Saturday, September 18, 2004


Australian kidnapping update II

I probably should have posted this follow-up to the story of the reported Australian abductions yesterday, but I continued to hope that some new information would emerge. I believe now that that is unlikely to happen.

The Hope of a hoax

If you read the Australian newspaper headlines yesterday—and I did, your first impression would be that the reported kidnappings had turned out to be a hoax. The earliest headlines that I spotted on this were foreign (to Australia). The first was from Singapore, but from an Australian news organization: "Hope grows that Australia hostage claim may be a hoax." Then The Scotsman said "Australia Upbeat over Iraq 'Hoax' Kidnap." So by Thursday many Australian papers were running the same headline: "Howard hopeful of kidnap hoax."

The New Zealand Herald went all the way

It now appears the second abduction, allegedly by a group of confirmed killers calling themselves the Horror Brigades of the Secret Islamic Army, was a hoax. The group had threatened to decapitate their prisoners if Canberra did not take its troops home, but no Australians have been reported missing.

Let me say at the outset that I have no way of knowing whether the reported kidnappings of the Australian security personnel and the two East Asians was or was not a hoax. What I am going to tell you, however, are the reasons for being skeptical.

The idea that a hoax has occurred is based on three assertions:

  1. that other fake kidnappings have occurred
  2. that no pictures or passports were shown of the Australians
  3. that the Australian embassy in Baghdad can account for all Australians known to be in Iraq.

I accept the first as true. The second is more compelling, but unfortunately proves nothing. And the third has turned into a comedy of errors.

An editorial in Australia's Courier-Mail gives a quick and dirty summary:1

As for the kidnapping, for several days DFAT [Dept. of Foreign Affairs and Trade] seemed anxious to assure the public that all Australians had been accounted for. However, early in the week Time magazine reporter Michael Ware, formerly a journalist with The Courier-Mail, explained on television that although he was on the department's list of Australians working in Iraq, DFAT had not been in contact with him. It emerged that the list was incomplete (and then that it was three times larger than at first suggested) and officials in Iraq were having difficulty tracking everyone down. [emphasis added]

The Australian government was again reporting that no Australians were missing in Iraq when up popped the tale of an important Muslim cleric from Sydney who had just been released the previous week for a ransom of $25,000. The Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said he knew nothing about that. And while he was trying, no doubt, to acquaint himself with those facts, yet another story emerged.

According to SBS World News,

Australian-Iraqi community leader Mohamed Al-Jabir says it's not the first time an Iraqi-Australian has been kidnapped and then freed.

He told ABC television that other people with Australian travel documents have been intercepted in the Sunni Triangle near Fallujah.

They were beaten but freed after their family paid $US50,000 to the kidnappers.

So I must conclude that the Australian government's assertion that it has accounted for all of its citizens in Iraq is ... well, doubtful.

But let's go back to the editorial comment above that "DFAT seemed anxious to assure the public that all Australians had been accounted for." In this case, I will go beyond the editorialist and say that DFAT seemed anxious to suggest to all Australians that the kidnapping was a hoax.2

Why would they do that?

Well, one thing is certain. In the midst of the election campaign, the government wants anything negative associated with John Howard's invasion and occupation of Iraq to fall off the radar screen as quickly as possible.

But aside from that obvious truth, there is another possibility—that either the Australians or the Asian nationals who were with them are "sensitive"—i.e., they don't want anything in the news about them.

Since the original report of hostage-taking by Agence-France Press, the Australian government has wanted to appear to be doing everything possible. But I noted in my original post that no Asian country appears to be doing likewise and that we don't know the Asians' country of origin.

I did ask the question of whether the Asians were in fact being protected by the Australians. I have since found one Australian paper that seems either to have made that assumption or to have other information. The Herald Sun wrote, based on accounts by AFP and Australian AP,

Both were thought to be security guards and were allegedly being held along with their two Asian clients.


As I stated in the beginning, other than my third eye and my tea leaves I have no way of determining whether a hoax occurred or not. And in fact I hope it is a hoax, but my feeling is that it isn't.

The group claiming to have kidnapped the Australians, the Horror Brigades of the Islamic Secret Army, is the same group that murdered the twelve Nepalese security personnel. If it is indeed the same group, they don't strike me as the sort who go in for hoaxes.

At the level of rational proof, of course, it's impossible to prove it didn't happen—that would be to "prove a negative." But it is possible to prove that the kidnapping did occur—if, say, the bodies of one or two Australians should turn up and be identified.

As many of you may know, either from the news or from the comment that was left on my previous post, the body of a blond "Westerner" has turned up in the area of the alleged kidnapping. And the Australian government has said that it is having its embassy in Baghdad investigate.

I will save that for a later post.

One thing is for sure: This story has been allowed to drop from the headlines.

Follow-up post: Australian kidnapping update III: The body in the Tigris

Previous posts:
Two hostages and an election
Deadline has passed for Australian hostages
Howard blames the Filipinos and Spanish for Australian hostage crisis
Australian kidnapping update

Related post: About those Nepalese workers killed in Iraq...


1 The first few paragraphs of the editorial are worth a read, since they give some insight into the credibility of the government.

IF SECURITY issues tend to boost the electoral standing of the Coalition, last week's bombing of the Australian embassy in Jakarta and this week's alleged kidnapping of two Australians in Iraq should have given Prime Minister John Howard a significant advantage. However fumbling by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and/or by Foreign Affairs Minister Alexander Downer dissipated that prospect.

