How the Democrats Undercut John Murtha


Here we have one of the most widely derided presidents in the history of the United States and a war abhorred by a majority of all Americans and the Democrats have near zero traction as a credible party of opposition. The sequence of events after Representative Jack Murtha’s speech on Capitol Hill on November 17 tells the story.

It truly was a great speech, as the Marine veteran (37 years in the US Marine Corps, then 31 years in Congress) actually delivered it with extempore additions to the prepared text handed out after his news conference.

Listen to Murtha and you are hearing how the US commanders in Iraq really see the situation. Murtha is trusted by the military and has visited Iraq often. “Many say the Army is broken. Some of our troops are on a third deployment. Recruitment is down even as the military has lowed its standards. They expect to take 20 percent category 4, which is the lowest category, which they said they’d never take. Much of our ground equipment is worn out.”

On Iraq’s condition: “Oil production and energy production are below prewar level. You remember they said that was going to pay for the war, and it’s below prewar level. Our reconstruction efforts have been crippled by the security situation. Only $9 billion of $18 billion appropriated for reconstruction has been spent. Unemployment is 60 percentClean water is scarce and they only spent $500 million of the $2.2 billion appropriated for water projects.

“And, most importantly — this is the most important point ­ incidents have increased from 150 a week to over 700 in the last year.”

Then, amid his tears, came Murtha’s sketches of war’s consequences in today’s America:

“Now, let me personalize this thing for youI have a young fellow in my district who was blinded and he lost his foot. And they did everything they could for him at Walter Reed, then they sent him home. His father was in jail; he had nobody at home — imagine this: young kid that age — 22, 23 years old — goes home to nobody. V.A. did everything they could do to help him. He was reaching out, so they sent him — to make sure that he was blind, they sent him to John Hopkins. John Hopkins started to send him bills. Then the collection agency started sending billsImagine, a young person being blinded, without a foot, and he’s getting bills from a collection agency.”

And finally, Murtha’s call for rapid pullout of US troops from Iraq capped by one of the most amazing resumes of political reality ever administered to an audience on Capitol Hill:

“I believe we need to turn Iraq over to the Iraqis. I believe before the Iraqi elections, scheduled for mid-December, the Iraqi people and the emerging government must be put on notice: The United States will immediately redeploy — immediately redeploy. All of Iraq must know that Iraq is free, free from a United States occupation. And I believe this will send a signal to the Sunnis to join the political process.”

This was no wimp. This was a 73-year old Marine veteran with Purple Hearts and Bronze Star, one of the Armed Forces’ most constant supporters. What more credible advocate a speedy end to an unpopular war could the Democrats ever hope for?

Barely had he stopped speaking before the halls of Congress echoed with the squeaks Democrats whimpering with panic as they skipped clear of Murtha’s shadow. Emboldening the White House to savage Murtha, John Kerry hurried before the cameras of MSNBC to frag the Pennsylvania congressman and to tell Chris Mathews how he, John Kerry, had a better plan, involving something in the nature of a schedule for withdrawal possibly limping into action in 2006.

Nancy Pelosi, the Democrats’ leader in the House abruptly retreated from a scheduled pres conference to express support for Murtha. Scenting weakness, the Republicans put up a resolution calling for withdrawal now. Democratic panic escalated into pell mell retreat, shouting back over their shoulders that they weren’t going to fall for such a dirty Republican trick. Why not? What better chance will they get to go on record against the war? In the end just three Democrats (Cynthia McKinney of Georgia, Jose Serrano of New York, and Robert Wexler of Florida voted for immediate withdrawal and six voted “present”). McKinney put it starkly:

“I will not vote to give one more soldier to the George W. Bush/Dick Cheney war machine. A vote on war is the single most important vote we can make in this House. I understand the feelings of my colleagues on both sides of the aisle who might be severely conflicted by the decision we have to make here tonight. But the facts of US occupation of Iraq are also very clear.”

