Inconvenient News,
       by smintheus

Friday, December 29, 2006

  Operation Yellow Gasbag

The usual suspects among the chattering class have already lined up to lend intellectual respectability to the policy of more-of-the-same in Iraq. They believe their job is to reassure the public that as a class they should still be trusted, so that when George Bush gets around to announcing his 'new' plan, it will not be greeted with the outrage it will deserve. The time to shut these gasbags up is now, for the good of the country, and the way to do it is by humiliating them as they deserve.

How? By peppering each of them, their sponsors, and the media that give them voice, with demands for accountability. Why should our troops alone bear the burden of failure heaped upon them by this administration and its apologists?

We can separate the apologists from the politicians by putting the chattering class on notice that it too bears responsibility for the fiasco, and that any escalation will increase its own culpability. Without his gasbags, let's see Bush try to sell more-of-the-same.

We need an "Operation Yellow Gasbag."

Caught between continued support for a failed presidency, on the one hand, and the prospect of exposure as incompetents, demands for actual accountability for their incompetence, ridicule for their hypocrisy, and an existential threat to their cushy profession of gasbaggery, on the other, they'll gladly push George Bush off a cliff. There's a reason for that peculiar gleam in their eyes; for that s**t-eating grin they flash on air; for that indifference to fact and argument. They're committed to expediency.

There is no point in hoping that decency or sense will prevail on them to oppose the escalation. They've been consistently wrong about Iraq from the outset, they've spun the Bush administration's fantasies, they've endorsed and excused its mistakes. More-of-the-same is the best option, for now, for themselves. Always has been.

It was the same in earlier, disastrous wars of choice. The people who rightly opposed the wars are excluded immediately from debates within the government, and in the public sphere they're all but shut out by the war-mongers. No matter how disastrous and prolonged the war, those who are consistently in the wrong retain their grip upon the debate about "the way forward". It was the story during the Vietnam War. Advocates for sanity were ridiculed as fools, and as the casualties mounted, the determination of the hawks to keep them marginalized from the public debate also increased. The situation during the First World War was the same as well. There was never any accountability for the hawks, never any real chance for those who'd been right all along to get heard much less to influence policy.

In every instance, the result is that governments keep propounding more-of-the-same as the way out of the mess. The slightest variation in tactics is dressed up as a glorious innovation, the secret to the success that had until that moment eluded the nation's brilliant leadership. It always has to be more-of-the-same, however, because any true innovation would call into question the brilliance of those who had been advocating the failed policies. More-of-the-same usually looks like escalation. What the nation needs is not wholly new policies to replace the disastrous one, nor wholly new leaders to replace the ones who dreamed up the disastrous policies; what the nation needs are bigger and better versions of the policies that have not yet had sufficient time to succeed.

Anything else would be an admission of incompetence, which practically demands accountability. And we can't have that, can we?

Well, maybe we can. If not from Bush Co., then at least from the gasbags who would happily facilitate another round of more-of-the-same. Some in their professional positions are more vulnerable to criticism than others. But each of them is subject to personal humiliation and none can count on access to the media appearances they crave. Hit them there hard, now, and the acclamations that greet Bush's announcement of the "new" way forward will not be quite what he's bargained for.


I'm proposing that, by every avenue possible, these wankers should be peppered with questions about competence and accountability.

Why is President Bush listening to advice only from people like them, who have been wrong consistently about Iraq?

Wouldn't it be preferable to hear instead from people who have been right from the beginning about Iraq?

Why should anybody any longer listen to pronouncements about Iraq from those who have been consistently wrong?

Why don't they have the decency to retreat from public view and cease making pronouncements about Iraq, when they've demonstrated that their expertise consists in getting things wrong?

When and how are they going to be held responsible for their incompetence? Is there any accountability for those who advocate for a disastrous war?

When are they going to enlist and join the escalation in Iraq that they advocate?

Since they cannot answer these questions, if pressed the yellow gasbags will have to retreat. The other day one of these wankers, war-monger Michael O'Hanlon of Brookings, appeared on the call-in program Radio Times (WHYY, Philadelphia). He endorsed escalation "reluctantly", while admitting that it probably won't work and that a year from now Bush will have to come up with a "Plan B". O'Hanlon also advocates expanding the Army by enlisting foreigners and promising them citizenship. Shades of the late Roman Empire.

Image Hosted by ImageShack.usThe first question put to him, 'Why should anybody pay attention to what you have to say when you've always been wrong about Iraq?', led to something that sounded, on my radio, like a gasbag explosion. O'Hanlon hemmed and hawwed, and sputtered that he'd actually been right before the war about a few (trivial) things, which (he claimed) had momentarily discomfited some of the more shameless Bush-apologists.

Such questions cut close to the bone. The wankers are desperate to avoid them, as O'Hanlon demonstrated. The host pressed him on the question of why Bush is consulting only with people who've been consistently wrong on Iraq, and he immediately volunteered that Bush should have fired all his advisors because of their incompetence.

A few simple, barbed questions about accountability, and suddenly it's every man for himself. It shouldn't be too terribly difficult to turn these war-mongers against each other, snarling like rabid lambs, each trying to retain a seat in front of the microphones. You can see that that is exactly what O'Hanlon prizes from the boast in his Brookings bio:

O’Hanlon has appeared on the major television networks more than 150 times since September 11, 2001 and has contributed to CNN, MSNBC, BBC, and FOX some 300 times over that same period.

Who in the hell counts up their television appearances? And who subdivides the tally between major and minor networks? It's pathetic, but all too characteristic. These people are desperate self-promoters living in fear that their pretensions to omniscience will be exploded and the microphones snatched away. O'Hanlon, for example, claims to be an expert in eleven areas of national and international policy (including expertise in several Asian countries). Yet he speaks only a single foreign language (French) and his undergraduate degree was in physics.

This know-it-all has been wrong about virtually everything important in Iraq (one of his proclaimed areas of expertise), such as when he congratulated Bush for denying that a civil war had broken out this spring. That was, by his own admission, the day after 30 headless bodies were discovered en masse. And a full year after we began seeing headlines regarding the systematic kidnapping and torture committed by Iraqi Interior Ministry forces, he writes drivel like this:

If the country begins to descend toward civil war, the temptation of many [Iraqi security forces] will be to take sides in the sectarian strife rather than stop it.

Puffed up experts such as this are frauds who can only retain their grip upon respectability by avoiding scrutiny of their record. The targets of "Operation Yellow Gasbag" are easy targets, like WWI-era dirigibles tethered overhead. That is all the more true now that the plan for "choosing victory" involves an escalation with troops the US simply doesn't have, a plan the public is overwhelmingly against in any case.

Image Hosted by ImageShack.usWhy shouldn't wanker of the month, Fred Kagan ("The ground forces must accept longer tours for several years. National Guard units will have to accept increased deployments during this period."), be asked to put aside his military studies, pick up a rifle, and escalate his own fanny over to Iraq? He's been wrong more often than not about Iraq, so he'd be doing a public service by leaving the pontificating to others.

Who needs O'Hanlon's foreign mercenaries? We have enough war-mongering Yellow Gasbags floating around Washington to sustain any size escalation in Iraq for as long as Fred Kagan would like. Some are just a tad doughy—Jonah Goldberg springs to mind—others are smart alecky and smarmy—William Kristol will have a rough time of it—but the Marines are used to whipping clowns like that into shape.


How can we introduce the Yellow Gasbags to the idea of accountability? Let's hound the heck out of them in coming weeks, beginning with private correspondence. A raft of humiliating questions, hurled over the transom, can be paralyzing to the self-proclaimed expert, the fragile public intellectual, and the paragon of manliness. It's hard to make your prose strut and swagger, when you're dodging questions such as...

Aren't your particular skills better suited to cleaning latrines in Anbar Province?

The more publicity the Yellow Gasbag seeks, the easier it becomes to demand accountability. His opinion columns call for pointed rebuttal via LTEs. And his network appearances ought to be greeted, in advance, with a deluge of questions about accountability. There's no reason why he should not be asked by every host on air: What if anything he has gotten right about Iraq, why he doesn't defer to those who have been right from the start, and when he's going to hold himself accountable for what he got wrong?

The Yellow Gasbag will distance himself from this escalation in Iraq only when it becomes clear that Bush's apologists face continued humiliation and, even worse, creeping irrelevance.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

  Detainee # 902: Bisher al-Rawi

Worldwide so many have been kidnapped for no good reason and dragged off to gulags in George Bush's "war on terror" that it's easy, perhaps even reassuring, to forget that each is an individual, each lost his day of freedom in a sudden catastrophe, each was swept up and dumped into an indistinct mass of human misery at the outer edges of civilization. This is the story of one such man, Bisher al-Rawi.

The background and history to his detention at Guantanamo is so complex that it has been daunting even to begin writing about his circumstances. But the essential points are fairly easy to explain.

The U.S. has lodged only vague and absurd accusations against Bisher, based upon exceedingly thin evidence. It strained to portray seemingly innocent statements and acts in a sinister light. It ignored the force of Bisher's counter-arguments. It refused to investigate the exculpatory evidence he presented. And the U.S. has deflected a request from Britain for his return.

The process by which he has been judged an "enemy combatant" is outlandish.

Several weeks ago I posted America's slaves, the first part of a commentary on Bush's network of gulags. Bisher's American lawyer, George Brent Mickum, read the post and contacted me about his client. He forwarded a good many documents, which I've poured over. These include, among other things, official documentation from Guantanamo and copies of Bisher's hand-written notes as he tried to prepare his defense (without meaningful access to legal counsel).

