Monday, April 28, 2014

Ten years ago; the Abu Ghraib photos

Today marks one decade since Americans first saw photos [warning: graphic images] of the disgusting and abusive treatment of detainees at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.  It was on April 28, 2004 that CBS broadcast graphic photos taken at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, showing blood-covered prisoners, forced simulation of masturbation and oral sex, the stacking of naked prisoners with bags over their heads, mock electrocution by a wire connected to a man's genitals, guard dogs on the verge of ripping into naked men, and grinning U.S. male and female soldiers celebrating the degradation. Three days later, the New Yorker, in an exposé by Seymour Hersh, published extracts from a March 2004 report by Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba that catalogued U.S. abuses at Abu Ghraib prison, including "breaking chemical lights and pouring the phosphoric liquid on detainees; pouring cold water on naked detainees; beating detainees with a broom handle and a chair; threatening male detainees with rape ... sodomizing a detainee with a chemical light and perhaps a broom stick, and using military working dogs to frighten and intimidate detainees with threats of attack, and in one instance actually biting a detainee."


The real atrocity of Abu Ghraib, though, was the response of the military and political leadership, which basically consisted of four actions:

  1. Immediate denial of the truth
  2. Attempts to cover up the truth
  3. Blaming it all on a few powerless low-ranking soldiers ("a few bad apples")
  4. Exploitation of patriotism, blind loyalty, and reflexive servility to get Americans to ignore the facts

In short, America's military and political leaders chose to rely on the American people to demonstrate the same consistent weakness of character and moral cowardice that characterized that decade. They counted on it.

In May 2004, one lone US Congressman stood on the floor of the House of Representatives and objected vehemently to a resolution introduced in that House, in the wake of the release of the Abu Ghraib abuse photos.  That resolution, to which he stood alone to oppose, condemned the abuse of prisoners in Iraq while adding "an enthusiastic endorsement of our nation-building activities in Iraq."  That US Congressman was ignored. I bet you know his name.  He and Major General Anthony Taguba (whose career was destroyed because he tried to reveal the truth) are the only two high-ranking American leaders who demonstrated any real conscience or character at the time. Remember?

The invasion and occupation of Iraq, particularly after all the reasons given by the Bush Administration were revealed to be lies, was just as bad as the torture, and resulted in far more civilian deaths (100,000+) and should have been just as forcefully condemned.  It wasn't, of course, to the shame of the nation. Congress pretended to be incensed at the atrocities of a few "bad apples", but completely failed to take responsibility for the results of the US invasion of that tiny, defenseless nation.

Ah, but for a very long time Americans were able to maintain the illusion that they were more morally righteous than the rest of the world.  If it was an illusion, it was a also a priceless asset.  And it was given away for nothing. Americans traded something invaluable for a handful of magic beans.

Let me tell you something. When the choice mattered most, Americans did not choose the high moral ground.   Essentially, just like their Congress, most Americans publicly "regretted" the atrocities committed at Abu Ghraib while enthusiastically endorsing the "nation-building activities in Iraq."

The moral emptiness of the nation was exposed to the entire world.  And you may have forgotten those photos, but the targeted people have not, and will not, ever.

Cover of the UK Economist, issue date May 8, 2004

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Bruce Scheier: Why Google's assurances are hollow

Google, in trying to reassure its customers that their data is secure from NSA spying, recently announced that it was encrypting all the data on its servers, and data that moves from one Google server to another will always be encrypted.  Only Google has the ability to decrypt that data.  Not the NSA.  Feel better now?

Well, security expert, cryptographer, and author Bruce Schneier explained in his Crypto-Gram newsletter why this is nothing but more smoke being blown up our skirts:

Google, and by extension, the U.S. government, still has full access to your communications on Google's servers.

Google could change that. It could encrypt your e-mail so only you could decrypt and read it. It could provide for secure voice and video so no one outside the conversations could eavesdrop.

It doesn't. And neither does Microsoft, Facebook, Yahoo, Apple, or any of the others.

Why not? They don't partly because they want to keep the ability to eavesdrop on your conversations. Surveillance is still the business model of the Internet, and every one of those companies wants access to your communications and your metadata. Your private thoughts and conversations are the product they sell to their customers. We also have learned that they read your e-mail for their own internal investigations.

But even if this were not true, even if – for example – Google were willing to forgo data mining your e-mail and video conversations in exchange for the marketing advantage it would give it over Microsoft, it still won't offer you real security. It can't.

The biggest Internet companies don't offer real security because the U.S. government won't permit it.

This isn't paranoia. We know that the U.S. government ordered the secure e-mail provider Lavabit to turn over its master keys and compromise every one of its users. We know that the U.S. government convinced Microsoft – either through bribery, coercion, threat, or legal compulsion – to make changes in how Skype operates, to make eavesdropping easier.

What once sounded like paranoia, like crazy conspiracy theory ("the US government is spying on Americans, without warrants, all the time") has been proven true.  

What have we learned in the past year?  We've learned that the US government cannot be trusted on matters of respect for constitutional or civil rights, human dignity, or basic liberty.  We've learned that America's corporations cannot be trusted to act independently of that government.  

