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The Chinese List.

datePosted on 10:41, September 17th, 2020 by Pablo


News that Zhenhua Data, an arm of China Zhenhua Electronics Group, a subsidiary of the military-connected China Electronic Information Industry Group (CETC), maintains a list of 800 New Zealanders on a “Overseas Key Information Database” that contains personal information on more than 2.4 million foreign individuals, has caused some consternation in Kiwi political circles. The list of New Zealanders includes diplomats, politicians, community leaders, senior civil servants, defense and military officials, criminals, corporate figures, judges, B-list celebrities and Max Key. Complete with photos, information on these people is gleaned from public sources, particularly social media accounts, in what is one type of open-source intelligence gathering. Involving twenty “collection sites” around the world (including the US, UK and Australia) the larger global canvass is a broad first cut that extends to family members of prominent figures, upon which subsequent analysis can be conducted in order to whittle down to particular persons of interest in search of vulnerabilities, pressure points, sources of leverage, influence or opportunity across a range of endeavour.

However, there is a context to these efforts because Zhenhua Data is not the first company to compile records on “high value” foreign individuals nor is the People’s Republic of China the first or only State to (directly or indirectly) engage in this type of data collection.

Less than a decade ago, Edward Snowden revealed that US intelligence agencies and their Five Eyes counterparts shared information stored in a vast digital data bank obtained by bulk collection of personal data from US and foreign individuals and groups. Information for actionable intelligence “nuggets” was extracted via data-mining using computer algorithms and, increasingly, Artificial Intelligence (AI) technologies. Although the bulk collection program was later found to be illegal under US law, the practice of data-mining has continued in private and public sectors around the globe. Anyone who uses social media has their personal information stored and analysed by the providers of such platforms, who then sell that data to other firms. For profit-oriented actors, the objective is to tailor product advertising based on consumer preferences and characteristics. For governments the objectives can be security-related or oriented towards more effective public good provision, such as for public health campaigns. The overall intent is to get an actionable read on the subjects of scrutiny.

Added to this is the fact that intelligence agencies have long used network analysis as an intelligence tool, most recently in the fight against violent extremism. The larger purpose of network analysis is to connect dots on a large scale by establishing overt and covert linkages between disparate entities, both individual and collective. There are variations to network analyses, including what are known as “mosaic” and “spiderweb” tracing processes. Uncovering linkages helps futures forecasting because it can identify patterns of connection and behaviour, including funding sources, favours owed, personal ties, foibles and affectations. More recently, bulk collection, data-mining and network analysis have been wedded to facial recognition technologies that provide real-time physical imagery to records compilation efforts. This includes images of people in groups or in public spaces, which can be frame-by-frame analysed in order to help discern hidden or covert interactions between members of suspected networks as well as specific individuals.

None of this is particularly new or particular to the PRC. In fact, it is a routine task for intelligence agencies that is used as a first cut for more targeted scrutiny. Along with the Five Eyes partners, Israel and Russia have been pioneers in this field.

When taken together, open source data-mining coupled with social network analysis using a combination of advanced computer technologies creates a chaff/wheat separation process that allows further specific targeting of individuals for purposes important to the State doing the undertaking. In the case of Zhenhua Data, the list of targets includes those designated as “politically exposed persons” and “special interest persons.” Beyond general knowledge of “high value” individuals, the presumable objective of the exercise is to identify and locate hidden connections and personal/group vulnerabilities that can be leveraged for the benefit of the Chinese State. The application of specific designators provides an early filter in the process, from which more focused signals and human intelligence efforts can be subsequently directed.

Zhenhua Data is not alone in using its private business status as a front for or complement to State intelligence-gathering operations. The US firm Palantir, co-founded by New Zealand citizen Peter Thiel with seed money provided by the CIA venture capital arm In-Q-Tel, specialises in big data analysis, including software-based analytic synergies involving data mining, AI and facial recognition technologies. Palantir has an office near Pipitea House, Headquarters of the GCSB and SIS, and its local clients exclusively reside within the New Zealand Intelligence Community (NZIC).

The question, therefore, is whether Zhenhua Data is doing anything different or more insidious than what Palantir does on a regular basis? The answer lies in ideology, geopolitics, values and alliances. In New Zealand Palantir works for the Five Eyes network and local intelligence and security agencies. Its relationship with the spies is hand-in-glove, so it has a Western code of business conduct when dealing with confidential and private information and operates within the legal frameworks governing intelligence-gathering activities in Western democracies. Its orientation is Western-centric, meaning that its geopolitical outlook is driven by the strategic concerns and threat assessments of Western government clients. Although it may have a relationship with the New Zealand Police, it presumably is not involved in bulk-scale intelligence-gathering in New Zealand and what foreign data-mining and network analysis it does should serve the purposes of the New Zealand government. But the fact that Palantir and Five Eyes as a whole engage in mass data-mining and social network analysis is incontrovertible.

Zhenhua Data, in contrast, is believed to be a military-directed technology front. It is seen by Western intelligence agencies as an integral component of Chinese “sharp power” projection whereby so-called “influence operations” are directed at the elites and broader society in targeted countries with the purpose of bending their political, economic and social systems in ways favorable to Chinese interests. For the New Zealand security community, which as part of Western-oriented security networks has identified the PRC as a non-friendly actor in Defense White Papers and Intelligence Annual Reports, Zhenhua Data is not a benign entity and its intent is not good. Numerous academic and political commentators concur with this assessment.

The issue seems to boil down to whether data-collection activities are seen as good or bad depending on who does it, under what circumstances, and where one’s loyalties lie.

In other words, how one sees Zhenhua Data’s data-gathering efforts depends on how one feels about the PRC, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), authoritarian rule and China’s move towards achieving Great Power status in world affairs. If one views authoritarians, the PRC, CCP or Chinese foreign policy with suspicion, then the view will be negative. If one perceives them with favour, then the perspective will be positive. Conversely, if one views the activities of the Five Eyes network and partners like Palantir with suspicion, then Zhenhua Data’s list is of little consequence other than as a non-Western equivalent to Palantir and an indicator of possible things to come.

