Friday, 30 August 2013

Cameron deserved humiliation on Syria

By Michael Glackin
Friday, August 30, 2013.
The Daily Star

By the time you read this there is a chance that a U.S. Navy warship in the Eastern Mediterranean will have unleashed cruise missiles against Syria. On the other hand, there is also a reasonable chance that no such thing will have happened. What is certain, though, is that the United Kingdom will not be playing a major role if a missile strike is aimed at Syria in the coming days. British Prime Minister David Cameron’s attempts to strut the international stage have unraveled faster than a cheap suit.

After two years of doing nothing, two years in which an estimated 100,000 people have been murdered by various nonchemical means, Cameron belatedly attempted to show some statesmanship in calling for military action against the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad. This came after what is estimated to have been the 14th chemical weapons attack in Syria’s bloody war, according to Britain’s joint intelligence committee.

But the cracks began appearing in Cameron’s war armor almost as soon as he had put it on. The prime minister’s early bellicose calls for attacking Syria were in essence a response to firm assurances that Washington was finally prepared to take immediate action against the Assad regime –a commitment that was toned down somewhat by U.S. President Barack Obama Wednesday night.

Earlier this week Cameron insisted that the United Kingdom could, and would, use its military force without support, or a mandate, from the United Nations. However, by Wednesday he had been forced to put a resolution before the U.N. Security Council to satisfy his own parliamentarians, who threatened to revolt over the issue.

Cameron also insisted that the British parliament would not have to be consulted over any potential military action. Within days of that rash statement he was forced to hastily recall parliament, which was in summer recess, to vote on the issue.

The upshot is that the parliamentarians, who returned to parliament Thursday, will now have two separate votes before military action can be taken – the second of which can only be held after United Nations weapons inspectors file their report on the chemical attack. That is at least four to five days away according to the U.N.

This means that Cameron would be unable to involve British military personnel in what would be a U.S. led military strike if, as many are forecasting, it takes place this weekend, or even next week. And it remains far from certain that parliament will support action even then.

Cameron has tried to win over the waverers by stressing how limited British involvement – in what Washington has said will be a very limited missile strike – would be. But far from winning support he has merely focused attention on how little such military action serves the United Kingdom, let alone threatens Assad rule.

In terms of national interest, the war in Syria has already destabilized three of the U.K.’s key allies in the region: Israel, Turkey and Jordan. The sectarian nature of the conflict is starting to cause wider Sunni-Shiite violence throughout the Middle East, which could disrupt the autocratic Gulf monarchies, driving up the price of global oil supplies.

But Cameron, like Obama, has waxed lyrical about the moral case for action following the chemical attacks near Damascus. The problem is that the strong moral case for intervention has been steadfastly ignored by Cameron and the Obama administration for more than two years, while the most barbaric atrocities raged across Syria.

Moreover, the limited nature of military action, which will be planned as a short, sharp, punitive strike, aimed not at toppling Assad – as Cameron and Obama have been at pains to stress this week – but simply to warn him against the further use of chemical weapons, begs the question: What good will it do?

The nature of the strike suggests that the West is happy for Assad to murder Syrians with anything else he has on hand, as long as he stays away from those chemical weapons. It also reveals that the U.K. and the U.S. lack the courage to face Assad down for fear they cannot win.

The attraction of a limited missile strike conducted from the safety of the Eastern Mediterranean is that there is little risk of Western forces being killed or captured. A national newspaper poll earlier this week revealed that 50 percent of Britons opposed attacking Syria with even long-range missiles, while only 25 percent were in favor of action.

Probable targets for the U.S. missiles are likely to include military sites linked closely to the regime, such as army command facilities, missile production sites and some air defense sites. But ironically, Syria’s store of chemical weapons is likely to remain intact, since leakage of toxic chemicals from a missile attack could kill many more people than have already died in the war’s combined chemical outrages.

At the same time limited action will likely embolden Assad and his supporters, such as Russia and Iran, who will quickly re-equip the Syrian armed forces with whatever it loses in the air strikes and declare a moral victory against the West.

