Yesterday, the European Parliament passed a draft report containing the EP’s recommendations to the Commission on the negotiations for TTIP. TTIP is the “free trade” treaty that is being negotiated between the US and the EU. It is the latest chapter in a long range of abbreviations across the world, from ACTA, to CETA, to TPP, TISA, etc. The end goal for TTIP is to create a single, massive free trade area/single market between the United States and the European Union member states. In practice, this requires that our standards be lowered to theirs and American businesses given unfettered access to the European markets (and in name vice versa, but it remains to be seen whether that will be the case in reality.)
The negotiations with the United States are being conducted in secret. There are various MEPs who are regularly informed about the progress of the negotiations, but they are prevented from saying anything substantial about the actual contents of the documents currently on the table. The peoples of Europe have no influence and no say in what makes it in the final treaty. Most of the Members of the European Parliament also have no idea about the exact contents of the negotiating document, and what is currently on the table. The European Parliament will vote on TTIP when the treaty is completed, but does not have the power to make amendments to the final text. This is a massive shame, since this treaty will influence us in major ways. In practice, it will open up our markets to American big business, while the effect for European middle and small enterprises are almost non-existent (as the vast majority of SMEs will not make the step to export to the United States).
Negligible Economic Advantages
The long-term economic advantages of TTIP to Europe is in fact completely negligible. Karel De Gucht, the previous EU Commissioner for Trade until 2014, claimed that TTIP will create lots of jobs in Europe, when in fact, we’re looking at an increase of GDP of at most 0.4 to 0.5 percent over a time period of decades. Claiming that this treaty will be about job creation and creating opportunities for workers on both continents is just completely dishonest, as also claimed in a blog on the U.S. Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) website. According to various studies, the economic advantages are quite negligible. Incidentally, when De Gucht was confronted by some questions asked by the journalist regarding the alleged economic advantages of TTIP, he couldn’t provide an answer. And these are the sorts of people in charge of these things?
ISDS With A Different Name
One important aspect that hasn’t been scrapped in the new resolution is the notorious ISDS provision (Investor-State Dispute Settlement). ISDS is a arbitration provision, that basically says that if a corporation thinks that a certain law passed by a nation-state’s parliament is hurting the profits of the corporation, they will have a way to sue the state for damages, in practice amounting to hundreds of millions of euro’s.
The most laughable thing about this arbitration commission is, that in the initial proposals, it consists of 3 lawyers, one of which will be from the company and another one from the nation state; the third one to be decided by the 2 parties. No legitimate judge would be asked to take this decision, and this provision has the potential to hurt democracy in a massive way. That this was even up for serious discussion is simply insane. When we as people can no longer decide for ourselves what we do and do not allow onto the market, because we should always take into account whether or not that will hurt someone’s business model, what independence do we have left? What will be left of the people’s sovereignty, granted to them by international law?
The ironic thing is that in the latest resolution passed by the European Parliament (P8_TA-PROV(2015)0252), the term “ISDS” has been replaced with: ‘a system for resolving disputes between investors and states’. Tell me: how is that different from “Investor-State Dispute Settlement”? This was just a different term used in the new resolution just so some fractions in the European Parliament can say: “Look people, we stopped ISDS!”, while at the same time the Commission and the negotiating team can say to the Americans that it’s still in. In effect, nothing has changed on this point. The entire concept of investors suing states for damages because legislation is a threat to their business model, and doing so in kangaroo courts, is an utter travesty to the legal system.
Another problem is that big corporations have an excessive influence on European policy-making. During the preparatory phase of TTIP, 590 meetings took place between the Commission and corporate lobbyists. 92% of these meetings were with representatives of big business. In fact, quite a few sentences in the proposals are directly written by the lobbyists, and made it in the proposals virtually unchanged. And this is not only a problem for TTIP, this happens all the time.
Consequences of Arbitrary Arbitration
An example of where this could lead to is the case of Achmea vs the Republic of Slovakia. In this case, Achmea (which is a major Dutch insurance conglomerate) sued the Slovak Republic for damages because they wanted to re-nationalise their health care system. Of course, Achmea stood to lose millions of euros in potential profits due to this policy change, so they sued, citing alleged breaches of the Treaty on encouragement and reciprocal protection of investments between the Czech and Slovak Federal Republic and the Kingdom of the Netherlands. Luckily, the arbitration committee in this case dismissed all of Achmea’s claims, and recognised the sovereignty of the Slovak Republic to make these kinds of policy decisions.
Now imagine what happens when TTIP is implemented, on a massive scale and in a vast area across many different industries? What sovereignty do we have left when we have to think about protecting the profits of huge corporations with each and every policy decision?
Investor-State Dispute Settlement is wholly unnecessary
Protecting investments by means of arbitration committees only makes sense if your trading partner is a country without a well-developed and functioning legal system. It does not make sense whatsoever in the context of a free trade deal between the United States and the EU, since European countries do have functioning legal systems. It isn’t a union of banana republics. At least not yet. So any investment arbitration mechanism in the TTIP treaty that circumvents the nation states’ legal system is wholly unnecessary. The only reason it will make it into the treaty is to give big business a lot more power to overrule the decisions made by our elected representatives. One step closer to a United States of Europe, which in the vision of eurocrats the likes of Guy Verhofstadt is only complete when it stretches from California to the Caspian Sea.
Benito Mussolini, the fascist Italian dictator during WWII, once defined fascism as: the merger of the corporate with the state. When TTIP is passed, the corporate is the state! We will open our European markets up to American multinationals who, as we know, have little concern for labour standards, food safety regulations, and more. It will amount to us lowering our standards to theirs in the interest of “free trade”. If we don’t lower our standards, that would imply that the United States would raise theirs, which is extremely unlikely to happen in the current political climate. It will introduce a dispute settlement system that is actively hostile to the very principle of democracy. And our parliaments will have no say in the matter. Despite what the average eurocrat says, these are very real dangers. But there are even more reasons not to want this trade agreement with the United States.
