Saturday, September 7, 2013

The Secret Diary of Tony Blair, Aged 60¼

"The art of leadership is saying no, not saying yes. It is very easy to say yes" - Tony Blair

"I can only go one way. I've not got a reverse gear" - Tony Blair

"Whatever the dangers of the action we take, the dangers of inaction are far, far greater" - Tony Blair

"Mine is the first generation able to contemplate the possibility that we may live our entire lives without going to war or sending our children to war" - Tony Blair

What are we to make of the anomaly known as Tony Blair, the former prime minister of the UK who once enjoyed enormous popularity? According to a 2013 YouGov poll, 22% of his own countrymen and women want him tried as a war criminal for allegedly misleading the public and Parliament and then taking the nation into the Iraq War. Despite these extremely serious allegations, Mr. Blair - who was appointed a Middle East peace envoy (official Envoy for the Quartet on the Middle East) on the day he resigned as prime minister - regularly pops up in the media with strong opinions on the pressing foreign policy issues of the day.

On the possible 'intervention' in Syria:

"It is an issue to do with the difficulty we encounter afterwards, and that is a really really important lesson. The truth is, the reason why Iraq makes us hesitant is because Iraq showed that when you intervene in the circumstances, where you have this radical Islamist issue, both on the Shia side and the Sunni side, you are going to face a very difficult, tough conflict."

Mr. Blair's high profile as a former national leader guarantees him a platform in any and all media organs and his words reach millions of news consumers. Under corporate media rules for objectivity, his words are likely to be reported uncritically and readers unfamiliar with the details of Mr. Blair's actions while in office may take him seriously.

In order to take someone's views seriously, credibility is a must. An examination of the credibility of Tony Blair is therefore appropriate. This analysis - a brief timeline of events before, during and after the Iraq War - is doubly instructive as it will aid in understanding the methods of officials (with media collusion) in selling war to a skeptical public, as is currently occurring with regard to Syria. [Note: emphasis on similarities to ongoing Syria rhetoric in bold].

Background:

1999: Bush advisers 'clearly wanted to go after Iraq':

From a 2004 Guardian interview with former White House insider Richard Clarke:

Julian Borger: And after the February meeting any more on Iraq?

Richard Clarke: Yes there were many more, it was central. The buzz in national security staff administration wanted to go after Iraq.

JB: Do you think they came into office with that as a plan?

RC: If you look at the so-called Vulcans group [Bush's pre-election foreign policy advisors] talked about publicly in seminars in Washington. They clearly wanted to go after Iraq and they clearly wanted to do this reshaping of the middle east and they used the tragedy of 9/11 as an excuse to test their theories.

JB: Do you think President Bush was already on board when he came to office.

RC: I think he was. He got his international education from the Vulcans group the previous year. They were people like Richard Perle, Jim Woolsey, Paul Wolfowitz. They were all espousing this stuff. So he probably had been persuaded. He certainly wasn't hearing any contrary view during this education process.


1999 (Dec 2): Candidate Bush in a Republican Presidential debate:

BUSH: I wouldn't ease the sanctions, and I wouldn't try to negotiate with him. I'd make darn sure that he lived up to the agreements that he signed back in the early '90s. I'd be helping the opposition groups. And if I found in any way, shape or form that he was developing weapons of mass destruction, I'd take 'em out. I'm surprised he's still there. I think a lot of other people are as well.

MR. HUME: Take him out?

BUSH: To out the weapons of mass destruction.


2001 (Jan 2): Niger Embassy in Rome broken into, letterheads stolen:

Did it start with a break-in? On the morning of Jan. 2, 2001, Italian police discovered that the Niger Embassy in Rome had been ransacked. Not much was reported missing-only a watch and two bottles of perfume-but someone had apparently rifled through embassy papers, leaving them strewn about the floor.

Some months after the break-in, the Italian intelligence service-the SISME-obtained a stack of official-looking documents from an African diplomat. Signed by officials of the government of Niger, the papers revealed what purported to be a deal with the Devil. Agents of Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein, it appeared, were angling to purchase from the cash-starved, mineral-rich African nation some 500 tons of yellowcake, the pure uranium that can be used to build nuclear bombs. Excited by their intelligence coup, the Italians quickly notified the CIA and British intelligence.

