Posts Tagged ‘WikiLeaks’

Rudimentary rights-based analysis of the Assange affair

datePosted on 13:55, August 16th, 2012 by Lew

It looks like the British government is going to consider storming the Ecuadorean embassy in London to arrest Julian Assange and extradite him to Sweden to face sexual assault charges allegations. [Thomas Beagle points out he has not been charged, so I’ve amended this throughout. Thanks!]

Without getting into the validity of those allegations, or of the extradition process, I’d like to look at how the schedule of rights breaks down for Assange and the states in question, from weakest to strongest:

1. Julian Assange’s right to avoid extradition for an alleged crime on the grounds that he’s doing good things.
This is no sort of right at all, but it is nevertheless what many of his supporters have claimed.

2. Sweden’s right to request Assange’s extradition to face questioning.
This seems clear-cut, although again, many of his supporters have claimed it is not.

3. The UK’s right to undertake its own judicial process in deciding whether to extradite.
The UK, after an exhaustive process, has decided to extradite.

4. Assange’s right to seek political asylum.
Fearing that he could suffer the death penalty if, following extradition to Sweden, he is further extradited to the USA, Assange seems to have a right under Article 14 of the UN Declaration on Human Rights to seek political asylum. I think this is arguable, because the veracity of his claim to persecution is arguable, but anyway, he has done so.

5. Ecuador’s right to consider and grant asylum requests.
Ecuador has the same rights as any other state to consider and grant such requests, and it appears to have granted (or intends to grant) this one (reports vary).

6. Ecuador’s right to the integrity of its sovereign territory, including its embassies.
This is where I think it gets murky for the British government. They argue that provisions in the Consular Premises Act 1987 permit them to revoke consular or diplomatic status from an embassy if the premises have been misused. This article in the Gazette of the British Law Society suggests that it’s a bit more complicated than first seems. I am no sort of lawyer, but my read, in short, is that a diplomatic premise is inviolable under the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations (even in case of war or emergency), and that residual diplomatic status could continue for a period of time even after revocation (which would be a fairly major step in itself).

As I say, I’m no expert on such matters, but my view is that the chain of rights I have outlined here is pretty sound. I believe the correct position from a rights perspective is for the British government to concede Assange’s right to claim asylum, and Ecuador’s to grant it if it chooses, despite its misgivings. As terrible as the acts that may or may not have been committed by Julian Assange, it seems evident that he retains the right to seek asylum, that the Ecuadoreans retain the right to grant it, and that the UK is on, at best, shaky ground attempting to arrest Assange once succour has been granted by the Ecuadoreans. While respecting some of what Wikileaks has done, I do not much like Assange, nor do I have much tolerance for the legions of his supporters who have sought to absolve him of responsibility for his alleged sexual assault by recourse to character assassination, intimindation and vilification of his alleged victim.

But there are bigger things at stake here than a criminal, even a celebrity criminal, fleeing justice — how host countries respond to diplomatic gameplaying like this is one of them.


The Big Wet

datePosted on 15:27, January 12th, 2011 by Lew

Having neglected my bloggerly duties these past six weeks (in fact, I’ve been neglecting all my duties which aren’t strictly in service of looking after my family and keeping my job), I had resolved to write something about one of the many momentous events which have taken place recently. There are many to choose from. Some topics (Pike River; Wikileaks; Foreshore and Seabed for instance) are no longer immediate; others (the re-emergence of Winston Peters, commencement of the NZ general election campaign and its forerunner the Botany by-election) are not yet sufficiently well-formed for me to quite know what to say about them yet. Yet others (notably the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords, Wikileaks and the Urewera Terra trials) have been more ably dealt with by Pablo and/or so many others, such that anything I could say would be redundant. There’s already enough peoples’ two cents rattling around in the hollow urn of internet discussion. In the context of these events other things I was meaning to write about (such as the manvertising topic Pablo discussed before the break) seem a bit trivial.

Add to all of this, today there is really only one story; that an area twice the size of Texas — the canonical measure of a really big thing — is underwater in Queensland; including much of Brisbane. The coverage put out by the Australian media, and in particular the ABC, is first-rate, and the best I can do is commend it to your attention.

There is one point, however, that I don’t think has been made strongly enough: and that’s that events such as these are a consequence of climate change. While it is fashionable for climate change deniers to mock those pointing to the increasing frequency and severity of snowstorms, cold snaps, hurricanes and torrential rainfall events as evidence for ‘global warming’; implying that climate science proponents try to take everything as evidence of ‘global warming’, the fact is that the term ‘global warming’ was retired and replaced with ‘climate change’ because the thesis isn’t just that the planet will get warmer.

