More thoughts about transparency and corruption

transparency

Sounds good, doesn’t it?

Once again, I have cause to be proud of my homeland. New Zealand has finally overtaken Denmark to win the title of least corrupt country in the world, according to the organisation Transparency International.

Of course, I was keen to check out the full list of 180, and I have to tell you, I found some surprises. There was a certain predictability about the bottom placings: Iraq and Venezuela tied at 169, North Korea and Libya at 171, Yemen, Afghanistan and Syria ranking 175th, 177th and 178th respectively – which may be a true reflection of life in those countries, or a clear message that it doesn’t pay to rile up Uncle Sam. But I’m not here to debate that point.

Zimbabwe has risen to 157th=, after its armed forces staged a coup to overthrow dictator of 37 years, Robert Mugabe last year. Despite the country’s vast mineral wealth, including gold, diamonds and chromite, 80% of the population falls below the poverty line. Zimbabwe holds the world record for annual inflation, achieving the staggering rate of 89.7 sextillion percent in 2008 (I didn’t know there was such a number – but I learned that it’s 1 followed by 21 zeroes!), although the economic wizards in the military junta have reportedly reduced that to a relatively respectable 348%. So they must be pleased to find themselves climbing up the rankings.

Russia, on the other hand, won’t be proud of their placing at 135, especially since that puts them five spots behind Myanmar, currently making headlines around the world for ethnically cleansing their Muslim Rohingya citizens.

myanmar genocide

At least they’re open about it

“The U.N. special envoy on human rights in Myanmar said Thursday that the Myanmar military’s violent operations against Rohingya Muslims bear “the hallmarks of a genocide.” Nearly 700,000 Rohingya have fled their villages into Bangladesh since the Myanmar military’s crackdown following Aug. 25 attacks by Rohingya insurgents.” But I guess they’re being quite open about what they’re doing, so it doesn’t really count as corruption.

It’s not surprising, then, that the Maldive Islands, playground of the world’s glitterati, managed a ranking of 112, despite the ongoing state of emergency imposed by President Abdulla Yameen

“Yameen had cited threats to national security after the Supreme Court overturned criminal convictions against nine of his opponents and ordered their release.

He sent the army to storm the Supreme Court building and arrest the island nation’s chief justice and another judge on the top court’s bench. His estranged half-brother, former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who has sided with the opposition, was also arrested. The three remaining judges on the Supreme Court then reversed part of their verdict on the release of Yameen’s opponents.”

At least Turkey managed to beat that lot – though President Erdoğan may feel his country deserves to be a little higher than 81st on the list; especially since China slotted in at 77, and South Africa at 71. Cape Town, as you may know, is currently getting unfavourable publicity, poised to become the first major world city to run out of water – although the crisis seems to be less of a problem for citizens with money.

Cuba was a surprise for me, coming in at 62, and Cyprus managed a commendable 42, my favourite number – though of course that’s “Greek” Cyprus, and needless to say, the Turkish enclave didn’t get a mention.

tax havens 2

And check their TI rankings!

By the time I’d got up to the 30s, my cynicism was starting to really kick in . . . so when I saw Costa Rica, tax-haven for the world’s mega-rich at No. 38, I wasn’t too surprised. Still, who’d have expected to see Botswana up there at 34, just behind Israel at 32, whose government has for years been ignoring UN requests to stop massacring Palestinians and invading their lands? Still, they’re pretty up-front about that too.

Which brought me to the 20s – and there was/were the United Arab Emirates, up with the elite of the world’s squeaky-clean at No 21!

“The UAE is the most densely migrant-populated country in the world. About 90 percent of the UAE’s 9 million people are foreign-born, most working on temporary employment contracts in a range of white-collar, blue-collar and service industry jobs. Only a handful of migrants have been granted citizenship since the country gained independence in 1971. Amnesty International and other humanitarian agencies have put a spotlight on the hardships migrant workers have faced, including exploitation of construction workers and unequal protection of women and domestic workers.”

Soooo . . . What do you make of all that? At the very least, you’d want to take a closer look at the criteria those “Transparency” people are using to make their assessments.

New Zealand was awarded No 1 spot, in spite of the following well-publicised facts:

  • * “Hundreds of drivers have had their licenses cancelled after a fraudulent licensing scam was uncovered; revealing [Ministry of Transport] staff had accepted bribes of up to $600 in exchange for a licence.”
  • A new plan has been put forward for the America’s Cup bases in Auckland by a company owned by some of the country’s richest businessmen who own 20 hectares of land at Wynyard Quarter and the Viaduct Harbour.” Some less wealthy citizens believe the plan will further develop Auckland’s downtown as an exclusive playground for the super-rich. I’ll be following that one with interest.
  • “Immigration NZ has completed an investigation [but not releasing their findings] into whether Kim Dotcom can be deported from New Zealand for failing to declare a dangerous driving conviction – but it’s refusing to say what the outcome is.

[Dotcom] entered the country on a special scheme intended to attract wealthy foreigners, giving three-years residency and a fast-track to citizenship to those who invested $10 million or more in New Zealand.

Documents obtained by the Herald through the Official Information Act showed NZSIS staff tried to block the residency application but dropped its objection after being told there was “political pressure” to let the tycoon into New Zealand.

At the time, the new residency scheme was having little success and – documents show – [Immigration Minister] Coleman was eager to get “high rollers” into the country.”

banks dotcom

ex-mayor Banks, Kim Dotcom and former PM John Key

Dotcom, as you may know, made wagonloads of money from various online businesses including his file-sharing website, Megaupload, arousing the ire of powerful figures in the United States. The US government then pressured their NZ counterparts to have him extradited, despite the fact that he is a citizen of Germany. Although known to have criminal convictions in Hong Kong and Germany, and to have served prison time in his own country, Dotcom was granted fast track residence in New Zealand in 2010. At the time of his application, he made several substantial “charitable” donations, one of which was a $50,000 contribution to the election campaign of former Auckland Mayor and Member of Parliament, John Banks.

Mr Banks faced criminal charges as a result, but claimed not to remember Dotcom’s financial assistance. Nevertheless, he was convicted in 2014 of filing a false electoral return. The conviction was subsequently overturned after Banks brought a witness from the USA to support his story (of amnesia?). However, it seems his righteous indignation went a little too far when he sought to get $190,000 legal costs awarded against Dotcom. In a recent Court of Appeal decision, the judge ruled that, although the original conviction had been reversed on a legal technicality, the court had stopped short of declaring Banks innocent – so no payment of costs was justifiable. Incidentally, after arriving in New Zealand, Dotcom had taken out a lease on one of the country’s most expensive houses, by coincidence no doubt, in the electorate of John Key, NZ’s Prime Minister at the time, and leader of the government which included John Banks.