A bombshell in the war on terrorism? More like an exploding cigar. The documents, a series of letters dated from July to October 2000, were actually crude forgeries. They referred to Niger agencies that no longer existed and bore the signature of a foreign minister who had not served in the post for more than a decade. Italian investigators, who only last week reopened the case, have theorized that the thieves who broke into the Niger Embassy had come looking for letterhead stationery and official seals that could be copied to create bogus documents.

It was the sort of flimsy scam that could have been exposed by a two-hour Google search (and eventually was). Somewhat implausibly, however, the break-in at a small African embassy in Rome has set off a chain reaction that has erupted into a full-fledged Washington summer scandal, serious enough to shake President George W. Bush's poll ratings. Democrats and much of the press are in full cry, accusing the White House of hyping, if not outright fabricating, intelligence in order to justify the invasion of Iraq. With American soldiers dying at the rate of about one a day in Iraq, a growing number of Americans are beginning to wonder if the war was worth the cost.


2001 (June): John Bolton not told what he wanted to hear by intelligence liaison:

A few months after George Bush took office, Greg Thielmann, an expert on disarmament with the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research, or INR, was assigned to be the daily intelligence liaison to John Bolton, the Under-Secretary of State for Arms Control, who is a prominent conservative. Thielmann understood that his posting had been mandated by Secretary of State Colin Powell, who thought that every important State Department bureau should be assigned a daily intelligence officer. “Bolton was the guy with whom I had to do business,” Thielmann said. “We were going to provide him with all the information he was entitled to see. That’s what being a professional intelligence officer is all about.”

But, Thielmann told me, “Bolton seemed to be troubled because INR was not telling him what he wanted to hear.” Thielmann soon found himself shut out of Bolton’s early-morning staff meetings. “I was intercepted at the door of his office and told, 'The Under-Secretary doesn’t need you to attend this meeting anymore.'" When Thielmann protested that he was there to provide intelligence input, the aide said, "The Under-Secretary wants to keep this in the family."


Enter Blair Stage Right:

2002 (Feb 28): Blair hints at Iraq action:

"Saddam Hussein's regime is a regime that is deeply repressive to its people and is a real danger to the region.

"Heavens above, he used chemical weapons against his own people, so it is an issue and we have got to look at it, but we will look at it in a rational and calm way, as we have for the other issues.

"The accumulation of weapons of mass destruction by Iraq poses a threat, not just to the region but to the wider world.

"And I think George Bush was absolutely right to raise it.

"Now what action we take in respect of that, that is an open matter for discussion."

"When we're ready to take action then we'll announce it. It is a real issue. It is a real threat. How we deal with it is an open matter."


2002 (Apr 9): Documents seen by the Independent on Sunday indicate Blair committed the UK to an assault on Iraq, just after a two-day meeting with Bush at his Texas ranch:

The Independent on Sunday has discovered further information indicating that when Mr Blair met Mr Bush at his Texas ranch on 7 and 8 April 2002, he committed Britain to an assault on Iraq. The clue, contained in an obscure row over the Government's refusal to answer an apparently straightforward parliamentary question, shows that both at the beginning and the end of the process which culminated in the invasion and occupation of Iraq, the issue of legality was very much in the air.

2002 (July 23rd): Secret meeting of senior British government, military and intelligence figures, described three years later in the contents of the leaked Downing Street Memo:

C (Sir Richard Dearlove) reported on his recent talks in Washington. There was a perceptible shift in attitude. Military action was now seen as inevitable. Bush wanted to remove Saddam, through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD. But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy. The NSC had no patience with the UN route, and no enthusiasm for publishing material on the Iraqi regime's record. There was little discussion in Washington of the aftermath after military action.

The Foreign Secretary said he would discuss this with Colin Powell this week. It seemed clear that Bush had made up his mind to take military action, even if the timing was not yet decided. But the case was thin. Saddam was not threatening his neighbours, and his WMD capability was less than that of Libya, North Korea or Iran. We should work up a plan for an ultimatum to Saddam to allow back in the UN weapons inspectors. This would also help with the legal justification for the use of force.

