All posts by Binoy Kampmark

Spying on Julian Assange: UC Global, CNN and Russian Couriers

History’s scope for the absurd and tragic is infinite.  Like Sisyphus engaged in permanent labours pushing a boulder up a slope, the effort of making sense of such scope is likewise, absurdly infinite.  To see images of an exhausted and world-weary Julian Assange attempting to dodge the all-eye surveillance operation that he would complain about is to wade in the insensibility of it all.  But it could hardly have surprised those who have watched WikiLeaks’ battles with the Security Establishment over the years.

Assange is not merely an exceptional figure but a figure of the exception.  Despite being granted asylum status by an Ecuadorean regime that would subsequently change heart with a change of brooms, he was never permitted to exercise all his freedoms associated with such a grant.  There was always a sense of contingency and qualification, the impending cul-de-sac in London’s Ecuadorean embassy.

Between December 2017 and March 2018, dozens of meetings between Assange, his legal representatives, and visitors, were recorded in daily confidential reports written by an assigned security team and submitted to David Morales, formerly of special ops of the marine corps of the Spanish Navy.  The very idea of legal professional privilege, a fetish in the Anglo-American legal system, was not so much deemed non-existent as ignored altogether.

The security firm tasked with this smeared-in-the-gutter mission was Spanish outfit UC Global SL, whose task became all the more urgent once Ecuador’s Lenín Moreno came to power in May 2017.  The mood had changed from the days when Rafael Correa had been accommodating, one at the crest of what was termed the Latin American Pink Tide.  Under Moreno, Assange was no longer the wunderkind poking the eye of the US imperium with cheery backing.  He had become, instead, a tenant of immense irritation and inconvenience, a threat to the shift in politics taking place in Ecuador.  According to El País, “The security employees at the embassy had a daily job to do: to monitor Assange’s every move, record his conversations, and take note of his moods.”

The revelations of the surveillance operation on Assange had had their natural effect on the establishment journalists who continue taking the mother’s milk of conspiracy and intrigue in libelling the publisher.  CNN’s Marshall Cohen, Kay Guerrero and Arturo Torres seemed delighted in finding their éminence grise with his fingers in the pie, making the claim, with more than a whiff of patriotic self-importance, how “surveillance reports also describe how Assange turned the embassy into a command centre and orchestrated a series of damaging disclosures that rocked the 2016 presidential campaign in the United States.”  Rather than seeing obsessive surveillance in breach of political asylum as a problem, they see the quarry obtained by UC Global in quite a different light.  The WikiLeaks publisher had supposedly been outed.

The trio claimed to have obtained documents “exclusive” to CNN (the labours of El País, who did the lion’s share on this, are confined to the periphery) – though they have not been kind enough to share the original content with the curious.  Nor do they make much of the private security materials as such, preferring to pick from the disordered larder that is the Mueller Report.

The CNN agenda is, however, clear enough. “The documents build on the possibility, raised by special counsel Robert Mueller in his report on Russian meddling, that couriers brought hacked files to Assange at the embassy.”  Suggestions, without the empirical follow-up, are made to beef up the insinuated message.  “While the Republican National Convention kicked off in Cleveland, an embassy security guard broke protocol by abandoning his post to receive a package outside the embassy from a man in disguise.”  The individual in question “covered his face with a mask and sunglasses and was wearing a backpack, according to surveillance images obtained by CNN.” So planned; so cheeky.

Another line in the same report also serves to highlight the less than remarkable stuff in the pudding.  “After the election, the private security company prepared an assessment of Assange’s allegiances.  That report, which included open-source information, concluded there was ‘no doubt that there is evidence’ that Assange had ties to Russian intelligence agencies.”  Not exactly one to stop the presses.

CNN, in fact, suggests a figure demanding, unaccountable, dangerous and entirely in charge of the situation.  It is the psychological profile of a brattish historical agent keen to avoid detection.  (Here the journalists are keen to suggest that meeting guests “inside the women’s bathroom” in the Ecuadorean embassy was a shabby enterprise initiated by Assange; the obvious point that he was being subject to surveillance by UC Global’s “feverish, obsessive vigilance”, to use the words of El País, is turned on its head.)

He is reported to have “demanded” a high-speed internet connection.  He sought a working phone service, because obviously that would be unreasonable for any grantee of political asylum.  He requested regular access to his professional circle and followers.  Never has such a confined person been deemed a commander, an orchestrator and master of space.  “Though confined to a few rooms inside the embassy, Assange was able to wield enormous authority over his situation.”

The account offered by Txema Guijarro García, a former advisor to Ecuadorean Foreign Minister Ricardo Patiño and an important figure dealing with the logistics of granting Assange asylum in 2012, is decidedly different.  In general, “relations between him and the embassy staff were better than anyone could have expected.  The staff had amazing patience and, under difficult conditions, they managed to combine their diplomatic work with the task of caring for our famous guest.”

The language from the CNN report suggests the mechanics of concerted exclusion, laying the framework for an apologia that would justify Assange’s extradition to the United States to face espionage charges rather than practising journalism.  It is a salient reminder about the readiness of such outlets to accommodate, rather than buck, the state narrative on publishing national security information.

It is also distinctly out of step with the defences being made in favour of publishing leaked diplomatic cables being expressed in the Tory leadership debate in Britain.  While it should be construed with care, the words of Boris Johnson in the aftermath of the publication of British cables authored by the now ex-UK ambassador to Washington, Sir Kim Darroch, are pertinent.  “It cannot conceivably be right that newspapers or any other media organisation publishing such material face prosecution”.  Even Johnson can take the pulse of history accurately once in a while.

Donald Trump, the Democrat Squad and Failed Impeachment

Twitter has become policy. It is platform, direction and determination.  It has served one particular person well, a hazy mechanism to fog up the lenses of law makers.  When President Donald Trump needs an air-wave filling distraction, a bilious splurge of interest in the blogosphere, he is always happy to lob a grenade of 280 characters or so.  His targets and recipients oblige in an unsettling dance. Speeches are made, press galleries filled and resolutions submitted to Congress.

Trump’s last round of fired remarks found their targets in Representatives Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan.  They were not mentioned by name, but presumption can be all powerful.  “So interesting to see ‘Progressive’ Democrat Congresswomen, who originally came from countries whose governments are a complete and total catastrophe, the worst, most corrupt and inept anywhere in the world (if they even have a functioning government at all), now loudly and viciously telling the people of the United States, the greatest and most powerful Nation on earth, how our government is to be run.”  Then came his none-too constructive suggestion: “Why don’t they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.”

While his remarks against “The Squad” are in characteristic poor taste, not to mention inaccurate (three of the representatives were born in the United States) they remain characteristic, brutish panto and all part of the boundless show that is Trumpism.  They are not designed to convert the unconverted or convince the unsure with rhetorical sharpness or insight.  Anti-Trump and pro-Trump lines are firmed, concretely paved for the next election.  The issue, till then, is merely to occupy space with venom and fury, to divide and hope that the house will fall when the votes are tallied.

