The US kick-started Iran’s nuclear programme

While reading Ronen Bergman’s The Secret War with Iran I discovered a very interesting assertion. As Ronen writes:

An internal top-secret CIA document from 1993 asserts that Iran owes the start of its nuclear programme to the United States, which had in the mid-1960s sold it a small research reactor that was installed in a Tehran university. The facility was called the Tehran Nuclear Research Centre (TNRC), and it included a 5-megawatt reactor and auxiliary laboratories. The Americans also provided 6.5 kilograms of uranium of a very high quality, almost weapons grade, for the reactor. Later…the Shah decided to purchase ten nuclear reactors from the United States, for the production of electricity.[1]

I would advise taking most of what Ronen Bergman says in his book with a pinch of salt as much of it is taken on faith from the Israeli intelligence apparatus. Nevertheless, there it is, in a US state document:

The US kick-started Iran’s first nuclear research.

This could help us understand the guiding principles of US foreign policy, and its current behaviour towards Iran.

First a little back story: In 1951 the Iranian people elected Mohammad Mossadeq. Mossadeq was a popular and progressive social reformer. He advocated the nationalisation of Iran’s oil industry – which, through the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (now known as BP), had been under British control since 1913 – as a way to secure Iran’s independence and pay for social reforms. The British decided that Mossadeq had forgotten his place and subsequently conspired with the Americans to have him overthrown. In 1953, a CIA financed and organised coup d’etat succeeded in ousting Mossadeq and instituting a royal dictatorship under the Shah. For the next 26 years the US government supplied Iran with large amounts of aid, military training, and weapons technology while the CIA trained the Shah’s notorious secret police SAVAK to snuff out internal opposition. In return the Shah acted as an obedient US client state in the heart of the Middle East and US oil companies reaped vast amounts of Iranian oil wealth. It was during this period that the Americans supplied Iran with nuclear technology.

 So why would the US actively support an Iranian nuclear programme under the Shah but respond with militaristic belligerence now?

The simple answer is that Iran is no longer an obedient client state. Today’s Islamic Republic of Iran emerged directly from the 1979 revolution against the US’s client, the Shah. The Iranian people have never forgotten the role of the US in overthrowing an Iranian democracy and supporting a decadent, repressive dictator for over 25 years. The anti-Americanism ingrained in Iranian political discourse is a legacy of the US’s cynical interventionism and shameless disregard for the will of the Iranian people. The closest the US has ever come to apologising to Iran for the 1953 coup was an acknowledgment that it was “a setback for Iran’s political development.”

In short, here lays another example, ignored in public debate on Iran –in addition to the non-issue of Israel’s nuclear arsenal – of how American and Western policy on nuclear weapons is guided not by hopes for a peaceful, nuclear free Middle East, but by the pursuit of unquestioned Western dominance in the Middle East.

[1] Ronen Bergman, The Secret War with Iran, One-World Publications, 2009, p316

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Local perceptions of Norwich Occupy

Two articles recently graced the EDP and the Evening news: “TELL US WHAT YOU THINK: Is it time for the Occupy Norwich protesters to leave Haymarket?[1] and, “Labour’s parliamentary candidate Clive Lewis backs Occupy Norwich tent protest camp in Haymarket.”[2]

I thought it would be interesting to examine some of the online comments on these articles to get an idea of the local opinions about the occupy protest camp.

Thankfully, there were some encouraging comments from people who recognised the need to put inequality on the public agenda; others simply saw the camp as interesting and/or harmless.

Unfortunately the majority of the comments were negative, many were downright hostile (tellingly, this hostility was often accompanied by something like “what do they even stand for anyway”).  The majority of those angry at the occupiers made the assumption that they are all ‘dole scroungers.’[3] For example:

The only reason they can camp out is because they are living on benefit… They are certainly not looking for work so should have their job seekers allowance terminated…I have to go to work so these people can sit around.

A great deal of the comments were in this vein. The accusations are clearly made without knowledge of those who make up Norwich Occupy; indeed the occupiers have displayed a large sign listing the variety of individuals participating in the local movement. This includes an ex-serviceman, a lecturer and a welder.  Nevertheless, even without the list, assuming they are all ‘scroungers’ is bizarre. These are people choosing to spend much of their time in the biting cold in readiness to discuss political issues. That is demonstrably not the behaviour of people seeking to minimise work and maximise benefits. Unfortunately most opponents haven’t thought further than this.

This mix of fury and ignorance is captured worryingly in one comment:

I’ve forgotten what they’re protesting about, couldn’t care either, couldn’t even be bothered to read the article, but, bring in the flamethrowers I reckon, about midnight when they’re all asleep.

