Friday, January 22, 2009. Chaos and violence continue, drama at the Iraq Inquiry, Joe Biden is in Iraq, and more.
The Iraq Inquiry continued today in London. And the opening moments recalled a film scence. Specifically, Robert Zemeckis' Death Becomes Her, the scene where Helen (Goldie Hawn), obsessed with anger and rage towards Madeline (Meryl Streep), is now institutionalized and in group therapy with a psychologist (Alaina Reed-Hall) and other patients.
Doctor: What about you, Helen? We haven't heard from you in a while. Is there anything you'd like to talk about with the group?
Helen: Yes. I would like to talk about . . .
The group tenses up.
Helen: . . . Madeline Ashton.
The group members scream, yell, go frantic.
The above scene, screenplay written by Martin Donovan and David Koepp, was vaguely similar. December 17th, John Chilcot, who chairs the committee, elected to make it all about himself with a lengthy closing remark. (December 17th was also when Alaina Reed-Hall passed away.) Today?
Chair John Chilcott: Before I begin, I should like to make a short statement. The Iraq Inquiry that sits before you is an independent committee, dedicated to establishing an account of the UK's involvement in Iraq between 2001 and 2009 and learning lessons for governments facing similar circumstances in the future. Now, from the outset, we have made it clear that we wish to stay outside party politics. Ours is a serious task and we wish to collect our evidence in a way in which our witnesses will be open about what happened and give their evidence fully without the hearings beging used as a platform for political advantage by any party. It was for this reason that my colleagues and I made a decision announced before Christmas, that we would not call ministers currently serving in posts relevant to Iraq until after the election. The Prime Minister wrote to me earlier this week to say that he was preapred to give evidence whenever we saw fit. In my reply to the Prime Minister yesterday evening, I said that, as a matter of fairness, the committee concluded we should offer the Prime Minister, if he wished to take it up, the opportunity for him, for David Miliband, as Foreign Secretary, and Douglas Alexander, Development Secretary, to attend hearings before the general election. The Prime Minister replied to me this morning to say that he will be happy to agree dates from a range we have proposed over the next two months and this correspondece is now being published on our website. Thank you.
Over 250 words. Let's all be glad it was a short statement. In addition to the verbal statement, the Iraq Inquiry issued a lengthy release including [PDF format warning} links to Chilcot's January 21st letter to Brown and Brown's January 19th letter to the Inquiry.
Richard Norton-Taylor (Guardian) explains the committee is "irritated" over charges that they are allowing Brown to dictate terms. Graeme Wilson (The Sun) adds, "The inquiry is believed to be furious that the move was revealed by No 10 sources before a planned announcement today." David Brown (Times of London) also notes the anger, "An exact date for the Prime Minister's appearance is yet to be set and sources said that members of the inquiry were absolutely furious that the information was released by No 10 before its planned announcement today. They complain that Downing Street is turning the invitation, which was extended by the inquiry in a letter last night, into a political issue." James Kirkup (Telegraph of London) interprets the move as a sign of the Iraq Inquiry's weakness, explaining how at first John Chilcot, chair of the Inquiry, insisted that Brown would testify after the Parliamentary elections but now that's changed and he doesn't buy that it was changed by Chilcot: "So look again at that original decision to defer Mr Brown's evidence. All that has changed between then and now is Mr Brown's public attitude on the timing. How can we avoid the conclusion that the original decision was affected by Mr Brown's attitude? I've no doubt that Sir John will say his decision reflects the wider political context and not simply Mr Brown's preference. But the reality is that the idea of his inquiry's independence has taken a heavy blow." Philip Webster (Times of London) states Brown pushed for an early appearance and observes, "It means he will go to the country with memories of his appearance at the inquiry -- and the revived spectre of the war -- fresh in voters' memories. Labour MPs, particularly those in marginal seats, will be dismayed at the timing, though most see it as inevitable given Mr Brown's decision to accede to an inquiry so late in the Parliament." James Macintyre (New Statesman) provided two possibilities for Brown's change of heart:
As to the implications of Brown's appearance: on the one hand this could damage Brown, reminding voters that this was a "Labour war", even though it was unwisely backed by the Tories and no matter how much Brown tries personally to disasssociate from it.
