TwitterTwitter admits bias in algorithm for rightwing politicians and news outletsHome feed promotes rightwing tweets over those from the left, internal research finds Dan Milmo Global technology editorFri 22 Oct 2021 08.04 EDTLast modified on Fri 22 Oct 2021 10.59 EDTTwitter has admitted it amplifies more tweets from rightwing politicians and news outlets than content from leftwing sources.The social media platform examined tweets from elected officials in seven countries – the UK, US, Canada, France, Germany, Spain and Japan. It also studied whether political content from news organisations was amplified on Twitter, focusing primarily on US news sources such as Fox News, the New York Times and BuzzFeed.The study compared Twitter’s “Home” timeline – the default way its 200 million users are served tweets, in which an algorithm tailors what users see – with the traditional chronological timeline where the most recent tweets are ranked first.The research found that in six out of seven countries, apart from Germany, tweets from rightwing politicians received more amplification from the algorithm than those from the left; right-leaning news organisations were more amplified than those on the left; and generally politicians’ tweets were more amplified by an algorithmic timeline than by the chronological timeline.According to a 27-page research document, Twitter found a “statistically significant difference favouring the political right wing” in all the countries except Germany. Under the research, a value of 0% meant tweets reached the same number of users on the algorithm-tailored timeline as on its chronological counterpart, whereas a value of 100% meant tweets achieved double the reach. On this basis, the most powerful discrepancy between right and left was in Canada (Liberals 43%; Conservatives 167%), followed by the UK (Labour 112%; Conservatives 176%). Even excluding top government officials, the results were similar, the document said.Twitter said it wasn’t clear why its Home timeline produced these results and indicated that it may now need to change its algorithm. A blog post by Rumman Chowdhury, Twitter’s director of software engineering, and Luca Belli, a Twitter researcher, said the findings could be “problematic” and that more study needed to be done. The post acknowledged that it was concerning if certain tweets received preferential treatment as a result of the way in which users interacted with the algorithm tailoring their timeline.“Algorithmic amplification is problematic if there is preferential treatment as a function of how the algorithm is constructed versus the interactions people have with it. Further root cause analysis is required in order to determine what, if any, changes are required to reduce adverse impacts by our Home timeline algorithm,” the post said.Twitter said it would make its research available to outsiders such as academics and it is preparing to let third parties have wider access to its data, in a move likely to put further pressure on Facebook to do the same. Facebook is being urged by politicians on both sides of the Atlantic to distribute its research to third parties after tens of thousands of internal documents – which included revelations that the company knew its Instagram app damaged teenage mental health – were leaked by the whistleblower Frances Haugen.The Twitter study compared the two ways in which a user can view their timeline: the first uses an algorithm to provide a tailored view of tweets that the user might be interested in based on the accounts they interact with most and other factors; the other is the more traditional timeline in which the user reads the most recent posts in reverse chronological order.The study compared the two types of timeline by considering whether some politicians, political parties or news outlets were more amplified than others. The study analysed millions of tweets from elected officials between 1 April and 15 August 2020 and hundreds of millions of tweets from news organisations, largely in the US, over the same period.Twitter said it would make its research available to third parties but said privacy concerns prevented it from making available the “raw data”. The post said: “We are making aggregated datasets available for third party researchers who wish to reproduce our main findings and validate our methodology, upon request.”Twitter added that it was preparing to make internal data available to external sources on a regular basis. The company said its machine-learning ethics, transparency and accountability team was finalising plans in a way that would protect user privacy.“This approach is new and hasn’t been used at this scale, but we are optimistic that it will address the privacy-vs-accountability tradeoffs that can hinder algorithmic transparency,” said Twitter. “We’re excited about the opportunities this work may unlock for future collaboration with external researchers looking to reproduce, validate and extend our internal research.”TopicsTwitterSocial mediaDigital mediaUS politicsnewsReuse this content More
Pass notesCommunismWhy Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto is having a momentThe Canadian musician Grimes tweeted an image of herself with the 1848 document last week – just after her reported split from the world’s richest man, Elon Musk. She isn’t the only one reading it right now Mon 4 Oct 2021 13.24 EDTLast modified on Mon 4 Oct 2021 14.45 EDTName: The Communist Manifesto.Age: 173 years.Remind me what it is again. A pamphlet first published by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in 1848. I thought Marxism was dead … at least it seemed that way at the Labour party conference last week. Not so! It’s never been hotter!Really? Yes! Even Grimes has been spotted reading a copy.The Canadian musician? Real name Claire Boucher? The one who had a baby with Elon Musk? The very same. In her first public appearance since her reported split with Musk – the richest man in the world, CEO of Tesla and SpaceX – she was photographed wearing a fantasy-themed outfit on a street corner in that hotbed of communism, Los Angeles.Is she a Marxist? No. The whole thing was staged; she tweeted that she had done the stunt to spark ridiculous headlines.Even more ridiculous headlines than calling your child X Æ A-Xii? One assumes so, yes.Is it a case of her hilariously trolling her definitely-not-a-communist ex? Perhaps, although she did write on Instagram: “I’m still living with E and I am not a communist (although there are some very smart ideas in this book …)”.Remind me, what are those smart ideas? That human history was based on class struggles between the oppressors and the oppressed. And – to put it very simply – this was not good.Sounds a lot like my life in 2021. Quite, which is why it is having a bit of a moment. It is still one of the most influential political documents ever written, and its ideas do have a habit of popping up in times of economic and social crisis.Because it shows us how many of the problems in the world can be attributed to capitalist production, greed and property? Exactly. Check out the Pandora papers if you need more evidence. Or people hogging petrol.What does it say is the answer to all this then? Revolution, of course. And the elimination of social classes as well as the means to appropriate private property. Is this why young people keep saying: “Eat the rich”? Well, yes, huge numbers of young people are turning their backs on capitalism. Well, that’s because they can’t afford to get a toe on the property ladder. Whatever the reason, the Communist Manifesto is strangely popular right now. Last year, it was translated into Somali for the first time and there’s even a site where you can teach your parrot to recite it. Do say: “Workers of the world, unite. You have nothing to lose but your chains.”Don’t say: “My Tesla shares are doing well.”TopicsCommunismPass notesGrimesUS politicsKarl MarxfeaturesReuse this content More
Foreign policyBoris Johnson will return from US energised despite achieving littleAnalysis: tangible gains were hard to come by but PM will have enjoyed the up close and personal politics Heather Stewart Political editorThu 23 Sep 2021 03.27 EDTLast modified on Thu 23 Sep 2021 03.28 EDTBoris Johnson has flown back to the UK after his transatlantic jaunt reassured about his personal relationship with Joe Biden after the pair sought to put the chaos of the Kabul airlift behind them with face-to-face talks in the Oval Office.The warm personal rapport that characterised Johnson’s relationship with Donald Trump – who called him “Britain Trump” – was not obviously on display as he and Biden briefly addressed the press before retiring for private talks. Biden told an involved anecdote about travelling more than a million miles on Amtrak, which US reporters revealed he has wheeled out on several other occasions.Once the press had been forcefully ushered out by White House media handlers, however, witnesses said the pair held constructive talks. They discussed expanding the Aukus pact – announced last week – into a broader alliance that could cover other areas of shared interest, including safeguarding human rights, technology and expanding open markets.And on Capitol Hill, Johnson took the opportunity to try to soothe concerns about the operation of the Northern Ireland protocol, saying he remained committed to the Good Friday agreement.But news that the UK has all but abandoned hopes of a bilateral free trade agreement with the US underlined the fact that to bond with Biden, Johnson has had to trim his ambitions to fit the president’s agenda.The arch dealmaker Trump used to boast about the prospects for a trade agreement with the UK, but Biden has a packed legislative agenda at home that will take precedence over trying to win congressional backing for a complex set of trade negotiations.As well as taking on China – essentially the purpose of the Aukus pact – the two countries are both committed to tackling the climate crisis, and in doing so, creating more green jobs in their own economies.Johnson’s hopes of securing a successful outcome to the Cop26 climate summit in November that keeps 1.5C of warming within reach took a significant step forward when Biden doubled the US’s contribution to climate finance. When the prime minister met Biden’s vice-president, Kamala Harris, they were able to agree that the $11.2bn US climate pledge made it, as Johnson put it, “a great day for the world”.Other tangible gains from the visit were harder to come by: Johnson said he had won the backing of the president to lift the ban on British lamb exports, though consultations are ongoing and no formal decision has yet been announced.No 10 was also keen to claim credit for the lifting of the US travel ban, claiming a bilateral “travel taskforce” that has been operating since the summer had helped to change the Americans’ minds. But the changes apply equally to scores of countries.The UK government appeared to have had little warning that the decision would be announced on Monday morning, and was left scrambling to establish the details, including whether AstraZeneca jabs would be accepted under the new system.But Downing Street will be happy to bank the intangible benefits of a closer rapport with the US – and Johnson, no fan of Zoom calls, returns to the UK energised by three days of the kind of politics he likes best: up close and personal.TopicsForeign policyBoris JohnsonJoe BidenUS politicsanalysisReuse this content More
Politics booksTrump may be gone, but Covid has not seen off populism It is liberal fantasy to imagine that poor handing of the pandemic has lessened the allure of Modi and Bolsonaro. They are learning fast how to subvert votingJan-Werner MüllerMon 20 Sep 2021 05.00 EDTWhen the pandemic struck, newspaper opinion pages were full of pieces predicting the end of authoritarian populism. Surely Donald Trump, Narendra Modi and Jair Bolsonaro couldn’t survive their mishandling of Covid-19? Finally, people were waking up to the reality of what these leaders represented.Trump may not have lasted, but the expectation that the pandemic might see off populism is mistaken. Liberal observers have long assumed that populists are by definition incompetent demagogues. But populism is not all about promising simplistic solutions in a complex world and, contrary to a complacent liberal narrative, populist leaders are not incapable of correcting failed policies. The threat of authoritarian populism is compounded by the fact that these leaders are learning from each other – though what they are copying are not more effective strategies to combat the pandemic, but techniques for disabling democracy.When despairing about the rise of populism, liberals have been eager to identify underlying causes. And indeed, there are striking similarities in the way far-right populist leaders govern in different parts of the globe: Bolsonaro, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Jarosław Kaczyński, Viktor Orbán, Modi, and, as a hopefully historical example, Trump. But similar outcomes do not prove similar