Sunday, April 27, 2008

Letters Give CIA Tactics a Legal Rationale

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By Mark Mazzetti

Washington - The Justice Department has told Congress that American intelligence operatives attempting to thwart terrorist attacks can legally use interrogation methods that might otherwise be prohibited under international law.

The legal interpretation, outlined in recent letters, sheds new light on the still-secret rules for interrogations by the Central Intelligence Agency. It shows that the administration is arguing that the boundaries for interrogations should be subject to some latitude, even under an executive order issued last summer that President Bush said meant that the C.I.A. would comply with international strictures against harsh treatment of detainees.

While the Geneva Conventions prohibit "outrages upon personal dignity," a letter sent by the Justice Department to Congress on March 5 makes clear that the administration has not drawn a precise line in deciding which interrogation methods would violate that standard, and is reserving the right to make case-by-case judgments.

"The fact that an act is undertaken to prevent a threatened terrorist attack, rather than for the purpose of humiliation or abuse, would be relevant to a reasonable observer in measuring the outrageousness of the act," said Brian A. Benczkowski, a deputy assistant attorney general, in the letter, which had not previously been made public.

Mr. Bush issued the executive order last summer to comply with restrictions imposed by the Supreme Court and Congress. The order spelled out new standards for interrogation techniques, requiring that they comply with international standards for humane treatment, but it did not identify any approved techniques.

It has been clear that the order preserved at least some of the latitude that Mr. Bush has permitted the C.I.A. in using harsher interrogation techniques than those permitted by the military or other agencies. But the new documents provide more details about how the administration intends to determine whether a specific technique would be legal, depending on the circumstances involved.

The letters from the Justice Department to Congress were provided by the staff of Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat who is a member of the Intelligence Committee and had sought more information from the department.

Some legal experts critical of the Justice Department interpretation said the department seemed to be arguing that the prospect of thwarting a terror attack could be used to justify interrogation methods that would otherwise be illegal.

"What they are saying is that if my intent is to defend the United States rather than to humiliate you, than I have not committed an offense," said Scott L. Silliman, who teaches national security law at Duke University.

But a senior Justice Department official strongly challenged this interpretation on Friday, saying that the purpose of the interrogation would be just one among many factors weighed in determining whether a specific procedure could be used.

"I certainly don't want to suggest that if there's a good purpose you can head off and humiliate and degrade someone," said the official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was describing some legal judgments that remain classified.

"The fact that you are doing something for a legitimate security purpose would be relevant, but there are things that a reasonable observer would deem to be outrageous," he said.

At the same time, the official said, "there are certainly things that can be insulting that would not raise to the level of an outrage on personal dignity."

The humiliating and degrading treatment of prisoners is prohibited by Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions.

Determining the legal boundaries for interrogating terrorism suspects has been a struggle for the Bush administration. Some of those captured in the first two years after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks were subjected to particularly severe methods, including waterboarding, which induces a feeling of drowning.

But the rules for interrogations became more restrictive beginning in 2004, when the Justice Department rescinded a number of classified legal opinions, including a memorandum written in August 2002 that argued that nothing short of the pain associated with organ failure constituted illegal torture. The executive order that Mr. Bush issued in July 2007 was a further restriction, in response to a Supreme Court ruling in 2006 that holding that all prisoners in American captivity must be treated in accordance with Common Article 3.

Mr. Benczkowski's letters were in response to questions from Mr. Wyden, whose committee had received classified briefings about the executive order.

That order specifies some conduct that it says would be prohibited in any interrogation, including forcing an individual to perform sexual acts, or threatening an individual with sexual mutilation. But it does not say which techniques could still be permitted.

Legislation that was approved this year by the House and the Senate would have imposed further on C.I.A. interrogations, by requiring that they conform to rules spelled out in the Army handbook for military interrogations that bans coercive procedures. But Mr. Bush vetoed that bill, saying that the use of harsh interrogation methods had been effective in preventing terrorist attacks.

The legal reasoning included in the latest Justice Department letters is less expansive than what department lawyers offered as recently as 2005 in defending the use of aggressive techniques. But they show that the Bush administration lawyers are citing the sometimes vague language of the Geneva Conventions to support the idea that interrogators should not be bound by ironclad rules.

In one letter written Sept. 27, 2007, Mr. Benczkowski argued that "to rise to the level of an outrage" and thus be prohibited under the Geneva Conventions, conduct "must be so deplorable that the reasonable observer would recognize it as something that should be universally condemned."

Mr. Wyden said he was concerned that, under the new rules, the Bush administration had put Geneva Convention restrictions on a "sliding scale."

If the United States used subjective standards in applying its interrogation rules, he said, then potential enemies might adopt different standards of treatment for American detainees based on an officer's rank or other factors.

"The cumulative effect in my interpretation is to put American troops at risk," Mr. Wyden said.

The Whistleblower's Unending Story

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By Adam Geller

Columbus, Ohio - The guest lecturer steps to the front of classroom 322 with a lesson plan, but not from any textbook.

