Friday, August 03, 2007
Revisiting the Iranian Hostage Crisis - adding some reality to an episode long exploited by the US Republican Party for partisan advantage
The Religious Shouldn't Embrace a Fake Victimhood - looking at a dubious rhetorical technique of fundamentalists of many stripes
France is Rubbish, Says Everybody - France is constantly portrayed as a basket-case in meltdown in the US and British press, but the reality is of a society healthier than theirs in almost every way
Getting Rid of a Dictator - The Old Ways Are Still the Best - the surprising and inspiring revolution that is transforming the West African state of Guinea
The Darker Side of France, the Career of Maurice Papon - an obituary for Papon, and his victims from the Shoah to the Algerian War
You can contact me for whatever reason at respond_alexblog at yahoo dot co dot uk.
Thanks for visiting! Best,
Revisiting the Iranian Hostage Crisis
This is an article I wrote and posted at www.americanchronicle.com about the US-Iranian hostage crisis of 1979-81 and the weird myths that have surrounded it ever since, as recently repeated by the sinister ex-Mayor of New York, Rudy Giuliani...
In recent years Tony Blair has been a man with very few foreign policy successes of any kind. But there was at least one. When British Marines were captured by Iranian forces in disputed waters in March this year, then held as prisoners and used as propaganda tools by the Iranian government, Blair quickly dropped his initial, threatening tone and followed a policy of cautious engagement that helped to diffuse tension and led quickly to their safe release. Perhaps not an outright success - more of a successful exercise in harm reduction.
During the crisis, the Bush administration offered Blair the assistance of US forces and a recommended list of military options which remain unknown to the public. Fortunately Blair declined, and told Washington to shut up, as the 'Guardian' reported:
“In the first few days after the captives were seized and British diplomats were getting no news from Tehran on their whereabouts, Pentagon officials asked their British counterparts: what do you want us to do? They offered a series of military options, a list which remains top secret given the mounting risk of war between the US and Iran. But one of the options was for US combat aircraft to mount aggressive patrols over Iranian Revolutionary Guard bases in Iran, to underline the seriousness of the situation.
‘The British declined the offer and said the US could calm the situation by staying out of it. London also asked the US to tone down military exercises that were already under way in the Gulf. … At the request of the British, the two US carrier groups, totaling 40 ships plus aircraft, modified their exercises to make them less confrontational.”
In under two weeks, the affair was resolved without war or deaths. The episode exposed the vulnerability of British forces in southern Iraq, but any observer who has been paying attention knew about that anyway.
Blair’s measured, life-saving approach was denounced by those who regard foreign policy only in terms of domination or submission. In their one-dimensional view of the world outside, they can either exact submission from other states through force or the threat of force, or we ourselves will be engaged in an act of craven submission to them.
In England, Conservative frontbencher Michael Gove counselled that the Iranians had been emboldened to seize the Marines after British troops began a partial withdrawal from Basra, thus displaying weakness. In the U.S., potential Republican presidential candidate and former petty tyrant of the House of Representatives, Newt Gingrich, told an interviewer that the U.S. and Britain should immediately respond by bombing oil refineries and targeting civilian energy systems and transport in Iran. Just imagine where we would be now – and in the future - if this kind of advice were followed through to its logical conclusion. Gove apparently advocates maintaining a collapsing occupation, despised by the local population, indefinitely – because how can it be ended except by showing the weakness of the British position? Gingrich, and so many like him, advocate war – indeed war crimes - quickly and easily, without even the barest consideration of the most likely consequences.
The submission/domination view of foreign policy is sustained through a series of historical myths or, at best, a highly selective examination of the historical record. In Britain, this meme centres around such episodes as Margaret Thatcher’s resolution to defeat vastly weaker opponents at home – the IRA hunger strikers and impoverished miners - and, of course, the Munich Agreement of 1938 with Hitler, which has long since been used as a tortured analogy to justify everything from the refusal to negotiate with Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland to the abortive 1956 invasion of Egypt.
In the U.S., the myth-making focuses on such historical low points as Kennedy’s stand-off with Khrushchev, and the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979-80. During the Cuban missile crisis, Kennedy quite consciously worked to create the myth that the Soviets had backed down in the face of his resolution, knowing that his political opponents would jump on him if they learned that he had actually reached a compromise with Moscow to dismantle U.S. missiles in Turkey in return for a removal of Soviet missiles in Cuba. The facts are well-known by now – but the self-serving legend of results from steely pig-headedness survives because of its recurring political utility.
In the case of the Iranian hostages, this has taken a curious form, combining malice and glurge. The recent debate among Republican presidential candidates in the Ronald Reagan Library was always going to witness obsequious homage to the late president but Rudy Giuliani’s short speech on matters Persian was something else. He described the end of the crisis on Reagan’s inauguration day like this:
“Remember, they looked in Ronald Reagan's eyes, and in two minutes they released the hostages.”
Trying to enter this fantasy takes some mental effort. Picture the Ayatollah Khomeini toying with President Jimmy Carter and laughing at him. Suddenly, newly-elected Reagan comes on the TV screen as the new president. The mocking mullahs wet themselves as they stare into his hard-man eyes and immediately agree to release all hostages, saying they are very sorry and won’t do it again and please be nice to us, Mr. Reagan, sir. That is the image Giuliani was presumably trying to get across. He is apparently quite serious, and no one else at the debate called him on it.
As usual, in the real world, something quite different happened. Giuliani’s fantasies of Oval Office machismo offer the United States no solutions to its security problems – just another round of bloody chaos.
For most of his presidency, Jimmy Carter took what might be called a tough policy on Iran, if you want to call supporting one of the world’s then most repressive dictatorships that. But the Shah and his notorious secret police, the SAVAK, backed to the hilt with US and British weaponry, were unable to retain power through murder and torture in the face of overwhelming popular opposition.
With the Shah overthrown, the most powerful group in the revolutionary coalition – the Shi’ite theocrats – started to manoeuvre and jail their way into controlling the new government. Popular feeling against the U.S. for supporting the Shah was strong, and in November 1979 a group of armed university students took over the US embassy in Tehran and held those inside as hostages. The more radical Islamists in the new regime supported them. The hostage-takers released 13 hostages – women and African-Americans (on the grounds they were an oppressed minority in the USA) while holding the other 52 for the next 444 days.
For Jimmy Carter, presiding over years of recession and high gas prices at home, the hostage crisis, like 9/11 for George W. Bush, came as a great big poll boost, giving him the opportunity to be a popular tough-guy president. But his initial, measured approach did not bring quick results.
Attacked from the Right for his supposed weakness he decided to take a more drastic course. He broke off diplomatic ties, ending direct talks with Iranian foreign minister Sadegh Ghotbzadeh - a regime moderate sympathetic to the hostages who pleaded with the White House to keep talking (Ghotbzadeh resigned – two years later, he would be executed). In April 1980, over the objection of Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, who resigned in protest, Carter approved Operation Eagle Claw, a military raid to rescue the hostages.
Famously, Eagle Claw was a disaster. Equipment failures and sandstorms forced Carter to abort the mission without even engaging Iranian forces. Soon after the President had expressed relief that at least no Americans or Iranians had been killed, he learned that two of the aircraft had crashed with eight deaths. His poll ratings plummeted to an historical low, and the episode cost him the 1980 election. Carter had desperately opted for more machismo in his foreign policy – from huge increases in military spending to cutting off grain shipments to the Soviet Union as a protest against their 1979 invasion of Afghanistan and beginning the Second Cold War – all in the vain hope of seeing off the Republican talking point that he was a weak, vacillating president. But it did him no good.
However, Carter continued to work ceaselessly for the release of the hostages. With the military option exhausted he had little choice but to use diplomatic channels, with the Jordanian regime acting as an intermediary between Washington and Tehran. The Iranian regime made a number of demands, ranging from a reasonable insistence on US non-intervention in their country to an unreasonable offer to return the hostages at a price of 24 billion dollars. Recognising the political fallout from paying such a colossal ransom, Carter had to reject demands of that sort, but he did not give up on negotiations, instead choosing to release Iranian assets in the US, billions of dollars of which he had ordered frozen in retaliation for the loss of the US embassy.
In his fine book on the moral disaster that was the Reagan administration, ‘Sleepwalking Through History’, journalist Haynes Johnson wrote of Carter that:
“He had become obsessed with the hostages. He knew each of them by name, studied their careers and family backgrounds, read the personal letters they wrote from captivity, met with their wives and children, visited family members in their homes around the country, and came to hold for them, as he later wrote, ‘deep personal feelings that were almost overwhelming’”.
After losing the election to Reagan, Carter hoped desperately to salvage his reputation by bringing the hostages home before he left the White House. As inauguration day came closer, he became practically an insomniac – the hostages dominated his waking thoughts, and he stayed awake to have them. In the end he was reduced to hoping they might be released in the final minutes of his presidency.
On Inauguration Day itself, at 6:35 in the morning, Carter’s chief negotiator, Warren Christopher, rang him from Algiers to say that a deal with the Iranians had been concluded, with Iran being granted none of its major demands. The 52 remaining hostages were coming home.
This was all happening before the Iranians had a chance to be scared of Ronald Reagan in that two-minute window Giuliani told us about. Come to think of it - where was Ronald Reagan when the deal was struck? At 7:00am, Carter put a call through to Reagan to get him ready for the moment of their release. Carter was called back by an aide who said that the president-elect:
“Had had a long night, was sleeping, and was not to be disturbed.”
“You’re kidding,” Carter replied.
“No, sir, I’m not,” the aide said.
