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September 30, 2006
Mike Ford: Occasional Works (Pt. Three)
Posted by Jim Macdonald at 11:17 PM * 4 comments

Okay, can’t leave that Particle alone …

English is the noise made by people who don’t believe you can use language but want your stuff handed over politely.

English is what happens when you can’t decide whether the Greeks or the Romans had the better civilization, so you ask everybody they ever beat up on to sort it out.

English is a language in which up has forty-seven dictionary definitions but antidisestablishmentarianism is considered a “hard word.”

English is a text parser’s way of getting faster processors built.

English is the inevitable result of repressing the gender of nouns.

English is ideographic, but it’s sneaky about it.

English was created to be the language of international air traffic control, but it got bored waiting.

English is the “universal Martian” used for interplanetary ditching instructions.

English is a tale told by an extremely clever and inventive idiot.

(Continue reading Mike Ford: Occasional Works (Part Three))


“In Case I Disappear”
Posted by Patrick at 11:01 PM *

By William Rivers Pitt:

Underneath all this is the definition of “enemy combatant” that has been established by this legislation. An “enemy combatant” is now no longer just someone captured “during an armed conflict” against our forces. Thanks to this legislation, George W. Bush is now able to designate as an “enemy combatant” anyone who has “purposefully and materially supported hostilities against the United States.”

Consider that language a moment. “Purposefully and materially supported hostilities against the United States” is in the eye of the beholder, and this administration has proven itself to be astonishingly impatient with criticism of any kind. The broad powers given to Bush by this legislation allow him to capture, indefinitely detain, and refuse a hearing to any American citizen who speaks out against Iraq or any other part of the so-called “War on Terror.”

If you write a letter to the editor attacking Bush, you could be deemed as purposefully and materially supporting hostilities against the United States. If you organize or join a public demonstration against Iraq, or against the administration, the same designation could befall you. One dark-comedy aspect of the legislation is that senators or House members who publicly disagree with Bush, criticize him, or organize investigations into his dealings could be placed under the same designation. In effect, Congress just gave Bush the power to lock them up.

By writing this essay, I could be deemed an “enemy combatant.” It’s that simple, and very soon, it will be the law. I always laughed when people told me to be careful. I’m not laughing anymore.

In case I disappear, remember this. America is an idea, a dream, and that is all. We have borders and armies and citizens and commerce and industry, but all this merely makes us like every other nation on this Earth. What separates us is the idea, the simple idea, that life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are our organizing principles. We can think as we please, speak as we please, write as we please, worship as we please, go where we please. We are protected from the kinds of tyranny that inspired our creation as a nation in the first place.

That was the idea. That was the dream. It may all be over now, but once upon a time, it existed. No good idea ever truly dies. The dream was here, and so was I, and so were you.

(Thanks to Soren de Selby and Bruce Adelsohn.)

American tune
Posted by Patrick at 04:08 PM *

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs and trunkless legs of stone
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned. From her beacon-hand
Which yet survives, stamp’d on these lifeless things,
Half sunk, a shatter’d visage lies, cries she
With silent lips: “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,”
Nothing beside remains: round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

(—Avram Grumer, from comments)

Here goes
Posted by Patrick at 11:01 AM *

We’re going to upgrade Movable Type today. Wish us luck.

Don’t be surprised if for brief periods the entire site is in Chinese.

September 29, 2006
Rumsfeld: Man of War
Posted by Jim Macdonald at 12:36 PM * 103 comments

(CNN) — Donald Rumsfeld’s Iraqi war plan worked beautifully for three weeks. U.S. troops quickly deposed Saddam Hussein and captured Baghdad with a relatively small force and with lightning speed.

But with Iraq on the verge of civil war three years later, the secretary of defense now admits that no one was well-prepared for what would happen after major combat ended.

“Well, I think that anyone who looks at it with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight has to say that there was not an anticipation that the level of insurgency would be anything approximating what it is,” Rumsfeld told CNN for the documentary, “CNN Presents Rumsfeld — Man of War,” which debuts Saturday at 8 p.m. ET.

“20/20 hindsight” indeed. This from the man who reportedly said “I’ll fire the next guy who asks about a post-war plan.” This from the man who actually did fire a guy (General Shinseki) who correctly predicted the problems ahead.

Maybe Donnie Rumsfeld didn’t anticipate this insurgency, but a whole lot of other people did. Remember back before the invasion when a guy named de Genova predicted “a hundred Mogadishus” in Iraq? Remember how he was excoriated by the right-wingers?

18 American troops died in Mogadishu, 3-4 October, 1993. So far we’ve lost 2,710 US troopers dead in Iraq. That’s 150 Mogadishus and counting, Mr. Rumsfeld. Don’t you dare talk about how no one anticipated this level of insurgency.

It was predicted. Rumsfeld just chose not to listen.

Mike Ford: Occasional Works (Pt. Two)
Posted by Jim Macdonald at 12:30 AM * 14 comments

Had the previous message been necessary for a science-fiction story, it would properly have been constructed thus:

“Flash, Dr. Zarkov has begun acting … strangely!”
“How so, Dale?”
“He didn’t look down my dress as I passed the Particle Chamber.”
“That is odd. Perhaps … no, we dare not suppose …”
“Suppose what, Flash?”
“That the Venusian burrito the Doctor consumed at Grgl’s Space Cantina contained … beanons!”
“You mean …”
“Indeed I do, Dale. As you already know, beanons are a variant form created by the Venusians after they developed space travel, in order to reduce … methane. But somehow — perhaps due to the color-blindness, or ‘Daltonism’ —”
“Hurry, Flash!”
“You’re right, I must stay focused. Because of that affliction, the Venusians are not quite the organic chemists they have always desired to be.”
“But what does this say about Dr. Zarkov?”
“Since he has just switched the atomic cat vacuum to ‘Overload like a sumbitch,’ I have … my suspicions.”
“EEEEEEEK!!!”
“Wow, what a cliffhanger noise that was.”

(Continue reading Mike Ford: Occasional Works (Part Two))


September 27, 2006
Sign your organ donor card
Posted by Teresa at 04:03 PM *

Elise says that if you’re grieving over Mike and would like something constructive to do, sign your organ donor card. As she said, “One of the best medical things that ever happened to Mike was the kidney transplant he got in November of 2000.” She’s reprinted the piece she wrote about it at the time.

I’ll second her opinion. That transplant made an amazing difference in Mike’s life. Before, he was tied to a constant regimen of ambulatory peritoneal dialysis—and frankly, even with the dialysis he wasn’t doing too well.

Then a really prime donor kidney turned up that was an excellent tissue match for Mike. Sixteen hours later he was wheeled out of the recovery room. The new kidney started working within days. That transplant may have added years to Mike’s life. What’s inarguable is how much it improved the quality of the life he had. So sign your cards.

(I’ll always remember Mike explaining that when they put in a new kidney, they don’t take out the old one: “Now if I’m in the same room with Teresa Nielsen Hayden,* the count comes out even.”)

Mike Ford: Occasional Works (Pt. One)
Posted by Jim Macdonald at 01:30 PM * 22 comments

Mike Ford arrived on these boards with this post (May 16, 2002, 11:36 AM):

Spaceport spaceport spaceport spaceport spaceport! (I just like the word.)

I suddenly have a story image of someone, at some indeterminate future date, entering the long-abandoned VAB and being caught in a rainshower.

Where do people get their crazy ideas?

He left with this one (September 23, 2006, 12:14 AM):

Open Thread 71

The villanelle is what?

Enter Mr Jno. Ford (the Elizabethan one) as King Edward the Fourth.

I am the King now, and I want a sandwich.
This monarch business makes a fellow hungry.
I wonder where my brother Richard is.

What happened to the kippers left from breakfast?
Or maybe there’s a bit of cold roast pheasant.
I am the King now, and I want a sandwich.

A civil war is such an awful bother.
We fought at Tewksbury and still ran out of mustard.
I wonder where my brother Richard is.

Speak not to me of pasta Marinara.
I know we laid in lots of boar last Tuesday.
I am the King now, and I want a sandwich.

The pantry seems entirely full of Woodvilles
And Clarence has drunk two-thirds of the cellar.
I wonder where my brother Richard is.

If I ran England like I run that kitchen
You’d half expect somebody to usurp it.
I am the King now, and I want a sandwich.
I wonder where my brother Richard is.

In between, he filled the conversation with bits of dialogue and verse. As Mike might have said:

“Scotty! I need a sonnet in three minutes or we’re all dead!”

“Och, Cap’n, ye canna force the muse. Have ye got a rhyme for ‘silvery Tay’ somewhere on the bridge?”

(Continue reading Mike Ford: Occasional Works (Part One))


September 25, 2006
John M. Ford, 1957-2006
Posted by Teresa at 07:07 AM *

Mike Ford is gone. The cause of his death is not yet known. Elise Matthesen found his body around two o’clock this morning. She said it looked like it was fast and easy, whatever it was.

He’d been in poor health for decades. This still comes as a terrible shock.

I keep thinking that Mike would know the right thing to say about all this. There’s a hole in the universe.

Against Entropy

The worm drives helically through the wood
And does not know the dust left in the bore
Once made the table integral and good;
And suddenly the crystal hits the floor.
Electrons find their paths in subtle ways,
A massless eddy in a trail of smoke;
The names of lovers, light of other days—
Perhaps you will not miss them. That’s the joke.
The universe winds down. That’s how it’s made.
But memory is everything to lose;
Although some of the colors have to fade,
Do not believe you’ll get the chance to choose.
Regret, by definition, comes too late;
Say what you mean. Bear witness. Iterate.

—John M. Ford

(The circumstances of the poem’s composition. You won’t find a clearer demonstration of (some of) the reasons we’re mourning Mike.)

Some links to writing by Mike Ford:

Neil Gaiman: The Lovers, the Dreamers, and Death.
Today Neil posted a collection of wonderful things Mike recently sent him in email.
Another post by Neil, with the cleaned-up text of “The Final Connection”.
110 Stories
Troy: The Movie
The Infernokrusher Romeo and Juliet
“I am the King now, and I want a sandwich.”
“Declaration” and “Response”, by John M. Ford and Elise Matthesen
As Above, So Below (short story)
The Speculative Engineering store at CafePress

Some of Mike’s front-page posts here:

Harry of Five Points
In This Hour (during Katrina; on coping with the stress of bad news)
Judy Sings Holliday (on the Valerie Plame case)
You Can’t Dance to It… (on science fiction and prediction)
Earth Creatures Put One Right Past Martian Defense Force
TSA Gumbo Surprise
More Songs about Buildings and Food

Given how joyfully Mike disported himself in the comment threads, it’s a damned shame that ML’s “view all comments by” function is currently out of commission. To give you some idea, here are some of the comments Mike posted to a single open thread:

#103: Caster sugar.
#253: Kojak and the Defenestrations of Prague.
#268: Attendance at the Roman games.
#294: Liquid nitrogen; shrubbing.
#353: Poirot on Betjeman.
#359: Recasting McGonagall.
#382: Misanthropy and comedians.
#388: Mad fiendish mathematicians.
#404: Sir Francis Drake’s gold pocket calculator.
#472: Bother, dinosaurs, and sodomy.

