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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.

Trump’s Failed Bullying: Britain accepts 5G Huawei Technology

It is strikingly bullying and bullish. US officials have been less than reserved in their threats about what Britain’s proposed dealings with Huawei over admitting it to its 5G network might entail. Three Republican Senators – Tom Cotton of Arkansas, John Cornyn of Texas and Marco Rubio of Florida – have taken it upon themselves in the circus of the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump to send a letter to the UK’s National Security Council, not to mention cool notes to a whole swathe of UK ministers, including the Attorney General, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Secretary of State for Defence.

The language is terse and unequivocal. “The company’s actions show a clear record of predatory and problematic behaviour. “For the sake of the “US-UK special relationship and the health and wellbeing of a well-functioning market,” it was “in the best interest of the United Kingdom” to exclude Huawei.

The letter is also noteworthy for doing the opposite of what it claims to. “We do not want to feed post-Brexit anxieties by threatening a potential US-UK free trade agreement when it comes to Congress for approval. Nor do we want to have to review US-UK intelligence sharing.” Except that they do.

Within the Trump administration, officials are also keen to sound the note of warning, flavoured with threat, though the voice is a touch discordant. US Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin is a regular on the critical circuit warning that admitting Huawei to the fold is much like admitting thieves to the party. But were Huawei to be scrubbed from contention of applying its 5G technology to Britain, the US would “dedicate a lot of resources” of getting a trade deal done and dusted with it.

Those in London know that a hypocrisy is in the making. Despite the righteous stand being maintained in Congress and some in the Trump administration, opponents against a full freezing out of Huawei can be found. They have sanctuary in the Departments of Defense and Treasury. The concern here, as the Wall Street Journal notes, is that not allowing US firms to ship to Huawei will squeeze revenue in a competitive market. For one thing, it will chill progress in research in the field that might enable money and research to be spent on developing better alternatives. According to Defense Secretary Mark Esper, speaking at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, “We have to be conscious of sustaining those [technology] companies’ supply chains and those innovators. That’s the balance we have to strike.”

Keeping up their letter writing obsession on Huawei, Rubio and Cotton, this time with Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska to keep them company, badgered Esper for an explanation. “Huawei is an arm of the Chinese Communist Party and should be treated as such.”

The British have been rather surly on this; the suggestion that the US have priority in being listened to over a balanced deal that might be struck with a dominant Chinese company, albeit heavily subsided by an authoritarian regime, is grating. Besides, no UK official would willingly compromise the digital channels of communications with Washington by letting in a potential digital burglar. The approach of Prime Minister Boris Johnson, as with much else, is to puzzle and dare.

On Tuesday, Johnson approved the limited use of Huawei equipment in the country’s fifth-generation mobile phone networks, albeit designating it a “high risk vendor.” (The designation suggests that Britain’s ministers are concerned enough to regard the company as subject to Beijing’s direction). The UK National Security Council signed off on the arrangement, but only to a market share of 35 percent within the 5G infrastructure.

Sensitive core functions will also remain out of reach for the Chinese giant, including networks in the Critical National Infrastructure and “sensitive geographic locations, such as nuclear sites and military bases.” According to a government press release, UK ministers “determined that UK operators should put in place additional safeguards to exclude high risk vendors from parts of the telecoms network that are critical to security.” Guidance on the matter will be sought from the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC).

Some concession has been made by means of a promise on the part of the UK that its ministers liaise with fellow “five eyes” alliance members – US, Australia, Canada and New Zealand – on developing alternatives in future.

The true victor here is Huawei, even if the victory seems clipped. It is being treated as the innovator-in-chief in a technology market that has become addictive and hyper-competitive. To ban Huawei is to spit in the face of speedy progress. To ban Huawei, goes this line of reasoning, is to prevent the development of 5G and cognate broadband technologies by anywhere up to two or three years.

We are also left with some speculation as to how the technology developments will unfold. As ITV’s political editor Robert Peston maintains with relevant acuity, “The problem is that for 5G, important data processing – such as for a new generation of driverless cars – may well migrate outside of the core network to the periphery.”

The gamble being made here, as Peston reiterates, is that Huawei’s market share falls over time, something that can only happen if the UK brings in other providers (Samsung and NEC) and make all equipment interoperable. Given Britain’s fabulously bad record in dealing with such infrastructure decisions, marked by bungles and poor choices, this is anybody’s bet.

The sense of British pride, mighty as it is, is evident. While they remain dupes of international relations politics when it comes to backing Washington on various fronts, the Huawei threat was one step too far. Perhaps it said as much about Washington’s fears than it does about Britain’s own confidence: that it can strike a balance with Huawei better than others can. As the Johnson government boasts, the NCSC had “carried a technical and security analysis” that offered “the most detailed assessment in the world of what is needed to protect the UK’s digital infrastructure.” Huawei may well burst that bubbly presumption in time.

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Split Hearings: The Assange Extradition Case Drags On

It is being increasingly larded with heavy twists and turns, a form of state oppression in slow motion, but the Julian Assange extradition case now looks like it may well move into the middle of the year, dragged out, ironically enough, by the prosecution. Curiously, this is a point that both the prosecutors, fronted by the US imperium, and the WikiLeaks defence team, seem to have found some inadvertent agreement with. This is the biggest case of its kind, and will determine, for an era, how journalism and the publication of nationally classified information is treated. Neither wish to misstep in this regard.  

The last procedural hearing ahead of the full extradition trial of Assange over 17 counts of espionage and one of conspiracy to commit computer intrusion was trained on the issue of logistics. The prosecutors seemed to be bellyaching in their discontent, lamenting matters of availability for their staff. One striking example concerned the US government’s chief barrister, James Lewis, who would be taken up with a trial in Northern Ireland of “a great deal of substance and importance”. This would make him unavailable for up to three months after the commencement of the extradition case.

Clair Dobbin, representing the US, was the first to make an application that the substantive hearing be split. Various legal rulings, she argued, would have to be made subsequent to the full February proceedings, including the ticklish issue of whether certain witnesses were to remain anonymous or not. WikiLeaks wishes that they remain so; the prosecution would like that cloak removed. 

Despite already furnishing the court with a meaty affidavit, Dobbin claimed that more needed to be done in responding to the defence evidence. (Good of them to give a sense of formality that are doing so.) Besides all that, experts sought by the prosecution were “extremely busy practitioners and academics with very full diaries”, many still chewing over the issue of where Assange fitted in the security paradigm. This statement of itself is odd, as is so much of the entire effort against the WikiLeaks publisher.

Procedural dragging was also a matter of importance for the Assange team. Despite working with manic dedication over Christmas, the issue of access remains crippling for the defence. “We simply cannot get in as we require to see Mr Assange and to take his instruction,” argued one of Assange’s lawyers, Edward Fitzgerald. “Frankly, we require more time before calling the main body of our evidence.”

The point of journalism, and its legitimate pursuit in this nasty, brutish and rather long encounter, lies at the heart of the battle. The framing of the US indictment purports to negate journalism as a factor in the case, with the prosecutors honing in on the issue of espionage and hacking. Spies cannot be journalists, so goes the claim; espionage and publication should not be seen as comparable or even linked matters. This very claim suggests that any form of national security journalism, the sort that exposes abuses of power, is illegal.

This round of submissions merely confirmed the point, though it is one sharpened to specifically exclude foreigners. In other words, press protections enshrined by the First Amendment of the US Constitution cannot apply to non-US nationals, a daringly dangerous assertion.  

As WikiLeaks’ editor-in-chief Kristinn Hrafnsson crisply put it, “We have now learned from submissions and affidavits presented by the United States to the court that they do not consider foreign nationals to have a first amendment protection.” To the AAP, he surmised that the US had also “decided that they can go after journalists wherever they are residing in the world, they have universal jurisdiction, and demand extradition like they are doing by trying to get an Australian national from the UK from publishing that took place outside US borders.”  

The US case also insists that, should the extradition be successful, Assange will be subject to that troubling euphemism of “special administrative measures”. Even in a bureaucratic penal system, such language entails a formal and legal disappearance of the subject.

Italian journalist Stefania Maurizi suggests with understandable gloominess that “Pandora’s box will open” if the prosecutors make their case fly in court. The extradition of an Australian or Italian journalist by the US would just as easily justify the same action by Saudi Arabia and Russia. This terrifying precedent is reiterated as a distinct possibility across the spectrum of commentary, an extra-territorial extension of US power to punish the world’s scribblers, bloggers and publishers.  

The outcome of this set of stuttered proceedings seemed to irritate District Judge Vanessa Baraitser, who conceded to the split, but sternly spoke of disfavour regarding any other requests for moving dates. She did relent to another case management hearing scheduled for February 19. The full extradition hearing is now set to open on February 24 at London’s Woolwich Crown Court, adjourning after one week, then continuing on May 18 with a three-week hearing. The chess pieces in this critical encounter have again been moved.

In this dark turn, a smattering of light seemed to shine through. Having been held in withering solitary confinement in the prison medical wing of Belmarsh, news came that Assange will be moved to an area with other inmates. Joseph Farrell of WikiLeaks described it as “a dramatic climbdown”, “a huge victory for Assange’s legal team and for campaigners, who have been insisting for weeks that the prison authorities end the punitive treatment of Assange.” The same could not be said about legal and medical access, both of which have been sorely lacking.