Image Hosted by ImageShack.usIn all this documentation, everything I have seen tends to support and confirm an account of Bisher's life in London, subsequent kidnapping in Gambia, and interrogation and abuse at the hands of Americans, which Brent Mickum published on March 16, 2006 in the Independent. In this post I don't plan to narrate those events, so I won't bother to repeat what Mickum has stated so clearly. There is also a brief, excellent overview of the known facts at Wikipedia. It has links to several documents I will discuss in this and future posts (their authenticity is not in dispute).

The issue of Bisher's detention now has an added urgency because his mental health has begun to deteriorate. From the Financial Times:

A UK resident held at Guantánamo in Cuba may be losing his mind in solitary confinement even as the British government is negotiating his release, according to lawyers and British members of parliament....

One lawyer, Zachary Katznelson, last saw Mr Rawi five weeks ago. He said he was kept in his cell 22 hours a day with lights on continually. "I am gravely concerned about his mental condition," he told the FT.

"In my first visit, Bisher verged on hysteria at times. His laughter was too strong, too loud and long - almost manic. The second visit, Bisher had a very hard time focusing on any one topic. He repeatedly went off on tangents, some relevant, some not."

Image Hosted by

The negotiations for his release have been going on for more than half a year, and behind them lies a tangled tale of intrigue. There's no good reason why the delays should continue one day longer, however. For two years pressure has been building in Britain for Bisher's release. It's time to add some pressure in the US.

After many rebuffs and delays, in March 2006 then Foreign Secretary Jack Straw finally agreed to ask the U.S. to release Bisher al-Rawi back to Britain. Bisher's family and lawyers had long urged the British government to intervene because, as he stated at his military tribunal, he had been working undercover for MI5 before his kidnapping in Gambia. Many of the allegations made against Bisher at Guantanamo stemmed from this work in London with MI5, as the British government sought to keep track of a Muslim cleric (Abu Qatada) whom Bisher knew.

In November 2002, a week or two after the British arrested Qatada and took him into permanent custody (without charging him, astonishingly enough), Bisher took a trip to Gambia where he was arrested and handed over to the CIA—with knowledge and presumably the complicity of MI5.

Therefore Bisher's supporters in Britain have argued that MI5 used and discarded him like a pawn, and though he is a long-time resident rather than a citizen of Britain, they maintained that the British government ought to seek his release.

However the British government tried to wash its hands of Bisher al-Rawi, until public pressure became too great to ignore. Part of the pressure, you'll note, arose through a skilful media campaign. There have been a good many newspaper articles about his case.

MI5 wanted to avoid any comment whatever on a connection to Bisher. When he appeared before a Combatant Status Review Tribunal at Gitmo in 2004, Bisher gave lengthy testimony about his work for MI5 and he asked the Tribunal to call the MI5 agents he worked with in order that they could testify to these facts. Although these same agents had actually shown up in Gitmo to interrogate him, the Tribunal refused to require their testimony and claimed it could not possibly identify them. The head of the Tribunal did request comment from MI5, but the agency refused to confirm or deny the facts that Bisher had testified to, and would not comment on any connection it had to him. That is a measure of how embarrassing his kidnapping and detention has become.

The Blair government likewise did not much like being put on the spot, even though Attorney General Goldsmith has called for the closure of Gitmo and declared the military tribunals to be unacceptable. For the case of Bisher al-Rawi exposed the complicity of Tony Blair in feeding people into George Bush's spiderweb. Here is an excellent report from the WaPo in April:

The British Foreign Office released a statement last week denying complicity by the British government: "The United Kingdom did not request the detention of the claimants in the Gambia and did not play any role in their transfer to Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay."

A Foreign Office spokeswoman said she could not answer questions because of a pending lawsuit seeking to force the British government to intercede on the men's behalf. On March 22, the government said it would ask for Rawi's release; its previous position was that it could not intercede for a non-British citizen.

The case has caused a political uproar in Britain. Critics say the documents show the British government has helped place people in Guantanamo, despite its claims that the prison is strictly a U.S. operation.

A parliamentary committee is investigating. "The key issue that certainly concerns me is whether our government, the British government, was involved in something that I would consider to be unlawful," said Andrew Tyrie, the committee chairman. "I don't want to live in a country that could be complicit in such abuses."

When Jack Straw finally gave into pressure, therefore, it was only very grudgingly. The British Treasury Solicitors' letter to Bisher's British lawyer confirming the decision to ask for his release, dated March 22, 2006, is awash in evasion. It states that Bisher's claims about working for MI5 are "inaccurate in very many respects" (unspecified), but never the less the government would ask the U.S. for his release for other reasons (unspecified) "on the basis of shared UK/US counter-terrorism objectives"—even though, it points out, the government is not legally obliged to ask for his release.

However, the Foreign Secretary has investigated these matters and has concluded that there is a basis on which it would be possible to approach the US Government on Mr Al Rawi's behalf with some reasonable prospect of success, and without causing significant counterproductive effects....

[These matters] would offer a reasonable prospect in Mr Al Rawi's case of affording grounds which might be acceptable to the US authorities to encourage them to allow his release.

The almost total lack of empathy in this letter is stunning, as of course is its cynicism. The attempt to distance the government from any connection to Bisher al-Rawi is crude and unconvincing, by my reading of the document (it does not appear to be available on line). The tone of the letter reveals a lot about the attitude of the British government regarding its responsibilities to Bisher al-Rawi. "Indifference" is the term I'm searching for, I think.

In April, Straw submitted a formal request to the US for Bisher's return, as the Guardian reported.

The letter from Mr Straw represents a major U-turn for the British government, which had refused to help Mr Rawi, an Iraqi citizen who has been resident in the UK for 17 years.

Mr Rawi took the British government to court last month, claiming he had been helping MI5 to keep track of Abu Qatada, who western intelligence agencies claim provides spiritual support to al-Qaida. Government officials did not deny that Mr Straw's change of heart was to do with Mr Rawi's links with MI5. It is also alleged that British security services passed false information to the US which led to the arrest of Mr Rawi and other men he was travelling with when they arrived in Gambia in 2002....

Mr Rawi's lawyer in the US, Brent Mickum, said: "I see this as a positive development. I'm only left to ask the question what took so long. Did they need the judicial challenge to do the right thing?"

However the U.S. made a counter-offer to the British request for reasons that are far from clear. The administration certainly does not care to admit that any of these men have been held for years with little cause. The return of residents to Britain is a particularly touchy subject for the Bush administration because they would be in contact immediately with journalists who are both willing and able to expose to public scrutiny the conditions the detainees had to endure at Guantanamo.

The US has offered to return nine British residents being detained at Guantanamo Bay, provided they are kept under 24-hour surveillance if set free in the UK, it was reported today.

The offer was made in June this year during secret talks in Washington, but was refused by the Government on the grounds that as the men were foreign nationals, they have no legal right to return.

Although the men are accused of terrorist involvement, British officials say that there is not enough evidence to justify the level of surveillance demanded by the US and that the strict conditions stipulated are unworkable and unnecessary, according to documents obtained by The Guardian.

"They do not pose a sufficient threat," the head of counter-terrorism at the Home Office is quoted as saying by the newspaper.

As the Guardian stated:

The possible security arrangements appear to have caused months of wrangling, but senior UK sources have told the Guardian the government is interested in accepting only one man - Bisher al-Rawi - who is now known to have helped MI5 keep watch on Abu Qatada, the London-based Muslim cleric and al-Qaida suspect who was subsequently arrested.

At least nine former British residents have been detained without trial at Guantánamo for more than four years after being taken prisoner in the so-called war on terror. Their lawyers say some have suffered appalling mistreatment.

With the US government anxious to scale down and eventually close its prison at the Cuban base, however, the US state department is putting pressure on the British government to allow some to return. Foreign Office officials have denied that any talks have taken place....

As well as arguing that none of the former residents has a legal right to return to the UK, British officials are concerned that human rights legislation would forbid the deportation of any who are permitted to return. However, the supreme court ruling means that it may be impossible for the US to return them to the countries of their birth if there is a risk of them facing persecution. "The result is that the arguments are going around and around like a washing machine cycle," said one official familiar with the talks.

I won't pretend to understand the politics being played by the UK or US governments. Here is the Financial Times again:

Mr Mickum said US authorities had placed a "tonne of conditions on his release" that the UK could not accept. But he also accused the British government of not doing enough to secure his release following a commitment it made last March to do so.

What is clear about these negotiations is in any case more fundamental: Both countries are continuing to treat this man as a pawn in their game-of-terror, rather than a human being with human rights.

To give but one example, which I think speaks volumes about the crass manipulation of Mr. al-Rawi. I have a U.S. document from Gitmo, dated August 22, 2006. It is the summary of evidence for a pending administrative review board in Bisher al-Rawi's case, and my copy has his scribbled notes in the margin. It lists several categories of reasons why Bisher should be kept in detention: (a) commitment [to the cause of al Qaida]; (b) connections/associations; and (c) other relevant data.

Under (c), there is this remarkable statement.

"The detainee considered Saddam Hussein an enemy of the Iraqi people. The detainee also considered all enemies of Iraq as his enemies too. The detainee said that, theoretically, the United States would fall into the latter category."

Bisher's scribbled comment asks, reasonably:

"What does Saddam got to do with me and Gitmo. The statement is true, but what relevance does it have here except causing me problems in the outside world. This is part of a conversation in Gambia before the invasion of Iraq, and I was making a clear statement that I was an Iraqi and not ashamed of it."

Here we have one example, of many I could point to, where interrogators clearly are twisting every statement of personal opinion, every admission of a point of view (which Bisher seems to be very free and candid with, in my judgment), into some kind of basis for suspicion. I'm sure that the irony is not lost on you, the reader, that in this case it is Bisher's condemnation of the tyrant Saddam Hussein, George Bush's bete noir, which is being used as a weapon against him.

