Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Who says there's never any good news?

Britney Spears celebrates Mardi Gras St. Petersburg Times/AP 02/28/06.

Boo's detractors will find something to grumble about in all this, I'm sure.  No matter:

Britney Spears spent part of Mardi Gras with a group of students whose lives were upended when Hurricane Katrina devastated the area six months ago.

Standing in the French Quarter surrounded by St. Catherine of Siena School dancers wearing "Gatorettes" uniforms, the 24-year-old pop star, a Louisiana native, talked on ABC's "Good Morning America" Tuesday of her recent "surprise" meeting with four older students from Metairie, a suburb of New Orleans.

Spears grew up in Kentwood, and has participated in fundraisers for victims of the hurricane.

How can people come up with so many ways to criticize a nice Baptist young lady like this?

Just look at this: What Would Britney Do? by Joal Ryan ET/Yahoo! News 02/01/06

Meanwhile, in England, Spears' name has been invoked in a church debate posing the musical question, "What would Jesus say to Britney Spears?"

The Stechford Baptist Church in Birmingham series also plans to engage its congregation in what Jesus would say to late rapper Tupac Shakur, cartoon Bart Simpson and theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, the Birmingham Evening Mail reported.

"The event is not about pointing the finger at Britney Spears and saying, 'Look how bad she is,' " church member Ray Jellicoe said in the newspaper.

Rather, Jellicoe told the Evening Mail, the aim is to use the pop star's life as an object lesson: "We picked Britney because she's got what so many people want - beauty, fame and fortune. But she's still not happy."

Poor Boo.  People just keep projecting all kinds of bad stuff onto her.  But she's plowing ahead with her postmodern artistic career.  She's going to be on Will and Grace April 13, playingthe hostof a Christian cooking show called "Cruci-fixin's".  She plans to put out a new album this year.  With accompanying videos, no doubt.  And she's even working on a new movie, currently titled In the Pink about door-to-door cosmetic sales.

I'm glad to see she's not letting all her frivolous critics get her down!

Oh, and what would Jesus say to Britney?  They would probably talk Trinitarian theology. And ecumenical theory about what Judaism and Hinduism can show to Christians.  (Boo has some experience with both, you know.) 

Monday, February 27, 2006

The "Chinese crisis" between the US and Israel

This article discusses the latest development in an issue which seems to have received almost no mainstream media coverage in the US.  But it's an important piece of American policy in the Middle East:  U.S. demands Israel change defense export practices by Ze'ev Schiff Ha'aretz 02/27/06.

It's about a dispute between the US Defense Department and Israel over the export of sensitive military technology to China in particular, but other nations, as well.  This article even calls it a "crisis".  Such a disagreement might come as a surprise to those who are aware how uncritically the Bush administration has supposed the Likud-led government in Israel over the Palestinian territories and other issues in the region.

Basically, this says that Israel has reorganized its Defense Department to set up a new systematic review on military exports, an action meant to mollify Rummy and the Bush administration.  But Schiff also writes that the Americans aren't entirely happy with the limited role assigned to the Israeli Foreign Ministry, which is presumably more receptive to the American concerns.  He gives the following general status:

"The Chinese crisis" caused a rift between Israel and the Pentagon on several levels. A number of contacts were frozen by the Americans, who said Israel could not be trusted in the area of sensitive technological exports, both American and Israeli, which might reach "dangerous addresses." Most of the limitations were removed slowly. [Israeli Defense Ministry legal adviser Tzvia] Gross outlined the expected changes in the twice-yearly U.S.-Israel meeting on defense matters that took place recently. The American delegation to the meeting was headed by John Killen, head of the State Department's Bureau of Political-Military Affairs, and Peter Rodman, Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security. The American delegates expressed their satisfaction with the plans, but said that it remained to be seen how Israel would enact the decisions.

Schiff also notes, "The Americans demanded in the meeting that Venezuela be added to the list of countries Washington considered 'problematic' countries and to which defense exports should be limited".

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Afghan War: Trouble with Al Qaeda in Kabul

If this story is correct, this strikes me as pretty bad news: Al-Qaeda militants seize control of Kabul prison wing by Marina McIntyre Times of London 02/27/06. Because Kabul has been supposedly the one part of Afghanistan that was safely under the control of the Karzai government, thanks to the presence of NATO troops.

McIntyre reports:

Hundreds of rioting prisoners led by al-Qaeda and Taleban militants were locked in a stand-off with security forces last night after seizing control of a wing of Afghanistan’s main high-security prison.

NI_MPU('middle'); As night fell the prison, on the eastern edge of Kabul, was ringed by soldiers and police, backed by tanks and armoured personnel carriers, to prevent a break-out. ...

The huge, run-down, Soviet-style prison was built in the 1970s, and thousands of Afghans who opposed communist rule were killed and tortured there in the 1980s. It now holds 2,000 inmates, including about 350 Taleban and al-Qaeda fighters.  (my emphasis)

Iraq War: Thoughts on Democratic Party strategy

The last couple of weeks I've been posting a lot of my shorter posts only on The Blue Voice.  It's not exactly that I'm posting there rather than here.  We've just been trying to post more current-events kinds of things there lately, so I've been doing a lot of posts where I just mention an article and quote a paragraph or two with minimal comment.  Usually I add more comments here or post about longer articles that I want to say more about.

Sometimes I cross-post things, but not usually.  This is going to be a partial cross-post.  To celebrate topping the 50-thousand-hits milestone, we've been trying to each post on the same theme of, what about the Democrats and 2008?  In my first entry in that series, I talked about the Democrats' position on the Iraq War.  I'm posting that part here also with only minor changes for clarification where needed.  (For those who haven't necessarily followed by earlier posts on the Iraq War, I've always thought the war was a terrible mistake even on narrowly-conceived national-security grounds.)  Here's what I said in the Blue Voice post:

One weakness in the the more cautious approach associated with the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) is that it implicitly assumes that antiwar voters have nowhere to go but the Democratic Party. But the handwriting is on the wall on this one. Mr. "Shut Up!" himself, Bill O'Reilly, just came out against the Iraq War:

[H]ere is the essential problem in Iraq. There are so many nuts in the country - so many crazies - that we can't control them. And I don't - we're never gonna be able to control them. So the only solution to this is to hand over everything to the Iraqis as fast as humanly possible. Because we just can't control these crazy people. This is all over the place. And that was the big mistake about America: They didn't - it was the crazy-people underestimation. We did not know how to deal with them - still don't. But they're just all over the place. (Media Matters for America 02/22/06)

A lot of the liberal comment I saw on this focused on the blatant hypocrisy of it, though our postmodern Republicans reinvent reality so often that "hypocrisy" has almost become a meaningless concept with them. The Media Matters report says:

As Media Matters for America has documented, during a November 30, 2005, appearance on NBC's Today, O'Reilly called those advocating immediate withdrawal from Iraq "pinheads" and compared them to Hitler appeasers.

Longtime conservative polemicist William Buckley is now also saying directly that the Iraq War is a bust :

One can't doubt that the American objective in Iraq has failed. The same edition of the paper quotes a fellow of the American Enterprise Institute. Mr. Reuel Marc Gerecht backed the American intervention. He now speaks of the bombing of the especially sacred Shiite mosque in Samara and what that has precipitated in the way of revenge. He concludes that "The bombing has completely demolished" what was being attempted - to bring Sunnis into the defense and interior ministries.

Our mission has failed because Iraqi animosities have proved uncontainable by an invading army of 130,000 Americans. The great human reserves that call for civil life haven't proved strong enough. No doubt they are latently there, but they have not been able to contend against the ice men who move about in the shadows with bombs and grenades and pistols. (It Didn't Work National Review Online 02/24/06)

What we're seeing here is the further development of a Republican/conservative alibi for the Iraq War.  For those who have been following the military's public discussions of the war, it's been obvious for a while now that the scramble to assign blame for failure is being pursued with great energy behind the scenes, and more and more often in public.

But now we're seeing more mass-market versions emerging. Buckley's version is aimed more at the highbrow segment of the Republican faithful, the ones who like to imagine they aren't part of a party dominated by superstitious flat-earthers.  His argument says with dignified restraint that the natives in Iraq just aren't up to the higher calling of civilized behavior that the Bush administration expected of them.  Nice try,but the savages aren't ready.

O'Reilly's version is the same argument but aimed more at middle-brow FOXists. They're just a bunch of crazy Arabs, his version says.  They don't deserve our help any more. We did everything right but those Iraqi savages screwed it up. Same argument, different market segment.

The lowbrow version can easily be derived from those two. Except it will talk about dirty A-rabs and ungrateful "hajis" and so forth. What the lowbrow version will likely settle on pretty quickly - because anything else would require too much mental effort - is some version of, if we're going to war, we oughta fight to win!  And if someone unaware of the inner wisdom of that statement asks, the alternative suggested to "win" will be something along the lines of, "We shoulda just killt us a lot more them dang hajis".

Now, Bills Buckley and O'Reilly are unlikely in the extreme to be endorsing Hillary Clinton or Howard Dean for President in 2008. Nor are they likely to win many voters among mean-minded white folks who get off by fantasizing about killin' foreigners.

