Wednesday, November 30, 2005

American Military Propaganda in Iraq

Those crazy Pentagon spin doctors are at it again: the LA Times has a story in today's edition describing how the US military has been paying Iraqi newspapers to run pro-American pieces in Arabic. The articles are portrayed as the work of independent journalists, but are in fact part of an "information offensive" concocted by military operatives who specialize in propaganda. Not very democratic of them, is it?
Though the articles are basically factual, they present only one side of events and omit information that might reflect poorly on the U.S. or Iraqi governments, officials said. Records and interviews indicate that the U.S. has paid Iraqi newspapers to run dozens of such articles, with headlines such as "Iraqis Insist on Living Despite Terrorism," since the effort began this year.

The operation is designed to mask any connection with the U.S. military. The Pentagon has a contract with a small Washington-based firm called Lincoln Group, which helps translate and place the stories. The Lincoln Group's Iraqi staff, or its subcontractors, sometimes pose as freelance reporters or advertising executives when they deliver the stories to Baghdad media outlets.
I shouldn't have to say this, but I will: Propaganda is pernicious because it is an attempt to circumvent the democratic ideals of transparency in both government and the press. The least we can do for a nation that is supposed to represent the triumph of neoconservative ideals is to refrain from meddling in their media, and to mark any PR dispatches clearly as such. As an NPR piece on the development notes, talking up democracy from the podium while secretly violating its principles only fuels charges of American hypocrisy that are already rampant in the Arab world. But the National Review's Stephen Spruiell doesn't agree with this analysis:
As for the argument that these operations undercut the trust we need to build with the Iraqi people, I say they wouldn't undercut the trust of the Iraqi people if papers like the LA Times weren't blowing their cover. We need more operations like this in Iraq, and more respect for their classified nature.
The NPR segment reveals two errors in Spruiell's conclusion. First, it notes that the Iraqi papers can identify propaganda pieces by the fact that real journalists sell their work rather than buying placement for it, so the LAT can hardly be blamed for "blowing [the military's] cover." Second, and relatedly, Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism director Tom Rosenstiel says that such propaganda can negatively affect the overall credibility of American military forces on the ground in Iraq. In other words, material evidence of hypocrisy can have very real consequences for our war operations.

Furthermore, there's another consequentialist case to be made against these kinds of
old-school info-war techniques: the rise of the Internet and worldwide news networks has greatly diminished their efficacy. Even if the LAT hadn't broken the news, eventually some reporter in Iraq would have, since the dissemination methods were widely known anyway. Thus, the high risk that people might have learned about the plan's dirty details outweighed its potential benefits from the start. And the mere fact that the military has to pay for positive press only reinforces the impression that the top brass is trying to cover up a quagmire. I, for one, would much rather see my tax dollars going toward figuring out how to withdraw from Iraq as gracefully as possible, and I think we can all agree that obsolete PR strategies are more than a waste of money--they're a genuine liability.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

"We Need To Get The Fuck Out Of There."

Disclaimer: I don't know how much of the following is true, embellished, and/or false; I'm just telling you what the man told me.

I met a soldier in the US Army on his way to Iraq today.

I sat down next to him on the plane home after spending Thanksgiving with my extended family. I was carrying a duffel bag with the logo of the university I work for, and he asked me if I was going back to school. I replied that I was in the process of applying to grad school, and griped lightly about the nagging vicissitudes of transcript-ordering , recommendation-securing, GRE-taking, and so forth. Then he told me he'd been in Iraq for four months last year, and was headed to Ft. Bragg to await redeployment on a 15-month tour.

"Johnny" (not his real name) was a 20-year-old Special Forces paratrooper and sharpshooter who showed a surprising (not to mention admirable) equanimity in discussing the mortal dangers that threatened him. He called Iraq an "amazing country" and said some provinces, mostly in the south, were incredibly beautiful. He said the natives frequently welcomed his platoon with hugs when it arrived in their villages, and that young boys around the age of 4 were effective sources of intelligence. Johnny's swarthy complexion even allowed him to grow a beard and blend in so well as an Iraqi that someone once publicly mistook him for a relative (he had to sedate the guy and pour alcohol on his unconscious body to stay incognito).

When I asked how he thought the war was going, he minced no words: "We need to get the fuck out of there."

