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TBR News March 21, 2018

Mar 21 2018

The Voice of the White House 

Washington, D.C. March 21, 2018:”The United States is run, not by the President or Congress but by a loosly-knit group of oligarchs. These are quiet business entities, the leaders of which are not known to the public. Eisenhower’s ‘military-industrial complex’ is an excellent example. Anyone who presents a public relations problem or has become too big and too independent to be controlled to prevent damage is quietly done away with. Both Facebook, its founder and Donald Trump fit into this category and watch as they are moved off the stage.”

Table of Contents

  • Russiagate Comes to England
  • Facebook, Cambridge Analytica sued in U.S. by users over data harvesting
  • Cambridge Analytica was offered politicians’ hacked emails, say witnesses
  • Mobbed Up
  • Facebook’s profile: 5 things to know about the world’s biggest social network
  • Facebook ‘hypocrites’ working against online privacy law – campaigner
  • ‘Child porn links could make Bitcoin blockchain illegal’
  • ‘Christianity as default is gone’: the rise of a non-Christian Europe

Russiagate Comes to England

Who poisoned the Russian spy?

March 20, 2018

by Philip Giraldi

The Unz Review

I don’t know what happened in Salisbury England on March 4th, but it appears that the British government doesn’t know either. Prime Minister Theresa May’s speech before Parliament last Monday was essentially political, reflecting demands that she should “do something” in response to the mounting hysteria over the poisoning of former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia. After May’s presentation there were demands from Parliamentarians for harsh measures against Russia, reminiscent of the calls for action emanating from the U.S. Congress over the allegations relating to what has been called Russiagate.

This demand to take action led to a second Parliamentary address by May on Wednesday in which she detailed the British response to the incident, which included cutting off all high-level contacts between Moscow and London and the “persona non grata” (PNG) expulsion of 23 “spies” and intelligence officers working out of the Russian Federation Embassy. The expulsions will no doubt produce a tit-for-tat PNG from Moscow, ironically crippling or even eliminating the MI-6 presence and considerably reducing Britain’s own ability to understand what it going on in the Kremlin.

May, who referred to a “Russian mafia state,” has blamed Moscow for the attack even though she made plain in her first speech that the investigation was still underway. In both her presentations, she addressed the issue of motive by citing her belief that the attempted assassination conforms with an established pattern of Russian behavior. She did not consider that Vladimir Putin’s government would have no good reason to carry out an assassination that surely would be attributed to it, particularly as it was on the verge of national elections and also, more important, because it will be hosting the World Cup later this year and will be highly sensitive to threats of boycott. And it must be observed that Skripal posed no active threat to the Russian government. He has been living quietly in Britain for eight years, leading to wild tabloid press speculation that the Kremlin’s motive must have been to warn potential traitors that there are always consequences, even years later and in a far-off land.

To provide additional buttressing of what is a questionable thesis, the case of the assassination of Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006 has been repeatedly cited by the media on both sides of the Atlantic as evidence of Russian turpitude, but the backstory is not the same. Litvinenko was an FSB officer who fled to the United Kingdom to avoid prosecution in Russia. In Britain, he became a whistleblower and author, exposing numerous alleged Russian government misdeeds. Would the Kremlin have been motivated to kill him? He was seen as a traitor and a continuing threat through his books and speeches, so it is certainly possible. The story of Skripal was, however, completely different. He was a double agent working for Britain who was arrested and imprisoned in 2006. He was released and traveled to the UK after a 2010 spy swap was arranged by Washington and his daughter has been able to travel freely from Moscow to visit him. If the Russian government had wanted to kill him, they could have easily done so while he was in prison, or they could have punished him by taking steps against his daughter.

There are a number of problems with the accepted narrative as presented by May and the media. Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a nerve agent as “usually odorless organophosphate (such as sarin, tabun, or VX) that disrupts the transmission of nerve impulses by inhibiting cholinesterase and especially acetylcholinesterase and is used as a chemical weapon in gaseous or liquid form,” while Wikipedia explains that it is “a class of organic chemicals that disrupt the mechanisms by which nerves transfer messages to organs.” A little more research online reveals that most so-called nerve agents are chemically related. So when Theresa May says that the alleged agent used against the Skripals as being “of a type” associated with a reported Russian-developed chemical weapon called Novichok that was produced in the 1970s and 1980s, she is actually conceding that her own chemical weapons laboratories at Porton Down are, to a certain, extent, guessing at the provenance and characteristics of the actual agent that might or might not have been used in Salisbury.

Beyond that, a military strength nerve agent is, by definition, a highly concentrated and easily dispersed form of a chemical weapon. It is intended to kill or incapacitate hundreds or even thousands of soldiers. If it truly had been used in Salisbury, even in a small dose, it would have killed Skripal and his daughter as well as others nearby. First responders who showed up without protective clothing, clearly seen in the initial videos and photos taken near the site, would also be dead. After her first speech, May summoned the Russian Ambassador and demanded that he address the allegations, but Moscow reasonably enough demanded a sample of the alleged nerve agent for testing by relevant international bodies like the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons before it could even respond to the British accusations. It was a valid point even supported in Parliament questioning by opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, but May and her government decided to act anyway.

May’s language also conveys uncertainty. She used “it appears” and also said it was “highly likely” that Moscow was behind the poisoning of Skripal but provided no actual evidence that that was the case, presumably only assuming that it had to be Russia. And her government has told the public that there is “little risk” remaining over the incident and that those who were possibly exposed merely have to wash themselves and their clothes, hardly likely if it were a military grade toxin, which gains it lethality from being persistent on and around a target. She made clear her lack of corroboration for her claim by offering an “either-or” analysis: either Russia’s government did it or it had “lost control” of its nerve agent.

As noted above, May’s argument is, to a certain extent, based on character assassination of Russians – she even offered up the alleged “annexation” of Crimea as corroboration of her view that Moscow is not inclined to play by the rules that others observe. It is a narrative that is based on the presumption that “this is the sort of thing the Russian government headed by Vladimir Putin does.” The British media has responded enthusiastically, running stories about numerous assassinations and poisonings that ought to be attributed to Russia, while ignoring the fact that the world leaders in political assassinations are actually the United States and Israel.

