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Friday, February 15, 2013

Zero Dark Thirty: Hijacking history.

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What if a new film came out about 9/11, “based on a firsthand account of actual events,” that convincingly showed no Jews were in the World Trade Center that fateful morning. The fiery disaster, in fact, was a Zionist/CIA plot to justify launching “The War on Terror”?
Or what about another film “based on true historical events,” that Barack Obama is a closet Muslim, and the drive for gun control paves the way for a jihadist takeover of America?
Outrageous right?

What about a film leaving the impression that brutal methods of torture, though perhaps morally repugnant, led to the assassination of America’s number one enemy.

The first two claims, often backed up by amateurish photos, videos and ropey  documentation, have been bandied about for years on the Internet.
The film about torture, however, is a sophisticated production, turned out by the Sony Corporation and a talented director, writer and cast, backed up by reams of expensive research, nominated for five Oscars, and reaping hundreds of millions of dollars in box offices around the world.
The movie, of course, is Zero Dark Thirty (ZDT).

In a way, that film, and others like it, are hijacking our history. I’ll get back to that charge.
Some commentators like the Times’ Roger Cohen have praised ZDT “as a courageous work that is disturbing in the way that art should be.”

Indeed, as befits a work of art, much of the story-line in ZDT is unstated, diffuse. There are a lot of shadowy images, elliptical scenes, muttered exchanges. But it’s difficult to come away from the film without the perception that brutal torture, such as water boarding, played an important role in the CIA’s finding Usama Bin Laden’s personal courier, which in turn led them to the Al Qaeda leader himself.

The problem is, according to a lot of people who should know, that was not the case. The film has been roundly criticized from Human Rights Watch, to prominent American Senators, to a former agent in the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force, for giving Americans the erroneous impression that torture played a key role in tracking down and killing Bin Laden.

In fact, when challenged on the film’s accuracy, director Kathryn Bigelow claims a kind of artistic license—as if her critics really don’t get what her craft is all about. “What’s important to remember is it’s a movie and not a documentary…It’s a dramatization of a 10-year manhunt compressed into two-and-a-half hours…There’s a lot of composite characters and it’s an interpretation.”

O.K., just an interpretation. But Bigelow and her publicists try to have it both ways.  The film’s trailer breathlessly invites us to “Witness the Biggest Manhunt in History.”

And, as the film begins, we are solemnly informed that it is “based on firsthand accounts of actual events.”

But, “It does not say that it is a factual, unembroidered recounting of those events.”
explains Roger Cohen, sounding less like the gimlet-eyed columnist and more like attorney for the defense.

To bolster his case, Cohen quotes Israeli novelist Amos Oz’s observation that “Facts at times become the dire enemies of truth.’ 

“Or, put another way,” Cohen explains, “while reality is the raw material journalism attempts to render with accuracy and fairness, it is the raw material that art must transform.”

In other words, directors like Kathryn Bigelow must be given the license to shape and change the facts if necessary, so that her audience can benefit from the film- maker’s memorable take on history.

That’s one argument.

But let’s go back to Amos Oz’s provocative statement that “facts at times become the dire enemies of truth.” 

Isn’t it equally true that lies and distortions presented under the guise of facts also become the dire enemies of truth?

Are we really supposed to believe that the intent of the people who made this film was not to have the audience believe, one hundred percent, that, “yeah, wow, this is exactly how it went down in Pakistan.”

So much money, time, and skill were spent creating believability--in the last half hour breathlessly following the second-by-second night-vision action of the Navy Seals as they closed in for the kill.

What we were witnessing was much more immediate and “real” than what Barack Obama must have been seen from the direct CIA feed to the Oval Office when the assassination of bin Laden took place thousands of miles away.

But such story-telling skill cannot erase the fact that the film was also a gross distortion of reality. One that could make a difference: There’s a national debate about torture going on. In fact, the T-word has become so sensitive that government officials 
and much of the media prefer the euphemism   “enhanced interrogation techniques” 

There is no way that a powerful film like Zero Dark Thirty does not become an important part of that debate: “I know torture works, Hell, it helped us get Bin Laden. I saw the movie.”

