2010 - %3, July

How to Judge Wikileaks' Latest

| Mon Jul. 26, 2010 9:48 AM EDT

Mother Jones has full team coverage of the Wikileaks' Afghanistan leak that broke Sunday night. Kevin Drum has a good roundup of the mainstream media stories, and a compare-and-contrast of the New York Times and Guardian articles. Senior editor Dave Gilson (who edited our profile of Wikileaks' Julian Assange) focuses on what the leak means for Wikileaks as an organization. And copy editor Adam Weinstein, who served as a contractor in Iraq, does a good job of putting the leak in context:

The intimation by Assange (and the media outlets he cherry-picked to preview the data) is that these are the Pentagon Papers of the Afghan war. Certainly there are a few eyebrow-raising details in the bunch, as Mark Mazzetti, Chris Chivers & Co. at the New York Times point out. But in truth, there's not much there there. I know, because I've seen many of these reports before—at least, thousands of similar ones from Iraq, when I was a contractor there last year.

[M]ost of what you see on WikiLeaks are military SIGACTS (significant activity reports). These are theoretically accessible by anyone in Iraq, Afghanistan, or the Tampa, Florida-based US Central Command—soldiers and contractors—who have access to the military's most basic intranet for sensitive data, the Secret Internet Protocol Router Network (SIPRNet). Literally thousands of people in hundreds of locations could read them, and any one of them could be the source for WikiLeaks' data.

While the coalescing conventional wisdom seems to be that what Wikileaks has released isn't a big deal, it's worth pointing to James Fallows' criteria for judging the leak:

I remember when the Pentagon Papers came out.... The major effect of the Papers was to reveal that for many years officials closest to the action had understood that the war could not really be "won," at least under the real-world political circumstances the U.S. faced. Of course the U.S. could have waged all-out unlimited war, and prevailed—but it wasn't going to do that....

...The argument for bearing down [in Afghanistan] is that the dangers of withdrawal are too great to allow any other option—which of course was also the argument about Vietnam.... If "can we do it?" were no concern, it would obviously be better to keep the Taliban out of power and remove one possible base of Al Qaeda operation. But it's not obvious that the answer to "can we do it?" is yes. Indeed most recent news points the other way.

That's what I'll be looking for in the Wikileaks documents: evidence that the project we're now committed to in Afghanistan could ever have worked, or might still work now.

Sometimes, the absence of information is in itself information. If Fallows doesn't find the evidence he's looking for in 92,000 Wikileaks documents, should we conclude that it doesn't exist? And even if we can find reason for hope in the Wikileaks pages, there may be better ways to spend the blood and treasure it will cost to do whatever we're trying to do in Afghanistan.

Finally, even if the Wikileaks documents yield not a single new piece of information (which I doubt), they've moved the national discussion away from Andrew Breitbart and Journolist and towards actually important subjects. Whatever you may think of Assange and Wikileaks, they deserve our praise and thanks for that. 

 

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The Tea Party's Media Lockdown

| Mon Jul. 26, 2010 6:19 AM EDT

Look no further than Shirley Sherrod or Stanley McChrystal to understand why many politicians exclude reporters and news cameras from all but the most choreographed campaign events. But the practice hasn't typically applied to their rank-and-file supporters, unpaid volunteers such as leafletters, block-walkers, and MeetUp group members. At least, not until this year. Unusually tight restrictions on media access imposed by candidates such as Rand Paul of Kentucky and Sharron Angle of Nevada, both tea party Senate hopefuls, are being adopted by their supporters at all levels—even folks outside the official party structure who hand out homemade campaign signs at street fairs and gun shows.

"I think everybody is very worried of being painted in a poor light," Ginny Saville, the organizer of the Lexington Rand/Ron Paul Campaign for Liberty MeetUp group, told me last month. "And that worry isn't just for Rand's campaign; that worry extends all the way down to us. We don't want the entire Liberty effort to be painted as a bunch of gun-totin', bible-bangin', anti-semitic racists—all the things that are pinned on us a lot. And it has been happening really bad lately."

