wsws on pegasus, haiti, south china sea

Macron among those targeted by international Pegasus smartphone spyware operation
Kevin Reed, WSWS, Jul 21 2021

President Emmanuel Macron

The Pegasus Project media consortium published new revelations on Tuesday about the targeting of the smartphones of as many as 50k journalists, business and political figures and dissidents with spyware by governments around the world. According to the WaPo, the list of identified targeted individuals contained fourteen prominent heads of state and governments. Although none of those who were identified offered their phones up for forensic analysis so the infiltration of their devices with the spyware could not be confirmed, the Post report said the list of targeted leaders included “three presidents, 10 prime ministers and a king.” The identities of the fourteen individuals were derived from the list of 50k phone numbers that was leaked to the French media non-profit Forbidden Stories and Amnesty International and then reviewed by the 17 news organizations that comprise the Pegasus Project. The WaPo reported that the three sitting presidents are France’s Emmanuel Macron, Iraq’s Barham Salih and South Africa’s Cyril Ramaphosa. Three former prime ministers are Pakistan’s Imran Khan, Egypt’s Mostafa Madbouly and Morocco’s Saad-Eddine El Othmani. Seven former prime ministers are Yemen’s Ahmed Obeid bin Daghr, Lebanon’s Saad Hariri, Uganda’s Ruhakana Rugunda, France’s Édouard Philippe, Kazakhstan’s Bakitzhan Sagintayev, Algeria’s Noureddine Bedoui and Belgium’s Charles Michel. The one king is Morocco’s Mohammed VI. The Post said the media groups within the Pegasus Project confirmed the ownership of the phone numbers “through public records, journalists’ contact books and queries to government officials or other close associates of the potential targets.”

The revelations about the scope of Pegasus spyware use internationally is resulting in a series of lawsuits and political crises around the world. On Tuesday, for example, the French government demanded an investigation into the report that President Macron was one of the individuals who had been targeted by the hacking operation. French Prime Minister Jean Castex told the National Assembly that the government had ordered investigations. An official Élysée Palace statement said:

If the facts are confirmed, they are clearly very serious. All light will be shed on these press revelations. Certain French victims have already announced that they would take legal action, and therefore judicial inquiries will be launched.

The Pegasus spyware, developed by the cybersecurity firm NSO Group, has been contracted by governments since 2016 to transform smartphones running the latest versions of either iOS or Android operating systems into 24-hour surveillance devices. The initial versions of the software used a technique called “spear-phishing” in which text or email messages are used to get the device owner to click on a malicious link that would then download the spyware onto the phone. Since these methods have become less effective, NSO developed more advanced methods of getting Pegasus onto the smartphones such as “zero-click” attacks that do not require the device owner to do anything for the spyware to be actuated. The zero-click methods exploit flaws in the operating system security to gain entry into a targeted smartphone. The Guardian reported on Sunday, for example, that NSO had been exploiting vulnerabilities in WhatsApp by placing the malicious code directly into the program and infecting a user’s phone as soon as they download it. More recently NSO has been exploiting a weakness in Apple’s iMessage to gain “backdoor access to hundreds of millions of iPhones.” The Guardian also said:

Pegasus can also be installed over a wireless transceiver located near a target, or, according to an NSO brochure, simply manually installed if an agent can steal the target’s phone.

Once a phone has been hacked by Pegasus, the operators of the spyware can harvest any data on the device included phone call records, text messages, address books, calendars, email messages, internet browsing histories, geolocation and map data and also activate the microphone and camera.

NSO Group, named after the first names of its founders Niv Carmi, Shalev Hulio and Omri Lavie who are all ex-members of Unit 8200, the Israeli (Cyber) Intelligence Corps, was founded in 2010 in Tel Aviv. The use of NSO’s software for spying on journalists and political oppositionists was initially exposed in 2012 following the signing of a $20 million contract with the government of Mexico. In 2014, NSO Group was purchased by the American private equity firm Francisco Partners for $130m, and these investors then flipped the cybersecurity company for $1b three years later. By 2018, Amnesty International accused NSO Group of helping the regime of Saudi Arabia to spy on a member of the organization’s staff. It was later alleged that NSO’s Pegasus software played a role in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by the Saudi regime by tracking his whereabouts in the months leading up to his death. In 2019, WhatsApp accused NSO Group of injecting spyware into its system by exploiting the call feature of the software.