Such space of distraction assumes a few forms, all ultimately lending false credibility to incendiary smatterings.  Words are broken down, assumptions unpacked. Were his words racist?  Yes, claim some.  Did he articulate a substantive vision?  Most certainly, go others.  (House Speaker Nancy Pelosi deemed them “xenophobic”.)  For Omar, Trump’s words are programmatic, “a blatantly racist attack on four duly elected members of the United States House of Representatives, all of whom are women of colour.  This is an agenda of white nationalists.”

President Barack Obama’s chief election strategist David Axelrod, similarly sees a program, albeit encased in a trap, with Trump wanting “to raise the profile of his targets, drive Dems to defend them and make them emblematic of the entire party.  It’s a cold, hard strategy.”  The none-too-implicit suggestion here is that the quartet risk being hung out to dry come 2020 by the party strategists.

In solidarity, the four representatives expressed their marshalled outrage, all the time attempting to give a sense of elevated fury to the garbage gilded twittersphere while denying its enduring relevance.  Omar fell for the laid bait on the issue of impeachment, claiming on Monday that “it is time for us to impeach this president” having “openly” violated his constitutional oath.

The quartet managed to get up a House resolution, passed by 240 to 187 votes, condemning Trump for “racist comments that have legitimised fear and hatred of New Americans and people of colour”.  The resolution, for good measure, also praised the value immigrants had brought to the United States.  Trump ventured his own view.  “I don’t have a racist bone in my body.”

The show delighted commentators dazzled by the fireworks.  It was seen as historic, because it was the first time in over a century a President had received such a vote of disapproval.  But it was true polarising fodder for the Trump administration, bound to inflict indigestion for anybody keen to seek a united stance. Division reigned; disorder prevailed and the representatives stuck to firmly etched party lines, with the exception of four Republicans who crossed the floor.

Democrat Representative John Lewis, Democrat from Georgia, spoke of knowing racism when seeing it and feeling it “and at the highest level of government”.  Pelosi claimed that to not condemn Trump’s words “would be a shocking rejection of our values and a shameful abdication of our oath of office to protect the American people.”

Representative Dan Meuser, Republican of Pennsylvania, was ill-tempered in response, insisting that the whole show had been a “ridiculous slander” which did a “disservice to our nation”. “What has really happened here is that the president and his supporters have been forced to endure months of allegations of racism.”

Republicans slanted their attack on procedural improprieties, less on the nature of Trump’s words than the behaviour of their Democrat colleagues, who they regarded as impugning the motives of the President.  A failed effort was made to excise any suggestive words from the House Speaker’s record in accordance with the Jefferson Manual, a text authored by Thomas Jefferson in 1801.  Quaintly if revealingly, the manual states that “references to racial or other discrimination on the part of the President are not in order.”  Appalled by the bickering and disagreement, Representative Emanuel Cleaver II, Democrat of Missouri, banged the gavel and took his leave. “We just want to fight.”

While the president versus squad show was boiling over, an arguably more significant resolution failed to gather the numbers.  Sponsored by Representative Al Green, Democrat from Texas, the measure seeking to impeach Trump in light of his comments on the four representatives, failed by 332 votes to 95.  Bigotry, argued Green, was “a high crime and misdemeanour.”

The president, while publicly condemning the exercise as “time consuming”, would have been heartened: the squabbling Democrats may well have been united in their rebuke of the president’s tweets, but such consensus was momentary.  In Pelosi’s words, “We have six committees working on following the facts in terms of any abuse of power, obstruction of justice and the rest that the president may have engaged in”.  With unwitting comedic effect, the House Speaker found herself claiming that to be “the serious path we’re on – not that Mr Green is not serious, but we’ll deal with that on the floor.”  And dealt with it they did, putting the pro-impeachment Democrats back into their crammed box.

Corporate Gangster: Adani’s Pursuit of Scientists

The Adani conglomerate should be best described as a bloated gangster, promising the earth even as it mines it.  Like other corporate thugs of such disposition, it will do things within, and if necessary outside, the regulatory framework it encounters.  Where necessary, it will libel detractors and bribe critics, speak of a fictional number of as yet non-existent jobs, and claim that it is green in its coaling practices. It will also hire legal firms claiming to be trained attack dogs and hector the national broadcaster to pull unflattering stories from publication and discussion.

As a marauder of the environment, the Indian mining giant has left little to chance.  It has politicians friendly to its cause in Australia at both the state and federal level, but it faces an environmental movement that refuses to dissipate.  It also has a problem with environmental science, particularly in the area of water management.  Conditional approvals have been secured, albeit hurried in the aftermath of May’s federal election, and even here, further testing will have to be done.

Given the inconveniences posed by scientists wedded to methodology and technique, the company did not surprise in freedom of information findings by the environmental group Lock the Gate that it had asked the federal environment department for “a list of each person from CSIRO and Geoscience Australia involved in the review” of the Groundwater Dependent Ecosystem Management Plan (GDEMP) and Groundwater Monitoring and Management Plan (GMMP).

In a bullying note to the Department of Environment and Energy (DOEE) in January 25 this year, Hamish Manzi, head of the company’s environment and sustainability branch officiously gave a five day limit to the request, claiming that it “simply wants to know who is involved in the review to provide it with peace of mind that it is being treated fairly and that the review will not be hijacked by activists with a political, as opposed to scientific, agenda.”  Manzi had noted “recent press coverage regarding an anti-coal and/or anti-Adani bias potentially held by experts reviewing other Adani approvals.” For Manzi, the only expert worthy of that name would have to be sympathetic to the mining cause.

The corporate instinct is rarely on all fours with that of the scientific one.  The former seeks the accumulation of assets, profits and dividends; the latter tests hypotheses using a falsification system, a process that can only ever have fidelity to itself.  The corporate instinct is happy to forget troubling scientific outcomes, and, where necessary, corrupt it for its ends.  Where the science does not match, it is obviously the work of ill-motivated activists or those inconvenienced by conscience.

The Union of Concerned Scientists in February 2012, through its Scientific Integrity Program, supplied readers with a list of fields where science, and scientists, have been attacked or compromised.  More importantly, it notes how governments become the subject of influence, their decisions ever vulnerable to wobbling.  “Corporations attempt to exert influence at every step of the scientific and policy-making processes, often to shape decisions in their favour or avoid regulation and monitoring of their products and by-products at the public’s expense.  In so doing, they often attempt to fundamentally alter the decision-making process.”

The methods of corrupting science are not exhaustive, but the UCS report suggests a view tried ones.  Research, for instance, is either held up by the company in question or terminated.  Scientists are intimidated or coerced through threats to job security, defunding and litigation.  Defective methodologies in testing and research are embraced.  Scientific articles are ghost written, with corporate sponsorship blurred.  Negative results are slyly under-reported; positive results are glowingly celebrated. And never forget good old fashioned vilification.

