Inconvenient News,
       by smintheus

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

  Who's to blame that Maliki can't govern?

The secret November 8 memo by National Security advisor Stephen Hadley, just published by the NY Times, tries to identify a plan under which the Bush administration can work with Nouri al-Maliki to establish some kind of order in Iraq. Hadley identifies three basic problems from which all the others arise: (a) We can't fully trust Maliki's intentions; (b) Maliki favors Shia power and is distrusted by Sunnis; (c) Maliki's own base of political support is so small that he is a hostage to Sadr's coalition of Shia radicals.

Dating from the day after the election, the memo reveals a welcome new seriousness of purpose and relative candor about the scope of the problems we face in Iraq. But it begs some obvious questions:

Why weren't these problems addressed long ago? And who's to blame that such an inappropriate candidate became Prime Minister in the first place?

The answer to both questions, of course, is George Bush.

It was abundantly clear the moment that Maliki's name was floated as the favored "compromise" candidate that he was likely to turn out a disaster. I had never heard of the man, which seemed a little odd in itself, so that evening of April 21st I did perhaps two hours of research on the man's career and on that basis posted a commentary predicting Maliki would be disastrous ("Abrasive and inflexible" is better than nothing). It was really that easy to see, from what little information that was publicly available, that Maliki was a terrible choice to lead Iraq out of the chaos.

Unmitigated good news. Except that there are one or two small doubts nagging at me. There is the odd fact that until quite recently the Sunnis and Kurds both regarded al-Maliki (his real name is Nouri Kamel) as an extremist Shiite.

Just one day ago, Sunni Arab leaders and Kurdish officials had expressed a preference for the other Shiite politician who had been considered a strong candidate for nomination as prime minister, Ali al-Adeeb. They had described Mr. Maliki as too sectarian and inflexible to win wide support among other political groups.

Another description of al-Maliki caught my eye as well, in the NYT sidebar: "Some rival coalitions see him as abrasive and inflexible." Those qualities must be a great advantage in certain government positions, I have no doubt. Yet I do have to wonder whether they are quite the right qualifications for a prime minister. Given that the country is riven by sectarian divisions, his selection may have been a tad too hasty.

There's also the fact that al-Maliki was an exile for 23 years, who returned only after the invasion. That almost guarantees that personally he does not have a broad base of support in Iraq. In fact, until today he was also virtually unknown outside Iraq as well.

I went on to explain that the reason a "compromise" candidate had been sought for so long was that the Bush administration objected to allowing the current Prime Minister, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, to continue in that position. Jaafari had given indications that he might just renew his call for the U.S. to withdraw its troops from Iraq, which Bush was intent on blocking.

You see, the identity of the new Prime Minister was our choice to make, or at least to exercise a veto over.

So who was fool enough to settle upon a man such as Maliki, an obscure operative who had so little political support in Iraq that he would almost inevitably turn out to be a puppet of whomever he owed his selection to?

The collapse of Iraq under Maliki is the predictable consequence of his appointment, and George Bush bears primary responsibility for it. Here is how Hadley assesses the core problem:

The above approach may prove difficult to execute even if Maliki has the right intentions. He may simply not have the political or security capabilities to take such steps, which risk alienating his narrow Sadrist political base and require a greater number of more reliable forces. Pushing Maliki to take these steps without augmenting his capabilities could force him to failure — if the Parliament removes him from office with a majority vote or if action against the Mahdi militia (JAM) causes elements of the Iraqi Security Forces to fracture and leads to major Shia disturbances in southern Iraq. We must also be mindful of Maliki’s personal history as a figure in the Dawa Party — an underground conspiratorial movement — during Saddam’s rule. Maliki and those around him are naturally inclined to distrust new actors, and it may take strong assurances from the United States ultimately to convince him to expand his circle of advisers or take action against the interests of his own Shia coalition and for the benefit of Iraq as a whole.

If it is Maliki’s assessment that he does not have the capability — politically or militarily — to take the steps outlined above, we will need to work with him to augment his capabilities. We could do so in two ways. First, we could help him form a new political base among moderate politicians from Sunni, Shia, Kurdish and other communities. Ideally, this base would constitute a new parliamentary bloc that would free Maliki from his current narrow reliance on Shia actors. (This bloc would not require a new election, but would rather involve a realignment of political actors within the Parliament). In its creation, Maliki would need to be willing to risk alienating some of his Shia political base and may need to get the approval of Ayatollah Sistani for actions that could split the Shia politically. Second, we need to provide Maliki with additional forces of some kind.

Well if pie was going to meet sky at all in Iraq, why were the two of them not introduced to each other back in April before Maliki was hand-picked to replace Jaafari? Why did it require a disastrous defeat in the Nov. 7 election for this administration to consider the problems inherent in imposing a political outsider—even worse, a recently returned exile—upon a badly fractured country?

Already by April, when this foolish choice was made, the emerging Iraqi government had become a patchwork of fiefdoms centered upon dozens of ministries, each with its own "defense" forces, handed out to powerful, warring political factions as the spoils of victory in the election. In such circumstances, a prime minister without his own substantial base of support would barely be able to hang onto his office much less bring the entire country under his sway. He would be a titular head of state, much like the early medieval kings of Europe who clung to their own domains mainly by staying in the good graces of their own barons, each having his own powerful army.

But George Bush did not have to understand anything about how feudal societies function in order to see that Maliki was going to become increasingly marginalized. All he needed to do was look at our recent past. In Vietnam in the 1960s, too, we interfered repeatedly by helping to remove or install presidents, seeking a reliable puppet. In the end, after the American-backed coup against President Diem in 1963—because he appeared to be willing to compromise with North Vietnam—we ended up being stuck with the notorious President Nguyen Van Thieu. His corruption was legendary, but what is often forgotten is that he was also very much the outsider. He had been trained and sided with the French against his countrymen during the first phase of the war in Vietnam. Thieu was in many ways a hostage to his own position; just as Maliki, he was loathed and resented as a puppet of the U.S., unable to exercise much authority even if he had wanted to do so.

All of this George Bush ought to have known. A shame he never served in Vietnam, because he could not have failed to have seen how a puppet-regime collapses from within. And Bush would not have needed to travel to Amman to discover that, in the end, despite all the the interference, his plans easily turn to dust.

Monday, November 27, 2006

  Find some good news and report it!

Consistently some of the best reporting from Iraq has been done by Patrick Cockburn for the Independent. Tomorrow he has a stunner. As always, Cockburn sheds light on the true situation through details you won't find in most journalism (apart from the blogs that still occasionally post in Iraq).

Iraq may be getting close to what Americans call "the Saigon moment", the time when it becomes evident to all that the government is expiring....

The Iraqi army and police are not loyal to the state. If the US army decides to confront the Shia militias it could well find Shia military units from the Iraqi army cutting the main American supply route between Kuwait and Baghdad. One convoy was recently stopped at a supposedly fake police checkpoint near the Kuwait border and four American security men and an Austrian taken away.

The US and British position in Iraq is far more of a house built on sand than is realised in Washington or London, despite the disasters of the past three-and-a-half years. George Bush and Tony Blair show a unique inability to learn from their mistakes, largely because they do not want to admit having committed any errors in the first place....

Iraqi friends used to reassure me that there would be no civil war because so many Shia and Sunni were married to each other. These mixed couples are now being compelled to divorce by their families. "I love my husband but my family has forced me to divorce him because we are Shia and he is Sunni," said Hiba Sami, a mother, to a UN official. "My family say they [the husband's family] are insurgents ... and that living with him is an offence to God." Members of mixed marriages had set up an association to protect each other called the Union for Peace in Iraq but they were soon compelled to dissolve it when several founding members were murdered....

A few hours before somebody tried to assassinate him, Governor Kashmula claimed to me that "security in Mosul is the best in Iraq outside the Kurdish provinces". It is a measure of the violence in Iraq that it is an arguable point....

In much of Iraq, we long ago slipped down the rapids leading from crisis to catastrophe though it is only in the past six months that these dire facts have begun to be accepted abroad. For the first three years of the war, Republicans in the US regularly claimed the liberal media was ignoring signs of peace and progress. Some right-wingers even set up websites devoted to spreading the news of American achievements in this ruined land.

I remember a team from a US network news channel staying in my hotel in Baghdad complaining to me, as they buckled on their body armour and helmets, that they had been once again told by their bosses in New York, themselves under pressure from the White House, to "go and find some good news and report it."

That game was getting so tiresome that I seriously considered creating a fake news site, The Good News from Iraq, to promote obvious nonsense of the sort that apologists for Bush & Co. would have liked to have believed. Yet I couldn't bring myself to do it. The occupation of Iraq is an ongoing catastrophe and I could not see my way clear to write satire about it day in and day out.

Cockburn is particularly good in dismantling the quackery of Tony Blair--who, remarkably enough, is viewed on this side of the Atlantic as the wise statesman in the coalition.

