Massenbach-Letter: NEWS 17/01/14


Udo von Massenbach

Guten Morgen.

Asia Times: NSA myths debunked

Massenbach* Huge Russian-Iranian oil-for-goods deal worth $18bn p.a. nullifies sanctions

DEBKAfile Special Report January 11, 2014, 12:44 PM (IST

Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi said Friday night, Jan. 10: “We found solutions for all the points of disagreement,” after two days of nuclear talks with the five powers in Geneva. He added that implementation now depends on “final ratification of the negotiating delegations in their respective capitals for final agreement. “

The EU spokesperson, speaking for the six powers was more ambivalent. He praised “very good progress on all pertinent issues. This is now under validation at the political level in capitals.”

The Americans and Europeans were evidently not satisfied, but determined at all costs to avoid putting up Iranian backs by saying so. And so the world and the Iranian public were allowed to believe that the West had finally accepted Tehran’s presentation of its nuclear program as solely peaceful.

This play on words provided a semantic screen for concealing the major shift in the negotiating balance: This time, the Iranian team arrived in Geneva without the authority to finalize any of the points at issue.

They labored under a clear directive from Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to refer all decisions back to a higher authority set up in Tehran for granting prior approval before any decisions go into effect. This authority represents the government administration, the legislature and the judiciary

By handing down this directive, Khamenei gained a strong negotiating edge against the world powers:

1. A double-strength ratification level in Tehran weakened the hand of the world powers and the US in determining the shape of the nascent nuclear accord and gave him the last word. American, Russian, French, British and Chinese leaders were forced into the position of having to wait for his by-your-leave before moving forward.
2. To overcome the domestic squabbling at the top of the Iranian regime over the pros and cons of the interim nuclear deal, Khamenei handed the hard-liners led by the Revolutionary Guards the right to veto the decisions reached by President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif.

The Iranian leader drew the confidence for running another circle around the six powers from the negotiations in progress with Russia for an oil-for-goods transaction worth $1.5 billion a month, that would substantially help lift Iran’s oil exports out of range of Western sanctions.

Russian and Iranian sources close to the barter negotiations said final details were in discussion for a transaction that would see Moscow buy up to 500,000 barrels a day of Iranian oil in exchange for Russian equipment and goods.

"Good progress is being made at the moment with strong chances of success," said a Russian source.

An Iranian source said: "Our officials are discussing the matter with the Russians and hopefully it will be inked soon, regardless of whether we can reach a (nuclear) agreement in Geneva."

debkafile: By this action, President Vladimir Putin has not only pulled the teeth out of sanctions, by which President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu set such store for forcing the Iranians to give up their nuclear weapon aspirations. He has strengthened Tehran’s hand against going through with the concessions, such as a six-month nuclear freeze, that were provided for in the Geneva interim accord as the basis for further negotiations on a final agreement.

Neither the US State Department nor the EU has so far responded by a single word on Putin’s death stroke to nuclear diplomacy with Iran.

What emerges six months after the US-Russian accord for the elimination of Bashar Assad’s chemical stockpiles, and two months after the six-power interim nuclear accord with Iran, is the process of America pulling up its stakes in the Middle East and clearing the way for the Russians to move in and take its place.

Iran comes out of these steps well armored with Russian economic and strategic backing, while Israel is left on the minus side of the new regional equation unfolding fast in the New Year.


Asia Times: Russia needs the US in Afghanistan

By Salman Wattoo

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing.

In today’s world, geopolitics takes precedence over ideologies. The US-Iran nuclear deal reached last year is a very recent example of how two countries with ideologies on different ends of the spectrum can come together to achieve their political objectives.

The Richard Nixon-Chairman Mao alliance in the early 1970s or the US-Soviet accord during World War II are other examples that show how geopolitics take precedence over ideologies. In the coming months, the world may yet see another strategic shift policy. This time, in an arrangement between the US and Russia over Afghanistan.

Russia faces serious threats to its stability from Islamic insurgencies. Recent suicide blasts in Volgograd were a painful reminder of this.

Historically, Russia has tried to suppress Islamic movements (also religious activities in general) not only in Russia but also in Central Asian states (especially in the time of the Soviet Union).

The failure of such policies led to the rise of Islamism in Central Asia (especially in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan) after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Russia has continued to provide support to Central Asian governments to fight Islamic insurgencies as it considers Central Asian countries as buffers states between it and the Islamic world.

Some of these insurgent groups, most importantly the Islamic movement of Uzbekistan, is allied with the Afghan Taliban.

It is important to note here that the border between Afghanistan and Central Asian states (Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan) are quite porous. Until the beginning of the 19th century, amid the Great Game between the British and Russian empires, these borders were almost non-existent, and this explains the ethnic diversity of Afghanistan and cultural links between Afghans and Central Asians.

The Great Game made Afghanistan a buffer zone between the two empires and established the state’s modern borders. These borders were closed for decades in the 20th century but links between Afghans and the Central Asians were never cut off due to the nature of the terrain and strong links between the people.

