Thursday, December 30, 2010

WTF (Serious)

The CIA has launched a taskforce to assess the impact of 250,000 leaked US diplomatic cables. Its name? WikiLeaks Task Force, or WTF for short.

The group will scour the released documents to survey damage caused by the disclosures. One of the most embarrassing revelations was that the US state department had drawn up a list of information it would like on key UN figures – it later emerged the CIA had asked for the information.

"Officially, the panel is called the WikiLeaks Task Force. But at CIA headquarters, it's mainly known by its all-too-apt acronym: WTF," the Washington Post reported.

WTF is more commonly associated with the Facebook and Twitter profiles of teenagers than secret agency committees. Given that its expanded version is usually an expression of extreme disbelief, perhaps the term is apt for the CIA's investigation.

Earlier this month the Guardian revealed that the CIA was responsible for drafting the data "wishlist" that the US state department wanted on UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, and other senior members of the organisation. The Washington Post said the panel was being led by the CIA's counterintelligence centre, although it has drawn in two dozen members from departments across the agency.

Although the CIA has featured in some WikiLeaks disclosures, relatively little of its own information has entered the ether, the paper reported. A recently retired former high-ranking CIA official told the Post this was because the agency "has not capitulated to this business of making everything available to outsiders.

"They don't even make everything available to insiders. And by and large the system has worked," he said.

While most of the agency's correspondence is understood to be classified at the same "secret" level as the leaked cables that ended up online, it is understood the CIA uses systems different from those of other government agencies.

Acronyms sometimes suck

Acronyms. Pithy and useful when you get them right, embarrassing and memorable when you fail to spot the pun.

Long before the internet revived the TLA (three-letter acronym), there was MAD, one of the more appropriate constructions, which stood for mutually assured destruction, the doctrine under which everyone dies if nuclear devices were deployed.

Change one letter, and you get BAD, or British Association of Dermatologists – as in: "I'd love a BAD practitioner to look at my skin."

Unfortunately the spoilsports at BAD usually put "the" before the acronym on the association's website, although there are a couple of slips: "To find out how to write BAD clinical guidelines, please click here," being one of them.

Many other good examples are given on the Unfortunate Acronyms website, also known as ASS – Acronyms Sometimes Suck.

Another in the field of medicine is DOH, the website of the Washington state department of health ( Hardly encouraging for those planning a visit, given its connotations with the general incompetence personified by Homer in the Simpsons.

The Boston Redevelopment Authority doesn't shy away from using its abbreviated form.

Almost unbelievably, there is a Breakthrough Urban Ministries operating two homeless shelters in Chicago. Unsurprisingly, the organisation does not use its acronym when promoting its services, preferring to shorten the name to Breakthrough.

The Phoenix Islands Settlement Scheme is often described as one of the last attempts at colonisation by the British empire.

The plan was to reduce overpopulation on the Gilbert islands in the South Pacific by moving numbers of people to the neighbouring Phoenix islands.

The outbreak of the second world war hampered the move, and only one of the eight islands is now believed to be inhabited – and the islands are threatened by rising sea levels.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Picture Of The D@y

Friday, December 10, 2010


Wednesday, December 08, 2010

30 Years Today...

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

To Kill The Messenger

'Never waste a good crisis" used to be the catchphrase of the Obama team in the runup to the presidential election. In that spirit, let us see what we can learn from official reactions to the WikiLeaks revelations.

The most obvious lesson is that it represents the first really sustained confrontation between the established order and the culture of the internet. There have been skirmishes before, but this is the real thing.

And as the backlash unfolds – first with deniable attacks on internet service providers hosting WikiLeaks, later with companies like Amazon and eBay and PayPal suddenly "discovering" that their terms and conditions preclude them from offering services to WikiLeaks, and then with the US government attempting to intimidate Columbia students posting updates about WikiLeaks on Facebook – the intolerance of the old order is emerging from the rosy mist in which it has hitherto been obscured. The response has been vicious, co-ordinated and potentially comprehensive, and it contains hard lessons for everyone who cares about democracy and about the future of the net.

There is a delicious irony in the fact that it is now the so-called liberal democracies that are clamouring to shut WikiLeaks down.

