Inconvenient News,
       by smintheus

Saturday, February 24, 2007

  White House website is scrubbing embarrassing interviews

On March 16, 2003 Dick Cheney went on Meet the Press. His absurd claims in that interview have since become politically embarrassing to the White House. For example, he declared...

I think things have gotten so bad inside Iraq, from the standpoint of the Iraqi people, my belief is we will, in fact, be greeted as liberators.

You won't any longer find a link to this transcript on the White House website—nor, indeed, are there links to most of Cheney's interviews from before 2006. Don't believe me? Just do a search for that infamous sentence at

The WH website evidently has been busy scrubbing links to interviews and perhaps other public appearances by top officials. The operation has proceeded somewhat unevenly, though aggressively. Pretty clearly the WH wants to make it much harder to research the administration's past pronouncements, especially unscripted ones, and especially those pertaining to Iraq.

How embarrassing now for the White House to get caught in the act of scrubbing its website!

It's difficult to tell how extensive the operation has been, of course, but clearly it has wide dimensions. The most obvious losses from the White House website have been the transcripts of interviews. A little searching for prominent interviews by the Vice President quickly turned up some striking absences.

For example, on May 30, 2005 Cheney told several whoppers to Larry King on CNN, in particular this one:

I think they're in the last throes, if you will, of the insurgency.

You'll look in vain for any transcript of that interview at the White House website, however. There are several transcripts of subsequent White House briefings in which reporters asked one or another official to comment upon the validity of Cheney's "last throes" statement. But the transcript of the interview in question? AWOL.

Again, on Meet the Press on September 14, 2003 Cheney rejected the calls for an investigation of the pre-war intelligence on so-called WMD, denied that there had been any administration failure in that regard, and predicted that the WH would be vindicated.

I think in the final analysis, we will find that the Iraqis did have a robust program.

The White House website nowhere links to a transcript of that interview, either.

When did this scrubbing operation occur and what did it involve? It's a difficult question to answer. So far I've located no evidence that the foregoing interviews were ever linked at the WH website. However it's certain that the WH site was scrubbed in some fashion fairly recently.

Take for example the White House Radio Page. Traditionally it has two groups of links: (a) to all the President's scripted weekly radio addresses; (b) to radio interviews given by top administration officials. The scripted addresses are all archived in good order; nothing unusual there. But you'll notice two peculiar things about section (b) of the page, as it appears now.

(i) First, there are no archived interviews since August 2006. I commented on this curious fact in a post dated January 29, 2007: The White House is talking behind your back. I argued that it looked like the WH had decided sometime about a year ago that it was counterproductive to be offering transcripts to interviews that could in the future be used as ammunition against them. So they gradually cut back on the number of linked interview-transcripts, until finally suspending the practice entirely in summer 2006. The interviews with administration officials continued, of course. In fact, in October 2006 the WH had a "Radio Day" in which dozens of right-wing radio talk-show hosts descended on 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. to hold a marathon of interviews with WH officials. But none of those was linked on the WH "Radio Page".

The only person whose interviews were still (more or less) regularly being linked to at the WH website, I discovered, was Dick Cheney...not on the "Radio Page", but on his own Speeches and News Releases page.

Oddly enough, on Jan. 30, 2007—the very day after I posted (and widely crossposted) that assessment of the WH bunker mentality regarding interview-transcripts—a new (if fairly trivial) radio interview was linked at the WH "Radio Page". This was the first link to be posted in half a year! It's equally remarkable that not one interview-link has been added since then. Make of that what you will.

"When you're at this as long as I've been, you stop believing in coincidence."

(ii) The second strange thing about the WH "Radio Page" is this: No longer are there any radio interviews archived from before March 2004. The entire first three years of transcripts was scrubbed from the site. And I can state with certainty that this occurred sometime after Jan. 29 when I wrote that last analysis of strange doings at the WH "Radio Page". While researching that post, I went through the full range of archives of radio interviews going back to 2001.

So there's no doubt that an extensive scrubbing of the WH website has been carried out in the last few weeks. Whether the rest of what I'm pointing out here also dates to the same operation is not clear.

If we turn our attention now to Dick Cheney's Speeches and News Releases Page, we find another revealing pattern. As I remarked in my foregoing post, it's remarkable that Cheney, alone at the White House, has continued linking to his own interviews throughout last year.

But it's equally remarkable that that pattern of openness holds only for the period from mid December 2005 to the present. For the earlier part of 2005, there are links to only 3 interviews. For 2004, there's a grand total of 5 linked interviews (3 from the same day). And from that point back to late March 2002, there is not a single interview linked on Cheney's website. Thus for more than three and a half years, from March 25, 2002 to December 17, 2005, you'll find links to exactly 8 interviews on Cheney's "Speeches and News Releases Page".

This is of course the most controversial period for the Bush administration. It is a period in which Cheney made frequent appearances to talk up the grounds for attacking Iraq. After the invasion, Cheney continued to be the most vociferous defender of the invasion. His claims about alleged WMD became an object of derision for many Americans. His strident attacks upon administration critics became unusually repellent. His high profile in the outing of a CIA agent, utterly loathsome.

I'd venture that if I were to set about scrubbing the WH website of politically embarrassing interviews, I'd begin with the Vice President's and I'd concentrate on exactly the period for which we now see the fewest interview-links on Cheney's page. In fact I would be particularly thorough in scrubbing any and all interviews by the Great Man during 2002 and 2003—the period in which there are no links whatever now.

And what about the occasional links that remain in the vast wilderness of 2004 and 2005, standing like lone trees here and there after a forest fire? I've read the transcripts of those interviews. None of them touches on politically embarrassing material. Mostly they steer clear of Iraq altogether. Unless and until topics like CAFTA become hot political issues, I would anticipate that the transcripts of those interviews can safely remain available to the public on the Vice President's page.

For what it is worth, I've also noticed that not a single radio interview dating before March 2004 is linked on Cheney's "Speeches etc." page; all (surviving) links to earlier Cheney appearances are instead for televised interviews. Thus if Cheney's page has been scrubbed of interviews as described above, then the operation also involved bringing it into line with the President's "Radio Page", which (as noted) has erased its links to all radio interviews that pre-date March 2004.

Pretty striking: Two peculiar patterns of the absence of linked radio interviews, patterns which happen to coincide perfectly with each other. As I've remarked many times before, the most egregious comments from Bush administration officials can often be found in interviews with nutty radio hosts, where the conservative base gets its red-meat. So scrubbing entire years of transcripts to radio interviews makes a good deal of sense politically for a White House that is increasingly under siege.

What about the equivalent page for George Bush, "Presidential News and Speeches"—has that been scrubbed? The answer is less than clear.

The current February 2007 page links to a few of Cheney's interviews from Australia. I immediately noticed, however, that it has no link to the most embarrassing of those interviews, the one I wrote about yesterday in which the VP was (for the first time) pressed by a journalist (Jonathan Karl) to reconcile his 1991 statement that invading Iraq would inevitably lead to a quagmire, with his support for invading Iraq in 2003. Cheney's own page, by contrast, does provide a link to that (second) interview with Jonathan Karl as well as to the other interviews that Bush's page links to. At a minimum, then, I would infer that the White House is being careful to exclude links on the "Presidential News" page to interviews that have the most potential to haunt them.

A little tour of the archives for the "Presidential News and Speeches" page, in any case, turned up surprisingly few links to interviews by administration officials, especially for the period before March 2004. Obviously, none of the three television interviews of Cheney that I began this post with make an appearance. But neither do many other interviews that you might have expected to find linked.

Let's take for example the interviews of Condoleeza Rice, an official who unlike Cheney can be counted on to stay on the reservation and to dance around awkward questions. Under normal circumstances, you would suppose that the White House would be perfectly content to let transcripts of her interviews remain available at the WH website. So I've done a search for transcripts of her interviews at CNN, and checked whether the "Presidential News" page provides a link. The results are pretty striking for the first two pages of interviews that Google pulls up. There is (at the moment) not a single link on the "Presidential News" page for any of the interviews given by Rice in this group: Sept. 24, 2001; May 19, 2002; Nov. 15, 2002; Sept. 7, 2003; Oct. 8, 2003; or Sept. 2, 2005. Google thinks these are the most prominent of her interviews on CNN, but the WH website doesn't care to link to any of them. It tends to confirm my sense that Bush's own "Presidential News" page has thinned out the number of archived interviews.

A more decisive test, perhaps, would be how the WH website treats the interviews given by somebody who is a little more embarrassing than Rice...such as Harriet Miers. How many interviews with Harriet Miers are now linked at the White House website? Not one, as it turns out.

I think there's a good deal of evidence that the White House has decided to throw obstacles in the path of any journalist or meddlesome citizen who might wish to investigate the administration's past pronouncements. Bush & Co. has never been eager to let the public scrutinize its words and deeds, so the absence of links to interviews, even major interviews, does not by itself prove that the links were posted and then removed.

