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"It is better to be drunk with loss and to beat the ground, than to let the deeper things gradually escape."

- I. Compton-Burnett, letter to Francis King (1969)

"Cynical realism – it is the intelligent man’s best excuse for doing nothing in an intolerable situation."

- Aldous Huxley, "Time Must Have a Stop"

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Friday, 27 January 2006
Friday Follies: A Media Tradition
Topic: Couldn't be so...

Friday Follies: A Media Tradition

As a rule, you manage the news by keeping the bad stuff under wraps until late Friday afternoon. The national broadcast news shows for Friday have by then been set in stone - timed and rehearsed for the twenty-two available minutes in the half-hour. The nifty graphics have all been worked out. And the cable news shows have all been booked and set up. And Jon Stewart's "Daily Show" doesn't air on Friday night. And too, no one much reads the newspapers Saturday morning, and even if a big story breaks, there's no broadcast echo chamber to keep it alive - the cable news folks know that people, if they are in on the weekends, watch sports if they watch anything at all, so they run "in-depth" backgrounders or light fare - stuff about celebrities or travel or health. Here in Los Angeles, the lefty progressive AM station has no "Air America" on the weekends, but does have long blocks of back-to-back half-hour commercials for this cure or that (elixirs and odd quasi-vitamins and other things that drive the few serious folks at the FDA to exasperation). "Saturday Night Live" might offer some satire, but it's material that has been rehearsed all week, and not that very topical.

So you release bad news late Friday, and hope that, by Monday, other matters will have come up and no one will notice.

The Associated Press, Friday, January 27th, at 3:39 in the afternoon (Eastern), ran this -
The U.S. Army in Iraq has at least twice seized and jailed the wives of suspected insurgents in hopes of "leveraging" their husbands into surrender, U.S. military documents show.

In one case, a secretive task force locked up the young mother of a nursing baby, a U.S. intelligence officer reported. In the case of a second detainee, one American colonel suggested to another that they catch her husband by tacking a note to the family's door telling him "to come get his wife."
We're not supposed to do that sort of thing. It's against the rules, and not likely to win the hearts and minds of those who we want to consider us the good guys. And in addition to being illegal and impractical, some might thing it's just wrong. Some might feel it's pretty much kidnapping and blackmail - using the wife and kids to get someone who might be one of the bad guys to agree to anything to free them, or save them from captivity, or from torture, or from death.

One supposes a defense of this would be that this is war, and we lost three thousand of our people five years ago, so, as the aggrieved party, such things should be allowed. Secondary, a defense would be that we wouldn't really harm the wife and kids - we are not bad people - but it's useful of someone we suspect is a bad guy thinks we would do that. We get what we want without actually doing anything bad, like hurting innocent women and children. We just keep them off balance by having them think we're going to get their families - so it's clever and effective without our having to actually do what they might think we'd do. So we keep the moral high ground - we didn't do anything - while the bad guy feels like a fool.

Still, it seems mighty odd, but maybe you actually have to be "in theater" and frustrated and angry to understand why this is an informal policy now. It seems unlikely that the Rumsfeld Department of Defense will say it's official. The hypothetical defense above will come from Rush Limbaugh and the media on the right, and, one assumes, from Alan Dershowitz, the fellow who suggested legalizing torture with what he would call "torture warrants." (Maybe you have to be "in theater" at some Harvard faculty room to get with his thinking.)

Of course, you have to consider this in the context of the kidnapped American journalist Jill Carroll, on assignment in Iraq for the Christian Science Monitor, after the Wall Street Journal laid her off. Her kidnappers threatened to kill her unless all Iraqi women detainees are freed, and their deadline has long passed - and no one knows if Carroll is dead or alive. On Thursday we did free five of eleven women we say we are holding in Iraq (we hold over fourteen thousand prisoners). No news on Carroll yet.

The "free the women" thing seems to be a big issue. They don't see holding them indefinitely as clever and effective on our part. Yes, we're misunderstood.

