Between the Lines
July 31, 2003
|Big Brother just wants to be your PAL
Those folks at DARPA – that's the Pentagon’s blue-sky gadget agency -- sure like to keep you off balance. They’re now saying that their controversial LifeLog project, a vast database that would accummulate all known information on a person, is not about spying on terrorists, much less you or me.
No, instead it’s kind of a Ph.D program for a new generation of computers. Once the computer absorbs the information from various “threads” of a person’s life, the story goes, it’ll be able to think and act independently. This, in turn, would allow it to act as a Perceptive Assistant that Learns, or PAL. Sort of a PDA with a brain.
“If people keep missing conferences during rush hour, PAL should learn to schedule meetings when traffic isn't as thick,” Noah Shachtman writes for Wired. “If PAL's boss keeps sending angry notes to spammers, the software secretary eventually should just start flaming on its own.”
We can hardly wait. Nor can we believe this is the only use the Pentagon has in mind for all the information its various projects are collecting.
Poindexter’s on his way out at DARPA
Maybe they’re just nervous at DARPA because of the blowback from their most recent proposal – the short-lived notion of establishing a futures market where you could speculate on terror attacks, assassinations, coups and the like.
John Poindexter, the Iran-Contra scandal felon whose convictions were overturned on a technicality, had a hand in that one – and it looks like he’s lost his job because of the uproar it caused in Congress.
What was that weird flip-flop on air marshals all about?
First, the Transportation Security Administration said air marshals were no longer going to be on long-distance flights because … their hotel bills cost too much!
That coincided just about exactly with the new government warning that terrorists may be planning to hijack more airliners and turn them into bombs as they did on 9/11. Almost immediately, the TSA flopped the other way and said they didn’t mean it. Air marshals will continue flying. Was it all a budget ploy?Billmon has it all neatly wrapped up.
Maybe Saddam never had those WMDs
“We said all along that we will never get to the bottom of the Iraqi WMD program simply by going and searching specific sites, that you’d have to be able to get people who know about the programs to talk to you.”
-- Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz on May 13
Well, the U.S. captured several top Iraqi scientists, so there was renewed hope that we might get some concrete information on Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction. It hasn’t happened. “… all of the scientists interviewed have denied that Hussein had reconstituted his nuclear weapons program or developed and hidden chemical or biological weapons since United Nations inspectors left in 1998,” the Washington Post reports.
Maybe that’s why Wolfowitz now says, "I'm not concerned about weapons of mass destruction."
|Posted by tbrown at 12:00 PM
July 30, 2003
|It depends on how you define “quagmire” and “success”
It will be years before we have a clear view of the Iraq war and its consequences. Right now, all we can do is take a look at what has happened so far and how those events appear to weigh on the scale.
Was the war necessary?: There is little evidence that it was from the standpoint of U.S. national security. Joseph Cirincione, a weapons proliferation expert at the Carnegie Endowmenf for International Peace, says, “It is increasingly obvious that Saddam did not have weapons programs on the scale that the administration stated before the war. We have had three months of U.N. inspections at over 600 sites. We have now had over four months of searches by thousands of U.S., British and Australian troops which have discovered nothing of significance. It is unlikely that Saddam could have hidden, destroyed or moved weapons on the scale that the administration claimed he had before the war without us seeing it or some evidence of it.”
The fallback argument that the war was justified anyway because it rid Iraq of a despicable tyranny has some validity. Does anyone really wish Saddam and his thuggish sons were still in power? On the other hand, the invasion cost the lives of between 6,000 and 8,000 Iraqi civilians. And if we plan to rescue every country with a bloodthirsty government, we are overreaching in a way that can only spell disaster.
Is it a quagmire?: From the standpoint of coalition casualties, Iraq certainly is no Vietnam, and it is foolish to suggest that it is. At the height of the fighting in Vietnam, 500 Americans a week were coming home in body bags and the war ultimately cost more than 54,000 American lives. In contrast, coalition deaths total 292 and have averaged about 15 per week. Any death is a tragedy to someone, but from the broad military perspective, coalition casualties in Iraq are light.
However, Iraq may indeed become a quagmire in terms of the time and money it will take to get it functioning in some minimally self-sufficient way. We’re spending about $3.9 billion a month just onmaintaining the roughly 143,000 troops we have there. Congressional anger erupted yesterday over the uninformative testimony of President Bush’s budget director, Joshua Bolten, and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz about how long we may remain in Iraq and what it may cost.
Are the Iraqis better off?: Let's ask them. Billmon at Whiskey Bar has the details and commentary on a very interesting new poll of Iraqis. Interestingly, despite lingering fears that Saddam may somehow reassert himself, 50 percent of those polled said the U.S. and Britain were right to invade. However, only 23 percent thought the U.S. motive was to “liberate the people of Iraq from dictatorship,” while 47 percent thought the war was fought to secure oil supplies and 41 percent thought it was fought to help Israel.
Are we winning hearts and minds?: Maybe, though we’ve got a long way to go on that front. The U.S. does seem to have made some important progress in Fallujah, which until recently was considered the most dangerous place in Iraq for U.S. troops. New tactics, which including withdrawing U.S. troops to the outskirts and dealing more respectfully with residents, appear to have reduced animosity there.
Baghdad blogger Salam Pax says real resistance to the coalition in Iraq has now been reduced to Baathist holdouts and Islamic extremists. This should be good news, but, Pax says, “While dealing with these two groups, the Americans will manage to piss off the rest of the population. Take for example the Task Force 20 raid a couple of days ago in Mansur [a Baghdad neighborhood where several Iraqi civilians were killed when they failed to stop their cars]. They got some ‘intelligence’ and surrounded an area that they had bombed with bunker-busting bombs just four months ago. They were not even being shot at or anything. These are people who were driving in their cars through their neighbourhood streets. And got the sheikh of the biggest tribe in Iraq angry in the process. Great job.”
Did the war slow weapons proliferation?: According to Vice President Cheney, the Iraq invasion was supposed to teach other nations the consequences of developing weapons of mass destruction. It appears, however, to have had precisely the opposite effect: both Iran and North Korea, the other members of the “Axis of Evil,” seem to have accelerated their nuclear weapons programs. Again, the Carnegie Endowment’s Cirincione: “The war has eliminated the state threat of Iraq, at least for now. That is a net plus and we're all better off for that. However, it has not shown gains with other states of concern. Both Iran and North Korea appear to have accelerated their programs and come to the conclusion that they had better acquire nuclear weapons sooner rather than later.” How this game of chicken will end is purely speculative, but it certainly has done nothing to stablize the WMD problem.
So, overall, has it been a success?: As I noted at the beginning of this post, it’s too soon to say what history’s judgment will be. However, the Victor Davis Hanson at the National Review Online has lined up his arguments that it was. “First, none of the oft-repeated and dire predictions — increased terror, an inflamed Arab street, the fall of ‘moderate’ governments in Jordan and Egypt, a ruined Turkish economy, millions of refugees, thousands dead, endless sectarian fighting, and other horsemen of the Apocalypse — have followed from Saddam's ouster. Indeed, the end of Saddam Hussein has already brought dividends in other areas.” Read it all here
Now settle down for months, and probably years, of argument over whether what we did was right or successful.
|Posted by tbrown at 12:50 PM
July 29, 2003
|Dang! We had some really good online bets to make
My Seattle Times colleague Doug Kim writes:
The Pentagon recently abandoned a plan to allow futures trading on possible terrorist actions. We say, why? It’s brilliant! We liked the idea so much, we thought we’d lay down some odds on other local and world events. Any takers?
-- Discovery of hidden caches of weapons of mass destruction in Baghdad: 100-1
-- Discovery of hidden caches of big screen TVs in Baghdad: 2-1
-- Odai and Qusai Hussein are really dead: 15-1
-- Odai and Qusai have escaped: 12-1
-- Odai and Qusai will get makeover on special edition of “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy”: 8-1
-- Likelihood that Boeing will build new plane in Washington: 75-1
-- Likelihood that Boeing will build new plane in Chicago: 10-1
-- Likelihood that it doesn’t matter, because no one will buy new Boeing plane anyway: 2-1
-- Christine Gregoire wins governor race: 10-1
-- Ron Sims wins governor race: 15-1
-- Edgar Martinez wins governor race: 2-1
-- Accounting-challenged state Democratic Party cannot afford Schwarzenegger-level candidate for governor, nominates Brendan Fraser: 3-1.
-- Space shuttle launch in the next three months: 300-1
-- Space shuttle launch in the next three years: 200-1
-- Sale of shuttle program to GM’s Humvee division: 10-1
-- Censored pages in congressional Sept. 11 report reveal involvement of Saudia Arabia: 100-1
-- Censored pages in Sept. 11 report reveal transcript of missing Nixon tapes: 10-1
-- Censored pages will be sold to Oliver Stone for a film linking them to JFK assassination: 16-1
-- Completion in 15 years of light rail: 1000-1
-- Completion in 15 years of monorail: 500-1
-- Completion in 15 years of mass transportation system of cranky, wagon-pulling donkeys: 8-1
-- Likelihood that whoever came up with the terrorist betting plan will be laid off in the next budget: 1-1
|Posted by tbrown at 01:03 PM
|Well, maybe not
It looked for a brief moment there as if the Bush administration might declassify those 28 pages of the 9/11 investigation that deal, in large part, with the involvement of a “foreign government” with the hijackers. That foreign government would be Saudi Arabia. The Saudis are said to be “furious” about allegations that some of them may have helped some of the 9/11 highjackers who levelled the World Trade Center and hit the Pentagon (15 of the 19 were Saudis). Prince Saud Faisal, the Saudi foreign minister, flew to Washington to meet with President Bush on the matter. The administration so far is refusing to declassify the report because it might disrupt “ongoing investigations” important to national security.
Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama and Sen. Bob Graham of Florida (a Democratic presidential candidate) had pushed hard for declassification of the 28 pages before the report’s release. Yesterday Graham made the request to Bush again in writing, citing this statement by the Saudi ambassador to the U.S., Prince Bandar bin Sultan: "Saudi Arabia has nothing to hide. We can deal with questions in public, but we cannot respond to blank pages."
We have to wonder if the White House refusal to declassify the material, which several members of congressional intelligence committees who have seen it say does not endanger national security, isn’t a dog-and-pony show to allow the Saudi government to assert its innocence while keeping any evidence to the contrary buried.
And if it turns out that the Saudi’s really are clean on this, I’ll be the first to apologize for all the suspicions I’ve aired.
But perhaps I'm too cynical. Kevin Drum at Calpundit has a different take on this.
Bush defaces an American flag?!
Yep. He autographed one, according to the Drudge Report. There’s a photo. Don’t some Republicans still want to send people to prison for this?
Whatever happened to the anthrax terrorist?
Nothing yet. The Seattle blog Orcinus lets us in on why (link via Atrios).
Democrats look very weak in new poll
The defection of white male voters has left the Democratic party perhaps fatally weakened and Bush’s re-election virtually certain if present numbers stand up through next year, a new poll says.
Update: No futures market on terrorism after all
Even Congress, which already had agreed to fund it to the tune of $8 million, has decided that DARPA’s idea that allowing speculators to bet on possible future terrorist events was crackpot. The program now appears to be dead.
|Posted by tbrown at 10:46 AM
July 28, 2003
|To some people, the Middle East is just a big sandbox
Take DARPA, for instance. That’s the acronym for the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. When we last wrote about them, it was to advise you of their wonderful LifeLog project, which would allow the government to follow the “threads” of a person’s life. This was supposed to all be in aid of catching terrorists and making solders’ lives less dangerous, though defense and civil liberties experts both wondered how long it would take before the technology was turned on civilians.
Now DARPA wants to open an online casino (they call it a “futures market”) where speculators can bet on future events in the Middle East. Will the Jordanian monarchy be overthrown? Will Yasser Arafat be assassinated? Put your money down, folks.
The official justification for this latest waste of taxpayer money begins: “Analysts often use prices from various markets as indicators of potential events.”
Translation: We don’t have a clue what’s going to happen over there. Maybe you can help us out.
I know this sounds like a joke, but I don’t think these guys ever joke about anything. If I were a terrorist, though, snapping up a few futures on my next operation might be one way of funding it.
Some members of Congress are not amused, and DARPA is already backpedaling.
|Posted by tbrown at 04:54 PM
|Where are women of Saddam Hussein’s family?
We can’t say for certain. The women of the family Hussein – his two wives and three daughters – led sheltered lives out of the limelight. But in the psycopathic Saddam clan, they were hardly peaceful lives. The husbands of two of the daughters, Raghad and Rana, defected to Jordan in the late 1990s, then were lured back to Iraq, where Saddam’s son, Odai, engineered their slayings.
Unlike the Saddam men, though, neither of Saddam’s wives nor his daughters are on U.S. lists of wanted regime members. They were not part of the regime’s apparatus and from what little we know they don’t appear now to have a lot of ill-gotten money. According to the Washington Post, a relative who saw the daughters in June “he described a life much as Raghad later would describe it: No electricity. Cramped quarters. Uncertainty.”
Though there are gaps and unknowns, there are some interesting tidbits about the women and what they’ve been doing, especially since the war started.
A brief report that originated with a Baghdad newspaper says the U.S. has contacted Saddam’s first wife in hopes of delivering the bodies of her dead sons, Odai and Qusai to her.
So where is she? Reports vary. Some say that after making their way to Syria and being deported back to Iraq, Saddam’s first wife, Sajida Khayrallah, and daughters Raghad, Rana and Hala went to Mosul (where Odai and Qusai were slain) and are under the protection of a tribal chieftain there.
That might fit with this bit of information from the Telegraph in London:
“… one of Saddam’s second cousins has requested the release of the bodies of Odai and Qusai Hussein for burial. Ezzedine Mohamed Hassan al-Majid said he made the request in a letter to US provisional authority administrator L. Paul Bremer…
“Al-Majid said his wife and four children were killed in an attack led by Odai and Qusai, but he still felt obliged to make the request so he could arrange for their burial in the family cemetery in Tikrit, Saddam’s birthplace.”
Another report, however, places Sajida and her daughters in the United Arab Emirates, a small Persian Gulf state.
In June, Sajida and her daughters sought asylum in England, but the British government of Tony Blair, the major U.S. ally in the war, was having none of it.
The Washington Post has a rundown on the activities of Saddam’s daughters, as does this story from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The Post earlier published this profile of Sajida.
Saddam’s second wife – a former flight attendant he apparently married secretly in the late 1980s – is said to be living in Beirut.
That the female side of the dictator’s family seems to have been left with little means of support – while Saddam and his sons were looting the national treasury for billions – provides a window into the larger issue of the role of women in Iraq. Under Saddam, Iraq was a secular society and in the 1970s and 1980s its women were the envy of women in other Arab nations. That began to change with the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in the region following the Iran-Iraq war, and women ultimately were given little role in public life in Iraq.
Now, as the link above notes, there are reports of increasing numbers of sex crimes directed against women during the general breakdown of law in the wake of the war. Also, a report from Human Rights Watch says that in Iraq, "There is a long-standing cultural stigma and shame attached to rape that positions victims as the wrongdoer and too frequently excuses or treats leniently the perpetrator."
Earlier this month, about 90 prominent Iraqi women met in Baghdad to begin developing an approach toward ensuring their rights in whatever government ultimately emerges in their country.
"We were ignored in the past," Ala Talabani, a women's union leader in northern Iraq who headed the constitutional workshop, said. "Now we want the voice of Iraqi women to be heard at all levels."
However, it looks like the women will have to attempt to change not only Iraqi tradition, but perhaps the views of the U.S.-led civilian administration in Iraq qs well. Talabani criticized the U.S. administration for not including more women in the upcoming "transitory governing council" which US overseer Paul Bremer said he will unveil in the next two weeks. "They will be very, very few," she said.
In what might be one small step forward, the coalition government announced yesterday the appointment of a first group of 14 Iraqi women as security guards. The women will be working in the Facilities Protection Services, a 4,500-strong team of Iraqis set up to guard public buildings, including schools, hospitals and power stations. Five US female soldiers trained the 14 women in combat techniques, and how to handle weapons and run checkpoints.
|Posted by tbrown at 12:21 PM
July 25, 2003
|Liberia update: Bush orders troops stationed off Liberian coast
President Bush has ordered an unspecified number of U.S. troops to be stationed aboard ship off the Liberian coast to help peacekeeping troops from other West African nations restore order in war-torn Liberia. The Defense Department earlier ordered the redeployment to the Mediterranean of a three-ship amphibious force carrying 2,000 Marines. These are likely to be the troops who go to Liberia.
"We're deeply concerned that the condition of the Liberian people is getting worse and worse and worse," Bush told reporters in the White House Rose Garden. "Aid can't get to the people. We're worried about the outbreak of disease."
The Bush administration has some serious internal divisions over whether sending Yanks into Liberia is a good idea. Secretary of State Colin Powell – a former general, let’s not forget – says we must because of the humanitarian disaster brewing there. But the Pentagon is worried about the danger to U.S. troops and wants a clear mission – and a strategy for concluding it successfully, something it could have used in Iraq.
|Posted by tbrown at 12:09 PM
|Bush slips, but his support is still solid, plus other poll results from all over
This is a numbers day, and boy do we have them. We’ve rounded up polls from all over – the U.S., Britain, Australia, Iraq even. Remember that any poll is just a snapshot in time, so it makes no sense to dwell much on the numbers in any one poll. What matters is trends.
The president’s numbers are lower, but hardly disastrous
The slide, which pushed Bush back to the popularity levels he registered before the Iraq war, has encouraged Democrats and punctured the sense of inevitability about the president's re-election, analysts said, but hardly delivered a lethal blow to the White House.
It’s still the economy
Where Bush is really getting hurt is not so much on war issues (yet, at least) but on pocketbook questions, where Democrats are now favored by 17 percentage points.
And Bush knows it …
That’s why he’s begun a month-long push to sell his economic plan.
In Britain, it’s Iraq
Briitish Prime Minister Tony Blair has been hurt more by Iraq issues than Bush, a trend compounded by the suicide of a weapons scientist following a parliamentary grilling about his talking to the BBC about whether the Iraq threat was exaggerated.
