Friday, December 19, 2008

Cheney Throws Down Gauntlet, Defies Prosecution for War Crimes

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Dick Cheney has publicly confessed to ordering war crimes. Asked about waterboarding in an ABC News interview, Cheney replied, "I was aware of the program, certainly, and involved in helping get the process cleared." He also said he still believes waterboarding was an appropriate method to use on terrorism suspects. CIA Director Michael Hayden confirmed that the agency waterboarded three al-Qaeda suspects in 2002 and 2003.

US courts have long held that waterboarding, where water is poured into someone's nose and mouth until he nearly drowns, constitutes torture. Our federal War Crimes Act defines torture as a war crime punishable by life imprisonment or even the death penalty if the victim dies.

Under the doctrine of command responsibility, enshrined in US law, commanders all the way up the chain of command to the commander in chief can be held liable for war crimes if they knew or should have known their subordinates would commit them and they did nothing to stop or prevent it.

Why is Cheney so sanguine about admitting he is a war criminal? Because he's confident that either President Bush will preemptively pardon him or President-elect Obama won't prosecute him.

Both of those courses of action would be illegal.

First, a president cannot immunize himself or his subordinates for committing crimes that he himself authorized. On February 7, 2002, Bush signed a memo erroneously stating that the Geneva Conventions, which require humane treatment, did not apply to al-Qaeda and the Taliban. But the Supreme Court made clear that Geneva protects all prisoners. Bush also admitted that he approved of high-level meetings where waterboarding was authorized by Cheney, Condoleezza Rice, John Ashcroft, Colin Powell, Donald Rumsfeld and George Tenet.

Attorney General Michael Mukasey says there's no need for Bush to issue blanket pardons since there is no evidence that anyone developed the policies for any reason other than to protect the security in the country and in the belief that he or she was doing something lawful. But noble motives are not defenses to the commission of crimes.

Lt. Gen. Antonio Taguba, who investigated the Abu Ghraib scandal, said, "There is no longer any doubt as to whether the current administration has committed war crimes. The only question that remains to be answered is whether those who ordered the use of torture will be held to account."

Second, the Constitution will require President Obama to faithfully execute the laws. That means prosecuting lawbreakers. When the United States ratified the Geneva Conventions and the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, thereby making them part of US law, we agreed to prosecute those who violate their prohibitions.

The bipartisan December 11 report of the Senate Armed Services Committee concluded that "senior officials in the United States government solicited information on how to use aggressive techniques, redefined the law to create the appearance of their legality, and authorized their use against detainees."

Lawyers who wrote the memos that purported to immunize government officials from war crimes liability include John Yoo, Jay Bybee, William Haynes, David Addington and Alberto Gonzales. There is precedent in our law for holding lawyers criminally liable for participating in a common plan to violate the law.

Committee Chairman Senator Carl Levin told Rachel Maddow that you couldn't legalize what's illegal by having a lawyer write an opinion.

The committee's report also found that Rumsfeld's authorization of aggressive interrogation techniques for use at Guantanamo Bay was a direct cause of detainee abuse there. Those techniques migrated to Iraq and Afghanistan, where prisoners in US custody were also tortured.

Pardons or failures to prosecute the officials who planned and authorized torture would also be immoral. Former Navy General Counsel Alberto Mora testified to the Senate Armed Services Committee in June 2008 that "there are serving US flag-rank officers who maintain that the first and second identifiable causes of US combat deaths in Iraq - as judged by their effectiveness in recruiting insurgent fighters into combat - are, respectively the symbols of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo."

During the campaign, Obama promised to promptly review actions by Bush officials to determine whether "genuine crimes" were committed. He said, "If crimes have been committed, they should be investigated," but "I would not want my first term consumed by what was perceived on the part of the Republicans as a partisan witch hunt, because I think we've got too many problems we've got to solve."

Two Obama advisers told the Associated Press that "there's little - if any - chance that the incoming president's Justice Department will go after anyone involved in authorizing or carrying out interrogations that provoked worldwide outrage."

When he takes office, Obama should order his new attorney general to appoint an independent prosecutor to investigate and prosecute those who ordered and authorized the commission of war crimes.

Obama has promised to bring real change. This must be legal and moral change, where those at the highest levels of government are held accountable for their heinous crimes. The new president should move swiftly to set an important precedent that you can't authorize war crimes and get away with it.

Obama picks Wall Street insider to head main regulatory agency

Obama picks Wall Street insider to head main regulatory agency

By Patrick Martin

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In a further demonstration of his subservience to Wall Street interests, President-elect Barack Obama announced the appointment of a longtime representative of the investment banks and brokerage houses as chairwoman of the Securities and Exchange Commission.

At the press conference Thursday, Obama declared that his selection of Mary Schapiro to head the main regulatory agency for the US financial securities industry was an appropriate response to the deepening Wall Street collapse and such scandals as the $50 billion fraud perpetrated by money manager Bernard Madoff.

Obama also appointed a former Clinton administration official, Gary Gensler, to head the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC), which oversees trading in one of the main arenas of financial speculation, including oil, gold and other precious metals, copper and agricultural products. Gensler is yet another of the former executives at Goldman Sachs investment bank who monopolize most top financial and regulatory positions in Washington.

Obama presented the appointment of Schapiro as a demonstration that his administration would “crack down on the culture of greed and scheming” that led to the current financial collapse and a $700 billion bailout of the banking system.

The Madoff scandal “has reminded us yet again of how badly reform is needed,” he said. “There needs to be a shift in ethics on Wall Street.” Regulators and congressional committees “have been asleep at the switch,” Obama added. He did not explain how appointing a highly paid dispenser of sedatives about the value of self-regulation would solve this problem.

Mary Schapiro has spent the last 12 years as an advocate of Wall Street policing itself, most recently as head of the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA), which is not a federal agency but a private entity created by the financial industry to forestall actual government regulation.

Schapiro was first appointed as a member of the SEC by Republican Ronald Reagan in 1988, continuing in that position throughout the first Bush administration and for two years under Democrat Bill Clinton. In 1994, Clinton promoted her, naming her as the chairwoman of the CFTC.

In 1996, Schapiro left the government to work for the National Association of Securities Dealers. After the NASD merged with the internal regulatory authority of the New York Stock Exchange, creating FINRA, she headed the combined organization. She is a trusted figure in corporate America, serving on the board of directors of Duke Energy and Kraft Foods.

Media coverage of the appointment included obligatory quotes and sound-bites from leading Democrats and stock exchange figures hailing Schapiro as an advocate of tough regulation and as someone who would “reinvigorate the SEC.”

New York Senator Charles Schumer, a frequent point man for Wall Street interests, described her as “the kind of strong and experienced regulator that we very much need in these times. I believe her nomination could be approved quickly and without controversy in the Senate.”

But according to one press account, the number of cases handled by FINRA actually declined after Schapiro took charge in 2006. And in 2001, Schapiro appointed Mark Madoff, son of Bernard Madoff and a top officer in his firm, to the board of the National Adjudicatory Council, an internal appeal committee for FINRA.