The AP item cites two sides to this. Hind al-Salehi, an Iraqi human rights activist (they have those?) is saying that our "anti-insurgent units," coming up empty-handed in raids on suspects' houses, have detained the wives to pressure the men into turning themselves in. But Iraq's deputy justice minister, Busho Ibrahim Ali, dismisses these claims - taking hostages was a tactic used under Saddam Hussein and "we are not Saddam." Good to know. And a command spokesman in Baghdad, one Lt. Col. Barry Johnson, says we only hold really, really bad people in the long-term (never get out) facilities - Iraqis who pose an "imperative threat."

So who are you going to believe? But then we let five women go. Why? We suddenly discovered they were just not "imperative threats." What changed? It's all very odd.

In any event, the Friday afternoon release was two documents about incidents in 2004, the result of an American Civil Liberties Union request for information on detention practices. Yes, Bill O'Reilly has told America that the ACLU is itself a terrorist organization, and thus most Americans agree, but put that aside. They made a Freedom of Information Act request and actually got some documents, whether they had a right to them or not, and whether or not revealing how we wage this war is unpatriotic or not. The government did cough them up, so let O'erilly rant about the Pentagon aiding the terrorists. Let him rant about the evils of the Freedom of Information Act.

Tarmiya, northwest of Baghdad, on May 9, 2004 - a raid on a suspect's house - Task Force (TF) 6-26, a hush-hush military unit formed to handle high-profile targets. One of the senior officers, with fourteen years of experience - "During the pre-operation brief it was recommended by TF personnel that if the wife were present, she be detained and held in order to leverage the primary target's surrender." He objected. The team leader, a senior sergeant, seized her anyway.

Hey, who's in charge? The Army does promote itself with ads urging young guys to join up and become "an Army of one," but do you disregard your senior officers?

Detail from an intelligence officer later - "The 28-year-old woman had three young children at the house, one being as young as six months and still nursing." She was held for two days and was released after he protested the whole thing. (His name is blacked out. To protect him from the senior sergeant?)

What's going on here? The spokesman, Johnson, said he couldn't judge, months later, just what were the factors that led to this woman's incarceration. Who knows? Stuff happens?

Like most names in the released documents, the officer's signature is blacked out on this for-the-record memorandum about his complaint.

The second incident is from in June 2004 - email exchanges among six Army colonels, discussing female detainees held in northern Iraq by the Stryker Brigade of the 2nd Infantry Division. A military police colonel advises staff officers of the Northern Command that Iraqi police just wouldn't take control of these jailed women without any charges being brought against them. A command staff officer asking an officer of the unit holding the women - "What are you guys doing to try to get the husband - have you tacked a note on the door and challenged him to come get his wife?" The brigade's deputy commander to his command - "As each day goes by, I get more input that these gals have some info and/or will result in getting the husband. These ladies fought back extremely hard during the original detention. They have shown indications of deceit and misinformation." The command staff colonel, referring to a commanding general - "CG wants the husband." No one knows what happened to the women. No one is saying if the husband (or husbands) gave themselves up. It's very mysterious.

The spokesman, Johnson - "It is clear the unit believed the females detained had substantial knowledge of insurgent activity and warranted being held."

It is?

Well, you could argue these savages have Jill Carroll, so we have the right to do the same. But we did it first, of course.

A bitter Andrew Sullivan here -
You may have heard of the tactic. As a way to leverage information or capture an enemy, terrorists sometimes kidnap innocent women and children in order to put pressure on their husbands or relatives. It's called kidnapping and blackmail. Except that in Rumsfeld's military, the United States now uses the tactic. Sure, it's against the Geneva Conventions. Sure, those Conventions are supposed to apply in Iraq. But this is the Bush administration. King George doesn't have to obey the law; and his military can do anything they want. The Pentagon has gotten used to denying hard evidence of abuse - and no one, of course, has been disciplined for following the instructions given ultimately in Washington. "It's very hard, obviously, from some of these documents to determine what, if anything, actually happened," says the Pentagon spokesman. No, it isn't. And so we slowly descend toward the level of the enemy. Because King George can.
We slowly descend toward the level of the enemy? No, we got there first in this case.

