All posts by Binoy Kampmark

One Rule for Me and Another for Everyone Else: The Cummings Coronavirus Factor

Leaving crises to Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s management skills will never disappoint those who favour chaos and the attractions of vague direction.  The double standard is to be preferred to the equal one.  With the United Kingdom sundered by death and the effects of COVID-19 (the PM himself having had his battle with the virus), the population was hoping for some clarity.  When, for instance, would the lockdown measures be eased?

On May 10, Johnson delivered an address from his comically staged desk which had the appearance of being trapped in the door during a bungled removal effort.  “We have been through the initial peak – but it is coming down the mountain that is often more dangerous,” he tried explaining.  “We have a route, and we have a plan, and everyone in government has the all-consuming pressure and challenge to save lives, restore livelihoods and gradually restore the freedoms that we have.”  Seeds of confusion were sowed with promise.  People would be allowed to do “unlimited amounts of outdoor exercise”, and the “Stay Home” message had changed to “stay alert, control the virus and save lives.”  The broader citizenry were puzzled.

Mixed messaging was not the only problem facing Johnson, whose preferable default during any emergency is the behaviour of the reasonable Briton, characterised by patience and common sense.  Within his own circles, abiding by the rules has been a lax affair.  His chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, has been defiant before the lockdown rulebook.

In a statement and press address, Cummings laid out his explanation for his recent bad behaviour.  The heart-tugging element was important.  So was the ignorance that he had done nothing to niggle the ethical.  Johnson had just been found out to have contracted COVID-19.  Arrangements of how to handle the emergency were discussed. Then came the urgent call from Cummings’ wife. “She’d vomited and felt like she might pass out.  And there’ll be nobody to look after our child.  None of our usual childcare options were available.”

What followed that April, with most of the UK in mandated self-isolation, was travel – some 260 miles in all – that involved leaving his London home on a trip to County Durham, accompanied by his wife and child.  The decision had been made to stay in a cottage on the farm of Cummings’ father.  It was there that Cummings fell ill, as did his son, who spent a stint in hospital.  It subsequently surfaced that Johnson’s aide had also repaired to Barnard Castle, a visit reported to Durham police by Robin Lees, a retired chemistry teacher.  That visit raised eyebrows for falling within the category of non-essential travel.

The aide’s conclusion for breaching such rules were self-exculpatory, which cannot excite any surprise from those familiar with those behind the law and policy of the state apparatus.  The higher up the food chain of power, the more likely the powerful will misbehave and change the meals.  Andre Spicer puts it in a dull though accurate manner: “a large body of research […] shows that it is people in positions of power that are most likely to take excessive risks.”  Such risks are minimised, if not ignored altogether. The one who assumes, and presumes to be in a position of power, is likely to cheat, bend and break the order.

Cummings, in his reasoning, might have done unreasonable things in the past, but thought that what had transpired over those 14 days was reasonable.  “The regulations make clear, I believe the risks to the health of small children were an exceptional situation, and I had a way of dealing with this that minimised risk to others.”

Such a statement of behavioural latitude, in times when those in the United Kingdom, for the most part, have complied with the coronavirus lockdown, looks politically indulgent.  Johnson has added to that indulgence, claiming that Cummings merely “followed the instincts of every father and every parent, and I do not mark him down for that.”  The “right kind of childcare” was not available” at that time; both Cummings and his wife “were about to be incapacitated by coronavirus”.

Staying with Cummings is courting a grand risk.  And such risks compound when they are given the Johnson touch.  Professor Stephen Reicher of the Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies (SAGE) furnishing Downing Street with advice on how the public might best respond to the lockdown measures, seethed on hearing about the prime ministerial defence. “I can say that in a few short minutes tonight, Boris Johnson had trashed all the advice we have given on how to build trust and secure adherence to the measures necessary to control Covid-19.”  Honesty had been “trashed”, as had respect for the public, equity, equal treatment, consistency and the message “we are all in this together”.

Even conservative commentary on the subject is wary of the prime minister’s loyalty to Cummings, showing that this is no ordinary row in the halls of Westminster.  Former Johnson adviser Tim Montgomerie expressed embarrassment for having “ever backed Boris Johnson for high office.”  Chair of the Northern Ireland select committee, Simon Hoare, was baffled.  “With the damage Mr Cummings is doing to the government’s reputation, he must consider his position.  Lockdown has had its challenges for everyone.”  The prime minister “is a populist who no longer understands the populace,” suggests Nick Cohen in The Spectator. “Dominic Cummings pretends to be an anti-elitist but cannot see how lethal the slogan ‘one rule for me and another for everyone else’ is to him and the elite he serves.”  That about sums it up.

Patterns of Compromise: The EasyJet Data Breach

It has been a withering time for the airlines, whose unused planes moulder in a gruelling waiting game of survival.  The receivers are smacking their lips; administration has become a reality for many.  Governments across the globe dispute what measures to ease in response to the coronavirus pandemic; travel has been largely suspended; and the hope is that some viable form will resume at some point soon.

For the low-cost airline EasyJet, a further problem has presented itself.  Earlier in the week, the company revealed that it had “been the target of an attack from a highly sophisticated source”, resulting in a data breach affecting nine million customers.  Of those, 2,208 customers (“a very small subset”, as the company wished to emphasise) had had their credit and debit card details “accessed”.

The UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office had been informed about the incident but the company only revealed this catastrophic lapse in data security to individuals, as it told the BBC, “once the investigation had progressed enough that we were able to identify whether any individuals had been affected, then who had been impacted and what information had been accessed.”

EasyJet were also quick to douse the fires of this grim chapter in data insecurity.  “There is no evidence that any personal information of any nature has been misused, however, on the recommendation of the ICO, we are communicating with the approximately nine million customers whose travel details were accessed to advise them of protective steps to minimise any risk of potential phishing.”

This phishing risk entails that opening any suspicious email purporting to be from EasyJet is simply a risk not worth taking.  Naturally, the company will have to inform, and have informed customers of that very risk, resulting in a peculiar circularity: Who to believe and what enables the recipient to detect the suspicious?  As digital privacy expert Ray Walsh opines, “Anybody who has ever purchased an EasyJet flight is advised to be extremely wary when opening emails from now on.”

