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June 11, 2005

Jeanne d'Arc:
Contractors

The Los Angeles Times had a somewhat confusing he said/she said piece last week about a group of mostly American contractors in Falluja who the Marines detained and -- according to the contractors -- physically abused:


Mark Schopper, a lawyer for two of the contractors, said that his clients, both former Marines, were subjected to "physical and psychological abuse."

He said his clients told him that Marines had "slammed around" several contractors, stripped them to their underwear and placed a loaded weapon near their heads.

"How does it feel to be a big, rich contractor now?" the Marines shouted at the men, Schopper said, in an apparent reference to the large salaries security contractors can make in Iraq.

He also said that during their detention, the workers' relatives in the United States received phone calls from people with American accents threatening to kill their loved ones if they talked about the incident.

AP picked up the story yesterday.

The Marines deny they abused anyone, but the tension between underpaid military and overpaid contractors rings true. We've been hearing about this from the beginning, and the LAT returns to the topic today with an interesting follow-up on those resentments and disputes.

On the other hand, the Marines say they took the contractors into custody for firing indiscriminately on both Marines and Iraqi civilians, and for carrying unauthorized weapons -- which the contractors deny. But today's LA Times piece, while not relating to the charges against these specific contractors, lends credence to the  overall complaints about contractor behavior:

Some troops and officials see the contractors as "cowboys" who enrage ordinary Iraqis with wanton behavior. Journalists have observed them pointing their guns and firing rounds at Iraqis who come too close. Contractors have been seen racing around Baghdad, Fallouja and other hotspots in armored SUVs, forcing Iraqi civilians off the road.

Yes, I know. There's a bit of hypocrisy in American troops and officials accusing contractors of alienating people in Falluja, but that shouldn't evoke any sympathy for the contractors. According to Iraq's interior ministry, they kill at least 12 Iraqi civilians every week in Baghdad.

More than a year ago, Phil Carter wrote about the problem of accountability among people who "[l]egally speaking..actually fall into the same gray area as the unlawful combatants detained at Guantanamo." People out of uniform engaging in combat and all that stuff that's supposed to land you in the -- warning, political incorrectness approaching -- "gulag." (Quite a useful word, actually.)

"Gray area" is probably the polite way of phrasing it. From my angle, it looks a lot darker. According to CorpWatch, Zapata, the company whose employees were detained, is licensed as an engineering company, not a private security company, and is therefore operating illegally in Iraq. But, conveniently, everything in Iraq is so chaotic that nobody agrees on what it means to operate legally or illegally there.

What I find most interesting and sad about this story is a single line in today's LAT piece:

One of the few things both sides largely agree on is that the Marines treated the contractors like any other detainees — treatment the contractors found abusive and humiliating.

One of the detained Americans complains about being treated like "insurgent terrorists."

In other words, it would have been okay if the same treatment were given to an Iraqi.

It reminded me of a sad anecdote in last week's Washington Post piece on tensions between American and Iraqi forces:

Last week, U.S soldiers from 1st Platoon, Alpha Company, and Iraqis from 2nd Platoon, Charlie Company, clambered into their vehicles to patrol the streets of Baiji. The Americans drove fully enclosed armored Humvees, the Iraqis open-backed Humvees with benches, the sides of which were protected by plating the equivalent of a flak jacket. The Americans were part of 1st Battalion, 103rd Armor Regiment of the Pennsylvania Army National Guard.

As an American reporter climbed in with the Iraqis, the U.S. soldiers watched in bemused horror.

"You might be riding home alone," one soldier said to the other reporter.

"Is he riding in the back of that?" asked another. "I'll be over here praying."

I wondered whether the American soldiers cared at all that the Iraqi soldiers they had so much contempt for lived with that level of danger on a daily basis. It's a grim joke if an American, even a reporter, faces it. An accepted part of the routine if it's an Iraqi.

It will be interesting to see if Americans complaining about being abused by our military will get a more sympathetic hearing from our press than Iraqis have. I have a terrible feeling that all the ugly stories we've been hearing about contractors in Iraq since the war began, will, ironically, work to the military's advantage, making it all the easier to find scapegoats for everything that goes wrong, and provide one more way of swatting away charges of abuse.

Several decades from now, we can always apologize. Right now victims can't even get that.

Billmon:
Flytrapped

I had a little trouble with this post last night, which ultimately resulted in it being flushed into the void -- kind of like the mama alien in the grand finale of Alien II. But let's try again:

A growing number of Islamic militants from northern and sub-Saharan Africa are fighting U.S. and Iraqi forces in Iraq, fueling the insurgency with foot soldiers and some financing, U.S. military officials say . . .

