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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 Taliban take Kabul

It unfolded as a story of fleeing. The Afghan president Ashraf Ghani, taking flight to Tajikistan, giving little clue of his intentions to colleagues. The fleeing of the infamous Abdul Rashid Dostum, a warlord assured to to fight another day. The fleeing of tens of thousands of residents out of the city of Kabul, long seen as beyond the reach of insurgents. The fleeing of Coalition embassy personnel, aided by freshly deployed troops from the United States and the UK sent into Afghanistan as a matter of urgency. The Taliban had taken Kabul.

In departing and leaving stranded colleagues to their fate, the bookish Ghani, preferring pen to gun, had time to leave a message on Facebook. One could never accuse the man of having wells of courage. He reflected on either facing armed Taliban fighters or leaving his beloved country. In order to avoid immolating Kabul, which “would have been a big human disaster,” he chose a hasty exit.

Only a few days prior, on August 11, Ghani had flown to Mazar-i-Sharif, in the company of the blood lusty Uzbek Dostum, supposedly to hold the fort against the Taliban with another warlord, the ethnic Tajik Atta Muhammad Noor. Noor had pledged in June to mobilise the citizenry of Balkh province to fight the Taliban. “God forbid, the fall of Balkh,” he declared at the time, “means the fall of the north and the fall of the north means the fall of Afghanistan.”

This was not a move greeted with universal joy. Habib-ur-Rahman of the leadership council of the political and paramilitary group Hizb-e-Islami saw a bit of self-aggrandizing at work, hardly remarkable for a warlord keen to oversee his bit of real estate. “The mobilisation of the people by politicians under the pretext of supporting security forces – with the use of public uprising forces – fuels the war from one side and from the other it affects Afghanistan’s stance in foreign policy.”

The shoring up mission led by Ghani would do little to conceal the historical differences between Noor and Dostum. The former had done battle with Dostum’s troops during the latter’s time as a regional commander in the ailing Soviet-backed Afghan government. Dostum’s defection from the government (one spots the common theme) in 1992 to form the Junbish-e-Milli party presented Noor with a chance to join forces. But the Tajik left Dostum in 1993 citing irreconcilable ideological differences. With the initial defeat of the Taliban, Noor triumphed in several military encounters with the frustrated Uzbek, seizing the Balkh province in its entirety.

The accord reached between the parties on this occasion certainly did not involve agreeing to fight the Taliban. Both had come to the conclusion that scurrying to Uzbekistan was a sounder proposition. Noor subsequently justified the measure by claiming enigmatically that, “They had orchestrated the plot to trap Marshal Dostum and myself too, but they didn’t succeed.” Ghani would soon follow.



Members of Ghani’s imploding government have not taken kindly to the flight of their leader. “Curse Ghani and his gang,” wrote acting defence minister, Bismillah Khan Mohammadi. “They tied our hands from behind and sold the country.”

The head of the High Council for National Reconciliation Abdullah Abdullah also released a video withering in announcing that, “The former president of Afghanistan” had “left the country in this difficult situation.” God, he suggested, “should hold him accountable.” Abdullah, along with former President Harmid Karzai and Hizb-e-Islami leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, are currently in negotiations with the Taliban over the formal transfer of power.

The US and UK have deployed personnel in a hurried panic. Over the weekend, President Joe Biden, in announcing the deployment of 5,000 troops, told the press that they would ensure “we can have an orderly and safe drawdown of US personnel and other allied personnel, and an orderly and safe evacuation of Afghans who helped our troops during our mission and those at special risk from the Taliban advance.” Another thousand have also been added to the complement.

There was much embarrassment in all of this. The US and its allies made the fundamental error that training, money and expertise would somehow miraculously guarantee the stability, continuity and reliability of a ramshackle regime. Biden, in coming up with his own phraseology, had stated that a Taliban victory was “not inevitable.” In July, we were given a nugget of Bidenese that, while he had little trust for the Taliban, he did “trust the capacity of the Afghan military, who is better trained, better equipped, and more re- – more competent in terms of conducting war.”

As the Taliban was securing the capital, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken parried evident parallels with the US withdrawal from Vietnam in 1975. “This is manifestly not Saigon,” he said with little conviction.

Now, the scene was one of grave, turbaned and bearded men, armed to the teeth, overseeing the desk which Ghani previously occupied in the presidential palace. They had survived and outwitted an army better armed and supposedly better trained. They had survived airstrikes launched from within the country and from bases in the Persian Gulf and Central Asia, via heavy bombers and lethal drones. They had survived the forces of the US, NATO and rival militias.

They now find themselves in control of an entity they wish to be recognised as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. History has come in its full violent circle. A group of insurgents dismissed as fundamentalist mountain savages who would be vanquished before the modernising incentives of the West have shown up, as previous Afghan fighters have, the futility and sheer folly of meddling in their country’s affairs.

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A Taste of Panic: The Taliban Continues its Advance

The historical vectors are moving with conviction and purpose; the weak and lacking in conviction are in retreat and the gun is doing the talking. The government of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, the security services and the Afghan National Army, seem to be either huddled in despair, capitulating or fleeing before the inexorable advance of the Taliban. They have the upper hand, the cards, the means, storming through and winning half of the country.

For months, it was assumed that the Taliban would not have the means to capture cities. The National Army would be able to garrison and lord in the cities, offering protection. In July, US President Joseph Biden claimed that, while he did not trust the Taliban, he did “trust the capacity of the Afghan military, who is better trained, better equipped, and more re- – more competent in terms of conducting war.”

Then, the cities started falling. Kandahar, Ghazni, Herat. On August 14, Taliban fighters captured Mazar-i-Sharif, finding itself ever closer to the capital. Members of the Afghan army and security personnel had reportedly made a highway dash north to Uzbekistan.

The US is hurriedly deploying 5,000 troops in an exercise of circularity, given that they were already leaving in numbers even prior to July 2. As Biden tried to explain on August 14, the troops would ensure “we can have an orderly and safe drawdown of US personnel and other allied personnel, and an orderly and safe evacuation of Afghans who helped our troops during our mission and those at special risk from the Taliban advance.”

His statement, for the most part, was a spiritless effort to justify some continued role of the US in Afghanistan even as it cuts the cord to their corrupt clients in Kabul. The Armed Forces and Intelligence Community had been “ordered” to keep an eye on “future terrorist threats from Afghanistan.” Secretary State Anthony Blinken had been “directed to support President Ghani and other Afghan leaders” in their efforts to avoid “further bloodshed and pursue a political settlement.” There was some finger wagging regarding the Taliban, warning that any military acts against US personnel or its mission would “be met with a swift and strong US military response.”

Within the crumbling layers of the Kabul government, there is much quaking, shifting and internal bloodletting. As has been pointed out by Candace Rondeaux, “the greater threat to Afghanistan’s stability has always been the fecklessness of so many in positions of power in the Afghan government.”

The defence minister Hayatullah Hayat has been given the heave-ho by Ghani, to be replaced by General Bismillah Khan Mohammadi on Wednesday. Khan is a testament that current events in Afghanistan are always reminders of history: he was a former member of the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan, a body that was favoured by the now defunct Soviet Union.

US forces find themselves again being drawn into the maelstrom. There are the warnings, almost shrill, that forces must recommit, and decisions reversed. Former CIA director General David Petraeus wishes for a proper re-deployment of troops to prevent the consignment of a “country of 40 million people to a medieval, theocratic, ultra-conservative Islamist emirate.” The editors of the conservative National Review envisage the creation of a “launchpad of a global movement that had for years been kept at bay by the presence of US forces – most recently a small, relatively low-cost contingent.”

Such sentiments are also being echoed in Britain, which is also sending 600 troops. Conservative chairman of the Commons Foreign Select Committee Tom Tugendhat reminisced that, “We got to the point where the insurgent forces were outmatched and a standoff saw civic institutions grow.” The chair of the Defence Select Committee, Tobias Ellwood, told the BBC that the UK “should really be reconsidering what’s going on,” warning that the withdrawal would precipitate a “massive humanitarian disaster” and permit terrorism to “raise its ugly head again.”



This is charmless window dressing. When chaos is spoken of in tones of panic, it is often forgotten how significant Washington’s own disruptive role has been. The US continues its less than angelic streak in Afghanistan, funding cut throat militias – many co-opted by the Ghani government – for the simple vulgar purpose that they are against the Taliban. (This is unlikely to change in the long term.)

Characters such as the blood-soaked Abdul Rashid Dostum, a notorious warlord who has had it all ways, promises to remain in the mix. Last year, he felt that loyalty to the Ghani government needed some recognition. His absurd promotion to the rank of marshal was considered fitting, and did nothing to hide a butcher’s record almost without peer. With a crude Falstaffian wisdom, Dostum is a character who knows that cowardice is useful to draw upon when facing a losing cause. As Taliban fighters made their way unopposed into Mazar-i-Sharif, he was fleeing to safety.

A blind eye has been given to other militias who threaten to cause mischief in due course, a point which only serves to strengthen the Taliban’s cause. One of them is Iran’s Shia Fatemiyoun militia. In February 2020, Rahmatullah Nabil, head of Afghanistan’s intelligence agency through periods over the last decade, told Radio Free Europe that the Fatemiyoun did not pose an “immediate threat to Afghan national security.” Call it what you will: having such agents milling about in the landscape does every little bit to add to the chaos so lamented by the commentariat.

Any victory for the Taliban will be premised upon the fundamental failure of a rotten centre, the decay of which has been encouraged for years behind the mirage of development, the building of schools and women’s rights. The pantomime that is Afghan governance has always existed on borrowed time.

