Saturday, April 19, 2008

Frost over the World-Food riots and Paraguay

Josette Sheeran is the head of the UN World Food Programme, the body set up to combat world poverty.

She explains the reasons for the current food crisis and what the international community can do to help.

Also, Sir David is joined by Maria Emma Mejia, former Colombian foreign minister and the head of the Organisation of American States' mission to supervise the electoral process in Paraguay.

Dr. Nick Begich Are You A Manchurian Candidate ?

Inside Iraq - A Shia political resurgence

Inside Iraq examines a resurgence of Shia politics in Iraq and the region.

As losses mount, US banks cut thousands of jobs

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By David Walsh

Banking and other financial firms in the US continue to report enormous financial losses, inevitably accompanied by mass layoffs. While present and former executives of these companies are well insulated from the disaster over which they have presided, tens of thousands of their employees are not so fortunate.

A number of major US banks reported first-quarter earnings this week, and more will do so next week.

On April 17, investment bank and the world’s largest brokerage Merrill Lynch announced a loss of $1.96 billion in the first three months of 2008, a turnaround of more than $4 billion from the same period a year ago (when it made a profit of $2.11 billion).

Merrill Lynch announced it was eliminating another 2,900 jobs, bringing the total of its proposed job losses for 2008 to 4,000.

The following day, banking giant Citigroup reported a $5.1 billion loss in the first quarter, a change in fortune of $10 billion from the first three months of 2007 (when its profits amounted to $5 billion). remarked that the earnings “were even more dreadful than the miserable results investors had expected.”

Citigroup has said it will lay off some 9,000 employees in the next 12 months. This comes on top of 4,000 cuts announced in January.

This is unlikely to be the end of the firm’s layoffs. Vikram Pandit, Citi’s chief executive, indicated Thursday that the bank would be seeking to slash costs by as much as 20 percent. The comment, noted the Financial Times, had the effect of “deepening fears that Wall Street and the City of London are about to be hit by tens of thousands of additional job losses.”

The business paper suggested that analysts are anticipating the elimination of some 25,000 jobs “in the next few months” at Citigroup.

The bank is not out of the woods yet. Moody’s Investors Service warned that because of “Citigroup’s complexity, its significant exposure to the global capital markets, and current illiquidity and volatility of some of those markets, additional marks in its investment bank cannot be ruled out.”

JPMorgan Chase announced April 16 that its earnings had been cut in half in 2008’s first quarter due to problems with mortgages and other bad loans. JPMorgan’s recent purchase of bankrupt Bear Stearns will undoubtedly lead to slashing the latter’s workforce of 14,000. The Wall Street Journal reported April 12 that the “emergency takeover” is expected to cost at least half of the jobs at Bear Stearns.

Other large US banking firms, such as Washington Mutual (a $1.14 billion loss and 3,000 layoffs), Wachovia (a $393 million loss and hundreds of layoffs) and Wells Fargo (a decline of 11 percent in profits), have also reported grim first quarter earnings. Bank of America is not expected to have anything good to report next week.

There is no end in sight to the financial and employment bloodletting. Financial firms globally have taken some $200 billion in write-downs (reductions in the book value of assets because they are overvalued compared to their market value) since the middle of 2007. Citigroup alone has now taken write-downs totaling nearly $39 billion since the crisis began; JPMorgan has taken about $10 billion.

After the announcement of Merrill Lynch’s most recent earnings, John Thain, its new chairman and chief executive, called the first three months of 2008 “as difficult a quarter as I’ve seen in my 30 years on Wall Street.” Merrill Lynch executives indicated that March was “a significantly more difficult month” than January or February.

In an interview with the New York Times April 17, Thain sounded “a more negative note than some of his Wall Street colleagues, saying he did not think the downturn was near its bottom.”

Thain told the Times that thus far “the slowdown has been finance-driven. ... What we haven’t seen yet is the impact on the consumer of falling house prices, rising energy prices, higher food prices and higher unemployment.”

Floyd Norris, the Times’ chief financial correspondent, writes April 18 that “Since the big banks first realized last fall that their capital situations were perilous, more than $100 billion has been poured into them. Without all that cash, the system would be in horrid shape, and there would be a lot more blood on the Street.”

Norris takes note that bank chief executives “now profess to see light at the end of the tunnel, and they may be right. ... The trouble with such assurances is that the bosses of Wall Street have been repeatedly blindsided by newly discovered risks that their firms—and others—had taken.”

Norris ends on a pessimistic note: “With credit hard to come by, the real economy may be in for rough times, creating more loan losses. Wall Street may not need to beg for any more capital, but it is a good bet that its layoffs are only starting. There is not much need for the people who put together securitizations when there is virtually no market for such deals.”

The estimates on potential job losses in the banking and wider financial arena vary, but they are all substantial.

On April 1 financial research firm Celent LLC issued a report suggesting that some 200,000 of the US commercial banking industry’s 2 million jobs could be lost over the next 12 to 18 months. That would be an unprecedented number. But Octavio Marenzi, the head of New York-based Celent’s financial consultancy unit, argued that the economic situation was without precedent.

“The banking industry over the past 40 years has never seen a downturn in its revenue growth,” Marenzi told the Associated Press. “In 2008, it looks like it will decrease for the first time in living memory. They’re going to have to respond with severe cost cutting. It’s not an environment they’re entirely used to.”

In addition, global securities firms have announced 20,000 job cuts, 6,000 of them in New York.

Financial companies in total have slashed at least 70,000 positions in the US and Europe. Data provider Experian estimates the final number by the end of 2008 could be 240,000.

A recent headline in BusinessWeek asked, “How Deep Will Wall Street Cut?” It reported that Wall Street has announced plans to slash 34,000 positions over the past nine months, but noted that the number of layoffs might not be as great as in recent recessions due to the fact that “after the dot-com debacle,” only 74 percent of the jobs that had been lost were filled.

Precisely because “There is not a lot of fat to cut,” as one economist puts it, the upcoming job slashing will be more damaging. “What’s worrisome,” writes BusinessWeek, “is that companies may have to cut into the meat of their operations.” Many positions have been eliminated permanently with improvements in technology, “helping to keep a lid on costs and head counts in recent years. Since those ranks remain relatively thin, firms now may have to whack analysts, traders, and dealmakers. That’s not good for the island of Manhattan, where many of these high-paid employees work; banks and brokerages account for 35 percent of the city’s wages.”

While workers in the industry suffer the consequences of the economic slump, their employers face no such prospect. Apparently whether their firms prosper or not, or even go under, banking executives have organized things so they will be paid fabulous amounts.

Citigroup’s Charles Prince and Merrill Lynch’s Stanley O’Neal, who stood at the helm of their companies as they lost billions on risky investments in mortgage-backed securities, made off with $68 million and $161 million, respectively, when they resigned or were forced out. Former Bear Stearns chairman James Cayne dumped his entire stake in the failed bank for a mere $61 million in late March, a fraction of what his stake in the company had once been worth. We needn’t worry too much about Mr. Cayne. He made $38.31 million in 2006 in total compensation and $155.26 million over five years. There are no indications that he plans to give any of it back.

BusinessWeek last November took note of some of the fantastic “exit packages” that CEOs have organized for themselves. Richard Fuld Jr., for example, CEO of Lehman Brothers, “has nothing to worry about—his exit package is valued at $299 million, putting him close to the record for any such package.” Bank of America’s chairman and CEO, Kenneth D. Lewis, stands to walk away with $120 million, down from an estimated value of $136 million at the end of 2006.

While much of the country is suffering from some combination of job losses, gas and food prices, disappearing benefits and pensions, soaring medical costs and declining house prices, the super-rich are doing quite nicely. The BBC headlined a recent piece “Manhattan property defies gravity,” and pointed out that property prices in New York’s wealthiest borough had soared 41 percent over the course of the past year.

On average a Manhattan home costs $1.6 million, an increase from $1.1 million a year ago. Prices in primarily working class Queens and Staten Island dropped by 5 percent and in the Bronx by 1 percent. In Brooklyn, which has seen its share of ‘gentrification’ and housing speculation, prices rose by 3 percent.

The Real Estate Board’s Steven Spinola commented, “Manhattan’s luxury market for high-end properties continues to remain untouched by the slowing economy.” In fact, Spinola suggested that several luxury developments had just become available to meet the “pent-up demand.”

For the working population, the situation continues to deteriorate rapidly. Mass layoffs have been announced in recent days, in addition to those at Merrill Lynch and Citigroup, at AT&T (5,000 jobs), Volvo Trucks (1,100), Asahi Glass (900 in the US and Canada), Harley-Davison (730), Lehman Brothers (600), Siemens Energy and Automation (477), AMD (420), Valley Health System (396), Newark Morning Ledger (367), Skybus Airlines (365), Greenville Hospital in Jersey City, New Jersey (356), Aramark Sports and Entertainments (303), Baja Marine Corp (283), Dutch Housing (250) and Summit Production Systems (200), among other firms.

Meanwhile, paychecks of those who have a job are getting smaller as hours and overtime decline. The New York Times reported April 18 that “the reduction of wages and working hours ... has become a primary cause of distress, pushing many more Americans into a downward spiral.”

From March 2007 to March this year, the average workweek fell slightly from 33.9 hours to 33.8, with the slippage greater in manufacturing. Nearly 5 million workers were working part-time at the end of March “because their companies had cut hours in the face of slack business.” That number had jumped 400,000 since November.

Average income declined in March, after accounting for rising prices, the sixth consecutive month “that pay failed to keep pace with inflation.” While the increase in average hourly earnings from February to September 2007 barely kept pace with inflation, that is no longer the case. From November through March 2008, as employers began to reduce their operations, “wage growth fell below the pace of inflation, meaning that paychecks were effectively shrinking.”

IMF and OECD: Europe will be hit hard by US recession

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By Chris Marsden

Reports issued by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) warn that the United States is entering into a recession and reject all claims that Europe will be able to avoid severe economic dislocations as a result of America’s worsening situation.

The OECD meeting in Paris this week estimated that global losses from the US subprime mortgage crisis would surpass $440 billion. This was a sharp upward revision of its previous estimate of $200-300 billion.

Europe was more vulnerable than many thought to the global financial markets crisis, and would be especially so if trouble spread to the equity derivatives markets, officials said on April 15.

The OECD’s estimate of likely bank losses ranges from $350 billion to $420 billion, based on different assumptions as to the amount of distressed assets the banks will be able to recover. Assuming a 40 percent recovery rate, the OECD estimated losses in excess of $422 billion, of which $87 billion would be borne by US banks—$60 billion by commercial banks and the rest by investment banks.