Ultimately that is a matter of values projected onto real world practices. Stripped of the value assessment, Zhenhua Data is doing what it has to do in order for the PRC to achieve its long-term strategic goals. 

Sort of like Palantir, Chinese style.

This essay was originally published in The Spinoff, September 17, 2020.

In the US, the End of Days.

datePosted on 14:56, September 11th, 2020 by Pablo

I am feeling a bit impish today and so for no particular reason I thought I would share this thought, which I first posted over on twitter:

“Hurricanes, wildfires, floods, heatwaves, murder hornets, street protests, armed vigilante militias, a lethal pandemic and a corrupt authoritarian using the federal government for partisan and personal purposes. All that is needed this election year is a plague of locusts for the US to go full End Times.”

Or think of it this way. The US is like the drunk who finds himself waking up in a gutter covered in his own filth. He has reached an epiphany: he has hit rock bottom and can either seek treatment in order to sober up or he can die miserably in the street. Does he go seek treatment or does he continue on the same course? One choice is tough, the other easier. The body (politic) wants to return to the bottle but the mind says that it is time to quit even though delirium and tremors await.

The US political class needs to use this election year as an intervention that leads to the political equivalent of Alcoholics Anonymous. The greed, corruption, hyper-partisan hypocrisy, corporate toadying, lobbyist revolving doors, slush funds and PACs–all of that has to go if they are to save the system from themselves. The question is, can they do it?

The problem is that in order for effective political reform to occur in the US the political class needs to understand that they have hit rock bottom. Not just in the person of Donald Trump but in the entire state of affairs involving the political system. It is dysfunctional, sclerotic, permeated with sleeze, deeply penetrated by vested interests and easily manipulated by money. It needs to be overhauled and revitalised.

I am not sure that the US political class understand this to be the case. Certainly not the GOP, which has used the deficiencies of the system to great partisan advantage. Not necessarily the Democratic Party, which has its own closets and skeletons to cleanse. So it remains to be seen if this election year will be the equivalent of a drunk’s epiphany for them.

Then there is US society. Still intoxicated on the myth of American exceptionalism and still addicted to its jingoistic militarism, armchair patriotism and sense of moral-ethical and physical superiority. Still under the spell of populist charlatans and Christian fundamentalist snake oil peddlers. Still profoundly myopic and inbred in its understanding of the larger world in which it exists. It too, must shake off the hangover and come to the realisation that the US is a hollow shell of its former self, a decadent and vulgar great power led by mediocrities now competing with rising powers not for world dominance but for a continuing place at the geostrategic table. It may not be at the point of eating crumbs yet, but the direction in which it is heading is evident.

The rot in US society comes from within. No external power has been able to do to the US what its own divisions and contradictions have done. What external powers have been able to do is exploit those divisions to their advantage in order to further weaken the US. After all, why confront the US while it remains military strong when a longer-term campaign of internal corrosion can undermine its ideological unity and military strength without firing a shot in anger?

Once nationally divided along the lines witnessed in Charlottesville, Portland, Kenosha and elsewhere, the rot born of societal malaise will seep into the US’s war-fighting capability (as it has already with regard to policy disagreements within DoD about the impact of Covid-19 on force readiness). When that occurs, the US can be more readily confronted at a kinetic and diplomatic level.

What is clear is that, even if the Democrats win in November by taking control of the presidency and both houses of Congress, if the US continues on its current path it will not recover. It may get out of the gutter produced by the four year bender that is the Trump years but it will only get as far as the equivalent of a park bench when it comes to political sobriety and societal health.

The ultimate problem is hypocrisy and delusion. No one wants to admit that the US is in decline and no politician will get elected if s/he honestly says so. Yet that admission is exactly what has to happen because it is the social and political equivalent of standing up in a room full of strangers and saying “hi, I am Uncle Sam and I am an alcoholic. I am here to change my life.”

That day may never come. But the End Days will.

Why do they do it? A note on the passing of Robert Barros.

datePosted on 11:14, September 8th, 2020 by Pablo

I recently heard that my old friend Robert “Bob” Barros died of cancer in Buenos Aires last month. Bob was part of my graduate student cohort in Political Science at the University of Chicago in the early 1980s, and we studied under the same group of neo-Gramscian/analytic Marxist “transitologists” who helped redefine and renovate the study of comparative politics world-wide.

Bob wrote a number of influential works, particularly Constitutionalism and Dictatorship, a study of the Pinochet regime’s attempts to provide a legal mantle to its rule (and aftermath); “Personalization and Institutional Constraints,” on the tension between personalist dictators and their attempts to institutionalise their rule; “On the Outside Looking In” and “Secrecy and Dictatorships,” which addressed the methodological and substantive problems in studying (opaque) authoritarian regimes.

Bob’s work received awards and international recognition. Yet rather than seek the material comfort and security of a tenured position at a US university, he chose to follow his love of the Southern Cone by moving to Argentina to work at a small university there. He eventually found a partner and had a daughter with her. The last time I saw him was in 2017 when my family and I visited my childhood and his adopted home town.

Rather than write an obituary for Bob I thought I would share an anecdote about him and how it reflects on intellectual enterprise and scholastic endeavour. It goes like this:

While in graduate school Bob, I and other students of Latin American society would regularly get together over coffees to ruminate about life in general and politics in particular. The students came from a cross section of disciples–history, sociology, anthropology, political science–all connected by the Centre for Latin American Studies. We shared classes together and that became the basis for many personal and professional friendships that continue to this day.

(As an aside, I never saw such gathering after I arrived to teach at a university in New Zealand. Instead, grad students headed to the campus pub for piss-ups and academic staff met for tea and gossiped in the departmental common room, then retreated to their offices and later homes. There was, in the ten years that I lasted in that environment, no sense of intellectual community that I could discern of, at least in what passed for political studies those days. From what I am told, the contrast between my grad student experience and those of today’s grad students at that NZ university remains the same).

