Inside the NSA’s Secret Efforts to Hunt and Hack System Administrators

Inside the NSA’s Secret Efforts to Hunt and Hack System Administrators

By Ryan Gallagher and Peter Maass
The Intercept
March 20, 2014

Across the world, people who work as system administrators keep computer networks in order – and this has turned them into unwitting targets of the National Security Agency for simply doing their jobs. According to a secret document provided by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, the agency tracks down the private email and Facebook accounts of system administrators (or sys admins, as they are often called), before hacking their computers to gain access to the networks they control.

The document consists of several posts – one of them is titled “I hunt sys admins” – that were published in 2012 on an internal discussion board hosted on the agency’s classified servers. They were written by an NSA official involved in the agency’s effort to break into foreign network routers, the devices that connect computer networks and transport data across the Internet. By infiltrating the computers of system administrators who work for foreign phone and Internet companies, the NSA can gain access to the calls and emails that flow over their networks.

The classified posts reveal how the NSA official aspired to create a database that would function as an international hit list of sys admins to potentially target. Yet the document makes clear that the admins are not suspected of any criminal activity – they are targeted only because they control access to networks the agency wants to infiltrate. “Who better to target than the person that already has the ‘keys to the kingdom’?” one of the posts says.

The NSA wants more than just passwords. The document includes a list of other data that can be harvested from computers belonging to sys admins, including network maps, customer lists, business correspondence and, the author jokes, “pictures of cats in funny poses with amusing captions.” The posts, boastful and casual in tone, contain hacker jargon  (pwn, skillz, zomg, internetz) and are punctuated with expressions of mischief. “Current mood: devious,” reads one, while another signs off, “Current mood: scheming.”

The author of the posts, whose name is being withheld by The Intercept, is a network specialist in the agency’s Signals Intelligence Directorate, according to other NSA documents. The same author wrote secret presentations related to the NSA’s controversial program to identify users of the Tor browser – a privacy-enhancing tool that allows people to browse the Internet anonymously. The network specialist, who served as a private contractor prior to joining the NSA, shows little respect for hackers who do not work for the government. One post expresses disdain for the quality of presentations at Blackhat and Defcon, the computer world’s premier security and hacker conferences:


It is unclear how precise the NSA’s hacking attacks are or how the agency ensures that it excludes Americans from the intrusions. The author explains in one post that the NSA scours the Internet to find people it deems “probable” administrators, suggesting a lack of certainty in the process and implying that the wrong person could be targeted. It is illegal for the NSA to deliberately target Americans for surveillance without explicit prior authorization. But the employee’s posts make no mention of any measures that might be taken to prevent hacking the computers of Americans who work as sys admins for foreign networks. Without such measures, Americans who work on such networks could potentially fall victim to an NSA infiltration attempt.

The NSA declined to answer questions about its efforts to hack system administrators or explain how it ensures Americans are not mistakenly targeted. Agency spokeswoman Vanee’ Vines said in an email statement: “A key part of the protections that apply to both U.S. persons and citizens of other countries is the mandate that information be in support of a valid foreign intelligence requirement, and comply with U.S. Attorney General-approved procedures to protect privacy rights.”

As The Intercept revealed last week, clandestine hacking has become central to the NSA’s mission in the past decade. The agency is working to aggressively scale its ability to break into computers to perform what it calls “computer network exploitation,” or CNE: the collection of intelligence from covertly infiltrated computer systems. Hacking into the computers of sys admins is particularly controversial because unlike conventional targets – people who are regarded as threats – sys admins are not suspected of any wrongdoing.

In a post calling sys admins “a means to an end,” the NSA employee writes, “Up front, sys admins generally are not my end target. My end target is the extremist/terrorist or government official that happens to be using the network some admin takes care of.”

The first step, according to the posts, is to collect IP addresses that are believed to be linked to a network’s sys admin. An IP address is a series of numbers allocated to every computer that connects to the Internet. Using this identifier, the NSA can then run an IP address through the vast amount of signals intelligence data, or SIGINT, that it collects every day, trying to match the IP address to personal accounts.

“What we’d really like is a personal webmail or Facebook account to target,” one of the posts explains, presumably because, whereas IP addresses can be shared by multiple people, “alternative selectors” like a webmail or Facebook account can be linked to a particular target. You can “dumpster-dive for alternate selectors in the big SIGINT trash can” the author suggests. Or “pull out your wicked Google-fu” (slang for efficient Googling) to search for any “official and non-official e-mails” that the targets may have posted online.

Once the agency believes it has identified a sys admin’s personal accounts, according to the posts, it can target them with its so-called QUANTUM hacking techniques. The Snowden files reveal that the QUANTUM methods have been used to secretly inject surveillance malware into a Facebook page by sending malicious NSA data packets that appear to originate from a genuine Facebook server. This method tricks a target’s computer into accepting the malicious packets, allowing the NSA to infect the targeted computer with a malware “implant” and gain unfettered access to the data stored on its hard drive.

“Just pull those selectors, queue them up for QUANTUM, and proceed with the pwnage,” the author of the posts writes. (“Pwnage,” short for “pure ownage,” is gamer-speak for defeating opponents.) The author adds, triumphantly, “Yay! /throws confetti in the air.”

In one case, these tactics were used by the NSA’s British counterpart, Government Communications Headquarters, or GCHQ, to infiltrate the Belgian telecommunications company Belgacom. As Der Speigel revealed last year, Belgacom’s network engineers were targeted by GCHQ in a QUANTUM mission named “Operation Socialist” – with the British agency hacking into the company’s systems in an effort to monitor smartphones.

While targeting innocent sys admins may be surprising on its own, the “hunt sys admins” document reveals how the NSA network specialist secretly discussed building a “master list” of sys admins across the world, which would enable an attack to be initiated on one of them the moment their network was thought to be used by a person of interest. One post outlines how this process would make it easier for the NSA’s specialist hacking unit, Tailored Access Operations (TAO), to infiltrate networks and begin collecting, or “tasking,” data:


Aside from offering up thoughts on covert hacking tactics, the author of these posts also provides a glimpse into internal employee complaints at the NSA. The posts describe how the agency’s spies gripe about having “dismal infrastructure” and a “Big Data Problem” because of the massive volume of information being collected by NSA surveillance systems. For the author, however, the vast data troves are actually something to be enthusiastic about.

“Our ability to pull bits out of random places of the Internet, bring them back to the mother-base to evaluate and build intelligence off of is just plain awesome!” the author writes. “One of the coolest things about it is how much data we have at our fingertips.”

Micah Lee contributed to this report

Documents published with this article:


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Coal ash unmonitored in fill sites across N.C.

Coal ash unmonitored in fill sites across N.C.

By Bruce Henderson
The Charlotte Observer
April 20, 2014

Coal ash, infamous for its recent splash into the Dan River, also lies along Charlotte’s outerbelt.

It’s next to a Huntersville car dealership and under a Lowe’s store in Mooresville.

The ash was used to level ground and fill gullies. Duke Energy once sold it for 50 cents to $1 a ton, disposing of waste – and a liability – it would otherwise have had to store in ponds or landfills.

At least 1.8 million cubic yards of dry ash are buried in nearly two dozen places around Charlotte, not counting power plants. That’s enough to cover 1,100 acres a foot deep in ash.

An unknown amount of wet ash, removed from ponds and regulated separately, was also used as fill material. The state can’t locate records before 2011 that would show where or how large those sites are.

State standards are so minimal that even property owners, much less their neighbors, might not know what’s underfoot. And while ash has a known ability to contaminate groundwater, fill sites are rarely tested.

State officials acknowledge the need for stronger regulation.

Gov. Pat McCrory said last week that he would temporarily ban large coal ash fills, but make exceptions for its use in airport runways and roads. Duke has proposed hauling ash to Charlotte’s airport.

The N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources said four years ago that ash fills should be regulated like landfills, which require liners and groundwater testing. That hasn’t happened.

“There’s absolutely no oversight of these structural fills and that seems problematic,” said Rep. Pricey Harrison, a Greensboro Democrat who has pushed legislation to tighten ash rules since 2009. “It’s sort of a silent, lurking issue that’s not getting any attention.”

Risks just like Duke’s ponds

State inspectors have focused on Duke Energy’s 33 North Carolina ash ponds since a spectacular spill into the Dan River on Feb. 2.

Those ponds have no liners to keep the potentially toxic metals in ash away from groundwater. But they’re encircled by wells, which are used to detect metals. Groundwater near ponds at all of Duke’s coal-fired power plants in the state is contaminated.

Structural fills regulated as solid waste are also unlined. But only one owner among the 77 fill sites across the state is required to regularly test groundwater.

Dennis Lemly, a research biologist with Wake Forest University and the U.S. Forest Services who studies the effects of coal ash contaminants, said ash fills pose the same hazards as ash ponds.

“Structural fill using coal ash is just like moving the original unlined pit of ash at the power plant to another unlined pit location,” Lemly said. “There is no reduction of environmental or public health risk from leaching of toxins, although a catastrophic spill into a river may be avoided.”