Instead, Dave Welch comes with a story to tell, edgy and very personal. The names have been changed, he says, "to protect the guilty."

He directs students to the corporate financial forms projected on to a screen. Years ago, working at a small-town bank in the Virginia mountains, Welch combed through these figures and saw things that made him suspicious.

When he confronted the bank's president with his doubts, it cost him his job.

The story might have ended there. But this time - months after titanic scandals capsized Enron and WorldCom - things would be different.

There ought to be a law, Congress decided, protecting workers who expose what might be the next Enron. Who could've imagined the fight between the little bank and the fired accountant would become the new measure's most unlikely - and most strenuous - test?

More than 1,000 self-professed whistleblowers have come forward since.

The great majority have seen their cases rejected; about 160 settled before an initial ruling. Only six workers have won before a Labor Department judge - and the review board that hears appeals has not ruled in favor of a single whistleblower.

Now, Welch is ready to bring his story to a close. It's not easy, though, to conclude something that winds on without an ending.

"This is the message the courts are sending to whistleblowers," Welch says, the Tennessee in his voice taking on a chill. A new image beams on to the classroom screen - a pack of hunting dogs. In their midst is the prey, a nervous fox, head down low.

"When you're in deep trouble, keep your mouth shut and your eyes straight ahead."

Leave Taliban Alone, Afghan President Tells West

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By Jason Burke

Karzai says US and British troops are undermining his authority and stopping insurgents from laying down their arms.

Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president, has called on British and American troops to stop arresting Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan, saying that their operations undermined his government's authority and were counter-productive.

The stinging attack, made in an interview with the New York Times published yesterday, is the latest in a series of rows between Western governments with troops in Afghanistan and the elected leader of the country. Western diplomats expressed surprise at the Afghan leader's criticism and the Foreign Office played down the row yesterday.

'We fully support the Afghan government and continue to work with it, President Karzai and the international community in the interests of the Afghan people and the long-term peace and stability of Afghanistan,' said a spokesman.

Karzai is facing re-election next year and may be hoping to bolster flagging support with a populist stance. However, in recent months relations have deteriorated seriously, with Western officials openly doubting the ability of the Afghan president, who was heavily backed by the US and the UK in 2001 after the fall of the Taliban regime, to manage rampant corruption and combat drug trafficking in the war-wracked southwest Asian state.

Karzai said he wanted American forces to stop arresting suspected Taliban members and their supporters, saying that fear of arrest and their past mistreatment were discouraging them from coming forward to lay down their arms. 'It has to happen,' he said. 'We have to make sure that when a Talib comes to Afghanistan ... he is safe from arrest by the coalition.'

Efforts at winning over Taliban fighters or sympathisers are mired in confusion: Nato allies in Afghanistan are divided over the exact nature of the amnesty or 'reconciliation programme' for insurgents. British policy, despite official insistence that 'there are no negotiations with the Taliban', is to weaken the radical Islamic movement by splitting off foot soldiers tempted by money or misled by tribal chiefs, religious leaders and ideologues from a 'hardcore' of leaders.

'We fully support efforts to bring disaffected Afghans into society's mainstream, providing they renounce violence and accept Afghanistan's constitution,' said the Foreign Office spokesman. 'We have always said there is no military solution in Afghanistan - a fully comprehensive approach is needed ... and that will involve reconciliation of those Taliban prepared to integrate into the new Afghanistan.'

However, Washington is more sceptical of such efforts, and has been fiercely critical of some British tactics aimed at winning over key Taliban commanders in the past, as has Karzai himself.

Karzai also attacked the number of civilian deaths inflicted by the coalition. Although levels of 'collateral damage' inflicted by Nato operations have dropped substantially, deaths still continue. Two women and two children were killed recently in an air raid by Nato troops on a suspected Taliban position after a firefight. Up to 9,000 civilians have died since 2001.

'I want an end to civilian casualties,' the Afghan president said in the interview. 'And as much as one may argue it's difficult, I don't accept that argument.'

Relations between Karzai and London were strained last month by the Afghan premier's rejection of Lord Paddy Ashdown, the favoured candidate to take up a post as 'aid tsar' in Kabul with a brief to coordinate the international aid flowing into the country. Karzai blocked the appointment amid negative local press coverage, a historic popular distrust of the British and advisers' fears of a potential crackdown on corruption.

With casualties and costs mounting and little obvious progress, Western governments are looking increasingly for an exit from Afghanistan, where 94 British servicemen have been killed since 2001. 'Nato now wants a way out which is not failure,' said Mike Williams, of London's Royal United Services Institute. 'They need to redefine the situation which will allow them to leave without failing.'

A key problem for policymakers is 'battle fatigue' among Western populations. 'We are going to get bored of the war long before the Taliban are,' said one Nato official.

The New Economics of Hunger

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By Anthony Faiola

A brutal convergence of events has hit an unprepared global market, and grain prices are sky high. The world's poor suffer most.