Yet as I've shown, there is definite evidence for some kind of scrubbing operation in recent weeks, and on a massive scale. It's hard to imagine an innocent explanation for the removal of all radio interviews pre-dating March 2004. Therefore it's legitimate to look for further evidence that might fit into a pattern of concealment. And in fact this administration has an established record of scrubbing politically embarrassing information on line, if not necessarily at the White House website.

A final note: While looking to see whether any of the President's more embarrassing speeches had been scrubbed as well, I noticed that the original link to his May 1, 2003 "Mission Accomplished" speech had gone dead recently. We'd archived that link at the Timeline on the run-up to the Iraq invasion at in September 2005, and had double-checked to make sure that it worked properly.

As it happens, the speech is still linked at the WH website, but under a new address. The difference between the old and new addresses for the speech was simply the string "/iraq/". This led me to check out the search function at the "Presidential News" page. I discovered that it was no longer possible to search for links on the topic "Iraq". Indeed, none of the search functions on that page work any all. It's as if the topical search function was just turned off.

Now why would the White House want to do that?

Crossposted from Unbossed.

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Friday, February 23, 2007

  Cheney embraces the quagmire

For perhaps the first time since he helped to engineer the invasion of Iraq, Dick Cheney was asked by a reporter about his statement in 1991 that invading Iraq would inevitably lead to a 'quagmire'. And Cheney declared that he was right in 1991, and that advocating an invasion of Iraq in 2003 was right as well.

Reading between the lines, it appears that US policy in 1991 was anti-quagmire, but by 2003 it had become pro-quagmire.

Today's interview with Jonathan Karl of ABC News is a rich tapestry of characteristic Cheney colors...that manic optimism about failed policies, the grim determination to avoid inconvenient facts, the perversely inflated satisfaction with himself, the full-bore moderation of a Manichean, the ideologue's misjudged sense of humor. To see or read any interview with Dick Cheney is to encounter with brutal clarity the limitations of human self-knowledge.

Yet the obtuseness of Cheney's comments on the quagmire in Iraq is so severe that I'd reckon all Americans ought to become acquainted with it. Here is the section I'm talking about. Highlights are my own:

Q What do you say to those who look at some of your recent comments on Iraq of signs of significant progress, and they look and they see the violence. The last four months have been the deadliest on record for U.S. troops. Sectarian violence has obviously been rising steadily. People look at that. They look at your comments, and they say that you're out of touch. You don't understand how bad it is in Iraq.

THE VICE PRESIDENT: Well, I think we have made significant progress in Iraq. I look at what's happened politically. I look at the size of the Iraqi forces that we've got trained now. I think the President made a good decision in terms of surging additional forces into Baghdad. I think the key to the issue right now is the security situation in Baghdad. I think the Maliki government is off to a pretty good start. Only time will tell. I'm fairly optimistic that going forward with this strategy will, in fact, work.

You don't get to quit just because it's hard. This is important work. It's very important that we get it right in Iraq.

Q You're fairly optimistic. What do we do if it doesn't work?

THE VICE PRESIDENT: Well, we keep trying until we get it right. I don't think we can afford to lose in Iraq. Think of what that would mean. Think about all the people out there in that part of the world from Presidents like Karzai in Afghanistan and Musharraf in Pakistan, down to the guy who is toting a rifle in the Afghan Security Forces. They have signed on in this global conflict against the extremist element of Islam, signed on with the United States.

Karzai and Musharraf every day they go to work put their lives on the line. There have been assassination attempts against both of them. Hundreds of thousands of people have signed to the security forces to fight alongside Americans. Millions have gone to the polls and voted because they believe in freedom and democracy and what it offers.

And then the United States suddenly decides, okay, this is too tough. We're going to go home from Iraq. We're not going to stick it out and get the job done. What happens to somebody like President Musharraf in Pakistan? Or to all those people in the streets out there who've been willing to bet on the United States? We don't get to quit just because it's tough.

And we learned on 9/11 that we can't retreat behind our oceans, not worry about what's going on in that part of the globe and be safe and secure here at home. We lost 3,000 people that morning to 19 guys armed with airline tickets and box cutters. And the next time we end up with a group of them in one of our cities, they may have a far deadlier weapon -- a nuclear weapon or a biological agent of some kind. So what goes on in that part of the globe is absolutely vital for our security. Getting it right in Iraq is absolutely vital. The best thing we can do in terms of enhancing our security in the long term and dealing with the problem out there is to see that the Iraqis succeed in terms of getting a viable, self-governing democracy that they're equipped and trained with the forces they need to be able to deal with their own security situation. We don't want to stay there a day longer than necessary. But we can do it. I think we have the capacity to do it. I think we've got the right strategy. We've got a good commander in Dave Petraeus who is in charge now in Iraq. And I think we need to do whatever it takes to prevail. You don't just get to quit.

Q Back in 1991, you talked about how military action in Iraq would be the classic definition of a quagmire. Have you been disturbed to see how right you were? Or people certainly said that you were exactly on target in your analysis back in 1991 of what would happen if the U.S. tried to go in --

THE VICE PRESIDENT: Well, I stand by what I said in '91. But look what's happened since then -- we had 9/11. We've found ourselves in a situation where what was going on in that part of the globe and the growth and development of the extremists, the al Qaeda types that are prepared to strike the United States demonstrated that we weren't safe and secure behind our own borders. We weren't in Iraq when we got hit on 9/11. But we got hit in '93 at the World Trade Center, in '96 at Khobar Towers, or '98 in the East Africa embassy bombings, 2000, the USS Cole. And of course, finally 9/11 right here at home. They continued to hit us because we didn't respond effectively, because they believed we were weak. They believed if they killed enough Americans, they could change our policy because they did on a number of occasions. That day has passed. That all ended with 9/11.

In Iraq, what we've done now is we've taken down Saddam Hussein. He's dead. His sons are dead. His government is gone. There's a democratically elected government in place. We've had three national elections in Iraq with higher turnout that we have in the United States. They've got a good constitution. They've got a couple hundred thousand men in arms now, trained and equipped to fight the good fight. They're now fighting alongside Americans in Baghdad and elsewhere. There are -- lots of the country that are in pretty good shape. We've got to get right in Baghdad. That's the task at hand. I think we can do it.

Q But hasn't our strategy been failing? Isn't that why the President has had to come out with a new strategy?

THE VICE PRESIDENT: A failed strategy? Let's see, we didn't fail when we got rid of Saddam. We didn't fail when we held elections. We didn't fail when we got a constitution written. Those are all success stories.

Q But didn't we fail when 3,000 American soldiers are killed?

THE VICE PRESIDENT: You wish there was never a single --

Q When a virtual civil war is --

THE VICE PRESIDENT: You wish there was never a casualty, Jonathan. Always regret when you have casualties, but we are at war. And we have to succeed where we've begun this venture. And we can. There's no reason in the world why the United States of America, along with our allies cannot get it right in Iraq. I think we will.

There is of course no evidence that the US has indeed finally identified the "right" strategy and will "get it right in Iraq", after all the wrong strategies and getting it wrong for so long. As for the ideas that the US has made "significant progress" in Iraq, and that Maliki's government is "off to a pretty good start", these are flatly contradicted by any number of official government reports and memos.

'Quagmire'; 'disaster'; 'civil war'; 'head-banging failures'. These kinds of things shouldn't give anybody pause. They're mere distractions tossed around by people who just can't stomach hard work. I imagine you're familiar with the administration's crazy talk by now.

But how about the other ideas embedded in this interview? Cheney admits that bin Laden struck on September 11 in the expectation of changing US policy. In the next breath, he explains that US policy changed after the attack, and that is why we invaded Iraq. The man is either a master of irony, or he's an idiot.

As if to drive the point of this paradox home more firmly, Cheney helpfully acknowledges here that it was already well understood by 1991 that an invasion of Iraq by the US would lead to a quagmire, which evidently became desirable after 9/11. You see, we weren't in Iraq when al Qaeda attacked us. Therefore, because bin Laden expected to get the US to change its policies, we decided to go into Iraq. It seems that changing our policy and occupying Iraq was key all along to discouraging al Qaeda from attacking Americans abroad or here at home.

The reason, when you boil it all down, amounts to this: There were extremists "in that part of the globe". We should naturally have wanted to get entangled in a quagmire with those extremists "in that part of the globe", and if only we'd entered the quagmire earlier, it appears that we would have avoided all our troubles.

What part of the globe Cheney means is far from clear, though it looks like he intends something like "east of the Mediterranean Sea". Already in Xenophon's era, around 400 BC, that kind of lack of specificity could get an invading force into trouble. In this day and age, with aerial satellites and maps and what not, you'd have thought that the leaders of large country like the US could have looked a little more closely into the question of where the terrorist extremists actually were located.

The best I can make out, Cheney has confused Iraq with perhaps Saudi Arabia (a nearby, but distinct, country), or perhaps Iran (ditto) or Pakistan (ditto). All of them are in that part of the globe...just as Cuba is in the same part of the globe as the US and Canada. I shudder to think of the harm that could have been done if the Cheney administration had invaded, say, Canada (or the US) because it became aware that communists were running amok in Cuba.