A small vanguard of veterans are also returning home to countries like Morocco and Algeria, poised to use skills they learned on the battlefield in Iraq, from bomb making to battle planning, against their native governments, the officials said. (emphasis added)

The New York Times
As Africans Join Iraqi Insurgency, U.S.
Counters With Military Training in Their Lands

June 10, 2005

_____________________________
Some time before the Iraq war, I found myself musing out loud to someone close to the inner circles of the Bush administration . . . I voiced some worries about what might happen if an occupied Iraq became a target for international terrorism. Wouldn't U.S. soldiers become sitting ducks? . . .

And what he said surprised me. If the terrorists leave us alone in Iraq, fine, he said. But if they come and get us, even better. Far more advantageous to fight terror using trained soldiers in Iraq than trying to defend civilians in New York or London. "Think of it as a flytrap," he ventured.

Andrew Sullivan
Flypaper: A Strategy Unfolds
September 6, 2003

Unfortunately, it appears some of the flies are escaping. So I guess now the strategy is that it's better to fight the terrorists in Iraq, Morocco, Algeria and sub-Saharan Africa than it is to fight them in the streets of New York or London.

Better put out some more fly strips, Andrew.


There's more at the Whiskey Bar, including some additional thoughts on the flypaper theory from one of America's most . . . um, original military minds.

Also, if you haven't read Tony Shaddid and Steve Fainaru's latest dispatch from Iraqnam, you should. It's as good an explanation as any why the U.S. Army will be tied down in Iraq for roughly forever.

--------------------

June 10, 2005

Billmon:
Beyond Downing Street

Eric Boehlert at Salon did a more thorough job than I did of flaying the corporate media over its mishandling of the Downing Street Memo story -- although personally I think his piece would have benefited from a few scatalogical insults hurled at melon heads like Tim Russert. Truth is a defense, after all.

In my own screed on the subject, I should have included links to two organizations that are working to keep the story alive -- afterdowningstreet.com and the Big Brass Alliance, a coalition of lefty bloggers who are also pushing the issue with admirable intensity.

Some folks have told me they think I'm being too pessimistic about the odds of actually persuading/pressuring the corporate media drones into doing their jobs on this thing. Pessimism is definitely my natural state, but in this case I'm speaking from a certain amount of personal experience (about 14 years) with how the news business works.

Prodding the media into revisiting a story it has collectively decided to ignore isn't impossible, but it's extremely hard. Once the journalistic herd has made up its collective mind (think of a pile of slime mold growing in your refrigerator) the overwhelming tendency is to move on to the next story. Even more than most people, reporters and editors live in a fog of sensory overload. New stories break every day, every hour, and decisions about whether to cover them are made on the fly, usually by people (i.e. editors) who are barely competent to unroll their socks in the morning.

Even if there was an inclination on their part to revisit previous news "judgments," there's rarely enough time or space in the paper (or in the broadcast feed) to do more than what most news organizations did after the Bush/Blair press conference yesterday, which is to shoehorn a couple of paragraphs into an unrelated story.

So if the idea is to get the media to run big front-page, top-of-the-hour stories about what was in the Downing Street Memo and what it implies about Bush's rush to war -- in other words, the stories they should have run when the memo first leaked -- then, yeah, I think it's probably hopeless.

Unless (and this is a big unless) there are fresh developments in the story, or the editorial herd can be persuaded there are unexplored angles that can be developed into fresh stories. Big stories. The only reason the Nixon-era press eventually decided it had gotten Watergate wrong was because Woodstein kept pumping out the exclusives -- each one potentially more explosive than the last.

That's why the focus needs to be widened to include the entire policymaking process that led up to the invasion. The memo itself may be the smoking gun, but the story is the crime, or crimes rather -- particularly the cover up, which is still in progress.

Where the reporting trail might lead has been suggested by Josh Marshall, who claims the report the Senate Intelligence Committee put out on the WMD fiasco last summer wasn't just a whitewash, but part of the cover up itself:

From my own reporting on the issue, I know that whole sections of last year's Senate Intel report contained knowingly-deceptive, up is down, portrayals of key events -- something that was impossible to see unless you knew what was under key redactions and important details that went unmentioned entirely.

"Knowingly deceptive." Sure sounds like obstruction of justice to me.

