Google has captured your mind

Searches reveal who we are and how we think. True intellectual privacy requires safeguarding these records

Google has captured your mind
(Credit: Kuzma via iStock/Salon)

The Justice Department’s subpoena was straightforward enough. It directed Google to disclose to the U.S. government every search query that had been entered into its search engine for a two-month period, and to disclose every Internet address that could be accessed from the search engine. Google refused to comply. And so on Wednesday January 18, 2006, the Department of Justice filed a court motion in California, seeking an order that would force Google to comply with a similar request—a random sample of a million URLs from its search engine database, along with the text of every “search string entered onto Google’s search engine over a one-week period.” The Justice Department was interested in how many Internet users were looking for pornography, and it thought that analyzing the search queries of ordinary Internet users was the best way to figure this out. Google, which had a 45-percent market share at the time, was not the only search engine to receive the subpoena. The Justice Department also requested search records from AOL, Yahoo!, and Microsoft. Only Google declined the initial request and opposed it, which is the only reason we are aware that the secret request was ever made in the first place.

The government’s request for massive amounts of search history from ordinary users requires some explanation. It has to do with the federal government’s interest in online pornography, which has a long history, at least in Internet time. In 1995 Time Magazine ran its famous “Cyberporn” cover, depicting a shocked young boy staring into a computer monitor, his eyes wide, his mouth agape, and his skin illuminated by the eerie glow of the screen. The cover was part of a national panic about online pornography, to which Congress responded by passing the federal Communications Decency Act (CDA) the following year. This infamous law prevented all websites from publishing “patently offensive” content without first verifying the age and identity of its readers, and the sending of indecent communications to anyone under eighteen. It tried to transform the Internet into a public space that was always fit for children by default.


The CDA prompted massive protests (and litigation) charging the government with censorship. The Supreme Court agreed in the landmark case of Reno v. ACLU (1997), which struck down the CDA’s decency provisions. In his opinion for the Court, Justice John Paul Stevens explained that regulating the content of Internet expression is no different from regulating the content of newspapers.The case is arguably the most significant free speech decision over the past half century since it expanded the full protection of the First Amendment to Internet expression, rather than treating the Internet like television or radio, whose content may be regulated more extensively. In language that might sound dated, Justice Stevens announced a principle that has endured: “Through the use of chat rooms, any person with a phone line can become a town crier with a voice that resonates farther than it could from any soapbox. Through the use of web pages, mail exploders, and newsgroups, the same individual can become a pamphleteer.” The Internet, in other words, was now an essential forum for free speech.

In the aftermath of Reno, Congress gave up on policing Internet indecency, but continued to focus on child protection. In 1998 it passed the Children’s Online Protection Act, also known as COPA. COPA punished those who engaged in web communications made “for commercial purposes” that were accessible and “harmful to minors” with a $50,000 fine and prison terms of up to six months. After extensive litigation, the Supreme Court in Ashcroft v. ACLU (2004) upheld a preliminary injunction preventing the government from enforcing the law. The Court reasoned that the government hadn’t proved that an outright ban of “harmful to minors” material was necessary. It suggested that Congress could have instead required the use of blocking or filtering software, which would have had less of an impact on free speech than a ban, and it remanded the case for further proceedings. Back in the lower court, the government wanted to create a study showing that filtering would be ineffective, which is why it wanted the search queries from Google and the other search engine companies in 2006.

Judge James Ware ruled on the subpoena on March 17, 2006, and denied most of the government’s demands. He granted the release of only 5 percent of the requested randomly selected anonymous search results and none of the actual search queries. Much of the reason for approving only a tiny sample of the de-identified search requests had to do with privacy. Google had not made a direct privacy argument, on the grounds that de-identified search queries were not “personal information,” but it argued that disclosure of the records would expose its trade secrets and harm its goodwill from users who believed that their searches were confidential. Judge Ware accepted this oddly phrased privacy claim, and added one of his own that Google had missed. The judge explained that Google users have a privacy interest in the confidentiality of their searches because a user’s identity could be reconstructed from their queries and because disclosure of such queries could lead to embarrassment (searches for, e.g., pornography or abortions) or criminal liability (searches for, e.g., “bomb placement white house”). He also placed the list of disclosed website addresses under a protective order to safeguard Google’s trade secrets.

Two facets of Judge Ware’s short opinion in the “Search Subpoena Case” are noteworthy. First, the judge was quite correct that even search requests that have had their user’s identities removed are not anonymous, as it is surprisingly easy to re-identify this kind of data. The queries we enter into search engines like Google often unwittingly reveal our identities. Most commonly, we search our own names, out of vanity, curiosity, or to discover if there are false or embarrassing facts or images of us online. But other parts of our searches can reveal our identities as well. A few months after the Search Subpoena Case, AOL made public twenty million search queries from 650,000 users of its search engine users. AOL was hoping this disclosure would help researchers and had replaced its users’ names with numerical IDs to protect their privacy. But two New York Times reporters showed just how easy it could be to re-identify them. They tracked down AOL user number 4417749 and identified her as Thelma Arnold, a sixty-two-year old widow in Lilburn, Georgia. Thelma had made hundreds of searches including “numb fingers,” “60 single men,” and “dog that urinates on everything.” The New York Times reporters used old-fashioned investigative techniques, but modern sophisticated computer science tools make re-identification of such information even easier. One such technique allowed computer scientists to re-identify users in the Netflix movie-watching database, which that company made public to researchers in 2006.

The second interesting facet of the Search Subpoena Case is its theory of privacy. Google won because the disclosure threatened its trade secrets (a commercial privacy, of sorts) and its business goodwill (which relied on its users believing that their searches were private). Judge Ware suggested that a more direct kind of user privacy was at stake, but was not specific beyond some generalized fear of embarrassment (echoing the old theory of tort privacy) or criminal prosecution (evoking the “reasonable expectation of privacy” theme from criminal law). Most people no doubt have an intuitive sense that their Internet searches are “private,” but neither our intuitions nor the Search Subpoena Case tell us why. This is a common problem in discussions of privacy. We often use the word “privacy” without being clear about what we mean or why it matters. We can do better.

Internet searches implicate our intellectual privacy. We use tools like Google Search to make sense of the world, and intellectual privacy is needed when we are making sense of the world. Our curiosity is essential, and it should be unfettered. As I’ll show in this chapter, search queries implicate a special kind of intellectual privacy, which is the freedom of thought.

Freedom of thought and belief is the core of our intellectual privacy. This freedom is the defining characteristic of a free society and our most cherished civil liberty. This right encompasses the range of thoughts and beliefs that a person might hold or develop, dealing with matters that are trivial and important, secular and profane. And it protects the individual’s thoughts from scrutiny or coercion by anyone, whether a government official or a private actor such as an employer, a friend, or a spouse. At the level of law, if there is any constitutional right that is absolute, it is this one, which is the precondition for other political and religious rights guaranteed by the Western tradition. Yet curiously, although freedom of thought is widely regarded as our most important civil liberty, it has not been protected in our law as much as other rights, in part because it has been very difficult for the state or others to monitor thoughts and beliefs even if they wanted to.

Freedom of Thought and Intellectual Privacy

In 1913 the eminent Anglo-Irish historian J. B. Bury published A History of Freedom of Thought, in which he surveyed the importance of freedom of thought in the Western tradition, from the ancient Greeks to the twentieth century. According to Bury, the conclusion that individuals should have an absolute right to their beliefs free of state or other forms of coercion “is the most important ever reached by men.” Bury was not the only scholar to have observed that freedom of thought (or belief, or conscience) is at the core of Western civil liberties. Recognitions of this sort are commonplace and have been made by many of our greatest minds. René Descartes’s maxim, “I think, therefore I am,” identifies the power of individual thought at the core of our existence. John Milton praised in Areopagitica “the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all [other] liberties.”

