Bad journalist. Good journalist.
Dick Rogers of the San Francisco Chronicle has an interesting piece on the use of unidentified sources (via Romenesko).
A "SENIOR administration official" paid a visit to The Chronicle not long ago. I'd tell you the name, but that would be wrong. The paper agreed in advance not to identify this top White House representative. A deal is a deal, so I'm duty-bound to clam up.
What's not so certain is whether the deal was good for readers. ...
Readers may receive little from such deals, but senior administration officials stand to gain a lot. These are chances to spread the pro- administration gospel, perhaps to float trial balloons -- all without fear that anyone in the White House would be held directly accountable.
The use of unnamed sources should be extraordinary -- it should be the exception, not the rule. But today it is an epidemic.
The paper where I work fills its national section with wire reports -- AP, Washington Post and Gannett News Service, particularly. If we decided to be as scrupulous with unnamed sources as Ben Bradlee was in All the President's Men we would have to reject nearly every article we receive from the Washington press corps. What's particularly frustrating is that often these sources supply information that's readily available elsewhere on the record.
David Shaw of the Los Angeles Times, is also fed up with the increasing reliance on unnamed sources:
I can think of no common journalistic shortcoming that is more threatening to media credibility than the overreliance on unnamed sources. ...
I've never understood why editors at even the best newspapers tolerate anonymity so routinely. ...
Unfortunately — day in and day out, on purely routine stories — too many reporters are too lazy to press their sources to go on the record. Or they get caught up in the game of inside baseball and think they're impressing their editors and readers with their ability to ferret out deep secrets from sources so sensitive that they can't possibly disclose their names for fear of instant humiliation, termination and defenestration. ...
He cites one (small) paper as an example of somebody getting it right:
"As a rule, we don't use [anonymous sources] in our local coverage," Jeannine Guttman, editor of the Portland (Maine) Press Herald, wrote in a May 18 editor's note. "In principle, we firmly believe that the overuse of anonymous news sources causes readers to question the accuracy and authenticity of a news report."
Guttman didn't say the Press Herald never uses unnamed sources. But the paper does so rarely, she said, and only "when it has been determined that there is no other way to report the story, and when the story is of such weight that we are willing to take this extraordinary step."
Here's a particularly ridiculous example of the lazy, unnecessary, and too-cozy-to-maintain-objectivity use of unnamed sources. Edith M. Lederer, of the Associated Press, writes a basic book-report item on Scott Ritter's new book, called Frontier Justice: Weapons of Mass Destruction and the Bushwhacking of America.
Ritter, a former U.N. weapons inspector in Iraq, is one of the Bush administration's most outspoken critics (as you can tell from his chosen title), and the book accuses the administration of various dishonesties and illegalities. Lederer thus owes it to her readers to allow a representative of the administration to respond to these charges in her article. She comes up with this quote:
"We've said over and over again that Saddam Hussein violated a number of Security Council resolutions. ... He was making a mockery of the Security Council. He did not take advantage of his final opportunity to disarm."
That's pretty much the standard administration line. Nothing new -- nothing that hasn't been said before, elsewhere, many, many times by everyone from the top to the bottom of the administration. So why on earth does Lederer cite as her source for this boilerplate response a "U.S. official" speaking "on condition of anonymity"?
Did Lederer really speak to anyone? Is this "U.S. official" in any way connected to the Bush administration? (A local notary would qualify as a "U.S. official.") And if this vague official is connected to the administration, then why bother speaking only "on condition of anonymity"? This is a stock denial of a strident critic -- why would anyone in the administration be afraid to make such a statement on the record?
This is what you get when you reach the nexus between lazy journalism and an administration run by control freaks who believe in secrecy for secrecy's sake. Bizarre.
= = = = = = = = = = = =
Jason Roth sent along a link to an example of what journalism can be like when the reporting is less lazy and less credulous.
He points to this article by Marian Burros in The New York Times "dining" section. The article is titled "Is Organic Food Provably Better?" It starts:
In the debate over whether organic food is better than conventionally raised food, advocates for organic produce say it contains fewer harmful chemicals and is better for the earth, and some claim that it is more nutritious. ...
Jason says of the story's highlights:
* It is completely clear that these are small-scale, non-definitive studies -- there's no effort to blow the results up into a general statement.
* When they quote the inevitable naysayer from the Hudson Institute, they identify him at the outset as someone "who frequently disputes claims for the positive health benefits of organic farming."