The Biden administration, short of reawakening a bloodlust to re-intervene, will let it be, subject to stints of interference from special forces, contractors and adventurers. The intelligence community generationally obsessed with being in Afghanistan will continue to have the president’s ear, and hope to haunt him during the course of his sedated premiership. But not even they could prevent a moment of candour from Biden on Saturday. “One more year, or five more years, of US military presence would not have made a difference if the Afghan military cannot or will not hold its own country.”


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Targeting the Medical Evidence: The US Challenge on Assange’s Health

The desperate attempt by the US imperium to nab Julian Assange was elevated to another level on August 11 in a preliminary hearing before the UK High Court. The central component to this gruesome affair was the continuing libel of the expert witness upon which District Justice Vanessa Baraitser placed so much emphasis in her January 4 decision not to extradite the WikiLeaks publisher.

The prosecution effort was intended to add more strings to their bow. The US had already been given leave to appeal in July on the basis that the judge erred in law by deciding that Assange’s extradition would be oppressive. This particular fatuous argument assumes that Baraitser was being too presumptuous about the appalling conditions that would face the publisher. Why, they lament, did she not seek the relevant assurances from the US authorities? If she had, they would have promised that Special Administrative Measures would not be imposed on Assange in pre-trial detention or in prison. Nor would he find himself degrading in the appalling conditions of a Supermax facility.

This dubious undertaking was made alongside others, including the assurance that Assange would receive appropriate clinical and psychological treatment as recommended by the relevant clinician, and that he would qualify under the Council of Europe Convention on the Transfer of Sentenced Persons. Doing so would enable him to be transferred to Australia with the approval of the US Department of Justice. The obvious question to ask here, and one put by the defence at the time, was why the prosecution had avoided giving these assurances at the extradition trial itself.

The judges looked favourably upon the prosecutor’s arguments that Professor Michael Kopelman’s evidence was possibly given undue weight. Kopelman had not disclosed to the district court his knowledge of Assange’s relationship with Stella Moris and the existence of their two children. Not doing so meant he had misled the court.

According to Clair Dobbin QC from the Crown Prosecution Service, Kopelman had given an undertaking to the court via a signed declaration that he would be an impartial expert witness. He had been informed about his obligation to the court not to withhold information that might colour the evidence provided. “If an expert has misled the court, he has failed in his duty.” The district judge had failed to “appreciate the significance of the fact that Kopelman was willing to mislead.”

Had Dobbin bothered going through Baraitser’s judgment in detail she would have found a different picture. The justice had described the concealment as “misleading and inappropriate in the context of [Kopelman’s] obligations to the court, but an understandable human response.” This did not prevent her accepting the neuropsychiatrist’s view that “Assange suffers from recurrent depressive disorder, which was severe in December 2019, and sometimes accompanied by psychotic features (hallucinations), often with ruminative suicidal ideas.” Nor had the concealment impaired Baraitser’s judgment, given that she already knew of the existence of Moris and the children before reading “the medical evidence or heard evidence on the issue.”

Defence counsel Edward Fitzgerald QC reiterated these points to the High Court bench. The lower court was fully apprised of the evidence in its entirety, including two psychiatric reports and personal testimony. Taken together, Kopelman could not be said to have breached his duty to the court. As Fitzgerald explained, there was no “tactical advantage being gained” in Kopelman not disclosing the existence of Moris or the children in the first report but a very serious concern about their welfare given the threat posed by UC Global. That particularly ignominious security firm was tasked by US authorities to bug the Ecuadorian embassy in London, attempted to make off with a diaper of one of Assange’s children for DNA testing, and chewed over the option of abducting or poisoning the publisher.

The effect of Kopelman’s concealment upon the evidence, the court found, could be raised in appeal by the prosecution. As one of the two justices presiding, Lord Justice Holroyde reasoned, “Given the importance to the administration of justice of a court being able to rely on the impartiality of an expert witness, it is in my view arguable that more details and critical consideration should have been given to why [Kopelman’s] ‘understandable human response’ gave rise to a misleading report.”

The High Court also accepted the submission by the prosecution that it could argue that the district judge had erred in assessing the medical evidence on Assange’s suicide risk. Dobbin, as she did at the extradition trial, continued the rubbishing campaign against Assange’s mental wellbeing. “It really requires a mental illness of a type that the ability to resist suicide has been lost. Part of the appeal will be that Assange did not have a mental illness that came close to being of that nature and degree.”

Too much weight, the prosecution contended in written submissions, had been given to Kopelman and the evidence of Dr. Quinton Deeley, the latter finding that Assange could be placed at the “high functioning end” of the autism spectrum. Too little consideration had been given to the evidence from the prosecution witnesses, forensic psychiatrists Seena Fazel and Dr. Nigel Blackwood. Along the way, the prosecution did its best to misrepresent Deeley’s evidence, arguing that he had prescribed the suicide risk as arising from a rational and voluntary choice. This ignored the actual court evidence which considered the combined circumstances of both Assange’s autism and the conditions of his detention. When taken together, the risk of suicide risk was a high one.

The troubling feature of the High Court decision is that it facilitates an assault on a lower judge’s assessment of expert evidence, something even Holroyde admitted to be exceptional. This point was forcefully made by the defence in written submissions: the prosecution’s attack on Baraitser’s preference for the medical evidence furnished by the defence witnesses failed “to recognise the entitlement of the primary decision maker to reach her own decision on the weight to be attached to the expert evidence of the defence on the one hand and the prosecution experts on the other.”

To assume that granting the US grounds to challenge Kopelman and the way Baraitser read the medical evidence as matters of justice are matters of farce, not fact. After the hearing, Assange reminded Fitzgerald via video link from Belmarsh Prison that the human rights dimension in the case was unavoidable: Kopelman had simply wished to protect his client’s children from harm. Reference to the discovery of guns found in the home of David Morales, the director of UC Global, was made. The brand and serial numbers of the weapons had been effaced.

If justice was an appropriate consideration in this politicised case, which has featured surveillance by a superpower, privacy breaches, harassment and even suggested kidnapping or assassination of a publisher, Assange would be free. Instead, the US imperium has been given more room to wriggle.

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Call in the Khaki: The Australian Defence Force and COVID-19

Towards the latter part of July, Australia’s unimaginative Prime Minister Scott Morrison received a request from the police commissioner from the state of New South Wales. It was a query on whether personnel from the Australian Defence Forces might aid in patrolling eight local government areas in Sydney subject to pandemic restrictions.

The NSW police minister David Elliot explained their function: the soldiers would be aiding the police with “extra capability when it comes to ensuring compliance.” They would mainly be directed to a “very active small minority … that think the laws don’t apply to them.”

Morrison, in addressing the parameters of the deployment, stated that ADF personnel were “there to support authorised law enforcement officers in New South Wales.” As in the case of Victoria last year, they would “support and assist […] doing many tasks from driving vehicles to supporting logistics to assisting communities by checking on the welfare of the people, checking in on people’s isolation.”

Writing in the Spectator Australia, Pete Shmigel was unimpressed by the lack of clarity in the deployment, the details of which remain secret. “Indeed, it’s difficult to be clear if the ADF is patrolling with the Police, or providing some forms of logistical support, or acting as welfare officers, or being Uber drivers.”

Cumberland Mayor Steve Christou was similarly put out by the deployment of military muscle, even if it would lack arms or any official powers. In terms of demographics, the Cumberland district he represents was one of the poorest; residents “already feel picked on and marginalised.” They were unable to “pay the mortgage, the rent, the food or work. Now to throw the army out to enforce lockdown on the streets is going to be a huge issue with these people.” To make matters worse, many were refugees whose experience with khaki-clad personnel would have been rather different to those of many Australians.

Christou has good grounds to be worried. The military can hardly count as pandemic specialists, nor can they be seen as ideal agents of public health control. Certain fields of public endeavour should treat military incursions with the due consideration of a lengthy barge pole. But the formula has been repeated across the globe. The symbolic force and connotations of having military participants is a signal warning to the public that they should behave.

Parts of Sydney are not the only ones exposed to this military flavour. The entire country has since faced a distinctly military flavour in the COVID-19 response. While Adam Kamradt-Scott, an authority on global health, suggests that militaries, with their preparedness for war, have “extremely good logistics” otherwise “lacking in civilian equivalents”, the ADF has historically resisted a public health role.

The presence of military personnel, notably in terms of the vaccination program, is strong. In April, the Morrison government appointed Commodore Eric Young of the Royal Australian Navy as Operations Coordinator from the Vaccine Operations Centre. In making the announcement, Health Minister Greg Hunt recalled the role played during this pandemic crisis by other members of the ADF, including the contribution of Commodore Mark Hill, who was involved in the Aged Care Response Centre in Victoria. He also thanked those “thousands and thousands of Defence personnel who’ve assisted with contact tracing, with testing, with vaccination teams that have been out in particular parts of Australia.”

In June, Lieutenant General John Frewen joined the public face of the national COVID-19 response as head of the vaccine taskforce, known bombastically as Operation COVID Shield. “The National COVID Vaccine Taskforce,” stated Morrison, “will help ensure as many Australians are vaccinated as early as possible within the available supply.” In a matter of days, the General began assuming a prominent role that had the effect of displacing the civilians present. In effect, he had assumed the responsibilities previously held by the retiring health associate secretary Caroline Edwards.


Lieutenant General John Frewen and Scott Morrison (Image from – Photo by Mike Bowers/The Guardian)


The move also served to create confusion in the media pack. When asked by Guardian Australia about what exactly his role was, the response was classically bureaucratic. The health minister’s office was the first to be contacted about clarifying this new, nebulous role. Those queries were quickly directed to the Department of Health. The department, in turn, pushed those queries off to the Prime Minister’s office, only to have those same queries referred back to the Department of Health.

