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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.

The Year of the Botched Execution

There was never anything going for it, except political mileage and the desire for crude retribution. The putting to death of another human being by the legal sanction of a state has always been another way of justifying murder, effectively assassination by judicial fiat. Such policies remain terrifying features of a number of penal systems, designed to terrorise more than reform.

In the United States, the death penalty has been falling out of favour. The outgoing governor of Oregon Kate Brown announced on December 13 that she would commute all of the state’s 17 prisoners on death row. In terms of the sheer bloodiness of it all, the figure of 18 executions in six states comes across as one of the lowest in recent years.

The 2022 report by the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC) is merely another reminder as to why such cruelty should be ditched. It reads like a sadist’s dream and a humanitarian’s nightmare: over a third of executions this year were botched in the United States. “2022,” the report declares, “could be called ‘the year of the botched execution’.” To be more precise, seven of 20 execution attempts were bungled (“visibly problematic”, write the authors). Executions, it was found, were mostly concentrated in select jurisdictions – more than half in Oklahoma and Texas.

One particularly ghastly incident, in taking three hours, became the longest lethal injection in US history. The Alabama execution of Joe Nathan James took three hours, which, in the words of Reprieve US, was not just the longest in recorded US history in terms of lethal injection but “may even be the longest execution ever using any method.”

 

 

The conduct of the Alabama Department of Corrections proved to be a point of conjecture. Elizabeth Bruenig, writing in The Atlantic, noted the clumsy attempts by the executioners to gain access to a vein to deliver the lethal dose. The Department of Corrections told media witnesses that “nothing out of the ordinary” had taken place, a barely believable state of affairs that led to a private autopsy. Those with a taste for gallows humour might have understood an inadvertent frankness on the part of the ADC: there was nothing out of the ordinary about the inability of their staff to discharge their life-taking role.

Bruenig’s description is chastening. It conveys the blood sport spectatorship that such events entail, and the moral cant that implicates the entire penal establishment. “Something terrible had been done to James while he was strapped to a gurney behind closed doors without so much as a lawyer present to protest his treatment or an advocate to observe it, yet the state had insisted that nothing usual had taken place.”

The next two executions scheduled in the state were halted – call them foiled works in progress – given the inability of the amateur butchers to set an IV line. As is instinctive for politicians and bureaucrats when incompetence manifests, a review becomes the default position to obscure the obvious.

In November, Alabama Governor Kay Ivey announced a “top-to-bottom review” of the state’s execution procedures, one that should, by implication, have included her. In doing so, Ivey refused to accept “the narrative being pushed by activists that these issues are the fault of the folks at Corrections or anyone in law enforcement, for that matter. I believe that legal tactics and criminals hijacking the system are at play here.”

On the surface of it, the only hijacking taking place is by those in the penal system and law enforcement incapable of carrying out the most basic process of taking a human life. The state’s assassins are clearly not cut out for such dirty work. Ivey could only feel embarrassed that her staff had failed in putting on a good show. “I simply cannot, in good conscience, bring another victim’s family to Holman looking for justice, until I am confident that we can carry out the legal sentence.”

The report also paints a vast picture of gruesome incompetence, axiomatic in a killing system that outsources a medical process of execution to the medically untrained. In Idaho, Ohio, Tennessee and South Carolina, executions were delayed after officials proved unable to carry out execution protocols.

The spreadsheet death merchants in Idaho had slated the execution of Gerald Pizzuto, Jr. on December 15 without the drugs to complete it. The expiry of the death warrant was the culmination of a sordid legal circus involving the Idaho Commission of Pardons and Parole, the state’s obstinate sanguinary Governor Brad Little, and the court process.

In an unfolding of events that would have been a perfect theme for an absurdist drama, another execution did not take place in Oklahoma because the prisoner in question had not been transferred into the custody of the authorities.

Ghoulish accounts emerged in the case of all three of Arizona’s executions, “including the ‘surreal’ spectacle of a possibly innocent man assisting his executioners in finding a vein in which to inject the lethal chemicals.” Kindness and compassion, even towards the stupid, can have its drawbacks.

Robert Dunham, executive director of the DPIC, had to see the silver lining in such blatant, administrative savagery. “All the indicators point to the continuing decline in capital punishment.” Indeed, the report is almost cheery in noting that a time of “incendiary political advertising that drove the public’s perception of rising crime to record highs” did not arrest the decline of public support for capital punishment and jury verdicts favouring the death penalty.

