Here We Go Again

Reading today’s Daily Telegraph on the David Miranda detention and it is easy to be cast back to other misguided UK government efforts to stop leaks and block embarrassing information from seeing the light of day.

It is taking on digital echoes of the Peter Wright affair when the UK government and the security services opened themselves up to derision with farcical efforts to block the publication of Wright’s book detailing MI6 and MI5 dirty tricks, illegal surveillance and a plot to bring down the Wilson government. They couldn’t stop publication abroad and it was easy to purchase the book.

National security was claimed as the issue too back then but it quickly became clear what was at stake was the reputation of the British security services.

Now we have a Prime Minister sanctioning the destruction of hard drives held by the Guardian newspaper containing the material former NSA contractor Edward Snowden stole — as if that will stop the information leaking out. As the Guardian made clear they have duplicates and presumably Greenwald and Snowden do, too, (probably so have the Russians and Chinese by now!).  Possibly the NSA should destroy their hard drives as the information is so sensitive – after all Snowden has demonstrated the puzzle palace’s own computer system isn’t secure.

And then the Telegraph gets a UK government source today hazarding absurdly that David Miranda, the partner of Guardian journalist Greenwald, was detained for his own good as he was carrying sensitive documents and could have been kidnapped by terrorists. Is security at Heathrow Airport so bad?

Presumably the Snowden material does contain information useful to terrorists but the information is also useful for the British and American publics to gauge what is being done in the name of the “war on terror” and for them to assess whether the politicians and the security services have got the balance right between security and civil liberties. Clearly President Obama doesn’t think so with the tweaks and the inquiry he has ordered. But then, of course, he would have done that without the Snowden revelations. Really?

The Price of Freedom

The media and civil libertarians have quite rightly been exercised over Edward Snowden’s disclosures about the extent, reach and range of the intelligence services snooping on Americans (and foreigners) – snooping that’s been done in the name of security and justified as important in the fight against terrorism.

But there’s a sad reflection in today’s Washington Post on how little Americans on the whole care about privacy rights and their own civil liberties.

Walter Pincus notes the scant public interest in an open session this week of the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, a panel created by Congress on the recommendation of the 9/11 Commission. The panel examined the once-secret data collection programs but few people attended and Pincus observes: “I viewed the two-hour session Wednesday on C-SPAN, and it had generated only three Facebook recommendations and 52 tweets.”

 

 

Syrian Refugees Skeptical of Obama

Bekaa Valley, Lebanon.

Bewildered, exhausted, fearful and grieving for family and friends dead in the 27-month-long civil war, Syrian refugees remain bitter about the lack of Western intervention and are skeptical that President Obama’s decision to arm the rebels will come to much and be able to swing the war decisively.

Many now say all they want is the conflict to end, even if that means a negotiated settlement with President Bashar al-Assad. Some worry what Syria will be like if he does fall and fear the influence of political Islam and the Al Qaeda-affilate Al Nusra.

See my VOA report here.

On Benghazi Confusions and Partisanship

Washington DC

I am back in Washington DC for a few days and am observing with disbelief some of the partisan dictated nonsense about last September’s assault on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi. “Disbelief” is an exaggeration: having lived and worked in Washington for years and having covered U.S. politics and Capitol Hill for more than a decade, I know full well how partisans here can twist almost anything into a pretzel, helped by journalists and commentators who are too lazy to delve much and prefer to ignore inconvenient facts.

Take for example Thomas Sowell’s latest punditry – here is a link to the full article. He says the claim that the attack started out as a protest against an anti-Islamic movie and then ran amok was made up by the Obama administration.

He writes: “This ‘spontaneous protest’ story did not originate in Libya but in Washington. Neither the Americans on duty in Libya during the attack on the consulate in Benghazi, nor officials of the Libyan government, said anything about a protest demonstration.” Sorry Thomas they did and I reported it at the time. 