A curt statement was eventually issued from a spokesperson for COVID Shield, achieving little by way of clarification. “Lieutenant General Frewen is a senior officer in the Australian Defence Force,” it began, banally. “LTGEN Frewen is currently seconded to Operation COVID Shield as Coordinator-General and remains an Officer of the Australian Defence Force. More information about this role can be found in the Prime Minister’s 4 June 2021 National Cabinet Statement.”

This threadbare response went on to outline that further details on Frewen’s responsibilities as coordinator general of the taskforce could be found at a hearing of the Senate Select Committee on COVID-19 on June 21, 2021. Frewen did not give much away before the Senators, though he did tell the committee that his reporting lines were directly to the Prime Minister and the Minister for Health. He also provided briefings to the national cabinet and was to “engage” with the relevant secretaries. In terms of influence, he claimed to “have direct operational control of all relevant assets and resources across the Commonwealth and I’m also responsible for communication with the public and engagement with the states and territories, health providers, and other key stakeholders to ensure the most efficient and effective distribution of the vaccine.”

The meetings came, as did the military brass and photoshoots, prompting remarks that Morrison had simply “outsourced” the pandemic response only to hide behind military uniform. Former Labor deputy prime minister Wayne Swan was all thunder at the spectacle. “How pathetic it is to see Morrison rollout Generals on TV to camouflage his failure to purchase the quantity and the quality of vaccines urgently required to protect Australia.”



Australia’s resort to the military in these pandemic times is unexceptional. When found short in their civilian deployments, the authorities in many countries have called upon the armed forces to provide assistance. But the pressing concern when using such personnel, notably in instances where their roles and positions are unclear, can only trouble the purists of accountability. For Morrison, the move is very much in the tradition of mass distraction and excuse. If more things go wrong, blame the medically inexpert Lieutenant General.


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Cultivated Delusions at the Tokyo Olympics

Australia’s Channel 7 team was all about ignoring history as its selected commentators went into describing, poorly, the closing ceremony of the Tokyo Olympics. The trio was poorly equipped culturally, geographically and totally (the Japanese component was barely credible: “We want to make things warm for you,” she chirped), to deal with the eclectic groupings of the athletes as they assembled. Clichés and platitudes clogged the commentary as each team strode into the stadium.

It would have been interesting had they noted the militaristic, political echo that follows the beginning, and end, of each Olympic Games. “In the Olympic Opening ceremony,” remarked Australia’s foremost sporting journalist Gideon Haigh in 2016, “serried ranks of well drilled, well resourced, uniformed national exemplars march behind their country’s flag. Nothing could be a more political event than that.”

And political it was. The torch relay was not, as the intoxicated romantics on the International Olympic Committee payroll claim, a creature of Greek antiquity but one of Nazi creativity. Nazi Germany’s Adolf Hitler and his propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels were enamoured with the idea, though it was Carl Diem, secretary general of the organising committee of the 1936 Berlin games who first proposed it. That great German armaments institution, the Krupp Company, did its bit, creating and sponsoring the torches which were intended to burn for ten minutes. “The first torch manufactured,” writes German sports historian Arnd Krüger, “was used to ignite a new furnace for the production of long-range Krupp canons.”

Behind Tokyo 2020 was a sense of financed apology, with most of the Olympic commentariat bulging with self-interest in keeping this indulgent exercise on the road, even in the face of the worst global pandemic since the Spanish Influenza. This was a tournament imposed upon a populace by cadres of sporting officials, an anti-democratic, despotic, insensitive gesture based on revenue incentives and broadcasting rights. The focus had to be on the athletes, the show pony alibis, who distracted from the logisticians and backroom players.

The distraction was, at points, impressive: streamed images of torrential tears, the mingling of sweat from exhausted bodies and tormented competitors, the meeting of flags across competing tracks and ecstatic expressions of the human spirit. There was video footage of vulnerable winners and those barely defeated; sharp camera focus on such noble acts as the sharing of a gold medal between Italy’s Gianmarco Tamberi and Mutaz Barshim of Qatar in the men’s high jump. This was flesh and feelings made substantive in film. “When people experience inwardly periods of greatness, they represent those periods through external forms,” said that man of theatre, show and murderous finality, one Adolf Hitler. “Their word thus expressed is more convincing than the spoken word: it is the word in stone.”

This was all meant to make a difference, and outside the main Olympic stadium and the venues this was taking place, Tokyo was facing an aggressive pandemic and public health restrictions. The stadium hosting the closing ceremony, from the air, looked like a capsule of insulated distraction. Those interested were watching at home; the stadium seats remained empty.

The pandemic-minded types were also far from impressed by the implications of holding the event. IOC president Thomas Bach opined that the COVID-19 infections surging in Tokyo had no links, directly or otherwise, to the Games. Tsuyoshi Masuda, head of the Japan Federation of Democratic Medical Institutions, disagreed: “[H]olding the Olympics sent a strong message to citizens that infection control measures would become less strict.”

The budget minded types (how dare they question the uplifting image of the Games?) would certainly have raised their eyebrows at the official price tag: $15.4 billion. The calibration led to other options as to where the money might have been better spent: building 300 hospitals with 300 beds each; 1,200 elementary schools. “The problem is disentangling what is Olympics cost and what is just general infrastructure spending that would have happened anyways but ways but was sped up for the Olympics,” suggests sports economist Victor Matheson.

The bidding process itself demands that host cities and authorities will cover excess costs. “This means,” contend the authors of a study in Environment Planning, “that hosts get locked in to a non-negotiable commitment to cover such increases.”

Bach, being his usual ostensibly noble self, put the case that finance was no bar to the events. “We would have cancelled the Games 15 months ago,” he told The Associated Press. “Financially, it would have been the easiest solution for the IOC. But we decided at the time not to cancel the Games, not to draw on the insurance we had at the time.”

Such views should be treated with a healthy dose of stern scepticism. “For the IOC,” sports editorial writer for the Mainichi Shimbun Takiguchi Takashi points out, “what is important is not whether there are spectators in the stands, but that the games go ahead and are broadcast to the entire world.” Broadcasting rights constitute 70% of IOC revenue, characterised by such lucrative arrangements as that of NBCUniversal’s $12 billion payment for rights to broadcast all Olympic events from the 2014 Sochi Winter games to the 2032 Summer Olympics.

The response to the Olympics by its defenders has generally been one of cultivated delusion. NBCUniversal CEO Jeff Shell was banking on it, given his network’s promise to broadcast 7,000 hours of the Tokyo games. From the moment the opening ceremony takes place, he insisted, “everybody forgets [concerns like COVID-19] and enjoys the seventeen days.”

This ploy has worked, at least in the past. Robert Baade and Matheson note the buoyancy that follows the holding of the games: in London 2012, for instance, there were those proud to be British and even happy to pay amounts “above any costs associated with actually attending any of the events.” Despite Japanese success in the medal tally, Tokyo 2020 promises a different story.

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Silicon Valley, New Zealand and Pandemic Exceptionalism

There are some crises that never touch the well-heeled. Money, like flab, insulates them from bruising. The generally applied laws of a state can be treated as meaningless jottings; the citizenry ignored with class contempt. But few can blame the world’s sixth wealthiest person, Larry Page, for circumstances that were gifted to him. An opportunity presented itself, and the country he finds himself a resident of, despite being shut because of COVID-19, was willing to make an exception.

Google’s co-founder was granted residency under New Zealand’s wealthy investors scheme, requiring an investment of at least NZ$10 million (US$5 million) over a period of three years. Immigration New Zealand enthusiastically promotes the “Investor Plus” visa as giving the applicant a chance “to come to New Zealand with your family and enjoy our unique lifestyle.” The successful applicant is also permitted “to bring your car, boat and household items to New Zealand, free of customs charges.”

Page’s application was lodged in November, though it could not be processed as he was offshore at the time. This changed in January, when he was permitted to land in New Zealand because his son faced a medical emergency. “Once Mr Page entered New Zealand, his application was able to be processed and it was approved on 4 February 2021,” Immigration New Zealand stated.

Both Page and his son were based in Fiji at the time, and were reportedly evacuated aboard a New Zealand air ambulance. Details of an operation with all the trimmings of bought favouritism were supplied to members of Parliament by Health Minister Andrew Little. “The day after the application was received, a New Zealand air ambulance staffed by a New Zealand ICU nurse-escort medevacked the child and an adult family member from Fiji to New Zealand.”

On arriving in New Zealand “the child and adult,” as a privacy conscious Little described them, “were taken immediately to an isolation environment in the hospital. In the event of discharge within 14 days, the child and the adult would have been required to be transferred to managed isolation and quarantine (MIQ), and I am advised that all COVID-19 orders in this respect were complied with.”

The inevitable insinuation here was that Page and his progeny had received exceptional treatment. The New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, canonised by popular press and supposedly decent organs of opinion, preferred to shift the scrutiny to medical expertise. “With all (medevac) cases, those are decisions for clinicians, and I absolutely trust our clinicians to make decisions.”

The Health Minister gave his own special gloss to the issue, never once mentioning the economic nature of the visa. The issue was less one of singular treatment than singular circumstances. Only 99 patients had been accepted under the medevac scheme in the previous financial year, the majority of whom had come from the Pacific Islands. Individuals who received treatment covered their own costs if not eligible under publicly funded services; costs for the evacuation were covered by government agreements, private insurance or direct payment.

Brooke van Velden, deputy leader of ACT New Zealand, a party of the right self-described as a protector of free trade and the rule of law, was unimpressed by the explanations. The applications for emergency MIQ spots by 190 people had been declined “despite having no option but to return to New Zealand.” Little reiterated that this had been a medical emergency that had met all the “standard conditions” though he refused to confirm whether Page had actually paid for it: “[P]eople who come here for medical reasons [who] have the benefit of our medical services are entitled to medical privacy, and I intend to observe that.”

