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May 2004

Blog Discussions at Wiscon

This is an announcement for those at Wiscon: Following this afternoon's blog panel at 2:30 PM moderated by Cheryl Morgan, I have arragned a room for what Wiscon calls a "spontaneous" program item, Blogs, Woman, and Politics: What Is to Be Done. It will take place 4:00 - 5:15 PM in Conf. Room 1. It will be a group discussion that I shall lead.

Home Chatter

I'm going to be pretty busy in the next week because of the extended weekend and such, so I'm not sure how much blogging I'll be able to do.

This past week has been difficult. Elizabeth became very clingy last Thursday and stayed that way. Satuday, she came down with a low fever that became a high fever Sunday night. Monday morning, red spots came in -- a virus, says the doctor. She has slept badly at night, which means David and I have too. So I've been stumbling around in a sleep-deprived haze all week. She's mostly over it, so I'm hoping for a good night's sleep tonight.

John Israel Has Been Found. Will Ashcroft Prosecute?

Joel Brinkley (NYT) has tracked down John Israel (mentioned in the Taguba report). He denies not only any involvement with abuse or torture of prisoners but also having witnessed any. In his version, someone else in the scandal fingered him, inotherwords, he claims he was framed.

Given the timing of his departure from Iraq -- "a few weeks ago" -- it is fair to assume that, like Steve Stefanowicz, he too remained on the job at Abu G despite the Taguba report.

OK Ashcroft: the press has found the man for you. Arrest him. From the Washington Post, May 7th:

Attorney General John D. Ashcroft said yesterday that killings or abuse of military detainees in Iraq that involved civilian contractors could be prosecuted by the Justice Department under several statutes, including civil rights violations and anti-torture laws.

Go to it, Jonnyboy! Prosecute!

Now why is it that we're having to rely on the press to find our alleged war criminals for us? What about, say, the FBI?

Brinkley has unearthed another interesting fact: Almost none of the translators working in Abu G had security clearances. Now, I do not consider a security clearance much of a moral vetting, but isn't this a HUGE security hole brought on by privatization? Shouldn't whoever in the military was in charge of staffing Abu G with translators without security clearances be at very least disciplined? Isn't the information gained from jailhouse interrogations supposed to be secret?

(Thanks, Mitchell and David.)

James Bond, SOS, Agent in Charge

I just about jumped out of my chair reading Josh Marshall's new post discussing the NYT article C.I.A. Bid to Keep Some Detainees Off Abu Ghraib Roll Worries Officials.

In one of several cases in which an Iraqi prisoner died at Abu Ghraib in connection with interrogations, a hooded man identified only by his last name, Jamadi, slumped over dead on Nov. 20 as he was being questioned by a C.I.A. officer and translator, intelligence officials said. The incident is being investigated by the C.I.A.'s inspector general, and military officials have said that the man, whose body was later packed in ice and photographed at Abu Ghraib, had never been assigned a prisoner number, an indication that he had never been included on any official roster at the prison.

The memorandum criticizing the practice of keeping prisoners off the roster was signed by Col. Thomas M. Pappas, commander of the 205th Military Intelligence Brigade, and a James Bond, who is identified as "SOS, Agent in Charge." Military and intelligence officials said that they did not know of a Mr. Bond who had been assigned to Abu Ghraib, and that it was possible that the name was an alias.

An intelligence official said Monday that he could not confirm the authenticity of the document, and that neither "SOS" or "Agent in Charge" was terminology that the C.I.A. or any other American intelligence agency would use. A military official said he believed that the document was authentic and was issued on or about Jan. 12, two days before abuses at Abu Ghraib involving military police were brought to the attention of Army investigators.

SOS is SOS Interpreting, Ltd. of 99 Wall Street in New York City. As discussed in my most recent post on "John Israel," SOS was Israel's employer. In that post I also suggested that SOS had other employees in the prison, on the basis that their employment ads suggested that their interrogation people worked in teams. Given the NYT's suggestion that "James Bond, SOS Agent in Charge" is operating under a pseudonym, this amplifies my suspicions voiced in another post that "John Israel" is also a pseudonym.

James Bond indeed.

PS: I emailed the NYT on the 23rd trying to get them interested in checking whether SOS had more employees at Abu G and was told that they'd already covered it and given links to "Role of Private Firms in Iraq Questioned" by the Associated Press and "Translator Questioned by Army in Iraq Abuse" by Joel Brinkley (NYT), which do no such thing. I'm going to take this opportunity to tell the NYT I told you so. (Sorry to be so smug, but this may be my only chance!)

Bush's Exit Strategy Speech

I listened to only fragments of Bush speech last night. I was cooking dinner -- grilling hotdogs and sauteing rice -- walking in and out of earshot.

Looking at the NYT transcript this morning, here are some passages that I find noteworthy:

Andreas Schafer, 26, of New Plymouth, New Zealand, missing in Iraq for 3 months, was in US custody:
US Denies Holding Kiwi In Iraq
MP Keith Locke says it is hard to believe US officials did not know where Mr Schafer was, particularly when their people interrogated him several times.
NZ traveller held in Iraq by US Army
"I was then held for nearly three months and interrogated by the US Army on several occasions. / "Each time they questioned me they said it was the first they had heard I was being detained and that the investigation was starting from the beginning. / "Eventually the British consul got involved one way or another (probably notified by New Zealand Foreign Affairs) and then I was out within a week." . . . /  She said her son and a number of other foreign nationals were picked up by the Iraqi police the day after a serious bomb attack.  / "Initially they told him it would take two days and he would be out. Then the two days turned into a week and another week ... "

This one seems to me to border on delusional. Not only does this resurrect the old saw that the old regime was in cahoots with al Qaida; it de-emphasizes real efforts elsewhere to reduce the risk of terrorism in favor of the war in Iraq.

Iraq is now the central front in the war on terror. And we must understand that as well.