The simple truth seems to be that Bisher al-Rawi was a pawn when MI5 was using him in London, and to this day he remains a pawn on the international stage.

It's past time that should stop. I believe it's time for the US government to hear that its own citizens are fed up with detainees being mistreated. There's no excuse to pretend that it is not our concern that our own government treats detainees as something less than human. We should not leave it entirely up the detainees' lawyers to make the public case for treating them Bisher's lawyer, George Mickum, has done rather eloquently:

In these cases, it is necessary to grow calluses on one's heart to prevent bleeding to death. The legal expertise of lawyers like me is probably less important than the willingness to trumpet wrongdoing in the hope of finding a receptive ear.

That's what I'm doing.

Crossposted at Unbossed

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

  An update on the Pentagon report about Iraq

Chris Floyd at Empire Burlesque took to heart my complaint about the difficulty of downloading the PDF of the Pentagon's report on Iraq, which I wrote about here yesterday. He has now posted a much more accessible HTML version of the Pentagon report. Kudos to CF.

Now you've got no excuse not to peruse the document, if you haven't already. The executive summary is mind-numbingly vague and exceedingly sanitized. Anybody who stopped reading at the executive summary and did not carefully examine the details, and strip away the Pentagon spin from them, might easily overlook the fact that this document is describing an extremely messy civil war.

By now several news accounts about the Pentagon report have appeared: WaPo, the Associated Press, Reuters, and the NYT.

I thought I would comment here on what these news reports fail to do.

None of the news accounts digs at all deeply into the document; none summarizes more than a very few of the embarrassing revelations, even those the Pentagon explicitly acknowledges in the text; none bothers to consider the information that is buried in graphic form but ignored in the text (as I did); none looks into the slippery statistical methodologies, shifting/tendentious units of reference, and such tricks that the Pentagon employs (as several commenters have remarked, especially cadejo4, shirah and lcbo); none of the news reports pokes its finger into gaps that the document tries to paper over (such as the gap between the nominal numbers of trained Iraqi security forces, and the actual numbers).

Not one of these news accounts so much as hints that the report is evasive or unreliable, even less that the Pentagon has turned it into a piece of propaganda.

And how far would one have to dig to discover that? Just for fun, let's look at the very first section of the report (after the executive summary): "1.1 Political stability" (p. 9).

In the first sentence, we learn that "the political milestones for democracy in Iraq have been completed." Quite.

But all is not entirely well, admits the Pentagon: "In October 2006, there were more Iraqis who expressed lack of confidence in their government's ability to improve the situation than there were in July 2006." That's putting it rather mildly, isn't it?

Thereafter the very first actual details we get in the report, beginning in the second paragraph, concern a solution to the "terror, murder, sabotage, extortion, bribery, and corruption" that is undermining Iraqis' confidence: Nouri al-Maliki's "national reconciliation program".

Yes, the next page is a gushing tribute to all the topics that Maliki says he'd like to incorporate in a national reconciliation agreement. We're also given a sunny but vague description of the first two in a series of conferences he held with Iraqis in pursuit of an agreement.

Most of us, I think, realized back in June or July at the latest that this national reconciliation plan was dead on arrival. The Pentagon report pretends otherwise, however, even though it admits that one of the "planned" conferences "has not been scheduled", and another on political reconciliation "has been postponed several times". The latter, we're told with a straight face...

may provide participants with an opportunity to make concessions and reach agreements that could lead to constitutional amendments in the hopes of solidifying Iraqi unity and security. At a minimum, the conference could improve the atmosphere for crafting amendments in the CoR. Such amendments might provide political and legal structures that would allow other initiatives—such as the Maliki Peace Initiative, de-Ba'athification reform, and the demilitarization of Iraq--to proceed.

In other words, you need only to read the first two pages of the full Pentagon report before it becomes unmistakably clear that it is more interested in fantasy than fact. Somehow, the newspaper accounts neglected to tell their readers this.

  Pentagon tries to dump the disastrous news

The Bush administration, always bursting with embarrassing information, is famously addicted to the document-dump. I discovered long ago that the ritual dumps on Friday evenings had become so widely anticipated that the White House began experimenting with Thursday document-dumps. But any convenient day for burying the bad news will be welcome among this gang.

Given that Robert Gates was sworn in as the new Defense Secretary yesterday, I naturally went looking to see what information the Pentagon would be flushing out the back. The website did not make it particularly easy to discover where the trash was buried. No mention on the "Today in DOD" or the "News releases" pages.

But eventually I smelled it out. I knew there would be something, somewhere. It's the week before Christmas.

Yesterday, it turns out, the Pentagon released to the public its quarterly report on the situation in Iraq, as mandated by Congress. The study is dated November 30. So its public release had to wait a mere 19 days.

I got the distinct impression that the Pentagon would prefer if the information did not reach the public at all this quarter. Quite apart from how disastrous the situation in Iraq has become, there's also the undeniable fact that you really have to work a little harder to get any use from the report.

For one thing, it is an excessively large PDF file, with several blank pages, unnecessary use of color, and an active graphic on p. 31 (on which see below). Although the document is only 53 pages, downloading it without high-speed internet access is nearly prohibitively time-consuming.

Perhaps the Pentagon was just in the mood to lavish attention on the report this time around? Well, you wouldn't know it from the huge gaps in the discussion of the statistics collected from Iraq. What is missing? The statistics, that's what. The numbers usually aren't reported (except in the rare cases where the statistics seem encouraging). Generally you have to eyeball the multi-color charts and graphs, and assemble your own estimates of what the statistics would have been, had they been actually reported in the report. Often, when the situation is particularly dire, the breakdowns are so vague that you simply can't get close to an accurate picture via these charts.

Here is a collection of highly remarkable and inconvenient facts about Iraq that I've assembled from cross-examining the report (none stated explicitly anywhere in the document, however):

p. 27: Since January, sectarian executions have increased more than five-fold.

p. 25: Average weekly attacks are up more than 100% since summer 2005. Civilian casualties are nearly 3 times higher than they were a year ago. And as high as that rate was in the previous quarter, it continues to mount.

p. 45: The number of Iraqi battalions in combat dropped slightly during this quarter.

p. 42: Although the number of Iraqi security forces is said to have increased this quarter, the majority are Ministry of Interior forces, which have a phenomenally high (but unspecified) rate of absenteeism. Therefore the increased numbers are illusory.

p. 17-18: Since the start of the quarter, both oil production and electricity generation are down. Electricity is being generated at a slightly lower rate than in 2004, though unmet demand has greatly increased. Oil revenues are down since 2004.

p. 27: In every region of Iraq surveyed in October, the proportion of respondents who said they were somewhat or very concerned about the outbreak of civil war was never less than 25% (and perhaps a good deal higher, given the vagueness of the chart). That's substantially worse than the attitudes in a survey from November 2005.

p. 29: Between August and October, the confidence that Iraqis expressed in the ability of their government to protect them from violence dropped between 30 and 80% in many provinces. In most of the other provinces that did not witness steep drops, Iraqis already had virtually no confidence in the government.

Another feature of this report, on nearly every page, is the determination to find some way, any way, to put a more positive spin on the grim news. Typically, that involves finding a wider context in which the information appears less depressing.

For example, on p. 24 the chart depicting the average daily number of attacks by province manages to find two ways to draw the reader's attention to the fact that some of the most dangerous provinces have relatively low populations (as if that made matters better). There's even a bizarre "Population weighted map" of Iraq poking like a stick-pin into the center of the chart.

And when the report describes "the nature of the conflict", it begins by focusing on foreign fighters. It even claims that "a few foreign operatives are responsible for the majority of high-profile attacks" (p. 21), whatever the heck that means. Two pages later, the section concludes with a long discussion of the "foreign influence". Hence an understanding of the conflict begins and ends with those foreign meddlers.

There is a rather curious chart on p. 28 reporting how Iraqis responded to the question "How safe do you feel in your neighborhood?" Evidently the questioners did not feel safe enough to conduct the survey in Anbar province, but let's set that aside. In nearly half of Iraq, large majorities reported that they feel very safe. Wonderful news, then. Except, isn't it the case that neighborhoods are often the last bastions of safety in Iraq, that neighbors have cooperated in protecting each other and barricading their neighborhoods against outsiders—at least until the ethnic cleansing reaches such an intense pitch that the neighborhood is cracked open and the terror descends full bore upon people? So the question appears to be framed in such a way as to maximize the appearance of stability in certain regions that are beginning to be torn apart.

And then there are the weird maps on p. 31, which rapidly evolve in front of your eyes to drive home the point that during the last half year the Iraqi Army has taken the "lead responsibility" for "counter-insurgency operations" in much of the country. Except it is very far from clear that that is true, however, whatever "lead responsibility" could mean. Only in the fantasy world of the Pentagon's upper echelons do Iraqi Army units actually "take the lead" in joint operations with US forces. Mostly, they just fade away whenever things get tight. And in any case, the new provinces added since May, which the active little map draws such attention to, are mainly those that have few Sunni insurgents to begin with.

There's plenty of information in this report with which you could build a very grim picture of the situation in Iraq. But once you have actually obtained a copy of it, you've still got your work cut out for you. The Pentagon isn't much inclined, you see, to catalogue or explain the significance of facts it would really rather you didn't bother yourself with too terribly.

Monday, December 18, 2006

  Words of wisdom from Fred Kagan

Along with Henry Kissinger and Gen. Jack Keane (ret.), military historian Fred Kagan has been instrumental in convincing George Bush to heed his own demons. Bush is all set to reject the recommendations of the ISG, and every counsel of reason. Rather than seriously consider withdrawal from Iraq, Bush will probably gamble with more soldiers' lives in the faded hope that "one last push" will suddenly retrieve all his previous failures.

