Archive for the ‘foreign affairs’ Tag

Buried by the Haiti disaster

Haiti’s devastation, now almost a week since the big quake, continues to saturate the media. It’s a lot to sift through and absorb; here’s where I’ve posted a handful of the most compelling links I’ve come across in recent days. For more, see Robert Mackey’s skillful curation over at The Lede blog.

One consequence of the historic disaster has been the burial of other developments that normally would’ve (and should’ve) been bigger front-page news:

Blackwater still gets away with mass murder in Iraq, despite that three of its security personnel present at the notorious events three years ago testified to what they saw as wanton killing and cover-up. “All three were horrified by what they thought was an unprovoked attack in 2007 that left 14 Iraqi civilians dead,” according to previously sealed court documents described by the Washington Post. Their testimony further confirms the war zone “horror movie” reported by others long ago. Five Blackwater guards on trial for the attack walked at the beginning of this month, acquitted on procedural grounds.

Wall Street’s top moguls sell Congress some shameless rationale for America’s historic financial meltdown. Testified Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan Chase: “My daughter called me from school one day and said, ‘Dad, what’s a financial crisis?’ And, without trying to be funny, I said, ‘This type of thing happens every five to seven years.’ And she said, ‘Why is everyone so surprised?’” (Without trying to be funny: Who the f—k is he kidding?) Testified Lloyd C. Blankfein of Goldman Sachs: “Whatever we did, it didn’t work out well. We regret the consequence that people have lost money.” (Hear them in their own words, here.) Meanwhile, pretty much everyone working for their bailed out firms is making out like a bandit.

Vancouver wins a key battle in its progressive war on drugs, with a top court preventing the Canadian federal government from shutting down the city’s officially sanctioned injection site for heroin and cocaine addicts. Probably not top story material, but a development of great interest to me personally; I reported extensively on the cutting-edge project from the streets of Vancouver — first in 2003, when the Bush administration angrily declared the policy “state-sponsored personal suicide,” and again three years later, when they were proven dead wrong by Insite’s indisputable success.

Also don’t forget that today is Martin Luther King Day; here’s a video clip of Robert F. Kennedy announcing King’s death by assassination in 1968. And always worth rereading, MLK’s landmark “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” from 1963. It continues to resonate in new ways with Barack Obama presiding in the White House.

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Obama defines the war that will define him

Another major wave of U.S. troops sent to Afghanistan. A Detroit-bound airliner imperiled by a terrorist on Christmas Day. A stunning blow to CIA operations targeting the Taliban and al Qaeda. A surge of political attacks against President Obama led by an aggressively partisan former vice president.

In recent weeks America’s current era of war has escalated to a next level. Obama didn’t preside over its inception, of course, but it is ever his to handle. Although the nation’s economic reckoning is far from over, what happens on the national security front is probably more likely to define Obama’s presidency than anything else.

His speech Thursday night addressing the U.S. intelligence debacle at Christmas reflected this. In his closing remarks, Obama made a point of disarming recent partisan attacks; although he didn’t name Dick Cheney specifically, some of his comments clearly were a retort to the former vice president’s assertion that Obama doesn’t take the terrorist threat seriously:

Over the past two weeks, we’ve been reminded again of the challenge we face in protecting our country against a foe that is bent on our destruction. And while passions and politics can often obscure the hard work before us, let’s be clear about what this moment demands. We are at war. We are at war against al Qaeda, a far-reaching network of violence and hatred that attacked us on 9/11, that killed nearly 3,000 innocent people, and that is plotting to strike us again. And we will do whatever it takes to defeat them.

In the New York Post, Rich Lowry beamed that Obama’s rhetoric could’ve been written by Dick Cheney himself.

Most striking was the president’s reiteration of the principles by which he will prosecute America’s long war:

Here at home, we will strengthen our defenses, but we will not succumb to a siege mentality that sacrifices the open society and liberties and values that we cherish as Americans, because great and proud nations don’t hunker down and hide behind walls of suspicion and mistrust. That is exactly what our adversaries want, and so long as I am President, we will never hand them that victory. We will define the character of our country, not some band of small men intent on killing innocent men, women and children. And in this cause, every one of us — every American, every elected official — can do our part.

On MSNBC Thursday night, veteran Washington columnist Howard Fineman pointed out how anxious George W. Bush had been to get through his final weeks in office without another terrorist attack taking place inside the U.S. Apparently Bush was plenty eager to get out of town with what he viewed as a clean post-9/11 record.

