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The Strange Case of Barrett Brown

Amid the outrage over the NSA’s spying program, the jailing of journalist Barrett Brown points to a deeper and very troubling problem.

June 18, 2013
Peter Ludlow

In early 2010, journalist and satirist Barrett Brown was working on a book on political pundits, when the hacktivist collective Anonymous caught his attention. He soon began writing about its activities and potential. In a defense of the group’s anti-censorship operations in Australia published on February 10, Brown declared, “I am now certain that this phenomenon is among the most important and under-reported social developments to have occurred in decades, and that the development in question promises to threaten the institution of the nation-state and perhaps even someday replace it as the world’s most fundamental and relevant method of human organization.”

By then, Brown was already considered by his fans to be the Hunter S. Thompson of his generation. In point of fact he wasn’t like Hunter S. Thompson, but was more of a throwback—a sharp-witted, irreverent journalist and satirist in the mold of Ambrose Bierce or Dorothy Parker. His acid tongue was on display in his co-authored 2007 book, Flock of Dodos: Behind Modern Creationism, Intelligent Design and the Easter Bunny, in which he declared: “This will not be a polite book. Politeness is wasted on the dishonest, who will always take advantage of any well-intended concession.”

But it wasn’t Brown’s acid tongue so much as his love of minutiae (and ability to organize and explain minutiae) that would ultimately land him in trouble. Abandoning his book on pundits in favor of a book on Anonymous, he could not have known that delving into the territory of hackers and leaks would ultimately lead to his facing the prospect of spending the rest of his life in prison. In light of the bombshell revelations published by Glenn Greenwald and Barton Gellman about government and corporate spying, Brown’s case is a good—and underreported—reminder of the considerable risk faced by reporters who report on leaks.

In February 2011, a year after Brown penned his defense of Anonymous, and against the background of its actions during the Arab Spring, Aaron Barr, CEO of the private intelligence company HBGary, claimed to have identified the leadership of the hacktivist collective. (In fact, he only had screen names of a few members). Barr’s boasting provoked a brutal hack of HBGary by a related group called Internet Feds (it would soon change its name to “LulzSec”). Splashy enough to attract the attention of The Colbert Report, the hack defaced and destroyed servers and websites belonging to HBGary. Some 70,000 company e-mails were downloaded and posted online. As a final insult to injury, even the contents of Aaron Barr’s iPad were remotely wiped.

The HBGary hack may have been designed to humiliate the company, but it had the collateral effect of dropping a gold mine of information into Brown’s lap. One of the first things he discovered was a plan to neutralize Glenn Greenwald’s defense of Wikileaks by undermining them both. (“Without the support of people like Glenn, wikileaks would fold,” read one slide.) The plan called for “disinformation,” exploiting strife within the organization and fomenting external rivalries—“creating messages around actions to sabotage or discredit the opposing organization,” as well as a plan to submit fake documents and then call out the error.” Greenwald, it was argued, “if pushed,” would “choose professional preservation over cause.”

Other plans targeted social organizations and advocacy groups. Separate from the plan to target Greenwald and WikiLeaks, HBGary was part of a consortia that submitted a proposal to develop a “persona management” system for the United States Air Force, that would allow one user to control multiple online identities for commenting in social media spaces, thus giving the appearance of grassroots support or opposition to certain policies.

The data dump from the HBGary hack was so vast that no one person could sort through it alone. So Brown decided to crowdsource the effort. He created a wiki page, called it ProjectPM, and invited other investigative journalists to join in. Under Brown’s leadership, the initiative began to slowly untangle a web of connections between the US government, corporations, lobbyists and a shadowy group of private military and information security consultants.

