Nasty Letters To Crooked Politicians

As we enter a new era of politics, we hope to see that Obama has the courage to fight the policies that Progressives hate. Will he have the fortitude to turn the economic future of America to help the working man? Or will he turn out to be just a pawn of big money, as he seems to be right now.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The Gaza crisis and the perspective of permanent revolution

30 December 2008

The onslaught against Gaza has provoked popular outrage throughout the Middle East and around the world, even as governments in the Arab world and elsewhere have lined up to provide justifications for this US-Israeli war crime.

Israel's declaration of "all-out war" against a largely defenseless and half-starved population of 1.5 million people imprisoned in a blockaded strip of land justifiably provokes fury and revulsion. So too do the hypocritical and lying reports of the mass media, which incessantly describe Israel's aerial blitz against apartment blocks, police stations, universities, mosques and office buildings as an act of "self defense," while equating the occupied with the occupiers and ineffectual homemade rockets with US-supplied F-16s, Hellfire missiles and "smart bombs."

Yet moral outrage and condemnation of Israel are by no means a sufficient answer to the atrocities in Gaza. What is required above all is a political perspective.

Many of those now under attack are the children of refugees subjected to violence and forced from their homes by Israel in its expansionary war of 1967. Then, as now, the plight of the Palestinians was largely ignored by the world's governments, while their interests were betrayed by Arab bourgeois nationalist regimes that claimed to speak in their name.

As the terrible events have unfolded in Gaza over the past three days, it has become clear that the present-day Arab bourgeois governments are either acting as direct accomplices in the attack on the Palestinians or offering their tacit political support.

The most criminal role has been played by the US-backed police state regime of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt. Egypt had collaborated with Israel in enforcing its punishing economic blockade of Gaza by closing the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt. After the bombing started, terrified Palestinians trying to flee across the Egyptian border to safety were met with Egyptian machine gun fire.

It is widely suspected that the Cairo regime deliberately deceived the Hamas leadership in Gaza, assuring them just hours before the bombing began that Israel had no intention of launching an attack. Hamas representatives have insisted that it was this Egyptian assurance that led to buildings not being evacuated, resulting in a higher toll of killed and maimed.

The London-based Arabic-language newspaper al-Quds al Arabi cited Arab diplomatic sources as reporting that Egyptian Intelligence Minister Omar Suleiman warned a number of Arab leaders that Israel was preparing just such an attack on Gaza.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit told a press conference Saturday that Hamas was responsible for the violence against Gaza. "Egypt warned for a long time and someone who ignores warnings is responsible for the outcome," he said.

Newspapers close to the Saudi monarchy essentially welcomed the Israeli onslaught, describing it as an attack on "Iran's agents" in the Middle East.

Representatives of the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah led by President Mahmoud Abbas have told the Israeli media that they likewise viewed the massacre in Gaza as an opportunity to regain power, assuring the Zionist establishment that they are prepared to move in if Israel succeeds in toppling the Hamas administration with high explosives.

Even those regimes that have formally denounced the attacks and criticized other Arab governments for their complicity—such as Iran and Libya—do so from the standpoint of advancing their own regional and bourgeois political interests.

In a fitting symbol of the reaction of the Arab regimes as a whole, an "emergency summit" of Arab League foreign ministers was postponed until Wednesday, giving Israel five full days of bombing before it confronts another toothless declaration.

And, while it is necessary to defend Hamas against the ongoing assassination of its leaders and the unending vilification of its supporters as "terrorists" by those inflicting massive state terror against a civilian population, this Islamist movement has no real perspective for confronting and defeating the US-Israeli offensive.

The firing of rockets into southern Israel was aimed at convincing Israel to negotiate a lifting of economic sanctions, just as its talk of renewed "martyr operations," sending young Palestinians to blow themselves up in Israeli cafes and buses, is similarly designed to pressure the Zionist regime.

No one has benefited more from the domination of nationalism and Islamism in the Arab countries than the Zionist regime itself. There is no nationalist way out of the present morass.

Creating another national mini-state in the region will not provide a solution to the decades-old dispossession of the Palestinians. The division of the West Bank and Gaza by Israeli settlements, security roads, checkpoints and walls make it clear that such a territory could represent only a Bantustan-type prison, with a Palestinian bourgeois nationalist regime serving as its guards.

Israeli officials have made it clear that they see the so-called "peace process" as a means of creating just such a monstrosity, dubbed the "two-state solution," in order to lay the political foundations for expelling Israel's own million-strong Arab population, a massive exercise in ethnic cleansing.

This maniacal perspective, like the attack on Gaza itself, is a manifestation of the political bankruptcy and crisis of Zionism. The Israeli state and all of its major parties are subordinate to a military camarilla. The regime staggers from one reckless military adventure to another—from Lebanon to Gaza and, on the horizon, to Iran—inflicting destruction on civilian populations while horrifying and demoralizing large sections of Israel's own people.

While the government seeks to maintain its power by constantly promoting both fear and chauvinism, there are many Israelis who view the unfolding violence with revulsion and the conviction that it can lead only to new disasters.