The equation Obama faces is not a matter of if, but when. American society would do well to accept that reality, as even David Brooks has now said. Fortunately, the current commander in chief appears driven to move ahead with a markedly different approach than his predecessor. “Instead of giving into cynicism and division, let’s move forward with the confidence and optimism and unity that defines us as a people,” Obama concluded on Thursday. “For now is not a time for partisanship, it’s a time for citizenship — a time to come together and work together with the seriousness of purpose that our national security demands. That’s what it means to be strong in the face of violent extremism. That’s how we will prevail in this fight.”

Dick Cheney’s 9/11 conspiracy

The former vice president took a break from hunting and fishing this week to return home to Fox News and fire away once again at Barack Obama. Headline-grabbing potshots this time included characterizing the sitting president as “radical” and calling the Obama administration’s decision to put Khalid Sheik Mohammed on trial in New York City “a huge mistake.” Cheney stopped just shy of labeling Obama’s policy as treason. “It’ll give aid and comfort to the enemy,” he said of the pending terrorist trial.

The retired veep is as entitled to his opinions as the next guy, one supposes, however politically motivated they may remain. But particularly since Cheney’s arguments depart ad nauseam from his views about the 9/11 terrorist attacks (see the saturated transcript linked above), it seems an apt moment to point out some news that bubbled up a few weeks ago regarding Cheney and that fateful September day. Newsworthy indeed, although it seemed barely to register in the media: A new book by John Farmer, a former attorney general of New Jersey who served as senior counsel to the 9/11 Commission, says flat out that Cheney lied about how the U.S. government handled the Al Qaeda strikes on New York and Washington as they unfolded.

As someone involved in producing much coverage on the story of 9/11 (including this wide-ranging series for Salon in 2006), I can say that this is one conspiracy worthy of attention. (Numerous others, not so much.)

According to Jacob Heilbrunn’s recent review in the Sunday Times of “The Ground Truth: The Untold Story of America Under Attack on 9/11,” Farmer handily debunks the Bush administration’s storyline that the White House acted decisively and effectively that day. He describes how both Cheney and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz “provided palpably false versions that touted the military’s readiness to shoot down United 93 before it could hit Washington,” according to Heilbrunn. “Planes were never in place to intercept it. By the time the Northeast Air Defense Sector had been informed of the hijacking, United 93 had already crashed.”

Moreover: “Farmer scrutinizes F.A.A. and Norad records to provide irrefragable evidence that a day after a Sept. 17 White House briefing, both agencies suddenly altered their chronologies to produce a coherent timeline and story that ‘fit together nicely with the account provided publicly by Deputy Defense Secretary Wolfowitz and Vice President Cheney.’”

Farmer’s damning conclusion? “History should record that whether through unprecedented administrative incompetence or orchestrated mendacity, the American people were misled about the nation’s response to the 9/11 attacks.”

It gets one thinking about a comment Cheney made to Fox’s Sean Hannity on Tuesday night, discussing the memoirs he’s currently writing about his 41 years in Washington, dating back to the Nixon administration: “There are some fascinating stories and interesting things I was involved in.”

Do tell, Mr. Vice President.

The killing of Neda

The new documentary “A Death in Tehran” continues the stellar investigative work of Frontline, casting light on the fate of Neda Agha-Soltan, the young woman whose murder during Iran’s election chaos last summer commanded historic attention. On the PBS/Frontline web site you can watch the documentary in its entirety. It’s well worth the time. The film illuminates the circumstances of the shooting and its aftermath through extensive use of amateur video from the street protests and interviews with people close to Neda — including the doctor who tried to save her as she quickly bled to death on the street.

The chilling footage of Neda’s death in late June zipped around the globe on an unprecedented digital wave, instantly making hers the face of the rising reformist movement in Iran. One compelling segment of the documentary details how the Iranian hardliners reacted to this threat against their grip on power.

In response to the international outcry over Neda’s death — including President Obama’s confirmation that he’d seen the “heartbreaking” video on YouTube — the regime set about attempting to rewrite the story, pointing a finger at the CIA and outside agitators, the same forces they blamed for the mass street protests and allegations of vote rigging that led to the greatest upheaval in Iran since the revolution of 1979.