One connection was between Bank of America and the Chamber of Commerce. WikiLeaks had claimed to possess a large cache of documents belonging to Bank of America. Concerned about this, Bank of America approached the United States Department of Justice. The DOJ directed it to the law and lobbying firm Hunton and Williams, which does legal work for Wells Fargo and General Dynamics and also lobbies for Koch Industries, Americans for Affordable Climate Policy, Gas Processors Association, Entergy among many other firms. The DoJ recommended that Bank of America hire Hunton and Williams, explicitly suggesting Richard Wyatt as the person to work with. Wyatt, famously, was the lead attorney in the Chamber of Commerce’s lawsuit against the Yes Men.

In November 2010, Hunton and Williams organized a number of private intelligence, technology development and security contractors—HBGary, plus Palantir Technologies, Berico Technologies and, according to Brown, a secretive corporation with the ominous name Endgame Systems—to form “Team Themis”—‘themis’ being a Greek word meaning “divine law.” Its main objective was to discredit critics of the Chamber of Commerce, like Chamber Watch, using such tactics as creating a “false document, perhaps highlighting periodical financial information,” giving it to a progressive group opposing the Chamber, and then subsequently exposing the document as a fake to “prove that US Chamber Watch cannot be trusted with information and/or tell the truth.” In addition, the group proposed creating a “fake insider persona” to infiltrate Chamber Watch. They would “create two fake insider personas, using one as leverage to discredit the other while confirming the legitimacy of the second.” The leaked e-mails showed that similar disinformation campaigns were being planned against WikiLeaks and Glenn Greenwald.

It was clear to Brown that these were actions of questionable legality, but beyond that, government contractors were attempting to undermine Americans’ free speech—with the apparent blessing of the DOJ. A group of Democratic congressmen asked for an investigation into this arrangement, to no avail.

By June 2011, the plot had thickened further. The FBI had the goods on the leader of LulzSec, one Hector Xavier Monsegur, who went under the nom de guerre Sabu. The FBI arrested him on June 7, 2011, and (according to court documents) turned him into an informant the following day. Just three days before his arrest, Sabu had been central to the formation of a new group called AntiSec, which comprised his former LulzSec crew members, as well as members as Anonymous. In early December AntiSec hacked the website of a private security company called Stratfor Global Intelligence. On Christmas Eve, it released a trove of some 5 million internal company e-mails. AntiSec member and Chicago activist Jeremy Hammond has pled guilty to the attack and is currently facing ten years in prison for it.

The contents of the Stratfor leak were even more outrageous than those of the HBGary hack. They included discussion of opportunities for renditions and assassinations. For example, in one video, Statfor’s vice president of intelligence, Fred Burton, suggested taking advantage of the chaos in Libya to render Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, who had been released from prison on compassionate grounds due to his terminal illness. Burton said that the case “was personal.” When someone pointed out in an e-mail that such a move would almost certainly be illegal—“This man has already been tried, found guilty, sentenced…and served time”—another Stratfor employee responded that this was just an argument for a more efficient solution: “One more reason to just bugzap him with a hellfire. :-)”

(Stratfor employees also seemed to take a keen interest in Jeremy Scahill’s writings about Blackwater in The Nation, copying and circulating entire articles, with comments suggesting a principle interest was in the question of whether Blackwater was setting up a competing intelligence operation. E-mails also showed grudging respect for Scahill: “Like or dislike Scahill’s position (or what comes of his work), he does an amazing job outing [Blackwater].”)

When the contents of the Stratfor leak became available, Brown decided to put ProjectPM on it. A link to the Stratfor dump appeared in an Anonymous chat channel; Brown copied it and pasted it into the private chat channel for ProjectPM, bringing the dump to the attention of the editors.

Brown began looking into Endgame Systems, an information security firm that seemed particularly concerned about staying in the shadows. “Please let HBGary know we don’t ever want to see our name in a press release,” one leaked e-mail read. One of its products, available for a $2.5 million annual subscription, gave customers access to “zero-day exploits”—security vulnerabilities unknown to software companies—for computer systems all over the world. Business Week published a story on Endgame in 2011, reporting that “Endgame executives will bring up maps of airports, parliament buildings, and corporate offices. The executives then create a list of the computers running inside the facilities, including what software the computers run, and a menu of attacks that could work against those particular systems.” For Brown, this raised the question of whether Endgame was selling these exploits to foreign actors and whether they would be used against computer systems in the United States. Shortly thereafter, the hammer came down.