In the nineteenth century, John Stuart Mill developed a broad notion of freedom of thought as an essential element of his theory of human liberty, which comprised “the inward domain of consciousness; demanding liberty of conscience, in the most comprehensive sense; liberty of thought and feeling; absolute freedom of opinion and sentiment on all subjects, practical or speculative, scientific, moral, or theological.” In Mill’s view, free thought was inextricably linked to and mutually dependent upon free speech, with the two concepts being a part of a broader idea of political liberty. Moreover, Mill recognized that private parties as well as the state could chill free expression and thought.

Law in Britain and America has embraced the central importance of free thought as the civil liberty on which all others depend. But it was not always so. People who cannot think for themselves, after all, are incapable of self-government. In the Middle Ages, the crime of “constructive treason” outlawed “imagining the death of the king” as a crime that was punishable by death. Thomas Jefferson later reflected that this crime “had drawn the Blood of the best and honestest Men in the Kingdom.” The impulse for political uniformity was related to the impulse for religious uniformity, whose story is one of martyrdom and burnings of the stake. As Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas put it in 1963:

While kings were fearful of treason, theologians were bent on stamping out heresy. . . . The Reformation is associated with Martin Luther. But prior to him it broke out many times only to be crushed. When in time the Protestants gained control, they tried to crush the Catholics; and when the Catholics gained the upper hand, they ferreted out the Protestants. Many devices were used. Heretical books were destroyed and heretics were burned at the stake or banished. The rack, the thumbscrew, the wheel on which men were stretched, these were part of the paraphernalia.

Thankfully, the excesses of such a dangerous government power were recognized over the centuries, and thought crimes were abolished. Thus, William Blackstone’s influential Commentaries stressed the importance of the common law protection for the freedom of thought and inquiry, even under a system that allowed subsequent punishment for seditious and other kinds of dangerous speech. Blackstone explained that:

Neither is any restraint hereby laid upon freedom of thought or inquiry: liberty of private sentiment is still left; the disseminating, or making public, of bad sentiments, destructive of the ends of society, is the crime which society corrects. A man (says a fine writer on this subject) may be allowed to keep poisons in his closet, but not publicly to vend them as cordials.

Even during a time when English law allowed civil and criminal punishment for many kinds of speech that would be protected today, including blasphemy, obscenity, seditious libel, and vocal criticism of the government, jurists recognized the importance of free thought and gave it special, separate protection in both the legal and cultural traditions.

The poisons metaphor Blackstone used, for example, was adapted from Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, from a line that the King of Brobdingnag delivers to Gulliver. Blackstone’s treatment of freedom of thought was itself adopted by Joseph Story in his own Commentaries, the leading American treatise on constitutional law in the early Republic. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison also embraced freedom of thought. Jefferson’s famous Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom enshrined religious liberty around the declaration that “Almighty God hath created the mind free,” and James Madison forcefully called for freedom of thought and conscience in his Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments.

Freedom of thought thus came to be protected directly as a prohibition on state coercion of truth or belief. It was one of a handful of rights protected by the original Constitution even before the ratification of the Bill of Rights. Article VI provides that “state and federal legislators, as well as officers of the United States, shall be bound by oath or affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” This provision, known as the “religious test clause,” ensured that religious orthodoxy could not be imposed as a requirement for governance, a further protection of the freedom of thought (or, in this case, its closely related cousin, the freedom of conscience). The Constitution also gives special protection against the crime of treason, by defining it to exclude thought crimes and providing special evidentiary protections:

Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying war against them, or in adhering to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort. No person shall be convicted of treason unless on the testimony of two witnesses to the same overt act, or on confession in open court.

By eliminating religious tests and by defining the crime of treason as one of guilty actions rather than merely guilty minds, the Constitution was thus steadfastly part of the tradition giving exceptional protection to the freedom of thought.

Nevertheless, even when governments could not directly coerce the uniformity of beliefs, a person’s thoughts remained relevant to both law and social control. A person’s thoughts could reveal political or religious disloyalty, or they could be relevant to a defendant’s mental state in committing a crime or other legal wrong. And while thoughts could not be revealed directly, they could be discovered by indirect means. For example, thoughts could be inferred either from a person’s testimony or confessions, or by access to their papers and diaries. But both the English common law and the American Bill of Rights came to protect against these intrusions into the freedom of the mind as well.

The most direct way to obtain knowledge about a person’s thoughts would be to haul him before a magistrate as a witness and ask him under penalty of law. The English ecclesiastical courts used the “oath ex officio” for precisely this purpose. But as historian Leonard Levy has explained, this practice came under assault in Britain as invading the freedom of thought and belief. As the eminent jurist Lord Coke later declared, “no free man should be compelled to answer for his secret thoughts and opinions.” The practice of the oath was ultimately abolished in England in the cases of John Lilburne and John Entick, men who were political dissidents rather than religious heretics.

In the new United States, the Fifth Amendment guarantee that “No person . . . shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself ” can also be seen as a resounding rejection of this sort of practice in favor of the freedom of thought. Law of course evolves, and current Fifth Amendment doctrine focuses on the consequences of a confession rather than on mental privacy, but the origins of the Fifth Amendment are part of a broad commitment to freedom of thought that runs through our law. The late criminal law scholar William Stuntz has shown that this tradition was not merely a procedural protection for all, but a substantive limitation on the power of the state to force its enemies to reveal their unpopular or heretical thoughts. As he put the point colorfully, “[i]t is no coincidence that the privilege’s origins read like a catalogue of religious and political persecution.”

Another way to obtain a person’s thoughts would be by reading their diaries or other papers. Consider the Fourth Amendment, which protects a person from unreasonable searches and seizures by the police:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

Today we think about the Fourth Amendment as providing protection for the home and the person chiefly against unreasonable searches for contraband like guns or drugs. But the Fourth Amendment’s origins come not from drug cases but as a bulwark against intellectual surveillance by the state. In the eighteenth century, the English Crown had sought to quash political and religious dissent through the use of “general warrants,” legal documents that gave agents of the Crown the authority to search the homes of suspected dissidents for incriminating papers.

Perhaps the most infamous dissident of the time was John Wilkes. Wilkes was a progressive critic of Crown policy and a political rogue whose public tribulations, wit, and famed personal ugliness made him a celebrity throughout the English-speaking world. Wilkes was the editor of a progressive newspaper, the North Briton, a member of Parliament, and an outspoken critic of government policy. He was deeply critical of the 1763 Treaty of Paris ending the Seven Years War with France, a conflict known in North America as the French and Indian War. Wilkes’s damning articles angered King George, who ordered the arrest of Wilkes and his co-publishers of the North Briton, authorizing general warrants to search their papers for evidence of treason and sedition. The government ransacked numerous private homes and printers’ shops, scrutinizing personal papers for any signs of incriminating evidence. In all, forty-nine people were arrested, and Wilkes himself was charged with seditious libel, prompting a long and inconclusive legal battle of suits and countersuits.

By taking a stand against the king and intrusive searches, Wilkes became a cause célèbre among Britons at home and in the colonies. This was particularly true for many American colonists, whose own objections to British tax policy following the Treaty of Paris culminated in the American Revolution. The rebellious colonists drew from the Wilkes case the importance of political dissent as well as the need to protect dissenting citizens from unreasonable (and politically motivated) searches and seizures.

The Fourth Amendment was intended to address this problem by inscribing legal protection for “persons, houses, papers, and effects” into the Bill of Rights. A government that could not search the homes and read the papers of its citizens would be less able to engage in intellectual tyranny and enforce intellectual orthodoxy. In a pre-electronic world, the Fourth Amendment kept out the state, while trespass and other property laws kept private parties out of our homes, paper, and effects.

The Fourth and Fifth Amendments thus protect the freedom of thought at their core. As Stuntz explains, the early English cases estab- lishing these principles were “classic First Amendment cases in a system with no First Amendment.” Even in a legal regime without protection for dissidents who expressed unpopular political or religious opinions, the English system protected those dissidents in their private beliefs, as well as the papers and other documents that might reveal those beliefs.