The globe’s worst food crisis in a generation emerged as a blip on the big boards and computer screens of America’s great grain exchanges. At first, it seemed like little more than a bout of bad weather.

In Chicago, Minneapolis and Kansas City, traders watched from the pits early last summer as wheat prices spiked amid mediocre harvests in the United States and Europe and signs of prolonged drought in Australia. But within a few weeks, the traders discerned an ominous snowball effect - one that would eventually bring down a prime minister in Haiti, make more children in Mauritania go to bed hungry, even cause American executives at Sam’s Club to restrict sales of large bags of rice.

As prices rose, major grain producers including Argentina and Ukraine, battling inflation caused in part by soaring oil bills, were moving to bar exports on a range of crops to control costs at home. It meant less supply on world markets even as global demand entered a fundamentally new phase. Already, corn prices had been climbing for months on the back of booming government-subsidized ethanol programs. Soybeans were facing pressure from surging demand in China. But as supplies in the pipelines of global trade shrank, prices for corn, soybeans, wheat, oats, rice and other grains began shooting through the roof.

At the same time, food was becoming the new gold. Investors fleeing Wall Street’s mortgage-related strife plowed hundreds of millions of dollars into grain futures, driving prices up even more. By Christmas, a global panic was building. With fewer places to turn, and tempted by the weaker dollar, nations staged a run on the American wheat harvest.

Foreign buyers, who typically seek to purchase one or two months’ supply of wheat at a time, suddenly began to stockpile. They put in orders on U.S. grain exchanges two to three times larger than normal as food riots began to erupt worldwide. This led major domestic U.S. mills to jump into the fray with their own massive orders, fearing that there would soon be no wheat left at any price.

"Japan, the Philippines, [South] Korea, Taiwan - they all came in with huge orders, and no matter how high prices go, they keep on buying," said Jeff Voge, chairman of the Kansas City Board of Trade and also an independent trader. Grains have surged so high, he said, that some traders are walking off the floor for weeks at a time, unable to handle the stress.

"We have never seen anything like this before," Voge said. "Prices are going up more in one day than they have during entire years in the past. But no matter the price, there always seems to be a buyer... . This isn’t just any commodity. It is food, and people need to eat."

Beyond Hunger

The food price shock now roiling world markets is destabilizing governments, igniting street riots and threatening to send a new wave of hunger rippling through the world’s poorest nations. It is outpacing even the Soviet grain emergency of 1972-75, when world food prices rose 78 percent. By comparison, from the beginning of 2005 to early 2008, prices leapt 80 percent, according to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization. Much of the increase is being absorbed by middle men - distributors, processors, even governments - but consumers worldwide are still feeling the pinch.

The convergence of events has thrown world food supply and demand out of whack and snowballed into civil turmoil. After hungry mobs and violent riots beset Port-au-Prince, Haitian Prime Minister Jacques-Édouard Alexis was forced to step down this month. At least 14 countries have been racked by food-related violence. In Malaysia, Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi is struggling for political survival after a March rebuke from voters furious over food prices. In Bangladesh, more than 20,000 factory workers protesting food prices rampaged through the streets two weeks ago, injuring at least 50 people.

To quell unrest, countries including Indonesia are digging deep to boost food subsidies. The U.N. World Food Program has warned of an alarming surge in hunger in areas as far-flung as North Korea and West Africa. The crisis, it fears, will plunge more than 100 million of the world’s poorest people deeper into poverty, forced to spend more and more of their income on skyrocketing food bills.

"This crisis could result in a cascade of others ... and become a multidimensional problem affecting economic growth, social progress and even political security around the world," U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said.

The New Normal

Prices for some crops - such as wheat - have already begun to descend off their highs. As farmers rush to plant more wheat now that profit prospects have climbed, analysts predict that prices may come down as much as 30 percent in the coming months. But that would still leave a year-over-year price hike of 45 percent. Few believe prices will go back to where they were in early 2006, suggesting that the world must cope with a new reality of more expensive food.

People worldwide are coping in different ways. For the 1 billion living on less than a dollar a day, it is a matter of survival. In a mud hut on the Sahara’s edge, Manthita Sou, a 43-year-old widow in the Mauritanian desert village of Maghleg, is confronting wheat prices that are up 67 percent on local markets in the past year. Her solution: stop eating bread. Instead, she has downgraded to cheaper foods, such as sorghum, a dark grain widely consumed by the world’s poorest people. But sorghum has jumped 20 percent in the past 12 months. Living on the 50 cents a day she earns weaving textiles to support a family of three, her answer has been to cut out breakfast, drink tea for lunch and ration a small serving of soupy sorghum meal for family dinners. "I don’t know how long we can survive like this," she said.

Countries that have driven food demand in recent years are now grappling with the cost of their own success - rising prices. Although China has tried to calm its people by announcing reserve grain holdings of 30 to 40 percent of annual production, a number that had been a state secret, anxiety is still running high. In the southern province of Guangdong, there are reports of grain hoarding; and in Hong Kong, consumers have stripped store shelves of bags of rice.

