The eye in the sky, covert warfare and corporate profits

The SunHerald newspaper, located in south Mississippi, carried a small story recently that has far-reaching implications for the capitalist economy and democratic rights. The multinational corporation Northrop Grumman, manufacturer of aerospace and military equipment, opened a new centre in Mississippi devoted to the development of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), popularly known as drones. The SunHerald article was gushing over the vast commercial and investment opportunities for Mississippi, and stated that spending on UAVs is estimated to increase over the next decade from $5.9 billion annually to $11.2 billion. The article focused on the opportunities for corporate profits, ignoring the terrible human toll that UAVs have taken during the US imperial wars abroad.

Drones are becoming well-known as instruments of warfare, and the Obama administration has expanded their use dramatically. While UAVs are primarily used in the US military conflicts overseas, their use for civilian purposes, such as monitoring US borders, the surveillance large tracts of real estate, surveying people and wildlife from the sky, and a host of other commercial and law enforcement purposes.

Unmanned aircraft have become a weapon of choice for the Obama administration. Their use in US imperial wars predates the Obama era, having been used first in 1995 in Bosnia. Remotely piloted aircraft were used by the Bush-Cheney regime in their invasion of Iraq in 2003. Predator drones have flown surveillance missions, gathering information about targets on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan. The US military began to use armed pilotless aircraft soon after 2003, and have been using them with devastating effect in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia and now over the skies of Iran and Syria.The Israelis have used both unarmed and armed drones in their various wars in Lebanon.

Drones are equipped with state-of-the-art computer technology, such as infrared and live video cameras, heat sensors and radar. They can upload vast amounts of data, even eavesdrop on electronic media, wi-fi networks and mobile phone conversations. While the reconnaissance capability of the drones is vital, they can be armed with Hellfire missiles and have rained down lethal force on their victims.

They are the feature weapon in covert wars the US has conducted in Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen and other countries. Since the Bush-Cheney regime resorted to open, conventional warfare that resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths and casualties, Obama the ‘anti-war’ president, has increased the use of UAVs as a form of covert warfare. Obama did order and carry out the assassination of US-born Yemeni cleric Anwar al-Awlaki. The latter was a radical Islamic cleric who was never charged with any crime, or brought before any court of law. Awlaki was killed in a Predator drone strike.

Awlaki preached an extremist, hateful brand of Islam, we were told by media outlets. If preaching hateful religious rhetoric is an offense punishable by death, one wonders why Obama has not dealt with other vitriolic religious demagogues in the United States, whose homophobic and hate-filled rants reach millions of listeners –  like Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell Junior, Jim Bakker, John Haggee and Jimmy Swaggart in similarly stern fashion.

US imperial wars expanded

Obama has expanded the Afghanistan war into Pakistan through the method of drone strikes. Pakistani civilians have been bearing the brunt of this aerial warfare, and Obama only publicly acknowledged such warfare in Pakistan earlier this year. The Afghanistan war, while started by Bush-Cheney regime, has now escalated into the ‘Af-Pak’ conflict thanks to the Obama presidency. The terror drones – because that is what they are – have also claimed the lives of those other dangerous people – rescue workers and attendees at funerals. Such killings of civilians have been occurring since May 2009, according to a report by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. At least 2413 civilians have been killed in Pakistan so far because of drone strikes. These atrocities are emblematic of the Obama era of covert warfare.

Drone warfare has been going on in Somalia at least since June 2011. In a country racked by political instability, economic breakdown and lawlessness, drone strikes are the last thing that will bring a stable, unified, democratic society. But the aim of the Obama administration is not to implement meaningful democratic changes, but to expand the reach of US military and economic interests. The US has been conducting covert military operations in Somalia since 2001, but drone warfare has increased civilian casualties, radicalising a whole new layer of people turning them into potential recruits for extremist groups.

Journalists are increasingly bringing the issues of unmanned drones to the attention of the public. Even that exemplar of journalistic integrity, Fox News, pointed out that Obama authorised the use of armed drones in Libya in April 2011. Obama had been at great pains to emphasize that the United States took a ‘back seat’ in that conflict. The initial rationale for NATO intervention in Libya was that of humanitarian intervention, the establishment of a ‘no-fly zone’ and the safety of Libyan civilians under threat from former leader Qadhafi’s forces. Then Defence Secretary Robert Gates rejected suggestions that authorising drone warfare was a form of mission creep – a stealthy expansion of war aims from the initially stated justification. The ‘humanitarian’ rationale was exposed as a complete lie when NATO forces, using their aerial warfare capabilities, carried out the wholesale destruction of the town of Sirte, an act of collective punishment that resulted in the deaths of thousands of civilians. The senior political analyst for Al Jazeera, Marwan Bishara, wrote that the initial justification for NATO intervention in Libya turned out to be false.