What a motley collection of advisors Bush has assembled. Kissinger's reputation for wisdom lies buried somewhere in the jungles of Vietnam—or is it Cambodia?

Keane too is in thrall to his own delusions. For example, this bravado just ignores the failed battle for Baghdad:

"The notion that we can’t provide protection for people in one of the capital cities of this world is just rubbish."

Jointly Keane and Kagan presented Bush with a plan last week that begins thus: "Victory is still an option in Iraq." If wishes were horses, their plan would constitute a stampede of stupidity.

So what kind of a fool is the plan's co-author, Fred Kagan?

Image Hosted by ImageShack.usA well-connected fool is Mr. Kagan. An AEI flunky, he's the son of neo-con Donald Kagan, founding member of PNAC. Both Kagans signed the infamous PNAC manifesto, Rebuilding America's Defenses.

Together in 2000 they published While America sleeps, which warned darkly that the U.S. was being dangerously complacent after the cold war, and called for bloated defense budgets. Their rather ridiculous book opens thus: "America is in danger." The book, which had almost nothing to say about any danger from terrorism, revealed instead an obsession with Iraq's alleged WMD program. It attempted to evoke the prophetic Churchill of the late 1930s, yet really it resembles the alarmist literature from around 1900 when British imperialists were all atizzy about German plans to conquer England—and similar nonsense.

Kagan père has built his academic career around regurgitating at length what Thucydides had to say about the Peloponnesian War, almost as if the rest of us had not read that brilliant historian. His son has established a record that, in its own way, is equally lacking in outward signs of common sense.

Here for example is Fred Kagan in late August/September 2003 discussing "the politics of regime change" under Bush:

When American (or U.N.) forces finally roll in to try to install a government of the variety desired, the locals frequently view them with mistrust and hostility. Some even become nostalgic for the old, brutal regime because they enjoyed a greater degree of security.

They may resent the fact that American bombs shattered their society and created a humanitarian crisis despite the fact that those bombs were carefully aimed to avoid harming them directly. They may equally resent U.S. efforts to install leaders suitable to American interests despite the pragmatic choices of the local populace. At a minimum, the normal functioning of the society in X has been crushed under the weight of “shock and awe,” and the absence of American ground forces has created a vacuum calling forth all of the baser and most violent instincts of the locals...

This description is not so much of Iraq but of Afghanistan. In Iraq the presence of the equivalent of four divisions provided the coalition with the ability to control Baghdad and Basra and, subsequently (and with some difficulty), Mosul, Tikrit, and other important population centers.

At that stage the 6 month old insurgency had laid bare deep resentments toward the U.S. among Iraqis and demonstrated there was no adequate plan for the occupation. Kagan acknowledges the growing criticisms of Bush, only to minimize and deflect them.

Two years later, in August 2005, he's still avoiding reality as he pontificates on line at the WaPo. Remember that this is months after the civil war had begun:

Understanding the feelings of Muslims is a complicated process that no one has yet been able to undertake with any confidence or high degree of accuracy, and so I do not think that it is at all clear that "our occupation of Iraq has inflamed Islamic hatred against the West."

Certainly we can agree that nobody in Kagan's circles at AEI has any record of accuracy in this regard, perhaps because they can't be bothered to read anything that doesn't confirm their prejudices. Only four months earlier, for example, Sen. Feingold had had this to say about what public opinion polls in the Middle East actually reveal:

According to a 2003 Pew Research Center survey, during 1999-2000, more than 50 percent of the people in surveyed countries held a favorable view of the U.S.... More recent surveys reveal a stark contrast with those figures and growing anti-American sentiment. Pew found that, by 2003, favorable views of the United States in these countries plummeted....Pew found that "the bottom has fallen out of Arab and Muslim support for the United States."

In the spring and summer of 2005, we in the west learned about a series of atrocities such as these committed by the new Iraqi government that had been installed by the U.S. With that in mind, read Fred Kagan's absurd assessment of why Iraqi Sunnis had taken up arms, again from August 2005:

The various opposition groups actively oppose the idea of creating a democracy in Iraq, some, like Zarqawi, because of their anti-democratic ideology, others because they are confident that they will not benefit from a democratic Iraq. Many of the former Ba'athists and Sunni revolutionaries fall into this category. These groups will not stop attacking the nascent Iraqi democratic regime just because America withdraws. On the contrary, there is every reason to expect their attacks to increase in intensity if we leave prematurely. One of the keys to political success in Iraq is to convince all of the discontented parties that there is no solution for them in violence.

Well that displays no particular insight, does it? Here is Kagan's response to a question about the wisdom of the U.S. remaining any longer to prop up the new regime.

Question: ...Finally, at this point will it really make any difference, other than to those of us who stand to lose out most precious family members, whether we stay the course another year or two or three? Isn't Iraq already destined to become a theocratic Islamic state politically and ideologically tied to Iran?

Fred Kagan: To take the last comment first, I am confident that it makes a great deal of difference whether we withdraw now or in several years' time.

Because the last year has improved things in Iraq so very much. He also claims that "there is every reason to believe that victory will be ours." I can only speculate that Fred Kagan had examined a very short list of reasons, if 'every' one of them led only toward victory.

Pressed to comment on the mistakes that the Bush adminstration had made in Iraq, Kagan demonstrates his capacity for forward thinking:

I am hopeful that we are finally beginning to recover from them somewhat, as the military situation improves (despite the suicide bombings) and as more Iraqi troops come on line. If we can stay the course over the next two years, I think we stand a good chance of seeing excellent progress.

So much for his foresight. What about his historical insights? You might also ponder this remarkable statement:

Question: Can we look to Vietnam for any lessons on the withdrawal?

Fred Kagan: Only if we want to lose.

And here is the military historian's thoughts about the value of discussing a basic historical question:

...we are well beyond the point at which the wisdom of invading Iraq is still relevant. It is unfortunate, in my opinion, that so many people still put so much effort into this argument, which distracts us from our critical task today.

And here is the military historian's thoughts about the nature of American military training:

Question: As I understand it, you believe our goal is to build a democracy in Iraq. Do you think the US military is trained for this purpose?

Fred Kagan: Actually, the U.S. military is astonishingly able to conduct such a mission.

But even a stopped clock is right every now and then.

Question: What happens if Iraq just dissolves into civil war? Already the Sunnis seem to mostly see the current government as an instrument of Shiite domination. And what point does this become someone else's fight? Our sons and daughters shouldn't die to save Shiite theocracy.

Fred Kagan: If Iraq dissolves into civil war it would be a catastrophe for the U.S. and the West. America and its allies must do everything in their power to prevent that from coming about.

That was in August 2005, remember. Well, heck, Kagan had already said something rather similar in January 2004, though at that time the catastrophic danger came, he said, from just the Sunni insurgency by itself:

Question: There have been mistakes made. What should be done now to make up, to some extent, for the mistakes in the past?

It's an incredibly hard question. We've gone down a very dangerous road. The most urgent thing that we have to do now is suppress the insurgency. If we turn over to an Iraqi government in a few months time a state in which there is significant ongoing insurgency, I think the likelihood of the success of that government is very low.

You have to wonder, therefore, how Kagan can claim that "victory is still an option" when the Iraqi government has been struggling for years with the insurgency...and much else besides; how Kagan can continue to talk about a "way forward" to victory after Iraq has descended not only into an intense civil war but indeed outright anarchy. The likelihood of success for the government remains "very low", apparently, but George Bush should carry on seeking the same goals as he has from the start?

As long as we're wondering about Kagan's intellectual honesty, we might also ponder this:

Question: Could you talk a little bit about how you would adjust U.S. policy at this point--- more troops, fewer troops? What positive steps are necessary to extricate ourselves from the Iraq mess?

Fred Kagan: I think we are really beyond the point, unfortunately, where we can increase the troop presence in Iraq for any period of time.... But if we would only sustain the current troop level now, the situation will gradually improve as more and more trained Iraqi troops become able to walk the streets and perform key missions. I would propose, therefore, holding the U.S. military presence pretty constant until at least the summer of 2007, when we can re-evaluate.

Kagan goes on to admit that the only way to sustain troop levels in Iraq is by expanding the Army. In fact, Kagan complained in January 2005 that Rumsfeld had dithered for years instead of increasing the size of the Army, as the occupation of Iraq required. Of course, that remains true to this day.

So how does this square with Kagan's claim now, in the Keane-Kagan plan (entitled Choosing Victory...I kid you not!), that "Victory is still an option in Iraq"? Because their plan is predicated upon sending about 50,000 more troops to Iraq. That's really all it takes to "choose victory", evidently:

We must send more American combat forces into Iraq and especially into Baghdad to support this operation. A surge of seven Army brigades and Marine regiments to support clear-and-hold operations starting in the Spring of 2007 is necessary, possible, and will be sufficient.

These forces, partnered with Iraqi units, will clear critical Sunni and mixed Sunni-Shi’a neighborhoods, primarily on the west side of the city.

After the neighborhoods have been cleared, U.S. soldiers and marines, again partnered with Iraqis, will remain behind to maintain security.

As security is established, reconstruction aid will help to reestablish normal life and, working through Iraqi officials, will strengthen Iraqi local government.

I'm surprised at the absolute confidence expressed in all those statements involving the verb "will"...particularly given Kagan's many abject failures at prognostication, a few of which I sampled earlier.

In any case, where are those 50,000 troops to be found? Why are we back at the point where it is possible again to "increase the troop presence in Iraq", whereas in August 2005 we were already beyond that point? Here are the plan's "answers":

The ground forces must accept longer tours for several years. National Guard units will have to accept increased deployments during this period.

Equipment shortages must be overcome by transferring equipment from non-deploying active duty, National Guard, and reserve units to those about to deploy. Military industry must be mobilized to provide replacement equipment sets urgently.