That’s part of it, but the events — snowfall and what not — being pointed to are not climate; they are weather. The relationship between climate and weather is a lot like the relationship between mathematics and arithmetic — indistinguishable if you don’t understand them, but fundamentally of a different order. Weather, like arithmetic, is by and large small, trivial, unarguable stuff — stuff which is more or less self-evident. It rained this much last week; 2+2=4 — whereas climate, and mathematics, are bigger, more open-ended and by definition less quantifiable. Mistaking ‘weather’ for ‘climate’ is an immensely useful rhetorical device, and one which I believe has not been sufficiently well guarded-against by those whose task it is to argue the climate change case. But even though it may not have been made clear to the degree necessary for broad public and political comprehension, this distinction is well understood by those working in the field and anyone who cares to acquaint themselves even scarcely with the material. And fundamentally the take-away is this: climate change caused by the increased quantity of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, to the extent that it takes place, will have unpredictable flow-on effects such as increased frequency and severity of severe weather events, and not just heat waves and droughts such as ‘warming’ would suggest.

The XKCD comic above (of which some years ago, my wife bought me the t-shirt) shows the Cosmic Microwave Background radiation spectrum. This has nothing much to do with climate change, but it is a famous proof of the scientific method: a near-perfect agreement between theory and actuality which is pretty fundamental to our understanding of a bunch of stuff. Science’s only defence; the only thing which gives it any importance or makes it any use at all, is that it works. When properly applied, it predicts actual events. The Queensland floods, as well as other such events, are happening as predicted, and anyone who tells you otherwise is either ignorant, or having you on, or both. In Andrew Bolt‘s case, it’s both. Queenslanders — and others similarly impacted by such events — need neither.


Gettin’ Jiggy wit dat Wiki.

datePosted on 09:22, November 30th, 2010 by Pablo

The latest document dump by wikileaks, more than a quarter of a million documents detailing “cables” (diplomatic messages) between the US State Department and 274 embassies and consulates from late 1966 until earlier this year, is a treasure trove for diplomatic historians and others interested in the minutia of diplomatic correspondence. As a recipient of such cables in a former life I have found it highly entertaining and informative to read the musings of US diplomats about foreign leaders, sensitive subjects, US perspectives on those subjects at given points in time, with a fair bit of gossip thrown in. Many of these communications came from junior diplomats as well as ambassadors and other senior department officials. Most of them (half) were unclassified, 42 percent were classified “confidential” (the lowest security classification), 6 percent were classified “secret,” and 2 percent were classified “Top Secret-NOFORN” (NOFORN means no foreign eyes may read the document).

The latter is where things begin to get serious and sensitive, and it will be those cables that the US government is most concerned about even if they have been redacted by the news organisations that received the dumps (to their credit several of the news organisations, including Der Speigel, The Guardian and the New York Times, sent the documents to the US government in order to have them vetted for security purposes and accepted most of the suggested redactions that came in response). These cables will be the ones that mention negotiating strategies, intelligence gathering capabilities and methods, people in foreign governments who work with or for the US, military relations within and between states, and to a lesser extent the personal foibles of foreign leaders.

The rest is just normal daily correspondence between embassies and Foggy Bottom (where the State Department is located in DC). They may prove embarrassing to some, but is anyone really surprised that the Saudis and other Sunni Arab Gulf states are deeply fearful of Iran, or that much of the money for jihadists comes from them? Or that the Chinese engage in cyber espionage and sabotage? Or that North Korea and Iran are military partners? Is anyone surprised that Ghaddafi is a weirdo or that Kenya and Nigeria are vast slicks of corruption floating on a sea of poverty and unrest? Or that Silvio Berlusconi can party better than most people a third of his age? Or that some foreign leaders are not the sharpest tools in their sheds?

Mind you, a lot of the correspondence is just hearsay or cocktail party tidbits, and the analytic abilities of the correspondents vary considerably. But that is what routine diplomatic correspondence largely consists of–everyday reporting of things that may or may not be true, may or may not be interesting for reasons other than salacious purposes, and which may or may not elicit a policy response on the part of the US government. In downscaled terms, this will be the same for NZ diplomatic correspondence, so the publication of these documents can offer potential insights into how NZ operates diplomatically (there are almost 1500 cables that mention NZ in the dump, many of which cluster around the issues of Afghanistan, non-proliferation, terrorism and Fiji. That alone demonstrates the areas of mutual interest and cooperation between the two states).