These losses would ripple throughout the world. A third of the collateralised debt obligations (CDOs) and other financial instruments based on US residential mortgage-backed securities (RMBS) that are tied to sub-prime markets have moved offshore, mainly to Europe, the OECD said.

Forbes magazine, commenting on the OECD report, noted: “More dangerous still, it said, was another area so far not hit by the crisis that spilled out of the subprime market last August—capital-guaranteed financial products with exposure to equities and based on complex operations-replication programmes.”

The OECD stated that a $1 trillion equity derivatives market based on these products had developed between 2003 and the start of this year.

These instruments are the basis for many of the savings products offered by scores of retail banks and building societies. Europe is the dominant force in these Constant Proportion Portfolio Insurance (CPPI) products.

Thomas Weiser of the OECD said one of the big risks now was that economic growth could be hit by loss of capital at banks which played a key role in the wider economy. He called for massive injections of cash by the world’s central banks.

The IMF described last summer’s crisis in the financial markets as “the largest financial shock since the Great Depression.” It stated that the world’s bankers have created a pool of $1 trillion in toxic debt, twice the sum estimated in earlier projections.

The IMF’s conclusions are conservative, given such a description. It predicts that the US will go into a “mild recession” this year, with growth of around 0.5 percent, even after the economic stimulus package from the Bush administration and sweeping cuts in interest rates. It warns that there is a one-in-four chance of a full-blown global recession over the next 12 months. At best, it forecasts that world economic growth will fall to 3.7 percent for the next two years.

The IMF issued particular warnings that house price inflation in several European countries, including Britain and the Netherlands, where housing was said to be 30 percent overvalued, would make them more susceptible to the global downturn.

Britain has long been recognised as the European country most exposed to the economic turmoil unleashed in the United States and most heavily dependent on world financial markets. The IMF downwardly revised UK growth figures from the Treasury’s estimate of 2 percent this year and 2.5 percent next to 1.6 percent for both 2008 and 2009, the worst performance since the last recession ended in 1992.

After nationalising Northern Rock and injecting £50 billion of liquidity into the markets, the Brown government and the Bank of England plan to risk billions more, emulating the US Federal Reserve by taking over bad mortgage debts from banks in return for secure government bonds.

House prices in Britain already fell by 2.5 percent last month and are expected to decline by as much as 10 percent this year. Britain’s Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors reports that the number of residential property agents saying prices declined exceeded those reporting gains by 78.5 percentage points in March, the worst since records began in 1978.

Britain is also labouring under staggering levels of personal, unsecured debt.

Total UK unsecured debt is £1.3 trillion—more than the rest of the European Union put together. Lorna Bourke, writing in Citywire, rejects claims that the present housing crisis is not as bad as that in the 1990s, when there were 78,000 repossessions a year, because unemployment is lower. She notes that “In the early nineties high unemployment created by the collapse of the debt market in 1987 and rising inflation meant homebuyers could not meet their mortgage obligations. Does that sound familiar?”

Credit card debt is much greater than it was in 1990. Financial analysts Mintel have reported that mortgage costs in Britain trebled during the past 10 years and now account for 25 percent of consumer spending, compared to 14 percent a decade earlier. The debt management company TDX Group estimates that the number of people struggling with debt is set to double during 2008. Around one million people have unsecured debts totalling £25 billion, averaging a staggering £25,000 each. Some 60 percent is owed on credit cards, with the rest mainly in personal loans.

London’s role as a financial centre will translate into a massive and relatively immediate impact from a global economic downturn. JPMorgan Chase analysts estimate that 40,000 City of London jobs could be lost as a result of the credit crunch, doubling the forecast by the Centre for Economics and Business Research.

Amongst the cuts already announced are 900 jobs at UBS, the European bank worst hit by the credit crunch, representing 10 percent of its London workforce. Merrill Lynch has warned of 450 imminent job losses in London.

Initial signs have emerged of a rise in unemployment from its present 1.6 million. Although the claimant count rate fell by 1,200 in March, the previous month’s 2,800 decline was revised to show a 600 increase—the first since September 2006.

Sterling has hit repeated all-time lows against the euro, which is presently worth more than 80 pence. The Bank of England has cut interest rates to 5 percent in an attempt to stimulate the release of credit by banks and building societies.

Europe’s economic powerhouse, Germany, does not at first appear to be in such a precarious position. Its exports continue to rise, even though the euro has dramatically risen in relation to the dollar.

But there are clear signs of troubles ahead, of which the €4.3 billion losses incurred by the Bavarian State Bank (BayernLB) from its dealings on the US subprime mortgage market, as well as the billions lost by SaxonyLB and WestLB, are only a foretaste. These banks, partly owned by the federal government and various German states, are to be bailed out to the tune of €30 billion—at taxpayer expense.

According to Der Spiegel, this is only the tip of the iceberg. It wrote on April 2, “The end of the crisis is not in sight: According to one study (by business advisory group Ernst and Young) German banks have hidden away rotten credits in their books—amounting to a total sum of €200 billion.”

This week, four leading German economic think tanks cut their forecasts for growth this year to 1.8 percent, down from the 2.2 percent they predicted last October, and projected even slower growth of 1.4 percent next year. The German government is less confident still, predicting growth of just 1.7 percent this year.

The Financial Times reported April 14 the views of several leading European industrialists that the worst effects of the credit crunch will not be felt for six months.

Peter Löscher, chief executive of Siemens, said, “I don’t see any impact at the moment. But I have no doubt it is coming, probably in 6 to 12 months’ time.” Wolfgang Reitzle, chief executive of the Linde industrial gases group, added, “It will happen with a time lag ... of maybe a year.... We are in the most critical business environment in decades.”

Gareth Williams of ING Financial Markets stated, “This [financial] quarter is going to be pretty horrible. But the worst will come in the fourth quarter.” Teun Draaisma of Morgan Stanley is forecasting a 16 percent drop in earnings over the year and an “earnings recession in Europe.”

Germany and Europe, with a monetary system based on stability and spending targets, are particularly fearful of the impact of runaway inflation and angry over how the US Federal Reserve is pumping money into the economy.

An article in Der Spiegel from April 14, entitled “The Madness of Ben Bernanke,” gave full vent to these tensions. Comparing Alan Greenspan and Ben Bernanke, the former and current heads of the Federal Reserve, to Siegfried and Roy, it described their “pumping easy credit into the system” as “a crazy policy that will worsen the crisis.... The aim is to keep on financing consumer spending and even to stimulate it further—for reasons of patriotism. There’s a word for this policy—madness.”

The strong euro has not so far done major damage to the European economy, particularly because it has reduced the cost of dollar-priced oil imports. But companies reliant on dollar sales such as Airbus have been hit and a “pain threshold” will eventually be breached.

More long term, the divergence of policy between the Fed and the European Central Bank (ECB), which has kept interest rates steady, cannot but destabilise the global economy. The dollar’s decline also means that its repayment of debts has less value, punishing US creditors in Europe and elsewhere.

Inflation is a major problem for Europe, now running at a record 3.6 percent in the euro zone. The ECB has set its main policy rate at 4 percent, but fears that inflation will make this unsustainable. Food and energy price rises alone added 1.6 percentage points to March’s inflation figures.

Jorg Kramer, chief economist at Commerzbank AG in Frankfurt, told the International Herald Tribune, “The Fed is not so interested in inflation, currently. They have a bigger problem: recession.” But he warned that “someday, this crisis will be over” and inflation will necessitate drastic action.

The Fed’s benchmark rate is currently at 2.25 percent and a further cut is expected. Krämer said he expected Bernanke to cut the fed funds rate to 1.25 percent by June.

The “fight against inflation” is always a codeword for moves to cut the wages of the working class. German government and bank officials are complaining of recent high wage settlements being unsustainable, including a meagre 8 percent agreement in Germany’s chemical sector that is staged over two years and barely matches the official inflation rate.

In Britain, Prime Minister Gordon Brown has imposed a 2.5 percent pay ceiling throughout the public sector, already provoking strikes involving hundreds of thousands of civil servants and teachers.

Draconian attacks are being prepared in France, where dissatisfaction with the country’s economic performance in ruling circles is most pronounced. Prime Minister Francois Fillon has cut the official forecast for gross domestic product (GDP) growth in France in 2008 to 1.7-2.0 percent from a previous estimate of “around 2.0 percent.” The right-wing administration of Nicolas Sarkozy has announced public spending cuts of €6-7 billion annually to run for a three-year period in 2009-2011. But with a public deficit running at €1.2 trillion in 2007, far greater attacks must be anticipated.

America's allies in Iraq under pressure as civil war breaks out among Sunni

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By Patrick Cockburn

"God is Great," screamed a man seconds before he blew himself up, killing 10 people in a restaurant in Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province in western Iraq. A series of suicide bombings have shown over the past week that al-Qa'ida in Iraq, though battered by defections over the past year, is striking back remorselessly at Sunni Arab leaders who ally themselves to the US.

In another attack in the village of Albu Mohammed, south of Kirkuk, an elderly man thought by guards to be too old to be a bomber, walked unsearched into a tent filled with mourners attending the funeral of two Sunni tribesmen who had been killed after they joined al-Sahwa, the Awakening Council, as the pro-US Sunni group is called. The man detonated the explosives hidden under his long Arab robes, killing at least 50 people.

A vicious civil war is now being fought within Iraq's Sunni Arab community between al-Qa'ida in Iraq and al-Sahwa while other groups continue to attack American forces. In Baghdad on a single day the head of al-Sahwa in the southern district of Dora was killed in his car by gunmen and seven others died by bombs and bullets in al-Adhamiya district.

US spokesmen speak of a "spike" in violence in recent weeks but in reality security in Sunni and Shia parts of Iraq has been deteriorating since January. The official daily death toll of civilians reached a low of 20 killed a day in that month and has since more than doubled to 41 a day in March. The US and the Iraqi government are now facing a war on two fronts.

The attack in Ramadi shows al-Qa'ida still has support in Anbar province where al-Sahwa was founded and has greater strength in Diyala, Salahudin and Nineveh provinces. In Sunni parts of Baghdad, al-Sahwa often includes members of al-Qa'ida whose loyalties have not changed or gunmen who think it safest to work for the US and al-Qa'ida. "No officer in al-Sahwa walks home unless he has a relationship with al-Qa'ida," said one al-Sahwa member. "It would be too dangerous for him otherwise."