* * *

Johnny, a working-class kid from the East Coast, joined the army at 17 to provide "a better life" for himself and his family. He expressed disappointment and resignation that the Army had broken its promise to him to keep his deployments to 3 1/2 months at a time. He also gave me a bit of inside information, which I have no way of verifying: apparently Bush has already signed some kind of order to the effect of keeping troops in Iraq through 2008 (remember, this is only an unsubstantiated rumor). But despite these disappointments, Johnny was very obviously coping with the psychological burden of war much better than many of his compatriots. He spoke of a fellow soldier who was so afraid to leave the base that his unit began to leave him behind because"he was a danger to himself [and others]." This guy's behavior got so out of hand that he was eventually shipped back to the States for psychiatric assistance.

Johnny told of sniping insurgents with the help of a spotter, and faking the salaat to infiltrate mosques that sheltered terrorists. He spoke of many close calls, including one in which shrapnel from an IED tore the flesh along the bottom of his right arm, leaving a jagged scar. Divorcing himself from his emotions is essential for survival, he said, though even he couldn't suppress the grief he felt at seeing one of his companions fall. He told me he didn't enjoy killing people, and would not voluntarily return for combat duty once his contract expired, but when his survival means killing others, he doesn't hesitate.

I told Johnny I could never take orders in the Army or face live combat. He replied that as a college graduate, they'd probably make me something like a lieutenant, so I'd be the one giving the orders. I have enough trouble just approaching women to ask for dates, I said, so how could I lead a group of soldiers into battle without wetting myself? He then told me about how his faith gives him strength, and that he believes God is watching over him in the line of duty. And although I'm agnostic, I said, "Times like these make me really hope there is someone up there watching over us all."

The mood lightened a bit when we got into the quality of the Army's women, some of whom Johnny called "nice girls." We agreed that a strong intellect is absolutely indispensable when evaluating any potential significant other. But he didn't seem upset at all when he told me his girlfriend broke up with him upon his return home for Thanksgiving. He has prudently decided to wait until he comes home permanently to pursue another relationship.

The plane ride was a short one, and I didn't get to ask him all the questions I wanted to. Toward the end, another passenger joined the conversation and steered it toward military technology, which wasn't nearly as interesting to me. As Johnny walked off the plane ahead of me, I called his name and said: "Even though I disagree with the war, I still think you're a hero. Good luck, and I hope you come back safely." After shaking hands, he thanked me for the kind words, smiled, and walked away.

* * *

My chat with Johnny started me thinking about the true meaning of the phrase "support the troops." Some conservatives evidently think it means keeping the US military in Iraq indefinitely. They say you can't support the troops without supporting the war, and that the growing domestic calls for a pullback are hurting morale. But I don't think I injured Johnny's morale when I told him what I thought of the war. If he's any indication, I'd say that the prospect of being redeployed over and over again with no end in sight is what's damaging troop morale more than anything else. Johnny wants to go to college to become a mechanical engineer, and if he survives, he'll get that chance--if. He doesn't expect to see significant troop reductions anytime soon, so he has wisely focused his energies on surviving from one day to the next.

I told him that I want him to live, and to get that degree, and to start moving up the economic ladder. That's what "supporting the troops" means to me. It's got very little to do with politics, partisanship, or whether the war is winnable or not--I just want them to return safe and whole. Now as I said, it just so happens that I thought invading Iraq was a bad idea from the start. But since we're there, it seems to me that any tenable conception of "supporting the troops" would have to include serious and dedicated thought about how to get them home as soon as possible. "Staying the course" is not a plan; it's an insult. Plenty of fine young men and women like Johnny are risking their lives every day for a gamble that came up snake-eyes, and the administration's galling lack of postwar planning angers me all the more for it.

I don't know whether we "have" to win in Iraq to keep America safe, or whether "winning" (whatever that means) will guarantee our safety. All I know is, we owe it to Johnny and his fellow troops, if indeed we truly support them, to get behind some kind of plan to bring them home in short order so that they may reap the well-deserved benefits of military service.

Friday, November 25, 2005

Weak Angle Alert!

I know I said I'd be off 'til tomorrow, but I just had to deliver this Flagrant Spin Advisory for Black Friday, 2005: The headline over today's WaPo article on John Murtha's recent outbreak of candor vis-a-vis Iraq reads "The About-Face of a Hawkish Democrat," with subhead "Murtha, With Many Military Connections, Moves From Voting for War to Urging Troop Withdrawal." Did I just hear reporter Shailagh Murray call Congressman Murtha a flip-flopper? I think I did. By this logic, you'd have to advocate a permanent large-scale military presence in Iraq to avoid flip-flopping on the issue. Even the Bush administration concedes that they'll have to recall the troops eventually; Murtha's disagreement with them concerns only the timing of the drawdown.

