Saturday, July 31, 2010

Fundamentally Illegal

J. Edgar Hoover once said, "Justice is incidental to law and order," and this maxim might apply as well now as back in Hoover's day, but even Hoover might be surprised were he to visit the so-called new normal, and see just how far from the rule of law even the best legal minds have come.

As the past 50 years have shown, the first casualty of war is freedom of the press. The firing of war correspondent Peter Arnett, a reporter with 40 years of experience and a Pulitzer Prize under his belt by NBC, and National Geographic back in 2003 may be seen as a turning point. Coverage of war, whether it be in the gulf or in the middle east, would never be the same.

When Arnett reportedly spoke disparagingly of the Iraq war on state-run Iraqi TV, he unwittingly acted as a catalyst for the current clampdown on the press at military commissions trials of detainees at Guantanamo Bay.

On Monday, August 2nd, as McClatchy reports, journalists who have been covering the trials at Gitmo will have their first opportunity to air their grievances against some of the most draconian restrictions imposed on them. They will get to vent their rightful indignation over being subjugated by a Pentagon on steroids, one that resembles an animal in captivity more than the prime mover of an empire.

And, what a circus it has been not merely for many of the "enemy combatants," 90% of whom are now believed to be no more members of al Qaeda than of the Crips, but for reporters who have been banned from tribunal proceedings and also, as according to McClatchy, who are routinely denied access to "essential and unclassified court records."

While the ban has been lifted for all but one journalist, McClatchy joins the New York Times, The Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, Reuters, the Associated Press, and others in a lawsuit against the Pentagon which holds the ban as unconstitutional as a violation of First Amendment rights.

Ironically, the Pentagon's move also breaks the law that set up military tribunals in the first place, the Military Commission Act which asserts that only a judge has the power to bar a reporter from covering military trials.

Attorney David Schulz, who represents McClatchy and the other newspapers in their legal action, says that the proscriptions against Gitmo press coverage reflect "a fundamentally illegal system."

Moreover, on Monday, journalists will insist that the Pentagon allow them the freedom to write and broadcast information that is already public knowledge, or that doesn't compromise the confidentiality of protected testimony, surely a reasonable demand except in a climate of fear and repression.

9/1l, and "national security" have been used as a pretext to turn newspapers and the mainstream media into mass propaganda-making machine. Peter Arnett, whose professional banishment had as much to do with being disliked by the Bush dynasty, and his prescience while interviewing bin Laden four years before the Twin Towers fell, as it did with anything he may have said in his brief appearance on state-run Iraqi television, but he wasn't to be the only victim of openly speaking out against the war in Iraq, or the administration in charge.

Another 40 year veteran of broadcast journalism, Dan Rather, would follow Arnett three years later, and be forced out of CBS after 60 Minutes ran a story about President George W. Bush's national guard service in Vietnam. While many defend CBS's move by claiming Rather was sloppy about authenticating his documentation, undoubtedly the impetus for his resignation came from the same source that called Arnett a "propagandist," George H.W. Bush. There are others who contend that Rather's ratings went south, but bottom line: Dan Rather, like Peter Arnett before him, made a powerful enemy of the Bush clan.

Arguably, it certainly wouldn't appear that the Pentagon is micromanaging the press given the release of "Top Secret America," The Washington Post's last week, a series showing how counter-terrorism now ranks up there with the construction of prisons as a cottage industry for the Department of Defense. If nothing else, WaPo's series shows, while the private sector is hurting, federal employees, especially spooks, have unprecedented job security. This would make J. Edgar Hoover proud.

Reportedly, it took two years to complete "Top Secret America" with the help of a dozen journalists. More than likely, the articles about intelligence were screened by intelligence before being cleared for publication. After all, this was not a leak, but a timed release intended to simulate transparency. The metastasizing of counter-terrorism arsenal is no more "breaking news" than the report of mineral riches found in Afghanistan, nor is this the first time the Defense Department has tried to control how newspapers cover a war.

In the days right after the invasion of Iraq, according to an article in the New York Times, Pentagon officials routinely met with news analysts of major U.S. papers to ensure that everybody was on the same page, and onboard as to how to massage the war for maximum efficacy. Yes, that's it, in other words, how to most effectively propagandize, or to "spin" which is a way to spin propaganda. What's different now is that massage is no longer on the table, but has been replaced by elimination of coverage altogether. The number of casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan is a footnote to most primetime news broadcasts, if it appears at all. There is another war that is constantly fought---the war for TV news ratings.

Why then isn't suppression of information itself covered by the press more than it has been? Isn't it sexy enough? It may have something to do with the fact that most classified, or restricted information has to do with active combat, thus if every article dealing with war has to be massaged by the Pentagon, one would essentially need permission from the Pentagon to cover censorship by the Pentagon; an enterprise strictly worthy of Sisyphus.

Anyone who gives a flying fajita about freedom of expression in this country will want to watch what happens when the press meets up with the Pentagon at Gitmo on Monday, as well as the outcome of the McClatchy suit.

One thing is for sure: the framers, when composing the First Amendment, never intended for freedom of the press to be mistaken with freedom to suppress.

Friday, July 30, 2010

From Michael Winship

The Right Manipulates Muslims – and Boy Scouts

By Michael Winship

I was never a Boy Scout but I was a helluva Cub Scout.

Pack 30, First Congregational Church. I rose through the ranks: Bobcat, Wolf, Bear, Lion. I accumulated Gold and Silver Arrow Points, the Cubs’ junior varsity version of merit badges. My mom was a Cub Scout den mother and spent a lot of time teaching fake Indian campfire songs and decorating various arts and crafts with poster paint.

But when the time came to transfer to the big guys, the Boy Scouts, I saw years of knot tying and helping little old ladies across the street ahead of me and opted not to re-up. Nonetheless, I feel my time served qualifies me to have an opinion about President Obama not appearing in person at this week’s National Scout Jamboree in Caroline County, Virginia.

