The Medium and the Message


War - What Was It Good For?

Nothing is politically right which is morally wrong.

- Daniel O'Connell

by Molly Ivins

New York City - Much as I hate to interrupt what is apparently a deeply felt triumphalism on the American right, now that it's over, does anyone see any reason for our having invaded Iraq?  I realise that's what we all kept trying to figure out before the invasion, but don't you think it should at least be visible in hindsight?  Good thing we won the war, because the peace sure looks like a quagmire.

These are early days, certainly, to attempt a full historical evaluation. Could be a case of the forest and the trees.  Perhaps we're well along the road to having everything work out magnificently, and I'm just missing it.  Still, I can't see anything that's going right.  Iraq is in chaos, and apparently the only way we'll be able to stop it will be to kill a lot of Iraqis.  Just what Saddam used to do.  The other day, we announced we were going to shoot looters, and when that produced nightmare scenarios of children dead for stealing bread, we had to cancel that plan.  Now we're going to try gun control - that should have the enthusiastic support of the NRA.  Meanwhile, the chaos in Iraq seems to be costing us whatever goodwill we earned for getting rid of Saddam Hussein, the one unmitigated good to have come from all of this.

I hate to be picky, picky, picky, but there are still no weapons of mass destruction.  In fact, we've apparently even stopped looking for them.  Since Iraq never had anything to do with Al Qaeda or September 11 - despite American public opinion on this issue - it was certainly no surprise to see Al Qaeda back again, with strikes in both Saudi Arabia and Morocco.  Bush's announcement that we had broken up the organisation seems to have been a trifle premature.  There was much un-muted griping from American intelligence about the total Saudi failure to cooperate before the attack there.  (As one antiwar sign reminded us before the recent events, 'September 11 equals 15 Saudis, 0 Iraqis.')

Meanwhile, one of the other sales pitches we were given was that, for reasons never explained, getting rid of Saddam Hussein would make it easier to make peace between Israel and the Palestinians.  It's not looking promising.  Didn't look promising before the war, doesn't now.  President Bush came out with his Roadmap for Peace, and the Israelis took the first exit.  Ariel Sharon, so memorably described by Bush as "a man of peace," wasted no time undercutting that proposal.  The always-unhelpful Palestinian terrorists attacked, and Sharon counter-attacked and then cancelled his trip here to discuss the peace plan.  The usual ugly pictures and refueled resentments ensued; the same-old, same-old of this 50-year-old cycle.  So far, getting rid of Saddam seems to have had zero effect on this old deadlock.

Meanwhile, Iraq looks more and more as though it will be costing us the high-end estimate of $20 billion a year, for which they have yet to appear noticeably grateful.  The Shiites hate us, the Kurds are killing the Arabs, we're hiring old Ba'athite thugs to run things and generally becoming about as popular over there as a whore trying to get into the SMU School of Theology.  As John Henry's cousin Eddie used to say of the Vietnamese, "If they don't like what we're doin' for 'em, why don't they just go back where they come from?"  OK, if this is the situation - and it's certainly what's being reported - I don't get why we're still hearing Bushies saying, "Ha, ha, ha; we won the war."  Was there anyone who said we wouldn't?

Since I am in the happy position of having predicted a short, easy war and the peace from hell, I think I'm looking like a genius prognosticator about now.  I can't figure out why the Republicans are happy about this.  Sure, it was a great photo-op for the president on the aircraft carrier, but if you think the American people won't notice $20 billion a year because of some nice pictures, you sadly underestimate the common sense of this nation.  I realise that what we see depends on where we stand, but there is a substantial body of emerging fact here, none of it encouraging for optimists.

We may yet see hopeful developments, but damned if I can see any cause for celebration now, or even for building a presidential re-election campaign around footage of our triumphant pres flying out to the aircraft carrier.  There's a very real possibility that by November 2004, Republicans will very much want everybody to forget the war now called Dubya Dubya II.  (Sorry, I don't know whom to credit for that one, but it's not original with me.)  I've got an even-money bet out that says more Americans will be killed in the peace than in the war and more Iraqis will be killed by Americans in the peace than in the war.  Not the first time I've had a bet out that I hoped I'd lose.