Links to writing about Mike Ford:

NESFA’s Chronological Bibliography of his work.
Senseless Acts of Random Stuff helpfully provides links to a ludography, a collection of quotes, and Mike’s poem about Loren Wiseman.
Interview: John M. Ford in Strange Horizons.
Neil Gaiman’s Concerning Speculative Engineering, with notes on Exploration, the Scattered Oevre of John M. Ford, and an Unreliable and Vaguely Scatalogical Anecdote about Freud or Someone Like That, his introduction to Mike’s collection, From the End of the Twentieth Century.
The memorial threads at SFF Net.
A long thoughtful consideration of Mike’s influence on the Star Trek universe, by Eric Burns.
Avedon Carol: There could never be enough of Mike Ford.
Kathryn Cramer posts a memoir, with photo.
A Flickr photoset of everyone’s pictures tagged “John M. Ford”.
DDB’s photos of Mike.
A LiveJournal post from Pamela Dean.
Another post by Pamela Dean.
Madeleine Robins writes some anecdotes about Mike.
Peg Kerr’s memorial post.
Dan Layman-Kennedy’s.
Some words from Mike’s close friend Jim Rigney (Robert Jordan).
Henry Farrell at Crooked Timber.
Jane Yolen’s Journal, 25 September 2006.
Ellen Kushner on Mike’s handwriting.
Diane Duane’s long essay about Mike from the program book when he was GoH at Boskone.
A post by Will Shetterly.
Another post by Will Shetterly.
Roz Kaveney wrote a poem.
One, two, three, four reminiscences by Joel Rosenberg.
A post by Steve Jackson.
And one by Hilary Moon Murphy.
The Authorized Klin Zha Homepage.
Unqualified Offerings’ Jim Henley.
Ken MacLeod.
Kevin Maroney.
John Clute’s obituary in The Independent. (Elise: “He did well by Mike.”)

Note: Elise says:

“If people want to send messages, e-mail is best right now. It keeps the phone clear for various chats with medical examiners, medical examiner investigators, Mike’s attorney and the like; so if people could refrain from phoning unless it’s re next-of-kin stuff or immediate legal/logistical stuff, at least for the next 48 hours, it would be a kindness. Thank you. The e-mails are lovely, though I won’t be able to respond for a bit.”

September 22, 2006
Checking in
Posted by Patrick at 11:56 PM * 41 comments

It’s possible that, after a ten-hour interruption, you can now post a comment to Making Light.

More later. Right now, sleep.

Papal din
Posted by Patrick at 07:31 AM * 81 comments

For those of you who may have been blearily staring at recent headlines and wondering if the world was playing a big LARP based on the Fourth Crusade, two smart posts on the Pope’s ill-considered remarks, their context, and the fallout. One is from international diplomat and man of mystery Nick Whyte, and the other is by one Monsieur Homais, previously unknown to me. A bit from M. Homais:

Islam is really peripheral to his point. Maybe it’s a convenient rhetorical target, or the Pope did mean to denigrate the religion by resurrecting the old “inherently violent/spread by the sword” trope, or maybe he wanted to start a dialogue (he claims that’s the reasonable thing to do), or maybe (as he claimed in his sort-of apology) the Islam quote wasn’t actually his opinion, or maybe he just picked a really unfortunate example. But, the real thrust of the argument is directed, very unsubtly, at Protestants, various stripes of unorthodox Catholics, and unbelieving rationalists, all of whom have, so he says, tried to decouple Christianity from the Reason of the Greeks. From there, he takes a fairly standard line that religion decoupled from logos is simply unable to engage in reasonable dialogue, and is likely violent (are you listening, Protestants? He’s talking about you). Reason without the divine, on the other hand, is blind and unable to even justify itself on its own terms. It’s a variant on the old “science is sterile” argument.

In a nutshell, then, most of the Pope’s rhetorical force is pointed at Western debates, at people who for various reasons want to decouple religion from Reason, with perhaps a dark hint that the alternative is those violent, unreasonable faiths (ahem, Protestants, Muslims), or worse, bottomless relativism that can’t cope with the challenges of the day. None of which I buy, but it’s hardly shocking coming from the Pope, and doesn’t quite amount to frothing Islamophobia. I mean, really, are we so used to John-Paul II’s sweeping interfaith gestures that we’re now surprised when a Pope has the nerve, the nerve I tell you, to claim that Catholicism is true and other creeds have fallen into error?

That said, there is something dishonest, if unsurprising, when Benedict claims that Catholicism has the monopoly on marrying faith to Reason. Anyone who’s studied a bit of Islamic history will have probably raised their eyebrows at his assertion that Islam’s concept of God is transcendent, outside of Reason, beyond human categories, etc. Well, I guess that’s the whole story if you’re, say, Sayyid Qutb. But for the rest of the faith, it’s a much more mixed debate, way too sprawling to recount here. Suffice to say that alongside the transcendent tradition, there’s a long tradition of integrating Reason—including Greek thought and modern science—with Islam, from mediaeval times straight through Afghani, Abduh et al and their contemporary ideological descendants. If you’re going to insist on the rightness of integrating Reason with the divine, it’s not very helpful to ignore or deny the existence of such a tradition in Islam, now is it? Talking from the same script as that tradition’s opponents, insisting that Islam is precisely what Qutb-inspired neo-Salafis say it is, doesn’t seem like the best way to go about a dialogue, and it’s certainly not helpful to the perspectives you claim to want a dialogue with.

Read ‘em both.

September 20, 2006
The Royal Society vs. Exxon’s astroturf
Posted by Teresa at 05:24 PM *

The Royal Society—the world’s oldest learned society—has publicly taken on Exxon. Just so you know: this is the first time in the Royal Society’s 364 years that they’ve done something like this.

Britain’s leading scientists have challenged the US oil company ExxonMobil to stop funding groups that attempt to undermine the scientific consensus on climate change.

In an unprecedented step, the Royal Society, Britain’s premier scientific academy, has written to the oil giant to demand that the company withdraws support for dozens of groups that have “misrepresented the science of climate change by outright denial of the evidence”.

The scientists also strongly criticise the company’s public statements on global warming, which they describe as “inaccurate and misleading”.

Exxon’s been funding astroturf and disinformation campaigns. They’re not big on level playing fields.

In a letter earlier this month to Esso, the UK arm of ExxonMobil, the Royal Society cites its own survey which found that ExxonMobil last year distributed $2.9m to 39 groups that the society says misrepresent the science of climate change.

See how cheaply you can fund astroturf campaigns? To Exxon, $2.9m is practically small change.

These include the International Policy Network, a thinktank with its HQ in London, and the George C Marshall Institute, which is based in Washington DC. In 2004, the institute jointly published a report with the UK group the Scientific Alliance which claimed that global temperature rises were not related to rising carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere.

“There is not a robust scientific basis for drawing definitive and objective conclusions about the effect of human influence on future climate,” it said.

At this point, no reputable climatologist would make such a statement. Anyone who holds that position is doing so as part of a PR campaign.

In the letter, Bob Ward of the Royal Society writes: “At our meeting in July … you indicated that ExxonMobil would not be providing any further funding to these organisations. I would be grateful if you could let me know when ExxonMobil plans to carry out this pledge.”

The letter, a copy of which has been obtained by the Guardian, adds: “I would be grateful if you could let me know which organisations in the UK and other European countries have been receiving funding so that I can work out which of these have been similarly providing inaccurate and misleading information to the public.”

Translation: Exxon is being given an opportunity to confess and do penance. You can read the entire letter here.
This is the first time the society has written to a company to challenge its activities. The move reflects mounting concern about the activities of lobby groups that try to undermine the overwhelming scientific evidence that emissions are linked to climate change.

Just in case you’ve missed it, here’s the straight dope:

1. Carbon dioxide emissions cause global warming. This is not in doubt.
2. Scary global climate changes have already begun.
3. However, there’s a surprisingly strong chance that prompt action now will start reversing the trend.
4. The alternative: if we don’t take action soon, we’re going to hit one of those fast-acting climate tipping-points that aren’t so easily reversible, and the results will be catastrophic.
5. Some of the unbelievably expensive results: a rise in sea level. Lots more hurricanes like Andrew and Katrina. Slowing down or stopping the Gulf Stream Current, which would trash Europe’s climate and agriculture for the next several centuries.
6. Various corporations which feel it would be inconvenient for them to have to deal with carbon dioxide emissions over the next few years have been funding disinformation campaigns which preach that global warming isn’t a problem.
7. Cost of disinformation campaigns: chump change, by corporate standards. Cost of dealing with carbon dioxide emissions: not exactly cheap, but can be done without severely damaging our economy or business interests. Cost of tipped-over climate changes: catastrophic. Incalculable. And it comes out of your pocket.

The groups, such as the US Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI), whose senior figures have described global warming as a myth, are expected to launch a renewed campaign ahead of a major new climate change report. The CEI responded to the recent release of Al Gore’s climate change film, An Inconvenient Truth, with adverts that welcomed increased carbon dioxide pollution.

No one who knows anything about the subject honestly believes that increased carbon dioxide pollution is a good idea. These advertisements are the moral equivalent of the “studies” apologists used to write on behalf of the big tobacco companies, purporting to show that cigarettes don’t increase your risk of cancer.

The latest report from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), due to be published in February, is expected to say that climate change could drive the Earth’s temperatures higher than previously predicted.

What was previously predicted was already scary enough.

Mr Ward said: “It is now more crucial than ever that we have a debate which is properly informed by the science. For people to be still producing information that misleads people about climate change is unhelpful. The next IPCC report should give people the final push that they need to take action and we can’t have people trying to undermine it.”

The Royal Society letter also takes issue with ExxonMobil’s own presentation of climate science. It strongly criticises the company’s “corporate citizenship reports”, which claim that “gaps in the scientific basis” make it very difficult to blame climate change on human activity. The letter says: “These statements are not consistent with the scientific literature. It is very difficult to reconcile the misrepresentations of climate change science in these documents with ExxonMobil’s claim to be an industry leader.”

This isn’t just another distinguished scientific organization decrying corporate irresponsibility. If any body can lay claim to having invented science, and defined what science is, it’s the Royal Society. What they’re doing with their letter is authoritatively denying the scientific legitimacy of Exxon’s position and its PR campaigns.

Environmentalists regard ExxonMobil as one of the least progressive oil companies because, unlike competitors such as BP and Shell, it has not invested heavily in alternative energy sources.

For “least progressive,” read “dumbest.” It’s impossible for them to not know that the days of happy petroleum profits are coming to an end.

ExxonMobil said: “We can confirm that recently we received a letter from the Royal Society on the topic of climate change. Amongst other topics our Tomorrow’s Energy and Corporate Citizenship reports explain our views openly and honestly on climate change. We would refute any suggestion that our reports are inaccurate or misleading.” A spokesman added that ExxonMobil stopped funding the Competitive Enterprise Institute this year.