In American law, an even stronger protection for freedom of thought can be found in the First Amendment. Although the First Amendment text speaks of free speech, press, and assembly, the freedom of thought is unquestionably at the core of these guarantees, and courts and scholars have consistently recognized this fact. In fact, the freedom of thought and belief is the closest thing to an absolute right guaranteed by the Constitution. The Supreme Court first recognized it in the 1878 Mormon polygamy case of Reynolds v. United States, which ruled that although law could regulate religiously inspired actions such as polygamy, it was powerless to control “mere religious belief and opinions.” Freedom of thought in secular matters was identified by Justices Holmes and Brandeis as part of their dissenting tradition in free speech cases in the 1910s and 1920s. Holmes declared crisply in United States v. Schwimmer that “if there is any principle of the Constitution that more imperatively calls for attachment than any other it is the principle of free thought—not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate.” And in his dissent in the Fourth Amendment wiretapping case of Olmstead v. United States, Brandeis argued that the framers of the Constitution “sought to protect Americans in their beliefs, their thoughts, their emotions and their sensations.” Brandeis’s dissent in Olmstead adapted his theory of tort privacy into federal constitutional law around the principle of freedom of thought.

Freedom of thought became permanently enshrined in constitutional law during a series of mid-twentieth century cases that charted the contours of the modern First Amendment. In Palko v. Connecticut, Justice Cardozo characterized freedom of thought as “the matrix, the indispensable condition, of nearly every other form of freedom.” And in a series of cases involving Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Court developed a theory of the First Amendment under which the rights of free thought, speech, press, and exercise of religion were placed in a “preferred position.” Freedom of thought was central to this new theory of the First Amendment, exemplified by Justice Jackson’s opinion in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, which invalidated a state regulation requiring that public school children salute the flag each morning. Jackson declared that:

If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein. . . .

[The flag-salute statute] transcends constitutional limitations on [legislative] power and invades the sphere of intellect and spirit which it is the purpose of the First Amendment to our Constitution to reserve from all official control.

Modern cases continue to reflect this legacy. The Court has repeatedly declared that the constitutional guarantee of freedom of thought is at the foundation of what it means to have a free society. In particular, freedom of thought has been invoked as a principal justification for preventing punishment based upon possessing or reading dangerous media. Thus, the government cannot punish a person for merely possessing unpopular or dangerous books or images based upon their content. As Alexander Meiklejohn put it succinctly, the First Amendment protects, first and foremost, “the thinking process of the community.”

Freedom of thought thus remains, as it has for centuries, the foundation of the Anglo-American tradition of civil liberties. It is also the core of intellectual privacy.

“The New Home of Mind”

“Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind.” So began “A Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace,” a 1996 manifesto responding to the Communications Decency Act and other attempts by government to regulate the online world and stamp out indecency. The Declaration’s author was John Perry Barlow, a founder of the influential Electronic Frontier Foundation and a former lyricist for the Grateful Dead. Barlow argued that “[c]yberspace consists of transactions, relationships, and thought itself, arrayed like a standing wave in the web of our communications. Ours is a world that is both everywhere and nowhere, but it is not where bodies live.” This definition of the Internet as a realm of pure thought was quickly followed by an affirmation of the importance of the freedom of thought. Barlow insisted that in Cyberspace “anyone, anywhere may express his or her beliefs, no matter how singular, without fear of being coerced into silence or conformity.” The Declaration concluded on the same theme: “We will spread ourselves across the Planet so that no one can arrest our thoughts. We will create a civilization of the Mind in Cyberspace. May it be more humane and fair than the world your governments have made before.”

In his Declaration, Barlow joined a tradition of many (including many of the most important thinkers and creators of the digital world) who have expressed the idea that networked computing can be a place of “thought itself.” As early as 1960, the great computing visionary J. C. R. Licklider imagined that “in not too many years, human brains and computing machines will be coupled together very tightly, and that the resulting partnership will think as no human brain has ever thought.” Tim Berners-Lee, the architect of the World Wide Web, envisioned his creation as one that would bring “the workings of society closer to the workings of our minds.”

Barlow’s utopian demand that governments leave the electronic realm alone was only partially successful. The Communications Decency Act was, as we have seen, struck down by the Supreme Court, but today many laws regulate the Internet, such as the U.S. Digital Millenium Copyright Act6and the EU Data Retention Directive. The Internet has become more (and less) than Barlow’s utopian vision—a place of business as well as of thinking. But Barlow’s description of the Internet as a world of the mind remains resonant today.

It is undeniable that today millions of people use computers as aids to their thinking. In the digital age, computers are an essential and intertwined supplement to our thoughts and our memories. Discussing Licklider’s prophesy from half a century ago, legal scholar Tim Wu notes that virtually every computer “program we use is a type of thinking aid—whether the task is to remember things (an address book), to organize prose (a word processor), or to keep track of friends (social network software).” These technologies have become not just aids to thought but also part of the thinking process itself. In the past, we invented paper and books, and then sound and video recordings to preserve knowledge and make it easier for us as individuals and societies to remember information. Digital technologies have made remembering even easier, by providing cheap storage, inexpensive retrieval, and global reach. Consider the Kindle, a cheap electronic reader that can hold 1,100 books, or even cheaper external hard drives that can hold hundreds of hours of high-definition video in a box the size of a paperback novel.

Even the words we use to describe our digital products and experiences reflect our understanding that computers and cyberspace are devices and places of the mind. IBM has famously called its laptops “ThinkPads,” and many of us use “smartphones.” Other technologies have been named in ways that affirm their status as tools of the mind—notebooks, ultrabooks, tablets, and browsers. Apple Computer produces iPads and MacBooks and has long sold its products under the slogan, “Think Different.” Google historian John Battelle has famously termed Google’s search records to be a “database of intentions.” Google’s own slogan for its web browser Chrome is “browse the web as fast as you think,” revealing how web browsing itself is not just a form of reading, but a kind of thinking itself. My point here is not just that common usage or marketing slogans connect Internet use to thinking, but a more important one: Our use of these words reflects a reality. We are increasingly using digital technologies not just as aids to our memories but also as an essential part of the ways we think.

Search engines in particular bear a special connection to the processes of thought. How many of us have asked a factual question among friends, only for smartphones to appear as our friends race to see who can look up the answer the fastest? In private, we use search engines to learn about the world. If you have a moment, pull up your own search history on your phone, tablet, or computer, and recall your past queries. It usually makes for interesting reading—a history of your thoughts and wonderings.

But the ease with which we can pull up such a transcript reveals another fundamental feature of digital technologies—they are designed to create records of their use. Think again about the profile a search engine like Google has for you. A transcript of search queries and links followed is a close approximation to a transcript of the operation of your mind. In the logs of search engine companies are vast repositories of intellectual wonderings, questions asked, and mental whims followed. Similar logs exist for Internet service providers and other new technology companies. And the data contained in such logs is eagerly sought by government and private entities interested in monitoring intellectual activity, whether for behavioral advertising, crime and terrorism prevention, and possibly other, more sinister purposes.

Searching Is Thinking

With these two points in mind—the importance of freedom of thought and the idea of the Internet as a place where thought occurs—we can now return to the Google Search Subpoena with which this chapter opened. Judge Ware’s opinion revealed an intuitive understanding that the disclosure of search records was threatening to privacy, but was not clear about what kind of privacy was involved or why it matters.

Intellectual privacy, in particular the freedom of thought, supplies the answer to this problem. We use search engines to learn about and make sense of the world, to answer our questions, and as aids to our thinking. Searching, then, in a very real sense is a kind of thinking. And we have a long tradition of protecting the privacy and confidentiality of our thoughts from the scrutiny of others. It is precisely because of the importance of search records to human thought that the Justice Department wanted to access the records. But if our search records were more public, we wouldn’t merely be exposed to embarrassment like Thelma Arnold of Lilburn, Georgia. We would be less likely to search for unpopular or deviant or dangerous topics. Yet in a free society, we need to be able to think freely about any ideas, no matter how dangerous or unpopular. If we care about freedom of thought—and our political institutions are built on the assumption that we do—we should care about the privacy of electronic records that reveal our thoughts. Search records illustrate the point well, but this idea is not just limited to that one important technology. My argument about freedom of thought in the digital age is this: Any technology that we use in our thinking implicates our intellectual privacy, and if we want to preserve our ability to think fearlessly, free of monitoring, interference, or repercussion, we should embody these technologies with a meaningful measure of intellectual privacy.