The president must request a dramatic increase in reconstruction aid for Iraq. Responsibility and accountability for reconstruction must be assigned to established agencies. The president must insist upon the completion of reconstruction projects. The president should also request a dramatic increase in CERP funds.

The president must request a substantial increase in ground forces end strength. This increase is vital to sustaining the morale of the combat forces by ensuring that relief is on the way. The president must issue a personal call for young Americans to volunteer to fight in the decisive conflict of this age.

My guess is that neither Fred Kagan nor his relatives will be volunteering to fight in "the decisive conflict of this age", the one in which there are still severe equipment shortages. In fact, I rather doubt that he'll be doing any of the reconstructing in Iraq either, any more than the corporations paid lavishly and long ago to reconstruct Iraq will be doing that work any time soon.

No, this "plan" is all about encouraging Bush to stick it to the troops that have already borne the brunt for his ill-conceived know, the one so many people unfortunately are putting too much effort into discussing. The troops are to be fobbed off with assurances that "relief is on the way".

In short, having sacked Donald Rumsfeld, Bush is now taking advice about "choosing victory" in Iraq from a different dim-witted, arrogant ideologue. That, evidently, is his "new way forward".

Friday, December 15, 2006

  Commons Committee lets cat out of the bag

On November 9, I wrote about the on-going struggle in the British House of Commons to break the stranglehold of the Official Secrets Act: More explosive charges from former British UN diplomat. Many MPs want to get documents out in public regarding the run up to the Iraq War, and Tony Blair's role in manipulating intelligence to make a case for invading Iraq.

Former British diplomat Carne Ross has been complaining for more than a year that the evidence he saw before the war demonstrated that Blair was definitely aware that his claims about Hussein's WMD ran counter to the evidence. Ross said as much long ago to the Butler inquiry, but his testimony was marked 'Secret' and never released to the public.

Well, last month Ross testified before a House of Commons committee, restating for them what he had earlier told Butler.

On Wednesday, he gave testimony to the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee in which he said he has finally decided to release to the Committee documents he posseses, particulary relating to the testimony that he gave to the Butler Inquiry, which have been kept secret until now. He thinks that it is long past time for them to be made public.

Since then, the Blair government has been trying to prevent the Committee from releasing its copy of Ross' testimony to the Butler inquiry.

Today, the Committee published that testimony, as the Independent reports:

The Government's case for going to war in Iraq has been torn apart by the publication of previously suppressed evidence that Tony Blair lied over Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction....

In the testimony revealed today Mr Ross, 40, who helped negotiate several UN security resolutions on Iraq, makes it clear that Mr Blair must have known Saddam Hussein possessed no weapons of mass destruction. He said that during his posting to the UN, "at no time did HMG [Her Majesty's Government] assess that Iraq's WMD (or any other capability) posed a threat to the UK or its interests."...

The Foreign Office had attempted to prevent the evidence being made public, but it has now been published by the Commons Select Committee on Foreign Affairs after MPs sought assurances from the Foreign Office that it would not breach the Official Secrets Act.

It shows Mr Ross told the inquiry, chaired by Lord Butler, "there was no intelligence evidence of significant holdings of CW [chemical warfare], BW [biological warfare] or nuclear material" held by the Iraqi dictator before the invasion. "There was, moreover, no intelligence or assessment during my time in the job that Iraq had any intention to launch an attack against its neighbours or the UK or the US," he added.

Mr Ross's evidence directly challenges the assertions by the Prime Minster that the war was legally justified because Saddam possessed WMDs which could be "activated" within 45 minutes and posed a threat to British interests. These claims were also made in two dossiers, subsequently discredited, in spite of the advice by Mr Ross.

Every time new evidence comes forth, it always points in the same direction: Bush and Blair misled the world and misrepresented the evidence in order to justify their determination to invade Iraq.

  Bush unveils new strategy for Iraq ahead of Christmas

The White House's strategy for Iraq, which we thought would be delayed endlessly by Bush and his advisors, has already been unveiled—earlier than anticipated. And it's a complete non-starter.

I read the plan not so much with disappointment as with indignation. Bush's prolonged refusal to face up to reality; his evasion of responsibility for failures; the incoherence of previous attempts to identify a credible strategy; playing politics for months on end with the lives of our troops, as the situation on the ground deteriorated. These were all merely a prelude to this stupendously foolish 35 page document (PDF) released by the White House.

The immediate reaction in DC was to reject the plan outright as more of the same:

Several leading congressional Democrats dismissed...the strategy document as warmed-over versions of Bush's rhetoric on Iraq.

"After nearly 1,000 days of war in Iraq, our troops, their families and the American people deserve more than just a Bush-Cheney public relations campaign," said Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.). "They deserve a clear strategy with military, economic and political measures to be met in order to successfully complete our mission."

The centerpiece of the plan, as described by Bush in an untelevised speech, was this:

Bush described what he called a record of growing proficiency by Iraqi military and police forces, which he said will allow U.S. troops to reduce their role in day-to-day combat operations. His voice choked with emotion at times, he said an immediate withdrawal or a precise schedule for doing so would vindicate terrorists....

[The plan] says that the administration is working toward winning the war on three fronts: by training Iraqi security forces, by helping the nation establish a democracy, and by targeting economic development and rebuilding efforts in areas of the country cleared of insurgents.

The speech and release of the strategy document come as Bush's approval ratings have dropped to new lows...

Think Progress has posted an analysis of the document that sums up its obvious flaws:

The problem is, it’s not a new strategy for success in Iraq; it’s a public relations document. The strategy describes what has transpired in Iraq to date as a resounding success and stubbornly refuses to establish any standards for accountability. It dismisses serious problems such as the dramatic increase in bombings as "metrics that the terrorists and insurgents want the world to use." Americans understand it’s time for a new course in Iraq. Unfortunately, this document is little more than an extended justification for a President "determined to stay his course."...

"We will not put a date certain on when each stage of success will be reached," the document states in bold and italicized print, "because the timing of success depends upon meeting certain conditions, not arbitrary timetables." The only time frames proposed for achieving U.S. objectives are virtually meaningless phrases: “short term,” “medium term,” and “longer term.” The goals for these time frames are equally ambiguous; the so-called “short term” goals, for instance, are listed as “making steady progress in fighting terrorists, meeting political milestones, building democratic institutions, and standing up security forces.”...

Virtually nothing is said about the well-being of our military, unquestionably a vital element in any strategy for success....considering the No. 1 “Strategic Pillar” to “Defeat the Terrorists and Neutralize the Insurgency,” it is simply not true to claim that the number of insurgent bombings (now at an all-time high) is irrelevant as a measure of progress....

[The document] is less of a strategy and more of a pat on the back.

The document is called "National Strategy for Victory in Iraq", and as you will have noticed by my description of the plan, it was released well in advance of Christmas 2005.

It's a measure of how little the Bush administration's planning has advanced during the last year, that in essential ways the "new way forward" that Bush is preparing to unveil in the coming weeks (when he finally gets around to thinking seriously about the anarchy in Iraq), will most likely resemble the "new" strategy he unveiled more than a year ago. Future historians will have a tough time distinguishing one from the other.

The situation today is much more dire than a year ago, but what is more to the point, it was dire last year as well. What was a failed strategy already then, remains a failed strategy. After training police and soldiers in Iraq for nearly three years, while the mayhem grew, it was perverse in 2005 to hope that more training would produce better results. A year later, the same can be said.

It is what a government behaves like, when it decides to "up the ante" in a losing war, when it opts for "one last big push". It is how leaders behave when paralyzed by their own failures.

The world has seen this same pattern played out over and over again. "The last big push." How many of those were there in the First World War? Verdun was the last big push. The Somme was the last big push. As was Paschendale, and... The last big push is almost always a recipe for failure, and it's almost always followed by yet another last big push.

Monday, December 11, 2006

  Opening up the fun of driving

Milo is still looking for that will-o-wisp of his—a cheap, dependable used Pierce-Arrow. I suggested that what he really needs is a small pickup, given how many bee hives he now owns. But he never listens to me.

Anyway, he's off for a few days in Texas where he thinks he has a lead on a relatively new P.-A. with little rust. Yesterday he called excitedly about a story in the local news that has people talking.

Seems that a new Texas law is going to allow the legally blind to drive on interstate highways. There's already a pilot program in place allowing them to drive on state highways. Some kill joys are saying it could be dangerous.

Here's part of his story:

A lawmaker in this car-friendly state wants to help more people get the chance to drive on their own even if those people can't see.

A bill filed for the 2007 legislative session would permit legally blind but otherwise qualified drivers to use laser sights, or lighted pointing instruments.

"This opens up the fun of driving to additional people, and I think that's great," said Republican Rep. Edmund Kuempel, the bill's sponsor.

Visually impaired people are allowed to drive now only with the aid of a sighted person, he said, a requirement that would end if the sights were legalized.

"I've seen this on TV before, when they're practicing in school parking lots," Kuempel said. "When they aim the car, the guide tells them, steer two feet to the left or two feet to the right and you're on the target, and you're off and running."

Kuempel's bill would give the state until Jan. 1, 2008, to come up with a definition of legally blind so the law could be enforced.

Under existing law, the use of laser sights, spotlights and headlights is strictly prohibited on all Texas roads. The practice can have the effect of blinding other drivers as the light shines on them. Drivers using sights under the proposed legislation would have to carry proof that they are legally blind.

Milo said he had some real doubts about the wisdom of this and has decided to leave the state immediately. I can't say I blame him. The pre-existing pilot program, modest by comparison, has developed some glaring problems already in the few months since its inception.


The pipeline that funnels legally blind drivers into the cabs of 18-wheelers extends well beyond the walls of two job centers where Texas is training blind welfare recipients to become truck drivers.

