On Jan. 8, Newsweek revealed that the Bush administration is "intensively debating an option that dates back to a still-secret strategy in the Reagan administration¹s battle against the leftist guerrilla insurgency in El Salvador in the early 1980s." The "option" under consideration: the use of death squads to kill Iraqi insurgents.
The plan more closely resembles a dark and desperate homage to the murderous legacy of Salvadoran ultrarightist Major Roberto D'Aubuisson than anything likely to bring lasting peace to Iraq. But, as Newsweek reports, since many on the American right downplay El Salvador's scores of dead civilians when they equate counterinsurgency "success" with U.S. actions in El Salvador (graciously described by the magazine as an instance where "the U.S. government funded or supported nationalist forces that allegedly included so-called 'death squads'"), the notion of using U.S. Special Forces teams to "advise, support and possibly train Iraqi squads to target Sunni insurgents and their sympathizers" makes perfect sense.
This latest bit of news may be the best indicator to date as to just how far around the bend the current crop of Pentagonistas has gone in their straw-grasping attempts to check the insurgency-they-never-thought-could happen. The plan should be a cause for alarm, and not just because Pentagon hawks are apparently still rationalizing away the murder of scores of Salvadoran citizens. It¹s also disturbing because the U.S. military's own scholarship over the past 20 years holds that that the military and political counterinsurgency efforts in El Salvador are at best a case study in how to prolong an insurgency, not end it.
Success? What Success?
In a 1991 paper for the U.S. Marine Corps Command and Staff College, Maj. Robert J. Coates characterized the conflict – then in its twelfth year – as an ongoing "insurgency to be defeated." In other words, not quite the "success" that the Bush administration now claims it was. Having been a U.S. military advisor to the El Salvadoran Armed Forces (ESAF), Coates was certainly in a position to know just how well things were going on the ground: Contrary to rosy reports about the ESAFs "improvements," Coates characterized its officer corps as one so "riddled with corruption" and inhumane to its own soldiers (where "officers view the enlisted men as a replaceable commodity") that it was "detrimental to the war effort" – so much so that it had actually "aided the insurgency¹s ability to prolong the war."
Coates' report was, however, really only a shorter, updated version of a 1989 report, titled "American Military Policy in Small Wars: The Case of El Salvador," by the conservative quartet of Andrew Bacevich, James Hallums, Richard White and Thomas Young, all of whom were U.S. Army lieutenant colonels at the time. Their considered opinion: a decade of billions of dollars in U.S. military and civil aid had done little but preserve a wretched status quo with no end in sight.
Unlike many who start from the errant presumption that fighting a counterinsurgency is primarily a military, rather than political, affair, the colonels held that U.S.-backed military efforts should not be the primary strategy of a counterinsurgency operation, but that the real focus should be on genuine social, political, economic and military reform – and should be conducted only with a "honest and responsive government" as a partner.
In El Salvador, the officers found, U.S. aid in the name of counterinsurgency had produced two results. The first was the creation of a better equipped and slightly better trained Salvadoran army that, in taking the fight to the FMLN, merely encouraged the rebels to disband into smaller units – units that the Salvadoran army refused to engage, opting instead for "search and avoid patrols," as one U.S. officer derisively put it. The second outcome was the strengthening of a corrupt and repressive oligarchy, financed by billions of dollars justified by wishing-will-make-it-so rhetoric about reforming El Salvador's government. Only too aware of the American obsession with not losing a country to communism, the government felt free to flout U.S. demands for progressive change and let its paramilitary terrorists run rampant. "The failure to revitalize the government," the officers wrote, "further accounts for the existing stalemate and poor prognosis for the future."
With nothing to lose, the Salvadoran military and its proxies pursued a campaign of "lavish brutality, fail[ing] to distinguish between dissenters and revolutionaries," killing tens of thousands of citizens (many of whom had nothing to do with the FMLN), all of which added up to a "U.S. policy built on a foundation of corpses." So concluded Benjamin Schwartz, the RAND Corporation analyst tasked with assessing El Salvador policy for the Department of Defense, in December 1998's Atlantic Monthly.
Schwartz noted that the "dirty little secret" to maintaining a perpetual stalemate was that "death squads worked." Looking back with revulsion, Schwartz summed up "counterinsurgency" in El Salvador as a policy that in theory "demanded nothing less than that America effect fundamental changes in the country's authoritarian culture, its political practices, and its economic, social and military structure. Such a project used to be called, presumptuously, 'nation-building¹." In reality, "for a decade American policymakers in Washington and American civilian and American military personnel in El Salvador consorted with murders and sadists." And it was mass murder that received bipartisan authorization, with Republicans "greatly exaggerating" the human rights achievements of what they knew was a perpetually "homicidal regime" and Democrats pursuing a policy of "meaningless threats," getting the occasional unenforceable condition attached to aid that they would never block lest they be perceived as too leftist.
The Moral of El Salvador
As Schwartz and others have noted, the end of the war in El Salvador had little to do with a triumph of military counterinsurgency or the effectiveness of U.S. "nation-building" efforts, but with the end of the Cold War. With the collapse of the mighty Soviet Union, the Salvadoran government knew that Tio Sam would no longer be so generous with aid or as accommodating of murder. And so the government sat down and negotiated a peace with the FMLN. The end result illustrated on of many lessons about the U.S. efforts endeavor in El Salvador: "American involvement in counterinsurgency," observed the Army War College's Steve Metz, "is often like lending money to a chronic gambler – it postpones real resolution of the problem rather than speeding it."
So what then are the real parallels between El Salvador and Iraq? First, in terms of its ability to fight, the Iraqi military is just as bad, if not worse, than the Salvadoran military. Second, given the Sunni boycott of the upcoming elections, Iraq's not going to have a truly legitimate, representative government anytime soon. Third, despite the Bush administration's rhetoric about its plans to provide a better future for the Iraqis, any U.S.-backed government in Iraq will, in light of current circumstances, likely be allowed to be as ineffectual, brutal or corrupt as it wants. As was the case in Salvador, the imperative of staving off the guerillas – now that fighting terrorism rather than communism is our prime national security objective – will trump all other considerations.
There may be some optimists in the White House – as well as Democratic enablers in Congress – who think the U.S. can still use the Salvador model without repeating its errors. But for that plan to work, the U.S. government and its army will need a modern counterinsurgency doctrine and training regimen – which it didn't have it in El Salvador, and which it doesn't have now. Pray that fortune favors the foolish.
In May, Stephen Green was hard at work campaigning for a seat in Vermont's House of Representatives when he got a phone call. The last person the 64-year-old former United Nations official, then preoccupied with health-care policy issues, expected to hear from was an FBI agent, who asked if he could come to Washington to chat with him about the history of Israeli espionage efforts against the United States.
As the author of two books on U.S.-Israeli relations, Green knew something about the subject. Still, the phone call seemed to come out of the blue. Green quickly discovered, however, that the FBI had a keen interest in the subject. Federal agents were involved in an investigation into an alleged Israeli "mole" in the office of Douglas Feith, the under secretary of defense for policy.
Early reports suggested that the FBI had wiretap evidence that a veteran Iran analyst working in Feith's office at the Defense Intelligence Agency, Larry Franklin, may have passed a classified draft of a National Security Presidential Directive on Iran to an official working for the pro-Israel lobbying organization, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). Members of the organization, in turn, were said to have passed the document on to Israel. (AIPAC officials strongly deny the accusations.)
But as Green spoke with investigators, he realized the agents were investigating far more than Franklin.
"Larry Franklin's name never came up, but several others did," he said.
Green, as the FBI agents knew, had a special expertise in the field of Israeli espionage in the United States. In the 1980s, he had taken time off from his job at the UN to look into the U.S.Israeli "special relationship." He spent years combing through public records, filing and litigating Freedom of Information Act requests, and tracking down current and retired government officials. He eventually wrote two books, Taking Sides: America's Secret Relations With Israel and Living By The Sword: America and Israel in the Middle East. The Times of London and Foreign Affairs commended his work, describing it as "praised by those who believe the United States has damaged its own security, and Israel's too, by uncritical and often secret support of Israel's actions, no matter how extreme." Yet, as Foreign Affairs reported, Green's work also caused "sputter[ing] with indignation" among "those who believe that American and Israeli interests are identical."
Green returned to the UN in 1990 and followed the subject from there. Earlier this year, he published a piece in the newsletter CounterPunch, recapping previously reported – though long-forgotten – government investigations of prominent neoconservatives for their suspected espionage or improper information-sharing with Israel. And that's where the FBI comes in.
According to the FBI agents who contacted Green, as he recounts, the article had come to their attention when one of Greens sources – a retired national security official they were interviewing – shared it with them.
And so on June 22, Green found himself sitting across an oval-shaped conference table from two FBI agents at an undisclosed northern Virginia venue. The meeting lasted nearly four hours.
"They were extraordinarily well-informed; it was apparent they've been at this for awhile," Green says. "I asked them if there was a current reason for them asking questions about things that go back over 30 years, and they sort of looked at each other and said, 'Yes, it's a present issue,' but wouldn't say specifically what. Though they did ask very specific questions about one individual in particular."
Green said the agents asked about several current or former Pentagon officials such as Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, Douglas Feith, Michael Ledeen, and Stephen Bryen.
"The tenor of their questions was such that it defined where these people were in terms of the nature of their focus," Green says. "They also asked about a couple other Office of Special Plans people, including Harold Rhode. Ironically, about the only name that didn't come up was Larry Franklin."
Regardless of the status of the investigation, something seemed a bit fishy. After all, Israel – one of the United States closest allies, with deep support in the Bush Administration and especially at the Defense Department – hardly needs a Pentagon-embedded spy to get access to interagency debates about U.S. policy to Iran, as observers have pointed out. And compared with the information on arms shipments that former US Navy analyst Jonathan Pollard passed on to Israel in the 1980s, a draft of a document about U.S. policy toward Iran would hardly seem like the crown jewels.
Yet, as Newsweek has reported, Franklin had come to the FBIs attention a year and a half ago, when he walked in on a lunch with an Israeli diplomat and an AIPAC lobbyist, both of whom were under FBI surveillance for a year. In addition, Newsweek reported that when news of the investigation surfaced, Franklin had already been cooperating with the FBI for several weeks and had reportedly led FBI agents to those who may have received information from him.
The previous FBI investigation came into focus only on September 1, when The Washington Post reported that for two years, the FBI has conducted a counterintelligence investigation into whether AIPAC has forwarded highly classified materials from the National Security Agency . . . to Israel. The Post piece describes Franklins alleged role as merely coincidental to the larger FBI probe of alleged intelligence-passing through AIPAC to Israel.
