Focal Points Blog

Is Iran President Ahmadinejad Trying to Out-Supreme the Supreme Leader?

Khameini AhmadinejadAt PBS Frontline’s Tehran Bureau, Muhammad Sahimi reports:

“President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has appointed Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran and one of his 12 vice presidents, as the country’s interim foreign minister, and has fired Manouchehr Mottaki from the position. This happened while Mottaki is in Senegal to convey his boss’s message to the president of that country.”

The unprofessionalism of that aside, as Homy Lafayette, also at Tehran Bureau, writes: “This development may signal a new round of acrimony between Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the Majles.”

Beyond that, the Associated Press reports that it may be:

. . . the latest sign of a rift at the top levels of the Islamic theocracy as the country faces intense pressure from the West over its nuclear program. . . . the fired diplomat, Manouchehr Mottaki, is seen as close to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. And the president may be aiming to install a figure more personally loyal to himself as Tehran resumes critical talks with world powers over the nuclear program.

Sahimi agrees.

The latest move is another indication of mounting tension between Ahmadinejad and Khamenei. Two weeks ago, the Supreme Leader met with a group of experts to discuss an “Islamic-Iranian way” of development — none of Ahmadinejad’s cabinet members were invited.

Back in September we posted about another article by Sahimi titled Ahmadinejad-Khameini Rift Deepens. He wrote of the changes in the Tehran landscape after the elections (emphasis added).

Ahmadinejad has recognized that the ayatollah needs him more than he needs the ayatollah. When he sided with Ahmadinejad, the Supreme Leader lost any residual credibility that he had with a very large segment of the population. [Presumably because of the post-election violence -- RW.] . . . reliable sources in Tehran say that the ayatollah is keenly aware of the loss of his prestige and recognizes that his popular support has grown very narrow. Ahmadinejad recognizes his own lack of significant support, as well. So he has been active on two fronts: defying the ayatollah both covertly and openly, and trying to generate more support for himself. . . . The president and his right-hand man, Mashaei, clearly recognize that a large majority of the Iranian people are tired of the brand of Islam enforced by the clerics.

It sounds like Ahmadinejad doesn’t just want to be president. He may seek to surpass Khameini and become, not the Supreme Leader, but the Supremium Leader.

WikiLeaks XX: Chavez — First Citgo, Now Burger King?

We’re honored to have Michael Busch dissecting the latest WikiLeaks document dump for Focal Points. This is the twentieth in the series.

Of all the wacky things being revealed in this week’s WikiLeaks document drop, a couple of the weirdest have come from the US embassy in Caracas. The first was a cable (which now seems to have disappeared from the Wiki archives) describing Hugo Chavez’s adventures in the kitchen, fighting American imperialism with food.

According to the January 19, 2010 cable, with a headline that promises top secret information on “Socialism’s Tangible—and Tasty—Benefits”

President Chavez opened the “Arepera Socialista” with much fanfare on December 22, advertising its low price and high quality as symbolic of the benefits of his socialist revolution. (Note: “Arepas” are a Venezualan-style thick cornmeal tortilla usually used for a type of sandwich. End Note.) The restaurant, located in a lower middle class neighborhood of Caracas, serves “arepas” for about a fourth of their regular price. It is currently only open during weekday mornings, although there are plans to extend its hours, add coffee and fresh juice to its menu, and open two new locations in working class neighborhoods.

On a January 8 visit, EmbOffs witnessed a long line of people waiting to get into the restaurant but surprisingly rapid service. Inside, one wall was dominated by a quote in large red lettering from Simon Bolivar: “The best system of government is that which produces the greatest happiness.” An employee managing the line said the restaurant served 1,200 customers per day. One man in line said he worked in the neighborhood and came every day since the food was excellent and cheap.

Apparently, in the new state sponsored “Arepera Socialista,” “Money is Secondary in Socialist Restaurants.”

According to Minister of Commerce Eduardo Saman, people can count on low prices at the “arepera socialista” because the ingredients come from government-owned companies and other products, such as boxed juices, come from government-owned companies. Saman claimed the prices were sufficient to cover the store’s operating costs. He also announced on December 23 that a chain of “Arepera Socialista” restaurants would be opened throughout Venezuela as part of the Socialist Market Cooperatives run by the Ministry of Commerce. Saman himself worked at the restaurant on December 24; other Ministry of Commerce employees were “volunteering” at the restaurant on the day of the Emboffs’ visit. About 30 people work at the restaurant.

Besides the price, Saman highlighted another key difference between socialist and capitalist “arepera”: customers pay only after eating, while “in fast food chains . . . they only think about money.” In the “Arepera Socialista,” the cash register is in a corner of the room and customers pay only after eating, self-reporting how many of the “arepas” they ate.

Imagine that: the state providing low-cost, healthy foods to the poor! But that’s nothing compared with another development related in an earlier cable.

