Barry Eisler

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Authors Guilded, United, and Representing…Hah

Guest-blogging today with Techdirt on how all these “Author This, Author That” organizations are fundamentally publisher lobbyists:

One of the more Orwellian aspects of the book world is the number of publisher advocate groups calling themselves Author This and Author That. The Authors Guild, Authors United, the Association of Authors’ Representatives…their devotion to protecting the interests of authors is right there in the names, right? No further inquiry necessary.

 That’s the idea behind the misleading nomenclature, anyway. But even a cursory glance at the behavior of all these “author” organizations reveals their true priorities and actual allegiances.

Let’s start with the Authors Guild, which claims to “have served as the collective voice of American authors,” and which describes its mission as...

Read the whole thing at Techdirt.
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Monday, June 15, 2015

Making Torture Illegal—Again

You might have read about the McCain-Feinstein Amendment introduced last week—an attempt to prevent a recrudescence of the torture that began with the Bush/Cheney administration and that was solidified by Obama’s decision to “ban” torture via executive order as a matter of policy rather than prosecute it as a matter of law. Obama’s ban included a requirement that interrogations would henceforth be limited to the techniques specifically enumerated in the Army Field Manual. The AFM limitation was no panacea (and no matter where you stand on McCain-Feinstein, I recommend this terrific contrary view from Jeff Kaye in Firedoglake and this one from David Swanson) but it does seem to have curtailed at least some of the barbarity of the Bush/Cheney years, and the McCain-Feinstein amendment would codify that requirement into a law.

(I’ve said it many times before, but still I want to pause here to note that one president has no more power to prohibit what’s already illegal than another president has to permit it, and Obama purporting to “ban” torture is about as coherent a notion as Obama purporting to ban murder, arson, embezzlement, or rape. The constitution provides that the president “shall take care that the laws be faithfully executed,” and Obama’s failure to do so despite the requirements of the United Nations Convention Against Torture and other laws by which the United States is bound is a violation of that oath.)

Laws that demonstrably will not be enforced are de facto no longer laws (imagine if the government decided to “look forward, not backward” regarding bank robberies, for example), and so the Bush/Obama one-two punch presented a conundrum to anyone opposed to torture: how do you advocate against something that’s already criminal but that the government has insidiously turned into a mere matter of policy? A terrific organization called Human Rights First has adopted a two-prong approach: decrease the political attraction of torture by educating the public about how torture is ineffective, contrary to the values America claims to champion, and detrimental to national security; and re-introduce the possibility of prosecution for torture by helping to pass new laws that would be more difficult for unscrupulous lawyers to turn into mockeries.

I’m proud to have been part of both these efforts, each of which has involved an extraordinary collection of former generals, admirals, CIA case officers, law enforcement officers, and interrogation professionals who between them have hundreds of years of relevant experience. And coinciding with the introduction of the McCain-Feinstein amendment, last week we were in DC meeting with various senators and staff we thought might be amenable to our message.

I confess it was a little surreal and dispiriting at times to realize we were trying to persuade American legislators that torture is a bad idea. I mean, that’s a pretty remedial level of lobbying. What’s next—You know, Senator, it occurs to me the government really shouldn’t conduct syphilis experiments on unsuspecting patients? You’d just think that in 2015, we’d be past that level of inhumanity and could focus on more advanced topics. And yet.

Anyway, I can’t imagine anyone but the most hardened ideologue or cynical politician spending time with this group and coming away still believing that torture is in any way a good idea for America, and my sense is that we might have changed a few minds. There’s something inherently awkward about insisting on believing something based on absolutely no relevant experience when a roomful of people with hundreds of years of experience in that thing is telling you the opposite.

It’s worth pausing to emphasize that point: The world’s most experienced and accomplished intelligence, military, and law enforcement interrogators all agree that torture is ineffective, contrary to the values America claims to champion, and detrimental to our national security. It’s not just that the actual experts don’t need torture to be available; they don’t want it to be available.

Conversely, the people most enthusiastic about torture—Dick and Liz Cheney; Mark Thiessen; John Yoo, to name just a few—have no interrogation experience at all. It’s not a coincidence that these people tend to argue for torture in the form of clichés—take the gloves off, do whatever it takes, get tough on terrorists—because the chief function of a cliché is to provide a comforting substitute for actual thought. But it’s also interesting that the clichés in question tend to focus on tactics rather than objectives, because a focus on tactics rather than results is one of the defining features of an amateur.

Professionals focus on the results they want, and dispassionately select the techniques most likely to achieve those results. Amateurs focus on the techniques they want to use because the techniques themselves are the source of their gratification. So it’s telling that the people who most want to torture aren’t, judging by their own rhetoric, primarily interested in actionable intelligence. They’re primarily interested in torture. And the people most interested in actionable intelligence are the ones least interested in torture.

