eyes on the U.S.

Dear USA: Might Doesn't Make Right, And Moles Make Miserable Allies

Hard times for American foreign policy, which no longer seems to differentiate between friend and foe. European heads of state who have been spied on don't appreciate that one bit.

Anti-NSA protests in Berlin
Anti-NSA protests in Berlin
Uwe Schmitt

WASHINGTON — Within the space of a few days, U.S. ambassadors in Paris, Mexico City and Berlin have been called into crisis talks, and President Barack Obama has received two angry phone calls from European heads of state.

These are difficult times for American foreign policy, which no longer seems to differentiate between friend and foe. At least, that is the unpleasant impression created by new allegations that the U.S. has been spying on its allies and even their heads of government.

The fact that the whistleblowers — former National Security Agency employee Edward Snowden, who leaked information about phone-tapping, and journalist Glenn Greenwald, who reported it — are being treated as spies only serves to condemn the U.S. government further. This paranoid surveillance of everyone and everything is becoming highly damaging for the country’s international reputation.

The American media’s reaction to the allegations that German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s phone was tapped has been rather muted, but it seems none of the newspapers fails to mention that Merkel grew up in “communist East Germany,” as if her experience of the Stasi made Merkel particularly sensitive to being spied on. But the example of the Stasi shows that mass surveillance no longer leads to valuable information.

It would take an impossibly large commitment of both time and manpower to evaluate such a flood of information. Surely the National Security Agency would be drowning in data if the allegations of tapping 70 million French phone calls in one month turned out to be true? It seems that U.S. columnists are not endowed with a gift for irony. Otherwise they might have reassured their allies by pointing to the ongoing problems with the Obamacare website. “Don’t worry, dear Europeans, our government employees are far too sloppy to do any damage with your data.”

Nurturing mistrust

The American approach seems to be that “anyone who threatens our security must be prepared to accept that we determine how to act.” It is an attitude that claims the law of the strongest (“might makes right”) for the USA, giving it precedence over international organizations like the United Nations. Barack Obama may well have said in September that the United States is not the world police, his words do not match his actions. Of course, the U.S. wants to play world police — as long as it can gain more than it loses.

The shock of 9/11 has thrown a country that was known for its soft power and confident approach into a frenzy of paranoia. No matter their political affiliations, Americans agree that their country has changed significantly. Coolness has been pushed out by anxious defensiveness, and the traditional American welcome has been replaced by mistrust towards students and tourists applying for visas. Everyone agrees that it is a sad situation.

Within the political sphere there is still some distinction: Republicans tend to place national security above all else, even above the constitutions of other democracies, while Democrats show a few more scruples and argue that war is wrong as long as the “war on poverty” in their own country is being lost. But even leftists who are constantly accused of weakness on questions of national security can succumb to paranoia.

Barack Obama won over most Europeans with his charisma and common sense, showing a more modest side of the U.S. He was hastily awarded the Nobel Peace Prize on the strength of a few pretty speeches. Then he intensified drone attacks, failed to close down Guantanamo Bay prison and had his reputation damaged by whistleblowers. Now he has to deal with the spying complaints from European heads of state. While it is unlikely that Obama himself authorized such actions, he must have known the country’s secret surveillance efforts had spiraled out of control. Today Obama can no longer count on sympathy from Europe.

George W. Bush may have been seen as a war-hungry if not particularly clever hawk, but Obama is a wolf in sheep’s clothing: conciliatory, always smiling and intelligent but hard as steel on the inside.

U.S. National Intelligence chief James Clapper described the phone-tapping allegations reported in Le Monde as “misleading and inaccurate.” But to believe such protestations would be as naive as assuming that America’s European allies would not also spy on the U.S. if they had the same advanced technology at their disposal.

Those Americans who recognize that their country is in desperate need of allies to face the complex post-Cold War world are rapidly diminishing. Without the cooperation of the Mexican government, it will be impossible to combat illegal immigration and the drugs and weapons trade. Germany is a valuable friend in Europe and plays a leading role in relations with Russia. Brazil’s sphere of influence is spreading far beyond South America. Barack Obama is too clever to ignore this, and as the U.S. constitution does not allow presidents a third term in office, he does not need to play bad cop in order to win votes.