Carter said he would call back. Reagan returned his call an hour and a half later.
Reagan joined Carter as he travelled from the White House to the Capitol. Carter was still on the phone, taking only calls about the hostages. Johnson describes the scene:
“Carter thought Reagan affable but oddly incurious as the limousine bore them along Pennsylvania Avenue. Reagan cracked a few jokes but asked no questions about the hostages. There was nothing Reagan could do about them then anyway; they were still Carter’s problem, and Carter was still obviously dealing with it.”
Carter was informed that the hostages still had not taken off from Iran as the inauguration ceremonies began. His hopes of announcing their freedom as his last act as president were gone. Instead, they were finally released into US custody minutes after Reagan was sworn in as president. The Iranian regime had long decided to release the hostages but vindictively chose to humiliate Carter first.
But the deal to release the hostages was not concluded in those minutes after Carter's presidency – it was the result of months of intense efforts by his administration, and the damage done to Iran’s international reputation through its conduct. Carter tried the sorts of measures insisted on by his opportunistic Republican opponents and the only result was death and catastrophe. But patient brokering between diplomats finally did the job. At the crucial moment the deal was struck, the Iranian government was not staring fearfully into Reagan’s eyes – those eyes were shut tight as the new president slept off the previous night, refusing to be woken for the issue that won him the election.
‘Americans offered “aggressive patrols” in Iranian airspace’, Ewen MacAskill, Julian Borger, Michael Howard and John Hooper, the Guardian, April 7th, 2007 http://www.guardian.co.uk/iran/story/0,,2051971,00.html
For a perfect example of the domination/submission worldview at its silliest:
Ayn Rand Institute Press Release: Hostages of Iran, March 30, 2007
‘If Only Newt Gingrich Were President’, Glenn Greenwald, Salon.com, April 4th, 2007
California Republican Debate Transcript, MSNBC.com, May 3rd, 2007
‘The Desert One Debacle’, Mark Bowden, ‘The Atlantic Monthly’, May 2006, p62-77
‘Sleepwalking Trough History – America in the Reagan Years’, Haynes Johnson, pp24-40
The religious shouldn’t embrace a fake victimhood
Sunday, May 13
Victimhood is a difficult topic. Often it’s not recognised it when it should be. People who find themselves blamelessly in hard times are frequently upbraided by others in positions of privilege and comfort for claiming a certain victim status – ethnic minorities, welfare recipients, even refugees from natural disasters, as we saw when New Orleans was destroyed.
But victimhood is also a favoured refuge of scoundrels who protect their raging egos from an acknowledgment of the hurt they do to others, instead seeing their downfall as a plot against them by their inferiors (a category which tends to incorporate a very large section of the human race). Witness the unrepentant self-pity of Richard Nixon, (Lord) Conrad Black, George Tenet, Margaret Thatcher, General Pinochet, Duke Cunningham, Slobodan Milosevic or Alistair Campbell as they scan(ned) for blame far and wide, anywhere other than themselves.
And to make it even trickier, victims can become victimisers - from the broken working man who returns home and takes out his rage on the rest of his family, to the Chechen woman made a widow by the Russian Army who has her bloody revenge as a human bomb in a street in Moscow.
In today’s Guardian ‘Comment is Free’ section, the Catholic commentator Christina Odone misuses the idea:
“In secular Britain, faith-bashing carries far more resonance and risks causing far greater damage. In this country, belief is a minority practice and believers a persecuted lot.”
Religious believers are persecuted in Britain, and “their chief persecutor” is Oxford’s Professor Richard Dawkins, with whom she has just had a debate on ethics. This has serious consequences, she argues, since:
"The rabid attacks by Dawkins and his camp-followers spur even the most mild-mannered Christian, Muslim or Jew into a hard-line position."
Now, myself, I am inclined to defend religious ideas and religious belief in general from Richard Dawkins’ intemperate and often seriously misguided critique. But that’s quite another thing from arguing that Dawkins is a persecutor of religion or that the religious themselves are under some kind of attack in contemporary Britain (with the somewhat sinister corollary that the “mild-mannered” Christians, Muslims and Jews should be moving to a “a hard-line position” –like what?).
The religious are an odd kind of persecuted minority in Britain. The Church of England is the official religion of the state, and is led by the Head of State, the monarch. Bishops are allowed to sit in the unelected House of Lords and vote on legislation – and there are suggestions to broaden the variety of clergy by including those from other religious denominations. This country retains a blasphemy law, long since abolished by most other Western states. Government money funds religious schools, and the number and variety of these has substantially increased in recent years. Middle-class parents are busy pretending to be religious on Sundays in order to get their children into their school of choice. The Blair government recently passed a law on religious hatred that could be used to make many criticisms of religion a criminal offence. The Prime Minister himself, his most likely successor and the Leader of the Opposition are all regular church attenders.
For defenders of religion – and that includes me – to not recognise the many privileges, and in some cases unfair privileges, enjoyed by religion in Britain, while claiming to be groaning under the secular jackboot, seems a tad churlish.
Perhaps all the more so given the numerous recent cases where religious fundamentalists (I’m using that term quite broadly) have gone out of their way to victimise others.
The Sikh playwright Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti had to go into hiding in December 2004 after angry Sikh men took violent exception to her play ‘Bezhti’ at the Birmingham Rep theatre about a murder and a rape that takes place in a Gurdwara (Sikh temple). The theatre had gone out of its way to invite local Sikh clerics to discuss the implications of 'Bezhti', in an effort to promote a common understanding. But the exercise in dialogue merely encouraged those consulted to organise a boycott that ended up inciting a riot in which the theatre was attacked.
The British evangelical group Christian Voice went after the charity Maggie’s Centres, which provides counselling and other services to those diagnosed with cancer, for accepting money from the makers of the 'Jerry Springer: The Opera'. The charity feared for the impact of pickets outside their centres for those they treated and so returned the donation, which Christian Voice did not offer to replace.
Then of course, we had the Danish cartoon competition, when the right-wing Danish paper Jyllands-Posten invited cartoonists to submit work on the subject of the Prophet Mohammed.
Now Muslims are genuinely on the receiving end of vicious racism in Europe, as well as a spate of recent wars of aggression and massacre waged by Russia, Israel, Serbia, India, the US and Britain. Jyllands-Posten had chosen not to submit images offensive to Christians shortly before the Mohammed competition, and the exercise contained an element of bigotry, as did some of the entries.
But none of that justifies threats to murder either the cartoonists or Danish embassy staff around the world, as the blood-thirsty slogans of Islamic fundamentalists who took to the streets demanded. Indeed, imams in Denmark distributed the cartoons widely, including images they themselves had fabricated in an effort to create the maximum impact. Some of the entries to the competition were in no way hurtful – one cartoon ironically attacked Jyllands-Posten for a provocative and bigoted stunt. But irony is rarely appreciated by fundamentalists, and all cartoonists alike went into hiding.
It might be recalled that the Ayatollah Khomeini’s declaration in 1989 of both a heavenly reward, and an earthly financial one, for the person who murdered Salman Rushdie or anyone connected to the publication of his book, ‘The Satanic Verses’, culminated in the murders of the Norwegian and Japanese translators.
Perhaps not wanting to be left out of this cross-denominational exercise, an organisation called the Hindu Human Rights Group declared in May last year that an exhibition of Indian goddesses in Asia House by the Muslim artist Maqbool Fida Husain was obscene and demanded an apology. Asia House recognised the direction this was going and swiftly closed the exhibition.
In each of these cases, religious organisations declared themselves to be the victims of offense and persecution and then proceeded to “take a hard-line” and victimise others without scruple.
Christina writes approvingly of the United States where criticism of religion “is only a faint note of discord, overwhelmed by the church choir”. But despite their relative strength, American fundamentalists use much the same rhetorical trick, only with vastly greater hypocrisy. They consistently declare themselves to be the victims of secular liberals and a persecuted majority, despite exercising enormous influence over the White House, over nominations to the Supreme Court and other judicial positions throughout the country.
Christian, Muslim, Hindu and Jewish fundamentalists are all united in, and only in, their declarations of victimhood while simultaneously seeking power over others. Sometimes, their claims that those they seek to represent are mistreated are fully justified. But it is notable that whenever they arrive in a position of political power themselves, they invariably become ruthless and enthusiastic wielders of state coercion and violence, usually in the most pitiless and sadistic fashion possible.
Christina Odone is not one of these people, being a fairly compassionate Catholic, so she and others should avoid borrowing the kind of manipulative rhetoric used by those who really are persecutors. And Richard Dawkins can be pretty provocative, but he is not some kind of tyrant, and the religious should not be incapable of a coherent and reasoned response to his challenge to their ideas.
Religious people in Britain and Ireland are sometimes victimized, usually in the form of racist discrimination or attacks, particularly working-class Asians in northern England and Catholics in Northern Ireland. But there is no general persecution of religion here, and those of us who are religious shouldn’t be making out that there is. Better instead to try and be generous persuaders.
France is Rubbish, Something We Can All Agree On
(This piece was written before, alas, Sarkozy's electoral victory. It did however, receive a surprising plaudit from the French government agency, Invest in France)
If you’ve never read an article in the US or British press about the state of the French economy, society and body politic, you should read one. And only one. Because when you’ve read one, you have pretty much read them all.
In fact, to do you a favour, one sentence just about covers it. Charles Trueheart, writing for the US current affairs and literary journal, ‘The Atlantic Monthly’, begins an article on French Socialist candidate Segolene Royal like this:
“France is mired in an antiquated economic and social system, overtaxed and overregulated, underemployed, congenitally immobile when not sporadically violent.”
