Number 496 December 8, 2011

This Week: Iran, Afghanistan, and Climate

"Quote" of the Week: "We want a more democratic country"
Global Climate Crisis: "We Can Try to Incentivize"
The Iran Terror Plot: Facts Are Not Just Facts
Death Squads? Or War Propaganda?


This week was supposed to be the second part of an official Stroll Through the News With Nygaard, and I suppose we could call it that. But the Strolls to which we have become accustomed are typically short little clips of 300 or fewer words, appearing in relatively large numbers. This week has only three items, and all are longer than the standard. This is not the way to work through the ungainly stack of news clippings on my desk!

But these three pieces seemed to want to be longer, so I let them write themselves in a longer form. I guess I'll continue in the next edition, and make my best effort to keep them short and punchy. But, really, I don't know what to expect any more than you do.

Unpredictably yours,



"Quote" of the Week: "We want a more democratic country"

In the December 12th edition of TIME Magazine, Editor-at-Large Fareed Zakaria wrote a column about how "America's Pakistan policy isn't working." And in it he wrote the following frank words:

"There is a fundamental tension in U.S. policy toward Pakistan. We want a more democratic country, but we also want a government that can deliver cooperation on the ground. In practice, we always choose the latter..."

Readers may wonder—I certainly do—where, exactly, is the evidence that "we" want democracy, when we "always" choose something else. Well, I guess one doesn't get to be an editor at TIME without being able to retain a belief in the mythology of the United States as a builder of democracy.


Global Climate Crisis: "We Can Try to Incentivize"

Perhaps the most important news story in all the world is the increasingly worrisome fate of the global environment. Yet I'm certain that many people reading these words are completely unaware that Monday, November 28th, marked the beginning of the 17th Conference of the Parties (COP17) UN Climate Change Conference in Durban, South Africa. COP17 is this year's international summit of more than 10,000 government officials, advisers, scientists and other delegates from over 190 countries. It's a part of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which was established in 1992 with it's stated objective being "to stabilise greenhouse gas concentrations at a level that will prevent dangerous human interference with the climate system".

This is the biggest (really the only) forum for global leaders to discuss what we are going to do about global climate change. What happens there—or does not happen there—is thus immeasurably important news. One thing that is happening there is that the U.S. is blocking any serious agreement on anything. As United Press International reported last week (December 1, 2011), "The White House seems intent on blocking even small advances in the world's global-warming response, environmental groups, U.S. lawmakers and scientists allege."

Yet this huge event, and the shameful U.S. role in it, is being almost totally ignored in the U.S. press. In the first three days of the 2009 conference in Copenhagen Denmark, there were 545 references to the conference in the U.S. media, with 185 of them being newspaper stories. This year, the numbers have dropped to 136 references, with only 13 newspaper stories on the conference, none on the front pages. As I write these words, on the fourth day of the conference, I was able to find just a single article in today's major newspapers that mentioned the conference, and that mention was in the last paragraph of a page-two story in the Washington Post.

The Post did have a story on November 29th reporting on some remarks having to do with climate change. The page-four headline read: "Energy official sees climate 'catastrophe,'" and the lead paragraph included these words: "The chief economist for the International Energy Agency [IEA] said Monday that current global energy consumption levels put the Earth on a trajectory to warm by 6 degrees Celsius (10.8 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels by 2100." The London Guardian remarked on November 10th that "The IEA's data is regarded as the gold standard in emissions and energy, and is widely regarded as one of the most conservative in outlook..." (Apparently those Londoners don't know what "conservative" really means, at least on this side of The Pond.)

Emphasizing the significance of an almost 11-degree increase in global temperatures, the IEA economist, Fatih Birol, told the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace that "Everybody, even the schoolchildren, knows this is a catastrophe for all of us."

I don't know what schoolchildren he was talking about, but the Washington Post reporter, Juliet Eilperin, presumably once a U.S. schoolchild herself, wrote the following revealing words that tell pretty much the whole story, I think:

"Birol spoke in unusually blunt terms about the climate implications of the global energy mix, implications that are disputed by many conservatives in the United States who don't believe in the connection between human activity and climate change.

"David Burwell, who directs the energy and climate program at the Carnegie Endowment, said Birol's comments have 'big implications for capital investment in energy,' though he noted that it will be oil executives and others in the private sector who will drive many of the key decisions.