The Attorney-General said that the desire for regime change was not a legal base for military action. There were three possible legal bases: self-defence, humanitarian intervention, or UNSC authorisation. The first and second could not be the base in this case. Relying on UNSCR 1205 of three years ago would be difficult. The situation might of course change.


This memo, also known as the 'smoking gun memo', proves that Mr. Blair knew that the decision to invade Iraq had already been made, and that the 'intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy'. Further, it is clear to those present at the meeting that authorization from the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) would be required for legality.

2003 (Mar 1): Bush: "We're taking him out":

Two months ago, a group of Republican and Democratic Senators went to the White House to meet with Condoleezza Rice, the President's National Security Adviser. Bush was not scheduled to attend but poked his head in anyway — and soon turned the discussion to Iraq. The President has strong feelings about Saddam Hussein (you might too if the man had tried to assassinate your father, which Saddam attempted to do when former President George Bush visited Kuwait in 1993) and did not try to hide them. He showed little interest in debating what to do about Saddam. Instead, he became notably animated, according to one person in the room, used a vulgar epithet to refer to Saddam and concluded with four words that left no one in doubt about Bush's intentions: "We're taking him out."

2013 (July): Sir John Chilcot confirms that officials, likely including Tony Blair, will be criticized in the upcoming Chilcot Inquiry report:

Mr Blair, who has repeatedly denied misleading Parliament and the public over the case for war in 2003, is likely to make strong representations to Sir John in an attempt to stop any criticism. He is likely to be wary of potential comparisons with Anthony Eden who lied to Parliament over the invasion of Suez.

Sir John has said he wishes to highlight private handwritten letters from Mr Blair to President George W Bush in 2002, in which Mr Blair gave assurances that Britain would support an invasion of Iraq.

The letters gave assurances to the US before the Cabinet had established the case for war against Saddam Hussein’s regime, so may call into question the official explanations given for the invasion.

Sir John also wishes to highlight previously unknown correspondence between Mr Blair and Gordon Brown and other communications with US presidents. The Prime Minister said Sir Jeremy Heywood, the Cabinet Secretary, was aiding the inquiry on releasing this information.


As appears to be the case now with Syria, the attack on Iraq was decided long before any official announcement. From this timeline we see that Tony Blair made it clear to his US allies that he would support the US plan, fully aware that the 'evidence' was being fixed in order to sell the war. He also had aid: the shameful role of the corporate-owned media is now all too apparent. The contrition expressed by many of these state-serving stenographers after the lies they aggressively reported on Iraq were brought to light is now exposed as fake, as demonstrated by their behavior now, with similar unproven claims mindlessly repeated with regard to Syria.

Any views expressed by Mr. Blair - and indeed anyone responsible for the Iraq disaster - must be rejected out of hand as the words of a man with zero credibility, a man who significant numbers of people believe committed - along with George W Bush - the supreme war crime: aggressive war, the illegal invasion of a sovereign nation, in this case using fake evidence as justification.

Justice Robert H Jackson, Chief Prosecutor for the United States at the Nuremberg Trials stated three principles with regard to this supreme crime:

The power of sovereign states to make war, except in self-defense, should be restricted by law. ("It is high time that we act on the juridical principle that aggressive war-making is illegal and criminal")

This law must apply equally to all nations. ("I am not willing to charge as a crime against a German official acts which would not be crimes if committed by officials of the United States")

Nations can act only through their leaders and thus the individuals responsible for initiation of an aggressive war are accountable for acts of violence against others committed in the name of the state. ("The guilt we should reach is not that of numberless little people, but of those who planned and whipped up the war.")


Noble words. But just words.

Written by Simon Wood

Twitter: @simonwood11

Monday, September 2, 2013

The Pernicious War on the Poor

"Ignorance is an evil weed, which dictators may cultivate among their dupes, but which no democracy can afford among its citizens" - William Beveridge

"Scratch a pessimist and you find often a defender of privilege" - William Beveridge

In an article worthy of inclusion in the Daily Mail, the UK's Guardian newspaper on Saturday informed its readership of a 'litany of bizarre and audacious' fraudulent benefit claims including tales of an 'evil twin' and a 'woman whose skin color changed'.