The Jamboree is a gathering of the clans that takes place every five years or so and this year’s is especially significant as 2010 marks the centennial of the scouting movement in the United States. Congratulations. The Boy Scouts of America (BSA) is a wonderful organization. Truly.

But the right wing of this country, with the aid of Fox News and other media outlets, has opted to ignore many of the qualities one usually associates with a good scout – trustworthiness, honesty and especially cleanliness – to sling mud at the president for not making a personal appearance at the Jamboree. Instead, he videotaped a message for the lads.

Not exactly a sin on the order of massive oil spills or ethnic purification. But to hear conservative commentators you’d think he had at the very least used the flag to buff Air Force One. All of this complicated by the fact that the president came to New York instead for some fundraisers and an appearance on “The View.”

“It’s unfortunate that President Obama didn’t take the time to promote the Boy Scouts this week, but they should be able to thrive, as they have for the past 100 years, without him.” So sniffed Eagle Scout Nik Nelson, writing in The Weekly Standard, where he’s an intern.

What these folks fail to mention is that President Obama met with a group of scouts and their leaders just a little more than two weeks ago. In the Oval Office. In fact, the president does so every year, but this year, special attention was given to the centennial.

As Scouting Magazine’s official blog reported, “During the White House meeting, the president and the BSA delegation shared their mutual goals for addressing key concerns for our nation’s youth: healthy living, service to the community, and environmental stewardship.”

Admitting this, of course, would mess with the conservative narrative. Nor, it turns out, is this the first time that elements of the right have shamelessly tried to use the Boy Scouts, of all organizations, to impugn the Obama White House. A whispering campaign via e-mail (in cyberspace, no one can hear you scream) alleged that unlike his predecessors the president has refused to sign Eagle Scout certificates. As it turns out, there was a gap between the Bush and Obama presidencies when blank certificates were sent out.

But, as the debunking website reports, “Production of new Eagle Scout certificates bearing President Obama’s signature… got underway in late 2009 for distribution to Scouts who obtained Eagle rank in Spring 2010. President Obama has also mailed over 13,000 personal letters of congratulation to individual Eagle Scouts, including a September 2009 case in which every single one of the five most senior members of Troop 182 in Palatine, Illinois, earned eagle rank.”

Now all of this would be simply silly if not for the fact that this is the pattern: find a bright, shining lie, an often trivial issue, reshape it to your agenda of attack and fear, distort and dissemble, bang it like a drum to rouse the media circus and distract the public – and its public servants – from the critical work necessary to survive as a republic.

The Shirley Sherrod debacle at the Department of Agriculture last week is just one example. The current fight over building an Islamic “mosque” near (not “at”) Ground Zero here in Manhattan is another and perhaps the loudest.

Once again, downtown New Yorkers are faced with outsiders telling us our business. Newt Gingrich: "There should be no mosque near Ground Zero in New York so long as there are no churches or synagogues in Saudi Arabia. The time for double standards that allow Islamists to behave aggressively toward us while they demand our weakness and submission is over." Sarah Palin: “Many Americans, myself included, feel it would be an intolerable and tragic mistake to allow such a project sponsored by such an individual to go forward on such hallowed ground. This is nothing close to ‘religious intolerance.’ It’s just common decency.”

But as developer Sharif El-Gamal told Jordana Horn of The Jerusalem Post, “Those aren’t my neighbors, my friends or my New Yorkers. A vocal minority have come out to amplify their own agendas of hate and bigotry that have nothing to do with my project.” He notes, too, as have many others, that calling it a mosque is an exaggeration. “There will be a mosque component, which will be a separate not-for-profit component of the project,” Gamal said. “It’s going to be a small component in a community center, just like the 92nd Street Y has a synagogue.”

This is not to deny the emotions that always will be stirred by 9/11, especially by the friends and families of those who died there, but as Padraic O’Hare, director of the Merrimack College’s Center for the Study of Jewish-Christian-Muslim Relations at Merrimack College, wrote in The Washington Post. “Build a house which nurtures and cultivates less wounded, less ego-driven and more just and peaceful Muslims, people of real and healthy prayerfulness? Hand me the shovel.”

Meanwhile, as the citizenry has its attention diverted by xenophobic anti-Muslim harangues, on Thursday night, Republicans in Congress killed the Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act to help emergency workers and others near Ground Zero. As the New York Daily News reported, the bill “would spend $3.2 billion on health care over the next 10 years for people sickened from their exposure to the toxic smoke and debris of the shattered World Trade Center. It would spend another $4.2 billion to compensate victims over that span, and make another $4.2 billion in compensation available for the next 11 years.”

GOP members called it a “slush fund.” Is there a merit badge for classy?

Michael Winship is senior writer at Public Affairs Television in New York City.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

"The Kids are All Right" -- a review

I've just come from seeing the new film with Annette Bening, "The Kids are All Right," and for anyone (like myself) who ever questioned Bening's talent as an actor, you should go to see this film just to find out how wrong you are. She was terrific!

The writing was crisp, and the concept fresh. The script could have lost ten pages, but the character development made up for and, apart from one or two vexing stereotypes like when the son is told "It would have been better if you were gay; you'd be more sensitive," it was quite credible, if predictable.

Remarkably, and importantly, the acceptance with which a familial relationship between two same sex characters by the theatre audience was in itself an accomplishment. Aside from the comment of a woman sitting a few seats down from me, "oh my god----moms!," people in the suburban theatre where the film was shown seemed nonplussed to find that the movie was about a lesbian couple, and that they had the same issues, and difficulties raising teenagers, as any other couple would.

Yes, of course, there are some who might complain about the inevitability of one of the women, Jenna, falling for a man, but to even make a movie as explicit as this one thirty, or ten years ago would have been impossiible.

