Daily MoJo


Baghdad, Aces High
Finally, US forces have captured one of Saddam’s closest aides. But will it make any difference?

Help Wanted: EPA Patsy
The president’s list of candidates for the EPA’s top job reads like the cast of an environmentalist’s nightmare.

So Sue… Unocal
Can a multinational corporation be held accountable in a U.S. court?

Pfc. Lynch: It’s a Wrap!
‘Saving Private Lynch.’ Is it a documentary, docudrama or full-on feature fiction?

Baghdad, Aces High

“This talk about the Baath is an Indian movie made up by the Americans to suit their needs.”

Akram Hussein, an assistant in a Baghdad compact disc shop.

For US forces in Iraq, Wednesday was about par for the course: the announcement of another much-trumpeted intelligence coup, coupled with news of another dead American soldier. Just a typical day in Baghdad.

The intelligence coup was the capture of Saddam Hussein’s personal secretary, Gen. Abid Hamid Mahmud Tikriti. For those of you playing along at home, Mahmud is the “Ace of Diamonds,” number four in the Pentagon’s “Most Wanted” card deck. Not surprisingly, his arrest was hailed as a potentially groundbreaking development — seized upon as evidence of progress by an administration increasingly desperate to bring some sort of order to Iraq.

Mahmud’s capture also helped deflect attention from the guerrilla war brewing in central Iraq’s Sunni heartland. In fact, while Pentagon spokesmen speculated on the help Mahmud might provide in finding Saddam and his two sons, a US soldier was gunned down at a Baghdad propane station in a drive-by shooting. The day before, a sniper shot another soldier in the back, and just yesterday, a rocket-propelled grenade destroyed an army ambulance, killing a medic. All in all, some 50 US soldiers have died since George W. Bush declared an end to “major combat” on May 1.

So it’s easy to see why the Pentagon might be excited about its Ace of Diamonds. After all, there’s still no sign of WMDs, nor of Saddam Hussein and his sons, the criminally insane Uday or the sane-but-no-less-criminal Qusay. And the situation on the ground seems to be getting worse by the day. Bowing to the obvious, the Pentagon now admits that it is fighting a guerrilla war, though it continues to downplay the steady escalation of the fighting — and the body count. Equating RPG attacks with sidewalk muggings, Defense chief Donald Rumsfeld dismissed the now-daily ambushes, and insisted that US forces were simply mopping up Ba’athist diehards and isolated malcontents.

“‘You’ve got to remember that if Washington, D.C., were the size of Baghdad, we would be having something like 215 murders a month,’ Rumsfeld said. ‘There’s going to be violence in a big city.’

‘I think these people [the guerrillas] are the last remnants of a dying cause,’ he told the House Armed Services Committee. He said U.S. forces ‘have the sympathy of the population, not the surviving elements of the Baathist regime.'”

That’s apparently how it looks from Washington. And according to Baghdad’s new American ruler, L. Paul Bremer III, the idea now is that if only Hussein can be captured or killed, the Iraqis will fall into line.

“‘The fact that we have not been able to prove conclusively that he is dead or capture him alive is an intimidating factor for some people in this country,’ he said on Tuesday.

‘It intimidates people into saying “we don’t want to cooperate because we are afraid the Baath is going to come back”.'”

Such thinking strikes many observers as utterly delusional. The problem is not leftover Ba’athists, they say. Rather, it’s the chaos that has engulfed the country since Hussein’s fall, and the increasingly heavy-handed methods employed by American troops.

“‘The Baath is gone and the Americans know it,’ said Sheikh Kassem Sudani, a Shi’ite cleric, standing over old Baath documents scattered outside a former party office.

‘They remind me of the Baath. Every time there is an attack on their troops they say it was terrorists or the Baath. That’s what the Baath did. They always blamed someone else.'”

There is no shortage of US blunders. As the Toronto Globe and Mail‘s Mark MacKinnon reports, US troops shot dead two Iraqis during a protest in Baghdad yesterday. And in Najaf last week, shortly after cancelling what would have been the country’s first free elections, US forces stormed a newspaper office, seizing copies of the paper and detaining and interrogating its staff, Ellen Barry reports for the Boston Globe.