The film also uncovers some remarkable footage of Neda’s killer, “a member of the Basij militia who’d been brought into Tehran by the regime’s Revolutionary Guards to stamp out the ‘Green Revolution.'” In an interview with Frontline, Arash Hejazi, the doctor who tried to save Neda as she lay dying in the street, describes watching the crowd’s reaction to the man who had fatally shot her. “They started to discuss what to do with him,” Hejazi recalls. “They grabbed his wallet, took out his ID card and started shouting, ‘He is a Basiji member; he is one of them,’ and started swearing and cursing him, and he was begging for people not to harm him or kill him.”

Incredibly, the killer walked. “They believed the police wouldn’t do anything to him as the Basiji are really powerful and he would have easily have got away,” Hejazi says, “so in all of the chaos they decided to release him.”

The documentary describes how the regime sought further to cover up a brutal crackdown: “The Iranian government admits 11 protesters were killed on June 20, but doctors from three Tehran hospitals confirmed at least 34 deaths. Other bodies were buried by security forces without first being identified.”

New York Times blogger Robert Mackey, who has cranked out much excellent coverage of the fallout from the Iranian election, has more here. In late June, I wrote extensively about the unprecedented role digital media played during the upheaval on the streets of Tehran; that’s available here.

In the hands of the Taliban

As Barack Obama continues wrestling with decisions about a war that could define his presidency, veteran reporter David Rohde’s account of his seven-month ordeal as a captive of the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan makes for some compelling reading. Along with two Afghan colleagues, Rohde was kidnapped in November 2008 while attempting to meet a Taliban commander for an interview. This June, upon reading the surprising news of his escape to freedom — the kidnapping had been kept quiet by the New York Times and other media organizations out of fear for Rohde’s safety — I was anticipating the narrative account surely to follow.

Months later, Rohde’s retelling does not disappoint. In an ongoing five-part series in the Times, his dispassionate tone combines with thoughtful attention to detail to give the reader confidence that, although some of his recollections may be imprecise, his harrowingly close view of America’s elusive enemy was also a profoundly revealing one. In political terms, Rohde’s subsequent analysis cuts in several directions.

Rohde-Taliban-NYT

In the first installment of the series, war hawks will find some forceful affirmation in Rohde’s seasoned assessment of the enemy:

Over those months, I came to a simple realization. After seven years of reporting in the region, I did not fully understand how extreme many of the Taliban had become. Before the kidnapping, I viewed the organization as a form of “Al Qaeda lite,” a religiously motivated movement primarily focused on controlling Afghanistan.

Living side by side with the Haqqanis’ followers, I learned that the goal of the hard-line Taliban was far more ambitious. Contact with foreign militants in the tribal areas appeared to have deeply affected many young Taliban fighters. They wanted to create a fundamentalist Islamic emirate with Al Qaeda that spanned the Muslim world.

For those who decried the Bush administration’s conduct of its so-called war on terrorism, there is also persuasive evidence here. “My captors harbored many delusions about Westerners,” Rohde writes. “But I also saw how some of the consequences of Washington’s antiterrorism policies had galvanized the Taliban. Commanders fixated on the deaths of Afghan, Iraqi and Palestinian civilians in military airstrikes, as well as the American detention of Muslim prisoners who had been held for years without being charged. America, Europe and Israel preached democracy, human rights and impartial justice to the Muslim world, they said, but failed to follow those principles themselves.”

From Guantanamo to Abu Ghraib, this would come back to haunt Rohde directly — a consequence of which many intelligence and military leaders had long warned. In the second installment out today, Rohde describes how his pleas for release were rebuffed:

When I told them I was an innocent civilian who should be released, they responded that the United States had held and tortured Muslims in secret detention centers for years. Commanders said they themselves had been imprisoned, their families ignorant of their fate. Why, they asked, should they treat me differently?

Among the dramatic turns in Rohde’s tale is a remarkable deception perpetrated by his primary captor. (Also see Monday’s piece.) More than just a gripping account, though, his writing further illuminates a Gordian conflict with no end in sight — and on the eve perhaps of some momentous choices in Washington. It’ll be interesting to see what more perspective Rohde offers as the series continues through Thursday.