Exxon has replied with mindless and impenitent corporate-speak. We’ll have to see whether they ever wake up. In the meantime, huzzah for the Royal Society!

The End of Author Productivity In Our Lifetime
Posted by Patrick at 04:45 PM *

Amazon now allows comments on their “customer reviews.”

Mark my words: this will provide some writers with the opportunity to endlessly delay finishing their current books. And for a few, it will provide the tools with which to end their careers altogether.

Your essential political blog reading for today
Posted by Patrick at 01:45 PM *

Jim Henley makes a smart libertarian argument, and his commenters argue back with equal vigor. (Personally, my money’s on Charles Dodgson.)

September 18, 2006
Three days in Montreal
Posted by Patrick at 09:56 PM *

We’re back from the little convention Jo Walton threw to celebrate the publication of her latest novel Farthing, which is scarily good and disquietingly pertinent and you should all buy and read it right away.

The convention itself was as much fun as any small con I’ve ever been to, with a full program of panel discussions deftly engineered to keep conversation flowing at all hours. Jo is a woman with a talent for having interesting friends and getting them talking with one another. For me and Teresa, as for many of the several dozen attendees, the other star attraction was the city of Montreal. I’d been there once before, for a World Fantasy Con in a hotel on a boring downtown block, but on this visit I quickly realized I’d barely had an inkling of what an interesting place it is.

The weekend’s one aggravation is that we barely had any internet connectivity, whether due to hotel wireless flakiness or equipment failure at our end, I’m not sure. So if you’ve sent us email any time in the last few days, you probably haven’t got a response and you may not get one for a day or three to come.

Oh, and may I just say: Au Pied de Cochon. Omigod.

UPDATE: Flickr photoset.

War with Iran
Posted by Jim Macdonald at 01:29 PM *

This week’s Time Magazine cover story asks, “What Would War With Iran Look Like?

I can answer that question in two words: Unmitigated disaster.

No one is talking about a ground invasion of Iran. Too many U.S. troops are tied down elsewhere to make it possible, and besides, it isn’t necessary. If the U.S. goal is simply to stunt Iran’s nuclear program, it can be done better and more safely by air.

Ah, yes. Douhetism triumphant. The first lesson one should draw from the air campaigns from WWI to the present is that air power doesn’t work. Not for winning wars. Not for making the target population knuckle under. Not for stopping, or even slowing, the target’s industrial production. Strategic bombing is a failed theory.

A U.S. strike would have a lasting impression on Iran’s rulers. U.S. officials believe that a campaign of several days could set back Iran’s nuclear program by two to three years. Hit hard enough, some believe, Iranians might develop second thoughts about their government’s designs as a regional nuclear power.

Would those be the same officials who believed that the Iraqis would greet us with flowers and dancing in the streets?

Some U.S. foes of Iran’s regime believe that the crisis of legitimacy that the ruling clerics would face in the wake of a U.S. attack could trigger their downfall, though others are convinced it would unite the population with the government in anti-American rage.

I’m taking bets. And I’m offering odds on “anti-American rage.” But let’s not limit that to Iran, guys. How many countries can we unite in anti-American rage?

“Nobody is considering a military option at this point,” says an administration official. “We’re trying to prevent a situation in which the president finds himself having to decide between a nuclear-armed Iran or going to war. The best hope of avoiding that dilemma is hard-nosed diplomacy, one that has serious consequences.”

That means they’ve already decided on the military option.

Is there no end to the folly of this administration?

September 16, 2006
President Torture
Posted by Jim Macdonald at 04:20 PM * 103 comments

President Bush had a press conference yesterday. The first thing that struck me about it was the angry, hectoring tone that he took. What was Bush so angry about?

WASHINGTON (CNN) — Questioning of suspected terrorists “won’t go forward” unless Congress clarifies a U.S. standard for the treatment and interrogation of detainees, President Bush warned Friday.

The remarks appeared to be an attempt to put Congress on the spot about the future of a program that Bush says has helped thwart terrorism.

Yes, friends, Bush was saying, in almost so many words, “If you don’t make torture legal, I’m going to stop torturing people!”

Personally, I don’t see a down side to that.

I’m going to quote myself from an earlier thread now:

Back during WWII, resistance fighters were taught to avoid answering the Gestapo’s questions for 24 hours (and you can generally do this, even under frightful torture, which the Gestapo was fully able and willing to deliver). After that, they were allowed to say anything they pleased — because by then any plans they might have been aware of would be changed. Any operations they were engaged in would have been canceled. Any codes they knew would have been scrapped. Any people they knew would be living somewhere else under new names.

Which makes me wonder: Exactly what kind of useful information do we think we’re going to get from someone four years after they were captured?

Later in the same thread:

First: 29 Retired Admirals and Generals, Military Leaders and Former DOD Officials Urge Congress to Preserve the Geneva Conventions

Second: GOP split as Senate panel bucks Bush on terror tribunals (includes as a subhead “Powell breaks with adminsitration”)

Now: action. Everyone, tonight, write a letter to your senators and congressmen urging them to hold fast on the Geneva Conventions. Express your disgust with the thought of Americans torturing prisoners. It doesn’t matter if your representative is the biggest right-winger in congress; write anyway. I’m told that faxes get through better than streetmail.

Do it tonight before you go to bed.

A nice letter to the editor of your local paper wouldn’t go amiss.

It’s a small action, but it’s an action. Take it.

And again:

“If you have people in the field trying to question terrorists, if you do not have clear legal definitions, they themselves will be subject to the whims and the differing interpretations given by foreign courts, foreign judges and foreign tribunals,” [White House spokesman Tony] Snow said. “And we don’t think that’s appropriate.”

Let’s turn to the Geneva Convention itself:

Article 3 prohibits nations engaged in combat not of “an international character” from, among other things, “violence to life and person, in particular murder of all kinds, mutilation, cruel treatment and torture” and “outrages upon personal dignity, in particular, humiliating and degrading treatment.”

Seems pretty straightforward to me. I don’t recall any confusion anywhere in the world about exactly what it means up to this moment. So why is it suddenly unclear now?

Back to Georgie’s press conference (and again, I hope everyone listens, to hear his tone of voice, to see the raw hatred and fear on his face):

“You cannot ask a young intelligence officer to violate the law,” Bush said. “If Congress passes a law that does not clarify the rules … the program is not going forward.”

Hey, George, tell you what: if any of those young intelligence officers have any questions they can call me on the phone. I’ll be happy to clarify it for them.

Now more of the Recycled material, the letter I sent to my congressman and senators:

Mr. Bush is pushing for legislation that would weaken the United States’ adherance to the Geneva Convention. This would put our own troops in peril if they were captured, and would certainly weaken our moral leadership in the world, now and in the future.

Please don’t go along wtih this so-called “terrorist tribunal” measure the President is supporting.

Ask yourself if you, personally, would like to be interrogated and tried by a foreign power that had adopted an identical law. Ask yourself exactly what’s wrong with the Federal courts that have served us so well for the past two hundred years, and the Geneva Conventions that have guided us for the past century.

Vote your conscience.

Add to the list of folks who should have letters of support:

  • Colin Powell
  • John McCain
  • Lindsey Graham
  • John Warner

There’s little enough we can do. Do those things.

Bush is going after Social Security again
Posted by Teresa at 08:10 AM * 48 comments

According to Josh Marshall, Bush is planning another attempt to abolish Social Security and replace it with “private accounts”.

I can’t do the subject justice right now, since I’m in a small hotel room with inadequate connectivity. Here are some short versions:

1. Social Security isn’t broken and doesn’t need fixing.

2. The story you’ve been hearing most of your life, about how Social Security is broken, or running out of money, and that there’ll be nothing left for you when you retire, IS A COMPLETE LIE. Spreading it has been the work of one of the creepiest and the longest continuously funded astroturf campaigns out there.

3. If “private accounts” were a sufficient way to guarantee that you don’t spend a short, miserable retirement eating cat food, Social Security would never have been invented.

4. Remember how when Bush first took the White House, we had a budget surplus, and he announced that that meant that taxes for the rich should be cut? And then, when the economy slumped and we had a budget shortfall, he announced that that meant that taxes for the rich should be cut? And now that those tax cuts and the cost of his war have driven the national debt to levels I frankly find terrifying, Bush thinks the answer is to cut taxes for the rich? Well, he’s like that about Social Security, too. No matter what happens, he thinks we ought to get rid of Social Security. He’ll lie like a carpet to get his way on this issue, just like he lied his way into an unjustified war with Iraq.

5. There are powerful and unendingly greedy forces out there that want to get their hands on the American worker’s retirement funds. They don’t care if you die poor and in misery.

6. Remember Enron? When their complex enormous fraud began to totter, management sold out of their own stock in the company, but left employees’ 401k retirement funds tied up in Enron stocks because it helped prop up the fraud a little longer. When Enron went down, it took their employees’ lifetime retirement savings with it.

The commercial financial market isn’t about protecting you. They’ll offer retirement savings plans, if they think they can make a profit on the deal; and as the price of doing business in that field, they’ll accept a certain amount of regulation aimed at keeping those investments reliable and safe. But for them, that’s a business consideration. Seeing that you have money when you retire is not their main mission. When the chips are down, they care no more about you than they care about any other investment.

Here’s the big difference: for rich people and rich corporations, investments are the extra money they gamble with. For most working citizens, the only real capital accumulations they manage in their lives are paying off the mortgages on their houses and saving for retirement. Big real-estate speculators can absorb the occasional deal that turns sour. We don’t gamble with our houses that way, because we live in them. The same goes for putting our central retirement funds into the commercial financial market. They don’t belong there. (Investing retirement funds over and above that basic amount is another matter. People can already do that, if they want.) Our basic retirement funds belong in Social Security, where they’re guaranteed by the U.S. Government.

It would not be a bad idea to write now to your elected representatives, and let them know that even trying to dismantle Social Security would be the biggest disaster of their unexpectedly curtailed political careers.

September 15, 2006
Open thread 71
Posted by Teresa at 11:00 PM *

“The author makes a tacit deal with the reader. You hand them a backpack. You ask them to place certain things in it—to remember, to keep in mind—as they make their way up the hill. If you hand them a yellow Volkswagen and they have to haul this to the top of the mountain—to the end of the story—and they find that this Volkswagen has nothing whatsoever to do with your story, you’re going to have a very irritated reader on your hands.” —Frank Conroy

A nominal military
Posted by Teresa at 06:27 AM *

An odd story from Iraq:

Iraq Takes Military Reins From Coalition
U.S.-Led Coalition Transfers Control of Iraq’s Armed Forces to Iraq Gov’t; Seen As a Milestone

BAGHDAD, Iraq Sep 7, 2006 (AP)� Coalition forces handed over control of Iraq’s armed forces command to the government Thursday, a move that U.S. officials have hailed as a crucial milestone on the country’s difficult road to independence.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki signed a document taking control of Iraq’s small naval and air forces and the 8th Iraqi Army Division, based in the south.