The protest story started in Tripoli and came from top Libyan officials, including then Libyan Prime Minister-elect Mustfa Abushugar. In my coverage from Tripoli and Benghazi I expressed some skepticism pretty much from the start about the protest line but I did report what Abushugar and others were saying and noted the total confusion in Tripoli about who was responsible and what occurred.  

Here is a quote from a September 15 Daily Beast article I wrote based in part from an interview with Abushugar’s then adviser and spokesman Mohamed Al Akari.

“Akari says that the Libyan authorities have found no evidence of direct (Al Qaeda) participation in the consulate attack. ‘So far we really believe that this was a violent demonstration mainly against the movie that swung out of control. The protesters saw on television what was happening in Egypt and decided to have their own protest. We have no evidence at all that this was Al Qaeda.’”

Abushugar and his aides repeated this line for several days – the prime minister-elect did so with me during several conversations and he made clear that this was what he was telling the Americans.

Admittedly, not all of Libya’s top officials agreed with that line: the president of the General National Congress, Mohamed Magarief, said he believed the assault was planned, was Al Qaeda connected and involved foreigners. He was eager to shift the blame away from Libyans and to dispute a homegrown angle. The outgoing Prime Minister, Abdurrahim Abdulhafiz El-Keib, shifted from pinning the blame initially on “remnants of the former regime” to suggesting that the consulate attack was a “despicable act of revenge” for 9/11.

Confusion and contradiction persisted for days in Tripoli after the assault and the death of U.S. ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans. I noted in an article on September 13 this:

“As members of Libya’s national assembly elected a new Prime Minister, U.S.-trained engineer Mustafa Abushagur, conflicting reports persisted about how Ambassador Christopher Stevens died during the storming by armed militants of the U.S. consulate in Benghazi. Some American and Libyan officials say the attack that led to the death of four diplomats and the wounding of several others was more coordinated than originally thought but they cautioned much still needs to be pieced together.”

And I also reported this:

“There were some indications of advanced planning mixed in with opportunism, they say, pointing to the fact that the heavily-armed assailants came well equipped with rocket-propelled grenades and anti-aircraft guns and were able to maintain sustained firefights with Libyan and American security guards at two separate locations—the main consulate compound, a walled-off villa in an upscale district in the city that housed the small temporary mission, and another building a mile away where some staff made for to escape the attack.”

It is hardly any wonder there was confusion in Washington when officials were getting contradictory statements from their Libyan interlocutors. 

Do I see no fault with the Obama administration then? From my perspective there were serious security lapses. The consulate wasn’t a building easy to defend. The reliance on local militias for security was a mistake. Christopher Stevens shouldn’t have been overnighting in Benghazi – in fact he planned to stay five days. There were plenty of warning signs with previous attacks on Western targets, including an assassination attempt on the British ambassador that came very close to killing him, that should have deterred the American ambassador from visiting Benghazi. And to go there during the anniversary week of 9/11 was an astonishing decision, a point made by several Libyan rebel leaders who were close friends with Stevens.  

Stevens Part II: An Inside Job?

“After his men had tied up the morgue supervisor, who had refused to hand over the body, Febrayir, fearful of an attempt to snatch the corpse, ignored instructions about what route to follow to the airport and misinformed his superiors with false updates. His caravan traveled fast, driving straight onto the runaway. Six Americans approached. “They looked totally fatigued. Their faces were blackened,” Febrayir says. “I think they had been in the consulate. One of them clambered onto the back and uncovered Stevens’s face and started to cry.”

From the second part of my Stevens’ investigation for Newsweek. Read here.

Will A Better But Not Yet Good Economy Safe Obama?

Democrats hope in a tight election race that marginal improvements in the economy will persuade voters to back their man over Republican nominee Mitt Romney. With the exception of the parties clashing over Libya, and whether the administration was culpable by neglect in the deaths of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans during the September storming of the American consulate in Benghazi, the election has been dominated by the state of the US economy.