During some of those Chicago Kaffeeklatschs we debated whether the Argentine and Chilean juntas kept records on the atrocities they committed–the number, ages and gender of those detained, tortured, and murdered, the ways in which they were hunted down and disposed of, the types of barbarity to which they were subjected to, the children that were removed from them, etc. By the late 1970s and early 1980s when we got together over coffee there was enough information leaking out of both countries to suggest that the abuses were both systematic and wide-scale, which suggested that given the military bureaucracies involved, records might be kept.

We asked these questions because our collective reading under our common mentors had shown that Nazis, Stalinists and assorted others before them kept records that incriminated them clearly and recorded for all posterity their culpability in committing crimes against humanity. But why would they do so? Why would they not just erase all evidence of their crimes rather than leave a probatory trail that could be followed? Knowing that what they were doing was extreme and that the shadow of the future would determine how their actions would be read by subsequent generations, and knowing that such record-keeping would deny them any possibility of plausible deniability down the road in the event that they did not prevail for all time and thereby get to write the historical narrative as they pleased, we wondered about the authoritarian mindset, the pathological and sociopath motivations, collective versus individual madness and assorted other possible sources for meticulous record-keeping by murderous authoritarians. We then speculated if the Southern Cone dictatorships shared these traits.

As it turns out, those conversations provided me with the basis for doing my own field research on “desaparecidos” (disappeared) in Argentina during the 1976-83 dictatorship, where I worked as a part of a group of human rights organisations trying to determine the fate of hundreds of men, women and children who went missing during those years. I knew that there must be records on them, and sure enough there mostly was. Later on, the questions from those conversations provided me with the primary tools for engaging in leadership analysis work for the US security community. For Bob, it turned into a large research project on authoritarian legal frameworks that became the basis of his Ph.D. dissertation that eventually became the book on Constitutionalism and Dictatorship.

What he discovered is that, apart from grossly backwards forms of personalist rule, the majority of authoritarians feel the need to provide a legal mantle around their behaviour. This is both a way of justifying their actions as well as setting both precedent and parameters for future regimes in terms of potential judicial action as well as justifying their own rule. Whether they believe that their actions are legitimate or not, authoritarians want to give them the appearance of legality. That way, should they ever be prosecuted for, say, human rights violations, they can argue that what they did was justified by law and constitutional precept.

This may seem retrospectively obvious to the casual observer, but Bob provided meticulously-research details of the thinking that goes into creating such legal and institutional edifices.

I will not try to further summarise Bob’s richly detailed works or the many implications and avenues of future research opened by them. I simply would urge readers with an interest in how authoritarians try to legitimate and institutionalise their rule to have a look at his writing.

Que descanses en paz, querido amigo!

Thought for the day: On terrorist entities.

datePosted on 14:49, September 3rd, 2020 by Pablo

Now that he has been convicted and sentenced, including on a charge of committing a terrorist act (to which he admitted guilt), the Christchurch killer has been designated a “terrorist entity” by the government, using provisions of the Terrorism Suppression Act 2002. Designating the killer as a terrorist entity means that his assets can be seized, his (online/other) fans can be prosecuted as terrorist supporters and creating funding platforms for his legal appeals or other reasons are now punishable offenses. No GoFundMe pages for him, it seems, and racists will need to think twice and tread carefully when they sing his praises in any forum (which should make certain NZ rightwing blogs a bit more careful when moderating comments)..

This is a smart move on the government’s part. Although the intent of the 2002 legislation was clearly directed at Islamicists and the various fronts and support networks that aided their armed campaigns, the use of the legislation in its first instance–both in successfully charging the killer with a terrorist offence and in designating him as an “entity” so that others could not easily provide support or encouragement to him or other like-minded people–is a well executed step that in principle demonstrates that the law can be applied in a balanced fashion regardless of the ideological cause being espoused.

But the test of this balance remains to be seen. Imagine if Tame Iti and his ragtag assortment of activist friends had been charged and convicted of terrorist offences because of their Urewera shenanigans (which was the original intention of the Clark government). Would they have been designated as “entities” so that others of similar mind could not legally offer them or their various causes emotional and material support? What about environmental or animal rights militants, who are often labeled as “eco-terrorists” by rightwing politicians and media and the commercial outfits that the activists oppose? What about anti-1080 activists, who have shown a penchant for intimidation and violence? Or the Sea Shepard Society, which Japan has designated as a terrorist group (and pirates) because it has used direct action tactics against whalers in the Southern Ocean and elsewhere?

The old saying “one person’s terrorist is another person’s hero” comes to mind here. The label can be applied to anyone who, under the broad definition of “national security” in New Zealand legislation, causes “harm” to the national economy, social order or reputation regardless of whether they used violence in pursuit of their objectives. Accordingly, the use of the term “terrorist” has been stretched by politicians, media mouthpieces and corporate and/or interest groups to cover a variety of non-murderous people agitating for a wide range of causes.

That is why the use of the term “terrorist” and the designation of terrorist entities must be done under strict guidelines and in the most extreme of circumstances. While international designators are helpful–say, in labelling Daesh as a terrorist entity or NZ expats clearly identified as having participated in its genocidal activities as terrorists–it remains for the Crown to rigorously scrutinise the criteria by which people and groups are placed in such categories. That must be objective, factually-based and proportionate to the harm committed. Above all, it must not be left to the government of the day, less partisan opportunism rear its ugly head in the application of justice.

The Christchurch killer made it easy on the Crown–and on the security agencies that allowed him to slip under the radar when planning and preparing the attacks–when he pleaded guilty to all charges. The sentencing was heavy on drama and pathos but the outcome was foretold and inevitable. The post-sentencing designation of the killer as an entity was an adroit touch. But one wonders if that designation should have come from the court at the time of sentencing rather than from the government after the sentence was handed down.

In any event, the first successful application of terrorism charges and terrorist entity designations is a salutary milestone in NZ jurisprudence and security affairs, but it is not without its potentially negative implications in future circumstances. That should be the guiding (or better said, self-limiting) principle in any future consideration of their use.

