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Gordon Campbell on legal fudging on the GCSB, and Tikrit

Gordon Campbell on the legal fudging of the GCSB revelations, Tikrit and Jake Xerxes Fussell

As many have noted, the Hager/Snowden revelations of the spying by our security agencies on our Pacific neighbours and allies is a virtual re-run of the pre-election debate.

Unfortunately, it is also a forerunner of the kind of “ debate” we can expect during the upcoming review of the security agency powers, in June. It is a situation where the government (a) stonewalls, (b) baldly asserts that mass surveillance is not occurring despite the Snowden evidence that it is, and (c) claims that the GCSB actions were lawful. Yet as Greens Co-Leader Russel Norman says, this can be true only if the legislation passed last year by the Key government has made the mass surveillance of New Zealanders – and the related handing over of their private data to the NSA – lawful.

Having declared black to be white, Key says the government will be not making any further comment, that these are operational matters and the public can trust the “independent” oversight committee that is chaired by… Prime Minister John Key. The further “re-assurance” by former GCSB head Bruce Ferguson that the GCSB routinely discards any “inadvertently” collected data that’s not relevant to its investigations is neither plausible nor at all re-assuring. On the Snowden evidence, the GCSB hands the data holus bolus to the NSA – and in any case, the GCSB do not have a mandate to trawl indiscriminately among the private data of New Zealanders for what it might then choose to use and retain.

Once again, the Greens have been the more telling critics of the government’s position, and they’ve also been far more tactically astute than Labour. That’s a worry, given the exclusion of the Greens from the oversight committee on the review - due to begin in June - on the powers of our security agencies.

It is the Greens who have denounced the GCSB surveillance actions in the Pacific as being unlawful under the previous law – which forbade the GCSB from carrying out mass surveillance without warrant of New Zealand citizens, either here or overseas. Under the new law passed in 2014, there is wider provision for data collection and for the handing on of such information to whatever agency (ie the NSA) that the GCSB sees fit. As Greens Co-Leader Russel Norman pointed out this morning, either the government has been acting unlawfully, or – if the GCSB’s actions are to be deemed lawful – then the government has just presided over the legalization of mass surveillance of New Zealand citizens. To get a ruling on this issue, the Greens have laid a complaint with the Inspector-General of the Security Services.

By contrast, Labour has been left muttering that it is problematically unclear as to the mandate under which the GCSB has been operating. Labour’s tepid response has done nothing to dispel the sense that a fairly cosy consensus exists between Labour and National on security issues. Parliament is simply not – and never has been – an effective watchdog on our security agencies. Beefing up its oversight role is the least that should emerge from the SIS/GCSB review. It seems that the Greens will have to critique that review from outside the tent. At least that’s consistent. We all seem to be in the same boat when it comes to protecting any notion of privacy from the snooping reach of our spy agencies.

Iran plus Iraq vs Islamic State

The futility of the New Zealand troop deployment in Iraq is being quietly demonstrated by the current battle for Tikrit, the hometown of Saddam Hussein. According to Prime Minister John Key, we are sending troops to Iraq because we cannot sit on the sidelines while Islamic State commits atrocities. So why is the United States pointedly sitting on the sidelines in one of the crucial battles against Islamic State?

The answer ? It is because Shia militias – supported by Iran – are at the forefront of the battle for Tikrit. (The same Shia militias will also be at the forefront of the upcoming battle for Mosul.) Therein lies the absurdity. Key was willing to accept an invitation from a Shia-dominated, Iran-backed proxy government in Baghdad to lend it military support, but the Western coalition we are joining is refusing to give air support to Iraqi fighters, even in a battle that could inflict a mortal blow to Islamic State. Why? Because they are Shia-dominated, Iran –backed proxies. Could it also be because the battle for Tikrit began in the same week that Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu has been addressing the US Congress about the perils of entering into any deals with Iran? Has the White House been gunshy of being seen to be fighting alongside Iran’s proxies whilst Bibi is in town ?

At the very least, this profound ambivalence about the degree to which we do – and don’t – support Iran’s puppet government in Baghdad shows just how simplistic Key’s justification for the NZ deployment has been. It is clearly not a situation where the defeat of a barbaric Islamic State is the prime and over-riding purpose. In reality, we have accepted an invitation to deploy our troops from an Iraqi Foreign Minister (Ibrahim al-Jaafari) who has always enjoyed extremely close ties to the Shia militias that are – belatedly – of such US concern.