I've heard several commentators on the right try to tar Murtha as a "finger-in-the-wind" politician who follows . . . the will of the people. Imagine that, an elected representative who actually represents the opinions of the electorate. I can understand how some might have forgotten in the past five years, but that's normally how democracy works. Bush's pseudo-imperial posturing is a major deviation from presidential business as usual, and all the time he's spent supposedly ignoring public opinion is beginning to bite him in the ass in a big way. I don't care if a politician has to change his positions to do the right thing, because doing the right thing is infinitely more important than procedural consistency. But as I said, neither Murtha nor the American people have flip-flopped--they've just decided our troops have done enough. And we should never forget that it's the people who run this country; government is only a means to that end.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005


I'm heading out of town for Thanksgiving, so you might not see any posts until Saturday, when I return. You might though, since I guess there's a chance I might have net access at my aunt and uncle's place. But until I post again, I'll leave you with this piece about a leaked British memo detailing a supposed plot to bomb Al-Jazeera HQ--from the mouth of our very own POTUS. Now I hate Bush as much as the next seditious lieberal, but even I'm finding this one hard to swallow. We know he's got a rather, ahem, unorthodox sense of humor, so I'm inclined to believe that if he did mention attacking Al-Jazeera, he wasn't talking seriously. More "we begin bombing in five minutes" than "bring 'em on," so to speak.

Edit: Kevin Drum makes the same joke as me, about two hours later.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Is Bush Going Soft On Us . . . ?

Well now, this looks new at first glance:
BEIJING - After fiercely defending his Iraq policy across Asia, President Bush abruptly toned down his attack on war critics Sunday and said there was nothing unpatriotic about opposing his strategy.

"People should feel comfortable about expressing their opinions about Iraq," Bush said, three days after agreeing with Vice President Dick Cheney that the critics were "reprehensible."

The president also praised Rep. John Murtha (news, bio, voting record), D-Pa., as "a fine man" and a strong supporter of the military despite the congressman's call for troop withdrawal as soon as possible.
But does it represent a real shift in Bush's rhetorical strategy vis-a-vis the Iraq war? Steven Benen, guest-posting at Political Animal, seems to think so, but I'm not convinced. I don't think you'll find too much invective directed against domestic anti-war critics in Bush's public record; he tends to traffic more in diplomatic hedgework like this:
(1) "Some may disagree with my decision to remove Saddam Hussein from power, but all of us can agree that the world's terrorists have now made Iraq a central front in the war on terror," he said. "This mission isn't easy, and it will not be accomplished overnight." USA Today, 6/18/05
(2) "While it's perfectly legitimate to criticize my decision or the conduct of the war, it is deeply irresponsible to rewrite the history of how that war began.", 11/11/05

(3) The president said he strongly supports Sheehan's right to protest. “She expressed her opinion. I disagree with it,” Bush said.

“I think immediate withdrawal from Iraq would be a mistake,” he said. “I think those who advocate immediate withdrawal from not only Iraq but the Middle East are advocating a policy that would weaken the United States.”, 8/23/05

(4) "Reasonable people can disagree about the conduct of the war, but it is irresponsible for Democrats to now claim that we misled them and the American people," Bush said in his prepared remarks. AP, 11/14/05
Truth is, Bush has rarely if ever spoken out harshly against Iraq war opponents himself (excluding those who have accused him of manipulating intelligence). He likes to save the rhetorical dirty work for others within the administration, such as Dick Cheney and Scott McClellan, and outside it, like the people who write for Powerline, Little Green Footballs, and We saw this same strategy last year with the anti-Kerry SBVFT ads that he famously failed to condemn.

By farming out his attack politics, Bush can keep his trademark image of clearheaded toughness spotless without suffering the backlash that comes from engaging in explicit partisan mudfights. Even now, he can rightfully claim that this latest celebration of dissent is a logical extension of his prior remarks on the subject. By extending an olive branch to the 60% of the country that disapproves of his handling of Iraq, he's acknowledging the necessity of broad public support for a successful second term. It's some of the strongest evidence we have to refute the administration's farcical claim that they pay no attention to poll numbers.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Taking ID Potshots on a Friday Afternoon