Indeed, at one part in the film, when CIA agents are discussing the fact that the new Obama administration had given a thumbs down to torture, you couldn’t help feeling that Obama’s edict was naïve, uninformed, and would only weaken the United States.

Of course, for thousands of years playwrights, from Sophocles to Shakespeare to  have done their own riffs on history. The difference is that with the increasing sophistication of the media, film makers have the ability to create the impression that what we are seeing is God-given truth.
So we swallow the lies and distortions along with the facts.
There’s just no way to tell the difference.

That point was driven home by a study done in 2009 by Andrew Butler, now at Duke, but then at the Department of Psychology of the Washington University of Saint Louis.
His researchers gave a group of about fifty students an accurate written account of an historical event to read. They also showed them an excerpt from a feature film about that same event, an excerpt that wrongly and blatantly contradicted the central fact of the printed text.

When they were later tested, 50% of the students recalled the misinformation portrayed in the film as being correct.

“This continued,” Butler reported “even when people were reminded of the potentially inaccurate nature of popular films right before viewing the film.” 
Another fascinating result: “the students were highly confident of the accuracy of the misinformation” sometimes even attributing the false information from the film to the accurate text they had read.

Even when students were told that specific facts in the film were wrong, when they were tested days later, some still felt that what the vivid version the film presented was the truth.

These days, playing to box-office needs, one of the most common film-making distortions is to give Americans credit for the courage and derring-do of others.
That’s the case of  Argo, which supposedly portrays the rescue of 6 American diplomats from Iran in 1979, by an intrepid CIA agent, who leads them out of Tehran disguised as members of a film production crew. The movie is like a recruiting ad for the CIA. Except for the fact that the idea for the escape, the false passports provided to the Americans, the reconnaissance of the Tehran airport etc. etc., came not from the real-life CIA character, but from plucky Canadian diplomats, led by their ambassador Ken Taylor.

Similarly in the Last Samurai (2003), America soldiers led by Tom Cruise save the day for Japan when they are brought in to train the Japanese Imperial army against a 19th century uprising. Problem is, it was the French who trained them.
Again, in the film U-571 (2000), courageous American troops retrieve the Nazi Enigma code machine by boarding a German submarine in disguise. In fact it was the British who captured the Enigma and broke the code.

Then, there’s Oliver Stone’s JFK, which, mixing documentary footage with new film,  argued compellingly that a combination of sinister forces--the CIA, the Mafia, the Military industrial Complex--were behind Kennedy’s assassination.
When one “fact” after another in the film was demolished by experts, Stone retreated to “Hey, Guys …just my take on history.” His fraudulent account, however, became “truth” to tens of millions of Americans and audiences across the globe.

One of the worst exploiters of the “just-my-take-on-history genre” is Mel Gibson, whose blood-spattered portrayal of the American Revolution, “The Patriot” was judged so misleading, that the Smithsonian Institute , which had initially provided support, withdrew its backing and disowned any association.

But the problem is that, for the great majority of people on our planet, historical films “based on fact” are becoming our history books. Whether it be Mel Gibson or Daniel Day Lewis in Lincoln, or Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, taken together they substitute tedious print with a patchwork of spellbinding tales and dramatic images—a beguiling but often distorted or completely false vision of ourselves and our past.    
Should we care?
What can we do?

Friday, February 8, 2013

Drone Wars: Ragheads--4000 vs Americans- 3


Earlier this week, NBC News revealed a secret Department of Justice memo entitled “Lawfulness of a Lethal Operation Against a U.S. Citizen Who Is a Senior Operational Leader of Al-Qa’ida or An Associated Force.” 


NBC’s scoop has since fueled mounting outrage over the Obama administration’s drone policy. What is most troubling about the indignation, however, is how much it’s focused on the fact that, my God, President Obama is even using drone’s to knock off his own people.

Or as a shocked Rachel Maddow put it, “Even an American citizen can be killed.”
Senator Ron Wyden proclaimed, “Americans have a right to know when their government thinks it’s allowed to kill them.”