Consider, for instance, how the views of the US administration have changed in just a year. On 21 January, secretary of state Hillary Clinton made a landmark speech about internet freedom, in Washington DC, which many people welcomed and most interpreted as a rebuke to China for its alleged cyberattack on Google. "Information has never been so free," declared Clinton. "Even in authoritarian countries, information networks are helping people discover new facts and making governments more accountable."

She went on to relate how, during his visit to China in November 2009, Barack Obama had "defended the right of people to freely access information, and said that the more freely information flows the stronger societies become. He spoke about how access to information helps citizens to hold their governments accountable, generates new ideas, and encourages creativity." Given what we now know, that Clinton speech reads like a satirical masterpiece.

One thing that might explain the official hysteria about the revelations is the way they expose how political elites in western democracies have been deceiving their electorates.

The leaks make it abundantly clear not just that the US-Anglo-European adventure in Afghanistan is doomed but, more important, that the American, British and other Nato governments privately admit that too.

The problem is that they cannot face their electorates – who also happen to be the taxpayers funding this folly – and tell them this. The leaked dispatches from the US ambassador to Afghanistan provide vivid confirmation that the Karzai regime is as corrupt and incompetent as the South Vietnamese regime in Saigon was when the US was propping it up in the 1970s. And they also make it clear that the US is as much a captive of that regime as it was in Vietnam.

The WikiLeaks revelations expose the extent to which the US and its allies see no real prospect of turning Afghanistan into a viable state, let alone a functioning democracy. They show that there is no light at the end of this tunnel. But the political establishments in Washington, London and Brussels cannot bring themselves to admit this.

Afghanistan is, in that sense, a quagmire in the same way that Vietnam was. The only differences are that the war is now being fought by non-conscripted troops and we are not carpet-bombing civilians.

The attack of WikiLeaks also ought to be a wake-up call for anyone who has rosy fantasies about whose side cloud computing providers are on. These are firms like Google, Flickr, Facebook, Myspace and Amazon which host your blog or store your data on their servers somewhere on the internet, or which enable you to rent "virtual" computers – again located somewhere on the net. The terms and conditions under which they provide both "free" and paid-for services will always give them grounds for dropping your content if they deem it in their interests to do so. The moral is that you should not put your faith in cloud computing – one day it will rain on your parade.

Look at the case of Amazon, which dropped WikiLeaks from its Elastic Compute Cloud the moment the going got rough. It seems that Joe Lieberman, a US senator who suffers from a terminal case of hubris, harassed the company over the matter. Later Lieberman declared grandly that he would be "asking Amazon about the extent of its relationship with WikiLeaks and what it and other web service providers will do in the future to ensure that their services are not used to distribute stolen, classified information". This led the New Yorker's Amy Davidson to ask whether "Lieberman feels that he, or any senator, can call in the company running the New Yorker's printing presses when we are preparing a story that includes leaked classified material, and tell it to stop us".

What WikiLeaks is really exposing is the extent to which the western democratic system has been hollowed out. In the last decade its political elites have been shown to be incompetent (Ireland, the US and UK in not regulating banks); corrupt (all governments in relation to the arms trade); or recklessly militaristic (the US and UK in Iraq). And yet nowhere have they been called to account in any effective way. Instead they have obfuscated, lied or blustered their way through. And when, finally, the veil of secrecy is lifted, their reflex reaction is to kill the messenger.

As Simon Jenkins put it recently in the Guardian, "Disclosure is messy and tests moral and legal boundaries. It is often irresponsible and usually embarrassing. But it is all that is left when regulation does nothing, politicians are cowed, lawyers fall silent and audit is polluted. Accountability can only default to disclosure." What we are hearing from the enraged officialdom of our democracies is mostly the petulant screaming of emperors whose clothes have been shredded by the net.

Which brings us back to the larger significance of this controversy. The political elites of western democracies have discovered that the internet can be a thorn not just in the side of authoritarian regimes, but in their sides too. It has been comical watching them and their agencies stomp about the net like maddened, half-blind giants trying to whack a mole. It has been deeply worrying to watch terrified internet companies – with the exception of Twitter, so far – bending to their will.