As the report’s introduction goes on to observe, “Defying conventional political wisdom, nearly every measure of change – from new death sentences imposed and executions conducted to public opinion polls and elections results – pointed to the continuing durability of the more than 20-year sustained decline of the death penalty in the United States.”

Mighty fine it is to be optimistic but residual atavism in the Land of the Free remains. The likes of Governor Ivey continue to search for more efficient executions, for the “sake of the victims and their families.” Misplaced, futile vengeance, coloured by politics, continues to play a role.

 

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Corrupting the European Parliament: Qatar’s Sports Diplomacy

How utterly fitting that it should happen at this time. The Qatar FIFA World Cup is coming to a close, a tournament nakedly bought by a state keen to be a standard bearer, not merely of the Arab world, but the world of shameless sportswashing. Despite being criticised for its human rights record, its laws against sexual minorities and its shabby treatment of migrant labourers, Doha will be delighted at yet another tournament passing without effectual criticism.

The tournament has certainly seen a number of converts to Qatar’s increasingly large tent of the uncritical. The French President Emmanuel Macron, for one, is telling us that “sport shouldn’t be politicised.”

In Europe, however, we see the tentacles of Qatar’s footballing gambit and the range of its influence. The European Parliament has come under a thick cloud of suspicion for receiving bribes and incentives for allegedly fostering a positive image of the Gulf state. Nothing concentrates the undecided mind quite like a large wad of cash.

The most notable scalp of an ongoing investigation into alleged illicit lobbying activities has been the European Parliament Vice-President Eva Kaili, whose December 9 arrest sent a chill through Strasbourg and Brussels. The next day, she was suspended from her vice-presidential role, and charged with corruption. Expulsions duly followed from the parliament’s Socialists and Democrats Group, and the Greek Pasok party.

Kaili was one of four suspects charged after Belgian investigators found 1.5 million euros spread across two homes and a suitcase. The latter, located in a Brussels hotel room, is said to have had 750,000 euros; cash worth 600,000 euros and 150,000 euros were found at the home of one suspect and at the flat of an MEP, respectively. The now former vice-president’s innocence has been declared through her lawyer, who claimed to have “no idea if any money was found or how much was found” at his client’s flat.

The other suspects, all Italian nationals, include Kaili’s partner and parliamentary assistant, Francesco Giorgi; former MEP Pier Antonio Panzeri, who heads the human rights group Fight Impunity; and Niccolò Figa-Talamanca, who steers the lobby group No Peace Without Justice.

Doha has certainly done much to convince European counterparts that criticisms are being addressed. In September 2021, an MEP delegation met Prime Minister and Minister of Interior Sheikh Khalid bin Khalifa bin Abdulaziz Al Thani, and found much merit to claimed reforms. Marc Tarabella, vice-chair of the delegation for relations with the Arab Peninsula and chair of the Sport intergroup in the European parliament, claimed that Qatar valued “the EU inputs” and had demonstrated “that the country is willing to work together to achieve the outcome for workers.”

With the football tournament in full swing, Tarabella was also effusive in praising Qatar for becoming “a good example to follow for the other countries in the neighbourhood.” Last month, Kaili was also happy to concur in a speech to fellow parliamentarians that had a pungent smell of connivance. “The World Cup in Qatar is proof, actually, of how sports diplomacy can achieve a historical transformation of a country with reforms that inspired the Arab world.”

In self-praise, Kaili claimed that she had been “alone” in stating that Qatar was “a frontrunner in labour rights, abolishing kafala and [introducing a] minimum wage.” In reading from the pro-Doha script, she reproached critics for bullying and accusing all who talk to Qatari officials as engaging in corruption. “We can promote our values, but we do not have the moral right for lectures to get cheap media attention.”

Tarabella’s involvement was sufficient to pique the interest of Belgian police, who raided the home of the socialist Belgian MEP on December 10, seizing computer equipment along the way. “I have absolutely nothing to hide and I will answer all the questions of the investigators, that goes without saying, if that can help them shed light on this affair,” he stated. “The justice system is going through its process of information gathering and investigating, which I find completely appropriate.”