Source: copyright Creators Syndicate, Incorporated

The Camera That Couldn't Shoot Straight

by Yusuf Agha

After days of anticipation, television viewers the world over witnessed the grand premiere of the mystery tape in which, according to British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, "bin Laden confirms his guilt" and consequently "totally vindicates the action that we, the US and the international coalition have taken in Afghanistan."  The tape, the proverbial smoking gun, was found late November in a house in Jalalabad under circumstances enshrouded in mystery.  The Pentagon which, apparently, spent two weeks agonising over its release, proffered the tape to the networks with a translation of the material.

The Pentagon gives us the setting for the tape.  "In mid-November, Osama bin Laden spoke to a room of supporters, possibly in Kandahar, Afghanistan."  A paraplegic Sheikh visits bin Laden.  "We came from Kabul", he tells his host.  "We asked the driver to take us, it was a night with a full moon."  Later, he places the conversation in context to "this holy month of Ramadan".  The full moon of Ramadan occurred around the 30th of November, not mid-November - exactly around the time the tape was allegedly found.

The transportation service in war-ravaged Afghanistan must be extraordinary.  First, the tape moves from Kandahar to Jalalabad at a speed that would make Fedex envious!  Then, our paralysed tourist, who regrets he could not move between mosques in Mecca to gauge reactions because "My movements were truly limited," conveniently transports himself from Kabul to Kandahar at a most inconsiderate time for travellers.  The Northern Alliance surrounds Kabul looking for "Arab Taliban", and as the November 30th edition of Dawn (Pakistan) reports: "Near the southern city of Kandahar, more marines and equipment have been ferried in to bring their strength to slightly more than 1,000, [Pentagon's] Clarke said in a Thursday briefing."

But the marvels of Afghan communication do not cease there.  Ten thousand bombs have had little effect on the luxuries in the valley, for as Sulayman (Abu Guaith) tells us: "I was sitting with the Shaykh in a room, then I left to go to another room where there was a TV set.  The TV broadcasted the big event."  Osama tunes in to the radio, Sulayman is on the TV.  Maybe Ali was on the internet?  Ah!  Thank goodness for AT&T broadband!

Mazar-i-Sharif has fallen, Kabul has been captured, and the world reacts with horror at the great massacre at Qala-i-Jhangi.  But while both CNN and Fox blurt out 24 hours on news of the war, Osama appears calm and unruffled - and the historic conversation does not drift to the war at all!  And then comes the glaring confession - the Christmas wrapped pronouncement that will allow Mr Ashcroft to nail bin Laden to the military tribunal door.

Osama narrates from the prosecutor's dream script: "We calculated in advance the number of casualties.  We calculated the floors that would be hit ...  I was the most optimistic of them all.  (...Inaudible...)  Due to my experience in this field, I was thinking that the fire from the gas in the plane would melt the iron structure of the building and collapse the area where the plane hit ..."

Lead the prisoner out, General, the firing squad is ready!

The damnation continues: "We were at (...inaudible...) when the event took place.  We had notification since the previous Thursday that the event would take place that day.  We had finished our work that day and had the radio on.  It was 5:30 pm our time."

"Our time!"  An editorial comment so as not to confuse the average American reader, who will be confused that the attack commenced at 8:30am EST.  Ask yourself this: Have you ever created a home video where the effects were this bad?  Here is OBL with his millions of dollar in funds, and all he gets for Christmas is this video camera that can't shoot straight!  "The tape was of such poor quality and bin Laden's words so difficult to discern that viewers took away from it what they wanted," writes Michael Slackman for the LA Times.  He continues with a quote from one Rashwan from the Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo.  "'It's a real scandal,' he said, laughing.  "Bin Laden is a multimillionaire, a man said to posses extraordinary technological capabilities, a man who released previous videos that were slick and well produced," he said, "so how could this be his work?"

He continues: "But Rashwan also saw other problems in the tape: when a visitor from Saudi Arabia arrives, his voice is clear and there are frequent close-ups.  But bin Laden's voice is always muffled and the camera never zooms in on him."

