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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, 13 January 2006
Books: The Velocity of Everydayness
Topic: Science

Books: The Velocity of Everydayness

There is no Book Wrangler column in this weekend's issue of Just Above Sunset as that particular wrangler, columnist Bob Patterson, has left his Los Angeles haunts for a long weekend in Texas. He has one of the organization's digital cameras with him, so who knows what we'll see in the January 22nd issue? He mentioned nothing about dropping by Crawford to capture the presidential brush-clearing. Perhaps we'll get long vistas with cows. Perhaps not.

Wait! There's "an organization" here? Not really. We pretend there is.

In any event, in his absence it just seems wrong not to have a book column. So here it is, and it concerns The Velocity of Honey and More Science of Everyday Life, first published by Viking Canada in 2003, but being published down here by Thunder's Mouth Press. The official publication date is February 9, but the early reviews are trickling in. The author, Jay Ingram, is host of the Canadian Discovery Channel's Daily Planet, and given the word "more" in the book title, you need to know this is a sequel to his earlier How to Dunk a Doughnut: The Science of Everyday Life.

Ingram, although he has a master's degree in microbiology from the University of Toronto, also has a sly sense of humor. So we've moved from the science how to dunk a doughnut - too many hours at Tim Horton's, no doubt - to calculating the velocity of honey. This is odd stuff.

So what is the science behind the theory of "six degrees of separation" and how do stones "skip" - and why does toast fall butter side down, and why does time seem to speed up as one grows older? And too, when visiting a new place, why does getting there always seem to take so much longer than returning home? There are twenty-four chapters, or "short meditations" if you will, on such things in this second book.

As Diana Lutz notes in her review in American Scientist, you might call the book "crossword puzzles for the scientifically minded - they offer a mental workout for its own sake but also soothe and amuse." In fact, Ingram calls this volume "a self-help book " -essays to "reduce stress" and offer "a brief interruption in the ridiculous rush of life."

Given the news of the week covered elsewhere in the pages, that's a good thing. If he's going to explain the physics of the way paper crumples and crackles when it is squeezed, then this makes sense. That's just what happens with the Los Angeles Times here some mornings.

But he's Canadian, so we do get a bit on the sport of curling. He wonders about those twenty-kilo "rocks" they use. As Lutz summarizes -
An upside-down drinking glass, rotating clockwise as it slides down a bar, begins to curve left. Why, then, does the curling rock curve right under similar circumstances? This question is harder to answer than you might think. The mechanism might have to do with the build-up of ice chips under the rock as it plows across the ice, which could conceivably also be what makes it growl (yes, rocks growl), but nobody knows for sure.
It's not the Molson's? Fascinating.

Other issues? Can you make yourself wake up at a predetermined time? (Seems so here.) Do you have a sixth sense that allows you to perceive objects in your path even in total darkness? (That's easy. No, you use one of the five, your sense of hearing, and he suggests hissing while you move your hand slowly closer to your face. You'll get the idea.)

But the scary part concerns why, as we get older, the years seem to go by faster and faster. There are real experiments that suggest an explanation for this - as we age, our biological clocks run slower and, since our clocks are running slower, the world seems to speed up. Lutz says Ingram describes a man with a brain tumor that affected his biological clock - and the fellow quit driving and watching television because traffic seemed to be rushing at him at an incomprehensible speed and television screeched on faster than he could follow. When I get a copy of the book I'll skip that chapter, as that may be happening here now. The bottom line is that when you're twenty, your life is half over, given how your "biological clock" works. Somehow that feels right.

Until you get you copy of the book, you might want to check out this radio interview (audio link and transcript) with Ingram from Living on Earth, November 18, 2005. The host is Steve Curwood.

Here's a bit -
CURWOOD: Okay, how fast is honey?

INGRAM: Well, it depends on the height you're dropping it onto your toes. The higher it is, the faster it's going to fall. It also coils up in a really interesting way on your toes, too. You know, honey dripping on toes is just one of the many everyday experiences that has really interesting science in it.
Yeah, but he doesn't explain it.

He does explain toast always hitting the floor butter-side down -
It's actually a very simple answer and that is - it really has to do with the height of the table above the floor.

Most kitchen tables where you're eating you're eating your toast are about the same height. And here's the thing: if the toast tips off the edge of the table, then it starts to rotate, so when it's rotating, if you gave it enough time, it could rotate a full 360 and land butter-side up and you'd be okay.

Or, if the kitchen table were just inches above the floor, the toast could tilt but not quite fall over. It will rotate less than 90 degrees and settle back so that it was still butter-side up. And it turns out that toast falling off the edge of a table and rotating, if it's a typical table, doesn't have enough time to do a full 360 and will land butter-side down.
Oh. The intelligent design people would say it was God determining this all - the toast always landing upside down is a mini-Job trial for us all. Science it seems, can explain lots of things. Even the most mundane.

And there's this -
CURWOOD: (LAUGHS) But wait a second, you're saying scientists sit around studying which side toast is going to land on when it goes off the table?

INGRAM: Yeah, so there's two ways of reacting to this. One, I detect in your voice, a kind of arching of the eyebrows. "What? Scientists do this?" But you know, scientists have senses of humor too, and I'm quite sure that those scientists who've investigated this are doing it partly to collect the data because it's kind of interesting; partly just to amuse themselves and, hopefully, others.
Science is fun? Well it can be. Except for the "Are You Staring At Me?" chapter. Check that out in the interview. If somebody's stares at you, do you generally interpret it as a threatening gesture? The experiment is strange, and disturbing.

And there's this on the time passing business -
Well, we all know, if we've been living long enough, as you get older time seems to move more quickly. And, you know, I think this is pretty common. You remember summer vacation when you were in grade 6 or grade 5? It seemed to take forever. Well, summer vacations now you barely catch your breath before you have start work again in the fall.

One of the questions is why does this happen? And it seems that one of our biological clocks in our brain slows down with age, just as many things slow down. And with a slower clock, more events seem to happen in a given time, so it feels like time is moving faster. The more interesting aspect, though, to me, is just how much faster is it?

And a guy named Robert Lemlich came up with an equation in the mid-70s or so, and he argued that... here's the really depressing part of this: Let's say that you're 40 right now, and you're going to live to 80. So you feel like, "hey, I've got half my life ahead of me." Lemlich says, well, you may have literally another 40 years, half your life, but it's not going to feel like that. And he did some calculations and showed that when you're 40 time is probably seeming to pass by, subjective time is going twice as fast as it did when you were ten. On that basis, you've really actually already lived more than 70 percent of your subjective life. So, you think you have half your life left; it's only going to feel like 30 percent of your life. And by the time you're 60, that 20 years is only going to feel like 13 percent of your life.
Yipes! And the he quotes the nineteenth century British poet Robert Southey - "Live as long as you may, the first twenty years are the longest half of your life. They appear so while they're passing, they seem to have been when we look back on them, and they take up more room in our memory than all the years that succeed them."

Damn, that's cold. Time doesn't really fly when you're having fun. It just flies, faster and faster and faster. Not fair!

Ah well. Time to hunt down this book.


Note: This is the age of the internet. Jay Ingram's blog is here.

