Still mostly off the grid

No “This Week in Oppressive Government Violence” tonight, sorry. Several days of unpacking has left me still without a computer (or, more specifically, without a desk on which the computer might sit), and very much without the brainpower to write anything. I blame Tayyip Erdogan. Not a fan of that guy.

Hopefully back to more regular writing by midweek.

Hey, SCOTUS did something right for a change

DOMA ruled unconstitutional, naturally on a 5-4 vote, but this time Justice Anthony “I’m the swing vote, even though I almost always vote with the other 4 Republicans” Kennedy’s swing vote actually swung.

Couple this with the extraordinary work done yesterday by Texas State Senator Wendy Davis, with assists from the rest of the TX Senate Dems and activists in the gallery, to block a bill that would have severely restricted reproductive rights there, and this may be kind of a nice day.

BREAKING: long-serving Middle Eastern autocrat removed from power

What? You thought I meant this guy?

"Look at all these important medals I won by bravely ordering people to give me medals!"

“Look at all these important medals I won by bravely ordering people to give me medals!”

No, sorry; it’s this guy:

"This thing on my lip threatens all mankind. I have to step aside to give scientists time to find a way to control it."

“This thing on my lip threatens all mankind. I have to step aside to give scientists time to find a way to control it.”

By the way, the circled bit is Qatar, shown here in regional context.

By the way, the circled bit is Qatar, shown here in regional context.

That second guy is the former Emir of Qatar, Shaykh Hamad b. Khalifah Al Thani, and his removal from power was entirely voluntary, with a peaceful transfer of power to his son and Heir Apparent, Shaykh Tamim b. Hamad Al Thani. This move has been rumored for a few weeks now and will likely also involve the resignation of Qatar’s Prime Minister (who also serves as the country’s foreign minister), Shaykh Hamad b. Jassim Al Thani. If you’re getting the sense that authority in Qatar is all tied up in the House of Thani, you’d be right about that; they’ve ruled Qatar since leading the fight for its independence from Bahrain in the 1820s, for a time as clients of the Ottomans, then of the British, then as independent emirs from 1971 on. Qatar is an absolute monarchy; an assembly exists but can be overruled by the emir, and despite a constitution that provides for direct election of 2/3 of that assembly, elections strangely keep getting scheduled and then postponed.

Qatar is an interesting case of modernization and conservative Islam trying to co-exist. The Thanis are ultra-conservative Wahhabis, just like the Saudi ruling house across the border, but it’s also a country that wants to be open for business with anyone and everyone. Alcohol is available though confined to hotels and a single, state-run liquor store for expatriates (half of whose patrons are, at any given time, in there buying booze for their Qatari friends and hosts). Other religions are openly tolerated, English is widely spoken, and commerce is the name of the game, but the image of an austere, conservative Islamic society is maintained as much as possible. When a country develops overnight from a poverty-stricken Arabian backwater whose economy barely subsisted on fishing and pearl-diving to a country whose fossil fuel reserves have given it the highest per-capita GDP in the world, you may expect some internal inconsistencies to develop, but there’s also enough wealth to spread around to keep the citizenry happy no matter what societal compromises need to be made. To Shaykh Hamad’s credit, he took a long-run view of things, investing the revenues from Qatar’s oil and gas reserves into education, infrastructure, health care, and other efforts to develop Qatar into a business destination to compete with neighboring Dubai, understanding that oil only lasts so long, but business is forever.

There’s also a dark side. Qatar has a pretty lousy human rights record, with some of the abuses you’d expect from an absolutist regime (though as absolutist regimes go the Thanis are on the mild end of the scale) combined with the lousy women’s rights record you’d expect from a Wahhabi regime, and that combined with the peculiar Persian Gulf institution of forced labor imported from South Asia and elsewhere in the Arab world. One of the reasons Qatar has the highest per-capita GDP in the world is that it only has about 250,000-300,000 actual citizens. But you can’t run a wealthy, industrialized society with a quarter of a million people, so Qatar imports a lot of foreign expats and laborers, who outnumber the citizens probably 5-or-6-to-1 but who are treated according to how much the Qataris value their diplomatic or cultural ties to the foreigners’ homes; so, westerners are treated very well, other rich Gulf types also quite well, but Egyptians and Palestinians pretty badly, and Pakistanis, Indians, and Nepalese like indentured servants. The Qataris recruit workers in the latter nations with promises of paychecks fattened with enough Gulf money that they can support their families back home, then once they get to Qatar their passports are taken away and they’re told they owe the government for the cost of their airfare and room and board, so that windfall they were expecting to make is more like “just enough to keep you from starving if you pool your money with a whole bunch of other poor marks we conned over here along with you.”