And, then, of course, there's always the matter of whether one really cares about what happens to either of the women characters, and their relationship. The short answer is "no." One cares more about the kids which explains the title, and this movie affirms the conclusions of a recent study that says the progeny of lesbian couples turn out more "well-adjusted" than others. Whatever "well-adjusted" means. In the context of this film, one infers that it means going off to college, and indulging in sports. There is no attempt to challenge the facile way in which "normalcy" is viewed, and how families who divert from the traditional husband/wife model actually contribute something unique and different to the dialogue.

Frankly, as an afficionada of gay male porn, I, too, was a bit baffled to find a lesbian couple watching it as were the hyenas next to me who talked nonstop. Indeed, human sexuality is complex, even though one sensed this film ultimately over-simplified it, but what do you want, this isn't Ingmar Bergman, it's Hollywood.

More importantly, one was engaged throughout, again despite the implausibility factor. One would think that having an affair of that magnitude with anyone, regardless of the gender, would transform a character in ways that make it impossible for her to go back to life as it was. Ibsen's "A Doll's House" it wasn't, but I highly recommend it for the acting, directing, and the script. The editing could have been better---it was a bit slow.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

The Skeleton in John Yoo's Closet

If former White House lawyer and deputy assistant attorney general under President George W. Bush, John Yoo, were ever to decide to join the ranks of newfangled conservatives running for office, he would be hard-pressed to hide the skeleton in his closet. Mr. Yoo, who now teaches constitutional and international law at U.C. Berkeley, is married to the daughter of former wartime correspondent, Peter Arnett.

For those who remember Mr. Arnett from his days reporting on both Gulf Wars on CNN, and MSNBC, we can only sit back and savor the irony. The man whose name has come to be synonymous with the "torture memo" of August, 2002 which authorized so-called enhanced alternative interrogation methods, a man who said that the U.S. doesn't have to abide by the Geneva Conventions if our enemies don't, and one who, according to the Contra Costa Times, recently told a Sacramento crowd that he doesn't "consider" waterboarding torture gets to sit down to turkey dinner every year with a father in law who was fired from NBC News for saying on Iraqi TV what every American now knows, that the Iraq War was a failure.

Yes, that's right, the White House lawyer who opined that one has to effectively kill somebody before it's considered torture is now next of kin to the reporter who broke the story, in 1998, on network news that U.S. forces killed their defectors by using Sarin gas on a Laotian village in 1970.

Arnett, a war correspondent with 40 years of experience, won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of Vietnam as a reporter for the Associated Press. Yet, he quickly became George H.W. Bush's biggest nightmare when he covered the allied bombing of a civilian baby milk factory. The Guardian U.K. reported that the senior Bush was so upset with Arnett, he called him a propagandist.

It quickly became clear that Peter Arnett was a whistleblower for U.S. military transgressions. But, it was his appearance on state-run Iraqi television back in March, 2003 that got him fired from his positions at MSNBC, NBC, and National Geographic. And, despite his official apology, he was forced off the air.

Peter Arnett now teaches journalism in China.

The discussions around the Yoo table must be fun to watch when Arnett comes to town now that the theatre of battle has moved to Afghanistan. In March, 1997, the seasoned journalist sat down to interview Osama bin Laden and, as he was later to tell CNN, as far back as 1997, U.S. intelligence "had figured out that bin Laden was a major potential threat."

Arnett said that he gleaned from interviewing bin Laden, four years before the bombing of the World Trade Center, that it was bin Laden's intention to convert Afghanistan into an Islamic state. He told CNN, only three months after 9/11, that it was clear four years earlier that the al Qaeda leader had "an apocalyptic vision about violent change, not only in the Arab world, but the whole Islamic world, including Indonesia and the Philippines."

He could tell all this from one conversation with bin Laden back in 1997, and still the CIA, those distinguished masters of political assassination, couldn't figure out a way to target him.

In April, Arnett told a gathering of Vietnam era journalist colleagues that Vietnam was "the first foreign war the U.S. ever fought where the press challenged government thinking, challenged the decisions of generals, challenged the political decisions the war was based on."

Maybe, during one of their meals together, Arnett can ask his father-in-law whether Yoo might expand his restrictive definition of torture, which requires organ failure, to include the more than 4500 American troops not to mention Iraqis who have died in that country alone, as well as those now being killed daily in Afghanistan.

Without a doubt, Peter Arnett's career would be in as much jeopardy today as it was under both presidents Bush were he to report on Afghanistan with anything less than a positive slant.

Moreover, that Ward Churchill should have been forced out of the University of Colorado for writing a controversial essay about 9/11 while John Yoo continues to teach international law, of all things, at U.C. Berkeley is one irony that doesn't fit in anybody's closet.

Friday, July 23, 2010

The Audacity of Leadership

Amazingly, it was fifty-five years ago that a young senator, John F. Kennedy, wrote a Pulitzer Prize winning biography about eight senators who put their principles above their political ambitions. "Profiles in Courage" recounts the stories of men like John Quincy Adams, and Daniel Webster.

John F. Kennedy may well have stumbled upon the answer to those who criticize another young president today: "We, the people, are the boss, and we will get the kind of political leadership, be it good or bad, that we demand and deserve." We, the people, are not speaking loud enough, not when it comes to funding illegal wars..

On Thursday, the Senate passed legislation appropriating another $60 billion to fund the troop surge in Afghanistan. The Senate bill is stripped of $20 billion in domestic spending House Democrats proposed including $10 billion in grants to school districts that are facing teacher layoffs.

As the Seattle Times reports, Defense Secretary Gates is pressuring Congress to pass the measure before their August recess, threatening that failure to do so will result in "thousands" of furloughs at the Pentagon.

Somehow, one can't help but think of two former presidents who would have applauded thousands of Pentagon layoffs: Dwight D. Eisenhower who spoke of a "military industrial complex," and John F. Kennedy who asserted the need for "complete and total disarmament."