causes. Rather, the reason for the emergence of what we might as well call a far-right populist art of governance is that leaders can copy each other’s best (or worst) practices. They are busy perfecting the art of faking democracy: ballot boxes are not stuffed on election day, but between them we see voting rules manipulated, media outlets taken over by business leaders friendly to the government, and civil society systematically intimidated and therefore election outcomes are rarely in doubt. Liberals, meanwhile, are drastically underestimating their adversaries.Populist leaders are not all nearly as incompetent and irresponsible as Trump and Bolsonaro’s handling of Covid would suggest. Their core characteristic is not that they criticise elites or are angry with the establishment. Rather, what distinguishes them is the claim that they, and only they, represent what they often refer to as the “real people” or also the “silent majority”.At first sight, this might not sound particularly nefarious. And yet this claim has two consequences deeply damaging for democracy: rather obviously, populists assert that all other contenders for office are fundamentally illegitimate. This is never just a matter of disputes about policy, or even about values. Rather, populists allege that their rivals are simply corrupt, or “crooked” characters. More insidiously, the suggestion that there exists a “real people” implies that there are some who are not quite real – figures who just pretend to belong, who might undermine the polity in some form, or who are at best second-rate citizens.Obvious examples are minorities and, in particular, recent immigrants, who are suspected of not being truly loyal to the polity. Think of Modi’s policy of creating a register of genuine citizens. Ostensibly, this is about identifying illegal immigrants; but especially in combination with new refugee policies that effectively discriminate against Muslims, its actual message is all too clear to Hindu nationalists. Or think of Trumpists who would never really engage in argument with critics, but simply denounce the latter as “un-American”.Populists reduce political issues to questions of belonging, and then attack those who are said not to belong. That is not a matter of mere rhetoric. Sooner or later, the appeal to the real people – and the exclusion of supposedly fake people – will have effects on streets and squares: Trump rallies have been associated with a local increase in assaults. The concept of “trickle-down aggression” – coined by the feminist philosopher Kate Manne – captures this dynamic.Populist leaders present themselves as the great champions of empowering the people, and yet always exclude particular people. The shameless attempts by US Republicans to suppress the vote (and subvert election outcomes) are playing on the sense that the “real America” is white and Christian – and that black and brown people should not really be participating in politics in the first place. Meanwhile, Bolsonaro is gearing up to repeat Trump-style claims about a stolen election, should he lose the vote next year; he will have learned that, beyond casting doubt on the legitimacy of those not casting a ballot for you, bringing at least parts of the military to your side might be decisive.In Hungary, Orbán has long provided a model from which others can learn how to stretch laws to the limit in order to create pliable courts and media organisations. They can also study subtle tactics of how to mislead the EU and the Council of Europe long enough to entrench partisan advantages.When Poland’s Law and Justice Party returned to power in 2015, it could reach for Orbán’s manual of how to build an autocracy under the eyes of the EU. Like the Hungarian leader, it learned the lesson that, during its first time in office, it had wasted political capital on culture wars, instead of capturing independent institutions. To keep oneself in power, one must control the judiciary, the election system and TV in particular – once that has happened, one can wage culture wars and incite hatred against minorities to one’s heart’s content.None of this is to say that the new authoritarian systems are invincible, but we need to better understand their innovative techniques. Some are so dangerous because they are getting technologically more sophisticated: Pegasus spyware, the use of private companies to spread misinformation, or the extensive use of social media by leaders such as Modi (the world’s most tech-savvy populist) are only the most obvious instances. Still more dangerous than digital autocracy, though, is the ability of authoritarians to disable democracy, while at the same time advancing democratic-sounding justifications for their actions.What is happening in the US and the UK is a prime example. The push by the Johnson government to make the presentation of voter ID mandatory can look reasonable on paper: nobody is against the prevention of voter fraud. Northern Ireland already has such measures in place, as do countries on the continent. But, as we should have appreciated by now, legal measures can be deployed to, in effect, shrink the demos, the political body, for partisan purposes: minorities, the unemployed and especially the poor – lacking drivers’ licences and passports for travel abroad – are most likely not to have the time and resources to secure the required forms of ID. We have also learned the hard way that the staffing of election commissions is not some bureaucratic trifle (as Tom Stoppard observed long ago, “It’s not the voting that’s democracy, it’s the counting”), but can make the difference between keeping and losing democracy.‘We the people’: the battle to define populismRead moreWhy do populists so often get away with these kinds of measures? We have not grasped the extent to which they have succeeded in imposing their distorted understanding of basic democratic practices. The vast majority of those identifying as Republicans regard voting as a “privilege” tied to responsibilities, while Democrats respect it as an unconditional right.It is not true that masses of people are longing for strongmen and are turning away from democracy. But it has become easier to fake democracy. That is partly because defenders of democracy have not argued for its basic principles well, and partly because they keep underestimating their adversaries.TopicsPolitics booksUS politicsViktor OrbánCoronavirusPolandHungaryBrazilfeaturesReuse this content More