The return of tyranny to Iraq would be an unprecedented terrorist victory and a cause for killers to rejoice. It would also embolden the terrorists, leading to more bombings, more beheadings and more murders of the innocent around the world.

(The neocon speechwriters just don't quit with that Saddam=Osama thing, do they?)

Then there's this  juxtaposition. Bush says that on June 30th the occupation will end. But a few paragraphs later he says:

Given the recent increase in violence we'll maintain our troop level at the current 138,000 as long as necessary. 

How, exactly, does one define occupation in such a way that ending an occupation does not involve troop withdrawals?

He goes on to say:

Successful units need to know they are fighting for the future of their own country, not for any occupying power. So we are ensuring that Iraqi forces serve under an Iraqi chain of command.

But if we haven't withdrawn any troops, who can be expected to believe the occupation has ended?

Eventually, he comes around to the subject of Abu Ghraib:

A new Iraq will also need a humane, well-supervised prison system. Under the dictator prisons like Abu Ghraib were symbols of death and torture. That same prison became a symbol of disgraceful conduct by a few American troops who dishonored our country and disregarded our values.

America will fund the construction of a modern maximum security prison. When that prison is completed detainees at Abu Ghraib will be relocated. Then with the approval of the Iraqi government we will demolish the Abu Ghraib prison as a fitting symbol of Iraq's new beginning.

I'm all for demolishing the place, but simply getting its inhabitants new digs does not seem to the point. According to our own military, a large percentage of them don't belong in jail in the first place, let alone in maximum security. Exactly whom does Bush think he's impressing with this line of reasoning? The problems in that facility were not simply a function of malign architecture. He's proposing to solve the Abu G problem the way one would deal with a haunted house, when in fact the problems are systemic to our own military and its outsourcing policies. Demolishing a building can be a metaphor for a solution, but it is not the solution itself.

Then he says, The fourth step in our plan is [drumroll] to enlist additional international support for Iraq's transition. Given the recent erosion of the coalition, this is a rather pathetic pronouncement. What is he really saying? We'll sideline Rumsfeld and get that bench-warmer Powell back in the game?

His final proposal is "free national elections to be held no later than next January."

In that election the Iraqi people will choose a transitional national assembly, the first freely elected, truly representative national governing body in Iraq's history. This assembly will serve as Iraq's legislature and it will choose a transitional government with executive powers. 

I'm all for elections, but if he's really ending the occupation and handing over power June 30th, what is he going to do about it if the new government doesn't want to hold elections? Why should his appointees hold an election if they are already in power? As he says himself, Iraqis will write their own history and find their own way. (Of course the answer to this question is that since Bush is only pretending to end the occupation, they will have elections, or else our non-occupying troops will do something about it.)

Finally, he contrasts two visions of Iraq: the terrorists' and "ours." I'm not sure who he thinks "we" is but this back-and-white dichotomy does not seem to leave much room for legitimate disagreements within Iraq. It sounds very much like Bush's my-way-or-the-highway policies of the past.

This speech is not so much to outline a strategy for a US exit from Iraq as a strategy for a US exit for responsibility for Iraq. The mindset underlying the speech seems to me to be It matters not whether you win or lose, but where you place the blame.

Another Mercenary or Two Killed in Iraq

The BBC:

Two Britons were killed in Iraq on Monday in a rocket attack outside coalition headquarters in Baghdad.

A Foreign Office spokeswoman confirmed that two British civilians had died and one had been injured.

Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said the deaths were shocking and showed the risks civilians had to take in Iraq.

The Foreign Office later confirmed that one of the Britons who died was working for international business risk consultancy Control Risks Group.

What is Control Risks Group, you might ask. Is it an insurance company or something?

This April article by Paul McGeough describes the company's Iraq presence as a "1100-strong private army of former British SAS, Nepalese and Fijian soldiers also guards 500 British civil servants." Civilians indeed.

So, is the dead CRG man an SAS retread? Soldiers in a war zone are not civilians not matter who signs their paycheck.

The Telegraph now reports that only one of the two dead men worked for CRG, and that the other was an advisor to the CPA "paid by the foreign office."

Literature & the Question of Value

One of the things that drove me batty about studying literature in grad school was that once one strayed outside the safety of the canon, academics seemed to provide no methods or guidance for telling whether a work of fiction was any good. Rather, it was to be seen as a cultural artifact or a symptom of some sort. I thought this attitude was maddening nonsense, though, having abandoned academia a long time ago, it hadn't occurred to me to think about this in quite some time.

But now I read, in a fine piece in The London Review of Books, The Slightest Sardine by James Woods the very point I felt unable to communicate to my professors -- that the question of the value of a work is supremely important:

There is no greater mark of the gap that separates writers and English departments than the question of value. The very thing that most matters to writers, the first question they ask of a work - is it any good? - is often largely irrelevant to university teachers. Writers are intensely interested in what might be called aesthetic success: they have to be, because in order to create something successful one must learn about other people's successful creations. To the academy, much of this value-chat looks like, and can indeed be, mere impressionism. Again, theory is not the only culprit. A good deal of postmodern thought is suspicious of the artwork's claim to coherence, and so is indifferent or hostile to the discussion of its formal success. But conventional, non-theoretical criticism often acts as if questions of value are irrelevant, or canonically settled. To spend one's time explaining how a text works is not necessarily ever to talk about how well it works, though it might seem that the latter is implicit in the former. Who bothers, while teaching The Portrait of a Lady for the nth time, to explain to a class that it is a beautiful book? But it would be a pardonable exaggeration to say that, for most writers, greedy to learn and emulate, this is the only important question.

Hooray for common sense!

New Evidence of an Eldritch Conspiracy: Bad people have parties too, says US Military Spokesman!