Free Trade? With the people who spy on their allies?
Recently, news came out that the United States NSA spied on the German Chancellor and her most senior officials and also on the last 3 Presidents of the French Republic. These documents on WikiLeaks also reveal that the US has a decade-long policy of economic espionage, and is intercepting all French corporate contracts and deals valued over $200 million.
Two years after Edward Snowden’s revelations were made public, we have seen a move towards more secrecy, more surveillance, and more corporatism, and a lot less transparency and accountability. Transparency and accountability is also a major issue within the EU institutions and in particular the TTIP negotiations, but I’ll get to that it a bit.
Over the last 2 years we have seen moves by various European intelligence agencies to imitate the NSA and GCHQ in their capabilities. Just recently, the Dutch government released for public consulting a proposal aimed to give the AIVD, more power, authorising them to start tapping cable-bound communications.
Also, the FBI by means of James Comey and others in the US and UK (Cameron, May) are desperately trying to ban encryption, against all expert advice. Banning encryption makes us less secure, preventing, for example, banks and corporations from protecting our personal data against interception by criminals. Without encryption we cannot securely shop online, we cannot message online, businesses cannot keep their trade secrets confidential, etc. Encryption is essential to the internet, and essential to innovation.
The important point is this: Do we really want to increase cooperation in the areas of trade and industry, across all sectors, with the country that has been spying on us and disregards its own Constitution and rule of law? Do we really think that is in the interest of European citizens?
I wonder what would happen in the following hypothetical situation. Let’s say for the sake of argument that it is revealed that the Bundesnachrichtendienst (Germany’s foreign intelligence agency) has been spying on the last 3 US Presidents. Would the US then take the initiative and start negotiating a trade deal and much closer cooperation with the Europeans? Or would these actions be strongly condemned and action taken to prevent these actions in the future? I think we know what the response of the US in this hypothetical situation would likely be. However, in the real world, the US has been spying on the Europeans for decades on a massive scale, and we still don’t reconsider who our allies are?
We still mindlessly follow the US lead when it comes to demonising Russia, we don’t consider what actions are in the best interest of European businesses, we continue to give the US great advantages as they continue to stir up trouble, start revolutions and regime changes in Ukraine, hurting stability in the entire region, with MEPs Verhofstadt & Van Baalen joining in, calling for regime change on Maidan square.
The fact that US foreign policy is not a force of good in the world would already be grounds to scrap this entire treaty altogether.
Europe’s democratic deficit
Some people may accuse me of being Eurosceptic. That is not the case: I like the concept of European cooperation and integration, I have many clients across Europe, I like the fact that I am able to travel, live, and work anywhere in the European Union. That is not the problem, and in fact, one of the greatest achievements of close European cooperation.
What is the problem, however, is the clear lack of democracy and transparency at the European level at various European institutions. European elections are held to elect Members for a small piece of the pie that is the European Parliament (depending on the country you’re from the piece may be bigger or smaller), but other than that, the European institutions are completely closed from all meaningful interactions with European citizens. The Commission is not elected, and all other European institutions that make or influence European policy also have unelected officials who decide on things. We have 4 different Presidents responsible for God knows what, and all unelected. This is the major problem with the Union, and the thing in my opinion needs to be fixed before we start thinking about further expansion, or the transfer of even more powers to Brussels.
Europe should embrace democracy, not eschew it, like we could see yet again prior to the latest Greek referendum, when various European leaders made threats to the Greek people about the consequences should they not agree to more austerity. Even the President of the European Parliament, Mr. Martin Schultz has made such threats, which is wholly unbecoming of a President of a poor excuse of a Parliament, who should be above all parties, and adhere to independence from such political opinions.
Democracy is a great concept, invented in the 5th century BCE by the ancient Athenians in Greece. We should do more of it!
The Sad Truth
The sad truth regarding TTIP is that — based on the resolution just passed by the EP — I can already make the prediction regarding the final verdict of the European Parliament when the TTIP final document is finally presented to them: they will pass it, and it’ll probably include some sort of ISDS provision. There will probably be time pressure involved, requiring MEPs to read and interpret thousands of pages of legalese in a very short time-frame, which ensures that no MEP will actually read the document they vote on.
And when TTIP is passed, corporate fascism in Europe has won.
Good news on privacy protection for once: after an 11 March 2015 ruling of the Court of The Hague in the Netherlands in the case of the Privacy First Foundation c.s. versus The Netherlands, the court decided to strike down the Dutch data retention law. The law required telecommunication providers and ISPs to store communication and location data from everyone in the Netherlands for a year. The court based its decision on the reasoning that a major privacy infringement of this magnitude needs proper safeguards. The safeguards that were put in place were deemed insufficient by the court. There is too much room for abuse of power in the current law, which was the reason for the The Hague Court to strike it down, effective immediately.
The question remains what will happen now. The law has been struck down, so it seems logical to scrap it entirely. Whether that will happen, or whether the decision stands should the Ministry of Security and Justice appeal the decision, time will tell.
Last week, on the 7th of January 2015, the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo‘s office in Paris was attacked by Islamic fundamentalists. Charlie Hebdo is a French satirical magazine featuring jokes, cartoons, reports etcetera. that is stridently anti-conformist in nature. They make fun of politics, Judaism, Christianity and Islam and all other institutions. Like all of us they have every right to freedom of expression. But alas, fundamentalists did not agree, and opted to violently attack their office in Paris with assault rifles and rocket propelled grenades, leaving 12 people killed and 11 wounded. This was a terrible attack, and my heart goes out to the families and their colleagues and friends who have lost their loved ones.