UPDATE: Some New York Times readers are taking issue with the presentation and placement of the Rohde series (titled “Held by the Taliban”). As I make clear above, I’m with executive editor Bill Keller on this one:

When David Rohde escaped after more than seven months in captivity, it was clear even as we celebrated that his experience was one more window into a long and complicated war. No other journalist, as far as I know, has had such an experience of the Taliban from the inside. As I hope the series makes clear, this is not a story about David Rohde, it is a story about the character, strength and organization of the people the U.S. is fighting in Afghanistan and Pakistan. It provides detailed insights into the minds and motives of the Taliban’s footsoldiers. It also reveals the extent to which the Taliban has, with impunity, colonized a swath of Pakistan. Yes, it is a hell of a story, but it also adds rich detail to our understanding of the Taliban.

Part three of the series is now available here.

Brevity, brainpower… and Obama’s beer hour

If attention spans these days are indeed being digitally obliterated, you may not get very far past this sentence. But if you’re looking for a few good places where you might actually go a little deeper (besides this blog, of course!), here are a few recommended links — a quick rundown of What Else I’ve Been Reading Lately.

Benedict Carey continues an engrossing series about the human brain, with the latest installment looking into the science of gut feelings. What is it that might give some U.S. soldiers in Iraq or Afghanistan exceptional ability to detect roadside bombs? It could be that cognitive abilities matter most — whether innate or gained potentially through training.

NPR has a look at how Bryant Neal Vinas, a 26-year-old aspiring jihadi from Long Island, made his way pretty darn close to Osama bin Laden. According to terrorism expert Sam Rascoff, “Vinas’ experience tends to undermine the story we’ve been telling about what it takes to get inside the hard-core al-Qaida.”

In “The Kill Company,” Raffi Khatchadourian further investigates the dark side of U.S. military action in Iraq. In the fog of this long war, where is the line between killing and murder on the battlefield?

With a thought-provoking Op-Ed in the Times, Haaretz’s Aluf Benn suggests Barack Obama has blown it by not talking to Israelis, while just about everyone else in the world has been hearing directly from the Diplomat in Chief. “This policy of ignoring Israel carries a price,” Benn says, especially with respect to the incendiary issue of the settlements.

After spending a chunk of time back in June writing about the election upheaval in Iran, it was inspiring to read this high-quality exchange between bloggers Ethan Zuckerman and Robert Mackey about the challenges of covering events in Iran. Would that this kind of open discussion, at the nexus of technology, politics and journalism, be much more commonplace.

RedStripeBeerAnd last but not least… Gates-gate. Since you made it this far, I’ll go a tad deeper here. Obviously, a bunch of media folks have no choice but to waste a bunch of time obsessing about and over-analyzing what brands will be consumed during the imminent beer summit at the White House. (How revealing that the black Harvard professor is going for a Red Stripe! Etc.) It’s not as if there’s an array of daunting issues in the world on which to focus. Nonetheless, CNN’s “Situation Room” today has been featuring a “beer chat” countdown clock onscreen, along with graphic deconstructions of where the gathering will take place in the White House rose garden, and with Wolf Blitzer practically beside himself teasing the event every 60 seconds. (Jon Stewart no doubt is hailing the cable news gods ahead of tonight’s sendup.)

In the end, I think Obama “acted stupidly” himself by getting so directly involved in this whole kerfuffle. He has done wonders to help push America forward on intractable issues of race. (His March 2008 speech in Philadelphia on race was perhaps the high-water mark of his tidal wave of a presidential campaign.) But I agree with Glenn Loury that Obama spent his political capital poorly on this — even if, as Charles M. Blow recounted quite poignantly, America still has a long way to go.

SamAdamsUPDATE: An important twist in the paramount beer summit story: It turns out that Gates recalculated and went with a Sam Adams instead. We can only ponder the significance… also see Michael Scherer, on how the White House press corps got played on this one.

On unsettling ground in Israel

Even after working for years with several deeply knowledgeable, insightful writers to cover the morass known as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, perhaps the only thing that’s really clear to me right now is this: It is ever atop the list of the world’s most daunting problems. And while no problem is more fraught with righteousness and political posturing (on all sides), at the heart of it is the long-running battle over facts on the ground. Sometimes that battle is more open, sometimes it is more clandestine — but always the struggle for the land, that seemingly tiny yet politically enormous sliver of it.