  • The latest scandal rocking New Zealand’s ruling elite involves the venerable law firm, Russell McVeagh, among the country’s largest and most reputable. After some prevaricating, the partners have admitted that there had been shenanigans in the past involving some of their colleagues and young summer interns from the University of Auckland Law Faculty. There has been talk of interns selected for their physical attributes, required to sign confidentiality agreements, and engaging in sex acts on the boardroom table.

Complaints had apparently been laid by Auckland University on behalf of some of the students concerned, none of whom, however, want their names to be known for fear of retribution from their powerful assailants. Nothing corrupt about all that, of course. The interns were, after all, willing participants, I guess.

Nevertheless, it does make you wonder about Transparency International, and how they go about comparing and assessing levels of transparency and corruption in those 180 countries.

The TI organisation was apparently founded in Germany in 1993 by an interesting coterie of high-flyers including a former director of the World Bank, a lawyer for General Electric, a member of the US military intelligence establishment, and several high-ups in corporate banking and industry (Source: Wikipedia).

In spite of being clearly dependent on information from whistle-blowers, TI recently specifically refused support for Edward Snowden, one of the key informants for WikiLeaks. There has also been some discomfort expressed over how TI can maintain objectivity when it accepts large donations from large corporations (such as the $3 million paid over by Siemens Corp in 2008). The American chapter of Transparency International, TI-USA, was censured by its parent body after presenting Hilary Clinton with its Integrity Award in 2012. There has also apparently been some conflict with the TI people in New Zealand, though I haven’t been able to learn the exact details.

Well, ok, maybe the central powers at TI do seek to supervise the moral integrity of their branches abroad – but I read of another case involving a TI employee, Anna Buzzoni, having to leave the organisation after blowing the whistle on “questionable financial dealings” at TI’s Water Integrity Network.

standard_poor_2076208b

Settled out of court in a case accusing them of deceiving investors and contributing to the 2008 world financial crisis

Who can you trust these days?

Certainly not the rankings provided by the world’s major credit rating agencies. The latest list published by Standard and Poors assesses New Zealand, with no manufacturing industry to speak of, and a tiny population, as AA,  a “High Grade” investment; and Turkey, with its booming economy and large manufacturing sector, as BB, “non-investment grade, speculative”. Still, maybe you’re better off not getting a good grade from those crooks:

In the spring of 2013, Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s settled two “long-running” lawsuits “seeking to hold them responsible for misleading investors about the safety of risky debt vehicles that they had rated”. The suits were filed in 2008 and had sought more than $700 million of damages. Settlement terms were not disclosed in both cases, and the lawsuits were dismissed “with prejudice”, meaning they cannot be brought again.

In the end, S&P settled for $1.5 billion – possibly feeling it was worth the money to avoid further negative publicity. Now it seems they are back dispensing credit ratings, and investors are happy to trust them again. Really?

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Hollywood and the FBI in the Struggle For/Against democracy (delete one)

Dotcom and team in the dock

Dotcom and team in the dock

I haven’t seen much news about Kim Dotcom lately. You may remember he is the larger-than-life German entrepreneur who made headlines four years ago when he was arrested in New Zealand in a local police operation instigated at the request of the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). The Americans wanted Kim and his partners extradited to the Land of the Free to face charges of copyright infringement, money laundering and criminal conspiracy.

The charges relate to a file sharing company Megaupload these guys set up in 2005 in Hong Kong. If the New Zealand Government decides to send them to the USA (which seems pretty likely), and they are convicted, they face prison sentences that will run into decades. You’ll remember Chelsea (Bradley) Manning got 35 years for blowing the whistle on US shenanigans in Iraq, but at least he’s an American citizen, which the Dotcom team are not. Doesn’t worry the Yanks though. Julian Assange (an Australian citizen) is still under Ecuadorean protection in their London embassy to avoid a similar fate.

Well, the extradition hearing has begun in New Zealand, and I read an interesting article published in The New Zealand Herald focusing on the plight of one Finn Batato, Megaupload’s advertising manager who is one of the defendants. If you’re interested, you can read the article for yourself, but for me the most interesting snippets came near the end, where the writer, David Fisher, asks some interesting questions: ‘Was the case motivated by Hollywood?’ and ‘How is it the US’s business?’ – given that they accused are not US citizens and the company was set up in Hong Kong.

John Banks in the dock

John Banks in the dock

In answer to the first question, Fisher says, ‘Hollywood certainly pushed Washington to go hard on filesharing websites, including Megaupload. In 2010, the White House made intellectual property – and copyright – an issue of national security. The movie and music industry was described as a cornerstone of the US economy and in need for protection from rogue Internet businesses.’

To the second, he says, ‘The original prosecutor, Neil McBride, the US attorney for East Virginia, said in 2012: “I’m convinced that most emails in the world at some point transit through servers that sit somewhere in the Eastern District of Virginia, so that gives us venue.” By venue, he means jurisdiction, and that means US law travels with the Internet.’

That’s why the trial, if it comes to a trial, will be held in the state of Virginia. And I have to tell you, I don’t have a lot of confidence in the current government of New Zealand to stand up to the US of A. Dotcom was granted residency in NZ despite his known criminal record in Germany, on the strength of his considerable wealth – New Zealand’s tiny economy is subsidized by a fast track process granting generous privileges to mega-rich foreigners.

Kim who?

Kim who?

At the time of his arrest he was living in a leased mansion in the electorate of New Zealand’s multi-millionaire, free marketeering former banker Prime Minister, John Key. Mr Key subsequently switched loyalties after discovering that Dotcom was targeted by the FBI. A former member of Mr Key’s National Party, former cabinet minister, one-time mayor of NZ’s largest city and self-professed creationist, John Banks, was recently cleared of accepting a pay-off from Dotcom to help with his 2010 mayoral campaign. Originally convicted by NZ’s High Court and obliged to leave parliament, Banks’ conviction was overturned by the Court of Appeal on the basis of sworn (but questionable) evidence by two American businessmen.

YouTube’s back in Turkey!