In Dallas County, for example, large numbers of blind men with histories of drug and alcohol abuse have attended truck-driving school and obtained their commercial driver's licenses, sometimes with the knowledge of probation officers and judges, court records reviewed by The Dallas Morning News show.

In some cases, Dallas County welfare officers referred clients to truck-driving schools. Some of the county's vision impaired were working as truckers while they were failing court-ordered drug tests. And some have injured motorists in truck accidents after obtaining their commercial driver's license, according to state records.

Dr. Michael Noyes, who became head of the Dallas County Community Supervision and Workfare Department in May, acknowledged that there are risks in placing blind people in truck-driving jobs because the work defies easy supervision....

"I certainly support any employment that my clients would be seeking to better themselves and their families," he said. "But there are levels of blindness that I would have concerns with in the trucking industry."

As so often with stories that Milo forwards to me, it's hard to know how to react to this. I will say that I hope it does not become a trend in the East, where I live, though I suppose registered drivers have been known to cross state lines. Worrisome indeed.

You'll want to read both stories in full. The second one goes on at length about a certain Mr. Snider, who even obtained a permit to transport hazardous materials. I hope he is not from the Snider family that lives across the river from me, because that bridge is narrow and it's the only way to get across for miles.

  Still time for mea culpas

By chance, I happened across a post I wrote on Memorial Day which, sadly, remains all too relevant. In it I pointed out that the nation will never come to grips with the problems in Iraq, much less formulate a coherent plan to cope with them, until we face up honestly to the past. The country has to cast aside the fantasy world in which Iraq policy has resided. As the first step toward forcing the politicians to face reality, I argued that we need a round of public mea culpas from all who supported and facilitated the war mongering in the first place.

As is painfully obvious this week from the pie-in-the-sky recommendations of the Iraq Study Group, and their petulant reception by George Bush, our 'leaders' continue to inhabit a fantasy land without a clear past, or present, or future.

We still haven't had those mea culpas, and we need them more than ever.

So this seemed like a pretty good time to repost that commentary in its entirety. It has hardly dated at all. I regret that fact; aside from the references to Memorial Day, this could have been written just last week. And how sad is that? Another half year of fantasy, and the crisis has only become worse.

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Decoration Day, begun as an occasion to honor our war dead, also became a way to heal a deeply divided nation. Today the U.S. is riven by animosities once again, courtesy of George Bush's duplicitous and divisive policies. Bush had many willing helpers as he set about shattering lives in Iraq, fracturing the military, and trampling upon our laws. Each year brings a new generation of lies, withering and falling like chestnut burrs littering the ground, dangerous under foot.

Those complicit in creating the mess ought to be capable of some gesture on this Memorial Day that would help to heal the bitter divisions and allow the U.S. to face the future undistracted by debates about the past. The question is, what gesture is most needed?

From every perspective, the best way for the complicit to honor those who died in Iraq and to help the nation to recover, is to fess up to what they’ve been complicit in. What we need as much as anything now are mea culpas from politicians who devised and facilitated this fiasco, and journalists who justified and excused it. It will be essential if we're ever to face up to the crises besetting us.

I don’t mean vostra culpas, nostra culpas, or even sua culpas, of the sort that the Richard Cohens and Tom Friedmans have tried to fob off on the world, nor the minime culpas coming out every so often from some conservatives.

I don’t mean blaming others, or blaming everybody, or blaming the neocons, or blaming liberals, or blaming George Bush, or blaming Dick Cheney, or blaming the CIA, or blaming the Pentagon, or blaming that popinjay, or blaming known unknowns. I don’t mean evasions, lies, and half-truths.

I mean a frank admission of fault from everybody who bears some of the blame, offered with the humility owed by those who have harmed their country. Those who asserted whatever they chose to believe and ignored what the evidence actually told them, should promise to talk in the future about fact rather than fancy. Those who suppressed or ignored what was inconvenient, should rethink their commitment to public life. Those who assented to governmental wrongdoing in the name of a greater cause, should acknowledge the error of placing ends above means. Those who put trust in people who had proven themselves untrustworthy, should admit that their judgment is questionable.

And those who deceived the nation about the alleged danger presented by Iraq, should finally, at long last, take full responsibility for their actions.

I say these things not in a spirit of triumphalism. I sized up George Bush’s lies in 2002 and have been adamant ever since that he had no adequate evidence for the accusations he was making and no legal basis for invading Iraq. It was obvious at the time, and I don’t need the war’s proponents now to confirm that view. Their public stance reflects upon themselves, not upon me.

No, the reason it’s essential for the war proponents to fess up is that the nation will remain divided and distracted by internecine and pointless bickering until such time as those who abused their positions of power and influence set the record straight. The longer they fail to come clean about their own responsibility in creating the mess, the more harm they do to the country they claim to honor, and the greater dishonor they show to those who paid with their lives for these disastrous policies.

We show no honor to the war dead by refusing to learn from our mistakes.

The U.S. has a long history of refusing to face up to such mistakes. Many of us remember how divisive, ill-informed, and caustic the debate over the Vietnam War was. And it still is, for many participants prefer to hold onto their fictions rather than admit to well-documented facts. Political leaders of the day rarely took real responsibility (Robert McNamara waited a quarter century before penning his mea culpa).

So although journalists did their job in that war, the nation has remained at war with itself these three decades. Those who were deceived most egregiously by the government have continued to nurse fantastic grudges against imaginary traitors in their midst. The same sorts of politicians who misled the U.S. into the war have been quick to manipulate lingering grudges by wrapping themselves in the flag.

But that was not the first time the nation had been led on false pretenses into an unnecessary war. The experience during WWI was all too similar. The Wilson government trumped up excuses to enter the war in 1917, and then found it had neither the troops nor the equipment needed to fight. Rather than face up to charges of deception, incompetence, and war profiteering, Wilson promoted policies that demonized war critics and divided the country against itself. He waged a war at home against civil liberties. Losses on the battlefield were horrific, and the more Wilson feared the erosion of public support the more he came to rely upon propaganda, fear-mongering, and manipulation of the public generally.

It is no surprise, then, that after the war Wilson’s government never acknowledged any wrongdoing or deception, and continued to try to paint U.S. involvement in the war as a great victory. Wilson also continued to hound his war critics, while his Attorney General quickly trumped up another fear-mongering campaign (the Red Scare).

The nation eventually came to grips with its true record in WWI, but only very slowly and painfully. Many veterans were traumatized for life by their experiences; many became embittered with the government (witness the Bonus March in 1932). And the nation as a whole turned its back on international commitments and, during the 1930s, became deeply suspicious of the motives of those who warned that action was needed to stem the rise of fascism.

So here are two occasions when those who’d dragged the country into disastrous wars for obscure reasons refused to come clean about their failings. In both cases, the country suffered badly as a result. For decades, participants could not let go of the bitter feelings these idiotic wars created. Government per se came into disrepute, such that it was nearly impossible to formulate a coherent foreign policy to address the real needs of the nation. Instead, we continued to fight our own demons, never exorcised.

Why should we hope for any better outcome this time? I don’t for a moment suppose that the foolish will now act wisely, the arrogant will learn some humility. As in the past, it will be tempting to remain in denial, to make excuses, or to point fingers—especially toward those who turned out to be right about the rush to war in Iraq. Congressional ‘leaders’ will see political disadvantage in admitting to error, especially if they dream of running for the presidency. George Bush and his “people” certainly will not fess up to anything more than the occasional semantic mistake, in between rounds of back-slapping and self-congratulation. And some journalists have forgotten that they were cheerleaders for the war they’ve long since renounced.

Yet I also think it’s worth making a public call for mea culpas. There must be many former war supporters and Bush facilitators who have managed to keep their consciences intact, who though they’ve quietly changed their position on the Iraq War, retain a sense that they owe the country more than a mere change of mind. If these people would make a show of publicly apologizing for whatever harm they’ve done the nation by supporting this fiasco, it would go a long way toward isolating those who continue to reside in that peculiar fantasy world created by the Bush administration’s propaganda.

The sooner that bubble is burst, the sooner we’ll be able to address the vital issues that the fantasists would like to pretend don’t matter. I do not believe we can implement a coherent strategy for withdrawing from Iraq until as a nation we’re prepared to acknowledge how we got into the mess.

That is how we can best honor the fallen, by honoring the truth.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

  Bill Frist looks toward his legacy.

Image Hosted by ImageShack.usJoining a tragic chorus of defeated and retiring legislators in their exodos, Sen. Frist delivered himself of a tedious and maudlin farewell speech in praise of himself. Along the way, Frist also found time to laud several stray individuals who had the bad luck to need his help over the years.

An exaggerated appreciation for his own career was about the extent of introspection on display, however. It was a meandering speech in search of a theme, any theme. I think the Senator missed his best opportunity to identify his legacy right at the outset:

About two months ago, on a late Sunday afternoon when no one was around, I slipped into this chamber to carry out a time honored tradition, nearly as old as this institution itself.

I sat down at this desk, and I opened the drawer to carve my name where previous senate leaders had left theirs: Robert Taft, Hugh Scott, Everett Dirksen, Howard Baker … Your name carved deeply into the bottom of the oak drawer is the only thing permanent that one leaves around this place.

In point of fact, Sen. Frist has left a permanent and gaping hole in the center of thousands of American families, forever bereft of loved ones who died in the war that Frist helped the President gin up. That, rather than the smaller act of vandalism he refers to, will be his legacy.

From Unbossed

  What is absent from the ISG report?

Rather than comment immediately on the Iraq Study Group Report (and this cut to the heart of things pretty quickly), I preferred to ponder its rhetoric for a while. The Report is highly rhetorical, though it adopts a disarming just-the-facts rhetoric.