The FBI acquired a warrant for Brown’s laptop, gaining the authority to seize any information related to HBGary, Endgame Systems, Anonymous and, most ominously, “email, email contacts, ‘chat’, instant messaging logs, photographs, and correspondence.” In other words, the FBI wanted his sources.

When the FBI went to serve Brown, he was at his mother’s house. Agents returned with a warrant to search his mother’s house, retrieving his laptop. To turn up the heat on Brown, the FBI initiated charges against his mother for obstruction of justice for concealing his laptop computer in her house. (Facing criminal charges, on March 22, 2013, his mother, Karen McCutchin, pled guilty to one count of obstructing the execution of a search warrant. She faces up to twelve months in jail. Brown maintains that she did not know the laptop was in her home.)

By his own admission, the FBI’s targeting of his mother made Brown snap. In September 2012, he uploaded an incoherent YouTube video, in which he explained that he had been in treatment for an addiction to heroin, taking the medication Suboxone, but had gone off his meds and now was in withdrawal. He threatened the FBI agent that was harassing his mother, by name, warning:

I know what’s legal, I know what’s been done to me.… And if it’s legal when it’s done to me, it’s going to be legal when it’s done to FBI Agent Robert Smith—who is a criminal.”

That’s why [FBI special agent] Robert Smith’s life is over. And when I say his life is over, I’m not saying I’m going to kill him, but I am going to ruin his life and look into his fucking kids…. How do you like them apples?”

The media narrative was immediately derailed. No longer would this be a story about the secretive information-military-industrial complex; now it was the sordid tale of a crazy drug addict threatening an FBI agent and his (grown) children. Actual death threats against agents are often punishable by a few years in jail. But Brown’s actions made it easier for the FBI to sell some other pretext to put him away for life.

The Stratfor data included a number of unencrypted credit card numbers and validation codes. On this basis, the DOJ accused Brown of credit card fraud for having shared that link with the editorial board of ProjectPM. Specifically, the FBI charged him with traffic in stolen authentication features, access device fraud and aggravated identity theft, as well as an obstruction of justice charge (for being at his mother’s when the initial warrant was served) and charges stemming from his threats against the FBI agent. All told, Brown is looking at century of jail time: 105 years in federal prison if served sequentially. He has been denied bail.

Considering that the person who carried out the actual Stratfor hack had several priors and is facing a maximum of ten years, the inescapable conclusion is that the problem is not with the hack itself but with Brown’s journalism. As Glenn Greenwald remarked inThe Guardian: “It is virtually impossible to conclude that the obscenely excessive prosecution he now faces is unrelated to that journalism and his related activism.”

Today, Brown is in prison and ProjectPM is under increased scrutiny by the DOJ, even as its work has ground to a halt. In March, the DOJ served the domain hosting service CloudFlare with a subpoena for all records on the ProjectPM website, and in particular asked for the IP addresses of everyone who had accessed and contributed to ProjectPM, describing it as a “forum” through which Brown and others would “engage in, encourage, or facilitate the commission of criminal conduct online.” The message was clear: Anyone else who looks into this matter does so at their grave peril.

Some journalists are now understandably afraid to go near the Stratfor files. The broader implications of this go beyond Brown; one might think that what we are looking at is Cointelpro 2.0—an outsourced surveillance state—but in fact it’s worse. One can’t help but infer that the US Department of Justice has become just another security contractor, working alongside the HBGarys and Stratfors on behalf of corporate bidders, with no sense at all for the justness of their actions; they are working to protect corporations and private security contractors and give them license to engage in disinformation campaigns against ordinary citizens and their advocacy groups. The mere fact that the FBI’s senior cybersecurity advisor has recently moved to Hunton and Williams shows just how incestuous this relationship has become. Meanwhile, the Department of Justice is also using its power and force to trample on the rights of citizens like Barrett Brown who are trying to shed light on these nefarious relationships. In order to neutralize those who question or investigate the system, laws are being reinterpreted or extended or otherwise misappropriated in ways that are laughable—or would be if the consequences weren’t so dire.