The $60 billion the Senate has now slated for Defense, and Defense only could be put to better use. For one thing, it might prevent states like California from furloughing more state workers, and teachers. Instead, the $10 billion the House added on for domestic spending will be spent on more military bases in Afghanistan and foreign aid unless "we, the people" speak up.

When even the most strident proponents of the war in Afghanistan acknowledge that it isn't going well, what does it say about a country that lays off more than two-hundred teachers for "poor performance" in one district alone, Washington, D.C., but leaves in place a Defense Department that has been grossly underachieving. More to the point, since when does a Secretary of Defense get to pressure Congress into passing legislation slated for the Pentagon's pocket?

Now that the Senate has approved financing another "surge," this time in Afghanistan, the bill goes back to the House where only a handful of Democrats will oppose it.

Members of Congress who are now preparing for more debate on the Senate version of this war appropriations bill might be well served by remembering not only "Profiles in Courage," but something else John F. Kennedy once said: "The world is very different now. For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty, and all forms of human life."

In the end, as President Kennedy suggests, leadership is in our hands. We have the power to elect, and reelect.

Those Senate Republicans who speak the loudest about the need for fiscal austerity have no qualms allocating many billions of dollars for the merchants of war. By acquiescing to their demands, Democrats are quickly becoming Tweedle Dee to Republican Tweedle Dums.

The party that triumphed in 2008 must now do what it was elected to do, stop beating around the bush (indeed, both Bushes), and quit financing illegal, unpopular wars which compromise not only their political careers, but their principles. They must show that hope isn't audacious; leadership is. It takes courage to see this, and even more courage to act on it.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

HIV: Eastern Europe's Gulf Disaster

Coverage of the 18th annual International AIDS Conference has all but been eclipsed by nonstop footage of the BP oil spill, and Lindsay Lohan's arrest.

Absent on the airwaves was this: Africa is no longer the only continent hard hit by HIV infection. Eastern Europe and Central Asia now lead the world as the fastest growers of HIV, as the World Health Organization told the 18th International AIDS Conference.

While new cases of HIV/AIDS have largely stabilized in western Europe, they have spiralled out of control in the east, a fact which is attributed to intravenous drug use.

Back in May, the New York Times ran a story about how the global war on AIDS is "falling apart" and today, in Vienna, former President Bill Clinton exhorted more than than 20,000 scientists and activists from nearly 200 countries not to drop the ball on this disease.

The number of those newly infected with HIV/AIDS in 2008 was 2.7 million, according to the Times, a figure that is expected to climb by one million a year, and nearly double by 2010.

Clinton stressed the toll the current global recession has taken on HIV/AIDS funding, arguing that now, at a time when more than 5.2 million people worldwide receive some form of HIV treatment, is not the time to cut back.

But, the AIDS Conference which ends on Friday is not all doom and gloom. There are promising new developments; AIDS vaccines are on the horizon.

Among the most exciting research being done is with enzymes. Dr. Sudhir Paul, a scientist at the University of Texas Houston Medical School, has identified a deficiency in the immune system in the HIV-infected population, and has come up with a potentially groundbreaking vaccine candidate which produces antibodies that insulate the virus against replication. He has engineered an enzyme that will address the deficiencies in the autoimmune system. As CNBC reports, the vaccine has already been tested, and proven to be effective in laboratory tests.

Dr. Paul's findings will be among those presented at the 18th International AIDS Conference in Vienna.

Would that it were possible to get the kind of nonstop television coverage about the AIDS crisis in Eastern Europe, and Central Asia that we now get about British Petroleum's Gulf of Mexico oil spill. Because it is a sexually transmitted disease, and/or one that afflicts IV drug users, AIDS is not in the spotlight.

Instead, there is a tendency to sweep the virus under the rug, and take it off the plates of even the most culturally literate of the world population as if infection with HIV reflects some kind of moral leprosy. To the contrary, not devoting as many resources as possible to put the best scientific minds to work is indicative of social, and moral atrophy as we are condemning to death many millions more whose lives could have been saved, but weren't because cost effectiveness seldom represents the cost in human life.

Monday, July 19, 2010

From Michael Winship

Don’t You Know There’s a War On?

By Michael Winship

A recent headline on the New York Daily News website was blunt: "In case you’ve forgotten," it read, "we’re at war."

The story was about the deaths of six Americans in Afghanistan in five separate attacks and one accidental explosion, all on the same day. The day before, coalition forces had mistakenly killed six Afghan civilians when an artillery strike missed its target; the day after, the Taliban would kill eleven Afghan policemen and a district governor.

It is the deadliest year of the war in Afghanistan, now the longest in American history. And although for most of us it’s out of sight, out of mind, each day, the numbers continue to slowly creep up. So far this year, 241 Americans have died, 60 of them in June, 39 in July, according to the website

On July 12, the independent watchdog Afghanistan Rights Monitor reported, "In terms of insecurity, 2010 has been the worst year since the demise of the Taliban regime." By the group’s calculations, 1074 civilians had died so far in 2010, although the much-discussed restrictions on rules of engagement have lowered the number of civilian deaths caused by international forces. The majority -- 61 percent -- died in insurgent attacks.

All of which is to say, whatever it is we’re trying to do in Afghanistan -- fighting the so-called global war on terrorism, waging a counterinsurgency, nation building -- it isn’t working. And in continuing to fight this conflict we are not only guaranteeing the continued destruction of that faraway land but our own country as well, lives and treasure pouring into futility abroad as double dip financial disaster threatens on the homefront.