The underlying issue for these people is a feeling that our government is allowing some people to get away with not contributing their fair share to society and so is economically marginalising the majority of hard working people. But if that is really what infuriates them then their anger is surely directed at the wrong end of the economic ladder. The combined cost to the government’s coffers of benefit fraud and official error in 2009 was £3.1 billion. According to Tax Research UK the cost of tax evasion is no less than £70 billion.[4] That is to say: Tax evasion makes up almost 60% of tax noncompliance; while benefit fraud is less than 5%. 

The multinationals, financial institutions, and wealthy individuals who are invariably the perpetrators of this tax evasion – and who our governments have given freer and freer rein over the last thirty years – are also those who desire the average worker’s economic marginalisation. Why? To enrich themselves.

  • In the period 1947 to 1972, the average hourly wage (adjusted for inflation) rose 76 percent.
  • Since 1972 the average hourly wage has risen just 4 percent.
  • CEO pay has skyrocketed; in 2009 the CEOs of major U.S. corporations averaged 263 times the average compensation of American workers.
  • CEOs who cut jobs and pay packets the most ruthlessly took home 42 percent more compensation than the year’s chief executive pay average.[5]

Think about those facts for a moment.

Our government is complicit in this. A recent study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) study reported “that income inequality has risen faster in Britain than in any other rich nation since the mid-1970s.”[6] This not an accident, but the result of policies which have repeatedly favoured big business and profit over people and social progress. These policies have been driven by the erroneous neoliberal ideology that equates the maximisation of corporate profits with societal progress. Britain under Thatcher was one of the first countries to turn its back on Keynesianism and the social welfare state and institute these radically economic-individualist policies. Despite the state society is now in thanks to the unregulated free market Cameron wants to plough on and conclusively dismantle the post-WWII welfare state, cementing the neoliberal order. For Cameron, the recession is a perfect opportunity; it has allowed him to enthusiastically hack chunks off the progressive welfare state (with a nod and a wink to the private firms who have been long been hankering for a piece of the pie) while sorrowfully lamenting it is all for the public good; the media has of course fallen in line spectacularly behind this charade.

But neoliberalism hasn’t worked! It has brought crippling inequality.  Richard Wilkinson demonstrates in his book The Spirit Level that it is levels of inequality, and not gross national income that best explains high levels of social woes such as drug addiction or mental health problems (I recommend you take ten minutes to watch this short but compelling talk by the man himself:

This is what the Occupy movement is fighting against:  Policies which allow some people (generally the super-rich) to get away with not contributing their fair share to society and, as a consequence, economically marginalising the majority of hard working people. In other words, exactly the same thing as the local people opposing occupy. The chief difference stems from which sector of society is you believe is most to blame. As I hope I have demonstrated, however briefly, those primarily to blame are not those ‘scrounging’ benefits.

Given all this. How is it that when local people erect an occupy camp attempting to force the issues of economic marginalisation onto the agenda (for the good of the majority of hard working people) they are confronted with waves of fury and anger?

It is an important question to ask. While pondering it I was reminded of Robert Tressell’s The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, in which he portrays the life of a socialist painter and decorator at the outset of the 20th century.  Protagonist Frank Owen dreams of a society in which the common working man was not at the mercy of the wealthy for their families’ subsistence. He repeatedly tries to inform and educate fellow workers on how they are being exploited, and how things could be better; they invariably respond with ridicule (often fuelled by scathing articles on socialism from local papers). Socialists were portrayed as lazy scroungers wanting wealth without the hard work; they faced hostility and even violence from the very people they were trying to help. The parallels to today’s Occupy movement are clear.

The simple answer (and inevitably a reductionist one) for why social progressives are attacked by those they try to help is that the majority of hard working people are ill-informed. The narrative of the scroungers and the immigrants ruining our country, and the dumbing down of complex social problems to ‘common sense’ à la Jeremy Clarkson is the narrative of the Sun and the Daily Mail.  Sadly, for every Guardian or Independent reader, there are over eleven Sun or Daily Mail readers.[7]

Tax evasion may cost the country twenty times as much as benefit fraud, but that is not reflected in these dominant newspapers (or the host of local papers which echo them). It does not take rigorous analysis to determine that their coverage of tax evasion and benefit fraud are not in line with their respective costs to the nation. In fact the relationship is perversely inverted.  The language you hear from the EDP/Evening News comments on the occupy camp could be lifted straight out of these newspapers.

Perceptions are shaped by prevailing media organisations like the Sun and the Mail. It is inescapable that those in powerful and influential positions will always have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. The mechanisms by which these the mass media consistently fails to perform its ideal democratic role are vast and complex and we certainly shouldn’t let our inquiry halt with the reductionist views of a united capitalist class pulling the strings of the mass media.

