Thursday, May 15, 2008

Snipers In Iraq; Killing By The Numbers

Snipers In Iraq; Killing By The Numbers

In 2007 elite U.S. snipers executed an unarmed Iraqi prisoner in cold blood. Have the insidious tactics that led to atrocities in Vietnam reemerged in Iraq?

By Mark Benjamin and Christopher Weaver

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enei Nesir Khudair al-Janabi, an Iraqi vegetable farmer, walked down to the ramshackle pump house along the banks of the Euphrates. Each day at midmorning, he would start the seven-horsepower pump to water his crops.

Khudair passed through the tall grass and palm trees of his farm in Jurf as Sakhr, a predominantly Sunni area 30 miles south of Baghdad dominated by sprawling patches of farmland, irrigation canals and regular eruptions of lethal violence. Daytime temperatures had lately been over 115 degrees, and it was already sweltering as he crossed the 500 meters for the last time.

As Khudair approached the pump house on May 11, 2007, he stumbled upon a team of five sweat-soaked U.S. Army snipers, dazed with heat and fatigue, hidden in the grass of a small hill. It's hard to say who was more surprised, the Iraqi or the American troops. The sniper on guard at the "hide" was so shocked to see Khudair wander up to his position that he froze for a moment, staring. Then he approached Khudair and pointed a 9 mm pistol at the farmer's head.

Meanwhile, Khudair's 17-year-old son, Mustafa, was at the family home when he learned that a cousin had been killed in an accident. Mustafa hurried from the house to find his father in the fields and tell him the horrible news.

But as Mustafa approached, an American sniper popped out of the brush and waved him closer. Struck with fear, he entered the snipers' hide to find his father, alive, face down on a patch of dirt with the corner of a plastic Army poncho over his head. Two soldiers were standing over him. They forced Mustafa to lie down, with his head close to his father's in an "L" on the ground, and then pulled the corner of the poncho over his head too.

A half-hour passed. Khudair complained about the heat. The soldiers suddenly hoisted Mustafa up and signaled that he was free to go, but his father was still on the ground under the poncho. As he left the hide, Mustafa motioned toward Khudair and tried, in broken English, to tell the Americans who their prisoner was: "Father, father."

Mustafa had just gotten back to the family home, 15 minutes later, when he heard two gunshots.

Three snipers with exemplary military records from the 1st Battalion of the 25th Infantry Division's 501st Regiment were charged in Khudair's killing. They were tried by the military judicial system in Iraq beginning in 2007. But the most important question raised by his death remains unanswered. Why would these elite American soldiers kill an unarmed prisoner in cold blood? The answer: pressure from their commanding officers to pump up a statistic straight out of America's last long war against an intractable insurgency.

A review of thousands of pages of documents from the legal proceedings obtained by Salon shows that in the months prior to Khudair's death, the young snipers, already frustrated by guerrilla tactics, were pressed to their physical limits and pushed by officers to stretch the bounds of the laws of war in order to increase the enemy body count. When the United States wallowed in Vietnam's counterinsurgency quagmire decades ago, the same pressure placed on soldiers resulted in some of the worst atrocities of that war. A paratrooper who remembered the insidious influence of body counts in Vietnam warned Salon in 2005 that the practice could also ensnare good soldiers in Iraq. "The problem is that in Iraq, we are in a guerrilla war," said Dennis Stout. "How do you keep score? How do you prove you are winning?"

The pressure from above for more bodies was also toxic in Iraq, where the isolated, outnumbered and outgunned snipers of the 1st Battalion had to make split-second life-or-death decisions. When those decisions landed them in a military court, it was the lowest-ranking soldiers, not the brass, who paid the price, and a sergeant who said he was pushed into taking a fatal shot who wound up with a long prison sentence. It was battalion commander Lt. Col Robert Balcavage, who pushed for a higher body count, who initiated the prosecution of three of the battalion's snipers. "Yes, the chain of command deserves to burn in hell," one sniper who served with the unit wrote Salon in an e-mail. "But I am not going on record saying that, well, cause I am still in the fucking Army."

The body-count pressure on the 1st Battalion's sniper section began to build in early 2007. In an insurgency like Vietnam or Iraq, it's hard to point to achievement of a military objective or conquest of a town or region as success. Instead, commanders find themselves relying on numbers, which is how body counts began to creep into the Iraq war, despite their explicit disavowal by former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in 2003 ("We don't do body counts"). In need of a positive metric, commanders of the 1st Battalion reached for body counts, since the metrics they did have were moving in the wrong direction. At the time, U.S. casualties from invisible roadside bombs were mounting. In the six months before the snipers arrived in country from Alaska in late October 2006, 426 U.S. service members had died in Iraq. In the six months between the 1st Battalion's arrival and the day Khudair was killed, May 11, 2007, nearly 590 service members died in Iraq. It was one of the bloodiest periods of the Iraq war. At the time there was a new commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, who was talking about winning hearts and minds. The snipers' commanders were talking about bodies. The battalion commander, Lt. Col. Balcavage, and top noncommissioned officer Command Sgt. Maj. Bernie Knight sent a clear message to the battalion's snipers. Spc. Alexander Flores, a sniper, described it this way in a hearing: "Get more bodies. Raise the morale of the battalion."

The résumé of Staff Sgt. Mike Hensley made the battalion leadership think he would be the leader who could produce the bodies. It wasn't just that during a previous tour in Afghanistan, he refused to leave his unit despite contracting malaria, or that in Iraq he insisted on inspecting bridges personally for road bombs to keep his soldiers out of harm's way, though that helped. He combined that commitment to the mission and to his men with a reputation for lethality. He was a competition-winning sniper. "The rest of the sniper section love Staff Sgt. Hensley," Sgt. Alexander Anuschat, a sniper who reported to Hensley, would later testify. "He was the perfect man for the job."

Officers hand-picked Hensley to lead the sniper section in early 2007. Hensley immediately suggested beefing up his new section from seven to 13 snipers, that in the field would operate in teams of about six men per mission. The men Hensley commanded also included Sgt. Evan Vela, Spc. Jorge Sandoval, Pvt. David Petta and Spc. Alexander Flores. Vela was a father of two from Idaho, married to his high school sweetheart. Sandoval, of Laredo, Texas, had never seen snow before being stationed in Fort Richardson in Alaska prior to Iraq. Petta and Flores would later start the investigation of the sniper section's actions by reporting questionable shootings to their commanding officers.

Officers were pleased when, under Hensley's lead, the snipers started racking up kills. But soon, the snipers were pushing the envelope. The decision of when to shoot and when not to shoot is often vexing for snipers, but following the rules of engagement became still more difficult for the snipers after commanding officers encouraged a loose interpretation of the rules to increase the likelihood of a kill.

The Law of Armed Conflict requires soldiers to identify “hostile intent" before pulling the trigger. "You have to decide if the individual you are looking at is a combatant or a civilian," explained Scott Silliman, executive director of the Center on Law, Ethics and National Security at Duke Law. "You must conclude that the individual is a combatant." There is no requirement that a target be armed, but he can't be hors de combat -- injured, surrendering or detained.

The nature of guerrilla warfare makes it difficult, however, to nail down exactly what that means on the battlefield. Lt. Matthew Didier, the officer directly in charge of the snipers, offered a tautology in one hearing late last year, explaining that the snipers could shoot if they had "reasonable certainty that the military target is, in fact, a military target." Knight, the senior noncommissioned officer in the battalion, told Army investigators who later looked into the killing of unarmed Iraqis that the snipers were instructed that they could fire when they had "reasonable certainty that someone is committing acts of violence against coalition forces or Iraqis."

The snipers remained nervous because, at best, the guidelines they were getting from their commanders were nebulous. The snipers felt they were being pressured to interpret "hostile intent" loosely to justify kills. During testimony, sniper Spc. Joshua Michaud said that Lt. Col. Balcavage and Command Sgt. Maj. Knight "constantly pushed for 'If you feel threatened, you know, obviously eliminate the threat.' But they kind of said it in a manner in which a lot of us took it like, 'Hey, you need to go out there and you guys gotta start getting kills.'"

At worst, the rules explicitly allowed the killing of unarmed Iraqis under certain circumstances, a particularly dicey concept given an enemy that does not wear a uniform and hides among civilians. Specifically, the snipers were allowed to shoot unarmed people running away from explosions or firefights. The chain of command was particularly frustrated by insurgents fleeing after attacks from roadside bombs, called improvised explosive devices. The notes from Army agents who later investigated the shootings said the battalion leaders, Balcavage and Knight, worried that the snipers had "let a lot of guys go after IED explosions." The snipers called these fleeing, sometimes unarmed Iraqis "squirters." Of course, it's not unusual for innocent people to run from explosions.