Saville's was the only tea-party-related MeetUp group out of the 13 that I contacted in Kentucky and Nevada that agreed to speak with me over the phone. The others didn't respond or referred me to people who never called back. Even Saville drew the line at a phone chat. "When people see your name and what you have written, I don't think they're gonna be real interested in you tagging along" for campaign activities, she said. "I think everybody is very, very gun-shy of the media right now."

Saville and many other Paul campaigners cut their political teeth working for the 2008 presidential campaign of Paul's father, GOP congressman Ron Paul, whose grassroots machine went to equal but opposite extremes with the press. Believing that Ron Paul and his small-government agenda were being ignored by the mainstream media, his backers blasted off countless press releases and eagerly spoke to me and the few other reporters who gave them ink. They also bypassed the mainstream media altogether by creating a network of independent websites, MoveOn groups, and YouTube channels that became the envy of Washington—and laid much of the groundwork for the tea party protests of 2010.

WikiLeaks' Afghanistan Bombshell

| Mon Jul. 26, 2010 6:15 AM EDT

[For more on the WikiLeaks Afghan document dump, read posts by Kevin Drum here and Adam Weinstein here.]

WikiLeaks is making headlines again with the release of an enormous trove of secret US military documents from Afghanistan. The Afghan War Diary, as WikiLeaks has dubbed it, was first given to the New York Times, The Guardian, and Der Spiegel, which have vetted, analyzed, and packaged the 92,000 documents into what amounts to the biggest story about the war since Osama bin Laden slipped away. As Kevin Drum explains, the stories don't seem to have many major surprises (besides the Taliban's use of Stinger missiles) for anyone who's been paying attention: "the basic picture is basically the one we've known for a long time: a difficult, chaotic battlefield that's shown little progress since the very beginning of the war." But considering that most Americans—and most American lawmakers—haven't really been paying attention to Afghanistan, this could prove to be the watershed moment after which no one can honestly claim ignorance of what's really happening over there.

If the Afghan leaks become the next Pentagon Papers, it would be a much sought-after feather in the hat of WikiLeaks and Julian Assange, its shadowy, image-conscious mastermind. And it could mark the beginning of a new chapter for the organization, which has gone through some strange growing pains since it leaked its "Collateral Murder" video in April. That leak marked the first time that WikiLeaks, and Assange in particular, had assumed an active role in analyzing and promoting its own material—a decision that brought it more attention while opening it up to criticism that it had strayed from its original "just the leaks, ma'am" approach. The subsequent arrest of the alleged leaker of that video spawned a series of hyperbolic rumors about Assange being on the run from American intelligence and claims that WikiLeaks was sitting on thousands of leaked State Department cables, spawning competing volleys of mis- and disinformation that mostly served to burnish WikiLeaks' mystique. In the meantime, WikiLeaks seemed busier tweeting its own horn and swatting down foes than keeping the leaks coming.

Valerie Plame Wilson: How to Dismantle 23,000 Atom Bombs

| Mon Jul. 26, 2010 6:00 AM EDT

Valerie Plame Wilson suddenly went from being a CIA covert operations officer to a household name in the summer of 2003, when the Bush administration outed her to the press in retribution for her husband, former ambassador Joe Wilson, dismantling its shaky claims about Saddam Hussein's nuclear ambitions. After unwillingly becoming a public figure, Plame laid low for a couple of years. But now she's lent her expertise as an expert on nuclear proliferation to Countdown to Zero, the new documentary from the makers of An Inconvenient Truth that aims to jumpstart a post-Cold War movement to ban the bomb. (See David Corn's recent article on the making of the film.) The film will leave you wondering why one of the world's 23,000 nuclear bombs hasn't already gone off—and how much longer it is until one does. (One expert explains that smuggling nuclear material into the U.S. is as simple as hiding it in a box of kitty litter.) Plame Wilson talked to Mother Jones about appearing in the film, how we can tackle a problem so big, and the upcoming movie about her, in which Naomi Watts plays the reluctant celebrity spy.