Well, I’m not a big YouTube user – to my shame I have never actually uploaded any video content – but I did miss it while it was unavailable. It had happened once before, some years ago, and a younger, more technologically savvy colleague gave me directions to a site that was able to bypass the blockage. As one might have expected, the government was on to that this time around, so the bypass no longer worked. Still, I’m guessing the younger generation in Turkey weren’t unduly disturbed by the ban, except as a matter of democratic principle.
Anyway, I’m delighted to see YouTube up and running again. It’s a marvellous resource, and a further indication of how the Internet and social media have changed our lives in ways that we could scarcely have imagined in that distant 20th century.
The blocking of YouTube (and, I understand, Twitter, though to my greater shame, I haven’t got into that at all) did, however, get me thinking about larger issues to do with social media, the Internet and the big question of censorship.
Much was made in Western news media of the role played by social media in events collectively referred to as The Arab Spring that began in Tunisia in December 2010 and spread rapidly to Egypt, Libya, Syria, Bahrain, Yemen and other Islamic states. The anarchy of the Internet was credited with empowering a switched-on younger generation to achieve greater political awareness and organize themselves in numbers sufficient to overthrow despotic regimes.
Sad to say, a return to military rule in Egypt and the disastrous ongoing civil war in Syria have taken the gloss somewhat off that brave new vernal world of ‘liberty’ and ‘equality’ – and as for ‘brotherhood’, that seems to have become a dirty word rendering further analysis unnecessary. Those much-vaunted social media, it seems, have their limitations when it comes to producing meaningful long-term political change.
Nevertheless, it’s disturbing when governments use their powers to censor our activities. We have come to depend on the Internet and social media so much in our daily lives that it’s hard to imagine a time when people lived in relative contentment without them. It was natural for people in Turkey to feel angry when their government blocked access to YouTube and Twitter. Some are also complaining that the same government is taking measures to control the sale and consumption of alcohol in public places, and to limit the display of naked female flesh on roadside advertising.
Now I have to tell you, I have mixed feelings about these issues. I confess I enjoy the occasional tipple of fermented and even spirituous liquors for relaxation and social purposes. I can appreciate the sight of a well-turned ankle as much as the next red-blooded male. On the other hand, I am well aware that my own homeland, New Zealand, and our near neighbor, Australia, not renowned either of them for alcoholic moderation, impose quite tight restrictions on the sale and consumption of such beverages. As an example, in Melbourne a couple of years ago, I went to Federation Square with my daughter and her partner to watch Australian Open tennis on the giant screen. One would expect a typical Aussie to enjoy a frosty VB or Fosters on such an occasion – but eagle-eyed private security boys were circulating to ensure that they did not.
I can also say that, despite the importance given to eye-catching advertising in subways and other public places in Auckland, Sydney, London and New York, I don’t recall seeing large-size posters of fetching young lasses clad in skimpy underwear or bikinis, of the kind that are commonplace on the streets of Istanbul. Not sure if there’s a law against it – it just doesn’t seem to be the done thing.
Which brings me to the question of censorship – and I have to tell you, I’m against it, as a matter of principle, as, I suspect, are most modern, broad-minded, right-thinking adults in Western societies. At the same time, I can understand why some people feel there should be some control over the dissemination of child pornography, and material depicting actual physical abuse. I have some sympathy for the argument that says children under a certain age should not be exposed to visual material deemed to be ‘adult’ in nature. Google and YouTube actually include such restrictions as part of company policy.
So we have a paradoxical situation here: a conflict between theory and practice which is not easy to resolve. If we accept that some measure of censorship is socially desirable, the question shifts to one of where we will draw the line – and who will have authority to draw it. Again, few of us have confidence in the willingness of private enterprise to regulate its own activities, so in the end, most of us would reluctantly accept that governments have a necessary role to play.
But now, of course, we have given a dangerous power to politicians who, as we suspect, are not always driven by an altruistic concern for the welfare of their people. In the end, those of us fortunate enough to live in democracies have the power of the ballot box where we can call elected governments to account. Between elections, we have the responsibility of participating in the democratic process by joining pressure groups, working for social change though NGOs, even taking to the streets in protest.
I have written elsewhere on the complex nature of democracy. Most writers on the subject agree that there is a continuum from one extreme of absolute slavery to the other of absolute individual freedom – and most countries lie somewhere on the line between. In fact there may even be several components of democracy, such as press freedom, representative electoral systems, separation of church and state, limitations on corporate power, for example, and countries may be ahead in some while lagging behind in others.
The United States and Europe, for example, place, as far as I am aware, no restrictions on the use of social media such as Twitter and YouTube, and some of their political leaders have been outspoken in their criticism of the Turkish Government for doing so.
On the other hand, they seem to see no contradiction between their position on this matter, and what some might see as a greater danger – their willingness to persecute individuals who use the power of the Internet to question the activities of governments and corporations. I’m thinking here of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange – still, as far as I know, holed up in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London, threatened with deportation if he emerges; Edward Snowden, epic whistleblower stripped of his US passport and similarly unable to leave Russia; Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning, sentenced to 35 years in prison for leaking information many of us think we had a right, even a need, to know. I wouldn’t put New Zealand’s very own Kim Dotcom in the same league as those guys, but nevertheless, I appreciate the light he is shining on the shenanigans of politicians downunder.
What is important, in my opinion, is the responsibility we all have to speak out against corruption and injustice wherever we see it, although doing so will not necessarily win us friends and public acclaim. Our voice of protest, however, will possess greater credibility if we nail our colours to the mast, rather than maintain a safe electronic distance via social media on the Internet. For me, the greatest figures of history are those who were willing to sacrifice personal comfort, even life itself, to achieve a greater social goal:
Not everyone will thank you
for wanting to change the world
Mahatma Gandhi in India, whose 32-year struggle brought no personal wealth, ending in his own assassination – but resulted in independence for his people.
Jesus of Nazareth, who challenged the establishment of his time in unacceptable ways, knowing that they would kill him for it in a most unpleasant way.
Even Turkey’s own Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. Despite widespread public adulation, he assuredly faced opposition from vested interests in his own lifetime – and denied himself the important Turkish dreams of family and dynastic succession for the greater goal of building a nation.
And to be fair, that’s why I don’t rank Mr ‘Megaupload’ Dotcom with that other triumvirate of Internet heroes. I’m not convinced there is quite the same spirit of self-sacrifice underlying his actions.

Well, YouTube is back, and I’m happy. I would, however, make a plea to armchair political activists wishing to bring down the Turkish Government. By all means express your views, but at the same time show a little consideration for your fellow citizens who enjoy using Facebook, Twitter and YouTube for less controversial purposes.

International Hypocrisy – What about Egypt or your own backyard, Mr Gauck?