Ultimately, the aggressive militarism of the Israeli state is an expression not merely of Zionist ideology, but of deep-going social, political and class fissures that run through Israeli society. It is a society characterized by vast social inequality and a regime headed by an individual, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, whose narrow escape from criminal indictment for financial and political corruption expresses the corrosion of the entire Zionist establishment.

In one revealing comment, Olmert's spokesman, Mark Regev, declared after a government meeting following the first round of bombings in Gaza: "In the cabinet room today there was an energy, a feeling that after so long of showing restraint we had finally acted." That the slaughter of innocents by means of aerial bombardment is a source of renewed political "energy" speaks volumes about the nature of this regime.

A genuine struggle against Zionism is conceivable only on the basis of a class struggle that transcends national boundaries, uniting Arab and Jewish workers based upon their common class interests. Outside of a class perspective, which seeks the independent and united mobilization of both Arab and Israeli workers, there is no real means of dealing a deathblow to Zionism and imperialism in the Middle East.

The demonstrations that have erupted from Cairo to Baghdad in support of Gaza have been directed not just against Israel, but against the rotten Arab regimes, which represent Israel's most faithful allies. This popular movement is not just a reaction to the latest events, but rather part of a growing radicalization of the working class in the Middle East as well as in Europe, America and across the globe, driven by the desperate crisis of world capitalism.

For all of the heroism of the Palestinians facing Israeli F-16s and Apache helicopters in Gaza, the greatest threat to the Zionist regime, its Achilles heel, is the intensification of class struggle and the prospect of socialist revolution in Egypt, the other Arab states and in Israel itself.

A genuine revolutionary alternative can be constructed only on the basis of the theory of permanent revolution, as developed by Leon Trotsky. In the imperialist epoch, Trotsky established, realization of the basic democratic and national tasks in the oppressed nations—tasks associated in a previous historical period with the rise of the bourgeoisie—can be achieved only through the independent political mobilization of the working class acting on a socialist and internationalist perspective.

The Palestinian question, the center of the bitter conflicts and political tragedy of the region is, in the final analysis, bound inseparably with the fate of the socialist revolution in the Middle East and internationally. The unfolding events in Gaza pose with the greatest urgency the struggle to unite the working class, Arab and Jewish alike, in the fight for a socialist federation of the Middle East as part of the struggle to put an end to capitalism on a world scale.

Bill Van Auken

Friday, December 19, 2008

As Usual, the NYT Ignores Iraqi Opinion; Anecdotes trump polls on withdrawal

by Dahr Jamail
December 15th, 2008 | Extra! The Magazine of FAIR

The New York Times failed spectacularly in its coverage of Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction, helping lead the country into war and only much later (5/26/04) publishing a half-hearted mea culpa. As the near-apology acknowledged, the paper’s failure resulted in large part from its lack of skepticism regarding its sources, most notably exiled Iraqi politician Ahmed Chalabi.

Despite the mea culpa, though, the Times continues to mislead on Iraq, particularly on the issue of whether or not Iraqis want the U.S. military to exit their country. Once again, that journalistic failure seems to be rooted in the same fundamental problem of overconfidence in the paper’s sources and ignoring the obvious contradictory evidence.

An article by Times reporter Stephen Farrell headlined, “Should U.S. Forces Withdraw From Iraq? The Iraqis Have a Few Opinions” (9/9/08) serves as a recent example. The piece, which also kicked off a special series on “the debate among ordinary Iraqis over the presence of American troops” that ran in the Times’ online blog section, purported to bring readers insight into Iraqi opinion on withdrawal. “As Iraqi and American diplomats negotiate a deal for American troops to stay in Iraq, or not, Iraqis are also debating the issue,” Farrell wrote—as though there is a great deal of debate among Iraqis about whether they prefer that their country continue to be occupied.

The Times reporter split Iraqis into “three categories” of opinion, with only one actually supporting the withdrawal of occupation forces. Besides a group that “simply [wants] the Americans to leave, period,” Farrell described one pro-occupation group of Iraqis that “worries that the brief period of improving security which Iraq has witnessed this year will be vulnerable if the Americans abruptly withdrew.” Those in this group, according to Farrell, “say the United States has a moral obligation to remain, and that continued presence of the occupiers is preferable to a return to rule by gangs and militias.”

Farrell described the other pro-occupation group as sharing “a common worry, that without a referee, Iraq’s dominant powers—Kurds in the far north and Shias in the center and south—will brutally dominate other groups.”

Farrell gave no indication of the relative sizes of each group, but the Iraqi quotes featured below the piece seemed to suggest that the pro-withdrawal group was quite small: Only two of the ten people who expressed a personal opinion about the troops spoke in favor of immediate withdrawal.

Survey says

Notably, Farrell opted not to include polling data in his article. Perhaps that’s because had he done so, it would have undermined the thesis of his piece.

A poll from March 2008 conducted by Opinion Research Business (ORB) for the British Channel 4 (2/24–3/5/08) found 70 percent of Iraqis wanting occupation forces to leave. Within this group, 65 percent wanted them to leave “immediately or as soon as possible”—meaning fully 46 percent of Iraqis would fall under Farrell’s “leave immediately” group. Another 19 percent wanted them out within a year or less, while 12 percent wanted to wait until “whenever the security situation allows it.” (Interestingly, in Baghdad—where Times journalists are based—the number of those who wanted troops out immediately was only 42 percent, while 20 percent wanted to wait until the security situation improves; still, a majority wanted troops out within a year.)