Fiji had also closed its borders to foreign travellers, but made an exception to Page and his ilk, who found themselves in the Pacific country as part of its Blue Lanes initiative. The programme has been used to approve the entry and passage of super yachts and private jet owners as part of its COVID Safe Economic Recovery Framework. In March, Fiji’s Minister for Commerce, Trade, Tourism and Transport, Faiyaz Koya, described the scheme as giving “yachters from around the world the chance to join Fijians in COVID-Contained paradise. With more than 330 days since the last local case of the coronavirus in Fiji and more than 100 vessels approved, Fiji’s Blue Lanes represent the safest and most sustainable tourism pathway in the world.” Sustainability and the stinking rich seem something of a mismatch, but countries remain desperate to bring in the lucre, even if this comes with spades of hypocrisy.

Isolated, secure countries tend to attract the wealthy, notably in desperate times. Those fretting about imminent apocalypse and global collapse have seen New Zealand as the ideal retreat, an insurance of perfect insularity. The billionaire venture capitalist Peter Thiel, co-founder of PayPal and early Facebook investor, declared in 2011 that he had found “no other country that aligns more with my view of the future than New Zealand.” Despite never living in the country, he was granted citizenship by Nathan Guy, a minister of internal affairs besotted with his record as “a great ambassador for New Zealand” who had “invested a lot in New Zealand” and had “great reach into the US.” Thiel did not even have to leave California for the ceremony, being given permission to conduct it at the New Zealand consulate in Santa Monica.

Five years later, Thiel revealed to the New Yorker that both he and programmer and entrepreneur Sam Altman would fly to the former’s New Zealand residence in the event of a crippling global event. “Sam is not particularly religious, but he is culturally very Jewish – an optimist yet a survivalist, with a sense that things can always go deeply wrong, and that there’s no single place in the world where you’re deeply at home.” Well, perhaps apart from the Land of the Long White Cloud.

Van Velden is certainly suspicious that the Page Affair is merely another instance of fond favour to those with deep pockets. New Zealand may pride itself as a model of COVID-19 suppression with punitive protections and restrictions but dispensations can be made. “The government,” she claimed in a statement, “is sending a message that money is more important than doctors, fruit pickers and families who are separated from their children.” Got it in one.

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Sanitising Censorship: The Twitter-AP-Reuters News Partnership

This week, Twitter was keen to share the news about its new arrangement with The Associated Press and Reuters “to expand our efforts to identify and elevate credible information” on its platform. The company reiterates its commitment that people using its service are able to “easily find reliable information” hoping to “expand the scale and increase the speed of our efforts to provide timely, authoritative text across the wide range of global topics and conversations” taking place on the platform each day.

The global head of user-generated content at Reuters, Hazel Baker, was business-like in describing a partnership that would “leverage our deep global and local expertise to serve the public conversation with reliable information.” Tom Januszewski, Vice President of Global Business Development at AP, was “particularly excited about leveraging AP’s scale and speed to add context to online conversations, which can benefit from easy access to the facts.”

Such promises to “leverage” could well have been matched to any shadowy information department from the Cold War with the express purpose of ensuring what news was consumed when and by whom. Twitter will seek help from the two newswires “where facts are in dispute or when Twitter’s Curation team doesn’t have the specific expertise or access to a high enough volume of reputable reporting on Twitter.” Those using the platform “can expect more Trends with contextual descriptions and links to reporting from trusted sources more frequently.”

Bringing aboard these news giants is no guarantee that the text and information provided will be authoritative, credible or reliable. News wires are not immune to being disseminators of inaccurate information, or information that is slanted in favour of a power or interest. Often, they hide behind their reputations even as they ventriloquise different interests and planted narratives.

Take Reuters, which, by its claim, “shall supply unbiased and reliable news services to newspapers, news agencies, broadcasters, and other media subscribers and to businesses, governments, institutions, individuals, and others with whom Reuters has or may have contracts.” In 1941, the company created its Trust Principles in agreement with The News Paper Proprietors Associated Limited and The Press Association Limited. These imposed obligations on the organisation and its employees to “act at all times with integrity, independence, and freedom from bias.”

Noble in print, the practise did not always stack up. In 1969, a British government document available in the National Archives called “Funding of Reuters by HMG” (Her Majesty’s Government) also outlined an agreement with Reuters to do the sort of thing that has become popular at Twitter: curate the news.

The way that curating would take place was what mattered. “We are now in a position to conclude an agreement providing discreet Government support for Reuters services in the Middle East and Latin America.” The interests of HMG “should be well served by the new arrangement.” The negotiations with the news outlet were led by the anti-Soviet propaganda unit known as the Information Research Department. “The new relationship established with Reuters in the Middle East and Latin America,” John Peck, former head of the IRD notes in the documents, “can lead to valuable goodwill and cooperation with the Agency on a global scale.” Reuters “could and would provide” what the government needed.

The scheme also brought in that other paragon of objective journalism, the BBC, which paid an “enhanced subscription” to Reuters, which was then going through a financially lean time. That money was duly recouped from the Treasury’s purse. Knowledge of this arrangement, approved by the BBC’s head of external services Sir Charles Curran, was kept to a select few.

With these revelations, Reuters was keen to regard this practise as not only normal but acceptable – at least historically. “Many news organisations received some form of state subsidy after World War Two,” was the weak explanation from the wire’s spokesperson David Crundwell. The arrangement, he claimed, “was not in keeping with our Trust Principles and we would not do this today.”

The BBC, through a spokeswoman, similarly said that, “The BBC charter guarantees editorial independence irrespective of whether funding comes from the UK government, the license fee or commercial sources.”

Much of this is wishful thinking. Such working understandings have not ceased in the post-Cold War era. If anything, the misinformation and disinformation stakes have reached a new frontier, pullulating with contenders. Max Blumental, editor of The Grayzone, revealed last February that Reuters and the BBC had been sponsored to engage in a covert information warfare campaign against that old adversary Russia. This involved a collaboration with the Counter Disinformation & Media Development (CDMD) section within the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO). Media organisations worked alongside various intelligence contractors, training Russian journalists under the Reuters umbrella to produce “attitudinal change in the participants.” The aim, fluffily put, was to produce a “positive impact” on their “perception of the UK.”

The development tracker of the UK government also reveals that the CDMD programme involves working with various partners “to enhance the quality of public service and independent media (including the Russian language) so that it is able to support social cohesion, uphold universal values and provide communities across Eastern Europe with access to reliable information.”

Twitter’s response to Blumenthal’s work is a sign of things to come. Providing its own idea of context to the article, the platform placed a warning on all tweets linked to it. Far from discrediting the sources used, the message simply went on to warn that the documents used “may have been obtained through hacking.”


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As for Twitter, we already know about executive connections between its operations and the military-intelligence establishment. In 2019, the Middle East Eye found that Gordon MacMillan, a senior executive with editorial responsibility for Middle East matters, was also moonlighting as a reservist for the 77th Brigade, the British Army’s psychological warfare unit established in 2015 to find ways of waging “non-lethal” war. According to General Nick Carter, the unit’s primary task is to conduct research into “information warfare” and give the British military “the capability to compete in the war of narratives at the tactical level.”

The battle against misinformation can very often become a battle against information you do not particularly like or want people to access. The line on this is not always clear, though hope springs eternal that the marketplace of ideas, to use that increasingly empty expression, can sort the wheat from the chaff. Twitter’s calculating pivot towards this new information landscape shows a new strategy to anchor itself in an ecosystem already marginalising independent journalism. In doing so, it is courting the high priests who determine what counts as news and what doesn’t. Soon, a sanitised platform will simply be code for a censored one.


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Fighting Malta’s Rule of the Jungle: The Daphne Caruana Galizia Inquiry

The Public Inquiry into the murder of the resourceful journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia handed down its findings on July 29. Firm aim was taken at the Maltese State, which had “to shoulder responsibility for the assassination because it created an atmosphere of impunity, generated from the highest levels in the heart of the administration of the Office of the Prime Minister.” Such conditions proved expansive “like an octopus” and “spread to other entities like regulatory institutions and the police, leading to the collapse of the rule of law.”

In such a climate, the State duly failed in recognising “real and immediate risks” including from criminally minded third parties facing Caruana Galizia and also “failed to take measures within the scope of its powers which, with reasonable judgment […] was expected to take to avoid that risk.”

Caruana Galizia was killed on October 17, 2017, by a car bomb. For years she produced exemplary copy, baffling her peers and causing those flutters of irritation that eventually became headaches for the authorities. Her efforts involved an incremental unmasking of rotting institutions. She unearthed the network of offshore companies ranging from the British Virgin Islands to Panama, linking them to funnelled funds from Malta’s government officials in alleged money laundering efforts. She exposed the cash-for-passports scheme in 2013 which was described by members of the European Parliament as “fomenting corruption, importation of organized crime and money laundering.” Members of the Maltese government preferred to call this a matter of being “business friendly.”

According to the Board, the murder of Caruana Galizia was “intrinsically, if not exclusively, linked to her investigative work, which included allegations of irregularities and administrative abuses in the commission of major development projects in the country.”

During the course of its work, the inquiry faced a number of institutional impediments and warnings. On December 15, 2019, Maltese Prime Minister, Robert Abela, lectured the Board that it would have to “shoulder the responsibility of its decisions and the consequences they bring” after the panel ruled to extend the inquiry’s deadline and terms of reference. Justice Minister Edward Zammit Lewis added to the threatening atmosphere in parliament. “If the public inquiry is not completed, the rule of the jungle will take over.”

But pressure from the European Union’s various branches was brought to bear. In 2019, the European Parliament adopted a resolution by 581 votes to 26 that “any risk of compromising the investigations (…) must be excluded by all means,” warning that risk would remain “as long as the Prime Minister remains in office.”