But politicians now face an agonising dilemma. The old, mole-whacking approach won't work. WikiLeaks does not depend only on web technology. Thousands of copies of those secret cables – and probably of much else besides – are out there, distributed by peer-to-peer technologies like BitTorrent. Our rulers have a choice to make: either they learn to live in a WikiLeakable world, with all that implies in terms of their future behaviour; or they shut down the internet. Over to them.

by John Naughton

White Xmas at Oxbridge

A bleak portrait of racial and social exclusion at Oxford and Cambridge has been shown in official data which shows that more than 20 Oxbridge colleges made no offers to black candidates for undergraduate courses last year and one Oxford college has not admitted a single black student in five years.

The university's admissions data confirms that only one black Briton of Caribbean descent was accepted for undergraduate study at Oxford last year.

Figures revealed in requests made under the Freedom of Information (FoI) Act by the Labour MP David Lammy also show that Oxford's social profile is 89% upper- and middle-class, while 87.6% of the Cambridge student body is drawn from the top three socioeconomic groups. The average for British universities is 64.5%, according to the admissions body Ucas.

The FoI data also shows that of more than 1,500 academic and lab staff at Cambridge, none are black. Thirty-four are of British Asian origin.

One Oxford college, Merton, has admitted no black students in five years – and just three in the last decade. Eleven Oxford colleges and 10 Cambridge colleges made no offers to black students for the academic year beginning autumn 2009.

Oxford's breakdown of its latest undergraduate admissions figures, published on its website, shows that just one black Caribbean student was accepted in 2009, out of 35 applications.

A total of 77 students of Indian descent were accepted, out of 466 applications. Six black Caribbean undergraduates were accepted at Cambridge the same year.

In advance of a crucial Commons vote on Thursday, ministers have said universities that want to charge students up to £9,000 a year in fees will face fresh targets on widening access to applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds. Oxford and Cambridge, which are expected to charge the maximum fee, say they are keen to recruit the brightest students from all backgrounds. Both have programmes to encourage applications from state school students, and those from black and working-class backgrounds.

But the FoI data shows white students were more likely to be successful than black applicants at every Cambridge college except St Catharine's, where black candidates have had a 38% success rate, compared with 30% for white students.

The starkest divide in Cambridge was at Newnham, an all-women's college, where black applicants had a 13% success rate compared with 67% for white students. The data for Oxford tells a similar story: at Jesus college white candidates were three and a half times more successful than black candidates over an 11-year period. Oxford says the figures are too low for the variation between colleges to be statistically significant.

The most selective universities argue that poor attainment at school level narrows the pool from which candidates can be drawn. But black candidates are more likely to apply to elite universities.

In 2009, more than 29,000 white students got three As or better at A-level (excluding general studies) and about 28.4% applied to Oxford; while 452 black students got three As or better, and nearly half applied to Oxford. A spokeswoman for Oxford said: "Black students apply disproportionately for the most oversubscribed subjects, contributing to a lower than average success rate for the group as a whole: 44% of all black applicants apply for Oxford's three most oversubscribed subjects, compared with just 17% of all white applicants. That means nearly half of black applicants are applying for the same three subjects … the three toughest subjects to get places in. Those subjects are economics and management, medicine, and maths.with 7% of white applicants. This goes a very long way towards explaining the group's overall lower success rate."

The FoI figures show large parts of the country never send students to the most prestigious universities. No one from Knowsley, Sandwell and Merthyr Tydfil has got to Cambridge in seven years. In the last five years, pupils from Richmond upon Thames have received almost the same number of offers from Oxford as the whole of Scotland.

Rob Berkeley, director of the Runnymede Trust, a thinktank that promotes racial equality, said: "If we go for this elite system of higher education … we have got to make sure what they are doing is fair. If you look at how many people on both frontbenches are Oxbridge-educated, Oxford and Cambridge are still the major route to positions of influence. If that's the case we shouldn't be restricting these opportunities to people from minority backgrounds."

Black students do not lack aspiration, but the opportunity to get into the most prestigious universities, Berkeley argued. "Of the black Caribbean students getting straight As at A-level, the vast majority apply to Oxbridge.... those who do choose to apply have a much lower success rate [than white applicants]. One in five in comparison with one in three for white students. That doesn't seem to have shifted for the last 15 years." A boom in university participation in recent years has led to a more diverse student body, but black students are concentrated in a handful of institutions. In 2007-08 the University of East London had half as many black students as the entire Russell group of 20 universities, which include Oxford and Cambridge.