Posted by Alan at 20:08 PST | Post Comment | Permalink

Thursday, 12 January 2006
Editor's Choice: Hot News versus Military Matters
Topic: The Media

Editor's Choice: Hot News versus Military Matters

Thursday, January 12th, being a Thursday, was set aside for the usual - a photo shoot for the weekend edition of Just Above Sunset, the weekly parent to this daily web log. Driving around Hollywood, camera at the ready, seeking the unusual - and the last day of the Alito hearings burbled way on the car radio, or at least the last day of questioning. There will be one more day for "witnesses," who will say he's a fine fellow, or not. The Democrats have some grumpy people lined up. Alito won't be there. But the general consensus is the man will take his seat on the Supreme Court (one of the many "consensus" stories here, as if it matters). He revealed little, and nothing dramatic happened - his wife didn't leave in tears and no senators shouted at each other, as they did the previous day. Ah well, the questions were good, and the answers extraordinarily careful and masterfully non-committal.

But there was much talk, in the breaks, of this - "Supreme Court nominees are so mum about the major legal issues at their Senate confirmation hearings that the hearings serve little purpose and should probably be abandoned, Democratic Senator Joe Biden said Thursday."

So the Senator from Delaware, with that goofy smile and the too-perfect teeth, just up and said it. This was all a waste of time. Good for him. It's often said that Washington is Hollywood for ugly people, and this did seem to be a lot of strutting and striking valiant poses, and making what passes for splendid speeches these days, in one of these few times the members of this judiciary committee ever get a national television audience. They played it for all it was worth. Alito just seemed glum. It wasn't his show.

So those of us who follow politics and policy didn't really have to listen. Joe said so. Good. The jazz station from Long Beach was doing a lot of old Horace Silver stuff. Much better.

There was other news. There was what had been knocking around the bottom of many a news page for days, first flagged by the Chicago Police. Did you know that for between ninety and a hundred dollars you can get the cell phone records for any cell phone in America? If you have the name, and the number (or sometimes just the name), you can get a list of all outgoing and incoming calls for anyone at all.

No. That couldn't be true. But it is, as here this fellow plunked down 89.95 and purchased the cell phone records of General Wesley Clark, who was one of the contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination last time around. The fellow called the general and confirmed that the records were just what they seemed. The calls placed are all there, with area codes and location and duration. And the incoming calls are all there. The fellow is now working on buying the cell phone records of George Stephanopoulos, the former Clinton aide who hosts the ABC "This Week" show, and those of the Washington Post's Dana Milbank, and the New York Time's Adam Nagourney. Investigative journalism just got baroque - everyone will know who is talking to whom, and the date, and the length of the call.

Who needs the NSA? Well, unlike the case with the NSA, those who buy these records won't know just what was said.

The other implications? There may be a few more divorces. Suspicious spouses won't even need to hire a private investigator. And will folks use their cell phones less? Will we see a return of pay phones, and phone booths? Who knows? Expect legislation. The cell phone is too much a part of everyone's life these days.

Still, this is curious. Privacy is for those who are very careful.

But putting all that aside, the most interesting stories of the day, other than those hearings and this cell phone business, were military.

There was this - one of our generals invoked his right not to incriminate himself in a court-martial of two soldiers who maintain that they were ordered to use dogs on prisoners at Abu Ghraib. There is, of course, the military, JAG equivalent of "taking the Fifth." You cannot be expected to testify to something that may implicate you in a crime -
Maj. Gen. Geoffrey D. Miller, a central figure in the U.S. detainee-abuse scandal, this week invoked his right not to incriminate himself in court-martial proceedings against two soldiers accused of using dogs to intimidate captives at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, according to lawyers involved in the case.

The move by Miller - who once supervised the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and helped set up operations at Abu Ghraib - is the first time the general has given an indication that he might have information that could implicate him in wrongdoing, according to military lawyers.

Harvey Volzer, an attorney for one of the dog handlers, has been seeking to question Miller to determine whether Miller ordered the use of military working dogs to frighten detainees during interrogations at Abu Ghraib. Volzer has argued that the dog handlers were following orders when the animals were used against detainees.

Miller's decision came shortly after Col. Thomas M. Pappas, the commanding officer at Abu Ghraib, accepted immunity from prosecution this week and was ordered to testify at upcoming courts-martial. Pappas, a military intelligence officer, could be asked to detail high-level policies relating to the treatment of detainees at Abu Ghraib.
The implications are obvious. Someone is not buying the "few bad apples" theory of how all this happened. We've moved into the realm of policy, and the higher-ups are covering their asses, and Pappas may sing so he doesn't face charges. How high will this go? The torture and abuse policy came from the top down, from Rumsfeld himself?

That would be interesting. This doesn't bode well for the administration.

From the Post article - "'It would seem in light of General Miller's invocation that there's more fire than smoke in terms of whether or not there was an authorized use of unlawful force,' said David P. Sheldon, an expert on military law."

More fire than smoke is not good for the administration, at least for Rumsfeld.

Here's some perspective -
The notion that torture and detainee abuse would appear spontaneously at various locations around Iraq and Afghanistan, with common methods used throughout, always defied common sense. And yet it worked. If you wanted to list the people with real responsibility for what happened, for example Donald Rumsfeld, who by definition holds ultimate responsibility for the conduct of US armed forces, you'll find a complete vacuum of accountability. Like a mafia family, it seemed like once you're 'made' nothing but death or betrayal can bring you down. On top of the list of folks whose resignations seem long overdue is Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller, who oversaw prison operations in Iraq during the worst of the abuse. Especially damning is the possibility that Miller was brought to Iraq specifically to promote this kind of behavior at US detention facilities.
Yeah, he was an artillery officer with no experience in running detention centers, but he got lots of information from the folks we held. It was all crap, but the volume of information was amazing. It looked good. And now he's shut up. He's not talking, for good reason.

More perspective on Miller here from Andrew Sullivan
He's the key figure in the decision to introduce torture and abuse of detainees in the U.S. military. He's the one who set up the abuse program at Guantanamo Bay and was then sent by Rumsfeld to "Gitmoize" Abu Ghraib. He's the one who told General Karpinski to treat detainees "like dogs." He's the one who organized the framing of Muslim chaplain James Yee, after once confiding in Yee that he had problems with Muslims in general. As usual, the Bush administration has done all it can to protect Miller, because he could explain who, higher up in the administration, sanctioned torture and abuse. Secure that no one in the real chain of command would contradict him, Miller has, in the past, cooperated with Pentagon investigations. Even so, the Fay report concluded that he had recommended policies that contravened the Geneva Conventions, which were supposed to apply in Iraq.
And he's not talking.

From Ric Erickson, editor of MetropoleParis - "He isn't? Why not, then, torture him? If he's got a good reason not to talk he must know something interesting. Toss him in Leavenworth until he spills! Pull out his fingernails."

Leavenworth (Kansas) is home to both the famous prison and the US Army General Staff College. Make up you own comment on that.

As for Pappas, the commanding officer at Abu Ghraib, accepting immunity from prosecution this week, Jeralyn Merritt here digs up this from June 2004 in USA Today. This concerns Army Lieutenant Coronal Steven Jordan, the top military intelligence officer at Abu Ghraib who oversaw interrogations, and summarizes what he said a sworn statement regarding one of our "ghost detainees" who had died while being interrogated -
One of these detainees died under questioning, a death that has become subject of an internal CIA investigation. Jordan said Pappas was concerned about such a development and demanded a memorandum of understanding with the agency. Jordan quoted Pappas as saying, "Well, if I go down, I'm not going down alone. The guys from Langley are going with me."
This should be interesting.

But this was minor story. If it eventually brings down Rumsfeld and Cheney, and exposes the real guidelines - the "bad apples" were ordered to do what they did as a matter of secret prohibited-by-treaty-and-law policy - then the media will fit it in somewhere. Fox News will cover the missing white woman in Aruba. She's still missing.

