Saturday, December 27, 2008
WASHINGTON–The Afghan chieftain looked older than his 60-odd years, and his bearded face bore the creases of a man burdened with duties as tribal patriarch and husband to four younger women.
His visitor, a CIA officer, saw an opportunity, and reached in his bag for a small gift.
Four blue pills. Viagra.
"Take one of these. You'll love it," the officer said. "Compliments of Uncle Sam."
The enticement worked. The officer, who described the encounter, returned four days later to an enthusiastic reception. The grinning chief offered up a bonanza of information about Taliban movements and supply routes – followed by a request for more pills.
For U.S. intelligence officials, this is how some crucial battles in Afghanistan are fought and won. While the CIA has a long history buying information with cash, the growing Taliban insurgency has prompted the use of novel incentives and creative bargaining to gain support in some of the country's roughest neighbourhoods, according to officials directly involved in such operations.
In their efforts to win over notoriously fickle warlords and chieftains, the officials say, the agency's operatives have used a variety of personal services. These include tools, medicine or surgeries for ailing family members, toys, tooth extractions, travel visas and occasionally, pharmaceutical enhancements for aging patriarchs with slumping libidos.
"Whatever it takes to make friends and influence people – whether it's building a school or handing out Viagra," said one long-time agency operative and veteran of several Afghanistan tours. Officials say these inducements are necessary in Afghanistan, a country where warlords and tribal leaders expect to be paid for their co-operation, and where, for some, switching sides can be as easy as changing tunics. If the Americans don't offer incentives, there are others, including Taliban commanders, drug dealers and even Iranian agents, who will.
The usual bribes of choice – cash and weapons – aren't always the best options, Afghanistan veterans say. Guns too often fall into the wrong hands, they say, and showy gifts like money, jewellery and cars tend to draw unwanted attention.
Jamie Smith is a veteran of CIA covert operations in Afghanistan and now chief executive officer of SCG International, a private security and intelligence company.
He said the key is to meet the informant's personal needs in a way that keeps him firmly on your side but leaves little or no visible trace.
"You're trying to bridge a gap between people living in the 18th century and people coming in from the 21st century," Smith said. "So you look for those common things in the form of material aid that motivate people everywhere."
Among the world's intelligence agencies, there is a long tradition of using sex as a motivator. Robert Baer, a retired CIA officer and author of several books on intelligence, noted the Soviets were notorious for using attractive women as bait when seeking to turn foreign diplomats into informants.
For some U.S. operatives in Afghanistan, Western drugs such as Viagra were just one of a long list of enticements available for use in special cases. Afghan tribal leaders often had four wives, and aging village patriarchs were easily sold on a pill that could "put them back in an authoritative position," said one retired operative familiar with the drug's use in Afghanistan.
Monday, December 22, 2008
OTTAWA — Prime Minister Stephen Harper appointed 18 Conservatives to Canada’s unelected Senate on Monday, a move that broke his longstanding promise not to name additional members to the upper chamber of Parliament until it is transformed into an elected body.
Opposition parties had in recent weeks challenged the appropriateness of Mr. Harper’s making appointments to the Senate after he suspended Parliament to avoid a near-certain defeat in a no-confidence vote.
Though that vote will take place after a new session begins in late January, opposition members contend that Mr. Harper no longer has the confidence of Parliament. His Conservative Party does not hold a majority of seats in the House of Commons.
The announcement of the Senate appointments was unusually low-key and came after many Canadians had already begun taking time off for Christmas and New Year’s Day. Mr. Harper said in a statement that he had made them to ensure that the Senate seats are not filled by the opposition parties should they defeat his government and take power in the new year.
“While I look forward to welcoming elected senators to the upper chamber in the future, these current vacancies must be filled in order for the Senate to transact legitimate government business,” he said in the statement. “If the opposition parties do not approve of these Senate appointments, they should stop obstructing our attempts to introduce meaningful Senate reform.”
Mr. Harper made no public appearance on Monday.
Michael Ignatieff, the new leader of the Liberal Party, criticized Mr. Harper’s action. “Mr. Harper has said repeatedly that he would never appoint senators, including during the last election,” Mr. Ignatieff said in a statement. “Canadians cannot understand why he keeps breaking his word.”
Mr. Ignatieff, who is also leader of the coalition of opposition parties, added, “Appointing senators when he lacks a mandate from Parliament is not acceptable.”
