Friday, December 09, 2005

Young, "Quiet" Osama

A teaser from tomorrow’s Weekend Review in the Notebooks—this about Steve Coll’s new piece in the New Yorker, “Young Osama: How he learned radicalism, and may have seen America.”

Coll won a Pulitzer for “Ghost Wars,” his 700-page history of the CIA, Osama and Afghanistan, but his latest 4,800 words are more of a curiosity-shop item on Osama than revealing reporting. The most interesting nugget is that Osama visited the United States in 1978 with his wife.His young son had a cosmetic medical problem that needed attention. Coll doesn’t say where they went, only that they were stared at in an airport lounge, because of what Osama’s wife wore, and that Osama joked about it later. He also went to London when he was 10 and on a big-game safari in East Africa as a teenager. The son who was taken to the United States for treatment now runs an advertising and PR firm in Jedda, the New York of Saudi Arabia, called “Fame Advertising” (also a PR firm in Australia, but one not connected to the bin Laden son’s firm.) Other silly revelations: Osama “drove a white Chrysler and a gray Mercedes, often very fast,” as a young man. He played soccer and was encouraged to play forward, to take advantage of his height and head balls into the net. His half brothers attended school in Lebanon, but he did not (as has been alleged), nor did he party and disco there (though Coll offers no evidence disproving that he didn’t: it’s pretty much a truism that if you're Saudi, rich and outwardly religious, you use Beirut for its parties, booze and prostitutes).

The article has a sense of gravity that doesn’t hold up. Osama, an only child of a couple that divorced soon after his birth, attended Jedda’s most exclusive private school where British and Irish teachers taught him, along with faculty members culled from Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. One of his teachers, an Irishman, goes so far as to use the cliché quote about ax murderers, remembering Osama as “a nice fellow and a good student. There were no problems with him. … He was a quiet lad.” [our italics]. Fine. But then Steve Coll decides to push the seriousness with seriously speculative significance. Osama attended an afterschool Islamic studies session with a Syrian teacher who had his students play soccer and learn the Koran by heart, then learn stories about Islam, some of them pretty violent. The implication is that Osama was terribly influenced by religious extremists. But how are these religio-extremist sessions different from untold numbers of afterschool and Sunday Bible sessions held by ministers or extremists right here in the United States? A fellow-student tells Coll that he remembers the afterschool teacher mesmerizing the group with one story in particular, about a young pious boy whose father wouldn’t let him be a Muslim, so the boy took his father’s gun and shot him, and “Lord be praised—Islam was released in that home,” Coll quotes the former student quoting the teacher as saying. How that story is different from, say, Abraham readying to kill his son to prove his faith to God, go figure. (None of this is meant to justify Osama or explain him away in less indicting terms than reality’s, but to point out the emptiness at the core of Coll’s article). If we’re to draw any sort of conclusions from Osama’s pretty unremarkable youth, the facts reported in this piece don’t help, except to feed into false assumptions and possibly some prejudices merely by dint of creating the impression that Osama was involved in weird, extremist behaviors in his youth. But he wasn’t involved in anything more remarkable than too many young rich and religiously bred, or self-bred, Americans.

One irresistible quote from an Osama fellow-student: “We used to leave our valuables with Osama, because he never cheated. He was sober, serious. He didn’t cheat or copy from others, but he didn’t hide his paper, either, if others wanted to look over his shoulder.” How considerate. And always remember: He was a quiet lad.

"You'll Find This World Is Full of Sons of Bitches..."

“We’re not in the business of torturing anyone.”
—Nabil Fahami, Egyptian ambassador to the United States, quoted in the New York Times, Dec. 9, 2005.

“We've learned that Iraq has trained al Qaeda members in bomb-making and poisons and deadly gases.”
—President Bush speaking of the Iraqi “threat” at Cincinnati Museum Center, Oct. 7, 2002.

“I am not a crook.”
—Richard Nixon, speaking to newspaper editors in Orlando, Fla., Nov. 17, 1973.

“Mr. Austern, you'll find this world is full of sons of bitches, and they're always hard at work at it.”
—Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis to his law clerk, Tommy Austern, after Austern railed against obvious lies he was reading in the press.