While the media and much of the world have been understandably outraged by the revelation of the NSA’s spying programs, Barrett Brown’s work was pointing to a much deeper problem. It isn’t the sort of problem that can be fixed by trying to tweak a few laws or by removing a few prosecutors. The problem is not with bad laws or bad prosecutors. What the case of Barrett Brown has exposed is that we confronting a different problem altogether. It is a systemic problem. It is the failure of the rule of law.

Journalist Michael Hastings, 33, died in a car crash yesterday. Read Greg Mitchell’s obituary here.

Peter Ludlow

June 18, 2013

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NGO crackdown: Gagging democracy or national self-defense?

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Egypt has denied licenses to eight US-based non-profit groups, saying they violated the country’s sovereignty. Many states are concerned that foreign government-backed NGOs are really agents for their sponsors, rather than independent action groups.

­Among the organizations banned from continuing their work in Egypt are the Carter Center for Human Rights, set up by former US President Jimmy Carter, Christian group The Coptic Orphans, Seeds of Peace and other groups.

Egyptian authorities warned that if the NGOs try to work without a license, Cairo would “take relevant measures”.

Local media speculate that the rejection may be temporary, and licenses could be granted later, after the presidential election due on May 23 and 24.

Monday’s move revives a crackdown by the Egyptian authorities on foreign-funded NGOs, which recently provoked a serious diplomatic row with long-term ally US. In late December 2011, security forces raided offices of a number of groups suspected of receiving money in violation of Egyptian legislation.

In February, prosecutors charged 43 people with instilling dissent and meddling in domestic policies following last year’s mass protests, which resulted in the ousting of President Hosni Mubarak. Among them were citizens of the US, Germany, Serbia, Norway and Jordan.

In March, an Egyptian court revoked the travel ban for 17 indicted Americans following Washington’s threat to withdraw $1.3 billion annual military aid to Cairo. The decision provoked a wave criticism of the ruling military council in Egypt. Many activists accused them of betraying national interests under American pressure.

But shortly after the suspected Americans left the country, Cairo’s prosecutors decided to target more people allegedly involved in the case, who were not in Egypt when the charges against their colleagues were made. Egypt asked Interpol to issue “red notices” for 15 NGO workers, including 12 Americans, two Lebanese and a Jordanian.

On Monday, Interpol’s French headquarters announced that the Egyptian request had been turned down, because it contradicted rules that strictly forbid the organization “to undertake any intervention or activities of a political, military, religious or racial character.”

Not so non-government

There may be a good reason why national governments in troubled countries mistrust US-funded NGOs. For instance, NATO’s intervention in Libya was partially justified by exaggerated reports of human rights organizations alleging that Muammar Gaddafi’s forces committed crimes against humanity and breached international law in other ways, reports RT’s Maria Portnaya. After the war some of them admitted to giving ungrounded reports.

Powerful NGOs like Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International are supposed to be objective monitors and not take sides, but in reality they “enter into an excessively cozy relationship with for example the United States government, but also other powerful Western allies, over Libya and over other issues,” John Laughland from the Institute of Democracy and Cooperation told RT.

This is what happened in Libya and is now happening in Syria, he added.

“The equivalent, if you like, of the Libyan League of Human Rights, which is called the Damascus Centre for Human Rights, has played exactly the same role. They’ve alleged crimes against humanity. They’ve called for safe havens, and armed intervention in that country. And they are quite clear political lobbyists, who are trying to secure a military intervention against Syria along the lines of the one approved last year against Libya,”
Laughland explained.