First Mr Howard and Mr Downer were caught out providing misleading (or downright wrong) information about a 45-minute warning the Indonesian police were supposed to have received about the bombing. The Indonesians denied having received any such message. It emerged that Mr Howard and Mr Downer had relied on a rumour passed on by an Australian businessman that wasn't checked out before it was accepted by them as fact and made public. Shades of children overboard. As for the kidnapping, for several days DFAT seemed anxious to assure the public that all Australians had been accounted for. However, early in the week Time magazine reporter Michael Ware, formerly a journalist with The Courier-Mail, explained on television that although he was on the department's list of Australians working in Iraq, DFAT had not been in contact with him. It emerged that the list was incomplete (and then that it was three times larger than at first suggested) and officials in Iraq were having difficulty tracking everyone down.

The hostage crisis also provoked a political storm over the extent to which the Opposition should have been briefed on the implementation of contingency plans to free the men using SAS troops or other means. [emphasis added]


2 The Sydney Morning Herald ran a story reporting Prime Minister John Howard's remarks:

But Prime Minister John Howard said today that with each passing hour he was growing more hopeful that the reports were a hoax.

He said the fact no one in Australia had reported a missing loved one seemed to indicate the kidnapping may be false.

"I grow more hopeful every hour," Mr Howard told radio 3AW.

"You never know with these things but one would think that the absence of a phone call to a loved one back in Australia would have sounded the alarm by now.



Friday, September 17, 2004


Friday night release of more Bush Guard documents

The Pentagon has turned more documents over to the Associated Press. There was a letter from George H.W. Bush to the commander of the training center at Lackland Airforce Base where Boy George was enrolled, some news releases from the Texas Air National Guard, and, as Matt Kelley writes,
two single-page orders documenting Bush's guard training in May and June of 1973 after he returned from Alabama. Those documents note that Bush was not allowed to fly. Bush lost his flying status in August 1972 because he failed to take a required medical exam.

But it's the letter and the press release that are the fun stuff.

The commander of the training center, Maj. Gen. G.B. Greene, Jr., took it upon himself to write George's dad, who was a Texas Congressman at the time. The letter has not appeared. But Gen. Greene apparently praised young George to his dad, in an act that must have left a distinct chocolate ring around his mouth.

Daddy Bush wrote back,

I was surprised and very, very pleased to receive your letter of Aug. 27th.

Then, according to Kelley, Bush added,

that a major general in the Air Force would take interest in a brand new Air Force trainee made a big impression on me.

Thereby letting the general know that he had felt the lips, and they were delightful.

Indeed it is surprising that a general should show such interest in "a brand new Air Force trainee." But it is not surprising that he should show an interest in Congressman Bush's son, who was born with a silver spoon in his nose.

The letter went on to say that young Bush, on his first trip back home, was full of enthusiasm and kept the family up talking about his first instructor, Sgt. Henry Onacki, who had impressed Bush with his love of country and dedication to the Air Force.

"In this day and age when it has become a little bit fashionable to be critical of the military, I was delighted to see him return to our house with a real pride in the service and with a great respect for the leaders that he had encountered at Lackland."

What tact! More likely is that Boy George kept them up all night on a binge in which he did donkey brays in imitation of Sgt. Onacki.

But then there is the press release. And it is just precious...

"George Bush is one member of the younger generation who doesn't get his kicks from pot or hashish or speed," the news release said. "Oh, he gets high, all right, but not from narcotics."

Not from flying either.

It's good to see the AP develop a little balance in their reporting. Go read the entire article.

Previous post:
More Bush military documents soon to appear (Updated)


Left home alone too long

Actor Macaulay Culkin Arrested for Drug Possession in Oklahoma

More Bush military documents soon to appear (Updated)

The Washington Post reports,
White House press secretary Scott McClellan hinted that more documents regarding Bush's National Guard service may soon be released. Asked whether officials in the White House have seen unreleased documents, McClellan called that "a very real possibility." Other officials with knowledge of the situation said more documents had indeed been uncovered and would be released in the coming days.

How many times now has Bush released all his military records?

The Associated Press filed a lawsuit sometime back to obtain Bush's military records. They reported yesterday,
A federal judge has ordered the Pentagon to find and make public by next week any unreleased files about President Bush's Vietnam-era Air National Guard service to resolve a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed by The Associated Press.

U.S. District Judge Harold Baer Jr. handed down the order late Wednesday in New York. The AP lawsuit already has led to the disclosure of previously unreleased flight logs from Bush's days piloting F-102A fighters and other jets.

Pentagon officials told Baer they plan to have their search complete by Monday. Baer ordered the Pentagon to hand over the records to the AP by Sept. 24 and provide a written statement by Sept. 29 detailing the search for more records.

Through a series of requests under the federal open records law and a subsequent suit, the AP uncovered the flight logs, which were not part of the records the White House released earlier this year.

This may explain the reason for McClellans's "hint." The Bush campaign may foresee further revelations on the way and is hastening to "innoculate" the public to any new disclosures.

Thursday, September 16, 2004


Another front in Australian politics

From Australia's Herald Sun,
A TOPLESS woman covered in fake blood and carrying a banner saying "Blood of Iraqi children" was among a handful of protesters waiting for Prime Minister John Howard to arrive at a Liberal Party function in Perth today.

The topless protester was standing between an effigy of Mr Howard and an animal activist wearing a sheep suit.

Don't you love freedom of speech and assembly? I wish we had it here. It's we Americans who should be wearing the sheep suits.