There is little doubt where Schapiro’s interests lie. She made $2.1 million in 2007, and her total income from the securities industry over the past 12 years has likely topped $20 million. That sum is more than 100 times the $158,500 yearly salary she will draw as head of the SEC.

But Schapiro can look forward to recouping the lost income from her hardship duty at the SEC when she returns to Wall Street a few years hence.

Dollar plunges after record rate cut by US Federal Reserve

Dollar plunges after record rate cut by US Federal Reserve

By Barry Grey

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In the two days since the Federal Reserve Board cut its benchmark interest rate to a record low range of 0 to 0.25 percent and announced that it will supply an unlimited amount of liquidity to near-frozen credit markets, the US dollar has fallen sharply on world currency markets. The panic sell-off of dollars is an expression of falling confidence in the solvency of US financial institutions and the credit-worthiness of the American currency, and mounting fears that the recession that began with the collapse of the US housing and credit markets could develop into a full-blown depression.

The Fed’s unprecedented move, widely described by commentators as a “shock and awe” action, has evoked both relief in financial circles that the US government is prepared to take extraordinary measures and fears that it represents a desperate and reckless move with potentially disastrous implications for the US and world economy.

In essence, the Fed tacitly acknowledged Tuesday that the US economy is breaking down under the weight of trillions of dollars of bad debt and could enter into a deflationary spiral similar to that which took place in the Great Depression of the 1930s. It made clear that it will print an unlimited volume of dollars to buy mortgage-backed securities, credit card debt, car loans and even long-term bonds issued by the US Treasury in an attempt to get banks to begin lending once again to businesses and consumers.

This is the financial equivalent of emergency triage on an expiring patient. It means a massive increase in US indebtedness and a further dilution in the value of the US dollar, a recipe down the road for an explosive growth of inflation, a further decline in the world economic position of American capitalism, and the further impoverishment of large sections of the US population. It takes place under conditions where US private sector gross debt has already soared from 118 percent of gross domestic product in 1978 to 290 percent this year.

The fact that the Fed, whose core legal mandate is to maintain the stability and value of the dollar, is nevertheless prepared to take such action is an indication of growing alarm over the depth of the economic crisis and the rapidity with which it is developing.

On Wednesday, the euro jumped as much as 4 cents against the dollar, the biggest single-day move since the euro was launched in 1999. The dollar plunged against the yen to its lowest level in 13 years. The dollar also fell in relation to the British pound and the Swiss franc.

In the space of two hours Wednesday, the euro soared from $1.4058 to an 11-week high of $1.4440. The dollar gained back some ground against the euro on Thursday, closing at $1.4180, after the European Central Bank moved to stem the rush from dollars into euros by cutting its interest rate on deposits from 2.0 percent to 1.5 percent. However, the dollar continued to fall against the yen. Gold futures surged.

Only a month ago the euro was at $1.24. In just the two days since the Fed’s announcement, it has jumped nearly 7.5 percent.

US stock markets, which had a sharp rally Tuesday after the Fed announcement, fell back on Wednesday and Thursday. The Dow Jones Industrial Average fell 99 points Wednesday and 219 points Thursday, giving up most of its gains from Tuesday. The retreat reflected mounting concerns over the implications of the Fed’s actions as well as new economic data indicating a continuing surge in joblessness and a further contraction in the economy in the coming months.

Financial commentators in both the US and abroad expressed concern over the deeper significance of the Fed’s moves. The Financial Times published a lead editorial Thursday entitled “The Fed Rips Up the Rule Book,” which began, “We are flying blind.”

It continued, “The Federal Reserve’s announcement this week that it was abandoning conventional rate measures in favour of directly propping up lending represents a bold experiment in policy. Ben Bernanke, Fed chairman, is taking a gamble, but he had little choice…

“The US real economy is crumbling and continues to deteriorate, the global downturn has been exacerbated by a crippled domestic financial system. Credit is not flowing to consumers and businesses because risk spreads are too high…. Restoring credit may be the Fed’s primary aim, but its measures are also an insurance policy against falling into a deflationary spiral… As growth returns, inflation might come back with a vengeance.”

A report by Credit Suisse Group said the Fed’s “easing and very low US rates will ultimately undermine the dollar across the board.”

C. Fred Bergsten, director of the Peterson Institute for International Economics, wrote, “The risk is that the deceleration of the dollar could cascade and push interest rates up as the rest of the world demands a higher return on US investments.”

Nouriel Roubini of the Stern School of Business at New York University summed up the Fed’s actions as follows: “Traditionally, central banks have been the lenders of last resort, but now they are becoming the lenders of first and only resort. As banks curtail lending to each other, to other financial institutions and to the corporate sector, central banks are becoming the only lenders around.

“Likewise, with household consumption and business investment collapsing, governments will soon become the spenders of first and only resort, stimulating demand and rescuing banks, firms and households. The long-term consequences of the resulting surge in fiscal deficits are serious.”

The backdrop to the Fed’s action is a raft of economic data showing an accelerating economic decline. Earlier this week there were reports showing a continuing fall in industrial production, a record drop in homebuilding and a record decline in consumer prices. These deflationary indicators were supplemented by a fall in crude oil prices below $36, despite a record production cutback announced Wednesday by OPEC, another massive increase, 554,000, in first-time jobless benefit applications for the week ended December 13, and the Conference Board’s report that its leading economic indicators gauge of future economic performance posted its biggest annual fall since 1991 in November, dropping 3.7 percent from the year before.

JPMorgan Chase analysts now estimate that the global economy will contract at a 3.7 percent annual rate this quarter and a 2.3 percent pace in the first quarter of 2009, marking the worst six-month period for the world economy since World War II.

Every day brings multiple announcements of job cuts across all branches of the private sector US economy. Such announcements over the past few days include 1,000 jobs at the insurance company Aetna, 2,500 jobs at hard-drive manufacturer Western Digital, 800 jobs at Caterpillar’s Mossville, Illinois engine plant, and hundreds of layoffs at Ford’s Flat Rock, Michigan plant, American Apparel in Los Angeles, Cooper Tire and Newell Rubbermaid.

The Fed’s massive injection of liquidity into the financial markets does not address the underlying causes of this downward spiral. The crisis is not one of liquidity, but of solvency. Decades of rampant speculation and outright fraud based on cheap credit and an expansion of debt, facilitated by government deregulation of the banks and financial markets, have produced a vast edifice of paper values that is now collapsing.

There is a general erosion of confidence in the credit markets. The basic problem is not the cost of credit, but the fact that banks and other financial institutions refuse to lend to one another, to other businesses and to consumers because they have no confidence in the financial viability of prospective clients.