Another example is the group behind the Kony 2012 initiative. The California-based NGO Invisible Children is calling to stop the use of child soldiers and is promoting peace in the Ugandan civil war. But the same organization provided Uganda’s authorities with intelligence that led to the arrest of several regime opponents, as a US embassy cable published by WikiLeaks revealed.

“I’m willing to believe that was not the one time that Invisible Children provided information to the Ugandan authorities. What else do we not know, in terms of their relations with the Ugandan Government?” asks Milton Allimadi, Editor-in-chief of the Black Star News.

The viral video calling on a campaign to stop Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army appeared just months after President Obama decided to send 100 US military advisors to the region to help local governments remove Kony “from the battlefield”. Some human rights organizations criticized the move, saying among those receiving American aid is South Sudan’s People’s Liberation Army, which is known to exploit child soldiers just like Kony does.

NGOs are not currently held accountable for the information they publish, no matter how much collateral damage false facts may cause. Critics say some of those organizations actually pave the way for conflict rather than advocating peaceful solutions.

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Leaked: Bin Laden not buried at sea, body moved on CIA plane to US

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Osama bin Laden (Reuters / Stringer)

The body of Al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden was not buried at sea, according to leaked emails of intelligence firm Stratfor, as revealed by WikiLeaks.

Stratfor’s vice-president for intelligence, Fred Burton, believes the body was “bound for Dover, [Delaware] on [a] CIA plane” and then “onward to the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology in Bethesda [Maryland],” an email says.

The official version is that the body of Al-Qaeda’s top man, who was killed by a US raid in Pakistan on May 2, 2011, was buried at an undisclosed location at sea in a proper Muslim ceremony.

“If body dumped at sea, which I doubt, the touch is very Adolph Eichman like. The Tribe did the same thing with the Nazi’s ashes,” Burton commented in another email. Eichman was one of the masterminds of the Holocaust by Nazi Germany. He was captured by Mossad agents in Argentina and, tried in Israel, found guilty and executed in 1962. His body was cremated and his ashes were scattered at sea over the Mediterranean.

“Eichmann was seen alive for many months on trial before being sentenced to death and executed. No one wanted a monument to him so they cremated him. But i dont know anyone who claimed he wasnt eicjhman [sic]. No comparison with suddenly burying him at sea without any chance to view him which i doubt happened [sic],” Stratfor CEO George Friedman replied.

“The US Govt needs to make body pics available like the MX’s do, with OBL’s pants pulled down, to shout down the lunatics like Alex Jones and Glenn Beck,” Burton says in another message.

In another missive Burton says Osama’s body “is a crime scene and I don’t see the FBI nor DOJ letting that happen.”

WikiLeaks began publishing Stratfor emails in late February. The archive was obtained by the hacker group Anonymous, which successfully attacked one of the firm’s servers. More than 5 million emails were apparently stolen.

Stratfor is a US-based intelligence firm called the “shadow CIA” by some media. Among its clients are several US agencies and many big companies. The company relies on paid tips from informants placed in high circles of business, government and security all around the world.

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Swiss come into US sights again over Iran

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Despite sanctions against Iran, there is one clandestine route that remains open for business: a short sea corridor connecting Oman with Iran (Keystone)

by Jean-Michel Berthoud, swissinfo.ch


The United States authorities have long been at odds with some Swiss banks, but could soon be turning their sights on Swiss-based commodity traders.

At issue are new economic sanctions against Iran passed by the US Congress at the end of last year, and which come into force on July 1.

Both the European Union and the US have imposed sanctions because they believe Iran is developing nuclear weapons. Iran says its nuclear progamme is for peaceful purposes only.
Switzerland has been unhappy about sanctions against Iran in the past, chiefly because it has represented US interests in Iran for over 30 years. It has also tried to mediate unofficially in the dispute over Iran’s controversial nuclear programme.

A year ago Switzerland stepped up its economic sanctions against Iran to bring them into line with those of the EU and the US, but only after coming under prolonged international pressure.

Now Switzerland finds itself being pushed into a corner once again. On January 23 the EU announced that it would step up its measures against Iran in the middle of 2012.

