Archive for the ‘corruption’ Category

Update: I originally didn’t want to publish this because I didn’t think it was good enough, but I hit the wrong button. Anyway, Alistair Morgan read it and thinks one of the premises of the whole thing is wrong. Namely, the weapons were going in the same direction as the drugs, not the other way around. Well, at least the story moved on a bit, but this renders mostly useless a whole additional post I put together from reading a lot of crazy-but-interesting stuff out of the bottom of the Internet. Also, despite the Jessie J reference there’s better music at the bottom if you get that far.

So, Alistair Morgan’s twitter feed frequently hints at “cocaine, weapons, and Ireland” as well as police corruption as being factors involved in the case of his brother, Daniel Morgan, the private detective murdered in 1987, probably by people who were since employed by News International. It’s often been said that Morgan was on the point of publishing some sort of huge revelation when he was killed, but nobody knows what it was beyond his brother’s hints based on what the police told him at the time.

Since the eruption of the phone-hacking scandal, a number of sidelights have come up which linked the News of the World, its cadre of ex-police gumshoes, and its contacts inside the police force. Notably, it seems to have spied on the former Army intelligence agent-handler, Ian Hurst, on an NGO, British-Irish Rights Watch (because documents of theirs were on Hurst’s computer when they hacked it), and perhaps on the chief of police, Sir Philip Orde. It would have been hard for people working for the press not to have covered at least one Northern Irish story in the last 20-odd years simply because it was such a news staple, but it’s worth noting their interest.

The War Economy of Northern Ireland

So, what might link Morgan, cocaine, weapons, Ireland, and policemen? There are some fairly well-known stylised facts or stereotypes about the economy of the Troubles. The IRA mostly funded itself from money collected in the United States, from bank robberies, and from unofficial taxes it collected in the North. It also got contributions from friendly countries, specifically Libya. The Loyalists didn’t have a reliable source of their own money abroad like NorAid, and so specialised in protection and drugs. Both sides also got involved in smuggling across the border as a commercial exercise.

That’s a glib summary ‘graf; obviously, I collect a revolutionary tax for the struggle, you impose fines on drug dealers and dishonestly stick to some of the money, and they are merely thugs operating a protection racket. Traditionally, both Sinn Fein and the British tended to stereotype the Loyalists as basically criminal and the IRA as proper insurgents – there may be some truth in there, but the distinction is one of emphasis and degree and also of propaganda rather than of kind.

Having obtained money, they both needed to convert some of it into arms. The IRA got a famous delivery in the 80s from Libya in its role as Secret Santa, and also often bought guns in the US over the counter and smuggled them back. I don’t know how well characterised the sources of Loyalist arms are, which of course gives me license to speculate.

Permanently Operating Factors

Now for the cocaine, which has often been known to land in bulk quantities on the wilder, less populated bits of the Atlantic coast that also offer good harbours. This is a rare combination, as people live near ports. Two of the best bits on that score are northwest Spain and southwest Ireland. Having landed, you can move it on anywhere in the UK-Ireland common travel area without much more trouble. Since the creation of the Schengen area, Galicia is even better for this because there is such a choice of markets you can reach without a customs inspection. But in 1987 this was an un-fact, so you might as well go to Ireland.

This transit trade had important consequences – notably the rise of Martin “The General” Cahill, the assassination of Veronica Guerin, and probably a substantial chunk of the Irish property bubble via the laundering of profits and also by the boost to those ol’ animal spirits the drug provides.

Imagine, then, that an important criminal actor supplying the London market with cocaine also had access to a reliable surplus of weapons. There is the potential for trade here.

However, it’s not that simple – the famous Libyan shipment would have fit in a couple of shipping containers, and it kept the IRA going up until peace was signed, with a fair bit left over to be buried in concrete by the international commissioners on decommissioning. It is very unlikely that any plausible flow of arms to Northern Ireland would have paid for the flow of cocaine into the South-East.

We Don’t Need Your Money, Money, Money, We Just Wanna Make The World Dance…

There’s something else going on – Diego Gambetta would have already pointed out that you need to understand the trade in protection. To sell protection, you need weapons, which are the capital equipment of the business of private protection. In so far as the buyers in the UK were paying in guns as well as cash, they were arguably expressing a protector-protectee relationship. While on our territory, we protect you, and license you to provide protection. This was also reciprocated. In accepting them, were the sellers of the cocaine undertaking to protect it in transit on their own territory?