At the heart of this crisis is the internal decay of American capitalism, marked above all by the dismantling of large sections of its manufacturing base, and the decline in its global economic position. A longstanding crisis of profitability in industry has led to a separation of wealth accumulation by the financial elite from the productive process and a massive growth of financial parasitism. There is no genuine solution to this crisis within the framework of the capitalist market system—only ever more brutal attacks on the jobs and living standards of the working class, combined with a growth of militarism and war.

Credit-Card Users Feel Pain as U.S. Banks Reap Gain

Credit-Card Users Feel Pain as U.S. Banks Reap Gain

By Elizabeth Hester and Ari Levy

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Credit-card companies, facing an increase in defaults and a decline in consumer spending, are raising some rates, adding fees and cutting credit lines as the Federal Reserve makes the most sweeping changes to the industry in 30 years.

The provisions, approved by the Fed today and effective July 1, 2010, may curtail lenders’ ability to raise interest rates on current balances, require they apply payments to charges with higher interest rates first and extend the time customers have to pay bills before incurring late fees. The Office of Thrift Supervision, which regulates savings and loans, and the National Credit Union Administration approved the rules today.

The new rules come on the heels of a $700 billion federal bailout of the financial system, including $125 billion invested in the nine largest U.S. banks. Recent moves by JPMorgan Chase & Co., Citigroup Inc. and other firms to add charges and decrease the amount of money cardholders can borrow at the same time they’re taking taxpayer dollars have angered some customers.

“People are totally confused,” said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Corp.’s “The taxpayer is essentially a big owner in JPMorgan, Bank of America and Citigroup, and these are the folks who make credit-card loans. Many are asking, ‘So why is it that my credit-card loan got pulled? Why am I being charged a higher rate?’”

A decline in spending by consumers and a rising number of defaults are leading Citigroup, JPMorgan and other lenders to increase fees and interest rates for some customers and cut the amount others can borrow. The changes are intended to reduce risk and raise revenue.

New Charges

Among the new charges are those for transferring balances from one credit card to another. Many lenders cap the amount they charge for this service. Now some are doing away with that limit and charging a percentage of the total, said Bill Hardekopf, chief executive officer of, a Web site for consumers. Some banks are increasing fees for making purchases abroad.

Financial institutions also are expected to slash $2 trillion in credit-card lines in the next 18 months, Oppenheimer & Co. analyst Meredith Whitney wrote in a Nov. 30 report.

The changes are angering customers like Craig Marx, who has had a Chase card for 10 years and recently saw his minimum monthly payments climb to 5 percent from 2 percent and a monthly $10 service charge added to his bill. The bank also raised his rate from 3.99 percent above prime to 7.99 percent for the next two years, after which time it would become variable.

Angry Customer

“I’m incensed,” the 52-year-old Palo Alto, California, resident said. “I feel like they’re making a calculated decision to make me go away as a customer.”

Stephanie Jacobson, a spokeswoman for JPMorgan’s card unit, declined to comment on a specific customer. In general, the situation Marx described involved a choice of either accepting the rate change or the service fee, she said.

JPMorgan, which received a $25 billion capital infusion from the Treasury Department in October, says its credit-card lending increased by 3 percent in the third quarter from the previous quarter. CEO Jamie Dimon, 52, said in a Dec. 11 interview on CNBC that the company was using government money to “do exactly what they want us to do, make more loans, help the economy grow.”

Citigroup spokesman Samuel Wang said in an e-mailed statement that the bank is adjusting rates for customers who haven’t been repriced in at least two years and that cardholders can choose not to accept the changes. If they do so, the bank can take the card away when it expires.

Fed Rules

The Fed rules, proposed in May, were offered in response to criticism from Congress that the central bank was neglecting its authority to prevent abusive lending and strengthen consumer protections. It mirrors congressional efforts to curb practices that lawmakers say are harming consumers. Plans have been introduced by Senate Banking CommitteeChristopher Dodd and Representative Carolyn Maloney, a New York Democrat. Chairman

Rules curtailing some of the lending practices could hurt bank performance. Although many banks have other sources of revenue, a decrease in credit-card income “would seriously weaken a bank’s ability to absorb other shocks,” Gregory Larkin, senior banking analyst at Innovest Strategic Value Advisors in New York, wrote in an October 2008 research report.

“Fees are a very, very important part of how issuers make money,” Hardekopf of said. “Issuers make over a third of their money on the fees that are charged.”

Innovest said that credit-card charge-offs could hit $18.6 billion in the first quarter of next year, and $96 billion by the end of the year, forcing banks to search for other ways to generate revenue from customers.

Unpaid Balances

Delinquencies tend to follow unemployment, which were 554,000 first-time claims in the week ended Dec. 13, near a 26- year high reached the week before. Net worth for U.S. households and nonprofit groups fell $2.81 trillion from July to September, the most since tracking began in 1952. That means consumers are more strapped for cash, contributing to a slowdown in spending, which accounts for two-thirds of the economy.

“Banks are getting hit on several fronts right now from the losses in their investments, losses around mortgages and even generally from a consumer-confidence perspective,” said Eva Weber, an analyst at Aite Group LLC in San Antonio who follows bank regulatory and compliance issues. “Banks will need to reconfigure their business strategies and their risk-management strategies to account for the losses that they’re going to incur from the rules on interest rates and fees.”

American Express

Cardholders had $962 billion in unpaid balances on general purpose and proprietary cards at the end of 2007, an 8.6 percent increase from the previous year, according to the Nilson Report, an industry newsletter. That figure is expected to climb to $1.2 trillion by the end of 2012, or $6,373 per cardholder.

“Credit card rules, which we all understand address consumer concerns, the Fed recognizes that it will decrease the amount of credit available,” Edward Yingling, chief executive officer of the American Bankers Association, said in an interview yesterday.

Three analysts in the past week have recommended selling shares of American Express Co., while only four of 24 analysts have “buy” ratings, according to Bloomberg data. Friedman Billings Ramsey & Co. analyst Scott Valentin lowered his share- price target on Dec. 16 and reiterated his “underperform” rating, in part, he wrote, because of a “regulatory burden from increased oversight.”

Transaction Fees

American Express spokeswoman Joanna Lambert said that while the new rules will have an impact on the company’s business, only 20 percent of its sales come from interest on loans. Most of its revenue is generated by fees from transactions between consumers and merchants and from commissions, which aren’t being addressed by the Fed.

“We are in a better position than many of our competitors because we are less reliant on the credit end of our business,” Lambert said in an interview.

Some say the Fed rules will be good for credit-card companies as well as consumers.

“It will force them to be smart about who they make credit available to,” said Chris Armbruster, an analyst at Al Frank Asset Management in Laguna Beach, California, which oversees about $550 million, including shares of JPMorgan, Citigroup, America Express, Capital One Financial Corp. and Advanta Corp. “It should, over time, create fewer nonperforming assets, fewer charge-offs.”

Federal spending soars 25% before bailout

Federal spending soars 25% before bailout

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The government's spending commitments exploded by 25 percent in 2008, putting taxpayers more than $1 trillion in the hole even before the astronomical costs of the economic bailout were taken into account, according to an annual report released Monday by the White House.

