Tuesday, February 28, 2006

They are watching you [pdf]

/ orwell / meets / kafka /
The International Campaign Against Mass Surveillance, has a report out that should send shivers down the backs of anyone still clinging to the fantasy of western liberal democracy. It exposes in quite horrific detail the road we are all travelling towards becoming a surveillance society of the sort one associates usually with dystopic Sci-Fi. This is all done of course with our own good primarily in mind and - lest we forget - the terrorists are out to get us all, so cut it out and speak louder. The article is a good 70 pages, of which I excerpt these ten signposts (as the report calls them) on our road to a permenent state of siege:

• The first signpost was the effort of the United States to ethnically profile Muslim, or potentially Muslim, immigrants and visitors, and to register and/or detain them under immigration laws and programs called NSEERS and US-VISIT.
• The second signpost was the move on the part of the U.S. and its allies to do through international channels what most of them could not do through their own democratic systems – to expand registration to their own populations and create what is, in effect, a global identification system. This was accomplished by requesting the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) to introduce a “biometric” passport that would be imposed universally.
• The third signpost was the creation, by similar means, of a global infrastructure for the surveillance of movement – using the biometric passport and airlines’ passenger name records. Under this system, information about where individuals fly, and how often, will be tracked, stored, and shared between countries, and used to control the movement of people across borders.
• The fourth signpost was the creation of an infrastructure for the global surveillance of electronic communications and financial transactions. Through this infrastructure, state agents from our own and other countries will have cost-free, direct access to individuals’ emails, phone calls, and website browsing, and financial institutions will monitor transactions and report on them to state authorities.
• The fifth signpost is a development that feeds into all of the others – the radical convergence of government and private-sector databases, nationally and internationally. This is taking place under new laws, but businesses are also voluntarily surrendering databases to government agencies, and the U.S. government is purchasing databases, domestically and abroad. The result is the creation of a global web of databases that will be used by the U.S. and other countries (in conjunction with the infrastructures for the global surveillance of movement and of electronic and financial transactions) to generate detailed information dossiers on everyone.
• The sixth signpost is the growing number of mistakes and abuses that demonstrate the dangerous flaws inherent in the “risk assessment” paradigm that is driving the collection, storage and linkage of so much information.
• The seventh signpost is the deep integration of countries’ police, security intelligence and military operations with American operations that governments around the world are acquiescing to, and their concomitant abandonment of national sovereignty and control.
• The eighth signpost is the huge profits being made by corporations in the new global mass registration and surveillance order, and the emergence of a new “corporate security complex”.
• The ninth signpost is what is happening to democratic societies – in terms of the erosion of democratic processes , centuries-old protections in criminal law, freedom of speech and association, and the rule of law itself as governments pursue the agenda for global, mass registration and surveillance.
• The tenth signpost, and perhaps the most ominous of all, is the collective loss of moral compass societies are exhibiting as they begin to accept inhumane and extraordinary practices of social control. Countries that hold themselves out as defenders of human rights are engaging directly in extra-legal rendition, torture and extra-judicial killing – as well as contracting out these services to brutal regimes which are being rewarded for their contributions.

Friday, February 24, 2006

AlterNet: The CIA's Pain Project

/ R&D / torture /
Alfred McCoy exposes how the Bush administration gave the CIA an opportunity to perfect its research on psychological torture. Excerpts:
"From 1950 to 1962, the C.I.A. ran a massive research project, a veritable Manhattan Project of the mind, spending over $1 billion a year to crack the code of human consciousness, from both mass persuasion and the use of coercion in individual interrogation. They tried LSD, mescaline, all kinds of drugs. They tried electroshock, truth serum, sodium pentathol. None of it worked. What worked was very simple behavioral findings, outsourced to our leading universities -- Harvard, Princeton, Yale and McGill -- and the first breakthrough came at McGill...
...Dr. Donald O. Hebb of McGill University, a brilliant psychologist, had a contract from the Canadian Defense Research Board, which was a partner with the C.I.A. in this research, and he found that he could induce a state of psychosis in an individual within 48 hours. It didn't take electroshock, truth serum, beating or pain. He had student volunteers sit in a cubicle with goggles, gloves and headphones, earmuffs, so that they were cut off from their senses, denied sensory stimulation. Within 48 hours, they would suffer, first hallucinations, then ultimately breakdown. And if you look at many of those photographs, they show people with bags over their head.The photographs of the Guantanamo detainees look exactly like those student volunteers in Dr. Hebb's original cubicle.