Didier, who has since been promoted to captain, said that "if that individual makes contact with you and then breaks contact of their own accord and disarms themselves while they are breaking contact, they are still an engageable target because they are not wounded, nor did they surrender." He explained, "They are only breaking contact so that they can engage coalition forces at a later time." In court, Sgt. Anthony Murphy, one of the snipers who was responsible for a questionable kill, testified that he interpreted this order about breaking contact so they can engage at a later time as: "Engage fleeing local nationals without weapons."

In addition to the vague rules of engagement and pressure to boost the body count, a furtive Pentagon unit, the Asymmetric Warfare Group, further blurred the soldiers' perceptions of what was acceptable. The covert program run by the Pentagon and supported by another "government agency" supplied the snipers with materiel to place on the battlefield, like explosives and ammunition, that might interest insurgents.

The Washington Post reported in September 2007 that the items were part of a "baiting" program and that the purpose was to shoot Iraqis who picked them up. Pulling the trigger, however, was never part of the operation, according to testimony and people with knowledge of the program.

The idea of "baiting," or putting out items and shooting Iraqis who picked up the materiel, was actually developed at the platoon level, according to the testimony of Didier, the officer in charge of the platoon. It is unclear if the tactic was ever used in the field.

Only a handful of the snipers were informed of the materiel's real purpose, which remains secret but has nothing to do with shooting people on sight. Because equipment was distributed equally among their packs, some soldiers who were not aware of the materiel's purpose were still forced to lug it. Soon, confused about the extra equipment's true purpose, they were imagining other explanations, and their confusion seems to have contributed to their willingness to bend the rules of engagement. The two snipers who eventually alerted authorities to the questionable kills and spurred an investigation believed the items were "drop weapons" to be placed on unarmed Iraqis after an illegal kill.

The killing of Genei Nesir Khudair al-Janabi took place on May 11, and it was the final kill for which snipers were prosecuted. But Khudair was, in fact, at least the fourth unarmed Iraqi the snipers had killed in the short time since Hensley took over leadership of the sniper section in March 2007. Each incident illustrates the ways in which the rules of engagement, the pressure to produce, the mysterious extra equipment, and the inherent difficulties of their jobs landed the snipers in court.

The first incident occurred on April 7, 2007. Sgt. Anthony Murphy's sniper team was hiding in a shallow ravine. Through his rifle scope, Murphy watched a lone Iraqi man approaching through some bushes, his figure distorted by a heat mirage. The man appeared and then disappeared again, winding through nearby ravines. Soon, he was 50 meters away and Murphy was sure the man had spotted the team's satellite communications gear through the brush.

In sniper talk, they had been "compromised." Being compromised, or seen while on a mission, was particularly chilling, especially in areas where there had been significant insurgent activity. Three days earlier, a seemingly innocent goatherd had spotted one of the sniper teams in the same location. Within minutes, mortars were raining down on them.

Even a handful of insurgents could easily overrun one of the small, autonomous sniper teams. "They are all around us," Murphy said during a court hearing. "We are put into their environment, their backyard."

On April 7, even after the Iraqi man had apparently seen the snipers' gear, he continued to move forward, alarming Murphy. "When people see us, they freak out," Murphy explained in a hearing. "They leave. They get scared. They stop. They start screaming." This Iraqi kept moving closer.

Murphy could see through the bushes that the man also had something in his hands, he just couldn't make out what it was. Murphy did not wait to find out. He pulled the trigger, killing the man with one bullet.

When it turned out that the Iraqi was carrying a 3-foot piece of pipe, the snipers got nervous. Murphy later testified that Sgt. 1st Class Steven Kipling worried that higher-ups might question the legitimacy of the shooting and asked Murphy if they should place a weapon on the body to make him look "more guilty."

Murphy refused. "I did the right thing," he said, and then cited the rules of engagement. "Hostile intent. Hostile act. End."

Murphy's aggressive commanders agreed. Notes from Army special agents who later investigated the snipers show the chain of command had looked into the April 7 shooting and "concluded Sgt. Murphy correctly determined hostile intent and engaged the individual with a single shot." The words "hostile intent" would show up again and again in thousands of pages of sworn testimony about the incidents that were reviewed by Salon.

In such a dangerous area, seeing an Iraqi eyeing U.S. troops with binoculars, or just digging a ditch, was enough to create a belief in "hostile intent." On April 14, a sniper team was monitoring a power substation when Hensley, the sniper section leader, told other snipers that he had spotted an Iraqi man who appeared to be laying command wire for a roadside bomb. But Hensley couldn't get in a clean shot and lost sight of the man.

A little before 5 p.m. Hensley received an order to keep an eye on a nearby house while incoming infantry troops performed a search there. According to the notes of Army investigators, this irritated Hensley, who asked for two volunteers. Hensley, Pvt. David Petta and Sgt. Richard Hand walked directly down a road toward the home.

Hand and Petta flanked Hensley as they approached the house. There were women and children outside and an unarmed Iraqi man, Mutham Nia Hussein Alwan, working on a water pump. At about 120 meters away, Hensley said, "That's the guy." Hand and Petta split off to the left. According to the investigating agents' notes, when the snipers were 50 meters away from the house, a little more than half a football field, Hensley raised his weapon, then lowered it. They continued to close in.

Then a single shot rang out from Hensley's M14 sniper rifle. At that moment, Sgt. Hand's weapon was trained on one of the women. "As soon as the shot happened, she became hysteric [sic]," Hand would later testify. "She started going crazy. I mean, obviously, somebody she loved or cared for had just died. She became my No. 1 priority, because I was afraid I was going to have to shoot her."

The body was later tested with EXPRAY, a field test kit used to detect explosives. It came up positive. But there is some evidence that Hensley might have been worried that the chain of command would still balk at the kill. Kipling testified that earlier that day he had found a length of detonation wire, balled it up, and given it to Hensley to bring back to base. A balled-up section of detonation wire was found on the body. Kipling said in court that he was "80 percent sure" the wire on the body was the same wire he had given Hensley. If Kipling is to be believed, the snipers had moved from merely talking about "drop weapons" to using them.

Two weeks later, on April 27, the loose rules for shooting unarmed, fleeing Iraqis -- "squirters" -- contributed to a death. Didier, the snipers' immediate superior officer, radioed to Hensley that a squirter was headed his way.

An Iraqi army unit was investigating a weapons cache site when they were attacked by two insurgents dressed in dark track suits who quickly broke contact and fled east. Didier had set up Hensley and other snipers a half-mile in that direction. He radioed Hensley and described the two men en route.

A half-hour later, Hensley replied that he had "got eyes on" a man who fit that description moving east, according to hearing transcripts. "[Hensley] said [the man] was no longer armed. But he asked if he could still engage the individual," Didier recalled. "I said yes, based on the current ROE, he could."

The sniper team was hidden in a 3-foot-deep dry creek bed. Hensley and another sniper, Spc. Jorge Sandoval, watched through some trees as a man in dark clothing walked into an olive grove, squatted and began cutting the knee-high grass with a sickle. Hensley told Sandoval to grab his weapon and the two men moved 150 to 200 meters south along the creek bed to the edge of the tree line that had been blocking their shot.

Even from the new position, 200 meters away, only the man's head appeared intermittently in Sandoval's rifle scope through the tall grass. Hensley asked Sandoval if he had the shot. Sandoval stood to get a better angle. Hensley asked twice more. The third time, Sandoval fired. He quickly chambered another round, but Hensley told him he wouldn't need it.

Sandoval drew his sidearm as the two snipers approached the body. The man had been shot in the head. Other snipers from the team approached as well and recognized the Iraqi as a man they had detained and released just days earlier. "You could tell by some of his face that was left," Michaud, one of the other snipers there that day, said in a hearing.

As shocking as it might seem to shoot an unarmed Iraqi cutting grass, many times the snipers had seen insurgents feign farming or other harmless activity after attacking U.S. troops. Michaud said in one hearing that "they'll run and pick up some farm equipment, or they might run to their house and start working on their vehicle, or they basically try to do anything they can to throw you off to make you think that, 'Hey I was not part of that.'"

Even though the snipers had seen squirters' tricks before -- and this shot had been approved by Didier -- Hensley and Sandoval apparently worried officers would not see the April 27 shooting as a clean kill. Sandoval testified that when he and Hensley first stood over the mutilated corpse, Hensley handed him command wire and told him to put it next to the body.

The snipers, however, did not use the Pentagon's secret equipment as drop weapons. The use of drop weapons by Hensley was freelance. The presence of the unexplained equipment, however, may have encouraged the belief among soldiers that drop weapons were acceptable. If drop weapons were standard operating procedure, where was the line between right and wrong?