They may be clear to McKinney, and Murtha and 60 per cent of the American people, but not to the three Democratic Senators interested in the presidential nomination in 2008. Even after Murtha’s lead Russell Feingold continued to mumble about the “target date” for withdrawal being 2006, as does Kerry. For her part Hillary Clinton announced at the start of Thanksgiving week that an immediate U.S. withdrawal from Iraq would be “a big mistake” which “would cause more problems for us in America. It will matter to us if Iraq totally collapses into civil war, if it becomes a failed state”

The importance of Murtha’s speech was that it vaulted over these laboriously prudent schedules into the reality of what is actually happening in Iraq. As his military sources in Iraq most certainly urged him to point out, the main fuel for the Sunni Arab insurgency is foreign occupation. So long as it continues the resistance is likely to go on. . The idea that the Sunni taking part in the election somehow means a shift from military action is also baloney.

Would there actually be a power vacuum if US withdrew, followed by civil war, as is widely argued in the U.S.? The Sunni can’t take Baghdad. They can’t penetrate the main Kurdish and Shia areas. How exactly is the US military preventing a civil war at the moment? The refusal of the Shia to retaliate is the most important factor here and this is primarily the result of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani standing firmly against it.

Now suppose Sistani calls for a withdrawal? Then the US and Britain will have little choice but to go, probably over an 18 month period. This very week, incidentally, a gathering in Cairo of Sunni, Shiite, and Kurdish leaders (under the auspices of the Arab League) called for a timetable for US withdrawal and also said that Iraq’s opposition had a “legitimate right to resistance.” The Sunni are not going to stop fighting while the occupation continues. The quid pro quo for the US leaving would presumably be a ceasefire by the Sunni and an end to suicide bombing attacks.

All those Democratic Party withdrawal dates are predicated on the idea that Iraqi army security forces will be built up and can take over. This scenario is as unrealistic as calls to “internationalize” the occupying force. All the evidence is that only an agreement on the departure of the US will lead to an end to the armed resistance, just as Murtha said. The idea that the Sunni taking part in the election somehow means a shift from military action is also baloney. It is clearly an ‘Armalite and ballot box’ strategy.

The Evolving Postures of Prof. Juan Cole

First the professor from the University of Michigan, influential in liberal circles as an expert on Iraq, said he wanted withdrawal. Then he said that to urge withdrawal would be advocacy of genocide. Then this, on his website. Can you figure out what he wants?

Cockburn Misrepresents Cole

ALEXANDER COCKBURN says in his piece in The Nation: ‘Cole says to The Nation Institute’s Tom Engelhardt that for the United States to “up and leave” Iraq would be to become an accomplice to genocide. He counsels the heightened use in Iraq of “special forces and air power.” In other words, assassinations and saturation bombing.’

Cockburn is referring to my interview with Tom Engelhardt.

I actually haven’t called for any assassinations or saturation bombing, and Mr. Cockburn’s “In other words” is just a trite way to open up a mendacious smear.

For the thousandth time, what I have in mind is that in the wake of a substantial drawdown of US troops (which I think advisable), a civil war may well break out in Iraq. It is also likely that Sunni Arab militiamen will attempt to kill the members of the current government. (I mean, they are already trying to kill them, they just aren’t usually succeeding.)

I am distressed at the prospect of a Cambodia in Iraq, which strikes me as a real possibility. As it is, there was that nastiness of Shiite and Sunni militiamen killing each other Thursday.

I’d like to see such an outcome prevented. I said earlier that I thought the best outcome would be for Iraq to be internationalized and to have a United Nations military force enforce the peace. However, it does seem increasingly a rather forlorn hope (the UN is made up of member nations whose politicians would like to stay in power, and that might be difficult if they send their constituents’ young men into the meat grinder of Anbar province.) The Bushies aren’t very likely even to allow it during the next 3 years. I haven’t stopped advocating it, I just don’t see it happening tomorrow.

So what is left, if I am right that the US ground troops engaged in assaults such as Fallujah, Tal Afar and Qaim are doing more harm than good and there is no cavalry coming to the rescue any time soon?