A single-minded focus on the Downing Street Memo might not be the most promising strategy for getting the media to take the Iraq War conspiracy seriously. The story needs to go somewhere, and the failure of the relevant oversight bodies in the GOP-controlled Congress to investigate the issue fully, despite explicit public promises to do so, might be a good direction to take it.

So in addition to flooding the corporate media with calls and letters demanding that they get on the ball, complaints also should be directed to the offices of Sen. Pat Roberts, R-KA, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee -- (202) 224-4774; 109 Hart Senate Office Building, Washington DC 20510 -- and Vice Chair Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D(alleged)-WV -- (202) 224-6472; 531 Hart Senate Office Building.

Or how about the chair of the House Intelligence Committee: Rep. Peter Hoekstra, R-MI: (202) 225-4401; 2234 Rayburn House Office Building, Washington DC 20515. Or ranking member Rep. Jane Harmon, D(alleged)-CA: (202) 225 8220; 2400 Rayburn House Office Building.

Of course, if the intelligence panels are actually part of the cover up, then asking them to investigate further is pretty pointless. But a closer look at their role in the scandal might at least give the story a fresh news hook, and some possible strings for reporters to follow.

--------------------

June 09, 2005

Jeanne d'Arc:
Aid and AIDS

David Brooks tries to channel Nicholas Kristof today, drawing attention to an important topic that doesn't get nearly the attention it demands -- in this case, AIDS in Africa. I'd like to be able to celebrate a conservative columnist calling for increasing the amount of aid we give to Africa. (I assume "redoubling our efforts" means spending more money, but maybe it just means writing more of the kind of columns that make people think you're a nice guy.) I never thought I'd see the day David Brooks would champion the good work Cuban doctors are doing in Africa. (Next stop: Mentioning the good those doctors are doing in Venezuela? Hey, a girl can dream, can't she?) I'd even overlook a panglossian opening anecdote about how H.I.V. can save your marriage. (I bet Dear Abby never even thought of making that suggestion: Stop and smell the roses, honey. Once he has AIDS, he'll probably stop drinking and stay home nights.)

But really, I just hate this column.

Last week, Kofi Annan addressed a conference assessing progress made in meeting UN goals on reducing AIDS prevalence, providing people with information and services to protect themselves against  infection, and expanding treatment. The speech was not optimistic. There were more new infections, and more AIDS-related deaths, last year than ever before, he noted. Only 12 percent of people in poor countries who need antiretroviral treatments are getting them.

I wouldn't mind Brooks' attempt to slap a happy face on those facts, or to give credit for whatever scrap of good news he can find to the all promise and not enough cash President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief if his point were that we've done something and we can do much more. (Hooray for more! Maybe he reads his own paper and knows how little we really give -- although it's actually even less than the New York Times thinks.)

But that's not his entire point. There's this:

I came here aware of controversies about abstinence versus condoms in AIDS prevention programs, about U.S. aid versus multilateral aid, and now realize that all that nonsense is irrelevant on the ground.

Pardon my rudeness in the face of what might be good intentions, but "all that nonsense" is far from "irrelevant." It is, in fact, the core of the issue, and if David Brooks has any real interest in this subject, he needs to learn that very quickly. PEPFAR, which Brooks so appreciates, has not only failed to spend the money  Bush promised back in January 2003, it's wasting a lot of the money that it is spending. The question of U.S. versus multilateral aid is all about control. Bush has shifted most of our contribution away from the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria and into his own program because it allows him to do things his way, and his way is to steer more of the money to pharmaceutical companies and religious groups, some of whom do good work, and some of whom don't have a clue, while taking money away from established programs:

The anti-condom order issued by Tobias is already having a chilling effect among the groups most effective at combating AIDS. Population Services International, a major U.S. contractor with years of experience in HIV prevention, says it can no longer promote condoms to youth in Uganda, Zambia and Namibia because of PEPFAR rules. "That's worrisome," says PSI spokesman David Olson. "The evidence shows they're having sex. You can disapprove of that, but you can't deny it's happening."

What's more, conservatives are attacking PSI for promoting condoms -- a campaign that prevented an estimated 800,000 cases of HIV last year. Focus on the Family recently denounced PSI as a "shady" and "sordid" organization that is leading Africans into immorality by promoting condoms. And in April, conservative Republicans in the House invited Martin Ssempa, a Ugandan minister, to Capitol Hill, to berate PSI and other public-health groups for "promoting promiscuity and condoms" in his country. This year, for the first time, U.S. funding for PSI has been reduced.