But the oddest story to get play, against all this, is rather old. Perhaps this is because of a new poll - it seems only about nineteen percent of Americans think Iraqis can assemble a sound, democratic government in the next twelve months - one that is able to maintain order without our help. Seventy-five percent said they didn't believe that would ever happen. Bummer.

So when a senior British officer calls the US Army "its own worst enemy," people sit up and take notice. Maybe there's another way to get this whole thing back on track.

This first got press notice in The Guardian (UK) and the Sidney Morning Herald, and the story was picked up by the Washington Post (here, here and here , respectively).

The Guardian said "what is startling is the severity of his comments - and the decision by Military Review, a US army magazine, to publish them." Well, Military Review is printed bi-monthly in English, Spanish, and Portuguese, and quarterly in Arabic. Only twelve thousand copies are distributed. This is an obscure publication, or was until now.

You can read the whole thing here - item 2 - Changing the Army for Counterinsurgency Operations (.PDF format and fourteen dense pages). It has two editorial disclaimers up top -
- A virtue of having coalition partners with a legacy of shared sacrifice during difficult military campaigns is that they can also share candid observations. Such observations are understood to be professional exchanges among friends to promote constructive discussion that can improve the prospects of the coalition successes for which all strive. It was in a constructive spirit, then, that this article was made available to Military Review. The article is a professional commentary by an experienced officer based on his experiences and background. It should also be understood that publishing this article does not imply endorsement of or agreement with its observations by the Combined Arms Center leadership or Military Review. Indeed, some comments are already dated and no longer valid. Nonetheless, this article does provide Military Review readers the thought-provoking assessments of a senior officer with significant experience in counterterrorism operations. And it is offered in that vein - to stimulate discussion.

- This is a reprint of an article originally published in the "Seaford House Papers" and retains its original punctuation, spelling, grammar, and paragraphing. The views herein do not reflect those of the United Kingdom, the US Army, or Military Review.
That's a warning about more than the spelling, grammar, and paragraphing. The magazine, the Army, and the British government are washing their hands of this, although the magazine prints it. It's something to talk about.

The Guardian says what this Brigadier Nigel Aylwin-Foster says reflects criticism and frustration voiced by British commanders of American military tactics. And he was the second most senior officer responsible for training Iraqi security forces. A Brigadier, by the way, is the equivalent of a one-star here.

What the verdict?

Plus: American soldiers were "almost unfailingly courteous and considerate."

Minus: At times "their cultural insensitivity, almost certainly inadvertent, arguably amounted to institutional racism."

Plus: The US army is imbued with an unparalleled sense of patriotism, duty, passion and talent.

Minus: "Yet it seemed weighed down by bureaucracy, a stiflingly hierarchical outlook, a predisposition to offensive operations and a sense that duty required all issues to be confronted head-on."

And he says our Army has a wonderful "can-do" approach - but that leads directly to another trait, "damaging optimism."

Optimism isn't always realistic or good? Phone George and tell him.

The idea is all this "is unhelpful if it discourages junior commanders from reporting unwelcome news up the chain of command."

The idea here is what the Brits have long said - US military commanders have failed to train and educate their soldiers in the art of counter-insurgency operations and the need to cultivate the "hearts and minds" of the local population.

Yeah, yeah. The Brits did well is Basra because they knew this stuff from dealing with Northern Ireland and all that. But Basra went sour too.

Our officers rag on the Brits for being too reluctant to use force - and their officers say all we want to do is "to kill or capture all terrorists and insurgents: they saw military destruction of the enemy as a strategic goal in its own right." Yeah, all we know how to do is that - "the US army has developed over time a singular focus on conventional warfare, of a particularly swift and violent kind."

But we think it works. This guy says "such an unsophisticated approach, ingrained in American military doctrine, is counter-productive, exacerbating the task the US faced by alienating significant sections of the population."

From The Guardian -
What he calls a sense of "moral righteousness" contributed to the US response to the killing of four American contractors in Fallujah in the spring of 2004. As a "come-on" tactic by insurgents, designed to provoke a disproportionate response, it succeeded, says the brigadier, as US commanders were "set on the total destruction of the enemy".

He notes that the firing on one night of more than 40 155mm artillery rounds on a small part of the city was considered by the local US commander as a "minor application of combat power". Such tactics are not the answer, he says, to remove Iraq from the grip of what he calls a "vicious and tenacious insurgency".
So what is the answer?

Colonel Kevin Benson, director of the US Army's School Of Advanced Military Studies, told the Post the brigadier was an "insufferable British snob." But he took that back. He said he was just upset. He's going to write a response.

The Post notes that Lieutenant General David Petraeus - the man who "runs much of the Army's educational establishment, and also oversees Military Review" - said he doesn't agree with many of this guy's assertions, but "he is a very good officer, and therefore his viewpoint has some importance, as we do not think it is his alone."

Nope it isn't his alone. The Guardian notes that General Sir Mike Jackson, the head of their army, told their MPs in April 2004 just as our forces attacked Fallujah - "We must be able to fight with the Americans. That does not mean we must be able to fight as the Americans."

Is this all "inside baseball" - and not really news?

Not when General Peter Pace, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Thursday, January 12th, issues a public statement, as reported here. He calls the critique "very helpful" "in opening debate but "off the mark" because we're not too centralized. And as for the rest - "If only one percent of what he said turned out to be something that needs to be adjusted to, then we are all better off for it."

Rumsfeld said he had not read the article, but he said - "Broad sweeping generalizations of that type need to be supported by information." He doesn't believe any of it?

Okay, time to reread the Graham Greene novel about Vietnam - all about "damaging optimism." That's what made The Quiet American so dangerous, after all.

Well, optimistically, this Alito fellow will be just fine on the Supreme Court, and listen and think things through and be fair. And the cell phone thing will be straightened out, as more and more folks buy the detailed phone records of their congressmen and senators. And in Iraq we'll move from playing "whack-a-mole" and figure out how to get that place up and running so we can move on.

Or maybe not.


By the way, from the photo shoot mentioned up top, a narrative photo (every picture tells a story?) - the Stella Adler Theater on Hollywood Boulevard, Thursday, January 12, 2006, about noon. Note the lower left.

Posted by Alan at 21:35 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Friday, 13 January 2006 13:04 PST home

Wednesday, 11 January 2006
Idling at Home and Full Throttle Elsewhere
Topic: Breaking News

Idling at Home and Full Throttle Elsewhere

As of Wednesday, January 11th, news on the domestic front was all rehash, or is that variations on a theme? There was no big news on the congressional scandals, and the media was full of "backgrounders" on Jack Abramoff and Tom DeLay. Arial Sharon was not dead, nor was the surviving miner, and there were a few SNL-like "Generalissimo France is Not Dead" stories running here and there. The Alito hearings were in their third day (a reasonable summary here) - Senators Spector and Kennedy got is a shouting match of sorts, the nominee's wife rushed out in tears, but this was a dodgeball game and the nominee dodged most of what was thrown at him. There was lots of posturing and not much substance. There was, really, no substance. The headline of the day was above the Elisabeth Bumiller New York Times item - But Enough About You, Judge; Let's Hear What I Have to Say. It was a day of the expected.

The action was on the international stage, as the day here in Hollywood opened with an email from Ric Erickson, editor of MetropoleParis, with startling news -
Radio FIP just announced (14h50) that Johnny Hallyday, monumental 'National Rocker' of France, has applied for Belgian citizenship. Born as Jean-Philippe Smet, possibly in Belgium, Johnny became French in 1961. Johnny is 63 years old and is expected to grow up any day now.