“From today forward, the Iraqi military responsibilities will be increasingly conceived and led by Iraqis,” said Gen. George Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, at a ceremony.

Handing over control of the country’s security to Iraqi forces is vital to any eventual drawdown of U.S. forces here. After disbanding the remaining Iraqi army following the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, coalition forces have been training the new Iraqi military.

However, it is unclear exactly how quickly Iraqi forces will be prepared to take over their own security.

Iraq still has an air force? I asked myself. Iraq still has a navy? As far as I knew, most of their good planes got flown to Iran by their pilots during the Gulf War, and whatever replacement planes they’d managed to acquire in the interim years got smashed when we invaded?

Wikipedia was helpful. I know I’m going out on a limb, but I’ll trust them this time:

The Iraqi Air Force, like all Iraqi forces after the 2003 Invasion of Iraq, is being rebuilt as part of the overall program to build a new Iraqi defense force.

ORDER OF BATTLE
2nd Squadron � A helicopter airlift squadron operating two UH-1H Huey helicopters donated by Jordan. The squadron is scheduled to have 8 UH-1H helicopters in service by the end of 2006.
3rd Squadron � A helicopter airlift squadron operating two Bell 206 helicopters donated by the UAE Air Force in a light utility role.
4th Squadron � A helicopter airlift squadron scheduled to receive 8 UH-1H helicopters in 2006.
23rd Squadron � An airlift squadron operating 3 ex-USAF C-130E Hercules transport aircraft.
70th Squadron � A reconnaissance squadron operating 6 CH-2000 & 2 SB7L-360A light reconnaissance aircraft.

INVENTORY
Transport
3 x C-130E Hercules
16 x UH-1H Iroquois (14 more scheduled for delivery by 2006)
Reconnaissance
6 x CH-2000
2 x SB7L-360A
Utility
5 x Bell 206

Translation: the C-130 Hercules is a big fat propeller-driven cargo plane. Iroquois helicopters are better known as Hueys, the workhorses of the Vietnam War. CH-2000s and SB7L-360As are both bitty lightweight fixed-wing planes that are mostly useful for going up and looking down. The Bell 206 JetRanger is your basic traffic watch helicopter. To state the obvious, none of these aircraft are designed to fight. You can mount a door gun in a Huey, but that’s mostly useful for laying down covering fire when you’re taking off or landing.

This is not an air force. It’s just the list of aircraft belonging to the Iraqi government.

Onward, then, to the Iraqi navy. To start with, it doesn’t exist any more. It got renamed the Iraqi Coastal Defense Force last year. Here’s its fleet:

Five Predator Class patrol boats
five Chinese-built 27-meter gunboats
24 Fast Aluminium Boats
6 Al-Uboor class patrol boats
600 sailors and officers, including 200 in the Iraqi Naval Battalion (marines) who guard the platforms.

Look at the links. Iraq’s Coastal Defense Force is fully capable of seeing to it that their coasts aren’t plundered by cruise ships, tramp freighters, and large yachts. (Note: the link for those 27-meter Chinese-built gunboats is a different vessel. It’s Jim Macdonald’s best guess about the nearest equivalent model.)

Land forces: The 8th Iraqi Army Division was trained by Poland, and has been stationed in the south, away from the worst of the fighting. I don’t know much more about the 8th Division specifically. The Iraqi Army strikes me as lacking cohesion, or conviction, or some kind of basic faith in the whole enterprise. This may have something to do with our disbanding the previous army. A couple of straws in the wind: first, footage of a graduating class of Iraqi soldiers who are tearing off their uniforms and insignia, reportedly because they’ve just heard that they’re going to be deployed away from their home area. Second, a story from August 25th of this year:

Base looted after British turn it over to Iraqis

BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN)—Hours after British troops handed over a military base to Iraqi forces, hundreds of Iraqis—some with their faces covered and wielding guns—looted it, police and army officials told CNN Friday.

The base, Abu Camp Naji, is in the southern city of Amara in Maysan province.

The looters took materials such as doors, window frames, corrugated roofing and metal pipes and loaded them onto trucks.

Some news reports said the base was looted again Friday, but CNN could not confirm that.

More than 1,000 British troops had been based at the camp.

I have trouble believing that that Iraqi military unit simply buggered off elsewhere for the occasion and let random civilians strip their base to the walls.

I don’t know. Maybe the 8th Iraqi Army Division was chosen because it’s particularly reliable. But taken all together, I can’t really see how this fragile little airforce and navy, plus whatever’s on the ground, is going to let the Iraqis start taking over their own security when we’re still around in force and they’re in the middle of a civil war.

So what’s the point of the exercise? The only one I can see is that it let us make that encouraging-sounding announcement:

Coalition forces handed over control of Iraq’s armed forces command to the government Thursday, a move that U.S. officials have hailed as a crucial milestone on the country’s difficult road to independence.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki signed a document taking control of Iraq’s small naval and air forces and the 8th Iraqi Army Division, based in the south.

“From today forward, the Iraqi military responsibilities will be increasingly conceived and led by Iraqis,” said Gen. George Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, at a ceremony.

Handing over control of the country’s security to Iraqi forces is vital to any eventual drawdown of U.S. forces here.

You could almost get the impression that it’s a well-conducted war that’s going according to plan.

September 14, 2006
All this political blogging
Posted by Teresa at 09:22 AM * 63 comments

Over the last year or two or three, I just got so damn distressed that for a long time I could barely bring myself to write about politics and the war. I appear to have finally gotten over that, but there’s a fair amount of pressure backed up in the system. Bear with me.

Forgotten soldiers
Posted by Teresa at 08:58 AM * 86 comments

George Bush has yet to attend a single military funeral.

His visits to the wounded soldiers being treated in VA hospitals have been minimal—just enough to keep me from being able to type, “George Bush has yet to visit the soldiers wounded in his wars.”

He visited Iraq one Christmas. It was one of his staged, tightly controlled photo ops, where among other things he only came into contact with soldiers who’d been vetted in advance and would say and do the right things. He and his entourage left shortly after they’d finished shooting their footage.

The administration still has a strongly enforced embargo on photographs of returning flag-draped coffins. They claim this is to spare the families’ feelings. When, in all of human history, have the families of those who died in honorable combat been consoled by having their loved ones brought home in obscurity, ignored by the government that sent them to fight? This is why we, and most of the other nations of the world, have ceremonies of public remembrance for those who’ve served in our wars.

The administration’s patent unconcern for the families of soldiers serving in Iraq and Afghanistan would be enough all by itself to cast doubt on their explanation for why they treat our dead like desaparecidos.

And that’s only scratching the surface. See also, Eric Alterman’s Bush attacks the Army, too. This administration doesn’t care about our military. They just like to play with it.

September 12, 2006
AJC rips Bush administration a new one
Posted by Teresa at 06:44 AM * 56 comments

Anyone feeling queasy this morning in the wake of Bush’s latest speech should try today’s lead editorial in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution:

Revelations of no WMDs in Iraq show deception, incompetence at work

History will show that the U.S. government terrified its own citizens into supporting the invasion of Iraq.

Time and again, Americans already shaky in the wake of Sept. 11 were warned by their leaders that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, and that unless we intervened, the Iraqi leader might provide those weapons to his allies in al-Qaida.

If we waited to take action, President Bush warned, the smoking gun might come in the form of a mushroom cloud.

We now know, of course, that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction and no programs to create them. Last fall, the CIA apparently concluded that there had also been no pre-war ties between Saddam and al-Qaida terrorists, a finding seconded by a report from the Senate Intelligence Committee made public just last week. The committee found that the Bush administration had good reason to know that no such ties existed, but persisted in those claims anyway. …

It matters, for instance, that Vice President Dick Cheney now says that the Bush administration would have invaded Iraq even if it had known that Saddam had no WMD and no ties to al-Qaida. Intrigued by the admission on “Meet the Press” Sunday, host Tim Russert pressed the point with Cheney:

“So if the CIA said to you [in 2003] ‘Saddam does not have weapons of mass destruction, his chemical and biological have been degraded, he has no nuclear program under way,’ you’d still have invaded Iraq?”

Yes, Cheney said.

In other words, Iraqi WMD weren’t the reason we went to war, they were merely the excuse that Cheney and his colleagues needed to scare up public support. That’s a relevant piece of information as Americans try to decide how much faith they can put in this administration.

Last week, Army Brig. Gen. Mark Scheid gave his fellow Americans another relevent piece of data concerning the basic competence of the Bush administration.

Scheid, who is about to retire, was a colonel with U.S. Central Command in 2002, helping to plan the invasion of Iraq. According to Scheid, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld banned Pentagon officials from planning for a post-war military occupation, to the point that he warned officers that “he would fire the next person” who talked about the need to prepare for an occupation.

The incompetence that reveals is mind-numbing, and is no doubt responsible for the unnecessary deaths of hundreds, if not thousands, of U.S. soldiers, in addition to tens of thousands of Iraqis. And it matters—it matters very much—that the people responsible for such blunders are still in power, still making decisions and still setting policy.

There’ve already been plenty of arguments, with more to come, over whether Bush & Co. can be compared to the Nazis. I’d say there’s at least one way in which they unquestionably can: they’re personally incompetent.

September 11, 2006
Authorized tortures
Posted by Teresa at 02:15 PM * 208 comments

Jeralyn Merritt at TalkLeft contemplates the “authorized interrogation techniques” used on high-value prisoners by the CIA—the euphemism for this practice is “stress-and-duress interrogation”—and arrives at an interesting theory:

It’s been widely reported that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Ramzi Binalshibh were subjected to these techniques. Bush now wants to send them to Guantanamo for military trials. Under Bush’s proposed rules, they could be excluded from being present at their own trials.

My interpretation and shorter version: Mohammed and Binalshibh are now vegetables but we’ll never know because they will be tried without anyone ever seeing them.

Looking at the list of “authorized techniques”, I can see her point. Here they are, courtesy of ABC News:

1. The Attention Grab: The interrogator forcefully grabs the shirt front of the prisoner and shakes him.
2. Attention Slap: An open-handed slap aimed at causing pain and triggering fear.
3. The Belly Slap: A hard open-handed slap to the stomach. The aim is to cause pain, but not internal injury. Doctors consulted advised against using a punch, which could cause lasting internal damage.
4. Long Time Standing: This technique is described as among the most effective. Prisoners are forced to stand, handcuffed and with their feet shackled to an eye bolt in the floor for more than 40 hours. Exhaustion and sleep deprivation are effective in yielding confessions.
5. The Cold Cell: The prisoner is left to stand naked in a cell kept near 50 degrees. Throughout the time in the cell the prisoner is doused with cold water.
6. Water Boarding: The prisoner is bound to an inclined board, feet raised and head slightly below the feet. Cellophane is wrapped over the prisoner’s face and water is poured over him. Unavoidably, the gag reflex kicks in and a terrifying fear of drowning leads to almost instant pleas to bring the treatment to a halt.