Groups that support the president's religious agenda, meanwhile, are beginning to receive money that has traditionally been devoted to more experienced organizations. The Children's AIDS Fund, a well-connected conservative organization, received roughly $10 million last fall to promote abstinence-only programs overseas -- even though the group was deemed "not suitable for funding" by an expert review panel. FreshMinistries, a Florida organization with little experience in tackling AIDS, also received $10 million. "Bush has enacted policies that will redirect millions of dollars away from groups that have experience fighting HIV and AIDS and toward groups that don't but are members of his religious constituency," says Cohen.

In the end, say public-health experts, the administration's diversion of funds away from tried-and-true HIV prevention methods is more than a misguided experiment -- it's a deadly game of Russian roulette that could mark a calamitous turn in Africa's attempts to get a handle on the AIDS epidemic.

It's so bad that countries like Brazil, that have really effective anti-AIDS programs won't even take American money for fear the restrictions on how the money can be spent will make things worse.

Bush is supposedly very concerned about wasting aid money. As he recently said -- I'm warning you: Sit down, and swallow anything in your mouth before reading this -- "Nobody wants to give money to a country that's corrupt."

Listen to your president, Mr. Brooks. He doesn't even know how right he is.

Billmon:
Smoke Gets In Our Eyes

There are some things money can't buy. For everything else, there's Big Tobacco:

Tobacco industry lobbying budget, 1999 to June 2004: $113 million

Tobacco contributions to the Republican Party candidates 1990 to 2004: $41 million (75% of total)

Tobacco PAC contributions to Republican candidates 1997 to April 2005: $7 million (75% of total)

Tobacco soft dollars for the RNC 1997-2002: $6.3 million

Tobacco donations to GOP conventions and Bush-Cheney inauguration celebrations 2000 - 2005: $1.5 million

Having the President on your side in a major litigation battle with the Justice Department: Priceless.


Federal prosecutors, wrapping up a drawn-out lawsuit against the tobacco industry, are demanding only a fraction of the $130 billion that the government initially envisioned cigarette makers would have to spend on smoking cessation programs . . . Federal prosecutors said they were willing, instead, to accept a penalty of only about $10 billion, for a five-year program to help people kick the habit.

Associated Press
Feds Slash Amount Sought in Tobacco Trial
June 8, 2005

You can see what George doesn't leave home without, at the Whiskey Bar.

--------------------

June 08, 2005

Billmon:
Downing Street Blues

I see from the morning papers -- or their electronic equivalents -- that the corporate media finally has been shamed (or cornered) into reporting the Downing Street Memo story, thanks to the Reuters correspondent who insisted on interrupting Blair and Bush while they were doing their Geldolf/Bono impressions at the White House yesterday. You knew it had to be a foreign-owned news organization that popped the question. No red-blooded reporter from the American steno pool would pull a stunt like that.

Tom DeLay: Hmmm, Roytours. Ain't that a Frenchie name?

But of course, the consensus editorial decision was to bury the question, and the pathetic lies it elicited, at the bottom of the "Bush Vows to Save Africa For Just Pennies a Day" stories.

The New York Times, to be fair, has a reasonably long stand-alone piece on the memo, even if it is reported by Elizabeth "the bum" Bumiller. I can't tell what page her story ran on, but I can tell you it's just about impossible to find on the Times web site. The Boston Globe gets a special merit citation -- it even ran excerpts from the memo itself.

But I don't think the readers of the Boston Globe and the New York Times are the people who most need to know about this. Those would be the vast majority who get their news and views from the idiot box. Since I don't watch TV anymore -- except under extreme duress -- I don't know what the network airheads and cable morons have done with the story. I probably don't want to know.

I don't know what's worse about the corporate press's treatment of this story -- the way they've tried to ignore it, or the reason that many reporters and editors give for ignoring it: That it ain't news.

As Dana Milbank (and he's one of the good ones) suggests in today's Washington Post:

In part, the memo never gained traction here because, unlike in Britain, it wasn't election season, and the war is not as unpopular here. In part, it's also because the notion that Bush was intent on military action in Iraq had been widely reported here before, in accounts from Paul O'Neill and Bob Woodward, among others.
In other words, "everybody" (i.e. the kind of sycophantic shits who read about each other in The Note) already knew Bush had decided to invade Iraq even as he went through the motions of seeking a peaceful solution to the WMD "crisis." And they were also well aware, to quote MI6, that "the intelligence and the facts" had been "fixed around the policy." Why bother reporting it again, just because the intelligence chief of our closest ally happened to put it down on paper in just so many words?

