Archive for ‘March, 2019’

About that silly Mr. Bridges.

datePosted on 15:53, March 26th, 2019 by Pablo

In the wake of the Christchurch terrorist attacks, Simon Bridges wants to expand the powers available to the NZ security community when it comes to search and surveillance. He apparently believes that resurrecting “Project Speargun,” a 5 Eyes/GCSB 2013 effort to place a meta-data mining probe into the Southern Cross fiber optical cable connecting NZ to the world (via LA), would have prevented the attacks. He seems to not realize that Project Speargun was not fully abandoned but superseded by newer technologies, and that it would not have prevented the domestic terrorism attack in any event because it was foreign focused and used algorithms to reflect the concerns of NZ’s 5 Eyes partners (which were not focused on violent white supremacism).

He seems to think that the cyber-security program Cortex (designed to protect NZ firms and government agencies from hacking attacks) was somehow linked to Project Speargun (as some sort of inner-outer perimeter system). Yet the two are completely separate projects. As Leader of the Opposition Mr. Bridges sits on the Intelligence and Security Committee and gets regular briefs from the SIS and GCSB Directors, so the confusion and attempt to resurrect Project Speargun reflects a fundamental disconnect.

It also seems odd that a leader of a center-right party founded in part on classic liberal principles in defense of the right to privacy and the primacy of civil liberties would decide that there is political mileage to be gained by calling for more intrusive State powers at the expense of individual rights. Cynical opportunism, perhaps?

I was interviewed by RNZ about his comments. My observations are here.

After doing the interview and listening to Mr. Bridges remarks once again, it seems to me that he is a special piece of work. So I decided that the best thing I could do was honor him with a tweet from the consulting firm (which among other things does political leadership analysis). Here it is:

“When it comes to Simon Bridges calling for enhanced powers for NZ spy agencies, he is like a guy who says that he needs a telescope because his binoculars don’t work well enough, only to find out that the lens caps are still on the binoculars.”

Owning It (updated).

datePosted on 12:00, March 21st, 2019 by Pablo

Earlier versions of this essay were published by Radio New Zealand and Australian Outlook.

The terrorist attack on two Christchurch mosques, which resulted in the deaths of fifty people and injuries to dozens of others, is a watershed moment in New Zealand history. In the days, months and years ahead much soul-searching will be conducted about the social and political factors that contributed to the massacre. Here the focus is on two: the spread of hate speech via social media; and the intelligence failures that may have contributed to the event.

With the proliferation of social media platforms during the last decade there has been a steady increase in their use by extremist groups. Be it Wahabbist and Salafists calling for jihad, 9/11 conspiracy theorists or white supremacists, social media has given them global reach in a measure never seen before. This allows extremists in disparate parts of the world to instantly communicate and reinforce their views without having to be in physical contact. They can even plot acts of violence using encrypted platforms and the so-called “Dark Web.” This was the case with the Christchurch gunman, who went on extremist platforms in real time to announce his intentions shortly before he began his attack, then live streamed it on Facebook. As the massacre unfolded from the killer’s perspective (he was wearing a popular sporting camera on his chest), hundreds of people cheered him on (and later debated the merits of the action. See, e.g., here).

That is what is different today when compared to twenty years ago: the threat of decentralized, even autonomous extremist violence has increased commensurate with the emergence of social media outlets that allow them to disseminate their views.

This produces both an echo chamber and megaphone effect: not only do kindred spirits find common space to vent and practice their hate against the perceived “Other,” but more moderate, mainstream outlets begin to pick and emulate some of the language used in them. Language that was once socially unacceptable in most democratic societies has crept into mainstream social discourse, be it about immigrants, minorities, sexual minorities or indigenous groups. Hate speech is increasingly normalized under the mantle of free speech, where the hate-mongerers turn the tables on civil libertarians by claiming that their freedom of expression is being trampled by political correctness gone mad. That in turn has crept into the rhetoric of politics itself, where mainstream politicians and political commentators adopt some of the language and policy positions that once were only championed by a rabid yet marginalized political fringe. One only need to remember the anti-immigrant language of certain politicians and the mysogynist, homophobic and/or xenophobic rantings of assorted radio hosts and television personalities, to say nothing of the comments section of what used to be moderate political blogs, to see how the discursive trend has evolved in New Zealand.