There are a number of other considerations that the May government has ignored in its rush to expand the crisis. She mentioned that Russia might be somewhat exonerated if it has lost control of its chemical weapons, but did not fully explain what that might mean. It could be plausible to consider that states hostile to Russia like Ukraine and Georgia that were once part of the Soviet Union could have had, and might still retain, stocks of the Novichok nerve agent. That in turn suggests a false flag, with someone having an interest in promoting a crisis between Russia and Britain. If that someone were a country having a sophisticated arms industry possessing its own chemical weapons capability, like the United States or Israel, it would be quite easy to copy the characteristics of the Russian nerve agent, particularly as its formula has been known since it was published in 1992. The agent could then be used to create an incident that would inevitably be blamed on Moscow. Why would Israel and the United States want to do that? To put pressure on Russia to embarrass it and put it on the defensive so it would be forced eventually to abandon its support for President Bashar al-Assad in Syria. Removing al-Assad is the often-expressed agenda of the Israeli and American governments, both of which have pledged to take “independent action” in Syria no matter what the United Nations or any other international body says. The redoubtable Nikki Haley is already using the incident to fearmonger over Moscow’s intentions at the U.N., warning that a Russian chemical attack on New York City could be coming.

And to throw out a really wild possibility, one might observe that no one in Britain had a stronger motive to generate a major confrontation with a well-defined enemy than Theresa May, who has been under fire by the media and pressured to resign by many in her own Conservative Party. Once upon a time suggesting that a democratically elected government might assassinate someone for political reasons would have been unthinkable, but the 2016 election in the United States has demonstrated that nothing is impossible, particularly if one is considering the possibility that a secret intelligence service might be collaborating with a government to help it stay in power. An incident in which no one was actually killed that can be used to spark an international crisis mandating “strong leadership” would be just the ticket.

 

Facebook, Cambridge Analytica sued in U.S. by users over data harvesting

March 21, 2018

by Jonathan Stempel

Reuters

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Facebook Inc (FB.O) and the political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica have been sued in the United States for obtaining information belonging to 50 million of the social media company’s users without permission.

The proposed class-action complaint filed late Tuesday night by Lauren Price, a Maryland resident, is the first of what could be many lawsuits seeking damages over Facebook’s ability to protect user data, and Cambridge Analytica’s exploitation of that data to benefit President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign.

“Every Facebook user has an interest in this lawsuit, and the enforcement of their privacy rights,” John Yanchunis, a lawyer for Price, said in a phone interview on Wednesday.

The complaint was filed in the U.S. District Court in San Jose, California, several hours after Facebook was blamed in a shareholder lawsuit filed in nearby San Francisco for the drop in its stock price after the data harvesting was revealed. Nearly $50 billion of market value was wiped out in two days.

Facebook and Cambridge Analytica did not immediately respond on Wednesday to requests for comment.

Price accused Facebook and London-based Cambridge Analytica of negligence and violating a California unfair competition law.

She said the harvesting contravened Facebook’s privacy policy, in which the Menlo Park, California-based company said user trust was “important to us” and that it would not share information without permission and notice.

“Our client saw a tremendous uptick in political messaging during the campaign on her Facebook page, which she had never seen,” Yanchunis said. “She had a glimmer of understanding at the time, but now sees there was an attempt to influence her vote.”

The complaint seeks unspecified damages, including possible punitive damages.

Yanchunis, who has also been suing Verizon Communications Inc (VZ.N) over data breaches at its Yahoo Internet business affecting 3 billion accounts, said it should be a “fairly easy exercise” to identify potential Facebook class members.

He said cybersecurity experts can assist with the case, and that Facebook “leaves a footprint of what was taken that cannot be erased.”

The case is Price v Facebook Inc et al, U.S. District Court, Northern District of California, No. 18-01732. The shareholder case is Yuan v Facebook Inc et al in the same court, No. 18-01725.

Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Additional reporting by Eric Auchard in London; Editing by Nick Zieminski

 

Cambridge Analytica was offered politicians’ hacked emails, say witnesses

  • Hackers offered personal data about future Nigerian president and future PM of St Kitts and Nevis, sources say
  • Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg finally addresses Cambridge Analytica scandal

March 21, 2018

by Carole Cadwalladr

The Guardian

The data analytics firm that worked on the Donald Trump election campaign was offered material from Israeli hackers who had accessed the private emails of two politicians who are now heads of state, witnesses have told the Guardian.

Multiple sources have described how senior directors of Cambridge Analytica – including its chief executive, Alexander Nix – gave staff instructions to handle material provided by computer hackers in election campaigns in Nigeria and St Kitts and Nevis.

They claim there were two episodes in 2015 that alarmed members of staff and led them to refuse to handle the data, which they assumed would have been obtained illegally.

SCL Elections, Cambridge Analytica’s parent company, denied taking possession of or using hacked or stolen personal information from such individuals for any purpose in either campaign.

The revelations are the latest to focus attention on Cambridge Analytica, whose activities are being investigated in the US by the special counsel Robert Mueller as part of his inquiry into possible Russian collusion in the 2016 US presidential election.

The firm is under pressure to explain how it came to have unauthorised access to millions of Facebook profiles. Politicians in the US and UK have accused it of giving misleading statements about its work, and the information commissioner has demanded access to the company’s databases.

In all, the Guardian and Observer has spoken to seven individuals with knowledge of Cambridge Analytica and its campaign in Nigeria in early 2015.

Hired by a Nigerian billionaire to support the re-election of Goodluck Jonathan, Cambridge Analytica was paid an estimated £2m to orchestrate a ferocious campaign against his rival, the opposition leader Muhammadu Buhari. Jonathan lost out to Buhari in the presidential race. There is no suggestion Jonathan knew of the covert operation.

Staff working on the campaign say in early 2015 they met Israeli cybersecurity contractors in Cambridge Analytica’s offices in Mayfair, London. Employees say they were told the meeting was arranged by Brittany Kaiser, a senior director at the firm.

