The War in Context  
  Iraq + war on terrorism + Middle East conflict + critical perspectives     

'These people died silently, complaining to God of a guilt they did not commit'
By Ellen Knickmeyer, Washington Post, December 24, 2005

U.S. Marine airstrikes targeting insurgents sheltering in Iraqi residential neighborhoods are killing civilians as well as guerrillas along the Euphrates River in far western Iraq, according to Iraqi townspeople and officials and the U.S. military.

Just how many civilians have been killed is strongly disputed by the Marines and, some critics say, too little investigated. But townspeople, tribal leaders, medical workers and accounts from witnesses at the sites of clashes, at hospitals and at graveyards indicated that scores of noncombatants were killed last month in fighting, including airstrikes, in the opening stages of a 17-day U.S.-Iraqi offensive in Anbar province.

"These people died silently, complaining to God of a guilt they did not commit," Zahid Mohammed Rawi, a physician, said in the town of Husaybah. Rawi said that roughly one week into Operation Steel Curtain, which began on Nov. 5, medical workers had recorded 97 civilians killed. At least 38 insurgents were also killed in the offensive's early days, Rawi said. [complete article]

Spy agency mined vast data trove, officials report
By Eric Lichtblau and James Risen, New York Times, December 24, 2005

The National Security Agency has traced and analyzed large volumes of telephone and Internet communications flowing into and out of the United States as part of the eavesdropping program that President Bush approved after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to hunt for evidence of terrorist activity, according to current and former government officials.

The volume of information harvested from telecommunication data and voice networks, without court-approved warrants, is much larger than the White House has acknowledged, the officials said. It was collected by tapping directly into some of the American telecommunication system's main arteries, they said.
A former technology manager at a major telecommunications company said that since the Sept. 11 attacks, the leading companies in the industry have been storing information on calling patterns and giving it to the federal government to aid in tracking possible terrorists.

"All that data is mined with the cooperation of the government and shared with them, and since 9/11, there's been much more active involvement in that area," said the former manager, a telecommunications expert who did not want his name or that of his former company used because of concern about revealing trade secrets. [complete article]

Comment -- So the NYT would have us believe that this manager - loyal to his former employer - is concerned about revealing trade secrets (and presumably also being in breach of his non-disclosure agreement)? Bullshit! Verizon, AT&T, SBC, and every other provider knows - as does this former manager - that they've got one Mother of All PR Disasters on their hands as soon as their name gets linked to the NSA.

Nuclear monitoring of Muslims done without search warrants
By David E. Kaplan, US News & World Report, December 22, 2005

In search of a terrorist nuclear bomb, the federal government since 9/11 has run a far-reaching, top secret program to monitor radiation levels at over a hundred Muslim sites in the Washington, D.C., area, including mosques, homes, businesses, and warehouses, plus similar sites in at least five other cities, U.S. News has learned. In numerous cases, the monitoring required investigators to go on to the property under surveillance, although no search warrants or court orders were ever obtained, according to those with knowledge of the program. Some participants were threatened with loss of their jobs when they questioned the legality of the operation, according to these accounts. [complete article]

In 1984 memo, Alito defends wiretapping protections for officials
By Jonathan S. Landay, Knight Ridder, December 23, 2005

As a Reagan administration lawyer, Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito argued that federal officials can't be sued for damages for wiretapping Americans without warrants in national security cases, a document released Friday showed.

Alito's position may complicate his prospects for confirmation because its disclosure comes amid an uproar over a four-year-old Bush administration counterterrorism operation that's been eavesdropping on Americans without court approval. [complete article]

Iraqi court disqualifies prominent Sunni candidates
By Nancy A. Youssef and Huda Ahmed, Knight Ridder, December 23, 2005

An Iraqi court has ruled that some of the most prominent Sunni Muslims who were elected to parliament last week won't be allowed to serve because officials suspect that they were high-ranking members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party.

Knight Ridder has obtained a copy of the court ruling, which has yet to be circulated to the public.

The ruling is likely to dampen Bush administration hopes that the election would bring more of the disaffected Sunni minority into Iraq's political process and undermine Sunni support for the insurgency. Instead, the decision is likely to stoke fears of widening sectarian divisions in a nation already in danger of descending into civil war. [complete article]

Military confirms surge in airstrikes
By Bradley Graham, Washington Post, December 24, 2005

U.S. airstrikes in Iraq have surged this fall, jumping to nearly five times the average monthly rate earlier in the year, according to U.S. military figures.

Until the end of August, U.S. warplanes were conducting about 25 strikes a month. The number rose to 62 in September, then to 122 in October and 120 in November. [complete article]

Fear overshadows Christmas joy in Baghdad
By Omar al-Ibadi, Reuters (via Yahoo), December 23, 2005

The biggest celebration of the year for Christians is only a day away, yet the Virgin Mary Church in Baghdad wears a deserted, almost forlorn look.

The festive lights and glittery decorations of years past are nowhere to be seen.

A small, unshapely tree with silver and purple ornaments stands near the pulpit -- a poor substitute for a traditional giant Christmas tree that, in years past, was decorated to the sounds of young men and women singing hymns.

Just six women came to evening prayers a few days ahead of Christmas, leaving rows of pews empty in the dimly lit church.

It wasn't always this way.

"We used to celebrate this occasion by praying, and hundreds of believers would gather and wish each other well in the church lobby," said Father Boutros Haddad, the priest at the church in Baghdad's predominantly Christian neighborhood. "But we've stopped this because of the security situation."

Yet another somber Christmas is rolling by for Iraq's roughly 600,000 Christians, who enjoyed relative freedom under Saddam, but now live in fear of attacks from increasingly powerful Islamist groups and militias. [complete article]

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Daschle: Congress denied Bush war powers in U.S.
By Barton Gellman, Washington Post, December 23, 2005

The Bush administration requested, and Congress rejected, war-making authority "in the United States" in negotiations over the joint resolution passed days after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, according to an opinion article by former Senate majority leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) in today's Washington Post.

Daschle's disclosure challenges a central legal argument offered by the White House in defense of the National Security Agency's warrantless wiretapping of U.S. citizens and permanent residents. It suggests that Congress refused explicitly to grant authority that the Bush administration now asserts is implicit in the resolution. [complete article]

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Mr. Cheney's imperial presidency
Editorial, New York Times, December 23, 2005

George W. Bush has quipped several times during his political career that it would be so much easier to govern in a dictatorship. Apparently he never told his vice president that this was a joke.

Virtually from the time he chose himself to be Mr. Bush's running mate in 2000, Dick Cheney has spearheaded an extraordinary expansion of the powers of the presidency - from writing energy policy behind closed doors with oil executives to abrogating longstanding treaties and using the 9/11 attacks as a pretext to invade Iraq, scrap the Geneva Conventions and spy on American citizens.

It was a chance Mr. Cheney seems to have been dreaming about for decades. Most Americans looked at wrenching events like the Vietnam War, the Watergate scandal and the Iran-contra debacle and worried that the presidency had become too powerful, secretive and dismissive. Mr. Cheney looked at the same events and fretted that the presidency was not powerful enough, and too vulnerable to inspection and calls for accountability. [complete article]

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John C. Yoo had a big role in terror policy
By Tim Golden, New York Times, December 23, 2005

While a mere deputy assistant attorney general in the legal counsel office, Mr. Yoo was a primary author of a series of legal opinions on the fight against terrorism, including one that said the Geneva Conventions did not apply and at least two others that countenanced the use of highly coercive interrogation techniques on terror suspects. Recently, current and former officials said he also wrote a still-secret 2002 memorandum that gave legal backing to the administration's secret program to eavesdrop on the international communications of Americans and others inside the United States without federal warrants.

A genial, soft-spoken man with what friends say is a fiercely competitive streak, Mr. Yoo built particularly strong working relationships with several key legal officials in the White House and the Pentagon. Some current and former government officials contend that those relationships were in fact so close that Mr. Yoo was able to operate with a degree of autonomy that rankled senior Justice Department officials, including John Ashcroft, then the attorney general. [complete article]

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Bush's impeachable offense
By Michelle Goldberg, Salon, December 22, 2005

"The fact is, the federal law is perfectly clear," [George Washington University School of Law professor, Jonathan] Turley says. "At the heart of this operation was a federal crime. The president has already conceded that he personally ordered that crime and renewed that order at least 30 times. This would clearly satisfy the standard of high crimes and misdemeanors for the purpose of an impeachment."

