Category Archives: Journalism

Ernesto Sabato, writer who led investigation of Argentina’s ‘Dirty War,’ dies at 99

By Peter Eisner
Ernesto Sabato, 99, a celebrated Argentine writer and intellectual who was chosen to lead an official investigation of thousands of killings by the military during the Dirty War of the 1970s and 1980s, and whose long life included careers as a physicist, public servant and artist, died April 30 at his home near Buenos Aires.

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Libya: The Reality you won’t hear–yet.

It is possible to parse and figure out President Obama’s plan on Libya – as long as you’re not playing politics while analyzing the evidence.

Don’t expect an open explanation of the strategy. What good is a public announcement from the battlements? Or a nationally broadcast speech? Make no mistake – the endgame is that someone – maybe not foreigners on the ground – ousts Gaddafi.

One week after the U.S.-organized attack on Gaddafi, rebels are no longer holed up and surrounded in Benghazi. No accident, and the reverse in fortune is not just the result of the no-fly zone. You can bet that American, British, French, even Italian intelligence operatives are the covert alliance in this story—providing support, training, tactical help – maybe even covert operatives – to rally the opposition to Gaddafi on the ground.

Here’s Pat Lang, a retired former senior officer with U.S. military intelligence:

“Someone has gotten the rebels up off their haunches and headed back to the west.  Who that someone might be is, at this point, a bit of a mystery.  The passage of time will undoubtedly clarify that point.”

“Qathafi’s ‘forces’ are extremely brittle. They have already begun to run from air attacks or even the sound of aircraft, abandoning their equipment and supplies as they flee in civilian vehicles. It is not necessary to arm or supply the rebels. Qathafi’s disintegrating forces will provide the needed materiel as they withdraw.
“As the rebels approach Tripoli the populace will rise again. How long will all this take? As I have written elsewhere, an outside estimate of six months is reasonable. The actuality may be a considerably shorter departure date for Qathafi.”

It’s obvious. How does an amateur, amorphous, largely unknown Libyan rebel force suddenly start capturing territory and move into the oil-rich heartland of the country? With a little well-placed “encouragement.”

It wouldn’t also be surprising that Obama’s ardent detractors have gotten the word.

Listen to John McCain, who early on lashed out at the president when he held fire until a U.N.-backed coalition was in place. McCain would be happy to appeal to the tea-bagging set, but instead his message on Fox News over the weekend was effusive support:

“The fact is that Gadaffi said he’d go house to house and kill people, and thankfully at the 11th hour with the quote-unquote ‘no fly zone,’ we prevented that,” McCain said. “This is a moment of historic proportions, and this will give us a moment of opportunity to help with the spread of democracy.”

No doubt McCain, Boehner and others will have received the secret briefing: Western intelligence is engaged, helping the rebels, driving Gaddafi from office, sooner or later.

You may not hear about it on the talk shows, not yet. But stay tuned.

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Fear without Facts: “Iranian sleeper agents” in the Caribbean

A former U.S. official is pushing the idea that Venezuela and Iran have created a base for terrorists and sleeper agents on the island of Margarita in the Caribbean.

True or not, Roger Noriega’s dire warning about Hugo Chavez and his terrorism connection sounds like fodder for a Johnny Depp movie. (Ayatollah Tourists in the Caribbean?)

Noriega, former assistant secretary of state under George W. Bush, writes in the Washington Post that President Obama is missing the real story on his tour of Latin America. Never fear, Noriega is ready to tell us  “the real” story, which by the way can’t be proved or disproved. It can only be doubted.

Noriega’s ideas and warnings about Venezuela have been featured on the Washington Post opinion pages before. The method is based on agitprop, the underlying principle of the very successful campaign that brought us war on Iraq, a war much less successful than the propaganda campaign. Here’s how you play–first understand agitprop.

“agitprop, abbreviated from Russian agitatsiya propaganda (agitation propaganda), political strategy in which the techniques of agitation and propaganda are used to influence and mobilize public opinion. Although the strategy is common, both the label and an obsession with it were specific to the Marxism practiced by communists in the Soviet Union.

