Thursday, April 13, 2006

What I Wanna Know Is

We've probably all read by now yesterday's Wash Post article on the Defense Intelligence Agency's group of British and American volunteers that went to Baghdad in May of 2003 to check out the story about the "mobile biological weapons labs" the invaders thought they found.

Although the nine members of scientific experts quickly determined the "labs" lacked the essential instruments and capabilities for producing biological weapons, and faxed a report saying the same back to headquarters, the president nonetheless went out two days later and announced that "we found the WMD", meaning the mobile labs.

Well, the Post story created a ruckus at the White House briefing where Scotty responded to questions on it by going off like a banshee and demanding that the reporters apologize for mentioning it. Scotty gave a couple of evasive, non-answers to the juxtaposition between the report's submission and the president's contrary, and soon to be determined, totally wrong statement about what the mobile labs really were. First, he says we all know now how wrong the intelligence agencies were before the war, this is old business, waddya waddya waddya, and failing that, said, well, there were other teams that investigated the labs and thought they were legit WMD, and gee, that's what we went with.

The first point is naturally just bupkis, because what the Senate's "investigation" into the pre-war case for war said was "the intelligence agencies got it all wrong" before the war, and the WH was just objectively following their evidence and so really wasn't at fault for the war shenanigans, before the war. But the matter of the mobile biological labs was clearly after the war. And the implication is the WH was as equally mendacious after the war as before.

But it's the second point that intrigues me. The Post article suggested the labs had been examined by other investigators, but didn't specify how. Scotty says the WH ain't in the intelligence gathering business (ain't that the truth) and that we should all check with the CIA.

OK, where's the CIA document?

In today's Post it mentions that in the aftermath of yesterday's revelation, the WH sent out a blitz of Setting the Record Straight emails or faxes to the press providing what I think is crucial information.

In the statements, the White House does not deny the existence of the technical team's report but portrays it as a preliminary finding, contrasting that report with a public white paper put out by the CIA on May 28, 2003. The CIA paper described the trailers as the "strongest evidence to date that Iraq was hiding a biological warfare program."

The White House provided a "link" to a CIA Web site where the white paper is still posted, nearly 18 months after its conclusions were refuted by the Iraq Survey Group.

I've checked the CIA site but can't locate the document in question. It would be important to find this document and read it because even if the DIA document isn't declassified, we could tell what the basis was for the offsetting, but wrong, CIA report upon which the president stated that "we found the weapons of mass destruction", meaning the mobile labs.

What I Wanna Know Is, A, where is this document? Has anyone tracked it down? B, how did the CIA come to believe the labs were the real deal? Were they relying on pictures or Curveball's analysis? Or did they actually go out to Baghdad and look at the things? If they actually saw the things up close, how did they goof, and make something out of nothing? It sounds as if either the CIA and the intelligence apparatus is either more stunningly incompetent than we thought, that this incompetence extended beyond the start of the war, or that their analysis was flat out sloppy, and thus also, incompetent.

Where's the document and what's the story?

Update I: the document is here. I'll be back later with a summary, or something.

Update II: Well, I read the document. And I'm embarassed I made such a fuss over it. The total document is ten pages long, but one page is the title page, two pages are essentially blank, and two more pages are basically pictures or graphical depictions of the labs. Only five pages contain words that could be construed as explaining the nature of the items in question. And of those words, a good deal basically say "well, we showed these pics to our source (Curveball) and he said they looked like them." Towards the end of the White Paper the report says "we're now going to conduct a CSI-like examination of the trailer's materials, but we don't expect to find anything because Saddam had his goons pour bleach over everything...sure enough, we conducted a bio-chemical analysis of the trailers and nothing turned up...see, Saddam screwed us by destroying all the evidence."

So much for the document Scotty says the president, and later his vice-president used as the basis for declaring that the trailers we found were evidence of WMD or WMD related program activities.

And maybe everything would be fine if we just left it at that. I don't know why the DIA would send a team to Iraq to inspect the trailers and then a day after getting a report from the team, allow a CIA White Paper concluding the opposite to go out with the DIA logo on it. And I'm perfectly willing to believe that the president was poorly served by his subordinates in this case and was genuinely unaware of the DIA report. No harm, no foul.

