July 30, 2007


I don't have anything particularly intelligent to say about the fact that Ingmar Bergman is dead (and if even if I did, I wouldn't have time to write about it here anyway). If you're feeling glum about the news, though, you could watch the chess match from the Seventh Seal here.

July 29, 2007

Dept. of shameless self-promotion

I talked to NPR's On the Media this week about my story for the Columbia Journalism Review.

July 27, 2007

Speaking of detained journalists...

... the American Journalism Review's Charles Layton has a piece reminding readers that Bilal Hussein, a photographer who has taken Pulitzer Prize-winning images for the Associated Press, is still being held without charge in Iraq after 15 months. (AJR did a longer piece about Hussein here.)

Photo by Flickr user SGT Butler under a Creative Common License.

July 26, 2007

A "potential threat"

The Pentagon has released a study asserting that many Guantanamo detainees are indeed dangerous individuals--and, more specifically, that 95 percent of them were at least a “potential threat” to U.S. interests. The military spokesperson quoted in the piece more or less admits that the study was intended to rebut the much-quoted analysis of Defense Department documents by the Seton Hall University School of Law, which found that only 8 percent of detainees were accused of fighting for Al Qaeda, and only 55 percent were said to have committed a hostile act against the U.S. (“They had been getting a lot of inquiries related to this previous study,” the spokesman explained. “They had a lot of concerns with the conclusions, but they did not have another study.”)

I haven't had a chance to read the study yet, but in the meantime, it's worth keeping in mind that the Seton Hall scholars are far from the only people to note that many Guantanamo residents aren't as dangerous as we were initially led to believe. For instance:

* In September 2002, a CIA study found that many of the accused terrorists were low-level recruits who went to Afghanistan to support the Taliban or innocent men caught up in the fighting.
* Another U.S. intelligence official who visited the camp said in 2002 that there were "no big fish there" and that "some of these guys literally don't know the world is round."
* Maj. Gen. Michael E. Dunlavey, who initially led the intelligence effort at Guantanamo, discovered after his arrival in February 2002 that up to half of the first group of detainees had little or no intelligence value. These included one mentally impaired detainee with a serious headwound nicknamed "half-head Bob," and another dubbed "Al Qaeda Claus" because he told his interrogators that he was 105 years old. Dunleavey later went to Afghanistan to ask military commanders there to stop sending him so many "Mickey Mouse" detainees, to no avail.
* Or, as Lt. Col. Thomas S. Berg, a member of the original military legal team set up to handle the prosecutions put it: "It became obvious to us as we reviewed the evidence that, in many cases, we had simply gotten the slowest guys on the battlefield... We literally found guys who had been shot in the butt.''

July 25, 2007

What do editors do?

The mystery revealed:

"When an editor's lucky, the piece comes in chiseled in immortal Carrara marble, every semicolon in place, ready to be wheeled into the Uffizi Gallery -- that is, straight to publication. (A very rare event.) A good editor knows when to leave a piece alone. Practically every writer has had the unfortunate experience of crossing paths with editors -- often inexperienced ones -- who feel the need to do something, just to show they're doing their job. This is almost as frustrating as the too-many-editors problem, in which a piece bounces from a senior editor to the managing editor to the executive editor, each of whom gives contradictory instructions, and finally ends up in the hands of the editor in chief, who after Olympian reflection pronounces that it was better the way it was when it started. It is experiences like these that lead writers to engage in one of their favorite pastimes: bitching and moaning about the lameness of editors.

Good editors work with and not against a writer. They calibrate how aggressively they edit according to how good the writer is, how good the piece is, the type of piece it is, the kind of relationship they have with the writer, how tight the deadline is, and what mood they're in. But an editor's primary responsibility is not to the writer but to the reader. He or she must be ruthlessly dedicated to making the piece stronger."

July 24, 2007

Question of the day

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse questions Alberto Gonzales about a memo he signed giving staffers in Cheney's office access to information about ongoing cases at the Department of Justice:

Whitehouse: "What-on-earth business does the Office of the Vice President have in the internal workings of the Department of Justice with respect to criminal investigations, civil investigations, and ongoing matters?"