Both AIPAC and Tel Aviv vehemently deny any wrongdoing. And indeed, the Israeli diplomat who acknowledges meeting with Franklin and AIPAC – Naor Gilon, the Israeli embassys No. 3 official and a specialist on Irans nuclear program – returned to Washington on August 29 from a summer vacation in Israel. He admits that he met with Franklin, but insists hes done nothing wrong.
A source familiar with the investigation told The American Prospect that when news of the investigation broke, the Justice Department had been preparing a request to the State Department to have an Israeli diplomat – by implication Gilon – declared persona non grata for allegedly having received classified U.S. intelligence from AIPAC sources.
Furthermore, a Sept. 1 report by NBC speculated that the reason the Israelis may have broken their declared post-Pollard policy of not spying on the United States is because of Israels preeminent concern about Irans nuclear program, and its view that the United States may not be prepared to act assertively enough to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.
The Post piece seems to imply that Franklin is more of an anti-Tehran zealot than anything else and wasnt engaging in espionage per se. But as the Post article and the June meeting between Green and the FBI seem to indicate, the FBI is looking into the possibility there's been communication between Israeli elements and U.S. officials, including several who work for Feith and have access to sensitive intelligence on Iran and its nuclear program.
Ever since the Guardian of London revealed almost two weeks ago that "Anonymous," the author of the soon-to-be-published Imperial Hubris: Why the West Is Losing the War on Terror (Brassey's, Inc.), is a CIA figure "centrally involved in the hunt for Bin Laden," the American press has been playing catch-up – yet in a strangely coy sort of way.
Public interest in the book itself isn't at all hard to understand: It's not every day that an active US intelligence officer publishes a work that disputes the Bush administration's assertions, holding that, among other things, bin Laden is not on the run; the invasion of Iraq has not made the United States safer; and that Islamists are in a campaign of insurgency, not terrorism, against the US because of US policies, not out of hatred for American values. But what's a bit harder to grasp is exactly why the media seem so reflexively deferential to the idea that "Anonymous" must be anonymous – especially when critical details revealed in a June 23 New York Times story indicated that his real identity is well-known to at least a few denizens of the Washington press corps.
Indeed, the Times piece revealed that Washington Post managing editor Steve Coll knows more about Anonymous than most – enough to give him a first name and details of his career in Coll's recently published and highly acclaimed book, Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001. While the Times identified "Mike" via Coll's book as a 22-year CIA veteran who ran the Counterterrorist Center's bin Laden station (code-named "Alec") from 1996 to 1999, the paper also reported that in spite of that revealing detail – and despite the fact that "Mike" is an overt CIA employee whose name is not a state secret – a "senior intelligence official" held that "Mike's" full identity had to remain unknown because revelation of his full name "could make him a target of Al Qaeda."
For the moment, all the general public knows about the book comes from excerpts posted on a handful of Web sites, and a slew of brief television and radio interviews, where Anonymous has appeared in silhouette. He also published another anonymous book two years ago, Through Our Enemies' Eyes: Osama bin Laden, Radical Islam, and the Future of America, which analyzed the structure and motives of Al Qaeda.
Anonymous is not squishy; both Hubris and Eyes seem sufficiently apocalyptic to warm the heart of someone as anti-Islamic and bloodthirsty as, say, Ann Coulter. So if liberals seem ecstatic that yet another career national-security official is blasting the Bush administration for unnecessarily invading Iraq and bungling the so-called war on terror, they're also horrified by Anonymous's apparent advocacy (largely rhetorical, actually) of a military campaign that includes "killing in large numbers" and "a Sherman-like razing of infrastructure" as part of "relentless, brutal and blood-soaked defensive military action until we have annihilated the Islamists who threaten us."
But at issue here is not just the book's content, but why Anonymous is anonymous. After all, as the Times and others have reported, his situation is nothing like that of Valerie Plame, a covert operative whose ability to work active overseas cases was undermined when someone in the White House blew her cover to journalist Robert Novak in an apparent payback for an inconvenient weapons-of-mass-destruction intelligence report by her husband, Joseph Wilson. Anonymous, on the other hand, is, by the CIA's own admission, a Langley-bound analyst whose identity has never required secrecy.
A Phoenix investigation has discovered that Anonymous does not, in fact, want to be anonymous at all – and that his anonymity is neither enforced nor voluntarily assumed out of fear for his safety, but rather compelled by an arcane set of classified regulations that are arguably being abused in an attempt to spare the CIA possible political inconvenience. In the Phoenix 's view, continued deference by the press to a bogus and unwanted standard of secrecy essentially amounts to colluding with the CIA in muzzling a civil servant – a standard made more ridiculous by the ubiquity of Anonymous's name in both intelligence and journalistic circles.
When asked to confirm or deny his identity in an interview with the Phoenix last week, Anonymous declined to do either, and said, "I've given my word I'm not going to tell anyone who I am, as the organization that employs me has bound me by my word." His publisher, Brassey's, likewise declined to comment. Nearly a dozen intelligence-community sources, however, say Anonymous is Michael Scheuer – and that his forced anonymity is both unprecedented and telling in the context of CIA history and modern politics.
"The requirement that someone publish anonymously is rare, almost unheard-of, particularly if the person is not in a covert position," says Jonathan Turley, a national security law expert at George Washington University Law School. "It seems pretty obvious that the requirement he remain anonymous is motivated solely by political concerns, and ones that have more to do with the CIA. While I'm sure some would argue that there's some benefit to book sales in being anonymous because it's mysterious and fuels speculation, the fact is that if his full name and history were known and on the book, it would get a lot more attention. It's difficult for the media to cover an anonymous subject who has to abide by limits on what he can say about himself or anything that might reveal who he is."
Upon reviewing Scheuer's manuscripts, the CIA could have done what national-security agencies have done in the past with employees' works that were based on open (i.e., unclassified or publicly available) sources, but whose wide distribution might be problematic: Stamp a "secret" or "top secret" classification on it so it never sees the light of day. Yet, according to intelligence-community sources, this really wasn't an option with Scheuer's work, given the unusual origins of Through Our Enemies' Eyes.
"That book actually started as an unclassified manual in 1999 for new counterterrorist officers working bin Laden and Sunni extremism," says one veteran CIA terrorism specialist. "Scheuer had written it at the request of his successor as Alec station chief, who specifically wanted it to be something that was drawn from open sources in the Arab and Islamic worlds for two reasons: one, so people could take it out of the building and digest it at their leisure, and two, because he wanted new officers to appreciate how much is actually out there that's useful that isn't classified, particularly if you have a context for it."
Given his in-house manual's open-source-based, unclassified status, Scheuer figured it wouldn't be much of a problem to cull more public material to recast the approximately 100 pages as a marketable academic manuscript – which he did over the course of late 1999 and early 2000, submitting the book to the CIA's Publications Review Board (PRB) in the spring of 2000. According to Scheuer, the manuscript was at first denied release because the board took issue with the book's brief favorable discussion of Samuel Huntington's "clash of civilizations" theory, which posits that antagonism between Western and Islamic cultures (among others) will drive world conflict in the coming years.
"They wrote back saying our Arab friends would be upset, and 'his views of Huntington's paradigm bring into question his ability to perform official duties,'" Scheuer says. "That came back, and I thought it was beyond the pale, so I appealed directly to the seventh floor [higher-ups]. And it took the better part of a year to get permission to submit it for publication. I believe it was because of 9/11 that they suddenly became less concerned with what they first considered ';areas of sensitivity.' But the condition was that I remain anonymous and that there be no mention of my employer on the cover or anywhere else."
Some have speculated that "Anonymous" has been publishing with at least a measure of blessing from a CIA so angered by certain White House and Pentagon elements that it has taken the unprecedented step of allowing an active intelligence officer to inveigh against the administration – and is enjoying the fact that it can unleash a critic protected by the vagaries of national-security protocols. But the fact of the matter – as interviews with other intelligence-community officials and CIA correspondence show – is that while there might be an element of truth to that now, the agency has only reluctantly approved Scheuer's books for release because he shrewdly played by the rules. And the unique nature of CIA rules has forced him into an unhappy compromise where, even when confronted with his own name, he has to publicly deny his identity unless the agency changes its mind. (The CIA did not acknowledge a call from the Phoenix, and "declined to comment on [Imperial Hubris] or its author" to the Associated Press on Friday.)
According to several long-time intelligence officers familiar with Scheuer's situation, there's no question that the agency's conditional permission was grudging. "Think back to 2002, and imagine what would have happened if a book had come out that said ';by Michael Scheuer, former chief of the CIA's bin Laden unit' on the cover – it would have been a bestseller overnight, reviewed and discussed all over the place," says one veteran spook. "But because it was ';anonymous' and didn't even say what exactly he did, let alone what agency he worked for, it was destined to be what it's become: a required read among people who work this stuff, but not much else. Ironically, it seems to be selling well in the agency gift shop at Langley, and everyone from the [National Security Agency] to [the Center for Strategic and International Studies] has had him over to lecture about it. But I don't think it even got reviewed but a couple of places."
One doesn't have to read the manuscript terribly closely to see how it provides some benefit to the CIA. Critical as Anonymous is of his own organization – as well as of the Bush and Clinton administrations – he absolutely blasts the FBI on pages 185 through 192. Many progressives may not cotton to the broad notion he advances here – namely, that the US should simply dispense with any sort of legalistic, law-enforcement approach to combating Al Qaeda and leave it entirely to the covert operators. But in the context of Washington's political postmortems on 9/11-related intelligence failures, this is stuff that at least makes the FBI look worse than the CIA.
Among some in the intelligence community who have either obtained copies of the Imperial Hubris manuscript or heard about certain passages, the rough consensus is that a not-long-for-his-job George Tenet indicated to the PRB that the book's publication should be allowed, as it might blunt or contextualize some of the scathing criticism likely to assail the agency in forthcoming 9/11 Commission and Senate Select Intelligence Committee reports – and also might aid the cause of intelligence reform. According to several intelligence-community sources, the manuscript was in limbo at least three months past the Review Board's 30-day deadline earlier this year. Says one CIA veteran: "I think it's possible that it got the approval around the time Tenet decided for himself that he was leaving."
Whatever the PRB's rationale, Scheuer – who in interviews with the Phoenix never explicitly said he works for the CIA, only an "intelligence agency" – says he agreed to the conditions because, regardless of any issues he may have with the agency, he truly enjoys what he does and has no desire to quit government service. "I could make more money if I left – I have contractors leave cards in my office and take me to lunch, and I have a marketable set of skills, and it would be better for the books if I could actually say who I was. But I really like working where I work and doing what I do. We do marvelous things and stupid things here, but this place is essential to the security of America, and I think we have been at the lead of making the country safer. I'm not disgruntled. If I was, I would have left already. I just want this information and perspective out there."