For a long time Qatar’s most famous institution was the beloved and/or reviled TV news network al-Jazeera, whose Arabic- and English-language stations have been staples in the Middle East and, well, lots of other places that aren’t America, where we’re forbidden from being exposed to news that hasn’t originated in some domestic clown-shop operation like CNN. In recent years, however, al-Jazeera and the Qataris have come under fire for what seems to be an ongoing erosion of the Arabic station’s once-famous editorial independence; it now seems to be pushing an official Qatari point of view, and people are even starting to question the editorial slant of the English-language service. This apparent change at al-Jazeera has coincided with Qatar’s increasing global prominence; it played a significant role in the “Arab Spring” movement and the subsequent civil wars in Libya and Syria, both via al-Jazeera’s reporting and with direct aid to protesters and rebels (and now to the post-revolutionary Egyptian government). Their pattern seems to be aiding militant Sunni extremists against technocratic/secular or Shi’a governments; certainly they are contributing to the wider Sunni-Shi’i conflict that Syria either is or threatens to become.

So that’s Qatar, more or less. What happens under the new emir is anybody’s guess because as far as I can tell nobody seems to know much about him. I was in Qatar when Shaykh Tamim was named as Heir Apparent, replacing his brother Shaykh Jasim b. Hamad Al Thani, and nobody knew what to make of him, or his sudden appointment over his brother, back then either. There are some thoughts that Shaykh Tamim will be more conservative than his father, by which I mean less bold in his foreign affairs, not “more conservative” in a religious sense, but that seems like pure speculation at this point. As to why Shaykh Hamad stepped down, who knows? There have been rumors about his health for a while now; he’s never been a trim guy, so maybe it’s as simple as his declining health. Maybe there were rumblings of discontent about Qatar’s recent international prominence and Hamad elected to step aside before anything escalated, though I tend to doubt this. On the other hand, maybe he just got tired of the demands of power. Michael Collins Dunn at the MidEast Institute blog noted that this puts Qatar in the unique position of having two living ex-rulers; Shaykh Hamad’s predecessor, Shaykh Khalifah b. Hamad Al Thani, who was overthrown in a bloodless coup by Shaykh Hamad in 1995, is still alive, and living in Qatar again after finally being allowed to return in 2004.

Anyway, this was all an excuse for me to link to an old post I wrote when Pope Benedict stepped down, about the abdication of the Ottoman Sultan Murat II in favor of his son, the future Mehmet the Conqueror. It’s a great story about another voluntary abdication, although that one actually didn’t stick, so just go read it already, OK?

Loose lips sink ships, even in 2013

Last week, McClatchy published a pretty frightening report into the Obama Administration’s program to eliminate whistle-blowers and leaks, creatively and not-at-all-chillingly named the Insider Threat Program:

President Barack Obama’s unprecedented initiative, known as the Insider Threat Program, is sweeping in its reach. It has received scant public attention even though it extends beyond the U.S. national security bureaucracies to most federal departments and agencies nationwide, including the Peace Corps, the Social Security Administration and the Education and Agriculture departments. It emphasizes leaks of classified material, but catchall definitions of “insider threat” give agencies latitude to pursue and penalize a range of other conduct.

Government documents reviewed by McClatchy illustrate how some agencies are using that latitude to pursue unauthorized disclosures of any information, not just classified material. They also show how millions of federal employees and contractors must watch for “high-risk persons or behaviors” among co-workers and could face penalties, including criminal charges, for failing to report them. Leaks to the media are equated with espionage.

“Hammer this fact home . . . leaking is tantamount to aiding the enemies of the United States,” says a June 1, 2012, Defense Department strategy for the program that was obtained by McClatchy.

I had a similar reaction as Charles Pierce did, and he describes it better than I can:

You want “Nixonian”? This, right here, this is Nixonian, if Nixon had grown up in East Germany. You’ve got the entire federal bureaucracy looking for signs of “high-risk persons or behaviors” the way Nixon sent Fred Malek out to count the Jews. You’ve got created within the entire federal bureaucracy a culture of spies and informers, which will inevitably breed fear and deceit and countless acts of interoffice treachery. (Don’t like your boss at the Bureau Of Land Management? Hmm, he looks like a high-risk person. Tell someone.)

and again:

I don’t want to hear about “safeguards” because I don’t believe in them any more. I don’t want to hear about “transparency” any more because the president lost his privileges on that word when he cited the secret rubber-stamp FISA court as the vehicle for transparency last week. I don’t want to hear about “oversight” because, really, stop kidding us all. And I especially don’t want to hear about how all the administration’s really done is “formalize” programs that were already in place, as though giving the creation of a culture of informers the imprimatur of the presidency makes it better.

