Archive for October, 2007

Colbert Perhaps Not So Funny Afterall

Wednesday, October 31st, 2007

This may also be in the “lighten up” category, but I have to admit that Eric Boehlert makes a point about Colbert’s fake candidacy, and the enormous media coverage it’s received. The joke is indeed on the press here, and as typical for the Stewart and Colbert crew, there’s serious news behind it.

I have enough personal interest in the process and the candidates that I’ve spent the time to read all about their stances, voting records and personal stories — so the ongoing campaign coverage doesn’t really do much for me. As such I find Colbert’s run pretty hilarious, but it could be argued that it’s not so funny when the media probably should be spending their time on more complete coverage of the real candidates in this the most important part of our representative governmental process.

Why is the media seemingly ignoring Ron Paul (who, while I wouldn’t pick him, is probably the candidate who America as a whole really wants) while continuing to cover a joke? Why is it that when I mention Obama to my coworkers, they still wonder aloud “isn’t he a Muslim or something?”

FEMA Fakes Press Briefing

Friday, October 26th, 2007

The main U.S. disaster-response agency apologized on Friday for having its employees pose as reporters in a news briefing on California’s wildfires that no journalists attended.

FEMA had called the briefing with about 15 minutes notice as federal officials headed for Southern California to oversee firefighting and rescue efforts. Reporters were also given a phone number to listen in but could not ask questions.

…with no reporters attending and a FEMA video feed being carried live by some television networks, FEMA press employees posed questions for Johnson that included: “Are you happy with FEMA’s response so far?”


Bergstein on the FBI’s Extraction of False Confessions

Monday, October 22nd, 2007

One (small) comfort while watching our collective descent into being a state sponsor of torture has been the notion that the evil is at least confined to the CIA and the Defense Department. But of course that’s not true; the evil extends throughout the government. And it turns out that you don’t have to actually engage in torture to slide down the slippery moral slope it creates. For example, check out this item from Steve Bergstein: A tale of two decisions (or, how the FBI gets you to confess).

This is a side to the foolishness of the Bush administration’s use of torture that doesn’t get enough attention from those who support it. It’s not just that it’s wrong. It’s stupid — because using coercive techniques simply guarantees that your victims will tell you whatever it is they think you want to hear, even if it’s not remotely close to the truth. And even if you don’t actually torture them directly, but merely threaten to give the names of their family members to the Egyptian police.

I’m with Sean Penn on this: The people engaging in this kind of thing, and writing legal opinions allowing it, and pushing others to use it, belong in fucking jail.

Colbert Does Dowd

Monday, October 15th, 2007

It’s just a quick funny, but very much in keeping with the spirit: Stephen Colbert writes Maureen Dowd’s column, unleashing his double-ironic conservative fury on the NY Times Op-ed. My favorite bit, explaining the confusing nature of 2008 presidential candidates:

For instance, Hillary Clinton. I can’t remember if I’m supposed to be scared of her so Democrats will think they should nominate her when she’s actually easy to beat, or if I’m supposed to be scared of her because she’s legitimately scary.

Or Rudy Giuliani. I can’t remember if I’m supposed to support him because he’s the one who can beat Hillary if she gets nominated, or if I’m supposed to support him because he’s legitimately scary.


Lessons of the SERE School

Friday, October 12th, 2007

…he repeated, with such tremulous feeling, the various lines which imaged a broken heart, or a mind destroyed by wretchedness, and looked so entirely as if he meant to be understood, that she ventured to hope he did not always read only poetry, and to say, that she thought it was the misfortune of poetry to be seldom safely enjoyed by those who enjoyed it completely; and that the strong feelings which alone could estimate it truly were the very feelings which ought to taste it but sparingly.

His looks shewing him not pained, but pleased with this allusion to his situation, she was emboldened to go on; and feeling in herself the right of seniority of mind, she ventured to recommend a larger allowance of prose in his daily study; and on being requested to particularize, mentioned such works of our best moralists, such collections of the finest letters, such memoirs of characters of worth and suffering, as occurred to her at the moment as calculated to rouse and fortify the mind by the highest precepts and the strongest examples of moral and religious endurances.