Australian kidnapping update

There's still no confirmation that two Australian hostages were actually taken this past Monday, and the Australian government says it has accounted for all 225 citizens that it "knows" are in Iraq.

But lest anyone breathe a sigh of relief, there are some features to this story that I think you should consider.

In the midst of the Australian government's accounting for its citizens comes this strange story:

Foreign Affairs Minister Alexander Downer [Australia's Colin Powell] says he was not aware until yesterday that a Sydney-based Muslim cleric had been kidnapped in Iraq.

One of Sydney's leading Shi'ite clerics, Sheik Mohamed Alsibiyani, also known as Mohamed Naji, was taken hostage by a gang of Sunni insurgents last week and was released on Sunday.

The 60-year-old Sheik was reportedly driving in an area south of Baghdad when a gang stopped his car, beat him and other passengers and kidnapped them.

The Daily Telegraph newspaper said the gang demanded $140,000 and kept Sheik Naji captive for three days before bundling him into the boot of a car, driving him to the town of Mahmoudeya, giving him $2 and freeing him without receiving the ransom because he is a cleric. [emphasis added]

The Australian government says it learned of the kidnapping only after an Iraqi-Australian community leader reported it to the Australian Broadcasting Corp. (ABC). The Boston Globe carries an AP story stating that the family of the cleric paid a $25,000 (US) ransom and that

a number of Iraqi-Australians had been kidnapped in the past and then freed after a ransom was paid.

This is an ongoing, repeated activity, and the Australian government doesn't know about it? A "leading Shi'ite cleric" is kidnapped, and it doesn't know about it? I don't think so. What I think is that the government wants neither its own citizens nor the insurgents in Iraq to know that there is a successful kidnapping-ransom cycle going on.

Now in addition to the "negotiations" team that I mentioned yesterday, the Aussies have sent a special forces team, according to The Age.

The special unit - which could include elite SAS [Special Air Services] troops - flew out from Perth on a Hercules transport plane.

The unit is in addition to an Australian Federal Police team of hostage negotiators that is standing by in Jordan to help if the kidnap claim is confirmed.

Despite Australian assertions, it is not believable that they're sending a special forces team if they truly believe this is a hoax.

Let's go back to the original statement by the Islamic Secret Army, as reported by the Guardian:

One of our brave brigades ambushed civilian cars belonging to the American army on the motorway from Baghdad to Mosul," the statement said. "It took four prisoners, two Australians and two east Asian nationals who were working as security contractors for important people.

Some points:

And some questions:

This is a political hot-potato for Prime Minister John Howard, with an election only 3 weeks away. But it is also potentially bad news for George Bush.

If Howard loses the election on October 9, it will be one more government that Bush's war has brought down. And the intention of Howard's opponent Mark Latham to bring home the troops by Christmas will suddenly be front-page news.

George Bush's "coalition" has been steadily withdrawing. And the British and Australians have been the mainstay of any claim that the occupation of Iraq is an international effort.

If the Australians withdraw, there will be only the British. And Tony Blair suddenly discovered this week that the environment is a pressing priority at about the same time that Colin Powell discovered that genocide was going on in Sudan.

The American media, of course, are giving this almost no coverage, and even the Left seems largely unaware of the implications of the story.

But the Right hasn't missed it. And their spinners are hard at work. Here's Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute being interviewed on nationwide Australian radio this past Tuesday morning:

This group, they would lose credibility if they make a threat which they're not in a position to follow through on. That said, unfortunately I think Australia's in this position today largely because the Philippine Government and the Spanish Government previously caved in to such blackmail.

Most certainly the Australian election is relevant to this issue. The insurgents tend to be remarkably politically sophisticated. Remember that those home networks, I wouldn't be surprised if people in Australia were emailing some of the insurgents, basically describing the Australian political situation and try to determine how to best affect it.

As I noted in a previous post, John Howard and the international right are going to continue to cast the blame on the Spanish and the Filipinos for withdrawing from Iraq. But note the insinuation ("I wouldn't be surprised") that there are fellow-travelers in Australia trying to undermine Howard's chances for re-election through direct contact with the insurgents. These people are appalling.

And now I will tell you what I believe is the sad but likely outcome of all this. The Australian government will state that it is unable to "confirm" that any of its nationals are missing in Iraq. And in a week or two some bodies of "Westerners" will be discovered in the Sunni area. I doubt they will ever be identified.

Follow-up posts:
Australian kidnapping update II
Australian kidnapping update III: The body in the Tigris

Previous posts:
Two hostages and an election
Deadline has passed for Australian hostages
Howard blames the Filipinos and Spanish for Australian hostage crisis


Nader's on, he's off, he's on, he's off, he's ... Pre-election battle rages in Florida

Jeb Bush is doing everything in his power—and perhaps some things that are not in his power—to get his brother George a win in Florida. It recalls nothing so much as the Florida election of 2000—and even involves some of the same players. The country is not paying attention to this, yet the situation could hardly be graver.

I'm going to give you the simplified version of what is going on. The legal (and illegal) activities are coming so fast that a daily newspaper can't hope to keep up, and a blogger needs to devote himself/herself almost solely to the issue.

The Florida Democrats sued to keep Ralph Nader off the ballot. The basis for the suit was, according to the St. Pete Times, that "the Reform Party [for which Nader is running] is no longer a legitimate national party and that Florida election laws requiring minor candidates to qualify by petition or through a nominating convention weren't followed."