These days, it is in Britain alone, or more specifically in Downing Street, that policies bloodily discredited in Iraq in the years since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein still get a hearing. I returned from Mosul to London just in time to hear Tony Blair speaking at the Lord Mayor's banquet. It was a far more extraordinary performance tha[n] his audience appreciated.

As the Prime Minister spoke with his usual Hugh Grant charm, it became clear he had learned nothing and forgotten nothing in three-and-a-half years of war. Misconception after misconception poured from his lips.

Contrary to views of his own generals and every opinion poll assessing Iraqi opinion, he discounted the idea that armed resistance in Iraq is fueled by hostility to foreign occupation. Instead he sees dark forces rising in the east, dedicated, like Sauron in Lord of the Rings, to principles of pure evil. The enemy, in this case, is "based on a thoroughly warped misinterpretation of Islam, which is fanatical and deadly."

Even by the standard of Middle Eastern conspiracy theories, it was puerile stuff....

The picture Mr Blair paints of Iraq seldom touches reality at any point. For instance, he says Iraqis "voted for an explicitly non-sectarian government," but every Iraqi knows the vote in two parliamentary elections in 2005 went wholly along sectarian and ethnic lines. The polls were the starting pistol for the start of the civil war.

And many of us said exactly that in our blog posts at the time. But the cheerleading pundits for war/occupation (we remember who you are, no matter how much you try to efface your own role in this debacle) assured us that the elections were the penultimate step toward a new dawn for Iraq.

The pundit-cheerleaders mistook the color of blood in the streets for rosy-fingered Dawn.

  America's slaves

Something essential is wrong about the way we discuss the detainees in George Bush's prison-network abroad. It's troubled me for a long time. Published descriptions of this program, no matter how critical, have always seemed just a bit hollow. But why, what is missing?

This week the answer to that puzzle became blindingly clear as I read the testimony of Murat Kurnaz, a German resident who endured years of captivity at Guantanamo:

"They [the Pakistani police] caught me and sold me to the Americans for 3000 or 5000 dollars."

The obvious fact, little remarked, is that he and many other victims of Bush's gulags were sold into slavery to the U.S. government.

You'll say, "That can't be." But it is exactly what has been happening. The federal government-or, arguably, George Bush himself-has become a slave-holder.

While critics of the program have devoted considerable energy to uncovering and cataloguing the abusive treatment meted out to the "prisoners", we've overlooked the equally basic problem of identifying what fundamentally is going on. We've concentrated on the epi-phenomena of this system of detention, the indefinite captivity, cruelty, torture, secrecy and so forth, while forgetting that there is also the phenomenon itself that needs to be understood.

There isn't any way around the unpleasant fact that the phenomenon of a world-wide network which exists in order to capture, sell, transport, hold, and abuse without remit large numbers of innocent men cannot be described as a 'prison' system. It is instead a classic system of slavery. That is an observation so basic that most of us, certainly I, have failed to note it at all.


So why is it that America has not been discussing during these last few years the restoration of a flagrant form of slavery by our government?

For one thing, we've been seduced into accepting the administration's terminology of "prisoners". As a consequence, critics of the program have sought to identify the ways in which their "imprisonment" does not accord with the laws on imprisonment and trial. But these are not "prisoners" in any of the senses that the word is normally used in the modern U.S.

They are not prisoners of war. Many, perhaps most, were not captured on a battlefield (despite the frequent false assertions of Bush administration officials that they are all captives of war). They have not been treated according to the Geneva Conventions. They were not rounded up in the U.S., the citizens of a nation we are at war with. There is no war going on, the conclusion of which will result in the release of these "prisoners".

Nor are they prisoners in criminal cases. They have not been convicted of anything. Nor have they confessed to crimes, nor are they awaiting sentencing. Nor have they been awaiting trial all these years. They have not been denied bail. They have not been charged. They have not been given due process in the courts. Until very recently, none had been made aware of what charges, if any, might be leveled against them. They were being held, quite simply.

They were not being held as material witnesses. Nor were they being held as suspects awaiting interrogation. Many have not been interrogated in years, though they continued to be held. No, they were simply being held against their will.


And here we return to this fundamental fact, underlined recently by Murat Kurnaz: Many of these "prisoners" are being held because they were bought by agents of the American government. The U.S. purchased not just possession of their bodies but also the right to treat them any way it wishes.

Of course it is not news that the Bush administration has paid out huge sums to gain possession of these men. In May 2005 Michelle Faul of the Associated Press published an important report, based upon FOIA requests, about the purchase of detainees in the "war on terror".

Bounties ranged from $3,000 to $25,000, the detainees testified during military tribunals, according to transcripts the U.S. government gave The Associated Press to comply with a Freedom of Information lawsuit….

There have been reports of Arabs being sold to the Americans after the U.S.-led offensive in Afghanistan, but the testimonies offer the most detail from prisoners themselves….

Khalid al-Odha, who started a group fighting to free 12 Kuwaiti detainees, said his imprisoned son, Fawzi, wrote him a letter from Guantanamo Bay about Kuwaitis being sold to the Americans in Afghanistan.

One Kuwaiti who was released, 26-year-old Nasser al-Mutairi, told al-Odha that interrogators said Dostum's forces sold them to the Pakistanis for $5,000 each, and the Pakistanis in turn sold them to the Americans.

"I also heard that Saudis were sold to the Saudi government by the Pakistanis," al-Odha said. "If I had known that, I would have gone and bought my son back."

Leaflet offering "bounties" Image Hosted by

So let's not pretend any longer as a nation that it is anything other than what it appears to be-slavery.

The price that Kurnaz estimates he was sold for in Pakistan, approximately $5000, resembles the sum the U.S. was offering per person in Afghanistan to the Northern Alliance in 2001/2002. And it is well within line with the sale prices for more traditional slaves in the current global human trafficking network. A current article in Foreign Affairs (available here) points out that the U.N. estimates that the average price of a slave worldwide is now about $12,500.


The U.S. of course prefers to call the sums paid for the transfer of human beings "bounties", but that too is a misnomer in most cases. A bounty-system can only function in places where civil jurisdiction is sufficiently settled as to identify criminals who need to be captured. That doesn't describe the almost lawless conditions in which many of these "bounties" were paid out.

Besides, a "bounty" is a payment for the capture of a named criminal. American officials are aware that the fantasy of law-and-order cloaked under the term "bounty" is subject to challenge, witness their blanket denials of wrongdoing and claims of ignorance recorded by Michelle Faul:

The U.S. departments of Defense, Justice and State and the Central Intelligence Agency also said they were unaware of bounty payments being made for random prisoners.

The U.S. Rewards for Justice program pays only for information that leads to the capture of suspected terrorists identified by name, said Steve Pike, a State Department spokesman….

But a wide variety of detainees at the U.S. lockup at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, alleged they were sold into capture.

In fact many of the people who ended up at Guantanamo were not being sought by the U.S. by name. They were just whoever happened to be turned in for the "bounty":

In March 2002, the AP reported that Afghan intelligence offered rewards for the capture of al-Qaida fighters — the day after a five-hour meeting with U.S. Special Forces. Intelligence officers refused to say if the two events were linked and if the United States was paying the offered reward of 150 million Afghanis, then equivalent to $4,000 a head.

That day, leaflets and loudspeaker announcements promised "the big prize" to those who turned in al-Qaida fighters.

Said one leaflet: "You can receive millions of dollars. ... This is enough to take care of your family, your village, your tribe for the rest of your life — pay for livestock and doctors and school books and housing for all your people."

Helicopters broadcast similar announcements over the Afghan mountains, enticing people to "Hand over the Arabs and feed your families for a lifetime," said Najeeb al-Nauimi, a former Qatar justice minister and leader of a group of Arab lawyers representing nearly 100 detainees.

Even though there were a few individuals identified by name, in separate posters, never the less the U.S. was in effect offering to buy anyone and everyone who might be turned over to them. Many of these payments, then, can't reasonably be termed "bounties".

Instead, the sums are the sale price for slaves.


So far, I've presented two reasons for accepting the conclusion that what George W. Bush has created is actually a system of state-owned slaves. The first reason is that the government has not treated the men held captive as it would if they really were "prisoners" in any normal sense of the word. The second is that the sum paid out for such men resembles nothing so much as the sale price for slaves.

Now let's consider what we know about the conditions of traditional chattel slavery, from the perspective of both the slave and the slave-holder. Here, I draw upon my knowledge of ancient slavery in the Mediterranean world. Most or all of these generalizations also apply to plantation-style slavery in 18th and 19th century America.

Parenthetically, it's worth noting that in antiquity it was common for the state to own some slaves for various purposes. Also, it was a truism in ancient Greek and Roman society that any testimony derived from slaves had to be extracted under torture, without which their statements could not be considered trustworthy. I don't believe for a moment, however, that George Bush knows either of those things.