Parliamentary Resolution 2293, adopted that same year, claimed that the murder and continuing failure of the authorities to bring the alleged perpetrators to trial or identify those who gave the order for the assassination raised “serious questions about the rule of law in Malta.”

Much of the resolution reads like a grand rebuke of the Maltese political system. The expansive powers of the Prime Minister and his office was noted, covering “responsibility for various areas of activity that present particular risks of money laundering, including online gaming, investment migration (‘golden passports’) and regulation of financial services, including cryptocurrencies.”

The Prime Minister’s powers in appointing judges and magistrates, the resolution noted in disapproval, was unfettered; the attorney general, as a PM appointee, potentially compromised the separation of powers given the office’s role in prosecuting criminal offences. Senior officials in the civil service were also executive appointments made “through non-transparent procedures.”

Suspects behind the murder were found in erratic fashion, but it took till February this year to secure the conviction of Vincent Muscat, the hit man behind the operation, on six charges. That same day, the Agius brothers Adrian and Robert, and associate Jamie Vella, were also arrested on suspicion of supplying the murderous weapon.

The conviction of Muscat caused further concern among the MEPs in April, given “the possible involvement of ministers and political appointees in the case.” While acknowledging the progress in the investigation and “steps taken by the Maltese authorities to protect independent journalism,” there were “persisting and new issues relating to media freedom and the EU values in the country.”

The Board proposes a range of recommendations for implementation, many touching on the protection of journalists and freedom of expression. They involve specialised protection for the fourth estate, and specially attuned training for the Police Corps “to have a thorough understanding of the role of the journalist as a guardian of democracy and the value of journalism as a valid collaborator with law enforcement to ensure the rule of law.”

Constitutional reforms are also suggested, including greater recognition for freedom of expression, and institutional changes such as the creation of an Ombudsman on journalistic ethics. Further recommendations touch on the legislative aspect: reforming the Media Defamation Act to prevent vexatious suits by politicians against the press and amendments to the Freedom of Information Act to ensure greater compliance with freedom of information requests.

The Public Inquiry’s findings are impressive not merely for revealing the appalling conditions that sowed the seeds of tolerance for such monstrous violence. They also show the probing, relentless effectiveness of a journalist who demonstrated the power of the pen in the face of institutional depravity. The price of doing so was immeasurably ghastly.

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Rio Tinto in Serbia: The Jadar Lithium Project

The company has been looking forward to this for some time. For an outfit found wanting in dealing with inhabitants of a land whose culture it eviscerated in a matter of hours in May last year, Rio Tinto could think grandly about another future. The Anglo-Australian mining giant could add its name to a sounder, more environmentally sensitive programme, join the responsible future gazers and stroke the ecological conscience. Forget the destruction of the Juukan Gorge Caves in Western Australia. It was time to control the narrative.

Eyes have shifted to the Balkans. The company is promising $2.4 billion for the Jadar lithium-borates project in Serbia provided it gets the appropriate permits. In the coming weeks, it will transport a pilot lithium processing plant in four 40-foot shipping containers, suggesting a sure degree of optimism. From its science hub located on the outer parts of Melbourne, the company’s research team claim to have identified an economically viable method of extracting lithium from the mineral jadarite.

A statement from the company outlined the importance of the Jadar project. “Jadar will produce battery-grade lithium carbonate, a critical mineral used in large scale batteries for electric vehicles and storing renewable energy, and position Rio Tinto as the largest source of lithium supply in Europe for at least the next 15 years. In addition, Jadar will produce borates, which are used in solar panels and wind turbines.”

Those at the company are already anticipating a nice public relations coup. The project “would scale up Rio Tinto’s exposure to battery materials, and demonstrate the company’s commitment to investing capital in a disciplined manner to further strengthen its portfolio for the global energy transition.”

In terms of schedule, Rio Tinto hopes to start construction of the underground mine in 2022, with saleable production commencing in 2026. Full production is anticipated three years later. The complement will comprise 58,000 tonnes of lithium carbonate, 160,000 tonnes of boric acid and 255,000 tonnes of sodium sulphate.

The company hopes to win over the Serbian authorities by promising rich additions to the local economy and stroking the ego of strategic significance. “It’s not a huge mine,” Sinead Kaufman, Chief Executive of Rio’s Minerals division, told reporters, “but from a lithium perspective, it’s going to be the largest producer in Europe for at least ten years and bring lithium to the market at scale.” Estimates are put at 1% of gross domestic product coming directly from Jadar itself, with 4% being the indirect contribution to the Serbian economy. The mine will come with incidental additions: relevant infrastructure and equipment, electric haul trucks, a beneficiation chemical processing plant dealing with dry stacking of tailings. In all, enough lithium will be available to power a million electric vehicles.

All this rosiness cannot detract from the issue of environmental sustainability. Rio promises that a commissioned environmental assessment impact will be made available for comment “shortly”. “We are committed to upholding the highest environmental standards and building sustainable futures for the communities where we operate,” states the company’s CEO Jakob Stausholm. “We recognise that in progressing this project, we must listen to and respect the views of all stakeholders.”

These statements are at odds with reality, both current and historical. Rio Tinto’s Serbian subsidiary firm Rio Sava Exploration is currently facing charges by two Serbian NGOs, the Coalition against Environmental Corruption and the Podrinje Anti-Corruption Team, PAKT, citing violations of environmental regulations since 2015.

In fact, Rio’s conduct has produced something of a green awakening in Serbia. A disparate number of environmental groups, academics and politicians have found rare common ground. In June, the Serbian Academy of Arts and Sciences sent a letter to Serbian Deputy Prime Minister Zorana Mihajlović outlining the grave implications of permitting the project to go ahead. “The mine would cause great and irreversible damage not only to the area where it would be located, but to the entire country.” The location of the mining complex would threaten agricultural land, forests, meadows and the water supply areas in Mačva. “Tailings with toxic residues from ore processing would span over 160 hectares.”

Last month, protesters gathered at Loznica to vent their concerns. At the gathering, Marijana Petković of the Ne Damo Jadar initiative gave an insight into the way Rio dealt with locals. “They came in 2004, they never answered us as people on three key things: what to do with the noise; with the water; what is the minimum amount of pollution.”

An online petition against the mine has also attracted 125,685 signatures. It describes the Jadar Valley as having “Serbia’s fertile land” marked by “thousands of sustainable multi-generational farms.” It speaks to fears about the imminent poisoning of water sources. “The process of separating chemically stable lithium from jadarite ore involves the use of concentrated sulphuric acid.” The process would be undertaken some 20km from the Drina River using 300 cubic metres of water per hour, with the chemically treated water returned to the Jadar River. Entire basins of water, and water sources beyond Serbia, risked being contaminated.

The petitioners also take issue with the lack of transparency on negotiations between Rio Tinto and the Serbian government, fearing “potential corruption on the government’s behalf.” Some homework of the company’s sketchy record on the environment was also recounted, including “the destruction of a 45,000 year old sacred Australian Aboriginal cave.”

Rio Tinto is a company loose with figures, selective in its consultative process (some call it bribery) and its accounts. The London Mining Network documents a record replete with ruthless indifference, environmental crimes, and human rights abuses. At the company’s 1937 annual general meeting, chairman Sir Auckland Geddes expressed his gratitude to the fascist forces of Spain’s General Francisco Franco, who had crushed a mining revolt that threatened the smooth operations of the company. “Miners found guilty of troublemaking are court-martialed and shot,” he noted with approval.

The company is currently the subject of an investigation by the UK Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) on suspected breaches of disclosure rules on the value of Mongolia’s Oyu Tolgoi mine, the company’s biggest copper growth project. The expansion of the mine, coming in at $6.75 billion, is $1.4 billion higher than Rio’s own estimate in 2016.

Serbia’s president Aleksandar Vučić, sufficiently troubled by the indignation, is floating the idea of putting the project to a referendum. This is unlikely to trouble Rio Tinto, whose promises of economic manna for Serbia through jobs and placing it at the forefront of the lithium-electric car revolution is bound to mask potential environmental depredations. As with its record in other countries, this mining giant’s understanding of consultation and accountability is estranged from that of a local populace treated as nuisances rather than citizens.

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Global Britain Slashes International Aid

“Decisions on aid are eroding trust and eroding relationships between the UK and developing countries.” (Abby Baldoumas, Financial Times, July 15, 2021).

Politics is not merely the art of the possible but the pursuit of concerted hypocrisy. When it comes to that matter of funding good causes – foreign aid, for instance – wealthy states are often happy to claim they open their wallets willingly. As good international citizens, they fork out money for such causes as education, healthcare, sanitation. The goals are always seen as bigger than the cash, a measure of self-enlightened interest.

The United Kingdom is certainly such a case. For years, governments of different stripes praised the political importance of the aid programme. “Development has never just been about aid or money, but I am proud that Britain is a country that keeps its promises to the poorest in the world,” British Prime Minister David Cameron told the United Nations General Assembly in a 2012 speech.

This all started changing in 2020. The merging of the Department of International Development with the Foreign Office was a signal that pennies would be in shorter supply. On November 25, 2020, UK Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak announced that the government would not spend 0.7% of gross national income on official development assistance in 2022. The allocation would fall to 0.5% of GNI – £10 billion in monetary terms. Relative to the 2019 budget, this would amount to an effective cut of around £4 to 5 billion. Aid had very much become a matter of money.

The 0.7% allocation has been part of British policy since 2013. Two years after that, it became part of legislation. Up till September 2020, it was even assumed that it would also be part of Tory policy, given its mention in the Conservative Party manifesto.

Sunak did not shy away from populist justification in delivering his spending review for the 2021-22 financial year. “During a domestic fiscal emergency, when we need to prioritise our limited resources on jobs and public services, sticking rigidly to spending 0.7% of our national income on overseas aid is difficult to justify to the British people.”