And he underscores the all-too-rare context and candor provided in this section:
Mr. Avery said Mr. Heaton's study [in support of organic foods] was tainted because of the Soil Association's interests.
"A number of research trials time and time again have not found any significant differences," he said. "You need very large, carefully designed and carefully controlled studies to prove that there is a difference because of large natural variability."
Pressed to be more specific, Mr. Avery whose organization has received financing from Monsanto, DowElanco and the Ag-Chem Equipment Company, which are involved in conventional agriculture and biotechnology, did not offer further criticism.
The idea that an industry-financed think-tanker should be "pressed to be more specific" is almost revolutionary in modern journalism. (Have you ever seen it happen on CNN?) And the disclosure of his financial backers as context for his perspective is refreshing.
Jason offers his own revolutionary idea:
Can you imagine if, say, tax bills were covered this way? Laying out everyone's interests, correcting misstatements by "experts" (as opposed to just getting a contradictory quote from another "expert"), and accurately describing the scope of the issue at hand?
Something else you'll never see on CNN.
posted by Fred Clark 3:38 PM
POWER AND SUPERPOWER
Blair, Bush and Dostoevsky
Yesterday afternoon, I posted this cynical-seeming quote from Raymond McGovern, of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity. McGovern was characterizing the reckless attitude toward intelligence evidence of certain Bush administration officials in their drive for a preemptive war on Iraq:
We'll have our war. It will be a great success. And in the aftermath of that war, who's going to care if we based some of this P.R. effort on forged evidence?
What could possibly be more cynical than such arrogant contempt for truth and the rule of law. Yet McGovern predicted that this is what would be said after the war, that winners don't need to explain themselves. That victory is all that matters. The victors are accountable to no one for anything but the outcome.
Harsh words. But then I heard Tony Blair and George W. Bush speak yesterday. And this was exactly the line of defense they offered for themselves and their war: It doesn't matter if we deceived our people with false evidence, because we think some of our evidence will turn out to be true, and anyway, we won. We won we won we won. No more questions.
This all reminds me of one of Razumihin's speeches in Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment:
Legislators and leaders of men, such as Lycurgus, Solon, Mahomet, Napoleon, and so on, were all without exception criminals, from the very fact that, making a new law, they transgressed the ancient one, handed down from their ancestors and held sacred by the people, and they did not stop short at bloodshed either, if that bloodshed -- often of innocent persons fighting bravely in defence of ancient law -- were of use to their cause.
It's remarkable, in fact, that the majority, indeed, of these benefactors and leaders of humanity were guilty of terrible carnage. In short, I maintain that all great men or even men a little out of the common, that is to say capable of giving some new word, must from their very nature be criminals ...
The crimes of these men are of course relative and varied; for the most part they seek in very varied ways the destruction of the present for the sake of the better. But if such a one is forced for the sake of his idea to step over a corpse or wade through blood, he can, I maintain, find within himself, in his conscience, a sanction for wading through blood ...
posted by Fred Clark 2:35 PM
FOUR-LEGGED CHICKEN: UPDATE
We've got some new, bigger pictures up a Delawareonline of the fluffy little guy. Rumor has it the chicken has been offered a scholarship to Professor Xavier's School for Gifted Poultry.
No word yet from Jack Van Impe on whether this constitutes a sign of the End Times. But then again, for Van Impe, everything constitutes a sign of the End Times ...
posted by Fred Clark 5:23 PM
SERVANT LEADERSHIP AND PUBLIC SERVICE
"And you shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free ..."
The Servant Leadership School, is one of the worthiest of the many worthy endeavors of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in Washington, D.C.
The school describes its vision as:
Trusting in Jesus Christ as transforming presence, guide, and model, the Servant Leadership School seeks to provide opportunities for servant leader formation. We encourage servant leaders to be, say, and do the Gospel—for the sake of the world.
So I didn't expect to read a favorable reference to the school and its explicitly religious mission on a Web site named for that famed sparring partner of religion Tom Paine. Yet there it was. Raymond McGovern, who works at the school, describes his work there:
You see, we're involved in justice work, not just charity. Our whole school is a place where people get trained for building relationships with the poor. We don't try to serve the poor. We don't try to help the poor. We try to build relationships with them and we find that we profit as much from that relationship as they do.