The FOI documents regarding Adani’s conduct show the company as a witch doctor wooing the federal government into timed releases of information and an obsession with preventing a broader public discussion of findings.  A January 9 email from Adani to DOEE demanded that CSIRO/GA reports not be circulated to third parties or the public.  The next day, the department obligingly informed the company that it would only share advice with Queensland’s Department of Environment and Science.

The uncovered documents also show a certain degree of cyber stalking at play.  On January 15, a staff member of Geoscience Australia wrote to DOEE expressing concern that the company had viewed LinkedIn profiles of employees.  Such concerns did little to ruffle the growing accord between the department and the company.

The abdication of government to the corporate sector is one of the more troubling features of this tawdry chapter in Australian non-governance.  Corporate giants know they must enlist the support of representatives who they can trust to be of sound mind.  History is replete with successful lobbying efforts in the name of corrupted science.

In 2007, ReGen Biologics, a New Jersey company, faced a sceptical Food and Drug Administration (FDA) concerned with Menaflex, a device intended to replace knee cartilage.  With the FDA’s rejection came a mobilisation effort.  Politicians were sought and cultivated.  In December that year, Senators Frank Lautenberg and Robert Menendez, and Rep. Steve Rothman all wrote to FDA Commissioner Andrew von Eschenbach.  The Commissioner’s ear had been bended sufficiently to lead to a new review headed by Dr Daniel Schultz, head of the FDA’s medical devices division.  Scepticism vanished; the product was approved.  In 2010, a shamefaced FDA had to concede that it had erred and duly revoked approval.

Instead of defending practices of departments and professionals engaged in the task of assessing the merits of such ventures, individuals such as the Australian deputy prime minister suggest that Adani might have a point in its heavy-handed enthusiasm to root out contrarians.  In Michael McCormack’s view, Adani “were made to jump through more environmental hoops than perhaps any previous project in the nation.”  They merely “wanted to determine… that those arguing against their proposals were not just some quasi anti-development groups or individuals.”  The thug’s narrative has found a home in the hearts of the anti-scientific representatives that currently rule the Canberra roost. Scientists have been warned.

The UN’s Free Speech Problem

Anyone willing to consult the international law book on the subject of free speech will find it heavy with protections for free speech.  The UN Declaration of Human Rights features, in its preamble, the ideal that “human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want”, nothing less than “the highest aspiration of the common people”.  Article 19 re-emphasises the point that everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression including the “freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

International law did, however, come with its onerous, stifling limits.  The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights gives nodding approval to legitimate injunctions “as are provided by law and are necessary… (c) for respect of the rights or reputation of others; (d) for the protection of national order (ordre public), or of public health or morals”.  Such limits have provided governments with fertile ground to target the contrarian happy to march to a different tune.

In recent years, the pendulum has shifted its ponderous way from such notions of untrammelled expression – if, indeed, it could ever be said to exist – to one of regulation.  There are opinions best not expressed, let alone held.  They constitute threats to social order, harmony, offending sensibilities and minds alike.  A global policing effort against inappropriate content on the Internet and on social media is receiving a number of enthusiasts from purported liberal democracies and authoritarian states alike.  A war on hate speech, and words in general deemed disorderly to the social fabric, has been declared, and anyone having views suitably labelled will be targeted.

Social media platforms figure heavily in this regard.  Call it hate, call it an inspiration to terrorism: the lines blend and blur, rubbed out before the censor and the legislator. At the G20 summit in Osaka this year, Australia’s Pentecostal Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, was busy moralising about the dangers posed by online content that might be considered terroristic in nature.  In what he regarded as a personal victory of sorts, he encouraged G20 leaders to issue a joint statement urging “online platforms to meet our citizens’ expectations that they must not allow use of their platforms to facilitate terrorism and [violent extremism conducive to terrorism].”

The United Nations has not been exempted from such outbursts of moral regulation.  Last month, the UN Secretary General António Guterres indicated a shift of sorts.  “Hate speech may have gained a foothold, but it is now on notice.”  Sounding like a figure taking to the barricades, bayonet at the ready, Guterres insisted that, “We will never stop confronting it.” On looking at global conditions, the Secretary General saw “a groundswell of xenophobia, racism and intolerance, violent misogyny, anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim hatred”.

In his foreword to the United Nations Strategy and Plan of Action on Hate Speech, the Secretary General points the finger to such culprits as social media “and other forms of communication”.  (No surprise there.)  “Public discourse is being weaponized for political gain and incendiary rhetoric that stigmatizes and dehumanizes minorities, migrants, refugees, women and any so-called ‘other’.”

It does not take long for matters to bet murky.  Freedom of expression is straight forward enough: usually, states and authorities will always control it citing some general prevailing interest.  Punishing hate speech, however, is an exercise doomed to endless manipulations.  Spot the hate; spot the authoritarian wishing to prevent it.

Even the UN strategy document on the subject acknowledges an absence of any international legal definition of hate speech.  A working definition is offered: “any kind of communication in speech, writing, or behaviour, that attacks or uses pejorative or discriminatory language with reference to a person or a group on the basis of who they are, in other words, based on their religion, ethnicity, nationality, race, colour, descent, gender or other identity factor.”

The document seems to take issue with thresholds.  Hate speech is not prohibited in international law per se, preferring to focus on “the incitement to discrimination, hostility and violence”.  Despite States not being required to prohibit hate speech, it was “important to underline that even when not prohibited, hate speech may be harmful.”  We are left to the unruly world of hurt feelings and taking offence.

The UN strategy struggles to find coherence.  Meaningless assertions are made.  “The UN supports more speech, not less, as the key means to address hate speech.”  Hardly.  The more important point is the urge “to know to act effectively” involving various commitments to address “root causes, drivers and actors of hate speech”, the “monitoring and analysing of hate speech” and examining “the misuse of the Internet and social media for spreading hate speech and the factors that drive individuals towards violence.”  We have been warned.

Roping in hate within a regime of punishment is a dangerous legislative or regulatory game to play.  Given the distinctly omnivorous nature of the digital world, the very idea of seeking some retributive model against the spouters of bile has all the hallmarks of failure and scattergun zealotry.  States pounce on such instances, taking issue with anything contrarian that might be deemed hateful.  Political, cultural and religious practices are elevated to realms of the unquestioned. The UN should be the last body to take such a road, but finds itself in rather unfortunate company in doing so.

As Frank La Rue, UN special rapporteur on the promotion of protection of freedom of opinion and expression noted in 2012:

The right to freedom of expression implies that it should be possible to scrutinize, openly debate and criticize, even harshly and unreasonably, ideas, opinions, belief systems and institutions, including religious ones, as long as this does not advocate hatred that incites hostility, discrimination or violence against an individual or a group of individuals.

Danish lawyer and human rights activist Jacob Mchangama makes the sensible point that:

The UN should and must fight racism and hate speech.  But any attempt at widening the definition and strengthening the enforcement of hate speech bans under international law creates a clear and present danger for freedom of expression already under global attack.