Shock and awe were what our military promised the Iraqis. And shock and the awful are what these photographs announce to the world that the Americans have delivered: a pattern of criminal behavior in open contempt of international humanitarian conventions. Soldiers now pose, thumbs up, before the atrocities they commit, and send off the pictures to their buddies. Secrets of private life that, formerly, you would have given nearly anything to conceal, you now clamor to be invited on a television show to reveal. What is illustrated by these photographs is as much the culture of shamelessness as the reigning admiration for unapologetic brutality.

Who writes this stuff? Some mornings when I get up and read the news, I have a hard time shaking the feeling that Rumsfeld and his minions aren't real people at all; that this is a bad movie and Rumsfeld is just the Creature from the Black Lagoon in a rubber suit and that his lines are written by Jack Womack in a really nasty bad-Jack mood, happily chuckling over his computer; that Womack's day job as a HarperCollins publicist is just a cover for the lofty Top Secret position of Official Pentagon Scriptwriter. Or perhaps the real reason Terry Bisson moved out of New York to his secret California hideaway was to write military satire!

OK, it's time for a confession. Did Womack write the lines for this guy, Brig Gen Mark Kimmitt, US military spokesman, who when confronted with a new video, showing "before" videos of the wedding party our troops massacred, responded, Bad people have parties, too? If Womack didn't write that, we should ask around. Was it you, Terry Bisson? Thomas Harris? Don Webb? Charlie Stross! Of course!

Observe the clever plotting, an obvious sign of writing craft: A line like this is a sure tip-off that our military establishment has been taken over by something along the lines of the Lovecraftian Elder Gods, and that if we knew the TRUTH we would all descend into a gibbering madness. Think Stross's The Atrocity Archives!

And here's another line in today's Guardian giving further evidence that this is all a parody of an absurd movie, or even a bad dream:

The first Mohammed Munim al-Izmerly's family knew of his death was when his battered corpse turned up at Baghdad's morgue. Attached to the zipped-up black US body bag was a laconic note.

The US military claimed in the note that Dr Izmerly, a distinguished chemistry professor arrested after US tanks encircled his villa, had died of "brainstem compression".

Perhaps this brainstem compression was the result of witnessing his interrogators peeling back their human faces to reveal the monstrous visages underneath -- why else would the Pentagon ban cameraphones, but to keep this hideous secret?!

We should have known ages ago that part of our military had been taken over by a conspiracy of hideous flabby fungous beasts. Rumsfeld dropped sly hints, quite a while ago. Here he clearly refers to the cosmic horrors underlying our everyday reality -- things Man Was Not Meant to Know!

As we know,
There are known knowns.
There are things we know we know.
We also know
There are known unknowns.
That is to say
We know there are some things
We do not know.
But there are also unknown unknowns,
The ones we don't know
We don't know.

Å\Feb. 12, 2002, Department of Defense news briefing

But of course, this must be all nonsense. So, out with it: Who's been writing the lines for our military establishment? Real people don't talk like this -- unless ---

John Israel

My correspondent Mitchell, true to his word, has dug up the name of John Israel's employer out of a Washington Post article I skimmed too fast yesterday:

Jay Evenson, the editor of the editorial page of The Deseret News in Salt lake City, and also the husband of a close friend of mine, makes an effort to meet his readers' demand for good news from Iraq.

The third civilian identified in the [Taguba] report, John Israel, is accused in the Army report of lying to investigators about seeing interrogations that violated the rules. Israel could not be reached to comment. He worked for a Titan subcontractor, SOS Interpreting Ltd.

"He was an employee of SOS -- I am not sure if he is at this point," said Bruce Crowell, chief financial officer of SOS Interpreting.

In its help-wanted ads, SOS describes itself this way:

Organization Profile: SOSI is a woman-owned, family operated company based in New York City. The company has been operating for 12 years with revenues over $30 million. Primary customers has been Federal/State law enforcement agencies and defense contracts and developing new partnerships with some of the biggest companies. We have contracts in several states in the nation, i.e., Los Angeles, Dallas, Houston, Denver, Boston, New York, Puerto Rico, and others. We are developing new partnerships because our ability to place cleared people in key contracts throughout the world. Our core competencies include: International Linguist Support/Translation and Interpretation Services, Foreign language training, Intelligence Facility Management, Intelligence, Counterintelligence, Psychological operations, counterterrorism, counter-narcotics, peacekeeping and civil affairs, force protection, private security, government program management & acquisition, telecommunications, satellite & high frequency radio communication systems and information technology & systems support, Administrative Outsourcing.

Company Benefits: Competitive salary, Medical, Dental, 401, Life Insurance, hazard duty pay, contract completion bonuses for some assignments.

Overview of Opportunities: Intelligence Collections and Analyst; Counterintelligence Agents and Analyst; HUMINT Collections; Linguist.

Company Locations: We maintain offices in New York City, NY; Reston, VA and have staffs throughout the US, South America & Caribbean Basin, Western & Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Central Asia.

Here is a help-wanted ad from last September for SOS Arabic translators:

University or Organization: SOS Interpreting LTD
Rank of Job: Translator
Specialty Areas: Applied Linguistics, General Linguistics, Translation
Required Language(s): Arabic, Algerian Saharan Spoken (Code = AAO); Arabic, Standard (Code = ABV); Arabic, Mesopotamian Spoken (Code = ACM); Arabic, Gulf Spoken (Code = AFB); Pashto, Southern (Code =PBT); Pashto, Northern (Code = PBU); Pashto, Central (Code = PST)

SOS Interpreting LTD is looking to hire native arabic linguists that are fluent in reading, writing, and speaking Arabic, and English, for overseas positions. Candidates must be U.S. Citizens. We offer excellent salaries, and benefits.