Gonzales: "As a general matter, I would say that's a good question."

Whitehouse: "Why is it here, then?"

Gonzales: “I’d have to go back and look at this.”

(thanks to TPM.)

July 21, 2007

Posting might be a bit light over the next couple of days, owing to a certain pressing appointment that I have with my inner nerd.

July 20, 2007


"The Federal Emergency Management Agency since early 2006 has suppressed warnings from its own field workers about health problems experienced by hurricane victims living in government-provided trailers with levels of a toxic chemical 75 times the recommended maximum for U.S. workers, congressional lawmakers said yesterday... As many as 120,000 families displaced by hurricanes Katrina and Rita lived in the suspect trailers, and hundreds have complained of ill effects.
"On June 16, 2006, three months after reports of the hazards surfaced... a FEMA logistics expert wrote that the agency's Office of General Counsel "has advised that we do not do testing, which would imply FEMA's ownership of this issue." A FEMA lawyer, Patrick Preston, wrote on June 15: "Do not initiate any testing until we give the OK. . . . Once you get results and should they indicate some problem, the clock is running on our duty to respond to them."

The rest is here.

July 19, 2007

Iraq's intellectuals

“The Iraq situation is the closest we’ve come to the Holocaust” in terms of systematic attacks on professors, Goodman said. “The terrorist groups seem to be trying to wipe out the intellectual capital of what was once Iraq.”
-- from Allan Goodman, president of the Institute of International Education. IIE's Scholar Rescue Fund is preparing to evacuate hundreds of Iraqi professors to neighboring countries in the Middle East, the largest such effort since the 1930s. Read about it here.

July 18, 2007

"This is not a legal proceeding"

A facility at Guantanamo where some review tribunals are held. U.S. Navy photo July 2004

In my piece for the Columbia Journalism Review about Sami Al Haj, the Al Jazeera cameraman detained in Guantanamo, I included a brief scene describing his Administrative Review Board hearing, the annual tribunal held to determine whether a detainee should continue to be held in Cuba. There was a lot of material that I couldn't include in the piece due to space constraints. The Department of Defense has released hundreds of the hearing transcripts, and only by reading through some of them do you get a sense of how farcical these proceedings are. A lot of them read like bad Samuel Beckett. The panels operate on the assumption that a person has already been correctly identified as an enemy combatant. Detainees aren't presented with charges, but with a "summary of evidence." Neither he nor his lawyer (if he has one), is allowed to see the evidence being summarized. Lawyers can't attend the hearings. Instead, each detainee is assigned a military representative who is obliged to tell the review board anything he learns about the detainee. Al Haj's lawyer told me that once Al Haj attended his hearing and noticed that one of the presiding officials was his military representative from a previous year.

Sometimes, a detainee is presented with a serious charge, like attending an Al Qaeda training camp. Sometimes, the allegation will be something more circumstantial. For instance, at least eight detainees have been accused of owning a model of Casio watch “that has been used in bombing linked to radical terrorist improvised explosive devices.” Often, the line of questioning seems rather irrelevant to the acts the detainee is said to have committed. Here's an excerpt from one of Al Haj's hearings (his lawyer had instructed him not to answer questions):