I’m suggesting that the sort of tactics used in northern Afghanistan be retrofitted. The Northern Alliance fighters (surely not that much better than the current Iraqi army) accepted Special Ops embeds. They told the Special Ops guys where the Taliban positions were, and the GIs put lasers on the targets and called down smart air strikes on warlord HQs, tanks, etc. Once the Taliban positions were disrupted and their armor and machine guns taken out, the Northern Alliance could advance on cities like Mazar and take them, even on horseback. I think the same sorts of synergies can be deployed to protect, e.g., the Green Zone from the Sunni Arab guerrilla movement should it mount an aggressive army to march on parliament.

Many readers have told me that this tactic would not prevent car bombings or other killings. That is correct. Nothing can prevent the low-intensity guerrilla war from continuing, probably for a decade or more. The question is only if it can be kept from escalating into a civil war that kills a million Iraqis and sparks a generalized Middle East war.

I am arguing for a defensive set of tactics, not offensive. I think I am probably the first observer in Iraq to speak out consistently against US bombing raids on civilian neighborhoods in Iraqi cities. I don’t know where Cockburn gets his weird misinterpretation of what I said.

If Mr. Cockburn has any realistic ideas for preventing this outcome, I’d be glad to hear them. But, he can’t just dismiss the possibility of massive killing– that would be intellectually dishonest and morally reprehensible. The real possibility exists. How to guard against it?

What Cole is recommending is very similar to what the British did in Iraq after the rebellion of 1920. They relied on airpower and “Bomber Harris”, the man in charge of the RAF effort made no effort to conceal that he was going after civilians and their villages.

Bombing a la Cole is going to be a suspiciously benign exercise. The Special Ops soldiers in Afghanistan were supposedly able to “call down smart air strikes on warlord HQs, tanks, etc. Once the Taliban positions were disrupted and their armor and machine guns taken out, the Northern alliance could advance on cities like Mazar and take them.” Note that there is no mention of people here but all the targets to be so aseptically destroyed are inanimate objects. In reality the US bombing of the Taliban front line in Afghanistan was largely carried out by B-52s. In any case the evaporation of Taliban forces was primarily the result of the withdrawal of Pakistani support and bribes to the warlords to change sides.

Somehow US airpower is only to be used for a ‘defensive’ (Cole’s italics) set of tactics. What on earth is this supposed to mean? Does it imply that he supposes that US aircraft in Afghanistan were somehow being used “defensively”. There is also a little problem that the insurgents in Iraq do not have armor, machine guns and headquarters ready and waiting to be taken out by smart bombs.

Cole gives himself a quick slap on the back for being “the first observer in Iraq to speak out consistently against US bombing raids on civilian neighborhoods.” Now first of all it is news that Cole is “in Iraq”. If so when and for how long? Secondly I seem to recall Robert Fisk and others denouncing eloquently and at great length the bombardment of civilians by the US. Did Cole pre-date Fisk on this? If so congratulations but let him produce the quote and the date when he said it.

Of course Cole hasn’t “called for any assassinations or saturation bombings”. Few people ever have. But if there is such a distinction between the genteel and discriminating bombing he prescribes and “saturation bombing” why was so much of Fallujah destroyed by the US Marines and the aircraft supporting them during their assault in November 2004 though they were able to put “lasers on targets”? The answer is that the GIs do not know where the enemy is so they destroy everything which might be used by the other side or, in other words, saturation bombing.

Cole’s earlier statement that “there are few third world armies that couldn’t be enticed by a couple of billion dollars” is demonstrably untrue of Iraq from the word go. The Turkish parliament turned down more than a couple of billion when refusing to let the US invade Iraq from the north in 2003. The Turkish refusal to send troops to Iraq has been followed by a large number of states, despite all the money on offer. The cupidity of the world is inspiringly less than Cole imagines.

The prescription suggested by Cole: no US ground troops but heavy air support for local allies is very similar to situation in Cambodia prior to take over by Khmer Rouge. I don’t see why it should avert genocide.