Another March 2008 poll conducted by D3/KA for ABC News and other media outlets (2/12–20/08) similarly found that 73 percent of Iraqis either “somewhat” or “strongly” opposed the ongoing foreign troop presence in their country, with 38 percent in favor of immediate withdrawal. Only 7 percent of Iraqis—primarily Kurds—“strongly” supported the presence of occupation forces.

The D3/KA survey, which did not offer a timetable for withdrawal as a choice, found 35 percent of Iraqis wanting troops to stay until security is restored and another 24 percent wanting them to stay until the government is either “stronger” or can “operate independently.” But with respect to the “improving security” that Farrell pointed to as a reason many Iraqis want troops to stay—a result, according to media conventional wisdom, of the successful troop “surge” (Extra!, 9–10/08)—61 percent of Iraqis said the U.S. troop presence was making security worse, compared to only 27 percent who said better. The same survey found that 70 percent of Iraqis believe the U.S. and other “coalition” forces had done “quite a bad job” or “a very bad job” in carrying out their responsibilities in Iraq.

To illustrate the U.S.’s “dilemma,” Farrell made references to two previous occupations of Iraq: the failed British occupation during the 1920s and the Empire of the Caliphate under the Ummayad provincial governor al-Hajjaj in 694 AD. The examples presented Iraqis as irrepressibly “fractious” and “troublesome” going back to ancient times; as Farrell concluded loftily, “Names and governments change, but there is nothing new under the Mesopotamian sun.”

According to such logic, chaos, violence and majority Iraqi opposition to the occupation would seem to have less to do with the occupation itself—which has left an estimated one million dead and nearly 5 million displaced (9/18/07; UNHCR, 8/08)—and more to do with an inherent incapacity to accept the “civilization” or “democracy” that a brutal occupation brings.

Unchanging trends

Bylines and dates change, but there is nothing new under the Manhattan sun. A look back at New York Times coverage of Iraqi opinion over the years shows a long trend of ignoring polling data despite their ready availability and their remarkable consistency.

A Gallup poll from April 2004 (USA Today, 4/28/04) revealed that “a solid majority [of Iraqis] support an immediate military pullout.” Fifty-seven percent said the coalition should “leave immediately.” The same poll found that 75 percent of the residents of Baghdad favored an immediate withdrawal. At the same time, a poll from the Iraq Center for Research and Strategic Studies (4/28/04), which was partly funded by the State Department and had coordinated its work with the Coalition Provisional Authority, found that more than half of all Iraqis wanted an immediate withdrawal of all U.S. forces, an increase of 17 percent over the previous October.

In writing about Iraqi opinion, though, the Times’ Ian Fisher (5/23/04) ignored this data, asserting, “There are still far more people . . . who are skeptical of, and maybe even hate, the Americans but see them as the only way to save themselves.” As evidence, Fisher cited not scientific surveys—as those would have contradicted his claim—but rather a tally conducted by Sadim Samir, a 23-year-old political science student at the University of Baghdad, who “canvassed five neighborhoods” of Baghdad for a “class paper.”

Two years later, Times journalist Michael Gordon, who co-wrote some of the Times’ most misleading WMD reports with Judith Miller and still periodically files stories from Iraq, criticized Democrats calling for a withdrawal from Iraq because, Gordon argued (CNN, 11/15/06),

there are a significant number of players in Baghdad today who don’t mind if the Americans withdraw. These are the militia leaders. They would be happy if the United States withdrew, because, then, they can go and carry out their ethnic cleansing campaign against the Sunnis.

But a poll by the Program on International Policy Attitudes (9/1–3/06) found that then, as today, 7 in 10 Iraqis favored troop withdrawal within a year—not just a small band of “militia leaders” bent on ethnic cleansing.

More recently, 18 Iraqis were interviewed for the Times article “In Iraq, Mixed Feelings About Obama and His Troop Proposal,” by Sabrina Tavernise and Richard Oppel (7/17/08). Again, the Times preferred to rely on the opinions of less than two dozen Iraqis rather than refer to available polling data that would have undercut the theme of the story: that Iraqis faced “a deep internal quandary” about Obama’s support for withdrawal.

The first Iraqi quoted was a general who, when asked about Barack Obama’s plans to draw down troops in Iraq, shook his head and said: “Very difficult. . . . Any army would love to work without any help, but let me be honest: For now, we don’t have that ability.” When the piece mentioned one Iraqi who favored immediate withdrawal, his quote (“I want them [U.S. soldiers] to go to hell”) was framed in rhetoric couching the situation as “complex.” The piece concluded by quoting an Iraqi government official who, having traveled to Germany and seen the U.S. bases there, said: “I have no problem to have a camp here. . . . I find it in Germany and that’s a strong country. Why not in Iraq?”

