No hero

From today’s FT:

Having violated his secrecy contracts, Mr Snowden has broken serious laws and should face the music. What he disclosed to The Guardian and Washington Post highlights the breadth of the US National Security Agency’s eavesdropping operation. But he did not uncover any breach of US law. Nor do the contents of the leaks invalidate what the NSA is trying to do. There is much scope to tighten its accountability – not least by cutting down on the number of private contractors with access to highly classified information.

Comparisons to Daniel Ellsberg the celebrated leaker of the Pentagon Papers in 1971, are particularly inapt. Mr Ellsberg first approached elected senators in the hope they would publicise the papers to discredit US conduct in the Vietnam war. When that failed, he leaked to the media. Mr Snowden made no such attempt. More importantly, Mr Ellsberg willingly submitted to US authorities and courted prosecution so he could defend his civil disobedience on home soil. It was declared a mistrial and he went free. In contrast, Mr Snowden had fled to Hong Kong before his NSA leaks were published. Hong Kong happens to be a part of the sovereign territory of China, the world’s largest (and most cyber-active) autocracy. Mr Snowden’s current host is Russia. His next stop is likely to be Cuba.

Too much secrecy can lead to the leaking of information. As government secrecy has grown and has come to involve more people, the opportunities to leak from within expand; and with increased leaking, governments attempt to shore up secrecy. This is particularly important because as classifying secrets becomes more layered and complex, so the potential for leaks grows as well. Secrets become vulnerable to betrayal, which in turn promotes greater disrespect for the system itself. Ultimately leaking appears to reward those people whose motivations may be the most dubious – not those interested in a more sustained and consistent approach to promoting greater openness.

The Home Secretary’s foreign policy

Earlier this year the British Home Secretary made an unfamiliar journey to Afghanistan. Theresa May’s visit to Kabul focused on the future of terrorism and counter narcotics. A broad range of scenarios on the future of terrorism were presented and debated but the strategy for managing heroin, Afghanistan’s main export to the UK, was disarmingly ambiguous.

As the British begin to pack up in Afghanistan, some worry that the country will, once again, become a safe haven for international terrorists. Politicians have voiced their concerns about the international implications of a deteriorating security situation while officials wonder how Britain will be able to reduce the 20 tonnes or so of heroin imported annually to the UK.  The Home Secretary’s response to what she was told was brief but to the point: failing to prevent the crisis overseas has major implications for domestic policy.

It is easy to understand why. Globalisation has increasingly blurred the traditional boundaries of domestic and international policy. Take Syria – while the Foreign Secretary criss-crosses continents cajoling governments to take the necessary steps to help end the violence in the country – the Home Secretary faces the prospect of hundreds of Britons who are fighting in Syria returning home battle-hardened. This is a conflict with a potentially nasty sting in its tail for the UK – whether we do something or not.

Successive British Governments have responded to the blurring of domestic and international boundaries by ensuring departments and agencies work closely together at home and abroad. Diplomats in British Embassies have been joined by their colleagues from across Government including the Home Office, Border Agency, Security Service and Serious and Organised Crime Agency. Civil servants who thought they would spend their working lives in Croydon now find themselves operating in Dubai as key players in British diplomacy overseas. There are three reasons for why this trend is set to continue.

The first reason is that tackling threats upstream makes sense. The British Government has pledged to invest in people and resources to enable it to do more overseas. Often this means pursuing terrorists and organised crime groups in ungoverned spaces, where the remit of the host government does not extend outside of the capital city. In order to tackle organised crime in Latin America and West Africa (the latter an increasingly important hub for cocaine and heroin trafficking to Europe) teams must be deployed from land and sea to seize illicit material and arrest criminals – the frontline changes daily and requires a flexible response.

Some of the most complex cyber crime cases involve British police officers operating overseas in cooperation with law enforcement organisations against highly skilled and professional criminals in Russia. Sending more civil servants, intelligence officials and police officers overseas to target individuals may seem an expensive effort but when the internet, for example, is worth £100bn to the British economy, targeting criminals abroad becomes central to ensuring the British public are confident when conducting business online.

Intervention is only part of the answer. The second reason for why the Home Office is looking overseas is to play a supporting role in tackling the drivers of conflict –such as widespread corruption – which is critical to the stability of developing countries. Last month, for example, the Head of Security at Ghana’s international airport was charged in the United States with conspiring to smuggle Afghan heroin to New York. And this is not the first time that a high-profile Ghanaian has been arrested on drug-trafficking charges. A member of the Ghanaian parliament is also serving a jail sentence in for drug trafficking. Such widespread corruption has led to UKAid to fund the British police and SOCA to stop foreign or UK criminals from benefitting from corrupt practices in developing countries. A new taskforce of UK legal and investigative experts is also being developed to help recover stolen assets across the Middle East.

A third reason is arguably the most important. Pursuing individuals overseas, seizing illicit material, and providing resources to combat the drivers of conflict produce short term victories but rarely lead to strategic success. The final piece of our efforts overseas is to ensure governments have the capacity to carry out such tasks for themselves. Building strong, legitimate institutions capable of responding to the myriad of threats and challenges requires a range of skills and expertise and the UK is rightly recognised as a leader in this field. There is logic in using UK police officers, for example, rather than the military to help build a robust, democratic police service in countries like Kosovo. Knowing what governance structures and processes to put in place and sustain them is crucial if such governments are transparent and accountable to the people they serve.