The culture wars of the past have dimmed in significance this year. Even the divisive issues of abortion and immigration have faded. With Obama’s fate likely tied to how voters judge his record in restoring economic growth, Democrats have been burnishing any good economic news coming their way. Read my take on this in the Daily Mail.

Laugh Or Cry

A former colleague of mine, Cato Institute’s Michael Tanner, has a screed in National Review Online today asking this question. “Where’s the accountability?”

The point of his piece is to compare the accountability that was visited on J.P. Morgan Chase by its $2.3 billion loss as a consequence of poor investment decisions. The bank saw its share price drop, suffered damage to its reputation and a senior executive was forced to retire early.

Michael then goes on to list several government failings from his point of view and then asks, “Where’s the accountability?”

I don’t happen to agree with Michael’s rather over-wrought list — it strikes me that some things listed as “failures” are nothing of the kind but programs we should expect in a modern, civilized democracy — but that’s irrelevant because the answer to his question is pretty simple: in democracies the people at elections hold governments accountable. Or would you rather do away with our system of government, Michael?

And some accountability over at J.P. Morgan! And I write as shareholder in the bank (although my position wouldn’t get me a transatlantic flight). Despite the loss in what he likes to call a bad hedge, Jamie Dimon was reelected this week as chairman and CEO of the bank. Most shareholders, of course, had voted by proxy before the loss was announced.

Few serious observers of J.P Morgan believe that Dimon, who’s a very hands-on chief executive, wouldn’t have been aware of the big bet that was being made and went wrong.

What happened was a bet pure and simple – bankers like to call this a hedge, of course. The bank bet on U.S. corporate bonds and got it seriously wrong. So we are back with casino banking – and a casino banker in control at J.P. Morgan.

Bush/Romney: Bring It On!

I would have thought Obama advisers would be saying, “bring it on” to the thought of George W. Bush campaigning actively for Mitt Romney. They should be so lucky.

As Karen Tumulty reports in the Washington Post this morning, Obama’s predecessor in the Oval Office has offered his endorsement of Romney but in as low a key way as possible. On Tuesday an ABC crew caught up with the former President as he was entering an elevator and elicited from Bush the comment, “I’m for Romney.”

He has no plans apparently to get out there on the campaign. His absence will be helpful to the GOP candidate. A presence on the hustings would certainly complicate things for Romney.

In a February poll by Quinnipiac University, 51 percent of respondents said Bush is more to blame for the horrible economy than Obama, while only 35 percent said Obama is.

 

And This Is Justice?

One of the worst knock-on consequences of the Northern Ireland troubles was the erosion of some key civil liberties by successive UK governments, both in the province and later on the mainland.

The right for the accused to remain silent, for example, when questioned by police and during a trial without adverse inference being drawn – a right embedded in English common law since the 17th century – was shredded. First in Northern Ireland with the Criminal Evidence (Northern Ireland) Order 1988 and then on the mainland with the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994.

Then we had the broadcasting restrictions introduced in 1988 by the normally sound Tory Home Secretary Douglas Hurd that banned from the airwaves 11 Irish Republican and Loyalist organizations. The absurdity of that ban was highlighted day after day when radio and television companies circumvented the ban by having actors read transcripts of comments made by members of any of the 11 organizations.

Far from undermining Sinn Fein, for example, the ban was a PR disaster for the British government, especially when it came to overseas opinion. It had the reverse effect of its intention — instead of being a useful weapon against the IRA, it was turned by the likes of Danny Morrison and Gerry Adams into a propaganda tool for Sinn Fein, the IRA’s political wing, and allowed the government to be painted as illiberal.

The same mistakes are being made now in the UK and in the U.S. and there seems no easing up the further we get away from 9/11 or the terrorist attacks in London on July 7, 2005.

The Sunday Telegraph reports today that a handful of British police officers have lost their jobs in recent years when their security clearances were revoked by senior officers after checks were carried out because of fears of jihad “sleepers” in the ranks. The paper discloses the identity of one of the officers, who was suspected of being at a terror training camp in Pakistan in 2001.

