Tuesday, July 27, 2010


July 29, 2010

Just when one leak was plugged, another erupted. Just when the worst of the Gulf oil spill seemed at last to be over, that enormous spill of classified documents on the Afghan war hit the news. The Pentagon will use dispersants; the administration will do the "junk shot," throwing its own version of golf balls, old tires, and (of course) mud down the hole; the National Security Agency will lower an intelligence dome — but the gusher will go on. The bureaucrats will work frantically to develop technologies and strategies to prevent such incidents from happening again, but happen they will. It's not just possible, it's inevitable.
With 92,000 globules of documents spewed to the press by WikiLeaks, an off-shore cyber-rig drilling down a mile deep into database bedrock, it will take a long time to clean up. Its immediate consequences are as yet unknown: Will it end the American public's apathy towards the war? Will it change administration policy? Whatever the case, Afghanistan is on nobody's back burner now.
The amazing thing about this story is not so much the information itself — even Afghanistan president Hamid Karzai shrugged that there was nothing new there — but its acquisition. How vulnerable are secret files? If WikiLeaks can get at them, how about Al Qaeda, or Russia? Who needs to plant spies in New Jersey when a couple of crafty hackers in Moscow could do so much better?
The Big Leak came on the heels of "Top Secret America," a Washington Post investigative report by Dana Priest and William Arkin, describing the growth-like-topsy of the so-called "intelligence community" since the 9/11 attacks — 854,000 people now have U.S. top-secret security clearances. Any kid who's sworn friends to secrecy can tell you what happens: The more people that are in on a secret, the more chance someone will blab. There's little doubt that more and — can you imagine it? — even bigger leaks will bubble to the surface, not only about Afghanistan but about any and every issue any bureaucracy is trying to hide. Talk about transparency!
It will take a good while for the true usefulness of the present feat to be revealed. The three publications to which WikiLeaks unloaded its information — The New York Times, The Guardian in England, and Der Spiegel in Germany — used Google- like (Google-made?) search engines to cull through gaga-bytes of data and roughly categorize them into topics of interest — civilian casualties, drone-plane flights, and Pakistan-Taliban connections, among others — in order to build their stories. Beyond journalism, however, historians, military analysts, and political and social scientists will arrange the files for their own purposes. They'll lock the little pieces together and lay them out in clusters, like working a 92,000-piece jigsaw puzzle, until the picture is assembled. Such efforts will yield perspectives on this war — and war in general — that scholars of past conflicts could only dream about.
You'd like to hope that the WikiLeaks spill will lead to a major rethinking of American policy towards Afghanistan. It is true that there is little in the documents thus far presented by the press that most of us didn't already know or suspect: that Afghanistan is quicksand. But perhaps the assemblage of facts on this large a scale will shake the public up, as those primitively-procured Pentagon Papers did about the Vietnam war four decades ago.
Maybe this gusher will do the nation good.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010


July 22, 2010

It's been a hell of a summer in New York City, with temperatures topping 90 degrees for days at a time and only the occasional thunderstorm to cool things off and moisten the earth. The Dog Days of August started in June this year, and all you want to do is lie under a tree and sleep. The usually lush lawns in the parks are brown and prickly, so even lying under a tree is not pleasant. Criminals too have grown lethargic, and street-beat reporters — from the New York Times, no less — with nothing much to write about but the heat, experiment with frying eggs on Manhattan sidewalks. (They haven't quite succeeded as yet, but it's only July.)
The upstate reservoirs that feed the city are down to 83 percent of capacity — normally they're almost full. Street-corner grandpas, never giving a thought to where water comes from, pull out their wrenches and open up fire hydrants so neighborhood kids can get knocked back in the gusher and passing cars can get a free wash.
Genesis Park Community Garden in the South Bronx is looking pretty wilted these days. We put upstate water to better use, giving the drooping plants a morning drink that allows them to survive if not prosper. Only the cucumbers and melons, which thrive in the heat, are producing well. Bean-plants are brown and scraggly, and the tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants are just holding on.
My colonies of honeybees are sweating it out, too, thousands lolling outside the hives to cool off, the bee-version of the apartment-house stoop. In this weather, even bees aren't busy.
Honeybee colonies are more like an organism than a society. Though individually cold-blooded, the bees as a group control conditions thermostatically, maintaining the temperature inside the hive at precisely 92 degrees year-round. In the cold of winter, they accomplish this by shivering their bodies, just as we do, to generate heat. In summer, they use fans, just as we do, fluttering their wings to draw in cooler air and circulate it throughout the hive — apian air-conditioning.
Other pollinators seem impervious to the heat. Bumblebees by the double dozen move about the cucumber and squash blossoms, and many other kinds of bees — carpenter bees, green metallic bees, mason bees — visit flowers that suit their size — mint, cilantro, hibiscus, butterfly bush.
This year the garden is participating in the Great Pollinator Project, a citizen-science experiment sponsored by the American Museum of Natural History. In late spring, the project provided gardeners with several kinds of bee-attracting plants — sunflowers and cosmos for summer blooming, goldenrods and asters for the fall. Participants are asked to sit in front of the blooms and count the bees that visit them — five bees or half an hour, whichever comes first. They then enter the results in an on-line database, pinpointing their location using GoogleEarth, noting the date and time of the observation, the type of flower, and the kind of bee. At season's end, the data will be consolidated to map the abundance and variety of bees throughout New York City.
We've seldom had to wait the half-hour. Usually, at any time of day, the sunflowers are laden with bees, sometimes two or three per bloom, jostling for space.
All this in the heart of the South Bronx.
Kevin Matteson, the Fordham University entomologist coordinating the effort, has been researching urban pollinators for almost a decade. With their rich vegetation and pollinator- friendly habitat, he told me, "community gardens are incredibly important to maintaining bee and butterfly diversity, especially in heavily developed neighborhoods of New York City."
Sitting before a sunflower in the evening shade, sipping a gin and tonic, tallying up the bees — that's turned out to be one of the better ways for a wilting gardener to beat the heat.