The events leading to the killing of Genei Nesir Khudair al-Janabi began three days earlier, on May 8. The snipers awoke at 4 a.m. to begin preparations for a mission that night. The team finally left Patrol Base Jurf at 11:30 p.m., bearing packs that weighed more than 100 pounds. They moved slowly through the night to avoid detection. It took them 90 minutes to travel three miles. The snipers finally reached their "hide" at 4 a.m.

They spent the next day hidden in reeds by a canal, while the temperature climbed past 115. That afternoon, Murphy drank 12 quarts of water in six hours and still needed two IVs. He checked his pulse and counted 120 beats per minute. "Once you feel like you are cooking inside, your heart begins to race," he later testified.

The snipers stayed in position until 8 p.m. that night. For part of the march back to the patrol base, the snipers joined an infantry company headed in the same direction. One soldier from the company who was not even carrying a rucksack passed out from heat exhaustion. Medics gave him three IVs when the men reached the base at 11:30.

The snipers ate, debriefed and changed their clothes. Some got a few hours of sleep. Hand, who had been awake for 45 hours, testified that he slept from 3 a.m. to 7 a.m. then "scrounged together enough coffee" to have a cup.

The snipers spent a restless, sleep-deprived May 10 cleaning equipment and preparing for the next mission outside the wire, scheduled for that night. "In terms of the patrol base," Hand testified, "you really can't sleep, there is too much movement, too much noise and there is no shade unless you make some."

Murphy, still recovering from the previous day's dehydration, told Hensley, the leader of the sniper section, he could not make that night's mission. Another sniper, Sgt. Robert Redfern, volunteered to take Murphy's place.

Murphy, whom Vela later described as "like a brother to me," saw Vela just before the mission. Vela was readying his gear. He looked drained. Murphy asked Vela, "Are you good, man?"

Hensley, Vela, Sandoval, Hand and Redfern left Patrol Base Jurf at around 10 p.m. and arrived at their "hide" at 2 a.m. on the morning of May 11. The hide was a grassy hill next to a run-down pump house on the banks of the Euphrates. An infantry company soon began raiding a nearby house in a futile effort to locate insurgent rockets.

In the field, snipers sleep in shifts, or "rest cycles," with one man keeping guard while the others try to rest. By 10 a.m. the next morning, the guard on duty was Vela.

Vela testified that he remembered looking over a nearby berm and then in another direction at some children playing a few hundred meters away. When he turned back around toward the berm, Khudair, the vegetable farmer, "was just there."

Vela froze. Sandoval, who had been woken by the sound of the Iraqi's approach, motioned toward Vela's gun. Taking the signal, Vela pointed the 9 mm pistol at the farmer's face.

Sandoval woke up Redfern. Redfern and Vela waved the Iraqi into the hide, forced him down on his stomach and put the corner of the plastic poncho over his head. Vela stood over the man with the pistol, while Redfern ran his hands over Khudair's shoulders, arms, sides, back and chest in a cursory search. No weapons.

Vela woke Hensley and told him an unarmed Iraqi was in the hide. Hensley stood up, walked over to the Iraqi -- and from a standing position dropped a knee into his back with the full force of his body.

Khudair threw his head back, gasping for wind. "Staff Sgt. Hensley grabbed him by the mouth," Vela testified, "and told him to shut up or he was going to kill him."

Hensley wrapped parachute cord around the Iraqi's hands and Redfern dragged him deeper into the snipers' hide. At this point, Redfern spotted a boy approaching and waved him into the hide site as well. The snipers put him on his stomach, so the two Iraqis formed an L-shape on the ground with both of their heads under the corner of the poncho.

Hensley then dispatched Sandoval and Redfern to the pump house, 15 to 20 meters away, to provide security. Vela handed his pistol to Sandoval, who was armed with a bolt-action rifle that could only hold five rounds without reloading.

Vela said Hensley sat down on the berm for a moment. He then got up and radioed their superior officer, Didier. Hensley reported that he had spotted an Iraqi nearby armed with an AK-47. But Vela couldn't see anyone who matched that description. Vela alerted Hand, who was fading in and out of sleep on a nearby berm, that Hensley "might have seen something." Then Hensley ordered Vela to retrieve his pistol from Sandoval in the pump house.

A half-hour after the 17-year-old Iraqi boy entered the hide, Sandoval and Redfern saw him pass by their position in the pump house as he walked home. Thinking that both Iraqis had been released, Sandoval peered around the pump house wall to look into the hide. Khudair was still there. Vela was sitting on his rear, with one leg cocked up and an elbow resting on his knee, holding the pistol in one hand.

Inside the hide, Hensley radioed Didier a second time, saying an insurgent was moving closer to their position. Hensley asked permission to do a "close kill" to avoid being compromised.

Vela then looked around, but still didn't see any armed insurgent. "I was just really confused about what he was saying," Vela testified.

Hensley untied the Iraqi. "I thought we were going to let him go," Vela told the Army court.

"Are you ready?" Hensley allegedly asked Vela.

Hensley stepped aside. "Shoot," he said.

Vela claimed during testimony that he doesn't remember pulling the trigger. "It took me a second to realize that the shot had come from the pistol and it was in my hand."

Hensley radioed to Didier that the snipers had killed an insurgent. Meanwhile, the Iraqi's body convulsed. Hensley "kind of laughed" at the spectacle, according to Vela. Hensley then "[punched] the guy in the throat, and said, 'Shoot him again,' which I did."

Vela testified that after he shot the man for the second time, Hensley pulled an AK-47 out of his rucksack and placed it on the body. The snipers then agreed on a story about the shooting consistent with Hensley's radio calls.

Murphy, the soldier who had stayed behind because of dehydration, was sitting on a Humvee when the snipers trailed back into Patrol Base Jurf. The men were so soaked with sweat that Murphy thought they had waded through a canal.

"Hey, what's up, man?" Murphy asked Vela. But Vela just walked past his friend in silence. In testimony Murphy described Vela as "detached, somber, serious."

In late June 2007, less than two months after Khudair's death, Flores and Petta informed military authorities that the sniper section might be using drop weapons. That led to investigation of the circumstances of several of the unit's kills, which led in turn to the arrest of Sandoval, Hensley and Vela.

Sandoval was charged with murder for the deaths on April 27 and May 11, but convicted only of planting command wire in connection with the April 27 killing. He served about a month and a half in prison. The Army charged Hensley with three murders for the shootings of April 14, April 27 and May 11. He was convicted of planting a weapon, for placing the AK-47 next to Khudair, and insubordination. He was sentenced to time served and busted down to sergeant.

On February 10, 2008, however, Vela was sentenced to 10 years in a military prison for the murder of Khudair.

Top battalion leaders, who had to sign off on the charges, have faced no serious questions about whether their demand for more bodies, their vague rules of engagement or the confusion sown by the secret program might have contributed to the events of spring 2007. U.S. Army Alaska spokesman Lt. Col. Jonathan Allen said Balcavage and Knight were unavailable for an interview.

Hand, one of the snipers in the hide on May 11, later testified that he believes his "main responsibility is to take care of my subordinates." But the battalion leaders, he said, "have been very lax in their care of anybody except themselves."

"If you have never been outside the wire, you really have no basis [to judge]," said Hand. "You've never been in a life-or-death situation where you have had to count on the guy to your left and right ... You see stuff out there that no one back here is going to see."

Hensley, meanwhile, is back on active duty. Now a sergeant, he is stationed in Georgia, where he is an instructor for Army Rangers.

Bogus Claim, al-Maliki Stall U.S. Plan on Iran Arms

Bogus Claim, al-Maliki Stall U.S. Plan on Iran Arms

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arly this month, the George W. Bush administration's plan to create a new crescendo of accusations against Iran for allegedly smuggling arms to Shiite militias in Iraq encountered not just one but two setbacks.

The government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki refused to endorse U.S. charges of Iranian involvement in arms smuggling to the Mahdi Army, and a plan to show off a huge collection of Iranian arms captured in and around Karbala had to be called off after it was discovered that none of the arms were of Iranian origin.

The news media's failure to report that the arms captured from Shiite militiamen in Karbala did not include a single Iranian weapon shielded the U.S. military from a much bigger blow to its anti-Iran strategy.

The Bush administration and top Iraq commander Gen. David Petraeus had plotted a sequence of events that would build domestic U.S. political support for a possible strike against Iran over its "meddling" in Iraq and especially its alleged export of arms to Shiite militias.

The plan was keyed to a briefing document to be prepared by Petraeus on the alleged Iranian role in arming and training Shiite militias that would be surfaced publicly after the al-Maliki government had endorsed it and it used to accuse Iran publicly.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, told reporters on Apr. 25 that Petraeus was preparing a briefing to be given "in the next couple of weeks" that would provide detailed evidence of "just how far Iran is reaching into Iraq to foment instability". The centrepiece of the Petraeus document, completed in late April, was the claim that arms captured in Basra bore 2008 manufacture dates on them.