Writing history by anecdote

One of the New York Times’ chief perpetrators of skewing Iraqi opinion is John Burns. The paper sent Burns to Baghdad during the lead-up to the invasion of 2003, and he served as bureau chief there until the summer of 2007; his perspective on the occupation no doubt heavily influenced the Times’ reporting from Iraq.

Burns, the son of a NATO general, has publicly voiced his remarkably uncritical view of U.S. foreign policy, telling Rolling Stone magazine (7/04):

The United States has been overwhelmingly a force of good in the world. This is very unfashionable talk, but I think this ought to be remembered here. I grew up in a world where the survival of democracy depended on the military and economic power of the United States. If that power became less credible here, I think the world would be a lot less safe. The stakes are extraordinarily high. I think this is a tipping point in the fate of the American empire.

Many journalists with the Times used to regularly report from the streets of Iraq in the early days of the war, before the security deteriorated to the point where most decided against venturing out; Burns, however, was not generally one of them. Those of us reporting from Iraq rarely saw Burns, the winner of two Pulitzer Prizes, leave the heavily guarded New York Times compound unless he was going on an embed or taking an armored convoy over to the Green Zone to report on the military press conferences that we referred to as the “five o’clock follies.”

When journalists report this way in Baghdad, they put themselves in a position of total reliance upon the Iraqis they hire to send out into the streets with questions; they then have to sift through the answers those Iraqi reporters bring back to find anecdotes to fit their stories. In this way, history is written by anecdote, and this is exactly what the Times does by quoting individual Iraqis or referring to “Iraqi opinion” without citing available polls.

Despite his limited perspective on Iraqi opinion, Burns has repeatedly presented that perspective to the public without caveats, both in the Times and in other outlets—most frequently the Charlie Rose show on PBS—and it’s a perspective that runs counter to the survey data.

“In my experience, the great majority of Iraqis are . . . very loathe to see those American troops leave now,” Burns told Rose on June 14, 2006, shortly before the State Department’s own polls showed nearly half of Iraqis wanting immediate withdrawal and seven in ten wanting troops out within a year (Washington Post, 9/27/06). Burns told Rose a year later (PBS, 7/17/07):

I think, quite simply that the United States armed forces here—and I find this to be very widely agreed amongst Iraqis that I know, of all ethnic and sectarian backgrounds—the United States armed forces are a very important inhibitor against violence. I know it’s argued by some people that they provoke the violence. I simply don’t believe that to be in the main true.

Meanwhile, Iraqis were telling pollsters the opposite: 69 percent believed U.S. troop presence was making the security situation worse (D3, 2/25–3/5/07), and they believed security would get better rather than worse in the immediate weeks following a coalition troop withdrawal by two to one (ORB, 2/10–22/07).

As Baghdad bureau chief, Burns’ influence reached beyond Times reporting. When the National Journal (12/9/05), for example, wanted to give readers the “assessment” of the Iraqi people, they cited Burns: “I think you would get overwhelming assent from Iraqis that should American troops be precipitously withdrawn from the war, civil war and escalation of the sectarian conflict already under way would become virtually inevitable.”

Mismeasures and misjudgments

Burns’ piece on the fifth anniversary of the war (3/16/08) gave some insight into the paper’s attitude toward both polls and the situation in Iraq. The lead photo of the piece showed U.S. bombs exploding over Baghdad during the initial invasion, with the title “The Air Show.” The caption read: “The war began with a mesmerizing display of American might. But the United States made a basic misjudgment about the Iraqis’ readiness to share power.”

Burns downplayed the number of Iraqi civilians killed by the war—“tens of thousands”—in another instance of the Times’ refusal to accept surveys when they have to do with Iraq. Burns’ number, the number preferred by the Times, comes from Iraq Body Count, which only counts violent civilian deaths actually recorded in cross-checked media outlets, and supplemented when possible by morgue, hospital, NGO and government data. Estimates based on scientific polling methods, which are widely accepted by the Times and other outlets when reporting on, say, Darfur, placed Iraqi deaths due to violence at over 600,000 in 2006 (Lancet, 10/11/06) and at over a million by mid-2007 (ORB, 9/07). Those numbers do not distinguish between civilians and combatants, but even if one only counted women, children and the elderly as “civilians,” more than 100,000 had died violently in Iraq as of two years before Burns’ article was written (Lancet, 10/11/06).

Burns also blamed journalists for failing “to uncover other facets of Iraq’s culture and history that would have a determining impact on the American project to build a Western-style democracy, or at least the basics of a civil society”—facets such as “how deep was the poison of fear and distrust” and the “harsh reality that Iraqis . . . had little zest for democracy.” Again, Burns chose to fault “traumatized Iraqis” for the chaos and bloodshed in Iraq, rather than the illegal, brutal invasion and occupation of their country.

And despite his moment of self-critique, Burns continued to do precisely what he faulted journalists for doing in the past—failing to uncover Iraqis’ perspectives. He laid out very explicitly his view of polls:

Opinion polls, including those commissioned by the American command, have long suggested that a majority of Iraqis would like American troops withdrawn, but another lesson to be drawn from Saddam Hussein’s years is that any attempt to measure opinion in Iraq is fatally skewed by intimidation. More often than not, people tell pollsters and reporters what they think is safe, not necessarily what they believe. My own experience, invariably, was that Iraqis I met who felt secure enough to speak with candor had an overwhelming desire to see American troops remain long enough to restore stability.

