Wednesday, March 15, 2006
Seymour Hersh on the Bush administration's deliberations over Iran
Iranians need freedom, but not a war - Iranian Women's Rights Campaigner and Nobel Peace Prize Winner, Shirin Ebadi, speaking in February 2005
"Instead, the most effective way to promote human rights in Iran is to provide moral support and international recognition to independent human rights defenders, and to insist that Iran adhere to the international human rights laws and conventions that it has signed. Getting the Iranian government to abide by these international standards is the human rights movement's highest goal; foreign military intervention in Iran is the surest way to harm us and keep that goal out of reach."
Like many other blogs, it can go for long stretches without being updated - partly because I have had restricted access to the Internet for a few months for rather mundane reasons. Unlike many much braver bloggers in Iran and China who risk prison and worse with every post.
Still, if you scroll below, in addition to customary updates from bugbears of mine - the Iraq War and the genocide in Darfur - are the following articles which you may or may not be interested to read:
Marlboro Man Comes Home From War: - photographed during the second major assault on Fallujah, US Marine Corporal Blake Miller's face was splashed over the US press in November 2004 and used to advertise American machismo. But what happened when he came back home from Iraq? Updated
Nuclear Power - Still a Bad Idea: Global warming may force some hard choices on us, but even on second consideration nuclear power is a mistake we should avoid making again. Updated
Preacher Comforts - the Wrath of Pat Robertson: The US televangelist who preaches some really bad news (especially to the poor) and the morass of corruption over which he presides. Updated
Yes it Hurt, Yes it Worked? The infiltration of Irish republican paramilitary groups by British intelligence - like many of Britain's pioneering counter-insurgency tactics since World War Two - is often uncritically admired in US political circles, while touted here as a success story and a model for the War on Terror. In reality, the results of Britain's Dirty War in Northern Ireland are more ambiguous and morally indefensible. The story of a lot of murders...
Just Push the Button: The disgraceful bombing of the Pakistani village of Damadola should prompt a reconsideration of the tactic aerial assassination as practiced by the governments of the US, Israel and Russia.
Thanks for visiting. Any comments of any description will be given due consideration at respond_alexblog at yahoo dot co dot uk.
Tottenham, London, England
You can read Dilbert cartoons at Scott Adam's website
Iraq - This has been happening for three years
Look back in anger - when US media outlets drunk on victory, spurned caution and lapped up Bush's flight-suit stunt on the USS Lincoln.
100,000 families flee sectarian violence
The Haditha Massacre - a TIME special investigation
Haditha, the London Times reports
Air war in Iraq stepped up
US plans "new liberation" of Baghdad
Most troops want to leave Iraq in 2006, Iraqis strongly opposed to ongoing presence of Coalition
Darfur - And so has this
The genocide continues - and so do international protests
Janjawid Militias Take the War Into Eastern Chad
Chad Massacre: A Photo Essay, Human Rights Watch, Panos Pictures
NASA Earth Observatory
Rich world media starts to notice, David Attenborough and Al Gore make movies
(Supporting Al Gore's new movie doesn't mean you have to forgive him everything...)
Fox News continues to mislead viewers on global warming
Some Headlines From Around the World
Success for popular revolution in Nepal as King restores parliament, International Herald Tribune
Permanent ceasefire in the Basque Country, BBC News
Atrocity in Timor Leste, old and new, Washington Post and Time Magazine
Huge demonstrations by Hispanic immigrant workers in USA for rights, dignity, Associated Press
Unrepentant CNN uses white suremacist source in Hispanic scare story, Huffington Post
Amnesty International Reports, Bush adminstration goes on counter-offensive against human rights group, AP
Sri Lanka on brink of war again, Christian Science Monitor
Marlboro Man comes home from war
In Iraq, even stage-managed photo opportunities become stories of tragedy and horror. In one pose for the cameras we have on the left, a beaming British Prime Minister. On his right, Corporal Gordon Pritchard chats with him amiably. The photograph was taken at Shaibah logistics base, south of Basra in the British zone of occupation on December 22nd, 2005.
It’s a good photo from a Prime Ministerial standpoint – there he is, on the ground with the troops, dressed smart/casual – he has taken off the tie (man of the people, ordinary bloke, one of us) but retained a suit (professional, statesmanlike, determined). He is depicted having a laugh with one of us regular folks, but at the same time, a tank in the background reminds us of the power he wields and the responsibilities he has.
But such presentation skills are stretched to the limit by the bloody facts of the Iraq War. Corporal Pritchard has since been killed by a roadside bomb on January 31st this year, becoming the 100th British soldier to die in Iraq since the March 2003 invasion. For Tony Blair, life has carried on much the same and – frankly – he is rather annoyed at being made to go over old ground when reporters persist in asking questions about the decision to go to war.
The photo was a routine public relations job, but try as he might, the Prime Minister struggles to get back to old routines, because people just keep on dying in Iraq. Now the photograph is a symbol of something else – the fact that there is no business as usual for as long as the Coalition stays in Iraq.
Another famous photograph to emerge from this war has also been shown to be worth many thousands of words. On November 9th, 2004, an exhausted, grimy, unshaven and slightly injured US Marine, Lance Corporal Blake Miller was photographed by Luis Sinco of the Los Angeles Times on the second day of a major assault on the city of Fallujah. Miller recalled the circumstances of the shot for the San Francisco Chronicle:
As Miller remembers that day, he was on a rooftop taking fire and calling for support on his radio - a 20-pound piece of equipment that he had to lug around along with nine extra batteries, hundreds of extra rounds of ammunition, and a couple of cartons of cigarettes.
As insurgent bullets from a nearby building pinged off the roof, a horrified Miller heard footsteps coming up the stairs behind him. He raised his rifle -- and barely had time to halt when he saw it was embedded Los Angeles Times photographer Luis Sinco.
Sinco himself thought little of the close-up of Miller’s weary face with a cigarette dangling from his lips, and filed it last among all the photographs he sent home, imagining that editors were looking for action shots. But the photo of Miller proved enormously popular back in the USA.
The picture was dubbed ‘Marlboro Man’ and around a hundred newspapers ran with it. It prompted a stream of slightly-scary commentary on the unique greatness of American manhood and much patriotic homo-eroticism. Rupert Murdoch’s tabloid, the New York Post, declared tastefully that “Marlboro Men kick butt in Fallujah” while the normally more level-headed Dan Rather at CBS News gushed:
"Did you see it? The best war photograph of recent years is in many newspapers today. ...See it, study it, absorb it. Think about it. Then take a deep breath of pride. And if your eyes don't dampen, you're a better man or woman than I."
Miller's gunnery sergeant walked up to him, grinning, and said: "Would you believe you're the most famous f -- Marine in the Marine Corps right now? Believe it or not, your ugly mug just went all over the U.S."
Aside from being an indirect public relations boost for the tobacco industry, the Marlboro Man picture proved to be something of a diversion from less aesthetic news for the US media. November 2004 was the bloodiest month of the entire Iraq War for the US army to date, with 137 soldiers being killed in all, and 50 of them in the attack on Fallujah. The death toll for Iraqis must have been huge, but for them there is no reliable body count since it remains Coalition policy to make no attempt to keep track of Iraqi civilian deaths as we kill them. We also now know that the US army chose to use napalm and white phosphorous in residential areas in the military offensives of that month.
Miller’s photograph became a feel-good propaganda picture, but almost every aspect of the reality behind it is troubling. Take the moment he was captured on camera, by the Marine’s own account, for instance:
Miller returned to his radio, guiding two tanks to his position. When they opened fire, he said, the thunder left his body numb -- but the building housing the attackers had collapsed. Later, he said, they would find about 40 bodies in the rubble.
Blake Miller was not asked about the use of his face to sell the bloodiest month of the war to the US public, and it is a role he is not especially comfortable with. A number of media outlets in the US decided to follow the story of Marlboro Man, and in doing so his experience has offered an unintended, devastating insight into George W. Bush’s war.
Back at home in Kentucky, Iraq was still taking its toll on Miller:
"...one day, while visiting his wife at her college dorm in Pikeville, Miller looked out the window and clearly saw the body of an Iraqi sprawled out on the sidewalk. He turned away."
He had already been experiencing nightmares, but hoped that his hallucination would be just a passing phase. Turning to his wife, Jessica, he said:
"I said, 'Look, honey, I just got to get out of here.' I couldn't even tell her at the time what had happened," he said. "(I thought), 'Well, that's it. That's my little spaz I'm supposed to have that the psychiatrists were talking about ... I'm glad I got it out of the way."
Blake soldiered on and had married Jessica in June. But Jessica began to suspect her husband was unwell by the way he tightened his arms around her neck when he was asleep.
In September, Miller found himself deployed to a scene of potential urban warfare once again, but this time in the United States itself - in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
"I really didn't want to go. ... There was a possibility we would be shooting people," he said. "We could be going into another (urban warfare) environment just like Iraq, except this would actually be U.S. citizens. Here we go, Fallujah 2, right here in the states."
On board the USS Iwo Jima off the Gulf Coast he went up on deck for a cigarette and passed a sailor who did a whistle imitation of a rocket-propelled grenade shooting through the air. Miller explained to Editor and Publisher magazine (link unavailable to non-subscribers):
"For anybody to duplicate that sound," Miller said, "they've had to hear it. Without even knowing what I'd done until after it was over, I snatched him up, I slammed him against the bulkhead, the wall, and took him to the floor, and I was on top of him."
And to the San Francisco Chronicle:
"I don't remember grabbing him. I don't remember putting him against the bulkhead. I don't remember getting him down on the floor. I don't remember getting on top of him. I don't remember doing any of that s -- ," Miller said. "That was like the last straw."
Miller was given a medical review and diagnosed with PTSD – Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder - and was told he would be a danger to himself and other Marines if he carried on serving in the army. On November 10th 2005 – a year and a day after the photograph that made him the front-page story across the country, he was given an honourable discharge from the Marine Corps.
Photo by Michael Macor for the Chronicle
Friends and family all report that Miller rarely laughs the way he did before being deployed in Iraq, that he is quieter and loses his temper more easily. The nightmares are more intense and his trigger finger twitches in his sleep.
Miller was born in Pike County in eastern Kentucky, where economic opportunities are limited and the best paying jobs for working men are in the coal mines. He first started working, aged 12, at a car wash and later began training as a car mechanic. At the age of 18, he was approached by a recruiter for the Marines who could offer him the chance to train in vehicle repair for free – and not just that, but also insurance, a house and the chance to go to college.
Photo by Michael Macor for the Chronicle
"There ain't a goddamn thing around here… My whole life, all I did was watch my old man bust his ass… My whole life, all I've ever known is working on cars, doing body work, cutting grass, manual labor, you know? It was something different… You always hear those commercials -- it's not just a job, it's an adventure. It was, you know?"
The tragedy is that the US military is the only institution that offers many less well-off Americans exciting opportunities, and help going to college, but only does so at a steep price – you must submit to its cruelties and be willing to get yourself killed or crippled in the government’s pursuit of its foreign policy, justified or not.
"I thought, 'Well, damn, that's amazing,' " Miller said. "Hell, here I am, 18 years old -- I can have all this in the palm of my hands just by giving them four years."
Offered a too-good-to-be-true opportunity, Miller began his training in November 2002, about four months before the Iraq War began.
Miller has been vague about the details of combat that have damaged him and does not discuss the weeks in Fallujah after the second major US assault on the city began. Like many soldiers, he feels that civilians who have not seen war before cannot grasp the experience:
"I could tell you stories about Iraq that would make the hair stand up on the back of your neck," he said. "And I could tell you things that were great over there. But that would still not tell you what it was actually like. You had to be there and go through it to really understand."
He has described briefly being ambushed, being injured with shrapnel, seeing a cat sleeping in the open chest of an Iraqi corpse, of meeting a friend he made during his training, Demarcus Brown, just before the attack on Fallujah, and later learning that Brown had been killed.
Much of the damage seems to have been done by the more mundane but stressful everyday experiences of a military tour of Iraq – the constant strain of expecting to be shot at or bombed. He told CBS News about the adjustment to civilian life:
"For the most part, I mean, it was a big adjustment [when I got home] just trying to get in that mindset of being able to just roam, run around without fear of being shot at or where to look for danger. ... It's unexplainable. I mean, just to go from that mindset to being able to walk around freely and just enjoy it."
An incident related in the Chronicle report gives an impression of how widely and deeply this affects soldiers: “When he and his buddies reacted to a truck backfire by dropping into a combat stance and raising imaginary rifles, well, that was to be expected.”
To appreciate how universal this kind of experience is for soldiers, consider these two examples of British soldiers who were sent to Northern Ireland, both taken from Aly Renwick’s book about soldiers returning from the Irish War, ‘Hidden Wounds’:
“When I went back on leave, the first day I went out shopping with my sister we were walking down the street and a car came past and backfired. Before I knew what I was doing I’d jumped over a garden wall and was crouching down behind it. My sister burst into tears. She said it was horrible to see me like that.” (p60-1)
“…one night in Northern Ireland, in July 1990, the snap of a beer can opening up finally unhinged Alex. Brandishing a pistol, he threatened to shoot the other members of his company, then himself. An Army psychiatrist told him he was suffering from PTSD, but the prosecution at his courtmartial rejected the idea and he was sentenced to two years in prison.” (p52)
The reality of Miller’s psychological condition, the near death of the cameraman, the bloody assault on the building just across the street are all part of the true story behind the photograph. And there’s something of a story behind that cigarette which evoked such nostalgia for past Marlboro advertising campaigns.
Miller started smoking when he was twelve and was smoking about a pack and a half of cigarettes every day until he prepared to leave for Iraq, when he started smoking two and a half packs. By the time he arrived in Iraq, he was smoking practically the whole time - a very substantial five and a half packs a day. The cigarette in the photo is less a symbol of old-fashioned machismo than an abnormally excessive drug habit to cope with constant stress and anxiety. Heavy smoking is something a family tradition and The Chronicle notes that most of the men in Miller’s family died of cancer before reaching the age of 40. Miller has cut back to his pre-war smoking level since coming home and has plans to quit.
Back home in Kentucky, Miller’s family reacted to the sight of his photo in the national newspapers with a certain amount of relief to see him alive and relatively unhurt. But the patriotic fervour that surrounded the picture seems to have left them cold. Jessica told the Chronicle:
"Some people thought it was sexy, and we thought, 'Oh, my God, he's in the middle of a war, close to death.' We just couldn't understand how some people could look at it like that… But I guess for some people it was glory, like patriotism."
She also lamented their failure to come to terms with the darker reality behind the picture:
"But when it comes out and there's actually a personality behind that picture, and that personality, he has to deal with all the war, and all he's done, people don't want to know how hard it actually is," she said. "This is the dark side of the reality of war. ... People don't want to know the Marlboro Man has PTSD."