Turley is no Democratic partisan; he testified to Congress in favor of Bill Clinton's impeachment. "Many of my Republican friends joined in that hearing and insisted that this was a matter of defending the rule of law, and had nothing to do with political antagonism," he says. "I'm surprised that many of those same voices are silent. The crime in this case was a knowing and premeditated act. This operation violated not just the federal statute but the United States Constitution. For Republicans to suggest that this is not a legitimate question of federal crimes makes a mockery of their position during the Clinton period. For Republicans, this is the ultimate test of principle."

Of course, that may be exactly the problem. While noted experts -- including a few Republicans -- are saying Bush should be impeached, few think he will be. It's not clear that the political will exists to hold the president to account. "We have finally reached the constitutional Rubicon," Turley says. "If Congress cannot stand firm against the open violation of federal law by the president, then we have truly become an autocracy." [complete article]

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GOP blocks action on Senate intelligence authorization bill
By Dafna Linzer, Washington Post, December 23, 2005

Senate Republicans late Wednesday blocked the authorization bill that guides the country's intelligence programs. It was the first time in 27 years that the bill had failed to pass before the end of the calendar year.
Democrats were informed last week that Republicans would clear the bill if three amendments, two by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and one by Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), would be stripped from the consent agreement.

But Democrats balked because Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), the chairman of the Senate intelligence panel, had agreed to the amendments. Roberts's staff did not return calls for comment yesterday.

Kerry's amendment would require the director of national intelligence to give the intelligence panels information on secret CIA prisons in several Eastern European democracies and in Asia.

Kennedy's amendments would require the White House to turn over copies of daily intelligence briefs that President Bush and former President Bill Clinton reviewed on Iraq. [complete article]

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Unable to end 'unlawful' detention, judge says
By Josh White,Washington Post, December 23, 2005

A federal judge in Washington ruled yesterday that the continued detention of two ethnic Uighurs at the U.S. prison facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, is "unlawful," but he decided he had no authority to order their release.

U.S. District Judge James Robertson criticized the government's detention of Abu Bakker Qassim and Adel Abdu Hakim, who have been jailed at Guantanamo for four years; they have been cleared for release because the government has determined they are not enemy combatants and are not a threat to the United States. But Robertson said his court has "no relief to offer" because the government has not found a country to accept the men and because he does not have authority to let them enter the United States.

Robertson wrote that the government has taken too long to arrange a release for the men, who cannot return to their Chinese homeland because they would likely be tortured or killed there. U.S. authorities have asked about two dozen countries to grant the men political asylum, but none has accepted, in part out of fear of angering China. [complete article]

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New warrants for CIA operatives
CBS/AP, December 23, 2005

A judge has issued European arrest warrants for 22 purported CIA operatives in connection with the alleged kidnapping of an Egyptian cleric from a Milan street in 2003, a prosecutor said Friday.

Prosecutor Armando Spataro said the warrants allowed for the arrest of the suspects in any of the 25 EU member countries. Previously, Italy had issued arrest warrants for the 22 inside Italy.

Spataro has already sought the extradition of the 22 from the U.S. However, the request has remained with Justice Minister Roberto Castelli, who has sought more court documentation on the case before making any decision on whether to forward it to Washington, Spataro said. [complete article]

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Arrests reveal Zarqawi network in Europe
By Anton La Guardia, The Telegraph, December 22, 2005

A wave of arrests across Europe has thrown new light on a European terrorist network being developed by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the most prominent insurgent in Iraq.

A growing number of terrorism investigations in Britain, Germany, Bosnia, Denmark and most recently Spain and France are linked to the man who has masterminded countless suicide bombings in Iraq, personally beheaded hostages and bombed three hotels in his native Jordan.

Some of the suspected networks appear to be involved only in supporting his operations in Iraq. But counter-terrorism officials are worried that Zarqawi could be planning to use his base in Iraq to start attacking Europe.

Security officials are particularly worried by indications that he wants to recruit white extremists who will be more difficult to detect than Arabs or Asians.

"Zarqawi thinks he is bigger than Iraq," a British source said. "He is spreading his tentacles in Europe. There is a sense that attacks are inevitable. [complete article]

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Iraqi political parties threaten a boycott
By Omar Fekeiki and Jonathan Finer, Washington Post, December 23, 2005

A coalition of more than 60 political parties threatened Thursday to boycott Iraq's next parliament and warned of a surge in violence if new nationwide elections were not held.

The group, led by top Sunni Arab parties and the secular coalition led by former interim prime minister Ayad Allawi, issued a statement denouncing last Thursday's elections as fraudulent and listing demands they said must be met before they would participate in the new legislature.

Otherwise, "we will not have any other choice but to boycott the political process and the coming parliament," said the statement, read aloud during a news conference attended by representatives from most of the parties involved. "This would lead to more struggle and bloody violence and threat to the Iraqi entity and its people." [complete article]

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Chalabi's defeat puts U.S. friends in quandary
By Aram Roston, MSNBC, December 22, 2005

Preliminary results in the Iraqi capital of Baghdad indicate that Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress scored a minuscule 0.36 percent of the votes.

Out of almost 2.5 million voters in Baghdad, only 8,645 voted for Chalabi.

In the Shiite city of Basra, the results indicate he had an equally dismal showing of 0.34 percent of the vote.

In the violent Sunni province of Anbar, 113 people voted for him. [complete article]

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Barghouti calls for Fatah's reunification
Daily Star, December 23, 2005

Jailed uprising leader Marwan Barghouti called Thursday for the reunification of the Fatah party and a senior Palestinian official warned Israel's attempt to ban voting in East Jerusalem could spark a civil war. On another front, Israeli occupation troops killed four Palestinians militants in a West Bank clash and shelled the Gaza Strip to stop rocket fire. Israel's vice premier warned of the possibility of an invasion of the Strip by ground troops if violence continues.

Amid fears the increasingly popular Hamas could win the election, Fatah's veteran leaders were trying Thursday to rein in Barghouti's Future list, an offshoot formed from a younger generation of party members. [complete article]

See also, Hamas on the ballot(NYT).

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Iraq troops sent back to bases ahead of pullout
By David Charter and Michael Evans, The Times, December 23, 2005

Tony Blair set the clock ticking for British troops to start withdrawing from Iraq in six months' time as it emerged that more than 1,000 soldiers had already been pulled back from frontline duties.

Troops in half the area under British control have stopped routine patrols and have returned to their barracks, The Times has learnt.

Senior defence sources said that the 800 British troops in Maysan province and 300 in Muthana province had switched to a "tactical overwatch" role -- remaining in their barracks and only going out on patrol with the Iraqi security forces when they asked for help. This is the first stage in withdrawing altogether from the provinces, following a similar pattern adopted in Northern Ireland. [complete article]

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Various private armies still exist, threatening Iraq's national security
By Phil Sands, San Francisco Chronicle, December 21, 2005

Fighters loyal to radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr have set up a base in Samarra, a Sunni-dominated city 60 miles north of Baghdad and home to a powerful insurgent movement.

The troops are part of an Interior Ministry special commando unit, based in Baghdad. But while they wear the camouflage fatigues of a government security force and receive a government salary, many of the SWAT-style team members have pledged their allegiance to al-Sadr and are adamant they are part of the Mahdi Army, his private militia.

At an outpost in Samarra, dozens of officers from the 1st Brigade Special Police Commando -- the Lion Brigade -- told The Chronicle that they followed al-Sadr. One, who identified himself only as Saif, said the men answered to the cleric and would do as he ordered. Like his colleagues, he wore a badge bearing the commando motto: "Loyal to country."

"There are almost 70 commandos here, and 57 of us are Mahdi Army," he explained. "Although we are in commando uniforms, we are still Mahdi Army. We have soldiers all over Iraq now, and every place in the south has Muqtada's men. Sadr is a hero." [complete article]

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Iraqi court upset over U.S. release of prisoners
Los Angeles Times, December 22, 2005

The Iraqi High Tribunal, the special court trying ousted President Saddam Hussein and other leaders of his former government, on Wednesday publicly disagreed with a U.S. decision to release a group of high-profile prisoners.

A statement released by the court said the tribunal did not free the accused, who included Rihab Taha, known as Dr. Germ, and Huda Salih Mahdi Ammash, known as Mrs. Anthrax. The court said it would hunt them down and continue taking "judicial measures" against them.

The court statement came as an Iraqi lawyer said that U.S. forces were providing protection for most of the former prisoners, at least eight of whom were freed Saturday after American officials decided that they no longer posed a security threat. [complete article]

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Court bars transfer of Padilla to face new terrorism charges
By Jerry Markon, Washington Post, December 22, 2005

A federal appeals court yesterday refused to authorize the transfer of "enemy combatant" Jose Padilla to face new criminal charges, issuing a strongly worded opinion rebuking the Bush administration and its handling of the high-profile terrorism case.