Last week a state judge in Tallahassee, P. Kevin Davey, agreed and issued a temporary order to prevent Nader's name from appearing on the Florida ballot.

Davey said the Reform Party is not a party under state law, and that Nader did not collect enough valid voter signatures and was not nominated by a party's national convention.

He suggested his temporary order will likely become permanent. "I'm quite confident in the ruling. There's at least 15 reasons as to why they won't qualify, at least 15 that I counted up," Davey said. "If it was one or two, I'd be worried about it, but there's a whole lot of reasons."

But once again, time is of the essence.

State officials must give elections supervisors time to print overseas ballots to mail them by Sept. 18 [Saturday]. Florida is under a consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice requiring it to mail overseas absentee ballots at least 45 days before the election.

So Judge Davey scheduled another hearing on the injunction for today (Wednesday).

But on Monday Division of Elections Director Dawn Roberts filed an appeal directly to the Florida Supreme Court, which automatically lifted Judge Davey's order pending the hearing on the appeal.

She then sent a notification to the counties to include Nader on the ballot. The rationale for the haste was that Hurricane Ivan might prevent Judge Davey from holding today's scheduled hearing.

But Ivan didn't come close enough to keep Judge Davey from holding his hearing, and according to Reuters,

Davey on Wednesday overrode the automatic lifting of the stay and said that if counties had already sent out ballots with Nader's name on them, they must send corrected versions without it.

Then later in the day the Florida Supreme Court stepped in.

Florida's top court on Wednesday allowed the inclusion of independent presidential candidate Ralph Nader on absentee ballots, but told the state not to mail any of the ballots until it had made a final decision on the validity of Nader's candidacy.

The Florida Supreme Court is scheduled to hear oral arguments on Friday.... The top court may rule by Saturday, which is the deadline for mailing overseas ballot papers. [emphasis added]

Note that word "may." If for some reason the Supreme Court doesn't rule by Saturday, the Feds are inevitably going to be brought into the case, since the Court has directed the State not to mail the absentee ballots until after it has made a decision. If the Jeb Bush administration should obey the State Supreme Court1 (which it is obliged to do), Florida would be in violation of its consent decree with the Justice Department. Jeb would immediately ask the Federal court to intervene.2

I doubt, however, that the state Supreme Court will let it come to this, and I do expect a ruling by Saturday. Meanwhile, according to Matt Conigliari at "Abstract Appeal," the Democrats are bringing in Harvard law professor and constitutional scholar Larry Tribe to argue their case on Friday morning.

For those of you who may want more legal details on the case, I recommend Conigliari's blog. But as he says,

At some point soon I should take a moment to comment on how utterly, unbelievably, and (for some) painfully fast this litigation is moving at the appellate level.

But who has time for that?


1 Given Jeb Bush's actions up to this point, I am doubtful that he will obey the Court. If the Florida Supreme Court does not rule by Saturday, I believe we may witness a further breakdown of the rule of law. [back]

2 The Reform Party, of whatever that consists, has already attempted to bring the matter to a Federal court, but the court refused to intervene on Tuesday. [back]

Wednesday, September 15, 2004


Quote of the Day II

Behind her grandmotherly facade was a pearl-wearing mugger the equal of Ma Barker. —Kitty Kelley, writing of Barbara Bush in her new book The Family: The Real Story of the Bush Dynasty

Powell's follow-up on Sudanese genocide

From the State Dept. press briefing yesterday:
QUESTION: On Sudan. The Sudanese Government -- the UN has put out estimates that between six and 10,000 people are dying every month and the Sudanese Government denies that. I know you don't have all of our -- the U.S. assessment, probably, off the top of your head, but is that within the estimates that the U.S. would give right now, too?

MR. BOUCHER: Yeah, I think it is. It has been generally in line with our estimates....

QUESTION: Okay. Because just yesterday there was a luncheon and the Ambassador of Sudan was introduced by a State Department official. It doesn't seem like the treatment that would be afforded to a government that is believed to be committing acts of genocide.

MR. BOUCHER: As you know, we've maintained relations with this government. There are areas where we think we can move forward, like the north-south talks [to protect the Christians] and Naivasha [location of the talks] situation, and there are areas where they need to do more to move forward. So we continue to use our relationships with the Government of Sudan to try to press for action on all of these points, including and especially, the situation in Darfur.

So the U.S. acknowledges that the Sudanese government is killing off from 6 to 10 thousand people a month yet is perfectly happy to negotiate with them. You just have to marvel at how bad Saddam Hussein must have been.

Related post:
The magic word: Genocide


Pope meddles in New Zealand's affairs

According to Scoop News, New Zealand is planning to pass civil-unions legislation that the Pope says "violate[s] God's plan for humanity."
Paul Litterick, Secretary of the NZ Association of Rationalists and Humanists, noted that the Pope's commitment to marriage was such that he prohibited any of his nuns, monks and clergy from entering into it.

Likewise the Pope's support of the family was shown by the way his church had implemented a deliberate policy of concealing numerous cases of sexual abuse committed by members of his clergy. "God's plan for humanity" also seems to involve Catholic authorities in developing countries denying people access to contraception, thereby creating unwanted pregnancies and spreading AIDS.

Mr Litterick went on to note that the Pope recently lectured the Canadian Government about its plans for formalising same sex unions. "Canada dismissed the Pope's comments as an intrusion in Canadian politics. Our Government should do the same."

"We should tell the Pope to get over it."