Miller certainly doesn’t see his war as sexy and is insistent that he is not a hero. Reluctantly made to leave the Marines Corps and left to come to terms with his experience, Miller has been questioning the value of the war. The media’s Marlboro Man not only has PSTD, he isn’t sure about the war any more either.
Shortly before the attack on Fallujah, Miller rang his adoptive grandmother, Mildred Childrers and asked her, “How can people go to church and be a Christian and kill people in Iraq?”
She explained to the Chronicle that Miller struggled to reconcile his values with the war, "He was raised where that's one of the Ten Commandments, do not kill… I think it's hard for a soldier to go to war and have that embedded in them from small children up, and you go over there and you've got to do it to stay alive."
As Miller has told reporters, whatever rationalisations you might have for it, the actual experience of killing people is a frightful thing:
"You see movies where somebody gets shot. It's nothing to see somebody get shot; that's just a movie… But when you see it in real life, it's completely different ... the feeling you have afterward is completely different. Even when you're being shot at, and you're returning fire ... whether you've hit anybody or not ... it's knowing that you're actually shooting at somebody. At the time you don't think about it... but afterward, it's mind-boggling, it really is."
A survey of US troops in Iraq by the polling company Zogby International revealed an increasing lack of support for the continuation of the war, but the majority of US soldiers accept much of the Bush administration’s rationale that the war against the Iraqi insurgency is somehow connected to fighting a terrorist threat to the United States itself. This comes through in some of Miller’s interview statements, but even then he is questioning the President’s position:
"When I was in the service, my opinion was whatever the commander in chief's opinion was," he said. "But after I got out, I really started thinking about it. ... The biggest question I have is how you can make war on an entire country, when a certain group from that country is practicing terrorism against you. It's as if a gang from New York went to Iraq and blew up some stuff, and Iraq started a war against us because of that."
Miller has the imagination to look at that from an Iraqi point of view:
"I mean, how would we feel if they came over and started something here?" he asked. "I'm glad that I fought for my country. But looking back on it, I wouldn't do it all over again."
For the time being, Miller’s main public commitment is to draw attention to the psychological damage done to US soldiers who have returned from Iraq and appeal for public understanding. As army friends have contacted him in distress with their own waking nightmares, he has become more aware of the extent of both his problem and theirs:
"What the hell are those people going to do once they get out? They ride it out until they get an honorable discharge, and then they're never diagnosed with anything," Miller said. "How the hell are you going to do anything for them after that? And that's how so many of these guys are ending up on the damn streets,” he told the Chronicle.
And the Seattle Times: “The biggest reason I did this interview is because I want people to know that PTSD is not something people come down with because they're crazy. It's an anxiety disorder, where you've experienced something so traumatic that you were close to death… A lot of Vietnam vets suffered from PTSD, but nobody took the time to understand or help them. Now, some of those guys are living on the street. You look at… where they are now ... that hurts."
Whether he will come out more decisively against the war or not remains to be seen. For now he moots his doubts and leaves it at that:
"That's just my opinion. It blows my mind that we've continued to drag this out."
That last sentence certainly sums up many of my own feelings.
[Note: Corporal Alex Findlay of the Scots Guards later received £100,000 from the Ministry of Defence in an out-of-court settlement and the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the army had treated him unfairly having failed to recognise his mental condition]
Update: In his most recent interview for the Los Angeles Times, Blake Miller and his wife, Jessica, both express outright opposition to the war in Iraq. I wish both of them the very best for the future.
Sources and links:
'Marlboro Man' in Iraq War Photo Suffers from PTSD, Editor and Publisher Magazine, January 4th, 2006 (link to excerpt at CommonDreams.com):
'Former Marine is "Marlboro Man" no more', Jim Warren, Knight Ridder Newspapers, January 22nd, 2006: http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/nationworld/2002754628_marlboro22.html
'The War Within', Matthew B. Stannard, San Francisco Chronicle, January 29th, 2006:
'Blair met 100th war death soldier', BBC Online, February 1st 2006:
'"Face of War" speaks', Harry Smith, CBS - the Early Show, February 8th, 2006:
'U.S. Troops in Iraq: 72% say end war in 2006', Zogby International Polling Company, February 26th 2006: http://www.zogby.com/news/ReadNews.dbm?ID=1075
British military casualties in Iraq, BBC Online, March 3rd, 2006:
'Hidden Wounds: Problems of Northern Ireland Veterans and Civvy Street', Aly Renwick, 1999
'Oliver's Army: A History of British Soldiers in Ireland and other Colonial Conflicts', Aly Renwick: http://www.troopsoutmovement.com/oliversarmy.htm
Nuclear Power – still a very bad idea
‘Nuclear power, no thanks!’ ran a rather sweet little campaign slogan in the 1980s. Just a polite “no thank-you” - as if we were ever asked and as if Margaret Thatcher was going to say, “Oh, alright then, we won’t have nuclear power. What good manners you have – manners will get you everywhere in life.”
The world-historical disaster presented by global heating is so serious that it is reasonable to discuss highly undesirable solutions. And, as the environmentalist Mark Lynas cautions, it is important that the green movement should not become divided on this issue. But even after second thoughts, nuclear power remains an extremely dangerous energy source, and one not necessary to meet the present environmental emergency.
Obviously the nuclear industry has a stake in pushing itself as vitally relevant to climate change, and Tony Blair’s notoriously pro-nuclear government could not be expected to resist them. For less self-serving – and therefore interesting - arguments, the case for nuclear power was put in the pages of the Independent back in 2004 by environmentalists James Lovelock, a scientist, and Hugh Montefiore, the former Anglican Bishop of Birmingham who resigned from his position as a trustee to Friends of the Earth in order to make advocate nuclear energy.
But what is surprising is just how weak their case is. Both, quite correctly, ask us to contemplate the fearful consequences of our current use of fossil fuels – rising sea levels, cities looking like New Orleans does now, refugees from coastal areas, frequent and catastrophic weather events and worse. Lovelock suggests that the refugees “may then reflect that they could have avoided their miseries by the safe use of nuclear energy.”
Both consider but play down alternative energy sources - “biomass” fuels (chicken poo, straw etc.), “clean coal technology”, hydrogen and, in particular, wind turbines - as either uneconomical or unable to meet demand. Both skirt around questions of safety – and neither mention Chernobyl except, in Lovelock’s case, in order to reassure us that the wildlife around the former Soviet nuclear power plant is doing awfully well. The dangers of wind turbines, on the other hand, are brought to our attention – Montefiore points out that they “will scar the landscape and coastline, to say nothing of the problems caused to radar.” Lovelock states that all energy sources have their dangers and “even windmills are not free of fatal accidents”. Montefiore expresses confidence in the new design of nuclear power stations and argues that they will produce less toxic waste, and will be better able to deal with it.
Both express almost total disregard for the concerns of the public whom, as they acknowledge, are at best sceptical of nuclear power. “What at first was a proper concern for safety has become a near pathological anxiety,” writes Lovelock, “much of the blame for this goes to the news media, the television and film industries, and fiction writers.” Montefiore agrees, “[nuclear power] lacks public acceptance, due to scare stories in the media and the stonewalling opposition of powerful environmental groups.”
Their treatment of safety issues is really quite callous. It is true that “even windmills are not free of fatal accidents” but that makes as much sense as arguing that “even post offices are not free of fatal accidents”. There really is no comparison between windmills and nuclear power when it comes to safety. Lovelock reminds us that “life began nearly four billion years ago under conditions of radioactivity far more intense than those that trouble the minds of certain present-day environmentalists”. Which is, frankly, a ridiculous point. If other life forms can cope with the radiation, lucky them. And how fortunate that would be for us, if only we were pre-cellular organisms from an earlier geological eon. But we aren’t – we’re human beings and we sicken and die from the by-products of nuclear power.
Cartoon by Gary Oliver.
In a special edition of New Internationalist (September 2005), is a feature with photographs from nuclear power’s Ground Zero. One picture is from Novinki Asylum in Minsk, capital of the former Soviet republic of Belarus. Taken in 1997, it shows a room full of young boys, all of them unable to walk, so they slide, crawl and roll around the floor instead. Like the other children in the asylum, they are mutants, abandoned by their horrified parents at birth and handed over to the tender care of the state. Another photo from Minsk’s Children’s Home Number One shows three year-old Yulya who has what at first glance looks like two heads. Yulya has an enormous growth coming out the back of his head, about the same size as his skull. Inside that growth is his vulnerable brain. Yulya, like many of the children at Children’s Home Number One, was abandoned at birth.
Photographs by Paul Fusco and available online at http://www.newint.org/.
After the explosion at the nuclear power plant in Chernobyl in the Ukraine in 1986, 25% of the territory of the neighbouring republic of Belarus became uninhabitable for human beings due to the level of radiation. A generation of children are growing up with terrible diseases and horrible deformities in the state hospitals and asylums of Belarus, with no adults willing to be their parents. They are not a scare story and they most certainly do not benefit from any excess of media attention or powerful lobbyists.
Photo: Chernobyl Children's Project International
In addition to the thousands of deaths already caused by the Chernobyl disaster – and the many hundreds of thousands of cancers, both present and future – the ruined power plant may yet have more in store, as Adam Ma’anit wrote in the New Internationalist’s nuclear power edition:
“Few realize that the majority of the reactor’s fuel is still intact and active. The concrete and steel sarcophagus covering it was never meant to be permanent. Cracks have already begun to emerge and radioactive seepage has been detected in groundwater. Alexei Yablokov, a leading Russian scientist and president of the Centre for Russian Environmental Policy, warns that a second Chernobyl disaster could be in the making without urgent repairs. ‘If it collapses, there will be no explosion, as this is not a bomb, but a pillar of dust containing irradiated (cancer-causing) particles will shoot 1.5 kilometres into the air and be spread by the wind.’ Yablokov reports that already small luminescent chain reactions have been observed as rain and snow mix with the reactor’s fuel exposed through cracks in the casing.”
But wind turbines are pretty scary too, right?
Chernobyl - a city without people. Photo by Peter Finn for the Washington Post
Elsewhere in the world, the advocates of nuclear energy corporations have often argued that while the shambolic, secretive and callous rulers of the Soviet Union might be expected to compromise safety standards, not so their responsible western counterparts. In case anyone apart from Tony Blair is determinedly naïve enough to believe them, it is worth going over some of the facts.
The second most famous nuclear disaster took place in 1979, when equipment failures led to the partial meltdown of a nuclear reactor at the Three Mile Island power station in Middleton, Pennsylvania.
Happily, there were no immediate deaths, but twenty-seven years after the event, astonishingly little attention has been paid to the question of whether anyone has died since, as Joseph Manango pointed out in an article for the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists in 2004. Manango writes that at the time, there were few attempts to measure precisely how much radiation escaped and at what dosage in the affected areas. Also, studies have generally not examined areas beyond a ten mile radius of Three Mile Island, often do not take into account wind direction in assessing the likely level of dosage and have shown little interest in diseases possibly connected to radioactive elements. This, Manango notes, is not dissimilar to the lack of interest shown by researchers in previous decades to the public health impact of nuclear weapons testing, now known to have caused large numbers of fatalities but previously thought to have been safe.
Time Magazine cover, April 1979
The circumstantial evidence looks pretty grim. Data from the annual volume ‘Vital Statistics of the United States’ produced by the National Center for Health Statistics show a significant and unexpected increase in infant mortality and low birth weights among babies born in Dauphin County in 1979, where the Three Mile Island plant is situated – a 28% increase for babies less than one year old and a 54% increase for babies less than one month old. In further bad news, Manango summarises:
“In 1990-1991, a team of researchers from Columbia University, supported by the fund, published two articles on cancer rates before and after the accident in the population living within 10 miles of the plant. Using hospital records, the group found that newly diagnosed cancer cases rose 64 percent, from 1,722 in the period 1975-1979, to 2,831 in 1981-1985. Substantial increases occurred in the number of cases of leukemia, lung cancer, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, and in all cancers in persons under age 25.”
Only one peer reviewed study by epidemiologist Stephen Wing insisted on a link between radiation and cancer around Three Mile Island but the lack of investigation into the increase in cancer and infant mortality rates itself is disgraceful. So much for the hysteria that the nuclear industry is supposed to find such a hardship.
Map: United States Disaster Preparedness Institute (2000) Outer ring shows areas of high cancer risk in the event of a meltdown at Three Mile Island. It is 320 miles from the reactor.
In 1966 a possibly more serious incident in the US prompted officials in Michigan to seriously consider the evacuation of Detroit – and since the levees burst on 17th Street Canal in New Orleans, no one is any longer in a position to laugh off the idea of a major American city being wiped out - when a nuclear reactor in Monroe, Enrico Fermi I, 40 miles south of Detroit went into partial meltdown. The incident was unheard of until the following decade when the engineer John G. Fuller, who had witnessed the meltdown, published an account with the title "We Almost Lost Detroit".
Three months after the partial meltdown at Three Mile Island, recently graduated nuclear engineering student David Lochbaum began a career in nuclear power plants across the United States in which he examined thousands of accident reports.
Writing for a volume of ‘Everything You Know is Wrong’, he gives a series of examples of unpublicised accidents in US nuclear power plants.
On one occasion in 1968, operators at an unnamed research nuclear reactor sought to cut open a pipe along which irradiated water flowed, while working on the cooling system. To save time, they decided to block the pipe using a basketball wrapped with duct tape. It probably won’t surprise you to learn that the pressure of the water forced the basketball out of the pipe with the result that 14,000 gallons of the water spilled out into the plant basement in about five minutes. Had the reactor pool gate not been closed, much more water would have poured out, leaving the plant workers with much less of the protection from the radiation of the fuel assemblies that the water provides.
Lochbaum adds dryly: “The nuclear industry has made tremendous improvements in safety since 1968… Two basketballs would be used today.”
In July 1981, a power plant in the centre of New York state – Nine Mile Point Unit 1 – ran out of space for irradiated water and so the workers had to allow the water to flood the basement to a depth of about four feet. But the basement also contained 150 metal drums containing 55 gallons of solid radioactive waste which tipped over and spilled as then basement was flooded. Workers then poured 50,000 gallons of the contaminated water into Lake Ontario, while attempting – and failing – to decontaminate the rest. Three months later, the plant’s owner informed the government Nuclear Regulatory Commission (the NRC) about dumping radioactive waste in Lake Ontario.
Eight years later, in 1989, the industry’s own regulatory body, the Institute for Nuclear Power Operations condemned the Nine Mile Point station for still having a basement flooded with irradiated water. The NRC investigated following a television report that used the leaked INPO report, apparently unable to investigate of its own accord during the previous eight years. Says Lochbaum:
“The NRC inspectors estimated that the radiation fields in the basement approached 500 rem per hour. A lethal radiation dose is 450 to 600 rem. Thus, an employee would have received a fatal dose by working in that basement for only an hour.”