What is clear, however, is that until some way is found to counter the disturbing tendency of the media to reflect power, popular movements will be hamstrung from the start. It is a battle of ideas and information and we must do everything we can to win it. That means writing letters to newspapers, posting alternative media on Facebook, and yes, talking to those who don’t always want to hear it. It’s not easy, it’s sometimes awkward but it is the responsibility of those who are able to educate others on these subjects to do so.

[3] Other assumptions were that they were stupid, unclean, messy and drug addicts.

[5]  (for S&P 500 companies) Thanks

[7] In print circulation figures you have to go down past the Mirror, the Daily Star, the Evening Standard, the Daily Telegraph, the Daily Express, the Times, the Financial Times, and the Daily Record before you get to the Guardian and Independent

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Bombs Vs Schools – Fighting extremism in Pakistan

As part of the “war on terror,” the US, led by the CIA,  has been launching Hellfire missiles from unmanned drones in the North Western tribal areas of Pakistan; this is in an attempt to assassinate high value al-Qaeda and Taliban targets.

A modest estimate of those killed – based on exhaustive research by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism – found that at least 385 civilians have been killed; so this represents the absolute minimum in lives lost. This figure of course leaves aside, homes and livelihoods destroyed. It is difficult to imagine that these strikes are reducing sympathy towards fundamentalist Islam in the area; it is difficult to imagine that they highlight westerners as brave liberators in the Middle East.

Either way, I wanted to present an alternate method of fighting extremism in the tribal areas of Pakistan.  Given that education and development are indubitably crucial elements in fighting extremism, I wanted to make a few very brief and very crude calculations on the cost of drone strikes, and look at alternate ways in which that money could be spent.

The Hellfire missiles fired by US Predator Drones cost $58,000 each. The New America Foundation has counted 277 drone strikes since 2004.  Reports on strikes note up to six missiles fired per attack, nevertheless in order to make my calculations very conservative, I will assume only one missile was used per attack. So, very conservatively estimated, the total cost of Hellfire missiles used in drone strikes in Pakistan is just over $16 million dollars.

According to Greg Mortenson – founder of the Central Asian Institute which builds schools in Pakistan – a reasonable estimate for building a school in Pakistan is around $20,000.

So for every Hellfire missile fired in North Western Pakistan, three schools could be built. For the total cost of all the missiles launched in the CIA’s drone war in Pakistan, the US could have built 803 schools. Crudeness of the calculations aside, you have to ask yourself, which do you think is more likely to reduce extremism and support for anti-western terrorism in Pakistan? 803 US-built schools? Or 277 US-dropped bombs?

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The Libyan Transitional Council is not the voice of the people; NATO is not a champion of freedom

The Libyan rebels have finally reached the streets of Tripoli and, it appears, toppled Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, the despot who has ruled Libya for the last 42 years. It is high time to consider what the fall of Gaddafi might mean for the Libyan people. The natural place to begin is with the political face of the revolution, Libya’s National Transitional Council (NTC), and its most senior figure Mahmoud Jibril. When one considers this man, and his hugely influential role it is difficult not to fear for the security of the Libyan rebel’s victory.

Educated in the US Mahmoud Jibril is most notable, pre NTC, for his role as chair of the National Economic Development Board (NEDB) in Libya. The NEDB was set up at the recommendation of US and UK consultancy firms with the goal of finding “an innovative approach to work on restructuring the country’s [Libya’s] economy.” The word “restructuring” will set alarm bells ringing with anyone familiar with neoliberal economics* (and in possession of a human heart) as it is usually a euphemism for the ‘holy trinity’: Privatisation, financial deregulation, and cuts to social spending.

For those who are asking what neoliberalism is, it is a theory of economics which suggests that if you let private enterprise be free – removing ‘restrictive’ or ‘growth stifling’ government  regulations holding them back – and let the invisible hand of the free market do its work, economies will skyrocket, and the poor will benefit from the ‘trickle-down’ of this wealth.

In reality, it invariably exacerbates income inequality driving more people into poverty and creating a new super-elite. It blurs the line between business and politics and allows the economic and political elites of a country to enrich themselves through no holds barred capitalism whilst paying minimal, if any, taxes. Meanwhile the nation’s public services are sold off to foreign multi-nationals or national elites. Worker’s rights are stripped (they are unnecessary restrictions on business) and wages drop, citizens end up paying extortionate amounts for previously public services they never wanted to sell.  Neoliberalism certainly contributed to the social and economic woes which led to revolutions in the Mubarak’s Egypt and Ben Ali’s Tunisia – both favoured allies of the US. Probably the easiest way of understanding US foreign policy over the last 40 years (oil interests aside) is by looking at it as the spreading of neoliberalism –or gaining new markets for US corporations.

