Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Mad Men Did Well

Obama's 100 Days

By John Pilger

The BBC's American television soap Mad Men offers a rare glimpse of the power of corporate advertising. The promotion of smoking half a century ago by the “smart” people of Madison Avenue, who knew the truth, led to countless deaths. Advertising and its twin, public relations, became a way of deceiving dreamt up by those who had read Freud and applied mass psychology to anything from cigarettes to politics. Just as Marlboro Man was virility itself, so politicians could be branded, packaged and sold.

It is more than 100 days since Barack Obama was elected president of the United States. The “Obama brand” has been named “Advertising Age’s marketer of the year for 2008”, easily beating Apple computers. David Fenton of MoveOn.org describes Obama’s election campaign as “an institutionalised mass-level automated technological community organising that has never existed before and is a very, very powerful force”. Deploying the internet and a slogan plagiarised from the Latino union organiser César Chávez – “Sí, se puede!” or “Yes, we can” – the mass-level automated technological community marketed its brand to victory in a country desperate to be rid of George W Bush.

No one knew what the new brand actually stood for. So accomplished was the advertising (a record $75m was spent on television commercials alone) that many Americans actually believed Obama shared their opposition to Bush’s wars. In fact, he had repeatedly backed Bush’s warmongering and its congressional funding. Many Americans also believed he was the heir to Martin Luther King’s legacy of anti-colonialism. Yet if Obama had a theme at all, apart from the vacuous “Change you can believe in”, it was the renewal of America as a dominant, avaricious bully. “We will be the most powerful,” he often declared.

Perhaps the Obama brand’s most effective advertising was supplied free of charge by those journalists who, as courtiers of a rapacious system, promote shining knights. They depoliticised him, spinning his platitudinous speeches as “adroit literary creations, rich, like those Doric columns, with allusion...” (Charlotte Higgins in the Guardian). The San Francisco Chronicle columnist Mark Morford wrote: “Many spiritually advanced people I know... identify Obama as a Lightworker, that rare kind of attuned being who... can actually help usher in a new way of being on the planet.”

In his first 100 days, Obama has excused torture, opposed habeas corpus and demanded more secret government. He has kept Bush’s gulag intact and at least 17,000 prisoners beyond the reach of justice. On 24 April, his lawyers won an appeal that ruled Guantanamo Bay prisoners were not “persons”, and therefore had no right not to be tortured. His national intelligence director, Admiral Dennis Blair, says he believes torture works. One of his senior US intelligence officials in Latin America is accused of covering up the torture of an American nun in Guatemala in 1989; another is a Pinochet apologist. As Daniel Ellsberg has pointed out, the US experienced a military coup under Bush, whose secretary of “defence”, Robert Gates, along with the same warmaking officials, has been retained by Obama.

All over the world, America’s violent assault on innocent people, directly or by agents, has been stepped up. During the recent massacre in Gaza, reports Seymour Hersh, “the Obama team let it be known that it would not object to the planned resupply of ‘smart bombs’ and other hi-tech ordnance that was already flowing to Israel” and being used to slaughter mostly women and children. In Pakistan, the number of civilians killed by US missiles called drones has more than doubled since Obama took office.

In Afghanistan, the US “strategy” of killing Pashtun tribespeople (the “Taliban”) has been extended by Obama to give the Pentagon time to build a series of permanent bases right across the devastated country where, says Secretary Gates, the US military will remain indefinitely. Obama’s policy, one unchanged since the Cold War, is to intimidate Russia and China, now an imperial rival. He is proceeding with Bush’s provocation of placing missiles on Russia’s western border, justifying it as a counter to Iran, which he accuses, absurdly, of posing “a real threat” to Europe and the US. On 5 April in Prague, he made a speech reported as “anti-nuclear”. It was nothing of the kind. Under the Pentagon’s Reliable Replacement Warhead programme, the US is building new “tactical” nuclear weapons designed to blur the distinction between nuclear and conventional war.

Perhaps the biggest lie – the equivalent of smoking is good for you – is Obama’s announcement that the US is leaving Iraq, the country it has reduced to a river of blood. According to unabashed US army planners, as many as 70,000 troops will remain “for the next 15 to 20 years”. On 25 April, his secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, alluded to this. It is not surprising that the polls are showing that a growing number of Americans believe they have been suckered – especially as the nation’s economy has been entrusted to the same fraudsters who destroyed it. Lawrence Summers, Obama’s principal economic adviser, is throwing $3trn at the same banks that paid him more than $8m last year, including $135,000 for one speech. Change you can believe in.

Much of the American establishment loathed Bush and Cheney for exposing, and threatening, the onward march of America’s “grand design”, as Henry Kissinger, war criminal and now Obama adviser, calls it. In advertising terms, Bush was a “brand collapse” whereas Obama, with his toothpaste advertisement smile and righteous clichés, is a godsend. At a stroke, he has seen off serious domestic dissent to war, and he brings tears to the eyes, from Washington to Whitehall. He is the BBC’s man, and CNN’s man, and Murdoch’s man, and Wall Street’s man, and the CIA’s man. The Madmen did well.

Aha


Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Torture Whitewash From The Dark Side

By Pepe Escobar

27, 2009 Asia Times

It's a script worthy of Freddie Krueger, the fictional character from the A Nightmare on Elm Street films. Nearly five years after the irruption of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal in Iraq, here's another chamber of horrors, another glimpse of how The Dark Side really works.

But the George W Bush torture memos released by the Barack Obama administration last week, written in legalese by Jay Bybee and Stephen Bradbury, are just a preview. Many will relish the newspeak. ("We conclude that - although sleep deprivation and use of the waterboard present more substantial questions in certain aspects under the statute and the use of tile waterboard raises the most substantial issue - none of these specific techniques, considered individually, would violate the prohibition in sections 134:0•2340A.") As for the whole movie - a 21st century remix of a D W Griffith epic - it could be called Death of a Nation.

The US Senate report, also just released, reads like deja vu all over again: the US establishment under Bush was a replay of the Spanish Inquisition. And it all started even before a single "high-profile al-Qaeda detainee" was captured. What Bush, vice president Dick Cheney, defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld and assorted little inquisitors wanted was above all to prove the non-existent link between Saddam Hussein's Iraq and al-Qaeda, the better to justify a pre-emptive, illegal war planned by the now-defunct Project for the New American Century (PNAC) in the late 1990s. The torture memos were just a cog in the imperial machine.

The New York Times, in a fit of decency, at least has already demanded that Congress impeach the lawyerly Bybee, who got his lifetime seat in a federal appeals court from ... Bush.

Everyone knew about the torture. Former deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage, who along with Karl "Machiavelli" Rove and Lewis "Scooter" Libby was one of the leakers of the identity of Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) agent Valerie Plame in the infamous Niger yellowcake affair, admitted to al-Jazeera that "in hindsight", "maybe" he should have resigned. Former executive director of the 9/11 Commission Philip Zelikow, very close to secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, also has joined the swelling crowd of "I was against it, too, but in the end I did not resign".

More crucially, Armitage also told al-Jazeera why this may well end up being ... just another whitewash. "I don't think the members of the Senate particularly want to look into these things because they will have to look at themselves in the mirror. Where were they? ... They were AWOL, absent without leave." Nobody should expect madam speaker Nancy Pelosi to investigate herself. In Washington, torture seems to be a bipartisan sport.

Armitage also told al-Jazeera how he and his then-boss, secretary of state Colin Powell, "lost" the battle to respect the Geneva Conventions during Bush's first term. Japanese officers were tried for war crimes after World War II - by the United States - because they, among other practices, used ... waterboarding. That does not seem to apply to Bush administration officials. Welcome to another instance of American exceptionalism.

Whitewash
The question is not that the torture memos should have been kept secret - as the CIA and Dick "Angler" Cheney wanted. The question is how to apply justice and uphold the rule of law. Austrian law professor Manfred Nowak, the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council's top torture investigator, is adamant: "President Barack Obama's decision not to prosecute CIA operatives who used questionable interrogation practices violates international law."

As with the lies that led to the war on Iraq, nobody should expect from US corporate media anything other than ... whitewash. Wall Street Journal's Peggy Noonan, carping about the role of a "great nation" but sounding like a Johnny Walker commercial, said "sometimes in life you just wanna keep walking".

Law-abiding citizens walking all across the world, for their part, were hoping that the so-called "Bush Six" - former attorney general Alberto Gonzales, former under secretary of defense Douglas Feith, Cheney's former chief of staff David Addington, John Yoo and Bybee from the Justice Department, and Pentagon lawyer William Haynes - would one day catch a flight to Europe for some deluxe rest and recreation and be arrested on the spot by judges claiming universal jurisdiction over crimes against humanity, just as it happened in England to that notorious, now deceased, torturer/dictator Augusto Pinochet from Chile. But it won't happen. Spanish prosecutors literally put the ball back in the US court.

And what about Bush telling Fox News last year "they gave me a list of tools and I said, 'Are these tools deemed to be legal?' and so we got legal opinions, before any decision was made, and I think when people study the history of this particular episode they'll find out that we gained good information".

Well, if The Great Decider had "studied the history" he would have learned he didn't protect anything, as even US interrogators have dismissed torture as useless in extracting crucial intelligence. And apparently legal counsel also told The Great Decider it was OK to torture alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed's children with ... swarms of bugs.

Unfazed, the CIA still insists waterboarding works. But with 183 waterboarding sessions, 15 seconds a session, spread over one month, who did Khalid Shayk Mohammed think he was, Iron Man? Moreover, an analyst told Vanity Fair 90% of what he revealed was "bullshit".

As for Cheney, he will never deviate from his own "mission accomplished" script. As he recently told CNN, "My general sense ... is that we accomplished nearly everything we set out to do." Paraphrasing Tacitus, that's quite an accomplishment - to destroy the cradle of civilization in Mesopotamia and call it ... victory.