Liu Yinhua, a retired factory worker who lives in the port city of Ningbo on China’s east coast, said her family of three still eats the same things, including pork ribs, fish and vegetables. But they are eating less of it.

"Almost everything is more expensive now, even normal green vegetables," said Liu, 53. "The level of our quality of life is definitely reduced."

In India, the government recently scrapped all import duties on cooking oils and banned exports of non-basmati rice. As in many parts of the developing world, the impact in India is being felt the most among the urban poor who have fled rural life to live in teeming slums. At a dusty and nearly empty market in one New Delhi neighborhood this week, shopkeeper Manjeet Singh, 52, said people at the market have started hoarding because of fear that rice and oil will run out.

"If one doesn’t have enough to fill one’s own stomach, then what’s the use of an economic boom in exports?" he said, looking sluggish in the scorching afternoon sun. He said his customers were asking for cheaper goods, like groundnut oil instead of soybean oil.

Even wealthy nations are being forced to adjust to a new normal. In Japan, a country with a distinct cultural aversion to cheaper, genetically modified grains, manufacturers are risking public backlash by importing them for use in processed foods for the first time. Inflation in the 15-country zone that uses the euro - which includes France, Germany, Spain and Italy - hit 3.6 percent in March, the highest rate since the currency was adopted almost a decade ago and well above the European Central Bank’s target of 2.0 percent. Food and oil prices were mostly to blame.

In the United States, experts say consumers are scaling down on quality and scaling up on quantity if it means a better unit price. In the meat aisles of major grocery stores, said Phil Lempert, a supermarket analyst, steaks are giving way to chopped beef and people used to buying fresh blueberries are moving to frozen. Some are even trying to grow their own vegetables.

"A bigger pinch than ever before," said Pat Carroll, a retiree in Congress Heights. "I don’t ever remember paying $3 for a loaf of bread."

Ill-Equipped Markets

The root cause of price surges varies from crop to crop. But the crisis is being driven in part by an unprecedented linkage of the food chain.

A big reason for higher wheat prices, for instance, is the multiyear drought in Australia, something that scientists say may become persistent because of global warming. But wheat prices are also rising because U.S. farmers have been planting less of it, or moving wheat to less fertile ground. That is partly because they are planting more corn to capitalize on the biofuel frenzy.

This year, at least a fifth and perhaps a quarter of the U.S. corn crop will be fed to ethanol plants. As food and fuel fuse, it has presented a boon to American farmers after years of stable prices. But it has also helped spark the broader food-price shock.

"If you didn’t have ethanol, you would not have the prices we have today," said Bruce Babcock, a professor of economics and the director of the Center for Agricultural and Rural Development at Iowa State University. "It doesn’t mean it’s the sole driver. Prices would be higher than we saw earlier in this decade because world grain supplies are tighter now than earlier in the decade. But we’ve introduced a new demand into the market."

In fact, many economists now say food prices should have climbed much higher much earlier.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the world seemed to shrink with rapidly opening markets, surging trade and improved communication and transportation technology. Given new market efficiencies and the wide availability of relatively cheap food, the once-common practice of hoarding grains to protect against the kind of shortfall the world is seeing now seemed more and more archaic. Global grain reserves plunged.

Yet there was one big problem. The global food trade never became the kind of well-honed machine that has made the price of manufactured goods such as personal computers and flat-screen TVs increasingly similar worldwide. With food, significant subsidies and other barriers meant to protect farmers - particularly in Europe, the United States and Japan - have distorted the real price of food globally, economists say, preventing the market from normal price adjustments as global demand has climbed.

If market forces had played a larger role in food trade, some now argue, the world would have had more time to adjust to more gradually rising prices.

"The international food trade didn’t undergo the same kind of liberalization as other trade," said Richard Feltes, senior vice president of MF Global, a futures brokerage. "We can see now that the world has largely failed in its attempt to create an integrated food market."

In recent years, there has been a great push to liberalize food markets worldwide - part of what is known as the "Doha round" of world trade talks - but resistance has come from both the developed and developing worlds. Perhaps more than any other sector, nations have a visceral desire to protect their farmers, and thusly, their food supply. The current food crisis is causing advocates on both sides to dig in.

Consider, for instance, the French.

The European Union doles out about $41 billion a year in agriculture subsidies, with France getting the biggest share, about $8.2 billion. The 27-nation bloc also has set a target for biofuels to supply 10 percent of transportation fuel needs by 2020 to combat global warming.

The French, whose farmers over the years have become addicted to generous government handouts, argue that agriculture subsidies must be continued and even increased in order to encourage more food production, especially with looming shortages.

Last week, French Agriculture Minister Michel Barnier warned E.U. officials against "too much trust in the free market."

"We must not leave the vital issue of feeding people," he said, "to the mercy of market laws and international speculation."

Israeli Ex-Soldiers Expose Abuse of Palestinians

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By Ilene R. Prusher

In a report this week, 39 soldiers give eyewitness accounts from their patrols in and around the West Bank city of Hebron.