In 1984, the NRC gave an estimate of the probability of a major nuclear accident in a US power plant:
“The most complete an probabilistic risk assessments suggest core-melt frequencies in range of 10-3 [one in one thousand] per reactor year to 10-4 [one in ten thousand] per reactor year. A typical value is 3x10-4 [three in ten thousand]. Were this the industry average, then in a population of 100 reactors operating over a period of 20 years, the crude cumulative probability of accident would be 45 percent.”
That is, just under a 50-50 chance over a twenty year period of a core meltdown that could release enough radiation to kill millions of people. We were lucky.
And what of our very own British Nuclear Fuels? A former Minister for Energy in James Callaghan’s government, Tony Benn once claimed that he had never been lied to by anyone as much as by BNF. And probably not without reason.
The Sellafield nuclear processing plant in Cumbria has been a long-running sore in Anglo-Irish relations (as though another were necessary!) since dumping radioactive waste into the Irish Sea during the 1940s and 1950s as Britain pursued its very own atom bomb turned it into one of the most toxic stretches of water in the world. Both the Irish and Norwegian governments have asked Britain to close the plant down, and this remains the official policy of both governments.
In 1998, a portion of a garden in the village of Seascale was dug up and disposed of after two dead, radioactive pigeons were found there. Pigeons had been roosting on the buildings of the Sellafield nuclear power station in Cumbria. The irradiated pigeons prompted a minor alert, made worse by their excretion of radioactive droppings. More recently, and more seriously, as Adam Ma’anit writes:
“In April of this year, enough nuclear waste to ‘half-fill an Olympic-size swimming pool’ leaked from a cracked pipe at the UK Sellafield plant in Cumbria. The leak remained undetected for nearly nine months.”
A rusting barrel of British nuclear waste from the 1950s slowly releases toxic waste into the sea. Photograph from Greenpeace.
Major accidents have also taken place in Argentina, Canada, Germany, Japan, India and Sweden. Nuclear power is extremely dangerous when it goes wrong. But even when there are no accidents, it still kills people. This is what is exceptional about nuclear power as an energy source – even when it functions as it supposed to, there are still fatalities. (And to reiterate the earlier point, to compare it’s safety record to that of wind power is like comparing the safety record of cigarettes with that of porridge.) As the environmentalist George Monbiot writes, “The daily discharges from a plant like Sellafield probably kill several dozen people a year.”
Lochbaum sums up bluntly: “These stories suggest why nuclear power is like a sausage: The more you know about how it’s made, the less likely you are to like it. They also explain why so many people around the world are nuclear vegetarians.”
A citizen of Florida protests (whoseflorida.com)
In addition to the notorious internal safety problems nuclear power stations are faced by major external threats from the 21st century. One of these is, ironically, global warming itself. Further increases in the world’s temperature are, unfortunately, unavoidable, along with unpredictable heat waves like that which killed thousands of people in Europe in the summer of 2003. Rising temperatures have forced power stations to consider shutting down.
The French government has avoided closures by allowing its nuclear industry to violate the country’s laws that compel power stations to shut off their reactors when the internal air temperature rises above 50 degrees centigrade. Stations are also required to shut down if there is an insufficient flow of water from local rivers and streams. As the summers become hotter, France’s dependency on nuclear power threatens to become truly disastrous.
The second external threat has taken a new urgency since September 11th 2001. It is not true that nothing will ever be the same after 9/11 (and the nuclear industry’s complacency concerning terrorist threats is one example of reliable continuity) but one thing that certainly did change on that day is our appreciation of how civilian technology can be turned into the means of indiscriminate slaughter of civilians by those inclined to use it that way. The threat is even more acute if those planning an attack are fully prepared to kill themselves at the same time. The editor of the Ecologist, Zac Goldsmith, wrote that about a week before 9/11 the director of the French nuclear energy company Cogema, had responded to a prescient question about the risk of an airborne attack on a nuclear power station by saying “it is forbidden to fly over it [a nuclear power station] at low altitude.” Which is no doubt a major deterrent to the supporters of Osama Bin Laden.
While many power stations are designed to withstand even a direct hit by a commercial aircraft, there is only one way to find out if they really do. As the IRA once reminded Margaret Thatcher after a failed attempt to kill her, some people only have to be lucky once. There are many weaker links in the industry – the transport of radioactive materials and waste, for instance, and uranium mines. Civilian research reactors also provide opportunities for the theft of weapons-grade uranium. The risk is huge. And in addition to this, nuclear power provides a well-known shield behind which governments can pursue ambitions to develop nuclear weapons, which increases the strength of the case for outlawing nuclear power altogether.
Now it is possible to try and make the case that nuclear power is a necessary evil, but no one should make the claim that it is safe. Those advocating nuclear power to reduce carbon emissions should at least concede that their proposed solution will mean the deaths of thousands of people from the effects of radiation, possibly many more in the worst case scenarios.
An Australian cartoon attacking former Labor Prime Minister Bob Hawke and below a more recent poke at the lamentable current holder of the post, John Howard, by Peter Nicholson.
But does nuclear power offer a way to reduce the Greenhouse Effect? And is it the best or only way?
It is worth noting that the generation of electricity only accounts for about 16% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions - the rest comes from industry and transport. 16% is significant but it is the greatest possible reduction in emissions offered by a wholesale shift towards nuclear power. In and of itself, nuclear power cannot bring about the 60% reduction in CO2 emissions called for by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, though it might be able to make a contribution.
Also, it is not true that nuclear power is ‘carbon neutral’ as Ma’anit writes:
“The nuclear process employs energy-intensive industries dependent on vast quantities of fossil fuels. Uranium mining, enrichment and transport across the globe; the construction and decommissioning of facilities; and the processing, transport and storage of radioactive wastes. All these consume huge amounts of carbon-based energy such as oil and coal.”
The overall process of producing nuclear energy is considerably dirtier than renewable energy, (even if we do not take into account radiation).
The fuel is another problem. As with fossil fuels, the world’s supply of economically viable uranium is running out and is expected to be entirely depleted within 30 or 40 years. If the number of nuclear reactors increases substantially, the uranium will run out sooner. If enough nuclear reactors are built to make a dent in global carbon emissions, then the demand on the world’s uranium supply may consume it all within a matter of years.
The problems posed by nuclear power might be mitigated by new technology developed at very considerable cost, adding to the already colossal amounts of public money constantly soaked up by the industry. By 1992, the 30 most industrialised countries had spent $318 billion on research and development into nuclear power. Between 1948 and 1998, the US government spent $67 billion dollars on what it could get from the atom (not including the Bomb) while neighbouring Canada spent $14.5 billion from 1953-2002. France has kept its costs down by exempting the nuclear industry from paying normal rates of accident insurance – otherwise the cost would be no less than 300% higher.
Britain is currently in the process of decommissioning its ageing nuclear plants. In 2004, British Nuclear Fuels admitted that the costs of the clean-up operation would be £34 billion. The Nuclear Decommissioning Authority gave an initial estimate of £56 billion. An article in the Independent on January 3rd this year put the cost of the clear-up at £70 billion and former environment minister, Michael Meacher, added, “I wouldn’t be surprised if it was somewhere in the order of £70bn or £80bn.” This may still be an underestimate. The headline story in the Independent’s January 24th edition put the potential figure at £85 billion. This does not include the cost of the ten new proposed reactors, or any of the other costs of the last fifty years. People complain about the costs of the Millennium Dome, but at least the government did not have to spend £85 billion after it closed just to stop it from killing members of the public. The decision of where to put the highly toxic waste has yet to be made.
These kinds of costs are particularly relevant given that Lovelock and Montefiore cite alternative sources of energy as “uneconomical”. All over the world, nuclear power companies survive only through public subsidy – and in doing so, the relentlessly suck up money that might instead go to research and development into more promising technology. Alternative energy sources – wind, wave and solar power – all have their own problems, of course, but given the enormous costs and difficulties presented by nuclear power with its many hazards – why not instead put resources and effort into them? Adam Ma’anit again:
“While the nuclear and fossil-fuel industries have benefited from decades of exceedingly generous levels of government (read taxpayer) subsidies, renewables have barely had a look-in. Take Europe, for example. Last year an estimated $18 billion in direct subsidies were dished out to energy companies. Of this a mere $300 million went to renewable energy companies. Approximately $1.3 billion went to nuclear, and the rest went on fossil fuels. This does not include the generous indirect subsidies such as regulatory concessions, tax breaks and liability insurance write-offs (particularly important to the nuclear industry)”
As George Monbiot wrote, the dilemma presented by advocates of nuclear power is misleading:
“When Lovelock claimed that ‘only one immediately available source does not cause global warming and that is nuclear energy,’ he was wrong on two counts. It is not the only one, and it is not immediately available. A new generation of nuclear power stations can only be built with government money: the private sector won’t take the risk. It would take at least ten years, and it would cost tens of billions of pounds. The government will not spend this money twice: it will either invest massively in nuclear generation or invest massively in energy-saving and alternative power… So the dilemma established by James Lovelock and explored by Tony Blair and his incoherent ministers is a false one. There need be no choice between two kinds of mass death. We are still permitted to choose life."
Energy conservation offers a way to scythe through rates of carbon emissions and while renewable energy technology needs development, there are existing environmentally-friendly technologies for generating electricity that work already. Despite the puny amounts of money invested in them, the wind and solar sector continues to grow year on year. A future where a solar panel on each house or in smaller communities, a handful of wind power turbines provide electricity without any need for power stations at all is a possibility. But we need to put the money into safe, renewable energy now.
There is no need for the green movement to split on this one, because we are mostly pretty solidly united in opposition to nuclear power, and we have public opinion on side. It is those trying to break a consensus that has a solid factual and moral foundation with dubious arguments that risk dividing us.
Update: Tony Blair has pre-empted his own review into energy policy to announce that nuclear power is back "with a vengeance" (his choice of words).
Preacher Comforts - The wrath of Pat Robertson
Uncomfortably soon after calling for the murder of the president of Venezuela, US televangelist and former candidate for the presidency Marion Gordon Robinson (whom we know as Pat Robertson), successfully caused a personal rift between himself and another government.
Pat Roberston had been involved in negotiations with the Israeli government for the creation of a Christian fundamentalist theme park in Galilee as part of coalition of evangelicals seeking to raise $50 million for this purpose. It is a big deal, as an Associated Press article notes:
"Tourism Minister Avraham Hirschson predicted it would annually draw up to 1 million pilgrims who would spend $1.5 billion in Israel and support about 40,000 jobs".
Israeli governments have long courted Christian fundamentalists in the United States, both for the tourism they can provide, and the powerful leverage they have over the Republican Party and the US political class. It has always been a potentially awkward alliance of convenience, given that many US evangelicals are not well-disposed towards Jewish people, and given that the US religious right can be hard to manipulate as parts of it follow no one's agenda but their own.
Pat Robertson has long overcome the conflict of interests between God and Mammon, and usually resolves to serve the latter master. But it appears he couldn't help himself and following Ariel Sharon's devastating stroke, he boldly announced that it was none other than a very political act by God. God was OK with General Sharon's destruction of Beirut and the Lebanon War, but a partial withdrawal from the Gaza Strip has provoked the Almighty to loose the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword, Robertson
"He was dividing God's land, and I would say, 'Woe unto any prime minister of Israel who takes a similar course to appease the EU, the United Nations or the United States of America'. "God says, 'This land belongs to me, and you'd better leave it alone.'"
We have it on Robertson's authority that God proposes a one-state solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (guess who doesn't get a state), and that even a slight deviation from this course by a Prime Minister who has been seeking to deny political autonomy to the Palestinians by force for his entire public career must be rejected. Roberston also drew attention to the possible work of the Lord in the murder of Yitzhak Rabin in 1995.
The Israeli ambassador to the United States, Daniel Ayalon, expressed some surprise at this remark since Pat Robertson was a personal friend of Ariel Sharon - indeed Robertson had said "Sharon was personally a very likeable person" while explaining why the Lord God struck him down. And a miffed Avi Hartuv, a spokesman for the Israeli Ministry of Tourism, announced that the Israeli government would seek to work with other, nicer fundamentalists instead:
"We will not do business with him, only with other evangelicals who don't back these comments. We will do business with other evangelical leaders, friends of Israel, but not with him. We want to see who in the group supports his statements. Those who support the statements cannot do business with us. Those that publicly support Ariel Sharon's recovery ... are welcome to do business with us. We have to check this very, very carefully."
Alternatively, Hartuv might check very, very carefully in the mirror and consider what an alliance with such people in the first place tells us about the state of Israeli politics.
With a lot of money at stake, Robertson responded on January 9th with an apology addressed to the Israeli Prime Minister's son, Omri Sharon, in praise of his stricken father, calling him a "kind, gracious and gentle man". As for his unfortunate God-gave-him-a-stroke remark, he said:
"My concern for the future safety of your nation led me to make remarks which I can now view in retrospect as inappropriate and insensitive in light of a national grief experienced because of your father's illness."
"Inappropriate", "insensitive", but not actually false - it is a typical Pat Robertson retrospective retraction. He issues an apology that skirts the issue, claims only the highest principles and does not indicate that his actual opinion is any different to what he said it was. Why can he "now view in retrospect" his remarks as inappropriate? Could it be the threat to his business deal with the Israeli government? But it was apparently enough, and the previously enraged Israeli government got over it, with Ambassador Ayalon declaring:
"Israel respects Rev. Robertson and accepts his apology, which reflects his true friendship and support for the state of Israel."
Incidentally, Pat Robertson is not a 'Reverend' - he resigned from ordained ministry as a Baptist pastor in 1988. But the main thing is that everyone is friends again and its back to business as usual.
Meanwhile, Reverend Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a group of liberal religious and non-religious people who seek to challenge the rise of the Religious Right in America protested that Robertson, "has a political agenda for the entire world. He seems to think God is ready to take out any world leader who stands in the way of that agenda."
Indeed, and if God isn't willing to whack someone, Robertson is prepared to call for some human agency to step in instead. Back in August 2005, Pat Robertson was discussing the situation in Venezuela. What would Jesus do? Would he invade Venezuela and impose a military occupation to control its petroleum industry? Or would he merely murder its repeatedly elected president, Hugo Chavez? Other options went without consideration:
"You know, I don't know about this doctrine of assassination, but if he [Chavez] thinks we're trying to assassinate him, I think that we really ought to go ahead and do it. It's a whole lot cheaper than starting a war. And I don't think any oil shipments will stop. But this man is a terrific danger and the United... This is in our sphere of influence, so we can't let this happen. We have the Monroe Doctrine, we have other doctrines that we have announced. And without question, this is a dangerous enemy to our south, controlling a huge pool of oil, that could hurt us very badly. We have the ability to take him out, and I think the time has come that we exercise that ability. We don't need another $200 billion war to get rid of one, you know, strong-arm dictator. It's a whole lot easier to have some of the covert operatives do the job and then get it over with."
Some kind of constructive relationship between Washington and the Venezuelan public's choice of government (which Robertson is presumably going to carry on calling a strong-arm dictatorship no matter how many elections or plebiscites it holds) would presumably be as outlandish as a modest two-state settlement for the Israelis and the Palestinians.
