What Limits to Impose on NSA Surveillance?

The seal of the U.S. National Security Agency....

Seal of the U.S. National Security Agency.  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My friend Bob Hall, a very smart attorney who isn’t thrilled about the NSA surveillance to which Americans are subjected, addresses the question: How can we preserve our interest in being let alone while permitting our government to take sensible steps to protect us from harm? A great link to a surveillance overview by The Guardian is included. To read Bob’s piece, click here.

Using Social Media to Foster Tolerant Societies

Nivien at International IDEA October 29, 2013

Yours Truly at the International IDEA conference

The online edition of the Thunderbird Magazine just published an interview with me, entitled “Using Social Media to Foster Tolerant Societies.” You can find the article here. Below is a reprint, with a few added hyperlinks.

Thunderbird Professor Nivien Saleh, Ph.D., spoke in The Hague, Netherlands, at the Conference on Minorities and Marginalized Groups in Constitution Building Processes, organized by the Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance on Oct. 29, 2013. The topic: New media’s ability to advance minority participation in politics and constitution building. Fellow panelists included Brendan Ballou of Stanford University and political consultant Walter Owuor of Kenya. Following is a recent interview with Saleh from the Netherlands:

Q. Why is it necessary to talk about minority participation in constitution building?
A. The drafting of a constitution represents an important step in any nation’s history. The constitution is society’s vision of its own future — the fundamental law from which all other law derives its legitimacy. It assigns rights and duties to citizens, determines who is recognized as an important member of society and who isn’t.

In recent decades the international community came to the recognition that societies should be inclusive — that they should favor not only the majority but also create space and acceptance for minority groups. And since a constitution is such an important document, any strategy aimed at the inclusion of minorities must have a constitutional component.

Q. Constitution building frequently happens in societies that were or are undemocratic. How does information and communication technology impact the relationship between the state and its citizens?
A. First, states have the ability to limit Internet access through firewalls.

Firewalls of the Mind

Firewalls of the Mind (Photo credit: beedieu)

Examples include Saudi Arabia, Iran and China. But in most cases censorship is an imperfect tool for control: As ever more nations use the Internet for commerce, systematically preventing Internet usage becomes a source of competitive disadvantage.

More importantly, technology enhances the surveillance capabilities of the state. As the nation’s primary regulator, the state can dictate how technology service providers should deal with personal information or how they should channel information flows. At the same time, the state has the financial resources to buy and deploy surveillance technologies. But for reasons of information overload, the state must focus its surveillance on specific persons of interest. It cannot monitor all citizens equally.

Let’s now turn to the way in which technology — especially social media — empowers citizens. First, technology increases the end user’s independence of centralized sources of information, such as state-sanctioned newspapers, TV stations, and the websites of these established media channels.

Second, these applications enable end users to find like-minded individuals, remote as they might be, and to forge communities with them, enhancing their capacity for political action. That aspect is especially important for geographically dispersed minorities such as the Roma community, which can be found in Romania, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Hungary and Slovakia. Technology enables such communities to congregate virtually and raise their voice.

Debate on the US internet surveillance of EU c...

Debate on the US internet surveillance of EU citizens (Photo credit: European Parliament)

On balance (and with exceptions), technology enables the state to monitor its citizens without managing to control them. Technology also gives citizens access to new services and more ideas. As a result, citizens become more demanding, insisting to be heard. Does this mean they become democrats? Not necessarily, because democracy requires two things of citizens: Making their voices heard and listening to those who disagree with them. Technology fosters the former far more than the latter. To understand that this is so, recall the incidents of cyberbullying that have driven targeted teenagers into depression and sometimes suicide.

It would therefore be wrong to assume — as numerous observers have done — that technology automatically renders societies more open-minded and inclusive of minorities.

Q. To what extent can minority groups use technology to advance their political inclusion?
A. The answer depends on how economically marginalized the group in question is. Let’s compare the LGBT community in the United States and the community of “garbage people” in Egypt.

America’s LGBT community is moving from marginalization toward social acceptance. Importantly, a good number of its members are highly educated and enjoy a high socioeconomic status, which enables them to make demands on behalf of their group. They have won a high level of representation in Hollywood, where new comedies — for example Glee, Will and Grace or the Tyra Banks Show — have taken up the LGBT cause.