U.S. officials also planned to display Iranian weapons captured in both Basra and Karbala to reporters. That sequence of media events would fill the airwaves with spectacular news framing Iran as the culprit in Iraq for several days, aimed at breaking down Congressional and public resistance to the idea that Iranian bases supporting the meddling would have to be attacked.

But events in Iraq diverged from the plan. On May 4, after an Iraqi delegation had returned from meetings in Iran, al-Maliki's spokesman, Ali al-Dabbagh, said in a news conference that al-Maliki was forming his own Cabinet committee to investigate the U.S. claims. "We want to find tangible information and not information based on speculation," he said.

Another adviser to al-Maliki, Haider Abadi, told the Los Angeles Times' Alexandra Zavis that Iranian officials had given the delegation evidence disproving the charges. "For us to be impartial, we have to investigate," Abadi said.

Al-Dabbagh made it clear that the government considered the U.S. evidence of Iranian government arms smuggling insufficient. "The proof we have is weapons which are shown to have been made in Iran," al-Dabbagh said in a separate interview with Reuters. "We want to trace back how they reached [Iraq], who is using them, where are they getting it."

Senior U.S. military officials were clearly furious with al-Maliki for backtracking on the issue. "We were blindsided by this," one of them told Zavis.

Then the Bush administration's campaign on Iranian arms encountered another serious problem. The Iraqi commander in Karbala had announced on May 3 that he had captured a large quantity of Iranian arms in and around that city.

Earlier the U.S. military had said that it was up to the Iraqi government to display captured Iranian weapons, but now an Iraqi commander was eager to show off such weapons. Petraeus' staff alerted U.S. media to a major news event in which the captured Iranian arms in Karbala would be displayed and then destroyed.

But when U.S. munitions experts went to Karbala to see the alleged cache of Iranian weapons, they found nothing that they could credibly link to Iran.

The U.S. command had to inform reporters that the event had been cancelled, explaining that it had all been a "misunderstanding". In his press briefing May 7, Brig. Gen. Kevin Bergner gave some details of the captured weapons in Karbala but refrained from charging any Iranian role.

The cancellation of the planned display was a significant story, in light of the well-known intention of the U.S. command to convict Iran on the arms smuggling charge. Nevertheless, it went completely unreported in the world's news media.

A report on the Los Angeles Times' Blog "Babylon & Beyond" by Baghdad correspondent Tina Susman was the only small crack in the media blackout. The story was not carried in the Times itself, however.

The real significance of the captured weapons collected in Karbala was not the obvious U.S. political embarrassment over an Iraqi claim of captured Iranian arms that turned out to be false. It was the deeper implication of the arms that were captured.

Karbala is one of Iraq's eight largest cities, and it has long been the focus of major fighting between the Mahdi Army and its Shiite foes. Moqtada al-Sadr declared his ceasefire last August after a major battle there, and fighting had resumed there with the government operation in Basra in March. Thousands of Mahdi Army fighters have fought there over the past year.

The official list of weapons captured in Karbala includes nine mortars, four anti-aircraft missiles, 45, RPGs and 800 RPG missiles and 570 roadside explosive devices. The failure to find a single item of Iranian origin among these heavier weapons, despite the deeply entrenched Mahdi Army presence over many months, suggests that the dependence of the Mahdi Army on arms manufactured in Iran is actually quite insignificant.

The Karbala weapons cache also raises new questions about the official U.S. narrative about the Shiite militia's use of explosively formed penetrators (EFPs) as an Iranian phenomenon. Among the captured weapons mentioned by Gen. Jawdat were what he called "150 anti-tank bombs", as distinguished from ordinary roadside explosive devices.

An "anti-tank bomb" is a device that is capable of penetrating armour, which has been introduced to the U.S. public as the EFP. The U.S. claim that Iran was behind their growing use in Iraq was the centrepiece of the Bush administration's case for an Iranian "proxy war" against the U.S. in early 2007.

Soon after that, however, senior U.S. military officials conceded that EFPs were in fact being manufactured in Iraq itself, although they insisted that EFPs alleged exported by Iran were superior to the home-made version.

The large cache of EFPs in Karbala which are admitted to be non-Iranian in origin underlines the reality that the Mahdi Army procures its EFPs from a variety of sources.

But for the media blackout of the story, the large EFP discovery in Karbala would have further undermined the credibility of the U.S. military's line on Iran's export of the EFPs to Iraqi fighters.

Apparently understanding the potential political difficulties that the Karbala EFP find could present, Gen. Bergner omitted any reference to them in his otherwise accurate accounting of the Karbala weapons.

Gareth Porter is an historian and national security policy analyst. The paperback edition of his latest book, "Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam", was published in 2006.



New Hampshire state rep says we need to send a message: impeach Bush, Cheney now

By Mark Anderson

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Betty Hall, 87, a New Hampshire state representative, shows an unwavering “can-do” attitude toward her House Resolution 24, which is intended to prod the U.S. Congress into investigating (and implementing the impeachment of) President George Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney.

Backers charge that the Bush-Cheney regime dragged the nation into an undeclared, preemptive, never-ending war under false pretenses. Rep. Hall said that some backers have as their “tipping point” a strong concern about the Bush administration doing away with prohibitions against torture.

“What is Congress’s tipping point?” she asks. AFP has reported on the administration’s wartime eagerness to snoop on the public and its use of “signing statements” and executive orders to bypass proper legislative input and, in effect, legislate for itself.

Although some fellow state legislators say the timing is wrong, Rep. Hall is not worried about how close the next election is, as she believes the moral imperative of impeachment is too great to ignore. With the blood of America’s youth staining the sands of distant lands, underwritten by obscene public expenditures that fatten privileged contractors and drain the national treasury to the breaking point, Rep. Hall wants the 400-member New Hampshire House—said to be the world’s third most populous English-speaking legislative body behind the Congress itself and the British House of Commons—to pass HR 24 and tell Congress that, for God’s sake, it’s time to consider some actual checks and balances and get on with impeachment. It boils down to this: An imperial presidency has no place in a free nation.

A visit to New England shows that the spirit of the American revolution does not easily die. The famed Old North Bridge at Concord, Mass., for example, where the colonists won a decisive fire fight and sent a contingent of Redcoats fleeing back to Boston, features Ralph Waldo Emerson’s stirring words on “the shot heard round the world” that heralded the War of Independence.

Well, HR 24 backers want the legislative action on this issue to be “the vote heard round the world” to drive back tyranny from within our shores, just as the historic battle drove back tyranny that came from afar.

“It actually did go to the floor for a vote on the 16th of April,” Rep. Hall said during an interview with AFP. She explained HR 24 in the wake of a local April 14 impeachment rally that featured, among others, former Pentagon official-turned-whistle blower Daniel Ellsberg; and retired Air Force pilot Dr. Robert Bowman, a Vietnam veteran who is known as an eloquent speaker on the fallacies of the government’s 9-11 story and the distant conflicts which this story “justified.”

HR 24, which resembles an earlier joint resolution in Vermont that only passed the state Senate and stopped there, was introduced in early 2007 but was not approved that year, after considerable debate. Drafted again in January 2008, it differs from the Vermont measure in that it is not a joint document, so only the New Hampshire House needs to deal with it; the state Senate need not be involved, which simplifies the process. This year, HR 24 has endured a series of standard public hearings and committee actions.

The April 16 floor vote failed to pass, 95-227, with around 75 not showing up to vote (most were unexcused absences; only five called in as “excused”). But in New Hampshire, such a vote does not kill the resolution; it merely tables it. It was last declared “inexpedient to legislate,”
but a simple majority vote would get it off the table so it could be voted on again to remove the “inexpedient” tag and proceed from there.

The N.H. legislative session ends in early June and resumes in January. There are various committee meetings in the interim.

Rep. Hall also planned to take HR 24 to the Democratic State Convention in New Hampshire on May 17, where well-known party figure Howard Dean is expected to expose the “Bush/McCain agenda,” according to a promotional flyer. At the 2006 state Democratic convention, Rep. Hall said a measure similar to HR 24 was unanimously approved by the state party leadership.

“On May 17, I will try again without hesitation,” she said. She also noted that N.H. independent voters are banding together to support impeachment. Many Republicans, however, see HR 24 as revenge for the impeachment of former President Bill Clinton. Several are hostile toward it.

“Some of them walked out of the chambers on April 16,” Hall said, noting that of the 95 who voted for it, only four were Republicans in a House that is about two-thirds Democratic and one- third Republican. Until fairly recently, it was the other way around.