NSO Group has denied all along that it is responsible for the ongoing malicious software attacks. When WhatsApp presented evidence of smartphone hacking with NSO’s tools, the company blamed the hacks on its customers. The company has recently stated publicly that it has sold licenses for Pegasus to 40 unnamed countries and continues to maintain that it does not maintain any of the data of its clients or operate the software once it is sold to a country. NSO Group has also maintained that it is technologically impossible for its spyware to be installed on smartphones within the US. According to Slate, the company claims that the Pegasus software will “self-destruct if it finds itself within American borders.” Responding to the absurd statements by NSO Group, Edward Snowden, the whistleblower and former intelligence analyst who exposed a global US government electronic surveillance program, tweeted on Tuesday afternoon:

Earlier in the day, Snowden commented on the revelation that French President Macron was on the target list:

Snowden also denounced the Washington Post for its editorial response to the Pegasus revelations, tweeting:

Washington forces reshuffling of Haitian regime
Bill Van Auken, WSWS, Jul 2021

Police patrol the street around the Primature in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Tuesday, Jul 20 2021.
(Photo: Matias Delacroix/AP)

Haiti’s acting Prime Minister Claude Joseph, who claimed power after the July 7 assassination of President Jovenel Moïse, announced Monday he will surrender power to Washington’s choice, Ariel Henry. Henry had been nominated by Moïse to succeed Joseph, but his installation was interrupted by the early morning raid on Moïse’s private residence in the wealthy Petionville suburb of Port-au-Prince that ended in the death of the president, who was shot 12 times and had his eye gouged out. In the immediate aftermath of the killing, both the United Nations special envoy to Haiti, Helen La Lime, and the US State Department recognized Joseph as Haiti’s head of state, but on Saturday, the so-called Core Group, comprised of the US, France, Canada, Germany, Brazil, Spain, the European Union and representatives from the United Nations and the Organization of American States, pulled the rug out from under him. The Core Group issued a statement Saturday that failed to mention Joseph’s name, while urging the formation of “a consensual and inclusive government,” adding:

To this end, it strongly encourages the designated Prime Minister Ariel Henry to continue the mission entrusted to him to form such a government.

Joseph, Henry and others in Haiti’s ruling kleptocracy of US puppets swiftly responded to their master’s voice. Joseph told the Washington Post that he had agreed on Sunday to step down “for the good of the nation,” adding:

Everyone who knows me knows that I am not interested in this battle, or in any kind of power grab.

In the immediate aftermath of the assassination, Joseph announced that he was in control, declared a nationwide state of siege and called for the US to send in troops. For his part, Henry issued a pre-recorded message to the Haitian people on Sunday, claiming power and congratulating the population for its “political maturity in the face of what we can call a ‘coup d’état.’” Finally, Joseph Lambert, the president of the Haitian Senate, which has ceased to function because all but 10 of its members’ terms expired as Moïse blocked elections, dropped his own claim to be the rightful successor to the president. He openly admitted that he had received phone calls from both the US Embassy in Port-au-Prince and the State Department telling him to “stand down.” In other words, Henry is the hand-picked puppet of Washington. As for the claims that he is forming a “consensual and inclusive government,” he is being installed without the consent of the Haitian people. His claim to office is based upon his appointment by Moïse, who had maintained himself in power in defiance of his constitutional term limit, ruling by decree, having gutted the legislature, local government and the judiciary. Henry has assembled a cabinet that is controlled by operatives of Moïse’s right-wing ruling PHTK, or Bald Head party. Joseph, whom he accused of carrying out a “coup,” retains his post as Haiti’s foreign minister. Incumbents are also remaining in the ministries of finance, justice and health. A French and US-trained neurosurgeon, Henry is a trusted servant of imperialist interests in Haiti. He earned Washington’s confidence serving as vice president of the so-called Council of Wise Men, a body formed by the US and its allies to legitimize the US-backed 2004 coup in which President Jean-Bertrand Aristide was deposed and flown to Africa aboard a US military aircraft, with 1k US Marines invading the country the next day. The council presided over the creation of an unelected government headed by Prime Minister Gérard Latortue, a right-wing talk show host from south Florida, who oversaw a reign of terror against Aristide supporters and ruled with the backing of a UN “peace-keeping” force known as MINUSTAH. This force occupied Haiti for 13 years, quelling unrest in the slums of Port-au-Prince and spreading a cholera epidemic, the first in modern Haitian history, which claimed some 10k lives.

