when the dust clears

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Archive for the ‘Diplomacy’ Category

Full Disclosure outtakes: Babil (2005) and Anbar (2006)

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I’m posting via Vimeo a series more favorite scenes I wasn’t able to fit into my 2008 documentary, Full Disclosure.

These scenes are from 2005 and 2006. (I didn’t shoot video in Iraq in 2004, only stills.) The first scenes focus on activities in Babil province during the run-up to the first post-Saddam election, January 31, 2005. The second chunk is from 1/2’s time in Hit, Anbar province, in early 2006.

There’s no graphic violence, but the video is still NSFW because of expletive-heavy gruntspeak and a flash of a porn magazine.

Shouting Truth to Power at NDU

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I immediately recognized the top of Medea Benjamin’s blond head on my computer screen as she was being dragged out of President Barack Obama’s May 23rd address at the National Defense University. Benjamin is well known on Capitol Hill for her activism with Code Pink, specifically their antiwar protests and pickets that disrupt hearings and other official goings-on.

I had interviewed Benjamin in the late 1990s for a Fortune magazine piece about corporate social responsibility. Then, she was working with another social justice group she helped create, Global Exchange. The day after the president’s NDU speech, though, Benjamin was “The Heckler.”

Let’s be clear about our terms. Heckling is spewing insults at a stand-up comic under cover of darkness after six scotch and sodas too many. Benjamin, a veteran human rights campaigner and an antiwar activist—and the author of Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control—was protesting. (USA Today called her a “protester” who “heckles.”) She was practicing the venerable and always controversial art of nonviolent civil disobedience to bring attention to—and intervene in—an issue of great importance to society. Such actions are, by definition, disruptive of business as usual—in this case a presidential address to the American public about national security to which the American public had not been invited.

Before making an appearance on Arise News to talk about the president’s speech, I called Benjamin to find out why she did what she did. [Here’s the link to the Arise segment, and to the entire show.]

“I was waiting until the very end,” Benjamin told me. She was waiting for him to say something “significant,” for specifics, not just the “standard blaming of Congress.” But she didn’t hear that.

So Benjamin interrupted our president: “There are 102 people on a hunger strike, these desperate people. Eighty-six are cleared for release. You are commander in chief. You can close Guantánamo today, and you can release those 86 prisoners!”

Who are the 86 Benjamin refers to? Ask Air Force Col. Morris Davis, the former chief prosecutor for the Pentagon’s Office of Military Commissions, as the Voice of America did. “Of the 166 [prisoners] that are still there, there are 86 that have been cleared for transfer, which means that a joint task force made up of the CIA, Department of Justice, FBI and Department of Defense unanimously agreed that these 86 men didn’t commit a crime, we don’t intend to charge them, they don’t pose an imminent threat and we don’t want to keep them,” Davis told VOA.

The president doesn’t need to wait for Congress, nor does he need to issue an executive order to transfer the remaining prisoners from Guantánamo, where more than 100 prisoners are on a hunger strike. Thirty are being force-fed. Obama could issue a national security waiver to override restrictions Congress has placed on transfers,  Benjamin said. That’s what former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told the president—in a confidential memo leaked to the press, described in a Daily Beast article by Daniel Klaidman.

“Can you tell the Muslims that their lives are as precious as our lives?” Benjamin shouted at Obama. “Can you take the drones out of the hands of the CIA? Can you stop the signature strikes that are killing people on the basis of suspicious activity? Will you compensate the families of innocent victims you have killed?”

These are questions of life and death, particularly for those on the business end of U.S. foreign policy in Pakistan, Yemen, and anywhere the administration chooses to exercise its still-classified policy of targeted killing. Questions to which the president provided no definitive answers.