The Guardian and Observer have been told the Israelis brought a laptop from their office in Tel Aviv and handed employees a USB stick containing what they believed were hacked personal emails.

Sources said Nix, who was suspended on Tuesday, and other senior directors told staff to search for incriminating material that could be used to damage opposition candidates, including Buhari.

“It made everyone feel really uncomfortable,” said one source. “They wanted people to load it into their email programs.”

People “freaked out”, another employee said. “They wanted to have nothing to do with it.”

One member of the campaign team told the Guardian and Observer that the material they believed had been hacked included Buhari’s medical records. “I’m 99% sure of that. Or if they didn’t have his medical records they at least had emails that referred to what was going on.”

When news of the London meeting filtered back to Cambridge Analytica staff working on the ground in Nigeria, it caused panic, the source said. Local security advisers told the firm’s team to leave the country immediately because if opposition supporters found out, they could turn on them.

“What is clear is that the security of their employees didn’t even seem to have occurred to them,” said one former employee. “It was a very serious situation and they had to evacuate immediately.”

An SCL Elections spokesperson said team members working on the Nigeria campaign remained in the country throughout the original campaigning period, and left in accordance with the company’s campaign plan.

The Guardian has seen an email from Nix dated 26 January 2015, referring to the “Israeli team”.

It says: “Although it is outside of our remit, I have asked for an update on what the Israeli team has been working on and what they will be delivering between now and the election.”

In a second episode in early 2015, sources said the same Israeli team that had worked on the Nigeria campaign obtained private information of the St Kitts and Nevis politician Timothy Harris. At the time he was an opposition leader, and is now prime minister.

Sources have said staff did not want to handle what appeared to be stolen material. “Nobody wanted to have anything to do with it,” one employee said.

A statement from SCL Elections said: “During an election campaign, it is normal for SCL Elections to meet with vendors seeking to provide services as a subcontractor. SCL Elections did not take possession of or use any personal information from such individuals for any purposes. SCL Elections does not use ‘hacked’ or ‘stolen’ data.”

The statement added: “Members of the SCL Elections team that worked on the Nigeria campaign remained in country throughout the original campaigning period, although the election was rescheduled and SCL was not retained for the entirety of the extended campaign period.

“Team members left in accordance with the company’s campaign plan. Team members were regularly briefed about security concerns prior to and during deployment and measures were taken to ensure the team’s safety throughout.”

The revelations will add to the questions facing Cambridge Analytica and the techniques it uses to influence elections for its clients.

In the UK, the Electoral Commission and the Information Commissioner’s Office are investigating the firm for breaches of electoral and data protection law.

 

Mobbed Up

How America boosts the Afghan opium trade

Letter from Washington — From the April 2018 issue

by Andrew Cockburn

Harpers

Lance Bunch has had an impressive year. In July 2017, he gained a coveted star, having been promoted to brigadier general while serving as the principal military assistant to James Mattis, the secretary of defense. His job put him at the epicenter of all US national security issues — and among the most pressing for Mattis at that moment was Afghanistan.

The prepresidential Donald Trump had repeatedly questioned the need for US forces to stay in the country. The military leadership felt otherwise, and once Trump was elected, they argued that he should send more troops and hang on for the long haul. This meant beating back efforts by Steve Bannon to hold Trump to his earlier isolationist instincts. H. R. McMaster, the national security adviser, reportedly even showed the president a Seventies-era photo of miniskirted women in Kabul as indication that the Afghans were not beyond redemption. Ultimately, the generals carried all before them. Late in August, Trump announced, implausibly, that he had “studied Afghanistan in great detail and from every conceivable angle” and concluded that the top brass should have the open-ended commitment they demanded.

“We will also expand authority,” said the commander in chief, “for American armed forces to target the terrorist and criminal networks that sow violence and chaos throughout Afghanistan.” For Bunch, this feature of the plan would have particular significance. The following month, he was awarded his own command position: director of Future Operations at the American headquarters in Kabul. This was a brand-new unit (inevitably reduced to the acronym FUOPS) established to implement the new targeting strategy.

Three months into the job, Bunch briefed the Pentagon press corps via video link on the novel features of his mission. “Before,” he explained, “we could only target essentially in defense or in close proximity to Afghan forces that were in contact. Now, with our new authorities, we’re able to target networks, not just individual fighters.”

In other words, airpower commanders could now operate autonomously, selecting and striking targets without reference to ground operations — the core doctrine of the US Air Force ever since it began its fight for independence from the Army between the world wars. Central to this approach is the idea of “critical nodes,” elements in an enemy system that, when identified and destroyed, will cause that system to collapse. Accordingly, Bunch explained, his command would now target the Taliban in their “so-called safe zones, command-and-control nodes, illicit revenue-generating ventures, and their logistical networks.” Among these, the drug trade had been classified as especially vital, supposedly generating $200 million a year — 60 percent of the Taliban’s annual budget. If his campaign went according to plan, proclaimed the ebullient young general, “the future of Afghanistan is one free of terror, corruption, and narcotic production.”

The campaign, in fact, was already in process. The attacks had begun on the night of November 19, in Helmand province, Afghanistan’s most bountiful opium-growing region, deemed by Bunch the Taliban’s “economic engine.” The US commander in the country, General John Nicholson, gave his own briefing in the immediate aftermath, supplying a running commentary for successive videos of individual strikes. One video featured the demolition of a “Taliban narcotics production facility” in the town of Musa Qala.

“As you look at this strike,” Nicholson told the crowd of journalists, “you’re going to see that inside this compound are multiple structures, and we destroy only two of them while leaving the third standing, which we did to avoid collateral damage.” The images followed the familiar pattern of such PR displays. A peaceful vista of assorted structures, apparently unpopulated, is violently interrupted by a silent flash that gives way to a cloud of thick, black smoke.

By the time Bunch made his remarks, three weeks after the campaign began, twenty-five such “narcotics production facilities” had been attacked. He noted the impact in very precise terms: the drug kingpins had lost $80 million in merchandise, and the Taliban had consequently been deprived of $16 million in “direct revenue,” meaning taxes on that merchandise.