What this kind of argument does do, though, is to give people who are disturbed about the war a way to rationalize voting for the Republicans even though they may be appalled by their foreign policies and by the Iraq War. We news junkies can easily make the mistake of assuming that voters are processing issues through the same kind of elaborate ideological structures that we get used to seeing from politicians, analysts and publicists.

Yet it's important to recognize that this kind of nativist-isolationist criticism is in a real sense the flip side of Bush-style unilateralism. And even calling it the "flip side" may understate how similar their assumptions are.  Old Right isolationists are also opposed to US participation in the United Nations and to nuclear nonproliferation agreements. Radical free-marketers see international efforts to combat global warming as a deadly danger to their golden calf, Free Enterprise.  And they are perfectly willing to promote a hostile nativism, just like supposedly "moderate" Republicans like Arnold Schwarzenegger are doing in pandering to the far-right Minutemen militia groups.

It's not at all far-fetched that a significant number of swing voters could be convinced that the Republicans are less warlike than the Democrats. One of the more lucid of the isolationist critics of the war, and one who is coming from what I would describe as largely an Old Right perspective, is Justin Raimondo, editorial director of the Antiwar.com site (which by no means restricts itself to highlighting only conservative critiques of the Bush policies). In a recent column at that site entitled Arianna Huffington, Racial Profiler, in which he defended the controversial UAE ports deal,he wrote:

She's right that the pro-war, pro-spending, pro-big government consensus extends to both parties, overarching the Left and the Right, but she seems blithely unaware that her own commentary best reflects the staleness of this orthodoxy. Nothing exemplifies this better than her view of the controversy surrounding the granting of Dubai Port World (DPW), an international shipping and port management company based in the United Arab Emirates, a franchise to manage maritime facilities in major American cities, including New York, Baltimore, and New Orleans. ...

I really don't have the stomach to wade through Arianna's farrago of falsehoods and catty cheap shots and follow down each and every link to its absurd dead end - go ahead, be my guest. But I'll say this: The HuffPuff and her gaggle of wild-eyed Democratic Party bloggers have no interest in this issue, or any other issue, except as a bludgeon with which to bash George W. Bush. They aren't antiwar - they're anti-Bush. Otherwise, they wouldn't be so eager to join in this latest orgy of Arabophobia. They would be sensitive to the atmospherics - to the clear message being broadcast by the U.S. Congress that Washington has no use for Arabs of any sort, no matter how pro-American, secularized, and capitalistic they may be. ...

Parading her ignorance with all the arrogance of a wealthy dowager flashing her diamonds, Arianna doesn't even begin to realize that her polemics could have dangerous - and even deadly - consequences. By ratcheting up the atmosphere of hate and hysteria that has characterized the relations between the Arab world and the West in recent weeks, she is lining up with the War Party. In open alliance with neocons like Michael Ledeen, Frank Gaffney, and the National Review/Weekly Standard crowd, Huffington and herfellow "progressives" are poisoning American politics to the point that "World War IV" - the wet dream ofevery neocon - becomes a distinct possibility.

The more stuff I see like this from Raimondo, the more reluctant I am to quote him when he actually does a good analysis of an issue.  Which he often does. But what I want to illustrate with this point is how someone taking an antiwar stance and criticizing the Iraq War can rationalize that the Democrats are just as bad as the Republicans, if not worse, when it comes to issues of war and peace.  Raimondo is trying to make some other elaborate ideological point, which probably has something to do with his favorite obsession, alleged Israeli plots. ("War Party" in caps is used by Old Right isolationist types to mean "the Jews", as Raimondo surely knows.) But for all his antiwar fervor, which in many ways is in agreement with liberal critics of the Iraq War, he has no trouble making harsh propaganda against the Democrats.

In other words, its not be any means automatic that the Democrats will benefit politically from the debacle that the Iraq War has been pretty much since the day that Bush declared Mission Accomplished, if not even before. If the Democrats go down the road that Hillary started down by trying to sound more warlike on Iran's nuclear program than the Bush administration, they could very well fail to take advantage of a crucial opportunity to appeal to swing voters who are against the war.

And, more importantly in the long term, they could pass up the opportunity to reframe the national security issue on a much more constructive and pragmatic basis. We just have to get away from an atmosphere in which "sounding tough on national security" is equated with military threats and advocating war.

To gain an advantage from Bush's foreign policy and national-security failures, they will have to differentiate themselves on national security issues, hopefully by positioning themselves for a broad attack on Bush's foreign policy: pragmatic attacks on the Bush's administration's failure to adopt sensible "homeland security" measures; emphasizing how thin the administration's actual record on prosecuting terrorists and breaking up terrorist plans actually is; criticizing the Iraq War and all the deceptions and illegal actions connnected with it head-on; beginning tochallenge some of the blatant waste in the military budget (e.g., Star Wars) and the crony-capitalist excesses that are part it.

Ultimately, what the country needs is a much more realistic foreign policy, one that does is not based on illegal, preventive wars of aggression as the Bush Doctrine is.  One that is not based on the assumption that the United States must spend most of the military dollars of the entire planet. And one that deals realistically with the still very real threat of international and domestic terrorism.

Friday, February 24, 2006

Iraq War: "It is all ugly and likely to get much uglier"

I used to think Robert Dreyfuss was overly pessimistic about American policy in the Middle East. I wouldn't say that any more: On The Brink In Iraq TomPaine.com 02/24/06.  Dreyfuss describes the current situation in Iraq this way:

Ethnic cleansing is proceeding apace. The bombing of the Golden Dome in Samarra ought not to be seen as a conspiratorial effort to provoke civil war, but merely as a symptom of that incipient war. As a Sunni city north of Baghdad, it is likely that ethnic cleansers planned the attack as a means of terrifying Shiites in that part of Iraq to flee southward to the Shiite enclaves. Scores of Iraqi cities, towns, and neighborhoods are undergoing a similar pattern of terrorism and death squads aimed at ethnic cleansing.

What is especially scary to Shiites is that the destruction of the Golden Dome follows an historic pattern first laid down by the Wahhabi conquerors of the Arabian peninsula in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, when the Wahhabi Arab army made demolition of Shiite mosque domes its signature and launched a crusade against alleged idolatry by Shiites, who were disparaged by the Wahhabis as heretics. The Kurds, too, standing back from the Sunni-Shiite battles, are engaging in their own, anti-Arab ethnic cleansing in and around the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, which President Jalal Talabani of Iraq, a Kurd, has called “the Jerusalem of Kurdistan.”

It is all ugly and likely to get much uglier. So far, hundreds of Iraqis on all sides have died since Tuesday, scores and perhaps hundreds of mosques attacked, execution-style slayings proliferated, and ordinary Iraqis driven into hiding or into exile. A weekend curfew has Iraq on the knife’s edge.

Dreyfuss also makes an important point in something of an understated way.  Up until just recently, the US had been in the position of supporting a Shi'a government in Iraq against a Sunni insurgency.  Now we're increasingly facing the hostility of both Shi'a and Sunnis.  As Dreyfuss puts it:

The bankruptcy of the Bush-Cheney Iraq policy is revealed in the fact that the United States has succeeded in pitting itself now against two major “resistance” groups in Iraq. The first is the Sunni-led, mostly Baathist and military resistance, which has battled U.S. forces in Baghdad and the so-called Sunni triangle to the north and west. The second, which is growing in the ferocity of its anti-Americanism, is the Shiite religious forces led by the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), Moqtada Al Sadr’s Mahdi Army, and their allies, who have begun routinely to denounce the United States for its opposition to their plans to create a Shiite-dominated, Iranian-allied Islamic Republic of Iraq. Abdel Aziz Al Hakim, SCIRI’s chieftain and former commander of its Badr Brigade paramilitary force, has all but declared war on the United States, blaming Ambassador Khalilzad for giving a “green light” to the bombers by insisting that Shiite militias be disarmed.

The US position in Iraq once we invaded and ousted Saddam's Baathist regime has always been one of choosing between bad alternatives and worse ones.  As time goes on, the alternatives get worse.  And there are fewer of them.  If the Shi'a generally turn against the US, well, that's pretty much the end of the game, isn't it?

Afghan War: The Pakistan front closes down (one side does, at least)

We've heard since 2002 that the most likely hiding place for Bin Laden is somewhere on either side of the Pakistan/Afghanistan border.  The northwestern Waziristan part of Pakistan is a strongly Islamic fundamentalist area and has long been considered scarcely governable by the national government.  The Pakistani army has supposedly been actively hunting Bin Laden and other Al Qaeda cadre there for years. 

Now they're saying they are going to stop:  Waziristan action suspended Dawn (Pakistan) 02/24/06

The report says:

NWFP [North-Western Frontier Province] Governor Khalil-ur-Rehman has said the government has suspended operations in North Waziristan Agency because it believes that tribesmen are able to restore peace and normalcy through their own customs and traditions.

“It doesn’t mean that the govt has backed out of its earlier determination. Rather we want to show that the tribesmen can improve the situation themselves,” he added.

“However, if there is no improvement, the operations will resume with full vigour and severity,” he warned.

