Media: What is it good for?

Are government-funded "news" broadcasts legal? Are they propaganda? California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Bush administration have both come under quite a bit of fire regarding their use of pre-packaged "public releases," which are basically government-produced video segments made to look like independent reporting. The General Accounting Office (GAO) called the segments "propaganda," but that whip-cracking hardly seemed to faze the Bush administration, which has made it clear it will continue with its "news" production.

It would be easy to rant on about the evils of government propaganda, but an even more disturbing issue is at work here. The Bush administration has refused to stop producing these news videos, it seems, because they don't see anything wrong with them, and don't think that independent media serves any unique purpose. After all, White House Chief of Staff Andy Card said back in January that he didn't think the press had a "check and balance function." Likewise, the president himself once told a reporter, "You're assuming that you represent the public. I don't accept that."

Unfortunately, the White House has more or less made these assertions true. The fact that the administration was able to buy off journalists like Armstrong Williams, Maggie Gallagher and Michael McManus nicely illustrates that many journalists really don't represent the public. And with news networks failing to make amply clear that these "news" segments they broadcasted were funded by the government, the media's function as a check-and-balance goes out the window too.

Meanwhile, in other "Iraqi vs. Iraqi" news, Pamela Hess reports that Sunni tribal leaders in Iraq are starting to turn against many of the more vicious Iraqi insurgents—both foreign and homegrown. Hess notes that the U.S. military commanders have actually been encouraging the intra-Sunni violence of late: In Fallujah, for instance, after insurgents killed Lt. Col. Sulaiman Hamad Ftikan, a member of the Dulaimi tribe, Marine Col. Jean Toolan says, "We tried to sanction a little bit of tribal interest in finding out who was responsible for Sulaiman's death, specifically." It worked, and the Dulaimis hunted down and murdered the culprits.

Judging from Hess' reporting, it seems that this sort of approach is likely to become more common in the future. There are real divisions among the Sunni tribes, and rivalries among different tribes, all of which can be exploited by the U.S. Something along the lines of: "We'll give you money and guns if you stop supporting these foreign fighters; if you don't, we'll go talk to these rival sheikhs." Indeed, security experts like Daniel Byman have suggested this sort of strategy in lieu of a real counterinsurgency campaign, which would require far more troops than the U.S. can possibly commit to Iraq.

The only problem here is that these tribal sheikhs aren't at all willing to work with the U.S.—or the Shi'ites or Kurds—on the larger goal of a unified Iraqi government. In essence, then, the U.S. would be promoting the warlordization of Iraq, as it did in Afghanistan, in order to weed out the most immediate enemy—namely, the ex-Baathists and foreign jihadists who are leading the anti-American fighters in Iraq. In other words, they tamp down the insurgency at the risk of locking in the rule of the gun and possible sectarian strife.

From USA Today:

As many as one out of four veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq treated at Veterans Affairs hospitals in the past 16 months were diagnosed with mental disorders, a number that has been steadily rising, according to a report in today's New England Journal of Medicine.

Records show that 20% of eligible ex-soldiers came to VA hospitals seeking medical treatment between October 2003 and February 2005. Overall, 26% of them were diagnosed with mental disorders, say Han Kang and Kenneth Hyams of the VA.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) was most common, diagnosed in 10% of patients, followed by drug or alcohol abuse (9%). Seven percent were diagnosed with depression; 6% had anxiety disorders, such as phobias and panic. Many ex-soldiers had multiple disorders, Kang says.

For more on how the military is handling this problem (patchily and with somewhat understandable ambivalence) see this recent report by PBS's Frontline.

The prison population in Iraq has doubled since last October. How come? Eric Umansky has three explanations:

There could be any number of things going on here, not all mutually exclusive:

1) The military could finally be getting A-list intel and nabbing real insurgents by the boatloads.
2) Lots of innocent (or close to it) civilians are being picked up in sweeps. (Remember last year when the military acknowleged that the Red Cross seemed to be on the mark when it charged that 70-90 percent of prisoners were innocent?)
3) The election-timed suspension of the release of detainees is still in effect.

