Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Iraq snapshot

Tuesday, January 27, 2009.  Chaos and violence continue, Robert Gates acts like a fool before Congress, four days until Iraq's provincial elections, Barack Obama makes clear he's running the most secretive and non-press friendly White House (there's a new Bully Boy in town), and more. 
"It does require careful balancing," US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates stated agreeing with Senator John McCain on an issue (transitioning some troops from Iraq to Afghanistan) in this morning's Senate Armed Services Committee encounter.  "Encounter" because don't call that garbage a hearing.  The United States is officially involved in two wars.  It is not a joke, it is not a laughing matter.   When Senator Saxby Chambill made a fool of himself talking about how 'hard' football is, the comfort factor was the idiot was a Republican.  So you could grimace as the A&M jokes flew and Robert Gates declared it was "probaly a lot less stress here" in DC, as the Defense Secretary than as a football coach.  And Chambliss laughed, "Your Aggies were wearing you out pretty good."
No, it's not funny.  It's shameful and it's embarrassing.  4 US soldiers died in Iraq yesterday.  If Gates wants to engage in jokes about how easy he has it now, then he's obviously not doing his job.  There was no sense of perspective, there was no sense of honor.  It was embarrassing, it was shameful.  Again, Dems could take comfort in the fact that Chambliss and Gates -- two Republicans -- were making idiots out of themselves, looking like beyond-middle age men trying to make like frat boys.  But then Democrat Kay Hagan decided she wanted a piece of that too.  So the shame was bi-partisan.
Gates would later attempt to turn somber and declare, "I think this is the longest war we've fought since the Reovlutionary War with an all volunteer force."  That just goes to the issue that he's not stressed enough because he's not doing his damn job.  Which war, Gates?  Afghanistan or Iraq?  When you're the Secretary of Defense, you shouldn't need prompting to know the country's involved in two wars.  He did know that the 16-month 'withdrawal' (combat troops only) was only one of several plans being looked at (but the May 2010 'plan' is the shortest).
He came off like a real idiot.  The Ace bandage on his left arm didn't add to that image alone (though this is what, his twentieth injury in office?).  It did allow the chair Carl Levin to joke (apparently fearing that there weren't enough jokes in the nearly three hour hearing), "I know you're struggling with the arm wrestling you undertook."  But while the bandage alone would have, at worst, caused raised eyebrows, the fact that he decided to go through the hearing with his jacket half on and half off helped seal the impression of Gates as a real idiot.  You wear the jacket or you don't.  It was as though we were watching FlashDefense starring Robert Gates as Alex Owens -- Defense Director by day, exotic dancer by night.  What a feeling!
His prepared statement at least allowed him a few minutes of being serious.  However, it was rather frightening: "As our military presence [in Iraq] decreases over time, we should still expect to be involved in Iraq on some level for many years to come -- assuming a soveriegn Iraq continues to seek our partnership.  The stability of Iraq remains criticial to the future of the Middle East, a region that multiple presidents of both political parties have considered vital to the national security of the United States."  In his prepared remarks he stated, "The goal for the Army is two years off for every year of deployment."  He said nothing about the marines.  In his prepared remarks, he jolly noted that the "24-month lifetime limit on deployment" for the National Guard and Reserve has been eliminated.  He also stated of them, "The goal is five years of dwell time for one year deployed.  We have made progress towards this goal but are not there yet."  The laughter you hear is coming from across the nation since, no, Gates is "not there yet" and, in fact, is no where near "there yet." In comments to questions (it's hard to call them "replies), Gates would declare that in 2009, a year deployed will be followed by 15 months at home and, in 2010, it should be a year deployed means 2 years at home.