In Cairo there lives a minority of Zabbaleen, or “garbage people.” About 70,000 strong and overwhelmingly Christian, that community has for decades been manually collecting society’s refuse, then hauling it on donkey carts into their neighborhoods, where the recyclable trash is sorted and sold, and the organic waste is fed to pigs. Even though the Zabbaleen deliver an important social service, they are outcasts — partly because of the smell and dirt around which their lives revolve, and partly because they are poor. Unlike America’s LGBT community, most Zabbaleen are illiterate and cannot afford computers to access the Internet or smartphones necessary for leveraging microblogging sites such as Twitter.

Cover image of the "Garbage Dreams" DVD

To learn more about the Zabbaleen, watch the movie “Garbage Dreams.” For the film website, click on the image.

The example of the garbage people shows that economically marginalized groups face at least three challenges in the constitution-writing process:  1. Lack of education means they are less likely to understand the content of constitutions and the political stakes involved in writing a constitution that is inclusive; 2. Lack of finance means they cannot afford the hardware needed to leverage technology for collective action;  3. Lack of education means they cannot decipher much of the content generated by technology.

Q. How can new media best be used to advance the political inclusion of minority and marginalized groups?
A. Technology is just a tool. Its functionality is determined by the intentions and capacities of the actors who use them. This means that technology can foster a public sphere that disintegrates into various enclaves of like-minded citizens who congregate around opinion leaders that reinforce their stereotypes. Technology can also foster a me-me-me society of individuals who want to be heard but refuse to listen.

But if it is deliberately put in the service of inclusion, technology can bring citizens together in ways that transcend group boundaries. To maximize that potential, both activists and program officers at agencies promoting democracy must understand that any media content they create will compete for the attention of their target audience with many other sources of information. Their Web content must therefore be compelling and attractive. And to enhance the chance that their target audience keeps coming back for more, program officers and activists should integrate principles of social media marketing with the quality web content they have generated.

What are some of the most important social media strategies? First off, get to know your audience and the social media they use. Understand what makes them tick. Connect your message to their passion. Allow them to speak back and show that you listen.

Q. What are some of the key experiences that might point to best practices in using new media for increased minority inclusion?

English: Wael Ghonim personal photo العربية: ص...

Wael Ghonim personal photo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A. The Facebook page “We are all Khalid Said,” which was administered by Google executive Wael Ghonim and Abdelrahman Mansour and helped kick start the Egyptian Revolution of 2011 exemplifies best practice — at least before January 2011, the period with which I am familiar. That page exemplifies how social media marketing can be used to advance political strategies, especially those aimed at inclusion and solidarity.

While demanding justice for Khalid Said, a young Egyptian slain by police informants, the Facebook page spoke to its members in their language — colloquial Egyptian rather than standard Arabic. It asked members for their input into tactics through opinion polls, and the page administrators showed their willingness to listen by revising their strategy based on feedback they received from page members.  And in the process, Wael and Abdelrahman advanced the principles of democratic accountability, empowerment of the grassroots, and inclusion across genders, ages, and religious backgrounds.

Q. Looking forward, what projected future uses can we envisage for new media and information communication technologies in ensuring the participation of minorities and marginalized groups in constitution building?
A. What role minorities play in constitution building is more determined by the state’s willingness to include such groups and by the general social acceptance of the group than it is by technology. To the extent that technology is put in the service of inclusion and tolerance, it can help position minorities such that come constitution-writing time, the state and dominant groups will include the minority in the writing process. But this possibility will only materialize if media strategies aimed at inclusion penetrate society deeply, widely, and consistently.

What The Guardian and BBC Say about David Petraeus, Donald Rumsfeld, and Torture in Iraqi Detention Centers

Perhaps you haven’t noticed, but this is the tenth anniversary of the U.S. war in Iraq. The invasion happened ten years ago, on March 20, 2003. Over the last few days British media have evaluated whether it was a just war, if it was fought the right way, how the civilian population fared, and much more.

U.S. Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the commande...

U.S. Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the commander of Multi-National Force – Iraq, briefs reporters at the Pentagon April 26, 2007, on his view of the current military situation in Iraq. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Two days ago I watched a 50-minute documentary by The Guardian, produced in cooperation with BBC Arabic. Title: James Steele: America’s Mystery Man in Iraq. It reveals that General David Petraeus and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld were involved in egregious human rights abuses in Iraq. And all through a mystery man by the name of James Steele.

The thesis about Steele is not entirely new, but the involvement of Petraeus is. So here’s my summary.

First introduced to counterinsurgency during the Vietnam War, where he served in the Blackhorse Regiment from 1968-9, James Steele in 1984 became the U.S. Military Group Commander in El Salvador, which advised the Salvadoran Army on counterinsurgency strategies. Among others it trained paramilitary forces linked to the Army that were essentially death squads.