To put it another way: you don’t have to be Sun Tsu to know that you don’t win a fight by doing what feels best to you; you win by doing what is worst for your enemy.

John Oliver got a lot of this right last night on Last Week Tonight. The 15-minute clip is, as usual with Oliver, both hilarious and far more informative than most mainstream coverage. Its primary shortcoming, I think, is its failure to mention that torture was already illegal on 9/11; that in ordering torture, Bush and Cheney were committing criminal acts; and that in failing to prosecute the officials who ordered torture, Obama has violated his oath of office. A little more discussion of Appendix M of the Army Field Manual would have been great, too, because even if McCain-Feinstein passes, the fight against torture will have to go on.

Amateurs think tactics; professionals think strategy. In this regard, as part of our efforts, former navy general counsel Alberto Mora was part of a panel in which he pointed out that torture was a profoundly tactical decision. Whatever it might have accomplished in any individual instance (and the evidence suggests it accomplished nothing useful at all), it cost us the cooperation of our allies who refused to go along with torture and of local populations who became understandably reluctant to inform lest they deliver up a neighbor into barbarity. It’s worth remembering that Nazi soldiers fled the Soviet advance from the east, hoping to be captured by American forces advancing from the west because of America’s reputation for humane treatment of captives (and the Soviet army’s reputation for brutality). Imagine the intelligence boon we achieved because German soldiers wanted us to capture them. Now imagine if our reputation had instead been for brutality, and those German soldiers had decided they’d best flee in the other direction.

Along these lines, I also spent time with Torin Nelson, a former soldier who has conducted and supervised thousands of interrogations in Afghanistan and Iraq and at Guantanamo. It was sobering to hear him describe how nearly every jihadist he interrogated cited Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo as the causes that impelled them to pick up arms. Former Air Force interrogator Matthew Alexander, also a member of the Human Rights First group, has made similar points, arguing that torture is probably responsible for more Americans killed than 9/11 itself.

If you’re relatively new to this topic, here are a few posts I’ve written over the years addressing the various torture apologist arguments:

It’s interesting to see how the “facts” apologists used to cite have all been overtaken by evidence. And yet the apologists continue to agitate for a return to what Dick Cheney’s “dark side.” I hope the work I was honored to be part of last week will make that prospect more difficult.
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Monday, June 08, 2015

Snowden DoublePlusUngood

Guest blogging today with the Freedom of the Press Foundation, a terrific organization that deserves your support. Why Snowden DoublePlusUngood? Because Orwell predicted all of it. Read on...

It was great to read this Edward Snowden New York Times op-ed—great because the piece is as thoughtful and informative as you’d expect, and even better because it’s an example of Snowden’s continuing ability to raise awareness of the dangers of an unchecked surveillance state. In fact, Snowden has been notably public of late, giving interviews, addressing huge crowds, receiving awards, and otherwise adding to and amplifying the worldwide discussion he catalyzed with his revelations of two years ago (this short video gives an idea of how many people Snowden has been reaching).

It’s interesting to see just how much the US government and its authoritarian backers hate Snowden’s ability to continue to contribute to the mass-surveillance debate. Prosecutors are actually trying to persuade judges to prohibit Snowden’s name being uttered in court (a tactic Snowden’s lawyer, Ben Wizner of the ACLU, aptly tweeted as He Who Must Not Be Named). Former Bush 2 White House Press Secretary and Fox News personality Dana Perino, apparently not realizing her Fox colleagues have themselves been trying to land a Snowden interview, protested that “The New York Times op-ed page gives valuable space to a traitor,” and Council on Foreign Relations war enthusiast Max Boot issued a similar complaint (the Boot piece also stands out as a masterpiece of psychological projection). As Jason Leopold has revealed, various lawmakers begged the Defense Intelligence Agency for classified dirt they could use to discredit Snowden. And the government’s use of the Espionage Act, which whistleblower attorney Jesselyn Radack explains has morphed into a strict liability law that precludes defendants from explaining their actions, is itself a deliberate attempt to silence the voices of Snowden and whistleblowers like him.

Even by the standards of an age where a new mass-surveillance law is named The Freedom Act (admittedly, something of an improvement on its mass-surveillance progenitor, The Patriot Act, but still), there’s a lot of Orwell at work here. Protests about Snowden having a public forum are really complaints about Thoughtcrime. Lawmakers trying to smear Snowden are hoping to turn him into Emmanuel Goldstein. The government’s efforts to prohibit even the utterance of Snowden’s name in court, and its use of the Espionage Act itself, are attempts to render Snowden an unperson.

Of course, the entire “if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear” rubric is itself an internalization of the dangers of Ownlife, aka privacy. Snowden himself...