Such certainty is questionable. Mike Martin, who spent years in Afghanistan as a British Army officer and then as a political adviser to the British forces, commented derisively to me: “Not long ago, the United States had over a hundred thousand troops in the country, plus a huge concentration of CIA and other intelligence resources. At that point, they couldn’t understand what was going on: Mullah Omar had been dead for two years before they found out. Today, they have a footprint one fifteenth the size, so do they understand? They don’t have a clue.”

Nicholson had proudly touted the intelligence efforts preceding the air strikes, which had involved “hundreds of analysts,” as well as drones, satellites, and spy planes “soaking the area for hundreds of hours to then find, pinpoint, [and] assess the targets.” What was missing from all this, Martin told me, was “human intelligence, which gives you context.” Without such context, he said, the video and signals were meaningless “pinpricks.”

For that matter, neither Nicholson’s audience nor those hundreds of analysts poring over pictures of the target area for weeks before the strike could have known for sure who or what might have been inside those buildings that night. As it happened, one house in Musa Qala had contained the sleeping family of a local opium trader, Hajji Habibullah. All of them were killed, including Habibullah, his wife, and six children, one of them just a year old. There was no mention of this collateral damage in US media coverage of the attacks, which was by and large uncritical and unquestioning of official claims that the Taliban had suffered a severe financial setback.

In any case, the claims of severe economic damage were highly dubious. According to information collected by local researchers for David Mansfield, a senior fellow at the London School of Economics, considered by many to be among the world’s greatest experts on the Afghan opium economy, the results of the raid were considerably less impressive than advertised. Of the nine buildings hit in Musa Qala, for example, two were reportedly empty. Six were indeed used for cooking opium into heroin — but they, too, were probably empty at the time of the attack, since traders would be loath to leave valuable inventory in a lockup overnight. The following day, according to these on-the-ground reports, it was business as usual at the local drug bazaar. Prices for opium and heroin were unchanged, as were the wages demanded by workers in the “production facilities,” which consisted of little more than a few oil drums, a hot plate, and a connection to a water source. Children playing in the ruins found little trace of opium. Meanwhile, the unhappy fate of the Habibullah family was attracting wide publicity in the region, generating considerable outrage.1

Mansfield has spent much of the past twenty years investigating the realities of the Afghan opium trade, traveling to the most remote and dangerous areas of the country. In a recent conversation, he pointed out that even if the destroyed labs had indeed been full of narcotics, the claims regarding the value of the merchandise were completely implausible, as was the argument that the Taliban would have collected $16 million in taxes. Such a claim presumed that the Taliban was an efficient, monolithic organization exacting unquestioning obedience from a compliant population. “The idea that the Taliban runs a tax system that the IRS would be proud of, in remote rural areas of a country that doesn’t have a centralized government and never has had a centralized government,” he told me, “just doesn’t make sense.”

In any case, Mansfield argued, intelligence assumptions about such fundamental issues as the opium tax rate have long been wildly off. If the Taliban had been due to collect $16 million from the traffickers’ $80 million, that would suggest a rate of 20 percent. But Mansfield’s own research indicates that the figure is much smaller and varies according to the bargaining skills on either side. Displaying a refreshing affection for hard data collected firsthand, he calculated that the true tax rate for a farmer’s opium crop is a maximum of 3 percent, while the heroin rate is 1.5 percent. Not that everyone pays the full whack. “Everything is negotiable in Afghanistan,” Mansfield said, especially since the farming communities are well armed and liable, if pushed too far, to eject the militia or strike a deal with a more accommodating Taliban commander.

Furthermore, Mansfield argued that the $80 million figure cited by Bunch was equally implausible. Even in the (unlikely) event that all the merchandise was high-value heroin, currently priced at $1,100 a kilo in the bazaars, the twenty-five demolished labs would have had to contain an average of three tons of product apiece, worth more than $3 million. As Mansfield saw it, the numbers simply didn’t add up, in this case or in others. In his commentary on another attack video, this time of a building being obliterated by 2,000-pound bombs from a B-52, Nicholson stated confidently that there had been no fewer than “fifty barrels of opium,” worth “millions of dollars,” destroyed. Yet if Mansfield’s pricing information is correct, those fifty barrels, as he reported in a paper for the LSE, “would have been worth at most $190,750, if converted to heroin, and no more than $2,863 to the Taliban in tax.” Overall, he concluded, “The idea that the Taliban are reliant on opium for the war makes no sense whatsoever.”

Rational or not, it is a proposition that has long appealed to Western politicians looking for excuses to occupy Afghanistan. Explaining his logic for joining the American invasion after 9/11, British prime minister Tony Blair assured Parliament that “the Al Qaeda network and the Taliban regime are funded in large part on the drugs trade.” In fact, the Taliban government had effectively banned poppy growing the year before, and Al Qaeda was largely Saudi-funded. When the burgeoning crops that soon followed the regime’s overthrow began attracting international attention, Blair successfully solicited the lead role for Britain in combating this supposed source of Taliban revenue. In Washington, too, bureaucrats at the State Department’s International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs division (known in Washington as Drugs and Thugs) were quick to promote the notion of the Taliban as a drug-fueled enterprise, as did the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

The State Department had already developed a taste for such operations. On the other side of the world, the United States was sponsoring Plan Colombia, premised on a similar theory that the FARC insurgency was dependent on the cocaine business. The government used that as a rationale for spraying toxic herbicide across crops and people in coca-growing regions. William Wood, who as US ambassador to Colombia forcefully pushed the narco-terrorism narrative, moved to head the Kabul embassy in 2007, bringing equal zeal for this approach to his new posting.

For its part, the US military was initially reluctant to treat the conflict in Afghanistan as a drug war, as was the CIA. “Attacking the drug trade,” Michael Hayden, the director of the CIA, told Congress in 2006, “actually feeds the instability that you want to overcome.” (At the time, in fact, the CIA was paying a healthy retainer to Ahmed Wali Karzai, President Hamid Karzai’s half brother and a major player in the local narcotics business.)