The inner authoritarian in governments has been encouraged.

The Resigning Ambassador: Sir Kim Darroch on Donald Trump

Rarely do ambassadors resign after an intense self-assessment of worth.  Diplomatic immunity does not merely extend to protecting the official from the reach of local laws; it encourages a degree of freedom in engaging as a country’s representative.  Sir Kim Darroch, as UK ambassador to the United States, felt that any freedom afforded him in that capacity had ended.  “The current situation is making it impossible for me to carry out my role as I would have liked.”

The storm between Darroch’s good offices and the Trump administration was precipitated by the publication in the Mail on Sunday of content drawn from leaked diplomatic cables.  Darroch expressed a view both unsurprising as it was prosaic.  “We don’t really believe this administration is going to become substantially more normal; less dysfunctional; less unpredictable; less faction riven less diplomatically clumsy and inept.”

Specific foreign policy areas were singled out.  Regarding Tehran, a memorandum from June 22 notes that it was “unlikely that US policy on Iran is going to become more coherent anytime soon.  This is a divided Administration.”  Future British-US relations are in for a heady time.  “As we advance our agenda of deepening and strengthening trading agreements,” comes Darroch’s warning in a June 10 memorandum, “divergences of approach on climate change, media freedoms and the death penalty may come to the fore.”

Darroch’s assessment might have been withering, but he was keen to provide his superiors a portrait on how best to approach Trump.  All importantly, emphasise concentrated repetition.  “It’s important to ‘flood the zone’: you want as many as possible of those who Trump consults to give them the same answer.”  It was important to keep up his interest on the phone: speak two or three times a month, maybe more.  Flatter him and treacle-glaze words.  “You need to start praising him for something that he’s done recently.”  Be blunt; if critical of Trump, be sure it is not personal and not a matter or surprise. Throw him parties, roll out the red carpet, and entertain the beast.

UK Prime Minister Theresa May, while caught off guard, did not flinch in backing her man in Washington.  What mattered was not the content of the correspondence but the fact of its revelation. (Ignore the substance; punish the leaker.)  “Contact has been made with the Trump administration, setting out our view that we believe the leak is unacceptable,” came the view of May’s spokesman. “It is, of course, a matter of regret that this has happened.”

Such regret tends to take the form of safe, internally orchestrated inquiries.  At their conclusion, amnesia would have set in, making no one the wiser.  UK Foreign Minister Jeremy Hunt has promised “serious consequences” for the source, but he was also open to the default position of Anglo-US politics when matters sour: the Russians might have done it.  “Of course,” he told The Sun, “it would be massively concerning if it was the act of a foreign, hostile state.”  Feeling some unnatural urge for balance, he felt it necessary to tell the paper that he had “seen no evidence that’s the case, but we’ll look at the leak inquiry very carefully.”

Former British ambassador to Washington, Christopher Meyer, cast the net wider.  “It was clearly somebody,” he opined on BBC radio, “who set out deliberately to sabotage Sir Kim’s ambassadorship, to make his position untenable and to have him replaced by somebody more congenial to the leaker.”

On July 8, Trump issued a spray on Twitter designed to sink the ambassador’s continued appointment. “I do not know the Ambassador, but he is not well liked or well thought of within the US.  We will no longer deal with him.”  The comment was a prelude to his usual self-congratulatory view on such matters as Brexit. “I have been very critical about the way the UK and Prime Minister Theresa May handled Brexit.  What a mess she and her representatives have created.”  May, he felt, had refused to accede to this all shaking wisdom.

Darroch’s exposure to the Trump show was never going to have unqualified shielding.  May will shortly vacate the prime minister’s office, leaving the way for either Boris Johnson or Hunt to take the reins.  Given that the UK is set – at least as things stand – to leave the European Union on October 31, being in the Trump administration’s good books for a US-UK trade deal is a matter of distracting importance.  To illustrate the point, UK trade minister Liam Fox made a note on a visit to Washington to issue an apology to Trump’s daughter, Ivanka.

Darroch’s remarks, to that end, assumed another degree of importance.  Would Britain’s representative in Washington have the support of May’s successor?   The stance taken by the main contender for the Tory leadership in a debate on Tuesday cast doubt on that position.  Johnson’s opponent, Jeremy Hunt, failed to receive a clear answer after questioning Johnson on whether he would stick with the ambassador should he become prime minister.

On Friday, the BBC’s Andrew Neil got closer, but received a good deal of waffle by way of response.  “I stood up completely for the principle that civil servants should be allowed to say what they want for their political masters without fear or favour.”  Not quite.  An old tradition was broken with, and Trump, as he continues to do, had gotten his way — again.

Out of Kilter: National Security and Press Freedoms in Australia

Australian society relishes secrecy and surveillance.  Forget the laid-back, relaxed demeanour that remains the great fiction of a confected identity; like all such creations, the trace should not be mistaken as the tendency.  The political culture of Australia remains shaped by penal paranoia and an indifference to transparency.  The citizen is not to be trusted; rather, the subject is to be policed and regulated into apathetic submission.

The statute books of the federal parliament are larded with provisions of secrecy that make doing credible journalism in the country nigh impossible.  Journalists are left to their own devices, inventive as these might be, assisted by the odd prized leak.

The Australian Federal Police raids executed last month on the home of a News Corp journalist and the Sydney headquarters of the ABC had, for the clandestine community operating in the capitals of Australia, a surprise.  A usually divided fraternity came together in one voice, attempting to challenge the warrants and seek reform on matters related to press freedoms.

Media organisations would like to see parliament perform its functions, namely in the field of passing legislation that would enhance Freedom of Information provisions, arm press outlets with the means to contest warrants aimed at journalists, furnish whistleblowers with credible protections, and tilt the balance away from the national security grand inquisitor that seems to prevail in Canberra.

Understanding Canberra and the public service, however, is to understand a form of studied stasis, an effort to stymie change.  Ideas tend to go there to find cold storage if not expire altogether. The way to keep them in cold storage and throw away the key is to set up an inquiry, with all the baubles and tinsels of cheap accountability.

This is the preferred approach of the Morrison government, knowing that such an inquiry will be guaranteed to kill off any reform drive.  (Four months should do it: the inquiry is due to report on October 17.)  In his letter to the opposition leader Anthony Albanese, Prime Minister Scott Morrison informed his counterpart that, “The Government is committed to ensuring our democracy strikes the right balance between a free press and keeping Australians safe – two fundamental tenets of our democracy.”

Knowing the hostility this government, and its predecessors, have had to the only press freedom that matters – exposing abuses of state and corporate power – the limitations have already been inked.