Invasion of Iraq, +10 years, Part 2

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U.S. Marine searches Iraqi visitors to the Forward Operation Base Iskandariya, which surrounded Musayyib power plant, August 7, 2004

U.S. Marine searches Iraqi visitors to Forward Operating Base Iskandariya, which surrounded Musayyib city’s power plant, August 7, 2004

Iraqis, nongovernmental organizations, and others are working to rebuild Iraq and end the sectarian strife. One can’t ignore their labor and sacrifice. Recent events, including today’s bombings, remind us that they face a terrible task. Islamic State of Iraq, an al Qaeda offshoot, took credit for the murders. Al Qaeda followed the United States into Iraq, we should remember, not the other way around. (See pages 64 through 66 of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s September 8, 2006 report.)

Ken Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, wrote a measured 10th-anniversary piece for CNN that also appears on HRW’s website. The title: U.S. Has Self to Blame for Iraq Failures.

HRW’s E.D. for the Middle East, Sarah Leah Whitson, has an even tougher assessment:

The U.S. legacy in Iraq reflects abuses committed with impunity by American and Iraqi forces throughout the U.S.-led occupation. The abuses set in motion over 10 years ago by the Bush administration’s ‘torture memos,’ and the brutal detention policies that followed, facilitated Iraq’s creation of a system that is today either unwilling or incapable of delivering justice to its citizens.

The recent investigation by BBC Arabic and the Guardian of the U.S. role in training murderous special police commando units give these charges teeth. The head of the effort, retired U.S. Army officer Jim Steele, played a similar role in El Salvador’s U.S.-sponsored “dirty war” against leftist guerrillas.

The Wall Street Journal reported recently that CIA paramilitary units are ramping up their support for Iraq’s Counterterrorism Service (CTS) as a hedge against violence spilling over the border from Syria. This is a force that reports directly to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who has used elite units to mete out violence against his opponents and run secret prisons. The CTS, which has been “accused of committing serious abuses against detainees, worked closely with U.S. Special Forces before the U.S. troop withdrawal in 2011,” Whitson writes.

WSJ‘s writers fail to raise (or their editors failed to publish) the question of oversight of the CIA effort. Given that such initiatives have gone off the human-rights rails in the past, it’s kind of an essential question. That said, they may not have bothered because the answer is obvious: There will be no substantive checks or balances.

“[O]ur power grows through its prudent use; our security emanates from the justness of our cause, the force of our example, the tempering qualities of humility and restraint,” President Barack Obama said in his first inaugural address. The record shows that humility and restraint do not blossom in the darkness of extralegal policy. Obama seems to have forgotten his own words and he will sacrifice lives as a result.

Invasion of Iraq, +10 years, Part 1

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I’m traveling through Virginia working on Make the Ground Talk, my second doc. I’m pausing with Erin at our favorite Hampton coffee shop, Blend, to note the anniversary of the beginning of the Iraq War.

Marine with 24th MEU, hours before crossing the  border into Iraq from Kuwait, July 2004

Marine with 24 MEU, hours before crossing the border into Iraq from Kuwait, July 2004

Demonstration, Union Square, New York City

Demonstration, Union Square, New York City

U.S. forces crossed the border from Kuwait into Iraq ten years ago today. The invasion toppled a dictator—and unleashed a sectarian war that continues. Our focus—the American focus—has been on the cost to us, particularly the service members killed and injured.

But the cost has been far greater for Iraqis. More to follow…

From the BXP photo archives: 1996 & 1999

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Gulou (Drum Tower), Beijing, October 26, 1996

Gulou (Drum Tower), Beijing, October 26, 1996

When I wasn’t piloting my desk during my time in China as US News and World Report‘s Beijing Bureau Chief, I would wander streets and hutongs.

Photographing what I found dragged me out of the editorial and bureaucratic pool I steeped in most days—Beijing and Washington’s genuine conflicts and diplomatic spats; China’s labyrinthine officialdom; and the stress of being under (or believing I was under) the scrutiny of the Public Security (cops) and State Security (secret police) Bureaus.

The photo above, from the Gulou (Drum Tower) section of Beijing, is the result of such wanderings. The second picture is from the tailend of an interview of bus driver Wei Guiying (not pictured), who had been selected as a model worker by her work unit, in Hunan province’s Sansi Village. Wang Chunlei, my friend and office manager/editorial adviser also acted as translator, because we knew I would have difficulty understanding Wei’s Hunanese-flavored Mandarin. And I most certainly did.

