NSA Spying on America’s Allies Is Business As Usual
Unsurprisingly, the news that the NSA has been monitoring the calls of dozens of world leaders hasn’t gone down particularly well with any of those world leaders. In fact, after suspecting that the US might have been snooping on her communications, last week German Chancellor Angela Merkel rang up Obama herself to demand some answers. A couple of days later, it emerged that her phone has potentially been monitored for more than a decade by the supposedly friendly American government.
In response to the latest revelations to be brought to light by Edward Snowden’s leaks, Germany and Brazil last week proposed that a UN resolution be drawn up to put a cap on America’s “indiscriminate” and “extra-territorial” surveillance. Twenty-one countries—including US allies Mexico and France—are now discussing such a resoluatoin. Ironically, there’s every chance that these talks about the issue will find their way into an NSA analyst’s earpiece at some point, since an earlier Snowden leak alleged that the US has bugged the UN headquarters in the past.
This type of surveillance isn’t exactly a new phenomenon, according to Carl Meacham of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Countries all over the world do surveillance of their friends and enemies,” he told me. “That’s been happening for years.” However, he did stress that “the scope and magnitude of these [spying] initiatives is shocking to some folks… On the one hand you have the Obama administration sending a clear sign of its willingness to partner with Latin America, to break with the past and regard these countries as equals. But on the other: ‘We’re also watching you.’”
The Hidden Victims of the Government Shutdown
It’s been two whole days since the US federal government closed down all “nonessential” functions thanks to an extraordinarily stupid intra-Republican fight over defunding Obamacare. Currently, Speaker of the House John Boehner is trying to negotiate not just an end to the shutdown and the raising of the debt ceiling, but also a “grand bargain,” the long-sought-after, practically mythical deal in which Democrats agree to spending cuts in exchange for the GOP agreeing to increased revenue (a.k.a. tax increases). Some House Republicans now just want to get the government running again, and would presumably be willing to get together with their Democratic colleagues to get that done, but Boehner won’t allow that for fear of his party’s ultraconservative Tea Party wing.
Meanwhile, the government is supposedly closed, though if you’re not among the 800,000furloughed federal workers you might not even have noticed. National Parks across the country have closed, NASA has shut down operations, and a bunch of government websites went dark—but mail is still getting delivered, the military is still getting paid, and city services in Washington, DC, which were rumored to stop during the shutdown, arehumming along (for now). Heck, the Army and Navy college football teams are playing this week. It turns out that a whole bunch of government functions are “essential.”
The shutdown of nonessential functions did hurt people, however, often in ways that aren’t readily apparent. Here are a few people and groups suffering thanks to Congressional deadlock:
Kids with Cancer
We’ll start off with the most fucked. The National Institute of Health had to furlough 75 percent of its employees as a result of the shutdown, and that means they can’t conduct new clinical trials to test new cancer treatment—which in turn means that patients, including children and even children with cancer, won’t be getting medicine that could potentially help them. “For every week that the government shutdown continues, 10 children with cancer will not be able to begin their clinical trials” is how ABC News put it. Jesus Christ.
The US Government Shut Down Because Everything Is Stupid
At midnight last night, the federal government shut down because Congress couldn’t get its shit together. Explaining that to people from other countries, or Americans who don’t pay attention to the daily grinding and wailing from Washington, DC, is very difficult—when you talk about the shutdown, it’s hard to avoid sounding like a small child trying to communicate the rules of a game that you and your friends invented as you went along.Wait, you realize as you’re launching into an explanation of Ted Cruz’s filibuster, none of this really makes sense, does it?
To recap: Republicans hate Obamacare. Some of them—the hard-right, perpetually angry Tea Party types who are mostly in the House of Representatives—hate it so much that they’re refusing to pass a routine continuing resolution (CR) to fund the federal government’s normal operations unless Obamacare isn’t funded. Since Republicans control the House (and there are enough in the defund-Obamacare caucus for their opinions to really count—we’ll get to that), they can do this if they want. Yesterday, House Republicans continued to pass bills that dismantled parts of Obamacare even though they had no chance of passing the Senate or getting signed by president Obama.
Are Chemical Weapons Actually Useful in a War?
Chemical warfare is actually pretty rare. When Syrian government forces allegedly attacked rebels in Ghouta with nerve agents last month, it was the first major recorded use of chemical warfare in a quarter of a century. The previous time was the bombing of Halabja, Iraq, by Saddam Hussein in 1988, which killed roughly 5,000 people. Before that, chemical weapons only really saw the light of day in the Iran-Iraq war, the Yemeni civil war, and both World Wars.