Matthew Benjamin, 28, who studied geography at Jesus College, Oxford, said: "I was very aware that I was the only black student in my year at my college. I was never made to feel out of place, but it was certainly something I was conscious of.

"When I arrived and they wanted to do a prospectus, and have some students on the cover, they chose me, and one other Asian guy and another guy from Thailand. It was clear they wanted to project this image of somewhere that was quite diverse. The reality was very different – there were three [minority] ethnic students in a year.

"On open days, some black kids would see me and say 'you're the only black person we've seen here – is it even worth us applying?'"

A spokesman for Cambridge said 15% of students accepted last year were from minority ethnic backgrounds. "Over the five years to 2009 entry black students accounted for 1.5% of admissions to Cambridge, compared with 1.2% of degree applicants nationally who secure AAA at A-level. Colleges make offers to the best and brightest students regardless of their background, and where variations exist this is due to supply of applications and demand by subject."

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Saturday, December 04, 2010

Wiki Witch-Hunt

There have been various suggestions as to what to do to Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, after a week in which his revelations have severely embarrassed US diplomacy. Tom Flanagan, a former aide to the Canadian prime minister, called for his assassination, and then regretted his glib remark. Mike Huckabee said that those found guilty of leaking the cables should be executed for putting national security at risk. You would expect a future Republican presidential candidate to say that. But a Democrat administration is close behind. A team from the justice department and the Pentagon are exploring whether to charge Mr Assange under the Espionage Act. The US attorney general, Eric Holder, has said this is not sabre-rattling. Are they all about to turn into minions of which Richard Nixon would have been proud?

More insidious than that was the complacent yawn emanating from from sections of the liberal commentariat for which freedom of information is a given. So what's new about the Gulf Arab Sunnis wanting America or Israel to bomb Iran, or Colonel Gaddafi's taste for blonde Ukrainian nurses, or Nicolas Sarkozy being described as mercurial and authoritarian, they sneer. Maybe for them, nothing is new. Would that we all could be so wise. But for large areas of the world which do not have the luxury of being able to criticise their governments, the revelations about the private thoughts of their own leaders are important.

The yawners from Primrose Hill or inside the Beltway forget that when WikiLeaks exposed high-level corruption in Kenya, toxic waste in Africa and all manner of nefarious deeds in the former Soviet bloc, they applauded it. They hailed the whistleblowers as brave democrats. But when the alleged leaker comes from within their own ranks – in this case a 23-year-old US military intelligence analyst, Bradley Manning, who now faces 52 years in prison – then it is a different matter: it is treason, a threat to national security. Close WikiLeaks down, run it off the internet, the cry goes up. All it takes is one call from Joe Lieberman, the chairman of the Senate committee on homeland security, and internet hosting providers buckle at the knees. Yesterday the French joined in. Viewed from China, which has been lectured for censoring the internet, this reaction must seem … very Chinese. Let's face it. In these cold December days, there is nothing more warming than a witch-hunt.

The cables are more than just embarrassing. They reveal the gap that has opened in some parts of the world, like Yemen, between Hillary Clinton's stated aims to fight terrorism and spread democracy around the world, and the means her country uses to do this. In Yemen's case, US air strikes against al-Qaida in the Arab Peninsula in December 2009 killed dozens of civilians along with wanted jihadis. The means to the end involves dealing with Yemen's "bizarre and petulant" president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, who told General David Petraeus, then head of US Central Command, that he and his ministers would continue to lie to their country that American bombs were theirs. If anything will turn Yemen into a facsimile of the tribal belt in Pakistan, this will. Saleh has warned that his country is on the brink of becoming Somalia.

There are no easy ways of combating an organisation which recruited Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian who tried to blow up a Dutch passenger plane over Detroit. But each time Tomahawks are used to swat a fly, they stir up a hornet's nest. Each time the US goes to the aid of a weak state, it somehow manages to weaken it further. And each time it listens to the likes of President Saleh, it gets it wrong. If US diplomats come out of the WikiLeaks saga in good shape, some of the policies they help form do not. And no one should be yawning about that.

The Guardian edito