Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The 10 Worst People Of The Year; Wait, Actually There’s Only One

I detest the Top 10 lists sprouting up daily this time of the year: Newspapers, magazines, television, cable, blogs, whatever. One acquaintance in New Mexico sent a mass e-mail to everyone in her Outlook directory asking each of us to submit our own Top 10 list of whatever we want to rank.

By December every year, these rankings appear with the punctuality of the tides. Top 10 Films. Top 10 News Events. Ten Best Songs. Best 10 Hackeysack Players. Whatever the human activity, someone, somewhere, is busy listing the 10 best.

It strikes me that if you cannot pick the one best – or worst – of something in the course of 366 days (2008 was a Leap Year), you shouldn’t bother. Ten is both a cop-out and lots of work. On the one hand, it lets the compiler hedge their bet; out of 10 anything, someone will agree with you. But it also takes a lot of Goggling to come up with a list. No one can remember the sum total of events in a category so they can be pared down to 10.

Still, an editor is pressing me for a 10 best or worst or indifferent list so I dutifully pull names from my head: Robert Mugabe, the monster of Zimbabwe; Dick Cheney, destroyer of constitutional government and boaster about it on TV; Vin Diesel, for still duping people into buying movie tickets; everyone responsible for creating i-anything. Once started, names began flowing: Karl Rove; Bill O’Reilly; Sean Hannity; Sarah Palin; James Dobson; the last three presidents of Somalia, Abdiqasim Salad Hassan, Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed and Adan Mohamed Nuur Madobe, as a group; the American Enterprise Institute; Bernie Madoff; Ehud Ohlmert and Ismail Haniyeh.

Then I stopped myself. Looking at the names made me realise I had to tear up the list. There’s only one worst person this year, and it’s an honour he’s received every year since 2000.

It’s A Landslide

In the final analysis, there is only one serious candidate: The Current Occupant. With less than 20 days before finally heading off to Dallas with Laura and his new McMansion, George W. Bush is both the worst person of the year and easily the only genuine candidate for worst person of the decade – even with another year to go.

It isn’t even close; he wins the distinction by a landslide.

In the record books, there’ll be an asterisk next to Bush’s name because a lot of what he did as president was plotted and dictated by others. But this is a mere speed bump on Bush’s road to being America's second-worst president ever. (James Buchanan wins by a nose because he allowed the Confederacy to seceed.) During each year of the 21st century, Bush managed to do something that cut another little piece of my heart out, baby, and the nation’s fundamental principles with it, as well.

2000 – Bush steals the presidential election through fraud, legal manoeuvring and running out the clock.

2001 – Bush blocks federally-funded stem cell research. He removes the United States from the treaty creating the International Criminal Court. He drops out of the Nuclear Test Ban treaty. He gets a compliant Congress to approve the first of three massive tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations. Oh, and before I forget, the worst thing Bush did this year was casually discounting or deliberately ignoring repeated warnings of a September attack inside the United States by al Qaeda.

2002 – Bush begins shredding the Constitution by getting the (un)PATRIOT Act passed. He starts illegally wiretapping Americans. He lets Osama bin Laden slip into the safety of Pakistan while literally in the night scope sights of Army Rangers watching him in Tora Bora from a distance of about 1,500 feet. He creates GITMO and suspends habeas corpus.

2003 – Bush launches an illegal invasion of a sovereign nation that poses no threat to America and then lies about why he did it. He approves torturing prisoners of war captured in Afghanistan and Iraq. He allows Abu Ghraib to happen, thus becoming al Qaeda’s best recruiter. He turns himself into a cartoon character by landing on an aircraft carrier to proclaim “Mission Accomplished!”

2004 – Bush steals a second election, the details of which are just starting to emerge in 2008 except a key witness in a lawsuit – a man who could finger Karl Rove along with other White House and Republican National Committee staffers – is killed in a mysterious plane crash. Bush’s lack of planning for post-invasion Iraq became obvious when the country descends into chaos with Shi’a and Sunni groups battling each other openly while criminals loot and pillage Baghdad, killing or kidnapping citizens by the dozens daily. “Stuff happens.”

2005 ­– A dozen US attorneys are fired for political reasons. He tries privatizing Social Security. More tax cuts for the wealthy. No Child Left Behind is discovered to be a joke, another political stunt.

2006 – Katrina and Bush allowed one of the world’s great cities to drown. The surge, which he called a “success” because by the time Bush escalated the Iraq war, Sunni insurgents were on the US payroll and ethnic cleansing in Baghdad was completed so violence subsided.

2007 – Bush’s zeal for deregulation, which created a massive, unregulated mortgage banking industry, leads to a tidal wave of foreclosures, bursting the housing bubble. A recession begins, noticed by ordinary folks struggling to earn a living but ignored by Bush. Scooter Libby is essentially pardoned by Bush after being found guilty of compromising national security and then lying to a Grand Jury about it.

2008 – Bush sits idly by as the first signs of economic collapse appear. He presides over the largest economic collapse since the Great Depression. In a series of term-ending interviews with national reporters, Bush said he had a fun eight years.

Heckuva Job, Dubya

George W. Bush – along with his puppet-masters, underlings, cronies, cohorts and co-conspirators – did a heckuva job in destroying the very fabric of what is America. The Constitution? “A goddamned piece of paper.” Waterboarding? “We don’t torture.” WMDs? “The smoking gun.” The economy? “The fundamentals are sound.” POWs at GITMO and who-knows-how-many secret prisons around the world? “

Given all this, and more, how could there be nine other people on the same list of “worst people” as Bush?

So, with apologies to Keith, “George W. Bush: The Worst Person of the Decade!”

May you have a healthy, happy and Bush-free 2009!


Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Noted Israeli Journalist Slams Her Government On Gaza

Amira Hass, perhaps the best columnist writing in the Jerusalem daily Haaretz, is famed for her reporting from the Palestinian territories. Today, she slams her nation’s government for its repeated attacks on Gaza, beginning with the timing of the initial raid last Saturday – and goes on from there, in increasingly angrier tones.

How We Like Our Leaders
– by Amira Hass

This isn't the time to speak of ethics, but of precise intelligence. Whoever gave the instructions to send 100 of our planes, piloted by the best of our boys, to bomb and strafe enemy targets in Gaza is familiar with the many schools adjacent to those targets - especially police stations. He also knew that at exactly 11:30 A.M. on Saturday, during the surprise assault on the enemy, all the children of the Strip would be in the streets - half just having finished the morning shift at school, the others en route to the afternoon shift.

This is not the time to speak of proportional responses, not even of the polls that promise a greater share of Knesset seats to the mission's architects. This is, however, the time to speak of the voters' belief the operation will succeed, that the strikes are precise and the targets justified.

Take, for example, Imad Aqel Mosque in Jabalya refugee camp, bombed and strafed shortly before midnight on Sunday. These are the names of the glorious military victory we achieved there - Jawaher, age 4; Dina, age 8; Sahar, age 12; Ikram, age 14; and Tahrir, age 17, all sisters of the Ba'lousha family, all killed in a "precise" strike on the mosque. Another three sisters, a 2-year-old brother and their parents were injured. Twenty-four neighbors were wounded and five homes and three stores destroyed. This part of the military victory did not open our television or radio news broadcasts yesterday morning, nor did they appear on many Israeli news Web sites.

This is the time to speak about the detailed maps in the hands of IDF commanders, and about the Shin Bet advisers who know the exact distance between the mosque and nearby homes. This is the time to discuss the drone planes and the hot air balloons fitted with advanced cameras floating over the Strip day and night, filming everything.

This is the time to rely on legal advisers studying the operation to find the right phrasing to justify "collateral damage." Time to praise Foreign Ministry spokespeople who in their polished language, with their elegant South African or charmant Parisien accents, say it is the fault of Hamas, which uses neighborhood mosques for its own purposes.

Talk of double standards has always been moot. Maybe there was a huge weapons store in the mosque. Maybe Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades militants met there every night and from there planned to launch their upgraded fighter jets.

Where does the IDF Chief of Staff sit when he draws up war plans? Not in the Sahara, or even in the Negev. What would happen if someone blew themselves up at the entrance to Tel Aviv's Cinematheque movie theater, and those who sent him said sorry, but he was headed for the Defense Ministry down the street?

This is not the time to recall long-forgotten history lessons to say this is not the way to topple a government. Nor is it the time to make rational recommendations for balanced statesmanship. The time for such things has passed, along with the New Order we once arrogantly tried to establish in Lebanon, which only brought us Hezbollah. Along with the Orientalists' plans to reduce the popularity of the PLO, which only paved the way for the emergence of a militant Islamic nationalist movement.

The time of such recommendations has passed, along with the grab of Palestinian lands and hyperactive construction of settlements in the Oslo era, which only laid the cornerstone for the second intifada and the fall of Fatah.

The era of reason and judgment died long ago, even before the targeted assassinations of Fatah activists in the West Bank, which soon turned into shooting attacks on soldiers and the emergence of another few thousand young people taking up arms, not to mention the phenomenon of suicide bombers.

It is never the right time to say "we told you so," because once it is possible to say those words, they are already invalid. We cannot revive the dead, nor repair the damage caused by arrogance and megalomania.

This is the time to speak of our own satisfaction and enjoyment. Satisfaction from tanks once again raising and lowering their barrels in preparation for a ground attack, satisfaction from our leaders' threatening finger-waving at the enemy. That's how we like our leaders - calling up reservists, sending pilots to bomb our enemies and manifesting national unity, from Baruch Marzel to Tzipi Livni, Netanyahu to Barak to Lieberman.

Holiday Greetings From Einer’s Diner

It was 54’ on Christmas Day when I wandered into Einer’s Diner for my annual holiday dinner ritual. So I wasn’t entirely surprised when a chorus of “Happy Canada Day!” greeted me as I opened the door. Canada Day is celebrated in July but it’s easy enough for the regulars at Einer’s to become confused under the best of circumstances and this year’s unseasonably warm December only adds to their general befuddlement.

Hell, Einer’s regulars get befuddled if he moves a salt shaker on the counter, so it’s not surprising that this year’s April-in-December heat wave disturbed them.

Like many of the people who take Christmas dinner there, Einer’s is a place that time forgot. Of course, being located near Queen and Sherbourne in the heart of Toronto’s great hairy metropolis doesn’t help. And if time didn’t forget ‘most everything about the intersection – buildings, store fronts, garbage piled at the curb, the pungent smell, people – it certainly stopped, probably sometime in the late 70s or early 80s.

Still, those are the things that draw me back to Einer’s every year; well, that and a chance to catch up with old friends I haven’t seen since last year, before the fire.

You may remember reading in the paper that there was a terrible fire at Einer’s. Everything burned: The booths with the chipped Formica tables and green vinyl seats with indentations from generations of overweight backsides imprinting them, the counter with its 11 stools, the kitchen with its years of aromatic grime on the walls, the storeroom with the large tins of corn, peas and generic Jell-O powder, the linoleum floor with the deep, black scuff mark in the corner made from more than a decade of Eudora Phipps leaning her left hip against the wall when she wasn’t busy waitressing and shuffling the right heel of the white nurses oxfords she always wore with her uniform back and forth. Everything that smelled “Einer’s” was lost.