Despite my strong desire to see the region for myself, I’ve not yet had a chance to visit. And that’s one reason why Eric Orner’s recent piece, “The Land Grab out My Front Door: A Memoir of Jerusalem in Pictures,” grabbed my attention.

land grab - orner

In a subject realm where anger and outrage are the norm, Orner’s work is an understated and intimate account of what’s happening on the ground in Jerusalem’s Abu Tor neighborhood, where Orner has been living.

“Israelis call Abu Tor ‘mixed’, meaning both Arabs & Jews live here,” he writes. “This doesn’t really capture the reality of the place, though. Well-off Jewish American ex-pats live in fancy condos at the top of the hill… while Arab families live further down the street as it makes a twisty descent towards the valley floor…”

He goes on to depict what appear to be dubious actions by Israeli authorities to demolish an Arab community that apparently stands in the way of developing “an archeological theme park” in a coveted part of Old Jerusalem. Such a development, Orner notes, is likely to draw lots more “Euro-Yankee tourist Shequels.” (Not to mention what it would add in terms of Israel-favorable facts on the ground.)

land grab2


land grab3

Check out the whole piece (at the above link), both visually engaging and eye-opening.

Meantime, while there seem to be some hopeful signs of progress for Palestinians in the West Bank these days, according to a report from the Times’ Isabel Kershner, few people believe that the right-wing government of Bibi Netanyahu is sincere when it comes to the Israeli prime minister’s recent talk of peace with the Palestinians. Netanyahu has been under pressure from the Obama administration, particularly on the issue of Israeli settlements.

But as Kershner reports, “even senior officials and prominent figures of his conservative Likud Party have been busy explaining, privately and publicly, why they think there is not likely to be a Palestinian state any time soon, in ways that raise even more questions about the current government’s commitment to reaching a final peace accord. And Mr. Netanyahu’s diplomatic turnaround was greeted by a notable silence among the Likud firebrands and hawks, widely interpreted here as a sign that they feel they have nothing to fear.”

According to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, Netanyahu claimed this week that Jerusalem is an “open city” that permits all its inhabitants, Jewish and Palestinian, to purchase homes in both its eastern and western parts. “An examination by Haaretz, however, presented a rather different situation on the ground,” reports the paper, under the headline “Most Arabs can’t buy most homes in West Jerusalem.”

Haaretz also reports: “Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon said Tuesday that Israel had an ‘indisputable’ right to build anywhere in Jerusalem, including East Jerusalem, following international calls on Israel to halt construction in the disputed area.”

The political picture apparently has grown tense enough that a senior aide to Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany — whose country usually displays staunch support for Israel — commented in a German publication that if the settlement building does not stop, Israel is running the risk of “gradually committing suicide as a democratic state.”

Moonwalk for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

The embattled Iranian regime couldn’t have dreamed up a better reprieve from scrutiny than the worldwide media frenzy over Michael Jackson’s death, only just getting underway.

How much Jackson coverage will be too much? (Whatever that is, we’re likely to find out.) His death is tragic but unsurprising given his condition in recent years. A great sadness for his family, friends and fans — and arguably a great relief, as the world can finally stop fixating on the downtempo horror show of misery and self-mutilation, and instead remember Jackson for the extraordinary music and artistry he gave, particularly in his earlier days.

youngMJ

Indeed, the postmortem coverage will be ceaseless for days to come, while Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s sham of a reelection and attendant brutality recedes from the headlines. But what continues unfolding in Iran remains worthy of top billing. Prospects for the beginnings of rapprochement with the Obama administration now appear to be on ice. The regime is claiming the election was fraud-free. (The voting populations of various Iranian towns must have swelled overnight.) Clerics close to Ayatollah Khamenei are calling for dissidents to be punished ruthlessly and savagely. Veteran journalists anticipate that the country’s media lockdown will continue for a long time. (NBC News chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel: “We’re openly being called the instigators of a revolt.” More details here on the media crackdown.)

mahmoud_ahmadinejadDecentralized digital communications may become ever more critical to publicizing what’s transpiring inside Iran. As of Friday afternoon Michael Jackson commanded the top three slots for Twitter hashtags (#MJ’s; #RIP Mj; #michaeljackson), but Iran was still trending at fifth and sixth (#Iran; #iranelection). Also of note: The UK blogger whose Iran cyberwar guide mysteriously vanished last week is back online and has a second installment, an interesting rundown for tech and politics junkies alike. Meanwhile, this recently posted mash-up evokes the strange confluence of the historical moment, setting images from the Iranian election upheaval (some of them graphically disturbing) to Jackson’s controversial song “They Don’t Care About Us.”