This report came right just as we were finding out that the administration has decided to charge NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden with espionage, and I’m sorry, but there’s no amount of linguistic contortion that (warning: linking to Greenwald here) can make “whistle-blowing” into “espionage,” even if you think the whistle-blowing in question is misguided or downright harmful. This administration’s efforts to classify “leaking to the press” as “spying” are chilling to say the least, not to mention absurd (unless the press is now also Our Enemy).

It’s hard for me to reconcile things like this with the America I thought I was living in. But then I remembered these:
loose-lips-sink-ships-2 Someone_Blabbed

or this:

JapaneseRelocationNewspapers1942 Posted_Japanese_American_Exclusion_Order

or Lincoln’s suspension of Habeas Corpus during the Civil War, or the Alien and Sedition Acts, or the Sedition Act of 1918, or any of countless other examples of America’s Constitutional principles being undermined in wartime. We survived all of those assaults on basic liberties pretty well in my opinion, but what they all had in common was that they were all instituted in response to specific events (World Wars I and II, the Civil War, the Quasi-War with France) that had foreseeable end points. What concerns me about the abuses we’re seeing in the War on Terror is that the end point is actually unforeseeable.

I am no 9/11 conspiracy theorist. I don’t believe the Bush Administration knew (anything at all! BOOM! thank you! tip your waitstaff!) that the attack was coming and deliberately did nothing to stop it, let alone that they actually masterminded or aided the plot. But I do worry that in our panicked response to 9/11, we’ve turned the keys to the kingdom over to the military-industrial complex that Eisenhower warned us about, although these days maybe it’s better described as a military-intelligence-industrial complex, and the folks to whom we entrusted the keys have crafted the perfect set of circumstances for themselves. A state of war allows governments to do all sorts of things that they might not otherwise get away with, but an indefinite war can make those things a permanent part of society. A society at war, or under threat of war, has the incentive to spend a significant chunk of its resources on the things it requires to wage that war, and to shower money on the companies that provide those things, but a society that is indefinitely at war can simply make massive defense and intelligence spending a routine part of the budget, and huge payments to a sprawling universe of defense and intelligence contractors just an everyday fact of life in Fortress America. It’s the indefinite part that really ought to worry us.

We’re in a war that has no end apart from an arbitrary one that we might someday declare. There’s no foreign capital that can fall, no leader who can declare unconditional surrender to American military might in a way that will definitively announce the cessation of hostilities. There will always be terrorists in the world, and as long as America is one of the preeminent powers in that world some of those terrorists will always want a piece of us. The only way this war ends is for us to decide we’ve had enough, but the people who make those decisions are not only well-compensated by private contractors who make more money if we don’t end this war, they’re also terrified of being accused of “letting our guard down” when the next attack comes, as it inevitably will. The abuses of our freedom in the name of defending us against terrorism can go on indefinitely, until we’ve raised an entire generation of Americans who’ve known nothing but the post-9/11 status quo, where the government asserts the right to collect (but they won’t look at it, they promise! unless they want to!) communications data on American citizens, where a massive and growing private security apparatus eats bigger and bigger portions of our federal budget and devours more and more of our freedoms in order to justify its cost, and where government employees (and maybe regular citizens, eventually?) are encouraged to spy on each other and report any suspicious behavior they think they see. You know, America.

Once all the folks who remember what life was like before 9/11 are gone, what chance is there that the pendulum will ever swing back in the other direction?

Taking an oath

Between trying to complete a move halfway across the country and trying to shake an apparently unshakeable virus, posting around here has been light and will continue to be light for a few days to come. To the extent that this impacts anybody’s well-being other than mine, I apologize. I managed to at least get this written, so that’s nice.

There’s a quote attributed to the Athenian statesman Solon (d. 558 BCE) that goes, “Put more trust in nobility of character than in an oath.” This seems like good advice, but we still seem to place a lot of trust in oaths, don’t we? We make government officials, both elected and appointed, take them. Juries and witnesses in court have to take them. Anybody who enlists to serve in the military has to take one, and if they are later commissioned as an officer we make them take a second, slightly different, oath. It reads:

I, [name], do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.