To get back to the point, a quick look at classified US cables from Wikileaks confirms suspicions about the NTC and its leader Mahmoud Jibril. One US official described Jibril in 2009 as “a serious interlocutor who ‘gets’ the U.S. perspective. Jibril told the US that Libya “is ‘virgin country’ for investors” and “was ‘opening widely and very fast’” providing “opportunities for US countries.”  The cable notes that “The NEDB’s role in these [11,00 ‘development’] projects is to ‘pave the way’ for private sector development, and to create a strategic partnership between private companies and the government.” It goes on… “Jibril highlighted the need to replace the country’s decrepit infrastructure and train Libyans to maintain and run their new” infrastructure. The official was glad to confirm that “Jibril has stated American companies and universities are welcome to join him in this endeavour and we should take him up on his offer.” I suspect some Tunisians may have different views on whether they would like their virgin country opening wide and fast for the penetration of American capital.

Jibril apparently has no qualms about an active role for the US in the world, indeed the official noted that he thought that “the U.S. spoiled a golden opportunity to capitalize on its “soft power” (McDonald’s, etc.) after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989 by putting “boots on the ground” in the Middle East.”

Another 2009 cable confirms that Washington was very happy with Jibril’s “unique ability to influence decision-makers without challenging their authority.” The cable also described how he had been “working with experts from Ernst and Young, [and] the Oxford Group.”

The cables leave little doubt about what is on Mahmoud Jibril’s and Washington’s mind at this pivotal moment in the Libyan conflict. Mahmoud Jibril, it seems, was Washington’s key man in Libya, pushing a radical neoliberal ‘restructuring’ plan.  Though perhaps this level of research was unnecessary, and I should have merely pointed you to a more overt example of their worldview: The banner unveiled to meet John McCain, with its large US flag and the words “United States of America – You have a new ally in North Africa.”

It now seems a lot clearer as to why there was a NATO intervention. The second the pro-western NTC began to emerge as a legitimate political face of the rebels, Western countries spied an opportunity to get rid of the erratic Gaddafi and replace him with a pliable client; and with most of the leg work provided by the Libyan people. Now their victory seems secure, the UK, France and Washington are clamouring to show the NTC and Jibril their gratitude: Offering funds, praise and training, official recognition, and invitations with full honours.

Stabilisation is another neoliberal euphemism we can expect to hear for what Naomi Klein brilliantly identified as the ‘shock doctrine.’ That is, taking opportunities when nations are in disarray – whether from a national disaster, an economic depression or a revolution – to institute radical economic overhauls before the public understands what is happening.  Post-USSR Russia and Poland and most of Latin American states being obvious examples. A ‘transitional’ government taking charge of an economically crippled country is a perfect storm for’ stabilisation.’

David Cameron has already assured us that the UK will establish a “British diplomatic presence in Tripoli as soon as it is safe and practical to do so… [Including] stabilisation experts who have been planning for this moment with the NTC for months.”  I am sure the US State Department’s Office of the Coordinator for Reconstruction and Stabilization will be also be very happy. This Office’s role is to “manage stabilization and reconstruction operations in countries emerging from conflict or civil strife.” They do not mention any work on Libya on their website, but LinkedIn shows that Ciara Knudsen has been the Libya Engagement Lead for the last seven months; no doubt she was quite a fan of Jibril. I am sure that very soon she, the State Department, the UK, France, and many multinationals in the reconstruction business (many of which who will already have an economy bigger than Libya) will be very much financially better off.

 I wish I could say the same for the Libyan people.

Write to your newspaper, write to your MP, tell your friends; don’t allow the Libyan people’s battle to be for their own political disenfranchisement and impoverishment.


* Paul Bremer was the man in charge of “restructuring Iraq’s economy” for the prosperity of the Iraqi people. Within two weeks of his arrival he declared Iraq was “open for business.” The first month after his arrival Bremer announced that all 200 of the chief organisations running the Iraqi economy prior to the invasion would be privatised.  He rewrote investment laws –The Economist described them as a “wish-list” for foreign investors – while “the fires were still burning. Bremer simultaneously obstructed Iraqi firms and prohibited Iraq‟s central bank from financing state owned enterprises.

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Acts of War, Cyberspace, and Global Assassination

The Cyberfrontier

The US Government is poised to reclassify cyberattacks as potential acts of war. This bold move has huge implications when considered alongside events such as the US Government’s belligerent response to WikiLeaks, and the assassination of Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan.

The recent Stuxnet incident showcased warfare’s new cyberfrontier spectacularly. Stuxnet was a meticulously designed computer worm which infiltrated the networks of two of Iran’s nuclear plants, and rendered their centrifuges inoperable. “Code analysis makes it clear” said Ralph Langner, a cyber security expert based in Germany, “that Stuxnet is… about destroying its targets with utmost determination in military style.” The main suspects? Israel and the United States. Of course, the US has also been assaulted on the cyberfrontier. Chinese hackers were recently found to have stolen the login details of a host of senior US Government officials (in addition to South Korean officials and Chinese activists).  There are no doubt governments who would use cyberspace’s shadowy corridors to deliver an attack devastating enough to constitute an act of war.