The contact at SOS is listed as Mr. Raphy Kasselian, and the address of the company is in Fairfax, Virginia.(They also have an office in Manhattan on Wall Street.) Although applicants must be US citizens, there is no mention of a required security clearance. One of the things Taguba noted about John Israel that has lead to speculation that he was Israeli is that he lacked a security clearance. What it sounds like here is that in the general chaos that prevailed at Abu G, someone, whether in military intelligence or from the CIA, hauled in a translator that had no business setting foot in the prison. Or perhaps Titan's contract with the US government required translators to have security clearances, but not SOS's contract with Titan. (See below for a more speculative hypothesis.)

Another help-wanted ad gives more on the terms of employment:

SOS Interpreting, LTD, a professional translation and interpretation firm in New York, is seeking an individual who speaks fluent Uzbek and English to work as a full-time translator/interpreter. Must be a US citizen. Work involves extended travel to Uzbekistan and other locations in the US and abroad. Salary is $75,000 per annum plus 15% hazard duty pay while overseas ($11,250 per annum). Benefits include a comprehensive health plan, pension, paid vacations, and paid personal days. Interested persons should call Julian M. Setian, Executive Vice President, SOS Interpreting, LTD.

And from here are more SOS ads.

I note from these ads that SOS seems to employ civilian interrogators in Iraq.

HUMINT Collectors For Iraq (JobNr 86107) . . .
Location of Position: Various Locations, (Iraq) . . .

Employment Type: full-time
Security Requirements: Secret

€ Works under the management of a Senior CI agent
€ Conduct interrogations of detainees
€ Write reports
€ When not employed as interrogator and producing reports, assist in the HUMINT reporting system maintenance to include Brigade Black/White/Gray list, support screening operations and conducts liaison of to support interrogation operations
€ Trained interrogator with at least 5 years experience in interrogation
€ Completion of interrogator school
€ Knowledgeable of Army/Joint interrogation procedures, data processing systems such CHIMs and SIPRNET search engines
€ Position requires former MOS 97E, 351E, or civilian/joint service equivalents. ASI0N and N7 desired
€ Knowledge of the Arabic language and culture a plus
€ Secret clearance
€ Position requires performance of work 12 hours/day, six days/week

A couple of things strike me about this ad. First of all, the interrogator "works under the management of a Senior [Counter Intelligence] agent." On the same web site, SOS has an ad for Senior CI Agent For Iraq (JobNr 86104). So we can assume that their civilian interrogators report to people who are also civilian contract employees. Secondly, I wonder where one goes to "interrogator school." Casting around a bit, I gather the answer to this question is Fort Huachuca, AZ. So, really, these folks are not civilians in the usual sense, but military retreads.

So, let's return to the question of John Israel, whom we now think is probably a US citizen. Here, I'm going to speculate for a minute. So, SOS's interrogators report to SOS's CI Agents; to whom do SOS's Arab linguists report in a prison setting? I would guess to either an SOS interrogator or to an SOS CI Agent. Superficially, it sounded like John Israel was just dragged in off the street out of pure carelessness, but if the Titan subcontract was a larger package, perhaps this whole three-tier SOS chain of command was imported, with the SOS guys bringing in their own interrogator even though he lacked a security clearance because he worked for their company and he was whom they had available to them. This implies that there are several other SOS employees whose names we ought to know, since a translator without a security clearance and perhaps without a military background would be at the bottom of the totem pole.

And by the way, how does a company specializing in translation get into the interrogation business anyway? This sounds to me like a gold rush phenomenon.

Finally, in the midst of this huge scandal, I wonder why Bruce Crowell, chief financial officer of SOS Interpreting, who spoke to the Washington Post, hadn't bothered to find out whether John Israel still worked for the company. Although we are getting warmer, John Israel remains a man of mystery.

On Blogging and the Audience

I'm trying to find my comfort zone in negotiating what I have to say with what this blog's audience wants to hear about. There are a number of conflicting forces. Within my own interests, there is the competition between keeping up on issues I've been following; writing about what leaps out at me in the morning news cycle; and writing about whatever strikes my fancy and generally expressing my interiority.

€ James Taranto at the WSJ points out the NYT implies that journalists are being targeted by coalition troops.
€ Also from the WSJ, an Abu Ghairib translator, Adel Nakhla, working for Titan has been "terminated." How about arrested? Can we go for charged?
€ And from the Guardian, Nick Berg's father's op-ed piece.

Complicating this, I have an increasing sense of an audience out there. Some of you who follow this blog daily, I know personally and may even have known for decades. Some of you follow this blog daily for the sf stuff, the political commentary, or because you like my narrative voice.

But unlike print media, the day-to-day audience that shows up to read what I write is also mediated by search engines. By what I consider a fluke, Google has sent over 8,000 visitors my way looking for information on the beheading of Nicholas Berg. Mine was a fairly tepid, tentative post, written only because the Berg thing had taken over another thread. And this is not the first time such thing has happened.

I am not sure what I owe these sudden, unexpected audiences who come to rant, or emote, or calmly discuss, but who mostly come only to read that one page and then vanish. I do feel I ought to encourage them to stay, to read a few other pages, to visit other blogs, and maybe to buy my books. But because they come in out of the blue and most of them leave just as quickly, I'm not sure how to do this or even whether it's worth doing. Many, I suspect, were looking for something I didn't provide (a link to the video) and left disappointed.

The general answer, I think, is to continue to cultivate the narrative voice and the accompanying interests that have made this blog what it is now, but I admit, I do find this audience question a bit bewildering.

As bloggers, how do you deal with the matter of audience? As blog readers, what hospitality do you expect of blogs?

One answer would be to just write for myself, but a few decades of taking the needs and expectations of reading audiences into account makes it unlikely that I would be able to sincerely follow that path. The other extreme would be to shamelessly pander to the whims of Google, but I'm not paid to do this, and even with ads, my hourly wage would be in pennies if I thought that way. I'm looking for my comfort zone.