Expansion of drones into the United States

In mid-February 2012, Obama signed the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) Modernization and Reform Act (2012) preparing the way for the use of UAVs in the United States itself. The Minneapolis-based Star Tribune carried a story warning that US citizens should get ready for US drone flights in their home territory. While the bill’s passage was couched in terms of upgrading the air traffic technology in the country, this bill paves the way for a robust expansion of a police state in the United States. Drones will now be used to conduct high-tech surveillance of the population, collect information about their movements, monitor any individuals or groups that are of interest to law enforcement authorities, and can intercept electronic communications. Multinational corporations like Northrup Grumman, Boeing and Lockheed Martin, all lobbied heavily for the passage of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), an organisation of activists, lawyers, political analysts and concerned citizens, is disturbed by the growing impact of electronic media on democratic rights. The EFF filed a lawsuit in January 2012 against the FAA which seeks full disclosure by the FAA about the use of drones for domestic purposes. The EFF noted that the market for unmanned aerial vehicles is rapidly expanding, and more companies are investing in UAV technology. The Teal Group corporation, an aerospace company, published a report in 2011 reviewing the world market, cited by the EFF, which states that the outlook for UAV technology is very positive, and predicts that worldwide UAV research and development expenditures will increase over the next decade from $5.9 billion to $15.1 billion.

George Monbiot, veteran journalist and political commentator stated it plainly in his column that the US drone war is a coward’s war. The more that we can distance ourselves from the immediate, lethal and tragic consequences of warfare through computerised warfare, the less accountable we are and further desensitized to the plight of the victims of imperial wars. Warfare using PlayStation-like technology makes us all avoid any obligation to explain or justify our actions, let alone apologise for the ruinous consequences.

Meanwhile the rest of the US economy….
While the Obama administration and its corporate supporters are hailing the commercial opportunities posed by the UAV industry in the United States, his administration has done nothing to prosecute the Wall Street racketeers and financial parasites that caused the 2008 global financial meltdown. The very people that made billions through financial speculation and wildly inflating finance bubbles, are back making money while the rest of the US economy stagnates. People for instance, like Greg Lippmann, a former trader at Deutsche Bank, has returned, making millions buying up securities that are based on mortgages – the very practice that contributed to the 2008 financial meltdown. An article that appeared in the New York Times explains that bonds backed by cheap mortgages are ‘regaining their allure’. The article states that:

The attraction is the price. Some mortgage bonds are so cheap that even in the worst forecasts, with home prices falling as much as 10 percent and foreclosures rising, investors say they can still make money.

Lippmann is just one example of a trader who bought up collaterised debt obligations (CDO)s during the speculative housing bubble, just before it imploded. He started his own hedge fund which speculates on mortgage-backed securities – recreating the conditions that lead to the last crash. So the bankers who swindled billions in the financial sector, and then were bailed out by the US government, are once again in a position to continue their reckless and socially destructive financial practices.

It is hardly surprising that such practices can continue. The position of the Wall Street parasites only demonstrates the utter political bankruptcy of both the Republican and Democrat parties in the US. Obama is ruling to advance the interests of a narrow financial oligarchy. The role of monopoly finance capital, as elaborated by the contributors of Monthly Review, is still apparent in the US. John Bellamy Foster, professor of sociology and editor of Monthly Review, wrote back in December 2006 that the US economy has reached the stage of monopoly-finance capitalism, where all sectors of the economy are dominated by giant multinational corporations. His article was included in a volume called ‘The Great Financial Crisis’.

Professor Foster has documented the financialisation of capitalism, which consists of the increasing, and now predominant, mode of economic activity being financial speculation, the sale of financial assets such as stocks, bonds, derivatives – making money out of speculating on making money. Not only are financial bubbles created, but they become whirlpools of speculation, to use the famous phrase by John Maynard Keynes. The beginnings of the financialisation of capitalism can be traced back to the 1970s, when the global capitalist system entered a period of long stagnation. Investment in productive activities has declined precipitously since then, but trading in ‘financial products’ has boomed, especially since the early 1990s.