For those American officials who considered fighting narcotics as key to combating the Taliban and stabilizing Afghanistan, Gul Agha Sherzai, who had been appointed the governor of Nangarhar province in 2005, was a welcome and indeed exciting ally. “Their attitude was, ‘He’s a real tough guy, and he’s our friend,’ ” recalls Matthew Hoh, a senior civilian adviser in the province during those years who later quit the State Department in protest at the futility of the war. “They were thrilled to know him. He was ‘our Tony Soprano.’ ” Burly, famed for his record as an anti-Soviet guerrilla commander in the Eighties, Sherzai earned the nickname Bulldozer for his ability to deliver, especially on projects cherished by the Americans.

Most importantly, as US officials increasingly fixated on opium as the source of Taliban revenues, he was hailed for ridding his own province of the crop. In 2008, the UN declared Nangarhar “poppy free” — an achievement that earned Sherzai $10 million from a Good Performers Initiative fund set up by the United States and Britain to encourage communities fighting narcotics. Ambassador Wood, known as Chemical Bill for his eagerness to import toxic spraying to the poppy fields, nominated Nangarhar as a “model province.” American aid soon swelled to a torrent. Even presidential candidate Barack Obama dropped by in July 2008 and was so charmed that he invited Sherzai to his inauguration.

The reality was a little different. In his previous role as the governor of his native Kandahar, Sherzai had earned a well-deserved reputation for corruption and cruelty, as well as garnering a healthy income from his extensive involvement in the local opium business. Sarah Chayes, who arrived in Kandahar in 2001 as a journalist, later founded an NGO to help Afghans find an alternative to opium farming, and ultimately served as a senior adviser to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, well understood the reality behind America’s favorite Afghan governor. “He was deeply involved in poppy in Kandahar,” she recalled recently, and when appointed governor of Nangarhar, “what he did was move into processing.” So while Sherzai was basking in plaudits for stamping out opium growing (and impoverishing farmers in the process), he was manufacturing heroin. “Those rewarding him should have known,” Chayes told me. “This was not just the Afghan rumor mill.” Her sources, she said, were at NATO headquarters in Kabul, meaning intelligence. “It was utterly typical of the double games we put up with and rewarded and thus became guilty of ourselves.” 2There is a truism about Afghanistan that gets updated every year. Currently it runs: America has not been in Afghanistan for sixteen years; it has been in Afghanistan for one year, sixteen times. The complete lack of institutional memory may help to explain why the fervor of the anti-opium crusade keeps waxing and waning with policy shifts in Washington. The military, for example, had at first declined to play a major role — but then got on board after counterinsurgency doctrine (COIN) had supposedly helped to best Al Qaeda in Iraq. Applying COIN thinking to Afghanistan, they concluded that Afghan farmers should be weaned from growing opium, thereby lessening Taliban influence. To that end, the military eradicated crops whenever possible and induced farmers to grow something legal and supposedly profitable, such as wheat (though this is normally a subsistence crop in the country). However, Richard Holbrooke, appointed by President Obama to oversee Afghan policy, soon surmised that eradicating crops on which farmers depended for a living was a poor way to win support, and got that stopped, at least for a while. He also questioned the assumption that the Taliban depended on narcotics for funding, brandishing CIA reports that traced much of the group’s money back to our allies in the Gulf oil kingdoms.

Despite these zigzagging shifts in policy, the universal assumption, at least among Western officials and media, was that the United States and its allies were supporting a legitimate Afghan government, albeit one marred by corruption, against a cohesive Taliban insurgency controlled from Pakistan. More complicated narratives were not welcome. One officer who served multiple tours in the country told me that new arrivals were never clued in as to what was really driving the conflict in the area: land disputes, tribal feuds, competition in the drug business. “It was, ‘Welcome to Afghanistan, here’s where you do your laundry, there’s the chow hall. Do a check-fire of your weapon, then go out to your deployment area.’ There was no turnover of institutional knowledge whatsoever.”

This particular officer did make considerable efforts to understand what was going on, and eventually concluded that “Taliban” was “not really a useful term anymore.” In reality, he concluded, the conflict in Helmand province, where he was posted, was fundamentally driven by a long-standing clash between at least two powerful tribes, the Alizai (led by Sher Mohammed Akhundzada) and the Barakzai (led by Malim Mir Wali). Most pertinently, the rival leaders were rumored to head competing drug cartels. “Most of the violence that I saw was not really Taliban-driven,” the officer said, “but cartel-driven.” As he came to understand, each drug lord was constantly seeking to gain greater access to the opium crop at the expense of the other, principally by influencing local police chiefs and government officials. “I think these two individuals and others like them in Afghanistan use ‘Taliban’ to cover their tracks. They will say, ‘There’s terrible things going on, and I blame the Taliban, or I blame Pakistan,’ when they are the ones actually doing it. So on any given day, violence will either remain on the border between their two territories or else push into one or the other’s area.”

My informant added that the drug lords were expert at manipulating American commanders. “You find no greater friend to the American than Sher Mohammed Akhundzada,” he explained. “He speaks English, he rolls out the red carpet, he puts on a feast, and so everybody falls in love with him, never believing that he’s into anything bad. Same thing with Malim Mir Wali. If you go to see him, he’s going to give you the best rice, the best bread, the best chai, and you believe he’s the key to the future. They are master manipulators and excellent politicians.”

In fact, he recalled, there was a period when British troops in Helmand, influenced by Mir Wali, were assaulting Akhundzada’s territory, while the Americans, under Akhundzada’s spell, were doing precisely the opposite. They were carrying out “operations that were making our allies’ lives harder and vice versa because we were caught in the middle of a civil war between two Mafia families.”