In the U.S., there has been little change in public attitudes toward the war in the last few weeks, according to a Gallup Poll taken prior to the announcement that Saddam Hussein’s sons had been killed. Support for the war is down substantially from its level during the main fighting, though.
The difference between British and U.S. attitudes may be explained in part by the reality that Americans are amazingly ill-informed about the war. A new poll shows 37 percent think weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq and 22 percent think Iraq actually used WMDs in the fighting.
Aussies feel misled, but still support their government
Two-third of Australians believe their government misled them about the need for war in Iraq. Nonetheless, the government of Prime Minister John Howard has consolidated its lead over the main opposition.
Bring in the U.N.
Seventy percent of Americans think the U.S. should agree to put the Iraq occupation under UN control if it meant other countries would send troops. The poll reflects growing pessimism about the rebuilding of Iraq, but despite these doubts only 9 percent of those polled thought the U.S. should pull out.
What Iraqis think about the war
They’re deeply conflicted about the U.S. occupation and about what form of government will work for them, none of which seems surprising. However, this poll, in particular, should be viewed with some skepticism because after decades of draconian repression Iraqis are only beginning to wrestle with what their nation’s future should look like – and are just beginning to learn how to talk freely about it. Still, it’s interesting reading.
A majority of Americans supports Bush’s Mideast “roadmap”
But far fewer believe it will succeed.
Bush slips among Arab Americans
About one-third of Arab Americans now say they would vote for Bush, down sharply from how they voted in 2000. Another third would vote for the Democratic candidate and the rest are undecided.
44 percent of Americans say Islam promotes violence
This is from a new poll for the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, which finds that, “Religion is a critical factor these days in the public's thinking about contentious policy issues and political matters … The public remains divided over whether churches should stay out of politics, even as large numbers say they are comfortable with expressions of faith by political leaders. There also is evidence that next year's presidential vote may again provoke deep religious divisions over social issues, especially homosexual marriage."
Americans may be ill-informed, but some Germans are hallucinating
“Almost one in three Germans below the age of 30 believes the U.S. government may have sponsored the September 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington, “ this poll says.
If these numbers aren’t enough, here’s where you can get more
The blog site DailyKOS has a regularly updated list of poll results in the right-hand column.
|Posted by tbrown at 11:12 AM
July 24, 2003
|The Valerie Plame affair begins to surface
For the last week, a story has been boiling out here in blog land that the big papers have pretty studiously ignored. The White House press corps has started asking questions, though, so it may see the light of day soon.
The allegation is that two senior administration officials told conservative columnist Robert Novak and Time magazine that Valerie Plame, the wife of former diplomat Joseph Wilson, is a CIA agent. I touched on this matter briefly toward the end of this post. Wilson, you may recall, went to Niger last year at the request of the CIA to look into the allegations that Saddam was trying to by uranium ore for weapons there, reported back that there probably was nothing to it and then, as the political firefight over Bush’s famous 16 words erupted, went public with his story.
David Corn at The Nation wrote the first piece suggesting that this was a potentially felonious smear campaign against Wilson and his wife, who is said to be an expert in weapons of mass destruction. Corn is back this week with a good summary of the situation: “Here's the accusation: to punish Wilson and frighten others, administration officials outed Wilson's wife at the risk of damaging government efforts to track and block the spread of WMDs. Here's the White House reply: well, we don't know anything about it, and we're not looking into it.”
But it is blogger Mark Kleiman who has examined just about every possible explanation. Kleiman has been on fire.
Other sites that have pushed the story along are Kevin Drum’s Calpundit and Bush Wars.
The few conservative sites that have taken note of this matter appear to be reduced to name-calling.
|Posted by tbrown at 03:04 PM
|Hunter Thompson is back -- and it looks like he's right about one thing
Sports is off our usual beaten track at Between the Lines, but we couldn't resist noting that Hunter Thompson of "Fear and Loathing" fame is back at work at ESPN with, he says, a new titanium spine to replace parts of the defective one he was born with. And he's considering taking a close look at the sexual assault allegations against L.A. Lakers star Kobe Bryant
"The more I learn about this case, the more I understand that this is not about Rape at all," Thompson avers. "It is about money, pure money and nothing else. Nobody is going to jail in this case, but some people are going to Pay. The downward spiral of Dumbness in America is about to hit a new low. You thought O.J. was bad? Wait until we get a taste of the K.B. scandal. It will be like a feeding frenzy and a long parade of cannibals."
And it appears Bryant has already started to Pay.
Love him or hate him, the doctor always did have good instincts.
|Posted by tbrown at 02:18 PM
|The photos of Udai and Qusai are out
I’m not linking to them directly because, as with most photos of dead bodies, I don’t think they serve much of a news purpose for Americans, but those who must see them can do so at the CNN web site.
In Iraq, however, the photos do serve a useful function, and here’s why.
The investigative report on 9/11 intelligence lapses also is out
And you can download either the entire 838 pages or individual parts, based on the table of contents.
|Posted by tbrown at 12:26 PM
July 23, 2003
|The 9/11 report will be at least as interesting for what it doesn't say
The Bush administration apparently has classified an entire section of the investigative report on the events leading to the destruction of the New York World Trade Center that deals with Saudi Arabian ties to Al Qaida and other terrorist groups.
This is most unfortunate. The Saudis provide us with oil and generally back our Middle East initiatives (except when they favor Israel, of course). But Saudi businessmen and “charities” have supported Al Qaida and a variety of other terrorist groups with hundreds of millions of dollars in contributions.
A report prepared for the UN Security Council and published last December estimates that Al Qaida sucked up an astonishing 20 percent of Saudi gross domestic product over a decade.
“By mixing religious beliefs, tools and interpretations with financial purposes, without proper regulations and controls, Saudi Arabia opened an avenue for terrorism financing through the traditional Zakat, a legal almsgiving conceived as a way for purification by the Prophet that turned into a financial tool for terrorists,” the report to the Security Council says. “Abusing this pillar of Islam and benefiting from the Saudi regulatory vacuum, al-Qaida was able to receive between $300 million and $500 million over the last ten years from wealthy businessmen and bankers, representing about 20 percent of the Saudi GNP, through a web of charities and companies acting as fronts, witth the notable use of Islamic banking institutions. Most of this backbone is still at large and able to support fundamentalist organizations.”
The Saudi government maintains that it has never knowingly assisted terrorists, which we can hope is true. But until the May bombings of western compounds in Riyadh, the government tolerated radical clerics who preached hate of western values and advocated holy war against them. This, coupled with enormous financial support by individual Saudis for terror groups makes their nation culpable for what happened in New York. It goes without saying that the classified part of the 9/11 report dealing with various Saudis’ unsavory ties was bad news for the Saudi royal family. This investigation, for instance. If the findings were good, they wouldn’t be classified, would they?
In its propaganda push to make Iraq the villain for 9/11 -- though there was never any serious evidence that Saddam Hussein's regime was involved -- the Bush administration succeeded in convincing more than half the American public that most of the hijackers of the four U.S. airliners that day were Iraqis. In fact, none were. Most of the 17 hijackers were Saudis.
The Wahabbi Muslim sect that predominates in Saudi Arabia provided the spiritual inspiration for the Taliban, who harbored Osama bin Laden (also a subscriber to the sect’s precepts). Saudi Arabia, to its credit, did strip bin Laden of his citizenship and sent him into exile. And they have been cracking down on terrorists inside Saudi territory. But the Saudi government has not, until very recent weeks, exhibited much taste for the kind of societal changes that will be necessary to breed more tolerance in Saudi society – and cut off the money pipeline to terrorists.
Here, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd turns a little humor on this sorry situation.
And if you’re interested in facts and figures on Saudi Arabia, here’s what the CIA’s World Factbook has to offer.
Bush: “The former regime is gone and will not be coming back”
In case you missed it, here is video of President Bush’s statement today on the deaths of Saddam Hussein’s sons, Udai and Qusai.
Show us the bodies
Abbas Aljanabi, who served as Udai Hussein's former press secretary for 15 years before defecting, says he feels safe for the first time. Aljanabi says he was tortured nine times by Udai's thugs, including having a tooth jerked from his mouth with pliers.
He says it is important now that Saddam be captured and that Iraqis be given visual proof of Udai and Qusai's deaths -- photos of the bodies.
CNN has the story.
Regardless of some Iraqi skepticism, the U.S. is certain it got its men. It used dental records, x-rays and visual identification by former high-ranking government officials.
More carnage in Liberia
A ceasefire promised by Liberian rebels never materialized. Instead, they're continuing their thrust into the center of the capital city of Liberia, with a key bridge their major objective.
A ceasefire is seen as critical to allow the entry of West African -- and perhaps U.S. -- troops.
Newsweek's Tom Masland has an audio report from Monrovia.
|Posted by tbrown at 12:44 PM
July 22, 2003
|Next stop: Liberia
There may be a bit of good news from Liberia, where the U.S. seems likely to deploy some troops soon as part of a regional effort to halt a bloody civil war there. The good news: the rebel leadership that has been trying to overthrow the government of President Charles Taylor said today that it has ordered a halt in its offensive on the capital. The assault on Monrovia has left an estimated 600 civilians dead in the last few days and has created a situation that a senior Liberian diplomat in Washington calls “very desperate.”