July 15, 2010

One of the many dashed hopes contrasting the Obama campaign with the Obama administration has been that of a fresh and open approach by the United States government toward Cuba.
Two months after his inauguration, President Obama rescinded the Bush-era restrictions on Cuban-Americans' travel to Cuba and on sending dollars to their relatives there, and immediately got this response from Cuban President Raul Castro: "We are willing to discuss everything, human rights, freedom of press, political prisoners, everything, everything, everything they want to talk about."
Such a disarmingly frank overture yielded exactly nothing. Things have remained just the way they've been for half a century, with Cuba strangling from an economic embargo that has only served to stiffen its ideological stance: a little Cold War going on long after the big Cold War had ended.
Last week, the Cuban government announced that 52 of its 167 political prisoners would be released, and on Tuesday the first six of them were reunited with their families and left for exile in Spain.
It was not the United States, stuck in its unbending demand for unilateral social and political change, that arranged the releases but the diplomatic efforts of Spain and, most significantly, of the Roman Catholic Church.
Last month, the Vatican's foreign minister, Archbishop Dominique Mamberti, paid an official visit to Cuba to celebrate 75 years of diplomatic relations. While there, he and the Archbishop of Havana, Cardinal Jaime Ortega, along with Spain's foreign minister Miguel Moratinos, met with Cuban President Raul Castro to negotiate a prisoner release.
The effort was successful, partly as a gesture to the Church, which since Pope John Paul II's visit to Cuba in 1998 has experienced less repression and growing influence. Cardinal Ortega has not softened his criticism of the totalitarian state nor his calls for democratization and social justice, and yet he has simultaneously managed to convince the government to relax its restrictions on religious activities. It is entirely possible that Raul, unlike his brother Fidel, sees the Church not as an enemy but as a pragmatic ally, an institution whose diplomats can go where Cuba's own cannot, to improve relations with other governments including the U.S., and whose influence on the citizenry can facilitate gradual internal change by promoting stability and restraining the advocates of radical overthrow.
Ortega pulls no punches on the other side either, sharply criticizing the Obama administration's apparent abandonment of its promise of dialogue. In a recent interview in the Archdiocese of Havana's magazine, Palabra Nueva, he noted that on the campaign trail Obama had "indicated he would change the style and would seek to talk directly with Cuba. After taking office, however, the new U.S. president has repeated the old model of previous governments."
On both the macro and the micro levels, we see playing out the unique political position of the Catholic Church, at once a religious body and a secular state, a fusion formed over 1500 years ago to fill the vacuum created by the collapse of the Roman Empire. Long a world power, in modern times the Vatican lost its armies and almost all of its land, but it continued to play a significant role in international affairs, both through a diplomatic corps in formal parity with other states' and through its social teachings born of that fusion, more pragmatically philosophical than religious. The instrumentality of John Paul II in bringing down the Soviet bloc is perhaps its most recent and potent example.
Unfortunately, much of the Church's political power has been undercut by the internal corruption of the sex-abuse scandals. In contrast to Cuba's, American Catholic bishops — once greatly respected and regularly called upon to testify before Congress on social issues — have now been rendered impotent, partly because of the scandals and partly because of an obsession with abortion that has put them at odds with otherwise valuable political allies and even with some of their own institutions, as the opposition of Catholic hospitals and women's religious orders to the bishops during the recent health-care debate has shown. With the exception of Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles and several of his colleagues on immigration reform, the American hierarchy's voice for justice is now largely mute.
That's why it was almost rehabilitative to hear of the political successes of the Church in Cuba. In some areas of the world at least, the Church as state can still play hardball.