To be fair, international media didn’t seem to pay much attention to it. Even the German press seemed to have more important things on its collective mind – which may be understandable given that the role of President is largely ceremonial there, as it is in Turkey.
German President speaking at METU –
a diplomatic faux-pas?
Nevertheless, the visit of German Federal President Joachim Gauck generated some heat in our local media. Normally you would expect such a visit to focus largely on PR activities and photo ops. You’d dine with your Turkish counterpart, open a bi-national university (which, to be fair, he did), utter warm fuzzy words in public about long-standing friendship and hopes for positive cooperation in the future – and save any criticism for meetings behind closed doors.
But no. Apparently Mr Gauck had his agenda mapped out (as you would expect) before touching down in Ankara. English language news outlets in Germany say that, ‘according to the German president’s office the rule of law and fundamental rights will be at the heart of the four-day trip . . . Gauck intends to talk about freedom of the press and freedom of expression.’
Well, given that Germany and France are the two main opponents of Turkey’s admission to the European Union, it’s probably to be expected that the German President would raise those issues. And so he did. In a joint press conference with Turkey’s President Abdullah Gül on April 28, Gauck posed questions about the Turkish government’s intervention in the judicial process and the blocking of access to Twitter and YouTube. Not surprisingly, he didn’t receive anything resembling an explanatory answer. Gül’s response was to mention attacks by ultra-nationalist groups on Turkish residents in Germany, to imply that all countries have issues with democracy, and to suggest that the important thing was for governments to address these issues in a positive way.
That might have been the end of the matter, except that the German President subsequently made a speech at Ankara’s Middle East Technical University, scene of ongoing anti-government protests over the past year. In what some might see as an unnecessarily inflammatory address, Glauck spoke of ‘voices of disappointment, bitterness and outrage at a style of leadership which many see as a risk to democracy.’ He went on to say that ‘he was shocked by the government’s attempts to stamp out street protests and clamp down on the media.’ I don’t know what word Mr Gauck used in German (I assume he was speaking German), but one English language Turkish daily reported that he had said ‘these developments terrify me.’
Turkey’s Prime Minister was characteristically less tactful than his presidential colleague. He was quoted as saying that Mr Gauck should probably keep his opinions on such matters to himself, and that he took a dim view of outsiders interfering in his country’s domestic affairs. In typically abrasive fashion, Mr Erdoğan implied that the former Lutheran pastor was perhaps more accustomed to preaching, and could be having trouble adjusting to his new role as a statesman. You might indeed wonder how US politicians would have viewed the matter if a visiting dignitary from Turkey had made a speech expressing solidarity with ‘Occupy Wall St’ protesters in Zuccotti Park, or how UK parliamentarians would have reacted had Mr Gül sided with rioters in London in late 2011. It’s just not the done thing, as my Grandma Jessie used to say.
Mr Erdoğan went on to question the commitment of Western leaders to democracy when they seemed to be maintaining a determined silence over actions of the military government in Egypt, and I have to say, I’m curious about that too.
News media and politicians in the West were ecstatic when, towards the end of 2010, apparently spontaneous popular movements broke out across the Arab world leading to the overthrow of several manifestly dictatorial regimes. Eighteen days of mass protests in Egypt led to the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak after a 29-year rule under state of emergency regulations. In what was generally accepted as a democratic election, Mohammed Morsi’s Freedom and Justice Party emerged victorious and he became the new president. Morsi, however, only managed one year in office before being deposed by military intervention in June 2013.
Since then, repression of Morsi’s supporters has become increasingly harsh. The so-called Muslim Brotherhood has been declared a terrorist organization, and, in two separate trials, more than 1,200 alleged members have been sentenced to death.
Families of condemned protesters weep in Egypt
In recent weeks, residents of Istanbul have seen US warships steaming through the Bosporus Straits on their way to rattle sabres in the Black Sea in response to the Russian government’s activities in Ukraine. In contrast, the US government and its European allies have been twisting their vocal chords in gymnastic contortions trying to call the military coup in Egypt anything but what it actually was – and maintained a commendably non-interventionist position as the regime killed 1,400 protesting citizens and now condemns a similar number to death with barely a nod in the direction of judicial process.
The CIA website informs me that Egypt has an estimated population of 86,895,099, of whom 90% are Muslims. The country’s ‘constitution’, however, forbids religious involvement in politics – and this seems to be the main justification for the military crackdown. At the same time, Germany lays claim to the democratic high ground while having a President who is a former Lutheran minister, despite nearly 40% of their people not being Christian. I’m not even going to mention the ‘United’ Kingdom of Great Britain, whose Head of State is also head of the state religion – because they’re Christian and so it’s ok. As for born-again George Dubya and his Roman Catholic convert poodle Tony Blah . . .
What the CIA website does not say (but Wikipedia does) is that Egypt has one of the largest armed forces in the world. It has a major arms industry manufacturing equipment under licence from the USA, France and Britain. It has its own spy satellite and the largest navy in Africa, the Middle East and the Arab World. Most of this has been financed by aid from the United States of America, which has reputedly contributed on average $2 billion per year since 1979.
Egypt was one of the early opponents of the new state of Israel when it was founded in 1948. Egypt’s government and people were bitterly opposed to the establishment of Israel, and fought several unsuccessful wars against it. Since 1979, however, successive Egyptian governments, probably against the wishes of most of their people, have adopted a more peaceful stance, established diplomatic relations and even performed a mediating role in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Any connection with the provision of that American aid, I wonder?
Most of that period passed under the rule of President Mubarak who came to power in 1981 after the assassination of Anwar Sadat. Mubarak was apparently wounded in the hand during the assassination, though none of my sources made it clear that the wound was sustained in self-sacrificing defence of his president. Sadat’s nephew Talaat spent a year in prison for suggesting that his uncle’s killing had been the result of an international conspiracy involving the United States, Israel and the Egyptian military. Mubarak was ‘elected’ and ‘re-elected’ four times by ‘referendum’, in three of which there was no alternative candidate.
In spite of widespread poverty and serious wealth disparities, and major concerns expressed by Amnesty International and other human rights groups about political censorship, police brutality, arbitrary detention, torture and restrictions on freedom of speech and assembly, Egypt’s GDP increased significantly during the Mubarak years. Apart from the military aid, it seems that the US and its European allies made other financial contributions as well. Gratitude for Egypt’s participation in Bush the Father’s 1991 Gulf War apparently took the form of major assistance, reputed to have been around $500,000 per soldier provided. In addition, it is said that America, the Arab States of the Persian Gulf, and Europe, forgave Egypt around $14 billion of debt.
What happened after Mubarak resigned, and Mohammed Morsi was elected in the first democratic elections since . . .  ever? The economy suffered a major reverse, ‘popular’ unrest manifested itself in political demonstrations, and the army stepped in to ‘restore order’. The subsequent unrest has been portrayed as Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism, and viciously suppressed. I would like to be persuaded that I am being overly cynical here, but I have a bad feeling our Western leaders are less interested in the spread of democracy than they would have us believe.
German police dealing with Blockupy demonstrators
in Stuttgart
I freely confess I am annoyed about the continued inaccessibility of You Tube in Turkey – and I feel government taxes on petrol and alcohol could be a little less swingeing. At the same time, I have to say I am not unhappy to see a political leader of a major European state taken to task for hypocrisy. If you’re going to dish it out, you’d better be prepared to take it. Joachim Gauck’s freedom-fighting credentials apparently trace back to younger days in East Germany before reunification. Two points need to be made here. The first is that no reasonable comparison can be made between the Soviet era German Democratic Republic and the modern Republic of Turkey. Does Mr Gauck imagine he would have been allowed to deliver such an address on a radicalised university campus in such a state? The second is that police in Germany have shown themselves in recent years just as capable as their Turkish counterparts of suppressing the right to assembly with water cannons, gas and physical violence.
Signs of Germany’s unsavoury history of racist violence still lurk not far beneath the surface. Anti-Turk and anti-Islamic violence, right-wing demonstrations against immigrant communities, and aspiring politicians using nationalist rhetoric to advance their careers seem a recurring feature of the political landscape. One such politician is Thilo Sarrazin, a former banker with well-publicised negative views on Muslim communities in Germany. Our Joachim Gauck is apparently on record as having expressed admiration for Herr Sarrazin’s outspoken opinions. Both gentlemen espouse free-market views on finance and economics, and had little sympathy for German supporters of the ‘Occupy’ movement two years ago.
 