Obama has emitted his own muted version of "Never Again!" Well, not really. Under Obama's executive orders passed in January, the CIA is still engaged in extraordinary renditions and shipping suspects to ... overseas contractors, torture-friendly US allies in the Middle East and Eastern Europe.

Pressure, anyway, kept mounting from all quarters. The White House was forced to back down. Obama now has left the door open to prosecution of the lawyerly minions. Cheney, of course, is not backing down. Still convinced that torture is swell, he wants other memos - which allegedly demonstrate torture's effectiveness - declassified. So ideally the Obama administration should come up with a special prosecutor or better yet, a truth commission - and call Cheney's bluff. And all this is happening while an even more damning Dark Side memo has not even been declassified.

Next train to The Hague
This whole drama is shaping up as a case of American exceptionalism one cannot believe in. Without accepting full responsibility for torture - and illegal, pre-emptive wars - and without accountability, there can be no catharsis in America. Obama is enough of a smart operator to know that if his "going forward" is perceived like "look the other way", this whole thing will come back to haunt and even destroy his presidency. And if it walks and talks like a whitewash, that's because it must be ... a whitewash.

Supposing the Obama Justice Department appoints a special prosecutor and we end up with the "Bush Six" or even Bush-era top dogs in the slammer, and not only a few minions and go-betweens, the whole Washington establishment would literally collapse - a Tower of Babel of scum and corruption. Would Obama ever muster the balls to carry it out? That's unlikely.

That would mean in practice burying the American empire - and as Obama has provided plenty of proof in his nearly 100 days in power (from the Afghan surge to his CIA coddling) he doesn't want to go down in history as the man who unraveled the American empire. Seize the moment? No, he won't. All that's left for the rest of walking humanity is just the dream of shipping Cheney to a really accomplished destination - The Hague, so he can be duly tried for treason and crimes against humanity.

Pepe Escobar is the author of Globalistan: How the Globalized World is Dissolving into Liquid War (Nimble Books, 2007) and Red Zone Blues: a snapshot of Baghdad during the surge. His new book, just out, is Obama does Globalistan (Nimble Books, 2009).

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

A Tsunami of Hunger

Is New York City About to Be Overwhelmed?
By Nick Turse

A crisis is brewing and Carlos Rodriguez sees it in ever longer lines. "More work boots with plaster or paint on them," he says. "Guys clearly coming in from the work site."
A spokesperson for the Food Bank for New York City, Rodriguez has experienced tough times before, but not like this. "It takes a lot of pride for a New York construction worker to stand on the soup kitchen line. That's something I never saw, even during 9/11, during that recession."
Here, on a quiet, tree-lined section of 116th Street in Manhattan, it's possible to see the financial crisis that has the planet in its grip up close and personal. The new working poor, as well as more families with young children, are threatening to overwhelm New York City's last hunger safety net.

And the hungry lining up on this street today may be only a harbinger of things to come. Behind them, in an increasingly hard-pressed city, a potential tsunami of need threatens to swamp the entire system. The one million-plus needy New Yorkers of today could, according to those experienced in feeding the poor, explode into tomorrow's three million hungry mouths with nowhere else to turn.

Three million -- and right in the heart of the country's financial capital.

If this potential nightmare comes to be, it will be played out, in part, behind the nondescript storefront of the Food Bank's Community Kitchen and Food Pantry of West Harlem and the more than 1,000 allied food pantries, soup kitchens, senior centers, low-income daycare centers, shelters and other partner programs spread across the city's five boroughs.

In Harlem, in the late afternoon, the needy begin to congregate beneath a green awning that reads "Food Change": hungry New Yorkers without other options, men and women, young and old, black, white, Asian, and Hispanic -- a full spectrum of need.

On a recent afternoon, I saw it first hand. By 3 pm, they were beginning to patiently gather. By 4 pm, the line already stretched half a block and was just starting to wrap around the corner of 116th Street onto Frederick Douglass Boulevard. By 5 pm, the tables in the Community Kitchen were already full, yet the queue out on the street was still sizeable. "It's pretty typical," Rodriguez told me. "This is very representative of what we're seeing and hearing throughout our network."

Two Million New Mouths to Feed

In 2007, even before the current financial meltdown hit, approximately 1.3 million New Yorkers depended on soup kitchens and food pantries. A poll by the Food Bank in late 2008, however, revealed something far more startling: one in four New Yorkers said they lacked savings to fall back on and, if they lost their jobs, would be in immediate need of food assistance. This is an especially worrisome figure as the rate of job loss in the city has been quickening over the last year, with an ever-weakening construction industry taking an especially hard hit, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. While hard numbers aren't yet available, the Food Bank has already seen double-digit increases in need since it took that poll -- high double digits at some food pantries and soup kitchens.

"That means two million people on the fringe of our network may need to access our services at one point or another," says Rodriguez. "We're barely meeting demand for who we're serving now. What do we do if those two million don't get back on their feet on time, exhaust their savings and any alternatives, and then have to start accessing emergency food? It's a major concern."

Rodriguez outlines this nightmarish scenario in remarkably calm and measured tones, perhaps in part because, today, there's little time or room for panic in the frenzied world of the Food Bank's Vice President of Agency Relations and Programs.

The Harlem Community Kitchen, which relies heavily on volunteers to augment its workers, was distinctly understaffed on the day of my visit. Back-to-back-to-back deliveries had left its dining room, where hundreds of people would soon be fed, packed with cardboard boxes full of food.
Mid-interview, I took a break and pitched in, helping to stack cartons of slightly bruised and aging peppers, apples, and salad greens, along with bread, canned vegetables, toilet paper, and 50-pound bags of onions, on hand trucks and carts that were whisked off, unloaded, and quickly brought back for more. Room had to be made, with no time to spare, for the tables and chairs that would accommodate the people waiting outside, some already asking, even pleading, for the kitchen to begin serving dinner.

An Airplane Hanger Filled With Food

Most of the Community Kitchen's provisions come from a cavernous 90,000-square-foot space located in the Hunts Point Cooperative Market -- a 60-acre food distribution center in the South Bronx.

Think of an airplane hanger filled with food.

In 1997, the New York Times reported the unnerving news that a city-wide rise in hunger had driven the amount of food the warehouse distributed from 2.5 million pounds a month early in the year to over 4 million pounds that October. Now, that massive number looks positively puny. "I distributed 7.2 million pounds last month," Brad Sobel, the director of warehouse operations, tells me.

On the day I dropped in at the Bronx site, so did a special donation of 576,000 eggs -- two tractor-trailers full -- that were offloaded into the warehouse's huge refrigerated room with remarkable speed.

576,000 eggs.

And yet within two weeks, according to Sobel, those eggs would be a distant memory -- every last one distributed to the Community Kitchen and the other 1,000-plus food assistance programs the warehouse does its best to keep supplied in hungry times.

The need is never-ending, the turnover of food almost impossible for an outsider to grasp, and all of it happens in the vast space that lies behind plastic curtains separating the loading dock from a supermarket the likes of which you've never seen before. Instead of shoppers with carts, there are men on self-propelled riding pallet trucks and sit-down forklifts zipping about. On the floor are wooden pallets of produce. Plastic bags of potatoes, piled up to five-and-a-half-feet high. Fifty-pound bags of onions stacked on pallet after pallet. (I counted at least 11 of them.)
All around are huge metal shelves filled with pallets of plastic-wrapped cans, plastic tubs, jars, and boxes of food, some donated by food companies, some provided via federal government dollars through the Emergency Food Assistance Program, and some purchased wholesale by the warehouse. Cases of Princella canned sweet potatoes and Hormel cubed beef. Boxes of Parmalat milk. Cases of Peter Pan peanut butter. Cartons of Ralston Bran Flakes and Tasteeos cereal. An endless aisle of metal cans of Popeye-brand spinach, stacked and shrink-wrapped. Innumerable brown cardboard boxes filled with the maple-flavored oatmeal, Maypo.

"Donations are up," says Sobel, echoing voices from food banks across the country that have seen a similar rise in food donations as the economy has worsened. But need is also on the rise -- and at a staggering pace.

Over the din of the warehouse -- the horns, warning signals, and whirring motors of the flitting forklifts -- there is the omnipresent steady hum of the cooling unit that keeps the refrigerated room at a constant 32 degrees, the deeper drone of the much colder freezer room's massive air conditioner, and the thumps and thuds of pallets of peanut butter and enriched long-grain rice being moved into place. Warehouse Manager Paul Rodriguez (no relation to Carlos) takes a moment from his mad day to explain how he and about 40 other workers offload trucks, sort and store the food, take orders from food assistance programs and the agencies they serve, fill the orders as needed -- with the help of volunteers who donate their time to pack boxes -- and ship them out to feed the needy across the five boroughs. "It's very rewarding," he says. "I love what I do."

Rodriguez explains that they try to send the bulk of the fresh produce they receive to sites like the Community Kitchen in Harlem and other soup kitchens, where meals are served for the hungry, as opposed to food pantries where the needy shop for staples. "We'll send them onions, romaine lettuce, a variety of produce. We don't want to just send onions just because we've got 20,000 onions. We'll make sure we send a mixed pallet of produce with, say, six different types of produce -- bananas, apples, cabbage, and other fruits and vegetables."

A former serviceman who still retains his straight-backed military bearing and runs a tight ship in the warehouse, Rodriguez remembers a childhood in which his family sometimes faced food insecurity. "We're in the business of feeding the hungry," he explains, "feeding a lot of families. The way the economy is, it's unfortunate. More and more people are losing their jobs, and more and more people are struggling to make ends meet."

White-Collar Hunger

Even some of those managing to hang onto their jobs are having trouble feeding themselves. Evidence of it is crystal clear in Harlem where white-collar workers, sometimes still clad in dressy clothes, are beginning to join construction workers as the new faces on the soup kitchen line

Some need the food just to get through their job searches. Jesse Taylor, the Community Kitchen's senior director, recalls a recent morning when a man appeared at the front door. "He was dressed really well. A shirt with a collar," Taylor recalled. The man asked, "Do you have anything for me to eat?" but was told the Kitchen wouldn't be open for dinner until four in the afternoon.