Jonathan Freedland hosted a special Guardian Live event where he spoke to the former secretary of state Hillary Clinton. As the US commemorated the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks last weekend, the pair talked about her memories of the day, given she was the senator for New York at the time; how US politics has changed since then; and whether or not retaliation by American forces has made the US and the world a safer or more dangerous place
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FranceAukus deal showing France and EU that Biden not all he seemsAnalysis: the western alliance is the main victim – and China will win out unless US can soothe Paris’s anger Patrick Wintour Diplomatic editorThu 16 Sep 2021 12.09 EDTLast modified on Thu 16 Sep 2021 14.22 EDTFury in Paris at Australia’s decision to tear up plans to buy a French-built fleet of submarines is not only a row about a defence contract, cost overruns and technical specifications. It throws into question the transatlantic alliance to confront China.The Aukus deal has left the French political class seething at Joe Biden’s Trumpian unilateralism, Australian two-facedness and the usual British perfidy. “Nothing was done by sneaking behind anyone’s back,” assured the British defence minister, Ben Wallace, in an attempt to soothe the row. But that is not the view in Paris. “This is an enormous disappointment,” said Florence Parly, the French defence minister.As recently as August, Parly had held a summit with her Australian counterpart, Peter Dutton, in Paris, and issued a lengthy joint communique highlighting the importance of their joint work on the submarines as part of a broader strategy to contain China in the Indo-Pacific region. Given Dutton’s failure to tell his French counterparts of the months of secret negotiations with the US, the only conclusion can be he was kept out of the loop, was deeply forgetful, or chose not to reveal what he knew.There was no forewarning. France only heard through rumours in the Australian media that its contract was about to be torn up live on TV in a video link-up between the White House, Canberra and London.Moreover, the move was presented not only as a switch from the diesel-powered subs France was building to longer-range nuclear vessels, but as part of a new three-way security pact for the region that would develop new technologies. Perhaps someone had decided the French could not be trusted to join this alliance. Perhaps there were sensitivities around US-UK tech transfer in nuclear propulsion and the other areas of tech cooperation, such as undersea drones, artificial intelligence and quantum.To add insult to injury, Biden timed the announcement for the day before the EU was to publish its long-planned Indo-Pacific policy. The EU said it was not consulted in advance, although Pentagon officials said otherwise.Australia said it had given ample warning that design delays meant it could look elsewhere by September, and France’s Naval Group was in fact given until September to revise its plans for the next two years of the project.But in reality, Australia was already working on plan B with the US. To French eyes, Biden had showed – and not for the first time – that he will put the US national interest first.01:27The language emanating from Jean-Yves Le Drian, the French foreign minister and the man behind the original 2016 deal with Australia, is unprecedented. “This brutal, unilateral and unpredictable decision reminds me a lot of what Mr Trump used to do. I am angry and bitter. This isn’t done between allies. It’s really a stab in the back.”Emmanuel Macron, too, will be livid. He received Scott Morrison, the Australian prime minister, on 15 June at the Élysée Palace, referring to the contract for the 12 submarines as a “pillar [of] the partnership and of the relationship of trust between [the] two countries. Such a programme is based on the transfer of knowhow and technology and will bind us for decades to come.”Coming on top of the mishandled US exit from Afghanistan, a Nato operation in which allies had little say, France and the EU have come to terms with the fact that Biden is not all he seemed when he travelled to Brussels to promise America was back.Doubtless the US believes French ire will subside, or is a piece of artifice ahead of the French presidential elections. France is a major arms exporter, and the loss of an estimated €10bn (£7.25bn), once penalty clauses are included, hardly dents this industry. A state visit to Washington for Macron, a few contracts directed at the French Naval Group in Cherbourg, some Biden charm, an assurance that this was a purely Australian military decision based on a changed threat assessment, and all can be smoothed over.But that is not the language emanating from Paris or Brussels. France points out that the engine was designed specifically as a diesel to meet Australian specifications and it could have offered nuclear-powered subs. But France’s exclusion shows the extent to which the US does not trust it with nuclear technology. This is a big win for Boris Johnson, and those that said post-Brexit Britain would remain more important to the US than the EU, even if it is going to alarm the pro-China business lobby in the UK. Macron now has no option but to restate the case for greater European strategic defence autonomy, a subject less evidenced in real life than the seminars devoted to it. The European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, on Wednesday promised in her state of the union address an EU defence summit, saying Europe has to acquire the political will to build up and deploy its own military forces.Senior US officials in briefing on the Aukus deal seemed unaware of the offence it would cause, blandly saying the alliance “is not only intended to improve our capabilities in the Indo-Pacific, but also to involve Europe, especially Great Britain, more closely in our strategy in the region”.Washington, if it is wise, will work flat out to convince France it can still be a partner in the Indo-Pacific. If not, the only long-term beneficiary will be China.TopicsFranceUS politicsChinaForeign policyAsia PacificanalysisReuse this content More
A little more than a month ago, the most newsworthy controversy surrounding the imminent and highly symbolic 20th anniversary of 9/11 concerned the message by families of the victims that Joe Biden would not be welcome at the planned commemoration. They reproached the US president for failing to make good on last year’s campaign promise to declassify the documents they believe will reveal Saudi Arabia’s implication in the attacks.
