2005 - %3, October

Al-Qaeda Letter: Real?

| Fri Oct. 14, 2005 4:22 PM EDT

Via email, Stephen Ulph of the Jamestown Foundation raises some good questions about the intercepted al-Qaeda letter from Ayman al-Zawahiri to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Iraq:

This letter presents a number of problems. To date there has been no clarification as to how the letter was intercepted, and despite high official confidence of its authenticity, verified by "multiple sources over an extended period of time," there is little in the way of independent corroboration offered. Further questions are raised by the content. While the message of global jihad's aims is consistent with other documents outlining al-Qaeda strategy, it is remarkable that a letter between the two al-Qaeda leaders should spell this out in such an explanatory way, as if these basic details, shared as common knowledge among mujahideen, were the subject of some doubt. Indeed, the text is conspicuous for the way in which it seems to counter, almost point for point, the objections raised by Western critics of the coalition campaign in Iraq, in that:
  • al-Qaeda's aims are not confined to "resistance" of a foreign invader;
  • the war would not end with American withdrawal but extend to neighboring states and to Israel;
  • the "foreignness" of the mujahideen in Iraq may be a de-legitimizing factor;
  • al-Qaeda has actually resigned itself to defeat in Afghanistan;
  • the organization is experiencing difficulty in communications; and
  • funding has become a problem for the organization.Aside from the oddness in appending a call for financial help after criticizing one with whom relations have never been close, there is simply the problem of the form of the letter. The opening greeting, the customary blessing "Peace and blessings upon the Messenger of God," is followed by the phrase "and on his Family," a formula which is more often encountered among Shi'a salutations—the Shi'a emphasizing respect to the house of the Prophet in the way that Sunnis generally do not, and Salafists never. The letter is certainly dismissed by al-Zarqawi himself. In a posting on October 13 on the al-Hesba forum, he rejected it as "without foundation, except in the imagination of the leaders of the Black House and its servants," and argued that it simply indicated "the clear bankruptcy which the infidel camp has been reduced to." Consequently al-Zarqawi urges the mujahideen "to ignore this cheap propaganda" (www.alhesbah.org). Indeed, in view of the surprising lack of jihadi forum comment on a high-level communication that should be of immense significance and controversy, and pending further confirmation of origin, it would be wise to treat the letter with skepticism.Interesting. Good thing we have every reason to believe that this administration would never lie to us...
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    Better Tests for NCLB

    | Fri Oct. 14, 2005 3:17 PM EDT

    As a rule, many liberals aren't thrilled with the high-stakes testing component of the No Child Left Behind act. But it seems obvious that if you are going to have high-stakes testing, in which the fate of the school hangs in the balance, they should be "value-added tests"—which measure how much a student has learned in a given year, no matter what level he or she starts at—rather than expecting all students in all districts to meet the exact same standards, as is currently done. On the most basic level, "value-added" tests would reward schools for making progress with students, rather than punish those schools that do a good job but can't get disadvantaged students to accelerate three grade levels in a single year, as NCLB can do. It would also give schools incentive to focus on all students; the way the NCLB tests are currently structured, teachers have incentive to concentrate primarily on those students just below the cutoff, so that they can pass the damn test and save the school. Switching to "value-added" tests makes sense in all sorts of ways.

    At any rate, Thomas Toch agrees, reporting that the Dallas school system had a fair amount of success with such tests, before NCLB came along. Usefully, though, Toch also points out some of the reasons why this "obvious" solution hasn't yet been implemented. First, schools lack the proper statistical equipment, although that can be solved easily. And second, some parents don't like to hear that their students are held to a lower standard than those in some other district.

    There's an argument for replacing the adequate yearly progress method mandated by NCLB with value-added. But the political obstacles to doing so would be considerable. The idea that there should be one standard for all students, regardless of race or income, and that all schools should be held responsible for meeting those standards, is the gravity that holds the liberal and conservative sides of the school reform movement together. Moreover, setting that single standard for all students does seem to have the effect of lifting the aspirations of parents, students, and teachers in many low-income schools, and sparking a sense of panic that is not unhelpful given the dismal performance of many of these schools. Dropping the standards approach entirely makes no sense politically or policy-wise.