The cable dates from 2008, when on

The evening of September 30, American Airlines Country Manager Omar Nottaro (strictly protect throughout) called Econoff to report that the captain and crew of American Airlines flight 903 were being held at the airport. He explained that upon landing a crew member said “Welcome to Venezuela. Local Chavez time is” X.

As travelers to Venezuela in recent years know, Chavez ordered the creation of the country’s own time zone to allow the public more daylight in which to be productive. At the time of the decision, Chavez confidently defied his critics by noting that “I don’t care if they call me crazy, the new time will go ahead.”

Funny that he should have that. As it turns out, one of the flight’s passengers, a

friend of Venezuelan National Assemblyman Carlos Echezuria Rodriguez, thought the crew member had said “loco Chavez time.”

He wasn’t the only one. The cable discusses a Venezuelan Immigration report on the incident obtained by Interpol, which shows that officially the captain’s remarks had been logged as “the hour of the crazy Chavez and his women.” You can’t make this stuff up, folks.

Whatever was said, the reports of the incident almost immediately made their way to the highest levels of the Venezuelan state, and provoked a momentary crisis.

The passenger, Nestor Maldonado Lanza, told Deputy Rodriguez who was waiting for him outside, that the pilot had called President Chavez crazy. The Deputy called Venezuelan Vice President Carrizales to report the incident. The Vice President called civil aviation authority (INAC) President Martinez who went to the airport. The Directorate for Venezuelan Domestic Intelligence and Prevention, DISIP, opened an investigation. However, because ONIDEX had not allowed the crew to go through customs, DISIP backed out of investigation and turned it over to ONIDEX which had jurisdiction as the crew had not officially entered Venezuela. The crew then waited inside the airport for the results of a meeting between airport, ONIDEX, INAC and American Airlines staff.

The situation was defused when AA’s Nottaro promised

to put the crew back on the empty airplane as soon as it was refueled and get the captain and crew out of the country immediately. Nottaro also apologized in person to INAC President Martinez and committed to writing several letters of apology on October 1. Venezuelan authorities accepted Nottaro’s offer and the crew left Venezuela at 11:30 pm. American made the decision to turn the plane around even though it meant canceling AA flight 902 out of Caracas the morning of October 1, at considerable cost to the airline.

The cable notes that this was the second incident involving Venezuelan authorities and American flight crews that month, but does not discuss the matter further, other than to relate that it involved Delta Airlines. As the cable concludes, the AA incident demonstrates just how soured relations between Washington and Caracas had become by the end of George W. Bush’s presidency “when a chance remark escalates within minutes to the level of the Venezuelan Vice Presidency.”

WikiLeaks XVIX: Guatemalan Concerns Get Short Shrift in Cables About Illegal Border Crossings Into Mexico

We’re honored to have Michael Busch dissecting the latest WikiLeaks document dump for Focal Points. This is the nineteenth in the series.

Earlier this year, American diplomats in Mexico experienced first-hand the fluid nature of Central American borderlands. Following a series of security conferences—one in Phoenix, Arizona to discuss measures to more effectively police Mexico’s northern border, and a second in Tapachula, Mexico, to analyze security operations in the country’s southern flank—US officials decided to visit both borders themselves to gain familiarity with the flourishing arms trade that pours through each.

They were shocked by what they saw. The cable reports that

our visit to three border crossings between Guatemala and Mexico in Chiapas revealed neither country presently works seriously to enforce these laws.

At the first border crossing in Talisman, Chiapas, the conference participants witnessed almost as many individuals crossing the border illegally as legally. Immigration officials conjectured that individuals crossing illegally under the bridge were either visiting family members on the other side of border or engaging in informal commerce. Although the delegation did not have an opportunity to talk with any of the individuals crossing under the bridge at the border, it appeared the majority were carrying what appeared to be personal belongings rather than items of commerce.

The American observers were assured that though border traffic was largely allowed to flow freely and that immigration officers were maintaining a secure frontier, US embassy staff weren’t buying it.

. . . their explanations highlighted serious procedural inconsistencies that undermine effective controls. While border officials inspect 100 percent of the individuals and cars crossing the bridge legally, the data collected is stored in a local database that is not connected to federal or international criminal databases. Border officials are also hampered by their lack of access to national registries that would allow them to determine if the individuals crossing are on any criminal or terrorist watchlists.

Part of the problem is simply Mexican immigration law which

allows individuals to cross the border with an “original” identification document but does not prescribe what constitutes an “original” document. As long as the individual agrees to confine one’s visit to the state of Chiapas and return to Guatemala after an undefined period of time, one is granted admission to the country.

But the bigger issue is resources. The cable highlights the stark differences between American capabilities at the border and those of their Mexican counterparts across the way.

While there are 30,000 U.S. CBP officers on the 1,926 mile Mexican/U.S. border, only 125 Mexican immigration officials monitor the 577 mile border with Guatemala. Mexican immigration officials repeatedly confirmed that they do not have the manpower or resources to direct efforts effectively along the southern border.

American diplomatic staff visited another border crossing as well, this time at Ciudad Hidalgo, the most densely trafficked point between Mexico and Guatemala.