In other words, because they don’t reflect his “own experience,” Burns simply dismissed the validity of all polls (and most reporting!) on Iraqi opinion, and declared his own conversations with a minuscule slice of the Iraqi public a more reliable measure of the opinions of the entire country.

A problematic practice

“It’s a tradition for journalists to see themselves as the researcher to go out and get the story, so that’s their default position,” said Dr. Steven Kull, director of World Public Opinion (WPO), when asked why he thought some media outlets tend to ignore polling data.

Some journalists are not well-trained to interpret polls, so they might be uncomfortable with them. And they might see them as a source of competition to the traditional approach of interviewing people and getting their anecdotes. But a few anecdotes here and there don’t really give you the picture.

Kull also directs the Program on International Policy Attitudes that plays a central role in the BBC World Service poll of global opinion and the polls of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs; he gives briefings on world opinion on various issues to Congress, the State Department, NATO, the United Nations and the European Commission.

“The problem is that when these [anecdotes] are at odds with polling data, these are incorrect stories,” Kull added. “The universe of people who may be willing to talk to a reporter may not be indicative of the attitudes of the general population.”

Certainly the Iraqis John Burns “know[s] best” are not representative of the population as a whole; those Iraqis, he told Charlie Rose in 2006 (PBS, 10/20/06), were “almost all on their way to the passport office” to get out of the country—an option he acknowledged was “only available to the middle class, primarily to those who are being paid in dollars.”

Kull explained that when reporters interview some Sunnis in Baghdad who express fears of a U.S. withdrawal,

then a reporter can reason, ‘They are a minority, and the Shia are ascendant, and this makes sense that the Sunni feel as they do.’ But the polling data suggest the Sunnis are eager for a U.S. withdrawal. I think it’s problematic when there is an anecdote reported and there is polling data available to the contrary.

Kull admits that polling in places like Iraq has its challenges, and is imperfect, but hastened to add that when it comes to capturing overall national opinion on topics, there is no substitute for scientific polling: “It is far superior than the method of a reporter going out on the street and talking to people. There’s no question.”

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Arrest energizes pundits
Gene Lyons

Although you'll never see celebrity journalists discussing it on TV, one
reason the country's in such terrible shape is the media's substitution
of political "infotainment" for news.

It's cheaper and easier to feature chatter by Washington insider pundits
than, say, to keep a functioning news bureau working in Baghdad or

Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich's arrest for allegedly trying to auction
off President-elect Barack Obama's Senate seat started a veritable
avalanche of idle gossip, witless speculation and downright character
assassination such as we haven't seen in this country since-well, since
Whitewater, actually, the most elaborate shaggy-dog story in U.S.
history. On cable TV, they were partying like it was 1998.

It's not as if there's nothing serious to talk about. Recently we've
seen Republican senators, mainly from Southern states with heavily
subsidized foreign auto factories, scuttle the Bush administration's
emergency bailout of U.S. car manufacturers purely to stick it to the
unions. Who do these guys represent, Tennessee or Nissan? Alabama or

We're talking 3 million American jobs here as the economy spirals
frighteningly downward.

In Washington, the bipartisan Senate Armed Services Committee issued a
report blaming high-ranking Bush administration officials, including
then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, for appalling human rights
violations against detainees in Cuba, Iraq and Afghanistan. Whatever is
to be done?

Could these events have motivated the Iraqi reporter with the
suspiciously strong throwing arm who made himself a folk hero throughout
the Arab world by pegging his shoes at President Bush's head?

A big-league second baseman couldn't have been more on target. Will Iraq
ever become a U.S. ally as conservatives claim? Has the "war on terror"
really made us safer?

None of those tedious subjects, however, stimulated anything like the
punditocracy's gleeful response to the Blagojevich bust.

Granted, the Illinois scandal has definite comic appeal. According to
U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, the publicity shy prosecutor who turns
up so regularly on national TV, Blagojevich even tried to shake down
Children's Memorial Hospital, for heaven's sake. The governor appears to
wear a nutria fur toupee on loan from an Elvis impersonator. Illinois'
lovely first lady apparently has a mouth on her like Tony Soprano.

As a New Jersey native married to a woman born in Louisiana, however, I
can't pretend to be shocked by any part of the Blagojevich scandal,
apart from his astonishing stupidity. A friend who knew him when they
were young prosecutors together characterizes Blago as the kind of
public servant who'd dismiss domestic violence charges simply because it
was Friday afternoon. Everybody in Chicago knew the fool was under FBI

If convicted, Blagojevich will join his predecessor, Republican Gov.
George Ryan, in the big house for pretty much the same crime-peddling
government services to the highest bidder.

Granted, the mention of Obama was bound to set off Republican political
operatives desperate to make a dent in the president-elect's
stratospheric approval ratings. Even though that mention consisted of a
transcript of Blagojevich's tape-recorded obscenities in reaction to
Obama's infuriating refusal to play ball.