The problem is almost exclusively a democratic one. Authoritarian regimes censor as a matter of course and control the flow of information in their societies, so what can be seen and heard is up to the regime. Unless authorized or condoned by the State, extremists are not given space to air their views in public.

Democratic societies uphold the right to free speech no matter how noxious it may be because it is exactly the unpopular views that need defending. But the principle of free speech never reckoned with the practice of social and mainstream media outlets using business models that are at least in part founded on the idea that there is money to be made in catering to extremist views. If advertising can be sold on extremist sites and offensive speech is protected, then the bottom line advises that it is not for the media conglomerates to determine what is and what is not acceptable social discourse. That is for others to decide.

In other words, the cover of free speech gives media conglomerates the excuse to continue to pursue profit by hosting extremist sites and allowing vile content on their platforms. The more that extremist views are filtered through outlets like Fox News and talk-back radio, the more they tilt public perceptions in a xenophobic, paranoid, fear-driven direction. This is not healthy for democracies.

This is the public policy conundrum. Where to draw the line between free and hate speech? When does offensive speech become dangerous speech? One would think that the answer would be simple in that any calls for violence against others, be it individual or collective in nature, is what separates offensive from hate speech. And yet to this day democracies grapple, increasingly unsteadily, with the question of what constitutes censorable material on-line. In a world where hard core pornography is increasingly available and normalized, it is hard to argue that people expressing ugly views are any worse than what is allowed in the skin trade.

With regard to whether there was an intelligence failure. Obviously there was because the massacre occurred. But the question is whether this was due to policy errors, tactical mistakes, some combination of both or the superb stealth of the bad guy.

At a policy level the question has to be asked if whether the intelligence services and police placed too much emphasis after 9/11 on detecting and preventing home-grown jihadists from emerging to the detriment of focusing on white supremacist groups, of which there are a number in Aotearoa. Given a limited amount of resources, the security community has to prioritize between possible, probable and imminent threats. So what happened that allowed the killer to plan and prepare for two years, amass a small arsenal of weapons, make some improvised explosives and yet still fly under the radar of the authorities? It is known that the security community monitors environmental, animal activist, social justice and Maori sovereignty groups and even works with private investigators as partners when doing so, so why were the white supremacists not given the same level of attention?

Or were they? The best form of intelligence gathering on extremist movements is via informants, sources or infiltration of the group by undercover agents (who can target individuals for monitoring by other means, including cyber intercepts). Perhaps there simply are not enough covert human intelligence agents in New Zealand to undertake the physical monitoring of would-be jihadists, other domestic activists and white supremacists. Perhaps white supremacist groups were in fact being monitored this way or via technical means but that failed to detect the Christchurch gunman.

That begs another question. Was the killer, even if a white supremacist himself, not an associate of groups that were being monitored or infiltrated by the authorities? Could he have maintained such good operational security and worked in absolute secrecy that none of his friends and associates had a clue as to his intentions? Was he the ultimate “lone wolf” who planned and prepared without giving himself away to anyone?

If the latter is the case then no amount of intelligence policy re-orientation or tactical emphasis on white supremacists would have prevented the attack. As the saying goes in the intelligence business, “the public only hears about failures, not successes.”

In his apparent radicalization after he arrived in New Zealand, in his choice of targets in Christchurch and in his ability to exploit domestic gun laws, in the fact that although he was socially active no one knew or ignored his plans, the killer was local. In the inability of local authorities to detect and prevent him from carrying out the attacks, the intelligence failures were local.

It is in this sense that New Zealand must “own” the Christchurch attack.