What does it mean to be or become a slave? Virtually all the conditions faced by the long-suffering human beings held captive in secret CIA prisons or at Guantanamo, beginning with their capture, are paralleled by the conditions of the chattel slave.

* They generally are enslaved without having been convicted of any crimes.

* They are seized unaware, typically with collusion from locally powerful and corrupt figures, who receive payment for them.

* They disappear without being given an opportunity to regain their freedom or contact their families.

* They are spirited away, usually in the dark or under cover, by professionals who specialize in transporting slaves.

* Upon arrival at their place of confinement, they are taught that they are helpless.

* They are subject to every form of capricious treatment, and may hope to escape harsh and humiliating treatment only by total submission to the will of their owner.

* They are are routinely raped, tortured and brutalized.

* They are treated as less than fully human.

* Their guards have been trained in forms of humiliation, and are encouraged to mistreat slaves.

* Their living conditions are degrading.

* They have no legal rights, and no protection except what their owner is willing to grant.

* They have no documents and little personal property.

* They have no past or hope of a better future except what their owner is willing to grant.

* They may be freed only if their owner volunteers to free them.

* No outside entity has any authority to rescue them from their captivity or interfere in how the owner treats them.

In other words, the conditions experienced by the man handed over to American forces by Pakistani policemen, or by Northern Alliance militiamen, or by anybody eager for the $5000 bounty, is parallel in many basic ways to the conditions that a chattel slave experiences.


What does it mean to be a master of slaves? Virtually all the powers and privileges that the federal government-or, arguably, George Bush himself-exercises over the long-suffering human beings held captive in secret CIA prisons or at Guantanamo are the powers and privileges of the slave-holder. Above all, this is the power or privilege:

* to have the slave abused, degraded, tortured, raped, or killed without being held accountable

* to do what you will with the slave, without having to render any account of his activities, treatment, upkeep, care, or housing

* to place brutal overseers in charge of the slave, without needing to justify it to society

* to inflict a regime of psychological domination over the slave

* to control information about the identity, origin, and name of the slave

* to move the slave around wherever you wish

* to release the slave or give the slave over to others for any reason, or for no reason, without explanation

* to be the final and sole arbiter in issues involving the slave, without these being subject to appeal

* to be beyond the reach of the slave's family or society

There are other conditions of slave-holding besides the powers and privileges it brings. The slave-holder gains status by the mere fact of owning slaves, but also lives in fear of a conspiracy by the slaves, and with the suspicion always that the slaves share secret information that can be damaging or dangerous. The slave-holder feels a constant need to hound slaves to get the most out of them, as well as the need to keep them off-balance. The slave-holder must also present a public face that masks the brutality of the control exercised over the slaves, and limit the flow of information about their actual conditions. The slave-holder feels obligated to promulgate an ideological framework in which the slavery is necessary, justified, and beneficial to society.


In short, when you consider what captivity in George Bush's "war on terror" actually means for the man seized, or for those who hold absolute control over him, the conditions are extremely close to those of chattel slavery.

In a second post, I'll expand this commentary into areas that I've only touched upon so far. I'd like to say a little more about what we learned last week from Murat Kurnaz. Also, I'll add some information about the wider relationship between the Bush administration and the global human trafficking network.

Finally, I'll discuss how it makes sense to talk about the "prisoners" in the "war-on-terror" as slaves. The world trade today in slaves, as in the past, is mostly connected to a brutal economic system that thrives by exploiting slave-workers. George Bush is not buying and holding these slaves for productive purposes. So how, some might ask, can it really be regarded as slavery?

I'll have some thoughts on the topic next time. Meanwhile, I'd be happy to hear what you think.

This is an expanded version of a post from Unbossed and Never in Our Names

Thursday, November 23, 2006

  Thankful for forgiving readers

Because everything I write has a substantial proportion of error, I give thanks today for forgiving readers. Call them what you will—inaccuracies, implausibilities, glaring omissions of fact, flights of fancy, fabrications—the sheer number of times I've supplied misleading information during the last year might have turned off a less tolerant bunch than you. And yet apart from a few stern letters sent in by obvious soreheads, you've been quite incredibly forgiving of the falsehoods I've disseminated.

For instance just last week I wrote that the North Carolina Baptist Convention had taken a firm stand against usury ("The only sin that has its own advocacy group"). I may have been a little precipitous in posting that story, though. Baptist ministers responded by insisting, in multiple emails, that they'd done no such thing—yet. They were concentrating for the moment on expelling gays rather than usurers, they explained.

I think we'll just have to see whether my report on the Baptists turns out to have been premature, then.

That was a story sent to me by my friend Milo, and perhaps I haven't always been sufficiently critical of his scoops. He was responsible, in mid-October, for another report that I've come slightly to regret: Baltimore Orioles' GM promises to "stay the course". Though I kept my doubts to myself at the time, I was never really convinced by Milo's claim that the White House expected the team to win the World Series easily, with only modest changes in strategy. As it turns out, the Orioles had already been eliminated from the playoffs. I regret that I neglected to look into that aspect of the story at the time I wrote up Milo's report.

Come to think of it, the overheard conversations he's reported contain some exaggerated elements that readers are right to complain about. Also, some of the people he meets have made dubious claims, to say the least. Milo's story this summer about a bitter conflict among neighbors (The Deer War), for example, has some credibility problems. He admitted under cross-examination that he'd written it as a parable. At that stage I was nearly done formatting his story, which is the only reason why I posted it at all. That one I think I'd say is "no longer operative", in retrospect, given his admission that it's fictitious.

Not all mistakes are Milo's fault, however. Other bloggers whom I take material from are to blame as well. (And this, incidentally, is the best reason for making a big point of acknowledging where you're swiping your stuff from.)

Last fall I got into hot water by trusting in a blog report that claimed a revolt was taking shape in Congress against Democratic Party activists and bloggers (BREAKING: Congressional Dems to split with Party?). Since then I've been assured that one or more of those meetings did not occur, and that Party leaders have never complained about the influence of bloggers. In my defense, I can only say that the report seemed to be worth discussing, whether or not it was credible.

All in all, I feel very fortunate that my readers have an unusually high toleration for inaccuracy. I promise that in the coming year I'll continue to provide you with the most interesting and unusual news available anywhere on the internet, of the level of quality you've come to expect.

And just to re-assure my more critical readers that I view their complaints very seriously, I also want to take this occasion to retract in advance several further errors I plan on making in the coming months.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

  Sy Hersh once again on Iran

At the New Yorker Seymour Hersh has a new article on what the administration is up to regarding Iran. This April, he described a significant level of fear in Washington, particularly among the military, that Bush Co. might attack Iran over its nuclear program. Based upon that and parallel warnings from senior defense and foreign policy figures, many commentators in blogtopia concluded that an attack was indeed imminent attack.

Fortunately, that hasn't occured. As a result, Hersh has been accused by some of relying upon disingenuous or misinformed sources in his earlier work, though I think that is unfair. It's very possible that after his April publication, the uproar it engendered in the U.S. and U.K. forced Cheney and his merry gang to back away from plans that were as aggressive as Hersh's sources had suggested. There have been many worrying signs of possible U.S. aggression against Iran, and this summer Tony Blair acted as if he might actually support an attack.

In any case, Hersh is more cautious in the picture he paints in his latest article. He's exploring the modalities of any operations large or small against Iran. The big questions, which he admits he can't answer, are: How much influence does Cheney wield now? And if he's been eclipsed in Bush's inner circle, will that be temporary?

As usual, Hersh has good sources who tell him interesting things. I'm going to select a few of the issues that intrigue me here. You'll want to read the full article to get a sense of where, if anywhere in particular, Hersh thinks our Iran policy is headed.

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For me, the most interesting issue raised by Hersh concerns the control that the Pentagon has acquired over intelligence gathering. For years, intelligence moneys and operations have been shifting steadily out of the CIA and into Rumsfeld's fiefdom. That's been worrying a lot of long-timers in DC, and I'd think that the nomination of Robert Gates, former Director of the CIA, to take charge of the Pentagon might raise further fears.

Here's an angle that Hersh brings to the issue:

Another critical issue for Gates will be the Pentagon’s expanding effort to conduct clandestine and covert intelligence missions overseas. Such activity has traditionally been the C.I.A.’s responsibility, but, as the result of a systematic push by Rumsfeld, military covert actions have been substantially increased. In the past six months, Israel and the United States have also been working together in support of a Kurdish resistance group known as the Party for Free Life in Kurdistan. The group has been conducting clandestine cross-border forays into Iran, I was told by a government consultant with close ties to the Pentagon civilian leadership, as “part of an effort to explore alternative means of applying pressure on Iran.” (The Pentagon has established covert relationships with Kurdish, Azeri, and Baluchi tribesmen, and has encouraged their efforts to undermine the regime’s authority in northern and southeastern Iran.) The government consultant said that Israel is giving the Kurdish group “equipment and training.” The group has also been given “a list of targets inside Iran of interest to the U.S.” (An Israeli government spokesman denied that Israel was involved.)