Excerpted from “Intellectual Privacy: Rethinking Civil Liberties in the Digital Age” by Neil Richards. Published by Oxford University Press. Copyright 2015 by Neil Richards. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

Neil Richards is a Professor of Law at Washington University, where he teaches and writes about privacy, free speech, and the digital revolution.

Banksy filmed himself sneaking into Gaza to paint new artwork

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World-renowned street artist Banksy released a 2-minute video on his website this week that delivers an eye-opening view of life behind the guarded walls of the Gaza Strip.

The video, “Make this the year YOU discover a new destination,” invites viewers to witness the devastation of war-torn Gaza and the tribulation of the Palestinian population cordoned within its borders.

The satirical mini-documentary, which is set to the legendary East Flatbush Project’s “Tried by 12,” presents itself as an advertisement for world travelers. It begins by showing an individual, presumably Banksy himself, entering Gaza by climbing through what’s parenthetically described as an illegal network of tunnels. “Well away from the tourist track,” the caption reads.

Exiting one of the dark tunnels, Banksy ascends into the bombed-out region and is greeted by children playing amid piles of rubble. “The locals like it so much they never leave,” the video says. Cutting to a scrum of Israeli Defense Force (IDF) soldiers, it continues: “Because they’re never allowed to.

 

The video captures four of the mysterious artist’s new pieces. The first, titled “Bomb Damage,” is painted on a door defiantly erect at the facade of a destroyed building. Potentially inspired by Rodin’s “The Thinker,” it shows a man knelt over in apparent agony. Another depicts one of the Israeli guard towers along the separation wall transformed into an amusement park swing carousel. The third and largest piece is a white cat with a pink bow measuring roughly 3 meters high; its paw hovering above a twisted ball of scrap metal like a ball of yarn.

“A local man came up and said ‘Please – what does this mean?’ I explained I wanted to highlight the destruction in Gaza by posting photos on my website – but on the internet people only look at pictures of kittens.”

“This cat tells the world that she is missing joy in her life,” a Palestinian man resting nearby speaks in Arabic to the camera. “The cat found something to play with. What about our children?”

The fourth and final piece is simple red paint on a wall. It reads: “If we wash our hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless we side with the powerful—we don’t remain neutral.”

According to the video, much of the recorded destruction is the result of “Operation Protective Edge,” a July 2014 Israeli military campaign, the stated of goal of which was to prevent Hamas rocket fire from entering Israeli territory.

During the seven weeks of airstrikes, Gaza suffered up to 2,300 casualties, including 513 children; 66 Israeli soldiers and 5 civilians were also killed. Up to 7,000 Palestinian homes were complete destroyed, and another 10,000 severely damaged, according to the United Nations. Over half a million people were displaced by the conflict. By some estimates, rebuilding Gaza City could cost in excess of $6 billion and take more than 20 years.

Banksy isn’t new to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In 2005, he painted nine pieces along the 425-mile West Bank Wall, the barrier which separates Palestine and Israel.

Screenshot via Banksy/YouTube

http://www.dailydot.com/politics/banksy-new-gaza-artwork/?fb=dd

Rightist mayor faces coup charges as Venezuela’s crisis deepens

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By Bill Van Auken
25 February 2015

Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro has faced widespread international condemnation, but only scattered and minor right-wing protests in the country itself, over the arrest last week of Antonio Ledezma, the mayor of metropolitan Caracas, on charges of conspiracy to overthrow the government.

Joining the usual denunciations from the State Department in Washington or the right-wing governments of President Juan Manuel Santos in neighboring Colombia and President Mariano Rajoy in Spain, was, for example, the leader of the Spanish petty-bourgeois pseudo-left Podemos party, Pablo Iglesias.

The Obama administration has signaled its intentions to ratchet up pressure on the Maduro government. Last Friday, White House spokesman Josh Earnest, asked whether Washington was contemplating new sanctions against Venezuela, responded: “The Treasury Department and the State Department are closely monitoring the situation and are considering tools that may be available that can better steer the Venezuelan government in the direction that they believe they should be headed.”

On Tuesday, the New York Times published an editorial that largely echoed the assertions the day before by the State Department spokesperson that the charges that Ledezma was involved in a US-backed coup conspiracy were “ludicrous.”

The Times called the accusations a “fabricated pretext” and “outlandish,” dismissing talk of a coup as “Mr. Maduro’s conspiracy theories.”

One would hardly guess that the US backed an abortive coup by sections of Venezuela’s capitalist ruling establishment and the military against Maduro’s predecessor, the late Hugo Chavez, as recently as 2002, or that the Timesitself enthusiastically supported the overthrow of the country’s elected president. It noted approvingly at the time that “the military intervened and handed power to a respected business leader.” Within less than 48 hours, massive popular demonstrations sent the business leader, Pedro Carmona, packing and put Chavez back into the presidential palace.

Ledezma, one of the “dinosaurs” of the Venezuelan right, was an active supporter of the coup 13 years ago. He was also one of the principal figures of the country’s “hard right” who organized the so-called “ salida ” (exit) campaign last year aimed at bringing down Maduro—who won the election as president in April 2013—by means of street violence. These clashes claimed the lives of 43 people.

The corporate media is portraying Ledezma’s arrest on conspiracy charges as merely a response to his decision to sign an open letter calling for a “national agreement for a transition,” which advocates a renewed campaign for the extra-constitutional ouster of Maduro.

In fact, the Venezuelan government claims evidence identifying Ledezma as a key backer of fascist youth leader Lorent Saleh, who was extradited to Venezuela from Colombia to face charges of working with ultra-rightist Colombian mercenaries to organize terrorist attacks and assassinations in Venezuela. Saleh’s group, Operation Liberty, is funded through an NGO that, in turn, receives funding from the US Agency for International Development.

Also linked to plots to overthrow the government are several Venezuelan military officers, including three senior members of the air force arrested last year.

Maduro and his supporters in the ruling PUSV (United Socialist Party of Venezuela) have made defiant statements countering international criticism and vowing to employ an “iron hand” against coup plotters.

This rhetoric, however, is belied by other actions and gestures that make clear the Maduro government is attempting to accommodate itself to the main forces that pose the threat of a coup—the Venezuelan financial elite, US imperialism and the military—while attempting to shift the burden of the country’s deepening economic crisis onto the backs of the working class.

Among the more extraordinary examples of this duplicity came in a speech delivered by Maduro Monday, in which he called upon Barack Obama to “rectify” his administration’s policy toward Venezuela and said the problem was that the US president had been misled “by evil and deceitful advisors.”

Meanwhile, the government has strengthened the powers of the military, which constitutes a central pillar of the so-called Bolivarian Revolution. Fully 11 out of 32 governorships and eight federal ministries are headed by active or retired military officers. Reports of defections and dissension within the top ranks of the armed forces pose the greatest threat of a coup, but these forces already control much of the state apparatus. To the extent that Maduro is seen as no longer effective in defending their interests and containing popular unrest, the military command could move against him.

Then there is the commanding strata of the Venezuelan bourgeoisie. Recently released figures indicate that these layers are continuing to enrich themselves under conditions in which the vast majority of the population confronts declining living standards and mounting layoffs.

Venezuela’s national financial system recorded profits amounting to $1.3 billion in January of this year, a 55.23 percent increase over the same period a year ago, maintaining the country’s status as one of the most profitable for the global banks.

Venezuela’s real economy, however, is in sharp decline, driven by the halving of the price of oil, which accounts for 96 percent of the country’s exports. The country’s reserves for imports have been slashed to $29 billion this year, one third of what they were two years ago.

Financial analysts estimate that the government is confronting a $14 billion budget gap that could nearly double if oil prices remain at their current levels for the rest of this year. There is growing speculation that the government could be forced into a default on its debt obligations if these conditions persist.