To Martin, such manipulating is a familiar story. At once he recalled other cases in which these Mafiosi had exploited outside powers to serve their own ends. Mir Wali, for example, had a profitable line in picking up local men, handing them over to the Special Forces, and collecting the $2,000 bounty being offered for Taliban fighters. Some were sent to Guantánamo and languished there for years. Akhundzada, for his part, was removed from his post as the governor of Helmand after an antinarcotics squad discovered nine tons of opium in his office — a stash, as he later told Martin, that he had stolen from Mir Wali. Having revoked Akhundzada’s governorship, Hamid Karzai nonetheless appointed him a senator in the Afghan parliament. Yet even with this stake in the central government, the wily drug lord hedged his bets by sending several thousand members of his private army to fight the Western and Afghan forces as “Taliban.” Mir Wali, who also sported Taliban colors when it suited him, was a fellow member of parliament at the time.

Martin was a rarity among Westerners in the country in that he spoke fluent Pashto, the language of southern Afghanistan. After leaving the military, he spent years unraveling, through patient conversations with hundreds of locals, the real history of the war in Helmand, going all the way back to the Seventies. His research, infinitely more detailed than that of the American officer quoted above but leading to similar conclusions, is laid out in An Intimate War: An Oral History of the Helmand Conflict, 1978–2012 — an astonishing chronicle of feuds, betrayals, greed, manipulation, cruelty, and (so far as the Americans and the British are concerned) stupidity and ignorance.

At one point, for example, Martin and his unit were asked by a district governor in Helmand to drive the Taliban out of a neighboring village, which they duly did, reinstalling the Afghan government police. He subsequently discovered that the “Taliban” were in fact a village militia formed to drive away the police — members of the governor’s tribe — who had been robbing people and raping local boys. Furthermore, this was the governor’s second stint as a local strongman: he had been chief of police under the Russians twenty years before. The “Taliban” whom he had sent the British to attack had been anti-Soviet resistance fighters in the earlier war.

As Martin recounts, such double-dealing agendas were the norm. The Helmandis adopted whatever label — police, Taliban, government militia — seemed most expedient at the time. Even when knowledgeable Westerners informed their superiors of the true state of affairs, as Sarah Chayes did when she heard of Obama’s visit to Sherzai (“I cringed and tried to convey why that was exactly the wrong thing to do”), the government-versus-insurgency narrative was almost impossible to shake loose. Hence Martin’s comment when I solicited his reaction to the recent strikes on the narcotics facilities: “How can they tell the difference between Taliban labs and government labs? Surely the intelligence came from drug factions pushing their own agenda. If you try and explain some of the complexities to Western officials and tell them, ‘You’re making things worse,’ their faces go blank.” (A military spokesperson said, “We are unaware of any report that says that the government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan is involved in he narcotics trade. The US military does not protect corrupt officials.”)One spectacular example of making things worse can be found in the explosive growth in the 2017 Afghan opium harvest: an eye-catching 87 percent increase over 2016. It was this bumper crop that did much to bolster the American designation of the Taliban as a narco-insurgency and launch the subsequent targeting campaign. According to Mattis, enemy advances and crop growth were closely connected: “As the Taliban surged, we watched the poppy surge right along with it. There’s no surprise here — the intelligence community had warned us about this, so it’s exactly what we were told would happen.”

But why did Helmand farmers really grow so much more opium all of a sudden? In a supreme irony, the root cause would appear to be a multimillion-dollar effort by the United States and Britain to wean them away from opium. Agriculture in the region has traditionally been confined to areas irrigated by the Helmand River as it flows southwest from the Hindu Kush toward the Iranian border. But in the Fifties, Washington had fostered a large-scale irrigation project that produced more fertile land — along with tribal disputes over ownership that underlie much of today’s unrest and violence.

In recent decades, much of that land had been given over to opium. Beginning in 2008, the Americans and British began an ambitious project known as the Helmand Food Zone. The aim was to persuade farmers to shift from opium to wheat by means of inducements (seeds and fertilizer) and force (the prompt destruction of opium crops). Needless to say, the scheme was beset with problems, such as difficulties in seed distribution, which involved a major effort by overstretched British forces traveling over mine-strewn roads. Nevertheless, over most of the designated territory, amber waves of grain did begin to replace the poppy flowers. By 2012, the opium crop in the zone was one quarter of what it had been four years earlier. USAID alone had spent almost half a billion dollars in Helmand, but it did seem the project was working.

Opium, however, is a labor-intensive crop, while wheat is not. This meant that the farmers growing wheat had no need for the laborers and sharecroppers they had previously required. No one had thought about what might happen to the men who had worked on the opium plantations and were now without a livelihood. For many, the solution was to move to the dry desert north of the Boghra Canal — built by the Americans in the Fifties — drill wells, and start planting opium. According to Mansfield, the population in that region went from almost zero in 2008 to 250,000 eight years later. Land was cheap to rent or buy, and planters were free of the unwelcome attentions of the US and Afghan government forces. Thus, as opium production declined in the Helmand Food Zone — to the delight of the project’s sponsors and supporters, such as Senator Dianne Feinstein — the desert began to bloom. By 2012, opium production in the newly worked land exceeded the amount by which it had declined in the Food Zone.

Life in this desert paradise was not without challenges: early on, there were several years of bad harvests. In response, the farmers began switching from diesel pumps, which required expensive fuel and maintenance, to solar-powered Chinese models. Once purchased, these were essentially free to run and appeared to guarantee a limitless supply of water (although the long-term effects are likely to be catastrophic, since the northern Helmand water table is steadily sinking). Thanks to green energy, the farmers were soon pumping so much water that large ponds began appearing all across what had been desert only a year or so earlier. Mansfield recalls seeing these on aerial imagery and thinking, “What’s this? Afghans are getting into swimming in a big way?” To further boost yield, growers also turned to a wide range of herbicides, including such locally labeled brands as Zanmargai (“Suicide Bomber”) and Cruise (as in cruise missile).

Back in the Food Zone, meanwhile, all was not well. Though the presence of Western armies had for a while helped to suppress opium farming, the Afghan government had done little to endear itself to the local population, who complained angrily of everything from official corruption in wheat-seed distribution to bribery in the eradication program. Once the foreign troops pulled out in 2014, along with the hefty sums they had been injecting into the local economy Afghan units were expelled from much of the area. Few farmers in the zone had been able to make an adequate living out of promoted alternatives like cotton or wheat. Now they eagerly began planting poppy again, thereby adding their bumper 2017 crop to the one sprouting in the new plantations.

