It’s perfectly natural for politicians to be dishonest – but Chris Blackhurst would rather not know

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If you were to guess, you would probably say that Chris Blackhurst of The Independent – a respected career journalist described in 2011 as having spent “most of his life writing about politics” – is likely to be pretty clued up on official doublespeak.

Yet, in his recent column the former editor of the UK national paper makes this startling point: Snowden leaks have damaged national security because the intelligence community says so. “If MI5 warns that this is not in the public interest who am I to disbelieve them?” said Mr Blackhurst.

It doesn’t take a genius to realise that when government officials give opinions publicly, what they say will very likely be shaped by their interests and political alliances. Hence, the question I would rather see Chris Blackhurst asking is “Who are THEY for me to disbelieve them?”

The Snowden disclosures – which, among other things, have encouraged calls for more transparency and accountability of the secret services – are clearly inconvenient for the intelligence community. Hence, the head of the MI5 should be entirely expected to be making those criticisms. Indeed, as this analysis strongly suggests, ‘the security line’ has been used in efforts to conceal government wrongdoing from the public eye. As in the case of Wikileaks disclosures, the supposed damage to national security was proven to have been deliberately inflated on at least several occasions.

Consequently, unless backed with evidence, the allegations of the MI5 boss are a paper tiger – something to which a considerable portion of the public (including, worryingly, a senior journalist) is seemingly oblivious to.

Just how clouded the truth could become if one was to take words of politicians at face value was conveniently demonstrated on Wednesday, coincidentally, by the most important politician in the country. During Prime Minister’s Questions, David Cameron and Liam Fox (former defence minister) had a brief exchange. Liam Fox requested a:

“[F]ull and transparent assessment of whether The Guardian’s involvement in the Snowden affair has damaged Britain’s national security”

He then went on to suggest The Guardian was behaving hypocritically by calling for prosecution in the phone-hacking scandal (to which he dismissively referred to by “the hacking of a celebrity phone”) while being guilty of “leaving the British people and their security personnel more vulnerable”.

Fox’s empty accusations and dishonesty in asking a question that he already claims to know the answer to are notable.[1] But Cameron’s highly liberal interpretation of reality in his response to Fox’s question is a work of art (emphasis added):

“I think the plain fact is that what has happened has damaged national security, and in many ways The Guardian itself admitted that when, having been asked politely by my national security adviser and Cabinet Secretary to destroy the files that it had, it went ahead and destroyed those files.”

Take the main claim the PM is making – that by destroying the files in response to a “polite” request, The Guardian admitted that the leaks were damaging national security.

To start with, the notion of a polite request is not based on reality. The Guardian – as widely reported – destroyed the files in fear of legal action. As Alan Rusbridger, the editor of the paper said when he made clear what led to his decision:

“I explained to British authorities that there were other copies in America and Brazil so they wouldn’t be achieving anything.

But once it was obvious that they would be going to law I preferred to destroy our copy rather than hand it back to them or allow the courts to freeze our reporting.”[2]

Evidently, the decision to destroy the files was strongly influenced by the fact that the act was essentially symbolic. And indeed – reporting on the Snowden files continued regardless; the copies of the files can still be accessed by other media outlets.

Likewise, it is definitely not a “plain fact” that national security has been damaged. To the contrary – no evidence has been produced and there are strong reasons to distrust that assumption given how it can be, and has been, leveraged to the detriment of public interest.

David Cameron’s claims don’t stand simple scrutiny.

The claim that Snowden disclosures jeopardised “national security” (or even gave the so-called ‘terrorists’ a better understanding of counter-terrorism) is even weaker when we consider how much already had been in the public domain before June 2013. Take James Bamford’s widely accessible record of the history and capabilities of the NSA, renowned for its detail. Duncan Campbell’s reports that meticulously document GCHQ’s infrastructure, partnerships and the ins-and-outs of ECHELON are just a few clicks away for users of the internet. There are many more publications that elaborate on very detailed aspects of the intelligence cycle. Those materials form a comprehensive body of detailed knowledge that dwarfs anything the Snowden disclosures have brought to light.

Chris Blackhurt’s trust in the intelligence community that they will “keep the world safe” is not a good enough reason to hinder an informed debate over crucial matters of public interest.

There is a pressing need for citizens to become more politically aware in this potent time for reform. Journalists are meant to play an important role in this by providing the public with an enhanced, not superficial, understanding of political issues.

A former editor of a major national newspaper openly announcing that he uncritically accepts claims of state officials as the truth is not exactly the perfect start, is it?

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[1] What is also notable – almost to the point where it justifies a separate post – is Liam Fox’s special relationship with the Guardian. In 2011, he was forced to resign after the newspaper’s investigation, which revealed he had been giving unwarranted access to the Ministry of Defence to a “former flatmate”. Coincidentally, Mr Fox was accused of jeopardising national security at the time.