Read the rest here at Freedom of the Press Foundation.
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Sunday, May 24, 2015

Mitch McConnell is the Real Frank Drebin!

I love when life imitates art. Here's Mitch McConnell bleating about how if NSA bulk surveillance sunsets May 31 as scheduled, The Terrorists will slaughter us all in our beds... and then he says, "Now let's take our weeklong summer recess!"

But remember, Frank Drebin of Police Squad and The Naked Gun got there first -- at the 3:00 minute mark...

You really have to wonder whether these guys are driven more by cynicism or laziness. Either way, at least they're good for a laugh.
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Monday, April 13, 2015

The Cost of Courage

Recently I had the good fortune to receive an advance reading copy of Charles Kaiser’s new book, The Cost of Courage, the story of the Boulloches, a French family living in Paris under Nazi occupation. The book is a knockout on every level: as history; as a wise and insightful meditation on human nature; and most of all, as the gripping true tale of three fascinating siblings who had to make the most difficult decisions under the most dire of circumstances, decisions with lifelong and even generational costs. I cried more times reading it than I care to admit (bad for my brand, I know)—especially at the beautifully resonant last line and the final photograph.

Part of what makes the story so compelling is how long it has remained untold, and how personal it is to the author. It’s not an exaggeration to say that if Kaiser hadn’t met and fallen in love with this remarkable family in 1962—through an uncle, Henry Kaiser, who stayed with the Boulloches as an American army lieutenant stationed in Paris in 1944—the details of what André, Christiane, and Jaqueline Boulloche achieved and suffered as part of the French resistance would never have been known. The siblings were determined not to speak of it, instead silently commemorating their losses with a private ceremony every year at the family plot at Père-lachaise, Paris’s largest and most celebrated cemetery, a ceremony that always included their children and grandchildren but also left the new generation feeling like outsiders, unable to really grasp the mystery of what André, Christiane, and Jaqueline had sacrificed and endured. But Kaisers long presence in the Boullochess lives and in particular his close relationship with Christiane won out, and the result is a Tiresias-like tale, told by someone with the access of an insider and the perspective of an outsider.
I have to add that Kaiser’s publisher, Other Press, has packaged the book beautifully. The cover art, jacket copy, photographs…everything distills, amplifies, and resonates with the story itself. In my experience, publishers tend to get these things wrong more often than they get them right, but when it happens this well, it’s really a pleasure.

I finished the book a week ago, and it’s been on my mind ever since. Sometimes consciously, where I’ll find myself thinking of certain scenes— André, shot by the Gestapo and unable to access his cyanide pill before he’s captured; several heart-stopping narrow escapes; a beautiful moment at the end, where Kaiser…well, you should read it yourself. But other times it’s more just a lingering sense, a presence you feel even if you’re not consciously aware of it. It’s a lovely feeling, and for me, one that only happens with the really great books. This isn’t a long story, yet upon completion it carries the resonance of something epic. I highly recommend it.
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Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Some Thoughts on Self-Defense Training

I’ve written an article for Black Belt Magazine on some of the self-defense and related training I’ve been fortunate enough to have received over the years. The article appears in the April issue, on sale March 31, and if you’re looking for cost-effective ways of being safer in the world, I think the article is a decent place to start getting familiar with some of the great training out there.

The one course that seems to have gotten cut from the article is the Self-Reliance Symposium I did with Cody Lundin. But that one is now online, with links to the websites of the other training I cover. Check it out here and look for the article on news stands at the end of the month.

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Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Why Everyone Should Care About Journalist Barrett Brown's Sentencing Today

Guest blogging today with Freedom of the Press Foundation:

"Journalist Barrett Brown is expected to be sentenced by a judge today in a highly controversial case brought by the Justice Department. The below excerpt is an adapted and updated version of the foreword to Barrett's most recent book, written by author Barry Eisler.

"If you don't believe America has political prisoners, you've never heard of Barrett Brown. Which would be a shame on several fronts, because you'd be missing out on one of America's most fearless and talented reporters, and on an object lesson regarding just how far the government is willing to go to suppress journalism and intimidate journalists.

"I first came across Barrett in a 2009 issue of Vanity Fair, where he had written an article called 'Thomas Friedman's Five Worst Predictions.' The article perfectly showcased what I subsequently learned were the Barrett Brown trademarks: iconoclastic insight; hilarious wit, ranging from the dry to the outrageous; a broad and deep frame of reference; incisive argument; complete fearlessness about offending anyone deserving of offense; an abiding sense of citizenship and patriotism.

"I was wowed by the article—both its substance, and, even rarer among political writers, its style. I sent Barrett an email..."

Read the whole post at Freedom of the Press Foundation.
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