For the company’s part, customers whose credit card details were compromised have received an email with a unique code, ostensibly to access services provided by a third party. A call centre to deal with concerns arising from the hack has also been established, though service on that has been typically sloppy.

Airline companies have a rather patchy record in the field of data security.  In the cybersecurity department, they seem to be rather thin, a failing that matches a global tendency.  (A 2018 report suggested a shortage of some 2.93 million.)   The implications to both airline companies and aviation infrastructure have been of such magnitude as to prompt warnings that it is merely a matter of time before aircraft are themselves the subject of cyber-attack.

The honour board on compromised customer data is a long one.  Cathay Pacific Airways experienced an attack on the scale of that of EasyJet, with a hacker accessing the personal information of 9.4 million customers over a four-year period.  This was also a case that interested the ICO, resulting in a pre-General Data Protection Regulation fine of £500,000.  The ICO investigation revealed that the airline lacked adequate security controls to ensure the integrity of passenger data within internal IT systems.  This “resulted in the unauthorised access” to “passengers’ personal details including: names, passport and identity details, dates of birth, postal and email addresses, phone numbers and historical travel information.”

Cathay Pacific’s systems were penetrated via an internet server enabling the installation of data harvesting malware.  It did not help that the data storage regime in place was weak and complacent.  Back-up files were not password protected; internet-facing serves were unpatched; the presence of inadequate and outdated anti-virus protection software was noted.

British Airways was less fortunate in being fined £183 million in 2019 by the ICO, armed with the more punitive powers of the GDPR, for failing to take adequate steps in protecting the personal information of some 380,000 customers.  The 2018 compromise of data took place through bookings made on its website (ba.com) and the British Airways mobile app over the course of a 15 day period.  As with EasyJet, the company adopted a strategy of understating the effect of it all.  Yes, personal details had been stolen, including the names, addresses and financial information of customers, but those cheeky hackers did not make away with passport or travel details.  And, before anybody should get too excited, the cyber incident was, according to a spokesperson for British Airways, “data theft, rather than a breach”.

None of this impressed the Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham.  “People’s personal data is just that – personal.  When an organisation fails to protect it from loss, damage or theft, it is more than an inconvenience. That’s why the law is clear – when you are entrusted with personal data you must look after it.”

Not to be left out, Air Canada also confirmed a data breach on its mobile app in August 2018, though the scale was a more modest 20,000 individuals.  One defective feature of the airline’s operating systems stood out: a mediocre password policy accepting only letters and numbers.

Such patterns of compromise are all too common in the commercial aviation industry, but EasyJet’s Chief Executive Officer Johan Lungren claims to be wiser after the fact.  “Since we became aware of the incident, it has become clear that owing to COVID-19 there is heightened concern about personal data being used for online scams.”  Pressed by the ICO, “we are contacting those customers whose travel information was accessed and we are advising them to be extra vigilant particularly if they receive unsolicited communications.” A fine of some magnitude is expected.

Why Thinking Makes it So: Donald Trump’s Obamagate Fixation

The “gate” suffix has been wearing thin since the break-in scandal that gave it its birth.  Since Watergate, virtually anything dubious and suggestive, and much more besides, is suffixed.  Which brings us to the issue of President Donald Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama.  Finding himself in hot water (did he ever leave it?) Trump has been sowing the seeds of “Obamagate”, a fairly grotesque measure that serves to fill the shallow spaces of the social mediaverse.

Obamagate is a show without much of a script, supported by the faintest of threads.  Supposedly, they revolve around the merrily murky former national security advisor Michael Flynn, a serial perjurer who was “unmasked” as an American talking to foreigners under the routinely engaged eyes of the intelligence community.  The revelations emerged from the declassification by acting national intelligence director Richard Grenell of unmasking requests made by the Obama administration in 2016.  The exercise raised eyebrows, at least among certain Trump critics who detected a heavy accent of politicisation.

On the surface, the move was distractingly galvanic.  The declassified document listing officials keen to identify Trump associates and any relevant ties to Russia suggested that Trump was going to embark upon yet another one of his exercises in mass distraction.  The president duly hopped on the Twitter train to drive a narrative of criminality, making his Mother’s Day a special one.  126 tweets and retweets featured, making it the second most prolific single-day posting of the Trump presidency.  Interspersed in the scatter were a few favourites: the QAnon conspiracy theory on Democrats being tied to a paedophilia cult; punchy counterattacks on those critical of his coronavirus non-policy.  The retweets also featured monumental errors of judgment, including messages critical of the Trump administration.  But something new had emerged in the smoke, all shinily suffixed.

Obama had, supposedly, committed “the biggest political crime in American history, by far”, one that made “Watergate look small-time.”  When pressed for details by such individuals as Philip Rucker of the Washington Post, Trump was not particularly forthcoming, suggesting it was patently obvious. “It’s been going on from before I even got elected, and it’s a disgrace that it happened, and if you look at what’s gone on, and if you look at now, all this information that is being released – and from what I understand, that’s only the beginning – some terrible things happened, and it should never be allowed to happen in our country again.”

Russia, yet again, features. But this is not Democratic demonization in the Hillary Clinton mould so much as a claim of Deep State antics gone awry.  Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists sees it as a ploy to seize the Russia narrative by the throat. “It is putting the spotlight on the investigators rather than the investigated.  It is saying what is irregular here is not the extraordinary contacts with the Russian government but the attempt to understand them.”  Obamagate has taken the place of “Crooked Hillary” as a call to arms.  As Fox News host Brian Kilmeade observed, reflecting on the November election, “it’s not gonna be Biden against Trump. It’s gonna be Obama against Trump.”

Terms such as Obamagate only exist because thinking of it makes it so.  It is the conjuring trick of a few words, fed by supposition and even superstition.  It is the howl and bark of the social media echo chamber. In a sense, such terms do not matter, though they do exercise such individuals as Will Bunch of the Philadelphia Inquirer.  The “idea of Obamagate”, he writes despairingly, grew “in Trump’s diseased mind and springing like a virus to his compromised and unjust Justice Department, his propagandists on Fox News’ quasi-state-media, and millions of truth-decayed supporters”.