PS: I have been criticised for initially claiming, before his arrest, that the gunman may have come from Christchurch. Many people, including a prominent music and pro-cannabis blogger, felt that I was “reckless” for doing so, especially after it emerged that the suspect was Australian and lived in Dunedin (on and off since at least 2014). Let me explain why I made that initial error.

Within minutes of the gunfire I received links to the 4Chan and 8Chan platforms in which the shooter announced his intentions and linked to the live stream of his attack. As I read the commentary on the extremist platforms and watched the news over the next hour a source in Christchurch called and said that given his escape and the failure to initially detect and apprehend him (it took an hour to do so), the speculation by those chasing him was that he was a local. I repeated that live on radio as events unfolded, using the qualifier “apparently.” It was a mistake but not a reckless one, and in the larger scheme of things it simply does not matter.

I also made a mistake when I said that the weapon used was likely sourced on the black market from organised crime and may have been a modified hunting weapon with a suppressor on it (that much was clear from the video). As it turns out it was a legally purchased weapon by a licensed gun owner. My bad.

Finally, for thoses who keep on insisting that because the killer is Australian that absolves NZ of any complicity or guilt in the event–get real. Christchurch is the epicentre of South Island white supremacism and for all we know the killer may have chosen his targets not only because the Muslim population is fairly large in that city but also because he could show off to his mates on their home turf. If reports turn out to be true that he had kindred spirits at his gun club, then perhaps he was not as “alone” as is currently believed when planning and preparing for the attacks.

The Hollow Giant.

datePosted on 16:42, March 14th, 2019 by Pablo

Towards the end of the Soviet Union, intelligence analysts in the US began to focus more on its social geography and less on its military capabilities (which if formidable were not keeping pace with US technological advancements). This came about because, unlike the Kreminologist bean-counters, more astute analysts saw in that technological stagnation fundamental signs of a society in decline. The simplest of the observations made during those years was this: the problem of productivity in the USSR “worker’s paradise” was in large part due to the fact that work only got done in the mornings. After a (liquid) lunch, workers simply were too drunk to put in more hours of hard graft. The problem was apparently pervasive, to include inside the Soviet military. This led to scrutiny of data on alcohol-related injuries, illnesses, deaths and other pathologies (street fighting, domestic violence) which, even if incomplete given the nature of Soviet rule, allowed the US intelligence community insight into the causes of what turned out to be a terminal malaise of the Soviet social economy.

Technological innovation is hard to come by, much less put into practice, when many of productive age prefer distilled spirits over spiritual or societal improvement. The “Socialist Man” was no more.

I say this because the US is starting to increasingly look like the Soviet Union in decline. The president just announced his 2020 budget proposal that includes US$714 billion on “defense” but cuts US$1.7 trillion from public health, education, welfare and social security allocations while decentralising and privatising nearly as much through the use of bloc grants to states and profit-oriented entities.

This is important to understand because the US is a nation with increasing numbers of elderly, fixed income residents who depend on social services to live out their twilight years with some measure of dignity and grace. It is in the midst of an opioid crisis of unparalleled dimensions, to the point that a US resident is more likely to die of an opioid overdose than in a car crash. The Trump budget does nothing to address that.

Income inequality continues to grow, with nearly 40 percent of US residents (140 million) living near or in poverty. Health indicators remain largely stagnant. While some areas improved, other declined, with geographic dispersion and income being major factors in health indicator scores nation-wide. Likewise, education statistics show a levelling off of the number of people graduating from both high school and tertiary institutions, while literacy rates are showing signs of slipping.

The point of these data source linkages is to show that while the US continues to devote huge amount of resources to its military, it is under-resourcing and therefore underachieving on major social indicators that are the backbone of a healthy, robust nation (both characteristics of the USSR in decline). With Trump in office the hollowing out process has accelerated to the point that the US has begun to cede ground to rivals when it comes to technological innovation: witness PRC advances in space exploration, Russian hypersonic weapons development and the myriad high tech incubators sprouting up everywhere from Mumbai to Buenos Aires.

This is not to say the the end is nigh, but it does indicate that if not Rome before the Fall, the US is starting to look more and more like the USSR before perestroika and glasnost.