In that sense, what happens in Afghanistan, deeply concerns Russia. At the moment, uncertainty regarding Afghanistan’s future runs high with the withdrawal date of Western forces coming closer day by day (especially after recent fall of Fallujah’s to Islamic State of Iraq and Lebanon).

The worst case scenario for the Russians, after the withdrawal, will be a complete take over by the Taliban. Chances of such an immediate takeover by the Taliban are very low. However, in the absence of foreign support, it is not unthinkable that after the withdrawal, that the Taliban will take over Afghanistan in few years.

The Afghan National Security Force (ANSF) has made some gains in recent years but their capability in absence of foreign funding and support is not clear, there has also been an increasing number of deaths, causing an impact on the morale of ANSF. Meanwhile, the Taliban on the other hand are patient and organized. They can make slow gains, gaining more support with every victory and moving towards a dominant position in Afghanistan.

This will have a direct impact on Russia’s buffer zones. It will be only a matter of time before the Taliban will make their way to neighboring countries to aid Islamic insurgents. Russia will naturally aid the governments and secular elements causing more and more resentment against Russia, not only in Central Asia, but also in the wider Muslim world (including Muslims living in Russia).

And it will not be long before Russia is directly hit by wave of attacks similar to those of Volgograd, perhaps even worse.

The only possible way for Russia to avoid this is to convince the international community to continue to its support for Afghanistan and ANSF, which is not going to be possible unless Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president, signs the bilateral treaty with the Americans allowing them to keep certain bases and portion of its forces in Afghanistan.

Although it is widely believed that the contract will be eventually signed, with every passing day there are increasing spats between the Afghans and the Americans.

The Russians, here can play a very important role, they have strong ties with Afghanistan from the Soviet era and also through supporting groups that fought the Taliban after the fall of the Soviet Union.

They can help the Americans convince the Afghans to sign the agreement. By doing so they will be indirectly facilitating the peace talks with Taliban and will have to come to terms with the Taliban having some power in the Afghan power structure. But this is the only way peace can be achieved.

Even though these bases can potentially be used by Americans in future against the Russians, for anything from running spy network to influencing Afghan policies towards Russia, Moscow may conclude that the US are essential to keep Taliban out of a dominant position and hence keeping Russia’s vital geopolitical interests safe. This convergence of interests between American and Russians can cause a strategic shift of alliances.

This is an interesting situation that the Chinese may view with suspicion. They most certainly want to keep the Taliban from taking over Afghanistan, but at the same time like Moscow they are keen to benefit from the natural resources in the country.

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing. Articles submitted for this section allow our readers to express their opinions and do not necessarily meet the same editorial standards of Asia Times Online’s regular contributors.

Salman Wattoo works in the financial sector in London.



Policy= res publica

Freudenberg-Pilster* Quotenfrau und Mindestlohn

Mehr Gleichheit schafft nicht automatisch mehr Gerechtigkeit

Freitag, 20.12.2013, 21:10 · · von FOCUS-Online-Expertin Mara Ewers und Andrea Hammermann

Dpa In roten Schuhen sitzt eine Teilnehmerin beim Tag der Deutschen Industrie in Berlin zwischen Männern in dunklen Anzügen und passendem Schuhwerk

Die große Koalition will die Frauenquote und den Mindestlohn durchsetzen – koste es was es wolle. Dabei verkennt die Politik, dass staatliche Eingriffe oft das Gegenteil von dem auslösen, was sie bewirken sollen – das lässt sich sogar beweisen.

Dass Politiker ihre Gesetzesvorhaben häufig mit dem Streben nach mehr Gerechtigkeit argumentativ untermauern, hat in der Regel wenig mit Sachgründen, sondern viel mit Psychologie zu tun. Denn Ungerechtigkeiten abzubauen gehört zweifellos zu den ehrenwertesten Aufgaben des Sozialstaates und kommt beim Bürger gut an. Das Problem dabei: Was genau gerecht ist, darüber gehen die Meinungen zumeist weit auseinander. Ob die im Koalitionsvertrag beschlossenen Regelungen zu Frauenquote und Mindestlohn tatsächlich wie angekündigt für mehr Gerechtigkeit auf dem Arbeitsmarkt sorgen werden, muss zunächst offen bleiben. Allerdings sind Zweifel angebracht. Denn Untersuchungen von Wirtschaftswissenschaftlern haben ergeben: Mehr Gleichheit schafft nicht automatisch mehr Gerechtigkeit.