[2] It was also reported that at one point The Guardian was contacted by “government officials” who said “You’ve had your fun. Now we want the stuff back”.

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PARTNER DZIENNIKARZA PRACUJĄCEGO Z EDWARDEM SNOWDENEM ZATRZYMANY NA 9 GODZIN

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David Miranda, partner Glenna Greenwalda, dziennikarza znanego ze ścisłej współpracy z Edwardem Snowdenem, został zatrzymany przez angielską policję na Londyńskim Heathrow w niedzielę rano, gdzie poddano go dziewięciogodzinnemu przesłuchaniu.

Glenn Greenwald, prawnik i dziennikarz brytyjskiego Guardiana, wieloletni krytyk programów inwigilacyjnych zachodnich specsłużb, najbardziej wsławił się pierwszoplanową rolą w największym wycieku tajnych informacji w historii potężnej amerykańskiej agencji wywiadowczej NSA (ang. National Security Agency – Agencja Bezpieczeństwa Narodowego). Był on jednym z dwóch dziennikarzy, którym Edward Snowden przekazał zbiór ściśle tajnych dokumentów wykradzionych specsłużbie. Materiały zawierały m.in. szczegóły programów masowej inwigilacji.

Greenwald zatrzymanie swojego partnera skomentował w poniedziałek na łamach Guardiana, nazywając je „znaczną eskalacją ataków wymierzonych w dziennikarstwo jak i towarzyszący mu proces zdobywania informacji”. Powiedział też, że decyzja brytyjskiej policji „była w oczywisty sposób motywowana chęcią zastraszenia tych z nas, którzy piszą o NSA i jej odpowiedniku w Wielkiej Brytanii – GCHQ”.

Współpraca albo więzienie

Davida Mirandę zatrzymano o 8:05 zanim zdołał przesiąść się na lot do Brazylii, gdzie mieszka wraz z Greenwaldem. Skonfiskowano nie tylko należące do niego płyty DVD, ale i telefon komórkowy, komputer przenośny, dwa nośniki danych USB, dysk zewnętrzny i inne elektroniczne urządzenia jakie posiadał, w tym konsolę do gier i nowo zakupione telefony.

Według jego własnej relacji, funkcjonariusze zmusili go do wyjawienia haseł do komputera i komórki. „Powiedzieli, że mam obowiązek odpowiedzieć na wszelkie pytania i wielokrotnie używali słów ‘więzienie’ i ‘komisariat’”. Jak mówi, w przesłuchaniu brało udział łącznie 7 agentów, którzy zadawali mu pytania na temat jego „całego życia”. Mirandzie odmówiono tłumacza (wolał porozumiewać się ojczystym portugalskim) i nie wyrażono zgody na to, by zapisywał zadawane pytania. Dostęp do prawnika uzyskał dopiero na godzinę przed zakończeniem przesłuchania.

Brazylijczyka przesłuchiwano 9 godzin – maksymalną ilość czasu na jaki pozwala Ustawa o Terroryźmie (2000), na którą przy zatrzymaniu powołały się brytyjskie służby. Bez wątpienia był to wyjątkowy przypadek, biorąc pod uwagę, że tylko 0.06% osób zatrzymywanych na mocy tej ustawy przesłuchiwano dłużej niż 6 godzin (1).

Jak powiedział Guardianowi David Anderson, niezależny ekspert recenzujący przepisy antyterrorystyczne, na mocy tego zapisu policji wolno zatrzymać i przesłuchać „każdego (…) bez potrzeby zaistnienia jakichkolwiek podejrzeń”. Przesłuchanie z tytułu tej ustawy, która obowiązuje tylko w strefach granicznych – m.in. na lotniskach, ma odbywać się wyłącznie w celu ustalenia czy przesłuchiwany jest terrorystą. Jeśli po zakończeniu procedury policja uzna, że przesłuchiwany niewystarczająco z nimi współpracował, może on trafić do więzienia.

„Wysoce drażliwe materiały” w posiadaniu Mirandy

Miranda w dniu zatrzymania zmierzał do swojego domu w Rio De Janeiro, gdzie mieszka z Greenwaldem. Wracał on ze spotkania z przebywającą w Berlinie Laurą Poitras – reżyserką, dziennikarką i bliską współpracowniczką Greenwalda. To z nią, oprócz dziennikarza Guardiana, skontaktował się Snowden w sprawie zamiaru ujawnienia tajnych dokumentów.