On another related issue, I was somewhat amused to see that PM Erdoğan is asking the United States to extradite ex-patriate Turkish Muslim cleric Fethullah Gülen to answer charges of conspiring to bring down the government. I have no idea whether those charges have any foundation or not, but I’m as close to stone-cold certain as I can be that we will not be seeing Mr Gülen in Turkey any time soon. The US is very keen to get hold of Julian Assange and Edward Snowden for very similar reasons, and they are not at all happy that the governments of Ecuador and Russia are obstructing them – but I can’t see them sending the Pennsylvania Hodja back to Turkey. The New Zealand government would have been only to happy to hand over Kim Dotcom to US legal processes, but the guy is rich enough and smart enough to have kept himself out of harm’s way so far. Interestingly, two of those three are not even US citizens – which doesn’t seem to worry the Americans much in their pursuit of ‘justice’.

Capitalism and Democracy – Julian Assange and the search for truth

How many airline meals can you eat on a return trip from Istanbul, Turkey to Auckland, New Zealand? How many hours can you sleep? How many times can you clamber over your co-passenger in the aisle seat to visit the toilet or stretch your atrophying muscles? How many movies can you watch? I lost count, but I can tell you that Singapore Airlines are marginally better than their Malaysian neighbours in most departments – especially their inflight entertainment package.
Interesting as cinema –
but seemed to lose
sight of the main point
The films I watched, going and coming over half the world’s circumference have all faded from memory – except one, and I want to tell you about it.  ‘The Fifth Estate’ is a dramatization of three years in the life of maverick Australian computer genius Julian Assange and his Internet whistle-blowing creation Wikileaks. The film, featuring Benedict Cumberbatch in the leading role, was released in October 2013 with very little media attention. Had it not been for Singapore Air’s inflight movie programme, and the ineffable boredom of twenty-plus hours in a cattle-class cabin, I would have missed it for sure.
As cinema entertainment, the film is less than riveting. Assange himself apparently refused to cooperate in its making, calling it ‘a massive propaganda attack.’ According to Forbesmagazine, ‘The Fifth Estate’ was the biggest movie flop of 2013. In what some might consider a sad case of insensitive and offensive political incorrectness, they entitled their list ’10 Box Office Turkeys of 2013.’
Well, that’s Forbes, whose owners apparently call their magazine ‘The Capitalist Tool’, so you probably wouldn’t expect them to be awfully sympathetic to Assange and his revolutionary website. I don’t know what your criteria are when choosing a movie for an evening at the cinema, but media hype and box-office takings have never been high on my personal list. I haven’t seen, and have no intention of seeing The Hunger Games 2, Iron Man 3, Despicable Me 2, Fast and Furious 6, or any of the other Hollywood serial blockbusters targeting the appetites of dysfunctional adolescent US males.
Who needs to see dystopian post-apocalyptic future worlds on screen – when we’re surrounded by dystopia in the here and now? On the other hand, if those gremlins in the White House and the Pentagon are precipitating the world into apocalypse now, that’s something I do want to know about – and I applaud the heroic efforts of non-conformists like Assange, Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning in bringing Washington’s dirty secrets out into the open.
The biggest problem with the film, in my opinion, is that it focuses too much on the character of Assange himself. That’s to be expected, of course, in a Hollywood movie. In the end, as with The Social Network, about Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerberg, story-telling becomes the object of the exercise. You need character development, human interest and some kind of moral or social message. If you want to see a documentary about Wikileaksand its impact on global politics, don’t expect to find it here.
Unfortunately, when historical truths are glossed over, distorted or forgotten, cinematic fiction often becomes the accepted version. News media seem to have pretty much lost interest in Julian Assange. He has been holed up in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London since June 2012, besieged by local constabulary tasked with apprehending him so that he can be extradited to Sweden for questioning over allegations that he raped or molested (you’d think it would be clear one way or the other) two women aged 26 and 31.
Circumstances surrounding events in Sweden in 2010 are murky to say the least. At first the case was thrown out by the Chief Public Prosecutor but police apparently continued investigations and it was reopened. MPs in Swedenrecently called on prosecutors to travel to London to conduct their questioning – but they refused. Assange claims to have text messages from the two women saying that Swedish police encouraged them to bring charges of rape. Whatever the truth of the matter, Assange denies the accusations and believes there is a plot to have him extradited from Sweden to the United States where far more serious charges will be brought against him – with the threat of life imprisonment or even execution.
It’s hard to know. Undoubtedly Uncle Sam and his current administration were seriously embarrassed by Wikileaks’ revelations about their activities in Iraq and Afghanistan, and their spying on leaders of supposedly allied countries. It would be perfectly understandable if they wanted to get Assange and shut him up for good, one way or another. The matter is complicated somewhat by his being an Australian citizen – though the government of that democratic nation seems conspicuously unwilling to stick up for him.
One thing the film does demonstrate very clearly is the way Assange’s enemies (and they must be many and powerful) have managed to shift the debate from the actual revelations about US skulduggery, to the character of the man himself. The concluding scenes of The Fifth Estate suggest that Assange is an egotist and showman, more interested in self-aggrandisement than in truth and justice. Police action in Sweden and the UK has painted him as a serial rapist trying to avoid the legal consequences of his depraved behaviour. The United States Government portrays him as a virtual murderer with the blood of patriotic US personnel on his hands.
News media, for the most part, accepted the spin and disseminated it – before subsequently losing interest. Public attention was diverted from serious questions such as whether US military personnel should actually be in Iraq or Afghanistan; what is the true nature of their activity in those countries; and whether anyone in the world is safe from surveillance by the US government.
