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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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Julian Assange Pardon Drive

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The NDAA, Trump and Vetoing the Military Industrial Complex

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Never Belonging: George Blake’s Spy Exploits

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image from pressreader.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Endings for Beginnings: Reaching a Brexit Deal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

 

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Trump’s Pardons for the Festive Season

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Gold Comes Off: A COVID-19 outbreak in Sydney

Australia has various advantages as an island continent. It is monumental and only accessible in the most impractical ways. It is discouragingly far and almost impossible to invade without a huge investment of personnel and material. The decision to place convicts on the island by the British was audaciously cruel and illogical, setting a precedent for future decisions by Australian governments to send undesirables to distant, inaccessible outposts, at cost.

But distance has not spared the country from the COVID-19 pandemic. Assisted by human error and misjudgement, quarantine defences were breached as they will no doubt continue to be. In Victoria, it proved most costly, leading to community transmission in a deadly second wave with a single-day peak of 725 cases in August. In the largest state in the country, New South Wales, pride was taken at developing a contact tracing system to deal with arrivals from outside Australia. Withering judgment, notably by the Morrison federal government, was cast on hapless Victoria. New South Wales received gushing praise.

Praising NSW was silly in its unequivocal confidence. Viruses care little for reputations. In time, the “gold” standard of NSW containment proved to be gilded. Hit the gilding, and you realise it might be gold leaf.

It came in the form of that will be known in the epidemiological sagas as the Avalon outbreak. Confirmed cases were found this month at the Avalon RSL and the Avalon Bowling Club in Sydney’s Northern Beaches. Genomic testing suggests that the strain in the Northern Beaches cluster is a variant of the virus currently circulating in the United States. According to epidemiologist Catherine Bennett, no one quite knows how this particular international strain found its way into the community. NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian has also confirmed that, “health experts have yet to identify how the cluster was transmitted into the community or how it started in Avalon.” The event that seeded the virus remains inscrutable.

Politics being what it is, criticism of the Berejiklian government, having the same political stripes of the federal government, was always going to be muted. The federal government made sure their Liberal counterparts at the state level would not be chastised and sprayed for any errors. This, despite the public health stumbles regarding the Ruby Princess, a cruise ship with 2,650 passengers who were allowed to disembark when it docked in Sydney on March 19.

That decision proved critical: 900 infections resulted, along with 28 deaths. The Report of the Special Commission of Inquiry into the Ruby Princess did not mince words: “In light of all the information the (NSW Health) Expert Panel had, the decision to assess the risk as ‘low risk’ – meaning, in effect, ‘do nothing; – is as inexplicable as it is unjustifiable.” The inquiry also had words on “the directive to allow passengers to onward travel interstate and internationally after disembarkation on March 19.” The move “did not appropriately contemplate or comply with the terms of the Public Health Order that came into effect on March 17.”

Berejiklian found herself apologising “unreservedly to anybody who is continuing to suffer, or has suffered unimaginable loss because of mistakes that were made within our health agencies.” Lessons had been learnt, she declared, and such “circumstances should and will never happen again in New South Wales.”

Abundant criticism has instead been directed at the Labor government of Dan Andrews for quarantine breaches in Victoria that led to a second surge. When strict curfew and lockdown regulations were imposed on Melbourne, the federal treasurer Josh Frydenberg wished for their lifting. “More than 1,000 jobs are being lost every day on this premier’s watch,” he spluttered in October. “The bloody-mindedness is unforgivable. The stubbornness is unforgivable.”

Even now, the NSW state government is being incautiously proud, assuming that its tracing system is without peer. In the hyperbolic assertion of Berejiklian, “We do have, I believe, one of the best if not the best contract tracing team on the planet.” A tedious Morrison continues to toot the claim that “NSW is the gold standard,” having handled the pandemic in exemplary fashion where others “faltered.”

Refusing to adopt the dramatic, and at times draconian policy of the Andrews lockdown formula, especially given the Christmas period, the Berejeklian government is gambling on prowess and precision. Premier Berejiklian, for instance, has urged people not to use public transport without wearing a mask or frequent a supermarket or place of worship without one. “It would just be crazy” not to do so.

A more localised containment approach has been adopted, with a focus on the Northern Beaches area. Residents leaving their home face fines of $1100 unless undertaken for approved reasons. The area has now been divided for the Christmas period into two zones with slightly different regulations.

For all its self-praise, the government has done much to stifle discussion on flaws in its own quarantine policy, not least its approach to handling the isolation of flight crews. A degree of latitude has been permitted to airline staff to self-isolate in hotels of their own choice. Only now has this approach changed, with thirteen crewmembers of an LATAM Chile flight from South American fined $1,000 for leaving their hotel to attend various city venues. The airlines, for the most part, feel that quarantine conditions are not the province of the state government. The Australian airline Qantas, for instance, would prefer exemptions for their crew to remain while they manage their own quarantine arrangements. What could go wrong?

Whatever happens in terms of managing the Sydney outbreak does not detract from the distinct inconspicuousness, if not absence, of the prime minister. From the start of the pandemic, Morrison has made the states and territories the chief custodians of public health defence. His biosecurity eye has been stubbornly closed.

As has been pointed out by the veteran journalist Paul Bongiorno, this has been nothing short of a grand abdication of responsibility. “Early in the pandemic at the first meeting of Scott Morrison’s national cabinet – the rolling summit of the state and territory leaders – according to a source close to the meeting, the states were shocked when the Prime Minister came to the meeting with no quarantine plan.” It took the promptings of Premier Andrews, backed by other state and territory leaders, to create a state-funded hotel quarantine scheme.