Henry subsequently served as minister of interior in the government of President Michel Martelly, overseeing repression of a series of mass protests against price hikes, corruption and crooked elections. A former singer known as “Sweet Micky,” with close ties to Haitian police, ex-military and former members of the hated Tonton Macoutes, the murderous secret police of the Duvalier dictatorship, Martelly was brought to power in 2011 through fraudulent elections engineered by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Moïse, Martelly’s hand-picked successor, also installed with US backing through fraudulent elections, earned Washington’s loyalty by backing the US campaign for regime change in Venezuela. The bringing to power of the un-elected Ariel Henry is only the latest in the long line of US imperialism’s colonial-style interventions in Haiti, dating back to the 1915 invasion launched by Woodrow Wilson, on the pretext of maintaining order following the country’s last presidential assassination. That invasion was followed by a 30-year occupation and savage repression of popular resistance, the creation of a Haitian army to continue this repression and then the 30-year dictatorship of the Duvaliers, which was supported by Washington until 1986, when the USAF flew “Baby Doc” out of the country to escape a mass popular revolt. The details surrounding the assassination of Moïse, the pretext for the latest political machinations orchestrated by Washington, remain far from clear. While Moïse’s political successors have tried to attribute the killing to Colombian mercenaries, 18 of whom are in custody, with five allegedly still being sought, Haitian authorities have been compelled to arrest five Haitian police officers, including Dimitri Hérard, the chief of Moïse’s security, who had traveled to Colombia at least five times this year. Questions have been raised as to how Moïse’s assassins were able to evade security checkpoints on the road leading up to his villa, and why not a single member of his security detail suffered a scratch in the attack.

The nexus between US imperialist operations and the assassination is also evident. The Pentagon has acknowledged that an undisclosed number of the Colombian mercenaries were US-trained, while one of the Haitian suspects arrested was a principal FBI and DEA “asset” in Haiti. The firms that recruited the Colombian mercenaries and financed the operation are both based in south Florida, while the individual in charge of recruiting the alleged assassins, Antonio Intriago, has been tied to the February 2019 provocation on the Colombia-Venezuela border involving an attempt to force through a fraudulent aid convoy. He has been linked to prominent right-wing US politicians like Florida Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen as well as to Colombian President Iván Duque, Washington’s closest ally in the region. Colombian television news channel Noticias Caracol has reported gaining access to statements made by the Colombian mercenaries arrested in Haiti in which they recounted being brought into the country under diplomatic status and escorted by police special forces units. They also testified that Claude Joseph, who assumed power after the assassination, had given the order for the assassination. They said that they had been assured his protection, and therefore had not had a plan for escaping the country after the killing. While the Biden administration dispatched FBI and Homeland Security personnel to Haiti with the ostensible purpose of aiding in the investigation of the assassination, there is no doubt that Washington will facilitate whatever cover-up is required to consolidate a regime subordinate to US imperialist interests. The US attempts to cobble together a new puppet government have no support whatsoever in the Haitian population. They will only inflame the mounting social anger of masses of workers and poor against the existing social conditions and political setup in the poorest country of the Americas and against the imperialist powers that stand behind them.

Biden administration dismisses China’s claim to South China Sea
John Malvar, WSWS, Jul 20 2021

Sec State Anthony Blinken

On July 11, Blinken issued a provocative statement dismissing China’s claim to the South China Sea. His declaration repeated the positions laid out by Pompeo the year before and demonstrated the fundamental continuity between the Trump and Biden administrations in their war drive against China. Blinken’s statement was timed to coincide with the fifth anniversary of the 2016 ruling of the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) upholding Manila’s claim to portions of the disputed waters. For several years after the arbitral ruling in The Hague, Washington spoke of how it was “binding to all parties,” and attempted to use it to escalate pressure on China. The efforts of the Trump administration in this regard were hampered, however, by the fact that Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte deliberately downplayed the ruling in an attempt to improve diplomatic and economic ties with Beijing. In 2020, Pompeo sharpened tensions immensely by declaring that China’s claims were “completely unlawful,” and “the US rejects any PRC claim to waters beyond a 12-nautical mile territorial sea.” It is this position that Blinken explicitly upheld, declaring:

The US reaffirms its Jul 13 2020 policy regarding maritime claims in the South China Sea. Nowhere is the rules-based maritime order under greater threat than in the South China Sea. Beijing continues to coerce and intimidate Southeast Asian coastal states, threatening freedom of navigation in this critical global throughway. We call upon China to abide by its obligations under international law [and] cease its provocative behavior.

In truth, it is Washington that is destabilizing the region and engaging in provocative behavior. Pompeo and Blinken both insist on “upholding international law,” but the US is not even a signatory to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) treaty that they accuse China of violating. Since the Obama administration, Washington has engaged in a series of deliberate diplomatic and military provocations against China, transforming the South China Sea into a flashpoint for world war. Blinken took another step in that direction, declaring:

We also reaffirm that an armed attack on Philippine armed forces, public vessels, or aircraft in the South China Sea would invoke US mutual defense commitments under Article IV of the 1951 US-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty.

Article IV of the 1951 Treaty states:

Both parties recognize that an armed attack in the Pacific area on either of the parties would be dangerous to its own peace and safety and declares that it would act to meet the common dangers in accordance with its constitutional processes.

