someone who’s going to follow them more closely than I might have.”

The unsavoury Piers Morgan, former host of Good Morning Britain, was unimpressed. “Fine virtue-signalling words… presume you will now be boycotting the tournament? Or don’t you guys care THAT much.”

 

 

The Morgan formula was one that has fallen out of favour in modern sport: the boycott. “Either go and play football, or don’t go. Pretending you’re outraged by a country’s morality but then actively promoting the country is hypocritical.”

The impression left is that of a bunch of political interns schooled in the fine art of hypocrisy. It gave Qatari officials and the tournament’s organisation committee room to co-opt the players’ collaboration. Yes, some of the criticism might have been stinging, but not all of it.

A spokesman for the Qatari organising committee revealed Doha’s chosen strategy: “We commend footballers using their platforms to raise awareness for important matters. We have committed every effort to ensure that this World Cup has had a transformative impact on improving lives, especially for those involved in constructing the competition and non-competition venues we’re responsible for.”

The “health, safety, security, and dignity of every worker contributing to this World Cup” was a priority. And a number of government labour reforms had been implemented, as “acknowledged by the IL, ITUC, and numerous human rights organisations as the benchmark in the region.” Their “robust implementation” was “a global challenge, including in Australia.” From a public relations perspective, this was solid play.

In language turned inside out to justify Doha’s own malfeasant practices and “lethargy” on the issue of labour reform, the World Cup could be blessed for leaving “a legacy of progress, better practice and improving lives.” It would be one that would “live long after the final ball is kicked.”

Another legacy is more likely. The kicking of the first ball will induce a collective sporting amnesia for which the Socceroos will be complicit, their consciousness reassured. The glitzy, environmentally depraved, humanly costly show will go on.

 

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