A White House spokesman says President Bush still has not decided whether to send in U.S. troops. Bush has said Taylor must step down as president, as he has said he would do, before the U.S. would commit troops. However, a U.S. amphibious assault group of three ships carrying 2,000 Marines has been redeployed from the Red Sea toward the Mediterranean. Its troops could reach Liberia in a week or 10 days.
There is intense diplomatic pressure on the U.S. to help stem the violence in Liberia and Bush has expressed willingness to “participate in the process.” A regional group, the Economic Community of West African States, has expressed willingness to contribute 1,500 peacekeepers initially, with more to follow later. None have yet arrived, however.
Whether they, or U.S. troops, go to Liberia may depend on the events of the next couple of days. If the rebels keep their word and cease their bloody assault on the city, chances of international intervention will improve; if they do not, other countries may judge it too dangerous to go. It’s one of those Catch 22 things: the more the people of Liberia need outside assistance, the less likely they are to get it.
|Posted by tbrown at 12:04 PM
|Did we get “Wolf” and “Snake”?
There are unconfirmed reports that troops of the 101st Airborne Division killed Saddam Hussein’s two psychopathic sons, Uday and Qusai in a gun battle in the northern Iraqi town of Mosul.
If they are, in fact, dead it might take some steam out of the resistance movement that has killed nearly 40 U.S. troops since President Bush declared that major hostilities in Iraq were over May 1.
Saddam definitely was not among the dead, U.S. sources said.
Saddam’s elder son, Qusay, called himself the Wolf and was seen as heir-apparent to run the regime. Uday, who controlled the security apparatus that kept Saddam in power, was called the Snake. Both were brutal thugs who enjoyed torturing and killing those who crossed them.
Here are some of the accounts of what happened this morning:
The Washinton Post.
Here is a profile of Qusay from the Financial Times of London (free registration required) and a story from Sports Illustrated on Uday's taste for torture.
Update: Among the bodies found in the house of a relative of Saddam after the firefight was that of a teenaged boy believed to have been Qusay's son, Saddam's grandson.
|Posted by tbrown at 09:41 AM
July 21, 2003
|The cost of war
U.S. combat deaths in Iraq have surpassed the Gulf War level.
As of today, here is the death count for Coalition forces in Iraq:
U.S. military deaths:
Killed in action: 152
Non-combat deaths: 79
Number of U.S. troops wounded or injured in Iraq: more than 1,000, many of whom get initial treatment in Germany.
British military deaths:
Killed in action: 20
Non-combat deaths: 33
Estimated Iraqi military deaths: 2,320
Estimated Iraqi civilian deaths: between 6,071 and 7,780.
(The troop numbers come from the U.S. and British militaries, as does the estimate of Iraqi military killed. Iraqi civilian death estimates come from Iraq Body Count, a web site maintained by academics and antiwar activists.)
Monetary cost: $3.9 billion per month to maintain U.S. forces, which now number about 148,000. That works out to about $47 billion per year and includes none of the cost of rebuilding Iraq. Estimates of how long we’ll be in Iraq run from two to 10 years.
Maybe we need the U.N. after all
The U.S. has had very little success recruiting other nations to send in troops so ours can get some needed relief. Should we seek UN peacekeeping aid?
Slate’s military reporter, Fred Kaplan, forcefully argues yes: “It is becoming increasingly clear that, at some point, the United Nations will have to take over the postwar reconstruction of Iraq. The only question is whether Kofi Annan ends up rushing in on his own terms to fill the gaps of a desperately overwhelmed American occupation force—or whether President Bush comes to his senses, realizes that the task is much harder than his advisers had predicted, and admits that he can't manage it by himself. If he reaches this conclusion in six months or a year, it will look like a mortifying retreat; if he does so much sooner, like now, he might still be able to look courageous and wise.”
What’s going right in Iraq
Amir Taheri, a conservative author and Middle East expert, just spent some time in Iraq and reports that, “Neither the wishful thinking of part of the Arab media, long in the pay of Saddam, nor the visceral dislike of part of the Western media for George W. Bush and Tony Blair changes the facts on the ground in Iraq. One fact is that a visitor to Iraq these days never finds anyone who wants Saddam back.”
He notes that the so-called “Sunni triangle,” where most attacks on U.S. troops have been occurring constitutes about 1 percent of Iraqi territory and that elsewhere the U.S. presence is either accepted or welcomed.
"After we have aired our grievances we remember the essential point: Saddam is gone," says Mohsen Saleh, a geologist in Baghdad. "A man who is cured of cancer does not complain about a common cold."
|Posted by tbrown at 11:16 AM
July 18, 2003
|Is David Kelly Britain’s Vince Foster?
You may remember Foster, the friend and deputy White House counsel of Bill Clinton who got embroiled in the so-called Travelgate scandal, became depressed because he felt he’d let the Clintons down, and committed suicide (some flakes on the fringe still insist he was murdered at the order of the White House).
The case of David Kelly, a British microbiologist and former UN weapons inspector, bears some striking similarities to that of Foster.
Kelly became involved in the British side of the argument about whether the U.S. and British governments exaggerated Iraq’s weapons programs in order to justify war. He either was or wasn't (it isn’t clear) the source of a quote in a BBC story that claimed the British government had “sexed up” intelligence on Iraq’s weapons by pressing intelligence chiefs to insert the assertion that Baghdad could use weapons of mass destruction on 45 minutes’ notice.
Because he might have been the source (he did talk to a BBC reporter), Kelly was hauled before a parliamentary committee and grilled, an experience that seems to have left him at least rattled, and perhaps depressed, even though the Defense Ministry said that Kelly had at no point been threatened with suspension or dismissal.
On Thursday, he told his wife he was going for a walk and left his home without a coat though it was raining hard. What appears to be his body was found in a wooded area about five miles from his home. Official identification of the body and an autopsy to determine the cause of death arre scheduled for tomorrow.
Regardless of the official findings, there soon will be one more similarity to the Vince Foster case: a host of conspiracy theories. But I don’t think they’ll be able to blame this one on Bill.
|Posted by tbrown at 03:23 PM
|Could the real Dr. Evil be coming to his “senses”?
Kim Jong-Il, the ruthless, unpredictable and flaky “Dear Leader” of North Korea may have agreed to three-way talks with the U.S. and China to negotiate the deadly dangerous nuclear impasse between Washington and Pyongyang.
A senior Chinese diplomat is in D.C. today to brief U.S. officials on his talks earlier this week with Kim. After months on the sidelines, China is now taking a more assertive stance in trying to establish a negotiations framework that will satisfy both Pyongyang and Washington. The North Koreans had insisted on two-way talks with Washington, while the Bush administrated wanted multilateral negotiations that also would include South Korea and Japan, the two nations most directly threated by the loon in Pyongyang.
How loony is Kim? Earlier this year, he ordered all triplets seized from their parents and placed in a state orphanage because he believed a triplet would attempt to overthrow him. He also has ordered airliners blown up and is such a film freak that he kidnapped South Korea’s most prominent actress and her director husband and forced them to make propaganda films for him until they managed to escape after nine years.
The thought of this guy with nukes is beyond creepy. And he’s moving as quickly as he can to acquire them in significant numbers. South Korean defense officials say the North has deployed another battery of Rodong ballistic missiles capable of hitting targets throughout Japan. The North is believed to have large stocks of chemical and biological weapons as well as perhaps one or two nuclear warheads. China now believes North Korea has enough plutonium to construct more nuclear weapons and this realization may have sparked its diplomatic push.
So an important breakthrough could be in the making if Kim has agreed to modify his stance on negotiations – and if the Bush administration, whose hardliners would just as soon continue squeezing the North in the hopes that it will disintegrate because of its devastated economy, can be coaxed into modifying its position.
The question then will be whether negotiations can accomplish anything enduring.
Kim Duk Hong, a former employee of the North Korean Central Committee, has some disquieting views on this point.
The North Korean leader relies on the support of the army and secretly re-started the country's nuclear program in order to keep them happy, according to Kim Duk Hong.
"If Kim Jong-il gives up nuclear weapons, then he will lose the support of the people in his inner circle of power. Then it's only a matter of time before his leadership collapses," he told the BBC. "The nuclear program is his survival strategy. He'll never give it up, if he says he will and invites the inspectors to watch him destroy his facilities, he will be lying."
There’s already a precedent for that. In 1994, when the Clinton administration was seriously considering bombing the nuclear reactor that the North was using to produce plutonium for weapons, Kim agreed to halt the program in return for economic aid. Instead, as we found out last October, he continued his nuclear weapons program in secret, triggering the current crisis.
The French mania for keeping English words from infiltrating the mother tongue has reached a new level of stupidity. The French government is banning the term “e-mail” from all government ministries, documents, publications and web sites. Instead, French bureaucrats will use the term “courriel,” an amalgamation of "courrier electronique" (electronic mail).
"Evocative, with a very French sound, the word 'courriel' is broadly used in the press and competes advantageously with the borrowed 'mail' in English," the commission decides these things has ruled.