The MAGA pyramid.

datePosted on 16:07, August 31st, 2020 by Pablo

This is a short reflection on the what of Trump’s support in the US two months out from the national elections. For weeks now I have been saying to friends here and in the US that whatever the result, there will be bloodshed in the streets. If Trump wins, his armed supporters will celebrate with open displays of armed intimidation, which will include assaults on those who may chose to oppose them in public spaces. If he loses they will go nuts and attack those who they believe had a hand in stealing the election, especially if he calls on them to defend his stolen victory against the usurping Democrat-led coloured hordes. It will not be pretty, and it has already started in Kenosha and Portland.

Although any sane person would believe that after four years the US simply cannot sustain more of the idiocy, corruption, self-serving greed, bigotry, racism and xenophobia that marks the Trump administration, the truth is that he can get re-elected. With his polling weighed down by the pandemic and its attendant economic downturn, he is pulling out all the stops, with his racist dog-whistling now a full-throated megaphoning disguised as a defence of law and order that is starting to resonate with white audiences unfamiliar or uncaring about the realities of (often militarised) policing in the country. His fear for “suburbia” is no more than a code word for “the coloured folk and commies are coming to harm you, ” with the entire GOP falling into line behind his ugly tropes.

Even though Joe Biden leads most polls and they are doing well in many congressional races, the Democrats need to be careful. Biden is a lacklustre candidate at best who along with the Democratic National Committee has turned his back on the liberal wing of the party in favour of yet more centrism (or better said, in favour of the corporate wing of the party). While a strong choice for Vice President, Kamala Harris is no socialist. The Clinton/Obama wing continues to dominate the campaign strategy, eclipsing Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and the progressives who rally behind the likes of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Once again we are told that the election is too important to lose and that a safe pair of moderate hands palatable to middle class white folk is the best way to ensure that Drumpf is consigned to the ash bin of history.

That dynamic pushes the Democratic agenda onto two legs: Biden/Harris as the “not Trump/Pence” alternative; and identity politics. The reckoning appears to be that in a character match-up Biden/Harris win, and that the changing demographics of the US have reached the point to where appealing to non-whites (yet including white women and youth) is a key to success. It includes appeals to non-binary, liminal or non-heteronormative people. But for that to electorally resonate, the logic goes, the ticket must appear to be “reasonable,” that is, to be centrist and “unifying” in its appeal. Nothing about class can be voiced other than the usual platitudes about the hard-working working classes. Nothing that can be weaponised against it by the label “socialism” can be openly mentioned, such as universal health care and welfare reform, debt relief, etc. These unmentionables may resurface after the election in the event of a Democratic victory that includes winning back both houses of Congress (and assuming that civil war does not break out), but they are not part of the campaign platform because the corporate Democrats do not want to be painted as radicals intent on destroying the American (read: white) way of life–claims that were on ample display at the circus side show that was the Republican National Convention.

This poses dangers for the Democrats. In 2016 Steve Bannon correctly argued that all Trump had to do to win was to appeal to lower middle class and working class whites on economic and cultural grounds. It did not matter if he could not fulfil his campaign promises of economic re-birth. It did not matter if by “culture” his appeal was to retrograde sentiments about a past long gone and best forgotten. What mattered was that the Democrats would be too busy fighting amongst themselves along identity and ideological lines, and this would cause large numbers of would-be Democratic voters to abstain from doing so. Added to the fact that Hillary Clinton was successfully painted (with Russian help) as an out-of-touch elitist with murky connections to nefarious swamp figures at home and abroad (in a Trump projection if there ever was one), and Bannon was proven right. 45 percent of eligible voters did not vote in 2016, and of those most were young and/or non-whites who traditionally lean Democratic in national elections.

In 2020 the stakes are higher now that it is clear that institutions have not been able to contain or even restrain Trump in his sociopathic use of public office for private gain. But the Democratic strategy remains the same: appeal to the centre, try to be “nice,” call for unity, and pander to important interest groups that are not reducible to socio-economic class position. Trouble is, there no longer is a majority centre in the US, polarisation is a seismic fault line fracture in American life that transcends politics, and the fundamental unmentionable of socio-economic class and class inequalities fester like an undetected mestasizing malignancy within the US body politic that no amount of chest-beating mythologizing can cure.

More to the point, no matter what the contradictions of US society may be, Trump’s supporters are not interested in unity and centrist moderation. Some may not realise that they are on their economic and political deathbeds, but they all are itching for a fight and are willing to fight dirty in order to prevail even if it is for the last time. In fact, that is explicitly what the alt-Right notions of replacement and acceleration are all about: start the race war now while whites can still prevail, and accelerate extant social divisions in order to do so. The key to their success is to be organised and armed.

So who are the MAGA morons who are the reliable base that Trump can stoke with his scapegoating and fear-mongering? The answer resides in what we might call the MAGA pyramid.

At the bottom are those who are truly deplorable: racists, bigots, misogynists, xenophobes and assorted other a-holes of various stripes. They are not necessarily stupid or poor meth heads living in trailer parks. They are just evil at heart–true scumbags now encouraged and enabled by Trump to come out from under their rocks and revel in their moment in the light.

Many of them are armed.

Above them are the ignorant. These are people who by dint of lack of intellectual capacity, education, exposure to alternative views or ways of being and other consciousness-raising aspects of social life are easily manipulated and fooled. Some of them are also racist bigots and/or sexist xenophobes. They include the gullible who think that their industrial-era jobs are coming back. They are the fools who think that Covid is a hoax or just another flu, that masks are an assault on freedom and that the Clinton ran a paedophila ring out of the basement of a pizza parlour in Northwest Washington DC. These are the QAnon crowd, now mixed in with anti-vaxers, anti-fluoride and other tin hat-wearing bozos who are easily sold the snake oil about the Deep State, Rothchild’s, Trilateral Commission and other global networks run by Soros lackeys and supplicants. It includes true religious believers who think that somehow Trump, while flawed just like Abraham, is God’s chosen vessel for restoring the US to its position back up on that crumbling hill.