The decision to initiate the move seems to have sprung from prisoners within Belmarsh itself. The prison governor has been petitioned on no less than three occasions by a group of convicts insisting that the treatment being afforded Assange smacked of injustice. Human rights activist Craig Murray subsequently reflected on this “small victory for basic humanity – and it took criminals to teach it to the British state.”  

Such victories in penal terms do tend to be mixed. Assange will hope that those inmates he keeps company remain sympathetic to his cause. The new quarters will house some 40 of them, and the risks to his being remain. Even in prison, Assange’s case and plight never cease to astonish.

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Diminishing Returns: Calculated Misery in Air Travel

If there comes a point when people will decide not to fly, the issue may well be less to do with any moral or ethical issue with climate change than the fact that commercial flights have become atrocious. They are naked money-making concerns with diminishing returns on quality. The key factor that plays out here is what economists like to term inelastic demand. Prices can be raised; service quality can be reduced, but customers will keep coming. The demand remains, even if the supply leaves much to be desired.

The phenomenon is distinct over the long-haul carriers, which have, at least until recently, been spared the stripping phenomenon. Singapore Airlines, which prides itself for an almost aristocratic bearing towards its customers, proved skimp its Melbourne to Singapore leg. An insulting sampling of “toasties” was offered as a starter, a culinary outrage that did not go unnoticed. Indian passengers who had selected special meals in advance were on the money; pungent curries and dhal filled the cabin as this ridiculous excuse of a meal was handed out to customers. A few desperate, and disgusted punters asked the flight attendants if there were spare vegetarian options.

Budget airlines may have something to explain in this regard. The revolution of the cheap fare came with the reduction of expectations. No-frills travel came with a certain contempt on the part of the service providers: food and drink would no longer be gratis; seat allocations would have to be purchased in advance and check-in or carry-on luggage would have to be paid for. A turning point was Dublin-based Ryanair’s attempt to go easy on toilet numbers – one per aircraft – and charge customers for their use. As the company’s penny-pinching CEO Michael O’Leary said at the time, “We rarely use all three toilets on board our aircraft anyway.” Bladders be damned.

Instead of aspiring to a higher level of service, the traditionalists have voted to go down a notch or three. What budget airlines do badly, we can do worse. The law of diminishing returns is pushing all air travel carriers downwards in what has been seen to be an exercise of “calculated misery”. The experience is appalling and unpleasant, but need not necessarily be intolerable. The result is a curious revision of the term “upgrade”. As Alex Abad-Santos laments in Vox, passengers upgrade their seats, not to get a more spectacular service or experience, but “to avoid hell.”

Managing such misery is hardly original, though Tim Wu of Columbia Law School can be credited for giving a good overview of it when writing in 2014 for The New Yorker. “Here’s the thing: in order for fees to work, there needs to be something worth paying to avoid. That necessitates, at some level, a strategy that can be described as ‘calculated misery’. Basic service, without fees, must be sufficiently degraded in order to make people want to pay to escape it. And that’s where the suffering begins.”

Nothing says such suffering than crammed economy seats on a long-haul flight. Shoulders and arms are jammed; legs can barely move. The trend was such that Bill McGee, a writer with more than a passing acquaintance with the airline industry, would note, referring to the United States, that the most spacious economy seats “you can book on the nation’s four largest airlines are narrower than the tightest economy seats offered in the 1990s.”

Things are not much better in terms of the European market. Mediocrity mixes with indifference, even on flights which are half-full. A flight from London Heathrow to Copenhagen with Scandinavian Airlines was characterised by a certain snooty indifference on the part of the flight attendants. Much babbling was taking place in Finnish – why would you want to assist passengers? Little by way of interest in the customers was afforded. Curt instructions were issued; requests for coffee were received with glacial stares. Naturally, to receive a meal and drink that wasn’t water that had seen better days required forking out of the plastic fantastic. Gone are the days when international airlines behaved as such, wishing to make matters decent, comfortable and even pleasantly bearable; the European air space finds itself populated by the stingy and the tight-belted.

Commercial airlines from SAS to Singapore Airlines have taken whole sheafs of extortion from the budget airline book of making customers pay for selecting seats. The stress here is budget service at caviar prices. This cheeky form of thieving imposes a cost on the act of jumping the queue for a better place on the flight. And this is not all. You book a ticket with a flight, only to find at the airport that you had purchased a “light” version, meaning that you have to pay for carry-on luggage.

High time for a customer revolt, but the industry is distinctly programmed. Even when airlines have been well disposed to their customers, such as JetBlue, the corporate monsters of Wall Street have howled. It’s bad form to provide decent service within reasonable expectations. Efficiency, and filling the seats, is what matters, whatever the quality. Fee-free services, being conscious of the brand and a “customer-focussed” approach was simply not on. Eventually, JetBlue caved in and joined the market of calculated misery.

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Janus-Faced on Climate Change: Microsoft’s Carbon Vision

“This is a bold bet – a moonshot – for Microsoft.” So claimed Brad Smith, Microsoft President, in a Thursday announcement painting a picture of a company that intends to be carbon negative by 2030. “And,” Smith continued, “it will need to be a moonshot for the world.” That vision entails the removal of more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere than it emits. By 2050, the company intends removing from the environment all carbon the company has emitted since its founding in 1975.

The feeling that a public relations unit has scoured the entire company and briefed its members is palpable. Smith speaks of how “real progress requires real transparency,” meaning that Microsoft “will continue to disclose the carbon footprint of our services and solutions.” The company has also committed to the United Nations’ 1.5-degree Business Ambition Pledge.

Chief executive Satya Nadella was also saying all the right things at Microsoft headquarters in Redmond, Washington. “If the last decade has taught us anything, it’s that technology built without these principles can do more harm than good.” Climate change was the bogeyman whose predations had to be arrested. “We must begin to offset the damaging effects of climate change”; were global temperatures to continue their inexorable rise, “the results will be devastating.”

Some outlined measures include the extensive use of electric vehicles, the establishment of a $1 billion fund financing carbon reduction, capturing and removal technologies over the course of four years. Smith admits that, “Saving our planet’s carbon issues will require technology that does not exist today.” One of the companies hoping to profit from this crystal ball gazing is the carbon capture pioneer Carbon Engineering, whose CEO, Steve Oldham, is confident. The direct air capture plant, however, is still under construction, and cautionary notes have been sounded by the likes of Sue Reid, vice president of climate and energy at Ceres, a US-based non-profit. Will the maths add up?

For all that, this was moving stuff. Some members of Congress certainly enjoyed it, notably those on the Senate Climate Solutions Caucus. “The scope and scale of this proposal is exactly the kind of bold action we need from the business community,” said Senator Chris Coons, Democrat from Delaware, and Rep. Mike Braun, Republican from Indiana, in a statement. “Addressing the challenge of our changing climate will require all of us to work together – federal, state and local governments, the private sector, and individuals.” Shades of old Charles E. Wilson here: What’s good for Microsoft seems to be good for the United States.

But much of this should not detract from the obvious point: Microsoft is happy to have a bit each way when it comes to how it finances its green image. The waters it bathes in are not always ecologically sound. While the company positions itself high on the soapbox of environmental purity, it is still a corporation governed by that traditional mix of predatory instinct and innate opportunism. In this, it shares a streak with Facebook and Google, two other entities who exude self-confidence in the illusion that they are principled, morals at the ready.

This point was made last year when it was revealed that all three companies sponsored LibertyCon, the annual conference for the Students for Liberty, a libertarian group. Both Microsoft and Facebook forked out $10,000 each as gold sponsors; Google went a grade better with $25,000, making the platinum grade.

This clutch of sponsors was not, in of itself, odd. But the three companies found themselves sharing a crowded platform with outfits distinctly against the science of climate change, showing how vast open tents can get rather muddy on the inside. One of those present was the CO2 Coalition, a group celebrating the virtues of carbon, and feels that it has been unduly demonised.  Carbon, it lauds, “is essential for life.” Available at the conference was a brochure from its good offices extolling the merits of greater quantities of carbon dioxide, explaining how that would improve “our lives and our planet Earth.”

One of its members, retired statistics professor Caleb Rossiter, spoke at the gathering by insisting that, “There has been no increase in storms, in intensity or frequency. The data don’t show a worrisome trend.”

The event prompted Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Maine Democrat Rep. Chellie Pingree, to pen an open letter to the CEOs. “We were deeply disappointed to see that your companies were high-level sponsors of a conference this month in Washington, D.C., known as LibertyCon, that included a session denying established science on climate change.”

The Congresswomen, suitably exercised by the whole matter, suggested that past initiatives to tackle the carbon footprint by the big three should not prove a distraction. “The example you have set promoting sustainability and evidence-based science is compromised by your implicit support of the session.”

When asked to comment on the matter by Fortune magazine, a Google spokesperson paraded the company’s sustainability credentials. “Since 2007, we have operated as a carbon neutral company and in 2017, we reached 100% renewable energy for our global operations.” Microsoft preferred a stony silence. Business is simply cold-hearted business.

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A Matter of Quality: Air Pollution, Tennis and Sporting Officialdom

They are disgruntled and have every right to be. Whatever one’s feelings about tennis, expecting athletes to perform in subpar conditions is a rank matter that should see officials taken to task. But administrators of a game are often distant from the practice of the game itself. Being on different, cognitive paths, the players can be left stunned by decisions that have the estranging effect of being made in committee.