Quote of the Day

If Jesus weren't a Jew he'd be an American.
sign at Bush campaign rally in Chillicothe, Ohio

Howard blames the Filipinos and Spanish for Australian hostage crisis

I must confess that I find this story rather gripping: two "ghost" Australian hostages—unnamed and who may or may not have been kidnapped—and a national election scheduled for October 9 that pits a pro-war Prime Minister vs. an anti-war challenger.

Australia has sent negotiators who do not intend to negotiate.

Mr Downer [Australia's Foreign Minister] confirmed that part of the plan was to have hostage negotiators on standby, but said that did not mean the government would negotiate with terrorists.

Whether anyone was kidnapped, John Howard, the Australian Prime Minister, hopes to avoid any suggestion that the cause of the kidnappings is Australia's involvement in Iraq and cooperation with the Americans. He is currently blaming "evil" and the Philippine and Spanish governments.

Mr Howard said a group which called itself the Horror Brigades of the Islamic Secret Army was "crazy enough and evil enough, more importantly evil enough, to do something like this".

He also said the decisions by Spain and the Philippines to withdraw their troops from Iraq after having terrorist attacks committed against them encouraged more attacks by terrorists.

"There's no doubt that if terrorists think they can get a reaction by doing something they'll do it again, there's no doubt about that," he said.

"I don't want to go back over old ground in relation to Spain and the Philippines, but the truth is you do not buy immunity from conduct of this kind by giving in.

"That is why we were unhappy about what happened both in relation to Spain and the Philippines."

Follow-up posts:
Australian kidnapping update
Australian kidnapping update II
Australian kidnapping update III: The body in the Tigris

Previous posts:
Two hostages and an election
Deadline has passed for Australian hostages


NBC "makes" the news

I can't give you a link for this, because it was in one of my InBoxes that I've been trying to pare down. But this was NBC's "First Read" for September 9.
First Read: The day in politics by NBC News for NBC News

As the whole Swift Boaters episode proved, to the extent either side has to spend a news cycle or three explaining their man's military records from the past, they lose the cycle. New documents released by the White House just shy of 10:00 pm last night, after first being reported on CBS, add more fuel to the Ben Barnes/Boston Globe-revived debate over whether Bush fulfilled his National Guard obligations, which is likely to overshadow Bush's focus on the economy today and Kerry's focus on health care.

That said, as we have mentioned here before, still hanging out there largely unaddressed are Kerry's anti-war activities, which we believe pack a potentially more powerful wallop for the Vietnam vet than the ongoing story about Bush's Guard service does for Bush. [emphasis added]

This is just internal information, you understand. Only I and a few kazillion others can receive it.

Tuesday, September 14, 2004


Deadline has passed for Australian hostages

There is still no confirmation that any Australian hostages have been taken. The strangeness of it all is that the Australian government is now saying that they can't account for 27 Australians working in Iraq.

In any case, the 24-hour deadline given by the "Horror Brigades of the Islamic Secret Army" for the Australian troops to get out of Iraq has expired. The "logistics" team that I mentioned in the previous post, sent by Australia to "negotiate," consists of "Defence Force officers and Federal Police."

Prime Minister John Howard's opponent in the coming election has already begun to voice complaints. According to the Australian ABCNewsOnline,

Opposition Leader Mark Latham says the Government's failure to consult the Opposition on the deployment is an outrageous breach of the caretaker conventions in this election campaign.

"If Labor was elected in three-and-a-half weeks time, we'd be in charge of the operation," he said.

"Isn't it in Australia's national interest to ensure the alternative government is consulted, given the information, involved from day one, about this important decision.

"We haven't been involved in the decision making process, I've got no idea as to why the Defence team is being sent, its purpose, I've got no idea or information about the so-called negotiation team, even though Government policy is not to negotiate - these are matters that should have involved the Opposition."

These Australians, like the Nepalese, are said by the Guardian to be "security contractors." I fear that the Islamic Secret Army was never really serious in its demands.

Follow-up posts:
Howard blames the Filipinos and Spanish for Australian hostage crisis
Australian kidnapping update
Australian kidnapping update II
Australian kidnapping update III: The body in the Tigris

Previous post:
Two hostages and an election

Related post:
About those Nepalese workers killed in Iraq...


Two hostages and an election

Two Australians may have been taken as hostages in Iraq, but confirmation has not been forthcoming. The Guardian has reported on the claims in some detail.
Two Australian security contractors yesterday became the latest foreigners to be kidnapped in Iraq after militants apparently ambushed their convoy on a road outside Baghdad.

In a statement, a group calling itself the Islamic Secret Army said it would execute both men "without a second chance" unless their government pulled its troops out of Iraq within 24 hours.

The group said it had seized the Australians, together with two east Asian nationals, in the town of Samarra, a Sunni militant stronghold effectively in the hands of the insurgents.

The security contractors appear to have been seized while driving from the northern city of Mosul on a road that most foreigners consider too risky to use. "One of our brave brigades ambushed civilian cars belonging to the American army on the motorway from Baghdad to Mosul," the statement said. "It took four prisoners, two Australians and two east Asian nationals who were working as security contractors for important people.

"We tell the infidels of Australia that they have 24 hours to leave Iraq or the two Australians will be killed without a second chance."

The abductions are the latest in a string of recent kidnappings in Iraq which have provoked panic among the few remaining westerners in the country. Most foreigners have left, and the only civilians now in Baghdad are a dwindling band of journalists and diplomats.