TEL AVIV, ISRAEL - Doron Efrati was assigned to the Kfir Brigade, part of an infantry battalion that was especially created to serve in the West Bank following the outbreak of the second intifada.

He figured if he was going to be drafted anyway, he would agree to serve in the Israeli-occupied territories, “to see what really happens, and maybe to change things,” he says. “But I didn’t succeed.”

Today, he is one of 39 recently discharged soldiers whose testimonies are part of a grim new report on the situation in the West Bank city of Hebron, where the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) oversee a volatile population of 700 to 800 Jewish settlers living amid nearly 170,000 Palestinians. The 118-page report, which tells of systematic mistreatment of local Palestinians by both soldiers and settlers, was released during this week’s Passover holiday.

The timing is not coincidental. Forty years ago this week, a small group of far-right religious Israelis, led by Rabbi Moshe Levinger, wrangled with a reluctant Israeli military establishment to hold a Passover seder in Hebron, revered as the burial place of several biblical patriarchs and matriarchs. Rabbi Levinger, who saw in Israel’s 1967 military victory over the Arabs a heralding of a Messianic-era redemption, rented hotel rooms for himself and his followers the following Passover, and refused to leave. Today, his flock constitutes the only Jewish settlement inside a Palestinian city.

The report, put out by the nongovernmental group Breaking the Silence, is meant to challenge what the group sees as a growing assumption by Israelis that Israeli-Palestinian friction in the West Bank has quieted down since the Al-Aqsa Intifada petered out around 2004.

“A lot of people come and say, ‘Oh, that’s all in the past,’ ” explains Yehuda Shaul, executive director of the group, which has brought 3,000 people on eye-opening trips to Hebron. On the contrary, he adds, he sees abuses as increasingly institutionalized. “The whole point of Breaking the Silence is to understand the moral price tag of a military occupation.”

Asked to respond to the group’s report, an IDF spokesman said in a written statement, “All IDF soldiers of all ranks are instructed to follow a strict set of moral guidelines which dictate codes of conduct in combat settings. IDF soldiers operate according to these guidelines, which determine the way they are expected and instructed to behave at all times.”

But in the report, 39 recently discharged soldiers who served in the Hebron area between 2005 and 2007 describe a pattern of repeated violations. Mr. Efrati is one of the five who have made their identities known; most offered anonymous accounts. The IDF does not investigate “anonymous complaints,” said the spokesman, who asked not to be named in keeping with Israeli army policy.

One of Efrati’s worst experiences started when some Palestinian kids threw rocks and Molotov cocktails at his unit when he was out on patrol in south Hebron. About 40 minutes afterward, he says, other soldiers in his unit identified and shot dead one of the youths who threw a flaming bottle. He was 11 years old.

“It was reported in the Israeli media later that one terrorist with a Molotov cocktail was killed,” he recalls, sitting in a Tel Aviv cafe. “I didn’t feel so good, but most of my friends didn’t care, and we had so much to do. These things were happening all the time,” he says.

The IDF spokesman said that in the event of an incident, “Officers from every unit that comes in direct contact with the civilian population in the West Bank take steps to ensure that similar incidents, whether commonplace or highly unusual, are never repeated.”

But Efrati describes numerous actions he witnessed on a regular basis. One involves locking an entire family into one room, and then using the rest of the house - the roof included - as a base. He says that in one such mission, in the village of Tarkumiyeh near Hebron, soldiers stayed overnight. Additional jeeps with sirens came in the morning, trying to draw a crowd. When the stones started flying, soldiers were able to shoot from the roof.

Michael Manekin, one of the leaders of Breaking the Silence, which has collected testimonies from more than 500 soldiers, says that’s a “fixed procedure.” Efrati says the only explanation given for the operation is that there were “a lot of terrorists in the village.” He says that on one occasion where he witnessed clear violation of policy - he saw an army comrade hitting someone who was already handcuffed and calm, he complained to his commander. The answer? “Let’s leave the dirty laundry in the company.”

Efrati also describes regularly being sent on late-night missions that involved raiding homes in the wee hours of the morning, turning over the house and searching for weapons. This often was carried out for the purposes of “mapping” - keeping track of who lives where - but he and most others who gave testimonies for the reports said that this technique was not carried out to target specific militant activity, but to instill fear. “It’s done because we want the Palestinians to feel that we can be anywhere at anytime,” he says. “The first time you enter some family’s home, you feel, why am I doing it? But then after two, three times, you get used to it.”

Efrati’s stories are far from the worst in the report. The testimonies include details of beatings and detaining Palestinians for checks without reason and making them sit or squat in uncomfortable positions. According to one troubling testimony, a soldier who gets annoyed at the sight of a Palestinian farmer whipping his donkey decides to ride the man and give him a taste of the same. The soldiers describe a constant stream of settler violence and vandalism against Palestinians, some of which is captured on the extensive camera system through which the IDF monitors what happens in the city. But if the report is correct, the footage is rarely turned over to the police to prosecute settlers.