Mother Jones: At the CIA, you specialized in nuclear counterproliferation; Countdown to Zero is largely about how easy it would be to buy, steal, or build a nuclear weapon. Did you learn anything new from the film?

Valerie Plame Wilson: I've seen it several times now, and I was surprised at points. They talk about the flight over the Carolinas in the early '60s where a plane crashed with a nuclear weapon on board. I didn't know about that. I was not familiar with that incident in NORAD where the $1computer chip made everyone think it was the real thing instead of a training exercise. As the film talks about, there's always the potential for accident, miscalculation, or madness. Along with the terrorist threat, those are, unfortunately, very real possibilities. 

MJ: The movie identifies the three main nuclear threats as madness, accident, and miscalculation. Which do you think is the greatest?

VPW: I would not want to assign numbers to any one of them. Ask BP executives how often low-probability events happen. I think really the only rational, sane way of proceeding is to set as your objective zero [nuclear weapons] and move toward that. 

MJ: One of the things that really struck me is the wide range of people interviewed—you've got liberals like President Jimmy Carter, you've got conservatives like former Secretary of State James Baker. Is nuclear proliferation really a non-partisan issue? 

VPW: I think it is; it certainly should be. I think Lucy Walker, the director, went to great lengths to demonstrate that. As you noted, you have people of all political stripes who speak in the film. The well-known liberal, Ronald Reagan, started this. And I think that's a really poignant scene with Gorbachev's interview, speaking about his 1986 meeting in Reykjavik with Reagan. These were two men who genuinely wanted to see a world free of nuclear weapons,and they genuinely wanted to achieve it. Gorbachev speaks with tears in his eyes with great sadness about what they weren't able to accomplish. These two men really wanted to do that.

The Long Life and Short Fame of Bluesman Junior Kimbrough

| Mon Jul. 26, 2010 5:00 AM EDT

For reasons largely to do with music, I stopped off in Chicago this past May on my move from New York out to San Francisco. I wanted to check out Jazz Record Mart, the somber city's best place to find both pre- and post-World War II blues and jazz records. I wasn't there to buy anything though, as I had decided not to take my record player with me to California. (This decision was simply a logistical one: I was traveling by train and the unspoken rule at Amtrak, for those of you who aren't familiar with our nation's lovably frumpy rail system, is that despite what its website may tell you about baggage limits and checks, you can bring exactly as much—or as little—as you can carry.) But then I found myself inside Jazz Mart standing in front of five records by the truly one-and-only bluesman Junior Kimbrough and I did what any unreasonable person would: I bought them all.

The records weren't cheap, and without a record player, it wasn't clear I was going to be able to listen to them anytime soon. So why did I buy them? My reasoning—and the point of this little anecdote: Junior Kimbrough is just that good. When you happen upon his 1992 debut album "All Night Long" in a record store, you just don't pass it up. Despite his name, Junior was no amateur; he would be 80 years old this week had he not passed away in 1998. He had been playing songs in his tucked-away juke joint "Junior's Place" for more than three decades before recording his first album. Though relatively unknown to most of the world during his lifetime, Junior and his juke joint were treasured by fellow musicians. His birthday seems as good a reason as any to dust off his records and consider why that was.

