Julian Assange

Julian Assange Languishes in Prison as His Journalistic Collaborators Brandish Their Prizes

While Julian Assange languishes in south London’s maximum security Belmarsh Prison, a British court is weighing his fate. The 48-year-old Australian founder of Wikileaks is serving time for the minor crime of jumping bail by taking asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy in 2012 to avoid extradition to Sweden. His fear at the time was that the Swedes, with a track record of assisting rendition of suspects sought by the U.S., would send him straight across the Atlantic. Now that he has lost his diplomatic refuge, 70 British members of Parliament have petitioned to dispatch Assange to Sweden if prosecutors there reopen the case they closed in 2017. The greater threat to his liberty is the United States Department of Justice’s extradition demand for him to stand trial in the U.S. for conspiring with Chelsea Manning to hack a government computer.

The U.S. insists Assange will not face the death penalty. If he did, Britain, in common with other European states, would not be able to send him there. The maximum sentence for the hacking offense is five years, but there is no guarantee that, once he arrives in the U.S., he will not face additional charges under the Espionage Act of 1917 that President Barack Obama used against nine individuals for allegedly leaking secret information to the public. The sentence for that offense could be death or life in prison. If Assange ends up in the U.S. federal judicial system, he may never been seen again.

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The Danger of Judging by Appearance and the Power of Reaching Out

They call themselves the OWGs, Old White Guys. The oldest is 78, the youngest 65. Their profile fits the pundits’ picture of Trump voters: white, Christian and born before the Vietnam War. Their home is Raleigh, North Carolina, in the old Confederacy, which allegedly breeds bigots. But these white senior citizens are doing more than the police or social services to oppose the bigotry that breeds violence between races and religions. It started with three murders on their doorstep.

It was just after 5 p.m. on Feb. 10, 2015, prosecutors allege, when a 46-year-old white male named Craig Stephen Hicks entered his neighbors’ apartment in Chapel Hill, about 30 miles from Raleigh, and shot dead three unarmed university students. The victims were sisters Yusor and Razan Abu-Salha and Yusor’s husband, Deah Barakat. The women were 21 and 19. Deah, a lanky 6-foot-3-inch basketball lover, was 23. Photographs taken while they were alive portray three healthy, smiling young Americans who happened to be Muslim. Before Deah and Yusor had completed their dental studies at the University of North Carolina or Razan could earn her architecture degree, they were dead. Hicks is expected to face trial on murder charges this summer.

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Ruins at Zamalka, Ghouta, Syria, 22nd Feb 2018

Tell me how this ends

In January 2017, following Donald Trump’s inauguration, his national security staffers entered their White House offices for the first time. One told me that when he searched for the previous administration’s Middle East policy files, the cupboard was bare. “There wasn’t an overarching strategy document for anywhere in the Middle East,” the senior official, who insisted on anonymity, told me in a coffee shop near the White House. “Not even on the ISIS campaign, so there wasn’t a cross-governmental game plan.”

Rob Malley, President Barack Obama’s senior Middle East adviser and Harvard Law School classmate, denied the charge. “That can’t be true,” the fifty-­five-­year-­old scholar insisted when we met in his office at the International Crisis Group in Washington. “We provided comprehensive memoranda to the incoming team, though we can’t know if they read them. We definitely had a long one on Syria, on all aspects of the conflict.”

I have observed the Syrian conflict off and on since it began, in 2011, filing stories from Damascus, Aleppo, Homs, Palmyra, the Turkish border, and other zones of contention. But the story as seen from inside Syria seemed as incomplete as the Trojan War without the gods. In the conflagration’s eighth year, I flew to the Olympian heights of Washington to ask the immortals what they were doing while an estimated half million of Syria’s twenty-­three million inhabitants were dying, millions more fled the country, and some of civilization’s most precious monuments were destroyed…

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Destruction in Homs

Syria: A Savage Peace

Workmen throughout Syria are erecting bronze, stone, and concrete statues in what the government calls “liberated areas.” Some of the monuments are newly cast, while others have been in storage since the conflict began in 2011. At that time, protesters in rebellious cities like Dera’a and Homs were desecrating the sculptures of longtime president Hafez al-Assad, his successor Bashar, and Bashar’s older brother, Bassel, the designated heir who died before ascending the throne. It was perhaps an omen of the rebellion’s destiny that popular legend had a massive bust of Hafez in Idlib killing two demonstrators as it crashed to earth. Seven years on, the effigies, like the regime they embody, are back. The war isn’t over, but the postwar era has begun.