The arson squad investigated and concluded without much enthusiasm that the blaze was preventable and caused by carelessness. In one sense, it was: If Einer didn’t have four deep fryers going full blast – well, it was Thanksgiving and he expected a full house – chances are the damage would have been limited. On the other hand, it was really just a fire waiting to happen once the right combination of events happened in precisely the correct combination.

They did.

On the fateful mid-October day, one of those Cooper Mini cars was parked at a meter in front of Einer’s. The owner returned to his clown-sized car, squiggled into the too-small driver’s seat, started the motor and gunned the engine a few times. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard a Cooper Mini engine cold start, but what the engineers and designers thought sounded sexy actually makes the same sound as a World War 2 German fighter, the Messerschmitt ME-109.

Now, to most people the sound wouldn’t register anything unusual. But to poor Corny Bledsoe, who’d been gassed in The Great War and enlisted again for WW2 where he spent five years as a private who never passed a promotion exam, the sound of the Mini engine roaring to life meant only one thing. In his head, he was back at Dunkirk.

“The bloody Jerry’s are strafing,” Corny shouted, his eyes wide in terror, his words more garbled and mumbled than usual, even when his teeth are fitting properly. “Everybody dig into the sand!”

Half the people in Einer’s didn’t even bother to look up. They were the regulars accustomed to an occasional, nonsensical outburst from Corny or one of the other diners who carries on intense discussions with people who aren’t in the room.

It was the other half that fuelled the fire.

In one of the booths, Leona Feltmate was slurping her way through a bowl of pea soup when Corny shouted his warning. Leona is about 80. Many decades ago, she had a brief moment of minor celebrity when she received the first breast implants in Canada. In those days, there was only one model: Hard and unyielding. Now, although she had become stooped with age, withered and quite wrinkled, she still has the same near-perfect, teasingly pert, breasts that she paid a small fortune for all those years ago. The contradiction between every other part of her body and her full, upright bodice made Leona the sluttiest looking octogenarian in all of Toronto.

When Corny shouted his warning, Leona leapt to her feet – too quickly. The hem of her dress caught in the heel of her right shoe, and her sturdy, right plastic breast got wedged up against the edge of the table in her booth. She was immobilised. Her two arms and one free leg went splaying all akimbo and poor Leona ended up doing a half-cartwheel out of the booth. Her dress ended up half over her head and half covering Corny’s, which only intensified his panic at being caught out in the open during a raid.

In the process of trying to free himself, Corny – with Leona still attached to him by the hem of her dress which had wrapped itself around his turkey neck – went bouncing over the counter like a beach ball. He and Leona landed with a thud, right on Eudora Phipps’ worst bunion. She reacted by vaulting backwards in the air, yowling in pain and grabbing at her throbbing foot. Corny, seeing a lifeline to safety, grabbed Eudora’s heel which caused her to catapult backwards, hitting Einer as she did.

Due to the noise of cooking and steam in the kitchen, Einer had neither heard nor seen anything that happened up to the moment when Eudora slammed into his belly, followed immediately by a half-blinded Corny Bledsoe who had not stopped screaming, “Take cover, boys!” and then the now shrieking Leona Feltmate.

At the moment of impact, Einer was holding a platter of frozen Tuna Treats. Einer is a large man – tall, round and plush – but even his girth could not slow the momentum of being body slammed by three people. His arms went up in the air, he stumbled, and the frozen Tuna Treats went splashing into the bubbling hot oil of one of the fryers. With a loud “Whoosh!” the oil sent a fire ball to the ceiling. Flaming grease splattered on the floor and into the other fryers, igniting what seemed like a century of accumulated cooking grime and who knows what else.

The rest was in the newspapers. The fire spread, taking Einer’s Diner with it. Fortunately, everyone got out safely. The next day, Einer came back to look at the smouldering ruins. Standing amongst the charred remains, he noticed a handful of forlorn regulars on the sidewalk who had no idea where to eat. Many of them didn’t know there were other places to eat because they only knew how to get from their walk-up flats to Einer’s and back again.

So Einer rebuilt the place, keeping it as close to the original as possible. For one thing, he was no decorator and his personal style – if that’s what you could call it – was a close match to the style of his restaurant. For another, he knew that it would be shiny new for only a week after he re-opened so what was the point? Anyway, he didn’t want to leave his regulars thinking he’d gone uptown on them.

Actually, I almost didn’t recognise Corny. He finally had cataract surgery during the summer so his trademark glasses, thick as the bottom of a pair of Coke bottles, disappeared with the increasingly thick cornea film that blurred his vision for decades and added to the challenge of driving his school bus route every day. The last few years, parents really started complaining about Corny who was having more and more trouble reading street signs along the route so he only sometimes were letting kids at a home close to where they actually lived.

Fortunately for Corny, a provincial law barring discrimination against blind and disabled workers – he’d been legally blind for as long as anyone could remember – meant he was able to keep driving a school bus until he hit his 70th birthday when chauffer licenses are revoked. That’s when he began driving a gypsy cab to earn pocket money. In fact, the first thing he bought after hitting the streets in his old Plymouth Valiant were new pockets: His old trousers were so worn that the pockets turned to fuzz eons ago; change kept slipping out and getting lost, literally costing him “pocket money.”

Such is life at Einer’s this – well, every – holiday season. I hope you and yours have as much fun over the holidays as I did at the diner and may you have a healthy, happy, prosperous and fire-free New Year’s!

Sunday, December 28, 2008

White House, US Media, Pick Sides In Israeli Terror Bombings

Three updates are at the bottom of the article.

By now, no one should be surprised that the White House is taking its usual, uneven and heavy-handed approach in reacting to the gargantuan Israeli shock-and-awe bombing of densely populated areas of the Gaza Strip.

Rather than using American influence – if there is any left in the region after eight years of Bush – to try brokering a renewed cease fire between Hamas and Israel, the administration is

Gordon Johndroe, a junior White House spokesman stuck doing holiday duty, says Hamas is responsible for the outbreak of violence, calling its rocket attacks “completely unacceptable. These people are nothing but thugs. Israel is going to defend its people against terrorists like Hamas.”

By “thugs” Johndroe means the Gaza police chief and around 100 of his officers as well as the hundreds of men, women and children killed during repeated Israeli air strikes. If any Hamas extremists were the original target, they were snuffed out only by coincidence.

Condaleeza Rice is chiming in, declaring, “Hamas (is) responsible for breaking the cease-fire and for the renewal of violence in Gaza. The cease-fire should be restored immediately. The United States calls on all concerned to address the urgent humanitarian needs of the innocent people of Gaza.”

A compliant American media is parroting Washington, solemnly ignoring the reality that while Hamas may have fired the first rockets into Israel, they were pushed into doing so by the Attica-like lockdown Israel slapped on Gaza months ago. Except on rare occasions, this keeps even food, fuel and medical supplies from reaching Palestinian civilians.

Balanced Israeli Reporting

Yet in surfing foreign media, I find sharp criticism of the Israeli government and a detailing of the suffering being inflicted. Even Haaretz in Jerusalem is carrying accounts with more balance than we’re seeing in the US coverage.

"A million and a half human beings, most of them downcast and desperate refugees, live in the conditions of a giant jail, fertile ground for another round of bloodletting. The fact that Hamas may have gone too far with its rockets is not the justification of the Israeli policy for the past few decades, for which it justly merits an Iraqi shoe to the face.

“Israel embarked yesterday on yet another unnecessary, ill-fated war. On July 16, 2006, four days after the start of the Second Lebanon War, (we) wrote: 'Every neighborhood has one, a loud-mouthed bully who shouldn't be provoked into anger ... Not that the bully's not right - someone did harm him. But the reaction, what a reaction!' Two and a half years later, these words repeat themselves, to our horror, with chilling precision. Within the span of a few hours on a Saturday afternoon, the IDF sowed death and destruction on a scale that the Qassam rockets never approached in all their years, and Operation 'Cast Lead' is only in its infancy."

In Britain, The Independent writes,

"These bombs were launched by Israel, as we had known they would be. The world watched the situation simmer then boil over, but did nothing. There are some who believe that hell is divided into different classes. The ordinary people of Gaza have long been caught in the tormenting underworld. Now, if the world does not heed what has happened here, our situation will worsen. We will be trapped in the first class of hell."

But words cannot convey the emotion of images and this report from al-Jazeera English shows what is happening in Gaza even as I write this piece.

Ehud Olmert, Israel's caretaker prime minister, is hinting at a wider war as he masses Israeli troops along its border with Gaza: "Israel wishes to make clear that it will continue to act against terrorist operations and missile fire from the strip which is intended to harm civilians."

The Arab League is convening an emergency meeting on Wednesday. Meanwhile, Egypt – until now, Cairo has been cooperating with Israel in sealing off Hamas – is opening its border with Gaza to allow injured people to be treated.

Both Sides Wrong

Before I am deluged with right wing and neo-con e-hate or am accused of being the Jewish Clarence Thomas – a horrid and undeserved curse – let me say unequivocally that both sides are wrong.

Hamas will not improve conditions for its poor, starving people by lobbing homemade rockets into Southern Israel willy-nilly. Nor will Israel find peace for its people by staging massive air strikes into populated areas; indeed, all this strategy will produce is moderates in the Arab world going from trying to find a liveable solution to backing its Palestinian brothers.

Oh, and by the way, somebody might want to remind Olmert – and Washington – what happened the last time Israel thought it could destroy a Hamas faction sitting on its northern border. That folly didn’t turn out so well, as I recall.

UPDATE 1 (Dec 29 – 09.45EST) – This morning, Glenn Greenwald at Salon makes the same argument as I did yesterday about the Israeli attacks on Gaza. And he received many of the same type of hysterical comments that were posted here. Here is Greenwald’s response to his commentators:

“Many of our nation's most grizzled super-tough-guy cheerleader/warriors -- the ones who insatiably crave those sensations of vicarious power from play-acting the role of warriors from a nice, safe distance – are responding to my post yesterday by beating their chests, swaggering around and citing General Sherman to explain (in their best John Wayne voices) that war is hell. All good warriors (like them) know that anything and everything done to those who "start a war" is justified.

“Of course, if you ask Hamas why they blow themselves up in pizza parlors and shoot rockets at homes in Southern Israel as a response to the 40-year Israeli occupation and recent blockade, they'll tell you the same thing. If you ask Hezbollah why they kidnap Israeli soldiers and lob rockets into Israel in response to Israeli incursions into Lebanon, they'll make the same claim. If you ask Al Qaeda why they fly civilian-filled airplanes into civilian-filled buildings in response to American hegemony (and endless military actions) in their region of the world, they'll explain that jihad is hell and anything done to advance it is justified. You'll hear the same thing if you ask Russians why they destroyed Chechnyan residential blocks, or if you ask Serbian leaders about their genocide, or if you inquire with Rwandan tribal leaders about the brutality of their attacks, or if you ask virtually any other war criminal why they had to resort to such extremes.