After the attack, there was (rightly so) worldwide condemnation and the sentence “Je suis Charlie,” French for “I am Charlie,” became the slogan of millions. What I am afraid of however, is not the terrorists who perpetrate these attacks. What frightens me more, is the almost automatic response by politicians who immediately see reasons to implement ever more oppressive legislation, building the surveillance state. After all, the goal of terrorism is to change society by violent means. If we allow them to, the terrorists have already won. Their objective is completed by our own fear.
Hypocrites At The March
When I was watching footage of the march in Paris for freedom of expression I saw that a lot of government leaders were present, most of whom severely obstructed freedom of expression and freedom of the press in their home countries. Now they were were at the march, claiming the moral high ground and claiming to be the guardians of press freedom.
Here’s an overview of some of the leaders present at the march and what they did in relation to restricting press freedom in their own countries, courtesy of Daniel Wickham, who made this list and published it on his Twitter feed:
- King Abdullah of Jordan, who last sentenced a Palestinian journalist to 15 years in prison with hard labour.
- Prime Minister Davutoglu of Turkey, a country which imprisons more journalists than any other country in the world.
- Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, whose forces killed 7 journalists in Gaza last year (the second-highest after Syria).
- Foreign Minister Shoukry of Egypt, which in addition to Al Jazeera staff has detained journalist Shawkan for around 500 days.
- Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov of Russia, which last year jailed a journalist for “insulting a government servant.”
- Foreign Minister Lamamra of Algeria, which has detained journalist Abdessami Abdelhai for 15 months without charge.
- The Foreign Minister of the United Arab Emirates, Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan. The UAE held a journalist incommunicado for a month in 2013 on suspicion of having ties with the Muslim Brotherhood.
- Prime Minister Jomaa of Tunisia, which recently jailed blogger Yassine Ayan for 3 years for “defaming the army.”
- The Prime Ministers of Georgia and Bulgaria, both of whom have a record of attacking and beating journalists.
- The Attorney-General of the United States, Eric Holder (who was in Paris, but skipped out early, Obama or Kerry were nowhere to be found). Police in Ferguson have recently detained and assaulted Washington Post reporters.
- Prime Minister Samaras of Greece, where riot police has beaten and injured two journalists at a protest in June last year.
- The Secretary General of NATO, Jens Stoltenberg. NATO is responsible for deliberately bombing and killing 16 Serbian journalists in 1999, among many other crimes.
- President Kelta of Mali, where journalists are expelled for covering human rights abuses.
- The Foreign Minister of Bahrain Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa. Bahrain being the 2nd biggest jailer of journalists in the world per capita (and they also torture them)
- Sheikh Mohamed Ben Hamad Ben Khalifa Al Thani of Qatar, which jailed a man for 15 years for writing the Jasmine poem.
- The Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who had several journalists jailed for insulting him in 2013.
- Prime Minister Cerar of Slovenia, which sentenced a blogger to 6 months in prison for “defamation” in 2013.
- Prime Minister Enda Kenny of Ireland, where “blasphemy” is considered a criminal offence.
- Prime Minister Kopacz of Poland, which raided a magazine to seize recordings embarrassing for the ruling party.
- And of course Prime Minister David Cameron of the UK, where the authorities destroyed computers, hard drives, documents and other property of the Guardian and threatened with prosecution for publishing the Snowden documents.
Politicians like the ones mentioned above, but also the likes of May (UK Home Secretary), Opstelten (the Netherlands’ Justice Minister) and many others are jumping on the bandwagon again to implement new oppressive laws limiting freedom of expression and the civil and human rights of their peoples. With leaders like these, who needs terrorists? Our leaders will happily implement legislation that will severely curtail our freedoms and civil liberties instead of handling the aftermath of tragic events like these as grown-ups. It would be better if they viewed participating in the march as a starting point to start improving the situation in the areas of freedom of expression and freedom of the press at home.
The Political Consequences Of Terrorist Attacks
What frightens me is the fact that people like Andrew Parker, head of MI5, the kind of person who normally never makes headlines, is given all the space he needed to explain to us “why we need them,” to put it in the words of High Chancellor Adam Sutler, the dictator from the film “V for Vendetta,” which is set in a near-future British dystopia. UK Chancellor George Osborne immediately said in response to the piece by Andrew Parker that MI5 will get an extra £100 million in funding for combating Islamic fundamentalism. David Cameron has confirmed this.
Politicians are using the tragic events in Paris as a way to demand more surveillance powers for the intelligence community in a brazen attempt to curtail our civil liberties in a similar way to what happened after the 9/11 attacks.
All the familiar rhetoric is used again, how it’s a “terrible reminder of the intentions of those who wish us harm,” how the threat level in Britain worsened and Islamic extremist groups in Syria and Iraq are trying to attack the UK, how the intelligence community needs more money to gather intelligence on these people, how our travel movements must be severely restricted and logged, the need for increased security at border checks, a European PNR (Passenger Name Record) (which, incidentally would mean the end of Schengen, one of the core founding principles on which the EU was founded — freedom of movement). The list goes on and on.
A trend can be seen here. UK Home Secretary Theresa May wants to ban extremist speech, and ban people deemed extremist from publicly speaking at universities and other venues. The problem with that is that the definition of extremist is very vague, and certainly up for debate. Is vehemently disagreeing with the government’s current course in a non-violent way extremist? I fear that May thinks that would fit the definition. This would severely curtail freedom of speech both on the internet and in real life, since there are many people who disagree with government policies, and are able to put forward their arguments in a constructive manner.
Before we can even begin to implement laws like these we need to discuss what extremism means, what vague concepts like “national security” mean. There are no clear definitions for these terms at this point, while the legislation that is being put into place since 9/11 is using these vague notions intentionally, giving the security apparatus way too much leeway to abuse their powers as they see fit.