Beispiel Frauenquote. Ein Laborexperiment zeigte, dass Mitglieder von Gruppen, bei denen einige Personen per Quote befördert wurden, weniger miteinander kooperierten und weniger Geld erwirtschafteten als Gruppen, in denen die Mitglieder wegen ihrer Leistung aufgestiegen waren. Interessanterweise fiel die Kooperationsbereitschaft sowohl bei den Nutznießern der Quote als auch bei den restlichen Gruppenmitgliedern deutlich geringer aus. Als Grund nannten die Teilnehmer, dass sie die Quotenregelung als ungerecht empfunden hätten. Übertragen auf die Frauenquote lässt sich schlussfolgern: Sie dürfte nicht nur bei vielen Männern auf Widerstand stoßen, sondern auch das Gerechtigkeitsempfinden von Frauen stören, die durch ihre Qualifikation und Leistung überzeugen wollen. Diesen dürfte auch klar sein, dass das Etikett „Quotenfrau“ den Frauen, die im Beruf stehen, auf lange Sicht mehr schadet als nützt.

Auch das absolute Verhältnis zu anderen Löhnen spielt eine Rolle

Das zweite Beispiel betrifft den Mindestlohn. Von ihm erhofft sich die Große Koalition mehr Lohngerechtigkeit. Auch hierzu gibt es schon experimentelle Erfahrungen. Danach sank die Bereitschaft, zu Mindestlöhnen zu arbeiten, die vor der Einführung einer Lohnuntergrenze noch als akzeptabel galten. Die Folge waren generell steigende Lohnforderungen. Diese verharren selbst nach Abschaffung des Mindestlohns auf einem höheren Niveau als zuvor. Der Grund liegt darin, dass nicht nur der absolute Wert des Geldes, sondern auch das relative Verhältnis zu anderen Löhnen oder zu einer Lohnuntergrenze für die Betroffenen eine Rolle spielt. Den Mindestlohn von 8,50 Euro pro Stunde könnten viele Beschäftigte als ungerecht empfinden. Denn zum einen zählt man nun in den Augen aller zu den am schlechtesten bezahlten Beschäftigten. Zum anderen berührt die verordnete Lohngleichheit das Gerechtigkeitsgefühl, weil Löhne unterschiedliche Qualifikationen und Leistung nicht mehr ausreichend widerspiegeln.

Kein Zweifel: Unter Laborbedingungen fallen sinkende Kooperationsbereitschaft und steigender Anspruchslohn nicht ins Gewicht. In der Realität können sie aber ernste Konsequenzen haben. Diese reichen von weniger Hilfsbereitschaft gegenüber Quotenfrauen bis hin zu steigenden Personalkosten. Die Wiederherstellung des Status Quo durch Rücknahme von Frauenquote und Mindestlohn gelingt in der Regel nicht, auch wenn die Erfahrungen damit negativ sein sollten. Gerade weil die Uhr sich so schwer zurückdrehen lässt, sollte die Regierung bei ihren Reformvorhaben Augenmaß und Fingerspitzengefühl zeigen. Und sie sollte dabei die vorliegenden empirischen Erkenntnisse möglichst nicht ignorieren.



Politics: From Vision to Action

Barandat* Western officials in Damascus discuss combating al Qaeda with Assad

DEBKAfile January 15, 2014, 5:27 PM (IST)

British, Spanish, German and French intelligence officials have recently visited Damascus on the quiet for talks with Bashar Assad on mutual approaches for combating jihadists. Reports of these visits were confirmed by the BBC. They were the first visits to Damascus in two years by Western officials and first meetings with Assad.



Suter* Fighting crime: incarceration does not always help

Posted on January 13, 2014 by IZA Press

Does putting people in jail make the world a safer place? A new IZA discussion paper by Magnus Lofstrom and Steven Raphael gets after this question by evaluating the effects of one of the largest declines in a state’s incarceration rate in U.S. history on local crime rates. The authors study the consequences of a recent reform in California that caused a sharp and permanent reduction in the state’s incarceration rate. The paper shows very little evidence of an effect of the large reduction in incarceration rates on violent crime. On the other hand, property crime, in particular auto theft, increased modestly. The estimates suggest that each prison year served among the population of California prevents roughly one to two property crimes per year and little to no violent crime. This implies that the return on one additional dollar spent on prison expenditures is below 50 cents and thus quite low. The estimates of the prison-crime effect are smaller than the findings of previous studies, which analyzed changes of the incarceration rate when the rate was at a much lower level. Hence, the authors suggest that putting people in jail makes the world safer, but that this positive effect quickly declines as incarceration rates increase.

Read abstract or download discussion paper.



Middle East

Reuters: Saudi-Qatar rivalry divides Syrian opposition

2:44pm EST

By Khaled Yacoub Oweis

AMMAN (Reuters) – Rivalry between Qatar and Saudi Arabia has fuelled wrangling within the Syrian opposition that threatens to prevent a united rebel delegation attending international peace talks next week.

Sources in the Syrian National Coalition and diplomats from foreign powers backing the rebels said it remains unclear whether those divisions can be overcome by Friday, when the 120-member Coalition is expected to vote on whether to take part in the conference in Switzerland known as Geneva-2.

