Don't know if it's me or the world, but I'm not finding much out there blog-worthy at the moment. So, back after the New Year.
As my grandmother says, a happy and a healthy to all....
Training the Iraqi army is important and necessary; I just don't think it's sufficient or the Holy Grail that many assume/assert it to be.
You can train Iraqi forces all you want, but what you ultimately need in addition to capability is will. That is, you need Iraqi troops willing to fight and die for the Iraqi government. Insurgents are willing to do that for their cause. As have some Shiite militia and Kurdish peshmerga. But how about Iraqi government troops? Who, on balance, are they loyal to?
Today's NYT suggests an answer--and it ain't pretty. In terms of policy decisions, the only question I see is whether the U.S., with its still substantial (but far from not total) influence, should, in the interests of trying to skedaddle, be pushing for simply rebadging militia. Or, in my opinion, the better option, should it be trying as best it can to keep them out of the army. To put it another way: What does the 'training' consist of? Eric Martin is on my side and makes a crucial point:
Aside from the obvious interest in avoiding a large scale civil war (that could morph into a regional conflict) in the center of the Middle East, there are larger implications in the battle for hearts and minds between the US and al-Qaeda and their fellow jihadists. If in our zeal to stand up an army and beat a hasty retreat from Iraq we end up creating, arming and assisting a military composed primarily of Kurdish and Shiite forces, and that military becomes the fighting force in an eventual civil war, can you imagine the propaganda field-day Osama would have?
The United States (already viewed with suspicion, cynicism and mistrust) will have, in effect, armed, trained and possibly provided air support and other tactical assistance to one side (the Shiites) in a clash of religious sects within the Muslim world. The Sunni population in other Muslim nations (a majority in almost all save Iran), which would no doubt be treated to images of Sunni civilians caught in the grisly cross-fire (and/or intentionally targeted in some circumstances), would be radicalized, horrified, enraged, humiliated and desperate to strike back at the "imperialist crusader" that many would no doubt blame for the carnage - probably inordinately so, but that is to be expected.
Why exactly did the NYT hold the NSA scoop for a year? I've had my thoughts--which I stand by. But then, I'm not in the know. Bill Keller is. And of course, he ain't talking. Jay Rosen, in a typically revealing (and long) essay, looks at the cost and ultimately futility of Keller's stance:
Obviously there are things the Times learned that it cannot tell us about the NSA, and about its conflicts with the Administration. This may account for some of the silences and gaps. But what Keller, and his crew, and Sulzberger with his ally Catherine Mathis (Times spokeswoman) don’t seem to get is that the Times could signal to readers when it knows it’s not leveling with us.
“When you think of the New York Times, transparency is not the first quality that leaps to mind, but they have to explain themselves,” said Tom Kunkel, dean of the J-school at University of Maryland and a former newspaper editor. “Even if you can’t tell them something, in my experience news consumers always appreciate it when you make an effort to explain why you can’t.”...
If you don’t have online Q and A’s, and you don’t go on the air to explain, and you don’t answer reporters questions, and you don’t have a blog where you can discuss it, and you don’t want to go into the back story because that wouldn’t be stoic… then how is engagement with open-minded critics going to ever take place? In soundbites and one-paragraph faxes and Eric Lichtblau telling Salon, “I’m afraid we’re referring all calls to Catherine Mathis in corporate PR…”? Not likely.
P.S. Ancedotal evidence supporting my theory that the NYT had essentially caved (or use whatever less perjorative term you like) and only published the story because it was about to be scooped--by one of its own reporters. From the Observer:
After The Times decided not to publish it at that time, Mr. Risen went away on book leave, and his piece was shelved and regarded as dead, according to a Times source.
Remember when Sy Hersh reported a few weeks ago that the U.S. was going to start relying more on air strikes? Well, look what we have buried in the WP:
U.S. airstrikes in Iraq have surged this fall, jumping to nearly five times the average monthly rate earlier in the year, according to U.S. military figures.
Until the end of August, U.S. warplanes were conducting about 25 strikes a month. The number rose to 62 in September, then to 122 in October and 120 in November.
It could be that this is not part of a long-term strategy, but just a consequence of some short-term offensives. That is what some commanders suggested. Let's hope they're right. I'm reminded of what John Paul Vann, the once-celebrated officer in Vietnam, wrote about the danger of airstrikes as a counter-insurgency tool:
"The best weapon for killing is a knife, but I’m afraid we can’t do it that way. The next best is a rifle. The worst is an airplane, and after that the worst is artillery. You have to know who you are killing.”
P.S. Of course, airstrikes are only as reliable as the intel used to target them, which could be something of a problem in Iraq.