And then there's this. Of course, David P. Gushee doesn't have the moral weight of Pat Robertson, as he's only a professor of moral philosophy at Union University in Jackson, Tennessee, and author of a book or two. In Christianity Today he offers a detailed theological (and practical and moral) argument that torture is always wrong. He doesn't address kidnapping and blackmail. But he does address those who favor all these things, the administration and the evangelical (we must confront evil with might) right -
It is past time for evangelical Christians to remind our government and our society of perennial moral values, which also happen to be international and domestic laws. As Christians, we care about moral values, and we vote on the basis of such values. We care deeply about human-rights violations around the world. Now it is time to raise our voice and say an unequivocal no to torture, a practice that has no place in our society and violates our most cherished moral convictions.
Ah, but then the bad guys win, and no one is safe, and we all die.

So, shall we smite others for God? The argument now is that this is what real Christians do - like Sampson they take up the jawbone of the ass and kill them all, women and children included. (It's in the Bible - Judges 15:15). Gushee is, it seems, just weak, and not a real Christian.

None of it matters. The kidnap-the-wife-and-kids-for-the-greater-good story will be gone Monday. Other things will come up.

This late-week story will be gone too, a detail of the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal.

As reported in the New York Times here, the chief of the Justice Department's public integrity division, Noel Hillman, who has been leading the Abramoff lobbying investigation for two years, is suddenly gone. President Bush has nominated him for a federal judgeship and he has resigned -
Colleagues at the Justice Department say Mr. Hillman has been involved in day-to-day management of the Abramoff investigation since it began almost two year ago. The inquiry, which initially focused on accusations that Mr. Abramoff defrauded Indian tribes out of tens of millions of dollars in lobbying fees, is being described within the department as the most important federal corruption investigation in a generation.
Bye, Noel.

That's convenient, and will throw the investigation into disarray, as they say. It was getting too close to the White House.

Of course, the appointment had been suggested by two Democrats from New Jersey - more than a year ago.

Funny thing it should happen now. The Times quotes a White House spokesman saying it had nothing to do with the Abramoff investigation. Just a coincidence.

Right. And this was timed badly as the nomination was listed late Wednesday night. That gave Democrat senators Chuck Schumer and Ken Salazar - and two Congressman - time to call for the appointment of a special prosecutor, and time to write Attorney General Alberto Gonzales a letter, and time to hit the media -
The timing of Mr. Hillman's nomination "jaundices this whole process," Senator Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York, said in an interview. "They have to appoint a special counsel. I think there will be broad support for one."
Maybe. Maybe not. The Republicans control congress. They'd love this to go away. And the damage is already done, so what would be the point?

This did hit the media - MSNBC late Friday on "Countdown" - but as fishy as it seems, that was too late to cause real damage. The weekend was all but already underway. The timing was good enough.

Other items that were well timed?

Canada elected a new government - conservative in the American style - and that was going swimmingly. Bush called the new Canadian leader, Stephen Harper, and they chatted for fifteen minutes. There was much crowing in the conservative media south of the border that now Canada would dump it socialized medicine program and go the American way - expensive, barely regulated private health insurance only for those who could afford it - and repeal gay marriage and stop being so lenient with pot smokers and close those swingers clubs, and send troops to Iraq and allow us to build our anti-missile defense units all over the uppers reaches of that cold place. Harper agrees with some of that, but doesn't have enough votes for any of it. But then, late in the week, things turned sour, as you can read in the AP story here and the Independent (UK) story here.

Things came to a head at the University of Western Ontario, in London, Ontario, late in the week, where Harper and our ambassador to Canada, David Wilkins, appeared together for a bit of a chat. (Disclaimer: this writer lived and worked in this particular London, halfway between Toronto and Detroit, for two years, and found the city wonderful, and the people even more wonderful.)