The "unitary Executive" and Americans' personal privacy

John Dean has a new column out about the NSA spying, in which he addresses the broad political question of Why Should Anyone Worry About Whose Communications Bush and Cheney Are Intercepting, If It Helps To Find Terrorists? Findlaw.com 2/24/06

While noting that the problems arising from Bush breaking the FISA law under his unilateral executive theory of government "is not going to go away", Dean focuses on how the NSA program is problematic apart from the particulars of the statute.

One thing is that the program appears to use the technique known as "data mining", which produces a lot of "false positives", i.e., it tags people as terrorist suspects for whom there no substantial reason for such suspicions.  He writes:

The government may claim data mining is accurate - but Americans ought to be wary: Even greater claims of accuracy are typically made for fingerprint identification, and that has already gone grievously wrong in one notorious war on terror example.

Fingerprints on a bag holding detonators involved in the 2004 Madrid subway terror attacks were supposedly linked to Portland, Oregon attorney Brandon Mayfield. As a result, Mayfield - also suspicious in authority's eyes because he'd converted to his wife's religion, Islam -- found himself in solitary confinement for two weeks as a "material witness." But in the end, the FBI was wrong; the prints weren't his.

Dean expresses even greater concern about the large amount of private information on individuals that the federal government is collecting as it is:

Many people trust the government not to abuse or misuse this information. Based on experience, I don't. But if you do, imagine what a hacker might do after cracking into all that private and government information - the kind of security breach that happens every day. Such hacking could trigger scenarios that range from blackmail to graymail to identity theft, to others knowing more about you and your life than even you may know.

Discussing the development of the present-day legal concept of Constitutional privacy guarantees, he goes back to the Supreme Court's 1948 decision in Johnson v. United States which established the "probable cause" standard for searches under the Fourth Amendment.  The decision was written by Justice Robert Jackson, who, perhaps not coincidentally, was the lead prosecutor for the US at the Nuremberg War Crimes Trial:

Jackson perceptively added, "The point of the Fourth Amendment, which often is not grasped by zealous officers, is not that it denies law enforcement the support of the usual inferences which reasonable men draw from evidence. Its protection consists in requiring that those inferences be drawn by a neutral and detached magistrate instead of being judged by the officer engaged in the often competitive enterprise of ferreting out crime." In other words, it's for the courts, not the executive branch, to judge whether a search is legal.

Why did Jackson reach this conclusion? "Any other rule would undermine 'the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects,'" he explained, "and would obliterate one of the most fundamental distinctions between our form of government, where officers are under the law, and the police-state where they are the law." These distinctions sting in an era where the NSA has refused to operate "under the law" - that is, under FISA and, indeed, under the Fourth Amendment itself.

Jackson's reaction to the police-state (read: the state hallmarked by totalitarianism or fascism) is indicative of the rights that grew from these negative histories. As Richard Primus writes in The American Language of Rights, "Reaction against Sovietism and Nazism helped bring about major shifts in the rights of free expression, racial equality, and individual privacy. A new vocabulary of 'human rights' arose to carry the content of those political commitments and to link them with a broader idea rarely seen in the generation before the war but ascendant thereafter: that certain rights exist and must be respected regardless of positive law." Needless to say, positive law - in the form of statutes, and Supreme Court precedents interpreting the Constitution -- followed.

To those who don't worry about giving up their rights, programs like the NSA's may seem fine. But others of us appreciate the blood and treasury this nation expended, both indirectly and directly, in securing those rights. And I am convinced my generation will fight  to the end to prevent the zeal of good intention in fighting terror, from letting the terrorists win by permitting the government to take those rights.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Iraq War: A grim prospect

Die Frage ist nicht mehr, ob das Land in einen Bürgerkrieg gleitet, sondern ob dieser sich rasch wieder eindämmen lässt oder nicht.

[The question is no longer whether the country [Iraq] is sliding into a civil war, but whether it can quickly be brought under control again or not.]

- Yassin Musharbash in Irak: Regierungsbildung in blutigem Chaos Der Spiegel Online 23.02.06

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Iraq War: A bad moment in Iraq

Although some officials depicted the insurgency as waning, June, July, and August featured many brutal attacks. General Richard B. Meyers, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, stated on July 21, 2005, that the attacks on U.S. troops were increasingly lethal and that assassinations of Iraqi officials had mounted.6 Attacks on Iraqi civilians are polarizing because they exacerbate sectarianism, and those on police and military recruits constrain U.S. efforts to speedily build up Iraqi military and police capacity.
- Sherifa Zuhur, A Hundred Osamas: Islamist Threats and the Future of Counterinsurgency (US Army Strategic Studies Institute; Dec 2005)

Tuesday was an apocalyptic day in Iraq. I am not normally exactly sanguine about the situation there. But the atmospherics are very, very bad, in a way that most Western observers will miss. ...

Then guerrillas set off a huge bomb in a Shiite corner of the mostly Sunni Arab Dura quarter of Baghdad, killing 22 and wounding 28. Another 9 were killed in other violence around Iraq. These attacks are manifestations of an unconventional civil war.
- Juan Cole, Shiite Protests Roil Iraq Informed Comment blog 02/2/06

Up until now, Cole has been reluctant to describe events in Iraq as constituting a civil war, even a low-level one.  It sounds like he's starting to see it as a civil war, too.

The hardline Shiite Mahdi Army has come out of Sadr City and is all over Baghdad. They are clashing with Sunnis in Basra.

Sunni leader Tariq al- Hashimi threatened reprisals for reprisal killings.

Abdul Aziz al-Hakim blamed the US for holding back the Badr Corps.

Grand Ayatollah Sistani called for nonviolent street protests that he must know won't be nonviolent.

Iran is blaming Bush and the Israelis, which is ridiculous but already widely believed in Iraq and Iran.

The threat of terrorism and attacks on Americans just went way up.
- Juan Cole, Iran Blames Bush/Sunni Shiite Clashes Informed Comment blog 02/22/06

David Irving, Bill Clinton, the Austrian Staatsvertrag and defending free speech sensibly

As I mentioned in a post at The Blue Voice on Holocaust denier David Irving, I lean heavily toward the Jeffersonian ideal of not having government ban the expression of opinions, no matter how obnoxious or ill-informed.

I've also expressed the notion that Muslim fundamentalists rioting and hurting people over cartoons seems ridiculous to me.  It's important for us to understand why the cartoons are such an offensive thing.  And also the ways in which Danish rightwingers and Muslim-fudamentalist agitiators exploited the sentiment.  Understanding is not the same as sympathizing.  And it is important to understand how these things happen.

Supporters of democracy of any religion should also not have a problem declaring our support for the basic ideas of freedom of expression.  Not only are such rights anchored in the American Constitution and in the constitutions, laws and traditions of other democratic nations.  They are also explicitly recognized in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations 12/10/48:

Article 18.
Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

Article 19.
Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

Article 20.
(1) Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.

(2) No one may be compelled to belong to an association.

But, in practice, there are real difficulties in deciding how to apply these rights.  We've all heard the catchy formulas.  My right to swing my arm ends where another person's nose begins.  No one has the right to shout fire in a crowded theater.  And so on.

As an example, Article 12 of the Universal Declaration says, "No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks."  Which seems aimed at libel, which can be a vicious weapon.

This is one area of American law where current Supreme Court rulings leave perhaps too much latitude for false accusations.  Under the current standard, for anyone who can be considered a public figure (not restricted to elected officials) , establishing libel involves not just proving that the libelous claim was false or made carelessly, but also showing that the libeler had malicious intent.  Which works out in practice to mean that a public official has effectively no legal defense against libel.

The Clinton scandals are a textbook example of the problems that can cause.  Because money and - to use that forbidden word again - class also enter into it.  Another one of those common formulas says that a rich person and a poor one are equally free to buy their own newspaper.  (Or is it to sleep under a bridge?  Anyway...)  In the case of the Clinton scandals, as brilliantly documented in the film The Hunting of the President (2004), a well-financed network of hardline conservatives ginned up fake charges against Bill and Hillary Clinton that forced them to spend millions of dollars which they had to raise themselves in legal defense.  When he finally got caught in a purjury trap (although it was never clear to me that he technically committed perjury), it led to the impeachment fiasco.

If public figures could have recourse to libel laws on a more resonable basis than today, it would be a good way to put limits on some of the nastier dirt-slinging that the Rove-ified Republican Party have made part of their standard modus operandi now.  John Dean has argued that, even under the existing malicious intent standard, that John Kerry had good grounds to seek a libel judgment against the Swift Boat Liars for Bush group and specifically those responsible for the book Unfit for Command that was part of their smear campaign against him in 2004.  (See The New Book Attacking Kerry's War Record: How It Defames the Candidate, and Why He Should Sue by John Dean, Findlaw.com 08/31/04).  I would still like to see Kerry do that.  Even if he lost the case, it would be great publicity for just how sleazy today's authoritarian Republican Party has become in their sliming of political opponents.

Just as much of the commentary on the Muhammad cartoons issue treated the free-press component of it too superficially, even some of the more thoughtful commentary on the David Irving case has given inadequate attention to the context.

Here is what the State Treaty (Staatsvertrag) of 1955 obligates Austria to do.  Austria still recognizes this treaty as binding with the US, Britain and France although they do not recognize Russia as the legal successor to the Soviet Union for purposes of the Staatsvertrag.