One way of ensuring a smidgen of reform, if at all, is to use the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security (PJCIS), a body of approved politicians who can be trusted to do the right thing by secrecy and security.  Independents are excluded; contrarians are barred. Morrison claims the PJCIS is “well placed to conduct this inquiry given its responsibility for, and experience in, handling issues concerning national security information and legislation”.  Whatever qualifications the sitting members will have, their most valued pre-requisite is the capacity for premature adjudication of the problem, adjusted to satisfy the security apologists.

Andrew Wilkie, the independent MP more qualified than most to sit on the committee, makes the point starkly.  “The Labor and Liberal-dominated PJCIS is part of the problem because it’s signed off on every unnecessary security reform in recent history.”

To permit the committee the means and latitude to decide that balance on press freedom and security would be the equivalent of granting full powers of determination to a taxidermist over your favourite pet.  Denis Muller sees this as foxes guarding henhouses or poachers overseeing game-keeping.

The PJCIS has been one of the most important entities behind approving the shabby Australian national security state, a clumsy creation that does nothing to improve security let alone preserve freedoms.  Its members are terrified by technology and the Internet, and see any effort to restrain their reach as necessary to protect Australians.

Wilkie reminds us of the dubious resume of the PJCIS. “Who could forget the controversial data retention bill of 2015 and just last year the encryption bill?  In both cases the PJCIS recommended some tweaks around the edges, but… recommended the bills be passed, despite the serious concerns about both.”  While the European Union makes strides against such inefficient and dangerous policies as data retention, Australian governments embrace them with a relish for anachronism.

The inquiry hopes to assess, in part, “Whether and in what circumstances there could be contested hearings in relation to warrants authorising investigative action in relation to journalists and media organisations; (and) the appropriateness of thresholds of law enforcement for law enforcement and intelligence agencies to access electronic data on devices used by … media organisations.”  A full agenda for reform is guaranteed to be avoided.

Labor, in turn, is trying to shore up its poor parliamentary performance of late in attempting to set up a second, separate inquiry free of the clutches of the PJCIS.  That inquiry makes explicit reference to the “public’s right to know and press freedom”. Senator Kristina Keneally, shadow minister for home affairs, notes a prevailing “culture of secrecy and perverting the public’s right to know that has been making its way through this government for too long.”  In unwittingly casting such stones in the glass house, she ignores the record of previous Labor governments with similar leanings towards the national security state.

The parliamentary committee has its defenders in the Canberra set, relieved that the matter will be contained.  Jacinta Carroll, as director of national security policy at the National Security College at ANU, can be relied upon to sing the appropriate, pro-secrecy tune.  “The PJCIS is the appropriate body to undertake this review, as it’s made up of elected representatives of the people in Australia, and it’s also an established and expert body in the matter at hand.” Any praise for such committees should be met with scepticism, and her willingness to accept the supposedly useful function it performs suggests capitulation rather than engagement.

Carroll’s they-know-best tone is schoolmarmish and characterises the befuddlement of the security hacks.  She accepts, in tokenistic fashion, that, “A functioning and vibrant democracy is characterised by engaged civil society and informed debate.”  As Australian democracy is not vibrant, and lacks oxygen for a civil society struggling to fend off the regulators and spooks, her observation has little bearing on reality.

Given all that, she still insists, as the inquiry takes place, that all “maintain the focus on being informed about the complexities, nuances and competing interests at play, and not be lured into an oversimplified debate.”  Read: let bought parliamentarians seduced by national security briefs and their promoters dictate the balance.  The parents know best.

Dressed for the Fourth of July: The US Imperium Comes Out

The United States of Amnesia has occasionally found expression amongst those despairing at the state of historical consciousness in Freedom’s Land.  Gore Vidal remains something of its high priest, his writings a pertinent scolding about what went wrong in the creation of a New Rome in the Americas.  From Pilgrim’s Progress to the National Security State, the US became an empire with certain resemblances those of past: territorial acquisitiveness, a code of behaviour to observe and impose, a bore’s insistence on its exceptional qualities.

The word “empire” never really caught on, sealed fast from the cognitive capacities of the US academic and policy establishment.  The US was meant to be different, and celebrating the Fourth of July was not intended as a boastful affair of chained slaves on parade, rumbling armaments and purpled victory.  Besides, any course Washington had to power was, as Geir Lundestad, former director of the Norwegian Nobel Institute, famously observed, invited, not imposed.  (Such fine dissembling!)

This point is insisted upon by historians and international theorists alike who avoid the implications of US thuggery and predation: the US merely exerted a sort of hegemony by consensus and encouraged its citizens to spend, spend, spend; it was also, by definition, the only true hegemon (on this, see John Lewis Gaddis) in a world without genuine rivals, which was not the same as calling it imperial.  Any urgings that the US empire come out of the closet were met with alarm by such figures as Robert Kagan, who insist that calling it such “would not only be factually wrong but strategically catastrophic.” The US enriched rather than pillaged.

For much of the Obama administration, the imperium adopted what might be called a form of cross-dress or at least a form of fancy dress.  No one could be under any illusion what the Chicago lawyer was really up to: the lingering power of Empire required a less than subtle reorientation, or pivot, eastwards to stay the rise of Cathay.  It also saw an expansion of such interventions by stealth, with a spike in the use of drone warfare.

Then came President Donald J. Trump, who has nursed dreams of tanks rolling and jets roaring during an official celebration since 2017, when he witnessed the spectacular of a Bastille Day parade.  If the French President Emmanuel Macron could bask in such ecstatic celebration of civilisation, why not the US?  But even the empire has its logistical limits: a ballooning budget to run such a show, for instance, and the prospect of damage to roads. (US infrastructure continues to ail.)

Trump’s Fourth of July “Salute to America” was a chance to right the ledger.  The US Navy’s Blue Angels impressed; the crowds took their snaps.  The New York Times penned its own observation, and not an approving one at that. “Flanked by Bradley armoured vehicles and M1A2 tanks in front of the statue of Abraham Lincoln, Mr Trump payed homage to the five branches of the military as a chorus sang each service hymn and he cued the arrival of fighter jets, helicopters and other military aircraft as they roared overhead.”

Had Trump the militarist come out?  Retired Marine Col. David Lapan of the Bipartisan Policy Center caught eye of the tanks but considered them less than impressive “props”.  Prior to the celebration, the issue of Trump unleashing tanks in display was seen with mixtures of orgiastic delight and an infantile terror.

The American Empire was gasping to come out of the closet, and dressed for the occasion, but Senator Jack Reed, Democrat of Rhode Island, himself a West Point graduate who served in the 82nd Airborne Division, would have none of it. “Tanks aren’t props.  They are weapons of war.”

As with all beacon-on-the-hill messages, Trump spoke of an idea rather than an entity, a heart welled up. “We are one people, chasing one dream, and one magnificent destiny.”  Then came the dreaming – and so much dreaming it was.  “We all share the same heroes, the same home, the same heart, and we are all made by the same Almighty God.”  The US was a narrative of, and in, progress.  “Together, we are part of one of the greatest stories ever told – the story of America.”