The rippling effects of Qatar’s purchasing influence are also being felt in other European states. The French financial prosecutor’s office is mulling over corruption charges relating to the award of the tournament to Qatar and any role played by French officials in that venture. Other political figures, such as National Assembly member Alexis Corbière, have openly claimed that “many lobbyists” had approached him to alter his views of the World Cup as a “social, ecological and democratic aberration.”

Indignation and shock are never good indicators of sincerity and accuracy. Parliamentary leader Roberta Metsola is sounding like a witchfinder in search of scapegoats rather than a doctor on the hunt for a diagnosis. “European democracy is under attack and our free and democratic societies are under attack.”

How this is so is not made clear, though it is evident about the reach of Qatar’s sports washing prowess. Metsola also promises that, “There will be no impunity, there will be no sweeping under the carpet.” That will surely depend on the scale of what is found – and the size of the carpet able to accommodate the findings.

 

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Basketball, Viktor Bout and Troubling Exchanges

Prison exchanges and swaps are never entirely satisfactory affairs. The appropriate measure in such cases is the degree of dissatisfaction that arises from them. In the instance of the exchange of US basketballer Brittney Griner for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, the Russian negotiators may well count themselves richer in the bargain.

Griner, a two-time Olympic champion, was detained in February this year at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport possessing cartridges for vapes with hashish oil. Her argument was that these had been prescribed. The court was not convinced, sentencing her to a brutal nine-year prison sentence for drug smuggling.

Bout, invested with Satanic-like qualities of influence by US authorities and Hollywood, where his role is given a celluloid form by Nicolas Cage, was convicted in 2011 on four charges that included conspiring to kill US citizens.

He was arrested three years prior in Bangkok after attempting to sell surface-to-air missiles to members of the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) posing as arms buyers for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. This very fact gave Bout cause for consternation and suspicion: the sting operation, the smell of politics. For his part, it was all business.

More popularly, he was accused of something other powers and entities have done repeatedly since decolonisation: spread the murderous joy of armaments across the African continent through the 1990s and early 2000s. Throw in claims by US authorities that he was a former officer of the Russian military intelligence directorate, the GRU, and we have a character with form.

Bout’s ventures were more complicated than merely shipping weapons. In the 1990s, he launched his own air-freight company Air Cess, acquired a fleet of military aircraft, and shipped televisions, air-conditioners, furniture, textiles, electronics and weapons to a number of countries in conflict from his operating base in Sharjah. He was positively catholic in acquiring his clients: from officials in Washington to war criminals such as Liberia’s Charles Taylor.

The prospects for seeking an exchange involving Bout were already circulating in July, when it was reported that he might be exchanged for Paul Whelan, serving a 16-year sentence in Russia on espionage charges, along with Griner. Even the original sentencing justice, District Judge Shira Scheindlin, argued that “the situation has changed and this is a trade we should make.” Bout had most likely lost his place in the pecking order of arms trafficking.

Former chief of operations at the DEA, Michael Braun, expressed his alarm at the very idea. “Before going through this trade, it would behoove US President Joe Biden to remember just how dangerous Bout was – and how much damage his release could do to US national security.”

The Russian negotiators, refusing a job lot offer, drew the line at Whelan, leaving the Biden administration to accept the return of Griner while raising questions about the currency of such exchanges.

The air of disagreement from the smokestacks of commentary in the US was certainly palpable. But Griner’s return came to be seen as morally necessary, given, as a CNN report put it, her sentence “to a Russian penal colony for possession of a single gram of cannabis oil.” Bout’s release became a justifiable move because of Griner’s “blatant seizure as a geopolitical pawn on the eve of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.”

Russian human rights lawyer Arseny Levinson also thought the sentence political in nature. “She should not have been sentenced to a real prison term at all. Moreover, such a severe punishment should not have been imposed, it was motivated solely by raising the stakes in the exchange, making a mockery out of the hostage.”

The Griner-Bout exchange has thrown up an unwelcome mirror for the Biden administration. The failure to secure Whelan’s release led former President Donald Trump to fume at “a ‘stupid’ and unpatriotic embarrassment for the USA,” while House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) called it a “gift to Vladimir Putin” and imperilling to “American lives.”

US Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) argued that the trade gave another reason to “impeach” the President. Biden “traded Russian terrorist arms dealer, Viktor Bout, left a US Marine in a Russian jail, and brought home a professional basketball player.”

