Suite of Sophisticated Nation-State Attack Tools Found With Connection to Stuxnet

Suite of Sophisticated Nation-State Attack Tools Found With Connection to Stuxnet

By Kim Zetter
WIRED
February 16, 2015

CANCUN, Mexico—The last two years have been filled with revelations about NSA surveillance activities and the sophisticated spy tools the agency uses to take control of everything from individual systems to entire networks. Now it looks like researchers at Kaspersky Lab may have uncovered some of these NSA tools in the wild on customer machines, providing an extensive new look at the spy agency’s technical capabilities. Among the tools uncovered is a worm that appears to have direct connections to Stuxnet, the digital weapon that was launched repeatedly against centrifuges in Iran beginning in late 2007 in order to sabotage them. In fact, researchers say the newly uncovered worm may have served as a kind of test run for Stuxnet, allowing the attackers to map a way to targeted machines in Iran that were air-gapped from the internet.

For nearly a year, the researchers have been gradually collecting components that belong to several highly sophisticated digital spy platforms that they say have been in use and development since 2001, possibly even as early as 1996, based on when some command servers for the malware were registered. They say the suite of surveillance platforms, which they call EquationLaser, EquationDrug and GrayFish, make this the most complex and sophisticated spy system uncovered to date, surpassing even the recently exposed Regin platform believed to have been created by Britain’s GCHQ spy agency and used to infiltrate computers belonging to the European Union and a Belgian telecom called Belgacom, among others.

The new platforms, which appear to have been developed in succession with each one surpassing the previous in sophistication, can give the attackers complete and persistent control of infected systems for years, allowing them to siphon data and monitor activities while using complex encryption schemes and other sophisticated methods to avoid detection. The platforms also include an innovative module, the likes of which Kaspersky has never seen before, that re-flashes or reprograms a hard drive’s firmware with malicious code to turn the computer into a slave of the attackers. The researchers, who gave WIRED an advance look at their findings and spoke about them today at the Kaspersky Security Analyst Summit in Mexico, have dubbed the attackers the Equation Group and consider them “the most advanced threat actor” they’ve seen to date.

The researchers have published an initial paper on their findings and plan to publish more technical details over the next few days, but there’s still a lot they don’t know about the Equation Group’s activities.

“As we uncover more of these cyber espionage operations we realize how little we understand about the true capabilities of these threat actors,” Costin Raiu, head of Kaspersky’s Global Research and Analysis Team told WIRED.

NSA Connections?

Although the researchers have no solid evidence that the NSA is behind the tools and decline to make any attribution to that effect, there is circumstantial evidence that points to this conclusion. A keyword—GROK—found in a keylogger component appears in NSA documents leaked by Edward Snowden to The Intercept that describe a keylogger by that name. There are other connections to an NSA spy tool catalog leaked to other journalists in 2013. The 53-page catalog details—with pictures, diagrams and secret codenames—an array of complex devices and capabilities available to intelligence operatives. The capabilities of several tools in the catalog identified by the codenames UNITEDRAKE, STRAITBAZZARE, VALIDATOR and SLICKERVICAR appear to match the tools Kaspersky found. These codenames don’t appear in the components from the Equation Group, but Kaspersky did find “UR” in EquationDrug, suggesting a possible connection to UNITEDRAKE (United Rake). Kaspersky also found other codenames in the components that aren’t in the NSA catalog but share the same naming conventions—they include SKYHOOKCHOW, STEALTHFIGHTER, DRINKPARSLEY, STRAITACID, LUTEUSOBSTOS, STRAITSHOOTER, and DESERTWINTER.

Other evidence possibly pointing to the NSA is the fact that five victims in Iran who were infected with Equation Group components were also key victims of Stuxnet, which was reportedly created and launched by the U.S. and Israel.

Kaspersky wouldn’t identify the Iranian victims hit by the Equation tools, but the five key Stuxnet victims have been previously identified as five companies in Iran, all contractors in the business of building and installing industrial control systems for various clients. Stuxnet targeted industrial control systems used to control centrifuges at a uranium-enrichment plant near Natanz, Iran. The companies—Neda Industrial Group, Kala Electric, Behpajooh, CGJ (believed to be Control Gostar Jahed) and Foolad Technic—were infected with Stuxnet in the hope that contractors would carry it into the enrichment plant on an infected USB stick. This link between the Equation Group and Stuxnet raises the possibility that the Equation tools were part of the Stuxnet attack, perhaps to gather intelligence for it.

But the newly uncovered worm created by the Equation Group, which the researchers are calling Fanny after the name of one of its files, has an equally intriguing connection to Stuxnet.

It uses two of the same zero-day exploits that Stuxnet used, including the infamous .LNK zero-day exploit that helped Stuxnet spread to air-gapped machines at Natanz—machines that aren’t connected to the internet. The .LNK exploit in Fanny has a dual purpose—it allows attackers to send code to air-gapped machines via an infected USB stick but also lets them surreptitiously collect intelligence about these systems and transmit it back to the attackers. Fanny does this by storing the intelligence in a hidden file on the USB stick; when the stick is then inserted into a machine connected to the internet, the data intelligence gets transferred to the attackers. EquationDrug also makes use of the .LNK exploit. A component called SF loads it onto USB sticks along with a trojan to infect machines.

The other zero-day Fanny uses is an exploit that Stuxnet used to gain escalated privileges on machines in order to install itself seamlessly.

Fanny

Raiu says he thinks Fanny was an early experiment to test the viability of using self-replicating code to spread malware to air-gapped machines and was only later added to Stuxnet when the method proved a success. Notably, the first version of Stuxnet, believed to have been unleashed in late 2007, didn’t use zero-day exploits to spread; instead it spread by infecting the Step 7 project files used to program control systems at Natanz. Fanny was subsequently compiled in July 2008 with the two zero-day exploits. When the next version of Stuxnet was unleashed in 2009, the privilege-escalation exploit from Fanny was added to it. Then in 2010, the .LNK exploit from Fanny was added to a version of Stuxnet unleashed that March and April.

Fanny may have been used initially as proof-of-concept to test the viability of getting Stuxnet onto air-gapped machines in Iran. Or it could have been used for a different operation entirely, and its developers simply shared the exploits with the Stuxnet crew. The vast majority of Fanny infections detected so far are in Pakistan. Kaspersky has found no infections in Iran. This suggests Fanny was likely created for a different operation.

Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program, like Iran’s, has long been a U.S. concern. The centrifuge designs used in Iran’s uranium-enrichment plant at Natanz came from Pakistan—a Pakistani scientist helped jumpstart Iran’s nuclear program with them. Information about the NSA’s black budget, leaked by Snowden to the Washington Post in 2013, shows that Pakistan’s nuclear program, and the security of its nuclear weapons, is a huge concern to U.S. intelligence and there is “intense focus” on gaining more information about it. “No other nation draws as much scrutiny across so many categories of national security concern,” the Post wrote in a story about the budget.

Kaspersky found only one version of Fanny. It arrived in their virus collection system in December 2008 but went unnoticed in their archive until last year. Raiu doesn’t know where the Fanny file came from—possibly another anti-virus firm’s shared collection.