The pressing issue at the Australian Tennis Open this year is the air quality that has had a ruinous effect on wildlife. Australia’s unprecedented summer of conflagration, marked by plumes so expansive they are moving out across the Pacific, was bound to affect sporting tournaments. On Tuesday, a warning advising people to stay indoors in Melbourne was issued. This did not prevent spectators making their way to Melbourne Park, equipped with breathing masks. Nor did it prevent players from taking to the courts to do battle.

The first casualty was Slovenian player Dalila Jakupović, ranked 210 by the Women’s Tennis Association. With some reluctance, the plucky player withdrew from her qualifying match on Monday against Switzerland’s Stefanie Vögele. Coughing fits had become impossible to ignore. “It was very dangerous to play in those conditions yesterday,” she subsequently said. Nor did it stop with her. “I think all of the players yesterday suffered more than the ones playing today because not all matches are going to be finished today.” Players complained of “headaches”, “chest pains” and breathing problems.

Canada’s Genie Bouchard and Australia’s own Bernard Tomic also faced delays during their sessions. “I’m never one to stop playing,” Bouchard would claim, “but I definitely started felling unwell and I had to call the trainer because it was tough to breathe and I felt a bit nauseous.” The spectacle of Bouchard suffering and her opponent, Xiaodi You, being reduced to near immobility, said much of an increasingly absurd spectacle.

All of this left Bouchard perplexed. “It’s not healthy for us. I was surprised, thought we would not be playing today but we don’t have much choice.” She insisted in her explanation to ABC News that she was a hardened professional, not asthmatic and more than capable.

Other matches have been abandoned. An exhibition match between Maria Sharapova and Germany’s Laura Siegemund was called off after both players felt distinctly off with respiratory issues.

The players have been less than impressed. Ukraine’s world No. 5 Elina Svitolina was eyeing the World Air Quality Index, and revealed her concerns on Twitter. “Why do we need to wait for something bad to happen to do an action?” American Nicole Gibbs felt cheated, wondering if she had played in hazardous conditions without being sufficiently informed. Others like Britain’s Harriet Dart were careful before going out on court, mindful of staying indoors.

For all these utterances, few came close in incandescent rage than Liam Brody’s determined salvo. “The more I think about the conditions we played in a few days ago,” he fumed, “the more it boils my blood. We can’t let this slide.” Most off-putting for Brody was the email from both the ATP and AO, deemed “a slap in the face”. “Citizens of Melbourne were warned to keep their animals indoors the day I played qualifying, and yet we were expected to go outside for high intensity physical competition?”

Within Brody’s revolt lies the broader problem with lower ranked tennis players. When they splutter and suffer on the courts, the protective padding is nowhere to be seen. Where, posed Brody, “is the protection for players, both male and female?” Canadian player Vasek Pospisil seconded the idea of a player’s union.  Fellow countryman Brayden Schnur insisted that establishment stars such as Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer needed to take the lead and escape their sponsorship cocooned Nirvana. “It’s got to come from the top guys.” A swipe of some pettiness duly followed. “Roger and Rafa are a little bit selfish in thinking about themselves and their careers.”

This Australian Open seems to be coming full circle, linking ecological disaster to matters of health and elite players who collect their sponsorship moneys without asking too many questions. Squeaky clean Federer has found himself in the cross fire of the climate change skirmishes, criticised for leaving his wallet open for the likes of Credit Suisse, a company with an extensive portfolio of shares in fossil-fuel industries. His cool and polished counter, largely directed at climate change activist Greta Thunberg, claimed that he took “the impacts and threat of climate change very seriously” and appreciated “reminders of my responsibility as a private individual.” The choking fires in Australia had also moved him and his family.

The response from AO officials has been laced with smidgens of callousness layered by indifference. There are no emergency measures of the sort taken by Beijing just prior and during the 2008 Olympic games. (These, as researchers found on closer inspection, led to improvements in cardiovascular health). Australian Open tournament director and Tennis Australia chief executive Craig Tiley is using an old trick: nothing to worry about; the experts have it all in hand. “This is a new experience for us all, how we manage air quality and therefore we have got to rely on those experts that advise us how best to continue.”

Air-quality testing boffins, he tried to reassure sceptics, had been busy, including environmentalists, scientists and meteorologists. Criticism of the conditions could be put down to ignorance. “Air quality is a very complex and confusing issue.” No pressing concerns had been registered by such bodies as the Environmental Protection Authority.

Tiley also claimed to have the support of the relevant bodies, including the Association of Tennis Professionals and the Women’s Tennis Association. Any speculation about the event being cancelled could be scotched. “There is a lot of speculation about the Australian Open not happening. The Australian Open is happening.”

None of the options for sporting officialdom are appealing. In the name of health, postponement and cancellation are serious options. But all of this requires a degree of selfless professionalism that is not in evidence so far. Perhaps Svitolina is right: something drastically harmful will need to manifest before something is actually done. Tiley prefers to be fatalistic. Such conditions would have to come to be accepted over time. “It is potentially the new normal.”

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Short of Time: Julian Assange at the Westminster Magistrates Court

London.

Another slot of judicial history, another notch to be added to the woeful record of legal proceedings being undertaken against Julian Assange. The ailing WikiLeaks founder was coping as well as he could, showing the resourcefulness of the desperate at his Monday hearing. At the Westminster Magistrates Court, Assange faced a 12-minute process, an ordinary affair in which he was asked to confirm his name, an ongoing ludicrous state of affairs, and seek clarification about an aspect of the proceedings.

Of immediate concern to the lawyers, specifically seasoned human rights advocate Gareth Peirce, was the issue that prison officers at Belmarsh have been obstructing and preventing the legal team from spending sufficient time with their client, despite the availability of empty rooms. “We have pushed Belmarsh in every way – it is a breach of a defendant’s rights.” Three substantial sets of documents and evidence required signing off by Assange before being submitted to the prosecution, a state of affairs distinctly impossible given the time constraints.

A compounding problem was also cited by Peirce: the shift from moving the hearing a day forward resulted in a loss of time. “This slippage in the timetable is extremely worrying.” Whether this shows indifference to protocol or malice on the part of prosecuting authorities is hard to say, but either way, justice is being given a good flaying.

The argument carried sufficient weight with District Judge Vanessa Baraitser to result in an adjournment till 2 pm in the afternoon, but this had more to do with logistics than any broader principle of conviction. As Baraitser reasoned, 47 people were currently in custody at court; a mere eight rooms were available for interviewing, leaving an additional hour to the day. In her view, if Assange was sinned against, so was everybody else, given that others in custody should not be prevented from access to counsel. (This judge has a nose for justice, albeit using it selectively).

As things stand, Peirce is aiming to finalise the exhibits for submission to the prosecution by January 18. The government deadline for responding to those documents will be February 7. The case proceeding itself was adjourned till January 23, and Assange will have the choice, limited as it is, of having the hearing at the Westminster Magistrates Court or Belmarsh.

Supporters outside the court were also of same mind regarding the paltry amount of time awarded Assange. The rapper M.I.A, showing how support for the publisher can at times be sketchy, managed to have a dig at the state while also acknowledging thanks from it. (An announcement had just been made that she would be receiving an MBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List). “I think it is important to follow this case. I am off to get a medal at Buckingham Palace tomorrow and I think today is just as important. To give somebody an hour to put their case together is not quite right.” Assange supporters would agree with her view that, for “a case of this scale, having only access to two hours to prepare, is illegal in itself.”

The atmosphere around the proceedings has thickened of late, and the WikiLeaks argument here about CIA interference and surveillance conducted by the Spanish firm Undercover Global S.L. while Assange was in the Ecuadorean embassy in London is biting. Prior to Christmas he gave testimony to Spanish judge Jose de la Mata claiming he was not aware that cameras installed by the company in the Ecuadorean embassy were also capturing audio details.

Leaving aside the broader issues of free speech, an argument has been made that CIA meddling might well be the fly in the ointment that impairs the prosecution’s case. This might be wishful thinking, but this is a line of inquiry worth pursuing. The WikiLeaks legal team is keen to press the matter in February during the extradition hearing.

In the well-considered view of James C. Goodale, former Vice Chairman and General Counsel for The New York Times, “After reading El Pais’s series, you would have to be a dunce not to believe the CIA didn’t monitor Assange’s every move at the Ecuadorean embassy, including trips to the bathroom.”

Goodale cites the Pentagon Papers case as an example that the defence may well draw upon. Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked classified Pentagon reports to The Washington Post and The New York Times, had the office of his psychiatrist broken into by President Richard Nixon’s notorious “plumbers”, led by former CIA agent E. Howard Hunt. The conscience-stricken analyst was also facing charges under the Espionage Act of 1917. When it came to the trial judge’s attention that government misconduct, including the FBI’s interception of Ellsberg’s telephone conversations with a government official had characterised the entire effort against the whistleblower, the case was dismissed with prejudice. Ellsberg’s treatment had “offended a sense of justice” and “incurably infected the prosecution”.