Truly, the sound is atrocious.  In many parts, the transcript reads: "OBL: (...Inaudible...)," and to add to the poor quality of audio, a persistent cough permeates the background.  Hafiz al-Mazari of Al-Jazeera TV, appearing on ABC's nightline, talked about problems of voice and video synchronisation.  Mr Mazari also mentioned that he had interviewed Mr Ashcroft three days prior to the tape's release, but the Attorney General admitted he had not seen the tape.  Apparently it did not pose much interest to America's chief prosecutor.

To add further confusion to the already murky audio, video and poor translation, the sequence of events is reversed on the tape.  It begins with the end of the visit, a helicopter site visit occupies the middle, and the ending sequence of the tape brings up the beginning of the visit.  And then there is the riddle of why the tape was left lying around so carelessly, after all the pains to film it at a moment of siege, by a man reported to be so paranoid (and rightly so), that he doesn't sleep in the same place twice.

Those who were convinced of bin Laden's guilt from the day Mr Bush declared he was wanted "Dead or alive" find their belief strengthened by the mystery tape.  As Judith Miller of the NY Times writes, "What now seems indisputable after the release of the tape is Mr bin Laden's responsibility for the September 11 attacks."  Those caught in between are still doubtful.  Charles Shoebridge, reporting in London's Guardian believes "The video is not quite the smoking gun the Americans claim it to be."

Can it be entirely coincidental that the tape was found so shortly after the US government sought the cooperation of Hollywood to assist it in its War on Terror?  The Australian daily The Age poses the question: "If computer-generated graphics can fake Forrest Gump shaking President John F Kennedy's hand and the late John Wayne hawking beer, how can viewers be sure that a videotape of Osama bin Laden bragging about the September 11 attacks is real?"

If this was indeed a Hollywood production, one cannot but regret that instead of modelling its magnum opus on visual effects of The Matrix or The Mummy (quite appropriate in the Arab context of bin Laden), they chose The Blair Witch Project instead.

Yusuf Agha lives in Boston, Massachusetts

Source: 14 December 2001

New bin Laden Tape Transcript Offers More Details

An article that appeared in The Washington Post declared there now existed

...a new and more detailed translation of his words...

The article stated that several Arab-speaking people had provided a better translation of the video:

...Ali al-Ahmed, the director of the small McLean, Virginia-based Saudi Institute, is one of those.  "They (at the Pentagon) omitted a lot," al-Ahmed said, "because they didn't understand his Arabic or weren't clear on what he was saying."  Parts of al-Ahmed's version were carried on ABC News Thursday night.

Source: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution 21 December 2001

Curiously, neither al-Ahmed nor the Saudi Institute were listed in either the white or yellow pages for McLean, Virginia...

Voice of America under Pressure to Toe US Line

Spozhmai Maiwandi, left, listened as Saddudin Shpoon read a news report on a Voice of America broadcast in Pashto

by Felicity Barringer

The Voice of America, born during World War II, nurtured in cold war propaganda and remade in the 1990's as a source of objective information for a global audience, is under renewed pressure to be a salesman for government policy in the wake of the terrorist attacks of 11 September.

Suddenly, as attacks on Afghanistan begin, people all over Washington have opinions on the mission and quality of an agency often ignored as a bureaucratic backwater.  That is because in countries whose people have limited access to objective news, radio services like the BBC and the Voice of America attract substantial audiences.

But as the VOA reaches out to distant countries, the hatreds fed by those countries' wars reach back into the VOA's studios.  Its Pashto-language broadcasts are under constant attack by anti-Taliban emigres, who call the service the Voice of the Taliban.  The State Department, sympathetic to the critics, tried, unsuccessfully, to stop the VOA from broadcasting any of its recent interview with Mullah Mohammad Omar, the Taliban leader.

After that quarrel, the Bush administration replaced the agency's acting director last week with another Voice of America official with strong conservative credentials.  Its governing board awaits the appointment of three new members.

Congress is also considering legislation creating a new service, Radio Free Afghanistan.  Its need for experienced Pashto- and Dari-speaking broadcasters could drain resources from the VOA.  In the midst of these developments, a core question is being asked: what role should the agency, with its credo of dispassionate reporting, play now, when the Bush administration is passionate about fighting terrorism with every available weapon?  It is a question likely to frame a hearing on Wednesday of the House Committee on International Relations.