But as they say, it's not the original misdeed that gets you, it's the cover-up.

On their webpage, the WH launches a diatribe against the Washington Post, ABC news, and seemingly anyone that would question the administration about the report or its motives. And then they include what seems to me a shockingly absurd statement about the DIA report:

But The Defense Department Field Report Was A "Preliminary Finding"

U.S. Intelligence Official: "You Don't Change A Report That Has Been Coordinated In The [Intelligence] Community Based On A Field Report.""A U.S. intelligence official, speaking to Reuters on condition of anonymity, confirmed the existence of the field report cited by the Post, but said it was a preliminary finding that had to be evaluated. 'You don't change a report that has been coordinated in the [intelligence] community based on a field report,' the official said. 'It's a preliminary report. No matter how strongly the individual may feel about the subject matter.'" ("White House Hotly Denies Report On Iraq WMD," Reuters, 4/12/06)

You don't change a report based on a field report? Does anybody know what this is supposed to mean? Isn't a field report supposed to, you know, inform the people coordinating our intelligence reports? How else is an intelligence report supposed to be coordinated?

As I've mentioned, I can't imagine why the DIA would send a team out to Baghdad to clear up any confusion about what the trailers were or were not, and then go ahead a day after getting their report and sign on to a completely contradictory report that doesn't mention the DIA's special team report at all.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Paging Steven Spielberg

The self-described America's Newspaper, otherwise known around these parts as the Moonie paper, and D.C.'s reigning "pro-life" organ to boot, took a gander at yesterday's immigrant rally and opined:

More Than a Million Rally for Aliens

Aliens? Is this the War of the Worlds?

Elsewhere, an Arizona state rep had this to say:

The question is, when do we stop this activity of illegal immigration?" he said into a battery of cameras. "Right now, it's like Groundhog Day. You wake up every day and there's more of them. It will be this way until we have a closed border."

Them. The brown folks. From there.

And not to be outdone:

Brit Hume, the news anchor on Fox News, described the marchers, particularly those carrying Mexican flags, as "a repellent spectacle."

Repellent. A spectacle.


Rich Lowry, the editor of National Review, described the protests with marchers carrying foreign flags as "ominous" in "their hint of a large, unassimilated population existing outside America's laws and exhibiting absolutely no sheepishness about it."

Ominous. A large, unassimilated population existing outside America's laws...

A few weeks ago, when the anti-immigrant forces were feeling their oats, Republicans in Congress and the media felt free to let loose on Roger Mahony, Roman Catholic Archbishop of Los Angeles, and an ally on the abortion debate, for rising above his station to oppose them and the Republican leadership on immigration. Mahony stated that if H.R. 4437 passed, he would call on his priests and staff to ignore the law's draconian threats to imprison anyone found to be aiding and abetting illegal immigrants, even if the form of aid consisted of providing food and shelter. But for the Republican Party, the Roman Catholic church should "not call--we'll call you. When we need you. If we don't need you, just shut up. "

In February, Representative Tom Tancredo, a Colorado Republican who opposes illegal immigration, took issue with Catholic bishops, among other religious leaders, ''for invoking God when arguing for a blanket amnesty'' for illegal immigrants. This month, two powerful Republican representatives, Peter King of New York and F. James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, the co-sponsors of the border security bill, criticized the church leadership on ''The O'Reilly Factor'' on Fox News Channel, particularly Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles, who has said he would instruct his priests and parishioners to defy the legislation if it ever became law.

Meanwhile, cable news commentators Tucker Carlson and Lou Dobbs have questioned whether the church should maintain its tax-exempt status, given its political activism on immigration. And in an interview, Mr. King accused church leaders of ''committing the sin of hypocrisy'' in their campaign to sway Congress and Catholic voters.

''This is the left wing of the Catholic Church -- these are the frustrated social workers,'' said Mr. King, who described himself as a practicing Catholic. ''They're giving an incentive for more illegals to come here. I don't think it's right.''

So, members and leaders of the Catholic church who disagree with Rep. King on immigration can be dismissed, even when they're the archbishops of L.A. and Washington, respectively, and even though they oppose abortion, because they're really just "the left wing of the Catholic church" and are "frustrated social workers"? And these bishops are moreover "committing the sin of hypocrisy"?