The same court that had granted the administration wide latitude in holding Padilla without charges or a court appearance now is suggesting that the detention was a mistake. As a result, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit said prosecutors could not take custody of Padilla from the military and take him to Miami, where he now faces indictment on terrorism charges.

In issuing its denial, the court cited the government's changing rationale for Padilla's detention, questioning why it used one set of arguments before federal judges deciding whether it was legal for the military to hold Padilla and another set before the Miami grand jury. [complete article]

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Patriot Act provisions extension is shortened to 5 weeks
By aura Reynolds and Joel Havemann, Los Angeles Times, December 22, 2005

The chairman of the House Judiciary Committee refused Thursday to accept a Senate decision to extend expiring provisions of the Patriot Act for six months, giving his approval only to a much shorter five-week extension.

The shorter extension passed by voice vote in a near-empty House and by unanimous consent hours later in the Senate, with just one lawmaker -- Sen. John Warner, R-Va., who lives nearby -- present. It effectively puts off until late January a showdown over the controversial legislation, which was quickly passed in the weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks to grant law enforcement sweeping new powers to investigate terrorism. [complete article]

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File the Bin Laden phone leak under 'urban myths'
By Glenn Kessler, Washington Post, December 22, 2005

President Bush asserted this week that the news media published a U.S. government leak in 1998 about Osama bin Laden's use of a satellite phone, alerting the al Qaeda leader to government monitoring and prompting him to abandon the device.

The story of the vicious leak that destroyed a valuable intelligence operation was first reported by a best-selling book, validated by the Sept. 11 commission and then repeated by the president.

But it appears to be an urban myth. [complete article]

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Judges on surveillance court to be briefed on spy program
By Carol D. Leonnig and Dafna Linzer, Washington Post, December 22, 2005

The presiding judge of a secret court that oversees government surveillance in espionage and terrorism cases is arranging a classified briefing for her fellow judges to address their concerns about the legality of President Bush's domestic spying program, according to several intelligence and government sources.

Several members of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court said in interviews that they want to know why the administration believed secretly listening in on telephone calls and reading e-mails of U.S. citizens without court authorization was legal. Some of the judges said they are particularly concerned that information gleaned from the president's eavesdropping program may have been improperly used to gain authorized wiretaps from their court.

"The questions are obvious," said U.S. District Judge Dee Benson of Utah. "What have you been doing, and how might it affect the reliability and credibility of the information we're getting in our court?" [complete article]

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News of surveillance is awkward for agency
By Scott Shane, New York Times, December 22, 2005

Testifying before a Senate committee last April, Gen. Michael V. Hayden, then head of the National Security Agency, emphasized how scrupulously the agency was protecting Americans from its electronic snooping.

"We are, I would offer, the most aggressive agency in the intelligence community when it comes to protecting U.S. privacy," General Hayden said. "We just have to be that way."

It was one of General Hayden's favorite themes in public speeches and interviews: the agency's mammoth eavesdropping network was directed at foreigners, not Americans. As a PowerPoint presentation posted on the agency's Web site puts it, for an American to be a target, "Court Order Required in the United States."

In fact, since 2002, authorized by a secret order from President Bush, the agency has intercepted the international phone calls and e-mail messages of hundreds, possibly thousands, of American citizens and others in the United States without obtaining court orders. The discrepancy between the public claims and the secret domestic eavesdropping disclosed last week have put the N.S.A., the nation's largest intelligence agency, and General Hayden, now principal deputy director of national intelligence, in an awkward position. [complete article]

Comment -- By framing this issue in terms of the inalienable rights of Americans versus the non-existent rights of foreigners, the real nature of the NSA is being obscured. As an eavesdropping agency, the NSA is necessarily a law-breaking agency, but so long as it operates in a communications arena that falls outside the jurisdiction of American courts then Washington will see, hear and speak no evil.

The language currently being used - wiretaps, suspects etc. - sounds like it's geared to match the expectations of the public and conjure up Hollywood images of surveillance technicians wearing headphones, diligently waiting to pick up the vital clue that might avert a disasterous act of terrorism. It would be more accurate, however, to think of the NSA's primary task being to eavesdrop in a much more expansive way.

Investigative journalist, Duncan Campbell, has been researching US-UK communications intelligence activities since the 1970's and revealed the existence of the ECHELON project in 1988. In his report, Interception Capabilities 2000, presented to the European Parliament in Brussels in February 2000, he wrote:
Although precise details of US space-based Sigint satellites launched after 1990 remain obscure, it is apparent from observation of the relevant ground centres that collection systems have expanded rather than contracted. [...] The satellites and their processing facilities are exceptionally costly (of the order of $1 billion US each). In 1998, the US National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) announced plans to combine the three separate classes of Sigint satellites into an Integrated Overhead Sigint Architecture (IOSA) in order to " improve Sigint performance and avoid costs by consolidating systems, utilising ... new satellite and data processing technologies". It follows that, within constraints imposed by budgetary limitation and tasking priorities, the United States can if it chooses direct space collection systems to intercept mobile communications signals and microwave city-to-city traffic anywhere on the planet [emphasis added]. The geographical and processing difficulties of collecting messages simultaneously from all parts of the globe suggest strongly that the tasking of these satellites will be directed towards the highest priority national and military targets. Thus, although European communications passing on inter-city microwave routes can be collected, it is likely that they are normally ignored. But it is very highly probable that communications to or from Europe and which pass through the microwave communications networks of Middle Eastern states are collected and processed.
Although there is currently some speculation about the "wiretaps" involving a new technology - it's hard to resist imagining that DARPA must have come up with some dazzling new data processing system - I'm inclined to think that the real issue is an executive decision to fudge the legal protocols that determine what is out of bounds for the NSA. The White House and the NSA could both say that the operating procedures for gathering intelligence remain unchanged while periodically executive "exceptions" are being granted.

This is an administration that is actually quite timid when it comes to winning public debates. Its first choice has always been to look for "legal" wiggle room and thereafter avoid scrutiny.

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NSA loath to spy in domestic cases
By Rowan Scarborough, Washington Times, December 22, 2005

The National Security Agency, thrust into the spotlight by revelations that it intercepts foreign-to-U.S. communications, was a reluctant warrior in such domestic cases until al Qaeda struck on September 11.

The agency, its unassuming headquarters hidden by the walls of Fort Meade, Md., shunned seeking a federal court's permission to conduct eavesdropping inside the United States because it thought that was the FBI's job. [complete article]

Comment -- The NSA's "unassuming headquarters"? Maybe Scarborough was thinking of Bletchley Park, home to Britain's codebreakers in WWII.

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Iraq's election result: a divided nation
By Patrick Cockburn, The Independent, December 21, 2005

Iraq is disintegrating. The first results from the parliamentary election last week show the country is dividing between Shia, Sunni and Kurdish regions.

Religious fundamentalists now have the upper hand. The secular and nationalist candidate backed by the US and Britain was humiliatingly defeated.

The Shia religious coalition has won a total victory in Baghdad and the south of Iraq. The Sunni Arab parties who openly or covertly support armed resistance to the US are likely to win large majorities in Sunni provinces. The Kurds have already achieved quasi-independence and their voting reflected that.

The election marks the final shipwreck of American and British hopes of establishing a pro-Western secular democracy in a united Iraq. [complete article]

See also, Sunni claims that poll was rigged raise fears of fresh insurgency (The Times), Iraqi vote points to Islamist path (CSM) and Iraq election results will pose new challenges for U.S. policy (LAT).

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Heavy poll defeat for nationalists 'could lead to further destabilisation'
By Oliver Poole, The Telegraph, December 21, 2005

The country's leading nationalist party, led by Iyad Allawi, the former interim prime minister, appears to have gained only about 12 per cent of the vote, while a secular list headed by Ahmad Chalabi, the former Pentagon favourite, performed so badly that it may not even win a single seat. [complete article]

Comment -- And it was only a month ago that the Washington Post was reporting that Chalabi "is a strong contender for prime minister in next month's elections, and highly placed sources say he has become the choice of many U.S. officials to lead the country."

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Iraq minister cites threat of Hussein loyalists
By Jonathan Finer, Washington Post, December 21, 2005

Iraq's outgoing interior minister said Tuesday that forces loyal to former president Saddam Hussein's Baath Party posed the greatest security challenge to the next government and that their influence and capability grew while U.S. and Iraqi troops were focusing counterinsurgency efforts on foreign fighters.

The threat from groups such as al Qaeda in Iraq, led by the Jordanian Abu Musab Zarqawi, has waned in recent months, said Interior Minister Bayan Jabr, a powerful and polarizing figure in Iraq's Shiite Muslim-dominated cabinet whose term expires early next year.