I read that Cameron wants to ban all encrypted communications, since these cannot be decrypted by the intelligence community. This would mean that banks, corporations and individuals would leave themselves vulnerable to all kinds of security vulnerabilities, including identity theft among others, vulnerabilities which cryptographic technologies are meant to solve.
Cryptography is the practice of techniques for secure communication in the presence of adversaries. Without cryptography, you couldn’t communicate securely with your bank, or with companies that handle your data. You also couldn’t communicate securely with various government agencies, or health care institutions, etcetera. All these institutions and corporations handle sensitive information about your life that you wouldn’t want unauthorised people to have access to. This discussion about banning cryptography strongly reminds me of the Crypto Wars of the 1990s.
Making technologies like these illegal only serves to hurt the security of law-abiding citizens. Criminals, like the people who committed the attacks at Charlie Hebdo, wouldn’t be deterred by it. They are already breaking the law anyway, so why worry? But for people who want to comply with the law, this is a serious barrier, and restricting cryptography only hurts our societies’ security.
Norwegians’ Response to Breivik
Instead of panicking, which is what these politicians are doing right now, we should instead treat this situation with much more sanity. Look for instance to how the Norwegians have handled the massacre of 77 people in Oslo and on the Norwegian island of Utøya by Anders Behring Breivik on July 22nd, 2011.
Breivik attacked the Norwegian government district in Oslo, and then subsequently went to Utøya, where a large Labour Party gathering was taking place. He murdered 77 people in total.
The response by the Norwegians was however, very different from what you would expect had the attack taken place in the UK, the US or The Netherlands, for instance. In these countries, the reaction would be the way it is now, with the government ever limiting civil liberties in an effort to build the surveillance state, taking away our liberties in a fit of fear. The Norwegians however, urged that Norway continued its tradition of openness and tolerance. Memorial services were held, the victims were mourned, and live went on. Breivik got a fair trial and is now serving his time in prison. This is the way to deal with crises like this.
Is Mass Surveillance Effective?
The problem with more surveillance legislation is the fact that it isn’t even certain that it would work. The effectiveness of the current (already quite oppressive) surveillance legislation has never been put to the test. Never was a research published that definitively said that, yes, storing all our communications in dragnet surveillance has stopped this many terrorist attacks and is a valuable contribution to society.
In fact, even the White House has released a review of the National Security Agency’s spy programmes in December 2013, months after the first revelations by Edward Snowden, and this report offered 46 recommendations for reform. The conclusion of the report was predictable, namely that even though the surveillance programmes have gone too far, that they should stay in place. But this report has undermined the NSA’s claims that the collection of meta-data and mass surveillance on billions of people is a necessary tool to combat terrorism.
The report says on page 104, and I quote:
“Our review suggests that the information contributed to terrorist investigations by the use of Section 215 telephony meta-data was not essential to preventing attacks and could readily have been obtained in a timely manner using conventional Section 215 orders.”
And shortly after Edward Snowden’s revelations about the existence of some of these programmes were published, former director of the NSA Keith Alexander testified to the Senate in defence of his agency’s surveillance programmes. He claimed that dozens of terrorist attacks were stopped because of the mass surveillance, both at home and abroad. This claim was also made by President Obama, who said that it was “over 50.” Often, 54 is the exact number quoted. Alexander’s claim was challenged by Senators Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Mark Udall (D-CO), who said that they “had not seen any evidence showing that the NSA’s dragnet collection of Americans’ phone records has produced any valuable intelligence.” The claim that the warrant-less global dragnet surveillance has stopped anywhere near that number of terrorist attacks is questionable to say the least, and much more likely entirely false.
More oppressive dragnet surveillance measures aren’t helping with making the intelligence community any more efficient at their job. In fact, the more intelligence gets scooped up in these dragnet surveillance programmes, the less likely it becomes that a terror plot is discovered before it occurs, so that these may be stopped in time. More data needs to be analysed, and there’s only so much automatic algorithms can do when tasked with filtering out the non-important stuff. In the end, the intel needs to be assessed by analysts in order to determine their value and if necessary act upon it. There is also the problem with false positives, as people get automatically flagged because their behaviour fits certain patterns programmed into the filtering software. This may lead to all sorts of consequences for the people involved, despite the fact that they have broken no laws.
Politicians can be a far greater danger to society than a bunch of Islamic terrorists. Because unlike the terrorists, politicians have the power to enact and change legislation, both for better and for worse. When we are being governed by fear, the terrorists have already won.
The objective of terrorism is not the act itself. It is to try and change society by violent means. If we allow them to change it, by implementing ever more oppressive mass surveillance legislation (in violation of Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR)), or legislation that restricts the principles of freedom of the press and freedom of speech, enshrined in Article 10 of the ECHR, freedom of assembly and association enshrined in Article 11, or of freedom of movement which is one of the basic tenets on which the European Union was founded, the terrorists have already won.
Let’s use our brains and think before we act.
On November 26, 2014 it was revealed by the Dutch news outlet RTL Nieuws that there exists a confidentiality agreement that was signed by the Netherlands, Belgium, Australia and the Kiev regime in Ukraine that gives each of the signatories a veto on any information that comes out of the investigation.
The existence of this confidentiality agreement is confirmed by the Australian Government, more specifically by Melissa Stenfors, Acting Director of the Crisis Management & Contingency Planning Section of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade:
Later, the authenticity of this letter was confirmed by the Australian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade in the following statement to RTL Nieuws:
“The letter to which you refer is authentic. Australia, The Netherlands, Belgium and Ukraine have signed a non-disclosure agreement with respect to the criminal investigation into the downing of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17.
This agreement requires consensus among the parties before information regarding the investigation can be released. The non-disclosure of information is important to avoid jeopardising the investigation or prejudicing a future judicial proceeding arising from the investigation.