Many of them are armed.

At the top of the pyramid are the opportunists. They include Trump and his entourage, but also corporate actors who have taken advantage of the window of opportunity presented to them by his de-regulatory and tax-cut policies. It includes guns and weapons manufacturers trading on his bully penchant for believing that violence is strength. It includes crony capitalists making money off of projects such as the Wall. It is blessed by Evangelical leaders likeJerry Falwell Jr., he of unzipped pants and pool boy threesome “cuck” fame. It includes rightwing ideological extremists who seek to use his administration as a vehicle for their own nativist agendas (think Stephen Miller, Seb Gorka or the departed John Bolton and Bannon himself) and the “conservative” media ecosystem that feeds off the intellectual detritus that oozes from the GOP partisan swamp. That includes a slew of Republican politicians seeking to coattail on evil and venality for their own gain, even if that turns out to be a losing proposition if you are Paul Ryan or Jeff Sessions. It includes the modern equivalent of house negros (e.g. Herman Cain, of Covid death fame) who step and fetch for the master even in the face of his long history of racist contempt for everything that they represent in humanity. Less one think that I am being unkind to these modern day Toms, remember that they are descendants from what Trump described as s***hole countries” that are not like Norway, and share skin tones with people who Drumpf has declared to be traitors and thugs because they take a knee or to the streets to protest systemic racism in the land of the free.

Trump opportunists come in many guises and are both high- and low-brow in nature, but their single commonality is that they know that their collective fortunes rest on manipulating those below them in the pyramid. So long as there are suckers, dupes and rubes to play in the great con game known as the Trump administration, then there always will be players like those surrounding and supporting him who will be there to play the MAGA morons for all its worth.

They too are often armed. And when not armed themselves, part of the con is that they enable and ensure that those below them in the pyramid maintain unfettered access to guns–and listen to directions.

Some may rebut this trichotomy by saying that there are true believers in the Trump support pyramid. That may be true of deplorables like David Duke and ignorants such as assorted old war veterans ripe for the fleecing. But the vast majority of the opportunists understand that Trump’s one belief is in benefitting himself, and if they can do so as well by toadying up to him, then the more the merrier. This project is not about what he and they can do for the country. It is about what personal and political benefit they can extract from their access to federal power while the joyride lasts.

The question of the moment is whether that the mass violence that might break out the night of the elections (November 3), will in fact start earlier. The way things are going it seems that in the measure that Trump and his minions begin to sense the real possibility of defeat, the more they will appeal to their base–the bottom two thirds of the pyramid–to take direct action in order to prevent that from happening. If violent unrest becomes wide-spread then the stage is set for the use of Executive powers to declare a state of national emergency that permits the postponement of the elections. Thus a call to “patriots” to take up arms before the election in defence of “democracy” is entirely possible, and as we have seen in recent days, rightwing militias are ready and willing to heed the call. If that happens, then basic issues of civil-military relations and constitutional principles come into play, if not the integrity of the Union itself.

We must remember that for Trump and company the stakes are deeply personal. Many of these people, not just Trump himself, face the serious possibility of criminal prosecution once they leave office. Not just for what they may have done as private citizens before or on behalf of the current president, but for using their public offices for private gain. As many have pointed out, the parallels and ties between organised crime, the Trump business empire and the Trump administration are clear and tight. The network of Trump-connected criminal opportunists may therefore be very wide, so there is strong incentive for them to collectively do everything in their power while in office to forestall and prevent liability down the road. Four more years may buy them that.

The issue is whether a shift in the political sands will bury the pyramid of support that they need for that to happen. One thing is certain: the Trump administration has already begun digging its defences.

I have been fortunate enough to receive regular reports from the 42 Group, a defence and security-focused collection of youngish people whose purpose is to provide independent strategic analysis to policy makers and the NZ public. Their work is very good.

I asked the person who sends me their reports if it was Ok to republish the latest report here. He agreed, so here it is.

An indictment by another name.

datePosted on 16:11, August 5th, 2020 by Pablo

After I noticed that my name had been taken yet again in vain by my friendly antagonist Tom Hunter over at No Minister, I went over to see what the fuss was about. Nothing much, but then I discovered a post about the Operation Burnham Inquiry by Psycho Milt. I made a comment (now several comments) in response, then decided to edit the original comment, add a few things and make it a short post here that outlines what to me is the bottom line of that report. Here it is:

As the old saying goes, “the original sin was bad, but the cover up was worse.” Had the NZDF simply come out after the 2010 engagement and said that there were civilian casualties resultant from the “fog of war” in a nighttime SAS operation designed to kill or capture people responsible for attacks on NZDF patrols in Bamiyan that resulted in several NZDF deaths, I bet that the majority of the NZ public would have accepted that war sucks and bad things inadvertently happen. Then, when Jon Stephenson’s first story on Operation Burnham came out it would not have caused such a stir because there would not have been a glaring gap between his account and that of the NZDF (Nicky Hagar got involved later and took primary credit for the book “Hit and Run” although most of it was researched and written by Stephenson–-Hagar never set foot in Afghanistan).

Although the Royal Commission (RC) sugar-coated it, the report is absolutely damning of the SAS and Army leaders of the time (and not the troops on the ground that night, although issues regarding the TAC (Tactical Air Controller) and SAS mission commander’s understanding of the Rules of Engagement (ROE) were not addressed in the public version of the report). The testimony of several officers taken under oath was labeled as not credible by the Commissioners. The RC Report states that no institutional cover-up was at play, but that is laughable in light of what it says about the testimony of most of the senior officials involved. In other words, this was an institutional cover-up by another name, and the name given to the process instead of coverup or whitewash was shoddy records-keeping and miscommunication on top of bad memories. This pushes the onus of responsibility onto individuals rather than the military as an institution. And for those individuals, I guess “incompetent” is a better mark on one’s service record than “liar.”