There you have it. You can read all day about France without ever coming across a different perspective.
France has high unemployment, which has remained at a steady 8% for more than a decade. For young people it is even worse, with a 22% youth unemployment rate. Its economic growth rates are lower than most of its neighbours, and the national debt higher. France’s ethnic minorities are in large part marginalised and subject to discrimination in employment and poor social conditions, a major factor in the countrywide riots of the autumn of 2005.
These factors combine to create both a sense that France is in trouble and that major changes in social and economic policy are required - a sense of unease that all the major presidential candidates have made a part of their rhetoric.
In London, Washington and New York, the analysis of France is simple and unchanging. France suffers because it has failed to make its economy more like those of the USA and Britain. This failure is the result both of the French public who suffer from the “delusion” (to quote the ‘Economist’) that their distinctive social policies aren’t rubbish, and from the cowardice of their political class too gutless to lay out to the French public just how deluded they are. The ‘Economist’ concludes, more in sorrow than in anger:
“The choice belongs to France. A bold effort at renewal that could unleash the best in the French? Or a stubborn defence of the existing order that will keep France a middling world power in economic decline? The latter would inspire neither admiration, nor terror, nor hatred, nor indifference, just pity.”
That was written this time last year, but this year’s analysis hasn’t changed. Newsweek’s Rana Foroohar diagnosed the French disease thus:
“The causes are well known: An artificially high minimum wage, which discourages companies from creating new jobs. A two-tiered labor system in which its nearly impossible for younger, less-qualified workers to find secure employment. High payroll taxes and regulatory red tape that make it extremely difficult to start and run new businesses.”
These things continue because of “a magical thinking” and “an article of faith” among Europeans in general and the French in particular. Foroohar continued, “the statistics speak for themselves…” which may be true, but not leaving anything to chance, she chose her statistics from a narrow range of topics.
The US and British press are sometimes a little circumspect about the kind of change and reform they are always urging, but what they mean is France needs a government that will dismantle workers’ rights legislation, hammer the unions, slash the welfare budget, give tax breaks to foreign companies and extend the working day. Occasionally, it is acknowledged that such changes will be “painful”, but necessary. They are usually very vague about who these measures will actually cause pain to, and who they will help, for good reason.
If a tree falls down in France, the demands for such a neoliberal economic transformation are heard immediately. During the riots of 2005, Newsweek declared on its cover, with burning Parisian streets in the background: “Memo to Europe: Ready to Change Now?”
Needless to say, few mainstream US commentators appreciate such patronising gloating when directed at the US by the European media. Inside, Newsweek recommended in three separate articles changes in employment laws and a shift towards the US economic model. There was no disagreement or expression of any alternative views. Quite how or why US-style employment laws would prevent riots is left to the imagination.
Forward a couple of years and TIME magazine has a cover story on why so many young French people are leaving the country for places like London. The reason of course, is that France is so awful.
That might be something of an unfair simplification of their argument – but not nearly as unfair as their constant, one-note denigration and caricature of France.
Apparently, much of the US and British press are just incapable of acknowledging the existence of any other perspective on the French economy exceptmaybe to deplore their delusions and Gallic pride. But as many serious problems as the country has, the image of a France in crisis and a superior US-British model is the result of a very partial selection of economic and social data.
Virtually all indicators of living standards put France ahead of Britain and the US. Infant mortality in France is 4.26 per 1,000 live births (compared to 5.16 in the UK – greater than the EU average of 5.1 and 6.5 in the USA). Life expectancy in France is 79.6 years – compared with 78.38 for the British and 77.71 for the US. In UNICEF’s assessment of the well-being of children and young people in developed countries, France did not fare especially well – but by some considerable margin, Britain ranked rock bottom, just below, of course, the United States.
Poverty in France has fallen by 60% in the last thirty years – a staggering contrast with the US and Britain, where it has risen substantially since the 1970s, with limited periods of decline during the Clinton administration and Blair governments. 6.1% of the French population lived in poverty in 2001 – in the US it is rarely less than twice that, and usually more. That is without considering the fact that France has a stricter definition of poverty than the US.
The US has the worst level of hardship for its poorest of any developed country. Except Britain, where poverty exceeds that of its former colony, Ireland, and where the child poverty beats the competition. The dynamic economy of the city of London, so celebrated on both sides of the Atlantic and by TIME’s French entrepreneurs has a majority of its minors living below the poverty line:
“Forty-one per cent of children in Greater London are in poverty, compared with 31% nationally and 37% in the north-east. This is largely due to unparalleled levels of poverty in inner London: 53% of children in inner London are living in income poverty.”
French babies survive more often than ours, they go on to live longer lives, with greater happiness and freedom from material hardship. Is this worth a mention, at least somewhere in any of the coverage of France in the Anglo-American press? The fact that these figures are almost always ignored says a lot about the priorities of those who stand in judgement of France and indeed say they pity it.
How about instead of mocking France from across the Channel and the Atlantic, we take time to consider those abysmal social stats of ours? Instead of laughing at the French, we might just feel a twinge of embarrassment and shame. We might also spot a few answers to our pundits’ eternal conundrum of why the French population doesn’t want the changes we recommend.
Famously, French workers do a 35-hour week which remains popular because it gives workers the chance to spend time with their families and generally enjoy life outside of the workplace. Newsweek’s International Editor Fareed Zakaria describes “the dreary work environment in French companies” while an Economist editorial sees “a chilling lack of ambition” in the fact that most young people in France want a secure job for life. Well, everyone is entitled to their opinion, but another view of what makes life dreary for American and British workers, and has a chilling effect on their families, is the fact that they work more hours than all their counterparts in the developed world. Zakaria wrote:
“The average Frenchman works 24 percent fewer hours than in 1970. The average American, by contrast, works 20 percent more.”
Excellent point, except Zakaria thinks it’s a good thing that American workers have had more of their time taken away from them (and for lower wages).
Take even the riots. The widespread destruction of cars and property by the young men of the banlieus that rocked France for two weeks in 2005 did reveal an ongoing legacy of unemployment, poverty and racism. But they also had a combined death toll of zero. Compare that with, say, the riots in LA in 1992, in which 54 people were killed by looters, rioters and the police.
Did the US political class courageously take on the issues brought to the surface by this outburst of destruction and violence? Not unless you count President George Bush I’s visit where he made a speech of official resolution, as his son would in New Orleans 14 years later, before disappearing back to the life to which they are accustomed.
And to continue on the subject of the “sporadically violent” French. Out of every 100,000 people, in the last year of available figures, an average of 1.64 French people were victims of murder – in Britain the number was 2.03. In the USA, it was 5.9 - still at the level of a humanitarian disaster, after a decade of falling crime rates and despite a voracious penal system that has consumed over 2 million Americans. Gun massacres are weak social indicators, but it is topical and perhaps worth noting in passing the fact that events like the Hungerford, Dunblane, Wichita, Columbine, Red Lake High School, Goleta Postal, Capitol Hill, Nickel Mines, Trolley Square and Virginia Tech massacres do not have any French equivalents.
French social life may be less dysfunctional, and French capitalism isn’t really gagging either. France is criticised for its lack of entrepreneurship and social mobility – Rana Foroohar actually wrote that social mobility in Europe “had stalled”. This is pretty staggering given that social mobility in Britain and the US is significantly more frozen than in Western Europe. Researchers at the London School of Economics found that:
“social mobility in Britain is much lower than in other advanced countries and that it is declining” and “put the UK and the US at the bottom of a social mobility league table of eight European and North American countries“.
Perhaps such off-base criticism of the French model is the origin of the urban legend in which George Bush declares that “the problem with the French is they have no word for entrepreneur”. Bush didn’t really say that, but US media pundits have come close. Meanwhile, as the New Statesman notes this week, “the companies on the French CAC 40 stock-market index have pulled in record profits.”
There is plenty that is wrong with France, but it’s highly questionable whether France is in a worse state than its leading detractors in the developed world. The constant barrage of clichés in press coverage of French politics here and in the US is a lazy act of groupthink on the part of our hacks at best, and at worst a mendacious and determined pursuit of a very particular and rightly unpopular economic agenda rather blatantly reflecting the class interests of the authors.
The changes in France they want won’t be painful for them, but they will be painful for the poorest, just as they were in Michigan and Yorkshire.
Statistics are from the CIA World Factbook, figures for 2005, and the French INSEE.
Getting rid of a dictator - the old ways are still the best
Saturday, March 24
Almost unnoticed over here in Britain, including to people like me incidentally, who imagine that they follow news developments more closely than others, the people of Guinea in West Africa overthrew their government in February this year.
Guinea, in the fifty years since independence from its French colonial rulers, has had only two presidents, Ahmed Sekou Toure, followed by his Chief of Staff of the Army, the recently deposed General Lansana Conte.
Toure's rule ended when he died in 1984. Conte's began less than ten days later when he took control of the state in a military coup from an interim government. Conte denounced the crimes of Toure and then set about replicating them.
In 1993, in those first years of the post-Cold War era when military dictatorship was no longer so popular internationally, Conte moved towards the preferred method of contemporary Third World autocracy, which is to allow a civilian government that does what it's told and bludgeon through any elections that have to be held with a mixture of violence and fraud.
For many years, the poverty of the population has deepened, while the government has not fared so badly, joining western companies in taking its cut of the revenue of the nation's bauxite reserves.
But the long night of one-man, strongman rule in Guinea has been rudely interrupted by none other than those dinosaur throwbacks to the '70s - the trade unions, the number one force for participatory democracy in the world.