On the national level, she said that the task is far from easy. A Michigan congressman, John Conyers (D), once favored impeachment.

“Rep. Conyers is on the hot seat, and he’s wavering,” Rep. Hall said, referring to his chairmanship on the House Judiciary Committee—the panel that would start the impeachment process. To impeach only means to indict; removal from office would only come after trial and conviction by the Senate). Conyers, said Rep. Hall, “was in favor of impeachment when he was a ranking member on the committee. He even wrote a book about it.”

However, Republicans are not the only barrier. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), and other Democratic leaders are pressuring Conyers to stay away from the impeachment issue, she said..

But Rep. Hall will have none of the jibber-jabber about impeachment being misguided, too late or whatever.

“It’s not just about Bush and Cheney, it’s about our Constitution,” she said. “It’s about finding the truth, justice, and restoration of the rule of law. You can’t have a state legislature without a relationship with the federal

She said that even starting the impeachment “late” is beneficial because the impeachment process itself would send a strong signal about the need for accountability. And, as she sees it, the process and the required fact-finding about the current administration’s misdeeds also would have a beneficial chilling effect on whoever sits in the Oval Office after Bush.

“Setting precedents is important,” she said, especially considering that Sen. John McCain has talked about continuing the Bush policies in Iraq and Afghanistan if he is elected president. Having served 28 years in the New Hampshire Legislature, first as a Republican and then as a Democrat, Rep. Hall knows the procedures well. So if anybody can make this happen, she can. Earning just $100 a year to serve, she is no careerist like those overpaid “servants” found in legislatures in Michigan, California, New York and elsewhere.

What is known as a “vote of no confidence” in foreign governments to recall defective leaders assumed the more stable form of impeachment in America. Rep. Hall said this action must be taken because, as she put it, “Our checks and balances are out of whack.”

NOTE: Maine, Massachusetts, Vermont and Washington are among the other states taking similar actions to pass resolutions calling on the U.S. Congress to impeach President Bush and Vice President Cheney. There also are websites put together by other people and coalitions, such as that of the Northeast Impeachment Coalition ( as well as Rep. Hall’s website is, or write her at: P.O. Box 309, Brookline, N.H. 03033. Or call 603-672-8712.

Mark Anderson is the author of The Ron Paul Revolution, AFP’s
special report we are encouraging everyone to distribute. For more on
how you can help Ron Paul, click here.

What Michael Pollan Hasn't Told You About Food

What Michael Pollan Hasn't Told You About Food

By Onnesha Roychoudhuri

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As both obesity and hunger are on the rise, a new book shows why we shouldn't feel guilty about our food choices but angry with a corrupt food system.

TV dinners were launched at a time when only a small percentage of Americans actually owned TVs. Thus, the meals, writes Raj Patel, "were what people ate while they dreamed of affording one." In the American dream, we imagine a bucolic Midwest, a place of bounty, yet the reality is that the breadbasket of America is rife with poverty and a declining life expectancy. The idyllic vision of quaint American farmland doesn't work like that "except in fiction," says Patel, and there is perhaps no greater fiction than the comforting hand of the free market - particularly as it pertains to food.

Patel's new book Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System makes visible the people behind the abstraction and reveals a global food system that, with our complicity, continues to alienate farmers and consumers alike, all while fattening the pocketbooks of a few middlemen.

To read Patel is to understand the logic behind the sweets company, Nestle, acquiring the weight loss magnate Jenny Craig or why WalMart is free to raise prices in areas where they have already killed off the competition. In the language of markets, these problems are not "self-correcting." Only the profound failure of the prevailing metaphor of the Invisible Hand hampers us from seeing what Patel has spent years of research making visible. In an interview with AlterNet, Patel explains how, "the way we choose food today comes from distinctly abnormal roots," how these roots connect us to farmers and consumers around the world, and why we should get angry, not feel guilty.

Onnesha Roychoudhuri: Of the origins of the supermarket, you say: "Shoppers' freedom of choice was born in a cage. What we have come to believe in as 'unfettered freedom to consume' was always intended to be guided by chicken wire." Can you explain?

Raj Patel: The original supermarket was a cost-saving invention born around 1917, the same time as the U.S. was experiencing food riots. Retailers needed to be able to find a cheaper way of selling the same food to a public that demanded low prices because their incomes weren't increasing and the price of food was going through the roof.

There's a route through the supermarket that looks like an elementary rat in maze experiment where you enter one end of the supermarket and follow a path that takes you through everything that there is to offer. Saunders insisted that the store clerks not be allowed to talk to anyone. Their job was solely to make sure that things were filled high on the shelves. Instead, it was consumers who would do the assessment of goods and pile them into a cart or a basket and then pay for them at the end of this long maze. In other words, it was a very constrained and funneled environment.

OR: Can you point out some more of the ways in which the supermarket experience is such a constrained environment?

RP: The resemblance to rats in cages in laboratories is more than cosmetic. The way that we shop today in supermarkets is profoundly manipulated. Everything about it is the result of millions of dollars in investments and experiments. Everything about it: the lighting, the positioning of things, the reason that the milk is always at the back, all of these are ways in which we're manipulated. The profound irony is that we go into supermarkets and we are made to believe that we choose freely but the moment we step through the doors of the supermarket, we have been made for our food. We are being crafted in that environment into people who will impulse purchase, will accept a range of fruits and vegetables that is very narrow, will think that when we pick between Coke and Pepsi, that that's real choice.

OR: Explain for whom the free market works and what "free market" means in the context of food.

RP: Free markets in food and certainly global markets in food are a very new thing. They are barely 200 years old and their origins have everything to do with colonialism. The world's first free market in grain was the market in wheat in the 1880s. This market was forged in imperialism and conquest, particularly by the British over the grain baskets of South Asia.

The social safety nets that existed in India under feudal society had been knocked away by the British. If people couldn't afford food, they didn't get to eat and if they couldn't buy food, they starved. As a result of the imposition of markets in food, 13 million people across the world died in the 19th century. They died in the golden age of liberal capitalism. Those are the origins of markets in food.

We shouldn't be surprised, then, that in those markets today, there are basically just a handful of corporations that control the truck and barter of goods. In any major market, you'll see that it's basically four or five corporations that control upwards of 50 percent of the market. In tea, it's just one corporation, Unilever, that controls 90 percent of the market and in coffee there are just a couple of firms that have 80 percent of the market.

OR: You use coffee as an illustration of how the free market tends to disadvantage consumers and farmers and benefit primarily a handful of middlemen.

RP: We've seen the price of coffee go up. You'd think that the people who would benefit from this must be the poor farmers who are growing the coffee. But if you look at the situation of coffee farmers, it's pretty precarious. In the book, I talk about a family that used to be able to sell dry coffee cherries for 69 cents per kilo. When I spoke to them, they were getting 14 cents per kilo. They are desperate because their land can't be turned to grow anything else. They either have to choose to walk away from their land and try and make a go of it in Kampala, the city, or they produce at a loss and hope things get better.

You can see the disproportion all the way up the food chain. The middleman will buy at 14 cents per kilo and sell at 19 cents. The mill will buy at 19 cents and sell at 24. Then it is bought by Nestle in West London where it will cost $1.64 per kilo and then it gets turned into instant coffee. By the time it comes out, it costs $26 per kilo - more than 200 times the cost of what it was in Uganda. That transformation suggests that whenever there's a price spike the benefits of that tend to accumulate in the parts of the food system where the most power is concentrated.

OR: In the book, you write that these middlemen are frequently involved in price fixing. You refer to Archer Daniels Midland as "the cartel that fixed the price of lysine and citric acid." Can you talk about the role these food corporations have in affecting the market - particularly in corn?

RP: It's an evolving scam. The fact that there is an American corn surplus was a strategic decision made by the U.S. government under some heavy influence from companies like Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland. But then we have this corn surplus and don't know what to do with it. Luckily, here are Archer Daniels Midland and Cargill who are prepared to turn it into high fructose corn syrup. Now, these companies have offered to turn the surplus into ethanol. They're convincing the government to part with billions of dollars to support a scheme that by any relevant scientific criterion is nuts. Biofuels take more energy to produce than they release and they produce more CO2 than they save.

OR: You talk about the origins of NAFTA in your book, specifically focusing on how ideology shaped the effects of NAFTA on migration.

RP: NAFTA was obviously pushed by the U.S. government, but they thought, quite reasonably, that exposing Mexican farmers to vast US agricultural subsidies under free trade agreements was going to be a recipe for disaster. The weird thing is that it was the Mexican government that said okay to liberalizing agriculture. It's unusual because it is, in many ways, against the interests of the majority of people living in rural areas. You've got to ask why it is that even when they could have levied substantial import tariffs to the tune of millions of dollars a year to be able to generate revenue from the import of American corn, they chose not to. Even under NAFTA they were allowed to make those taxes.