This is the relevant German text:

Artikel 9. Auflösung nazistischer Organisationen

1. Österreich wird die bereits durch die Erlassung entsprechender und von der Alliierten Kommission für Österreich genehmigter Gesetze begonnenen Maßnahmen zur Auflösung der nationalsozialistischen Partei und der ihr angegliederten und von ihr kontrollierten Organisationen einschließlich der politischen, militärischen und paramilitärischen auf österreichischem Gebiet vollenden. Österreich wird auch die Bemühungen fortsetzen, aus dem österreichischen politischen, wirtschaftlichen und kulturellen Leben alle Spuren des Nazismus zu entfernen, um zu gewährleisten, daß die obgenannten Organisationen nicht in irgendeiner Form wieder ins Leben gerufen werden, und um alle nazistische oder militaristische Tätigkeit und Propaganda in Österreich zu verhindern.

2. Österreich verpflichtet sich, alle Organisationen faschistischen Charakters aufzulösen, die auf seinem Gebiete bestehen, und zwar sowohl politische, militärische und paramilitärische, als auch alle anderen Organisationen, welche eine irgendeiner der Vereinten Nationen feindliche Tätigkeit entfalten oder welche die Bevölkerung ihrer demokratischen Rechte zu berauben bestrebt sind.

3. Österreich verpflichtet sich, unter der Androhung von Strafsanktionen, die umgehend in Übereinstimmung mit den österreichischen Rechtsvorschriften festzulegen sind, das Bestehen und die Tätigkeit der obgenannten Organisationen auf österreichischem Gebiete zu untersagen.

Article 9.1 requires the Austrian government to carry out the measures enacted under the occupation that aimed at the dissolution of the National Socialist (Nazi) Party and all its associated organizations.  Austria is also obligated to endeavor to remove and guard against "all traces of Nazism" in the "politcal, economic and cultural life" of the country.  It specifically commits Austria to prevent the restoration to life of any of the Nazi organizations and specifically to prevent "all Nazistic or militaristic actions and propaganda in Austria." (my emphasis)

Article 9.2 requires the dissolution of all exiting fascist organization (fascist and Nazi are not precise equivalents; long story there) and any other organizations which "seek to rob the population of its democratic rights".  And 9.3 specifically obligates Austria to impose criminal sanctions (Strafsanktionen) on any such organizations (Nazi or fascist) that arise or become active in Austria.

Not to get all political-sciency here, but the US Constitution specifies itself and treaties of the US as being the law of the land in America.  These provisions obviously don't apply to the United States itself.  But if it appears that these provisions contradict the principles of the Constitution's First Amendment - which arguably they do - this treaty supercedes the First Amendment as American law.  At least as far as what the US along with Britain and France require by treaty of Austria, the Staatvertrag overrides any First Amendment requirements of the Constitution.

As a result of all this, I find it almost painful to see American and British writers giving civic-textbook lectures about not violating freedom of speech without even mentioning that Austria is required by treaty to do this.  They would be violating their treaty obligations to the US, Britain and France not to do this.  Is it too much to expect people to at least take note of this?

Kevin Drum comments on the case in this 02/22/06 post in what comes out soundingto me like a California-dippy take on this particular case, apparently completely innocent of any international-law considerations involved:

As usual with free speech issues, this isn't a question of whether Irving's speech is odious, it's a question of whether the state should be allowed to declare it illegal. This is a power that I'm very reluctant to concede to central governments, which is why I generally oppose hate speech laws and think that Tony Blair is insane for pushing legislation to ban the act of "glorifying terrorism" - whatever that is.

As [Michael] Shermer says, it's at least understandable that countries like Germany and Austria have laws that ban Holocaust denial. There's some history there. But at some point they have to decide if they've matured enough since World War II to trust their own citizens not to fall prey en masse to the ranting hatred of loons like David Irving. It's unfortunate that apparently they don't feel they have.

At least his comment isn't quite as witless as
one I previously quoted from the Times of London:

Yet there remains the sense that the law is used to mask an inability among Austrians to come to terms with their history, and that the country has not experienced the same level of national soul-searching as Germany.

The Michael Shermer to whom Drum refers is the author of this op-ed to which he links: Free speech, even if it hurts: Protecting the rights of a Holocaust denier ultimately protects us all by Michael Shermer Los Angeles Times 02/22/06.

Shermer is one of my favorite columnists.  I subscribe to Scientific Americanand his one-page "Skeptic" column is the first one I read when the magazine arrives.  Shermer is also the editor of Skeptic magazine and the author of a book about Holocaust denial, which his magazine has held up as one of the most pernicious versions of pseudohistory.  He also argues: 

Freedom is a principle that must be applied indiscriminately. We have to defend Irving in order to defend ourselves. Once the laws are in place to jail dissidents of Holocaust history, what's to stop such laws from being applied to dissenters of religious or political histories, or to skepticism of any sort that deviates from the accepted canon?

But he at least puts it into a bit more historical context:

Today, you may be imprisoned or fined for dissenting from the accepted Holocaust history in the following countries: Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Israel, Lithuania, New Zealand, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Switzerland.

Given their disastrous history of being too lenient with fringe political ideologues, it is perhaps understandable that countries such as Germany and Austria have sought to crack down on rabble-rousers whose "hate speech" can and has led to violence and pogroms. In some cases, the slippery slope has only a few paces between calling the Holocaust a "Zionist lie" and the neo-Nazi desecration of Jewish property.

And as we have witnessed repeatedly, Europeans have a different history and culture of free speech than we do in this country. In Germany, for example, the "Auschwitz lie" law makes it a crime to "defame the memory of the dead." In Britain, libel law requires the defendant to prove that he or she did not libel the plaintiff - unlike U.S. law, which puts the onus on the plaintiff - and the British recently debated the merits of banning religious hate speech. In France, it is illegal to challenge the existence of the "crimes against humanity" as they were defined by the military tribunal at Nuremberg; another law, on the books until just a few weeks ago, required that France's colonial history (which was not always "humane") had to be taught in a "positive" light.

But as much as I respect Shermer's work, his column also shows a bit of good old American finger-wagging at the Old World for not being as pristinely democratic as we are.  A quaint habit, with its own charm.  (Guantánamo isn't technically part of the United States, is it?)  But if we Americans are going to make fun of the insufficiently free Europeans on this issue, can't we at least acknowledge that Austria's anti-Nazi laws are part of their treaty obligations to the United States, Britain and France?

Actually, it's also misleading to say that anti-Holocaust-denial laws like those in Germany and Austria targets all those "dissenting from the accepted Holocaust history".  It's aimed at the kind of Holocaust denial that amounts to Nazi propaganda.  I don't recall ever hearing of anyone prosecuted there for participating in the intensive discussions over the "intentionalist" versus "structuralist" views of how the Holocaust developed.  And I couldn't say which one is "accepted Holocaust history". 

I don't think we have to defend democratic and human rights like freedom of speech only with goody-two-shoes platitutdes.  And I'm all for taking a stand on Jeffersonian principles of freedom of speech and religion.  But we don't have to pretend that they are some kind of Platonic "ideal forms" existing off in the ether somewhere, instead of being part of historical and social realities.

Submitted to Carnival of German-American Relations

Monday, February 20, 2006

Conservatism as it used to be

My friend and former professor Bob McElvaine has a new column out, about how conservatism has changed in recent decades: Is 'Remember when' folly for conservatives?  Jackson Clarion-Ledger 02/16/06.  He writes:

He writes:

Remember when conservatives would have been apoplectic at the assertion that the president has the inherent right to do whatever he wants?  ...

Remember when conservatives believed that the people should have privacy from the government and the government should not have "privacy" from the people? ...

Remember when conservatives wouldn't have bought the argument that giving up freedoms is good for us?

There's more.  Check it out.

Qala-e-Gangi: More on the uprising

This post is one in a series on the lessons of the Afghan War.  The posts are indexed in this post of 02/20/06.

There are two other factual points that are important in understanding the Qala-e-Gangi uprising.

One is the fact that General Dostum's forces had a dramatic warning as the prisoners were being taken into the Qala-e-Gangi fortress that some of them were armed and of a mind to continue fighting.  Mark Kukis relates what happened, apparently based on the account of Sayed Damel, Gen. Dostum's security chief:

Kamel and a group of Alliance commanders watched nervously as the prisoners began to descend from the trucks. Things went wrong immediately.  One of the first captives off the trucks strode over to the group of commanders, throwing himself at their feet, clutching an armed grenade to his chest.  The prisoner looked up at the surprised men, cathcing their eyes for a moment before the blast.  Kamel dove for cover and shouted for the others to do the same, but they moved too slowly.  The grenade went off, killing two Alliance commanders, severely wounding a third, and tearing the suicide attacker's body nearly in half.