In its interim report, the Australian Senate inquiry into the Morrison government’s approach to the coronavirus found that it “did not have adequate plans in place either before, or during the pandemic. Not only did it fail to heed warnings prior to COVID-19 about the National Medical Stockpile of personal protective equipment, there were inadequacies in its approach to pandemic planning exercises.” Specific sectors also suffered, as there was no developed “COVID-19 plan for the [aged care] sector, which was unprepared and ill-equipped to protect the safety of residents when the pandemic hit.”

With such outbreaks, questions will gather, and remain unanswered. Sounding a touch stringent, but nonetheless relevant, Magda Szubanski suggested that “the only thing preventing this country from having a normal, healthy, prosperous life” was permitting the continued arrival of overseas travellers. In a remark, she asks the nagging question: “surely the issue is – why do we not have a coherent, tough, effective FEDERAL quarantine approach to international travellers? God knows we can manage with asylum seekers?” Certainly something for the prime minister to chew over.

While Andrews will always be saddled with the errors, misjudgements and desperately poor decisions of the initial quarantine arrangements, his critics were unwise to assume the throne of judgment. Eventually, the riverbanks would break elsewhere. Other states would have to face a viral surge, their defences and containment measures bypassed and mocked. As with all absolute measures to seal off a community, breaches will take place and exceptions made.

In all of this, Morrison remains silent on matters that remain within the jurisdiction of the Commonwealth. To date, there have been no announcements about revising quarantine exemptions for returning diplomats, aircrew or the specially chosen ones. The prospects for another seeding event remain; the gold has come off the standard.

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Yuletide Lockdowns and Cancelling Christmas

The mind changer in Downing Street has struck again. With UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson at the helm, changes of direction are compulsive, natural and sudden. The U-Turn has become the prosaic expectation. “Too often it looks like this government licks its finger and sticks it in the air to see which way the wind is blowing,” Tory MP Charles Walker, deputy chair of the 1922 Committee, lamented in August. “This is not a sustainable way to approach the business of governing and government.”

As unsustainable as it might be, the UK was treated to another round of vigorous U-turning ahead of Christmas by a leader who radiates buffoonery and steady incompetence. On December 16, a decision was taken to ease COVID-19 restrictions over the festive period, a view distinctly at odds with a good number in the scientific establishment.

In November, submissions by the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) to the government warned that mixing over the Christmas period could well lead to greater spread in the event restrictions were eased. According to a paper by the operational subgroup of the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling (SPI-M-O), a relaxation “over the festive period will result in increased transmission and increased prevalence, potentially by a large amount.” The group also warned that, “SARS-Cov-19 has demonstrated high secondary attack rates in households (with estimates of up to 50% in one household infected from one infected member).”

The analysis also warned that the “bubble” policy – one where a certain number of households would be permitted to mix over a set number of days over the Christmas period – was still burdened by risk. “Allowing households to ‘bubble’ (i.e. effectively form a single, larger, isolated household) reduces the risks, but is very susceptible to small numbers of links between bubbles.”

Despite this, Johnson was adamant in his Wednesday press gathering: the festive season would be an exception. “I want to be clear we don’t want to, as I say, to ban Christmas, to cancel it.” To do so “would be frankly inhuman and against the instincts of many in this country.” This was a pointed reference to opponents sceptical about his epidemiological grasp of the dangers. Labour leader Keir Starmer had previously pressed him during Parliament Minister’s Questions about any existing assessments on the impact “on infection rates and increased pressure on the NHS.”

Johnson’s response was far from helpful and, given the circumstances, ill conceived. “I wish he had the guts to say what he really wants to do, which is to cancel the plans people have made and to cancel Christmas. I think that’s what he’s driving at, Mr Speaker.” But even conservative forums such as The Spectatorhad to admit that the prime minister was taking an awful gamble: “that people will suddenly start adhering to government guidance and severely restrict their contact with their families, even though the law does not force them to do so.”

In his December 16 speech, Johnson praised the rollout of the vaccination programme. With 138,000 recipients of the first dose, he felt there was “no doubt we are winning and we will win our long struggle against the virus.” The reproduction rate of the virus had been brought below 1. But Britons had to hold their nerve. Infections were still rising in parts of the country. London had moved into Tier 3 restrictions.

An appeal was made to those in the UK “to think hard and in detail about the days ahead and whether you can do more to protect yourself and others.” Never tiring of confusing the citizenry, such regulations were to involve limits of three households meeting over five days. “I want to stress that these are maximums, not targets to aim for.” Think, he pleaded, of having a smaller and shorter Christmas.

On December 19, the mind changer was again in full flow. The very idea of holding Christmas was challenged and Johnson found himself doing exactly what he had accused the Labour leader of wishing. “I am sorry that the situation has deteriorated since I last spoke to you three days ago.” The reason given by Johnson in his address was ominous. Data from the advisory group on New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats (NERVTAG) had revealed the emergence of a new variant of the virus. “NERVTAG’s early analysis suggests the new variant could increase R [the reproduction number] by 0.4 or greater. Although there is considerable uncertainty, it may be up to 70% more transmissible than the old variant.”

This new variant had been skipping at speed through London, the South East and East of England. As things stood, it was seemingly not more lethal or causing illness of greater severity. This new incarnation was also unlikely to blunt the effect of the vaccines. But it was clear to Johnson that not taking immediate steps would lead to soaring infections, straining the NHS and causing the deaths of “many thousands more.”

The consequence: London, the South East and the East of England were to move into tier 4. These have become generally familiar: the necessity of staying at home and working from home; the closure of non-essential services in retail, indoor gyms and leisure facilities. People are not permitted to enter or leave Tier 4 areas; and residents in such designated zones cannot stay overnight away from home. Exemptions apply for exercise, childcare and those who cannot work from home.

The corollary of such restrictions was that Britons could not “continue with Christmas as planned.” Tier 4 restrictions meant that households were to be self-contained, “though support bubbles will remain in place for those at risk of loneliness or isolation.” To add just another sliver of confusion, household mixing would be confined to Christmas Day for those in Tier 3 zones.