Border officials estimated that on a daily basis 95% of all exports, 350-400 shipments; and 26% of all imports, flow through these border crossings to and from Central America. Additionally, 80-100 carloads of visitors pass through the border on a daily basis.

Here, American officials were impressed by the inspection tools immigration officials had at their disposal, but concerned by what they observed to be inconsistency in the use of this

equipment to check the cabs of trucks and there is no revealed coordinated approach between Mexico and Guatemala to share information that would reduce crossing times and avoid duplicative inspections, as, for example, is being done at certain places in the Mexican-U.S. border.

Eventually, the cable gets around to addressing the heart of Mexico’s weaknesses in securing its territory—a theme that surfaces repeatedly in all discussions of the country’s problems: tensions between Mexico’s state and federal levels. At the conference in Tapachula,

The lack of coordination between federal and state officials became apparent when a representative from the Chiapas State Attorney General’s Office complained that his state does not receive any information from the federal authorities and has no input or visibility in the federal process. While the state representative acknowledged a common perception of corruption at the state level, he argued it was counterproductive and illogical to exclude them from the process. Other participants recognized an acceptable process for intelligence collection, but complained about inadequate dissemination of actionable information and insufficient formal mechanisms for sharing collected information.

As all conferences do, the gathering at Tapachula ended with hollow promises from all sides to make efforts at ameliorating common problems moving forward.

The Americans’ shock at what they saw at the Mexican/Guatemalan border would not be shared by anyone with experience travelling by land through Central and South America. What’s curious about this cable, however, is the almost complete absence of consideration given to Guatemala. While Mexico surely needs to resolve internal conflicts between its different layers of security agencies to produce more effective results, the bigger issues reside in Guatemala. As former Costa Rican vice-president Kevin Casas-Zamora has argued—correctly in my estimation—Guatemala’s dire condition presents significant challenges in region-wide efforts to battle thriving organized crime.

The thick unpopulated forests of Petén, in Northern Guatemala, offer a haven to drug trafficking activities, often carried out under the complacent gaze, when not the active participation, of the only institution with effective presence throughout the Guatemalan territory: a military establishment riddled with corruption. Indeed, outside the military, the Guatemalan state is a feeble entity by almost any indicator. Tax revenue in the country stands at 12 percent of GDP, one of lowest figures in Latin America…

The weakness of the state, the pervasive violence, the widespread corruption, and the country’s strategic location for drug trafficking are creating a very dangerous cocktail. Moreover, the prognosis is not favorable. The situation on the ground in Central America is bound to deteriorate if the offensive of the Mexican government against the drug cartels succeeds in reclaiming control over Northern Mexico for the state. Evidence of increased activity by Mexican crime syndicates, including turf wars between them, is rife throughout Central America these days. The big difference, of course, is that the capacities of the Central American states, and of the Guatemalan state in particular, to enforce the law and exert effective control over their territory are well below those of Mexico and certainly below what is needed to face up to the dire security challenge that is being foisted upon them.

It’s odd then that the cable chooses to present the border issue in near zero-sum terms, with an almost exclusive emphasis on Mexico’s troubles. It’s also strange that, given US criticism of Mexico for not sharing information with its partners to the south, diplomatic staff responsible for disseminating sensitive information about Mexico with concerned parties throughout the State Department, did not see fit to share this cable with the embassy in Guatemala City.

In Today’s Open-Source World, Low-Tech Attacks by “Other Guys” Rule

I woke up thinking about caltrops. Remember caltrops – those handy little devices scattered around by Roman cavalry to cover their retreat? Equally effective against infantry, cavalry and war elephants, caltrops are nothing more than two or more sharp nails or spines fastened together so that one of them always points upward when it lands. These 2,000-year-old ‘no tech’ weapons are thoroughly modern, too – make those spines hollow and they also work on pneumatic tires.

Now imagine a group of fun loving ‘Other Guys’ [gangs, drug cartels, insurgents, terrorist groups] with a few vans and a few thousand caltrops they knocked out over a batch of brewskis while watching Monday Night Football on the big screen.

These OGs, pissed off, perhaps, by petty resentments such as their jobs being offshored, their retirement being stolen through a hedge fund scam, or their team once again making a lousy draft choice, set off for some payback. They hit the freeways at rush hour, and liberally (though they would never use the term!) scatter their carefully crafted caltrops around Greater Metropolitan Anywhere.

Within minutes, it’s gridlock. The entire region is at a standstill. Economic damage runs into the tens (or hundreds) of millions through lost wages, lost time, lost production, tire repairs and replacement, body work and insurance claims, road crew and law enforcement / emergency crew overtime, etc., etc., etc. Collateral damage includes several dozen DOAs because medic rigs couldn’t reach victims or hospitals, shootouts resulted from super-sized road rage, and the sheer frustration and stress of it all triggered a wave of heart attacks and CVAs.

Cost to the OGs – a couple cases of Coors, 100 pounds of 16 penny nails or stout tubing, a couple of torches and a few gallons of gas.