As with so many assessments of Trump’s time in office, these are only some aspects of a broader, decaying Republic for which Trump’s opponents also have to answer for.  He is the excremental reminder of a state in ruins, of an imperium gasping on a respirator. Bunch gives Trump too much credit for killing “the very idea of objective truth”, suggesting a certain monopoly on criminality.  He even reserves some criticism for Obama, who he accused of being “too timid in looking into Trump and Russia.”  And there, the Russian bogeyman makes yet another appearance.

How catching will this noise prove to be?  Attention has turned to prosecutor John H. Durham, who examined the initial leak of information to the Washington Post on phone calls that took place between Flynn and the Russian ambassador Sergey I. Kislyak to the United States in 2016.  The Grenell list could, in turn, be leaked.  A fittingly messy turn that would be.

A sense that this will go nowhere is already being floated by Trump’s most loyal of deputies, the Attorney General William Barr.  “As to President Obama and Vice-President Biden, whatever their level of involvement, based on the information I have today, I don’t expect Mr Durham’s work will lead to a criminal investigation of either man.”  There is still time, but Obamagate is already expiring.

Patriotic Vaccines: The Divided Coronavirus Cause

When it comes to the politics of medicine and disease, the United States has always attempted to steal the limelight, while adding the now faded colouring of universal human welfare.  In 1965, Washington pledged financial and technical support to the international effort to eradicate smallpox, though the initiative had initially been spurred by the Soviet Union at the behest of virologist and deputy health minister Victor Zhdanov in 1958.  At that point in time, the World Health Organisation was not so much a punch bag as vehicle for US foreign policy, to be cultivated rather than rebuked.

As with the eradication of smallpox, a forced language of solidarity is coming into being with efforts to find a vaccine for the novel coronavirus.  But behind it, there is backbiting and hostility, suspicion and paranoia.  Like putting the first person on the moon, the matter is one of divided political endeavours.

One such effort of solidarity, and a not very convincing one at that, was made at this month’s Coronavirus Global Response Pledging Conference.  The European Commission gave it a deceptively united title: “Joining forces to accelerate the development, production and equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines, diagnostics and therapeutics – on-line pledging event.” Representatives from 43 countries, a range of non-profit entities and scientific groups also added to the number.

Like fund drives that are common in the United States for public broadcasting, the efforts were billed as magisterial when they were, for the most part, modest.  7.4 million euros seems rather small fare when compared to the weighty global loss in life, limb and economy, though it looks a dream to coalface researchers.  There was also a certain niggling anomaly in the event that took away some of its lustre.  EU officials had permitted the pledging of money already spent on COVID-19 relief since January 30, making the raised amount more generous than it otherwise would have been.  The United Kingdom was a case in point, having pledged £388 million toward a total as part of a prior pledge for £744 million.  The EU bureaucrats for their part, have not been forthcoming how much in terms of new funding was pledged, making it difficult to spot the double-counters.

The language from the donors, however, was high sounding in hope. President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen was flashily presuming in her rhetoric.  “Today we can truly say the world is united against the coronavirus, and the world will win.”  The world, she claimed grandly, had “showed extraordinary unity for the common good … With such commitment, we are on track for developing, producing and deploying a vaccine for all.”

The British Prime Minister and COVID-19 survivor Boris Johnson was also unduly optimistic in his assessment of such a worldly effort.  “The race to discover the vaccine to defeat this virus is not a competition between countries but the most urgent shared endeavour of our lifetimes.”

To ensure that this does take place will take more than pooled pledges with vague lines of distribution.  The entire effort to find a vaccine would need to be decentralised.  An aide to French President Emmanuel Macron described the problem to Politico as ensuring “that the production of the vaccine does not end up taking place only in the US or in a specific place, because the companies that produce vaccines are from a certain nationality”.

But a full-blooded competition this is, spiked with considerations of self-interest.  Former commissioner of the US Food and Drug Administration Scott Gottlieb saw it in terms of a sporting race with a lucrative prize at the end.  There is nothing of the cooperative or sharing spirit here, with Gottlieb seeing countries inoculating their own citizens first before sharing any supply with generous heart.  “The first country to the finish line will be the first to restore its economy and global influence.  America risks being second.”  Given that Gottlieb is himself a board member of Pfizer and the biotech company Ilumina, a bit of hearty pandemic capitalism is bound to figure in his assessments.

The Trump administration had already signalled its intention to avoid any show of unity in the vaccine effort, which may suggest an unintentional expression of blunt honesty.  It has frozen funding to the WHO and refused to send any representatives to a meeting organised by the organisation at a meeting, conducted virtually, last month.  A spokesman for the US mission in Geneva told Reuters at the time that Washington “looked forward to learning more about this initiative in support of international cooperation to develop a vaccine for COVID-19 as soon as possible” but would not be participating in any official way.  The response was much the same to the European Commission’s pledging conference.

For the Trump administration, finding a COVID-19 vaccine will, contrary to Johnson’s belief, be a predatory exercise in self-interest because other countries will, given the chance, treat it the same way.  A neat, if vulgar example of this was given in March, when Die Welt reported that “large sums of money” had been offered by the administration for the German biopharmaceutical company CureVac, though former CEO Dan Menichella seemed to suggest that no definite offer was made in a meeting he had with the US president.  Within that same month, Menichella had been replaced by the same man he replaced: founder Ingmar Hoerr.

In the messy rumble, billionaire Dietmar Hopp, who has an 80 percent shareholding in CureVac via his biotech company Dievini has dismissed such ideas of exclusivity.  No German company would entrust themselves with the task of creating such a vaccine that would be merely for exclusive US use.  German health minister Jens Spahn was of like mind: any such vaccine would “not be for individual countries” but “for the whole world”.

This is stern and admirable stuff but not particularly convincing.  The global patent system is marked by vicious rivalries rather than tea-ceremony tranquillity.  The behaviour of its participants, according to the University of Hong Kong’s Bryan Mercurio, tends towards a winner takes all approach. “The rest of the efforts will go unrewarded.”