“(One person who comments) points out that Professor Bernstein is either ignorant of or ‘pretending not to know the difference between jus ad bellum (justifiable war) and jus in bello (just action in war).’ That distinction, at least since Nuremberg, has ostensibly been central to Western justice. But just like Hamas and Al Qaeda, many blindly loyal cheerleaders for any American and/or Israeli war – as the last eight years conclusively demonstrated – simply don't believe in it. It's clarifying of them to say so this explicitly.”

UPDATE 2 (Dec 29, 14.55EST) – Both leading Israeli newspapers, The Jerusalem Post and, in particular, Haaretz, have criticised the government for overreacting, over-reaching and launching the attacks with no purpose or exit strategy. I’d say to people that jumped all over me – and, by extension, Greenwald – that if Israeli voices of reason are criticising their government then maybe Glenn and I are taking reasonable positions.

UPDATE 3 Dec 30, 16.43EST)– Writing in Haaretz yesterday, David Grossman calls on the Israeli government to announce a unilateral cease fire and negotiate to stop the current carnage.

"That is what Israel should do now. Is it possible, or are we too imprisoned in the familiar ceremony of war?" he wonders.

And another column in Haaretz by Yoel Marcus begins, "When Ehud Olmert declared this week that ‘the patience, determination and endurance of people on the home front will determine our ability to complete the job,’ all my fuses blew. This man dragged us into the 33-day Second Lebanon War and turned the rear into the front. How does he have the nerve to preach to us and tell us what is needed for the war against Hamas to end in victory? What achievement did the Second Lebanon War bring us, other than exposing Israel's soft underbelly and eroding its deterrence?"

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Harold And Eartha Have Left ‘The Room’

– Guest post by Denis Campbell, editor of

Britons call him “THE” playwright. Americans recognise her more as Catwoman on the TV version of Batman than as the sexy singer who turned heads long into her 70s. Nobel laureate ‘Sir’ Harold Pinter and music legend Eartha Kitt passed away within hours of each other Christmas Day.

We are all the poorer.

Some argue because he turned down his Knighthood in 1996 and the awarding of a CBE in 2002, means he cannot be called ‘Sir.’ But he was always a grand knight of the modern theatre. His body of work includes The Room, The Birthday Party and film’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman. They were filled with arching dialogue and gripping characters. An actor himself, he enjoyed honing his craft on the live stage.

His massive body of work – some 30 Broadway plays – and fervent anti-war activism, earned him a Nobel Prize for Literature in 2005 for his collection Death, Etc. Pinter’s language precision is immensely political. He twists words like “democracy” and “freedom,” as he believes Blair and Bush did over Iraq, and hundreds of thousands of people die. When he was presented with the European Theatre Prize in Turin in early 2006, Pinter said he intended to spend the rest of his life railing against the United States.

“Surely,” asked chair Ramona Koval, he was “doomed to fail?”

“Oh yes – me against the United States!” he said, laughing along with the audience at the absurdity, before adding: “But I can’t stop reacting to what is done in our name, and what is being done in the name of freedom and democracy is disgusting.”

Eartha Kitt grew up on a cotton plantation in segregated Columbia, SC. Orson Welles called her “the most exciting woman in the world” and I agree. All it ever took was one deep, sultry, throaty note and you knew you were about to called into her seductive musical world. She teased men and women alike with a blend of raw sexuality that was as unexpected as it was forbidden on stage and television in the 1950s and Sixties. When she donned the skin-tight Catwoman suit, she literally became a cat with her entire being, bringing an otherwise staid cartoon character to life.

As a mixed race child in the south – her father was German/Dutch and Kitt claimed her mother was raped – she did not belong, being ostracised and segregated from both black and white cultures growing up in the 1930s and ‘40s. If anyone understood the confusion Barack Obama experienced during the early days of the presidential race it was Eartha Kitt. During the campaign she confessed a fondness for Obama: “He’s Afro-American and seems rather intelligent.” But experienced enough to be president? “All those guys in the White House now were experienced, and what are they doing?”

Kitt vaulted to prominence during an appearance on Broadway in Orson Welles' Time Runs. She played Helen of Troy and the performance – along with a torrid affair with Welles – saw her tapped for the Broadway review New Faces of 1952 where her number Monotonous stole the show. A record contract with RCA Victor soon followed and her career was off like a rocket.

Harold Pinter’s body of work was long, deep and steady.

He rose to amazing heights and The French Lieutenant’s Woman won him a BAFTA but, sadly, he was closed out of his best chance for an Oscar that year by another British entry, Chariots of Fire. While Pinter has seemed to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, his work on one of my personal favourites, Reunion with Jason Robards, was deserving of awards but, like his other works, always seemed just a hair over the heads of the Academy.

Even his 2007 film remake of Peter Shaffer’s play Sleuth left many folks scratching their heads. The story is about a millionaire detective novelist who matches wits with the unemployed actor (who also ran off with his wife) in a deadly serious twisted game. Unlike the original, it was much darker and contained sparse, cryptic language, significant pauses and, as always, a hint of menace beneath the surface.

In 1968 Ms. Kitt was essentially blacklisted by Lyndon Johnson. She was invited by Lady Bird to a celebrity women’s luncheon at the White House and asked to offer her views on inner-city youth. Taking the event seriously, not as a publicity stunt, Kitt pointedly criticized the Vietnam War and its impact on poor minorities.

An infuriated Johnson put out the word that Kitt’s rudeness reduced the First Lady to tears and Kitt found herself essentially blacklisted across the country. Afraid to incur the government’s wrath, venues refused to book her. It was later revealed Kitt was the subject of a secret federal investigation; her house bugged and she was tailed by Secret Service agents. When the FBI failed to find evidence Kitt was a subversive, the CIA compiled a highly speculative dossier that attempted to portray her as a nymphomaniac. Unable to find work in America, Kitt moved to Europe where she spent most of the following decade.

I was blessed to meet both of them briefly after standing patiently outside a stage door in London in 1978 and New York a few years earlier where two long since lost Playbills were signed by two very gracious and obviously exhausted people.

So, raise a glass of Wassail to the memory of two legends, dancing now together and, as fate would have it, two passionately progressive antiwar voices on two sides of the Atlantic silenced. Rest in the peace that you always stayed true to yourselves and to the rest of us who will miss you.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Ruth Marcus Should Know Better

Last Saturday, Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus came up with an unusually convoluted bit of punditspeak about forgiving Dick Cheney his self-admitted war crimes and crimes against humanity including lying the country into war, illegal wiretapping, outing Valerie Plame-Wilson, torturing prisoners of war and – oh, right – telling Fox News’ Chris Wallace that his personal highpoint over the past eight years was 9/11. Conviction on any one of these felonies could land Cheney & Co. in prison for the rest of their lives.

Marcus, who occasionally fills in on PBS’ NewsHour as a “liberal” counterpoint to conservative David Brooks, wrote that she is “coming to the conclusion that what's most crucial here is ensuring that these mistakes are not repeated. In the end, that may be more important than punishing those who acted wrongly in pursuit of what they thought was right.”

Excuse me?

Marcus argues that because Cheney didn’t think it was wrong to torture and murder prisoners of war held by the United States of America, why not forget the whole thing? Does that mean if someone believes it’s alright to conk a little old lady over the head and steal her purse they shouldn’t be arrested? How does Marcus expect “these mistakes are not repeated” if wrongdoers – and there are legions of them in the soon-to-be-thankfully-over Bush Administration – are not tried and, if convicted, imprisoned?

She should know better.

If she doesn’t, then Marcus better read the history and transcripts of the Nuremberg trials. If she doesn’t have time to pour through the hundreds of volumes, spend an evening watching Judgement at Nuremberg. The whole point of war crime trials is not just punishing the guilty but also to expose truth, put banality on public display, shame the citizens who enabled them, and warn future generations against making the same mistake. Even today, people look back at the Nazi and Imperial Japanese era and wonder, “How could it happen? People must have known. Why didn’t they stop it?”

The world, but especially America, needs both the lesson and catharsis of all five of these following eight years of the Bush-Cheney reign of horror. No future generation should have to look back on this time and ask the same question as it experiences a historical re-run.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Another Reason To Love Rachel Maddow

A few nights ago, Rachel Maddow was discussing the Wall St. bailout on her MSNBC show with guest, Dr. Laura Tyson.

Tyson, a former economic advisor to Pres. Clinton and now a professor at UC-Berkeley, was defending the banks who received bailout money for their total lack of disclosure or transparency on how they were using the cash. What Tyson didn’t disclose – but blogger David Sirota discovered – is that she is a director of Morgan Stanley which received $10-billion from the Treasury Dept. Nor, did Tyson happen to mention that she earns $350,000 annually from the bank in director’s fees and owns 79,000 shares in the company.

When Sirota informed Maddow of this oversight, she did something that few, if any, hosts on cable news would do. She not only admitted the oversight, Maddow chastised herself for not doing a better job of researching Tyson’s background and current business interests. And she didn’t just mumble a hasty “sorry;” she detailed her mistake, aired a response from Tyson and then apologised to her audience.

The Tyson incident is just one more example of why I love Rachel Maddow and, more to the point, why she is one of the best journalists around – cable, broadcast and print.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

So Cute I Could Puke

Crank up the schmaltz and mix in a preposterous plot. It’s Christmas Eve and for the next three or four days we’ll be bombarded with movies that give me hives

We have all had the experience of wandering into the wrong bar and immediately realising that unless we leave quickly, something horrid will occur. This happened to me here in Toronto, once in Detroit, twice in Jamaica where every local bar seems to have something bad happening in it, and in Manhattan’s meat packing district. In each case, I sized up the situation fast, realised that my life hung in the balance and beat a hasty retreat.

This is exactly how I feel about Christmas movies.

As soon as I turn on television and the words "John Hughes," "Chevy Chase," "Tim Allen," "Dan Aykroyd" or "based on a novel by John Grisham," pop up, my blood runs cold, my temples throb and I know it is time to switch over to Fat Boy Hackeysack on ESPN2, or an absorbing faux history show such as Ancestors in the Attic, or more bad news from Afghanistan on BBC World, Céline Dion on Ice, or anything else.

Christmas movies have only four plot lines: Cuddly, cloying, cretinous and cute.

It's a Wonderful Life, a story about a small-time banker with a heart of gold, manages to combine all four elements as it inexplicably lionises a mulyak who risks the financial health of his entire community by making a series of bad loans to people who are in no position to repay them. Particularly unsuitable for holiday viewing this year, the 1947 Frank Capra classic should be re-titled It's a Wonderful Subprime Life, with Bernie Madoff in a digitally manipulated cameo appearance.

A Christmas Carol, in any of its myriad manifestations, perpetuates the myth that the obscenely rich can be made to see the error of their ways and rehabilitated even though anyone who has ever dealt with someone obscenely rich knows this is not true.

Miracle on 34th Street, in which a department store Santa goes on trial to prove that Kris Kringle actually exists, has been tugging at heartstrings for so long that everybody’s heartstrings are completely tugged out.