Marty Lederman, a law professor and member of the Clinton-era Justice Department, is on a mailing list with me and sent a short email that goes a long way toward explaining the stakes in the snoop scandal. It's not about the NSA program itself, it's that they ignored the law to do it:
The rhetoric of "inherent" presidential power is obscuring what's at issue here. Perhaps he would have had the power to authorize some of this conduct (hard to tell how much -- we don't know enough about it) had federal law never addressed the issue. But this is not a case in which the President acted with Congress's consent, where his authority is at its apex; nor where he acted unilaterally, in the face of congressional silence. Instead, this is a case in which the American public had a comprehensive, contentious, and long public debate, borne of a serious history of government abuse, and our elected representatives -- both Executive and Legislature -- regulated this subject matter in great detail (going so far as to enact a specific exigency-in-war provision), and flatly prohibited the conduct in question -- a consensus resolution that all three branches and the public came to rely upon and take for granted as common ground for almost 30 years.
Instead of moving to change that, the Administration simply decided to circumvent what the Legislature had already decided to do. And they did so without even telling the legislature about it, let alone the public. Indeed, they kept acting as if all was just as it had been for 25+ years. And then when they were found out, their explanation was that the legislature had, unknowingly, effected a radical change in the law when they voted to allow the use of force against Al Qaeda -- i.e, they blamed it on Congress, which is, not surprisingly, a form of argument ("we know better than you what you intended") that seems to have really set off many folks on the Hill (and on the FISA court, whose judges were also played for dupes).This is, in other words, a classic Youngstown Category III case of an imperial Executive, not acting unilaterally, as Lincoln did, or in conformity with legislative will (as Lincoln claimed to be doing -- he agreed to abide by whatever limitations the Congress enacted), but instead in direct violation of the decisions that were reached in the democratic process. I hope that would be, and will be viewed as, deeply problematic, regardless of one's views on the merits of whether we ought to have a system of data mining. But I fear that's wishful thinking.
Earlier this week, I went after a NYT piece written by Gerth, concluding the Times had been unfair to a USAID program that partially funds independent journalism in Afghanistan. The issues were the degree of control USAID maintains over the programs and--what Gerth focused on more--the degree to which their funding is disclosed. You can read Gerth's response to my initial questions in the original post. But he's also emailed a follow-up, which I'm posting here.
A bit of background first: One question was whether Gerth had contacted Internews, the non-profit that carries out the partially-USAID-funded program. Internews told me he didn't. But I forgot to ask Gerth himself. Anyway, here's his reply:
I spoke with David Trilling of Internews and communicated with him and other people in their Afghan office via email.
It was Trilling who told me that AID had issued a waiver to allow the radio stations and other AID recipients in country to get around the rule requiring the recipient to post notice of its AID support.
I then checked this with AID: is this true and if so what is the explanation. AID came back saying it is true and here is the explanation. I put that explanation in the article.
As for Internews disclosing: the issue is whether the 30 radio stations that get AID support disclose their funding from USAID and if so how often/frequently do they do this and in what format.
Last week, I wondered whether the NYT— while advancing the military’s play-for-play story—ended up smearing a non-propaganda program, the kind that funds budding journalism and should be celebrated.
To recap: The Times—in a story written by Jeff Gerth—reported in a Page One takeout that the administration’s (ineffective) story-planting habits extended to Afghanistan. Gerth noted the existence of a U.S. military-funded newspaper as well radio station. Then, he writes this:
The United States Agency for International Development also masks its role at times. AID finances about 30 radio stations in Afghanistan but keeps that from listeners. The agency has distributed tens of thousands of iPod-like audio devices in Iraq and Afghanistan that play prepackaged civic messages, but it does so through a contractor that promises ''there is no U.S. footprint.''
In my post last week, I wondered, “Is what USAID doing at all analogous to the Pentagon/Lincoln Group's habit of planting stories? Is USAID paying for play? Is it involved in the production of stories? Is it directly funding the stations?”
I suspected that at least some of the answers were no, but the Times left it unclear:
AID does not locally disclose that dozens of
Afghanistan radio stations get its support, through grants to a London-based nonprofit group, Internews. (AID discloses its support in public documents in Washington, most of which can be found globally on the Internet.)
The AID representative in
Afghanistan, in an e-mail message relayed by Peggy O'Ban, an agency spokeswoman, explained the nondisclosure: ''We want to maintain the perception (if not the reality) that these radio stations are in fact fully independent.''
There seem to be two issues here: 1) Transparency: Is the
agency hiding its role in funding the stations? 2)
What I learned: The Times struck out on both counts: No, U.S. has not tried to hush up its funding of the program. And no, the U.S. has never tried to sway the coverage of the stations.
Internews has scads of funders, including the not-so-U.S.-propaganda-friendly George Soros. Nor is USAID the only one for Afghan station project. Nevertheless, Internews’ regional director, Ivan Sigal, told me, “We have mentioned USAID support many times on the air in Afghanistan, both as acknowledgement of general funding, and in response to listener questions on call-in programs. We never conceal the source of our funding when asked.”