Outright victory remains elusive. The Syrian army controls about 60 percent of the land and 80 percent of the resident population of about 16.5 million people, leaving three sectors of the country yet to be “liberated”…

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Brexit, Brexit Everywhere

I’ve just returned to Britain after many months away, and it’s as if I never left. When Rip Van Winkle woke up from his 20-year slumber, he encountered a world altered beyond recognition. The United Kingdom, however, is mired in the same debate that has raged for years over how and whether to sever its ties to the European Union. The fracas that dominated the airwaves, newspapers and public discussion a year, even two years, ago has not budged. The crisis is no nearer resolution than it was when a slim majority voted to leave the European Union in the referendum of June 2016. Spokespeople for the Brexit faction are still demanding that Parliament implement the people’s will, while their opponents warn that departure on any terms harms the country more than staying in. Both have a case, but nothing is moving.

The discussion should be reasoned and thoughtful, but it isn’t. Instead, Parliament is staging a show, asserting its authority over the executive as it hasn’t done since Tony Blair turned the House of Commons into a rubber stamp for his Labour government’s policies. The House of Commons has become a circus with Speaker John Bercow playing ringmaster to unruly clowns, wild beasts and high-wire acts. Only the Liberal Democrats are united on the issue, standing firmly to Remain, but they have only 11 seats in Parliament. Within the two major parties, loyalties have evaporated. Brexiteers and Remainers sit on both Labour and Conservative benches. Moreover, extreme Brexiteers are voting with extreme Remainers to block the terms for withdrawal that Prime Minister Theresa May negotiated with the other 27 members of the European Union. They don’t want to keep Britain in a European customs union, especially when it will have no say on its rules. The Remainers who voted against May don’t like her deal for the opposite reason: Its rejection, they believe, will force either a general election or a second referendum to reverse the outcome of the first. Add to that the confusion over whether the physical border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland should be restored and jeopardize peace in the north, and you have a free-for-all that no one predicted during the 2016 referendum campaign.

The bloodshed has spread from Parliament to the pubs and the peaceful homes that Englishmen ostensibly regard as their castles. My own family, which is fairly evenly divided, allowed passions to rise so high over Christmas that we banned the topic from the dinner table. The irrepressible Stanley Johnson, father of two Conservative members of parliament famed for their conflicting stances, told me his Christmas was more fraught. Son Jo had resigned as a government minister because he favors Europe, and older son Boris quit as foreign secretary to lead the Brexiteers against May. Each boy is adamant that his way is the only way. Stanley, as he was about to carve the turkey, asked his offspring, “Which is it to be, boys, breast or thigh?”…

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Too late to be lucky

December 7 was the anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 and of the birth thirteen years earlier of Noam Chomsky. Pearl Harbor led to American global dominance at the same time as Chomsky’s insights into the nature of language were beginning to have an impact on linguistic theory, philosophy and psychology. Chomsky is also an outspoken critic of his country’s foreign policy. Expanding his critique of B. F. Skinner’s and W. V. O. Quine’s behaviourist determinism to the political realm, he has developed a libertarian and socialist vision of free will, opposition to concentrations of private and state power, and resistance to the abuse of power at home and abroad.

Throughout his adult life, from his moral opposition to America’s invasion of Vietnam to his country’s more recent adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq, Chomsky has argued that the US behaves much as its Spanish, British and French imperial predecessors once did. Moreover, he notes, the US has employed the same moral language to cover what appear to be global atrocities. Like Marlow in Heart of Darkness, he believes, “The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much”. Those Chomsky has consistently condemned must feel that he has looked into it too damned much…

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Free Austin Tice

The Enduring Search for a Missing American Journalist in Syria

Debra and Marc Tice left Beirut last week without their son. It was a disappointing, if unsurprising, end to their eighth trip to the Lebanese capital in the six years since Austin Tice, a freelance journalist and law student, vanished while covering the war in Syria. The Tices knocked on doors, hosted a press conference and applied for Syrian visas to plead for the Syrian government’s assistance in freeing their captive son. Their meetings in Beirut produced little more than sympathy, their dignified presentation to the press corps received minimal coverage and the Syrian government did not grant them visas.