The biggest obstacle the Groupies faced was not the intractability of the mess, though the problems are huge; nor their own lack of expertise on Iraq, though that was profound. No, the main stumbling block was this: George Bush will do whatever suits him, even despite the best advice.

That made their project a rhetorical one. Though ISG was charged by Congress with evaluating the situation and identifying the best solutions, their goal rapidly transformed into persuading Bush to stop listening to blundering advice.

Rhetoric works indirectly. You have to step back to evaluate it. One of the hardest things is to train yourself to look for what is absent, unmentioned, omitted.

So what is absent from the Report? Given the ISG's charge, what really needed to be said—but isn't? What glaring omissions do you see? That is the best measure by which to gauge the rhetoric of this document.

What is most absent is accountability. The ISG does not ask that anybody be held accountable for failures in Iraq. It does not even ask that anybody admit to responsibility, or that any process be created to identify the responsible parties who created the mess in Iraq. It does not even hint that the blunderers be kept apart from the planning for the future of Iraq. In other words, it presumes that those who fouled up repeatedly in the past will be entrusted with fixing those foul-ups.

What is absent is any acknowledgment that George Bush personally bears heavy responsibility—or indeed any responsibility.

What is absent is an admission that the decision to invade Iraq was a colossal blunder, as well as a catastrophe of epic proportions for Iraqis who have paid the price for Bush's blunder.

What is absent from the long list of recommendations is a proposal that Bush apologize to the Iraqi people for the living hell he has created there. It would be a solution that cost next to nothing in blood or money, and unlike most of the other recommendations it's within Bush's power to accomplish. And unlike most of the other recommendations, it could not really do any harm to the situation in Iraq.

What is absent as well is any suggestion that Bush needs to mend fences with the American public or the military; or even the slightest hint that he has not been straight with us about the circumstances in Iraq, past or present, and needs to come clean if he's to build support for new policies.

What is absent, mostly, is any sense of the history of how things got so screwed up in Iraq. The Report begs its Reader to look forward at what can be done to straighten things out, without dwelling upon why they need straightening. The rhetoric conjures up a dream world of present and future, with barely any past.

What is absent is any hint that failure is a likelihood; that it may not be possible any longer for the U.S. to impose its will upon Iraq; that it may never have been possible to do so (the past, after all, being almost entirely absent).

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That's a good enough list for starters. Some commentary now.

The obvious objection would be that ISG was asked to produce a plan for the future, not an account of what went wrong, so the Groupies had no cause for recriminations. Ah, but recriminate they did, in small part. Muted, to be sure, but distinctly. Wherever was that?

RECOMMENDATION 46: The new Secretary of Defense should make every effort to build healthy civil-military relations, by creating an environment in which the senior military feel free to offer independent advice not only to the civilian leadership in the Pentagon but also to the President and the National Security Council, as envisioned in the Goldwater-Nichols legislation.

ISG Report (PDF)

You can see the shiv clearly, right there between Rumsfeld's shoulder-blades. He had already been pitched overboard, so it was now acceptable to pin some blame upon him. Of course, it's useful and perhaps necessary for ISG to urge the new SecDef to do exactly that. The facts of how Rumsfeld befouled the military leadership are beyond dispute. But the facts are equally clear regarding any number of other administration officials, and military officers, and yet not one of them is identified in the Report as bearing responsibility. Not one is said to need to straighten out the mess they've created. The past, for those in the U.S., is almost wholly absent. Therefore nobody has even to face up to what they've wrought. Nobody but the departing Rumsfeld.

This highlights the essential characteristic of the ISG Report. It's hollow, because almost all the history has been excluded...quite deliberately.

And yet almost any way of looking at the mess in Iraq requires one thing above all else—a full understanding of the history of how the disaster unfolded. At the center, as the Report acknowledges, is the thorny problem of "National Reconciliation". When the Report finally turns to what can be done within Iraq in "the way forward", national reconciliation is the first substantive issue.

And how can it be otherwise? The unfolding chaos that threatens to tear the country to shreds has less and less to do with resistance to American troops, and everything to do with sectarian hatreds. Were it otherwise, the crisis in Iraq would not be nearly as acute. The corruption and raw brutality on display in large parts of Iraq feed and grow unchecked upon ethnic and sectarian conflict, like a blaze upon a lake of oil.

So given that the entire question, ultimately, revolves around an elaborate web of ethnic and sectarian resentments, how is it conceivable that anybody would wish to look for a "way forward" without first examining how the hatreds arose in their present form? The entire project is, first, an historical one.

This is what is most stunning about the glaring absences in the ISG Report. All of them are historical omissions, ultimately.

That is to say, the ideal Reader of this Report was expected not to want to hear about the history of this mess. By my reading of its rhetoric, the Groupies anticipated a very petulant ideal Reader.

Friday, December 08, 2006

  Savor the victories

Yesterday, George Bush announced that he's withdrawing two rather nasty nominations: David Laufman, to be the Inspector General of the Defense Department; and Tracy Henke, to be Executive Director of the Office of State and Local Government Coordination and Preparedness in DHS.

These are significant victories. Both Laufman and Henke have fashioned ugly careers by enforcing Bush dogmata. Yawning pits can be found where their integrity ought to be. And the job in the DoD will be particularly critical to all manner of investigations of Bush Co. in the next two years, not least those involving the NSA.

So say your goodbyes to two bums. You can just feel the tide carrying cast-off cronies out to sea, one after another.


When I first began agitating against Laufman's nomination in June, it didn't seem likely it could be derailed. Laufman had no real credentials for the IG job, but when had that gotten in the way of Bush's appointments?

At the time not a single journalist thought it worthwhile to comment on this nomination. Not one. Shocking. Only bloggers were on the story, as I summarized recently here.

What Laufman did have were plenty of skeletons in his closet. As a very partisan Republican lawyer in Congress, he helped to sweep under the rug two damaging allegations against Bush pere in the early '90s. Right after the terrorist attacks in 2001 he encouraged the illegal detention of hundreds of suspects in Brooklyn, as an official in Dubya's Justice Department (ah, the irony). None of those suspects were terrorists, evidently. Promoted to U.S. Attorney in Virginia for his vigorous disdain for law, Laufman has pursued and won draconian sentences against several terror suspects in highly dubious cases. One of these, for example, involved a confession extracted under torture in an Egyptian jail.

Laufman's scores in the 'Unqualified' and 'Unscrupulous' columns, then, are astronomically high. These were the things that the professional journalists were content to ignore.

Under questioning from Sen. Levin at his nomination hearing, he said he would defer to and consult with the Secretary of Defense on a range of potential IG investigations. That was enough to get his nomination blocked permanently.

Laufman went crying to the media; he was a super-spiffing investigator, John Solomon (who else?) assured us, and that mean old Sen. Levin was trying to wreck all of Laufman's plans to end corruption as we know it. Didn't work, so yesterday the WH withdrew Laufman's nomination. Solomon greeted the announcement by taking another potshot at Levin.

Regarding the original WH announcement of the nomination, I noted that it suppressed the info that Laufman had once worked for the CIA. Yesterday's withdrawal announcement added another fact the WH never let on—Laufman's another damned Texan. A prime qualification in this administration.


Tracy Henke is another infamous crony. A political hack from Missouri, she rode into the Justice Department on John Ashcroft's coattails. You can follow her career of bungling via Source Watch and Carpetbagger Report.

Some highlights.

* In Oct. 2001, she helped to insert language in the Patriot Act undercutting the indepence of the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) and National Institute of Justice.

* In April 2005, she pressured the author of a BJS study on racial profiling, Lawrence Greenfield, to eliminate evidence that police treat blacks and hispanics disparately in the news release for that study. Greenfield refused, was hounded by superiors in Justice, and then called to the White House and threatened with dismissal. He eventually was demoted. Eric Lichtblau told the sordid tale last summer.

Ms. Henke, who was nominated by Mr. Bush last month to a senior position at the Department of Homeland Security, said in a brief telephone interview that she did not recall the episode.

* Henke was nominated by Bush in July to be Exec. Dir. of the Office of State & Local Government Coordination & Preparedness in DHS. Unsurprisingly her nomination went nowhere, so in January 2006 Bush gave her a recess appointment--along with a bunch of other administration cronies, including the notorious Julie Myers. In February and in September 2006, Bush nominated Henke a second and third time for the same post.

* In June 2006, Henke was the genius at DHS who decided to cut anti-terrorism grants to New York City and DC, in favor of bigger grants to, well, places like Missouri. This drew almost universal ridicule upon her

Henke's department judged that the nation's capital is a "low-risk" city and that the Statue of Liberty, Brooklyn Bridge and Empire State Building are not worthy of "national icon" status. By contrast, those terrorism magnets of Kansas City and St. Louis -- both by happenstance in Henke's home state of Missouri -- received boosts in funds. Other winners: the horses of Louisville, the cattle of Omaha and five cities in Jeb Bush's Florida.

Wouldn't you know, that pleased the Great Man:

After six months on the job, Henke is already on President Bush's radar screen - he thanked her by name yesterday for help on immigration reform, even as her anti-terrorism funding handiwork was being pilloried.

All the good it did her. Her nomination has been dead for a year, but yesterday she and Bush finally admitted defeat.

Savor it.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

  CIA agents to face kidnapping trial in Italy

On Tuesday Italian prosecutors asked a judge to indict 26 CIA agents, along with several top officials from the Italian spy agency, for the kidnapping and 'rendition' of Abu Omar off the streets of Milan in February 2003. It will be the first time that anybody involved in the 'extraordinary rendition' program has faced criminal prosecution.

Few experts believe that the U.S. will cooperate by extraditing the CIA agents to stand trial in Italy. Never the less, it's a major step in the campaign to stop this lawless program. The information exposed by the trial will get more embarrassing day by day.