What he does not like, however, is the notion advanced by the agency that he's agreed to be "Anonymous" based on safety concerns. According to Scheuer and his editor at Brassey's, Christina Davidson, when Nightline wanted to interview Scheuer in 2003, the agency told the program that his anonymity was not compelled but his own choice – an assertion the agency also made in a 2002 note to Brassey's. Davidson was so infuriated that she demanded the CIA state its actual position in writing, which it finally did in a May 25, 2004, fax signed by Paul-Noel Christian, chair of the agency's PRB. The fax, obtained by the Phoenix, reads in part: "This letter is to confirm that it is the Agency, and not the author that insists that approval for the manuscript is predicated upon the author maintaining his anonymity and also that his association with the Agency is not disclosed."
In the wake of the June 23 New York Times story, Davidson sent a terse note to CIA spokesman Bill Harlow that has yet to receive a response. "To say that our author must be kept in the shadows because he has expressed fears about al Qaeda retaliation is patently false and impugns his courage," she wrote, adding the "respectful request that you cease and desist from spreading this falsehood and inform all members of your staff to do the same."
In an interview after the Times story came out last week, Scheuer sounded none too pleased. "I suppose there might be a knucklehead out there somewhere who might take offense and do something, but anonymity isn't something I asked for, and not for that reason; it makes me sound like I'm hiding behind something, and I personally dislike thinking that anyone thinks I'm a coward. When I did the first book, I said it would be a more effective book if I used my name. And they said no."
On November 22, 2003, the 16th paragraph of an Associated Press story filed from Baghdad reported that troops from the U.S. Army's Fourth Infantry Division had arrested former Iraqi lieutenant general "Taha Hassan" "for alleged involvement in mortar attacks on police stations" in his hometown of Baquoba. One day later, Agence France-Presse noted the arrest of "Taha Hassan Abbas," as he was correctly identified, in a report that included additional dramatic details. A Fourth Infantry Division spokesman quoted by AFP provided the official account of the arrest: Abbas had "resisted when an assault force approached his house," and "engaged [in] fire," which was returned by U.S. troops who "captured" Abbas and two others.
Far more important than the AP's errant reporting -- itself a reflection of the story's low priority -- is that these two dispatches moved over the wires but went unpublished by any newspaper. Instead, in what has become par for the course, readers were treated to brief depictions of beleaguered U.S. troops engaging in the challenge of bringing law and order to a country beset by Ba'athist insurrectionists. But as disturbing details and images continue to flow from investigations into the horror show that was Abu Ghraib, an increasingly outraged American public is trying to fathom why U.S. forces seem so obviously out of control in their sweeping arrests and torturous interrogations of Iraqis. Just as important, they're also wondering whether the American media have failed -- by design or default -- to convey the ground-level truth of the U.S. occupation of Iraq, minimizing the causes of Iraqi alienation and resentment.
In a soon-to-be-released documentary, a top international investigative reporter offers a tentative explanation for both forms of derailment. On March 14 -- almost six weeks before 60 Minutes II aired its Abu Ghraib story -- the Australian NineNetwork's Sunday newsmagazine program aired a scaled-down version of Iraq -- On the Brink," reported by Ross Coulthart, a journalist whose award-winning investigations have spanned rough-and-tumble assignments in East Timor and Afghanistan to seminal intelligence and public-corruption investigations in the U.S. and Australia. Indirectly, Coulthart raises serious questions about American media self-censorship -- something journalists have been wrestling with since the first Gulf War. The film also raises the possibility that, then as now, such self-censorship may have helped the military cover up Iraqi wartime deaths. (A 15-minute trailer for "Iraq -- On the Brink" can be seen at the Journeyman Pictures website Latest RealPlayer required. American audiences may get to see snippets of the documentary in Michael Moore's award-winning Fahrenheit 9/11, depending on how it's released.)
Indeed, what began at Abu Ghraib as a probe into torture has now forced the Army to reveal that at least 32 Iraqi deaths may qualify as homicides. Whether Taha Hassan Abbas was one of the victims is difficult to say; extensive official and unofficial inquiries by the Phoenix into the former general's status yielded no answers. Yet as film footage shot by the NineNet crew shows, the Fourth Infantry Division's official account of Abbas's arrest was disingenuous at best.
Beyond the sometimes-shocking documentary content of "Iraq -- On the Brink," the film bears witness to the yawning gap between what on-the-scene journalists see and what the rest of the world sees. The Hassan-arrest footage was not recorded or guarded or classified by the U.S. Army. It was shot and marketed by a major news organization, the Associated Press Television News (APTN). So why doesn't footage like this make it into U.S. news coverage? TV news services send out teasers for potential stories, and clients buy footage based on what they see in the teasers. The trouble is, either teasers don't include the most damning material or, even if such material is included, news producers, for whatever reasons, decide not to buy the whole piece. However, it happened, the footage that made it into Coulthart's documentary, as well as that which was left out, was as available to American TV networks as, say, footage of George W. Bush carrying a turkey platter to troops on Thanksgiving Day. Yet no one chose to run it.
Coulthart goes out of his way to present a nuanced view of the occupation. He notes that under the command of Colonel David Teeples, soldiers of the Third Armored Cavalry Regiment, which was charged with enforcing a 9:00 p.m. curfew in the Iraqi-Syrian border town of Qusabah, were exceptionally careful. Coulthart's camera crew captured images of Teeples's resolute but respectful soldiers questioning Iraqis through translators, and in one case, quickly entering and exiting a house in pursuit of a suspected curfew violator. In other encounters, U.S. troops make a point of explaining why they're doing what they're doing, and ask for the Iraqis' help in the future. Heavy weaponry aside, the footage plays like a domestic-dispute encounter from Fox TV's Cops.
These scenes stand in stark contrast to what comes next. "The Americans need to win the hearts and minds of Iraqis," Coulthart says in his voiceover. "But that's not helped by aggressive raids like this one carried out by troops not under the command of Colonel Teeples." Though the troops are not identified, patches on their uniforms peg them as soldiers from the 588th Engineering Battalion of the Fourth Infantry Division. "It's the dead of night outside the house of a senior former Iraqi officer," Coulthart continues, referring to Taha Hassan Abbas, "who's suspected of helping the insurgents."
The soldiers don't exactly approach with stealth. They kick open a gate to the house's yard. What happens next, as Coulthart explained in an interview with the Phoenix, illustrates a perilous gap in American and Iraqi cultural understanding. "First, you have to understand that guns are ubiquitous in Iraq -- most people have them, and it's very common for them to shoot them in the air all the time for any number of reasons -- from celebrations to anger to whatever," he says. "Burglary has become very common in the past year, and oftentimes, if people hear something outside their homes at night, they'll fire a shot or two into the air to scare burglars away. Now, you could just go up to a house, like other soldiers do, and just knock on the door. But some treat these missions like full-fledged combat operations and start kicking things in with guns drawn, and then you get what happens next."
Coulthart's voiceover continues: "The officer's son -- thinking the soldiers are thieves -- goes to the roof of the house and fires into the air to scare them away." The response from U.S. soldiers: "We've got a shooter on the roof!" followed by a hail of bullets loosed at the house.
The next shot -- of film, that is -- shows Abbas, a clearly unarmed, middle-aged, balding man in pajamas, hands above his head, trembling as he stands across from at least a half-dozen U.S. soldiers whose M-16s are trained on him. "Inside the house, the officer surrenders, but he doesn't understand what the Americans are saying -- and they don't have a translator," Coulthart explains. Abbas repeats the only English he appears to know -- "Welcome! Welcome!" -- over and over again, keeping his hands far above his head as the Fourth Infantry Division soldiers handle the situation in a way almost exactly the opposite of how the Third Cav troops acted in similar circumstances. The Fourth Infantry soldiers' manner foreshadows the images at Abu Ghraib that the world would see months later.
"Want me to shoot him in the leg?" one soldier yells. "I might shoot you!" another growls at Abbas. As Abbas stands motionless in the doorway between his kitchen and the next room, one soldier shouts, "He's trying to draw us in there!" Another solider half mutters, half yells, "I don't give a shit, I'm gonna shoot, I'm gonna shoot, I'm gonna shoot!" while another hollers, "I can shoot him in the leg!"
"Get the fuck over here, get the fuck over here," shouts another, while the previous soldier repeats his desire to shoot Abbas in the leg, adding that someone should also "shoot him in the foot."
Abbas steps away from the doorway and moves his back to the wall. "The Iraqi officer, thinking he's about to die," Coulthart's voiceover resumes, "can now be heard praying." The American response is far from ecumenical, with one soldier yelling, "Who the fuck are you talking to? Who the fuck are you talking to? Shut the fuck up! Shut the fuck up!" The soldier then grabs the man's pajama top and hurls him across the room into the hands of another soldier, who in turn hurls him into a chair that goes flying as the Iraqi sprawls onto the floor. One soldier begins to kick Abbas, who, though on his back, has his hands in the air again, repeating, "Welcome! Welcome!" Three soldiers put their gun barrels in his face, with one solider yelling repeatedly, "Shoot him!" Another asks, "Who's shooting?" when he hears gunfire from the roof, and then yells, "Bullshit" at the prone Abbas, who continues to repeat, "Welcome!"
The next sequence shows the capture of Abbas's adult son, who had shot the gun off on the roof; as he's being restrained, a soldier's voice barks menacingly, "Take the camera off him." The film then resumes with a shot of two women -- apparently Abbas's wife and daughter -- kneeling on the ground at gunpoint, their hands on their heads, their faces pictures of anger and humiliation.
The final shot shows the former general. Though fleeting, it is, perhaps, the most disturbing sequence of the film, given that in his previous appearance Abbas was terrified but physically unharmed. Now, his arms are restrained behind his back. His face is battered and bruised. His left eye is beginning to swell shut. The front of his shirt is stained with blood, and a stream of snot and blood dangles from his left nostril.
"No one here was killed," Coulthart's voice resumes. "But it's raids like this that can only fuel the resentment against Coalition forces."
Speaking from Australia, Coulthart doesn't entirely fault the soldiers for their initial reaction to gunfire from the roof: "One could reasonably, though incorrectly, conclude that one was being fired on, and it makes perfect sense to fire back if that's what you think." But, he says, it again raises the question of who gave the order for the squad to apprehend the general in the way it did -- especially without a translator -- given the obvious potential for creating an unnecessarily inflammatory situation. "People don't seem to realize the incalculable damage something like this causes," he says. "You can see on the face of the young woman that her heart and mind are gone forever to the Americans. When we first saw this footage, the first reaction of our Iraqi fixers was absolute anger -- I can only begin to guess what the reaction is to the scenes from Abu Ghraib."