    One solution might be to publish scores from both the standards-based and value-added methods but to tie rewards and sanctions only to the latter. Another would be to combine the two ratings strategies. That's what Dallas has done in recent years, Tennessee wants to do, and value-added advocates like Sandy Kress support.So it's not impossible. The current Secretary of Education, Margaret Spellings, has promised to consider changes to the assessment criteria in NCLB. As modest changes go, this seems like one of the more sensible ones.

    Crossfire!

    | Fri Oct. 14, 2005 12:53 PM EDT

    Matthew Scully, a former special assistant to President Bush, defends Harriet Miers in the Times today. Not much of note—Miers was responsible for picking out the "bogus statistics" in Bush's speech, which tells you all you need to know about her, uh, "high attention to detail"—but that aside, his jab at David Frum was pretty good:

    My friend David Frum [of the National Review] expresses the general complaint when he asks, in his blog, when did Harriet Miers "ever take a risk on behalf of conservative principle? Can you see any indication of intellectual excellence? Did she ever do anything brave, anything that took backbone?" To translate: When all the big-thinkers were persevering year after year at policy institutes and conferences at the Mayflower Hotel, or risking all for principle in stirring op-ed essays and $20,000 lectures, where was Little Miss Southern Methodist University?

    Rowr! I don't think this conservative "civil war" over Miers' nomination is ever going to amount to anything significant, but it's sure fun to watch…

    Park Service managers now must be screened for Bush loyalty

    | Thu Oct. 13, 2005 10:05 PM EDT

    The National Park Service is made up of civil service employees, and though they will continue to be called civil service employees, things have changed. Today, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility issued a directive which requires all mid-level and above managers to be approved by a Bush administration political appointee.

    Managers must be screened by Park Service headquarters and by the Assistant Secretary for Fish, and Wildlife, and Parks. They must be willing to lead their employees in Bush's Management Agenda, which includes outsourcing to replace civil servants, the use of faith-based initiatives, and rollbacks of civil service rights.

    They must also be able to lead employees in Interior Secretary Gale Norton's 4 C's: "communication, consultation, cooperation, all in the name of conservation." Presumably, they will provide milk and cookies at 3 p.m. every afternoon.

    Yes, But What About the War?

    | Thu Oct. 13, 2005 7:59 PM EDT

    Here's George Packer, noted liberal hawk, anguishing about his earlier support for the war in Iraq:

    In the winter of 2003, what you thought about the war mattered less to me than how you thought about it. The ability to function meant honest engagement with the full range of opposing ideas; it meant facing rather than avoiding the other position's best arguments. In those tense months, the mark of second-rate minds was absolute certainty one way or the other.
    Well, why couldn't you have thought of it this way? Way back in 1865 the United States deposed one of the more sordid apartheid regimes on the planet and then occupied the region so as to bring liberal democracy to the people there. But a mere five years later domestic newspapers like the New York Tribune pronounced the occupation a failure and declared that the nation was "tired" of the whole process. Eventually the occupation ended in the face of an armed insurgency and political revolt, and the occupiers left a corrupt one-party state in place that didn't get around to respecting minority rights until 100 years later, and to this day still exports militant fundamentalism abroad that continues to threaten world peace. So, you know, if it couldn't work here at home, why on earth would it ever have worked in the Middle East?

    No, really, there's no sense responding seriously to this. Prior to the war, in the "winter of 2003," there were two distinct events taking place. On the one hand, we had a president whose incompetence was perfectly well known preparing to invade, on shadowy pretenses, a country rife with internal tension. On the other hand, we had a bunch of intellectuals, Packer and Christopher Hitchens among them, carrying out a public debate about liberal ideals and national greatness and whether anti-totalitarianism was morally preferable to anti-imperialism, or vice-versa. All well and good, but the latter event had nothing whatsoever to do with the former, and many a person displaying a "second-rate mind" in Packer's little coffeehouse discussion were absolutely right about the president who was about to launch a war.