"I believe from my own sources that al Qaeda is weakening here and will be gone, in part because we have done a better job closing the border in the west. Now it's the Baathists," Jabr said in a wide-ranging interview at his office in a lavish marble palace that once belonged to one of Hussein's top lieutenants. "At first, all efforts were directed at the foreign groups. The Baathists were left alive, not chased and not hunted. They could carry on doing their thing." [complete article]

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Pain ray headed to Iraq?
By Noah Shachtman, DefenseTech, December 20, 2005

It's been talked about for years. But the Pentagon's microwave-like pain ray may finally be headed to Iraq, Inside the Army reports.

Developed by the Air Force, the so-called "Active Denial System" (ADS) fires out milimeter waves -- a sort of cousin of microwaves, in the 95 GHz range. The invisible beams penetrate just a 64th of inch beneath the skin. But that's deep enough to heat up the water inside a person. Which is enough to cause excruciating pain.

Seconds later, people have to run away. And that causes mobs to break up in a hurry. It's no wonder, then, why less-lethal weapon guru Charles "Sid" Heal calls the ray the "Holy Grail of crowd control."

Raytheon has been developing a Humvee-mountable ADS for the Pentagon over the last couple of years, as part of an ACTD, or "advanced concept technology demonstration." [complete article]

See also, 'Active Denial System' sought for Iraq (

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Defending science by defining it
By David Brown and Rick Weiss, Washington Post, December 21, 2005

The opinion written by Judge John E. Jones III in the Dover evolution trial is a two-in-one document that offers both philosophical and practical arguments against "intelligent design" likely to be useful to far more than a school board in a small Pennsylvania town.

Jones gives a clear definition of science, and recounts how this vaunted mode of inquiry has evolved over the centuries. He describes how scientists go about the task of supporting or challenging ideas about the world of the senses -- all that can be observed and measured. And he reaches the unwavering conclusion that intelligent design is a religious idea, not a scientific one.

His opinion is a passionate paean to science. But it is also a strategic defense of Darwinian theory.

When evolution's defenders find themselves tongue-tied and seemingly bested by neo-creationists -- when they believe they have the facts on their side but do not know where to find them -- this 139-page document [PDF] may be the thing they turn to. [complete article]

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Spying program snared U.S. calls
By James Risen and Eric Lichtblau, New York Times, December 21, 2005

A surveillance program approved by President Bush to conduct eavesdropping without warrants has captured what are purely domestic communications in some cases, despite a requirement by the White House that one end of the intercepted conversations take place on foreign soil, officials say.

The officials say the National Security Agency's interception of a small number of communications between people within the United States was apparently accidental, and was caused by technical glitches at the National Security Agency in determining whether a communication was in fact "international."

Telecommunications experts say the issue points up troubling logistical questions about the program. At a time when communications networks are increasingly globalized, it is sometimes difficult even for the N.S.A. to determine whether someone is inside or outside the United States when making a cellphone call or sending an e-mail message. As a result, people that the security agency may think are outside the United States are actually on American soil. [complete article]

Comment -- The administration's all-embracing justification for extending executive powers - the one they've been using for over four years now - is, this is a different kind of war.

OK. So we have to think outside the box. But when it comes to constitutional war powers, "the box" here is the US Constitution. A different kind of war apparently requires different kinds of war powers and thus a different kind of constitution. Nevertheless, you have to govern with the consititution you have, not the constitution you might want -- as Rumsfeld might put it.

When it comes to the specific question about NSA surveillance, the debate thus far is pitting the civil rights of US citizens against the security needs of the nation. That might make sense to anyone who's never travelled abroad, but imagine for a moment that you're an American living in London talking to an American working in Riyadh. Do you imagine that the NSA has the desire, interest or capablity to filter out this type of communication between Americans as it monitors global communications?

The overarching issue here is not the civil liberties of Americans; it is a broader question about freedom and security. We can either have freedom or security, but since one always undermines the other, ultimately we cannot have both. The question is, who strikes the balance and can they legitimately make that determination in secret? Bush and Cheney seem to think that this is their prerogative. I suspect that most Americans think otherwise.

(For a detailed study on communications intelligence, see Interception Capabilities 2000, a report written by investigative journalist, Duncan Campbell, for the Director General for Research of the European Parliament.)

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Spy court judge quits in protest
By Carol D. Leonnig and Dafna Linzer, Washington Post, December 21, 2005

A federal judge has resigned from the court that oversees government surveillance in intelligence cases in protest of President Bush's secret authorization of a domestic spying program, according to two sources.

U.S. District Judge James Robertson, one of 11 members of the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, sent a letter to Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. late Monday notifying him of his resignation without providing an explanation.

Two associates familiar with his decision said yesterday that Robertson privately expressed deep concern that the warrantless surveillance program authorized by the president in 2001 was legally questionable and may have tainted the FISA court's work.

Robertson, who was appointed to the federal bench in Washington by President Bill Clinton in 1994 and was later selected by then-Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist to serve on the FISA court, declined to comment when reached at his office late yesterday. [complete article]

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Officials fault case Bush cited
By Josh Meyer, Los Angeles Times, December 21, 2005

In confirming the existence of a top-secret domestic spying program, President Bush offered one case as proof that authorities desperately needed the eavesdropping ability in order to plug a hole in the counter-terrorism firewall that had allowed the Sept. 11 plot to go undetected.

In his radio address Saturday, Bush said two of the hijackers who helped fly a jet into the Pentagon -- Nawaf Alhazmi and Khalid Almihdhar -- had communicated with suspected Al Qaeda members overseas while they were living in the U.S.

"But we didn't know they were here until it was too late," Bush said. "The authorization I gave the National Security Agency after Sept. 11 helped address that problem in a way that is fully consistent with my constitutional responsibilities and authorities."

But some current and former high-ranking U.S. counter-terrorism officials say that the still-classified details of the case undermine the president's rationale for the recently disclosed domestic spying program. [complete article]

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Senators call for probe of Bush's domestic-surveillance program
By Ron Hutcheson and James Kuhnhenn, Knight Ridder, December 20, 2005

Senators of both parties on Tuesday demanded a congressional investigation into President Bush's domestic-surveillance program, even as Vice President Dick Cheney warned that the president's critics could face political repercussions.

Five members of the Senate Intelligence Committee - two Republicans and three Democrats - called for a joint investigation by their panel and the Senate's Judiciary Committee, saying revelations that Bush authorized spying on U.S. residents without court approval "require immediate inquiry and action by the Senate." [complete article]

See also, Spy briefings failed to meet legal test, lawmakers say (NYT).

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Sunni leaders dismiss election results, fueling fears about civil war
By Nancy A. Youssef, Knight Ridder, December 20, 2005

Sunni Muslim political leaders claimed Tuesday that Iraq's preliminary election results were rigged, raising fears that they'll reject the new government as illegitimate.

If that happens, many fear that Sunnis will depend on the insurgency to achieve their political aims, not the parliament, pushing the nation toward civil war, not consensus, and threatening U.S. plans to withdraw some troops. [complete article]

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Religious groups take early lead in Iraqi ballots
By Edward Wong, New York Times, December 20, 2005

Early voting results announced by Iraqi electoral officials on Monday, with nearly two-thirds of the ballots counted, indicated that religious groups, particularly the main Shiite coalition, had taken a commanding lead. The secular coalition led by Ayad Allawi, the former prime minister, had won only meager support in crucial provinces where it had expected to do well, including Baghdad.

The front-runner among Sunni Arab voters was a religious coalition whose leaders have advocated resistance to the American military and have demanded that President Bush set a timetable for withdrawing the American military from Iraq. [complete article]

See also, Partial results from Iraq election suggest factions will have to compromise (Knight Ridder).

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Saddam's scientists freed as U.S. house of cards starts to tumble
By Stephen Farrell, The Times, December 20, 2005

The British-educated Iraqi microbiologist known as Dr Germ is among two dozen senior Baathist prisoners who have been freed after more than 2½ years in US detention, it was disclosed yesterday.

Although the demands of those holding the British hostage Norman Kember and three other peace activists include prisoner releases, coalition officials insisted that the decision to free Rihab Taha and the other detainees had nothing to do with the abductions.