But then, Hallyday has been in a bad mood, given this -
PARIS, Jan 4 (AFP) - France's best-loved veteran rock and roll star Johnny Hallyday has quit Universal records after 43 years to join rival Warner Music, the company announced Wednesday.

Hallyday, who at 62 still dons his trademark leather and performs with the vitality of someone half his age, left Universal after a bitter battle to win possession of some 1,000 master copies of his popular songs dating back to 1961.

The best-selling artist, once dubbed the French Elvis Presley, now plans to release his first album on the Warner label in the autumn, the head of Warner Music France, Thierry Chassagne, told AFP.

... In April, the Paris appeals court threw out Hallyday's bid to gain possession of 1,000 valuable master copies of his songs from Universal, overturning an earlier court decision and angering the French rocker.
So he's taking his black leather jacket and leaving. That Paris appeals court decision was the last straw?

And now France has lost Johnny Hallyday. One imagines a bit of a collective "Gallic shrug."

The other international news was not so fluffy, as John O'Neil reported in the New York Times - Leading Shiite Says He Will Oppose Changes to Iraqi Charter.

Here's the deal
Iraq's most powerful Shiite leader today rejected making major changes to the new constitution, dealing a blow to Sunni Arab hopes of amending the charter to avoid being shut out of the nation's vast oil wealth.

Sunni Arabs were reluctant to sign on to the constitution last fall, fearing that provisions granting wide powers to autonomous regions would leave oil in the hands of Kurds in the north and Shiites in the south. The Sunnis dominate in western and much of northwestern and north-central Iraq, but the oil lies beneath Kurdistan and portions of southern Iraq that one day may be subsumed in a similar semi-independent region controlled by Shiites.

As a carrot for the Sunni Arabs, the constitution was amended before its successful October referendum so legislators elected in the national ballot last month could alter it with a two-thirds vote. Some Shiites also voiced a willingness to negotiate with Sunnis on amendments to the charter.

But today Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, leader of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, vowed to give no ground on crucial portions of the constitution.
The whole idea was that the post-election Iraqi government would agree to constitutional amendments that would address Sunni Arab frustration with Iraq's political structure. The Bush speech the day before (here) had a section on how disagreement is really, really bad and the Shiites and Sunni has better stop fighting with each other about all the small stuff. Our position is we're going to get a unified national government over there, an inclusive one - and we've been applying pressure for that. We were just told, by the guys who won, to butt out.

Matthew Yglesias points out here that the SCIRI leader, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, is basically saying no deal - "the constitution as written passed fair and square in a referendum and he likes the status quo just fine."

Yglesias - "And it seems to me that he's entitled to do so. But if the Iraqi government doesn't want to implement the Bush administration's political strategy in Iraq, then what's the point in extending an open-ended military commitment to that government? If American leaders and Iraqi leaders disagree as to what should be done, as seems to be the case, why not go our separate ways?"

Not likely.

Another view? Ron Beasley - And Let The Civil War Begin.

They're setting up the battle lines -
Mr. Hakim appeared to rule out in particular any change in the constitution's provisions allowing the creation of strong regional provinces, a point that had angered many Sunnis.

"It is our responsibility to form Baghdad provinces and southern Iraq provinces," Mr. Hakim said.
And the north (Kurds) and west (Sunnis) can go pound sand. There's lots of it there.

So let's see here. One side wins an election filled with questions about the vote count and election fraud of various sorts, and the losing side, formerly in power, is really unhappy. Rather than trying to draw them into a cooperative government where everyone gets at least a little say, and some respect, the winners just cut them out of everything and do what they want, twisting the knife and reminding them of what losers they are. And they do this gerrymandering thing - the real power is in selected regions.

Who do these SCIRI guys think they are, Republicans? Bush, as Rove's man, is surprised by this? They are simply replicating the Republican playbook. They learned from the masters.

Of course, over there, there may be a civil war. As least there will be suicide bombings and other mayhem. Here, the "losers," when they cannot get even thirty seconds on Fox News, will accept the idea they really are losers - or run John Kerry again and prove it. We had our civil war back in the nineteenth century. No more of that.

Ah well, and the there's this -
Western powers have stepped up their warnings that Iran's resumption of nuclear research will probably result in referral to the UN Security Council.

UK Prime Minister Tony Blair said European ministers meeting on Thursday would decide how to proceed, but taking the matter to the UN looks "likely".

A US State Department spokesman agreed it was now "more likely than ever".

But Iran's leader dismissed the threat. He said the research would go on despite the Western "fuss".

Tehran says it broke the UN seals on the Natanz nuclear research facility on Tuesday because it wants to produce electricity, not because it is pursuing nuclear weapons.
Right. And the BBC here also provides this timeline -
Sept 2002: Work begins on Iran's first reactor at Bushehr
Dec 2002: Satellites reveal Arak and Natanz sites triggering IAEA inspections
Nov 2003: Iran suspends uranium enrichment and allows tougher inspections
June 2004: IAEA rebukes Iran for not fully co-operating
Nov 2004: Iran suspends enrichment under deal with EU
Aug 2005: Iran rejects EU plan and re-opens Isfahan plant
Jan 2006: Iran re-opens Natanz facility
This was coming.

So there will be lots of turmoil at the UN, and maybe sanctions. There were ten years of sanction on Iraq, and estimates that millions died for lack of medicine and clean drinking water and all the rest, and Saddam Hussein didn't give a hoot, and in fact got rich gaming the sanctions. So this will work?

We may have hoped Israel would take out the Iranian reactors and centrifuges - Cheney hinted again and again, with a sly smile, that might happen - but with Sharon in hospital and not a factor any longer, and the Israeli government in some sort of holding pattern, we may have to do this ourselves. We don't do sanctions happily, and treat the UN as a snake pit of useless, corrupt fools, as everyone saw with this current war against their advice, and with our sending John Bolton there to piss on everyone's shoes. Will we bypass the UN again, after a show of "international cooperation" - and send in the precision bombs?

Our columnist Bob Patterson sent along this item - Der Spiegel and the German news agency DDP reporting CIA Director Porter Goss asked Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to provide "full intelligence cooperation" for a possible air strike on Iran's nuclear and military facilities.

They say Goss, at a meeting December 12th, provided Turkey with three dossiers containing "evidence" Tehran is cooperating with al Qaeda, and information on what "we knew" of the current status of Iran's weapons programs. Maybe we got it right this time.

German security sources, it seems, say Goss assured Erdogan that Turkey would be alerted to any air strikes a few hours before they were launched. And as a carrot, Goss also gave the Turkish government the "green light" to strike the separatist Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) in Iran - which would please them.

One never knows. This would not be a move that would raise our standing in the Middle East from its nadir now. (Note: Nadir: c.1391, in astronomical sense, from Middle Latin nadir, from Arabic nazir "opposite to," in nazir as-samt, lit. "opposite of the zenith," from nazir "opposite" + as-samt "zenith". Use as the "lowest point (of anything)" first recorded in 1793.) We're already seen as bullies who smash other people's things to get what we want, or smash other people's things when we feel threatened. And the SCIRI guys, who won the elections in Iraq, friendly with Iran now, would be ticked. We've given new meaning to the word "nadir." Expect a Holy War.

Cheney, Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz clearly had the idea we'd have our short Iraq war, turn the place over the Ahmed Chalabi and his merry band of Americanized exiles, and be out in six months - and then be able to turn to Iran. That didn't work out.

Now we do something about this Iran problem and tick off the guys we helped to power and who we expect to get Iraq organized, and piss off most of the Shiite nations in the region, and appall the rest of the world - or we don't, and Iran has the bomb.

This is a mess. It's a puzzle with no good solution, and maybe without any solution at all.