A joint report by the White House budget office and Treasury Department said that much of the increase in obligations came from an unexpected jump in veterans benefits liabilities, while revenues remained mostly flat because of the recession that began a year ago.

Jim Nussle, director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, called the report "sobering."

The report showed that U.S. debts and liabilities are close to passing the value of the U.S. population's net worth, said Peter G. Peterson Foundation, a nonprofit organization devoted to promoting fiscal responsibility.

"The value of this report is that it shows the long-term cost of expensive commitments we are making today," said Brian Riedl, a budget analyst for the Heritage Foundation.

"The government makes a lot of commitments that cost a little in the short run but a lot in the long run, and this document is one of the only government documents that show the long-term cost of the long-term commitments," Mr. Riedl said. "What it shows is that future trends are completely unsustainable because the government has promised more benefits than the taxpayers can pay for."

The costs of the $700 billion economic rescue package were not included in the report because it covered only the budget year that ended Sept. 30. The bailout was passed and signed into law in early October.

However, the Treasury did borrow $300 billion from taxpayers in fiscal 2008 to "to increase cash balances at the [Federal Reserve] so that the Fed can assist with market stabilization efforts," the report said.

Peterson Foundation President David Walker, the nation's former comptroller, called for President-elect Barack Obama to make "tough choices ... to strengthen the government's financial condition once the economy begins growing again."

The report said current revenues are sufficient to pay only half of what the government will owe in 30 years and that the government's debt has put the country on a path to "create financial sector instability, increasing risk and uncertainty across many sectors of the U.S. economy."

The $1 trillion "net operating cost" in the report - up from $275.5 billion in fiscal 2007 - is different from the federal budget deficit because it uses proper accounting standards to include future spending obligations. The federal budget measures only "dollars in and dollars out" in a given year, Mr. Riedl said.

The deficit in fiscal 2008, which ended Sept. 30, was $454.8 billion, up from $162.8 billion in fiscal 2007. The deficit itself is expected to be about $1 trillion in fiscal 2009.

The increases in spending have prompted many conservatives to criticize President Bush, who ran in 2000 on reducing the size of government and introducing spending restraint. Under Mr. Bush, the size of government has grown by more than under any other U.S. president since President Roosevelt implemented the New Deal and fought World War II.

The Bush administration said much of the increase over time has been because of its spending on defense and homeland security in response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

But the explosion in total costs in fiscal 2008 was in large part because of an unforeseen spike in the future costs of veterans benefits, which grew by $339 billion.

Federal revenues grew by barely 1 percent, as "the developing recession precipitated a significant decline in corporate tax revenues," which fell from $375 billion in fiscal 2007 to $307.5 billion.

The Peter G. Peterson Foundation said the report showed "an estimated $56.4 trillion in debts, liabilities and promises for Medicare and Social Security versus a total household net worth of $56.5 trillion."

Cheney faces 'torture' criticism

Cheney faces 'torture' criticism

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A senior US Democrat has condemned Dick Cheney, the US vice-president, for his defence of waterboarding "terror" suspects, saying the abuse amounted to torture and warning there could be prosecutions over the issue under a new administration.

Cheney on Monday told ABC News he was aware and had supported the use of waterboarding on detainees at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.

But Carl Levin, senator for Michigan and chairman of senate armed services committee, told NBC when asked if Cheney had essentially admitted condoning torture that "as far as I'm concerned that's exactly what he admitted".

"He'll say that he doesn't admit supporting torture but facts are that [these are] the policies which were approved," he said.

"I think every authority on waterboarding and torture will say that waterboarding constitutes torture."

Waterboarding is a controversial interrogation technique used to make a detainee feel as if he or she is drowning.

Last week, a report by the US senate armed services committee involving both Republicans and Democrats said the abuse of detainees in Guantanamo Bay "cannot simply be attributed to the actions of 'a few bad apples' acting on their own".

'Clearing process'

Cheney admitted on Monday he was aware that waterboarding was used on Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged planner of the September 11, 2001, attacks on the US.

Asked if he thought, in hindsight, any of the tactics went too far, Cheney said: "I don't."

"I was aware of the programme, certainly, and involved in helping get the process cleared, as the agency, in effect, came in and wanted to know what they could and couldn't do," he said.

"And they talked to me, as well as others, to explain what they wanted to do. And I supported it."

Legal assertions

However, Levin also said he strongly disagreed with Cheney's assertions that the justice department had provided legal justification for waterboarding.

"You can't suddenly change something that's illegal into something that is legal by having a lawyer write an opinion saying it's legal," Levin said later.

"It is not a defence and I was astounded, frankly, when I heard the vice-president of the US sort of just blandly and blithely saying he felt it was an appropriate thing and, yes, he was involved in discussions about it."

Levin also said he hoped that an independent commission appointed by the administration of Barack Obama, the US president-elect, would examine the possible role of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and instigate investigations which "which may or may not lead to indictments or civil action".

More than 200 detainees remain at the Guantanamo Bay prison camp in Cuba, which has been widely condemned by international human rights groups.

Dick Cheney's Fantasy World

Dick Cheney's Fantasy World

Despite the facts, the vice-president still insists that Saddam Hussein could have produced weapons of mass destruction

By Scott Ritter

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In yet another attempt at revisionist history by the outgoing Bush administration, vice-president Dick Cheney, in an exclusive interview with ABC News, took exception to former presidential adviser Karl Rove's contention that the US would not have gone to war if available intelligence before the invasion had shown Iraq not to possess weapons of mass destruction. Cheney noted that the only thing the US got wrong on Iraq was that there were no stockpiles of WMD at the time of the 2003 invasion. "What they found was that Saddam Hussein still had the capability to produce weapons of mass destruction. He had the technology, he had the people, he had the basic feed stock."

The vice-president should re-check both his history and his facts. Just prior to President Bush's decision to invade Iraq, the UN had teams of weapons inspectors operating inside Iraq, blanketing the totality of Iraq's industrial infrastructure. They found no evidence of either retained WMD, or efforts undertaken by Iraq to reconstitute a WMD manufacturing capability. Whatever dual-use industrial capability that did exist (so-called because the industrial processes involved to produce legitimate civilian or military items could, if modified, be used to produce materials associated with WMD) had been so degraded as a result of economic sanctions and war that any meaningful WMD production was almost moot. To say that Saddam had the capability or the technology to produce WMD at the time of the US invasion is a gross misrepresentation of the facts.

While one can make the argument that Saddam had the people, insofar as the scientists who had participated in the WMD programmes of the 1980s were still in Iraq and, in many cases, still employed by the government, these human resources were irrelevant without either the industrial infrastructure, the economic base or the political direction needed to produce WMD. None of these existed. The argument Cheney makes on feed stock is even more ludicrous. Precursor chemicals used in the lawful manufacture of chemical pesticides were present in Iraq at the time of the invasion, but these were unable to be used in manufacturing the sarin, tabun or VX chemical nerve agents the Bush administration claimed existed inside Iraq in stockpile quantities prior to the invasion.