And on February 6 Barack Obama ratcheted up US sanctions yet further. He ordered an embargo on property and assets belonging to the Iranian government and to the Iranian central bank in the US. All Iranian financial institutions are also affected.

Switzerland stopped importing oil from Iran in 2006. According to the State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (Seco), in 2010 its imports of other items were worth only €27.4 million (SFr33 million). But its exports – mainly pharmaceuticals and machinery – were worth rather more: €562.6 million in 2010.

Tight-lipped Swiss

According to documents published by WikiLeaks, representatives of the US embassy in Bern have called on Seco to prevent the export of what are described as sensitive goods to Iran several times in the past few years. In most cases it seems that Seco immediately complied.

Seco deputy spokeswoman Marie Avet, could not confirm the truth of these leaks to swissinfo.ch, nor comment on them.
Christa Markwalder, a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the House of Representatives, reminded swissinfo.ch that the documents released by WikiLeaks were written for internal use by the US administration.

“I would not overrate Wikileaks,” she said. “After all, Switzerland is a sovereign state with its own foreign policy. We are also the protecting power for the US in Iran, which means we are of particular interest to the US as far as Iran is concerned.”

According to the respected German-language Neue Zürcher Zeitung newspaper, David S. Cohen, the US Treasury’s under-secretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, visited Bern at the beginning of February for talks with various members of the Swiss administration, including Seco. Cohen is responsible for the implementation of sanctions against Iran.

“No comment,” said Avet.

US embassy

However, Alexander N. Daniels, public affairs officer at the US embassy in Bern, was more forthcoming. He confirmed to swissinfo.ch that Cohen had been in Bern to explain the new US measures to the foreign ministry and Seco.

They include a boycott of Iran’s central bank, which has often acted recently as a financial intermediary for oil deals, and which is also thought to finance a large proportion of the imports for the Iranian nuclear programme.

Daniels added that Cohen had had similar talks in Britain and Germany.

Five giants

Although Switzerland no longer imports Iranian oil, about one third of the world’s oil deals are thought to be brokered by five Swiss-based commodity-trading giants – Glencore, Gunvor, Vitol, Trafigura and Mercuria.

Avet assured swissinfo.ch that the commodity traders would follow the sanctions in business involving the US.

She said the same question had arisen over the EU sanctions. But there the problem is that the EU has only issued a decision, and it is not yet clear how the measures are to be implemented in practice.

“So at the moment we cannot give you any more information,” she told swissinfo.ch. “But clearly, in trading and doing business with countries which have introduced these sanctions, we shall keep to them.”

Markwalder pointed out that Switzerland is a major trading centre for raw materials, in particular oil products, and some large companies were deeply involved. But she added that it is not clear to what extent they would be affected as far as oil products from Iran are concerned, if at all.

“It would actually be in the interest of these firms to obey the sanctions. Since these businesses are involved in trade all over the world, they have no interest in losing market access, licences and so on in the US.”

Swiss response

The Swiss government is to consult about how it should react to the strengthened EU and US measures. It will take its decision on the basis of an assessment by Seco.

Markwalder said the foreign affairs committee would also be discussing the matter.

“Switzerland would need some very good arguments if it were to break ranks with the western states – that’s to say, the EU and US,” she said.

“It’s true that we play a rather special role as a protecting power in Iran, but we still cannot afford to stand aside and provide a platform for sanctions busting.”

Jean-Michel Berthoud, swissinfo.ch
(Translated from German by Julia Slater)

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Why is the west funding Iran’s deadly war on drugs?

Iran‘s counter-narcotics programme results in hundreds of executions each year, yet western powers still support it

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An ogre floats behind 30 tonnes of narcotics, as they are burned in Tehran on World Anti-Drug Day. Photograph: Vahid Salemi/AP

Fazel Hawramy
guardian.co.uk, Tuesday 6 December 2011 04.09 E

Representatives of more that 50 countries will meet in Vienna shortly to determine the level of international support that Iran receives for its continuing war on drugs.