Such activities, if they are considered military rather than intelligence operations, do not require congressional briefings. For a similar C.I.A. operation, the President would, by law, have to issue a formal finding that the mission was necessary, and the Administration would have to brief the senior leadership of the House and the Senate. The lack of such consultation annoyed some Democrats in Congress. This fall, I was told, Representative David Obey, of Wisconsin, the ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations subcommittee that finances classified military activity, pointedly asked, during a closed meeting of House and Senate members, whether “anyone has been briefing on the Administration’s plan for military activity in Iran.” The answer was no. (A spokesman for Obey confirmed this account.)

Think of that, no briefings for anyone in Congress regarding plans for "military activity" in Iran…even though those activities are already underway. This, I think, has to be one of the key reasons why Rumsfeld was allowed to acquire such an excessive concentration of power over intelligence gathering: It gives the administration a plausible excuse for withholding intelligence briefings from Congress (plausible, mind you, in the same sense that Bush's signing statements are plausible interpretations of those laws).

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On the subject of manipulating intelligence, Hersh indicates that once again the White House is trying to quash CIA findings that won't help it down the road toward war with Iran:

The Administration’s planning for a military attack on Iran was made far more complicated earlier this fall by a highly classified draft assessment by the C.I.A. challenging the White House’s assumptions about how close Iran might be to building a nuclear bomb. The C.I.A. found no conclusive evidence, as yet, of a secret Iranian nuclear-weapons program…

The C.I.A.’s analysis, which has been circulated to other agencies for comment, was based on technical intelligence collected by overhead satellites, and on other empirical evidence, such as measurements of the radioactivity of water samples and smoke plumes from factories and power plants. Additional data have been gathered, intelligence sources told me, by high-tech (and highly classified) radioactivity-detection devices that clandestine American and Israeli agents placed near suspected nuclear-weapons facilities inside Iran in the past year or so. No significant amounts of radioactivity were found.

A current senior intelligence official confirmed the existence of the C.I.A. analysis, and told me that the White House had been hostile to it….Cheney and his aides discounted the assessment, the former senior intelligence official said.

“They’re not looking for a smoking gun,” the official added, referring to specific intelligence about Iranian nuclear planning. “They’re looking for the degree of comfort level they think they need to accomplish the mission.” The Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency also challenged the C.I.A.’s analysis.

The DIA, Hersh says, is helping in the campaign to prevent the CIA findings from being incorporated into the new NIE on Iranian nuclear capabilities. Cheney's office in particular is arguing—contrary to advice from the CIA—that the absence of physical evidence is a sign that the Iranians have nuclear programs that they're skillful at concealing.

Counter-intuition has worked so well for the VP in the past, you know.

It was not just in Iraq in 2002 that hawks took the preposterous view that the utter absence of evidence must be treated as the signature of a sophisticated campaign of deception by the enemy. In the later cold-war era as well the extreme hawks took that attitude toward the Soviet Union, attributing to the Soviets capabilities that ran counter to the evidence assembled by the CIA. This started in the 1970s as the 'Plan B' team in the CIA, headed by Bush pere, but under Reagan these nutty ideas became a driving force behind the policy of throwing money at every imaginable threat that could ever arise.

Anyhow, if Hersh's article achieves nothing else, it may draw attention in the media to the existence of this draft CIA report and to the administration's hostility toward it.

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Hersh also includes some interesting comments about the apparent goals of any potential attack upon Iran. Virtually anybody with discretion acknowledges that bombing Iran would unify Iranians behind their leadership; it's pie in the sky to talk about provoking a popular uprising. True, Cheney and Bush consistently choose idiots for advisors and still hear what they want to hear. So what do insiders think the goals are behind all this talk?

But many in the White House and the Pentagon insist that getting tough with Iran is the only way to salvage Iraq. “It’s a classic case of ‘failure forward,’” a Pentagon consultant said. “They believe that by tipping over Iran they would recover their losses in Iraq—like doubling your bet. It would be an attempt to revive the concept of spreading democracy in the Middle East by creating one new model state.”…“More and more people see the weakening of Iran as the only way to save Iraq.”

The consultant added that, for some advocates of military action, “the goal in Iran is not regime change but a strike that will send a signal that America still can accomplish its goals. Even if it does not destroy Iran’s nuclear network, there are many who think that thirty-six hours of bombing is the only way to remind the Iranians of the very high cost of going forward with the bomb—and of supporting Moqtada al-Sadr and his pro-Iran element in Iraq.”

The gambling analogy just keeps coming up when discussing Bush's attitude toward Iraq (e.g. my own Bush proposing to up the ante in Iraq). Perhaps it's just the echo chamber effect, but an awful lot of us see Bush as a gambling addict.

Anyway, Hersh combines two Bush Co. themes that also resonate: the "Failing Forward" strategy favored by neocons; and what that guttersnipe, Jonah Goldberg, calls the Ledeen Doctrine (i.e. that the U.S. needs to beat the stuffing out of a small country every so often just to prove to the world that it's willing to do so). There are many problems with the "Ledeen Doctrine"—for example, it's vile—but in any event Iran is a large and capable military power that could give the U.S. a serious pounding in return.

My guess, just off the top of my head, is that the figures mentioned by Hersh's source as "some advocates" don’t have any actual military expertise. The absence of a shred of human decency goes without saying.

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Much of the last third of Hersh's article is devoted to the vexed question of whether the Cheney administration is once again cherry-picking scraps of intelligence of dubious provenance via foreign agencies. Hold onto your hat: Once again the White House stands accused of combing through raw intel, rather than allowing the CIA to vet it.

In particular, Hersh says that there's a major dispute about how credible Israeli allegations are, since the CIA has seen no data that would allow the agency to confirm or disconfirm them.

As the C.I.A.’s assessment was making its way through the government, late this summer, current and former military officers and consultants told me, a new element suddenly emerged: intelligence from Israeli spies operating inside Iran claimed that Iran has developed and tested a trigger device for a nuclear bomb. The provenance and significance of the human intelligence, or HUMINT, are controversial. “The problem is that no one can verify it,” the former senior intelligence official told me. “We don’t know who the Israeli source is. The briefing says the Iranians are testing trigger mechanisms”—simulating a zero-yield nuclear explosion without any weapons-grade materials—“but there are no diagrams, no significant facts. Where is the test site? How often have they done it? How big is the warhead—a breadbox or a refrigerator? They don’t have that.” And yet, he said, the report was being used by White House hawks within the Administration to “prove the White House’s theory that the Iranians are on track. And tests leave no radioactive track, which is why we can’t find it.” Still, he said, “The agency is standing its ground.”

The Pentagon consultant [said]…“we’re going to be fighting over the quality of the information for the next year.” One reason for the dispute, he said, was that the White House had asked to see the “raw”—the original, unanalyzed and unvetted—Israeli intelligence. Such “stovepiping” of intelligence had led to faulty conclusions about nonexistent weapons of mass destruction during the buildup to the 2003 Iraq war.

The DIA, says the consultant, claims to have highly classified MASINT ("measuring and signature" intel) to support the Israeli claim.

“The indications don’t make sense, unless they’re farther along in some aspects of their nuclear-weapons program than we know.”

That sounds to me all too much like the inferences that were drawn in 2002/2003 from seriously flawed "evidence". But the Israelis are increasingly insistent that they have conclusive proof against Iran, and though the I.A.E.A. has investigated in the past, Israel is not backing down.

However Cheney, according to Hersh's source, is convinced that the Israelis will not attack Iran without a greenlight from the U.S. It's interesting, and not wholly reassuring, to see a reference to Cheney in the context of holding back the rush to war.

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The consensus in DC, we're told, is that negotiations with Iran are much more likely than war. That is not so much because thus far Bush is committed to finding a diplomatic solution to his impasse with Iran, as the simple fact that Iran is now in the catbird's seat.

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Hersh begins his piece with a portrait of the provocative Mr. Cheney.

Cheney began reminiscing about his job as a lineman…Copper wire was expensive, and the linemen were instructed to return all unused pieces three feet or longer. No one wanted to deal with the paperwork that resulted, Cheney said, so he and his colleagues found a solution: putting “shorteners” on the wire—that is, cutting it into short pieces and tossing the leftovers at the end of the workday. If the Democrats won on November 7th, the Vice-President said, that victory would not stop the Administration from pursuing a military option with Iran. The White House would put “shorteners” on any legislative restrictions, Cheney said, and thus stop Congress from getting in its way.