Yesterday's kidnappings of the Australians came after a suicide car bombing killed nine people and injured 182 outside the country's embassy in Jakarta last week. [emphasis added]

The reasons for the uncertainty of the claim are twofold: No pictures of the hostages have so far been posted on the internet, and security firms that have been contacted are not missing any Australians. Nevertheless, the Australian government has already dispatched a "logistics" team, whatever that is.

I have followed a number of hostage-takings to date, but I've focussed on those situations in which release of the hostages was contingent upon the withdrawal of a private company from Iraq and have ignored kidnappings that involve demands for the withdrawal of foreign forces from Iraq. In most cases these latter demands have little or no chance of success.

But the Australian kidnapping, true or not, is interesting in that Australia will be having an election on Saturday, October 9—and as the Guardian notes, the kidnapping follows upon the heels of the bombing of the Australian embassy in Indonesia. Given that the two principal Australian candidates for Prime Minister represent almost diametrically opposite views on Australia's involvement in Iraq, this latest kidnapping may indeed influence the withdrawal of foreign troops, though not with the immediacy that the kidnappers are demanding.

Unlike the United States, Australia has a parliamentary system of government similar to the British, but they have an interesting voting mechanism involving voter preferences, which I don't pretend to understand.

John Howard, the current Prime Minister, is of the Conservative1 party, and his challenger, Mark Latham, is from the Labor party. If the Conservatives lose 8 seats, Howard will be unseated.

This election is especially worth watching because of its parallels to the upset election in Spain last March in which the conservative government of Jose Maria Aznar was summarily tossed from office immediately after the Madrid train bombing. Aznar has been described as "Washington's strongest supporter in continental Europe."

Mark Latham, according to the Washington Times, has described George Bush as "the most dangerous and incompetent president the United States had ever had," so it should be no surprise that when Bush was in Australia, the Latham-Bush handshake was somewhat perfunctory. Latham has also vigorously opposed Bush's Orwellian notion of "preemptive warfare." But most significantly, last March Latham promised to withdraw the approximately 850 Australian troops from Iraq by the end of this year.

Howard, on the other hand, is one of Bush's staunchest allies and sent some 2,000 troops to participate in the initial invasion of Iraq.

Aside from parallels to the Spanish election, issues in the Australian election also have parallels with our own—at least insofar as voters view the two candidates and insofar as polls are showing a neck-and-neck election.

Howard, whom we might dub the "Bush surrogate," is viewed as strong on defense, has the advantage of incumbency, favors restrictive immigation policies, and is experiencing some voter doubt as to his credibility after he made a claim in the 2001 election that immigrants were tossing their children overboard in order to compel the Australians to take them. He also signed a free-trade agreement with the U.S. that has caused him some grief with the sugar-growing industry of Queensland. The U.S. insisted on protecting its own sugar growers (they live in Florida, you know), so Howard was seen as caving in to the U.S. during negotiations.

Latham is much younger than Howard and, like Kerry, is frequently portrayed as "untested." Like Kerry, Latham was strongly leading in the polls of only a month ago, but the differences have now evened out. The pundits had expected a bounce for strong-on-security Howard after the embassy bombing, but the latest poll found no improvement for Howard.

Lebovic said Labor also did not appear to have benefitted from the release of its much-awaited tax and family aid policy earlier last week — seen as the centerpiece of Latham's election platform.

"After an interesting week where we had health policies delivered on the Monday, the tax policy by Labor on the Tuesday and then the bombing in Jakarta on the Thursday, we saw absolutely no difference in the two-party preferred vote," he told Sky News.

"People seem to be pretty well locked on to where they're sitting at the moment and things really aren't moving them."

The candidates held a debate Sunday night in which Latham was considered to be the winner. No subsequent poll results have been reported.

If a protracted hostage situation develops, the parity of this race may certainly change in ways that no one cares to predict. I'll be following this through to the election. Check back.

Follow-up posts:
Deadline has passed for Australian hostages
Howard blames the Filipinos and Spanish for Australian hostage crisis
Australian kidnapping update
Australian kidnapping update II
Australian kidnapping update III: The body in the Tigris


1 The name of the party is the "Liberal" party. [back]

Monday, September 13, 2004


The magic word: Genocide

Mondays are always tough. The news never ceases to be simply appalling, but on Mondays you're faced with all the fresh stuff plus the detritus from the weekend. Such a wealth of topics to choose from. Which shall it be—campaign lies, voting irregularities, economic misfeasance, prosecutorial malfeasance, police brutality? It really forces you to prioritize.

So let's go for the gold. How about genocide?

According to the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, as ratified by the General Assembly in December 1948,

genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:
  • Killing members of the group;
  • Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
  • Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
  • Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
  • Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

The definition seems clear enough. Given the facts of a case, you'd expect any twelve-year-old to be able to come to a conclusion one way or the other.

But you'd be amazed what a tough time governments have in deciding whether an obvious atrocity is "genocide." You see, most governments are quite content with atrocities, but genocide puts them in a bind—namely, that they're supposed to do something about it.

So while wholesale murder, rape and deprivation are widely reported, they just never quite rise to the level of genocide. Once that's been determined, we can all relax a little bit—especially your hard-working government officials, who were hoping to get away, say, to a little island conference on regulatory relief for the pharmaceutical industry, weather permitting.

But not our Colin Powell!