Rather than invest in productive enterprises, the main economic activity became investing in financial speculation – insurance, stocks and bonds, credit swaps. Back in December 2006, Professor Foster wrote that given the massive growth of financial speculative bubbles, it was not difficult “to envision a meltdown of truly earth-shaking proportions”. But somehow, Ben Bernanke, Chairman of the Federal Reserve in the 2000s, when asked about how the most serious financial crisis since the 1930s escaped his attention, stated that he ‘did not see it coming’.

The imperial wars of the United States have been redesigned, rather than ended, by the Obama-Clinton regime. Rather than a casino economy based on ever-increasing corporate profits, the enormous wealth of the financial speculators and playgrounds of the wealthy elite need to be expropriated. An economy based on meeting basic human needs is urgently needed.

Mass protests then and now

Back in 1989, Romania was gripped by mass protests, lead by miners, against the corrupt and authoritarian regime of Ceausescu. The protests in Romania were part of the generalised ‘Velvet Revolution’ against the dictatorial, bureaucratised, deformed workers’ states in Eastern Europe. Ceausescu, the last Communist head of state of Romania, headed a regime that was based on nationalised property and government-run industry, but implemented a bureaucratised, distorted form of socialism. While its dictatorial nature was well-known, the regime was the beneficiary of multinational business dealings with the West. Many western transnational corporations and business-people (including Australian Lang Hancock) never stopped concluding deals and conducting trade with that regime. The Queen of England bestowed an award on Ceausescu back in 1978.

Ceausescu’s regime earned the wholehearted cooperation of the wealthy elites of Western Europe. Ceausescu sold Soviet military information to the United States, which resulted in the Romanian dictator being welcomed as a ‘freedom fighter’ by former US President, Jimmy Carter. The former British media tycoon, the late Robert Maxwell, who built his fortune extolling the virtues of the ‘free market’, warmly appreciated the Ceausescu regime’s business-friendly political climate.

The capitalist press in Australia, the media being composed of large transnational corporations, seized the opportunity to denounce the entire socialist project, claiming that it failed to provide for even the most basic needs of the population, condemned the majority to poverty, and backed up these claims with heart-rending images from abandoned orphans in Romania’s villages.

Here we are in 2012, and there have been mass protests against the rampant corruption and inequality implemented by the capitalist parties in Romania. The demonstrations have been lead by workers opposed to the harsh austerity measures demanded by the World Bank, the IMF and the European powers France and Germany. They have been the largest mass protests seen in Romania since 1989. Police and demonstrators clashed in Bucharest, and the Prime Minister, Emil Boc was forced to resign. Unemployment is running at 7.3 percent, and the average wage is €350 a month which is about 500 US dollars. As even the mouthpiece of US capitalism, the New York Times, readily admits:

Romania suffered a sharp reversal of fortune as the global economic crisis worsened and foreign lending tightened up. After the economy grew 7.3 percent in 2008, it shrank a painful 6.6 percent in 2009, according to Eurostat, the European Union’s statistics agency. The country was forced to turn to the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the European Union in 2009 for emergency loans totaling $27 billion at the exchange rates at the time.

The Romanian economy faced a serious budget deficit of seven percent back in 2009, and the prescription of the IMF, the European Commission and World Bank was to impose ‘austerity’, meaning further cuts to public expenditure, pensions and public sector wages.

The Romanian secret police under Ceausescu, the Securitate, became synonymous with torture, brutality and state-wide repression. Its activities were shrouded in secrecy until the 1989 ousting of the Ceausescu regime. Surely the new Romania would never descend to such barbaric practices? The location of CIA secret prisons has been confirmed in that country. Former CIA operatives described how detainees were rendered to Romania and tortured in the dungeons of the Office of the National Register for Secret State Information, abbreviated as Orniss. Extraordinary rendition refers to the kidnapping and extradition of any terrorism suspects to a third-party country, usually a country governed by a regime that practices torture. The prison – code named Bright Light – was just one of a network of secret prisons across Europe.

Remember the abandoned orphans? In 2009, even the Bullshit Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) carried images of starving orphans in Romania’s dilapidated orphanages, lambasting the lack of care and failure of the political establishment to serious address the plight of orphans in that country. Twenty years after the overthrow of Ceausescu, the institutions designed to care for orphans are in a dilapidated, crumbling state, and their meagre resources are overstretched. As the BBC article comments:

The Carpenis institution is just 32km (20 miles) from the capital Bucharest, the heartbeat of the country’s growing economy. In the main squares, neon lights advertise the biggest Western brands; shopping centres are bursting with families spending new money on Christmas gifts. It is a measure of how far Romania has come since the fall of its dictator Nicolai Ceausescu who bankrupted the country. But not everyone has seen change in the last 20 years.