The twin strategies of agitation and propaganda were originally elaborated by the Marxist theorist Georgy Plekhanov, who defined propaganda as the promulgation of a number of ideas to an individual or small group and agitation as the promulgation of a single idea to a large mass of people. ” Encyclopedia Britannica online

Next blend some truths with  information that no one can prove to be categorically true or false. The unnamed sources cited by Noriega are  “from within the Venezuelan regime,” and tell him that a terrorist conclave took place in Venezuela.  “Among those present were Palestinian Islamic Jihad Secretary General Ramadan Abdullah Mohammad Shallah, who is on the FBI’s list of most-wanted terrorists; Hamas’s “supreme leader,” Khaled Meshal; and Hezbollah’s “chief of operations.”

Cting his conversation with  “a Venezuelan government source,”  Noriega further tells us that “two Iranian terrorist trainers are on Venezuela’s Margarita Island…” The trainers are

“instructing operatives who have assembled from around the region. In addition, radical Muslims from Venezuela and Colombia are brought to a cultural center in Caracas named for the Ayatollah Khomeini and Simon Bolivar for spiritual training, and some are dispatched to Qom, Iran, for Islamic studies. Knowledgeable sources confirm that the most fervent recruits in Qom are given weapons and explosives training and are returned home as ‘sleeper’ agents.”

Noriega, when he was in office, once told me in matter-of-fact terms that Cuban operatives had taken over Venezuela’s intelligence service, which was thereby at the bidding of Fidel Castro. That apparently didn’t fly very well. Now that Iran is the enemy du jour, why not point to Iran-trained sleeper agents, a couple of hundred miles off U.S. shores?

I asked a knowledgeable source about Noriega’s story, but on the record: Vincent Cannistraro, who is former Director of Intelligence Programs for the  National Security Council and former Chief of Operations and Analysis at the Central Intelligence Agency‘s Counterterrorist Center.

“It’s not based on confirmed intelligence,” nor is there a plot or an imminent threat, Cannistraro said. “Noriega has a one-track mind on Chavez and ties to Iran. This is poorly sourced, as usual. We know Chavez and his predilections, but he is not in the Iranian terrorist nest.”

It isn’t easy to prove a negative, as they say, but let’s ask Noriega and the Washington Post opinion pages for evidence. Otherwise, skepticism reigns.

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Nuclear failure–Japan versus the United States

What is the difference between corporate executives in Japan and the United States? A bow and an apology.

Case in point: the nuclear power industry. On both sides of the water, executives had a choice: protect the public good and tell the truth, or just kick the problem further down the road.

In Japan, at least five of six GE Mark 1 nuclear reactors are failing and melting down, not only because of faulty design, but also because it was too expensive to deal with the problem.

Even when there is a problem — such as a catastrophic failure — officials stand up, bow deeply, apologize for the inconvenience, and continue to minimize the depth of the problem.

New York Times on the lack of information:

“Foreign nuclear experts, the Japanese press and an increasingly angry and rattled Japanese public are frustrated by government and power company officials’ failure to communicate clearly and promptly about the nuclear crisis. Pointing to conflicting reports, ambiguous language and a constant refusal to confirm the most basic facts, they suspect officials of withholding or fudging crucial information about the risks posed by the ravaged Daiichi plant.”

They should have done more than apologize. In 2008, reports the London Daily Telegraph, the International Atomic Energy Commission warned Japan about catastrophic failures at plants, should an earthquake occur.

“On earthquakes and nuclear safety, the IAEA presenter noted the Agency has officials in Japan to learn from Japan’s recent experience dealing with earthquakes and described several areas of IAEA focus. First, he explained that safety guides for seismic safety have only been revised three times in the last 35 years and that the IAEA is now reexamining them. Also, the presenter noted recent earthquakes in some cases have exceeded the design basis for some nuclear plants, and that this a serious problem [emphasis added] that is now driving seismic safety work.”

Now then, what to do about GE Mark 1 nuclear reactors in the United States? Nothing, says GE. These reactors have a 40-year proven track record.