The trouble for the US is that all of its ills are compounded by the crisis of its political system, which is not just embodied in the persona of Donald Trump and his entourage of grifters, incompetents and venal opportunists. It is also enshrined in the Republican Party, which abandoned any pretence of adhering to principle in pursuit of partisan gain and personal enrichment. That in large part is due to the profound corruption of the political system, now dominated by corporate lobbies and insider deal-making that are oblivious to the popular will. This extends to the judiciary, which far from being independent in many instances has deep ties to the private and public agencies that it is responsible for adjudicating (for example, via the appointment of corporate lawyers to state-level and federal district benches).

The USSR was fortunate to have Mikhail Gorbachev as its eighth and final leader. He knew that the pathologies mentioned at the start of this essay were irreversible under the system as given and that the USSR could not respond to, much less sustain the pace of the competitive pressures of strategic rivals pressing ahead with socio-economic and military advancements. He knew that the system was broken and had to change, not only economically, but socially and politically as well. As much as we may look back at his days as tinted with too much idealism and too little understanding of the deeply rooted authoritarian ethos embedded in Russian culture, he was able to resurrect Russia out of the ashes of the former USSR and set the stage for its return to great nation status under subsequent (and much less enlightened) leadership.

The US has no such saviour. What it has is the political equivalent of a drunken sailor lurching about after a night on the terps. In fact, to continue the analogy, the US political system is a bit like the drunk who finds himself lying in a gutter, bruised and covered in his own secretions. At that moment, he has two options: realise that he has hit rock bottom and get up and seek help; or roll over, sleep it off and continue on a bender once he can stand again. The US–or at least the Republican Party and the MAGA masses–has chosen the second option.

For Soviet workers in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the turn to liquid lunches represented a quiet, passive protest against the failures of the worker’s State. It was a weapon of the weak used against uncaring bureaucrats and apparatchiks who no longer related to the everyday struggles of the Soviet Man. Used as a form of collective action, it slowly ground the Soviet productive apparatus to a near halt, thereby making it vulnerable to the pressures of its external rivals at the same time that it no longer had the internal vigor, will or stability that allowed it to defeat the Germans in WW2 and grow into a super-power. It was just a shell of its old self, a mostly declawed paper tiger that while dangerous if cornered, was in need of rejuvenation based on fundamental social, economic and political change.

In a sense the US is in the same predicament, except that it does not know it yet. Its form of capitalism has gone from cowboy (they would say “entrepreneurial”) to rapacious. It is no longer a meritocracy for all (if it ever truly was), at least if the recent university admissions pay-to-pay scandal is any indication. It still has leading edge sectors of the economy, but the bulk of GDP is located in provision of services rather than production of tangible assets. It has a political class that is decadent, venal and corrupt. And it has an alcoholic’s blindness to its own flaws and failures, instead hiding behind short-sleeve patriotism and nationalistic bluster.

Robert Mueller will not be the US’s Gorbachev. Even when Trump is removed, the systemic problems that have caused the US decline will remain. The crisis, in a word, is organic. US politics is broken, society is fractured and the economy is more brittle that it appears at first blush. Maybe the Democrats will stage an intervention in 2020 and remove the addled-minded bully from the White House along with his congressional enablers. Perhaps a new social contract can emerge from the MAGA mess that rejects its core tenets of chauvinism, xenophobia, bigotry, ignorance and greed. It is possible that the era of short-sighted economic opportunism rooted in finance capital, the military-industrial complex, social media tech and fossil fuels will finally come to an end. But if that does not happen, then the Hollow Giant will plod along like Nero in a stupor or the USSR under Brezhnev until it, too, ultimately falls.

The unwanted jihadist.

datePosted on 11:31, March 6th, 2019 by Pablo

It turns out that Kiwi-born Mark Taylor, known as the so-called “bumbling jihadist” because he left the GPS tracking feature on his phone while he made pro-Daesh videos (including one where he burns his NZ passport and another where he calls for jihadists to stab police and military officers at ANZAC Day celebrations), has surrendered to the Syrian Democratic Forces, a Kurdish peshmerga alliance that is part of the mostly Western military coalition fighting Daesh under the name “Operation Inherent Resolve.”