This comes amid concern about the increasing number of executions for drug-related offences in Iran. Six more people were recently hanged in the city of Kermanshah – executions that a senior figure in the judiciary described as “one of the triumphs of Iran”.

As part of the counter-narcotics programme, Iran receives a constant flow of technical support from the UK, the US and other western governments, either directly or through the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

Last month, Yury Fedotov, head of the UNODC, said he would “encourage the international community to bolster counter-narcotics” efforts in Iran, Afghanistan and neighboring countries. However, he made no mention of the consequences of supporting the current Iranian government in this way.

The UNODC started its work in Iran in 1998 – one year after the reformist president Muhammad Khatami came to power on a platform of respect for civil society and the rule of law. It played a crucial role in supporting Iran’s health ministry from 2002 to 2005 to implement a “harm reduction” programme to tackle rising rates of drug addiction and HIV.

But progress was reversed when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad became president in 2005. One of his first acts was to appoint a new interior minister: Mostafa Pourmohammadi, an infamous cleric who had ordered and supervised the execution of several thousand political prisoners in 1988.

Ahmadinejad’s brother-in-law, Esmail Ahmadi-Moghaddam (the former head of the Basij paramilitary force, and now head of the national police), was put in charge of the technical assistance received by the UNODC. Senior health ministry officials were sacked and many medical professionals, including the world-renowned Alaie brothers, were imprisoned.

Others, like Dr Bijan Nassirimanesh, the founder of the Persepolis NGO clinic, were forced out of Iran. Academics were banned from participating in international conferences and clinics dealing with drug users at a grassroots level have either closed down or had their activities dramatically reduced.

Ahmadinejad also tried to change the nature of Iran’s relationship with the UNODC. According to Roberto Arbitrio, a former UNODC field representative in Tehran, Iran made a request in July 2006 to the UNODC for equipment worth $500m, which was “riddled with requests for dual-use items”.

It is not clear if Iran received any of these items but a confidential cable released by WikiLeaks appears to show that the head of Iran’s drug control department blackmailed the UNODC’s representative by suggesting that if the agency did not meet the wishes of Iran, the Islamic republic might “reconsider the scope of its own efforts against the traffickers”.

The UNODC and the EU, UK and US seem to have missed the changes Ahmadinejad has made as they have continued to provide invaluable support for its counter-narcotics programme.

Two years into Ahmadinejad’s presidency, the UNODC brokered a new deal through the Paris Pact to launch the Triangular Initiative – a programme of support for Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan in reducing the flow of drugs to the west. As a result, Iran has managed to bypass the sanctions imposed by the UN, the EU and the US to receive body scanners, drug detecting kits, drug catalysts, sniffer dogs, vehicles, night-vision devices and radio communication equipment. It cannot be ruled out that some of this equipment was used by the police to crush the pro-democracy demonstrations in 2009.

In 2010, the British Foreign Office stated in a report that “for … drug-related and political cases, reliable reports continued to emerge of forced confessions, staged trials and a lack of access to independent legal counsel”. Despite this, just a few months later, the foreign secretary, William Hague, met Iran’s foreign minister and sought “deeper co-operation” between the two countries on counter-narcotics.

This illustrates the systemic contradictions at the heart of the west’s approach in dealing with Iran and the wider “global war on drugs”. When the head of the UNODC visited Iran in July, he concluded his trip by praising Iran’s counter-narcotics strategy as “one of the world’s strongest” and called on the international community to assist Iran in its fight. While he was visiting, several more people were executed on drugs charges.

The European parliament has warned against the funding of counter-narcotic programmes that “result in human rights violations, including the application of the death penalty”. Given that funding to Iran has increased in recent years, it would seem that in our pursuit to stop the flow of drugs into Europe, these concerns are being overlooked.

If the west is serious about supporting reform in Iran, it must rethink whether it’s right for taxpayers to continue funding a programme that leads to the execution of hundreds of people every year.

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