As I was telling the hearing in Congress today, earlier, that my work in the inner city reaching out to those poor is just an incredible impetus to my activities in this other arena. Why? Well, because we're supposed to be good news to the poor, right? And Martin Luther King, Jr. made a big point in his Riverside speech in saying 'war could not be worse news to the poor.'
McGovern was interviewed by TomPaine.com's Steven Rosenfeld because of his other work. As a retired CIA official, McGovern helped to form Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity -- an ad hoc group of former intelligence officials that recently offered a must-reading Open Memo to President Bush in which they make the following recommendations for restoring credibility to the U.S. intelligence system on which we all rely for national security: 1)
the immediate resignation of Vice President Dick Cheney; 2) the appointment of Gen. Brent Scowcroft to head up an independent investigation of the use and abuse of intelligence on Iraq; and 3) inviting U.N. weapons inspectors back into Iraq.
McGovern says he takes hope and inspiration from Jesus' word that "There is nothing covered up that will not be revealed, and hidden that will not be known." (St. Luke includes this injunction twice, in Luke 8:17 and in chapter 12, verse 2. The following verse reads "Accordingly, whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered in the inner rooms will be proclaimed upon the housetops.")
In the spirit of those words, McGovern summarizes the abuse of intelligence last September that fueled the campaign of deception intended to win congressional support for the Bush administration's unprecedented pre-emptive war:
They had been talking about ties between Al Qaeda and Iraq. So any suggestion that they use that, the next person would say, 'Yeah, but those wimps over there at CIA, they say there's no evidence of that. So they'll come behind us and pull the rug right out from under us.'
'Well, let's use the chemical and biological capability that Iraq has.' 'Well, we can't do that either, because those wimps at the Defense Intelligence Agency have just produced a memorandum that says there's no reliable evidence about that.'
'So what do we do?' 'Well, the nuclear card is the big one, that's what will scare people. What do we have on that?' 'Well, we have those aluminum rods that we tried to make a big deal of, but all the nuclear scientists and engineers say if Saddam Hussein wants to buy more of those rods, sell them to him, because he couldn't possible use them in a nuclear application. So that's not going to work, so what else do we have?'
Well somebody said, 'Well, how about that report going around real early this year that Saddam Hussein was seeking uranium from Niger?' 'Well, yeah, but we found out that those were spurious reports -- it was a forgery.' 'Well, who knows it's a forgery? Well, we do. With whom would we have to share the source material?'
'Well the U.N. has been banging at our door for it for two months, but we put them off. We can probably put them off for three or four more months. So what's the problem? We'll use this report about Iraq seeking uranium in Niger. We'll use it with Congress. We'll raise the prospect of Saddam Hussein with nuclear weapons in his hands. Our first indication, our first smoking gun, will be a mushroom cloud, and we'll frighten Congressmen and Senators into approving a resolution for war. We'll have our war. It will be a great success. And in the aftermath of that war, who's going to care if we based some of this P.R. effort on forged evidence?'
posted by Fred Clark 4:43 PM
THE DISHONORABLE DR. RICE
It's time for Condi to go.
Arianna Huffington weighs in on the White House's highly dubious use of highly dubious intelligence claims. The highlight here is her helpful reminder of how widely known it was that the Niger uranium claim was bogus -- despite the president's unsupportable assertion that this knowledge only arose "subsequent" to the claim's inclusion in the State of the Union address that he delivered after personally reviewing it "line-by-line and word-by-word":
The U.S. ambassador to Niger, Barbro Owens-Kirkpatrick, knew: She had sent reports to Washington debunking the allegations. Joe Wilson, the envoy sent to Niger by the CIA, knew: His fact-finding trip quickly confirmed the ambassador's findings. The CIA knew: The agency tried unsuccessfully in September 2002 to convince the Brits to take the false charge out of an intelligence report. The State Department knew: Its Bureau of Intelligence and Research labeled it "highly dubious." Tenet and Powell knew: They refused to use it. The president's speechwriters knew: They were told to remove a reference to the Niger uranium in a speech the president delivered in Cincinnati on Oct. 7 -- three months before his State of the Union. And the National Security Council knew: NSC staff played a key role in the decision to fudge the truth by having the president source the uranium story to British intelligence.
George Tenet's good-scoutish insistence on taking "full responsibility" won't do. Full responsibility is not his to take. The CIA director apparently admitted as much, grudgingly, in a closed-door, confidential session of the Senate Intelligence Committee, in which, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), says:
"[Tenet] certainly told us who the person was who was insistent on putting this language in which the CIA knew to be incredible, this language about the uranium shipment from Africa. And there was this negotiation between the White House and the CIA about just how far you could go and be close to the truth."