Anyway, there are still some Americans who will be surprised to learn that the US will keep its forces in Iraq even if, or rather especially if, our strategy there "doesn't work". That is because, as Cheney states again and again, we cannot afford to fail. Therefore we will be obliged to go right on failing if we find that we are continuing to fail, at least until we "get it right". Apparently, when we finally get it right then we will stop doing whatever "it" is.

And when might that be?

THE VICE PRESIDENT: I don't think you can put a timetable on it. I think to some extent it clearly will be determined by conditions on the ground. I think it's -- I've heard the argument made that the terrorists will give up when they become convinced that the rest of us aren't going to quit, that in fact, we're not talking about a situation in which there's no violence. That's unrealistic, but I think we do need to make enough progress so that the level of violence is less than what it has been in recent months.

I have the uneasy sense that this admission contradicts virtually every position Cheney has ever taken on al Qaeda's strategy of wearing down the will of Americans to fight in Iraq; the necessity of showing them that the US will not be pushed out of Iraq until it achieves 'victory'; the need to fight 'em over there so we don't have to fight them in the streets of Elko, Nevada. Now it turns out that the "terrorists" really aren't going to be put down at all. But Cheney will be happy if the situation returns to the level of violence of a mere few months ago, when, you'll recall, things looked rather peachy for Iraq.

Crossposted from Unbossed

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Monday, February 19, 2007

  Affadavit from an Abu Ghraib prisoner

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Ali Shalal Abbas, a former prisoner at Abu Ghraib, has submitted an affidavit under oath in Malaysia about his brutal treatment at the prison. Last year he was widely identified as the hooded prisoner seen in the photo he is holding here. Although significant doubt was raised subsequently about that identification (I postpone discussion of that until the end), it's certain that he was held in Abu Ghraib at the time. His testimony may have credibility, then, and on that presumption, I agree with journalist Helena Cobban that it ought to be widely discussed. She deserves credit incidentally for drawing attention to the affidavit.

Ali Shalal's testimony is grim. Skip down toward the end if you have a weak stomach.

The text of Ali Shalal's affidavit was posted yesterday at a well established Iraqi blog, A family in Baghdad. As far as I can determine (I cannot vouch for the posts there in Arabic), the poster and the blog are credible. Also, it's clear that the text posted at the blog is also the one under discussion in the slides on display at this "Criminalizing War" conference in Kuala Lumpur twelve days ago. One photo there indicates that Ali Shalal signed his affidavit before the Malaysian Commissioner of Oaths on either the 3rd or 8th of February, where it was deposited with the War Crimes Commission.

Here are the most significant parts of Ali Shalal's affidavit:

7. After two days, they transferred me to the Abu Ghraib prison. The first thing they did to me was to make a physical examination of my body and abused me. Together with other detainees, we were made to sit on the floor and were dragged to the interrogation room. This so called room is in fact a toilet (approximately 2m by 2m) and was flooded with water and human waste up to my heel level. I was asked to sit in the filthy water while the American interrogator stood outside the door, with the translator.

8. After the interrogation, I would be removed from the toilet, and before the next detainee is put into the toilet, the guards would urinate into the filthy water in front of the other detainees.

9. The first question they asked me was, “Are you a Sunni or Shiia?” I answered that this is the first time I have been asked this question in my life. I was surprised by this question, as in Iraq there is no such distinction or difference. The American interrogator replied that I must answer directly the questions and not to reply outside the question. He then said that in Iraq there are Sunnis, Shiias and Kurds.

10. The interrogators wore civilian clothes and the translator, an Afro-American wore American army uniform.

11. When I answered that I am an Iraqi Muslim, the interrogator refused to accept my answer and charged me for the following offence:

(a) That I am anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic.
(b) I supported the resistance
(c) I instigated the people to oppose the occupation
(d) That I knew the location of Osama bin Ladin

I protested and said that Muslims and Jews descended from the same historical family. I said that I could not be in the resistance because I am a disabled person and have an injured hand.

The hooded man in the photograph above has an injured (right) hand as well. Helena Cobban has interesting comments about reasons why he might be asked whether he is Shia etc.

14. When I did not cooperate, the interrogator asked me whether I considered the American army as “liberator” or “occupier”. When I replied that they were occupiers, he lost his temper and threatened me. He told me that I would be sent to Guantanamo Bay where even animals would not be able to survive...

18. The living conditions in the camp were very bad. Each tent would have 45 to 50 detainees and the space for each detainee measured only 30cm by 30cm. We had to wait for 2 to 3 hours just to go to the toilets. There was very little water. Each tent was given only 60 litres of water daily to be shared by the detainees. This water was used for drinking and washing and cleaning the wounds after the torture sessions. They would also make us to stand for long hours.

19. Sometimes, as a punishment, no food is given to us. When food is given, breakfast is at 5.00 am, lunch is at 8.00 am and dinner at 1.00 pm. During Ramadhan, they bring food twice daily, first at 12.00 midnight and the second is given during fasting time to make the detainees break the religious duty of fasting.

20. During my captivity in the camp, I was interrogated and tortured twice. Each time I was threatened that I would be sent to Guantanamo Bay prison. During this period, I heard from my fellow detainees that they were tortured by cigarette burns, injected with hallucinating chemicals and had their rectum inserted with various types of instruments, such as wooden sticks and pipes. They would return to the camp, bleeding profusely. Some had their bones broken.

21. In my camp, I saw detainees brought over from a secret prison which I came to know later as being housed in the “Arabian Oil Institute” building, situated in the north of Baghdad. These detainees were badly injured.

22. After one month and just before sunset my number was called and they put a bag over my head and my hands were tied behind my back. My legs were also tied. They then transferred me to a cell.

23. When I was brought to the cell, they asked me in Arabic to strip but when I refused, they tore my clothes and tied me up again. They then dragged me up a flight of stairs and when I could not move, they beat me repeatedly. When I reached the top of the stairs, they tied me to some steel bars. They then threw at me human waste and urinated on me.

24. Next, they put a gun to my head and said that they would execute me there. Another soldier would use a megaphone to shout at me using abusive words and to humiliate me. During this time, I could hear the screams of other detainees being tortured. This went on till the next morning.

25. In the morning, an Israeli stood in front of me and took the bag from my head and told me in Arabic that he was an Israeli had interrogated and tortured detainees in Palestine. He told me that when detainees would not cooperate, they would be killed. He asked me repeatedly for names of resistance fighters. I told him that I do not know any resistance fighters but he would not believe me, and continued to beat me.

26. This Israeli dressed in civilian clothes tortured me by inserting in turn first with a jagged wooden stick into my rectum and then with the barrel of a rifle. I was cut inside and bled profusely. During this time, when any guard walked past me, they would beat me. I had no food for 36 hours.

27. The next morning, the Israeli interrogator came to my cell and tied me to the grill of the cell and he then played the pop song, “By the Rivers of Babylon” by Pop Group Boney M, continuously until the next morning. The effect on me was that I lost my hearing, and I lost my mind. It was very painful and I lost consciousness. I only woke up when the Israeli guard poured water on my head and face. When I regain consciousness, he started beating me again and demanded that I tell him of the names of resistance fighters and what activities that I did against the American soldiers. When I told him that I did not know any resistance fighters, he kicked me many times.

There have been accusations in the past that Israelis took part in interrogations at Abu Ghraib. Though at first the allegation struck me as somewhat improbable, the state of the evidence by now is strong enough that I'd venture to say it is credible though not proven. Here is a report from the BBC from 2004:

Gen Karpinski was in charge of the military police unit that ran Abu Ghraib and other prisons when the abuses were committed. She has been suspended but not charged.

She told BBC Radio 4's Today programme she met a man claiming to be Israeli during a visit to an intelligence centre with a senior coalition general.

"I saw an individual there that I hadn't had the opportunity to meet before, and I asked him what did he do there, was he an interpreter - he was clearly from the Middle East," she said in the interview.

"He said, 'Well, I do some of the interrogation here. I speak Arabic but I'm not an Arab; I'm from Israel.'"

Until a 1999 ruling by the Israeli Supreme Court, Israeli secret service interrogators were allowed to use "moderate force".

The US journalist who broke the Abu Ghraib scandal told the programme his sources confirm the presence of Israeli intelligence agents in Iraq.

Seymour Hersh said that one of the Israeli aims was to gain access to detained members of the Iraqi secret intelligence unit, who reportedly specialise in Israeli affairs.

For more on Israeli connections to CACI, see this from the Daily Star. It is also possible, of course, that American interrogators were passing themselves off as Israelis as part of their mind games.

For what it is worth, the Israeli government denied any involvement in Abu Ghraib. Their long record of abusing Palestinian prisoners is too well known to merit discussion here.