A similar pattern of behaviour is evident in the treatment meted out to two of Wikileaks’ sources, Edward Snowden and Chelsea Elizabeth (aka Bradley) Manning. Snowden has been in Russia since June 2013, having been offered temporary sanctuary. This was necessitated by the US Government’s revoking his passport and charging him with espionage and theft of government documents. A recent article in the Washington Post questions Snowden’s commitment to democracy and open government on the grounds that he has taken sanctuary in a country accused of violating these principles. The implication is that the guy would better demonstrate commitment to truth and freedom by returning to the USA where he could be tried and put away for the rest of his life, as seems to be the case with poor Chelsea Elizabeth.
Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning is the 26 year-old US private who turned over vast quantities of military documents relating to the conduct of American military activities in Iraq and Afghanistan. In July 2013 he/she was convicted of espionage and theft and sentenced to thirty-five years in prison. The day after sentencing, Manning made a public announcement that he now wished to be known as Chelsea and would be undergoing hormone therapy to confirm what he/she considered his/her true identity as a woman.
Well, it’s easy to see how some might consider that Manning’s personal problems would account for erratic behaviour and explain to some degree why he would do what he did with those confidential military documents. It’s easy to understand how some, within the news media and US society at large might want to focus on Manning’s sexual identity and lose sight of the greater issue of what those documents actually revealed.
The Wikileaks story, as it is currently unfolding, raises an interesting question about individuals who achieve beyond the limits of normal human expectations. The high achiever with feet of clay is axiomatic. Should Bill Clinton be remembered for having presided over the longest period of peacetime economic expansion in American history – or for having sex with that woman? If the current Prince of Wales ever becomes King Charles III of Great Britain, will we want to think of him as a committed champion of the environment and other worthy causes, or as a guy who once compared himself to a tampon in the service of his mistress? Shane Warne is arguably one of the greatest bowlers in the history of the game of cricket – but one could easily tell a different story by focusing on his foul mouth, marital infidelities, use of banned substances and the taint of match-fixing.
It takes a certain kind of character to blow the whistle on an employer. Most of us put up with the dirt we see in our workplaces. We turn a blind eye, rationalise it away, or conspire to become part of the problem in the interests of career advancement or mere job security. It takes rare courage to speak out, to go to the media or some other outside party and divulge corporate corruption and evil-doing. A healthy society needs to act on information thus obtained to ensure that corporations and governments are truly accountable for their actions. Unfortunately, all too often, the whistle-blower is denigrated and punished, and the real criminals escape to continue their wicked ways.
As an interesting comparison with the foregoing, there’s another computer whizz-kid global citizen I’ve been keeping an eye on over the last year or so – a certain German entrepreneur born Kim Schmitz. Schmitz, like Bradley Manning, also changed his name, though not his sexual identity. Now known as Kim Dotcom, he is resident in New Zealand, having taken refuge there from the long arm of US law, which was pursuing him to answer charges of copyright infringement related to his highly successful file-sharing site, Megaupload.
Unlike Snowden and Assange, whose search for sanctuary was denied by all of the so-called free nations of the world, Dotcom was welcomed with open arms (albeit in conditions of some secrecy) by the government of New Zealand, who granted him residency under the ‘investor plus category’[1] – reserved for immigrants undertaking to invest $10 million in the country; this in spite of a history of convictions in Germany for computer fraud, data espionage, insider trading and embezzlement.
After being granted residency in New Zealand, Dotcom was convicted in absentia by a Hong Court for similar offences, but the New Zealand government declined to extradite him because it did not consider the crimes sufficiently serious. Upsetting the United States of America, however, is a different kettle of fish, and the slippery gentleman was arrested at his Auckland mansion by NZ  police in January 2012 in a high profile operation involving, reportedly, 76 officers and two helicopters. According to Wikipedia, ‘assets worth $17 million were seized including eighteen luxury cars, giant screen TVs and works of art. Dotcom’s bank accounts were frozen denying him access to US$175m (NZ$218m) in cash, the contents of 64 bank accounts world-wide, including accounts in New Zealand, Government bonds and money from numerous PayPal accounts.’
Since then, Dotcom has been released from jail, a court decided that seizure of his funds and property had been illegal, he is seeking compensation from the NZ Government, and has made claims that the US Government prosecuted him in return for contributions to President Obama from certain Hollywood studios. He has subsequently opened a new website called ‘Mega’, released a music album and two singles, and founded a political party. When I was in New Zealand in January I saw several city buses sporting large portraits of Dotcom advertising his album. Clearly the man has a gift for self-preservation and publicity.
So what makes him different from Julian Assange? The obvious factor is money. Dotcom is a multi-millionaire whose wealth has enabled him to buy refuge with a respected member of the international community of nations, pay for the best legal representation and command the assistance of municipal mayors, ministers of the Crown and even the Prime Minister himself. Assange, on the other hand, made little or no money from his Internet activities, lived out of a suitcase, was dependent on the goodwill of friends and supporters, and, when the chips were down, became a hunted man with the international community ganging up to hound him.
A less obvious difference between Assange and Dotcom is the political leader under whose wing they are sheltering. Dotcom seems to have bought the protection of a capitalist government, of a prime minister who is the privileged friend of big business, whose ethical standards are, apparently, up for negotiation. Assange, in contrast, found that, when all had deserted him, he was offered protection by the president of a country who has fought for its national interests, reduced its high levels of poverty, indigence and unemployment, and been re-elected for a third term in office with an increased majority. Rafael Correa of Ecuador may not be the US’s favourite neighbour, but he is doing the world and the cause of democracy a great service.