The men-in-black can thank George Bush for blowing their last shred of cover, when he admitted to the existence of secret CIA prisons overseas.

Many specifics of this program...cannot be divulged. Doing so would provide our enemies with information they could use to take retribution against our allies and harm our country.

Bush might have added "or just prosecute our thugs".


The Muslim cleric kidnapped in Milan, Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr, also known as Abu Omar, is now held virtually incommunicado at some unknown location. The Roman newspaper, Corriere della Sera, on Nov. 9 published an account of his abduction and interrogation that it says was written by Omar and smuggled out of prison. Arabic, Italian, and English versions of his statement are here. Omar states that he was grabbed by several men, including Americans and Italians, driven for more than 5 hours, and then flown by men dressed in "special forces" uniforms to Cairo. He also says that officials in Austria and Egypt knew details of his abduction that suggest they were kept apprised of the plan. After being tortured more than a year, he was released by order of an Egyptian judge and made some calls to his family. Almost immediately, he disappeared again.

In 2005 an Italian issued arrest warrants for 22 CIA agents involved in the kidnapping, based largely upon their cell-phone records (which included calls back to northern Virginia), as well as their lavish hotel bills. The operation evidently was led by CIA Milan station chief Robert Seldon Lady, and the Rome CIA chief Jeffrey Castelli.

But the Berlusconi government refused to ask the U.S. to extradite the accused. After Berlusconi was ousted in 2006, two of the top officers of SISMI (the Italian military intelligence agency) were arrested for involvement in the kidnapping, Marco Mancini and Gustavo Pignero. Mancini is said to be cooperating with police, and has fingered his boss Nicolò Pollari, the former head of SISMI. Last month, after a long, absurd campaign to distance SISMI from the kidnapping, Pollari and two civilian secret service agency officials were sacked. From the WaPo:

Pollari has denied culpability and has said that Sismi was not involved in Nasr's disappearance. But at least two of his close aides have told prosecutors that Pollari was aware of the operation and that Sismi plotted closely with the CIA to abduct the cleric.

An Italian parliamentary committee is also investigating Pollari and has compiled a draft report concluding that he covered up the kidnapping and lied about his role, according to excerpts of the report published by Italian newspapers last week. The committee noted that Pollari suggested in closed-door testimony that Nasr had staged his own disappearance, even after an Italian police officer had confessed to helping Sismi and the CIA abduct him.

Pollari has also claimed that he cannot cooperate with the probe because the evidence he needs to clear his name is covered by the state-secret act. Yet, as Dana Priest reported last year...

Before a CIA paramilitary team was deployed to snatch a radical Islamic cleric off the streets of Milan in February 2003, the CIA station chief in Rome briefed and sought approval from his counterpart in Italy, according to three CIA veterans with knowledge of the operation and a fourth who reviewed the matter after it took place.

The previously undisclosed Italian involvement undercuts the accusation, which has fueled public resentment in Italy toward the United States, that the CIA brashly slipped into the country unannounced and uninvited to kidnap an Italian resident off the street.

In fact, former and current CIA officials said, both the CIA and the Italian service agreed beforehand that if the unusual operation was to become public, as it has, neither side would confirm its involvement, a standard agreement the CIA makes with foreign intelligence services over covert operations.

On this point, compare what Laura Rozen had to say last summer:

Berlusconi administration leaders are claiming that the CIA kept them in the dark about the Omar operation.

But former U.S. intelligence officials say the details of the operation, the history of U.S. intelligence operations in Italy and NATO countries, and the timing of the raid as the United States was trying to woo European support in advance of its invasion of Iraq all indicate that the snatch would have been reported to certain Italian authorities in advance.

“There’s no way you do something like this unilaterally in a friendly country without coordinating,” says a former U.S. intelligence official who asked not to be named. “It’s always coordinated.”

"The Italians were one of the few countries in Europe standing by us on Iraq," Michael Scheuer, former chief of the CIA's Osama bin Laden unit, told the Prospect. "There is no way in the world that agency management would have authorized unilateral operation in Italy on the eve of the invasion of Iraq by ourselves." Scheuer indicated that he did not know about the Abu Omar operation in particular, but was speaking from his years of experience overseeing similar cases before his resignation last November.

"We don't do, for the most part, unilateral operations in NATO countries," Scheuer continued. "I wish we would but our management -- and the White House -- values and worries so much about European opinion that we were never allowed to take unilateral operations in Europe."

Dana Priest also added this information about the CIA's 'rendition' program in 2003:

The CIA has conducted more than 100 of these apprehensions, known as extraordinary rendition, since Sept. 11, according to knowledgeable intelligence officials....

Officials involved in the Milan operation at the time said it was conceived by the Rome CIA station chief, organized by the CIA's Counterterrorism Center, and approved by the CIA leadership and by at least one person at the National Security Council. The station chief has since retired but remains undercover....

In most, if not all, other post-Sept. 11 renditions, the security service of the foreign country has apprehended the suspect, then transferred him into CIA custody. In the Italian case, operatives from the CIA's paramilitary branch, the Special Activities Division, were dispatched, making the risk of disclosure much higher.

Two of the CIA veterans said the operatives became directly involved because, by 2003, counterterrorism operations had become the main thing the agency's leadership and the White House cared about. "Everyone wanted into the game," a CIA officer said. "The CIA chief in Italy wanted to have a notch in his belt."

Tuesday's developments

The best report in English is this excellent article by Colleen Barry:

An Italian prosecutor requested the indictment of 26 Americans and five Italian secret service officials on a charge of kidnapping an Egyptian cleric in Milan in 2003—a case that continues to be an irritant to U.S.-Italian relations.

Prosecutor Armando Spataro, who has been leading the investigation, said Tuesday that the indictment request is aimed at CIA agents and the former head of the Italian military intelligence Nicolo Pollari for alleged involvement in the kidnapping.

Prosecutors are also seeking an indictment of Pollari's former deputy, Mancini. Spataro has asked Romano Prodi's government to ask the U.S. to extradict the CIA officers, and he's awaiting a response from the Justice Minister.

All but one of the Americans have been identified by the prosecution as CIA agents, including former station chiefs in Rome and Milan, and the 26th as a U.S. Air Force officer stationed at the time at Aviano air base near Venice.

The colonel was in charge of the Aviano air base, through which Abu Omar was flown to Egypt.

A lawyer for Lady, the only American who was actually living in Italy when arrest warrants were issued, said she [sic] was surprised by the indictment request.

"Even the documents of the prosecution show that he was not an organizer. If anything, he was someone who obeyed orders," lawyer Daria Pesce said....

Prosecutors raided Lady's home in the wine country of Asti, near Turin, last year, collecting a central piece of evidence--a picture of Nasr taken in January 2003 on the Milan street where he was allegedly abducted a month later.

When the "just-following-orders" defense rears its head, you know that the defendants are afraid of being dragged under the bright lights.

The report from Reuters explains what is likely to happen with the request for indictments:

Italian prosecutors on Tuesday asked a judge to order CIA agents and Italian spies to stand trial on charges of kidnapping a terrorism suspect and flying him to Egypt, where he says he was tortured, a court source said....

An Italian judge must call a preliminary hearing to decide if there is enough evidence for a trial, but even defence lawyers say privately they expect the case to go to court.

If so, it would be the first criminal trial in the world over so-called renditions, one of the most controversial aspects of U.S. President George W. Bush's global war on terror.

For the American suspects, who already face European Union arrest warrants, a trial would almost certainly take place in absentia since Washington is not expected to hand them over. That would leave the Italians the only defendants attending the trial.

One suspect, an Italian police officer, has admitted he stopped Nasr and helped CIA agents grab him. But he says the CIA station chief in Milan told him the goal was to recruit -- not abduct -- the Muslim cleric. He also says he was told the U.S. and Italian governments sanctioned the operation. Italy has denied this.

Further details from Bloomberg:

Arianna Barbazza and Alessia Sorgato, public defenders for 15 of the suspects alleged to be CIA agents, maintained their clients' innocence in separate phone interviews. The court assigned the lawyers to the U.S. suspects, who will be tried in absentia if they are indicted and fail to return to Italy. European Union arrest warrants have been issued for them.

Daria Pesce, the lawyer for Robert Lady, alleged to be the head of the CIA ring that carried out the kidnapping, couldn't be reached for comment at her Milan office. Guido Meroni, a public defender for the remaining American suspects linked by prosecutors to the CIA, also couldn't be reached.

According to Italian court documents, Lady, the alleged head of the CIA's Milan office, recruited an Italian police officer of the paramilitary Carabinieri force to help the group of American agents abduct Hassan. Lady told the officer at a Milan pizzeria that his cooperation in the case might help him gain a job with the Italian secret services, according to the documents.

Pollari, meanwhile, is threatening to become more obstreperous.

The risk of political embarrassment inside Italy was underscored Tuesday after one of Pollari's lawyers said the defense would call to the stand both the current prime minister, Romano Prodi, and the prime minister at the time, Silvio Berlusconi. The lawyer, Tittia Madia, said the two men would be able to testify about the existence of documents showing Pollari opposed the abduction.

Berlusconi is feeling the heat too. An ally in his C'mon Italy Party impugns the patriotism of the prosecutors:

Mr. Berlusconi’s allies have portrayed the indictments as politically motivated — and on Tuesday they strongly defended Mr. Pollari. “The attack against him risks discrediting not only him personally but also our services which, in these difficult years, have effectively protected our country against criminal assaults from international terrorism,” said Enrico La Loggia, a deputy with Mr. Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party.

The last, or first, defense of scoundrels?

The indictments in Italy are almost certainly coming, and that alone is cause for celebration. Everything else that comes out during trial will help to keep Bush and the men-in-black in the CIA on the defensive, even if it won't (immediately) put any of them in jail.