The truth that dare not speak its name in all this is that at the heart of Western strategy there is a desire that the Assad regime – not Assad himself, but the institutional structures built by his father – survive this war reasonably intact to keep Syria stable and jihadist free. Having failed to act boldly at the outset of this war, the West now fears the consequences of Syria falling into the wrong hands.

Perhaps that is too cynical. But the West has looked on while barbarism has taken hold in Syria. Thousands of cruise missiles won’t change that, nor will they change the course of Syria’s ugly war. Cameron’s attempt to grab a cheap headline by riding Obama’s coattails has deservedly left him humiliated. The U.S. never needed the U.K. to attack Syria; now it will be left to France to be America’s bag carrier.

Michael Glackin is former managing editor of Beirut newspaper THE DAILY STAR.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on August 30, 2013, on page 7.

Friday, 23 August 2013

The Egyptian generals get a free ride

By Michael Glackin
The Daily Star
Friday August 23, 2013

The coup (let us at least here call a spade a spade) that ousted Egyptian President Mohammad Morsi in July was quietly cheered by the West and, more loudly, by most Egyptians. But no one is cheering now.

The Egyptian army’s decision to unleash deadly force against its own people was as brutal in its intent, if not its scale, as the actions of Syrian President Bashar Assad. And yet, as in Syria, the West, which sends billions of dollars to Egypt each year, looks on. The United States and the United Kingdom cannot even bring themselves to describe what has happened in a proper way, let alone take measures that could halt the violence. The semantics surrounding whether the overthrow of Egypt’s first democratically elected government in history was a military coup have reached laughable status.

Both in Washington and London officials have spent the last month squirming through linguistic hoops to avoid using the word “coup.” It has become the dreaded term that must never be uttered in polite political briefings.

The British government cannot even condemn the subsequent actions of the army, despite the bloody backdrop of the events of last week, when two Muslim Brotherhood encampments were violently cleared. Speaking on Monday, British Foreign Secretary William Hague described the bloodshed which has left at least 900 dead as “turbulence” and “very bleak.” Bizarrely, Hague added that although the United Kingdom did not approve of “military interventions in democratic processes,” the army’s ousting of Morsi was not illegal, asserting that it was, in fact, a “gray area.”

Well maybe, but what is going on at the moment in Egypt looks pretty black and white to most observers.

For sure, Mohammad Morsi’s presidency was a disaster. His calamitous handling of the economy ultimately led to the demonstrations calling for him to go. Morsi was also guilty of trampling the aspirations of the people who had forced open the floodgates that put him in power. His decision to rush through laws with only the consent of the Islamist-dominated constitutional committee revealed he and the Muslim Brotherhood were little committed to the principle of democracy.

But the problem for the Egyptian military is that its bloody assault on the Muslim Brotherhood’s supporters boosted sympathy for the group. And if history teaches us anything about modern Egypt, it is that brute force will not crush the Brotherhood. Indeed as the current violence shows, it may push more people toward greater extremism.

The elections scheduled for November would have offered the Egyptian people, not the army, a chance to boot Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood out of office. It must surely be vital for people in the Middle East, and for Western interests in the region, that those voting for Islamic parties believe democracy offers them a route to government. Otherwise, elections will give credence to Al-Qaeda, which believes that only violence can bring change in the Arab world.

The U.K.’s leverage in Egypt, as in Syria, is limited. Consequently, as it has done in Syria, the British government has taken a decision to do nothing in Egypt. Despite “suspending” a handful of arms export licenses, a foreign official confirmed to me this week that the U.K. was still allowing arms to be exported to Egypt.

At a European Union foreign ministers emergency meeting in Brussels on Wednesday, member states agreed to suspend the export of some military equipment. However, that fell short of an outright ban on weapons sales and the EU only agreed to “review” its large aid budget to Egypt. The EU has currently pledged almost $6.5 billion in loans and grants for 2012-2013.