On a lighter note, last weekend in Changes (Just when you thought you knew the players and the rules...) you'd find a discussion of this - everyone's favorite born-again, end-times-are-coming, evangelical hyper-Christian, Pat Robertson, and the Israeli government, were developing a Jesus theme park in Israel.

Yes, he said Ariel Sharon has the massive stroke because God was punishing him for the Gaza pullout. Sharon was giving God's land to those Palestinians, and they we're God's people - and God was obviously pissed off. He has some curious ideas about God and Israel. But the theme park was going to happen.

But then, is Pat Robertson's world view really mainstream?

Consider this from Pew Research -
Fully 44% of Americans believe that God gave the land that is now Israel to the Jewish people while a substantial minority (36%) thinks that "the state of Israel is a fulfillment of the biblical prophecy about the second coming of Jesus." White evangelical Protestants and, to a lesser degree, African-Americans accept both of these propositions. Significantly fewer white Catholics and mainline Protestants believe Israel was granted to the Jews by God or think that Israel represents a fulfillment of the Bible's prophecy of a second coming.
Andrew Sullivan, deep in writing a book on such matters, adds this -
When a poll of all adults finds over a third holding the view that the state of Israel is fulfilling the prophecy of the imminent Second Coming, you can see that pre-millenarianism is not some fringe idea, touted by Robertson. It's fundamentalist orthodoxy. Robertson is cruel and tactless, and many evangelicals would agree. Their compassion forbids them from making personal attacks as Robertson does. But he didn't make up his theology. And it's mainstream.
It may be mainstream, but the folks in Israel aren't happy about it, as your see here (AP - 8:14 a.m. ET January 11, 2006) -
Israel won't do business with Pat Robertson after the evangelical leader suggested Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's massive stroke was divine punishment, a tourism official said Wednesday, putting into doubt plans to develop a large Christian tourism center in northern Israel.

Avi Hartuv, spokesman for Israel's tourism minister, said officials are furious with Robertson's suggestion that the stroke was retribution for Sharon's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip last summer. "We can't accept this kind of statement," Hartuv said.

... "We will not do business with him, only with other evangelicals who don't back these comments," Hartuv said. "We will do business with other evangelical leaders, friends of Israel, but not with him."
But the same day the Rapture Index was up three points, to 154 - the end is near, or nearer, and the Jews who haven't converted are likely to die in great torment! These folks should watch it. Don't mess with Pat.

Readers react...

Rick, the News Guy in Atlanta -
Israel won't do business with Pat Robertson?

Hey, did I say it here and it came out there, or what?

The fact that Robertson, who we hear is so famously tight with the whole situation, didn't see this coming makes me think he, for some reason, set himself up for this fall.

"Fully 44% of Americans believe that God gave the land that is now Israel to the Jewish people ... you can see that pre-millenarianism is not some fringe idea, touted by Robertson."

Maybe so, but that is not what Robertson said.

Instead of implying that God gave the land to the Jewish people, Robertson said God didn't like it when folks started giving away HIS land - the implication being that the land still belongs to God.
This all makes God sound like some (pardon the politically incorrectness of this term) "Indian Giver!"

Seems to me if God didn't like the plan as outlined by Sharon, he should've hired a lawyer to search the deeds in the county courthouse, rather than just smiting the guy and doing him bodily harm.

"... while a substantial minority (36%) thinks that 'the state of Israel is a fulfillment of the biblical prophecy about the second coming of Jesus.'"

I may be wrong but I think this substantial minority is confused about the theology.

It seems to me all those "End-Timers" who take this crap seriously do NOT believe modern Israel is the fulfillment of the prophecy - one reason why they distinguish between the "Israelis" of modern times and the "Israelites" of the bible - but that the fulfillment will have to wait until something else or other (I forget what) happens first.

Anybody? Any evangelicals who can straighten me out on this?
Well, yes, sort of. Andrews Sullivan researching his book on these things offers this -
Here's a document from some evangelical leaders specifically attacking the notion that the current state of Israel is Biblically mandated. These leaders differ from the increasingly popular and now mainstream fundamentalist notion of the End-Time, the Rapture, and the role that a unified and expansionary Israel will play in such a moment. Evangelical Protestantism is not monolithic, but the dispensationalists are clearly gaining ground, as the astonishing success of the "Left Behind" books shows. I should add that dispensationalism is a relatively recent development. Like much that now passes for ancient truth (like the Catholic church's insistence on the human person present in the zygote), its origins are actually very modern. In this new and modern brand of absolutist faith, the more extreme Christian fundamentalists are similar to many Islamic fundamentalists.
Maybe that helps. Crazy folks on both sides.

In any event, our high-powered Wall Street attorney notes Rick in Atlanta saying, "Seems to me if God didn't like the plan as outlined by Sharon, he should've hired a lawyer to search the deeds in the county courthouse, rather than just smiting the guy and doing him bodily harm."

He says - "But smiting is such good sport these days!"

Rick in Atlanta -
Not only that, it's quicker and simpler than going through the legal system. And when you consider all those billable hours you don't have to pay for, it's also much cheaper - which is one reason it's the path so often taken by drug dealers and jealous husbands. But still, this doesn't make it right!

We should heed the recent wisdom of Sam Alito here when he opined that nobody but nobody is above the law!
From Wall Street - "I like billable hours, but then I'm on the other side of the equation! God bless America!"

From Atlanta - "Yeah, I had you in mind when I wrote that. I hope I didn't queer the deal; I think you and God probably had a pretty strong case."

Okay. Enough. The Rapture Index just jumped six points. We're supposed to take this seriously.

In any event, while the news in the United States was essentially static, the international news was, shall we say, dynamic.

When Bush and his team came to power five years ago it seems their way of dealing with the difficulties in this sorry world was to shake things up real good and see what happened. So we're finding out what happens. Never a dull moment these days.

Posted by Alan at 21:40 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Thursday, 12 January 2006 06:43 PST home

Tuesday, 10 January 2006
Playing Fair: Knowing the Rules and What's Permissible
Topic: Dissent

Playing Fair: Knowing the Rules and What's Permissible

Tuesday, January 10, was the second day of the Alito hearings, and the first day of actual questions and answers. One could watch that all day long on television, but doing so, and watching the subsequent days of this stuff, is for those of narrow interests. How much of watching a smart man, with a fine grasp of the law, carefully saying "I have no predetermined position on what you ask and will judge each case that comes before me on its merits" would you like? There may be something fascinating in following all the variations of that - and there were many - but there are others things to do - out here on the west coast Turner Classic Movies was running "Casablanca" against the opening hours of the second-day testimony. Rick once more told Elsa about that hill of beans. Anyway, no one on the Senate Judiciary Committee is going to change his or her mind, and this will be passed on to the full senate for a vote, eventually, where everyone knows who will vote for or against confirmation. The man will take his seat on the Supreme Court. The chances of Alito saying something outrageous, or even controversial, were nil, and it was unlikely he would suddenly jump on the table and break into a chorus of "I Enjoy Being a Girl" and dance around. As diverting as that would be, there were other things in the news that could not be covered as the media prefers "the major story," as eventless as it seemed to be.

There was no coverage of our return to the late sixties, even though there was this about the National Security Agency, something new and amusing.

It seems some NSA documents they had to cough up in a court case reveal that the agency ran a massive spy operation on a Baltimore peace group, "going so far as to document the inflating of protesters' balloons." Yeah, they kept records of when balloons were inflated and what was printed on them (quotes from Ben Franklin) - the NSA folks made notes every fifteen minutes and didn't miss any details. They planted a mole in the demonstrators - a fellow none of them had ever seen before - who screamed at the police and dared them to bash some heads. Some of the demonstrators were arrested, and he wasn't. They got all the license plate numbers and started files. They sent in a team to check for WMD threats. For those of us old enough to remember the late sixties, it was bit of nostalgia. Two of those arrested sued for the NSA files on all this, and wonder of wonders, got the files.