That was the story that grabbed headlines at the beginning of August. Hardly a week later, everything had changed. Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, fell to the Taliban and soon the 20-year war would be declared over.
360° Context: How 9/11 and the War on Terror Shaped the World
Though few paid attention to the phenomenon, this also meant that the significance of a commemoration of the attacks, would be radically different. For 19 years, the commemoration served to reinforce the will and resolution of the nation to overcome the humiliation of the fallen twin towers and a damaged wing of the Pentagon.
Redefining the Meaning of the Historical Trauma
In the aftermath of the attacks on September 11, 2001, politicians quickly learned to exploit the date as a painful reminder of a tragedy that had unified an otherwise chaotically disputatious nation in shared horror and mourning. Ever since that fatal day, politicians have invoked it to reinforce the belief in American exceptionalism.
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The nation is so exceptional in generously providing its people with what President George W. Bush called “our freedoms” — and which he identified as the target of the terrorists — that it was logical to suppose that evil people who didn’t possess those freedoms or were prevented from emigrating to the land of the free would do everything in their power to destroy those freedoms. To the degree that Americans are deeply thankful for possessing such an exceptional status, other ill-intentioned people will take exception to that exceptionality and in their unjustified jealousy will threaten to destroy it.
On a less philosophical and far more pragmatic note, the remembrance of the 9/11 attacks has conveniently and consistently served to justify an ever-expanding military budget that no patriotic American, interested in preserving through the force of arms the nation’s exceptional status, should ever oppose. It went without saying, through the three previous presidencies, that the annual commemoration provided an obvious explanation of why the forever war in Afghanistan was lasting forever.
The fall of Kabul on August 15, followed by the panicked retreat of all remaining Americans, caught everyone by surprise. It unexpectedly brought an official end to the war whose unforgettable beginning is traced back to that bright September day in 2001. Though no one has yet had the time to put it all in perspective, the debate in the media has shifted away from glossing the issues surrounding an ongoing war on terror to assessing the blame for its ignominious end. Some may have privately begun to wonder whether the theme being commemorated on this September 11 now concerns the martyrdom of its victims or the humiliation of the most powerful nation in the history of the world. The pace of events since mid-August has meant that the media have been largely silent on this quandary.
So, What About Saudi Arabia?
With the American retreat, the controversy around Biden’s unkept campaign promise concerning Saudi Arabia’s implication in 9/11 provisionally took a backseat to a much more consequent quarrel, one that will have an impact on next year’s midterm elections. Nearly every commentator has been eager to join the fray focusing on the assessment of the wisdom or folly of both Biden’s decision to withdraw US troops from Afghanistan and his seemingly improvised management of the final chaotic phase.
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The human tragedy visible in the nightly news as throngs of people at Kabul airport desperately sought to flee the country easily eclipsed the genteel but politically significant showdown between a group of American citizens demanding the truth and a government committed to protecting the reputations of friends and allies, especially ones from oil-rich nations.
The official excuse turns around the criterion that has become a magic formula: national security. But the relatives of victims are justified in wondering which nation’s security is being prioritized. They have a sneaking suspicion that some people in Washington have confused their own nation’s security with Saudi Arabia’s. Just as John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt not long ago revealed that plenty of people within the Beltway continue to confuse US foreign policy with Israel’s, the families may be justified in suspecting that Saudi Arabia’s interest in hiding the truth trumps American citizens’ right to know the truth.
To appease the families of 9/11 victims and permit his unimpeded participation in the commemorations, Biden offered to release some of the classified documents. It was a clever move, since the new, less-redacted version will only become available well after the commemoration. This gesture seems to have accomplished its goal of preventing an embarrassing showdown at the commemoration ceremonies. But it certainly will not be enough to satisfy the demands of the families, who apparently remain focused on obtaining that staple of the US criminal justice system: “the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.”
Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, may have shown the way concerning the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018. Like MBS, the White House prefers finding a way to release some of the truth rather than the whole truth — just the amount that doesn’t violate national security or tarnish the reputations of any key people. Those two goals have increasingly become synonymous. If the people knew what actual political personalities were doing, the nation’s security might be endangered, as the people might begin to lose faith in a government that insists on retaining the essential power of deciding how the truth should be told.
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Here is how the White House officially formulates the legal principle behind its commitment to unveiling a little more truth than is currently available. “Although the indiscriminate release of classified information could jeopardize the national security — including the United States Government’s efforts to protect against future acts of terrorism — information should not remain classified when the public interest in disclosure outweighs any damage to the national security that might reasonably be expected from disclosure.”
The White House has thus formulated an innovative legal principle brilliantly designed to justify concealing enough of the naked truth to avoid offending public morals by revealing its stark nakedness. Legal scholars of the future may refer to it as the “indiscriminate release” principle. Its logical content is worth exploring. It plays on the auxiliary verbs “could” and “should.” “Could” is invoked in such a way as to suggest that, though it is possible, no reasonable person would take the risk of an “indiscriminate release of classified information.” Later in the same sentence, the auxiliary verb “should” serves to speculatively establish the moral character of the principle. It tells us what “should” be the case — that is, what is morally ideal — even if inevitably the final result will be quite different. This allows the White House to display its good intentions while preparing for an outcome that will surely disappoint.
To justify its merely partial exposure of the truth, the White House offers another original moral concept when it promises the maximization of transparency. The full sentence reads: “It is therefore critical to ensure that the United States Government maximizes transparency.”
There is of course an easy way to maximize transparency if that is truly the government’s intention. It can be done simply by revealing everything and hiding nothing within the limits of its physical capability. No one doubts that the government is physically capable of removing all the redactions. But the public should know by now that the value cited as overriding all others — national security — implicitly requires hiding a determined amount of the truth. In other words, it is framed as a trade-off between maximum transparency and minimum concealment. Biden has consistently compared himself to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Perhaps that trade-off between transparency and concealment is what historians will call Biden’s New Deal.
But the White House’s reasoning is not yet complete. The document offers yet another guiding principle to explain why not everything will become visible. “Thus, information collected and generated in the United States Government’s investigation of the 9/11 terrorist attacks should now be disclosed,” it affirms, “except when the strongest possible reasons counsel otherwise.” Those reasons, the document tells us, will be defined by the Federal Bureau of Investigation during its “declassification reviews.” This invocation of the “strongest possible reasons” appears to empower the FBI to define or at least apply not only what is “strongest,” but also what is “possible.” That constitutes a pretty broad power.
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The document states very clearly what the government sees as the ultimate criterion for declassification: “Information may remain classified only if it still requires protection in the interest of the national security and disclosure of the information reasonably could be expected to result in damage to the national security. Information shall not remain classified if there is significant doubt about the need to maintain its classified status.” The families of the victims can simply hope that there will not be too much “significant doubt.” They might be forgiven for doubting that that will be the case.
One September Morning vs. 20 Years of Subsequent Mornings
Twenty years ago, a spectacular crime occurred on the East Coast of the United States that set off two decades of crimes, blunders and judgment errors that, now compounded by COVID-19 and aggravated climate change, have brought the world to a crisis point unique in human history.
The Bush administration, in office for less than eight months at the time of the event, with no certain knowledge of who the perpetrator might have been, chose to classify the attack not as a crime, but as an act of war. When the facts eventually did become clearer after a moment of hesitation in which the administration attempted even to implicate Iraq, the crime became unambiguously attributable, not to a nation but to a politically motivated criminal organization: Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda that back then was operating out of Afghanistan, which was ruled by the Taliban.
The administration’s choice of treating the attack as an act of war not only stands as a crime in itself, but, as history has shown, as the trigger for a series of even more shameless and far more destructive — if not quite as spectacular — crimes that would roll out for the next two decades and even gain momentum over time. Had the 9/11 attacks been treated as crimes rather than acts of war, the question of national security would have had less importance in the investigation. By going to war with Afghanistan, the Bush administration made it more difficult to investigate all the possible complicities. Could this partially explain its precipitation to start a war?
Bin Laden, a Saudi, did not act alone. But he did not act in the name of a state either, which is the fundamental criterion for identifying an act of war. He acted within a state, in the territory of Afghanistan. Though his motive was political and the chosen targets were evocatively symbolic of political power, the act itself was in no way political. No more so, in any case, than the January 6 insurrection this year on Capitol Hill.