Robertson's endorsement of violence caused considerable outcry in the US and prompted a formal complaint - and extradition charges - by the Venezuelan government. Two days later, Robertson was discussing the same matter on The 700 Club:
Wait a minute, I didn't say 'assassination.' I said our special forces should, quote, "take him out," and "take him out" can be a number of things including kidnapping. There are a number of ways to take out a dictator from power besides killing him. I was misinterpreted by the AP, but that happens all the time.
We could quibble about the subtle non-difference between asking covert forces to 'take someone out' and to assassinate that same person - the former is often used as an official euphemism for the latter anyway. But we needn't bother - here are those key statements again:
"You know, I don't know about this doctrine of assassination, but if he thinks we're trying to assassinate him, I think that we really ought to go ahead and do it." (Pat Robertson, August 22nd)
"Wait a minute, I didn't say 'assassination.' I said our special forces should, quote, 'take him out' ..." (Pat Robertson, August 24th)
Robertson was not misinterpreted by Associated Press, in fact he had succeeded in misquoting himself, presumably imagining that no one would check to see what he actually said to millions of his own viewers two days previously.
By the afternoon of August 24th, Robertson had released a press statement in order to clarify his views. This statement conceded that he had used the word "assassinate", though omitted to mention that he had publicly denied just that only a few a hours previously. He apologised and now characterised his comments like this:
“I adlibbed a comment following a very brilliant analysis by Dale Hurd of the danger that the United States faces from the out-of-control dictator of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez. In this story, Col. Chavez repeatedly claimed that Americans were ‘trying to assassinate him.’ In my frustration that the U.S. and the world community are ignoring this threat...”
Etc, etc. Well it's very understandable. We all get frustrated. Sometimes turning to prayer can help us to... oh wait.
So what were Robertson's actual views on Venezuela, free from AP's malicious distortions? They were this:
"If you look back just a few years, there was a popular coup that overthrew him [President Chavez]; and what did the United States State Department do about it? Virtually nothing; and as a result, within about 48 hours, that coup was broken, Chavez was back in power. But we had a chance to move in. He has destroyed the Venezuelan economy, and he’s going to make that a launching pad for communist infiltration and Muslim extremism all over the continent."
The eccentric claim that Venezuela is "a launching pad for communist infiltration and Muslim extremism" throughout South America we will put aside with the cold silence it deserves (although anyone who has any information on South America's vast, embittered but previously unheard of Muslim population is welcome to send it this way). But consider Robertson's claim that the State Department was at fault for lacking commitment to a military coup against Venezuela's new constitutional set-up, endorsed by a popular referendum in 1999.
The reason why this "popular coup" was "broken within 48 hours" was because it was deeply unpopular and a genuine, spontaneous, popular revolution by Venezuela's poorest came to the rescue of democracy in their country, overthrowing the two-day dictatorship. The US State Department tried to help the would-be dictatorship by offering diplomatic recognition as no other government in the world did, as well as resorting to some of Robertson's preferred covert methods. But that is still not enough for the man of God. Only fulsome support for the overthrow of an elected government can appease him. It's tough love.
"I am a person who believes in peace, but not peace at any price," Roberston explained. And the price of tolerating democracy in Venezuela, or even failing to wreck it, is just too high.
Few recent events have brought out such a stream of unpleasantness from religious fundamentalists as the destruction of New Orleans when its criminally inadequate levee system collapsed in the face of Hurricane Katrina last September. Consider some of the following:
"The whole parade of drunkenness, homosexuality and passions of the flesh was just washed away." Revered Philip Benham of Operation Save America
"In my belief, God judged New Orleans for the sin of shedding innocent blood through abortion. Providence punishes national sins by national calamities." Steve Lefemine of Columbia Christians for Life
"This act of God destroyed a wicked city. From Girls Gone Wild to Southern decadence, New Orleans was a city that had its doors wide open to the public celebration of sin... The day Bourbon Street and the French Quarter was flooded was the day that homosexuals were going to be celebrating sin in the streets... We're calling it an act of God." Michael Marcavage, Repent America
They were joined by Alabama's Senator Hank Erwin (Republican - surprise!):
Joe Scarborough: I am joined right now by Alabama State Senator Hank Erwin.
Senator, thank you for being with me tonight. You—you...You have said a lot of things that have shocked a lot of people. Explain to me why you think that Katrina was God‘s wrath.
Senator Hank Erwin: Well, I think, if you look at what‘s going on, this whole region has always known that, with the church, that New Orleans and the Gulf Coast are known for sin.
And if you go to a church and you read your Bible, you are always told avoid sin and that there‘s judgment for sin. And I just think that, in my analysis—and I can‘t speak for everybody, but I believe that, if you look at the factors, that you had a city that was known for sin—the signature of New Orleans is the French Quarter, Bourbon Street. It is known for sin. And you have a Bible that says God will judge sin, you can put two and two together and say, it may not be the judgment of God, but it sure looks like the footprint.
Scarborough: I have got to ask you this, Senator. I was on the ground in Mississippi. We certainly saw the pictures out of Louisiana. I saw young children, 15-month-old babies, who were suffering. I saw, in New Orleans, young children. I mean, you look on TV, you see young babies dying on the sidewalk of heat exhaustion. Certainly, these babies aren‘t sinful, are they? Should they be made to pay for the sins of tourists from Florida that go over and gamble in New Orleans and Biloxi?
Erwin: Well, I think you need to understand that, whenever—wherever sin goes, the sins of a few can affect the innocence of many...
Scarborough: But, you know, Senator—you know, Senator, though, I mean, the thing about the New Orleans—the New Orleans storm is that it was the French Quarter that seemed to be spared of devastation.
Erwin: Well, I understand that, and I think the Lord sent them a message that we need to turn around or we may have another hurricane come.
Others felt that, regardless of whether or not God was involved, it was still important to point out that the people of New Orleans were scum:
"The root cause of crime is a lack of moral character. You know, we saw a good example of that in the New Orleans situation in the inner cities. I've done a lot of work in the inner cities, and I have to tell you that crime and out-of-wedlock birth, black folks having babies without being married, and stuff like that is out of control. And it's not because they lack material things but because not all, not all, not all... but most of them lack moral character. Look what they did to the Dome. In three days they turned the Dome into a ghetto." (Reverend Jesse Lee Patterson, speaking on Fox's Hannity and Colmes show)
As all fundamentalists know, the love your neighbour thing isn't supposed to be taken literally. Could Pat Robertson pass up such an opportunity to discern a Divine message in the hurricane and interpret it for the US public? No, he could not:
"But have we found we are unable somehow to defend ourselves against some of the attacks that are coming against us, either by terrorists or now by natural disaster? Could they be connected in some way?"
Is there a link between the Bush administration's inability to save a single life on September 11th and its shameful response to the destruction of New Orleans? There is actually - the connection lies in official incompetence and the low priority it ascribes human life. But that wasn't the point that Pat Robertson was implying.
On September 13th, 2001, he had been discussing the implications of the massacre two days previously on The 700 Club, along with the Reverend Jerry Falwell, founder of the Moral Majority (who are neither moral, nor representative of the majority). Falwell notoriously declared:
"I really believe that the pagans and the abortionists and the feminists and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU [American Civil Liberties Union], People for the American Way - all of them who have tried to secularize America - I point the finger in their face, and say, ‘You helped this happen’."
To which Robertson said, "Well, I totally concur." This view - not totally dissimilar to the views of Osama Bin Laden and the perpetrators of 9/11 - went down very, very badly. Shortly afterwards, Falwell dissembled and Robertson backpedalled, claiming that he hadn't really been listening to what Falwell was saying. But Robertson's statement hinting at a connection between 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina in God's anger at the slow progress in the implementation of the religious right's political programme suggests his views on this matter are pretty consistent and much the same as Falwell's.
David Wasserman, the Boston Globe (available at Dan Cagle's political cartoons)
In fact, when Disneyworld in Orlando, Florida, started to host Gay Days in 1998, Robertson issued a warning/threat to the city:
"I don't think I'd be waving those flags in God's face if I were you. ... [A] condition like this will bring about the destruction of your nation. It'll bring about terrorist bombs, it'll bring earthquakes, tornadoes and possibly a meteor."
He had a similar warning to the people of Dover in Pennsylvania when in November last year they voted out the school board that had been trying to compromise the teaching of evolutionary biology. Following a lawsuit brought by concerned parents, the school board members were condemned by Judge John E. Jones, a religious conservative, for lying to the court (in his words, they “either testified inconsistently, or lied outright under oath on several occasions”). Roberston told Dover residents not to look to God for help in the face of natural disaster since they had ignored his divine injunction against the fossil record:
"I'd like to say to the good citizens of Dover: if there is a disaster in your area, don't turn to God, you just rejected Him from your city. And don't wonder why He hasn't helped you when problems begin, if they begin. I'm not saying they will, but if they do, just remember, you just voted God out of your city. And if that's the case, don't ask for His help because he might not be there."
And in case you think you can protect yourself by turning to God, don't be so sure that will help, because Robertson believes that several Protestant denominations not his own are in fact in league with Satan:
"You say you're supposed to be nice to the Episcopalians and the Presbyterians and the Methodists and this, that, and the other thing. Nonsense. I don't have to be nice to the spirit of the Antichrist."
No, indeed. When not busy pronouncing righteously on the true meaning of other people's deaths, there is a good chance Robertson will be helping to kill people for real. He harbours no doubts as to what Jesus would do with regard to the pitiless war in central Iraq and accuses those who do of treachery:
"We've won the war already, and for the Democrats to say we can't win it -- what kind of a statement is that? And furthermore, one of the fundamental principles we have in America is that the president is the commander in chief of the armed forces and attempts to undermine the commander in chief during time of war amounts to treason. I know we have an opportunity to express our points of view, but there is a time when we're engaged in a combat situation that carping criticism against the commander in chief just doesn't cut it."
As a point of information, it is not "the Democrats" who say that the Iraq War cannot be won - in fact many of the leading figures in the Democratic Party including possible future presidential candidates such as Senators Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden remain committed to military victory. It is senior military officials and intelligence analysts who have concluded that the war in Iraq is lost, and it is the people of Iraq who are calling for US withdrawal. And if it is true, as Robertson claims, that "attempts to undermine the commander in chief during time of war” should be regarded as “treason" and that this is a “fundamental principle” of the United States, then it is a fundamental principle shared with the very worst sorts of government.
But at the more practical level of killing, in the 1980s Robertson used his TV studio, the Christian Broadcasting Network to raise millions of dollars for the Contras - the fascist mercenary army that waged a merciless war against the wretched of Nicaragua for a decade. At the same time, he was applauding their counterpart in Guatemala, General Rios Montt, an authentic "strong-arm dictator" whose regime committed actual genocide against that country's majority indigenous population. Which puts his complaints about the elected Venezuelan government into useful perspective.
Robertson also reached out to the ruling kleptocrat of what was then Zaire, General Sese Seko Mobutu, one of the worst mass-murderers in recent African history. And with Mobutu, as with other dictators, he had the chance to pursue fraudulent business deals, which are another specialty of his. The great US muck-raker Greg Palast took a peek into the Robertson finances for The Observer:
"The combination of ministry and Mammon has provided Robertson with a net worth estimated at between $200m and $1 billion. He himself would not confirm his wealth, except to tell me that his share of the reported $50m start-up capital for the bank is 'just a small investment for me'."
Neil Volder of Robertson Financial defended this vast accumulation of wealth by noting Robertson's donations to charity, including raising $7 million for his own charity, Operation Blessing, to assist Rwandan refugees in the aftermath of the genocide in the 1990s. Operation Blessing had planes running medical supplies in and out of a camp for Rwandan refugees in Goma in the Congo. Palast noted the contradiction between Volder's claim of $7 million and Robertson's own claim of $1.2 million. But more importantly, he noted that the planes actually had a distinctly non-charitable purpose:
"...investigative reporter Bill Sizemore of the Virginian Pilot discovered that over a six-month period - except for one medical flight - the planes were used to haul equipment for something called African Development Corporation, a diamond mining operation a long way from Goma. African Development is owned by Pat Robertson."
Robertson's ingratiation with the worst regime in Africa (not his only business venture to involve co-operating with and had earned him access to Congolese mining interests and while raising money for Rwandan refugees, he was in fact using the money to supply his diamond mines. Volder argued that the planes had turned out to be unable to run medical missions and so by providing employment to Congolese workers, Robertson was doing the next best thing - he had 'freed the people of the Congo from lives of starvation and poverty'.
The mines went bust, like most every other business project Pat Robertson has launched from vitamins to oil and so this sterling work for Africa’s poorest soon came to an end. But there is a major exception to the string of failed business operations - religion, the only thing he has got to turn a profit. And its tax-deductable, too.
Much of Pat Robertson's performance consists of faith-healing, but of a very particular kind. Describing his performances as part of an investigation into fraudulent faith-healers in the 1980s, James Randi wrote:
He and his sidekick, Ben Kinchlow, bow their heads and tune in to receive a "Word of Knowledge" from on high. In turn, they each describe what they ask us to believe they are being told directly by God. One announces that someone in the audience has "a tightening of the chest" that is now being healed. The other says that a viewer somewhere "has a headache". Or:
"I have a word of knowledge that someone has trouble with tracheotomy. God is miraculously healing it! ... I see stomach pains at this moment. The Lord has healed you."
This routine generally avoids mentioning anybody specific in the audience. We get the same pattern of non-falsifiable information when it comes to Words of Knowledge from across the USA:
"There is a woman in Kansas who has sinus. The Lord is drying that up right now. Thank you, Jesus. There is a man in financial need - I think a hundred thousand dollars. That need is being met right now, and within three days, the money will be supplied through the miraculous power of the Holy Spirit. Thank you, Jesus! There is a woman in Cincinnati with cancer of the lymph nodes. I don't know whether it's been diagnosed yet [Note - that's handy], but you haven't been feeling well, and the Lord is dissolving that cancer right now! There is a lady in Saskatchen in a wheelchair - curvature of the spine. The Lord is straightening that out right now, and you can stand up and walk!"
Stay tuned after the commercial break folks, or risk missing out on the cure. Al Franken pointed out the obvious in "Lies - and the Lying Liars who Tell Them":
"You turn on the 700 Club and you hear Pat Robertson say, "there's a woman in Ohio who's just been cured of her diverticulitis. Praise God!"
... And frankly, it doesn't make much sense to me. I mean, if God can tell Pat Robertson that it's a woman, in Ohio, and it's diverticulitis, and it's been cured - why can't he tell Pat Robertson the woman's name? And her address? It makes no sense whatsoever." (p278)
Except that it makes a lot of sense if we suspect Robertson of conscious fraud. James Randi asked him to provide evidence of a single cure he had elicited in his years of hands-on faith-healing. He ignored the repeated request even when it came from a friend of Randi's who claimed he had close ties to Robertson and spent eight months pursuing the question.