The treaty was designed to trigger steps toward war by both countries in the event that one was attacked. In the decade since Obama launched his pivot to Asia, there was widespread speculation in the Philippines as to whether or not this language of mutual obligation applied to the waters of the South China Sea, for the treaty spoke only of the “Pacific area” and of “metropolitan territory.” In a press conference in 2019, Pompeo first explicitly articulated the position that an armed attack on a Philippine vessel in the South China Sea would trigger mutual defense obligations of Article 4. Blinken has now made this position a prominent part of his public statements. Beijing responded to Blinken’s claim that it was the provocative party in the region. Chinese foreign ministry spox Zhao Lijian stated:

The US has conducted close-in reconnaissance for nearly 2k times and over 20 large-scale military drills on the sea targeting China. What’s more, the US abuses bilateral military agreements that smack of the Cold War to threaten to use force on China. It is self-evident who is seeking coercion and intimidation and threatening freedom and security of navigation.

The day after Blinken’s statement was published Washington sent the guided missile destroyer USS Benfold to perform a so-called freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) near the Chinese-held Paracel Islands in the South China Sea. China denounced the maneuver. The spox for the People’s Liberation Army Southern Theater Command, Air Force Col Tian Junli, issued a statement terming the FONOP “another ironclad evidence of the US aggressive navigational hegemony and militarization of the South China Sea.” Blinken’s remarks were also a calculated intervention in Philippine politics. All of the political parties and factions of the ruling elite are maneuvering for the upcoming May 2022 presidential election. Washington’s overriding concern is to reverse the damage done to its influence in the region by the geopolitical shift carried out by the Duterte administration.

At the end of the term of President Benigno Aquino in 2016, the Philippines, a former colony of the US, was serving as the leading proxy for Washington’s interests in the Southeast Asia region. Manila had just won the arbitral ruling in The Hague, putting forward a case that was drawn up and argued by a US law firm with intimate ties to the Obama administration. The Aquino administration had committed to the terms of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) which allowed for the unlimited basing of US forces in the country. Duterte reversed these policies. Looking to secure loans and investment from China, he downplayed the South China Sea ruling, backed out of the most provocative joint war games with the US, and threatened to end the Visiting Forces Agreement on which EDCA was based. The fascistic populist Duterte has presided over five years of mass murder, conducted in the name of a war on drugs. The Philippine constitution limits the president to one six-year term in office, and he thus cannot run for re-election. He has recently announced that he intends to run for vice-president, and it is widely speculated that his primary concern is to maintain state immunity from prosecution by the International Criminal Court (ICC), which has prepared a case against him.

The front-runner for president in current polls is his daughter, the mayor of the southern city of Davao, Sarah Duterte. She is cut from the same cloth as her father: brutal, given to police-state and dictatorial measures, but an effective populist. There is every indication that a Sarah Duterte presidency would see a continuation of her father’s foreign policy. The bourgeois opposition to Duterte share a common interest in reorienting Philippine foreign policy back toward the US. However, they have been unable thus far to unite behind, or even put forward, a viable candidate. The concern is that none of the opposition candidates can rival the appeal of Duterte. The current head of the opposition Liberal Party, Vice President Leni Robredo, was long seen as the default candidate for the opposition. She has hesitated for months over declaring her candidacy, however, and has taken possible steps to running for governor instead. The organizing force for a realignment of Philippine relations back to the US and for an aggressive confrontation with China is the newly formed party 1Sambayan. 1Sambayan was created to select a candidate for the unified opposition and provide them with an anti-China platform. 1Sambayan has received support both from groups that follow the political line of the Stalinist Communist Party of the Philippines and from the far-right Magdalo party.

It is still early in the race and political alignments will shift and new contenders will emerge. At present, however, the leading opponent to Sarah Duterte is Manny Pacquiao, the boxer turned senator. Pacquiao was a close ally of Duterte for several years, supporting his war on drugs and promoting legislation to reintroduce the death penalty by hanging. Pacquiao recently had a very public falling out with the president, however, and is now seen as a possible presidential candidate for the opposition. 1Sambayan promptly announced that they were prepared to back Pacquiao if he would apply for their support. The only apparent component of appealing to 1Sambayan for support is agreeing to its policy on China. None of these figures is a defender of democracy or human rights. The dispute between ruling and opposition circles is bound up entirely with geopolitics. It is this volatile situation that Blinken’s provocative statement is attempting to shape. By dismissing China’s claim to the South China Sea, and asserting that the United States is bound by treaty to the Philippines in the event of an armed conflict with China, he is attempting to steer the Philippine presidential election back behind the interests of Washington.

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