Where Old Stars Die

More recent Christmas movies resemble elephants' graveyards where deposed matinee idols go to die. How sad to see Robert Mitchum, at the tail end of his brilliant career, trading one-liners in Scrooged with a smarmy Bill Murray, before he had learned to act. How distressing to see Jamie Lee Curtis, once the very hottest of the hot, served up as a paunchy sight gag in a skimpy bikini in Christmas With the Kranks. How unsettling to see Robert Duvall in this year's Four Christmases. These are people who used to be stars. Not comedy stars like Will Ferrell or Chevy Chase or Vince Vaughn, but bona fide movie stars. Christmas With the Kranks is so bad that after 20 minutes, I switched from English to French and activated Thai subtitles hoping it would make Aykroyd seem amusing, if only briefly.

Pas de chance.

The kids in Christmas films don't help.

The precocious tyke who rides in Santa's sleigh in The Santa Clause is so overbearing that I keep hoping Dancer and Prancer will leave him behind on an ice floe to get ripped to shreds by polar bears. The moppets in Miracle on 34th Street, Jingle All the Way and Elf make me ask are there no orphanages? Even a film like Home Alone, which was entertaining enough when first released, ultimately becomes impossible to watch. Not only did it lead to Home Alone 2, Home Alone 3 and Daniel Stern's career but because Macaulay Culkin eventually turned into the kind of showbiz monster the entire planet should forget.

Admittedly, my contempt for Yuletide classics may stem from the fact that a niece in my ex-wife’s family was born on Christmas morning. Not long after she first drew breath, I began haunting video stores, buying up every copy of Dolly Parton's A Smoky Mountain Christmas so that she would never witness the holiday depths to which Hollywood could sink. As it turns out, a great advantage of having a niece born on Christmas Day is that Christmas babies, without exception, revile Christmas movies. This is because being born on Christmas is special and brings joy into people's lives, exactly the opposite of what Christmas movies do.

Some Respite

Of course, there are a few Christmas movies that do not induce apoplexy, nausea or hives. Love, Actually is redeemed by Bill Nighy's memorable turn as a washed-up rocker trying to cash in on the holiday season. Once you get past all the bayonets, tear gas and intestines flying through the air, Joyeux Noël – a 2006 French flick about an improbable Yuletide truce during the First World War – is bearable enough. Then there's the strange Un Conte de Noël, starring Catherine Deneuve. Putting Catherine Deneuve in a Christmas movie is a cheap trick by the French because Catherine Deneuve is France’s Christmas gift to humanity, just as Reese Witherspoon is America’s gift to the planet. Merci beaucoup, Tinseltown. Merci, mille fois.

Oh. Before I forget, in Un Conte de Noël Deneuve plays a woman dying of leukaemia who hates her kids. That's the French idea of Christmas cheer.

If I could give a gift to Christmas Day itself, it would be the promise that there would never be another Christmas movie. Obviously I can't do this because Christmas Day is an abstraction that can’t receive gifts and I don’t have the power to make such a guarantee anyway.

Until then, I stick to my all-time favourite Christmas movie: Bad Santa, a vicious, uncompromising attack on the entire genre featuring Billy Bob Thornton as the grumpy old elf in an unrelentingly funny performance on a par with Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder in The Producers. A particularly acrid feature of Bad Santa is casting child actor Brett Kelly as a dim witted porker who honestly believes that Thornton's debased department store Santa is the real McCoy. My Aunt Fay – who taught me Spanish, the piano and cynicism – was born on Christmas Day. I only wish she had lived long enough to see this film; she would have loved it.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

GOP Steals 7-Million Obama Votes; Mukasey Looks Other Way

John McCain lost the presidential election only because the Obama landslide was greater than Republican operatives anticipated and local GOP apparatchiks weren’t vigilant enough in preventing legitimate voters from casting ballots. And when informed by field offices of a potential voting rights problem, Attorney General Michael Mukasey reportedly chose not to do anything.

As I reported on Oct 22 (, well before election day the Republican Party developed a carefully planned and coordinated effort to suppress, steal or “disappear” votes cast for Barack Obama. The fraud is likely to have cost the President-elect up to seven million votes, enough to put a few more states in his column and, possibly, kept down ballot Democrats from winning Senate, House and state elections.

Three independent sources inside the Justice Dept., all career lawyers who would not speak for attribution for fear of reprisals in the waning days of the Bush Administration, state that countless reports of voter suppression flowed into Justice Dept. regional offices and Washington on Election Day. Mostly rejected were minorities and most disputes arose in rural or exurban areas – away from where a snoopy reporter might pop up unexpectedly.

“The political people here (at Justice) kept saying they were taking it under advisement,” one of the sources said in a phone interview on Sunday. “Everyone knew what that meant: Nothing was gonna get done.”

Said another source, “It’s a good thing Obama had so many people voting for him so he won by a large margin anyway. The bad thing is this would have been the third election in a row that the Republican Party grabbed illegally.”

In other words, when we reported in October that a McCain insider was worried about voting problems – and got vile spit at us by right wing bloggers and radio hosts for writing the article – the source for the original story was correct.

Extensive GOP Manipulation

In the original article, a long-time source inside McCain headquarters told me, “… they (the McCain campaign and GOP) know the election is lost in a fair fight …”

Yesterday, Mark Crispin Miller, ( an authority on election fraud, confirmed to Amy Goodman on Democracy Now! ( that the GOP was working hard nationally to keep the fight from being fair, a la 2000 in Florida and 2004 in Ohio.

Miller notes that in just two precincts in Illinois’ DuPage County, 350 people who voted in the state’s primary only a few months earlier were told in November they weren’t registered and turned away.

“The Illinois Ballot Integrity Project was monitoring the vote in DuPage County, right next door to Obama's, you know, backyard, Cook County,” Miller states. “And two of them, in only two precincts on Election Day, saw … 350 voters show up only to be turned away, told, ‘You're not registered.’”

Miller is a professor of media culture and communication at New York University and the author Loser Take All: Election Fraud and the Subversion of Democracy, 2000-2008 as well as Fooled Again: How the Right Stole the 2004 Election & Why They'll Steal the Next One Too. He notes that in the DuPage County incident, all but one of the thwarted voters was black. But the problem isn’t limited to Illinois.

“People at the Election Defense Alliance discovered from sifting through the numbers, an 11-point red shift in New Hampshire,” Miller reveals. “That means that there's a discrepancy in Obama's disfavor, primarily through use of the optical scan machines, an eleven-point discrepancy in the Republicans' favor.”

Perverting Justice

That John and Cindy aren’t getting ready to move into the White House is only because Obama’s local ground organization produced a massive voter turnout, more than enough to overwhelm Republican vote stealing and coordinated efforts to keep likely Obama supporters from voting..

Yet, despite the fact that Michael “I Don’t Know If Waterboarding Is Torture” Mukasey replaced Alberto Gonzales as attorney general because of Fredo’s involvement in the political firings of US Attorneys who refused to investigate phony GOP allegations of vote fraud, he has been remarkably unwilling to look into instances where the Republican Party is alleged to have actually suppressed or didn’t count Obama votes.

Put bluntly, it seems as if Mukasey is as much a Bush and Cheney flunky as Gonzales.

“There was absolutely no indication from the AG or any of his people that we were to take these allegations seriously,” says a third career lawyer at Justice who is in a position to know. “When somebody pressured Mukasey about it, someone at the meeting – I don’t know for sure it was the AG – said, ‘Hell, if we win the new AG will bury it. If Obama wins, nobody will care.’”

But whether Mukasey uttered the statement is irrelevant. If he was at the meeting, he and everyone else in the room could be charged with a raft of federal crimes ranging from conspiracy and election fraud to perverting the course of justice, violating the Voting Rights Act and even racketeering, according to a criminal lawyer in private practice in Illinois.

So, along with keep the nation from total economic collapse, the incoming Obama administration has another thorny legal issue involving the Bush administration. Not only does the he have to decide about prosecuting Bush, Cheney, Rice, Rumsfeld, Yoo and others for war crimes, he also must look at possible charges against Mukasey and other top political appointees at Justice.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Washington's Darkest Secret

With George Bush, Dick Cheney and several of their surrogates telling interviewers that the 9/11 attacks couldn’t be anticipated, they are – not surprisingly – lying. As a result, this article I wrote that was first published in April 2005 at Dissident Voice ( bears reprinting now as the outgoing administration tries rewriting history. The article reveals that a CIA “mole” buried deep inside al-Qaeda was feeding information to Washington about the coming attacks as late as August 2001, exposing the method, probably cities targeted and that the attacks were planned for early September. The CIA knew everything but the date when then-director George Tenet told Bush in person at his Texas ranch. Bush ignored the information and the rest is tragic history.

According to both the 9/11 Commission report and Richard Clarke’s book, Against All Enemies, in the summer of 2001 former CIA director George Tenet raced around Washington clanging “alarm bells” to anyone who would listen about a possible al Qaeda attack on the United States. The CIA and the National Security Agency, which conducts worldwide electronic surveillance, had been picking up increasingly loud “chatter” about a major operation that was coming to fruition.

Information streamed into Washington indicating that Osama bin Laden was planning something big. George W. Bush received the now-famous President’s Daily Brief (PDB) document in August from the CIA with the headline warning that bin Laden planned to strike at the US. It was deemed to be so critical that Tenet flew to the Crawford ranch to review it with the president.

What made the electronic information so terrifying was that, at the time, a tiny number of people inside the U.S. government knew the electronic surveillance was confirming something the agency had already learned through its most closely-guarded secret and most-valuable resource: According to several former US intelligence officers interviewed for this article, for much of the 1990s, a CIA mole recruited from the ranks of Mujahadeen fighters who had battled the Russians in Afghanistan was buried deep inside al Qaeda. Slowly, he moved up through the ranks until he held a position close to the terrorist organisation’s leadership including Osama bin Laden.

On very rare occasions, his coded reports were delivered personally to a CIA handler who had snuck into Afghanistan. But, most often, they were sent through a series of couriers via different routes which led eventually to a CIA safe house in Pakistan. They were loaded with invaluable and incredibly sensitive information. From there, the messages were encoded again and sent to Washington by diplomatic courier where they were translated and delivered straight to Tenet’s desk. Around the time that the PDB warning about bin Laden was delivered to the president, sources said that the mole went silent quite suddenly. Attempts to raise the agent proved futile and, eventually, the agency concluded that he was unmasked, most likely tortured and then killed if he did not die during interrogation.

The other possibility, discounted by most CIA sources interviewed, was that the mole simply had a change of heart about helping the Americans and “re-defected” back to bin Laden.

Rumours of the mole’s existence began circulating within national intelligence circles about the time that the 9/11 Commission report was released. At least three separate sources told essentially the same story about CIA’s infiltration of al Qaeda, and they – along with information from other sources -- enabled the piecing together of this article.