Man, that's good stuff. Bet these bishops will just LOVE you guys when you come around next time asking for their support on some other issue or during the next election.

It occurs to me that I don't think I've ever heard any pro-choice Democrat speak as disrespectfully of the Catholic hierarchy or its teachings (consider the rather gentile statement signed by 55 of the House Democrats earlier this year) as the Republican members are doing now. That may tell you something about the character of the respective parties in Congress.

But back to our story:

"...some analysts warn that Republicans need to tread carefully when they criticize the church and illegal immigrants. ''The danger of this situation politically is that you'll have an entire season in which Republican politicians are saying critical things about the Catholic hierarchy,'' said Deal Hudson, the Republican architect of the effort to court Catholic voters in 2004. ''That's not going to be helpful in terms of keeping the coalition together.''

Leo Anchondo, who directs the immigrant campaign on behalf of the Catholic Conference of Bishops, said the cardinals and bishops were not surprised there was a backlash against such efforts.

''Immigration has unfortunately become a very controversial topic,'' he said.

But Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick of Washington said he and other leaders decided they could not stay silent after witnessing the hardships endured by illegal immigrants, particularly as the wave from Latin America has surged. ''This is a justice issue,'' he said. ''We feel you have to take care of people.''

And just because the church sides with the GOP on abortion doesn't mean its vote is "in the bank":

Mahony seemed to agree when, in the interview, he married the church's position on immigrant rights to its antiabortion stance.

"People unfortunately always want to place the pro-life agenda in two boxes: abortion and euthanasia," he said, speaking of two issues opposed by most Republicans. "But our pro-life agenda encompasses a broad spectrum of issues, and [immigration] is one of them." Another aspect of that agenda is the church's opposition to capital punishment. In March 2005, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, for the first time in 25 years, launched a campaign against the death penalty -- another issue where it and many Republicans diverge.

Referring to a segment of society critical for maintaining your majority, Hispanics, as "aliens" and "them", calling their marches a "repellent spectacle" and "ominous", and attacking the Roman Catholic church, another seemingly important ally, guys, way to go. Real smart. And oh yeah, behind the electoral stupidity of it, you're on the wrong side of decency and keeping families together. Unless of course, you don't care about that.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Christ Among the Partisans

A very excellent op-ed in today's NYT by the historian Garry Wills, perhaps the foremost commentator on religion and politics today:

Christ Among the Partisans
Published: April 9, 2006

THERE is no such thing as a "Christian politics." If it is a politics, it cannot be Christian. Jesus told Pilate: "My reign is not of this present order. If my reign were of this present order, my supporters would have fought against my being turned over to the Jews. But my reign is not here" (John 18:36). Jesus brought no political message or program.

This is a truth that needs emphasis at a time when some Democrats, fearing that the Republicans have advanced over them by the use of religion, want to respond with a claim that Jesus is really on their side. He is not. He avoided those who would trap him into taking sides for or against the Roman occupation of Judea. He paid his taxes to the occupying power but said only, "Let Caesar have what belongs to him, and God have what belongs to him" (Matthew 22:21). He was the original proponent of a separation of church and state.

Those who want the state to engage in public worship, or even to have prayer in schools, are defying his injunction: "When you pray, be not like the pretenders, who prefer to pray in the synagogues and in the public square, in the sight of others. In truth I tell you, that is all the profit they will have. But you, when you pray, go into your inner chamber and, locking the door, pray there in hiding to your Father, and your Father who sees you in hiding will reward you" (Matthew 6:5-6). He shocked people by his repeated violation of the external holiness code of his time, emphasizing that his religion was an internal matter of the heart.

But doesn't Jesus say to care for the poor? Repeatedly and insistently, but what he says goes far beyond politics and is of a different order. He declares that only one test will determine who will come into his reign: whether one has treated the poor, the hungry, the homeless and the imprisoned as one would Jesus himself. "Whenever you did these things to the lowliest of my brothers, you were doing it to me" (Matthew 25:40). No government can propose that as its program. Theocracy itself never went so far, nor could it.