Talk about Return on Investment.

Or . . . let’s say you’re really bad with tools and hate football, but are handy with a mouse and social networks. A techie friend points out that you don’t have to be a code poet to mount a DDoS attack on some corporate or .gov evildoer. (PayPal and the US State Department come to mind for some reason.)

You only need a few hundred or thousand friends to simultaneously log on to the targeted site and continuously hit ‘refresh’ to clog the server and crash the site. You can coordinate through tweets, texts and Facebook, and all pass ‘Go!’ at the same moment. You can hang out for hours, chatting, texting and virtually goofing together the whole time. Like, it’s community, dude.

The bottom line is, in ‘industrialized’ and well as ‘developing’ nations, people are tired of being lied to, ripped off and abused by the system. They’re threatened, angry and resentful. And while they may not be willing or capable of building an IED or flying a Cessna into a building, they can weld up a caltrop, click on a mouse, or squeeze a little Krazy Glue into the locks of the local bank that’s foreclosing on them or their neighbors.

In each case, the result is the personal satisfaction of fighting back, and disruption ranging from minimal to massive. ROI – economic and emotional – is massive in every case. (Cost of a tube of Krazy Glue: $4. Cost of a locksmith for an hour and new hardware and keys: $300. Cost of lost business and angry customers: pick a number. Watching it all while burning a couple dubes across the street in the park. Priceless.)

Now consider angry, idle, disenfranchised folks with access to modern arms, a garage ‘fab lab’, or a DNA sequencer purchased on EBay . . .

If there is to be a future for humankind that is not ‘nasty, brutish and short’, it will be based on a concept of Mutually Assured Security. (Exactly the opposite of the concept of Mutually Assured Destruction that ‘guided’ US foreign policy for so long.) Our world is just too big, too fast, too interconnected, and too well armed and capable for some of us to be secure if others are in peril.

Until we recognize that ‘we’ cannot be secure unless ‘they’ are also secure, and begin to design and bring forward what John Robb of Global Guerillas calls ‘mutually beneficial templates for success’, humanity is on a fast track to the ultimate undoing.

Bigger bombs, more troops and better surveillance will not reverse this trend – they will accelerate it.

As this week’s events around WikiLeaks and the various actions, reactions and counteractions demonstrate, we’re not in Kansas any more. And that’s just the orchestra tuning. We haven’t gotten to the overture yet, much less the symphony.

Like it or not, we live in an open source world, where small groups and even individuals can successfully take on institutions and nation states with a reasonable chance of winning. ROI is on their side. They can bleed the beast until it either implodes, or lashes out, inflicts collateral damage, and draws in new opponents who can do it greater harm. In an environment like this, as the nuclear command and control computer learned in the classic 1984 movie War Games, ‘The only way to win is not to play.’

Governments around the world had better figure that out and begin to deliver genuine security, justice and prosperity for all, or leaked memos and a thumping at the ballot box will be the least of their worries.

WikiLeaks XVIII: What About Bob? (Woodward, That Is)

We’re honored to have Michael Busch dissecting the latest WikiLeaks document dump for Focal Points. This is the eighteenth in the series.

Stephen Walt has yet another excellent piece at Foreign Policy taking stock of a double-standard being ignored in discussions of the WikiLeaks scandal, namely that

Given how frequently government officials leak classified information in order to make themselves look good, box in their bureaucratic rivals, or tie the President’s hands, it seems a little disingenuous of them to be so upset by Assange’s activities.

Walt goes on to examine the uberjournalism of Bob Woodward, the insider par excellence of White House politics.

Consider the case of the most famous of all “insider” journalists: Bob Woodward. Over the past several decades, he’s built a highly-lucrative career on his ability to get Washington insiders to talk to him. Less charitably, you could say he’s gotten rich giving politicos a vehicle to make their case in print. Just think about how many insiders spill their guts to Woodward, and even provide him with key memos, which are sometimes published as appendices in his opuses. It is apparently entirely acceptable for Woodward to publish remarkably detailed stuff on the most sensitive deliberations of the U.S. government, including the nasty things our officials say about one another and about foreign officials. This well-established practice warrants no adverse comment whatsoever; instead, the usual result is a front page review in the New York Times Sunday Book Review and a #1 position on the best-seller list.

Walt asks if anyone has

proposed arresting Bob Woodward? Has anyone looked into applying the 1917 Espionage Act to his revelations of the most secret deliberations of the national security establishment? Is the State Department telling employees not to buy or read his books, the same way they are telling employees not to look at any of the Wikileaks materials? And remember: Woodward isn’t writing about minor issues or even the trivialities of diplomacy; his books deal directly with core issues of war and peace. One could argue that what Woodward digs up and displays — information drawn from the highest and innermost counsels of the U.S. government — is more important and more potentially damaging than zillions of often-trivial memcons by mid-level bureaucrats in overseas embassies. How can these leaks be more sensitive or troublesome than a detailed, blow-by-blow account of Obama’s secret Afghanistan decision-making?

