give thanks that Jill Carroll was safely released. many, many thanks. more later.
For any readers who happen to live in the Austin, Texas area, I'll be speaking tomorrow at 3:30 as part of the "America and the World" series organized by the UT Department of Government. After being at USC back in January, I look forward to hearing the other side of the story on that whole college football national championship thing; and I look forward to commisserating with UT college basketball fans over our shared loss at the hands of LSU.
That probably means no more blogging until next week, since today I'll be scrambling to finish up a thousand things while also taking care of a sick little girl who's home from school for the third consecutive day. Unless my brand spanking new laptop, with actual WiFi capability, arrives in the mail before I leave for the airport (yes, I finally broke down and bought a new laptop, since the old one's battery and disk drive had both died). If I get it in time, I plan to experiment with some airport blogging.
The New York Times piece on the Iraqi documents brought this bit of analysis to my attention:
On his blog last week, Ray Robison, a former Army officer from Alabama, quoted a document reporting a supposed scheme to put anthrax into American leaflets dropped in Iraq and declared: "Saddam's W.M.D. and terrorist connections all proven in one document!!!"
The Times reporter notes that "the anthrax document that intrigued Mr. Robison, the Alabama blogger, does not seem to prove much. It is a message from the Quds Army, a regional militia created by Mr. Hussein, to Iraqi military intelligence that passes on reports picked up by troops, possibly from the radio, since the information is labeled "open source" and "impaired broadcast."
All true. But I noticed something else. The English translation does indeed say "impaired broadcast," but the Arabic original says "itha'a sawa."
Which could mean "impaired broadcast", I suppose, but also
sounds an awful lot like... Radio Sawa. Which is, of course, the name of the American government run
Arabic language radio station which began broadcasting in 2002. Which could,
hilariously enough, mean that the al-Quds Division document was
actually reporting propaganda picked up
from an American radio station. Which an enthusiastic conservative blogger then, in turn, embraced as evidence. In a word, blowback!
That might or might not be the case, but sure would be a heck of a story if it were - which, frankly, is pretty likely the strongest conclusion any of us bloggers are ever going to be able to draw from scrutinizing these documents.
UPDATE: Bingo! AA regular upyernoz brought the Radio Sawa thing over to Robison's blog; Robison's translator agreed; Robison acknowledged that he was probably wrong; and then another of his commenters found a quote from Richard Myers during the war which makes a strong circumstantial case that this was, in fact, a report based on what was heard on Sawa as part of an American psychological warfare. Well done, upyernoz and others!
The New York Times review of the Iraqi document release does a decent job of presenting the situation two weeks in. It quotes Michael Scheuer and someone from Negroponte's office on the absence of anything really new in the released documents - something that I would agree with after spending a lot of time the last two weeks with them.
The piece notes some of the obvious concerns surrounding the release, beyond its partisan politics implications. As the reporter dryly notes, "Intelligence officials had serious concerns about turning loose an army of amateurs on a warehouse full of raw documents that include hearsay, disinformation and forgery." That shows wisdom. It also points out that "Under the program, documents are withheld only if they include information like the names of Iraqis raped by the secret police, instructions for using explosives, intelligence sources or "diplomatically sensitive" material." That responds to one of my original concerns when the idea of a document release was first floated.
Finally, "the intelligence official said, known forgeries are not posted. He said the database included "a fair amount of forgeries," sold by Iraqi hustlers or concocted by Iraqis opposed to Mr. Hussein." It's nice that they aren't including "known" forgeries. What's less clear, and most troubling, is the "unknown" forgeries, documents produced in some Chalabi-mill - which are precisely the sort of thing which partisan bloggers are most likely to jump all over and least likely to be skeptical about.
I've written many times about my support for the document release, and my enthusiasm for getting my hands on these primary documents. And, contrary to the NYT's suggestion that the documents have been explored by "a growing crowd of bloggers and translators, almost exclusively on the right", I've spent much of the last two weeks reading through hundreds of them in both Arabic and English.
To be honest, though, I'm starting to wonder if I've been wasting my
time. I've been increasingly exasperated at how the
documents are being presented - four different formats in a week,
finally settling on one which makes it almost impossible to see which
documents are newly posted. Half the time, I can't get on to the site at all (like right now).
More importantly, there's the contents. What has showed up so far has been a bizarre grab bag, with documents post-dating the fall of Saddam's regime (including accounts of the insurgency and jihadist websites, which obviously could not have come from the Iraqi regime's captured files); some documents which had already been leaked previously (the Sanussi document being the most obvious example); and above all documents used by the JFCOM Iraqi Perspectives Project (see the full text at Foreign Affairs).
I'm starting to think (though still can't confirm) that almost all
of the "real" Iraqi documents in this dump are really from
that project. Of the documents I've particularly blogged about, most have turned up
in the JFCOM report: the one about sealing the border (pp.95-96), the one about the internet and the one about Ken Pollack (both on p.11), and so on.
If the documents are mostly from that source, then it changes things. The premise of the document release had supposedly been that these were masses of unwashed and unwanted files, languishing in a military storage facility for lack of interest. Posting them online would allow an army of pajama clad volunteers (and the occasional aardvark) to scrutinize them for important but missed information and give a superior picture of Saddam's Iraq. The prospect of finding these golden nuggets would make it worthwhile for someone like me to put in hours of my time to search.
But if instead they are
releasing a bunch of documents already used by others, then rather than diving into an unmined treasure trove we're actually just checking the
footnotes of the JFCOM. Checking footnotes can be good - I was glad to have the chance to look at the Sanussi / Sudan document which is being widely cited, for instance, to know about its limitations. And it's certainly worth it to be able to respond to the misuse or misreading of documents by others. But at this point, having done a bit of the work, I'd say that it is
turning out that the JFCOM team did a really good job in prudently and
effectively synthesizing and presenting that information - far better than the job
being done by the army of amateurs, from what I can see. The more credible that their work seems, the less value there seems to be in going back to their sources... unless they start releasing more documents that are genuinely new and worth the time.