Back to Ali Shalal's affidavit:

28. I was kept in the cell without clothes for two weeks. During this time, an American guard by the name of “Grainer” accompanied by a Moroccan Jew called Idel Palm (also known as Abu Hamid) came to my cell and asked me about my bandaged hand which was injured before I was arrested. I told him that I had an operation. He then pulled the bandage which stained with blood from my hand and in doing so, tore the skin and flesh from my hands. I was in great pain and when I asked him for some pain killers, he stepped on my hands and said “this is American pain killer” and laughed at me.

29. On the 15th day of detention, I was given a blanket. I was relieved that some comfort was given to me. As I had no clothes, I made a hole in the centre of the blanket by rubbing the blanket against the wall, and I was able to cover my body. This is how all the prisoners cover their bodies when they were given a blanket.

30. One day, a prisoner walked past my cell and told me that the interrogators want to speed up their investigation and would use more brutal methods of torture to get answers that they want from the prisoners. I was brought to the investigation room, after they put a bag over my head. When I entered the investigation room, they remove the bag from my head to let me see the electrical wires which was attached to an electrical wall socket.

31. Present in the room was the Moroccan Jew, Idel Palm, the Israeli interrogator, two Americans one known as “Davies” and the other “Federick” and two others. They all wore civilian clothes, except the Americans who wore army uniforms. Idel Palm told me in Arabic that unless I cooperated, this would be my last chance to stay alive. I told him that I do not know anything about the resistance. The bag was then placed over my head again, and left alone for a long time. During this time, I heard several screams and cries from detainees who were being tortured.

32. The interrogators returned and forcefully placed me on top of a carton box containing can food. They then connected the wires to my fingers and ordered me to stretch my hand out horizontally, and switched on the electric power. As the electric current entered my whole body, I felt as if my eyes were being forced out and sparks flying out. My teeth were clattering violently and my legs shaking violently as well. My whole body was shaking all over.

33. I was electrocuted on three separate sessions. On the first two sessions, I was electrocuted twice, each time lasting few minutes. On the last session, as I was being electrocuted, I accidentally bit my tongue and was bleeding from the mouth. They stop the electrocution and a doctor was called to attend to me. I was lying down on the floor. The doctor poured some water into my mouth and used his feet to force open my mouth. He then remarked, “There is nothing serious, continue!” Then he left the room. However, the guard stopped the electrocution as I was bleeding profusely from my mouth and blood was all over my blanket and body. But they continued to beat me. After some time, they stopped beating me and took me back to my cell.

34. Throughout the time of my torture, the interrogators would take photographs.

35. I was then left alone in my cell for 49 days. During this period of detention, they stopped torturing me. At the end of the 49th day, I was transferred back to the camp, in tent C and remained there for another 45 days. I was informed by a prisoner that he over heard some guards saying that I was wrongly arrested and that I would be released.

36. I was released in the beginning of March 2004. I was put into a truck and taken to a highway and then thrown out. A passing car stopped and took me home.

The techniques Ali Shalal describes here are all too familiar by now: degradation; stress; fear; sexual humiliation; disorientation; infantilization; arbitrary treatment; beatings; deprivation of food and sleep; hypothermia; dehumanization. And, shamefully, the refusal of any military personnel or even doctors to uphold the most basic standards of treatment.

His account is one of the fullest public statements yet by a victim at Abu Ghraib. One of the main goals of interrogators in the torture regimen promulgated by Bush & Co. is to trample the victim's dignity and will to resist. Humiliating acts (and the photographing of them) are intended to leverage compliance more or less permanently in the future. Here is what he said last year to the NYT on the subject:

The prisoners were sleep deprived, he said, and the punishments they faced ranged from bizarre to lewd: an elderly man was forced to wear a bra and pose; a youth was told to hit the other adults; and groups of men were organized in piles. There was the dreaded "music party," he said, in which prisoners were placed before loudspeakers. Mr. Qaissi also said he had been urinated on by a guard. Then there were the pictures.

"Every soldier seemed to have a camera," he said. "They used to bring us pictures and threaten to deliver them to our families"

Compare as well this story of another innocent Iraqi finally released by the US from detention, from the NYT today:

Mr. Ani said, he was brought to a table for one last step. He was handed a form and asked to place a check mark next to the sentence that best described how he had been treated:

“I didn’t go through any abuse during detention,” read the first option, in Arabic.

“I have gone through abuse during detention,” read the second.

In the room, he said, stood three American guards carrying the type of electric stun devices that Mr. Ani and other detainees said had been used on them for infractions as minor as speaking out of turn.

“Even the translator told me to sign the first answer,” said Mr. Ani, who gave a copy of his form to The New York Times. “I asked him what happens if I sign the second one, and he raised his hands,” as if to say, Who knows?

“I thought if I don’t sign the first one I am not going to get out of this place.”

Shoving the memories of his detention aside, he checked the first box and minutes later was running through a cold rain to his waiting parents. “My heart was beating so hard,” he said. “You can’t believe how I cried.”...

After his release from the American-run jail, Camp Bucca, Mr. Ani and other former detainees described the sprawling complex of barracks in the southern desert near Kuwait as a bleak place where guards casually used their stun guns and exposed prisoners to long periods of extreme heat and cold; where prisoners fought among themselves and extremist elements tried to radicalize others; and where detainees often responded to the harsh conditions with hunger strikes and, at times, violent protests.

Through it all, Mr. Ani was never actually charged with a crime; he said he was questioned only once during his more than two years at the camp.

American interrogators don't care to release anybody from these gulags if there's a realistic chance that the brutal facts of their behavior will become public. Humiliating prisoners so thoroughly as to crush their will to retaliate is their preferred method for ensuring silence.

So it is not surprising that few victims have the courage to make public statements, to humiliate themselves again before the world in order to take on their torturers. If Ali Shalal's testimony is accurate, then he deserves credit for going public when he might have retreated into obscurity.

The credibility of Ali Shalal

Perhaps I should have begun rather than ended here, but assessing the victim's credibility is a convoluted problem. There seems to be little doubt that he was tortured while at Abu Ghraib. The main question that hangs over his testimony is whether he is a self-promoter who might embroider or invent refinements to the tortures that US troops actually inflicted upon him. I think all readers will have to determine that for themselves.

The main allegations against Ali Shalal's credibility are that (i) he did not initially allege that he'd suffered electrical shocks; (ii) the US military identified another Iraqi as the hooded man in the photo; (iii) when that man vanished, Ali Shalal began promoting himself as the hooded man; (iv) when the discrepancy was pointed out, he said he was treated identically to the hooded man (whoever he is); (v) the US military denies that more than one prisoner was treated that way.

Here are two reports to consider. Last year several news outlets including the NYT reported that Ali Shalal was the hooded man in the picture. A few days afterward however, when Salon challenged the identification based upon the US Army's own findings, the Times retracted its identification.

In the summer of 2004, a group of former detainees of Abu Ghraib prison filed a lawsuit claiming that they had been the victims of the abuse captured in photographs that incited outrage around the world.

One, Ali Shalal Qaissi, soon emerged as their chief representative, appearing in publications and on television in several countries to detail his suffering. His prominence made sense, because he claimed to be the man in the photograph that had become the international icon of the Abu Ghraib scandal: standing on a cardboard box, hooded, with wires attached to his outstretched arms. He had even emblazoned the silhouette of that image on business cards.

The trouble was, the man in the photograph was not Qaissi.

Military investigators had identified the man on the box as a different detainee who had described the episode in a sworn statement immediately after the photographs were discovered in January 2004, but then the man seemed to go silent.

Qaissi had energetically filled the void, traveling abroad with slide shows to argue that abuse in Iraq continued, as head of a group he called the Association of Victims of American Occupation Prisons...

Certainly, he was at Abu Ghraib, and appears with a hood over his head in some photographs that Army investigators seized from the computer belonging to Specialist Charles Graner, the soldier later convicted of being the ringleader of the abuse.

However, he now acknowledges he is not the man in the specific photograph he printed and held up in a portrait that accompanied the Times article. But he and his lawyers maintain that he was photographed in a similar position and shocked with wires and that he is the one on his business card. The Army says it believes only one prisoner was treated in that way.

I know one thing," Qaissi said yesterday, breaking down in tears when reached by telephone. "I wore that blanket, I stood on that box, and I was wired up and electrocuted."...

In the interview for the article, Qaissi pointed to his deformed hand and said it matched the hand in the photograph. A close look at the photograph, however, is inconclusive.

Whether he was forced to stand on a box and photographed is not clear, but evidence suggests that he adopted the identity of the iconic man on the box, the very symbol of Abu Ghraib, well after he left the prison.

Records confirm that Qaissi became inmate 151716 sometime after the prison opened in June 2003, but do not give firm dates; Qaissi, a 43-year-old former Baath Party member and neighborhood mayor in Baghdad, said he arrived at Abu Ghraib in October 2003 and was released in March 2004, two months after the Army began an investigation into the abuse.

And he suffered mistreatment and humiliation at the hands of the same people who photographed the man on the box: photographs investigators seized show him forced into a crouch, identifiable by his mangled hand, with the nickname guards gave him - "The Claw" - scrawled in black marker across his orange jumpsuit.