As with Assange, the footprint of the CIA in Ellsberg’s case was far from negligible. It assisted in the muddled break-in. It penned a clumsy psychiatric profile of Ellsberg and assembled a full identification ensemble for the plumbers: Social Security cards, disguises, drivers’ licenses, speech alternation devices. As Goodale rhetorically poses, “Can anything be more offensive to a ‘sense of justice’ than an unlimited surveillance, particularly of lawyer-client conversations, livestreamed to the opposing party in a criminal case?” It remains for the British courts to consider whether that degree of offensiveness has been achieved in this case.

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Harry and Meghan Exit: The Royal Family Propaganda Machine

Royal gossip is worth its weight in gold on the British media circuit. Buckingham Palace knows that, and seeks to control, as much as it can, the way that gold is distributed.  Much of this was in evidence at the bungling, cringe-worthy performance of Prince Andrew, whose powers of recollection regarding the late Jeffrey Epstein and his encounter with the procured sex slave Virginia Roberts, triggered the propagandists.  The toothpaste had to be put back into the tube, but how?

The palace machine’ method is one of careful management, retiring the culpable figure while never admitting to any guilt. Nothing expressly outlined ever issues from the communication channels. Scraps of speculation are left for the media vultures to chew over. A degree of open-endedness is always permitted.

The recent fuss over the premature retirement, or redirection, of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, has stirred the hornet’s nest amongst self-harming Royal watchers. Sky News suggested with profound exaggeration that the announcement that the couple would move to Canada “shocked the UK and the world.”  Disgraceful and unacceptable, went such papers as The Sun. The Evening Standard ran with the headline, “Harry arrives to face the royal music”, going on to say that he was facing “showdown talks with the Queen, his father Prince Charles and his brother Prince William over his plans to stand down as a senior royal.”  

Harry had effectively resigned from public duties, intent on becoming “financially independent” (such terms are obscene in Palace land) and spending more time in North America. “We intend to step back as ‘senior’ members of the royal family and work to become financially independent, while continuing to fully support Her Majesty The Queen.”   

The intention of spending time between the UK and North America will enable the couple to raise their son “with an appreciation for the royal tradition into which he was born, while also providing our family with the space to focus on the next chapter, including the launch of our new charitable entity.”

Something of a war has broken out between the couple and the press, leading to an information tussle. The couple have adopted a new communications strategy that involves providing “access to credible media outlets focused on objective news reporting to cover key moments and events.” On the legal front, the duchess has initiated proceedings against the Daily Mail for breach of privacy; the duke sued two papers in October claiming phone hacking. The National Union of Journalists has expressed concern that the couple’s removal from the “royal rota” of coverage will lead to greater control exercised over coverage of their affairs.

The palace machine has been icy in response to the decision to withdraw, taking a harsh lecturing tone to the couple. Discussions were, went a statement from the Palace, “at an early stage”. “We understand their desire to take a different approach, but these are complicated issues that will take time to work through.”

The palace stooges are out aplenty, helped along by the Daily Mail’s enthusiastic antipathy against the duchess, never seen as a worthy fit. The treatment afforded Markle has been strikingly different to that of Kate Middleton, Duchess of Cambridge, who is, in the true royal tradition, a functionary and incubator for heirs. An apt illustration of this can be gathered from the Mail’s respective descriptions of the pregnancies of both Middleton and Markle, the former “tenderly” cradling “her bump while wrapping up her royal duties ahead of maternity leave”, the latter incapable of keeping “her hands of her bump”. Was it “pride, vanity, acting – or a new age bonding technique?”

Middleton does not question; she adjusts, amends her positions, adapts her being.  When novelist Hilary Mantel made the astute observation that Middleton was really a “show-window mannequin” of machine-like quality, “without the risk of the emergence of character”, shrieks and howls followed. This ignored the obvious point that higher aristocracy have always been pieces of strategy and durability rather than people, always the behest of a higher command and duty to procreate. Real estate, babies and legacies – that’s the show.  

Markle is no such product. Her US birth, with an African-American mother, and her self-made standing as an actor (leaving aside the quality of that acting), were already awkward jabs at the pattern of royal propriety. Last June, the sense of independence (the British press prefer the term “divergence”) became evident when the couple decided to go into the charitable pursuit separate from the royal family. This has led to Markle being subject to what royal historian Marlene Koenig claims is “a pile-on”.  

Markle has been attacked for her luxuriant baby shower last February, dubbed Showergate, accused by Prince Diana’s former private secretary Patrick Jephson for being indiscreet and vulgar. Despite dealing with it with her own funds, “Favours must be returned, obligations quickly multiply and pretty soon royal free-riders are handing over their most precious assets: credibility and dignity, if not, please God, their lives.”  

Markle has also been said to be a handful for her staff, the Duchess Difficult of the royal set. The signs of Palace sabotage and disruption are suggested; Markle seems to be rather well-liked, and depending on which royal source you tap, you are bound to find the appropriate slant.

Added to this the less than becoming aspect of the duke’s brother, Prince William, and we are left with a true plate of grist. One flavoured morsel doing the rounds is the suggestion that the exit of the Sussexes has much to do with the extra-marital conduct of the Duke of Cambridge as with anything else. The Sun, doing its bit to go through the trash cans, suggests that William is “incandescent with rage” at the suggestion. The Times, not wanting to be left out in the cold, fronts its own royal source alleging that William is prone to bullying and has estranged his brother.

Enough has been floating around that Wills can barely contain himself and is keeping up the royal front of bed-hopping, notably with Rose Hanbury, the Marchioness of Cholmondeley. The palace eagles are duly floating around to ensure that no press outlet will publish such speculation without threatened sanction, and royal watchers such as Phil Dampier are already dousing the flames. “Whatever the truth of William’s closeness to Rose, who is a mum of three, Kate has obviously decided she doesn’t want any lasting bitterness or tension.”

For republicans, none of the above should matter, except that the royals remain some of the most privileged spongers of Britain and the Commonwealth. Their extra-marital trysts are subsidised; their efforts to be celebrity puffs are also greased by the taxpayer. In Canada, the security tab will be picked up by local security. Though the Sussexes have made it clear they do not intend to rely on the British public purse, the question remains unresolved. What remains striking, however, is the way the palace machinery has strutted its plumage, giving the impression that the Sussex situation was a scandal unique and deserving of attention.

In the end, it was left to the Queen to exert some authority via a statement. “My family and I are entirely supportive of Harry and Meghan’s desire to create a new life as a young family. Although we would have preferred them to remain full-time working Members of the Royal Family, we respect and understand their wish to live a more independent life as a family while remaining a valued part of my family.” In what must count as a polished way of saying “bugger”, the Queen promises “a period of transition which the Sussexes will spend time in Canada and the UK.”

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Vague Imminence: US policy, Pre-emptive Force and Qasem Soleimani

International relations is typified by its vagueness of definition and its shallowness of justification. Be it protecting citizens of a state in another, launching a pre-emptive strike to prevent what another state might do, or simply understanding the application of a treaty provision, justifications can prove uneven and at odds.

The pre-emptive jerk behind the killing of Major General Qasem Soleimani of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps-Quds Force was one such occasion. (It transpires that there was another effort, failed as it turned out, against the Quds commander Abdul Reza Shahla’i). The ingredients behind the drone strike were supposedly clear: the now vanquished leader of the Quds operational arm was planning attacks on US soldiers and interests. In any case, he had killed many US personnel before. The attack could therefore be seen as an adventurous, and advanced reading, of self-defence, billed by the legal fraternity as “anticipatory self-defence”.

Article 51 of the United Nations Charter qualifies the use of force against another state by imposing two conditions. There must be authorisation by the Security Council to use force to maintain or restore international peace and security. The second arm of the provision legitimises the use of force where a state is exercising its recognised right to individual or collective self-defence. But the boundaries of the latter are often unclear; they include “preventive” military action and “pre-emptive” military action, with the former focused on targeting the enemy’s acquisition of a capacity to attack, the latter focusing on foiling an imminent enemy attack.

Both the United States and Iran duly resorted to Article 51 letters in light of Soleimani’s killing. US Ambassador to the UN, Kelly Craft, claimed that the strike took place as a response to an “escalating series of armed attacks in recent months” by Iran and its proxies on US personnel and interests in the Middle East “in order to deter the Islamic Republic of Iran from conducting or supporting further attacks against the United States or US interests.” The addition purpose of the attack was to “degrade the Islamic Republic of Iran and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Qods Force-supported militias’ ability to conduct attacks.”

Iranian Ambassador Majid Takht Ravanchi obliged with a counter letter to the UN on Wednesday justifying its January 8 actions in retaliation against a US airbase in Iraq for the killing of Soleimani. The retaliatory strikes were deemed “measured and proportionate”, “precise and targeted”, and left “no collateral damage to civilians and civilian assets in the area.”

For all the padding offered, the Soleimani killing could be considered a legacy of a tenuous, and precarious reading of self-defence offered by the United States since 2001. US policy makers have done their obfuscating bit to compound the sheer vagueness of anticipatory self-defence since President George W. Bush occupied the White House. The US National Security Strategy of 2002, followed by its 2006 variant, showed the sloppiness that comes with imperial overconfidence in the pursuit of enemies. Pre-emption and prevention lose their distinct forms when the drafters search for legitimate uses of force against a shady enemy that prefers to play by different rules.