According to the paper, Abdul Rahman had been a constable for about three years when MI5 warned that he might have visited a training camp in Pakistan. He resigned from the police force after losing an appeal against the revocation of his security clearance.

Obviously, it is disturbing to learn that al-Qaeda or any jihad group may be trying to place sleepers in the ranks of the British police, and vigilance is clearly needed to prevent this happening.

But far more concerning and corrosive is how this is being handled by the authorities, which, judging by the approach towards Rahman, have entailed severe breaches of natural justice and due process.

Rahman, a father of four, is suing for employment and racial discrimination and is seeking compensation from Scotland Yard. He admits he visited Pakistan – he was born in Bangladesh and raised in the UK – but claims he is entirely innocent and never attended a terror training camp, which would be a criminal offence under UK law.

He has never been charged with any criminal offences – nor even questioned or arrested under anti-terrorism legislation. After a five-year legal battle, according to the Telegraph, an Employment

Appeal Tribunal ruled that his case can’t be heard in public and should be held in secret and that Rahman and his lawyers can be banned from parts of the hearing.

Scotland Yard says that secrecy is needed to shroud the identity of sources and highly sensitive information. There is the hint that CIA sourcing may be involved – and as we know that agency never gets anything wrong!

A security-cleared “special advocate” will be appointed on Rahman’s behalf to listen to the closed-door evidence. What good that will do in terms of serving the former policeman’s interests is anyone’s guess. The special advocate will not be allowed to discuss what he or she hears with Rahman or his lawyers.

So, we have here national security once again overriding natural justice — another case of the authorities deciding when it comes to striking a balance between civil liberties and security to favor the latter.

Three weeks after 9/11, I wrote about the dangers of throwing out civil liberties in a column for the Washington Times.

The relevant passages are below:

“Some old rules about fighting terrorism, learned at bloody cost in Northern Ireland and during the Soviet-supported ‘wars of national liberation,’ need to be recalled and restated.

Veteran British antiterrorist experts say the first rule is to remember that terrorists feed on overreaction. Democratic societies that alter themselves by introducing draconian security measures that restrict civil liberties undermine the morale of their own people. Unleashing overly harsh retaliation garners sympathy for the terrorists, is counterproductive and risks making new enemies and inspiring more gunmen and bombers.

How do you defeat an elusive and fanatical enemy who fights in unconventional ways and doesn’t observe the Geneva Convention or worry about greater geostrategic constraints? And how do you do all of that without becoming like the foe you fight and closing your open society?

Some British politicians have reckoned they ignored those rules for too long in Northern Ireland. British prime ministers would march their troops to the top of the hill, only to have to march them down again. Pledges were made. Forecasts offered of victory. Threats thundered. And overreaction increased as successive governments implemented law-and-order measures that may have made life a little more difficult for the Irish Republican Army and occasionally foiled a plot, but which corroded the democracy and orderly society that the British saw themselves as defending.

Out went the right to jury trials in Northern Ireland; out also went the right of a defendant to remain silent, both fundamental principles in Anglo-Saxon jurisprudence.”

 

Gay Advocacy Needs Restraining Too

Although saying that about the GOP needing to restrain the rhetoric of some of its activists on the same-sex marriage issue (see post below), gay advocates would be wise to counsel their supporters, too, if they have not already done so, to restrain their rhetoric.

Groups such as the New Civil Rights Movement lump together all those who oppose same-sex marriage, hardly the way to win friends and influence people. You don’t have to be anti-gay or hate gays to disagree with same-sex marriage.

For some the word “marriage” is what is problematic rather than the recognition of monogamous civil union between same-sex couples, for example.

Obviously, neither of the parties nor the candidates can or should be held responsible for the bile individual activists on either side of this issue are hurling. But, of course, they will, and with possible electoral consequences.