A former associate of Robertson's who worked on his show, Gerry Straub, became disillusioned and wrote a book, 'Salvation for Sale' relating the following incident:
"[Pat Robertson] stopped when he reached a man sitting in a wheelchair. The elderly man looked as if he were moments away from death's door. Emaciated and jaundiced, his head and hands shook constantly... Someone pushing his wheelchair whispered to Pat about the man's condition and that he wanted to see the show in person before he died. The man hadn't walked in months... Pat... laid hands on him as everyone prayed for a healing. ... At Pat's urging the man stood up. The people cheered as the man took a couple of very shaky, small steps. While everyone applauded God, I feared the man might fall."
As Randi relates, this is very typical of fraudulent faith-healing stunts. A disabled person performs an action they are actually capable of, and the healer takes credit for it. A person who is just able to count the fingers on a hand in front of their face but who fits the medical definition of blindness is declared to be blind and then to be cured when they count the healer's fingers. Someone in a wheelchair who could take a few steps, is asked to do so before an audience lulled into believing they are witnessing the impossible. Faith-healing fraud requires some skill, but it's not so hard when you know how.
Straub followed up the case. The man who stepped out of the wheelchiar on The 700 Club died ten days later. "We reported his 'healing' but not his death," Straub wrote.
In terms of profit, faith-healing fraud is in the same league as smuggling narcotics. Palast writes:
In a taped segment, a woman's facial scars healed after her sister joined the 700 Club (for a donation of $20 a month). A voice intoned: 'She didn't realise how close to home her contribution would hit.' It ended: 'Carol was so grateful God healed her sister, she increased her pledge.' The miracles add up. In 1997, Christian Broadcast Network, Robertson's 'ministry', took in $164m in donations plus an additional $34m in other income. The tidal wave of tax-deductible cash generated by this daily dose of holiness paid for the cable channel - which was sold in 1997 to Rupert Murdoch, along with the old sitcoms that filled the remaining broadcast hours, for $1.82bn.
Some might be tempted to view those who send their cash to Pat Robertson in the hope of a cure for some condition as self-deluding fools who ask for what they get, but such harsh judgements should be avoided. Profiteering off desperate people through the exploitation of their emotions, sickness, grief and religious beliefs is inexcusable.
The mailing lists of millions of people who will pay for hope offer a huge market for those in that business – and many would be willing to pay for access. Robertson appears not to have avoided the temptation and was accused by the IRS of using the mailing list to promote his business in vitamin tablets. Various groups running in his name have been accused by the US Federal Election Commission (FEC) of abusing their mailing lists for commercial and political purposes, which is illegal. This prompted an FEC investigation into the Christian Coalition, which Robertson founded in 1988 following his failed bid for the White House. The Christian Coalition was accused by a unanimous bi-partisan FEC panel of providing mailing lists to the election campaigns of Colonel Oliver North and Senator Jesse Helms, paragons of Christian virtues both.
Five years later, in 1999, the FEC lost its case with the judge concluding that there was insufficient evidence of "illegal co-ordination". Palast provides a possible reason for this:
"...the government will never see all of the documents. Judy Liebert, formerly chief financial officer for the Christian Coalition, told me that she was present when Coalition president [Ralph] Reed personally destroyed crucial documents. When Liebert complained to Robertson about 'financial shenanigans' at the Coalition, 'Pat told me I was "unsophisticated". Well, that is a strange thing for a Christian person to say to me.' The Coalition has attacked Liebert as a disgruntled ex-employee whom it fired. She responds that she was sacked only after she went to government authorities - and after she refused an $80,000 severance fee that would have required her to remain silent about the Coalition and Robertson.
Christian Coalition president Ralph Reed took particular credit in seeking to alter election outcomes for school boards, once unwisely declaring: "I paint my face and travel at night. You don't know it's over until you are in the body bag. You don't know until election night."
In yet another expample of a gaff interfering with Robertson Financial, that same year, 1999, the Royal Bank of Scotland was forced to abandon a potentially very lucrative deal with Robertson following protests, particularly after he described his alarm at the power of Scottish gay people, "in Scotland you can't believe how strong the homosexuals are... [Scotland] could fall right back to the darkness very easily."
Palast also notes there is something a little odd in Robertson's electioneering for the Republican Party and dealing with British banks since has written extensively on how both are doing the work of Satan in the world. Business has trumped principle, both noble and warped, in other cases - notably with Robertson's attempt to set up a huge Internet company in China, where service to Mammon was again accompanied by service to dictatorship, in this case one of the Communist variety which Robertson and his ilk claim to object to strongly in principle, if not so much in practice.
But in a number of books written in the 1980s and early 1990s, Robertson has been one of the leading proponents of the idea that a small, long-defunct German philosophical society from the 18th century, the Illuminati, were in fact the leaders of an ongoing global conspiracy to dominate the world and destroy Christianity which continues to this day. Variants of this theory see the Illuminati as a diabolical and highly sophisticated conspiracy working through Communists, Jews, bankers, socialists, capitalists, liberals, the CIA, aliens, the Trilateral Commission, George Bush Senior, homosexuals, Karl Marx, free-masons, the Kremlin, demons and who knows what else. One version of this is outlined in Robertson's 1991 book, 'New World Order', as Palast summarises:
There is an Invisible Cord that can be traced from the European bankers who ordered the assassination of President Lincoln, to Karl Marx, to the British bankers who funded the Soviet KGB. They are members of the 'tightly knit cabal whose goal is nothing less than a new order for the human race under the domination of Lucifer'.
The person helping to bring on the reign of Lucifer, Robertson declared, was none other than US President George H. W. Bush. This might be considered a pardonable exaggeration considering Bush Senior's record in public office, but oddly enough when it came to the 1992 election campaign, Robertson backed Lucifer's servant, Bush, over Bill Clinton, presumably because Clinton was even more committed to Satan – a sort of better-the-Devil-you-know thing.
As Pat Robertson might say, what does the Bible tell us about all this? And the answer is that it tells us many things, but these might be especially helpful:
"Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing, but inside are ravening wolves. You will know them by their fruits."
"In their greed these teachers will exploit you with stories they have made up."
"Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world."
Good points, well made.
Update: Readers may be unsurprised to learn that Pat Robertson has said some unwise and untrue things since the above article was written, including the claim that God has warned him of storms on US coasts in 2006 (a fairly safe prediction) and the boast that he can lift 2000 pounds on a leg-press in a promotional exercise to sell his new line of protein drinks. Mike DeBonis addresses that claim for Slate magazine.
Yes it Hurt, Yes it Worked?
Denis Donaldson was found on Tuesday April 4th with shotgun wounds in his chest, lying dead in the messy, isolated cottage in County Donegal to which he had been reduced. As soon as his death became public knowledge the implications for the new initiative by the British and Irish governments to get the Northern Irish assembly in Stormont running again became obvious and speculation about the extent of the IRA's involvement in Donaldson's murder began.
[Picture: Denis Donaldson in between Martin McGuiness and Gerry Adams, and again in earlier but not much happier times]
Denis Donaldson was a long-serving IRA member, an H-block prisoner who helped to organise the resistance of the other prisoners to their treatment and categorisation as regular criminals - he can be seen next to Bobby Sands himself in an iconic photograph of the IRA's most famous martyr. He later became a significant political strategist within Sinn Fein. But from the mid-1980s he was also recruited as a paid agent for the British government. This contradiction collided with itself when he was arrested in 2002, accused of running an IRA spy ring at Stormont that had taken classified documents from the Northern Ireland Office. He denied the charges - which were dropped - and made accusations against the police, some of whom apparently responded by threatening to expose him as their agent. He subequently confessed that he had, in fact, been a spy for the British.
Until the 1997 ceasefire such a confession would have earned an automatic death sentence from the IRA's internal security division, (the 'Nutting Squad' as it is affectionately known within the IRA - 'nut' meaning 'head', into which two bullets would be fired according to standard procedure). The execution would be preceded by an intensive debriefing session, usually involving torture, followed by a tribunal (no appeal) and sometimes accompanied by a final statement of remorse for the act of treachery, real or otherwise, from the doomed defendant.
But with the war over and the IRA publicly committed to disarmament and demilitarisation so as to allow Sinn Fein's participation in the Northern Irish government, Donaldson was merely expelled from Sinn Fein after an interview in which, according to its president, Gerry Adams, he divulged little. The IRA informed him that they would not seek to kill him. Donaldson disappeared after that, but he was tracked down by Hugh Jordan, a journalist from the Sunday World, in December in a cottage in Donegal that lacked both electricity and running water. "I did ask him," wrote Hugh Jordan, "about his future and ask him what the future held for him now and he said 'this is it'...". Any British Asians and Islamic militants abroad who have been approached by British intelligence handlers seeking to hire them would be unwise not to consider Denis Donaldson and ask what awaits them when their services are no longer required.
Tony Blair and the Irish Taioseach Bertie Ahern accepted the Provisionals' denial of responsibility and resolved not to let the issue detract from their initiative to revive Stormont. Donaldson may have been murdered by dissident Republicans or by former colleagues acting independently from the IRA Executive and Army Council - we are left to speculate for the time being.
This month's edition of the Atlantic Monthly (April 2006), by coincidence, features an investigation by Matthew Teague into the infiltration of the PIRA by British intelligence, including an interview with the unfortunate Donaldson, whom Teague records expressing shock at revelations of the treachery of other significant IRA members, "I still can't believe it... My God." Teague, whose article was written after Donaldson's role as British agent had been exposed but before his murder, wrote presciently his "face seemed thin and gray, the face of a man who senses his end looming."
Teague's article is interesting and contains some powerful revelations. Some of his conclusions, however, need to be challenged, reflecting as they do a consensus among many British - and US - media pundits and political figures that British counter-insurgency strategy in Northern Ireland was largely a success story, offering a model for other governments to emulate in the age of the War on Terror. In fact, ever since British troops arrived in Iraq, media commentators have practically beamed with pride as they reminded audiences that the British Army would be putting to use the lessons drawn from its Irish experience, often with disparaging references to the comparative naivety and clumsiness of the Americans. You could almost imagine from such commentary that Northern Ireland was some sort of Great British achievement like Concorde or the Beatles.
Acknowledging some of the ugliness of British policy, Teague nonetheless writes in this vein: "But here's this: it worked. British spies subverted the IRA from within, leaving it in military ruin, and Irish Republicans - who want to end British rule in Northern Ireland and reunite the island - have largely shifted their weight to Sinn Fein and its peaceable, political efforts. And so the Dirty War provides a model for how to dismantle a terrorist organisation. The trick is not to mind killing, and to expect dying."
That last sentence demands clarification. The trick for Britain's intelligence agencies was not to mind other people getting killed and to expect other people to die - and, for sure, they didn't mind one bit, (a whistle-blowing minority excepted). Those charged with infiltrating Irish paramilitaries often avoided putting themselves at risk and relied on recruiting others to do the dirty work of the Dirty War - and they proved perfectly willing to dispense with those they recruited.
The broader historical claims made by Teague are, in my view, largely wrong. That British intelligence has been successful in its penetration of republican (and loyalist) paramilitaries is certainly true.
The claim that this left the PIRA in military ruin is not. In 1969, the old IRA had been barely able to get together any guns made within the previous two decades as they sought to repel loyalist and police attacks on Catholic homes in Belfast. The IRA in 1969 was in fact exactly what the British government claim they want it be now - a largely demilitarised force committed to participation in normal political processes. But by 1996, during a breakdown in the IRA ceasefire, they were able to successfully detonate a 500-pound bomb that ripped out the heart of Manchester city centre (killing no one fortunately, but injuring some). The police successfully rounded up most of the IRA cells in England during the mid-1990s, but it is hard to argue that the Provisional IRA were not a potent paramilitary force at the time of the 1994 ceasefire. Nor is it likely that John Major's government would have negotiated with Sinn Fein even to the limited extent that it did if it had harboured the hope that the IRA could be defeated.
[Manchester City Centre after the 1996 IRA bomb]
The claim that the British government was responsible for the shift in Republicanism from physical force towards the political prospects of Sinn Fein is partially true, but mainly in perverse and ironic ways. After successfully gaining control over the IRA in the late 1970s, Gerry Adams set himself against the idea of participation in elections. This policy changed dramatically however, following Margaret Thatcher's hardline, merciless stance towards the Republican hunger strikers in 1981 which radicalised Irish nationalism like no event since the Bloody Sunday massacre. When Bobby Sands was elected Member of Parliament for Fermanagh South shortly before dying from starvation, Adams recognised the electoral potential of Sinn Fein - and in this sense the British government can claim credit for the rise of Sinn Fein, though it wisely chooses not to. It could also be said that the British government acted to enhance this process by not assassinating Gerry Adams or many prominent Sinn Fein figures, working on the assumption that it would one day negotiate with the Adams leadership. Secret negotiations with Sinn Fein actually began in the mid-1980s at a time when Thatcher's government and the right-wing press were declaring solemnly that such a thing would be outrageous and unthinkable, and pillorying those like Ken Livingstone who favoured talks as the beginning of a negotiated settlement to the war.
[Picture: British policy did encourage the IRA to engage in the electoral process - but not in the way intended]
There are many reasons why the bulk of the Republican movement moved from a strategy of "armed struggle" towards "constitutionalism" and agreed to a ceasefire in 1994 (almost 20 years after the debacle of the 1975 ceasefire which had left most Republicans convinced that the British government had tricked them into insincere negotiations and firmly set against talks until the British indicated they wanted out).
By the mid-1990s the Irish War had been going on for well over two decades, seemingly without solution. The Gerry Adams wing of the IRA were young men when they took control of the Provisionals in the 1970s but middle-aged or older, often with families, by 1994 and accordingly less belligerent. The Catholic population of Belfast was on the receiving end of a marked increase in sectarian murders by loyalist death squads in the mid-1990s, which increased pressure from the IRA's long-suffering support base for a ceasefire. The near outbreak of sectarian civil war in 1993 following the botched IRA bombing of the Shankill Road fish shop and the loyalist's brutal response, the Greysteel massacre, also made the continuation of the war appear an increasingly bad option for everyone. Meanwhile, in conjunction with sections of the Catholic Church, prominent Irish-Americans and other Northern nationalists like John Hume, Gerry Adams had long been developing an alternative political strategy based on a pan-nationalist political challenge to the British government and Unionist parties for a negotiated settlement. This plan coincided happily with the increasing openness of the Irish government and the White House as Irish PM Albert Reynolds and US President Bill Clinton mollified Dublin's and Washington's previous strong hostility to the IRA. Finally, the British government itself was more prepared to drop its long-standing opposition to formal negotiations with Republicans. But for Britain to claim credit for a peace process that emerged primarily as the initiative of Irish nationalists no less than 25 years after entering into a pointless war of choice to destroy what was then a barely-existent IRA, touting the Dirty War as the strategy that paid off, would be an intolerable piece of chutzpah.