Brytyjskie MSW, po zdecydowanym nacisku środowisk politycznych, zmuszone było wytłumaczyć kontrowersyjną decyzję policji, której początkowo nie chciało komentować. Jak podał we wtorek po południu Guardian, rzecznik Home Office powiedział, że zatrzymany w niedzelę Miranda był w posiadaniu „wysoce drażliwych, skradzionych materiałów które mogłyby przydać się terrorystom”. W tym świetle, jak uważa ministerstwo, 9-godzinne zatrzymanie partnera znanego dziennikarza i konfiskata posiadanych przez niego  nośników danych jest w pełni uzasadniona.

Guardian nie ukrywa, że w tym pracowitym dla niego okresie Greenwald korzysta z pomocy partnera. W jednym z artykułów opisujących zajście otwarcie stwierdza się, że gdy doszło do zatrzymania, Miranda jako kurier przewoził (bliżej nieokreślone) materiały dla Greenwalda. W wypowiedzi dla mediów stwierdził: “To oczywiste dlaczego mnie zatrzymali. To dlatego, że jestem partnerem Glenna. Bo wybrałem się do Berlina. Bo Laura tam mieszka. Myślą więc, że jestem głęboko zamieszany.” –mówił – „Ale nie gram tu roli. Nie przeglądam dokumentów. Nie wiem nawet, czy w tym co przewoziłem były jakieś dokumenty. Może to było na potrzeby filmu nad którym pracuje Laura.”

Jak mówią prawnicy Mirandy, na urządzeniach skonfiskowanych przez władze znajdowały się „poufne materiały dziennikarskie, które nie powinny być zatrzymywane”.  Co więcej, zastosowanie przepisów Ustawy o Terroryźmie w tym przypadku stanowi według prawników „celowe ominięcie” ustawowych procedur przewidzianych w przypadkach gdy policja chce uzyskać dostęp do poufnych informacji dziennikarskich. W takich sytuacjach służby zwykle muszą prosić o zgodę sąd. Prawnicy, których zatrudnił Guardian, nazywają działania policji „bezprawnymi” i zapowiadają pozew.

Opinię prawników podziela Charles Falconer, polityk, który pełnił funkcje w rządzie Tonego Blaira i który pomógł wprowadzić Ustawę o Terroryźmie w 2000 roku. Według niego władze brytyjskie przekroczyły swoje uprawnienia. „[Ta ustawa] nie została przegłosowana z myślą o ludziach takich jak David Miranda„ – pisał w środę w Guardianie – „Funkcjonariusze wiedzieli, że Miranda nie jest terrorystą, ale mimo wszystko go przetrzymywali”.

(1) Informacja zaczerpnięta z dokumentu opublikowanego we wrześniu ubiegłego roku przez brytyjskie MSW: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/157896/consultation-document.pdf

It’s only terrorism when they do it to us

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In my first blog post, I take two recent assassinations that the US has reacted to very differently. One was branded a “terrorist attack”, but the other, despite being analogous in many regards, hasn’t. It appears that condemnation and application of the ‘terrorist’ label depends on whether the event happens to advance US interests.

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The politically powerful of the world have repeatedly demonstrated their double standards in how they use the word ‘terrorism’. The self-interested juggling of the term at the hands of politicians has effectively stripped it of any objective validity to the point where the word means no more than ‘those harmful to my political interests’.

Consequently, those who very much deserve the ‘terrorist’ label, but at the same time are complimentary to some policy goal of the powerful are spared the name.

Among most recent examples of such hypocrisy is the stance of Western governments – headed by the US – towards the anti-Assad militants in Syria. Not only have they failed to acknowledge and condemn their clearly criminal and, at times, ‘terrorist’ conduct, but have also directly (as well as indirectly) facilitated and supported it.

The ‘Free Syrian Army’ and other armed elements

The armed Syrian opposition has  an important role to play in the Syrian civil war.  It is to defeat the regular Syrian Army and in effect depose the Assad regime. The FSA, arguably the most spoken-of armed rebel faction, despite being often cast as noble freedom warriors by Western media, certainly don’t fit the ‘White Hat’ profile so often attributed to them.  Human Rights Watch reported abuses committed by the anti-government militia included:

“…kidnapping, detention, and torture of security force members, government supporters, and people identified as members of pro-government militias, called shabeeha. Human Rights Watch has also received reports of executions by armed opposition groups of security force members and civilians.”

This UN report describes, among other incidents, FSA fighters trying to force a prisoner to carry out a suicide bombing mission, a ransom kidnapping and subsequent murder of a civilian government supporter’s parents or kidnapping and detention of Iranian civilians.

Some elements of the FSA have reportedly tried killing journalists.

Syria’s other armed groups have also perpetrated numerous bombing attacks (including ‘suicide bombings‘ and the use of IEDs) targeting regime officials that have killed and injured civilians.