I'm just gonna come right out and say it: Intelligent Design is stupid, and I don't mean colloquially or loosely. It is based upon either the inability or the refusal (perhaps a little of both) to understand two things: one elementary principle of logic (begging the question) and one of science (falsifiability). People who want ID taught in science class need to grab the nearest dictionary and reread the entry for "science" until they understand how ridiculous their errand is. Of course, nowhere is it written that you can't be both Christian and intelligent, but the guy who wrote this doesn't represent that cross-section very well:
I have the greatest respect and admiration for Charles Krauthammer, but in his most jab WaPo jab 'Phony Theory, False Conflict' it is clear he is the one who has been sucker-punched - or at least been baited one-upsmanship by George Will's recent 'Grand Old Spenders' rant ... meaning:
The above sentence has not been redacted in any way, and the rest of the post continues in a similar fashion. I don't fault the guy for making silly writing hiccups, but they really don't help your case when you're trying to prove your intellectual mettle. Also, not to pick and choose quotes to rip apart for my own amusement, but--oh, what the hell, I can't resist:
If Darwinian evolution cannot be proven using the scientfic method - then how can we give it deference over other scientific beliefs such as intelligent design?
I assume that by "proof", he means something akin to going back in a time machine to see if mankind and other primates really share a common ancestor. But science offers us no methods to "prove" (in the same way that you can prove that a solid object will fall from your hand if you let go of it) the processes behind how we got here other than drawing conclusions from extant biological artifacts. So what dude is really saying is that the origins of man lie outside science's rightful jurisdiction.

Even if this were true, even if evolution weren't proper science (against the consensus opinion of the world's credentialed biologists), it would be an argument for removing discussions of human origins from science classes altogether, not for adding ID. It's almost impossible not to condescend to these people, because they're only fighting what they perceive to be a threat against their dearest beliefs. But the more ID defenses I read, the more I become convinced that there's something inherently anti-intellectual about these fanatical sects of Christianity, something that wreaks severe damage on its adherents' critical faculties.

The GOP Consensus Slips Another Couple Notches

The natural tensions between Beltway (and Beltway-esque) eggheads and quasi-theocratic busybodies are becoming increasingly difficult to conceal under the GOP's big tent. The latter group's attempts in Kansas and Pennsylvania to get Intelligent Design added to local science curricula comprise a particularly volatile flashpoint in this ongoing conflict. Prominent libertarian blogger Glenn Reynolds has called these campaigns "pathetic." A couple weeks ago, Salon broke a story on former Tom Delay aide Michael Scanlon in which he referred to conservative Christians as "wackos" who could be duped into voting for anything. And the Washington Post published two anti-ID columns this week, one by George Will (yesterday) and one by Charles Krauthammer (today), both of which excoriate the idea and/or the people who espouse it.

Will and Krauthammer have both railed against Intelligent Design in previous op-ed pieces, but while Krauthammer's current column rehashes the scathing rhetoric of his previous work on the subject, Will's stridence is a new development. In the context of a discussion of government largesse under conservative administrations, he laces into ID proponents in no uncertain terms:

Dover's insurrection occurred as Kansas's Board of Education, which is controlled by the kind of conservatives who make conservatism repulsive to temperate people, voted 6 to 4 to redefine science. The board, opening the way for teaching the supernatural, deleted from the definition of science these words: "a search for natural explanations of observable phenomena."

"It does me no injury," said Thomas Jefferson, "for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg." But it is injurious, and unneighborly, when zealots try to compel public education to infuse theism into scientific education.
Now there's a sound rebuke if I ever heard one. Compare with Krauthammer's ever-reliable pugnacity:

Let's be clear. Intelligent design may be interesting as theology, but as science it is a fraud. It is a self-enclosed, tautological "theory" whose only holding is that when there are gaps in some area of scientific knowledge -- in this case, evolution -- they are to be filled by God. It is a "theory" that admits that evolution and natural selection explain such things as the development of drug resistance in bacteria and other such evolutionary changes within species but also says that every once in a while God steps into this world of constant and accumulating change and says, "I think I'll make me a lemur today." A "theory" that violates the most basic requirement of anything pretending to be science -- that it be empirically disprovable. How does one empirically disprove the proposition that God was behind the lemur, or evolution -- or behind the motion of the tides or the "strong force" that holds the atom together?

In order to justify the farce that intelligent design is science, Kansas had to corrupt the very definition of science, dropping the phrase " natural explanations for what we observe in the world around us," thus unmistakably implying -- by fiat of definition, no less -- that the supernatural is an integral part of science. This is an insult both to religion and science.