Black clouds over Tehran

There will be blood — much more of it, if need be — was the implicit message from Ayatollah Khamenei at Friday prayers in Tehran. “Struggling on the streets after elections is not acceptable,” the Iranian Supreme Leader said. “If they do not stop these actions, then any consequences will be their responsibility.”

KhameneiJune19AFP

Khamenei emphasized that the Islamic republic would never “commit treason” by manipulating votes, that the country’s legal system does not allow vote-rigging. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s large margin of victory — supposedly by 11 million votes — proved that the election could not have been fixed, Khamenei said.

Many Iranians, and people around the world, understand that’s a lie. As Stanford University’s Abbas Milani noted on CNN Thursday night, numerous towns across Iran had reported vote totals for Ahmadinejad amounting to more than 100 percent of their resident populations.

protestJune17AFP

But in Iran the fist, not the facts, likely will prevail.

batonsJune14AFP-2Neil MacFarquhar reports on the violence unleashed in Iranian cities at night since last Friday’s election, with the vigilante thugs known as Basijis beating, looting and sometimes gunning down protesters they tracked during the day. Says one Iranian exile who helped found the Revolutionary Guards during the 1979 Islamic revolution: “It is the special brigades of the Revolutionary Guards who right now, especially at night, trap young demonstrators and kill them.”

If mass protests continue, as seems almost certain, more violence will spill into broad daylight, whether or not any foreign media is left inside the country to document it.

UPDATE: The Times’ Lede blog has a source in Tehran describing the use of Twitter — apparently less instrumental in organizing street demonstrations, while “primarily being used to communicate with the outside world.”

Regarding prospects for greater violence and ultimate political outcome, Steve Clemons shares an interesting dispatch from “a well-connected Iranian internationalist” who has been in Tehran during the post-election unrest. The source describes witnessing young Mousavi supporters in the streets at night, fighting back by “hunting” Basijis. He describes them as agile “militia style” groups, including “a surprising number of girls.”

Iran election upheaval continues

Trading in their bright green for black, hundreds of thousands of protesters marched again in Iran on Thursday, urged by presidential challenger Mir Hossein Mousavi to mourn the students killed during demonstrations earlier in the week. Photographer Saeed Kamali Dehghan documented the action for the Guardian in Tehran’s Imam Khomeini square:

Tehran-demonstrations-002 Tehran-demonstrations-007

iran(Getty/NPR)NPR’s Mike Shuster reports that members of the Basij, the feared Iranian paramilitary group, have instigated violence under cover of darkness — apparently to help justify a more forceful crackdown against the opposition movement, which by most accounts largely has remained peaceful. One eyewitness report includes a thug exploding an incendiary grenade under a car.

The extraordinary role of digital media in the upheaval remains a hot topic, now including some obligatory contrarianism from the veteran journo corps. (Any hot story in the media tends to provoke both herd-like hyperventilation and a subsequent above-the-fray backlash.) Slate’s Jack Shafer questions the noise-to-signal ratio of the gangbusters #IranElection Twitter stream and points to a potential dark side: “How long before the secret police start sending out organizational tweets — ‘We’re massing at 7 p.m. at the Hall of the People for a march to the Hall of Justice!’ — and busts everybody who shows up?”

Business Week’s Joel Schectman wonders if the “Twitter revolution” has been overblown: “Iran experts and social networking activists say that while Iranian election protesters have certainly used social media tools, no particular technology has been instrumental to organizers’ ability to get people on the street.”

Sure, it’s a worthwhile reminder not to get too utopian about the empowerment of digital technology, especially as the foreign media gets pushed out of the country — but the bottom line is clear: Media control has long been a powerful, essential weapon of the Iranian regime. Twitter, Facebook and blogs increasingly are powerful forces toward neutralizing that weapon. According to Abbas Milani, director of the Iranian Studies Program at Stanford University, Iran has the highest number of bloggers per capita in the world. No matter the outcome of Iran’s historic turmoil, they will continue to be heard.