When El Salvador’s guerilla insurgency was defeated, David Petraeus, 33 years of age and a major, paid a visit to the country because he wanted to study what Washington considered a successful counterinsurgency operation. It appears that Steele and Petraeus met at that time. The documentary notes, “The young Petraeus even reportedly stayed at Steele’s house while there.”

Then came the 2003 Iraq war, where Major General Petraeus served as a commanding military officer. When the United States launched the war, it expected that Iraqis would uniformly greet the Americans as liberators and then gratefully establish a Western-style democracy. The U.S. Government hired fewer than ten retired American police officers to train 30,000 Iraqis, in a matter of 18 months, to become law-abiding policemen.

But that project proved to be unrealistic, especially since a Sunni insurgency became increasingly assertive.

In comes James Steele. He had entered Iraq in 2003 as a civilian, claiming to be an energy consultant. Steele had a close eye on the police training and on the situation on the ground more generally. Despite the fact that he was not in the military chain of command, he enjoyed great authority, working closely with Special Forces Colonel James Coffman, who in turn reported to General Petraeus.

When Iraq proved to be more unmanageable than originally thought, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld decided to support the U.S. presence with a counterinsurgency strategy. The plan was to arm the enemies of the insurgents and turn them into Special Police Commandos (SPCs) that would eventually form an integral part of the new Iraqi security forces. Enemies of the insurgents were easy to find. Many were Shiite militiamen from the Badr Brigades, which had a history of fighting Saddam Hussein. These men had revenge on their minds, for all the years that the Sunni dictator had oppressed their ethnic group.

The Iraqi Chief of Police, who had stood for a civic police force, was sent out to pasture. Then Steele moved to organize and train the SPCs. Unlike a regular police force, which is acculturated to following the rule of law, these units were trained to abide by military rules of engagement. In the long run hardly a recipe for establishing democratic relations between a government and its people.

Steele, together with Coffman, was put in charge of creating the commando battalions, which had been created under directive from General Petraeus. The two men then trained them to chase Sunni insurgents and their sympathizers. Under their guidance, the SPCs grew into a 5,000 strong force with headquarters in Baghdad’s Nisur Square, “the nerve center of a national network of detention centers.”

Steele had the run of the land. He sat in on meetings among the Iraqi ministers of defense and interior, who took his input seriously.

He had access to over a dozen secret prisons run by the Interior Ministry, in which people were tortured and killed. On the ground he moved among SPC soldiers, for example in Samarra, a city seventy miles northwest of Baghdad and a center for the Iraqi insurgency.

Here, the SPC battalions swept the city, pulling hundreds of men from their homes and into the detention center, where they were interrogated with torture. Techniques included raping detainees, hanging them upside down for hours, beating them with cables, and dislocating their joints. Numerous were killed. All this violated the Geneva Conventions, according to which prisoners of war are to be treated with respect and dignity.

New York Times reporter Peter Maass, author of “The Salvadorization of Iraq?”, interviewed Steele during the U.S. occupation. Maass says, “It was very clear that [Petraeus and Steele] were close to each other in terms of their command relationship and also in terms of their ideas and ideology about what needed to be done.” By July 2005 at the latest, the U.S. Embassy in Iraq was aware of the human rights abuses that the Commandos committed and reported them to Washington.

It may have been about that time when the SPCs adopted a new strategy: Pretending to detainees that they would be released, then killing them and dumping the bodies. For a while, the streets of Baghdad’s were sprinkled with corpses. Jerry Burke, who from 2003 to 2004 served as the chief policy adviser to Iraq’s Ministry of Interior, comments, “It became very obvious that this was criminal activity by the Special Commandos. They were eliminating their own opposition and terrorizing citizens from the Sunni community. We lost the support of a lot of Iraqi citizens, who became very cynical and very anti-American. Even the ones who were friendly with us couldn’t understand why we were allowing this to happen.”

Asked about such killings of Iraqis at a press conference, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld claimed ignorance. That was a subterfuge. On September 15, 2005, Steele had sent him a memo informing him of the death squad activities of SPC units.

Also in September, Petraeus and Steele left Iraq. The SPCs would grow from 5,000 to 17,000, expanding their reign of terror.

The sobering documentary is worth watching. Among others it provides valuable background for understanding the Sunni mass demonstrations that rocked the Iraqi government in recent months.

As for the Iraq war, the film reveals from yet another angle that it was at best a giant mistake and at worst a crime.