Presiding Officer: Thank you very much. Your English is very good. Before we get started I just want to make sure that you understand that this is not a legal proceeding today. This is strictly an administrative procedure to determine whether or not you'll be detained, transfered or released. This is not a legal proceeding, which is why we don't have lawyers or etc. None of us are lawyers; we are not here to present ourselves as attorneys. That's not what this proceeding is about; it is an administrative proceeding for you. So the more questions you answer will help us make a decision. Do you understand?
Al Haj: Yes, I understand, but I'm sorry, because I'm supposed to follow my attorney.
PO: Okay, unfortunate for the purpose of this proceeding.
Designated Military Officer: Sir, have you gotten any communications from your wife, since you've been here?
AH: I'm supposed to follow the advice of my...
PO: This question is not relevant to any of the charges. He just asked if you've been hearing from your wife. In fact, you talked in your statement about how much you missed your wife. He's just asking if you gotten communication from your wife?
AH: Surely, I've received some letters from my wife, but unfortunately it is not continuous communication, that means one year I missed the news, after that five months or six months, I can get one letter.
Board Member: Sir, I don't know if you'll be able to answer any of these questions... if you prefer not to answer them, but I will ask you anyway.
AH: If you ask me some questions, do I have the right to answer them or not?
PO: Yes, you do. You're not compelled to answer. He'll ask them and if you can answer none of these, it doesn't help us, but if that's what your attorney advises... that's unfortunate. You can only answer what you can answer. At this proceeding, you're not required to answer any questions.
[a number of questions about various Islamic charities; Al Haj indicates that he can't answer.]
PO: Your son you said was 15 months old, one year and three months, last time you saw him.
... Yes.
PO: How many countries did you travel to when you worked for Al Jazeera? Did you travel to many countries?
AH: Detainee nods negatively and speaks almost in a whisper saying "I cannot answer."
PO: You can't answer that.
AH: Detainee nods affirmatively.
PO: You say your wife is currently in Doha, Qatar? Is that where she is right now?
AH: I don't know. According to her last letter she [wrote it] from Azerbaijian.
PO: ... How long did you work for Al Jazeera?
I can't.
What do you think of Usama bin Laden? Do you have any thoughts at all of Usama bin Laden?
Can't answer that.
: What about the Taliban? You've had an opportunity to view them as a journalist? Did you... what did you think of the way the Taliban ran Afghanistan?
AH: Actually I have the answers to all [these] questions, but I'm sorry, I'm supposed to follow the advice of my lawyer.
PO. Thank you. Again, just so you know this is not a legal proceeding, this is just strictly an administrative proceedings. These kinds of answers are very important to us. Our job is to determine...
AH: If my lawyer were here, I would answer all these questions. It is very easy for me. My life is very clear. I didn't hide anything in my life.
Board Member: I have one final question. If you had answered questions, perhaps our decision would have been different. Would you now be disappointed that you didn't answer those questions?
AH: ...as I told you in the beginning, I don't have any bad grounds. I didn't went... go to or admit any legal case before in my life and I didn't went to jail in all my life...in past. I don't have any experience. So what I know, because of [my] University degree and from my experience, I'm supposed to follow my lawyer. That's why.
PO: Mr. Al Hajj, thank you for the answers you have given us. Again, I just advise you that this is an administrative, not a legal proceeding. Any information that you give us helps us to make a better... make a better recommendation. All we do is we recommend and I'll go through that in a moment on how this process concludes, but any information you give us would have been helpful. We understand the advice of an attorney that's not our decision to make whether or not that's good advice or bad advice. We have no opinion on that. We only know that we make a decision based on the information you give us. More information is better information, but if choose not to. You choose not to. Just so you know that could affect the decision, because more information allows us to make a better decision. Thank you.

People who get it

For instance, these two military lawyers assigned to Guantanamo detainees:

“I hated the fact, still hate the fact, that we were making up a trial system to convict people after we’d already decided they’re guilty,” Fleener says. “I hated that as a country, we were doing that. I didn’t like the fact that we were violating the rule of law, and that what we were doing as a country was just…wrong.... What we’re saying is, ‘You are guilty of something—we just don’t know exactly what. So we’ll gather as much incriminating evidence as we can, using methods that we aren’t going to talk about, and then we’ll make up a law that criminalizes the conduct.’ ”

“Over time,” Kuebler says, “we figured out we’re the linchpin in this process. They want to have these bizarre trials, they don’t want to let the defendant see secret evidence—so the one thing they need is us. The government wanted this attorney-client thing to work. They really did. It’s an important part of the show.”