However, some expect that Qatar, which raised its profile in diplomacy by being quick to back the Arab Spring revolts, will not in the end risk angering Riyadh, Turkey and Western states by having Doha’s allies on the Coalition force a boycott of talks that are supported by the other powers.

Earlier this month, 44 members, mostly with links to Qatar, walked out of a Coalition meeting to underline their rejection of attending talks without assurances that key demands would be met. They were also angered by the re-election of Ahmad Jarba, a Saudi-backed Syrian tribal figure, as head of the Coalition.

Diplomats said Qatar’s role, which includes supporting some militant Islamist brigades in Syria, had been discussed at a meeting in Paris on Sunday of the Friends of Syria, a group supporting the opposition, which was attended by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and other Western foreign ministers.

"The message was that everyone needed to be on a new page in support of Geneva and stop backing militants," a person who was at the meeting said. "There were strong hints that the onus falls on Qatar for a Coalition decision to go to the talks."

Qatar’s foreign minister insisted in Paris that the Gulf emirate was not backing one opposition faction over another.

Few members of the Coalition, a body comprised largely of exiled political leaders, are enthusiastic about the meeting, organized by international powers anxious to end the conflict which has destabilized the Middle East for three years.

Coalition members see little prospect of President Bashar al-Assad’s delegates making big concessions, let along agreeing to their demand of a transitional administration that excludes Assad from power. As a result, they fear attendance could further undermine their legitimacy within a Syrian opposition that is increasingly dominated by rebel fighters on the ground.

However, a failure to show up next Wednesday would dismay most of the opposition’s foreign backers. They might scale back their support for a body that has failed to prevent much of the rebel force in Syria becoming dominated by Islamist militants.

"The Coalition is being asked to go to Geneva without a hint that the talks will result in anything even to save face before the Syrian people," said Nasr al-Hariri, spokesman for the 44 members who walked out this month. "The only way for the Coalition to function as a coalition is by expanding it to restore balance and find a consensus president."

Even those close to Saudi-backed Coalition chief Jarba say they are reluctant to go to Switzerland without some assurance of winning concessions, such as the release of prisoners or the lifting of sieges around rebel-held suburbs of Damascus.

Russia, which has shielded Assad from rebel and Western insistence that he step aside, and the United States have discussed such demands as co-sponsors of Geneva-2 but it is unclear that Assad is ready to offer such concessions.


Though allies in other respects, the Gulf monarchies of Qatar and Saudi Arabia have ended up backing rival forces in some Arab states where power has changed hands since 2011. For example, Qatar backed Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, Saudi Arabia the military who toppled the Islamist president last year.

In Syria, with the country at the heart of the region fragmenting into competing spheres of influence, Qatar carved an influential role by being quick to help the rebels and, later, by helping set up the Coalition a year ago with the aim of creating a credible alternative to Assad.

Last year, however, Qatar found itself under pressure from its much larger neighbor and from the U.S. superpower over the way the war was going, and notably over the rising influence on the frontlines of Islamists hostile to the West and to its allies in the Middle East – like the Saudi royal house.

An expansion of the Coalition to 120 seats diluted Qatari control and handed leadership to the Saudi-backed Jarba. On the ground, however, Qatar is still a force, through groups like al-Tawhid, part of a new Islamic Front that controls large areas and coordinates with the al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front.

"There are military groups in the opposition that are more influenced by Qatar than Saudi Arabia. But within the Coalition Saudi Arabia is stronger," said Abdelrahman al-Haj, a senior official in the Syrian National Council. The SNC is a component of the Coalition and opposes taking part in next week’s talks.

A Gulf source with knowledge of Qatari policy said the new emir, in power since June, wanted a lower profile than his father who had strongly backed the Arab revolts. The new emir was also more open to Western requests to stop supporting militants, though Qatar still believed that arming rebels was needed to force Assad to compromise, however, the source said.

Diplomats involved in negotiations with Doha say Qatar still appears lukewarm toward Geneva-2. Some note that its ally in Syria, the Islamic Front, issued a statement supporting those members who had walked out of the Coalition.

Personal differences are also playing a role in the wrangling over whether to attend the meetings at Montreux.

People who know both men said that Mustafa al-Sabbagh, Qatar’s point man on the Coalition, and Riad Hijab, who ran against Jarba for the presidency, could give their blessing to participation at Geneva-2 – if they and their allies secure a suitable presence in the delegation to the talks.

One senior member of the Syrian opposition familiar with the factional in-fighting said Qatar may not be willing to risk the Saudi and Western backlash that could follow a failure of the Coalition to send a cohesive delegation to the meetings.

"Qatar has carved itself a powerful niche by supporting the Islamic Front and using it as a pressure tool on the coalition," he said. "But at the end of the day Qatar will not defy Saudi Arabia and the United States.

"Its people in the Coalition need its financial and political support and so will do what Qatar asks."

