Friday, March 11, 2011

Searching For The Truth: Congressional Lost Minds And Journalism’s Lost Cojones

Searching For The Truth: Congressional Lost Minds And Journalism’s Lost Cojones

A striking image of the Twin Towers burning down was a backdrop Thursday to Homeland Security Chairman Peter King’s hearing on the radicalization of Islam. Full Story
The framed photograph was shown by C-SPAN cameras just as Rep .Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), who is Muslim, broke down in tears while addressing the panel. It also was prominently visible on the wall behind other witnesses who testified.

As Representative Peter King begins his hunt for Islamic radicals in our midst, including infiltrators of the US government and military, I hope that part of his inquiry focuses on those who really advocate Sharia law in the United States. I have a suggestion for a witness for that panel: Joseph Schmitz, the former inspector general of the Department of Defense. Schmitz was among a group of conservative activists and former senior CIA and military officials, led by Lt. Gen. William “Jerry” Boykin and Lt. Gen. Edward Soyster, who last September issued a report: “Shariah: The Threat to America.”

In the report, the authors argued, “Today, the United States faces what is, if anything, an even more insidious ideological threat: the totalitarian socio-political doctrine that Islam calls shariah.” They concluded, “proponents of an expansionist shariah present a serious threat to the United States.”
So, why should Schmitz be called to testify on this? Because Schmitz himself has advocated for the United States to recognize Sharia law. After he left the DoD in late 2005, Schmitz went straight to employment with Blackwater, serving as the General Counsel for its parent company, The Prince Group. He coordinated Blackwater’s legal defense stemming from a series of lawsuits filed by Iraqi civilians, former employees and families of Blackwater employees killed in war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan.
One of these lawsuits was brought in 2005 by the widows of US servicemen killed in November 2004 in Afghanistan in the crash of Blackwater Flight 61. There was ample evidence the pilots were reckless, the flight had inadequate equipment and that they should not have flown. Bolstering the families’ case was the fact that the US Army Collateral Investigations Board found Blackwater at fault for the crash, determining after a lengthy investigation that the crew suffered from “degraded situational awareness” and “inattention and complacency,” as well as “poor judgment and willingness to take unacceptable risks.” The investigation also determined it was possible that the pilots were suffering from visual illusions and hypoxia, whose symptoms can include hallucinations, inattentiveness and decreased motor skills. Further, the Army said there was demonstrated evidence of “inadequate cross-checking and crew coordination.” The National Transportation Safety Board concluded that Blackwater’s pilots “were behaving unprofessionally and were deliberately flying the nonstandard route low through the valley for ‘fun.’
In 2008, in attempting to have the case thrown out of federal court in Florida, Schmitz argued that because the crash occurred in Afghanistan, Sharia law should be applied. Conveniently, Sharia law does not hold a company responsible for the actions of employees performed within the course of their work. Schmitz and Blackwater’s other lawyers argued that the crash lawsuit “is governed by the law of Afghanistan,” declaring that “Afghan law is largely religion-based and evidences a strong concern for ensuring moral responsibility, and deterring violations of obligations within its borders.” To his credit, the judge in that case did not buy Schmitz’s Sharia law argument. (Needless to say, when Blackwater operatives gunned down seventeen innocent Iraqi civilians in Baghdad’s Nisour Square, Blackwater was not eager to have its men prosecuted under Iraqi law.)
While there is a sea of craziness about President Obama and Sharia law promoted by right-wing charlatans, Peter King could actually do this country a service by investigating those who actually seem to see a place for Sharia law in America—in defending corporate misconduct that leads to the deaths of US servicemen in war zones. Schmitz is a man who managed to infiltrate the Pentagon, serve as its inspector general and ascend to the highest ranks within Washington’s most sensitive security contractor, and who has continued to win lucrative contracts overseeing Afghan contracting oversight, including a $95,000 contract to work with the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction last year. (What makes the story all the more rich is that Schmitz is a member of the Sovereign Military Order of the Knights of Malta.)
I hope Peter King focuses his laser sights on this potential threat in our midst before it’s too late.

Wikileaks: As AIG Crumbled, China Stepped In As Broker

NEW YORK (Reuters) – U.S. officials believe China's insurance regulator passed on proprietary information about AIG to its Chinese rivals during the American firm's collapse in 2008, according to unpublished diplomatic cables.

The U.S. government bailout of American International Group Inc in 2008 sent shock waves around the world, and China seemed especially rattled.

The Chinese Insurance Regulatory Commission (CIRC) forced AIG's local operations to open their books on a daily basis after the company's September 2008 rescue, according to a series of U.S. diplomatic cables obtained by WikiLeaks and provided to Reuters by a third party. The regulator then shared the confidential information with local competitors, in part to convince at least one of them to buy the troubled assets.