Former employees say they have a 35-year history of troubles. ABC News quotes a former GE employee who quit over concerns about the Mark 1 reactors:

“The problems we identified in 1975 were that, in doing the design of the containment, they did not take into account the dynamic loads that could be experienced with a loss of coolant,” [Dale G.] Bridenbaugh told ABC News in an interview. “The impact loads the containment would receive by this very rapid release of energy could tear the containment apart and create an uncontrolled release.”

That appears to be what is happening in at least five of six GE reactors at Fukushima after the earthquake and tsunami, exacerbated by the fact that back up diesel generators were on a bottom floor, and that spent fuel rods were not controlled after the failure.

According to the Nuclear Information and Resource Service, “There are currently 23 General Electric Mark I reactors in the U.S.–the design that exploded at Fukushima. A top Atomic Energy Commission official first proposed banning this design nearly 40 years ago.”

There it is — if and when there is a catastrophic accident in the United States, the public won’t even get the apology.

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Aristide poised to return–the Haitian enigma

Haiti’s deposed president, Jean Bertrand-Aristide, appears poised to return to Haiti after a seven-year forced exile. Undoubtedly his presence in Port-au-Prince will change the dynamics of Haitian politics, despite any protestations he will stay on the sideline.

Aristide, the former priest who twice was elected president of his country, was essentially tricked out of office in 2004 by U.S. operatives during the George W. Bush administration and flown out of the country.

I accompanied him with a group of his supporters — including Rep. Maxine Waters of California and Randall Robinson, the founder of TransAfrica–who helped negotiate his release from virtual house arrest in the Central African Republic. I spoke with Aristide for hours in Africa and on the cross-Atlantic journey; he was cordial, considerate, intelligent, empathetic, yet at the same time enigmatic at every turn, never absolutely clear on his analysis of Haiti and his role there.

The Bush administration blocked Aristide’s return to Haiti and convinced the South African government to take him in. There he has been ever since, and the U.S. government again has been setting up roadblocks to his return to Port-au-Prince, where he says he will stay out of politics.

Amy Wilentz — there is no better analyst of Haiti that I know of — has written an analysis of Aristide and what he means to Haiti on the NY Times op-ed page.

In two lines, she encapsulates the problem:

Finding himself alone in a political sea of the entitled and the empowered, Mr. Aristide believed that all he could trust in the end was the brute power of the street — the “rouleau compresseur,” as it is called in Haitian politics, or the steamroller.

He was almost pathologically reluctant to work toward agreement among his advisers, among equals. He shares this distaste with many Haitians, who believe that theirs is a fatally polarized society and that consensus-building here almost inevitably leads to capitulation to the elite, and by extension to the international community.

Haiti has elections this weekend, which may be beside the point: ongoing inequity and suffering. More than a year after the Haitian earthquake, the situation for hundreds of thousands there remains dire. Track the non-profit medical-relief organization, Partners in Health, for Haiti and its needs.

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US TV-Parochialism from an old game book

Some of the US TV coverage of the Japan disaster was pedestrian, verging on the foolish. Hundreds of thousands homeless, tens of thousands missing, nuclear reactors melting — and at least two outlets used their precious time to produce little human interest stories — which smacked of being manufactured — about two Americans who they had found to be safe, as if that had really been in question.

NHK TV live and on the internet — is a comprehensive way of learning about the breadth of the tsunami-earthquake-nuclear story.

The premise of two pieces on CNN and NBC segments involved two cases where young family members had been unable to contact their parents back home, who
were worried. That’s fine, but it was less a case of being missing than the case of not having a telephone. Both involved young Americans who had been too busy checking on the safety of people around them than to wait in line for a hard-to-get phone call. OK, it was American and it pulled at the heartstrings; at the same time there was almost a smug look on the faces of the reporters who had hauled in the human interest.

But come on. The journalistic story at a disaster is to analyze systems, identify problems, represent the public — the American public included. How does this really affect us? What can we draw from the collapse of public systems? And what can we do to help? Human interest yes, but with a little dignity rather than old parochial formulas.