It’s not that we didn’t know they were lying all along. Some of us knew. The latest lie to unravel in all its scabrous details: The Iraq-al-Qaeda tie, one of the least believable bits of “evidence” in the run-up to the war anyway, but also one of the most compelling for the American public, about 60 percent of whom thought the link existed. You can’t blame the public. Bush said the link existed. Cheney repeated it (and repeats it still!). Colin Powell said it existed. It was one of their crucial puzzle pieces as they put together that monstrously bogus case for war. Never mind that the puzzle piece was a jagged shard of lies extracted from a Libyan al-Qaeda operative captured in Pakistan and “rendered” to Egyptian torture chambers, where the Libyan “admitted” to the link only to win concessions from his torturers, as the Times reports this morning. (It’s significant that the CIA handed the man over to Egyptian authorities as opposed to, say, Jordanian authorities: Egypt has a long history of hatred for Libyans, their geographic and historic rivals to their West. The torture would be most effective in Egyptian dungeons. That sort of attention to detail is what Condoleezza Rice, a Kissinger in cobra’s clothing, must have meant when she freshly defended rendition as a way to take advantage of locals’ cultural affinities for each other.) The CIA discarded the man’s confessions in 2004, admitting that it had been fabricated from nothing, just as the CIA discarded the two other jagged puzzle pieces the Bush administration relied on to convince the public that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction: the story of “Curveball,” the fabricator-defector in Germany, and the story of Adnan Ihsan Saeed al-Haideri, the Kurd who’d fled into the CIA’s eager arms with a vendetta against Saddam, but a story of WMDs that also crumbled on the slightest inspection. What else was there to justify war? Judith Miller articles in the New York Times.

Commentators and a few editorial boards echoed the skepticism even Bush administration insiders attached to all those reports. But the skepticism was muffled and ultimately ignored. The bogus evidence was massaged into fact. And it was peddled on prime time by the president, the vice president, the secretary of state, and all their lower minions. A lie protected by the trust invested in the presidency of the United States is truth’s Maginot Line. It looks impregnable, indestructible, impossible to counter. Between the words of a few commentators and the word of a president, Americans will take their president at his word any day. As they should. The presidency represents trust and credibility—until it is destroyed by those who abuse it. Truth eventually finds a way around the lies, no matter how massively protected. (Not to compare those who went around it to truth by any means, but remember what happened to the Maginot Line).

Bush has been destroying that trust and credibility more systematically than Nixon, more ruinously than any president since the crookeries of Reconstruction.  Just as Bush has been raiding the Treasury to bankroll the deceptive prosperity of the last couple of years (on the back of mammoth deficits to day and a mammoth reckoning tomorrow), he’s been plundering the presidency’s trust and digging America’s credibility into deficit, in the world’s eyes, for years to come. There’s the obvious damage of the war in its day-to-day horrors and continuing tallies. But there’s also the long-term, strategic damage that will have ruinous repercussions on the nation’s foreign policy, whoever will have to steer it: Republican or Democrat, they’re both screwed. We’ve lost the world’s trust. We’ve lost the very meaning of America as we (and the world) once understood it, and depended it. By doing such things as rendition-torture programs, running secret prisons, fabricating evidence to make war and subsequently standing by it, admitting to no errors beyond the cosmetic “adjustments” Bush spoke of (to make it seem as if he was adapting and owning up to errors), we’ve adopted the means and language of totalitarian regimes. We are the world’s sons of bitches.

But Who the Hell is Henry Dana Jr.?

Before and after the mast, Cuba, Nagasaki, even around the world: Read the tales here...

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

USA Patriot Act's O'Reilly Factor

Sami Al-Arian may have won his trial, but he's not free, because the country itself is not in the clear from the witch-hunt mentality that resulted in al-Arian’s arrest in the first place, and many like it (with less just outcomes) across the country. I’ve been picking on O’Reilly, but only because his “Factor” lit the inquisition’s fires. O’Reilly’s likes from Sean Hannity to Joe Sacrborough to talk radio’s chorus of brown-shirted voices daily reduce American discourse to a wasteland. Without so much baseness and baselessness on the air, the nation’s leaders couldn’t possibly be as base and the nation’s liberty crushing laws as baseless, or as popular. Because in the popular interpretation and prosecution of this so-called war on terror, evidence has nothing to do with guilt. Perception is enough. Because We are no longer a society of evidence, fairness and due process, those qualities of law we’re supposedly trying to impose on Iraq and Afghanistan . We’re all guilty until proven innocent. Read the full article...

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Selling War, Selling Out Truth

If there are still any doubts about the CIA and the Pentagon manufacturing cases for war, coaching shabby dissidents into “witnesses,” buying reporters and planting information in the world’s press, James Bamford’s piece in the December 1 Rolling Stone puts them to rest. “The Man Who Sold the War” is disheartening not for its facts, which in a normally democratic society would have triggered congressional inquiries and calls for a few scalps, but for the degree to which this sort of state-sponsored propaganda is now an accepted and expensive part of U.S. government operations, encouraged by the president, unquestioned by Congress, and hardly ever touched on by the press, mainstream or otherwise. Sure we’re all focused these last few days on the Pentagon’s planting of a few pro-American stories and buying up a few reporters in Iraq. But that story is itself being spinned by the Pentagon to its advantage: Let the world focus on a few isolated instances, let the Pentagon take a minor spanking, and let everyone remain blind and deaf to the much larger war of disinformation, deception, manipulation and outright lies that go on as a matter of U.S. policy (as exemplified, for instance, by the Pentagon’s 74-page “Information Operations Roadmap”). The policy is not only abetted by the media’s silence. It is sometimes encouraged by the media’s participation. Cue Judith Miller et. al. (She’s the most visible of the bunch, but by no means the only one to have run amok.)

