Archive for the ‘war’ Tag

A blogger breaks news on waterboarding

Pondering the rise of new media and the decline of the traditional newsroom, skeptics still tend to cling to either-or thinking: You’ve either got shrill partisan hacks or experienced professional reporters, and never the twain shall meet. The failure of imagination involved is pretty obvious. Digital media has unlocked great potential for nontraditional approaches to the gathering and analysis of information — a vast middle ground of additional possibilities.

Let’s say the government releases a bunch of documents related to a controversial, secretive activity. Now anybody with a computer, an Internet connection and a little motivation can dig in. (Of course, this has already been going on for quite a while.)

whatiswaterboardingpgToday brings a fresh example of how reporting by bloggers can contribute to, or even lead, a major news cycle. In a front-page story today, the New York Times announces that the CIA used waterboarding, a torture technique provoking fear of death by drowning, hundreds of times on two Al Qaeda suspects — far more than was previously known. It’s newsworthy information on several levels, including for how it punches holes in past testimonials from U.S. officials about covert interrogations conducted by the Bush government.

This was not a scoop from the nation’s largest newsroom. The information underpinning the Times report came via blogger Marcy Wheeler, who discovered over the weekend that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded 183 times in one month when she examined the fine print in a newly declassified Bush administration memo from 2005. Wheeler also used the memo to look at a telling clash between the FBI and CIA over the interrogation program and to examine the key question of whether waterboarding actually is effective, as has been claimed by Dick Cheney et al.

The Times report underscores that this story remains far from over (also see Mark Danner for an in-depth political discussion of the unresolved torture issue) — and the public has an enterprising blogger to thank for pushing it ahead.

Osama bin Laden’s “man-caused disaster”?

President Obama’s predecessor famously terrorized the English language. But lately, as the new, more fluent commander in chief and his team leave behind George W. Bush’s linguistic legacy on national security — jettisoning hard-line terminology such as “war on terrorism” and “enemy combatant” — they seem in danger of over-articulating.

In a recent interview with Der Spiegel, Janet Napolitano explained why, in her first testimony to Congress as Homeland Security chief, she used particular language to describe continuing perils. “In my speech, although I did not use the word ‘terrorism,’ I referred to ‘man-caused’ disasters,” she said. “That is perhaps only a nuance, but it demonstrates that we want to move away from the politics of fear toward a policy of being prepared for all risks that can occur.”

A worthy goal. But considering the mass casualties perpetrated in Manhattan or Madrid or London in recent years, is it really a good idea to deploy a phrase that’s in danger of suggesting accidental tragedy?

As Peter Baker reports in the New York Times, the Obama administration is opening itself to criticism that it doesn’t take the dangers of the world seriously enough. Says Shannen W. Coffin, who served as counsel to former Vice President Dick Cheney: “They seem more interested in the war on the English language than in what might be thought of as more pressing national security matters. An Orwellian euphemism or two will not change the fact that bad people want to kill us and destroy us as a free people.”

One can always count on a loaded partisan volley from the Cheney camp, but in this case one perhaps not easily deflected in the battle of political perception.

oblnycfbiAnother national security legacy of the Bush era, deeply troubling, lingers. An internal report from late 2008 assessing the state of the U.S. intelligence system, made public this week, found precious little progress since 9/11 in terms of fixing serious bureaucratic risks. That’s despite the greatest overhaul since World War II of the system, including the creation of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence to oversee America’s spy agencies.

Many senior U.S. intelligence officials interviewed “were unable to articulate a clear understanding of the ODNI’s mission, roles, and responsibilities,” according to the report. U.S. spy agencies are still running “largely disconnected and incompatible” computer systems and have “no standard architecture supporting the storage and retrieval of sensitive intelligence.” And “intelligence information and reports are frequently not being disseminated in a timely manner.”

And while the concept of sharing information between agencies is “supported in principle” among some intelligence leaders, according to the report, “the culture of protecting ‘turf’ remains a problem, and there are few, if any, consequences for failure to collaborate.”

Hopefully the true consequences of such recent turf battles, and the excruciating story behind them, haven’t already gone forgotten.