He was fortunate or smart enough to surrender to the Kurds, who respect the laws of war and Geneva Convention when it comes to captured jihadists, something neither the jihadists themselves or the Syrian Army are in the habit of doing. This means that he can be transferred to other, Western members of the coalition for juridical administration. He is merely being held by the Kurds after he admitted who he was and that he was a member of Daesh. As far as the Kurds are concerned he has committed no specific crimes under their laws (beyond, perhaps, criminal association), so he is taking up space in a cell reserved for more unpleasant characters.

The issue of what to do with him has become a political football in NZ. The PM says that there is little the government can do for him because it has no diplomatic representation in Syria, much less the East Syrian conflict zone. But she then says that as a NZ citizen he is “our responsibility” even if NZ cannot help him where he is. The Deputy Prime Minister/Foreign Minister says good riddance to him, in part because he turned his back on his birth country and in part because he is a bigamist. The Opposition and Right-wingers of all types set to xenophobic baying about his betrayal of his home country, the risk he poses and the amount of taxpayer dollars that would be wasted on his return both in terms of travel as well as monitoring and incarceration of him.

The PM went so far to say that NZ has “no relationship” with “the forces” fighting in Eastern Syria even though it is well known that US, UK, Australian, French and German forces are fighting alongside the Kurds and NZ SAS troops are rumoured to be doing so as well. The NZDF has senior officers on the Joint Task Force staff assigned to Operation Inherent Resolve, so the notion that NZ has “no relationship” to those fighting in Syria (the same forces who drove Daesh out of Mosul and westward into Syria) is disingenuous in the extreme.

What is worse, the Australian journalist who interviewed Taylor in the Kurdish jail claims that Taylor told him that he was interviewed by NZ intelligence officers (presumably SIS) shortly after his capture/surrender in December. If that is true, then the government has not only known for a while about his whereabouts but is claiming no possibility of contact with him even though he has had face-to-face meetings with NZ agents. Be that as it may, I am still of the opinion that he may have some useful intelligence value left in him, as questioning in a Kurdish jail in winter is a bit different than interrogations conducted in a NZ detention centre at any time of year.

Given the amount of dissembling and ignorant ranting going on, I thought that I would clarify some of the issues at stake.

On the matter of whether or not Mr. Taylor has NZ citizenship in light of his renouncing it: Only a State can confer and withdraw citizenship. A person claiming to renounce citizenship without State sanction is just stating intention, not deed. Burning a passport (a token of sovereignty) just prevents one from legal inter-State travel. Citizenship is conferred by birth or by application and only lost when the State withdraws its recognition of it. That has not happened with Mr. Taylor. He remains a NZ citizen.

Under international law undocumented criminal suspects, including terrorists, are to be returned to country of birth if known. If an undocumented suspect is captured in battle or surrenders to an allied belligerent in a recognised conflict, s/he is a POW and must be treated as such. This includes irregular non-State belligerents captured by non-State actors like the SDF working alongside State militaries during an internationally approved (in this case UN-sanctioned) conflict against a common (in this case non-State) foe.

If possible, captured undocumented enemy POWs must be returned to their known country of origin to face justice. They can be kept in allied and home country military custody during transfer. There is no need for consular assistance or travel docs if they remain in military custody, just access to legal advice during process. Conversely, the military can transfer the prisoner to a location where his country of origin has diplomatic representation, whereupon he can be issued emergency travel documents. NZ has representation in both Iraq and Turkey, both of which have ties to the anti-Daesh coalition. It is therefore relatively easy to move Mr. Taylor out of Kurdish custody, into Western military custody and onwards to a location that either has NZ diplomatic representation and /or NZDF presence to whom he can be delivered (think, for example, of moving him from Kurdish-held Eastern Syria to Camp Taji in Iraq).