The American-backed government of Nouri al-Maliki is in the meantime stepping up its campaign against the Mehdi Army militia of the anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Iraqi troops sealed off the Basra office of the Sadrists yesterday. "Troops from the Iraqi army prevented us from holding Friday prayers and now they are cordoning off the office," said Harith al-Idhari, the head of the office. "They want to storm it and clear everybody out of it."

Mr Maliki is convinced that this is the moment to assert himself against the Sadrists despite military setbacks when he launched his offensive against Basra on 25 March. Two brigades of about 600 men, each from the army's 14th Division whose soldiers come from the city, refused to fight the Mehdi Army as did most of Basra's 11,000 police.

The Iraqi government says that it has purged 1,300 men from its armed forces and police since the Basra operation and is willing to try again against the militiamen. But it has only been able to hold its own in Basra, Baghdad and other cities because of backing from the US.

The Sadrist office in Basra is housed in the building of the old Olympic committee. "We have orders to take back all the government buildings that are occupied by parties and political movements in Basra within 48 hours," said the Interior Ministry spokesman Major-General Abdul Karim-Khalaf.

The greatest stronghold of the Sadrists is Sadr City in Baghdad, which has a population of two million and is virtually a twin city to the capital. US forces have now started building a concrete wall which will seal off the southern part of Sadr City. The US and the Iraqi government are particularly keen to gain control of those parts of Sadr City used to lob rockets and mortars into the Green Zone.

Despite government purges, it is still unclear how far Iraqi army units are willing to fight Shia co-religionists. Yesterday a company of government troops abandoned their positions in al-Nasir police station in Sadr City when they came under attack from militiamen during a sandstorm. Another company had deserted earlier in the week.

Mr Maliki is eager to show that the Iraqi government is strong enough to overcome its domestic enemies, but the fighting against al-Qa'ida in Iraq in Sunni districts and the Mehdi Army in Shia areas over the past month has proved the opposite. The Iraqi army has appeared as dependent on American support as it ever was in the past.

Torture Question Hovers Over Chertoff

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By Jason Leopold

John Yoo and some other Bush administration lawyers who built the legal framework for torture are now out of the U.S. government, but one still holds a Cabinet-level rank – Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff.

In the summer of 2002, Chertoff, then head of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division, offered assurances to the CIA that its interrogators would not face prosecution under anti-torture laws if they followed guidelines on aggressive techniques approved by the Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, where Yoo worked.

Those guidelines stretched the rules on permissible treatment of detainees by narrowly defining torture as intense pain equivalent to organ failure or death. Specific interrogation techniques were gleaned from a list of methods that the U.S. military feared might be used against American soldiers if they were captured by a ruthless enemy.

Three years ago, when Chertoff was facing confirmation hearings to be Homeland Security chief, the New York Times cited three senior-level government sources as describing Chertoff’s Criminal Division as fielding questions from the CIA about whether its officers risked prosecution if they employed certain harsh techniques.

“One technique the CIA officers could use under circumstances without fear of prosecution was strapping a subject down and making him experience a feeling of drowning,” the Times reported.

In other words, Chertoff appears to have green-lighted the technique known as “waterboarding,” which has been regarded as torture since the days of the Spanish Inquisition.

Chertoff reportedly did object to some other procedures, such as death threats against family members and mind-altering drugs that would change a detainee’s personality, the Times reported. [NYT, Jan. 29, 2005]

During his Senate confirmation hearings in February 2005, Chertoff denied providing the CIA with legal guidance on the use of specific interrogation methods, such as waterboarding. Rather, he said he gave the agency broad guidance in response to questions about interrogation methods.

"You are dealing in an area where there is potential criminality," Chertoff said in describing his advice to the CIA. "You better be very careful to make sure that whatever you decide to do falls well within what is required by law."

Nevertheless, the evidence continues to build that Chertoff’s assurances gave CIA interrogators confidence they would avoid prosecution as long as they stayed within the permissive guidelines devised by deputy assistant attorney general John Yoo and his boss at the Office of Legal Counsel, Jay Bybee.

The Abu Zubaydah Case

Chertoff’s reported assurances to CIA agents appear to have led directly to the use of waterboarding against alleged al-Qaeda operative Abu Zubaydah in August 2002.

"The CIA was seeking to determine the legal limits of interrogation practices for use in cases like that of Abu Zubaydah, the Qaeda lieutenant who was captured in March 2002," according to the New York Times article.

The Abu Zubaydah case was the first time that waterboarding was used against a prisoner in the “war on terror,” according to Pentagon and Justice Department documents, news reports and several books written about the Bush administration’s interrogation methods.

In The One Percent Doctrine, author Ron Suskind reported that President George W. Bush had become obsessed with Zubaydah and the information he might have about pending terrorist plots against the United States.

"Bush was fixated on how to get Zubaydah to tell us the truth," Suskind wrote. Bush questioned one CIA briefer, "Do some of these harsh methods really work?"

The waterboarding of Abu Zubaydah was videotaped, but that record was destroyed in November 2005 after the Washington Post published a story that exposed the CIA’s use of so-called "black site" prisons overseas to interrogate terror suspects.

John Durham, an assistant attorney general in Connecticut, was appointed special counsel earlier this year to investigate the destruction of that videotape as well as destroyed film on other interrogations.

The CIA officials who pressed Chertoff to give assurances protecting CIA interrogators included former CIA General Counsel Scott Muller and his deputy, John Rizzo, according to the New York Times. Muller and Rizzo, who is now the CIA’s general counsel, are at the center of Durham’s probe.

The Times also reported that Chertoff participated in the drafting of a second still-secret memo in August 2002, which allegedly described specific interrogation methods that CIA interrogators could use against detainees.

Those interrogation techniques were derived from the Army and Air Force’s Survival, Evasion, Rescue, and Escape (SERE) training program. But those techniques were meant to prepare U.S. soldiers for abuse they might suffer if captured by a brutal regime, not as methods for U.S. interrogations.

New ACLU Document Release

This past week, the American Civil Liberties Union released more than 300 pages of documents showing that in 2003 military interrogators used methods they learned during SERE training against eight Afghanistan detainees held at the Gardez Detention Facility in southeastern Afghanistan.

Those methods included forcing a detainee to kneel outside in wet clothing, spraying the person with cold water, and punching and kicking a detainee over the course of three weeks.

One of the prisoners, an 18-year-old Afghan militia fighter named Jamal Naseer, later died. The documents released to the ACLU say his body was so severely beaten by his interrogators that it appeared to be a black and green color at the time of his death.

Amrit Singh, an ACLU attorney, said the SERE tactics that were approved by the Justice Department were never intended to be used by the U.S. government against its detainees.

The latest disclosures further erode claims by President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld that prisoner abuses at Gardez – or the torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib – were isolated acts by a few “bad apples.”

To the contrary, it appears that the policies approved by Bush and the assurances provided by Chertoff and others led to the atrocities at the CIA detention centers as well as the prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay.

An action memorandum, dated Feb. 7, 2002, and signed by President Bush, stated that the Geneva Convention did not apply to members of al-Qaeda or the Taliban.

That, in turn, led Lt. Gen. Ricardo S. Sanchez, the top commander in Iraq to institute a “dozen interrogation methods beyond” the Army’s standard practice under the convention, according to a 2004 report on the prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib prepared by a panel headed by James Schlesinger.

Sanchez said he based his decision on “the President’s Memorandum,” which he said had justified "additional, tougher measures" against detainees, the Schlesigner report said.

Other prisoner abuses resulted from Rumsfeld’s verbal and written authorization in December 2002 allowing interrogators to use “stress positions, isolation for up to 30 days, removal of clothing and the use of detainees’ phobias (such as the use of dogs),” according to a separate report issued by Army Maj. Gen. George R. Fay.

“From December 2002, interrogators in Afghanistan were removing clothing, isolating people for long periods of time, using stress positions, exploiting fear of dogs and implementing sleep and light deprivation,” the Fay report said.

Mora’s Complaint

Rumsfeld’s approval of certain interrogation methods outlined in a December 2002 action memorandum was criticized by Alberto Mora, the former general counsel of the Navy.

“The interrogation techniques approved by the Secretary [of Defense] should not have been authorized because some (but not all) of them, whether applied singly or in combination, could produce effects reaching the level of torture, a degree of mistreatment not otherwise proscribed by the memo because it did not articulate any bright-line standard for prohibited detainee treatment, a necessary element in any such document,” Mora wrote in a 14-page letter to the Navy’s inspector general.

Additionally, a Dec. 20, 2005, Army Inspector General Report relating to the capture and interrogation of Mohammad al-Qahtani included a sworn statement by Lt. Gen. Randall M. Schmidt. It said Secretary Rumsfeld was “personally involved” in the interrogation of al-Qahtani and spoke “weekly” with Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller, the commander at Guantanamo, about the status of the interrogations between late 2002 and early 2003.

Gitanjali S. Gutierrez, an attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights who represents al-Qahtani, said in a sworn declaration that his client, imprisoned at Guantanamo, was subjected to months of torture based on verbal and written authorizations from Rumsfeld.

“At Guantánamo, Mr. al-Qahtani was subjected to a regime of aggressive interrogation techniques, known as the ‘First Special Interrogation Plan,’ that were authorized by U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld,” Gutierrez said.

“Those techniques were implemented under the supervision and guidance of Secretary Rumsfeld and the commander of Guantánamo, Major General Geoffrey Miller. These methods included, but were not limited to, 48 days of severe sleep deprivation and 20-hour interrogations, forced nudity, sexual humiliation, religious humiliation, physical force, prolonged stress positions and prolonged sensory over-stimulation, and threats with military dogs.”

Gutierrez’s claims about the type of interrogation al-Qahtani endured have since been borne out with the release of hundreds of pages of internal Pentagon documents describing interrogation methods at Guantanamo and at least two independent reports about prisoner abuse.

According to the Schlesinger report, orders signed by Bush and Rumsfeld in 2002 and 2003 authorizing brutal interrogations “became policy” at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib.

In February, the Justice Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR) confirmed that it launched a formal investigation to determine, among other issues, whether agency attorneys, including Chertoff, provided the White House and the CIA with poor legal advice when it said CIA interrogators could use harsh interrogation methods against detainees.

Yoo is currently a law professor at the University of California at Berkeley.

School security

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By Seth Freedman

In many ways, my secondary school experience was the perfect precursor to living in Israel and understanding the paranoia that envelops the country’s citizens like a dense fog. Seven years at JFS, a Jewish school in the heart of Kentish Town, gave me firsthand experience of what happens when you fence in a group of people behind a wall and convince them that everyone on the other side is out to get them, and that they will go on the attack the minute they are given the opportunity.