Another way of looking at this, which Gambetta would also approve of, would be in terms of costly signalling. Being both a supplier and a protector is a powerful position, but it might be worth letting the other side have it as a guarantee or hostage, to signal that you didn’t intend to break the agreement and deal with some other supplier. This makes even more sense given that you still have a regular supply of guns you could cut off or use against them, and therefore both parties have something to lose.

Now, Gambetta’s work mostly deals with Sicily, where a very important protection supplier has often been irrelevant. London is a very different society from this point of view. Whatever you think of the police, you can’t just ignore them as a factor. In some other societies, the police might be protection consumers, but here, police corruption usually takes the form of policemen selling protection. (In a sense, the more effective the police, the more tempting this will be. Nothing sells like the good stuff.)

So, gazing down on this complex, neo-medieval exchange of cash, credit, and protection, there is a sort of Sun King whose permission is required for any protection contract to be signed. It’s like a feudal society. My liege lord is only so, because he is the King’s subject, and the King at least theoretically owes duties to the Emperor, or later, directly to God. Our buyer is in a position to offer protection for his end of the business because he enjoys protection supplied by the police.

Who were the recipients, the sellers? They might have been drug dealers who needed to buy protection from one or other paramilitary group. They might have been drug dealers who wanted to build up enough arms that they could stop buying protection, or rather, change protector. Or they might have been paramilitaries who sold protection to the drugs trade. The distinction is surprisingly unimportant.

So, to put the pieces together, there was some group of South-East London villains importing cocaine from transit providers in Ireland, who were also exporting weapons in the opposite direction as part of an exchange of protection for their common business. This required buying protection from the police. Where did the weapons come from? And why is News International involved?


John “War Nerd” Dolan got a job, as a lecturer at the American University of Iraq. Hilarity ensued. You bet. It’s a tale of un-fantastic right-wing academics, a kind of glaring dullness, a total lack of character, and an endless supply of raw cash. It so happens that John needed that more than anything else, so good luck to him. Read the whole thing – what stands out is the vast gap between the neo-con obsession with The Western Canon! Classicism! Principle! Courage! and the petty, provincial, small-mindedness that people like Joshua “Not The Blogger” Marshall practice in their lives. It’s not even the incompetence. It’s the style that gives them away.

The other interesting thing in the piece is John Agresto’s role. Again and again, he turns up wondering why a string of horrible political thugs treated him with disrespect. Lynne Cheney, his old boss, seems to have been a really awful human being close up. Who knew? But somehow, it never crosses his mind to wonder why this keeps happening every time he associates with the Cheneys or Bill Bennett or some other horrific political gargoyle. It’s….full of bastards, just this particular astronaut isn’t going to get out of the ship.

I also loved the notion of a neo-conservative as someone who got mugged by reality and now never goes into town for fear of running into reality again. A lesser writer would say that he started carrying a gun in order to shoot reality. However, that would imply some kind of grand, tragic struggle against brute fate. You can’t have tragedy without dignity, and that’s one thing the administration of the American University of Iraq doesn’t have.

This reminded me of two things, or rather the other way around. If you want Mitt Romney to speak, you’ve got to take a bulk order for his booky wook. Hence the book is a bestseller (for whatever that means in today’s book trade). Similarly, ‘bagger Sharron Angle’s campaign raised $14m and paid $12m right back to the political consultants who organised the donation drive.

The other thing was this documentary series on YouTube about Americans and steroids. Two points come to mind – the enduring role of the quack, and a sort of grinding optimism. And this quote: “Everyone wants to be a monster.”

A critical point, though – I’m fairly sure the sheaf of documents one of the doctors waves while reading out a list of horrible side effects that turn out to relate to vitamin C is from an open-access “adverse event reporting system”, which basically gathers anything anyone anywhere feels inclined to report. They aren’t verified in any way. Anti-vaccine people often abuse this.

Fortunately, someone’s done the actual journalism and documented that the ties between multilevel marketing, quackery, and extreme-right politics aren’t just style, they’re organisational and financial. It goes back a while, too.

Here’s something interesting.

We must also consider the alternative that many of the most prominent and powerful Afghans are in fact motivated by greed and opportunism. [harrowell: ya think?] It is therefore in their interest to maintain the status quo of massive US and international spending that fuels the Afghan “rentier state” economy.

This isn’t just recreational cynicism; they argue that the latest announcement of a clampdown on private security companies in Afghanistan is to be taken more seriously than the last six, and that this actually represents an effort to integrate them into the Afghan government’s forces or at least its allies. Importantly, and very differently from Iraq, the main players are local rather than foreign – like the 24,000-strong Watan Group. (Check out their Corporate Social Responsibility page.) Rather than just being part of the ISAF baggage train, they’re a significant nonstate actor in Afghan politics.