As Taylor remembers it, "He said, 'I've only been in town for a couple weeks. I'm from California. I'm living in a shelter right now. I'm homeless and trying to find work. I'd like to come back at four, but I don't know where I'll be. I hope to have a job by then. Can you give me anything? Anything at all?'"

"We made him up a quick sandwich," Taylor adds.

And that early morning job-hunter isn't atypical these days. Taylor points to "a huge increase in the number of children and seniors in the soup kitchen line, as well as quite a few people in business attire. They usually come in one time in their dress clothes." The next day, they're back dressed to better blend in with the others in line who are homeless or, as Taylor puts it, "carrying their whole world on their back."

That night, I saw no dressy clothes in the line for dinner, but I certainly noticed men in work boots and teenagers as well. Behind the small glass counter in the cozy, cream-colored dining room, nine young volunteers -- mostly women -- in hairnets and latex gloves moved briskly to keep the assembly line of food going. They were lining up trays with servings of either ham or meatloaf next to mashed potatoes, cabbage stew, an apple, a piece of bread or a roll, a slice of cake, and a cup of purple fruit juice.

This scene is repeated Monday through Friday (with breakfasts on Tuesday and Thursday mornings), and this night the crowd was eager, moving through the room and then eating with purpose. As the first batch of folks filtered out, those waiting moved forward to take a tray as the volunteers filled plate after plate. The day I was there, staff kept up with demand, but will they be able to keep up if the economic crisis grinds on?

"What Can We Do?"

The line for the soup kitchen is only one of two queues that form in front of the Harlem site. Four days a week, a second line heads in the other direction, toward Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard, leading to the food pantry that adjoins the Community Kitchen. On this day, the pantry opened at 1 pm and, three hours later, the line was still there, mostly women, leaning on their own folding metal shopping carts in which they would haul their groceries home.

Via a short stairwell, a few shoppers at a time are allowed into a surprisingly small but well-stocked, supermarket-style room with a checker-board linoleum floor. There, they find metal shelves filled with pasta, hot and cold cereals, canned vegetables and fish or meat (including tuna, salmon and mackerel, chicken chunks, and beef with gravy), as well as fr
esh vegetables, a freezer of frozen meat, and a refrigerator full of skim milk and ricotta cheese.
After showing proof of New York residency (a piece of current mail will do) and family size (a report card, for example, for each child), one member of a household can shop at the pantry once a month. "In effect, we're a bridge to help folks get through, especially since food stamp benefits generally run out after the second week of the month," says Taylor.

Some of the same items I had seen up at the Bronx warehouse (Maypo a
nd the Princella sweet potatoes, for instance) appeared to be in heavy supply as an older African-American woman and a fragile-looking young Hispanic mother with a shy child filled their miniature metal shopping carts.

The food never stays on the shelves for long. "We're seeing 100-150 families a day. They can easily wipe out everything you see on the shelves here," says Taylor.

Keeping those shelves full isn't easy. Despite Sobel's somewhat rosy assessment, Carlos Rodriguez notes that, even before the recent economic meltdown, a Food Bank survey showed demand increasing 24% and donations, at least by comparison with need, beginning to slide. In the time since, the deleterious effects of the economic meltdown have been abetted by the problems of a globalized food market and the effects of climate change, both creating ripples from Asia to Harlem.

"Over the last year," says Rodriguez, "we had some droughts in different parts of the world that drove up food prices... The price of rice was ridiculous over the last summer, so there was shortage of rice and other grains."

At the same time, increased efficiency by food manufacturers, whose overproduction has always been an important source of food bank and pantry donations, is having a grave impact. Increasingly, they are often making no more than they can sell. Even when they still do overproduce, Rodriguez notes, "we're in a global market environment, so they're finding alternative places to sell their surplus. What does that translate into? Less donations for food banks."

As has been true for food banks all over the country, the global economic crisis has spurred a rise -- whether temporary or not no one knows -- in food donations, which has helped offset some of the pressures the Food Bank for New York City is now experiencing. If, however, charitable foundations continue to buckle under the stresses of the deepening depression and philanthropic foundations cut back on their grants even as businesses shrink their charitable giving, that tsunami of hunger Carlos Rodriguez fears may be heading for New York.

"It's a very difficult time," says Bronx Warehouse Manager Paul Rodriguez. "We do whatever we need to do to make sure people have a little something warm in their bellies. That's what we're in the business of doing. We try to make it happen. But we can't make it happen if we don't have food on the shelves."

As the last safety net for the needy, the Food Bank for New York City is just about all that stands between millions of vulnerable New Yorkers and abject hunger. As of now, the lines on 116th Street keep getting longer, while more construction boots and kids' shoes shuffle into the Community Kitchen each weeknight. If demand spikes by two million or even a significant fraction of that, the result could be a catastrophe. "If we have an empty warehouse," Paul Rodriguez asks, "what can we do?"

Nick Turse is the associate editor of TomDispatch.com. He is the recent winner of a Ridenhour Prize for Reportorial Distinction, and his work has appeared in many publications, including the Los Angeles Times, the Nation, In These Times, and regularly at TomDispatch. A paperback edition of his book, The Complex: How the Military Invades Our Everyday Lives (Metropolitan Books), an exploration of the new military-corporate complex in America, has just been published. His website is Nick Turse.com.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Torture? It probably killed more Americans than 9/11

A US major reveals the inside story of military interrogation in Iraq.

By Patrick Cockburn, winner of the 2009 Orwell Prize for journalism

April 26, 2009 The Independent

The use of torture by the US has proved so counter-productive that it may have led to the death of as many US soldiers as civilians killed in 9/11, says the leader of a crack US interrogation team in Iraq.

"The reason why foreign fighters joined al-Qa'ida in Iraq was overwhelmingly because of abuses at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib and not Islamic ideology," says Major Matthew Alexander, who personally conducted 300 interrogations of prisoners in Iraq. It was the team led by Major Alexander [a named assumed for security reasons] that obtained the information that led to the US military being able to locate Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the head of al-Qa'ida in Iraq. Zarqawi was then killed by bombs dropped by two US aircraft on the farm where he was hiding outside Baghdad on 7 June 2006. Major Alexander said that he learnt where Zarqawi was during a six-hour interrogation of a prisoner with whom he established relations of trust.

Major Alexander's attitude to torture by the US is a combination of moral outrage and professional contempt. "It plays into the hands of al-Qa'ida in Iraq because it shows us up as hypocrites when we talk about human rights," he says. An eloquent and highly intelligent man with experience as a criminal investigator within the US military, he says that torture is ineffective, as well as counter-productive. "People will only tell you the minimum to make the pain stop," he says. "They might tell you the location of a house used by insurgents but not that it is booby-trapped."

In his compelling book How to Break a Terrorist, Major Alexander explains that prisoners subjected to abuse usually clam up, say nothing, or provide misleading information. In an interview he was particularly dismissive of the "ticking bomb" argument often used in the justification of torture. This supposes that there is a bomb timed to explode on a bus or in the street which will kill many civilians. The authorities hold a prisoner who knows where the bomb is. Should they not torture him to find out in time where the bomb is before it explodes?

Major Alexander says he faced the "ticking time bomb" every day in Iraq because "we held people who knew about future suicide bombings". Leaving aside the moral arguments, he says torture simply does not work. "It hardens their resolve. They shut up." He points out that the FBI uses normal methods of interrogation to build up trust even when they are investigating a kidnapping and time is of the essence. He would do the same, he says, "even if my mother was on a bus" with a hypothetical ticking bomb on board. It is quite untrue to imagine that torture is the fastest way of obtaining information, he says.

A career officer, Major Alexander spent 14 years in the US air force, beginning by flying helicopters for special operations. He saw combat in Bosnia and Kosovo, was an air force counter-intelligence agent and criminal interrogator, and was stationed in Saudi Arabia, with an anti-terrorist role, during the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. Some years later, the US army was short of interrogators. He wanted to help shape developments in Iraq and volunteered.

Arriving in Iraq in early 2006 he found that the team he was working with were mostly dedicated, but young, men between 18 and 24. "Many of them had never been out of the States before," he recalls. "When they sat down to interrogate somebody it was often the first time they had met a Muslim." In addition to these inexperienced officers, Major Alexander says there was "an old guard" of interrogators using the methods employed at Guantanamo. He could not say exactly what they had been doing for legal reasons, though in the rest of the interview he left little doubt that prisoners were being tortured and abused. The "old guard's" methods, he says, were based on instilling "fear and control" in a prisoner.

He refused to take part in torture and abuse, and forbade the team he commanded to use such methods. Instead, he says, he used normal US police interrogation techniques which are "based on relationship building and a degree of deception". He adds that the deception was often of a simple kind such as saying untruthfully that another prisoner has already told all.

Before he started interrogating insurgent prisoners in Iraq, he had been told that they were highly ideological and committed to establishing an Islamic caliphate in Iraq, Major Alexander says. In the course of the hundreds of interrogations carried out by himself, as well as more than 1,000 that he supervised, he found that the motives of both foreign fighters joining al-Qa'ida in Iraq and Iraqi-born members were very different from the official stereotype.

In the case of foreign fighters – recruited mostly from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria, Yemen and North Africa – the reason cited by the great majority for coming to Iraq was what they had heard of the torture in Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib. These abuses, not fundamentalist Islam, had provoked so many of the foreign fighters volunteering to become suicide bombers.

For Iraqi Sunni Arabs joining al-Qa'ida, the abuses played a role, but more often the reason for their recruitment was political rather than religious. They had taken up arms because the Shia Arabs were taking power; de-Baathification marginalised the Sunni and took away their jobs; they feared an Iranian takeover. Above all, al-Qa'ida was able to provide money and arms to the insurgents. Once, Major Alexander recalls, the top US commander in Iraq, General George Casey, came to visit the prison where he was working. Asking about what motivated the suspected al-Qa'ida prisoners, he was at first given the official story that they were Islamic Jihadi full of religious zeal. Major Alexander intervened to say that this really was not true and there was a much more complicated series of motivations at work. General Casey did not respond.