In 2006, Guinea's unions started organising major strikes in protest at low wages and the unaffordability of rice and fuel. As BBC Focus on Africa reports:
"...the stoppages gained momentum and became increasingly political, because the people were ready for change."
The strikes were followed by massive demonstrations. When Conte released a couple of his mates from jail after they were imprisoned for fraud, the insult to the injury proved too great.
A general strike was called, and government troops gunned down 59 people in their effort to put it to a stop.
Conte was forced to back down in the face of the workers' strength (this is starting to sound like some sort of socialist fantasy now... :o) but it's true, so there). He offered to appoint a new prime minister that the unions and demonstrators would find acceptable.
As all organisers of strikes should know and repeat to themselves often - just because the boss makes you an offer during a moment of weakness, does not mean he has any intention of sticking to it. Sure enough, the new Prime Minister was a Conte loyalist.
So the strikes and protests continued, and the army ramped up the violence, killing more than a hundred demonstrators. But striking miners cost the government its major source of revenue. And as February ended, the Guinean parliament, for the first time ever, blocked a presidential decree to extend martial law (effective military rule). The strikers still did not give way, maintaining their defiance.
Conte finally agreed to let the unions and civil society groups choose their own Prime Minister on February 25th.
Conte is losing his grip over a country he has ruled since 1984, not because some mighty foreign army came crashing into the place, nor from violence of any kind, but because democratic organisations of ordinary people made a stand together and refused to back down even when they were beaten, shot at and thrown in jail.
They were also helped by the lack of a major ethnic divide in Guinea - sadly unlike much of West Africa - so instead of people seeing each other as part of different groups, they were able to work together to solve a common problem.
There are a couple of popular myths-of-the-moment neatly undercut by this episode.
The first is the notion that countries will languish in dictatorship forever unless generous foreign powers - which is how the inhabitants of rich countries often like to imagine themselves - invade them; that if you are serious about opposing a dictatorhip in say Iran, then you will want to advocate some kind of attack on that country. (A similar myth sometimes found on the left is that the state can only be challenged successfully by force, as in guys with guns and bombs.)
The second is the cynical demonstrably false notion, wrongly dressed up as realism, that us regular folks have no chance of changing what they don't like in the world around them, because the powers-that-be are too powerful, and most people don't care about politics.
The brave people of Guinea just offered another historical example of how wrong that is. Hopefully the idea will catch on very shortly elsewhere. Like Zimbabwe.
The darker side of France, the career of Maurice Papon
Monday, Feb 19
"It is unimaginable that men who for four years have fought in silence... will agree to see the forces of resignation and injustice return in any form whatsoever. We cannot live forever by murder and violence. Happiness, tenderness will have their day."
Albert Camus wrote that as an editorial for Combat de la Resistance, one of the underground papers of the French Resistance during the German occupation. Written just as Paris was liberated, it expressed a widespread hope in occupied Europe that the end of the Third Reich would not simply be followed up by a return of the old political classes but a different, freer and more democratic society.
Today the papers announce the death of Maurice Papon in Paris, aged 96. Papon is a significant figure in French history for two main reasons, both very unpleasant.
Papon's career in the civil service began in the 1930s, where he served the centre-left Popular Front government, among others. But he had no real party commitments and happily adapted to the changing times. When the Germans occupied the country in 1940, Papon went directly to the aide of the Nazis and its collaborator regime in Vichy, led by Marshal Petain.
As Secretary-General of Gironde, he served under prefect Maurice Sabatier and was given the job of "requisitioning refugees and Jews." In his obituary for the Independent, Nicholas Atkin explains that Papon:
"...oversaw the rounding up of some 1,600 Jews in the Bordeaux district, among them 223 children. These unfortunates were shipped to the transit camp at Drancy, a half-completed Parisian housing estate which served as the 'antechamber of Auschwitz'."
The fate of these people is not entirely clear, but only 2% of deported French Jews survived.
The Independent's John Lichfield notes that Papon was not motivated by a hatred of Jews.
Probably not. It was just a job - arresting Jewish children and sending them to their deaths is something in the in-tray like ordering paperclips.
In 1944, as it became clear that the Nazis were going to lose the war, Papon switched again and joined De Gaulle's side. It was not until 1981 that his work for the Nazis was uncovered, and not until 1997 that he finally stood trial for crimes against humanity.
In the meantime, Papon had more work to do. He became an administrator in the fourth French Republic in Corsica, then Morocco, and then Algeria.
After the Second World War, like Britain, Holland, Portugal (and the US and Russia), France had some work to do in re-establishing control over its old (or new) empire. In 1946, French troops crushed a rebellion in Madagascar with ferocious brutality. They also went to war in Vietnam against the Viet Minh rebels but were sent crashing out the country in 1956 after the Battle of Dien Bien Phu. The Americans tried to take up where the French left off (you probably know how that story ends...)
In Algeria, officially part of France and home to over a million French settlers who wished to keep it that way, the Empire faced a further anti-colonial struggle. A chance for Papon (winner of the Legion d'honneur in 1958) to work his magic, and he set about rounding up Algerian villagers and interning them in barbed wire camps.
He was then made a prefect of police in Paris. On October 17th, 1961, 40,000 Algerians living in France marched for Algerian independence and the police responded with one of the worst massacres in post-WWII Europe. The official death toll was 2 Algerians and one Frenchman.
The likely actual toll was around 250 Algerians. Their bodies floated down the river Seine for days afterwards.
Papon may or may not have ordered all this. But he did offer the police cover for anything they wanted to do, and tried to conceal what had happened afterwards.
Papon was elected a Gaullist MP in 1968 and may have had designs on the presidency when his role during the occupation was first exposed. But legal proceedings were blocked for years by the Socialist President, Francois Mitterand. Mitterand himself had a past in the Vichy government he didn't really want looking into, and he was no stranger to state-sponsored murder either:
Only when Mitterand died in 1997 did Papon finally impunity come to an end. The details of his treatment of French Jews and Algerians came out in the 1998 trial, though in the end he was only convicted of the illegal arrest of 37 Jews, and the deportation of 57 others. He served four years of his sentence before being released in 2002 on grounds of ill health.
He never expressed any remorse for any of his victims.
Maurice Papon is the personification of the "forces of resignation and injustice" Camus wrote of, who returned to power in much of Europe after the war, having happily served the other side during it. Meanwhile, the forces of hope and justice got shunted aside.
As the journalist who uncovered Papon's crimes, Michel Slitinsky, writes, Papon's death is, "first and foremost, a moment to remember his victims." Slitinsky served in the Resistance during the occupation. His family was deported. In his own way, Slitinsky, remained a force for hope and justice. That, at least, is encouraging.
Thursday, January 04, 2007
2007 is a year that looks like it might be a bad one. Another round of horrifying bloodshed in Iraq and central Africa, a nuclear arms race in North-East Asia, and soaring temperatures while we collectively shove billions of tonnes of Carbon Dioxide into the atmosphere.
Bob the Angry Flower discovers the inescapable moral logic of the War on Terror
But the awfulness, as ever, squares off with the indiviudals and movements worldwide striving hard to stop wars, preserve our living standards from environmental blowback, protect human rights, challenge the enforced inequality of our unjust class-based societies, and expand real democracy and individual freedom. They notched up a few victories in 2006 and helped change election results from Italy to South America to the United States. And 2006 was a year in which the arguments of the militarists and those denying anthropogenic global warming were shown to be bankrupt in every sense before ever larger numbers of people.
So 2007 is not a lost cause! This blog is my spot for scrutinising the bad and celebrating the good... scroll down for the following articles:
Iraq - the Only Way is Out - why a Coalition withdrawal is the only option left
The Only Thing we Have to Fear is Nancy Pelosi - the ridiculous press coverage and Republican attacks on the newly elected speaker to the US House of Representatives
The Plot Behind the Plot to Kill the Pope - after an Italian parliamentary inquiry comes to a weird conclusion, the unpleasant origins of the conspiracy theories surrounding the attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II
That last article was written about five months ago. Memo to myself: be less lazy in 2007,
peace and happiness all round to all readers,
Comments, queries and condemnation to respond_alexblog at yahoo dot co dot uk
For more Dilbert strips, see the official website.
I'm delighted to note that Dilbert's creator, Scott Adams, has called for a US withdrawal from Iraq, though I disagree with his claims of US accomplishments in Iraq.
The Iraq War - don't let this go on any longer
Cut Carbon Emissions in the New Year
Australia - Mark Lynas on the devastating consequences of a policy of denial
Sir David King, British government's science advisor, grounds for optimism - "At last, I'm hopeful about climate change"
Iraq Withdrawal – the only way is out
Can you see a similarity between the following – insisting Coalition forces stay in Iraq until “the job is done” and accepting that Coalition forces should stay in Iraq for a few more years to stabilise the situation while also criticising the administration for gross incompetence?
The answer is that, in practice, they amount to doing precisely the same thing. The numbers of those willing to defend the Bush administration’s handling of Iraq shrink by the day, but despite widespread public disenchantment in the US and Britain, those in the political and pundit classes seriously advocating a complete break with current policy are only just beginning to find a voice.
Steve Bell explains the British government's view
Like William Raspberry, writing two years ago in the Washington Post, too many have concluded:
“Even those of us who thought President Bush made a hideous moral and military blunder in launching the war are largely sympathetic to the way he is conducting the aftermath -- not because it is particularly successful but because we can't think of anything better.”