Lorne Manley turns in one of the better of the recent outpouring of stories on al-Jazeera International in today's New York Times. Not just better because he quotes me, of course! Well worth the read.
Just found another fun Iraqi document: ISZP-2003-00001122 (PDF in English; no Arabic original). (*) It deals with the perennial question of Iraqi WMD, trucks, and crossing over the borders. This January 11, 2003, Top Secret document to the national intelligence committee says:
"The evil American authority stepped up their accusation of Iraq for the possibility of hiding chemical agents or biological labs on moveable trucks and trailers or inside containers. The American authorities are planning on bringing such trucks and containers into Iraq across the boarders [sic] or the boarder [sic] of the self ruled areas or smuggling areas to provide it to the weapon inspectors to be used against Iraq in order to launch their wicked invading [sic] against our precious country."
To combat this alleged American plan, the document recommends performing "detailed inspection on all trucks and containers entering the country", monitoring all smuggling routes (especially at the Kurdistan, Jordanian, and Kuwaiti borders), and to inspect all "open warehouses or containers."
For some reason, this document - in which the Iraqis plan to step up their monitoring of trucks and traffic coming in to the country to prevent the planting of fake WMD evidence - isn't getting nearly as much attention as some others.
Is this memo authentic? Beats me. Does this memo prove anything? Not really. But it's just as likely to be authentic and proves just as much as most anything else you've read about from the Iraqi document release in the last week.
(*) just posted not on the first page of documents, as one would expect, but on page ten. I swear, the FMSO people seem to be going out of their way to make this site unusable to researchers by changing their format almost daily and making it difficult to identify which documents have been recently added. Especially this kind, one wonders? Also, there seem to be a bunch of documents recently added which post-date March 2003 (an excerpt from a jihadi website, a record of insurgent attacks in April-May 2004) making one wonder what exactly is being dumped here.
According to former editor Abd al-Rahman al-Rashed, the Saudi-owned, London-based, pan-Arab newspaper al-Sharq al-Awsat will put a third of its shares up to public bid in the coming year - an intriguing move to partially privatize one of the leading Arab newspapers. Rashed notes that the media, "like airlines", are a particularly sensitive area for privatization - an interesting conception of the media as a symbol of national sovereignty and a national resource, it's worth noting.
Rashed notes correctly how unusual it is for such an important part of the Arab media to be made available for purchase in the open market, even if it's only a third of the shares. There has been constant rumour of al-Jazeera being "privatized", for instance, but nothing has ever come of it. There are privately owned newspapers in Arab countries (al-Quds al-Arabi, for instance, is privately held, though nobody seems to know exactly where its financing comes from), but not many (any?) publicly traded ones.
While Rashed then takes pains to argue that the Saudi-owned media has never really been Saudi-owned and has always been effectively independent (what else can he say, as director of the Saudi-owned al-Arabiya?), he also notes that this kind of public tender really is something new.
Rashed's piece is labeled part one of two, so perhaps tomorrow's piece will offer some thoughts on who might buy shares in al-Sharq al-Awsat, what effect this might have on the paper's reporting, and what led al-Sharq al-Awsat to make such a move in the first place. Hussein Shabakshi, writing in the same paper, has more general thoughts about the decision to partially privatize a major Saudi media firm. Most likely he'll do an episode of his al-Arabiya program on it, so maybe that will get into those kinds of questions.
It only seems right to end this draining week with an amusing little dispatch from the Nancy-Haifa zone. Today's installment comes from the unlikely source of Samir Atallah, the venerable Lebanese journalist. In his al-Sharq al-Awsat column today, he recounts how he finally met his match: Haifa Wehbi.
Samir Atallah - bet you thought I'd go with a picture of Haifa, didn't you!
As he tells the story, while attending a
conference recently he found himself chatting with his friend, the singer Ragheb Alama. And then Haifa Wehbi enters the room. Even though she
is dressed "extremely conservatively", every head in the room turns. Ragheb, very much the gentleman, introduces the two and sits them down next to each other. He asks Haifa if she reads him. Haifa is demure. He then "wickedly" asks Samir whether he likes the lady's music. Samir (a veteran journalist who has faced a career full of high-pressure encounters) experiences near brain-lock in her presence, starts babbling about how much her music delights him, panics, abruptly gets up,
shakes her hand ("the right one, I think"), and flees - only to be accosted by hordes of fans and photographers demanding to know what they talked about. For the rest of the day, everybody he sees ("most of them older or the same age as me") demands to know what he and Haifa talked about, and how he could possibly
have left his seat "40 centimeters from Haifa". He later asks Ragheb to apologize for his hasty departure to she of the electric eyelashes, and Ragheb told him not to worry about it. After he had left, Ragheb explained, he had asked Haifa, "did you really know who he was?" And she
replied «ولو؟ مش وزير التربية».(*)
A charming story told in a self-deprecating fashion, and for some reason it made my day.
(*) Is there some Lebanese reader who could explain exactly why this is funny - is the joke at her expense, or his? I take it as the latter, but I fear I'm missing some Lebanese in-joke.
Meph at Aqoul has gone and translated the whole Wafa Sultan episode of The Opposite Direction to put MEMRI's selected transcript into context. The punchline of the translation seems to be that Ibrahim Khouli did not in fact declare Wafa Sultan a heretic. Details, details. I haven't got the time or interest to go and check the work of either
one of them (though Arabic speakers in the Aqoul comment thread seem
satisfied), but if you're interested in that whole Wafa thing you should check it out.