The sentiment was echoed in gloating fashion by RT editor Margarita Simonyan, who thought Whelan a “hero spy” as opposed to Griner, a “drug-addicted black lesbian who suffered for vaping hashish”.

Then came that rather uncomfortable fact that marijuana, while legal in 21 US states, has also seen prisoners serve life sentences for possessing small amounts of the drug. Neuroscientist and drug reform advocate Dr Carl Hart celebrated Griner’s release, but suggested the need to do more: “Now let’s free all drug war political prisoners.”

Being righteous over the release of Bout is an easy thing. The arms-trade has a far more obvious lethality to it than drugs or the pet obsession of wealthy countries with “people smuggling.” But that ignores the muddy picture of deals, collaborative alliances and understandings known as the international arms market.

Singling out Bout as the cartoonish gangster who endangered US lives ignores the fact that the United States remains the world’s biggest arms exporter, thereby endangering the lives of citizens across the globe. Between 2017 and 2021, the US accounted for 39 percent of the major arms transfers globally. This was twice that of Russia, and almost 10 times what China sent its customers.

Another excruciating point is that one can only become a merchant of death if the merchandise, and the interest in buying and using it, is there. As Bout himself put it, if you were going to prosecute a figure such as himself, you might as well prosecute US arms dealers whose weapons eventually end up being used against US citizens. (The National Rifle Association, take note.) “They are involved even more than me!”

 

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The US Imperium Garrisons Australia

On December 6, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin hosted Australia’s Foreign Minister Penny Wong and Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Defence Richard Marles. It was the 32nd occasion the countries had met in this setting.

The Australia-US Ministerial Consultations (AUSMIN) is really a chat fest held between Australian Ministers for Defence and Foreign Affairs along with the US Secretaries of State and Defense, accompanied by officials of touted seniority. Advertised as an occasion for the states “to discuss and share perspectives and approaches on major global and regional political issues, and to deepen bilateral foreign security and defence cooperation,” it is more accurately an occasion for Washington to keep an eye on its satellite.

The occasion would have been a disappointment for sceptics of the US-Australian alliance, one that has seen Australians join, with somnambulistic facility, failed distant, needless wars. Even with a change of government in Canberra, it is clear that the US security lobby remains ascendant, tranquilising Australian politicians with the virtues of the alliance.

The joint statement from Blinken, Austin, Wong and Marles was filled with the gruel of banality: rules-based order, as they understood it; the importance of the relationship to “regional peace and prosperity,” despite signs it is becoming increasingly dangerous to that cause; and utterances about human rights and fundamental freedoms.

For keen watchers of encroaching militarism, the following would have stood out: “The principals also decided to evolve their defense and security cooperation to ensure they are equipped to deter aggression, counter coercion, and make space for sovereign decision making.”

This could hardly be a reference to Australian sovereignty, given its whittling down over the years to the decisions of an increasingly more engaged US in the Indo-Pacific region. While Canberra decries any moves by Pacific Island neighbours to exercise their own rights of sovereignty to seal security arrangements with Beijing, it ignores its own subordinate, increasingly garrisoned role in the US imperium.

China comes in for a predictable mauling, given its actions in the South China Sea and the making of “excessive maritime claims that are inconsistent with international law.” Wishing to enrage the Yellow Devil further, the parties also reiterate “Taiwan’s role as a leading democracy in the Indo-Pacific region, an important regional economy, and a key contributor to critical supply chains.”

Strategic competition, as a concept, was fine in principle, but to be pursued “responsibly,” a word that has little meaning in the thuggery of international politics. The parties also agreed to “work together to ensure competition does not escalate into conflict” and looked to the PRC “to do the same and to engage Beijing on risk reduction and transparency measures.” More could be done on the issue of transparency and China’s nuclear arsenal, for instance.

The statement then goes on to raise the importance of cooperation with Beijing in some areas of mutual concern followed by a sharp backhanded serve. Cooperation with China on “issues of shared interest, including climate change, pandemic threats, non-proliferation, countering illicit and illegal narcotics, the global food crisis, and macroeconomic issues” was important, but so was “enhancing deterrence and resilience through coordinated efforts to offer Indo-Pacific nations support to resist subversion and coercion of any kind.”

There is also more poking with the expression of “serious concerns about severe human rights violations in Xinjiang, the human rights situation in Tibet, and the systematic erosion of Hong Kong’s autonomy, democratic institutions, and processes undermining commitments made by the PRC before the handover.”