The fractious scramble for appropriate vaccines and viral drugs, as with other scrambles of history, serves to highlight the crude, even cruel reality of power politics, which proves stubborn even in the face of the existential and costly.  This is pure Donald Trump, unilateral, instinctive and unromantic, with a reaction in keeping with previous thinking when it comes to international efforts of solidarity.  Look more closely at them and see the sham; it’s every state for itself.

Muting Justice: Rescheduling Julian Assange’s Hearing

When we think of the repression of journalists, we automatically evoke foreign lands.  We rarely, however, evoke or remember our own dissidents.

— Peter Oborne, Middle East Eye, May 5, 2020

It all spoke well of British justice, which meant poorly.  As one correspondent from the Australian Associated Press put it in describing the latest case hearing for Julian Assange, “There are no lawyers here in person.  Assange will not be present.  There are 6 journalists here and there will be 6 members of the public.”

The icy District Judge Vanessa Baraitser had already relented last week on vacating May 18 as the date for Assange’s full extradition hearing.  Facing several submissions about open justice, the impaired and frustrated channels of legal advice and the overall deprivation of a fair hearing being posed by the pandemic regulations, Baraitser accepted that the parties needed to be physically present.  She had little time for much else.

This hearing had little to do with abstractions of justice or wise words on the merits of press freedom.  It was all business, a game of logistics on when to have the full hearing.  Who would be available and at what times?  The only thing missing in these deliberations, apart from the protagonist himself, were the cucumber sandwiches and sherry.

Edward Fitzgerald QC, representing Assange, chewed over two undesirable dates: “The November date is too late for us and the July date is perhaps unworkable for us.”  James Lewis QC, representing the United States, had another slot in mind. “We would much prefer September if possible.”  Clair Dobbin, also representing the US, has her hands full with the Child Abuse inquiry; US prosecutors needed to journey across the Atlantic, and this, given the conditions posed by COVID-19, would be hard over summer.  Lewis was similarly tied up, having to discharge various public duties towards the end of July.

Baraitser seemed wearied by it all, conceding that another venue, better suited to the hearing, might have to be found. “It’s going to take some negotiation to find a crown court that is open in September, in the current climate, and willing and able to take this hearing.”

Martin Silk, who has been covering the case with steely attentiveness, noted the symbolic, and practical aspects of sham justice that the Assange case is throwing up.  “Three mainstream and four non-mainstream journalists have told me they were unable to listen in to Julian Assange’s hearing via conference this morning.  Apparently just got hold music because the court clerk didn’t unmute the call… lucky I tweeted.”

It is suitably repugnant that this theatre continues even as British politicians sing the praises of press freedom.  Last week, Britain’s foreign secretary Dominic Raab added his name to those of the Dutch, French and German foreign ministers to “celebrate the crucial role journalists play around the world,” thereby doing their little, and inconsequential bit, to commemorate World Press Freedom Day.  What was particularly repellent in the statement was the cap doffing to this year’s theme, being very WikiLeaks, as it were, and equally shunned in practice.  “This year’s theme ‘Journalism without fear or favour’ emphasises the importance of taking action to secure independent journalism as a prerequisite for a functioning society.”

The statement also rings hollow when considering the entire scope of Assange’s hearings, which have been poorly conducted, appallingly managed and meagrely rationed in terms of resources.  Those covering the case have also been treated with mild contempt.  The very fact that it has dragged on in purgatorial fashion for so long suggests a form of torment by prolongation, a macabre display of institutional corruption.  The US imperium wants its man and Britain will deliver, but must be seen to be observing some due process, however shoddy.

Such a farce does not stop Raab from confidently fluting the notes of press freedom.  “We must oppose all attempts by any state,” continues the statement, “to use the pandemic to adopt restrictions on press freedom, silence debate, abuse journalists or spread misinformation.”

Such fine sentiments that have tended to skip the deliberations of Judge Baraitser and for that matter the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and other branches of the British government.  Peter Oborne, sporting a keen nose for sniffing hypocrisy, spots a recent pattern.  The Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden has hectored the BBC’s director general, Tony Hall, for the corporation’s Panorama programme which reported shortages of personal protective equipment and the mortal dangers posed to health workers by COVID-19.  Raab had little to say about Egypt’s gruff expulsion of The Guardian reporter Ruth Michaelson in March, ostensibly for questioning official government figures on COVID-19 infections.  Ditto on that country’s record on jailing contrarian journalists unhappy to march to the drum beat of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.  In such mattes, the FCO remains remote.

This ghastly record of indifference was topped, in Oborne’s mind, by the foreign secretary’s absence of interest in protecting Assange.  “If there was an ounce of sincerity in the foreign secretary’s claim that he is a supporter of media freedom, he would be resisting the US attempt to get his hands on Assange with every bone in his body.”  The WikiLeaks publisher had, after all, “done more than every other journalist in Britain put together to shed light on the way the world truly works.”

The interim period will be another one of charming hope against bitter experience.  To avoid any serious risk of succumbing in prison to coronavirus, bail is being entertained though it is unlikely to move the glacial bench.  As Assange’s partner, Stella Moris, has described with moving melancholy, the publisher’s life “is at severe risk.  He is on remand at HMP Belmarsh, and COVID-19 is spreading within its walls.”  Those in power remain deaf to such calls, much in keeping with the dictates of muted justice.

Pandemic Revisionism: The George W. Bush Whitewash

Our enemies are innovative and resourceful.  And so are we.  They never stop thinking about new ways to harm our country and our people.  And neither do we.

— President George W. Bush, August. 5, 2004

Hatred is disorientating, and becomes, over time, a form of enduring fanaticism.  The attacks on US President Donald Trump tend to fall into this camp.  Much criticism of his often grotesque conduct, from his conversion of high office to a social media spectacle of grabs and interruptions, to his whole lowering of the tone, is warranted.  He has brought locker room morals and the ethics of the US corporate boardroom to the White House.  In the annals of the US presidency, he will not favour well, but nor should he necessarily be seen as a singular catastrophe.  There are other worthier contenders for the court historians to consider.