Who and when?

But what if it was not a government who attacked the United States? Might politicised hackers become another set of ‘enemy combatants? Moreover what would qualify a cyberattack as an act of war? Many right-wingers in the US would describe WikiLeaks as a propagator or cyberattacks, indeed the WikiLeaks affair elicited a number of illuminating statements from prominent US figures. Right wing populist politician Sarah Palin described editor-in-chief of WikiLeaks Julian Assange as “an anti-American operative with blood on his hands.” Mike Huckabee, another senior Republican, famously said that “Whoever…leaked that information is guilty of treason…anything less than execution is too kind a penalty.” However most worrying of all is Vice-President Joe Biden’s comment that Assange is more like a “high tech terrorist” than a “whistleblower.”

It is no secret that the US Government is exploring ways to prosecute Assange. The Government has demonstrated what they think of associates of WikiLeaks through their treatment of US Marine Bradley Manning, who the US Government accuses of leaking documents to WikiLeaks. Before over 250 of the US’s most prestigious scholars signed a protest letter against his “illegal…degrading and inhumane” conditions he was held in solitary confinement for 23 out of 24 hours a day for over seven straight months – he has not been convicted of any crime.

Open assassination – a new paradigm in the war on terror?

Julian Assange has been compared to a “high-tech terrorist” by the Vice-President. That statement should send a chill down the spine of anyone aware of the dark arts practiced by Washington in the ‘war on terror.’

Since George W. Bushes declaration of a ‘war on terror’ ten years ago the US Government has claimed, among many other things, the right to declare pre-emptive war; to designate its adversaries ‘enemy combatants’ unworthy of the Geneva Conventions; to detain suspected ‘enemy combatants’ indefinitely; and – in what amounts to an astounding, and shockingly under-criticised development – the US now appears to be claiming the right to assassinate any individual they deem a threat in any country in the world.

The open assassination of the unarmed Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan was described by the Attorney General, the most senior legal figure in the US government, as “lawful… [as] an act of national self-defense.” Moreover President Obama recently said that if another “high value target” was found he would “take the shot,” I will assume that means execute the human being without trial.*

To be clear, the US Government has claimed the legal right to global assassination.

This targeted killing is not necessarily new. The drone strikes in Pakistan’s federally administered tribal regions have killed numerous ‘high value targets;’ on top of the 10 or so civilian deaths per “combatant” estimated by the Brookings Institute. And CIA history doubtless hides many bloody secrets.  The chief difference is in how overt and proud the assassination of Osama Bin Laden was. Consider the difference between discussing torture before and after 9/11. Open discussion of the legitimacy of torture and assassination alone would show checks on power to be wretchedly inadequate; I don’t think the desperation inherent in the current situation can be overstated.

Are whistleblowers safe?

In a debate on whistleblowers – involving Julian Assange and focused on WikiLeaks – Bob Ayers, a former US Government official said that there are other words for whistleblowers: “rats, snitches… sneaks…[and] traitors.” Is it possible that those engaging in illicit political cyberactivity – including whistleblowing – may soon be at risk of indefinite detention, rendition, torture, or even assassination? Let us hope the answer is no. Nevertheless, belligerent remarks by prominent US figures, recent military reclassifications, and the bold impunity with which the US self-righteously and violently breaks international law should give us great cause for concern.

Cyberactivity like WikiLeaks has its problems, as Sir David Richmond put it “freedom of information isn’t the same as an information free-for-all”. However the consistent dissembling and deception of our governments shows that there is a need for leaks and whistleblowers; if governments really want to stop them they need only tell the truth.

At best, those engaging in illegal cyberactivity are heroes, at worst, they’re criminals. What they are not, is enemy combatants.


* As an interesting aside, by US legal justifications and arguments, it is arguably legal for Iran to assassinate President Obama, or Netinyahu as an act of national self defence.

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Public officials shamelessly defend UK training of repressive Saudi Arabian National Guard

It has recently come to light that the UK has been training the Saudi Arabia National Guard in public order enforcement measures and sharpshooting. The MoD has confirmed that it has been providing “internal security and counter-terrorism” training to the Saudi Arabian National Guard for almost fifty years, including the provision of numerous places at elite UK military training facilities like Sandhurst.