While Egypt benefits from this money and some access to EU markets, the Obama administration remains the key player, the one to which Egypt’s military listens. But once again Washington has been found wanting on the global stage. Add Egypt to the growing list of regional issues that President Barack Obama seems determined to avoid, from Syria’s brutal civil war to Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

Canceling a joint military exercise, Operation Bright Star, with Egypt was hardly an adequate rebuke for shooting civilians. Canceling the $1.5 billion annual aid Washington hands over to the Egyptian Army would send a clearer message, but unfortunately it is not one that the United States appears willing to send.

Egypt’s military could still receive on billions of dollars from its conservative Gulf allies, notably Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait, none of which can be described as lovers of the Muslim Brotherhood and all of which feel obliged to be proactive in the absence of U.S. leadership. The three countries recently unveiled an aid package for Egypt that totaled almost $12 billion.

Against the current backdrop of violence it is difficult to see how the army’s promise of a new constitution and fresh elections can include the Muslim Brotherhood, or indeed any Islamist parties. Yet they must be included, because that promise offers the only route toward ending the current bloodshed.

As such, it should be made it clear to Egypt that all trade, aid and exports from the U.S. and the EU will cease until elections take place and a civilian government takes office. Pressure must be applied to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries to do likewise, in spite of their aversion to free elections. That requires American leadership, and to a lesser extent European and British leadership.

Are you listening Barack Obama? Because whatever words you use to describe what has happened, Egypt should not be allowed to continue as normal when civilians are being gunned down and, along with their blood, their basic human rights are being trampled into the dirt.

Michael Glackin is former managing editor of Beirut based newspaper THE DAILY STAR.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on August 23, 2013, on page 7.

Friday, 16 August 2013

For the West, talk about Syria is cheap

The Daily Star
July 30, 2013
By Michael Glackin

Do you remember Geneva II? It’s the high powered diplomatic conference on Syria that a British government official told me was “the priority” in efforts to bring about regime change in Damascus.

Perhaps you recall that the United Kingdom overturned the European Union arms embargo on Syria in a move intended to bolster the Syrian National Coalition’s negotiating power when it came face to face with regime representatives at Geneva II? The dubious logic was that if the U.K., along with France, could supply arms to the rebels, Syrian President Bashar Assad would take fright and rush to negotiate an end to the war – or “step aside” from power, to borrow U.S. President Barack Obama’s curious phrase.

Few were really convinced by the West’s rhetoric about Geneva II, and in the end it has amounted to absolutely nothing. The conference was supposed to take place in June, then it was delayed until July, and now it has fallen off the agenda completely. British government insiders concede Geneva II will not take place before September “at the very earliest” and admit it may not happen this year at all.

Why? Because after more than two years of strong words and no action from the West, Assad has finally regained the upper hand in the Syrian conflict, not just on the ground, where increased help from Iran, Russia and Hezbollah has firmly tilted the balance in his favor, but also in terms of the West’s political calculations.

Obama may now be willing to send arms to the rebels, but the limited and relatively light weaponry he intends to send – automatic weapons, mortars and rocket-propelled grenades – will not achieve the change of regime that Washington and London desired so much but were unwilling to decisively help bring about.

Meanwhile, British Prime Minister David Cameron, increasingly out of his depth, cannot even match Obama’s fruitless token assistance. A revolt within his own party against moves to arm the rebels means that Cameron couldn’t send a pea-shooter to the rebels without first holding a vote in parliament, a vote that he would certainly lose.

Most Conservative parliamentarians are against arming the rebels, either fearing it will simply increase the killing in Syria or because they believe British weapons will end up in the hands of violent Islamists. Arming the rebels is also opposed by the opposition Labour Party, which despite voting as one for the Iraq war, is now against involving the U.K. in what one parliamentarian described to me as “more Middle East adventures that can only cause us harm.”

Washington’s decision to arm the rebels with even light weaponry now puts it in a proxy war against Iran, and with it Hezbollah, which may well play into the party’s hands. Imagine if you will the reaction to footage on the Internet or on television showing Hezbollah waving U.S. weapons they have just captured from rebels?

Crucially, even the language of the conflict is changing within the British government. From confident statements about Assad’s imminent downfall, government officials now talk about the rebels “going underground” and embarking on a clandestine terror campaign in the expectation that Assad will soon resume control of most of the country.