The upshot of all this laundry-airing is that the conservative coalition that's clung to political power throughout the new millennium may be splintering. Intellectuals like Reynolds, Will, and Krauthammer are upset at having to discuss ID seriously at all, while conservative Christians are probably sick of having their pet issues take a back seat to industry deregulation, tax cuts, and foreign adventurism. The fact that such well-respected opinion writers are willing not only to oppose but to badmouth their erstwhile allies publicly doesn't bode well for the GOP. It remains to be seen whether the party will be able to sew up these frayed seams quickly or be forced to watch the tent tear itself apart.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

War [huh, good god, y'all]

Kevin Drum's ranting about Bush's use/abuse of prewar intelligence again, contending that the White House used its monopoly on the full corpus of relevant information to an unethical advantage in making the case for war against Iraq. Specifically, the power to withhold countervailing evidence and opinions from Congress and the American people allowed the president to set the terms of the debate and quickly cement a broad base of support for invasion. Bush really should have let the doubts out for the good of the nation:

In the debate on Iraq, Bush acted as both prosecutor and judge. He made his case as strongly as he could — which is fine — but he also withheld crucial information that would have allowed his opponents to make their case as strongly as they could — which isn't. In short, in order to further his own political aims, he abused his power to decide what information remains classified and what doesn't.

In a democracy, this is unacceptable. It's unacceptable for the president to decide that only information favorable to his own case can be part of the public discourse. But all too often, that's what happened in the runup to the Iraq war.

In an ideal world, we could reasonably expect our president to place the greater good above his own political priorities, but guess what we don't live in. Bush is at fault here, as Kevin suggests, but the greater problem appears to be systemic. Why is the guy who decides whether or not to commit troops to military action also the guy who controls outside access to all the intelligence? Why would any president pushing any initiative even think about giving his opponents additional ammo if he could avoid doing so? The whole setup is a textbook example of a moral hazard, and an excellent reason why Congress should think twice about handing any president a blank check to use force. We don't run prisons on the honor system, we don't let employees set their own salaries, and we shouldn't enable our presidents to "[act] as both prosecutor and judge." The entire collection of relevant national security data needs to be made available to Congress so that life/death decisions like these are never again left in the hands of a single person.

Monday, November 14, 2005

In Lockstep Formation

If you've spent any significant amount of time watching cable news over the last 12 months, you've probably seen more than one of Progress for America's political ads supporting John Roberts, Samuel Alito, and possibly even Harriet Miers. Yep--even as most other conservative organizations and commentators either remained silent or vociferously attacked Miers, PFA stood steadfastly behind the president, as it has consistently done since its foundation in 2001. The New York Times profiles this confusingly-named 527 in a piece from today's edition, paying particular attention to the great speed and power it wields on behalf of the White House:

The group was formed in 2001 as a nonprofit organization to support Mr. Bush's agenda, but drew widespread attention in last year's presidential race. Its Voter Fund raised roughly $45 million in a few months and financed a barrage of television advertisements focused on terrorism. Now, the group is pushing Mr. Bush's new priorities.

After putting up the Web page supporting Judge Alito [in only 39 minutes], Progress for America created an advertisement within hours and ran $425,000 in television commercials in the first week. It activated consultants in 20 states, who began lobbying for Mr. Alito before editorial boards and on local talk radio programs. And it announced that it would spend $50,000 on Internet advertising and online advocacy.

The group sent about 10 million e-mail messages to supporters, with help from lists supplied by the Republican National Committee and other organizations, and it released "Alito2Go," a video clip of its commercial on the judge that can be viewed with an iPod.

Progress for America has also circulated long lists of Judge Alito's allies to reporters in hopes of generating favorable articles. In addition to law school friends and fellow judges, the group tracked down Judge Alito's former English teacher, his Latin teacher, a fellow youth baseball coach, classmates as far back as middle school and even a neighbor Judge Alito once baby-sat for.

Last week, it helped arrange for 22 of Judge Alito's former law clerks to visit Washington, where they lobbied senators in behalf of their former boss.

Truly, affluence and efficiency are the wages of loyalty. PFA wouldn't be able to act nearly as quickly as it does if its members had to stop and evaluate each of Bush's decisions on its merits. I don't know if there's a liberal equivalent to PFA--a political organization that pours all its efforts into supporting the decisions of a single person without regard to their content. I've never thought very highly of blind faith because I think it lends itself to abuse, and what's worse is that the faithful never know when they're being hoodwinked because they're not in the habit of checking. Nevertheless, you really can't beat it if all you need is sheer expediency.