CNN continues to be the best game on U.S. mainstream TV, and they did some good work. They finally brought in an eminent nuclear specialist without an agenda, a step-up from their weekend choice, Prof. Glenn Sjoden, a nuclear advocate who is also a consultant for industry. At their best, U.S. networks also questioned the openness of Japanese officials on the nuclear story. One of the good analysts on the airways was James Acton of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Acton was concise, well spoken and authoritative. Let’s hear more of that.


Filed under Asia, Japan, Journalism

Japan: News at the Source

Other than CNN, there was a dearth of televised news in the United States shortly after the Japanese earthquake, tsunami and nuclear power plant troubles. Most U.S. outlets don’t do news weekends very well.

The English language service of NHK, the public Japanese broadcasting Company, is a great alternative, a relatively unfettered source for comprehensive information. It is available on the Internet live and on many local TV cable and wired networks, such as Verizon. They’ve done a great job, focusing on excellent explanations of the nuclear issue and have been a source of pictures and information for American TV. Switching over the NHK directly has given a better understanding of the story.

This event apparently didn’t rate much more than the normal attention and expense of coverage by the waning U.S. broadcast news business–the allotment of television network news on the weekend is small. U.S. public television has little foreign coverage — and less since funding lapsed on World Focus, a daily international program I worked with until 2010. PBS doesn’t do live news on the weekend at all.

CNN did a typical job of covering the event — and the network has some excellent reporters. But American commercial television is often jarringly brief and superficial; bookers often don’t find the best specialists to help them. Instead of having a top academic, for example, such as Dr. Michio Kaku of City College in New York (who is a consultant for ABC, but too sparingly seen on their broadcasts), CNN relied on brief commentaries by anchors beyond the limits of their knowledge base and correspondents who had no access while in the field to their own information. They also booked a a nuclear engineering professor, Dr. Glenn Sjoden of Georgia Tech, who minimized the dangers of the nuclear power plants at Fukushima. Too much hype, he said; the radiation discussed is no more than the radiation one receives during a typical CT scan. I suspect that Professor Sjoden is somewhat of a proponent and damage controller for the U.S. nuclear industry.

NHK, by the way, is supported by public licensing fees. Anybody with a TV is supposed to pay, similar to the BBC system in the United Kingdom. The Japanese system isn’t perfect, and it has been subject to controversy, but NHK excelled in covering this story with expertise and compassion, while not sinking to the overly produced human interest and melodrama that American TV often employs.


Filed under Asia, Japan, Journalism

Half baked ideas on intervention in Libya

The misguided word among some on the fast-draw media circuit is that President Obama should be “DOING SOMETHING” about Libya. Give us a president, they say, who can make a decision and get it done!

Criticism of the U.S. role in some quarters is based on the illusion that overt U.S. threats, followed by military might on air, sea and land always work. Critics would even mock the notion that President Obama is able to think on his own, and act with care. For them, military intervention is such a given, such a standby in the American bag of tricks that anything else seems weak.

They fail to explain to us how calling Gaddafi a maniac and launching quick military action would save lives.

President Obama thankfully has held counsel, measured his response and kept the powder dry. Examine the reality:

The Obama administration has focused, as it must, on the safety of Americans in Libya. Moments after several hundred Americans – including diplomats from the U.S. embassy – left Tripoli by ferry and by airplane, the United States was freezing Libyan assets. Immediately, the administration started “ratcheting up” the pressure on Gaddafi, the Washington Post reported.

That sounds like a reasonable move, contrary to an editorial in the same newspaper, which complained about presidential inaction. The editorial page was rooting for immediate U.S. military action, the same editorial page that still fawns over the faulty, fraud-based Bush invasion of Iraq.

The U.S. image in the Middle East and elsewhere is improved somewhat; however, trust in America collapsed worldwide after the Bush administration set the precedent of preemptive war and lied about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

Unilateral U.S. action in Libya would be akin to what happens to local police when they respond to domestic disputes—both sides turn on the would-be peacemakers.

Neoconservatives venerate the mystical, vapid, Reaganesque Marlboro man image of American power. In 2011, concerted United Nations or regional action would be the preferred way to go in Libya, if it comes to that. President Obama, thankfully, doesn’t shoot from the hip.