The blast set off a momentary panic, but quickly the Alliance guards regained control and began herding the captives into the basement hold of the pink building.  Originally, they had planned to search each prisoner carefully before sending him into the cells, but the attack and the darkening skies forced the Alliance guards to drive the group en masse below ground, knowing then that many still carried arms. (my emphasis)

Among the Guantánamo prisoner interviews discussed in an earlier post, prisoner G-169 related his version of the incident (summarized by the FBI in third person):

Upon arriving at Mazar-e-Sharif, [redacted] explained that as each of the prisoners got off the trucks they were searched thoroughly by General DOSTUM's soldiers  After [redacted] got off the truck he heard an explosion and realized that one of the soldiers blew himself up with a grenade.  At this point, the soldiers did not conduct thorough searches of the pirsoners, insteadthey began hurrying the prisoners into the basement of the Qala-e-Jhangi prison 

That quotation illustrates one of the problems of a summary as opposed to a verbatim transcript.  If the FBI report is consistent in using "soldiers" for Dostum's (Northern Alliance) men and "prisoners" for the Taliban and Al Ansar fighters, then G-169's account would be that one of Dostum's soldiers blew himself up.  Which, of course, G-169 may have thought if he wasn't watching the scene while it unfolded.

Richard Mahoney's account in Getting Away With Murder (2004) agrees with Kukis' about the grenade attack by one of the prisoners on Dostum's soldiers.  Kukis and Mahoney also related that after the prisoners were placed in the basement, one of Dostum's men threw in a grenade which exploded, killing several prisoners.

The following morning, when the prisoners are brought out to be questioned by Mike Spann and Dave Tyson, Mahoney gives a sense of the level of distrust and fear in the air:

"Some [of the prisoners] feared they would be killed, but most wanted to kill, and then be killed." a Northern Alliance guard, Nqassum Daoudi, later commented.  These were both homicidal and suicidal men - and Spann and Tyson should have known it.

It's not clear in the context what Mahoney means by the last comment, whether he means to say that Dostum's men or someone else should have warned the pair about that, or whether he is implying that the two CIA men were somehow careless.  He continues:

What the CIA men sense about the men kneeling in front of them is not known. Dostum's soldiers, however, are murderously afraid of the prisoners.  They propose to take over the interrogation.  Security chief Mashal Azam says they should get rid of the press and begin shotting the prisoners, one by one, until they ferret out the Al-Qaeda individuals.  These will be then handed over to the Americans.  If that doesn't work, Azam ttells a German reporter, they'll do it the old way.  He takes out a long, notched knife and points it in his anus.  "We begin here".

Another fact to examine is what was said in the interrogations that were videotaped.  In particular, the early speculation that the CIA men set off the uprising by their questioning focused on this exchange between Spann and Tyson.  After attempting to question an unresponsive Lindh, Spann speaks to Tyson within the hearing of Lindh.  From Mahoney's transcript in the book:

TYSON: OK. All right. We explained what the deal is to him.

SPANN: I was explaining to the guy that we just want to talk to him, find out what the story is.

TYSON (to Spann): The problem is he needs to decide if he wants to live or die - and die here. I mean he don't wanna die here, he's gonna die here cause this is where we're just gonna leave him ... he's gonna sit in prison the rest of his f***ing short life.  It's his decision.  We can only help those guys that want to talk to us.  We can only get the Red Cross to help so many guys. (Now dismissively.) He had his chance.

Even though this was videotaped, the conditions weren't exactly those of a Hollywood studio.  Kukis' transcript relays Tyson's words somewhat differently, though the substance and tone are the same:

"The problem is he needs to decide if he wants to live or die, and die here," Tyson said.."If he don't want to die here, he's gonna die here. We're just going to leave him, and he's going to f***ing sit in prison the rest of his f***ing short life.  It's his decision, man.  We can only help the guys that want to talk to us.  We can only get the Red Cross to help so many guys. if they don't talk to us, we can't -" 

A clip of this video is available at this Web site:  FreeDocumentaries.org.  It is part of a controversial documentary called "Afghan Massacre: Convoy of Death".  Click the "Watch Streaming Video of Producer Interview and Clips of Documentary" link to see it in RealVideo.  At the 21:00 minute point, Amy Goodman is describing the scene in which Tyson says the words just quoted.  She also notes it's hard to hear, and if the audio quality on that documentary is any measure, it's easy to see why transcripts would differ somewhat.  This link isn't meant to indicate any particular opinion of the documentary itself; its account of the beginning of the uprising, which immediately follows the Tyson-Spann-Lindh clip, does not match with the account I've given in previous posts.

The early speculation on the uprising included the question of whether Spann and Tyson may have panicked the prisoners by making statements like this that sounded like death threats.

We now know, as related in the previous posts in this series, that some of the prisoners had planned an uprising during the preceding night in the basement.  And the grenade explosion that began the uprising came from a group of Uzbek prisoners who had just emerged from the basement.  So it's clear that whatever Spann and Tyson may have said, it wasn't their words to the prisoners that set off the uprising.

It may require some effort of imagination now to see why Tyson's words quoted above may have seemed like a reckless threat.  Four years later - now that we know about the torture policy, the secret prisons, the kidnappings, a war justified by claims of "weapons of mass destruction" that turned out to be false - Tyson's words hardly seem more than tough talk.

Death threats, so far as I'm aware, are illegal for American interrogators to use. But was Tyson's comment a death threat?  It certainly seems to be pushing the envelope.  But in the context, where Dostum's men had been threatening to kill the Al Ansar prisoners, it could also be heard as saying, hey, you help us, we might be able to get you out of here.

It probably wasn't precisely "by the book".  And I wouldn't want to try to defend his precise wording.  But it seems to me that it would also be hard to argue that it was any kind of direct death threat.  Given some of the horrible scenes we've seen from Abu Ghuraib and other deadly incidents that have been reliably reported, I wouldn't want to downplay the significance of violating the rules of interrogation or minimize the seriousness of wrongdoing in that context.  There are way too many people doing those kinds of things already, including many who very much know better.

But, despite the early questions from human rights groups over this particular interchange, it's not at all clear to me in the circumstances that Tyson's statement was inappropriate.  It was, after all, factually true that the Lindh and the other prisoners had good reason to fear for their lives from Dostum's men.

Mike Spann and Dave Tyson were there trying to get information rapidly on Al Qaeda.  At that point, it would still have been possible to kill or capture a large number of the concentrated Al Qaeda forces in Afghanistan.  Whether or not they had been fully appraised of the grenade incidents the previous day, they knew they were taking some risk in interrogating the prisoners.  Mike Spann died fighting the prisoners attacking him and Tyson and the Alliance guards, and was and is rightly regarded as a hero.

From my perspective, it's unfortunate that writers like Andrew Sullivan tried to rope Spann's image into a "cuture war" morality play.  No doubt, the conflicting stories of Mike Spann and John Walker Lindh provide a dramatic coincidence in the way their lives briefly interacted.  But Lindh had effectively no sympathizers in the US.  And, despite the jingoistic rhetoric of the Andrew Sullivans, even opponents of a war (of which there were very few on the Afghan War in 2001) recognize the service and sacrifice of those who fight for their country. That sort of rhetorical posturing doesn't help anyone to understand what is actually going on in the wars we send our people to fight.

The next items in this series of posts may not come quite as quickly in succession as these have.  But I wanted to start by discussing this incident, which in retrospect first raised some of the long-term concerns raised by the experience of the Afghan War.  Which still continues today, despite its low profile in the mainstream press.

Qala-e-Gangi: Did Lindh know about the prison uprising in advance?

This post is one in a series on the lessons of the Afghan War.  The posts are indexed in this post of 02/20/06.

In previous posts in this series, I've discussed the information from documents released under the Freedom of Information Act describing information provided from prisoners at Guantanamo on the prison uprising at Qala-e-Gangi in 2001.  In this post, I will continue that discussion based on other, published sources.

The interrogation of some of the prisoners, including Mike Spann interrogating "American Taliban" John Walker Lindh, was videotaped by Afghan intelligence. The videotape ran until the time the granade exploded near the entrance to the basement setting off the uprising.  Working with the videotape, Richard Mahoney in Getting Away With Murder (2004) describes the start of the uprising and the death of Mike Spann this way, in the context of discussing the trial of Lindh, which was ended with a plea bargain:

What happened on that terrible morning in Qala-e Janghi deserved an adversarial airing in court. It still does. The best evidence suggests the following: after the grenade attack killed the Northern Alliance guard, three hundred or so prisoners began streaming out of the entry to the pink building, overwhelming four other guards and grabbing their rifles. The audio reveals that an AK-47 began firing within four seconds of the grenade attack. This was Mike Spann s. He advanced toward the entryway at first firing single shots, several of which found targets, and then a short burst which found more. A little more than one minute after the first grenade explosion, he had expended his clip. Those who converged on him were the escaping cavalcade coming out of the pink building, not the prisoners, bound and kneeling on the ground. Most of those simply lay flat. John Walker Lindh, however, got to his feet and ran a short distance before being hit by a ricocheting bullet. Who fired this bullet from which direction is not ascertainable.

As the foreign Taliban bore down on Spann, he made no effort to run but instead shot two or three more of his attackers -with his 9 mm. before using it to club them. He was soon enveloped by a screaming mass of prisoners. One witness reported seeing him tackled and fall on his right side, at which point he was variously pummeled, kicked, and even bitten to unconsciousness by his attackers.