“We can’t think of anything better” is an honest summary of many of the President’s liberal (and conservative) critics’ actual position on Iraq, but also a terrible indictment. Critics of the war should have been putting effort into better policy alternatives and making the case publicly. If progressives wish to change America and the world we ought to have something to say on the most pressing policy issues facing us - something more substantive than complaining that George Bush is a cretin.
First, it is necessary to recognize, at this very late date, that any policy based on continuing US stewardship of Iraq, even for a short period, is simply untenable.
In the aftermath of its electoral “thumping”, the White House still talks of a victory in Iraq, while Britain’s Tony Blair continues to insist that while he does not want British forces to stay, they must do so “until the job is done” . The fact that the longer they have stayed, the further those goals have become apparently doesn’t phase them.
As Britain’s most senior military figure, General Richard Dannatt, argued in an interview in the Daily Mail last month, the presence of US and British troops “exacerbates the security problems”. The argument that Coalition forces must remain in Iraq until insurgent violence ends or is substantially reduced (“a manageable level” is the sound-bite of the moment, manageable for whom is unclear) makes no more sense than to argue you will continue to rub salt into your wound until it stops hurting.
At the centre of widely expressed hopes for US-engineered stability in Iraq is the training of a new Iraqi Army and police forces. This policy began in 2003 and its near-total failure in the last three years should have led to the conclusion that it is a non-starter. The Australian paper The Age reports on the current state of the police for instance:
“At least 20 per cent of those joining the police force were quitting each year. It said record keeping was so poor that it was not known how many police on the payroll were still reporting for duty. But up to 40 per cent of police were believed to be absent.”
In February this year, the Pentagon stopped publicizing the figures for battle-ready Iraqi army units, just as the number had reached zero, a decrease of one from the previous year. The reason is that recruits consist largely of those who are as unwilling to be used to fight in an American war as they were to be cannon-fodder for Saddam Hussein in the spring of 2003 but need a job, and those who join seeking the military hardware and know-how for their own purposes, which can and do include killing Coalition soldiers.
On May 24th, the New York Times reported that:
"The headlong, American-backed effort to arm tens of thousands of Iraqi soldiers and officers, coupled with a failure to curb a nearly equal number of militia gunmen, has created a galaxy of armed groups, each with its own loyalty and agenda, which are accelerating the country's slide into chaos."
The Times’ story was illustrated by the case of the Iraqi 16th brigade which was supposed to guard an oil pipeline on behalf of the Ministry of Oil at Dawra near Baghdad last year, but whose members instead chose to use their weapons to support the insurgency and execute those collaborating with the government. In such ways are tax-dollars spent.
A few weeks ago, Reuters reported:
“Gunmen in Iraqi police uniforms rounded up as many as 100 men at a government building in central Baghdad on Tuesday, in what may be the biggest mass kidnap seen in a city becoming used to such violence.”
Surveys of Iraqi opinion – for those who regard democracy in Iraq as something other than a rhetorical flourish to give the Republican Party moral standing it does not have – consistently show the demand of a majority for the US to start leaving.
Furthermore, Iraqis – like General Dannatt - regard the Anglo-American presence as part of the problem – “Almost four in five Iraqis say the U.S. military force in Iraq provokes more violence than it prevents”, reported Associated Press in September.
Iraqi calls for withdrawal are echoed by the sentiments of opinion polls among the British and US public, and in the US army itself. Who is missing from this popular consensus that stretches from Seattle to Basra?
Once we appreciate that the only way is out the question is how to quit and give the greatest opportunity for a less violent Iraq to emerge, leave the least bitterness and hatred, and fulfill some of the basic obligations the US and Britain have to Iraqis for the harm that has been done. The task is not easy, but a well-handled withdrawal offers the greatest hope.
Last month, staff at TIME magazine put together a to-do list for a withdrawing US army under the sober heading ‘The End of the Illusion’. With exceptions, the recommendations are essentially to try out policies that have already failed and then unleash a last round of “aggressive counterinsurgency tactics” against the Mahdi Army and the Sunni insurgency. Such suggestions show that the illusion has not ended for some, either about the effectiveness of such tactics, or the unmentioned brutality they involve. ‘Smash and Run’ will deliver piles of corpses and earn much further hatred and contempt for the United States, but little else.
An alternative, costed approach is outlined in Harpers’ magazine by George McGovern and William Polk. They suggest a six-month period of withdrawal of US forces from December and the creation of an international peace-keeping buffer force consisting of troops drawn from Islamic countries such as Indonesia and Morocco. A UN-led force has been a popular idea in Iraq since 2003, and this plan enjoys wide support among Sunni and Shia parties. Such a force would not attempt counter-insurgency raids but would act to prevent sectarian slaughter and protect civilians at risk. Under the McGovern/Polk plan the construction of a new Iraqi army would be abandoned and instead the focus would be on the gradual creation of a national police force from disparate local units. Such proposals could, as others have suggested, be put to popular referendum.
The US and British governments should then put up generous sums of money – and generosity would be a wise purchase of goodwill – to fund reconstruction through a transparent process as well as funds for removing explosive and radioactive ordinance, running healthcare and judicial systems, demolishing military bases, repairing cultural sites and making condolence payments to the victims of the war. There is a cost to this ($7-10 billion), but one vastly less than years of war – and the positive blowback of doing the right thing for once is hard to put a price on. Such a plan also offers Americans and Iraqis the ultimate gift of loved ones still alive, who will otherwise die.
Those who opposed this war or have watched it unfold with ever-greater dismay can “think of something better” and should push for a new course from the new Congress, and the other Coalition governments.
William Raspberry, Occupation Hazards, Washington Post, December 27th 2004. In fairness, the piece is mainly critical of calls for greater brutality by US forces in Iraq. (link)
Blair defiant over Iraq strategy, BBC Online, October 18th, 2006 (link)
Sarah Sands, Sir Richard Dannatt, - A Very Honest General, Daily Mail, October 12th, 2006 (link)
Brendan Nicholson, US Intelligence Reveals Extent of Iraq Carnage, The Age, November 11th, 2006 (link).
Aseel Kami, Dozens Snatched in Mass Kidnap at Iraq Ministry, November 14th, 2006 (link) (Also featured at www.davidcorn.com)
Barry Schwied, Poll: Iraqis Back Attacks on U.S. Troops, Associated Press, September 28th, 2006 (link)
Aparisim Ghosh, The End of the Illusion: 5 Ways to Prevent Iraq From Getting Even Worse, TIME (European Edition), October 30th, 2006
George McGovern and William Polk, ‘The Way Out of Iraq’, Harper’s Magazine, October 2006
The only thing we have to fear is Nancy Pelosi
Scenes from the US Congressional elections
(This article was written shortly before the Congressional elections which of course saw a Democratic victory and an end to Republican control of both the House and the Senate. The weird press coverage and right-wing attacks on Nancy Pelosi have continued much as before, however...)
“This is the moment to say that there are things in life worth fighting and dying for and one of 'em is making sure Nancy Pelosi doesn't become the speaker.”
So said an impassioned Republican star-hack Sean Hannity to his audience on his radio show on August 29th . You may be considering throwing your own body beneath a tank in the cause of keeping Ms. Pelosi’s hand from the gavel in the US House of Representatives after the elections on November 7th. But chances are you are wondering quite what Pelosi could have done, or be about to do, to warrant such alarm.
It’s fluff of course – Sean Hannity is no more willing to actually fight or die in this cause than in the Iraq War which he champions and fears might be ended sooner rather than later. But turning Ms. Pelosi into an object of irrational fear is one of the closest things to a trump card in a terrible hand that the Republican Party has.
Why should you fear Nancy Pelosi? Former speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich, explains what is at stake:
"Republicans are right to favor traditional American conservative social values, and the left is completely wrong to put San Francisco left-wing values third in line to be President by electing Nancy Pelosi to speaker of the House."
Ah-ha! Nancy is from San Francisco! Now it’s not like Mr. Gingrich to put his fellow Americans down, but you have to draw the line at San Francisco. So what kind of social values – which essentially translates as attitudes towards sex – does this decadent woman represent? The National Catholic Reporter explains:
“Nancy Pelosi, mother of five, grandmother of five, refers to herself as a “conservative Catholic.” [a somewhat contentious self-description, the NCR notes]…Upon graduation in 1962, she married Georgetown University graduate Paul Pelosi. The couple moved first to New York and then to San Francisco , Paul Pelosi’s hometown. It was a fast-track family: five children in six years. Pelosi was a full-time mother -- babies and carpools, laundry, homework and getting dinner on the table took priority.”
But enough of this orgy of immorality.
Unlike the San Francisco swinger Pelosi, Newt Gingrich is married to his third wife. How he got there is described in Bryan Harris' 'The Sanctity of Marriage Handbook'. Newt's first marriage to Jackie Battley was interrupted to have an affair with Anne Manning, who later explained to Vanity Fair: “We had oral sex… He prefers that modus operandi because he can then say, ‘I never slept with her’” – a line of defence he would later regard as contemptible when used by Bill Clinton. But it was not until Jackie was in hospital with cancer that he delivered divorce papers to her, leaving her for Marianne Ginther. This second marriage ended following a six-year affair with his Congressional aide, the 23-years-younger Callista Bisek. Newt and Callista married in 1999.