Given this backdrop, Iraqi anger is understandable — as is the US desire to stop the bleeding, somehow. As the London Guardian‘s Rory McCarthy reports, while there are no easy answers, some sort of solution is desperately needed.

“Neither the Iraqis nor the Americans ever dreamed that Baghdad would be like this, ten weeks to the day after Saddam Hussein’s regime was finally toppled.

The people of this city are still gripped with the deepening problems of poor security, interminable power shortages and unpaid salaries. Their frustration is spilling over into a spate of attacks on the US military, which are met with heavy-handed raids and mass arrests which, in turn, spark yet greater frustration.

‘I hoped and I wished that when the American forces came they would bring us democracy and freedom but unfortunately we have seen the opposite,’ said Hussein, a non-commissioned officer in the air force for the past 18 years. ‘The Americans are going to get hurt if the situation remains as it is.'”

Help Wanted: EPA Director
The Bush Administration has a short list of replacements for EPA Administrator Christie Todd Whitman. Understandably, environmentalists aren’t happy about any of the names. According to the Washington Post, Idaho’s Republican Governor Dirk Kempthorne is the administration’s top choice. Environmental groups lambasted the Governor’s 1993 through 1998 stint as a Senator. The League of Consevation Voters gave Kempthorne a near zero rating during his senatorial term, noting that he only cast one “pro-environment” vote of 73 tracked by the league, the Associated Press reports.

Tom Skinner, son of the former transportation secretary and chief of staff under Bush Sr., is also on the list of possible replacements. Skinner’s relative anonymity might makes him attractive to the Bush administration, which is not known for being particularly sensitive to accusations of nepotism. Better yet, why not get Florida Environment Secretary David Struhs to fill Whitman’s shoes? Struhs, has great familial ties to the Bush dynasty, according to the Orlando Sentinel’s Rafael Lorente and Linda Kleindiens:

“Struhs’ Bush-family connections go deeper than being the top environmental adviser to Jeb Bush, the president’s brother.

He is also the brother-in-law of White House chief of staff Andrew Card.”

But surely the Struhs’ nomination is based on his Republican merit alone — he’s alienated a lot of Floridians by throwing himself into Big Sugar’s pocket with his proposal to stall clean-up of the Everglades’ revered River of Grass, and “is now the target of a ‘Dump Struhs’ campaign by a host of Florida environmental organizations, including the Sierra Club, the Everglades Trust, the Clean Water Network and the Florida League of Conservation Voters,” Lorente and Klaindiens report.

If the Bush administration can’t please a brother, it might just have to settle for a sister — preferably one from inside the EPA who’s already sitting in the lap of the industry. Deputy Administrator Linda Fisher fits the bill — according to Time, Fisher was a star player for the first Bush and Reagan administrations. Her Clinton-era sabbatical took her out of the White House and into a stint as a lobbyist for Monsanto, which manufactures such environmentally-friendly products as Frankenfoods, dioxin, and PCBs. If not Fisher, Bush and cronies might opt for someone else who has been lobbying up a storm in her time off from the Agency. According to NPR’s Steve Curwood, Josephine Cooper is another favorite — if she feels like leaving her current work of lobbying for the automobile industry.

But the question remains, what will Whitman’s replacement be able to do, if the administration is already taking preemptive strikes at the environmental movement. Curwood’s guest, Margie Kris, suggests a good candidate could do something, albeit small, for the environment:

“[P]olicies are not going to change dramatically, but there might be a subtle underpinning to it that brings some strength to EPA.”

The Editors of Massachusetts’ Berkshire Eagle don’t have much faith in the Bush administration’s candidates, however:

“Ms. Whitman’s replacement will be some crazed James Watt type who will say that Armageddon is coming soon anyway so what’s the point of preserving this world since we’ll all be in the next one shortly.”

So Sue Unocal
A group of Burmese villagers, with the help of a U.S. non-profit, is suing the Union Oil Company of California (Unocal) in a case that could set an important precedent for international human rights law. The villagers accuse Unocal of hiring the Burmese military to protect Unocal’s pipeline in Burma. No one is arguing that the Burmese villagers were horribly abused — forced into slave labor, raped, and tortured. The question is whether Unocal knew about it, condoned it and whether it can be held accountable in a U.S. court for the actions of the military thugs.