There was a report from US Special Forces that Spann had been torturedbefore being killed.  Mahoney discounts this version based in part on the research of Johnny Spann.  The elder Spann told to me in our phone interview that he had examined the autopsy photos of Mike's body and was satisfied that the Special Forces version - he mentioned in particular one from writer Robin Moore - was simply not correct.  As Mahoney writes, "The fatal shots were fired into Mike Spann's head near the temples, exiting the back of his head.  It is probably that he was executed by the foreign Taliban not long after they had taken over that part of the courtyard."

Mahoney also notes, "Johnny Spann remains the most credible and informed source regarding the circumstances of his son's death".

Journalist Mark Kukis did orginal research in Afghanistan for his 2003 book "My Heart Became Attached": The Strange Odyssey of John Walker Lindh.  He gives the following account of the conversations in the basement among the prisoners the night before the prison uprising.  Based on interviews with two Pakistanis who were there among the prisoners, Enamul Hak and Wahid Ahmad, Kukis concluded that there seemed to have been no consensus among the prisoners in general about fighting further.  He describes the conversations as reported to him this way:

According to Hak and another Pakistani Talib in the basement that night, Wahid Ahmad, the group of four hundred was split. The Pakistanis were willing to chance a surrender deal in the hopes of being returned home, but the foreign fighters from Arab countries and elsewhere wanted to fight. The Pakistanis, for the most part, felt they had fairly good odds of being returned at some point across the nearby border and that they likely faced no troubles at home, because Pakistani authorities had long backed the Taliban.

The foreign fighters from other countries had no such hopes. Most came from lands where the Taliban and al-Qaida were loathed and affiliation with them would be punishable by death, or worse. Better to die a martyr at Qala-i-Jangi, some thought, than to be tortured and executed at home. The Uzbeks in particular seemed ready to take their chances fighting rather than remain in the hands of Dostum, who, himself an Uzbek, was said to take special delight in the torture of ethnic brethren who had chosen to fight against him.

According to Kukis' account, it was a group of Uzbeks who initiated the uprising:

Spann still had no idea Lindh was an American as a guard pulled Lindh to his feet and shoved him to an area with the other previously interrogated prisoners. And he didn't live long enough to find out what the rest of the world would soon know. The shorter of their two lives turned out to be Spann's.

Forgetting Lindh, Spann began interrogating other Taliban prisoners brought up from their basement cells. Northern Alliance guards continued searching, tethering, and lining up prisoners in the yard. About half an hour later, as Alliance guards called into the cellar for another prisoner, as many as half a dozen, mostly Uzbeks, suddenly rounded the steps, tossing grenades, yelling "Allah u Akbar!" The guards fired into the crush of prisoners charging up the stairs, but were soon overpowered as more men leapt up from behind them and fought towards the outside door. In a second, a revolt was on.

This gets to one of the still unanswered questions relating to the uprising: did John Walker Lindh know in advance that an uprising was planned?  It's a question affecting the degree of Lindh's guilt.  Lindh's attorneys argued that there was no evidence that he actually fought against Americans.  But if he knew about a planned uprising and failed to warn his fellow Americans Spann and Tyson about it when he had the opportunity, then he would be directly complicit in Spann's death. 

Mike's father Johnny is convinced that such was the case.  And he made that argument to the judge in the Lindh case.  At trial, the presiding judge T.S. Ellis III, found that the government had produced no evidence of prior knowledge by Lindh of the planned uprising, even while acknowledging that he shared that suspicion.

Mahoney quotes from Johnny Spann's statement to the court:

Mr. Lindh, the way I understand it, has admitted that he fought on the front lines of Takhar. Are we supposed to believe that any kind of an army would let somebody come and be a member of their army and be on the front lines, but never fire his weapon? That's a little bit hard to believe. . . .

We know that when they surrendered in Kunduz, that they were carrieddown through Mazar-e Sharif on trucks and carried down to Qala-e Janghi fortress. We also know - I don't think there's a doubt in anyone's mind, we saw it on TV, where John Walker Lindh appeared the next day. So we know that he was there the night before. We know that he, in fact, spent the night in the pink house [the basement]. .. And the reports are different but I am assuming that there were some four-hundred-plus prisoners in that building. Are we to believe that a person could spend the night in a building, that small of a building with four-hundred-plus prisoners - and a third of them never have been searched, a third of them still have their weapons, they still have their grenades under their head gear, underneath their slouchy clothes - are we to believe that those people spent the night there and they didn't talk about that? "We've got weapons. We've still got guns"? That's a little hard for me to believe too. And it's a little hard for the American people that talked to me to believe.

I thought that it was the responsibility of Americans that if you knew that there was something going to happen - and I realize that what you have already said, that evidently the court believes that Mr. Lindh didn't know there was going to be an uprising. It's hard for me to believe that.

Both Mahoney and Kukis argue that the evidence indicates that Lindh likely had knowledge of at least the possibility of an uprising.  (I should note here that the legal standards for proof and the standards of evidence for historical research are not the same.  I have not attempted to assess the legal case on that point, even at the time of Lindh's trial or since.)

Based on the accounts of the Pakistanis Hak and Ahmad as cited above, Kukis concludes that "Lindh knew of the revolt, a foresight that would make his culpable in Spann's death".  But although he cites his information from Hak and Ahmad in support of that comment, their information as he cites in the passage quoted above does not directly say that Lindh knew about the revolt planning.  Like Johnny Spann's statement to the judge, Kukis is convinced based on circumstantial evidence that Lindh must have known about the planning of the revolt:

I spent several weeks in Afghanistan in the spring of 2002 piecing together what had happened in Konduz and at Qala-i-Jangi, interviewing dozens of witnesses and survivors, even paying a visit to the basement. I also find it hard to believe that Lindh could have spent the hours he did in the cellar before the Qala-i-Jangi uprising and known nothing of the plot that ultimately killed Spann and hundreds of others. The scenario is at first plausible, but ultimately unbelievable: The confined space in the basement left enough room so that, potentially, members of a group at one end could talk among themselves without being overheard by others elsewhere in the hold. Clearly, there were a number of men speaking in Arabic plotting the revolt while Lindh was in the same space. Lindh maintains that he was not speaking with them and, therefore, knew nothing of the planned attack. However Lindh was speaking with someone in the basement, either in Arabic or English, as evidenced by his claims of overhearing rumors among the prisoners that Dostum's surrender deal still held. It s possible that the Arabic or English speakers with whom Lindh conversed at some point during the night either also knew nothing of the plans or perhaps didn't share the plot with him. Perhaps the prisoners Lindh talked to were part of a group outside the small ring of plotters.

He goes on to explain that the accounts by Hak and Ahmad about the conversations taking place among the prisoners just makes it hard to believe that Lindh had no knowledge at all about plots to have a revolt.

Mahoney cites Kukis' research and the testimony of a prisoner at Guantanamo, Abd al-Haribi, in concluding that there was sufficient evidence to charge Lindh with conspiracy to murder.  As I said, I have made no attempt to evaulate the potential legal case.  But al-Haribi's testimony may not be the most solid evidence. (I have no way of knowing of al-Haribi was one of the anonymous prisoners cited in a previous post).  Mahoney writes of al-Haribi, who he says was one of three Pakistanis released from Guantanamo in June of 2003:

Al-Haribi said that he had told U.S. military interrogators that everyone in the basement had known that something was going to happen.  Subsequent to his interrogation, al-Haribi tried to commit suicide and had, by his own admission, a nervous breakdown thereafter.

Once again, the legal limbo the Bush administration decided tocreate at Guantanamo, not least of which is the practice of torture, raises a huge question mark over evidence from prisoners there, whether being used in the legal or the historical sense.

My conclusion on the question of Lindh's prior knowledge is that given the circumstantial evidence, he probably had at least the prior knowledge that a revolt was being discussed.  "Circumstantial" evidence is not the same as "weak" evidence.  And it seems to me in this case the possibility is strong.

However, based on the evidence I have seen at this point, I couldn't say it was anything close to definitive.  Like (presumably) most Americans, I have always found Lindh to be a very unsympathetic figure.  But on the factual question of whether he knew about the revolt in advance, unless additional evidence comes to light, such as Lindh himself copping to having known about it, I couldn 't go beyond saying that his having prior knowledge seems highly likely but not definitively proven.

This is a big part of Richard Mahoney's criticism of the government's deficient prosecution of Lindh.  This is a question that might have been resolved conclusively if it had been fully vetted at trial.  But the fact that witnesses were being held under controversial conditions in Guantanamo, and that Lindh himself had been subject to a type of interrogation and physical treatment while in US custody that was open to serious challenge in court meant that the government felt the need to plead the case out rather than go through a full trial.  Mahoney has further speculations about the reasons the government decided to go for the plea bargain, but the Lindh trial is not my focus in this series of posts.

Two excerpts from Mark Kukis' book are available online at Salon.com: John Walker Lindh's long, dark journey and The fall of John Walker Lindh.

Qala-e-Gangi: Reconstruction of the beginning of the uprising

This post is one in a series on the lessons of the Afghan War.  The posts are indexed in this post of 02/20/06.