The American the Justice Department memo referred to was Nasser al-Awlak, a radical Islamic cleric and American and Yemeni citizen, suspected of being head of operations for al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninusula. He was also implicated in the 2009 mass shooting at Fort Hood Texas and the attempted 2011 Times Square bombing by Faisal Shahzad.

Two weeks after he was blown apart in Yemen in 2011, his 16 year-old son was obliterated in another drone strike, also directed under the CIA’s secret guidelines.
The son’s death was much more shocking than his father’s.

One other American has also been killed by Drone strikes.

But, much more shocking is the fact that over the past few years, U.S. drones have made mincemeat out of an estimated 3000 to 4000 others—non Americans--in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, and Somalia.  At least 200 of them were children.
The figures are very rough because no one--certainly not the U.S. government--is releasing an accurate count.  The London based Center for Investigative reporting, which attempts to track the drone strikes, has been able to identify by name only a few hundred of the actual victims. Who knows what their political affiliations really were? 
Or even less, what considerations—legal and otherwise—went into justifying their demise?

“It’s a terrifying situation.” Jennifer Gibson, an American lawyer in London with Reprieve, an organization taking on the “drone war” issue. “There are villages in Pakistan,” she says “that have drones flying over them 24 hours a day. Sometimes they’ll stay for weeks. But my clients and people there have no way of knowing if they are being targeted. Or what kind of behavior is likely to get them killed. They don’t know if the person riding beside them in a car or walking with them in the marketplace may be a target.It’s terrorizing entire communities. Even after an attack, there is no acknowledging by the U.S. government, no response at all, absolutely no accountability. And the vast majority of casualties don’t even have names attached to them.”
Christof Heyns, the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings, summary or arbitrary executions, told a conference in Geneva that President Obama's attacks in Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere, carried out by the CIA, would encourage other states to flout long-established human rights standards. He suggested that some strikes may even constitute “war crimes”.
But, few Americans seem to carry about U.N. rapporteurs. It’s only when Americans are potential targets for those drones, that Congress and the media get stirred up.
And they’re probably right. A recent poll taken by Farleigh Dickinson University’s Public Mind, found that by a two to one margin (48% to 24%) American voters say they think it’s illegal for the U.S. government to target its own citizens abroad with drone strikes.

But, when it comes to using drones to carry out attacks abroad “on people and other targets deemed a threat to the U.S.” voters were in favor of a margin of six-to-one [75% to 13%].

The American Civil Liberties Union and the Centre for Constitutional Rights (The CCR) have been demanding a court hearing in the United States to determine whether the former head of the CIA Leon Panetta was guilty of having depriving Nasser al-Awlak and his son of their constitutional right to life.

Maria LaHood, an attorney with the CCR frankly admitted to me that they are concentrating on the two American cases, because that’s the really the only way to get Americans to focus on the problem. Also because that’s really the best hope they have of getting an American court to actually agree to hear their case.

‘What we’re also hoping” she says, “is that if we do get anywhere with this case, then we can get a legal interpretation from the court that would apply to everyone--not just Americans. But getting a court to hear this case is going to be a battle in itself.”
Reprieve is also active in the courts—in Pakistan. Though the Pakistani ambassador in Washington has complained about the drone strikes, his government has done little to prevent them.  Reprieve now is backing a case in Peshawar to oblige the Pakistani government to take action against the drones--to protect the constitutional right to life of its own citizens.

What particularly concerns Reprieve attorney Jennifer Gibson is the very nature of the convoluted 16-page memo that describes the Justice Department’s rationale for okaying the killing of an American, even outside of a war zone.

“If the U.S. has such vague, ambiguous standards where Americans are concerned, if they they’ve set the bar so low for their own citizens, who knows what the standards are for killing non Americans?”

In other words, if Justice Department lawyers labored so mightily on producing a memo setting the guidelines for killing an American citizen, one can only presume that the guidelines must be much different for those who inhabit the rest of the world.

When do we see that memo?