With inflation approaching 70 percent, the government has eased currency controls and allowed price increases on basic necessities, including beef and chicken. Shortages and lines of those seeking basic commodities remain ubiquitous. A rise in gasoline prices, which are heavily subsidized, is expected imminently. It was such an increase in fuel costs that triggered the eruption of the Caraczo, the 1989 mass rebellion that led to the deaths of as many as 3,000 people.

The Venezuelan right, representing sections of the ruling capitalists who see their interests better served through a closer semi-colonial relation with US capital and a brutal crackdown on the working class, is seeking to exploit the economic crisis to further its drive to oust the Maduro government. For its part, the Maduro government, which represents a layer of wealthy state officials, the military command and the so-called boliburguesia, which has enriched itself off of oil revenues and financial speculation, is exploiting these reactionary maneuvers to divert attention from its own turn toward austerity policies aimed against the working class and to seek to rally support on the basis of nationalism.

This has gone hand-in-hand with the suppression of independent struggles of the Venezuelan workers, including the jailing of workers who have organized strikes, protests and worker assemblies independent of the unions affiliated to the ruling party.

Venezuelan workers cannot advance their interests or defend themselves against the very real threat of a militarized crackdown by lining up behind either of these feuding factions of the ruling establishment. The working class can find a progressive way out of the present crisis only by establishing its political independence from the government and the ruling PSUV and fighting for a workers’ government and a genuine socialist transformation of Venezuelan society as part of a unified struggle of the working class throughout the Americas.

 

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2015/02/25/vene-f25.html

The 21st century belongs to China

Why the new Silk Road threatens to end America’s economic dominance

Beijing is building a trans-Siberian railway system that rivals the Marshall Plan in its ambition and global reach

The 21st century belongs to China: Why the new Silk Road threatens to end America's economic dominance
Performers show the dragon dance during a night parade to celebrate Chinese New Year in Hong Kong, Thursday, Feb. 19, 2015. (Credit: AP/Vincent Yu)
This piece originally appeared on TomDispatch.

BEIJING — Seen from the Chinese capital as the Year of the Sheep starts, the malaise affecting the West seems like a mirage in a galaxy far, far away. On the other hand, the China that surrounds you looks all too solid and nothing like the embattled nation you hear about in the Western media, with its falling industrial figures, its real estate bubble, and its looming environmental disasters. Prophecies of doom notwithstanding, as the dogs of austerity and war bark madly in the distance, the Chinese caravan passes by in what President Xi Jinping calls “new normal” mode.

“Slower” economic activity still means a staggeringly impressive annual growth rate of 7% in what is now the globe’s leading economy. Internally, an immensely complex economic restructuring is underway as consumption overtakes investment as the main driver of economic development. At 46.7% of the gross domestic product (GDP), the service economy has pulled ahead of manufacturing, which stands at 44%.

Geopolitically, Russia, India, and China have just sent a powerful message westward: they are busy fine-tuning a complex trilateral strategy for setting up a network of economic corridors the Chinese call “new silk roads” across Eurasia. Beijing is also organizing a maritime version of the same, modeled on the feats of Admiral Zheng He who, in the Ming dynasty, sailed the “western seas” seven times, commanding fleets of more than 200 vessels.

Meanwhile, Moscow and Beijing are at work planning a new high-speed rail remix of the fabled Trans-Siberian Railroad. And Beijing is committed to translating its growing strategic partnership with Russia into crucial financial and economic help, if a sanctions-besieged Moscow, facing a disastrous oil price war, asks for it.



To China’s south, Afghanistan, despite the 13-year American war still being fought there, is fast moving into its economic orbit, while a planned China-Myanmar oil pipeline is seen as a game-changing reconfiguration of the flow of Eurasian energy across what I’ve long called Pipelineistan.

And this is just part of the frenetic action shaping what the Beijing leadership defines as the New Silk Road Economic Belt and the Maritime Silk Road of the twenty-first century. We’re talking about a vision of creating a potentially mind-boggling infrastructure, much of it from scratch, that will connect China to Central Asia, the Middle East, and Western Europe. Such a development will include projects that range from upgrading the ancient silk road via Central Asia to developing a Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar economic corridor; a China-Pakistan corridor through Kashmir; and a new maritime silk road that will extend from southern China all the way, in reverse Marco Polo fashion, to Venice.

Don’t think of this as the twenty-first-century Chinese equivalent of America’s post-World War II Marshall Plan for Europe, but as something far more ambitious and potentially with a far vaster reach.

China as a Mega-City

If you are following this frenzy of economic planning from Beijing, you end up with a perspective not available in Europe or the U.S. Here, red-and-gold billboards promote President Xi Jinping’s much ballyhooed new tagline for the country and the century, “the Chinese Dream” (which brings to mind “the American Dream” of another era). No subway station is without them. They are a reminder of why 40,000 miles of brand new high-speed rail is considered so essential to the country’s future. After all, no less than 300 million Chinese have, in the last three decades, made a paradigm-breaking migration from the countryside to exploding urban areas in search of that dream.

Another 350 million are expected to be on the way, according to a McKinsey Global Institute study. From 1980 to 2010, China’s urban population grew by 400 million, leaving the country with at least 700 million urban dwellers. This figure is expected to hit one billion by 2030, which means tremendous stress on cities, infrastructure, resources, and the economy as a whole, as well as near-apocalyptic air pollution levels in some major cities.

Already 160 Chinese cities boast populations of more than one million. (Europe has only 35.) No less than 250 Chinese cities have tripled their GDP per capita since 1990, while disposable income per capita is up by 300%.

These days, China should be thought of not in terms of individual cities but urban clusters — groupings of cities with more than 60 million people. The Beijing-Tianjin area, for example, is actually a cluster of 28 cities. Shenzhen, the ultimate migrant megacity in the southern province of Guangdong, is now a key hub in a cluster as well. China, in fact, has more than 20 such clusters, each the size of a European country. Pretty soon, the main clusters will account for 80% of China’s GDP and 60% of its population. So the country’s high-speed rail frenzy and its head-spinning infrastructure projects – part of a $1.1 trillion investment in 300 public works — are all about managing those clusters.

Not surprisingly, this process is intimately linked to what in the West is considered a notorious “housing bubble,” which in 1998 couldn’t have even existed. Until then all housing was still owned by the state. Once liberalized, that housing market sent a surging Chinese middle class into paroxysms of investment. Yet with rare exceptions, middle-class Chinese can still afford their mortgages because both rural and urban incomes have also surged.

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is, in fact, paying careful attention to this process, allowing farmers to lease or mortgage their land, among other things, and so finance their urban migration and new housing. Since we’re talking about hundreds of millions of people, however, there are bound to be distortions in the housing market, even the creation of whole disastrous ghost towns with associated eerie, empty malls.

The Chinese infrastructure frenzy is being financed by a pool of investments from central and local government sources, state-owned enterprises, and the private sector. The construction business, one of the country’s biggest employers, involves more than 100 million people, directly or indirectly. Real estate accounts for as much as 22% of total national investment in fixed assets and all of this is tied to the sale of consumer appliances, furnishings, and an annual turnover of 25% of China’s steel production, 70% of its cement, 70% of its plate glass, and 25% of its plastics.

So no wonder, on my recent stay in Beijing, businessmen kept assuring me that the ever-impending “popping” of the “housing bubble” is, in fact, a myth in a country where, for the average citizen, the ultimate investment is property. In addition, the vast urbanization drive ensures, as Premier Li Keqiang stressed at the recent World Economic Forum in Davos, a “long-term demand for housing.”

Markets, Markets, Markets

China is also modifying its manufacturing base, which increased by a multiple of 18 in the last three decades. The country still produces 80% of the world’s air conditioners, 90% of its personal computers, 75% of its solar panels, 70% of its cell phones, and 63% of its shoes. Manufacturing accounts for 44% of Chinese GDP, directly employing more than 130 million people. In addition, the country already accounts for 12.8% of global research and development, well ahead of England and most of Western Europe.