According to current and former CIA and national security officers interviewed, all of whom insisted on anonymity as a condition for speaking, from at least the mid-1990s, the mole provided quality information on al Qaeda terrorist attack targets, tactics, bank accounts, recruiting, the location of training camps scattered throughout Afghanistan and elsewhere, and odd bits of tittle-tattle that helps intelligence analysts paint a colourful picture of the target: Who’s who in al Qaeda, who’s on the way up, who is in disfavour, who had been beheaded for some real or perceived act of disloyalty? Did bin Laden still ride his beloved purebred Arabian horses every day with his sons? Was his third wife still infuriating him by sneaking cans of Coca Cola into the compound? What was going to happen to the commander of a training camp who had a fondness for sharing his tent at night with one or two teenage recruits?

“It’s entirely possible that the source gave Washington hard intelligence on at least some terrorist attacks,” including 9/11, a former CIA official said on the condition of anonymity. “The dilemma for Langley (Virginia, where the CIA is headquartered) was what to do about it.

“If they used the information, in some cases lives might have been saved,” this source added, such as in the USS Cole or the African embassy bombings, “but using it might have tipped Washington’s hand and bin Laden could have figured out that he had a traitor in his midst.”

Sacrificing lives to protect a secret is not new in intelligence circles, the military or the government. The US and British government have been doing so since at least World War I; the issue does not pose a moral dilemma to either intelligence chiefs or presidents; it doesn’t even cause any real unease. The most famous example of this occurred during World War II, when the British were intercepting and decoding all of Germany’s Enigma messages. Often, Churchill, Roosevelt and Eisenhower kept vital information learned through what was called the Ultra secret from field and naval commanders. The reason was practical in the extreme: If Allied forces suddenly changed a battle plan or moved around a coming German attack, eventually Berlin would have concluded that somebody was reading Hitler’s mail and changed the Enigma code. The lives of perhaps thousands of Allied soldiers, fliers and seamen were sacrificed to protect the greatest secret of the war. Yet there is a difference between knowingly causing the death of uniformed soldiers fighting a war in the field to protect a greater secret, and doing so when civilians at home are going about their daily business.

Because so few people in government were aware of the existence of the al Qaeda mole, it is not known whether Presidents Clinton and Bush, or their national security chiefs, had been told about him.

Typically, the details of intelligence sources are not given to presidents, who usually prefer not to know about them in any event. President Clinton, at least, “didn’t know a damn thing about spies inside al Qaeda,” according to a source who once occupied a position close to the highest levels of the government during the Clinton years.

But, according to one former CIA employee, “It is entirely likely that Tenet told Bush about the mole at the ranch meeting, if the president didn’t already know. Why else would he suddenly race off to Texas on a weekend? Not just to talk about what (Condaleeza) Rice told the 9/11 Commission was something that the administration thought of as an historical recounting of old information. It doesn’t make sense.”

A second former intelligence officer said he harboured the same suspicions after news of the Tenet trip and the contents of the PDB became known publicly. “The DCI (Director of Central Intelligence) simply doesn’t interrupt the president’s vacation to chat about a relatively innocuous, two or three page report unless there was something extremely sensitive the president needed to know that Tenet didn’t want on paper.”

Of course, the bigger, unanswered question is not whether Tenet told Bush about the mole’s existence, but what the mole had told Washington about a forthcoming terrorist attack on American soil.

The Mole’s Origins

Throughout the 1980s, CIA had a history of involvement with bin Laden. During the Afghan war against the former Soviet Union, when bin Laden was a rising star among the Mujahadeen fighters in the mountains, Washington was providing covert aid to him: Guns, ammunition, money, training and, sometimes, Special Forces advisors who lived in the caves alongside bin Laden’s soldiers.

In the late 1980s, bin Laden’s stature as an anti-Soviet freedom fighter had risen so high in some circles in Washington that the CIA sponsored a fund raising and informational trip to the U.S. and Canada for him. Langley arranged visas, helped set up meetings in a number of cities for bin Laden, and paid for his ticket and hotels.

“He was quite charming and very articulate,” Eric Margolis, a Toronto Sun columnist who met bin Laden when he was in Mississauga, Ontario on one of his CIA-arranged stops, said on a television panel discussion not long after 9/11. Others who met bin Laden on the whistle stop tour said he was accompanied by an aide who also served as a translator, and the same pair of bulky and hovering but friendly Americans who were introduced variously as “Mike and Jeff,” “Allan and Frank” or “Bill and Edward.” Undoubtedly, they were his CIA baby sitters and lamp lighters: Fixers who made sure that nothing happened to their charge, and who guaranteed that the CIA knew what he was doing and saying throughout every minute of the trip.

Former and current CIA officers interviewed over the past seven months say it was likely that the mole was recruited during this period. “The company was pouring millions of dollars in cash and arms into Tora Bora,” said one former CIA station chief, “and there were Americans everywhere in the mountains alongside bin Laden’s fighters. Special Forces, spooks, a few mercenaries, free lance pilots, some journalists, and even some aid workers. I’m positive a few talent scouts were in and out of the mountains, as well. It wouldn’t be all that difficult to identify a few possibilities and approach them with an offer.”

“It would be surprising only if the CIA didn’t try recruiting some people during the Afghan fighting,” said another former agency employee, now retired and who ran similar missions in Latin America in the 1950s. “It needed insiders on the ground to keep us apprised of how things were going, provide hard intelligence … and he might be useful in the future.”

After the Russians pulled out of Afghanistan and bin Laden’s Mujahadeen fighters largely dispersed, the mole apparently returned home – most likely Saudi Arabia, according to sources – and “went to sleep” to use spy jargon for inactive sources who remain available for future service.

Awakening The Sleeper

Sometime around the middle of the first Clinton term, bin Laden was re-assembling his old Mujahadeen warriors in the Sudan and creating al Qaeda with a new target: The West generally and the US specifically. The training camps were established, and once the CIA got wind of what bin Laden was doing, reportedly it re-activated its agent, who was given the code name Omar.

Osama bin Laden’s camp was populated at the time almost entirely by men who had fought alongside him in the Afghan war. As a result, Omar fit right in. Because he had been in the Afghan mountains with bin Laden he was welcomed with open arms by his former comrades. He rose quickly in the fledgling terrorist organisation, partly because fighting in Afghanistan established his bona fides but also because he was bright and possessed a first rate university education: Purportedly, he had an undergraduate degree from Northwestern University in Evanston Illinois, and studied business and finance at the London School of Economics. Moreover, he spoke fluent English, and is said to have a basic understanding of French plus a smattering of passable German. At the time, there were few people in the camp who spoke anything besides Arabic which meant that Omar held a unique position being able to monitor Western newspapers – and websites when they became common – and passing along relevant information to bin Laden and his senior associates. Perhaps more important, thanks to his LSE education, he was able to explain how the Western banking system worked and, it is assumed, how to use and manipulate it to bin Laden’s advantage. More specifically, there is a belief in some intelligence circles that Omar was one of the key architects who created al Qaeda’s banking structure, which would have made him at least indirectly responsible for the 9/11 attacks.

Still, despite his value, Omar caused some occasional concern in Langley.

“The trouble with a mole like the one we’re rumoured to have recruited,” a retired CIA operative explained, “is that while he’s being helpful to our side, he’s also helping the bad guys because that’s how he protects his cover.”

“You’re never quite sure where any mole’s real loyalty lies,” stated another former intelligence officer. “Is he sending us the real goods, or are we getting chicken feed and deliberately misleading information?”

If he was a bin Laden plant, then the information was no good and the American government was being misled. But if Omar was legitimate, then “he was the goose who kept laying a nest full of golden eggs” the same man joked.

“If he wasn’t for real, then (Omar) was the best con man to hit Washington since Warren Harding rolled into town with his poker playing buddies,” sneered a man who once held a position at the very highest levels of government.

Sources say that to preserve secrecy, only about a dozen people inside the CIA knew of his existence: Tenet, a translator and a very tiny handful of extremely senior analysts, retroactively dubbed “the wise men.” In fact, it appears as if Tenet was acting as the agent’s “case officer,” almost unheard of in the CIA. This meant that Tenet would be the first to see Omar’s incoming information, and would then send messages back to Omar, asking for specific bits of intelligence. Besides analysing incoming reports, the working group toiled constantly to verify the authenticity of the material they were receiving including looking for inconsistencies, contradictions and messages that were out of character from previous messages sent to Washington, or if the style of a new message differed from the mole’s style in previous messages.

“Looking for something out of character probably received the most attention, maybe more than what the message contained factually,” said one source familiar with the workings of moles in general. “It’s about the best way the company could see if a resource has been compromised and someone else is sending information.

“But from what I understand, the material was rated first class,” he continued, “and vetted as totally authentic. Omar was the real thing.”


Contrary to the movie image of spies speeding in their over-equipped luxury SUVs to meetings in posh restaurants while accompanied by beautiful women, the reality is much grimier and considerably more dangerous.

The CIA’s mole in bin Laden’s organisation faced an especially hazardous situation. Bin Laden had informers everywhere inside his camps and compounds in the Sudan and, later, Afghanistan, where the Taliban also was watching everyone, all of the time.

“The only thing I can compare it to is operating in Moscow during the worst of the cold war,” explained a one-time CIA agent with extensive experience working behind the old Iron Curtain. “It could take three days to actually get to an arranged meeting with someone and a week to leave or pick-up a message in a dead letter drop. You had to be absolutely certain that you’d shaken the KGB, which wasn’t easy.

“What made it especially nerve-racking is that the one thing you knew for sure is that you never knew for certain” if the KGB had been shaken off the trail, he said.

It was likely much the same situation for Omar. It was extremely difficult and complex communicating with Omar when bin Laden was living a protected life in the safe harbour of the Sudan. When bin Laden was forced to move to the Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, manoeuvring for Omar must have become hair-raising. For the most part, radio, telephone and e-mails were not used, largely because they aren’t terribly secure. In fact, the company has had a general bias against using radios dating back to the days when James Jesus Angelton was calling most of the day-to-day shots in the CIA. Besides, the Taliban prohibited radios. They constantly patrolled dense city streets and dusty rural trails looking for signals. Thus, using even a secret radio capable of condensing message signals into very short bursts, called “squirts,” put Omar at extreme risk. The penalty for being caught with any kind of radio was public stoning.

The CIA doesn’t like using e-mail, except in emergencies, because even the most secure e-mail route is relatively easy to hack. In fact, the National Security Agency has a division devoted to trying to hack into sensitive government communications channels used by the White House, Pentagon, State Dept., FBI and other agencies on the theory that if the best known hackers in the world can break through, so can an unknown, equally talented and motivated, hacker.

(Apparently, the answer to the perennial question “who spies on the spies?” is: More spies.)

So, the only alternative available to Omar was communicating by hand, coded messages being taken by a succession of couriers from one dead letter drop to another until the last courier dropped the message off at a CIA safe house, called “the tent,” somewhere in Western Pakistan. Insiders say it had to have been an exceedingly complex operation.

“Security had to be the upper-most concern,” a source says. “The route was likely set up in a way that couriers did not know each other, let alone meet, and none of them ever had contact with the source.”

Thus was born a cumbersome process of moving information between Omar in Afghanistan and DCI Tenet in Washington.