But if he was the hooded man on the box, he did not mention it on several key occasions in the first months after the scandal broke....

A journalist who interviewed Qaissi three times that May and June about what happened at Abu Ghraib similarly said he never mentioned the pose or the photograph. The journalist, Gert Van Langendonck, said Qaissi mentioned the other cruelties he described in the Times profile.

A lawsuit Qaissi joined, filed on July 27, 2004, also made no allegation that he was shocked with wires or forced to stand on a box. That allegation appeared only on an amended version of a complaint he later joined, filed last month, which said he had been forced to stand on the box and fell off from the shocks of the electrocution: "They repeated this at least five times."

Another man had already been publicly identified as the man on the box in May 2004, when documents including logbooks and sworn statements from detainees and soldiers were leaked to The Times.

On May 22, 2004, The Times quoted the testimony of a detainee, Abdou Hussain Saad Faleh: "Then a tall black soldier came and put electrical wires on my fingers and toes and on my penis, and I had a bag over my head. Then he was saying, 'Which switch is on for electricity?'"

Specialist Sabrina Harman, one of the soldiers later convicted of abuse, identified the man by his nickname, Gilligan, in her statement.

She left some room to believe that others were subjected to the same treatment. "The wires part," she said, was her idea, but she said Specialist Graner and Staff Sgt. Ivan Frederick II had forced detainees to stand on a box to stay awake, and did so at the request of military intelligence officials. Abu Ghraib photographs show more than one example of a hooded man forced to stand on boxes.

But Chris Grey, a spokesman for the Army's Criminal Investigation Command, said that the military believed that Faleh had been the only prisoner subjected to the treatment shown in the photo. "To date, and after a very thorough criminal investigation, we have neither credible information, nor reason to believe, that more than one incident of this nature occurred," he said.

Qaissi's lawyer, Burke, countered, "We do not trust the torturers."...

With his soft voice and occasionally self-deprecating humor, he has impressed interviewers as affable and credible. He told his story with a level of detail that separated it from that of many others.

Most of his assertions and details could be confirmed, Webster and others stress. In his three-hour interview with The Times, Qaissi did not veer from reported details and appeared confident in his discussion, punctuating his story with bitter laughter and occasionally, tears. But he never raised the possibility that another man may have also been photographed in the same pose.

There are in fact at least two distinct photos of hooded men, which I suppose might conceivably be of separate individuals:

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In any case, as Kraant points out at NION, the NYT story above quotes Saad Faleh, the man identified by the US military as the hooded prisoner in these photos, as alleging that wires were attached to his fingers, toes, and penis. Yet there are no wires attached to toes in these photos, nor apparently a wire to the man's penis.

That would appear to be pretty strong evidence that the hooded man in these photos was not in fact Saad Faleh. And since the US Army accepts the accuracy of Faleh's testimony, that would mean that more than one prisoner at Abu Ghraib was treated this way.

Crossposted from Unbossed

Thursday, February 15, 2007

  'Lack of alternatives' in the NIE

It turns out that Democratic Senators are criticizing the politicization of the NIE on Iraq along much the same lines as I did in my recent (yes, lengthy) analysis of the document: A sucker's guide to unclassified reports.

I identified several signs that the unclassified executive summary of the NIE, the Key Judgments, is disingenuous, incomplete, misleading, and rhetorical. Like the unclassified version of the 2002 NIE, the latest Key Judgments try to persuade the reader to draw certain conclusions. They put the best possible spin on administration policy.

The organizing 'principle' behind the document was a determination to justify the continued occupation of Iraq and, by extension, a policy of escalation. It was not a candid survey of the situation we face there.

Walter Pincus reports today that behind the scenes in the Senate, Democrats have put John Negroponte on notice about that spin. Good. The document (as we have it) is intolerable.

My interpretation of the Key Judgments

In the earlier piece I identified many issues and terms that, quite remarkably, were excluded from the Key Judgments. For starters, George Bush's name appears nowhere. The most peculiar and glaring things were these:

  • You would not know from this document that US troops are occupying Iraq, or that the US has ever spent a dime there.

  • It doesn't mention US troops, much less any casualties or the damage the military is sustaining from the occupation, or how the military commitment in Iraq affects US policy elsewhere.

  • It avoids discussing violence (such as bombs/explosions/IEDs).

  • It ignores the damage the occupation of Iraq has done to the reputation of the US.

  • Therefore there is no evidence of a cost-benefit analysis of the current occupation.

  • It fails to mention that the security situation in Iraq has deteriorated steadily since the invasion in 2003. There is little historical analysis (change over time).

  • It takes the ludicrous position that it's a mistake to describe the violence in Iraq as a 'civil war' because civil wars are less complex than that.

  • It lists just as many positive future scenarios for Iraq as negative ones, though all the positive scenarios constitute nothing more than the hope that Iraqi factions will somehow learn to get along.

  • One astounding section of the Key Judgments argues that 'Coalition capabilities...remain an essential stabilizing element in Iraq,' and that a rapid withdrawal within the next 18 months would lead to a significant increase in sectarian conflict. There is no mention of the possibility that the occupation is actually contributing instability.

  • That section is wedged right at the center of the Key Judgments, between the first half on the current situation in Iraq, and the second half on predictions about the future.

Having pondered the rhetoric of this document for some time, I came to the conclusion that somewhere along the line, probably in the editing process, the NIE was transformed into an apologia for the Bush administrations Iraq policies. It's no longer remotely possible for Bush & Co. to pretend that the situation in Iraq is not grim. What Bush needed most was for the NIE to reaffirm his position that (a) the continued occupation of Iraq is necessary, and (b) that an escalation ought to be tried.

That's exactly what the aforementioned bizarre features of the NIE accomplish. The document completely omits discussion of the cost of the occupation and the idea that it might make things worse rather than better. It doesn't minimize the damage the occupation is doing. It excludes the question entirely.

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Democrats respond

Democrats have been angry for some time with Negroponte for shamelessly stalling the release of the NIE. In mid-January...

a senior intelligence official was expected to brief a closed-door session of the Senate Armed Services Committee on the new NIE; instead, he trotted out a number of lame excuses in explaining why the NIE was still not ready.

I was told that this “dog ate my homework” performance angered Congress, and evidence of that anger was made public yesterday, when four top Democrats—Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Chairman John D. Rockefeller IV, and Rockefeller's House counterpart, Silvestre Reyes—wrote Negroponte to demand that the NIE be swiftly completed.

Here is part of the Democratic leaders' letter to Negroponte of Jan. 23, 2007.

However, it now has been six months since we placed the request for the NIE and the community has yet to complete it... Since we registered our request, the situation in Iraq has continued to deteriorate....

The upcoming debate on Iraq is an important one for our troops and our country. The American people have a right to expect that their elected representatives will be fully informed at the outset of the debate in order to increase accountability for results and to increase the chances for a bipartisan consensus on a way forward.

It is in this context that we urge that every effort be made to bring the final deliberations regarding the NIE to a swift conclusion and that the key judgments of this NIE, like the previous Iraq NIE, be made available in unclassified form. The Administration has declassified key intelligence findings on many issues, asserting that declassification in these instances was in the public interest and did not compromise intelligence sources or methods. An unclassified summary of the key judgments of this NIE will be essential to conducting a thorough and complete debate and we believe it can be produced without jeopardizing our intelligence capabilities.

It appears then that throughout January the administration or at least the DNI continued to resist releasing the NIE in the belief that the debate over escalation might be derailed by it. Democrats had to demand repeatedly that the NIE be "finished". Further, you don't have to read very far between the lines to observe that the Democrats feared the administration would refuse to release a declassified summary of the Key Judgments for the public. Indeed, as late as February 1st the DNI was saying that "no decision has been made about declassification" of the NIE. At hearings that day, Sen. Feinstein felt obliged to tell DNI nominee Michael McConnell that she expected the finished NIE to be delivered on the morrow!

In short, the Democrats have been fighting tooth and nail for months to get Bush & Co. to release the NIE that Sen. Kennedy requested last summer, and in particular to get a declassified version before the public.

Today Walter Pincus reports that Democrats on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence complained in a closed session last week to the head of DNI, John Negroponte, that the NIE had been politicized. In particular, they're angry that it seems to be intended to make the case for escalation—an issue that the Committee had not asked it to address—while ignoring the cost of the occupation. They had asked for an assessment of whether the continued occupation was making matters worse. The NIE, they believe, shoves that issue aside.

Democrats on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence have questioned whether the recent National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq gave political advantage to the Bush administration by making "rapid withdrawal" of U.S. troops the only alternative military option the NIE explored....

At a closed briefing about the NIE on Feb. 7, several committee Democrats asked why the key judgments laid out many adverse results of rapid withdrawal while other military options -- such as the redeployment of forces discussed by the Iraq Study Group or even a buildup of U.S. troops -- were not considered.
They were told at the briefing that Director of National Intelligence John D. Negroponte had requested that the NIE include a discussion of consequences of a coalition withdrawal...