Fortunately, French people are not as out of touch as their government. Marie-Christine Levet, president of French Internet service provider Club Internet, says, "Protecting the language is normal, but e-mail's so assimilated now that no one thinks of it as American. Courriel would just be a new word to launch."
Hey -- while they're at it, why don't they ban the term Internet. Didn't Al Gore invent it?
|Posted by tbrown at 12:49 PM
|A real estate boom sweeps Baghdad
Who would have guessed? There’s a real estate boom in … Baghdad!
Decent houses that used to cost $15,000 to $20,000 are now up to $30,000. In the poshest areas, mansions that used to go for $450,000 now bring up to $1 million.
So says the Baghdad Bulletin, a new twice-monthly English-language news magazine founded by a 22-year-old from Michigan and an English pal.
Real estate agents in the Iraqi capital attribute the boom to several factors: looters who are spending a lot of other people’s money, lifting of the prohibition on Kurds owning property in the capital, and that many of the estimated 800,000 Iraqis who fled because of the Saddam regime are interested in returning.
Stuart Gordon, a Lieutenant Colonel in the British Army and director of operations at the Coalition's Iraqi Assistance Center, has an interesting piece on the challenges involved in restoring Iraq’s infrastructure, which was in pretty bad shape even before much of it was bombed during the war.
If you want a closeup view of what’s happening in the Iraqi capital, this little magazine is a good place to start.
Chaos in Iraqi media
The British Institute for War and Peace Reporting sponsored a study that concludes the U.S. is blowing its chance to establish independent and responsible media in the country.
This would be a challenge under good circumstances, because Iraq hasn’t had a free press and has no local model to base one on (though the Baghdad Bulletin looks pretty good for a brand new publication run by a guy just out of college). Most of the 150 or so newspapers that have been launched since Saddam’s collapse are partisan and political, with little interest in news reporting, which is what the Iraqi people need most.
“Compounding the problem, bitter rivalry between the U.S. State Department and Department of Defence have led to an absence of strategy, bad hiring practises and purchasing, and debilitating internal dispute. TV programming, in particular, has been poor. As a result, the IMN television news (the Coalition TV station) neither provides clear and basic information to the population, nor serves as the flagship fresh face of a new and democratic Iraq,” the institute’s Anthony Borden writes.
Bureaucrats just can’t quit squabbling no matter what’s at stake.
“Three simple wishes: Electricity, water, security”
Baghdad blogger Salam Pax sounds worn out, depressed and cranky in his latest posting, reflecting, no doubt, the mood of many of his fellow citizens. “I was reading some of the stuff I wrote last October,” Pax writes. “I wish I had the rage I had in me then. Now I just feel disappointed … "
His post includes an e-mail from a friend, who wrote “ … I was listening to the coalition broadcasting for the Iraqi people. They ware talking about all low priority stuff like printing "New passports" for Iraqis, Mr. Bremer (Paul Bremer, the U.S. bureaucrat who runs Iraq) attending a Symphony for the Iraqi Symphony group, and such stuff, without any mentioning of the fact that about 5 million people were living under a temperature of 47 degrees (116 degrees Fahrenheit) and
without electricity and water for three days :-/
“You know, I reviewed my ‘dream list’ back then; there was no 'New passports' in it. It just contained three simple wishes: Electricity, Water, and Security.”
Why those 16 words are more dangerous to the Democrats than they are to Bush
I opined the other day that Bush’s famed 16 words about Iraq’s supposed attempt to buy uranium might prove risky for the Democrats if they focus too much energy on them.
Now Mark Steyn, a conservative columnist for Canada’s National Post and the Daily Telegraph in London, has written a piece for The Spectator that draws the same conclusion. It’s entertaining reading, though his contention that Bush will win re-election because of the Democrats’ “descent into madness” may be a bit over the top.
But Bush does have a problem: he keeps making stuff up
Josh Marshall suggests in his Talking Points Memo that Bush sometimes seems like a visitor from another planet because of the increasing disconnect between what he says and the reality most other people experience. As an example, Marshall offers this comment the president made at a press conference with UN Secretary General Kofi Annan:
“The larger point is, and the fundamental question is, did Saddam Hussein have a weapons program? And the answer is, absolutely. And we gave him a chance to allow the inspectors in, and he wouldn't let them in. And, therefore, after a reasonable request, we decided to remove him from power, along with other nations, so as to make sure he was not a threat to the United States and our friends and allies in the region.”
What is he talking about? UN inspectors were in Iraq before the war. The argument was whether giving the inspectors additional time might produce more evidence of weapons of mass destruction.
Marshall concludes that, “The disquieting fact is that these whoppers aren't even getting reported any more because it's become a given among reporters and editors that most of what the president is saying on this subject has little connection to anything that's actually going on. And the two keep diverging more and more. It's almost as if the shakier the evidence gets the more certain he becomes about what the evidence was supposed to prove.”
Go here, and scroll down to “Back in the day …”
|Posted by tbrown at 11:15 AM
July 17, 2003
|Abizaid says they’re guerrillas
Those guys in Iraq who keep attacking our troops (and killing them with distressing frequency) – are they guerrillas, that is members of an organized clandestine military force? Or, as the administration has maintained, are they just Saddamite hangers on taking occasional potshots at our people?
The new head of U.S. Central Command, Gen. John Abizaid, says unequivocally that they’re guerrillas and that we’ll have to deal with them for a while. And when Abizaid talks, people tend to listen. Besides knowing the military side of the equation (he’s had a distinguished 30-year career), Abizaid, the son of Lebanese Christians, speaks fluent Arabic and holds a master’s degree in Middle Eastern studies from Harvard. Even the BBC, which has been under steady fire for anti-American bias, has found some good things to say about him.
Abazaid also seems to be the only straight-talker in this administration (better watch that, general), as these quotes, all linked to source material, demonstrate. A tip of the hat to Billmon at Whiskey Bar for providing them.
OK, so how should we deal with guerrillas?
Mac Owens at the National Review Online has some thoughts on this. A Marine combat veteran in Vietnam, Owens is on leave from the Naval War College while writing a history of relations between the U.S. military and its civilian commanders. This piece was written earlier this month and is slightly dated in minor ways (he refers to a Saddam tape that has been superseded by another one that came to light today and more Americans have been killed since he wrote), but its central points are unaffected.
The real problem in Iraq, Owens writes, is not the short-term challenge of the guerrillas, but the long-term health of the U.S. military, which is stretched thin and tight and is beginning to show it.
He believes the guerrillas are a temporary problem because, “… it is hard to point to a case in which guerrillas were successful without outside support and the existence of a conventional force of some sort. The guerrillas in Iraq lack both. Rooting them out will be a matter of time. Patience is the key.”
Owens also thinks it matters – greatly – that we capture or kill Saddam Hussein because, “Few Iraqis are prepared to cooperate fully with Coalition forces until the Coalition can demonstrate that Saddam no longer poses a threat to them. The capture of Saddam and his monstrous sons is critically important to the stability of postwar Iraq.”
Today’s purported Saddam tape (no one seems to doubt that it’s him, but as usual it’s hard to be certain) underscores Owens’ point.
It calls on Iraqis to resist the new U.S.-backed Iraqi Governing Council, saying, “How can the people benefit from employees named by the foreign occupiers. What can those named by the foreign occupier offer to the people and the nation other than the will of the occupier.”
The tape also accused President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair of tricking their own people to justify the war in Iraq. “What will they say to their people and to mankind. What will the chorus of lies say to those that backed them?”
But where is Saddam?
Good question. The general assumption seems to be that he’s hiding out somewhere in the so-called “Sunni triangle” northeast of Baghdad. The Israeli site DEBKAfile has a detailed – and, we must say, somewhat tortured – explanation of his whereabouts and why the U.S. hasn’t gone there and captured him. According to Debka, Saddam has taken refuge in a network of underground bunkers near Samara – and is armed with some of those weapons of mass destruction that we’ve been unable to find.
Now, about those 16 words
We have five words of our own: What … is … going … on … here?! The story just keeps getting stranger.
The Washington Post reports today that CIA chief George Tenet told Intelligence Committee members that he was unaware of the dubious allegation that Iraq bought uranium for nuclear weapons from Niger until after President Bush gave his State of the Union speech. Yes, that’s what he said. He didn’t know about it.
Tenet said he took responsibility for the allegation appearing in Bush’s speech because a deputy had approved it after negotiations with the White House, which, AP reports, insisted on including it. White House spokesman Scott McClellen says the charge that the White House insisted on including it is “nonsense.”
Then there is a nearly unbelievable story from David Corn in The Nation in which we learn that the Bush administration seems to have deliberately blown the cover of a CIA agent in order to get even with former ambassador Joseph Wilson. He’s the guy who went to Niger, at the request of the CIA, to look into reports that Saddam was trying to buy uranium there, decided they were untrue, told the CIA that and, as the celebrated 16 words were becoming an issue, leaked the information to the Washington Post before eventually going public with it. The CIA agent was Wilson’s wife.
Her career (she’s an agency expert on WMDs) is no doubt finished now, and you have to wonder who among her sources may have been exposed to danger by this cynical – and illegal – act. But never mind. Other intelligence agents presumably will understand the administration’s message that they’d best keep their mouths shut. Mission accomplished.