The second major breakthrough that the C.I.A. had came here in New York City at Cornell University Medical Center, where two eminent neurologists under contract from the C.I.A. studied Soviet K.G.B. torture techniques. They found that the most effective K.G.B. technique was self-inflicted pain. You simply make somebody stand for a day or two. And as they stand, you tell them, 'You're doing this to yourself. Cooperate with us, and you can sit down.' As they stand, the fluids flow down to the legs, the legs swell, lesions form, they erupt, they suppurate, hallucinations start, the kidneys shut down.

Several of those photos you just showed, one of them with a man with a bag on his arm, his arms are straight in front of him, people are standing with their arms extended, that's self-inflicted pain. And the combination of those two techniques -- sensory disorientation and self-inflicted pain -- is the basis of the C.I.A.'s technique."

As far as CIA torture is concerned however you should just read the manuals...

Francis Fukuyama's Dead End of History

/ neocons / departing /
In this past Sunday's New York Times, Francis Fukuyama, of End of History fame, announces his departure from the neocon camp, attacking the policies that the neoconservatives have implemented these past years:

"The End of History," in other words, presented a kind of Marxist argument for the existence of a long-term process of social evolution, but one that terminates in liberal democracy rather than communism. In the formulation of the scholar Ken Jowitt, the neoconservative position articulated by people like Kristol and Kagan was, by contrast, Leninist; they believed that history can be pushed along with the right application of power and will. Leninism was a tragedy in its Bolshevik version, and it has returned as farce when practiced by the United States. Neoconservatism, as both a political symbol and a body of thought, has evolved into something I can no longer support.

Fukuyama's article is interesting - but the alternative he proposes, although certainly not as catastrophic as the position he criticizes - seems nearly as removed from the "on the ground" political reality, as well as from some aspects of the history of American foreign policy - or how these look from outside the viewpoints of a narrow circle of elite powerbrokers in the US.

Tom Paine's Patrick Doherty notes:

...In detaching himself from the messy parameters (parameters that both anger our friends and limit America's options) and focusing only on a lofty theory of power and interests, Fukuyama is failing to examine whether the challenges facing our country go beyond a question of how we pursue our national interests and therefore to ask whether those challenges are instead rooted in the very composition of those national interests . In other words, can we even talk about promoting democracy in the Middle East if the U.S. refuses to lead the world away from petroleum dependence? Can we even talk about ending poverty in Africa when our own economy is dependent upon unsustainably consuming African resources? Can we talk about free trade when we face such enormous differences in standards of living, notably between the U.S. and China?...

But I would also note, on a more philosophical level, that there is no recognition that what Fukuyama calls his "Marxist" view of history (which is in reality pre-Marxian, from a common source: Hegel) is plagued by the same sin of naive Marxism (certainly of early Marx) but in the other direction: History not as a prelude to the new world that will arrive, but a prelude to the most perfect order which now exists. An apologetics of the established order of things, which is presented as the apex of social development. A Right-Hegelianism with the USA as the new, improved, Prussia. This idea of course traces its ideological roots in Christianity and tries to find support in some sort of Darwinian evolutionary rationale.

Although this thesis is in principle unprovable (but its variants are shot-down with each social order that fails to close history), what we do know of historical processes (natural and social) does not suggest that any such end, any final state exists, or will exist at some point (although very long periods of societal "stasis" are quite probable). Yet this teleology becomes not just unfounded but comical, exactly as the elites of each successive variants of social organization use it as justification of their privileges. Apparently, Dr. Pangloss lives on.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Cartoon riots - the next step

/ godly / blasphemy /
I'm fed up with the daily insults and misrepresentations that a certain religious cartoonist spins about science and rationality, promoting a most vile sort of fundamentalism. This makes me want to riot. This makes me want to violently demonstrate outside a church (I'd add "burning crosses" but that has acquired rather different connotations) clutching a copy of Darwin's "On the Origin of Species". Thankfully I'm not alone: Scientists around the world are rioting in protest of a cartoon religious pamphlet!...