In September last year when the fate of the British hostage Kenneth Bigley was in the balance there was speculation that Dr Taha would be released. [complete article]

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U.S. air power strikes Iraq targets daily
AP (via December 20, 2005

The Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps have flown thousands of missions in support of U.S. ground troops in Iraq this fall with little attention back home, including attacks by unmanned Predator aircraft armed with Hellfire missiles, military records show.
The number of U.S. airstrikes increased in the weeks leading up to last Thursday's election, from a monthly average of about 35 last summer to more than 60 in September and 120 or more in October and November. The monthly number of air missions, including refueling and other support flights, grew from 1,111 in September to 1,492 in November, according to figures provided by Central Command Air Force's public affairs office. [complete article]

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Afghanistan swears in its first elected parliament in 3 decades
By Paul Watson, Los Angeles Times, December 20, 2005

An elected Afghan parliament was sworn in for the first time in more than 30 years Monday, facing rampant corruption, threats from drug lords and a surge in suicide bombings.

President Hamid Karzai, his voice breaking with emotion, said Afghans had won the world's respect with their difficult struggle to build a democracy. But he cautioned that a lot of hard work still lay ahead.

"We Afghans have the right to stand with honor and dignity with the international community," Karzai told the assembly. [complete article]

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FBI watched activist groups, new files show
By Eric Lichtblau, New York Times, December 20, 2005

Counterterrorism agents at the Federal Bureau of Investigation have conducted numerous surveillance and intelligence-gathering operations that involved, at least indirectly, groups active in causes as diverse as the environment, animal cruelty and poverty relief, newly disclosed agency records show.

F.B.I. officials said Monday that their investigators had no interest in monitoring political or social activities and that any investigations that touched on advocacy groups were driven by evidence of criminal or violent activity at public protests and in other settings.

After the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, John Ashcroft, who was then attorney general, loosened restrictions on the F.B.I.'s investigative powers, giving the bureau greater ability to visit and monitor Web sites, mosques and other public entities in developing terrorism leads. The bureau has used that authority to investigate not only groups with suspected ties to foreign terrorists, but also protest groups suspected of having links to violent or disruptive activities.

But the documents, coming after the Bush administration's confirmation that President Bush had authorized some spying without warrants in fighting terrorism, prompted charges from civil rights advocates that the government had improperly blurred the line between terrorism and acts of civil disobedience and lawful protest. [complete article]

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Sharon's stroke throws spotlight on party's future
By Harvey Morris, Financial Times, December 20, 2005

Ariel Sharon, Israel's prime minister, was discharged from hospital on Tuesday after undergoing medical tests on Monday for a minor stroke, aides involved in his forthcoming election campaign promoted a business-as-usual atmosphere.

While attention was focused on the prime minister's health, the Likud party he abandoned last month voted for Benjamin Netanyahu, his former finance minister and leadership rival, to contest the premiership in the general election on March 28. Exit polls indicated Mr Netanyahu had won 47 per cent of an internal party vote to defeat his nearest rival for the Likud leadership, Silvan Shalom, foreign minister. [complete article]

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McCain: Some coercion may be permissible
AP (via Army Times), December 19, 2005

Sen. John McCain, who pushed the White House to support a ban on torture, suggested Sunday that harsh treatment of a terrorism suspect who knew of an imminent attack would not violate international standards.

The Arizona Republican said legislation before Congress would establish in U.S. law the international standard banning any treatment of prisoners that "shocks the conscience."

That would include, McCain said, mock executions and the controversial technique known as "water boarding," in which a subject is made to think he is drowning.

Asked on ABC's "This Week" whether such treatment of a terrorism suspect who could reveal information that could stop a terrorist operation would shock the conscience, McCain said it would not. [complete article]

Comment -- Here's the thought that would really shock the conscience: It's the million-in-one scenario. The suspect really knows where the nuclear devise is hidden. The interrogator really knows that the suspect knows. The interrogator now thinks, I'll do anything - even risk breaking the law - to get this guy to speak. Would an interrogator risk trial and judgement by a jury of his peers in order to save thousands of his fellow citizens? I guess that's unimaginable.

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The forgotten anthrax attacks of 2001
By Tom Engelhardt, TomDispatch, December 19, 2005

Over four years later, a question of costs naturally arises from Gitmo-ized, Patriot-Act-ified, Homeland-Security-ificated America, from the country of more than two thousand dead and more than sixteen thousand wounded, from the perspective of a war of choice that has taken at least $250- 281 billion in chump change through fiscal year 2005. Our world has been damaged in so many ways, many still not fully apparent, and one question is: Who made us pay the price? What did they do to us and what did we do to ourselves? Or put another way, how much of the costs of 9/11 were costs of choice? [complete article]

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Legal test was seen as hurdle to spying
By Richard B. Schmitt and David G. Savage, Los Angeles Times, December 20, 2005

Since Sept. 11, 2001, an obscure but powerful tribunal -- the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court -- has been a solid ally of the Bush administration, approving hundreds of requests allowing government agents to monitor the conversations and communications of suspected terrorists.

So why did the administration go around the court in devising its most secret surveillance program?

Top Bush administration officials said Monday that a controversial domestic eavesdropping program they ordered up after Sept. 11 without the court's permission reflected the "inefficiencies" of going to a judge and the need for a more "agile" approach to detecting and preventing terrorist attacks.

But they also indicated that they had a more fundamental concern: the tougher legal standard that must be met to satisfy the court. The 1978 law creating the secret tribunal, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, authorizes intelligence gathering in cases in which the government can establish "probable cause" that the target is working for a "foreign power" or is involved in terrorism. [complete article]

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Inside NSA's world
By William M. Arkin, Washington Post, December 20, 2005

Every day, the National Security Agency intercepts and records more that 650 million "events" worldwide: radar signals, radio and data transmissions, satellite, cell and land-line telephone calls, faxes and e-mail and text messages and chats over the Internet.

"The fact that we're discussing this program is helping the enemy," President Bush said yesterday.

I doubt that there is a terrorist out there who doesn't assume that the NSA is listening in on their communications, so I doubt that the "media" is the right place to look if American counter-terrorism or regard for the law falters. [complete article]

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Critics question timing of surveillance story
By James Rainey, Los Angeles Times, December 20, 2005

The New York Times first debated publishing a story about secret eavesdropping on Americans as early as last fall, before the 2004 presidential election.

But the newspaper held the story for more than a year and only revealed the secret wiretaps last Friday, when it became apparent a book by one of its reporters was about to break the news, according to journalists familiar with the paper's internal discussions. [complete article]

Comment -- What an agonizing debate that must have been! What if the Times had run the story and Bush got re-elected anyway - what kind of irreparable damage would that have done to the paper's special relationship with the powers that be? No doubt the mere thought made Keller and Sulzberger shudder.

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U.S. spying plan lacked Congress' scrutiny, leading Democrat says
By Greg Miller and Maura Reynolds, Los Angeles Times, December 20, 2005

The leading Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee accused the Bush administration Monday of undercutting congressional scrutiny of a secret effort to eavesdrop on Americans, and of misleading the public regarding what it told Congress about the program.

Sen. John D. "Jay" Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.) said that, contrary to White House claims in recent days, "the administration never afforded members briefed on the program an opportunity to either approve or disapprove" of the eavesdropping program, conducted by the National Security Agency.

Rockefeller also released a July 2003 handwritten letter to Vice President Dick Cheney in which he expressed serious misgivings about the domestic spying operation, as well as the restrictive conditions under which only a handful of lawmakers were told of it. [complete article]

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Bush's Snoopgate
By Jonathan Alter, Newsweek, December 19, 2005

...Bush was desperate to keep the Times from running this important story -- which the paper had already inexplicably held for a year -- because he knew that it would reveal him as a law-breaker. He insists he had "legal authority derived from the Constitution and congressional resolution authorizing force." But the Constitution explicitly requires the president to obey the law. And the post 9/11 congressional resolution authorizing "all necessary force" in fighting terrorism was made in clear reference to military intervention. It did not scrap the Constitution and allow the president to do whatever he pleased in any area in the name of fighting terrorism.

What is especially perplexing about this story is that the 1978 law set up a special court to approve eavesdropping in hours, even minutes, if necessary. In fact, the law allows the government to eavesdrop on its own, then retroactively justify it to the court, essentially obtaining a warrant after the fact. Since 1979, the FISA court has approved tens of thousands of eavesdropping requests and rejected only four. There was no indication the existing system was slow -- as the president seemed to claim in his press conference -- or in any way required extra -- constitutional action.

This will all play out eventually in congressional committees and in the United States Supreme Court. If the Democrats regain control of Congress, there may even be articles of impeachment introduced. Similar abuse of power was part of the impeachment charge brought against Richard Nixon in 1974. [complete article]

See also, 9/11 gone wild (Bill Arkin) and Bush and the NSA spying scandal (Timothy Naftali).

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Bush goes back to black and white
By Fred Kaplan, Slate, December 19, 2005

President George W. Bush came close to delivering a frank and forthright speech on Iraq Sunday night, but in the crunch, he reverted to form and the by-now-predictable mix of fact, distortion, and fantasy.