The White House’s concern was not that the Democrats would cut off funds for the war in Iraq but that future legislation would prohibit it from financing operations targeted at overthrowing or destabilizing the Iranian government, to keep it from getting the bomb.
“They’re afraid that Congress is going to vote a binding resolution to stop a hit on Iran, à la Nicaragua in the Contra war,” a former senior intelligence official told me.

Quite apart from the arrogance of a man who brags about wasting copper, Cheney comes across as crazy enough to think he can thumb his nose at a Democratic Congress over its power of the purse.

That might have turned out to be a long walk off a short pier for an unpopular VP. Now that Hersh has spilled the beans, however, I rather think the administration will have to be a tad more circumspect about picking fights with Democrats.

Shame, really. That would have been a fun spectacle.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

  Pentagon IG: David Laufman's hail mary pass

Boffo: David Laufman's nomination to be the Pentagon Inspector General is looking pretty desiccated.

Buffo: Laufman is campaigning to revive it via the media.

Bozo: Laufman's getting an assist from the AP's spectacular hack, John Solomon.

Since June I've been saying, to nobody in particular, that Laufman's nomination needs to be stopped because he's an unqualified, untrustworthy partisan and a Bush family "cleaner". Fortunately, Sen. Carl Levin also distrusts Laufman and put a hold on his nomination this summer. The latest summary is here.

I thought we might have to fight to block the nomination during the lame duck session, but on Monday Levin declared that he's still opposed. Laufman rushed forth and fought back, as one must in DC, by means of the whinging, self-pitying interview.

It's a hail mary pass, and I doubt it will avail Laufman in the slightest. But just for the sheer pleasure of it, please join me in thanking the good Senator Levin for taking a firm line on this appointment. Laufman would have been a dangerous person to put in charge of so many important investigations, and boy is it good to start winning these fights.

Phone (202) 224-6221; Fax (202) 224-1388; Webmail

Here is the little I've discovered about Levin's statement on Laufman:

At a news conference yesterday (11/13/06), Levin said he has "real problems with that appointment" and added that he "will continue to oppose" Laufman's confirmation.

It was the news conference in which Levin spelled out the Democratic agenda for the Senate Armed Services Committee in the next Congress.

That very afternoon, by a most curious coincidence, John Solomon filed a story about the lack of progress for Laufman's nomination. The reporter's point of view could not be clearer: Sen. Levin is to blame for this grave harm to the nation. Again, by a curious coincidence, that appears to Mr. Laufman's own view on the matter. He was interviewed for the piece; Levin refused to talk to Solomon.

The Pentagon has been without its chief watchdog for more than a year, even as the military spends billions of dollars a month in Iraq and controversy simmers over warrantless surveillance, missing weapons and friendly fire deaths.

How sad for Mr. Solomon, his first sentence contains a falsehood. There is an Acting Inspector General at the Pentagon, Thomas Gimble, who has been performing those duties. Not well, but he does indeed exist. As I described in an earlier post, Mr. Laufman doesn't much get along with Gimble.

After a short but lovely meditation on over-priced hammers, John Solomon returns to his theme.

The Defense Department's last inspector general, Joseph Schmitz, stepped down in August 2005, and Bush named David Laufman, a federal prosecutor with GOP credentials, to take over the job months ago.

In the interim, the office has been run by an acting inspector general, and it has been criticized as being slow to get staff on the ground to investigate Pentagon issues in Iraq and as shying away from examining the National Security Agency's electronic surveillance program.

Delicious stuff. "Stepped down"? More like, "Bush's first IG was forced out because he was a goddamned crook".

"GOP credentials"? It is precisely his lack of credentials that came out clearly in Laufman's responses to the Committee, as I described exhaustively in this post. Anyhow, how does being a partisan hack give one credentials for such a position?

The (resolutely unnamed) Acting IG (Gimble) has indeed been criticized for those things—by critics of the Bush administration, but never, oh never in Mr. Solomon's reporting…until now.

Laufman's nomination came to a halt after he testified to the Senate Armed Services Committee this summer that the inspector general's law requires him to consult with the defense secretary before embarking on cases involving national security and other sensitive matters.

Career employees inside the inspector general's office alerted Democratic Sen. Carl Levin's office that such consultations would be a major departure from current practice. They said they had discussed their concerns with Laufman but could not change his mind.

Actually, Mr. Laufman seems to have had a rough time at his hearing in July, such that his nomination might uncharitably have been described as DOA. Oh, and those "career employees" in the IG's office included the Acting IG, a fact Solomon excludes.

After noting that Levin mistrusts Laufman's independence, Solomon adds:

Levin was correct that the current inspector general office hasn't been consulting that way. Laufman was correct in noting the federal law's language suggests he should.

"Suggests". I would suggest that Mr. Solomon needs to get the opinion of lawyers or those who drafted the regulations for the Inspector General's duties, before he ventures to declare about their correct interpretation. Just a thought.

The senator also is challenging Laufman's veracity because career employees said they raised concerns about the issue with Laufman. Laufman testified he shared his answers with the career staff but could not recall getting any feedback on the issue.

Could that be a teeny-tiny lie from the mouth of the nominee? Mr. Solomon, however will you change the subject?

There has been no action on the nomination since, leaving the Pentagon's top watchdog job vacant.

Phew, that old falsehood reprised from the first sentence…just when it's needed.

Levin declined to be interviewed, but his office says he has serious reservations about the nomination. The current committee chairman, Republican John Warner of Virginia, is checking with senators this week to see if there is enough support for Laufman to proceed.

Sounds like wishful thinking to me. But just in case, let's keep a sharp eye on this.

Laufman, a veteran prosecutor who won accolades for convicting a Virginia man of plotting to kill Bush, is now taking the offensive in trying to convince lawmakers he'd be the independent investigator they want.

“For too long, there has been a void of aggressive oversight and accountability at the Department of Defense – precisely when we've needed it the most,” he told The Associated Press. “It's time to put politics aside and bring new leadership.”

Blub, blub, blub.

"A void…" Nice to see that Laufman retains his ability to spin falsehoods.

Are you getting the sense that maybe John Solomon acquired his Point of View™ more or less directly from David Laufman? I mean, really…"accolades"? For convicting a man in that cockamamie plot, by means of a confession extracted under torture in Saudi Arabia? A man whose fingernails had to be allowed to grow back, before he could be brought to trial?

"Put politics aside". Because that's what campaigning for the job all around Washington is most emphatically not about.

Solomon goes on to describe, with a peculiar urgency, Laufman's campaign to circumvent Levin's objections. All the accoutrements of the modern political campaign are there, including wild promises…

Likewise, Laufman has told senators he wants to aggressively investigate the friendly fire death of former pro football player Pat Tillman and is willing to examine the NSA's anti-terror surveillance program.

and endorsements…

"David is the prototype for an IG"…. His investigations and his background are filled with opportunities that demonstrated his integrity."

The entire second half of the article is devoted to cheering on Laufman's campaign. Although Solomon can't be bothered fashioning any further falsehoods, you'll find only a single instance where he makes even a small gesture toward critical thinking:

Laufman served on two investigations that cleared Bush's father's administration of wrongdoing…

What those pesky allegations might have been, however, the reader never learns from Solomon. No need for such piffle, when Laufman's supporters are ready to assure us that he's "demonstrated his integrity".

For a rather less cloying mash-note to Laufman, see Griff Witte's article in the Washington Post the following day. He too is aware that Democrats have serious reservations about the nominee, and he too just prefers to use his pulpit to spread Laufman's message:

The nominee for Pentagon inspector general, David H. Laufman, is a veteran prosecutor who has vowed to be an aggressive watchdog -- especially of work in Iraq and Afghanistan. But Laufman, nominated by President Bush in June, has met resistance from Democrats who question his independence. Republicans, meanwhile, have done little to advance his nomination since confirmation hearings in July. The inaction has prompted Laufman to take the unusual step of speaking out.

"Inaction", or "refusal"? As for what prompted Laufman to "speak out"…erm, "up" for himself…what was it that Carl Levin said about him hours before you two got to have a nice chat? The chat in which Laufman told you…

"Given the nature and magnitude of U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the hundreds of billions of dollars at issue in defense acquisition and contract performance, the need for aggressive oversight and accountability at the Department of Defense is critical," he said yesterday. "Yet for more than a year, there has been a void of leadership in the Office of the Inspector General and a corresponding absence of essential oversight and accountability."

There's that "void" again. Sounds like Hesiod's description of the big blank spot filled by the arrival of the Kosmos. Oddly, I don't find the term "megalomaniac" anywhere in Witte's piece.

It follows much the same pattern as the longer and more transparent Solomon article. Witte sings Laufman's praises and transcribes some of the same endorsements, while downplaying potential objections to the nominee and warning of the danger of leaving the office unfilled for much longer.

We've already seen the tip of the propaganda iceberg on the Laufman nomination, back in September with this NBC report. It was the last time Laufman tried to budge his nomination.