Globalisation has expanded our interests overseas. It has created new opportunities and dangers. In protecting the country from terrorists, organised criminals and illegal immigrants the Home Office now finds itself operating in unfamiliar territories. In an age where borders and boundaries no longer exist and are meaningless to those who wish to harm us, the Home Secretary’s foreign policy priorities matter more than ever.

Not just about a 20 cent bus fare rise

From a protestor on the ground in Brazil:

Brazil is living through a special moment today, it’s true. Some well-applied political programs over the last decade have brought impressive results: economic inequality — a real cancer of which Brazil was practically world champion — has been reduced notably. The Bolsa Família program has had much success to reduce poverty and the investments in higher education for the poor as well as for ethnic minorities have shown encouraging results.

This is not about questioning the things that have worked well. These experiences of the last 10 years under the administration of the PT (Partido dos Trabalhadores, or Workers’ Party) must be protected and expanded if one wants to create a more just society, with less poverty and exploitation from the forces of the past, like the feudal lords from the Sarney family. This is not just about protesting against the government of the PT, against the President Dilma, or against Geraldo Alckmin, Fernando Haddad or Eduardo Paes. This is about freeing the country from its authoritarian, dictatorial, and cruel heritage.

If, at the end of these protests, the political class of Brazil — a class for itself more than any other — and its army of capitalist crétins who enrich themselves not through work but thanks to their personal connections, its journalists who prostitute themselves in the interest of an elite, its policemen who kill without hesitation, if all these oppressors are removed from power and forced to recognize that an era of real democracy has arrived, then I will be very happy to pay 20 cents more for my bus rides.

People power has cracked the walls of tax secrecy – now we have to bring the walls down

end tax dodging

“But our actions are perfectly legal, and what you are calling for is completely unrealistic”, said the slave traders of the early Nineteenth Century. Campaigning by ordinary people defeated them. Fast forward two centuries and the tax dodging debate sees a similar clash.

Less than a year ago campaigners were castigated as dreamers for calling for an end to tax secrecy, tax trickery and the race to the bottom.  Were we being too radical? Have a look at these calls for action made to the G8:

“The trillions hidden in tax havens make urgent action essential. We need to stop the triple looting of poor countries – of their land, of their mineral resources, of the taxes they are due.”

“Remove tax incentives that encourage companies to shift profits around. Avoid tax competition turning into a lose-lose proposition. Identify the real people behind shell companies which facilitate the hiding of tax liabilities. Increase transparency around company ownership to help prosecute evasion, money laundering and terrorist financing.”

Can you guess which radical NGO made them? The first statement was made by the French Government. The second one by the US Government.

In the end, leaders are led, and the power of the people is stronger than the people in power. Can one intergovernmental meeting fix it? No.  But after this year of corporate scandal, popular mobilisation, media controversy, shuttle diplomacy, and leaders’ gatherings, no one representing a major government – no one – now says that campaigners’ ultimate aims are wrong. The power of (extra)ordinary people is winning the debate.

Because some good people stood outside coffee shops, visited their MP, sent emails, signed petitions, came to rallies, organised their faith groups and local communities, told their family and friends; because some good politicians put their populations before the plutocrats, asked tough questions and pushed for tougher laws; because some bold media exposed tax cheating; because brilliant wonks learnt to talk human; and because some absolutely hopeless company bosses helped fuel their own PR disasters …. because of all of these things we now have an unstoppable momentum to stop tax dodging.

People power has cracked the walls of tax secrecy. Now we have to bring the walls down.

The Battle of Jericho

More on the worst corporate scandal you’ve never heard of

A month ago, I posted on the Ranbaxy drug scandal – a shocking tale of systematic fraud by one of the world’s leading manufacturers of generic drugs. After the US regulator had used a whistle blower to bring the company to some kind of justice, I wondered what regulators in other countries were doing to protect themselves from medicines that were being manufactured without any proper safeguard.

Now, thanks to the Telegraph, we have an answer for the UK. And it’s a depressing one, with the regulator repeatedly ignoring emails from  Dinesh Thakur, the executive who had seen at first hand that “lying to regulators and backdating and forgery were commonplace.”

In November 2005, he wrote: “The reason I am writing to you is to alert you that Ranbaxy is defrauding the UK government and the British public and hoping that [you] would be able to do something to stop this crime.”

He also urged the MHRA to contact the FDA’s chief investigator, who he said would be able to verify his claims.

In reply, he was thanked for “bringing this matter to our attention”.

A day later, he warned of “widespread and pervasive wrongdoing at Ranbaxy” and said he could put the MHRA in touch with a former executive at the company who could provide more evidence.

He hoped the MHRA would take action against the company which “has committed so many crimes to make a quick buck”. He wrote: “Given the past experience with this company, I am afraid that they are quite adept at the art of covering up their fraudulent practices and your inspections may or may not provide you with the conclusive evidence you seek.”

In the first half of 2006, Mr Thakur received a reply from an MHRA official that they were “evaluating data supplied to us from other regulators regarding recent inspections … I can assure you that appropriate action will be taken where necessary”.

Mr Thakur made a final attempt to rouse the agency in February 2007. “I wish the MHRA was as vigilant and protective of public health in the UK as the US FDA is in the USA,” he wrote.

As I suggested in my original post, someone should now follow up with the company’s British ex-CEO, Dr Brian Tempest,  now chair of the advisory board of Lancaster University Management School, and too busy to speak to reporters in the superb Fortune story that first exposed this sorry tale.

Posted in UK
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