His tack these days -- developed over the course of four earlier speeches carried by daytime cable and polished to a shine for his prime-time network address -- is to admit past mistakes yet project absolute confidence in the course ahead; to acknowledge dissenting views yet denounce them as "defeatist"; to trumpet total victory as the only alternative to defeat yet fail to define the term in any realistic fashion. [complete article]

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From the Oval Office, a call to see the light at the end of the tunnel
By Tom Shales, Washington Post, December 19, 2005

Determined to sound determined, President Bush addressed the nation on the troublesome subject of Iraq in a 16-minute speech last night from the Oval Office. Grim-faced, yet with a trace of anxiety in his eyes, Bush delivered the remarks seated rigidly at a desk, making a variety of hand gestures as he spoke and wearing one of his traditional baby-blue ties.

Bush apparently wanted to sound firm but compassionate, extending something of an olive branch -- more of an olive twig, really -- to those who have criticized the war in Iraq, yet also insisting that he won't give a proverbial inch until the mission really is accomplished. [complete article]

Comment -- The key question that needs to be answered in order to really gauge the seriousness of this address is: Did Bush spend longer studying the text or practicing the gestures? He stumbled over the words a few times but the flow of hand movements was seamless. Were they also being cued by the teleprompter?

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Pentagon's intelligence authority widens
By Walter Pincus, Washington Post, December 19, 2005

The Pentagon's newest counterterrorism agency, charged with protecting military facilities and personnel wherever they are, is carrying out intelligence collection, analysis and operations within the United States and abroad, according to a Pentagon fact sheet on the Counterintelligence Field Activity, or CIFA, provided to The Washington Post.

CIFA is a three-year-old agency whose size and budget remain secret. It has grown from an agency that coordinated policy and oversaw the counterintelligence activities of units within the military services and Pentagon agencies to an analytic and operational organization with nine directorates and ever-widening authority. [complete article]

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Planted PR stories not news to military
By Mark Mazzetti and Kevin Sack, Los Angeles Times, December 18, 2005

U.S. military officials in Iraq were fully aware that a Pentagon contractor regularly paid Iraqi newspapers to publish positive stories about the war, and made it clear that none of the stories should be traced to the United States, according to several current and former employees of Lincoln Group, the Washington-based contractor.

In contrast to assertions by military officials in Baghdad and Washington, interviews and Lincoln Group documents show that the information campaign waged over the last year was designed to cloak any connection to the U.S. military.

"In clandestine parlance, Lincoln Group was a 'cutout' -- a third party -- that would provide the military with plausible deniability," said a former Lincoln Group employee who worked on the operation. "To attribute products to [the military] would defeat the entire purpose. Hence, no product by Lincoln Group ever said 'Made in the U.S.A.' "

A number of workers who carried out Lincoln Group's offensive, including a $20-million two-month contract to influence public opinion in Iraq's restive Al Anbar province, describe a campaign that was unnecessarily costly, poorly run and largely ineffective at improving America's image in Iraq. The current and former employees spoke on condition of anonymity because of confidentiality restrictions.

"In my own estimation, this stuff has absolutely no effect, and it's a total waste of money," said another former employee, echoing the sentiments of several colleagues. "Every Iraqi can read right through it." [complete article]

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Cheney fields tough questions from troops
By Nedra Pickler, AP (via The Guardian), December 18, 2005

Shouts of "hooah!" from the audience interrupted Cheney a few times, but mostly the service members listened intently. When he delivered the applause line, "We're in this fight to win. These colors don't run," the only sound was a lone whistle.

The skepticism that Cheney faced reflects opinions back home, where most Americans say they do not approve of President Bush's handling of the war. It was unique coming from a military audience, which typically receives administration officials more enthusiastically. [complete article]

See also, Violence surges as Cheney visits Iraq (WP).

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U.S. ran Afghan torture prison
AP (via, December 19, 2005

The United States operated a secret prison in Afghanistan as recently as last year, torturing detainees with sleep deprivation, chaining them to the walls and forcing them to listen to loud music in total darkness for days, a human rights group alleged Monday.

The prison was run near Kabul, Afghanistan's capital, New York-based Human Rights Watch said in a report based on the accounts of several detainees at the U.S. prison for suspected terrorists at Guantanamo Bay. [complete article]

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Sunni leaders split on how to oust U.S.
By Paul Martin, Washington Times, December 19, 2005

Influential political and religious figures within the leadership of Iraq's minority Sunnis are displaying sharp divisions on how to end what they all agree is an unacceptable U.S. occupation of Iraq.

One emerging perspective proposes a pragmatic partnership with the United States. It foresees an ending to insurgent violence in concert with prisoner releases, promises that U.S. forces will stop raids on homes of suspected insurgents and a rapid reconstruction and development program to bolster the Sunni heartland's crumbling services and industry.

The other policy -- advocated by some politicians who performed well in Thursday's elections -- is to continue the armed resistance, but no longer as a random expression of outrage or to make the country ungovernable. Rather, it would become a tool to pressure the United States into announcing a date for the withdrawal of its troops. [complete article]

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Lawmakers urge review of U.S. spy program
By Bob Drogin, Los Angeles Times, December 19, 2005

Lawmakers from both parties called Sunday for a congressional review to consider whether President Bush violated federal law by secretly approving domestic spying — without court-approved warrants — on American citizens and U.S. residents suspected of terrorist ties.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice appeared on two Sunday talk shows to defend the electronic eavesdropping as legal and necessary. Her appearances came a day after Bush publicly confirmed that he had repeatedly authorized the National Security Agency to "intercept the international communications of people with known links to Al Qaeda and related terrorist organizations." [complete article]

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Congress pushes back, hard, against Bush
By Gail Russell Chaddock, Christian Science Monitor, December 19, 2005

From a standoff over the Patriot Act to pushback from Capitol Hill on the treatment of detainees, secret prisons abroad, and government eavesdropping at home, tensions between the Bush White House and the Republican-controlled Congress have never been more exposed.

Much of the rift is over the exercise of executive power. Some lawmakers oppose the president on the values involved in harsh interrogation of terror suspects. Others are riled that they were left out of the intelligence loop.

Even Republicans who favor renewing the Patriot Act were blindsided by news Friday, later confirmed, that President Bush had authorized secret eavesdropping on international communications from people in the US with ties to terrorists. [complete article]

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Focus: Joking aside, how will the stroke affect Ariel Sharon?
By Yossi Verter, Haaretz, December 19, 2005

Every time Sharon is asked about his medical condition, he recounts how his relatives lived long lives and took care of their health. I know my sterling health reports can harm the health of others, he told Haaretz in an interview eight months ago. It's an inseparable part of the Sharonian sense of humor. But not anymore. Starting Monday, Sharon's health will be put to the test and will face scrutiny.

Perhaps for the first time, the medical records of the prime minister and all the other candidates will be released to the public. If it indeed happens, then something positive came about as a result of Sunday's scare. Sharon's collapse Sunday night highlighted the extent to which Kadima [the new party that Sharon just founded] does not exist without him. [complete article]

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Bigger hurdles for U.S. in Iraq's next phase
By Robin Wright, Washington Post, December 18, 2005

Iraq's election may be over, but for the United States the trickiest challenges -- and the issues most critical to a timetable for U.S. withdrawal -- are still to unfold over the next nine or 10 months, according to U.S. officials and Middle East analysts.

Iraqis have elected a government but still have to prove that they can rule. Two Iraqi interim governments over the past 18 months left a trail of political bitterness, rampant corruption and chronic inefficiency, with militias playing a growing role as instruments of political coercion, Iraq experts say.

Whoever the winners turn out to be in last week's election, they will still rely heavily on the United States as a broker next year-- in helping to form a government, rewrite the constitution, build up the army and police, jump-start the floundering economy and prevent a civil war, Bush administration officials acknowledge. Iraqis are too divided to do many of these tasks alone, experts add. [complete article]

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U.S. embraces Iraqi insurgents
By Gareth Porter, Asia Times, December 17, 2005

While US President George W Bush continued to claim a strategy for "victory" in Iraq in recent speeches, his administration has quietly renounced the goal of defeating the non-al-Qaeda, Sunni-armed organizations there.

The administration is evidently preparing for serious negotiations with the Sunni insurgents, whom it has started referring to as "nationalists", emphasizing their opposition to al-Qaeda's objectives.

The new policy has thus far gone unnoticed in the media, partly because it has only been articulated by US Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and the spokesman for the US command in Baghdad. [complete article]

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Exit strategy
By Barry R. Posen, Boston Review, January/February, 2006

The United States needs a new strategy in Iraq and the Persian Gulf. The war is at best a stalemate; the large American presence now causes more trouble than it prevents. We must disengage from Iraq—and we must do it by removing most American and allied military units within 18 months. Though disengagement has risks and costs, they can be managed. The consequences would not be worse for the United States than the present situation, and capabilities for dealing with them are impressive, if properly employed.