I watched General Keith Alexander, Director of the NSA, on This Week with Gorbulas Brandybuck George Stephanopoulos this morning, and one bit in particular stuck out at me. Stephanopoulos led off asking the general why the system didn’t catch Snowden before he fled to Hong Kong, but Gen. Alexander went right in to defending the NSA’s activities with this:

And when you think about what our mission is, I want to jump into that, because I think it reflect on the question you’re asking.

You know, my first responsibility to the American people is to defend this nation. And when you think about it, defending the nation, let’s look back at 9/11 and what happened.

As it so happens, unless he took a different oath when he became NSA director, General Alexander’s first responsibility is to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States.” It’s not to “defend the United States” or to “defend the nation.” His first responsibility is to the Constitution. Now you could easily think these are one and the same, and General Alexander probably thinks that himself, but even if you think the current surveillance system is constitutional, you could probably easily imagine a surveillance system so invasive as to unquestionably violate the constitution, right? Such a system would probably make the country “safer,” in the sense that it would increase the likelihood of nabbing would-be terrorists before they could carry out their plans. I wonder, if such a system were proposed, whether General Alexander would act to uphold his oath, or if he’d act to uphold this new “first responsibility” he’s invented for himself. I worry about how much “protect[ing] the nation” has replaced “support[ing] and defend[ing] the Constitution” as the “first responsibility” in the minds of our elected and appointed leaders since 9/11.

We ought to expect our leaders to uphold their oaths, and to understand what those oaths mean.

LONGISH DIGRESSION: I go back and forth on this NSA/Snowden story. It seems to me that the bias in a free and open society has to be for transparency at the risk of insecurity; obviously a balance needs to be struck between the two, and every government has to keep secrets, but if we aren’t vigilant about minimizing government secrecy then it becomes very easy to lose transparency altogether. When members of Congress or officials in the administration complain that these leaks are going to make it harder to provide security for the public, my reaction is “too bad.” It should be hard to provide security to the public in a free society; to the extent that “providing security” means “we’re going to monitor everybody’s movements and communications just in case some of you constitute threats,” it should be very hard to provide security in a free society. If that’s a bummer for our elected officials and their appointees, well, nobody forced them to take jobs governing a modern democratic nation.

I think the information that Snowden has leaked in terms of the extent to which our government and its vast array of private contractors monitors (or is able to monitor, if they want) our “private” communications is important. People ought to know when their government is spying on them, or has developed the potential to easily spy on them, even if knowing might somehow increase the potential for harm to come to them. That said, this particular case keeps getting mired in back-and-forth arguments about what exactly is being collected and what the government’s technical capabilities are, and, hey, I barely passed an introductory programming course in college. What doesn’t help Snowden is when he decides to “reveal” that we’re spying on China, because a) of course we are, and 2) good. What doesn’t help Snowden’s critics is their incessant and silly obsession with making this story all about Snowden himself (“he should have stayed and faced prosecution!” as though that changes the substance of the leaks), or about Glenn Greenwald (“he’s arrogant!” which, come on), instead of about what the government is doing in the name of “protecting us.” I agree with this post by DarkSyde over at DailyKos:

It seems a bit over the top. Snowden and Greenwald appear subject to a standard of accuracy and at times vitriol quite different than the one facing high ranking NSA and contractor personnel. There is reason to be skeptical of spies in general, but why the high ranking spooks who have been caught splitting semantic hairs, evading, and glossing over key details are not much part of the story, while every last thing Snowden says is scrutinized for the slightest inconsistency, is puzzling. Perhaps what we’re seeing is a secret version of something many reading this would identify with: the difference in the treatment, perception and motive for corporate bigwigs vs the observations of rank and file worker.

When an NSA honcho says government or private spooks are not trolling through the private conversations of U.S. citizens at will, assuming they’re being truthful, they’re talking about policy. When Snowden says someone in his position could review emails or phone records of any conversation of any U.S. citizen, he’s talking about technology. Honchos are thinking about what they have decreed as permissible, Snowden is talking about what is actually possible.

To sum it up, corporate honchos enjoy the benefit of the doubt from the fellow media honchos, worker bees do not. For profit private NSA contractor honchos like Mike McConnell, people who presumably earn seven figures a year, are deeply motivated to perceive and portray their employer and their industry in the best light possible, worker bees are not. Not to mention that up to now, this has all been so secret, even members of the Intelligence Committees in the House and Senate may not always get the full story or hear about problems and abuses. Especially as long as their only source of info is honcho approved and delivered.