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Libyan Protests — Low Priority So Far

By all scant news available, Libya is undergoing serious protests and disruptions, very little making its way into the news technosphere. There is some material on Youtube, such as this one from Al Jazeera

and reports from Human Rights Watch and Christian Science Monitor on protests, arrests, deaths and injuries.

This email was relayed by a reliable source overnight, with more detail than seen elsewhere and includes a plea for news coverage. A late check shows very little tweeting from and about Libya:

Juma Abdel majid, the brother of the head of the National front for the liberation
of the Tebu self immolated in the city of Kufra inside the offices of the Libyan Revolutionary
guards. He was protesting the taking of young school kids by the Rev
Guards in demonstrations for Qaddafi. He is at the hospital now. I have
confirmed this news with his brother Issa , who lives in Norway.

At the moment we have reports of 13 dead in the city of Al-Bida, over 50
dead in the city of Benghazi, 5 dead in the city of Ajdabi 2 dead in the
city of Rajban. The Libyan uprising is spreading all over the country,
and calling for Qaddafi’s removal. I urge you to do more coverage on
Libya and tell the world of the Massacres that are taking place in Libya

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Thoughts about the Film “Fair Game” — And a Review on the Washington Post Editorial Pages

WONK ROOM BLOG ITEM: Eight Years Later, Washington Post Still Defending The Saddam-Niger-Yellowcake Story

The Washington Post Editorial Board has decided to publish a “movie review” about the film, Fair Game, and ends up rehashing continuing misapprehensions about the build-up to the Iraq War. The Post editorial department–which of course operates separately and independently from the news pages– backtracks, among other things, on the Post’s reporting, including a story I wrote in 2007. The Post editorial calls for historical accuracy, but falls short itself. Fair Game, other than Hollywood embellishments, tells the essential political tale.

Knut Royce and I wrote a book, The Italian Letter, that tracks close to the story of Valerie Plame Wilson and her husband, Ambassador Joe Wilson.

Key points:

• I. Lewis ‘Scooter’ Libby was convicted on March 6, 2007 of lying to F.B.I. agents and grand jurors investigating the unmasking of Valerie Plame Wilson as a clandestine CIA operative.

• In a 2003 New York Times Op-Ed piece “What I didn’t find in Africa,” Wilson publicized what was already known (more than a year after his trip to Niger at the behest of the CIA). Few people in the Intelligence Community believed that Iraq had been trying to rebuild its nuclear weapons program. When Wilson challenged one of the key pieces of evidence used by the Bush Administration to make the case for war, Vice President Cheney and others in the administration decided that Wilson’s credibility had to be attacked. The concerted effort to rebut Wilson supports the argument floated by Scooter Libby’s defense that he was the administration’s fall guy and that President George W. Bush’s eminence grise — Karl Rove (who had also leaked Plame’s identity to journalists) — was being protected.

• A secretive White House Iraq Group, which included top officials, delivered manufactured information about Weapons of Mass Destruction was established in 2002, almost a year before the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

• President George W. Bush uttered the so-called “16 words” in his January 28, 2003 State of the Union address: “The British Government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.” Few if any members of the Intelligence Community subscribed to that statement.

• The British government, cited as the source for the 16 words, never had credible intelligence to support the claim, and the CIA had warned them to not include the claim in a public dossier.

• Vice President Cheney kept insisting on the existence of an Iraqi nuclear program and operational ties between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda, years after intelligence operatives told him neither was true.

There’s an interesting sidelight to the story. As a result of Cheney’s role in the war, Knut and I reported that Rove had considered dropping Cheney from the ticket in the 2004 elections, and that Cheney was deeply miffed. I mentioned this in an interview on CNN on April 2, 2007, and was met with a mighty denial from the Bush White House.

Comes now Bush’s memoir –and he acknowledges the same thing that the White House had denied at the time. We had that right — and the Bush White House denial was a lie, was it not? Perhaps Rove wasn’t around to fact-check Bush’s book for him.

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