In sum, the net effect of the most intensive effort ever to curb opium in Afghanistan was that the local crop almost doubled. Predictably, the actual reasons for this explosion went unexplored in official pronouncements, even as interested bureaucratic parties defaulted to familiar tropes regarding Taliban control of the business, which was now claimed to extend to processing. “I pretty firmly feel they are processing all the harvest,” declared William Brownfield, the assistant secretary for drugs and law enforcement (another graduate of the Colombian program), in an August 2017 interview. “Where was the evidence for that?” asked David Mansfield. “He felt it?” Nevertheless, Brownfield’s data-free hunch was now being translated into policy as the military, long dubious as to the merits of targeting labs from the air, finally signed on, and the bombs began to fall.

It’s very hard for people to integrate truth into the narrative,” Martin told me in a long Skype conversation from Ethiopia, where he was en route to Somalia. We had been discussing the intricacies of tribal politics in Helmand and how such knowledge was essential to an understanding of the situation. But absorbing, for example, the twists and turns of Barakzai tribal history, or exactly how a farmer negotiates tax payments with the Taliban, does not fully reveal the story of the current war in Afghanistan. That requires some additional knowledge of the various cultures and subcultures at play on both sides — American as well as Afghan — and what really motivates them.

For example, Air Force publicity about the initial drug-lab raids emphasized the role played by the F-22 Raptor, a fifth-generation stealth fighter supposedly capable of evading enemy radar and costing, once all charges are included, in excess of $400 million per plane. When asked why it had been necessary to include this plane in the attacking force, Bunch invoked its ability to carry the GBU-39 Small Diameter Bomb, “which allowed us to be extremely precise, yet still target the Taliban narcotics labs and not cause any undue collateral damage.”

But that particular bomb, which is in fact destructive over a wide area, can be carried by other planes. There were more weighty reasons to send the Raptor all the way from its base in Qatar (requiring multiple and expensive aerial refuelings along the way) to destroy a $500 drug lab. Though in service for twelve of the sixteen years we have been at war in Afghanistan, the plane has hitherto played no combat role, prompting potentially awkward questions about the worth of such expensive high-technology projects in modern warfare. It turns out that the groundwork is currently being laid for a sixth-generation fighter, projected to enter service a decade or so from now, which will be equipped with many novel and inevitably costly features. Highlighting the relevance of high-tech machines, and the budgets they justify, was therefore a powerful incentive for the Air Force to put the Raptor on display.

While the Air Force’s zealous promotion of its bombing doctrine helps to explain why the United States apparently now believes that Afghanistan can be pacified from 20,000 feet, other features of American military culture, often unknown to outsiders, have also had their effect on the country. I’m told that the Marines, for example, pushed for a major role in Afghanistan partly because most of the force that had earlier been sent to Iraq had come from units based on the East Coast. Now the West Coast Marines wanted a chance to earn their share of battle honors, promotions, and so forth.

Afghans who find bombs landing on their heads may not necessarily understand that at least some of their plight is a byproduct of US military personnel practices, notably the competition-based system for promotions. “If you get violent,” the US officer quoted above explained to me, “if you call in an air strike, not only do you get a combat ribbon and possibly an award for valor, but it also makes your report a combat report. When you have multiple combat reports and others do not, you’re more competitive for promotion and assignment to prestigious billets.” So even though the best course of action might be nonviolent, the culture is predisposed toward violence. “When you suggest doing something else,” the officer told me, “guys will say, ‘You’re overthinking this. These people just need to be killed.’ ”

General Nicholson has said that the strategy endorsed by Trump last summer puts our side “on a path to win” in Afghanistan. He is at least the eighth senior American commander to pledge impending victory in those sixteen years of war. He will doubtless not be the last.

 

Facebook’s profile: 5 things to know about the world’s biggest social network

More than two billion of us use this social network — but even just 15 years ago it didn’t exist. The question is: How did Facebook come to dominate the web?

March 21, 2018

by Ajit Niranjan

DW

Facebook has gone from a small startup to a major player in our daily lives — and global geopolitics. DW answers five basic questions about the controversial tech titan.

What?

It started life as Facemash — a site to rate fellow students as “hot” or “not” — in a Harvard University dormitory room in 2003. That quickly evolved into something similar to its current form: thefacebook.com. At first, the network was a way for Harvard students to socialize online. But it quickly spread to other universities, then high schools, and then the general public as it gained new features. Users could post content on other profiles and tag their friends in photos.

When?

Facebook’s timeline is a tale of rapid growth. At the end of 2004 it already had a million registered users. By 2008 it had 100 million — and four years after that it had surpassed a billion. Now, with an estimated 2.2 billion active monthly users, Facebook is a part of life for more than a quarter of the world’s population.

Who?

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is the fifth-richest person in the world. The 33 year old former psychology student, easily recognizable in his uniform of t-shirt-and jeans, has become synonymous with the social network. But other faces were involved in getting it off the ground. Together with three fellow Harvard students at the time — Dustin Moskovitz, Chris Hughes and Eduardo Saverin Tyler — Zuckerberg cofounded Facebook. He was later sued by former business partners, Cameron and Tyler Winkelvoss, for allegedly stealing their idea. The story inspired the 2010 film The Social Network.

Today Facebook is run by CEO Zuckerberg, his chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg, and a handful of business people with technical backgrounds. The company employs about 25,000 employees in dozens of countries across the world.

How much?

The first outside investment in the company came from Paypal founder Peter Thiel, who bought a 10-percent stake in the company for half a billion dollars when Facebook was still getting off the ground in 2004. Facebook is free to use, but the company makes money through advertising and online marketing, which it can target at users based on their interests. Facebook’s total revenue in 2017 was about $40 billion (€33 billion).

Why?

Facebook claims its purpose is to make the world more open and transparent. Its founding principles identify three constraints to achieving this: law, technology, and evolving social norms.