"'We can try to regulate, we can try to incentivize, but ultimately, they've got to make the decisions, they've got to make the investments,' he said, adding that government officials should engage with the energy industry on this topic. 'Now's the time to have the conversation about investments.'" [Emphasis by Nygaard]

So, there you have it: A global conference of 98 percent of the nations on the planet, meeting to attempt to avert a global catastrophe beyond anything we've seen in centuries—maybe ever—and the world's most powerful nation is obstructing the entire process because some of our leaders "don't believe" humans have anything to do with it. Besides, our political leaders can't do much, because "the key decisions" will not be made by them, anyway, since such power belongs to oil executives.

I hate to leave it there, so here are a few things worth reading for those who want more information on this urgent topic:

The Climate Ethics Campaign, issued an open letter just this week called "Statement of Our Nation's Moral Obligation to Address Climate Change."

You may also wish to read the statement of The Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), released on the eve of the Durban conference, which says, in part, that a U.S.-backed delay in reaching a climate agreement "is a betrayal not just of small island nations, many of whom would be destined for extinction, but a betrayal of all humanity." AOSIS represents almost 40 island states, and their plea for action can be found HERE.

On November 29th the leaders of 16 environmental groups sent a three-page letter to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton saying that "America risks being viewed not as a global leader on climate change, but as a major obstacle to progress." The reasons why are worth reading, and the letter can be found HERE.

Finally, the Inter Press Service has a special section on COP17 on their swell website


The Iran Terror Plot: Facts Are Not Just Facts

On October 11th the U.S. government tried once again to convince the U.S. public that Iran is a dangerous threat to this country. It's hard to summarize the announcement by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, but according to the excellent reporter Gareth Porter, what Holder said amounted to this:

"The Qods Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps [in Iran] had plotted to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States, Adel al-Jubeir, right in Washington, DC, in a place where large numbers of innocent bystanders could have been killed. High-level officials of the Qods Force were said to be involved, the only question being how far up in the Iranian government the complicity went."

Even the FBI Director said that the charges read "like the pages of a Hollywood script," yet the announcement received front-page coverage around the world. Porter notes that "The US tale of the Iranian plot was greeted with unusual skepticism on the part of Iran specialists and independent policy analysts, and even elements of the mainstream media." But by the time the skeptics had been quoted, the damage had been done. That is, the idea that Iran is a threat to the United States—one that must be dealt with, the sooner the better—was reinforced in the public mind.

How could this have been avoided? Weren't the various media outlets simply reporting what U.S. officials said? Aren't those just facts, ones that need to be reported? The headlines seem true enough, after all: "U.S. says Iran plotted to kill Saudi envoy" (Washington Post); "Iranians Accused Of A Plot to Kill Saudis' U.S. Envoy" (NY Times).

As I always remind people, facts are not just facts. That is, what we call "facts" only make sense as a part of a story. In this case, what is the story into which the newspapers expect readers to place these facts? I suggest that the story, or narrative, in this country regarding Iran goes something like this: Iran is a dangerous country, run by irrational fanatics who hate the United States.

If that's your story, then the facts reflected in the headlines of the corporate media make perfect sense. However, there's another story that one can imagine in this context, and it goes like this: The U.S. is a dangerous country whose leadership has a history of inventing threats to justify attacking countries that it perceives to be threats to its interests.

Now, if we were to go with that second story, the headlines might be quite different. Sounds like it's time for a couple of Nygaard Notes Alternative Headlines. How about:

"U.S. Officials Concoct Bizarre Plot to Justify War with Iran." Or, perhaps, "Outrageous Plot Alleged Involving Iran; Evidence Lacking."

Search though I did in the corporate media for the two weeks following the Attorney General's announcement, I couldn't find any mention of the word "propaganda" (except in quotation marks, quoting Iranian officials). And the credibility of such propaganda is tremendously important, since false or distorted "news" of enemy atrocities is the tinder that is often used to ignite wars. Think of the sinking of the Lusitania that got the U.S. into World War I, or the Tonkin Gulf Incident which was used to authorize the official U.S. attack on Vietnam. If it's too hard to remember things so long ago, how about the bogus reports of Saddam Hussein and his "Weapons of Mass Destruction"?

War of any kind is horrible. Trumped-up Imperial wars based on lies are the most horrible of all. The media has a responsibility to call the bluff of officials who are trying to scare us into war. In the case of the supposed "Iran terror plot" they failed.

Speaking of atrocities, the next article looks at another report of enemy depravity, this time in Afghanistan.

For more details on this alleged plot, see Gareth Porter's excellent article "Debunking the Iran 'Terror Plot.'" It's all over the Internet, including HERE.


Death Squads? Or War Propaganda?