When applied to a state with the laws and human rights record of Saudi Arabai, innocuous terms like “internal security” and “public order enforcement measures” are very misleading. FreedomHouse notes that in Saudi Arabia “there are no constitutionally guaranteed rights to free speech, press, or assembly… [and that] Forming trade unions, striking, and engaging in collective bargaining are forbidden.” In other words the Saudi government considers the forming of independent trade unions, striking, and the exercise of free speech and free assembly to be in the scope of “internal security,”  requiring the use of “public enforcement measures;” it is not difficult to see how horrendously euphemistic these terms can be. Indeed Amnesty International noted in a report this April that in Saudi Arabia “the authorities have maintained a sustained assault on human rights…thousands of people have been arrested and detained in virtual secrecy.”

Moreover it is worth noting that, according to the Guardian, the National Guard “was established by the kingdom’s royal family because it feared its regular army would not support it in the event of a popular uprising.” If this is true then the provision of “internal security and counter-terrorism” training becomes even more sinister, suggesting that we are training a military force which offers unswavering loyalty to the absolute monarchy and holds an antipathy towards public dissent. Indeed UK Defence minister Nick Harvey has conceded to parliament that “It is possible that some members of the Saudi Arabian national guard which were deployed in Bahrain [to suppress peaceful demonstrations] may have undertaken some training provided by the British military mission,”

I do not think I am being controversial when I say that this is probably not what the majority of UK citizens imagine or desire our public institutions to be doing.

Some of the statements being made by our public figures are laughable.

The MoD has responded by saying that Saudi Arabia is a one of a number of “key partners” in the fight against terrorism.

In 2008 a senior Bush administration official said, to quote an L.A. times article that “Saudi Arabia remains the world’s leading source of money for Al Qaeda and other extremist networks and has failed to take key steps requested by U.S. officials to stem the flow.” Describing a recently leaked U.S. Government Wikileaks cables the New York Times stated that “Saudi donors remain the chief financiers of Sunni militant groups like Al Qaeda.”

Labour MP Mike Gapes has also offered some almost humerous comments He says:

“On the one hand Saudi Arabia faces the threat of al-Qaida but on the other its human rights record is dreadful. This is the constant dilemma you have when dealing with autocratic regimes: do you ignore them or try to improve them?”

As I mentioned above it has been very recently noted that “Saudi donors remain the chief financiers of Sunni militant groups like Al Qaeda,” and have been repeatedly obstructive in requests to combat these mammoth flows of funds to terrorist organisations.  This is something that is not well hidden and something he undoubtedly knows.

He goes on to say that:

“This is the constant dilemma you have when dealing with autocratic regimes: do you ignore them or try to improve them?”

This is a typically formulaic statement used often by modern politician;  a simplistic and manipulative dichotomy between “good thing” and “bad thing.” This statement suggests that anyone who doesn’t agree with the UK military assistance to the Saudi National Guard must either be pro-ignoring and anti-improvement; a ridiculous assertion. It does not take a gifted mind to see that improving the Saudi Government’s ability to suppress its population is not the ideal way to improve its  human rights record. Indeed it would make one wonder if improving their human rights record were our goal at all, and even if it might perhaps be something else, like ensuring “stablity” in a pro-Western oil rich state, happy to keep the oil pumping while investing its petrodollar profits heavily in Western multinational corporations.

It is a sad indictment on our media and democracy that statements such as these are made by our public servants at all, the fact that they can be printed without irony or criticism – even in progressive papers such as the Guardian – is even more demoralising.

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Omar Deghayes and the American

This blog was originally posted when working for Reprieve as part of the Vodaphone World of Difference Programme

Around March last year, in my final year of university I was lucky enough to attend a public film screening of Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo. The film was followed by a Q&A with one of the directors Andy Worthington (who I later found out is a former employee of Reprieve) and Omar Deghayes, a former prisoner of Guantánamo. The story told was, in the filmmakers own words:

how the Bush administration turned its back on domestic and international laws, how prisoners were rounded up in Afghanistan and Pakistan without adequate screening (and often for bounty payments), and why some of these men may have been in Afghanistan or Pakistan for reasons unconnected with militancy or terrorism (as missionaries or humanitarian aid workers, for example).

In the film and the Q&A afterward there was a discussion of the various and often changing allegations that had been levelled against Omar Deghayes during his time in Guantánamo. Charges against him included appearing in a Chechen terrorist training video and being a member of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, a designated terrorist organisation. The accusations – like many levelled at the US’s extrajudicial prisoners – had a very tenuous, if non-existent link to reality; all charges were eventually dropped, and Omar was released in 2007 (around five years after his initial arrest). Just one of the horrors that Omar experienced whilst in Guantánamo was the loss of sight in one eye, it would take me more space than I have to list the rest.