The Chancellor tried assuring his fellow parliamentarians that he had “listened with great respect to those who have argued passionately to retain this target, but at a time of unprecedented crisis, government must make tough choices.” Such a tough choice seemed to put Sunak in breach of the law, not something alien to members of the Johnson government, including the prime minister himself. But do not expect legal writs or the constabulary to be pursuing the matter: all that’s seemingly required is a statement to Parliament explaining why the aim was not achieved.

On July 13, Parliament passed a motion confirming the reduction in the aid budget, with 333 votes cast in favour of it. 298 opposed it. Despite being billed as a compromise, the former international development secretary Andrew Mitchell was wiser. “There is an unpleasant odour leaking from my party’s front door,” he ruefully admitted. The motion had been “a fiscal trap for the unwary.”

The consequences of these slashing initiatives have laid waste to the charity and humanitarian landscape. The list of casualties mentioned by Devex is grim and extensive. A few unfortunates are worth mentioning. On July 7, South Sudan country director of Christian Aid reflected upon the closure of peace-building efforts led by various churches in South Sudan given the 59% cut in UK aid. “These cuts risk having a lethal effect on the chances of a lasting peace here,” James Wani lamented.

On June 14, support was cancelled for the Strategic Partnership Arrangement with Bangladesh. In the view of the NGO BRAC, this would see a halt to educating 360,000 girls, stop the funding of 725,000 school places, and cut nutritional support for 12 million infants, not to mention access to family planning services for 14.6 million women and girls.

Whole initiatives will cease outright, such as the Malawi Violence Against Women and Girls Prevention and Response Programme or the Green Economic Growth for Papua programme, which focuses on preventing deforestation. In some cases, existing budget allocations have been reduced by staggering amounts. The UN Sexual and Reproductive Health Agency (UNFPA), for example, has seen its funding allotment from the UK for its family planning programme reduced by 85% – from £154 million to £23 million.

With all this devastation taking place, Prime Minister Boris Johnson could still breezily announce at the G7 summit that his government would be providing an extra £430 million of extra funding from UK coffers for girls’ education in 90 developing countries. The timing of this was exquisite: only some weeks prior, cuts had been made amounting to over £200 million for the same cause, down from the £600 million offered in 2019.

In April 2021, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab sounded every bit the stingy economic rationalist. “Throughout the business planning process, we strived to ensure that every penny of the FCDO’s (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office’s) ODA (Official Development Assistance) spent brings maximum strategic coherence, impact and value for taxpayers’ money.”

At the Global Education Summit this July, the bleak and razored approach Johnson had taken to aid was concealed by a mask of colourful praise for his own moneyed initiatives. He called the Global Partnership for Education “the universal cure”, “the Swiss Army knife, complete with Allen key and screwdriver and everything else that can solve virtually every problem that afflicts humanity.”

Without blushing at any point, he spoke about educating the world properly and fairly to “end a great natural injustice.” In giving “every girl in the world the same education as every boy, 12 years of quality education, then you perform the most fantastic benefits for humanity – you lift life expectancy, you lift per capita GDP, you deal with infant mortality.”

The aid cuts have not only aggrieved those in the charity and development sector. Baroness Liz Sugg resigned as minister for overseas territories and sustainable development in response to the cuts. “Cutting UK aid risks,” she wrote to the prime minister last November, “risks undermining your efforts to promote a Global Britain and will diminish your power to influence and other nations to do what is right.”

From the levels of local government, Shropshire councillor Andy Boddington also expressed his dismay. “Our local MPs and Boris Johnson should bow their heads in shame and recognise how this unnecessary cut has diminished Britain on the world stage just as we prepare to host the international climate summit COP26.” The good councillor would surely be aware that the allocation of shame, for Johnson, is much like Britain’s current aid budget: diminished in supply.

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Papers Instead of Human Lives: The Sentencing of Daniel Hale

In May 2019, the US District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, that famous bastion of anti-whistleblowing fervour, unsealed an indictment charging former intelligence analyst Daniel Everett Hale with five counts of providing classified information to a reporter. The first four focused on obtaining national defense information, retaining and transmitting that information, causing the communication of that same information and disclosing classified communications intelligence information. The fifth alleged the theft of government property.

Yet again, the US government was making use of the beastly Espionage Act of 1917. Between 2009 and 2013, Hale worked with the US Air Force and National Security Agency. He was then contracted by the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency to work as a toponymist.

His work during his time in the NSA and as part of the Joint Special Operations Task Force – to identify targets for assassination for the US drone program – was performed at the Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan. His sin, or what his attorney Jesselyn Radack prefers to call “committing the truth”, was to reveal classified documents revealing the distinct viciousness, and essential senselessness, of the US military’s drone program. His motivation: “to dispel the lie that drone warfare keeps us safe, that our lives are worth more than theirs.”

The contribution made by Hale in revealing the costs occasioned by drone deployment is impossible to diminish. The documents, numbering some 150, showed how the policy of selecting targets was presumptuous rather than thorough. The targeting was also far from precise.

In the context of whistleblowing, the disclosure of the watchlisting rulebook became almost canonical in significance. According to Betsy Reed, the editor-in-chief of The Intercept, which prosecutors imply to have been the recipient of Hale’s trove, the rulebook detailed “the parallel judicial system for watchlisting people and categorizing them as known or suspected terrorists without needing to prove they did anything wrong.” Such rules, also applicable to US citizens, could be used to bar individuals from flying and permit their detention in airports and at borders “while being denied the ability to challenge government declarations about them.” As Reed reminds us, the disclosure of the book fuelled “dozens of legal actions and important court victories for the protection of civil liberties.”

In March, Hale pleaded guilty to one count. Defence attorneys Todd Richman and Cadence Mertz argued in their submission that altruistic motives, along with the fact that the government had adduced no evidence showing that actual harm had arisen from the leaks, should be taken into account in sentencing. “He committed the offense to bring attention to what he believed to be immoral government conduct under the cloak of secrecy and contrary to public statements of then-President Obama regarding the alleged precision of the United States drone program.”

In a handwritten letter to Judge Liam O’Grady, Hale describes a world of trauma, doubt and mourning. There were the “bonding ceremonies” with peers over watching “war porn” featuring footage of previous drone strikes. “I sat by watching too; said nothing and felt my heart breaking into pieces.” There was the feeling of guilt as a defence contractor in participating in the “collective delusion and denial that was used to justify our exorbitant salaries”.

President Barack Obama’s remarks about the drone program again deserved a mention. The president had praised the certitude in such strikes and their cautious discrimination. “But from what I knew, of the instances where civilians plausibly could have been present, those killed were nearly always designated enemies killed in action unless proven otherwise.”

This was a form of war that could never claim to have a sliver of honour. “The victorious rifleman, unquestionably remorseful, at least keeps his honor intact by having faced off against his enemy in the battlefield,” Hale reflects. “But what possibly could I have done to cope with the undeniable cruelties that I perpetrated?”

In their sentencing papers, prosecutors Gordon Kromberg and Alexander Berrang countered by claiming that Hale’s actions enabled “the most vicious terrorists in the world” to obtain “documents classified by the United States as ‘Secret’ and ‘Top Secret’ – and thought that such documents were valuable enough to disseminate to their own followers in their own manuals.” Kromberg, just as he did with his efforts to extradite Julian Assange from the United Kingdom, has a rather fanciful view about what damaging the US national interest looks like.

The prosecutors even insisted that the harm caused by Hale was more severe than that of former NSA contractor Reality Winner’s disclosures. Winner’s sentence of five years was the harshest ever imposed on a whistleblower prosecuted for disclosing documents to a journalist in breach of the Espionage Act.

On July 27, Hale received his sentence of 45 months – less than Winner’s but brutal nevertheless. “I am here because I stole something that was never mine to take – precious human life,” he told US District Judge Liam O’Grady. “I couldn’t keep living in a world in which people pretend that things weren’t happening that were. Please, your honour, forgive me for taking papers instead of human lives.”

O’Grady’s remarks to Hale were full of the casuistry typical behind punishing whistleblowers. The gist here is that Hale could have done it differently. The prosecution had not thrown the book at him “for speaking out about the drone program killing innocent people”. “A majority of Americans would have commended you for coming forward.” Hale could well have remained a whistleblower “without leaking any of these documents, frankly.” A suggestion both implausible and foolish.

Using the press, in others, had been inappropriate, and probably the result of manipulation by the fourth estate. “I think you were motivated because of your conscience, but I also think you were motivated because of your desire to please the journalists.” The journalists in question “had to know you were facing almost certain prosecution, but they went forward and did what they did.” With such views as those held by O’Grady, the deep state will have every reason to crow with satisfaction.

Despite having little time for the avenue Hale took to manifest his concerns, the judge left room in his remarks to reproach the Air Force for the “inexcusable decision” of sending such a man to Afghanistan and assigning him the task of analysing video footage of drone strikes. Hale’s history of serious mental disturbance was ignored and his treatment, on returning, had been “a horrible injustice”.

The conviction and sentencing of Hale continues a tendency of successive administrations to target whistleblowers using a statute that negates the public interest defence. Altruistic motives are irrelevant to the means by which information is disclosed. In this case, exposing papers was far more serious to the imperium than the taking of human lives.

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Afghanistan, Failure and Second Thoughts

It is a country other powers simply cannot leave alone. Even after abandoning its Kabul post in ignominy, tail tucked between their legs, Australia is now wondering if it should return – in some form. The Department of Trade and Foreign Affairs has been sending out a few signals, none of them definitive. “We will not comment on intelligence matters,” a spokesman for foreign minister Senator Marise Payne stated tersely earlier this month.