Australia’s promised submarines under the AUKUS security pact, almost as credible as the Loch Ness monster, receives an airing. Giving nothing away, the statement “commended the significant progress AUKUS partners have made on developing the optimal pathway for Australia to acquire a conventionally armed, nuclear-powered submarine capability at the earliest possible date.” No date is provided, but a year on when that optimal pathway will be miraculously revealed is 2023. Best not wait up.

The joint statement does little to dissuade the idea that Australia is moving, inexorably, towards a satellite, garrison state to be disposed of and used by the US imperium. Under the “Forced Posture Initiatives” – the wording is telling – the US will further integrate Australia into its military operations via Enhanced Land Cooperation, Enhanced Maritime Cooperation, and the Combined, Logistics, Sustainment, and Maintenance Enterprise.

The US armed forces would continue its “rotational presence” in Australia across air, land and sea including “US Bomber Task Force rotations, fighters, and future rotations of US Navy and US Army capabilities.” The emphasis, in other words, is entirely US-centric, with Australia’s posture being rather supine, even as it aids “US force posture with associated infrastructure, including runway improvements, parking aprons, fuel infrastructure, explosive storage infrastructure, and facilities to support the workforce.”

What a wonderful list of targets for any future foe, and bound to become even juicier with Austin’s promise to “find ways to further integrate our defense industrial bases in the years ahead.”

While they do not tend to make regular appearances on uncritical mainstream news outlets, Australian civil society members have been alarmed by such moves. The 280 submissions to the Independent and Peaceful Australian Network (IPAN) addressing the high cost of Australia’s relationship with the United States attest to a very different narrative.

IPAN’s report drawn from its People’s Inquiry into “Exploring the Case for an Independent and Peaceful Australia,” informed by those submissions and released last month, should be mandatory reading for Canberra’s insular policy hacks. In his contribution to the report covering the defence and military aspects of the alliance, Vince Scappatura took note of the most pressing concern among the submissions: “that the alliance makes Australia an unnecessary target of America’s foes.”

The alliance has also seen Australia committed to “several needless and costly wars and is likely to do so again in the future, with especially grave consequences in the context of the great power rivalry between the US and China.” Unfortunately for the industrious Scappatura and those honourable souls determined to force a revision of the relationship, the sleepwalkers are in charge. And when that happens, wars are rarely far away.

 

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Baguette Listings: Why Food is Politics

On November 30, the French baguette was formally added to the United Nations’ Intangible Cultural Heritage list. The bureaucrats had finally gotten hold of a glorified bread stick, adding it to their spreadsheet list of cultural items worthy of preservation. A delighted French President took the moment to gloat at the French Embassy in Washington. “In these few centimetres passed from hand to hand lies the spirit of French know-how,” stated a glowing Emmanuel Macron.

The list, for which UNESCO is responsible for observing, includes some 678 traditions from 140 countries. The Slovenians have beekeeping, for instance; Tunisia has harissa; Zambia can call upon the significance of the Kalela dance. Such traditions can span several countries: the listing of states for the Lipizzan horse breeding tradition reads like an inventory of the lost Austro-Hungarian empire, echoing Joseph Roth’s Radetzkymarsch.

The baguette, one of France’s grandest gastronative examples, is celebrated as a labour-intensive product marked by patience. Lengthy periods of fermentation are required, including wheat of appropriate quality, leaving a distinct gold crispness. Fats are eschewed, as are any improvers or additives, which are prohibited by the decree of September 13, 1993. The characteristic cuts with 14 facets act like ceremonial scars. It is also the hallmark of the traditional boulangeries, which are struggling, notably in rural areas, to survive.

“Many have tried to make it; they just made something industrial which has no taste,” the grinning Macron exclaimed. “And this ‘French touch’ we have in our baguette is the one we have in other sectors: It’s this additional know-how, this extra soul. So, congratulations to our baguette for today.”

Macron’s dig at the industrialised, quickly made baguette is well-founded, and it was appropriate for him to be doing it in the land of mass-industrialised food practices. But the baguette has become, in time, a French imperial marker with local variations.The Vietnamese famously have their Bánh mì, which has become an international food presence across the global diaspora, though modifications in terms of part substitution of rice flour for wheat flour take place. The influence in western and northern Africa is also clear. The streets of Dakar are marked by baguette stands.