Not all gloom, Johnson unfurled the metaphorical flag. “The UK was the first country in the western world to start using a clinically approved vaccine.” Nothing, however, could take away from the fact that Johnson had again been outmanoeuvred by facts and circumstance.

In the scathing opinion of The Observer, it was a decision taken too late, causing grief to families “who have been encouraged to look forward to Christmas for weeks by a prime minister who, in characteristic form, foolishly over-promised in an attempt to avoid being the bearer of bad news.”

In the meantime, Johnson will have to deal with an increasing number of irate Tory backbenchers keen to recall parliament. Walker is one them, increasingly suspicious of the government’s motives. “The Government, in my view, knew on Thursday, possibly even Wednesday, that they were going to pull the plug on Christmas but they waited till Parliament had gone.” A Johnson tactic, through and through.

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Brexit, Billionaires and the Little People

Capitalism and patriotism do not share the same stable. When those in the business of accumulating profits suggest a love for flag and country, be wary. Wars might take place and trade agreements struck by governments, but the capitalist will go for the market that matters, whatever the flag.

A recent exponent of this proposition is Sir Jim Ratcliffe, a billionaire who was a strong advocate for Britain leaving the European Union. In approaching negotiations with the EU after the referendum result, he had an instruction to Britain’s diplomats: “We must listen, we must be unwaveringly polite and retain our charm. But there is no room for weakness or crumpling at 3am when the going gets tough and when most points are won or lost.” He praised Britain’s “decent set of cards”: London as a key financial centre; companies such as Mercedes continuing to sell cars in the country.

This sentiment was echoed by other wealthy British billionaires who simply assumed that the consequences of a UK exit from the EU were going to be minor ripples rather than a massive shake. It was the sort of advice given by occupants of mansions and gilded penthouses, gradually ossifying with time. Lord Anthony Bamford, Chairman of JCB and Construction Equipment, claimed from his summit of comfort that “European markets are important to many UK businesses, including JCB, and this will not change.” The UK, being the “world’s fifth largest trading nation” had “little to fear from leaving the EU.”

Ditto the Barclay twins Sir David and Sir Frederick and John Caudwell, founder of Phones4u. Caudwell remains dogmatically convinced that the EU was thieving from Britons, claiming that the “Brussels Bully Boys” had benefited “by £80 billion in trade benefit in trading with Britain,” plundered the UK’s fishing waters and obtained “£8 billion in net value from the country.”

In the aftermath of the Brexit vote in 2016, Ratcliffe’s business mind initially turned to the Union Jack and all matters Britannic. He had hoped to build the Grenadier off-roader, inspired by the original Land Rover Defender, at a new plant at Bridgend in south Wales. To do so showed, according to Ratcliffe, “a significant expression of confidence in British manufacturing.” It also showed a leap of faith on his part, given how he had made his previous fortune. As he told the Times in September 2017, “Maybe it’s a little bit arrogant for a chemical company to think it can produce a world class 4×4 but I think we can have confidence we can manufacture things.”

But Sir Jim, with fine arrogance, was sniffing for other options, as have many firms who have been relocating, closing, and hacking through staff. In July, Ratcliffe’s Ineos Automotive began negotiations to purchase Mercedes-Benz’s Hambach site in Moselle. He was all praise for the facility and the workforce, which he considered “world-class”. His company had “set out a vision to build the world’s best utilitarian 4×4, and at our new home in Hambach, we will do just that.”

Sir Jim Ratcliffe (Image from thesun.co.uk)

The Welsh Labour MP for Ogmore, Chris Elmore, was unimpressed by the extolling of French expertise at the expense of a British workforce. “The highly-skilled and dedicated workforce in Ogmore, Bridgend and surrounding areas would have risen to the challenge.”

Sir James Dyson, despite being warm for his country’s EU departure, has also given Brexiteers a false sense of Making Britain Great Again. In September 2017, the inventor revealed his dreams to employees that “we’ve begun work on a battery electric vehicle, due to launch in 2020.” In immodest terms, this would become something like a European Tesla.

Such optimism began to sour. First came an epiphany on where the cars would be manufactured. In October 2018, Dyson abandoned RAF Hullavington as a production site for the proposed cars, preferring Singapore. Twelve months later, staff were informed that, despite developing “a fantastic electric car,” the project had not proved to be “commercially viable.” That same year, it became clear to all that Singapore was his new love, with reports that Dyson had spent $54.24 million on purchasing the small state’s most expensive penthouse at Guoco Tower.

Dyson had also taken a shine to Singapore’s company tax arrangements. Chief executive for Dyson’s company Jim Rowan suggested that the decision had little to with Brexit or even that thorny issue of tax. He preferred using a hideous term to cover the obvious: “future-proofing”. The billionaire was merely being prudent. But Rowan also tellingly revealed that Dyson should not be considered a British entity so much as a “global technology company.” Patriotism could sod it.

Not to be outdone on the issue of tax, Ratcliffe has also made a critical move on preserving his earnings. Just to show how bound up he feels to his fellow Britons, the Ineos boss has also changed his tax domicile. Brexit Britain will no longer be receiving tax revenue from a man whose wealth is valued at £17.5 billion. His move to Monaco will save him, and lose the UK government, £4 billion. Patriotic he might claim to be, but certainly not when it comes to his wallet. As Jonathan Freedland caustically observes, such figures are part of “a Brexiteer elite who believe that the pain of Brexit is for the little people.”

See also: BREXIT: The Billionaires Coup

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UK Parliamentarians, the British Press and Julian Assange

The number of figures extolling the merits of Britain’s Westminster system and how it supposedly embodies a glorious model of democracy are too numerous to mention. This is despite exploits by the government of Boris Johnson, marked by the appointment of unelected advisers with enviable, unaccountable powers and a record of assault on Parliament’s scrutineering functions. “As the government blunders from one disaster to the next,” wrote a resigned George Monbiot in June, “there seem to be no effective ways of holding it to account.”