Sen. John D. "Jay" Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.), the intelligence panel's chairman, said last week that he, too, was concerned because there was no definition for "rapid" and it was unclear why the topic had been included in the estimate. In a July 26, 2006, letter from Rockefeller and others to Negroponte, setting out questions for an NIE, the closest item was listed as: "U.S. Force Posture: In what ways is the large-scale presence of multi-national forces helping or hindering Iraqis' chances of success?"

"Nowhere did anyone ask about sudden withdrawal," Rockefeller said in an interview last week. He said he worried the new NIE "took us back to days we are trying to get away from," when the White House was accused of misusing intelligence.

Pincus also quotes a letter Sen. Feingold sent to Negroponte in which he says that the NIE presents a "false choice" between indefinite occupation and rapid withdrawal. Feingold comments as well that the NIE's presentation "does, however, closely align with the administration's efforts to justify an unsustainable military involvement as the only option."

Negroponte responded to Feingold by stating that the NIE takes this form simply because the analysts themselves chose to assess the option of rapid withdrawal. He denies that he personally interfered in the way the analysis was formulated. Negroponte claims that this was the analysts' preferred method of responding to the Committee's question about whether continued occupation of Iraq contributed to instability.

Feingold, evidently, has accepted that explanation. I do not. The entire rhetoric of the unclassified version of the NIE is designed to exclude any discussion of the costs of the occupation (as I described in detail in my previous post). That exclusion did not just happen by accident. The Key Judgments are very carefully crafted to persuade the reader to ignore the costs of the war--every kind of cost, human and material.

Pincus notes as well that, predictably, Republicans immediately began citing the newly released NIE as evidence in favor of the occupation and the policy of escalation. That is the way the debate about Iraq will shape up in the foreseeable future. The Key Judgments are one of the best weapons that Bush apologists have to justify his policies of more of the same. Democrats need to challenge the NIE aggressively and publicly, to take this weapon away. If the only thing the public hears from the intelligence experts is that they believe, without dissent, that the continued occupation of Iraq is essential, then it will become much harder to make progress toward a withdrawal of troops.

From Unbossed

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

  A rural Valentine

Digging out from the storm in another state, a city, longing for my valentine and cherished countryside, I took thought of this poem of Robert Frost, A Line-storm Song:

The line-storm clouds fly tattered and swift,
The road is forlorn all day,
Where a myriad snowy quartz stones lift,
And the hoof-prints vanish away.
The roadside flowers, too wet for the bee,
Expend their bloom in vain.
Come over the hills and far with me,
And be my love in the rain.

The birds have less to say for themselves
In the wood-world’s torn despair
Than now these numberless years the elves,
Although they are no less there:
All song of the woods is crushed like some
Wild, easily shattered rose.
Come, be my love in the wet woods; come,
Where the boughs rain when it blows.

There is the gale to urge behind
And bruit our singing down,
And the shallow waters aflutter with wind
From which to gather your gown.
What matter if we go clear to the west,
And come not through dry-shod?
For wilding brooch shall wet your breast
The rain-fresh goldenrod.

Oh, never this whelming east wind swells
But it seems like the sea’s return
To the ancient lands where it left the shells
Before the age of the fern;
And it seems like the time when after doubt
Our love came back amain.
Oh, come forth into the storm and rout
And be my love in the rain.

* *

The poem also brought to mind that evergreen by Christopher Marlowe, The Passionate Shepherd to his Love:

Come live with me and be my love,
And we will all the pleasures prove
That valleys, groves, hills, and fields,
Woods, or steepy mountain yields.

And we will sit upon the rocks,
Seeing the shepherds feed their flocks,
By shallow rivers to whose falls
Melodious birds sing madrigals.

And I will make thee beds of roses
And a thousand fragrant posies,
A cap of flowers, and a kirtle
Embroidered all with leaves of myrtle;

A gown made of the finest wool
Which from our pretty lambs we pull;
Fair lined slippers for the cold,
With buckles of the purest gold;

A belt of straw and ivy buds,
With coral clasps and amber studs:
And if these pleasures may thee move,
Come live with me, and be my love.

The shepherds' swains shall dance and sing
For thy delight each May morning:
If these delights thy mind may move,
Then live with me and be my love.

* *

I'm not myself a shepherd, thus my work now in a city. Nor have I known any shepherds to speak of, not personally. So I cannot vouch for the picture Mr. Marlowe presents of the many pleasures that await a shepherd's spouse in matrimonial estate. But I'd like to think that if I were in a position to call out my love to sit among the rocks, we'd have the leisure to wait for a day when the woods were a little less damp than Mr. Frost seems to prefer. Still, I'm with him in spirit.

Crossposted from Unbossed

Sunday, February 11, 2007

  A sucker's guide to unclassified reports

There's something just a little bit odd about the latest NIE on Iraq. I don't mean the fact (helpfully omitted from news reports last week) that the Bush administration held back its release for months—after failing to produce a new NIE for years. I'm more struck by how calculated and manipulative the unclassified version of this document is. The Key Judgments (the only part declassified) is so incomplete and vague that it must be giving us a grossly misleading picture of what the full NIE has to say.

We've been here before, with the notorious NIE from 2002. And yet, almost as if Bush & Co. had not manipulated public perception of Iraq during the last go round, once again most reporters greeted the unclassified version as if it were a straightforward summary of the intelligence on Iraq. But it is in fact a highly rhetorical document, and far from candid, as a few moments of thought would have shown.

You'd think that the very timing of the document's release would have raised more suspicions than it did.

The Director of National Intelligence took the extraordinary step of releasing the document's key judgments publicly even as the full, 90-page classified version was being delivered to members of Congress and senior government officials.

Why, it's almost as if the White House wanted journalists and the public to draw their conclusions from the little three-page declassified version before Congress had a chance to digest the full NIE.

The entire 90-page, classified NIE...was delivered to Congress yesterday morning after most members had left for the weekend.

In short, we have a highly rhetorical and misleading summary of the NIE, unveiled in a way calculated to draw public attention to itself and away from the full NIE.

We can compare that now to the unclassified executive summary of the Pentagon Inspector General's report on the abuse of pre-war intelligence by Douglas Feith's Office of Special Plans. Released a week after the NIE, it sparked controversy and confusion. Congressional Democrats and Republicans gave diametrically opposed descriptions of the report's findings, such that Sen. Levin immediately pressed the IG to declassify the full report.

So it's a good time to emphasize this obvious but often overlooked point: You cannot trust executive summaries!

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Now this is a long post, so I'll provide you with an executive summary of my main arguments:

News reports have portrayed the NIE as using "tough and unequivocal wording" to give a "starkly pessimistic assessment of the situation in Iraq", while also noting without apparent irony that Bush's backers will find some support for his policy .

Similarly, the report from the Pentagon IG regarding the Office of Special Plans has been interpreted by Democrats as "a devastating condemnation of inappropriate activities". Republicans however claim the report depicts a simple "turf battle", not in any way a devastating condemnation.

Both documents, then, have been given radically opposed interpretations. How is that?

It's possible, ultimately, because the public has access only to executive summaries that provide little information about what the reports actually detail. All parties to the full, classified reports are aware that the public can be played for suckers.

First and foremost, the authors (and editors) of the executive summaries recognize that their freedom to manipulate an executive summary, to exclude, minimize, or misrepresent information, is at its greatest when the public cannot compare the summary to the full report. They took advantage of that flexibility here to produce two highly suspect documents.

Both unclassified versions, of the NIE and of the IG report, are woefully inadequate. To my mind, it's obvious that each is carefully crafted to avoid embarrassing Bush & Co. any more than absolutely necessary. The material in question is truly damaging, so there's no surprise that the summaries provide ammunition to the administration's critics. What is telling, however, is how well under the circumstances these reports shield the administration and advance its point of view. It's a matter of excluding or minimizing inconvenient facts; peddling half-truths; masking the arts of misdirection through the rhetoric of seriousness-of-purpose. It's a question of convincing the reader to believe that a souffle is actually as solid as a brick.

These two documents are an object lesson. As Congress resumes actual oversight of the President it is going to be reviewing a lot of classified reports, potentially devastating to Bush & Co. Don't trust the declassified versions the public is fed. Those who have final say over the executive summaries are likely to be tasked with minimizing any embarrassment to the administration. Bush & Co. have always treated classification and secrecy as a political tool.

"The administration will classify something just because they find it embarrassing or if they don't want to talk about it."

The fashioning of hollowed-out executive summaries, false friends to journalists as it were, is part of the political game they play with national intelligence.

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I was inspired to write on this topic by a remark from Meteor Blades. I'd argued that the horrific details presented in the Pentagon's last quarterly report on 'progress' in Iraq were barely reflected in its anodyne Executive Summary—which is as far as most reporters got in reading the document, to judge by their published reports. MB commented that his first editor once offered some advice that has stayed with him: To skip executive summaries and instead plow through the full reports, because the executive summary is always a graveyard for awkward facts. It's good advice.