Some of the most damning testimonies have been given on condition of anonymity - some soldiers fear legal action, and others are afraid of the social pressures to keep quiet. Says Mr. Shaul: “I hope that by doing this, it will get people to break their silence earlier.”

Petraeus, Falling Upwards

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By Tom Engelhardt

Selling the President's General

You simply can’t pile up enough adjectives when it comes to the general, who, at a relatively young age, was already a runner-up for Time Magazine’s Person of the Year in 2007. His record is stellar. His tactical sense extraordinary. His strategic ability, when it comes to mounting a campaign, beyond compare.

I’m speaking, of course, of General David Petraeus, the President’s surge commander in Iraq and, as of last week, the newly nominated head of U.S. Central Command (Centcom) for all of the Middle East and beyond -- "King David" to those of his peers who haven’t exactly taken a shine to his reportedly "high self-regard." And the campaign I have in mind has been his years’ long wooing and winning of the American media, in the process of which he sold himself as a true American hero, a Caesar of celebrity.

As far as can be told, there’s never been a seat in his helicopter that couldn’t be filled by a friendly (or adoring) reporter. This, after all, is the man who, in the summer of 2004, as a mere three-star general being sent back to Baghdad to train the Iraqi army, made Newsweek’s cover under the caption, "Can This Man Save Iraq?" (The article’s subtitle -- with the "yes" practically etched into it -- read: "Mission Impossible? David Petraeus Is Tasked with Rebuilding Iraq’s Security Forces. An Up-close Look at the Only Real Exit Plan the United States Has -- the Man Himself").

And, oh yes, as for his actual generalship on the battlefield of Iraq… Well, the verdict may still officially be out, but the record, the tactics, and the strategic ability look like they will not stand the test of time. But by then, if all goes well, he’ll once again be out of town and someone else will take the blame, while he continues to fall upwards. David Petraeus is the President’s anointed general, Bush’s commander of commanders, and (not surprisingly) he exhibits certain traits much admired by the Bush administration in its better days.

Launching Brand Petraeus

Recently, in an almost 8,000 word report in the New York Times, David Barstow offered an unparalleled look inside a sophisticated Pentagon campaign, spearheaded by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, in which at least 75 retired generals and other high military officers, almost all closely tied to Pentagon contractors, were recruited as "surrogates." They were to take Pentagon "talking points" (aka "themes and messages") about the President’s War on Terror and war in Iraq into every part of the media -- cable news, the television and radio networks, the major newspapers -- as their own expert "opinions." These "analysts" made "tens of thousands of media appearances" and also wrote copiously for op-ed pages (often with the aid of the Pentagon) as part of an unparalleled, five-plus year covert propaganda onslaught on the American people that lasted from 2002 until, essentially, late last night. Think of it, like a pod of whales or a gaggle of geese, as the Pentagon’s equivalent of a surge of generals.

In that impressive Times report, however, one sentence has so far passed unnoticed; yet, it speaks the world of General Petraeus, and of how this administration and its chosen sons have played their cards from the moment George W. Bush mounted a pile of rubble on September 14, 2001 at Ground Zero in New York City and began to sell his incipient War on Terror (and himself as commander-in-chief). From that day on, the propaganda campaign, the selling war, on the American "home front" has never stopped.

Here, in that context, is Barstow’s key sentence: "When David H. Petraeus was appointed the commanding general in Iraq in January 2007, one of his early acts was to meet with the [Pentagon’s retired military] analysts." In other words, on becoming U.S. commander in Iraq, he automatically turned to the military propaganda machine the Pentagon had set up to launch his initial surge -- on the home front.

Think of the train of events this way: In January 2007, pummeled in the opinion polls, his Iraq policy in shambles, and the Republican Party in electoral disarray, George W. Bush and his advisors decided to launch a last-minute home-front campaign to buy time on Iraq. It was, the President declared in an address to the American people, his "new way forward in Iraq." In Vietnam-era terms, the plan itself involved a relatively modest "escalation" of 30,000 troops, largely into the Baghdad area -- that being all the troops the overstretched U.S. military then had available. It gained, however, the resounding nickname, "the surge." (That word, strangely enough, had essentially been pilfered from the heart of "insurgent," a term previously used to designate the enemy.)

By then, of course, the President himself was a thoroughly tarnished brand, not exactly the sort of face with which to launch 1,000 ships or even 30,000 troops into a self-made hell against the urgent wishes of the American people. Instead, he pushed forward his all-American general -- the smart, bemedaled, well-spoken, Princeton PhD and counterinsurgency guru, beloved by reporters whom he had romanced for years, and already treated like a demi-god by members of both parties in both houses of Congress. He became the "face" of the administration (just as American military and civilian officials had long spoken of putting an "Iraqi face" on the American occupation of that country). In the ensuing months, as New York Times columnist Frank Rich pointed out, the surging Brand Petraeus campaign only gained traction as the President publicly cited the general more than 150 times, 53 times in May 2007 alone. Never has a President put on the "face" of a general more regularly.