Those mostly sound innocuous to you? They aren’t, not a one of them. Think about it: most of us have been slapped, or shaken, or cold and wet, or sleep-deprived, at some point in our lives. It wasn’t all that awful, right? Thing is, it also wasn’t enough to make us start babbling all our secrets. Therefore, what the CIA interrogators are describing can’t be comparable experiences.

As always during stress and duress interrogation, the point of using these techniques is to induce a prisoner to say things he wouldn’t say otherwise. If they didn’t produce that effect, interrogators wouldn’t use them. Innocuous methods don’t get that result. The word for what we’re talking about here is torture. And if it’s being applied with caution and restraint, that’ll be a first for this administration.

Note that there are no specifications as to how often or how long or how repeatedly the “authorized techniques” can be used. That makes all the difference in the world. One light blow on the soles of your feet is no big thing. Administering many such light blows is called bastinado, and can be screamingly painful.

Let’s look at the specific techniques:

1. The Attention Grab: The interrogator forcefully grabs the shirt front of the prisoner and shakes him.
2. Attention Slap: An open-handed slap aimed at causing pain and triggering fear.

The use of the word “attention” here is meretricious. Consider: the prisoner has been completely in your power for months, held without formal charges, legal counsel, or other outside contact. Throughout that time, you’ve been the biggest, scariest, and most powerful thing in his universe. Now you’re interrogating him. His life is in your hands. How can you not have his attention?

Answer: if he’s already so far out of it, or so distracted by physical pain, that it takes a strong stimulus to refocus his attention on your questions. That is: if he’s already been significantly abused.

An interrogation technique that “causes pain and triggers fear” is torture, plain and simple.

Onward. Rough or extended shaking, slapping, or other treatment that sharply jars the victim’s head will produce serious and lasting injury. A glancing gunshot that actually enters the skull and plows through a shallow bit of brain can do less damage, unless it happens to hit one of the really essential bits.

Your brain, as it’s floating there in its cerebrospinal fluid, has the structural strength of a fairly firm molded jello. A sharp, jarring movement will bounce it around. This is bad. Mechanisms of injury: scraping and bruising against your skull’s internal structures. Cavitation in the cerebrospinal fluid. Shearing between layers of the brain itself.

Potential injuries: Diffuse axonal injury, in which the shear forces produced in the brain break the axons off your nerve cells. This is a nasty one. Concussion, which causes bleeding and swelling, plus a different kind of axonal damage. Coup-contrecoup injuries. Sinus fractures. Retinal damage. Hearing loss. Dementia. If there’s a further brain injury before the previous one has healed, the consequences can be much more severe.

Any closed head injury can cause the brain to swell, particularly if it’s a re-injury. Inside the skull, there’s no place for swelling to go. If intercranial pressure goes high enough, two things can happen. One is that the pressure rises until it matches the rest of the body’s blood pressure, at which point no more blood will enter the brain, and the brain will die. The other is that the pressure can jam the brain stem down into the spinal column, and the brain will die. This sucks. So does non-fatal brain damage caused by intercranial pressure.

In general? Don’t hit people in the head.

3. The Belly Slap: A hard open-handed slap to the stomach. The aim is to cause pain, but not internal injury. Doctors consulted advised against using a punch, which could cause lasting internal damage.

Again, this phrasing is disingenuous. Any pain not permanent is temporary, but that doesn’t mean it’s of short duration, or bearable. Even more deceitful is the assertion that this is not meant to cause internal injuries. Unless you strictly limit yourself to the chest and buttocks, any time you hit an area of the trunk that’s not supported by bone, you risk internal injuries. It doesn’t matter how you hold your hand. If you’re hitting in this area at all, “not meaning to cause injuries” amounts to wishing it were possible to cause that much pain without consequences, and ignoring the fact that they exist.

For information on matters like this, best go to the experts: BDSM how-to pages. I recommend Soft Tissue Damage and Strike Zones by “Shaun”, who obviously knows what he’s talking about:

While bruises may not sound serious there are injuries that are more serious and still be just a bruise. … When making any blow to an area where the body has a bone, the energy is absorbed. Strikes to the body without this protection will transfer the energy to the organs hidden from view. For example: Our kidneys are located approximately in our back along the spine covered only by a thick layer of muscle. A blow to this area will transfer the energy of the strike to the kidneys, possibly causing injury to them. A bruised kidney may manifest itself by bloody urine, localized side pains, even kidney failure which can lead to a very painful death.

There’s less muscle covering the abdominal area, and more organs to damage. Here’s Shaun’s map of the human body, showing where you can and can’t hit them. Areas in red are off limits. Any BDSM 101 site will tell you that anything more forceful than trailing the ends of your flogger across the abdomen is unacceptably dangerous.

4. Long Time Standing: This technique is described as among the most effective. Prisoners are forced to stand, handcuffed and with their feet shackled to an eye bolt in the floor for more than 40 hours. Exhaustion and sleep deprivation are effective in yielding confessions.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn discusses this one in The Gulag Archipelago, in the section on NKVD tortures. He, too, says this one always works. Keep anyone awake long enough and they’ll break. My question is: if this one works so well, why have interrogators been using other methods that have far more potential for lasting physical harm?

5. The Cold Cell: The prisoner is left to stand naked in a cell kept near 50 degrees. Throughout the time in the cell the prisoner is doused with cold water.

I refer you to last winter’s post and comment thread on hypothermia.

6. Water Boarding: The prisoner is bound to an inclined board, feet raised and head slightly below the feet. Cellophane is wrapped over the prisoner’s face and water is poured over him. Unavoidably, the gag reflex kicks in and a terrifying fear of drowning leads to almost instant pleas to bring the treatment to a halt.

Great. Water torture. Shades of the Inquisition.

According to the sources, CIA officers who subjected themselves to the water boarding technique lasted an average of 14 seconds before caving in. They said al Qaeda’s toughest prisoner, Khalid Sheik Mohammed, won the admiration of interrogators when he was able to last between two and two-and-a-half minutes before begging to confess.

“The person believes they are being killed, and as such, it really amounts to a mock execution, which is illegal under international law,” said John Sifton of Human Rights Watch.

When you use a “technique” that your toughest guys can’t stand for more than fifteen seconds, one that instantly reduces prisoners to abject begging, you’re not using “stress and duress interrogation” or “alternative interrogation methods” or “authorized interrogation techniques”. It’s torture, pure and simple.

See this image of the Inquisition? They’re using water torture on the guy at center back. The guy on the right who’s up in the air at the end of a rope is undergoing strappado. We use that one too.* The session on the left looks to me like bastinado. Why do these old tortures keep turning up? Because if “getting people to confess to anything you want to hear” counts as working, they work.

How water torture works: You may have heard of drowning fishermen clambering on top of each other in their struggle to get a breath of air. You may also have heard that the dead in concentration camp gas chambers always formed a pyramid, because the poison gas was heavier than air, so people blindly fought to get closer to the ceiling. It’s the same phenomenon in both cases: the blind unreasoning reflexive panic of someone who’s running out of air.

Waterboarding triggers that I am drowning! reaction, but you’re immobilized and helpless so you can’t do anything about it. You also can’t fortify yourself against it in advance, because having your hindbrain screaming for air trumps all your cognitive processes. What it does is dump you straight into abject terror and the imminent fear of death. Fifteen or thirty seconds of that and you, too, would be begging to confess whatever your captors wanted to hear.

Isn’t this great? Isn’t this fine? We’ve traded the respect and good will of the other nations of the world for the right to torture prisoners into making worthless confessions.

I know this story is a downer. I’m afraid it’s about to get worse. From Martini Republic: Bush speech brags of success in torture of insane man:

Bush describes the capture and interrogation of Abu Zubaydah in today’s speech, making it a focal point of his defense of his administration’s program of secret prisons and interrogation:

Within months of September the 11th, 2001, we captured a man known as Abu Zubaydah. We believe that Zubaydah was a senior terrorist leader and a trusted associate of Osama bin Laden. Our intelligence community believes he had run a terrorist camp in Afghanistan where some of the 9/11 hijackers trained, and that he helped smuggle al Qaeda leaders out of Afghanistan after coalition forces arrived to liberate that country. Zubaydah was severely wounded during the firefight that brought him into custody—and he survived only because of the medical care arranged by the CIA.

After he recovered, Zubaydah was defiant and evasive. He declared his hatred of America. During questioning, he at first disclosed what he thought was nominal information—and then stopped all cooperation. Well, in fact, the “nominal” information he gave us turned out to be quite important. For example, Zubaydah disclosed Khalid Sheikh Mohammed—or KSM—was the mastermind behind the 9/11 attacks, and used the alias “Muktar.” This was a vital piece of the puzzle that helped our intelligence community pursue KSM. Abu Zubaydah also provided information that helped stop a terrorist attack being planned for inside the United States—an attack about which we had no previous information. Zubaydah told us that al Qaeda operatives were planning to launch an attack in the U.S., and provided physical descriptions of the operatives and information on their general location. Based on the information he provided, the operatives were detained—one while traveling to the United States.

We knew that Zubaydah had more information that could save innocent lives, but he stopped talking. As his questioning proceeded, it became clear that he had received training on how to resist interrogation. And so the CIA used an alternative set of procedures.

They got all kinds of intelligence out of Zubaydah after that. There was just one problem. As Martini Republic quotes from Ron Suskind:

Abu Zubaydah, his captors discovered, turned out to be mentally ill and nothing like the pivotal figure they supposed him to be. CIA and FBI analysts, poring over a diary he kept for more than a decade, found entries “in the voice of three people: Hani 1, Hani 2, and Hani 3—a boy, a young man and a middle-aged alter ego. All three recorded in numbing detail “what people ate, or wore, or trifling things they said.” Dan Coleman, then the FBI’s top al-Qaeda analyst, told a senior bureau official, “This guy is insane, certifiable, split personality.” …

Which brings us back to the unbalanced Abu Zubaydah. “I said he was important,” Bush reportedly told Tenet at one of their daily meetings. “You’re not going to let me lose face on this, are you?” “No sir, Mr. President,” Tenet replied. Bush “was fixated on how to get Zubaydah to tell us the truth,” Suskind writes, and he asked one briefer, “Do some of these harsh methods really work?” Interrogators did their best to find out, Suskind reports. They strapped Abu Zubaydah to a water-board, which reproduces the agony of drowning. They threatened him with certain death. They withheld medication. They bombarded him with deafening noise and harsh lights, depriving him of sleep. Under that duress, he began to speak of plots of every variety—against shopping malls, banks, supermarkets, water systems, nuclear plants, apartment buildings, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Statue of Liberty. With each new tale, “thousands of uniformed men and women raced in a panic to each … target.” And so, Suskind writes, “the United States would torture a mentally disturbed man and then leap, screaming, at every word he uttered.”