Gratuitous Snark Of The Day

I don't normally do this, but I just read something particularly stupid, and I'm feeling a little surly today, so here goes. Tom Maguire of JustOneMinute has this to say about Ted Kennedy's attitude back in 2002 around the time Congress authorized Bush to use force against Iraq (emph. mine):

I haven't found Ted Kennedy's floor speech prior to the October 2002 vote on the war resolution, but here he is at SAIS on Sept 27, 2002. Early laugh lines include these:

But there is a difference between honest public dialogue and partisan appeals. There is a difference between questioning policy and questioning motives.


Let me say it plainly: I not only concede, but I am convinced that President Bush believes genuinely in the course he urges upon us.

Only later did Kennedy realize what a liar Bush was, and how important it was to question his motives.
As the relevant psychological literature (and American public opinion surveys since 2002) tell us, people are notoriously bad at detecting lies. If I told you I got my master's at Stanford, you probably wouldn't realize right away that I was lying unless you happened to work in the registrar's office (I got my bachelor's there). Moreover, it's pretty likely that Ted would have been raked over the coals by everyone to the right of Michael Moore if he'd tried to call Bush out in 2002. And that's not even mentioning the fact that the White House had exclusive access to lots of intel, much of it countervailing, that Congress never saw.

But maybe I shouldn't be surprised at Tom's reaction. After all, many on the right seem to fear the process of adapting one's behavior to changing circumstances ("learning"), preferring their leaders to allow the real world to influence their behavior as little as possible. But don't take this post as an indictment of cheap shots in general--longtime readers of this blog know I have no right to point the finger at anyone--all I'm saying is if you're gonna take one, don't make yourself sound silly in the process.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

If Credit's What Matters . . .

In the course of a discussion on yesterday's edition of Fox News' Dayside about Bush's Veterans' Day speech, one of the right-leaning guests asked why the president hasn't received more credit from the mainstream media for all the terrorist attacks that haven't happened since 9/11. That sounded like a pretty fair question, so I figured I'd take the time to look for some answers. One of the first intuitions that should spring to mind is that journalism has an inherent bias in favor of actual events as opposed to, you know, non-events, so it shouldn't come as any surprise that we never wake up to headlines like "No Terror Attacks Since 9/11; Credit Goes To Bush." So there's that, but the larger question remains: can the long streak of recent terrorist inaction be attributed to Bush's actions?

One of the first pieces of analysis I found, if you can call it that, comes from prominent conservative law prof and blogger Ann Althouse, who had this to say a little over a month ago:
It's hard to claim credit for the absence of an event. WaPo reports:
President Bush said today the United States and its allies have disrupted at least 10 serious plots by the al Qaeda network in the past four years, as he sought to rally the nation against international terrorists and warned foreign governments against supporting them....

He added, "We've stopped at least five more al Qaeda efforts to case targets in the United States or infiltrate operatives into our country."...

Bush did not elaborate.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan later identified two of the three schemes to carry out attacks in the United States as previously alleged plots involving Jose Padilla, a Puerto Rican convert to Islam who was suspected of planning to detonate a radiological "dirty bomb," and Lyman Farris, a naturalized U.S. citizen and truck driver from Ohio who was allegedly recruited to destroy New York's Brooklyn Bridge, blow up airliners on the ground and derail passenger trains. Both men were arrested after being identified by captured al Qaeda commanders, and neither plot got beyond a reconnaissance stage.

McClellan said other plots Bush referred to are "still classified."

ADDED: To be clear, I certainly think credit is deserved for stopping attacks. My point is that people don't notice and don't give you credit. Everything just seems uneventful.
Not really Althouse's most original interpretive moment, as you can see. But let's look at the facts: out of the ten plots that the US and its allies supposedly foiled, only three were directed at the United States. These were José Padilla's plans to detonate a 'dirty bomb' and two thinly described schemes to attack the east and west coasts with commercial airplanes a la 9/11. We knew when Padilla was captured in 2002 that he was nowhere near prepared to carry out any terrorist activities, so it's difficult to count his arrest as a "foiled plot" (emphasis mine):
But as the (not quite radioactive) dust settled on Ashcroft's dramatic announcement, some began asking not only why Mr. Padilla, a U.S. citizen, was being held in a Navy brig as an "enemy combatant," but also why he was dominating America's headlines — and its nightmares. Within hours of Ashcroft's announcement, administration officials were pointing out that Padilla had no radioactive material or any other bomb-making equipment. Nor had he chosen a target, or formulated a plan. And while his connections with al-Qaeda operatives were never in doubt, he suddenly began to look a lot more like the accused shoe-bomber Richard Reid (i.e. another disaffected ex-con from the West desperate to get in with al-Qaeda) than like the sophisticated professionals who put together September 11.
Details on the two plane schemes are still mostly classified, though the Post article tells us that Khalid Sheik Mohammed was involved with one of them, and that he may have scrapped it prior to 9/11. And since the White House won't disclose any more information about them, the question of how much credit Bush should be given for stopping terrorism against the USA remains open. But we have found another answer to our esteemed commentator's initial question about why the media hasn't covered the issue more thoroughly: the administration simply hasn't given them much to write about. Whether that's due to national security concerns or because there's nothing to say is known only to a few at the top.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Loose Lips Sink Ruling Parties