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Victims

Kaspersky has found 500 victims in some 30 countries infected with EquationLaser, EquationDrug and GrayFish components. But having been active for more than a decade, it’s likely the spy tools have infected tens of thousands of systems. Each time a machine is infected, the malware places a timestamp in the victim’s registry along with a counter that increases with each victim. Based on counters found on victim machines, the victims appear to increase at a rate of about 2,000 a month.

The largest number of victims have been targeted in Iran, but there are also victims in Russia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Belgium, Germany, Sudan, Lebanon, the Palestinian Territories, the United States and the UK. They include military, government and diplomatic targets, as well as telecoms, nuclear research facilities and individuals, Islamic activists and scholars, the media, and those working on nanotechnology and encryption technologies. Victims found in the U.S. and UK are all Islamic activists or scholars, Raiu says, some with known extremist leanings.

Kaspersky researchers discovered the first component belonging to the Equation Group last March while investigating the Regin malware. The first piece of puzzle found was a driver file that showed up on a system in the Middle East that was also infected with Regin and several other known families of nation-state malware Kaspersky recognized. This apparently high-value target was cluttered with so much malware Kaspersky dubbed it the “magnet of threats”.

They initially believed the driver was part of Regin or another malicious family. It used very advanced stealth techniques to avoid detection and was only discovered because of the way it tried to hijack a specific Windows function to sniff network traffic. This triggered an alert in the Kaspersky software. It was using “some nasty techniques to hook into Windows,” says Vitaly Kamluk, principal security researcher for Kaspersky. The techniques, in fact, had been described years before in a 2005 book titled Subverting the Windows Kernel. “[The attackers] were following the instructions that were uncovered in the book,” Kamluk says.

After adding detection for the driver to their security products, Kaspersky found the malicious driver on other machines as well as additional components related to it. As they collected modules and pieced them together, they also found an extensive network of command-and-control servers—more than 300 in all—that the attackers had set up to communicate with their malware. Kaspersky managed to sinkhole about a dozen of the domains so that traffic that would have once headed from victim machines to the attackers’ domains got re-routed to a server the researchers controlled instead. In this way they were able to uncover more victims. The attackers had allowed the registration for a number of their domains to expire. Kaspersky monitored the domains and simply bought up each as it expired.

timeline_4_1024

As they pieced together components, they were able to establish a timeline and see that EquationLaser was an early-generation implant the attackers used between 2001 and 2004, while EquationDrug was the next-generation tool that came into use sometime around 2003. It was continuously developed and expanded by the attackers until 2013. Over time, it became a robust and full-blown platform composed of numerous plug-ins or modules that could be remotely slipped on to an infected system at will, once the attackers established a foothold on it.

EquationDrug was supplanted by the even more sophisticated GrayFish. Two versions of GrayFish have been uncovered—the first apparently developed in 2008 and the second in 2012, based on compilation timestamps. EquationDrug stopped being used in mid-2013 right around the time the first leaks from NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden were published. The first evidence of GrayFish 2.0 being used in the wild appeared shortly after those first leaks.

Enter GrayFish

GrayFish works on all the latest Windows operating systems as well as Windows 2000. It’s the most sophisticated platform of the three. Its components all reside in the registry of infected systems, making the malware nearly invisible to detection systems.

GrayFish uses a highly complex multi-stage decryption process to unpack its code, decrypting and executing each stage in strict order, with each stage containing the key to unlock the subsequent one. GrayFish only begins this decryption process, however, if it finds specific information on the targeted machine, which it then uses to generate the first key to launch the decryption. This allows the attackers to tailor the infection to specific machines and not risk having it decrypt on unwanted systems. The magic key that initiates this process is generated by running a unique ID associated with one of the computer’s folders through the SHA-256 algorithm 1,000 times. The final hash becomes the key to unlock the malware and launch the nested decryption scheme.

It’s very similar to a process used by Gauss, another piece of malware believed to have been created by the team behind Stuxnet that Kaspersky discovered in 2012. Gauss had a mysterious payload that has never been unlocked because it can only be decrypted by a key generated by running specific data on the targeted machine through the MD5 algorithm 10,000 times. The scheme, as used in both GrayFish and Gauss, not only serves to prevent the malware from unleashing on non-targeted machines, it also prevents security researchers and victims from unlocking the code without knowing the specific data needed to generate the hash/decryption key.

EQ Family

In addition to the encryption scheme, GrayFish uses a sophisticated bootkit to hijack infected systems. Each time the computer reboots, GrayFish loads malicious code from the boot record to hijack the booting process and give GrayFish complete command over the operating system, essentially making GrayFish the computer’s operating system. If an error occurs during this process, however, the malware will immediately halt and self-destruct, leaving the real Windows operating system to resume control, while GrayFish quietly disappears from the system.

But the most impressive GrayFish component is one that can be used to reflash the firmware of hard drives. Firmware is the code resident on hardware that makes the device work. Kaspersky uncovered two versions of a module used for reflashing or reprogramming firmware—one version for the EquationDrug platform the other for GrayFish. The EquationDrug version appears to have been compiled in 2010 while the GrayFish one bears a 2013 timestamp. The module reflashes the firmware with malicious code that gives the attackers a persistent foothold on the system even if the owner reformats the hard drive or wipes the operating system and reinstalls it in an attempt to clean the machine of malware. Between them, the two versions can reprogram 12 different brands of hardware drives, including ones made by Samsung and Seagate. To pull off this feat, the modules use a slew of undocumented commands that are specific to each vendor, which the Kaspersky researchers call “an astonishing technical accomplishment” that is a testimony to the group’s high-level skills.

The attackers did make one mistake, however. It appears that one of the developers of the GROK trojan left his username—rmgree5—behind in the file.

Continue reading at:  WIRED

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Keystone XL, Cold War 2.0, and the GOP Vision for 2016

Keystone XL, Cold War 2.0, and the GOP Vision for 2016
How Energy Coordination on One Continent Could Bring the Planet to Its Knees

By Michael T. Klare
TomDispatch
February 12, 2015

It’s a ritual long familiar to observers of American politics:  presidential hopefuls with limited international experience travel to foreign lands and deliver speeches designed to showcase their grasp of foreign affairs. Typically, such escapades involve trips to major European capitals or active war zones like Iraq and Afghanistan. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, however, has broken this mold. Before his recent jaunt to London and into the thickets of American vaccination politics, he chose two surprising destinations for his first trips abroad as a potential Republican candidate.  No, not Kabul or Baghdad or even Paris, but Mexico City and Alberta, Canada.  And rather than launch into discussions of immigration, terrorism, or the other usual Republican foreign policy topics, he focused on his own top priority:  integrating Canada and Mexico into a U.S.-led “North American energy renaissance”.

By accelerating the exploitation of fossil fuels across the continent, reducing governmental oversight of drilling operations in all three countries, and building more cross-border pipelines like the Keystone XL, Christie explained, all three countries would be guaranteed dramatic economic growth.  “In North America, we have resources waiting to be tapped,” he assured business leaders in Mexico City.  “What is required is the vision to maximize our growth, the political will to unlock our potential, and the understanding that working together on strategic priorities… is the path to a better life.”