    Sexual Slavery

    | Thu Oct. 13, 2005 7:49 PM EDT

    Here's a charming story on the sexual slavery rampant in prisons, courtesy of the New York Times editorial page:

    When Congress issued the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003, that should have put corrections officials on notice. The measure requires the Justice Department to study the endemic problem of sexual assault behind bars and develop a strategy for coping with it. But prison officials have continued to play down this problem. The costs of denial are on vivid display this month in a federal courtroom in Texas, where a former inmate has told jurors how corrections officers ignored his written pleas for help, and even laughed at him, while he was repeatedly raped and sold into sexual slavery by prisoners who viewed him as "property."

    The lawsuit was brought by Roderick Johnson, a former Navy seaman who is openly gay and who landed in prison for violating the conditions of his probation. He was quickly pounced upon and told that he would have to submit to sex or be killed. Mr. Johnson filed several written pleas to prison officials, asking them to put him in a secure section of the prison. He says prison officers mocked him, accusing him of wanting to be raped.

    According to court documents, vulnerable inmates were told to either fight it out with rapists or find boyfriends who would protect them in return for sex. Mr. Johnson says gang members were free to rape him, sometimes by paying a few dollars to the prisoner who in effect "owned" him. Speaking of prison officials, a witness said, "They seen what was happening but they pretended they didn't."Hilarious! Luckily prisons aren't an incubator for HIV or hepatitis or anything of that sort; all just fun and games in here. It would be naïve, of course, to pretend that any of this is new; for a sense of the sheer prevalence of prison rape, the testimonies in this 2001 Human Rights Watch report pretty much cover the basics. And we've known for ages that the sort of naked authoritarianism and power handed, for instance, to prison guards will always bring out the sadistic side of people. But the sexual character of all of this never fails to shock. In light of all the naked human pyramids and menstrual blood and genital squeezing and "fuck a PUC" routines to which detainees in Abu Ghraib and elsewhere have found themselves subject, stories about guards sexually abusing prisoners have a sick resonance. I don't know what's wrong with this country, but I suspect Rush Limbaugh of all people put his finger on it when he said: "I think the reaction to the stupid torture is an example of the feminization of this country." Yes, well, then we need more of that, don't we?

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    Hundreds of Boeing jets may be unsafe. So why are they still flying?

    | Thu Oct. 13, 2005 7:29 PM EDT

    Just posted at Mother Jones: Flight Risk, by Sheila Kaplan

    Documents made public in a whistleblower lawsuit filed against Boeing suggest that thousands of unsafe and unapproved parts have been installed on hundreds of commercial jets the company produced between 1994 and 2004.

    The scope of the Wichita, Kansas, federal case—which focuses on parts supplied by Carson, California-based Ducommun—is limited to jets built for the government, but Mother Jones has found that the alleged flaws could threaten at least 1,600 commercial airplanes manufactured between 1994 and 2004, many of which are still flying. The suit alleges that Boeing knew the Ducommun parts were faulty but used them anyway.

    Read the story--the first in a series--at motherjones.com.

    As though Katrina's homeless didn't have enough to worry about

    | Wed Oct. 12, 2005 11:57 PM EDT

    The East Baton Rouge Sheriff's Office asked that firearms be banned from the new FEMA trailer park in Baker, Louisiana. The request was made because the trailer walls are thin, and it is estimated that a discharged bullet could go through several trailers. The request wasn't necessary, however; it has been a FEMA policy for years to ban firearms at FEMA facilities such as the one in Baker.

    However, threatened with a lawsuit by the National Rife Association, FEMA is now considering reversing its policy and allowing residents to have guns.

    The park houses almost 600 trailers, and the final population is expected to be around 2,000. Transportation and postal service are expected to be added, as well as security. Though it is understandable that people who legally own guns do not want to be told they cannot take them to their temporary homes, in a stress-filled environment such as the Baker park, it is easy to understand why both the federal and local governments want to get firearms out of the picture.

    Evacuees from other storms who have lived in FEMA trailer parks have complained about constant loud fighting among bored adolescents, and some have said they were afraid to go outside at night. Given the very close quarters, the anger over loss of homes and jobs, and the shock of being in a cramped new environment, the introduction of firearms sounds like an accident--or maybe something worse--waiting to happen.