The accomodation I seem to be heading toward is to try to keep score of what I kind of thing I write: what was written solely because the spirit moved me; what is part of an ongoing exploration with a consituuency; etc., throwing in recipes, bits on how to make a fountain or an outdoor play area, or whatever I think someone out there somewhere would be interested in; and then when I've done too much of one thing, trying to do more of another. But I'm still thinking about it.

Share with me your experiences and opinions.

Finally, a technical question: I'm experimenting with tools that give me more information about traffic on my site, partly because I've needed realtime information when I've had problems and haven't had it and instead have had to wait until the next day; partly because I feel like I ought to know more about my real traffic now that I'm selling ads. So I'm testing out Site Meter and Urchin. Urchin shows roughly twice the traffic Site Meter does (and I do have Site Meter code on every page). Do any of you techies know why this might be? Is Urchin counting my CSS style sheet as a pageview maybe? Or is Site Meter skipping something real that Urchin sees?

Playboy & the Older Editor

Age discrimination in publishing is rampant, but rarely does a firing because of an editor's age result in litigation. But according to CNN, Playboy is getting sued:

A Playboy editor who was fired after more than 30 years with the company filed a federal suit, claiming he was dismissed because the magazine wanted a younger staff that might attract younger readers. . .

According to the complaint, Executive Vice President Howard S. Shapiro said in March 2003 that the company believed the only way to change the "demographics of the magazine was to change the demographics of the people who put the magazine out."

Though this is a common attitude, Shapiro's mistake was to state it outright.

Turtle Crossing

When I was on my way to pick up Elizabeth this morning, I had to stop to coax a large snapping turtle out of the middle of the road. My technique is to stomp loudly behind the turtle, causing the turtle to "hurry" forward. I arrived at this technique by trial and error.

On the return trip, with Elizabeth in the car, I encountered the same turtle in the same place, now heading the other way, back toward the swamp. So I got out of the car and shooed it out of the street once again.

There needs to be a a Turtle Crossing sign there.

The Guardian on the Mukaradeeb Wedding Bombing

The Guardian has a fairly detailed story on the wedding bombing. It's pretty grim:

'US soldiers started to shoot us, one by one': Survivors describe wedding massacre as generals refuse to apologise

The wedding feast was finished and the women had just led the young bride and groom away to their marriage tent for the night when Haleema Shihab heard the first sounds of the fighter jets screeching through the sky above.

It was 10.30pm in the remote village of Mukaradeeb by the Syrian border and the guests hurried back to their homes as the party ended. As sister-in-law of the groom, Mrs Shihab, 30, was to sleep with her husband and children in the house of the wedding party, the Rakat family villa. She was one of the few in the house who survived the night.

"The bombing started at 3am," she said yesterday from her bed in the emergency ward at Ramadi general hospital, 60 miles west of Baghdad. "We went out of the house and the American soldiers started to shoot us. They were shooting low on the ground and targeting us one by one," she said. She ran with her youngest child in her arms and her two young boys, Ali and Hamza, close behind. As she crossed the fields a shell exploded close to her, fracturing her legs and knocking her to the ground.

She lay there and a second round hit her on the right arm. By then her two boys lay dead. "I left them because they were dead," she said. One, she saw, had been decapitated by a shell.

The tale of Mukaradeeb begins to sound like another Mai Lai.

The Guardian has a related editorial:

Lies about crimes

The US military admits that it probably killed 40 people at Mukaradeeb but says that none of them were civilians. So did the "foreign fighters" include the young girl, one of several children whose bodies were shown being buried on television? Or the Iraqi wedding singer and his musician brother, whose funeral in Baghdad was reported yesterday by Reuters?

Ahmed Chalabi's House Raided

I wonder what's going on here. Looks like Chalabi's joy ride may be truly over:

CNN: U.S. military raids Chalabi's home

UPDATE 5/22/04
I find myself quite speechless at the revelation that the Bush administration was conned into paying out $340,000/month to support Chalabi's Iranian spy operation. Teresa Nielsen Hayden and Josh Marshall have done a fine job of posting about this, so I'm going to pick my jaw up off the keyboard and gape dubfounded at the unimaginable stupidity of the whole Chalabi boondoggle.
A HELPFUL SUGGESTION (5/23/04): Why doesn't the CPA arrest him and extradite him to Jordan, where he has already been convicted of a crime?

Iraqi police have raided the compound of the Iraqi National Congress and the nearby home of Iraqi Governing Council member Ahmed Chalabi.

Chalabi's nephew, Salim Chalabi, said the forces entered his uncle's home, put a gun to Chalabi's head and threatened him.

CNN staff on the scene saw a group of Iraqi civilians inside the compound under guard by Iraqi police and U.S. military.

Reuters reports that in addition, the headquarters of the Iraqi National Congreess were raided:

he soldiers raided the headquarters of the Iraqi National Congress (INC) and a nearby house also used by Chalabi, and removed computers, files and equipment.

INC spokesman Haider Moussawi said the troops had wanted to arrest two party members but were told by Chalabi they were not present. Chalabi, who returned from exile after the fall of Saddam Hussein, was not detained.

The Guardian reports a possible reasons for the raid:

U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, have accused Chalabi of trying to interfere with an investigation into alleged corruption of the U.N.-run oil-for-food program, in which Saddam Hussein's government was allowed to sell oil despite international sanctions to buy food and humanitarian supplies. . . . Chalabi has complained recently about U.S. plans to retain control of Iraqi security forces and maintain widespread influence over political institutions after power is transferred from the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority to an Iraqi interim administration at the end of June.

and also mentions arrests at Chalabi's house:

Some people could be seen loading boxes into vehicles, and neighbors said some members of Chalabi's entourage were taken away.