The state cannot indulge in self-sacrifice. If it is to treat the poor well, it must do so on grounds of justice, appealing to arguments that will convince people who are not followers of Jesus or of any other religion. The norms of justice will fall short of the demands of love that Jesus imposes. A Christian may adopt just political measures from his or her own motive of love, but that is not the argument that will define justice for state purposes.

To claim that the state's burden of justice, which falls short of the supreme test Jesus imposes, is actually what he wills — that would be to substitute some lesser and false religion for what Jesus brought from the Father. Of course, Christians who do not meet the lower standard of state justice to the poor will, a fortiori, fail to pass the higher test.

The Romans did not believe Jesus when he said he had no political ambitions. That is why the soldiers mocked him as a failed king, giving him a robe and scepter and bowing in fake obedience (John 19:1-3). Those who today say that they are creating or following a "Christian politics" continue the work of those soldiers, disregarding the words of Jesus that his reign is not of this order.

Some people want to display and honor the Ten Commandments as a political commitment enjoined by the religion of Jesus. That very act is a violation of the First and Second Commandments. By erecting a false religion — imposing a reign of Jesus in this order — they are worshiping a false god. They commit idolatry. They also take the Lord's name in vain.

Some may think that removing Jesus from politics would mean removing morality from politics. They think we would all be better off if we took up the slogan "What would Jesus do?"

That is not a question his disciples ask in the Gospels. They never knew what Jesus was going to do next. He could round on Peter and call him "Satan." He could refuse to receive his mother when she asked to see him. He might tell his followers that they are unworthy of him if they do not hate their mother and their father. He might kill pigs by the hundreds. He might whip people out of church precincts.

The Jesus of the Gospels is not a great ethical teacher like Socrates, our leading humanitarian. He is an apocalyptic figure who steps outside the boundaries of normal morality to signal that the Father's judgment is breaking into history. His miracles were not acts of charity but eschatological signs — accepting the unclean, promising heavenly rewards, making last things first.

He is more a higher Nietzsche, beyond good and evil, than a higher Socrates. No politician is going to tell the lustful that they must pluck out their right eye. We cannot do what Jesus would do because we are not divine.

It was blasphemous to say, as the deputy under secretary of defense, Lt. Gen. William Boykin, repeatedly did, that God made George Bush president in 2000, when a majority of Americans did not vote for him. It would not remove the blasphemy for Democrats to imply that God wants Bush not to be president. Jesus should not be recruited as a campaign aide. To trivialize the mystery of Jesus is not to serve the Gospels.

The Gospels are scary, dark and demanding. It is not surprising that people want to tame them, dilute them, make them into generic encouragements to be loving and peaceful and fair. If that is all they are, then we may as well make Socrates our redeemer.

It is true that the tamed Gospels can be put to humanitarian purposes, and religious institutions have long done this, in defiance of what Jesus said in the Gospels.

Jesus was the victim of every institutional authority in his life and death. He said: "Do not be called Rabbi, since you have only one teacher, and you are all brothers. And call no one on earth your father, since you have only one Father, the one in heaven. And do not be called leaders, since you have only one leader, the Messiah" (Matthew 23:8-10).

If Democrats want to fight Republicans for the support of an institutional Jesus, they will have to give up the person who said those words. They will have to turn away from what Flannery O'Connor described as "the bleeding stinking mad shadow of Jesus" and "a wild ragged figure" who flits "from tree to tree in the back" of the mind.

He was never that thing that all politicians wish to be esteemed — respectable. At various times in the Gospels, Jesus is called a devil, the devil's agent, irreligious, unclean, a mocker of Jewish law, a drunkard, a glutton, a promoter of immorality.

The institutional Jesus of the Republicans has no similarity to the Gospel figure. Neither will any institutional Jesus of the Democrats.

Garry Wills is professor emeritus of history at Northwestern University and the author, most recently, of "What Jesus Meant."

Civil War in Iraq? No Problem

The Wash Post has attracted attention today because of the blatant disconnect between it's front page reporting and editorial page ruminations regarding Joe Wilson and the administration's selective leak campaign against him.