The same can be said about Iraqi biological capability. The discovery after the invasion of a few vials of botulinum toxin suitable for botox treatments, but unusable for any weapons purposes, does not constitute a feed stock. And as for the smoking gun that the Bush administration did not want to come in the form of a mushroom cloud, there was no nuclear weapons programme in Iraq in any way shape or form, nor had there been since it was dismantled in 1991. Cheney's dissimilation of the facts surrounding Iraqi WMD serves as a distraction from the reality of the situation. Not only did the entire Bush administration know that the intelligence data about Iraqi WMD was fundamentally flawed prior to the invasion, but they also knew that it did not matter in the end. Bush was going to invade Iraq no matter what the facts proved.

Cheney defended the invasion and subsequent removal of Saddam from power by noting that "this was a bad actor and the country's better off, the world's better off with Saddam gone". This is the argument of the intellectually feeble. It would be very difficult for anyone to articulate that life today is better in Baghdad, Mosul, Basra or any non-Kurdish city than it was under Saddam. Ask the average Iraqi adult female if she is better off today than she was under Saddam, and outside of a few select areas in Kurdistan, the answer will be a resounding "no".

The occupation of Iraq by the United States is far more brutal, bloody and destructive than anything Saddam ever did during his reign. When one examines the record of the US military in Iraq in terms of private homes brutally invaded, families torn apart and civilians falsely imprisoned (the prison population in Iraq during the US occupation dwarfs that of Saddam's regime), what is clear is that the only difference between the reign of terror inflicted on the Iraqi people today and under Saddam is that the US has been far less selective in applying terror than Saddam ever was.

At a time when the US and the world struggle with a resurgent Iran, the Iranian-dominated Dawa party of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki governs Iraq today in name only. The stability enjoyed by Iraq today has been bought with the presence of 150,000 US troops who have overseen the ethnic cleansing of entire neighbourhoods in cities around Iraq, and who have struck temporary alliances with Shia and Sunni alike which cannot be sustained once these forces leave (as they are scheduled to do by 2011).

Invading Iraq and removing Saddam, the glue that held that nation together as a secular entity, was the worst action the US could have undertaken for the people of Iraq, the Middle East as a whole and indeed the entire world. For Cheney to articulate otherwise, regardless of his fundamentally flawed argument on WMD, only demonstrates the level to which fantasy has intruded into the mind of the vice-president.

Obama v. Washington Mythmaking

Obama v. Washington Mythmaking

By Robert Parry

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Over the years, Washington has evolved into a city of deceptions where semantics cloud reality and where a hazy mix of lies, half-truths and mythology can combine to unleash the devastating military might of the United States for no good reason.

Indeed, if there were to be a serious effort to “change the mindset” that got the United States into the Iraq War – as Barack Obama has promised – one place to start would be to force Official Washington to take a long hard look in the mirror.

During George W. Bush’s presidency alone, language has been routinely twisted to justify everything from aggressive war to torture. Those two international crimes were turned into “preventive war” and “alternative interrogation techniques.”

But “preventive war” is nothing but a grotesque Orwellian euphemism, since it makes no sense to claim that you’re preventing a war by starting a war.

The accurate phrase, especially in the context of the Iraq invasion, would be “aggressive war.” That phrase, however, would force an uncomfortable judgment that President Bush and many well-dressed neocons at Georgetown dinner parties were “war criminals” deserving of hanging.

Under the legal standards applied to the Nazi leaders at the Nuremberg Tribunals, “aggressive war” was deemed the “supreme international crime” because it sets loose all the atrocities of warfare.

However, rather than liken Bush and the neocons to the Nazis, Official Washington replaced “aggressive war” with the ever-so-much-nicer choices of “preventive” or “preemptive” war.

Official Washington also disdains the word “torture” when it describes actions approved at the highest levels of the Bush administration. It’s so much more comforting to talk about “alternative interrogation techniques.” [For more, see’s “Torture Trail Seen Starting with Bush.”]

There’s also that pleasant denial of reality when one hears reassurances from Vice President Dick Cheney and other senior officials that “the United States doesn’t torture.”

So what if simulated drowning from waterboarding, forced nudity, stress positions, sleep deprivation, use of extreme temperatures and similar techniques have long been regarded as torture, especially when used by U.S. enemies or against American troops? If U.S. officials now say those methods aren’t torture, then it’s time to go with different phrasing.

False narratives play an important role, too, in Washington’s self-delusions, by casting U.S. government actions in the most favorable light and those of its enemies in the most negative.

At one level, you have Bush answering the American public’s post-9/11 question “why do they hate us?” with the fairy-tale explanation that Islamic extremists “hate our freedoms.” Other times, you get outright lying.

For instance, President Bush began insisting in July 2003 that he had no choice but to invade Iraq because Saddam Hussein refused to let the United Nations arms inspectors in – even though any cursory reading of recent history would show that Hussein did let the inspectors in, in fall 2002.

It was Bush who forced the inspectors to leave in March 2003 so he could proceed with his shock-and-awe invasion. Yet Bush has continued to invoke this made-up history about Hussein barring the inspectors as recently as Dec. 1 when he spun the tale to ABC News’ Charles Gibson.

Like many big-name journalists before him, Gibson didn’t contradict Bush’s historical revisionism. [See’s “Bush Still Lies About Iraq War.” For more on the history of Washington deceptions, see Robert Parry’s Lost History.]

Change with Obama?

The big question now is whether President Obama will bring any meaningful change to the deceptive mindset of the Washington Establishment. Or will Obama bend to Washington’s potent conventional wisdom which incorporates these pleasing narratives?

So far, it appears the Washington Establishment is winning out. Obama’s transition has been so much to the liking of the power elite that everyone from Dick Cheney and Henry Kissinger to the many neoconservative writers on the Washington Post and New York Times editorial pages have been pinching themselves to make sure they’re not dreaming.

They have cheered lustily over Obama’s national security picks, particularly the decision to retain Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who oversaw President Bush’s “surge” of about 30,000 troops in Iraq in 2007-2008 after Donald Rumsfeld balked at doing so.

The Gates choice is especially heartwarming to the neocons because it reinforces an important argument as they rehabilitate themselves in the wake of the Iraq fiasco. By keeping Gates, Obama is acquiescing to the myth of the “successful surge,” which the neocons see as crucial in validating their war judgment and discrediting their critics.

The “successful surge” myth is built around the widely accepted conventional wisdom that the increase in U.S. troop levels in 2007 brought Iraqi violence under control and carried the United States to the verge of “victory” in Iraq.

This analysis is now considered a nearly indisputable fact by Bush’s defenders and most of Washington’s elite news media, although it is shared by very few military experts who credit the drop in violence to a variety of other developments, many of which – like the switching of sides among Sunni tribes in Anbar province and the killing of al-Qaeda’s murderous leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi – predated the “surge.”