Newsweek's article, posted just prior to the raid, has a whole lot more on the background of the falling out between Chalabi and the Pentagon:

Pentagon officials sayÝ the decision by Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz to cut off funding this week for the Iraqi National Congress was made because U.S. financial backing of an Iraqi political party had become ÅginappropriateÅh in light of efforts to set up a new Iraqi government on June 30. But the funding decision follows disclosures that INC leader Ahmad Chalabi and some of his aides supplied sensitive information about U.S. security operations in Baghdad to the Iranian government, according to U.S. intelligence sources.

The decision also coincides with the launch, by Coalition authorities in Iraq, of a wide-ranging investigation into allegation that INC leaders engaged in extortion and other corrupt activities inside Iraq. An INC spokesman said that the group and its leader had not been informed about a corruption investigation or been contacted about it by Coalition authorities. The spokesman also denied that anyone from the group had supplied sensitive information to Iran.

UPDATE: The NYT now has the story:

Reporters who entered the office compound after the departure of the Americans and Iraqi officers found a scene of destruction. Computers had been ripped out of the walls, furniture had been overturned, doors broken down and framed photographs of Mr. Chalabi smashed. Aides to Mr. Chalabi said members of the raiding party had helped themselves to food and beverages from the refrigerator.

and regarding the raid on the INC headquarters, the NYT had this tidbit:

Ali Sarraf, the finance director of the Iraqi National Congress, describe a tableau of brutality. "We offered them the keys and they showed us guns," he said. "They kicked the door down."

Standing amid the debris in the organization's offices, he said: "Bremer is panicking. This is about settling things with Dr. Chalabi."

Pentagon's Denials Lack Credibility with Reuters

In case you missed this one last night, the Pentagon seems to lack deniability in the torture scandal with both Reuters and NBC. Apparently, some of their employees were imprisoned and abused:

U.S. forces beat three Iraqis working for Reuters and subjected them to sexual and religious taunts and humiliation during their detention last January in a military camp near Falluja, the three say.

The three first told Reuters of the ordeal after their release but only decided to make it public when the U.S. military said there was no evidence they had been abused, and following the exposure of similar mistreatment of detainees at Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad.

An Iraqi journalist working for U.S. network NBC, who was arrested with the Reuters staff, also said he had been beaten and mistreated, NBC said on Tuesday.

Tourism in Wartime

Given what my search queries have been like over the past month or so, I gather that there is a certain segment of the population that would really like to travel to a dangerous place and make $1,000 a day. (Personally, I think my life is worth more than that. but maybe it's just me.)

Anyway, for those of you up for some adventurous travel, I have found you a useful web page: Making the Best of Nasty Situations, a piece on tourism and travelling in war zones.

Remember that small wars are not a carefully planned or predictable activity. More importantly, land mines, shells, stray bullets and booby traps have no political affiliation or mercy. Keep the following in mind.
  • Contact people who have returned or are currently in the hot zone. Do not trust the representations of rebel or government contacts. Check it out yourself.
  • Avoid politics, do not challenge the beliefs of your host, be firm but not belligerent about getting what you need. Talking politics with soldiers is like reading Playboy with the Pope. It kills time, but is probably not a rewarding pastime.
  • Do not engage in intrigue or meetings that are not in public view. They still shoot spies. Do accept any invitations for dinner, tea or social activities. Getting to know your hosts is important. Do not gossip or lie.
  • Travel only under the permission of the controlling party. In many cases you will need multiple permission from officers, politicians and the regional commander.
  • Remember that a letter of safe passage from a freedom group presented to an army check point could be your death warrant. Understand and learn the zones of control and protocol for changing sides during active hostilities.
  • Carry plenty of identification, articles, letters of recommendation and character references. It may not keep you out of jail, but it may delay your captors long enough to effect an escape.
  • Bring photographs of your family, friends, house, dog or car. Carry articles you have written or ones that mention you. A photo ID is important, but even a high school yearbook can provide more proof.
  • Check in with the embassy, military intelligence, local businessmen and bartenders. Do not misrepresent yourself, exaggerate or tell white lies. Keep your story simple and consistent.
  • Dress and act conservatively. Be quietly engaging, affable and listen a lot. Your actions will indicate your intentions as the locals weigh their interest in helping you. It may take a few days for the locals to check you out before they offer any assistance.
  • Remember that it is very unusual for noncombatants to be wandering around areas of conflict. If you are traveling make sure you have the name of a person that you wish to see, an end destination and a reason for passing through.
  • Understand where the front lines are, the general rules of engagement, meet with journalists and photographers (usually found at the hotel bar) to understand the local threats.
  • Carry a lot of money hidden in various places, be ready to leave or evacuate at any time. This means traveling very light. Choose a place to sleep that would be survivable in case of a rocket or shell attack.
  • Visit with the local Red Cross, UN, Embassy and other relief workers to understand the situation. They are an excellent source of health information and may be your only ticket out.
  • If warranted buy and wear an armored vest or flak jacket (see the Save Yourself chapter). Carry your blood type and critical info (name, country, phone, local contact, allergies,) on a laminated card or written on your vest. Wear a Medic-Alert bracelet.
  • Carry a first aid kit with syringes, antibiotics, IV needles, anesthetics and pain killers as well as the usual medication. It might be wise to use auto inject syringes. Discuss any prescriptions with your doctor in advance.
  • Understand and learn the effect, range and consequences of guns, land mines, mortars, snipers and other machines of war.
  • Get life and health (and KRE if relevant) insurance and don't lie. Tell them the specific country you will be traveling to. Also check with the emergency evacuation services to see if they can go into a war zone to pull you out.
  • Carry a military style medical manual to aid in treating field wounds. Take a first aid class and understand the effects and treatment of bullet wounds and other major trauma.
And there's plenty more helpful advice where that came from. Read the whole thing.

(Via Spies Online's Frightening Sites page.)


The Financial Times covers material that has been discussed elsewhere in this blog concerning outsourcing of covert activities. Yet I think they state the situation a little more directly:

US turns to private sector for spies

For Dave Tittle, who has run an executive placement company in northern Virginia for the last 30 years, business has never been so good. That is because Mr Tittle's speciality is supplying talent for the growing number of private companies that do the US government's spying.