Coulthart says he's not sure what's more troubling: that the arrest of a former Iraqi lieutenant general apparently merited no coverage; that footage showing an arrest almost completely at odds with the official account was not distributed in its entirety by Associated Press Television News; or that what was distributed wasn't of interest to any APTN clients.
"We had a hunch that there was probably some very disturbing footage cameramen had shot that American network producers had consciously chosen not to air, or that broadcast-news-service editors had edited teasers in a way that didn't prominently feature footage like this," he says. "I think the problem is more with the clients for TV news services than the services themselves. In this case, the edited version sent out was just a shortened version that didn't show the drama that we realized when we viewed the entire sequence. When we saw it, we couldn't believe no one had used it. Because the clients should have realized first off that the version was an indication of something more sinister worth investigation."
At the same time, he says, it may be asking too much of news organizations to air such footage. "This is part of the irony of how modern news systems actually work to keep stuff like this off the air. Places like APTN and Reuters TV generate so much, squirting out images 24 hours a day on permanent satellite-feed channels, that there just isn't time to monitor it and watch it all. Which is too bad, because it's the wire services like APTN and Reuters that are doing most of the really ballsy shooting."
Coulthart is similarly vexed by the lack of attention U.S. media paid to the American use of cluster bombs last year -- and how the damage they've done has engendered extreme ill will towards the American occupiers, particularly in the Doura section of Baghdad. Condemned by most international humanitarian organizations, cluster bombs explode and then spray smaller explosive bomblets over a vast area; all too often some of the bomblets don't immediately explode, causing civilian casualties later on. Featured prominently in "Iraq -- On the Brink" is Aida al-Ansari, an English-speaking Doura resident whose son and 25 others were killed when a U.S. warplane cluster-bombed her neighborhood as American forces were fighting their way into Baghdad last spring. While a handful of stories mentioned the Doura bombing last year, there's been no follow-up since -- another missed opportunity, as the Sunday crew discovered, to understand the roots of growing Iraqi anger at the occupation.
When Coulthart visited the Doura neighborhood this year, he discovered al-Ansari, who still has the shrapnel-torn, bloodstained jeans her 16-year-old son, Fahad, was wearing when he died on the operating table at a local hospital, bereft of any anesthetic to ease the pain. Almost a year later, Coulthart reports, "grief among Fahad's family and friends has now hardened to anger" directed at the U.S. government. "They hate them," al-Ansari tells him of the Americans, explaining that "they don't hate the people, but they hate Bush and the Army."
"Did they hate the United States before this war?" Coulthart asks.
"No," she responds. "They were -- everybody used to dream to go to United States to work or to do something."
"Has anyone from the Coalition ever come to you or to this community and apologized for what happened?" he asks.
"No. No one."
The documentary also includes another type of footage rarely seen on American television. Though ABC originally aired it briefly (and though a handful of Web sites have shown it at various lengths), "Iraq -- On the Brink" includes the full night-vision footage taken from the gun cameras of a U.S. Army AH-64 Apache helicopter that shows the killing of three men, one of whom appeared to be hiding a rocket-propelled grenade. Though it's impossible to verify just what the man has, the crew is nonetheless instructed by radio to "Smoke 'em," and then coolly fires through the dark at each suspected insurgent in turn. In this sort of video-game-style footage, we're used to seeing the destruction of bunkers and buildings, not human figures.
However shocking it is to watch, the action is actually permissible under the U.S. Army's rules of engagement; indeed, it was likely that reliable intelligence led the helicopter to stake out the scene in the first place, and as helicopters are notoriously vulnerable to rocket-propelled-grenade and other shoulder-fired-missile attacks, it's not entirely surprising that the Apache fired away. Rather, says Coulthart, the importance of the footage is that it reflects what many non-American Coalition military units said to his crew: that they've grown increasingly concerned about the political ramifications of the Americans' take no-prisoners/show-no-mercy approach. "When it came up in conversation with one Coalition officer," says Coulthart, "he shook his head and said, 'The Americans have gone feral and no good will come of it.'"
"Iraq -- On the Brink" also captures the brusque aloofness of CPA administrator J. Paul Bremer, the shiftiness of Ahmad Chalabi, the still-being-uncovered hidden horrors of Saddam's regime, and the bravery of the Baghdad Police Department's bomb squad in defusing scores of bombs each day. (The Americans use remote-controlled robots to neutralized explosives threatening U.S. troops; the Iraqis display what Coulthart calls a "splendid madness in heroism" as they are left to defuse bombs by hand, with no protective gear.)
While Coulthart thinks the documentary makes for an accurate and timely snapshot of post-Saddam Iraq, he exhales a rueful sigh at the mention of Abu Ghraib -- a sigh that reflects a sense of both self-recrimination and angst born of the economics of foreign correspondence. When his crew was en route to meet Teeples and his Third Armored Cavalry soldiers in Iraq's western desert, their route took them past Abu Ghraib. As Coulthart recalls, no discussion was required to stop the van; the scene they beheld "was like something out of Dante's Inferno." "We all knew what it was and what it stood for, this thing with mythological status in Iraq where all this death and misery took place," he says. "Part of what was striking was that, frankly, it wasn't looking much different now -- barbed wire, troops with menacing gun emplacements, lines of people trying to get in to see relatives.
"While we're filming overlays, up walks this mother, who tells us this horror story about her sons essentially being abducted from their home in Um Qasr by the Americans in the middle of the night. I did the interview, of course, but didn't run it in our story because it seemed a little off our focus. You're so focused on the story you tell yourself is the story -- in part because the cost is so high and the budget is so tight. It cost us $1500 a week to be there, and unless we deliver results, it's harder in the future to get the support this kind of work requires."
Indeed, Coulthart says, those sorts of cost considerations actually kept the cluster-bomb segment from appearing on Sunday for a year. "Most of that we shot last year, but we had to focus on the story we were supposed to be telling, which was mostly about Chalabi," he says. Determined to advance the dormant story on his latest visit to Baghdad, days of street reporting led the crew to al-Ansari, whose experiences ultimately made for a much more informative and affecting piece of journalism.
Yet the fact remains that a disturbing reality went unreported for a year, essentially due to constraints on time and money. "And with Abu Ghraib, it was the same situation again," Coulthart sighs. "Though we had the luxury of more time and more flexibility than anyone who covers Iraq day in and day out, we felt like we couldn't shift our focus. And the irony was, here was this story of a lifetime right under our noses. There were people standing in queues trying to see their sons, waiting eight hours a day and often being told to come back the next day, and then the next and the next. Looking back on it, I'm not only kicking myself now, but am kind of ashamed. I'm sure that if we had scratched the surface and had taken the time to systematically interview people coming out to Abu Ghraib trying to figure out what had happened to their loved ones, we could have dug something up then."
Coulthart's sentiment is not uncommon among seasoned, independent-minded reporters cognizant of the complexities of most foreign stories. But in some respects, the dice have been loaded against journalists covering Iraq since the beginning of the war. While a handful of journalists has provided a steady stream of exemplary reporting, there are some who feel that whatever good reporting has been done since the end of "major combat operations" has involved an even greater uphill battle for attention than usual. Why? Because the Bush administration's practice of embedding journalists with the troops set the tenor of Iraq-war reporting.
As the Washington Post's Richard Leiby wrote last year, embedding was nothing short of a "propaganda coup" for the Defense Department. By embedding scores of reporters (many with little or no combat or foreign experience) in rapidly advancing frontline units, argued Leiby, the Pentagon ensured that virtually no one who was "cover[ing] the instability and power vacuum left in the invasion's wake" got nearly the play their "embedded" colleagues did -- thus minimizing the disturbing realities of poor post-war planning and lulling Americans into a sense of complacency, not about what was to come, but about what was already happening.
Speaking at an extraordinary-but-unnoticed symposium at the University of Texas last year, award-winning combat photographer Peter Turnley was unsparing in his criticism of the increasingly institutionalized self-censorship he believes began in the first Gulf War, and has only become more insidious since. In Gulf War I, Turnley -- then a top Newsweek photographer -- was so uncomfortable with the Pentagon's control of journalists through its "pool" system that he actually left Saudi Arabia before the war and snuck across the Kuwaiti border by dressing as an Army colonel. While many of his colleagues were being shepherded through the theater of operations by U.S. military minders, Turnley at one point found himself surveying a horrific scene that the Army thought it had successfully quarantined from journalists.
"I witnessed U.S. soldiers forcing Iraqi prisoners at gunpoint to pick up bodies and pile them up and put them in mass graves where bulldozers would come and cover them up," he said. "There were two Iraqi soldiers, they were really very pathetic, in their 40s, didn't have teeth, very tired and fatigued, and at gunpoint being made to pick up dozens of bodies. It seemed rather inhuman to me, how long they were obliged to do this. I remember as they dropped a body next to a stack of bodies, one of the Iraqi soldiers fell to his hands and knees and started sobbing. I got on my knees and started to make a picture -- at that point an American soldier came up and punched me in the chest and said, 'You animal.' And I grabbed him by the shirt and told him I didn't make these guys do this."
Although Turnley took rolls of disturbing and moving images -- some of which he showed to the symposium audience -- almost none saw the light of day, either in Newsweek or through distribution by his photo agency. Yet almost every newspaper reproduced Turnley's photograph of a wounded U.S. soldier in a helicopter, crying as a comrade died in his arms.
During the 2003 Gulf War, Turnley -- this time for the Denver Post -- once again struck out on his own, purposely avoiding U.S. and British soldiers and focusing his attention on the Iraqi people. "For the first three weeks, I would see a convoy, a whole troupe of writers from major media outlets that would come in for a half day's reporting so they could get their dateline and then get out," he recalled. "It took me literally five seconds of entering into Iraq and looking into the eyes of people whose eyes showed mistrust, open hostility at the worst. There were towns that troops had just flown through, not staying to create any law and order. People showed me leaflets the Americans had dropped from the sky saying they should be embraced with joy and welcomed because we were bringing liberation and food and water and power, and they'd scream at me, 'Where's the water? Where are the medical supplies? In the hospital we have nothing.'"
In Turnley's view, the media-government arrangement that effectively produced much of the coverage of Gulf War II and the early occupation conspired to create what he terms a "projected idea of reality" -- which policymakers actually consider tantamount to reality. Yet wrenching situations like the one he witnessed in a Baghdad hospital five days after the city's liberation, he says, are precisely what people need to see to drive home the reality that the invasion was not about American pride, but about America's failure to secure the blessings of liberation for the Iraqi people. "I saw this beautiful little girl on the bed -- yellow socks, white shirt -- and I noticed two doctors were doing cardiac massage on her chest, and that I was watching the life of this little girl evaporating. I thought I saw her chest exhale and I had this leap of joy, I thought she was coming back to life -- and one of the doctors had this look of disgust and put a towel over her face and walked out."