Bamford’s piece focuses on John Rendon of The Rendon Group, a “strategic communications” consulting form hired by the CIA in 1990 then by the Pentagon after 1996 to invent a narrative that would justify pro-American regime change where necessary, and apparently by any means necessary. Remember those cheering crowds of Kuwaitis waving American flags immediately after their “liberation” in 1991? Staged. Rendon Productions. “Did you ever wonder,” Rendon is quoted in the article as saying, “how the people of Kuwait City, after being held hostage for seven long and painful months, were able to get hand-held American -- and, for that matter, the flags of other coalition countries?” That was Rendon’s job. It was also his job to put a positive spin on a world “liberating” Kuwait while Kuwaiti’s ruling elite was “living it up in nightclubs in Cairo as Americans were dying in Kuwaiti sand.” His firm made off with about $100 million in CIA contracts in the five years following the first Gulf war, Bamford reports. The money has kept rolling in since, through the Pentagon--$50 million to $100 million between 2000 and 2004.

Remember the Iraqi National Congress headed by that convicted embezzler Ahmad Chalabi and held up by the Bush administration as the legitimate heir to Saddam’s regime? A Rendon invention, created and coached by the group, along with Chalabi, to seem like a politically viable “congress” when it is, in fact, nothing more than a collection of actors and scripts fed the media and the public. Judith Miller’s path intersects often enough with that of the Rewndon Group, making it entirely possible that she was one of the journalists on its payroll—like Paul Moran, the Australian “journalist” who helped spread Rendon’s message through the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Rendon insists he only deals in “timely, truthful and accurate information,” but how do you define truthful when he also describes himself as “an information warrior and a perception manager,” when he says that “[f]or us it’s a question of patriotism. It’s not a question of politics, and that’s an important distinction… If brave men are going to be put in harm’s way, they deserve support.” But what if the fake stories you’re peddling helped put them in harm’s way? And how can information be truthful if it has an agenda, if information is premised on massaging perceptions rather than putting forth the most credible truths?

Speaking of lying with an agenda: The CIA in 2001 administered a polygraph test to an Iraqi dissident called Adnan Ihsan Saeed al-Haideri, a 43-year-old who claimed to know everything about Saddam’s WMD program and was determined to bring him down. He failed the test. Fabrications, the CIA concluded, very much like the stories told by another Iraqi dissident known as Curveball, that one in the custody of the German intelligence service. “But just because the story wasn’t true didn’t mean it couldn’t be put to good use,” Bamford reports. Al-Hadeiri became part of the Rendon Group’s PR offensive as it did its mercenary job, on the Pentagon’s behalf, of “selling the world a war.” It worked to excess. “Never before in history,” Bamford writes, “had such an extensive secret network been established to shape the entire world’s perception of a war. ‘It was not just bad intelligence—it was an orchestrated effort,’ says Sam Gardner, a retired Air Force colonel who has taught strategy and military operations at the National War College. ‘It began before the war, was a major effort during the war and continues as post-conflict distortions.’”

At the end of his piece Bamford quotes Rendon speaking glowingly of the policy of embedding reporters with the military. It helps control the story, although not entirely enough. Too many news organizations got ahead of the Pentagon’s spin machine. “We lost control of the context,” Rendon warned. “That has to be fixed for the next war.”  

Monday, December 05, 2005

Monday Morning Bloggerback

Mandatory sentences in the eleventh circle of hell: Reading blogs. The more serious the offense, the more ideological the required blog reading. No need to name names here. Given the “trackback” features encrusted in these things, that would only encourage the name-callers, though most of us know who they are. There’s that fellow- but second-generational immigrant from one of Teddy Roosevelt’s colonial outposts who loves internment camps for liberals; there’s the tallish blond lawyer of the talk circuit (let’s call her the Coulture warrior), anorexic in compassion but a glutton for bigotry; and of course on the other side there are liberalism’s copycats by default who, as they play Godot and Estragon to the Democratic Party’s frigid ideas machine, have nothing more imaginative to do than stoop, snap and snarl as tiresomely as right’s crispies. But with what—six hundred and eighty four trillion blogs out there (at last count)? One is bound to find a few gems worthy of 47th Street’s craftsmen. Here are a few from the past week, covering a gamut’s eyelash: Thoughts on David Brooks, theocracy in Baghdad, the Pope’s Limbo, toots for Enlightenment, counter-toots for conservatism, and a couple of Vatican-friendly bits on gay marriage and sex. It's all here...

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Weekend Review

The Weekend Review is up on the Notebooks' home page.