Saturday, October 27, 2007

Ruth's Report

Ruth (of Ruth's Report): With Pacifica Radio in pledge drive mode, NPR's three-part series on wounded U.S. service members was something I was especially interested in. Guy Raz reported on the topic, first on Thursday's Morning Edition, second on Thursday's All Things Considered, and the wrap up on Friday's Morning Edition.

The series began promisingly enough with a look at the people who do the rescue and immediate evacuation. This was followed with a report on what then happens on an air force hospital at Balad Air Base. The 'ending' examined a hospital on a base in Germany. In their initial advance for the series, NPR noted that, "Nearly 30,000 U.S. troops have been injured in Iraq -- about half of them with permanent disabilities. In Iraq and Afghanistan, troops who are wounded in an attack have a 95 percent chance of surviving. It's the highest survival rate in the history of warfare." What started as a promising investigative examination ended up nothing but a travelogue.

The series was the equivalent of a child playing hop-scotch and listeners were never made aware of how serious the issue was -- as if the story of the wounded is nothing but a tale of moving along an assembly line. Nothing specific was ever reported on. Aaron Glantz has noted for some time that the signature wound of the Iraq War is head injuries. Even something that basic was not to be found in the multi-part series. I felt as though I was back in school watching a bad film explaining to me how sausage or some other product was being made. I discovered that it was a wonderful training ground for doctors and that new techniques are always discovered in wars, I just did not learn a thing about the wounded which was, after all, the alleged focus of the three-part series.

Those films they shown to U.S. students back in the fifties were usually produced by an interested party. For example, we would learn about the health benefits of milk in a film put out by the dairy industry. NPR's series seemed to be selling or schilling for the "product" of transportation but it never appeared to be a report on the wounded. The various initial stops along the way for the wounded is a story that could have been done in the first month of the illegal war. For a three-part series airing nearly five years after the Iraq War began, this was an embarrassment and there is no other way to evaluate it.

On the heels of The Washington Post's Dana Priest and Anne Hull's reporting on the scandals in veterans' health care here in the United States, NPR's three-part series seemed beyond timid and nothing more than a public relations advance for the U.S. military.

Friday on The Diane Rehm Show's second hour, Iraq was covered. The continued tensions between northern Iraq and Turkey were discussed briefly with NBC News' Andrea Mitchell offering that "the U.S. doesn't have a whole lot of good options" and that "they need Turkey to not invade Iraq and to have another front opened". Diane Rehm's other participants for this roundtable were Doyle McManus of The Los Angeles Times and Michael Hirsh of Newsweek. Mr. McManus also noted that there were "not many options." None of the participants noted that the tensions that are flaring have long been simmering or that the U.S. administration and military have been promising since the start of the illegal war to address the issue of the PKK -- an organization labeled a "terrorist group" by the United States, Iraq, and the European Union among others. Ms. Mitchell was the only participant, in fact, to note the PKK. At the end of a sentence Mr. Hirsh offered what can only be a "shout out," single reference to the PKK while Mr. McManus' remarks would leave listeners with the impression that northern Iraq and Turkey have tensions currently but no one can figure out why. It was a strange discussion as two guests elected to attempt addressing the issue without noting the PKK.

Ms. Rehm then raised the issue of the mercenary group Blackwater USA which has been operating in Iraq with no oversight and no consequences. Mr. Hirsh cited a "report emphasizing a whole new set of procedures" but pointed out one of the recommendations was that Blackwater should aim their guns before firing. Mr. Hirsh appeared to chuckle in disbelief at that and I would guess most listeners shared his disbelief over such recommendations.

The issue of Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Diplomatic Security Richard Griffin turning his resignation in, effective November 1, 2007, was raised with Ms. Rehm noting he was "the first high official that's lost his job over this" and Mr. Hirsh adding, "Or almost over anything, any mistake." The fact that Blackwater's actions are not a new development was also addressed and Mr. Hirsh and Ms. Rehm noting that even then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld had wanted to bring private contractors under the umbrella of the Defense Department, that the present Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, still wants to and that these issues go back to, as Mr. Hirsh put it, "As far back as late 2003, early 2004. . . . That's one of the most outrageous things about it."

Ms. Mitchell offered that "one of the shocking things about it is that they've discovered these contractors -- and there are now 50,000 hired guns among private contractors in Iraq, only a couple of thousands working for the military and for the State Department, the rest are all private contractors -- working for private companies, but there is no law that governs what they do. They don't answer to military law, they don't answer to Iraqi law, they don't answer to U.S. law."

Mr. McManus felt that the illegal war, he did not call it the "illegal" war, could not continue currently without the likes of Blackwater. Ms. Mitchell sees the likely outcome as "getting rid of Blackwater and rehiring some of these same Blackwater guys under Triple Canopy or one of the other contractors so you will have the same players under a different set of rules."

Throughout the hour, I found Mr. McManus an ineffective guest. He skirted issues and referred to things without ever explaining. A perfect example would be in the midst of the Blackwater discussion when he began refer to a Sadr city attack that killed Iraqi civilians and the dispute between Iraqi officials and the U.S. military over the number of dead. Mr. McManus never explained to listeners that the attack was conducted by the U.S. military and listeners may well have been left with the impression that this was another Blackwater incident. Ms. Mitchell was in better form than I would have thought possible and Mr. Hirsh repeatedly came off as the most straight forward while Mr. McManus seemed to be floating above and beyond the entire discussion. On the issue of Blackwater, Mr. Hirsh probably said it best when he noted that, "But as with so much in Iraq, it's too little too late."

Ms. Rehm raised the issue of Congressional oversight and how Rice was informed this week by Congress "that she has mismanaged diplomatic efforts in Iraq and they accused her of concealing information from Congress. What specifically is Congress saying she has not told them?"

Ms. Mitchell offered this overview, "Well in particular there were memos, internal Iraqi memos, that the State Department was well aware of, that she had not turned over, that she had not turned over memos on Blackwater, corruption in the Iraqi government, which is a growing problem. That she has ignored it, not brought it to their attention. Her worst nightmare is Henry Waxman. Henry Waxman sixteen terms now chairman of the House Oversight Committee and he is going after her and after the State Department and other government agencies. He has a pipeline of investigations and he just keeps one after the other."