Captain Benwick listened attentively, and seemed grateful for the interest implied; and though with a shake of the head, and sighs which declared his little faith in the efficacy of any books on grief like his, noted down the names of those she recommended, and promised to procure and read them.

Persuasion, Chapter 11

The passage is pithier in the Amanda Root movie, but there’s something cool about the original Austen, if you can manage to slow yourself down long enough to understand what she’s saying. Anyway, I bring this up by way of introducing a completely different book, one that Linda says is making me too serious, like Captain Benwick. “You should perhaps include a greater allowance in your reading of something other than these depressing Bush critiques,” she told me the other night, and we both smiled at the reference.

But the book really is amazingly good. It’s Takeover, by Charlie Savage, and I encourage you all to procure and read it.

It’s great because Savage takes his role as a journalist seriously, which I guess makes him something of a dying breed. He offers scrupulously researched detail, never straying into opinion or editorializing, trusting the reader to draw his or her own conclusions. And while much of the information he presents isn’t new, there’s power in the way he ties it into a coherent narrative.

And some of it is is new, at least to me. Like the part about Bush’s use of torture, and the roots of the particular techniques that have been employed in places like Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, the CIA black sites, and the Navy brig in Virginia where Jose Padilla was held for years before being charged.

The techniques the Bush-Cheney administration approved after 9/11 included a range of disorienting and debilitating ordeals, including stripping prisoners naked; subjecting them to prolonged isolation and sleep disruption and deprivation; bombarding cells for long periods with very loud music and grating sounds; leaving bright lights on in a cell twenty-four hours a day; keeping cells stifling hot or freezing cold; shackling prisoners in painful “stress” positions for many hours; exploiting prisoners’ phobias by such means as menacing them with fierce dogs; and — in the case of the CIA — water-boarding.

As Savage explains, these techniques had a very specific origin. They emerged from a type of US military training called SERE (for “Survival, Escape, Resistance, and Evasion”).

SERE School was a by-product of the Korean War. During the war, Communist forces began producing elaborate propaganda films of American pilots who had been shot down and captured “confessing” to such heinous crimes as deliberately targeting civilians with chemical and biological weapons. The U.S. government knew that the confessions were false and that they had been coerced, but the prisoners of war did not seem to have been physically abused before making the “confessions.” After the war, when the pilots were returned, they all told the same story: Chinese interrogators, working with the North Koreans, had put them through a series of sustained torments — the same list described above — until their minds had bent and they had made false confessions.

The point of SERE training is to help air crews and Special Forces members prepare themselves to better resist that sort of treatment should they be captured by a country that doesn’t respect the Geneva Conventions. But the people who play the role of interrogators in SERE training are not real interrogators. Real interrogators, people trained to obtain useful, actionable intelligence, view the coercive techniques of the SERE curriculum as the worst possible approach, since all it does is manipulate the captive into telling you whatever it is he thinks you want to hear, regardless of the truth. Yet this is the approach the Bush administration has systematically employed in dealing with the threat of terrorism.

Once I saw the situation in that context, it all snapped into focus. Of course the Bush administration is employing illegal techniques to coerce false confessions as part of the War on Terror. They’re not interested in the truth. They’re only interested in getting the answers that they’ve already decided will help them the most. So: Public fears of imminent terror boost your level of public support? Great. Subject a few captured al Qaeda fighters (or even just random guys turned in for the $5,000 bounty you’re paying in Afghanistan) to waterboarding, and presto: You get a constant stream of “information” about scary plots that keep the public on edge and the terror alert level high. You’re taking public heat because you can’t catch the actual people running al Qaeda? Some bright lights, rock music, and smacky-face later, you get a string of “confessions” from the people you actually can catch, all of whom turn out to be key, high-level figures in the organization. (How many #2’s does al Qaeda actually have, anyway?)

It’s exactly the same approach they used in the run-up to the Iraq war, when they twisted the intelligence process to produce conclusions (that Saddam had WMD, was in bed with al Qaeda, and had an active campaign to acquire nuclear weapons) that supported the a priori decision to invade. For that matter, it’s the same approach they used during the Florida recount in 2000, when they didn’t care about finding the truth about who had received the most votes, but only about producing the outcome they wanted. It isn’t about truth. It’s about what they can get away with, what they can get people to believe, once “truth” as a goal has been dispensed with. It’s about politics, a game they’ve learned to win by being more ruthless than the next guy, more willing to run roughshod over any objection — rational, ethical, legal — that stands between them and the thing they want.