Reuters' Steve Holland provides some insight into who this "person" might have been:
Durbin would not name the person, whose name emerged in the secret hearing, but a U.S. official said National Security Council weapons of mass destruction expert Robert Joseph was involved in discussions with the CIA about the speech.
"It wasn't Tenet who named anyone, but in response to questioning, other agency officials said that the conversations were with Robert Joseph of the National Security Council staff," a U.S. official told Reuters on condition of anonymity.
Here you have yet another NSC deputy from Condoleezza Rice's staff in the midst of top-level negotiations about whether or not to include the dubious material in the SOTU. Yet Dr. Rice -- the official, next to the president, most responsible for the intelligence included in that speech -- has insisted she was out of the loop. Incredible. As Huffington says:
Condoleezza Rice has been the worst offender. Now that we know that Tenet personally warned Rice's deputy, Steve Hadley, not to use the yellowcake claim back in October, and the role NSC staffers played in manipulating the State of the Union, Rice's widely publicized claim, made little over a month ago, that at the time of the State of the Union, "maybe someone knew down in the bowels of the agency, but no one in our circles knew that there were doubts and suspicions that this might be a forgery" has been revealed for what it is: A bald-face lie.
And even now as the truth comes flooding out, Rice continues to play fast and loose with the facts -- and stand by her man. "The statement that he made," she said on Sunday, speaking of the president, "was indeed accurate. The British government did say that."
To deny the truth, even when you've been caught with your hand in the cookie jar, is, in Huffington's phrase, "A bald-face lie." But remember also that it was Rice who took the lead in pointing the finger at Tenet, urging the top spy to take the fall for what is very evidently her office's and her own screw up.
That's worse than even her clumsy lying. That is, as Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.V.) told NPR's Steve Inskeep, "dishonorable":
"I cannot believe that Condi Rice... directly, from Africa, pointed the finger at George Tenet, when she had known -- had to have known -- a year before the State of the Union."
"The entire intelligence community has been very skeptical about this from the very beginning," Rockefeller says. "And she has her own director of intelligence, she has her own Iraq and Africa specialists, and it's just beyond me that she didn't know about this, and that she has decided to make George Tenet the fall person. I think it's dishonorable."
It's time for the dishonorable Dr. Rice to make amends by doing the honorable thing. If she had a shred of integrity, Condoleezza Rice would resign.
(And don't feel sorry for her -- she'll make a fortune back in the semi-private sector.)
posted by Fred Clark 3:40 PM
"WHY THIS BUSH LIE?"
Slate's Timothy Noah isn't afraid of the "L" word.
In today's Chatterbox Timothy Noah raises the question of why this particular lie by George W. Bush has gained such media attention, when so many other lies have been glibly overlooked.
Noah's language is refreshingly forthright. As Josh Marshall wrote in The Hill, borrowing from Ms. Gertrude Stein, "A rose is a rose is a rose ... But a lie is, well ..."
Calling a lie a lie is a form of honesty. Noah serves honesty and the truth in today's column, which has a refreshing impatience with those who would try to weasel the president's weaseling into some other category than "lying." Noah offers a top-of-the-head rapid-fire list of eight distinct and demonstrable Bush lies just from 2003, and he does this without breaking a sweat.
Noah doesn't even bother to include the president's latest whopper, from Monday:
... The fundamental question is, did Saddam Hussein have a weapons program? And the answer is, absolutely. And we gave him a chance to allow the inspectors in, and he wouldn't let them in. And, therefore, after a reasonable request, we decided to remove him from power ...
President Bush and his administration spent months questioning the integrity and competence of the U.N. weapons inspectors in Iraq as part of a disgraceful U.S. smear campaign. Now the president is claiming that the inspectors were never even in Iraq.
It's true that this may be an error, and not a deliberate lie -- but what an error. He "misspeaks" an entire syllogism! It's not like he mispronounced a word or "accidentally" said "nuclear weapons" instead of "nuclear weapons program." Misstatement? Lie? Does it matter? The man is not trustworthy. The words that spring from his mouth, for whatever reason, are not to be trusted.
Noah's column is called "Why This Bush Lie -- Part 1." I'm looking forward to Part 2.