At first glance, Christie’s blueprint for his North American energy renaissance seems to be a familiar enough amalgam of common Republican tropes:  support for that Keystone XL pipeline slated to bring Canadian tar sands to the U.S. Gulf Coast, along with unbridled energy production everywhere; opposition to excessive governmental regulation; free trade… well, you know the mantra.  But don’t be fooled.  Something far grander — and more sinister — is being proposed.  It’s nothing less than a plan to convert Canada and Mexico into energy colonies of the United States, while creating a North American power bloc capable of aggressively taking on Russia, China, and other foreign challengers.

This outlook — call it North Americanism — is hardly unique to Christie.  It pervades the thinking of top Republican leaders and puts their otherwise almost inexplicably ardent support of Keystone XL in a new light.  As most analysts now concede, that pipeline will do little to generate long-term jobs or promote U.S. energy independence. (Much of the tar sands oil it’s designed to carry will be refined in the U.S., but exported elsewhere).  In fact, with oil prices plunging globally, it looks ever more like a white elephant of a project, yet it remains the Republican majority’s top legislative priority.  The reason:  it is the concrete manifestation of Christie-style North American energy integration, and for that reason is considered sacred by Republican proponents of North Americanism.  “This is not about sending ‘your oil’ across ‘our land,’” Christie insisted in Calgary.  “It’s about maximizing the benefits of North America’s natural resources for everybody.”

While North American energy integration may, in part, appeal to Republicans for the way it would enrich major U.S. oil companies, pipeline firms, and some energy-industry workers — the “everybody” in Christie’s remarks — its real allure lies in the way they believe it will buttress the more hawkish and militarized foreign policy that so many in the GOP now favor.  By boosting fossil fuel production in North America, Keystone’s backers claim, the U.S. will be less dependent on imports from the Middle East and so in a stronger position to combat Russia, Iran, ISIS, and other foreign challengers.

Authorization for Keystone XL and related energy infrastructure is important “not just for economic development, not just for jobs and growth,” Senator Ted Cruz of Texas declared in January, “but also for the enormous geopolitical advantages that it will present to the United States [by strengthening] our hands against those who would be enemies of America.”

Brace yourself. This combination of fossil fuel optimization and North American solidarity against a potentially hostile world is destined to become the core of the Republican economic and national security platforms in the 2016 presidential election.  It will similarly govern action in Congress over the next two years.  So, if you want to understand the dynamics of contemporary American politics, it’s crucial to grasp the new Republican vision of an energy-saturated North America.

Exxon’s Neo-Imperial Vision

Republican-style North Americanism is, in fact, an amalgam of two intersecting urges.  The first of them involves a quest by U.S.-based giant oil companies to gain greater access to the oil and natural gas reserves of Canada and Mexico; the second, a drive by neoconservatives and national security hawks in Washington to rev up Cold War 2.0, while stepping up combat with both Iran and the Islamic State.

Let’s start with the altered world energy order once dominated by privately owned giants like BP, Chevron, and ExxonMobil — a.k.a. the international oil companies, or IOCs.  For most of the twentieth century, these companies controlled a majority of the world’s oil and gas reserves and so almost completely dominated the global trade in hydrocarbons.  In the 1970s and 1980s, however, many of their overseas assets were systematically appropriated by governments in oil-producing countries like Saudi Arabia, Algeria, and Venezuela, and placed under the control of state-owned, national oil companies, or NOCs.  In response, the IOCs sought to increase their production from reserves in Canada and the U.S., as well as in Mexico, which has its own state-owned oil company but was facing declining output.  This led those big companies to believe that, in the long run, Mexico would be forced to open its doors to greater foreign involvement.

Their strategy proved widely successful in the U.S., where the application of new technologies, including hydro-fracking, horizontal drilling, and deepwater drilling, has led to spectacular increases in oil and gas output.  According to the Energy Information Administration of the Department of Energy, U.S. field production of crude oil jumped from five million barrels per day in 2008 to 8.6 million barrels in the third quarter of 2014.  Over the same period, the production of natural gas similarly rose from 21.1 to 25.7 trillion cubic feet.  The current plunge in oil prices is expected to slow the pace of U.S. drilling, but not prevent further gains.

Stepped-up investment by the big energy companies led to a comparable increase in production from Canada’s tar sands (also called oil sands).  According to BP, Canadian crude output climbed from 3.2 million barrels per day in 2008 to nearly 4.0 million barrels by the end of 2013, thanks purely to those tar sands.  But the producers of all this added oil have run into a major obstacle to its successful commercialization:  there are not enough pipelines to transport this particularly carbon-dense crude to refineries in the United States, where it can be processed into usable petroleum products.  Hence, the need for additional pipelines, beginning with Keystone XL.  Indeed, with the recent fall in oil prices, Keystone has become even more important, as other modes of transport, including delivery by rail, are far more costly.

Mexico presents a different set of obstacles. Under the Mexican Constitution, all hydrocarbon deposits are the property of the Mexican people and their exploitation is reserved solely for the state-owned company, Petróleos Mexicanos (Pemex).  The country’s expropriation of foreign oil assets on March 18, 1937, is considered a pillar of Mexican sovereignty and that day is still celebrated as a national holiday (Día de la Expropiación Petrolera).  As a result, the only way the giant oil companies could gain access to Mexico’s vast reserves of oil and gas would be if its leaders were willing to amend existing laws to allow the involvement of foreign firms in the development of these assets.

In response to such obstacles, the major U.S.-based oil companies and their financial backers have developed a strategy to promote North American energy interdependence, while stressing the beneficial value of increased U.S. participation in Canada’s and Mexico’s energy industries and the elimination of barriers to cross-border pipelines and other transnational energy infrastructure.

Although oil company executives have rarely discussed such strategic planning in public, there was an exception.  In 2012, before the Council on Foreign Relations, Rex Tillerson, chairman and CEO of ExxonMobil, gave its North American strategy an unusually candid airing.  “Canada has a huge resource endowment,” he noted.  “The United States has a huge resource endowment; Mexico has a huge resource endowment.”  In that light, he suggested that the major U.S. energy firms coordinate the full-scale exploitation of all three countries’ fossil fuels. “[If] we approach energy policy and energy security from a North American perspective, the resource base, the technologies that are available, and the like-minded policies that could be put in place could rapidly achieve that energy security that we have been in quest of for all of my career.”

Canada and the U.S., he pointed out then, were already moving to embrace such “like-minded policies,” but Mexico still had a long way to go. “We’re hopeful,” he added, “that Mexico, as it continues its pathway to reforms around how it manages its own oil and natural gas resources… will open up opportunities for greater partnerships and collaborations [while] bringing technology to bear on the huge resources that Mexico has as well.”

The task, then, was simply to persuade the leaders of Canada, Mexico, and the U.S. to harmonize their energy policies.  As Tillerson explained, “It’s my hope that at some point energy security can become a policy issue in our foreign policy discussions with Mexico, Canada, and the United States.”  In this Big Oil view of how North America should work, lay the foundations for the new Republican strategic vision that Chris Christie, Ted Cruz, and other presidential candidates for 2016 are going to turn into an overarching political mantra.

The New Cold War

Now, imagine a second river of energy exuberance flowing into Big Oil’s strategic vision.  This would be the reinvigorated Cold War stance of Republican hawks and neocons.  Led by Senator John McCain (now chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee), these advocates for an ever more aggressive foreign/military policy are pushing the idea that a series of foreign adversaries — Russia, China, Iran, and Islamic terrorists — are ratcheting up the dangers for this country and that the Obama administration’s response is woefully feeble.