However, Ahmed Kamel, a pro-opposition Syrian political commentator, said Qatar might fail to persuade allies on the Coalition to negotiate with Assad’s team: "Part of the crisis is the standoff between Saudi Arabia and Qatar," Kamel said.

"But there is a genuine problem that faces even Jarba – because the Coalition is being asked to go to a peace conference without any conditions, without guarantees and without an agenda."

Western diplomats, however, are pressing hard for the Coalition to attend, stressing the lack of alternatives to the main international initiative to end three years of fighting that has killed over 100,000 people:

One said: "No one wants to think of the alternative if the Coalition fails again to agree."

(Additional reporting by Amena Bakr in Qatar and Dasha Afanasieva in Istanbul; Editing by Alastair Macdonald)

Reuters: Western, Arab states pledge $2.4 billion in Syria aid

(Reuters) – Western and Gulf Arab nations pledged more than $2.4 billion on Wednesday for U.N. aid efforts in Syria, where a near three-year civil war has left millions of people hungry, ailing or displaced.

The pledge arose from a U.N. appeal for $6.5 billion in 2014, which was launched last month and is the largest in the organization’s history.

The world body estimates the conflict has reversed development gains in Syria by 35 years, with half its people now living in poverty.

But only around 70 percent of $1.5 billion pledged at a similar meeting last year has reached U.N. coffers, hinting at donor fatigue with no end to the bloodshed on the horizon.

U.N. humanitarian chief Valerie Amos said all sides in the conflict had shown "total disregard for their responsibilities under international humanitarian and human rights law".

"Children, women, men are trapped, hungry, ill, losing hope," Amos told the 69 countries attending a donor conference held in Kuwait.

The Gulf state’s ruling emir, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmed al-Sabah, promised $500 million in new aid, while the United States announced a contribution of $380 million.

Qatar and Saudi Arabia pledged $60 million each. The European Union pledged $225 million and Britain $165 million.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said the total was more than $2.4 billion.

Money raised last year in Kuwait was used by the United Nations to provide food rations, medicine, drinking water and shelters for people in Syria and surrounding countries.

The largest donations at that conference came from Gulf Arab governments, which have mainly backed Syrian rebels trying to oust President Bashar al-Assad.

Kuwait has avoided showing support for either side and has voiced concern about the sectarian nature of the conflict.

"Even under the best circumstances, the fighting has set back Syria years, even decades," said Ban, who chaired the conference.

"I am especially concerned that the sides are using violence against women and girls to denigrate and dehumanize their opponents. I call for an immediate end to these abuses, which harm individuals and undermine Syria’s future."


Ban has previously expressed regret that not all the promised donations have been received from the last meeting, with 20-30 percent still lacking.

He told the gathering he hoped peace talks due to start in Switzerland on January 22 would bring the Syrian government and opposition to the negotiating table – although Assad’s adversaries are deeply split over whether to attend.

"I hope this will launch a political process to establish a transitional governing body with a full executive powers, and most importantly, end the violence," he said.

He urged the opposition forces to come with a united delegation. He added organizers had not been able to finalize whether Iran, Syria’s Shi’ite Muslim ally, would take part and was coordinating closely with Russia and the United States.

The World Food Programme (WFP) said on Tuesday it had delivered rations to a record 3.8 million people in Syria in December, but civilians in eastern provinces and besieged towns near the capital remain out of reach.

The U.N. agency voiced concern at reports of malnutrition in besieged areas, especially of children caught up in the fighting, and called for greater access.

Shooting forced the United Nations to abort a delivery of food and polio vaccines to one besieged district of Damascus after Syrian authorities said it should use a circuitous and dangerous route, a spokesman said on Wednesday.

Aid workers in Syria have accused authorities of hampering deliveries to opposition-controlled areas and threatening groups with expulsion. Damascus blames rebel attacks for aid delays.

The WFP says it needs to raise $35 million every week to meet the food needs of people both inside Syria and in neighboring countries.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said on Monday that Syria’s government and some rebels might be willing to permit humanitarian aid to flow, enforce local ceasefires and take other confidence-building measures.





NSA myths debunked
By Peter Van Buren

The debate Edward Snowden envisioned when he revealed the extent of National Security Agency (NSA) spying on Americans has taken a bad turn. Instead of a careful examination of what the NSA does, the legality of its actions, what risks it takes for what gains, and how effective the agency has been in its stated mission of protecting Americans, we increasingly have government officials or retired versions of the same demanding – quite literally – Snowden’s head and engaging in the usual fear-mongering over 9/11.

They have been aided by a chorus of pundits, columnists, and present as well as former officials offering bumper-sticker slogans like "If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear," all the while claiming our freedom is in direct conflict with our security.

It’s time to face these arguments directly. So here are 10 myths about NSA surveillance that need debunking. Let’s sort them out.