John Daniels, UNC Charlotte’s interim chair of civil and environmental engineering, studies the ability of metals in ash to leach into groundwater. Years of experience with ash fills have revealed no pattern of environmental problems, he said.

“We have well-defined procedures and approaches to safely manage this material,” said Daniels, who has consulted for Duke. “When you find concerns, it’s generally where these practices are not followed.”

Most of the known fill sites in Mecklenburg and surrounding counties were built in the 1990s, using ash from Duke or textile manufacturer Fieldcrest Cannon. Duke also built large structural fills at its power plants on lakes Norman and Wylie.

The solid waste rules leave it to the fill-site owner to prevent contamination. Duke made clear to ash buyers that they assumed responsibility for compliance, state records show.

At an ash fill site near Rocky Mount, groundwater still shows high levels of barium, arsenic and lead six years after it was first detected. The owner was fined $4,000 in 2006. Contaminated water was also found at a fill site in Northampton County; that site’s owner was fined $13,875.

Without groundwater monitoring at other sites, said Ellen Lorscheider, a N.C. Division of Waste Management official, “we don’t have the data to show if there is or if there isn’t” contamination.

The roads, parking lots and buildings that cover most fill sites serve as a protective cap, she said, keeping rainwater from soaking through the ash and into groundwater.

A round of state inspections in 2009, after a massive ash spill in Tennessee, found violations at 15 fill sites, including eight near Charlotte. Owners of six sites broke rules intended to prevent ash from reaching water.

State records of the 23 Charlotte-area sites include photos of badly eroded fill sites and uncovered ash deposits. Solid-waste inspectors reported a stream running through one site and an undisclosed well at another. Their reports don’t show any follow-up action.

Much unknown about fill sites

State records don’t reveal the full extent of ash-fill sites in North Carolina.

Some were built before 1994, when North Carolina started regulating them as solid waste. The state has required annual reports on wet ash taken from ponds since 2006.

Duke says it didn’t sell ash for off-site use until the early 1990s, when ash began to accumulate in the ponds where it had settled for decades. Most of the ash disposed outside its power plants was in dry form, said spokeswoman Lisa Hoffmann. Most ash that Duke now produces and is not used for other purposes, such as making cement, is stored dry in landfills.

Solid waste records show that 11 million cubic yards of ash has been buried in 77 structural fills throughout North Carolina since 1994. The volume of ash isn’t listed for seven sites because they pre-date the rules. Ash buried at 11 more sites isn’t recorded on property deeds, as the rules require.

Solid waste officials cited the N.C. Department of Transportation in 2009 for not filing documents about ash used under a Rowan County road project.

Even when ash notices are attached to deeds, property owners can be unaware of them.

“Your telling me we have coal ash here is the first I’ve heard about it,” said Huntersville Ford owner Dan Parks. The dealership leases a 15-acre site where, state records show, 75,000 tons of ash was dumped in the late 1990s. The property was sold in 2002.

The deed to the 25 acres in Mooresville that home-improvement retailer Lowe’s bought in 1998 gave no hint that 500,000 tons of ash is buried there. Lowe’s says the ash’s presence was disclosed by the previous owner.

“The use of coal ash as structural fill is heavily regulated, and the previous owners of this property insured the site was compliant and secured the proper approvals at the time of development,” Lowe’s said in a statement. “Site testing since we have owned the property indicates the material is not hazardous.”

State officials also can’t find records for a large fill site in Gaston County.

Duke and the property owner described the site to the Observer in 2009. It is a 450,000-cubic-yard fill in a horse pasture near Lake Wylie. No liners were laid under the ash, and nearby homes rely on groundwater.

State officials, in routine testing, sampled a community well closest to the site in 2011. They found no metals suggesting contamination, but weren’t aware of the nearby ash deposit.

Proposals to tighten rules

The legislature’s Environmental Review Commission is mulling ash measures that could be introduced in May, including the proposals last week from McCrory. Minority Democrats have said they will seek to close all of Duke’s ash ponds and study structural fills.

“We have discussed that the time is coming for us to change the rules,” added Lorscheider, the solid waste official.

Paul Crissman, a former state solid-waste director, attributes the relative lack of regulation of structural fills to “the power of a coal industry that pretty much could get its way and an agency that couldn’t do any more work than it was already doing.”

DENR, where Crissman worked for 31 years, could do little more to enforce the rules than respond to complaints, he said. Crissman retired as solid-waste section chief in early 2011.

“When you hear somebody say, ‘Trust us, and we’ll do the right things,’ this is what you get,” he said of the recent ash headlines.

DENR recommended tougher standards for fill sites in 2010, as the Environmental Protection Agency weighed the first federal standards for coal ash. EPA says it will release the new rules in December.

Crissman said the fills deserve more attention and the public more notice.

“The sad thing is the handler of the coal ash is probably out of the business,” he said. “The (ash) generator probably needs to put in a couple of wells, because they paid a cheap price to get rid of a lot of ash.

“And we need some fences and signs to tell people.”

Henderson: 704-358-5051; Twitter: @bhender

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Obama runs China’s pivot gauntlet

Obama runs China’s pivot gauntlet

By Peter Lee
Asia Times
April 22, 2014

In recent days, the People’s Republic of China has dropped several public relations clangers: it barred Japan from a fleet review in Qingdao and, after the US pulled its ship in solidarity with Japan, cancelled the whole review; it snubbed Japan’s Marine Self Defense Force delegation by refusing a bilateral meeting; and a Shanghai court ordered the seizure of a Mitsui OSK Line vessel – a gigantic ore carrier longer than three football fields – as compensation for a 1937 legal case.

This string of events occasioned a certain amount of triumphalist hooting that China’s goonish behavior was a series of own goals and soft-power defeats for the PRC that would contribute to the preferred US dynamic of overbearing PRC behavior strengthening a defensive alignment of Asia democracies led by, of course, the US of A.

This new Asian security regime is due to be celebrated as the successful implementation of the “pivot to Asia” during President Barack Obama’s visit to the region. (Obama leaves the US on Tuesday for a week-long tour, taking in Malaysia the Philippines, Japan and South Korea.)

The question that should be asked is whether the PRC leadership has looked at events in Asia and developments worldwide and decided to do something other than fight on the West’s preferred ground of “soft power”.

It should be pointed out that whenever the PRC wants to get serious about its Japan-related gripes, it does not engage in what I would characterize as Senkaku kabuki, the ritualized display of sovereignty-asserting chicken-of-the-sea encounters between PRC and Japanese maritime patrol vessels and aircraft.

Instead, it kicks off hostilities on its home ground, where the PRC holds the legal and diplomatic advantage and can draw on the assiduously cultivated anti-Japan hostility of a significant swath of its citizenry.

Therefore, the fact that the PRC has chosen to flex its anti-Japanese muscles in Qingdao and Shanghai, pivot be damned, should be a matter of interest to the US and the Asian democracies.

As to the context in which the PRC is seemingly abandoning its hope of modifying its behavior to win the approval of its perennially disapproving liberal democratic audience, consider recent developments.

While the US was preoccupied with developments in Ukraine, the PRC decided to interfere with the Philippines’ resupply of nine marines stationed on the Sierra Madre, a hulk that had been beached on the Second Thomas Shoal/Ayungin Shoal/Ren’ai Shoal in the South China Sea/West Philippine Sea in 1999 in order to strengthen the Philippines’ claim to the atoll.

From the UN Law of the Sea standpoint, the Sierra Madre is a man-made structure that is irrelevant to claims of sovereignty, which might explain why the PRC decided it was OK to mess with it. However, blocking the resupply could be construed as a violation of the standstill agreement negotiated in 2002 between the PRC and ASEAN.

The Philippine government failed, then succeeded in resupplying the Sierra Madre by air. Then, on March 29, a civilian Philippine vessel made it past two Chinese coast guard cutters and to the Sierra Madre.

This was presented as one of those heart-warming David versus Goliath stories, with the plucky Philippine vessel successfully eluding the hulking PRC cutters to bring succor to the stranded marines.

The truth is perhaps a little more complicated.

The PRC cutters first intercepted the Philippine vessel an hour before it reached the shallow water of the atoll but was unable to block the vessel. This might have less to do with expert seamanship than with the fact that the ship was chock-a-block with reporters – 12 journos and photographers from seven media organizations, including AP and Reuters. An AFP reporter and photographer were on board a Philippine military aircraft overflying the action.

Perhaps the PRC’s unwillingness to play the role of the Ugly Chinese in front of an international prestige media audience had something to do with its forbearance. If the journos felt any ethical qualms about serving as human shields for this display of Philippine bravado, their reporting does not record it.

But there’s more.

A US surveillance aircraft – and a PRC “balance beam” early warning turboprop – were also overhead, implying that the US and PRC had prior knowledge of the resupply effort.

So, the resupply mission now looks like a calculated show of US and Philippine resolve against PRC “salami slicing” – the incremental strengthening of China’s geostrategic position in its adjoining oceans – and opportunistic testing of US determination subsequent to an embarrassing display of the limits of US power in the matter of the annexation of Crimea to Russia.