The president’s failure to effectively resist belligerent moves by Russia in the Crimea and Ukraine, McCain argues, has “fed a perception that the United States is weak,” and for figures like Russian President Vladimir Putin, “vacillation invites aggression.”  Not only has the president’s claimed policy weakness invited further assaults from Russia in Eurasia, but it has also “emboldened other aggressive actors — from Chinese nationalists to al-Qaeda terrorists and Iranian theocrats.”

As McCain, other Senate and House war hawks, and their neocon allies see it, there is only one appropriate response to such threats:  a vigorous counterattack, involving beefed-up support for NATO, copious arms deliveries to the Ukrainians, and increased defense expenditures at home.  “When aggressive rulers or violent fanatics threaten our ideals [and] our interests,” McCain typically asserted last November, the country needs “not good intentions, or strong words, or a grand coalition, [but] the capability, credibility, and global reach of American hard power.”

While “hard power” may be the preferred response of such hawks, most do recognize that the direct use of military force by the United States in Ukraine and a number of other places is unlikely, even under a future Republican administration.  Public fatigue over American wars in the Greater Middle East coupled with mounting budget woes and a lack of support from Washington’s allies rules out such moves.  This means another powerful form of pressure is needed — and here’s where energy enters the picture.

As McCain and his allies see it, an energy-based North Americanism could prove to be an effective tool in the new Cold War.  Noting that many of Washington’s NATO allies are heavily dependent on Russian natural gas and so — it is claimed — vulnerable to future political pressure from Moscow, they are, for instance, promoting the production of ever more natural gas via hydro-fracking to ship off to Europe in the form of liquefied natural gas (LNG).  This, they insist, should be one of the country’s top future priorities.  “Today, the U.S. has the leverage to liberate our allies from Russia’s stranglehold on the European natural gas market,” McCain and fellow Republican Senator John Hoeven wrote in July.  All that is needed, they insist, is to eliminate government obstacles to drilling on federal lands and the approval of the construction of additional LNG export facilities.

The Republican Grand Strategy

This approach has been embraced by other senior Republican figures who see increased North American hydrocarbon output as the ideal response to Russian assertiveness.  In other words, the two pillars of a new energy North Americanism — enhanced collaboration with the big oil companies across the continent and reinvigorated Cold Warism — are now being folded into a single Republican grand strategy.  Nothing will prepare the West better to fight Russia or just about any other hostile power on the planet than the conversion of North America into a bastion of fossil fuel abundance.

This strange, chilling vision of an American (and global) future was succinctly described by former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in a remarkable Washington Post op-ed in March 2014.  She essentially called for North America to flood the global energy market, causing a plunge in oil prices and bankrupting the Russians.  “Putin is playing for the long haul, cleverly exploiting every opening he sees,” she wrote, but “Moscow is not immune from pressure.”  Putin and Co. require high oil and gas prices to finance their aggressive activities, “and soon, North America’s bounty of oil and gas will swamp Moscow’s capacity.”  By “authorizing the Keystone XL pipeline and championing natural gas exports,” she asserted, Washington would signal “that we intend to do exactly that.”

So now you know:  approval of the Keystone XL pipeline isn’t actually about jobs and the economy; it’s about battling Vladimir Putin, the Iranian mullahs, and America’s other adversaries.  “One of the ways we fight back, one of the ways we push back is we take control of our own energy destiny,” said Senator Hoeven on January 7th, when introducing legislation to authorize construction of that pipeline.

And that, it turns out, is just the beginning of the “benefits” that North Americanism will supposedly bring.  Ultimately, the goals of this strategy are to perpetuate the dominance of fossil fuels in North America’s energy mix and to enlist Canada and Mexico in a U.S.-led drive to ensure the continued dominance of the West in key regions of the world.  Stay tuned:  you’ll be hearing a lot more about this ambitious strategy as the Republican presidential hopefuls begin making their campaign rounds.

Keep in mind, though, that this is potentially dangerous stuff at every level — from the urge to ratchet up a conflict with Russia to the desire to produce and consume ever more North American fossil fuels (not exactly a surprising impulse given the Republicans’ heavy reliance on campaign contributions from Big Energy).  In the coming months, the Obama administration and Hillary Clinton’s camp will, of course, attempt to counter this drive.  Their efforts will, however, be undermined by their sympathy for many of its components.  Obama, for instance, has boasted more than once of his success in increasing U.S. oil and gas production, while Clinton has repeatedly called for a more combative foreign policy. Nor has either of them yet come up with a grand strategy as seemingly broad and attractive as Republican North Americanism.  If that plan is to be taken on seriously as the dangerous contrivance it is, it evidently will fall to others to do so.

This Republican vision, after all, rests on the desire of giant oil companies to eliminate government regulation and bring the energy industries of Canada and Mexico under their corporate sway.  Were this to happen, it would sabotage efforts to curb carbon emissions from fossil fuels in a major way, while undermining the sovereignty of Canada and Mexico.  In the process, the natural environment would suffer horribly as regulatory constraints against hazardous drilling practices would be eroded in all three countries.  Stepped-up drilling, hydrofracking, and tar sands production would also result in the increased diversion of water to energy production, reducing supplies for farming while increasing the risk that leaking drilling fluids will contaminate drinking water and aquifers.

No less worrisome, the Republican strategy would result in a far more polarized and dangerous international environment, in which hopes for achieving any kind of peace in Ukraine, Syria, or elsewhere would disappear.  The urge to convert North America into a unified garrison state under U.S. (energy) command would undoubtedly prompt similar initiatives abroad, with China moving ever closer to Russia and other blocs forming elsewhere.

In addition, those who seek to use energy as a tool of coercion should not be surprised to discover that they are inviting its use by hostile parties — and in such conflicts the U.S. and its allies would not emerge unscathed.  In other words, the shining Republican vision of a North American energy fortress will, in reality, prove to be a nightmare of environmental degradation and global conflict.  Unfortunately, this may not be obvious by election season 2016, so watch out.

Michael T. Klare, a TomDispatch regular, is a professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College and the author, most recently, of The Race for What’s Left. A documentary movie version of his book Blood and Oil is available from the Media Education Foundation.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, Rebecca Solnit’s Men Explain Things to Me, and Tom Engelhardt’s latest book, Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.

http://www.tomdispatch.com/blog/175955/

 

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“What is Inexcusable is Venezuela’s Political independence”

“What is Inexcusable is Venezuela’s Political independence”
An interview with John Pilger, conducted by Michael Albert

By John Pilger
teleSUR
February 16, 2015

Why would the U.S. want Venezuela’s government overthrown?