The piece sums up the case neatly, with Walt offering the observation that

I suspect it mostly comes down to this. Elites like the idea of being in charge, and they don’t really trust “the people” in whose name they govern, even though it is the latter that pays their salaries, and fights their wars. Elites like the sense of power and status that being “on the inside” conveys: it’s a turn-on to know things that other people don’t, and it can be so darn inconvenient when the public gets wind of what the current “best and brightest” are actually doing. The idea that ruling elites are in fact “public servants” who serve at our behest is not a big part of their mental make-up, except that some of them do have to get re-elected every few years, and not every seat is safe.

Meanwhile, if you haven’t already caught it, take a moment to read Marcy Wheeler’s account of sitting on a roundtable discussion of the Scooter Libby case, where similar issues of government-media relations came to the surface. While Wheeler concludes that some observers, in this case Jay Rosen, seem “optimistic [that] Wikileaks will make some difference here,” she remains “skeptical that the Bill of Rights will win out over the culture of secrecy.” This is certainly the concern. But I’m not clear that we should discount the staying power of freedom of expression just yet. With major voices from all points along the political spectrum—from Ron Paul and George W. Bush lawyer Jack Goldsmith on the right, to Brazil’s Lula on the left—the political terrain on which this battle is fought is shifting rapidly. And the elite media emperors, busy scrambling to put on their clothes, are losing ground by the day.

Torture and the Ticking Time Bomb (Read: Nuclear) Scenario

When the subject of torture in the abstract is broached, the conversation tends to wend its way toward the terrorist and the ticking time-bomb scenario. You know how it goes: a terrorist group announces that a nuclear bomb it’s planted in a major American city will be detonated unless its demands are met. One of its members is captured. Time to take off the shackles on torture and let ‘er rip, right?

However, when a scenario hinges on not only the ultimate weapon, but one set to go off at a time that’s both predetermined and rapidly approaching, it’s no longer a test case for torture. Instead the debate slips down a peg in hierarchy to one about torture under highly specific circumstances. The option often poised in counterpoint to torture — becoming intimate with the subject and winning his or her trust over repeated interrogation sessions — is removed because of the time constraints. The scenario, in other words, becomes tantamount to the plot device of a movie.

In fact, such a movie, was made by Australian director Gregor Jordan, but, apparently deemed unfit for theatrical release, it went straight to video. One viewer wrote of The Unthinkable: “Glib, pretentious and cynical, this is both unpleasant and insufferable.” But this viewer found it thought-provoking.

The film’s plot differs from the shopworn scenario in that the perpetrators are fewer: one man — an Anglo former member of special operations forces with nuclear knowledge turned radical Islamist. But the number of bombs is greater: three, says Yusuf, aka Stephen Arthur Younger. To back up his threat if his as yet unspecified demands aren’t met, he films himself with what he claims to be a nuclear bomb, complete with a timer that has been set.

Younger, played by Welsh actor Michael Sheen, soon allows himself to be captured in Los Angeles, presumably to enhance the platform from which he will attempt to get his demands met. Brought to what appears to be an evacuated school, he’s handed over to black ops torturer Henry Humphries. Known as “H,” he’s played by Samuel Jackson, compelling as always and, in fact, underplaying what could be easily be an over-the-top role. H’s foil is Helen Brody, played by Carrie-Ann Moss, of the FBI, which prides itself on getting results without torture.

The phrase “torture porn” has been invoked to describe The Unthinkable. True, it features plenty of tasering and, as well, severed fingertips are shown. But when it comes to atrocity exhibitions, it’s not in the same league as, say (the author imagines without actually seeing), the Hostel series.

One scene, though, shocks, but — handled without gore — only because it’s unexpected. Without revealing its nature (because — spoiler alert, as they say — I’m about to give away the rest of the movie), I’ll note that, to the discerning viewer, it supplants the question of torture momentarily. But torture returns to the foreground when the meaning of the movie’s title, The Unthinkable, reveals itself.

Try to imagine torture at its most degraded and demented. Dental drilling a la The Marathon Man? Bringing harm to the sexual organs? No, think who, not what. When Younger, with his special forces training, proves impervious to torture on his person, H calls for his children to be brought to the site.

H believes that Younger has foreseen every contingency. In fact, Younger had expected his family to be out of harm’s way on a plane to Saudi Arabia, but his Muslim wife and children were denied visas. (Small flaw in the plot: The last thing Saudi Arabia, particularly in light of recent efforts to root out al Qaeda in its midst, would want is to welcome the family of a nuclear terrorist in its midst. It would likely have extradited Younger’s family to the United States — or what remained of it after the nuclear explosions. Younger should have known this.)