Here’s another story about Abu Zubaydah from Salon. Among other things, he appears to have fingered Jose Padilla. The intelligence gathered from him has been a major source of George W. Bush’s worldview.

See what happens when you set policy first, then look for intelligence to back it up?

And one more story, this one from today’s Washington Post:

Worried CIA Officers Buy Legal Insurance
Plans Fund Defense In Anti-Terror Cases

CIA counterterrorism officers have signed up in growing numbers for a government-reimbursed, private insurance plan that would pay their civil judgments and legal expenses if they are sued or charged with criminal wrongdoing, according to current and former intelligence officials and others with knowledge of the program.

The new enrollments reflect heightened anxiety at the CIA that officers may be vulnerable to accusations they were involved in abuse, torture, human rights violations and other misconduct, including wrongdoing related to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. They worry that they will not have Justice Department representation in court or congressional inquiries, the officials said.

The anxieties stem partly from public controversy about a system of secret CIA prisons in which detainees were subjected to harsh interrogation methods, including temperature extremes and simulated drowning. The White House contends the methods were legal, but some CIA officers have worried privately that they may have violated international law or domestic criminal statutes. …

Terrorism suspects’ defense attorneys are expected to argue that admissions made by their clients were illegally coerced as the result of policies set in Washington. …

As part of the administration’s efforts to protect intelligence officers from liability, Bush last week called for Congress to approve legislation drafted by the White House that would exempt CIA officers and other federal civilian officials from prosecution for humiliating and degrading terrorism suspects in U.S. custody. Its wording would keep prosecutors or courts from considering a wider definition of actions that constitute torture.

Bush also asked Congress to bar federal courts from considering lawsuits by detainees who were in CIA or military custody that allege violations of international treaties and laws governing treatment of detainees.

It’s good of Bush & Co. to make it clear that they knew exactly what was going on, and that it was illegal. It’ll make certain things easier in the future.

September 10, 2006
Astroturf and disinformation: some guy named Ron Goodden
Posted by Teresa at 03:40 PM * 95 comments

Dave’s Wibblings has spotted a piece of professionally slick right-wing disinformation, signed “Ron Goodden”, in the South China Morning News:

When I see a letter from a westerner who doesn’t live in Hong Kong in a Hong Kong newspaper, I always wonder why they’re writing it. When the subject matter of the letter has nothing to do with Hong Kong and everything to do with US internal affairs, I wonder why it even gets published.

A Google Search for “Ron Goodden” turns up almost nothing but letters to editors pushing various GOP talking points:

* The outing of Valerie Plame was a ruse by the Democratic party; * Public schools are bad and should have their funding reduced even further;
* the French are evil because they don’t abjectly support us;
* the Muslims want to kill us all;
* the Muslims want to kill us all again;

And so on (and on, and on).

So, is this astroturfing? Is this person paid to send out all these letters pushing a single point of view? Or is he just a right-wing idiot with too much time on his hands?

My take on this question (since for some reason I can’t post a comment over there): Technically it’s not astroturf, since the writer isn’t pretending to be speaking for a grassroots organization; but it’s a closely related phenomenon.

As I’ve remarked elsewhere, one of the things the Republicans have figured out is that copywriters are relatively cheap to buy and maintain. One constantly sees slick, professional “letters to the editor” that hew closely to the current round of Republican talking points. Real letters from individual citizens who are moved to comment by current events are far more idiosyncratic than these synthetic productions, and they only sporadically match up with current talking points.

Another related phenomenon is the equally slick “forwarded e-mail” that supposedly began as just a letter someone wrote. I’ve worked in publishing for a long time, and I know professionally written copy when I see it.

At one point my sister forwarded me one of these pieces of e-mail, and Making Light’s readership dissected it. What we discovered was that its claim to be a letter to the editor originally published in a Durham, North Carolina newspaper was false. Readers tracked down all the newspapers that could have printed it, and none of them had. The supposed letter’s first dateable appearance, already sporting its supposed provenance, was at Free Republic.

I meant it when I said that deceiving us has become an industrial process. There’s a huge amount of this stuff in circulation. It’s the original viral marketing, and it circulates at levels where no one is going to challenge its outrageous lies. It makes me wonder why the Democrats don’t hire their own copywriters, or at least start pointing out in public that that’s what the Republicans have been doing.

Addendum: Andy Vance comments, “I came across this remarkably unequivocal article this morning. James “journolobby” Glassman is pw3ned. More please.

The UbuWeb 365 Days Project
Posted by Teresa at 12:04 PM * 18 comments

The project: one bizarre MP3 per day, fully annotated, for an entire year. Here’s the finished archive. There is weirdness there that does not sleep.

I can either say next to nothing about the recordings, or I can try to talk about them, wind up saying far too much (I know I will), and never finish the post. So, next to nothing it is: #41, the Stanford University Marching Band doing Roundabout, is not half bad.

September 09, 2006
Review: La Parada
Posted by Teresa at 07:06 PM * 51 comments

The La Parada restaurant (nice people, Comidas Latinas, eat in or take out) violates that basic law of the universe that says, Fast, cheap, good: pick two. It manages all three. I know most of you aren’t overwhelmingly likely to be in the vicinity at mealtime, but if you are, it has by far the best food in the neighborhood, and it’s remarkably inexpensive.

Breakfast there is a little challenging if your basic breakfast meat isn’t salami, served with yuca or mashed green plantains plus eggs. The lunch especial is better: yellow rice, their nice soupy red beans, and your choice of beef, pork, or chicken, for $3.95.

They’re very proud of their roasted chicken, pollo rostizado. At dinnertime you can get a half chicken, plus rice and your choice of beans or fried plantains, for $6.00. If you want a whole chicken, it’s $9.00. They’ll frequently throw in a green salad.

You can get the same deal for a shifting weekly lineup of other entrees. Today’s Saturday, so the available dishes are bistec salteado (pepper steak), chivo guisado (goat stew), carne de res con zanahoria (beef with carrots), chuleta en salsa (pork chop in sauce), spaghetti con pollo (spaghetti with chicken) sancocho (Spanish soup), mondongo (beef tripe soup), and the glory of their menu: pernil, which is Caribbean-style roast pork.

La Parada’s version of pernil could raise the dead. On holidays like Easter, they cook some prodigious number of these roasts, and sell out of them by late afternoon. During Ordinary Time they have pernil every night except Tuesday, and sometimes sell out of it as early as 7:00. Not that their other stuff isn’t good too, mind you, so don’t worry about getting there and finding they’ve run out of it.

They also make a serious fresh-squeezed orange juice. I appreciate that. If you’d rather have a beer with your takeout, you have to go to the Diaz Grocery at the south end of the block, which is amusing because they’ll be playing the same telenovela you’ve been watching at La Parada while they’ve gotten your order ready.

There are only two things you have to watch out for. One is the big strip of fatty skin that inevitably accompanies a serving of their pernil. I can’t imagine eating it straight. I toss it into the bag of pernil skins I keep in my freezer, to use later in my cooking. The other peril is that you can’t open a takeout container of their beans without squirting bean broth halfway across the room. Whatever you do, don’t open it toward yourself. I just aim it at their yellow rice, since I spoon beans over my rice anyway.

Check it out. We’ve been doing our best to keep these people in business, but it wouldn’t hurt to have some help doing it. (La Parada, 855 Fourth Avenue (between 31st & 32nd), Brooklyn, 718/369-0115. Free delivery.)

September 08, 2006
Unfinished in Afghanistan
Posted by Teresa at 02:57 PM * 48 comments

Speech by George W. Bush, September 27, 2004
“Focus on Education with President Bush” Event
Midwest Livestock and Expo Center, Springfield, Ohio

[A]s a result of the United States military, Taliban no longer is in existence. And the people of Afghanistan are now free. (Applause.) In other words when you say something as President you better make it clear so everybody understands what you’re saying, and you better mean what you say. And I meant what I said. (Applause.)

CNN World News, September 8, 2006 Taliban claim deadly Kabul bombing

KABUL, Afghanistan (CNN)—The Taliban have claimed responsibility for a massive suicide car bombing that killed at least 18 people—including two U.S. soldiers—near the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.

“A coalition convoy was the target of a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device this morning near the U.S. Embassy here,” according to Master Sgt. Chris Miller. The convoy was comp[o]sed of three armored Humvees.

Journalist Tom Coghlan said the Humvee that bore the brunt of the explosion had its turret blown 30 yards from the site the the attack. The blast spread debris and body parts across the Massoud roundabout, about 50 yards from the embassy. Video from the scene showed a charred, severed foot on the ground as military medics attended to a limp body dressed in military fatigues a short distance away.

CNN’s Anderson Cooper, at the scene of the attack, said: “This is a real sign of a resurgence of the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan. It is also a sign that the Taliban are increasingly adopting al-Qaeda-style tactics.”

Reuters, September 08, 2006 NATO chiefs study call for more Afghan troops

WARSAW, Sept 8 (Reuters)—NATO defence chiefs gathered in Warsaw on Friday to discuss raising troop levels in Afghanistan after top alliance officials conceded they had underestimated Taliban resistance and needed reinforcements.

The talks were due to take place after at least 16 people were killed on Friday in the deadliest suicide bombing in the Afghan capital Kabul since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, an attack which witnesses said was aimed at a NATO convoy.

NATO’s top commander of operations, U.S. General James Jones, said on Thursday he would urge national military chiefs at the talks to offer up to 2,500 extra troops on top of the roughly 18,500 which NATO already has there.

Christian Science Monitor, September 08, 2006 In border zone, Pakistan backs off from Taliban

ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN—On the eve of the five year anniversary of 9/11, Pakistan’s government struck a deal Tuesday with Taliban fighters, handing them what may turn out to be effective control over the tribal border region of North Waziristan.

Their allies will be freed from jail, confiscated weapons will be returned, and the Army will pull back from the check posts it has erected, ending aerial and ground operations. In return, the militants promise to evict foreign fighters and prevent infiltration into Afghanistan. …

In the years since Sept. 11, 2001, Pakistan has displayed a singular dedication to fighting foreign fighters and their local hosts—often at a great price, both real and political. Pouring 80,000 troops and hardware into the tribal zone, the Pakistani military has lost nearly one man for every Al Qaeda operative—totaling several hundred—it has captured or killed. President Pervez Musharraf has nearly lost his life twice in the fight, after Al Qaeda’s suicide bombers trained their sights on him. Few contest this record of sacrificial bravery.

But some say that it has come at a great national price: As the battle against Al Qaeda has mounted, so, too, has the military grown in strength and political influence, becoming in essence the very state it is supposed to serve. That has allowed it to break up Al Qaeda’s network, but also to rupture the political landscape, splintering parties and institutions into fragments that can barely challenge its rule.

Today, analysts and members of the opposition claim, Parliament and civil society barely function in the shadows of the Musharraf government. As a consequence, the pillars of legitimacy needed to effectively address the causes of extremism—national consensus, social and political development, local governance—have been removed, leaving the military to address the problem the only way it knows how: with helicopter gunships and ground assaults. These measures have consistently failed, however, sowing widespread outrage that has compelled the government to backtrack, signing peace accords like the one this week.