“Omar would write a coded message and leave it in a prearranged spot, maybe wedged between two stones in the side of a building or in the mountains,” the individual surmised. “Then, he would leave a signal for the courier that there was a message to collect. It might have been some twigs laid in a certain pattern on the ground, maybe a small mark scratched out, perhaps a dead bird laid on the ground in a certain way.”

Seeing the signal, the courier would collect the message and carry it to the next drop-off point where the process would be repeated several times before a message eventually made it to the tent. “As a result, it could take a week or longer for a message to travel from bin Laden’s camp to Langley,” a CIA officer speculated. “Sending a message back to him might take even longer.”

To ensure safety, it is likely that several alternative routes were established, with different sets of couriers. But while the arrangement provided security at one level, it created potential problems at another.

“It must have been an unusually large operation,” a CIA insider stated. “That means there was a significant risk that someone along the line would be captured, tortured, turned around or compromised, and killed.”

But, clearly, the quality of the information being delivered was worth the effort and the risk.

Who Knew What, And When?

Although considerable, the CIA considered the risk extremely worthwhile and the information invaluable as it ran Omar as a spy for a number of years.

Yet among all of the information gleaned from its resource, the most significant, unanswered question is what had he told Tenet – and what did Tenet tell Pres. Bush – about the coming attacks by Sept. 10, the day before the World Trade Center and Pentagon were hit. Did the mole tip off the CIA, and is that why Tenet made his mad dash for Texas with the PDB in August?

It has been reported elsewhere that Osama bin Laden said that he was involved in some of the planning for 9/11. It was bin Laden, for example, who vetoed a plan involving crashing 10 or more planes into buildings all over the United States simultaneously as being too complicated. It has also been reported elsewhere that bin Laden also approved the final plan (although not specific targets), the men who were to carry it out and even suggested a few candidates to Mohammed Atta to be co-highjackers, the lead highjacker and the field man responsible for overseeing the operation.

More to the point, bin Laden did this around the time of George Tenet’s weekend visit with Pres. Bush at the ranch in Texas.

Also, since it was bin Laden who personally approved sending money to the US to fund the operation, Omar undoubtedly provided information crucial to understanding how al Qaeda financed field operations. At least one published report traces the money from Atta’s Florida bank account back through a series of European and Middle Eastern banks to a financial institution in Dubai, a bank account which was controlled by the man who killed Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. According to the French journalist Bernard-Henri Levy, that man also happened to be working for the Pakistani security services at the time he was helping bin Laden move money to Florida and Atta’s bank account, as well as when he ordered and helped carry out Pearl’s assassination. Despite mounting pressure from Washington to arrest him, Islamabad resisted for a long time although when it finally did capture Pearl’s killer it was hailed as a “breakthrough” in the war on terrorism despite the fact that both governments knew for a long time where he lived. After all, the paymaster-cum-assassin was on the Pakistani security service’s payroll for years.

Given the relatively senior position Omar occupied in bin Laden’s organisation, it is likely that he knew and tipped off his CIA handlers about the coming attack.

“It’s unlikely that he knew a date or specific targets,” explained one person who is familiar with how moles operate, primarily because bin Laden did not know, “but he sure as hell knew that multiple planes were going to be crashed into several buildings, sometime in September.”

“If he didn’t,” reasoned another former intelligence official, “then whatever money the CIA was paying him was buying fuck all. That’s why you work so hard to recruit and nurture a mole. You hold their hands, listen to their marital woes, educate their children if need be and wait so long for them to be in a position to help: To give you just this kind of critical information two or 10 or 20 years from now.”

Piecing together what was is known to be facts, what is speculated about by reliable insiders on what type of al Qaeda secrets were learned through the mole, the way moles are run by the agency and the remarkable coincidence of the timing between the Tenet-Bush meeting in Crawford and what was coming in from Afghanistan, several hypothesis can be constructed.

1. The coming attack. It is viewed by insiders as entirely likely that the CIA director told Pres. Bush during that August weekend meeting that al Qaeda was planning an immediate attack using commercial airplanes as guided missiles. Tenet might not have been able to give the president specific targets or a date, but he did have a name: Mohammad Atta. More telling, there was sufficient information available to beef up airport and cockpit security, and do a much closer job of screening passengers as they boarded flights.

All of this could have been done without signalling to al Qaeda that the US had penetrated its innermost circles. For example, the government knew of Atta and at least some of the others involved in the plot by sometime in late August; the government knew that Atta and the others were inside the country. Their names could have been sent to every airline flying into the U.S., and especially the large domestic carriers, including those that had “American” writ large on the side of the fuselage given bin Laden’s hatred of all things American.

“No one would have noticed a thing,” said a former CIA insider. “Just one more name on a list.”

2. A manhunt. Had the CIA given the name of Zacharais Moussaoui to the FBI, chances are that the request from the Minneapolis field office to get a warrant to search Moussaoui’s computer would have been granted. The 9/11 Commission report severely reprimanded all of the nation’s intelligence agencies for not sharing more information, more quickly. But even with stone walls between competing bureaucracies slowing the flow of information to the speed of thick, black strap molasses in cold weather, the president could have – and should have – told the CIA director to get whatever information he had over to the FBI, and quickly.

“If the president couldn’t or wouldn’t direct that action be taken, than either he is totally useless or the various agencies are really good at playing bureaucratic turf games,” said a retired CIA employee. “It sounds like there was some of each going on in August 2001.

Bush also could have directed Tenet to provide information to INS officers. Without revealing to anyone why it was being done, a nationwide manhunt could have been launched for Atta and the others known to Washington as being inside the US. After 9/11, it turned out that most of the highjackers had violated their visas, and could have been detained and deported. At least one of the 19 highjackers, Atta, was probably in violation of US banking laws. If anyone had even noticed the arrests, the action could have been positioned as a routine immigration round-up, thus not tipping off anyone in Afghanistan or elsewhere that an insider was funnelling information to Washington.

3. Picking likely targets. If someone told an ordinary citizen of average intelligence that terrorists planned to highjack airplanes and fly them into buildings, it probably wouldn’t take them very long to come up with a likely list of targets a terrorist would want to hit that could shake the world as well as the United States: The World Trade Center, the Pentagon, Capitol and White House, perhaps the Sears Tower or the Standard Oil building in Chicago, the Bank of America building in San Francisco, CIA headquarters. The list isn’t all that long. From there, it would be relatively easy to figure out when during the day such an attack would be likely to cause the greatest harm, both to life and property as well as to the psyche of the city where the devastating attack took place.

Why was none of this done?

The reports from both the 9/11 Commission and the Silberman Commission blamed problems of terrorist attacks on US soil and the “dead wrong” assessment of WMDs in Iraq on a combination of locked-in conventional wisdom, bureaucratic turf wars, thick silo walls between government departments and agencies, and a handful of other reasons. Yet the 9/11 Commission was unequivocal in stating that it was within the government’s power to have prevented the horrific attacks that mild, sunny morning in September, 2001.

But with the existence of a mole inside al Qaeda increasingly likely, then there is a much more serious, insidious and sinister possibility: That George W. Bush knew at least a month before the attacks that they were going to occur, and chose to do nothing to stop them.

The question for Americans – especially those in Congress -- to ask is, “Why didn’t he?” Who stood to gain from the devastation and death? Who would benefit in the aftermath of the attacks? What long-term opportunities would open up, and for whom, by a successful al Qaeda attack on the United States?

A Preordained War

During the 2004 Democratic convention, PBS Newshour anchor Jim Lehrer was interviewing former president Jimmy Carter about George Bush, Iraq and the so-called “war on terrorism.” At one point, President Carter said something that brought Mr. Lehrer up short.

“Excuse me, Mr. President,” the veteran journalist interrupted. After a 30 year career, much of it covering Washington, Jim Lehrer was not easily nonplussed. Yet disbelief was visible on his face and disquiet echoed in his voice. “Did I hear you correctly, sir? Did you just say that you believe President Bush came into office planning to invade Iraq?”

“I know it to be a fact,” was the former president blunt retort, his face stern and his eyes steely. “This war has been planned since before January, 2001.”

I sat in my home, dumbfounded. I felt both enormous relief and astonishment: Relief that someone other than me finally was saying that the war was based on flimsy excuses and fabricated evidence, more than a year before the Downing Street Memo came to light; astonished that the confirmation was coming from a former President of the United States.

“Go ahead,” I almost screamed at the television, “ask the question, Jim. Ask the Goddamn question! ‘How do you know this is a fact, Mr. President?’”

But for some reason, Lehrer – a courtly and extremely polite reporter yet who possesses immense talent and experience – didn’t ask the obvious follow-up question that a cub reporter covering his first city hall assignment would know to ask.

I still don’t know why what was arguably the most crucial question of the first Bush term went unasked at the time, or why it wasn’t asked of Mr. Carter at all during the campaign. Surely someone in Kerry’s headquarters or the Democratic Party was monitoring network convention coverage that night and heard the interview. Somebody must have thought it might be a good idea to ask Mr. Carter how he came to know that the praetorian guard around Bush The Younger planned invading Iraq long before brother Jeb conveniently rigged the Florida election in 2000 so effectively that he made the old Cook County (Illinois) Democratic Party machine run by the original Dick Daley, one of the master politicians of the second half of the 20th century, look like the gang that couldn’t shoot straight by comparison.

True, for many years Jimmy Carter was the Democratic Party’s pariah. The party and its politicians avoided him like a bad flu. But by 2004, Carter had been awarded a Nobel Peace Prize. He had spent more than 20 years earning hard-won admiration rather than lush director’s fees, had written more than a dozen thoughtful books, and was widely regarded around the world as one of America’s most highly-esteemed former presidents. In what was bound to be a tight and bitter election, one would think that somebody would pick up the phone and call The Carter Center in Atlanta to ask him what he knew on the chance that it might give John Kerry an edge in the campaign.

No one did, perhaps another small but telling sign why John Kerry lost the election when he could have had George Bush bouncing off the ropes in confused befuddlement. Maybe the Kerry camp and DNC really were staffed with “doofuses,” to use Matt Taibbi’s word in Spanking the Donkey, his scathingly funny and highly critical book about the election campaign.

Now, a number of sources say unequivocally that invading Iraq was planned by the nucleus of the Bush presidency long before the election.

What people interviewed since the 2004 election, and particularly in the past several months, stated is that the men who surrounded George Bush during the 2000 election and after the inauguration had decided on a war in the Middle East in about 1998. Donald Rumsfeld felt so strongly about a war with Iraq, and possibly Iran, that he and Paul Wolfowitz met with Sandy Berger, Pres. Clinton’s National Security Advisor, in the middle of Clinton’s second term to urge an invasion. Indeed, toppling Saddam Hussein was a foreign policy priority from the time a Bush presidential bid was envisioned. It was born in the bright, comfortably furnished sitting room of the Texas governor’s mansion at meetings convened by Karl Rove and attended variously by Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Condaleeza Rice and Alberto Gonzales, among others. Rove, already serving as Bush’s rabbi, mentor and tutor, was nudging his charge into seeing the world the way the neo-con’s wanted him to see it: As a dangerous place that could be saddled and corralled only by American military prowess – and by not being shy about using the armed forces of the world’s only superpower.

