NEWS & VIEWS ROUNDUP: August 5

Author claims White House knew Iraq had no WMD

President Bush committed an impeachable offense by ordering the CIA to to manufacture a false pretense for the Iraq war in the form of a backdated, handwritten document linking Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda, an explosive new book claims.

The charge is made in “The Way of the World: A Story of Truth and Hope in an Age of Extremism” by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ron Suskind, released today.

Suskind says he spoke on the record with U.S. intelligence officials who stated that Bush was informed unequivocally in January 2003 that Saddam had no weapons of mass destruction. Nonetheless, his book relates, Bush decided to invade Iraq three months later — with the forged letter from the head of Iraqi intelligence to Saddam bolstering the U.S. rationale to go into war.

The battle for a country’s soul

Seven years after al-Qaeda’s attacks on America, as the Bush administration slips into history, it is clear that what began on September 11, 2001, as a battle for America’s security became, and continues to be, a battle for the country’s soul.

In looking back, one of the most remarkable features of this struggle is that almost from the start, and at almost every turn along the way, the Bush administration was warned that whatever the short-term benefits of its extralegal approach to fighting terrorism, it would have tragically destructive long-term consequences both for the rule of law and America’s interests in the world. These warnings came not just from political opponents, but also from experienced allies, including the British Intelligence Service, the experts in the traditionally conservative military and the FBI, and, perhaps most surprisingly, from a series of loyal Republican lawyers inside the administration itself. The number of patriotic critics inside the administration and out who threw themselves into trying to head off what they saw as a terrible departure from America’s ideals, often at an enormous price to their own careers, is both humbling and reassuring.

Instead of heeding this well-intentioned dissent, however, the Bush administration invoked the fear flowing from the attacks on September 11 to institute a policy of deliberate cruelty that would have been unthinkable on September 10. President Bush, Vice President Cheney, and a small handful of trusted advisers sought and obtained dubious legal opinions enabling them to circumvent American laws and traditions. In the name of protecting national security, the executive branch sanctioned coerced confessions, extrajudicial detention, and other violations of individuals’ liberties that had been prohibited since the country’s founding. They turned the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel into a political instrument, which they used to expand their own executive power at the expense of long-standing checks and balances.

Why misgovernment was no accident in George W. Bush’s Washington

Washington is the city where the scandals happen. Every American knows this, but we also believe, if only vaguely, that the really monumental scandals are a thing of the past, that the golden age of misgovernment-for-profit ended with the cavalry charge and the robber barons, at about the same time presidents stopped wearing beards.

I moved to Washington in 2003, just in time for the comeback, for the hundred-year flood. At first it was only a trickle in the basement, a little stream released accidentally by the president’s friends at Enron. Before long, though, the levees were failing all over town, and the city was inundated with a muddy torrent of graft.

How are we to dissect a deluge like this one? We might begin by categorizing the earmarks handed out by Congress, sorting the foolish earmarks from the costly earmarks from the earmarks made strictly on a cash basis. We could try a similar approach to government contracting: the no-bid contracts, the no-oversight contracts, the no-experience contracts, the contracts handed out to friends of the vice president. We might consider the shoplifting career of one of the president’s former domestic policy advisers or the habitual plagiarism of the president’s liaison to the Christian right. And we would certainly have to find some way to parse the extraordinary incompetence of the executive branch, incompetence so fulsome and steady and reliable that at some point Americans stopped being surprised and began simply to count on it, to think of incompetence as the way government works.

Secret deal kept British Army out of battle for Basra

A secret deal between Britain and the notorious al-Mahdi militia prevented British Forces from coming to the aid of their US and Iraqi allies for nearly a week during the battle for Basra this year, The Times has learnt.

Four thousand British troops – including elements of the SAS and an entire mechanised brigade – watched from the sidelines for six days because of an “accommodation” with the Iranian-backed group, according to American and Iraqi officers who took part in the assault.

US Marines and soldiers had to be rushed in to fill the void, fighting bitter street battles and facing mortar fire, rockets and roadside bombs with their Iraqi counterparts.

Radical Iraq cleric in retreat

Anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr — long a thorn in the side of the U.S. military and Iraqi government — intends to disarm his once-dominant Mahdi Army militia and remake it as a social-services organization.

The transformation would represent a significant turnabout for a group that, as recently as earlier this year, was seen as one of the most destabilizing anti-American forces in Iraq. For much of the past several years, the Mahdi Army, headed by Mr. Sadr, a Shiite cleric, controlled sizable chunks of Baghdad and other cities. Its brand of pro-Shiite activism had the side effect of pitting Iraqis against each other, helping to stir worries of civil war.