There are straightforward principles and dynamics at work here. Washington wants to get rid of the Venezuelan government because it is independent of U.S. designs for the region and because Venezuela has the greatest proven oil reserves in the world and uses its oil revenue to improve the quality of ordinary lives. Venezuela remains a source of inspiration for social reform in a continent ravaged by an historically rapacious U.S. An Oxfam report once famously described the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua as ‘the threat of a good example’. That has been true in Venezuela since Hugo Chavez won his first election. The ‘threat’ of Venezuela is greater, of course, because it is not tiny and weak; it is rich and influential and regarded as such by China. The remarkable change in fortunes for millions of people in Latin America is at the heart of U.S. hostility. The U.S. has been the undeclared enemy of social progress in Latin America for two centuries. It doesn’t matter who has been in the White House: Barack Obama or Teddy Roosevelt; the U.S. will not tolerate countries with governments and cultures that put the needs of their own people first and refuse to promote or succumb to U.S. demands and pressures. A reformist social democracy with a capitalist base – such as Venezuela – is not excused by the rulers of the world. What is inexcusable is Venezuela’s political independence; only complete deference is acceptable. The ‘survival’ of Chavista Venezuela is a testament to the support of ordinary Venezuelans for their elected government – that was clear to me when I was last there.  Venezuela’s weakness is that the political ‘opposition’ — those I would call the ‘East Caracas Mob’ – represent powerful interests who have been allowed to retain critical economic power. Only when that power is diminished will Venezuela shake off the constant menace of foreign-backed, often criminal subversion. No society should have to deal with that, year in, year out.

What methods has the U.S. already used and would you anticipate their using to unseat the Bolivarian Revolution?

There are the usual crop of quislings and spies; they come and go with their media theatre of fake revelations, but the principal enemy is the media. You may recall the Venezuelan admiral who was one of the coup-plotters against Chavez in 2002, boasting during his brief tenure in power, ‘Our secret weapon was the media’. The Venezuelan media, especially television, were active participants in that coup, lying that supporters of the government were firing into a crowd of protestors from a bridge. False images and headlines went around the world. The New York Times joined in, welcoming the overthrow of a democratic ‘anti-American’ government; it usually does. Something similar happened in Caracas last year when vicious right-wing mobs were lauded as ‘peaceful protestors’ who were being ‘repressed’. This was undoubtedly the start of a Washington-backed ‘colour revolution’ openly backed by the likes of the National Endowment for Democracy – a user-friendly CIA clone. It was uncannily like the coup that Washington successfully staged in Ukraine last year.  As in Kiev, in Venezuela the ‘peaceful protestors’ set fire to government buildings and deployed snipers and were lauded by western politicians and the western media. The strategy is almost certainly to push the Maduro government to the right and so alienate its popular base. Depicting the government as dictatorial and incompetent has long been an article of bad faith among journalists and broadcasters in Venezuela and in the U.S., the U.K. and Europe. One recent U.S. ‘story’ was that of a ‘U.S. scientist jailed for trying to help Venezuela build bombs’. The implication was that Venezuela was harbouring ‘nuclear terrorists’. In fact, the disgruntled nuclear physicist had no connection whatsoever with Venezuela.

All this is reminiscent of the unrelenting attacks on Chávez, each with that peculiar malice reserved for dissenters from the west’s ‘one true way’. In 2006, Britain’s Channel 4 News effectively accused the Venezuelan president of plotting to make nuclear weapons with Iran, an absurd fantasy. The Washington correspondent, Jonathan Rugman, sneered at policies to eradicate poverty and presented Chávez as a sinister buffoon, while allowing Donald Rumsfeld, a war criminal, to liken Chavez to Hitler, unchallenged. The BBC is no different. Researchers at the University of the West of England in the UK studied the BBC’s systematic bias in reporting Venezuela over a ten-year period. They looked at 304 BBC reports and found that only three of these referred to any of the positive policies of the government. For the BBC, Venezuela’s democratic initiatives, human rights legislation, food programmes, healthcare initiatives and poverty reduction programmes did not exist. Mission Robinson, the greatest literacy programme in human history, received barely a passing mention. This virulent censorship by omission complements outright fabrications such as accusations that the Venezuelan government are a bunch of drug-dealers.  None of this is new; look at the way Cuba has been misrepresented – and assaulted – over the years. Reporters Without Borders has just issued its worldwide ranking of nations based on their claims to a free press. The US is ranked 49th, behind Malta, Niger, Burkino Faso and El Salvador.

Why might now be a prime time, internationally, for pushing toward a coup? If the primary problem is Venezuela being an example that could spread, is the emergence of a receptive audience for that example in Europe adding to the U.S. response?

It’s important to understand that Washington is ruled by true extremists, once known inside the Beltway as ‘the crazies’. This has been true since before 9/11. A few are outright fascists. Asserting U.S. dominance is their undisguised game and, as the events in Ukraine demonstrate, they are prepared to risk a nuclear war with Russia. These people should be the common enemy of all sane human beings. In Venezuela, they want a coup so that they can roll-back of some of the world’s most important social reforms – such as in Bolivia and Ecuador. They’ve already crushed the hopes of ordinary people in Honduras. The current conspiracy between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia to lower the price of oil is meant to achieve something more spectacular in Venezuela, and Russia.

What do you think the best approach might be to warding off U.S. machinations, and those of domestic Venezuelan elites as well, for the Bolivarians?

The majority people of Venezuela, and their government, need to tell the world the truth about the attacks on their country. There is a stirring across the world, and many people are listening. They don’t want perpetual instability, perpetual poverty, perpetual war, perpetual rule by the few. And they identify the principal enemy; look at the international polling surveys that ask which country presents the greatest danger to humanity. The majority of people overwhelmingly point to the U.S., and to its numerous campaigns of terror and subversion.

What do you think is the immediate responsibility of leftists outside Venezuela, and particularly in the U.S. 

That begs a question: who are these ‘leftists’? Are they the millions of liberal North Americans seduced by the specious rise of Obama and silenced by his criminalising of freedom of information and dissent? Are they those who believe what they are told by the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Guardian, the BBC? It’s an important question. ‘Leftist’ has never been a more disputed and misappropriated term. My sense is that people who live on the edge and struggle against US-backed forces in Latin America understood the true meaning of the word, just as they identify a common enemy.  If we share their principles, and a modicum of their courage, we should take direct action in our own countries, starting, I would suggest, with the propagandists in the media. Yes, it’s our responsibility, and it has never been more urgent.

http://www.telesurtv.net/english/opinion/What-is-Inexcusable-is-Venezuelas-Political-independence-20150216-0011.html

 

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On the way to war on Russia

On the way to war on Russia

By Brian Cloughley
Asia Times
February 18, 2015

Since the Soviet collapse – as Moscow had feared – [the NATO] alliance has spread eastward, expanding along a line from Estonia in the north to Romania and Bulgaria in the south. The Kremlin claims it had Western assurances that would not happen. Now, Moscow’s only buffers to a complete NATO encirclement on its western border are Finland, Belarus and Ukraine. The Kremlin would not have to be paranoid to look at that map with concern. Stars and Stripes (US Armed Forces newspaper), February 13, 2015.

The Minsk Agreement of February 12, 2015, was arranged by the leaders of France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine and contained important provisions concerning future treatment of citizens in the Russian-speaking, Russia-cultured eastern districts of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts in Ukraine where there has been vicious fighting between separatist forces and government troops supported by militias.

Most Western media did not report that the accord was signed by the leaders of the provinces (oblasts) of Donetsk and Luhansk as well as representatives of Russia and Ukraine, but the former two matter greatly in implementation of its provisions.

To the disappointment of much of the West, and especially the United States, it appears that the great majority of the inhabitants of these regions are to be granted much of what they have been seeking (with robust support by Russia), which includes the right to speak and receive education in their birth-language; restitution of pension payments and other central revenue moneys that were stopped by the Kiev government; constitutional reform of Ukraine including “approval of permanent legislation on the special status of particular districts of Donetsk and Luhansk”; and free local elections in the oblasts.