If you were feeling optimistic, you might consider this as being similar to the various political fixes the Soviets arranged in 1988 to keep the roads open for the Afghan government post-withdrawal. If you’ve been reading this since at least 2007, you’ll know that I think the absolute best that could happen in Afghanistan would be to get back to something like the 1989-1992 period, just without the continuing US/Pakistan/Saudi destabilisation and the cut-off of Russian aid that kicked off the civil war (and the destruction of Kabul, the invention of the Taliban, and so on). I agree this is pessimistic, but then, well, I wouldn’t start from here.

In Iraq, understanding the business/organised crime environment may have played a bigger role than is publicly acknowledged in getting the US Army out of town. For example, here’s a Joel Wing piece on the history of oil-smuggling (you’ll note that the Baiji refinery comes up. party like it’s 2005!). Interestingly, the initial Awakening Council leader Sheikh Abu Risha was an important oil smuggler, and you can bet those networks were of use.

Leaving aside the obvious Afghan export, the analogous business is probably selling stuff to ISAF. Bagram now has its own cement plant, inside the perimeter, but that’s a Turkish construction firm.

Here’s an interesting follow-up on the recent raid on the Iraqi central bank, from Joel Wing. You may recall that the attack, a classic NOIA multi-layered assault using suicide bombers, snipers, and infantry, successfully took over the building and held off the Iraqi army for some time before disengaging, and that although a large quantity of documents and computers were destroyed, no money was taken.

I read that as being an insurgent effort to project incorruptibility, in the style both Tomas Masaryk and Mao advised their followers to adopt, in the context of an operation designed to wreck the bank as an institution. Wing’s follow-up suggests that there may have been other motives at work – the fire began in the office of the Inspector-General, and the files destroyed include the records of an inquiry into a huge fake-cheque fraud ($711 million – a reminder that frauds in Iraq grow to enormous size). Further, there was a previous unexplained fire in the bank’s archives in 2008 which destroyed evidence in a corruption case.

Wing’s sources speculate that employees at the bank might have taken the opportunity of the raid to start the fire, that the attackers were involved in the original fraud, or that those behind the fraud hired the attackers to destroy the evidence.

Fascinatingly, almost a year ago, The Guardian reported that similar motives might have played a role in the kidnapping of British IT consultant Peter Moore and the murder of his bodyguards. Moore was working on a new accounting system for the Finance Ministry, that would track all the Iraqi government’s income and expenditure in detail, when he was kidnapped from the Ministry’s data centre by a platoon-sized force of gunmen posing as Ministry of the Interior forces. It is rarely obvious in Iraq whether the fake policemen are fake policemen, or real policemen posing as fakes, but several different kinds of insurgents had the capability to manoeuvre forces that size in central Baghdad at the time.

Among other things, this is a reminder that the recent history of Iraq cannot be written without paying serious attention to its aspect as the biggest robbery in human history, a fat city for every crook in the Middle East and far beyond.

This has done the rounds and been roundly done for all the right reasons.

There is almost nothing the Obama administration does regarding terrorism that makes me feel safer. Whether it is guaranteeing captured terrorists that they will not be waterboarded, reciting terrorists their rights, or the legally meandering and confusing rule that some terrorists will be tried in military tribunals and some in civilian courts, what is missing is a firm recognition that what comes first is not the message sent to America’s critics but the message sent to Americans themselves. When, oh when, will this administration wake up?

From a purely literary/journalistic point of view, it’s the “When, oh when” that gets me. Sometimes, style and content – aesthetics and morality – fuse into one.

More to the point, the astonishing thing here is Bush’s lasting achievement – he created a political lobby for torture. It’s not just that he let torture happen, or connived at it, or even specifically ordered it. It’s that a significant chunk of the body-politic now demands torture – not just ‘baggers, but editors of the Washington Post. There isn’t a lobbying group with tax-deductible status under 501(3)c yet – unless you count the American Enterprise Institute – but perhaps it would be a more honest world if there was one.

Do I have to quote Vaclav Havel’s crack about the man who puts a sign reading “Workers of the world, unite!” in the window all over again? OK. Havel said that obviously, he probably wasn’t doing this out of conviction; but if the sign said “I am afraid and therefore obedient”, its actual meaning, he might not be so happy to do it.