I have to admit, I believed the hype as much as the next blue blazer-clad boy or girl. The dark forces of Holloway Boys, Richard of Chichester, and all the other schools that surrounded us in every direction were, in my eyes, as frightening a prospect as the Syrians, Iranians et al are to today’s terrified Israeli public. The walk from the school gates to Kentish Town station every afternoon was approached with trepidation by us all, fevered imaginations running wild as to where and when the next assault would come from.

On one famous occasion, two infiltrators scaled the fence between the school and the skateboard park and jumped down into the playground. Five hundred startled JFS pupils stampeded like wildebeest for the sanctuary of the dining hall. No one stopped to weigh up the odds - it could have been 250:1, had a fight broken out. Instead, the pre-instilled terror proved too weighty for logic to even get a look-in, and the incident poured yet more fuel on an already brightly burning fire.

Of course, the tales of hate and harassment weren’t entirely apocryphal; there were plenty of occasions when JFS pupils bore the brunt of the violent tendencies of the local thugs and carried the scars into school the next day. However - as the more sane pointed out (although their wisdom usually fell on deaf ears) - there was every reason to believe that the internecine fighting was born of plain, inter-school rivalry, rather than some deep-rooted antisemitic streak common to every uncircumcised male within a five-mile radius.

The net result of all of the tension and paranoia was that, bit by bit, our school was transformed into a fortress, replete with 20-foot high metal fences, CCTV cameras, and a full-time security team headed up by a thuggish skinhead who was as close to a modern-day Golem as it got. Our lot was to be shepherded to and from the tube station by our protectors, who spent the rest of their time patrolling the school’s borders with a zeal all too familiar to anyone who has spent time in the Holy Land.

The grown-up version of JFS which I now inhabit is just that - secondary school all over again. Same fear, same heavily fortified perimeter, same collective mentality: afraid that all who inhabit the surrounding area are after our blood. However, in the case of Israel, the crucial distinction is that our "school" is built on the ruins of a former school, whose dispossessed pupils have every reason to avenge their loss. But that point is completely ignored by those running the show, who prefer to peddle the canard that the reason for their resentment and rage is the old antisemitic gene that can be found in every soul outside the flock.

One of Cif’s I/P heavyweights often makes the point that had it been Catholics rather than Jews who established a state in Israel in 1948, the Palestinians would have responded just as viciously to the injustice they were dealt. Anyone with an ounce of sense would reach the same conclusion - provided they are not under the widely-cast spell that there is an inherent lust for Jewish blood in every Arab. As I argued in a comment on my last thread, belief in such a preposterous theory is as stereotyping and racist as a belief that all Jews are leeches and cosmopolitan anarchists.

Of course there are extremists amongst the Palestinians who want to maim and kill Israeli civilians for no reason other than they are Israeli civilians. Those true terrorists must not be given the freedom to operate. However, perpetually occupying an entire people and keeping them in prison and in penury plays into the hands of radical elements, providing them with more and more fodder willing to do their bidding and put the security of ordinary Israelis at risk. Collective punishment breeds collective rage, and Israel has to recognise this before there is any chance of a cessation of violence.

But beyond the extremists there exists a majority of Palestinians who couldn’t give a damn about the ethnicity of those oppressing them, they just care about the oppression itself. If Israel unlocks its vice-like grip on their collective windpipe, they will breathe again, and with each breath more oxygen will rush to their heads and they’ll be able to think straight once more. Then the Israelis will realise that the Palestinians are no more or less human than the Israelis themselves, and the 60-year fear will begin to recede.

Just as it did for we JFS pupils once we reached the sixth form and were allowed out into the bandit country of Kentish Town during our free periods. Unchecked, we wandered the streets among our supposedly mortal enemies, wondering how we’d been worked into such a state of suspicion for so long, when the truth was far removed from the urban legends that swirled around our penned-in playground.

Even though I look forward a time when Israelis and Palestinians can reside together in peace, it would be foolish to suggest the conditions are sufficiently clement for that to occur today. Clearly, the rogue elements who do wish genuine harm on the country’s inhabitants must be neutralised before any kind of integration can begin in earnest. But that doesn’t mean neutralisation by force, since that route only generates more fundamentalists.

Instead, the Israelis must begin by rebuilding the Palestinians’ lives step by step - economically, socially, emotionally - and demonstrating a clear wish for rapprochement. The Israeli public must be treated like sixth-formers and allowed back into the West Bank (as they were in pre-intifada days), to see for themselves that not all Palestinians are masked gunmen with only murder on their minds. Once that happens, the hysteria will dissipate as it did for we JFS kids. And only then will it truly be possible to move forward to a future of harmonious coexistence.

U.S. to Expand Collection Of Crime Suspects' DNA

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By Ellen Nakashima and Spencer Hsu

Policy Adds People Arrested but Not Convicted

The U.S. government will soon begin collecting DNA samples from all citizens arrested in connection with any federal crime and from many immigrants detained by federal authorities, adding genetic identifiers from more than 1 million individuals a year to the swiftly growing federal law enforcement DNA database.

The policy will substantially expand the current practice of routinely collecting DNA samples from only those convicted of federal crimes, and it will build on a growing policy among states to collect DNA from many people who are arrested. Thirteen states do so now and turn their data over to the federal government.

The initiative, to be published as a proposed rule in the Federal Register in coming days, reflects a congressional directive that DNA from arrestees be collected to help catch a range of domestic criminals. But it also requires, for the first time, the collection of DNA samples from people other than U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents who are detained by U.S. authorities.

Although fingerprints have long been collected for virtually every arrestee, privacy advocates say the new policy expands the DNA database, run by the FBI, beyond its initial aim of storing information on the perpetrators of violent crimes.

They also worry that people could be detained erroneously and swept into the database without cause, and that DNA samples from those who are never convicted of a crime, because of acquittal or a withdrawal of charges, might nonetheless be permanently retained by the FBI.

"Innocent people don't belong in a so-called criminal database," said Tania Simoncelli, science adviser for the American Civil Liberties Union. "We're crossing a line."

She said that if the samples are kept, they could one day be analyzed for sensitive information such as diseases and ancestry.

Justice Department spokesman Erik Ablin said the collection of DNA samples "will provide an additional form of biometric identification from persons who would normally be fingerprinted." FBI rules preclude using DNA samples to determine a person's genetic traits, diseases or disorders.

The database expansion was authorized by Congress as an amendment to the Violence Against Women Act and was billed primarily as a way to track down serial rapists, murderers and other offenders. "We know for a fact that the proposed regulations will save the lives of many innocent people and will prevent devastating crimes," said Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), a sponsor of the legislation. "These regulations are long overdue -- we should have done this 10 years ago."

The proposed rule applies to all federal agencies with the authority to arrest or detain, including the FBI, the Border Patrol and the Internal Revenue Service. Although details of the policy have not been announced, officials said they expect the bulk of the new DNA samples to be collected through cheek swabs.

U.S. officials said that when the measure is fully implemented, roughly 1.2 million people a year could be added to the national database. About 140,000 of those would be people arrested for federal crimes. Many of the rest would be foreigners detained for being in the United States illegally.

Immigration rights advocates note that most illegal immigrants are detained for administrative violations, not federal crimes. By adding their DNA to the database, "it casts them all as criminals," said Paromita Shah, associate director of the National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild.

The rule's scope is still being negotiated, officials said, but it will not cover illegal immigrants picked up at sea; people being processed for legal admission to the United States, such as asylum seekers; and people undergoing secondary screening at ports of entry. It was unclear yesterday whether Mexican border-crossers who are briefly detained and then released in Mexico will be covered. The Border Patrol made 877,000 apprehensions in 2007, most of them of Mexicans.

The move comes as 13 states -- including Virginia and, recently, Maryland -- have passed laws to include many arrestees in their DNA databanks. California, which has more than 1 million profiles, will begin collecting DNA from all felony arrestees next year. The information will be uploaded to the national database, which today houses more than 5.9 million samples, making it the largest forensic DNA databank in the world.

The National DNA Index System (NDIS) was created by the DNA Identification Act of 1994 to store profiles of people convicted of serious violent crimes, such as rape and murder. A 2004 amendment expanded the collection to people convicted of any felony offense, and it allowed states to upload DNA profiles from people convicted of misdemeanors and from arrestees charged with a crime. In 2006, the law was changed again, enabling states to upload data from arrestees who had not been charged.

Over the years, the NDIS has yielded 66,750 hits in 67,285 investigations, FBI officials said. "I think by any measure, the program has been a success," said Thomas Callaghan, head of the database, adding that the best way to increase its effectiveness is to add DNA samples from arrestees.

Jayann Sepich of Carlsbad, N.M., said she applauds the federal rule change. In August 2003, after Sepich's 22-year-old daughter, Katie, was raped and killed, investigators found her attacker's skin and blood under her fingernails. But no samples in the state's database matched the evidence.

In 2006, moved by Katie Sepich's death, the New Mexico legislature passed "Katie's Law," requiring the collection of arrestees' DNA. That December, authorities arrested the man who had killed her -- a DNA sample had been taken from him when he was arrested on a charge of aggravated burglary. Jayann Sepich is now a prominent advocate of similar laws in other states.

The new federal rule will conform to current law, which requires the removal of DNA profiles from the database when a conviction is reversed or when an arrest does not result in conviction. An individual must petition for expungement, Ablin said. Civil liberties advocates say removal should be automatic.

In Virginia, which in 2003 adopted one of the first arrestee laws, about 51 percent of arrestee profiles are eventually removed from the state database because charges are dropped or a case is dismissed, said Pete Marone, director of the Department of Forensic Science. He said it is the forensic lab's duty to remove the profiles, something that can take a year or two. "As long as the case is in process, they're still there," he said.

Jim Harper, director of information policy studies at the libertarian Cato Institute, warned of mission creep. "The natural path is to move from the dangerous criminals down the chain, to anybody who has contact with law enforcement, and after that you'll have DNA taken when people are born or first enter the country legally," he said.

The proposed rule will be subject to a 30-day public comment period, Ablin said.

Top Bush aides pushed for Guantánamo torture

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By Richard Norton-Taylor

America's most senior general was "hoodwinked" by top Bush administration officials determined to push through aggressive interrogation techniques of terror suspects held at Guantánamo Bay, leading to the US military abandoning its age-old ban on the cruel and inhumane treatment of prisoners, the Guardian reveals today.

General Richard Myers, chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff from 2001 to 2005, wrongly believed that inmates at Guantánamo and other prisons were protected by the Geneva conventions and from abuse tantamount to torture.