The cables were based on diplomats' repeated conversations with unidentified AIG executives.

While the regulator's efforts went for naught -- AIG's various Asian operations were ultimately sold in part to MetLife and in part to the public in the IPO of AIA Group -- the cables shed new light on the way the Chinese approach large and troubled foreign companies.

"CIRC appears to be mixing its role as a regulator of China-based insurance companies with intentions to support domestic Chinese insurers," the U.S. consulate in Shanghai wrote in an October 22, 2008 cable.

"That CIRC would coordinate closely with domestic Chinese insurance firms is no surprise, but the situation here appears to take this a step farther, with CIRC actively eliciting information from AIG that would be helpful to AIG's Chinese competitors in acquiring parts of AIG's business."

The Chinese regulator, in a statement, said its actions were appropriate and suggestions to the contrary were "a serious departure from the facts or sheer fabrication."

"During the period when (China) dealt with the global financial crisis, CIRC maintained unhindered communication with insurance regulators of various countries, including the United States, and regulated AIA, AIU and other foreign insurance firms operating in China in accordance with laws and regulations. AIG and its China office never raised the various problems stated in your (news) agency's interview outline."


AIG executives told consular officials in Shanghai they were summoned to Beijing the day after the rescue to explain themselves, the speed of the request coming as a surprise.

The next day, AIG told consular officials Shanghai-based regulators threatened to immediately pull the company's licenses if it did not disclose -- and stop enforcement of -- any support arrangements with other AIG units.

The first indication of a more direct purpose came September 25, 2008, when AIG told consular officials the CIRC had had a meeting of domestic insurers to see if any wanted to buy the AIG operations, and at least one said yes. The cable did not disclose who that potential buyer was.

But by October 22 of that year, AIG said the CIRC apparently already had a favorite buyer -- China Life, the world's most valuable insurer.

It remains unclear how far the commission went to arrange or push China Life's candidacy as a buyer. The head of the commission's international department told Reuters in November 2008 he had not heard anything of China Life having any interest, after China Life sources said the company was interested in certain AIG assets in Asia.

The discussion of AIG's situation ended, at least in the available cable traffic, after that last note.

AIG's rescue ended up totaling $182 billion, and it sold off a number of assets, including various businesses in Asia. The U.S. Treasury owns a 92 percent stake in AIG, on which it stands to make a profit in the billions of dollars.

Both the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, which provided the original AIG credit facility, and the U.S. Treasury Department declined to comment. A spokesman for AIG declined to comment. The State Department also declined to comment.

(Additional reporting by Kristina Cooke in New York and Langi Chiang and Benjamin Kang Lim in Beijing; Editing by Claudia Parsons and Jim Impoco)

WikiLeaks, Revolution, and the Lost Cojones of American Journalism

Now that the WikiLeaks releases about Tunisian corruption have directly sparked a peoples' uprising in Tunisia; now that Egypt is in the throes of pro-democracy protest driven in large measure by WikiLeaks' revelation in the Palestine Papers about US manipulation of Palestine, surely one would expect key U.S. news organizations and journalists to rally prominently to the defense of the right to publish that that site represents. One would expect lead editorials supporting Assange's right to publish from the New York Times, the Wall Street Journaland USAToday, not to mention every major TV outlet. But instead, what we have heard is the deafening sounds of what middle-schoolers call 'crickets' -- that is, an awkward silence. As Nancy Youssef in the McClatchy papers reported recently, most U.S. journalists -- and, even more shamefully, journalists' organizations -- decided, regarding supporting Wikileaks' freedom to publish, to "take a pass."

How on earth could this be? This cravenness represents one of American journalism's darkest hours -- as dark as the depth of the McCarthy era.

 In terms of the question of the legalities of publishing classified information, most American journalists understand full well that Assange is not the one who committed the crime of illegally obtaining classified material -- that was Bradley Manning, or whomever released the material to the site. So Assange is not the 'hacker' of secrets, asPeople magazine has mis-identified him; he is of course the publisher, just as any traditional news organization is. He is not Daniel Ellsberg, in the most comparable analogy, the illegal releaser of the classified Pentagon Papers; rather, Assange is analogous to the New York Times, which made the brave and correct decision to publish the Pentagon Papers in the public's interest.

U.S. journalists also know perfectly well that they too traffic in classified material continually -- and many of our most prominent reporters have built lucrative careers doing exactly what Assange is being charged with. Any sophisticated dinner party in media circles in New York or Washington has journalists jauntily showing prospective employers their goods, or trading favors with each other, by disclosing classified information. For we all, in this profession, know that seeking out and handling classified information is what serious journalists DO: their job is to find out the government's secrets in spite of officials who don't want these secrets revealed.