One of them must be George W. Bush who, true to his misspoken words, never stopped thinking about new ways of harming the US and its people.  This was a president who declared with confidence that there could be such things as an “Axis of Evil” in international relations; that the map of the Middle East needed to be rewritten in blood – yet again – on an adventurist, schoolboy hunch; and proclaimed a Global War on Terror with a sort of mad glee that tolerated an extra-judicial culture of torture, renditions and CIA black sites.  “My blood was boiling,” he writes in that painful, and for the most part hopelessly unreliable, read Decision Points.  “We were going to find out who did this, and kick their ass.”  This was not a quest marked by the need for sound evidence, be it Saddam Hussein’s fictitious weapons of mass destruction, or forged links between Baghdad and al-Qaeda.  When destroying a country, stubborn motivation can resist the evidentiary brief.

Domestically, Bush’s tenure oversaw a bloating of the national security state, fattened by inefficient and intrusive surveillance coupled with the use of imperial styled powers that disparaged the workings of Congress.  Air pollution standards were reduced; logging of wilderness areas encouraged and naff intrusions of religion into policy witnessed.

In responding to Hurricane Katrina, one of the most devastating natural events in US history, the president distinguished himself by continuing his vacation at his expansive Prairie Chapel Ranch in Crawford, Texas before cutting it short.  Once committed in response, he could never dispel the image of detachment from the catastrophe.  Praising the bungling performance of the Federal Emergency Management Agency director Michael Brown (“you’re doing a heck of a job”) did not help.

At the helm of the US imperium for eight years was a person of questionable cognitive heft and permanent frat boy immaturity, who had an entertainingly defective grasp of language (entrepreneur not being a French word; misunderestimated, and all that) and a tenuous hold on reality.  During his time in office, dark forces led by Vice President Dick Cheney pulled strings and encouraged this manqué president.  A sense of the impression he left on the United States could be gathered by the fact that the country got its first black president, elected not for being necessarily irresistible in offering small change but for not being Bush.

In retirement, he has been treated as a harmlessly mild, doddery recluse, dedicated to peaceful pursuits, such as painting.  Along with his wife Laura, they are sharing what they have described as “the afterlife in their promised land in Texas”.

From this world of the afterlife, Bush has suddenly piped up.  The deaths and suffering caused by the COVID-19 pandemic were just too much for him to ignore.  In a video posted by the George W. Bush Presidential Centre, the credentials of sainthood and leadership were offered to rolling images of the United States.  “We are not partisan combatants.”  Pieties aplenty choke the performance.  “We are human beings, equally vulnerable and equally wonderful in the sight of God.  We rise or fall together, and we are determined to rise.”  He noted that Americans need to “be compassionate” and “creative in our outreach”.  Remember to show empathy and kindness, those “essential, powerful tools of national recovery.”

The response to this sop-filled intervention by Bush has been one of reputational restoration.  They have come from the usual circles: starry-eyed thespians and celebrities, many of them centrist or slightly tilted to the left of politics; many, if not Democrats then those with Democratic allegiances.  Andy Worthington had already detected this trend in 2018.  Trump’s place in the White House had caused many to lose their heads, with “a bizarre propensity, on the part of those in the centre and on the left of US political life, to seek to rehabilitate the previous Republican president, George W. Bush.”  They ranged from the former First Lady, Michelle Obama (“a beautiful, funny, kind, sweet man”) to talk show host Ellen DeGeneres, who, last year, kept company with the Bushes at a sporting fixture.  “Just because I don’t agree with someone on everything doesn’t mean I’m not going to be friends with them.”  Best forget what he did.

The COVID-19 video performance has induced another round of emetic showering.  Debora Messing, for one, gushed at the show. “A REAL president,” she tweeted.  Former Democratic Congresswoman Katie Hill exercised her tear ducts.  “In a million years I never thought I’d be crying watching this, thinking how much better we’d all feel if Bush were president today.”  Historian Seth Kotlar was captured by “nostalgia”, not necessarily for Bush “but for Presidents who genuinely tried to speak to the entire nation, not just a part of it.”

Trump preferred a different reaction and predictable focus: himself.  Bush, he fumed, “was nowhere to be found in speaking up against the greatest Hoax in American history.”  That little matter called the impeachment proceedings still rankles.  But Bush, it seems, continues to slide into that place of history where minds atrophy and hagiography quells reality.

Harvard’s Fossil Fuels Formula: Engagement before Withdrawal

“Know the true value of time; snatch, seize, and enjoy every moment of it,” urged the Earl of Chesterfield in a letter of advice to his son penned in 1749.  “No idleness, no laziness, no procrastination: never put off till tomorrow what you can do today.”  This has not tended to be the view of university governors the world over, notably in the field of ethical investments.  The elite heavy weights have shown their flabbiness in the area, dragging in their approach to matters of environment and the climate.  Money is just that; where it goes, in terms of investment, is of little moral consequence, lacking smell and ethical baggage.  Industry is there to be, and here, the word is essential, engaged.

Harvard University, one of the wealthiest teaching and research institutions on the planet with an endowment of $41 billion, is something of a specialist in this.  In 2013, the university’s President Drew Gilpin Faust adopted the position of “engagement over withdrawal” on the subject of fossil fuel divestments.  At the time, Faust considered any full divestment measure as unwarranted and unwise: the endowment fund was to be seen in purely self-beneficial terms, “a resource, not an instrument to impel social or political change.”

Playing the fiddle of an amoral politician, Faust attempted different measures of dismissiveness and reassurance: climate change did pose “a serious threat to our future – and increasingly our present”, and the university would be incorporating “environmental, social and governance” into its investments, thereby aligning with “investors’ fiduciary duties”.  Such an approach guaranteed an indefinite series of postponements on the matter.

By April 2017, the Harvard Management Company, the entity responsible for managing the finances of the corporation, felt that some move was required.  Colin Butterfield, heading the natural resources section at the HMC, accepted that climate change was a “huge problem” and that a “pause” in fossil fuel investments would take place.  Slyly, Butterfield shifted the focus, distinguishing between direct and indirect investments in the industry.  “What I can tell you is, from my area, I could honestly say that I doubt – I can’t say never, because never say never – but I doubt that we would ever make a direct investment with fossil fuels.”