The objective of Major Alexander's team was to find Zarqawi, the Jordanian born leader of al-Qa'ida who built it into a fearsome organisation. Attempts by US military intelligence to locate him had failed despite three years of trying. Major Alexander was finally able to persuade one of Zarqawi's associates to give away his location because the associate had come to reject his methods, such as the mass slaughter of civilians.

What the major discovered was that many of the Sunni fighters were members of, or allied to, al-Qa'ida through necessity. They did not share its extreme, puritanical Sunni beliefs or hatred of the Shia majority. He says that General Casey had ignored his findings but he was pleased when General David Petraeus became commander in Iraq and began to take account of the real motives of the Sunni fighters. "He peeled back those Sunnis from al-Qa'ida," he says.

In the aftermath of his experience in Iraq, which he left at the end of 2006, Major Alexander came to believe that the battle against the US using torture was more important than the war in Iraq. He sees President Obama's declaration against torture as "a historic victory", though he is concerned about loopholes remaining and the lack of accountability of senior officers. Reflecting on his own interrogations, he says he always monitored his actions by asking himself, "If the enemy was doing this to one of my troops, would I consider it torture?" His overall message is that the American people do not have to make a choice between torture and terror.

How to Break a Terrorist: The US interrogators who used brains, not brutality, to take down the deadliest man in Iraq, by Matthew Alexander and John R Bruning (The Free Press)

Friday, April 24, 2009

The Piracy Problem

Sometimes, it seems as if all U.S. global geopolitics boils down to little more than a war for money within the Pentagon. In the best of times, each armed service still has to continually maintain and upgrade its various raisons d'être for the billions of dollars being poured into it; each has to fight -- something far more difficult in economic hard times -- to maintain or increase its share of the budgetary pie. The remarkable thing is that we are now in the worst of economic times and yet, for one more year, the Pentagon can still pretend that it just ain't so. After eight years in which the Bush administration broke the bank militarily, an already vastly bloated Pentagon budget will miraculously rise once more, even if by a relatively modest 4%, in the coming fiscal year. But don't for a second think that the Army, Air Force, Marines, and Navy aren't already scrambling for toeholds suitable for a more precarious future.

Our unchallenged imperial Navy rules the sea lanes of the planet. Its 11 aircraft carrier battle groups, those vast water-borne military bases, roam the oceans of the world without opposition. But there's a problem. Right now, as John Feffer, co-director of the invaluable website Foreign Policy In Focus and TomDispatch regular, points out below, the American war of note is on the ground in (and in the air over) the Af-Pak theater of operations, which leaves the Navy scrambling for meaning -- that is, future money.

Right now, the Army and the Marines are getting the headlines and the attention, which could mean the lion's share of future loot, as they recalibrate based on a counterinsurgency future. (One, two, many Afghanistans...) So, thought of in naval terms, the Somali pirates -- that is, an actual threat at sea -- have arrived just in the nick of time, providing an excuse for a new wave of potential expenditures aimed at creating the equivalent of counterinsurgency warfare at sea. In fact, think of those pirates as just the leading edge of a wave of new naval missions involving various forms of low-intensity operations afloat: not just piracy but also "seaborne terrorism, nuclear proliferation, drug smuggling, and human trafficking" for which naval planners and boosters are already starting to beat the drums.

And of course, no new mission should lack its preferably expensive, high-tech weaponry: in this case, the Littoral Combat Ship, a mighty pile of money in a relatively small package. A third the size of a destroyer, this $500 million craft is meant to patrol the planetary shallows, even if it has so far proved a production-plagued nightmare. Nonetheless, Secretary of Defense Gates has just modestly upped the craft's production -- and there's more to come from Navy "reformers." Count on a new array of smaller, shallow-water vessels that could be formed into little armadas already termed by one naval officer "Influence Squadrons."

Right now, of course, unmanned aerial drones are the hottest thing in the new Air Force counterinsurgency arsenal (and the Navy's commissioning them as well), so how about unmanned robo-boats? Don't worry: they're already being considered as part of the new Navy mission. The sea's the limit, so to speak. Tom

Monsters vs. Aliens
Why Terrorists and Pirates Are Not About to Team Up Any Time Soon
By John Feffer

In the comic books, bad guys often team up to fight the forces of good. The Masters of Evil battle the Avengers superhero team. The Joker and Scarecrow ally against Batman. Lex Luthor and Brainiac take on Superman.

And the Somali pirates, who have dominated recent headlines with their hijacking and hostage-taking, join hands with al-Qaeda to form a dynamic evil duo against the United States and our allies. We're the friendly monsters -- a big, hulking superpower with a heart of gold -- and they're the aliens from Planet Amok.

In the comic-book imagination of some of our leading pundits, the two headline threats against U.S. power are indeed on the verge of teaming up. The intelligence world is abuzz with news that radical Islamists in Somalia are financing the pirates and taking a cut of their booty. Given this "bigger picture," Fred Iklé urges us simply to "kill the pirates." Robert Kaplan waxes more hypothetical. "The big danger in our day is that piracy can potentially serve as a platform for terrorists," he writes. "Using pirate techniques, vessels can be hijacked and blown up in the middle of a crowded strait, or a cruise ship seized and the passengers of certain nationalities thrown overboard."

Chaotic conditions in Somalia and other countries, anti-state fervor, the mediating influence of Islam, the lure of big bucks: these factors are allegedly pushing the two groups of evildoers into each other's arms. "Both crimes involve bands of brigands that divorce themselves from their nation-states and form extraterritorial enclaves; both aim at civilians; both involve acts of homicide and destruction, as the United Nations Convention on the High Seas stipulates, 'for private ends,'" writes Douglas Burgess in a New York Times op-ed urging a prosecutorial coupling of terrorism and piracy.

We've been here before. Since 2001, in an effort to provide a distinguished pedigree for the Global War on Terror and prove the superiority of war over diplomacy, conservative pundits and historians have regularly tried to compare al-Qaeda to the Barbary pirates of the 1800s. They were wrong then. And with the current conflating of terrorism and piracy, it's déjà vu all over again.

Misreading Piracy

Unlike al-Qaeda, the Somali pirates have no grand desire to bring down the United States and the entire Western world. They have no intention of establishing some kind of piratical caliphate. Despite Burgess's claims, they are not bent on homicide and destruction. They simply want money.

Most of the pirates are former fisherman dislodged from their traditional source of income by much larger pirates, namely transnational fishing conglomerates. When a crippled Somali government proved incapable of securing its own coastline, those fishing companies moved in to suck up the rich catch in local waters. "To make matters worse," Katie Stuhldreher writes in The Christian Science Monitor, "there were reports that some foreign ships even dumped waste in Somali waters. That prompted local fishermen to attack foreign fishing vessels and demand compensation. The success of these early raids in the mid-1990s persuaded many young men to hang up their nets in favor of AK-47s."

Despite their different ideologies -- al-Qaeda has one, the pirates don't -- it has become increasingly popular to assert a link between radical Islam and the Somali freebooters. The militant Somali faction al-Shabab, for instance, is allegedly in cahoots with the pirates, taking a cut of their money and helping with arms smuggling in order to prepare them for their raids. The pirates "are also reportedly helping al-Shabab develop an independent maritime force so that it can smuggle foreign jihadist fighters and 'special weapons' into Somalia," former U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia David Shinn has recently argued.

In fact, the Islamists in Somalia are no fans of piracy. The Islamic Courts Union (ICU), which had some rough control over Somalia before Ethiopia invaded the country in 2006, took on piracy, and the number of incidents dropped. The more militant al-Shabab, which grew out of the ICU and became an insurgent force after the Ethiopian invasion, has denounced piracy as an offense to Islam.

The lumping together of Islamists and pirates obscures the only real solution to Somalia's manifold problems. Piracy is not going to end through the greater exercise of outside force, no matter what New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman may think. (In a recent column lamenting the death of diplomacy in an "age of pirates," he recommended a surge in U.S. money and power to achieve success against all adversaries.) Indeed, the sniper killing of three pirates by three U.S. Navy Seals has, to date, merely spurred more ship seizures and hostage-taking.
Simply escalating militarily and "going to war" against the Somali pirates is likely to have about as much success as our last major venture against Somalia in the 1990s, which is now remembered only for the infamous Black Hawk Down incident. Rather, the United States and other countries must find a modus vivendi with the Islamists in Somali to bring the hope of political order and economic development to that benighted country.

Diplomacy and development, however lackluster they might seem up against a trio of dead-eyed sharpshooters, are the only real hope for Somalia and the commercial shipping that passes near its coastline.

From the Shores of Tripoli

It would have been the height of irony if the sharpshooters who took out the three Somali youths in that lifeboat with their American hostage had been aboard the USS John Paul Jones, a Navy guided-missile destroyer. Considered the father of the American Navy, Jones was quite the pirate in his day. Or so thought the British, whose ships he seized and looted.

We are left instead with the lesser irony of the sharpshooters taking aim from the USS Bainbridge. This ship was named for Commodore William Bainbridge, who fought against the Barbary pirates in the battles of Algiers and Tunis during the Barbary Wars and was himself taken prisoner in 1803.

The parallels between the pirates of yesterday and today are striking. Then, as now, American observers miscast the pirates as Muslim radicals. In fact, as Frank Lambert explains in his book The Barbary Wars, those pirates actually served secular governments that were part of the Ottoman Empire (much as Sir Francis Drake plundered Spanish ships on behalf of Queen Elizabeth in the sixteenth century or Jones served the United States in the eighteenth). Then, as now, the pirates resorted to preying on commercial shipping because they'd been boxed out of legitimate trade.