This man berates the personal values of Nancy Pelosi. Preposterous? Outrageous? Like a man who strongly supported a war but used the privilege of his class to avoid fighting while the less fortunate were sent to die and then failed to perform even the cushier service he opted for and later poses as a war leader? That kind of outrageous? Or a man who privately switched off the life support of his father, then uses Congress as a public platform to call Michael Schiavo a murderer for asking to remove the feeding tube from his brain-dead wife (Tom Delay, in case you were wondering)? Outrage is an exhausting business – we are dealing with people who exhibit no sense of shame whatsoever. They may know full well that the cedar-like beam in their eye is out of all proportion to the splinter in their neighbour’s eye. It’s just they do not care and don’t expect their supporters will notice, not least since the press will rarely bother to point it out. Recall that Republican Representative Mark Foley, who so recently resigned after years of sexually harassing 16 year-old interns, was the co-chairman of the House Caucus on Missing and Exploited Children. But of course!
Another line of attack has been put forward by the likes of Pat Buchanan, the American Spectator – the magazine that brought us so many exclusives of the few misdeeds President Clinton didn’t actually commit – and Americans for Truth, an organization that promises to keep us informed of the “homosexual activist agenda”. (The homosexual activist agenda, I can reveal, by the way – it’s for the like of Americans for Truth to leave them alone). These bold truth-tellers point out that Pelosi has marched on Gay Pride parades. At these parades the infamous North American Man-Boy Love Association also had members marching. So you see, Nancy Pelosi is more or less marching alongside them… You see how that works? And come to think of it, where were you in San Francisco on that day?
Writes Jeffrey Lord at the American Spectator, “a moment like this unintentionally reveals the mindset of what Representative Pelosi and her fellow Democrats may really think but can't -- yet – support”. Which is for Congressmen to molest teenagers, in case you hadn’t caught his drift. Fortunately, as we have already noted, Republicans are still in charge of the House Caucus on Missing and Exploited Children.
Since senior Republican Congressmen, including the current speaker Dennis Hastert were aware of Mark Foley’s treatment of his interns and had been for some years, the Party struggled to prevent a ripple of revulsion traveling across the electorate. One ploy was to hint that the real villains of the Foley scandal were in fact congressional Democrats who, in this theory (a generous description), could have known themselves of Foley’s conduct and chosen to conceal what they knew until weeks before the elections. The devil-woman Pelosi had struck again!
This theory had more than one major flaw, and one in particular, as even CNN’s rarely-troubled Wolf Blitzer made a point of noting in this precious exchange with Representative Patrick McHenry, a Republican of North Carolina:
McHenry: Well, look, all the fact points lead to one question: Did Rahm Emanuel or Nancy Pelosi have any involvement on the strategic or tactical level? …
Blitzer: Do you have any evidence at all that Democrats or others might have been behind the timing of this scandal?
McHenry: Look, let’s be honest…
Blitzer: Do you have any evidence to back that charge up?
McHenry: No, no, actually, if the Democrats had any issue with saying this, putting all the facts out on the table, they would say, certainly, I’ll testify under oath that I had no involvement in it. They’ve said no.
Blitzer: Well, you don’t have any evidence, though, right?
McHenry: Well, look at the fact points.
Blitzer: Yes or no, do you have any evidence, Congressman?
McHenry: Do you have any evidence that they weren’t involved?
And do you have any evidence that you aren’t a terrorist? Can you prove that you don’t sell cocaine to children? Can you demonstrate beyond doubt that you have never sacrificed kittens to Satan?
In less slime-covered quarters such as CBS’ Sixty Minutes, presenter Lesley Stahl challenged Pelosi for being rude. The CBS website explains:
‘As correspondent Lesley Stahl reports, she keeps promising that if she becomes Speaker, she would bring civility back to Washington: just not now. Pelosi has called her Republican colleagues “immoral" and "corrupt,” and has said they're running a criminal enterprise. "I mean, you're one of the reasons we have to restore civility in the first place," Stahl remarks.’
Pelosi even called the President “incompetent” after all he did to serve the people of New Orleans in their time of need. And the real clincher? This:
‘Here is what she said about the president’s handling of Hurricane Katrina: "The president said he's going to lead the investigation into what went wrong. He need look only in the mirror, for starters."’
Someone said that! In Washington! It’s almost like curse words! One can appreciate that the avoidable destruction of a major American city and the deaths of 1,800 people might make everyone a bit upset but that doesn’t mean we should we all high and mighty and try and hold public officials to account, people.
Ms. Pelosi’s rather neat reply to this one-sided obsession with civility was, "Well actually, when I called them those names, I was being gentle. There are much worse things I could've said about them."
Ms. Stahl replied with catty scorn, “Oh really? It’s hard to imagine.”
To help her imagination out, I suggest Ms. Stahl look back for the newsreel of when Dick Cheney visited New Orleans for a photo-shoot and was greeted with a loud “Go fuck yourself!” from a resident filled with justifiable anger, pointedly quoting Cheney himself incidentally. (That resident filmed his epic trip to berate the Vice President here).
Nancy could also have called George W. Bush a “major league asshole”, which was his description of Adam Clymer of the New York Times. She might have said she was going to fuck the president like he had never been fucked before as White House strategist Karl Rove briefed a subordinate in the presence of journalist Ron Suskind. She might have said that Michael J. Fox is faking the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease to assist the Democrats, or stated loudly and repeatedly that bereaved widows of 9/11 who clash with the White House over security policy enjoy the deaths of their husbands, or engaged in mock tears at the news of suicides among internees at Guantanamo Bay, or demanded the execution of the editor of the New York Times (again) - as we have so recently heard from the prominent and popular Republican pundits Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter and Michelle Malkin.
But maybe they were all just following the terrible example set by Pelosi herself.
Or maybe Pelosi is actually pretty civil.
The hard men of the Republican Party have good reason to be afraid of her, even if no one else does. The fear has little to do with Ms. Pelosi’s views on Iraq (she voted against the war), abortion (she favours the legal status quo), the Patriot Act (she voted in favour but now regrets it), the minimum wage (she favours freezing Congressional salaries until it is raised), healthcare (she wants a renegotiation of the Bush prescription drug programme which allows pharmaceutical companies to grossly overcharge Medicare) or anything else. When asked what is most important about retaking the House, Pelosi says “subpoena power” – the authority to hold investigations into corruption and criminality and demand that public officials give evidence. That is what they find scary. That and the fact that the Republicans would have lost the stranglehold on all three branches of the United States government that has permitted them to run Washington like an out-and-out racket for so long.
This 109th Congress, described neatly by Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi as: “a stable of thieves and perverts who committed crimes rolling out of bed in the morning and did their very best to turn the mighty American empire into a debt-laden, despotic backwater, a Burkina Faso with cable” – all that could be coming to a well-deserved end.
A Congress that legalised torture, broke the back of the safeguards of the US Constitution, has not lifted a finger once for working-class Americans while increasing the salaries of its members, has not held one serious investigation into the administration’s handling of Iraq, invites fiction writers to testify on why global warming is not really happening and engaged in a world-historical spending spree on unending war and a fiesta of soft corruption - that Congress may be coming to an end. The White House, Republican Party and Beltway pundits don’t really fear Nancy Pelosi – they are afraid of the American electorate crashing their party and being real kill-joys.
Some others who wrote about these issues: Newsweek, Eric Boehlert and Glenn Greenwald.
The Plot Behind the Plot to Kill the Pope
"I never believed in the so-called Bulgarian connection" Pope John Paul II
John Paul II recovers from shot-wounds
'Loose Change', speculates Nancy Jo Sales for Vanity Fair (August 2006), "just might be the first Internet blockbuster". At least 10 million people have watched the number 1 movie on Google Video's top 100. Put together by bright young things Dylan Avery, Jason Bermas and Korey Rowe, Loose Change is an 80-minute documentary ensemble of factoids with an MTV-style soundtrack assaulting the boring official version of the destruction of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11th, 2001.
It's an impressive feat, quite watchable, well put together - just wrong on virtually every point of fact. I prefer the website Loose Trains which offers evidence to support its theory that the World Trade Center was not in fact destroyed by hijacked aeroplanes at all, but by hijacked trains, a truth the US ruling class has cleverly concealed from us. The tragedy of 'Loose Change' is to see all that talent and energy put into following an empty, implausible line of enquiry. There is so much real injustice and deceit to expose in this world, it's a great loss when people who could focus on real crimes seek to endlessly pursue non-existent evidence of conspiracies that never took place.
If the Bush administration only had anything near the collective presence of mind to carry out something as sophisticated as the 9/11 attacks, who knows, they might have been capable of getting their act together on the day and actually have saved some lives from the murderous hijackers, rather than failing to save a single one. While I enjoy debunking conspiracy speculation, there is a certain futility to it. Lines of conspiracy speculation have an astonishing capacity for endurance despite the paucity of evidence that might give them life.
"The giggle test"
On March 2nd 2006, an Italian parliamentary commission led by Senator Paolo Guzzanti concluded, "This commission believes, beyond any reasonable doubt, that the leadership of the Soviet Union took the initiative to eliminate Pope John Paul." Now there's a throwback for fans of the '80s.
On May 13, 1981, Mehmet Ali Agca, a member of a Turkish fascist paramilitary outfit, the Grey Wolves, waited for Pope John Paul II in St. Peter's Square, then shot him four times in the arm and stomach, but was prevented from murdering him as members of the crowd restrained him. By way of explanation, a letter found in Agca's pocket informed us that "I, Agca, have killed the Pope so that the world may know of the thousands of victims of imperialism." It was not immediately obvious how the murder of the Pope would draw attention to the victims of imperialism, except possibly the victims of the Grey Wolves, who moonlighted for US imperialism in Turkey. Agca himself had previously murdered Abdi Ipekci, the editor of the Turkish liberal paper Milliyet in 1979. Still his statement made as much sense as anything else he has ever said on the subject.