Press freedoms supposedly axiomatic in holding government to account have been regarded with increasing suspicion by Johnson and his coterie. When the prime minister’s chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, was found breaking the very lockdown rules that the government had imposed, a statement from Downing Street was coolly dismissive of the “stream of false allegations about Mr Cummings from campaigning newspapers.”

With the Britannic press increasingly clipped in holding power to account, it is little wonder that coverage of the most significant, contemporary threat to press freedom remains a small affair, rarely rising above yellow press murmurings. The Julian Assange case, through the good offices of the US Department of Justice, has already laid a few bombs in the bedcovers of the Fourth Estate, but its members continue to suffer an apathetic torpor, indifferent and oblivious to the dangers his extradition trial poses.

A few fire-cracking exceptions abound, among them the consistent Peter Oborne in a slew of publications, the prickly Peter Hitchens of the Mail on Sunday, and the ferociously reliable Patrick Cockburn in The Independent. All have expressed constructive, detailed outrage at the treatment of Julian Assange by authorities on both sides of the Atlantic. Organisations such as Media Lens and Bridges for Media Freedom have also done their bit to stir interest in the gravity of the case.

This month Oborne, in a co-authored piece with Millie Cooke for the British Journalism Review, urged readers to appreciate that the consequences of Assange’s extradition would be “grim” for investigative journalism. “Any story which depends on obtaining documents from US government sources will become impossibly dangerous. No British journalists would dare to handle it, let alone publish it.”

As Media Lens found, looking at various programmes such as BBC News at Ten, “there was not a single substantive item (there may have been a passing mention on the first day).” When BBC home affairs correspondent Daniel Sandford was asked about why his reporting on the extradition hearing was conspicuously absent, he passed the parcel and gave an insight profound in its shallowness. “The case is being covered by our World Affairs unit. I have been in a few hearings and it is slightly repetitive. It will return as a news story.” A flagging attention span, perhaps.

The lamentable coverage of Assange’s trial was instructive. The conservative Spectator refused to take of the draught, keeping references to the extradition trial to a minimum. The pro-extradition outlet, The Economist, went one better in ignoring the trial altogether, having already decided in April 2019 that the “central charge – computer hacking – is an indefensible violation of the law.” The Sunday Telegraph was asleep to it since April last year. Tetchy Richard Littejohn of the Daily Mail was awake to Assange, if only because, on being evicted from the Ecuadorean Embassy in London, “he stank the place to high heaven.”

When the left-leaning New Statesman, a forum for periodic Assange bashing, was asked why it did not take an interest in the trial, it responded tartly that it had, in fact, covered the trial and would continue doing so. “We are a magazine mostly of essays, long reads and cultural criticism, not a breaking new site or a newspaper. And we don’t publish court reports.”

Oborne and Cooke pondered the thesis long advanced by Noam Chomksy that the media tycoon dominated stable of hacks are all too happy to play gatekeepers, defending corporate and state interests. “The Assange case suggests that this analysis is plausible. At best, the London media reported Assange dutifully. At worst, not at all.”

While the British press remains reliably despicable for the most part in dealing with the implications of USA v Assange, UK parliamentarians have had a shot of inspiration. Leading a pack of seventeen figures, Richard Burgon, Labour MP for East Leeds, has requested Robert Buckland, the Secretary of State for Justice, “that provision be made to hold an online video discussion between Julian Assange and a cross-party group of UK parliamentarians.”

What stands out in the letter is an acknowledgment of Assange’s “journalistic work with WikiLeaks including information exposing US war atrocities in Afghanistan and Iraq” for which he risks facing prison “of up to 175 years.” The parliamentarians also note the case’s “important implications for press and publishing freedoms in the UK, for the US-UK Extradition Treaty including its ban on extradition for political offense and for wider human rights.”

Amnesty International’s concerns that “prosecuting Julian Assange on these charges could have a chilling effect on the right to freedom of expression” and the views of Nils Melzer, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, also feature. Expressing deep concern “by the implications of this unprecedented extradition case,” the parliamentarians are hoping to discuss the matter with Assange prior to the January 4, 2021 extradition decision.

While this surge of sentience can only be welcomed, Buckland is not likely to wish MPs to be airing such views with the publisher. There is a relationship – namely that of the US-UK alliance – to preserve. Having previously refused to grant Assange compassionate release from prison for posing a flight risk (this, even during the pandemic), there is a good chance he will be stubborn again. British injustice, when it chooses to be, can be both implacable and illogical.

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Hoarding the Jabs: The Inequalities of Vaccine Distribution

Public health is no excuse to keep business and patriotism at bay. Not a very humanitarian sentiment, but then again, healing the sick and preserving the healthy can become parochial, nationalist objectives. The least convincing language of the pandemic has been this baffling and trite notion that “we” and “all this” and “together” are somehow linked in blood sealed harmony, binding Homo sapiens in a bond of preservation that urges us to suffer together in order to survive.

The rhetoric of the vaccine market has been enlisted to promote a broader human goal, even if it serves to prop up a very distinct elite: the social media and technological kleptocrats; the pharmacological behemoths; the corrupt incompetents in government. And now, the pieces are moving into their standard places. Privileges are being asserted; priorities are being pushed, despite the summit proclaiming language of the politics of generosity.

Dr John Nkengasong, director of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, is of the view that an entire continent has been diddled in the COVID-19 vaccine stakes. Wealthy countries, he insists, had purchased “in excess of their needs while we in Africa are still struggling with the Covax facility.” The Covax facility, run by Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, is the health equivalent of a charity, subsidising vaccines for 92 lower-income countries. It promises to be imperfect, supplying assistance to acquire vaccines for a modest 20% of populations, on the proviso that recipient states also fork out for a percentage of the doses. The initiative has worked towards securing 700 million doses of vaccine for distribution while the Oxford-AstraZeneca combine has pledged to supply 64% of its doses to those in developing countries.