NSS 2002 acknowledges that centuries of international law “recognized that nations need not suffer an attack before they can lawfully take action to defend themselves against forces that present an imminent danger of attack.” But the scope is given a good widening. “The United States has long maintained the option of pre-emptive actions to counter a sufficient threat to our national security. The greater the threat, the greater is the risk of inaction – and the more compelling the case for taking anticipatory action to defend ourselves, even if uncertainty remains as to the time and place of the enemy’s attack.”

Embracing such a broad reading of pre-emption was conditioned by “the capabilities and objectivities of today’s adversaries. Rogue states and terrorists do not seek to attack us using conventional means.” So it goes: the enemy obliges us to adjust, alter and repudiate conventions. Flying civilian planes into the Twin Towers in New York on September 11, 2001 constituted such an unconventional manner of attack.

The 2006 National Security Strategy stated unequivocally that “the place of pre-emption in our national security strategy remains the same” though conceding that “no country should ever use pre-emption as a pretext for aggression.” Using such force would take place after “weighing the consequences of our actions. The reasons for our actions will be clear, the force measured, and the cause just.” Four years later, under the Obama administration, the position had not much improved, and the muddle remained.

The killing of a senior Iranian commander in circumstances that could hardly be seen as a matter of combat revived that hoary old chestnut of imminent threat. When US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was pressed about the nature of such imminence in a press conference, the old tangle of interpretations became manifest. “Mr. Secretary,” came one question, “the administration said this strike was based on an imminent threat, but this morning you said we didn’t know precisely when and we didn’t know precisely where. That’s not the definition of ‘imminent’.”

Pompeo was not exactly helpful, resorting to the classic rhetorical device of circularity. “We had specific information on an imminent threat, and those threats included attacks on US embassies. Period. Full stop.” He conceded to not knowing, with exact precision, “which day it would’ve have been executed. I don’t know exactly which minute.” But the evidence was sound enough: Soleimani “was plotting a broad, large-scale attack against American interests. And those attacks were imminent.”

Each time he was confronted with a question on clarification, Pompeo dissembled. In not taking any action to stall the efforts of Soleimani, the Trump administration “would have been culpably negligent” in not recommending the president to “take his action”.

President Donald Trump, for his part, has given the impression of justified clarity. “I can reveal,” he told Fox News, “that I believe it would have been four embassies.” Before a campaign rally in Ohio on Thursday, he suggested that Soleimani had been “actively planning new attacks, and he was looking very seriously at our embassies, and not just the embassy in Baghdad.”

None of this really matters in the final analysis. Uses of force must be justified after the fact, and the tradition of big power statecraft shows that the more formidable a power, the more likely threats against it will be magnified. The attack on Soleimani had as much to do with inflated claims of US security as it did with chronic insecurity.

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Incendiary Extinctions: Australian Fires and the Species Effect

Cocooned as it is from the world of science scepticism, the handling of the bush fire catastrophe unfolding in Australia is going to one of the more notable (non)achievements of the Morrison government. They were warned; they were chided; they were prodded. But the measures lagged, and the flames came.

To a certain extent, this remains unfair. Australian governments, across colours and persuasions, have found managing the environment a problematic, and inconvenient affair. Being a country rich in resources ready-made for digging and export, environment ministers have become the executing tribunes of mining rights and interests before the preservation of flora and fauna species. Miners, rights, not Earth rights, are what counts. Talk of climate change responses is heavily weighted in favour of pro-emission and polluting measures; greening projects look like acts of ecological pantomime. Australia remains a country transfixed and terrified by Nature, even as it mangles or ignores it.

With that in mind, the flames that continue to consume Australia have not merely destroyed agriculture, property and human life; they have had an impact on animal species that remains hard to measure. As a general rule, these events now have the makings of the unprecedented, at least in terms of human records. There are fire fronts that stretch like scars of battle across terrain. Smoke plumes half the size of Europe have been noted.

Updates on the progress of the flames resemble a relentless disaster narrative. Over 25.5 million acres of land, or territory the size of South Korea, is a figure that has caught the eye of news outlets. Images from NASA’s Earth Observatory, its Suomi-NPP satellite and the Himawari 8 Japanese satellite of the Japanese Meteorological Agency, have shown the international print being left by the fires.

Little wonder that the more terrestrial assessments of impacts have turned their focus on species extinction, a point that was bound to happen given Australia’s already unflattering honour of having the highest rate of mammal extinction on the planet. They are far more than the shrieks and howls of pain coming from koalas as they are incinerated to death, or the charred remains of kangaroos left in a funereal silver-ash landscape. It is the post-apocalyptic aftermath, when species find themselves in a world of ash and remains, with food and shelter miserably scarce.

The extinction literature, speculative and more solidly grounded, is burgeoning. Six Australian professors have stuck to the safe, if dark premise by claiming in The Conversation that “most of the range and population of between 20 and 100 threatened species will have been burnt. Such species include the long-footed potoroo, Kangaroo Island’s glossy black cockatoo and the Spring midge orchid.”

Another unnerving estimate from January 3, and applicable to the state of New South Wales alone, put the toll of birds, mammals and reptiles affected by the conflagrations at 480 million. (The number did not include insects, bats or frogs). “Many of the affected animals are likely to have been killed directly by the fires, with others succumbing later due to the depletion of food and shelter resources and predation from introduced feral cats and red foxes.”

Within five days, an updated assessment from Professor Chris Dickman almost doubled the initial NSW figures. Across the continent, a billion animals are said to have perished. In an interview with National Public Radio in the US, Dickman suggested that the figures were exceptionally staggering. “I think there’s nothing quite to compare with the devastation that’s going on over such a large area so quickly. It’s a monstrous event in terms of geography and the number of individual animals affected.”

The disaster for such species is one of ongoing affects; the fire leaves the initial destructive mark, with these being particular savage. According to wildlife rescue volunteer Sarah Price, “We are not seeing the amount of animals coming into care or needing rescuing that we would normally anticipate.” The implication is hard to avoid: “We think a lot perished in the fires.”

Some animals might well survive the scorching, but insatiable and uninterrupted land clearing coupled with the busyness of introduced fauna varieties does the rest. The impacts of fire events also remove habitat sanctuaries for wildlife, be they layers of fallen leaves, specific shrubs important as food sources, or log and tree hollows.

Should there ever be an ecological tribunal vested in powers to assess government actions over the years on the subject, the failure to put in measures to protect species from calamity may well have to top the list. A reckless, occasionally malicious stupidity might count as motivation, but by then, not much will be left to protect. Any punishment will be left without a purpose.

The management of biodiversity and ecosystems, involving measures taken to bolster and buffer against the next catastrophe – for they will be more – matter far more. The discussion, as it stands, remains asphyxiated by the smoke and rage, with an overwhelming focus on human suffering, the calls for donations to human survivors, the search for compensation. The earth and its non-human inhabitants remain the statistics of silent suffering and, after this event, some will go the way of their doomed ancestors. As ever, Australia remains, as Dickman claims, the canary in the coal mine in terms of climate effects and human response. And the canary is not looking too good.

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Disruptive Assassinations: Killing Qassem Soleimani

On the surface, it made not one iota of sense. The murder of a foreign military leader on his way from Baghdad airport, his diplomatic status assured by the local authorities, evidently deemed a target of irresistible richness. “General Soleimani was actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region.” The words from the Pentagon seemed to resemble the resentment shown by the Romans to barbarian chiefs who dared resist them. “This strike was aimed at deterring future Iranian attack plans. The United States will continue to take all necessary action to protect our people and our interests wherever they are around the world.”

The killing of Major General Qassem Soleimani of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps-Quds Force in a drone strike on January 3, along with Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, deputy commander of Iraq’s Popular Mobilisation Forces, or Hash a-Shaabi and PMF Kata’ib Hezbollah, was packaged and ribboned as a matter of military necessity. Soleimani had been, according to the Pentagon, “responsible for the deaths of hundreds of American and coalition service members and the wounding of thousands more.” He was behind a series of attacks on coalition forces in Iraq over the last several months including attacks on the US embassy in Baghdad on December 31, 2019.

US President Donald J. Trump had thrown caution to the wind, suggesting in a briefing at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida that an option on the table would be the killing of Soleimani. The Iran hawks seemed to have his ear; others were caught off guard, preferring to keep matters more general.

A common thread running through the narrative was the certainty – unshakable, it would seem – that Soleimani was on the warpath against US interests. The increased danger posed by the Quds Force commander were merely presumed, and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was happy to do so despite not being able to “talk too much about the nature of the threats. But the American people should know that the President’s decision to remove Soleimani from the battlefield saved American lives.” (Pompeo goes on to insist that there was “active plotting” to “take big action” that would have endangered “hundreds of lives”). How broadly one defines the battlefield becomes relevant; the US imperium has decided that diplomatic niceties and sovereign protections for officials do not count. The battlefield is everywhere.

Trump was far from convincing in reiterating the arguments, insisting that the general had been responsible for killing or badly wounding “thousands of Americans over an extended period of time, and was plotting to kill may more… but got caught!” From his resort in Palm Beach, Florida, he claimed that the attack was executed “to stop a war. We did not take action to start a war.”

Whatever the views of US officialdom, seismic shifts in the Middle East were being promised.  Iraq’s prime minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi demanded an emergency parliamentary session with the aim of taking “legislative steps and necessary provisions to safeguard Iraq’s dignity, security and sovereignty.” On Sunday, the parliament did something which, ironically enough, has been a cornerstone of Iran’s policy in Iraq: the removal of US troops from Iraq. While being a non-binding resolution, the parliament urged the prime minister to rescind the invitation extended to US forces when it was attacked by Islamic State forces in 2014.