Civil libertarians are upset, and one presumes moderates are wondering if all this is a rather stupid waste of tax money (surely these NSA guys have better and more important things to do). On the right? Who knows?

For those of us who graduated from college in 1969, what can one do but sigh, and smile ruefully? Some things never change, although when you think about it, even if the same thing happened on Nixon's watch, he was far smarter and far more articulate than this frat boy. Things have gone downhill. Even the villains now are second-rate. Nixon without the smarts.

Also not much reported (a bit in the print media and next to nothing on the broadcast and cable news), was something co-authored by Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz and one Linda Bilmes. They ran the numbers. This war in Iraq will probably run somewhere around two trillion dollars (that really is a "t" there). They just included disability payments for the 16,000 wounded soldiers - twenty percent of them have serious brain or spinal injuries. And there are a few other things - like the July 2005 Army statistics showing thirty percent of our troops had developed mental-health problems within four months of returning from Iraq. And there's the rise in oil prices, and you figure twenty percent of the rise can be attributed directly to the war. That's twenty-five billion there, so far. Then there's the loss to the economy from injured veterans "who cannot contribute as productively as they otherwise would." Add too costs related to civilian contractors and journalists killed in Iraq. It all adds up.

Before the invasion, the White House budget director at the time, Mitch Daniels, said this would be "an affordable endeavor." As you recall, the White House economic adviser at the time, Lawrence Lindsey, was talking one or two hundred billion, and Daniels said that was "very, very high." Lawrence Lindsey lost his job for being such a pessimist, although there was talk Bush didn't like him because he was so overweight (no discipline) and just didn't want the lard-ass around. Wolfowitz and Cheney were saying Iraq oil revenues would pay for most everything. Right.

Anyway, this Stiglitz fellow from Columbia University is a big gun - he was an adviser to Clinton and was chief economist at the World Bank and won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2001 (bio here). As for Linda Bilmes, she was an assistant secretary at the Department of Commerce from 1999 to 2001 and now teaches budgeting and public finance at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. Harvard reprints her August 20th New York Times editorial - a much more conservative take on all this here - only 1.3 trillion. She notes that's over eleven thousand dollars for every household in the United States.

Ah, what do the Clinton folks know? It will cost what it will cost.

Yeah, but is this news? You got a spare eleven grand (plus) sitting around the house to pay for this? If you don't, this may be news.

The price is not what you were told. Let's say you bought a cute little Ford Focus, signing a loan agreement with your credit union, and you got a great deal - three hundred a month. When you get the first monthly bill for three hundred thousand, you'd be... surprised? That's the Daniels to Stiglitz ratio. Sorry about that.

You might say you'd been misled (no car is worth that, not even the new Bugatti Veyron at 1.2 million).

But you cannot say you've been misled. That's not right. The president said so.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006, Reuters explains the deal -
President George W. Bush denounced some Democratic critics of the Iraq war as irresponsible on Tuesday and he wanted an election-year debate that "brings credit to our democracy, not comfort to our adversaries"

In a speech, Bush made clear he was girding for battle with Democrats in the run-up to the mid-term congressional election in November, when he will try to keep the U.S. Congress in the hands of his Republican Party amid American doubts about his Iraq policy.

... Bush, who has faced a barrage of criticism over his handling of Iraq, said Americans know the difference between honest critics who question the way the war is being handled "and partisan critics who claim that we acted in Iraq because of oil, or because of Israel, or because we misled the American people."

He added, "So I ask all Americans to hold their elected leaders to account and demand a debate that brings credit to our democracy, not comfort to our adversaries."
Got it? Saying anyone was misled about any of this is out of bounds. That would offer "comfort to our adversaries" - as in "providing aid and comfort to the enemy." That's treason, as you know. And no talk about oil and how Israel may be part of the motivation for all this. And he claimed Americans know treason when they see it. He's just, as you see, stating the obvious.

He didn't name names. He didn't have to. He was talking about Howard Dean, and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, and that pesky Dick Durbin fellow, the senator from Illinois - folks who say such things about how we were all misled. They all said Bush has no strategy for Iraq. Can't do that.

Reuters quotes Ted Kennedy - "I wholeheartedly agree with President Bush about the need for accountability in the debate on the war in Iraq. 2006 must be the year when the American people demand that President Bush and other high government officials be held accountable for their mistakes." He's toast, but he's firing back. Reid said that it was "outrageous" that the president was using our troops "as a shield from criticism in an address to veterans and also had refused to address a recent Pentagon report on the inadequacy of body armor for American soldiers in Iraq." Reid's exact words - "Patriotic Americans will continue to ask the tough questions because our brave men and women in Iraq, their families and the American people deserve to know that their leaders are being held accountable."

Well, Bush did speak to the VFW. They agree this kind of criticism is just wrong, one supposes

California Democratic congressman Adam Schiff agrees we should have some reasoned discussion of the war, but "the administration cannot question the patriotism of those who disagree on war strategy and at the same time call for greater civility. We should be exploiting the divisions among our enemies, not among ourselves."

The White House transcript of the speech is here and the whole thing is about how disagreement is really, really bad - in Iraq the Shiites and Sunni had better stop fighting with each other about all the small stuff.

This was an unusual speech. The message was "shut up or the American people will know you are traitors and we'll have to deal with you."

Cool. That's one heck of a call for civility.

And this reaction seems appropriate -
Seriously. If Bush is going to go on national TV and declare that the Democratic leader in the Senate (Harry Reid), the head of the Democratic Party (Howard Dean), and a lead Democratic Senator (Dick Durbin) are committing treason by "giving comfort to our adversaries" by criticizing Bush's disastrous handling of the Iraq war, then arrest all three of them and have them summarily shot without a trial and let's be done with it.

I'm serious. If our president is going to argue in favor of America embracing the ideals of a Soviet police state, if that's the reason hundreds of thousands of Americans gave their lives during WWII, if that's the reason 160,000 US soldiers are risking their lives in Iraq right now, all for the purpose of America touting the ideals of our worst enemies, some of the most repressive and hated dictatorships in the history of the world, then be enough of a man to admit it, do it, and be done with it.

Otherwise shut up and start acting like the commander in chief of the greatest democracy on earth rather than some sniveling coward who doesn't even known enough about his own country, let alone the world, to understand what it is we're really fighting for.
That's blunt, but all Bush is saying is let's stop all this bickering. Some, however, think such "bickering" is what people do here. We argue things out. It seems some don't think that, and they're in charge.

Who thinks we do? Note this from Democratic National Committee Communications Director Karen Finney -
The Bush Administration's attack, distract and distort tactics reflect a Nixonian paranoia that is un-American. It's shameful that once again the Bush Administration resorted to attacking the patriotism of fellow Americans rather than answering legitimate questions surrounding the President's failures in Iraq. Personal attacks won't change the fact that hundreds of fatalities in Iraq could have been avoided if only our troops had the equipment they asked for.

Democrats welcome and will continue to push for the open and honest debate that is fundamental to our democracy and the liberties we hold dear.
It seem people have different ideas about what is fundamental. As Kos asks, can we debate whether the trillion dollar cost of the war is a wise investment? Can we debate why these clowns got us into a war without adequate planning? Can we debate what "victory" might be, since that's has never been clear? Can we debate why we don't have an exit strategy?