Yes, the Shia militia do terrorise the Sunni population and do drive them into the arms of Islamic State. But the Shia militia and the Kurds are also the only effective fighting force standing between the Islamic State and the conquest of Iraq. Ever since the 2003 invasion every single elected leader of the new Iraq – Ibrahim al-Jaafari, Nour al-Maliki, Haider al-Abadi - has been a Shia politician from the Dawa Party driven into exile by Saddam Hussein. Where did Dawa’s leaders take refuge ? In Teheran. That’s one reason why the Shia majority in Iraq – and the Shia militias – are hand in glove with Iran today. Iran has helped, and is currently helping, to protect the Shia majority from its Sunni enemies –whether that be Saddam Hussein in the past, or the Sunni legions of Islamic State right now. No wonder the battle for Tikrit is of such symbolic importance.

Truth be told, the US is playing a weird, self-deceiving game in Iraq. On the political front, it is hoping that an inclusive government will magically appear in Baghdad if Shia and Sunni can be cajoled or browbeaten or bribed into working together for the common good. That goal is almost entirely a fantasy. Militarily, the US-led coalition is also pinning its hopes on an Iraqi Army whose abilities are just as fanciful. For now, the US-led coalition is living in denial that the only non-Kurd military forces currently waging an effective fight against Islamic State are the Shia militias and their Iranian ‘advisers.’ The presence of the legendary Iranian general Qassem Sulemaini on the front lines in Tikrit only underlines a reality that the US – for domestic political reasons – seems unable to acknowledge, and is unwilling to respond to with crucial air support. (BTW, there is a terrific New Yorker profile of Suleimani here, written by Dexter Filkins.)

Sooner or later, the US will have to accept (a) that the Shia comprise the majority of Iraq’s population, (b) that this Shia majority in Iraq and the Shia government in Iran are natural allies, and (c) that peace between the Sunni and Shia communities inside Iraq is not going to break out anytime soon. The US has got only itself to blame. It was the 2003 US invasion that let the Shia genie out of the bottle. And after the 2003 invasion, by totally disbanding the then Sunni-dominated Iraqi Army through which Saddam had ruthlessly ruled the Shia, the US interim administration made an enormous mistake that rubbed raw the pre-existent divisions in the country.

Since then, a series of elected Shia leaders have stamped firmly on any attempt to re-arm and re-train the Sunnis, even if that training was being conducted in the name of national survival. The largely fictive Iraqi Army that New Zealand is going there to train will be a divisive tool in the hands of a regime in Baghdad that is making only ineffective attempts at inclusiveness. Even these tentative efforts are – reportedly – being resisted by Maliki loyalists and the majority of the Iraqi citizenry.

In sum, the coalition mission in Iraq is an exercise in self deception. It is being carried out in the shadow of a US /Iran quasi-alliance whose private workings – and public posturings – are far more important to the White House than the defeat of Islamic State, and this is skewing the battle against ISIL It seems foolhardy to put our troops in harm’s way for a military mission so clearly at the mercy of (a) US domestic and foreign policy, and (b) the communal hatreds that exist inside Iraq. If we want to defeat ISIL, New Zealand would be better employed in bolstering our diplomatic resources at the UN and elsewhere, to shut off ISIL’s financial lifelines.

He’s Jake

The folk revival never really goes away. The late 1950s folk revival mutated into folk rock and alt country, and then we had the indie-folk revival of the 1990s that gave us the first incarnation of Beck….Today, the interest in Americana is as keen as its ever been. One of the best recent examples? The heroically named Jake Xerxes Fussell, who has joined forces on his debut album with the exceptionally gifted guitarist William Tyler, who I’ve written about elsewhere.

Tyler’s own Impossible Truth album was one of the highlights of 2013. Here, he both plays on and produced Fussell’s album, and it should find a ready audience among fans of the late Levon Helm. The fantastic, exuberant “Raggy Levy” bears a distant connection to the distinctive Gullah culture found among the isolated islands off the coast of Georgia.

Tyler’s lovely production – each instrument so clear, yet the overall effect so warm – is just as evident on “All In Down And Out”… which has some obvious and affectionate links to the old Cisco Houston chestnut “Cryderville Jail” and the Depression era ballad “Hard Times”. Overall, there isn’t a weak cut on Fussell’s entire album.

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