That's frightening knowledge, yes ... but what we know about all this isn't nearly as scary as what we don't know.  This is only the tip of the iceberg.

Thank you, Edward Snowden.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

It was a total propaganda failure

It is very gratifying to me to watch Americans calling bullshit on the latest "crisis" that the neoconservatives are using to justify US involvement in a situation and place in which Americans have no business and no authority.  The crisis is necessary to foment hatred, hatred born of fear.  When fear, and hatred born of that fear, is allowed to outweigh rationality and reason, what's that called?  We have a word for that ... what's that word?

In January 2003, two months before the invasion of Iraq, I wrote a letter to several local newspapers questioning the wisdom of invading a country that did nothing to our own, based on claims of a threat that were not bolstered by hard evidence. I opposed what later turned out to be a huge mistake.  I was vilified for that letter, by friends, family, co-workers, people in my church, and I received death threats from total strangers. And I was only exercising the very right for which were being told our soldiers were about to die.

Do you remember the venomous atmosphere of hatred that existed in the United States immediately prior to the invasion of Iraq in March 2003? No voice of reason, sanity or true Christian love stood a chance of being heard above the din.  Don't you ever forget those days. Never, as long as you live, forget it.  Because that was when Americans truly traded their souls away.
From the very beginning, this "Ukranian crisis" has been nothing but a propaganda campaign ... and it utterly failed.

I see that the US has condemned the Russian violation of the sovereignty of a weaker nation.

On March 2nd, US Secretary of State John Kerry made the absolutely astonishing statement that: "you just don't invade another country on phony pretexts in order to assert your interests."  He said it, I swear.  You can hear it for yourself.

The rest of the world sees that for the rank hypocrisy that it is ... but are Americans able to see past the cloud of deception and distraction, the propaganda, that has, an recently, led them into unnecessary foreign wars, ill-considered, and unwise?  Will they go down that road again?

And make no mistake, the US loses credibility every time it uses bluster and bluff to make threats it can't back up.  Remember when Vladimir Putin humiliated President Obama and John Kerry over their "red line" threats in Syria?  Well, he's done it again.

Again, it is gratifying to me to see that things have changed dramatically in 12 years. 

Americans are calling bullshit on any "Russian threat."  And that is one of the most positive things I've seen in years. 

Friday, April 18, 2014

A story of courage: Sophie Scholl

In the past several years, I have related these stories of 20 otherwise ordinary people whose lives exhibited a special kind of courage: moral courage.  Moral courage is defined as "the courage to take action for moral reasons despite the risk of adverse consequences." In other words, moral courage is the courage that is required to do what one knows or believes is right when that choice involves personal risk, or when it will result in personal vilification or actual danger. if you took no personal risk; you didn't exhibit moral courage.

Here are some some points I've tried to make about courage; specifically about moral courage, the type exhibited by the people I've profiled:

  • Courage is not reserved for extraordinary people only. 
  • Courage is always individual. 
  • Courage is something we are all capable of.
  • Courage is something we should exhibit every day.

Sophie and Hans Scholl were a German sister and brother who were among the founders, in 1942, of a Nazi resistance group called "The White Rose" (auf Deutsche, die Weiße Rose).  The White Rose was a peaceful group, composed of young students, which mainly distributed leaflets that questioned the Nazi regime.  And for that, they were considered dangerous enemies of the State. They were the Edward Snowdens of 1940's Nazi Germany.

Sophie, Hans, and other members of The White Rose, were distributing their sixth leaflet at the University of Munich on 18 February 1943 when they were arrested. Four days later, they were found guilty of treason against the States, and only a few hours later, at 17:00 hrs, on 22 February 1943, they were guillotined to death.

Sophie Scholl's last words were recorded.  She said, "Somebody, after all, had to make a start. What we wrote and said is also believed by many others. They just don't dare express themselves as we did."

Sophie Scholl was 21 years old when they silenced her voice by removing her head.

The life and death of Sophie Scholl is told in the 2005 film Sophie Scholl – The Final Days.  The movie, which I have not seen, depicts a scene in the trial in which a functionary of the Nazi State declares, "Without law, there is no order. What can we rely on if not the law?"

In the movie, Sophie responds: "Your conscience. Laws change. Conscience doesn't."

Did she actually say those words at her trial?  It is unlikely.  But that doesn't matter to me.  What she said at her trial does not matter to me.  She lived her life according to that principle, whether it was ever so stated or not.  Her life is my example; not her words.

Most people today define what was right as what the State tells them is right.  What they do is what the State tells them to do. 

What is true today, is whatever is popularly accepted as truth; there are no eternal immutable truths anymore.  The State decides.

And just like Nazi Germany in the 1930's and early 1940's, there is a rapidly growing belief among Americans that what is most paramount, what must be observed above all other things, is adherence to the Law.

Those who would question the Law; or attempt to live outside it, must be silenced, by death if necessary.

Of course we live in a new, post-9/11 world today, right?  Sophie Scholl lived in a "post-9/11 world" too, one in which national security mandated a strict compliance with the Law; and no questions about the activities of the State were permitted.

She chose to act according to her individual conscience.  And her name lives on because of that.