On the other hand, Brown strategists believe, there is a chance that -- along with the debates -- this could be a chance for Brown to level with the British people and even thrive under pressure.
This is far from the first time Gordon Brown's been forced into a different position than originally stated regarding the Iraq Inquiry. For one other example, we'll drop back to the June 18, 2009 snapshot:
Turning to England where the good times keep coming for Gordon Brown. His efforts at a behind-closed-doors 'inquiry' appear to be falling apart. Philip Webster (Times of London) reported this morning, "Parts of the Iraq war inquiry may now be held in public after Gordon Brown was forced into a partial climbdown." James Kirkup and Alastair Jamieson (Telegraph of London) add that Lord Bulter was "critical of the decision to hold hearings behind closed doors". At the Guardian, Toby Helm stated that "Buter will accuse the government of 'putting its political interests ahead of the national interest'" today. Andrew Grice, Kim Sengupta and Nigel Morris (Independent of London) report it's not one noted person who'll be speaking out against Brown, it's two: Lord Hutton and Lord Butler. Great Britain's Socialist Worker notes the crony-infested panel for Gordo's inquiry: "John Chilcot, its chair, was part of the last Iraq whitewash, the Bulter inquiry. Another committee member, Sir Lawrence Freedman, wrote Tony Blair's 1999 Chicago speech setting out the idea of 'humanitarian' war." The Belfast Telegraph reports that Gordon's closde-door policy has been criticized by former Prime Minister John Major who states: "The Government's decision to hold the inquiry into the Iraq war in private is inexplicable -- not least in its own interests. [. . .] The arrangements currently proposed run the risk of being viewed sceptically by some, and denounced as a whitewash by others. I am astonished the Government cannot understand this." ITN quotes Bulter stating, "The form of the inquiry proposed by the Government has been dictated more by the Government's political interest than the national interest and it cannot achieve the purpose of purging mistrust." Rebecca will be blogging about this topic tonight and should remember to include these words "I told you so." (Because she did.)
Rosa Prince (Telegraph of London) reports that Brown's spokesperson is hinting Brown will take a strong position in support of the illegal war and Prince quotes the spokesperson stating, "The Prime Minister is keen to take up the opportunity to state the case why Britain was right to take the action that it did. He has nothing to hide at all. The Prime Minister welcomes the opportunity to state the case. He believes it is a very good opportunity to set out the cast and answer any questions that are put to him." Iain Martin (Wall St. Journal) offers this view, "No, what is of much more interest is finding out what Gordon Brown really thought about Iraq. Seven years on from the invasion we have no real idea, which is remarkable. He has made heartfelt remarks in Basra and elsewhere in support of the troops who served, and has acknowledged the importance of their mission. But beyond that he's pretty much a blank page on the most controversial British foreign policy and military mission since Suez."
Those in England not focusing on what Brown might say tend to be focused on what Tony Blair will say when he appears before the committee next week. Gordon Brown is the current prime minister. Tony Blair handed the baton off to him. Brown continued the illegal war and Tony started it with a number of lies including the now discredited assertion that Iraq had WMD and could launch them on England within 45 minutes (a detail included for "local colour," the committee was told this week). If you're late to the inquiry, Deng Shasha (Xinhua) explains that Blair is scheduled to provide testimony January 29th and offers this background on the hearing: "The public hearing opened on Nov. 24, 2009 with the chairman of the inquiry commission promising a 'fair and frank' investigation, which will cover the entire eight-year period from the build-up to the war to the withdrawal of British troops." Charles Moore (Telegraph of London) notes that some would love to see Blair crucified: "Given Mr Blair's messianic tendencies, one should surely be pleased that he is not being offered his Christ-before-Pilate moment. There would be a very real risk of him claiming to have risen again on the third day." Lance Price (Time magazine) observes, "Before Christmas, he told the BBC that he would have gone to war even if he had known that former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction, conceding that 'you would have had to use and deploy different arguments about the nature of the threat.' Perhaps he will go further when he appears before the inquiry, but I wouldn't bet on it." The Daily Mail makes this call, "Day by day, witness by witness, a deeply shocking picture is emerging from the Chilcot Inquiry, a picture of Tony Blair dragging this country into a damaging and unpopular war, while his advisors doctored evidence and ministers allowed ambition to override their principles." Marco Evers (Der Spiegel) offers his own thoughts on Blair, "He will be asked to respond to charges that he lied to the public over going to war. His appearance could turn into a public tribunal on 13 years of Labour rule, and perhaps even -- just a few months before the election -- into a premature end to the Labour era."