Other non-surge security factors included:

--The surprise decision of radical Shiite leader Moqtada al-Sadr to order a unilateral cease-fire by his militia;

--The vicious ethnic cleansing that separated Sunnis and Shiites while forcing several million Iraqis to become refugees either in neighboring countries or within their own;

--Concrete walls built between Sunni and Shiite areas, “cantonizing” Baghdad.

--The detention of thousands of “military age males” who were rounded up often indiscriminately;

--The cumulative effect of five years of concentrated U.S. firepower on Iraqi insurgents and civilian bystanders, leaving countless thousands dead.

--With the total Iraqi death toll estimated in the hundreds of thousands and many more Iraqis horribly maimed, the extraordinary trauma affecting Iraqi society has caused many Iraqis to simply look toward their own survival.

Besides being only one of many factors in the reduced violence, the “surge” also failed to bring about the political-economic reconciliation in Iraq that Bush had promised when he announced the build-up in January 2007. Nor has it led to the expected drawdown of troops to below pre-surge levels, with almost 150,000 U.S. troops now in Iraq, about 16,000 more than before the “surge.”

Yet, the myth of the “successful surge” has proved extraordinarily powerful.

During the campaign, Obama faced hectoring from media interviewers, such as CBS News’ Katie Couric and ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos, demanding that he admit he was wrong to oppose the “surge.”

For weeks, Obama held firm, insisting that the issue was more complicated than his interviewers wanted to admit. He argued that there were many factors behind Iraq’s changed security environment. But ultimately he caved in while being interrogated on Sept. 4 by Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly.

"I think that the surge has succeeded in ways that nobody anticipated," Obama confessed to O'Reilly. "It's succeeded beyond our wildest dreams."

Obama may have judged that continued resistance was futile. But his surrender on the “successful surge” myth may have other long-term consequences.

Sizing Up Obama

Having watched him succumb to media pressure – and then seeing him accept Establishment favorite Robert Gates as a Republican holdover in the new Cabinet – the U.S. high command in the Middle East appears to be getting ready to roll over the incoming President on his central campaign promise of a 16-month withdrawal from Iraq.

Generals David Petraeus and Ray Odierno have outlined to Obama a scheme for a modest withdrawal of about 7,000 to 8,000 troops in the first six months of 2009 – bringing the total down to levels that still might be higher than those before the surge two years ago – and then keeping the numbers there until at least June 2009 when additional judgments would be made, the New York Times reported Thursday.

Rather than “change you can believe in,” the generals seem to have in mind something closer to Bush’s old “stay the course.”

Gen. Odierno, who is commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, also said on Dec. 13 that American combat troops will remain in Iraqi cities after June 30, 2009, the date of their scheduled relocation away from the cities under a new “status-of-forces agreement” with the Iraqi government. Odierno said these troops would be “transition teams” advising Iraqi forces.

Col. James Hutton, a spokesman for Odierno, later amplified on the general’s comments, characterizing U.S. troops staying behind in the cities as “enablers to Iraqi security forces.”

Iraqi critics of the status-of-forces agreement were quick to criticize these American word games of redefining U.S. troops as “transition teams” and “enablers.”

“This confirmed our view that U.S. forces will never withdraw from the cities next summer, and they will never leave Iraq by the end of 2011,” said Ahmed al-Masoudi, a spokesman for a Shiite parliamentary bloc close to al-Sadr.

The status-of-forces agreement, which is intended to govern the actions of U.S. military forces in Iraq after Dec. 31, 2008, also calls for a complete American military withdrawal by the end of 2011. However, many Iraqis are dubious that the United States intends to live up to its word – and Odierno has noted that the deadline can be renegotiated.

“Three years is a very long time,” Odierno told reporters.

In other words, the top U.S. commanders for Iraq have taken the measure of the President-elect and decided that they can openly flout his central campaign promise – that he would give them new orders on his first day in office to begin a monthly withdrawal of U.S. combat forces from Iraq, culminating after 16 months with only a modest residual force left behind.

Now on Day One, Obama can expect to face clear opposition to his withdrawal plan from the lead generals in the region and from Defense Secretary Gates, who also has spoken out against Obama’s timetable. If he presses ahead on a pullout, Obama can expect strong institutional resistance and leaks critical of his leadership.

However, if he reneges on his campaign promise and succumbs to the power play by these Bush holdovers, Obama will be sending another troubling signal – that he can be “handled” – a message that will resonate across Washington and around the world.

Rehabilitating Bush

Besides undercutting Obama, the myth of the “successful surge” has fueled a new narrative favorable to George W. Bush, that his decision to liberate Iraq may have suffered from many problems of execution but he bravely stuck with it until he came upon a winning strategy.

To celebrate this story line, Bush secretly flew to Iraq on Dec. 14 to sign the status-of-forces agreement and boast about an impending U.S. victory.

However, reality reasserted itself when Bush was forced to dodge two shoes thrown by an angry Iraqi journalist, Muntader al-Zaidi, who upstaged Bush’s self-congratulatory rhetoric with shouts about the death and destruction that the near-six-year-old war has inflicted on Iraq.

“This is from the widows, the orphans and those who were killed in Iraq!” al-Zaidi shouted as he threw his second shoe (before being wrestled to the ground and beaten by Iraqi security personnel).

Now, Barack Obama must decide if he wants to buy into Bush’s war in Iraq, even while vowing to increase U.S. forces in Bush’s other war in Afghanistan.

If he does, Obama may find himself equally in need of euphemisms to explain his reversal of a key campaign promise – and to justify the additional widows and orphans who will surely be created over the next several years in Iraq.

The question now is whether Obama will change Washington or whether Washington already has begun to change Obama?

As Usual, NYT Ignores Iraqi Opinion

As Usual, NYT Ignores Iraqi Opinion

Anecdotes trump polls on withdrawal

Go To Original

The New York Times failed spectacularly in its coverage of Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction, helping lead the country into war and only much later (5/26/04) publishing a half-hearted mea culpa. As the near-apology acknowledged, the paper’s failure resulted in large part from its lack of skepticism regarding its sources, most notably exiled Iraqi politician Ahmed Chalabi.

Despite the mea culpa, though, the Times continues to mislead on Iraq, particularly on the issue of whether or not Iraqis want the U.S. military to exit their country. Once again, that journalistic failure seems to be rooted in the same fundamental problem of overconfidence in the paper’s sources and ignoring the obvious contradictory evidence.

An article by Times reporter Stephen Farrell headlined, “Should U.S. Forces Withdraw From Iraq? The Iraqis Have a Few Opinions” (9/9/08) serves as a recent example. The piece, which also kicked off a special series on “the debate among ordinary Iraqis over the presence of American troops” that ran in the Times’ online blog section, purported to bring readers insight into Iraqi opinion on withdrawal. “As Iraqi and American diplomats negotiate a deal for American troops to stay in Iraq, or not, Iraqis are also debating the issue,” Farrell wrote—as though there is a great deal of debate among Iraqis about whether they prefer that their country continue to be occupied.