Reuters, September 08, 2006 Senate panel finds no prewar Iraq-Qaeda link

WASHINGTON—Saddam Hussein provided no material support for al Qaeda and had no relationship with al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al Zarqawi, despite claims by administration officials including President George W. Bush, said a Senate report released on Friday.

The report by the Senate Intelligence Committee, drawing on a previously undisclosed 2005 CIA assessment, was released as Americans prepared to mark the fifth anniversary of the September 11 attacks on the United States by al Qaeda. …

The assessment in the CIA report was similar to the conclusion reached by the bipartisan 9/11 Commission, which found that there had been no “collaborative relationship” between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda.

If you haven’t had a look at the Iraq War Timeline, you should. It’s a remarkably clear presentation of the events leading up to the war, and then the war itself. What you can see in some of its earliest entries is that long before 9/11, a group of some of Bush’s closest cronies, called The Project for a New Amerian Century, decided that the United States should go to war with Iraq for a bunch of bad and ill-defined reasons. (If you don’t have access to the New Statesman site, you can read the same article here. I highly recommend it.)

New Yorkers tend to be pretty clear about who attacked us on 9/11. If you aren’t,* allow me to explain that Saddam Hussein had zero to do with it. The Taliban were the ones who backed Osama bin-Laden and al Qaeda, so going to war with Afghanistan actually made sense: they’d attacked us.

And yet, after giving the war in Afghanistan a lick and a promise, George Bush declared it was over, and flounced off to Iraq to have the war he’d been planning all along. Sure, he’d talked about helping to rebuild Afghanistan and create democratic institutions there (which among other things would have given its citizens better things to do than blowing up the building where you work), but at the point that he declared the war in Afghanistan over, it came out that his administration hadn’t budgeted a single penny toward that effort. Afghanistan was a poor country to start with, and after Bush & Co. left it was even poorer. What forces we left behind have mostly stayed hunkered down in Kabul.

Not surprisingly, the Taliban has risen again. Their adherents are using al Qaeda-style techniques. Let me repeat: these are the guys who actually do have a history of attacking the United States. You’re just as vulnerable to them as you were on the day before 9/11.

And one more thing. You know how people who don’t know how to do a particular thing think it’s magic? Like, people who’ve bought their first truck think it’ll do the kind of stunts they’ve seen on car commercials, or people who don’t know the first thing about computers will somehow get the idea that their monitor can see them, or that their software can divine what it is they’re trying to do? You really should go back and look at that article on The Project for a New American Century. It’s fascinating. One way or another they’re pretty much all draft dodgers, with no military experience to speak of.* They think that going to war will have magic effects. They have no idea what they’re doing. Which may account for the way they’ve consistently been wrong about everything.

September 06, 2006
Startling revelations in the Valerie Plame case
Posted by Teresa at 03:19 PM *

I may add more in a bit; but for now read Firedoglake and Digby. See also The Last Hurrah, especially the part headed “The Really Interesting Details.” They’re all talking about this article, David Corn’s “What Valerie Plame Really Did at the CIA”, which has just come out in The Nation.

(Corn is the co-author, with Michael Isikoff, of Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War. His account of Wilson’s CIA career is mainly based on interviews with confidential CIA sources.)

Short version: Valerie Plame, outed CIA employee, and wife of whistleblower Joseph Wilson, was not, as various right-wing sources have suggested, a paper-pushing desk jockey who perhaps wasn’t even involved in covert operations. They were lying.

Here’s the word that’s just come out: Valerie Plame, a career undercover officer, was the Director of Operations for the CIA’s Joint Task Force on Iraq.

The JTFI group was running espionage operations aimed at gathering information on any Weapons of Mass Destruction Iraq might have. That is: they were trying to find evidence that would back up the White House’s assertion that Iraq had WMDs and was thus a danger to the United States. Corn says:

In the spring of 2002 Dick Cheney made one of his periodic trips to CIA headquarters. Officers and analysts were summoned to brief him on Iraq. Paramilitary specialists updated the Vice President on an extensive covert action program in motion that was designed to pave the way to a US invasion. Cheney questioned analysts about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction. How could they be used against US troops? Which Iraqi units had chemical and biological weapons? He was not seeking information on whether Saddam posed a threat because he possessed such weapons. His queries, according to a CIA officer at the briefing, were pegged to the assumptions that Iraq had these weapons and would be invaded—as if a decision had been made. (emphasis mine)

Valerie Plame’s job was to deliver “intelligence” that would justify the war that Bush and Cheney were already planning.

In 1997 she returned to CIA headquarters and joined the Counterproliferation Division. (About this time, she moved in with Joseph Wilson; they later married.) She was eventually given a choice: North Korea or Iraq. She selected the latter. Come the spring of 2001, she was in the CPD’s modest Iraq branch. But that summer—before 9/11—word came down from the brass: We’re ramping up on Iraq. Her unit was expanded and renamed the Joint Task Force on Iraq. Within months of 9/11, the JTFI grew to fifty or so employees. Valerie Wilson was placed in charge of its operations group.

Notice that: her unit was ramped up before 9/11, and had 50 employees well before the war began.

There was great pressure on the JTFI to deliver. Its primary target was Iraqi scientists. JTFI officers, under Wilson’s supervision, tracked down relatives, students and associates of Iraqi scientists—in America and abroad—looking for potential sources. They encouraged Iraqi �migr�s to visit Iraq and put questions to relatives of interest to the CIA. The JTFI was also handling walk-ins around the world. Increasingly, Iraqi defectors were showing up at Western embassies claiming they had information on Saddam’s WMDs. JTFI officers traveled throughout the world to debrief them. Often it would take a JTFI officer only a few minutes to conclude someone was pulling a con. Yet every lead had to be checked.

“We knew nothing about what was going on in Iraq,” a CIA official recalled. “We were way behind the eight ball. We had to look under every rock.” Wilson, too, occasionally flew overseas to monitor operations. She also went to Jordan to work with Jordanian intelligence officials who had intercepted a shipment of aluminum tubes heading to Iraq that CIA analysts were claiming—wrongly—were for a nuclear weapons program. (The analysts rolled over the government’s top nuclear experts, who had concluded the tubes were not destined for a nuclear program.)

The JTFI found nothing. The few scientists it managed to reach insisted Saddam had no WMD programs. Task force officers sent reports detailing the denials into the CIA bureaucracy. The defectors were duds—fabricators and embellishers. (JTFI officials came to suspect that some had been sent their way by Ahmad Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress, an exile group that desired a US invasion of Iraq.) The results were frustrating for the officers. Were they not doing their job well enough—or did Saddam not have an arsenal of unconventional weapons? Valerie Wilson and other JTFI officers were almost too overwhelmed to consider the possibility that their small number of operations was, in a way, coming up with the correct answer: There was no intelligence to find on Saddam’s WMDs because the weapons did not exist. Still, she and her colleagues kept looking. (She also assisted operations involving Iran and WMDs.)

When the war started in March 2003, JTFI officers were disappointed. “I felt like we ran out of time,” one CIA officer recalled. “The war came so suddenly. We didn’t have enough information to challenge the assumption that there were WMDs…. How do you know it’s a dry well? That Saddam was constrained. Given more time, we could have worked through the issue…. From 9/11 to the war—eighteen months—that was not enough time to get a good answer to this important question.”

As I recall, the inspectors working in Iraq were saying the same thing. Remember: not one of the 9/11 bombers was from Iraq. Their organization had no ties with Saddam Hussein. But as of early afternoon on 9/11, the Bush Administration was already plotting to tie the attacks to Saddam Hussein in order to justify a war with Iraq.*

Back to David Corn:

In July 2003—four months after the invasion of Iraq—Wilson would be outed as a CIA “operative on weapons of mass destruction” in a column by conservative journalist Robert Novak, who would cite two “senior administration officials” as his sources. (As Hubris discloses, one was Richard Armitage, the number-two at the State Department; Karl Rove, Bush’s chief strategist, was the other. I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, Cheney’s chief of staff, also talked to two reporters about her.) Novak revealed her CIA identity—using her maiden name, Valerie Plame—in the midst of the controversy ignited by former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, her husband, who had written a New York Times op-ed accusing the Bush Administration of having “twisted” intelligence “to exaggerate the Iraqi threat.”

The Novak column triggered a scandal and a criminal investigation. At issue was whether Novak’s sources had violated a little-known law that makes it a federal crime for a government official to disclose identifying information about a covert US officer (if that official knew the officer was undercover). A key question was, what did Valerie Wilson do at the CIA? Was she truly undercover? In a subsequent column, Novak reported that she was “an analyst, not in covert operations.” White House press secretary Scott McClellan suggested that her employment at the CIA was no secret. Jonah Goldberg of National Review claimed, “Wilson’s wife is a desk jockey and much of the Washington cocktail circuit knew that already.”

Riiiiight.

What do I conclude?

1. Valerie Plame Wilson’s unit honestly couldn’t find evidence of Weapons of Mass Destruction, and said so. She was punished for it.

(Is there anyone reading this who doesn’t understand how potentially disastrous it is to force intelligence findings to conform with one’s preferred policies? Intelligence asks, What is true? Policy replies, That being true, what are we going to do about it? Reversing their order turns it into: Tell us what we want to hear, so we can justify doing what we’ve already decided to do. That approach leads to conclusions like “Nobody will object if we march through Belgium,” “our attack at the Somme will produce a great strategic breakthrough,” and “the Iraqis will greet our troops with cheering and flowers.”)

2. Her outing was not, as originally thought, a way of getting back at her husband. It was meant to take her down.

3. This realization isn’t mine, I got it from a friend: Cheney and his staff must have known who she was, and what she was working on, at the time they outed her.

4. Bush’s relatively recent admission that they were mistaken about the WMDs was a lie from start to finish. The Bush administration knew that well before the war started.

5. Thanks to the magic of global mass communications, the rest of the world now knows it too.

Addendum: See also, Madison Guy’s So, you�re Dick Cheney and you�ve got a war to start.

September 01, 2006
Another update on astroturf
Posted by Teresa at 11:21 PM *

These are additional updates to my post, Further instances of astroturf in blogs.

Tsu Dho Nimh, writing in the f.i.a.b. comment thread, observed that

Low-paid AMATEURS on are being paid to create product buzz … blogitive.com and others are paying a whopping $5 per post or less to game the search engines.

TDM provided a link to Blogophilia, whose proprietor both denounces and embraces cheap, small-time commercial astroturfing. She thinks the point of blogging is to make money fast, but doesn’t understand that other bloggers aren’t going to see it that way. Ms. Blogophilia links to one Sharon Hurley Hall, who describes how she works for an outfit called Blogitive, writing weblog comments for chump change.

This Blogitive-style commercial astroturf is cheesy, low-grade stuff, but if enough people started doing it, things could get messy. For now I’ll console myself with the belief that anyone who has enough talent to make a go of writing plausible weblog comments that work in keywords from random press releases is good enough to get a better job doing something else.