With the NIE, though, the Key Judgments (executive summary) is all the public has. So what aren't we seeing? What is actually in that NIE? How much can we deduce about its contents from what is presented in the Key Judgments? Are we even in a position to make credible inferences?

Those are questions that journalists should have asked, though few apparently did. Instead, what they gave us were news stories that mostly just summarized the Key Judgments (for example here and here).

Asking questions that run across the grain of the evidence at hand: It's one of the hardest instincts to train yourself to adopt. Another instinct, perhaps harder to acquire, is to look for what is absent, excluded, or unmentioned.

Now, looking for what is missing from the Key Judgments happens to be the best way out of the seemingly blind alley we opened up by questioning its completeness and accuracy. I found that a few moments of reflection were sufficient to suggest a long list of really remarkable omissions from the unclassified NIE. No doubt you could think of further topics whose absence from the Key Judgments is noteworthy:

In general

  • that at no stage since the US invasion has the security situation in Iraq gotten substantially better; instead it continues to get worse

  • that the US military is widely thought to be near the breaking point because of the occupation

  • that the grounds given by the Bush administration for invading Iraq have crumbled

  • that in the US the Bush administration has almost no credibility left on Iraq

  • that in Iraq the continued presence of US troops is welcomed by almost nobody

  • that aside from dwindling British assistance, there is almost no international support for US policies in Iraq

  • that the occupation of Iraq has damaged the reputation of the US around the world

Internal security

  • that casualties from bombs and IEDs continue to mount

  • that ethnic cleansing has been going on for two years or more in many parts of Iraq

  • that hundreds of thousands of civilians have died in this war

  • that much of the population lives in daily terror of being tortured, raped, and murdered

  • that freedom of movement in Baghdad is increasingly restricted to one's own neighborhood or block, such that some residents have taken to traveling via rooftops rather than in the street

  • that few families have been unscarred by violence

  • that kidnappers and thugs have thrived amidst the violence

  • that the number of factions and groups employing violence in Iraq is almost beyond count, and that alliances shift so often that nobody can describe more than a small part of the picture

  • that Iraqi police and Iraqi army units regularly take part in or facilitate the mayhem

  • that each Iraqi ministry has forces acting independently, fostering violence and corruption

  • that the Interior Ministry has been implicated many times in violence and torture on the model of Saddam Hussein's reign of terror

  • that Iraqi civilians do not trust their own police, regular army units, ministry forces, government officials, or even hospital doctors

  • that Iraqis distrust Americans only slightly less than their own government's thugs

Political stability

  • that Iraqis do not believe the politicians can or will control the mayhem

  • that Prime Minister Maliki has no effective control over the independent ministries of his own government

  • that Maliki has never had a political power base

  • that Maliki has made no progress on his national reconciliation proposal during the last 8 months

  • that Iraqi politicians resent the Bush administration's constant interference in and condescension toward the Iraqi government, including the imposition of Maliki

  • that the Iraqi army is grossly undisciplined, such that American troops prefer not to work with Iraqi units

  • that militias use the Iraqi army to train and equip their own forces

  • that Iraqi officials rarely dare to leave the Green Zone

  • that the Iraqi government has no effective control over large parts of Iraq

Social stability

  • that unemployment in Iraq continues to be obscenely high

  • that many or most small businesses in Baghdad have been shuttered

  • that formerly middle-class families have been impoverished

  • that many families have split up or sent children abroad to avoid sectarian violence

  • that electricity and essential services are in such short supply that much of daily life in Baghdad centers on meeting basic needs (even buying bread is now difficult)

  • that schools and universities are closing down because of threats

  • that Baghdad has been carved up into many small fiefdoms

External security

  • that the US has never been able to control the borders of Iraq

  • that the US has poor and conflicting evidence on what the Syrian and Iranian governments are up to in Iraq

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That's quite a list of major issues that go unmentioned in the Key Judgments. Is it possible that the NIE circumvented all of them? The main purpose of an NIE, we're told, is to "make judgments about the likely course of future events and identify the implications for US policy". Is it possible to ignore the fact that security in Iraq has continually worsened since 2003, for example, while estimating the 'course of future events'?

Most glaringly, there's no indication in the Key Judgments that the US is paying any cost for the continued occupation of Iraq. If this document were your only evidence, you would never suspect that a single American soldier is stationed in Iraq, or that a dime of tax dollars has been spent there.

At a minimum, therefore, we have to conclude that the Key Judgments exclude most of the unwelcome information about the actual situation in Iraq. So much critical material is absent that we cannot reasonably use the unclassified version of the NIE to gauge what is actually present in the classified NIE.

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Parenthetically, we do know about at least one important issue discussed in the classified NIE that is ignored entirely in the Key Judgments:

The classified portions of the NIE is said to include "alternate" judgments that reflect disagreements over whether the Syrian government is directly involved in allowing Islamic militants to cross its border into Iraq and the extent to which Iran is aware of and tolerating al-Qaida activity in its territory.

Here, by contrast, is the totality of what the Key Judgments have to say about Syria and Iran:

Iranian lethal support for select groups of Iraqi Shia militants clearly intensifies the conflict in Iraq. Syria continues to provide safehaven for expatriate Iraqi Bathists and to take less than adequate measures to stop the flow of foreign jihadists into Iraq.

• For key Sunni regimes, intense communal warfare, Shia gains in Iraq, and Iran’s assertive role have heightened fears of regional instability and unrest and contributed to a growing polarization between Iran and Syria on the one hand and other Middle East governments on the other.

You could not have guessed from the fairly sweeping statement about Syrian complicity in the unclassified version, that the classified NIE expresses significant doubt. It's a small point, but illustrative of the bigger issue.

Here's another example. The Key Judgments does mention the "constitutionally mandated referendum" that will decide control of Kirkuk, and that Arabs there are resisting annexation by the Kurds. But it neglects to mention that the referendum is expected to make matters much worse (the ISG report called it a "powder keg" and urged its postponement). For the authors of the Key Judgments, the referendum is not a looming disaster but instead just a general "challenge confronting Iraqis".

Hence it's very unwise to make assumptions about either the details or even the general nature of the NIE based merely upon the Key Judgments. Indeed, the text of the Key Judgments is only 3 pages long, or one-thirtieth the length of the full NIE. Even with the best of intentions, its authors could not hope to summarize the totality of the horror show that is Iraq.

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And what about those intentions, anyway? Is this declassified NIE simply a factual report on the situation faced by the US, or is there an attempt (as in 2002) to persuade readers to come to certain conclusions? I think it's hard to deny that the Key Judgments are highly rhetorical. I'm pretty convinced for example that the long list of omitted topics did not happen by accident.

In any event, the Key Judgments are carefully calculated to lead the reader as quickly as possible past a vast territory of unpleasant realities, and persuade him instead to focus on what good news the future might bring. The clear intent is to put the President's policies in the best possible light.

There are several ways of demonstrating this point. I'll focus on a few:


The NIE's title is "Prospects for Iraq's Stability: A Challenging Road Ahead." The emphasis on a prospective and better future, rather than the depressing present, gives away the game, doesn't it? In the actual Iraq of here and now, the roads are perilous. In the NIE, however, they're merely "challenging" (heavens, we Americans love a challenge don't we?). This should be the first clue that the NIE is a rhetorical document.


The long list of topics excluded from the declassified NIE, a non-cynic might argue, does not necessarily mark it out as an exercise in PR. Perhaps that can be chalked up to the need for brevity, and nothing more.

Well, then what about the many terms that are excluded? The Key Judgments oddly enough has no need of any of the following terms. None of them appear even once in its text:

  • Bush
  • Maliki
  • death
  • casualty
  • bomb
  • IED
  • explosion
  • kidnap
  • rape
  • murder
  • torture
  • Abu Ghraib
  • weapon
  • WMD
  • Green Zone
  • occupation

The anodyne vocabulary of the Key Judgments is pretty remarkable. As I've tried to highlight, the document downplays the violence and mayhem while ignoring the fact of the occupation of this sovereign nation (!) and the harm inflicted on American military forces. Indeed, "US" appears only once in the text ("insecurity leads the Shia to mistrust US efforts to reconcile Iraqi sects...").

While you're pondering that, consider the most astounding omission: George Bush's name appears nowhere. The unnamed of course cannot be blamed.

In any case, I do not see how the total exclusion of Nouri al-Maliki's name can be explained except as an attempt to distract from the Bush administration's failed policies. The Key Judgments do admit in the vaguest sort of way that...

The absence of unifying leaders among the Arab Sunni or Shia with the capacity to speak for or exert control over their confessional groups limits prospects for reconciliation.

But that's as close as the declassified version comes to admitting that Bush's handpicked Prime Minister isn't a unifying leader.

There are very few words used that have negative connotations ('violence' being the main exception), while the Key Judgments employs a surprising array of positive terms for such a dire situation ('reconciliation' occurs over and over).