July 1, 2010

It was every reporter's dream: to write a small article that brings down a big guy. Not only that, but an easy article to boot: Do a little background research, summarize others' previous reportage and publicly available documents, interview your subject, his wife, and his aides, have a few beers with them to glean some loose-lipped quotes (expletives undeleted), and tie it all together in 8,000 very readable words. No need to invoke the Freedom of Information Act, no need to face jail for refusing to name names, no Deep Throat. Can't beat it.
The reporter himself, Michael Hastings, probably had no idea that his piece on Gen. Stanley McChrystal, published in Rolling Stone magazine last week, would have the effect it did: the summary dismissal of the architect of allied military policy in Afghanistan. The Big Guy was gone before the hard copies hit the newsstands.
If you haven't read Hastings' story, read it. You'll see that there's virtually nothing in there that you didn't already know or suspect: that there is widespread disagreement within the administration and the military over how to conduct the operation in Afghanistan; that there is open contention between the military and U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, Special Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, and National Security Adviser Jim Jones; that Afghan President Hamid Karzai is a corrupt and capricious ally; that many troops bitterly complain that McChrystal's policy of avoiding civilian casualties has left them vulnerable to Taliban attacks; that last spring's incursion into Marja, the test-case for the McChrystal counterinsurgency plan — "clear, build, hold, transfer" — has become, in the General's own words, a "bleeding ulcer."
It's all common knowledge. How could a story like this have had a result like that?
The answer lies not in the collection of facts but in Hastings' engaging profile of McChrystal that, almost entirely by inference, makes the general look big and the president look small.
Ostensibly, Obama fired McChrystal to maintain a united front in the conduct of the war. "I believe," Obama stated when he accepted the general's resignation, "that this mission demands unity of effort across our alliance and across my national security team. ... I welcome debate among my team, but I won't tolerate division."
I'm not quite sure what's the difference between debate and division, but Hastings' article succinctly showed that the "team" is about as dysfunctional as the French World Cup soccer squad. Indeed, the coach and his star player seem like the only ones sharing the same page; after all, the counterinsurgency strategy was McChrystal's idea, and Obama gave him almost everything and everybody he asked for to attempt it. Obama has long tried to present himself as the picture of confidence, in control of things Afghan, but the fact is that there are too many variables out there for anyone to be in control.
What really stuck in Obama's craw was that one little line in the article, where McChrystal (according to unnamed sources) "thought Obama looked ‘uncomfortable and intimidated' by the roomful of military brass" in his first meeting with them after the inauguration.
That's it? Sure, across the article the general and those unnamed sources shot their mouths off, but the words come across as griping, what all soldiers do, not as insubordination, conduct that in Obama's words "undermines the civilian control of the military that is at the core of our democratic system."
A lot has been made about Obama's "Truman moment," but analogies with the dismissal of Gen. Douglas MacArthur are thin. MacArthur repeatedly upbraided Truman in the press for supposed faint-heartedness and "appeasement" in not escalating the Korean War into mainland China, but far beyond personal insults, he committed a truly undermining act of insubordination in going over the president's head with his own communiqué to China, threatening an invasion. By contrast, Obama himself on Dismissal Day acknowledged that "Stan McChrystal has always shown great courtesy and carried out my orders faithfully." Just as McChrystal, to his credit, is no MacArthur, so Obama is no Truman.
What McChrystal's firing really demonstrates is just how deeply disarrayed the situation in Afghanistan is. McChrystal was the scapegoat, symbolically bearing the whole sorry mess into the wilderness. But the illusion of unity evaporated into the summer air of the Rose Garden as soon as the words left the president's lips.
About the only ones to benefit are Michael Hastings and Rolling Stone. Despite the dire predictions about the death of journalism, the press, or whatever we should call it nowadays, can still bring down the big guys.