UPDATE: After Monday's bizarre assertion by the president -- "... we gave him a chance to allow the inspectors in, and he wouldn't let them in ..." -- Tim Dunlop has traced the trajectory of the presidential spin to predict Bush's future statements: "I did not launch a war ..."
posted by Fred Clark 12:09 PM
4-LEGGED CHICKEN COMES IN SECOND
Yes, that's right, a four-legged chicken has been born in Delaware.
Normally, that would be the front-runner for my favorite story of the day. But not today.
That honor goes to this story, conveyed as tastefully as possible by Rudy Miller of the (Easton, Pa.) Express-Times:
EASTON -- In the case of Robert M. Peters Sr., size does matter.
The 47-year-old locksmith from Bangor is accused of exposing himself to a client on June 12, 2002, while making a house call in Bethlehem. Peters' trial began Monday.
The victim testified that she and Peters were sipping tea after he finished installing a deadbolt lock when she saw Peters' semi-erect penis sticking three inches past the bottom of his shorts.
That's impossible, according to defense attorney Gary Asteak.
"She's mistaken," Asteak said. "He's not that big."
According to Asteak, physician Eric Schoeppner examined Peters and found his penis is only 1 inches long when flaccid and four inches erect. ...
I'm not making this up. And it get's worse, or better, or ... Just go read the whole thing. (The story is also reported here in The Morning Call.)
Not reported in either paper: In a carefully worded, two-page statement, CIA Director George Tenet accepted full responsibility for the alleged indecent exposure ...
posted by Fred Clark 2:47 AM
POWERBALL: NOT A GOOD BET
My brother the actuary whittles down a jackpot
My brother is an actuary -- an oddsmaker for the insurance industry. He calculates risks for a living, which seems to involve a great deal of math.
(On my first visit to his office, I was startled to see a large whiteboard covered with one of those labrynthine equations I thought only existed in Far Side cartoons about scientists. "What is that?" I asked him. "It's a short cut," he said. I took his word for it.)
And because he is an actuary and also a Christian, he gets pretty angry over the lottery.
Cynics, he says, view the lottery as a voluntary tax on stupidity and innumeracy. While he can see their point, my brother views the lottery differently -- as a tax on despair.
No wonder, then, that so many states are increasingly relying on lottery revenue to balance their budgets. Despair is a renewable resource that's more abundant than ever in Bush's America.
Part of his argument against the lottery is that it isn't a "fair game" -- one in which the potential rewards are roughly equivalent to the certain risks involved. A 100-to-1 longshot, for example, would be a fair game is the payoff for a $1 bet were at least $100. If you bought $100 worth of tickets, in other words, you would have a fair chance of breaking even. But if the odds are 100-to-1 and a $1 bet can only win $50, then it's not a fair game.
When I last saw my brother, the Powerball jackpot had reached more than $260 million. Since the odds against hitting all six numbers in the multistate Powerball lottery are about 121 million-to-1, I asked him if this made the lottery a fair game.
It looks that way at first, he said -- like any jackpot above $121 million would make Powerball a fair bet. But other factors need to be considered.
First of all, there's taxes. That advertised jackpot doesn't mention that the winner won't get to keep all $260 million. Taxes will reduce that by roughly a third, making the actual take-home jackpot closer to around $170 million. That still appears a fair game, but consider also that the original $260 million was never promised in a lump sum payment. It is, rather, an annuity value, which my brother finds a strange and dishonest figure to use.
Imagine, he says, that you're buying a house for $120,000 or so and you sign a 30-year mortgage. Over the life of that mortgage, you may end up paying $250,000 or more for the house, but no one would say you're buying a $250,000 house. You're not. You're buying a $120,000. The higher annuity cost is not considered the price or the value of the house. No one talks that way. No one except the lottery.
(If I'm botching the use of terms like "annuity" this is my error, not my brother's.)
Lottery winners are given the option of receiving their prizes as a lump sum payment. That payment is usually only about 2/3 the advertised annuity value of the jackpot. So we can knock another third off of that advertised $260 million and now we're looking at a $114 million jackpot.
That's no longer a fair game. And my brother isn't done yet.
All the above calculations are based on the premise that there's only one winner. It's difficult to calculate the odds of multiple winners in a game like Powerball, because such odds depend on the total number of tickets sold, which is a shifting variable. The higher the advertised jackpot, the more tickets sold -- and thus the less likely any winner is to be the sole winner.