Some people argue that the United States should disengage because the war was a mistake in the first place, or because it is morally wrong. I do not propose to pass judgment on these questions one way or the other. My case for disengagement is different: it is forward-looking and based on American national interests. The war as it has evolved (and is likely to evolve) badly serves those interests. A well-planned disengagement will serve them much better by reducing military, economic, and political costs. [complete article]

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Iraqi parties complain of vote irregularities
By Doug Struck, Washington Post, December 18,, 2005

As the United States portrayed Thursday's Iraqi elections as a resounding success, political parties here Saturday complained of violations ranging from dead men voting to murder in the streets.

The Iraqi electoral commission said it had received more than 200 complaints in advance of a Sunday deadline for filing grievances. A commission spokesman said many are "exaggerated," but political parties from all corners maintained that violence and fraud made the outcome suspect. [complete article]

Shiite alliance is confident of win as vote count continues
By Ashraf Khalil, Los Angeles Times, December 18, 2005

As the vote count continued in last week's parliamentary elections, leaders of Iraq's religious Shiite Muslim coalition expressed confidence Saturday that they would prove victorious. But more complaints of electoral violations emerged throughout the country's Shiite-dominated south.

Election officials said it would take several more days to release preliminary results. The uncertainty didn't stop leaders of the United Iraqi Alliance from predicting a dominating electoral performance similar to the one in January's vote for an interim national parliament. [complete article]

While Iraq counts votes, politicians vie for liverage
By Edward Wong, New York Times, December 18, 2005

As election workers continued counting ballots from Thursday's elections, political leaders began talks on Saturday to stake out their positions in advance of forming the new, four-year government.

A two-thirds vote by the coming Council of Representatives will be needed to install the executive officers, so parties will have to band together to form a coalition or national unity government. The parties with the most seats in the council are expected to negotiate fiercely for weeks - if not months - over top offices and control of ministries, as well as broader issues like regional autonomy and oil revenues. [complete article]

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Holocaust denial is 'scientific debate', Iran says
AFP (via Yahoo), December 18, 2005

Iran's foreign ministry has brushed off fresh criticism of hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and defended his view that the Jewish Holocaust never took place as a contribution to "scientific debate".

Spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi also said he was surprised over the intensity of the criticism now directed at the Islamic republic's president, who said the mass-killing of Jews under Nazi Germany was a "myth".

"The type of response from the Europeans to the theoretical and scientific debate of Mr Ahmadinejad has no place in the civilised world and is totally emotional and illogical," foreign ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi said Sunday.

"What Mr Ahmadinejad expressed was scientific debate, and the reaction surprises me," he told reporters. [complete article]

Comment -- Washington is a political media laboratory where every successful experiment is sure to soon be replicated somewhere else in the world. Yet when President Bush recently ran the argument that "intelligent design" and the theory of evolution represent two sides of a healthy debate, he could hardly have foreseen that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad would soon pick up the structure of Bush's reasoning. For Ahmadinejad, Holocaust denial is part of a "scientific debate" about the reality of the Holocaust. What should we call this? Rhetorical blowback?

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Blogging the vote in Iraq
New York Times, December 18 , 2005

Web logs invaded the Internet around the same time as the American-led coalition invaded Iraq, so it is fitting that some of the most insightful commentary on the war has come from Iraqi citizens - students, professionals, homemakers, soldiers, former Baathists and others - on their personal sites. The Op-Ed page asked several young Iraqi bloggers to write about their experiences during the parliamentary voting on Thursday - and to share their thoughts about what the election will mean for their country's future. [complete article]

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A trip to the desert with the raging angel of the artifacts
By Edmund L. Andrews, New York Times, December 18, 2005

Fewpeople who knew her could have been surprised when Susanne Osthoff was taken hostage in Iraq three weeks ago.

Impetuous, imperious and fearless, Ms. Osthoff, a German, had worked for years in Iraq as an archaeologist. After the American-led invasion, she campaigned to stop the looting of Iraq's spectacular archaeological sites.

A week after she disappeared, in a video sent to German television by self-proclaimed insurgents, she was shown blindfolded as her captors demanded that Germany stop supporting the Iraqi government.

I have a personal interest in her fate. In June 2003, I bet my life on her and let her guide me to a scene of plundering that could have been taken from "Indiana Jones." [complete article]

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Sharon in hospital after suffering stroke
By Conal Urquhart, The Guardian, December 18, 2005

The Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon, was taken to hospital last night after suffering a stroke. The 77-year-old apparently felt unwell at his Jerusalem office following a day in which he had earlier met veteran statesman Shimon Perez but as he worked in his office he complained to his aides who decided to transfer him to Hadassah Ein Kerem hospital in the city.

Tests revealed a minor stroke and doctors said Sharon was likely remain in their care for the next three to four days. "I feel fine," Mr Sharon was quoted as saying by aides. Israeli television said he had quipped to doctors: "You're not getting rid of me yet." [complete article]

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The price of oil
By Peter Maass, New York Times, December 18, 2005

More than 35 years ago, an offshore drilling rig spilled approximately three million gallons of oil into the waters near Santa Barbara. A massive slick covered hundreds of square miles and killed thousands of birds, seals and dolphins; the white beaches of California turned black with crude. Night after night, the TV networks showed oil-covered birds flopping in their death throes on fouled beaches. Popular outrage was heightened by the attitude of Fred Hartley, president of Union Oil, which operated the offending rig. In Senate testimony, he chided environmentalists and journalists for over-reacting to the loss of bird life.

The Santa Barbara spill was a galvanizing event that raised support for the first Earth Day, hastened the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and led to state and federal moratoriums on new drilling. Today, drilling for oil and gas is barred off 90 percent of America's coastlines; it is allowed, mainly, in the Gulf of Mexico, though not near tourism-dependent Florida. The offshore moratoriums, along with a ban on drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, are regarded as triumphs of the environmental movement.

But these victories came at a cost. As politicians in the White House and Congress are pushing again for exploration in coastal waters and drilling in ANWR, it is worth reconsidering the changes won by the environmental movement, but not only for the supply-enhancing reasons cited by advocates of extracting oil wherever it may be found. The latest battle has not touched upon a depressing fact: every barrel of oil that is not extracted from America must be drilled from someone else's backyard, often with little regard for the consequences. Because our appetite for energy has grown over the decades, new drilling, along with the damage it tends to create, has not been halted; it has been outsourced. [complete article]

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The arsonist
By Mark Leon Goldberg, The American Prospect,Deceber 14, 2005

When Bolton was nominated in March 2005, the Bush administration seemed invincible at home and abroad. Having won an election based on his handling of a war to which the UN had refused to grant its imprimatur, Bush started his second term with a self-proclaimed mandate to impose his aggressive doctrine to the far reaches of the globe. Flying high, Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney sent Bolton, a combative State Department official and longtime Cheney con?dant, to do to the UN what their two previous ambassadors to Turtle Bay could not: make the world body a wholly owned subsidiary of Bush foreign policy. [complete article]

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Islamists ride wave of freedom
By Megan K. Stack and Tyler Marshall, Los Angeles Times, December 18, 2005

When Iraqis swarmed to the polls last week to cast ballots in parliamentary elections, the Bush administration hailed a democratic victory in a region creaking under the weight of corruption, cronyism and dictatorship.

But the outcome may not be what the administration had in mind when U.S. forces swept President Saddam Hussein from power more than 2 1/2 years ago. Iraq's elections were dominated by Islamic clerics, and the incoming parliament is likely to include a large proportion of Islamist legislators, many of whom have ties to the mullahs of Iran.

In recent elections across Iraq and other countries in the region, Islamist parties have capitalized skillfully on new political freedoms to gain clout and legitimacy unprecedented in the modern Middle East. The growing strength of the religion-based parties is the single most unpredictable element in the Bush administration's grand vision to replace despots with democracy. [complete article]

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Populist Indian leads in Bolivian polls
By Patrick J. McDonnell, Los Angeles Times, December 18, 2005

As Bolivians head to the polls to elect a new president today, the leading candidate is Evo Morales, a charismatic champion of the peasant producers of coca leaf -- the raw ingredient in cocaine -- and a devoted acolyte of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, South America's premier critic of the United States.