But yes, there’s more.

Shortly after the resupply incident, two Japanese destroyers made a port call to Manila, something that was reported only by the PRC and Philippine press – not the English-language Japanese press, or the US press, as far as I can tell, which I consider to be a rather telling omission since journos had been packed to the gunwales ion the Philippine resupply ship just a few days before.

And then an interesting op-ed appeared on the Huffington Post, by T Dean Reed, writer of the Reed Report, rang the soft power changes, and passed along an interesting tid-bit:

[The PRC] has already shown signs of fear of public opinion branding it as a rogue nation. The first sign came when China appeared to blink and made last-minute offers if the Philippines wouldn’t file its case [in The Hague where a five-judge tribunal will determine if China has violated international law by its continuing efforts to take over the South China Sea]. The offers were believed to include withdrawal from contested islands and reefs and a huge trade-and-aid package to the Philippines, described as leading to a new golden age of cooperation between the two countries.

Now China denies any such offer – “sheer fabrication” – because no formal offer was made, only back-channel efforts that were rejected by the Philippines. China has resumed its litany of bluster and threats, warning the Philippines of untold consequences. The next sign came when China displayed anger that the Philippines told the world how its supply ship successfully evaded Chinese naval forces by entering shallow waters at Second Thomas Shoal to feed and rotate troops stationed there. Journalists were aboard, and the story immediately received worldwide acclaim. [1]

What is interesting is that Mr Reed is a registered lobbyist, not for the Philippines, but for the Japanese Embassy in Washington, implying that the Philippines was discussing its PRC policy – and perhaps discretely communicating the price tag for a truly satisfying Philippines-Japanese alliance – with its Japanese interlocutors. [2]

And then the Japanese government publicly stated its support of the Philippines in its island disputes with the PRC.

And the Philippines proposed that all of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, including “unqualified” members, be admitted immediately to the US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership trade regime, thereby gutting its usefulness as a “high standards” trade pact, but very much furthering the interests of Japan, which craves a central role in a China-excluding trade bloc, the bigger the better, in order to give the Japanese economy, Abenomics, Japan, and Abe a much-needed geopolitical leg up. [3]

So one has a picture of the Philippines and Japan coordinating a series of moves to strengthen their bilateral alliance and accentuate their polarization with the PRC, with behind-the-scenes acceptance by the US.

The PRC has also not done itself any favors with its hectoring of Malaysia over its faltering management of the MH370 passenger aeroplane disappearance; and Indonesia recently went public with its dissatisfaction with the anachronistic nine-dash line that the PRC uses to stake its geopolitical claims in the South China Sea.

Add to that the KMT’s debacle in Taiwan, where a combination of the DPP opposition and student protesters has successfully stalled the approval of a services trade pact between the mainland and Taiwan, further wounded Ma Ying-jeou’s crippled presidency, and raised the unwelcome (for the PRC) prospect that an emboldened and energized Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) will take the presidency in 2016 and steer Taiwan further out of the PRC’s orbit.

In fact, the DPP, which has a strong bent toward Japan’s ultranationalist camp, might even renounce Taiwan’s claims to the Senkakus in favor of Japan. And of course, there’s always the de jure independence boogeyman.

And there’s more.

One of the under-reported stories is the steady stream of high-level contacts between North Korea and Japan, ostensibly on the limited bilateral issue of the abductees. One can also speculate that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is happy to demonstrate that his negotiations with North Korea are more effective than the PRC-led negotiation process with that country – the one meaningful area of US-PRC diplomatic engagement outside of the Iran issue – and, indeed, he is taking advantage of the purge of the pro-PRC faction in North Korea to position Japan as a frontrunner in economic cooperation with the isolated nation.

Add to this catalogue of Asian problems the possibility that the PRC will be declared the loser in the Philippine case in the Hague over the nine-dash line and you have makings of a pretty fraught decade or two for the PRC in East Asia.

The success of the pivot dynamic has also been marked by the concurrent erosion of US credibility as “the honest broker” – ie the grown-up liberal democratic superpower that deters China and also restrains Japan.

The US had worked to sustain its honest-broker credibility by quietly conciliatory sidebars to its vociferous criticism of the PRC on the issue of air-defense zones, and its coordinated pushback on Prime Minister Abe’s visit to the Yasukuni shrine for war dead. (Abe, whose visit to the shrine in December was the first by a sitting prime minister since 2006, was not among 150 lawmakers who visited the shrine on Monday, but he sent a traditional offering.)

Recently, an observer optimistically opined to Reuters that there was still room for a cooperative relationship between the PRC and the US, especially if President Obama declined to publicly throw red meat to his allies on the islands issues during his visit:

“They [Chinese officials] are trying to figure out whether it’s the lower-level [American] people coming out and making these comments so the boss doesn’t have to, or whether it’s moving to a crescendo,” said Christopher Johnson, a former senior China analyst at the CIA and now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

“I think there is a concern that this debate could be swayed substantially if Obama were to make very forthright comments on this trip,” he said, “and that could tip the balance internally and make it more difficult for Xi to emphasize the Sino-US relationship as paramount.” [4]

The PRC had also attempted to find some geopolitical (and anti-Japanese) common ground with the United States concerning Japan’s undeniable (but frequently denied) capabilities as a threshold nuclear weapon power, complete with a large store of fissionable material, missiles, and scientific expertise sufficient to cobble together a nuclear deterrent.

After all, President Obama owes his Nobel Peace Prize to his anticipated and as yet largely unrealized achievements in nuclear non-proliferation, so it may have been hoped that some NPT hay could have been made over suspicions concerning Japan’s actual atom-bomb related capabilities.

But no dice. Japan agreed recently to return several hundred kilograms of weapons grade plutonium it had received from the US (while waving aside the issue of Japan’s nominally fuel grade but weapon-worthy in-country stash of nine tons of plutonium and its plans to produce more), occasioning hosannahs from the US.

Per the New York Times in late March:

The announcement is the biggest single success in President Obama’s five-year-long push to secure the world’s most dangerous materials, and will come as world leaders gather here on Monday for a nuclear security summit meeting. [5]

Events in Ukraine have clearly colored US thinking, pushing the US out of the “honest broker” win-win zone, and will probably elicit something of a sea-change in Chinese attitudes toward the US role in Asia.

Pushed by the need to assert the strength of its deterrent against China during the Ukraine crisis and the supremacy of the pivot during President Obama’s upcoming visit, the United States has lurched over to the Japanese side of the teeter-totter.

National Security Council director Evan Medeiros’ recent interview with Asahi to tee up President Obama’s trip strongly indicates that, post Crimea, the Obama administration now regards forestalling any PRC moves against the Senkakus as a matter of vital geopolitical necessity and will back Japan to the hilt in order to sustain the credibility of the US deterrent capability.

Q: Finally, the impact of the Ukraine situation on the Asia-Pacific region. You pointed out in the recent speech that China’s action regarding the Ukraine situation produced “uncertainty about how China defines its interests and how it pursues them.” Can you elaborate on that?

A: Well, very specifically, what I mean is China regularly, publicly, says that territorial integrity and sovereignty are of the utmost importance, but yet, in the face of a violation of them by Russia through its actions in Ukraine, China has remained agnostic, and has provided essentially de facto support to Russia. For example, it has abstained in UN Security Council and UN General Assembly votes.

So, the question is, “Does China feel that there are some conditions that are actually attached to its support for territorial integrity and sovereignty?” It is raising questions all over the world about China’s intentions. [6]

Maintaining US deterrent credibility means obsessive attention to the Senkakus, closer integration of the US-Japanese alliance, and a wholehearted embrace of the problematic and polarizing “collective self defense” arrangement.

Concerning the unfortunate fetishization of the worthless Senkaku islands, Kyodo News Agency headlined comments by a US general on Okinawa: “If China grabs Senkakus, US military would snatch them back”.

Lieutenant General John Wissler, who heads up 18,000 Marines based in Okinawa, was actually glossing a statement made by Admiral Samuel Locklear, commander of the US Pacific Command, before a senate committee to the effect that the US did not have the amphibious assets in the region to retake the Senkakus.

Locklear’s statement, if useful from a budget-enhancement perspective, was not the message that the US wished to send at this particular time, with the Russian flag flying over Crimea. So Wissler made the rather logical observation that US air assets could destroy anything and everything on the island, rendering moot the need to consider an amphibious assault on the Senkakus (downplaying the amphibious assault angle also allowed General Wissler the welcome opportunity to pour cold water on the Army’s desire to muscle into the Marines’ pivot action by cluttering up Navy ships with its attack helicopters). [7]

The US military’s stated eagerness to mix it up in the Senkakus on behalf of Japan and deter the awkwardness of another Crimea grab also adds an unwelcome dimension to “collective self defense”, or CSD, for the PRC.

To American military strategists, CSD, together with jamming US military bases down the throats of resistant Okinawans, is apparently the holy grail of pivot planning. It is publicly justified on the rather dubious ground that otherwise Japan could not perform the vital service of shooting down North Korean missiles headed for the United States.