The Times reporter split Iraqis into “three categories” of opinion, with only one actually supporting the withdrawal of occupation forces. Besides a group that “simply [wants] the Americans to leave, period,” Farrell described one pro-occupation group of Iraqis that “worries that the brief period of improving security which Iraq has witnessed this year will be vulnerable if the Americans abruptly withdrew.” Those in this group, according to Farrell, “say the United States has a moral obligation to remain, and that continued presence of the occupiers is preferable to a return to rule by gangs and militias.”

Farrell described the other pro-occupation group as sharing “a common worry, that without a referee, Iraq’s dominant powers—Kurds in the far north and Shias in the center and south—will brutally dominate other groups.”

Farrell gave no indication of the relative sizes of each group, but the Iraqi quotes featured below the piece seemed to suggest that the pro-withdrawal group was quite small: Only two of the ten people who expressed a personal opinion about the troops spoke in favor of immediate withdrawal.

Survey says
Notably, Farrell opted not to include polling data in his article. Perhaps that’s because had he done so, it would have undermined the thesis of his piece.

A poll from March 2008 conducted by Opinion Research Business (ORB) for the British Channel 4 (2/24–3/5/08) found 70 percent of Iraqis wanting occupation forces to leave. Within this group, 65 percent wanted them to leave “immediately or as soon as possible”—meaning fully 46 percent of Iraqis would fall under Farrell’s “leave immediately” group. Another 19 percent wanted them out within a year or less, while 12 percent wanted to wait until “whenever the security situation allows it.” (Interestingly, in Baghdad—where Times journalists are based—the number of those who wanted troops out immediately was only 42 percent, while 20 percent wanted to wait until the security situation improves; still, a majority wanted troops out within a year.)

Another March 2008 poll conducted by D3/KA for ABC News and other media outlets (2/12–20/08) similarly found that 73 percent of Iraqis either “somewhat” or “strongly” opposed the ongoing foreign troop presence in their country, with 38 percent in favor of immediate withdrawal. Only 7 percent of Iraqis—primarily Kurds—“strongly” supported the presence of occupation forces.

The D3/KA survey, which did not offer a timetable for withdrawal as a choice, found 35 percent of Iraqis wanting troops to stay until security is restored and another 24 percent wanting them to stay until the government is either “stronger” or can “operate independently.” But with respect to the “improving security” that Farrell pointed to as a reason many Iraqis want troops to stay—a result, according to media conventional wisdom, of the successful troop “surge” (Extra!, 9–10/08)—61 percent of Iraqis said the U.S. troop presence was making security worse, compared to only 27 percent who said better. The same survey found that 70 percent of Iraqis believe the U.S. and other “coalition” forces had done “quite a bad job” or “a very bad job” in carrying out their responsibilities in Iraq.

To illustrate the U.S.’s “dilemma,” Farrell made references to two previous occupations of Iraq: the failed British occupation during the 1920s and the Empire of the Caliphate under the Ummayad provincial governor al-Hajjaj in 694 AD. The examples presented Iraqis as irrepressibly “fractious” and “troublesome” going back to ancient times; as Farrell concluded loftily, “Names and governments change, but there is nothing new under the Mesopotamian sun.”

According to such logic, chaos, violence and majority Iraqi opposition to the occupation would seem to have less to do with the occupation itself—which has left an estimated one million dead and nearly 5 million displaced (9/18/07; UNHCR, 8/08)—and more to do with an inherent incapacity to accept the “civilization” or “democracy” that a brutal occupation brings.

Unchanging trends
Bylines and dates change, but there is nothing new under the Manhattan sun. A look back at New York Times coverage of Iraqi opinion over the years shows a long trend of ignoring polling data despite their ready availability and their remarkable consistency.

A Gallup poll from April 2004 (USA Today, 4/28/04) revealed that “a solid majority [of Iraqis] support an immediate military pullout.” Fifty-seven percent said the coalition should “leave immediately.” The same poll found that 75 percent of the residents of Baghdad favored an immediate withdrawal. At the same time, a poll from the Iraq Center for Research and Strategic Studies (4/28/04), which was partly funded by the State Department and had coordinated its work with the Coalition Provisional Authority, found that more than half of all Iraqis wanted an immediate withdrawal of all U.S. forces, an increase of 17 percent over the previous October.

In writing about Iraqi opinion, though, the Times’ Ian Fisher (5/23/04) ignored this data, asserting, “There are still far more people . . . who are skeptical of, and maybe even hate, the Americans but see them as the only way to save themselves.” As evidence, Fisher cited not scientific surveys—as those would have contradicted his claim—but rather a tally conducted by Sadim Samir, a 23-year-old political science student at the University of Baghdad, who “canvassed five neighborhoods” of Baghdad for a “class paper.”

Two years later, Times journalist Michael Gordon, who co-wrote some of the Times’ most misleading WMD reports with Judith Miller and still periodically files stories from Iraq, criticized Democrats calling for a withdrawal from Iraq because, Gordon argued (CNN, 11/15/06),

there are a significant number of players in Baghdad today who don’t mind if the Americans withdraw. These are the militia leaders. They would be happy if the United States withdrew, because, then, they can go and carry out their ethnic cleansing campaign against the Sunnis.

But a poll by the Program on International Policy Attitudes (9/1–3/06) found that then, as today, 7 in 10 Iraqis favored troop withdrawal within a year—not just a small band of “militia leaders” bent on ethnic cleansing.

More recently, 18 Iraqis were interviewed for the Times article “In Iraq, Mixed Feelings About Obama and His Troop Proposal,” by Sabrina Tavernise and Richard Oppel (7/17/08). Again, the Times preferred to rely on the opinions of less than two dozen Iraqis rather than refer to available polling data that would have undercut the theme of the story: that Iraqis faced “a deep internal quandary” about Obama’s support for withdrawal.

The first Iraqi quoted was a general who, when asked about Barack Obama’s plans to draw down troops in Iraq, shook his head and said: “Very difficult. . . . Any army would love to work without any help, but let me be honest: For now, we don’t have that ability.” When the piece mentioned one Iraqi who favored immediate withdrawal, his quote (“I want them [U.S. soldiers] to go to hell”) was framed in rhetoric couching the situation as “complex.” The piece concluded by quoting an Iraqi government official who, having traveled to Germany and seen the U.S. bases there, said: “I have no problem to have a camp here. . . . I find it in Germany and that’s a strong country. Why not in Iraq?”

Writing history by anecdote
One of the New York Times’ chief perpetrators of skewing Iraqi opinion is John Burns. The paper sent Burns to Baghdad during the lead-up to the invasion of 2003, and he served as bureau chief there until the summer of 2007; his perspective on the occupation no doubt heavily influenced the Times’ reporting from Iraq.