Here's what yesterday's Washington Post editorial has to say:
THE MORAL ORDER we inhabit fell into focus on Thursday, and it was an awful moment. In an act without precedent since the U.N. Genocide Convention was adopted in 1948, a government accused a sitting counterpart of genocide — a genocide, moreover, that even now is continuing. And yet the accused government may not pay a price for committing this worst of all humanitarian crimes, because there is a limit to how much powerful nations care.

Imagine that! My government accusing another government of genocide! And while it's actually happening! I don't know about you, but that's the sort of thing that makes me feel resplendent with moral rectitude. And believe me, that's a feeling that doesn't come over me often.

No doubt feeling as rectitudinous as I do, the Post's editorial board could scarcely contain its admiration.
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, who leveled the accusation of genocide against Sudan's government, is to be commended for his honesty.

The editorial quickly draws a contrast between Powell's bold action and that of the pusillanimous Clinton administration.
During the Rwandan genocide in 1994, the Clinton administration initially shrank from using the word lest it compel a risky intervention....

"Lest it compel a risky intervention?" Is that what Powell had in mind? That we're going to send troops to Sudan? I mean, Article I of the Genocide Convention says, "The Contracting Parties confirm that genocide, whether committed in time of peace or in time of war, is a crime under international law which they undertake to prevent and to punish."

No, that is not what Powell had in mind. Actually, he decided instead to conduct a genocide poll:
.... Mr. Powell, by contrast, dispatched a team of expert investigators to interview Sudan's victims; they were careful to collect only first-person accounts and to conduct a sufficiently large survey on which to base a strong conclusion.

Of 1,136 people interviewed, a third had heard racial epithets while being attacked, and three-quarters had seen government insignia on the uniforms of their attackers. The culpability of Sudan's government, along with its racial motive, seems beyond doubt.

Racial epithets? Government insignia? I can't think of a more compelling case—unless maybe you count the bodies.
... Numerous reports from journalists and human rights observers reinforce the verdict that the Arab-led government has been waging a war of ethnic extermination.

I'm so damned gullible I probably shouldn't be allowed to vote. Here I was, thinking that it was the journalists and human rights observers who had alerted the world to the genocide, with Colin Powell's "genocide poll" reinforcing that verdict. But I had it just ass-backwards.

In any case, isn't it about time to stop it? Apparently not.
... having spoken the truth about Sudan's barbarity, Mr. Powell offered little hope of ending it. "No new action is dictated by this determination," he told a Senate hearing on Thursday; the administration will continue to press other countries to press the United Nations to press Sudan's government....

Until I read that last sentence I had never really understood what a "pressing issue" was. And it's some of those same "old" countries that are still getting in our way.
... The uncertainty of this strategy was immediately apparent after Mr. Powell spoke. Brushing aside the evidence, France and Germany declined to call the killings genocide. Pakistan, currently a member of the U.N. Security Council, warned of the danger in terminating engagement with Sudan's government. China, the leading foreign investor in Sudan's burgeoning oil fields, said it might veto a tough Security Council resolution.

This is the sort of thing that makes me tremble with righteous anger. The French and the Germans want to conduct their own genocide polls before declaring the matter a genocide. The Pakistanis do not believe in foreign intervention, unless it's on the Indian subcontinent. And the Chinese? Well, what can you say about a bunch of rice-eating, oil-consuming workaholics who wouldn't know a genocide if they were conducting it themselves.

The editorial ends with a rhetorical question and a call to arms:
But do these countries really want to cast themselves as abettors of genocide? Mr. Powell and President Bush must force them to answer that question.

Golly, I wish I could write like that. Dastardly evil, bewildered and frightened onlookers, complacent potentates—and then come our white knights with their swords of righteousness unsheathed.

If I ever stop writing this damned blog, I'm going to use that in a novel. But not now. Not today. Today I'm going to ask just what the hell is going on here.

I actually heard last week a suggestion on some news show that the administration's motive for this unheard-of declaration was to attract black voters. I almost spewed my oatmeal.

If this is the best tactic that Bush&Co have to attract black voters, they might as well call it a day. It's not that they're not cynical enough to try it—and if they pick up any black votes that way, I'm sure they'll be pleased. But the first President to decline to meet with the NAACP since Warren Harding is hardly going to use a pronouncement on genocide to garner black votes.

So why did Powell do it?

First, a review of the facts of the current genocide:

Okay. Good blacks, bad Arab Muslims, and a well-publicized genocide. It looks promising, but by itself it doesn't really explain why now.

Then there was the earlier—and to some extent ongoing—genocide of the southern Sudanese Christians and animists. George Bush's evangelical Christians care a great deal about that. About the Christians, that is—not the animists.

Here's Franklin Graham, Billy Graham's son, in an interview in Christianity Today of February 2004:

What does the country most need right now?

They need the United States of America to continue pushing this peace process. And I don't believe we'd be where we are today if it wasn't for George Bush. He has not allowed the events in Iraq and Afghanistan to divert his attention away from Sudan. He has kept the pressure on Sudan. And, as a result, we are very close to a peace process that, once it is signed, it doesn't mean that we can now just go on to something else. We're going to have to monitor this for compliance. We're going to have to keep involved, and it's going to take a long time.

Yet some evangelicals don't feel that Bush has been putting the pedal to the metal to the degree he should. A declaration of genocide might not do much for him with Black voters, but it would help to get the evangelicals off his ass.

But is that enough to explain this remarkable declaration? I think not. The evangelicals are going to vote for him regardless of events in Sudan.

So let's see what the media were up to.