Again, I don't know which of these three factors or mix of them represents what's going on. But I'm not the only one who's skeptical that the military is suddenly awash in first-rate tips. As the top U.S. ground commander put it in eight weeks ago, "After the transfer of sovereignty, I anticipated more intelligence from the Iraqis. That increase in intelligence has not developed as fast as I would have liked."

Indeed, it's still difficult to figure out whether intelligence against the insurgency has actually increased. Back in December, it was still dismal. On the other hand, a Los Angeles Times article from a few days back suggests that things have improved of late: "commanders say new Iraqi army and police units have improved intelligence-gathering through their knowledge of neighborhoods and local political currents.".

Still, the Times article also notes, "[Army Brig. Gen. James] Huggins said intelligence analysts were sifting through information provided by U.S. and Iraqi officers — and tips from Iraqi civilians — to better understand Zarqawi's network of cells." So figuring out who's who, and where to look, and who to nab could take a long while, and it's not obvious that the recent influx of intelligence means the U.S. has suddenly become smarter at capturing insurgents. Which, of course, means that many of those current prisoners could well be innocent Iraqis. The practical problem here (along with the assortment of moral problems) is that eventually these innocent folks will all have to be released, and when they do, it's hard to think they'll still support the new Iraqi government. Interestingly, the Times article notes that the U.S. is no longer focusing on winning "hearts and minds" but simply trying to build broader public faith in Iraqi institutions. That seems like the sensible step at this point, but it seems difficult to build any such faith so long as the corrections system remains arbitrary and the jails overcrowded.

Via UN Dispatch, a new United Nations report on our sick, sick planet.

The emergence of new diseases, sudden changes in water quality, creation of coastal "dead zones," the collapse of fisheries and shifts in regional climate are just some of the potential consequences of humankind's degradation of the planet's ecosystems, according to a new United Nations-backed report launched today.

Humans have changed ecosystems more rapidly and extensively in the last 50 years than in any other period; some 60 per cent of ecosystem elements supporting life on Earth, such as fresh water, clean air or a relatively stable climate, are being degraded or used unsustainably; and the situation could become significantly worse during the first half of this century, according to the study.

Via (really!) Maureen Dowd, Newsweek has a short piece about still-lingering problems in the intelligence community. The National Counter-Terrorism Center (NCTC), suggested by the 9/11 Commission and recently created by executive order, was supposed to be the hallmark of the "reformed" intelligence community: analysts from different agencies would come look at terrorism intelligence gathered from all corners, analyze, and then make policy recommendations. Sadly:

Far from a model of collegiality and collaboration, TTIC (which has since been renamed the National Counter-Terrorism Center), was more like a Tower of Babel. Though they sat side by side, agents and analysts from the different agencies were still playing by the old rules: trust your own, and be wary of the other guy.

The commissioners found that there were no less than nine levels of classified information stored in the center's computers. Analysts from different agencies had different clearances, making it difficult for them to talk to one another. The agent from Homeland Security was especially irritated by the arrangement. When sensitive information came in to the office, he complained to the commissioners, the CIA and FBI agents sitting next to him would go off into a private, secure room and look at the material on separate computers. The Homeland Security man was frozen out. (A Homeland official says there have been major improvements.)

In part, this was what the 9/11 Commission feared when it recommended the creation of a strong National Intelligence Director with budget authority over the different agencies—someone who could force these analysts to work with each other within the NCTC. It's not clear, though, if the position that was eventually created by Congress is actually powerful enough to enforce that coordination. The new WMD Commission report, released yesterday, notes that there's still a potential "conflict" in authority between the NID and the director of the NCTC. Still, the report doesn't make any suggestions as to how this might be remedied. More on this after I read through the report (pdf).

Conservative judges strike back

The New York Times reports:

A federal appeals court in Atlanta refused…to reconsider the case of Terri Schiavo, with one of the judges rebuking President Bush and Congress for acting 'in a manner demonstrably at odds with our founding fathers' blueprint for the governance of free people.'