The way to peace will not be easy but the substance of the accord will go far to convincing the people of the eastern oblasts that they will not in future be treated as second-class citizens. They will be permitted an appropriate degree of decision-making in their regions, and if there is goodwill on the part of the Kiev government there is reason to believe that fair governance could apply. A major problem, however, is the attitude of the United States and Britain concerning Russia and Ukraine.

Neither the US nor the UK was privy to discussions between participants in the Minsk talks except through technical intercept by their intelligence agencies and more intimate but necessarily partial description by Kiev’s President Petro Poroshenko, whose subordinates reported through US and British conduits.

London and Washington were excluded from negotiations because neither wishes a solution that could be agreeable to Russia and the Russian-cultured regions of east Ukraine.

Both are uncompromisingly intent on humiliating Moscow, and although Britain is verging on irrelevance in world affairs except as a decayed and limited associate of the US in whatever martial venture may be embarked upon by Washington, the US Congress and White House are for once in agreement and are determined to destroy Russia’s economy and topple its president and are being provocatively challenging in pursuit of that aim.

There hasn’t been such deliberate squaring-up politically and militarily since the height of the last Cold War. President Barack Obama’s speeches about Russia and President Vladimir Putin have been bellicose, abusive and personally insolent to the point of immature mindlessness. He does not realize that his contempt and threats will not be forgiven by the Russian people who, it is only too often overlooked, are proud of being Russian and understandably resent being insulted.

Obama claimed last year that the US “is and will remain the one indispensable nation in the world”, which was regarded with mild derision by many nations; but now Russians are realizing what he meant by his chest-pounding, because America has fostered the Ukraine mess in attempting to justify its stance of uncompromising aggression against them.

But Ukraine has nothing to do with the United States. It is on the border of Russia, not the US. It is not a member of NATO. It is not a member of the European Union. It has no defense or political treaty of any sort with the US. It is 5,000 miles – 8,000 kilometers – from Washington to Kiev and it is doubtful if more than a handful of members of Congress could find Ukraine on a map.

In March 2014, the province of Crimea declared itself to be separate from Ukraine. There was a referendum on sovereignty by its 2.4 million inhabitants. The Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe was asked to monitor and report on the referendum, but refused to do so. Both referendum and declaration were strongly condemned by the United States.

Some 60% of the inhabitants of Crimea are Russian-speaking, Russian-cultured and Russian-educated, and they voted to rejoin Russia from which they had been separated by the diktat of Soviet chairman Nikita Khrushchev – a Ukrainian. It would be strange if they did not wish to accede to a country that welcomes their kinship and is economically benevolent concerning their future.

Russia’s support for the people of eastern Ukraine – and there is indubitably a great deal of assistance, both political and military, similar to that of the US-NATO alliance for the people of the breakaway Kosovo region of Serbia in 2008 – is based on the fact that the great majority of people there are Russian-speaking, Russian-cultured and discriminated against by the Ukrainian government, just as Kosovans were persecuted by Serbs.

So it is not surprising that the majority of inhabitants of the eastern areas of the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts want to “dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another” and be granted a large degree of autonomy – or even join Russia. The US refuses to admit that they might have even the slightest justification for their case.

There has been a US-led media campaign attempting to persuade the public, in the words of John Herbst, former US ambassador to Ukraine, that President Putin’s “provocations against the Baltic states, against Kazakhstan, indicate his goals are greater than Ukraine. If we don’t stop Mr Putin in Ukraine we may be dealing with him in Estonia.”

This is nonsense, because there is no economic, political or military point in Russia trying to invade the Baltic States or any other country on its borders. There has been no indication of any such move – other than in bizarre statements by such as Mr Herbst and twisted reports in Western news media. It is absurd and intellectually demeaning and deceitful to suggest otherwise, and it is regrettable that someone of the superior intelligence of Mr Herbst could lower himself to say such a thing.

But it makes good propaganda.

In similar vein, President Putin’s statement to Ukraine’s President Poroshenko that “If I wanted, in two days I could have Russian troops not only in Kiev, but also in Riga, Vilnius, Tallinn, Warsaw and Bucharest” was reported by Britain’s Daily Telegraph as “President Vladimir Putin privately threatened to invade Poland, Romania and the Baltic states” – which was malicious misrepresentation of what he said.

Putin was making the point that Russia’s armed forces could easily have taken successful military action against neighboring countries had they been ordered to do so – but he has no intention of doing anything so rash and stupid. What he and the Russian people want is justice and political choice for the ethnically Russian people in eastern Ukraine, as well as increasing bilaterally lucrative trade arrangements with adjoining countries. It would be insane for Moscow to hazard commercial links with any of its neighbors. Washington, on the other hand, is trying to break them.

Continue reading at:   Asia Times

 

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Israel’s Obsession for Monopoly on Middle East Nuclear Power

Israel’s Obsession for Monopoly on Middle East Nuclear Power

By Thalif Deen
IPS – Inter Press Service News Agency
February 15, 2015

UNITED NATIONS, Feb 13 2015 (IPS) – As the Iranian nuclear talks hurtle towards a Mar. 24 deadline, there is renewed debate among activists about the blatant Western double standards underlying the politically-heated issue, and more importantly, the resurrection of a longstanding proposal for a Middle East free from weapons of mass destruction (WMD).

Asked about the Israeli obsession to prevent neighbours – first and foremost Iran, but also Saudi Arabia and Egypt – from going nuclear, Hillel Schenker, co-editor of the Jerusalem-based Palestine-Israel Journal, told IPS, “This is primarily the work of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has built his political career on fanning the flames of fear, and saying that Israel has to stand pat, with a strong leader [him] to withstand the challenges.”

And this is the primary motivation for his upcoming and very controversial partisan speech before the U.S. Congress on the eve of the Israeli elections, which has aroused a tremendous amount of opposition in Israel, in the American Jewish community and in the U.S. in general, he pointed out.

Iran, which has consistently denied any plans to acquire nuclear weapons, will continue its final round of talks involving Germany and the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council: the United States, Britain, France, China and Russia (collectively known as P-5, plus one).

Last week, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani asked the United States and Israel, both armed with nuclear weapons, a rhetorical question tinged with sarcasm: “Have you managed to bring about security for yourselves with your atomic bombs?”

The New York Times quoted the Washington-based Arms Control Association as saying Israel is believed to have 100 to 200 nuclear warheads.

The Israelis, as a longstanding policy, have neither confirmed nor denied the nuclear arsenal. But both the United States and Israel have been dragging their feet over the proposal for a nuclear-free Middle East.

Bob Rigg, a former senior editor with the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), told IPS the U.S. government conveniently ignores its own successive National Intelligence Estimates, which represent the consensus views of all 13 or so U.S. intelligence agencies, that there has been no evidence, in the period since 2004, of any Iranian intention to acquire nuclear weapons.

“If Israel is the only nuclear possessor in the Middle East, this combined with the U.S nuclear and conventional capability, gives the U.S. and Israel an enormously powerful strategic lever in the region,” Rigg said.