As food is as much a political statement as a culturally boisterous one, political figures expressed their delight at the baguette’s listing. Culture Minister Rima Abdul Malak tweeted about the ubiquity of the baguette in terms of French habits: “morning, noon and evening, the baguette is part of the daily life of the French.” The listing was “a great recognition for our artisans and the unifying places that are our bakeries.”

Another important figure in promoting the baguette’s case for UNESCO recognition, Dominique Anract, called the announcement “good news in a complicated environment.” As president of the National Federation of French Bakeries and Patisseries, Anract almost struck a wistful note about old habits. “When a baby cuts his teeth, his parents give him a stump of baguette to chew off.”

Much of this belies the fact that the French, as serious as they are about eating bread, consume less of it and are facing changing lifestyles and the hollowing out of its evocative rural villages. Since 1950, the consumption of bread has fallen by a startling two-thirds. But modern food politics demands modern laws; and a recent promulgation demands the use of certain percentages regarding the use of wheat. Eventually, much is at stake for the continued making and consumption of this thin bread morsel.

For an individual such as Steven Kaplan, a Brooklyn-born historian who has spent almost all his academic life focused on bread, the UNESCO addition could only cause displeasure. The ecstasy of French politicians about the baguette belies the fact that such a listing will simply serve to encourage inferior alternatives. Under the generic term of “baguette de pain”, as opposed to “baguette de tradition”, the white flour baguette, “which is generally of very mediocre quality” is legitimised. “For me, who has long campaigned for artisanal savoir-faire, this is an appalling regression.”

Whenever a committee meets, politics will arise. The decision making of UNESCO is no exception. Was there a reason why Ukrainian borscht soup needed to make the list? Yes, according to committee members, because of Russia’s warring efforts in Ukraine. A gastronomic threat had been identified, with UNESCO claiming that “armed conflict has threatened the viability” of the dish, as “people not only cannot cook or grow local vegetables for borscht, but also cannot gather [to make the dish] … undermining the social and cultural well-being of communities.”

Borscht brings its own brand of culinary politics, and charting countries which consume this soup is to revisit dead empires and their shadows: Imperial Russia, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Igor Bednyakov, chef at the Moscow restaurant Bochka, advises that the Cossacks cooked up the stew during the siege of Azov in 1637, a fascinating twist to the tale that has done little to neutralise Ukrainian-Russian debates on the issue.

Ukrainian food nativists, for one, point to earlier dates and the addition of beetroot, while the Russian Federation’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs is adamant that borscht is a “symbol of traditional cuisine” and a “timeless classic” of Russian origin. Not only do they want to steal our territory, comes the Ukrainian retort, but they want to appropriate our dishes. Be that as it may, empires may perish but the dishes linger, their origins of necessity lost.

The UNESCO listing of borscht was merely another front in the battle between Kyiv and Moscow. “Victory in the war for borscht is ours!” exclaimed Ukrainian Minister for Culture Oleksandr Tkachenko. Food, as the late Anthony Bourdain reminded us, really is politics.

 

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The Raider Spirit: The Unveiling of the B-21

The US military industrial complex has made news with another eye-wateringly expensive product, a near totemic tribute to waste in a time of crisis. The $700 million B-21 Raider stealth bomber was unveiled by Northrop Grumman Corp. and the United States Air Force on December 2 at Airforce Plant 42 in Palmdale, California.

There was much slush and fudge about the project, with its release being treated as something akin to the Second Coming. Those in public relations were kept particularly busy. Social media was shamelessly used to advertise the event, which was livestreamed. “Join now for our live reveal of the B-21 Raider,” tweeted Northrop Grumman. “This changes everything.”

The occasion was the first of its type since November 1988, when the Northrop B-2 Spirit made its debut. The aircraft in question, with serial number 00001 was rolled forward, still covered in tarpaulin, from a hangar before defence and policy wonks, the press and 2,000 workers. The removal of the covering revealed a machine reminiscent of the original B-2 with an extra-terrestrial echo, described as “space-age coatings”.

Praise was heaped upon the celebrated, as yet untested monster. “The B-21 is the most advanced military aircraft ever built and is a product of pioneering innovation and technological excellence,” stated Doug Young, sector vice president and general manager at Northrop Grumman Aeronautics Systems.