According to the federal indictment, Blagojevich "said that the
consultants . . . are telling him that he has to 'suck it up' for two
years and do nothing and give this 'mother****** [the President-elect]
his senator. **** him. For nothing? **** him.' "

Fitzgerald made it clear that neither Obama nor anybody on his staff is
under suspicion.

Media response to this disappointing news has been a lot like
Blagojevich's, albeit without the bleeps. Obama's clean? Well, what
about the "gathering shadows"? He's appalled? So how come it took him 24
whole hours to call for Blagojevich's resignation?

According to The New York Times, "[A]ccusations of naked greed and
brazen influence-peddling have raised questions from some about the
political culture in which the President-elect began his career."

Notice the passive voice. The Times itself isn't asking, only "some."

On MSNBC, veteran scandal-monger Michael Isikoff spoke darkly of "a web
of interconnections between the Blagojevich's world and Obama's world."
Even Obama-friendly pundits such as The Washington Post's Eugene
Robinson essentially demanded that Obama prove a negative by responding
immediately to questions that he couldn't possibly know the answers to.

My personal favorite, however, had to be the Post's ubiquitous TV
talking head Dana Milbank. Reacting on CNN to the disappointing news
that Fitzgerald has asked Obama to delay releasing a list of staffers
who'd discussed the coveted Senate seat, Milbank complained that the
president-elect was trying to bore Americans to death by appointing
obscure nobodies to posts like secretary of energy.

The nobody in question would be Professor Steven Chu, Nobel laureate in
physics. Is there any wonder the U.S. appears scarcely capable of
governing itself?

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

New Today ---------- 16 December 2008

The Madoff scandal

News & Analysis
Bush’s “victory” visit to Iraq meets with contempt and protest

Obama’s defence appointee signals continuing US belligerence

Greece: Police crack down as government and opposition seek to isolate mass protests

Eyewitness reports police violence against Athens protesters

US government bailouts: poverty wages for auto workers, trillions for bankers

Schumer vs. Blagojevich: No match when it comes to corruption

Pakistan: Conditions attached to IMF “bailout” will exacerbate slump and poverty

Britain: Jury verdict over killing of Jean Charles de Menezes demolishes police lies

Saturday, December 13, 2008

No regrets, many mistakes

Posted on Wednesday, December 10, 2008

"Non, je ne regrette rien."-Edith Piaf

Purely to annoy President Bush's loyal supporters, all 10 or 12 of them, I propose that his administration's official theme song be sung in French.

The title of Edith Piaf's immortal ballad loses something in the translation: "No, I regret nothing." Dedicated by the chanteuse to the French Foreign Legion, it's sung to commemorate its failed effort in the Algerian War (1956-62).

Bush himself clearly regrets nothing about the United States' own misadventure in Iraq, although some news organizations, submissive to the end, portrayed his phony contrition in a recent interview with ABC News' Charles Gibson as "unusually blunt" and "stunningly candid." Uncontradicted by the deferential anchorman, Bush did concede that mistakes were made in Iraq, although not by him.

To accept responsibility for the ongoing tragedy would require an active conscience.

Alas, there's no sign the self-designated "comforter-in-chief" has one.

So here's what The Washington Post found "unusually blunt." Bush doesn't care a fig for history because he won't be there to read it. He made tough decisions, but stuck to his principles 100 percent of the time. Asked if there was anything he'd do differently, the president characteristically passed the buck.

"I don't know," he said. "The biggest regret of all the presidency has to have been the intelligence failure in Iraq. A lot of people put their reputations on the line and said the weapons of mass destruction is [sic] a reason to remove Saddam Hussein. It wasn't just people in my administration; a lot of members in Congress . . . a lot of leaders of nations around the world were all looking at the same intelligence. And, you know, that's not a do-over, but I wish the intelligence had been different, I guess."

Bad grammar and all, that's all of it. Others bungled, not him. In fact, history records that Bush himself, not to mention Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and the rest of the neo-conservative cabal arrived in office determined to invade Iraq.

All except Bush, who promised a "humble" foreign policy during the 2000 campaign, signed a 1997 statement by the grandiosely titled "Project for a New American Century" urging then-President Bill Clinton to remove Saddam with prejudice.

"This isn't conservatism," I wrote in March 2003, "it's utopian folly and a prescription for endless war."

According to the once-secret Downing Street Memo, written by a British intelligence official to Prime Minister Tony Blair about an unnamed operative's toplevel meetings with Bush administration officials in July 2002, "Military action was now seen as inevitable. Bush wanted to remove Saddam, through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD. But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy."

Instances of intelligence being stovepiped, i.e., stripped of uncertainties and dissenting views, have been widely reported. Virtually the entire case for Saddam's nonexistent nuclear weapons was based upon forged documents, misrepresented evidence and single-source reports from extremely dubious sources. Bush, Cheney and Condoleezza Rice made lurid public statements that they eventually had to retract. At minimum, they were blowing smoke, substituting ideology for facts.

But it wasn't until ABC's Gibson, playing good cop throughout, asked a follow-up question that Bush got really creative.

"If the intelligence had been right, would there have been an Iraq War?"