A panel of 11 judges from the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments on Tuesday in the case. The judges will decide whether the Burmese have enough evidence to go to a jury trial, and how and where U.S. law applies to the situation. The Unocal case, in an age of globalisation, could have a of huge impact on other cases involving multinational corporations and human rights. As Financial Times.com’s Patti Waldmeir reports:

“The Unocal case is an important test of corporate responsibility including the recent highly publicised lawsuits against multinationals claiming damages for their involvement in apartheid South Africa.

The decision of the 9th circuit US court of appeals, which heard the case on Tuesday in San Francisco, is being closely watched by those who wish to open this new legal front in the war against globalisation, as well as by those who fear that such litigation could damage America’s relations with the world, and prove very costly for multinational [c]orporations.”

Citing precedents such as the Nuremburg Trials where German companies where held civilly liable for benefiting from Nazi slave labor, the plaintiffs asked the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals on Tuesday to hear their case on the basis that Unocal “aided and abetted” the junta. The villagers are suing for human rights violations under the Alien Tort Claims Act (ATCA). The ATCA is an 18th century law — created to combat high-seas piracy. It allows the courts to hear a civil case brought by an alien, which normally they wouldn’t do, if the defendant has violated certain treaties or committed human rights violations.

But, Bush and Co., along with other major business organizations, argue that the ATCA does not permit aliens to sue in the U.S. for crimes committed in other countries. Also, the Justice Department filed a brief in the Unocal case last month arguing that it is an “obscure provision” and that it may even threaten the war on terrorism (as do most things that threaten U.S. corporate interests, it seems). The administration filed these briefs in hopes that the 9th Circuit would throw the case out, but the court declined and went ahead with the hearing.

Critics charge that the Bush Administration and the Justice Department are merely attempting to please corporate interests and that overturning 23 years of consistent precedent would be absurd. The Independent’s Andrew Gumbel reports:

“There is, of course, nothing new in allegations of gross corporate misbehaviour overseas and critics of US foreign policy have often accused Washington of deliberately subverting or overthrowing democratically elected governments to suit the corporate interests.

… [Rick Herz, an attorney with Earth Rights International] said: ‘Their position is outrageous and their analysis is silly. They are trying to overturn 23 years of consistent precedent by arguing that the act was meaningless when it was passed. They are arguing that upholding human rights fundamentally conflicts with US foreign policy when one would have thought it was to uphold them.'”

In its defense, Unocal claims that there is no evidence that it conspired with the junta and that its actions were ethical. U.S. News & World Report’s Marianne Lavelle reports:

“Unocal spokesman Barry Lane says the company acknowledges that human-rights abuses may have occurred in Burma. But he says the company operated with high ethical standards, and there is no evidence it influenced or conspired with the military. ‘We’re very proud of the way the project has conducted itself and the positive impact it has had on that region of Burma,’ says Lane, adding that it has brought paying jobs and economic development to an isolated region. But Terry Collingsworth, executive director of the International Labor Rights Fund, representing the villagers, says the company should be held liable anyway. ‘Unocal knew from its outside and inside sources that anytime the military did anything it was with forced labor, torture, and abuse,’ he argues.”

Paul L. Hoffman, a lawyer representing the villagers for the Center for Constitutional Rights, tells the The National Law Journal’s Marcia Coyle that it’s about time that corporate regimes are held accountable for their part in human rights violations:

“‘We took the Unocal case because we thought we could establish the principle that when corporations do business with repressive regimes in the world and get involved in certain kinds of ways with that, they could be held liable for human rights violations,’ he said. ‘If that principle stands, corporations are going to have to pay attention to human rights in their conduct of business.'”

Pfc. Lynch: Cut! It’s a Wrap!
The war in Iraq’s most famous soldier, Pfc. Jessica Lynch, has been recuperating at the Walter Reed Army Medical center since mid-April, where she has been surrounded by a shroud of secrecy, a maelstrom of headlines, and evidently, a flood of offers.