Prof. Cole’s history is sometimes severely botched. He claims that Dwight Eisenhower “got De Gaulle out of Algeria before the latter could go Communist by threatening to call in US loans to France.” This is a ludicrous speculation, as anyone with the slightest knowledge of French history or of De Gaulle will confirm. I assume Cole got in a muddle, and confused the circumstances of the French withdrawal from Algeria with Eisenhower’s successful pressure on Britain, France and Israel to halt their attack on Egypt in 1956.
Field Day for the Sex Haters

November 22 is a day that will live in infamy, of course. I refer to the “guilty” plea forced that dark day, last week, on Debbie Lafave in Tampa, Florida. Lafave is the teacher at Greco Middle School who, 23 at the time, had sex with a fourteen-year old boy. The lad told the cops he and Lafave had sex in a classroom at the school, located in Temple Terrace near Tampa, in her Riverview town house and once in an SUV while his 15-year-old cousin drove them around.

The boy said he and Lafave, a newlywed at the time, got to know each other on their way back from a class trip to SeaWorld Orlando in May 2004. He also said Lafave told him her marriage was in trouble and that she was aroused by the fact that having sex with him was not allowed.

But instead of being elevated to sainthood for these charitable acts, Ms Lafave was charged with two counts of lewd and lascivious battery.

The blue noses had a field day. Debra Lafave’s Attorney John Fitzgibbons says the Temple Terrace police took inappropriate pictures of her sexual organs during the investigation. According to Tampa news reports the detective who investigated and the Debra case got arrested for offering a woman $140 to have sex. His name is John Gillespie, and he is the police officer who signed the search warrant which enabled police to take graphic nude photos of LaFave while she was in stirrups in a jail cell.

Debra, now 25, will serve three years of house arrest and seven years of probation. She could have gone to the joint for 15 years on each count.

Lafave’s ex-husband, Owen Lafave, doesn’t show to advantage in this saga. He said after his ex’s the guilty plea that it was a double standard that she avoided prison. “She is a sexual offender and if it were a male she would have definitely gotten jail time,” he told CBS’s “The Early Show.”

The 14-year old’s mother said piously that “My prayer is that he can leave this behind him and go on and be a happy, healthy young man.” Mom says he’s “well-adjusted” and shows no signs of having been traumatized. Amazing! Most teenagers having sex with older women are scarred by this “gateway” experience and become addicted to carnal pleasure.

Lafave apologized during the hearing Tuesday, saying that “I accept full responsibility for my actions.”

Hillsborough Circuit Judge Wayne Timmerman said LaFave will lose her teaching certificate, must register with the state as a sexual predator, may not have any contact with children including the victim, and will not be allowed to profit from the sale of her story or personal appearances.

This is the witch hysteria in yet another modern guise, a follow-on from the child-care hysteria destroyed so many lives. Four hundred years ago they’d have burned Debbie at the stake.
Slandering the Man He Helped to Kill:
Howard Kurtz and Gary Webb

Under the headline “Investigative Reporters, Digging Until It Hurts” the Washington Post ran a piece on November 21 by Howard Kurtz, on the travails of journalists whose stories came under withering fire and whose careers suffered as a consequence.

Kurtz wrote piously that

Perhaps the saddest case involved Gary Webb, a San Jose Mercury News reporter who suggested in a 1996 series that the CIA knew a drug ring linked to the Nicaraguan contras had been selling crack in Los Angeles. When the ‘Dark Alliance’ series caused an uproar, the Mercury News editor concluded after a review (and critical pieces in other major newspapers) that it “fell short” of the paper’s standards. Webb, who called the findings “bizarre” and “nauseating,” left the paper after being demoted. He committed suicide last year.

Later, referring to his colleague Bob Woodward, Kurtz commented that

He gave his detractors ammunition by commenting on the case while keeping quiet about his involvement.

It would have been more seemly if Kurtz had bothered to disclose to his readers his own involvement in the onslaught on Gary Webb. In fact Kurtz’s attack on Gary Webb, in the Post for October 2, 1996, was the paradigm for many of the subsequent slanders on Webb’s reporting. Here’s the relevant passage from Whiteout, The CIA, Drugs and the Press, by Jeffrey St Clair and the present writer:

October 1, Webb got a call in San Diego from Howard Kurtz, the Washington Post media reporter. “Kurtz called me,” Webb remembers, “and after a few innocuous questions I thought that was that.” It wasn’t. Kurtz’s critique came out on October 2 and became a paradigm for many of the assaults that followed. The method was simplicity itself: a series of straw men swiftly raised up, and as swiftly demolished. Kurtz opened by describing how blacks, liberal politicians and “some” journalists “have been trumpeting a Mercury News story that they say links the CIA to drug trafficking in the United States.” Kurtz told how Webb’s story had become “a hot topic,” through the unreliable mediums of the Internet and black talk radio. “There’s just one problem,” Kurtz went on. “The series doesn’t actually say the CIA knew about the drug trafficking.” To buttress this claim, Kurtz then wrote that Webb had “admitted” as much in their brief chat with the statement, “We’d never pretended otherwise. This doesn’t prove the CIA targeted black people. It doesn’t say this was ordered by the CIA. Essentially, our trail stopped at the door of the CIA. They wouldn’t return my phone calls.”

What Webb had done in the series was show in great detail how a Contra funding crisis had engendered enormous sales of crack in South Central, how the wholesalers of that cocaine were protected from prosecution until the funding crisis ended, and how these same wholesalers were never locked away in prison, but were hired as informants by federal prosecutors. It could be argued that Webb’s case is often circumstantial, but prosecutions on this same amount of circumstantial evidence have seen people put away on life sentences. Webb was telling the truth on another point as well: the CIA did not return his phone calls. And unlike Kurtz’s colleagues at the Washington Post or New York Times reporter Tim Golden, who offered twenty-four off-the-record interviews in his attack, Webb refused to run quotes from officials without attribution. In fact, Webb did have a CIA source. “He told me,” Webb remembers, “he knew who these guys were and he knew they were cocaine dealers. But he wouldn’t go on the record so I didn’t use his stuff in the story. I mean, one of the criticisms is we didn’t include CIA comments in [the] story. And the reason we didn’t is because they wouldn’t return my phone calls and they denied my Freedom of Information Act requests.”

But suppose the CIA had returned Webb’s calls? What would a spokesperson have said, other than that Webb’s allegations were outrageous and untrue? The CIA is a government entity pledged to secrecy about its activities. On scores of occasions, it has remained deceptive when under subpoena before a government committee. Why should the Agency be expected to answer frankly a bothersome question from a reporter? Yet it became a fetish for Webb’s assailants to repeat, time after time, that the CIA denied his charges and that he had never given this denial as the Agency’s point of view.

The CIA is not a kindergarten. The Agency has been responsible for many horrible deeds, including killings. Yet journalists kept treating it as though it was some above-board body, like the US Supreme Court. Many of the attackers assumed that Webb had been somehow derelict in not unearthing a signed order from William Casey mandating Agency officers to instruct Enrique Bermúdez to arrange with Norwin Meneses and Danilo Blandón to sell “x kilos of cocaine.” This is an old tactic, known as “the hunt for the smoking gun.” But of course, such a direct order would never be found by a journalist. Even when there is a clearly smoking gun, like the references to cocaine paste in Oliver North’s notebooks, the gun rarely shows up in the news stories. North’s notebooks were released to the public in the early 1990s. There for all to see was an entry on July 9, 1984, describing a conversation with CIA man Dewey Clarridge: “Wanted aircraft to go to Bolivia to pick up paste.” Another entry on the same day stated, “Want aircraft to pick up 1,500 kilos.”

“In Bolivia they have only one kind of paste,” says former DEA agent Michael Levine, who spent more than a decade tracking down drug smugglers in Mexico, Southeast Asia and Bolivia. “That’s cocaine paste. We have a guy working for the NSC talking to a CIA agent about a phone call to Adolfo Calero. In this phone call they discuss picking up cocaine paste from Bolivia and wanting an aircraft to pick up 1,500 kilos.” None of Webb’s attackers mentioned these diary entries.

A sort of manic literalism permeated the attacks modeled on Kurtz’s chop job. For instance, critics repeatedly returned to Webb’s implied accusation that the CIA had targeted blacks. As we have noted, Webb didn’t actually say this, but merely described the sequence which had led to blacks being targeted by the wholesaler. However, we shall see that there have been many instances where the CIA, along with other government bodies, has targeted blacks quite explicitly in testing the toxicity of disease organisms, or the effects of radiation and mind-altering drugs. Yet Webb’s critics never went anywhere near the well-established details of such targeting. Instead, they relied on talk about “black paranoia,” which liberals kindly suggested could be traced to the black historical experience, and which conservatives more brusquely identified as “black irrationality.”