The Joint Investigation Team non-disclosure agreement was communicated in confidence by foreign governments, and, as a result, cannot be made public.”
An Elsevier magazine Freedom of Information Act (Wob) request to reveal the contents of the confidentiality agreement mentioned above, along with 16 other documents concerning the investigation was denied by the Dutch cabinet.
So far, the investigation into the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 is poorly done. The Dutch Safety Board (Onderzoeksraad voor Veiligheid) published a preliminary report about MH17 on 9 September 2014. This report was unsatisfactory for many parties. Basically it only says that the damage to the front section of the fuselage and the cockpit indicates that the plane was hit by a large number of high-energy projectiles coming from outside the aircraft, and that the damage pattern does not match with any damage one would expect in case of failure of the aircraft’s engines or other systems. In any case, there are no indications of any technical or operational problems with the aircraft or its crew prior to the CVR (Cockpit Voice Recorder) and FDR (Flight Data Recorder) stopping their recordings at 13:20:03 hours.
Important questions still remain unanswered, like whether the damage was caused by an air-to-air missile (which would support the Russians’ claims of a Ukrainian fighter jet near the Malaysian airliner), or surface-to-air (which supports the Buk weapons system theory). In the case of a surface-to-air missile, it still remains to be seen who fired the weapon at the time. Satellite pictures that claim that the Buk was operated by the rebels and then transported out of eastern Ukraine into the Russian Federation are very grainy, and one cannot discern any important details, let alone confirm their authenticity. These questions have not yet been answered, let alone asked by the investigation team (at least as far as we know).
The existence of the confidentiality agreement however, is very problematic. Especially if it contains, as sources seem to indicate, a veto right for all parties, including Ukraine. What if the investigation does reveal something that might point to the Ukrainians being behind the MH17 disaster? Would that ever get published? I think not, given the fact that they have a veto. Basically, the way this investigation was set-up, almost guarantees an outcome that will absolve the Ukrainians of any blame in the disaster. When the report does come out eventually, it will no doubt serve as new fuel on the pyre, with the West trying to blame Russia for the downing of MH17. Another reason why the investigation might be slow-going, besides the obvious difficulties in collecting all the evidence, is because the release of the final report might need to be carefully timed, released only when there’s a lull in the anti-Putin rhetoric, and this could then serve to ignite people’s anger and play on emotions to start a war with Russia. Which is a horrible thought, and I certainly do not hope things will play out this way.
But just as we have been stumbling into World War One, some of the signs are seen again nowadays. For instance, just look at the sheer level of propaganda found in the mainstream media, impervious to facts and reason. We are stumbling into another World War before we realise what happened. As the distinguished journalist John Pilger so brilliantly said during his speech at the Logan Symposium in London this month, “the most effective propaganda is not found in the Sun or on Fox News, but beneath a liberal halo.” We need to find the counter-narrative, figure out what is really going on to try and prevent this tragedy from happening.
It pains me to see how the U.S. is using Europe as its playground, themselves safely removed far away across the Atlantic Ocean, and we Europeans are allowing them to. Why should we be so subservient to a nation whose foreign policy in the past 70 years has only contributed to igniting crises and wars across the world? South America was ravaged by U.S. foreign policy, as was Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Cuba, and countless of other countries. Innocent citizens across the globe now have to live with the very real and daily fear of extra-judicial murder in the form of drone strikes, personally ordered and authorised by President Obama every Tuesday, extraordinary renditions (kidnapping) to “black sites” in countries like Poland and Romania where people are subject to CIA torture, as the executive summary of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Torture Report (PDF) recently revealed.
And the sad thing is, I’m not seeing any significant change in the US, where pundits the likes of Dick Cheney are still trumpeting torture (euphemistically called “enhanced interrogation”). When the Nazi’s were defeated after the Second World War, they were brought before the court during the Nuremberg trials, and some of the people deemed mainly responsible for the crimes against humanity and war crimes committed under Hitler’s regime were executed for their crimes. In the US, there isn’t even the slightest hint of a criminal investigation into the people responsible for the torture committed by CIA personnel and contractors, either directly or indirectly.
The Second Cold War
The coup in Ukraine was used to try and lure Russia into a second Cold War. A massive misinformation campaign was mounted in the Western press which totally ignored the real cause of the current crisis in Ukraine, namely the US putsch to oust the pro-Russian Yanukovich from power and install the pro-US Yatsenyuk. Yanukovich was democratically elected, Yastenyuk was not. On Maidan square, snipers attacked both the pro- and anti-Yanokovich protesters. The telephone conversation Victoria Nuland (Assistant Secretary of State) held with Geoffrey Pyatt (U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine) that was intercepted and posted to YouTube was blacked out from the mainstream media. This offered compelling evidence that the Ukrainian crisis was a U.S. led coup.
I have written extensively about the coup previously, explaining that NATO expansion after the Cold War ended has put Russia on edge, as they are obviously concerned about their national security. When the Soviets did a similar thing in Cuba, this led to Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962. Why is it OK for the U.S. to respond by blockading Cuba, but when it’s Russia’s national security that is being threatened by NATO’s military bases, these legitimate concerns are hand-waved away and ignored? American exceptionalism has no place in the 21st century, or in fact, in any century.
After the referendum on the status of the Crimea, where the vast majority of the (mostly ethnic Russian) population (96.77% in fact) voted to re-join the Russian Federation, after the separation of the Crimea from Russia by Nikita Khrushchev in 1954, the Russians were immediately blamed for annexing the area. However, there were no such outcries when Kosovo declared itself independent from Serbia (without a referendum, mind you). In the case of Kosovo, it suited the Western powers, in the case of the Crimea, it did not.