In 2019, Harvard’s new broom, Lawrence Bacow still preferred “engaging with industry”.  In a surprise appearance at a forum hosted by Divest Harvard and the Harvard Political Union in April that year, he gave a model lesson on intellectual skiving: Teach, research and convince, and the industry itself will change.  Till that was done, the fossil fuel matter could be postponed.  “We need to engage with those whose behaviour we need to change.  We need to engage with industry.  We do that through scholarship; we do that through our teaching.”

Donning his weighty business hat, Bacow played the role of cold realist, warning against any policy coitus interruptus.  Divesting from fossil fuels was not the same as tobacco, where a full-scale enterprise of withdrawal through the university from research to labs could be implemented.  “The day after, if we were to divest, we’re going to turn on the lights.  We would still be dependent on fossil fuels.”

It has been a long, acrimonious battle.  The Harvard President and Fellows have tended to swat the claims away, regarding them as callow and unrealistic.  The students, in turn, have sought to have their case taken seriously, engaging in their own little bit of climate change lawfare.  In 2014, a lawsuit was lodged in Suffolk County Superior Court in Massachusetts, featuring an 11-page complaint and 167 pages of supporting exhibits asking the court to force divestment on the students’ behalf.  The measure failed at first instance and on appeal, though campaign managed, along the way, to gather support from the Animal Legal Defense Fund, climate change scientist James Hansen and the Cambridge City Council.

The central problem in such climate change litigation remains one of conviction.  Courts refuse to cast a distant eye upon the future, expecting evidence to be as immediate, clear and incontestable as possible.  The argument by the students was precisely one of current action to prevent environmental dystopia, a case for future, potentially imperiled generations.  Instead, the students failed to show they had legal standing to challenge fossil fuel investments for their negative impacts on academic freedom and education at Harvard.  Their interests were “widely shared” with thousands of their peers at Harvard; their connection with the subject matter was not sufficiently “specific” or “personal”; and their allegations on financial mismanagement were too speculative to be accepted.

Both the Massachusetts Appellate Court and the lower court also came to the same conclusion on rejecting the merits of a new civil wrong on the “intentional investment in abnormally dangerous activities”.  The students had, in the higher court’s assessment, “brought their advocacy, fervent and articulate and admirable as it is, to a forum that cannot grant the relief they seek.”

The Bacow formula of engagement has been tinkered with, if ever so slightly.  As a tentative nod to the fiftieth anniversary of Earth Day, and in response to a resolution adopted by the Faculty of Arts and Sciences in February, the endowment was instructed to develop an approach to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions from its investment portfolio by 2050.  Full Postponement Bacow had now transitioned to Partial Postponement Bacow.  “Harvard’s endowment should be a leader in shaping pathways to a sustainable future,” he wrote to members of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. “With this in mind, the corporation has directed the Harvard Management Company (HMC) to set itself on a path to decarbonize the overall endowment portfolio.”

In doing so, few toes will be tread upon in this new approach, as it “considers the investment portfolio as a whole, rather than simply targeting the suppliers and producers of fossil fuels.”  Possible partners, he warned, would not be demonised, as they had “committed to transitioning to carbon neutrality and to funding research on alternative fuels and on strategies to decarbonize the economy.”

The reaction from Divest Harvard showed an expected mixture of “I told you so” satisfaction tinged with regret.  “Until today, the administration has claimed that the endowment should not be used for political purposes.”  Finally, due to the pressure of student, faculty and alumni, Harvard had “acknowledged its duty to mitigate the emissions its endowment has been fuelling for decades.”  Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard was less complimentary: the university had taken “a step in the right direction”, but the plan was “insufficient”, making fossil fuel companies “cooperative partners”.

Former college president James L. Powell assessed the nature of managing an endowment sternly in a recent letter to the New York Times.  “The fundamental principle of endowment management is that future student generations should benefit to the same extent as the current generation.  By investing in the very companies whose products cause dangerous global warming, Harvard violates that principle and bets that it can profit from the success of those companies.” Such betting is set to continue – at least till 2050.

Pandemic Delays: Postponing the Assange Extradition Hearing

Mr Assange will be facing a David and Goliath battle with his hands tied behind his back.

— Edward Fitzgerald QC, lawyer for Julian Assange, April 27, 2020

Julian Assange must have had time amidst cramped and hostile surrounds, paper work, pleas and applications, to ponder what circle of Dante’s Hell he finds himself in.  Ailing but still battling, the WikiLeaks publisher, through his lawyers, made another vicarious appearance at the Westminster Magistrates’ Court on Monday to delay the next stage of extradition proceedings slated for May 18.  He would have appeared via video link, but medical advice suggested it would be unsafe for him to do so at Belmarsh prison.

Assange, one of the most conspicuously wanted individuals by US authorities for fancifully broad claims of espionage and computer intrusion, had a range of eminently sensible reasons for seeking the delay.  The defence continued in relentless fashion, making arguments they have done throughout.  The feeling for the observer is that, at some point, the District Judge Vanessa Baraitser might bite, or at least shift ever so slightly.

Assange’s legal team, spearheaded by Edward Fitzgerald QC, noted that adequate case preparations were, in the current circumstances, impossible.  There had been the briefest of phone calls with their client; the defence team had been unable to speak to Assange for over a month.  The case, claimed Fitzgerald, had gone “from difficult to impossible”.  There were “no person-to-person meetings.  The alternative of video conferences is medically dangerous.”  A meeting that was due to take place last week in the holding cells of Woolwich Crown Court never transpired, as prison authorities refused to permit it.

According to the written submission, “It is not possible to take Mr Assange’s instructions in order to respond to the recently served declarations of Mr Kromberg, the US Attorney representing the case for the US.”  Those representing the publisher were “unable to fulfill their professional obligations to him in the circumstances and he is deprived of equality of arms with the prosecution”.