For an American military already stretched to the cracking point, the human cost spreads beyond the immediate casualties of the battlefield. June was the worth month ever recorded for US Army suicides, the service reported last Thursday, with soldiers killing themselves at the rate of one per day, 32 confirmed or suspected in all. Twenty-two of them had been in combat; ten had been deployed two to four times. What’s more, by the spring of 2009, according to The Washington Post, "The percentage of the Army's most severely wounded troops who were suffering from PTSD [post traumatic stress disorder] or traumatic brain injury had climbed to about 50 percent, from 38 percent a year earlier."

The one bit of good news: "Senior commanders have reached a turning point," the Post reported on Sunday. "After nine years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq, they are beginning to recognize age-old legacies of the battlefield -- once known as shellshock or battle fatigue -- as combat wounds, not signs of weakness. [Army Vice Chief of Staff] Gen. Peter Chiarelli... has been especially outspoken. 'PTSD is not a figment of someone's imagination,' Chiarelli lectured an auditorium of skeptical sergeants last fall. 'It is a cruel physiological thing.'"

Yet many remain unconvinced and military medicine suffers from a chronic shortage of money and personnel -- neurologists especially -- to provide the care so desperately needed. Like so much else associated with this war, the solution remains out of reach.

Even among those who still publicly declare victory is within grasp there is uncertainty and doubt, their arguments a threadbare tapestry behind which it’s increasingly difficult to hide. Despite this week’s international conference in Kabul with Secretary of State Clinton in attendance, and despite the announcement that President Karzai has agreed to create local defense forces that will augment the police and military, little real progress is being made in creating any semblance of stability in Afghanistan. The ferocity of the insurgency continues to intensify, the size of their bombs grow larger and more deadly. Last week’s fatal attack on an Afghan police base in Kandahar was described by an experienced US Army Airborne captain as "definitely well-planned and coordinated much better than anything we’ve seen before." A preview of coming attractions as some 10,000 Afghan and coalition troops prepare to escalate fighting aimed at clearing out the Taliban’s Kandahar strongholds.

But even if we were to "win," what then? As Tom Engelhardt wrote last week on the website, "We would be in minimalist possession of the world’s fifth poorest country. We would be in minimal possession of the world’s second most corrupt country. We would be in minimal possession of the world’s foremost narco-state, the only country that essentially produces a drug monocrop, opium. In terms of the global war on terror, we would be in possession of a country that the director of the CIA now believes to hold 50 to 100 al-Qaeda operatives ('maybe less') -- for whom parts of the country might still be a ‘safe haven.’ And for this, and everything to come, we would be paying, at a minimum, $84 billion a year."

Meanwhile, McClatchy News reported Thursday on two Kabul glamour spots, the Fig Health Centre and the Kabul Health Club, where the expatriate community can relax with a hot stone massage or an Arctic berry facial: "One spa treatment at Fig would be a month's salary for most Afghans in a country with a 35 percent unemployment rate, a pervasive culture of state-sanctioned corruption and constant dangers posed by the war with the Taliban."

Abdul Farani, owner of the Kabul Health Club told McClatchy, "I believe in the value of a peaceful environment. We can rise to the levels of angels or sink to the level of devils and what's different is the environment."

In case you’ve forgotten, we’re at war.


Michael Winship is senior writer at Public Affairs Television in New York City.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Endgame in Afghanistan

The goal in Afghanistan has never been to win. There was never anything to win in the first place. There was no war, until we got there. The objective has been, from the start, acquisition of that nation's resources.

Still, the pablum from the mainstream media, and from the campaign trail in 2008, was that the U.S. had to go into Afghanistan to capture, dead or alive, those fellows who brought down the Twin Towers.

While the military effort in Afghanistan began less than a month after the bombing of the World Trade Center, some report that interest in invading the region by India, as well as Iran began as early as March, 2001.

India was said to support the effort to bring down the Taliban well before 9/11. This, of course, is ironic in that it was the CIA who reportedly armed, and trained the Taliban in Pakistan before shipping them out to Afghanistan.

There was a time, too, when insurgents were seen as the "good guys." Remember, Osama bin Laden was among the Afghan resistance to the Soviets who were largely financed by the CIA during the Carter and Reagan administrations, and who had a big fan in Ronald Reagan back in the days when bin Laden still called himself a "freedom fighter."

The argument the Obama administration made, during the 2008 presidential campaign, was that military forces needed to deploy to the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan to hunt down Osama bin Laden, and the other al Qaeda members who orchestrated 9/11, a Quixotic quest that is merely an extension of the foreign policy of the Bush years.

The U.S. ended up invading Iraq, toppling the regime of Saddam Hussein, a leader who enjoyed a friendly relationship with this country for years, many of which happened to correspond with his acts of genocide. When it was economically expedient, i.e. when we needed his oil, we suddenly became concerned with Saddam's human right's record.

And, as for the Taliban, India would just as soon join forces with the U.S., and get control of Afghanistan to transform the region into a stronghold in the nuclear contest between India and Pakistan. With the aid of the U.S., India would, in effect, eat Afghanistan, and thereby expand not merely its political interest in that country, but partake of that country's most lucrative asset--that soft, silvery metal, lithium.

A couple of weeks ago, there was a front page story in the New York Times about the discovery of "vast mineral wealth" in Afghanistan as if this were breaking news. Reports of mineral wealth in that region date back more than thirty years.

The biggest finding of all is of a soft, silvery-white metal, lithium, which is tantamount to finding gold, or oil.

And, talk about transparency, even the CIA now admits that only about 50 al Qaeda operatives are currently in Afghanistan, and maybe another 100 member of the Taliban. Obviously, it doesn't take 100,000 troops to fight 150 people. Equally obvious is the U.S. interest in Afghanistan revolves around lithium, not to mention the lucrative poppy fields.

Forewarned is forearmed: when playing with "divide and conquer" with two countries that have nuclear capability, like India and Pakistan, the outcome may be apocalyptic.

By the time the U.S. is ready to declare "game over" in Afghanistan, it may be lights out for the planet.