Monday, February 4, 2013

Mali-Niger-Uranium: A Chinese Puzzle


Mali-Niger-Uranium: A Chinese puzzle
As French fighter-jets pound rebel targets in the northern reaches of Mali, a detachment of French special forces have been quietly dispatched to neighboring Niger.
Now, Niger is supposedly one of the ten poorest countries on the planet, with most people living on less than $1.00 per day. On the other hand, it also has huge deposits of uranium, and the largest uranium miner is Areva, a sprawling French energy conglomerate, in which the French government has a major interest. Areva’s Arlit mine is in a desolate northern region of Niger and the mission of the Special Forces is to protect it.
After all, France depends on nuclear reactors to provide 80% of the country’s electrical power.
Thus, deployment of the special forces is not at all surprising, particularly in light of the spectacular attack by jihadists on the huge Amenas plant in eastern Algeria. Indeed, a group linked to Al Qaeda kidnapped seven Areva employees in 2010, and still holds four of them hostage.  
Which raises the cynical question: to what degree was France’s dramatic intervention in Mali driven by France’s own economic interests?
Which also brings us to the Chinese, and the quandary they face.
As I’ve previously blogged, the Chinese have huge interests of their own in the region--including their $300 million SOMINA uranium mine at the desert outpost of Azalik in northern Niger.

Generally, wherever they are, the Chinese attempt to work with whatever government is in power. They don’t attempt to push any particular political line, or raise questions about potentially embarrassing issues like human rights.
But the Chinese might have as good a reason as the French to be nervous about their operations in Niger. In recent years, the Chinese operators of the SOMINA mine have been the target of protests from Tuareg tribesmen in the region, who were hired to work there. The Tuaregs claimed to have been exploited by their Chinese bosses, poorly paid, poorly housed, particularly when compared to Chinese workers there.  

Perhaps they’ve cleaned up their act, but one would think that, in light of current events, the Chinese would be taking precautions of their own in Niger.
But who are they going to get to protect them? Certainly not their own special forces.  One can just imagine the U.S. or French reaction. Do they train and arm their own Nigerien security guards?
What about the project currently in the works of several African countries contributing to a joint military force, perhaps under UN auspices, to take over from France in Mali?
You’d think the Chinese would be cheering the idea.
But, they don’t seem to be--at least not yet. When the African governments asked for close to a billion dollars to fund that joint African deployment, the major donor countries, including the U.S. and Japan, pledged less than half that amount. 
And China?  A grand total of $1 million!
You figure it out.
Ironically, the Nigerien government, which has been claiming that their country has not profited from its huge mineral wealth, has been pushing France to renegotiate its uranium deal with Niger.
Otherwise, their president, Mohamadou Issoufou, recently threatened, they might seek other partners to exploit that uranium.
Like China?, he was asked. “There is no reason to exclude other countries that wish to cooperate with us.” He replied.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Mali: No Crazy Glue in Sight

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There is a massive, historic upheaval gong on—one chaotic Islamic country after another--spanning more than 7000 miles of the globe—a huge tectonic shift—from Western Africa to the Western frontiers of China.

And, despite a military budget larger than most of the rest of the world combined, the Pentagon and Barack Obama, are basically consigned the roll of on-lookers, cautiously kibitzing from the side, occasionally trying to influence things. Often, not even leading from behind.

Mali, at the Western end of that volatile crescent, is a case in point.
As Colin Powell famously warned George H.W. Bush on the eve of the invasion of Iraq, “if you break it, you own it.” 

France is not responsible for “breaking” Mali. The country was already a West African basket case long before the French intervention.

But, as things now stand, France “owns” the shattered country. And there’s no crazy glue in sight.

In other words, France, which enraged many Americans by refusing to participate in the invasion of Iraq, now finds itself stuck with the results of their own intervention.
French President Francois Hollande’s dilemma is how to finesse that predicament—without making it look like France has cut and run, leaving an unseemly chaos in his wake.

Hollande made his conundrum clear during his visit this past Saturday to Mali when he announced that France “will stay as long as necessary, but its purpose is not to stay.”  

Not that different a straddle from the problem the U.S. faced in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In fact, France’s sputtering economy can ill-afford this military adventure. More than 10% of the population is unemployed, factories continue to shut down, automobile sales slumped 15% in January, public employees are out on strike, etc. etc.