Recently, however, the group has been hit by a largely successful Iraqi military crackdown against militia members operating as criminal gangs. At the same time, Mr. Sadr’s popular support is dwindling: Residents who once viewed the Mahdi Army as champions of the poor became alienated by what they saw as its thuggish behavior.

Who’s really running Iraq?

American politicians and journalists have repeatedly made the same mistake in Iraq over the past five years. This is to assume that the US is far more in control of events in the country than has ever truly been the case. This was true after the fall of Saddam Hussein when President Bush and his viceroy in Baghdad Paul Bremer believed that what Iraqis thought and did could safely be ignored. Within months guerrilla war against American forces was raging across central Iraq.

The ability of America to make unilateral decisions in Iraq is diminishing by the month, but the White House was still horrified to hear the Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki appearing to endorse Barack Obama’s plan for the withdrawal of American combat troops over 16 months. This cut the ground from under the feet of John McCain who has repeatedly declared that ‘victory’ is at last within America’s grasp because of the great achievements of ‘the Surge’, the American reinforcements sent to Iraq in 2007 to regain control of Baghdad.

Iraqis no longer ask, ‘Are you Sunni or Shiite?’

For years, when she approached Iraqi Army checkpoints and produced an identification card for soldiers to study for clues about her sect, Nadia Hashim used a simple formula to signal the mostly Shiite Muslim force that she, too, is a Shiite.

“I am one of you,” she’d say.

The soldiers would harass Sunnis, but they’d simply wave Hashim through.

Now her pat line gets her an official reproach.

When a relative used it recently, a soldier admonished the driver and the passengers. “‘We are Iraqis, and you shouldn’t say such a thing,’ ” recalled Hashim.

U.S. may have taped visits to detainees

The Bush administration informed all foreign intelligence and law enforcement teams visiting their citizens held at Guantanamo Bay that video and sound from their interrogation sessions would be recorded, according to documents obtained by The Washington Post. The policy suggests that the United States could possess hundreds or thousands of hours of secret taped conversations between detainees and representatives from nearly three dozen countries.

Numerous State Department cables to foreign government delegations in 2002 and 2003 show that each country was subject to rules and regulations “to protect the interests and ensure the safety of all concerned.” Condition No. 1 stated that U.S. authorities would closely monitor the interrogations, a practice that the Defense Department confirmed last week was also carried out to gather intelligence.

“The United States will video tape and sound record the interviews between representatives of your government and the detainee(s) named above,” read several of the nearly identical cables, obtained via a Freedom of Information Act request.

Accused Al Qaeda sleeper agent in custody

One of the more elusive and mysterious figures linked to Al Qaeda — a Pakistani mother of three who studied biology at MIT and who authorities say spent years in the United States as a sleeper agent — was flown to New York on Monday night to face charges of attempting to kill U.S. military and FBI personnel in Afghanistan.

The Justice Department, FBI and U.S. military in Afghanistan said that Aafia Siddiqui, 36, was arrested in Ghazni province three weeks ago. She is accused of firing an automatic rifle at FBI agents and soldiers and is scheduled to appear before a federal judge in Manhattan today.

Authorities believe Siddiqui used the technical skills she acquired at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to do what virtually no other woman has accomplished — work her way into the clubby inner circles of Al Qaeda’s command and control operation, including its chemical and biological weapons program.

US eyes up Pakistan’s lawless lands

The turbulent prospect of direct US intervention against al-Qaida and Taliban jihadi bases in Pakistani territory adjoining Afghanistan appears to have moved closer following last week’s visit to Washington by Pakistan’s new prime minister, Yousef Raza Gilani.

Far from reassuring his hosts that Islamabad is on top of the situation in the so-called tribal areas, Gilani’s uncertain performance seems to have convinced US officials of the need to move quickly. A sub-text to this dangerously fast-moving drama is George Bush’s desire to catch or kill his 9/11 nemesis, Osama bin Laden, before he leaves office in January.

Bin Laden and senior al-Qaida leaders are believed to be in the lawless, former princely state of Swat, in North-West Frontier province, or in areas such as Waziristan in Pakistan’s federally administered tribal areas. Their support for Taliban efforts to drive Nato forces out of Afghanistan has brought escalating military and civilian casualties – and pressure from US commanders to strike back across the border.