The Barbary pirates took to looting European vessels because European governments had barred the states of Algiers, Tripoli, and Morocco from trading in their markets. Back then, the fledgling United States accused the Barbary pirates of being slavers without acknowledging that the U.S. was then the center of the global slave trade. Today, the U.S. government decries piracy, but doesn't do anything to prevent the maritime poaching of fishing reserves that helped push pirates from their jobs into risky but lucrative careers in freebooting.

The most improbable link, however, involves the conflation of terrorism and piracy. In the aftermath of September 11, pundits and historians identified the U.S. military response to the Barbary pirates as a useful precedent for striking out against al-Qaeda. Shortly after the attacks, law professor Jonathan Turley invoked the war against the Barbary pirates in congressional testimony to justify U.S. retaliation against the terrorists. Historian Thomas Jewett, conservative journalist Joshua London, and executive director of the Christian Coalition of Washington State Rick Forcier all pointed to those pirates as Islamic radicals avant la lettre to underscore the impossibility of negotiations and the necessity of war, both then and now.
The battle against the Barbary pirates led to the creation of the U.S. Marine Corps ("...to the shores of Tripoli") and the first major U.S. government expenditure of funds on a military that could fight distant wars. For historians like Robert Kagan (in his book Dangerous Nation), that war kicked off what would be a distinguished history of empire, which he contrasts with the conventional wisdom of a United States that only reluctantly assumed its hegemonic mantle.
Will the current conflict with the Somali pirates, if successfully linked in the public mind to global terrorism, serve as one significant part of a new justification for the continuation of empire and a whole new set of military expenditures needed to sustain such a venture?

The New GWOT?

The United States has the most powerful navy in the world. But what it can do against the Somali pirates is limited. Big guns and destroyers are incapable of covering the necessary vast ocean expanses in which the relatively low-tech pirates operate, can't respond quickly enough to pin-prick attacks, and ultimately aren't likely to intimidate what Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has quite correctly termed "a bunch of teenage pirates" with little to lose.

"The area we patrol is more than one million square miles and the simple fact of the matter is we just can't be everywhere at once to prevent every attack of piracy," says Lt Nathan Christensen, of the U.S. Fifth Fleet in Bahrain. Last year, approximately 23,000 ships passed through the Gulf of Aden. Pirates snagged 93 of them (some large, some tiny). Yet, in part because these trade routes are so crucial to global economic wellbeing, this minuscule percentage struck fear into the hearts of the most powerful countries on the planet.

The failure of the U.S. Navy to stamp out piracy has led to predictable calls for more resources. For instance, to deal with nimble, low-intensity threats like the speedy pirates, the Pentagon is looking at Littoral Combat Ships instead of another several-billion-dollar destroyer. The Navy is planning to purchase 55 of these ships, which, at $450-$600 million each, will come in at around $30 billion, a huge sum for a project plagued with costs overruns and design problems. With the ground (and air) war heating up in Afghanistan and the CIA in charge of operations in Pakistan, the Navy is understandably trying to keep up with the other services. The Navy's goal of a 313-ship force, which boosters champion regardless of cost, can only be reached by appealing to a threat comparable to terrorists on land. Why not the functional equivalent of terrorists at sea?
Pirates are the perfect threat. They've been around forever. They directly interfere with the bottom line, so the business community is on board. Unlike China, they don't hold any U.S. Treasury Bonds. Indeed, since they're non-state actors, we can bring virtually every country onto our side against them.

And, finally, the Pentagon is already restructuring itself to meet just such a threat. Through its "revolution in military affairs," the adoption of a doctrine of "strategic flexibility," and the cultivation of rapid-response forces, the Pentagon has been gearing up to handle the asymmetrical threats that have largely replaced the more fixed and predictable threats of the Cold War era, and even of the "rogue state" era that briefly followed. The most recent Gates military budget, with its move away from outdated Cold War weapons systems toward more limber forces, fits right in with this evolution. Canceling the F-22 stealth fighter aircraft and cutting money from the Missile Defense Agency in favor of more practical systems is certainly to be applauded. But the Pentagon isn't about to hold a going-out-of-business sale. The new Obama defense budget will actually rise about 4%.

George W. Bush's Global War on Terror, or GWOT, turned out to be a useful way for the Pentagon to get everything it wanted: an extraordinary increase in spending and capabilities after 2001. With GWOT officially retired and an unprecedented federal deficit looming, the Pentagon and the defense industries will need to trumpet new threats or else face the possibility of a massive belt-tightening that goes beyond the mere shell-gaming of resources.

The War on Terror lives on, of course, in the Obama administration's surge in Afghanistan, the CIA's campaign of drone attacks in the Pakistani borderlands, and the operations of the new Africa Command. However, the replacement phrase for GWOT, "overseas contingency operations," doesn't quite fire the imagination. It's obviously not meant to. But that's a genuine problem for the military in budgetary terms.

Enter the pirates, who from Errol Flynn to Johnny Depp have always been a big box-office draw. As the recent media hysteria over the crew of the Maersk Alabama indicates, that formula can carry over to real life. Take Johnny Depp out of the equation and pirates can simply be repositioned as bizarre, narcotics-chewing aliens.

Then it's simply a matter of the United States calling together the coalition of the willing monsters to crush those aliens before they take over our planet. And you thought "us versus them" went out with the Bush administration...


John Feffer is the co-director of Foreign Policy In Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies. His writings can be found at his website, and you can subscribe to his weekly e-newsletter World Beat here.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

30 Years On Southall Riots*, Mr Peach became a hero to the Sikh community in Britain

The anniversary of the death of a New Zealander at a London protest 30 years ago is to be remembered next week.

Blair Peach, a 33-year-old special needs teacher living in East London, died during a protest by the Anti-Nazi League on April 23, 1979.

It was alleged he died after being struck on the head by a police officer with a truncheon.

Even 30 years on his death is drawing appeals for information, as no one was prosecuted for the killing.

An international group, Friends of Blair Peach, has created a Facebook group in his memory.

It was appealing for his friends or people who had information on his death to get in touch.

The Anti-Nazi League protest, in the largely-Asian suburb of Southall, West London, was against anti-immigration group the National Front , who were holding a meeting in preparation for their general election campaign.

Their candidate reportedly said he would "bulldoze Southall to the ground and replace it with an English hamlet", the Socialist Worker newspaper reported at the time.

Police used truncheons to disperse the crowd as it marched toward Southall town hall, and shut down the protesters' makeshift headquarters.

Parminder Atwal, a local resident who saw Mr Peach hit on the head by police, said it was clear he was seriously hurt, and couldn't stand.

Police told him to move on and "were very rough with him", London weekly newspaper First Post reported.

Mr Peach was found injured around 8.30pm by an Asian family who took him in and called an ambulance.

He began having fits and was pronounced dead at hospital.

A public inquiry into his death, requested by 79 MPs, was refused.

The coroner's ruling of 'death by misadventure' came after one of the longest inquests in legal history, with a total of 84 witnesses, including 40 members of the Metropolitan Police special patrol group.

Witnesses testified to Mr Peach being beaten by police in a street, and a pathologist said the damage to his skull could not have come from a truncheon, but a rubberised police radio.

The result of an internal police investigation was never made public, but Mr Peach's family were shown part of it in 1986.

His brother reached an out-of-court settlement with the Metropolitan Police in 1989.

Mr Peach became a hero to the Sikh community in Britain, and a Southall primary school was named after him.

The death of 47-year-old British man Ian Tomlinson during a G20 protest in London a fortnight ago brought back memories of Mr Peach's death, and prompted calls for an investigation into police involvement in his death.

A video showed a police officer shoving Mr Tomlinson to the ground, minutes before he was found dead from an apparent heart attack in a nearby street.

Memorials will take place in New Zealand and Britain next week, including a vigil at the spot where Mr Peach was allegedly struck by police.


http://www.sikhsangat.com/index.php?showtopic=43783

Well, well, well


Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Author JG Ballard dies aged 78

The novelist JG Ballard, who conjured up a bleak vision of modern life in a series of powerful novels and short stories published over more than 50 years, has died after a long battle with cancer

http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2009/apr/19/jg-ballard-author-dies-aged-78

RIP JG - I've read a number of your books and they all rocked!

Ecological Ignorance and Economic Collapse

It's natural, whether as a website or an individual, to get caught up in issues that are immediate and urgent. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that have been the focus of so many TomDispatch columns are happening right now. People are dying now. The economy is melting down now. The foreclosed and homeless are waking up now in ever-growing numbers. Unemployment lines are getting longer as you read this. Children are hungry this very minute, and the anxiety of a middle-class in freefall is palpable right now almost anywhere you go.

But now and then, it's also useful to take a step back and ask some longer term questions. Even if we could stop the wars, put people back to work (and back into their homes), even if we could get consumers spending again, there's always the "what-for" question. What have we accomplished if all we've done is reset the clock on the next war, the next bubble, the next bust... and if, all the while, the ice is melting and the globe warming?

Chip Ward, a TomDispatch contributor since 2003, spent 16 years confronting corporations that pollute and run, leaving sickness and suffering in their wake. He was focused on urgent and immediate tasks that made a difference right away (and, while he was at it, running a library system in Salt Lake City that was slowly filling up with homeless people). Recently, he took a break and retreated to the remote canyons of southern Utah where he's been reflecting on that bigger picture and, as it happens, on the nature of bigness itself at a moment when "too big to fail" is the phrase du jour.

Tom

Too Big to Fail
Ecological Ignorance and Economic Collapse
By Chip Ward

"Too big to fail." It's been the mantra of our economic meltdown. Although meant to emphasize the overwhelming importance of this bank or that corporation, the phrase also unwittingly expresses a shared delusion that may be at the root of our current crises -- both economic and ecological.

In nature, nothing is too big to fail. In fact, big is bound to fail. To understand why that's so means stepping away from a prevailing set of beliefs that holds us in its sway, especially the deep conviction that we operate apart from nature's limits and rules.