It might be wise for the U.S., and whatever allies it has left, to leave the apocalypse where it belongs--in the Bible, and implement a definitive plan to begin the immediate withdrawal from that region. If the U.S. continues its mad course of empire-building in an effort to control the natural resources of other sovereign countries, it may find itself with another use for lithium---to treat manic-depression.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Camp Cropper: No Deposit, No Return

U.S. forces turned the last, and biggest detention camp in their country over to Iraqis on Thursday.

As the Christian Science Monitor reports, more than 1500 prisoners are now in Iraqi custody including two dozen officials who served under the regime of Saddam Hussein, most of whom would be eligible to collect social security benefits in the U.S. and whose pastime, while incarcerated, was gardening. Some of the detainees who were captured by U.S. forces during the eight year occupation of the region were victims of abuse at Abu Ghraib.

The Iraqi government requested nearly 200 "high value" detainees remain in U.S. hands along with several former officials, a handful of whom are slated to be executed. It is believed that many of these detainees belong to insurgent groups like al Qaeda in Iraq, groups that had no presence there before the U.S. invasion.

Curiously, these men will now share the same barracks as former officials where, as CSM says, they will live in "genteel captivity" watching BBC Arabic, reading books, and even the daily newspaper.

Camp Cropper may someday be seen as a symbol of our protracted presence in a sovereign state, as well as a catalyst for its emergence as a no deposit, no return government. Many in Iraq would have been right to ask to see our collateral when we invaded, back in 2002, and they have every right to demand that we not return. We will know that Iraq is standing on its own two feet when it insists that there be no U.S. presence in the country.

Until then, one must marvel at the irony that Iraq, a country often depicted as cutting its teeth on democracy, should opt to hold accountable officials from a previous regime for their high crimes and misdemeanors while the U.S. government has failed to hold officials from a previous regime responsible for theirs. Jay Bybee, John Yoo, Donald Rumsfeld, George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Karl Rove, to name a few, have all been given a get out of jail free card.

Yes, the teacher has become the student, and can learn a thing or two about accountability.

And, it was also revealed this week that former Assistant Attorney General Jay Bybee, author of the so-called torture memo, has doubts as to whether or not the Justice Department approved the most controversial, and heinous techniques employed by interrogators on detainees at Guantanamo Bay, and elsewhere.

According to the AP, Bybee, in effect, "advised" the CIA that there would be no authorization for "substantial repetitions," meaning no legal cover for interrogators who didn't get that "repetition will not be substantial." Bybee is essentially saying that the CIA acted outside of guidelines which were already stretching the law. Clearly, waterboarding is illegal, and the number of times one is waterboarded is irrelevant.

Now a federal judge, Bybee told the Judiciary Committee in late May that his so-called "techniques memo" did not provide a blueprint for what can only be seen as torture, and what has traditionally constituted a war crime for generations. Or, as he cogently puts it, "those techniques were not authorized."

Who, then, gave the signal to go ahead with procedures that were clearly illegal, and why is it that a country that the U.S. deemed unfit for self-governance is more adept at condemning those who are responsible for corrupting their government than we are?

Every chance the U.S. has had to go after those whose actions, even during times of war, were beyond the pale has been passed up. Back in 2007, a federal district judge dismissed the case against five Blackwater security guards who were arrested for shooting seventeen unarmed civilians in Baghdad.

Charges against seven of the eight marines involved in the killing of two dozen unarmed Iraqi men, women, anc children, back in 2005, were dropped. Their sergeant,, Staff Sergeant Frank Wuterich, who allegedly gave the command to fire still serves in the Marine Corps, his trial having been postponed.

The official, or officals who approved Wuterich's command to fire have yet to be named.

Doubtless, Iraqis must be left to marvel at how former U.S. officials have crossed the line, and with impunity, who should instead find themselves catching up on their gardening at Camp Cropper, too.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The best way...

The best way to hold a grudge is by the tail.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Michael Winship on "deniability"

On the Foul Line with the Chamber of Commerce

By Michael Winship

I may be one of the only Manhattan residents not disappointed with LeBron James’ televised announcement that, “This fall, I’m going to take my talents to South Beach and join the Miami Heat.”

You see, when the basketball superstar was contemplating signing with the New York Knicks last week, he came house hunting in my tragically trendy, downtown neighborhood, and news soon broke that he was looking at a $12.9 million fixer
upper – with high ceilings -- directly across the street from my apartment building.

Visions of permanently camped-out paparazzi and crazed fans – in an area already besieged by Carrie and Samantha wannabes on the “Sex and the City” bus tour – had me scanning the real estate websites for a cottage small by a waterfall, preferably near a subway stop.

Sure, there would have been advantages to LeBron James as a neighbor– carpooling, for one – but all I need at this stage of life is yet another reminder of someone far younger, richer, and better coordinated than I am.

James’ new deal reportedly is worth $110 million. And while fans in Cleveland are calling him all sorts of rotten names, depressed and angry that he’s deserting their beloved Cavaliers, nonetheless I presume that he would make a more congenial local resident than, say, other rich folk about whom The New York Times reported on Friday.

Many seem to have found yet another way to take advantage of the gruesome economy some of them helped to create, skipping out on their mortgages “at a rate that greatly exceeds the rest of the population.”

According to the newspaper, “More than one in seven homeowners with loans in excess of a million dollars are seriously delinquent, according to data compiled for The New York Times by the real estate analytics firm CoreLogic. By contrast, homeowners with less lavish housing are much more likely to keep writing checks to their lender. About one in 12 mortgages below the million-dollar mark is delinquent.

“Though it is hard to prove, the CoreLogic data suggest that many of the well-to-do are purposely dumping their financially draining properties, just as they would any sour investment.”

There’s little concern among the wealthy about the impact these defaults have on their communities. “The rich are different: they are more ruthless,” Sam Khater, CoreLogic’s senior economist, told the Times. “… If they’re going delinquent faster than anyone else, that tells me they are doing so willingly.”