"Yes," our blunt, candid commanderin-chief replied, "because Saddam Hussein was unwilling to let the inspectors go in to determine whether or not the U.N. resolutions were being upheld."

Bush has been peddling this brazen falsehood for years. It's even possible he's come to believe it. According to reporter Robert Parry's compilation for the Consortium for Independent Journalism Inc., Bush first made this bogus claim in July 2003, soon after his "Mission accomplished" aircraft carrier remarks when many in the press feared to contradict him.

In reality, Iraq produced a 12,000-page document on Dec. 7, 2002, explaining the destruction of its chemical and biological weapons. Despite some foot-dragging, Saddam then allowed U.N. inspectors to travel at will inside Iraq searching for forbidden weapons. The inspectors remained until March 2003 when Bush ordered them out ahead of his "shock and awe" bombing campaign.

The U.N. inspectors' activities were broadcast on TV daily for weeks. The same kinds of easily manipulated patriots doubtless infuriated by this column were then focusing their ire on chief arms inspector Hans Blix.

All conveniently forgotten by Bush, his followers and our intrepid press corps, no longer so much covering for a failed president as for themselves.

· -–––––·–––––-Free-lance columnist Gene Lyons is a Little Rock author and recipient of the National Magazine Award.

Senate torture report confirms Bush, top officials guilty of war crimes

By Bill Van Auken
13 December 2008

A report issued Thursday by the Senate Armed Services Committee has provided official and bipartisan confirmation that the infamous acts of torture carried out by US personnel at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo were planned, ordered and orchestrated by the highest-ranking officials in the US government. Based on the Senate's own conclusions, those named in the document, including President George W. Bush, former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, are guilty of war crimes.

The key findings of the Senate panel's report on "Treatment of Detainees in US Custody" [PDF] are summed up in the introduction to its 29-page executive summary:

"The abuse of detainees in US custody cannot simply be attributed to the actions of ‘a few bad apples' acting on their own. The fact is that senior US officials in the United States government solicited information on how to use aggressive techniques, redefined the law to create the appearance of their legality, and authorized their use against detainees."

The product of multiple hearings and interviews carried out by committee staff members with more than 70 people over the course of 18 months, the final report was approved late last month. While the panel has not identified the 17 (out of 25) members present for the vote, given the committee's composition, at least four Republicans voted to endorse the findings, while none sought to register opposition.

Most of the information contained in the report had previously been made public, either through official testimony or media exposures. Nonetheless, the compilation of this information in a report endorsed by a Senate committee without dissent has undeniable significance. It amounts to official recognition that the US government followed a deliberate and systemic policy of torture.

The report begins by placing principal responsibility for torture on Bush himself in a section somewhat delicately entitled "Presidential order opens the door to considering aggressive techniques."

The reference is to a February 2002 memorandum signed by Bush, which announced to the world that Washington would not be bound by the Third Geneva Convention in its treatment of prisoners taken in its war in Afghanistan.

Bush's unilateral and extralegal proclamation that those captured in the so-called "war on terrorism" were not covered by the Geneva Conventions was the essential preparation for a regime of torture directed from the top. The administration was signaling that it would not be bound by the terms of an international statute that stated explicitly, "No physical or mental torture, nor any other form of coercion, may be inflicted on prisoners of war."

The timeline provided by the report makes clear that Bush's declaration followed less than two months after Defense Secretary Rumsfeld had initiated a program to "reverse engineer" techniques used by the Pentagon's Joint Personnel Recovery Agency, an outfit assigned to train military personnel to hold out against interrogation by regimes acting in violation of the Geneva Conventions.

These methods were derived largely from the experience of US POWs captured during the Korean War, whose treatment Washington at the time denounced as "torture" and "brainwashing." The Senate report comments: "It is particularly troubling that senior officials approved the use of techniques that were originally designed to simulate abusive tactics used by our enemies against our own soldiers and that were modeled, in part, on tactics used by the Communist Chinese to elicit false confessions from US military personnel."

The training used in the agency's Survival Evasion Resistance and Escape (SERE) course, as the Senate report recounts, includes "stripping students of their clothing, placing them in stress positions, putting hoods over their heads, disrupting their sleep, treating them like animals, subjecting them to loud music and flashing lights, and exposing them to extreme temperatures." The Navy's SERE course also included waterboarding.

These are precisely the methods that became "standard operating procedure" at Guantánamo, in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, some of which were captured in the Abu Ghraib photographs that provoked worldwide revulsion and outrage.

White House discussions of torture techniques

The report goes on to establish that these torture methods were discussed and approved by Bush's cabinet members and other senior officials during White House meetings of the National Security Council's "principals" in the spring of 2002. Leading these sessions was Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, then Bush's national security adviser. Also participating were Rumsfeld, CIA Director George Tenet, Attorney General John Ashcroft, and others.

Reviewing the manner in which this policy was implemented, the report turns to the Justice Department's "redefining of torture."

It cites the memo issued by then-Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) Jay Bybee (now a US appeals court judge) in consultation with then-Deputy Assistant Attorney General John Yoo, then-White House Counsel (and subsequently Attorney General) Alberto Gonzalez, and David Addington, who was counsel to Vice President Cheney.