International Comparisons: Democracy in New Zealand

Most surveys I have seen analyzing a country’s vulnerability to terrorism place New Zealand at the ‘very low risk’ end of the spectrum. I wonder what percentage of the world’s population even knows where it is. Nevertheless, New Zealand’s Prime Minister, John Key, seems convinced that the country is in such danger from (unspecified) threats that his government has passed, by one vote, new legislation permitting electronic spying.    
NZ’s PM John Key
democracy for the next generation
New Zealand passed legislation Wednesday allowing its main intelligence agency to spy on residents and citizens, despite opposition from rights groups, international technology giants and the legal fraternity.
The bill to expand the power of the Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB) passed by 61 votes to 59 after impassioned debate, with Prime Minister John Key acknowledging the move had left some people “agitated and alarmed”.
“This is not, and never will be, about wholesale (?) spying on New Zealanders,” Key told parliament.
“There are threats our government needs to protect New Zealanders from, those threats are real and ever-present and we underestimate them at our peril.”
The push to change the law came after it emerged last year that the GCSB illegally spied on Internet tycoon Kim Dotcom before armed police raided his Auckland mansion as part of a US-led probe into online piracy.
At the time Key publicly apologised to Dotcom, who is a New Zealand resident and should have been off-limits to the GCSB under legislation preventing it from snooping on locals.
However, an official report found that Dotcom’s case was only one of dozens in which the GCSB had overstepped its bounds.
Key then moved to change the law to let the GCSB spy on New Zealanders, arguing it needed to cooperate more closely with agencies such as the police and military in an increasingly complex cyber-security environment. Read more:


Neo-con-spiracy: Egypt, Turkey and the spirit of true democracy

‘Egypt’s February 28’ran the headline in our local newspaper. If you don’t live in Turkey, or you are not a student of the country’s affairs, that date won’t mean much to you – so I’d better tell you that it was the day in 1997 when senior military commanders had a quiet word in the ear of Turkey’s Prime Minister, Necmettin Erbakan, resulting in that gentleman’s resignation from office. It has become known as Turkey’s ‘post-modern coup’, to distinguish it from the three military coups that had taken place between 1960 and 1980 and were more orthodox in terms of martial law, executions, torture and civilian disappearances.

Older Turks, then, are familiar with the pattern, and some, including the current Turkish government, raised their voices in protest when, on July 3, Egypt’s military ousted elected President Mohammed Morsi and installed an ’interim’ replacement more supportive of their aims and objectives.

Now I do not know, and I certainly cannot prove that the United States Government or its operatives abroad had any involvement in last Wednesday’s events in Egypt. What I can say with some certainty, however, is that successive US administrations were strong supporters of Hosni Mubarak, unseated in 2011 by Egypt’s Arab Spring uprising after a 29 year military dictatorship– to the extent that they had provided him with sufficient weaponry to make Egypt the world’s 10th largest military machine. I can also say that, under Mubarak’s tutelage, Egypt had become a friendly supporter of Israel – somewhat surprisingly given that from its beginning in 1948, they had fought several wars with their emergent Middle Eastern neighbour, again in 1956, 1967, 1969, 1970, and 1974, and had consistently refused to recognise its right to exist.

Whatever the truth of the matter, it is evident that Western ‘democracies’ are not unhappy with the current military ‘intervention’ in Egypt. US and European spokespersons are tying their tongues in knots trying to avoid labelling it a military coup, since doing so would require them to cut off financial aid to the illegal regime. It also seems clear that Egypt’s economic problems under the Morsi administration were, at least in part, caused by reluctance on the part of Western countries to lend their support to the democratically elected president.

Still, it’s also interesting to note that Egypt’s Middle Eastern Arab neighbours (Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates), whom you might have expected to approve of the Morsi government, seem also to be supportive of the military takeover. Clearly their own vested interests and their dislike of democracy per se override what sympathy they may have felt for a Muslim brother.


Well, enough of Egypt. My wife and I just returned from a visit to the USA. We had a great time. My stepdaughter got married in a delightful celebration, and I caught up with a couple of old friends in New York City from way back when. As you may imagine, I didn’t do a lot of reading, but I did glance at a newspaper occasionally. My Turkish friends and readers will be proud to know that their country is in the news over there. No publicity is bad publicity, goes the saying – though they might be a little concerned at the nature of the exposure Turkey is getting in some sections of the US media.


My attention was drawn to an opinion piece in the New York Post by one Amir Taheri. OK, the Post is probably not a shining example of journalistic objectivity and integrity, but people over there read it, and their world view may well be influenced by what they see in its pages. Just a quick sample selection from Mr Taheri’s piece:


When Ottoman Sultans failed on the battlefield they sought glory in building a mosque – and now Sultan Tayyip Erdoğan is doing the same. Taheri claims that the government plans to build, on thirty square miles of prime urban land in the Taksim area, a mosque whose minaret will be the world’s highest man-made structure. Prime Minister Erdoğan, he asserts, is turning Istanbul into the largest building site in the world, giving contracts to supporters and making the AKP administration the most corrupt since the fall of the caliphate. One of his projects is a canal to be named after Sultan Selim, known in English as ‘the Bloodsucker’.


Erdoğan united twenty different Islamic groups and got himself elected by a majority of Turks while sneakily making no mention of Islam. The policies of his AK Party government are an ideological hodgepodge.


Hard to know where to start demolishing such a breath-taking collection of misrepresentations, distortions and downright untruths, but let’s start with the minaret. Currently the world’s tallest minaret is in Casablanca, Morocco, and stands 210 metres (689 feet) tall. By contrast, the world’s tallest man-made structure is the Burj Khalifa, a non-religious edifice in Dubai. It will take a miraculous feat of engineering and architecture to construct a minaret able to exceed that building’s 830 metres (2,722 feet). As for the building site in ‘downtown’ Istanbul, one square mile is equal to 640 acres, or 2.6 km2. Thirty square miles means an area not quite as large as the entire island of Manhattan, but almost! I can’t imagine the most absolute of military dictators managing to demolish that much of the city.


Undoubtedly there is a major construction boom taking place in Turkey at present, and not only in Istanbul. I don’t know how it would compare to the activity that transformed New York City in the first half of the 20thcentury – but few Americans would argue that that was a bad thing. Certainly there is a plan to build a canal allowing foreign shipping to bypass the urban centre of Turkey’s largest city – but it will not be named after Sultan Selim (whose name is mooted for a third bridge being built across the Bosporus Strait– not river, Mr Taheri).