The second ground followed from the first: no full extradition could take place in May that would enable Assange to “participate effectively in the hearing”.  Abiding by principles of open justice would also be improbable given the ongoing pandemic restrictions that would prevent the press and public “to attend and follow proceedings”.  The fourth ground focused on Assange’s own vulnerable constitution, already ravaged by stress and pressure occasioned by his confinement at HMP Belmarsh.  The sum of this was that “he could not fairly be expected to participate in a full evidentiary hearing in May.”

The ever unsympathetic Baraitser, usually unmoved by any defence application that might suggest favour to Assange, accepted the argument that the May 18 date be vacated, and an administrative hearing scheduled for May 4, enabling lawyers on all sides to consider a new date for the full hearing.  The measure was granted, in no small part because of lack of protest from the prosecution.  As James Lewis QC, putting the case for the United States, submitted, “In this extraordinary time, we would support the application.”  Given the circumstances (the judge finally acknowledged the obvious: that Britain was in a coronavirus lockdown), it was unlikely that Assange and his lawyers would be able to physically attend the scheduled May 18 hearing. “Remote attendance by the parties in this case will not be appropriate.  It is now appropriate to vacate that hearing and fix it to a later date.”  At the earliest, a three-week block from November 2 can be made available.

On other points, Baraitser remained cold and tenaciously blind.  She could not see how the lockdown itself had any evident impact on case preparation, nor affect the proper attendance of witnesses.  “I have been given no reason to believe that pre-hearing discussion with expert witnesses can’t take place remotely.”  The issue of Assange’s safety in being transported to a video conference room was a matter for the prison to make.  Nor would press reporting be impaired, despite witnessing, in her own court, the distinctly shonky coverage for media offered by the teleconference facility.

As the UK Bureau Director of Reporters Without Borders Rebecca Vincent would comment, reflecting upon the day’s technical challenges, “resuming the full extradition hearing in such conditions would not allow for open justice.  This case is of tremendous public interest, and the press and NGO observers must be able to scrutinise proceedings.”

Assange supporters and case watchers were relieved by the change of heart shown from the bench.  Kevin Gosztola of Shadowproof opined that a May 18 hearing during the COVID-19 pandemic “would’ve significantly undermined due process rights of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange”.

Then came the next question, a spectre over the stuttered court proceedings: Would Assange be able to obtain bail?  His father, John Shipton, certainly thought so, as obtaining such relief would alleviate the danger of contracting COVID-19 in a “prison where two people have died of the disease”.  According to Renata Avila, a key human rights lawyer and board member for Creative Commons, such a delay would surely entitle Assange to the measure.  “Under current conditions, he cannot prepare his legal defence and he is risking his life.”

The hope for legal, and compassionate sense to prevail, remains admirably optimistic.  Assange is bound in a cruel legal purgatory, a shackled David facing the Goliath of the US imperium.  But even with his hands tied, Assange is still putting up a most resolute fight.

Treacherous Accommodations: Australian Universities, Coronavirus and the NTEU

They have been struggling to keep their membership numbers healthy, but the latest antics of the executive that make up Australia’s National Tertiary Education Union suggest why.  For a good period of time, Australian unions have been losing teeth, and not all of it can be put down to the measures of the federal government to pull them.  In the university sector, where unionism should be intellectually vibrant and committed, the issue is one of corporatist accommodation.  Do not rock the boat of management; give executives vast, byzantine powers of disciplining staff; do little to criticise the obscene remuneration packages of the Vice Chancellors and their tribunes.

With the NTEU being, in many instances, retainers for university executives, rather than defenders of the academic work force, the email circulated to members on April 8 by the general secretary Matthew McGowan could hardly have come as a shock.  These are trying times in response to coronavirus, and Universities Australia chairperson Deborah Terry has promised the loss of 21,000 jobs over the next six months in the tertiary sector.

Having revealed that the NTEU had “approached a number of Vice Chancellors, Universities Australia, and the Australian Higher Education Industrial Association to press the need for an urgent national dialogue”, McGowan outlined the grim agenda.  “To protect jobs, we may need to consider measures that we would never normally consider.  These may include deferral of pay rises, providing the ability to direct taking of leave, or other cost saving measures.”

The letter is replete with the weasel words that have come to characterise NTEU-University “dialogues”.  Any harsh measures taken are to be “temporary and proportional to the loss at each university”.  There needed to be “transparency and oversight”.  (Australian universities do a good line in unaccountability and opaque governance, making such suggestions mildly amusing, if not downright ridiculous.)

Having outlined a position of forfeiture and compromise, the sell-out narrative is given the usual garnish: the federal government should throw money at the sector with drunken relish; a “national discussion” (tea anybody?) needed to be had about future international student enrolments.  And to convince the membership that the NTEU executive was being somehow compassionate, McGowan was careful to underline the objectives of the negotiations.  “Our primary aim is to protect jobs and to ensure that job cuts are the last resort. Of course, we believe that universities must divert funds from capital works and other non-staff related expenditure, as well as to take cuts to senior management salaries before staff are asked to bear the burden.”

No “of course” about it.  The NTEU national executive is giving the most generous of signals to university management to make swingeing cuts as long as they, angelic types as they are, make a few concessions of their own.  Its method is a tested and failed one: cooperation (“you can get everything you want through cooperation”, says ACTU secretary Sally McManus), or, more accurately, collaboration.

The ultimate purpose of this arrangement is to create a framework of salvation, with more profitable universities supposedly buffering weaker, less profitable ones.  NTEU National President Alison Barnes, with characteristic lack of conviction, speaks of this framework as “a temporary measure to provide staff and the union with a higher degree of certainty and security than would otherwise occur in an industrial free-for-all.”

The way this will be executed will be through that vehicle that has become a symbol of some mockery: the Enterprise Bargaining Agreement.  While the NTEU tends to congratulate itself about the “better pay, better conditions” line, the pathetically modest improvements, such EBAs are policing tools, controlling staff with such Orwellian notions as the code of conduct and the odd bribe.

Voting on the new EBAs is bound to take place at speed and with little information handy for NTEU members.  The cheeky changes made by the federal government to the Fair Work Act on the time needed to consult over changes to pay and conditions – from one week to a mere 24 hours – is a sign of what is to come.