When his children are escorted into the interrogation room, Younger becomes distraught and gives up the locations of a bomb in Los Angeles, as well as in New York City. (Authorities had already located one in Dallas.) The officials at the interrogation site allow themselves to hope that the threat is winding down. However, H remains suspicious that, even in his reduced state, Younger has something up his sleeve. Then H realizes that not all the missing enriched uranium from Russia that Younger used to make his bombs hasn’t been accounted for in the three known bombs. Enough remains for Younger to have manufactured a fourth bomb. (Another flaw in the plot: authorities just might have noticed that little detail.)

When Brody refuses to return the children to the interrogation room, H, apparently grandstanding, unstraps Younger and informs him that he’s free. But Younger manages to get hold of a sidearm and skills himself. FBI agent Brody leads Younger’s children out of the site and the film ends. It seems anti-climactic and an alternate ending for the movie was created, providing, from the account I read, no more satisfaction on the surface. But was it necessary to depict the last bomb detonating most likely in middle America?

Aside from ending the torture and eliminating the risk that he might crack and give up the last bomb, what did Younger achieve by shooting himself? In fact, by giving up the location of the Los Angeles bomb, he removed his children from harm’s way. Also, because he’s dead, information can’t be extracted from him by torturing his children.

After the movie ends, you make an accounting: who was right — those pro or those against torture? Let’s do the math. The FBI discovered one bomb (25% of the threat), torture produced two bombs (50%), and one fell through the cracks. The argument, however, can be made that if Younger were still alive he’d be even more likely to give up that last bomb to ensure the safety of his children. Let’s then rate torture 75% successful.

True, it’s insidious that watching The Unthinkable left this viewer more interested in calculating a score for torture than debating whether it was justified. To reiterate, the sui generis-ness of the scenario seems to make approving torture in this situation as free of ethical concerns as killing zombies. Or am I just making an excuse for myself?

This question was explored in 2006 and again in 2008 by the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy explored this question. First, though, its disclaimer:

It is important to stress here that the kind of scenario under discussion remains that of the one-off case of torture in an emergency situation; what is not under consideration in this section is legalised, or otherwise institutionalised, torture.

The treatise proper begins:

. . . The central claim of the proponents of “practical moral absolutes” seems to be [that] ticking bomb scenarios, such as our above-described terrorist case — and other relevant one-off emergencies in which torture seems to be justified — have not, and will not, happen. . . . [But] it is not simply a philosopher’s fanciful example.

To outline the justification:

(1) The police reasonably believe that torturing the terrorist will probably save thousands of innocent lives; (2) the police know that there is no other way to save those lives; (3) the threat to life is imminent; (4) the thousands about to be murdered are innocent — the terrorist has no good, let alone decisive, justificatory moral reason for murdering them [as if one could possibly exist -- RW].

Furthermore:

. . . the terrorist is in the process of completing his . . . action of murdering thousands of innocent people. . . . the terrorist is more akin to someone in the process of murdering an innocent person, and refusing to refrain from doing so. [Emphasis added.]

In other words, another individual in the act of murder might be shot by the police. Still:

. . . someone might hold that killing is an absolute moral wrong, i.e., killing anyone — no matter how guilty — is never morally justified. This view is consistent with holding that torture is an absolute moral wrong, i.e. torturing anyone — no matter how guilty — is never morally justified. However, the price of consistency is very high.

Moral absolutism takes consistency to its extreme like, say, nuclear weapons takes killing to its extreme. Both push past the point of absurdity. In the end:

. . . it is difficult to see how torturing (but not killing) the guilty terrorist and saving the lives of thousands could be morally worse than refraining from torturing him and allowing him to murder thousands.

To repeat, the scenario may be too unique to have practical value.

In a postscript, The Unthinkable features a moment that has all the trappings of an inside joke. The demands that Younger finally reveals require the president to announce a cessation of support for what he calls puppet governments in Middle Eastern countries and a withdrawal of American troops from the Middle East. The president’s man responds to Brody and H that that he can’t report the demands to the president since it’s a declared policy of the United States to refuse to negotiate with terrorist. This viewer’s response? Go Younger!

In fact, the sympathy director Jordan invokes in us for a nuclear terrorist is even more insidious than making it easy for us to accept torture.

Do Arab States Really Want the U.S. to Attack Iran?

[The] cables reveal how Iran’s ascent has unified Israel and many longtime Arab adversaries — notably the Saudis — in a common cause. Publicly, these Arab states held their tongues, for fear of a domestic uproar and the retributions of a powerful neighbor. Privately, they clamored for strong action — by someone else.

. . . wrote a David Sanger-led team at the New York Times on November 29 as part of its coverage of the lastest WikiLeaks dump. For example, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia supposedly called for the United States to “cut off the head of the snake” of Iran. Also, from the Los Angeles Times via Michael Bush at Focal Points:

In a May 2005 meeting, Abu Dhabi crown prince Mohamed bin Zayed, deputy supreme commander of the United Arab Emirates armed forces, urged a U.S. general to use “ground forces” against Iran. . . . A February 2010 document attributes Bin Zayed’s “near-obsessive” arms buildup to his fears about Iran.