1) NSA surveillance is legal
True, if perhaps you put "legal" in quotes. After all, so was slavery once upon a time in the US. and apartheid in South Africa. Laws represent what a government and sometimes perhaps even a majority of the people want at a given point in time. They change and are changeable; what once was a potential felony in Colorado is now a tourist draw.

Laws, manipulated for terrible ends, must be challenged when they come into conflict with the fundamental principles and morals of a free society. Laws created Nelson Mandela, the terrorist (whom the US kept on its terror watch list until 2008), and laws created Nelson Mandela, the president.

There’s a catch in the issue of legality and the NSA. Few of us can know just what the law is. What happens to you if you shoplift from a store or murder someone in a bar fight? The consequences of such actions are clearly codified and you can look them up. Is it legal to park over there? The rules are on a sign posted right where you’d like to pull in. If a cop tickets you wrongly, you can go to court and use that sign to defend yourself.

Yet almost all of the applicable "law," when it comes to the National Security Agency and its surveillance practices, was secret until Edward Snowden began releasing his documents. Secret interpretations of the shady Patriot Act made in a secret court applied. The fact that an unknown number of legal memos and interpretations of that secret law (themselves still classified) are operative means that we really don’t know what is legal anymore.

The panel of experts appointed by President Obama to review the Snowden revelations and the NSA’s actions had a peek into the issue of "legality" and promptly raised serious questions – as did one of the two federal courts that recently ruled on some aspects of the issue. If the Obama administration and the Justice Department really believe that all the NSA’s activities will be proven legal in a court of law, why not allow them to be tested openly and unambiguously in public? After all, if you’ve done nothing illegal, then there’s nothing to hide.

When Amnesty International first tried to bring such a question before the courts, the case was denied because that organization couldn’t prove that it had been subject to monitoring – that was a secret, of course! – and so was denied standing even to bring the suit. Snowden’s revelations seem to have changed all that. The documents made public have given "standing" to a staggering array of individuals, organizations, and countries. For the first time in 12 years, they pave the way for the issue to come to its proper venue in front of the Supremes. Openly. Publicly.

2) If I’ve done nothing wrong, I have nothing to hide
Keep in mind that the definition of "wrong" can quickly change. And if you don’t know what the actual law really is, how can you say that you know you have done nothing wrong? If you’ve got nothing to hide, post your social security number and credit card information online, leave your curtains open at night, and see how that sits with you.

In a larger sense, however, the very idea that "I’ve got nothing to hide" is a distraction. The Fourth Amendment guarantees a right to privacy. The Constitution does not ask if you want or need that right; it grants it to everyone, and demands that the government interfere with it only under specific circumstances.

The Fourth Amendment came into being because of the British use of general warrants in the colonial era. Under that "law," they could legally search whole groups of people, their possessions, and their papers without having to justify searching any specific person. Called "writs of assistance," these general warrants allowed the King’s agents to search anyone, anytime, regardless of whether they suspected that person of a crime. The writs were most often used by Royal Customs agents (an irony perhaps, given the draconian powers now granted to US. Customs agents to search anyone’s personal electronics, including those of American citizens, at the border).

The US fought a revolution, and James Madison wrote the Fourth Amendment, against broad government authority to search. Whether you personally do or do not have anything to hide is not even a question that should be on the table. It should be almost un-American to ask it.

3) But the media says the NSA only collects my "phone metadata," so I’m safe
My older, conservative neighbor quickly insisted that collecting this metadata thing she had heard about on Fox was necessary to protect her from all the terrorists out here in suburbia. She then vehemently disagreed that it was okay for President Obama to know whom she called and when, from where to where and for how long, or for him to know who those people called and when, and so forth.

Think of metadata as the index to all the content the NSA can sweep up. That agency is able to record, say, 24 hours worth of Verizon phone calls. Its operatives can then easily locate any particular call within that huge chunk of metadata. Such basic information can also provide geo-location information to track physical movements.

Metadata showing that you called your doctor, followed by metadata about which lab department she called next, followed by a trip to the pharmacy might fall into the "something you want to hide" category. (Actually, using metadata to learn about your medical history may not be even necessary. An exception to the privacy policy of one of America’s larger HMOs, Kaiser Permanente, states: "We may also disclose your PHI [personal health information] to authorized federal officials as necessary for national security and intelligence activities." BlueCross BlueShield has a similar exception as do regional medical outfits.)

Metadata is important. Ever play the game "Six Degrees of Separation"? Silly as it seems, almost anyone is indeed just six hops away from anyone else. You know a guy in Detroit who has a friend in California who has a sister who cuts hair whose client is Kevin Bacon’s high school classmate’s cousin. You and that cousin are connected.

Publicly available information tells us that the NSA traces "three hops" from a target: A knows B, C, and D. But once C morphs into a target, C’s three hops mean the NSA can poke into E, F, and G, and so forth. The Guardian calculated that if A has 50 friends, the number of targets generated under the three-hop rule would be over 1.3 million people. I really do hope that you (and everyone you know, and they know) have nothing to hide.