Kurtz lost no time in going after Webb’s journalistic ethics and denouncing the Mercury News for exploitative marketing of the series. As an arbiter of journalistic morals, Kurtz castigated Webb for referring to the Contras as “the CIA’s army,” suggesting that Webb used this phrase merely to implicate the Agency. This charge recurs endlessly in the onslaughts on Webb, and it is by far the silliest. One fact is agreed upon by everyone except a few berserk Maoists-turned-Reaganites, like Robert Leiken of Harvard. That fact is that the Contras were indeed the CIA’s army, and that they had been recruited, trained and funded under the Agency’s supervision. It’s true that in the biggest raids of all the mining of the Nicaraguan harbors and the raids on the Nicaraguan oil refineries the Agency used its own men, not trusting its proxies. But for a decade the main Contra force was indeed the CIA’s army, and followed its orders obediently.

In attacks on reporters who have overstepped the bounds of political good taste, the assailants will often make an effort to drive a wedge between the reporter and the institution for which the reporter works. For example, when Ray Bonner, working in Central America for the New York Times, sent a dispatch saying the unsayable that US personnel had been present at a torture session the Wall Street Journal and politicians in Washington attacked the Times as irresponsible for running such a report. The Times did not stand behind Bonner, and allowed his professional credentials to be successfully challenged.

The fissure between Webb and his paper opened when Kurtz elicited a statement from Jerry Ceppos, executive editor of the Mercury News, that he was “disturbed that so many people have leaped to the conclusion that the CIA was involved.” This apologetic note from Ceppos was not lost on Webb’s attackers, who successfully worked to widen the gap between reporter and editor.

Another time-hallowed technique in such demolition jobs is to charge that this is all “old news” as opposed to that other derided commodity, “ill-founded speculation.” Kurtz used the “old news” ploy when he wrote, “The fact that Nicaraguan rebels were involved in drug trafficking has been known for a decade. ” Kurtz should have felt some sense of shame in writing these lines, since his own paper had sedulously avoided acquainting its readers with this fact. Kurtz claimed, ludicrously, that “the Reagan Administration acknowledged as much in the 1980s, but subsequent investigations failed to prove that the CIA condoned or even knew about it.” This odd sentence raised some intriguing questions. When had the Reagan administration “acknowledged as much”? And if the Reagan administration knew, how could the CIA have remained in ignorance? Recall that in the 1980s, the Reagan administration was referring to the Contras as the “moral equivalent of the Founding Fathers,” and accusing the Sandinistas of being drug runners.

Kurtz also slashed at Webb personally, stating that he “appeared conscious of making the news.” As illustration, Kurtz quoted a letter that Webb had written to Rick Ross in July 1996 about the timing of the series. Webb told Ross that it would probably be run around the time of his sentencing, in order to “generate as much public interest as possible.” As Webb candidly told Ross, this was the way the news business worked. So indeed it does, at the Washington Post far more than at the Mercury News, as anyone following the Post’s promotion of Bob Woodward’s books will acknowledge. But Webb is somehow painted as guilty of self-inflation for telling Ross a journalistic fact of life.

Puritans and Torture

In his fine piece on this site on Thanksgiving Day Bob Shirley was a mite to kind to the Puritans when he wrote that “Puritans, and many non-Puritans, disdained torture and created a nation ‘conceived in Liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.'”

The Puritans piled stones on dissenters and pierced their tongues with hot irons. Torture was endemic in precinct houses where suspects had confessions tortured out of them by the Third Degree, until the Wickersham Commission’s 1931 Report on Lawlessness in Law Enforcement concluded that “the third degree is the employment of methods which inflict suffering, physical or mental, upon a person, in order to obtain from that person information about a crime The third degree is widespread. The third degree is a secret and illegal practice.”

Footnote: a version of the first item ran in the print edition of The Nation that went to press last Wednesday.

Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined!, A Colossal Wreck and An Orgy of Thieves: Neoliberalism and Its Discontents are available from CounterPunch.