The girl, Turnley found out, had died of pneumonia, for which she could have been treated. But because the Americans had failed to plan for crowds running riot, the girl's father couldn't get her to the hospital before it was too late.
A clip and transcript of "Iraq -- On The Brink" are available on the Journeyman Pictures website. A transcript of the shorter version of the documentary that aired on NineNet's Sunday program is available here; a transcript of Sunday's 2003 piece "The Spoils of War" is available here. You can also read related articles by Ross Coulthart at The Bulletin, an Australian newsweekly.
Jason Vest is a contributing writer for the Boston Phoenix.
There was a story making the rounds in foreign-policy circles last fall about an exchange between two of Ahmad Chalabi's most prominent patrons and detractors -- a juicy bit that rang true, but seemed hopelessly, tantalizingly just beyond the journalistic grasp. Ubiquitous as it had become in the halls of Foggy Bottom and the Pentagon, the standard for publication lay in the ability to get verbatim confirmation of the conversational back and forth -- something no one seemed able to satisfactorily secure.
Apparently destined for the realm of apocryphal anecdotes that hacks only laugh about at the bar, the tale suddenly appeared in print via the pen of Washington Post contributor Sally Quinn on November 24, 2003, as the coda to her 6,000-word anointment of Chalabi as a bona fide Washington player:
Not long after Chalabi announced in New York that he was more in agreement with France than with the United States about the timing of Iraqi sovereignty, Secretary of State Colin Powell and Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz were having a conversation about him.What was surprising -- though to some who had dealt with Chalabi, not all that surprising -- was that the anecdote was quoted to Quinn by Chalabi himself, who "[told] it with relish," as Quinn put it. A semi-retired CIA source who had dealt with Chalabi off and on into the late 1990s marveled to me about Chalabi's moxie; while Chalabi's courting of hubris was nothing new, the CIA man said, bragging about himself to the Post this way was really asking for it.
"He's your guy," Powell told Wolfowitz. "Get him back in his cage."
"I can't control him," replied Wolfowitz.
"Don't [expletive] with me, Paul," said Powell.
"I doubt he'll be telling it with relish a year from now, when he's either bleeding in a Baghdad gutter or on trial in an Iraqi court," the source said. "The guy's no democrat. He'd always tell us, 'Just put me in charge, I'll be America's friend, everything will be fine.' He's taken so much for granted in terms of his own importance, for Iraq and to Washington. I don't know if he's just working a con or actually believes his own line, but he'll end up taking himself out."
The prophecy seems ever closer to realization. Though down but not yet out, Chalabi's race to the bottom has been rapidly accelerating this month, courtesy both the First and Fourth estates. In April, Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) chief Paul Bremer moderated Iraq's "de-Baathification" program over an angry Chalabi's objections. On May 4, the Financial Times' John Dizard loosed an avalanche of insightful and uncomplimentary reporting on Chalabi on Salon, ably demonstrating why even some of Chalabi's longtime neoconservative boosters have come to hate their erstwhile ally.
In the May 10 edition of Newsweek, Mark Hosenball reported that administration concerns about Chalabi's ties to Iran had eroded the ground beneath his feet. "If Chalabi's support in the administration was once an iceberg," Hosenball reported, "says one Bush aide, 'It's now an ice cube.'"
Despite a vitriolic media campaign mounted by Chalabi against United Nations Iraq envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, U.S. government support has swung increasingly to the Algerian diplomat. Earlier this week, Wolfowitz announced that the Pentagon was phasing out the $340,000 monthly stipend Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress (INC) has seen as sacrosanct. And on Thursday, Andrew Cockburn, a venerable investigative chronicler of Iraq, posted on CounterPunch's Web site a penetrating analysis of the "Ian Paisley of the Iraqi Shia, fomenting sectarian assertiveness and brokering deals."
Now, in perhaps the greatest ignominy yet, Chalabi's house and INC offices were raided by U.S. and Iraqi authorities Thursday morning. Though American military police were along for security, the principals of the U.S. contingent were FBI agents and CIA officers pursuing their investigations into how Chalabi allegedly came to possess some highly classified U.S. information that U.S. electronic intercepts indicate ended up in Iranian hands.
But as Friday morning's New York Times and Washington Post report, the American and Iraqi police who swept into China House (Chalabi's digs in Baghdad's upscale Mansour neighborhood) are also pursuing joint investigations into "kidnapping, torture, embezzlement and theft of government property," as the Times put it, by more than a dozen of Chalabi's underlings. Perhaps the most interesting strand of the investigation involves one Sabbah Nouri, an INC official whom Chalabi had installed in the Ministry of Finance earlier this year -- and who is virtually the star of a front-page story in today's generally Chalabi-friendly New York Sun.
Nouri has not been a particularly high-profile figure, but he could end up being the demolition man for Chalabi's political aspirations and the INC. Identified in a January 13 broadcast of the Voice of the Mujahideen (the short-wave program of the Shia Supreme Islamic Council for Revolution in Iraq) as the "director of the finance minister's office," Nouri popped up in a March 11 Washington Post story about millions of missing Iraqi dinars from Iraqi banks.
After Iraqis traded their old dinars for new ones late last year, a Finance Ministry bank audit revealed a $22 million gap. According to the Post, the Finance Ministry quickly rounded up scores of bank tellers, whom it accused of accepting counterfeit scrip or outright theft. Though lawyers for the accused noted that suspects extended beyond tellers, Nouri, identified as "head of the Finance Ministry's bank audit committee," asserted that "it was impossible that anyone but the cashiers could have inserted forged bills or taken some of the money," adding that "in the past, employees did not have any respect for law. We want to teach people this respect."
Nouri returns to the pages of the Post today (May 21) -- which fails to reference its earlier story -- and is now identified as being "at the center of the inquiry" into "a scheme to defraud the Iraqi government during the transition to a new currency." According to the Post, Nouri was "arrested in April and faces 17 charges including extortion, fraud, embezzlement, theft of government property and abuse of authority."
Similarly, the Times identifies Nouri as having been "arrested on corruption allegations that include stealing a dozen cars from the [Finance] Ministry" and standing accused of "theft, extortion, kidnapping and murder."
But the most thorough description of the Nouri investigation comes -- perhaps somewhat surprisingly -- in a front-page story Friday in the neocon's paper of record, The New York Sun.
According to that report, Nouri has told Iraqi investigators that "Mr Chalabi's organization instructed him to strong-arm bureaucrats and steal government property." Citing Nouri's arrest date as March 24, the story also reveals that his charges include "coerc[ing] confessions from bank tellers" in the dinar investigation, and that when arrested, he attempted to extricate himself by invoking the name of Aras Habib, the INC's intelligence director.
Alas for Nouri, reports the Sun, this did not have the desired affect, and in fact resulted in the issuance of a warrant for Habib's arrest. Then, after being thrown into a Baghdad minimum-security facility, Nouri somehow procured a cell phone and rang Zuhair al-Maliky, "the judge from the Iraqi central criminal court investigating his case, threatening his life if he proceeded" with his investigation.
The Sun goes on to cite an interview it conducted with Chalabi last month, in which Chalabi -- in contrast to the Post's March 11 identification of Nouri as head of the bank audit committee -- described Nouri as merely someone "assigned to be a guard to the Ministry of Finance," and whose arrest stemmed from a "quarrel he had with a CPA Finance Ministry contractor."
Yet the Sun goes on to quote a Finance Ministry adviser who says that many working at the ministry thought Nouri Chalabi -- not Finance Minister Kamil al-Gailani Chalabi -- was running the place. "He would often insist on attending meetings with the minister he had no business attending; he was able to fire people at the ministry. Many people believed he was effectively in control," the Sun quotes the adviser as saying.
Chalabi's response -- along with those of his dwindling allies in Washington -- to the raid and accompanying allegations is nothing new: It's part of the conspiracy by jealous and incompetent actors from the State Department, CIA, and CPA to undermine an always unfairly maligned person who would do right by Iraq if only everyone would recognize him as the indispensable man for Mesopotamian democracy that he is.
Newsweek, however, added to the canon of corruption coverage Thursday night with a brief article posted on its Web site that provides details on additional allegations that Chalabi and the INC engaged in democratic practices that more closely recall Tammany -- rather than Independence -- Hall. Doubtless Chalabi's most ardent supporters will continue to cast him as Iraq's version of Mr. Smith. But in the context of his alleged actions and fraying associations, with each passing day, he's looking more and more like Wilmer at the end of The Maltese Falcon.
Jason Vest is a Prospect senior correspondent.
Copyright © 2004 by The American Prospect, Inc. This article may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission from the author. Direct questions about permissions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Writing in the December 16, 2002, edition of The Nation, I broke the news -- and explored the concerns many in the US intelligence community had -- about Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's quiet success in prevailing upon Congress to authorize the creation of a new senior position at the Pentagon, the Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence. Several months later, in the pages of the Columbia Journalism Review, I followed up with a piece devoted to the media's utter lack of interest -- perhaps best demonstrated by the absence of any reporter from a farcical confirmation hearing -- in the new Under Secretary himself, Stephen Cambone.
Despite his status as the Pentagon's über-intelligence authority, in the initial days of the breaking Abu Ghraib scandal Cambone was virtually invisible. When Rumsfeld was called to the Hill to testify before the Armed Services Committee on May 7, however, Cambone was unexpectedly summoned to the witness table from his chair behind Rumsfeld. That cameo appearance resulted in a more expansive return appearance on May 11, in which Cambone less than deftly tried to undermine Abu Ghraib investigator Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba. (Cambone disputed the general's conclusion that military intelligence units effectively controlled the prison's military police detachment.) Cambone also reacted adversely to Senator Jack Reed's assertion (confirmed by Taguba) that recommendations made in a report on improving intelligence collection at Abu Ghraib by then-chief Guantánamo Bay interrogator Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller clearly called for the use of MPs in interrogations, which helped create an environment that begot the subsequent abuse and torture in the tiers. As a May 12 Washington Post editorial points out, Cambone's office approved interrogation practices that are in direct violation of the Geneva Conventions.
At the May 11 hearings, Cambone and another senior Defense Department official, Army intelligence chief Lieut. Gen. Keith Alexander, essentially cast themselves as mere Pentagon representatives fielding questions about Abu Ghraib -- and not as men who might bear any responsibility for what they desperately tried to cast as an aberrant and isolated incident. Yet many of their assertions on May 11 are in fact contradicted by statements they made before the same committee a month before, as well as a year-old memo outlining the responsibilities of Cambone's office.
The Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence, or OUSD(I) in Pentagonese, was originally conceived by Rumsfeld as a centralizing measure, a way to give him "one dog to kick" rather than a "whole kennel" of individual civilian and uniformed defense intelligence agencies. In choosing the person responsible for ostensibly bringing unprecedented order and control to the Pentagon's spy shops, the Secretary chose Cambone, a man with no intelligence experience but a favored protégé and loyal partisan who had served on Rumsfeld's ballistic missile threat commission and worked with the neoconservative Project for the New American Century. Previously principal deputy to Under Secretary for Policy Doug Feith (and, in that capacity, liaison between Feith and the ideological intelligence analysis unit that would later morph into the notorious Office of Special Plans), Cambone went out of his way in his confirmation hearings to say that he would closely "consult and coordinate" with Feith to "insure [that] DoD-related intelligence activity supports the goals" of the Pentagon's policy shop.
Two months after Cambone's confirmation, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz described his new portfolio in a detailed internal Pentagon memo. Reflecting the seriousness and specificity of Cambone's mission, an organizational chart appended to the memo shows a generic under secretary with six deputies, including one for war fighting and operations, whose duties include specific liaison with the intelligence elements of each of the armed services, each individual combatant command, and the under secretary for policy. The document itself explicitly states that Cambone's office will, among other things: Provide oversight and policy guidance for all DoD intelligence activities; provide policy oversight of all the intelligence organizations within the DoD, to include ensuring these organizations are manned, trained, equipped and structured to support the missions of the Department; provide assessments of and advice [to] the Secretary and CJCS [Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff] on the adequacy of military intelligence performance; exercise management and oversight of all DoD counterintelligence and security activities; coordinate DoD intelligence and intelligence-related policy, plans, programs, requirements and resource allocations; oversee provision of intelligence support and involvement in information operations, focused on assessments in support of operations.
None of this should leave much to the imagination, especially when it comes to policies and practices pertaining to the dimensions of human intelligence collection that involve interrogations conducted by military intelligence. Yet when asked by Senator John Warner if his office has "overall responsibility for policy concerning the handling of detainees," Cambone dodged with a "not precisely, sir," effectively denying any responsibility as set forth in his charge by Wolfowitz. Rather, Cambone said, he only reactively "became involved in this issue from the perspective of assuring there was a flow of intelligence back to the commands and done in an efficient and effective way."
Cambone's subsequent comments were in a similar vein, and lead one to conclude that either this particular under secretary was willfully obfuscating, or that he was providing yet another glaring example of the old adage that "military intelligence" is a contradiction in terms. Nothing pertinent crossed his desk; things were always "signed out at the command level." Though he's had time to reflect on the whole affair, Cambone can't really say how he thinks any of it happened: "I don't know the facts, it's for me, hard to explain."
Key reports were seen only belatedly, "well after they were issued" or not at all, because they were "only delivered at command level." Cambone is apparently still in the dark regarding concerns voiced by the Coalition Provisional Authority and the State Department about prisoner treatment: "I'm not aware of those complaints," he said or, to clarify, "per se, in that sense, no." Though he's the senior Defense Department official responsible for intelligence, Cambone "did not discuss with anybody at Joint Task Force 7" interrogation procedure recommendations, especially ones that dealt with the transmission or dissemination of intelligence. As late as this past February -- when most other senior officials were keenly aware of the problems at Abu Ghraib -- "I still didn't know that there was a significant issue here." And when General Miller made his trip to Iraq, that was really under someone else's auspices, and merely with the "encouragement" of OUSD(I).
And one certainly shouldn't consider it anything like "collaboration" that Cambone's deputy for war fighting and operations, Lieut. Gen. William Boykin (yes, that Boykin, of anti-Islam "My God is bigger than your God" fame) was subsequently briefed by Miller on his trip to Iraq; Boykin then briefed Cambone.
What makes this all the more remarkable, though, is how different in tone and substance Cambone's comments are compared with his appearance along with all the military intelligence chiefs -- before the same committee on April 7. Review the transcript of that hearing and it seems as if Cambone and every element of the US military are working hand in glove. Recapping his first year as OUSD(I), Cambone effusively praised his uniformed colleagues and seemed to take particular delight in crowing about how closely his office was working with combatant commanders in Iraq on virtually every intelligence angle:
We undertook a major effort to support the transition from Fifth Corps to the Third Corps in Iraq, and the stand up of the Combined Joint Task Force Seven. We continue to be actively engaged with General Sanchez and General Fast, who is G2 [Army intelligence], in assisting the development of the intelligence architecture there, in providing counterintelligence support, in assisting the army and others with the transition, particularly their tactical HUMINT [human intelligence] teams and the like...the effort to improve capabilities within Iraq at the operational and tactical level has been so successful that [General Abizaid] has asked us to undertake a similar effort with his architecture in Afghanistan.
In that hearing, Cambone introduced Army military intelligence chief Lieut. Gen. Keith Alexander as having a "great deal of information" on the Army's intelligence efforts in Iraq. Of particular pride to Alexander, who expressly thanked Cambone for being "superb in providing us support" -- is a program he declined to mention at his May 11 hearing but showcased on April 7. In that instance, after discussing the successful capture of an Iraqi general and the rapid sharing of intelligence between Defense Department intelligence agencies, Alexander said he chose to share that example
because, one, it shows you how important tactical questioning, analysis and interrogation is to our folks; and two, how we are training them today. We call Intel Support to Combating Terrorism. It's done at Fort Huachuca, and it uses the lessons learned from Guantánamo to our folks in Afghanistan and in Iraq. And also the benefits for tactical questioning, for those soldiers on the ground to know how to ask the right questions of these guys is being taught through every one of our centers and every one of our schools and centers throughout the United States before soldiers deploy.
Aside from this, the only other public mention of the Intelligence Support to Combating (or Counter) Terrorism program is in the February 13, 2003, edition of the Fort Huachuca base newspaper, which describes it as a crash course for military intelligence officers bound only for Guantánamo -- but that the course will quickly become "globally oriented," as "the threat is not just in Afghanistan, it's also in the Philippines and the Middle East." While there is no mention in the article of Geneva Conventions-specific training -- and while no mention of this unique training program was made on Tuesday -- Alexander spent much of his time in the May 11 hearing emphasizing the strict adherence of his military intelligence officers to the standard training manuals, and trying to convince a skeptical committee that the whole Abu Ghraib mess likely begins and ends with nothing more than "a group of undisciplined military police." Yet on May 12, ABC News interviewed two former Fort Huachuca interrogation trainees who said that since early last year, "The US military has been teaching future interrogators how to cause physical pain while questioning detainees but remain technically within limits set by the Geneva Conventions."
Cambone can't have it both ways. The Armed Services Committee should thoroughly investigate the discrepancies between Cambone's and Alexander's April 7 and May 11 testimonies, and should recall the pair to the Hill for a more precise interrogation (in line with the Geneva Conventions, of course). In the end, the only place for Rumsfeld's "one dog to kick" may not be at his master's feet, but in the doghouse.
Jason Vest writes on national security affairs for The Nation.
Before we turn our attention to Tuesday's reactionary and indicative-of-utter-ignorance comments made on Capitol Hill by Senator James Inhofe, let's first revisit Sunday's Washington Post. Under the headline "Dissension Grows In Senior Ranks On War Strategy; U.S. May Be Winning Battles in Iraq But Losing the War, Some Officers Say," a number of career Army officers -- including the commander of the 82nd Airborne Division and the Coalition Provisional Authority's first director of planning -- said that in strategic terms, the U.S. military has made a mess of things in Iraq, and perhaps fatally so.
The willingness of such prominent military officials to go on record may be surprising, as was the Post's finally reporting that the officer corps thinks Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz are a couple of dafties who've been allowed to flail about for far too long in the sandbox they call the Pentagon and need a permanent time-out. But the probability of career military people sounding the alarm on likely strategic disaster is low. In the days before and after the United States charged into Iraq, there was no lack of articles and studies produced by the military's own war colleges and scholarly journals that have highlighted the perils of poor strategic planning -- and strategic wishful thinking -- in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
To many of these observers, what's new is not just old but really unchanged since Vietnam: U.S. forces do well tactically but poorly strategically, especially when they're operating in a counter-insurgency situation and when they fail to consider how certain actions play with the indigenous population (which may not be on quite the same wavelength as their "liberators" or "defenders").
But whatever parallel one chooses to draw, when discussing strategy, there's one element that, as both Carl von Clausewitz and St. Augustine held, remains constant: the matter of moral authority. In the more buoyant moments of "major combat operations" last year, many commentators -- and even some officers -- cited the quick besting of the Iraqi army as the quintessential application of maneuver-warfare theories developed by the late Colonel John Boyd, a maverick military reformer. But as Boyd's more savvy associates and students noted at the time, it was both perilous and premature to equate the possible success of some of Boyd's more tactical ideas as vital to "winning the war," because the thrust of Boyd's work was on the importance of strategy.
Central to Boyd's conception of strategy was the creation of institutions that, above all, could adapt to changing realities around them -- and that effective strategy works only with high physical, mental and moral standards. On the latter point, Boyd described the importance of moral authority to strategy as fundamentally an issue of trust (something that definitely matters when one is fighting an unconventional war as an occupier). "With trust," he once said, "you gain respect, loyalty, and common purpose. ... The way to maintain moral authority is by deed, not word alone." Failure to match word and deed, he further held, creates an ethical gap that an enemy can take advantage of; and if properly exploited, that gap not only results in uncertainty and mistrust but entropy. With the onset of entropy in your own ranks, your own forces have effectively undermined themselves, and all the enemy has to do then is avail himself of your own self-made failings.
It's hard to look at the Abu Ghraib mess and not see how, in Boydian terms, a critical lapse of moral authority has undermined strategy -- that concept which another insightful modern military thinker, Albert C. Pierce, has usefully defined as "the art and science of how policy and policy-makers wrestle to the ground primordial violence, hatred, and enmity and the other powerful emotions of war on the battlefield, at higher headquarters, in the corridors of power, and among the people."
Like Boyd, Pierce, currently director of the U.S. Naval Academy's Center for the Study of Professional Military Ethics, also emphasizes the importance of moral authority in warfare and notes that the many criteria that define St. Augustine's concept of a "just war" should be central to all strategic thinking. Among those is the idea of proportionality or the standard that the damage done in the course of war must not outweigh the overall good a war would achieve. But as Pierce notes, in the Augustinian equation, meeting the standard of proportionality is arrived at not by focusing on the obvious righteousness of the potential good. Rather, as he noted in a 2002 lecture at the University of California, Berkeley, "Proportionality drives the statesman to make reasonable, conscientious, and prudent calculations, and not to use rose-colored glasses in the attempt, and not to succumb to the temptations of overly optimistic assumptions and scenarios."