OR: How has NAFTA affected eating habits?

RP: NAFTA has resulted in a vast influx of American consumerism. For me, the two startling facts are firstly that Mexico is the world's second most obese country after America. Also, the closer you get to the American border from Mexico, the fatter Mexican teenagers are likely to be. I don't think people realize quite how much food culture and body image really matter.

The example that comes to mind is Fiji. Anorexia and bulimia were virtually non-existent before 1995 when television was beamed in. Within three years of predominately U.S. television, 12 percent of teenage Fijian girls were bulimic. That's batshit crazy yet I think we are so inured to all the advertising and food culture that is around us that it feels normal. There's nothing normal about it.

The fact that it seems normal is a sign that the food corporations in many ways of succeeded in their project. They have managed to convince us that most of the shit that we eat every day is food when it isn't. It's a profit for them and too often a poison for us.

OR: You make the case that farmers around the world, including the U.S., are suffering. There has been a boom in food processing, but over a million jobs have been lost in the farming and allied industries. Statistical indicators of welfare are some of the lowest in the rural areas of the U.S.

RP: And in fact there was an article that came out in a biology journal just a couple of days ago that showed that in the heartland, particularly for women, life expectancy rates are now falling. It had always been the case that one generation of Americans would live longer than their parents. Now that's being reversed, particularly for women, particularly in the poorest rural areas in the United States.

This is correlated with disinvestment in small, sustainable agriculture and a shifting of investment towards huge mega-farms. That means there is less money going to community schools, for example. It is almost always an augury of bad things when a rural school closes because, as a consequence, the rest of the rural community tends to fall apart. Rural schools have been closing hand over fist.

OR: Those of us who live in cities often have this imagery of rural areas and farmland as idyllic, bucolic places yet you write about how these areas of food production may also have "food deserts."

RP: There is this idea of middle America as being The Little House on the Prairie. It doesn't work like that except in fiction. Food deserts are areas where fresh fruits and vegetables in particular are unavailable and the reason is because the people who control their distribution don't see a profit in making them available in particular areas. It shouldn't be surprising that the two areas that we see particularly characterized by these food deserts are areas of low-income people in rural America and in urban America. These people find themselves denied access to fresh fruits and vegetables through what is known as supermarket redlining. Supermarkets don't go into areas where there are communities of low-income people and often people of color.

OR: Can you talk about how the individualizing of obesity and health problems is problematic?

RP: The first edition of the Atkins diet had a long tirade against the sugar industry. Atkins was saying that we're being poisoned by the sugar industry - they're putting sugar in everything. But then Atkins makes the turn that is very common in America: It's a problem of the industry, it's an economic problem, it's a political problem, and the solution has to be individual. The solution is not to confront the sugar industry, not to legislate, not to use government to change that, but to exercise an almost Puritan control over the will as a way of getting out of a situation that has everything to do with politics.

That's why the diet industry is so very big. It is a particularly American solution to the problems of obesity. Why is it that 20 percent of fast food meals now are eaten in cars? This is a figure that you get from Michael Pollan's work. He bemoans the fact. But when I explain to people outside America that 20 percent of fast food meals are eaten in cars, they are blown away. It's inconceivable to them. They wonder whether it's because Americans like their cars so much.

Here, we understand that this isn't some preference for the dashboard; it's because Americans work much harder than any other industrialized country to be able to have health care, to have the promise of a pension. In particular if you're from a working family, your income has been dropping in real time since the 1980s. Chances are you live far away from where you work because you can't afford to buy land or buy a house there. So you spend a long time commuting and if you're in a community where people are of a lower income, you'll find less access to fresh fruits and vegetables, less access to green space. Is it any wonder that so many meals are eaten in cars? Is it any wonder that across the industrialized world, we're seeing levels of obesity in communities of poorer people going up so fast?

All of the reasons I've given for why people are forced to eat bad food have nothing to do with choice. Choice is almost entirely absent from any of these calculations. Yes, you can choose between Burger King or McDonald's, but you don't get to choose to have time to have a healthy meal. You don't get to choose to have time to sit down with your family and cook a decent meal, to really enjoy food, savor it, and connect with it. What we're left with is this poor simulacrum of choice - constrained between two options that are equally bad for you. Individualizing this is a case of blaming the victim. When we say that it is your fault because you're choosing McDonalds rather than the Whole Food's salad, that's bollocks because people couldn't choose the Whole Food's salad. The choice is Coke or Pepsi, Burger King or McDonalds, either because people don't have the time or the money.

OR: I think that's such an important critique. To read your book is to see the infrastructure behind what Pollan proposes: to spend more time to have meals together, to grow more of our own food. I think it's critical for people who are middle class, upper middle class, and wealthy, who are trying to be conscientious eaters, to understand why they have the choices they have and why these may not be as readily available to others.

RP: The message that is so much harder to explain to Americans is that politics is necessary. People do need to get their hands dirty by getting involved in social change. There is a particularly American fantasy that we can together create a better world by shopping. It's absolutely a case of thinking we can go to Whole Foods, choose the right thing, shop here, pay for this and all of a sudden we will lift the righteous above the impure.

OR: Can you talk about how the GM industry has impacted farmers abroad?

RP: Until recently, the GM industry was always saying they could feed the world better by using genetically modified crops. Critics responded by saying that, so far, GM crops are really just designed to be resistant to an herbicide, or produce their own pesticides. In other words, this isn't about yield; it's about pesticides.

Golden Rice was going to be the poster child for how genetically modified food was a good thing for the poor. The idea with golden rice was that there are millions of kids who go blind every year because of a preventable deficiency of Vitamin A. What Golden Rice was intended to do was to engineer Vitamin A into rice, which is the staple of some of the world's poorest people. The trouble was that people wouldn't eat it because it was considered inferior. The kinds of rice people prefer in Asia are white rice not brown, not golden. But even if there had been education campaigns, they still would have had to have 50 bowls a day to reach their daily recommended intake.

In the next generation of GM crops, they reduced that number to two bowls a day which is much more manageable but it never addresses the key issue: Why is it that these kids don't have a balanced diet? The reason the golden rice becomes necessary is because the only thing these kids can afford to eat is rice.

The issue for GM crop companies is they are trying very hard to represent themselves as friends to the poor. In the long term, as more and more studies show, these crops are patently bad for the farmers and they certainly won't help feed the world.

OR: Throughout the book, you cite the many farmers you spoke with around the world. One farmer who was incredibly articulate was Farmer Lee, who committed suicide. He wrote, "Some might say that this is the natural logic of competition but if you're a human being with reason and conscience then the WTO should be eliminated ... To live, people need to eat. You cannot commercialize this. It's such anti-human behavior. Not just anti-social, but anti-people."

RP: The trouble is that with a lot of the development industry, the game is to try and simulate what poor people think rather than actually listening to what they have to say. When I was a graduate student, I worked at the World Bank. The way the international development industry works is to basically transform poor people into puppies with tummy aches whose mute suffering is knowable only to those trained in the art of looking into those big brown eyes and feeling their pain. The idea that it takes a special level of expertise is just nasty.

OR: Having spent some time at the WTO and the World Bank do you feel that there's any role for them in the future if they reform, or do you think we need to dismantle them and start from scratch?

RP: After the revolution I think that there will be a space for international organizations that make loans to democratic governments. I also think that there will be a democratically decided way of exchanging goods between countries that is respectful of and allows countries to sustain themselves, develop, and become better places. But in the meantime, I think the World Trade Organization and the World Bank are actively hampering democracy and they're actively getting in the way of some serious democratic change that needs to happen.

OR: As you've said, our notions of choice are often limited to what we can buy, what as a consumer we can control. What would you suggest as to how people can support more ethical eating and get more involved?

RP: Protesting against the World Bank and the World Trade Organization is very important as are fighting for workers rights and a living wage. But perhaps the hardest thing to do is, at the very individual level, we need to distrust our palettes because they have been so compromised by corporate food.

The other place I have heard people talk about this is in men's groups who are talking about feminism where they say, "I understand that all my life I have been saturated in patriarchy. Now what do I trust? I can't trust my trust. What do I rely on for guidance, for a new gut feeling?" I think it's the same with food: So much of what we think is food really isn't and we have forgotten how to enjoy food and connect with food.

OR: This gets into the Slow Food movement.