Yet the emphasis is now switching to a fast-growing domestic market, which will mean yet more major infrastructural investment, the need for an influx of further engineering talent, and a fast-developing supplier base. Globally, as China starts to face new challenges — rising labor costs, an increasingly complicated global supply chain, and market volatility — it is also making an aggressive push to move low-tech assembly to high-tech manufacturing. Already, the majority of Chinese exports are smartphones, engine systems, and cars (with planes on their way). In the process, a geographic shift in manufacturing is underway from the southern seaboard to Central and Western China. The city of Chengdu in the southwestern province of Sichuan, for instance, is now becoming a high-tech urban cluster as it expands around firms like Intel and HP.

So China is boldly attempting to upgrade in manufacturing terms, both internally and globally at the same time. In the past, Chinese companies have excelled in delivering the basics of life at cheap prices and acceptable quality levels. Now, many companies are fast upgrading their technology and moving up into second- and first-tier cities, while foreign firms, trying to lessen costs, are moving down to second- and third-tier cities. Meanwhile, globally, Chinese CEOs want their companies to become true multinationals in the next decade. The country already has 73 companies in the Fortune Global 500, leaving it in the number two spot behind the U.S.

In terms of Chinese advantages, keep in mind that the future of the global economy clearly lies in Asia with its record rise in middle-class incomes. In 2009, the Asia-Pacific region had just 18% of the world’s middle class; by 2030, according to the Development Center of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, that figure will rise to an astounding 66%. North America and Europe had 54% of the global middle class in 2009; in 2030, it will only be 21%.

Follow the money, and the value you get for that money, too. For instance, no less than 200,000 Chinese workers were involved in the production of the first iPhone, overseen by 8,700 Chinese industrial engineers. They were recruited in only two weeks. In the U.S., that process might have taken more than nine months. The Chinese manufacturing ecosystem is indeed fast, flexible, and smart — and it’s backed by an ever more impressive education system. Since 1998, the percentage of GDP dedicated to education has almost tripled; the number of colleges has doubled; and in only a decade, China has built the largest higher education system in the world.

Strengths and Weaknesses

China holds more than $15 trillion in bank deposits, which are growing by a whopping $2 trillion a year. Foreign exchange reserves are nearing $4 trillion. A definitive study of how this torrent of funds circulates within China among projects, companies, financial institutions, and the state still does not exist. No one really knows, for instance, how many loans the Agricultural Bank of China actually makes. High finance, state capitalism, and one-party rule all mix and meld in the realm of Chinese financial services where realpolitik meets real big money.

The big four state-owned banks — the Bank of China, the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, the China Construction Bank, and the Agricultural Bank of China — have all evolved from government organizations into semi-corporate state-owned entities. They benefit handsomely both from legacy assets and government connections, or guanxi, and operate with a mix of commercial and government objectives in mind. They are the drivers to watch when it comes to the formidable process of reshaping the Chinese economic model.

As for China’s debt-to-GDP ratio, it’s not yet a big deal. In a list of 17 countries, it lies well below those of Japan and the U.S., according to Standard Chartered Bank, and unlike in the West, consumer credit is only a small fraction of total debt. True, the West exhibits a particular fascination with China’s shadow banking industry: wealth management products, underground finance, off-the-balance-sheet lending. But such operations only add up to around 28% of GDP, whereas, according to the International Monetary Fund, it’s a much higher percentage in the U.S.

China’s problems may turn out to come from non-economic areas where the Beijing leadership has proven far more prone to false moves. It is, for instance, on the offensive on three fronts, each of which may prove to have its own form of blowback: tightening ideological control over the country under the rubric of sidelining “Western values”; tightening control overonline information and social media networks, including reinforcing “the Great Firewall of China” to police the Internet; and tightening further its control over restive ethnic minorities, especially over the Uighurs in the key western province of Xinjiang.

On two of these fronts — the “Western values” controversy and Internet control — the leadership in Beijing might reap far more benefits, especially among the vast numbers of younger, well educated, globally connected citizens, by promoting debate, but that’s not how the hyper-centralized Chinese Communist Party machinery works.

When it comes to those minorities in Xinjiang, the essential problem may not be with the new guiding principles of President Xi’s ethnic policy. According to Beijing-based analyst Gabriele Battaglia, Xi wants to manage ethnic conflict there by applying the “three Js”: jiaowang, jiaoliu, jiaorong (“inter-ethnic contact,” “exchange,” and “mixage”). Yet what adds up to a push from Beijing for Han/Uighur assimilation may mean little in practice when day-to-day policy in Xinjiang is conducted by unprepared Han cadres who tend to view most Uighurs as “terrorists.”

If Beijing botches the handling of its Far West, Xinjiang won’t, as expected, become the peaceful, stable, new hub of a crucial part of the silk-road strategy. Yet it is already considered an essential communication link in Xi’s vision of Eurasian integration, as well as a crucial conduit for the massive flow of energy supplies from Central Asia and Russia. The Central Asia-China pipeline, for instance, which brings natural gas from the Turkmen-Uzbek border through Uzbekistan and southern Kazakhstan, is already adding a fourth line to Xinjiang. And one of the two newly agreed upon Russia-China pipelines will also arrive in Xinjiang.

The Book of Xi

The extent and complexity of China’s myriad transformations barely filter into the American media. Stories in the U.S. tend to emphasize the country’s “shrinking” economy and nervousness about its future global role, the way it has “duped” the U.S. about its designs, and its nature as a military “threat” to Washington and the world.

The U.S. media has a China fever, which results in typically feverish reports that don’t take the pulse of the country or its leader. In the process, so much is missed. One prescription might be for them to read The Governance of China, a compilation of President Xi’s major speeches, talks, interviews, and correspondence. It’s already a three-million-copy bestseller in its Mandarin edition and offers a remarkably digestible vision of what Xi’s highly proclaimed “China Dream” will mean in the new Chinese century.

Xi Dada (“Xi Big Bang” as he’s nicknamed here) is no post-Mao deity. He’s more like a pop phenomenon and that’s hardly surprising. In this “to get rich is glorious” remix, you couldn’t launch the superhuman task of reshaping the Chinese model by being a cold-as-a-cucumber bureaucrat. Xi has instead struck a collective nerve by stressing that the country’s governance must be based on competence, not insider trading and Party corruption, and he’s cleverly packaged the transformation he has in mind as an American-style “dream.”

Behind the pop star clearly lies a man of substance that the Western media should come to grips with. You don’t, after all, manage such an economic success story by accident. It may be particularly important to take his measure since he’s taken the measure of Washington and the West and decided that China’s fate and fortune lie elsewhere.

As a result, last November he made official an earthshaking geopolitical shift. From now on, Beijing would stop treating the U.S. or the European Union as its main strategic priority and refocus instead on China’s Asian neighbors and fellow BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, and South Africa, with a special focus on Russia), also known here as the “major developing powers” (kuoda fazhanzhong de guojia). And just for the record, China does not consider itself a “developing country” anymore.

No wonder there’s been such a blitz of Chinese mega-deals and mega-dealings across Pipelineistan recently. Under Xi, Beijing is fast closing the gap on Washington in terms of intellectual and economic firepower and yet its global investment offensive has barely begun, new silk roads included.

Singapore’s former foreign minister George Yeo sees the newly emerging world order as a solar system with two suns, the United States and China. The Obama administration’s new National Security Strategy affirms that “the United States has been and will remain a Pacific power” and states that “while there will be competition, we reject the inevitability of confrontation” with Beijing. The “major developing powers,” intrigued as they are by China’s extraordinary infrastructural push, both internally and across those New Silk Roads, wonder whether a solar system with two suns might not be a non-starter. The question then is: Which “sun” will shine on Planet Earth?  Might this, in fact, be the century of the dragon?

US slaughter in Afghanistan rages on

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24 February 2015

Less than two months after President Barack Obama announced an end to US combat operations in Afghanistan, top Pentagon officials have made it clear that these murderous operations are not only continuing, they are escalating, while plans for the withdrawal of American troops are being reconsidered.

At the end of last year, the American president declared that “the longest war in American history is coming to a responsible conclusion.” He added that the drawdown of US forces marked “a milestone for our country.”