On Nov. 2, the Washington Post broke the news that the CIA is detaining and interrogating suspected terrorists in a network of covert "black prisons" located in former Soviet bloc nations. Reporter Dana Priest based the story on information provided by anonymous government officials who are concerned about the program's ethical and pragmatic problems. Bill Frist and Dennis Hastert are outraged, of course--but not at the fact that the prisons exist. No, what concerns them is the fact that word got out, and today they called for a joint investigation into the matter because "if accurate, such an egregious disclosure could have long-term and far-reaching damaging and dangerous consequences" (I know it looks like there's a typo in that quote, but that's exactly how it appeared in the Post article).

Now how could secret detention centers in backwater countries possibly hurt the Global Struggle Against Violent Extremism, especially if, as our president declared recently, "we do not torture?" It may very well be that the interrogation methods employed at these black prisons are perfectly in keeping with the Geneva Conventions, but secrecy has a nasty way of sparking speculation. That they're located in unidentified foreign nations and neither the CIA nor the White House will confirm or deny their existence only fans the flames of suspicion further. Recent history has shown that what's really hurting America's fight against terrorists are our ill-considered interrogation techniques (cf. Gitmo and Abu Ghraib) and the need for secrecy that goes along with them. And the government still has yet to reveal to the American people any actionable evidence that might help justify the existence of these shadowy facilities.

It seems as though each passing week unearths a fresh lie or secret whose fallout further erodes the GOP's onetime near-complete dominance of American politics. If this keeps up, I don't see how they'll survive 2006, let alone 2008. Thomas Jefferson once said that our nation needs a revolution every twenty years or so, but it looks like the changeover might come a few years early for the current regime. To whoever eventually replaces our still-formidable Republican majoritarians, I offer the following advice: keep only those secrets which are absolutely essential. Because in government, lying is like crack--you can't do it just once, and if you get hooked, you're as good as ousted; it's just a matter of time.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Everyone Loves A Good Story

There's a pretty cool piece in today's NYT about the importance of compelling storylines in the creation of news items and propaganda. People pay more attention to strands of news when they're presented as part of a larger tapestry that connects disparate events over time and thereby ameliorates some of the tensions of constant information overload. One of today's dominant news narratives concerns questions of manipulated intelligence during the sale of the Iraq war, and it encompasses the Plame leak case, the Downing Street memo, the Libby indictment, and the recent revelation that the administration was warned that one major source of prewar intelligence was lying:

Indeed, part of the resonance of the leak investigation is that it goes back to the fierce debate over the validity of prewar intelligence about Saddam Hussein that led to a protracted and increasingly unpopular and costly conflict with no clear end in sight. The intrigue over who said what, and when, and why, and to whom about Ms. Wilson echoes the intrigue about the activities of one of the most secretive presidential administrations of modern times.

In other words, it's a good storyline.

The twist is that this particular story apparently sprang from the administration's fevered efforts in the summer of 2003 to keep control of its case that the Iraq war was right and necessary, and to discredit swiftly any critic who might tell a different tale.

Other examples of political narratives might include Watergate, Clinton/Lewinsky, the War on Terror/Global Struggle Against Violent Extremism, and the liberal/conservative 'culture wars.' Like in the movies, the overarching story and its constituent links don't need to be particularly relevant--just interesting. That may be part of why the GOP's been winning so handily at the ballot box in recent years--the mere presence of a passably cohesive and affirmative world view offers a significant advantage if the opposition party lacks a viable alternative. But when the story gets away from its spinners, it can turn against them, just as the broad-based support behind the Iraq war at its onset has today metamorphosed into an opposed public majority and mounting evidence of intelligence manipulation. And the rise of blogs, 24-hour cable news networks, and instant information via Google is making it increasingly difficult for the entrenched powers-that-be to manage what people know and how political information is framed.