My guess is that Laufman is finished, washed up, kaput. But the Solomon piece, as laughable as it is, got pretty wide distribution. I'll recommend that you contact Levin and show him some love, and perhaps better, contact the other members of the Senate Armed Services Committee to ask them to call for the President to find a more credible nominee.

From Unbossed

  Tony Blair: Iraq invasion "pretty much of a disaster"

Just the other day the White House Domestic Propaganda Bureau (more of that later) insisted vehemently that there's no difference between the views of Tony Blair and George Bush on Iraq. They might want to rethink that.

Today on al-Jazeera TV, Blair agreed with interviewer David Frost that the invasion of Iraq had "so far been pretty much of a disaster". A somewhat tactless admission, given all the lies he's told to Parliament, the public--to pretty much everybody who would listen. Yet this statement has a verisimilitude that will be hard to dismiss, like Cheney's evil chortling that "dunking" prisoners is a "no-brainer".

And just for added fun, Blair's cabinet minister for Trade and Industry gave a private speech in which she slammed him for his dishonesty and "moral imperialism" in Iraq, which she called a "big mistake". She added, "I hope this isn't being reported."

The British newspapers are having a field day with these stories. Here is The Guardian, and The Independent, and The Times. From the Guardian:

Tony Blair conceded last night that western intervention in Iraq had been a disaster. In an interview with Al-Jazeera, the Arabic TV station, the prime minister agreed with the veteran broadcaster Sir David Frost when he suggested that intervention had "so far been pretty much of a disaster".

Mr Blair said: "It has, but you see, what I say to people is, 'why is it difficult in Iraq?' It's not difficult because of some accident in planning,
it's difficult because there's a deliberate strategy - al-Qaida with Sunni insurgents on one hand, Iranian-backed elements with Shia militias on the other - to create a situation in which the will of the majority for peace is displaced by the will of the minority for war."

We knew that the strain of keeping up appearances would grow too much for Mr Blair. Sooner or later, like Cheney and Bush before him, Blair would make the mistake of blurting out the truth. Nice job at recovering...'we planned for this out the wazoo, so this "disaster" thingee is the fault of the natives who didn't play along.'

Downing Street tried to downplay the apparent slip. "I think that's just the way in which he answers questions," said a spokesman. "His views on Iraq are documented in hundreds of places, and that is not one of them."

Won't do much good trying to distract attention, I think; Blair admitted it's "pretty much a disaster", that's what everybody has been waiting to hear him admit, and journalists are now going to run with it. So will his political rivals.

John McDonnell, the leftwing MP who has pledged to challenge for Labour's leadership, said the prime minister's concession was "staggering" and urged him to bring forward Britain's exit strategy.

And here's more from the Independent:

[Blair's] admission was seized on by opponents of the war last night and will revive demands for the Government to call an independent inquiry into what went wrong in Iraq since the toppling of Saddam Hussein in 2003.

Sir Menzies Campbell, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, said: "At long last the enormity of the decision to take military action against Iraq is being accepted by the Prime Minister. It could hardly be otherwise as the failure of strategy becomes so clear."

He added: "If the Prime Minister accepts that it is a 'disaster' then surely Parliament and the British people, who were given a flawed prospectus, are entitled to an apology."

You think we could get one of those apologies over here in the U.S., too? It will be interesting to see if this story turns into a media swarm in Britain. The Lib Dems are ideally positioned to keep the heat turned up, as the main anti-war party. And they don't call Campbell 'Ming the merciless' for nothing. He relishes every opportunity to embarrass the Blair government.

Anyway, Blair's government is doing a pretty tidy job of embarrassing itself today. Here's a parallel story about the statements of the Trade and Industry Minister tearing Blair apart for his Iraq policy. From The Independent:

Margaret Hodge has become the first serving minister openly to attack the Iraq war after describing it as Tony Blair's "big mistake in foreign affairs", adding that he was a man who was driven by "moral imperialism".

It is the first time that a minister has been directly quoted as attacking the Iraq war, although others are known to believe privately that it was a serious mistake....

Mrs Hodge, the Industry minister, told members of the Islington Fabian Society, a pressure group within the Islington Labour Party, that she had had doubts about Tony Blair's foreign policies since 1998 [because of his belief in imposing British values and ideas on other countries]. Challenged by one of the dinner guests about why, in that case, she had voted in favour of sending British troops into Iraq, she replied that she had accepted Mr Blair's claims about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction because "he was our leader and I trusted him".

Aware of the implications of what she was saying, Mrs Hodge added: "I hope this isn't going to be reported."

Yesterday, the minister denied making the comments attributed, which appeared on the front page of the Islington Tribune, a free newspaper. The story was unsigned, but was written by the newspaper's editor/proprietor Eric Gordon, who was described by a fellow journalist as "a hack of some repute, who knows a story and knows what is reportable".

Nice, that last bit. Gordon, you see, happened to be at the dinner, so yes as it turns out, it was going to be reported.

Anyway, the implication is clear: a minister within Blair's government thinks he lied about the grounds for invading Iraq. It doesn't help Blair that he and Mrs. Hodge are old friends.

What is the White House's view about Tony Blair? At the top of their slow-moving propaganda apparatus is a churlish rant against the American news media for having suggested that Blair's views on Iraq were diverging from those of George Bush. Here is the point that we're supposed to take away:

Prime Minister Blair's Policy Is Not New And Is Similar To President Bush's Policy

It's actually underlined in the original. Problem is, the WH makes its point by contrasting the coverage of Blair's comments earlier this week with the coverage given to them by British newspapers. The implication: That the British media gets things right, while American journalists merely give vent to their own biases and parade their stupidity.

So, here's a hint all you biased, stupid American reporters: Take this British story and run with it. It's been vetted by the best in the business, and according to the White House, your job is to transcribe what the Brits are saying.

Oh, and here's another assignment for you. Check out the White House's domestic propaganda website in all its glory. What the heck is this all about, anyhow?

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

  Guardian: Bush proposing to up the ante in Iraq

I'm pretty tired of the media's endless speculation about what the Iraq Study Group will recommend. Pundits don't know; heck, the panel itself (comprising not a single Middle East expert, it's worth stressing) still doesn't know what it will propose. Anyhow, ISG won't discover new solutions that everybody else overlooked. There are no good solutions to the debacle, only (a) terrible options and (b) even worse ones.

In any case, no matter what ISG proposes, or Democrats suggest, Bush will do whatever he wants in the end--unless Congress dares to force his hand. If Bush does choose to do anything new in Iraq (a big 'if'), it will not be the best option available. Bush always wrecks everything he touches. It will be the option that offers the best chance of masking his failures.

Therefore I welcome actual news about what His Petulance has in store for us. The Guardian, at least, seems to be talking to some credible sources regarding this topic.

From tomorrow's edition:

President George Bush has told senior advisers that the US and its allies must make "a last big push" to win the war in Iraq and that instead of beginning a troop withdrawal next year, he may increase US forces by up to 20,000 soldiers, according to sources familiar with the administration's internal deliberations.

Mr Bush's refusal to give ground, coming in the teeth of growing calls in the US and Britain for a radical rethink or a swift exit, is having a decisive impact on the policy review being conducted by the Iraq Study Group chaired by Bush family loyalist James Baker, the sources said.

Although the panel's work is not complete, its recommendations are expected to be built around a four-point "victory strategy" developed by Pentagon officials advising the group. The strategy, along with other related proposals, is being circulated in draft form and has been discussed in separate closed sessions with Mr Baker and the vice-president Dick Cheney, an Iraq war hawk.

One of the goals of raising troop levels, the Guardian report implies, is to distinguish Bush's plans from those being advanced by Democrats. Tactically, Bush imagines (my verb) that 20,000 new troops will allow American forces to take back control of areas outside of Baghdad.

In turn, this will provide momentary cover so that Bush can accede to a proposal that Cheney and his band of neocons hate, without Bush appearing (heh) to reverse course: an international conference involving Iraq's neighbors.

While accepting that "sissy" proposal, Bush and Co. seem to think that they can use the breathing room to knock heads among the Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds and force them to stop...well, pursuing their own perceived advantage, I suppose.

And then there is the fourth part of this plan, which strikes me as nearly incoherent and fantastically out of touch with the realities of life in Iraq these days. That suggests to me that The Guardian's sources may be pretty good, because those are the hallmarks of the administration's Iraq policies for the last three years.

Lastly, the sources said the study group recommendations will include a call for increased resources to be allocated by Congress to support additional troop deployments and fund the training and equipment of expanded Iraqi army and police forces. It will also stress the need to counter corruption, improve local government and curtail the power of religious courts.

"You've got to remember, whatever the Democrats say, it's Bush still calling the shots. He believes it's a matter of political will. That's what [Henry] Kissinger told him. And he's going to stick with it," a former senior administration official said. "He [Bush] is in a state of denial about Iraq. Nobody else is any more. But he is. But he knows he's got less than a year, maybe six months, to make it work. If it fails, I expect the withdrawal process to begin next fall."