“The administration believes the commission process will ultimately justify the detentions." [Fleener says. ] "They know they can’t just hold people; they don’t want to take the political heat. So they rigged the rule of law. And because it’s rigged, the only thing that’s in play is the appearance.... At the end of the day... that’s how [the detainees] look at it: ‘If I’m going to get a life sentence—or a death sentence—I’d rather get one in this weird, disgusting system that everyone knows is a weird, disgusting system than have some military lawyer up there dancing and juicing it up and making it look like it’s not rigged.’ ”

“I think more war crimes have been committed in the detention and interrogation and fake trials of people in Guantánamo than people in Guantánamo have committed,” [Feener] says. “And I don’t think the question is whether they’ve tortured people.”

Read all of the story here. (via Andrew Sullivan.)

July 17, 2007

And now for something completely different...

In a rare burst of patriotism, I feel like I should put in a plug for Flight of the Conchords, a very funny show on HBO starring two of my countrymen. It depicts the travails of a New Zealand "digi-folk band" (also called Flight of the Conchords) which is trying to make it big in New York. The awkward silences and deadpan delivery will be familiar to anyone who has watched the British version of The Office, although the musical parodies of everything from David Bowie to Isaac Hayes to Kraftwerk are the real highlight. You can watch the whole thing on the HBO website or see videos of their comedy-club act on YouTube using the links above.

ALSO: if you actually happen to have HBO, it's on Sunday nights at 10.30 p.m.


The Swiss legislator who oversaw the Council of Europe's report on the "extraordinary rendition" and secret detention of terrorist suspects says he was fed information by "dissident CIA officers" upset about the practice. He anticipates more revelations to come.

On that note: one thing we haven't heard much about here is how the participation by various European governments in the CIA's secret detentions and renditions has affected the domestic politics of those countries. (According to this useful interactive map produced by the Guardian, the nations known to be involved include the UK, Greece, Spain, Italy, Germany, Sweden, Poland, Romania, Bosnia, Macedonia and Turkey.) As the Council of Europe report puts it: "While the strategy in question was devised and put in place by the current United States administration to deal with the threat of global terrorism, it has only been made possible by the collaboration at various institutional levels of America’s many partner countries." Leaders in many of these nations have, for instance, publicly criticized Guantanamo. Now those countries are implicated in the same disgrace.

Tortured logic

Big Vanity Fair piece reveals new details about the role that psychologists have played in creating and enabling illegal and ineffective interrogation techniques. Two nuggets:

"...psychologists weren't merely complicit in America's aggressive new interrogation regime. Psychologists, working in secrecy, had actually designed the tactics and trained interrogators in them while on contract to the C.I.A."

"In late 2005, as Senator John McCain was pressing the Bush administration to ban torture techniques, one of the nation's top researchers of stress in SERE trainees claims to have received a call from Samantha Ravitch, the deputy assistant for national security in Vice President Dick Cheney's office. She wanted to know if the researcher had found any evidence that uncontrollable stress would make people more likely to talk."

Photo from Flickr user lapata under a Creative Commons license.


Glenn Greenwald over at Salon has a very long and thoughtful post about my CJR piece.

Elizabeth Edwards on Hillary Clinton

"When she announced her candidacy she said, "I'm in it to win it." What is that? That's not a rationale."

I consistently find Elizabeth Edwards to be about ten times more impressive than her husband. More here.

July 16, 2007

A different kind of progress report

The State Department now requires its workers to wear flak jackets and Kevlar helmets inside the Green Zone. (From the indispensable McClatchy News Service.)

July 15, 2007

Scraps from Guantanamo

* An exemplary AP piece about "at least nine" Guantanamo inmates who were apparently prisoners and torture victims of the Taliban or Al Qaeda, but were mistaken by U.S forces for actual members of the Taliban or Al Qaeda and sent to Cuba in 2001. The reporter interviews a few who have since been released, including one who observed delicately: “The bitterness of Guantanamo overshadowed the bitterness of being jailed by al-Qaeda.”(via Eric Umansky.)

* Meanwhile, for some time numerous detainees have been approved for release, but unable to leave Cuba because the State Department is unable to guarantee that they will not be tortured upon their return to their home country. (One wishes this kind of fastidiousness about torture had been employed more consistently over the last six years.) Clive Stafford Smith, a UK-based human rights lawyer who represents Sami Al Haj , the detained Al Jazeera cameraman I write about here , reports that Clint Williamson, the U.S. ambassador-at-large for war crimes issues, has been quietly meeting with officials in North Africa to negotiate repatriation of detainees.