The way he was duped by senior officials in Washington, who believed the Geneva conventions and other traditional safeguards were out of date, is disclosed in a devastating account of their role, extracts of which appear in today's Guardian.

In his new book, Torture Team, Philippe Sands QC, professor of law at University College London, reveals that:

· Senior Bush administration figures pushed through previously outlawed measures with the aid of inexperienced military officials at Guantánamo.

· Myers believes he was a victim of "intrigue" by top lawyers at the department of justice, the office of vice-president Dick Cheney, and at Donald Rumsfeld's defence department.

· The Guantánamo lawyers charged with devising interrogation techniques were inspired by the exploits of Jack Bauer in the American TV series 24.

· Myers wrongly believed interrogation techniques had been taken from the army's field manual.

The lawyers, all political appointees, who pushed through the interrogation techniques were Alberto Gonzales, David Addington and William Haynes. Also involved were Doug Feith, Rumsfeld's under-secretary for policy, and Jay Bybee and John Yoo, two assistant attorney generals.

The revelations have sparked a fierce response in the US from those familiar with the contents of the book, and who are determined to establish accountability for the way the Bush administration violated international and domestic law by sanctioning prisoner abuse and torture.

The Bush administration has tried to explain away the ill-treatment of detainees at Guantánamo Bay and Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq by blaming junior officials. Sands' book establishes that pressure for aggressive and cruel treatment of detainees came from the top and was sanctioned by the most senior lawyers.

Myers was one top official who did not understand the implications of what was being done. Sands, who spent three hours with the former general, says he was "confused" about the decisions that were taken.

Myers mistakenly believed that new techniques recommended by Haynes and authorised by Rumsfeld in December 2002 for use by the military at Guantánamo had been taken from the US army field manual. They included hooding, sensory deprivation, and physical and mental abuse.

"As we worked through the list of techniques, Myers became increasingly hesitant and troubled," writes Sands. "Haynes and Rumsfeld had been able to run rings around him."

Myers and his closest advisers were cut out of the decision-making process. He did not know that Bush administration officials were changing the rules allowing interrogation techniques, including the use of dogs, amounting to torture.

"We never authorised torture, we just didn't, not what we would do," Myers said. Sands comments: "He really had taken his eye off the ball ... he didn't ask too many questions ... and kept his distance from the decision-making process."

Larry Wilkerson, a former army officer and chief of staff to Colin Powell, US secretary of state at the time, told the Guardian: "I do know that Rumsfeld had neutralised the chairman [Myers] in many significant ways.

"The secretary did this by cutting [Myers] out of important communications, meetings, deliberations and plans.

"At the end of the day, however, Dick Myers was not a very powerful chairman in the first place, one reason Rumsfeld recommended him for the job".

He added: "Haynes, Feith, Yoo, Bybee, Gonzalez and - at the apex - Addington, should never travel outside the US, except perhaps to Saudi Arabia and Israel. They broke the law; they violated their professional ethical code. In future, some government may build the case necessary to prosecute them in a foreign court, or in an international court."

Our reign of terror, by the Israeli army

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By Donald Macintyre

In shocking testimonies that reveal abductions, beatings and torture, Israeli soldiers confess the horror they have visited on Hebron

The dark-haired 22-year-old in black T-shirt, blue jeans and red Crocs is understandably hesitant as he sits at a picnic table in the incongruous setting of a beauty spot somewhere in Israel. We know his name and if we used it he would face a criminal investigation and a probable prison sentence.

The birds are singing as he describes in detail some of what he did and saw others do as an enlisted soldier in Hebron. And they are certainly criminal: the incidents in which Palestinian vehicles are stopped for no good reason, the windows smashed and the occupants beaten up for talking back – for saying, for example, they are on the way to hospital; the theft of tobacco from a Palestinian shopkeeper who is then beaten "to a pulp" when he complains; the throwing of stun grenades through the windows of mosques as people prayed. And worse.

The young man left the army only at the end of last year, and his decision to speak is part of a concerted effort to expose the moral price paid by young Israeli conscripts in what is probably the most problematic posting there is in the occupied territories. Not least because Hebron is the only Palestinian city whose centre is directly controlled by the military, 24/7, to protect the notably hardline Jewish settlers there. He says firmly that he now regrets what repeatedly took place during his tour of duty.

But his frequent, if nervous, grins and giggles occasionally show just a hint of the bravado he might have displayed if boasting of his exploits to his mates in a bar. Repeatedly he turns to the older former soldier who has persuaded him to speak to us, and says as if seeking reassurance: "You know how it is in Hebron."

The older ex-soldier is Yehuda Shaul, who does indeed "know how it is in Hebron", having served in the city in a combat unit at the peak of the intifada, and is a founder of Shovrim Shtika, or Breaking the Silence, which will publish tomorrow the disturbing testimonies of 39 Israelis – including this young man – who served in the army in Hebron between 2005 and 2007. They cover a range of experiences, from anger and powerlessness in the face of often violent abuse of Arabs by hardline Jewish settlers, through petty harassment by soldiers, to soldiers beating up Palestinian residents without provocation, looting homes and shops, and opening fire on unarmed demonstrators.

The maltreatment of civilians under occupation is common to many armies in the world – including Britain's, from Northern Ireland to Iraq.

But, paradoxically, few if any countries apart from Israel have an NGO like Breaking the Silence, which seeks – through the experiences of the soldiers themselves – as its website puts it "to force Israeli society to address the reality which it created" in the occupied territories.

The Israeli public was given an unflattering glimpse of military life in Hebron this year when a young lieutenant in the Kfir Brigade called Yaakov Gigi was given a 15-month jail sentence for taking five soldiers with him to hijack a Palestinian taxi, conduct what the Israeli media called a "rampage" in which one of the soldiers shot and wounded a Palestinian civilian who just happened to be in the wrong place, and then tried to lie his way out of it.

In a confessional interview with the Israeli Channel Two investigative programme Uvda, Gigi, who had previously been in many ways a model soldier, talked of "losing the human condition" in Hebron. Asked what he meant, he replied: "To lose the human condition is to become an animal."

The Israeli military did not prosecute the soldier who had fired on the Palestinian, as opposed to Gigi. But the military insists "that the events that occurred within the Kfir Brigade are highly unusual".

But as the 22-year-old soldier, also in the Kfir Brigade, confirms in his testimony to Breaking the Silence, it seems that the event may not have been exceptional. Certainly, our interview tells us, he was "many times" in groups that commandeered taxis, seated the driver in the back, and told him to direct them to places "where they hate the Jews" in order to "make a balagan" – Hebrew for "big mess".

Then there is the inter- clan Palestinian fight: "We were told to go over there and find out what was happening. Our [platoon] commander was a bit screwed in the head. So anyway, we would locate houses, and he'd tell us: 'OK, anyone you see armed with stones or whatever, I don't care what – shoot.' Everyone would think it's the clan fight..." Did the company commander know? "No one knew. Platoon's private initiative, these actions."

Did you hit them? "Sure, not just them. Anyone who came close ... Particularly legs and arms. Some people also sustained abdominal hits ... I think at some point they realised it was soldiers, but they were not sure. Because they could not believe soldiers would do this, you know."

Or using a 10-year-old child to locate and punish a 15-year-old stone-thrower: "So we got hold of just some Palestinian kid nearby, we knew that he knew who it had been. Let's say we beat him a little, to put it mildly, until he told us. You know, the way it goes when your mind's already screwed up, and you have no more patience for Hebron and Arabs and Jews there.

"The kid was really scared, realising we were on to him. We had a commander with us who was a bit of a fanatic. We gave the boy over to this commander, and he really beat the shit out of him ... He showed him all kinds of holes in the ground along the way, asking him: 'Is it here you want to die? Or here?' The kid goes, 'No, no!'

"Anyway, the kid was stood up, and couldn't stay standing on his own two feet. He was already crying ... And the commander continues, 'Don't pretend' and kicks him some more. And then [name withheld], who always had a hard time with such things, went in, caught the squad commander and said, 'Don't touch him any more, that's it.' The commander goes, 'You've become a leftie, what?' And he answers, 'No, I just don't want to see such things.'

"We were right next to this, but did nothing. We were indifferent, you know. OK. Only after the fact you start thinking. Not right away. We were doing such things every day ... It had become a habit...

"And the parents saw it. The commander ordered [the mother], 'Don't get any closer.' He cocked his weapon, already had a bullet inside. She was frightened. He put his weapon literally inside the kid's mouth. 'Anyone gets close, I kill him. Don't bug me. I kill. I have no mercy.' So the father ... got hold of the mother and said, 'Calm down, let them be, so they'll leave him alone.'"

Not every soldier serving in Hebron becomes an "animal". Iftach Arbel, 23, from an upper-middle class, left-of-centre home in Herzylia, served in Hebron as a commander just before the withdrawal from Gaza, when he thinks the army wanted to show it could be tough with settlers, too. And many of the testimonies, including Mr Arbel's, describe how the settlers educate children as young as four to throw stones at Palestinians, attack their homes and even steal their possessions. To Mr Arbel, the Hebron settlers are "pure evil" and the only solution is "to remove the settlers".

He believes it would be possible even within these constraints to treat Palestinians better. He adds: "We did night activity. Choose a house at random, on the aerial photo, so as to practise combat routine and all, which is instructive for the soldiers, I mean, I'm all for it. But then at midnight you wake someone up and turn his whole house upside down with everyone sleeping on the mattresses and all."

But Mr Arbel says that most soldiers are some way between his own extreme and that of the most violent. From just two of his fellow testifiers, you can see what he means.

As one said: "We did all kinds of experiments to see who could do the best split in Abu Snena. We would put [Palestinians] against the wall, make like we were checking them, and ask them to spread their legs. Spread, spread, spread, it was a game to see who could do it best. Or we would check who can hold his breath for longest.

"Choke them. One guy would come, make like he was checking them, and suddenly start yelling like they said something and choke them ... Block their airways; you have to press the adams apple. It's not pleasant. Look at the watch as you're doing it, until he passes out. The one who takes longest to faint wins."

And theft as well as violence. "There's this car accessory shop there. Every time, soldiers would take a tape-disc player, other stuff. This guy, if you go ask him, will tell you plenty of things that soldiers did to him.

"A whole scroll-full ... They would raid his shop regularly. 'Listen, if you tell on us, we'll confiscate your whole store, we'll break everything.' You know, he was afraid to tell. He was already making deals, 'Listen guys, you're damaging me financially.' I personally never took a thing, but I'm telling you, people used to take speakers from him, whole sound systems.