Here's the heart of the matter: We are ecologically illiterate -- not just unfamiliar with the necessary scientific vocabulary and concepts, but spectacularly, catastrophically, tragically dumb. Oh yes, some of us now understand that draining those wetlands, clear-cutting the rainforests, and pumping all that CO2 into the atmosphere are self-destructively idiotic behaviors. But when it comes down to how nature itself behaves, we remain remarkably clueless.

The Adaptive Cycle from Google to GM

Science tells us that complex adaptive systems, like economies or ecosystems, tend to go through basic phases, however varied they may be. In the adaptive cycle, first comes a growth phase characterized by open opportunity. The system is weaving itself together and so there are all sorts of niches to be filled, paths to take, partnerships to be made, all involving seemingly endless possibilities and potential. Think of Google.

As niches are filled and the system sorts out, establishing strong interdependent relationships, the various players become less diverse and are bound together in ways that are ever more constricting. This is the consolidation phase that follows growth. As the system matures, it may look ever bigger and more indestructible, but it is actually growing ever more vulnerable. Think of General Motors.

The hidden weakness that underlies big systems is inherent in the consolidation phase. When every player gets woven ever more tightly into every other, a seemingly small change in a remote corner of the system can cascade catastrophically through the whole of it. Think of a lighted match at the edge of a dry forest. Think of Bear Stearns.

As global capitalism is melting down around us, we are experiencing just how, in an overly mature system, disruptions that start small can grow exponentially. So, for example, unemployment goes up another percent or two, just enough to make those of us with jobs save our cash, fearing we might be next. As we buy less, stocks pile up, production lags, more people are fired, more fear spreads, and consumption contracts further.

The above scenario, as familiar as can be, also provides an example of how easy it is to cross thresholds -- even just that slim percent or two can do the trick -- and fall into self-reinforcing feedback loops. Big consolidated systems are particularly vulnerable to such runaway scenarios. Think of the domino effect within the densely connected global economy that led to Bear Stearns, then Lehman, Merrill Lynch, AIG…

The third phase in the typical adaptive cycle is collapse. If you want to know what that's like, turn on the TV, look out your window, or knock on your neighbor's door, assuming that you still have a window or your neighbor still has a door. Since everything's connected, when an overgrown system spirals out of control, collapse tends to feel like an avalanche rather than erosion.

It may be hard to notice during the turmoil and confusion, but enormous amounts of energy are released in the collapse phase of an adaptive cycle and that leads to the final phase: regeneration. After seeds are cracked open by a forest fire, seedlings bloom in the nutrient-rich ashes of the former forest. They soak up newly available sunlight where the forest canopy has been opened. Then, as those open spaces start to fill, the growth phase begins anew. Hopefully, in our world, those empty auto-making factories will soon house a blooming business in wind turbines and mass transit.

It is important, however, to recognize that sometimes the collapse phase leads to renewal and sometimes to an entirely different and unwanted regime. Fire, for example, can renew a forest by clearing debris, opening niche space, and resetting the successional clock, or, if combined with a prolonged drought, it can set the stage for desertification. In human systems, we can influence whether the outcome is positive or negative by setting goals, providing incentives, and creating policies designed to reach them.

Building an Economy in Thin Air

Once you tune in to the phases of an adaptive cycle, you see them unfolding all around you. They may seem overwhelmingly complex, especially when compared to the neater, more linear models that shape our conventional ways of seeing the world, but ignoring that cycle as you build an economy is akin to denying gravity as you build a skyscraper.

Bigness is a warning signal that tells us to take a second look and consider whether the seemingly solid thing in front of us is far closer to collapse than it looks and, if so, to ask what can be done about it. If we were ecologically savvy, the conventional wisdom would be: If it ain't broke but it sure is big, then fix it. We do that by breaking it up and creating space for new niches and for the more dynamic diversity that naturally flows into such a system.

It's easy to attribute the creative fervor of the growth phase to an absence of regulation, rather than seeing it as the natural process of niche-filling in a system with lots of available space. As is now plain, freeing an already big corporate system of almost all regulation so that it can grow even bigger does not, in fact, encourage creativity; it just hastens the consolidation phase. So, to offer but one example, letting GM off the hook on fuel efficiency during the Bush era didn't make the company more creative. It only added to its long-term vulnerability.

It was surely no coincidence that, after the mammoth AT&T monopoly was broken up in the 1980's, cell phone technology emerged explosively starting in the 1990's. In a sense, cell phones were the technological equivalent of a new species emerging after the collapse and regeneration phases of an ecosystem. In the same way, it wasn't giant IBM which generated the revolutionary development of personal computers and the Internet. The next breakthrough in solar technology may be more likely to start in your neighbor's garage than in Chevron's lab.

Driving Off Cliffs

Our ignorance of the adaptive cycle is just one example of our ecological illiteracy. We are similarly inept at reading all sorts of natural signs. Take, for example, thresholds, those critical points where seemingly minor changes can tip an economy into recession or a climate into a new regime of monster storms and epic droughts.

Thresholds are like the doors between the phases in the adaptive cycle, except that they are often one-way -- once you stumble through them, you can't get back to the other side -- so it is crucially important to understand where they are. Although we recognize that there are such things as "tipping points" and we recognize, belatedly, that we have already crossed too many of them, we're lousy at seeing, let alone avoiding, thresholds before we reach them.

Understanding exactly where a threshold is located may be difficult, but we can at least look for such boundaries, and deliberately try not to cross them when the unintended consequences of doing so can be dire. There are, after all, usually warnings: the reservoir level is lower every year; the colors in the coral reef are fading away; mercury levels in the lake increase; you are more dependent than ever on imported oil...

Once you have driven off a cliff, it does you little good to realize that you are falling. The time to practice water conservation is before your well runs dry. Our culture's ability to deal with thresholds has proven only slightly better than my dog's ability to solve algebra problems.

Regeneration, Not Recovery

Still, if we really were attentive to the natural cycles unfolding around us, we wouldn't be attracted to growth like moths to a flame. We wouldn't equate bigness with success, but with risk, with enervation awaiting collapse. We certainly wouldn't be aiming today to rebuild yesterday's busted economy so that, tomorrow, we can resume our unlimited looting of nature's storehouse.

Believing that we are unbounded by nature's limits or rules, we built an economy where faster, cheaper, bigger, and more added up to the winning hand. Then -- until the recent global meltdown at least -- we acted as if our eventual triumph over anything from resource scarcity to those melting icebergs was a foregone conclusion. Facing problems (or thresholds) where the red lights were visibly blinking, we simply told ourselves that we'd figure out how to tweak the engineering a bit, and make room for a few more passengers.

We got it wrong. A capitalist economy based on constant, unlimited growth is a reckless fantasy because ecosystems are not limitless -- there are just so many pollinators, so many aquifers, so much fertile soil. In nature, unchecked rapid growth is the ideology of the invasive species and the cancer cell. Growth as an end in itself is ultimately self-destructive. A (globally warming) rising sea may lift all boats, as capitalists like to point out, but it may also inundate the coastline and drown the people living there.

If "recovery" from economic meltdown is just another word for a return to business as usual, we will be squandering a crucial chance to begin to build an economy that could be viable over the long run, without overloading the Earth's carrying capacity and courting catastrophe. We don't have to go big.

Remember that regeneration phase of the adaptive cycle? Here's where that comes in. Yes, collapse is a nightmare, but it also presents opportunities. If we were more aware of the thresholds we've already crossed, we might think differently about the next iteration of the economy. We could always cross a threshold of our own making and decide to live differently. Unrestrained growth, after all, was never a prerequisite for health, happiness, and justice. It's not written into the Constitution.

What would an end to separation from nature and from each other feel like? How might it be expressed day to day? The regeneration phase that is now upon us begs us to answer those questions.

This much is clear. If we want to avoid endless darkness and hardship, we have to become ecologically literate -- deeply so. The future is, you might say, too big to fail.


Chip Ward is a political activist and author of Canaries on the Rim (Verso) and Hope's Horizon (Island Press). He writes from Torrey, Utah, a small village that refuses to go big

Monday, April 20, 2009

I'd rather be

Watching an American Dad marathon

stupid working weeks :(



Sunday, April 19, 2009

Stringing Me Along

In late 2007 a bunch of Wellington musicians got together in an old woolshed near Takaka to record some songs. From this summertime project

The Woolshed Sessions was born.Distinguished by lashings of lap-steel guitar, lush vocal harmony sing-a-longs and banjo punctuations.





Show time

Saturday, April 18, 2009

A chance to drop some cash on a local business

Veitch

Everyones talking about it and Urban Dictionary is defining it

Veitch

1. to cause serious injury to another by repeatedly kicking them in the spine. Refers especially but not exclusively to the beating of ex-girlfriends.


1. "Dude, you didn't just lash out - you fucking veitched her!"


One can only think, the issues of the excessive violence and domestic abuse that seems all too common in NZ is npt about to change for the better anytime soon.

Friday, April 17, 2009

More Pirate Action

Ethiopia / USA / Somali Pirates’ Cover-Up

By Thomas C. Mountain

One of the best kept secrets in the international media these days is the link between the USA, Ethiopia and the Somali pirates. First, a little reliable background from someone on the ground in the Horn of Africa.

The Somali pirates operate out of the Ethiopian and USA created enclaves in Somalia calling themselves Somaliland and Puntland. These Ethiopian and USA backed warlord controlled territories have for many years hosted Ethiopian military bases, which have been greatly expanded recently by the addition of thousands of Ethiopian troops who were driven out of southern and central Somali by the Somali resistance to the Ethiopian invasion.

After securing their ransom for the hijacked ships the Somali pirates head directly to their local safe havens, in this case, the Ethiopian military bases, where they make a sizeable contribution to the retirement accounts of the Ethiopian regime headed by Meles Zenawi.

Of course, the international naval forces who are patrolling the Horn of Africa know all too well what is going on for they have at their disposal all sorts of high tech observation platforms, ranging from satellites to unmanned drones with high resolution video cameras that report back in real time.