Iranian Armed Forces’ spokesman Brigadier General Abolfazl Shekarchi promised setting “up a plan, patiently, to respond to this terrorist act in a crushing and powerful manner.” He also reiterated that it was the US, not Iran, who had “occupied Iraq in violation of all international rules and regulations without any coordination with the Iraqi government and without the Iraqi people’s demands.”

While the appeals to international law can seem feeble, the observation from the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions Agnès Callamard was hard to impeach. “The targeted killings of Qassem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi Al-Humandis are most [likely] unlawful and violate international human rights law: Outside the context of active hostilities, the use of drones or other means for targeted killing is almost never likely to be legal.” To be deemed lawful, such targeting with lethal effect “can only be used where strictly necessary to protect against an imminent threat to life.”

The balance sheet for this action, then, is not a good one. As US presidential candidate Marianne Williamson observed with crisp accuracy, the attack on Soleimani and his companions had little to do with “whether [he] was a ‘good man’ any more than it was about whether Saddam was a good man. It’s about smart versus stupid use of military power.”

An intelligent use of military power is not in the offing, with Trump promising the targeting of 52 Iranian sites, each one representing an American hostage held in Iran at the US embassy in Tehran during November 1979. But Twitter sprays and promises of this sort tend to lack substance and Trump is again proving to be the master of disruptive distraction rather than tangible action.

Even Israeli outlets such as Haaretz, while doffing the cap off to the idea of Soleimani as a shadowy, dangerous figure behind the slayings of Israelis “in terrorist attacks, and untold thousands of Syrians, Iraqis, Lebanese and others dispatched by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Quds Force,” showed concern. Daniel B. Shapiro even went so far as to express admiration for the operation, an “impressive” feat of logistics but found nothing of an evident strategy. Trump’s own security advisers were caught off guard. A certain bloodlust had taken hold.

Within Congress, the scent of a strategy did not seem to come through, despite some ghoulish cheers from the GOP. Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) and chairman of the House Intelligence panel, failed to notice “some broad strategy at work.” Michigan Democrat Rep. Elissa Slotkin, previously acting assistant secretary of defence and CIA analyst, explained why neither Democratic or Republic presidents had ventured onto the treacherous terrain of targeting Soleimani. “Was the strike worth the likely retaliation, and the potential to pull us into protracted conflict?” The answer was always a resounding no.

By killing such a high ranking official of a sovereign power, the US has signalled a redrawing of accepted, and acceptable lines of engagement. The justification was spurious, suggesting that assassination and killing in combat are not distinctions with any difference. But perhaps most significantly of all, the killing of Soleimani will usher in the very same attacks that this decision was meant to avert even as it assists Iranian policy in expelling any vestige of US influence in Iraq and the broader Middle East. It also signalled to Iran that abiding by agreements of any sort, including the international nuclear deal of 2015 which the US has repudiated, will be paper tigers worth shredding without sorrow.

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Australia Burns: Fireworks, Bush Fires and Denial

As 2020 approached, the sense that the barbarians were not only at the gates but had breached the walls of indifference had come to the fore. But these were not conventional human forms; rather, they were the agents of conflagration, driving people to the sea, forcing them from homes and consuming territories the size of small countries. Australia was burning.

Then it became clear that the barbarians might have been among us all along, the dedicated wreckers of the biosphere, the climate change denialists who cling to a tradition highlighted by the smug authors of Genesis 1:26: that the non-human world is there for the conquest of humanity. Unfortunately for the smug scribblers of the Bible, the earth has not been too compliant in this regard.

As the continent scorched, the annual, exorbitant display of Sydney’s fireworks that mark the opening of the new year seemed a touch vulgar. This was not a time to be solemn or mournful; the bread and circuses had to continue coming. The presenters of the ABC’s New Year’s Eve show attempted to put on a brave face, turning it to a donations run for those who had suffered loss in the bush fires. Even as they did, a floating haze was evident; Sydney could not escape from the reality that it was surrounded by flames.

Australian towns are starting to sound like besieged forts and desperate holdouts. The Victorian seaside town of Mallacoota has been elevated to something like a First World War Verdun against the onslaught of fire. Thousands had gathered on Tuesday at the boat ramp. Pictures of a blood red sky have been taken, most notably that of Allison Marion’s picture of her son, Finn. But will the flames pass? The question is never far away from those engaged. For those directly fighting the flames, deaths are accumulating. Men like Sam McPaul of the Morven Rural Fire Brigade have become the fallen warriors of hoses and salvation.

The Morrison government, despite the calamities, would not let up in its boastful assertions on environmental soundness. Energy minister Angus Taylor, who is Australia’s de facto environment minister (that portfolio has little relevance in Australia, except for granting mining approvals) took to The Australian to claim that the country had a record that should make people proud. “Australia meets and beats its emissions-reduction targets, every time.” The Kyoto targets were outdone by 129 million tonnes; the 2020 targets will be met by 411 million tonnes.

But the technique of such praise is always slanted; Australia was positively virtuous in climate change policy, yet was only “responsible for only 1.3% of global emissions, so we can’t single-handedly have a meaningful impact without the co-operation of the largest emitters such as China and the US.”

Australia had been fighting climate change as dedicated troopers against the odds. Pity that the odds were themselves compounded by his government’s own scepticism at the very idea that disastrous burning events might be an effect of climate change. Selective accounting is the panacea sought in this regard, and Taylor does so by picking figures that exclude, for instance, emissions from the fossil fuels Australia digs and exports. Like an arms exporter with an amoral compass and a mind for the selective, the claim here is that Australia cannot be responsible for what others do with the earth’s loot, despite actually providing them in the first place.

Those actually versed with export and production figures tend to raise their eyebrows when Taylor takes to the podium of praise. Frank Jotzo, director of the Centre for Climate and Energy Policy at the ANU Crawford School of Public Policy, was politely damning. “I would characterise [Taylor’s article] as a selective use of statistics that make Australia’s emissions trajectory look good, when in reality it does not look good at all.”

A study by Climate Analytics published in July 2019 does much to shred the Taylor worldview in this regard. As the authors note with severity, “Australia is the world’s largest coal (thermal + metallurgical) exporter, accounting for 29% of traded coal globally in 2016 and will soon be the world’s largest natural gas (LNG) exporter. As a consequence, Australia’s global carbon footprint is very significant, with exported fossil fuel emissions currently representing around 3.6% of global emissions.”

Hardly insignificant, and even more damnable considering that Australia is in the big league when it comes to per capita emissions of carbon, including exports. China, for instance, is surpassed by a factor of 9; the US by 4, India by 37.

The prime minister is proving unconvincing in his efforts to fight the storm. A tweeted statement from Scott Morrison gave the impression that this was merely another housekeeping exercise to complete, the fires manageable interruptions to the perfect Australian life. “Federal Government, especially our Defence Forces, are working together with the Victorian Government to respond to Victorian bushfires. VIC CFA are leading the response.” He noted how both he and the Victorian premier had been in “regular contact” admitting that, “Reports of persons unaccounted for are very distressing.”

 

His new year address sank like an unprized lead balloon. He conceded that 2019 had not been without difficulties. “But the one thing we an always celebrate in Australia is that we live in the most amazing country on earth and the wonderful Aussie spirit that means we always overcome whatever challenges that we face that we always look optimistically into your future.” Australia remained exemplary as a “place to raise kids”. The disasters, on the other hand, have not been singular. “Whatever our trials, whatever disasters have befallen us, we have never succumbed to panic.” A true man of advertising, to the last.

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Indian Adventures: Policing, Facial Recognition and Targeting Privacy

The chances for those seeking a world of solitude are rapidly run out. A good case can be made that this has already happened. Aldous Huxley’s Savage, made famous in Brave New World, is out of options, having lost to the Mustapha Monds of the world. State and corporate regulation of life, surveillance and monitoring, are reviled only in the breach. And, like Mond, we are told that it is all for the better.

Facial recognition is one such form, celebrated by the corporate suits and the screws of the prison system alike. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos is a keen devotee, and it is telling that his company has now reached a level of influence that it can actually write the legislation on its own facial surveillance technology. Whether Congress or other parliaments pass it is another thing, but political representatives are always up for rent when required. What matters is selling them the right template of faux protections and safeguards that will enable them to sleep more soundly at night.

The critics come across as Cassandras and killjoys but they are trenchant and convincing. Artificial intelligence expert Luke Stark argues that, at a technical level, facial recognition systems possess “insurmountable flaws connected to the way they schematize human faces.” Gender and race categorisations are not only created but re-enforced, a point highlighted by Amazon’s own Rekognition system. The risks of using such technology, Stark expounds, is “reminiscent of hazardous nuclear technologies.”

Evan Greer continues in the same vein, looking at a world of saturation surveillance with some despair. “The use of computer algorithms to analyse massive databases of footage and photographs could render human privacy extinct.” Greer has no need for the qualifier there.