On Monday, the New York Times reported that CBS had sent a letter requesting an exclusive interview with Lynch — “the get,” as it’s known in the industry. Responsible news organizations never pay for interviews. But this interview request came packaged with pitches for inspirational movies and ghost-written books from the other divisions of CBS’s corporate parent, Viacom. So much for newsroom independence. (What was it that the FCC said about the new deregulation? That it would increase diversity? Maybe they meant diversity of docu-dramas.)

The media snafu doesn’t end there. On Tuesday, the Washington Post revised or retracted most of its original reporting on Lynch’s story, carving even larger chunks out of the once heroic epic. After a BBC report that savaged the Pentagon’s version of events, the Post evidently sent its reporters back to the drawing board, and came up with a very different story.

The mess has media outlets sniping at each other. CBS News got snippy with the paper of record, saying that “Unlike the New York Times‘ own ethical problems, there is no question about the accuracy or integrity of CBS News‘ reporting.” But CBS’s defense seems rather paltry: it says that the letter to Lynch included statements like, “the news division maintains editorial independence” from the other divisions. OK, so maybe the NYT didn’t mention that claim of “editorial independence.” But it seems that such a claim would be negated by, say, including all the pitches in one package. And a claim of “editorial independence” kind of loses steam in the context of a cover letter that reads like this: “From the distinguished reporting of CBS News to the youthful reach of MTV, we believe this is a unique combination of projects that will do justice to Jessica’s inspiring story.” Distinguished, indeed.

Meanwhile, Eric Umansky at Slate points out that the Post still isn’t telling the whole story:

Another question: If the Jessica Lynch “get” is gotten, what will the interview be about? She is already no longer the hero who emptied her M16 at Iraqi combatants and then survived torture at the hands of doctors, only to be rescued by valiant Army Rangers. She’s now the 19 year old from a lost maintenance unit who was seriously injured in a car accident, whose gun jammed, and who was cared for by Iraqi doctors — doctors who offered no resistance when the Americans came to get her. According to the Iraqis at the hospital, they actually tried to return Lynch to American troops in an ambulance, before her dramatic rescue. They may even may have allotted scarce hospital resources to Lynch, at the expense of Iraqi patients, in order to prove their good intentions to the US. It’s hard to imagine a pert Katie Couric asking a still-in-physical-therapy Lynch about Iraqis who may have died for her sake.

Plus, by all reports, Lynch can’t remember much of anything. “The get” may well turn out to be nothing more than Lynch correcting Jayson Blair’s fictitious description of her home.

Of course, it’s possible that the inevitable interview, and “Saving Private Lynch” will get spun as a heroic epic despite any and all news revelations. News divisions at major networks (CBS is hardly alone in belonging to a conglomerate) may even feel pressure to keep the story saleable. As Tom Rosenstiel of the Project for Excellence in Journalism told USA Today, “journalists have to be free to tell the truth, even if it means saying embarrassing things about Jessica. You’ve got a real problem if a corporate parent is saying, ‘Hey, wait a minute, we’ve got $4 million invested in a book on her and $5 million in her TV movie.'”

Or, as Seth Mnookin writes for Newsweek online:

    “There was a real sea-change shift in the mid-1990s,” said a former booker who no longer works in television (and wishes to remain anonymous). “There’s O. J.-essentially a tabloid story turned in to a major news event. And there was the incredibly proliferation of outlets. Suddenly, you weren’t just competing with “20/20” and “60 Minutes.” There were five nights a week of “Dateline.” There was Larry King. There were all the cable channels and cable shows.” As TV news programs (and magazines and newspapers) started looking for ways to draw in viewers, they began to go after subjects that were likely new to the media world, subjects who aren’t necessarily schooled in the blurry ethical lines governing how to land a hot scoop. The consolidation of giant media companies, as evidenced by [CBS news senior vice president Betsy West]’s letter, has only served to blur lines further.”

At the eye of the storm, a twenty-year-old woman is in the hospital trying to learn to walk again. Betsy West and the rest of them should probably leave Lynch alone and get somebody from the Pentagon on the Today Show, where someone could hand Katie Couric the following notecards: “Why won’t you release the unedited footage of what you taped the night of the release?” “Why did you romanticize this story, at a dicey moment in the war, at the expense of the truth and one very wounded young woman?”

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