The idea that the story never took off because the war is less unpopular here than in Britain is also eyeball rolling. Does Dana read his own reporting?

Poll Finds Dimmer View of Iraq War
52% Say U.S. Has Not Become Safer
By Dana Milbank and Claudia Deane

Who knows? They might feel even worse about it if the media made a bit more of an effort to report the facts. And since when are journalists (real journalists, I mean, not Fox News clones) supposed to tailor their reporting to the popularity or unpopularity of a government policy? I mean, we all know they do it, but is it really something they want to offer up as a public defense? It's like Michael Jackson admitting he molested underage boys -- but only because he thought he could get away with it.

Update 4:10 PM ET: In the spirit of handing out kudos where kudos are due, I should mention that my local paper, The Philadelphia Inquirer, ran a front-page story today (below the fold, but hey, it's something) on the Downing Street Memo angle of the Bush-Blair press conference.

The Inquirer is a Knight-Ridder paper, and K-R's coverage of the Iraq fiasco has for the most part been superb -- particularly for a news organization that lacks the budget or the clout of the Post or the Times.

The fact that Knight-Ridder gang hasn't won a public service Pulitzer for their work is just more evidence of what a pathetic back-scratching clique the journalism "profession" has become in this country.

--------------------

June 07, 2005

Greg Saunders:
Reefer Madness

I've got mixed feelings on this whole medical marijuana issue. I've had friends with cancer who swear by the drug as the only thing (legal or otherwise) that effectively treats the nausea and pain associated with treatment while restoring a lost appetite. For that reason alone, I fully support the use of medical marijuana, but I don't like the way this issue has been handled by either side of the debate.

On the anti- side, the "war on drugs" crowd has been too reliant on the slippery slope arguments about marijuana being a "gateway drug" and fearmongering about healthy hippies getting fake prescriptions. The ideological rigidity against the idea that there could ever be a positive use for pot seems a bit hypocritical given that these same folks aren't equally up in arms about the abuse of Oxycontin or Xanax.

That said, I'm not a big fan of the pro- side's method of trying to make an end run around FDA regulation and federal law. I can understand why advocates would try to find ways around the racist, elitist, hypocritical, and mostly evil "war" on drugs. Even worse, the FDA has been notorious in their unwillingness to even consider approving marijuana for pharmaceutical use[1]. That said, going the state's rights route towards legalization was pretty wrongheaded at the outset. Even when these laws originally passed, there was always a feeling of "civil disobedience" in the air. [2] The inevitable conflict with federal law was a ticking clock that hung over every "cannabis club" in the country.

So it was no surprise that the Supreme Court weighed in on the side of the feds yesterday in Gonzales vs. Raich. What was shocking to me though, is that it was decided on the grounds of the Constitution's interstate commerce clause. The dissenting opinion, as Salon points out, leaves us with some strange bedfellows :

The section that gives Congress the authority to "regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes" now stretches to include, according to Clarence Thomas' dissent, "virtually anything." Antonin Scalia, voting with the majority, clarified: "Where necessary to make a regulation of interstate commerce effective, Congress may regulate even those intrastate activities that do not themselves substantially affect interstate commerce.

In Raich, the two women were using California seeds and plants were following California law. No money changed hands. As Thomas writes, "By holding that Congress may regulate activity that is neither interstate nor commerce under the Interstate Commerce Clause, the Court abandons any attempt to enforce the Constitution's limits on federal power." So what can't the federal government regulate?

I'll leave it to others to speculate about how horrible this precedent may be, but I do want to take issue with what Salon sees as the potential light at the end of the tunnel :
Fortunately, those liberal slaves of principle in the court's majority -- who compassionately lamented the "respondents' strong arguments that they will suffer irreparable harm" if deprived of medical marijuana -- have some sage advice for the millions of victims of the war on drugs. "Perhaps even more important," croons Stevens at the end of his opinion, "is the democratic process, in which the voices of voters allied with these respondents may one day be heard in the halls of Congress."

That one day could come as early as next week, when Congress is likely to vote on the Hinchey-Rohrabacher amendment, which would prohibit the federal government from spending money to arrest, prosecute or incarcerate patients who use medical marijuana on the advice of their doctors in states where it is legal. Polls have shown upward of 80 percent support for this amendment in past years, so, of course, it loses every year by 100-plus votes. But if the Supreme Court told us nothing else on Monday, it was that if this drug quagmire is ever going to end, it'll have to be stopped by the ones who started it: members of Congress. Until then, we'll gradually build our way to a society where half the population is locked in prison and the other half is guarding the prisoners.