Considering the still rather sorry status of North Korean ICBMs and the rather significant capabilities of the US Navy in the vicinity (which Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has decided to augment with two additional missile-whacking Aegis destroyers arriving in 2017), this threat by itself does not seem to justify the revision of Japan’s so-called “pacifist” constitution.

In the eyes of US military planners, it is more likely that CSD would permit Japanese vessels and aircraft to engage in joint operations in a nominal support function to US forces but blast away at anything Chinese or North Korean once things got hot. This crablike segue into an offensive military capability is, understandably, viewed with less than complete enthusiasm by the Japanese public; a recent Asahi poll put opposition at 68%, and support for revising the CSD ban through “interpretation”, ie sleight of hand by the Abe cabinet, clocking in at 12%. [8]

I suppose US military diplomacy can draw encouragement from the fact that this level of opposition is about the same as measured on Okinawa to the relocation of the Futenma Air Base, a challenge that the Abe government has met with a relatively successful campaign of bullying and unilateral executive action.

From a US perspective, conditions for President Obama’s pivot promotion trip to Asia might appear quite satisfactory. Through a combination of local anxiety, self-interest, and opportunism, PRC assertiveness, and the occasional provocation, the political and economic foundation for a China-containment regime led by the US and keystoned by Japan has been laid.

And with the prospect of a viscerally hostile DPP administration in Taipei in 2016 ready to outdo the Philippines in anti-PRC effrontery and pro-Japanese outreach, the pre-conditions for further rounds of pivot-enhancing crises seem to be at hand.

The question is, what is the PRC going to do about this?

Perhaps the PRC is drawing the conclusion that the tipping point may have been reached, there is no useful daylight to wedge between Japan and the United States, and it is useless and perhaps even dangerous to play along, especially since the PRC can see eight years of Hillary Clinton and her even more aggressive anti-PRC strategy in the offing.

Given the unfavorable west Pacific environment, sitting idly by, or trying to ingratiate itself with the Asian democracies and the United States through soft power gambits do not appear to be high on the PRC’s list of options.

During Defense Secretary Hagel’s recent visit to China, his PRC counterpart, Chang Wanquan, drew the line: “The China-US relationship is neither comparable to US-Russia ties in the Cold War, nor a relationship between container and contained. China’s development can’t be contained by anyone.” [9]

With its overtly confrontational moves in Qingdao and Shanghai, it appears the PRC is signaling it is prepared to abandon “soft power”, give up on the promise of US forbearance, and manage its business in an increasingly hostile regional environment.

And it doesn’t seem likely that the PRC is blustering in order to obtain some face-saving concessions or lip service from the US. It is targeting Japan instead of dealing with the US, and challenging the United States to do something effective in support of its ally.

The PRC has always been alert to the need or opportunity to challenge the credibility of the US deterrent and, with the heightened anxiety fostered by Russia’s annexation of Crimea, that day has arrived perhaps sooner than anybody wished.

If the PRC intentionally fomented the Ayungin Shoal resupply crisis with the resolve to let the US-PRC relation go south if needed rather than passively let the pivot dynamic play out to its disadvantage, we are definitely in for some tense and unpleasant times – and the costs of maintaining the credibility of the US deterrent might be considerably higher than we prefer.

The PRC appears to be signaling its determination to hunker down and weather the geopolitical storm – which might include a sooner-rather-than-later Taiwan crisis and the need to blame a handy US scapegoat – for years if need be, and pursue the struggle in domestic venues where it holds an advantage.

The PRC will draw some succor from Russia which, thanks to the heavy-handed US policy in Ukraine, is driving President Vladimir Putin into China’s arms. (Russia’s ostentatious increase in air patrols over the Kurile Islands were, perhaps, concrete displays of Russia’s eagerness to play ball with the PRC and side against Japan).

A revealing indicator will be if the PRC abandons the World War II “victor’s justice” line that it attempted to establish as the basis for the US presence in Asia and some kind of US-PRC condominium. This movement achieved a mini-boomlet with Prime Minister Abe’s provocative December visit to the Yasukuni Shrine, sub voce US uneasiness over the essentially anti-US character of right-wing Japanese nationalism, and the PRC’s rather clumsy invocations of the Potsdam Declaration (in which the US and Chiang Kai-shek’s China jointly called for the unconditional surrender of Japan) as the basis for the peaceful Asian order.

But that dog doesn’t hunt anymore, thanks to Prime Minister Abe’s support for US initiatives such as Futenma relocation, collective self-defense, and the TPP trade pact. To further mix metaphors, with the tightening US-Japan alliance, it looks like the US “honest broker” ship has sailed for good as far as the PRC is concerned.

If the PRC abandons its celebration of the US “greatest generation” World War II narrative, it will, somewhat ironically, contribute to the erosion some of America’s vaunted soft power. As memories of World War II fade (or, to be more accurate, less flattering narratives of the current significance of that increasingly remote conflict gain traction), the US, instead of exercising its historical and moral prerogative to Asian leadership by sashaying into the region and telling the local powers how they should behave, will simply be another outside power trying to shoulder into the “Pacific Century” and belly up to the economic trough as its rivals and partners grow in military and economic strength and the relative US advantage dwindles.

The PRC, on the other hand, will be determined to demonstrate that it is the central power in East Asia, with existential interests and the credible capability to pursue them over decades in the face of US-orchestrated resistance.

Maybe it should be understood that the beginning of the “Pacific Century” is perhaps the end of the “American Century”. That would certainly be an ironic coda to President Obama’s visit.

1. The Philippines Takes China to Court, but It’s Public Opinion That Will Decide, April 3, 2014.
2. See here.
3. Philippines: Invite all SE Asia to Pacific pact, Yahoo News, April 10, 2014.
4. China warns US ahead of Obama’s visit, fearing high-profile tilt over disputed isles, Reuters, April 10, 2014.
5. Japan to Let US Assume Control of Nuclear Cache, The New York Times, March 23, 2014.
6. Evan Medeiros: China’s attempt to isolate Japan worsens bilateral relations, The Asahi Shimbun, April 6, 2014.
7. Top Marine in Japan: If tasked, we could retake the Senkakus from China, Stars and Stripes, April 11, 2014.
8. Asahi poll: 63% oppose Abe’s attempt to lift ban on collective self-defense, The Asahi Shimbun, April 7, 2014.
9. Nobody can contain China’s development: defense chief, Xinhua, April 8, 2014.

Peter Lee writes on East and South Asian affairs and their intersection with US foreign policy.

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No hegemonic peace in Cyprus

No hegemonic peace in Cyprus

By Marios L Evriviades
Asia Times
April 17, 2014

Almost 40 years too late, the Turks have finally figured out that they invaded the wrong geographic region of Cyprus. It seems Cyprus’s resource wealth, its hydrocarbons, are located in the exclusive economic zone off its southern shores. Not in the north, where the North Atlantic Treaty Organization-trained and US-supplied Turkish army attacked in July 1974.

Since that invasion, Turkey had persistently insisted that all of Cyprus’s problems were permanently solved by their assault and occupation. Perhaps these days Ankara is not so sure.

At the time, Ankara said it was not “invading” but launching a “peacekeeping operation” to secure the safety of co-religionists who were allegedly under threat of instant massacre by their blood thirsty compatriots. If this was indeed the case, then it was the southern part that they should have attacked in the first place.

It was in the southern districts of Limassol and Paphos that the vast majority of the allegedly threatened 100,000 or so Turkish Cypriots lived. They did not live in the Kyrenia district and the Karpass or Morphou regions that were the targets of the 1974 assault.

The autochthonous Greek Cypriot population in the presently Turkish-army occupied part of Cyprus numbered at the time close to 200,000 souls. This is twice as large as the total number of Turkish Cypriots who, prior the 1974 invasion, were intermingled with the Greek Cypriots throughout the island. Significantly, they didn’t constitute a regional majority anywhere (except in a very few villages).

And in July 1974, after a Athens junta-organized coup occurred against the legitimate government of the republic, they were hardly under any threat, least of all one of massacre (“genocide” is Ankara’s favorite term).

Actual inter-communal violence in post-independence Cyprus only occurred in 1963-65 and again in 1967 – it was sporadic. Greek Cypriots are misleadingly cast as the villains of this period. And maybe they were. But those who do cast them as such should at least consult the posthumously published PhD thesis “Political Geography and the Cyprus Conflict, 1963-1971″ by Richard A Patrick, a Canadian UN peacekeeper in Cyprus turned scholar.

Patrick carried out meticulous field research on the death toll, especially within the Turkish Cypriot community from 1963-1971, which he complemented with UN documentation, international reports and local police and death records. Space does not allow me to go into details except to say than on the basis of Patrick’s figures the “massacre” and “genocide” narratives are upended. And Patrick was no friend of the Greek Cypriots.