That was, in fact, what happened last week in Powerball, when two winning tickets were sold -- one in Missouri and one here in Pennsylvania. Cut the already tax- and time-discounted figure in half and each of the winning proles gets around $57 million.
That's nothing to sneeze at, of course. $57 million is a life-changing sum for almost everyone.
But the question here is whether this is a fair game:
121 million-to-1 odds,
$57 million-to-1 payout,
That's not even close to a fair game. It's a bad bet and an egregious rip-off.
Or put it this way: Imagine you had decided to "invest" in Powerball by buying 121 million tickets, including every single possible combination and thus insuring a "win." As the third lucky winner, you would have spent $121 million to win $38 million. Even if the other two winners never came forward and you could claim the whole prize, you'd still be out $7 million dollars. You would, of course, also win every other, lesser prize awarded from Powerball -- but those wouldn't make up the $7 million.
(My brother also considered these other, lesser prizes awarded to people who hit various combinations of less than all six numbers. And while some of these prizes are inconsequential, he's willing to concede that the improved odds resulting from these smaller prizes may balance out the worsened odds resulting from the likelihood of multiple winners. That's probably overly generous, but it makes the math easier.)
According to Gordon Anderson at CNN/Money:
... big payouts are drawing new players.
"People who would never buy otherwise decide they might as well get in the game," White says.
In fact, Jack Whittaker -- the West Virginia man whose $315 million win is the biggest in history -- said he only started playing the game after its take crossed the $100 million threshold.
People like the very-lucky Mr. Whitaker probably view the $100 million dollar figure as a magic number. When the jackpot gets that high, they figure, it must surely be a worthwhile bet.
But it isn't. And neither is a $200 million or $250 million Powerball jackpot.
For Powerball, anything less than a $278 million jackpot is a sucker's game.
posted by Fred Clark 5:08 PM
CONVERSATIONS WITH DEAD PEOPLE
The following, which I found via the August Harper's, is from the Last Word feature of NewScientist.com, a question-and-answer column.
The question is: Does beheading hurt? And, if so, for how long is the severed head aware of its plight?
Mike Snowden, of London, submits this account from Dr. Beaurieux's experiment at the 1905 execution by guillotine of "the murderer Languille."
It's the oddest thing I've read in a while.
posted by Fred Clark 9:42 AM
CHEMICAL ALI SLEPT HERE
Why Samarra reminds me of Morristown
I grew up in New Jersey. School kids there, like kids all over America, go on class trips.
Many of the trips for kids in Jersey are to the various historic houses throughout the region that have been carefully preserved for two centuries because Gen. George Washington once slept there.
New Jersey is, as the tourist bureau likes to point out, "the crossroads of the American Revolution." As such, it was where Gen. Washington spent a lot of time hiding from the British troops who relentlessly, if unsuccessfully, hunted him. To keep hidden, of course, he had to stay on the move. Over the course of the Revolution the good general hid -- and slept -- in dozens of homes throughout central New Jersey.
It is the peculiar burden of New Jersey schoolchildren to have to visit nearly all of these homes before completing the sixth grade.
They all sort of blurred together -- the fireplaces and the butter churns and the earnest women in period dress offering obscure facts and post cards. (We had a theory, after visiting the sixth or seventh such location, that there was really only one such woman, following us from house to house in the same colonial skirt and bonnet.)
I was reminded of these long-ago class trips when reading this report by Patrick Cockburn in The Independent:
Saddam Hussein and Ali Hassan al-Majid, also known as Chemical Ali, are hiding in an area of farmland and small villages on the Tigris river between Baghdad and the city of Samarra, says a former senior Iraqi intelligence officer.
General Wafiq al-Samarrai, head of Iraqi military intelligence before he went into exile, is assisting American forces in the hunt for Saddam. He said the deposed leader had been able to escape capture because the area was heavily populated and had thick vegetation.
There are, of course, important differences. Gen. Washington was a beloved and charismatic figure, whereas the Iraqi leaders currently in hiding are brutal and oppressive tyrants, feared, but unloved. School children 200 years from now will not be carted off on class trips to the reverently preserved hiding places where Saddam and Ali are currently cowering.
Still, there's something about the lethal presence of an occupying army -- be they British redcoats or 21st-century U.S. Marines -- that inspires patriotic solidarity. The U.S. search for the Iraqi leaders must be vigorous, but it must also be diplomatic, lest we discourage Iraqis from cooperating.