But the war in Afghanistan rages on, with mounting evidence that more than 13 years of US military occupation—dubbed “Operation Enduring Freedom”—have produced only a debacle for US foreign policy and a humanitarian catastrophe for the impoverished Afghan population.

The longest war in US history has claimed the lives of 2,356 American troops and left another 20,066 wounded, the vast majority of these casualties having taken place during the administration of Barack Obama. The current president promoted the intervention in Afghanistan as the “good war” and more than tripled the number of US soldiers and Marines fighting it. The cost to the US economy is estimated at somewhere between $750 billion and several trillion dollars.

In his speech last December, Obama claimed that 13 years of US war and occupation had succeeded in “devastating the core Al Qaeda leadership, delivering justice to Osama bin Laden, disrupting terrorist plots and saving countless American lives.” They had as well “helped the Afghan people reclaim their communities” and “take the lead for their own security.”

This glowing assessment was given a different spin last week when newly installed Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said that Washington wanted to make sure that “the Afghans themselves are able to preserve the environment which our forces have created over the last few years—one of relative security and stability.” As a result, he said, Washington was “rethinking” its “counterterrorism” operations, as well as its stated troop withdrawal timetable.

Carter’s talk of “relative security and stability” is hogwash. All indications are that the US puppet regime in Kabul is confronting a catastrophe, and that its patrons in Washington are convinced that only an escalation of the slaughter can reverse ever more threatening trends and prevent a Vietnam-style rout.

There are presently some 10,000 US troops in Afghanistan, along with an estimated 20,000 military contractors and several hundred CIA operatives. While Obama claims to have ended US combat operations in the country, his administration has ordered a sharp increase in night assassination raids by American special forces troops against Afghan villages, as well as stepped-up aerial bombardments of suspected insurgent targets.

Both tactics aroused intense popular hostility and were formally proscribed by former President Hamid Karzai. They have received support, however, from his successor, Ashraf Ghani, who is increasingly desperate in the face of a rising offensive by anti-regime forces.

The military escalation has exacted a brutal toll upon the Afghan civilian population. The United Nations agency for Afghanistan documented 10,548 civilian casualties last year (3,699 deaths and 6,849 injuries). This represents a 25 percent increase in the number of fatalities over the previous year and the highest number of civilian deaths and injuries since the UN began systematically recording casualties in 2009.

There are mounting signs that the US-armed and trained Afghan security forces are in a state of disintegration. The special inspector general for Afghan reconstruction (SIGAR) last month quoted Lt. Gen. Joseph Anderson, the then-commander of the US-led occupation forces, as stating that the level of casualties suffered by the Afghan forces (more than 5,000 Afghan soldiers and police were killed in 2014 alone) was “not sustainable,” nor, for that matter, was their desertion rate.

The clearest indication of the dire condition of the Afghan National Army and police was the recent decision by the Pentagon and NATO to classify all information on their combat capabilities as secret, after years of publicly releasing such data.

The economic and social situation confronting the country is, if anything, even more desperate. Afghanistan ranks 215th in the world in terms of per capita income, with close to half of the population living in dire poverty. The economy has begun to contract along with the decline in the US military presence and the level of foreign aid, the main sources of revenue.

Figures given out by US agencies boasting of dramatic strides in life expectancy, education and other indices have all been called into question by international agencies, with the numbers from Washington representing little more than war propaganda.

As opposed to the fraudulent claims of progress made by the White House and the Pentagon, polls have shown that a broad majority of the American public believes the Afghanistan war was not worth waging, while just 23 percent of the US soldiers who fought there believe their campaign was successful.

The turn by the Obama administration to an escalation of military operations in Afghanistan is driven by the same predatory geostrategic interests that led to the US invasion and occupation in the first place. These were based not on concerns about terrorism, but rather the desire to assert US hegemony over the energy-rich regions of the Caspian Basin and Central Asia and position the US military closer to the borders of both Russia and China.

Within the US ruling establishment, there are growing fears that a precipitous US withdrawal will create a vacuum that will be filled by Beijing and Moscow.

The “rethinking” of US combat operations in Afghanistan is taking place amid escalating US military interventions on a world scale. Washington has announced plans for a major US-led offensive against Mosul, an Iraqi city of 1.5 million, as it continues aerial bombardments in both Iraq and Syria. Almost simultaneously, it joined Turkey in announcing plans to train thousands of Syrian “rebels” to be unleashed nominally against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), but also in a war for regime change in Syria.

In Ukraine, Washington is escalating its provocations against Moscow. The new US defense secretary has signaled his support for arming the Ukrainian regime in a war that could bring the US into direct confrontation with a nuclear-armed Russia.

At the same time, the US Navy has unveiled plans to deploy four littoral combat ships—designed for combat in coastal areas—in northeast Asia as part of the “pivot to Asia,” which includes plans to shift 60 percent of US naval assets to the region in order to confront the rise of China.

As Leon Trotsky wrote in the run-up to the Second World War, while Nazi Germany was driven to “organize” Europe, US imperialism “must ‘organize’ the world.”

“History,” he warned, “is bringing humanity face to face with the volcanic eruption of American imperialism.”

This prognosis is being powerfully confirmed in the continuing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the threat of military confrontation with Russia and China.

Bill Van Auken

 

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2015/02/24/pers-f24.html

Leaked cables show Netanyahu’s Iran bomb claim contradicted by Mossad

Gulf between Israeli secret service and PM revealed in documents shared with the Guardian along with other secrets including CIA bids to contact Hamas

Netanyahu’s Iran bomb claim contradicted by Mossad, leaked spy cables show

Binyamin Netanyahu’s dramatic declaration to world leaders in 2012 that Iranwas about a year away from making a nuclear bomb was contradicted by his own secret service, according to a top-secret Mossad document.

It is part of a cache of hundreds of dossiers, files and cables from the world’s major intelligence services – one of the biggest spy leaks in recent times.

Brandishing a cartoon of a bomb with a red line to illustrate his point, the Israeli prime minister warned the UN in New York that Iran would be able to build nuclear weapons the following year and called for action to halt the process.

But in a secret report shared with South Africa a few weeks later, Israel’s intelligence agency concluded that Iran was “not performing the activity necessary to produce weapons”. The report highlights the gulf between the public claims and rhetoric of top Israeli politicians and the assessments of Israel’s military and intelligence establishment.

An extract from the document
An extract from the document Photograph: The Guardian

The disclosure comes as tensions between Israel and its staunchest ally, the US, have dramatically increased ahead of Netanyahu’s planned address to the US Congress on 3 March.

The White House fears the Israeli leader’s anticipated inflammatory rhetoric could damage sensitive negotiations between Tehran and the world’s six big powers over Iran’s nuclear programme. The deadline to agree on a framework is in late March, with the final settlement to come on 30 June. Netanyahu has vowed to block an agreement he claims would give Iran access to a nuclear weapons capability.

The US president, Barack Obama, will not meet Netanyahu during his visit, saying protocol precludes a meeting so close to next month’s general election in Israel.

The documents, almost all marked as confidential or top secret, span almost a decade of global intelligence traffic, from 2006 to December last year. It has been leaked to the al-Jazeera investigative unit and shared with the Guardian.

The papers include details of operations against al-Qaida, Islamic State and other terrorist organisations, but also the targeting of environmental activists.

The files reveal that:

The CIA attempted to establish contact with Hamas in spite of a US ban.

South Korean intelligence targeted the leader of Greenpeace.

Barack Obama “threatened” the Palestinian president to withdraw a bid for recognition of Palestine at the UN.

South African intelligence spied on Russia over a controversial $100m joint satellite deal.

The cache, which has been independently authenticated by the Guardian, mainly involves exchanges between South Africa’s intelligence agency and its counterparts around the world. It is not the entire volume of traffic but a selective leak.

One of the biggest hauls is from Mossad. But there are also documents from Russia’s FSB, which is responsible for counter-terrorism. Such leaks of Russian material are extremely rare.

Other spy agencies caught up in the trawl include those of the US, Britain, France, Jordan, the UAE, Oman and several African nations.