4) Aren’t there are already checks and balances in our system to protect us against NSA overreach?
In recent years, the government has treated the king of all checks and balances, the Constitution, like a used Kleenex. The secret Foreign Intelligence and Surveillance Court (FISA) was set up to provide judicial oversight in a classified setting to the intelligence community.

Theoretically, the government is required to make a compelling case for the issuance of orders authorizing electronic and other surveillance, physical searches, and compelled production of business records. Either the government is very good at making its case, or the court has become a rubber stamp: that secret FISA court approved all 1,789 requests submitted to it in 2012.

The Patriot Act elevated a once rarely used tool, the National Security Letter (NSL), into the mainstream of government practice. National Security Letters are an extraordinary search procedure that gives the FBI the power to compel the disclosure of customer records held by banks, telephone companies, Internet service providers, public libraries, and others. These entities are prohibited, or "gagged," from telling anyone about their receipt of the NSL.

Though the Justice Department itself cited abuse of the letters by the FBI in 2008, in 2012 the FBI used 15,229 National Security Letters to gather information on Americans. NSLs do not require judicial approval and the built-in gag orders prevent anyone from seeking judicial relief; indeed, most people will never even know that they were the subject of an NSL. And at the moment, the Department of Justice is trying to keep classified an 86-page court opinion that determined the government violated the spirit of federal surveillance laws and engaged in unconstitutional spying.

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper directly lied to that check-and-balance branch of the government, Congress, in a public session. (He later termed his response the "least untruthful" answer.) And we wouldn’t even know that he lied, or much of anything else about the NSA’s surveillance activities here or globally, if it weren’t for one man’s courage in exposing them. The government had kept it all from us for 12 years and never showed the slightest sign of reconsidering any part of that policy. Without Snowden, we would not even know what needs checking and balancing.

5) But I trust Obama (Bush, the next president) on this
I can guess what your opinions are of the people that run the Transportation Safety Administration or the Internal Revenue Service. On what basis, then, can you conclude that the NSA or any other part of the government is any more trustworthy or competent, or any less petty?

While the government does not trust you to know what it does, thanks again to the Snowden revelations, we know that the NSA trusts some foreign governments more than you. The NSA is already sharing at least some data about Americans with, at a minimum, British intelligence and the Israelis. And who knows how those governments use it or whom they share it with downstream? Do you really trust all of them all the time to never make mistakes or act on personal grudges or political biases? History is clear enough on what former FBI director J. Edgar Hoover did with the personal information he was able to collect on presidents, the Supreme Court, Congressional representatives, Martin Luther King, and others in the Civil Rights movement. Among other things, he used his secretly obtained information to out gay members of government. As for the NSA, so far it hasn’t even been willing to answer the question of whether it’s been spying on, surveilling, or gathering metadata on members of Congress.

Still, let’s assume that Obama or the next president or the one after that will never do anything bad with your personal data. Once collected, however, that data potentially exists forever. If the NSA is to be believed, it claims to hold metadata for only five years, though it can keep copies of intercepted communications from or about US. citizens indefinitely if the material contains "significant intelligence" or "evidence" of crimes.

The NSA can hold on to your encrypted communications as long as is needed to break the encryption. The NSA can also keep indefinitely any information gathered for "cryptanalytic, traffic analysis, or signal exploitation purposes." Data held is available to whoever can access it in the future, using whatever technologies come to exist. Trusting anyone with such power is foolish. And as for data security, we know of at least one recent instance when more than 1.7 million highly-classified NSA documents just walked out the door.

6) But don’t private companies like Facebook already have access to and share a lot of my personal data? So what’s wrong with the government having it, too?
While private companies can pass your private information to the government, either willingly or under secret compulsion, there still are some important differences.

At least in theory, it’s your choice to give data to private companies. You could stop using Facebook, after all. You can’t, however, opt out of the NSA. About the worst that Facebook and the others directly want is to take your money and send you spam.

While certainly no angel, Facebook can’t arrest you, put you on the No-Fly list with no recourse, seize your property or put you under investigation, audit your finances, imprison you without trial as a terrorist, or order you assassinated by drone. Facebook can’t suspend your civil rights; the government can. That is a big, big difference. And by the way, a proposed solution to the metadata collection problem – having private companies, not the NSA, hold the data – is no solution at all. Data stored and available to NSA analysts, wherever it is, is data stored and available to NSA analysts.

7) All this surveillance is distasteful and maybe even illegal, but isn’t it necessary to keep us safe? Isn’t it for our own good? Haven’t times changed and shouldn’t we acknowledge that?
Like the NSA, it was at that time officially forbidden to spy on Americans domestically. It nonetheless produced a computerized index of nearly one and one-half million names. At least 130,000 first class letters were also opened and photographed by the FBI between 1940 and 1966, all to keep us safe and for our own good in changing times. I doubt many people now believe any of that is what kept the Reds at bay.