The source for this information in Cockburn's article is Gen. Wafiq al-Samarrai, who also contradicts the U.S. theory that the guerrilla resistance to the occupation of Iraq will end with the capture or death of Saddam Hussein:
The general does not believe that the death or capture of Saddam will end guerrilla attacks against US forces. He said: "Saddam plays a very small role in this. Most of the attacks are by Islamic groups, former military men who are no longer being paid and members of the Baath party."
Here is where the parallel with Washington may be instructive. George Washington was an irreplaceable and essential person in the American Revolution, and his capture by the British would have dealt a heavy blow to the struggle for independence. But it would have done little to capture the "hearts and minds" of the colonials. Their guerrilla-style, a-symmetric resistance to the British occupiers may even have intensified following such a blow.
As for that other general -- Gen. Wafiq al-Samarrai -- Cockburn tells us that he was:
In charge of Iraqi military intelligence on Iran during the Iran-Iraq war, he was also head of military intelligence in the 1991 Gulf War. He fled to the Kurdish enclave in northern Iraq in late 1994.
The general is now co-operating with U.S. forces and wants very much to be perceived as a friend of America. Here's some more helpful background information on our new friend, from gonzo-journalist Paul William Roberts in the July issue of Harper's (not online). When last heard from, Roberts -- who is also the author of The Demonic Comedy: Some Detours in the Baghdad of Saddam Hussein -- was traveling in the company of Omar T. Ali al-Samarrai, Gen. Wafiq's brother-in-law:
Omar claimed to have planned, in 1995, an elaborate coup attempt against Saddam, which was nixed at the last minute by his wife's brother, the preeminent Iraqi dissident Wafiq al-Samarrai, who had been based in London since 1994. Before that, starting in 1980, he had been Saddam's director of intelligence.
Wafiq was due in town the next day to begin his leadership campaign under the National Salvation Movement banner, and I persuaded Omar that Wafiq would be the ideal person from whom to receive help in managing our information overload. [Omar had info on the whereabouts of "Chemical Ali," among others, but was unable to get U.S. officials to listen.] It would surely boost his political clout to be involved in the capture of so many criminals and the discovery of so many atrocities.
The visit with Wafiq was a bust: Omar's brother-in-law, as it turned out, was less than enthusiastic about the P.R. opportunity ...
[Eventually, Omar and Roberts encounter a U.S. Colonel named Rudesheim.]
At the point where I stated that Wafiq al-Samarrai had little support for his National Salvation Movement in Samarra, the colonel bristled.
"I've just attended a big lunch hosted by him," he said, "and all the local sheikhs were there. Looked to me like he had a ton of support."
I told him the two most prominent local sheikhs -- Adnan and Fadhel Hassan -- had assured me the previous day that Wafiq would be lucky to get 10 percent of the vote in any election. He had three strikes against him, the sheikhs had pointed out: he was a military figure, and no one wanted the military involved in a new regime; he was a close associate of Saddam from 1980 to 1992; and, lastly, he had been living in exile, which meant he had avoided the suffering in Iraq yet now expected to return as a leader.
"Looked like a popular guy to me," Rudesheim repeated, making me realize how ignorant he was of the customs and social norms in the land he occupied.
"The sheikhs are there out of courtesy," I told him. "And no one would show disrespect to their host. But they will also support the candidate they think will win."
"If you like, yes. But in different ways than we are two-faced. ..."
"We?" Rudesheim narrowed his eyes.
"Like when Bush says this war is to liberate Iraqis ..."
"S'right." He was daring me to go further.
"We all know he's lying, don't we?"
"I don't believe the president of the United States is a liar," Rudesheim said in an eerily quiet voice.
"Wafiq is trying to impress you."
"And he succeeded."
I told him that Omar's wife was Wafiq al-Samarrai's sister and that she was willing to testify in court that her brother was guilty of mass murder. ...
I explained that Omar had arranged an elaborate coup against Saddam in 1995 involving two jet fighters and a thousand troops. It was carefully thought out and might have succeeded. But Wafiq, from his exile, had nixed the plan and undermined support for it, mainly because, in Omar's opinion, it did not involve Wafiq.
"Put it this way," I said. "If this war had been fought in '91, Wafiq would have been on your top-ten most-wanted list."
posted by Fred Clark 4:41 PM
MICHAEL "SAVAGE" WEINER IS RIDICULOUS
"For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you" (Matthew 7:2).
I have never heard Michael Weiner's radio show, nor -- like most people -- did I ever see his program on MSNBC.