Not entirely unexpected behavior, when the gap between the richest and the rest has becomes so vast that the highest percentile can barely see us, even when they stand on top of their wallets for a better view. And not surprising at a time when the Supreme Court, through the Citizens United decision and other rulings, has determined that wealthy corporations are people, too, with license to run roughshod (albeit in very nice shoes) over the democratic process, freely spending their fortunes on candidates who will do their bidding, all in the name of the First Amendment right to free speech.

Sam Stein of The Huffington Post website reported last week about a chart circulating in Washington of ten “Republican aligned institutions,” the amounts of money they spent on federal elections in 2008 and the amounts they intend to spend on this year’s midterms.

Stein writes that, “If their pledges are fulfilled, these ten groups will unleash more than $200 million in election-focused spending – roughly $37 million more than every single independent group spent on the 2008 presidential campaign combined. This time around, almost every single penny will be going to Republican candidates or causes.”

He added, “A Democratic operative makes the case that the total could rise to roughly $300 million if it includes additional pledges for campaign spending from Americans for Prosperity, promising $45 million, the Club for Growth, $24 million, the National Rifle Association, $20 million, and the Susan B. Anthony List, $6 million.”

Jon Youngdahl, national political director of the labor union SEIU said, “We fear that due to Citizens United these numbers are only going to grow. I fear these are the first signs of that growth” (The Washington Post reported last month that SEIU has budgeted about $44 million for federal and state political activities this year. The AFL-CIO had not released its figures.)

At the top of the “Republican aligned” list is the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which has committed $75 million to the midterms, more than twice what they spent on federal elections just two years ago.

A profile of Chamber president and CEO Thomas J. Donahue in the current issue of Washington Monthly notes that while 96 percent of the Chamber’s membership is small businesses with fewer than 100 employees, “it is also beholden to a cadre of multinationals whose interests are often inimical to those of small business. In 2008, a third of its revenues came from just nineteen companies.”

Approximately eight of every ten dollars the Chamber gives in political donations go to GOP candidates. Former Chamber economist Lawrence Hunter says the organization “views itself as a shadow-government policymaking body” and the Washington Monthly article notes that for big business, “a large part of what the Chamber sells is political cover.”

It cites the example of medical companies who were against health care reform. For manufacturers “who are too smart and image conscious to make public attacks of their own, the Chamber of Commerce is a friend who will do the dirty work.”

Quoth Tom Donahue, “I want to give them all the deniability they need.” Swell.

According to the Monthly, Donahue keeps a plaque on his desk that reads “SHOW ME THE MONEY,” a sentiment with which a hotly sought after athlete like LeBron James can identify. James is going to Miami to be with fellow free-agent stars Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. Donahue knows who his Super Friends are, too: big business, the conservative, naysaying obstructionists in Congress and their candidates, poised to take back the majority. If successful, they’ll wind back the clock and make Democrats feel as if the last two years were an easy layup from under the basket.

Michael Winship is senior writer at Public Affairs Television in New York City.

Thursday, July 08, 2010


"We may congratulate ourselves that this cruel war is nearing its end. It has cost a vast amount of treasure and blood. . . . It has indeed been a trying hour for the Republic; but I see in the near future a crisis approaching that unnerves me and causes me to tremble for the safety of my country. As a result of the war, corporations have been enthroned and an era of corruption in high places will follow, and the money power of the country will endeavor to prolong its reign by working upon the prejudices of the people until all wealth is aggregated in a few hands and the Republic is destroyed. I feel at this moment more anxiety for the safety of my country than ever before, even in the midst of war. God grant that my suspicions may prove groundless."

Excerpt from a letter by President Abraham Lincoln to (Col.) William F. Elkins, Nov. 21, 1864.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Jump Starting the First Amendment

In February, 2009, the Pentagon allowed the International Red Cross to photograph detainees at Guantanamo Bay for the first time. They had been barred from doing so for eight years prior to that.

Photographers with the Miami Herald went with the Red Cross, and said that it was nearly impossible to distinguish so-called "high value" detainees from those who have been since released. The photos are disturbingly happy, and relaxed, given what we now know about detainee abuse. Some of the men were smiling, and holding up pictures of their young children, children they had not seen since birth. Clearly, it is not in the interest of national security to show the human face of war.

Granting the Red Cross this kind of access was one small step for the Pentagon, but one big step for the war on illegal incarceration. Yet, again, it is one step forward, and two steps back.

And, what the Pentagon giveth, the Pentagon taketh away. In May, four reporters were banned from covering military commissions at Gitmo, and now, in an effort to jump start the First Amendment, McClatchy reports that major news organizations are organizing to challenge the ban as illegal in that it "bars publication of information considered 'protected' even if the information is already widely known and publicly available."

The groups argue that the Supreme Court has, in the past, denied to validate this restriction. McClatchy, parent company of the Miami Herald and more than two dozen newspapers, is joined by The Associated Press, The New York Times, Reuters, The Washington Post, and Dow Jones in the lawsuit.

While the Pentagon has acquiesced and said they'd lift the ban next month, the four reporters in question will still be denied access to the hearing they were covering which will resume mid-July.

But, it's not just the Pentagon. The Coast Guard just issued a ruling that denies reporters from coming within 65 feet of oil booms, and response vessels at the site of the spill in the Gulf of Mexico. As CNN's Anderson Cooper reports, failure to comply with this new rule will result in felony charges, and fines as high as $40,000. Compliance will result in less coverage of the tragic effects of the spill on wildlife. birds that have been soaked and suffocated by oil.

Doubtless the Defense Department would want to suppress images that might interfere with what is reported to be their more than $980 million in contracts with BP. The First Amendment, which has been in the Intensive Care Unit for more than eight years is now, like many pelicans in the Gulf of Mexico, in critical condition.