Along with two upcoming witnesses dominating the news cycle, a third potential one as well as yesterday's also garner press attention. Janet Stobart (Los Angeles Times) reports of Jack Straw's testimony yesterday, "Legally, he said the case for invasion 'stood or fell on whether Iraq posed a threat to international peace and security by reasons of its weapons . . . not whether it had an unpleasant authoritarian regime . . . butchering its own people." Did Iraq have WMD? No, it did not. Which brings us to a potential witness -- one the Inquiry has refused to call thus far (though he's publicly stated he'd willing to testify) Hans Blix, the chief weapons inspector for the UN in the time before the start of the Iraq War. Emma Alberici (Australia's ABC) quotes from an interview with Blix today where he stated, "Well in some cases we found conventional weapons, in other cases found nothing, in one case we found a stack of documents that were related to nuclear matters, but no weapons of mass destruction." Yesterday Straw told the committee that Blix was unsure whether Iraq had WMD -- Blix' statements in the past and present would put the burden on the committee to call him if for no other reason than to rebut Straw's remarks. Alex Barker (Financial Times of London) notes that some witnesses (Jack Straw) have stated Jaques Chirac (president of France at the start of the Iraq War) believed WMD were in Iraq but Barker notes, accodring to Blix, that this was not the case.
And some stick to comments about the Inquiry in general. Ben Macintyre (Times of London) feels, "The inquiries on Iraq mark a new way of doing politics, a different sense of how history evolves, and a technological revolution." While the paper's editorial board concludes, "To call the Chilcot inquiry into the Iraq War 'a farce' would be, perhaps, to endow it with a gravitas it does not deserve. With the latest intervention of Gordon Brown, it has descended even lower. It has become the Muppet Show." The paper's Ann Treneman has offered some of the strongest critiques of the day to day events such as this on yesterday's testimony:
The thing about Jack Straw that fascinated me and everyone else in the public gallery yesterday was whether the man before us was for or against the Iraq war.
It was quite hard to figure out: until the end that is, Agatha Christie could not have plotted it better. But what we could all see from the beginning was that Jack Straw was very pro all things Jack Straw.
Mr Straw is neat, pin-striped, eager to be noticed. He is not so much pompous as nerdily self-important. Thus he had submitted a memo on Iraq to the Chilcot committee, limiting himself to a mere 8,000 words (25 pages, 78 paragraphs). He then quoted himself often, via numbered paragraph reference.
His almost obsessive use of references is coupled with a true love of reflection. Thus yesterday we got his thoughts on bees, Suez, the Falklands, John Maynard Keynes, the American Civil War, Bill Clinton and, yes, Monica Lewinsky, whose name was transcribed as Liewn ski, which seemed right. Intriguingly, interlaced with all of this other stuff -- a technical term but accurate -- were his thoughts on the war and the man who was Foreign Secretary did, actually, seem to be against it.
While all that dominates the news cycle, it's easy to forget that, in addition to hearing from John Chilcot, today the committee also heard from Suma Chakrabarti and Nicholas Macpherson (link goes to video and transcript options). On Twitter, Channel 4 News' Iraq Inquiry Blogger live blogged today's hearing. Iraq Inquiry Blogger notes of the lack of attention to the two witnesses, "It's every performer's worst nightmare -- being upstaged by the warm-up act" and:
In the event the scheduled witnesses didn't offer up many surprises. DfID's Suma Chakrabarti added an "unworthy" to Lord Turnbull's description of the Alastair Campbell's remarks about Clare Short as "very poor". I did Tweet @campbellclaret offering a right to reply but answer (thus far) came there none.