That jibes with USAID’s disclosure language from the grant itself:
It is USAID's policy to inform the public as fully as possible of its programs and activities. The grantee is encouraged to give public notice of the receipt of this grant and, from time to time, to announce progress and accomplishments.
(Gerth, whom I emailed with, has a different view of the reality here. [See end of this post.] He told me that the radio stations’ funding from the U.S. was indeed not made “to viewers or listeners.” We obviously have heard different things. I would only note that Internews—who I spoke with—actually runs the program. And one of Internews’ complaints is that Gerth never spoke to them. [Update: Gerth emails again to say that he spoke with one "David Trilling" from Internews. According to Internews, Trilling has not worked there since the summer. )
As for the quote from a U.S. AID official saying the governments “wants to maintain the perception (if not the reality)” that the stations are independent, the Times seems to have taken that out of context or perhaps there was just a misunderstanding. I spoke to a USAID official who explained that the agency certainly has not discourage stations from disclosing the funding, it’s just that the agency didn’t require as tightly as they do in some other projects. (Ex, “This highway brought to you by USAID!”) Whatever the case there, the stations—contrary to the NYT’s coverage—do appear to have disclosed their USAID contributions, on-air and off.
Then there’s the other question: What did the Afghan journalism consist of? Was it filled with pay-for-play propaganda? Has the U.S. ever exerted any editorial control of it?
The Times doesn’t explicitly say so, but it leaves the impression that the U.S. does indeed maintain some control:
Recipients are required to adhere to standards. If a news organization produced ''a daily drumbeat of criticism of the American military, it would become an issue,'' said James Kunder, an AID assistant administrator. He added that in combat zones, the issue of disclosure was a balancing act between security and assuring credibility.
Which sounds damning. But I spoke with officials from both USAID and Internews who said USAID has never exerted any editorial control over the project. The whole radio project—which was originally proposed by Internews not the U.S. government—is, unlike, say, the Lincoln group’s effort, focused on giving locals the tools and training to do their own journalism. As one Internews regional director told me, “The stations are independent - they own frequency licenses, and they have final say over what goes on the air.”
I don’t have any examples of programming of the radio stations. But here are two stories that recently ran on an Internews-funded Afghan news site: “JOURNALISTS BARRED FROM COVERING OATH-TAKING CEREMONY,” or “Middle School Torched in Paktika.” That doesn’t sound too much like U.S. propaganda, does it?
The Times and Gerth, in other words, implicitly conflated a program meant to fund independent journalists with one meant to decrease the independence of journalists. In the process, the paper ended up undermining the very type of “public diplomacy” the U.S. should be supporting—the kind that give Afghan and others the tools for discerning and conveying the truth.
No surprise, I’m not the only one who thinks the Afghanistan
programs, deserve to be replicated rather than lumped in with the Lincoln
Group. Consider a recent report
from the ShorensteinCenter at Kennedy School of Government that details
The American effort in
Afghanistan, in contrast, shows that officials from the State Department’s Office of Transition Initiatives have developed relatively effective strategies for helping independent media develop in foreign countries. While not perfect, the American-funded Internews radio network, the Radio Arman and Tolo TV project, Killid Media Group and Pajhwok News Agency all appear to be elements of the “vibrant free press” that the United States hopes to create in the country.
The writer of that report: David Rhode, who was taking a short break from his regular job as a South Asia correspondent for…the New York Times.
P.S. Internews has written the NYT’s letters editor and hasn’t heard back, nor has it heard back from the ombudsman.
As mentioned, I emailed the Times’ Jeff Gerth about all this. His full response, below-the-fold.
It's a bit hard to tell since Keller etc are keeping mum, but am I wrong in thinking that the NYT had put the scoop on ice and might well have left it there to die execept that a book mentioning it was about to come out?
The scoop was going to come out anyway. All Keller and Sulzberger did in publishing it was avoid the utter embarassment of having a book from one of their own reporter's books scoop them. Given all the tsuris Keller and Sulzberger have dealt with this year, the story of how the Times held back only to be scooped by one of its own reporters would have been another huge blow to the Times, and one of the biggest media stories...at least since Judy.
For Keller and Sulzberger to have decided to go ahead put the scoop in the paper doesn't so much amount to a daring standdown of the White House but rather a no-brainer. These guys were in a pickle and they made the only reasonable move they could.
The Victorious Army Group, a band of guerillas, issued two Internet statements on Monday clarifying rules for a Web design contest, according to the SITE Institute, which tracks militant postings. The group said contestants should simply submit their designs rather than making comments to each other over the Internet. The group also reminded contestants that the deadline is Jan. 5, already a one-month extension over the original deadline.
The winner gets to fire three long-range rockets at an American base in Iraq. "May Allah reward you," the group said.