Update: Time has weighed in with its version of the outing of Wilson's wife. (Thanks to Counterspin Central and History News Network for the link.)
Forgotten wars will come later
I was going to write about forgotten wars today, but got overrun by events. I’ll pick it up later. Until then, ever heard of Aceh? How about Burundi?
|Posted by tbrown at 12:03 PM
July 16, 2003
|Photos paint the portrait of the new Iraq
Since the war in Iraq began, photojournalists have taken a huge number of memorable photographs. And there’s no doubt that photos usually convey a much clearer sense of what things are like than words, which are usually being devoted to such nonvisual topics as politics, policy and generalized descriptions of conditions. Photos, in contrast, are specific and concrete.
The Washington Post has collected the works of two dozen photographers, many of them from other newspapers, in its Eyes on the War gallery. Each set of photos is accompanied by an audio report by the photographer explaining some aspect of their experience in Iraq. The Post’s On Assignment archives include a number of other slide shows on Iraq.
On this page, the New York Times has the audio Iraq Journal of John F. Burns, who provided some of the best reporting from the Iraqi capital during the war, with photos by Tyler Hicks. There are several other slide shows in The War in Pictures.
The Nandotimes site, one of the first major internet ventures by a newspaper (the Raleigh News & Observer), has been largely gutted. It does, however, still host an Iraq photo gallery.
Good viewing and listening here.
It’s only money
“A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you're talking about real money.”
-- Everett Dirksen, the late Republican senator from Illinois
I wonder what old Ev would have said about this.
This is $6,517.54 for each of the 291,521,255 Americans alive today. Or, for a family of:
-- Two: $13,035.07
-- Three: $19,522.59
-- Four: $26,070.16
One way or another it will come out of our collective hides. And it may be worse. Remember that the administration said in February that this year’s deficit would be a little over $300 billion, compared with the $455 billion now forecast. That's a 50 percent increase in five months.
I note that this is the 40th birthday of Valium. I think I need some.
The cost of going it alone
Last week, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said the U.S. 3rd Infantry Division, which along with the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force bore the brunt of much of the hardest fighting during the war and captured Baghdad, would be returning home soon: one brigade in July, one in August, one in September.
Well, forget that.
The continuing deadly attacks on U.S. troops seem to have convinced the Pentagon that more are needed, not fewer.
Then there’s the simple fact that troops from other nations, which the U.S. had been counting on to provide some relief for our Joes and Janes, just aren’t coming through in really significant numbers. Few other nations capable of sending large numbers of troops are going to do so until either an interim Iraqi government asks for them or the United Nations requests them. Even under a UN mandate, the French and Germans, who opposed the war bitterly, might not send large numbers of troops unless they were granted considerable say in how postwar Iraq is run. India, however, had been considering sending a full division of 17,000 men. Now it, too, has backed out.
Update: Gen. John Abizaid, the new head of U.S. Central Command, said at a briefing today that describing the 3rd Infantry Division's stay in Iraq as "indefinite" was an exaggeration. "We will bring those troops home by September, certainly out of Iraq by September, and they'll be moving towards home in September," he said. Still sounds like a delay, but perhaps not as lengthy as previous Army statements had suggested.
|Posted by tbrown at 11:19 AM
July 15, 2003
|“We know it is not a real government, but it is a start”
Baghdad blogger Salam Pax, who provided the world with insights into daily life in the Iraqi capital during the war, is excited that the country has a new provisional government, even if it doesn’t have much power.
“I am happy, we all are,” he writes in a column today in The Guardian. “The general sentiment is: ‘Yes, of course we know it is not a real government, but it is a start.’ The mix is right; they just have to work more on the choice of characters, and they need a massive PR campaign. People just don't know who they are, especially the women.”
Getting to see his own government in action wasn’t easy, though: “ … true to the ways of the new Iraq, Iraqis were second-rank; I had to be with a foreigner to see my new government's first press conference. “
Outside, the electricity was out again, gas lines were longer than ever and the streets were unsafe after 9 p.m. But even that didn’t seem so bad. “Today is the date the monarchy was overthrown,” Pax says. “And both the monarchists and the communists decided to commemorate it in their own way. The communists had a huge march with commie songs that haven't been sung in 35 years, and the monarchists had a memorial service for the people killed on that day for the first time in 40 years. Neither event could have taken place four months ago; now they take place a couple of kilometres apart. I sang with the communists and shook hands with the monarchists; it is not about the politics these days, it is about saying what you couldn't say for decades.”
Another military blogger in Baghdad
Take a look at turningtables, a blog by Sgt. Sean, a U.S. soldier in Baghdad. He takes a distinctly different tone than L.T. Smash, who we mention here from time to time. Sean also has a photo site with digital snaps he’s taken of some of the places he’s been.
|Posted by tbrown at 12:59 PM
|North Korea: near the tipping point
The U.S. nuclear standoff with North Korea seems to be nearing one of those points where things could either improve or degenerate very quickly. There are several major new developments, which we've pulled together here from a variety of sources.
-- There is now physical evidence that North Korea, as it has claimed, is reprocessing spent fuel rods from a nuclear reactor to extract plutonium necessary for the nuclear weapons it wants to build. Once the plutonium is available, weapons construction could proceed at the rate of about one a month, nuclear experts estimate. The Koreans have told the Bush administration that they now have enough plutonium for a half-dozen weapons and plan to move quickly to build them. North Korea has already conducted about 70 tests of the specialized high explosives necessary to trigger a nuclear blast.
-- The U.S. is working on a new war plan for North Korea that, according to some Bush administration officials who oppose it, dangerously blurs the line between war and peace. "Elements of the draft, known as Operations Plan 5030, are so aggressive that they could provoke a war, some senior Bush administration officials tell U.S. News,” which broke the story. “ … Some officials believe the draft plan amounts to a strategy to topple Kim's regime by destabilizing its military forces. The reason: It is being pushed by many of the same administration hard-liners who advocated regime change in Iraq.”
-- Ten countries have offered their support for a U.S. initiative to clamp down on North Korean shipments of weapons to other countries, including possible interception of ships at sea after two days of talks in Australia. The other countries are Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Spain and the United Kingdom. Though they’re going along for the ride so far, South Korea and Japan – both of which are within range of North Korea’s existing rockets – have expressed concern about the aggressive U.S. approach to the crisis.
-- China, North Korea’s huge neighbor and one of its few supporters, could hold the key to a peaceful outcome. So far, China has been reluctant to lean too heavily on the North, fearing, among other things, a flood of starving North Korean refugees if the government of Kim Jong-Il collapses. But in recent weeks, Bejing also has shown signs of increasing concern about the course of events. Now, the Financial Times (free registration required) reports that, “Kim discussed ‘issues of mutual concern’ with Dai Bingguo, a vice-foreign minister, and received a letter from Hu Jintao, China's president. The talks mark Mr. Kim's most public act of diplomacy since the dispute over North Korea's nuclear activities first flared last October.”
The Chinese government has supported Washington's efforts to coax North Korea into multilateral talks, involving the US, China, South Korea, Japan and possibly Russia. Could the Chinese mission to Pyongyang signal a breakthrough?
Let's hope so. Former Defense Secretary William Perry fears that we're about to lose control of the situation in Northeast Asia and could face a war there as early as this year. The situation is so dangerous, he believes, that a consequence could be the sale of a nuclear weapon to a terrorist organization, which might try to detonate it in an American city.
Big Brother update: TIA may be killed by Congress; LifeLog revamped by Pentagon
Last week, we wrote about the government’s amazingly ambitious programs to develop tools to allow it to spy on anyone.
Now comes news that Congress may be about to kill funding for the so-called Terrorist Information Awarness (a.k.a. Total Information Awareness) system.
In addition, the Pentagon has revamped its LifeLog project in response to growing privacy concerns.
A limerick for our times
There was a young lady from Niger,
Who smiled as she rode on a tiger.
After the ride
She was inside,
And the smile was on the face of the tiger.
|Posted by tbrown at 10:32 AM
July 14, 2003
|Too much ado about 16 words?
Yes, says Robert Bartley, editor emeritus of the Wall Street Journal editorial page, and he makes a point that Democrats might want to remember: The British government still stands behind its statement that it has evidence beyond the forged Niger documents that Saddam Hussein tried to buy uranium ore in Africa. (And the government of Tony Blair is undergoing its own firestorm on this point.)
The real question for the Democrats is not the veracity of this one sentence, but whether they can demonstrate that the Bush administration led the nation into an unnecessary war through a pattern of deception. The further out they climb on this spindly little 16-word limb the harder they're going to fall when it gets sawed off behind them.
|Posted by tbrown at 02:27 PM
|A smoking gun?
The Bush administration has been taking a pounding for the president’s assertion that Iraq tried to buy refined uranium ore from the African nation of Niger. No such evidence has been produced. Nor has there been any detailed evidence of weapons of mass destruction of any kind. This is a major problem, since a supposedly imminent threat to U.S. security was the major justification for war.
Similarly, the Bush administration worked tirelessly to associate the regime of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein with the attack on the New York World Trade Center. It was so successful that polls soon showed a majority of Americans believed that most of the airliner hijackers were Iraqis when, in fact, none were (most were citizens of our “friend,” Saudi Arabia). And the administration has never produced any evidence that Iraq was involved. Yet, at least.