The Crimea is of strategic importance to the Russians, as their Black Sea Fleet is based in the Crimean city of Sevastopol. When the Ukrainian coup started, Russia was getting increasingly concerned about whether it would be able to continue its lease of the military base, which was set to expire in 2042. Losing access to the base would be difficult, as Sevastopol’s warm water port, its natural harbour and the extensive infrastructure already in place there currently makes it one of the best-outfitted naval bases in the Black Sea. Sevastopol also allows the Russians relatively quick and easy access to the Mediterranean. The Russian Mediterranean Task Force, which is based in Sevastopol, was previously used to remove Syrian chemical weapons and conduct anti-piracy operations near Somalia.
All I hope is that the current crisis will be resolved quickly, as the path we currently seem to be on (one almost inevitably leading to war), is a foolish endeavour, and we need to realise that talking and diplomacy will get us much further than empty threats and baseless allegations. We’ve previously seen what US interference does to countries, like in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and the sanctions that were put in place before that. Millions of people have been displaced and killed in that conflict alone. We need to stop this madness and start the dialogue to understand and hear the valid concerns put forward. Only then can war be avoided.
On November 21, 2014, the Dutch Ministry of the Interior and Relations within the Realm (Ministerie van Binnenlandse Zaken en Koninkrijksrelaties), sent a message to Parliament about the — in their view — necessary changes that need to be made to the Wet op de inlichtingen- en veiligheidsdiensten (Wiv) 2002 (Intelligence and Security Act 2002). The old law (Wiv 2002), differentiates between cable-bound and non-cable-bound (as in: satellite or radio) communications, and gives the intelligence agencies different powers for each of these two cases. In general, under the old law, according to Article 27, it’s legal for the AIVD and MIVD to bulk-intercept non-cable-bound communications. It isn’t legal for them to do so for cable-bound communications (as in: internet fibre optic cables, etc.) In this latter case, of cable-bound communications, it’s only legal for them to intercept the communications of specific intelligence targets (as put forward in Articles 25 and 26). In the case of targeted surveillance, the intercepted information can come from any source.
The Dessens Committee concluded (PDF, on pages 10 and 11) that this distinction between the various sources of the communication (cable vs non-cable) is no longer appropriate in the modern day and age, where the largest chunk of the communications in the world travel via cables. The way the cabinet wants to solve this problem is by changing the law such that the AIVD and its military sister MIVD can lawfully intercept cable-bound communications in bulk, expanding their powers significantly. So, in other words, the Dutch government is planning to go full TEMPORA (original source PDF courtesy of Edward Snowden), and basically implement what GCHQ has done in the case of Britain: bulk intercept everything that goes across the internet.
Why does this matter?
This matters because by bulk-intercepting everything that goes across the internet, the communications of people who aren’t legitimate intelligence targets get intercepted and analysed as well. By intercepting everything, no-one can have any expectation of privacy on the internet anymore, except when we all pro-actively take measures (like using strong encryption, Tor, OTR chat, VPNs, using free/open source software, etc.) to make sure that our privacy is not being surreptitiously invaded by the spooks. It is especially important to do this when there isn’t any proper democratic oversight in place, which could stop the AIVD or MIVD from breaking the law, and provide meaningful oversight and corrections to corrupting tendencies (after all, as we all know, power corrupts).
Also, the Netherlands is home to the second-largest internet exchange in the world, the Amsterdam Internet Exchange (Ams-IX), second only to the German exchange DE-CIX in Frankfurt. So a very large amount of data goes across Ams-IX’s cables, and this makes it interesting from an intelligence point of view to bulk-intercept everything that goes across it. This was previously not allowed in the Netherlands. Now, of course, if the AIVD wanted access to these bulk-intercepts, it could simply ask its sister organisation GCHQ in Britain. There is a lively market for sharing intelligence in the world. For instance, in many jurisdictions where it would be illegal for a domestic intelligence agency to spy on their own citizens, a foreign intelligence agency has no such limitations, and can then subsequently share the gained intel with the domestic intelligence agency. But now, they are building their own capacity to do this in Amsterdam on a massive scale.
In terms of intelligence targets, the AIVD currently focuses on jihadists, Islamic extremists, and due to their historical tendencies still left over from the BVD-era, left-wing activists. The BVD’s surveillance on the left-leaning portion of the Dutch population was legendary.
Legalising certain practices of intelligence agencies is something that we see more and more, which is what happens here.
Lawyer-client confidentiality routinely broken
A few weeks ago, I read on RT that MI5, MI6 and GHCQ routinely snoop on lawyers’ client communications. In the Netherlands, lawyer-client communications are routinely intercepted by police, prison administrations, and intelligence agencies. In a normal criminal case with the police or prisons doing the intercepting, this is illegal, and any intel gained isn’t supposed to end up in court documents. But in the case of intelligence agencies doing the intercepting, this is currently legal since there are no legal provisions prohibiting the Dutch intelligence community from not recording and analysing lawyer-client communications. But in a few occasions, these communications did end up in court documents. This strongly indicates that these communications are routinely intercepted and analysed. There is in fact a whole IT infrastructure in place to “exclude” these communications from the phone tap records, for instance. On this page, the Dutch Bar Association is explaining to their members how to submit their phone numbers into this system so that their conversations with their clients are (ostensibly) excluded from the taps (only the taps by Police though, the intelligence community is, as I’ve explained above, not affected by this.)
This trend is incredibly dangerous to the right to a fair trial. If one cannot honestly speak to one’s lawyer any more, where every word spoken to one’s lawyer is intercepted and analysed, suddenly the government holds all the cards, and will always be one step ahead. How can one build a defence based on that?
The Netherlands is by the way still the country with the dubious distinction of having the largest absolute number of wire-taps in the world, and that’s just gleaned from (partial) police records. We don’t even know how much the AIVD and MIVD tap, since that information is classified, and “threatens national security if released,” which in my opinion is spy-speak for: “We tap so much that you’d fall off your chair in outrage if we told you, so it’s better that we don’t.”