I barely remember the interview; lunch, however, I recall vividly. Chunlei told me the family must have blown a month’s wages on the tableful of meat, vegetables—corn, greens, potatoes—and buns that they laid before us. I did my duty, good waiguo ren (foreigner) that I am, and devoured all that was scooped into my bowl.

Wei’s stepmother was housebound; her grandson was most definitely not.

Family of Wei Guiying (not pictured), Sansi Village, Hunan Province, China, December 26, 1996

Family of Wei Guiying (not pictured), Sansi Village, Hunan Province, China, December 26, 1996

Pak Ou Caves, Luang Prabang, Laos, November 1999

Pak Ou Caves, Luang Prabang, Laos, November 1999

This last photo is from a published story I did while working at Fortune magazine. I traveled to Vientiane and Luang Prabang, Laos, to write/photograph a travel piece.

Is there a theme—or themes— that unites and animates these photos? Escape? Encounter? I try to strike a balance between the literal and the lyrical, to see and photograph as an open, humble, compassionate, yet still critical observer and sometime participant.

Yes, more to come.

Jingo(ism) Unchained: Thoughts on Zero Dark Thirty

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Zero Dark Thirty may turn out to be the feel-good movie of the year. For some.

The film, now in limited release (and opening for real January 11), delivers a bounty of bangs and booms, and swaggering American heroes torturing swarthy bad guys—with no consequences—packaged in a ripping yarn.

The yarn: A waifish and improbably fragile CIA operative, played by Jessica Chastain, spends 12 years doggedly tracking Osama bin Laden, countenancing and supervising torture of detainees—beatings, waterboarding—along the way. As ZDT has it, her work led us to bin Laden’s fortress hideout in Abbottabad, Pakistan, where Navy SEALs dropped in and killed him and several members of his family. As she flies home alone in the belly of a military cargo plane after the deed is done, she sheds a tear. Roll credits.

Only the last part of the story line, the SEALs bit, resembles the most authoritative versions of what actually happened (much information about the operation and the intel that led to it is classified). The rest is a brutal Hollywood fantasy, a kind of jingo(ism) unchained, that stretches deep into the movie and corrupts it.

Several critics have taken a lighten up, it’s just a movie tack. Makers of fictional films have dramatic license to pump up a story, after all. Screenwriters and directors composite dreary real-life humans into a single, sexy dynamo, like Chastain’s Agent Maya, all the time. They add a boom here and a boom there, where no booms should be. No harm in that.

Problem one: The film itself asserts that ZDT is based on facts and firsthand testimony. But this is the least important flaw. The real concern for me is, there is a bar for fidelity to history— particularly such recent and raw history—that must be vaulted in a film that begins as Zero Dark Thirty does: with 911 audio from doomed callers trapped in the Towers on 9-11, which implicitly justifies what comes next. ZDT’s makers appear to have crawled under that bar without ever glancing up.

(Jane Mayer, who’s been writing about torture for the New Yorker for years, and Glenn Greenwald unravel the film’s fabric of distortion, seemingly stitch by stitch.)

Arabic-speaking FBI agent Ali Soufan, among other truly dogged investigators, blazed the path to bin Laden by extracting information from al Qaeda enablers and operatives like Abu Zubaydah and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. He did it by talking to them.

“Along with another F.B.I. agent, and with several C.I.A. officers present,” Soufan wrote in a 2009 New York Times op-ed, “I questioned [Zubaydah] from March to June 2002, before the harsh techniques were introduced later in August. Under traditional interrogation methods, he provided us with important actionable intelligence.”

Soufan continues: “There was no actionable intelligence gained from using enhanced interrogation techniques on Abu Zubaydah that wasn’t, or couldn’t have been, gained from regular tactics.” Soufan also notes that many Americans assigned to investigations and detainee interrogation, including CIA agents, objected to the torture that was being carried out.