Now there is a straw in the wind that may retrospectively prove helpful to the administration on the al Qaida front.
Glenn Reynolds of Instapundit spotted this piece by Gilbert Merritt, a federal appeals court judge who is in Iraq helping to reestablish the Iraqi legal system. In it, Merritt describes how he came into possession of a list of 600 Iraqi officials, published some time ago in one of Saddam’s newspapers. Among the names was that of a liason to Pakistan whose job apparently was to maintain contact with al Qaida.
Reynolds is an unabashed supporter of the war and Bush, so obviously he hopes this turns out to be true. But it’s also true that the judge is a Democrat and a friend of Al Gore and that until he saw the list was a skeptic about contacts between Iraq and al Qaida.
The one odd and unexplained thing about the list was that it included this preface: ''This is a list of the henchmen of the regime. Our hands will reach them sooner or later. Woe unto them.'' Huh? This list was published in a newspaper controlled by one of Saddam’s sons. So it’s quite unclear why the preface was included or what its significance was. An account is here.
Nonetheless it’s an interesting development in the debate over whether Saddam and Osama had a continuing relationship rather than occasional contact.
Judge Merritt, meanwhile, has been slapped with a gag order by the U.S. occupational authority in Iraq, which he says he’ll obey till he gets home. "Liberation" has its limits, after all.
Finally: some funny computer error messages
If you spend much time on the Web, you’re bound to be familiar with those annoying “The page cannot be displayed” errors, also known as 404 errors. But even they have creative possibilities. Check out this one and this one.
Here the author of these pages explains what he did.
He works at an adverse drug-reaction monitoring center in the U.K and maintains this site, which those of you in the medical profession might find interesting.
And does he plan any more of these? An e-mail brought this response:
"I'm not ruling it out, but I think I would prefer to do something else
instead next time. :-)
|Posted by tbrown at 10:25 AM
July 11, 2003
|The official 9/11 report: A hot issue for the Bush administration?
The official report by the panel investigating the attack on the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, will be available in the next couple of weeks, and the 800-page tome is likely to refocus public attention on the event and whether it could have been prevented. This could be a problem for the Bush administration.
So far, little specific information has emerged about the report’s findings, but a Democratic former member of the House Intelligence Committee, who has read it, says parts will be “highly explosive” (a tacky choice of words, but one which no doubt reflects Democrats' hopes).
In this Knight Ridder story, one unnamed source supposedly familiar with the content of the report suggests there are two “sensitive areas” that are likely to make headlines.
One is a narrative section on intelligence warnings about Al Qaida intentions: “The report will show that top Bush administration officials were warned in the summer of 2001 that the al-Qaida terrorist network had plans to hijack aircraft and launch a ‘spectacular attack.’ “
The other is a section with new information about ties between the Saudi royal family, Saudi government officials and terrorists.
Some of this information has been written about, as in this report from last fall. But the commission’s report will carry weight that earlier, piecemeal reports lacked. Clearly concerned, the Bush administration has insisted on classifying portions of the investigative record that others think should be released.
In addition, members of the investigative panel have criticized the Pentagon for being particularly unhelpful in providing needed information. The also have suggested that the administration is trying to intimidate government officials called to testify before the investigative commission by sending "minders" to listen to their testimony.
One reader thought I took a cheap shot at Republicans by noting that the same folks who pushed through a dividend-tax cut for the wealthy now want to lower pay allowances for GI’s who’re getting shot at in Iraq.
“Remember that nine of the twelve richest members of the United States Senate are Democrats,” he wrote. “A December 18, 2002, Washington Times editorial reports that donors giving ‘small and medium amounts’ in 2002 overwhelmingly supported the GOP, while ‘rich or deep-pocketed givers’ hugely backed the Democrats!
“Those giving $200 to $999: GOP $68 million; Democrats $44 million. Those giving $1,000 to $9,999: GOP $317 million; Democrats $307 million. The "fabulously wealthy" donors of $10,000+ gave $111 million to the GOP – a whopping $29 million less than the $140 million they lavished on the Democrats!
“Among those who gave $100,000+, the Democrats raised $72 million – more than double the $34 million the GOP took.
“The fact is that in the 2002 election cycle, those who gave a million dollars or more poured $36 million into the Democrat coffers, and a paltry $3 million into the pockets of the GOP. Again: millionaire donations went Democrat by a 12:1 margin! The two parties took in about the same amount overall – GOP: $384 million; Democrats: $350 million.
“In addition, the GOP attracted 40% more individual donors! (George W. Bush set an all-time fund-raising record by collecting the most money from one-thousand-dollar donors in the history of presidential politics.) Far more people giving small amounts exist as contributors to the Republican Party - while Democrats skunked the GOP among the super-rich.”
On the other hand, Gary Thurston of Bellevue, had this to say about the same item:
“Great Article. I just love how the Republicans really know how to give themselves a tax break ... but bitch and moan when it comes to the little guy. Please forward your article to Crossfire or something. People need to open their eyes to what this administration is really doing: Screwing the little guys.”
And if you want to hear what one of those directly affected -- a military wife -- thinks of it, click here and check out "Our government at work."
The official account of the ambush of the 509th Maintenance Company
One of the deadliest, and most celebrated, incidents of the Iraq War was the ambush of troops of the the 509th Maintenance Company, in which 11 U.S. soldiers were killed and six, including the still hospitalized Pvt. Jessica Lynch, were captured.
The Pentagon has now released a report of its official investigation into the incident. Its key finding: “The element of the 507th Maintenance Company that bravely fought through An Nasiriyah found itself in a desperate situation due to a navigational error caused by the combined effects of the operational pace, acute fatigue, isolation and the harsh environmental conditions.”
Here is an AP video summary of the findings (Windows Media Player or RealOne Player required and broadband connection desirable).
And here is the text of the report (Acrobat Reader required).
|Posted by tbrown at 09:45 AM
July 10, 2003
|Forget “1984.” For Orwellian spookiness, 2004 promises to set new standards
There’s been a spate of news about various government initiatives that could be used to turn the land of the free into the full-surveillance society, where everyone would be under the eye, and perhaps the thumb, of government. Now, the Pentagon is working on new technology that could pull together information from its proliferating snooping and analysis programs in chilling ways.
Naturally, this is all being done in the name of good intentions. It’s supposed to make our troops safer on the battlefield and to make it harder for terrorists to operate in the U.S. or against our interests elsewhere. Who could disagree with that? But it is inevitable that once these tools exist they’ll be turned on the U.S. citizenry at large – and it’s not just me who thinks so, as we’ll see.
Noah Shachtman, who runs the Defensetech.org site that has led the way in reporting on some of this technology long before the establishment press caught on, has a highly readable piece in the Village Voice on the newest program, Combat Zones That See (or CTS), which is expected to be operating on a trial basis next year.
"Its architects at the Pentagon say it will help protect our troops in cities like Baghdad, where for the past few weeks fleeting attackers have been picking off American fighters in ones and twos," Shactman writes. "But defense experts believe the surveillance effort has a second, more sinister, purpose: to keep entire cities under an omnipresent, unblinking eye. This isn't some science fiction nightmare. Far from it. CTS depends on parts you could get, in a pinch, at Kmart."
But before clicking over to Shachtman's piece, let’s review some of the government’s other projects that CTS could draw on – and some equally creepy developments in Europe that you most likely haven’t heard about.
Total Information Awareness is a massive Pentagon database that integrates every piece of “transactional” information about individuals that is legally available to the government from public records, with court orders or under “emergency” orders from the U.S. attorney general’s office. These days, that includes bank, travel and medical records, cell and landline phone records, every piece of e-mail sent or received, credit card purchases, web sites visited and just about anything else that an imaginative government snoop might dream up. The Patriot Act and Patriot II pave the way for making collection of all this information ever simpler legally, and ever more threatening to basic civil liberties, as James Bovard details at Pat Buchanan’s site, The American Conservative.
Total Information Awareness caused enough of a stink when it came to light that its parent, the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), changed the program’s name to Terrorist Information Awareness. DARPA’s recent report to Congress has a useful FAQ page, but its soothing answers to concerns about civil liberties are scarcely convincing, coming from a government whose agencies have periodically and with impunity illegally spied on ordinary Americans.
LifeLog, another DARPA project, would expand exponentially on TIA. As Shachtman explained in this piece for Wired, all the information from TIA could be combined with other useful intelligence “gleaned from a variety of sources: a GPS transmitter to keep tabs on where that person went, audio-visual sensors to capture what he or she sees or says, and biomedical monitors to keep track of the individual's health. This gigantic amalgamation of personal information could then be used to ‘trace the “threads” of an individual's life,’ to see exactly how a relationship or events developed… “
According to DARPA, someone with access to the database could "retrieve a specific thread of past transactions, or recall an experience from a few seconds ago or from many years earlier ... by using a search-engine interface."
And, yes, they are serious. Here is DARPA’s notice to potential contractors.