For HM Treasury Nicholas Macpherson had a pretty good stab at rebutting Geoff Hoon's budget-slashing allegations earlier in the week. He couldn't remember the MoD complaining at the time, he said, and in any case had the generals handled their finances better the Treasury wouldn't have needed to park its own tanks on their lawn.
We'll note this from Suma Chakrabarti's testimony.
Suma Chakrabarti: Well, in May 2003, the strategy that DFID [Department for International Development] was pursuing was this one of shifting from relief to recovery and reconstruction. It essentially had three prongs to that strategy. To start with, really much focused on the infrastructure sort of components. We were moving into a period from quick impact projects to something called the essential services project, and then on to the emergency infrastructure programmes. The infrastructure was quite a large component of this in the south. The other part of it was capacity building, which came on, I would say, more so after 1483 was passed because, as I said last time, it was clear then that the UN was not going to lead this. Then de-Beatification happened, so Iraqi capacity were removed.
de-Beatification is de-Ba'athification (US Senator Sheldon Whitehouse also uses the term "de-Beatification"). And de-Ba'athification -- or the lack of de-de-Ba'athification -- is why one US official is in Iraq. The cry of "Ba'athists" is now being used to eliminate political rivals by removing them from the race. Leila Fadel (Washington Post) reports, "Vice President Biden arrived in Baghdad on Friday night in hopes of defusing a political crisis over the disbarment of hundreds of candidates in an upcoming election." This as BBC reports that the commission doing the banning has announced "more candidates are likely to be banned" before the March election. Today the New York Times offered the editorial "Sunnis and Iraq's Election"
The accountability commission is the successor to the destructive de-Baathification commission that sought to keep anyone with ties to Mr. Hussein out of government. Its chief, Ali Faisal al-Lami, is hardly an impartial judge. He is a candidate on the slate led by the Shiite leader Ahmed Chalabi, a relentlessly ambitious force in Iraqi politics who lured the Bush administration into the 2003 invasion and wants to be prime minister.
Both the accountability and the election commissions are part of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki's government, and he issued a statement supporting their decisions. But American officials say Mr. Chalabi is the main manipulator. Mr. Chalabi's absurd charge that the United States wants to return the Baath Party to power is typical of his divisive and destructive brand of politics.
Nada Bakri (New York Times) explains Biden is advocating that the issues be set aside until after Iraq holds its intended elections in March and "Many politicians said that they supported this solution, but others questioned its legality and criticized Washington for interference in Iraq's affairs." Barkri notes he has met with the top US commander in Iraq, Gen Ray Odierno, and the US Ambassador to Iraq, Chris Hill. David Jackson (USA Today) states he'll also meet with Jalal Talabani (Iraq's President), Nouri al-Maliki (thug of the occupation) and Ayad al-Samarrai (Speaker of the Council of Representatives). Nouri's spokesmodel, Al Jazeera reports, declared, "It is an internal affair that should be discussed by Iraqi political entities." What will be accomplished remains to be seen but Biden arrived in Iraq as the country's Parliament was debating whether or not Barack Obama's "vows on Iraq" were sincere.
Whether they can trust Barack or not, it appears they can't trust 'bomb detectors.' Caroline Hawley (BBC Newsnight -- link has text and video) reports that England has placed an export ban on the ADE-651 'bomb detector' -- a device that's cleaned Iraq's coffers of $85 million so far. Steven Morris (Guardian) follows up noting that, "The managing director [Jim McCormick] of a British company that has been selling bomb-detecting equipment to security forces in Iraq was arrested on suspicion of fraud today."
In some of today's reported violence, Reuters falls back to Thursday to note 1 Baaj suicide bomber who tooks his or her own life and injured one Iraqi military officer, a Mosul grenade attack which injured two people, a Mosul roadside bombing which injured a child (apparently targeted an Iraqi Christian family) and a Mosul roadside bombing which left two people wounded.
Meanwhile Martin Chulov (Guardian) reports:
More than 40 sites across Iraq are contaminated with high levels or radiation and dioxins, with three decades of war and neglect having left environmental ruin in large parts of the country, an official Iraqi study has found.