"He'd go, 'Please, give me 500 shekels, I'm losing money here.' 'Listen, if you go on – we'll pick up your whole shop.' 'OK, OK, take it, but listen, don't take more than 10 systems a month.' Something like this.

"'I'm already going bankrupt.' He was so miserable. Guys in our unit used to sell these things back home, make deals with people. People are so stupid."

The military said that Israeli Defence Forces soldiers operate according to "a strict set of moral guidelines" and that their expected adherence to them only "increases wherever and whenever IDF soldiers come in contact with civilians". It added that "if evidence supporting the allegations is uncovered, steps are taken to hold those involved to the level of highest judicial severity". It also said: "The Military Advocate General has issued a number of indictments against soldiers due to allegations of criminal behaviour ... Soldiers found guilty were punished severely by the Military Court, in proportion to the committed offence." It had not by last night quantified such indictments.

In its introduction to the testimonies, Breaking the Silence says: "The soldiers' determination to fulfil their mission yields tragic results: the proper-normative becomes despicable, the inconceivable becomes routine ... [The] testimonies are to illustrate the manner in which they are swept into the brutal reality reigning on the ground, a reality whereby the lives of many thousands of Palestinian families are at the questionable mercy of youths. Hebron turns a focused, flagrant lens at the reality to which Israel's young representatives are constantly sent."

A force for justice

Breaking the Silence was formed four years ago by a group of ex-soldiers, most of whom had served in Israel Defence Forces combat units in Hebron. Many of the soldiers do reserve duty in the military each year. It has collected some 500 testimonies from former soldiers who served in the West Bank and Gaza. Its first public exposure was with an exhibition of photographs by soldiers serving in Hebron and the organisation also runs regular tours of Hebron for Israeli students and diplomats. It receives funding from groups as diverse as the Jewish philanthropic Moriah Fund, the New Israel Fund, the British embassy in Tel Aviv and the EU.

No Peace Without Hamas

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By Mahmoud al-Zahar

GAZA -- President Jimmy Carter's sensible plan to visit the Hamas leadership this week brings honesty and pragmatism to the Middle East while underscoring the fact that American policy has reached its dead end. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice acts as if a few alterations here and there would make the hideous straitjacket of apartheid fit better. While Rice persuades Israeli occupation forces to cut a few dozen meaningless roadblocks from among the more than 500 West Bank control points, these forces simultaneously choke off fuel supplies to Gaza; blockade its 1.5 million people; approve illegal housing projects on West Bank land; and attack Gaza City with F-16s, killing men, women and children. Sadly, this is "business as usual" for the Palestinians.

Last week's attack on the Nahal Oz fuel depot should not surprise critics in the West. Palestinians are fighting a total war waged on us by a nation that mobilizes against our people with every means at its disposal -- from its high-tech military to its economic stranglehold, from its falsified history to its judiciary that "legalizes" the infrastructure of apartheid. Resistance remains our only option. Sixty-five years ago, the courageous Jews of the Warsaw ghetto rose in defense of their people. We Gazans, living in the world's largest open-air prison, can do no less.

The U.S.-Israeli alliance has sought to negate the results of the January 2006 elections, when the Palestinian people handed our party a mandate to rule. Hundreds of independent monitors, Carter among them, declared this the fairest election ever held in the Arab Middle East. Yet efforts to subvert our democratic experience include the American coup d'etat that created the new sectarian paradigm with Fatah and the continuing warfare against and enforced isolation of Gazans.

Now, finally, we have the welcome tonic of Carter saying what any independent, uncorrupted thinker should conclude: that no "peace plan," "road map" or "legacy" can succeed unless we are sitting at the negotiating table and without any preconditions.

Israel's escalation of violence since the staged Annapolis "peace conference" in November has been consistent with its policy of illegal, often deadly collective punishment -- in violation of international conventions. Israeli military strikes on Gaza have killed hundreds of Palestinians since then with unwavering White House approval; in 2007 alone the ratio of Palestinians to Israelis killed was 40 to 1, up from 4 to 1 during the period from 2000 to 2005.

Only three months ago I buried my son Hussam, who studied finance at college and wanted to be an accountant; he was killed by an Israeli airstrike. In 2003, I buried Khaled -- my first-born -- after an Israeli F-16 targeting me wounded my daughter and my wife and flattened the apartment building where we lived, injuring and killing many of our neighbors. Last year, my son-in-law was killed.

Hussam was only 21, but like most young men in Gaza he had grown up fast out of necessity. When I was his age, I wanted to be a surgeon; in the 1960s, we were already refugees, but there was no humiliating blockade then. But now, after decades of imprisonment, killing, statelessness and impoverishment, we ask: What peace can there be if there is no dignity first? And where does dignity come from if not from justice?

Our movement fights on because we cannot allow the foundational crime at the core of the Jewish state -- the violent expulsion from our lands and villages that made us refugees -- to slip out of world consciousness, forgotten or negotiated away. Judaism -- which gave so much to human culture in the contributions of its ancient lawgivers and modern proponents of tikkun olam -- has corrupted itself in the detour into Zionism, nationalism and apartheid.

A "peace process" with Palestinians cannot take even its first tiny step until Israel first withdraws to the borders of 1967; dismantles all settlements; removes all soldiers from Gaza and the West Bank; repudiates its illegal annexation of Jerusalem; releases all prisoners; and ends its blockade of our international borders, our coastline and our airspace permanently. This would provide the starting point for just negotiations and would lay the groundwork for the return of millions of refugees. Given what we have lost, it is the only basis by which we can start to be whole again.

I am eternally proud of my sons and miss them every day. I think of them as fathers everywhere, even in Israel, think of their sons -- as innocent boys, as curious students, as young men with limitless potential -- not as "gunmen" or "militants." But better that they were defenders of their people than parties to their ultimate dispossession; better that they were active in the Palestinian struggle for survival than passive witnesses to our subjugation.

History teaches us that everything is in flux. Our fight to redress the material crimes of 1948 is scarcely begun, and adversity has taught us patience. As for the Israeli state and its Spartan culture of permanent war, it is all too vulnerable to time, fatigue and demographics: In the end, it is always a question of our children and those who come after us.

Food - The Ultimate Weapon Of The Ruling Elite

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By William Bowles

Using food as a weapon is as old as the siege but today’s barbarians have upped the anté by several orders of magnitude.

“…There are only two possible ways in which a world of 10 billion people can be averted. Either the current birth rates must come down more quickly. Or the current death rates must go up. There is no other way. There are, of course, many ways in which the death rates can go up. In a thermonuclear age, war can accomplish it very quickly and decisively. Famine and disease are nature’s ancient checks on population growth, and neither one has disappeared from the scene … To put it simply: Excessive population growth is the greatest single obstacle to the economic and social advancement of most of the societies in the developing world.” — Speech to the Club of Rome by Robert McNamara, Oct. 2, 1979

“Overpopulation and rapid demographic growth of Mexico is already today one of the major threats to the national security of the United States. Unless the U.S.-Mexico border is sealed, we will be up to our necks in Mexicans for whom we cannot find jobs.” —Robert McNamara, then World Bank president, March 19, 1982

McNamara’s thinly veiled genocidal utterances took place over thirty years ago, echoing the wealthy and the privileged’s fear of the ’great unwashed’ when ‘over-population’ was the buzzword. So not much has changed has it, we’re hearing the same, tired old messages being rolled out once again by the ruling elites and their spin doctors. McNamara’s cries of fear about being up to his neck in Mexicans is exactly same as the current bogey doing the rounds in Europe, only now they’re Africans.

Thus the current explosions in Haiti, Eygpt, Ivory Coast, Ethiopia, the Philippines, Indonesia and elsewhere over the rocketing price of basic foodstuffs such as cooking oil and rice prompted the BBC to describe them as first and foremost “a potential threat to Western security” (BBC News 24, 13 April, 2008), never mind the threat to human life, but then it reveals exactly where the BBC’s head is at, protecting the status quo.

To add insult to injury, the crétin Gordon Brown has the damn nerve to say,

“Rising food prices threaten to roll back progress we have made in recent years on development. For the first time in decades, the number of people facing hunger is growing.”

Progress? What planet does our glorious leader live on? Standards of living have been falling for everybody (except the rich who, as a consequence, have just gotten even richer by stealing even more from the poor), since the 1970s when the ‘neo-liberal’ agenda was initiated and not only have the poorest been the hardest hit but we’ve seen millions of the formerly ‘middle classes’ dumped unceremoniously back where they ‘belong’, with the poor. Social status doesn’t put food on the table. So much for the capitalist ‘good life’.

These are the facts: real wages in the US have fallen since the 1970s. It’s reckoned that around 40 million Americans now live under the ‘official’ poverty level, but at least they can still eat something, not so the millions of people in the so-called developing world who already immiserated by so-called free trade, have been hit with a double whammy, nay, a quintuple whammy.

Whammy #1: ‘Free Trade’

The poor countries of the world have been ‘persuaded’ that growing food for export so as to earn foreign currency which they then have to use to buy imported food (guess where from?), is better than growing food in their back yard. And to make sure they live up to their end of the ‘bargain’, under WTO ‘rules’ they get punished if they try to control imports.

Countries grew their own food which not only fed them but also created employment, now grow food and things like flowers, for export in order to ‘earn’ the precious dollar which obviously they have to spend on importing the food they once grew. Worse, the subsidized food imports wipe out what remains of indigenous agriculture, it simply can’t compete. What an insane setup! It only makes sense when you realize that the managers who setup this ‘deal’ work for BIg Business, they call the shots. If it were a ‘Mafia’ deal it would be called criminal extortion.

Of course, we in the West with our wealth subsidize the production of food, so the poor of the planet get hit with a whammy within a whammy. Not having the resources to subsidize their own food production, as the cost of importing food rises but not the price they get for exporting food to us, they are truly caught between a rock and a barren place.

And it’s the same IMF and World Bank policies which created the latest crisis to hit the poor of our planet, that are responsible for creating such an unequal relationship in the first place.

Whammy #2: Energy

And of course to grow all these crops for export needs lots of energy and lots of water, and lots of fertilizer, and lots of pesticides, all of which must be bought with precious foreign currency (and until recently, only dollars would be accepted). With oil now selling at over $113 a barrel, the cost of producing anything has shot through the roof. The winners: The Big Oil Cartels. No need to tell you who the losers are.

But the actual cost of producing the oil hasn’t risen much at all, the entire responsibility for these increases has to be placed where it belongs, on the commodities speculators and the Big Five oilcos. In other words, on all those grimy gamblers in investment corps and pension fund managers. It’s the system.