John Paul II in St. Peter's Square after he was shot
The backdrop to the Polish Pope's near-death was growing unrest in Poland, as the dock-workers' union Solidarnosc (Solidarity) was proving a potent challenge to the Jaruzselski dictatorship and the Soviet Empire itself. The Pope's open support for Solidarity and for Polish nationalism was reawakening popular unrest. So, was it much of a stretch to speculate that Agca's attempt on the Pope's life was part of a larger conspiracy hatched in Moscow by the KGB, maybe through its Bulgarian allies?
Abdi Ipekci's memorial in Istanbul John Paul II meets Lech Walesa in 1981
Well, yes it was. Quoted in Vanity Fair by Craig Unger, Frank Brodhead, an author of a book with Edward Herman on this very subject explained: "It just doesn't pass the giggle test. Agca, the shooter, had been deeply embedded in a Turkish youth group of the Fascist National Action Party known as the Gray Wolves. It would seem illogical that a Turkish Fascist would work with Bulgarian Communists."
And vice versa, a literal loose cannon like Agca would have made an odd choice for Soviet and Bulgarian intelligence agencies. So as a theory, the notion of a Kremlin conspiracy struggled to get the past the obstacle of plausibility.
"A Lot of it Was Made Up"
But as all students of conspiracy stories know, that's really no obstacle at all. The theory went like this - Agca, who had travelled through Stalinist Bulgaria and was connected to Balkan drug smugglers, had been hired by agents of the Bulgarian regime's intelligence (themselves acting at the behest of Moscow's KGB) to assassinate the Pope. The theory was largely developed and propagated by a number of American neo-conservatives who were then crawling up the Reagan White House - Claire Sterling, Paul Henze and Michael Ledeen - and became something of an obsession of the CIA as led by William Casey (who loved conspiracy theories involving the Russians) and the wholesome Italian intelligence agency, SISMI. The motive for the assassination plot centred on the Pontiff's support for Solidarity and Polish independence, though Claire Sterling initially suggested that the plan was to split Turkey from the Western military alliance NATO by inspiring one of its sons to kill the Pope and thus alienate Christian Europe.
Plausibility was a problem since not only did this plan involve hiring a violently anti-Communist assassin to kill on behalf of the USSR, it involved the Russians taking an extraordinary risk that could easily have inspired a wider revolt in Poland. And it seemed, in Sterling's original version, to rest simultaneously on Agca being identified as the killer while hoping he would nobly remain silent about his Communist masters if captured.
Ultimately though the theory suffered from a lack of actual evidence. The CIA spent a solid decade investigating the subject at Casey's behest and couldn't find anything - for which it was attacked by our neo-conservative friends, since failure to produce evidence to support their arguments is considered to be an act of treachery/weakness/liberalism rather than evidence they might be wrong about something, or indeed virtually everything.
William Casey was very much of this mindset. Reagan's head of the CIA had read Claire Sterling's book, The Terror Network, which made the argument that virtually all guerrilla and paramilitary organisations that she could think of were part of a cohesive global network created and funded by the Soviet Union. The Terror Network included the Palestinian Liberation Organisation, the Provisional Irish Republican Army, the Italian Red Brigades, the Salvadoran FMLN, the lot. (Take an example, the Provisional IRA were initially quite anti-Communist and in large part funded by Irish-American conservatives, but only boring people make those kinds of observations). "There is massive proof", Ms. Sterling wrote, a bombastic assertion inversely proportional to the actual proof, "that the Soviet Union and its surrogates, over the last decade, have provided the weapons, training and sanctuary for a worldwide terror network aimed at the destabilisation of Western democratic society." Sterling would later write about the Bulgarian connection for Reader's Digest and the New York Times.
Casey urged the CIA to take this seriously - "Read Claire Sterling's book and forget this mush," he instructed the national-intelligence officer for the Soviet Union after he offered a more realistic assessment of Soviet covert intervention abroad, as Bob Woodward records in 'The Veil: The Secret Wars of the CIA 1981-1987' (p125). Casey growled, "I paid $13.95 for this [Sterling's book] and it told me more than you bastards whom I pay $50,000 a year."
Problems for the Terror Network thesis included the fact that Soviet intelligence sometimes provided information on the activities of paramilitary organisations to the CIA. For instance, Woodward noted: "There were some cases in which they had actually discouraged terrorism. The U.S. ambassador to Nepal had been warned by the Russians of a kidnap plot by four Arabs. The Bulgarians had let the West German police arrest a member of the Baader-Meinhoff Gang in 1978." There was another problem - a lot of the evidence cited by Sterling for global Soviet perfidy was actually disinformation originally created by the CIA for propaganda purposes. Casey's analysts spotted the irony and winced. Woodward wrote: "It turned out that a small part of Claire Sterling's information had come from an Italian press story on the Red Brigade. The story was part of an old, small-scale CIA covert propaganda operation."
Not just a small part, actually. Then CIA Head of Soviet Affairs Melvin Goodman explained to Adam Curtis in the BBC documentary series, 'The Power of Nightmares' (transcript):
Goodman: And when we looked through the book [Sterling's], we found very clear episodes where CIA black propaganda—clandestine information that was designed under a covert action plan to be planted in European newspapers—were picked up and put in this book. A lot of it was made up. It was made up out of whole cloth.
Curtis: You told him [Casey] this?
Goodman: We told him that, point blank. And we even had the operations people to tell Bill Casey this. I thought maybe this might have an impact, but all of us were dismissed. Casey had made up his mind. He knew the Soviets were involved in terrorism, so there was nothing we could tell him to disabuse him. Lies became reality.
Curtis: In the end, Casey found a university professor who described himself as a terror expert, and he produced a dossier that confirmed that the hidden terror network did, in fact, exist.
Old falsehoods were elevated to official truths fitting as they did with a political agenda of military build-up and the deliberate escalation of Cold War tensions. The complexities of guerrilla wars in the Third World and violent, radical political movements were reduced to a frightening and easily digestible - albeit false - notion of the Soviet Union as a puppet-master of an international terrorist network incorporating Neslon Mandela, Yassir Arafat, Gerry Adams and whoever. Which was handy, because it meant the US government could justify itself in fighting and destroying its chosen enemies rather than addressing their demands from El Salvador to Angola to the West Bank. The facts were made to fit the policy.
Any connection with the build-up to the Iraq War is not coincidental or unintended.
"Complicated and demonic"
Back in Rome the thin plot struggled to thicken. Initially Agca claimed to be a member of the Palestinian leftist guerrilla organisation, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (who in turn claimed that they had no idea who Agca was). But after meeting members of the Italian intelligence agency SISMI in prison in November 1982, he changed his story, claiming to have been an assassin working for Bulgarian intelligence at the behest of the Russians.
Having peered behind the curtain at Langley and taken a look at the wrangling between fact and fiction within the CIA, some explanation about the state of Italian intelligence might also be useful. In December 1969, a bomb exploded in Milan's Banco dell'Agricoltura, killing 16 people. This atrocity was the beginning of a series of bombings carried out by far-right sorts connected to Italian intelligence. Coming after the strong performance of the Italian Communist Party in the 1968 elections, the bombings were part of a deliberate policy of creating a violent society on edge - Strategia della Tensione. Those carrying out the bombings sought to have their violence blamed on left-wing paramilitaries such as the Red Brigades, and so create an atmosphere in which the military could seize power and establish a dictatorship which could physically destroy the Italian left. A real conspiracy, after all.
Those implicated in the Strategy include elements of SISMI, Propaganda Due, P2 for short, (a secret society of military officers, spooks, politicians and industrialists who fancied themselves as a dictatorship-in-waiting) and various fascist paramilitaries. We still don't have a full accounting of who-killed-who during this period of recent Italian history, and only a little solid information on the Strategy of Tension. Some emerged in a 2000 parliamentary investigation carried out by the left-leaning Olive Tree coalition as well as other commissions and court cases. An investigation into the Banco dell'Agricoltura bombing by Magistrate Guido Salvini alleged CIA and NATO involvement, as William Pfaff quoted him in Jewish World Review:
"...the Americans knew in advance about this and other bombings of the period, and they actively supported a strategy of tension designed to destabilize the state and create the conditions for a military coup."
Pfaff notes that just such a coup had taken place in Greece 18 months previously, with covert US support. And Agca's own Grey Wolves in Turkey formed part of the Turkish equivalent to the Italian Strategy of Tension, killing at the behest of Turkish army officers in the hope of destabilising the country and creating the conditions for General Kenan Evren's coup of 1980 (the General was the director of Counter-Guerilla, a happy bunch of people who worked the Grey Wolves).
Daniele Glasnier and Christian Nuenlist's parallel history of NATO and the Warsaw Pact also describe an actual connection between NATO clandestine organisations and right-wing paramilitary terror in Italy:
"Italian judge Felice Casson discovered the secret NATO army in summer 1990 in Rome while researching acts of right-wing terrorism in the archives of the Italian military secret service. He concluded that in Italy there were clear links to terrorist operations. During the Cold War, the United States and Great Britain feared the strong Italian Communist Party (PCI), in alliance with the Italian Socialist Party (PSI), might weaken NATO from within. Therefore, as Judge Casson explained in a British Broadcasting Corporation documentary on Gladio, a strategy of tension was employed to weaken the political parties on the left, in Italy, and beyond. Casson added,
'That’s to say, to create tension within the country to promote conservative, reactionary social and political tendencies. While this strategy was being implemented, it was necessary to protect those behind it because evidence implicating them was being discovered. Witnesses withheld information to cover right-wing extremists.'