Which "drug quagmire" are we talking about now? Like I said before, I think the "war" on drugs is awful, but I thought we were talking about the ways marijuana helps ease the enormous pain and suffering of cancer patients. Yes, the two issues are related, but nobody should be exploiting the sympathy for the terminally ill to piggyback the larger, but tangential, issue of the excessive criminalization of narcotics onto this particular fight.

Furthermore, I can't think of a worse way to pave the way for medical marijuana than the Hinchey-Rohrabacher amendment as described above. I think doctors should be allowed to prescribe pot to chronically ill patients, but the idea of allowing bad laws to remain on the books while passing additional laws that make it illegal to enforce the existing laws seems like a big, big mistake. Sure, it may provide the necessary results, but the means to that end would probably be a legal mess that could end up confusing the issue even further.

A far more reasonable approach would be for Congress to pass an amendment to the Controlled Substances Act that would move marijuana from its Schedule I status to Schedule II. While getting Congress to relax drug laws may seem like a pipe dream, the real world implications would be to simply move pot from the class that includes LSD and heroin to the one that includes cocaine, morphine, and crystal meth. While this probably wouldn't do much to satisfy the "Legalize It!" crowd, it should give doctors the leeway to prescribe the drug for their patients, open the door to FDA approval, and subject it to more than enough regulations to keep the drug out of the hands of recreational users.[3]


1 : Are their hands tied by the Controlled Substances Act or are they just too busy rubber stamping deadly drugs from big pharma to test the safety of something that people have been ingesting for thousands of years?

2 : Just like with S.F. mayor Gavin Newsom's orders to allow gay marriage, we all knew that the "fun" couldn't last forever.

3 : That is, assuming you think drug laws work. I don't, for the most part, but the opponents of medical marijuana obviously do.

Jeanne d'Arc:
Making noise in Illinois

A few days ago Tom mentioned the letter from Barack Obama's office to a constituent, in which the senator displayed a horrifying lack of concern with the practice of torture in our name. I'm not ready to give up on Obama quite yet, but it's certainly a bad sign when someone who has gotten strong support from progressives turns out to be so clueless on such an important issue. We need to get to work.

In the comments of that previously mentioned post, Katherine -- for those of you who don't know her, one of the most knowledgeable people around when it comes to torture and extraordinary rendition -- let us know that she's written to the legislative assistant who works for Obama in this area, and mailed a packet of educational material, including her own research on the subject. The trick is getting them to read it and take it seriously. Obama's office needs to hear immediately from a lot of Illinois residents, so that they realize that turning the other way when torture is going on is not a safe and easy political stance. People who have supported the senator are very angry, and they will remember this.

If you live in Illinois, please call or write to Senator Obama's office as soon as possible, telling him how disappointed you were by his (or his office's) response. You might also suggest that he make himself the second Illinois senator to co-sponsor S.654 which prohibits rendition to countries that practice torture.

And it wouldn't hurt to write to Dick Durbin's office as well. He knows this issue, and cares about it, and perhaps can help educate his colleague.

Billmon:
Kitty Litter

Via Cursor, I see that the U.N. arms inspectors, having been blocked by the Bush Pentagon from returning to the Iraqi sites they were monitoring before the invasion, are still trying to keep an eye on things -- from space. And the big problem isn't what they see, but what they don't see:

U.N. satellite imagery experts have determined that material that could be used to make biological or chemical weapons and banned long-range missiles has been removed from 109 sites in Iraq, U.N. weapons inspectors said in a report obtained Thursday . . .

In the report to the U.N. Security Council, acting chief weapons inspector Demetrius Perricos said . . . the missing material can be used for legitimate purposes. “However, they can also be utilized for prohibited purposes if in a good state of repair.”

So thanks to the invasion, the dismantled remnants of Saddam's pre-1991 WMD programs (and the dual-use capabilties he was husbanding against the day sanctions were lifted) now might, just might, be used to create serviceable, if crude, weapons of mass panic -- dirty bombs, short-range ballistic missiles, chemical grenades, etc. It's like something out of Pogo.

Of course it's possible some or even most of the missing materials were safely destroyed by the U.S. military and/or U.S. weapons inspectors during the great 2003-04 WMD snipe hunt. But, given the track record, I wouldn't hold my breath. (Although I might think about buying a gas mask.)