Such concerns keep falling on the stubbornly deaf ears of those in power. Those like Bezos have software and systems to sell, coated in save-the-world gloss; authorities are seeking products to purchase that are affordable and supposedly effective. The Federal Bureau of Investigation, for instance, uses Rekognition on some level. On January 15, 2019, a sternly worded letter from a coalition of 85 different groups and organisations took issue with this tendency, rebuking Bezos and the buccaneering tendencies in the facial recognition market. “By continuing to sell your face surveillance product to government entities, Amazon is gravely threatening the safety of community members, ignoring the protests of its own workers, and undermining public trust in its business.”

This tendency became all too real this year, with an announcement by the Indian government that plans to install a national facial recognition system were being implemented. The inspiration behind such a measure is characteristic. Authorities find themselves stretched. There are few hands to achieve their objectives. In this case, law enforcement authorities claim to be starved of resources, funding and foot soldiers. Technological options which stress speed, data compilation and comparisons are being sought as a remedy.

The country’s National Crime Records Bureau, operating within the purview of the Home Ministry, expressed interest in tenders for what would be the world’s first central facial recognition surveillance system. The NCRB is matter fact and businesslike in describing the intentions of the program. “This is an effort in the direction of modernising the police force, information gathering, criminal identification, verification and dissemination among various police forces and units across the country.”

There is no shortage of contenders for such a system, though indigenous variants were a bit slow in coming. Indian homeland security, like other markets, is thriving. Atul Rai, who features in a BuzzFeed contribution, is one such exponent. He is CEO of Staqu Technologies, which specialises in data analysis and facial recognition. His company have been happy to work with the police to digitize musty, filed records lost in papered chaos.  But his approach is sinister in its confidence. “America had Palantir. China had SenseTime. India didn’t have a single brand like that in this space. So we wanted to be that.” To be that involved training “our model on the Indian facial ecosystem.”

Problematically, the NCRB never saw fit to raise the issue with policy makers, a point deemed more significant for the finding by the Indian Supreme Court in 2017 that privacy is a fundamental right. (The jurisprudence prior to this decision had been divided on this point). The case of Justice K.S. Puttaswamy (Retd) vs Union of India dealt with a petition concerning the constitutional validity of Aadhaar, an Indian biometric identity scheme. The nine judges found that, “The right to privacy is protected as an intrinsic part of the right to life and personal liberty under Article 21 and as part of the freedoms guaranteed by Part III of the Constitution.”

As Raman Jit Singh Chima, Asia policy director at the open-internet advocacy group Access Now warns, “It is deeply concerning that [the NCRB] have done this without any policy consultation and there’s not even a policy document. There’s no clarity on what problems they are trying to solve.” Vidushi Marda, lawyer and researcher at Article 19 and Carnegie India, has been wise to the language being used in selling the program; “safety”, “security” and “crime prevention” pepper the platform with arresting confidence. But according to Marda, it is even more threatening than Aadhaar. “Unless we get plastic surgery at the same time, there’s nothing we can do about it.”

Even then, the confident types in government are convinced that plastic surgery modifications can be defeated with the assistance of sketches, pictures published in newspapers, CCTV camera footage, and images from public and private video feeds.

The Indian context is particularly important, given the nationalist ambitions of Narenda Modi’s government, and those of his Bharatiya Janata Party. Social and military control is central to their politics, with minorities high up the list of targets. The quasi-autonomous status of Jammu and Kashmir has been rescinded; detention camps are being built with the intention of keeping 2 million people in the north-eastern state of Assam under watchful eye.

While the options for solitude may be thinning at a goggling rate, pockets of resistance against biometric technologies can be found. There are those within the mother ship that is Amazon who fear abuse. There are legislatures and local councils in the United States digging in against the adoption of such technologies. The European Parliament has been showing concern; Sweden found itself falling foul of the Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation in using facial recognition in schools. But the Indian move suggests that facial recognition continues to hold cash strapped bureaucrats and corporate technologists in thrall.

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Hypersonic Putin and Gonzo Weaponry

Weapons of dazzling murderousness have always thrilled military industrial establishments. They make money; they add to the accounts; and they tickle the pride of States who manufacture them. From time to time, showy displays of restraint through arms limitation agreements are made. These can apply to either the offensive element of such weapons, or their defensive counters.

The calculus of death is often premised on ensuring that, for every destructive advance made, some retarding force accompanies it. By way of example, nuclear warheads spraying a country can be countered by anti-defence missiles. However, the nature of such a defence should never be impregnable. The balance of terror must be maintained in these acts of amoral accounting.

Of late, treaties restraining the deployment of weapons that gallop ahead of such a balancing act have been confined to shredders and dustbins. There was the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), a reminder of a thawing period between the Soviet Union and the United States from 1987. It prohibited the fielding of land-based missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometres. But President Donald J. Trump has never been a man for history, treating it as an encumbrance on the United States. Violations by Russia were cited, with the 9M729 missile singled out as a stand out culprit. Russia duly countered; the United States’ Aegis Ashore facility based in Romania could technically be used to launch missiles in breach of the treaty. Both countries have now confined the document to oblivion.

The last nuclear arms control treaty existing between Russia and US is the lonely 2010 New START treaty, dealing with the number of strategic nuclear missile launchers. Expiring in February 2021, the sense that it will go the way of others is genuine.

Withdrawing from such arms control treaties has led to a widening in the field of experimentation, and few are as exciting for the merchants of death than the hypersonic missile, best described as a form of gonzo weaponry. Hypersonic weaponry emphasises unstoppable speed, travelling, at the minimum five times the speed of sound, but are noted for their infuriating agility in the face of defences. The military accountants are smacking their lips; sales for such weapons are predicted to reach $5 billion in the next decade. Such armaments inclined outfits as JP Morgan see money-making opportunities or, in the sanitised words of one of its analysts Seth Seifman, “substantial growth potential by the mid-2020s.”

Russia, China and the United States have active programs in the field, but it is Russia that claims to have stolen a march on everybody else. As Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu announced as hospital staff announce the delivery of a prized newborn, the “Avangard hypersonic glide vehicle entered service at 10:00 Moscow time on 27 December.” Strategic missile forces chief Gen. Sergei Karakaev has revealed that the Avangard has been deployed in the Orenburg region in the southern Urals.

In contrast, US Defense Secretary Mark Esper claimed in August that “its probably a matter of a couple of years” before the US could obtain such a system. Reaction from Washington to the announcement was one of quiet acceptance.

Russian president Vladimir Putin is enthusiastic, and confident enough, to proclaim the Avangard system as singular. “Not a single country possesses hypersonic weapons, let alone continental-range hypersonic weapons.” This is the true chest-thumping bravado of the old Cold War days, when the Soviet Union could claim to be streets ahead of others in the field of missile technology. “The Avangard is invulnerable to intercept by any existing and prospective missile defence means of the potential adversary.”

The Avangard system is a toy of some joy for those who admire the attributes of deliverability, flexibility and manoeuvrability. It is nuclear capable, able to carry a nuclear weapon with a yield of two megatons.  And it is blisteringly fast, coming in at 27 times the speed of sound. As Putin said in March 2018 during his state-of-the-nation address, “It heads to target like a meteorite, like a fireball.”

A new race has opened up and the field is looking increasingly crowded. Lockheed Martin is being commissioned “to design and build a hypersonic vehicle.” It notes the “complex engineering and physics challenges” involved in reaching speeds of Mach 5. “As one of the Department of Defense’s highest technical priorities, our scientists and engineers are developing game-changing hypersonic solutions.”

Reading the inventory of the company’s dizzying array of systems is candy to the militarist baby. There is the Hypersonic Conventional Strike Weapon (HCSW), a “hypersonic boost glide vehicle” designed to be launched from the B52. Then comes the Long-Range Hypersonic Weapon (LRHW), leveraging “the common hypersonic glide body” which will include “a new class of ultrafast and manoeuvrable long-range missiles with the ability to launch from ground mobile platforms.”

Boeing is intent on adding to the run, keen to invest in a British company specialising in “advanced propulsion systems that could power a hypersonic vehicle.” A slew of other outfits are also sinking their teeth into the market. Raytheon and Northrop Grumman announced in June that a joint team was “quickly developing air-breathing hypersonic weapons to keep our nation ahead of the threat.”

For all the bravado one tends to see in the defence industry across countries, worries are discernible in the Pentagon. The hypersonic system supposedly mocks and scorns current defences; the fear that they will be fully operational before credible deterrents are put in place is the sort of thing analysts lose sleep over. As US Air Force General John Hyten explained to the Senate Armed Services Committee on March 20, “We don’t have any defence that could deny the employment of such a weapon against us.”

Michael Griffin, undersecretary for research and engineering, is intent on making his mark. “I did not take this job to reach parity with adversaries. I want to make them worry about catching up with us again.”  But he finds himself, and the United States, short in the field. “The United States is not yet doing all that we need to do to respond to hypersonic missile threats.” A few ideas are being floated, including the placement of detecting sensors in space.

Whatever the merits of Putin’s expansive claims on the Avangard system – and these remain hard to test – they furnish the military establishments across the globe a boon to seek further funding and experimentation. The balance of terror, the ledger of doom, is set for a shake-up.

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Scapegoats for Jamal Khashoggi

The hit squad that went about its deadly business with varying degrees of competence in Istanbul last year is set to be thinned. Five members of the group tasked with strangling and carving up the Saudi journalist and out-of-favour Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate on October 2, 2018 are now facing the generous justice of their employers. As this process takes place, there is gleeful hand washing taking place in the highest quarters of the kingdom.