The spokesman was, however, willing to make general remarks about a belated return. When, he could not be sure, but Canberra’s diplomatic arrangements in Afghanistan “were always expected to be temporary, with the intention of resuming a permanent presence once circumstances permit.” Australia continued “to engage closely with partners, including the Afghanistan government and coalition member countries.” Rather embarrassing remarks, given the sudden closure of the embassy on June 18.

The Australian response, confused and stumbling, is much like that of their counterparts in Washington. While the Biden administration speeds up the departure of troops, the cord to Kabul remains uncut though distinctly worn. In April, the US House Services Committee was told by General Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie, head of US Central Command, that the Pentagon was “further planning now for continued counterterrorism operations from within the region.”

Amanda Dory, acting undersecretary of defense for defense policy, also informed members that the Pentagon remained interested in considering “how to continue to apply pressure with respect to potential threats emanating from Afghanistan.” Hazily, she claimed that the department was “looking throughout the region in terms of over-the-horizon opportunities.”

Such window dressing does little to confront the situation on the ground, which looks monstrously bleak for the increasingly titular Kabul government. General Scott Miller, top US military commander in Afghanistan, clumsily admitted in June that, “Civil war is certainly a path that can be visualized if this continues on the trajectory it’s on right now.” The hasty withdrawal from Bagram airbase on July 2 certainly gave the Taliban much scope to visualize that fact.

Unceremoniously hung out to dry in the Doha agreement forged by the US and the Taliban, the frail and terminal regime has imposed a month-long countrywide curfew to address the vigorous onslaught. According to the interior ministry, the curfew is intended “to curb violence and limit the Taliban movements,” though it would not apply to Kabul, Panjshir and Nangarhar.

The US Air Force has also made a dozen airstrikes in southern Afghanistan, concerned by the Taliban’s push towards Kandahar, the second-largest city in the country. “The United States has increased airstrikes in support of Afghan security forces in the past several days,” announced General McKenzie. “And we’re prepared to continue this heightened level of support in the coming weeks if the Taliban continue their attacks.”

Such actions are only band aid measures at best. The surrender of Afghan soldiers to the Taliban across numerous districts is inking the writing on the wall. The response from Kabul is that the Afghan army is behaving strategically, refocusing attention on protecting urban centres. In reality, they have lost both their mettle and the plot, with the Taliban in control of some 85 per cent of the country’s territory, including critical border checkpoints. As a reminder of their emerging dominance, ghoulish material such as video footage showing the execution of 22 elite Afghan commandos, trained by US forces, terrifies government soldiers.

But McKenzie is a picture of hope over experience. “The Taliban are attempting to create a sense of inevitability about their campaign. They’re wrong. There is no preordained conclusion to this fight.”

Other countries are also bubbling with concern, which, when translated into security matters, imply future interference. Russia, bloodied and bruised by its own Afghanistan experience, casts a concerned eye at the Taliban train. “The uncertainty of the development of the military-political situation in this country and around it has increased,” stated Russia’s grave foreign minister Sergey Lavrov earlier this month. “Unfortunately, in recent days we have witnessed a rapid degradation of the situation in Afghanistan.” It was “obvious that in the current conditions there are real risks of an overflow of instability to neighbouring states.”

Moscow shares, with Washington, a dark paternalism towards the country. While the Biden administration has shown less interest of late, Moscow is looking for reassurance against impending chaos. “It is the feeling in Moscow,” reasoned Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of the Moscow-based Russia in Global Affairs, “that the US is not able to, or even interested in, maintaining a presence in the region to guarantee any particular future direction in Afghanistan.” The implications of this are ominous enough.

The emptying of the barracks does not put an end to the prying and meddling from non-Afghan personnel. The country will still host a myriad of special forces and intelligence officials. Excuses for maintaining some militarised footprint will be traditional: the threat posed by terrorism; the thriving opium trade. The contractor business will also boom. A Taliban victory promises a slice of violence for everybody, but so does the presence of this feeble Afghan government.

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Greenwashing the Tokyo Olympic Games

“The gap between rhetoric and reality is a persistent one when looking at the sustainability of commitments of Olympic Games hosts.” Martin Müller, European Urban and Regional Studies, 2015.

The organisers of the Olympics have always been into appearances and grand theatre. And the International Olympic Committee has always been keen in keeping them up, from the barely credible notion of political neutrality to the now popular goal of carbon neutrality. In 2015, the IOC decided to fully hop on the sustainability bandwagon, though it claimed to have been “an important topic for the IOC for many years.” Indeed, in the 1990s, the body echoed the sentiments of the UN’s sustainable development plan Agenda 21 by publishing Olympic Movement’s Agenda 21, though that report displays, rather prominently, the company logo of the oil behemoth Shell. Sustainable development was, according to the then IOC chief Juan Antonio Samaranch, “totally in conformity with the goal of Olympism, which is to place everywhere sport at the service of the harmonious development of man.”

In its Olympic Agenda 2020, the IOC sets out recommendations for three “spheres of responsibility.” The first: that the IOC adopt sustainability principles and include them “in its day-to-day operations.” The second: that the organisation “take a proactive and leadership role on sustainability and ensure that it is included in all aspects of the planning and staging” of the games. The third, as being the “leader of the Olympic Movement,” the IOC will engage and assist the movement’s “stakeholders in integrating sustainability within their own organisations and operations.”

As with other organisations of scale, problematic strategies such as carbon offsetting are embraced. Much is made of making sure that such “efforts” are communicated both internally “via workshops or by circulating infographics” and externally. Get the public interested, let them visit “a dedicated webpage, creating interactive tools or apps (carbon footprinter)” or have “non-site activities at Games-time to raise public awareness.”

In its Carbon Footprint Methodology for the Olympic Games, the IOC extols the “golden rules” of “transparency and honesty” in communicating sustainability efforts “to avoid any risks of greenwashing or overstatement.” With a propagandist’s care, attention is given to separating functions lest misunderstanding emerge. Emissions arising from preparations and operations are to be distinguished from permanent infrastructure emissions and those arising from “associated activities.” “A clear explanation must be given for any excluded categories.”

The quest for acquiring a sufficient number of carbon credits for the Tokyo games has been advertised, or communicated, as a success. A member of the Tokyo Olympics sustainability committee, Masako Konishi, tells us that “more than enough carbon credits, more than 150 per cent of what was needed,” has been obtained. “These carbon credits follow robust guidelines, which I think could be a role model for future Olympics.”

Such credits do nothing to remove existing emissions in the way that soil carbon sequestration or direct air capture does, giving an accountant’s version of carbon neutrality. But they give the IOC a chance to boast about carbon offsetting practices with Dow, which has been in a “carbon partnership” with the organisation since 2017. In doing so, the committee holds on to a tradition that fails to address the harm caused by mega events, infrastructure projects and large numbers of spectators while promoting the credentials of environmental citizenship.

Specifically to Tokyo, the 2020 Olympic and Paralympic games are advertised as “the most innovative in history” garlanded with meaningless platitudes such as “Achieving Personal Best,” “Unity in Diversity,” and “Connecting to Tomorrow.” The Tokyo Organising Committee emphasises four sustainable development principles with the enthusiasm of a university manager (stewardship, inclusivity, integrity and transparency – all in capitals, of course), “harmonized with the Games vision, while embracing the sustainability concept of the Games: ‘Be better, together – For the planet and for the people.’”

Sustainability box ticking involves decarbonisation with renewable energy and “maximum energy savings”; “zero wasting” with the Tokyo Games “aiming to suppress deforestation and land devastation caused by resource exploitation”; restoring biodiversity and creating “a rich ecological network” and “new urban system that will improve comfort and resilience.”

The opening ceremony was also signatured with tokens of greenish sustainability. The white T-shirts and trousers worn by the torchbearers of the Olympic flame used recycled plastic bottles gathered by Coca-Cola. The hydrogen-fuelled torch, by Japanese designer Tokujin Yoshioka, was the product of construction waste from temporary housing used for victims of the Great East Japan earthquake and tsunami in 2011.

Athletes will also bear witness to the IOC sustainability doctrine. Japanese bedding company Airweave has created 18,000 beds using recycled cardboard, 8000 of which will be repurposed for the Paralympics. Winners can know that the 5000 medals for the games are made from metal extracted from donated mobile phones and other electronic devices. The 3D-printed podiums upon which such medals will be received are sourced from 24.5 tonnes of discarded household plastics.

Behind such an extensive show of environmental soundness is an uglier truth. In an April study in Nature Sustainability, the authors evaluated the sustainability credentials of 16 Olympic Games, both summer and winter versions, between 1992 and 2020. The model used by the researchers found that sustainability had never been the event’s strong suit and had actually decreased over time. Salt Lake City 2002 was the best; Sochi 2014 and Rio de Janeiro 2016, the worst.

The study suggests three actions in the short term to improve the poor score card, all of which make environmentally good sense but would scandalize IOC officialdom. Future events should be reduced in size, meaning that fewer resources would need to be consumed. (It also followed that the revenue base would also shrink.) “It will diminish the carbon emissions by visitors and bring down the ecological and material footprint by reducing the size and cost of the new infrastructure required.” Sports content of the immersive type could be provided in digital form.

The games could also be rotated among the same cities. There would be no need to build more infrastructure, as it would already be in place, minimising cost and social and ecological disruption. Finally, to achieve this would require an independent body “to develop, monitor and enforce credible sustainability standards” and would overcome the problem of having individual cities hosting the games to dedicate their own sustainability goals.

David Gogishvili, one of the co-authors of the study, was politely scathing of the IOC. “The efforts the International Olympic Committee is making are important but they are limited and not enough. From my perspective, unless they heavily limit the construction aspect and the overall size of the event, they will always be criticised for greenwashing.” Those IOC communicators will be working around the clock.