The French commandos started to pursue the Somali pirates into their lairs last year until the pirates got the word that for the right amount of cash they were more than welcome in the Ethiopian military bases in their local neighborhoods. Ethiopia being the western, mainly USA, Cop on the Beat in East Africa put these bases off limits to the frustrated navies of the world, who are no doubt growling in anger to their USA counterparts about why this is all going on.

Now that the pirates have started attacking USA flagged shipping, something that was until now off limits, it remains to be seen what the Obama administration will do. One thing we in the Horn of Africa have learned all too well, when it comes to Ethiopia, don’t expect anything resembling accurate coverage by the media, especially those who operate under the cloak of “freedom of the press.”

Stay tuned for more on this from the Onlinejournal.com, the only site willing to expose the truth on matters no one else will touch.

Thomas C. Mountain, the last white man living in Eritrea, was in a former life an educator, activist and alternative medicine practitioner in the USA.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Filling the Skies with Assassins

Terminator Planet - Launching the Drone Wars
By Tom Engelhardt

In 1984, Skynet, the supercomputer that rules a future Earth, sent a cyborg assassin, a "terminator," back to our time. His job was to liquidate the woman who would give birth to John Connor, the leader of the underground human resistance of Skynet's time. You with me so far? That, of course, was the plot of the first Terminator movie and for the multi-millions who saw it, the images of future machine war -- of hunter-killer drones flying above a wasted landscape -- are unforgettable.

Since then, as Hollywood's special effects took off, there were two sequels during which the original terminator somehow morphed into a friendlier figure on screen, and even more miraculously, off-screen, into the humanoid governor of California. Now, the fourth film in the series, Terminator Salvation, is about to descend on us. It will hit our multiplexes this May.

Oh, sorry, I don't mean hit hit. I mean, arrive in.

Meanwhile, hunter-killer drones haven't waited for Hollywood. As you sit in that movie theater in May, actual unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), pilotless surveillance and assassination drones armed with Hellfire missiles, will be patrolling our expanding global battlefields, hunting down human beings. And in the Pentagon and the labs of defense contractors, UAV supporters are already talking about and working on next-generation machines. Post-2020, according to these dreamers, drones will be able to fly and fight, discern enemies and incinerate them without human decision-making. They're even wondering about just how to program human ethics, maybe even American ethics, into them.

Okay, it may never happen, but it should still make you blink that out there in America are people eager to bring the fifth iteration of Terminator not to local multiplexes, but to the skies of our perfectly real world -- and that the Pentagon is already funding them to do so.

An Arms Race of One

Now, keep our present drones, those MQ-1 Predators and more advanced MQ-9 Reapers, in mind for a moment. Remember that, as you read, they're cruising Iraqi, Afghan, and Pakistani skies looking for potential "targets," and in Pakistan's tribal borderlands, are employing what Centcom commander General David Petraeus calls "the right of last resort" to take out "threats" (as well as tribespeople who just happen to be in the vicinity). And bear with me while I offer you a little potted history of the modern arms race.

Think of it as starting in the early years of the twentieth century when Imperial Britain, industrial juggernaut and colonial upstart Germany, and Imperial Japan all began to plan and build new generations of massive battleships or dreadnoughts (followed by "super-dreadnoughts") and so joined in a fierce naval arms race. That race took a leap onto land and into the skies in World War I when scientists and war planners began churning out techno-marvels of death and destruction meant to break the stalemate of trench warfare on the Western front.
Each year, starting in 1915, new or improved weaponry -- poison gas, upgrades of the airplane, the tank and then the improved tank -- appeared on or above the battlefield. Even as those marvels arrived, the next generation of weapons was already on the drawing boards. (In a sense, American auto makers took up the same battle plan in peacetime, unveiling new, ramped up car models each year.) As a result, when World War I ended in 1918, the war machinery of 1919 and 1920 was already being mapped out and developed. The next war, that is, and the weapons that would go with it were already in the mind's eye of war planners.

From the first years of the twentieth century on, an obvious prerequisite for what would prove a never-ending arms race was two to four great powers in potential collision, each of which had the ability to mobilize scientists, engineers, universities, and manufacturing power on a massive scale. World War II was, in these terms, a bonanza for invention as well as destruction. It ended, of course, with the Manhattan Project, that ne plus ultra of industrial-sized invention for destruction, which produced the first atomic bomb, and so the Cold War nuclear arms race that followed.

In that 45-year-long brush with extinction, the United States and the Soviet Union each mobilized a military-industrial complex to build ever newer generations of ever more devastating nuclear weaponry and delivery systems for a MAD (mutually assured destruction) world. At the peak of that two-superpower arms race, the resulting arsenals had the mad capacity to destroy eight or ten planets our size.

In 1991, after 73 years, the Soviet Union, that Evil Empire, simply evaporated, leaving but a single superpower without rivals astride planet Earth. And then came the unexpected thing: the arms race, which had been almost a century in the making, did not end. Instead, the unimaginable occurred and it simply morphed into a "race" of one with a finish line so distant -- the bomber of 2018, Earth-spanning weapons systems, a vast anti-ballistic missile system, and weaponry for the heavens of perhaps 2050 -- as to imply eternity.

The Pentagon and the military-industrial complex surrounding it -- including mega-arms manufacturers, advanced weapons labs, university science centers, and the official or semi-official think tanks that churned out strategies for future military domination -- went right on. After a brief, post-Cold War blip of time in which "peace dividends" were discussed but not implemented, the "race" actually began to amp up again, and after September 11, 2001, went into overdrive against "Islamo-fascism" (aka the Global War on Terror, or the Long War).
In those years, our Evil Empire of the moment, except in the minds of a clutch of influential neocons, was a ragtag terrorist outfit made up of perhaps a few thousand adherents and scattered global wannabes, capable of mounting spectacular-looking but infrequent and surprisingly low-tech attacks on symbolic American (and other) targets. Against this enemy, the Pentagon budget became, for a while, an excuse for anything.

This brings us to our present unbalanced world of military might in which the U.S. accounts for nearly half of all global military spending and the total Pentagon budget is almost six times that of the next contender, China. Recently, the Chinese have announced relatively modest plans to build up their military and create a genuinely offshore navy. Similarly, the Russians have moved to downsize and refinance their tattered armed forces and the industrial complex that goes with them, while upgrading their weapons systems. This could potentially make the country more competitive when it comes to global arms dealing, a market more than half of which has been cornered by the U.S. They are also threatening to upgrade their "strategic nuclear forces," even as Presidents Dmitry Medvedev and Barack Obama have agreed to push forward a new round of negotiations for nuclear reductions.

Meanwhile, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has just announced cutbacks in some of the more outré and futuristic military R&D programs inherited from the Cold War era. The Navy's staggering 11 aircraft-carrier battle groups will over time also be reduced by one. Minor as that may seem, it does signal an imperial downsizing, given that the Navy refers to each of those carriers, essentially floating military bases, as "four and a half acres of sovereign U.S. territory." Nonetheless, the Pentagon budget will grow modestly and the U.S. will remain in a futuristic arms race of one, a significant part of which involves reserving the skies as well as the heavens for American power.

Assassination by Air

Speaking of controlling those skies, let's get back to UAVs. As futuristic weapons planning went, they started out pretty low-tech in the 1990s. Even today, the most commonplace of the two American armed drones, the Predator, costs only $4.5 million a pop, while the most advanced model, that Reaper -- both are produced by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems of San Diego -- comes in at $15 million. (Compare that to $350 million for a single F-22 Raptor, which has proved essentially useless in America's most recent counterinsurgency wars.) It's lucky UAVs are cheap, since they are also prone to crashing. Think of them as snowmobiles with wings that have received ever more sophisticated optics and powerful weaponry.

They came to life as surveillance tools during the wars over the former Yugoslavia, were armed by February 2001, were hastily pressed into operation in Afghanistan after 9/11, and like many weapons systems, began to evolve generationally. As they did, they developed from surveillance eyes in the sky into something far more sinister and previously restricted to terra firma: assassins. One of the earliest armed acts of a CIA-piloted Predator, back in November 2002, was an assassination mission over Yemen in which a jeep, reputedly transporting six suspected al-Qaeda operatives, was incinerated.

Today, the most advanced UAV, the Reaper, housing up to four Hellfire missiles and two 500-pound bombs, packs the sort of punch once reserved for a jet fighter. Dispatched to the skies over the farthest reaches of the American empire, powered by a 1,000-horsepower turbo prop engine at its rear, the Reaper can fly at up to 21,000 feet for up to 22 hours (until fuel runs short), streaming back live footage from three cameras (or sending it to troops on the ground) --- 16,000 hours of video a month.

No need to worry about a pilot dozing off during those 22 hours. The human crews "piloting" the drones, often from thousands of miles away, just change shifts when tired. So the planes are left to endlessly cruise Iraqi, Afghan, and Pakistani skies relentlessly seeking out, like so many terminators, specific enemies whose identities can, under certain circumstances -- or so the claims go -- be determined even through the walls of houses. When a "target" is found and agreed upon -- in Pakistan, the permission of Pakistani officials to fire is no longer considered necessary -- and a missile or bomb is unleashed, the cameras are so powerful that "pilots" can watch the facial expressions of those being liquidated on their computer monitors "as the bomb hits."

Approximately 5,500 UAVs, mostly unarmed -- less than 250 of them are Predators and Reapers -- now operate over Iraq and the Af-Pak (as in the Afghanistan-Pakistan) theater of operations. Part of the more-than-century-long development of war in the air, drones have become favorites of American military planners. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates in particular has demanded increases in their production (and in the training of their "pilots") and urged that they be rushed in quantity into America's battle zones even before being fully perfected.
And yet, keep in mind that the UAV still remains in its (frightening) infancy. Such machines are not, of course, advanced cyborgs. They are in some ways not even all that advanced. Because someone now wants publicity for the drone-war program, reporters from the U.S. and elsewhere have recently been given "rare behind-the-scenes" looks at how it works. As a result, and also because the "covert war" in the skies over Pakistan makes Washington's secret warriors proud enough to regularly leak news of its "successes," we know something more about how our drone wars work.