The finding behind sentencing five members of the squad to death is inconsistent and even idiosyncratic. (Three others were given prison sentences). The proceedings were closed, save for a few diplomats gagged by undertakings not to reveal anything. Despite lacking any intent to kill (forget the presence of a forensic specialist, a bone saw or a body double intended to mimic the slain journalist), death sentences were still seen as appropriate. State responsibility was to be eschewed; the entire matter, it seemed, had been an act of unwise adventurism. According to the prosecutors, the killing took place in a “spur of the moment”.

The odds were always going to be stacked in favour of a premature adjudication. For one, witness testimonies were not sought, making any credible gathering of evidence impossible. Cross-examination as a method tends to be shunned in such criminal proceedings.

What was clear in this theatre of the non-event was that any big fish found in the net were going to be let free. Two other figures linked to the killing, Maj. Gen. Ahmed al-Assiri and the close adviser to crown prince Mohammed bin Salman and social media fiend, Saud al-Qahtani, were given the necessary institutional acquittals for a lack of evidence.

To have found them guilty would have drawn a thick line of accountability to the crown prince himself, a darling of dissembling and venality. Finding scapegoats in the low rung of the chain served the stretched illusion of cleaning the stables. It also had another external purpose: to give such administrations as those in Washington the false impression that something was being done.  President Donald J. Trump has tended to look upon the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia with moneyed keenness. Lucrative arms deals are, and have been struck.

The human rights fraternity have been predictably scandalised if somewhat unsurprised. Sarah Leah Whitson, Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa Director, took issue with the absolute secrecy and lack of due process for either victim or the defendants. “We don’t have information about the most basic facts on why Khashoggi was killed, who ordered the killing or what was done to his body.”

Human rights activist and blogger Omaima al-Najjar showed some weariness at the whole business; of course, there could be no expectation of due process in a political and judicial system hostile to a separation of powers. It all begins, and ends, with the royal family.

The entire process has proved disorienting to the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary and arbitrary killings, Agnes Callamard. The killers who had carried out the vile wishes of a regime had effectively become victims of that very same state apparatus geared to neutralise dissent. “The executioners were found guilty and sentenced to death. Opposed to the death sentence, this is a first shock to me.” She observed how “those who ordered the executions not only walk free but have barely been touched by the investigation and the trial. This is the second shock.”

Callamard’s approach to the killing of Khashoggi has been to regard it as a matter of international concern and jurisdiction. The Saudis, she implies, cannot be trusted with the case and she has much to go on. In June this year, she argued while presenting the conclusions of her six-month investigation that six violations of international law had taken place in the killing, ranging from the prohibition against arbitrary deprivation of life, the requirement that states use consular missions for official purposes and the violation of the protection of freedom of expression. Seeing it as such, the death of Khashoggi “constitutes an international crime over which other States should claim universal jurisdiction.”

In her report, Callarmard concluded that whatever theory might lie behind the death of Khashoggi, state responsibility had to be attributed to Saudi Arabia. “His killing was the result of elaborate planning involving extensive coordination and significant human and financial resources. It was overseen, planned and endorsed by high-level officials.  It was premeditated.”

Once the shocks have worn off, Callamard and her band of legally interested observers will have to accept that the Khashoggi affair, from the start, was one of a bold if bungled assassination (in so far as it could not be concealed), one executed at the behest of a regime suffering from intense hubris. The crown prince, who has found an ear in every significant forum of consequence on the world stage, had a hiccup, and has, since then, been trying to cure himself of it. That it will take the deaths of another five men and prison sentences for three others says much about the man.

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Christmas Revolutions: The Fall of Ceauşescu

Christmas might be associated with nativities, but in the context of Romania’s Nicolae Ceauşescu and his wife, Elena, it came with a butchering. As a couple, they ruled Romania with heavy doses of megalomania (“A man like me comes along only once every five hundred years”), deception and plunder in what was aptly described as socialism in one family. Other less flattering comments refer to “the communist Dracula”, one who drew blood and resources from the Romanian state with relish and habit.

A figure like Ceauşescu was much in keeping with the cult of personality that came to dominate communist states after the end of the Second World War. People’s revolutions, as often happens, were supplanted by cadres of rapacious, scrapping bureaucrats, despite the official call for “creative Marxism”. But the Ceauşescus had to always better their rivals, be the big couple on the stage. Elena, an accomplished charlatan, managed to con her way into an assortment of international scientific academies. Honorary doctorates flowed; articles, and her doctorate, were ghost written. As with most acts of charlatanry, those duped were, in many ways, as revolting as the duper.

However grand the projects purported to be – and some were, in a kitschy, flimsy way grand – the sense of the hollow was inescapable. These were efforts of fluff, encounters with the banal. At its core was a base, insatiable kleptomania, a form of sanctified thieving. On a small scale, word got around that the Romanian delegations under Ceauşescu would make off with trinkets. (This point was relayed to Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II by French president Giscard d’Estaing).

As with other regimes of repression, the Ceauşescu system was premised on vigilant mass surveillance over its citizens, crowned by the blood-soaked efforts of the secret police force known as the Securitate. It was part of a strategy of turning the country into one of informants and tenured paranoids on the make. The instinct was part tribal, feudal in its assumptions and demonstrated the inconsistencies about Marxist historical revolution. The results were vast distortions of wealth: the politburo living in clover, with Ceauşescu living the best; others permitted the ordinary pleasures of one 40-watt bulb per room.

These contradictions, as dialecticians would say, were brought into stark relief during the 1980s. Even as the People’s Palace was being constructed at enormous cost, austerity measures were imposed. Extensive food and energy shortages began biting. In December 1989, the wheels of the regime were coming off at pace, though it would be a mistake to describe what followed as a mass “people’s revolt”.

It began in curious circumstances in Timişoara, deemed the most of liberal of cities: a protest by László Tőkés, a pastor in the Romanian Reformed Church. On December 15, 1989, Tőkés, a known advocate for Romania’s Hungarians in Transylvania, was set to be exiled for granting an interview to a foreign television crew brought into country under clandestine circumstances. Hundreds of irate parishioners gathered around the church. Numbers swelled and water cannon was deployed.

The incident propelled a series of events, including an initial effort to crush the Timişoara uprising, that eventually led to the capture of the fleeing Ceauşescus by a military unit and their gruesome fate ten days later. In the meantime, the revolt became committee property, that of the National Salvation Front. Tőkés noted with irony how, had he not been a member of the Hungarian minority, “I would be a Václav Havel or a Lech Wałęsa”. During the time, wild rumours circulated that “terrorists” from Russia, Israel, Iraq, Libya and even the Central Intelligence Agency, had made a deal to back the old regime.

What resists easy explanation is how long such a figure might have survived. But Ceauşescu feared coups with good reason, and prepared for them. True, he, along with his wife, eventually ended up being gunned down by a three-man execution squad, subjected to the same rules of evidence he had found so appealing. Ceauşescu could also show awareness for one with vast limitations. Lacking a worldview of any depth, he could still worry Moscow and the Soviet bloc while courting China, and entice US presidents, notably Richard Nixon, to visit Bucharest.

One such meeting on December 4, 1973 between Nixon and Ceauşescu notes the Romanian leader expounding on the “different accent” imposed on “the world scene.” He made sure to impress Nixon that he approved of the president’s shift to China. “The whole world greeting the visit you paid to China and the normalisation of the relations with China.”

The notes of the meeting show a figure aware, wise to the chess pieces and the canny struggle for power. Romania, he noted, “was still encountering difficulties from the part of the Soviet Union.” Pressure from Moscow regarding integrating Eastern European states within the bloc was gathering pressure. “Bulgaria was already being treated as the seventeenth republic of the USSR.”

Nixon also obliges in brown nosing acknowledgement, expressing the importance of understanding détente, taking a mild swipe at European leaders. “So when the United States does develop different relations with the USSR, some European leaders object to what they call détente because this could mean a condominium between the superpowers at the expense of others.”

The roots set down in Romanian democracy were shallow, made shallower by it arising from a murder. In the aftermath of the revolution, and the recreation of the National Peasants’ Party, Valentin Gabrielescu had this to say: “Same brothel, different whores.” Efforts were made to distance subsequent governments from the legacy. The Final Report of the Presidential Commission for the Analysis of the Communist Dictatorship of Romania, chaired by Vladimir Tismăneanu, supplied the heavy artillery for President Traian Băsescu’s attack on the Ceauşescu legacy in 2006.

Since then, admission to the European Union, a six-month presidency of it, and the move of Romanian officials into various positions of security (Mircea Geoană becoming deputy secretary general of NATO) suggest a degree of integration that the Soviets could only have dreamed of.

But the same conditions that enabled Ceauşescu to flourish have not quite abated, and the bulk of EU membership still regard Romania with a touch of suspicion, susceptible to old habits of oligarchy and corruption. To prove the point, the head of Romania’s ruling Social Democratic Party (PSD), Liviu Dragnea, remains saddled with a prison sentence for paying two party members for bogus jobs from state agency funds after attempts to appeal his conviction failed. As Romanian minister for European affairs George Ciamba has remarked with irritation, “Political correctness now means you can be tougher on fellow Europeans.”

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