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Tokyo’s Pandemic Games Open

The auguries are not good for the Tokyo Olympic Games. Resignations have filled the ledger, including Japanese composer Keigo Oyamada, organising committee president Yoshiro Mori and the creative director Hiroshi Sasaki. Then there is the lamentable behaviour of the authoritarian International Olympic Committee and the obsequious conduct of the Suga government. The continued prospect of COVID-19 infections in the Olympic camp and public, have all been marked off as manageable.

It will not matter that athletes suffer infections. It will not matter that they will be spread. It will be irrelevant that the Japanese public do not want these games. The IOC will throw money and a range of threats to make sure that officials comply. Some of this was on show with the curt remarks by IOC official John Coates to an Australian state premier, Queensland’s Annastacia Palaszczuk, who was visiting Tokyo to receive news that the city of Brisbane had been awarded the 2032 Olympic Games.

As Australian Olympic President, Coates wished to impress upon the Queensland Premier that she had to attend the opening ceremony in Tokyo and learn the ropes. “You are going to the opening ceremony,” he berated Palaszczuk. “I’m still the deputy chair of the candidature leadership group and so far as I understand, there will be an opening and closing ceremony in 2032 and all of you are going to get along there and understand the traditional parts of that, what’s involved in an opening ceremony.” Gruffly, he issued an instruction. “So none of you are staying behind and hiding in your rooms, alright?”

While much hot air has been made about Coates, this vulgar episode served to show that the IOC is a body that dictates rather than advises. The dictatorial behaviour by Coates may well have been unintended, but was symbolically potent. Used to years of giving directions, he slipped into his comfortable norm of chastisement. The direction to an elected politician superbly captured the problems associated with an organisation that has done its best to warrant abolition.

To justify Tokyo 2020, the IOC has opted for a specially minted rhetoric that focuses on the human spirit and global solidarity in times of crisis, ignoring its own bullying and money hungry ways. Think of the athletes and their challenges, the body tells us, a celebration that supposedly signals a halt to hostilities of countries as their sporting folk participate. Forget the ballooning costs and resources that fall into ruin after the tournament.

This has been the special approach of IOC president Thomas Bach, who misspoke by calling the Japanese “Chinese people.” He stated on July 15, with an almost contemptuous air, that there was “zero” risk of athletes passing on the virus to residents of the Olympic village or to the Japanese populace in general. The Mainichi newspaper put paid to that assertion, noting how athletes arriving in the country’s airports were doing so in a state of “disarray” with some “coming close to general travellers and fans asking for autographs.” The idea of maintaining hermetic “Olympic bubbles” is already proving spurious.

Bach has become a despot in full form, dominating the IOC even more so than such predecessors as Juan Antonio Samaranch. In this, he keeps good company with Coates, who lectured Japan by insisting that the games go ahead despite the pandemic and continuing state of emergency. All health requirements and prescriptions outlined in the organisation’s health playbooks were sound, and opposition to the staging of the games, he confidently observed, would wane as vaccination rates improved. “I think that there’s a correlation between the numbers who are concerned about their safety with the numbers who have been vaccinated in Japan.”

As it happens, Japan’s vaccination rate continues to be poor, as is the general public impression of the games. Major sponsors such as Fujitsu, Asahi and Panasonic have turned up their nose at the opening ceremony. Toyota has joined them and is refusing to run advertising connected with the games “out of sensitivity to the COVID-19 situation.”

Public health specialists are beside themselves with worry, though a contribution to the New England Journal of Medicine earlier this month could still praise the games as connecting “us at a time of global disconnect.” Despite such enthusiasm, the authors were damning in claiming that the IOC playbooks were “not built on scientifically rigorous risk assessment, and they fail to consider the ways in which exposure occurs, the factors that contribute to exposure, and which participants may be at highest risk.” According to one of the authors, Michael Osterholm, the planning had focused on dealing with respiratory droplets prevention. “The science is now convincingly showing that this is an airborne virus, largely, which means it’s like cigarette smoke, it will float wherever.”

Japan’s officials also find themselves in a bind. Japanese Olympic Committee board member Kaori Yamaguchi was brutally frank in writing that the games had “already lost their meaning and are being held just for the sake of them.” The organisers had “been cornered into a situation where we cannot even stop now. We are damned if we do, and damned if we don’t.” The opportunity to cancel had passed. This mad, costly pandemic experiment is upon us.

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Pegasus Rides Again: The NSO Group, Spyware and Human Rights

They keep insisting they don’t do it. But companies such as the Israeli NSO Group are global vendors for regimes, whatever stripe or colour, for surveillance tools to spy on those they deem of interest. The 2013 revelations by Edward Snowden that exposed the warrantless world of mass surveillance by entities such as the US National Security Agency and Britain’s GCHQ caused a global rush towards encryption. Governments, left groping in the dark, sought out private providers of surveillance devices in an unregulated market. Not only could they get effective spyware; they could do so at very affordable prices.

The NSO Group was one such provider. It sees its mission as a noble thing, marketing itself as a creator of “technology that helps government agencies prevent and investigate terrorism and crime to save thousands of lives around the globe.”

The company also emphasises their mission to target those “terrorists” and “criminals” who have gone dark. “The world’s most dangerous offenders communicate using technology designed to shield their communications, while government intelligence and law-enforcement agencies struggle to collect evidence and intelligence on their activities.” The group insists that its “products help government intelligence and law-enforcement agencies use technology to meet the challenges of encryption to prevent and investigate terror and crime.”

Forbidden Stories, a network of journalists with a mission “to protect, pursue and publish the work of other journalists facing threats, prison, or murder”, sees things differently. One of the topics that figure prominently in the ranks is the Pegasus project, a collective journalism effort of global proportion coordinated by Forbidden Stories and Amnesty International’s Security Lab. Its primary purpose: to expose the depredations of the Pegasus spyware, the golden child of the NSO Group.

Pegasus is a rather vicious thing, enabling those deploying it to access a phone’s contents and remotely access its microphone and camera functions, turning into a surveillance device. It was given a gloss of notoriety in 2018 when it was revealed that Saudi dissident Omar Abdulaziz had been one of its victims. Abdulaziz claimed that communications with journalist Jamal Khashoggi, butchered by a Saudi squad of assassins in Istanbul in October 2018, were intercepted by the Saudi authorities because of the spyware. His lawyers argued that the hacking “contributed in a significant manner to the decision to murder Mr. Khashoggi.”

On July 18, Phineas Rueckert of Forbidden Stories revealed that some 180 journalists had been selected as targets by some 10 NSO customers across 20 countries. He begins with the Azerbaijani investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova, whose phone was “regularly infected with Pegasus” for almost three years. Ismayilova was baffled on realising how the security of her phone had been compromised. “I feel guilty for the messages I’ve sent. I feel guilty for the sources who sent me [information] thinking that some encrypted messaging ways are secure and they didn’t know that my phone is infected.”

Details are then supplied. Both Forbidden Stories and Amnesty International were given access to a leak of more than 50,000 records of phone numbers selected by NSO clients for surveillance reasons. The clients are a varied bunch, from those of the autocratic flavour – Bahrain, Morocco and Saudi Arabia – to the more democratic ones, such as India and Mexico. The NSO Group, in a letter to Forbidden Stories, claimed it could not “confirm or deny the identity of our government customers” for “contractual and national security considerations”. Rueckert admits that identifying instances where the specific phone number was compromised would be difficult short of actually analysing the device. But, with the assistance of Amnesty International’s Security Lab, “forensics analyses on the phones of more than a dozen of these journalists – and 67 phones in total – [revealed] successful infections through a security flaw in iPhones as recently as this month.”

The Pegasus project is significant for revealing the sheer scale of espionage. The Guardian, a participating media outlet, promises to reveal more details about targets that “include lawyers, human rights defenders, religious figures, academics, business people, diplomats, senior government officials and heads of state.” At this writing, a rather juicy detail has come to light: the potential targeting of French President Emmanuel Macron by Morocco using Pegasus.

The NSO response to the Forbidden Stories report was snootily dismissive. The account was “full of wrong assumptions and uncorroborated theories that raise serious doubts about the reliability and interests of the sources.” The company ducks the issue by suggesting that the information gathered on the individuals in question could have been obtained via other services. “The claims that the data was leaked from our servers, is a complete lie and ridiculous since such data never existed on our servers.”

As for the murder of Khashoggi, old defences are resurrected. “We can confirm that our technology was not used to listen, monitor, track, or collect information regarding him or his family members mentioned in the inquiry. We previously investigated this claim, which again, is being made without validation.”

For an outfit such as the NSO Group, such rebuttals have proven to be meaningless. Twin lawsuits against NSO filed in Israel and Cyprus by a Qatari citizen and by Mexican journalists in 2018 revealed extensive evidence of the company’s complicity in illegal surveillance. NSO also failed to get the lawsuit by Abdulaziz dismissed, and was ordered to pay his legal costs, with Judge Guy Hyman calling the case “broad, especially in matters of the roots of constitutional values and fundamental rights”. In 2019, WhatsApp brought an action against the company, claiming that Pegasus had been used to target 1400 user accounts. For WhatsApp’s chief Will Cathcart, the Pegasus project reporting revealed “what we and others have been saying for years; NSO’s dangerous spyware is used to commit horrible human rights abuses all around the world and must be stopped.”

The Pegasus project has shed more light on the government revolt against encryption, one facilitated by private enterprise. Left unregulated, the NSO Group and its competitors can operate with vigilante disdain and amoral proficiency. David Kaye, former UN special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, has wisely called for a moratorium on the sale of such spyware, describing an industry “out of control, unaccountable and unconstrained in providing governments with relatively low-cost access to the sort of spying tools that only the most advanced state intelligence services were previously able to use.” Control, accountability and constraint have never quite featured in the NSO Group operations manual.


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