In the article, David Freud, minister for welfare reform, is quoted as saying:

"Hardworking taxpayers lost an outrageous £1.2bn in benefit fraud last year. Our investigators are stepping up and taking advantage of the latest technology so fraudsters can be identified, traced and caught. The minority of claimants attempting to siphon off benefit cash need to know our teams are cracking down on them and bare-faced lies are frankly transparent in the face of the evidence."

Highlights:

A claimant in West Lothian tried to explain her false claim by saying: "I needed the money to pay for [a] TV in each of the five bedrooms, as the kids have ADHT (sic) and I have to keep them in." She failed to mention that the children no longer lived with her.

In Liverpool, a claimant insisted that she did not have a relationship with a man who stayed at her home most nights of the week. When it was pointed out that they had three children together in a five-year period, she said: "We're all entitled to a one night stand aren't we?" When reminded that she had three children, she said: "Well a three-night stand then".


Liverpool, eh? Nice touch.

The relentless demonization of benefits claimants - smeared by association with the tiny minority who commit this kind of fraud - is pernicious in the extreme. Six of the UK's largest disability charities (Scope, Mencap, Leonard Cheshire Disability, the National Autistic Society, Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB), and Disability Alliance) report that they are regularly contacted by people who say they are taunted on the street about faking disabilities in order to receive payments and are concerned that this could lead to hate crimes and violence. They blame ministers and civil servants for endlessly highlighting abuse in the system, just as David Freud did. Such statements are dutifully reported in a biased and incendiary fashion throughout the UK's media, with dangerous consequences:

Scope's regular polling of people with disabilities shows that in September two-thirds said they had experienced recent hostility or taunts, up from 41% four months before. In the last poll almost half said attitudes towards them had deteriorated in the past year.

David Gillon from Chatham in Kent, said: "I think we've lost all the progress we made in the last 30 years in terms of acceptance." Gillon, whose chronic back condition forced him to give up a job with British Aerospace, recounts walking on crutches past a pub in the middle of the day and receiving shouts of: "We're going to report you to the DWP." He said: "When there's a bad article in the press, the next day you think, 'Do I really need to go out of the house?' We're being forced back into the attic, locked away from society."


A survey for the Royal Statistical Society and King's College London that serves as a damning indictment of the UK media shows that the British public is woefully misinformed on almost every society issue, particularly those which provide regular fodder for the tabloids: immigration, foreign aid, teen pregnancy and...of course...benefits:

The public think[s] that £24 of every £100 of benefits is fraudulently claimed. Official estimates are that just 70 pence in every £100 is fraudulent - so the public conception is out by a factor of 34.

Reality presents a very different picture, and it is this reality that exposes the agenda of the UK's media and coalition government to focus disproportionately on one tiny aspect of overall fraud. A glance at the contents of the National Fraud Authority's 'Annual Fraud Indicator'(pdf) shows dozens of types of fraud - take a deep breath: council tax fraud, electricity scams, grant fraud, housing tenancy fraud, insurance fraud, staged motor vehicle accidents, mass marketing fraud, mortgage fraud, motor finance fraud, National Savings and Investments fraud, online ticket fraud, patient charges fraud, payroll fraud, pension fraud, private rental property fraud, procurement fraud, recruitment fraud, retail banking fraud, check fraud, online banking fraud, plastic card fraud, telephone banking fraud, student finance fraud, tax credits fraud, tax fraud, telecommunications fraud, television license fee evasion, transport fare evasion and others.

How many of these types of fraud are mentioned daily throughout the UK mass media, often with in-depth exposes of extreme cases presented as mainstream?

Citizens Advice Scotland (CAS) provides a short but useful myth-busting page:

The UK government estimates that total fraud across the whole of the economy amounts to £73 billion a year. UK government figures for 2012 estimate benefits overpaid due to fraud is £1.2 billion and tax credit fraud is £380 million. So just under £1.6 billion in total; less than 1% of the overall benefits and tax credits expenditure and less than benefits underpaid and overpaid due to error.

It's a lot of money, and it’s never right, but unfortunately fraud happens in many walks of life. Sometimes it helps to compare the figures with other fraud or error. More than this amount was overpaid in benefits due to claimant and official error. That was £2.2 billion in 2011/12 and is recovered by the UK Government. Equally claimant and official error led to £1.3 billion benefits being underpaid.