The NTEU branches have not been impressed, but they can hardly be surprised by the temptations of such feeble treachery.  There has been little in the way of demanding heads on platters and flesh for the gallows.  The preference for the membership is for indignant voting, be they ones of censure or rude notes of awakening.  At the University of Sydney, a vote of 117 to 2 was taken to censure the NTEU national executive for “commencing negotiations on significant concessions”.

As for the universities themselves, the cuts have begun in earnest.  “Non-essential” research and professional staff casuals have been given their marching orders at La Trobe University and RMIT. What is regarded as non-essential would not, you would think, include library and staff in the information technology sections, but then again, a library without librarians is the sort of thing that would make sense to the university politburo.  Instead, we have distinctly non-essential publicists and human resources personnel spreading the cheer, with RMIT having come up with that least essential of positions, a Chief People Officer, to facilitate matters.  The line between ghoulish humour and agitprop has been well and truly crossed.

An awful truth has been let out by the recent antics of the NTEU national executive: members were actually paying fees for their betrayal in the university boardroom.  They would not be consulted; the executive would decide what’s best. But instead of rectifying the situation, the NTEU is seeking a membership drive.  Join the union, and get 3 months free membership!  What a lark!

Donald Trump’s Governor Problem: Debates on Opening Up the Economy

Things are getting dizzy in the White House on what, exactly, is being done to “open the economy”.  Cranky advocates for the financial argument over the restrictions of public health have been attempting to claw back some ground.  As Jonathan Chait puts it, “The anti-public health faction either believes the dangers of the coronavirus have been exaggerated, or that the cost of social-distancing requirements is so high that the economy should simply be opened, regardless of medical danger.”

Officials such as US Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin and White House economic advisor Larry Kudlow have been busy pushing the line that the shuttered economy will be opened come May.  In Mnuchin’s words, “As soon as the president feels comfortable with the medical issues, we are making everything necessary that American companies and American workers can be open for business and that they have the liquidity they need to operate the business in the interim.”  On the Fox Business Network, Kudlow outlined his views.  “Our intent here was, is, to try to relieve people of the enormous difficult hardships they are suffering through no fault of their own.”

The economy-before-health group, which also consists of Ivanka Trump and her husband Jared Kushner, has never had much time for the medical arguments.  In the views of a senior administration official, “They already know what they want to do and they’re looking for ways to do it.”

What, then, could be done to remove the shutters?  President Donald Trump initially felt enough confidence to claim the broadest of powers on the subject, bypassing states and their authority to manage and ease the coronavirus lockdowns.  “The authority of the president of the United States having to do with the subject we are talking about is total,” he explained at a White House press conference early last week.  “I have the ultimate authority.”

He tantalised those gathered with promises of a written paper on the subject, though felt it unnecessary “because the governors need us one way or the other because, ultimately, it comes with the federal government.”

On April 14, Trump took aim at his most favourite of hobby horses – the “Fake News Media” – for claiming “that it is the Governors decision to open up the states, not that of the President of the United States & the Federal Government.  Let it be fully understood that this is incorrect.”  Legal authorities such as Steve Vladeck of the University of Texas in Austin disagree: “the president has no formal legal authority to categorically override local or state shelter-in-place orders or to reopen schools and small businesses.”

After his initial imputation of such vast constitutional powers, Trump felt that it was all up to the governors in any case.  He called testing for COVID-19 “a local thing”, feeling that State officials were showing little or no initiative in using commercial labs.

Things are certainly not rosy, let alone coordinated, between the White House and the governors.  Criticism of the president’s uneven and tardy response has earned rebuke and mocking.  Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer became “Gretchen ‘Half’ Whitmer”; Washington Governor Jay Inslee was lashed by comments of being a “failed presidential candidate who was “constantly chirping”.  As Trump has explained with a note of tartness to Vice President Mike Pence, “If they don’t treat you right, I don’t call.”  Even during times of high crisis, the president luxuriates in adolescent petulance.

In certain states, there has been a rash of protests against quarantine regimes.  Trump, ever the tease, has thrown in his lot with them, tweeting messages of “liberation” for Minnesota, Michigan and Virginia, all led by Democratic governors.  Michigan, in particular, has one of the firmest quarantine regimes in the country, measures which have spawned such groups of disgruntlement as the Michiganders Against Excessive Quarantine.

The April 15 protest, which featured a gathering outside the Michigan State Capitol, was held with a daring impertinence, with participants fobbing off anything related to physical distancing rules.  Four Michigan residents have also decided to throw the law book at the governor, with legal proceedings claiming that the “Stay Home, Stay Safe” executive order is in violation of their constitutional rights.  The attorney responsible for filing the suit, one David Helm, argues that Whitner’s initial executive order passed muster in targeting “the specific needs of the crises”; the second, issued on April 9, was “unreasonable” and an act of executive over stretch.

The White House has suggested a strategy to the 50 governors, one involving three phases.  Phase one continues to feature social distancing in public, the isolation of vulnerable individuals, socialising in small groups and minimising “non-essential travel”.  Bars are to be remain closed, but gyms can open on the proviso of observing “strict physical distancing and sanitation protocols”.  Phase Two keeps vulnerable individuals in shelter, increases the number of individuals who can gather in social settings (from 10 to 50) and permits non-essential travel.  The continuation of telework where feasible and keeping common areas where workers might gather closed also feature.  The final phase permits vulnerable individuals to resume public interactions, though low-risk populations should still exercise caution in spending time “in crowded environments” and the resumption of “unrestricted staffing of worksites”.

But confusion reigns, exemplified by the remarks made by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. “Open what, open it when, and open it how?”  Trump continues to play – loudly – to his political base, indulging bouts of pageantry even as he mocks the methods of the States.  In responding to Trump’s tweets of support for the protestors, Minnesota Governor Tim Walz tried to get some clarification.  “I called to ask, what are we doing differently about moving towards getting as many people back into the workforce without compromising the health of Minnesotans or the providers?”  No reply was forthcoming.  And that, to a governor who has not, as Walz described it, “had open clashes with the administration.”