Charities are also warning that the wealthier states are on a hoarding drive leaving poorer states to catch their breath. The People’s Vaccine Alliance comprising such groups as Global Justice Now, Oxfam and Amnesty International trembles with indignation, claiming that 90% of people across 70 poorer countries will not be able to be vaccinated in 2021. Canada is singled out in Oxfam International’s press release with special reproach, having “enough vaccines to vaccinate each Canadian five times” (8.9 doses per head). The United States is a runner-up with 7.3 doses per head. Data gathered by the alliance reveals that “rich nations representing just 14 per cent of the world’s population have bought up to 53 per cent of all the most promising vaccines so far.”

The People’s Vaccine Alliance has taken the baton for a collectively available vaccine that renounces the profit motive. “Our best chance of all staying safe is to ensure a COVID-19 vaccine is available for all as a global common good.” The organisations demand a “transformation in how vaccines are produced and distributed,” urging pharmaceutical companies to be as generously wide as possible in production lines, “sharing their knowledge free from patents.” Admirable, if optimistic objectives are stated: the prevention of vaccine monopolies; the selling of vaccines at affordable prices; the purchase of vaccines at true cost prices and provided gratis to the populace.

Support for the equitable distribution of vaccines has also come from quarters keen to see stuttering capitalism return to its fit and improper state. A report from the RAND Corporation, an outfit rarely disposed to shedding tears for the poor, encourages mass, equitable immunisation, as not doing so could lead to losses of $1.2 trillion per annum in GPD terms. Prolonged physical distancing measures “will continue to affect key sectors of the global economy negatively, especially those that rely on close physical proximity between people.”

The authors might well accept that “nationalist behaviour is inevitable,” but also point to the merits of providing vaccines across the globe. High-income countries stood to lose $119 billion a year “if the poorest countries are denied a supply. If these high-income countries paid for the supply of vaccines, there could be a benefit-to-cost ratio of 4.8 to 1.” Paying the impoverished to stay healthy can keep you wealthy.

In such an untidy, desperate scramble, the opportunities for striking bargains are also emerging. From China come promises that vaccines at discounted prices will be offered to Africa, lubricated by loans as a form of vaccine diplomacy. Indonesia has also received 1.2 million vaccine doses from the Chinese pharmaceutical firm Sinovac, a move which prompted a surly Weibo user to remark that Indonesians “should thank us Chinese people; even we are yet to be vaccinated.”

China’s rambunctious state paper, the Global Times, contrasts this with the politics of US vaccine policy, suggesting that the term “vaccine diplomacy” was “a trite headline conceived of by the West’s own mentality.” In the vaccine wars, the true culprit was Washington, intent on hogging the show. “Compared with China’s generosity, the US has made no secret of its selfishness. The White House has made it clear it seeks to prioritize Americans for coronavirus vaccine shipments, and then it would take care of its main allies.”

Other countries prefer placing their bets with the Covax facility on the assurance that vaccines, once made available, will have been certified by the World Health Organisation. Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen summed up the cautionary sentiment. “Cambodia is not a dustbin… and not a place for a vaccine trial.”

Whether it is vaccine nationalism or vaccine diplomacy, both forms stem from the same source of inspiration. Self-interest comes before the demands of a common humanity. The weak and vulnerable, as ever, remain spectators to their own fate.

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Abuse on the Mainland: Australia’s Medevac Hotel Detentions

Governments that issue press releases about the abuse of human rights tend to avoid close gazes at the mirror. Doing so would be telling. In the case of Australia, its record on dealing with refugees is both abysmal and cruel. It tends to be easier to point the finger at national security laws in Hong Kong and concentration camps in Xinjiang. Wickedness is always easily found afar.

Australia’s own concentration camp system hums along, inflicting suffering upon asylum seekers and refugees who fled suffering by keeping them in a state of calculated limbo. Its brutality has been so normalised, it barely warrants mention in Australia’s sterile news outlets. In penitence, the country’s literary establishment pays homage to the victims, such as the Kurdish Iranian writer Behrouz Boochani. Garlands and literary prizes have done nothing to shift the vicious centre in Canberra. Boat arrivals remain political slurry and are treated accordingly.

Recently, there were small signs that prevalent amnesia and indifference was being disturbed. The fate of some 200 refugees and asylum seekers brought to the Australian mainland for emergency medical treatment piqued the interest of certain activists. Prior to its repeal as part of a secret arrangement between the Morrison government and Tasmanian senator Jacqui Lambie in December last year, the medical evacuation law was a mixed blessing.

While it was championed as a humanitarian instrument, it did not ensure one iota of freedom. As before, limbo followed like a dank smell. The repeal of the legislation offered another prospect of purgatory, only this time on the mainland.

The individuals in question have found themselves detained in Melbourne at the Mantra Bell City Hotel in Preston, and the Kangaroo Point Central Hotel in Brisbane. In the mind of Refugee Action Coalition spokesman Ian Rintoul, the conditions at both abodes are more restrictive than those on Nauru. The medical help promised has also been tardily delivered, if at all.

“My life is exactly the size of a room, and a narrow corridor,” reflects Mostafa (Moz) Azimitabar, who has been detained at the Mantra for 13 months. Like his fellow detainees, he has become a spectacle, able to see protesters gather outside the hotel, the signs pleading for their release, drivers honking in solidarity. He sees himself as “a fish inside an aquarium … The whole of my life in this window to see the real life, where people are driving, walking; when they wave to us. And when I wave back at them. This is my life.”

When former Australian soccer player turned human rights activist Craig Foster visited Azimitabar, conversation could only take place between a transparent plastic barrier. “I had to talk with him behind the glass,” tweeted the detainee. “Several times a day Serco officers enter my room and there aren’t any glasses for them.”