We know, for instance, that at least part of the Air Force's Afghan UAV program runs out of Kandahar Air Base in southern Afghanistan. It turns out that, pilotless as the planes may be, a pilot does have to be nearby to guide them into the air and handle landings. As soon as the drone is up, a two-man team, a pilot and a "sensor monitor," backed by intelligence experts and meteorologists, takes over the controls either at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson, Arizona, or at Creech Air Force Base northwest of Las Vegas, some 7,000-odd miles away. (Other U.S. bases may be involved as well.)

According to Christopher Drew of the New York Times, who visited Davis-Monthan where Air National Guard members handle the controls, the pilots sit unglamorously "at 1990s-style computer banks filled with screens, inside dimly lit trailers." Depending on the needs of the moment, they can find themselves "over" either Afghanistan or Iraq, or even both on the same work shift. All of this is remarkably mundane -- pilot complaints generally run to problems "transitioning" back to wife and children after a day at the joystick over battle zones -- and at the same time, right out of Ali Baba's One Thousand and One Nights.

In those dimly lit trailers, the UAV teams have taken on an almost godlike power. Their job is to survey a place thousands of miles distant (and completely alien to their lives and experiences), assess what they see, and spot "targets" to eliminate -- even if on their somewhat antiquated computer systems it "takes up to 17 steps -- including entering data into pull-down windows -- to fire a missile" and incinerate those below. They only face danger, other than carpal tunnel syndrome, when they leave the job. A sign at Creech warns a pilot to "drive carefully"; "this, it says, is 'the most dangerous part of your day.'" Those involved claim that the fear and thrill of battle do not completely escape them, but the descriptions we now have of their world sound discomfortingly like a cross between the far frontiers of sci-fi and a call center in India.

The most intense of our various drone wars, the one on the other side of the Afghan border in Pakistan, is also the most mysterious. We know that some or all of the drones engaged in it take off from Pakistani airfields; that this "covert war" (which regularly makes front-page news) is run by the CIA out of its headquarters in Langley, Virginia; that its pilots are also located somewhere in the U.S.; and that at least some of them are hired private contractors.
William Saletan of Slate has described our drones as engaged in "a bloodless, all-seeing airborne hunting party." Of course, what was once an elite activity performed in person has been transformed into a 24/7 industrial activity fit for human drones.

Our drone wars also represent a new chapter in the history of assassination. Once upon a time, to be an assassin for a government was a furtive, shameful thing. In those days, of course, an assassin, if successful, took down a single person, not the targeted individual and anyone in the vicinity (or simply, if targeting intelligence proves wrong, anyone in the vicinity). No more poison-dart-tipped umbrellas, as in past KGB operations, or toxic cigars as in CIA ones -- not now that assassination has taken to the skies as an every day, all-year-round activity.
Today, we increasingly display our assassination wares with pride. To us, at least, it seems perfectly normal for assassination aerial operations to be a part of an open discussion in Washington and in the media. Consider this a new definition of "progress" in our world.

Proliferation and Sovereignty

This brings us back to arms races. They may be things of the past, but don't for a minute imagine that those hunter-killer skies won't someday fill with the drones of other nations. After all, one of the truths of our time is that no weapons system, no matter where first created, can be kept for long as private property. Today, we talk not of arms races, but of "proliferation," which is what you have once a global arms race of one takes hold.

In drone-world, the Chinese, the Russians, the Israelis, the Pakistanis, the Georgians, and the Iranians, among others, already have drones. In the Lebanon War of 2006, Hezbollah flew drones over Israel. In fact, if you have the skills, you can create your own drone, more or less in your living room (as your basic DIY drone website indicates). Undoubtedly, the future holds unnerving possibilities for small groups intent on assassination from the air.

Already the skies are growing more crowded. Three weeks ago, President Obama issued what Reuters termed "an unprecedented videotaped appeal to Iran... offering a 'new beginning' of diplomatic engagement to turn the page on decades of U.S. policy toward America's longtime foe." It was in the form of a Persian New Year's greeting. As the New York Times also reported, the U.S. military beat the president to the punch. They sent their own "greetings" to the Iranians a couple of days earlier.

After considering what Times reporters Rod Nordland and Alissa J. Rubin term "the delicacy of the incident at a time when the United States is seeking a thaw in its relations with Iran," the U.S. military sent out Col. James Hutton to meet the press and "confirm" that "allied aircraft" had shot down an "Iranian unmanned aerial vehicle" over Iraq on February 25th, more than three weeks earlier. Between that day and mid-March, the relevant Iraqi military and civilian officials were, the Times tells us, not informed. The reason? That drone was intruding on our (borrowed) airspace, not theirs. You probably didn't know it, but according to an Iraqi Defense Ministry spokesman, "protection of Iraqi airspace remains an American responsibility for the next three years."

And naturally enough, we don't want other countries' drones in "our" airspace, though that's hardly likely to stop them. The Iranians, for instance, have already announced the development of "a new generation of 'spy drones' that provide real-time surveillance over enemy terrain."
Of course, when you openly control squads of assassination drones patrolling airspace over other countries, you've already made a mockery of whatever national sovereignty might once have meant. It's a precedent that may someday even make us distinctly uncomfortable. But not right now.

If you doubt this, check out the stream of self-congratulatory comments being leaked by Washington officials about our drone assassins. These often lead off news pieces about America's "covert war" over Pakistan ("An intense, six-month campaign of Predator strikes in Pakistan has taken such a toll on Al Qaeda that militants have begun turning violently on one another out of confusion and distrust, U.S. intelligence and counter-terrorism officials say..."); but be sure to read to the end of such pieces. Somewhere in them, after the successes have been touted and toted up, you get the bad news: "In fact, the stepped-up strikes have coincided with a deterioration in the security situation in Pakistan."

In Pakistan, a war of machine assassins is visibly provoking terror (and terrorism), as well as anger and hatred among people who are by no means fundamentalists. It is part of a larger destabilization of the country.

To those who know their air power history, that shouldn't be so surprising. Air power has had a remarkably stellar record when it comes to causing death and destruction, but a remarkably poor one when it comes to breaking the will of nations, peoples, or even modest-sized organizations. Our drone wars are destructive, but they are unlikely to achieve Washington's goals.

The Future Awaits Us

If you want to read the single most chilling line yet uttered about drone warfare American-style, it comes at the end of Christopher Drew's piece. He quotes Brookings Institution analyst Peter Singer saying of our Predators and Reapers: "[T]hese systems today are very much Model T Fords. These things will only get more advanced."

In other words, our drone wars are being fought with the airborne equivalent of cars with cranks, but the "race" to the horizon is already underway. By next year, some Reapers will have a far more sophisticated sensor system with 12 cameras capable of filming a two-and-a-half mile round area from 12 different angles. That program has been dubbed "Gorgon Stare", but it doesn't compare to the future 92-camera Argus program whose initial development is being funded by the Pentagon's blue-skies outfit, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.
Soon enough, a single pilot may be capable of handling not one but perhaps three drones, and drone armaments will undoubtedly grow progressively more powerful and "precise." In the meantime, BAE Systems already has a drone four years into development, the Taranis, that should someday be "completely autonomous"; that is, it theoretically will do without human pilots. Initial trials of a prototype are scheduled for 2010.

By 2020, so claim UAV enthusiasts, drones could be engaging in aerial battle and choosing their victims themselves. As Robert S. Boyd of McClatchy reported recently, "The Defense Department is financing studies of autonomous, or self-governing, armed robots that could find and destroy targets on their own. On-board computer programs, not flesh-and-blood people, would decide whether to fire their weapons."

It's a particular sadness of our world that, in Washington, only the military can dream about the future in this way, and then fund the "arms race" of 2018 or 2035. Rest assured that no one with a governmental red cent is researching the health care system of 2018 or 2035, or the public education system of those years.

In the meantime, the skies of our world are filling with round-the-clock assassins. They will only evolve and proliferate. Of course, when we check ourselves out in the movies, we like to identify with John Connor, the human resister, the good guy of this planet, against the evil machines. Elsewhere, however, as we fight our drone wars ever more openly, as we field mechanical techno-terminators with all-seeing eyes and loose our missiles from thousands of miles away ("Hasta la Vista, Baby!"), we undoubtedly look like something other than a nation of John Connors to those living under the Predators. It may not matter if the joysticks and consoles on those advanced machines are somewhat antiquated; to others, we are now the terminators of the planet, implacable machine assassins.

True, we can't send our drones into the past to wipe out the young Ayman al-Zawahiri in Cairo or the teenage Osama bin Laden speeding down some Saudi road in his gray Mercedes sedan. True, the UAV enthusiasts, who are already imagining all-drone wars run by "ethical" machines, may never see anything like their fantasies come to pass. Still, the fact that without the help of a single advanced cyborg we are already in the process of creating a Terminator planet should give us pause for thought... or not.


Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project, runs the Nation Institute's TomDispatch.com. He is the author of The End of Victory Culture, a history of the Cold War and beyond, as well as of a novel, The Last Days of Publishing. He also edited The World According to TomDispatch: America in the New Age of Empire (Verso, 2008), an alternative history of the mad Bush years. To catch an audio interview in which he discusses our airborne assassins, click here.

[Note for TomDispatch readers: I particularly recommend the Christopher Drew New York Times piece cited above, "Drones Are Weapons of Choice in Fighting Qaeda," which gives a vivid picture of our drone wars at home. In addition, let me offer a small bow to Nick Turse, who, back in 2004, began writing at this site about the way our government has restricted blue-skies dreaming to the military. To keep up on drones and drone warfare, there is no better place to start than Noah Shachtman's Danger Room blog at Wired.com. It's a must. To keep track of drone strikes as they occur in our world, keep an eye on Antiwar.com. And a final note of thanks to Christopher Holmes, whose keen copyediting eye makes this process so much less embarrassing than it might otherwise be.]