As the Q&A was coming to a close, one American stood up to ask a question, he said something along the lines of:

“This is all very interesting, but you cannot deny there is a lot of ill-will in the Middle East towards the West, a lot of hatred; why is that?” He went on to say “also can you tell me about your time fighting with the Mujahedeen in Libya and Chechnya?”

Unsurprisingly, he room went rather silent and awkward. The question came despite the discussion of the erratic nature of US allegations, the fact that a facial recognition expert had concluded that the person in the terrorist videotape could not be Omar, and that Omar had never been to Chechnya. The man clearly could not comprehend either that the US could harm an innocent man, or that an Arab Muslim could not be a terrorist.

Omar responded patiently and respectfully.

The thing I found remarkable about the American’s question was not so much the insensitivity and stubbornness of the accusation but the initial question: Why, in the Middle East, is there so much ill-will towards the West?

This is a question that has received a great deal of attention. However, a short, but fair, look at the historical relationship between the West and the Middle East begs the opposite question: Why do Arabs not bear more ill-will towards the West!

A quick example: The two most prominent dictators recently on the news have been Hosni Mubarak and Colonel Gaddafi. They are seen now seen, quite rightly, as monstrous tyrants and enemies of their own people. However in June 2009, less than two years ago, President Obama referred to Mubarak as a “stalwart ally of the United States…a force for stability and good,” and even “a friend.”  Britain, under Blair and afterward, became great friends with Gaddafi. Our government, among other things, offered to train his special forces, and repatriate his political enemies living in the UK; these were mainly asylum seekers legitimately fearing torture on return. There are innumerable examples throughout the last century. Whether it is the backing of brutal dictators or the covert undermining or overthrow of democratically elected governments, the US and UK are happy to proceed in order to ensure the existence of foreign governments which are hospitable to Western interests, irrespective of how they treat their own people.

Muburak was, eventually, condemned by the West, and Colonel Gaddafi is now facing a western imposed no fly zone. Noam Chomsky explains the standard procedure:

“There have been many times when some favored dictator has lost control or is in danger of losing control. There’s a kind of a standard routine…keep supporting them as long as possible; then, when it becomes unsustainable… switch 180 degrees, claim to have been on the side of the people all along, erase the past, and then make whatever moves are possible to restore the old system under new names.

The chief Western concern regarding governments in the Middle East is economic, chiefly, whether a government will ensure a healthy and cheap supply of oil. Other interests are marginal. The sentiment is captured well by a statement by Tony Blair while befriending Gaddafi “[If Gaddafi] becomes a stable partner for us out here in the Middle East, that is a huge gain, not just for Britain or the US, but for the whole of the world.” The Libyan people’s desires, unfortunately, do not factor in. Perhaps you might consider how you would feel about those words if you were a Libya.

When some of these facts are briefly looked at, it seems obvious and understandable that some Arabs would have “ill-will” towards the West; that any serious commentator could be flummoxed by the issue is astonishing. Indeed, the real shock is so much of the Arabian and Islamic world remains without enmity.
George Bush said of “terrorists” and the perpetrators of 9/11 that they attack because “They hate our freedoms.” That such a statement can be made without irony and disseminated without blanket derision says much of our society’s view of our historical relationship with the Middle East, and also of our perceptions of ourselves and others.

To once again quote Orwell: “The nationalist not only does not disapprove of atrocities committed by his own side, but he has a remarkable capacity for not even hearing about them.”

*Anyone remotely interested in Western governments actions towards in Middle East should read this lengthy but fascinating article:

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Mainstream perceptions of Guantánamo Bay

When I found out I had got a placement with Reprieve I was working in an insurance company. On leaving, I had many people ask me where I was going; I told them I was going to Reprieve, working to oppose, torture, secret prisons and illegal detention in the ‘War on Terror.’ I, perhaps naively, did not even consider that some would find that a peculiar, even shocking, choice, that is, until one co-worker’s response.

“You want to help get them out!” he exclaimed when I mentioned that I hoped to be aiding the release of detainees from Guantánamo Bay. I was taken aback. I tried to explain that some of these people had been imprisoned for as much as nine years in horrendous conditions, and had been subjected to atrocious treatment without any credible proof of criminal conduct. He wasn’t convinced.  What surprised me the most was how decent the guy otherwise seemed.

I hadn’t realised that Reprieve’s work could be so controversial. Sure, there are plenty of politicians spinning their policies, or right-wing talking heads ready to assert the necessity of torture in this ‘new unprecedented age of terrorism’, but the average Joe knows Guantánamo Bay is straight wrong, right?

Unfortunately, as it seems, not always.

Why is this? Torture and indefinite imprisonment without charge are self-evident tools of the bad guys.

You have to look to how people’s perceptions of Guantánamo – and the political climate – are shaped. The dominant inputs are from news organisations and government statements (though there is often little difference between the two). Regrettably, these sources are often deeply misleading.