According to the UN inspectors, the most thoroughly looted (or scavenged, or salvaged, or "tidied up") facilities were those involved in the production of rockets:

The largest percentages of missing items were at the 58 missile facilities, which include some of the key production sites for both solid and liquid propellant missiles, the report said.

For example, 289 of the 340 pieces of equipment to produce missiles — about 85 percent — had been removed, it said.

It wouldn't be too surprising if the Iranians ended up with most of that stuff -- and it's a sign of how screwed up things are that that is one of the less alarming possibilities. But I doubt anyone knows for sure what became of it all -- or will know, unless pieces start landing in major American cities.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, your Department of Homeland Security (and wayward Texas politician location service) is on the job, protecting our beloved country from the dangers of . . . cat litter:

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff also announced last week that the nation's busiest seaports, Los Angeles and Long Beach, will have enough drive-through radiation monitors to screen every container by year's end.

Still, members of Congress and nuclear specialists say some of the efforts — including creation of a new Domestic Nuclear Detection Office — suffer from misplaced priorities and rely on detectors so primitive that they can't tell the difference between highly enriched uranium and naturally occurring radiation in cat litter. (emphasis added).

If all this sounds too depressing to think about, it is. The obvious truth is that in the globalization era, the phrase "homeland security" is an Orwellian oxymoron -- particularly for a country with 9,600 miles of land and sea borders, 14,857 airports and 185 major seaports handling an estimated 214,000 ships a year. Clearly a forward strategy against terrorism is needed -- which may about the only thing Donald Rumsfeld and I agree on. The problem is that virtually every "forward" thing the Bush administration has done or tried to do over the past three years has made the risks worse, not better.

Oh well, just because a problem is insolvable doesn't mean the federal government can't throw hundreds of billions of dollars at it. Look at it this way: At least we're being protected from WRCL (weapons of radioactive cat litter.)

Tom Tomorrow:
All or nothing

As Greg notes a few posts below, and as I've mentioned a time or two in various cartoons, one of the major debate strategies of the right is to find any inconsistency in a story and use it to discredit the entire story. Given the inherent fallibility of human beings, this is a pretty easy task--there's always going to be some little fact that somebody got wrong, some mistaken detail in an otherwise true story. Or, at the very least, there will be an inexact turn of phrase or metaphor (a word like "gulag", say) which can be seized upon to channel attention away from the issue itself.

On the topic of detainee deaths, the righties have apparently decided that the weak point is the inexact number of deaths. Never mind the 2000 page Army investigation leaked to the New York Times which pretty much concluded that two innocent men were tortured to death at Bagram. Never mind that anyone who understands how to use one of these newfangled "search engines" can find a story like this within seconds:

A senior military official, briefing reporters at the Pentagon, said the Army has completed or is still conducting criminal probes into 33 cases involving the deaths of 32 detainees in Iraq and five in Afghanistan.

The new tally amounts to an increase of eight cases over the 25 reported on May 4 by the Army's top criminal investigator as the scandal over abuses at the Abu Ghraib prison was erupting.

It also pointed to wider problems beyond the Abu Ghraib facility, raising the possibility that coercive interrogations and other mistreatment by U.S. soldiers may have resulted in the deaths of some detainees.

In the case of Iraqi army Maj. Gen. Abed Hamed Mowhoush, who once headed Hussein's air defenses, the Pentagon initially attributed his death last November to natural causes. But an autopsy released by the Pentagon yesterday said Mowhoush, who was found in a sleeping bag, died of "asphyxia due to smothering and chest compression." At the briefing, the military official confirmed a Denver Post report Wednesday that his case is being probed as a homicide.

The Pentagon released autopsy reports on 22 other prisoners, with causes of death including "multiple gunshot wounds," "strangulation," "blunt force injuries and asphyxia," as well as some natural causes.

But never mind all that. Somewhere, at some point, somebody pegged the number of detainee deaths at 100. I'm not sure where that figure originated, but it's been floating around for awhile, and people keep referencing it--but since the Army itself "only" officially acknowledges 37 deaths, then, well, clearly the entire thing is just another fiction promulgated by the Lying Liberal Media. And the righties can go back to pretending that the worst allegation of abuse anyone anywhere has made was about Korans in toilets. Oh, and that one night at Abu Ghraib when everyone took those photos, but the guilty have been punished and we've put all that behind us now. Next subject please.