If elected, Morales, 46, would be the first Indian president in a nation where long-marginalized indigenous groups have focused their rage on multinational corporations and economic and anti-drug policies backed by the United States. Morales has vowed to decriminalize coca cultivation, a shot across the bow to longtime American policy here.[complete article]

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America kidnapped me
By Khaled El-Masri, Los Angeles Times, December 18, 2005

The U.S. policy of "extraordinary rendition" has a human face, and it is mine.

I am still recovering from an experience that was completely beyond the pale, outside the bounds of any legal framework and unacceptable in any civilized society. Because I believe in the American system of justice, I sued George Tenet, the former CIA director, last week. What happened to me should never be allowed to happen again.

I was born in Kuwait and raised in Lebanon. In 1985, when Lebanon was being torn apart by civil war, I fled to Germany in search of a better life. There I became a citizen and started my own family. I have five children.

On Dec. 31, 2003, I took a bus from Germany to Macedonia. When we arrived, my nightmare began. Macedonian agents confiscated my passport and detained me for 23 days. I was not allowed to contact anyone, including my wife.

At the end of that time, I was forced to record a video saying I had been treated well. Then I was handcuffed, blindfolded and taken to a building where I was severely beaten. My clothes were sliced from my body with a knife or scissors, and my underwear was forcibly removed. I was thrown to the floor, my hands pulled behind me, a boot placed on my back. I was humiliated.

Eventually my blindfold was removed, and I saw men dressed in black, wearing black ski masks. I did not know their nationality. I was put in a diaper, a belt with chains to my wrists and ankles, earmuffs, eye pads, a blindfold and a hood. I was thrown into a plane, and my legs and arms were spread-eagled and secured to the floor. I felt two injections and became nearly unconscious. I felt the plane take off, land and take off. I learned later that I had been taken to Afghanistan. [complete article]

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Agents' visit chills UMass Dartmouth senior
By Aaron Nicodemus, South Coast Today, December 17, 2005

A senior at UMass Dartmouth was visited by federal agents two months ago, after he requested a copy of Mao Tse-Tung's tome on Communism called "The Little Red Book."

Two history professors at UMass Dartmouth, Brian Glyn Williams and Robert Pontbriand, said the student told them he requested the book through the UMass Dartmouth library's interlibrary loan program.

The student, who was completing a research paper on Communism for Professor Pontbriand's class on fascism and totalitarianism, filled out a form for the request, leaving his name, address, phone number and Social Security number. He was later visited at his parents' home in New Bedford by two agents of the Department of Homeland Security, the professors said.

The professors said the student was told by the agents that the book is on a "watch list," and that his background, which included significant time abroad, triggered them to investigate the student further. [complete article]

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Spying on Americans
Editorial, Washington Post, December 18, 2005

In the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the New York Times reported last week, President Bush authorized the National Security Agency to conduct electronic surveillance of hundreds of U.S. citizens and residents suspected of contact with al Qaeda figures -- without warrants and outside the strictures of the law that governs national security searches and wiretaps. The rules here are not ambiguous. Generally speaking, the NSA has not been permitted to operate domestically. And the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) requires that national security wiretaps be authorized by the secretive FISA court. "A person is guilty of an offense," the law reads, "if he intentionally ... engages in electronic surveillance under color of law except as authorized by statute" -- which appears, at least on its face, to be precisely what the president has authorized.

Mr. Bush, in his weekly radio address yesterday, defended his action, chastised the media for revealing it, and suggested both that Congress had justified this step by authorizing force against al Qaeda and that such spying was consistent with the "constitutional authority vested in me as commander in chief." But there is a reason the CIA and the NSA are not supposed to operate domestically: The tools of foreign intelligence are not consistent with a democratic society. Americans interact with their own government through the enforcement of law. And in those limited instances in which Americans become intelligence targets, FISA exists to make sure that the agencies are not targeting people for improper reasons but have sufficient evidence that Americans are actually operating as foreign agents. Warrantless intelligence surveillance by an executive branch unaccountable to any judicial officer -- and apparently on a large scale -- is gravely dangerous. [complete article]

Comment -- The political gravity of revelations about a domestic spying program is clearly evident in the fact that President Bush had his weekly radio address televised and will be making his second only Oval office address this evening. (Preparations for this media offensive were presumably well assisted by the New York Times in its consultations with the White House as it arranged a mutually covenient publication date for its story on the NSA. Admittedly there was never going to be a convenient date from the White House's point of view, but last week was no doubt far preferable than having the story come out, let's say, in October 2004.)

Nevertheless, while attention is understandably now focused on the civil rights of Americans, there is an underlying issue that will just as predictably be ignored. The secrecy that intelligence agencies regard as an operational requirement also provides the conditions required for illegal or "extra-judicial" practices. These practices undermine democracy everywhere - not just in America - and while great attention is given to the protection of the civil and democratic rights of Americans, much less is being given to the protection of democracy itself.

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Torture's long shadow
By Vladimir Bukovsky, Washington Post, December 18, 2005

One nasty morning Comrade Stalin discovered that his favorite pipe was missing. Naturally, he called in his henchman, Lavrenti Beria, and instructed him to find the pipe. A few hours later, Stalin found it in his desk and called off the search. "But, Comrade Stalin," stammered Beria, "five suspects have already confessed to stealing it."

This joke, whispered among those who trusted each other when I was a kid in Moscow in the 1950s, is perhaps the best contribution I can make to the current argument in Washington about legislation banning torture and inhumane treatment of suspected terrorists captured abroad. Now that President Bush has made a public show of endorsing Sen. John McCain's amendment, it would seem that the debate is ending. But that the debate occurred at all, and that prominent figures are willing to entertain the idea, is perplexing and alarming to me. I have seen what happens to a society that becomes enamored of such methods in its quest for greater security; it takes more than words and political compromise to beat back the impulse.

This is a new debate for Americans, but there is no need for you to reinvent the wheel. Most nations can provide you with volumes on the subject. Indeed, with the exception of the Black Death, torture is the oldest scourge on our planet (hence there are so many conventions against it). Every Russian czar after Peter the Great solemnly abolished torture upon being enthroned, and every time his successor had to abolish it all over again. These czars were hardly bleeding-heart liberals, but long experience in the use of these "interrogation" practices in Russia had taught them that once condoned, torture will destroy their security apparatus. They understood that torture is the professional disease of any investigative machinery. [complete article]

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Pushing the limits of wartime powers
By Barton Gellman and Dafna Linzer, Washington Post, December 18, 2005

In his four-year campaign against al Qaeda, President Bush has turned the U.S. national security apparatus inward to secretly collect information on American citizens on a scale unmatched since the intelligence reforms of the 1970s.

The president's emphatic defense yesterday of warrantless eavesdropping on U.S. citizens and residents marked the third time in as many months that the White House has been obliged to defend a departure from previous restraints on domestic surveillance. In each case, the Bush administration concealed the program's dimensions or existence from the public and from most members of Congress. [complete article]

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Noteworthy articles from the last seven days:

Cold Mountain:
The American military is preventing the emergence of political legitimacy in Iraq

By Michael Vlahos, The War in Context, December 12, 2005

Elections aren't enough
By Fred Kaplan, Slate, December 15, 2005

Time-delayed journalism
By Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair, Counterpunch, December 17, 2005

Bush lets U.S. spy on callers without courts
By James Risen and Eric Lichtblau, New York Times, December 16, 2005

How aviation hobbyists put vital evidence about secret CIA flights on the Web -- and provided evidence for lawsuits about detainee abuse
By Christopher Dickey, Newsweek, December 14, 2005

Let Iraq's Sunnis chase Al Qaeda out
By Fawaz A. Gerges, Christian Science Monitor, December 15, 2005

Ahmadinejad's antics
By Claude Salhani, UPI, December 14, 2005

Exploding the "ticking bomb" argument
By Michael Kinsley, Slate, December 13, 2005

Iran gaining influence, power in Iraq through militia
By Tom Lasseter, Knight Ridder, December 12, 2005

Iraq's Sunnis urge talks with rebels
U.S. pullout alone won't avert civil war, they say

By Robert Collier, San Francisco Chronicle, December 11, 2005

Iraq: see no evil, hear no evil
The U.S.'s divisive dependence on Kurdish forces

By Adnan R. Khan, Macleans, December 6, 2005

Tracing Iraq's painful arc, from the past to the future
By Anthony Shadid, Washington Post, December 12, 2005

War experts advise strategy overhaul
By James Sterngold, San Francisco Chronicle, December 11, 2005

Bush in the bubble
By Evan Thomas and Richard Wolffe, Newsweek, December 19, 2005

Shattering Iraq
By Paul Starobin, National Journal, December 9, 2005

French told CIA of bogus intelligence
By Tom Hamburger, Peter Wallsten and Bob Drogin, Los Angeles Times, December 11, 2005

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