Areas in and near Iraq's largest towns and cities, including Najaf, Basra and Falluja, account for around 25% of the contaminated sites, which appear to coincide with communities that have seen increased rates of cancer and birth defects over the past five years. The joint study by the environment, health and science ministries found that scrap metal yards in and around Baghdad and Basra contain high levels of ionising radiation, which is thought to be a legacy of depleted uranium used in munitions during the first Gulf war and since the 2003 invasion.
If you click here, you will go to the Washington Monthly's "Special Report: Agent Orange" which features video as well as these four reports from a special section of the current issue:
Introduction: A Legacy Revisited
Agent of Influence
The Environmental Consequences of War
A Hard Way to Die
The special section is 8 pages long in the January/February issue. This in addition to the 58 regular pages of the issue which is a bargain at $5.95. That comes to a dime a page. Contrast that with FAIR's meager (sixteen pages and they call it a magazine!) Extra! for $4.95 (over 30 cents a page for what is bascially transcripts of their radio show CounterSpin).
In the US, Matthew D. LaPlante (Salt Lake Tribune) reports that US House Rep Tim Bishop is leading on the issue of a federal registry for veterans exposed to burn-pits in Iraq and Afghanistan:
In the Senate, Evan Bayh has led on the issue. His bill is currently buried in the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs -- and has been since October. For the first time in months, next week sees the committee discuss some bills before the committee (January 28th).
Today is the 37th anniversary of Roe v. Wade and the Court finding of the Right to Privacy. Sarah Weddington successfully took the case before the Court and Stephanie Wolf (Women's Media Center) interviews Weddington about the landmark decision and the state of reproductive rights today:
Q. You've always described yourself as an activist, first. If you could send any message to a young generation of pro-choice women activists, what would it be?
A. First, I would say "thank you, thank you, thank you." We're depending on you. Second, I would say that it's so critical to support pro-choice groups. Pick one or two. Hooking up with a group gives you e-mail information about what's happening, who's running, what are the positions of the candidates, what is happening in Congress.
Q. A recent New York magazine article quotes President Obama in a speech to students at Notre Dame saying: "I do not suggest that the debate surrounding abortion can or should go away. No matter how much we may want to fudge it . . . the fact is that at some level, the views of the two camps are irreconcilable." Do you agree the debate is irreconcilable?
A. It's irreconcilable at the very basic level. Bart Stupak said no woman should have access to an abortion. I would never be reconciled with his position. So we should agree to disagree. But let's agree that the law should not force his opinion on people. He can hold his opinion. He can advocate it in all kinds of ways that are private. His church can do a lot to try to help women who want to continue pregnancies. There are things that he could do that I would certainly think were wonderful. But it's not to say to women, "I'm going to tell you what to do with reproduction."
The problem is that Obama seems to have a tendency to want everyone to like him and agree with him, so you read in the paper that he was meeting with anti-choice people on the health care bill. You never read that he was meeting with pro-choice people on the health care bill.
TV notes. NOW on PBS begins airing tonight on many PBS stations (check local listings):
The Pentagon estimates that as many as one in five American soldiers are coming home from war zones with traumatic brain injuries, many of which require round-the-clock attention.
But lost in the reports of these returning soldiers are the stories of family members who often sacrifice everything to care for them.
This week, NOW reveals how little has been done to help these family caregivers, and reports on dedicated efforts to support them.
Staying with TV notes, Washington Week begins airing on many PBS stations tonight (and throughout the weekend, check local listings) and joining Gwen are Joan Biskupic (USA Today), John Harwood (CNBC, New York Times), Martha Raddatz (ABC News) and Alexis Simendinger (National Journal). Meanwhile Bonnie Erbe will sit down with Linda Chavez, Bernadine Healy, Eleanor Holmes Norton and Patricia Sosa to discuss the week's events on PBS' To The Contrary. Check local listings, on many stations, it begins airing tonight. And turning to broadcast TV, Sunday CBS' 60 Minutes offers:
60 Minutes Pre-empted
60 Minutes Presents: a Tribute to Don Hewitt, Sunday, Jan. 24, at 7 p.m. ET/PT.