How those records were lost or mislaid, and whether those bad memories were a product of in-group cohesion or contempt for the process is a matter of conjecture. What is not is that civilians were killed and at least one suspect handed over to Afghan forces to be tortured, both breaches that under international law must be investigated. What is now known is that the possibility of casualties and the transfer of a Taliban suspect to ADF units known for torture was known immediately by the NZDF chain of command and NZ intelligence services attached to them, yet until late in the Inquiry, the NZDF admitted to neither. There is much more by way of deceitful and devious NZDF behaviour, but let’s just come out and say that uniformed officers lied to their civilian superiors for years after the operation and then some lied under oath at the Inquiry. The National government at the time Operation Burnham took place and in the years immediately afterwards may not have wanted to hear the truth in any event and so accepted what they were (not) told by the NZDF brass at face value, but the RC was keen to hear the unvarnished details.

It took them several years and $NZ 7 million of taxpayer money to find out. It remains to be seen what the Labour government will do with the RC Report’s findings and recommendations, but one thing is certain: it going to wait until well after the election to do anything. And there is one other irony in all of this. At the same time that the NZDF was engaged in its campaign of obfuscation and deflection regarding the events of 2010, Transparency International gave it very hight marks for command integrity, transparency and accountability. These marks were the average of scores provided by a select group of specifically chosen “experts” on defense and security. I know because I was one of them and I pointedly gave low marks when it came to exactly these three criteria, so can only assume that my scores were discounted when calculating the overall average. But who gave them such high across-the-board scores if it mine were not included, and what were they thinking?

In any event I urge readers to read Chapters 2 and 12 of the Report, which address issues of civilian control of the military and ministerial accountability to Parliament in a Westminster-style democracy. The RC found that the actions of the NZDF leadership (specifically, misleading, stonewalling, whitewashing and misrepresenting what happened to the civilian political leadership and ministers of the day) wilfully undermined both fundamental democratic principles.

Everything else is gloss.

I do not expect that much will change given the delicacy of the report’s language and the fact that all of those responsible for the worst offences are retired (one only resigned three months ago when the draft report came out and his statements were found to be particularly unbelievable to the point of possible perjury). But it is now on official record that the NZDF has a culture of playing loose with the truth and disrespect for the constitutional principles underpinning its role in society. If implemented, perhaps the recommendation to create an independent Inspector General of Defense may help refocus NZDF attention on those principles. We shall see.

No matter what one may think of Hagar and Stephenson, in the end, minor errors and some hyperbole aside, they were vindicated. That is evident in the Report, which states that the book “Hit and Run” performed a valuable public service by exposing some ugly truths about how the NZDF operates, not so much in the field (although there were some issues identified there as well), but in its interaction with the political class and the larger society which it ostensibly serves.

That is the bottom line.

On democratic rights and responsibilities.

datePosted on 12:57, July 18th, 2020 by Pablo

The sight of MAGA morons holding anti-mask rallies and generally freaking out because they believe that their freedom is being curtailed by private and public entities demanding that masks be worn as a preventative to contagion from Covid-19 got me to wondering if those people truly understand what so-called democratic freedoms entail. It seems that the stupid is strong in the US–not just in the White House–and people simply confuse convenience or personal interest for “freedom.” Similarly, there are those in NZ who refused to accept the rules and regulations of the pandemic lockdown and complained that they too were being “oppressed” by a “totalitarian” police state. Not surprisingly, most of these people are on the right side of the political spectrum, where sophomoric interpretations of Ann Rand-style libertarianism overlap with alt-Right ethno-nationalism and other aberrations posing as political ideologies.

Given that I spent a long academic career reading and writing about both the theoretical and practical aspects of democracy and democratisation in previously authoritarian states, and worked in the security bureaucracy of a major democratic state, let me try to deconstruct into a simple primer what democracy really means when it comes to “freedom.”

Democracy as a social and political form can be seen as a two by two box with four cells. On one axis there are rights, which are individual and collective. On the other axis are responsibilities, which are also individual and collective. Rights can be formally enunciated and codified in Constitutions and a Bill of Rights but they can also be a matter of custom, usage and social norms that are are enshrined in civil law. Conversely, in some democracies such as those that use Roman Law systems, responsibilities are codified and rights are assumed: the law specifies what cannot be done rather than what can be done, with the latter being anything otherwise not prohibited.

What rights are conferred bring with them responsibilities when they are exercised. Take for example speech. An individual has the right to freely voice an opinion, but only so long as it does not cause injury to others. Yelling “fire!” in a crowded theater may seem funny to some, but disregards the responsibility to consider the context in which the yelling occurs. Likewise, hurling racist insults and threats may be part of everyday discourse for white supremacists hanging out in their trailer parks, but it is quite another thing for them to be directed towards people of color on the street. In both instances, the exercise of an individual right violates the responsibility to do no harm to others.

The balance between individual rights and responsibilities is crystallised in the act of driving a motor vehicle. People have a right to freedom of movement in democracies. But they do not have a right to drive a car. That is a licensed responsibility that entails learning rules and regulations, physical, practical and intellectual testing, and then behaving as responsible members of society when operating potentially lethal conveyances. Should they not, then the privilege of driving is curtailed or removed. The right to freedom of movement remains, but just not in a certain way.

Likewise, there are collective rights that are considered sacrosanct in democracies, be it of assembly, organization, or representation. Those also come with the responsibility to exercise those rights in way that do not injure or impede others from doing likewise. Peaceful protest against police brutality and systemic racism is one thing; a Klan or boogaloo boys rally is quite another. Forming unions, business associations and political parties is (theoretically) a democratic collective right. Forming irregular armed groups for the purposes of intimidation or insurrection is not.

As with individuals who in the exercise of their self-defined rights do harm to others, collective violence is a breach of peace, and social peace is what civilised societies are founded on. In some societies social peace is imposed by authoritarian measures (which can result in mass collective violence against unjust rule). In democracies it is achieved by voluntary adhesion to individual and collective notions of rights and responsibilities, which presumably avoids the need to take up arms against oppressive government.

That is the difference between rule by consent and rule by acquiescence: one is given voluntarily while the other is given under duress. The consent that underpins democratic societies is double-sided. It is consent to exercise rights and responsibilities, not one or the other.

