Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

The Original Ending Was Just Too Downbeat

Who's your target audience?

Tone is just so important.

One of the most brilliant internet creations I've come across in a while is the following fake trailer, which sells Stanley Kubrick's The Shining as a quirky family comedy-drama. Cringe, marvel, and cringe again - because as with Network, don't think the powers-that-be in Hollywood haven't thought of it.

(One of the music cues comes from Thomas Newman's score from The Shawshank Redemption, often cribbed for use in trailers… the ending narration and music is based on the Around the Bend trailer... but the chirpy opening is fantastic as well.)

Monday, November 28, 2005

Who Voted for Torture?

Congratulations yet again to John McCain and the vast majority of Republicans in the Senate who voted against torture (every Democrat did). If you're like me, you wondered, who were the nine senators for voted according to Cheney's wishes to allow torture? Here's the list... all Republican, and some heavy hitters.

The bill is of course not out of the woods yet, with the Pentagon, the House, and Cheney all making new moves... all of which really deserves greater scrutiny than this meager and belated post. However, when politicians do the right thing, we need to applaud them, to encourage them to do it again. So bravo. Keep it up, Senate... you give us hope. Maybe next you'll repeal those tax cuts to the rich versus cutting aid to the poor.

Return of the Denver Three

Now the ACLU has rode in on their white horses to represent two of the three! (No word on what the deal is on the third.) The Rocky Mountain News has the latest update here.

I still feel any legal action could easily been avoided if Michael Casper, the man now identified as ejecting the Denver Three, had simply acted like an adult and apologized. Or, alternatively, someone else, such as the Denver police or the FBI, who both knew Casper's identity but refused to reveal it, had persuaded him to act like an adult and apologize. Perhaps not; perhaps identifying himself through an apology would have just opened Casper to be sued. However, that's happening anyway now, and boy does he look bad. Had he apologized, the story would be out of the news long ago, and had he still been sued, public opinion might have been with him.

Casper's actions were silly and stupid, but they was also illegal. I personally don't think trampling anyone's civil rights is a good thing, nor does it comfort me to think that it doesn't seem to trouble the Denver police, nor the FBI. So a partisan guy gets overzealous and abuses his authority - in fact, invents an authority he does not possess. It's not the end of the world; let him apologize, let's return to civility, and move on. However, there can be no return to civility without civil rights. Casper has yet to acknowledge, pubicly or privately, that what he did was wrong. Consequently, instead of owing the Denver Three an apology, he may soon be owing them money as well.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005


The Los Angeles Times has presented the best, most in-depth tale yet of Curveball, the Iraqi defector who provided most of the false intelligence that justifed the push to war. In its own way, this article gives Stephen King a run for his money.

Many maddening elements emerge. One is the persistent, ridiculous and needless turf battles between groups that are supposed to be on the same side. On 9/11 it was policeman and firemen tragically not communicating; before 9/11 it was the FBI and CIA, among others, who did not share information; here, it was Germany's Federal Intelligence Service (the BND) preventing the American CIA any access to their prize informant, Curveball. The lack of access was exacerbated by mistranslations... LA Times journalists Bob Drogin and John Goetz report:

It got worse, like a children's game of "telephone," in which information gets increasingly distorted. The BND sent German summaries of their English and Arabic interview reports to Munich House and to British intelligence. The DIA team translated the German back to English and prepared its own summaries. Those went to DIA's directorate for human intelligence, at a high-rise office in Clarendon, Va.

Still, for any mistranslations that contributed to the false belief that Saddam Hussein had reconstituted his WMD programs, at several points the CIA was told that Curveball was not reliable at best, and a liar at worst. George Tenet claims he never received this information. However, as Director of Central Intelligence at the time, and considering Curveball's accounts played a crucial role in the public case for war, it is inconceivable Tenet did not know the intelligence was suspect.

Hanlon's Razor states that one should "never attribute to malice what can be adequately explained by stupidity." One could easily add in ignorance and incompetence. If DCI Tenet really did not know that Curveball was unreliable, then the CIA was even more poorly managed than previously reported.

Turf battles apparently occured within the CIA as well. Several sources in the article comment on the CIA's stubborn unwillingness to admit its own mistakes and learn from them. Apparently, those agents who questioned Curveball's veracity were punished for making waves. David Kay, who searched for WMD after the war, observes that the CIA is "very, very vindictive." While the article shows that there were (and no doubt still are) very capable, professional CIA agents, their efforts appear to have been stymied. Something in the culture or the management prevented the accurate view on Curveball to emerge, let alone dominate.

Psychologists have long known that typically, human beings tend to look for evidence to support their views, not for evidence to contradict them. This dynamic makes the thorough vetting of critical intelligence all the more crucial. Consider the following incident:

Soon after U.S. troops entered Baghdad, the discovery of two trucks loaded with lab equipment in northern Iraq brought cheers to the CIA weapons center.