Mexico’s chilling drug war, at the door

In yesterday’s post about the chronically failing war on drugs, I didn’t mention Mexico — drug war-related problems just across the southern U.S. border have gotten big enough and scary enough to command their own focus. Mexico’s growing instability draws from a complex and long-running set of government and societal issues. But U.S. policy is a large and indisputable factor, and not just anti-drug policy. Indeed, our vast market for marijuana, cocaine and other illicit substances provides the criminal gangs with an endless river of cash. But even more troubling, our lax gun laws and prolific gun dealers supply them with stockpiles of nasty, sophisticated weaponry.

The contents of a new travel warning from the U.S. State Department posted in late February are nothing short of astonishing. The greatest increase in violence has occurred near the U.S. border. And it literally is a war:

Some recent Mexican army and police confrontations with drug cartels have resembled small-unit combat, with cartels employing automatic weapons and grenades. Large firefights have taken place in many towns and cities across Mexico but most recently in northern Mexico, including Tijuana, Chihuahua City and Ciudad Juarez.

The carnage, according to the State Department, has included “public shootouts during daylight hours in shopping centers and other public venues.” In Ciudad Juarez alone, just across the border from El Paso, Texas, Mexican authorities report that more than 1,800 people have been killed since January 2008.

Hot zones in Mexico's drug war. (Wikimedia commons.)

Hot zones in Mexico's drug war. (Source: Wikimedia commons.)


According to a report in early March from “60 Minutes,” nearly 6,300 people were killed across Mexico last year in drug-related violence, double the amount of the prior year. There have been mass executions of policemen, kidnappings and beheadings. Mexico’s attorney general Eduardo Medina-Mora tells of weapons seizures including thousands of grenades, assault rifles and 50-caliber sniper rifles. The vast majority of them, he says, were acquired inside the United States.

Hard truths about the Iraq war

1. With such enormous problems at home, it is hard to focus on enormous problems beyond U.S. borders, even when we perceive the dangers of turning too inward.

2. It is hard not to be exhausted of and desensitized to the whole awful mess. A week from this Thursday, it will have been six years since George W. Bush launched “shock and awe.” For the vast majority of Americans who have no direct connection to the war, if we are brutally honest with ourselves, it is hard in some respects to care at this point. (More on this below.)

3. It is but one of two daunting wars we are fighting. (And the new president is poised to make the other one larger.)

4. It is far, far from over.

thegamblecoverDespite items one and two above, distinguished military reporter Thomas Ricks had some tranfixing things to say about the war on Wednesday, during an interview on NPR about his new book. Ricks’ comments are likely to prove distinct from the White House talking points and news coverage that will mark the six-year anniversary of the conflict in the coming days. His reporting in Iraq, including interviews in 2008 with Ambassador Ryan Crocker, the top U.S. diplomat there, left Ricks to conclude, “The events for which this war will be remembered have not yet happened.” Here’s a bit more of what was most striking among his comments, from the forbidding magnitude of the problem to some startling attitudes about the war that Ricks encountered while promoting his book recently in the liberal-by-reputation Bay Area:

On the time frame we face:
“I think we may just be halfway through this war. I know President Obama thinks he’s going to get all troops out by the end of 2011. I don’t know anyone in Baghdad who thinks that’s going to happen. I think Iraq is going to change Obama more than Obama changes Iraq.”

On the scope of the disaster:
“The original U.S. war plan was to be down to 30,000 troops by September 2003…. I do think this war was the biggest mistake in the history of American foreign policy. I think it’s a tragedy. I think George Bush’s mistakes are something we’re going to be paying for for decades. We don’t yet understand how big a mistake this is.”

On the destructive prospects of the U.S. military pulling out:
“I think Americans are really sick of the Iraq war…. I was speaking in California last week, near liberal Mill Valley, and I said, Look, if you leave right now this could lead to genocide. And somebody in the audience said, ‘So what.’ And somebody else said, ‘Genocide happens all the time.’ And I thought, my god, Americans are willing to take genocide in Iraq, and just leave.”