April 1, 2008, the US House Committee on Veterans' Affairs Subcommittee on Health heard testimony from  US Army Director, Divisions of Psychiatry and Neuroscience, Walter Reed Army Institute of Research's Col Charles W. Hoge who declared, "One of the issues with multiple deployments and the dwell time for soldiers when they've come back, we've learned from the research that we've done, [is] that 12 months is not enough time for soldiers to reset and go back for another deployment."  US House Rep Shelley Berkley followed up, "Not enough time between tours of duty, did I hear you correctly?"  Hoge paused frequnetly in his reply, "Yes . . . What we've found . . . Yes.  That's what I said . . . The 12 months is insuf- . . . appears to be insufficient."  As Berkely noted, not only was that the not the policy but some were "being called back in less than 12 months" leading Hoge to pathetically reply, "I don't know." (It's his job to know and if Hoge doesn't know his job, hint to Gates, that's something you might want to stress over.) As noted in the January 21st snapshot, the British troops already have 24 months (2 years) between deployments and there is apush to go to longer than that.  BBC reported this month that Gen Richard Dannatt is pushing for 30 months between deployments.  And that's with six months of deployment -- six months deployed, thirty months home.  Gates isn't stressing because he's not doing his damn job. 
Instead of making jokes, he should have been pressed to explain why he's still not up to what the military's own medical experts say are needed?  He should have been pressed on why US service members do not get the reset time the British military does?  This is insane.  The man is not stepping into the job, he's had the job.  Since December of 2006.  It's past time he had some answers to supply. 
"Tough morning in the Senate?" asked US House Rep John McHugh early in the House Armed Services Committee.  The Ranking Member of the Minority was refering to the cast (he said sling -- Gates sometimes wears a sling with the bandage, he wasn't wearing a sling at that time).  Not much time to reply because before any questions could be asked, it was time to rush to the floor for a vote and the hearing was placed on hold for over forty minutes.  When they returned US House Rep Mac Thornberry attempted to seize the role of House clown and did it so well he was awarded House fool.  It's very rare that you manage to top Fox 'News," but Thornberry did so with a highly inventive incident ("before you were secretary") of a grand conspiracy involving al Qaeda, trick photography, wire services and, presumably, former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld (that would be the secretary before Gates).  "Stuff happens," no doubt, was secretive al Qaeda code.  Thank you, Thornberry for demonstrating that "The Fool On The Hill" isn't just a Beatles song.
Thornberry's turn at House fool appeared to take the pressure off everyone and the House members -- on both sides -- largely stuck to specific issues and not stand up.  (For example, US House Rep Gene Taylor wanted specific information about the number of ships and, as with most specific questions, Gates had no answer.)  There was little on Iraq and even less that Gates had answers to.  We'll cover another section later in the snapshot.  For now, we'll just note that the House committe, chaired by Ike Skelton, was more focused and far more serious than was the Senate. 
Two senators want answer from Robert Gates.  They do not serve on the Senate Armed Services Committee.  It's a real shame that none of the Democrats on the committee could be bothered to ask a question on behalf of Senators Bob Casey and Byron Dorgan.  From the January 23rd snapshot:
Meanwhile KBR and its former parent Halliburton collect bad press like treasured coins.  Peter Spiegel (Los Angeles Times) reports the latest scandal from those who sought to make a buck cheaply off an illegal war: "An Army criminal investigator told the family of a Green Beret who was electrocuted while taking a shower at his base in Baghdad that the soldier's death was a case of "negligent homicide" by military contractor KBR and two of its supervisors.  The report last month to the family of Staff Sgt. Ryan Maseth said Houston-based KBR failed to make certain that qualified electricians and plumbers were working on the barracks where Maseth was killed a year ago, according to a U.S. government official who has seen the correspondence."  James Risen (New York Times) notes the response from the Vultures, Heather Browne (publicity hack) declares, "KBR's investigation has produced no evidence that KBR was responsible for Sergeant Maseth's death."  You get the feeling teachers knew not to leave the classrooms when KRB execs were taking tests? 