A more relevant point is that from 1968 until July 20, 1974, the day of the Turkish invasion, there is no record of any inter-communal fighting in Cyprus or of deaths on either side (except for an accidental one in the early 1970s). And who was it that said at the time that the coup was an “internal affair” among Greek Cypriots and of no concern to the Turkish Cypriots? No other than the late vice president of the Republic of Cyprus, Rauf Denktash.

The 1974 invasion was an act of war against the Republic of Cyprus that had a twin objective. It was designed to establish a non-existent pro-Turkish political argument that the facts on the ground and geography denied. The Turkish Cypriots, spread throughout the island, constituted nowhere and in none of the six districts of Cyprus a majority. That ethnographic and geographic fact produced a dead end for Ankara’s principal argument – that Cyprus should be split geographically for partitionist ends. So the invasion was politically designed to conquer the northern part and establish there the geographic basis for partition.

The conquest was a necessary but not a sufficient condition towards that objective. The sufficient condition was the organized ethnic cleansing of the autochthonous Greek Cypriot population who constituted the majority in the region, and the “gathering” there of the Turkish Cypriots from all over Cyprus.

In other words, the indigenous Greek Cypriots of the region did not become refugees because of the tragedy of war, but because of the design of the invasion. Were they not forced out of their homes they would still have outnumbered the Turkish Cypriots by a two to one ratio, thus defeating Ankara’s objective in spite of the conquest and forced relocation of Turkish Cypriots to the occupied areas.

Again, if the objective of Ankara was the declared one of safeguarding the Turkish Cypriot population, who along with the Greek Cypriots began to be collectively victimized after the Turkish invasion, then the invaders should have proceeded from north to south in order to secure the Limassol and Paphos districts, where the vast majority of the Turkish Cypriots resided. Instead, in their August offensive the Turks proceeded to attack easterly and westerly, splitting the country in two and expelling the indigenous population.

The strategic aim of the Turkish invasion was the destruction of the Cypriot state, whose independence and territorial integrity Turkey had otherwise undertook to guarantee under accords signed in 1960. But unlike its successful ethnic cleansing strategy, the forceful attempt to destroy the 1960 republic failed spectacularly.

The Cypriot state not only survived the Turkish onslaught and all subsequent and persistent Turkish efforts to de-legitimize it, it succeeded, in 2004, in becoming a member of the European Union and even preside over it for six months in 2012, much to the chagrin of Ankara.

Unable to deal with Cypriot legitimacy, Ankara called off UN-sponsored negotiations. Not unsurprisingly, certain Western chanceries, including the UN secretariat, were quick to shift the blame for this away from Ankara.

But there does exist a serious political problem in Cyprus; it has existed for decades and it needs to be addressed and solved foremost for the sake of Cypriots, who in two generations have suffered through an anti-colonial rebellion, a civil war, a coup and an invasion.

For peace to be established in Cyprus, two conditions are necessary. First, Turkey’s Western supporters, by which I mean essentially Washington and London, must abandon their cock-eyed view of Cyprus and their not so subtle strategy to frogmarch the Greek Cypriot majority population into a “Turkish peace”, as they unsuccessfully attempted to do in 2004 through the Annan plan.

No amount of Western cant, sophistry and hypocrisy (revealed in all its glory with the current Crimea crisis) can do away with the fact that the obstacle to peace in Cyprus is the offensively deployed 40,000 Turkish NATO=trained and US supplied occupation army and not the alleged intransigence of the majority population of Cyprus. Concomitantly, Turkey must abandon its zero-sum game and its equally cockeyed vision of Cyprus as a Turkish satrapy.

These conditions may seem surreal to those who have been holding for decades a different view of Cyprus. But are they? Why is it that the Indonesian occupation forces had to withdraw from East Timor, why did the Soviets have to leave Afghanistan and before them the Americans from Vietnam and more recently from Iraq? Why did the Israelis withdraw from Lebanon in 2000 with the Syrians following five years later, yet the Turkish elephant is allowed to trample cost free all over Cyprus for decades?

Are the Turks some sort of “holy cow” in the Western family? Are the West’s leaders onto something about the Turks that they selfishly keep to themselves?

Why is there a consensus that there cannot be a solution to the current Ukrainian-Crimea crisis without the restoration of legitimacy, without the threat or use of force and by respecting Ukrainian sovereignty, territorial integrity and independence? Why have those in the lead on this issue, the Anglo-Americans, convinced themselves and have been unsuccessfully trying to convince the overwhelming majority of Cypriots (who in 1974 lost 1% of their population to Turkey’s “peacekeepers”) of the aberrant view that the Turks have so called “red lines” in Cyprus, namely that they must garrison Cyprus in perpetuity and do so through “international treaties”?

The current Greek Cypriot negotiator in the just “restarted” UN-sponsored talks is fond of repeating that at this particular juncture the stars may “just align” for a win-win solution. Apparently the catalyst for his optimism, shared by his president and the so called international community, or INTCOM, are the potentially large hydrocarbon deposits discovered in the exclusive economic zone off the southern cost of Cyprus.

I leave unanswered the legitimate query whether Ankara would suddenly have turned “peacemonger” were the hydrocarbons discovered off the northern shores of Cyprus, except to repeat that for decades Ankara’s thesis has been that the issue had been resolved by the 1974 “peace operation”.

The currently advocated win-win peace scenario is that with the hydrocarbons as “glue” and the concurrent crises in the Middle East and now in the Ukraine (where the energy issue acquires added security significance) posing unpredictable dangers, a Western-sponsored sub-regional security system can be constructed in the Eastern Mediterranean that will partner Cyprus, Israel, Turkey and Greece.

Such a development would be most welcome. However, for such a security regime to be viable it must have legitimacy. As such, it can only be based on reciprocity, equality, and respect and must be compatible with the existing European legal, political and civil order. No hegemons need apply. Hic Rhodus, hic salta.

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.

Marios L Evriviades is associate professor in the Department of International, European and Regional Studies, Panteion University, Athens.

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Exclusive Investigation Uncovers How BP Uses Bribes To Do Business

Exclusive Investigation Uncovers How BP Uses Bribes To Do Business

Four years after 200-million gallon BP oil spill, TRNN speaks with investigative journalist Greg Palast about BP’s collusion with government officials to dodge safety regulations .

The Real News Network
April 22, 2014


Greg Palast is the author of the New York Times bestsellers, Billionaires & Ballot Bandits, The Best Democracy Money Can Buy, Armed Madhouse and the highly acclaimed Vultures’ Picnic, named Book of the Year 2012 on BBC Newsnight Review. Palast also directed the U.S. government’s largest racketeering case in history, winning a $4.3 billion jury award. He also conducted the investigation of fraud charges in the Exxon Valdez grounding.


JESSICA DESVARIEUX, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore.

It’s been four years since a BP drilling platform, Deepwater Horizon, exploded in the Gulf of Mexico. The scenes were quite dramatic has 200 million gallons of oil spewed into the Gulf, make it the worst man-made environmental disaster of our time. Eleven BP workers died on the rig, and the resulting cleanup has already cost British Petroleum more than $26 billion.

But the story doesn’t end there. Just recently, the Environmental Protection Agency gave BP the green light to resume drilling in the Gulf of Mexico.

Now joining us to get into his latest investigation of BP is our guest, Greg Palast. Greg is an investigative reporter and author of Billionaires and Ballot Bandits and the highly acclaimed Vultures Picnic’. His latest investigation, which aired on Free Speech TV, is called “BP: In Deep Water”.

Thank you for joining us, Greg.


DESVARIEUX: So, Greg, you’ve done several investigative pieces about the oil rig Deepwater Horizon. But in this latest investigation you head to Azerbaijan to find out how BP acted there. Let’s just take a quick look at the trailer.


VOICEOVER: This Sunday, Palast reveals the hidden story of the Deepwater Horizon.

PALAST: Do you feel that you were paying bribes for BP and the British government?

VOICEOVER: Palast, the best-selling author of Billionaires and Ballot Bandits, takes us on a three-continent romp, uncovering a tale of bribery, CIA gunrunning, WikiLeaks, and lap dancers. Palace goes undercover and into handcuffs to bring you the story the other media won’t let you see.

Greg Palast, this Sunday.


DESVARIEUX: So that was part of the trailer of “BP: In Deep Water”.

So, Greg, earlier, BPs Caspian Sea Transocean rig had suffered exactly the same fate as the Deepwater Horizon. So explain to us what were you looking for when you headed to Azerbaijan and what did you discover.

PALAST: Well, I was looking for the evidence, because no one knew, when the Deepwater Horizon went down, that there was an identical blowout halfway around the world on a BP Transocean platform in the Caspian Sea.

And, by the way, both rigs, both rigs blew out for the same exact reason. BP uses something called quick-dry cement, because–you know the old phrase–watching cement dry is the slowest process out. But you can make cement dry quicker by actually shooting it with nitrogen gas, like, literally laughing gas. It turns the cement into, like, a milkshake consistency and it speeds up the drying. Well, that’s fine, except in high-pressure areas, when you use milkshake cement, quick-dry cement, which is just to save money, you’re going to blow out. That’s what happened in the Caspian Sea. And they covered it up. BP had never ever admitted that there was a blowout in the Caspian Sea.