Twitter as unstoppable diplomacy in Iran

The Guardian reports an estimated half million people protesting in Tehran on Wednesday, the fifth day of unrest. Despite President Obama’s cautious posture thus far, the Iranian regime has now begun to openly blame the United States for interfering in the election and inciting upheaval. As the vulnerabilities of the regime and its Supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, have become more apparent, the tactic undoubtedly is aimed at undercutting an opposition movement in a country where anti-U.S. sentiment still exerts a powerful pull. It seems to have an out-of-touch air of desperation to it — blame the ol’ Great Satan, and maybe the masses will fall back in line with renewed nationalist fervor. The problem is, those masses now see Barack Obama, not George W. Bush, presiding in the White House. (Not to mention the price of tomatoes in Tehran.)

The situation on the ground appears to be growing more ominous. According to a Reuters report from Wednesday, Mohammadreza Habibi, the senior prosecutor in the central province of Isfahan, declared that demonstrators could be executed under Islamic law. “We warn the few elements controlled by foreigners who try to disrupt domestic security by inciting individuals to destroy and to commit arson that the Islamic penal code for such individuals waging war against God is execution,” Habibi reportedly announced.

Newsha Tavakolian/Polaris/New York Times.

Protesters in Tehran, June 15. (Newsha Tavakolian/Polaris/New York Times)

Other dispatches from Wednesday described the regime further cracking down on digital communications. In one particular way, it’s an area where official U.S. involvement indeed appears to have been instrumental, in terms of the extraordinary role Twitter has played following the election upheaval. With the messaging network set to go offline temporarily earlier this week, the U.S. State Department stepped in. The Times reports:

On Monday afternoon, a 27-year-old State Department official, Jared Cohen, e-mailed the social-networking site Twitter with an unusual request: delay scheduled maintenance of its global network, which would have cut off service while Iranians were using Twitter to swap information and inform the outside world about the mushrooming protests around Tehran. The request, made to a Twitter co-founder, Jack Dorsey, is yet another new-media milestone: the recognition by the United States government that an Internet blogging service that did not exist four years ago has the potential to change history in an ancient Islamic country.

“This was just a call to say: ‘It appears Twitter is playing an important role at a crucial time in Iran. Could you keep it going?’” said P.J. Crowley, the assistant secretary of state for public affairs. Twitter complied with the request, saying in a blog post on Monday that it put off the upgrade until late Tuesday afternoon — 1:30 a.m. Wednesday in Tehran — because its partners recognized “the role Twitter is currently playing as an important communication tool in Iran.”

The global interconnection helping to electrify Iran’s history in the making has been on display in myriad ways over the last few days. This morning I was able to zoom in on one specific example of it: After I’d written here yesterday about a UK blogger’s “#Iranelection cyberwar guide” — which soon vanished from the Web and remains missing as of Wednesday morning Pacific time — I’d also put the link out via my Twitter page. By early this morning at least one person apparently located in Tehran had read and re-tweeted it. (See tweet there with: “http://bit.ly/mfo0i #iranelection”) That quickly led to a burst of referral traffic coming to my site from that person’s Twitter feed. You can imagine the exponential spread to follow. Multiply that by millions of other blog posts and tweets, and you start to see the extraordinarily powerful picture of communication.

As I noted yesterday, there isn’t necessarily any way to verify the particular Twitter user’s location or identity — is it really some young woman, a spark in her eyes, now leaving her dorm room for the massive demonstration in Tir square? — and it’s just one little example of precisely why the Iranian regime will not be able to stem the digital tide.

UPDATE 12:30pmPDT: As K.M. Soehnlein points out, the crackdown on foreign journalists inside Iran raises a disturbing contrast. The Times surveys the latest circumstances, and it’s chilling to read. Most journalists allowed into Iran only get one-week visas, and their numbers are fast dwindling:

“Visa extensions have been denied across the board,” says Times executive editor Bill Keller, who has himself been reporting from Tehran this week. “Some reporters have considered staying on without visas, working under the radar. There are two problems with that. First, this is a fairly efficient police state; the chances of anyone eluding arrest long enough to see how the story plays out are slim. More important, in my mind, is that it puts at risk the decent, hospitable Iranians who would be needed to put us up, translate and help us get the story out.”

Many Western journalists were effectively confined to their offices on Tuesday after the information ministry forbid them to report on protests or conduct interviews outside, according to the Times. Some were told they would be arrested if they were spotted on the streets with a camera.

Jim Sciutto, an ABC News correspondent in Tehran, said the Iranian government had “run out of patience” with the televised images of protests. Until Tuesday, he told the Times by email, “we sensed there was the slightest bit of wiggle room and so we took the risk of filming on our cellphones. But now the message seems to be ‘don’t even think about it.’”