Now, they anticipate their sixth Christmas at home in Houston without the eldest of their seven children. Austin Tice’s disappearance and prolonged captivity constitute a mystery that cries out for a solution. It began with his decision in 2012, just before the summer vacation preceding his final year at Georgetown University’s law school, to publicize the suffering of the Syrian people…

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Marie Colvin Dedicated Her Extraordinary Life to Describing “What Really Happens in Wars”

The extraordinary life of war reporter Marie Colvin would have merited a biography even if she had survived the Syrian army’s bombardment of Homs in February 2012. Long before her fatal trip into the city’s rebel-held Baba Amr quarter, producers had proposed turning her life into an action-packed movie. It was only after her death that two films, a documentary and a drama, appeared. Now, Lindsey Hilsum has written the book “In Extremis: The Life and Death of the War Correspondent Marie Colvin,” and it is one of the best biographies I have read about any journalist. Colvin’s trajectory, personal as much as professional, was fascinating by any standard for the passion and turmoil that shadowed her from birth to untimely death. This is a great story, well told.

The controversy surrounding Colvin’s death partially overshadowed her achievements in life. Her family, friends, and Syrian opposition believe that the Syrian government assassinated her by targeting the Homs Media Center, where she and other correspondents were sending vivid reports of civilian suffering. Yet countervailing narratives persist. One is that the insurgents put journalists in harm’s way to create Western martyrs for their cause. Another is that Colvin and 28-year-old French photographer Rémi Ochlik were unlucky casualties of a military campaign that took thousands of civilian lives.

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Saudi Consulate doors Istanbul

Seeing Khashoggi’s Fate as a Death Foretold

The killing of Jamal Khashoggi was a death foretold from the time his comments on Saudi Arabia’s crown prince and effective ruler, Mohammed bin Salman, reached the royal court. Princes do not tolerate what they perceive to be insults, especially from commoners. In an absolute monarchy, the difference between criticism and treason does not pertain. Khashoggi, for years a loyal subject of the monarchy, dared to suggest that his country refrain from devastating its smaller neighbor, Yemen, and permit the kingdom’s inhabitants a measure of freedom. That was enough for his liege lord to perceive him as an enemy of his person and of the state. The official Saudi line denies the crown prince’s complicity in Khashoggi’s death, but it would have been understood by members of the Saudi government that if Khashoggi continued, others would follow. The Western powers that have played a decisive role in the Saudi kingdom throughout the past century should not be shocked at what happened to Khashoggi. His death is one of many they have ignored since Abdulaziz Ibn Saud founded the kingdom in the Arabian Peninsula and named it for his family.

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World War Two’s Covert Ops Are Failing in the Post-War World

Before President Barack Obama authorized clandestine operations to defeat Syrian President Bashar al Assad in 2013, he asked the CIA to write the history of its secret wars. The classified document, say those who have read it, is a record of failure from Albania to Cuba to Angola to Nicaragua. Yet Obama went ahead with the covert program for Syria, which the CIA ran from Turkey and Jordan. Like its predecessors, Operation Timber Sycamore failed. It neither toppled Assad nor prevented Salafi jihadi fanatics from dominating the Syrian opposition. President Trump cancelled the program in July last year, but he is not immune to the siren call of another secret war – in his case, against Iran with as much chance of a positive outcome as Syria.

Why the fascination with arming foreign insurgents and proxy armies to fight wars that the US won’t fight itself? “We’re busily training, you know, local troops to fight local militants, why do we think we have this aptitude for creating armies?” Andrew Bacevich, a retired army colonel and author of America’s War for the Greater Middle East, once told me. “I don’t know. It sure as hell didn’t work in Vietnam.” Two reasons stand out. One is that, as Bacevich explained, insurgencies are wars “on the cheap,” not only in dollars but in assuring the public that American soldiers’ lives are not in danger. It is also a midway point between invasion and doing nothing. And most American presidents, faced with an opportunity to undermine rival states, want to do something.

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