Apparently this didn’t jibe with what Gareth Porter and Jim Lobe of IPS News knew of Arab attitudes toward Iran. They took it upon themselves to scrutinize the cables in question. Here’s an excerpt from what they learned.

The notion that these leaders, like Israel, favour a military solution to Iran’s nuclear programme has become widely accepted by the news media in the past week. . . . for example, the Washington Post Monday asserted that the Wikileaks disclosure “show[ed] that Persian Gulf leaders have pressed for a military attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities…”

But a careful reading of all the diplomatic cables reporting the views of Saudi and other Gulf Arab regimes on Iran shows that the [New York] Times’ account seriously distorted the content — and in the case of the Saudis, ignored the context — of the cables. . . . The original Times story, headlined “From Arabs and Israelis, Sharp Distress Over a Nuclear Iran”, referred to “a largely silent front of Arab states whose position on sanctions and force looked much like the Israelis”.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his U.S. neo- conservative backers immediately seized on the story as confirmation of what Israel has been saying all along.

In fact . . .

. . . the cables show that most Gulf Arab regimes including Saudi Arabia itself — have been seriously concerned about the consequences of a strike against Iran for their own security, in sharp contrast to Israel’s open advocacy of such a strike.

Also:

The [NY Times] story asserted that the Saudi ambassador in Washington, Adel al-Jubeir, had recalled the king’s “frequent exhortations to the U.S. to attack Iran” during an April 2008 meeting with Gen. David Petraeus. . . . The implication was that al-Jubeir had made that statement during the Petraeus-Abdullah meeting. But the reporting cable makes clear that [it was] two days later, in a conversation with the U.S. Deputy Chief of Mission in Riyadh, Michael Gfoeller.

In his meeting with Petraeus, in fact, Abdullah had not spoken about Iran’s nuclear programme but focused instead on the importance of “resisting and rolling back Iranian influence and subversion in Iraq”, according to the cable. [Meanwhile] the foreign minister “called instead for much more severe U.S. and international sanctions on Iran, including a travel ban and further restrictions on bank lending.”

Furthermore:

Even if Abdullah had in fact offered explicit support for a military attack against Iran in the meeting with Petraeus . . . that would not be a reliable indicator of Saudi policy toward the issue, according to Chas Freeman, a veteran diplomat who served as Washington’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia from 1989 to 1992 and maintains contact with top Saudi officials. Freeman told IPS that such a statement would “fit a pattern of communication with the United States of ingratiating themselves with their protector”.

In their hearts of hearts, Arab leaders might long to turn their friendship with the United States to their advantage and beat back Iran. But they know that trying to make use of U.S. military power is as likely to evoke blowback as when the United States thought they were clever and armed the mujahideen in their struggle against the Soviets.

Rio Rumbles

FavelasThere are some reasonably high intensity clashes between govs and Other Guys [gangs, drug cartels, insurgents, terrorist groups -- RW] going on in Rio and Michoacán right now. Be interesting to see how they play out over time.

My guess is one of two primary ‘possible futures’ emerge in these and similar situations that I suspect we’ll be seeing a lot more of in the near future.

One, the gov stays, actually deals with the disenfranchisement of the local citizens, and the OGs are history. (In that environment – successful OGs will relocate and reinvent themselves.)

Two, the gov doesn’t stay (or doesn’t sufficiently address residents’ Maslovian realities) and the OGs will be back running the favelas / state. May be the same crews, may be different. (I’d guess the latter in Rio, because the present crop has pretty well demonstrated their non-adaptiveness, and are seen by the people as parasitic. La Familia has been more adaptive and community serving, but has lost some senior leadership of late.) But in either case, they’ll have to adapt, reinvent and offer themselves as social benefit orgs, providing a reasonable level of security / stability / livelihood, or they’ll go away again.

I suspect in Brazil, the gov will stay, and Dilma (channeling Lula) will see this as a must win and reallocate resources to pull it off. If not, the loss of face and cred will undermine her and the gov in round 2.

My guess would be the opposite in Mexico, however, especially since Calderon seems mostly to channel the DEA, and gets only the fighting part, not the services bit, which is the key one. Michoacán is his home state, however, so that could influence the outcome.

How do Focal Points readers see it? Let us know in the comments section.

“Tory scum! Off with their heads!”

Britain’s coalition government survived the most serious challenge yet to its austerity plans on Thursday when Parliament narrowly approved a sharp increase in college fees. But violent student protests in central London, including an attack on a car carrying Prince Charles and his wife, Camilla, to the theater, provided a stark measure of growing public resistance.

A photograph of the couple, in formal evening dress, showed them registering shock as protesters beat on the side of their armored, chauffeur-driven Rolls-Royce with sticks and bottles, smashing a side window, denting a rear panel and splashing the car with white paint. A Jaguar tailing the car and carrying a palace security detail was so battered that the police ended up using its doors as shields.

. . . reports the New York Times. Just how sharp is that increase?