And from Keller’s dispatch above:

For a sense of what may await Iran’s discontented when there is no one around to report on it, consider Monday night in Isfahan, Iran’s third largest city and a five-hour drive from the nearest foreign TV camera. As in Tehran, large parts of the city — the squares and boulevards — were scenes of smoke and flames, tear gas, stones crashing into windows, bloodied heads.

The uprising seemed more organic than organized — groups of a few dozen merging into groups of a few hundred, converging on lines of helmeted riot police officers, chanting “Death to the dictator!”

But in Isfahan the police response seemed far tougher.

At one point, a white S.U.V. with a red ambulance-style light raced up behind a knot of protesters and smashed into them, running one over before racing a few blocks to the protection of the riot police.

It may not be much longer before a lot more blood flows.

Iran’s Twitter revolution goes global

It’s been amazing to watch it spread.

“As the embattled government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad appears to be trying to limit Internet access and communications in Iran, new kinds of social media are challenging those traditional levers of state media control and allowing Iranians to find novel ways around the restrictions,” reports the New York Times. “Iranians are blogging, posting to Facebook and, most visibly, coordinating their protests on Twitter, the messaging service. Their activity has increased, not decreased, since the presidential election on Friday and ensuing attempts by the government to restrict or censor their online communications.”

The circuitry of the situation in Iran truly has gone global — not only is the world watching, but political and tech junkies everywhere are getting involved in the communications battle. One compelling example: A blogger in Wales, Esko Reinikainen, has posted a #iranelection cyberwar guide for beginners.

“The purpose of this guide is to help you participate constructively in the Iranian election protests through twitter,” Reinikainen says. He offers tips including how to disseminate proxy IP addresses for Iranian bloggers to use, how to help them target repressive Web sites and how to help give them cover: “change your twitter settings so that your location is TEHRAN and your time zone is GMT +3.30. Security forces are hunting for bloggers using location and timezone searches. If we all become ‘Iranians’ it becomes much harder to find them.”

IranianprotestorviaASAt the Atlantic, Andrew Sullivan is keeping a running log in bold green lettering of tweets ostensibly flowing from the streets of Tehran and beyond. There isn’t really a way to judge the source or authenticity of the material. (For one thing, there are regular mentions at this point of Iranian security operatives spreading disinformation digitally; meanwhile, if Twitter users worldwide increasingly are posing as Iranians per above, how to identify the real ones?) But assuming a majority of it remains authentic, it’s fascinating reading. A sampling from Tuesday morning:


Tehran hotels under high security to stop Iranians from contacting foreign press

anyone with camera or laptop is attacked in street

i am seeing tweets about a lot of disturbances, arrests, violence in Shahrak Gharb, any reports?

we hear 1dead in shiraz, livefire used in other cities RT

Very scared, I was talkin to myuncle in shiraz and he was so paranoid.

If you hear the forces talking in arabic..BE CAREFUL..these guys are imported in, they are not affraid of suicide bombing and killing

Police the reason of insecurity; Dead students buried by profs

Basij attacking Shiraz and Mashad universities, Shiraz U’s dean resigned

some student killed by the 4a blast in Babol Univ’s dorms; surrounded by Basij forces

Militia still attacking people in sidestreets but main roads are peaceful marchers.

All last night we hear shooting accross Tehran – everyone is full of rumours and stories – many arrests in night

stay safe and I will RT anything you write! The world is watching and history is being made–we bear witness!

UPDATE – 6/16/09, 9:55amPDT: Esko Reinikainen’s blog apparently is now having technical problems — overloaded with traffic, perhaps, or blocked or otherwise shut down. The above link currently leads to an “Account Suspended” page at Justhost.com. Unclear if or when his site will be back up. Reading the comments section on his page earlier this morning, I noted that his “cyberwar guide” had already been linked and copied widely, including translations in Spanish and German. I was working quickly and didn’t think to grab the whole thing, unfortunately. Reinikainen himself had warned of the potential for his site to go down, and encouraged copying it.

UPDATE 2: Wired’s Noah Shachtman digs into the complexities of the battle online, and has more of the copy from Reinikainen’s missing blog post. How all of this ultimately shapes events in Iran remains to be seen, but there can be little doubt about the rising potential of digital communications for political movements, from Tehran to Tiananmen.