The Voice of America's core work for the last six decades has been broadcasting news, sports, entertainment and official government opinions around the world via shortwave radio.  Some VOA broadcasts are in English, but most of its 800 journalists work for the services that broadcast to tens of millions of people in 53 languages.

The agency's corner of the diplomatic bureaucracy has undergone two major changes the last 6 years.  In 1995, its governing board was reconstituted as a firewall between the agency and the administration.  In 1999, the Voice of America was spun off from its parent, the United States Information Agency.

The broadcast group's 1,200 employees are used to having international and bureaucratic controversies seep into their daily lives.  But there is anew intensity to today's debate.  In a recent e-mail message to his staff - before his boss was replaced last week - the VOA's news director, Andre deNesnera, wrote, "During the past few days, there has been a systematic attack on the Voice of America - more specifically, an attack on Article One of our charter, which states that we should be a 'reliable and authoritative source of news' and that our news should be 'accurate, objective and comprehensive.'"

Mr deNesnera's probable new boss, Robert R Reilly, seemed to echo these sentiments last week.  Mr Reilly, a conservative in the information agency's policy division - essentially, the government's editorial page - was named last week to replace the acting director, Myrna R Whitworth.  (His appointment is expected to win quick approval by the board of broadcasting governors.)  In staff meetings and a later interview, he said, "I would not allow the integrity of our news operation to be compromised."  To do so, he said, "would be a devastating blow to the public diplomacy of the United States and a squandering of the fund of trust that has been developed over the decades in our overseas audiences, who turn to VOA for accurate and objective news."

The words, which Mr Reilly used at a staff meeting and repeated in the interview, were welcomed by the journalists.  But some expressed concern about a 20-year-old memo reflecting Mr Reilly's onetime view of VOA.  The memo, written to Charles Z Wick, the Reagan-era head of the United States Information Agency, concluded, "It is time we recaptured the words 'balance' and 'objectivity' from the rhetorical excesses of the left and re-established them to stand for the full truth about this country - the last and best hope of freedom in the world."  Asked about the memo last week, Mr Reilly said: "It's a wonderful document of the cold war era.  This is a different war and a different era."

But some are still willing to make the same case.  Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the Florida Republican who is chairwoman of the subcommittee on International Operations and Human Rights, said of VOA broadcasts, "If we turn this into a PBS documentary - seesawing on every side and being balanced - that's not promoting democracy."   One of the most visible critics of the agency has been the New York Times columnist William Safire, who has urged the creation of a Radio Free Afghanistan.  Questions of objectivity have always dogged the Voice of America because it is a government agency and because its foreign-language services have always had to deal with echoes of homeland conflicts when they recruited broadcasters from multiethnic states.

For years, broadcasts in Pashto, the language of Afghanistan's central region, from which the Taliban emerged, have been attacked as pro-Taliban by followers of the Northern Alliance.  The rebel coalition is dominated by ethnic Tajiks, for whom the VOA broadcasts in Dari.  In 1999, a Pashto reporter fanned claims of bias when he disrupted a news conference, yelling at young women who had recently left Afghanistan and were discussing their physical and psychological oppression by the Taliban.  The reporter, who loudly accused the women of lying, was disciplined by VOA officials.  Both Mr deNesnera and the agency's former director, Sanford J Ungar, now president of Goucher College in Maryland, praised the overall work of the Pashto service.  "It does a good job under very difficult circumstances," Mr Ungar said.

The service's contacts with the Taliban government gained it the interview with the Taliban leader.  Its critics within the VOA quickly let the State Department know.  Within two hours, members of the board of broadcasting governors were hearing the State Department arguments that the mullah's words should not be aired.  Divided, the board did nothing.  Four days later, the VOA defied the diplomats and broadcast parts of the interview.  Asked Friday if the service should be free to interview anyone, its prospective director, Mr Reilly, said: "Of course.  That's part of a journalist's job."  But, he added, "Andre and I will insist equally that those interviews be placed in a broader context."

Source: The New York Times Monday 8 October 2001 photo credit Marty Katz

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