Whammy #3: ‘Bio-fuels’

The latest addition to the armoury of food used as a weapon and perhaps the most obvious example to date, is converting production from food staples to so-called bio-fuels.

For rather than us just using less energy, we buy it from the poor of the planet in the form of ‘bio-fuels’. Brilliant isn’t it. What poor country needs to produce ethanol? It has no possible use except perhaps to make moonshine.

But we knew that this would happen and everybody told our cretinous, criminal leaders what would happen. They’re too busy producing wheat for export to feed all those damn cows, cows that we turn into hamburgers for our consumption, but now, instead of producing wheat for export to make burgers, we’re producing ethanol to put in our automobiles. Either way it’s madness!

And in any case, as a leaked EU report shows, bio-fuels do nothing to halt the production of greenhouse gases (they may even increase it), the entire ‘bio-fuels’ thing is one gigantic scam, largely to do with what is the most profitable crop to grow (see ‘Industry asks for biofuels policy U-turn).

Whammy #4: Water

Fact: It takes 1,000-2,000 litres of water to produce 1 kilo of wheat

Fact: It takes 10,000-13,000 litres of water to produce 1 kilo of meat (Source: FAO)

And guess what gets produced the most, largely for Western consumption—burgers. And not surprisingly, the ‘neo-liberal’ agenda has seen the enforced privatization of water across the planet along with other key resources formerly held in communal ownership.

Whammy #5: Climate Change

Predictably, climate change impacts on those least able to deal with it, the poor. And lest we forget, the majority of the planet’s population are poor. The connectedness between everything must surely be apparent to you, the reader, the fact that messing up the biosphere the way we have been doing for the past two hundred years reverberates throughout the planet. And our political elites call themselves civilized!

Meanwhile, back in the land of the powerful, we’re busy planning for endless war in order to preserve our privilege, so even as our glorious leaders pontificate on about this or that crisis facing us, they’re spending billions on developing robots to shit bombs on the planet’s poor from a comfortable armchair some distance from the scene of the ‘action’.

“UAV Market to Top $13 Billion by 2014

Washington, D.C. (PRWEB) April 14, 2008 — The global war on terrorism has prompted the United States to pump significant amounts of money into its Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) programs, asserts Forecast International analyst Larry Dickerson.” —

How can anybody in his or her right mind not view these people and the entire class in whose interests they work so tirelessly, not see them not only as war criminals but as destroyers of life! These are truly barbarians in every sense of the word, for they destroy everything of beauty and value including entire countries in order to preserve their piece of the action.

No wonder the Hollywood obsession with ‘saving the planet’ but when will we see a movie about saving ourselves and our home from these predatory mass murderers?

So why is it that we turn away from the carnage ostensibly wrought in our name? After all, people give generously to so-called charities, so it’s not that people don’t care about the plight of others.

Again, I come back to the corporate/state media for surely without their active complicity in covering up the endless atrocities being committed would we stand for it? I think not, but then I’m an eternal optimist about the real nature of the human spirit once we stop fearing and start thinking and feeling.

The major reason is the media’s (never mind the politicians) failure to connect events with the underlying economics that drives them to act the way they do. Thus the ‘credit-crunch’ is so misnamed in order to hide the fact that it’s the economic and political policies of our governments in cahoots with Big Business that created the crisis in the first place (as it has all previous crises).

The ‘credit-crunch’ is merely symptomatic of a sick system that needs to be replaced poste haste.

The issue is really quite simple, as long as we have ruling elites joined at the hip to Big Capital, running the show, they will never, not in a million years entertain the idea of doing away with the present economic system—which is the cause of all our miseries—and replacing it with a saner and more modest way of earning a buck, there’s too much at stake and for so few, dammit! Only we, the so-called people can do that, they won’t even begin to change things unless we either force them to or failing that, get rid of them.

Carter's Peace Mission

Go to Original
By Mike Whitney

There's way out of this mess that doesn't involve slaughtering each others children

Jimmy Carter arrived in Syria today in an effort to restart peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians. He is scheduled to meet with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Hamas political leader Khaled Meshal. Carter has been severely criticized in the western media for meeting with Hamas and was snubbed by Israeli leaders during his stay in Israel. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, and opposition leader Binyamin Netanyahu, all refused to meet with the former president. They believe that Carter’s trip undermines Israel’s current policy towards the Palestinians and will force them to negotiate with a group they think is a terrorist organization.

Carter won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002 and has devoted his life to spreading democracy, human rights, and ending poverty. He has no interest in upstaging the Bush or Olmert. His only interest is stopping the bloodshed and ensuring security for both Israelis and Palestinians.

Carter has been a good friend to Israel and doesn’t deserve the chilly treatment he received. In 1978 Carter brought Egypt’s President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin to Camp David for negotiations which ended in a historic treaty. When negotiations stalled, Carter rushed to Cairo and helped Sadat and Begin work out a compromise. That ended the state of war between Eqypt and Israel and led to the withdrawal of Israeli troops from the Sinai Peninsula. The treaty has endured for 30 years. Israel is a safer place because of Jimmy Carter.

The official Israeli policy towards the Palestinians is both brutal and irrational. Hamas won in elections that were monitored by the international community and were declared "free and fair". They are the legitimate government in the occupied territories. Israel needs to accept that fact and move on. The real reason that Israel does not want to negotiate with Hamas has nothing to do with terrorism. Olmert has made this clear in an interview he gave as Minister of Industry and Trade in 2003:

"We are approaching the point where more and more Palestinians will say: we have been won over. We agree with [National Union leader Avigdor] Lieberman. There is no room for two states between the Jordan and the sea. All that we want is the right to vote. The day they do that, is the day we lose everything. Even when they carry out terror, it is very difficult for us to persuade the world of the justice of our cause. We see this on a daily basis. All the more so when there is only one demand: an equal right to vote....The thought that the struggle against us will be headed by liberal Jewish organizations who shouldered the burden of the struggle against apartheid in South Africa scares me."

Olmert makes important point, that Israel feels that its future as a Jewish state is threatened by a "demographic time-bomb"; that if they fail to impose their own unilateral settlement on the Palestinians---by seizing land and creating de facto borders--Jews will eventually become a minority in Israel. This’s the fear that’s driving the policy, not racism or terrorism.

Olmert adds:

"Had I believed that there is a real chance of reaching an agreement, I would have recommended making an effort. But that is not the case. The choice we will be facing will be between less than a Geneva Accord -- which means a return to the 1967 border, the crushing of Jerusalem, and a struggle to our last breath to ward off the international pressure to absorb hundreds of thousands of refugees into the shrinking State of Israel -- and a comprehensive unilateral move, and I stress the word comprehensive. Through such a move we will define our borders, which under no circumstances will be identical to the Green Line and will include Jerusalem as a united city under our sovereignty."

Olmert is merely implementing Ariel Sharon’s policy of "disengagement" which cuts off all real dialog with the Palestinians and imposes a unilateral settlement. That’s why Carter has been treated so brusquely; his trip just draws attention to the intransigence of Israeli policy.

On Friday, the Washington Post published an op-ed by Hamas Foreign Minister, Mahmoud al-Zahar which clearly articulates the position of Hamas. It is well worth reading in its entirety. Al Zahar, whose 21 year old son, Hussam, was tragically killed three months ago in an Israeli air-strike, was studying finance and planned to become and accountant. Al Zahar lost another son and a son in law in 2003.

Al Zahar: "President Jimmy Carter’s sensible plan to visit the Hamas leadership this week brings honesty and pragmatism to the Middle East while underscoring the fact that American policy has reached its dead end. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice acts as if a few alterations here and there would make the hideous straitjacket of apartheid fit better. While Rice persuades Israeli occupation forces to cut a few dozen meaningless roadblocks from among the more than 500 West Bank control points, these forces simultaneously choke off fuel supplies to Gaza; blockade its 1.5 million people; approve illegal housing projects on West Bank land; and attack Gaza City with F-16’s, killing men, women and children. Sadly, this is "business as usual" for the Palestinians.

Last week’s attack on the Nahal Oz fuel depot should not surprise critics in the West. Palestinians are fighting a total war waged on us by a nation that mobilizes against our people with every means at its disposal -- from its high-tech military to its economic stranglehold, from its falsified history to its judiciary that "legalizes" the infrastructure of apartheid. Resistance remains our only option. Sixty-five years ago, the courageous Jews of the Warsaw ghetto rose in defense of their people. We Gazans, living in the world’s largest open-air prison, can do no less.

Al Zahar claims that Israel has tried to negate the results of what was called "the fairest election ever held in the Arab Middle East" and used it to wage a new war against the people of Gaza; a war that was approved by the Bush White House.

"Now, finally, we have the welcome tonic of Carter saying what any independent, uncorrupted thinker should conclude: that no "peace plan," "road map" or "legacy" can succeed unless we are sitting at the negotiating table and without any preconditions."

Al-Zahar then presents a litany of Palestinian grievances mixing in a bit of the conflict’s bitter history:

"Our movement fights on because we cannot allow the foundational crime at the core of the Jewish state -- the violent expulsion from our lands and villages that made us refugees -- to slip out of world consciousness, forgotten or negotiated away. Judaism -- which gave so much to human culture in the contributions of its ancient lawgivers and modern proponents of tikkun olam -- has corrupted itself in the detour into Zionism, nationalism and apartheid."

A "peace process" with Palestinians cannot take even its first tiny step until Israel first withdraws to the borders of 1967; dismantles all settlements; removes all soldiers from Gaza and the West Bank; repudiates its illegal annexation of Jerusalem; releases all prisoners; and ends its blockade of our international borders, our coastline and our airspace permanently. This would provide the starting point for just negotiations and would lay the groundwork for the return of millions of refugees. Given what we have lost, it is the only basis by which we can start to be whole again." (Washington Post)

These are difficult issues and will require intensive negotiations before they can be resolved. But the present policy provides no path for resolution or reconcilliation; just more animosity and bloodshed. The Bush-Olmert plan is a failure; the killing has only increased.

Carter’s trip is a reminder that there’s still a way out of this mess that doesn’t involve slaughtering each others children.

Truth as a Causality of War

Go to Original
By Dan Glazebrook

Robert Fisk has a well-earned reputation as one of the most honest and hard hitting foreign correspondents in the British media.

He has worked in Northern Ireland, where he exposed the presence of the SAS in the mid-1970s, as well as Bosnia, Palestine, Iraq, and Lebanon. It was here, as a witness to the immediate aftermath of the Israeli-organised Sabra and Shatila massacre of 2000 Palestinian refugees, that his journalism took on its current form: angry, passionate, and as he puts it “partial on the side of the victims” – a style of journalism which, unfortunately, is not shared by many of his colleagues in the profession. In the midst of a torrent of lies and propaganda emanating from our media about British and US policy on the Middle East, Fisk’s writings are a breath of fresh air – although the hellish reality he depicts does not always make for pleasant reading.