Curveball examined photos relayed to Germany and said that while he hadn't worked on the two trucks, equipment in the pictures looked like components he had installed at Djerf al Nadaf.

Days later, the CIA and DIA rushed to publish a White Paper declaring the trucks part of Hussein's biological warfare program. The report dismissed Iraq's explanation that the equipment generated hydrogen as a "cover story." A day later, Bush told a Polish TV reporter: "We found the weapons of mass destruction."

But bio-weapons experts in the intelligence community were sharply critical. A former senior official of the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research called the unclassified report an unprecedented "rush to judgment."

The DIA then ordered a classified review of the evidence. One of 15 analysts held to the initial finding that the trucks were built for germ warfare. The sole believer was the CIA analyst who helped draft the original White Paper.

Hamish Killip, a former British army officer and biological weapons expert, flew to Baghdad in July 2003 as part of the Iraq Survey Group, the CIA-led Iraqi weapons hunt. He inspected the truck trailers and was immediately skeptical.

"The equipment was singularly inappropriate" for biological weapons, he said. "We were in hysterics over this. You'd have better luck putting a couple of dust bins on the back of the truck and brewing it in there."

The trucks were built to generate hydrogen, not germs, he said. But the CIA refused to back down. In March 2004, Killip quit, protesting that the CIA was covering up the truth.

Rod Barton, an Australian intelligence officer and another bio-weapons expert, also quit over what he said was the CIA's refusal to admit error. "Of course the trailers had nothing to do with Curveball," Barton wrote in a recent e-mail.

The Iraq Survey Group ultimately agreed. An "exhaustive investigation" showed the trailers could not "be part of any BW program," it reported in October 2004.

Why the intial rushed and erroneous assessment? Were the CIA and DIA too eager to please? Were they biased toward the idea that Iraq just must have WMD? Why is it that, with sober analysis, 14 of 15 analysts said the trucks couldn't have been used for WMD, but that the wrong view initially prevailed? The Bush administration must take a large share of the blame. Many people forget, as mentioned above, that Bush claimed weapons of mass destruction had in fact been found, and he repeated this claim several times. He later went on to deliberately substitute the argument that "Hussein had WMD" to "Hussein wanted WMD."

On Jan. 20, 2004, Bush lauded Kay and the Iraq Survey Group in his State of the Union Speech for finding "weapons of mass destruction-related program activities…. Had we failed to act, the dictator's weapons of mass destruction program would continue to this day."

I still find this deeply insulting. While some media outlets pointed out Bush's craven slight-of-hand, this sort of deceptive skullduggery requires loud trumpets. ("The President is trying to pull a fast one!") No one doubted Hussein wanted WMD. The question was whether he had them, and whether he could actually get them.

Other articles have explored how Bush's White House Iraq Group (WHIG), Feith's special plans group, and related parties "stovepiped" intelligence from the CIA, bypassing the normal (or perhaps not so normal) vetting process. The CIA author of the White Paper mentioned above, whose view was that Hussein had WMD, had his views elevated and hocked while more measured, professional and experienced views were ignored. What does it say that, consistently, the more knowledgeable intelligence experts were shunted aside while Bush excitedly crows publically, 'we found the WMD!'...? This is not good leadership, management, or empiricism. Later on, was Bush ever given the "fourteen out of fifteen" figure? I would love to know exactly when their assessment was known, because I believe Bush repeated that the WMD were found several times... Just as Cheney repeatedly claimed an Iraq-Al Qaedea link, Rice claimed huclear weapons, ans so on. This abuse of intelligence is what still needs to be investigated fully, and what Pat Roberts is still fighting to impede.

Paul O'Neill's greatest lament was that Bush lacked honest brokers, advisors who would tell him the truth even if unpleasant, and who were not pushing their own agenda. Granted, Cheney and Rumsfeld are forceful personalities, but ultimately, it's Bush who chose to value their views over others.

Normally, while politicians may lie to the public, behind closed doors on matters of genuine importance, they don't lie to each other... or at least, career civil servants don't. However, the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iraq was only generated at Congress' insistence, and was deeply flawed and misleading. However, not only Congress, but Colin Powell, a key figure in the Bush administration, appears to have been misled:

More problematic were the three sources the CIA said had corroborated Curveball's story. Two had ties to Chalabi. All three turned out to be frauds.

The most important, a former major in the Iraqi intelligence service, was deemed a liar by the CIA and DIA. In May 2002, a fabricator warning was posted in U.S. intelligence databases.

Powell said he was never warned, during three days of intense briefings at CIA headquarters before his U.N. speech, that he was using material that both the DIA and CIA had determined was false. "As you can imagine, I was not pleased," Powell said. "What really made me not pleased was they had put out a burn notice on this guy, and people who were even present at my briefings knew it."