The same argument was made about the necessity of domestic surveillance during the Vietnam War. Again, from the Church Report, we learned that some 300,000 individuals were indexed in a CIA computer system and that separate files were created on approximately 7,200 Americans and more than 100 domestic groups under the umbrella of Operation MH/CHAOS, designed to ferret out supposed foreign influence on the antiwar movement.

Intelligence files on more than 11,000 individuals and groups were created by the Internal Revenue Service between 1969 and 1973 and tax investigations were started on the "basis of political rather than tax criteria." I doubt many people now believe any of that is what kept the nation from descending into chaos.

The Constitution and the Bill of Rights have matured with our nation, growing to end slavery, enhance the rights of women, and do away with Jim Crow and other immoral laws. The United States survived two world wars, the Cold War, and innumerable challenges without a massive, all-inclusive destruction of civil rights. Any previous diversions – Abraham Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus during the Civil War is a favorite instance cited – were short, specific, and reversed or overturned.

The Founders created the Bill of Rights to address, point-by-point, the abuses of power they experienced under an oppressive British government. (Look up the never-heard-from-again Third Amendment.) A bunch of angry jihadis, real and imagined, seems a poor reason to change that system.

8) Terrorists are everywhere and dangerous
From 1776 to 2001 the United States did not experience a terror attack anywhere close to the scale of 9/11; the worst terror attack against the United States as of 9/10, the Oklahoma City bombing, claimed 168 lives compared to some 3,000 at the Twin Towers. Since 9/11 we have not had a comparable mass-scale terror attack. No dirty bombs at the Super Bowl, no biochemical nightmares, no suicide bombers in our shopping malls or theme parks. There have been only about 20 domestic terror-related deaths since 9/11. Your chances as an American of being killed by a terrorist (the figures are for the world, not just inside the US.) are about 1 in 20 million. The inevitable comparison shows the odds of being struck by lightning at 1 in 5.5 million.

You are, in other words, about four times more likely to be struck by lightning than killed by a terrorist. Most of the "terrorists" arrested in this country post-9/11 have been tragicomic fabrications of the FBI. 9/11 was a one-off, an aberration, so unique that its "success" stunned even Osama bin Laden. It was a single morning of disaster and cannot be the justification for everything the government wishes to do forever after.

9) We’ve stayed safe. Doesn’t that just prove all the government efforts have worked?
No, that’s called false causality. There simply is no evidence that it’s true, and much to the contrary. It’s the same as believing government efforts have prevented Martian attacks or wild lions in our bedrooms. For one thing, we already know that more NSA spying would not have stopped 9/11; most of the needed information was already held by the US. government and was simply not properly shared or acted upon. 9/11 was a policy failure, not a matter of too-little snooping.

Today, however, it remains a straw-man justification for whatever the NSA wants to do, a way of scaring you into accepting anything from the desecration of the Fourth Amendment to taking off our shoes at airport security. But the government uses this argument endlessly to promote what it wants to do. Even the NSA’s talking points recommend their own people say: "I much prefer to be here today explaining these programs, than explaining another 9/11 event that we were not able to prevent."

At the same time, despite all this intrusion into our lives and the obvious violations of the Fourth Amendment, the system completely missed the Boston bombers, two of the dumbest, least sophisticated bro terrorists on the planet. Since 9/11, we have seen some 364,000 deaths in our schools, workplaces, and homes caused by privately owned firearms, and none of the spying or surveillance identified any of the killers in advance.

Maybe we should simply stop thinking about all this surveillance as a matter of stopping terrorists and start thinking more about what it means to have a metastasized global surveillance system aimed at spying on us all, using a fake argument about the need for 100% security in return for ever more minimal privacy. So much has been justified in these years – torture, indefinite detention, the Guantanamo penal colony, drone killings, wars, and the use of Special Operations forces as global assassination teams – by some version of the so-called ticking time bomb scenario. It’s worth getting it through our heads: there has never been an actual ticking time bomb scenario. The bogeyman isn’t real. There’s no monster hiding under your bed.

10) But doesn’t protecting America come first – before anything?
What exactly are we protecting from what? If, instead of spending trillions of dollars on spying and domestic surveillance, we had spent that same money on repairing our infrastructure and improving our schools, wouldn’t we now have a safer, stronger America? Remember that famously absurd Vietnam War quote from an American officer talking about brutal attack on Ben Tre, "It became necessary to destroy the town to save it"? How can anyone say we are protecting our liberty and freedom by taking it away?

Peter Van Buren blew the whistle on State Department waste and mismanagement during Iraqi reconstruction in his first book, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People. A TomDispatch regular, he writes about current events at his blog, We Meant Well. Van Buren’s next book, is Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99Percent.





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Wir wünschen Ihnen ein angenehmes Wochenende. Ihr Team.

Udo von Massenbach – Bärbel Freudenberg-Pilster – Jörg Barandat – Edith Suter



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