RP: It's interesting to me that when the Italian Communist Slow Food movement gets talked about in America, the first bit gets dropped off. But they are communist and they have this very radical question: Why is it that only rich people get to have pleasure? Why is pleasure not the birthright of everyone? The rich and radical moment is when you take this idea that pleasure should be the right of everyone and you go do something about it The slow food movement was responsible for helping to drive up agricultural wages and instrumental in creating a two hour lunch break. They did this, not through individual shopping choices, but through concerted political action and working with people, organizing, being democratic, and then taking on power.

I think this emphasis on joy and reconnecting with our joy can actually be very political. Obviously, it's been derailed in some ways by the bourgeois circle jerk of olive oil and red wine enthusiasts, but it can be very radical. I think that should inform the kind of changes in the way we get our food. Staying out of the supermarket, going to your local farmers market, and getting involved in community food policy councils are all good ideas. The spirit behind it is not that "we must have the finest tomato" but rather, everyone has the right to good food. That democratic impulse is what needs to propel us to a better food future.

OR: I think that's so important. I know you say in the book that the fastest growing packaged food on the market is organic food. Now Pizza Hut has a new "whole food pizza." Obviously, all of these companies are trying to jump on the bandwagon of whole food and organic food. So it seems like we really need to look at the spirit and the inherent politics of food beyond just the label.

RP: I think too often our guilt rather than our anger takes over and the guilt points us to look at the right kinds of labels. But I don't think we should feel guilty; we should feel angry. That's definitely what I'm trying to get across in the book.

Redlining Redux

Redlining Redux

By Mary Kane

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New mortgage industry policy could charge borrowers higher fees by zip code.

In the middle of the housing boom, when virtually anyone could get credit, redlining wasn't even in the picture. It was an almost forgotten remnant of the past - a piece of lending history that involved lengthy legal battles and community organizing work to change a dark banking industry practice of denying credit based on where people lived or because of their race. But now, in the aftermath of the mortgage market meltdown, the cost and availability of credit for some borrowers is again becoming a concern - raising questions about whether a new kind of redlining is on the horizon.

A recent policy by the mortgage industry that would charge higher fees for loans to borrowers in certain zip codes is behind the concerns. It has quickly led to charges of redlining and violations of fair housing laws. This has reignited old battles over access to credit - fights that housing advocates thought they had settled years earlier.

Those advocates - the veterans of many past housing wars - are responding swiftly, and aggressively, though no one predicted during the housing boom that the lending industry might even consider going down this road again. They've formed alliances with realtor's groups, and they're already challenging moves by lenders to make credit more costly or unavailable to certain groups of borrowers.

Redlining worries reappeared because Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, private mortgage insurers and mortgage firms are assessing loan risks by using a "declining markets designation," meaning borrowers in certain geographic areas must pay more for loans because their communities show a higher rate of foreclosures, short sales and falling home values. The mortgage giants have been using the designation for a few months, as part of their automated underwriting systems. In some cases, a borrower won't know whether he resides in such a market until he applies for the loan.

If the notion of extending or pricing credit based on a borrower's neighborhood sounds suspiciously like the redlining practices of old, in which lenders refused to lend money in poor and minority communities, well, that's because it is another form of redlining, plain and simple,

"It's our position that loan underwriting based on zip codes is a modern form of redlining," said David Berenbaum, executive vice president of the National Community Reinvestment Coalition, which represents fair housing groups. "I don't have a problem with lenders looking closely at the economics of the marketplace to ensure they are able to do business and are able to lend. But they need to do it in a way that doesn't have a discriminatory impact on neighborhoods and on certain groups of borrowers. This is just sort of a knee-jerk reaction to a difficult marketplace."

Gregory Squires, a George Washington University sociology professor who has studied predatory lending and redlining practices warned, "This should have set off alarm bells."

Fannie Mae has met with fair housing groups and is considering making some changes to its methodology, said spokesperson Amy Bonitatibus. She declined further comment about the practice. Berenbaum said Fannie Mae has responded "positively" to his concerns, and he remains optimistic that the policy could be changed.

Regardless of what happens, the fight over the policy shows how contentious things may get over access to credit as the mortgage meltdown shakes out. In many ways, lending to low-income and minority borrowers has come full circle - from redlining practices that denied them access to loans in 1950s and 1960s, to the "democratization of credit" in the 1990s that led to a credit glut and predatory lending, or reverse redlining, as Squires has described it.

Mortgage brokers and lenders began aggressively marketing subprime loans in the same neighborhoods once written off by traditional lenders, selling high-rate mortgages with hidden costs and fees. In neighborhoods long cut off from credit, these transactions, involving readily available mortgage money, often took place door to door, or by word-of-mouth spread through local churches.

Black and Latino borrowers were far more likely to take out high-priced subprime loans than white borrowers, even when their credit scores were similar, research shows.

This kind of lending came well before the housing bubble that began in 2005. That was when the subprime practices and lax underwriting spread to the rest of the mortgage market - especially in California, Florida, Nevada and other areas with hot housing markets, that attracted investors, house-flippers and mostly prime borrowers.

With so many loans gone bad, the subprime market no longer exists. Wall Street investors, accused of turning a blind eye to subprime abuses in their pursuit of profits, are wary of providing capital for new loans. As lending standards tighten, first-time home-buyers and borrowers with modest incomes now sometimes find themselves priced out of the mortgage market, even with the falling values that make some homes more affordable.

Once the credit squeeze eases, however, it's still not clear that the problems with loan pricing will end. The declining markets designation is just one example of how the market may have changed for good as a result of the housing collapse.

Housing advocates fear that all the progress made in four decades of fair housing fights will be set back significantly. The zip code controversy, they say, shows that borrowers with modest incomes could wind up paying higher prices or find mortgages or refinancing out of reach, directly as a result of speculation and lax lending standards among lenders and prime borrowers at the top of the market.

"It's all quite disturbing," said Patrica McCoy, a University of Connecticut law professor who has studied subprime securitization. "We're on this precipice of another transformation in the mortgage market. Every single pillar of the market has to be rethought. We're back to the drawing board and we're not sure how all this is going to play out. It's a fairly precarious time for fair lending."

Adding to the

Some lenders and investors contend that the subprime mess stemmed from the financial industry being forced by government regulations, like the Community Reinvestment Act, to make bad loans in poor neighborhoods. At mortgage banking conferences, academic seminars and in the blogosphere, the notion has taken hold and grown in the same way as an urban myth does.

The CRA was created by Congress in 1977, as a way to combat redlining. It required banks to make sure credit was available in the communities in which they operated. In the 1990s, CRA ratings for banks took on increasing importance, with regulators citing them when institutions applied for mergers or expansions. Regulators could deny a bank acquisition of another financial institution based on a poor CRA rating.

According to the CRA theory, advocacy groups like ACORN complained about redlining and pushed regulators into pressuring banks and lenders to make the bad loans.

Stan Liebowitz, an economics professor at the University of Texas-Dallas, called CRA regulations "the real scandal" of subprime lending in a recent New York Post column:

From the current hand-wringing, you'd think that the banks came up with the idea of looser underwriting standards on their own, with regulators just asleep on the job. In fact, it was the regulators who relaxed these standards - at the behest of community groups and "progressive" political forces.

In the New York Sun, economist Jerry Bowyer contended that "the fault lies with the small army of hard-left political hustlers who spent the early 1990s pushing risky mortgages on home lenders."

Housing advocates find the argument absurd. Some believe lenders are just using the CRA criticism to fend off future lending requirements and to avert blame for the subprime mess.

"This is the big lie," Berenbaum said. "There's been absolutely no pressure from advocacy organizations to expand home ownership by underwriting risky loans. That is just so far from the truth."

Contentious arguments over fair lending have a long history, going back to when the federal Fair Housing Act was passed outlawing discrimination in housing, one week after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968. But the law didn't end battles over the denial of credit.

In the late 1980s, The Atlanta Journal and Constitution published "The Color of Money," documenting racial discrimination in mortgage lending. In 1994, Chevy Chase Federal Savings Bank reached a settlement with the Justice Dept. over allegations that it failed to make loans in black neighborhoods in Washington and suburban Prince Georges County, Md.

As subprime loan brokers began flooding poor neighborhoods in the 1990s, consumer advocates and legal aid lawyers complained, but the lending continued. In the mid-1990s, Associates First Capital Corp. earned $19,000 in fees by flipping an initial $20 loan 10 times over four years, to an illiterate borrower who signed his loan papers with an X. Citigroup purchased the Associates in 2000 and continued to make subprime loans.

In the last few years, fair housing groups have brought suits over lenders refusing to make loans for less than $100,000, or for denying "rowhouse loans" in Baltimore.

As the market restructures, industry leaders Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac will be under great financial pressure to provide mortgage money and still cover their costs, McCoy said. Asking for higher down payments in declining markets and careful use of accurate appraisals can address those concerns adequately, she believes. No one wants lenders to go back to making risky loans, but they also don't have to add on fees out of fear. "I'm not crazy about targeting zip codes and jacking up interest rates," she said.