Under the new fees, which are to take effect in 2012, many students are expected to accumulate loans of as much as £40,000, about $63,000, during a three-year degree course. Part of what has stoked anger over the increases is that Britain’s universities traditionally charged no tuition fees, with tuition costs met out of taxpayer grants to colleges or endowment funds.

Would Focal Points readers like to see some — if not all — of that moxie in American students also saddled with outrageous fees and debt? Let us know in the comments section.

WikiLeaks XVII: Nigerian Extortion Butts Up Against Pfizer Blackmail

We’re honored to have Michael Busch dissecting the latest WikiLeaks document dump for Focal Points. This is the seventeenth in the series.

A brief, but interesting, cable released by WikiLeaks on Thursday offers some insight into how international pharamaceutical company Pfizer conducts itself in legal business overseas. The embassy dispatch from the Nigerian capital Abuja describes a meeting between US diplomats, two Pfizer lawyers, Joe Petrosinelli and Atiba Adams, and the company’s country director Enrico Liggeri.

The meeting had been arranged to discuss the condition of a lawsuit that had been brought against the drug giant by the Nigerian government. At issue were the allegedly harmful results of medical tests conducted by the company on Nigerian children living in the state of Kano during a meningitis outbreak in 1996. The company had administered an antibiotic, Trovan, to children throughout the state during the epidemic, a drug authorities claim produced adverse effects in those to whom it had been given

According to the cable, the pharma reps met with American officials on April 2 of last year where the lawyer Petrosinelli reported that

Pfizer has agreed to the Kano State Attorney General’s (AG) settlement offer of $75 million, including a $10 million payment for legal fees, $30 million to the Kano State government, and $35 million for the participants and families.

The Pfizer officials presented their concerns to the American embassy that they were unwilling to issue damage payments in lump sums to Nigerian authorities for fear that the money would be lost through corrupt channels. The cable reports that

Pfizer is concerned with transparency issues and is pushing for a $35 million trust fund for the participants to be administered by a neutral third party and the remaining $30 million to be used for improving health care in Kano state. Pfizer underscored that the Nigerian representatives were pushing for lump sum checks and Pfizer will not agree to that. Pfizer is considering rebuilding Kano’s Infectious Disease Hospital where the trial was conducted and working with health care nongovernmental organizations. Adams suggested that the trust fund for participants be administered by a neutral third party because he expects “additional” participants to come forward after they hear about the settlement. The Ambassador suggested Pfizer work with NGOs already working in Kano State and for Pfizer to consider working with local NGO implementing partners that the USG has used because of their transparency record.

Given Nigeria’s less than sterling record on issues of transparency, the concern seems entirely warranted. But as the dispatch develops, it soon becomes apparent that Pfizer isn’t exactly acting out of good faith itself. In fact, the cable discusses the company’s efforts to blackmail Kona’s attorney general, Michael Aondoakaa, in order to pressure him to drop the case.

Liggeri said Pfizer was not happy settling the case, but had come to the conclusion that the $75 million figure was reasonable because the suits had been ongoing for many years costing Pfizer more than $15 million a year in legal and investigative fees. According to Liggeri, Pfizer had hired investigators to uncover corruption links to Federal Attorney General Michael Aondoakaa to expose him and put pressure on him to drop the federal cases. He said Pfizer’s investigators were passing this information to local media, XXXXXXXXXXXX. A series of damaging articles detailing Aondoakaa’s “alleged” corruption ties were published in February and March. Liggeri contended that Pfizer had much more damaging information on Aondoakaa and that Aondoakaa’s cronies were pressuring him to drop the suit for fear of further negative articles.

The Guardian contacted both Aondoakaa and Pfizer for comment. For its part, Pfizer stuck to its guns, issuing a very lawyerly comment:

The Trovan cases brought by both the federal government of Nigeria and Kano state were resolved in 2009 by mutual agreement. Pfizer negotiated the settlement with the federal government of Nigeria in good faith and its conduct in reaching that agreement was proper. Although Pfizer has not seen any documents from the US embassy in Nigeria regarding the federal government cases, the statements purportedly contained in such documents are completely false.

As previously disclosed in Pfizer’s 10-Q filing in November 2009, per the agreement with the federal government, Nigeria dismissed its civil and criminal actions against the company. Pfizer denied any wrongdoing or liability in connection with the 1996 study. The company agreed to pay the legal fees and expenses incurred by the federal government associated with the Trovan litigation. Pursuant to the settlement, payment was made to the federal government’s counsel of record in the case, and there was no payment made to the federal government of Nigeria itself. As is common practice, the agreement was covered by a standard confidentiality clause agreed to by both parties.

Aondoakaa, on the other hand, responded with shock. He noted that he couldn’t fathom the possibility that Pfizer would resort to such underhanded tactics in its legal wrangling with Nigeria, but pointed out that “For them to have done that is a very serious thing. I became a target of a multinational: you are supposed to have sympathy with me … If it is true, maybe I will take legal action.” Hmmmm. It will be interesting to see just what legal action Aondoakaa might take, seeing as he was removed from his post earlier this year by Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan.

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