“By 1999, it was an open secret in Austin that the Bush people were looking for a reason to get rid of Saddam,” once he was elected, emphatically states one person who participated in a few of the pre-election foreign policy meetings. “Condi Rice fit right in because she had cut her eye teeth on the dynamics of American power during the cold war and easily saw a linkage between standing up to the Soviets – her field of expertise – and standing up to Iraq and Iran.”

Noted another source who knew Bush fairly well when he was in Texas, “George doesn’t have a curious mind, he doesn’t ask a lot of probing questions. He seems to be intimidated and accepts the opinions or views of people he thinks are smarter than him. It didn’t take a lot of effort by Rove to get Bush thinking along the lines that the neo-con’s needed from their front man.”

Bush’s smarts have been the subject of Washington gossip and late night TV jokes since his first inauguration. But whether he is quick or slow witted, it is generally acknowledged that President Bush definitely is not a deep thinker. This is not a new criticism, nor is it motivated by partisan politics. People who have known Bush for many years and outside of the political arena have been aware of it. For example, back in the days when he was the titular head of the Texas Rangers baseball club and attended the quarterly owner’s meetings convened by Major League Baseball, Bush often interjected comments that often missed the point of the discussion going on around him at the time. He became a private joke among a handful of other owners. During one of the future president’s irrelevant observations, one particularly high-profile owner of a much respected and successful club whispered to the man sitting next to him, “If it weren’t for George (Bush), Marge (Schott) would be the dumbest guy in baseball.” Marge Schott, owner of the Cincinnati Reds at the time, was kicked out of baseball eventually for making repeated racist comments about black and Latino players.

Dumb, Naïve – Or Both?

So exactly, what did the president know and when did he know it? It is the great unanswered question of our time.

The answer appears to be very little, according to former campaign aides and White House staffers. A former aide who no longer works in the White House but still is employed in Washington as a lobbyist and insists on anonymity out of fear of losing his job, says, “Bush is a knave. He has no clue what Cheney, Rove, Rumsfeld and Gonzales do in his name until they decide to tell him.”

Another former aide and political appointee who returned to private life in Texas around the time of the 2004 election, agrees. “I used to admire (Bush). But I gradually became disillusioned when I realised the ‘dumb’ jokes were true.” Then, correcting herself, she added, “It’s not so much dumb as it is that he just doesn’t have a curious mind so he doesn’t challenge what he’s told or reads. He doesn’t ask many tough questions. He simply accepts a lot of what he’s told by Cheney and Rove and Rumsfeld. He’s easily intimated by people who are smarter or quicker than him and in Washington, there are a lot of people that describes. Bush probably figures they’re being paid to think through the issues, and he accepts their conclusions.

“Not since Benjamin Harrison has the White House been lit by such a dim bulb,” this woman concluded. Like others interviewed for this article who remain active in national politics, this individual insisted on anonymity, fearful of vindictive retribution from what several people called ‘the Rove-Cheney-Mehlman political axis.”

So, if the administration rolled into town in January 2001 itching for a war, what was the reason? Besides believing that Bill Clinton was weak on foreign policy, too often caving in during delicate negotiations with foreign powers, and desperately wanting Bush to be the anti-Clinton, what was the motivating factor that had the men pulling Bush’s string riding into Washington itching for a fight with Iraq? After all, a war can destroy a presidency as easily as it can galvanise the country around a leader. Lyndon Johnson was the sorriest example, but even the elder President Bush learned a painful lesson about the potential negative impact that even a popular, quickly won war can have on a president’s political fortunes.

Because of the many unseemly ties between Bush and Cheney on the one hand, and the oil industry on the other, a common conclusion – especially on the left – is that Iraq was fought to gain control of a rich oil resource. Others have suggested that with OPEC thinking about switching oil pricing to Euros, which would have a devastating affect on the value of the American dollar, the real objective was to establish an American and dollar friendly regime in Baghdad. Both are plausible but, according to sources, a smokescreen.

“Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld were deeply involved in Nixon’s attempt to create what came to be called the ‘Imperial Presidency,” says historian Jack Hagendorff. “They believed that the president could do whatever he felt necessary and that the constitutional powers granted the office were expansive, not limiting.”

In Bush, they found the perfect foil: A man of limited intelligence and even less curiosity who could be easily talked, prodded and coerced into doing what they wanted him to do.

Conventional Wisdom

The President’s inability to ask probing questions, coupled with his willingness to take at face value what people closest to him were saying, played into the natural reluctance of bureaucratic Washington to buck the prevailing political winds.

Both the 9/11 Commission and the Silberman Commission felt compelled to report that intelligence on weapons of mass destruction was shaded by what Judge Silberman called “conventional wisdom” that took root among analysts.

“[A]s to whether or not there was any policymaker effort to influence the intelligence, we found zip, nothing, nothing to support point made in the report,” according to Judge Silberman, a Republican appointee who led the second group examining 9/11. Co-chair Charles Robb, a former Democratic Senator, did add, however, “The intelligence community imposed pressure on itself. There was a conventional wisdom and there certainly was a feeling articulated by some that they did not want to go against the conventional wisdom.”

But where did the conventional wisdom originate?

According to a source who followed both commission’s investigations closely and who, before retiring and moving to California, had been a CIA station chief in several Middle Eastern and European countries as well as a ranking officer at Langley between foreign postings, pressure doesn’t have to be spoken.

“Think about it,” the man, who insisted on confidentiality, said after the report was released. “On Sunday, Vice President Cheney is on all of the network news shows going on and on about how we -- meaning the intelligence community and The White House -- know that Iraq is hiding WMDs and probably nuclear weapons. On Monday, Cheney shows up at CIA headquarters where he has an office set up for him and is briefed by senior analysts and (former CIA director) George Tenet and who knows who else. No one ever says a word about it, no one has to, but everyone in the room knows damn well what the Vice President wants to hear.

“I’ve been told by people who were present at some of those briefings,” the source explained, “that when Cheney was given reports that argued against the existence of WMDs, or was shown UN intelligence saying it appeared that WMDs had been destroyed years earlier, he discounted them. And not in a polite way. Nobody wants to have the Vice President of the United States swear at them twice.”

Above all else, CIA analysts are bureaucrats, and one thing bureaucrats know how to do well is protect their backsides. If Cowpuncher -- the Secret Service’s sometimes code name for Pres. Bush -- wanted intelligence proving the existence of WMDs, that’s what civil servants will deliver.

This general take on how things work in Langley was confirmed by another former CIA official. “The company is rife with examples where so-called faulty intelligence was used as a cover for times when the White House was only interested in the answers that matched its policy.

“So by presenting selective bits of intelligence, people around the Oval Office heard what they wanted to hear,” he added.

Indeed, when two analysts studying Iraq’s weapons programs did speak up, saying WMD information coming in was from a known fabricator, they suffered the worst punishment that can befall a bureaucrat: They were transferred and shunted aside, their careers destroyed for all practical purposes.

The Silberman report obliquely admits this and slaps at -- but not on -- the wrists of the president. It notes that the President’s Daily Brief (PDB) left readers with misleading impressions, and nuance was omitted completely from the picture being presented. Yet instead of wagging a finger where it should have been directed, the Silberman report scolded the intelligence community for “attention-grabbing (PDB) headlines and drumbeat of repetition… In ways both subtle and not so subtle, the daily reports seemed to be ‘selling’ intelligence in order to keep its customers, or at least the First Customer, interested.”

Definitely Pressure

“Oh, there was certainly pressure within the intelligence community,” Judge Silberman meekly conceded in a broadcast interview the evening that his report was released.

Where could that pressure originate if not from inside the Oval Office, or at least from people with immediate access to Pres. Bush? Only a foolhardy Las Vegas bookmaker would take odds that it came from anyone other than Vice President Dick Cheney.

Although he had left the CIA by the time Iraq was occupying everyone’s attention, a former station chief told us, “Unless it’s a case where the missiles are already on NORAD’s radar screen and heading for Washington, whenever you read one, one-sided intelligence report after another you know that the analysts have figured out for themselves that somebody, somewhere along Pennsylvania Ave. is keen to see a certain set of answers.”

Undoubtedly, the commission’s staff of lawyers asked direct questions, as they might have in court: Did anyone directly pressure you into shading the intelligence findings? Naturally, the answer was a universal “no”. If instead they had asked, “Did you ever hear or read the president’s or the vice president’s public statements about weapons of mass destruction being in Iraq?” they might have received a very different answer. Because then, at least two follow-up questions could be, “What did you think about what they were saying?” and “When you saw the vice president on television constantly talking about how certain the government was about Iraq weapons, how did you and your colleagues avoid having your own perceptions shaded as you look at the raw intelligence data that you’re studying?” Other similar questions would have resulted from the answers and perhaps lead the Commission to draw a very different conclusion.

People who conduct intelligence interrogations say that what someone does not tell them can be as informative as what is revealed during the interview. It’s called taking “back bearings,” and by using this well-tested process with the intelligence commission report it is possible to reconstruct what the White House did not want Congress or the public to know.

First, clearly the Bush Administration has not wanted to reveal how it used the intelligence it received, whether from the CIA or other governmental agencies. For example, it totally ignored Energy Department analysts who said that a raft of aluminium tubes could not be used for reprocessing spent nuclear fuel, a necessary step in building nuclear weapons, so that Bush could tell Congress there was evidence Iraq was acquiring material to build an atomic bomb. It knowingly used fabricated evidence from sources the CIA and Defense Intelligence Agency knew were liars and scoundrels, and held up the false facts to support its allegations of biological weapons. And it deliberately lied about the connections that the administration insisted existed between al Qaeda and Iraq. Intelligence from what few legitimate sources existed had to have revealed the truth about these points.

When a CIA source was asked about this, he stated unequivocally that “even if Bush was personally unaware of disparities between what he was saying and what was the truth, people high in the White House, the Pentagon and CIA did. That’s how intelligence flow works, especially in something as critical as going to war. It was their job to make sure the president knew, and they didn’t. Instead, they received medals, cabinet posts and promotions.”

Second, back bearings reveal that there definitely was pressure on the grunts in Langley’s trenches to hew to the party line. The Silberman report writes it off as “institutional pressure” to conform to a conventional wisdom, which means no one can be blamed -- a favourite tactic of the Bush White House. But as anyone who has worked in a bureaucracy of any kind knows – military, government, corporate, social service – conventional wisdom does not originate in the ether. It is not circulated through the building by the heating system. It is spawned and spread from a raised eyebrow, by an ignored memo, from not being invited to a meeting. No one has to say anything, and no one does, because everyone knows what is expected of them.

Brilliance Is For Spy Novels

“Careers are made in two ways at the CIA,” a former employee said. “You can be terribly brilliant or do something incredibly clever, which doesn’t happen very often outside of spy novels. Or, you can go along to get along. Keep your head down, your nose in your work.”