Perhaps. But I can’t help thinking the example may be wrong. Richard Cohen is, after all, not just being willing to turn a blind eye. He’s actually yelling for torture, and for specific methods of torture. And the marker of the Bush achievement is that the torture lobby has survived Bush. Here we are, more than a year on, after the US armed forces have been given specific orders against torture. And they’re out there wanting it. It’s weirdly reminiscent of the last Stasi man and the last suspect.

Also, it’s nothing to do with expediency; when the FBI wanted to question Captain Underpants, they got his relatives to talk to him, and it worked. It is usually the case that the purpose of torture is torture; what service, I wonder, does the knowledge of torture provide to these people? After all, Cohen explicitly says that he wants torture because it impresses the public, not because it produces names.

I can’t imagine what would have convinced me in 2000 that in 2010, responsible Americans would be lobbying for torture – even after they had succeeded in voting out the torture president. Back then, it used to be a commonplace notion that the power of the state was fundamentally uninteresting; I recall an especially silly newspaper article in which both Bill Clinton and Deng Xiaoping (Deng Xiaoping!) were bracketed together as meaningless figureheads.

Having a considerable lobby that needs a constant drip of draconian rhetoric to maintain their psychological stability is probably very bad for democracy, especially faced with a terrorist group that explicitly aims to destabilise the state through auto-immune warfare. These people have been trained to freak out at the faintest threat and howl for torture – in a sense, it’s yet another backdoor into the political system, as well as an example of the unconscious conspiracy between the terrorist and the state.

We had a post about the MQM in Karachi and the Taliban. Strangely enough, Reuters got a fascinating interview with the MQM mayor of Karachi a couple of days later. It’s a must-read – one of the main points that comes through is the way in which the struggle up on the frontier and in Afghanistan is indivisible from the trading world of the Gulf and the Arabian Sea.

The city of 18 million people generates 68 percent of the government revenue and 25 percent of Pakistan’s gross domestic product but it is vulnerable to both militant attacks and political violence, said mayor Syed Mustafa Kamal.

“As Karachi is the revenue engine for Pakistan, it’s the same revenue engine for the Taliban,” Kamal told Reuters in an interview in his office….”People are being kidnapped here in Karachi and the ransom is taken in Waziristan,” he said, referring to a northwestern ethnic Pashtun region where the army has been battling militants since October.

Four hundred million rupees ($4.8 million) had recently been sent from one Karachi bank branch to various parts of the northwest in one month, he said. “That’s abnormal,” he said. “For sure, the biggest chunk of Taliban war … resources are going from Karachi.”

He also has some interesting things to say about NATO logistics in Afghanistan:

Kamal said a large proportion of supplies bound for U.S.-led forces in landlocked Afghanistan arrive at Karachi’s port, which he said was still vulnerable to an attack that could cripple the U.S. war effort.

“If they don’t get their water supply through this route the next day they’ll be drinking Afghan water and the next day half the army will have stomach problems,” he said.

I don’t know if we really are shipping water in through Karachi, but it’s certainly an answer to the trick question about the MQM’s current tactical alignment. I’m not sure what to make of Jeremy Scahill’s piece on ex-Blackwater (a “media scouring” outpost in Karachi that’s also a “lilypad to jump off to Uzbekistan” – jumping past other major US bases like Bagram and Kandahar, presumably?), but it’s worth noting that, for what it’s worth, Kestral Trading, the local firm that actually seems to handle the cargo and guard the convoys is usually accused of being part of the Musharraf family (low-grade sources, but then….)

I told you so

I see the MG Rover report is out. The document is here.

We blogged.

I like the detail that one of the four was caught having bought something off the interwebs to clear his hard disk, and that the investigators were able to tell which folders he’d run through the l33t gadget. Just the people to fix a hugely complex industrial company.

Now this is absolutely terrifying; the Tory policy on what to do with the NHS National Programme for IT is apparently to give everyone’s data to “Google or Microsoft”. And that appears to be it. This is deranged in several ways. First of all, MICROSOFT??!!! What the fuck are they THINKING? You know, the people whose crappy browser and crappier operating system gave us the current malware ecosystem. The people whose business model is to make it too technically and legally difficult to ever change your mind.

It is fashionable in some circles to moan about “freetards” and Wikipedia being a “cult”, but as Stafford Beer would say, the purpose of a system is what it does.

MS products have been triumphantly successful in a couple of things – inducing people to buy ever more aftermarket security products from other American proprietary software companies, scaring them off going to the competition by making all their file formats very slightly incompatible with everything else including other versions of their own products, and generally maintaining the public belief that computers are terribly mysterious and frightening and that they must expect the experience of using them to be painful and unpleasant. This belief is very useful if you want to sell products on “user friendliness” (i.e. pretty graphics) or if you want to sell things to them in general.