But if the acclaimed success of the British infiltration strategy is dubious, what is also worth revisiting is what this internationally-renowned model of killing and dying actually involved. As Teague quoted his principal interview subject, former British agent Kevin Fulton, saying, "it was a lot grayer and darker... Darker even than people can imagine."
A good a place to start as any is the 1991 murder of Margaret Perry, followed by the murder of some of her murderers.
Gregory Burns hailed from a Catholic background in County Armagh but made the unusual choice of trying to join the Ulster Defence Regiment, a Northern Irish part-time army unit formed out of the notoriously brutal and sectarian B-Specials which were technically disbanded in 1972. His application was turned down, but he has approached by British intelligence eager for Irish Catholic recruits and asked to become an agent inside the IRA. He agreed and was recruited alongside two of his friends, Aidan Starr and Johnny Dignam. His brother Sean, incidentally, had joined the IRA and been killed by a special RUC unit in 1982. Though married, Gregory began an affair with 26 year-old Irish civil servant Margaret Perry, who came from a family with long-standing Republican connections. But he was not adept at keeping quiet and proved unable to keep his work for the British secret. When Margaret found out, he became afraid that she would blow his cover and tell the IRA. He tried to fob her off, claiming that he was actually an IRA plant inside British intelligence but she wasn't convinced.
Desperate, Gregory turned to his British handlers in the Force Research Unit. A spy network within a spy network, the Force Research Unit was a highly secretive division of Army Intelligence, its existence unknown to much of the British Army and police. It was also a thoroughly murderous outfit, run by the ruthless Lieutenant-Colonel Gordon Kerr. An investigation by Neil Mackay, Home Affairs Editor for the Scottish paper, the Sunday Herald, drew information from some of Kerr's disillusioned subordinates: 'Burns contacted us and told us the game was up. He said he'd been compromised and he, Starrs and Dignam wanted out.'
[Brigadeer Gordon Kerr]
Burns, Starrs and Dignam imagined they would be whisked away from Northern Ireland into retirement, provided security and given new identities. But their faith in the Force Research Unit turned out to be grossly misplaced. Lt-Colonel Kerr appears to have decided that the three were not important enough as agents to justify the effort and expense, as Mackay's sources relate:
'Resettling agents is part of the deal. Who on earth would agree to work as an agent for the Brits inside the IRA if they knew that if they were rumbled we'd abandon them and let them die? But Kerr wasn't having any of it. He said it was all Burns's own fault and he should get out of the mess himself.'
This left Burns in a desperate position, since if Margaret alerted the IRA of what he was up to, he faced torture and execution at the hands of the Nutting Squad. The FRU whistle-blowers suggest that Kerr was pretty clear on his advice on what to do about her: "He said he should silence Perry." If so, this surely counts as a very direct incitement. To avoid ambiguity about his situation, Burns made it clear he might find himself forced to do just that:
'Burns was horrified and came back saying that if he wasn't pulled out of Northern Ireland, he'd have to kill the girl. Kerr was told about this and he spoke to Burns's handlers telling them to let Burns know the FRU could not be threatened.'
Gregory Burns booked himself into a hospital in the Irish Republic for treatment of an earlier arm injury, rang Margaret and told her that he wanted her to see him and talk. She agreed and took up the offer of Dignam and Starr to take her there. Along the way, they took her out into a forest in County Donegal and beat her to death.
The Prime Minister John Major declared, "The IRA's actions demonstrate yet again the true nature of terrorism". Indeed, but unknown to the public then - and possibly unknown to him - was that the episode consisted of more than the IRA's actions and also demonstrated the true nature of British policy in Northern Ireland. Yet again.
There is another macabre twist to this story. For those suspected of being British agents, whether they were or not, there were few scenarios as terrifying as being interrogated by Freddie Scappaticci, blindfolded and listening to him whispering, as he did to Kevin Fulton: "I know what yer done, boyo. The IRA hunts down all snitches and executes them. Two quick bullets in the brain. Remember the boy from County Armagh who left behind the pregnant wife. Remember the boy from County Louth who left seven children mewling for a father. Remember them all."
Doubt Sinn Fein will be putting that speech in a manifesto any time soon. But while Scappaticci delivered some version of this into the ears of an unknown number of now dead people, terrifying British agents on behalf of the Nutting Squad, he himself was - a British agent. And had been since 1978, following a dispute with other Provisional members in which he was beaten.
Scappaticci was designated within the IRA as an official "hard bastard", meaning that he carried out actual killings and in considerable number. A description of his career at the website of British Irish Rights Watch notes that he is suspected of involvement in the killing of Paul Valente, Maurice Gilvarry, Patrick Trainor, Vincent Robinson, Anthony Braniff, John Torbett, Seamus Morgan, Patrick Scott, James Young, Brian McNally, Kevin Coyle, John Corcoran, Catherine and Gerard Mahon, Damien McCrory, Frank Hegarty, David McVeigh, Charles McIlmurry, Thomas Wilson, Eamonn Maguire, Francisco Notorantonio, Joseph Fenton, John McAnulty, Paddy Flood, Tom Oliver, Rory Finnis, Robin Hill, Gerald Holmes, Christopher Harte, James Kelly, James Mulhern, Michael Brown, Caroline Moreland and Joseph O'Connor among others.
Most of these people were accused by the IRA of being British agents or police informers (some may not have been in actual fact), and all were killed while Scappaticci was himself a British agent, being paid a reported figure of £80,000 a year, most of which was paid into an account in Gibraltar for future use. The exceptions are Joseph O'Connor, a member of the Real IRA who was apparently killed in 2002 to prevent him revealing Scappaticci's services to the British and Francisco Notorantonio whose notorious murder we will come to shortly. Running through the names we can appreciate the fullness of Matthew Teague's statement that a willingness to kill and die was essential to the infiltration strategy. He writes:
"Some British press reports estimate he killed as many as forty people. A former British spy handler who worked at the time of Scapaticci's rise - a man who now goes by the name Martin Ingram - puts the death toll lower, but still 'well into the tens', including other [British] agents. He said it all fit into the larger British strategy. 'Agents have killed, and killed, and have killed,' Ingram told me. 'Many, many, many people.'"
After much speculation, the psuedonymous Martin Ingram named Scappaticci as the true identity of Agent Steak Knife, a tastefully codenamed British operative within the upper echelons of the Provisionals who stands accused of much.
Two names from BIRW's Steak Knife death list stuck out for me - Caroline and Gerard Mahon, since they were a married couple, put to death together on September 8th, 1985. I decided to find out their story. As it happens, their fate was investigated by the BBC's Mark Urban for his book, 'Big Boy's Rules' about SAS shoot-to-kill operations against IRA volunteers. The Mahons were Republican sympathisers who allowed their home to be used by IRA volunteers as a safe house. In 1984 they had been arrested and threatened with jail for non-payment of fines. But RUC Special Branch saw their potential as informers and in their rather desperate situation, the Mahons agreed to work for them in return for being spared prison.
But when the IRA discovered that a gun previously stored at the Mahons had been tampered with, their service for the RUC came to an end. The couple were abducted and confessed after interrogation. They were then driven to Turf Lodge in Belfast where Gerard Mahon was executed in front of Caroline, shot in the face and then in the back of the head. Caroline apparently struggled free and tried to run away but was cut down with machine-gun fire into her back.
For their efforts, Special Branch had paid them £20 a week. In the event of an emergency, the Mahons were given a 'panic button', a device to summon police assistance, but they didn't get the chance to use it.
Special Branch's recruitment of vulnerable people, with paltry rewards for a job with a low life expectancy, would be an unpleasant business in itself but 'Lost Lives', an encyclopedia of all those killed in the conflict in Northern Ireland from 1967-99, offers an even more dismal twist to the story. Four years later when the IRA were interrogating the late Joe Fenton, another Special Branch agent, he confessed that when he came under suspicion, his intelligence handlers had advised him to shift attention from himself by outing the Mahons, presumably sacrificed as agents of lesser value.
British agents within the PIRA who began to arouse suspicion among their colleagues were often told by their handlers to shift the focus from themselves on to others, a ploy that had the added benefit of encouraging IRA members to be suspicious of, and kill each other. Sometimes a British agent might, unknowingly, get another agent killed in this manner. Martin Ingram told Neil Mackay:
"To protect Provos working for us, we would teach an agent to pass of any suspicion on him onto another IRA man. The agent would tamper with explosives or guns owned by another Provo. That would cause the operations the target was part of to go wrong and he'd be suspected of informing or executed. We got rid of a good, few top IRA men that way."
Thus the IRA's ruthless internal security was used against it and the Nutting Squad became England's unsuspecting (or sometimes knowing) executioners by proxy. Clever, in a horrific sort of way.
When in October 1987 the Force Research Unit learned that Steak Knife himself was threatened by a loyalist death squad, the FRU used its agents in the Ulster Defence Association to direct the assassins to another target, Francisco Notorantonio. He was a 66 year-old retired taxi driver, whose association with the IRA had ended three decades previously, prior to the outbreak of the 1969-97 war. On October 9th, UDA men broke into Francisco's home in West Belfast's Ballymurphy estate at 7:30 am and killed him as he lay in bed, firing shots at his 16 year-old grandson on the way out.
According to the account of inside sources who spoke to the respected Irish journalist
Ed Moloney, one of the leading historians of the conflict and the modern IRA, this murder by the UDA was explicitly sanctioned and authorised by senior officials in MI5 and the FRU at a meeting at Thiepval barracks..
At the time Gerry Adams protested that, "I find it very strange indeed that this area was crawling with Crown forces yesterday. They swamped the place and local Sinn Fein councillor Sean Keenan was stopped twice. Yet today there was no one around and armed men were able to come in and out of the area." This might have seemed like Republican paranoia at the time, but Adams was right to be suspicious as, not for the first time, Republican complaints of British collusion with loyalist paramilitaries have turned out to be justified.
[Picture: The Ulster Freedom Fighters, a cover name for the UDA, in self-congratulatory mood]
For a British agent working inside the IRA to appear credible to others meant that he or she would have to participate fully in military operations. This meant that British agents would have to, among other things, attack British soldiers and RUC officers, killing them if necessary. This is not a point that those praising the efficacy of British counter-insurgency like to emphasise - that it means killing people on your own side, our boys (and girls) in uniform whose slaughter by Irish paramilitaries the British tabloids angrily denounced and demanded vengeance for.
Here lies one of the most extraordinary revelations in Teague's article. Kevin Fulton, a Catholic man from Newry who joined the British Army, was asked instead to become a spy and infiltrate the Provisionals. He became an expert bomb-maker and in 1993 was working with a team of others in this profession on making roadside bombs that were triggered by photo-sensors, designed for use on roadsides against Army vehicles. Fulton's handlers thought that by aiding his bomb-making efforts they could control the kind of technology the Provisionals used, and so have the edge on them. To this end, they provided Fulton with bomb-making expertise that would address the major flaw in the photo-sensor bomb (it could be unintentionally triggered by headlights from civilian cars or camera flashes). And so they gave Fulton "a new technology - the infrared flash".
This was state-of-the-art stuff, and had to be specially imported from the USA. MI5 got to work "to facilitate an undercover IRA shopping mission to New York, and an MI5 officer flew across the Atlantic on the Concorde to make arrangements with American services in advance of Fulton's arrival". They had to clear it with US authorities to see if it was OK for an Irish paramilitary organisation to shop for bomb-making technology on their soil. The all-expenses paid trip went ahead and Fulton returned to Ireland ready to make a new generation of anti-vehicle devices. As they say in the USA, see what your tax dollars pay for!
The infrared bomb was a hit - on this occasion British intelligence really did produce something that has been taken up the world over, but you can expect they will be rather modest in taking the credit for it. Infrared bombs were widely developed by the IRA and soon by other paramilitary organisations around the world who were impressed by the results. Most notably, the new technology has been developed by the Iraqi mujahideen who have used it for, among other things, blowing up British armoured vehicles in Al-Amarah province (which Blair's government has tried to blame on Iran).
RUC officers Colleen McMurray and Paul Slaine were killed and injured respectively on March 27th 1992 when their patrol car was hit a rocket triggered a photo-sensitive device hidden in a car parked by Newry Canal. Paul Slaine lost both legs. The coroner said of Colleen McMurray that she was, "A young woman from the island of Ireland [who] represents an ideal of Irish nationality worldwide. Colleen McMurray was brutally murdered by men who claim to be in pursuit of such an ideal".
More specifically, she was murdered by Kevin Fulton who parked the vehicle and readied the device, and who was working undercover for MI5. Speaking to The Atlantic, Fulton explained that killing Colleen McMurray was one of the few deaths he really regretted, on account of her being a woman. (By way of unhappy coincidence, Colleen's husband, Ivy Kelly, was one of nine officers killed in an IRA mortar attack on the RUC barracks in Newry in 1985.)
What ends precisely justified these relentlessly horrible means? The defence for all this, as for the entire British military presence in Northern Ireland, was that it, somehow, saved lives overall, even if it meant killing a lot of people. Did the intelligence provided by infiltration of Irish paramilitaries save any lives?
The answer is yes and no. There were occasions when the intelligence gathered was used to prevent attacks. An intelligence tip-off led to the capture of the ship the Eksund in 1987 which was carrying an enormous shipment of arms from Libya, including ground-to-air missiles that would have given the IRA the capacity to shoot down helicopters. The Eksund delivery was intended to help with a planned massive IRA offensive against British military targets modelled on the Tet Offensive of the Vietnamese National Liberation Front against the US Army in 1968. The interception of the Eksund meant that this never happened (and the PIRA never succeeded in shooting down a British helicopter). British agents such as Fulton would occasionally act to sabotage bombing missions by producing dud devices or tipping off police, but any operation that went badly wrong would always lead to an internal IRA investigation in an attempt to discover infiltrators or informers. Ironically, the Force Research Unit may have also used intelligence from its agent in the Ulster Defence Association, Brian Nelson, to prevent a loyalist assassination attempt against Gerry Adams, with whom the British government was engaged in secret talks.
But even for handlers who had any intention of saving lives with the intelligence they had, they had to make choices of when to stop an attack and risk blowing the cover of their agent and when to allow it to go ahead and risk the consequences of permitting deaths knowing they could have been prevented. On August 15th 1998, a bomb placed by the breakaway Republican paramilitary group, the Real IRA, in a busy Omagh street exploded early as a parade being watched by visiting schoolchildren was in progress. The 29 subsequent deaths made it the second bloodiest day of the conflict (after May 17th 1974, when loyalist bombs in County Monaghan and Dublin killed 33 people). But there is a well-founded suspicion that the RUC had advance knowledge of a forthcoming Real IRA bomb attack but chose this as one of the operations they would not disrupt.