Burns, the son of a NATO general, has publicly voiced his remarkably uncritical view of U.S. foreign policy, telling Rolling Stone magazine (7/04):

The United States has been overwhelmingly a force of good in the world. This is very unfashionable talk, but I think this ought to be remembered here. I grew up in a world where the survival of democracy depended on the military and economic power of the United States. If that power became less credible here, I think the world would be a lot less safe. The stakes are extraordinarily high. I think this is a tipping point in the fate of the American empire.

Many journalists with the Times used to regularly report from the streets of Iraq in the early days of the war, before the security deteriorated to the point where most decided against venturing out; Burns, however, was not generally one of them. Those of us reporting from Iraq rarely saw Burns, the winner of two Pulitzer Prizes, leave the heavily guarded New York Times compound unless he was going on an embed or taking an armored convoy over to the Green Zone to report on the military press conferences that we referred to as the “five o’clock follies.”

When journalists report this way in Baghdad, they put themselves in a position of total reliance upon the Iraqis they hire to send out into the streets with questions; they then have to sift through the answers those Iraqi reporters bring back to find anecdotes to fit their stories. In this way, history is written by anecdote, and this is exactly what the Times does by quoting individual Iraqis or referring to “Iraqi opinion” without citing available polls.

Despite his limited perspective on Iraqi opinion, Burns has repeatedly presented that perspective to the public without caveats, both in the Times and in other outlets—most frequently the Charlie Rose show on PBS—and it’s a perspective that runs counter to the survey data.

“In my experience, the great majority of Iraqis are . . . very loathe to see those American troops leave now,” Burns told Rose on June 14, 2006, shortly before the State Department’s own polls showed nearly half of Iraqis wanting immediate withdrawal and seven in ten wanting troops out within a year (Washington Post, 9/27/06). Burns told Rose a year later (PBS, 7/17/07):

I think, quite simply that the United States armed forces here—and I find this to be very widely agreed amongst Iraqis that I know, of all ethnic and sectarian backgrounds—the United States armed forces are a very important inhibitor against violence. I know it’s argued by some people that they provoke the violence. I simply don’t believe that to be in the main true.

Meanwhile, Iraqis were telling pollsters the opposite: 69 percent believed U.S. troop presence was making the security situation worse (D3, 2/25–3/5/07), and they believed security would get better rather than worse in the immediate weeks following a coalition troop withdrawal by two to one (ORB, 2/10–22/07).

As Baghdad bureau chief, Burns’ influence reached beyond Times reporting. When the National Journal (12/9/05), for example, wanted to give readers the “assessment” of the Iraqi people, they cited Burns: “I think you would get overwhelming assent from Iraqis that should American troops be precipitously withdrawn from the war, civil war and escalation of the sectarian conflict already under way would become virtually inevitable.”

Mismeasures and misjudgments
Burns’ piece on the fifth anniversary of the war (3/16/08) gave some insight into the paper’s attitude toward both polls and the situation in Iraq. The lead photo of the piece showed U.S. bombs exploding over Baghdad during the initial invasion, with the title “The Air Show.” The caption read: “The war began with a mesmerizing display of American might. But the United States made a basic misjudgment about the Iraqis’ readiness to share power.”

Burns downplayed the number of Iraqi civilians killed by the war—“tens of thousands”—in another instance of the Times’ refusal to accept surveys when they have to do with Iraq. Burns’ number, the number preferred by the Times, comes from Iraq Body Count, which only counts violent civilian deaths actually recorded in cross-checked media outlets, and supplemented when possible by morgue, hospital, NGO and government data. Estimates based on scientific polling methods, which are widely accepted by the Times and other outlets when reporting on, say, Darfur, placed Iraqi deaths due to violence at over 600,000 in 2006 (Lancet, 10/11/06) and at over a million by mid-2007 (ORB, 9/07). Those numbers do not distinguish between civilians and combatants, but even if one only counted women, children and the elderly as “civilians,” more than 100,000 had died violently in Iraq as of two years before Burns’ article was written (Lancet, 10/11/06).

Burns also blamed journalists for failing “to uncover other facets of Iraq’s culture and history that would have a determining impact on the American project to build a Western-style democracy, or at least the basics of a civil society”—facets such as “how deep was the poison of fear and distrust” and the “harsh reality that Iraqis . . . had little zest for democracy.” Again, Burns chose to fault “traumatized Iraqis” for the chaos and bloodshed in Iraq, rather than the illegal, brutal invasion and occupation of their country.

And despite his moment of self-critique, Burns continued to do precisely what he faulted journalists for doing in the past—failing to uncover Iraqis’ perspectives. He laid out very explicitly his view of polls:

Opinion polls, including those commissioned by the American command, have long suggested that a majority of Iraqis would like American troops withdrawn, but another lesson to be drawn from Saddam Hussein’s years is that any attempt to measure opinion in Iraq is fatally skewed by intimidation. More often than not, people tell pollsters and reporters what they think is safe, not necessarily what they believe. My own experience, invariably, was that Iraqis I met who felt secure enough to speak with candor had an overwhelming desire to see American troops remain long enough to restore stability.

In other words, because they don’t reflect his “own experience,” Burns simply dismissed the validity of all polls (and most reporting!) on Iraqi opinion, and declared his own conversations with a minuscule slice of the Iraqi public a more reliable measure of the opinions of the entire country.

A problematic practice
“It’s a tradition for journalists to see themselves as the researcher to go out and get the story, so that’s their default position,” said Dr. Steven Kull, director of World Public Opinion (WPO), when asked why he thought some media outlets tend to ignore polling data.

Some journalists are not well-trained to interpret polls, so they might be uncomfortable with them. And they might see them as a source of competition to the traditional approach of interviewing people and getting their anecdotes. But a few anecdotes here and there don’t really give you the picture.

Kull also directs the Program on International Policy Attitudes that plays a central role in the BBC World Service poll of global opinion and the polls of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs; he gives briefings on world opinion on various issues to Congress, the State Department, NATO, the United Nations and the European Commission.

“The problem is that when these [anecdotes] are at odds with polling data, these are incorrect stories,” Kull added. “The universe of people who may be willing to talk to a reporter may not be indicative of the attitudes of the general population.”

Certainly the Iraqis John Burns “know[s] best” are not representative of the population as a whole; those Iraqis, he told Charlie Rose in 2006 (PBS, 10/20/06), were “almost all on their way to the passport office” to get out of the country—an option he acknowledged was “only available to the middle class, primarily to those who are being paid in dollars.”

Kull explained that when reporters interview some Sunnis in Baghdad who express fears of a U.S. withdrawal,

then a reporter can reason, ‘They are a minority, and the Shia are ascendant, and this makes sense that the Sunni feel as they do.’ But the polling data suggest the Sunnis are eager for a U.S. withdrawal. I think it’s problematic when there is an anecdote reported and there is polling data available to the contrary.

Kull admits that polling in places like Iraq has its challenges, and is imperfect, but hastened to add that when it comes to capturing overall national opinion on topics, there is no substitute for scientific polling: “It is far superior than the method of a reporter going out on the street and talking to people. There’s no question.”