I got a coded message. I took off, for British television, to the other side of the planet and to get the witnesses who were on that rig who survived, get them on camera. And, by the way–.

DESVARIEUX: What do they tell you?


DESVARIEUX: What did they tell you, Greg?

PALAST: Well, the witnesses said, yeah, we–I have tape recordings of them saying it was mayhem, that there was a blowout, it was caused by the cement, by using the nitrogen-laced milkshake cement in the Caspian, the same thing that brought down the Deepwater Horizon, according to the government’s investigation. And they covered up.

But they were scared to death for the jobs. We couldn’t use their names. They were afraid to even be filmed on camera.

And then on top of it, I was arrested in the nation of Azerbaijan, which is what I call the Republic of BP. I was arrested. They took our film. But I got the film out anyway, because a lot of the film was on a camera inside my pen, you know, a little Austin Powers job that I keep with me.

And, plus, we got confirmation of the blowout from an extraordinary source–of the prior blowout, an extraordinary source, which is the U.S. State Department, that is, the secret cables that I obtained through WikiLeaks. Remember, I’m also working for The Guardian, which has the WikiLeaks cables. And right in there, the Bush State Department under Condi Rice was given the secret information by British Petroleum that they had a blowout, because BP’s partners Chevron and Exxon were saying, hey, where’s our money from the Caspian Sea? We were making millions a day. You know. And BP told the U.S. ambassador on the QT, look, we had a blowout, so there ain’t going to be no more oil for, you know, another year. So they covered it up. And the State Department covered it up, BP covered it up, Chevron and Exxon covered it up.

And those executives from Chevron, Exxon, and BP went to the United States Congress, testified in front of Congress and said, in 50 years we’ve never had a problem with this kind of drilling offshore. So they actually swore to the fact that they never had a problem, when all three companies knew that they had a disaster just one year earlier. By the way, after they testified, six months later the Deepwater Horizon went down because of the use of this cheap crap cement.

DESVARIEUX: What I found interesting in your investigation, Greg: you actually got a former BP executive to speak to you on camera. What did he have to say?

PALAST: Well, I got to a former BP executive named Les Abrahams, who told me that one way BP keeps these stories silent is by bribes. Now, he admitted on camera that he personally paid bribes, $3-$4 million in cash. He would also borrow BP’s private jet to take government officials for lap dancing weekends in London, and that in addition he held a check, handed over to president of Azerbaijan, for $30 million. When I say he held it, it was in his safekeeping until he could hand the check to Lord Brown, chairman of BP, who then handed that $30 million to the president of Azerbaijan. That’s how they do it, bribery.

And it’s not only over there in those countries; it was also the United States, because in the U.S., BP was caught giving gifts and literally–and getting in bed with the regulators in the U.S. And when I say getting in bed, I’m not talking metaphorically. They were doing the thing. So we had BP in bed with the regulators, literally, the Minerals and Mining Service that was supposed to be controlling their operations in the Gulf.

DESVARIEUX: Can you speak to specifics? Just some of our viewers might not know. Which specific agencies are you talking about or specific government officials?

PALAST: Yes. Under the Bush administration, regulation of offshore drilling was switched to something called the Minerals and Mining Services. And that operation was rife with people who were taking Super Bowl tickets, cash, and all kinds of favors from British Petroleum. It’s one of the reasons BP not only get away with literal murder–that is, those eleven guys that were incinerated on the Deepwater Horizon. It’s also one of the reasons why BP got some sweetheart deals with low payments for those leases. Imagine the value of all that oil–now spilled, but it’s a lot of oil worth a lot.

That agency, Minerals and Mining Services, after Deepwater Horizon, was shut down by President Obama. Of course, shutting down an agency is mostly just changing the name of it on letterhead. So it has a new name, has a couple of new people at the top.

But, you know, it–so that type of bribery goes on here as well as overseas. The difference in overseas is that the little dictatorships across Central Asia demand a lot more money than our officials here.

DESVARIEUX: Alright. Let’s talk about what’s happening here in the United States. As I mentioned in the introduction, BP has a new lease. They’re now allowed to drill in the Gulf. Have there been any changes to safety regulations? Essentially, can the American people have confidence that this won’t happen again?

PALAST: I don’t have any confidence that this won’t happen again. I’ll tell you why: ’cause now BP has promised, oh, this time we’ll be good; we’ll have all kinds of safety equipment on the rigs; we will have–. Remember, one of the reasons why the rig–not only did it blow up, but it obviously smeared–and killed 11 guys, but it smeared 600 miles of Gulf coastline. And that’s because BP did not have the emergency spill response equipment that it had promised. It’s not rocket science to stop a spill from hitting the beaches. Use surround the rig with miles of rubber skirts, and you suck it out with skimmer ships. So you just–it’s rubber and suck. It’s no–you know, you don’t have to be a genius. But you do have to have the equipment.

Now, BP had promised that that equipment would be there in case something went wrong. They could surround the rig with the rubber skirt, and they would have ships that could skim out the oil. But that was a lie. It was completely phony.

And by the way, it’s not the first time BP has done this. Twenty-five years ago they did the same thing in Alaska. BP–you should have never even heard of the Exxon Valdez. Yeah, I know we blame Exxon, and I’m not letting them off the hook, but I was on that investigation. The main culprit was BP, British Petroleum, because BP had promised, he again, if there is a tanker gone aground in Alaska, they–not the other oil companies, but British Petroleum–would be responsible for that tanker route and have rubber skirting that should have gone around the Exxon Valdez and sucker ships to suck the stuff out. It was all a lie.

So BP lied in Alaska 25 years ago. They lied in the Gulf before the Deepwater Horizon. You know, they fooled us twice. They’ve told lies twice that they’re prepared for spills. And twice we’ve had two gigantic disasters, in Alaska and in the Gulf. Now we’re supposed to believe them a third time.

How about the punishment is the same punishment I would receive if I spilled 10 W 40 oil all over my apartment? My landlord would kick me out. My landlord would not say, oh, gee, I’ll tell you what, that apartment’s all messed up; why don’t you have the apartment next door? That’s what we’re doing with BP. We’re saying, twice, once Alaska with the Exxon Valdez, where BP, not Exxon, was responsible for that oil spill, and once in the Gulf. And now we’re saying, okay, lie to us a third time. No, I’m sorry. They should be out of that business completely. They should not be allowed near our Gulf waters, near the waters of the United States.

DESVARIEUX: Alright. Great Palast. The investigation is called “Vultures and Vote Rustlers”.

Very fascinating report. Thank you so much for joining us.

PALAST: You’re very welcome.

DESVARIEUX: Thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

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The Multiple Kingdoms of Saudi Arabia

The Multiple Kingdoms of Saudi Arabia

Powerful princes control various sections of the state and armed forces and often have their own contradictory agendas.

The Real News Network
April 8, 2014


Madawi Al-Rasheed is Visiting Professor at the Middle East Centre at The London School of Economics and Political Science. She is originally from Saudi Arabia and currently lives in London. Her research focuses on history, society, religion and politics in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf. Her recent publications include A History of Saudi Arabia and A Most Masculine State.


PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome back to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay.

We’re continuing our discussion and analysis of U.S.-Saudi relations. In this segment, we’re going to specifically talk about the Saudi royal family, the decentralization of power, and all the various princes in Saudi Arabia that are contending with each other.

Now joining us again is Madawi Al-Rasheed. She’s a visiting professor at the Middle East Centre at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Her recent publications include A History of Saudi Arabia and A Most Masculine State.

Thanks again for joining us, Madawi.


JAY: So there seems to be kind of two different takes on the Saudi royal family elite. One is this is kind of an absolute monarchy, with a king that kind of controls everything. The other, I think, is the–as I read your material, this is more like a medieval fiefdom, with lots of different princes and fiefdoms carving up various centers of power within the government, and the king acts more like a chairman of the board, I guess you could say. Could you explain that? And then we’ll get into it a little more.

AL-RASHEED: Yes. I think since the succession to the throne is very unusual in Saudi Arabia. It moves from brother to brother. And this system hasn’t existed, simply because of its durability that is in question.

But the Saudi royal family was into this kind of system that was put in place in the 1930s by the founder of Saudi Arabia. So, before he died, he designated his son to be the crown prince, and also said that in future succession it should go from one brother to another. And he had more than 35 sons.

But he didn’t anticipate the 21st century, when all of those sons are going to be old at the same time. And sometime there are quite a number of them who are not fit to rule. So the succession principle in Saudi Arabia claims that it follows the principle of seniority, but in fact it can skip a person, a brother, who is not fit to rule and goes to another one. And this is a political game. There are, obviously, no serious equality among the surviving brothers of the king. So there are some who are more powerful and more privileged than others.

So King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia faces this challenge. The brothers are becoming a smaller group and most of them are old. He is in his 90s, and the crown prince is in his late 70s, almost 80 year old. And he wanted to ensure that there is a smooth succession, so he created what is called the oath of allegiance committee, and he stipulated in his constitution that only after he dies, this committee can meet and elect, in inverted commas, the king. And the committee members are 33 or 34 princes. And therefore it’s a secret affair, secret committee that will meet.