In a Facebook post at the start of the year, Zuckerberg announced his challenge for the year was to “fix Facebook.” He wrote: “The world feels anxious and divided, and Facebook has a lot of work to do — whether it’s protecting our community from abuse and hate, defending against interference by nation states, or making sure that time spent on Facebook is time well spent.”

 

Facebook ‘hypocrites’ working against online privacy law – campaigner

March 21, 2018

RT

Tech giants including Facebook and Google are pumping millions of dollars into halting new laws in California which would expand online privacy protections. Campaigners hope this week’s revelations will force a Facebook climbdown.

As Facebook’s share price tumbled this week following the Cambridge Analytica debacle the the chief supporter of the California Consumer Privacy Act of 2018 accused the Silicon Valley behemoth, and its CEO Mark Zuckerberg, of being two faced.

“Right now, Facebook’s money is saying something different than what they are telling the world,” Alastair Mactaggart said. In an open letter to Zuckerberg, Mactaggart says he was disappointed to learn Facebook is pouring hundreds of thousands of dollars into efforts to defeat the act.

Last month Facebook joined Google, Comcast, Verizon and AT&T in contributing more than $1 million to a political action committee set up to oppose the measure, the LA Times reports.

The act would require companies to disclose what personal information from Californians tech companies could collect, buy or share. It would allow consumers to “opt out” from those practices and would prevent businesses from charging a higher price to those who make that choice.

It would also give civilians power to file civil lawsuits after a data breach or for selling their personal information.

“Something’s not adding up here,” Mactaggart wrote. “You have claimed the Cambridge Analytica data breach was not a breach, and that you do not sell users’ personal information—but either it was a breach, or a sale.  If not a breach, we are forced to conclude that Facebook sold Cambridge Analytica access to over 50 million users’ personal information, most of whom NEVER consented to having their personal information shared.”

The privacy campaigner said Facebook needs to be honest with its users and shareholders about what information was collected, sold or breached in the Cambridge Analytica case. He also called on it to come clean about its opposition to the California Consumer Privacy Act.

 

‘Child porn links could make Bitcoin blockchain illegal’

March 21, 2018

BBC News

Researchers in Germany have found hundreds of links to child sexual abuse imagery on Bitcoin’s blockchain.

This could make using the blockchain, a digital ledger of crypto-currency transactions, illegal.

The study, from RWTH Aachen University, also said other files on the blockchain may violate copyright and privacy laws.

Researchers said they had found eight files with sexual content. And three of these contained content “objectionable for almost all jurisdictions”.

Two of these between them listed more than 200 links to child sexual abuse imagery, the study said.

And if records of the files were stored on users’ computers, they may be in violation of the law.

Garrick Hileman, a crypto-currency expert at Cambridge University, said the issue of illegal content had been “discussed and known about for awhile.”

Pruning, or altering parts of the blockchain ledger, would allow users to rid their local copies of illegal content, he said, but was likely to be too technical for most Bitcoin users.

“There are big barriers anytime you need to make modifications,” Mr Hileman said.

But he added that although maintaining a complete record of the blockchain was more secure than an altered copy, “many would argue that it’s not that important”.

 

‘Christianity as default is gone’: the rise of a non-Christian Europe

Figures show a majority of young adults in 12 countries have no faith, with Czechs least religious

March 20, 2018

by Harriet Sherwood Religion correspondent

The Guardian

Europe’s march towards a post-Christian society has been starkly illustrated by research showing a majority of young people in a dozen countries do not follow a religion.

The survey of 16- to 29-year-olds found the Czech Republic is the least religious country in Europe, with 91% of that age group saying they have no religious affiliation. Between 70% and 80% of young adults in Estonia, Sweden and the Netherlands also categorise themselves as non-religious.

The most religious country is Poland, where 17% of young adults define themselves as non-religious, followed by Lithuania with 25%.

the UK, only 7% of young adults identify as Anglican, fewer than the 10% who categorise themselves as Catholic. Young Muslims, at 6%, are on the brink of overtaking those who consider themselves part of the country’s established church.

The figures are published in a report, Europe’s Young Adults and Religion, by Stephen Bullivant, a professor of theology and the sociology of religion at St Mary’s University in London. They are based on data from the European social survey 2014-16.

Religion was “moribund”, he said. “With some notable exceptions, young adults increasingly are not identifying with or practising religion.”

The trajectory was likely to become more marked. “Christianity as a default, as a norm, is gone, and probably gone for good – or at least for the next 100 years,” Bullivant said.

But there were significant variations, he said. “Countries that are next door to one another, with similar cultural backgrounds and histories, have wildly different religious profiles.”

The two most religious countries, Poland and Lithuania, and the two least religious, the Czech Republic and Estonia, are post-communist states.

The trend of religious affiliation was repeated when young people were asked about religious practice. Only in Poland, Portugal and Ireland did more than 10% of young people say they attend services at least once a week.

In the Czech Republic, 70% said they never went to church or any other place of worship, and 80% said they never pray. In the UK, France, Belgium, Spain and the Netherlands, between 56% and 60% said they never go to church, and between 63% and 66% said they never pray.

Among those identifying as Catholic, there was wide variation in levels of commitment. More than 80% of young Poles say they are Catholic, with about half going to mass at least once a week. In Lithuania, where 70% of young adults say they are Catholic, only 5% go to mass weekly.

According to Bullivant, many young Europeans “will have been baptised and then never darken the door of a church again. Cultural religious identities just aren’t being passed on from parents to children. It just washes straight off them.”

The figures for the UK were partly explained by high immigration, he added. “One in five Catholics in the UK were not born in the UK.

“And we know the Muslim birthrate is higher than the general population, and they have much higher [religious] retention rates.”

In Ireland, there has been a significant decline in religiosity over the past 30 years, “but compared to anywhere else in western Europe, it still looks pretty religious”, Bullivant said.

“The new default setting is ‘no religion’, and the few who are religious see themselves as swimming against the tide,” he said.

“In 20 or 30 years’ time, mainstream churches will be smaller, but the few people left will be highly committed.”

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