However, as little as they’ve been used in the grand scheme of things, their deployment in Syria wasn’t a huge surprise. The civil war-torn country is one of only seven nations in the world that still refuses to sign the Chemical Weapons Convention, which outlaws the production, stockpiling, and use of chemical weapons. And while everyone else was getting rid of their reserves, establishing their use as a “red line for the world,” Assad and his regime kept themselves busy loading up on precursor chemicals and building one of the largest chemical weapons arsenals in the world.
One of the main problems with chemical weapons is that in relative terms they’re incredibly easy to make. Mustard gas and chlorine could probably be whipped up by some of Walter White’s more attentive students, and even the ingredients for Sarin aren’t too difficult to obtain, although actually making the stuff is trickier. Pretty much any country with a laboratory and a competent chemist can get hold of all the toxic gases and nerve agents they want, though. So, considering the number of abjectly immoral, lawless, and evil people in the world, why aren’t they used more?
The answer is that, today, they’re not a particularly effective way of killing people. Chemical warfare came of age in the First World War, in many ways the ideal environment for it to thrive—soldiers back then were sitting ducks, massed together in low-lying trenches, static targets for weeks or months at a time. The technology of death was rapidly improving too; chlorine gas was quickly surpassed by phosgene and later mustard gas, each horrible in its own way. Chlorine reacted with water in the lungs to form hydrochloric acid, while mustard gas damaged membranes and inflicted terrible chemical burns across the skin. Advances in chemistry were matched by improvements in ballistics and flight, allowing chemical munitions to be accurately targeted and deployed for the first time. Chemical weapons had the potential to reshape the battlefield.
The Syrian Foreign Minister says that as of August 25, 2013, the United States has killed 2,548 people in drone attacks since 2005, based on “clear and compelling evidence.” Syria says it is considering a “limited, narrow act” in the form of a punitive military strike against the US, stating that “failure to respond would put Syrian credibility at stake.
Nope, the GOP Still Isn’t Libertarian
Above: Republican senator Ted Cruz speaking to a conference of social conservatives. When this guy is considered a leading figure in your party, you’re a long way from libertarianism. Photo via Flickr user Gage Skidmore
If you’re bored with the political news this summer—it’s not an election year and Congress is in recess after doing diddly squat for six months—you can always read about how the United States is having a “libertarian moment.” The idea is that after decades of being bandied about by eccentric middle-aged white men and collegiate stoners who made zines and unreadable websites, libertarian principles are finally entering the mainstream.
Most articles on the subject first bring up Rand Paul—son of Ron, hater of drones and the NSA, would-be friend of Silicon Valley’s money, painfully awkward ambassador of the white race, and the most prominent libertarian-ish politician in the country. They then go on to mention that Paul’s antigovernment views and relatively liberal opinions on social issues make him a model for how Republicans can attract the young voters who have largely abandoned the party. (VICE itself took this tack last year.) The “libertarian moment” discussions will also invariably feature polls that show a majority of Americans favor legalizing weed and gay marriage, both issues that libertarians have been talking about for years. (Name something, and libertarians will be in favor of legalizing it.) The final ingredient in the libertarian article recipe is the Tea Party’s influence in Congress. When the Kansas City Star wrote about this, the paper referred to senators Ted Cruz and Mike Lee and representative Tim Huelskamp (along with Paul, of course) as “libertarian Republicans” and noted their opposition to NSA wiretapping and Obamacare. If you’re keeping score at home, the equation generally works like this:
Young People Hold Antigovernment Views +
Rand Paul! +
The Tea Party’s Influence (a.k.a. Stranglehold) on Congress +
Americans Tolerating Weed and Gay People =
A Strain/Rising tide/Explosion/Pick Your Metaphor of Libertarianism in America
The thing is, I’m not sure this math holds up in the real world. To start at the bottom of the equation, it’s true that America is a far more tolerant place for gay people who want to celebrate their legal marriage by lighting up a fat blunt. But though those causes have libertarian support behind them, the pro-weed and antihomophobia movements have been fueled by liberals; it’s Democrats, not right-wingers, who have advocated for gay rights and tried to push marijuana legislation at the federal level. And many libertarians favor decriminalizing all drugs in the name of individual liberty, which is several steps further than most pot activists are willing to go.