A long line of men and women who are in a position to know what happened have stepped up to challenge ZDT’s adaptation of real-life events, including some of our elected officials.

Senators Dianne Feinstein, Carl Levin, and raging liberal John McCain have taken on ZDT directly in a letter to the director: “Regardless of what message the filmmakers intended to convey, the movie clearly implies that the CIA’s coercive interrogation techniques were effective in eliciting important information related to a courier for Usama Bin Laden. We have reviewed CIA records and know that this is incorrect.

Zero Dark Thirty is factually inaccurate, and we believe that you have an obligation to state that the role of torture in the hunt for Usama Bin Laden is not based on the facts, but rather part of the film’s fictional narrative.” They’re not denying that torture took place. The senators are saying, unequivocally, that the true road to bin Laden did not begin, as it does in the film, with the violent extraction of vital information by a charming and strategically cruel CIA agent through beatings and waterboarding. “Everyone breaks in the end,” the interrogator tells his captive. “It’s biology.” This is, of course, untrue. Not everybody breaks. Most people lie. And some people die.

All three senators serve on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, which recently completed a 6,000-page report, approved by a nine-to-six vote, that also states torture did not play a role in the mission to kill bin Laden.

Journalist Mark Bowden, however, writes in his recent book The Finish: The Killing of Osama bin Laden that two detainees, Mohamedou Ould Slahi and Mohammed al-Qahtani, did in fact provide actionable intelligence when tortured that aided the bin Laden hunt. “It should […] be noted this effort did involve torture, or at the very least coercive interrogation methods.”

Assuming that Bowden is correct and that some information was beaten or boarded out of Qahtani and Slahi, others in the know like Soufan tell us that using brain, not brawn—or dogs or Metallica cranked to 11—elicits better information more reliably.

Ultimately, torture boomerangs on the nation that authorizes it—us—by inciting others to retributive violence and fouling bona fide efforts to root out terrorism, not just kill terrorists (or those suspected of being terrorists).

We tortured Qahtani,” Susan Crawford, the Bush administration official who oversaw military commissions for Guantanamo detainees, told the Washington Post. “His treatment met the legal definition of torture. And that’s why I did not refer the case for prosecution.”

“War crimes charges against Mr. al Qahtani have been dismissed but may be refiled,” the NY Times reported recently.

“Of the cases I had seen, he was the one with the most blood on his hands,” Stuart Couch, the Marine lieutenant colonel assigned to prosecute Mohamedou Ould Slahi (also rendered Salahi), told the Wall Street Journal in 2007.

But: “Col. Couch would uncover evidence [that] the prisoner had been beaten and exposed to psychological torture, including death threats and intimations that his mother would be raped in custody unless he cooperated,” reporter Jesse Bravin wrote. Couch told his commander he was “morally opposed” to the methods used on Slahi, and declined to the take the case.

“I’m hoping there’s some non-tainted evidence out there that can put the guy in the hole,” Couch said. Both Qatani and Slahi have been held in limbo at Guantanamo for more than 10 years.

The Senate Select Committee’s report is classified, but may be released one day. That said, we will never know the whole story. The CIA’s former deputy director of operations, Jose Rodriguez, who has asserted for the record (and in his own book, Hard Measures) that torture works, destroyed videotapes documenting “coercive interrogation.” Ninety-two tapes, he told Lesley Stahl of 60 Minutes.

Zero Dark Thirty does terrible violence to the story on which it is based, the real story of the hunt for bin Laden. It popularizes a narrative that justifies inhumane and self-defeating practices. Fundamentally, in my view, it does a disservice to those who died trying to track down bin Laden the right way, and it dishonors those who lost their lives to the terrorist himself.

Portrait of Libyan National Congress President Mohamed Magariaf

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During the United Nations General Assembly last month, I got an assignment to photograph Mohamed Magariaf, the president of Libya’s National Congress.

After I shot the less-than-interesting “official” portrait, I made this frame of him sitting on the couch.

BBC has what seems to be a good bio of Magariaf, interim head of state.

Mohamed Magariaf, New York, NY, September 28, 2012