Things are no better across the pond, where European governments are on a surveillance binge of their own. First, let’s drop in on Paris, the capital of what the administration snidely calls “Old Europe” – and where, surprise!, a U.S. delegation recently visited to work with our erstwhile adversaries, the French, on developing standards for new passports incorporating computer chips containing the bearer’s “biometric” data – fingerprints, an iris scan and the like. The objective is to get these adopted by all members of the so-called G8 nations, which besides us and the French include Germany, the United Kingdom, Japan, Italy, Canada and Russia. If you renew your passport in 2005, you’ll probably receive one of these (but only after paying a fee that no doubt will be considerably stiffer than the current $55).
Now off to London, where you would hope things might be better. Sadly, no. The BBC reports that, “Police and other officials are making around a million requests for access to data held by net and telephone companies each year, according to figures compiled from the government, legal experts and the internet industry.”
The British government also wants to make those new high-tech passports serve as mandatory national identity cards.
Back here in the U.S., the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators -- representing the friendly folks from the DMV -- is pushing hard for the authority to include biometric data on your driver’s license – so it can be used as a national identity card.
Shouldn't Americans raise more hell about all this?
Note: With all this spying, we’re clearly going to need a lot more computer storage. So, coming soon is the petabyte-size hard drive. If you’re wondering, a petabyte is 1,125,899,906,842,624 bytes. Talk about hard-drive clutter!
An Iraqi woman is now blogging from Basra
Ishtar talking is a new blog by an Iraqi woman. She writes in Arabic, with translations on the same page by Salam Pax, the well-known Baghdad blogger. Her postings give some insight into everyday life in Iraq's second-largest city.
Could this be our next president?
A report that U.S. computerized voting software may have serious security flaws led Billmon at Whiskey Bar to offer this tongue-in-cheek prediction.
|Posted by tbrown at 09:30 AM
July 09, 2003
|Will Iran’s protesters force a regime change?
Today is the fourth anniversary of tumultuous street demonstrations in Iran and the theocratic regime there has cracked down in recent days to prevent a recurrence. At least 4,000 people, and probably many more, have been arrested. Andrew Sullivan suggested a while back that web loggers recognize today’s anniversary by writing about Iran. There’s plenty going on there, so here’s our bit.
At the National Review Online, Pooya Dayanim writes that, “It may not be tomorrow, but soon this evil regime will join the other evil regimes in the dustbin of history. Judgment Day will come.”
Lady Sun, an Iranian blogger, makes it clear that today is, indeed, not the day. She paints a picture of apathy and fear in Teheran on the eve of the anniversary. See her posting, “Angry, angry, angry” (but not if you’re shy about scatalogical language).
Also at NRO, Hussain Hindawi and John R. Thomson detail the mullahs’ attempts to come up with a coherent policy toward U.S.-occupied Iraq.
More ominously, Iran continues to push ahead with what appears to be a nuclear weapons program and with the missiles capable of delivering warheads to Israel or U.S. forces in Iraq.
The New York Times reports that the Iranians have performed the final tests before deployment on a missile with a range of 806 to 930 miles. And the UN’s chief nuclear watchdog, Mohammed ElBaradei, is in Teheran today to urge the Iranian government to submit to tougher inspections of its nuclear facilities. This could be critical in the months ahead, as the Bush administration has said more than once that it will not tolerate a nuclear-armed Iran, at least under the present regime.
North Korea moves closer to producing atomic weapons
South Korean intelligence officials say North Korea may have reprocessed some of its 8,000 used nuclear fuel rods to extract plutonium for nuclear weapons. The North has boasted that it reprocessed the rods, but until now there has been no good intelligence that it actually had done so.
South Korea’s intelligence chief also says North Korea has conducted more than 70 tests of the specialized high explosives that are used to compress the plutonium core of a weapon to critical mass and trigger the nuclear chain reaction that gives such weapons their destructive power.
The U.S. is seeking to encourage North Korea to halt its nuclear program through diplomacy and economic pressure – including a crackdown on the North’s main sources of foreign revenue, its missile and nuclear technology and its illegal drug exports. So far, the result has been a lot of bellicose rhetoric from North Korea and no visible progress on the nuclear question.
The U.S. and North Korea continue to discuss other issues, however, including access to a handful of American troops who defected to the North since the Korean War.
|Posted by tbrown at 09:55 AM
July 08, 2003
|Thanks, guys – here’s a pay cut
The fighting in Iraq is supposed to be over, though U.S. troops continue to be killed at the rate of one a day or so. The sporadic, but often deadly attacks by Iraqis, the stifling heat of the desert summer and the pervasive sense that the U.S. occupation is an open-ended mess have driven morale into the basement.
"Make no mistake, the level of morale for most soldiers that I've seen has hit rock bottom," an officer from the Army's 3rd Infantry Division in Iraq told the Christian Science Monitor.
Soldiers miss their families and many, especially in the enlisted ranks, are suffering financial hardships.
So now come the Bush administration’s military appropriations proposals, which the Army Times dismisses as “Nothing but lip service.” The administration, the Times reports:
-- Opposes doubling the present $6,000 gratuity paid to the families of troops who die on active duty.
-- Wants to roll back “recent modest increases in monthly imminent-danger pay (from $225 to $150) and family-separation allowance (from $250 to $100) for troops getting shot at in combat zones.”
-- Along with Republican leaders in Congress just can’t seem to get around to some very modest tax-relief proposals for military personnel (these are the same people, you’ll recall, who fell all over themselves cutting taxes on stock dividends, with the vast bulk of those savings going to people who don’t need it).
Just a matter of priorities, I guess.
Is a guerrilla war beginning?
The administration has been dismissing the Iraqi attacks on coalition troops as the work of small pockets of “deadenders” – remnants of the ousted government of Saddam Hussein.
But today, the Washington Post’s Thomas Ricks and Rajiv Chandrasekaran weigh in with a story that asserts, “The new approaches employed in the Iraqi attacks last week are provoking concern among some that what once was seen as a mopping-up operation against the dying remnants of a deposed government is instead becoming a widening battle against a growing and organized force that could keep tens of thousands of U.S. troops busy for months.” It is detailed and disturbing.
"No one wants to go home a loser"
L.T. Smash, the anonymous Army officer who blogs from Iraq (and blogs real well, I might add), gives a professional military man's view of conditions and morale.
The reemergence of Saddam Hussein via audiotape has prompted Billmon at the Whiskey Bar blog to compile the utterances of various administration officials about the former Iraqi dictator. Interesting reading.
|Posted by tbrown at 11:30 AM
July 07, 2003
|One more mess we don’t need -- but may not be able to avoid
It’s an oft-repeated fiction that Liberia was founded by freed U.S. slaves. In fact, it can be argued that Liberia was the first U.S. colony – a convenient place to send freed slaves so we wouldn’t have to worry about integrating them into society. Though some freed blacks at the time (this was circa 1820) wondered why they should leave the country where they, and in some cases a couple of generations of ancestors, had been born, some 13,000 did emigrate to Liberia by 1867 and became its ruling caste, though they numbered no more than 5 percent of the population. So, yes, we have a long relationship with this beleagured little country in West Africa.
But does that mean we need to send a couple of thousand Marines there now as “peacekeepers” to help clean up the disastrous mess left by more than a decade of civil bloodshed? Such an intervention appears likely, and perhaps inevitable. A U.S. military assessment team is in Monrovia, the Liberian capital, right now.
There is no doubt that the country is in desperate straits; Liberia is a fair representation of the term humanitarian disaster. Some 200,000 people have died in 13 years of civil war, another million (out of a population of 3.5 million) are said to have fled their homes. The country is beset by illness and in some places starvation. President Bush is under considerable international pressure to do something about it as he embarks tomorrow on the first African trip of his presidency.
But before we rush over there, we ought to ask ourselves a couple of questions:
-- Is Liberia in any way central to our national interests? It's not in any strategic or resource sense. But it may be in a moral sense, as Philip Gourevitch argues in The New Yorker.
-- What can we realistically accomplish to actually improve the lives of Liberians? This question is far more difficult to answer, but our record in two other devastated societies where we’re now deeply engaged – Afghanistan and Iraq – is not promising.
The current president of Liberia, Charles Taylor, an accused war criminal, has cleverly suggested that he will step down and accept asylum offered in Nigeria, but only if the transition is “orderly” (a word rarely mentioned in the same sentence with Liberia), with U.S. peacekeepers on hand. If the U.S. accepts this precondition, any troops we send will be, in effect, propping up the tottering, violent and utterly corrupt Taylor administration.
As AfricaPundit notes, “ … Taylor won't leave power easily. He's proven time and time again that he will do or say anything to remain in Monrovia. Therefore, a UN mission to enforce a ceasefire will only buy time for Taylor and further establish him as an authority who must be negotiated with... Don't be fooled: Taylor will negotiate forever, but he'll never agree to leave power.”
So far, the White House is saying that no troops will be sent as long asTaylor remains. Even if Marines are dispatched after a Taylor departure, their stay should be as brief and as focused as we can make it. With fully one-third of U.S. ground forces tied down in Iraq and Afghanistan, there’s a limit to how many more open-ended commitments we can make. But the woman the U.S. favors as the potential new president of Liberia has already said peacekeepers will be needed for at least two years.
|Posted by tbrown at 01:12 PM
|| July 2006