 

 

After the visit, Foster described the corrosion of liberties, “this constant theme of the most onerous regulations … constantly chipping away – just taking another right, another right, another right, and making them feel less and less and less human, if that’s possible after eight years.”

The more obstreperous refugees have been targeted by the Department of Home Affairs and forcibly relocated. Iranian refugee Farhad Rahmati found himself shifted from Kangaroo Point to the Brisbane Immigration Transit Accommodation Centre (BITA), and then to Villawood. BITA also received four more from Kangaroo Point in mid-November.

The advent of COVID-19 compounded the situation. Detainees already vulnerable to other medical conditions faced another danger. The authorities gave a big shrug. Shared bathrooms are the norm and are infrequently cleaned. Hand sanitizer containers are left empty or broken. The inquiry into the failure of Victoria’s quarantine system that led to a second infectious wave in Melbourne avoided considering the conditions of detained refugees. Writing in Eureka Street, Andra Jackson wondered if this had anything to do with the fact “that these men, now detained in some instances for six to seven years, have behaved more responsibly that [sic] some returning travellers.”

The government authorities did release five refugees from the medevac hotels last week, threatened by lawsuits testing the legal status of their detention. On December 14, the 60 men detained at the Mantra were told that they would be moving to another undisclosed location. The conclusion of the contract with the hotel has the Department of Home Affairs considering its options, and all are bound to aggravate the distress of the detainees.

Alison Battinson of Human Rights for All has a suggestion bound to be ignored. “Instead of telling the gentlemen that they are going to be moved to another place of detention – that hasn’t been disclosed to them – the more sensible approach would be to release them as per the law.”

The only ray of compassion in this mess of inhumanity has come in the form of a Canadian resettlement scheme. Nine refugees have already availed themselves of the opportunity; another twenty await their fate. Australian politicians, as they so often do on this subject, are nowhere to be found.

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Julian Assange: Covid Risks and Campaigns for Pardon

Before the January 4 ruling of District Judge Vanessa Baraitser in the extradition case of Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks publisher will continue to endure the ordeal of cold prison facilities while being menaced by a COVID-19 outbreak. From November 18, Assange, along with inmates in House Block 1 at Belmarsh prison in south-east London, were placed in lockdown conditions. The measure was imposed after three COVID-19 cases were discovered.

The response was even more draconian than usual. Exercise was halted; showers prohibited. Meals were to be provided directly to the prisoner’s cell. Prison officials described the approach as a safety precaution. “We’ve introduced further safety measures following a number of positive cases,” stated a Prison Service spokesperson.

Assange’s time at Belmarsh is emblematic of a broadly grotesque approach which has been legitimised by the national security establishment. The pandemic has presented another opportunity to knock him off, if only by less obvious means. The refusal of Judge Baraitser to grant him bail, enabling him to prepare his case in conditions of guarded, if relative safety, typifies this approach. “Every day that passes is a serious risk to Julian,” explains his partner, Stella Moris. “Belmarsh is an extremely dangerous environment where murders and suicides are commonplace.”

Belmarsh already presented itself as a risk to one’s mental bearings prior to the heralding of the novel coronavirus. But galloping COVID-19 infections through Britain’s penal system have added another, potentially lethal consideration. On November 24, Moris revealed that some 54 people in Assange’s house block had been infected with COVID-19. These included inmates and prison staff. “If my son dies from COVID-19,” concluded a distressed Christine Assange, “it will be murder.”

The increasing number of COVID-19 cases in Belmarsh has angered the UN Special Rapporteur on torture, Nils Melzer. On December 7, ten years from the day of Assange’s first arrest, he spoke of concerns that 65 out of approximately 160 inmates had tested positive. “The British authorities initially detained Mr. Assange on the basis of an arrest warrant issued by Sweden in connection with allegations of sexual misconduct that have since been formally dropped due to lack of evidence.” He was currently being “detained for exclusively preventive purposes, to ensure his presence during the ongoing US extradition trial, a proceeding which may well last several years.”

The picture for the rapporteur is unmistakable, ominous and unspeakable. The prolonged suffering of the Australian national, who already nurses pre-existing health conditions, amounts to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. Imprisoning Assange was needlessly brutal. “Mr. Assange is not a criminal convict and poses no threat to anyone, so his prolonged solitary confinement in a high security prison is neither necessary nor proportionate and clearly lacks any legal basis.” Melzer suggested immediate decongestion measures for “all inmates whose imprisonment is not absolutely necessary” especially those, “such as Mr Assange, who suffers from a pre-existing respiratory health condition.”

Free speech advocates are also stoking the fire of interest ahead of Baraitser’s judgment. In Salon, Roger Waters, co-founder of Pink Floyd, penned a heartfelt piece wondering what had happened to the fourth estate. “Where is the honest reporting that we all so desperately need, and upon which the very survival of democracy depends?” Never one to beat about the bush, Waters suggested that it was “languishing in Her Majesty’s Prison Belmarsh.” To extradite Assange would “set the dangerous precedent that journalists can be prosecuted merely for working with inside sources, or for publishing information the government deems harmful.” The better alternative: to dismiss the charges against Assange “and cancel the extradition proceedings in the kangaroo court in London.”

In the meantime, a vigorous campaign is being advanced from the barricades of Twitter to encourage President Donald Trump to pardon Assange. Moris stole the lead with her appeal on Thanksgiving. Pictures of sons Max and Gabriel were posted to tingle the commander-in-chief’s tear ducts. “I beg you, please bring him home for Christmas.”

Hawaii congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard has added her name to the Free Assange campaign, directing her pointed wishes to the White House. “Since you’re giving pardons to people,” she declared, “please consider pardoning those who, at great personal sacrifice, exposed the deception and criminality in the deep state.”