But BND officials said their U.S. colleagues repeatedly assured them Curveball's story had been corroborated.

"They kept on telling us there were three or four sources," said the senior German intelligence official. "They said it many times."

Powell also claims he really pushed his CIA briefers on Curveball's veracity, but was constantly and consistently told the man was reliable. If Powell's account is accurate, someone in the room knew better and was either lying or gutless.

Whatever Powell is, he's no idiot. And if he was being so misled, as he claims, was Bush getting anything close to an accurate picture? Did he put a premium on demanding one?

When I studied World War I in college, one of the most striking elements was learning that so many countries wanted war. In Germany in particular, the votes to go to war were overwhelming. Not only did many countries possess a nationalistic fervor, war had previously been profitable to some in power, and no modern war had ever devastated the home front before. They simply had no idea what they were in for.

If only folks like Dick "they will greet us as liberators" Cheney has studied history, or reality, rather than their own neocon fantasies. As soon as Bush and his gang started speaking about the threat of Hussein, it was rather obvious he wanted to go to war. Of course the intelligence was cherry-picked. Of course the Bush administration had more information than Congress. Of course, as the Downing Street memo states, intelligence was "being fixed" around the need to go to war. At best the administration was incompetent, but at worse they were liars. Some of them are far too smart not to know they were being deceptive. While I'm sure some of them believed they were lying to achieve a greater good (the liberation of Iraq... and to their minds, the re-election of George Bush), they were still willfully deceptive. To finish:

Other warnings poured in. The CIA Berlin station chief wrote that the BND had "not been able to verify" Curveball's claims. The CIA doctor who met Curveball wrote to his supervisor shortly before Powell's speech questioning "the validity" of the Iraqi's information.

"Keep in mind that this war is going to happen regardless of what Curve Ball said or didn't say and the Powers That Be probably aren't terribly interested in whether Curve Ball knows what he's talking about," his supervisor wrote back, Senate investigators found. The supervisor later told them he was only voicing his opinion that war appeared inevitable.

(REVISED somewhat 12/15)

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Rumsfeld and Iraq

David von Drehle wrote a great account of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's approach to the current war in Iraq in Sunday's Washington Post, 11/13/05. He also hosted a chat on the article here. He provides valuable context for those of us who weren't alive or weren't following politics during the Nixon era, because many of the dynamics of the Bush administration spring from old ideas and clashes between Rumsfeld and Cheney on one side, and Powell on the other. (All of von Drehle's work coheres with George Packer's The Assassin's Gate (which I'm working on now) and the recent accusations of Wilkerson, Powell's former aide.) I've felt that Wolfowitz, not Rumsfeld, was the McNamara figure when it came to Iraq (right down to the World Bank!), the true believer unbound by realities. This article suggest that Rumsfeld, for all his strengths and faults, was not a true believer in the cause per se, but was and is a true believer in his own, that of reshaping the military for a post-Cold War era. While Rumsfeld is to be lauded for seriously looking into this, his seeming staggering imcompetence regarding Iraq overshadows everything. Since my first real acquaintance with Rumsfeld was with his handling of Iraq, I was a bit surprised to read in The Price of Loyalty that at one point Rumsfeld had been highly regarded as an intelligent and effective, if partisan, official. Much as some folks wonder what happened to Dick Cheney, so much more nakedly partisan and ideological than once he was, Rumsfeld (Cheney's onetime boss) seems to have transformed. Doubtless more could be explained by the Rumsfeld war-planning memo he is still not cleared to share. Or maybe, in these times that try men's souls, 9/11 and the Iraq war did not change the personalities of Cheney and Rumsfeld as much as reveal what had been inside all along.

Friday, November 11, 2005

11/11 Armistice Day 2005

In 1959, Pogo creator Walt Kelly wrote:

The eleventh day of the eleventh month has always seemed to me to be special. Even if the reason for it fell apart as the years went on, it was a symbol of something close to the high part of the heart. Perhaps a life that stretches through two or three wars takes its first war rather seriously, but I still think we should have kept the name "Armistice Day." Its implications were a little more profound, a little more hopeful.

Amen, brother.

Thanks to all who have served or are serving.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Election Day, Virginia

Many major news outlets have been covering the governor's race in Virgina between Kilgore and Kaine.

From the news stories I've seen and heard, it's seems that the appropriately named Kilgore's main contention against Kaine is that he won't follow through on his promise to kill people (enforcing the state's death penalty despite his own views on it). Kilgore's ads against Kaine on this issue attracted a fair amount of national news.

Is capital punishment really a bigger concern for Virgina voters than jobs, health care, or even concerns about terrorism and the war? I guess we'll see.

Maybe the religious Kaine just had enough after Abel.