Later in the article, Daniel Schorr offers an optimistic take on the staggering speed at which information travels nowadays, arguing that new technologies have democratized the power to control news:
"And [John F. Kennedy] said: 'We're going to live in a different world when America can see on the same day what's happening in Europe. We've lost our ability to sit, and have time, and have an explanation to go with events.' I'm not sure he foresaw the day of CNN live all the time, but he did foresee that getting news on the air faster than we used to would drive them to make policy faster, or write statements, before they had thought them through. A lot of government's attention these days is focused on what do you say right away."

Mr. Schorr added: "I'm delighted about it myself, because I'm no longer primarily a television person. I love seeing that the people who exercised that absolute control have lost it, thanks to technology."

The decentralization of information control is definitely a positive development, but I don't know that it has exerted a significant effect on the speed at which policy is created. The difference between the public hearing about a major event within a day of its occurrence (in the 1960s) and a few minutes (today) isn't large enough to affect legislation, though Schorr does have a point that governments now have less time to write immediate statements in response. The primary driving forces behind rushed, shoddy policy are an incompetent Congress and the people that elect its representatives. Perhaps democracy itself shares part of the blame: in a world where food, entertainment, and interpersonal contact can all be had more or less instantaneously, maybe we as citizens are unreasonably burdening our leaders with the same standard of celerity.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

All Wal-Mart, All The Time

I know I've been harping on WM lately, but its communication issues are quite political--especially when it comes its to health care policies and economic impact. Wal-Mart's latest PR initiative took the form of a quasi-academic conference held yesterday in the nation's capital at which were presented nine academic papers analyzing the retailer's effects on the economy. Independent economic research firm Global Insight solicited academics to present at Wal-Mart's behest, selecting only the highest-quality papers regardless of results (so they said, anyway). Global Insight also conducted its own WM-underwritten research study, which unsurprisingly reflected favorably on its subject.

It doesn't take a marketing expert to see the gooey public-relations center that lies beneath this event's thin academic veneer. Wal-Mart is hitting the same wall that the vast majority of non-totalitarian propagandists eventually encounter: the more readily identifiable the source of a propaganda message, the less effective the message. As soon as the public discovers it's an official WM-brand conference, any positive results automatically become suspect. This is why the Office of National Drug Control Policy has repeatedly tried to conceal its role in creating anti-drug media messages, and why you probably know the handiwork but not the name of the American Legacy Foundation. If Wal-Mart really wants to start changing large numbers of minds, it'll need to start taking account of this identity effect and thinking about the most intelligent ways to leverage its PR resources. I guess asking Congress to increase the minimum wage is a superficially decent attempt, except that it's difficult to see why the retailer would need the government to force it to do something it already has the power to do right now.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

The Empire Strikes Back

Wal-Mart made the NYT front page again a couple days ago, this time for recruiting veteran political PR mavens to shine up its lackluster public image and combat anti-WM propaganda. The article relates that founding father Sam Walton considered public relations a waste of money and probably wouldn't have approved the establishment of a political campaign-style "war room" to win over the hearts and wallets of conscientious consumers. But the six-armed beast over on the right has the senior management running scared--it's the mascot for a recently released documentary called Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price, which harshly criticizes the retail giant's business practices. Executives have cited Wal-Mart's public image as a factor in its withering stock prices from 2000 forward, and they're worried that the film might exacerbate the trend, especially if it becomes a cult hit.

It looks to me like Wal-Mart's fighting a losing battle here. Successfully convincing concerned and intelligent shoppers (a coveted demographic) that it's as interested in taking care of its front-line employees as it is in fattening its profit margins would be a milestone triumph of public relations. The company's trying to have it both ways, but it will fail as long as the public eye sees the tension between worker protections and profit-mindedness as a zero-sum tradeoff. As propaganda, the documentary benefits from the popular stereotype of the greedy corporation squeezing the common man and woman for all they're worth, and what we know about Wal-Mart's attitude toward its employees dovetails with that portrayal.

My girlfriend will be hosting a screening of Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price in a couple weeks, and I'll post a review soon after I see it. I also may try and track down a copy of the WM-backed answer film Why Wal-Mart Works & Why That Makes Some People Crazy and review that as well.