Maybe not. But even some Bush supports are not amused, as in this from Joe Gandelman, who stipulates he has supported the war in Iraq and does not believe an immediate pullout is the wisest course. Even he's got some advice for his leader -
An American President - especially one who has proven to be one of the most partisan in modern times - doesn't get to define a whole part of an issue's limits. You can bet that what Mr. Bush and Karl Rove consider "responsible" debate are points that won't raise prickly issues, don't beg immediate answers (even in the form of a swift denial and condemnation of the question as being silly), or seriously threaten to chip away at their party's standing in the polls.

Presidents don't get to set limits on political debate which centers on the credibility of their own and their cabinet members' statements, the accuracy of original information presented to the public to justify the war, the competency of the administrative policies and execution of the policies... particularly during a year in which Americans will generally vote for one of two parties. And, in a Democracy's tradition, that means FREE DEBATE. If the Democrats' act dumb and irresponsible there will be a price for them.

Mr. President: if you don't like the debating points raised, then answer them. Unequivocally. Point per point. Denounce each question you don't like as being extreme if you feel that is what it is.

But, no, the democracy I read about when I was growing up didn't place critical comments ... off limits.

... By the way: people who ask tough questions are as patriotic as you, Dick Cheney or the officers in the field.
The man thinks Democrats are fools, but he seems a tad put off, doesn't he?

Here's another way of looking at it, logically -
Is the Bush administration doing (1) a heckuva job; (2) a heckuva great job; or (3) a totally heckuva great job? And how can we help The President be more right?

Before we can answer that second question, we need to understand exactly why The President refuses to consider the topics he mentions as worthy of responsible discussion.

Of course, we didn't invade Iraq because of oil. Why this isn't obvious to everyone is one of the mind-boggling mysteries of our epoch. Briefly, all we're trying to do is grow the Iraq economy. Now, everyone knows the world is in a post-industrial phase, where it's high tech that rules, not Big oil-gobbling Iron. Therefore, it's vital to Iraq's infrastructure that they make use as soon as possible of their most abundant resource - sand - and become the major player they deserve to be in the international chip market.

... As for Israel, it simply must be recognized that any critic who mentions Israel in the same sentence with Iraq is not only thoroughly irresponsible but clearly an out and out anti-Semite. Now I admit, Pat Robertson may have been overstretching a bit, but only those who refuse to acknowledge cause and effect fail to see the connection between Sharon's recent stroke and the unremitting criticism he received in the past few months by all those here in the US who refused to support the Iraq war.

... How can The President be more right? Okay. I'll tell you and I'm not going to mince words. And I don't care who wants to turn me in for saying them!

I think the Big Problem is that everyone thinks The President is wrong and they won't trust his judgment. I think it's wrong that these people are wasting The President's time by making him worry that he's only doing a heckuva job. I think responsible debate should be limited to whether The President is doing a heckuva great job or better. If this proposal is adopted, The President by definition would immediately be more right! And that's what we, and he, want.

I think if irresponsible opponents weren't clogging The President's time with so many questions and empty scandals that his presidency has begun to resemble a New Orleans sewer, The President would have been able to sign the necessary emergency orders for more upper body armor for our troops. Now, let me be crystal clear about this: Because The President couldn't find time to sign that order, the critics of the The President's performance are responsible for much more - way much more - than aiding and comforting our enemies. The irresponsible critics of The President are systematically killing our soldiers. And I don't care who knows it.

Now, the Doomsayer Democrats object to certain wiretaps made without authorization. I say if they don't like them, here's a plan that will end the "illegal" wiretaps debate immediately. Disconnect the critics' telephones! And while we're at it, deny 'em ADSL. Let them rant over a 28.8k AOL connection and see how well they like it.

Bottom line: The President couldn't be more right. After all, he wouldn't be The President if that wasn't so. That's self-evident, just like it says in the Constitution. Or somewhere.
And that's only part of it. The whole thing is amusing, or would be if this weren't a case of the president making a serious threat to those who have questions.

Ah well.

Things aren't going well for him. You can understand his wanting to strike back. You don't want to mess with him when he's feeing cornered.

Watch the Alito hearings. It'll take you mind off all this.

Posted by Alan at 21:15 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Wednesday, 11 January 2006 07:01 PST home

Monday, 9 January 2006
Press Notes: Hazards Regarding Selecting What to Report
Topic: The Media

Press Notes: Hazards Regarding Selecting What to Report

The hottest nonfiction book at the moment is the one from James Risen, State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration, which is the "long form" version of his late December, big scoop New York Times story revealing the president had instructed the National Security Agency to disregard existing law and listen in on, or at least track the contents of, millions of phone calls each day, and scan millions of emails, to see what's up.

That's created an uproar, reviewed here, but that's not all that Risen was up to.

As he has said in interviews, there's more, as in it was more than twelve government officials who "blew the whistle" on the NSA program - they thought something was really wrong. But there are other interesting items - the president may have suggested that pain medication be withheld from our detainees - the ones we hold around the world who have been declared to have no rights - and this may have been the beginning of the brainstorming sessions which eventually led to what looks like torture to everyone but the administration's in-house attorneys, the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal, Rush Limbaugh and Bill O'Reilly. There's some evidence that the president's "what ifs" got out of hand, but then there are all those stories about how, when the president was just a lad, he was fond of jamming firecrackers down live squirrels and blowing them up. Maybe he was just being playful.

What else? The CIA asked about thirty Iraqi-Americans to go to Iraq before the war - the idea was they'd use their contacts there, either family or friends, and ask questions, and then we could really "determine the state" of those WMD programs. We had only one agent on the ground there, so that wasn't a bad idea. The bad guys would talk to family, and tell the truth. But every single one of them came back and said that all of WMD programs had stopped in the early nineties - or been destroyed in the first Gulf war. Our precision bombs actually flattened the building where they worked on all the nuclear stuff. There was no way to even restart the program. So? The CIA decided the reports of those thirty folks must really be planted propaganda from that clever Saddam Hussein. Risen also hints in the book that since this "send the thirty" idea came from an old hand at the agency, the new guys thought he was grandstanding and decided to slap him down. So we have evidence of either the Bush Administration ignoring intelligence that did not help its goal of starting a preemptive war over there, or we have office politics screwing things up again.

Overall, however, Risen says that "the checks and balances on the Executive Branch broke down." Foreign policy "was radicalized at the hands of Rumsfeld, Tenet, Cheney, Rice and a few others who would not allow career professionals in the State Department to participate." Yeah, yeah. So it seems.

As for the NSA program and all the controversy surrounding the question of why the Times sat on the story for a year, and has yet to comment on the other scoops in the Risen book, there's a new explanation from Jonathan Swartz here - Risen tried but failed to get it into the newspaper, so he went ahead and wrote a book, and then, when the book was going to "break the story," the Times had no choice. They had to run it - they didn't want to be scooped by a book by one of their own reporters. Whatever.

As the UCLA professor Mark Kleiman comments - "... the right criticizes the press for doing its job, while the left criticizes the press for not doing its job. The wingnuts are throwing around the word "treason" because the Times told its readers something that was about to come out in a book, while Schwarz complains that the Times has not told its readers other facts that came out in the same book."

Sometimes you just can't win.

And the voices on the right keep up that drumbeat - the Times has committed treason (a review of that argument here). Are the nuttier of those on the right-wing (the wingnuts) just venting, or are they serious?

There's this from the Associated Press, Monday, January 9 - Police Investigate Journalist's Killing - "Police on Monday appealed to the public for help in finding two men sought for questioning in the death of a retired New York Times journalist."