 

 

Pamela Anderson’s approach was somewhat different and, it should be said, raunchily attuned to her audience. She made no qualms donning a bikini in trying to get the president’s attention. “Bring Julian Assange Home Australia,” went her carried sign, tweeted with a message to Trump to pardon him. Glenn Greenwald, formerly of The Intercept, proved more conventional, niggling Trump about matters of posterity. “By far the most important blow Trump could strike against the abuse of power by CIA, FBI & the Deep State – as well as to impose transparency on them to prevent future abuses – is a pardon of @Snowden & Julian Assange, punished by those corrupt factions for exposing their abuses.” Alan Rusbridger, formerly editor of The Guardian, agrees.

While often coupled with Assange in the pardoning stakes, Edward Snowden has been clear about his wish to see the publisher freed. “Mr. President, if you grant only one act of clemency during your time in office, please: free Julian Assange. You alone can save his life.” As well meant as this is, Trump’s treasury of pardons is bound to be stocked by other options, not least for himself.

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Trump Exits Somalia

These are things that might have been done earlier. During the last, flickering days of the Trump administration, activity is being witnessed across countries which have a US troop presence. Numbers are being reduced. Security wonks are getting the jitters. Is the imperium shrinking? Will President elect Joe Biden wake up and reverse the trend? With the Beltway foreign policy Blob advising him, most likely.

In November, acting defence secretary Christopher Miller announced that the number of troops in Afghanistan and Iraq would fall from 4,500 to 2,500 and 3,500 to 2,500 respectively. Somalia has been added to the list of countries which will see US withdrawals in some number. The current troop presence stands at 700, tasked with assisting an African Union-backed peacekeeping force combat the al-Shabaab insurgency. A good number are also there to train and support Danab, the Somali special forces with eyes on capturing and killing leaders of the insurgent movement. The ultimate objective of US Africa Command in East Africa, then, “is one in which terrorist organizations are not able to threaten the US homeland, US persons, international allies or destabilize the region.”

This is a conflict that has a relentless air of eternity to it. Al-Shabaab counts itself as yet another, albeit more formidable militant group, that has thrived in Somalia’s unruly environment. Its claim to radicalised fame came with Ethiopia’s December 2006 invasion of the country. It was encouraged by the Somalian transitional government, with the intention of ousting al-Shabaab and the Islamic Courts Union from Mogadishu, captured by the fundamentalist alliance that June.

According to Robert Wise, the Ethiopian occupation transformed al-Shabaab “from a small relatively unimportant part of a more moderate Islamic movement into the most powerful and radical armed faction in the country.” Yet another salient lesson in the perils of foreign intervention.

US administrations might have feared the messiness of the Somali scene. The death of 18 US soldiers in October 1993 in a failed effort to capture the warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid in Mogadishu stung. Cruise-missile humanitarians and interventionists would have to wait for the republic to find its feet again. The attacks of September 11, 2001 on the United States furnished the moment, incarnating the global terrorist phenomenon and the pretext for an international deployment of US forces, officially and covertly. On March 19, 2003, the capture and interrogation of Suleiman Abdallah heralded the return of US troops to Somalia.

During the Obama administration, US drone strikes, with all the accompanying problems of legality and accountability, were the favoured weapon of choice against the group. These were also accompanied by ground raids. Killings, such as those of its leader, Ahmed Abdi Godane, in September 2014, were celebrated as triggers for an eventual collapse that never came. “Godane’s removal is a major symbolic and operational loss to the largest al-Qaida affiliate in Africa,” came the confident assessment from the White House, “and reflects years of painstaking work by our intelligence, military and law enforcement officials.”

Godane’s slaying was a spur, rather than a deterrent, for the organisation. Attacks on African peacekeeping forces increased; suicide bombings were used liberally, culminating in the slaughter of October 2017 in Mogadishu leaving almost 600 civilians dead.

In the earlier stage of his administration, President Donald Trump showed a marked interest in deepening US involvement in Somalia. The rhetoric of disentanglement was nowhere to be found. In March 2017, he approved a proposal from the Pentagon to expand operations against militants in the country. Commanders were no longer required to obtain high-level vetting of al-Shabaab targets in designated “areas of active hostilities.” As General Thomas Waldhauser of US Africa Command described it, “It allows [us] to prosecute targets in a more rapid fashion.” In 2018, 47 US drone strikes were executed. Last year, the number climbed to 63.

This was not to last. Trump began to cool to the US involvement. Earlier this year, the US pulled out from the cities of Bosaso and Galkayo. The now departed defence secretary Mark Esper was not enthused by the change of heart, and preferred continued engagement. Trump, for his part, preferred Kenyan security forces to have a greater role.

The statement from the Pentagon was packed with those reassurances that will affect audiences differently. The overall theme of the exit is change without difference. “The US is not withdrawing or disengaging from Africa. We remain committed to our African partners and enduring support through a whole-of-government approach.”

This is not the case of US soldiers returning home to celebratory fanfare for a disentangling republic. Many will find themselves in neighbouring Kenya, which has had its fair share of problems with al-Shabaab. “As a result of this decision, some forces may be reassigned outside of East Africa. However, the remaining forces will be repositioned from Somalia into neighbouring countries in order to allow cross-border operations by both US and partner forces.”

Somali President Mohamed Abdullah Mohamed is none too keen on the move, suggesting that his brittle government has gotten used to a particular diet of assistance. In October, he took to Twitter to claim that US “military support to Somalia has enabled us to effectively combat Al-Shabaab and secure the Horn of Africa. A victory through this journey and for Somali-US partnership can only be achieved through continuous security partnership and capacity building support.”