So to get some perspective, benefit fraud represents 2% of the estimated total annual fraud in the UK. Public sector fraud, which includes benefit fraud, is £20.3 billion a year, so within this category it accounts for just under 8%. The majority of this £20 billion is tax fraud which costs the economy £14 billion annually, or 69%. So we can see that both in absolute and percentage terms tax fraud is a much bigger issue than benefit fraud. In fact, out of all the categories of fraud calculated by the UK Government, benefit fraud is the second lowest. Only identity fraud which costs individuals £1.4 billion a year comes below it.


As CAS points out, more than the amount obtained by fraud is actually overpaid due to error on the part of both officials and claimants, while the same mistakes led to £1.3 billion in benefits being underpaid.

How often are these facts relentlessly hammered into the average news consumer's brain?

In a 2011 piece for the Observer, Ian Birrell wrote a thoughtful piece on the issue that expands on some of the consequences of this government and media irresponsibility. More emphasis, however must be put on why this demonization is so useful to the financial and political elites. For instance, by smearing those on benefits as 'scroungers' by association with the small percentage of those who commit fraud, the poor become a useful scapegoat for the deficit and other serious problems with the economy when issues like too-big-to-fail bank bailouts and tax avoidance by the wealthy are in fact culpable:

From an earlier article on this blog:

The reality is that the government could save a great deal more by dealing with tax evasion and avoidance. In this very informative article, we can see that the tax gap, namely the amount of tax evaded, avoided and not collected, is estimated to be over 120 billion pounds.

Tax avoidance is overwhelmingly carried out by the wealthy, aided by clever and very well-paid accountants who take advantage of loopholes in the law.


More:

It is not only the tax gap that can be worked on; huge sums of money are wasted on private consultants in the armed services or in education and multiple other areas, fields that could be easily staffed by the armies of unemployed with proper training.

Even more money is thrown into the totally unnecessary Trident program, not to mention the bottomless hole also known as the Afghanistan War, and let's not forget our proud military adventures in Libya, where we saw costs like 183,000 pounds for a Brimstone missile and 50,000 pounds per Paveway guided bomb (see article for the full scandalous list).


[Note: the previous article on this blog discussed the issue of costs of war or 'intervention' in depth.]

If there really were no agenda in the media to demonize the poor, it would follow that since the size of the tax gap is a hundred times that of benefits fraud, there should be many more articles condemning this intentional subterfuge of the wealthy. That we rarely see such articles, while every other day seems to bring new 'immigrants-living-in-2-million-pound-mansion' stories is smoking-gun proof of a cynical smear campaign against those exercising their legal right to benefit payments.

The pattern of media dialogue is clear: demonization and conflict in every possible arena. Politician A attacks politician B; football manager A has a grudge against football manager B; the establishment condemns 'immoral' celebrity behavior (while simultaneously exploiting it); Jews against Muslims; Republicans versus Democrats; the list is endless - phony conflicts which serve to keep outrage levels high, drive sales and advertizing, and - most importantly - divert the unruly passions of the masses away from banks, corporations and corrupt officials - the entities outrage actually should be directed at.

Wars: the war on the poor along with the 'official' ones - the war on terror and the war on drugs - serve as a smokescreen for a far larger conflict, the only one that matters: that of profit over human well-being. The amoral, unsustainable machine known as consumer capitalism knows no altruism, working only for profit and more profit in order to attract yet more investment and to please shareholders. Until the world comes to regain awareness of this fact and puts people before capital without exception, as it attempted to briefly in the years after World War II with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and - in the UK - the welfare state, inequality, injustice and lawlessness will continue to proliferate, exponentially escalating existential threats like global warming and nuclear war.

The recent victory of the people in the UK against the warmongering establishment with regard to Syria was a promising sign. Social media has made civil organization as well as the dissemination of information feasible on an enormous scale, while more and more high-profile celebrities are beginning to speak up on human rights and corporate criminality, spreading awareness to vast numbers of previously unreachable people - many of whom will begin to investigate these claims for themselves. The real war - the battle for awareness - is well underway.

Written by Simon Wood

@simonwood11

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