It is common knowledge that such conduct has for years been uncontroversially considered not only criminal, but also ‘terrorist’ in Western political discourse. Such actions by the West’s enemies would almost certainly prompt strong condemnation, a word or two to express disgust and perhaps a few to say how those behind the attacks hate peace; but most importantly lead to the naming of the perpetrators as ‘terrorists’.

The failed test of consistency

And indeed, when on 18th June this year, a Yemeni military commander Maj. Gen. Salem Ali al-Qatan was assassinated in a suicide bombing, the USSD’s (US State Department) spokeswoman Ms. Nuland had this to say about the attack (emphasis mine):

 “The United States condemns in strongest terms today’s terrorist attack against Major General Salem Ali al-Qatan, Southern Regional Commander of the Yemeni Central Security Forces. We extend our deepest condolences to his family and friends as well as our sympathies to those who were wounded in this cowardly attack.”

So here we have an assassination targeting the security forces of a close US ally – Yemen. The American response is made clear by the spokeswoman: the event was a “cowardly terrorist attack” which the US condemns in strongest terms.

What will be the US reaction to an analogous attack, that happened exactly a month later, but this time targeted not the West but Syrian government and military officials?

On 18th July 2012, the Free Syrian Army (alongside Liwa al Islam) claimed responsibility for assassinating several top military and defence officials in the Damascus bombing of the National Security Headquarters. Note that the event, initially reported as a suicide bombing, bears close resemblance to the Yemeni “terrorist attack” strongly condemned by Ms. Nuland.

How did US State Department react to this event? I consulted a Press Briefing dated 18 July 2012 – the date of the bombing. Speaking fresh after the event, the Director of the US State Department Press Office Partick Ventrell said in the  opening statement (again, my emphasis):

“Before we get started, I just wanted to go ahead and say at the top that we note reports that the Syrian defense minister and other regime officials were killed in an attack today in Damascus. The United States does not welcome further bloodshed in Syria. We note, however, that these men were key architects of the Assad regime’s assault on the Syrian people.”

When prompted by the journalist to define the deaths that have resulted as a good or bad thing, Mr Ventrell failed to specify. After a brief to-and-fro with a journalist, he reiterated: “We want a peaceful solution, Matt. We’re focused on ending the bloodshed. It is the Assad regime, however, that, in slaughtering its own people, has created these chaotic conditions. ” 

The reaction of the US to the Damascus bombing is evidently weak and apologetic. The man speaking on behalf of USSD provides a justification for the act and refuses to specify whether the attack was a positive or negative development. The only part of the remarks that can be considered to be negative – and quite remotely so – are Ventrell’s assurances that “The United States does not welcome further bloodshed in Syria”. No condemnation, no sign of disgust or moral distancing; but most importantly, no use of the ‘terrorist’ label.

Quite a stark contrast with the US response to the assassination of an army general in Yemen, where the attack was not only branded as “terrorist”, but also deemed “cowardly” and condemned “in strongest terms”.

Western support for the armed Syrian opposition (including the FSA)

The US support for the armed Syrian opposition doesn’t end at linguistic kindness. The administration has declared on numerous occasions it supplies them with communications equipment and training as well as logistical and propagandistic support. There are reports suggesting the actual support is much more far-reaching, including engagement of CIA operatives.

US ally, Turkey, has reportedly set up a secret base on its territory, from which it co-ordinates distribution of military and communications aid to anti-Assad militias. US allies – Qatar and Saudi-Arabia, as well as the US itself are also said to have a role in the running of the facility.

The Gulf allies of the US in the region were reported as paying the armed militias wages and supplying them with arms. The Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s comment on the latter practice was rather dispassionate: “We made a decision not to provide lethal assistance at this point. I know others have made their own decisions”.

A curiously neutral stance by a member of an administration that has so many times called for a “peaceful resolution” in Syria and declared its commitment to “end the bloodshed”.

The West (headed by the US) have clear intentions in regards to Syria – they want to depose the regime of Bashar al-Assad, and are determined  to facilitate that development. It is perhaps for this reason we can see such hypocritical disparity between the US reactions to the two ‘terrorist’ events.

The rule seems to be that for an event to be classed as ‘terrorist’ it has got to be perpetrated by US enemies or hurt US interests. It’s only terrorism when they do it to us.

How valid is the ‘terrorist’ label?

It appears that those who fall under the US’s own definition of ‘terrorism’ escape the name (and the moral condemnation that comes with it) when they happen to advance their political interests.

The Free Syrian Army, most prominent of Syria’s armed opposition factions, despite committing acts that amount to ‘terrorism’ has escaped any such labelling or condemnation. Quite the opposite – it’s a beneficiary to wide-ranging, direct and indirect support from the US and its allies.

What does that tell us about the validity of the ‘terrorist’ label, used eagerly when the West is the target, but generously spared when the victims happen to be our enemies?