Similarly, the original MS business model was to give away the software-development kits in order to attract as many developers as possible to make applications for DOS or Windows, which would attract people to buy the operating system they ran on. Unfortunately, since the mid-90s, they have been far more successful in fostering a shadow developer ecosystem, dedicated to exploiting the possibilities offered by the bugs rather as the official developers were dedicated to exploiting the possibilities offered by the APIs. I’m sure they didn’t consciously seek this…but see the Beer quote above.

Anyway, the purpose of the Google system is to sell advertising and they make absolutely no bones about that. This, of course, has consequences for the wider health system; the NHS is unlikely to be buying lots of ads to go next to your Google Health file. The people who do that are US drug companies, who are allowed to market direct-to-consumer with well-known and mostly terrible effects on the nation’s health. Why would a political party led by a former commercial TV executive, whose head of fundraising is the owner of an advertising agency, perhaps be interested in this? Anyone? Have the Midlands Industrial Council already banked the cheque?

But what really horrifies me about this arse-awful Sunday for Monday job is that it shows clearly that the Tories involved simply haven’t read the brief, or aren’t capable of doing so. Microsoft and Google’s embryonic health products consist of a single sign on and Web user interface for individual medical records. That’s it. But NPfIT is gigantically more complicated than that. It includes a medical record system. It also includes Choose and Book. It also includes a comprehensive workflow system for the entire NHS; to be clear, the biggest and most complex enterprise workflow installation in the world.

Google does not stock and does not sell anything like that; MS doesn’t do that much of it either. If they had said IBM, SAP, or BT Global Services I’d have been slightly less horrified; it would have shown that they were not particularly interesting or innovative (conservative, indeed), but had at least done a minimum of reading. And they don’t appear to be aware that the medical records (the Spine) are one of only two services in the project that have actually gone live.

But then, I suppose, if the records hadn’t already been filed in BTGS’ data centres, it would have been a sight harder to think about privatising them. The purpose of a system, etc.

It’s often the least well thought out eye-catching initiatives that say the most about the thought processes that underly them. Is it possible that quick-fire press releases are where the political system dreams?

(Meanwhile, the Thunderer comments thread is actually surprisingly sensible.)

Something else that came up at OpenTech; is there any way of getting continuing information out of the government? This is especially interesting in the light of things like Who’s Lobbying? and Richard Pope and Rob McKinnon’s work in the same direction; it seems to me that the key element in this is getting information on meetings, specifically meetings with paid advocates i.e. lobbyists. Obviously, this has some pretty crucial synergies with the parliamentary bills tracker.

However, it’s interesting at best to know who had meetings with who at some point in the past, just as it is at best interesting to know who claimed what on expenses at some point in the past; it’s not operationally useful. Historians are great, but for practical purposes you need the information before the next legislative stage or the next committee meeting.

I asked Tom Watson MP and John “not the Sheffield Wednesday guy” Sheridan of the Cabinet Office if the government does any monitoring of lobbyists itself; you’d think they might want to know who their officials are meeting with for their own purposes. Apparently there are some resources, notably the Hospitality Register for the senior civil service. (BTW, it was a bit of a cross section of the blogosphere – as well as Watson and a myriad of geeks, Zoe Margolis was moderating some of the panels. All we needed was Iain Dale to show up and have Donal Blaney threaten to sue everyone, and we’d have had the full set.)

One option is to issue a bucketful of FOIA requests covering everyone in sight, then take cover; carpet-bomb disclosure. But, as with the MPs’ expenses, this gives you a snapshot at best, which is of historical interest. As Stafford Beer said, it’s the Data-Feed you need.

So I asked Francis Davey, MySociety’s barrister, if it’s legally possible to create an enduring or repeating FOIA obligation on a government agency, so they have to keep publishing the documents; apparently not, and there are various tricks they can use to make life difficult, like assuming that the cost of doing it again is the same as doing it the first time, totalling all the requests, and billing you for the lot.


Philip Hammond is whining.

One year ago, Philip Hammond thought the economy was OK, that the crisis was made up, and that everything would be even more wonderful if he got a tax break on his own property interests. In fact, Hammond was arguing frantically for the government to encourage people to buy property into the crash, around about the same time as he forgot to mention three million quid in dividends from his own property interests.

Three million quid, made from dealings with the public sector, too.