Looking through the Boyd and Pierce prisms at Abu Ghraib serves to underscore how poorly the Bush administration, and the Pentagon's civilian leadership in particular, has grasped strategic thinking: As numerous articles and investigations have amply documented, the prewar planning certainly didn't hew to rigorous Augustinian strategic standards, and the civilian ideologues were blind to the potential that an insufficiently trained and equipped force they were responsible for coulld only undermine a strategic vision that was dubious to begin with.
Credit should, however, be given where credit's due: While his apology was slow and lacking, Rumsfeld at least tried to ameliorate this very real strategic crisis by accepting responsibility for the appalling systematic and personal breakdowns broached by Abu Ghraib. But then along comes Senator James Inhofe, reeking of Karl Rove and cutting loose with an epistle of such vile pandering to a reactionary domestic constituency that one wonders how long it'll be before a stray artillery round from Fort Sill takes out Inhofe's Oklahoma home. One active duty officer I talked to in the wake of Inhofe's remarks -- like, "I'm probably not the only one up at this table that is more outraged by the outrage than we are by the treatment" -- actually wants Inhofe indicted for giving aid and comfort to the enemy.
What better way to chip away at tattered U.S. moral authority than to characterize untried and unlawfully violated prisoners as "murderers, terrorists, insurgents" with "American blood on their hands"? What better way to endear U.S. occupiers to a restive and resentful population by presumptuously ascribing a view to those whose Geneva Conventions' rights were violated as vaguely grateful ("I would guess that these prisoners wake up every morning thanking Allah that Saddam Hussein is not in charge of these prisons")? (Abdul-Basat al-Turki, Iraq's U.S.-appointed minister of human rights, would probably disagree. As he explained upon resigning on May 4, "I never imagined that what I saw in those pictures was going on," adding that he was "horrified" and was resigning "not only because I believe that the use of violence is a violation of human rights but also because these methods in the prisons means that the violations are a common act.")
What a useful message to then send -- adding insult to injury to both Iraqis and the concept of humanitarian law -- by essentially saying that torture is a relative thing: Because Hussein tortured people to death and we didn't, it really isn't that big a deal, even if international law was violated. And then the final insult to Iraqis, Americans, and citizens of the world alike: "I am also outraged that we have so many humanitarian do-gooders right now crawling all over these prisons looking for human-rights violations while our troops, our heroes, are fighting and dying." Of course it's good for long-term, post-Hussein strategy that a U.S. senator should damn, among others, the International Committee of the Red Cross (which people in the U.S. government liked three decades ago, when it struggled to get access to American POWs in North Vietnam, and which many World War II POWs were tremendously thankful for, as are many the world over), Iraq's own Human Rights Organization, and, apparently, the U.S. military personnel conducting the five other related investigations in the service of such trivial concepts as "transparency," "accountability," and "rule of law".
As revolting as Inhofe's comments are -- and as problematic as they're likely to be for the service people who have to deal with the all the aggregate damage done in Iraq -- they are, nonetheless, refreshing, as they very well may reveal what is the true Republican id. (Whatever the case, it's one clearly devoid of an appreciation for the process of sound strategic thinking.) But perhaps most importantly, they also recall a special category that Drew Pearson and Robert Allan created for certain senators when they penned their sequel to Washington Merry-Go-Round in 1932: "Those Who Sometimes Open Their Mouths, But Say Nothing of Value."
Jason Vest is a Prospect senior correspondent.
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In his first speech to the nation from the White House since he announced the bombing of Baghdad, President Bush rattled his begging bowl with vigor and conviction on television screens across America. "Yet we will do what is necessary, we will spend what is necessary, to achieve this essential victory in the war on terror, to promote freedom and to make our own nation more secure," he declared, as he hit Congress up for a whopping $87 billion handout.
Indeed, it was hard to decide what was more appalling about Bush's address: The shamelessness with which he appealed for more deficit spending or the divorced-from-reality conviction with which he parroted his speechwriter's spin. The Pentagon source who called me moments after the speech, however, was unimpressed. "The gall," he seethed. "I'd like to give that son-of-a-bitch an eighty-seven billion dollar enema."
Sadly, our president is far more likely to get his giant-sized appropriation. Congress -- after letting fly with a bit of theatrical tongue-lashing -- will likely accede to Bush's request, forking over precious taxpayer money to fund mostly military and intelligence operations that are long on cost and short on actual details.
But while the White House will get what it wants from an enabling Congress, it's still not going to have as easy a go of it at the United Nations, especially not with Germany and France. The two nations are just as unhappy this week as they were last Thursday, when the U.S. turned in a draft Security Council resolution that gave the Iraq a U.N. imprimatur but ceded very little control. Indeed, Secretary of State Colin Powell didn't exactly endear himself to the Germans and the French by affecting a pose for public consumption that fell somewhere between exaggerated disbelief and unconvincing bonhomie. "If they have suggestions," he said of German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and French President Jacques Chirac's objections to the U.S. plan, "we would be more than happy to listen to them."
That tune's been called before. It is unlikely that Schroeder and Chirac have forgotten how the Iraq saga unfolded: beginning with a deceptively sweet lilt ("If we are an arrogant nation they will resent us; if we're a humble nation, but strong, they'll welcome us," said Bush); segueing after 9/11 into a vaguely martial cadence of exclusivity and duplicity; then building to a crescendo with neoconservatives effusing over a "paradigm shift" in the world order, confidently sounding the death-knell for obstreperous "Old Europe" and the insufficiently accommodating UN.
Yet for all the flinty resolve that accompanied phrases like "coalition of the willing," the Bush administration finds itself back at the despised UN. But in characteristic fashion, it is defaulting to its arrogance-as-usual mode despite its ever-mounting problems. While this wrong-headed chutzpah would be cause enough for the UN to turn its back on the administration, there are two more important reasons not to accede to its ill-conceived terms.
The first is fairly obvious. Granting a patina of respectability and an infusion of deferential assistance to an occupier that doesn't know what it is doing in Iraq is only likely to make matters worse. Indeed, if the Pentagon's track record thus far is used as a barometer, the U.S. has done little to merit the primacy it so arrogantly insists upon. Paul Wolfowitz's March 27 assertion that Iraq "can finance its own reconstruction, and relatively soon" has proven to be a gem of absolute stupidity, idealistic dementia and/or brazen disingenuity.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's inchoate proposal for more Iraqis to take up the security slack doesn't exactly inspire confidence -- and seems ironic in light of Iraqi administrator J. Paul Bremer's earlier decision to dismantle the Iraqi military and police over the objections of the U.S. Army. And for all the administration's bluster about "handing over" power to the Iraqis, the draft proposal's characterization of the Iraqi Governing Council as a "principal body" of administration still under control of Bremer seems a little far-fetched. The IGC is represents less a mechanism for rapid democratic transition than the imperial relationship between the likes of Lord Cromer and his khedive in Cairo.
The second reason to turn down the United States terms is arguably more esoteric, but just as compelling. In a heady moment earlier this year at a Brown University forum, the influential Pentagon adviser, Richard Perle, was all but dancing on the grave of the United Nations. Labeling the United Nation's reluctance to rubberstamp the Iraq invasion a "failure of courage," Perle held that such cowardice should be punished with nothing less than the dissolution of the Security Council.
Accepting the US draft proposal essentially rewards the temerity of neoconservatives whose ambition is to re-fashion the United Nations to suit their imperial needs. "My preference," Perle said on Apr. 1, "would be to convene a new charter conference for the United Nations and see whether we can reconstitute the United Nations so as to recognize the terrorist threat and so as to empower the international community to deal with it ... until that time, no American president will have any choice but to use the power of the United States when there is a threat that cannot be dealt with effectively by the international community."
To the neocons, the choice facing Annan and his brethren was simple: either the United Nations reconstitutes itself with the U.S. as its unquestioned master, or who knows where and when the US military might show up in the name of "securing a safer world." That's a euphemism, as we have seen, for a full-scale invasion (devoid of realistic post-conflict planning) in ostensible (but hardly credible) pursuit of weapons of mass destruction that may or may not be there, and that might, however improbably, find their way to various "evildoers" du jour.
However graceless the Bush administration's return to the United Nations may be, its mere presence before the body is an admission of failure. Indeed, Perle was so confident of what post-Saddam Iraq would reveal that he confidently proclaimed, "(W)hen the war is over ... there will be chance to judge what we did and why we did it and how it came out."
Failure, however, should not be rewarded. Not when the President of the United States declines to explain to his own people why no weapons of mass destruction have been found, and takes no responsibility for a monumental failure of planning that continues to drain the blood, spirit and treasure of both the American and Iraqi people.
Jason Vest writes regularly for the Nation, the American Prospect, and Mother Jones.
As images of the bombed United Nations headquarters in Baghdad appeared on television last week, my thoughts turned to a conversation I had with a very senior national-security official (a political appointee with no military experience, not a career bureaucrat) prior to the invasion of Iraq. He earnestly told me that after Saddam Hussein's fall, Americans would be welcomed in Iraq, and not with a fleeting shower of goodwill but with a "deluge" of "rose water and flowers" that would last in perpetuity. Ahmad Chalabi and American advisers would set up shop to oversee a transition spearheaded by scores of returning Iraqi exiles, who would transform Iraq into a profitable, oil-pumping society. After all, the official said, this wasn't Afghanistan, where there were lots of religious and tribal differences among the local populations. We wouldn't need to stay long, and we certainly wouldn't need the United Nations -- which, as far as this official and his compatriots were concerned, could go screw itself. The United States could handle it all. Within a year, he said, Iraq would be a beacon of democracy and stability in the Middle East.
These sentiments weren't anything new, of course; I had heard -- and still hear -- the same refrain sung by the neoconservative wing of Washington's brilliant-but-wrong choir. I therefore sighed as I anticipated the response to the query-as-rejoinder about to pass my lips. "So what do you think of the Army War College report?" I asked. The document I referred to was titled, "Reconstructing Iraq: Insights, Challenges and Missions for Military Forces in a Post-Conflict Scenario," and it had been released in draft form the previous October, with a much more detailed version appearing in February 2003.
That report said that the administration hadn't planned adequately for a post-Hussein Iraq; it also very presciently rendered the likely results of such poor planning and gave well-considered suggestions for how to either properly shepherd Iraq to stability or, if too late for that, what not to do to make a bad situation worse. The last line of the document's penultimate section wasn't exactly encouraging: "Without an overwhelming effort to prepare for occupation," it said, "the US may find itself in a radically different world over the next few years, a world in which the threat of Saddam Hussein seems like a pale shadow of new problems of America's own making."