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Though the facts are still being obscured and the text describing them remains redacted in the report of the 9/11 Commission, reading between the redacted lines reveals that bin Laden did have significant support from powerful personalities in Saudi Arabia, many of them with a direct connection to the government. This foreknowledge would seem to indicate complicity at some level of the state.
On this 20th anniversary of a moment of horror, the families of the victims quite logically continue to suspect that if a state was involved that might eventually justify a declaration of war by Congress (as required by the US Constitution), the name of that state should not have been Afghanistan, but Saudi Arabia. It is equally clear that the Afghan government at the time was in no way directly complicit.
When the new version of the 9/11 Commission’s report appears with its “maximum transparency,” meaning a bare minimum of redaction, the objections of the victims’ families will no longer be news, and the truth about the deeper complicities around 9/11 will most probably remain obscured. Other dramas, concerning the state of the COVID-19 pandemic, the increasingly obvious consequences of climate change and an upcoming midterm election will probably mean that next year’s 21st commemoration will be low-keyed and possibly considered unworthy of significant mention in the news.
In 2021, the world has become a decidedly different place than it has been over the past two decades. The end of a forever war simply promises a host of new forever problems to emerge for increasingly unstable democracies to deal with.
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Looking back on it now, the 1990s were an age of innocence for America. The Cold War was over and our leaders promised us a “peace dividend.” There was no TSA — the Transportation Security Administration — to make us take off our shoes at airports (how many bombs have they found in those billions of shoes?). The government could not tap a US phone or read private emails without a warrant from a judge. And the national debt was only $5 trillion, compared with over $28 trillion today.
We have been told that the criminal attacks of September 11, 2001, “changed everything.” But what really changed everything was the US government’s disastrous response to them. That response was not preordained or inevitable, but the result of decisions and choices made by politicians, bureaucrats and generals who fueled and exploited our fears, unleashed wars of reprehensible vengeance and built a secretive security state, all thinly disguised behind Orwellian myths of American greatness.
360° Context: How 9/11 and the War on Terror Shaped the World
Most Americans believe in democracy and many regard the United States as a democratic country. But the US response to 9/11 laid bare the extent to which American leaders are willing to manipulate the public into accepting illegal wars, torture, the Guantanamo gulag and sweeping civil rights abuses — activities that undermine the very meaning of democracy.
Former Nuremberg prosecutor Ben Ferencz said in a speech in 2011 that “a democracy can only work if its people are being told the truth.” But America’s leaders exploited the public’s fears in the wake of 9/11 to justify wars that have killed and maimed millions of people who had nothing to do with those crimes. Ferencz compared this to the actions of the German leaders he prosecuted at Nuremberg, who also justified their invasions of other countries as “preemptive first strikes.”
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“You cannot run a country as Hitler did, feeding them a pack of lies to frighten them that they’re being threatened, so it’s justified to kill people you don’t even know,” Ferencz continued. “It’s not logical, it’s not decent, it’s not moral, and it’s not helpful. When an unmanned bomber from a secret American airfield fires rockets into a little Pakistani or Afghan village and thereby kills or maims unknown numbers of innocent people, what is the effect of that? Every victim will hate America forever and will be willing to die killing as many Americans as possible. Where there is no court of justice, wild vengeance is the alternative.”
Even the commander of US forces in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, talked about “insurgent math,” conjecturing that, for every innocent person killed, the US created 10 new enemies. Thus, the so-called global war on terror fueled a global explosion of terrorism and armed resistance that will not end unless and until the United States ends the state terrorism that provokes and fuels it.
By opportunistically exploiting 9/11 to attack countries that had nothing to do with it, like Iraq, Somalia, Libya, Syria and Yemen, the US vastly expanded the destructive strategy it used in the 1980s to destabilize Afghanistan, which spawned the Taliban and al-Qaeda in the first place. In Libya and Syria, only 10 years after 9/11, US leaders betrayed every American who lost a loved one on September 11 by recruiting and arming al-Qaeda-led militants to overthrow two of the most secular governments in the Middle East, plunging both countries into years of intractable violence and fueling radicalization throughout the region.
The US response to 9/11 was corrupted by a toxic soup of revenge, imperialist ambitions, war profiteering, systematic brainwashing and sheer stupidity. Lincoln Chafee, the only Republican senator who voted against the war on Iraq, later wrote, “Helping a rogue president start an unnecessary war should be a career-ending lapse of judgment.”
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But it wasn’t. Very few of the 263 Republicans or the 110 Democrats who voted in 2002 for the US to invade Iraq paid any political price for their complicity in international aggression, which the judges at Nuremberg explicitly called “the supreme international crime.” One of them now sits at the apex of power in the White House.
Failure in Afghanistan
Donald Trump and Joe Biden’s withdrawal and implicit acceptance of the US defeat in Afghanistan could serve as an important step toward ending the violence and chaos their predecessors unleashed after the 9/11 attacks. But the current debate over next year’s military budget makes it clear that our deluded leaders are still dodging the obvious lessons of 20 years of war.