Now, let’s return to that single sentence from Barstow. Having been put forward by Bush as his favorite general and the savior of his Iraq policies, Petraeus seems to have promptly turned to the Pentagon’s favored military "analysts" for a hand. The general’s initial surge, that is, was right here at home via those figures the Pentagon had embedded in the media and liked to refer to as its "message force multipliers." Let’s keep in mind that one of those figures, retired Army general Jack Keane, a "patron" to Petraeus during his rise in the ranks, was, along with Frederick Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute, an "author" of, and key propagandist for, the surge strategy, as well as the head of his own consulting firm, on the board of General Dynamics, and a national security analyst for ABC News. So, in case you were wondering why the hosannas to Petraeus nearly reached the heavens and why the "success" of the surge was established so quickly in this country (despite four years of promises followed by disaster that might have called for media caution) look first to those surging retired generals and to the general who had already established himself as a military brand name.

And let’s keep in mind that the Times’ Barstow has pulled back the curtain on but one administration program of deception. It is unlikely to have been the only one. We don’t yet fully know the full range of sources the Pentagon and this administration mustered in the service of its surge. We don’t know what sort of thought and planning, for instance, went into the transformation of any Sunni insurgent who didn’t join the new Awakening Movement and become a "Son of Iraq") into a member of "al-Qaeda-in-Mesopotamia" -- or, more recently, every Shiite rebel into an Iranian agent.

We don’t know what sort of administration planning has gone into the drumbeat of well-orchestrated, ever more intense claims that Iran is the source of all our ills in Iraq, and directly responsible for a striking percentage of U.S. military deaths there. Recently, according to the New York Times, "senior officers in the American division that secures the capital said that 73 percent of fatal and other harmful attacks on American troops in the past year were caused by roadside bombs planted by so-called ’special groups’" (a euphemism for Iranian-trained groups of Shiite militiamen).

We don’t have a full accounting of the many carefully guided tours of Iraq given to inside-the-Beltway think-tank figures like Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution, former military figures, journalists, pundits, and congressional representatives, all involving special meet-and-greet contacts with Petraeus and his top commanders, all leading to upbeat assessments of the surge. We don’t have the logs of our surge commander’s visitors these last months, but we know, anecdotally at least, that, during this period, no reporter, no matter how minor, seemed incapable of securing a little get-together time to experience the general’s special charm.

Put everything we do know, and enough that we suspect, together and you get our last surge year-plus in the U.S. as a selling/propaganda campaign par excellence. The result has been a mix of media good news about "surge success," especially in "lowering violence," and no news at all as the Iraq story grew boringly humdrum and simply fell off the front pages of our papers and out of the TV news (as well as out of the Democratic Congress). This was, of course, a public relations bonanza for an administration that might otherwise have appeared fatally wounded. Think, in the president’s terminology, of victory -- not over Shiite or Sunni insurgents in Iraq, but, once again, over the media here at home.

None of this should surprise anyone. The greatest skill of the Bush administration has always been its ability to market itself on "the home front." From September 14, 2001 on, through all those early "mission accomplished" years, it was on the home front, not in Afghanistan or Iraq, that administration officials worked hardest, pacifying the media, rolling out its own "products," and establishing the rep of its leader and "wartime" Commander-in-Chief. As White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card explained candidly enough to the New York Times, when it came to the launching, in September 2002, of a campaign to convince Congress and the public that an invasion of Iraq should be approved: "From a marketing point of view, you don’t introduce new products in August."

Falling Upwards

As a general and a personality, Petraeus fit the particular marketing mentality of this administration perfectly. Graduating from West Point too late for Vietnam -- he wrote his doctoral thesis on that war -- he had, before the President’s invasion, taken part only in "peacekeeping" operations in places like Haiti. In March 2003, a two-star general, he crossed the Kuwaiti border as commander of the 101st Airborne Division. After Baghdad fell, his troops occupied Mosul, a relative quiet city to the north, largely untouched by invasion or war. There, he gained a reputation (at least in the U.S.) for having a special affinity for Iraqis and for applying top-notch, outreach-oriented counterinsurgency tactics.

In those early months, he always seemed to have a writer in tow. In 2004-2005, for his next tour of duty -- already with the the ear of the President and of Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz -- he returned to Iraq as the Newsweek Can-He-Save-It guy. His giant task was to "stand up" Iraqi security forces. Again, he had writers in tow. The Washington Post’s columnist David Ignatius, for instance, twice paid extended visits to the general during that tour, returning from helicoptering around the Iraqi countryside all aglow and writing glowingly of the job Petraeus was doing (as he would again over the years, as so many other journalists and commentators would, too).