'According to Casson, the best documented case of this complicated and demonic strategy of tension occurred in the village Peteano in 1972 where three members of the Italian paramilitary police, the Carabinieri, had been killed by a car bomb. For many years, this terrorist attack was blamed on the Italian left-wing terror organization Red Brigades until Casson reopened the case and found right-wing terrorist Vincenzo Vinciguerra had carried out the crime."
The Strategy of Tension continued throughout the 1970s and appeared to stop shortly after the Bologna Massacre, when 85 people were killed by a bomb placed in Bologna Station in August 1980. The government initially blamed the Red Brigades, but police suspicion later fell on far-right paramilitary Ordine Nuovo. Two SISMI agents as well as P2's Licio Pelli were convicted for obstruction of justice in the course of the investigation. The Strategy of Tension was, fortunately, a failure in attempting to shut down democratic institutions in Italy, such as they were and are. But the attempt to make political capital out of the attempted killing of Pope John Paul II just a year after the Bologna Massacre could be seen as a watered-down continuation of the same tactic.
The aftermath of the Bologna Massacre, August 2nd, 1980. To this day, the hands of the clock remain at 10:25am, when the bomb detonated. A composing festival is held each year in the town's Piazza Maggiore on August 2nd.
"The Devil is Within"
On the basis of Agca's testimony, Italian authorities arrested a Bulgarian reporter, Sergei Antonov, who was accused of being the spy who masterminded the plot. After a three-year trial, Antonov was found not guilty in March 1986. Meanwhile Agca's court testimony veered in new directions, including the claim that he was in fact Jesus Christ.
This new claim was developed somewhat in 2005. Agca was released from prison in Italy, pardoned by the President at the request of a forgiving John Paul II in 2000, the Jubilee Year. He was extradited to Turkey where he was promptly jailed for the murder of Abdi Ipekci and bank robberies carried out in the 1970s. In March 2005, Agca told the Italian paper La Repubblica (link in Italian) that the conspirators had in fact been Vatican insiders who had identified Agca as the second coming of Christ and arranged for their Messiah to kill the Pope:
"Without the help of priests and cardinals I wouldn't have been able to carry out my attack. The devil is within the Vatican."
The case was complicated further with the abduction by unknown persons of 15 year-old Emanuela Orlandi, the daughter of an employee of the Vatican. Emanuela disappeared in June 1983. Among the collection of callers who contacted the police claiming to know of her whereabouts was one demanding Agca's release. After he stopped calling there was no trace of him, or Emanuela, whom he may or may not have kidnapped, ever again.
Emanuela's abduction, which probably has little or no relation to the attempted assassination of the Pope, was nonetheless woven into the story, and Agca made sinister reference to it in his Repubblica interview:
Q: They say it's because there is still some uncertainty in the Emanuela Orlandi case.
Agca: In the 1980's, certain Vatican supporters believed that I was the new messiah and to free me they organized all the intrigue about Emanuela Orlandi and the other incidents they won't reveal."
He claimed in the same interview that "nobody in the world knew of my attempt."
Ferdinando Imposimato, an Italian ex-magistrate who has long pursued the Bulgarian connection claimed that Agca had told him in many private conversations over a period of four years, from 1997-2000, that he had shot the Pope as part of a Communist plot. Typically, Agca additionally claimed that the murder of a Vatican Swiss Guard in 1998, Colonel Alois Estermann was also linked to this increasingly intricate intrigue. (For your information, Estermann had been a plainclothes Swiss Guard on the scene of Agca's murder attempt who had run to protect the Pope. He was murdered by an angry subordinate 17 years later, Corporal Cedric Tornay, who then committed suicide.) Precisely who Agca was implicating in Estermann's murder was unclear, especially since the Soviet Union was now 6-years deceased.
How does Imposimato explain Agca's constantly changing stories? He argued that the Agca was visited by Bulgarian agents in prison, in Italy, who made him change his story - in 1983.
A week after the Repubblica interview, Turkish Weekly reported that Agca denied accusing Vatican insiders of conspiring to kill the Pope in the previous week:
“Although I did not personally talk with any journalist, some false news has been published in local and foreign newspapers. I ask permission to meet with European, U.S. and Turkish media to correct these misunderstandings, and to send peace and friendship messages to the Christian world."
The reasonable interpretation of this is Agca is either mentally ill with homicidal inclinations at best, or a manipulative, pathological liar and cold-blooded murderer at worst. The fact that the Bulgarian-KGB conspiracy theory has rested so heavily on his testimony tells us a lot about its likelihood.
But the fantasies inspired by his actions have spread and now have a life of their own, buoyed by the loud speculation of the very right-wing in the United States and Italy. The CIA continued to investigate the Bulgarian connection for about a decade before coming to the conclusion there was no evidence for it.
As Rupert Cornwell wrote recently for the Independent: "In October 1991, a senior CIA analyst on Soviet affairs told a senate committee the agency had earlier come up with no hard evidence of Soviet involvement..." But the demands of those who believed their own propaganda were not satisfied - "...only for his superiors to alter the report's main judgement and 'stack the deck' in favour of Russian complicity. Sections of the report expressing doubts and counter-arguments were erased, and the finished project was sent to the White House and the Pentagon, avid to nail the Kremlin."
Quoted by Craig Unger in Vanity Fair, Michael Dobbs of the Washington Post agrees: "I became convinced... that the Bulgarian connection was invented by Agca with the hope of winning his release from prison... He was aided and abetted by right-wing conspiracy theorists in the United States and William Casey's Central Intelligence Agency which was a victim of its own disinformation campaign."
Should we even be slightly surprised that this same intelligence agency failed to predict the imminent collapse of the USSR itself? Or that under George Tenet just over a decade later, it would ignore the advice of its best analysts and intelligence assets, alter their conclusions, and serve the White House with the evidence on Iraq that it was looking for?
Or surprised that Senator Paolo Guzzanti of Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia party ran a investigation that succeeded in concluding, "beyond any reasonable doubt, that the leadership of the Soviet Union took the initiative to commit a crime of unique gravity"? The commission argues that the conspiracy was initiated not by the KGB but by Soviet military intelligence. They claim computer analysis of photographic evidence proves that Sergei Antonov was in St. Peter's Plaza at the time of the shooting and that recently released East German Stasi files provide further corroboration. Quite what they make of the key witness, Agca's claim to be Jesus isn't clear. Maybe it fits in somewhere. Along with the abduction of Emanuela Orlandi and the murder of Alois Estermann. Reuters reported Bulgarian Foreign Ministry spokesman Simitar Tsanchev complaining: "For Bulgaria, this case closed with the court decision in Rome in March 1986."
No, but we might be wearily surprised that journalists in prestigious newspapers still take seriously claims made by such ideologues and professional conduits of misinformation as Claire Sterling and Michael Ledeen. For the best part of a decade, the media in Western Europe and the USA has given credibility to a self-serving conspiracy theory, and many continue to this day to frame the issue as though the available evidence doesn't bring it down. And it's hardly the only case of the most prestigious news sources buying into spurious lines of speculation. In an e-mail interview with Michael Dobbs in which the main point of discussion were the false allegations made about Senator John Kerry's war record during the 2004 presidential campaign, a participant noted a real connection:
Clinton, Md.: How is it a group with an agenda can set the framework in which a story is reported? How does the media allow itself to be highjacked? For example, 21 years ago, a group of nutters, including the New York Times reporter, were spreading the tale that the KGB was behind the assassination attempt on Pope John Paul II. You, Edward Herman and an ABC 20/20 reporter were the only ones to investigate and report the truth. The same situation happened here with Swift Boat lies.
Pope John Paul II sometimes speculated about unseen actors behind the attempt on his life and appears to have made contradictory statements as he neared the end of his life. He always firmly believed that his near-death represented a clash between supernatural forces. But when he finally visited Bulgaria in May 2002 he declared to a crowd in Sofia: 'I never believed in the so-called Bulgarian connection because of my great esteem and respect for the Bulgarian people'. Not an argument by itself perhaps, but a welcome laying to rest of idle speculation.
Articles and Books used for this article:
'The Man Who Nearly Killed the Pope', Rupert Cornwell, The Independent, January 13th 2006
'America's "Strategy of Tension" in Italy', William Pfaff, Jewish World Review, March 18th, 1998 (link)
'Swiss Watchers', Thomas Smith Jr., The Guardian, April 5th, 2005 (link)
'The War They Wanted, the Lies They Needed', Craig Unger, Vanity Fair, July 2006 (link)
'Agca Denies Accusing Vatican of Complicity in Pope Shooting', Associated Press, The Journal of the Turkish Weekly (link)
'Italian Panel: Soviets Behind Pope Attack', Victor L. Simpson, Associated Press, March 2nd, 2006 (link)
Soviets 'Had Pope Shot for Backing Solidarity', Adrian Bloomfield, The Daily Telegraph, March 3rd, 2006 (link)
'Man Who Shot the Pope to be Freed', Associated Press, China Daily, January 1st, 2006 (link)
'The Veil: Secret Wars of the CIA, 1981-1987', Bob Woodward, 1987
'Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media' (1986), Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman, chapter 4: The KGB-Bulgarian Plot to Kill the Pope
'Secret Warfare - Operation Gladio and NATO's Stay-Behind Armies', edited by Daniele Ganser and Christian Nuenlist (link here and here)
Wikipedia entries on Mehmet Ali Agca, John Paul II, Emanuela Orlandi, Alois Estermann, the Strategy of Tension, the Bologna Massacre, P2 and Operation Gladio