The whole line of defence, however, works on the assumption that saving lives was the principal aim of the infiltration strategy, which is wilfully naive. To take one example of an operation Freddie Scappaticci may have betrayed - a planned IRA attack on British troops stationed in Gibraltar in 1988. British intelligence were tipped off and they followed the movements of Sean Savage, Daniel McCann and Mairead Farrell as they brought a car bomb and made their preparations. The tip-off gave the British government the opportunity to ensure no one was killed by arresting the IRA team as they went through checkpoints in and out of Gibraltar.
But Margaret Thatcher's war with the IRA had nothing to do with saving lives and the decision was instead made not to arrest the trio but to have the SAS execute them. However the Thatcher government later sought to portray the incident, the fact that SAS men had pumped bullets into the unarmed Farrell, McCann and Savage as they tried to surrender in a frenzied, merciless and very public execution, found its way back to Ireland. The incident revitalised the anger and morale of the IRA, demoralised by the Enniskillen bombing of the previous year, in which an IRA bomb outside a police station had killed 11 Protestant civilians at a nearby memorial service. The Gibraltar killings triggered a gruesome series of killings in Ireland itself when loyalist extremist Michael Stone carried out a one-man rifle-and-grenade assault on those attending the funeral of Mairead Farrell and two British soldiers were beaten and shot to death after accidentally stumbling into a funeral of one of Michael Stone's victims.
To get to the point, infiltration of Republican and Loyalist paramilitaries was not a strategy for saving lives or ending the war but exercising effective British control over "an acceptable level of violence" (in the words of Home Secretary Reginald Maulding). As the British Irish Rights Watch annual report for 2005 describes, the infiltration strategy generally got in the way of saving lives:
"Both republicans and loyalists have been literally getting away with murder for years and hundreds of lives have been lost and blighted because the hunger for intelligence took precedence over the duty of the security forces to uphold the law and protect the right to life."
Furthermore, BIRW continues to cite ongoing collusion between the army, police and paramilitary groups and the protection of agents within them as a continuing source of human rights violations and the obstruction of justice:
"...Nor is collusion a thing of the past. Despite repeated denials by the authorities, it has emerged that an informer was involved in the brutal murder in 2000 of Andrew Robb and David McIlwaine, and possibly was being protected. There is also a lingering fear that protection of an informer is hampering the police investigation into the murder of journalist Martin O'Hagan in 2001." (BIRW Annual Report 2004, p11)
"However, until the government, the Northern Ireland Office and the security forces truly face up to the fact that the paramilitaries were not so much tackled as managed and manipulated in Northern Ireland, and that collusion became institutionalised, then untouchable warlords will continue to terrorise the individuals, families and communities who live at the sharp end and suffer the consequences of these disastrous policies." (BIRW 2005, p9, emphasis added)
One ugly possibility is that the British used intelligence from its agents in paramilitaries to enhance the killing they did, rather than reduce it. This is known to be to the case with some loyalist groups such as the Ulster Defence Association, whose members were the beneficiaries of both weapons, intelligence and suggested targets from sections of the RUC and the Army, acting in both individual and official capacity. But it might also have served cynical British strategists for the IRA to kill more people, particularly civilians, in order better to discredit them, or perhaps discredit the option of armed struggle among Republicans. This remains a subject of speculation, though it is not merely fanciful, since many previously unproven suspicions of the Dirty War have been confirmed by subsequent investigations or the release of new information. Ed Moloney speculated in the Daily Telegraph:
"It was around this time, in the late 1980s, that the infant peace process was struggling to find its feet. Those, such as Gerry Adams, who wished to push the organisation into politics faced the enormous problem of persuading IRA militants to put away their guns. One factor that did weaken the hardliners was a seemingly endless series of botched IRA operations that killed civilians. Is it possible that Steaknife had a hand in any of these bungled operations, one effect of which was to make a political path more acceptable to the IRA rank and file? The Irish government, for one, is privately terrified that any probe of Steaknife will highlight precisely this sort of allegation." (Emphasis added.)
Martin Ingram told Neil Mackay that he knew of specific cases when British agents in the Provisionals had carried out bomb attacks on civilian targets, with the foreknowledge of their handlers. Usually in these cases, he said, an effort was made to limit the effectiveness of the bombs:
"We did try to limit the success of 'sanctioned' operations by sending undercover soldiers to IRA arms dumps to inject the explosives that were going to be used with chemicals that substantially reduced the capacity to kill. The Provos would plant the bomb and it would be allowed to go off even though we knew its location and timing. Sometimes, the bomb had been chemically deactivated sufficiently and no lives were lost, but at other times we hadn't put in enough chemicals and people died. Either way the Provos thought the operation had gone off successfully and our agent wasn't fingered."
It is possible to think of another example of a government using infiltration to manage and manipulate its paramilitary enemies, appropriate for the age of Osama bin Laden. The military rulers of Algeria who suspended the electoral process after the Islamist FIS party won the 1991 elections, relied heavily on infiltrating Islamist guerrillas to turn them against each other, and to carry out atrocities on civilians that would discredit them. As a result, the most horrendous massacres were perpetrated across the country without it being possible in many cases to even know who the perpetrators were, let alone why they did it. As a model for addressing the Bin Ladenist threat it is one that can appeal only to those who have no principled objections to the commission of crimes against humanity.
That any of the above ever happened was a disgrace, but what should worry us now is, as much as we know about the Dirty War in Northern Ireland, the present authors of the War on Terror in Washington and London do not see it as criminal or even as a folly not to be repeated. They see it as the height of sophistication in modern counter-insurgency. And those responsible - as Gerry Adams might say, "they haven't gone away, you know." Rather they have been rewarded and promoted, like Lt-Colonel Gordon Kerr, now Brigadeer and appointed to Beijing as Britain's defence attache to the up-and-coming Chinese dictatorship, whose methods of internal security he can no doubt appreciate, having used quite a few of them himself.
But what has it all achieved that could not have been better achieved by opening up the space for all-party negotiations in 1969? Apart, of course, from the long string of bloodied hands, corpses and funerals?
"Two quick bullets in the brain. Remember the boy from County Armagh who left behind the pregnant wife. Remember the boy from County Louth who left seven children mewling for a father. Remember them all."
Sources and links:
"The war is over for me... but is it over for Ian Paisley?" - The Monday Interview, Gerry Adams, David McCittrick, The Independent, April 10th, 2006
The Spy's Tale - The Life and Death of Denis Donaldson, David McKittrick, The Independent, April 6th, 2006
The Execution - How an IRA man turned British spy met his brutal end, David McKittrick, The Independent, April 5th 2006
Double Blind - The untold story of how British intelligence infiltrated and undermined the IRA, Matthew Teague, The Atlantic Monthly, April 2006
Agent died of chest gunshot wound, BBC Online, April 5th, 2006: http://news.bbc.co.uk/go/pr/fr/-/1/hi/northern_ireland/4877944.stm
Profile: Denis Donaldson, BBC Online, April 4th, 2006: http://news.bbc.co.uk/go/pr/fr/-/1/hi/northern_ireland/4877680.stm
The murky world of informers, BBC Online, April 4th, 2006: http://news.bbc.co.uk/go/pr/fr/-/1/hi/northern_ireland/4877704.stm
British army allowed IRA to bomb Ulster Pub, Neil Mackay, The Sunday Herald, December 17th, 2000, http://www.serve.com/pfc/fru/fru23022k1b.html
How Britain's master spy left Ulster double agents to die, Neil Mackay, Sunday Herald, February 16th, 2003: http://www.serve.com/pfc/fru/shkerr.htm
'Spy' trio held 'to save Trimble', BBC Online, December 9th, 2005: http://news.bbc.co.uk/go/pr/fr/-/1/hi/northern_ireland/4513324.stm
Why MI5 sanctioned the murder of a pensioner, Harry McGee, Sunday Tribune, June 23rd, 2002, http://www.serve.com/pfc/fru/licence/harryMcGee.html
Panaorama missed the real story of collusion in Ulster, Ed Moloney, Sunday Tribune, June 25th, 2002 http://www.serve.com/pfc/fru/licence/edMoloney.html
Francisco Notarantonio, British intelligence sanctioned 1987 killing of prisoner to protect IRA agent, Ed Moloney, November 19th, 2000 http://www.serve.com/pfc/fru/fru12022k1k.html
Britain's Tame Death Squads, Niall Stanage, The Guardian, http://www.serve.com/pfc/fru/licence/niallStanage.html
Big Boys' Rules: The SAS and the Secret Struggle Against the IRA, Mark Urban, 1992
British Counter-Insurgency - From Palestine to Northern Ireland, John Newsinger, 2002
A Secret History of the IRA, Ed Moloney, 2002
Killing Rage, Eamonn Collins, Mick McGovern, 1997
'Lost Lives - The stories of the men, women and children who died as a result of the Northern Ireland troubles', David McKittrick, Seamus Kelters, Brian Feeny and Chris Thornton, 1999
'Ten-Thirty Three - The Inside Story of Britain's Secret Killing Machine in Northern Ireland', Nicholas Davies, 1999
'The IRA', Tim Pat Coogan, 2000 edition
British Irish Rights Watch, annual reports 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, Jane Winters
Just Push the Button
Try this as a proposition – you receive intelligence that a group of senior al-Qa’ida operatives are gathering for a dinner in a house in Camden. An unmanned probe armed with air-to-surface missiles is hovering over North London. Maybe you can get a direct hit on the house, but even presuming the missiles hits their target, and presuming that your intelligence is accurate, you will kill civilians - men, women and children - right along the street.
Do you fire? Of course you don’t. What if it wasn’t London – what if it was Leicester, or Hamburg, or Amsterdam, or Sydney, or Chicago, or New York? I think not. It probably wouldn’t enter your head to try and bomb a place like that.
But what if it was a village in Waziristan in northern Pakistan?
That, apparently, is just fine.
[Source, CBS News]
On January 14th, either an unmanned CIA Predator drone or USAF aircraft (it is not known to the public which - most reports talk about drones though there are eyewitness claims of jets flying overhead) fired missiles at the Pakistani village of Damadola in the Bajur region to the northwest of Islamabad in an effort assassinate al-Qa’ida operatives who were thought to be gathering there for a celebration of Eid ul-Adha. The primary target was Ayman al-Zawahiri, an Egyptian expounder of radical Islamist chauvinism and al-Qa’ida’s second most important strategist and ideologist. Al-Zawahiri was previously imprisoned in Egypt in the aftermath of the assassination of dictator Anwar al-Sadat in 1981 by members of Egypt’s Islamic Jihad (whose method of choice in that assassination was not entirely different to that of the CIA in Damadola – hurling grenades and firing assault rifles into a crowd at a packed auditorium) and has since become a mentor to Osama bin Laden after meeting him in the Sudan in 1991.
A report by Jason Burke and Imtiaz Gul for the Observer related the aftermath of the CIA’s sledgehammer hit-job in Damadola:
“Yesterday some of the results of the strike were very clear: three ruined houses, mud-brick rubble scattered across the steeply terraced fields, the bodies of livestock lying where thrown by the airblast, a row of newly dug graves in the village cemetery and torn green and red embroidered blankets flapping in the chilly wind. Four children were among the 18 villagers who died in the brutally sudden attack on their homes.”
President George Bush has found other things to do so far than issue a response to the outrage across Pakistan – thus serving to confirm the impression many already have of his regard for human life, and more worryingly, that of Americans and the West in general. Instead, as ever in times of crisis, disgrace and disappointment, the White House offers us Scott McClellan:
''We are engaged in a war on terrorism against a deadly and determined enemy, an enemy that continues to target innocent civilians. In this war, we go out of our way to target the enemy, to target the terrorists, those who want to do harm to innocent civilians in Pakistan, in that region, in the United States. We work very hard to minimize the loss of civilians. And we go out of our way to minimize civilian loss."
No they do not. You can’t go out of your way to “minimise civilian loss” and rocket villages from the air as a tactic of assassination. It’s an either/or – either you minimise civilian losses and eschew such a brutal tactic, or you bomb villages from the air on the basis of an intelligence tip-off.
There is no use pretending that these were accidental or unintended deaths. You cannot fire missiles into homes or residential areas and then claim that you didn’t really want to kill the civilians inside – it is a distinction without a difference. If you bomb houses deliberately you are directly responsible, morally - and legally - for the resulting carnage, just as al-Zawahiri’s brothers-in-arms are responsible for the death of every unfortunate who happened to be standing next to President Anwar Al-Sadat. The fact that bin Ladenists frequently target civilians and slaughter them without pity or remorse neither changes the facts of the Damadola airstrike, nor excuses it.
Eyewitness accounts recalled the attack in an Associated Press report:
"My entire family was killed, and I don't know whom should I blame for it," said Sami Ullah, a 17-year old student, as he shifted debris from his ruined home with a hoe. "I only seek justice from God."
"I ran out and saw planes were dropping bombs," said [Shah] Zaman, 40. "I saw my home being hit… I don't know who carried out this attack and why. We were needlessly attacked. We are law-abiding people. I think we were targeted wrongly," he said.
What, then, of the CIA’s intelligence? For an intelligence agency that did not predict the collapse of the Soviet Union, that did not catch on to the significance of the intelligence it held prior to 9/11 until several rather crucial hours after the event but which did predict that Coalition forces invading Iraq would discover unconventional weapons programmes and mighty stockpiles of raw materials for the same – it was really too much to expect that their tip-off on Damadola would turn out to be spot on. The Observer’s report continued:
"Yet evidence emerging appeared to indicate that, though the technology that guided the missiles to their targets at 3am on Friday was faultless, the intelligence that had selected those targets was not. Even as American military and intelligence sources spoke of the possible death of Ayman al-Zawahiri, the second-in-command of al-Qaeda and the man considered to be the brains behind the militant group's strategy, Pakistani officials said that there was no evidence any 'foreigners', shorthand locally for al-Qaeda fighters, were among the 18 victims, though they said that 'according to preliminary investigations there was foreign presence in the area'."
Burke and Gul had no evidence to report from Damadola to suggest that al-Qa’ida operatives were being sheltered there:
"In Damadola itself, locals said they had never sheltered any al-Qaeda or Taliban leaders, let alone al-Zawahiri, an instantly recognisable 54-year-old Egyptian-born ex-doctor.
'This is a big lie... Only our family members died in the attack,' said Shah Zaman, a jeweller who lost two sons and a daughter in the attack. 'They dropped bombs from planes and we were in no position to stop them... or to tell them we are innocent. I don't know [al-Zawahiri]. He was not at my home. No foreigner was at my home when the planes came and dropped bombs.' Haroon Rashid, a member of parliament who lives in a village near Damadola, told The Observer that he had seen a drone surveying the area hours before the attack."
A few days after the attacks, anonymous Pakistani officials informed Associated Press that the strike on Damadola had in fact killed some Bin Ladenist strategists, including an Egyptian bomb maker Midhat Mursi, al-Zawahiri’s son-in-law, Abdul Rehman al-Misri al-Maghribi and Abu Obaidah al-Misri, described as “al-Qaeda's head of operations in Kunar province” in Afghanistan.