Today Rick Maz (Army Times) reports Casey and Dorgan want answers regarding the deaths by electrocution and "are demanding a face-to-face meeting with Defense Secretary Robert Gates to discuss the prolonged investigation and why no one has been sanctioned or punished." Today the Fayetteville Observer editorializes on the issue and notes,  "That the case exists at all is a tribue to Maseth's mother, Cheryl Harris.  Harris testified before Congress last year, and has pushed for full accountability.  War is big business.  Haliburton and its subsidiaries have made a killing in Iraq.  It must have been terrifying for Harris to go toe to toe with the big boys.  But she hasn't shied away one bit.  Sen. Bob Casey, a Pennsylvania Democrat, has credited her with the legwork behind the Army's investigation.  Casey said it's important that the contractors are held fully accountable, but it's equally important that the Pentagon be held accountable, as well. It's hard enough to send our sons and daughters, mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers off to war without having to wonder whether or not they are going to be at risk inside their own barracks."  Because of KBR's 'work' some people died (at least 18) and some were left badly injured.  Scott Huddleston (San Antonio Express) reports on Justin Shutts who "just wanted to take a shower" after the end of his patrol and was electrocuted instead so that he now "has a weakend left hand and can't run without pain because of the burns to his groin. . . .  Shults, who wears compression garments over some of the third-degree burns covering 13 percent of his body, said he received his war scars Oct. 17 in a shower trailer installed by KBR that sent a 220-volt surge through his body."  Huddleston quotes Shults making a comment similar to the editorial's conclusion, "We have so many things to think about over there.  You shouldn't have to worry about going into a shower and getting injured."
Provincial elections are scheduled for fourteen of Iraq's eighteen provinces Saturday, Janurary 31st.  Alissa J. Rubin (New York Times) files another in-depth report and focuses on Diyala Province.  Saja Khadori, from Nouri al-Maliki's ticket, sees al Qaeda in Iraq everywhere (possibly even hiding under her bed with the other bogeymen).  Another candidate, Sheik Abdul Rahman Jassam al-Mujalmi, tells Rubin, "I call on the new American president to think about withdrawal of forces seriously, because maybe there will be a day when we will witness a revolution against their forces and there will be battles in the streets. So I advise him to withdraw his soldiers. . . .  I doubt that they will withdraw. They said they would offer democracy and freedom, but where is democracy, where is freedom? And they said they would build, but what have they built? They have brought only destruction. When an American tank passes me I feel it is driving over my heart."  The Washington Post notes (in an editorial):
The campaign for positions in 14 provinces so far has been a major improvement over the previous Iraqi elections -- not to mention the rigged or tightly limited ballots staged by most other Arab countries. Some 14,400 candidates are competing for 440 seats; in contrast to the last provincial vote, in January 2005, candidates are identified by name rather than being presented anonymously on a party slate. Thousands are openly competing in Iraqi cities and towns once paralyzed by violence or controlled by al-Qaeda. Blast walls have been papered with posters, and much of the debate is focused on improving government services. Violence, which spiked four years ago, so far has been a minor factor: Two candidates have been reported killed, and U.S. and Iraqi casualties this month are among the lowest since the war began.