While such notes have a historical rhyming with the speech fare of other presidents, this one was different in backdrop and occasion.  Previous stewards of the imperium have preferred to avoid the abject reality of the US as empire, preferring the quiet retreat, the humble commemoration.  Doing so assists amnesia, reassuring the US citizenry that Washington remains against wars of conquest, toppling governments and preserving its power.

On this occasion, there was no return to the home state, no low key gathering.  George W. Bush preferred West Virginia for four years running; visible, military filled bluster was put to one side.  As Time Magazine noted, the bicentennial parade of 1976 saw hundreds of thousands in attendance, but President Gerald Ford preferred a golfing stint in Bethesda.

While Fox News tends to be an annexe of laboured unreality, its commentators were out to celebrate the admission about US military power, taking issue with the naysayers.  Lou Dobbs of the Fox Business Network, in the true sentiment of the imperial sissy, was feeling particularly bullish. “No wonder these Snowflake General haven’t won a war since 1991: Military chiefs concerned about @realDonaldTrump’s July Fourth celebration”.  Dobbs’ was on shaky ground in his enthusiastic reliance upon a source: a piece in the UK Daily Mail – hardly a paper of record – noting claims by an “insider” that “members of the military’s top brass have been hesitant about accepting Trump’s invitation to the event at the National Mall on Thursday”.

Admittedly, the military high-ups were in short supply, being on leave, travelling or simply not in attendance.  The same could not be said for military families given invitations by Trump to attend the VIP section.

Trump was heartily warmed by the occasion, and duly said so.  “A great crowd of tremendous Patriots this evening, all the way back to the Washington Monument!”  This came with its usual theatrical alterations – or so it was alleged: no show is quite complete without a cosmetic touch-up to Trump’s images, though the accusers were suggesting a mauling of the original.  Allegations of authenticity battled those of the inauthentic, and Trump merely garnered more publicity for the occasion.  The one entity, undoctored and decked out in the whole war costume of celebration, finally let out into the open with frank vulgarity, was the US imperium.

G20 Gyrations: Donald, Ivanka and Hollow Diplomacy

Traditional diplomacy is being given a makeover – at least where it is not being abolished altogether and being replaced by a replica of The Apprentice.  US President Donald Trump’s seizure of the art has been violent and molesting.  Had Roman emperors had access to Twitter and the twenty-four hour news cycle, they might have had such moments, bothering the empire’s citizenry with their latest self-absorbed act. Imagine Caligula making his horse Incitatus consul and the hyperventilating postings of enthusiasm that would have followed.

In the summations of the G20 leaders’ summit in Osaka, scribes scrounged for meaning, hoping to bring magnifying glasses to insignificant detail; press attendees did their usual act, simulating interest or showing wonder at the spectacle.  Caitlin Byrne of the Griffith Asia Institute pushed herself to find gains.  “Significant breakthroughs including a pause in the escalating China-US trade war and the resumption of dialogue between US and North Korea”.

The conservative National Review yearned for a new Euro-American bloc against the Yellow Peril, which did not quite eventuate.  “In reality, the United States needs Europe to confront China.  Americans and Europeans would be able to hold China to account through existing multilateral trade structures and coordinated responses, rather than one-off bilateral ‘deals’.”

The communiqué was suitably imprecise.  The G20 leaders met “to make united efforts to address major global economic challenges.”  There was a promise to “work together to foster global economic growth, while harnessing the power of technological innovation, in particular digitilization, and its application for the benefit of all.”

There are acknowledgments of problems, albeit cushioned by assurances.  Trade and geopolitical issues, or “tensions” had “intensified” but these would be addressed.  The World Trade Organisation would be reformed; the “Osaka Tract” framework regulating the cross-border flow of data was endorsed, one described as “Data Free Flow with Trust”.

Peering through this glass darkly, and we see cracks of varying degrees.  “The digital economy is a crucial driver of economic growth,” Trump said, along with every other leader, but he was clear that “we must also ensure the resilience and security of our 5G networks”.  (Huawei representatives, raise your hands.)

The enthusiasm for climate change action was lukewarm, lacking the sting of urgency that has found feet on the streets across countries, often led by young activists.  In the leaders’ summit rooms, the adults had decided that the environment could be lessened in its immediate importance.  This, it was suggested, was due to Japan’s efforts to placate the United States at a time both are negotiating a trade deal.  The earth might as well go and fry: the powers shall have their trade pacts.

Global disruption is staple for the US president, and the rest of the G20 delegates in their Osaka meet had to mill about hoping for some letup in the recent push and shove between Washington and Beijing.  A temporary suspension of hostilities was suggested: Trump would not be adding tariffs on $300 billion worth of Chinese imports.  US companies would still be permitted to sell to Huawei – for the moment.  Trump remains convinced that US hegemony is the knobkerrie and staff to wield, the top chieftain in the international relations show.  Best make use of such implements before they lose force and shine.

No such summit could quite pass without the injection of slight farce.  One of Trump’s brood, Ivanka Trump, found herself in the media lenses, an intrusive reminder of this administration’s keenness to push family into any conspicuous, and awkward position.  The White House was a trophy in a game from the start; egged on and mocked, Trump dedicated himself to seizing it for himself and his interests. The impedimenta followed.  (His promise to clean Washington’s swamp was done with the selectively cleansing detergent of his inner circle.)

While not quite being in the big league of absurdity as Caligula’s consul stead, Ivanka still qualifies as an envoy in a role more akin to the despotisms of old than a modern diplomatic outfit.  Trump’s nepotism tends to be filled with a distinct bravado.  It rejects formality and embraces the politics of the malnourished playground.  Given various Freudian flavourings that have attended his descriptions of his daughter, he was happy to flaunt the candy and seek compliments.  Instead, an icy politeness, best expressed by IMF chief Christine Lagarde, was shown.

US Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) dealt with the matter witheringly, attempting to draw Trump back from the world of the disruptive make believe.  The subtext to her scolding: We are an empire, so behave properly as its big chief.  “It may be shocking to some,” she lamented, “but being someone’s daughter actually isn’t a career qualification.  It hurts our diplomatic standing when the President phones it in & the world moves on.  The US needs our president working the G20. Bringing a qualified diplomat couldn’t hurt either.”

Representative Ted Lieu (D-Calif) demanded an explanation from Ivanka Trump herself, showing the general consternation that continues to preoccupy the Democrats at Trumpist twist and turns.  Additionally, he wondered “why Jared Kushner still has a security clearance.”

Other leaders were also scolded for their ineffectual contribution.  Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was taken to task by his opponents for being meek when having a chance to discuss disagreements with China’s Xi Jinping.  (The chance was, admittedly, a brief one.) Conservative Party MP Erin O’Toole obsessed about the Prime Minister’s body language with an amateur’s enthusiastic glare.  “Some will note the later handshake and others the early hesitancy.  My concern stems from foreign policy missteps that have left us isolated.”