Going along in the CIA means rising up through civil service pay grades by being given increasingly important and visible assignments, foreign postings, running networks or heading up a section. As the two analysts learned who disagreed vehemently with the conventional wisdom that formed around Iraq, not going along means being assigned to some remote and forgotten corner of the massive building that houses the agency, never to be seen or heard of again. When weapon’s inspector Richard Kay returned from Iraq to report that Saddam had no WMDs, he was given a windowless office with a non-working telephone. Three days later, Kay resigned and went public.

Third, taking back bearings on the report is informative because it shows that the intelligence community as a whole is like a rudderless ship captained by someone who’s never been to sea. The report is replete with too many examples of how the left hand forgot to tell the right hand what it was doing, or learning. The DIA doesn’t speak to the CIA, and neither of them speaks to the FBI which is fine with the professional heirs of J. Edgar Hoover’s legacy because they have no interest or intention on sharing information, either.

“The biggest thing left unsaid,” a former intelligence officer states, “is that most if not all of the public statements by the administration on not just Iraq, but also Iranian and North Korean weapons plans are made up out of whole cloth. They have no idea what is going on in Tehran or Pyongyang. But it didn’t have to be that way.”

Without providing specifics, the source claims that sometime in the late summer or early fall of 2001 – before 9/11 – the Chinese intelligence service approached the CIA through a station chief in Southeast Asia, offering to cooperate with Langley on collecting and sharing intelligence on North Korea, a country which scares the bejeezus out of both Washington and Beijing. The U.S. possesses the spiffy electronic toys including satellites, sophisticated eavesdropping equipment and the ability to pluck e-mail and telephone signals from the air. The Chinese have agents on the ground through its embassy, spies posing as reporters for New China News Agency, agents working as employees of Chinese airlines flying into North Korea, and staff members of various trade agencies who doubled as intelligence gatherers. Working together, Beijing reasoned that the two services could get a much better picture of what was going on inside the world’s most tightly closed country that was keeping leaders in both China and the US awake nights. Reportedly, the Chinese offer went up through the CIA hierarchy and was vetoed by someone in the White House.

Why turn down an offer of cooperation that could produce lucrative results? One legitimate reason could be that Washington did not want to let the Chinese know exactly the quality of US electronic intelligence in 2001. More likely, given everything that has been learned since, a cooperative intelligence mission could turn up inconvenient facts that might undercut “conventional wisdoms” that Washington held about North Korea.

FBI Spying

When the FBI admitted that its counterterrorism task force spied on groups planning protests at the 2004 political conventions, it was as if Tricky Dick Nixon had reached out from the grave. Nixon kept the FBI busy compiling files on perceived political enemies and now Bush was having the bureau do same thing. I know it’s a fact because I am both the reporter and a target in this tale.

Because of a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, the U.S. Dept. of Justice was forced to turn over files containing 1,173 pages of surveillance reports on the ACLU, and another 2,383 pages on Greenpeace. Somehow, a department spokesman managed to keep a straight face when he said the large volume of reports on the two groups that regularly file lawsuits against Bush Administration policies was “innocuous” and most like done for administrative reasons.

The statement would have more credibility if the files had been uncovered in a rusty filing cabinet in some remote, off-site storage facility in rural Virginia. But the nearly 5,000 pages of documents were accumulated during surveillance conducted by the FBI’s anti-terrorism task force and kept close at hand in FBI headquarters. When legitimate and entirely peaceful political and legal groups attracts the rheumy eyed attention of G-man dedicated to fighting terrorism, one can only conclude one of three things.

1. Richard Nixon, the man who wouldn’t go away when he was alive, has risen from the grave yet again to gleefully direct Karl Rove, Dick Cheney and the political operatives in the White House on how to quell protests and frighten dissidents into silence.

2. The cross-dressing ghost of J. Edgar Hoover is prowling the FBI’s corridors, quietly reminding agents of the good old days of the 1950s and 1960s when the bureau had a free hand when it was as obsessed with domestic activists as it was with the KGB.

3. The long-denied but real purpose of the Patriot Act is to act as the initial shock wave that changes the basic fabric of American society and freedom because the administration has little, if any, respect for genuine “American values” (as opposed to the extreme Christian-centric values espoused by the theocratic right that get paraded as American values).

Since I don’t believe in reincarnation, I have to assume it is the third reason.

For example, in late November a group of Republican Congressional leaders met with Bush in the Oval Office to discuss unresolved issues surrounding renewal of the Patriot Act. The president was cautioned that some provisions of the act that treaded too close to impeding civil liberties were an anathema to conservatives in the House.

"I don't give a goddamn," Bush is quoted as retorting. "I'm the President and the Commander-in-Chief. Do it my way."

"Mr. President," one aide at the meeting said. "There is a valid case that the provisions in this law undermine the Constitution."

"Stop throwing the Constitution in my face," Bush screamed back. "It's just a goddamned piece of paper!"

Four people present for the meeting that day – including one very shaken White House staff aide – all confirmed to me and to other news sources that the President of the United States called the Constitution "a goddamned piece of paper."

It seems obvious that the America that Bush & Co. wants to fashion more closely resembles, say, Singapore or even China than it does the US envisioned by the Founding Fathers. In Singapore as in China, citizens are free to go about their daily routine and are left alone by the government, especially if their routine involves making money, as long as they don’t meddle in opposition politics. In the US, now if someone speaks out, the NSA listens to their phone calls and monitors their e-mails, the FBI notes their license plate number and takes photos of them at marches and protests, and the Pentagon adds them to its growing data base. As a result, dangerous subversives such as Quakers, grandmothers and parents concerned about unscrupulous and misleading Army recruiting tactics, environmental groups and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, now have thick government files, no doubt stored in the same computers that hold the names and activities of real terrorists.

Also in those computers, I suspect, are journalists and others who have written about what goes on in the dark alleys where the administration acts to stifle and frighten dissenters.

Quietly Threatening

Anyone with half a brain and a basic reading of how the Bush administration has operated since coming to office should not have been surprised by last week’s disclosures about spying on Americans exercising constitutional freedoms. My working assumption since at least 9/11 was that agencies occasionally were checking everyone’s e-mail and phone calls.

I didn’t realise how prescient I was.

A chilling, personal example of how far the United States has drifted from its tradition of liberal thought and democratic ideals – lower case ‘l’ and ‘d’ please, for the benefit of conservatives here by mistake, accident or because they’re assigned to keep a sharp eye on what The Others like me are saying – came when I was doing the reporting for for this article.

Before it was published, I e-mailed a link to the article to a close friend, a woman I’ve known for decades. She may be one of the few rational, moderate Republicans still walking around loose; the GOP probably missed purging her because it was distracted fabricating talking points for party apparatchiks worrying about the Alito nomination to the Supreme Court or damage control after the House acted on the McCain Amendment, or the Post and Times articles on Bush-approved illegal spying. Within hours of receiving the piece, she fired back a dark, cautionary e-mail, warning me “… as your friend, your well being is very important to me. The climate down here is changing rapidly and do you really want to be writing this … these days? It’s not very smart to be saying this kind of thing. If you wish, we can talk more about this (in person)” but not by phone or e-mail.

She concluded by chiding me to not forget that, “It’s not safe writing these things now and you don’t have the profile of a Michael Moore or Jon Stewart to protect you.”

Her comments were heartfelt, appreciated – and extremely unsettling.

Here was a highly educated, upper middle class white woman, the very embodiment of success, establishment and privilege that, until the theocratic right seized control has served as the backbone of the Republican Party since the days of Lincoln, cautioning a dear friend from a parallel background – except that I happened to be born into a family of equally reasonable, liberal Democrats – that it is no longer safe to criticize the government of the United States of America publicly, regardless of what the Constitution says about free speech. Even scarier is that she didn’t want to discuss the matter electronically, where private thoughts are plucked routinely from the air and scrutinized by Washington’s high-tech eavesdropping gadgetry in blatant violation of numerous federal laws while Congress looks the other way, pretending it doesn’t happen regularly and acting shocked when it was revealed.

In her quiet way, she was reminding me that writing critically about George Bush’s White House is as risky today as it was for Russians to write criticisms of Joseph Stalin’s Kremlin 70 years ago – or to criticize Richard Nixon 35 years ago.

In fact, not since my parents ended up on one of Nixon’s infamous enemies lists and had in their mail opened and taxes audited repeatedly, has anyone warned me about the perils of disagreeing publicly with the government. My parents irritated The White House in 1972 because my father had the temerity to be a delegate to a Democratic Party county convention in his home state that passed an anti-war resolution. Mother wrote several anti-Nixon and anti-war letters to the local newspaper. My crime in 2004 was reporting that the president’s pants are on fire because of his outrageous and repeated lying.

Paranoiac Delusions?

Some may claim that there is an element of paranoiac delusions in my thinking, but I don’t think so – and have the proof.

There is ample evidence of the lengths to which Bush storm troopers will go to intimidate into silence the ordinary, peace-minded soldiers fighting the war on freedom being waged by The White House with much more vigour than it employs pretending to fight the war on terror. The sad thing is, soldiers being blown up in Iraq have much less armour to protect them than the Bush Boys have wrapped around themselves in waging a war against the country’s own citizens.

Since I started the reporting for this article in 2004, my telephones have been tapped, my e-mails intercepted – sometimes in such a clumsy manner it was as if the U.S. government wanted me to know it was looking over my shoulder – and my snail mail was opened and read. The bank holding the mortgage on my home, and which happens to own banks in the US subject to Washington’s politically-appointed regulators, tried to foreclose based on fabricated allegations that I was not meeting some term of the loan; thanks to fast and deft footwork by my lawyers, the bank was check-mated. Files in my office were rifled on at least two occasions; again, in so deliberately clumsy a fashion I would know at a glance the files were being read.

Once I discovered that I’d become a target, I stopped trusting my own phone and e-mail. I started doing interviews using prepaid phone cards bought with cash in convenience stores, calling from phone booths selected at random in hotel lobbies, on the street or at shopping malls. I kept creating fictitious, new e-mail accounts when I had to write to a source, and switched e-mail boxes frequently. I stopped using my home computer for research, accessing the web from a half-dozen different internet cafes; I never worked out of the same café twice in a row.

After hearing about all of this, my psychiatrist did not conclude I had developed acute paranoia requiring medication and hospitalisation. Rather, he decided that it was marginally safer to keep my medical records at his home rather than in a bolted filing cabinet at his office. But he also jokingly said to me, “Don’t they know you’re not Daniel Ellsberg?” a wry reference to the man who leaked The Pentagon Papers about the phoney origins of the Viet Nam War to The New York Times during the Nixon presidency.

I am now doing additional reporting for a follow-up article and am tiptoeing much more carefully today. I use neither my own phone nor computer to do interviews or research. Notes are stored in a safe place away from my home or office. It makes reporting and writing cumbersome and difficult, but when I begin feeling frustrated I remind myself that the CIA has a station operating less than a mile from my home, in the American consulate.

I am also reminded of a line a friend adapted and purloined from novelist Robert Stone’s Children of the Light: “George Bush is the shit between the toes of the American eagle, just thick enough to make the body politic stumble.”