 AP's Yahya Barzanj notes 63,000 of the 2.8 million internal refugees have completed the paperwork to vote this week with some very eager to vote. Not all of the internally displaced share that feeling and Ali Hashim explains he will not be voting, points to a campaign poster which reads "Vote for a better future for your kids" and Hashim asks, "What future? My child was born in the tent." Xinhau reports, "Iraq will shut borders, close airports and impose night-time vehicle ban during the provincial polls on Saturday when people go to choose members of their provincial councils, an electoral security source said Tuesday." At the polls, Missy Ryan (Reuters) explains, "Voters' identities will be double-checked and special stamps will mark the back of ballots to further deter fraud." Joe Sterling (CNN) notes that, "There has not been a recent census in Iraq, but Shiites are thought to make up about 60 percent of the population and Sunni Arabs between 15 and 20 percent." Monte Morin (Los Angeles Times) reports that Nouri al-Malik (of all people) has warned that no one should "corrupt the elections by buying votes." Meanwhile Fadhil al-Badrani (Reuters) reports an Al Anbar Province polling station has been attacked by assailants who "set fire to" it.
Yesterday two US helicopters crashed and four US soldiers were killed.  "To the children of our resisting Iraqi nation, we bring you the joyous news of downing two helicopters belong to the American enemy with the Sadeed rockets," reads a leaflet the Army of the Men of the Naqshbandi Order has strewn throughout the region of the crash.  Sam Dagher (New York Times) breaks that story and explains the group also claims to have footage that they say will be posted online at some point. 
Turning to some of today's reported violence . . .
Reuters notes a Baghdad roadside bombing targeting the customs head, Police Maj Gen Ahmed al-Attiya, that left three of his guards injured.  Sahar Issa (McClatchy Newspapers) reports a Mosul car bombing which claimed the lives of 4 Iraqi soldiers ("including one officer") and left two more wounded.
Yesterday, Iraq's Foreign Minister, Hoshyar Zebari, was in Athens, where he met with Greece's Foreign Minister Dora Bakoyannis (see photo below from Hellenic Ministry of Foreign Affairs) and prepared for a day of talks on Tuesday to include meeting with the country's Prime Minister, Kostas Karamanlis as well as Dimitris Sioufas, the President of the country's Parliament. Renee Maltezou (Reuters) reports Greece has offered both "financial aid and expertise" to attempt to repair the damange done by the plundering of Iraqi antiquities at the start of the illegal war.  Athens News Agency explains, "The establishment of a Greek Economic and Commercial Affairs Office in Iraq was decided on Tuesday during a meeting in Athens between foreign minister Dora Bakoyannis and her Iraqi counterpart Hoshyar Zebari, as well as Greece's assistance in the protection of Iraq's cultural heritage and erecting a statue of Alexander the Great in Gaugamela."
Was the illegal war legal under international law?  The BBC reports that the Information Tribunal has decided that the cabinet meetings (Tony Blair's cabinet meetings) must be released.  Rosa Prince (Telegraph of London) adds, "Downing Street refused to reveal whether it would comply with the ruling by the Information Tribunal, which follows a long-running legal battle to keep details of the meetings secret."
Turning to the US where the president met with Republicans in Congress today to try to build support for his proposals.  Rick Klein and Jake Tapper (ABC News) quote someone (presumably a Republican senator) quoting Barack in that closed-to-the-press meet-up declaring, "I don't expect 100 percent agreement from my Republicans colleagues, but hope we can keep politics to a minimum."  If the quote is accurate, two things.  Barack is no longer in the Senate.  Other senators are no longer his colleagues.  Two, if you want to "keep politics to a minimum," get the hell out of DC and don't run for public office.  That's Barack, always eager to smear something or someone.  Politics is what keeps a democracy thriving.  Someone break the news to the idiot. Michael Dawson (Dissident Voice) writes up an incident many seemed to think I was ignoring.  Last week, Barack Obama wanted a little attention (yes, he was pouting over Hillary's rousing welcome at State) so he popped into the White House Press Room.  When the reporters attempted to do their job, Barack got huffy declaring he wouldn't be back "if I'm going to get grilled every time I come."  As Dawson notes, 'If the Press Room is going to ask President Obama questions, then he's not coming there.  Simple as that."  He's a petulant little bully and a secretive one as well.