So, from arming rebels and discussing no-fly zones, British policy now appears to rest on some kind of secret resistance that carries out an Irish Republican Army like terror campaign. No prizes for guessing who will be leading the battle there: the Nusra Front.

The West has watched a fledgling struggle for civil rights turn, first, into a fully fledged civil war, and more worryingly now, a conflict that is perilously close to cracking open sectarian fault lines throughout the Middle East, endangering the stability of the region.

Of course, there has been a complete lack of international consensus on removing Assad, but singling out Russia and China as the international bogeymen conveniently ignores the fact that neither Washington nor London was prepared to match their words with action. The debacle of post-invasion Iraq has dominated the West’s political calculations from the first day that Assad’s troops fired on unarmed civilian demonstrators.

But it isn’t just the shadow of Iraq that has hung over the West’s failure to match its lofty words with deeds. The inability of rebel forces to organize and at least bury, if not overcome, their political divisions has made them an unreliable partner.

The SNC has accused the West of betrayal, but the growing sectarian extremism of opposition forces on the ground, the ritual slaughter of those opposed to its agenda which, as the United Nations has said, is on par with the atrocities of the Assad regime, though not on the same industrially organized scale, has played into Assad’s hands.

All this has underlined the fact that a coherent political opposition never really existed until the West invented it in the shape of the SNC in 2012. And yet, Western states had the capability of influencing events in Syria at any time during the last two years, long before the death toll reached the estimated 100,000 at which it currently stands, long before Hezbollah proved to be a game-changer for Assad, and long before the entire country reached the point of no return.

A determined show of strength from the outset, a proper engagement with Russia, something akin to leadership in Washington could have prevented this tragedy. Now events on the ground appear to have passed beyond the ability of any outside player to influence the outcome.

Arming rebels? If only Western decision-makers could grow something akin to a spine when dealing with tyranny. Talk is always the cheapest form of currency in politics, but rarely has coinage been so debased than in the West’s shameful reaction to the Syrian conflict.

Michael Glackin is former managing editor of Beirut based newspaper THE DAILY STAR.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 30, 2013, on page 7.

An open highway for Britain’s snoops

The Daily Star
July 19, 2013
By Michael Glackin

No one should be surprised that the British Parliament’s intelligence and security committee concluded Wednesday that the country’s intelligence surveillance division, GCHQ, did not break any laws in its use of America’s Prism surveillance program, which has provided access to the content of millions of private communications. The British government has been saying the same thing for weeks, ever since Edward Snowden, a contractor who worked with the National Security Agency, exposed the shocking extent of government intrusion into our day-to-day lives.

However, the committee, which carried out a hastily arranged investigation into Snowden’s allegations, conceded it had only focused on intelligence information that GCHQ had requested from the United States on particular suspects, where a warrant had been granted, as required by British law, and signed by a minister. Small wonder then that it found no evidence of law breaking.

It did not examine the many instances in which the NSA voluntarily sent information it had gathered through Prism to GCHQ. This was a serious omission since most of the surveillance data GCHQ received via Prism was passed in this manner.

The inquiry also focused only on the content of private communications that had been intercepted, ignoring the vast amount of metadata that Prism has harvested and shared.

The committee did at least call on the government to review whether current legislation governing access to private communications “remains adequate” for the level of access GCHQ has with the Prism program. But its principal message to the snoopers was to carry on intercepting vast amounts of information, including billions of private emails and messages, without parliamentary knowledge or approval.

The legality of the blanket surveillance programs revealed by Snowden will be more thoroughly tested in separate legal actions in the United States and the United Kingdom. But whether these will shed any further light on the issue is a moot point. The British legal challenge, launched by Privacy International, will almost certainly be heard in a secret court rather than in a public hearing.

What we do know is that the conclusion of the intelligence and security committee, and the assertions from Downing Street and the White House that no laws have been broken, betrays how easily governments can corrupt the law under the guise of national security.