No prime minister has ever appointed as many senators on a single day.
While the Senate can try to amend or reject bills passed by the House of Commons, the Senate’s actions can ultimately be overridden by the House of Commons. Senators hold their seats until the age of 75.
Senators earn generous salaries and expense allowances, but their work ethic is frequently criticized. A columnist in The Globe and Mail described Senate appointments on Monday as being a “taskless thanks.”
The latest appointees include two broadcast journalists, as well as a former Olympic downhill skiing star, Nancy Greene Raine. The other new senators include Conservative Party fund-raisers and Conservatives who ran unsuccessfully for the House of Commons.
The new senators have agreed to step down and run for election if the Senate is turned into an elective body. But Kory Teneycke, Mr. Harper’s spokesman, confirmed that they are not legally bound to that promise.
“They are appointed under the rules as they exist today,” he wrote in an e-mail message.
Tuesday, December 16, 2008
Sunday, December 14, 2008
This year marks the 100th anniversary of George Orwell's birth, and the writer who best explained the power of language on politics would be amazed what can be done with the Internet.
On February 17 a front page news analysis in the New York Times bylined by Patrick Tyler described the global anti-war protests as the emergence of "the second superpower".
Tyler wrote: "...the huge anti-war demonstrations around the world this weekend are reminders that there may still be two superpowers on the planet: the United States and world public opinion."
This potent phrase spread rapidly.
Anti-war campaigners, peace groups and NGOs took to describing the global popular protest as "the second superpower" [Greenpeace release]. And in less than a month, the phrase was being used by UN Secretary General Kofi Annan. [Financial Times - reg req'd].
And a week ago, a Google search for the phrase would have shown the vigorous propagation of this 'meme'.
Rub out the word
Then came this. Entitled The Second Superpower Rears its Beautiful Head, by James F Moore, it was accompanied by a brand new blog.
The details need not detain us for very long, because the consequences of this piece are much more important than its anodyne contents.
It's a plea for net users to organize themselves as a "superpower", and represents a class of techno-utopian literature that John Perry Barlow has been promoting - the same sappy stuff, but not as well written - for the past ten years.
Only note how this example is sprinkled with trigger words for progressives, liberals and NPR listeners. It concludes - if you can find your way through this mound of feel-good styrofoam peanuts - "we do not have to create a world where differences are resolved by war. It is not our destiny to live in a world of destruction, tedium, and tragedy. We will create a world of peace".
In common with the genre, there's no social or political context, although the author offers a single specific instruction that is very jarring in the surrounding blandness: we must co-operate with The World Bank. Huh?
It's politics with the politics taken out: in short, it's "revolution lite".
Now here's the important bit. Look what the phrase "Second Superpower" produces on Google now. Try it!. Moore's essay is right there at the top. And not just first, but it already occupies all but three of the first thirty spots.
The bashful Moore writes: "It was nice of Dave Winer [weblog tools vendor] and Doc Searls [advertising consultant] to pick up on it, even if it's not really ready for much exposure." No matter, Moore is an overnight A-list blogging superstar, at his very first attempt.
Although it took millions of people around the world to compel the Gray Lady to describe the anti-war movement as a "Second Superpower", it took only a handful of webloggers to spin the alternative meaning to manufacture sufficient PageRank™ to flood Google with Moore's alternative, neutered definition.
Indeed, if you were wearing your Google-goggles, and the search engine was your primary view of the world, you would have a hard time believing that the phrase "Second Superpower" ever meant anything else.
To all intents and purposes, the original meaning has been erased. Obliterated, in just seven weeks.
You're especially susceptible to this if you subscribe to the view that Google's PageRank™ is "inherently democratic," which is how Google, Inc. describes it.
And this Googlewash took just 42 days.
You are in a twisty maze of weblogs, all alike
All a strange coincidence, no doubt, but the picture darkens when you look at a parallel conversation taking place elsewhere, whose hyperlinks contributed to the redefinition, and help explain how this semantic ethnic-cleansing took place so quickly.
Moore's subversion of the meaning of "Secondary Superpower" - his high PageRank™ from derives from followers of 'A-list' tech bloggers linking from an eerily similar "Emergent Democracy" discussion list, which in turn takes its name from a similarly essay posted by Joi Ito [Lunch - Lunch - Lunch - Segway - Lunch - Lunch - Fawning Parody] who is a colossus of authority in these circles, hence lots of PageRank™-boosting hyperlinks, and who like Moore, appeared from nowhere as a figure of authority.