In the week of September 5th, the news was all about Iraq. There was the death of the 1000th American soldier. Also, the military was dropping hints that there were attacks planned on virtually every city in Iraq—aside from Najaf, of course, which had already been pretty much leveled.

Here are the lede stories on the NewsHour for Monday the 6th through Wednesday the 8th: "Frances' Fury," "Issue and Debate: Iraq Policy," "Struggle for Security in Iraq."

But last Wednesday the NY Times carried this headline: "U.S. to Propose New U.N. Strategy on Sudan." And by the time Thursday had rolled around, the media could think of nothing else:
PBS NewsHour, lede story, "Crisis in Sudan"
NPR All Things Considered, lede story, "Powell: Attacks in Sudan Are 'Genocide'"
NY Times, two stories by two of their top reporters on Sudan

On Friday, the Washington Post's page-one story was "U.S. Calls Killings In Sudan Genocide."

And Iraq? By Friday I was so fixated on the Sudanese genocide that I forgot to ask.

Last Wednesday, before Colin Powell used the magic word, Margaret Warner of the PBS NewsHour had a talking-head discussion of Iraq with retired Marine Lt. General Bernard Trainor and retired U.S. Air Force Col. Sam Gardiner. [audio]
MARGARET WARNER: Are there tactical or strategic things that the U.S. forces could do there while there to reduce these fatalities—these U.S. fatalities—or is the fix only going to be leaving or setting a timetable to leave?

What's your view of the fix for this?

COL. GARDINER: The fix is, I think, the fix that the administration has picked—which is to get it off of the newspapers. The strategic communications objectives right now, as I read them, are to take this off the radar screen of the American people. In July we were seeing roughly 250,000 articles in the world press per day about this. It's now down to 150 (thousand).

MARGARET WARNER: Well, what about the fix on the ground?

COL. GARDINER: There is no fix on the ground.

The fog is beginning to lift. Powell's declaration that the atrocities in Sudan constituted genocide served a number of minor goals of the administration: (1) Propagandistically, it put a group of Muslim Arabs in a most deserved bad light here at home, just as the U.S. was about to attempt the extermination of another group of Muslim Arabs. (2) It reinforced an image of Bush as a "strong" leader and defender of the Christian faith. (3) It portrayed the government as opposing racism.

Also, my guess is that Colin Powell really wanted to make the declaration. After four years in the Bush administration, his reputation is in ruins and his accomplishments are practically nil. He must be dying to scramble onto any high ground that's left.

But the main purpose of the genocide declaration was to distract the media and you and me from Iraq. Iraq is a major campaign issue.

The events in Iraq that need to be hidden are twofold: On the one hand, the situation there—militarily, politically, socially—continues to deteriorate. But on the other hand, the U.S. military is currently pounding the hell out of the Iraqi population. The Bush administration hopes that the American people will reserve their sympathy for the Sudanese.

And now that the magic word has been spoken, what will the Bush administration do for the Sudanese? "Nothing" would be my guess.

Related post:
While George Bush was considering the latest polls.... (9/12/04)


Bush administration reassures Indian plutocrats worried about outsourcing

The Economic Times of India ran a reassuring article yesterday titled "Outsourcing is here to stay: US"
Amid a fierce debate over outsourcing of jobs to countries like India in the crucial election year, US officials have assured a delegation of Indian Parliamentarians and businessmen that offshoring is here to stay despite campaign rhetoric.

The delegation, which met Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage and Deputy Assistant to the President Robert Blackwill among others, was assured that outsourcing was here to stay notwithstanding campaign rhetoric which should not be confused with policy.

Besides Armitage and Blackwill, the delegation met Undersecretary for Policy at the Pentagon Douglas Feith, Undersecretary in the Commerce Department and the official in charge of US-India High Technology Cooperation Group Ken Juster and Assistant Secretary of Transportation Karan Bhatia.

At the Pentagon, the delegation had a pleasant surprise when Deputy Defence Secretary Paul Wolfowitz dropped in for an unscheduled meeting, Ponda said. [emphasis added]

Can it be any plainer? Outsourcing American jobs is the official policy of the Bush administration. Why isn't the press all over this?

Do you feel lied to yet?


A dream come true

The Manila Bulletin Online proudly notes the inclusion of the Philippine president Gloria Arroyo in Forbes' "first-ever list of 100 most powerful women in the world."

Condi Rice leads the list, but

Coming in second in the list is China Vice Premier Wu Yi, followed by India’s Congress party President Sonia Gandhi, former First Lady Laura Bush, ...
I'm trying to get confirmation of this.

Sunday, September 12, 2004


While George Bush was considering the latest polls....

The AP reports,
At least 37 people were killed in Baghdad alone. Many of them died when a U.S. helicopter fired on a disabled U.S. Bradley fighting vehicle as Iraqis swarmed around it, cheering, throwing stones and waving the black and yellow sunburst banner of Iraq's most-feared terror organization.

The dead from the helicopter strike included Arab television reporter Mazen al-Tumeizi, who screamed, 'I'm dying! I'm dying!' as a cameraman recorded the chaotic scene. An Iraqi cameraman working for the Reuters news agency and an Iraqi freelance photographer for Getty Images were wounded.

Maimed and lifeless bodies of young men and boys lay in the street as the stricken U.S. vehicle was engulfed in flames and thick black smoke.


Quote of the Day

[T]he grim joke at BBC is that anyone accusing George Bush of knowing anything at all must have solid evidence.
—Greg Palast, journalist

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