He said this is even more realistic, especially now that Syria’s chemical weapons (CW) have been destroyed. They were the only real threat to Israel in the region.

“This dimension of the destruction of Syria’s CW has gone strangely unnoticed. Syria had Russian-made missiles that could have targeted population centres right throughout Israel,” said Rigg, a former chair of the New Zealand Consultative Committee on Disarmament.

A question being asked by military analysts is: why is Israel, armed with both nuclear weapons and also some of the most sophisticated conventional arms from the United States, fearful of any neighbour with WMDs?

Will a possibly nuclear-armed Iran, or for that matter Saudi Arabia or Egypt, risk using nuclear weapons against Israel since it would also exterminate the Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied territories? ask nuclear activists.

Schenker told IPS: “I believe that if Iran were to opt for nuclear weapons, the primary motivation would be to defend the regime, not to attack Israel. Still, it is preferable that they not gain nuclear weapons.”

Of course, he said, the fundamental solution to this danger would be the creation of a Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone in the Middle East.

That will require a two-track parallel process: One track moving towards a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the other track moving towards the creation of a regional regime of peace and security, with the aid of the Arab Peace Initiative (API), within which a WMD Free Zone would be a major component, said Schenker, a strong advocate of nuclear disarmament.

As for the international conference on a nuclear and WMD free zone before the next NPT (Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty) Review Conference, scheduled to begin at the end of April in New York, he said, the proposal is still alive.

In mid-March, the Academic Peace Orchestra Middle East initiative will convene a conference in Berlin, whose theme is “Fulfilling the Mandate of the Helsinki Conference in View of the 2015 NPT Review Conference”.

It will include a session on the topic featuring Finnish Ambassador Jaakko Laajava, the facilitator of the conference, together with governmental representatives from Israel, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Germany.

There will also be an Iranian participant at the conference, said Schenker.

Rigg told IPS Israel’s first Prime Minister Ben Gurion wanted nuclear weapons from the outset. Israel was approved by the new United Nations, which then had only 55 or so members. Most of the developing world was still recovering from World War II and many new states had yet to emerge.

He said the United States and the Western powers played the key role in setting up the U.N.

“They wanted an Israel, even though Israeli terrorists murdered Count Folke Berdadotte of Sweden, the U.N. representative who was suspected of being favourable to the Palestinians,” Rigg said.

The Palestinians were consulted, and said no, but were ignored, he said. Only two Arab states were then U.N. members. They were also ignored. Most of today’s Muslim states either did not exist or were also ignored.

“When the U.N. approved Israel, Arab states attacked, but were beaten off. They did not want an Israel to be transplanted into their midst. They still don’t. Nothing has changed. ”

Given the unrelenting hostility of the Arab states to the Western creation of Israel, he said, Israel developed nuclear weapons to give itself a greater sense of security.

“If Israel lost its regional monopoly on nuclear weapons, it would be vulnerable. So the U.S. goes all out to block nuclear weapons – except for Israel,” he added.

Not even Israel argues that Iran has nuclear weapons now.

“A NW free zone in the Middle East is simply a joke. If Israel joined the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), it would have to declare and destroy its nuclear arsenal.”

The U.S. finds excuses to avoid prodding Israel into joining the NPT. The U.S. is effectively for nuclear proliferation in the Middle East, but successive U.S. presidents have refused to publicly say that Israel has nuclear weapons, he added.

Because of all this, a NWF zone in the ME is not a real possibility, even if U.S. President Barack Obama and Netanyahu are at each other’s throats, said Rigg.

Schenker said Netanyahu’s comments come at a time when the 22-member League of Arab States, backed by the 57-member Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) have, since 2002, presented Israel an Arab Peace Initiative (API).

Continue reading at:  IPS – Inter Press Service News Agency

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Israeli Arrest Campaign Targets Palestinian Children

Israeli Arrest Campaign Targets Palestinian Children

By Mel Frykberg
IPS – Inter Press Service News Agency
February 15, 2015

RAMALLAH, West Bank, Feb 15 2015 (IPS) – Fourteen-year-old Malak al Khatib, one of the youngest Palestinian detainees and one of only a handful of girls, was released from an Israeli prison on Feb. 13 into the arms of emotional family members and supporters after being incarcerated in an Israeli prison for two months on “security offences”.

Details of what happened to the Palestinian minor were made public only after an Israeli gag order on the case was lifted on appeal after a global campaign for her release.

The slightly built, dark-haired girl, from the town of Beitin near Ramallah, was arrested in December last year and later charged with stone-throwing and possession of a knife. However, al Khatib says the confessions were coerced under duress during interrogation.

Al Khatib was sentenced to two months’ imprisonment, a suspended sentence of three months and fined 6,000 shekels (approximately 1,500 dollars).

According to volunteer organisation Military Court Watch, 151 Palestinian children are currently being held in Israeli detention for “security offences” in the Occupied Territories and within Israel.

The group added that 47 percent of these children were being held in jails inside Israel in contravention of the Geneva Convention because this limits the ability of family and legal representatives from the West Bank and Gaza to visit them.

Defence for Children International Palestine (DCIP) says that in December last year 10 Palestinian children aged between 10 and 15 were incarcerated. However, children as young as eight have also been arrested by Israeli soldiers or police. According to DCIP, Israeli forces arrest about 1,000 children every year in the occupied West Bank.

However, it is not only the large numbers of Palestinian children arrested which is of concern to human rights organisations but also their treatment during incarceration.

In 2013, the U.N. Children’s Fund (UNICEF) was attacked by Israeli critics after releasing a report title ‘Children in Israeli Military Detention’, which slammed the Israeli authorities for using “intimidation, threats and physical violence to coerce confessions out of Palestinian children.”

“Children have been threatened with death, physical violence, solitary confinement and sexual assault, against themselves or a family member,” the report said.

IPS spoke to two Palestinian boys from the Jelazon refugee camp, near Ramallah, who were beaten, abused during interrogation and jailed on allegations of throwing stones and Molotov cocktails at Israeli security forces and settlers.

One hundred heavily armed Israeli soldiers, their faces masked, broke down the door and stormed the home of Khalil Khaled Nakhli, 17, in the early hours of Aug. 11 last year, terrifying his six younger brothers and sisters.

“My arm was broken after the soldiers beat me as they arrested me. They accused me of throwing stones at Israeli settlers from the Beit El settlement near Jelazon camp,” Nakhli told IPS.

Nakhli was taken to an Israeli prison where he was roughed up during interrogation and eventually sentenced to six months’ imprisonment, despite refusing to admit to the charges against him.

The home of Nakhli’s friend Ahmed Othman Safi, 17, was similarly stormed in the early hours of Sep. 7 last year. This time the soldiers used explosives to blow the door open.

Safi was left bloody and his skull fractured when the arresting soldiers used the back of their guns to club him on the head. An inch-wide indentation, where the hair refuses to grow, remains on Safi’s skull to this day.

“I was sentenced to six months’ imprisonment even though they failed to force me to confess to anything,” said Safi.

Their treatment has only further angered the boys. “We all feel bitter at the way we were treated and this exacerbates our anger at living under occupation,” Safi told IPS.

Palestinian minors are treated harshly in comparison with how Israeli minors are treated following arrest.