Now, it seems to me that whether 37 people have been tortured to death or 100, or even just one, it's still too many, for reasons too obvious to enumerate. But apparently not everybody sees it that way.

So watch for that magic number, 100. You'll be seeing a lot of it, from craven apologists desperate to change the subject.

...update: the most recent figure on the detainee deaths is "only" 27.

--------------------

June 06, 2005

Tom Tomorrow:
Cartoon stuff

My pal Ward Sutton has a new book coming out, and he's got several events scheduled in New York this week. More info here.

Billmon:
All at Sea

The Captain's Quarters (think Captain Queeg, but without the street smarts) argues that the "leftist establishment," which apparently includes me, is taking this whole stomping/kicking/pissing on the Koran thing way too seriously:

This has been front-page news for two or three weeks now, ever since Newsweek decided to run a poorly-sourced item about Gitmo guards flushing a Qu'ran down a toilet. Now we have the Pentagon report detailing five supposed events where guards mistreated copies of the Muslim scripture, and the media and the blogosphere have reacted like this is another My Lai.

Guess what, people? This is a book. It's not the Ark of the Covenant or Mohammed's horse or a splinter of the True Cross.

Leaving aside the idiotic/obnoxious religious parallels (Mohammed's horse???) one can see a certain conservative logic at work here.

Back when the wingnuts were still arguing that Quran abuse was nothing but a reckless lie of the liberal media, the standard conservative line was that the Newsweek story was an utter disaster for American foreign policy, a setback of monumental proportions in the global war on terrorism and the proximate cause of countless deaths in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

But, now that the Pentagon has actually admitted that the Quran was desecrated at Guantanamo, it's "just a book" and what's the big deal anyway?

Proving once again (as if further proof was needed) that the little green football heads and their kin have no clue -- not even a trace -- about the kind of war the United States is fighting, or why it is in considerable danger of losing that war.

I mean, this reaction to the orginal Newsweek report might give a reasonably intelligent person some insight into why the Quran is more than "just a book," and why defiling it isn't exactly the best way to win hearts and minds in the Islamic world:

"We can understand torturing prisoners, no matter how repulsive," says computer teacher Muhammad Archad, interviewed last week by Newsweek in Peshawar, Pakistan, where one of last week's protests took place. "But insulting the Qur'an is like deliberately torturing all Muslims. This we cannot tolerate."

But of course, we're not talking about reasonable or intelligent people here, we're dealing with the yahoo right -- the kind of people who can (and do) go absolutely batshit when a crucifix is photographed in beaker of urine, but who just can't understand how 1.2 billion Muslims could get their noses so out of joint over a harmless little frathouse prank like stomping on their holy scripture.

Of course, it's pretty old news that the wingnuts have no idea how to fight, much less win, the war against Islamic terrorism (unless genocide counts.) I don't know how to win it either, but I have a pretty clear idea how it could be lost, and the kind of pseudo-macho stupidity on display at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo definitely has helped move us in that general direction, if we're not there already.

But Captain Keyboard also demonstrates a much stranger point: Despite all the rhetoric, winning the war against terrorism really isn't all that important to the wingnut right -- far less important, anyway, than always feeling morally superior to the hated liberals and never, ever admitting that the Bush administration's critics might, just once, be right.

And if that requires repeatedly turning a blind eye to arrogance, incompetence and self-defeating brutality on a monumental scale, well I guess that's a sacrifice the wingnuts are willing to make for the cause -- the ideological cause of conservatism, I mean.

Because, hey, war is hell, right?

(Cross posted from the Whiskey Bar)

--------------------

June 05, 2005

Tom Tomorrow:
Politics as usual

Jeanne has posted an email from Barack Obama over at her blog. Anyone who has high hopes for this guy needs to read it.

Tom Tomorrow:
This seems promising

You hate to get your hopes up, but Okrent's replacement seems like he might actually be up to the task--in stark contrast to his predecessor...

I also plan to make greater use of the Web. I intend to post more actual reader e-mails - with responses from Times editors and perhaps from me, if appropriate - on the Public Editor's Web Journal. My first commentary, posted there two weeks ago, questioned the Washington bureau's slowness in pursuing the significance of the so-called Downing Street memo on planning for the Iraq war.

* * *

Where am I coming from in terms of my attitudes and perspectives on life and journalism? Simply put, I would say The Times has a public editor with an instinctive affinity for the underdog and an enduring faith in a free press.

Developing, as the kids say...

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