Lenders and housing advocates should work toward access to sustainable credit - loans that a borrower can handle. It means that credit shouldn't always be available for everyone. For some people, it won't be the rig

To Squires, changes in the market may also open the door to thinking about ways to support rental housing, or alternative forms of housing like cooperatives.

The one thing certain about where the mortgage market is heading is that fights over lending tactics will continue. "These are constantly contentious political issues," Squires said. "As Saul Alinsky used to say, there are no permanent victories."

Housing advocates, however, are in a different position than they were at the beginning of the credit fights in the late 1960s, Berenbaum said. They are far more organized, sophisticated and able to respond quickly. They now work hand in hand with some in the lending industry.

They don't have much choice. As the mortgage industry enters its next phase, so will the battles over who gets access to credit and mortgage loans - and how much it will cost them. To the players in this fight, zip code designations are a reminder of the past, and a sign of what is soon to come.

Disqualified General Won't Quit Tribunals

Disqualified General Won't Quit Tribunals

By Michael Melia

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San Juan, Puerto Rico - A Pentagon official said Wednesday that he will not resign as legal advisor to war-crimes tribunals at Guantánamo, despite his removal from the trial of Osama bin Laden's driver because of a lack of impartiality.

But Air Force Brig. Gen. Thomas Hartmann left open the possibility that he could step aside if questions about his neutrality bog down other cases.

"I am the legal advisor today. We take it one day at a time," Hartmann told The Associated Press.

Last week, a military judge barred Hartmann from any role in the case against Salim Hamdan - Osama bin Laden's driver, possibly for case to go to trial - because he aligned himself too closely with prosecutors. Hartmann said he will abide by the judge's ruling and noted that he did not testify in the Hamdan case.

Defense lawyers have signaled they will assert improper influence in other cases as well, building on the Hamdan ruling. That leaves open the possibility of more setbacks for the on-again, off-again tribunals.

Nonetheless, Hartmann said he remains focused on moving toward trials, pointing to formal charges announced this week against confessed Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed and four alleged co-conspirators.

His boss signed the charges Friday. The Pentagon made them public Tuesday. The five men face a June 5 arraignment at Guantánamo.

"The focus should not go away from the fact that these five cases are going ahead jointly," he said.

Hartmann supervises the chief prosecutor at Guantanamo and has extensive powers over the tribunal system in his role as adviser.

At an April 28 hearing at Guantánamo, former chief prosecutor Air Force Col. Morris Davis testified that Hartmann meddled in his office and pushed for certain cases to be pursued over others based on political considerations.

Davis resigned as prosecutor in October, but remains an Air Force colonel.

But Hartmann said in the interview that he operated within his mandate by ensuring that prosecutors were properly trained and motivated in an office "that was not functioning at its peak."

More Spin Uncovered

More Spin Uncovered

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Last month, in a major exposé, the New York Times reported that the Pentagon had created a domestic propaganda program that made use of more than 75 "military analysts" to disseminate favorable coverage of the Bush administration's war efforts. The program included, for example, private briefings with former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld and other top officials, commercial airfare, and the distribution of favorable "talking points" to analysts prior to media appearances. Virtually all of the major networks were involved in the program, including ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, CNBC, and NPR. The retired military officials serving as media analysts often had contracting ties with the government but pushed the Pentagon line on air without revealing the conflict of interest. Earlier this month, the Pentagon released a major document collection in response to the Times's article, shining even more light on the magnitude of the operation. In a recent letter, Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) called on the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to conduct a "full investigation of this program and report its findings." Sen. Russ Feingold (D-WI) also wrote to the GAO, observing: "Allegedly, the Pentagon discouraged the analysts from publicly describing the nature of their relationship with the Pentagon. This clearly violates the spirit, if not the letter, of the law."

An examination of the Pentagon's internal conversations confirms that the Pentagon created "a kind of media Trojan horse -- an instrument intended to shape terrorism coverage," as the Times put it. A July 6, 2006 e-mail from Pentagon official Jeffrey Gordon circulated "thoughtful" words by right-wing talkers Bill O'Reilly and Michelle Malkin on Guantanamo Bay. In the Malkin column, she decried the "unseriousness and hypocrisy of the terrorist-abetting left" on Guantanamo. O'Reilly said there were only "minor cases of abuse" at the prison. A "talking points" document from the summer of 2003 pushed the infamous words "dead-enders" and "bitter-enders" to refer to Iraqis who attacked American troops. A later memo reiterated that "the dead-enders are not driving us out of anywhere." Other e-mails reveal a deliberate attempt by the Pentagon to cover up its heavy hand. In a Feb.16, 2006 exchange, Pentagon media staffers discussed coordinating with the Heritage Foundation for a speaker on Guantanamo. An anonymous staffer suggested retired Army Sergeant Major Steve Short because "he seems to be on message and very articulate." "Important to remember that heritage can invite anyone to present and that we don't really have an opinion on anyone," responded Allison Barber of the Pentagon. "[G]asp. are you telling me to tell a lie???? surely not ;)," the anonymous staffer responded.

WHITE HOUSE INVOLVEMENT?: Last month, reporter Eric Brewer asked White House Press Secretary Dana Perino about whether the White House was involved in the military analyst program. Perino responded, "I just said, no." But the Pentagon's document collection raises questions about the White House's role. A March 16, 2006 e-mail from Pentagon official Dallas Lawrence referenced "a closed call opened only to our retired military get them on message heading into the weekend on Iraqi troop strength, advances, etc." A follow-up from an anonymous e-mailer said he or she was "hoping to have Hadley brief these guys next week," referring to National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley. Responding to this e-mail, Lawrence added, "Id love to see if we ocould [could] get them in with potus [President Bush] as well. (I think that was submitted to karl and company...last week)." A May 23, 2006 from Lawrence also references "karl." As Salon's Glenn Greenwald noted, the "karl" references strongly suggest that at least former Bush political adviser Karl Rove was involved.

MEDIA STILL QUIET: The media has been curiously silent on the Times's exposé, despite clear involvement in the program. "Did we drink the government kool-aid? -- of course," said CNN military analyst Don Sheppard in a June 23, 2006 e-mail about his government-sponsored trip to Guantanamo. In the week after the story broke, the Project for Excellence in Journalism found that out of roughly 1,300 news stories, "only two touched on the Pentagon analysts scoop," both airing on PBS. "I can only conclude that the networks are staying away...because they are embarrassed about what some of their military analysts did or don't want to give the controversy more prominence," said Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post. As Media Matters reported, the military analysts cited in the Times article have been quoted more than 4,500 times by a range of news outlets since Jan. 1, 2002. On April 24, Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) wrote letters to the heads of the major networks on the "specifics about each outlet's policies surrounding the hiring and vetting of military analysts reporting on the Iraq War." As of May 8, only ABC and CNN responded.

In Speech Before Israeli Parliament, Bush Compares Democrats To Nazi-Appeasers

In Speech Before Israeli Parliament, Bush Compares Democrats To Nazi-Appeaser

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While delivering an address before the Israeli parliament commemorating the 60th anniversary of Israel, President Bush said that Sen. Barack Obama and Democrats favor a policy of appeasement toward terrorists. CNN reports that Bush was comparing Obama to “other U.S. leaders back in the run-up to World War II who appeased the Nazis.”

In his speech, Bush said, “As Nazi tanks crossed into Poland in 1939, an American senator declared: ‘Lord, if only I could have talked to Hitler, all of this might have been avoided.’ We have an obligation to call this what it is – the false comfort of appeasement, which has been repeatedly discredited by history.”

CNN’s Ed Henry reported that, while “President Bush never uttered the words Barack Obama,” his White House sources tell him it was clearly intended to be a partisan shot:

White House aides are acknowledging that this was a reference to the fact that Sen. Obama and other Democrats have publicly said that it would be ok for the U.S. President to meet with leaders like the Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad.

President Bush may want to take up his head-in-the-sand views with his own Defense Secretary. Just yesterday, Robert Gates said the U.S. needs to “sit down and talk with” Iran:

“We need to figure out a way to develop some leverage…and then sit down and talk with them,” Gates said. “If there is going to be a discussion, then they need something, too. We can’t go to a discussion and be completely the demander, with them not feeling that they need anything from us.”

Bush’s cross-continental partisan assault upends the traditional notion that U.S. politics should stop “at the water’s edge.” Reacting to Bush’s comments, Obama issued this statement: “It is sad that President Bush would use a speech to the Knesset on the 60th anniversary of Israel’s independence to launch a false political attack. It is time to turn the page on eight years of policies that have strengthened Iran and failed to secure America or our ally Israel.”