Government statements

So what do the politicians say of Guantánamo Bay? Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld described the prisoners in 2002 as “the worst of the worst,” he said “They’re terrorists, trainers, bomb makers, recruiters, financiers, [Osama bin Laden’s] bodyguards, would-be suicide bombers,[and] probably the 20th 9/11 hijacker” One senior military official famously said  “these are the people that don’t know any moral values…They were so vicious, if given the chance they would gnaw through the hydraulic lines of a C-17 while they were being flown to Cuba.” Vice President Dick Cheney said simply “people that are at Guantánamo are bad people.”

These are big statements which bring big questions. Why do we only get vague statements about those at Gitmo being “bad”? Why are prisoners not brought to trial? Why is that in the ‘trials’ held  at Gitmo, prisoners are not allowed to see evidence against them and are only allowed lawyers drawn from the US military?

One answer to questions is that the truth about Guantánamo, and the individuals it holds, is not what the politicians say it is.

But governments, as history has consistently shown, will bend the truth to breaking point to gain and maintain support for their policies; the ‘War on Terror’ is no different, why aren’t more people more sceptical?

Media Portrayal of Islam

The public presentation of Islam in dominant news organisations has made people far more susceptible to politician’s statements on Guantánamo. The Sun, the Daily Mail, the Mirror, and the Daily Star command the highest national newspaper circulation in the UK (in that order). Cumulatively they make up nearly 70% of national circulation.

Here are a few of the top results from searching “Muslim” on each website:

The Sun:

Muslim Imam raped boy of 12

Muslim gang batter Sir for teaching girls about other religions

The Mirror:

Palty £50 fine for Muslim who burned poppies at Remembrance Day

The Daily Mail:

Muslim care home owner ‘bans pensioners from eating bacon sandwiches’

Muslim sex offenders could opt out of treatment because it’s against their faith

The Daily Star:

Fury as Islam fanatics declare gay-free zone.

Given nearly 70% of the newspaper readers in the UK are exposed to these stories, it’s no wonder parts of the population see Muslims as potentially violent fanatics. When inundated by stories like these, Guantánamo may not seem appalling, but inevitable

Government spin and media replication

Another large problem is the media’s habitual replication of government statements without actually checking their truthfulness. If a government wants to make something an issue – like Saddam Hussein as a dire threat – they simply make repeated statements or selectively leak documents – the mass media does the rest. This has resulted in the perpetuation of a host of falsehoods surrounding Islam and Guantánamo.

Some statements by politicians are outright lies. George Bush said of Gitmo prisoners that “these people were picked up off of a battlefield,” Donald Rumsfeld said “They’re terrorists…all of whom were captured on a battlefield,” Dick Cheney said “these are people that were captured in the battlefield of Afghanistan.”

That is simply not true. In reality most were not seized on the battlefield but were sold to the US after they dropped tantalising leaflets on impoverished villages in Afghanistan and the Pakistani border offering life-changing rewards for handing over al-Qaeda operatives. Unsurprisingly, Arabs fleeing Afghanistan were now seen as easy money, and America’s political prisons got filled with aid workers, teachers, travellers and refugees. A lot of money was made and a lot of innocent lives were tragically ruined.

Michael Scheuer, a CIA officer who resigned in 2004, said, “By the fall of 2002, it was common knowledge around CIA circles that fewer than 10 percent of Guantánamo’s prisoners were high-value terrorist operatives…. Most of the men…were going to know absolutely nothing about terrorism.”

Why weren’t they released then? One answer comes from Colonel Wilkerson, who was Colin Powell’s chief of staff at the State Department. Wilkerson alleged that Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld also knew that these men were not terrorists of any sort, but thought it “politically impossible to release them.”*

Double tragedy

These stories, however, are not common knowledge; and there is a reason they are not. The dominant proprietors of news prefer stories such as “Outrage over £30m torture hush money: 7/7 families ‘sickened’ by payouts to former Guantanamo inmates.” If you know the stories of some of these former Guantánamo inmates you would understand how cruel this type of coverage is – how spectacularly and misanthropically manipulative. The headline is significant as it demonstrates that all that is required for proof that one is a bloodthirsty terrorist is that they were in Guantánamo. Any alternative interpretation of the events, – for example one that bears resemblance to reality – is not considered.

It seems unlikely we will ever have governments which are open about their practices. That is why we sorely need a media that treats government statements with scepticism, victims of places like Guantánamo will face persecution instead of sympathy, and these tragedies will recur.

Under these conditions I am thankful that Reprieve is able to get the funding to do the work it does. And that so many I see do look past the dominant interpretation, condemning the deplorable and illegal practices in the War on Terror and praising Reprieve for the hope it brings to the hopeless.

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