The judge who rebuked Congress and the Bush administration's intervention in the Schiavo case was none other than Judge Stanley Birch Jr.—a conservative judge appointed by the first President Bush. Judge Birch went on to note that "legislative dictation of how a federal court should exercise its judicial functions invades the province of the judiciary and violates the separation of powers principle." Hey, this sounds familiar. Check out what Judge Henry Floyd, a recent Bush appointment, had to say about the administration's handling of "war on terror" detainee Jose Padilla:

[T]he Court is of the firm opinion that it must reject the position posited by the Respondent. To do otherwise would not only offend the rule of law and violate this country's constitutional tradition, but it would also be a betrayal of this Nation's commitment to the separation of powers that safeguards our democratic values and individual liberties.

Judge Floyd's opinion in the Padilla case actually echoed parts of an opinion written by notoriously conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, challenging the Bush administration to stay within in the law in its prosecution of terrorist suspects. It looks like even the conservative members of the judiciary are tired of being pushed around by the executive branch, and are starting to push back.

Via Amanda Marcotte, the latest bit of anti-immigrant nuttery floating through Congress is this pleasant little bill that would strip citizenship from all children born to illegal immigrants in the United States. Y'know, to deter all those third-trimester Mexican women racing across the hot desert sands to give birth in Texas and "beat" the system. Not only that, but the bill is retroactive, so presumably all current citizens would have to prove that their ancestors had their paperwork in order. Good times for all.

The bill won't ever see the light of day, of course, but it does highlight the burgeoning and rather vicious GOP split over immigration. It's true that claims of intra-Republican infighting have in the past been overblown—the supposed split between libertarian businessmen and raid-your-bedroom social conservatives, for instance, will probably never materialize. But the immigration fight genuinely has the ability to push people out of the party. Either legislation like the Miller-Deal bill above get flaunted (or worse, passed), and Hispanics never vote Republican again, or the president pushes for his preferred amnesty-based immigration approach, and angers his white nationalist base. (There's an even stickier conundrum, too: any immigration reform that offered illegal immigrants the path to citizenship—which is what 61 percent of Americans favor—risks minting millions of new Democratic voters.)

As a somewhat indirect but noteworthy sign of just how strong that "white nationalist" base is, Michael Crowley did a good profile in the New Republic a few weeks back of Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-CO), who has defied Karl Rove time and time again in his push for tougher immigration restrictions. Tancredo wouldn't be so defiant if he didn't have a groundswell behind him—according to a 2003 Pew poll, 54 percent of Republicans agree "completely" that immigration needs to be tightened. As with the Democratic stance on Iraq over the past few years, the GOP could end up straddling this issue and making all of its constitutents bitter.

The Middleman: A Special Report

In a joint investigation by Mother Jones magazine, the Center for Investigative Reporting, and the PBS series FRONTLINE/World, reporter Mark Schapiro probes the strange case of a South African businessman, Asher Karni. He was "a genius" in South Africa's military electronics trade. Now he's in jail in Brooklyn, accused of orchestrating a nuclear black market deal.

Avoiding court dates

Earlier this week, U.S. District Judge Henry Kennedy, Jr., ruled that 13 Yemeni detainees in Guantanamo, all of whom are currently challenging their detention, could not be moved to another country without 30 days' advance notice provided to their lawyers. (See an earlier post on the case here.

Judge Kennedy didn't base his decision on the grounds that the detainees might be tortured if sent to another country. Rather, he emphasized that the transfer of the detainees "would eliminate any opportunity…to ever obtain a fair adjudication of their fundamental right to test the legitimacy of their executive detention." The right of the detainees to appeal their detainment, however, is still pending a decision. SCOTUSblog reports that the case will likely go to the Supreme Court, but that it could be a while—next fall at the earliest.

As Judge Kennedy noted, if the detainees were transferred abroad, the U.S. Courts would no longer have any jurisdiction over their claims. Hence, Kennedy's decision throws a wrench in any plans the Bush administration might have had to make these lawsuits quietly disappear. On the other hand, even though the 30 days notice requirement is a positive step, the Yemenis' cases won't be heard in that timeframe, so it is still a possibility that the Bush administration could push to send the detainees out of Guantanamo before they even get their day in court.

Still, the ruling is a clear win for the 13 Yemeni detainees and their lawyers. But a number of the approximately 540 detainees still in Guantanamo still either have no representation or have not yet met with a lawyer. These detainees will all be a prime target for relocation by the Pentagon before they can challenge their detention in courts.