Undefined measures

Mark Lowenthal, former vice chairman at the National Intelligence Council, has pretty well nailed this point down at the Washington Post. The Key Judgments often uses terms of measurement for which there is in fact no measurement. It is intended to give the false appearance of precision and hard-headedness to what is really no more substantial than smoke rings and pipe dreams. This is about as exact as it gets:

Despite real improvements, the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF)—particularly the Iraqi police—will be hard pressed in the next 12-18 months to execute significantly increased security responsibilities, and particularly to operate independently against Shia militias with success.

That would be somewhere between 3 and 6 Friedman-units, during which time the Iraqi army may or may not find success, whatever that means.

This muddiness is particularly insidious when it is a question of planning for the future with what appear to be benchmarks for progress. As Lowenthal shows, this rhetorical trick is used throughout. He could have gone much further, for there isn't a hint of a single specific time-frame or benchmark in the Key Judgments.

Civil War

The Key Judgments get tangled up bizarrely in the relatively simple, though hotly contested, question of whether Iraq is mired in civil war:

The Intelligence Community judges that the term “civil war” does not adequately capture the comp
lexity of the conflict in Iraq, which includes extensive Shia-on-Shia violence, al-Qa’ida and Sunni insurgent attacks on Coalition forces, and widespread criminally motivated violence. Nonetheless, the term “civil war” accurately describes key elements of the Iraqi conflict, including the hardening of ethno-sectarian identities, a sea change in the character of the violence, ethno-sectarian mobilization, and population displacements.

How obscure. The Bush administration has claimed that this means there is not a civil war. Others have argued that the NIE is saying that it is worse than a civil war. The latter appears to be what is intended, however it makes no damned sense. As Thucydides (3.81) remarked 2400 years ago, there is nothing worse than civil war.

Death thus raged in every shape; and, as usually happens at such times, there was no length to which violence did not go...

His narrative demonstrates why there is nothing more complex or unpredictable than civil war. Thus the Key Judgments engaged in sophistry; it was a dodge. For Bush & Co., it was the best possible face that anybody inside the 'Intelligence Community' could put on his absurd refusal to acknowledge the civil war.

During a White House briefing, Hadley was pressed to reconcile that assessment with the president's refusal to describe the Iraq situation as a civil war. "I think I can't do better than the description of the facts on the ground that is in the NIE, with which we agree, and that says this is a complex, difficult situation," Hadley said. "And that's what it is."

At a Pentagon news conference, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, noting that he had not read the report, said he agreed with Hadley that "the words 'civil war' oversimplify a very complex situation."

The term 'civil war' oversimplifies, we're told, hence only simpletons will continue to use it. The very last gasp in a long train of denial—a hail mary by the editors of the Key Judgments.

Perversely optimistic interpretations

That brings me to the inexplicable optimism recurring in the Key Judgments. In the first half of the document, where the current situation is described, the main rhetorical strategy is to muffle the horrific details in the ways that I've already outlined. Most of this section is given over to a tedious catalogue of "challenges" that manages to say almost nothing that would upset Aunt Tilly.

The opening paragraph strains hard to present a rosy outlook that has no obvious basis. If you listen carefully, you can hear the neighing of magic ponies that could have an opportunity to carry us to victory:

Unless efforts to reverse these conditions show measurable progress during the term of this Estimate, the coming 12 to 18 months, we assess that the overall security situation will continue to deteriorate at rates comparable to the latter part of 2006. If strengthened Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), more loyal to the government and supported by Coalition forces, are able to reduce levels of violence and establish more effective security for Iraq’s population, Iraqi leaders could have an opportunity to begin the process of political compromise necessary for longer term stability, political progress, and economic recovery.

And the last element in the description of the current situation, as previously mentioned, presents a sophistic interpretation of the 'civil war' that tries in part to push the term out of bounds for future discussion.

The second half of the Key Judgments, the future outlook, ends with several worst-case scenarios but begins with an equal number of optimistic scenarios that "could help to reverse the negative trends driving Iraq's current trajectory." There is no apparent evidence to suggest that any of these scenarios might come about. They amount to nothing more than the hope that Iraqi factions might learn to get along.

Political intrusion

Between the first and second halves of the NIE, there is a flagrant political intrusion.

Coalition capabilities, including force levels, resources, and operations, remain an essential stabilizing element in Iraq. If Coalition forces were withdrawn rapidly during the term of this Estimate, we judge that this almost certainly would lead to a significant increase in the scale and scope of sectarian conflict in Iraq...

There is not even a nod in the direction of the widely shared view that the US occupation of Iraq is causing instability. This section exists in the Key Judgments, it seems to me, in order to provide political cover for Bush's escalation plan.

In the debate raging in Washington over Presidents Bush's new Iraq strategy, both his backers and critics will find something to hold on to in the intelligence community's new assessment of the Iraq conflict...

On its face, the new NIE...does not give Bush's new strategy high odds of success....

Still, Bush's backers will find some support for his policy. For one thing, the NIE allows that if U.S. forces, along with strengthened Iraqi forces, manage to reduce the violence level, it could permit political compromises to begin. The estimate also forcefully rebuts the congressional proponents of a speedy withdrawal from Iraq...

It's rather audacious for an intelligence document to insert itself into a political dispute, particularly one that has strong partisan elements. I would not be surprised to learn that the classified NIE was not nearly so provocative and one-sided about the benefits of occupation. I will underline this astounding fact again: In the Key Judgments there is not even a whiff of a cost-benefit analysis for the US occupation of Iraq. To judge by the declassified version, there are no costs...or if there are, they aren't worth considering.

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I don't suppose for a moment that the Key Judgments as we have them were popular with intelligence analysts. My guess is that in the final stages of editing some Bush appointees, or those professionals who have career aspirations, spun the NIE as strongly as they could—particularly the Key Judgments, knowing that the public would not be able to ascertain the real measure of the classified version.

It's worth mentioning, as I commented last May, how painfully aware intelligence professionals are that the Bush administration is hostile to reporting the truth on Iraq:

Ken Silverstein details at Harper's how CIA officers who dared to tell the truth about the deteriorating situation in Iraq were demoted and hounded. That is why, for example, the last NIE on Iraq was produced two years ago. As Silverstein explains, almost nobody at the CIA would be willing to touch the job.

Several of the sources I spoke with said that they were further troubled because it appears that no National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq (NIE) has been produced since the summer of 2004. The last NIE—which the CIA describes as “the most authoritative written judgment concerning a national security issue”—offered a dark but prescient assessment of the U.S. position in Iraq, as disclosed when the highly classified document was later leaked to the New York Times. One former senior agency official told me, “If I were at the CIA now and was asked to work on an NIE [on Iraq], my first response would be, 'How the fuck do I get out of this?' The most courageous, honest person in the place would be reluctant to do it because every time someone says the emperor has no clothes he gets his head lopped off.” Indeed, President Bush practically dismissed the 2004 NIE, responding to questions about the report at a September 2004 press conference by saying: “They were just guessing as to what the conditions might be like. The Iraqi citizens are defying the pessimistic predictions."

In other words, further contributions from the CIA in the form of another round of NIE guesswork would just provide ammunition to those journalists who want to pin the President down with facts.

The latest NIE may very well be as 'dark' as the one from 2004 kept under wraps by Bush & Co. We really have no way of assessing that, unless its details are also leaked to journalists. In any case, it is clear that the administration devoted considerable attention to air-brushing the Key Judgments for your and my benefit.

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I won't bother to analyze the Executive Summary of the IG report newly released by the Pentagon. It is an absurdity. It devotes only 4 sentences to describing its results. It would be virtually impossible, on the basis of this document alone, to figure out what is at issue much less what the Inspector General's findings involved.

The findings are preposterous. As we learn from news reports, the IG confirmed that Douglas Feith gave several inaccurate and grossly and deliberately misleading presentations, including one to the White House, on pre-war intelligence on Iraq—while concealing what he was doing from intelligence professionals. The purpose was to hype unreliable 'evidence' to make a case for war. And yet, rather astonishingly, though Feith's office did not even alert Congress to his activities as required by law, and though the IG described Feith's activities as "inappropriate", never the less he was found to have done nothing illegal.

Thus both Feith and his critics are claiming that the IG report vindicates them.

From the painfulness of the Inspector General's fence-straddling, and the extreme opaqueness of his Executive Summary, I'd surmise that he wished to avoid either embarrassing the administration by ruling that it went to war based upon lies, or offending Democrats by dismissing the allegations. His solution was to bury all the evidence in the classified report, knowing that public debate was impossible based upon his Executive Summary.

Sen. Levin is right; the public needs and deserves to see the full report from the Inspector General. In an attempt in 2003 to justify his activities, Feith went so far as to leak his findings to Stephen Hayes at the Weekly Standard. There's no good reason, then, why the public should not now, at long last, get a full explanation from our Pentagon watchdog about why Feith's findings were wrong and how his activities overstepped the bounds of what is appropriate.

Crossposted from Unbossed