MoreWhat.com linked to my previous astroturf post, and gave additional information on the evil doings of the Rendon Group:

In 1991, prior to the first Gulf War, president George H W Bush signed an executive order directing the Central Intelligence Agency to create the conditions for Saddam Hussein�s removal. So the CIA hired a PR firm called the Rendon Group to run an anti-Saddam propaganda campaign

As part of that campaign, the group founded the Iraqi National Congress headed by Iraqi exile Ahmad Chalabi. Writing in The New Yorker magazine, investigative journalist Seymour Hersh said the Rendon Group paid �close to a hundred million dollars� of CIA money to the INC.

You don’t ask people to pay out a hundred million untraceable dollars without also giving them a very substantial sum to keep for their trouble. These projects have unreal budgets.

Ann Bartow, writing in Feminist Law Professors, frets about the coming of better-camouflaged astroturf. I talked a bit about that in the previous comment thread:

I know the astroturfers are going to get better at covering their tracks, but now and for the foreseeable future, I trust my ability to spot them by ear. It’s not a satisfactory general solution, though.

Another mechanism that helps is the (view all by) link on every comment that lets you read that person’s other comments on Making Light. Until the day the astroturfers are willing to pay minions to post about fanfic, dubious saints, the taxonomic status of Pluto, bizarre video remakes of “Total Eclipse of the Heart”, literary pastiche in formal verse, and the problems of domesticating buffalo, just so they’ll have credibility when they post about the clients’ favorite issues, we’ll have a powerful if approximate tool for spotting ringers.

There’s an odd thought: Making Light is better defended against astroturf than weblogs that deal entirely in political issues. A significant percentage of our conversations are always going to be outside their areas of interest.

Which is also not a satisfactory general solution the problem.

Here’s my current thinking on what to do: if I recognize a comment as astroturf, I delete it. If I think it sounds like astroturf, I delete it. If I mistakenly delete a real comment, I’ll apologize. I will not err on the side of caution.

This isn’t like spam, which costs its perpetrators an infinitesimal fraction of a cent per instance. Astroturf is written by human beings, and every piece of it has to be paid for. It’s a cheap delivery system if the comments function as PR, but it’s a bloody expensive way to buy invisible holes in the text where paid-for comments used to be.

Back to Ann Bartow. She links to a substantial article from the Guardian called The Fake Persuaders, about a massive disinformation campaign mounted by Monsanto. The site which reprinted the article, the Norfolk Genetic Information Network, also has an index page of their other stories involving astroturf.

The Center for Media and Democracy’s “PR Watch” maintains a more general index of astroturf-related stories.

One of their stories, about a couple of Australian PR bloggers who’ve started an anti-astroturfing campaign within the PR industry, led me to the Australians’ anti-astroturfing wiki page, which is useful. One of the Australians, Trevor Cook, wrote an excellent take-no-prisoners denunciation of the practice. In the course of it, he mentions a post by Paull Young about the disturbing implications of PRIA (Public Relations Institute of Australia) sponsoring an event where they flew in a speaker described as an “anti-activist activist.”

The incident alluded to by Paull Young was described in considerable detail by Katherine Wilson. Her account is the real prize. It’s also terrifying; but it’s better to know these things than merely suspect them.

There’s a man in Canada who thinks I’m a terrorist. He was in Australia this time last year, presenting workshops around the country. They were titled, ‘The best strategies to win against activists’. On his ad he called himself “Controversial Canadian PR consultant Ross Irvine�.

But a text scan of media around the world revealed no controversy surrounding any bloke named Ross Irvine. Not until he arrived in Australia, where the West Australian dubbed him “Rambo Ross� and ABC Melbourne’s Jon Faine called him “the anti-activist-activist”.

Still, I booked into Irvine’s Melbourne workshop. Held in a plush seminar room at a city business school, it cost A$595 for four hours, payable to the Public Relations Institute of Australia (PRIA). In this workshop, I’d learn how to create bogus community groups, false statistics, and links with “far-right-wing nutso activists”. I’d learn to conflate “activist” with “terrorist” and “security threat”.

Controversial or not, Irvine had pulling power. Filing in to see him was a Who’s Who of powerful industry and government flacks.

(Wilson lists some of the other attendees, who are indeed a highly-placed bunch.)

We’d all gathered to hear a man who claims that proportional representation is “a bizarre thing” and that “corporate responsibility is a weakness. Corporate responsibility is letting someone else set the agenda.” We’d learn that sustainability is “an extremist position”, that science’s ‘precautionary principal’ is “extreme”, and that maintaining biodiversity “turns back the evolutionary clock millions of years and eliminates humans from the face of the Earth! That’s extreme!” Animal protection bodies, we’d learn, really want to “sever all contact between humans and animals!”

Dealing in absolutes (health advocates are in fact ‘immoral!’ Conservationists are really ‘anticapitalist!’), when it comes to convictions, Irvine’s a relativist. Challenged earlier that day on ABC Radio, he admitted, “There’s a little bit of hyperbole in some of this. There’s also a bit of fun.”

You’d hope so for $595. By the time we’d registered, and eaten our roasted eggplant pides, it was clear most of us knew each other. There were twenty-nine of us here, and too many Daves. As well as those from the Coalition camp, there was David Hawkins from the PRIA, a bouncy man who introduced Ross Irvine. Irvine’s trip, he told the group, was funded by the IPA (the industry lobby group) and PACIA (the plastics and chemicals body). Irvine’s background, we learned, was as a PR adviser for the biotech (GM) crop industry.

“Public Relations is war,” Irvine announced, in his curly-r accent. He was wearing an elegant suit coat, a white shirt, and colourful tie. Trim, 50s, clean-shaven, with steel-rimmed spectacles and a pleasant, broad face, he flashed a boyish smile. “Don’t be afraid to attack,” he warned. “If you learn nothing else today, this is the message: ‘Fight networks with networks’.” …

To help us combat NGOs, Irvine referred us to the teachings of the Rand Corporation, a US national security think-tank. This was when ‘activist’ became confused with “terrorist”, “criminal”, “guerilla” and “security threat”. Don’t be fooled, he warned, when activists claim they’re about third world hunger or the environment or public health. “If you’re in business and you support biodiversity,” he said, “beware of what you’re really supporting … look beyond their immediate intentions. Their goal is a much larger concept that business, media and politicians must address!”

Some of us questioned Irvine’s generalisations. Why see activists as the �enemy’ (a word used many times today)? Can’t industry engage with moderate activists? Some people agreed, others shook their heads. No, warned Irvine. Once you cave to one demand, they’ll come up with “a whole bunch” of others. Which will eventually threaten capitalism itself. …

At the end of Irvine’s seminar, we split into groups for exercises. One was challenged to “assume the position of moral leadership”, a lesson from Irvine’s work with the biotech (GM crop) industry. When the GM crop industry faced health, environmental, economic, legal and social challenges, it mounted a higher moral ground campaign: GM crops will save third world children from malnutrition and starvation. The stratagem is to promote not with facts, said Irvine, but values. This, he claimed, is what activists do, and what industry must do better. “There are some real immoral people on the anti-biotech side,” he said. “Activists say, ‘let the kids starve’. That, to me, is totally immoral and amoral and everything. That, I’m sorry, that just brings out, I get really …” he inhaled and shook his head.

Another group was charged with finding ways to discredit activists. “Discredit the ideology and defeat the terrorist,” advised Irvine. The group came up with: “Call them suicide bombers … make them all look like terrorists … tree-hugging, dope-smoking, bloody university graduate, anti-progress …” and “Spot the flake. Find someone who would represent the enemy but clearly doesn’t know what the issue is … find a 16-year-old” and “distract the activist with side issues … and make enemies within the enemy camp so they spend all their time fighting and that helps to deepen their disorganisation.”

Our group was charged with ‘empowering others’ to support a cause. The cause was the Port of Melbourne channel-deepening. Once we had determined who we will ‘empower’ (unions, farmers’ groups, retailers), the PRIA’s David Hawkins suggested marginalising the environmental argument. This could be done with what Bush flacks call ‘the fire hose method’—bombarding the media with issues, information and press conferences so they don’t have the resources to interview alternative sources.

To the suggestion that the case for channel-deepening should be the voice of reason, Hawkins replied, “No, no, let’s be the voice of unreason. Let’s call them fruitcakes. Let’s call them nut—nutters. You know, let’s say they’re …”

“Environmental radicals,” suggested Darebin’s Shannon Walker.

“Exactly. You know … say they represent 0.1 per cent but they dominate, you know, let’s absolutely go for them.”

Our group discussed astroturfing. Named after a synthetic lawn, astroturfing is the creation of bogus community groups or independent authorities who endorse industry practice, recruit lesser-informed citizens, confuse the debate and make the real community groups appear extreme. The Guardian uncovered one case in which one of Monsanto’s public relations companies, Bivings Woodell, fabricated science ‘experts’ and online ‘scientific communities’ who successfully discredited genuine peer-reviewed science reports about the dangers of GM crops. Protest movements were also invented, including one at Johannesburg’s World Summit on Sustainable Development, widely reported as a demonstration by ‘third world’ farmers chanting “I don’t need white NGOs to speak for me”.

The University of Wollongong’s Professor Sharon Beder says ‘astroturf’ of this kind is rapidly propagating in Australia. “You need to know any particular issue very well to be able to distinguish the astroturf from the genuine grassroots groups,” she says. “For example, in mental health there are several front groups funded by pharmaceutical companies but they have a great deal of public credibility. Unless you know the issue well, you wouldn’t be able to pick them.”

Katherine Wilson knows what the real point is:

[G]overnment employees—be they federal or local—have no place in a forum that promotes ways to stop citizens participating in the democratic process, says economist Clive Hamilton. Hamilton heads the Australia Institute, a public policy research body funded by grants from philanthropic trusts and staffed by economists. (The Institute claims to be neither left nor right wing.) Given an audio recording of the workshop, Hamilton responded, “Why a government agency would attend a seminar like this is beyond comprehension. These agencies are owned by the public, yet by attending seminars to learn how to beat citizens’ groups by means fair or foul they are turning on their owners. Only an organisation that has wholly alienated itself from the public would even consider attending an event like this.”

Which is quite true.

The article ends, “A version of this article was first commissioned by an Australian broadsheet newspaper and then killed. Those wishing to obtain an electronic recording of the Ross Irvine workshop held in April 2005 can email requests to wilson.kath@optusnet.com.au.”

By all means, read the whole thing. One so seldom gets to hear the instructions to the troops being broadcast in clear.

Open thread 70
Posted by Patrick at 09:04 PM *

“The whole idea of revenge and punishment is a childish day-dream. Properly speaking, there is no such thing as revenge. Revenge is an act which you want to commit when you are powerless and because you are powerless: as soon as the sense of impotence is removed, the desire evaporates also.”—George Orwell, “Revenge is Sour” (1945)

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