A USAF news release was filled with justifications for the Raider. (The ceremony was timed to coincide with a new report on Chinese military capabilities.) “The B-21 Raider is the first strategic bomber in more than three decades,” declared Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin during the unveiling. “It is a testament to America’s enduring advantages in ingenuity and innovation. And it’s proof of the Department’s long-term commitment to building advanced capabilities that will fortify America’s ability to deter aggression, today and into the future.”

As with all defence projects of absurd expenditure, justification is easily sought and found. Such a creation, argue defence officials, was entirely in line with the National Defense Strategy “and other analyses”. No degree of ingenuity is required to appreciate the primary thrust of the NDS, which is “deterrence against China.” Of its four top defence priorities outlined in the document, the PRC receives generous coverage, being seen as a “growing multi-domain threat” and any country challenging US interests in the Indo-Pacific.

As Austin has previously stated, “We’re seamlessly integrating our deterrence efforts to make a basic truth crystal clear to any potential foe. The truth is that the cost of aggression against the United States or our allies and partners far outweigh any conceivable gains.”

This delusional effusion is striking for inverting what are overly aggressive overtures on the international scene, turning them into the more benign objective of deterrence. Reduced to a skeletal outline, defending US supremacy is the order of the day, and any pretenders or mischief makers will be dealt with, however genuine their credentials. And when in doubt, those ominous credentials are bound to be inflated.

The B-21 is merely one aspect of that policy. It “is deterrence the American way,” claims Austin, which might be regarded as threatened aggression by other means. “It’s the embodiment of America’s determination to defend the republic that we all love. It’s a testament to our strategy of deterrence – with the capabilities to back it up, every time and everywhere.”

Air Force Chief of Staff General Charles Q. Brown Jr., was careful to doff the cap to representatives of the military industrial complex, where corporation and tax payer dollars mix with little scrutiny and few scruples. “You think about what we’re able to do in the amount of time with the workforce here from Northrop Grumman, the collaboration with the United States Air Force to bring in a capability using a digital approach which is new and different from anything we’ve done [in] any major program, that’s part of the Raider spirit.”

Those at Northrop Grumman won even greater favour with Pentagon bean counters, reportedly developing the project at an amount less than the original $25.1 billion projection by the USAF. Time will tell.

The event itself was not exactly brimming with revelations. Air & Space Forces Magazine bluntly noted that little by way of new information about the aircraft was supplied, be it about capabilities, dimensions, or “further programmatic details, such as the planned production rate, or even how many engines power the bomber.” Austin boasted that it would have a range longer than any other bomber, and “won’t need to be based in theatre. It won’t need logistical support to hold any target at risk.”

The bomber, the USAF tells us, was designed to be “a long-range, highly survivable stealth bomber capable of delivering a mix of conventional and nuclear munitions. The aircraft will play a major role supporting national security objectives and assuring US allies and partners across the globe.”

We also learn that the B-21 unveiled on December 2 is one of six in the production line, with an eventual target of 100 or even 150 (defence officials are fickle about such projections). “Each is considered a test aircraft, but each is being built on the same production line, using the same tools, processes, and technicians who will build production aircraft.”

Opinions and assessments, as they often are in such defence dispatches, are scripted to say nothing while clouding the main issues. Andrew P. Hunter, Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics, comes up with a bubble-filled sample. “Leveraging innovative manufacturing techniques, open systems architectures and active management allows us to integrate new technology as it matures and ensures the B-21 can adapt to future threats and be successful when and where we need it.”

While the name of the aircraft is meant to evoke the daring of the 1942 Doolittle Raid on Tokyo by 16 B-25 Mitchell bombers in retaliation for Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbour, the B-21 is the offspring of a very different spirit: the raider turned wasteful aggressor-in-waiting.

 

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Gallic Rebuke: France and the US Rules-based Order

Gérard Araud was not mincing his words. As France’s former ambassador to Washington, he had seen enough. At a November 14 panel hosted by the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft titled “Is America Ready for a Multipolar Word?”, Araud decried the “economic warfare” being waged by the United States against China, expressing the view that Europe was concerned by the evident “containment policy” being pursued.

Araud is very much the diplomat establishment figure, having also served as French representative to the United Nations from 2009 to 2014. But despite his pedigree, he was most keen to fire off a few salvos against such concepts as the “rules-based order” so treasured by the Anglosphere and the “West” more broadly defined. “To be frank, I’ve always been extremely sceptical about this idea of a ‘rules-based order’.” Both he and the French in general loved the United Nations, “but the Americans not too much.”