We did not miss that last week, we were holding it to pair it with something.  The DC press corps is overworked for all outlets.  Not only have layoffs meant that journalists are having to do their jobs and others, they're also expected to do new content for the web as well.  There is not enough time.  This week a friend whom we all through would be the first of the press corps to have a problem with one of Barack's changes-no-one-should-believe-in had it.  Interview or press briefing.  Press briefings have transcriptions and usually video.  Do the interview. 
Oh, silly journalist.  That was in the secretive days of Bully Boy.  Under the EVEN MORE SECRETIVE BARACK, there is no video posted at the White House website nor is their any official transcript.  Yes, Barack Obama is MORE SECRETIVE than George W. Bush.  We all noticed those changes last week when a White House staffer was bragging about the changes to the website.  "But where's the folder for the press briefings?"  Huh?  He pointed out the "pool reports" folder (now striken).  I sat on that because we were told it must be an oversight and as soon as the first press briefing took place, it would be posted.  It's not been posted.  You have some insane "highlights."  So the White House holds the press briefing and their spokesperson is so INCOMPENTENT that they have to futher whittle down the spin offered?
That's BULLS**T YOU CAN BELIEVE IN.  And I almost mentioned this last week when Danny Schechter was making a silly fool out of himself raving over the White House website.  A reporter -- even a former reporter -- should damn well notice first thing that the press briefings are gone.  Damn well should notice.  So what happens now?  The way DC reporters are talking, don't be surprised if the number of reporters showing up for those dwindles.  (By contrast, the State Department continues to feature their press briefings. Maybe because Hillary Clinton's a grown up and not some scared little baby running from the public record.)  And along with reporters pissed off, the White House has gotten thirty complaints from citizens on this already this week.  There is no transparency in the Barack Obama administration.  At the start of the month, Carol Marin (Chicago Sun-Times) warned but not many were listening, "The press corps, most of us, don't even bother raising our hands any more to ask questions because Obama always has before him a list of correspondents who've been advised they will be called upon that day."
Barack's wrongly been praised for closing Guantanamo (still open) and ending torture.  The first subject came up in Congress today -- multiple times.  In the afternoon, Robert Gates said the one-year-deadline was important for closing Guantanamo because "without it we'd just keep kicking that can down the road."  Kicking the can down the road is what Barack did.  Committee Chair Ike Skelton attempted to simplify things for Gates by saying he'd break it down into five categories and Gates could correct him or let him know if that was correct.  The first category was "those that we're willing to turn loose now."  Gates initially agreed with all the listings but came back later in the hearing saying he needed to clarify that "They would not be people who would be turned loose" but instead would be monitored and/or imprisoned by their own governments.  So there's no one being turned loose.  Pay attention to that Vinnie Warren before you make an idiot of yourself in public again.  "Two, three and four, those categories in which they might be tried in a court-martial, federal court . . . or a commission like the one now in existance," offered Skelton and Gates agreed immediately and didn't come back to correct that later.  Skelton: "The fifth category -- the ones you know full well will go back and fight Americans and our coalition partners and what can you do with them? . . . Am I correct in categorizing those five?"  "I think," Gates responded, "that's correct, Mr. Chairman."
Vinnie Warren, speak for the Center for Constitutional Rights again and tell us all about how thrilled we're supposed to be with what Barack's allegedly done because -- reality check, he's not done a damn thing.
While around the world, Obama's measures were interpreted as completely reversing the Bush administration policies of torture, extraordinary rendition and secret prisons -- starting with the declaration of the complete closure of Guantanamo Bay -- deeper inspection of the details of his Executive Orders suggests, unfortunately, that cries of joy are slightly premature.   