Barbara Lee, the only member of Congress with the wisdom and courage to vote against the war resolution in 2001, has introduced a bill to cut US military spending by almost half: $350 billion per year. With the miserable failure in Afghanistan, a war that will end up costing every US taxpayer $20,000, one would think that Representative Lee’s proposal would be eliciting tremendous support. But the White House, the Pentagon and the Armed Services Committees in the House and Senate are instead falling over each other to shovel even more money into the bottomless pit of the military budget.
Politicians’ votes on questions of war, peace and military spending are the most reliable test of their commitment to progressive values and the well-being of their constituents. You cannot call yourself a progressive or a champion of working people if you vote to appropriate more money for weapons and war than for health care, education, green jobs and fighting poverty.
These 20 years of war have revealed to Americans and the world that modern weapons and formidable military forces can only accomplish two things: kill and maim people and destroy homes, infrastructure and entire cities. American promises to rebuild bombed-out cities and “remake” countries it has destroyed have proved worthless, as President Biden has acknowledged.
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Both Iraq and Afghanistan are turning primarily to China for the help they need to start rebuilding and developing economically from the ruin and devastation left by the US and its allies. America destroys, China builds. The contrast could not be more stark or self-evident. No amount of Western propaganda can hide what the whole world can see.
But the different paths chosen by American and Chinese leaders are not predestined. Despite the intellectual and moral bankruptcy of the US corporate media, the American public has always been wiser and more committed to cooperative diplomacy than their country’s political and executive class. It has been well-documented that many of the endless crises in US foreign policy could have been avoided if America’s leaders had just listened to the people.
Weapons and More Weapons
The perennial handicap that has dogged US diplomacy since World War II is precisely our investment in weapons and military forces, including nuclear weapons that threaten our very existence. It is trite but true to say that, “when the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.”
Other countries don’t have the option of deploying overwhelming military force to confront international problems, so they have had to be smarter and more nimble in their diplomacy and more prudent and selective in their more limited uses of military force.
The rote declarations of US leaders that “all options are on the table” are a euphemism for precisely the “threat or use of force” that the UN Charter explicitly prohibits, and they stymie the US development of expertise in nonviolent forms of conflict resolution. The bumbling and bombast of America’s leaders in international arenas stand in sharp contrast to the skillful diplomacy and clear language we often hear from top Russian, Chinese and Iranian diplomats, even when they are speaking in English, their second or third language.
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By contrast, US leaders rely on threats, coups, sanctions and war to project power around the world. They promise Americans that these coercive methods will maintain US “leadership” or dominance indefinitely into the future, as if that is America’s rightful place in the world: sitting atop the globe like a cowboy on a bucking bronco.
A “new American century” and “Pax Americana” are Orwellian versions of Adolf Hitler’s “thousand-year Reich” but are no more realistic. No empire has lasted forever, and there is historical evidence that even the most successful empires have a lifespan of no more than 250 years, by which time their rulers have enjoyed so much wealth and power that decadence and decline inevitably set in. This describes the United States today.
America’s economic dominance is waning. Its once productive economy has been gutted and financialized, and most countries in the world now do more trade with China and/or the European Union than with the United States. Where America’s military once kicked open doors for American capital to “follow the flag” and open up new markets, today’s US war machine is just a bull in the global china shop, wielding purely destructive power.
Time to Get Serious
But we are not condemned to passively follow the suicidal path of militarism and hostility. Biden’s withdrawal from Afghanistan could be a down payment on a transition to a more peaceful post-imperial economy — if the American public starts to actively demand peace, diplomacy and disarmament and find ways to make our voices heard.
First, we must get serious about demanding cuts in the Pentagon budget. None of our other problems will be solved as long as we keep allowing our leaders to flush the majority of federal discretionary spending down the same military toilet as the $2.26 trillion they wasted on the war in Afghanistan. We must oppose politicians who refuse to cut the Pentagon budget, regardless of which party they belong to and where they stand on other issues.
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Second, we must not let ourselves or our family members be recruited into the US war machine. Instead, we must challenge our leaders’ absurd claims that the imperial forces deployed across the world to threaten other countries are somehow, by some convoluted logic, defending America. As a translator paraphrased Voltaire, “Whoever can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.”
Third, we must expose the ugly, destructive reality behind our country’s myths of “defending” US vital interests, humanitarian intervention, the war on terror and the latest absurdity, the ill-defined “rules-based order” — whose rules only apply to others but never to the United States.
Finally, we must oppose the corrupt power of the arms industry, including US weapons sales to the world’s most repressive regimes, and an unwinnable arms race that risks a potentially world-ending conflict with China and Russia.
Our only hope for the future is to abandon the futile quest for hegemony and instead commit to peace, cooperative diplomacy, international law and disarmament. After 20 years of war and militarism that has only left the world a more dangerous place and accelerated America’s decline, we must choose the path of peace.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy. More