The document, which became known as the "Bybee memo," cleared methods of interrogation that had long been defined as torture by declaring that for an act to rise to the level of torture it had to produce pain equivalent to "organ failure, impairment of bodily function or even death," or result in psychological damage "lasting for months or even years."

The Senate report cites the assessment of Bybee's successor at OLC, Jack Goldsmith, who noted that under this legal finding "if you do torture, you probably have a defense; and even if you don't have a defense, the torture law doesn't apply if you act under the color of presidential authority."

A second Bybee memo, issued in August 2002, remains classified, but, as the report indicates, it approved specific methods of interrogation for use by the CIA, including waterboarding.

The rest of the report documents how these methods were first introduced at Guantánamo and then disseminated—including through Power Point presentations—throughout the US military's sprawling detention camps in Afghanistan and Iraq under the direction of Rumsfeld and with the full support of the administration. It points out that this policy was implemented over the strenuous objections of US military lawyers and other uniformed officers who warned that it violated both US and international law and could expose American military personnel to prosecution.

Much of the report remains classified and undoubtedly contains still undisclosed and even more damning revelations of the criminal methods utilized in the US torture program. Photographic images and videos from Abu Ghraib—some of them reportedly showing rapes of women and children, savage beatings and other acts of violence—have still been withheld by the Pentagon, with the full cooperation of the Democrats in Congress.

In his statement on the report's findings, the Senate Armed Services Committee's Democratic chairman, Carl Levin of Michigan, commented: "Attempts by senior officials to pass the buck to low-ranking soldiers while avoiding any responsibility for abuses are unconscionable." He continued, "America needs to own up to its mistakes so that we can rebuild some of the good will that we have lost."

The reality, however, is that "low-ranking soldiers," were court martialed, stripped of their ranks and military careers and, in some cases, sent to prison. One of them, Charles Garner, who was photographed tormenting naked prisoners and giving a grinning thumbs-up over the body of a murdered detainee at Abu Ghraib, is still in the military stockade at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, having spent 29 months in solitary confinement over the last four years, much of it in shackles.

Eight other reservists, enlisted personnel and non-commissioned officers were sentenced to jail time.

While the soldiers who carried out these heinous acts deserved to be punished, how much more so those at the top who devised these methods and ordered their implementation? Yet they have suffered no consequences whatsoever.

The Senate panel specifically found that "Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's authorization of aggressive interrogation techniques for use at Guantánamo Bay was a direct cause of detainee abuse there" and "influenced and contributed to" the use of the same methods in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet Rumsfeld has not been indicted or even investigated. He is free and writing his memoir.

Neither the committee nor its Democratic chairman nor any other leading member of the Democratic Party has proposed rectifying this situation by means of criminal investigations and prosecutions.

Talk of "owning up to mistakes" and "rebuilding good will" is utterly cynical without proposing such action.

The reality is that the United States remains in violation of the Geneva Conventions. There is every reason to believe that torture continues, if not in the military-run detention centers, then in the secret prisons of the CIA.

Moreover, the conventions demand that those responsible for violating its provisions be punished. It calls on its signatories, which include Washington, to "undertake to enact any legislation necessary to provide effective penal sanctions for persons committing, or ordering to be committed, any of the grave breaches" of its statutes. These include proscriptions against "torture or inhuman treatment" and "willfully causing great suffering or serious injury to body or health" of prisoners.

There is no indication that the incoming Obama administration is planning to abide by these terms of the treaty.

As Newsweek's Michael Isikoff reported in the magazine's December 1 issue: "Despite the hopes of many human rights advocates, the new Obama Justice Department is not likely to launch major new criminal probes of harsh interrogations and other alleged abuses by the Bush administration. But one idea that has currency among some top Obama advisers is setting up a 9/11-style commission that would investigate counterterrorism policies and make public as many details as possible."

In other words, the most that can be expected is a pseudo investigation—like that of the 9/11 commission—deliberately designed to produce a cover-up.

Meanwhile, the Associated Press last month cited two unnamed senior Obama advisers as affirming that "there's little—if any—chance that the incoming president's Justice Department will go after anyone involved in authorizing or carrying out interrogations that provoked worldwide outrage."

Leading Democrats have tried to explain the refusal to pursue these matters as a question of "moving forward" and not becoming enmeshed in "partisan" warfare. The reality is that Democrats in Congress are entirely complicit in the torture policies of the past seven years. Any real war crimes investigation and prosecution would inevitably ensnare Democratic leaders who were briefed on and gave their assent to the criminal methods referred to in the Senate committee's report.

Obama's recent declaration—echoing those of Bush and Rice—that "America does not torture" notwithstanding, there is every reason to believe that these methods will continue under the incoming Democratic administration.

Significantly, Texas Democratic Congressman Silvestre Reyes, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, on Tuesday not only urged Obama to retain Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell and CIA Director Michael Hayden at their posts, but also advised him to allow the CIA's "alternative interrogation program," i.e., torture, to continue.

"We don't want to be known for torturing people," said Reyes. "At the same time we don't want to limit our ability to get information that's vital and critical to our national security." This Democratic approach could be summed up as: Keep torturing, but keep it quiet.