Lunchin' Ito's essay is uncannily similar to Moore's - both are vague and elusive and fail to describe how the "emergent" democracy might form a legal framework, a currency, a definition of property or - most important this, when you're being hit with a stick by a bastard - an armed resistance (which in polite circles today, we call a "military").
As with Moore, academic and historical research in this field is vapored away, as if by magic.
However, we have an idea of how this utopian "democracy" might look, if we follow the participants of Lunchbox's mailing list. These participants are quite clear about how theydefine democracy:
"Democracy can function perfectly well without people painting their faces and blocking streets," writes one contributor.
Orwell would be amused, indeed.
"Words define action," sums up Alan Black. Black helps organise San Francisco's annual LitQuake event and is holding a festival to commemorate Orwell's centenary in the city in June.
"Newspeak was one of the planks of the totalitarian regime. Big Brother was constantly redefining history and redefining words - he knew people respond to key words," he says. "It's interesting that they've identified that the only way to oppose the one superpower comes from the people, and sought to redefine that."
But the real marvel is that they did it with so few people. Pew Research Center's latest research says the number of Internet users who look at blogs is " so small that it is not possible to draw statistically meaningful conclusions about who uses blogs." They peg it at about four per cent. But we're looking at a small sub-genre of blogdom, the tech blogs, and specifically, we're looking at an 'A list' of that sub- sub-genre.
Which means that Google is being "gamed" - and the language perverted - by what in statistical terms in an extremely small fraction indeed.
That was enough to make a "meaning" disappear.
Writing about Google's collusion with the People's Republic of China to block access to mainland users, censorship researcher Seth Finkelsetein observed:
"Contrary to earlier utopian theories of the Internet, it takes very little effort for governments to cause certain information simply to vanish for a huge number of people."
Rub out the word 'government', and replace it with 'weblog A-list'. In this case a commons resource, this very potent and quite viral phrase, was created by millions of people. But it was poisoned by a very select number of 'bloggers'. Possibly a dozen, but no more than 30, we'd guess.
Who is poisoning the well?
The phrase "greenwash" will be familiar to many of you: it's where a spot of judiciousmarketing paint is applied to something decidedly rotten, transforming it into something that looks as if it's wholesome and radical new, but which is essentially unchanged.
This is the first Googlewash we've encountered. 42 days, too.
What else is coming down the pipe? ®
Saturday, December 13, 2008
The Mantaro River Tragedy
The Mantaro River’s headwaters are in the heart of the Peruvian Andes. From there it winds its course, fed by many smaller tributaries, eventually flowing into the fertile Mantaro valley, the breadbasket of Peru. It is the source of water for agricultural irrigation and electricity. Historically, it was also a source of food for the local indigenous peoples. However today, the river is dead. Not only can its polluted waters no longer sustain life, the river carries within it toxins that potentially can poison the food crops that it irrigates.
Several independent studies have been done and their findings all confirm the deadly truth about the Mantaro and its tributaries: the river is a dumping ground for toxic substances from mining activities. The Doe Run Peru smelting plant found along the rivers’ course in La Oroya creates sulfuric acid, arsenic, cadmium, cyanide, mercury and lead as waste products of their processing. Some of these toxins are released directly into the air or water; some become embedded in the soil or in slag piles. It all has to end up somewhere, the contamination doesn't just disappear.
The Doe Run Peru smelter’s main smokestack spews out 3,000 pounds of lead PER DAY on average. The plant also emits 1,620,000 pounds of sulphur dioxide a day, four times higher than allowed by Peruvian law, according to the Ministry of Energy and Mines. In La Oroya Antigua, the oldest part of town closest to the smelting plant, arsenic levels in the topsoil are 393 times the Canadian standard and the cadmium levels are 138 times the Canadian maximum permitted levels.
Studies have conclusively linked these toxins with extremely high lead blood levels in children in La Oroya. But the impact is far greater than just the town’s people of La Oroya. The same CONAMA report warned that the acid pollution and the dumping of mine waste was threatening the health of a chain of lakes that feed into the Mantaro River, the source of irrigation for the fertile Mantaro valley.