In Bolintin, another village close to the capital, a lone nurse and six helpers take care of more than 100 patients – they are not sure exactly how many. They were wrapped in blankets and thermal jackets to escape the freezing cold.

Political instability brought on by squabbling, ultra-nationalist-chauvinist parties, using patriotism as a diversion to implement strict IMF-regulated privatisation and austerity, have brought the economy to near collapse. In conditions of a deteriorating economy, the ultra-nationalist and racist parties exploit grievances to channel discontent into electoral popularity. In Romania, as with the rest of Eastern Europe, anti-Semitic prejudice is the usual conduit for parliamentary success.

The president, Traian Basecu, has minimised the culpability of Romanian authorities during World War Two for their anti-Semitic measures and pogroms. In an interview in 2011, Basescu stated that he saw nothing wrong with the 1941 decision by Romania’s military government to join Nazi Germany and attack the Soviet Union, even though the 1941 attack resulted in the deaths of thousands of Jews and Russians. Marshal Ion Antonescu, Romania’s wartime dictator, enthusiastically joined the Nazi war on the USSR and is responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Jews. Basescu has repeatedly ‘softened’ Antonescu’s image, much to the outrage of Russia and the Jewish community. It appears that anti-Semitic killers have their defenders in high places in Romania.

Romania is today one of the poorest countries in ‘united’ Europe. In November 2011, Austrian authorities instructed their largest three banks to restrict the amounts of cross-border loans to eastern European countries, in particular Romania. The Economist bemoans the ‘free-falling’ Romanian political system and doubts the country’s ability to implement its austerity package.

It is time to question the viability of the neoliberal, capitalist project, and highlight its failure to meet the basic needs of the working people in society. The austerity measures being demanded in Romania are very similar to the cutbacks and reductions in wages being demanded in Greece, Italy and other European countries. When an economic system fails to provide a living for the majority of its people, it is time to ask wide-ranging questions about the ideological dogma that was implemented in Eastern Europe since 1989. The ‘free-market’ fundamentalism of the IMF, the World Bank and the European capitalist states must be rejected because its failures are becoming increasingly obvious by the day. The combativeness of the Romanian workers is a sign of a growing class struggle. In 1989, Ceausescu’s dictatorship fell, and the corporate media were beside themselves with excitement – a new era of prosperity and affluence would begin in Eastern Europe. The capitalist class, shifting the costs of the failing capitalist experiment onto the shoulders of working people, are forcing people to rise up against the capitalist system itself.

Bomb plots, law-breaking and collusion

Back in October 2011, the Obama administration made a startling announcement – the US government had uncovered a conspiracy initiated by the Iranian government to assassinate officials of the Saudi Arabian government on US soil. Their method of choice? Paying killers from the Mexican drug cartels to carry out killings of the Saudi ambassador to the United States; an operation that would have taken the lives of innocent civilians in the immediate vicinity. According to the US government’s accounts, the culprits were also planning to attack the Israeli embassy in Washington, as well as the Israeli and Saudi embassies in Argentina. The Attorney General of the US, Eric Holder, assured the public that swift action would be taken to catch the perpetrators of this murderous conspiracy, and prevent any loss of life or damage to property.

Here was incontrovertible evidence, so the US administration said, of the murderous intent of the Iranian regime. Another reason why the US war drive against Iran should be welcomed in the court of public opinion. Here was another example of the sinister, evil machinations of the Iranian regime, and the Obama administration’s tireless quest to oppose this evil must be supported. A terrible atrocity was averted by the ever-vigilant US authorities – or perhaps not. Even the corporate-owned press began to cast doubts on the official version of events. The Qods Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, an elite fighting force in Iran, had plotted with failed used-car salesman Iranian-American Mansoor Arbabsiar, to blow up the Saudi embassy in Washington, using paid hitmen from Mexican drug cartels. As veteran commentator Glenn Greenwald stated in an opinion piece written the day after the revelations, “the most difficult challenge in writing about the Iranian Terror Plot unveiled yesterday is to take it seriously enough to analyse it.” Bands of terrifying Mexican drug cartel killers let loose in the United States to kill Saudi Arabian government personnel is something more akin to a Hollywood production than to an actual criminal plot.