Instead of holding the intelligence community accountable for their actions for once, and make these practices stop at once, the government has always taken the position of legalising current practices instead, which, if you are the government minister responsible for the oversight on the intelligence community, sure is a lot easier than confronting a powerful intelligence agency, which maybe holds some dirt on you.
All of these developments are so dangerous to our way of living and any sane definition of a free and open, democratic society where government is accountable to the people that they claim to represent, that it makes me want to proclaim, as Cicero exasperatedly proclaimed in his first oration against Senator Catilina:
“O tempora! O mores!”
In the Roman case, Catilina conspired to overthrow the Republic & Senate, and Cicero was frustrated that, in spite of all the evidence presented, Catilina was still not sentenced for the coup, whereas in previous times in Roman history, Cicero noted, people have been executed based on far less evidence.
Now we have the situation, that in spite of all the mountains of evidence we now have, thanks to Snowden, governments around the world still won’t take the prudent and necessary steps to hold the intelligence community to account. We need to take action, and start to encrypt. As soon as the vast majority of the world’s communications are encrypted using strong encryption (not the ones where the NSA “helpfully” gives NIST the special factor to use for calculations in their standardisation of a crypto algorithm, all for free), soon, blatantly collecting everything will be of no use.
The NYPD brutally arrested the respectable former CIA analyst, veteran, and peace activist Ray McGovern today for trying to attend a talk in New York City by retired general David Petraeus, former CIA director from 2011 until his resignation on 9 November 2012.
Apparently, Petraeus is so afraid of a well-informed, contrary opinion or critical question from a former CIA analyst that the U.S. government thinks it is justified to brutally arrest McGovern. This is in gross violation of Mr McGovern’s constitutional rights, more specifically his First and Fourth Amendment rights
Ray has been serving as a CIA analyst from the Kennedy administration until that of George H.W. Bush. He chaired the National Intelligence Estimates and prepared the President’s Daily Brief for President Reagan from 1981 until 1985. When he retired, he received the Intelligence Commendation Medal for “especially meritorious service”, which he returned in 2006 because he does not want to be associated with torture.
This isn’t the first time that the authorities have arrested the 75-year-old former analyst. Previously, on 16 February 2011, McGovern was brutally arrested by GWU campus police for turning his back to the Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton when she gave a talk at George Washington University. This led the State Department to issue a BOLO (Be On the Look Out) alert for Ray. They made it look like a “Wanted” poster, and that would be funny if it wasn’t so Orwellian.
Clearly, Clinton and Petraeus can’t take any criticism. It’s a childish move not to even allow people to freely speak their opinions and prevent them from exercising their constitutional rights, and clearly shows Clinton and in this case Petraeus have no arguments. Otherwise they would be able to answer a critical question or two?
In a world where policies are increasingly based on lies, dissident opinions are not welcomed by the powers-that-be. They would like you to just watch the evening news on your television, read a mainstream newspaper, being told only by the mainstream media what you need to think, not being challenged to satisfy your curiosity about the world around us and the forces that drive it. But policies based on lies have real impact on people’s lives. Tens of millions of Iraqis suffered because of the U.S. invasion in 2003, which was based on the lie that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. He hadn’t. If you keep repeating the lie often enough, soon people will start to believe it. But you’ve got to get mad!
All charges have been dropped for the Clinton incident, and Ray has not engaged in any criminal activity. He went to court to sue the State Department, and won. He sought and won an injunction against the State Department to stop the BOLO-alert on him, and force the State Department to pro-actively advise other law enforcement agencies that it no longer stands. Apparently this hasn’t happened.
Land of the Free?
Increasingly, we see dissidents and activists who make use of their legal right to protest being actively harassed and bullied by the government. Without people rocking the boat and upsetting the status quo, universal suffrage would not exist, women still wouldn’t have the vote, black people still would need to sit in the back of the bus, and apartheid in South Africa would still be there. Freedom of speech is important and we cannot allow it to be stifled like this. Would revolutionary ideas ever materialise if every thought and form of speech is controlled and monitored and censored by thought police and spies and their goons?
So much for the land of the free. It was fun while it lasted, from 1776 until 2001. Arresting and harassing someone simply because you don’t agree with their opinions is outrageous and contrary to the values of any democratic society. It is something more befitting of dictators and despots.
It is, however, still the home of the brave. Brave people, like Ray McGovern, who dare to question authority, stand up for what they know is right and just, and don’t like seeing their country and fellow countrymen dragged into illegal wars based on false pretences and lies (as in the case of the Iraq war, where the weapons of mass destruction were nowhere to be found, and now we see similar lies in the case of the U.S.-led coup in Ukraine.)
The Problem with watch lists
The problem with the myriad of U.S. government watch lists, like the BOLO alerts, or the No-Fly list, is a hydra with many heads.
- Firstly, you don’t know whether you’ve been put on any kind of watch list until you’re arbitrary detained or denied boarding on a flight.
- Secondly, it’s incredibly difficult to fight your entry to the watch list, as the government holds all the cards, the watch list is usually classified, and it takes expert lawyers, a lot of patience and FOIA requests and potentially expensive lawsuits to clear your name. Rahinah Ibrahim, a Malaysian woman who attended Stanford University and ended up on the No-Fly List, successfully fought to have her name removed from the list.
- Thirdly, watch lists often require no evidence, or anything proven beyond reasonably doubt to include you on a watch list. In the case of Ibrahim, it was a mistake by an FBI agent who ticked the wrong box on a form.
- Fourthly, information included on the watch list may be incorrect or plainly false.
- Fifthly, watch lists often proliferate, if you’re on one, it’s likely you’ll be added to others.