The riots are brought to you via one of the world's funniest cartoonists, a favourite of mine, Tim Kreider, whose site "The Pain" I just discovered via Aetiology, a superb weblog I have recently ran across and which, among other things, has a very informative discussion about the H5N1 bird flu virus with related links to other blogs, proving conclusively that you can learn more from science blogs about science issues than from most of the non-scientific press. Aetiology is one of the Science Blogs, a compendium which includes a huge variety of really informative science weblogs. This was in turn brought to my attention via the indispensable Open Science weblog.

Check them out... In the meantime I prepare to join the rioting scientists by burning an effigy of some religious icon or another and carrying a sign about the churches' bloody anti-science crusade in centuries past.

[About the current riots in muslim countries, perhaps later.]

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

More snaps from Abu Ghraib

/ photos / liberating /
"Some of the 60 previously unpublished photographs that the US Government has been fighting to keep secret in a court case with the American Civil Liberties Union."
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, which notes:
Mr Carey [a Dateline producer] said he could not explain why the photographs had not yet been published, as he thought it was likely that some journalists had them.

"It think it's strange, maybe they think its more of the same."

Enron, rubber barrels and the dream of unlimited power

/ corruption / celebrations /
... in which Matt Taibbi uses the Enron trials as a metaphor for the past few years of all-around unabashed controlfreakery:

...When Daniel Petrocelli, Skilling's grating and pompous solicitor, made his "my client is just a simple caveman" pitch to the jury, he argued with a straight face that rich people are more perfect and less prone to temptation than the rest of us.

"In 1999, [Skilling] had more money than he ever dreamed of having," he said. Indeed, Skilling and Lay walked away with $150 million and $220 million, respectively. "So why would he do it? What is Jeff Skilling's motive?"

There was silence for a moment, and I kept waiting for some enraged citizen to leap out of the jury box, tackle Petrocelli, start pulling ligature out of his neck. The obscenity of the lawyer's argument defied description, but it also expressed the mind-set that led to Enron. In Skilling's world, being poor was the only real crime; at any rate, being poor made you more suspect than someone with $150 million.

The Enron scandal, from the very beginning, was always about men not being satisfied with mere riches. The Lay and Skilling story is the story of a company with a simple, comprehensible and highly successful pipeline business that was hijacked by economic revolutionaries desperate to break free of the old reins of traditional business. Their innovation was a gibberish algorithm that allowed them to will themselves to vast riches simply by saying they had them. The idea that there should be any limits offended these people; they wanted to be gods, with limitless wealth, and not subject to the rules of the market but actually being the market themselves...

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Greek wiretaps

/ scandals / spy /
I originally posted a diary over at Eurotrib on the story of the Greek wiretapping scandal, where I described the events as they were presented by the Greek government along with some related info and a list of unanswered questions. I have been waiting for some solid developments to occur before I posted a story in Histologion, but the whole affair is, if anything, even more labyrinthine after ten days of announcements, news stories and counter-news stories, so I'm posting here an edited comment I made in a related diary today, as a follow-up/discussion of the matter beyond the original facts mentioned in the European Tribune:

... The list of people bugged is so extensive and varied that the only party who could conceivably have such broad surveillance "interests" seems to be the US. The fact that the cell phone of one US embassy employee (whose ID has not been disclosed), is allegedly among those wiretapped, does not preclude CIA involvement at all. A good part of the list of people tapped are either anarchists, members of leftist groups, anti-authoritarian human rights and anti-war activists or "Arab businessmen" about whom we still haven't learned much, as well as an Al Jazeera correspondent in Athens. This part of the list would be of no interest for any other perpetrator.