What I know of the man I learned from others who presented his own words -- his own outrageous, hateful, bigoted, racist and homophobic words. From his own words and from his venomous litigiousness, it is clear that he is a spiteful, petty, thin-skinned little man.
Savage/Weiner isn't my beat (see here, here and here for full coverage) but I was nonetheless very pleased to see Instant Karma finally knock him off his feet. He's off the air and he's been canned by MSNBC.
Michael "Savage" Weiner is ridiculous. When encountering the ridiculous, an honest person is dutibound to meet it with ridicule. This is right, and just, and eminently civil.
So bravo to Annie Nakao of the San Francisco Chronicle for kicking Savage while he's down, in the hopes that he'll stay down.
posted by Fred Clark 3:49 PM
TOMORROW'S NEWS TODAY
The blogosphere really is a remarkable thing. Reading just a few sites -- for example Eschaton, Talking Points Memo and Cursor -- is often like reading next week's, or next month's, newspaper ahead of time.
Vice President Dick Cheney has claimed, incredibly (literally), that he did not learn that the Niger forgery was a fraud until he read it in Nick Kristof's June New York Times column. This claim was particularly offensive to readers of the above-mentioned sites, who were aware of this clumsy fakery well before it even attracted Kristof's attention.
Even if you accept Cheney's implausible excuse, isn't it kind of frightening that somebody like myself, Joe-Schmoe with a home computer and no security clearance at all, was more aware of the results of a Cheney-instigated CIA investigation than was Cheney himself?
Readers of the above mentioned sites -- unlike Cheney or national security adviser Condoleezza Rice -- don't have access to any special, secret insights. We're just paying more attention than these officials seem to be to the facts as reported in the public record.
(I should probably add Google News to the above list. It's global scope keeps it well ahead of the sluggish, parochial, "conventional wisdom" of the White House press corps or of CNN's 24-hour echo chamber.)
The Niger forgery, like the Trent Lott affair, could provide an interesting case study for students of the media who are trying to measure the way widely circulated stories can percolate for weeks or months online before erupting into the attention of Big Media.
In any case, those in the blogosphere who have long been aware of the falsity of the president's claim about Iraq's African connection are now wondering when the mainstream media will finally notice some of the other discredited falsehoods included in the State of the Union, in the president's pre-Senate-vote speech in Cincinnati, and in Colin Powell's unconscionable and indefensible February 5 speech before the U.N. Security Council.
Is the current todo over the Niger falsehood an aberration? Is it just an accidental and isolated case of journalists actually practicing journalism? Or will the mainstream media begin asking the questions that bloggers and others online have been asking for months and starting dragging more of the administration's dubious claims and outright lies into the harsh light of public scrutiny?
The folks at Cursor, with uncharacteristic optimism, are hoping for the latter. They point to examples like this AP story by Matt Kelley as an example of what may be coming. Kelley writes:
As President Bush works to quiet a controversy over his discredited claim of Iraqi uranium shopping in Africa, another of his prewar assertions is coming under fire: the alleged link between Saddam Hussein's regime and al-Qaida.
Before the war, Bush and members of his cabinet said Saddam was harboring top al-Qaida operatives and suggested Iraq could slip the terrorist network chemical, biological or even nuclear weapons.
Critics attacked those assertions from the beginning for being counter to the ideologies of Saddam and al-Qaida and short on corroborating evidence. Now, two former Bush administration intelligence officials say the evidence linking Saddam to the group responsible for the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks was never more than sketchy at best.
''There was no significant pattern of cooperation between Iraq and the al-Qaida terrorist operation,'' former State Department intelligence official Greg Thielmann said this week.
Whistleblowers like Greg Thielmann, Joseph Wilson and Vince Cannistraro are coming forward, telling their stories to anyone willing to listen. Expect more such truth-tellers to follow.
It could prove to be a long, uncomfortable summer for the White House, one in which the president is forced to encounter something he has so far avoided: accountability.
posted by Fred Clark 3:22 PM
GO READ ESCHATON.
The Eschatonians (Eschatonites? Eschatonics?) have been busy all weekend. Go read all of it.
I'm not sure if Eschaton's tag-team set-up is just intended to last until Atrios returns from the Grand Tour. But here's hoping he decides to keep the full Scooby Gang around even after he gets back. Leah, Lambert and the Farmer add a lot of value to what was already an invaluably thorough site.
posted by Fred Clark 11:30 AM