* Some very interesting numbers that didn't get much attention: officially, the Defense department intends to try 75-80 detainees in military tribunals, keep about 50 "for the duration of the conflict" and free the rest when it can figure out how to do that/where to send them. (More than 380 have been released already).

* 50 recent high-school grads who were part of this year's class of Presidential Scholars handed President Bush a letter asking him to "cease illegal renditions and to apply the Geneva Convention to all detainees, including those designated enemy combatants." Awkward conversation followed.

Manufactured Landscapes

This weekend I went to see a documentary about the Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky. Burtynsky specializes in large, stunning images of industrial excess and environmental degradation -- his underlying preoccupation is the way in which humans have irreperably altered the natural world. He's done series on quarries, mines, and oil fields; in the film, the director, Jennifer Baichwal, follows Burtynsky on a shoot in China, where he composes meticulous images of factory floors, manufacturing plants and dense urban neighborhoods. The film somehow manages to combine an admiration of Burtynsky's work with a certain discomfort at his habit of finding beautiful forms and patterns in a crowded factory or a pile of industrial waste without acknowledging the resulting human misery. In fact, humans don't figure very prominently in Burtynsky's work at all, but Baichwal's interviews with people who live or work by the locations that he is photographing make the consequences of China's unrestrained capitalism painfully clear. A friend who saw the movie with me thought that Baichwal's photography and point of view eclipsed Burtynsky's, and I think she might be right. The movie is still playing in DC and is definitely worth checking out.

July 14, 2007

I don't read Harper's regularly, but the current issue is really worth picking up. There's a very lucid essay by Scott Horton on the Bush administration's assault on the rule of law. There's a piece in which Ken Silverstein poses as an agent for the government of Turkmenistan and asks some DC lobbyists what they can do for his corrupt regime (the answer: quite a bit). But my favorite is an essay by Rebecca Solnit on Detroit (unfortunately none of the content is online unless you subscribe.) Solnit's subject is the manner in which Detroit, long the victim of debilitating urban blight, is being reclaimed by nature, in the process becoming an entirely new and perhaps unprecedented kind of American city. Here are some snippets:

"... as I have explored this city over the last few years, I have seen an oddly heartening new version of the landscape that is not quite post-apocalyptic but that is strangely--and sometimes even beautifully--post-American.
...The city, once the fourth-largest in the country, is now so depopulated that some stretches resemble the outlying farmland and others are altogether wild.... Some areas have been stripped altogether, and a weedy version of nature is returning. Just about a third of Detroit, some forty square miles, has evolved past decrepitude into vacancy and prairie--an urban void nearly the size of San Francisco... Having a city grow up around you is not an uncommon American experience, but having the countryside return is an eerier one."

I've long been fascinated by the way in which urban or industrial landscapes, taken to an extreme, eventually produce their own strange kind of beauty. (One of my favorite examples is the early stretches of the New Jersey turnpike coming out of New York, the best features of which are in the opening credits of The Sopranos.) Solnit documents that process in reverse--grass erasing the foundations of houses, trees sprouting from the ledges of vacant high-rises. (The photo above is of a small Texas town I once visited that is undergoing a similar conversion on a much smaller scale.)

What I like about this essay is that although Solnit walks the reader through the causes of Detroit's depopulation--"bitter racism and industrial failure"--she moves beyond this familiar story to find potential cause for optimism. She discovers community groups and churches taking advantage of the desolation to make thousands of food gardens and organic markets in Detroit's fertile soil. A school for teenage mothers boasts a working farm and an apple orchard. Solnit doesn't ignore the deprivation that has driven Detroiters to their "experiment in post-urban utopianism," but she sees rich possibilities in it all the same. Highly recommended.

UPDATE: Caleb Crain notes that the Columbia Journalism Review has a Q&A with Solnit this month. It's not online, but if they make it available I'll post a link.

