Remarks on Recent Obama Administration Policies: Syria, Encryption, and the TPP

The Obama administration has announced that it will cease its efforts of continuing to assemble and train a fighting force of Syrian rebels after the public embarrassment of General Lloyd Austin admitting that at the time of his testimony in committee there were only a handful of fighters on the ground, and will instead use those funds to arm those opposition forces they have already identified. In other words, the Obama administration has decided that (publicly at least, covert CIA training operations might continue, they are not addressed in White House statements) the Pentagon will no longer train and arm rebel forces, it will just arm them. Those rebel leaders who are currently in training camps to learn how to call in U.S. airstrikes will finish that training.

The U.S. is arming rebel forces in a civil war that has resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Syrians. Ceasing the training of rebel forces is not de-escalation; it is further entrenchment. After the few dozen rebels trained to call in air strikes are killed or defect, will the U.S. stop relying on these eyes on the ground for tactical information, or will they come to rely on sighters who haven’t been properly trained in making such judgments? Will we experience more of the atrocities seen in Kunduz? Where Afghan forces called in U.S. airstrikes against the Taliban that purposely, it seems clear, targeted a hospital in a clear violation of Geneva Conventions and killed at least twenty people. When journalists on the ground are wondering how “moderate” these U.S. backed rebel forces really are, can we feel confident that such reckless disregard for life will not be shown by even those rebels who are now finishing their training? De-escalation is needed, but ceasing training is not de-escalation. As Sabah Alnasseri notes, the civil war in Syria is a political problem of legitimacy, and not a power struggle that can be resolved militarily.


The Obama administration came out in favor of encryption, rightly recognizing that creating a back-door for law enforcement also creates an entryway for hackers into otherwise secure data. Emails, texts and other sensitive data are encrypted when they are sent so that only the person who is meant to receive it can open it, using a kind of decryption key. While the content of unencrypted emails and texts can be vacuumed up as they travel the fiber-optic cables that are the bedrock of the internet, the content of encrypted emails cannot be absorbed in this way. Encryption thus helps keep the content of emails private while they are encrypted.

Of course, before they are encrypted, and after they are received and decrypted they are readable, giving surveillance agencies workarounds to read our emails and texts. They can plant malware on popular websites that allows the real time viewing of device usage, as well as control of the device. They can use information gained from such malware to hack into telecom companies’ servers and steal encryption keys to decrypt emails and texts. They can create encryption vulnerabilities through targeted planting of malware in automatic software updates. They can use an automated hacking system that targets large numbers of people at a time by managing the applications and functions of implanted malware to get the most information possible from that selected group. So the Obama administration might grant us our encryption, but we will still be spied on. Hopefully, having to hack for emails and texts rather than just vacuuming them up will slow surveillance down to the point that our watchers might as well get a warrant and, oh I don’t know, conduct constitutional searches of our private communications and data.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership
Today President Obama, in his weekly address talked about the Trans-Pacific Partnership. He reiterated his standard argument that most of the world’s consumers live outside the U.S. so we need the TPP to lower tariffs so we can sell them more of our exports. Of course, tariffs between the countries who have come together for the TPP are already very low due to many of the individual nations having individual trade agreements with each other. The benefit to working people in the U.S. on this point is actually then quite dubitable. Today, with Wikileaks releasing a secret chapter on intellectual property rights in the TPP, we again see that this trade deal is to protect capital accumulation by multi-national corporations and financial firms. Under the agreement, if legal proceedings would risk disclosing information that would be detrimental to economic interests, international relations or national security, curtailment of those legal proceedings would be in order. As The Guardian puts it, the TPP gives corporations “greater power to stop embarrassing information going public.  The treaty would give signatories the ability to curtail legal proceedings if the theft of information is ‘detrimental to a party’s economic interests, international relations, or national defense or national security’ – in other words, presumably, if a trial would cause the information to spread”. They are strange times when it appears that multinational corporations have greater privacy rights than human beings.


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