Continue reading at:   IPS – Inter Press Service News Agency

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Podemos: Threat or Promise? Shaking the Two-Party System in Spain

Podemos:  Threat or Promise?  Shaking the Two-Party System in Spain

by GEOFFREY FOX
CounterPunch
February 13-15, 2015

The eruption of Podemos onto the political scene in Spain is unbalancing the power structures, not just in Spain but across the European Community, on at least two fronts. First, its rapid rise has already obliged the older parties to change tactics drastically or be overwhelmed — and is thus presenting a model to insurgent parties across Europe. And secondly, if this new party in Europe’s fourth largest economy should come to power and stick to its program, it will present a far more formidable challenge than tiny Greece’s Syriza to the “troika,” the linking of the European Union, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund to protect creditors at no matter what cost to debtor nations and their people. Thus it is both a threat and a promise.

Podemos has grown at a dizzying pace. Born as a pressure group only in January of last year, registered as a political party in March, and on its first trip to the urns on May 25 won over a million and a quarter votes from all parts of Spain, electing its entire slate of five to the European Parliament, astounding competitors and even themselves. Since then, as parties prepare for municipal and then national parliamentary elections — by law, to be held no later than December 20 — support for Podemos has continued to soar.

How could all this happen so fast? Two quick answers: First, it hasn’t been as sudden as it seems, to those who haven’t been paying close attention to alternative politics in Spain. And second, the whiz kids of Podemos are, so far, the savviest communications mavens in Spanish politics.

Protest movements have a very long history in Spain, and memories of the Spanish Republic (1931-1939), resistance to Franco, and subsequent union and political rallying are all part of the tradition. The Socialist Party (Partido Socialista Obrero, PSOE) and Izquierda Unida (IU, United Left), a coalition of radical groups including the Communist Party both trace their history to those struggles. But the clearest antecedent to Podemos goes back only four years, to the summer of protest that began with the occupation of Madrid’s Puerta del Sol on 15 May 2011 — and is thus called “15-M.” With this spark, more and more people from all parts of Spain and all walks of life, young and old, pronounced themselves equally indignados (“indignant”) — with the economic crisis that had begun just three years earlier. It was a life-affirming choice for many of them, indignation against the negativity of depression. And more and more of people flowed into other public spaces, not just in Madrid but in all the major cities, creating live-in political discussion camps that lasted throughout the summer.

Thus 15-M became a laboratory for radical change and political self-education, where people of different backgrounds and specific problems in the economic turndown encountered one another and broadened their outlook and their demands. No party or union organized or controlled it, and neither IU activists nor Socialists nor union officials who participated enjoyed any special influence — discussion groups were entirely open to anyone who wanted to speak up. They developed scores of action plans to confront joblessness, the wave of evictions of people unable to pay their mortgages, the cutbacks in public education and health services, and — a special cause of indignation — the flagrant self-enrichment of bankers and their allies blamed for bringing on this disaster. And on a national level, they called for a more responsive and participative politics, with the unifying, if rather vague, demand for “Real democracy now!” (Democracia Real Ya).

After the summer, many of those actions were carried out in the neighborhoods, including quick-strike massing of protesters to prevent evictions. Veterans of 15-M also participated in many other actions, such as the massive “tides” (mareas) of demonstrators filling the streets in protest against budget cuts — a “green tide” in green T-shirts, against cuts in education, a “white tide” in white T-shirts to keep the hospitals and health services funded — and in the frequent protests by various unions. There were also more whimsical and even hilarious actions, for example where flamenco singers, dancers and musicians would slip into a crowded bank and burst out in rhymed and rhythmical denunciations of bank practices — often to the applause of customers and even bank employees.

But it was not until the weekend of January 12-13, 2014, that a group of activists drafted and signed a manifesto titled Mover ficha — “To make a move,” as on a chessboard “to transform indignation into political change.” The 30 signers included university professors, writers, a well-known actor, and several union activists, mostly veterans of Izquierda Unida and one of its constituent organizations, Izquierda Abierta (“Open Left”), which had called the meeting. And all felt frustrated by the internal bickering and pointless posturing that had impeded left unity for more decisive action. They concluded their manifesto with these words: “In the streets we hear the constant cry, ‘Yes, it’s possible.’ We say, ‘We can.’” Or, in the Spanish original: En las calles se repite insistentemente “Sí se puede”. Nosotras y nosotros decimos: “Podemos”.

To “make the move,” they decided that Podemos would need a unifying symbol and ways to get its message out widely and effectively. To solve both problems, they turned to a young political science professor and local TV host, Pablo Iglesias, to be their spokesperson. His pony-tail and quick wit were becoming known beyond the university community through his appearances on a right-wing talk show as the lone defender of leftist positions. And it didn’t hurt that he bore the same name as that other Pablo Iglesias, the revered founder of the Socialist Party in 1879.[1]

With the young Pablo Iglesias, they got not just an animated face, but also an expert in political communications, especially television. He was and is one of a group or leftwing faculty at the Universidad Complutense de Madrid (UCM) who had been meeting for years, several of whom had practical experience of communications and organization as advisors to left parties — Iglesias himself and political scientist Juan Carlos Monedero as advisors to both IU in Spain and Hugo Chávez’s party in Venezuela, sociologist Carolina Bescansa with left politics in Galicia, and political scientist Iñigo Errejón with Evo Morales’ movement in Bolivia. But they were also familiar with movements in other parts of the world, and had been especially impressed by Barack Obama’s effective use of Internet to gather support and donations in his 2008 campaign, with its similar slogan, “Yes, we can!”

At a huge assembly in Madrid, Iglesias was eventually voted general secretary of Podemos, but only after considerable debate with a faction that wanted collective leadership. What many Podemos supporters prefer is a kind of “crowd leading,” like the “crowd funding” preferred for financing their campaigns. And even as a registered political party with elected officials, Podemos seems to be trying to be the “15-M” summer camp of constant debate and good spirits, and bottom-up decision-making and a constant open mike or speaker’s stand, turned into a national movement. Although the tight-knit group of professors at the UCM continues to be the principle strategists, competing voices within Podemos can make themselves heard.

This approach has had enormous advantages in gathering, as a snowball effect, more and more supporters, none of them feeling rejected because of disagreements on any particular issue — because everything can be discussed and we are all supposed to be solidary and hear everyone out. That no doubt helps explain the brand new party’s success in the European Parliament elections. Podemos’ very broadly stated proposals — to “end corruption” and “combat austerity” — were refreshing compared to the other parties’ laments that they “could not” — no podemos — do more than follow the dictates of the European Union and its Central Bank. But it leaves us wondering what they would do if they should actually come to power.

Pablo Iglesias and others in the leadership have also been careful to avoid describing their program as “left,” despite their own well-known personal histories in IU and radical organizations, so as not to alienate any potential supporter. Instead of presenting a class analysis, they continually denounce “the caste” — la casta —, a vague category for anybody thought to have privilege, as against “the people” — la gente — which means everybody else. One wonders: Is not a full-time professor at the UCM thus part of the casta? And leaders in the Socialist Party and in IU ask, if you’re not “left,” then what do you stand for? The answer is simply, “for the people, against the caste” — or even more vaguely, as the title of Monedero’s most recent book puts it, for “la gente decente,” the “decent” people. So you see what that makes you, if you don’t support Podemos.

Continue reading at:  CounterPunch

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