July 13, 2007

a Jack of all trades

You may remember the strange story from 2004 about an American who was apprehended in Afghanistan for running a private prison and engaging in some freelance torturing of the inmates. Jonathan Keith "Jack" Idema was sentenced to 10 years in an Afghan prison, where he somehow managed to maintain a website explaining how he'd been wronged by the American authorities and the media, as well as providing useful recipes for food you might try to cook in the Pulacharke jail. He's just been released under an amnesty granted by Hamad Karzai.

You can find a wonderful story here by my friend Mariah Blake about Idema's long, colorful career as a peddler of information of dubious veracity to the press. (I should note that I did fact checking for the piece.) No-one seems to know where Idema went after he left Afghanistan, but he is clearly a very resourceful guy, so I wouldn't be surprised to hear about him again someday.

July 12, 2007

It's sad because it's true

The Simpsons movie probably won't be very good.

Hard Times

The New York Times today published the third article in a series on New Orleans and its residents and former residents. It begins with the story of an unemployed woman stranded in a Louisiana trailer park where the public bus only stops four times a week. Unsurprisingly, she's unable to get a job.

I'm glad the Times is doing this series. The ongoing tribulations of Katrina evacuees have become the kind of story that's the hardest to write under the conventions of mainstream journalism. Nothing has really changed; the subjects' lives are slowly getting worse due to obvious or predictable causes. For precisely these reasons, though, the subjects need more, not less, attention. One way of getting around this is for media organizations to invest real time and resources into such stories, so that they're not easily overlooked. A good example is the Washington Post series on the neglect of soldiers at Walter Reed. A few journalists had written about this before, and many more had done pieces on the numerous difficulties faced by returning soldiers. But when the Post allowed some of its best reporters to spend months on the piece, and shaped their reporting with strong storytelling, the result broke through public indifference.

July 11, 2007

Take that, iPhonies

Sure, the iPhone can play music and movies. But will it blend?

(Thanks, Michael.)

Why did John McCain really fire his trusted aides?

Because they made him wear "gay sweaters."


Karl Rove opines on the biggest problem at Guantanamo:

"Our principal health problem down there is gain of weight, we feed them so well," he said as many in the audience shook their heads and groaned in unison.

I think he may be referring to this.

July 10, 2007

Prisoner 345

I promise this blog will become something more interesting than a promotional device. But I am going to post a link to my cover story in this month's Columbia Journalism Review. The piece is a profile of Sami Al-Haj, an Al Jazeera cameraman who is, as far as anyone knows, the only journalist to be detained at Guantanamo Bay. Whenever I told anyone I was working on this piece, their first question was invariably "did you get to go to Guantanamo?" I didn't, because while journalists are allowed to take Potemkin-style tours of the camp, they can't talk to the detainees. So I reported the piece by talking to Al-Haj's family, friends, colleagues, and, by a stroke of uncanny luck, a former detainee who once occupied a cell adjoining Al Haj's. I also obtained a large pile of letters and poetry that Al Haj has written to his lawyer and family since he arrived in Cuba in June 2002.

One thing that I wanted to do with this material from inside Guantanamo was to show that, as bizarre as the place once seemed, its practices have now hardened into a strange culture among its inhabitants. Similarly, on the outside, we've grown accustomed to Guantanamo's existence. When Camp X-Ray was first established, you could at least argue that Guantanamo was an anomaly, an aberration from America's traditional observance of the laws of war prompted by extreme circumstances. Now, it's truly institutionalized. The manner in which such an abnormal place has acquired a facade of normality is possibly what disturbs me most. Some of the recent murmurings that Guantanamo may be moved or closed do sound promising (as does this recent news from the Supreme Court). But even if Guantanamo were to be closed tomorrow, the fact remains that the public mind has become inured to the practice of detaining people indefinitely within a law-free zone. That won't be so easy to reverse.

In addition to telling Sami Al Haj's story, the piece also explores the way the U.S. media reports on Guantanamo, compared with the international press; and details the attitudes of high-ranking officials within the Bush administration towards Al Jazeera. I'll write more on those subjects in later posts.


... to my brand new blog.