What happens when contaminated water is used for irrigation? What happens to the food grown there, the food that the people of Lima count on? Significant amounts of cadmium, arsenic, zinc and copper have been found in the soils of Orcotuna, an area of artichoke cultivation irrigated by water from the Mantaro River. The irrigation channel feeding Orcotuna is laden with heavy metals: 1.5 tons of copper, 3.2 tons of iron, 1.45 tons of lead and 1.4 tons of arsenic are dumped annually. Where does it all end up?
The Yauli River forms part of the Mantaro River basin. Above La Oroya, its lead levels are three times higher than the Peruvian standard for agricultural and livestock use. After the tributary flows through La Oroya, its lead levels are 16 times higher. Clearly, the gigantic Doe Run smelting plant is a heavy contributor to the pollution of the river system. So what are they doing about it?
In 2002, Doe Run started a supportive program to improve irrigation and agricultural productivity in the Mantaro Valley by removing more than 60 years of accumulated mud and debris from a channel of the river. More recently, they donated 52 steel sluice gates to help improve irrigation and help with flood prevention. The company manager is pleased to help reduce contamination and improve agriculture in the valley, but did they really? Are the emissions any less than before? And how much has Doe Run's policy of dumping toxic wastes into the river really changed?
Will the river ever again be able to sustain life? And is the food produced in the Mantaro Valley and watered by this river system safe to eat? Controlled studies done in the United Kingdom clearly show the effects of heavy metals on vegetables. And it isn't good. Safety of a nation’s food source is critical. If studies were done in the Mantaro River valley that proved their produce is poisoned from this contamination, it would be catastrophic. It would be devastating for both the 53,000 local farmers and the urban population of Lima dependent upon the Mantaro River valley for much of its food source. At this price, how can Peru ever consider permitting an industrialist like Ira Rennert to continue his polluting ways?
The Herculaneum Case
Herculaneum is a small town in the very heart of the United States, situated on the banks of the great Mississippi River. The folks who lived there thought of Herculaneum in the Old World sense as a village, their village. It was a place where the children could safely play outside in the streets. People knew their neighbors. A child could run down the street one direction and visit grandma, go the other way and visit an aunt or an uncle. The residents valued family, a sense of community, and small town life. Despite their blue-collar background, they were able to create comfortable homes and enjoyed an affordable lifestyle. It was a small, self-contained town, complete with a bowling alley, movie house, and all the stores one needed for life’s necessities. Herculaneum felt like home, like their village.
Most of the men worked for Doe Run, a multi-metal smelting and processing plant right downtown. They could walk to work. Thanks to the support of the company, the people enjoyed steady employment, health benefits, good schools and recently a new fire station. In the truest sense, this was a company town. Not having higher education, most families felt dependent on the presence of Doe Run in their lives. One either worked for Doe Run, or businesses that supported those who did. The company encompassed their total existence and perhaps permeated more of their lives than they actually realized.
On a typical day, the sky was various colors of yellow or murky grey, depending on the plume that was emitted out of the 550’ high smokestack from the plant. On more than one occasion, the emissions from the smokestack were so thick that a football game had to be halted because the announcer could not see the players on the field. But this was normal for Herculaneum.
A grey dust lay on the pavement, trees and bushes along the roadway where the Doe Run trucks delivered lead ore to the smelter. Cars drove over the dust, their tires brought it to their driveways, shoes tracked it into their homes. It got in their carpets, clothing, eventually even their beds. Over the years, this was accepted as merely a nuisance, causing no alarm. Residents assumed that surely if there was any real threat to their health from the dust, the company would alert them. After all they were the experts, right?
Over time some of the folks started wondering why their lawns were always dying, why their throats and eyes burnt, why the paint on the cars corroded, why some of their children seemed to be “slow,” why some of their neighbors died at too early of any age, why even the feet of their dogs and cats seemed burnt.
One family in particular, Leslie and Jack Warden, started pursuing information about the health effects of environmental pollution from lead smelting. If it could take paint off of a car, what must it be doing to their 13-year-old son's lungs? The more they learned, the more they found that they needed to know. Questions lead to meetings, meetings lead to more meetings, with the company denying any danger. Some residents, now armed with scientific knowledge knew that Doe Run's assurances rang hollow.