In the last issue of Nygaard Notes, which came out on November 23rd, I stated that "History is filled with stories of what the C.I.A. calls 'blowback,' which is the term for unintended consequences of foreign operations that were deliberately kept secret from the American public." I also pointed out that U.S. drone attacks in Pakistan are just such a "secret." (Secret from the U.S. public, that is, not from the people being attacked.)

As if to illustrate the point, six days after that issue of the Notes came out there appeared on the front page of the November 29th New York Times a very lengthy article that started off like this:

"As targeted killings have risen sharply across Afghanistan, American and Afghan officials believe that many are the work of counterintelligence units of the Haqqani militant network and Al Qaeda, charged with killing suspected informants and terrorizing the populace on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

"Military intelligence officials say that the units essentially act as death squads and that one of them, a large group known as the Khurasan that operates primarily in Pakistan's tribal areas, has been responsible for at least 250 assassinations and public executions."

The article is in the classic style of propaganda, and is filled with red flags. Let's have a closer look.

Red Flags: Propaganda Near?

As noted above, the first paragraph of the article tells us about something that "American and Afghan officials believe". Assuming that the Times reporters (the article has three co-authors) are not mind-readers, they do not know what these anonymous officials "believe." They only know what they say, which may or may not be what they believe. It may, in fact, be propaganda, put forth as something for the Times, and its readers around the world, to believe.

In the second paragraph, also noted above, the reporters take a different approach, saying that "Military intelligence officials say..." This is better, as it allows the reader to decide if what the officials say has any relation to anything believable.

Sometimes reporters put forth ideas without attributing them to actual people. Instead, they use the passive voice, as in this example from the article:

"The Khurasan is believed to have formed in early 2009..." and "The group is said to wear black clothing with green armbands bearing its full name, Itihad al-Mujahedeen Khurasan, and works closely with Al Qaeda in the region. Estimates of its size range from 100 to 2,000 members." In this case, the Times appears to be saying that it is "American intelligence officials" who "believe" these things about the Khurasan, and who "say" what they wear, and whose "estimates" range from 100 to 2,000. But which "officials" are they talking about? No matter how crazy a fact or a theory may be, a reporter can always find someone who "believes." or "says" they believe, or "estimates," something. Without names and some indication of how many people's opinions or knowledge are reflected in these statements, they are meaningless. Or worse, they are intended to deceive.

Beyond the pretense of mind-reading and the transmission of ideas that come from unknown places, the article was filled with anonymous quotes, which is another clue that we are veering off the tracks of veracity. In this article, ideas are attributed to unnamed "officials," like "An American military official" and "Public health officials" and "Military intelligence officials" (who are presumably different from "American intelligence officials", although we don't know).

In the article is a stark statement: "People in Sabari [Afghanistan] are living in abject terror, 24 hours a day." This is attributed to "An American military official... speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to publicly discuss the death squad." As it turns out, no officials in this article would speak on the record. When no officials are willing to speak publicly about something, then it is the reporters job to triple-check the statements made by these shadowy figures, ideally by citing actual people with actual names who will speak on the record. (This article has one revealing example of a U.S. official who has a name, as we'll see in a moment.)

The Named Prisoner, Quoted by the Anonymous "Officials"

The article cites, indirectly, a "senior Afghanistan-based leader for the Haqqanis, Hajji Mali Khan," who supposedly was captured by "American forces" and "interrogated." Then the Times tells us that, "according to four officials familiar with the questioning," Mr. Khan said (that's the indirect part) that the "Taliban had been approaching Afghan government and military officials throughout the summer, persuading them to sign a five-page document secretly pledging their loyalty to the Taliban leadership."

The words attributed specifically to Khan were told to the Times by "one of the American officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the classified interrogations." The Times notes that "Officials say they have found no confirmation of such oaths, however." Well, who needs "evidence," when you can report the statements of unidentified "officials" reporting on information supposedly received during secret interrogations?

The article includes two quotes from officials who agreed to give their names. One of them denies that any of this is happening, and the other says there is no evidence but we should believe it anyway.

In the first case, the Times reports that "Another group, whose name is not known, works mainly in Afghanistan and may be responsible for at least 20 killings in Khost Province over the summer alone, including a mass beheading..." Leave aside for the moment the fact that anyone "may" be responsible for some unknown number of killings. Consider the words of Dawlat Khan Qayoumi, the district governor. When asked about all the death squad activity in his district, Qayoumi told the Times, "I totally deny such reports. I can tell you in the last five months we have not seen any such incidents."