5 Tips for Saving on Your A/C Bill

| Mon Jul. 26, 2010 4:30 AM EDT

Despite the relentless series of heat waves that has scorched much of the US this month, for many people, sultry summers are a thing of the past: If you can't stand the heat, just trot over to the thermostat and crank the central air. But as journalist Stan Cox reports in Losing Our Cool: Uncomfortable Truths About Our Air Conditioned World (And Finding New Ways To Get Through the Summer), our heat intolerance comes at a price: Air conditioning currently accounts for almost a fifth of total electricity use in the US, and it creates considerable greenhouse gas emissions—ironically, in making our homes and offices cooler, we're also making the weather warmer. Cox, who recently imagined what Washington, DC., might be like sans air conditioning in an article he wrote for the Washington Post, believes A/C takes a toll on our social lives, too, and he blames it for the decline of the grand southern tradition of evening porch-sitting. "There's an estrangement from neighbors and nature as people move their lives indoors," he says. So what's a sweltering A/C addict to do? Here are some of Cox's top tips for going easy on the air:

Tip #1: Switch to compact fluorescent lightbulbs. Not only will you save on your electricity bill, you'll keep your house cooler. Cox writes that CFLs produce "30 percent as much heat for a given amount of illumination" as their incandescent counterparts.

Tip #2: Make sure your appliances vent outdoors. If your dryer, dishwasher, stove, and other heat-producing appliances expel hot air inside your home instead of funneling it outdoors, your A/C will have to work harder to get rid of that extra heat. If you really want to save, Cox recommends ditching your dryer completely. "Most clothes dryers expel much of their heat to the outdoors," he writes, "but no indoor heat at all is generated when solar clothes line 'technology' is employed."

Tip #3: Downsize your central air. Some people buy giant central A/C systems, thinking they'll do the job quicker and more efficiently than smaller versions. That's not necessarily true, says Cox, so you should make sure your system is the right size for the space you want to cool. Your best bet, though, is to buy a system "that can behave as if it's large or small, depending on cooling demand." Smart systems like these have been shown to use 25 percent less energy than traditional central air.

Tip #4: Plant a rooftop garden. As I reported in a previous Econundrum, research has shown that in cities, white roofs can deflect the sun's rays and lessen the "urban heat-island effect." But "if you have just an individual house with a white roof in an area with a lot of heat absorbing stuff around it, a white roof is not going to be that effective," Cox told me. If you live in an area where drought isn't a problem, Cox believes green roofs are a better bet, since they "have greater cooling potential in the summer, and unlike white roofs, in the winter they don’t reflect heat back."

Tip #5: Practice being hot. "There is plenty of evidence that exposure to heat increases your physical heat tolerance," says Cox. "When people spend time under warmer conditions, they become more tolerant. If they are in an A/C bubble all summer they are not as tolerant, mentally or physically." A recent study of officeworkers in Thailand compared one group of workers in air-conditioned offices to another group who worked without A/C. The ones who were used to A/C were comfortable only in offices between 72 and 82 degrees Fahrenheit. "The ones who worked without A/C, it got up to 89 degrees and they said it was fine," says Cox.

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We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for July 26, 2010

Mon Jul. 26, 2010 4:00 AM EDT

 

US Army Soldiers from Charlie Company, 3rd Battalion, 187th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade, 101st Airborne Division, provide security during a mission in the Zirat Mountain Area, Waza Kwah District, Paktika province, Afghanistan, on July 7. The purpose of the mission is to disrupt anti-Afghan forces and find enemy caches. Photo via the US Army.

WikiLeaks' Afghan Documents and Me

| Mon Jul. 26, 2010 12:28 AM EDT

[For more on the WikiLeaks Afghan document dump, read posts by Kevin Drum here and senior editor Dave Gilson here.]

Here's a cliche for you: A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. And here's a fact: A little knowledge is precisely what Julian Assange and his WikiLeaks cohorts have given us in the "Afghan War Diary." The intimation by Assange (and the media outlets he cherry-picked to preview the data) is that these are the Pentagon Papers of the Afghan war. Certainly there are a few eyebrow-raising details in the bunch, as Mark Mazzetti, Chris Chivers & Co. at the New York Times point out. But in truth, there's not much there. I know, because I've seen many of these reports before—at least, thousands of similar ones from Iraq, when I was a contractor there last year.