First, it should be understood that regardless of what elected US governments have said or left unsaid about the practice of torture by military intelligence services, torture is, and always has been, endemic and officially sanctioned at the highest levels. Declassified
CIA training manuals from the 1960s, 70s, 80s, and 90s, prove that the CIA has consistently practiced torture long before the Bush administration attempted to legitimize the practice publicly. This means that what made the Bush era distinctive was not the systematic practice of torture by US military intelligence agencies, but rather the US government's open and widely known endorsement of such practices, and insistence either on their obvious legality, or otherwise of the irrelevance of law in the context of fighting terrorism. 

This means that Obama's public disavowals of torture do not actually represent the end of the systemic practice of the CIA's traditional interrogation techniques, conducted without public scrutiny for decades. Rather, they portend a sheepish return to secrecy -- or in other words, a return to the
obvious recognition that open declarations of covert US practices such as torture as official policy are detrimental, not conducive, to US hegemony. 

Closer scrutiny of President Obama's first Executive Orders reveals that they were designed less to transform illegal US military intelligence practices, than to allow them to continue in secret without legal obstruction, by
redefining their character (while retaining their substance):

Allan Nairn (Dissident Voice) also notes that the spin isn't reality:
When President Obama declared flatly this week that "the United States will not torture" many people wrongly believed that he'd shut the practice down, when in fact he'd merely repositioned it.
Obama's Executive Order bans some -- not all -- US officials from torturing but it does not ban any of them, himself included, from sponsoring torture overseas.
Indeed, his policy change affects only a slight percentage of US-culpable tortures and could be completely consistent with an increase in US-backed torture worldwide. 
The catch lies in the fact that since Vietnam, when US forces often tortured directly, the US has mainly seen its torture done for it by proxy -- paying, arming, training and guiding foreigners doing it, but usually being careful to keep Americans at least one discreet step removed. 
That is, the US tended to do it that way until Bush and Cheney changed protocol, and had many Americans laying on hands, and sometimes taking digital photos.
The result was a public relations fiasco that enraged the US establishment since by exposing US techniques to the world it diminished US power.  
Mike address late to the party Nairn here.  And we'll close with this from ETAN:
January 26, 2009 - The East Timor and Indonesia Action Network (ETAN) today called on Timor-Leste's (East Timor) prosecutor-general to drop criminal defamation charges against the local weekly Tempo Semanal and its editor, Jose Belo.

"Tempo Semanal and Jose Belo should not have to face charges under this obsolete and repressive law," said John M. Miller, National Coordinator of ETAN. "We urge the prosecutor-general to immediately drop any charges."

In October 2008, Tempo Semanal published an article alleging that Timor-Leste's Justice Minister Lucia Lobato had improperly awarded government contracts to friends and business contacts. The report cited leaked mobile phone text messages. Lobato filed the defamation charges in November, accusing the paper of breaching her privacy and violating the ethical code of journalists.

Belo argues that his publication wrote only about Lobato's performance in her role as a public official, not her private activities. "

"Information about government activities should not be subject to defamation laws. Rather than attack the messenger, Timor-Leste's leadership should support freedom of expression and encourage a dynamic, investigative media," said Miller.


The government of Timor-Leste has proposed decriminalizing defamation under a new penal code. Although drafted several years ago, it has not yet been enacted.Timor-Leste's criminal defamation statutes are a leftover from Indonesia's criminal code. Journalists and activists in Indonesia are still charged with criminal defamation, although the 1999 Press Law created a body to adjudicate disputes involving the press.

Tempo Semanal was told by the Office of the Prosecutor-General that they would not be given copies of relevant documents because they are confidential.
In an interview with ABC Radio Australia, Jose Belo, Tempo Semanal's founder, said "we don't have any money or any resources. So we can't fight a person who has influence [and] who has money. So I presume it is very, very difficult to win this case in the court."

If convicted, Belo could face fines or prison. During Indonesia's brutal, illegal 24-year occupation of Timor-Leste, Belo was imprisoned or arbitrarily detained many times for passing information about human rights violations to foreign journalists and human rights groups, for a total of about three years. It is ironic that in democratic, independent Timor-Leste he could face double that time for exposing government corruption.

The Office of the Prosecutor General, Longuinhos Monteiro, has reportedly told Belo that the truth of what he published in his newspaper is not relevant to the charges against him and will not be admissible in court. This contradicts legal precedent set in April 2006, when the same prosecutor, charged Yayasan HAK (a human rights NGO) with defamation. accusing him of abuse of power by interfering with the justice process in a case where HAK served as the defense attorney. In that case, a judge ruled that the defamation charges could not be adjudicated until the original case was resolved. That case was brought to trial. Under that precedent, the allegations of corruption against the Minister of Justice should be tried before the defamation case, but the prosecutor has not begun a legal case against her.

ETAN advocates for democracy, justice and human rights for East Timor and Indonesia. For more information, see [ETAN

In April 2006, ETAN urged then-President Xanana Gusmao to veto the criminal defamation provisions of the proposed penal code.
Elaine and Kat noted that for Ty last night.