The details of the plot become murkier when it is revealed that the plot, such as it is, was agreed between Arbabsiar and a member of the Mexican drug cartel Los Zetas, who also just happened to be an undercover agent of the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). In a convoluted case that is sounding more like entrapment by the minute, the undercover DEA informant and Arbabsiar discussed payment options for the contract killing of the Saudi ambassador. The only evidence that the US Attorney’s office provided was the testimony of the undercover DEA agent. Gareth Porter covers the case in some detail, set in the context of ever-increasing use of entrapment tactics by DEA and Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) officers especially in terrorism-related cases. The FBI has been announcing in recent years that it foiled several terrorist plots – after confirming that the alleged perpetrators were undercover FBI agents targeting the Islamic communities in various cities. Various FBI sting operations have entraped members of the already heavily-surveilled and intimidated Muslim communities in the United States.

But there is one aspect that requires further examination. The US authorities, upon announcing the discovery of this alleged conspiracy, moved determinedly to construct their case, publicise the findings and pursue the alleged culprits. The motivation of the US legal authorities to catch people guilty of serious crimes, especially using financial means to incite terrorism, is beyond reproach – isn’t it? As Glenn Greenwald wrote, the US government made clear their determination to hold those responsible to account. So the US federal agencies pursue those who would conspire to commit murder, especially cracking down on the Mexican drug cartels, known for their violence and reckless disregard for human life, right?

Well that is interesting, because back in April 2011, six months before the Iran bomb plot, Ed Vulliamy ran a story in The Observer newspaper (republished in the Guardian in Britain) detailing how the murderous Mexican drug cartels laundered billions of dollars through a large US bank. When an investigator, Martin Woods, an employee of the US bank, raised this issue to the proper authorities, he was ignored, his evidence sidelined, and his integrity attacked by the highest levels of management of the US bank.

Wachovia, currently absorbed by the Well Fargo bank, had been laundering billions of dollars through various methods – wire transfers, traveler’s cheques and cash shipments. The money was laundered through intermediaries on behalf of Mexican drug cartels, criminal enterprises that make their money through narco-trafficking and maintain their businesses through murder, torture and thuggery. Over a period of 22 months, the DEA, the Internal Revenue Service and other US agencies amassed evidence that Wachovia was the conduit for the drug money handled by the Mexican criminal syndicates. Three hundred and seventy eight billion dollars was funneled through Wachovia to launder the ill-gotten proceeds of the Mexican drug trade.

What is even more surprising is that while criminal charges were brought against the Wachovia bank, the case never saw the light of day. Wachovia had violated the banking regulations systematically through a prolonged period, washing billions of dollars worth of drug money that had been obtained at the cost of lives, and Wachovia simply paid an amount in compensation through the district court in Miami. The condition was that Wachovia had to promise they would not violate banking laws – in other words, simply promise not to do anything naughty again, and the prosecution would be deferred.

Martin Woods, an employee of Wachovia located in London, began to raise concerns about financial irregularities from his London office. The bank’s directors simply ignored the increasing evidence of financial impropriety, and Woods own position in the bank was threatened. Woods was basically hung out to dry for pointing out the failure of his superiors to apply anti-money laundering procedures. In March 2010, the senior vice-president of Wachovia, Douglas Edwards, signed off on a settlement where the bank admitted its role in the money-laundering, but agreed to abide by the law for one year after which the charges would be dropped – the deferred prosecution scenario.

The money laundering case at Wachovia bank raises serious questions about the lack of regulatory governance over the entire financial system. How is it possible for banks to launder billions of dollars with such impunity for so long? Enormous profits from the narco-trafficking industry are based on the suffering, broken lives and misery of millions of drug addicts. Governments have not only become unwilling to apply basic financial regulation when the big banks and multinational firms are wasting billions, but are actively compliant in creating a climate where corporate criminality is encouraged. Monopoly capitalism, arising from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, has transformed into monopoly-finance capital, where making money from money is more important and prominent than creating wealth through productive industrial or manufacturing activity. The financialization of capital, as John Bellamy Foster puts it, has created the conditions where dominant finance-capital, owning enormous amounts of financial assets, and leaving the stagnation-afflicted economy to its own devices, is the overwhelming feature of this latest state of decaying, imperialist capitalism.

Even the New York Times, the mouthpiece of the American ruling class, admitted in a recent article that the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), the main body responsible for investigating corporate criminality, regularly grants legal waivers and exemptions for the largest firms to escape punishment and liability. Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan, Bank of America and other leading financial institutions would not have been able to get away with billions in profits and bailouts were it not for the machinations of the SEC to shield bankers and executives from criminal prosecution. The corrupt and incestuous relationship between the large Wall Street firms and the regulatory authorities is all the more reason to support the 99 percent, occupy wall street, and sweep away this entire system of criminality that is responsible for the orgy of speculation and graft that makes economic crashes, like the 2008 financial collapse, unavoidable.