They get away with it because the NSA and GCHQ share their surveillance information, and there is no legal regime within the U.K. to govern this information sharing. Consequently, the government can state correctly, if disingenuously, that no law has been broken. By obtaining private information from the NSA, instead of conducting the interception and collection itself, GCHQ is neatly sidestepping the flimsy protections safeguarding individual privacy in the U.K.

At the same time, information from GCHQ’s equivalent of Prism, Tempora, which harvests millions of emails, telephone calls and Skype conversations from the undersea cables carrying Internet traffic in and out of the U.K., is shared with the NSA, enabling the U.S. agency to circumvent America’s much stronger legal safeguards.

But this mutual back scratching is only part of the complex picture. Because in reality, while there doesn’t appear to be a legal framework to govern any of this activity, there is what can be best described as a legal tool, one that provides the snoopers with all the leverage they need to do their spade work regardless of the legal niceties.

That tool in the U.S. is the foreign intelligence surveillance court, known as the FISA court, a secret body set up in 1978 to monitor federal phone tapping, but which now effectively rubber stamps the illegal snooping into the private lives of millions of Americans.

According to critics of the surveillance programs, the FISA court has consistently violated the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which entitles Americans to be secure “in their persons, houses, papers and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.” The FISA court decides, in secret judgments, what is “unreasonable” and so far has found little that is unreasonable in the NSA surveillance operations, which trawl the Internet communications and phone calls of millions of law-abiding individuals. The FISA court doesn’t provide a quasi-legal fig leaf for the illegal and unconstitutional activities of the NSA’s Prism program; it actually aids and abets the activities.

Because it operates in the shadows, we do not know if there is one recorded instance of the FISA court ever overruling an NSA request to harvest and store information on Americans. But we do know that Yahoo fought against being press ganged into allowing Prism access to its servers in a case heard before the FISA court in 2008. The FISA court overruled Yahoo’s protests and forced the company to participate in the program.

A similar toothless watchdog exists in the U.K., the Interception of Communications Commissioner Office, which was set up to scrutinize the activities of GCHQ and other agencies under the 2000 Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, or RIPA.

Despite the adage that “no one over 40 understands the Internet” the ICCO is headed by a 72-year-old retired judge and has less than 10 full-time staff members to review the interception activity of not just all British spy agencies (which employ around 10,000 people in various surveillance activities alone), but also the Metropolitan Police, the U.K.’s Revenue and Customs department, the Foreign Office, the Home Office and the Defense Ministry.

To believe that a retired septuagenarian and a handful of civil servants can adequately oversee the activities of all these agencies or provide accountability is laughable. The ICCO’s inadequacies were laid bare in The Independent newspaper this week which revealed that publication of the office’s annual report had to be delayed and revised because it failed to even mention Prism and Tempora.

Like the FISA court, the ICCO doesn’t provide meaningful scrutiny of surveillance efforts. It merely allows the intelligence agencies to get on with it, unhindered, without the knowledge or approval of the British people or elected politicians.

However governments describe all this, it seems clear that the rule of law, the cornerstone of any democracy worthy of the name, is being turned inside out to allow unwarranted intrusion into the private lives of the innocent by faceless intelligence officials and spineless ministers. Legal or not, surely this represents a betrayal of public trust, democracy and accountability.

Michael Glackin is former managing editor of Beirut based newspaper THE DAILY STAR.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 19, 2013, on page 7.

Britain’s snoops circumvent parliament

The Daily Star
June 18, 2013
By Michael Glackin

Somebody posted a witty tweet the other day. Responding to the revelation that the U.S. National Security Agency, which engages in signals intelligence and eavesdropping, has been busy tapping into the central servers of leading American Internet companies, someone tweeted, “Your Gmail, Google, Facebook, Skype data all in one place. The NSA just beat out like 30 start-ups to this idea.”

No doubt the NSA has the tweeter’s details and inside leg measurements on file by now. However, the pervasive invasion into our privacy that PRISM represents is no laughing matter.

PRISM is a U.S. government program which, since 2007, has been collecting audio, video, photos, emails and documents from non-Americans whose information passes through servers located in the United States. This enables America’s spooks to learn and collect a great deal of information about their foreign targets, and the servers that have been accessed belong to such major companies as Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, AOL, Skype, YouTube and Apple, as well as various telephone companies.