The second non-anonymous source—the only U.S. official to be identified by name—is cited in response to the Times' claim that "coalition forces got a report that three village elders had been kidnapped and three teenagers had been beheaded." Col. Christopher R. Toner, "commander of the First Infantry Division's Third Brigade Combat Team, based in Khost and Paktia Provinces," told the Times that "When we went up to investigate, we could never get any bodies or any proof." No matter, though, Col. Toner assured the Times: "There was enough going around that I suspect it was true." Well, at least he wasn't anonymous!

Finally, the Times reports that "Neither NATO nor the United Nations, both of which track assassinations, had any record of the mass beheadings, of the Maktab Bazaar killings or of the two men killed after Mr. Khan's capture."

The article, by the way, was headlined "Militants Turn to Death Squads in Afghanistan." Yet, in the article itself we find:
1) an official denial of the reports;
2) a failure to find "any bodies or any proof" and
3) the failure of any official records of any of the events cited in this article.

Some might see this as a series of hints that the Times' anonymous sources may possibly have something else on their agenda besides absolute factual accuracy.

The Times reporters, however, see the lack of evidence as "reflecting the intense secrecy with which villagers have guarded the deaths." Thus is the lack of evidence proclaimed to actually be more evidence.

"Fortifying the Mind of the Nation"

I've quoted the social scientist Harold Lasswell before in these pages, and it's worth doing so again. In his 1927 book entitled "Propaganda Technique in the World War," Lasswell noted that the first thing that "the propagandist" who desires to mobilize the population in favor of war must do is to convince the public that "the enemy" started the war and is blocking the peace. But, added Lasswell, "to make assurance double sure, it is safe to fortify the mind of the nation with examples of the insolence and depravity of the enemy... A handy rule for arousing hate is, if at first they do not enrage, use an atrocity. It has been employed with unvarying success in every conflict known to man. Originality, while often advantageous, is far from indispensable."

As the U.S. military supposedly prepares to withdraw from Afghanistan over the next couple of years, there are undoubtedly elements within the U.S. government—especially in the military and intelligence branches—who think we should stay. For such so-called hawks, there would be great utility in mounting a fairly standard propaganda story to convince the nation that we should remain mobilized for war in the country. That story is that the enemy is depraved and is, unlike ourselves, capable of inhuman acts. Like death squads. So we have to keep killing them, even though such killing may be a great recruiting tool for the other side.

A hint of the recruiting tool story actually appeared in the tenth paragraph of the 1,500-word article. Recall the questionable citation I quoted earlier, where the Times said that "The Khurasan is believed to have formed in early 2009..." Well, again, we don't know who "believes" this, but whoever it is, here's the full sentence:

"The Khurasan is believed to have formed in early 2009 in the North Waziristan area of Pakistan, the Haqqanis' headquarters, in response to intensified drone attacks by the United States."

Now, if there's any truth in that statement, then that's a different story entirely.

The attacks of September 11, 2001 provided the original justification for invading and occupying Afghanistan. The consequences of the decision to mount a military response to those attacks are still unknown, but it's possible that the significance of this news report in the New York Times is that it is a story of blowback, a story of U.S. actions stimulating a response that is tragic and also quite predictable. The late Asian scholar Chalmers Johnson summarized it a few years ago like this:

"The concept 'blowback' does not just mean retaliation for things our government has done to and in foreign countries. It refers to retaliation for the numerous illegal operations we have carried out abroad that were kept totally secret from the American public. This means that when the retaliation comes—as it did so spectacularly on September 11, 2001—the American public is unable to put the events in context. So they tend to support acts intended to lash out against the perpetrators, thereby most commonly preparing the ground for yet another cycle of blowback."

The idea that the ongoing violence in Afghanistan is simply evidence of the depravity of the enemy is easy to sell to a U.S. public that gets only one side of the story. The possibility that the violence described in this story is a response to U.S. actions, and represents an attempt to defend Afghanistan against those actions, is a much more difficult case to make in the current propaganda environment.

Whether or not there are actual death squads in Afghanistan, there is little doubt that the country remains a very violent and unstable place. As the British news service Reuters reported this week, "According to United Nations figures, 2011 is the most violent year [in Afghanistan] since the war began..."

So, is the story here the one that the headline—"Militants Turn to Death Squads in Afghanistan"—would have us believe? Or would it be better to have a story appear under a Nygaard Notes Alternative Headline like this one: "Ongoing U.S. Occupation Provokes Record Levels of Violence"? Or this one: "Shadowy U.S. Sources Spreading Death Squad Rumors in Afghanistan"?

When we see headlines like those on the front pages, then maybe we can start debating whether we want to continue paying the material and moral costs involved in maintaining an Empire.

The original story in the New York Times can be found HERE.