At its core, the Bush administration is founded on a lie: That George W. Bush is the sort of person that anyone in his right mind would pick to run a country. From the earliest days of the 2000 campaign they’ve been focused like a laser on maintaining that fiction. Everything that has followed — the incompetent loyalists in positions of authority, the lies, the coverups, the lawbreaking, and yes, the torture — all have their roots in the essential dishonesty that is at the heart of the Bush presidency.

US Iraq War Deaths for June – September

Friday, October 12th, 2007

Here are the updated graphs for June through September. Apologies for being lax with the updates. As always, I’m comparing the US military casualties in Iraq to those from the Vietnam war at a similar point in each war’s political lifetime (which some have charged is misleading; see disclaimer below). The data come from the advanced search tool at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund site, and from Lunaville’s page on Iraq coalition casualties. The figures are for the number of US dead per month, without regard to whether the deaths were combat-related.

The first graph shows the comparison for the extent of the Iraq war to-date. (Click on any image for a larger version.)

Next, the chart that gives the US death toll for the entire Vietnam war:

Disclaimer: I’ve been accused of comparing apples to oranges in these graphs. For the record, here’s what I am not arguing:

  • I’m not saying that Iraq is somehow deadlier per soldier-on-the-ground than Vietnam. For both wars, the number of fatalities in any given month tracks pretty closely with the number of troops deployed (along with the intensity of the combat operations being conducted). There were more troops in Iraq in the early going than were in Vietnam during the “corresponding” parts of the graphs. Similarly, for later years in Vietnam, when the monthly death toll exceeds the current Iraq numbers, there were many more troops in place.
  • I am not saying that Iraq is somehow “worse” than Vietnam. I include the first graph mainly because I wanted a zoomed-in view of the Iraq data. And I include the second graph, which shows the entire span of the Vietnam war, because I want to be clear about what the data show about overall death tolls — where any rational assessment would have to conclude that, at least so far, Iraq has been far less significant (at least in terms of US combat fatalities) than Vietnam.

I was just curious how the “death profile” of the two wars compared, and how those deaths played out in terms of their political impact inside the US. For that reason, I chose as the starting point for each graph the first fatality that a US president acknowledged (belatedly, in the case of the Vietnam graph, since US involvement in the war “began” under Kennedy, but the acknowledgement was made only later by Johnson) as having resulted from the war in question.

As ever, you are free to draw your own conclusions. And for that matter, you’re free to draw your own graphs, if you have a way of presenting the information that you believe would be better. In that case, feel free to post a comment with a URL to your own version. Thanks.

Greenwald on the Latest Torture Revelations

Thursday, October 4th, 2007

Glenn Greenwald, summing up quite succinctly why I fear for the future of my country: The latest revelations of lawbreaking, torture and extremism.

It has long been known that we are torturing, holding detainees in secret prisons beyond the reach of law and civilization, sending detainees to the worst human rights abusers to be tortured, and subjecting them ourselves to all sorts of treatment which both our own laws and the treaties to which we are a party plainly prohibit. None of this is new.

And we have decided, collectively as a country, to do nothing about that.

The Thomas Confirmation Hearings

Tuesday, October 2nd, 2007

I still remember the visceral reaction I had to the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings. They were televised, and a lot of people watched them as the controversy over his alleged sexual harassment of Anita Hill was explored. And in watching the parade of people testifying for and against Thomas, in particular in watching Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas themselves testify, it became increasingly clear to me that she was telling the truth, and he was lying.

That was shocking enough. But then came the double-whammy: watching the senators on the judiciary committee close ranks behind Thomas, vilifying Hill and making speech after speech that (again, to my eyes and ears) was so out of touch with the reality I’d just watched as to leave me breathless.

I lost a lot of respect for elected officials generally, and those senators in particular, during those hearings. You young whippersnappers can relive those moments courtesy of this blog posting from Scout of First Draft: Anita Hill responds. Or you can go whole hog, and read the transcripts themselves: Hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee on the nomination of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court.