But to whom does France hand-off the ominous situation it confronts in Mali?
What passes for leadership in that country is a “transitional regime” the product of a military coup against the previous regime, which was corrupt, ineffectual, totally unable to deal with the growing crisis.

Which was why it was overthrown. Somehow, elections are going to have to be organized, which also means negotiating some kind of settlement with the Tuaregs of Northern Mali, who have been demanding attention from the central government for decades. It was their rebellion that was hijacked by the jihadis-some of whom were linked with Al Qaeda. 

But what to do about those jihadis? In fact, the big question now, is where they hell are they? As far as is known, they took very few casualties. In most cases, without a shot being fired from the ground, they evaporated back into the desert or from wherever they came--often long before the French troops arrived.

But they’ve still got their arms, their jihadist ideals, and their income flowing in from traditional smuggling activities.

So, do they just disappear or launch hit-and-run attacks against troops sent to hunt them down? Or wait until most of the French pull out?

Up till now, the majority of French still back Hollande’s Mali expedition. But what happens if the French army—which lost just one soldier in the entire three week campaign--what happens if they start taking casualties, or more French civilians get taken hostage by jihadi groups?  Or French targets elsewhere are attacked?

What happens if the French-backed Malien army commits more outrages on the civilian population? What happens if the French feel obliged to overstay their visit, and—like the U.S. in Iraq or Afghanistan--become viewed as occupiers rather than liberators.

The French have been talking about turning over frontline duties to African troops. But the Malien army is woefully trained, and equipped, its officers are said to be up to their helmets in cigarette and drug smuggling, often in cahoots with the radical Islamic groups they were supposed to be keeping at bay.  

There are also thousands of other African troops from West Africa, who have been arriving in dribs and drabs in various states of readiness and training. They also lack weapons, logistics support, skill in desert fighting, and, above all, money to pay for their operations.

[Indeed some countries volunteer for such operations because it’s a great way to have someone else pick up the tab for their own over bloated armies.]

So, apart from training those troops, who’s going to pick up the tab? Again, France finds itself scanning the horizon for help.

Earlier this week, the President of the Ivory Coast announced at a donors’ conference in Ethiopia that the price tag for the “African-led International Support Mission to Mali” would be $950 million. That’s to cover not just military deployment and logistics, but humanitarian assistance, and at least the down payment on future development.

But despite the supposed crisis that threatens not just Africa, but Europe as well, the assembled delegates came up with only $450 million, less than half the amount requested.

Among the donors, Japan, which pledged $120 million, the United States, $96 million, Germany, 20 million.

But the most outrageous pledges came from the governments of India and China --$1 million dollars—each!

This is China, mind you, that, with hugeinvestments throughout West Africa, has an enormous amount at risk if political instability spreads.

The last thing the Chinese want, however, is for their projects--and thousands of their citizens--throughout the region to also become targets of Islamic radicals.

Let the French handle this one.

That same caution, fueled by the bitter lessons of Afghanistan and Iraq, has kept France’s allies on the sidelines, supplying aircraft to transport French troops and refuel French fighter jets, as is the U.S., but staying clear of any front-line roles themselves.   

Washington has wanted to keep an arms length from the conflict in order not to offer the jihadis a rallying point to inflame recruits.

But the U.S. is providing pilotless drones to track the rebels. And the problem is that to be effective, those drones will also have to be armed with missiles to take out the rebels they track down.

What happens as the inevitable cases of collateral damage start rolling in?  
As a nod to the French, the British finally decided to send 350 soldiers, but only to serve as instructors for the African troops. There is no way they’re going to be involved in ground combat.

Indeed Prime Minister David Cameron, delivered one of the most pessimistic verdicts on the situation, when, during a recent visit to Algeria, he declared Britain’s determination to deal with “the terrorism threat” in Mali. “It will require a response that is about years, even decades, rather than months, and it requires a response that…has an absolutely iron resolve…” 

Or, as one retired French colonel blogged, “war against non-state organizations is a war of Sisyphus. We’re in the Sahel for a long time.”