The Government Wants the Media to Stop Covering Barrett Brown
Barrett Brown has been sitting in prison, without trial, for almost a year. In case you haven’t followed his case, the 31-year-old journalist is facing a century of prison time for sharing a link that contained—within an archive of 5 million emails—credit-card information stolen from a hack of a security company called Stratfor (Jeremy Hammond, the actual hacker, is going to prison for ten years), threatening the family of an FBI officer who raided his mother’s home, and trying to hide his laptops from the Feds.
The flood of NSA leaks from Edward Snowden has placed extra attention on Barrett, who focused on investigating a partnership that many people are incredibly uncomfortable with—the connections between private security, surveillance, intelligence firms, and the US government.
Barrett’s website, ProjectPM, used a small team of researchers to pour through leaked emails, news articles, and public corporate information to figure out what this industry does exactly, and how they serve the White House. It’s partly because of Barrett that we know about things likepersona management, a technology used by the US government and its contractors to disseminate information online using fake personas, also known as sock puppets.
He also helped the world learn about TrapWire, a surveillance program that’s built into security cameras all over the world and “more accurate than facial recognition technology.” When it was made public in the pre-Snowden era, most media outlets played it off as not being a big deal. We still don’t know exactly how powerful TrapWire is, but, because of the Strafor hack and Barrett’s research, at least we know it exists.
Now Your Emails Will Never Be Safe from the Government
This week, two encrypted email providers shut down their services, and that’s very bad news if you’d rather the government didn’t read your private communications.
The first company, Lavabit, closed after founder Ladar Levison announced that after a decade of running his secure email service (which is supposedly the one Edward Snowden used to deliver his NSA leaks to the Guardian), he was being forced to shut it down or “become complicit in crimes against the American people.”
Ladar’s official statement is vague, but you can hear him clench his teeth as he writes, “I wish that I could legally share with you the events that led to my decision. I cannot.” It certainly sounds like he was asked to hand over data or open his servers in a secret court; since he refused he had to walk away from his business. Chillingly, Ladar finished his statement with a stern warning about American-based communications services: “I would _strongly_ recommend against anyone trusting their private data to a company with physical ties to the United States.” So basically, he’s saying you’re fucked if you store confidential information on Facebook, Gmail, Skype, Twitter, or any cloud service owned by Microsoft or Apple.
It Don’t Gitmo Better than This – Molly Crabapple’s Account of Her Journey to the Dark Heart of Guantanamo Bay
A T-shirt emblazoned with the slogan IT DON’T GITMO BETTER THAN THIS is perhaps the definitive physical manifestation of globalization. Sewn in Honduras and sold by Jamaican contractors on land rented from Cuba, the shirt celebrates an American prison holding Muslims who’ve been declared enemies in the war on terror. It’s a popular item in the Gitmo gift shop (yes, Gitmo has a gift shop), displayed next to the stuffed banana rats and shot glasses engraved with GUANTÁNAMO BAY: DIVE IN.
Built in 1898, the Guantánamo Bay Naval Base looks like a US suburb. There’s a McDonald’s, a Subway, and even a Christmas parade. On Halloween, military members dressed as zombies complete a 5K run. Winners of the Mr. and Ms. Gitmo Figure and Fitness Competition arch their backs on the cover of the Wire,the base’s in-house magazine. The Team Gitmo outdoor movie theater screens all the big blockbusters (when I visited it was World War Z), and in the evenings, visitors can eat jerk chicken next to swaying banyan trees, get drunk at O’Kelly’s (“the only Irish pub on Communist soil”), or sing karaoke.
But since the Joint Task Force (JTF) arrived in 2002, Guantánamo Bay has been home to the world’s most notorious prison.
Gitmo’s prison camps were built, in principle, to hold and interrogate captives outside the reach of US law. Nearly 800 Muslim men have been imprisoned since it opened, and the vast majority of them have never been charged with any crime. Since he was inaugurated in 2008, President Obama has twice promised to close Gitmo, but 166 men still languish in indefinite detention. It is a place where information is contraband, force-feeding is considered humane care, staples are weapons, and the law is rewritten wantonly.
Nabil Hadjarab arrived at Gitmo 11 years ago, in an orange jumpsuit and a diaper, his head covered by a hood, eyes blinded by blackout goggles, mouth gagged, and with headphones blaring white noise into his ears.