But, obviously, he didn’t wait until he dies and wanted to assure the international community that he is in control and the future of Saudi Arabia is going to be in good hands. So he chose a deputy crown prince, Prince Muqrin, in order to ensure that this is a relatively younger prince–relatively meaning that he’s in his 70s–that will become king in case the king himself and the crown prince die at the same time or one after the other. And in this way he kept faithful to the principle of horizontal succession, meaning the type of succession that goes from brother to brother, and avoided the tricky issue of moving to a vertical succession from father to son, simply because the various younger sons of the founder of Saudi Arabia have all managed to establish themselves in ministries.

Some of them have serious military power, such as, for example, the king’s own son Mutaib bin Abdullah, who controls the National Guard. And the National Guard is a paramilitary organization that has a huge budget, that is armed, that has helicopters, airplanes, etc. And also it has a tribal base. Another son of the king’s brother, that is, Muhammad bin Nayef, he’s in control of the Ministry of Interior, which is the largest and most powerful ministry that deals with internal affairs. Other sons command the Army or the Navy.

And therefore we come to this situation where the second generation is varied, and with some second-generation princes more powerful than the others. And the king, obviously, could not resolve the succession by moving it to a member of the second generation, so he chose Prince Muqrin as a safe bet to avoid the shift from the brothers to their son being open and also subject to, perhaps, conflicting demands.

The problem is there are so many sons who are waiting their turn, and therefore the king couldn’t really reach a consensus when he did his discussion with the other 33 members, and they decided that Muqrin is perhaps going to be the future king. And in my view, he’s going to be an honorary king that is going to rule over these multiple fiefdoms, with each second-generation prince in control of a substantial ministry or even a region in Saudi Arabia, in terms of the princes who are governors of important regions, such as the Eastern Province, where most of the oil is, or in the other part of Saudi Arabia, in the west, where the religious cities are, or even in Riyadh, where the largest concentration of the population is.

And therefore Saudi Arabia has moved beyond the single kingdom to multiple kingdoms, with each prince assuming greater power with enormous resources, and Saudis will have to attach themselves to one prince or another and be part of his circle, as in a patron-client relationship, because this is the only way of getting things done in Saudi Arabia, despite the fact that there are so many modern-looking institutions that have been created to deal with government and bureaucracy.

But politics remains personalized, and it revolves around the princes and their clients.

JAY: Now, in medieval times–and this is pretty medieval in structure, even though they have lots of oil and modern weapons and technology. But in medieval times this kind of a structure often led to various kinds of struggles between the various kingdoms. How likely is that to break out?

AL-RASHEED: At the moment, we don’t see any signs. But I think choosing Prince Muqrin to be the future king is a reflection of the danger that may happen once this conflict between the various fiefdoms erupts. So it is basically a question: who is going to be courageous enough to say that succession goes through his line of descent rather than his brother’s line of descent? And we wait to see how this is going to be resolved.

If it’s not resolved, I think what will happen is that we have this honorary king, a symbolic figure, while leaving each prince to enjoy his own fiefdom and the resources that come with controlling substantial ministries, such as–.

JAY: Who controls foreign policy? And this assertion of regional power, you can’t have, like, ten, 15 princes all trying to run this. Or do they? There are ten, 15 different agendas here.

AL-RASHEED: This is exactly what we have in Saudi Arabia. So, for example, the official minister of foreign affairs is Prince Saud Al Faisal, but we find that his brother Turki bin Faisal also gives interviews and always insists that he’s talking in his personal capacity because he does not have an official post in the Saudi government.

But, again, the foreign policy is not run by just Saud Al Faisal. We find that each file is given to a prince. So the king was giving the Syrian file to Bandar bin Sultan; but then, recently, we know that he replaced him after Muhammad bin Nayef, the minister of interior, visited Washington. So we have the minister of interior dealing with the Syrian file, which should be a foreign policy position.

And therefore there is this mixup of politics, as it is very personalized, and the ministries are sometimes competing with each other, because each prince is trying hard to maximize his sphere of influence. So even if you are a minister of interior, you are given a foreign policy file to deal with. And the same thing happens with Yemen. So the king dispatches his son, but, again, sometimes it’s the intelligence services. And there is that kind of mess that is kept in check by the fact that the stakes are so high if this conflict erupts.

JAY: And what happened to Bandar? Bandar was the Saudi ambassador to United States throughout most of the Bush administration. His nickname was Bandar “Bush”, he was so cozy with the Bush family. Bandar, he kind of dropped out of sight for a while; then he came back as head of the–I believe, head of the National Security Council in Saudi Arabia, more or less running intelligence. I mean, Bandar is certainly one of the people thought–if in fact the Senate congressional committee that investigated 9/11 is correct and there was Saudi government involvement in the 9/11 attacks, well, then a lot of speculation goes that Bandar had to have known or been involved in it. Certainly Bandar is the guy that threatens Tony Blair, as I told the story in an earlier segment. It’s Bandar that threatens Putin. It’s Bandar that very recently says that Saudi Arabia’s going its own way in foreign policy because the United States has betrayed them and is too weak on Syria and such and such. And now all of a sudden Bandar gets removed from his position. He’s a very–is he not still an important player in all this?

AL-RASHEED: Well, it’s very difficult to know, because Bandar hasn’t always been the person who is supposed to deal with foreign policy. And this just proves what I said earlier, that you don’t know who’s dealing with which file, and there is no transparency in all this, and it is basically a personalized form of government. Anybody with good contacts can be dispatched to Yemen or to Syria or anywhere else in order to sort out some mess that was created, or even create more mess. And sometimes the policies do not actually make sense.

And the same thing happened in 2003. So we have one prince opposed to the American invasion of Iraq, another prince welcoming the invasion. And therefore there are multiple branches who can’t agree on a foreign policy, and even on reform on the domestic front.

And so just another example of this mess that is created in Saudi Arabia because of the multiplicity of princes on political reform. In 2004, 2005, King Abdullah presented himself as the reformist king who is going to empower women, who is going to listen to reformers, who is going to encourage activists and receive their petitions and deal with their petitions. But he was completely helpless when his brother at the time–Prince Nayef–who was running the Ministry of Interior put most of the reformers in prison for a couple of years. And then in 2005 King Abdullah pardoned them. But the same reformers were imprisoned again in 2008, and King Abdullah was helpless. He couldn’t actually oppose his brother Prince Nayef, who put them in prison.

So we don’t actually know how government works in Saudi Arabia, simply because of these multiple princes. Each one of them has his own constituency and his own ideas about how the government should be run. And therefore we come to some kind of stagnation.

JAY: Now, just finally, there’s been a lot of talk in the press about how increased oil and gas production in the United States is changing the U.S.-Saudi relationship, and in general Saudis getting increasingly concerned about just how much global leverage they will have in five or ten or 15 years. How much is that affecting the Saudi politics?

AL-RASHEED: It must worry Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia has promoted itself, with the help of think tanks in Washington, that it is a swing producer of oil, that it helps Western economies, and it is actually capable of increasing its production in a very short period of time and deal with any kind of shortages. So this is the narrative, this is the myth about Saudi Arabia.

But now Saudi Arabia feels threatened, first, by Iran as well. If Iranian oil becomes available in markets, this is bound to impact Saudi Arabia. Also, Iraqi oil is extremely important, and if there is some stability in Iraq and it can actually go to its full potential, then the availability of new oil from Iran and Iraq will actually diminish Saudi Arabia’s importance. Added to this the talk, the energy research that is being done about the U.S. becoming self-sufficient, etc. I think Saudi oil will remain important, at least for China, for Asia, and for Europe. Even before this talk about American oil, we know that America didn’t actually import quite a lot of oil from Saudi Arabia, and most of Saudi oil goes to other places, such as Europe and Asia and [incompr.] Asia.

JAY: Well, perhaps this objective of keeping Iraqi and Iranian oil off market, or at least limited on the market, maybe that also explains some of why there’s such a mortal threat, quote-unquote, from the Shia. I mean, if you can keep civil war going in Iraq and you can keep Iran under sanctions, it certainly helps you if you’re Saudi Arabia.

AL-RASHEED: Yes, absolutely it helps. But here the argument is not put in economic terms, and the Saudis do not want to admit that it’s all about money, it’s all about oil and resources. And therefore there is this rhetoric about sectarian religious wars that are sponsored by this group or that group.

But there is quite an important factor in the form of oil and more oil coming to market. And this would actually dilute Saudi Arabia’s importance. And, therefore, if you could keep that oil away or keep its countries unstable–and therefore it is beneficial from a purely economic sort of formula, it’s beneficial to Saudi Arabia.

JAY: Alright. Thanks very much for joining us, Madawi.

AL-RASHEED: Thank you.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

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Why do the Saudis Want the US to Attack Iran?

Why do the Saudis Want the US to Attack Iran?
Saudi Arabia has the ultimate objective of becoming the arbiter of all regional politics.