During Obama’s state visit in June, Angela Merkel joked that she didn’t know of any instance when her phone calls had been tapped. Back then the German chancellor’s words were spoken in jest. Now they leave a bitter taste.

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Air Next: How A Crypto Scam Collapsed On A Single Spelling Mistake

It is today a proven fraud, nailed by the French stock market watchdog: Air Next resorted to a full range of dubious practices to raise money for a blockchain-powered e-commerce app. But the simplest of errors exposed the scam and limited the damage to investors. A cautionary tale for the crypto economy.

Sky is the crypto limit

Laurence Boisseau

PARIS — Air Next promised to use blockchain technology to revolutionize passenger transport. Should we have read something into its name? In fact, the company was talking a lot of hot air from the start. Air Next turned out to be a scam, with a fake website, false identities, fake criminal records, counterfeited bank certificates, aggressive marketing … real crooks. Thirty-five employees recruited over the summer ranked among its victims, not to mention the few investors who put money in the business.

Maud (not her real name) had always dreamed of working in a start-up. In July, she spotted an ad on Linkedin and was interviewed by videoconference — hardly unusual in the era of COVID and teleworking. She was hired very quickly and signed a permanent work contract. She resigned from her old job, happy to get started on a new adventure.

Others like Maud fell for the bait. At least ten senior managers, coming from major airlines, airports, large French and American corporations, a former police officer … all firmly believed in this project. Some quit their jobs to join; some French expats even made their way back to France.

Share capital of one billion 

The story began last February, when Air Next registered with the Paris Commercial Court. The new company stated it was developing an application that would allow the purchase of airline tickets by using cryptocurrency, at unbeatable prices and with an automatic guarantee in case of cancellation or delay, via a "smart contract" system (a computer protocol that facilitates, verifies and oversees the handling of a contract).

The firm declared a share capital of one billion euros, with offices under construction at 50, Avenue des Champs Elysées, and a president, Philippe Vincent ... which was probably a usurped identity.

Last summer, Air Next started recruiting. The company also wanted to raise money to have the assets on hand to allow passenger compensation. It organized a fundraiser using an ICO, or "Initial Coin Offering", via the issuance of digital tokens, transacted in cryptocurrencies through the blockchain.

While nothing obliged him to do so, the company owner went as far as setting up a file with the AMF, France's stock market regulator which oversees this type of transaction. Seeking the market regulator stamp is optional, but when issued, it gives guarantees to those buying tokens.

screenshot of the typo that revealed the Air Next scam

The infamous typo that brought the Air Next scam down

compta online

Raising Initial Coin Offering 

Then, on Sept. 30, the AMF issued an alert, by way of a press release, on the risks of fraud associated with the ICO, as it suspected some documents to be forgeries. A few hours before that, Air Next had just brought forward by several days the date of its tokens pre-sale.

For employees of the new company, it was a brutal wake-up call. They quickly understood that they had been duped, that they'd bet on the proverbial house of cards. On the investor side, the CEO didn't get beyond an initial fundraising of 150,000 euros. He was hoping to raise millions, but despite his failure, he didn't lose confidence. Challenged by one of his employees on Telegram, he admitted that "many documents provided were false", that "an error cost the life of this project."

What was the "error" he was referring to? A typo in the name of the would-be bank backing the startup. A very small one, at the bottom of the page of the false bank certificate, where the name "Edmond de Rothschild" is misspelled "Edemond".

Finding culprits 

Before the AMF's public alert, websites specializing in crypto-assets had already noted certain inconsistencies. The company had declared a share capital of 1 billion euros, which is an enormous amount. Air Next's CEO also boasted about having discovered bitcoin at a time when only a few geeks knew about cryptocurrency.

Employees and investors filed a complaint. Failing to find the general manager, Julien Leclerc — which might also be a fake name — they started looking for other culprits. They believe that if the Paris Commercial Court hadn't registered the company, no one would have been defrauded.

Beyond the handful of victims, this case is a plea for the implementation of more secure procedures, in an increasingly digital world, particularly following the pandemic. The much touted ICO market is itself a victim, and may find it hard to recover.

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