Wilkins casually commented that now all the artic waters - the North-west Passage - were "neutral waters" and would be open to everyone (global warming has freed up a lot of possible new shipping lanes) and having Harper in command was way cool (not his words, but that was the idea). Harper reminded Wilkins that those waters were Canadian territorial waters, no matter what Bush and Wilkins now thought - "The United States defends its sovereignty, the Canadian government will defend our sovereignty. It is the Canadian government we get our mandate from, not the ambassador of the United States."


What did Bush and Wilkins expect? Harper is not Tony Blair. The Canadians are not fools.

From the Independent -
The assumption here is that Canada's new leader was sending a message that he would be no pushover for Washington.

With global warming steadily melting the passage, the period during which it is navigable is growing year by year, offering access to untapped fish stocks, and a shipping route that shortens the journey between Europe and Asia by almost 2,500 miles.

But climate change also provides new opportunities for smugglers and traffickers. For that reason, Canada's new leadership says, it must assert its sovereignty over the remote area.

Control of the Arctic sea lanes has long been a contentious issue, with the US in particular sending submarines through waters claimed by Canada. During the Cold War - and perhaps even now - British, Russian and French submarines also traveled under the ice. But without the resources to enforce its sovereignty, Ottawa generally turned a blind eye.

That attitude may now be changing. During the campaign, Mr Harper said he would send three armed Canadian Navy icebreakers to the North-west Passage, and build a $1.7bn (#995m) deep-water port in Iqaluit in south-east Baffin Island. The new government also plans a network of underwater "listening posts" to monitor sea traffic.
Harper hasn't yet said whether he would order military action if these ships or this new port detected an unauthorized submarine in Arctic waters.

Well, President Bush may be King George south of the border, and if he told the Brits they had stop playing cricket and play baseball, and had to drive on the correct side of the road (top right), they would, and apologize for having had it wrong all this time.

The Canadians know an arrogant fool when they see one. And they know hereditary royalty is pleasant, but insignificant.

Of course, the story that was getting play at the end of the week was something that is just not going to happen, the filibuster to stop the appointment of Judge Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court. That is being led by John Kerry (he explains himself here). Ted Kennedy is with him, but the numbers don't work out and the rest of the Democrats would rather not raise a stink. The guy will mostly likely do his best to overturn Roe v. Wade, and has long held the president is not required to follow any law he sees as cumbersome (at least if the president was Reagan or would be Bush). He generally thinks the police can do no wrong, and folks who sue for discrimination are without standing, and so on. But it comes down to the rest of the Democratic Party not wanting to look like "negative people" no matter what principles are involved - and, yes, the votes aren't there.

On the other side, they're itching for another opening. Ann Coulter Thursday night said she thought that that liberal Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens should be poisoned, to free up another seat for a real conservative (details here). But she said she was joking. But she said with Alito at least now there'd be a "fair vote" on abortion. Charming woman. But not negative? Nope. Just kidding around.

The president's poll numbers are lousy on all issues (late week Gallup results here), but there's no alternative. The Democrats cannot agree with each other, and John Paul Stevens might want to be careful about his desserts. Coulter may be joking. Many take her seriously.

And John Kerry just cannot catch a break.

There's the problem with Iran building nuclear weapons. There seems no good way to stop this, but the president latched onto the Russians' suggestion - let Russia make the nuclear fuel and process the waste, but Iran runs the reactors for power, just as they claim was the idea in the first place. Call their bluff. Bush loves it.

But as noted here, that was exactly what John Kerry proposed when he ran for president. Back then Bush said it was "ignorant" and "dangerously wrong." It rewarded Iran for bad behavior.

Is that so?

The Bush supporters are all upset (see this) but Bush says - "I think that is a good plan. The Russians came up with the idea and I support it," he added.

He has a short memory. His supporters do not.

So the weekend will be John Kerry, drinking heavily. And these stories will all be eclipsed by what comes next.

Posted by Alan at 22:43 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Friday, 27 January 2006 22:55 PST home

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