When I met him in Christchurch College, sandwiched between an earlier speaking engagement in Bristol, and a lecture at the Oxford Literary Festival – seemingly without a moment’s rest – we began by talking about the role of journalism in times of war. Firstly, I wanted to know, does journalism, by sanitising or justifying war, also have a role in perpetuating it?

“There are several things. First of all, there’s the inability of many journalists from the United States to actually tell the truth about the Israel-Palestine situation – hence, occupied territories are called disputed territories, the wall is called the security barrier, a colony or settlement is called a neighbourhood or an outpost. Which means that if you see a Palestinian chucking a stone, if it’s about an occupation, you can understand it, but if it’s about a dispute, which you can presumably settle over a cup of tea, then obviously the Palestinians are generically violent. So you demean one side in this appalling conflict.

Then you have this business where television will not show what we see, for reasons of so-called “bad taste”. I remember once being on the phone to a TV editor in London when Aljazeera were asked to feed some tape of children killed and wounded by British shell fire in Basra, and the guy started saying, “there’s no point feeding us this, we can’t show this”…the first excuse was, “people will be having their tea, so we can’t put it on”, and then it was, “this is sort of pornography, we don’t show this”. And it ended up – it is mesmeric to listen to this stuff - the last thing was “We have to show respect for the dead”. So we don’t show any respect for them when they are alive, we blow them to bits, and then we show respect for them…So because of this - and these bloodless sandpits with ex-generals pontificating - it becomes a game; you start propagating this idea that war is primarily about victory or defeat - when in fact, it’s about death, and the infliction of massive pain.

I was in Iraq in 1991, when the British and Americans had been bombing one of the highways. There were women and children dead and in bits, and all these dogs came out of the desert and started eating them…If you saw what I saw you would never ever think of supporting war of any kind against anyone again.

But of course, the politicians – our leaders – are very happy that these pictures are not shown, because they make war more attractive, less painful.”

Do the British public never get to see this, more realistic, picture of war?

“Look, if an Iraqi soldier is obliging enough to die by the side of the road in a romantic pose, and you can get him against the skyline without any boiled flesh - you know, “the price of war: an Iraqi soldier lies dead”, you know the sort of caption by now - you can do that.” But that’s about it.

Journalistic standards are degenerating rapidly in other areas too. Watching the news two weeks ago, I was shocked to see Yassin Nassari and Abdul Patel referred to by the BBC as ‘terrorists’ – not “alleged” or “suspected”, but straight down the line “terrorists” - when the only charges they faced related to “possession of materials” (Islamist literature and video), and they had not even been accused of planning terrorist attacks, let alone carrying any out. Has ‘terrorism’ become a ‘catch-all’ phrase?

“I’ve seen cases in the United States where the evidence of terrorism is a copy of a Lebanese newspaper.

I’ve just had an interesting example of what’s going on. I was lecturing in Ottawa to 600 Muslim Canadians, and I said to them “you are absolutely right to exercise your right to free speech to attack the United States and Israel when they kill people, commit torture, occupy other people’s lands- but why don’t I ever hear you condemning the regimes in Egypt, Damascus, Libya and so on?” Silence. I couldn’t work it out.”

So what was going on? “Later, I was driving across Canada with two Muslims and they told me. In Canada, if they speak out against these regimes – the Syrian regime, or the Egyptian – what happens is that these various countries have their own mukhabarat people in Canada – security people – who will then pass home the message that certain people are speaking up against Mubarak, Assad, or whoever. Then, under the new friendship between intelligence services, the Syrian or Egyptian regime tells the Canadians that there is a potential terrorist – anti-regime, right? – and CSIS, the Canadian version of the FBI, starts putting taps on them. So, by exercising their freedom of speech against dictatorships, they end up being suspected of terrorism by their new country of citizenship. So the result is, at the end of the day, they are silent. As I would be too, in their position.”

What about the silence of the rest of us, who are not so easily excused? With ever dwindling numbers on the anti-war demonstrations, have we forgotten what is really going on in those countries suffering Western “liberation”?

“You keep having to say to people in London, “but it’s real” – because most people don’t have any experience of war in the West anymore. There isn’t a single one of our political leaders with any experience of war. Bush dodged it, Cheney dodged it, Powell was in Vietnam, but he’s gone. Hollywood is their experience of war. And when you send people off to war, and your experience is Hollywood, you might be a bit shocked when they start dying. At the end of the day, it isn’t real to them.”

But it’s all too real to the inhabitants of the Middle East, who have been subject to Western sponsored blitzkrieg and massacre for decades – from the ongoing Nakbah (Catastrophe) against the Palestinians, through Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon, the US arming of Iraq in the 8 year war against Iran, the 1991 Gulf ‘War’, and subsequent economic genocide of UN sanctions on Iraq – not to mention the West’s backing for the dictatorships in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. All of this has been witnessed first hand by Fisk, who believes the Muslim world has shown incredible restraint in the face of all this oppression: “I’m surprised 9-11 didn’t happen before, that it took that long. Now, whether that is because it took a lot of planning, I don’t know, but I am amazed that you can knock on a front door in the West Bank and not have them slap you in the face – instead of that, they offer you in for coffee and a meal. Can you imagine putting it the other way around – if we were being bombed and occupied by Arab armies and a friendly Arab reporter turned to chat, I don’t know if I would open the door; would you?”

The true extent of occupation in Iraq and Afghanistan has been masked by the massive use of mercenaries – hidden from the troop figures. Estimates suggest 1000 have been killed in Iraq alone. He is one of very few journalists to call them by their name, as opposed to the “contractor” euphemism: “just as the wall is called a fence instead of a wall, and it’s a neighbourhood not a settlement, so these are now contractors rather than mercenaries. I’ve always called them mercenaries. When they say two ‘contractors’ have been murdered, the idea that they are going around in an armoured humvee loaded with weapons doesn’t come into the brain pod immediately does it?” What is his experience with these mercenaries?

“I noticed that in 2003, they were popping up with belts loaded with machine gun bullets in the hotel I was in. It was obvious they were going to attract attacks like honey. So I went to some of them and said “look, for god’s sakes, can’t you just keep your weapons in your room?” - in those days, you weren’t being attacked in the street - “you’re making this out to be a barracks – you’re endangering yourselves and you’re endangering us.” And this guy walked up to me with two rifles – he’d overheard the conversation – and he said, “well when you’re in trouble mate, don’t come asking me for help”. I said I don’t want your fucking help, I want you to leave.”

But they didn’t leave. And the big excuse for staying now is, of course, the looming spectre of civil war. Is there, then, a functional value to the occupation of the “civil war theory”?

“The first man I ever heard mention the danger of civil war in Iraq was Dan Semor, spokesman for the occupying power in the Green Zone in August 2003. No one had ever heard about the danger of civil war before, no Iraqi ever mentioned it. I remember thinking, what are they trying to do, frighten the Iraqis into obedience?

I’m not suggesting that the American military are trying to stir up sectarian strife, but it’s not impossible that there are certain institutions operating either at one remove – i.e. with Iraqis or not - in order to get militias to fight each other rather than fight the Americans. The French did that in Algeria – it’s a fact. I don’t know if the same thing is happening in Iraq, but given everything else that’s gone on – murder, torture, etc – who knows?

But you don’t actually have to set off car bombs to do this. Look at the way we as journalists publish all these maps, you know – Shi’ites at the bottom, Sunnis in the middle, Kurds at the top. The British did the same in Belfast - green for Catholics, Orange for protestants, medium sherry colour for mixed areas, for people who are inconsiderate enough to marry across the religious divide. But we don’t, obviously, do these ethnic maps about Birmingham or Bradford or Washington. I could draw you an ethnic map of Toronto, with the suburb of Mississauga green for Muslim. But they wouldn’t print it. Because in our superior, civilised Western society, we don’t acknowledge it. In their society, we spend our time pointing it out to them. I was in New York some months ago, and on the front cover of Time was “How to tell a Sunni from a Shia.” Can you imagine it? And one of the ways was look at the licence plate of the car. So, you know, we contribute to civil strife, by constantly saying, “look at the guy in the next village”. So you don’t need to set up car bombs to divide people, you can do it quite successfully just by constant repetition - civil war, Shiites, militias, Sunnis, power. You create the narrative. And then in due course, people fall into line because it is the only one they get.

I once asked the brother of s Sunni dentist who had been shot dead, “So, will there be civil war?” He replied, “Why do you people want us to have a civil war? I’m married to a Shi’ite – do you want me to kill my wife?” He said, “We’re not a sectarian society, we’re a tribal society – the Duleimis have got lots of Sunnis and Shias.” And that was a response, you see, to an idea that had been set off by Dan Semor, the official spokesman for the occupying power.”

Unfortunately, the sectarian lines are becoming clearer in Iraq by the day, with the US army building walls to create separate ghettoes in Baghdad, and with the Kurdish north now negotiating its own oil deals. The Western imposed solution for Bosnia was full-scale ethnic partition. Will this be the future of Iraq?

“Bosnia was in Europe, so eventually, we wanted to switch the war off. Iraq is a different matter – we’re in Iraq for oil. If the national product of Iraq was asparagus, we would not be there, I promise. There are parallels with Bosnia, not least indifference towards the Muslim victims – we did nothing for them until the war had consumed a quarter of a million of them – and we don’t care about the Iraqis. But I think there are big differences with Bosnia. There are more parallels, I think, between the NATO-Serb Kosovo war, because that is where we got people used to the idea that bombing civilian trains on railway bridges, bombing hospitals, bombing TV stations was OK. So when we hit lots of civilians in Iraq, it was “well, we were doing that back in Serbia, weren’t we?”. We bombed Aljazeera in Kabul, they bombed Aljazeera in Baghdad, which was not even an Iraqi station. So I think the Kosovo war started off the acceptability of doing these things.”

Whatever the occupier’s plans for Iraq, and whatever barbarities it imposes, one thing is for sure – the future of that country is not entirely in their hands. Even with their full scale promotion of sectarian violence in 1950s Algeria, the French were still forced to leave. The dilemma for the US in Iraq, as Fisk puts it, is that “they must leave, they will leave, but they can’t leave – that is the equation that turns sand into blood”. For those who want to understand this process, and what it means in human terms, rather than simply be lied to about it, Robert Fisk’s reporting is a good place to start.