Part four, absurd as it sounds, is to spend more money trying to train Iraqis who we've armed and allowed to run amok that they must learn to stop running amok. Oh, and we're going to cut the religious leaders out of the deal too.

The implication of the article is that Bush is trying to influence Baker to bring him a proposal like this. The terms of the proposal are just crazy enough to be a real reflection of what Bush is 'thinking' (again, my term).

That appears to be strengthened by the story in today's WaPo about the administration's own review of the strategy in Iraq:

President Bush formally launched a sweeping internal review of Iraq policy yesterday, pulling together studies underway by various government agencies, according to U.S. officials.

The initiative, begun after Bush met at the White House with his foreign policy team, parallels the effort by the bipartisan Iraq Study Group to salvage U.S. policy in Iraq, develop an exit strategy and protect long-term U.S. interests in the region. The two reviews are not competitive, administration officials said, although the White House wants to complete the process before mid-December, about the time the Iraq Study Group's final report is expected....

One component of the larger effort is likely to be a military review initiated in mid-September by Marine Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff. His assessment of U.S. anti-terrorism efforts, with a core focus on Iraq, includes 16 top commanders meeting daily to brainstorm on questions such as "Where are we going? What are we trying to do? Are we going to get there this way?" according to a joint staff spokesperson.

"Nothing is off the table. They are looking at the whole spectrum of less forces, more forces," a senior defense official said. But the military is keeping close control over its review, which "is completely separate from the Iraq Study Group and not connected with any political effort that might also be going on. This is the chairman's. . . . There is no intent for it to be folded in or incorporated in someone else's bigger product," the joint staff spokesperson said.

Two observations. First, the phrase "less forces, more forces" strikes me as pointing rhetorically, if unintentionally, toward the latter. Anybody who describes the "whole spectrum" of ideas this way is, to my mind, seriously considering sending more troops. Whether or not the troops exist won't matter ultimately; we are talking about the work of the President's lap dog, Gen. Peter Pace.

Secondly, the spokesperson protests too much that they're not trying to influence anybody else's analysis of what to do. A reasonably clear sign, I think, that Bush is trying to use this military study to nudge the ISG in the direction he wants to take.

So is Bush going to try to fall forward in Iraq? I think it goes without saying that if he does, he will fall flat on his face again. The prospect is gruesome.

The real stakes are these: If Bush takes this path then hundreds more of our soldiers and marines, and many thousands more Iraqis, will fall for real and forever during the next year. All of this to permit George Bush to try to shake off the blame for his own unmitigated failure.

From Unbossed

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

  "The only sin that has its own advocacy group"

Long-time readers may remember that Milo has been searching for months for a cheap, dependable used 'pre-owned' Pierce Arrow. After the election, somebody gave him a lead on one in North Carolina so he headed down there. Anyway, Milo was on hand for an interesting Baptist synod, and he sent me this news report thinking that all y'all might want to hear about it.

I have to say, this is fascinating stuff. Is it possible that the voters' rejection of the culture of arrogance and extremism last Tuesday finally got the attention of these Baptist leaders? This kind of back-to-basics reform usually doesn't spring up out of the blue, but coming unexpectedly as it does (after Baptists denied for years that such a problem needs addressing), it might just grow into a national reform movement.

So I for one welcome their interest in turning back the epidemic of greed and corruption that has swept the nation. It's a pleasure to see religious leaders turning their hands to good works. You'll want to read the whole article, but here is a selection:

North Carolina Baptists Strengthen Rules on Usury

The Baptist State Convention of North Carolina voted Tuesday to cut ties with congregations that affirm or approve of usury, formally adopting a rigid anti-greed policy that allows the group to investigate whether member churches are greed friendly.

The policy adopted by the North Carolina convention, which includes more than 4,000 member churches and 1.2 million members, is even stricter than that of the national Southern Baptist Convention, according to a more liberal Baptist organization.

"It's not something that we wanted to do, but avarice is the only sin that has its own advocacy group," convention spokesman Norman Jameson said. "Those advocacy groups are pushing us into this stance. Other denominations that waffle and waver on the issue year after year are getting torn apart."

The vote changes the convention's long-standing laws, which previously only required its members to support the convention through cooperation and financial contributions. Now any churches that "knowingly act to affirm, approve, endorse, promote, support or bless usury" will be barred from membership.

"This action does not mean that you should avoid ministry to the money-lending community," said convention executive director Milton Hollifield Jr. "Even though we believe that covetousness is wrong, we still love and engage those in this lifestyle."

The convention's board of directors adopted a similar anti-greed policy in 1992, but its members had never voted to include the policy in its written articles of incorporation. And that past rule, unlike the one approved Tuesday, didn't give the convention the authority to investigate greed-friendly churches.

Now, should two church members request an inquiry, the convention has the formal authority to act.

"It did not have teeth in it like it needed to have," said convention president Stan Welch. "There was a general policy in place, and we needed something to say, 'We're going to act upon this and we're going to follow through with it.'"

Sixteen churches in North Carolina will come under immediate scrutiny under the policy, Jameson said. Those churches are associated with Raptor Loans, a Washington D.C.-based group that specializes in payday loans to military personnel. Last year they loaned $185,000 to the Convention's faithful, Jameson said, at an interest rate of over 400% per annum.

The Alliance of Baptists said the new policy is stronger than a similar policy adopted by the Nashville, Tenn.-based Southern Baptist Convention - the nation's largest Protestant body. The Southern Baptists changed their constitution in 1993 to say that "churches which act to affirm, approve, or endorse usury" are not eligible for membership.

"But the Southern Baptist Convention didn't go around trying to meddle with and investigate predatory lenders," said Jeanette Holt, associate director for The Alliance of Predatory Lenders. "This new policy sounds to me like an interfering witch hunt."

Quite a few Baptists are up in arms about this new policy, and scriptural citations are flying fast and furious. After I read Milo's report, I did a little further searching through North Carolina news accounts and found this report about the controversy.

Nathan Parrish, a member of the convention's board of directors and pastor of Peace Haven Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, spoke against creating another level of oversight for churches -- and of the need for "conversations'' instead of ''casting stones.''

"It seems so contrary to ... Jesus in the Gospels,'' Parrish said. "He was open, vulnerable, humble -- a matter of inclusion that often got him in trouble with religious people. ...We must each decide whether this amendment honors Jesus. ... I say no."

Those who voted against the amendment said they do not approve of usury but feel more important matters face the church.

"I believe that avarice is sinful behavior, but it is not the only sinful behavior in the Bible," said Don Gordon, pastor of Yates Baptist Church in Durham. "Every generation has had its troubles. ... Let's focus on addressing the most pressing issues -- spiritual emptiness, hunger, AIDS, poverty, egocentric leadership -- and in that, be a light for Jesus Christ and God who loves the whole world."…

The Baptist measure would not bar corrupt money-lenders or credit card company executives from the church's pews.

"We're trying to help them understand how Jesus came to make new creatures out of all of us," said Milton Hollifield, executive director of the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina….

Messengers left the convention floor with the same sentiments in which they came.

"We certainly won't be walking down the streets of heaven with people who've been lending money at crippling interest rates," said Ray Seeley of Mount Zion Baptist Church in Canton. "If they have a change in their lifestyle, I believe in bringing them in and loving them. If they do not change, they shouldn't even ask to be baptized -- that would be baptizing sin in the church. "

I'm really not able to enter into this debate in a meaningful way, since I'm not a resident of North Carolina any longer. But perhaps others have opinions about the rights and wrongs of singling out for condemnation a single one of the 'sins' mentioned in the Good Book?

From Unbossed

Monday, November 13, 2006

  What kinds of investigations will we get into the run-up to the Iraq war?

What committees will be investigating the run-up to the Iraq war; the misuse of intelligence; the collusion between the US and UK governments? What will their goals be? What writ will they have from the new leadership? The Democrats are slowly figuring this out.

It's pretty clear that Sen. Rockefeller will push to complete the "Phase Two" investigation in the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. In the House, however, it remains unclear whether such hearings will proceed at all. For in the House, findings by a committee that the President and Vice President engaged in wrongdoing could well lead to articles of impeachment being introduced before the Judiciary Committee. If hearings are held, then, the way is open at least in theory to making a real show of holding these men accountable for their actions. And everybody knows that it would be difficult to hold hearings and avoid the conclusion that the administration deceived Congress and the nation (to say the least) in the run-up to war.

One of the big questions is whether Rep. Conyers will actually press for hearings in the House. For about a year, after the appearance of the Downing Street memo in May 2005, Conyers very publicly pushed for hearings. He held his own meeting in the Capitol in June 2005, and in December he produced a lengthy report on the matter. On his website, he said he'd welcome evidence that might show that the President had committed impeachable offenses.