Syrian general’s killing severs Hezbollah links

The mysterious assassination of a senior Syrian Army official has severed another link between the Lebanese militia Hezbollah and its military suppliers, prompting rumours of tumult in the shadowy Damascus regime.

Brigadier General Mohammed Suleiman, a close associate of Bashar al-Assad, the young Syrian president who succeeded his father eight years ago, was shot dead in the Syrian coastal resort of Tartous on Friday, apparently by a sniper fire from a yacht.

The killing came just months after Hezbollah’s leading military planner, Imad Mughniyeh, was blow to pieces by a bomb planted in his car, causing speculation that Syrian intelligence may have been infiltrated by foreign agents, the most common suspects being Israel or the US.

Hamas and Fatah are a bigger threat to the Palestinians than Israel

It is a damning indication of just how bad things have become in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip when Fatah militants there must look to Israel for protection from their Palestinian rivals. The Jewish state announced on Monday that it would help a group of 150 Fatah fighters who had fled weekend clashes in Gaza relocate to the West Bank, after determining that they would face “imminent danger” if they were to return home. The scenes of Israel coming to the rescue of Palestinians after a bout of Arab fratricide were reminiscent of the events of Black September, during which scores of Palestinians sought asylum in Israel to escape King Hussein’s crackdown on the Palestine Liberation Organization. The only difference this time around is that instead of seeking refuge from a heavy-handed Arab crackdown, Palestinians are fleeing from the murderous hands of their own Palestinian brothers.

Achievement of the Palestinian cause requires that all factions maintain a semblance of orderliness and keep their eyes on the price of independent statehood. In this both Fatah and Hamas have been miserable failures. Both have put partisan interests ahead of national ones and therefore have failed to maintain anything like a united Palestinian front. Even the mediation attempts of Egypt, Yemen and Saudi Arabia have not been enough to curb the political infighting and internecine bloodshed that have served to further threaten the Palestinians’ very right to existence.

In Gaza, a blurry line between enemies and friends

The events of the past few days in and around Gaza — mortar and grenade battles, negotiations drawing in Israel and Egypt, and the bizarre denouement in which Israel both saved and interrogated scores of Palestinian fighters — offer a glimpse of the byzantine nature of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

While broadly presented to the world as a fight between the two main Palestinian factions, Hamas and Fatah, the developments in fact mirror a more complex set of relationships and shifting alliances that help explain why this conflict remains so difficult to resolve.

Any fight here has its origins in earlier violence, so where to begin is problematic. Nonetheless, these particular events began at dawn on Saturday when Hamas forces, which have ruled Gaza for the past year, surrounded the home of the sprawling, well-armed and once powerful Hilles clan, whose chief had been associated with Fatah.

Gazans’ access to care faulted

Israel’s domestic security service requires Gazans who wish to enter Israel for medical treatment to submit to detailed interviews about their knowledge of political and militant groups, according to Physicians for Human Rights-Israel, a nonprofit group based in Tel Aviv.

The Israeli security service “uses the weakness, the helplessness of the Palestinian patients in Gaza in trying to pressure them to be collaborators,” said Ruchama Marton, the group’s founder. In a report released Monday, the group documents 32 cases of Palestinians who said they were told that a permit to enter Israel for medical care was conditional on being willing to deliver information.

Is Google making us stupid?

Over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going—so far as I can tell—but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I’m reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.

I think I know what’s going on. For more than a decade now, I’ve been spending a lot of time online, searching and surfing and sometimes adding to the great databases of the Internet. The Web has been a godsend to me as a writer. Research that once required days in the stacks or periodical rooms of libraries can now be done in minutes. A few Google searches, some quick clicks on hyperlinks, and I’ve got the telltale fact or pithy quote I was after. Even when I’m not working, I’m as likely as not to be foraging in the Web’s info-thickets—reading and writing e-mails, scanning headlines and blog posts, watching videos and listening to podcasts, or just tripping from link to link to link. (Unlike footnotes, to which they’re sometimes likened, hyperlinks don’t merely point to related works; they propel you toward them.)

For me, as for others, the Net is becoming a universal medium, the conduit for most of the information that flows through my eyes and ears and into my mind. The advantages of having immediate access to such an incredibly rich store of information are many, and they’ve been widely described and duly applauded. “The perfect recall of silicon memory,” Wired’s Clive Thompson has written, “can be an enormous boon to thinking.” But that boon comes at a price. As the media theorist Marshall McLuhan pointed out in the 1960s, media are not just passive channels of information. They supply the stuff of thought, but they also shape the process of thought. And what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.

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