Such complaints have a keeping-up-appearances relish to them.  Trump, and some of his fellow leaders, have to be found wanting.  But the G20 is hardly a gladiatorial stage of heavy breathing and chest beating, despite unconvincing endorsements that it is “the culmination of months of intense negotiations” that reinforce “the underlying habits of cooperation so desperately needed for ongoing global economic stability.”  At the best of times, it remains a forum of little traction and achievement, leaving a degree of frivolousness to creep in.

In that way, Trump thrives.  Shallowness is depth.  The camera gives him life; social media pumps the blood and propels.  Besides, he had North Korea on his mind and duly showed that shaking hands with others is something he enjoys almost as much as, well, other, more self-focused things.

Raging Against the Algorithm: Google and Persuasive Technology

The founder of Netscape said software is going to eat the world.

— Tristan Harris, Centre for Humane Technology, June 25, 2019

Monsters and titans share the stage of mythology across cultures as the necessary realisations of the human imagination.  From stone cave to urban dwelling, the theme is unremitting; kept in the imagination, such creatures perform, innocently enough, benign functions.  The catch here is the human tendency to realise such creatures.  They take the form of social engineering and utopia.  Folly bound, such projects and ventures wind up corrupting and degrading.  The monster is born, and the awful truth comes to the fore: the concentration camp, the surveillance state, newspeak, the armies of censorship.

The technology giants of the current era are the modern utopians, indulging human hunger and interests by shaping them.  One company gives us the archetype. It is Google, which has the unusual distinction of being both noun and verb, entity and action.  Google’s power is disproportionately vast, a creepy sprawl that cherishes transparency while lacking it, and treasuring information while regulating its reach.  It is also an entity that has gone beyond being a mere repository of searches and data, an attempt to induce behavioural change on the part of users.

Google always gives the impression that its users are in the lead, autonomous, independent in a verdant land of digital frolicking.  The idea that the company itself fosters such change, teasing out alterations in behaviour, is placed to one side.  There are no Svengalis in Googleland, because we are all free. Free, but needing assistance amidst chaos and “multitasking”.

People have what the company calls “micro-moments”, those, as behavioural economist Dan Ariely describes as “on-the-go mobile moments” where decisions are reached by a user while engaged, simultaneously, in a range of tasks: hotels to book, travel choices to make, work schedules to fulfil.  While Ariely is writing more broadly from the perspective of the ubiquitous digital marketer, the language is pure Googleleese, smacking of part persuasion and part imposition.  “Want to develop a strategy to shape your consumer decisions?” asks Google.  “Start by understanding the key micro-moments in their journey.”  Understand them; feed their mind; hold their hand.

The addiction to Google produces what can no longer be seen as retarding, but fostering.  A generation is growing up without a hard copy research library, a ready-to-hand list of classics, and the means to search through records without resorting to those damnable digital keys.  Debates are bound to be had (some already pollute the digital space) about whether this is necessarily a condition to lament.  Embrace digital amnesia! To Google is to exist.

What is undeniable is that the means to find information – instantaneous, glut-filled, desperately quick – has created users who inhabit a space that guides their thinking, pre-empting, cajoling and adjusting.  One form of literacy, we might kindly say, is being supplanted by another: the Google imbecile is upon us.

Given the nature of such effects, it is little wonder that politicians find Google threatening to their mouldy and rusted on craft.  The politician’s preserve is sound – or unsound – communication; success at the next election is dependent upon the idea that the electors understand, and approve, what has been relayed to them (whether that material is factual, or not, a lie or otherwise, is beside the point: the politician yearns to convince in order to win).

The old search engine titan supplies something of a snag in this regard.  On the one hand, it offers the political classes the means to reach a global audience, an avenue to screech and promote the next hair-brained scheme that comes into the mind of the political apparat.  But what if the message stymies on the way, finding delays in the means of what is called “search engine optimisation”?  Is Google to blame, or bog standard ordinariness on the part of the politician?

US politicians think they have an answer.  Only they are permitted control of the narrative, and disseminating the lie.  Of late they have been trying to sketch out a path they are not used to: regulating industries once hailed as sentinels of freedom, promoters of liberty.  Their complaints tend to lack consistency. On the one hand, they find various Google algorithms problematic (preference for alt-right sites, conspiratorial gruel as damaging), but their slant is wonky and skewed.  Had these algorithms been driving favourable search terms (conformist, steady, unquestioning, anti-Trump), the matter would be a non-starter.  Our message, they would say, is getting out there.

This week, the US Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation tried to make sense, in rather accusing fashion, of “persuasive technology”.  Nanette Byrnes furnishes us with a definition: “the idea that computers, mobile phones, websites, and other technologies could be designed to influence people’s behaviour and even attitudes”.  The Pope does remain resolutely Catholic.

The committee hearing featured such opinions as those of Senator John Thune (R-SD), who wished to use the proceedings to draft legislation that would “require internet platforms to give consumers the option to engage with the platform without having the experience shaped by algorithms.”  The Senator is happy to accept that artificial intelligence “powers automations to display content to optimize engagement” but sees a devil in the works, as “AI algorithms can have an unintended and possibly even dangerous downside”.  This is tantamount to wanting a Formula One Grand Prix without fast cars and an athletics competition in slow motion.

Facing the senators from Google’s side was Maggie Stanphill, director of Google User Experience.  Her testimony was couched in words more akin to the glossiness of a travel brochure with a complimentary sprinkling of cocaine.  “Google’s Digital Wellbeing Initiative is a top company goal, focusing on providing our users with insights about their digital habits and tools to support an intentional relationship with technology.”  Google merely “creates products that improve the lives of the people who use them.”  The company has provided access that has “democratized information and provided services for billions of people around the world.”  When asked about whether Google was doing its bit in the persuasion business, Stanphill was unequivocal.  “We do not use persuasive technology.”

The session’s theme was clear: oodles and masses of content are good, but must be appropriate.  In Information Utopia, where digital Adam and Eve still run naked, wickedness will not be allowed.  If people want to seek content that is “negative” (this horrendous arbitrary nature keeps appearing), they should not be allowed to.  Gag them, and make sure the popular terms sought are white washed of any offensive or dangerous import.  Impose upon the tech titans a responsibility to control the negative.

Senator Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) complained of those companies “letting these algorithms run wild […] leaving humans to clean up the mess.  Algorithms are amoral.” Tristan Harris, co-founder and executive director of the Centre for Humane Technology, spoke of the competition between companies to use algorithms which “more accurately predict what will keep users there the longest.”  If you want to maximise the time spent searching terms or, in the case of YouTube, watching a video, focus “the entire ant colony of humanity towards crazytown.”  For Harris, “technology hacks human weaknesses.”  The moral?  Do not give people what they want.