The Real News Network
April 7, 2014


Madawi Al-Rasheed is Visiting Professor at the Middle East Centre at The London School of Economics and Political Science. She is originally from Saudi Arabia and currently lives in London. Her research focuses on history, society, religion and politics in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf. Her recent publications include A History of Saudi Arabia and A Most Masculine State.


PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome back to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay.

We’re continuing our discussion about U.S.-Saudi relations, and in this segment we’re going to talk about Saudi-Iranian relations and just why Saudi Arabia seems to see Iran as such a mortal enemy, seem to see Shia across the Arab world as such mortal enemy.

Now joining us again from London is Madawi Al-Rasheed. She’s a visiting professor at the Middle East Centre at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Her recent publications include A History of Saudi Arabia and A Most Masculine State.

Thanks for joining us again, Madawi.


JAY: So we know from WikiLeaks, we know from various sources the Saudis would like the United States to attack Iran. There’s a direct quote from King Abdullah saying it’s time for the Americans to cut the head off the problem, which meant regime change in Iran. I’ve talked directly to people myself, and other journalists have who have Saudi connections, and the Saudis are probably more serious about wanting to draw the United States into a war with Iran than perhaps even the Israelis are. At least in Israel you can hear from various official sources and retired security intelligence chiefs that they don’t think Iran’s an existential threat, that this is mostly political posturing by Netanyahu, and so on. But the Saudis seem really serious about all this. Why?

AL-RASHEED: Well, there are many reasons. Saudi Arabia has the ultimate objective of becoming the arbiter of regional politics, of being the only power, regional power in the Middle East that the U.S. and others can rely on. And so there is this ambition. And this has been taking place since 1979, when Egypt was removed from the scene, at least metaphorically, as it signed the peace agreement with Israel, the Camp David agreement. And, therefore, since then Saudi Arabia’s been struggling to assert its hegemony in the Arab world.

And also it wanted to be the only power, regional power. And in 2003, Iraq was removed from this Arab world as another regional power that Saudi Arabia was actually worried about. And since 2003, it saw that only Iran now is a real competitor.

Iran itself had led, had pursued policies that are seen in Saudi Arabia as threatening. So, for example, Iran sponsors Hezbollah in Lebanon. That undermines Saudi control of that little country. Iran also has very strong relations with Bashar al-Assad, and it is probably one of the dominant countries that have serious presence in Iraq. So Saudi Arabia feels that it is now surrounded by Iraq from the north.

On top of that, Saudi Arabia accuses Iran of sponsoring and supporting the Houthis in Yemen on its southern border, in addition to, of course, the Bahrain uprising, which in the Saudi official narrative is a purely Iranian conspiracy.

JAY: Can I ask you quickly about that? Because, you know, we talk to journalists who have reported on Bahrain and others who know the situation. They all say that there’s simply no truth to that, that, you know, whether there’s some Iranian influence, perhaps, but they’re not driving it and they’re a marginal influence. Do the Saudis not know that? I mean, do they really believe this is Iran? Or they use this as a way to sort of drum up anti-Shia hysteria?

AL-RASHEED: Well, it is irrelevant whether there is evidence or not. This is political rhetoric. And, for example, the Houthi, with the Houthi Shia in Yemen, we know that several independent reports, for example the conflict crisis report, said clearly that there’s no evidence that Iran is supporting the Houthis in 2009. In Bahrain itself there is the Bassiouni Report, which was an independent report commissioned by the Bahraini king after 2011, the clashes in Bahrain, which said clearly that there is no evidence that Iran is actually supporting the Bahraini opposition.

Of course there is media support. We know that. But these two reports indicate to us that now any kind of rebellion or any kind of uprising that the Saudis do not want to see is immediately attributed to the work of Iran or the conspiracies of Iran.

But we know that Iran does support certain groups, for example Hezbollah. That is clear. And therefore Saudi Arabia uses this kind of Iranian threat in terms of penetrating Arab society, and including Saudi Arabia itself.

JAY: And there is some truth. I mean, Iran is not some kind of Switzerland. Iran does want to be a regional power and have influence.

AL-RASHEED: Absolutely. I mean, what we are seeing now is a competition between two regional powers that are trying to partition the Arab world. And on top of that, if you remove the word Iran and replace it with Muslim Brotherhood, you’ll see that both the Saudis and, for example, the United Arab Emirates use the same sort of language to describe any threat. So if you remove the word Iran and the Shia and apply all the accusations to the Muslim Brotherhood, you see that the Saudis have replaced the Iranian threat with the Muslim Brotherhood threat.

And then we’re worried that when Egypt elected its Muslim brotherhood president, Egypt was going to also become part of the Iranian expansionist sort of desires and conspiracies. And they were worried that Egypt under the Muslim Brotherhood would drift towards Iran. Obviously–.

JAY: Now, let me understand something, ’cause I thought the Muslim Brotherhood was quite closely connected with Qatar, which is a kind of a split between Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Was the Muslim Brotherhood not closer to Qatar than it is to Iran?

AL-RASHEED: Absolutely. But from the Saudi perspective, there was this worry that once Egypt is ruled by the Muslim Brotherhood, it would have a free kind of decision to become closer to Iran in order to minimize its dependence on Saudi Arabia. But we all know that the Muslim Brotherhood is supported by Qatar, which is also a problem for Saudi Arabia. And we know recently Saudi Arabia, together with Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, withdrew their ambassadors from Qatar. And one of the main reason that was given by the Saudi regime was Qatar’s continuous support for subversive forces such as the Muslim Brotherhood.

And therefore the Saudi-Iranian relationship is very, very complex, in the sense that both countries want to expand even more in the Arab world, but without both of them being able to emerge as the only arbiter of Arab politics. I think both regimes, in Tehran and Riyadh, underestimate the level of awareness, the level of resistance that Arabs have actually demonstrated over the last three years. And, yes, they may use these two regimes, use the economic sort of deprivation of countries like Egypt or others in North Africa in order to expand even more.

But at the end of the day, we have actually seen the first wave of resistance to authoritarian rule. And both the Saudi regime and the Iranian one do not offer a viable model for the Arab masses to emulate, for the Arab masses to have inspiration from. And therefore both of them are actually fighting a lost battle, ’cause at the end these youth that have demonstrated and paid a high price in places like Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain, Yemen, and elsewhere, they are not going to be easily co-opted. I think we have just seen the first wave, where both Saudi Arabia and Iran were trying to manipulate the outcome, and even, in the case of Saudi Arabia, destroy the prospect for democracy in the region.

And as long as this conflict over the regional sort of hegemony in the Arab world continues–hence Saudi Arabia was very worried about a kind of rapprochement with Iran organized under the auspices of Western government that would lead to Iran being brought back to the international community as a respected member. And therefore Saudi Arabia wants to be seen as the only reliable ally. And it has used all its power, its means, in order to achieve that objective.

One worrying strategy that the Saudis have used is the sectarianism. So Saudi Arabia presents itself as the protector of the interest of Sunni Islam and want to gather support from other Sunni monarchies, for example Morocco and Jordan. And Iran presents itself as the country that would secure the interest of the Shia. So we are facing here the degeneration of the Arab world into sectarian conflict that is beginning to actually become–that has reached a very ugly phase. And I can’t see how this can be stopped without these two countries reaching a kind of agreement between them that this sectarian conflict is going to have bad [inaud.] influence in both societies.

JAY: Well, maybe this is part of the way they want to deal with the Arab awakening. If they can involve the societies in sectarian warfare, it’s a way to sidetrack and sideline the more mass opposition to authoritarian rule.

AL-RASHEED: Yes. And also it gives a regime like Saudi Arabia the pretext of suppressing any kind of uprising or demand for democracy on the basis that the alternative is going to be chaos. And, in fact, the Saudi regime seems to be comfortable with the chaos that is still ongoing in places like Egypt or Syria, because it is giving indirect message to its own domestic population that change means chaos; it doesn’t mean change towards the better; in fact, it is worse. And therefore it can absorb any kind of demands for democracy or change and can repress any kind of demonstration under the pretext that this is chaos.

JAY: And the American perhaps rapprochement with Iran–I mean, they haven’t made a deal yet, but it seems they want to. They seem to be headed there. And, of course, it could all fall apart. But do the Saudis see this as an American move to kind of restrict their power and use Iran to sort of play off against the Saudis?

AL-RASHEED: It’s certainly the way it is interpreted in Riyadh. And the Saudis made it very clear through the official media–which is also not a free media, and you can’t find any debate of the Saudi approach, and, therefore, the repetition that this rapprochement with Iran is going to be at the expense of Saudi interest. And it is almost like, you know, if the U.S. moves towards greater understanding or a kind of coexistence with Iran, it is bound to be negatively interpreted in Riyadh.

JAY: Okay. Alright. We’re going to do one more segment, and we’re going to talk about the internal politics of Saudi Arabia amongst the elite, the fight amongst the various princes, and the decentralization of power in Saudi Arabia. So please join us with Madawi Al-Rasheed on The Real News Network.


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