The tired argument that the suspension of a free press and/or free speech is sometimes necessary in the name of national security is quickly exposed as little more than a mask for the true underlying motive which is not national security, but national greed.

The pablum about "keeping us safe" is a ruse for a grand scale money laundering campaign which involves big business and big corporations. This is nothing new, but it is alarming nonetheless that even transparency now comes with an expiration date.

Friday, July 02, 2010

From Michael Winship

This Fourth of July, Celebrate "1776" -- The Movie

By Michael Winship

As we commemorate the Fourth of July, one of the joys -- and there are many -- of life in these United States is that you never know what the hell we, the people, will say next.

There's the delightful teenage girl in Montclair, New Jersey, who when informed this week that the nice married couple nearby had been arrested as Russian intelligence agents, joked to The New York Times, "They couldn't have been spies. Look what she did with the hydrangeas."

On the other end of the comedy spectrum there's House minority leader John Boehner, who scoffingly told the conservative Pittsburgh Tribune-Review that financial reform was akin to "killing an ant with a nuclear weapon." Yep, the bank-fueled economic meltdown that created those 8 million U.S. job losses and $17 trillion in lost retirement savings and net worth was one heck of an anthill. Good one, John.

But one remark that really floored me occurred last week when I was interviewing FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski before an audience at the Silverdocs documentary film festival just outside Washington, DC. At the end of the conversation, which covered everything from net neutrality and broadband access to the fate of investigative journalism in cyberspace, we took questions from the audience. One gentleman had several brief policy questions and then, of all things, asked Genachowski to name his favorite movie.

"'1776,'" the chairman instantly replied, with "Fiddler on the Roof" a close second.

Yes, "1776," the film version of the Broadway musical comedy by Sherman Edwards and Peter Stone that turned the signing of the Declaration of Independence into a song-filled romp through eighteenth century Philadelphia. Ben Franklin, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson even dance down a staircase in Independence Hall.

You could have knocked me over with a quill when Genachowski said it. But truth be told, "1776" is a favorite of mine as well. I wouldn't rank it anywhere near such greats as "Casablanca" or "Chinatown" or "The Godfather" or "Some Like It Hot" and "The Thin Man" (to name but a few), but I saw the movie when it first came out in 1972, still tune it in when it pops up on cable and have even seen a couple of staged revivals of the original play, one at a dinner theater in Maryland where between scenes the actors playing delegates of the Continental Congress served up prime rib and strawberry shortcake.

Yes, it's corny; many of the jokes are groaners and some of the lyrics edge toward crossing that "Spinal Tap" fine line between stupid and clever. But there's something deeply stirring about seeing the Founding Fathers as human beings, their foibles broadly drawn, their desire for freedom duking it out against prejudice, self-interest and resistance to change.

"What's so terrible about being called an Englishman?" Continental Congress delegate John Dickinson asks Benjamin Franklin. "The English don't seem to mind."

"Nor would I," Franklin replies, "were I given the full rights of an Englishman. But to call me one without those rights is like calling an ox a bull. He's thankful for the honor, but he'd much rather have restored what's rightfully his."

In some ways, this sparkly paean to patriotism is a subversive little hand grenade, its liberal politics woven into the plot at a time when Richard Nixon was still in the White House. In an exchange that stings now even more than it did then, John Hancock tells John Dickinson, "Fortunately there are not enough men of property in America to dictate policy," and Dickinson replies, "Perhaps not. But don't forget that most men without property would rather protect the possibility of becoming rich, than face the reality of being poor."

When the movie version was released its producer, Jack Warner -- allegedly at the behest of Nixon -- removed a song, "Cool, Cool Considerate Men," sung by loyalist, conservative delegates who smugly shout, "We have land, cash in hand, self-command, future planned!" According to "1776" writer Peter Stone, "The opponents of independence were very much involved in commerce and profits, so they were very much allied to modern conservatives. Nixon didn't want Americans to be reminded of this as he faced re-election in 1972, and the country was preparing to celebrate it's bicentennial. I think that's why he hated the song, and why Jack Warner took it out."

Luckily, the missing footage was found and has been restored to the version we see today on TV and DVD.

"1776" is a reminder that the embrace of the status quo in the face of revolutionary ideas is nothing new. Nor is bloody legislative compromise or our ongoing frustration over a Congress mired in petty squabbling, unable to take action.

At the beginning of the story, John Adams sings, "A second flood, a simple famine, plagues of locusts everywhere, or a cataclysmic earthquake, I'd accept with some despair. But no, You sent us Congress! Good God, Sir, was that fair?" Later he laments, "I have come to the conclusion that one useless man is called a disgrace; that two are called a law firm, and that three or more become a Congress!"

But the Tea Partiers and Glenn Becks of America who scorn government and who have tried turning the Founding Fathers into libertarian deities will find little comfort in "1776." As Franklin says in the film, "We're men, no more no less, trying to get a nation started against greater odds than a more generous God would have allowed." Rather than fall hopelessly into endless name-calling and mudslinging like today, ultimately these men engaged in forthright debate and overcame ideological differences that threatened to stop their revolution before it began. They managed to produce a nation, an experiment outlined in a Declaration of Independence that is, as the movie version's John Adams says, “a masterful expression of the American mind."

And they did so realizing, as a character in the film says -- quoting the words of conservative icon Edmund Burke, member of the British Parliament -- that a representative owes the people not only his industry, but his judgment, and he betrays them if he sacrifices it to their opinion.

So watch the movie and see what you think (Turner Classic Movies is playing it on the Fourth of July). I'd match "1776" against "The Last Airbender" or that "Karate Kid" remake any day.


Michael Winship is senior writer at Public Affairs Television in New York City.

Thursday, July 01, 2010


"Art never expresses anything but itself."

Oscar Wilde