The rage against the algorithm, and the belief that no behavioural pushing is taking place in search technology, is misplaced on a few fronts.  On a certain level, all accept how such modes of retrieving information work.  Disagreement arises as to their consequences, a concession, effectively, to the Google user as imbecile.  Stanphill is being disingenuous for assuming that persuasive technology is not a function of Google’s work (it patently is, given the company’s intention of improving the “intentional relationship with technology”). In her testimony, she spoke of building “products with privacy, transparency and control for the users, and we build a lifelong relationship with the user, which is primary.”  The Senators, in turn, are concerned that the users, diapered by encouragements in their search interests, are incapable of making their own fragile minds up.

The nature of managed information in the digital experience is not, as Google, YouTube and like companies show, a case of broadening knowledge but reaffirming existing assumptions.  The echo chamber bristles with confirmations not challenges, with the comforts of prejudice rather than the discomforts of heavy-artillery learning. But the elected citizens on the Hill, and the cyber utopians, continue to struggle and flounder in the digital jungle they had seen as an information utopia equal to all.  For the Big Tech giants, it’s all rather simple: the attention grabbing spectacle, bums on seats, and downloads galore.

Bill Clinton in Kosovo

War in the name of morality provides as many reasons for historical shudders as war in the name of self-interest, for at least the latter may be easier to call off when self-interest calls for compromise.

— Lawrence Freedman, Review of International Studies, July, 2000

The Balkans has often been prone to seizures of mysticism, glum prediction and predation.  But one character felt at home as he addressed his audience in Kosovo, himself having been afflicted by a certain evangelical urge.  This month, former US President Will Jefferson Clinton, keeping company with former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, were rubbing shoulders with officials and stage hands in Pristina to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the Kosovo intervention by NATO in March 1999.

It was a chance Kosovo’s president Hashim Thaçi was not going to let pass.  In being awarded the Order of Freedom, Clinton was all praise.  “I think the whole world today with all this turmoil, can look to Kosovo as an example of a democracy and a commitment to prove, grow, and live in peace with one’s neighbours.”  Being Clinton, his words have a profound lightweight quality, albeit dressed up as grave and morally hefty.

Nonetheless, they struck the appropriate, ceremonial note.  Thaçi glowed with appreciation.  “We thank you for the just decision to stop the Serbian genocide during 1999.  We are very grateful for the support of the US to Kosovo. The story of Kosovo is a story of joint success.  You are our hero.”

Clinton duly responded, expressing pride at having been the “president of the United States when you needed someone to stand up and say no more ethnic cleansing, no more people running out of their homes, no more killing innocent civilians, there’s got to be another way.”

Misnamed humanitarian interventions are nasty, untidy things.  They ride on the wave of emotional simplification, embellished by the force of ghastly imagery and eye-moistened grief.  As UK Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd would note as the crisis in Yugoslavia deepened in blood in 1992, taking a swipe at the seductions of the idiot box in a much quoted speech at the Travellers’ Club in London, “the selection of these tragedies is now visible within hours to people around the world.  People reject and resent what is going on because they know it more visibly than before.”  As news reporter Martin Bell would reflect, a variant of this point had been made by the essayist and novelist G.K. Chesterton: “It’s not the world that has got so much worse, but the news coverage that has got so much better”.

Yet such coverage can be suspect not because it inaccurately portrays horror, but that it does so from one, captured vantage point.  Participants assume the roles of innocent victims and stained perpetrators.  The NATO intervention, given its Clinton white wash, removes references to attacks on Serbian civilian targets and infrastructure and the acceleration of the cleansing efforts by Serb forces in Kosovo-proper after the bombings began, suggesting a less than rosy account of Operation Allied Force.

The neatness of such commemorative occasions as took place in Pristina unduly purifies. It ignores such assessments as those from Robert Gelbard, Clinton’s special envoy to the Balkans, who deemed the Kosovo Liberation Army “a terrorist group” in comments made on February 23, 1999. In March that same year, Gelbard appeared before the House International Relations Committee to modify his response, claiming that the KLA had “not been classified legally by the US government as a terrorist organisation.” That said, he did explain to law makers that “terrorist” acts perpetrated by the KLA had “provided an excuse for [Serbian President Slobodan] Milošević.”

Even with the embers still bright, Jeremy Harding remarked in an August issue of the London Review of Books how “in the former Yugoslavia, a loss of any kind often insinuates itself into the annals of gain, while short-term winners – Kosovo Albanians, for instance – can barely distinguish what they are meant to have won from all the have lost.”

Serbia’s Foreign Minister, Ivica Dačić, if predictably, had a rather different reading of the anniversary.  When the 78-day aerial bombing initiated by a US-led NATO force commenced on the rump of what was left of Yugoslavia, it did so without UN Security Council authorisation, a rebuff to the UN Charter. Those powers, Dačić said accusingly, became colonisers. The pathway to Kosovo’s 2008 declaration of independence had been less paved than bombed, and this small stretch of territory became a European headache of monumental proportions, punctuated by annual clashes between the Albanian majority and Serbian minority ever fearful at their own expulsion.

Last year’s decision to transform the Kosovo Security Forces into a more traditional military fighting force could hardly be said to be in line with neighbourliness, but realities on trodden Balkan ground were always rather different from Clinton’s distracted interpretations.

While Clinton was being cheered in Pristina, the humanitarian credo in international relations had a vital co-conspirator in British Prime Minister Tony Blair.  It was Blair who girded the Kosovo intervention with a doctrine and flogged it before assemblies and fora with gravity and conviction.  Before the Chicago Economic Club in April 1999, he drew back the curtains on the “Doctrine of the International Community”, showing the usual spin and ease with terms that proved to be the hallmark of New Labour.

Central to the meretricious doctrine is a contention that cruelty has one face – or a set of faces – clearly discernible, and, to that end, identifiable for punishment. “No one in the west who has seen what is happening in Kosovo can doubt that NATO’s military action is justified.”  Bismarck, he contended, was wrong to suggest that the Balkans were not worth the bones of one Pomeranian Grenadier. “Anyone who has seen the tear-stained faces of the hundreds of thousands of refugees streaming across the border, heard their heart-rending tales of cruelty or contemplated the unknown fates of those left behind, knows that Bismarck was wrong.”  Hurd, hard boiled realist, would have recoiled; but Blair was the prime minister of image, the confection, the sound bite.

The Kosovo intervention remains an object lesson on how misguided the messianic instinct can be. Coupled with the astonishing shallowness that governed much of the President Erect’s time in office, one marked by squalid scandal and the desperation for foreign distractions, NATO gave birth to a monster that has been reprised in several forms since.

The worst of these is the Responsibility to Protect Doctrine, a cheeky number that discards the “right” to intervene in favour of an obligation to protect.  But the record of this less than illustrious doctrine is patchy, even disastrous.  The International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty in 2001 tried to underpin the interventionist doctrine with procedural caveats – the need for verification of atrocity, for instance, and the logistical requirement that infrastructure would be spared – but such neat precautions disappear in the red mist fog of war. As unfolded in Libya in 2011, cruise missiles do little in the way of promoting humanitarian, let alone humane outcomes.