I haven't been through everything yet, but most of what you see on WikiLeaks are military SIGACTS (significant activity reports). These are theoretically accessible by anyone in Iraq, Afghanistan, or the Tampa, Florida-based US Central Command—soldiers and contractors—who have access to the military's most basic intranet for sensitive data, the Secret Internet Protocol Router Network (SIPRNet). Literally thousands of people in hundreds of locations could read them, and any one of them could be the source for WikiLeaks' data. I regularly went through the daily SIGACT reports in Iraq, not because my job required it, but because my colleagues and I were curious. We heard mortars or car bombs explode in the distance at night, and we couldn't help but wonder: What the hell was that? Every time a US unit engaged the enemy, encountered munitions, saw or heard something go boom, caught a criminal, or located a weapons cache, a report was filed. So, each morning when I entered my office on Camp Victory, I fired up my SIPR terminal and checked the SIGACTS for interesting stuff. 

The first time I did it, my pupils dilated. A vein in my throat warmed. The reporter in me did backflips. I was about to breathe pure oxygen.

By day three or four, I was bored to tears. Here's what I learned:

The Afghanistan Document Dump

| Sun Jul. 25, 2010 11:48 PM EDT

[For more on the WikiLeaks Afghan document dump, read posts by Dave Gilson here and Adam Weinstein here.

A long-awaited trove of secret government documents related to the war in Afghanistan has finally been released by WikiLeaks. There are about 92,000 documents in all, covering the years from 2004 through 2009. Three news organizations were allowed access to the documents several weeks ago on condition that they not write about it until today: the New York Times, the Guardian, and Der Spiegel. Both the Guardian and Times reports offer short bullet lists of the most dramatic revelations from the document dump. Although written independently, they're pretty similar:

New York Times

Guardian

The Taliban have used portable heat-seeking missiles against allied aircraft, a fact that has not been publicly disclosed by the military. This type of weapon helped the Afghan mujahedeen defeat the Soviet occupation in the 1980s.

How the US covered up evidence that the Taliban have acquired deadly surface-to-air missiles.

Secret commando units like Task Force 373 — a classified group of Army and Navy special operatives — work from a “capture/kill list” of about 70 top insurgent commanders. These missions, which have been stepped up under the Obama administration, claim notable successes, but have sometimes gone wrong, killing civilians and stoking Afghan resentment.

How a secret "black" unit of special forces hunts down Taliban leaders for "kill or capture" without trial.

The military employs more and more drone aircraft to survey the battlefield and strike targets in Afghanistan, although their performance is less impressive than officially portrayed. Some crash or collide, forcing American troops to undertake risky retrieval missions before the Taliban can claim the drone’s weaponry.

How the coalition is increasingly using deadly Reaper drones to hunt and kill Taliban targets by remote control from a base in Nevada.

The Central Intelligence Agency has expanded paramilitary operations inside Afghanistan. The units launch ambushes, order airstrikes and conduct night raids. From 2001 to 2008, the C.I.A. paid the budget of Afghanistan’s spy agency and ran it as a virtual subsidiary.


 


 

How the Taliban have caused growing carnage with a massive escalation of their roadside bombing campaign, which has killed more than 2,000 civilians to date.

The Guardian has a very good collection of key documents here. WikiLeaks has the full document dump here. There are plenty of interesting details in the Guardian pieces, but if the bullet points above really are the biggest news from this trove, there's not an awful lot there. The commando groups have hardly been a secret, while the increase in drone strikes, the CIA's growing paramilitary activities, and the Taliban's bombing campaign have not only not been a secret, they've practically been the center of PR campaigns to make sure everyone knows about them.

On the other hand, the news that the Taliban is using surface-to-air missiles is genuinely new, as is the revelation that even now the military isn't entirely forthcoming about civilian casualties — though this apparently improved after Gen. Stanley McChrystal took over last year. Overall, however, the basic picture is basically the one we've known for a long time: a difficult, chaotic battlefield that's shown little progress since the very beginning of the war.

A Sense of Where We Are: Dixie

| Sun Jul. 25, 2010 11:15 PM EDT


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