But what I found interesting in today's Outlook was, first, an opinion piece by somebody named Caleb Carr, with the headline, Let Them Have Their Civil War. The piece basically argues that while the genocidal results of an Iraqi civil war would certainly be bad, and we shouldn't encourage a civil war or condone genocide, mind you, a civil war in Iraq really wouldn't be so bad; in fact, given the outpouring of violence that's been allowed to occur already, it might be unjust of us to try to stop it. After all, the Shiites and Kurds deserve an opportunity to exact some revenge on the Sunnis from all those years of Baathist rule, not to mention the insurgent attacks since the American occupation that really haven't been addressed by the non-existent political system in Baghdad.

Now, largely because a civil war both seems inevitable as well as beyond the American military's capability to stop, Carr may have a somewhat valid point.

But there are at least two problems, as far as I can see: one, THIS ISN'T WHAT WE WERE TOLD WOULD HAPPEN IN IRAQ. We were going to liberate the Iraqis, they'd love us and set up a peaceful Democracy, eradicating the years of oppression and bloodshed they endured under Saddam Hussein. The country wasn't told a civil war was likely, and Iraq's ethnic and religious cultures fought it out for supremacy;

And two, wasn't a primary goal of the Iraqi invasion to set up a friendly, secure state that would act as a bulwork against terrorism in the Middle East? If Iraq remains a violence-racked, failed state for an indeterminate amount of time, doesn't this, you know, kind of provide an obstacle to fighting terrorism in Iraq or elsewhere? If the state is essentially out of control, with unknown numbers of Shiite militia groups (some perhaps friendly with the Islamic regime in Iran) and Sunni insurgent groups (aided in part by Zarqawi) roaming the country, or hiding out, does this mean that we're better or worse off than we were before in regards to the "war on terrorism"?

The second opinion piece, just above it in today's Outlook is from somebody named Robert Killebrew, who argues that while the scenes being played out in Baghdad aren't for the moment especially comforting, we should remember how many American lives were lost, how much destruction occured, and how long it took for American and allied forces to secure South Korea, helping it to become the rapidly growing economy and democracy it is today.

Like Carr, Killebrew may have a point; in ten, twenty, thirty years time, maybe Iraq will resemble South Korea more than South Vietnam. But again, this isn't what we were told would happen in Iraq. The country was sold on the notion that the war would be short and awesome. Not long, drawn out, and ugly.

Both articles make the same implication that the violent mess in Iraq really isn't so bad and may in fact really be just one of many alternative paths that our liberation of that country will take. See, the fact that the country has desolved into civil war really does illustrate how much we've truly done to liberate them.

I expect this to be an increasingly popular meme in the right-wing's playbook as the 2006 election approaches.

But whether Americans have been conditioned to accept something less than certain and immediate victory, is another matter.

As Killebrew recognizes:

Truman immediately saw the North Korean invasion of South Korea as a sinister attempt by Joseph Stalin to turn the West's flank, and the war was generally accepted as the price of containing communist expansion. Truman led a nation that, though war-weary, had been through the crucible of World War II and accepted presidential leadership beyond the water's edge...In 2006, President Bush leads a much more skeptical, more networked nation that, though enraged by the events of 9/11, is less inclined to obey than in 1950.

Leap of Faith

I added HBO to my digital-cable package a few weeks ago, and am glad I did. It's not like the old days when one pay-station cost you another $10 per month. I think I pay another $13 or so for about nine or ten HBO stations, including an HBO-on-demand option which basically allows me to play, free of any additional charges, any movie or special currently running, at the time of my choosing.

Anyway, today provided two of my favorite Steve Martin movies, the comedy My Blue Heaven, with Rick Moranis, and the drama-ish Leap of Faith.

Leap of Faith in particular I regard as one of the most under-rated pics of the last couple of decades. Along with Groundhog Day, it's also very spiritual in the broad sense of the word. That it includes the beautiful Debra Winger and Lolita Davidovich doesn't hurt. But the movie provides a twist of the stereotypical schiester minister, playing the Bible for bucks. In one particularly poignant scene, Steve Martin's character has been Benny Hinning the crowd, appearing to heal, or at least "bless" several people hand-picked from the audience by Martin's roadies. But a crippled Lukas Haas, walking with braces, also comes forward for healing. After initially rebuffing him, Martin is called back out onto the stage by the crowd to heal him, too. The Martin character, recognizing his bind, shrewdly emphasizes the need for faith to generate the boy's healing, and points to a known skeptic in the crowd, the sheriff played by Liam Neeson, as being the barrier for the boy's miracle. Except Haas steps gingerly up to the Jesus statute, touches its feet, and slowly begins to actually walk, discarding his braces along the way, to the shock and awe of the crowd.

