Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Out of the Shadows? A Tale of Two Wars

The New York Times famously writes that it publishes "all the news that's fit to print." But there's a lot that doesn't get published, even on the Internet. Let's look at two examples.

Yesterday, the Pentagon made it official. According to a U.S. military study, Saddam Hussein had no links to Al Qaida. None. Nada. But like a pesky gopher that sticks its head up out of the ground, and then swiftly disappears down the hole into its dark tunnels, governmental truth made a very swift appearance yesterday. And now, it's going to be snatched back out of the light and stuffed into a deep governmental shaft. Here's the UK Guardian on subject (with a h/t to StuHunter at Daily Kos):
The Pentagon study based on more than 600,000 documents recovered after US and UK troops toppled Hussein in 2003, discovered "no 'smoking gun' (ie, direct connection) between Saddam's Iraq and al-Qaida", its authors wrote.
George Bush and his senior aides have made numerous attempts to link Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda terror in their justification for waging war against Iraq.

Wary of embarrassing press coverage noting that the new study debunks those claims, the US defence department attempted to bury the release of the report yesterday.

The Pentagon cancelled a planned briefing on the study and scrapped plans to post its findings on the internet, ABC news reported. Unclassified copies of the study would be sent to interested individuals in the mail, military officials told the network.
The Pentagon played this trick a few years back, when it declared "secret" another report that showed negligence in planning for post-war Iraqi reconstruction. The document was deemed officially "of limited value." Yes, for the mandarins and demagogues that rule this country, the truth is "of limited value." At least for now, we have ABC's posting of an executive summary of the current Saddam-Al Qaida report.

But then we all knew there was no link between Saddam and Al Qaida, didn't we? I know the polls showed otherwise, and then there are the Rush Limbaughs of this world who will prattle on endlessly with little regard to facts or veracity anyway. But the report certainly isn't shocking.

Meanwhile, today's New York Times has more on the slowly emerging story of military-CIA videotaping of interrogations. As we first heard it some weeks ago, the CIA had taped the interrogations of two "high-profile" detainees, Abu Zubaydah and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri -- and then later destroyed those videotapes illegally. The investigation into the destruction of the tapes seems to be going nowhere, or moving at the glacial pace of congressional investigations that aren't related to baseball or steroids, which is the same thing. According to the NYT:
The Defense Department is conducting an extensive review of the videotaping of interrogations at military facilities from Iraq to Guantánamo Bay, and so far it has identified nearly 50 tapes, including one that showed what a military spokesman described as the forcible gagging of a terrorism suspect....

The review was intended in part to establish clearer rules for any videotaping of interrogations, Defense officials said. But they acknowledged that it had been complicated by inconsistent taping practices in the past, as well as uncertain policies for when tapes could be destroyed or must be preserved.
You can bet that there were a lot more than 50 videotapes, and as for audio tapes? Well, no one's even asking, so there must be hundreds. (The CIA 1960s interrogation manual, KUBARK, suggested taping interrogations as a routine matter.) But I suppose when the Pentagon finishes its "review" we won't be seeing it posted online or published anytime soon.

So this story might be a notch higher on the "shock" scale, but then, one generally expects the Pentagon and CIA to do these types of things. We're not liberal Pollyannas, are we?

But, sometimes there are shocking reports and studies, and these never see the light of day either. Nor is it always the government which censors. The editors and publishers of scholarly journals and establishment press also exert a real if impalpable influence on the nation's public discourse.

So I was surprised to see that an important 2002 article by the British scholars, Stephen Endicott and Edward Hagerman's "United States Biological Warfare during the Korean War: rhetoric and reality," has failed to date to find a scholarly publisher. Endicott and Hagerman were the authors of the 1998 book, The United States and Biological Warfare: Secrets from the Early Cold War and Korea (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press). The thesis of both the book and article is that the United States, all denial and protestations aside, experimented with biological warfare against North Korea and China during the Korean War.

From the 2002 article:
For half a century one of the most closely guarded state secrets of the United States government has been its large-scale field experiments with biological weapons during the Korean War. This secrecy is perhaps not surprising since, as a prominent American scholar has noted, if it is shown that the US engaged in germ warfare then it will also be shown that the US in the eyes of most of the world has committed a major international war crime... Such an admission would be an intolerable blow to the prestige of a government and a nation many of whose citizens believe that the United States is the natural moral and human rights leader of the world....

The Air Force was assigned the primary operational role in biological warfare. The directorate of the air force biological weapons program during the Korean War was divided into two parts, both parts reporting separately to Lt-Gen. T. D. White, deputy chief of staff for operations. The task of the first part, known as the US Air Force BW-CW Division (with an acronym AFOAT-BW) under Colonel Frank Seiler, was to establish an overt biological warfare capability for the emergency general war plan against the Soviet Union referred to earlier... Initial capability within this plan was phased in by March 1952 but it was plagued with difficulties, shortage of refrigeration facilities for the brucellosis pathogen and fell short of expectations.

But there was another part. The second part was hidden in the Psychological Warfare Division of the air force under the command of Colonel John J. Hutchison and its tasks were to direct and supervise covert operations 'in the scope of unconventional BW and CW operations and programs,' and to 'integrate capabilities and requirements' for biological warfare and chemical warfare into war plans... Our understanding about what was going on in the Korean War was the covert experimental testing of biological weapons within the objectives of the emergency war plan, with the added advantage these weapons might serve some tactical purpose in the war.
The article, like the book, is copiously documented, and the authors, admitting they have no "smoking gun" document, nevertheless build a powerful case for the use of these weapons. I'll spend some time in future articles giving more details to their thesis.

But the story caught my attention because of a footnote. Back in 1952-1953, the scandal over use of these weapons broke because U.S. fliers shot down over Korea and imprisoned as POWs gave confessions as to the use of biological warfare, leading to investigations by various boards, by Congress, and impassioned denials by the military and U.S. authorities. Out of the turmoil, a tom-tom of accusation of Chinese "brainwashing" was beat: U.S. soldiers had been tortured into giving false confessions. In the clandestine hallways of the CIA and military intelligence offices, millions of dollars poured into research programs to discover the secret to this so-called "brainwashing" program. And so was born the CIA program of research into mind control, MKULTRA. The U.S. instituted their SERE program (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape), training military personnel how to withstand torture. Over 50 years later, this training was reverse-engineered in order to teach a new generation of American interrogators how to torture.

But what if these so-called false confessions were real? What if the fliers, under coercive interrogation, or otherwise, had told the truth? What if the U.S. had committed a serious war crime? Where would this leave the project to study brainwashing? Was torture about producing false confessions, or producing valid information? Did torture work or not?

As you can probably tell, these questions lead directly to the issues that haunt the nation today. Even bigger than the torture-brainwashing story is the truth behind the nature of the U.S. state, its military, its capability for great destruction, and its willingness to use it. (Hiroshima and Nagasaki were less than ten years before the Chinese crossing of the Yalu River.)

This is an important story. This story deserves to come out of the shadows. We deserve to know our history, how to think about our history. Endicott and Hagerman's study deserves wider dissemination.

Tonight I walked outside. There was a ghostly half-moon falling slowly in the western sky, fuzzy and indistinct behind a shredded grey cloud that skirted in front of it. The reality of the moon hit me, even as it was shrouded by dark nocturnal clouds. It's really there, I thought, this half-planet rotating for ages hundreds of miles from this blue-green Earth. That's reality, behind the mists.

Let's find our reality behind the mists, outside of the government imposed shadows of secrecy.

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