Senator Ayub Ismail Yusuf called the decision to remove US forces “untimely.” Well attuned to the language that has kept Washington engaged in foreign theatres since 2001, the true enemy was terrorism. “The fight against global terrorism is still ongoing and we must still win this battle for peace and security to prevail.” Colonel Ahmed Abdullahi Sheikh, Danab’s commander for three years till 2019, is convinced that making such a withdrawal permanent “will have a huge toll on counterterrorism efforts.”

Such comments suggest a far rosier picture of US involvement and Somali government successes. The US Defence Department Inspector General is far more measured in the July-September 2020 report. “Despite many years of sustained Somali, US, and international counterterrorism pressure, the terrorist threat in East Africa is not degraded: al-Shabaab retains freedom of movement in many parts of southern Somalia and has demonstrated an ability and intent to attack outside of the country, including targeting US interests.”

For the devotees of the imperial footprint, there is no way around it. The decision to exit is poor; the imperium’s interests will be harmed. William Lawrence from the American University in Washington, D.C. does not even shy away from a pseudo-colonial message. “The blow from the US operations standpoint is that over time, it will lose its ability to Americanise on the ground and to have more interaction with Somali troops.” Somalia would suffer a “real blow” with the departure of US personnel. “There is no good military or strategic reason for this move.”

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Imperfect Releases: Andrew Hastie, War Crimes Reports and Australia in Afghanistan

If one were to get into the head of Australian government MP Andrew Hastie, a security tangle of woe would no doubt await. Having been a captain with the Special Air Services and having also served in Afghanistan, he has been none too thrilled by the publicity soldiers he served with have received. The report by New South Wales Court of Appeal Justice Paul Brereton has now been mandatory reading (or skimming) for political and military watchers. Known rather dully as the Inspector-General of the Australian Defence Force Afghanistan Inquiry Report, it makes the claim that 39 alleged murders were inflicted on non-combatants by Australian special service units when operating in Afghanistan.

Of interest is where the report goes from here. A fair guess is that it will not venture too far into waters of reform. Hastie, for one, would have preferred it never to have been published, or at least not released in the “imperfect” way it was. He takes particular issue with the connected work of consultant Samantha Crompvoets, a sociologist commissioned by the Special Operations Commander of Australia (SOCAUST) to conduct a “cultural review” of the Special Operations Command in mid-2015.

In many ways, the work of Crompvoets, which is drawn upon and referenced heavily by the Brereton Inquiry itself, is more significant. It is less tightly hemmed by qualifications and speaks to the broader tactics and methods of Australia’s Special Forces. In her January 2016 report, she refers to body count competitions and the use of the Joint Priority Effects List (JPEL). Euphemised for battle, the JPEL effectively constituted a “sanctioned kill list” with numbers that were massaged.

She notes methods of war common to counter-insurgency operations during the Cold War. From Algeria to Vietnam, those who often came off second best were villagers for the butchering. Slaughtered villagers were often designated “squirters” when fleeing the arrival of Special Forces via helicopter. Excuses were concocted for the generous bloodletting: the squirters “were running away from us to their weapons caches.”

Clearance operations would also be used after the initial massacre. The village would be cordoned off; the men and boys taken to guesthouses. They would be bound up. Torture would ensue for days. These men and boys would then be found dead, shot in the head or have their throats slit.

In one instance, Crompvoets notes soldiers of the SASR driving along a road and sighting two 14-year-old boys. The soldiers quickly concluded they had come across Taliban sympathisers. The boys were stopped and seized. Their throats were slit. Their bodies were bagged and discarded in a river. Such occurrences were not infrequent; Special Force soldiers would commit such unsanctioned killings as a means of bonding, to “get a name for themselves”.

The death of the two Afghan boys has now become the stuff of diplomatic provocation. On November 30, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian tweeted a mocked up image of an Australian soldier ready to apply a blood soaked knife to the throat of an Afghan boy, holding a lamb. “Shocked by murder of Afghan civilians & prisoners by Australian soldiers. We strongly condemn such acts & call for holding them accountable.”

 

 

This was too much for Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who took issue with its repugnance. But for Hastie, it went further. Australia, he claimed in his speech to fellow parliamentarians on December 3, had let its guard slip. His springboard was an opinion piece by Alan Jones, that most opinionated of broadcasters, less focused on the tweeted image than the prime minister’s reaction to it. “When will you,” bellowed Jones, “apologise for your language and that of your Generals that condemned all our men in Afghanistan, the best of the best, to the charge of criminal behaviour from a report you haven’t read and before any of them have access to the full weight of the law?’

For Jones, innocence had been impugned by Australia’s political and military leaders. China has simply furnished the Morrison government with suitable headlines of distraction, to “have them off the hook” even as Australia’s soldiers were being defamed.

Hastie’s speech advanced a few points. He spoke approvingly of Morrison’s response to Beijing. He then embraced a tactic of minimisation: the alleged atrocities were localised, select. Australia was “seeking to be honest and accountable for alleged wrongdoing by a small number of individuals entrusted to wear our flag.” He also attacked the work of Crompvoets and the author herself. He grounds of contention were various: the appearance of the author on 60 Minutes four days prior to the release of the Brereton Report; the leak of her report two weeks prior to the publication of the Inquiry’s findings; the decision to release the unredacted Crompvoets report alongside the redacted Brereton Report.

“The Crompvoets report detailed unproven rumours of Australian soldiers murdering Afghan children. It may have prompted the Brereton Report, but its evidentiary threshold was far lower. The Brereton report neither rules these rumours in or out. So why are they out in the open for our adversaries to use against us?” Doing so had “undermined public confidence in the process and allowed the People’s Republic of China to malign our troops.”

Hastie’s speech has a throbbing subtext: containment. Despite professing a belief in the rule of law and transparency, the overwhelming sense from the politician who chairs the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security is that the Inquiry should have been kept indoors. Such bloodied laundry should never have been aired. That, at the very least, would have avoided public discussions about the egregious methods of Australia’s elite warriors, and the decisions behind deploying them in the first place.

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