Meanwhile, the Debra Winger character, who has struck up a friendship with the small-town Kansas sheriff, begins to see in the town and in Neeson a place to settle down, abandoning Martin's spiritual road show for a life of gentile, small-town America.

Martin, meanwhile, is prepared to use the Haas miracle as an additional spectacle for his traveling parade but amidst his cynicism, wanders among the townees and out of towners who've been lured to Martin's tent-revival but who are now seemingly joined together around the tent in groups of community, laughing, eating, studying scripture and so on. Martin seems genuinely affected by the mood, faith, optimism, and hope among the groups, who among other things, are desperately in need of rain for the crops.

The movie ends with Martin riding off, literally, into the sunset, hiching a ride with a trucker bound for Pensacola, FL, but devoid of his band and spiritual-circus entrapments. It's ambigious as to whether Martin is going to continue a life of chicanery, which adds to the movie's appeal and mystery, but as the truck pulls out of town, the much desired rain begins to fall, leading the community to celebrate in unity.

The 1992 movie continues to strike a cord for obvious reasons today; the world of faith continues to affect our relationships and politics, mostly, it seems, for the worse.

But the movie at least offers a glimpse of what a different, more positive spirituality could look like, devoid of political manipulations and denominational hierarchies. That Haas' character is healed despite Martin's blatant trickery suggests that one's spiritual experience is not dependent upon the machinations of others.

All of this to seguay to Paul Waldman's column here.

I largely agree with Waldman in that I think this is a potentially promising development--the introduction of comparative religion courses in high schools. These first two are in the south, naturally, but I suspect other jurisdications may begin to implement them as well.

For one thing, I've come to believe that one of the unfortunate side-effects of a more stringent "establishment clause" policy on the part of the federal government has been that it has resulted in faith becoming more politicized. It has allowed opportunistic church leaders to portray themselves and their faith as being "persecuted", helping them to rake in the dollars and inflame people's passions. It's also meant that a knowledge of religious things has been relegated to the churches, who are doing it badly.

Although more secular folks will undoubtedly be put-off by any apparent blurring of the line between church and state--a worry I share, it's worth considering for liberals as to whether the state has a legitimate interest in educating its citizens about different religions, instead of leaving it totally to a field of demagogic pastors.

As Waldman suggests, students would be made aware not just of the Bible's condemnations of homosexuality, but about other Biblically-defined "abominations" as well.

In short, such a course offers the opportunity for taking the Bible and religion out of the closet into which right-wing ministers have shoved it. They're monopolicy over defining religion would begin to shrink. And maybe such courses would lead to people asking questions about holy writ that many conservative evangelicals would rather avoid.

What are the drawbacks? Waldman doesn't really allude to any, but it's certainly possible, maybe even likely, that such courses would be abused, used by religious advocates to try to indocrinate students into one particular point of view--turning an educational experience into a worship experience.

This may be unavoidable in some locales, but one way to minimize it would be to ensure that standardized tests include factual questions about other religions students would be expected to know.

Another drawback is that rather than serving to dampen religious fundamentalism, it may only spur it, by causing religious leaders to latch onto other, even more divisive cultural wedge issues, feeling buttressed by the fact that religion has been let back in the public schools as a first step.

Meanwhile, a drawback for Christians is the degree to which religion becomes only more politicized as a result. One of the rationales for the separation of church and state, after all, is not only to protect the state from religion, but to protect religion from the state. Would exposing religion to greater public scrutiny lead to a greater crisis of doubt?

Perhaps. But for both seculars and people of faith, neither group has been well-served by the sheltering of faith and right-wing monopolization of the same that has grown over the past several decades. Given the contentious nature of the culture wars today, and the vast array of misinformation that exists of and in the religious world, more information and better forms of education certainly can't hurt.