The principal architectural feature of old Istanbul is its domed and minaretted skyline, its monumental mosques built by extremely successful conquering sultans in the glory days of the Ottoman Empire. One of these was Selim (reigned 1512-1520) known to Turks as Yavuz(the Tough, or Ferocious) and in English usually as Selim the Grim. I hadn’t come across the Bloodsucker nickname before, but very likely some of those his armies conquered would have been less than overjoyed and may have attached less flattering names to him. Erdoğan’s AK Party Government, however, has indeed managed to win and retain the support of a majority of Turks, largely as a result of policies with a broad appeal to a cross-section of the voting public – so the term hodgepodge may be a trifle unfair. Would Mr Taheri have preferred a more overt Islamic agenda?


Anyway, after reading his piece on Turkey, I felt I had to check out Amir Taheri’s credentials as a journalist, and let me share with you some of my findings. Wikipedia informs us that he is Iranian by birth, and was quite a high-profile chap in the last years of the Shah’s regime, filling, among other roles, the position of executive editor-in-chief of the pro-Shah propagandist daily, ‘Kayhan’. Needless to say, his services were no longer required after the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and he sought refuge in the United States who had installed the Shah in the first place.


Since taking up residence in the USA, Taheri has authored a number of books and written columns for many prestigious newspapers, where his ‘Bomb Iran’ and general anti-Islamic opinions have made him a popular commentator in certain circles – a popularity seemingly undiminished by his reputation for fabricating false stories, distorting facts and citing nonexistent sources. One reviewer of his 1988 book ‘A Nest of Spies’ wrote that it is ‘the sort of book that gives contemporary history a bad name.’ Jonathan Schwarz, writing for Mother Jones, called Taheri ‘one of the strangest ingredients in America’s media soup.’ He went on to say, ‘There may not be anyone else who simply makes things up as regularly as he does with so few consequences.’


Just why the guy gets away with the nonsense he writes may be explained by his primary audience and his connections. According to Wikipedia, Taheri has a PR agent by the name of Eliana Benador whose company, now apparently defunct, was particularly active publishing the writings of leading neo-conservatives during the George W Bush presidency. According to Source Watch, Ms Benador hails from Peru, but lives in the United States and acts as a ‘sort of theatrical agent for experts on the Middle East and terrorism’. Many of her clients, it seems, are associated with the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research (AEI), ‘an extremely influential, pro-business, conservative think tank which promotes the advancement of free enterprise capitalism, and succeeds in placing its people in influential governmental positions. It is the center base for many neo-conservatives’. Taheri himself has been associated with two Islamophobic organisations, the Gatestone Institute and the Hudson Institute, founded and funded by Sears Roebuck heiress Nina Rosenwald, a lady labelled the ‘Sugar Mama of Anti-Muslim Hate’ by journalist Max Blumenthal.


Well, on the subject of guys who have made themselves unpopular with their own governments seeking refuge elsewhere, it seems the United States operates a double standard. Probably, like me, you have been following the case of Edward Snowden, former contractor to the National Security Agency and CIA employee who made a name for himself by leaking details of top-secret US and British mass surveillance programmes to the press.


Most of the current media attention seems to be focused on US attempts to get Snowden back from Moscow where he has apparently been holed up in the airport for a couple of weeks. The guy has been applying to a number of countries for political asylum, but his task has been complicated by the fact that the US Government has revoked his passport, and used its diplomatic muscle to dissuade others from sheltering him. Bolivian President, Evo Morales was evidently suspected of sneaking Snowden out of Moscow on his private plane – which was forced to land in Vienna and be searched by authorities. France, Spain, Portugal and Austria denied bowing to US pressure in refusing passage through their airspace – but you’d have to wonder if they had their fingers crossed behind their backs.


Anyway, as of today, it seems that Venezuela and Nicaragua have offered asylum to the American whistle-blower, perhaps adding a third party to that interesting duo of Julian Assange and Kim Dotcom. Evidently the spirit of Hugo Chavez lives on in Venezuela – and clearly some states in South America continue to have misgivings about their large northern neighbour.


In the midst of all the excitement about whether US law enforcement agencies will be able to snatch Snowden or not, it is easy to lose sight of what all the fuss is actually about. Last month the Guardian and Washington Post newspapers published a series of articles containing revelations that the United States and UK governments were using high tech surveillance systems to spy or eavesdrop on supposedly friendly allies like France, Italy, Japan and South Korea. As a result, Germany’s Andrea Merkel and Turkey’s Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu have been seeking clarification from high-ups in the United States about the true nature of their friendship. I wish them luck. A White House spokesman announced that ‘The president assured the chancellor that the United States takes seriously the concerns of our European allies and partners’ – politician-speak for ‘Calm down, Angie baby, and don’t get your knickers in a twist!’

I hear what you’re saying, Angie
President Obama himself offered more honesty, if little consolation, ‘Every intelligence service, not just ours . . . is going to be trying to understand the world better and what’s going on in world capitals around the world from sources that aren’t available through the New York Times or NBC News’– president-speak for ‘Calm down, Angie baby, and don’t get your knickers in a twist!’
Well, when all’s said and done, we kind of knew that, didn’t we? That’s what spying’s all about, isn’t it? It has recently emerged that some delegates to the G20 conference in London in 2009, including Turkey’s Finance Minister Ahmet Şimşek and his delegation, had their phone calls and emails monitored by UK authorities. So far there has been no response from the British Government to official Turkish demands for an explanation.
In the end, as President Obama implied in his response to Chancellor Merkel, everybody’s doing it, and sometimes they get caught. There will be a bit of a fuss, some red faces, and then it’ll be back to business as usual. Nevertheless, there are two serious moral dilemmas that emerge. The first is the responsibility of an employee who learns that his or her employer is up to some skullduggery. The Nuremburg Trials after the Second World War established the principle that following orders is not a defense for crimes against humanity. So what should a guy like Snowden do when he sees his employer (the United States Government) carrying out actions that would outrage the international community?
The second is on a much larger scale and with far more serious implications. To what extent is a government justified in involving itself in the internal affairs of another sovereign state when it considers its own interests are threatened? When Iranian Prime Minister Mossadegh planned to nationalize his country’s oil industry in 1953, Britain persuaded the US to overthrow his government and reinstall the Shah. When Egypt nationalized the Suez Canal in 1956, Britain felt justified in sending troops – though this time the Americans didn’t play along.
For the United States, there are two crucial issues in the Middle East – oil supplies and the existence of Israel. Anything that threatens US interests here will provoke a strong response. In terms of preserving the status quo, in spite of all the rhetoric about democracy, it is much easier to deal with autocratic governments than with administrations answerable to the changeable will of the local people. We must hope that recent events in Turkey and Egypt are, in fact, expressions of popular sentiment in those countries, and not a result of cynical outside interference. In the final analysis, however, it may be merely a matter of how big you are and what you believe you can get away with.