Should Mr. Taylor be returned to NZ he can be arrested and charged at the border under the Terrorism Suppression Act for being a member of an internationally-designated terrorist entity. To that can be added other charges depending on what he is suspected of having done while with Daesh and the evidence compiled of him doing so. At a minimum he could receive a 6-7 year jail term for aiding and abetting a criminal organization. At a maximum he could he found guilty of war crimes or crimes against humanity if he is found to have participated in atrocities or collective acts of violence against civilians (such as the enslavement of Yaziri women and girls as sex slaves. He has admitted he would have liked to have had a sex slave but could not afford one, so the question remains as to whether he participated in any act of kidnapping or enslavement while in Syria). NZ has legal authority to prosecute its citizens for war crimes and even though it does not have the death penalty (except, apparently, for treason), a guilty verdict on a war crime could result in life imprisonment.

Concerns have been voiced that if he returns home the leniency in the judicial system could see him freed and out on the streets. There is a possibility of this if his defence attorneys ask for psychiatric evaluations that prove that he is not mentally competent to stand trail. He clearly is intellectually sub-par (an uncle of his claims that he suffered brain damage as a toddler during a fit of some sort), and his actions over the years indicate that he may be a bit of a lost soul. Even his co-religionists at the mosque that he worshipped at in Hamilton say that he was more interested in companionship and a sense of belonging than in waging jihad.

If he is released he undoubtably will be monitored closely, not only by the security services but members of his own religious community. In fact, I would not be surprised if he is shunned by the latter because of the disrepute he has brought upon them. So as far as posing an on-going risk to society if he returns and is freed, I would hazard the guess that it would be very low.

The more likely scenario is that he will return in custody, be held on remand during the time he is on trial, be found guilty of terrorism-related crimes and sentenced to a significant period in prison. Some believe that if that happens he will then work to radicalise fellow inmates, as is often a common practice in US and UK jails and which has some precedent in NZ. But the truth is that Mr. Taylor is a follower not a leader and does not have the cunning and agile thought processes that would make him a convincing jailhouse preacher. So here too my reckon is that he will not pose a threat of radicalisation to other inmates. If anything, other inmates will pose a threat to him (think white supremacists, gang members and others who make take a dim view of his citizenship renunciation and embrace of Islam and jihad).

There is question as to whether he has wives and/or children in Syria. That is a humanitarian concern because arguably they are innocents caught up in his mess. If it turns out that he does in fact have family in Syria, the question is then what to do with them? If they have no connection to NZ it is perhaps best for them to return to their hometowns, but that is a question that refugee resettlement and immigration officials will have to address in the event that he is returned to NZ.

The most sorry aspect of this is that the fate of Mr. Taylor has become yet another pawn in the partisan bickering in Wellington. The truth is that the case is straight-forward: he is a NZ citizen and member of a terrorist organisation who was captured by allied forces. His return is mandated by international law. NZ law requires that he be arrested, charged and tried according to provisions in the Terrorism Surpression Act and perhaps other related laws. Anything other than this is an abdication of responsibility by the NZ government and a denial of his democratic rights to a fair trial and legal defence (because even bad guys have legal rights in democracies).

For NZ there is opportunity in this process. Returning him and putting him on trial demonstrates that NZ is a responsible international citizen that assumes the burden of dealing with its own when they misbehave (because let us be clear: membership in Operation Inherent Resolve is not just about contributing to the military campaign against ISIS in the Levant; it is also about accepting responsibility for deciding the fate of coalition member citizens who joined ISIS and lived to tell the tale after capture). It gives the Crown an opportunity to test the TSA after the fiasco of the Urewera 18 case (the so-called “dog’s breakfast” case that saw seven people eventually tried on firearms, not terrorism charges). It shows that NZ is a a nation where the rule of law supersedes political cynicism and popular sentiment. It serves as a cautionary tale and possible deterrent to other home-grown would-be jihadists. And it keeps at least one foreign fighter from returning to Daesh any time soon.