No, no - this seems to be just another Washington DC street crime. And the fellow may have been head of the Times' DC bureau at one time, but he was retired. He seldom wrote anything for the Times after he retired. This is not a message for James Risen and Bill Keller. Judy Miller didn't hire these "two men sought for questioning." It's just a coincidence, and a sad business.

If you're going to send a message, you don't mess with ambiguity, unless you're subtle and want to keep people on their toes. You do what Bill O'Reilly did on Fox News, for his massive national audience - he promised he'd go after specific New York Times people, personally, and dig up dirt on their private lives, and broadcast it (see this) - Bill is issuing what he calls a "secular fatwa." Unless they stop saying bad things about the president, what he calls their "personal attacks," well, they'll pay the price. He'll do the same to them, with the full force of the Fox News empire.

That's not subtle, nor is this from The Guardian UK, concerning one of their reporters in Iraq.

It seems our troops raided the home of an award-winning Iraqi journalist named Ali Fadhil, who was working for The Guardian, and British Channel 4. He had a hot story. And Fadhil requested an interview concerning claims that "tens of millions of dollars worth of Iraqi funds held by the Americans and British have been misused or misappropriated." Bad move. They raided his home, shot up the place, scared the heck out of his wife and two young children, and confiscated all his videotapes for the story. Crude, but effective.

Details? -
Ali Fadhil, who two months ago won the Foreign Press Association young journalist of the year award, was hooded and taken for questioning. He was released hours later.

Dr Fadhil is working with Guardian Films on an investigation for Channel 4's Dispatches programme into claims that tens of millions of dollars worth of Iraqi funds held by the Americans and British have been misused or misappropriated.

The troops told Dr Fadhil that they were looking for an Iraqi insurgent and seized video tapes he had shot for the programme. These have not yet been returned.
That works.
Dr Fadhil was asleep with his wife, their three-year-old daughter, Sarah, and seven-month-old son, Adam, when the troops forced their way in.

"They fired into the bedroom where we were sleeping, then three soldiers came in. They rolled me on to the floor and tied my hands. When I tried to ask them what they were looking for they just told me to shut up," he said.
They just told him to shut up. Ah, that's a real Bill O'Reilly line. There's a lot of that going around.

Of note, one of Ali Fadhil's awards is noted here, with a photograph of him. A previous article of his for The Guardian is here - Fallujah, City of Ghosts. Not that any of that matters now.

Comments? When asking a question can get you killed, War on the Press, and How Soon In The States? - Are these guys practicing for their return home? - and so on and so forth.

Do we have a war on the press? One has not been declared, officially. But even the pro-war, hyper-intellectual apologist for President Bush and all his efforts, Christopher Hitchens, notes something is heating up, as in The Bush Bombshell - Did the president propose to take out Al Jazeera?, posted on the eve of this -
... in a court in London, two men will appear to face charges under Britain's Official Secrets Act. The first man, David Keogh, a former employee of the Cabinet Office, is accused of unlawfully handing a confidential memorandum to the second man, Leo O'Connor, a researcher for a former Labor member of Parliament, Tony Clarke.

The memorandum is actually a five-page transcript stamped "Top Secret." It describes a meeting at the White House on April 16, 2004, between President Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair.

At that meeting, which took place while desperately hard fighting was in progress in the Iraqi town of Fallujah, Bush mooted the idea of taking out the headquarters of Al Jazeera in Doha, Qatar.

The network's correspondents inside the city had been transmitting lurid footage of extreme violence. The exchange apparently puts Blair in a good light, in that he dissuaded the president from any such course of action and was assisted in this by Colin Powell, who was then secretary of state.
Ah yes, this is all about that item in the Daily Mirror last November (that's here and was discussed in these pages here at the time) - George Bush was talked out of bombing Arab television station al-Jazeera by Tony Blair. Hitchens reminds us that in 2001, the Al Jazeera office in Afghanistan was destroyed by "smart" bombs, and, in 2003, an Al Jazeera correspondent in Baghdad was killed in an American missile strike. Is this Bush whim so far-fetched?

There are problems Blair and Powell might have noted -
The state of Qatar, which though a Wahabbi kingdom has a free press and allows women to run and to vote in elections, has not been the host of just Al Jazeera since the network's predecessor was kicked out of Saudi Arabia. It has also been the host of United States Central Command, and of many American civilians. It is the site each year of a highly interesting and useful conference, co-sponsored by the Saban Center at the Brookings Institution, where American and Middle Eastern academics and journalists and others meet in conditions of informality. Its emir has been a positive help and supporter to many democrats in the region. Bombing or blowing up the Al Jazeera office would involve hitting the downtown section of Doha, the capital city of a friendly power. It's difficult to think of any policy that would have been more calamitous. (But perhaps it was proposed to do it "surgically"?)
Who knows? But it was a stunningly bad idea, even if emotionally gratifying. Bill O'Reilly would have loved it, as would his boss, Roger Ailes, as would have Ailes' boss, Rupert Murdoch. Report the wrong things and you die. That'd make those guys smile.

In any event, Hitchens reviews the evidence that this discussion actually happened (convincing), and that Bush wasn't kidding at all (also convincing).

He comments that Al Jazeera "is not describable, perhaps, as a strictly objective station, but it is the main source of news in the Arab world because it is not the property of any state or party, and it has given live and unedited coverage of things like the elections in Iraq."

And there's another problem - "If it becomes widely believed that it has been or is being targeted, the consequences in the region will be rather more than Karen Hughes' 'public diplomacy' can handle."

He also notes Colin Powell is neither confirming or denying anything about this meeting, and that's curious.

Something is up.

But then there are safe things to report, like Monday's opening day of the Senate hearings on the nomination of Judge Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court, but was that news? All of it was opening statements from the members of the Senate judiciary committee - the "interrogatory" (questions and answers) is Tuesday. This was a non-event. But it was all over the news, but who wants to watch posturing?

There was lots of spin - Robert Kuttner in the Boston Globe with this - "At this moment in American history it would be hard to find a worse Supreme Court nominee than Samuel A. Alito Jr." The confirmation "would give Bush effective control of all three branches of government."

Rick Moran at Right Wing Nut House (really, honest) with this, calling the nomination confirmation a shoe-in - "It's the mismatch of the century!" Why? Because of "Judge Samuel Alito; scary smart, learned judge, judicially tempered, unflappable, and given the highest rating by the American Bar Association for competence." Those who oppose the nomination? That would be "the Democrats; piddle brained, highly emotional, tending toward hysterics, and character assassins extraordinaire."

Yale law professor Robert Gordon here - "Bush cannot get the legislative votes to repeal the New Deal and Great Society social safety nets, or legislative protections of labor, work safety and the environment and regulation of corporate frauds and torts. But he can appoint people in the executive and judicial branches who will work toward these aims covertly, gradually, and under the radar, while feigning otherwise. ... If [Alito] is unwilling firmly and forthrightly to declare his independence from the ideologies and executive authorities he has served his entire career, the Democrats should try to keep him off the Court by filibuster."

But nothing happened Monday. The story is the spin. So you report that. It's safe.

Do you report on this stringer for The Guardian being roughed up, or events in the UK where we may learn all about our president's plan to blow up foreign news service in the middle of an ally's capital city? Do you report on the pretty American reporter for the Christian Science Monitor kidnapped in Baghdad over the weekend? No you don't - Abduction of American Reporter in Iraq Blacked Out By US News Outlets. You report what you can.

It's rough out there.

Posted by Alan at 21:08 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Monday, 9 January 2006 21:37 PST home

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