The smelter’s repeated violations of air pollution rules combined with findings of high levels of lead in their children's blood caused the government to become more involved. The testing of the frogs and critters in the local waterways confirmed the shocking truth: contamination due to lead, arsenic, sulfuric acid and cadmium were dangerous to the point of being declared a state of emergency.
But even with all this new information Doe Run tried to play down the seriousness of the situation. They used the classic tactics that dirty industries usually employ - first blame the victim: your house is too dirty; your children don't wash their hands enough. Then deny they are the cause: the lead is from car exhaust, or from your child's toy. Then question the researcher's findings, or present their own "unbiased research," which is always favorable. Then pit neighbor against neighbor, to divide and conquer. Meanwhile they stall for time, as the profits roll in, waiting for the storm to fade away.
Finally, after a long meeting, late at night, Jack Warden begged, cajoled, and finally convinced a visiting state environmental official to test the content of that all-pervasive grey dust that covered everything. The findings were shocking and confirmed the Warden’s worst fears. The sample tested 30% pure lead! Hundreds of time more concentrated then what is considered safe or legal.
That was it. The Wardens felt they had no choice. To protect the health of their son they had to leave the home they’d come to love, leave the community that was their special “village." They could have just sold their home, cut their loses and left. But what about the folks who bought their house? What if they believed the company's lies? Wouldn’t their children be equally damaged by the contamination? Morally they knew that they could not allow that to happen. Like it or not, they knew they had to fight on.
Historically, Doe Run had been helpful in the past in little ways: they’d occasionally replace one’s lawn when it started looking sickly, or repaint the car when the paint corroded. But now these little fixes weren’t going to do it anymore. The company could have changed their smelting practices. They could have upgraded their machinery, or the methods of transporting the ore. But their final solution did none of these. Instead they chose the cheapest of solutions rather than to tackle the true source of the problem.
Forced by the government to act, Doe Run purchased many of the homes within three-eighths of a mile of the plant and demolished them: over 100 homes for over ten million dollars. The shops and businesses haven't been rebuilt or replaced or even abandoned, they’ve just been scraped away. What you see now when you visit downtown Herculaneum is flat bulldozed earth. The “buy-out” as it was called, removed the problem, at least temporarily.
But what about the families who have homes a few feet outside the buyout zone? The air they breathe is still just as contaminated as before. And now since all the publicity, many are trapped financially because they can't afford to leave since their house values have plummeted. They are forced to continue living in the pollution, hoping it won't affect their families.
A continent away in La Oroya, Peru another highly productive smelting plant was in full operation at their sister company's Doe Run Peru facility. As the expensive troubles were escalating in Herculaneum, Doe Run focused more and more of its operation in a country with fewer health standards, fewer environmental standards, and fewer workers’ protection standards. The pollution and contamination are so bad in La Oroya, that for the second year in a row it has made it to the top ten list of the World's Worst Polluted Places.
Leslie Warden, linked to La Oroya by a common fate, flew to Peru and testified before their Congress to fight a common enemy, the Doe Run Company and its negligent practices. Although there has been public outcry, court cases, and more hearings, little has changed in Peru. A full 50 percent of the income taxes that go into Peru's state coffers come from the mining industry. The government is weak and worried about jeopardizing future foreign investment and 4,000 jobs if they crack down on Doe Run, not to mention the tax revenue they depend on. This fear is what the owner of Doe Run depends on.
The American billionaire owner, Ira Rennert, often dangles the threat of closing either smelter if too much is demanded of him. With a stable of lawyers stalling for change, and an ability to ignore human suffering, he seems to be impervious to pressure. Meanwhile Rennert lives in luxury in New York spending lavish amounts of money on his personal residence and well-publicized charities ensuring his prominent reputation.
But Rennert cannot hide from the Leslie and Jack Wardens of the world. Many national and international organizations want and are demanding change: demanding policies that place public health over personal profits. Rennert is directly responsible for the suffering and deaths of people living in Herculaneum and La Oroya and will continue to be until he makes the environmental improvements. With increased public attention and pressure, and more governmental involvement in both countries, Rennert and his methods can be stopped.
Leslie Warden feels she is one of the lucky ones. "I was able to stand up and fight and get out. I didn't have to worry about losing my job…" The people of La Oroya are not so lucky. Most are trapped and have little hope of escaping the contamination.