The scale of the leak, coming 20 months after US whistleblower Edward Snowden handed over tens of thousands of NSA and GCHQ documents to the Guardian, highlights the increasing inability of intelligence agencies to keep their secrets secure.

While the Snowden trove revealed the scale of technological surveillance, the latest spy cables deal with espionage at street level – known to the intelligence agencies as human intelligence, or “humint”. They include surveillance reports, inter-agency information trading, disinformation and backbiting, as well as evidence of infiltration, theft and blackmail.

The leaks show how Africa is becoming increasingly important for global espionage, with the US and other western states building up their presence on the continent and China expanding its economic influence. One serving intelligence officer told the Guardian: “South Africa is the El Dorado of espionage.”

Africa has also become caught up in the US, Israeli and British covert global campaigns to stem the spread of Iranian influence, tighten sanctions and block its nuclear programme.

The Mossad briefing about Iran’s nuclear programme in 2012 was in stark contrast to the alarmist tone set by Netanyahu, who has long presented the Iranian nuclear programme as an existential threat to Israel and a huge risk to world security. The Israeli prime minister told the UN: “By next spring, at most by next summer, at current enrichment rates, they will have finished the medium enrichment and move[d] on to the final stage. From there, it’s only a few months, possibly a few weeks before they get enough enriched uranium for the first bomb.”

He said his information was not based on secret information or military intelligence but International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reports.

Behind the scenes, Mossad took a different view. In a report shared with South African spies on 22 October 2012 – but likely written earlier – it conceded that Iran was “working to close gaps in areas that appear legitimate, such as enrichment reactors, which will reduce the time required to produce weapons from the time the instruction is actually given”.

But the report also states that Iran “does not appear to be ready” to enrich uranium to the higher levels necessary for nuclear weapons. To build a bomb requires enrichment to 90%. Mossad estimated that Iran then had “about 100kg of material enriched to 20%” (which was later diluted or converted under the terms of the 2013 Geneva agreement). Iran has always said it is developing a nuclear programme for civilian energy purposes.

Last week, Netanyahu’s office repeated the claim that “Iran is closer than ever today to obtaining enriched material for a nuclear bomb” in a statement in response to an IAEA report.

A senior Israeli government official said there was no contradiction between Netanyahu’s statements on the Iranian nuclear threat and “the quotes in your story – allegedly from Israeli intelligence”. Both the prime minister and Mossad said Iran was enriching uranium in order to produce weapons, he added.

“Israel believes the proposed nuclear deal with Iran is a bad deal, for it enables the world’s foremost terror state to create capabilities to produce the elements necessary for a nuclear bomb,” he said.

However, Mossad had been at odds with Netanyahu on Iran before. The former Mossad chief Meir Dagan, who left office in December 2010, let it be known that he had opposed an order from Netanyahu to prepare a military attack on Iran.

Other members of Israel’s security establishment were riled by Netanyahu’s rhetoric on the Iranian nuclear threat and his advocacy of military confrontation. In April 2012, a former head of Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security agency, accused Netanyahu of “messianic” political leadership for pressing for military action, saying he and the then defence minister, Ehud Barak, were misleading the public on the Iran issue. Benny Gantz, the Israeli military chief of staff, said decisions on tackling Iran “must be made carefully, out of historic responsibility but without hysteria”.

There were also suspicions in Washington that Netanyahu was seeking to bounce Obama into taking a more hawkish line on Iran.

A few days before Netanyahu’s speech to the UN, the then US defence secretary, Leon Panetta, accused the Israeli prime minister of trying to force the US into a corner. “The fact is … presidents of the United States, prime ministers of Israel or any other country … don’t have, you know, a bunch of little red lines that determine their decisions,” he said.

“What they have are facts that are presented to them about what a country is up to, and then they weigh what kind of action is needed in order to deal with that situation. I mean, that’s the real world. Red lines are kind of political arguments that are used to try to put people in a corner.”

 

http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/feb/23/leaked-spy-cables-netanyahu-iran-bomb-mossad?CMP=share_btn_fb

US expands “secret war” in Afghanistan

SpecialForcesAfghanistan

By Thomas Gaist
23 February 2015

The Obama administration is considering new proposals from the Pentagon to delay troop withdrawals from Afghanistan and increase the number of US forces to be stationed in the country on a permanent basis, US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter announced this weekend during a joint conference with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.

Carter and Ghani indicated that formal arrangements for a larger long-term US troop presence, maintenance of US bases previously planned to close, and stepped up “counterterrorism” operations by US forces in Afghanistan may be finalized as early as the beginning of March.

“President Obama is considering a number of options to reinforce our support for President Ghani’s security strategy, including possible changes to the timeline for our drawdown of US troops,” Carter said.

President Ghani stressed “the comprehensive nature of the partnership” being worked out between his government and the Obama administration, adding that he was personally grateful for Obama’s executive decree in December 2014 ordering an additional 1,000 US troops to remain in the country on an indefinite basis.

More than 10,000 US troops remain in Afghanistan, and an array of US Special Forces and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) paramilitary units are continuing to carry out combat missions against alleged insurgents throughout the country.

Despite the proclamation of an official end to US combat operations in Afghanistan beginning December 31, 2014, recent weeks have seen a “significant increase in night raids” and a “tempo of operations unprecedented for this time of year,” the New York Times reported in mid-February.

“The official war for the Americans—the part of the war that you could go see—that’s over. It’s only the secret war that’s still going. But it’s going hard,” said an Afghan security official cited by the Times.

The US forces are leading the missions and directly engaging targets, “not simply going along as advisors,” the Times noted.

Assassination teams are regularly dispatched against “a broad cross section of Islamist militants,” the Times reported. The US-led death squads include elite soldiers under the command of Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security, as well as CIA paramilitary groups, US Army Rangers and Navy SEALs.

The raids represent a continuation and intensification of the counterinsurgency strategy implemented by the US during the official occupation, which sought to stabilize the US puppet government in Kabul by murdering anyone suspected of supporting armed opposition to the Karzai regime.

As early as 2005, a top US military general declared that this strategy was leading to the total defeat of the Taliban. When the Obama administration ordered the US military to add 30,000 additional troops to its overall occupation force in 2009, General Stanley McChrystal vowed that the insurgency would be defeated by 2011.

Similar assessments were made by US leaders during the occupation of and then the “surge” of troops into Iraq, along with enthusiasm about the readiness of the Iraqi national army, which has subsequently been shattered by the seizure of large sections of the country by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

Unflagging optimism of US commanders and politicians notwithstanding, the US targeted murder programs in Afghanistan have also clearly failed. Taliban forces have regained control over large portions of the country during the past year, inflicting casualties against government and US-led International Security Assistance Force coalition troops, as well as the civilian population, at the highest rate since the US occupation began in October 2001.

In the absence of substantial support from the US military, the Afghan government stands little chance of defeating the resurgent Taliban, according to experts cited by Stars and Stripes.

“The overly positive assessments are repeated so often that the leaders in the military and civilian world start to believe it,” director of the Kabul-based Afghanistan Analysts Network told the Department of Defense-based newspaper.

The Pentagon’s claims that violence is down in Afghanistan is “borderline insane,” International Crisis Group’s lead Afghanistan analyst Graeme Smith told Stars and Stripes.

“You’re saying that the war is getting smaller, and its not; its getting a lot bigger. Policy needs to adjust to deal with the fact that the inferno is growing,” Smith said.

More than 5,000 Afghan security forces, who received their paychecks from the US government were killed during 2014 in fighting with Taliban and other anti-government militants, according to statistics provided by Kabul.

Civilian fatalities have reached their highest levels since 2009, according to a UN report released last week, which confirmed the deaths of at least 3,600 noncombatants and wounding of another 6,800 in 2014.

Amdist the ongoing catastrophe that is a result of the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan, US policy makers and generals are clearly determined to intensify operations against its population for years to come.

With reports of growing Chinese political influence in Afghanistan, including the cultivation of ties with sections of the government as well as with the Taliban, Washington is determined to maintain its military grip on the country and Central Asia as a whole, which remain important linchpins in its drive to control the Eurasian landmass.

 

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2015/02/23/afgh-f23.html

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