The official smiled a smug smile, reiterating his belief that most of those in uniform really didn't know anything. He dismissed internal military concerns about how thinly stretched U.S. forces were and how onerous the manpower requirements in postwar Iraq would be. He was particularly derisive of Eric Shinseki, the soon-to-be-forcibly-retired Army chief of staff, whose estimates of manpower requirements for postwar Iraq had been characterized by Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz as "wildly off the mark." Shinseki's comments, the official I spoke with said, were "bullshit from a Clintonite enamored of using the army for peacekeeping and nation building and not winning wars."
When I saw the official a few months later -- right at the time Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was saying there wasn't a guerilla war in Iraq but his top general on the ground was saying that, well, yes, in fact there was -- I asked him if he'd gotten around to reading the report. No, he said, adding as his Stepford programming kicked in that there was nothing to be worried about -- those attacking U.S. troops were just a handful of Baathists, not foreign terrorists. "We know how to deal with them," he preened, "and the average Iraqi isn't going to take up arms against us."
Now the administration has changed its tune yet again, admitting that scores of rogue Baath Party loyalists and foreign terrorists are marauding throughout Iraq. But only Baathists and al-Qaeda-linked terrorists -- or so my administration acquaintance swears. Earlier this week I sent him a copy of Sydney Morning Herald reporter Paul McGeough's Aug. 16 investigation into the burgeoning anti-American guerilla movement, which is neither Baathist nor associated with al-Qaeda or Ansar-al-Islam. As a result, McGeough reports of the post-Hussein chaos that the Bush administration was so sure couldn't occur, "tribal sheiks, Baghdad businessmen and many ordinary Iraqis [are] speaking in such harsh anti-American terms that it is hard not to conclude there is a growing body of Palestinian or Belfast-style empathy with the resistance." No response from my acquaintance has been forthcoming.
One can only hope that the events of the past week might prompt neoconservatives to reconsider certain fundamental notions about the nature of modern war and peace -- or to at least recognize that their peculiar ideas, put into practice, have proven so problematic that the United States now cannot even create a secure environment for organizations like the United Nations that actually do appreciate the complexities of rebuilding civil society. Such reconsideration is not likely to happen, however, and not just because of simple neocon zealotry. It's bad enough that the neocons default to a combination of denial and spin when confronted with realities that might conflict with their articles-of-faith worldview. What makes it worse is how that default is emboldened by a lack of informed outrage on the part of Congress or the media.
To give but one example: Last month, Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith -- the official essentially responsible for the debacle of post-Hussein Iraq -- accepted a report he had hastily commissioned from the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) on requirements for stabilization of the country. Though the report implicitly condemned Feith's work to date (its lists of things that either haven't been done or need to be done in a radically different manner are damning), you wouldn't know it from The Washington Post's account, which made one passing reference to the report's "critical" nature and assured readers that the undersecretary had "embraced" many of the document's findings.
The Post, and everyone else, also failed to mention that the CSIS paper was essentially a rehash of the pre- and postwar work of the think tank's own Anthony Cordesman, a conservative analyst whose grounded-in-reality assessments have put him at odds with the neoconservatives -- as well as the War College's "Reconstructing Iraq...," which had been so cavalierly dismissed by my acquaintance in the administration.
So far the United States has taken the opposite approach of the one prescribed by that report -- and just about every avoidable malady the document predicted has come to pass. Despite its remarkably perceptive qualities, the report itself has only been cited in two U.S. news sources. And the main use the media has found for one of its authors, Conrad Crane (a retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel), has not been for consultation on the perils of improperly executed occupation and reconstruction operations -- rather, his prime utility to news organizations like National Public Radio and The Associated Press has been to explain how military operations are given their nicknames.
In that vein, we might consider referring to postwar Iraq as "Operation Cognitive Dissonance" or "Operation Willful Ignorance," as the administration's civilian leadership and its crony generals appear to be unwilling or unable to abide reality. Though President Bush may still be unaware of it, his early July "bring 'em on" invitation to Iraqi insurgents infuriated swaths of officers and enlisted men and women alike. ("Only a frat boy who has no idea what it's like to have his ass under fire would say that," a retired officer seethed to me at the time.) It also enraged their families -- who, thanks to an administration and a Congress that have pledged "unequivocal support" to servicemen and their dependents, are about to see combat pay and family separation allowances cut and enlisted raises capped.
It's not exactly the type of practice that's in the spirit of the CSIS report, which ends by noting that the "US government -- both the executive branch and Congress -- must change certain business as usual practices in order to maximize the [Coalition Provisional Authority's] opportunities to be successful. The CPA needs more resources, personnel and flexibility. We owe it to our people in the field, and to Iraqis, to provide everything necessary to get this right. US credibility and national interest depend on it." But coming from an administration that bases policy more on faith than facts, it's hardly surprising.
Jason Vest is a Prospect senior correspondent and a contributor to The Nation and The Village Voice.
Though the Republican Party prides itself on being a champion of state sovereignty, one need only mention phrases like "medical marijuana" or "drug law reform" to see how quickly the Administration of George W. Bush becomes hostile to the notion of the autonomy of states. The latest -- and perhaps most egregious -- example of this enmity is about to become manifest via a new appointment, that of veteran Justice Department official Karen Tandy, soon to be new chief of the Drug Enforcement Administration.
Already approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee after an all but unnoticed, if not farcical, confirmation hearing late last month, the Administration evidently hopes Tandy's nomination will next clear the full Senate with as little attention or debate as possible. Lost in the shuffle has been any meaningful examination of dubious policy initiatives and prosecutions Tandy has been involved in over the past twenty years.
According to drug-reform activists, the nomination of Tandy -- a career Justice Department prosecutor and administrator whose most recent assignments have included busting mail-order bong sellers and those involved in Oregon and California's state-sanctioned medical marijuana programs -- is a clear signal from the Administration that it will give no quarter on any aspect of marijuana policy. This view is also echoed by veteran defense attorneys who have tangled with Tandy; they marvel at the lack of scrutiny her nomination has received, both in the press and on Capitol Hill. Though nary a critical question or ill word was uttered to Tandy at her hearing, a preliminary Nation investigation has found numerous instances of prosecutorial overzealousness on Tandy's part that don't lend themselves to a rubber-stamp confirmation:
While coordinating the grand jury investigation of major marijuana traffickers Christopher and Robert Reckmeyer in the Eastern District of Virginia in 1984, Tandy and two federal agents were "disqualified and prohibited from directly or indirectly participating" in the investigation by Judge Albert Bryan Jr. because they read documents the court had ruled were protected by attorney-client privilege. On an arcane point of procedure, an appellate court reluctantly reversed Bryan's decision, noting that it was finding for Tandy "with admitted discomfort" that "the government shall have been able to violate both court decrees and adjudicated rights without any accountability in this proceeding."
An April 9, 1985, Washington Post article reported that other underhanded Tandy actions in the Reckmeyer case -- like waiting until only three days before trial before giving defense attorneys over 60,000 pages of critical documents, all unindexed -- had made the US Attorney's office an object of scorn to the court and the defense bar. Robert Reckmeyer later revealed in an affidavit that after he agreed to aid the government in exchange for a lesser sentence, Tandy afforded him the highly unusual, if not dubious, privilege of lengthy private visits with his wife and family. "There came a time during my debriefings when Karen Tandy complained to me that I was 'not being cooperative,' " he wrote. "I interpreted this to mean that Ms. Tandy was upset because I was not saying what she wanted me to say. She told me that if I was not 'more cooperative' in the future, she would end my visits with my wife."
And even though Tandy's probe turned up no indication that the Reckmeyer brothers' father, William, had been involved in their criminal enterprise, Tandy ordered his property seized as well. "It cost me a lot of money, time and psychic energy in court to get my property back, but I did -- the judge implicitly said her witnesses perjured themselves," recalls William Reckmeyer.
While negotiating a 1982 plea agreement in the Eastern District of Virginia with Michael Harvey, a first-time drug offender, Tandy changed the agreement's wording -- without informing Harvey, his lawyer or the court of the change -- in a way that successfully set Harvey up for another arrest, prosecution and conviction in a South Carolina federal court upon completion of his plea-bargained Virginia sentence. An appeals court later vacated Harvey's second sentence, finding Tandy's actions disingenuous; the plea bargain, the court concluded, was "intended to 'put behind him' all of Harvey's potential liability for all offense 'arising from' the general investigation underway, which everyone involved, including Ms. Tandy, knew included activity in South Carolina that was later charged to Harvey."
According to material submitted to the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers in 1988, Tandy failed to turn over exculpatory evidence in the 1987 prosecution for cocaine distribution of Alfredo Arroyo. Though the allegedly withheld materials ultimately proved unnecessary -- a jury acquitted Arroyo after concluding that he had been entrapped -- defense attorney John Zwerling sent case materials to NACDL's Government Misconduct Committee, asking for advice on what action, if any, might be initiated against Tandy. Failing to receive any guidance from the committee, Zwerling reluctantly let the matter lie.
Despite an overall lack of evidence in a 1994 case against John Wheeler, a North Carolina small-businessman, Tandy ordered Wheeler's business and property seized. "It was an outrageous example of the government both overreaching and overcharging, and quite frankly trying to squeeze a legitimate businessman into saying things that weren't true to further cases against others," says Joshua Treem, Wheeler's attorney. "After two years of litigation, the government dismissed all the charges pending against Johnny. They had no evidence whatsoever. It was so bad that when they submitted the dismissal letter, the judge interlineated on the order, dismissing the charges with prejudice."
The Wheeler case and others took place back in the days of the draconian Comprehensive Asset Forfeiture Act [see Eric Blumenson and Eva Nilsen, "The Drug War's Hidden Economic Agenda," March 9, 1998], a Reagan-era initiative that Tandy literally wrote the book on for Justice Department prosecutors. Though some of the more excessive aspects of that law -- which radically eroded not only the rights of suspects but of nonsuspects associated with federal investigations -- were ameliorated thanks to a late 1990s bipartisan effort spearheaded by Congressman Henry Hyde and signed into law by Bill Clinton, drug-policy observers expect Tandy's DEA to use current asset forfeiture law as expansively as possible.
Though much about Tandy's career has gone unexamined (in addition to her Virginia days, she has done stints as a federal prosecutor in Washington State and asset forfeiture chief at Justice), few senators seem interested in her past or future. So far, only Senator Richard Durbin has gone on record as opposed to Tandy's nomination; in response to his written queries, not only did Tandy demonstrate ignorance of key policy studies but she "didn't back off an inch," as Durbin put it, from the view that the DEA should proceed apace with medical marijuana raids. California Democrat Dianne Feinstein has also expressed misgivings about Tandy, observing that the nominee "doesn't seem amenable to listening" to concerns about federal law enforcement and state-sanctioned medical marijuana.
Jason Vest writes on national security affairs for The Nation.