Those expecting this overly convenient report to falter under scrutiny did not have long to wait. On January 20th, Pakistani Prime Minister told reporters in New York that an official probe had found no “tangible evidence” that al-Qa’ida members had been killed in the airstrike.
[Shah Zaman lost three children in the attack, source: USA Today]
So – a village was bombed on the basis of intelligence that turned out to be wrong. What should we expect – an apology? A public inquiry? A resignation from someone responsible? Compensation for the victims? Legal proceedings against the perpetrators? An admission of error? Dream on – we don’t live in that kind of world.
The closest to an official apology was volunteered by Senator John McCain – “It's terrible when innocent people are killed; we regret that.” But in reality it was barely an apology at all, so much as an expression of squeamishness at a job badly done. He continued, "We apologize, but I can't tell you that we wouldn't do the same thing again. We have to do what we think is necessary to take out al Qaeda, particularly the top operatives. This guy [al-Zawahiri] has been more visible than Osama bin Laden lately."
We’re sorry, but we’ll go right ahead and do it again if we get the chance… Then what is the Senator sorry for? Given the fact that McCain has sought to distance himself from the Bush administration on a number of issues, his reassertion of the US executive’s right to bomb other countries as it alone sees fit, without being accountable to anyone, including Congress, is instructive. Capturing those responsible for atrocities such as the East African embassy bombings or the 9/11 massacres is an important and necessary objective. But it is certainly not the case that anyone in Langley or the Pentagon or the White House has the right to bomb a village in Pakistan on the grounds that “we have to do what we think is necessary”.
Senator McCain was certainly more eloquent than his Senate colleague Evan Byah, who compared Waziristan to ‘Indian country’ where previous governments of the United States also felt that anything went: "Now, it's a regrettable situation, but what else are we supposed to do? It's like the Wild, Wild West out there. The Pakistani border is a real problem."
The possible infiltration of what remains of al-Qa’ida and associated groups into Waziristan certainly has presented a challenge for the Pakistani and US governments. The search for al-Qa’ida operatives is taking place in a large, porous, mountainous region 1,000 miles long and 200 miles wide, inhabited by fiercely independent and well-armed tribes who resent the forces of the Pakistani authorities, let well alone those drawn from elsewhere. An attempt to elicit information and assistance from people in Waziristan in tracking down internationally-wanted criminals would require an intelligence operation of subtlety and tact.
[Source: BBC News Online]
To date, the governments of Pakistan and the United States have shown themselves both interested in, and capable of, neither. Under General Musharaff, the Pakistani regime has succeeded in creating a military quagmire within its own borders.
Pakistani troops re-entered Waziristan for the first time in 55 years in July 2002, negotiating carefully with local tribes and offering development funds in return for assistance. However, once military operations began, relations quickly broke down between the army and local people as the BBC’s correspondent in Islamabad, Zaffar Abbas, explains:
“…once the military action started in South Waziristan a number of Waziri sub-tribes took it as an attempt to subjugate them. Attempts to persuade them into handing over the foreign militants failed, and with… mishandling by the authorities, the security campaign against suspected al-Qaeda militants turned into an undeclared war between the Pakistani military and the rebel tribesmen.”
What had begun as a kind of policing operation has transformed the region into a war zone, particularly after a major escalation in March 2004 with Pakistani forces deploying artillery, bomber aircraft and helicopter gunships against its own citizens. Large and uncounted numbers of local people have been killed, while scores of Pakistani soldiers sent into the war zone have not returned alive. Relations between the Pakistani authorities and locals have deteriorated irretrievably and Islamabad appears stuck for ideas except for more of the same.
The impact of the Damadola airstrike has been disastrous for US-Pakistan relations – from a tactical point of view, it is a further set-back in the War on Terror. The Pakistani dictatorship has re-affirmed its close relationship with Washington, but General Musharaff was forced to condemn the US airstrike and to insist that such operations will not be repeated. Co-operation between US and Pakistani forces was already difficult because of popular hostility to the idea in Pakistan and Islamabad’s denials that US forces operate on Pakistani soil are harder to maintain.
But will the kind of atrocity committed in Damadola be repeated? Or has the tactic of aerial assassination now been discredited by the political blow-back? Unfortunately, it probably hasn’t been.
Targeted aerial assassination has a suitably appalling history – unlike most methods of assassination, it virtually guarantees civilian deaths every time, regardless of whether the target is killed or not. Precursors of modern targeted assassinations include the somewhat less precise Israeli Air Force raid by a squadron of F-15 fighter planes in Tunis on the headquarters of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation, killing 75 people in 1985, and the USAF raid on a range of military and intelligence targets in Tripoli in Libya. Partly an effort to kill the now-officially-in-favour dictator Colonel Qadaffi, the bombs missed the Colonel but killed his adopted daughter, aged 1, along with more than a hundred other Libyans. US bombs went astray, as they do, and hit a hospital and the French embassy amongst other things.
[A UN Security Council Resolution condemnation of the bombing of Tunis can be read here, at the Israeli Foreign Ministry's website]
The Russian government has also adopted the tactic in both of its horrendous wars in Chechnya, successfully murdering Chechen president General Dzhokhar Dudayev in April 1996. (Chechen President Alsan Mashkadov was also murdered in March 2005 possibly by the Russian secret police, the FSB, though quite how he was killed is still not fully known.)
Boris Yeltsin’s dilapidated regime made numerous efforts to kill Dudayev from 1991 onwards, and his assassination was elevated to the principal Russian strategy in quashing Chechen hopes for independence. After numerous failed attempts, including planting a conventional explosive that killed two Chechen policemen and an escort driver, Dudayev was finally killed when a Russian reconaissance planes picked up the signal from a satellite phone he was unwisely using, and further aircraft were called in for the kill, using precision weaponry.
Moscow’s technological innovation in homicide, in a war otherwise noted for official incompetence and exposing everything that is wrong with the Russian army, proved to be an inspiration to Washington as Richard Belfield wrote in his book on official assassination programmes since the Second World War, ‘Terminate with Extreme Prejudice’:
“The use of missiles in this way marked a quantum leap in assassination practice. The rich nations no longer need to worry about defectors and bad publicity. Advanced electronics means that missiles are now used to assassinate individuals, remotely and at a distance, where previously the assassin had needed to be close up. The problem of the squeamish assassin has been addressed: killing is now done at one-stage removed, neat and far less stressful for those on the frontline.” (p54)
This dream of the clean kill from the air came true for the CIA in Yemen in November 2002 following a year-long pursuit of Qaed Senyan al-Harithi in conjunction with Yemeni authorities. Al-Harithi was formerly a bodyguard to Osama bin Laden and was suspected of organising the attack on the USS Cole that killed 17 US navy servicemen in the summer of 2001 while anchored in Aden Harbour. The CIA caught up with al-Harithi and tracked him as he travelled in a taxi through the Yemeni desert with five other men.
The assassins got a signal from a mobile phone used by the one of the occupants in the car, confirming their identity, and, operating a Predator drone from an unknown US army base, they fired an anti-tank Hellfire missile which killed all the occupants of the vehicle and left the taxi a blackened wreck in the middle of a desert.
Graphic: BBC News Online
Aside from al-Harithi, precisely who the occupants of the taxi were is unclear - their specific offences were will never be established by any court. One was known to be an American citizen. The operation was widely regarded in the US media and political circles as justifiable and a success. But aside from the dubious moral legitimacy and illegality of out-of-court execution, it established an unfortunate precedent of allowing the US government to resort to assassination anywhere in the Third World and sustained illusions of the prospects for a comparatively clean kill through airstrikes (or as clean as such a line of work could be). But few aerial assassinations reach even this level of cleanliness. And major US targets such as bin Laden were not slow to learn the lesson of the killings of al-Harithi and Dudayev – keep your mobiles switched off.
The use of the tactic in Iraq from the time of the First Gulf War onwards provides a more realistic and disturbing overall picture. During the 1991 Gulf War, the USAF attempted to assassinate Saddam Hussein by bombing a concrete bunker in the Al-Amariya district of Baghdad on the night of February 13th 1991. Neither he, nor any senior government officials were in the bunker, nor even any young men of military age, since the complex had long been used as a civilian air-raid shelter for women, children and the elderly, with unknown hundreds of families seeking protection there. A single missile – a smart-bomb as they are known, with laser-guiding technology - penetrated the reinforced concrete surrounding the air vent and a second went deep into the interior.
The women, children and elderly people inside were either incinerated or boiled alive in temperatures that soared into many hundreds of degrees centigrade. While I was in Iraq in the summer of 2001, I had the opportunity to visit the shelter, which is now a memorial for the dead (and in some respects was also a tasteless propaganda monument to Saddam's regime). The walls are still marked with the various human forms burned into them, mostly the hands of people desperately trying to escape the oven in which they were trapped, and also some human faces of people screaming, one with a clearly visible eye that still stares out at the living. A mere handful had survived, having been blown out of the shelter by the explosion while God only knows what the rest endured. Some four hundred dessicated corpses were removed from the shelter.
That should have been sufficient to end discussion of targeted assassinations by aircraft. But it was not. Two years later, a new White House occupant sought to make his mark on the global scene, and took the opportunity to bomb Baghdad in another stab-in-the-dark attempt to assassinate the Iraqi tyrant. Richard Belfield describes the effort:
“Fast forward to 16 June 1993. Twenty-three Tomahawk Cruise missiles were fired from US Navy warships in the Gulf and the Red Sea. Their target was the headquarters of the Mukhabarat, the Iraqi Intelligence Service. Once the missiles left the sea, they hugged the land through TERCOM (terrain counter matching) and were then guided to the target through a series of advanced electronics called DSMAC (digital scene matching area correlation). This abundance of acronyms (so loved by the military everywhere) is supposed to guarantee an accuracy of ten metres. In the event three missiles completely missed their targets, hitting nearby houses, killing eight, including one of Iraq’s leading artists, Layla al-Attar. Clinton’s popularity ratings jumped eleven points the next day, which at a million dollars a missile is PR money well spent.” (p150)
And so, a botched assassination attempt that killed civilians resulted in positive political blow-back for the Clinton White House. What sort of lessons were US presidents meant to draw from that?
The very first shot fired of the Iraq War beginning March 20th, 2003, was an attempt to kill Saddam Hussein from the air - which failed to do so and killed a civilian. The hope was, that by decapitating – to borrow their word - the regime on the first day, the US army could proceed to invade relatively peacefully and govern Iraq through a reformulated Ba’athist administration. It was a strategy that prompted peace movement researcher Milan Rai to suggest that the whole war could be seen as an extension of a failed policy of assassination, and the 2003 invasion as an unusually destructive and ambitious assassination attempt taken to its logical conclusion - "This is the most costly, dangerous and reckless assassination attempt in world history".
During the invasion of Iraq, as a Human Rights Watch report, “Off Target”, found, there were at least 50 aerial assassination attempts of Iraqi government officials. Incredibly, not a single one succeeded in killing their intended target – that is zero. Civilians were less fortunate, and many perished in these failed hit-jobs.
[Al-Mansur district, Baghdad, source: Human Rights Watch]
Most famously, on April 7th 2003, an intelligence tip-off that Saddam Hussein was dining in a restaurant in the al-Mansur district of Baghdad prompted a raid by a B-1B Lancer firing 2,000 pounds of satellite-guided Joint Direct Attack Munitions, a collection of expensive hi-tech equipment and clever acronyms that levelled the restaurant and much of the surrounding residential area. The intelligence was wrong (again), and Saddam Hussein survived to be captured eight months later by US Marines near Tikrit, hiding in a hole. At least 18 Iraqi civilian corpses, however, had been pulled from the rubble back in al-Mansur.
One of several attempts to kill Saddam Hussein, the administration had already claimed to have hit the dictator at the time they tried again at al-Mansur. The HRW report quotes a US intelligence official saying, “just in case he didn’t die, let’s have him die again”. How seriously does that remark indicate that they took their own intelligence before ordering a strike that killed 18 people, who had as much right to their lives as you do? And, as ever, the Pentagon found itself confident enough in its intelligence-gathering capabilities to order a raid on a residential area but became very modest about those same capabilities when asked by journalists to assess the civilian losses. They defended the strike, however, as one that “demonstrated US resolve and capabilities”. Quite what they had actually demonstrated is another matter, but what did become clear is that the USAF ability to hit a specific location accurately far outstrips its ability to locate particular human targets even using the most sophisticated techniques in tracking satellite phones available.
[Source of satellite photograph, Human Rights Watch]
This brings us back to Scott McClellan (who has since resigned and been replaced by Fox News anchor, Tony Snow), attempting to convince us of the Bush administration’s pains to reduce civilian losses, a claim that does not survive scrutiny, as we have seen. Aerial assassination, as practised for over a decade in Iraq, has a very consistent track record – the supporting intelligence almost always turns out to be wrong, the actual target almost always evades death, and civilians are almost always killed either way. There is only one reasonable conclusion to draw from this – aerial assassination should be dropped as a tactic and made explicitly illegal, both in the US and internationally, to the extent that is not already.
By rocketing Damadola and offering no hint of consequences for those responsible, the US government has signalled a lack of interest in, and contempt for, the lives of Pakistanis - a country that is supposed to be a US ally. It is a message that people across that country have not failed to notice. No one in the USA or Britain would consider an aerial assassination attempt in their own neighbourhood to be acceptable – neither should we accept them when the neighbourhoods are in central Iraq or northern Pakistan.
Sources and links:
Pakistanis say 17 Killed in Airstrike, Associated Press, January 13th 2006
The drone, the CIA and a botched attempt to kill bin Laden's deputy, Jason Burke and Imtiaz Gul, The Observer, January 15th 2006
Can Karen Hughes spin the CIA’s attack in Pakistan?, David Corn, The Nation, January 17th 2006
Pakistan Probes 'al-Qaeda' Deaths, BBC News Online, January 19th 2006
Pakistan: US Airstrike Can’t be Repeated, Munir Ahmad, Associated Press, January 20th 2006
Pakistan PM: No Evidence of al-Qaida Dead, Bradley Brooks, Associated Press, January 20th 2006
Making Enemies in Pakistan, Derrick Z Jackson, The Boston Globe, January 21st 2006
Pakistan’s Undeclared War, Zaffar Abbas, BBC News Online, September 10th 2004
US: Hundreds of Civilian Deaths in Iraq Were Preventable, Human Rights Watch, December 12th 2003
Off-Target: The Conduct of the War and Civilian Casualties in Iraq, HRW, December 2003
Blitz Coup, Milan Rai, J-n-V.org, March 18th, 2003
US Drones Take Combat Role, Keith Somerville, BBC News Online, November 5th 2002
Position Paper: Israel’s Assassination Policy: Extra-Judicial Executions, B’Tselem
Terminate with Extreme Prejudice, Richard Belfield (2005)
Al-Qaeda – The True Story of Radical Islam, Jason Burke (2004)
Chechnya – A Small Victorious War, Charlotta Gall and Thomas de Waal (1996)