If one relies mainly on these documents (see previous post) about the prisoners' testimony, the following reconstruction of the events could reasonably be made:

The prisoner being held in the basement were brought out in groups to be questioned by the two Americans.  The uprising was begun with the explosion of a grenade near the entrance to the basement.  A fight then broke out as the prisoners charged Mike Spann and Dave Tyson.  Spann fired his AK-47 at the attackers, and Tyson with his pistol.  Tyson was able to escape with his life.  Spann was over powered and killed.  Guards at the fortress betan firing at the pirsoners, who retreated into the basement under fire.

The prisoners discussed in the previous post provided the following information on the beginning of the uprising:

G-164 says an explosion occurred befgore reporting any firing by the Americans (Spann and Tyson).

G-169 describes an explosion "in the basement" followed immediately by firing from the guards.  The man with the pistol on his hip "was jumped by an Arab or Pakistani male, but the armed man shot the prisoner." This is the account quoted by Serrano on the incident in which he suggests Spann possible sparked "the prison riot that claimed his life".

But G-169 clearly identifies the American with the assault rifle as the one who was killed (Spann). And his description is that the other American (Tysaon) was the one who shot an attacker with his pistol after the explosion,a nd after firign from the guards had commenced.  It is difficult to see how this document on G-169's interview could be read, as Serrano's article does, as indicating that a CIA man shooting an attacker may have triggered the riot.  Or that the man described as shooting this attacker in the head was Spann.  The copy I have of G-169's document clearly does not support such a reading.

G-172 says that he "heard an explosion and gunfire" that initiated the fighting.  Presumably this means the explosion happened first.  But his statement has little detail beyond that on the uprising.

G-174's statement is so heavily redacted it adds nothing to the story of the start of the uprising.

G-175's description indicates that the sound of a grenade explosion marked the outbreak of violence.  He also seems to indicate there was a two-minute interval between the grenade explosion and the first gunshots he heard.  Although he may have been referring to gunshots from the soldiers on the wall.

It's clear to me that the claim in Serrano's article that Spann or Tyson initiated the uprising with gunfire is not compatable with the testimony in these documents, which appear to be the ones on which he was relying, especially the document on prisoner G-169.

I'm going to end this post hear after having dealt with the specific question of that claim in Serrano's article (see previous posts) based on the evidence from the documents on the interrogation of those prisoners.  If any of my readers has seen additional documents of interrogations of prisoners who were held at Qala-e-Gangi at that time, or knows of less extensively redacted versions of those I've cited, I would appreciate it if you could let me know.

In the next post, I'm going to continue talking about the prison uprising and looking at some of its implications.

The uprising at Qala-e-Gangi: Al Ansar prisoner testimony

This post is one in a series on the lessons of the Afghan War.  The posts are indexed in this post of 02/20/06.

In this post, I'm going to address some issues very specific to the pirson uprising at Qala-e-Gangi and the death of CIA covert operations officer Mike Spann.

In my post of 12/08/04, I cited this article by Richard Serrano of the Los Angeles TimesAfghan prisoners told FBI about death of CIA officer: Captives said Spann may have sparked riot that killed him San Francisco Chronicle 12/08/04 (original in the Los Angeles Times is behind the paid archive wall now). In that article, Serrano drew from reports on prisoners interrogated at Guantánamo who were among the al-Ansar foreign fighters imprisoned at the Qala-e-Gangi fortress during the prison uprising of 11/25/01-12/01/01. Basing his story on those interviews, Serrano wrote:

A group of captives from Afghanistan has told FBI agents that CIA Officer Johnny "Mike" Spann became the first American to die in a clash in Afghanistan after he shot to death a prisoner who was attempting to attack him, possibly sparking the prison riot that claimed his life. ...

The newly public FBI reports, released Tuesday along with several hundred pages of other documents obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union in a lawsuit against the federal government seeking information on the treatment of detainees, do not indicate whether the accounts of the detainees were considered believable by U.S. officials. Four prisoners now being held at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, were interviewed by the FBI. Their accounts describe Spann as wearing blue jeans, with an AK-47 rifle slung over his back and a pistol on his hip, trying to interview Taliban captives - including Lindh - when he was attacked by a prisoner and shot him.

Spann, one captive told the FBI, "was jumped by an Arab or Pakistani male, but the armed man (Spann) shot the prisoner. People began running, and chaos ensued."

The idea that the CIA men set off the riot/uprising by their questioning was a common speculation in early reporting on the event.

After seeing my post of 12/08/04, Mike Spann's father Johnny Spann contacted me and generously provided me faxed copies of the FBI reports on the interviews referenced in the Serrano article.  I also interviewed him by telephone.  Here, I'm going to discuss those reports in some detail.

Serrano in his article mentions some appropriate cautions about the documents as sources in the passage quoted above and also here: "The FBI interviews with the detainees were conducted months later, after the prisoners were flown to Guantanamo Bay".

In addition, we don't have the names of the prisoners, which are blocked out in the documents released publicly.  No details are provided about the exact dates of the interviews or the names of the FBI agents preparing to reports. The dates on the interview summaries I have are all from december 2003. So presumably they were conducted no later than that time.

The reports are in English; not even the languages in which the interviews were conducted are specified. They are not verbatim translations of the interrogations, but rather written as 3rd-party reports. And there are significant reductions of the content of each report released.

And, of course, as historical documents, any interrogation results obtained at Guantánomo may be tainted by the practice of torture there. There is no indication of what the conditions were in which the interviews were conducted. And no information on whether the prisoners involved were tortured during their confinement.

However, there is a considerable amount of independent evidence against which some of the facts they describe can be checked. I could not identify any obvious signs of confabulation. And we can also look at Serrano's use of the documents themselves, independent of the cautions on their content which must be taken into account.

The documents I received are labeled in handwriting with letters and numbers. I will use those as identifiers here since no names are provided.

Prisoner G-164 describes how the prisoners were put into "the basement of one of the buildings," after which there was "a grenade explosion in the basement". He saw "3 dead Uzbek" being carried out. This would have been on November 24.

He describes the scene on the following  day when "two American looking males" were interviewing prisoners in the open. One of them he  describes a "having a fair complexion, wearing jeans and carrying a pistol on his right side".  This man in jeans "spoke [redacted] well and was talking to some of the prisoners".  According to Johnny Spann, Mike spoke no  foreign languages, so by G-164's account, the man in jeans would have had to be Dave Tyson.  G-164 describes the other American as having "a small automatic weapon slung over his shoulder".

G-164 said that :

While in the courtyard, there was an explosion which [redacted] believes was from a grenade. The American male wearing jeans then ran away from the lines of prisoners. One of the prisoners ran after him. The American turned and fired his pistol shooting the prisoner in the head. The guards above began firing into the courtyard. The American ran in the direction of the building where [redacted] had been held in the basement. [redacted] saw several prisoners run after the American, an [sic] ramming him with their bodies [redacted] was shot [redacted] and did not see what happened to the American

Prisoner G-169's report is long but also heavily redacted. His account of the events in the courtyard on November 24 is as follows:

[redacted] explained the next morning (the day after the arrival at Mazar-e-Shanf) the prisoners were being led out of  the basement by ethnicity  [redacted] advised that he thought the Arabs were led out first then the Pakistanis  [redacted] indicated the Uzbeks were the last group to come out [sic] the basement   When [redacted] was led out of the basement, he estimated that there were approximately 100-150 Uzbeks still in the basement. [redacted] recalled that when he came out of the basement, some of the soldiers looked amazed by the number of prisoners that remained in the basement.  [redacted] was led out of the basement and placed on his knees in the field (courtyard) approximately 25-30 meters away from  the entrance/exit to the basement of the prison  [redacted]  explained  the explosion in the basement  occurred approximately 15-20 minutes after he was brought out to the field ...

In the courtyard,[redacted] explained that he noticed a tall, fair (light) complexioned male standing int he center of the courtyard, in front of the prisoners [redacted] stated this individual had an assault rifle with a strap hanging over his shoulder  [redacted]  further described this individual as wearing blue jeans, a short dark colored jacket, 28-30 years of age, no facial hair, and short hair  [redacted] stated he did not hear this individual speak  [redacted] stated that he  noticed another individual talking to the Uzbeks.  The Uzbeks were telling this individual  they were "Tartars" and that they would tell him anything he wanted to know  [redacted] described this individual as follows.  tall, muscular build, jeans, short jacket, pistol on his hip, no rifle, and this individual spoke fluent [redacted]  When [redacted] was shown the CNN video of the prison uprising at Mazar-e-Sharif, he could not identify the individual identified as [redacted] but he indicated that the person identified in the video as Mike "Johnny" Spann looked similar to the guy he described as holding the assault rife. [redacted] could not say for certain if it was the same person he described. In the video, Spann was shown holding an assault type rifle across his shoulder  [redacted] advised that he thought these two individuals were Russians  [redacted] did not know these two individuals were Americans until he arrived at Camp Delta, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba

When the explosion in the basement occurred, [redacted] stated people on the roof started shooting into the field. [redacted] stated that two Tajiks seated beside him were shot  [redacted] explained that the individual that was speaking [redacted] was jumped by an Arab or Pakistani male, but the armed man shot the prisoner. People began running and chaos ensured. [redacted] indicated that he noticed the other individual (the man with the rifle across this shoulder) running towards the building (prison) through some of the prisoners  [redacted] claimed that some of the prisoners jumped toward the man and others tripped the man when he was running. [redacted] stated that he [redacted] was shot, while seated on the ground, and susequently lost consciousness. Upon gaining consciousness, [redacted] indicated that he crawled towards the basement and noticed the man that had the assault rife, lying on the ground near the entrance of the basement, tangled with a prisoner as if they had been fighting  [redacted] assumed the man was dead

Most of the document for prisoner G-172 is redacted. He describes being taken out of the basement to "the field" (courtyard).  The summary says:

He then heard an explosion and gunfire. During the fighting, he stated that he was shot  He indicated that he was able to push himself back to the building and seek shelter in the basement.  After several days in the basement everyone surrendered and they were then taken, in large metal containers, to Shebergan by Dostum's Forces  Just prior to the Kala Jangi prison uprising, [redacted] indicated that he did observe Dostum's Forces shooting injured men who were still alive.  He stated that he did not observe anyone get shot while at [redacted]  He was then taken to Kandahar via airplane and then to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

The entire unredacted part of the report on the interrogation of prisoner G-174 is:

On [redacted] was interviewed at Camp Delta, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba [redacted] provided the following information [redacted]

He surrendered to Dostrum's soldiers and was later placed in prison.  He was there for the prison up rising and witnessed Dostoms soldiers kill other men.  He was shot during this moment

Prisoner G-175 described the situation at Qala-e-Gangi as follows:

[redacted] stated he saw two Americans at Mazar-e-Sharif.  [redacted] stated one of the Americans wore a black jean outfit, had dark hair, and appeared to be in his 30's.  [redacted] stated he did not remember what armament the Americans were equipped with

[redacted] stated he knew they were Americans because they spoke English.  [redacted] stated he could not describe the other American, but that both were wearing dark clothing

[redacted] stated the first group that was led out of the basement a Mazar-e-Sharif was the Pakistanis, then the Arabs, and that the last group was the Uzbeks

[redacted] stated he was brought out and sat down on his knees [redacted] stated he was outside about 15 or 20 minutes when he heard a grenade go off behind him, near the basement entrance  [redacted] stated he heard some people panic and some people  scream.  [redacted] did not see anything, and just sat there because he did not feel like he was in danger.  Approximately two minutes after the grenade went off he heard some shooting, and saw men shooting from the wall.  Some people behind him began to shoot the prisoners.  [redacted] state he did not turn around or look left or right because he did not think that he could because it was dangerous

[redacted] stated he was placed approximately 100 meters from the basement.  [redacted] stated there were about 100 Uzbeks, some to his left and right  He did not know the nationality of the prisoners in front of the Uzbeks.

[redacted] stated he was shot [redacted] stated he laid out in the field and crawled for three or four hours to the basement, because it was hte closest place  [redacted] stated that people were shooting into the stronghold, and there were no other buildings for cover  [redacted] stated he crawled to the stairs of the basement, and was then carried away.  [redacted] stated there were lots of wounded men, and he heard lots of voices but did not understand the language.

Curiously, prisoner G-201 clearly describes two Americans among the prisoners.  So far as I'm aware, no other American among the Al Ansar group has ever been identified.  His document provides little detail on the start of the prison uprising. But it does say:

[redacted] stated that he did remember 2 American soldiers that spoke to him asking him if he spoke English  [redacted] advised that [redacted] told them that only the people that spoke [redacted] would be let out, so nobody admitted to speaking English (or any other languages).  The taller of the two Americans was over six foot [sic] tall, "older" with lite colored hair, wearing civilian clothes.  [redacted] observed this American speaking with [redacted]  The other American was less than 6 feet tall and carried an AK-47 machine gun  During the prison riot, [redacted] observed the Americans returning fire at the Uzbek soldiers ...

[redacted] advised that he was extremely scared during the prison riot and was wounded (shot in [redacted]


This post is one in a series on the lessons of the Afghan War.  The posts are indexed in this post of 02/20/06.

As I mentioned in a previous post, the prison uprising at Qala-e-Gangi near the city of Mazar-e-Sharif in northern Afghanistan was the first incident in the Afghan War that made me wonder whether the US approach being taken there might have some serious problems. (Thre are a number of alternative English spellings: Qala Janghi, Qala Jangi, Qala-e Janghi, Qala-e-Jangi, Qalai Jhanqi; it means "House of War".)

One aspect of that incident on which I want to focus in particular is the death of Mike Spann, the CIA agent who became the first American death in the Afghan War.  I have mentioned the prison uprising before here at Old Hickory's Weblog, as in posts of 06/13/04 and 12/08/04.  It has come to my attention that one aspect of the incident has been widely reported in a misleading way.  And my previous posts reflected that erroneous reporting.

That aspect is reflecting in this article and its title, which I'll be discussing more specifically in later posts: Afghan prisoners told FBI about death of CIA officer: Captives said Spann may have sparked riot that killed him by San Francisco Chronicle 12/08/04 (original in the Los Angeles Times is behing the paid archive wall now).

The incident at Qala-e Gangi bagan in late November 2001.  Uzbek Gen. Dostum's forces, part of the US-backed Northern Alliance, had surrounded a group of around 5,000 pro-Taliban fighters in the city of Konduz.  The group included both Afghans and foreigners, including Pakistanis and, as we now know, the "American Taliban" John Walker Lindh.

The exact nature of Lindh's affiliations are hard to describe.  He was fighting on behalf of the Taliban, but he was not part of the the Taliban army per se. Lindh first received military training for jihad at a camp run by the Pakistan-backed Harkat ul Mujaheddin group, described  by Mark Kukis in "My Heart Became Attached" (2003) as "one of the most violent jihadi groups". Harkat ul Mujaheddin had become notorious for the kidnapping and beheading of a Norwegian hiker in Kashmir in themid-1990s.

When he travelled from Pakistan to Afghanistan, Lindh was sent to an Afghan training camp in June 2001. It was here that his training group was addressed several times by Osama bin Laden. When he was finally deployed to fight as a jihadist in late summer 2001, just prior to the 9/11 attacks, he was part of a group of foreign fighters known as al-Ansar, i.e., "the helpers", who fought under Taliban command.

Dostum's forces were openly threatening to kill all the foreign fighters even after they surrendered.  But surrender negotiations extracted a promise from Dostum that even the al-Ansar prisoners' lives would be spared.

When they surrendered, the Taliban and foreign fighters were taken to the Qala-e-Gangi fort, where they were to be held.  The fort was not set up to hold prisoners, and there were stores of weapons and ammunition in the fort.

Destum's reputation for brutality was well known to the US military.  According to an anonymous Green Beret sargeant quoted by Richard Mahoney in Getting Away with Murder (2004), the Green Beret (Special Forces) TIGER 01 A-team with which Mike Spann had linked up in late October were given the following guidance, which explicitly addressed the need to avoid collaboration with any war crimes committed by Dostum's forces.  Presumably, Mahoney is quoting the sargeant's own interpretation of the order rather than the exact text of the order (which I'm going to assume won't violate AOL's terms of services to quote):

Find and support Dostum, stay with him and help. Go with him wherever he goes - if he wants to take over Kabul, go. If he wants to take over the whole f***ing country, that's fine too. If he starts mass executions on the way, call HQ and advise, maybe exfil [leave the country] if you can't rein him in. (my emphasis)

In the middle of November, Spann was assigned with fellow CIA officer Dave Tyson to interrogate prisoners in the Mazar-e-Sharif area.

On Saturday, November 25, 2001,Spann and Tyson were in the Qala-e-Gangi fortress interrogating prisoners.  One of them was Lindh, although they did not persuade him to reveal his identity at that point during their brief interview.

While the two CIA men were interrogating prisoners in an open courtyard, a prisoner revolt broke out. Spann was killed within the first few minutes.  Tyson, along with two doctors and a Northern Alliance officer who were with them, escaped to safety.

It took Dostum's forces, amply assisted by US and British support and firepower, a week to put down the uprising and for the final holdouts to surrenders, which occurred on the following Saturday, December 1.  The incident received extensive coverage, because a number of Western journalists were present at Qala-e-Gangi, and because a videotape had been made of Spann's and Tyson's interrogations, a tape that included the opening moments of the uprising.  And also because one of the surviving prisoners was the American John Walker Lindh.

What I found striking at the time was that prior to the surrender at Konduz, Dostun's forces had threatened to murder all the foreign fighters.  And, in fact, most of the foreign fighters were killed within days of their surrender, killed off in the suppression of the revolt with the active help of British and American forces.  Had the mannerof making war that Rumsfeld's Pentagon adopted in Afghanistan allowed the US to be jacked around by Afghan warlords?

The question is by no means purely historical or "academic".  The recently-published 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) indicates that the changes being planned to increase the military's counterinsurgency capabilities assume that something like the Afghan approach is anticipated for the future.  That approach was central to Rumsfeld's version of "defense transformation", and also to the unbounded faith of the "neoconservatives" in the ability of US military force to be the decisive element of diplomacy all over the world.

So its strengths and weaknesses are important to understand realistically.