Sophie Scholl lived and died a heroine. Can you think of a better way to live ... or die?

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Somebody, after all, had to make a start. What we wrote and said is also believed by many others.  They just do not dare express themselves as we did.

– Sophie Scholl, die Weiße Rose  (The White Rose Society)
   Statement to the Volksgerichtshof [People's Court], 21 February 1943

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Snowden to NSA: Go ahead, deny I tried to do this legally

Edward Snowden, in a lengthy interview (20,000 words) with Vanity Fair which is supposed to go on sale later this week (it's the May edition) said that before leaking secret documents to the public, he contacted officials within the NSA, raising concerns about the legality of its spying.  Email records, he claims, will prove it.  And he has challenged the NSA to deny that he contacted people within the agency and voiced his concerns, which were ignored.

There have been others, before Snowden, who tried to get NSA to correct their spying policies. Last summer, after Edward Snowden took his evidence of NSA spying directly to the American public, previous NSA whistleblowers said he had no other alternative. Those whistleblowers went through the "chain of command" – the appropriate channels – with absolutely no success.  Actually (especially in the case of William Binney), they found themselves under attack.

Edward Snowden, absolutely, did the right thing.  He's a hero for it.

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Monday, April 7, 2014

Three related NSA spying news items from last week

Last week, I read three reports of cases where countries have taken action to protect their citizens against US spying and surveillance, in the aftermath of revelations made by Edward Snowden last summer.

On Friday, the US criticized plans by European nations (led by Germany and France) to work together to build a European network that will keep data secure from US spying.  The US calls those plans a "restraint of trade" which, of course, is NOT its intent. Only last month, Brazil passed a "net neutrality" bill after Edward Snowden revealed that the NSA had mass collected the personal communications of Brazilians, including President Dilma Rousseff.  [ source ]

A US government trade group started putting pressure on Canada's federal government and some provincial governments to back off from plans to strengthen their internet privacy laws and to prohibit Canadians’ personal data from being stored on US servers.  Canada has been moving towards building its own internet infrastructure to avoid spying by the US.  [ source ]

And last week, responding to public outrage over secret NSA spying on German citizens including President Angela Merkel, the German Parliament (Bundestag) convened hearings into NSA spying activities; an attempt to bring the truth to light.  Some members of the parliamentary investigative committee have suggested that Germany provide asylum for Edward Snowden, so that he can come to Germany and give direct testimony before the Bundestag.  [ source ]

These countries aren't cutting diplomatic or economic ties with the United States.  They are withdrawing their trust of Americans.  That trust relationship has been broken.  Americans are no longer respected or trusted on matters of privacy and human rights.

And friend, that's huge. And it's long-term.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

It really is the collapse of an empire

It has been embarrassing to watch the United States attempting to bully Russia over its annexation of Crimea, a tiny nation that is now part of Russia, and will remain so.

It is embarrassing because it is so obvious to everyone watching that the US's military threats were empty, and so were the threats of economic sanctions on Russia.  Vladimir Putin shrugged them off, and I think most of the world kind of smiled into their palms to see it.

Everywhere, it seems, we are witnessing the erosion of American power.  The collapse of a vast global military empire.  The US may reclaim its economic domination; never its political domination.  That ship sailed.

And I believe it marks the fall of the last great world empire, and it is high time.  The American news media wants to make much of Russia's new empirical ambition but there is nothing to that.  Russia's influence and power will grow, true, but not through territorial acquisition.  Russia is a net oil exporter, a producer of wealth, not primarily a consumer of wealth. And other countries will bind themselves to Russia for their common good. 

That is one reason why there's a frantic campaign underway now to reverse the public opinion that the United States is dependent on import fuel for its energy needs.  Why, with the miracle of hydro-fracking, it is being projected that the US could soon achieve full energy independence in just a few years and could be providing as much as 8% of all liquid natural gas (LNG) exports worldwide by 2020! 

And if you believe that; you don't need to be trying to sell it to me; you need to be quietly investing everything you can in natural gas extraction.

That could be hype; it could be real.  But what is certainly real is that Russia, China, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Pakistan, Central Asia (the states of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan), and I'm going to include the future Afghanistan (which will eventually enter the Russian sphere) are creating a massive oligopoly on the oil and gas exports of the world.  Wealth creators.  The US, the UK, most of Europe, are their dependents. 

I've heard it over and over again ... that "Canada needs the US as a market for its resources."   There's truth to that, but it implies a one-way dependency that doesn't exist.  When one nation has something, in surplus, that another nation desperately needs, the dependency relationship is quite clear.

Look, the Russian Federation is by far the largest exporter of oil and natural gas to the European Union.  Russia supplies 33% of the EU's total oil imports and 39% of the EU's natural gas imports. [ verify it ]

Russia isn't "dependent on the EU for a market for its oil."  The dependency relationship is quite clear.

And while the US is desperately telling the EU, "We'll take care of you!  You NEED us!", the EU knows very well upon which side its bread is buttered.  That is why Germany's Prime Minister talks privately with Vladimir Putin in both German and Russian (she speaks Russian fluently) about the American meltdown.

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