Note that among those listed are military officers involved in procurements. Now Greece has traditionally been a very interesting market for weapons manufacturers. It is spending now ~3,5 billion dollars per year on defense (and that's without the "clandestine" budget re-purposed for military needs). This translates into one of the highest defense spending percentages of GDP in Europe. Add to that the extravagant amounts paid for Olympic security, and there are lots of people that would be interested in finding out about procurement plans over the past few years - not least of which is the government of our main suppliers. Bear in mind that over the past years, military officials have often leaked their "surprise" at how quickly and, one could say, clairvoyantly, US defense companies reacted to their private discussions among themselves.

Note also that one of the people tapped was Greek businessman Vassilis Katsikeas, with business interests in Bulgaria. Now it turns out that Katsikeas, immediately after the list was announced, reported that he was illegally abducted in Bulgaria last year and questioned by self-described CIA agents regarding, among other things, the leftist terrorist organization November 17 (why the CIA might think he was connected with that group is a sad story having to do with how the CIA has misunderstood what the leftist terrorist groups in Greece were about).

Anyway, the only alternative to the US agency scenario is that the published list was in fact two lists: one list of "quasi-legal" surveillance on "suspicious" individuals, installed with Vodafone's cooperation by the Greek Secret Service before the Olympics, and another list, "added" afterwards to the first covertly, by unknown perpetrators. That list included government and military officials. This scenario does not necessarily require US involvement.

It seems likely also, that the wiretaps were put in place with "inside" help, which means that either Vodafone, or Ericsson employees (Vodafone used Ericsson hardware) are quite likely implicated as well.

Today the only new element that is certainly connected with the story is that the "suicide" of a high ranking Vodafone Technical Officer (whose expertise would have certainly involved him in the phone tapping detection and investigation) one day after Vodafone officially acknowledged that they had detected the wiretaps, looks more suspicious with each passing day and each journalist's investigation.

It now seems evident however, that Public Order Minister (re-assigned today as Culture Minister, I might add) Voulgarakis left quite a bit of information out of his official statement. It is also likely that the only reason that the Greek government went public with the incident was that certain newspapers had picked up the issue and were calling officials and asking "curious" questions.

Anyway, the ten questions I listed in the European Tribune diary remain unanswered. And this spy scandal (as it is referred to in the Greek Press) has severely shaken the conservative government, which stands accused of mismanaging the whole affair. We're hoping here in Greece that either the investigation of the suicide or the official judicial inquiry might shed some light on this shocking affair, though I wouldn't bet on it.

Tuesday, February 7, 2006

Translating "Desaparecido" into Arabic

/ vassals / collaborating /
From the always interesting, Greekworks, a poignant look at Europe's collaborationist regimes and the betrayal of "western values" - might I add much more significantly, though much less spectacularly than in the current bruhaha over "free speech". Excerpts:

"Last week, the Swiss senator Dick Marty, chairman of the Council of Europe'’s committee on legal affairs and human rights, issued his interim report on the allegations that the CIA had operated secret prisons in Europe into which it deposited human beings detained through the now-notorious US policy of "extraordinary rendition," the Orwellian term for what is, very simply stated, state-sponsored kidnapping. The Council has appointed Mr. Marty to investigate the unusually credible reports that European countries have implicitly -—and, more often than not, explicitly- collaborated with the US in this systematic and gross violation of the most elemental rule of law. All "suspects" who are "“extraordinarily rendered" are, in every sense of Anglo-American law, and the entire history and precedential weight of Anglo-Saxon jurisprudence, completely innocent, as their "crimes" have neither been publicly (let alone legally) catalogued by any prosecutorial organ or proven by any judicial procedure - —which, of course, is what makes this grotesque "rendition" of justice so "extraordinary"...
"...Europe today stands at a crossroads. While it claims to represent another way forward for the West, distinct from that of the last remaining hyperpower, the world has a right to its increasing skepticism. In the last few years, Europe seems to have become an effete, almost apologetic, minion of the presumptive hegemon. It is distressing, to say the least, particularly because it is so reminiscent of Europe'’s own recent past. Quisling, of course, was a European, and it was in the last global slaughter that the word "collaborator" ceased denoting innocent association and came to mean nothing less than complicity in the most monstrous guilt."