Google, Apple, Yahoo and Facebook have denied the NSA has “direct access” to their servers, while Microsoft said it only complies “with orders for requests about specific accounts or identifiers.”

GCHQ, the British government’s equivalent of the NSA, has had access to much of PRISM’s material since late 2010, according to a report in The Guardian. Along with The Washington Post, the paper was given details of PRISM by Edward Snowden.

There are many who say “so what?” If you are not doing anything wrong, they argue, then you have nothing to fear from the NSA or GCHQ. They are wrong. You do not have to be a paranoid privacy conspiracy theorist to see the dangers inherent in what the U.S. and the U.K. are colluding to do. The revelations come less than a month after the British government was forced to scrap a proposal to allow the security services access to the online communications and Internet browsing history of individuals – the so-called “Snoopers Charter” – following strong opposition from the government’s own parliamentarians.

Yet if Snowden’s allegations are true, and what has been published is convincing in its detail, then the British government already has its Snoopers Charter. GCHQ’s access to PRISM data allows it to circumvent both the existing legal process required to obtain personal material from Internet companies and, more worryingly, ignore the will of parliament. Powers allowing for greater surveillance of British citizens that the elected parliament has authorized are already being used by government agencies through a backdoor deal with the NSA.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague insisted last week that the claims GCHQ used data from PRISM to circumvent British law were “baseless.” But The Guardian reported that in the year leading up to May 2012, the first full year the U.K. had access to PRISM data, GCHQ was able to generate 197 intelligence reports for the British security services. This was more than double the number generated in the previous year when the U.K. first gained access to the program.

I lived in Eastern Germany not long after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The powers used by the NSA bear a chilling resemblance to the way former East Germans recounted how their lives were devastated by the Stasi’s intrusions into their privacy, intercepting their mail, listening to their calls, getting gossip from their neighbors. How the Stasi would have loved to be doing their job in the Internet age.

And where does all this end? How long before governments decide that it’s not just terror or criminal behavior they are interested in?

The U.K. Anti-Terrorism Act, introduced by Prime Minister Tony Blair’s government in 2001, is a case in point. This act was hurriedly passed into law immediately after the 9/11 attacks. Even against that backdrop, it was still labeled by one critic as “the most draconian legislation parliament has passed in peacetime in over a century,” particularly since many of its measures, despite the act’s official title, were not specifically related to terrorism.

This legislation was most famously used not to fight terror, but to fight an ally. At the height of the global banking crisis in 2008, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown used the act to freeze all Icelandic assets in the U.K., after Reykjavik failed to guarantee British deposits held by Icelandic banks. The move effectively put Iceland on par with states that sponsored terrorism, and the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. It was a disgraceful use of the legislation against a nation that was not only a member of NATO, but also had troops serving in Afghanistan in the Icelandic Crisis Response Unit.

The 2001 act also allowed communication service providers to retain some data, though not content, so this could be accessed by security services investigating criminal and terrorist activity. What is clear is that when governments can already bend existing law to an extent that was never anticipated by citizens, you have to wonder why they even bother with parliament at all.

While often the British Parliament is merely a rubber stamp for the executive arm of government, occasionally it can rise to the occasion, as it has by rejecting the Snoopers Charter. Sadly, the opposition Labor Party, which preaches liberty but practices control, is set to back the government, enabling it to reintroduce the Snoopers Charter. Labor insists it is a “vital tool” in combating terrorism.

Of course there are terrorists and others from whom the U.K. needs to be protected. But we must also ensure that by protecting our way of life we do not trample over the civil liberties that underpin the way of life we are trying to protect. The hard-earned rights and liberties of people pursuing their daily affairs must be safeguarded too.

The great statesman of revolutionary America, Benjamin Franklin, put it well when he said: “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” Or to put it another way, there are none so dangerous to democracy as those who seek to protect it from its own virtues.
Michael Glackin is former managing editor of Beirut based newspaper THE DAILY STAR.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on June 18, 2013, on page 7.