American journalists also know that the U.S. government classifies information mostly out of embarrassment, or for expediency, rather than because of true national security concerns (an example is the classification of suspicious deaths in Guantanamo and other US-held jails). The New York Times garnered kudos -- as they should have -- in 2005 with the publication of the SWIFT banking story -- based on leaked classified documents, which makes Bill Kellers' recent essay trying to put distance between his newspaper and WikiLeaks all the more indefensible.

Here is what readers are not being told: We have ALL handled classified information if we are serious American journalists. I am waiting for more than a handful of other American reporters, editors and news organizations to have the courage -- courage that is in abundance in Tahrir Square and on the pages of Al Jazeera, now that we no longer see it on the editorial page of the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal -- to stand up and confirm the obvious. For the assault on Assange to be credible, they would have to come arrest us all. 

Many of Bob Woodward's bestselling books, which have made him America's highest-paid reporter, are based on classified information -- that's why he gets the big bucks. Where are the calls for Woodward's arrest? Indeed Dick Cheney and other highest-level officials in the Bush administration committed the same act as Bradley Manning in this case, when they illegally revealed the classified identity of CIA operative Valerie Plame.

So why do all these American reporters, who know quite well that they get praise and money for doing what Assange has done, stand in a silence that can only be called cowardly, while a fellow publisher faces threats of extradition, banning, prosecution for spying -- which can incur the death penalty -- and calls for his assassination?
One could say that the reason for the silence has to do with the sexual misconduct charges in Sweden. But any serious journalist in America knows perfectly well that the two issues must not be conflated. The First Amendment applies to rogues and scoundrels. You don't lose your First Amendment rights because of a sleazy personality, or even for having committed a crime. Felons in jail are protected by the First Amendment. Indeed the most famous First Amendment cases, the ones that are supposed to showcase America's strength and moral power, involve the protection of speech most decent people hate.
So again: why have U.S. journalists and editor, as Youssef reported, "shunned" Assange? Youssef reports an almost unbelievably craven American press scenario: The "freedom of the press committee" -- yes, you read that correctly -- of the Overseas Press Club of America in New York City declared him "not one of us." The Associated Press itself won't issue comment about him. And even the National Press Club in Washington made the decision not to speak publicly about the possibility that Assange may be charged with a crime. She notes that it is foreign press organizations that have had to defend him.
One answer for this silence has to do with what happens to the press in a closing society. I warned in 2006 and often since that you don't need a coup to close down America's open society -- you need to simply accomplish a few key goals. One critical task -- number seven -- is to intimidate journalists; this is done, as in any closing society, by creating a situation in which a high-profile reporter is accused of "treason" or of endangering national security through their reporting, and threatened with torture or with a show trial and indefinite detention. History shows that when that happens, you don't need to arrest or threaten any other reporters -- because they immediately start to police and censor themselves, and fall all over themselves attacking the "traitor" as well. That way safety lies, whether the knowledge is conscious or not.

Another motive is revealed in the comment that Assange is "not one of us." U.S. journalism's business model is collapsing; the people who should be out in front defending Assange are facing cut salaries or unemployment because of the medium that Assange represents. These journalists are not willing to concede that Assange is, of course, a publisher, rather than some sort of hybrid terrorist blogger, because of their self-interested prejudices against a medium in which they are not the gatekeepers.
In this, paradoxically, they have become just like the outraged U.S. government officials who are threatening Assange: the American government too is in the position, because of the Internet, of no longer being able to control its secrets, and is lashing out at Assange as it faces a future in which there are no traditional gatekeepers, and all institutions live in glass houses.
It is for this reason that the prosecution of Assange -- and his betrayal by his fellow journalists and publishers in America -- is so almost absurdly futile. Even if they lock Assange up forever, the world of the future is a WikiLeaks world. Trying to extradite and to convict Assange is like trying to convict the first person who dared to install a telephone.
The WikiLeaks necessity -- for citizens who are upset at government or private sector abuses of power -- to release documents, is not going away, ever. Egypt is showing us that conclusively: they turn off the news and people create the news on their cellphones. The technology of leaking government secrets globally is not going away either. In five years one can expect that every major institution will have its own version of WikiLeaks -- so shareholders, members of university communities, citizens of governments all over the world, and so on, can read the secrets that are in the public interest that the traditional gatekeepers wish to keep under wraps.
History shows that journalists only protect themselves, when bullied like this, by fighting back -- as a group. And history shows that when a technology and its social change are inevitable, it is better to integrate the way the future will work, into an open society -- rather than trying pointlessly to punish it, in this case by seeking to ship the inevitable future off to Guantanamo Bay.
An earlier version of this post appeared at Project Syndicate.

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