It’s really important that we know about what’s possible, because what’s permissible is determined by our intelligence community working in complete secrecy; when people like Keith Alexander talk about what they are and aren’t allowed to do, they’re talking about arbitrary decisions that have been made, and can be changed, at the drop of a hat without anyone knowing about it. We ought to know the potential for abuse even if that potential isn’t being exercised just now.

Also, too, on a Sunday when George Stephanopoulos accepts, without challenge, the NSA Director’s framing of this story as a betrayal of confidence by Snowden against his employer, nothing said about the potential betrayal of confidence by our government against the rights of its citizens, while David Gregory demands that Glenn Greenwald explain why he (Greenwald) should not be carted off in irons for doing journalism (no, Fluffy, we don’t arrest people for being reporters in this country), it’s hard not to see the corporate media double-standard at work in this story.

This week in oppressive government violence: june 23, 2013

Lebanon: So far the violence here has been against the government, not by the government, but that’s probably about to change so it’s worth being aware of the story. Sunni extremists inside Lebanon have made it clear that they plan to target leaders of the Shi’a Hizbullah militia/terrorist network in reprisal attacks for Hizbullah’s ongoing role saving the Assad regime in the Syrian Civil War. Now supporters of one cleric, Shaykh Ahmad al-Assir, have killed at least 6 Lebanese military personnel after some of their compatriots were detained by those personnel, the Lebanese government understandably interested in avoiding yet another sectarian war within its borders. Some action by the Lebanese government against Sunni extremists is inevitable, and will be justifiable to a point, but these kinds of things move past “justifiable” and into “oppressive” territory in fairly short order, so keep a close eye on this.

Syria: The Sunni extremists in Lebanon are acting in support of their fellow Sunni extremists in Syria, the ones we’re now arming because that won’t help exacerbate a regional sectarian war or funnel arms to terrorists or anything like that. Meanwhile, new clashes erupted in Damascus and Aleppo as the “Friends of (some of the people who live in) Syria” promised new aid to the rebels. French President Francois Hollande helpfully suggested that the moderate rebels, and don’t forget they’re there, drive extremists out of the rebel-held areas that they control, so the “Friends of (a portion of the population of) Syria” don’t get all squicky-feeling about sending weapons to al-Qaeda and stuff. I’m sure those moderate rebels will get right on that, just as soon as the extremists stop violently liquidating all the moderate militias, who are apparently mostly hated by the civilian populations because they loot and steal while the extremists behave themselves.

Hm, not much government violence here either, aside from the ongoing fighting. Consider the rebel-on-rebel fighting a sort of government-in-training violence, I guess.

Turkey: Another week, more of the same in the freest, most democratic, stablest country in the whole world. After a mostly calm week, government forces used water cannons to disperse crowds of protesters in Istanbul’s Taksim Square, like you see in all free and democratic societies. No word on whether the police are still adding Liberty Pepper Spray to their Freedom Cannons or not. Turkish PM Erdoğan held a rally for his supporters in the town of Samsun, where he accused the protesters of insulting Islam by inventing a bunch of demands they’ve never made:

“Let them go into mosques in their shoes, let them drink alcohol in our mosques, let them raise their hand to our headscarved girls,” he said.

Erdoğan then accused the protesters of aiding Turkey’s “enemies” in the international “interest-rate lobby,” which sounds like he’s blaming international bankers, and we all know the next station for that crazy train. These are all typical things for a stable, democratically-elected leader to say about peaceful protesters in his own country, and in no way sound like the mad ravings of a theocratic despot hurriedly shredding the last few vestiges of his rational mind.

By the way, The American Prospect has a great first-person account of the protests in Istanbul from Matthew Duss, here.

Brazil: The collective madness of the Brazilian people, who have taken to the streets in protest merely because their government is a semi-kleptocratic nightmare of inefficiency and corruption that has chosen to spend billions of dollars on a soccer tournament instead of, I don’t know, providing decent public services to its citizens. Over a million people are estimated to have protested around the country on Thursday, and around 250,000 yesterday, and a poll conducted by a respected Brazilian firm found that something like three quarters of the Brazilian population supports the protesters. President Dilma Rousseff affirmed the Brazilian people’s right to peaceful protest while police in several cities and towns used two of the the three traditional favorites in the “you DO have a right to protest, BUT…” toolbox, in this case tear gas and rubber bullets (the other being water cannons), to attack protesters who weren’t upholding proper protest decorum, possibly because they were blinded/suffocating and/or had been shot by a rubber bullet.