"An awful lot of activity has been outsourced," says Mr Tittle, who himself once worked at the National Security Agency. "Anything that has to do with collection or analysis of intelligence data is being done by the private sector."

If the build-up to the Iraq war highlighted the extent to which the army relies on private contractors like Halliburton for logistical tasks like delivering fuel, then the recent prisoner abuse scandal has revealed similar trends under way in the nation's intelligence apparatus.

(Via Gary Farber.)

Imagine an increasing amount of CIA activity outsourced. Think about that for a while. And put that together with what we already know about the problems of miltary outsourcing: it's probably not really cheaper but it sertainly provides a fine layer of deinability. Think a bit about Steve Stefanowicz and Victor Bout and about the mysterious "John Israel."


Free Spec Fic

While working on an anthology this week, I discovered the site Free Speculative Fiction Online, an index of sf available to read online for free. All of the links I followed went to legitimate sites where the author had agreed to online publication, so this is not a list of pirate sites. Some of the links are old, for example links to OmniOnline. I had pretty good luck with the WayBack Machine prizing out texts from web sites and pages that were gone.

Remember Nicholas Berg for What He Tried to Do

I've let the Nicholas Berg story wash over me for a while and am now ready to venture a personal opinion on this extremely complex case. Nicholas Berg is another Ben Linder, a nice, altruistic guy who went to a dangerous country to help build infrastructure and got himself killed.

Ben Linder, who was killed by the Contras in 1987, was a friend of mine. According to an investigative journalism piece I read some years ago, the "Contras" that killed him were child soldiers; armed twelve- and fourteen-year old boys. He worked on my student government campaign at the University of Washington when I was running for ASUW Board of Control. I did not know him well, but he organized a parade for my campaign, in which he rode his unicycle while dressed as a clown, just as he appears in the Ben Linder memorial mural.

I don't know what to make of the Nicholas Berg story with all of the complexities. What seems most important to me, upon reflection, is that there are people in this world who will go out and try to create infrastructure in dangerous places. Though I will forever think of Ben as foolish for having gone and gotten himself killed, people who live in places that lack infrastructure are just as deserving of running water, electricity, telephone service, and plubing as the rest of us. It seems to me that Nicholas Berg, like Ben Linder, ought to be more remembered for what he tried to do, not how he got killed.

Narrative Hook

I love this passage:

Darnell said the man was contacted by phone and was asked if he was missing any fingers, but said there was nothing wrong.

But a print lifted from the detached finger told authorities otherwise, Darnell said.

Here's the link, in case you want to know the whole story.

Indian Stock Market Crash

India had a stock market crash yesterday.

Indian stocks were in virtual free-fall on Monday, wiping out 40 billion dollars in market value, amid frenzied selling on fears a new Congress-led government will slow the pace of reform in Asia's fastest-growing economy.

The Bombay Stock Exchange and National Stock Exchange suspended trading after their benchmark indices fell 15.5 percent and 17.5 percent, respectively. Both racked up their biggest point drop ever and sank to their lowest levels since late September.

It did not receive much notice here. This is mentioned in the fifth paragraph of the NYT story Gandhi Stakes Her Claim to Lead a Rattled India.

Although the market rebounded today, CNN International reports that "Monday the Sensex closed down 11 percent at 450 5.16, after plunging almost 16 percent at one point."

The Times of India is reporting that Monday night, Sonia Gandhi refused to become Prime Minister:

Sonia Gandhi reluctant to become PM

NEW DELHI: Congress President Sonia Gandhi has declined to become the Prime Minister despite leading her party to a spectacular comeback in elections, a senior party leader said on Tuesday.

He said she had made known her decision to the party on Monday evening itself.

Sonia, who is being persuaded by senior leaders of her party and the victorious multi-party United Progressive Alliance to change her mind, has apparently recommended Manmohan Singh and Pranab Mukherjee, both senior leaders of her party, for the job.

The argument for privatization in India is pretty much the same as is used here, and presumably has many of he same pitfalls. One of the key events of the election was apparently the sari stampede:

. . . one of the more powerful images of the election campaign is that of scores of impoverished women being crushed and trampled to death in a stampede for cheap, one-dollar saris distributed in Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee's constituency of Lucknow.

At least 22 women died in a frenzied rush for the lengths of unstitched cloth, symbolic of womanhood in South Asia, which were being distributed free by Lalji Tandon, top leader of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in northern Uttar Pradesh state, during the election campaign. Lucknow is the state capital.

A Few Changes

My regular readers may have noticed that I have been making changes to my templates, have added a Blogads advertising section and an Amazon tip box, and am generally moving things around. (Thanks, Rob Sawyer, for being the first to advertise here!)

Let me know if I've really screwed something up, since I'm probably not using your computer/browser combo.

I wonder what I can do with these boxes.

Those with small presses or with products to advertise should have a look at my ad page. And those who turn up here day after day and who think reading my blog improves their lives might consider rewarding good behavior.

Victor Bout, US Trading Partner?

5/24/04 UPDATE
There is a lot more detail on Bout and his commerical intercourse with the US government in this terrific post from The Yorkshire Ranter. Thanks to Ben in the comments!

The Financial Times has a fascinating story  I have not yet seen in any of the US media: US seeks to protect weapons trafficker. It's about a Russian mafia guy, Victor Bout, alleged to be the world's biggest arms trafficker:

The US is pressing for a notorious arms trafficker allegedly involved in supplying coalition forces in Iraq to be omitted from planned United Nations sanctions, in defiance of French demands.

Washington has UK support in resisting French efforts to freeze the assets of Victor Bout, once described by a UK minister as a "merchant of death" for his role as a leading arms supplier to rebel and government forces in several African conflicts, including Liberia.