That may no longer hold true.

It appears that, encouraged and supported by the proliferation of rightwing media, many have lost sight of the responsibility and collective sides of the democratic equation. Now, everything is about individual rights and nothing about individual or collective responsibilities. The erosion of the responsibility side of the democratic equation can be traced to the advent of what has come to be known as neoliberalism. Neoliberalism originated as an economic theory that posited that finance capital was the best allocator of resources in a society and hence needed to be unencumbered by laws and restrictions that impeded finance capitalists from operating in unfettered fashion. It morphed into a public policy approach–codified in the so-called “Washington Consensus”–that was based on the privatisation of public assets and the withdrawal of the State from its economic macro-manager role in society. The downsizing of the State as a physical and regulatory entity created space for “entrepreneurs,” who in turn carried the values of “free” enterprise and competition into society and resulted in emulative behaviour on the part of others. This led to the ideological expansion of neoliberalism as a social construct, where it is no longer confined to the economic realm but extends into conceptualisations of the proper social order and the role of individuals within it.

The result, to coin a phrase, is a form of hyper-individualism that on the one hand is manifest in survivalist alienation and on the other in predatory and cowboy capitalist practices in which enrichment and greed are considered attributes rather than vices. Solidarity is for suckers, and society prospers because the uncoordinated and unrestricted pursuit of freedom and profit by self-interested maximisers of opportunities, be they individuals, firms or collectivities, is believed to act as the invisible hand of the market in modern times. Or so they say.

Even though the practical benefits of neoliberal thought have proven mixed at best and much of its theoretical foundations repudiated, its impact on non-economic aspects of social life remain strong and wide-spread. With the megaphoning of its hyper-individualistic ethos in rightwing corporate and social media, it is a major reason why the notion of democratic responsibilities both individual and collective has been superseded by the exaltation of individual rights. In a sense, this is the lumpenproletarianisation of the democratic world.

There is more.

Given human nature, people are more inclined to prioritise their rights over their responsibilities. Different forms of democracy have been in part defined by the emphasis that they place on individual and collective rights. Liberal democracies put a premium on individual rights. Social democracies put a premium on collective rights. In all democracies the law primarily focuses on enforcing responsibilities of both types. Laws codify responsibilities down to minute detail and enumerate the penalties for failing to adhere or discharge them. To be clear: laws are inherently coercive, as they detail what is and is not permitted and use penalties and disincentives to enforce compliance. Although rights are recognised within the law, it is responsibility that laws are directed at because failure to be responsible as a member of society and a polity has deleterious effects on social order. Even so, there is a difference. Civil law includes various aspects of democratic rights, for example, property rights, along with its enforcement of responsibilities. Criminal law addresses transgressions of basic responsibility, both individual and collective, with the notion of rights being limited to those that strictly apply to suspects, defendants and those convicted and sentenced.

Enforcing individual and collective responsibility has long been the mainstay of democratic security policy. The police exist in to guard against individual and collective transgressions against individual and collective rights. That is, repressive state apparatuses (to put it in Althusserian terms) not only enforce the broad overall ideological project that is democracy as a social construct, but also punish those who challenge the responsibilities inherent in that project. For that to happen, the elected representatives of a democratic polity and the public bureaucracies that serve under them must agree and commit to enforcing responsibility as well as protecting rights. In other words, there must be an ideological consensus on the limits of rights and the extent of responsibilities in a democratic society.

The consensus on enforcing responsibility has eroded amongst the political class due to the same reasons that have undermined the balance between rights and responsibilities in society as a whole. That has allowed the expansion of what is considered to be an inherent “right” at the expense of what is a democratic responsibility. The arguments about “free” versus “hate” speech illustrate the erosion. The (mostly rightwing) contemporary champions of “free” speech believe that they can say anything, anywhere without concern for context or consequence. They reject the notion that the right to speak freely includes the burden of doing so responsibly. They do not care about causing offence or injury to others and complain when laws restrict their ability to do so.

This is symptomatic of the larger problem. Freedom is now equated in many circles as unfettered exercise of individual rights. Anything that constrains freedom so defined is considered an infringement on natural, God-given or universal rights, even if in fact the notion of democratic rights is a human construct that is materially and intellectual grounded in specific historical moments in time and place. In the US in 1776, democratic rights were reserved for white slave and land owning men, yet today the concept has been widened to include others (well, in theory anyway). In other words, there is nothing immutable about the notion of rights. They are a product of their times, as is the notion of what it is to be a responsible member of a democratic society.

Unfortunately responsibilities have become the unwanted stepchild in post-modern democratic societies. The erosion of notions of collective solidarity and death of empathy under the weight of ideological hyper-individualism have resulted in what might be called the “atomisation” of democracy where responsibilities are to oneself and chosen in-groups and rights are whatever one says they are.

Given the prevalence of neoliberalism as an ideological underpinning of many post-modern democratic societies, it will be difficult to reverse thirty years (and a generation) of its inculcation in the social fabric. Restoring the balance between democratic rights and responsibilities therefore entails a new form of counter-hegemonic project that works to promote the idea that “freedom” is as much a product of individual an collective responsibility as it is the exercise of individual and collective rights. The success of such a project will only occur when not only is neoliberalism replaced, but when the new ideological consciousness is internalised to the point of inter-generational self-reproduction. That is a tall order.

That does not mean that it cannot be done. Given the compound failures of governance and international economics in the lead up and responses to the spread of the Coronavirus pandemic, the post-pandemic world offers the opportunity to redefine basic notions of democratic citizenship. Unlike classic notions of counter-hegemonic projects, which always emanate from the grassroots and which are based on opposition to an elite-centric hegemonic status quo, the re-definition of democracy as a balance between rights and responsibilities can include enlightened government working from the top down. This can occur as part of a public education campaign and can be incorporated into school curricula that also emphasises sustainable development along with traditional “civics” notions of equality and fair play.