Watch lists are incredibly damaging to civil rights, precisely because it basically amounts to an arbitrary limitation to your freedom. It can be based on intel, but also on hearsay, or simply the grudge of a former Secretary of State.
Latest information has it that Ray McGovern is currently okay, but still being detained in an NYPD holding cell. He should be released immediately; America needs more heroes like him!
Update: Ray has been released!
A few days ago, the Dutch Home Office Minister Ronald Plasterk said in a debate in parliament that he’s apparently OK with the American intelligence community, the NSA among others, to spy on the Netherlands. His reasoning is flawed from the get-go, and went somewhat like this (paraphrased): “I don’t want to say that Dutch citizens may never be spied upon. Because that Dutch citizen can also be a stone-cold terrorist. And it’s good if that terrorist can be found.” Here’s the full quote (in Dutch):
“Ik wil dan ook wel oppassen om in het woordgebruik bijvoorbeeld te zeggen: ja maar, er mag nooit naar Nederlandse burgers worden gekeken. Want die Nederlandse burger kan natuurlijk een keiharde terrorist zijn, en dan zijn we toch blij dat die op een gegeven moment ergens op de rader verschijnt, en dat moet natuurlijk volgens de wetten gebeuren, maar dat die op de radar verschijnt, en dat er vervolgens actie kan worden ondernomen.”
Plasterk later denied saying that, but he did in fact say this during the debate. More evidence can be found here.
Is No Price Too High For Security?
Benjamin Franklin once said something like “They who give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” This quote has been used a lot, but it is applicable here. The question we need to answer is the following: When do security measures stop benefiting the greater good, and infringe on our privacy and liberty, which are values that used to define our very societies? When does the price we have to pay for that little extra security becomes too great? Combating terrorism certainly seems like a very noble goal, and while I do agree that there are some people out there who aim to change our societal structures through violent methods (although one has to note that one man’s terrorist is the other man’s freedom fighter; the definition of the term is a bit in the eye of the beholder), there does come a point where the price we have to pay for a little increase in security becomes too great, compared to the potential benefits.
Terrorism is Really Rare
One thing we have to understand is that acts of terrorism on the scale of 9/11 or the London public transport bombings on 7/7, awful as they may be, are still very rare indeed. Extremely rare in fact. Even President Obama has said so, although he does have an interesting choice of words. The chance that you’re involved in a traffic accident tomorrow are several orders of magnitude greater than the chance that the next aircraft you are in will end up in a building instead of on the runway. This is also valid for other acts of terrorism, not just the ones involving aircraft. And even the TSA agrees now that terrorists are not plotting against aviation. So why do we still have to cope with all the draconian security measures then, if it’s clear that it didn’t help one bit? You see the same thing happening with CCTV cameras. Governments and corporations put these things up everywhere, but there isn’t the tiniest shred of evidence that these cameras actually help prevent crimes. But still the TSA and their European counterparts continue to tell people to leave their water bottles and baby food and butter knifes at the checkpoint. Bruce Schneier put a lot of thought into this problem, and he said that we currently try to protect against specific movie-like terrorist plots, instead of doing a thorough risk analysis and protect ourselves with more generic measures that may actually work against multiple types of plots. Terrorists bring down aircraft, so we increase security at airports; terrorists used box cutters, so we ban box cutters; someone brought a bomb on board hidden in his shoe, so we’re telling people to take their shoes off. These are all very specific actions taken against these types of movie-like plots. The security measures taken here are way too specific to work against anything other than the movie plot attack. As soon as terrorists modify their plan just one tiny bit, the entire strategy to combat them becomes ineffective. Humans are unfortunately excruciatingly bad at evaluating risks, and if you give them a very specific, movie-like terrorist plot, they will rate the risk from that much higher than it is in reality, because of the specificity of the plot. We humans have evolutionary been conditioned to consider specific threats a greater risk than a more general threat. On Wired, Schneier states:
If you’re a higher-order primate living in the jungle and you’re attacked by a lion, it makes sense that you develop a lifelong fear of lions, or at least fear lions more than another animal you haven’t personally been attacked by.
We are conditioned to think: it happened once, so it’s likely that it’ll happen again. And you see politicians using that knowledge to their advantage. It is insightful to consider that most measures we’ve currently taken against terrorism, would never even be considered had the events of 9/11 not happened.
With regard to the comments made by Mr. Plasterk: I think a lot of politicians still think that the United States is one of the ‘good guys’, when there’s more and more evidence coming out that politically speaking, it is not our ally, and certainly not our friend. They serve their own self-interests, just like any other nation on earth, and it’s important to never forget that. I even heard some politicians say that we should demand that Dutch citizens shall be treated the same as Americans under US law. It is laughable to think that the Americans across the pond will say: “Oh no! We angered the Dutch! Quickly change our laws to treat them the same as we treat Americans before they start re-colonizing New York!” At most, what these politicians will get is a nice letter from the US Embassy in which they solemnly promise that it will never happen again, meanwhile not changing their laws or practices in the US. And the NSA happily continues to trample upon their NATO allies’ rights. And our politicians are apparently very happy to accept that. We have to reconsider our position and alliances after the numerous disclosures of classified documents by whistle-blower Edward Snowden. For what good is a friend who spies on you behind your back? President Roussef of Brazil has taken decisive action by severing ties with the United States and even building new fibre optic cable connections that circumvent United States territory. Where is the outrage in Dutch society? Here, AMS-IX (the Amsterdam Internet Exchange, the second-largest Internet exchange in the world), sets up shop in the US, making it subject to the PATRIOT Act. Have these people been living under a rock these past months? Or are there other, commercial interests at play here? We need to start demanding answers while at the same time strengthening our own privacy protections. Privacy is a human right, nothing more, nothing less. We need to start using it, or risk losing it.