The UN is considering who should be on a list of individuals whose assets will be frozen because of their involvement with the ousted regime of Charles Taylor, the Liberian leader overthrown last year.

Western diplomats say they have been told of reports that an air freight company associated with Mr Bout, who is subject to a UN travel ban because of his activities in Liberia, may be involved in supplying US forces in Iraq and that the US may be "recycling" his extensive cargo network.

In 2000, Peter Hain, then British foreign office minister responsible for Africa, described Mr Bout as "the chief sanctions-buster and . . . a merchant of death who owns air companies that ferry in arms" for rebels in Angola and Sierra Leone.

A former UN official familiar with the sanctions process said he had also heard of Mr Bout's Iraq connection. The ex-official said he had been told by a reliable source about a month ago that "the American defence forces are using Victor's planes for their logistics".

It really is too bad that the US couldn't afford planes of its own and has to rent them from criminals! But seriously, it seems to me that this equipment may be leased to covert US operations such as those described by Hersh, rather then by the regular troops.

Here's what PBS's Frontline had to say about Victor Bout a couple of years ago:

Victor  Bout is the poster boy for a new generation of post Cold War  international arms dealers who play a critical role in areas  where the weapons trade has been embargoed by the United Nations.

Now,  as FRONTLINE/World reports in "Gunrunners,"  unprecedented U.N. investigations have begun to unravel the  mystery of these broken embargoes, many of them imposed on African  countries involved in bloody civil wars. At the heart of this  unfolding detective story is the identification of a group of  East European arms merchants, with Victor Bout the first of  them to be publicly and prominently identified. The U.N. investigative  team pursued leads that a Mr. Bout [pronounced "butt" in Russian]  was pouring small arms and ammunition into Angola, Rwanda, Sierra  Leone and the Congo, making possible massacres on a scale that  stunned the world.

    And check this out, from the same PBS piece:

Afghan and U.A.E. air industry sources reported a meeting between "two Russians" and the United Arab Emirates representative of  Ariana, the Afghan national airline, in which it was agreed that Bout's Air Cess would provide wheels, tires and other military goods for the Taliban air force. Flying Dolphin would provide charter flights when Ariana was unavailable.

The Afghan permanent representative to the United Nations, citing Afghan and American intelligence reports, said Ariana flights from Sharjah had transported chemical poisons to Kandahar: "cyanide and other toxic substances purchased in Germany, the Czech Republic and Ukraine." He said the Taliban "had nothing to do with this. These chemicals were for Bin Laden and his people. It was some of the chemicals they were using in experiments." Earlier, the  US had reportedly pressured the U.A.E. to clamp down on Bout's operations, which simply resulted in his moving to a neighboring Emirate.
. . .

News organizations around the world, pressing hard to break new stories about Al Qaeda, along with western officials eager to be seen as fighting terrorism may be inflating Bout's significance in describing him as heading "what some officials call the largest arms trafficking network in the world." Such claims were never made before evidence emerged linking Bout to the Taliban. And even if true, the mandate of the U.N. arms investigations - limited to violations of country-specific embargoes - and the nature of the illicit arms trade make it impossible to confirm. Most experts would agree that he is the largest known illicit trafficker in Africa. Beyond that, the extent of his activity is very difficult to pin down.

Why is this guy one of our trading partners and not in a jail cell? And why are we helping him out of a jam with the UN?

Here's a discussion of Bout from a meeting of the UN Security Council, Thursday, 22 February 2001. The speaker is a "Ms. Lee" of Singapore:

Clearly, the arms and diamonds industries have spawned a very profitable war economy, such that the diamonds industry, which was the resource for the arms, has in turn generated an arms industry to protect the diamonds. It is a stalemate that has a high price: violence for economic control. . .

We are here today to review the recommendations of the Mechanism on the effectiveness of the implementation of the many sanctions against UNITA and to consider appropriate action against the sanctions-busters. . . .

In the case of the diamonds sanctions, modes of circumvention similar to those being used in the Sierra Leone sanctions as described in the Ayafor report appear to have been used to conceal the true origin of diamonds from UNITA mines. These include the potential loopholes found in the Swiss tax-free zones. However, a serious allegation was made in paragraph 181 of the Mechanism's report: that well known clients of De Beers are knowingly buying rough diamonds from UNITA. This and other questionable methods uncovered by the Mechanism require further investigation as to the validity of the findings.

On the issue of sanctions-busting, the report mentions some familiar names. On the use of aircraft for sanctions-busting, Victor Bout has been identified as a key player, as has Air Cess. The countries named in the report as being the countries of origin for arms exports to UNITA, and those accused of complicity in permitting the forging of end-user certificates for arms imports, should address the issues raised in the report.

What is most disturbing in the Mechanism's report are the common criminals described in it, namely Victor Bout, Fred Rindel and the European network connection  --  they are "common" because they appear to be the same individuals named in the Ayafor report for activities linked to the trade in illicit diamonds and arms in relation to Sierra Leone. If sanctions-busters continue to be "rewarded" and not punished for their acts, the damage will not be limited to the exploitation of the resources of Angola. It will undermine the credibility of the United Nations itself, because the sanctions imposed against UNITA are one of the tools of the Security Council for carrying out its responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security.

(Note that Fred Rindel, mentioned in the same breath, came up in the N4610 scandal in connection to Dodson Aircraft.)

UPDATE: There is a new Financial Times story, UK set to support sanctions on arms dealer:

ritain is now expected to support French demands to freeze the assets of arms trafficker Victor Bout, amid growing signs that Washington may also drop its objections to action being taken against him.

The decision by the UK has emerged since a controversy erupted when it became clear that the US and UK were seeking other ways to target Mr Bout. The Ukrainian is living in Moscow. One of his companies is said by several diplomats to be involved in supplying US forces in Iraq.