In fact, the re-valuation of responsibilities as well as rights and re-equilibration of the balance between them can easily piggy back on traditional notions of fairness and burden-sharing in pursuit of social peace. Neoliberalism is hierarchical at its core and therefore antithetical to the ideological myth of equality in democratic societies. A counter-hegemonic narrative based on a return to principles of equality and fairness embedded in the balance between rights and responsibilities would therefore seem to be a more natural “fit” for mature democratic systems.

If that is true, then its time is now.

No right to know.

datePosted on 13:01, June 30th, 2020 by Pablo

When the Christchurch murderer pleaded guilty to 51 counts of murder and a number of other violent assault charges a few months ago, he effectively closed the door on what the public will know about the lead up to and commission of the event. His plea means that no evidence will be presented in court; that no witness testimony and cross-examinations under oath will happen; that no documentation will be entered into the official record; that no officials will be sworn in and questioned. We will not hear from the killer himself, not will we see senior security officials explain how his murderous plans were not detected and disrupted. Even so, the Crown did not reject the plea. That may have been convenient from the Crown’s point of view, but on the larger issue of finding out what actually happened, the NZ public apparently has no right to know.

This undoubtably suits the NZ Police and perhaps the NZSIS and GCSB (although it is likely that what failures may have occurred were in the real of human intelligence collection rather than with signals intelligence, since the latter would need to be tasked by the former to undertake domestic intercepts and the like). Now they will not have to explain whether there were systemic, institutional and something more than individual failures in the lead up to the attacks. We will never know if they had an institutional bias that blinded them to the dangers posed by violent white extremists, or whether they were aware that white extremisms posed an increasing danger to NZ society or some of its communities but decided not to act to preempt the threat because of other priorities (say, a focus on white gang drug dealing and the use of skinhead informants to that end). They may not have to explain whether they were aware (if true) that the killer had accomplices and enablers who helped him on his path. They will not have to answer as to why they ignored repeated complaints and pleas by the NZ Muslim community to do something about the ongoing and often intimidatory harassment to which many of them were subjected in the wake of 9/11. They will not have to justify why they devoted so many resources to monitoring jihadist sympathisers when in the end no Muslim has ever been charged with, much less convicted of, committing an ideologically-motivated act of collective violence in NZ both before and after 9/11.

Instead, two individuals have been convicted and sentenced to jail terms for possessing and trying to distributed offensive materials in the form of beheading videos, there are a few dozen who have ranted on social media to the point that they have caught the attention of the security services, and there are a small group who have left to join jihadists in the Middle East, some of whom will not be coming back because they are no longer of this Earth. But that is the extent of the Islamicist threat even though much money and resources were poured into the anti-jihadist effort and numerous law changes (Terrorism Suppression Act, Search and Surveillance Act, Intelligence and Security Act) were enacted to give security authorities more powers and leeway in combating them. Now we will never know why some of those resources were not directed into detecting and preventing white extremist attacks even though the NZ racist community was very visible, well-known to be violent and increasingly connected to foreign white supremacist groups via social media. Why were they not on the security services’ radar scope? Or were they?

The Police have admitted that the arms license vetting process to which the killer was subjected was deficient. Beyond confirming the obvious, this also is a classic example of scapegoating the lowest people in the chain of command. The Police also agree that the gun laws prior to March 15 were too lax, but that was a matter for parliament to resolve. When taken together with the guilty plea, what we have here is the makings of an absolution of higher level security service incompetence, negligence, maladministration and bias as contributing factors in the perpetration of the mosque attacks.

It has been announced that the Royal Commission of Inquiry has interviewed the killer. That may elicit some new information from him about his motives and planning, but it appears to be more of a courtesy to the defendant than a genuine fact-finding effort. After all, the Royal Commission should be able to have access to all of the Crown evidence by now. It has interviewed dozens of people (including myself) and supposedly has access to a trove of government documentation relevant to the case.

But therein lies the rub. The terms of reference of the Royal Commission are broad but its powers are limited. It has no powers of compulsion under oath, that is, it cannot demand that sworn witnesses appear before it (all of those who talk with the Commission due so voluntarily as “interviewees”). It cannot order the release of classified material to the commissioners; instead, it is dependent on the goodwill of the very agencies it is supposed to be investigating to provide such documents. It cannot identify any official that is mentioned in the course of the inquiry. It has no sanction powers. In truth, the Royal Commission is toothless.

I hope that I am wrong and that it will be able to answer many of the questions posed above because it has secured full voluntary cooperation from the security agencies that failed to detect and prevent the massacres. I hope that it is able to offer recommendations about review and reform of procedures, protocols and processes governing approaches to the NZ threat environment, including about the priority hierarchy given to potential, possible and imminent threats of any nature (for example, the relative priority given to gang criminality versus potentially violent political activism). It might even call for a major shake-up of the way in which Police and other intelligence agencies approach the issue of domestic terrorism. But that is just speculation, and may be no more than wishful thinking on my part.

One can only hope that in exchange for the guilty plea, the Crown and Police got something in return from the killer. Perhaps there was a quid pro quo involved whereby he offered information to the authorities that they otherwise could not obtain in exchange for better conditions in jail, sentence reduction, possibility of parole, etc. I am not familiar with the legal intricacies behind guilty pleas but I doubt that the murderer decided to do so out of the kindness of his heart, to spare the victim’s relatives further grief or to save the NZ taxpayer the costs of a trial. To my mind there had to be something in it for him.

In any event, the people who benefitted the most from the guilty plea are the NZ Police and intelligence agencies. They will not be held to account in a court of law, and instead can define the terms of the narrative constructed in the Royal Commission report so that it downplays or exonerates command and cultural failures while blaming lower level individuals, lack of resources, heavy workloads and other extraneous matters for the failure to prevent NZ’s worst act of terrorism.

Rather than a moment of honest reckoning, we could well get a whitewash.

That is not good enough.

PS: In the wake of commentators disputing some of has been said above, I have attached the Terms of Reference (with Schedule) and following minutes: Minute 1, Minute 2, Minute 3.

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