As mentioned, there is much to be mined in this latest dump, and some of the more sensitive information is bound to cause concern in diplomatic circles in Washington DC and beyond. One item that caught my interest and which has been flagged by the New York Times is that US diplomats were instructed to go beyond their credentialed responsibilities in order to obtain personal information about foreign dignitaries and substantive information about different country’s negotiating postures on selected issues. This differs from normal diplomatic reporting because it asks foreign service officers to serve as what are known as “official cover” intelligence collectors. An “unofficial cover” intelligence agent is someone who uses a false identity that has no official connection to the government for which s/he is working. If they get caught they are at the mercy of the government that captured them (think of the Russian spy ring recently broken up in the US). Official cover assets use their diplomatic status to cover the fact that they are engaged in activities for which they are not credentialed and for which they will be arrested if caught. Since they have diplomatic immunity they are merely deported if discovered.

The practice of using diplomats as official cover assets is not new, but the revelations in this document dump demonstrate how systematic is has been while Hillary Clinton has been Secretary of State, and how the UN has been a major target of such activities. That is bound to cause a stir. What is personally interesting to me is that earlier in this decade I suggested, with reference to the Zaoui case and the SIS misinformation campaign directed at him, that I would not be surprised if some NZ diplomats might be serving as official cover assets in areas of diplomatic and security priority (this at a time when the SIS director was a former career diplomat rather than a former judge or military officer like those who preceded him, and claimed to have no idea who Zaoui was before he arrived in NZ even though the director had been NZ ambassador to France and Algeria at exactly the time when Zaoui purportedly committed the “crimes” for which the SIS branded him a risk to NZ national security).

The curious issue of having a former diplomat front an intelligence agency notwithstanding, I said at the time that it would be expeditious if NZ used diplomats as official cover assets, admitting the risks involved in doing so. After all, NZ is a small country with limited diplomatic and intelligence-collecting resources and a good international reputation, so allowing MFAT or other diplomatic personnel abroad to double as intelligence collectors outside of their credentialed positions seems like good value to me (again, understanding the need for acute discretion when doing so).

My comments at the time were condemned by Helen Clark, SIS Director Richard Woods, various Labour Party MPs (I remember former Immigration Minister Leanne Dalzeil disparaging my character), and I even got an accusatory letter from the then-State Services Commissioner (someone by the surname Wintringham I believe) and a strange phone call at home from someone claiming to be from the EAB. The gist of what they all said–besides Ms. Clark prophetically saying that I was unworthy of employment at Auckland University–was that I was endangering the security of NZ diplomats by making such “unfounded” accusations. Well, perhaps I got the idea for making such speculative claims from having worked inside the US foreign policy apparatus, so I just assumed that it would be par for the course in other countries as well, particularly US allies or partners with similar interests in specific areas. Then again, perhaps not and NZ is a much “cleaner” actor on the diplomatic stage. UPDATE: As it turns out, John Key agrees with my speculation:

It may be a pyrrhic victory but I guess I stand vindicated on that one.

In any event, I urge anyone with an interest in international affairs to read the coverage of the latest document dump if not the documents themselves. It is amazing to see how the press in different countries cover the story (I read Latin American, Spanish and Portuguese papers as well as the Singapore Straits Times, various British, US, Australian and NZ outlets and other internet sources, and the variety in focus is enlightening and itself a source of information). It will be fun to watch the diplomatic reactions to the revelations in the leaked documents. But what I am really looking forward to is the US embassy in Wellington commentary about the appointment of Winston Peters as foreign minister as well as in anticipation of his visits with US leaders in DC and NZ. Something tells me that they could be unintentionally very funny, if not “glowing.”

`progress’ in Afghanistan

datePosted on 18:12, March 10th, 2009 by Lew


WikiLeaks has published four internal NATO briefing documents pertaining to the war in Afghanistan – including the Master Narrative which sets out the operational and strategic and symbolic parameters which guide ISAF’s media posture.

This guidance document is designed to assist all those who play a part in explaining the situation in Afghanistan and the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) mission, but especially those who deal with the media.

You can get the documents here. Interesting and revealing stuff but possibly more mundane than you might expect. If I get time over the next few days I’ll post a few observations (and if anyone else wants to do so, be my guest). In an epic security fail, the documents were distributed using Microsoft SharePoint, and protected with the absurd password `progress’.

What significance the image of an ISAF sniper posing with the corpse of an Afghan, you ask? This is the amazingly political choice of image on the WikiLeaks editorial which announced this particular leak – saying it’s misleading doesn’t go far enough, it’s an outrageous association to make. But it’s also the polar opposite of the media agenda which these ISAF documents explicate, and in that regard it’s a crafty bit of work.

(Via Bruce Schneier.)