    C.I.A. Smacks White House

    Wed Oct. 12, 2005 7:22 PM EDT

    Alternate Brain comments on some interesting news: the CIA is lashing back at the Bush administration for not heeding their predictions on a post-invasion struggle between Iraq's various ethnic groups:

    A newly released report published by the CIA rebukes the Bush administration for not paying enough attention to prewar intelligence that predicted the factional rivalries now threatening to split Iraq.

    Policymakers worried more about making the case for the war, particularly the claim that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, than planning for the aftermath, the report says.

    Well, we already new that the Bush administration dropped the ball when it came to post-war Iraq. What makes this new report interesting is that it further reveals how the administration picked and chose which bits of intelligence it found relevant.

    As the USA Today story notes:

    In an ironic twist, the policy community was receptive to technical intelligence (the weapons program), where the analysis was wrong, but apparently paid little attention to intelligence on cultural and political issues (post-Saddam Iraq), where the analysis was right.

    Just Another Exclusive Source

    Wed Oct. 12, 2005 6:34 PM EDT

    This morning, on his national radio show Focus on the Family, James Dobson revealed the contents of a confidential conversation he had had with Karl Rove, which had somehow—and mysteriously—convinced him to support Harriet Miers. (The Senate Judiciary Committee had earlier threatened to subpoena Dobson over the secret "information" he claimed to have.) The full transcript of Dobson's address is available here. He said, "Karl Rove didn't tell me anything about the way Harriet Miers would vote on cases that may come before the Supreme Court" and explains his elusive comments to holding privileged information as a matter of timing.

    So, what was it that I couldn't talk about? The answer has everything to do with timing. It's very important to remember that when I first made that statement about knowing things that I shouldn't know, and shared that with my colleagues the day that the President made his announcement, maybe two or three hours after his press conference.

    And then, that very night, I went on the Brit Hume program—the FOX News program—and…and talked about the President's nomination. And then, the following day—Tuesday—I recorded a statement for FOF, which was heard on Wednesday. And that is the last time that I said that I had information that was confidential and that I really couldn't talk about.

    Why? Because what I was told by Karl Rove had been confirmed and reported from other sources by that time.

    What did Karl Rove say to me that I knew on Monday that I couldn't reveal? Well, it's what we all know now, that Harriet Miers is an Evangelical Christian, that she is from a very conservative church, which is almost universally pro-life, that she had taken on the American Bar Association on the issue of abortion and fought for a policy that would not be supportive of abortion, that she had been a member of the Texas Right to Life. In other words, there is a characterization of her that was given to me before the President had actually made this decision. I could not talk about that on Monday. I couldn't talk about it on Tuesday. In fact, Brit Hume said, "What church does she go to?" And I said, "I don't think it's up to me to reveal that." Do you remember my saying that?

    What I meant was, I couldn't get into this. But by Wednesday and Thursday and Friday, all this information began to come out and it was no longer sensitive. I didn't have the right to be the one that revealed it and that's what I was referring to.Well, that was worth holding our breath for. No explicit discussion of Roe v. Wade, just what is now generally known—that Miers is an evangelical Christian. On the other hand, the fact that Rove could so fully assure Dobson on Miers' position on abortion is telling, and should cast doubt on any liberal hopes that Miers wouldn't vote to overturn Roe.

    Meanwhile, Dobson's not the only one with a super-secret intelligence source. According to ex-CIA official Larry Johnson, the White House got its supply of ingredients to bake the Plamegate yellow cake from people who know their pantone, the Italian Intelligence Service (SISMI). Johnson, who bases his information on reports "knowledgeable friends"—presumably from his old haunt in the CIA, provides a careful history of how Italian information on WMDs were discredited before the war, only to be bounced around and revived again.

    And finally, in a groundbreaking exclusive with the San Francisco Chronicle, Dubya's secret source—the ultimate intelligence operative—Mr. Omnipotent reveals Himself. (This is a fun one.)