But then, as the election approached, Democrats tried to downplay any suggestion that they were 'out to get' (i.e. hold accountable) Mr. Bush. Rep. Conyers followed suit, walking back from his earlier and clearer positions. In May, he penned this op-ed evidently to soothe concerns. And subsequently, he's become less aggressive, and more vague, on the issue.

On Thursday he issued a statement through a staffer saying that impeachment hearings are "off the table". The statement is not available at his website and Rep. Conyers didn't make himself available to reporters to discuss it. So it's far from clear what this means to the question of whether he will press for hearings.

But a report in the Sunday Independent quotes one of Conyers' senior staffers saying that a full inquiry is still needed. I find that intriguing, at least. Meanwhile, a report in the same paper suggests that Tony Blair's political position is deteriorating. Pressure is mounting on him from several fronts, including demands for answers about planning for the Iraq war. I thought I might treat these issues together, because they both affect the question of how thoroughly Congress and Parliament will investigate the background to the war, and how eager they will be to uncover new information.

The one thing we know about the situation in the US, is that nobody yet knows what will happen with any of this. I'm just assembling some evidence about where things stand on the question of whether and how to investigate. I'll sidestep the question of whether Bush and Cheney will or should be impeached as the result of such investigations.

In a May op-ed (WaPo), Rep. Conyers' position on holding hearings on the run-up to the Iraq war was as follows (see also this dKos post from August):

[Republicans alleged that] I, as the new chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, would immediately begin impeachment proceedings against President Bush.

I will not do that....The allegations I have raised are grave, serious, well known, and based on reliable media reports and the accounts of former administration officials.

But none of these allegations can be proved or disproved until the administration answers questions. For example, to know whether intelligence was mistaken or manipulated in the run-up to the Iraq war, we need to know what information was made available to -- and actually read by -- decision makers and how views contradicting the case for war were treated. ...

The administration's stonewalling, and the lack of oversight by Congress, have left us to guess whether we are dealing with isolated wrongdoing, or mistakes, or something worse. In my view, the American people deserve answers, not guesses. I have proposed that we obtain these answers in a responsible and bipartisan manner.

...partisan vendettas ultimately provoke a public backlash and are never viewed as legitimate.

So, rather than seeking impeachment, I have chosen to propose comprehensive oversight of these alleged abuses. The oversight I have suggested would be performed by a select committee made up equally of Democrats and Republicans and chosen by the House speaker and the minority leader.

The committee's job would be to obtain answers -- finally. At the end of the process, if -- and only if -- the select committee, acting on a bipartisan basis, finds evidence of potentially impeachable offenses, it would forward that information to the Judiciary Committee.

I really do not know how to square his subsequent statement that impeachment is "off the table" with this op-ed. It does raise the question, though, what the goal of any House hearings into the background of the Iraq war might be. If hearings produce credible evidence of high crimes, then doesn't impeachment have to be (back) "on the table"?

Yesterday, the day after Rep. Conyers issued his press release, the Boston Globe had this story about Democratic plans for investigations:

Despite the conciliatory language this week between the White House and the new leaders of Congress, Democrats expect to launch probes into the administration's use of prewar intelligence on Iraq and its domestic wiretapping program and into Vice President Dick Cheney's energy task force, current and former aides said. The goal, they said, will be to force changes by shedding light on problems with the existing policies....

James Manley, spokesman for Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada, said yesterday that the senator intended to "push to finalize" the investigation of whether the Pentagon under Donald H. Rumsfeld misused prewar intelligence about Iraq's arms programs....

Meanwhile, an aide to Representative John Conyers Jr., the Michigan Democrat slated to head the House Judiciary Committee, said the senator intends to hold hearings on the president's domestic wiretapping program, the subject of a bill Bush has yet to get passed. Conyers drew fire earlier this year from conservatives for issuing a report that concluded that Bush violated civil liberties and that could constitute an "impeachable offense."

But in a press release this week, he dismissed the idea that he would pursue impeachment, calling it a "right-wing effort to distort" his position. "The incoming speaker has said that impeachment is off the table," he said of Representative Nancy Pelosi of California . "I am in total agreement with her on this issue."

I'd seen few signs, recently, that the House still was planning to hold its own hearings into the run-up to the war. That's why I was particularly interested in this article in the Independent

Tony Blair, who narrowly defeated a recent parliamentary attempt to call an inquiry into the Iraq war, is facing a new threat from Washington, where victorious Democrats are expected to call British witnesses as they launch congressional investigations into the war.

"Now we are the majority party and we can hold hearings," said a senior member of the staff of John Conyers, who in January will become chair of the House Judiciary Committee. "We can hold any number of hearings."

Democratic Senators are also expected to seek hearings aimed at throwing light on how Downing Street and the White House co-ordinated efforts to claim that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. All the claims that led to war, from allegations that Saddam was reconstituting a nuclear weapons programme to his alleged links with al-Qa'ida, could come under examination. Unlike their counterparts in Britain, congressional committees have the crucial power to subpoena witnesses and documents.

...the Congressman's aide said full details about the decision to go to war had still not emerged. He added: "We are not in a position to say we know what happened or what came to be. We know what some whistle-blowers said, and some people who left the government, but there has never been a [full inquiry]."

No there hasn't, and one lively question is whether there will be one in the House of Representatives next year.

Another question, which I discussed recently here and here, is whether the British House of Commons is getting more aggressive (again, or perhaps finally) about conducting an honest and thorough investigation of the issue. The nearly two-year old Butler Inquiry, the closest thing to a full investigation, has never looked shabbier. It's increasingly clear that Butler ignored, falsified, or downplayed crucial evidence he was given of the Blair government's wrongdoing.

At this stage the British people really want some answers, as the wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan get ever worse. The Commons may finally be getting serious, too. As tomorrow's Independent reports:

Pressure for an inquiry in the UK will be renewed this week when MPs launch a fresh attempt to make the Government reveal its exit plan from Iraq. Leading backbenchers from all sides are preparing to table an amendment to the Queen's speech, a device that, if successful, would require ministers to explain in public what they are telling the US administration in private.

Kenneth Clarke, the former chancellor and leading Conservative war critic, and John McDonnell, the left-wing Labour MP challenging for the party's leadership, are among those backing the move.

During the second half of the 20th century, the Conservatives tabled only a single amendment to a Queen's speech (the annual address to the Commons summarizing the government's plans for the following year). So the very fact that Clarke is putting his name behind the proposal is a significant sign that war critics intend to step up their demands for answers.

Blair has shrugged off such demands for years, just as he's escaped more or less intact from many political scrapes that ought to have ended his career. I've lost count of the number of times I thought he was nearly finished. Blair is like a vampire; many in Labour are afraid to take him on, so they shelter him and let him go to ground when things get unpleasant.

So take any notion of Blair's imminent demise with a grain of salt. Still, I'm cautiously optimistic that Blair's political standing is beginning to deteriorate. A long-running scandal is beginning to ripen. Labour accepted large loans in 2004 from a few wealthy donors, and shortly thereafter Blair granted these men peerages. Nobody has quite pinned a charge of corruption on him, though, until now.

It turns out that Labour submitted false balance sheets for 2004 that neglected to mention the loans. That could be too bad for Blair, really really too bad, because his allies may now be ready to leave him in the lurch as his career is already winding down. From the Independent:

The widening of the investigation to look at accounting irregularities will significantly increase the pressure on Mr Blair, who is now considered by the police as the pivotal figure in the inquiry....

Senior Labour Party figures have told The Independent on Sunday that the party did not inform its own auditors that it had received the loans until the spring of 2006 - a year after the money arrived in the party's coffers....

The Scotland Yard team, led by Assistant Commissioner John Yates, is expected to interview Mr Blair in the next few weeks, with questions about the accounts....

They are considering whether there was a breach of the terms of the Political Parties Elections and Referendums Act 2000, which includes an offence of concealment or disguise...

Meanwhile, cabinet ministers have turned up the heat on Mr Blair by telling detectives they cannot explain why he nominated secret donors for peerages. They believe "the net is closing in" on Mr Blair after Mr Yates wrote to every member of the Cabinet last week....

One minister described Mr Yates's letter as a "fishing expedition", but also said that it was clear evidence that the net was now closing in on the PM.

It's my hope that the rats are beginning to desert Mr. Blair, as this corruption scandal finally begins to entrap him. And perhaps, with fewer Labour MPs shielding him, the Commons can force a serious inquiry into the biggest scandal of all, how Tony Blair conspired with George Bush to gin up the war against Iraq.

I won't express any confidence about progress this time. But the truth has to come out some day. Why not now? You get the sense that war critics in Britain were emboldened by the Democrats' victory last week. Maybe, just maybe, we'll begin to get some answers from Britain that Democrats in the Senate--or even in the House--can put to good use.