The general himself wasn’t exactly shy on the subject of his accomplishments. He wrote, for instance, a strategically well-placed op-ed in the Washington Post in September 2004, just as the administration was rolling out another "product," the President’s run for a second term. In it, with just enough caveats to cover himself professionally, he waxed positive about the glories of Iraqi soldiers standing up. It was a piece filled with words like "progress" and "optimism," just the sort of thing a President trying to outrun a bunch of Iraqi insurgents to the November 4th finish line might like to see in print in his hometown paper. The general picked up his third star on this tour of duty.

Next came a stint at home where he oversaw the rewriting of the Army’s counterinsurgency manual, while touting himself as the expert of experts on that subject, too. And then, of course, in February 2007, a fourth star in hand, he took charge of the U.S command in Iraq for its surge moment.

Last week, of course, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates appointed him head of the Pentagon’s Central Command with responsibility for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and for our proxy war in Somalia. His duties will soon stretch from North Africa into Central Asia. The appointment, however, came after the fact. By then, as George W. Bush’s personal general, he had already left the actual Centcom commander, Adm. William "Fox" Fallon in the dust. The President dealt with him directly, bypassing the Centcom commander; and, even before Fallon’s ignominious resignation, Petraeus was already traveling the Middle East as, essentially, the President’s personal representative, engaging in acts normally reserved for the head of Centcom. His appointment was seconded by Presidential candidate John McCain ("I think he is by far the best-qualified individual to take that job…"), signaling the degree to which the Bush administration is now preparing optimistically for McCain’s war (or, alternatively, for Obama’s hell).

But here’s the strange thing when you look more carefully at Petraeus’s record (as others have indeed done over these last years), the actual results -- in Iraq, not Washington -- for each of his previous assignments proved dismal. What the record shows is a man who, after each tour of duty, seemed to manage to make it out of town just ahead of the posse, so that someone else always took the fall.

On his time in Mosul, former ambassador Peter Galbraith offered this description:

"As the American commander in Mosul in 2003 and 2004, he earned adulatory press coverage… for taming the Sunni-majority city. Petraeus ignored warnings from America’s Kurdish allies that he was appointing the wrong people to key positions in Mosul’s local government and police. A few months after he left the city, the Petraeus-appointed local police commander defected to the insurgency while the Sunni Arab police handed their weapons and uniforms over en masse to the insurgents."

Mosul has remains a hotspot of insurgency ever since. On his next tour, when it came to all the "progress" training the Iraqi army, let Rod Nordland, the author of that "fawning" -- his retrospective adjective, not mine -- Newsweek cover piece of 2004, suggest an obituary, as he did in 2007:

"[Petraeus] rose to fame not by his achievements but by his success in selling them as achievements. He’s first of all a great communicator… Training the Iraqi military and shifting responsibility to them was the mantra Petraeus sold to hundreds of credulous reporters and hundreds of even more credulous visiting CODELs (congressional delegations)… By the time he left, the training program was clearly on its way to spectacular failure. By the end of last year that had become received wisdom; it became convenient for the brass to blame the fiasco on the politically less popular and media-friendless Gen. George Casey. Entire brigades of police had to be pulled off the street and retrained because they were evidently riddled with death squads and in some cases even with insurgents. The Iraqi Army was all but useless, a feeble patient kept on life support by the American military."

Just recently, in hearings before Congress, Petraeus himself introduced two new words to describe the post-surge security situation in Iraq: "fragile and reversible." Take that as a tip for the future. Fragile indeed. The surge landscape the general helped create has, from the beginning, been flammable and unstable in the extreme. It has, in recent weeks, been threatening to break down in Shiite civil strife, even as, under an American aegis, the Sunnis have been rearming and reorganizing for the day when they can take back a Baghdad that was largely cleansed of their ethnic compatriots during the aurge months. Americans are once again dying in increasing numbers (though little attention has yet been paid to this in the media), as are Iraqis. It will be a miracle if post-surge Iraq doesn’t come apart before November 4, 2008, not to say the end of George Bush’s term in January.

The problem is: Putting a face -- that is, a mask -- on something has nothing to do with changing it in any essential way, no matter how you brand it and no matter who’s listening to you elsewhere. This August or September, when the general takes over at Centcom, he will leave behind (as he has before) the equivalent of an IED-mined stretch of Iraqi roadside ready to explode, possibly under the coming U.S. presidential election. It remains to be seen whether he will once again have made it out of town in the nick of time and relatively unscathed.

The miracle, of course, was that, so late in the game, the American media swallowed the President’s (and general’s) propaganda on the surge campaign which, on the face of it, was ludicrous. Stranger still, they did so for almost a year before the situation started to fray visibly enough for our TV networks and major papers to take notice. For that year, most of them thought they saw a brass band playing fabulously when there was hardly a snare drum in sight.

That result may be a public-relations man’s dream, but it was thanks to a con man’s art. The question is: Can the President make it back to Texas before the bottom falls out in Iraq? And will the general continue to fall ominously upward?

Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute’s, is the co-founder of the American Empire Project. His book, The End of Victory Culture (University of Massachusetts Press), has been updated in a newly issued edition that deals with victory culture’s crash-and-burn sequel in Iraq.