With unerring frankness, he also noted that the UN and broader international hierarchy was dominated by the US-European bloc. The undersecretaries to the organisation reflected that fact, as did the stewardship of the World Bank and the IMF. “So that’s the first element: this order is our order.”

The second element was historical: the balance of power as it was in the war-ruined world of 1945. “Really people forget that, if China and Russia are obliged to oppose [with] their veto, it is because frankly the Security Council is most of the time, 95% of the time, has a Western-oriented majority.”

French President Emmanuel Macron has adopted elements of Araud’s thinking, notably regarding the problems and limits of US domination, while still reasserting the value of France’s own global imprint. Such actions and sombre strategizing are taking place in the shadow of the West’s decline. In a recent closed-door meeting with his top diplomats, Macron remarked that “the international order is being upended in a whole new way. It is a transformation of the international order. I must admit that Western hegemony may be coming to an end.”

This theme of decline in Macron’s is an ongoing Spenglerian motif. It surfaced at the end of the G-7 summit in 2019, where he reflected on the decline of Western dominance while pondering the finance-obsessed nature of the global market economy. This was pretty rich coming from a banker, though he was certainly right on the issue of greater multipolarity.

To his diplomats, Macron paddled in the waters of history, reflecting on French power in the 18th century, the Industrial Revolution led by Britain in the 19th century, and the brute dominance of the United States from the 20th century. With typically Gallic, broad stroke synthesis, he suggested that “France is culture, England is industry, and America is war.”

Then came the finger pointing, sharply directed at the biggest of culprits and the underminers of the West. “Within Western countries, many wrong choices the United States has made in the face of crises have deeply shaken our hegemony.” It was not something that began with the Trump administration; previous US presidents “made other wrong choices long before Trump, Clinton’s China policy, Bush’s war policy, Obama’s world financial crisis, and quantitative easing policy.”

To this swipe at Washington could be added the role of emerging powers, which were underestimated by the West “not just two years ago, but as early as ten or twenty years ago.” He admitted that “China and Russia have achieved great success over the years under different leadership styles.”

Despite such rueful admissions about decline, Macron is still keen to pursue a form of geopolitical balancing, notably in the Indo-Pacific. This is code for the pursuing French interests in a region that is increasingly looking like exploding into a folly-driven conflict between the Chinese and US camps. But Paris is hardly going to miss out pushing the credentials of its defence industry, which took a bruising with the scuppering of the Attack Class submarine deal with the Australian government in September last year.

In February, Macron convinced Jakarta to ink a deal worth $8.1 billion for 42 Rafale fighter jets produced by Dassault Aviation. Two diesel-electric Scorpène-class attack submarines produced by the Naval Group have also been added to the mix, along with ammunition, making the arrangements with Jakarta some of the most lucrative for France in Southeast Asia.

On his current visit to Washington, Macron is facing those old problems of US power. While Australia was designated assassin in killing off the submarine contract, the ammunition came from Washington as part of the AUKUS security pact, a spear pointing at China in the Indo-Pacific. President Joe Biden has merely described the handling of the whole matter as “clumsy”.

Then come such issues as the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), which gives advantageous climate subsidies to US companies over their European counterparts, and how the Ukraine War is to be addressed. Biden has no inclination to speak to Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin, content to let the war rage as long as it bleeds Russia; Macron has been more than willing to keep the lines open, acknowledging that diplomacy, however frail, must at least be drip-fed.

In his own reflections on what could be done regarding the US-Western parochialism of the rules-based order, Araud made the obvious point. Any genuine international system purporting to be undergirded by rules had to integrate “all the major stakeholders into managing of the world, you know really bringing in the Chinese, the Indians, and really other countries, and trying to build with them, on an equal basis, the world of tomorrow.” What a daring idea, and one that is bound to avoid a global conflict. For that reason, it won’t be embraced.

 

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Julian Assange and Albanese’s Intervention

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Tuvalu, Climate Change and the Metaverse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Football Capitulates at Qatar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ginger Sufferings: Gianni Infantino’s Sportswashing Performance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Thuggish Ways: Mike Pompeo, Punishing Leakers and Getting Assange

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Privacy Woes: Google’s “Location History” Settlement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Saudi Blood Money, Golf and Adelaide

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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