a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew

Treadstone, Yamamoto, or none of the above

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 16th July 2009

There are a number of issues to unpack from the news that the CIA had secret plans for assassination teams that it hadn’t divulged to Congress.

First and foremost, for the time being, it’s not yet clear (to me, anyway) just how operational-but-undisclosed the programs in question* became.  Not only did Panetta cancel a secret allegedly-not-yet-ever-used program, but he also felt he ought to report the issue to Congress — perhaps out of an abundance of caution, perhaps in close adherence to statutory requirements … or perhaps for other motives.  All I can find so far about his precise June 24 testimony to Congress is in a  June 26 letter by House Intelligence Committee members and others stating that

“Recently you testified that you have determined that top CIA officials have concealed significant actions from all Members of Congress, and misled Members for a number of years from 2001 to this week.”

Despite the word “actions” in that letter, a New York Times report by Mazzetti and Shane states that the plans “remained vague and were never carried out.” On the other hand, they were apparently specific enough that Panetta actually had something to “cancel” or “scuttle” — as one might indeed expect with something under discussion since 2001.  According to the L.A. Times,

“…as recently as a year ago CIA executives discussed plans to deploy teams to test basic capabilities, including whether they could enter hostile territory and maneuver undetected, as well as gather intelligence and track high-value targets.”

So this wasn’t just idle talk around the water cooler; time and money had been spent thinking about it — and it’s hard to believe you’d just “test” tracking “high value targets.” 

Given 9/11 and the ensuing authorization of military force by Congress, what would be wrong with hit squads focused (presumably) on Al Qaeda leadership?  I imagine I’ll be learning more about U.S. law in this regard — and of course definitive law should govern Panetta’s actions and congressional response.  But rather than lying low until then, I want to try to lay out the issues as I see them now.  I hesitate to do so, because the issue arguably exposes a bit of a seam in my own thinking; I hope everyone will feel free to comment on and disagree with any of the following.

Simply wrong, simply unsupervised, or both?
The broadest concern — one I once was unwilling to entertain at all — is that it’s violence, it’s extrajudicial, and it’s simply wrong.  I suppose I still disagree with this, though it’s a much closer call for me than it once was.  With an accountable chain of decision-making, command and oversight, this is a military option in a war.  We killed Yamamoto in World War II because he was in charge of trying to kill us, and because we saw a way to do it.  This seems similar: the United States was attacked, and Congress authorized “all necessary and appropriate force” against the attackers.

To me, intentional avoidance of legitimate oversight — if that is what happened — is the more troubling issue: that invites eventual errors and worse, it invites and signals abuse.  Adopting a term from the “Bourne” movie series, I’ll call this the “Treadstone” scenario — a secret program conducting unsupervised attacks on all kinds of targets, risking or committing errors in judgment about the necessity of such attacks, the possibility of freelancing for personal gain.  Who would object?  No one would even know.

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Worth reading

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 19th May 2007

  • Paperwight (“Paperwight’s Fair Shot”), Who Will Rid Me of This Meddlesome Priest?

    The Bush Administration handpicked know-nothing Party apparatchiks to fill every possible political appointment they could find, and turned them loose on the executive branch with ‘guidance’ from Karl Rove. I expect that guidance generally took the form of “expressions of concern” regarding certain “districts” or “issues”. Policy and personnel decisions were made in the fuzzy apparatchik cloud and then the shaft bolt lashed out of the cloud and struck someone in the civil service. No chain of command, no accountability, no procedure. Everyone just sort of knew what had to be done — they were all picked because they knew in advance what “had to be done” to serve the Party.

  • Marc Lynch, interviewed by Ken Silverstein of Harper’s Magazine —

    At the same time, neither Al Qaeda as an organization nor bin Laden as an individual is commanding a great deal of respect or support. When you get these attacks in Algeria and Morocco, it repels people rather than attracting them. But the paradox is that even as Al Qaeda repels people with its actions, its core ideas are becoming more widely accepted, and that’s really troubling, and a real indictment of American public diplomacy. That’s also why the situation in Iraq is so devastating at the wider regional and global level. Killing people in Morocco and Algeria triggers a negative reaction, but fighting Americans in Iraq resonates with a much wider part of the Arab population.

  • Jonathan Schwarz (“Tiny Revolution”) in Mother Jones: “No Congress, No Peace” —

    What, then, would a serious congressional strategy to block a war with Iran look like? Constitutional scholars and congressional staff agree there’s no one magic answer. The alarming truth is that 220 years after the adoption of the Constitution, there are few settled answers about what legal powers the executive branch possesses to start a war. But there are several steps Congress could take to make a war with Iran politically very difficult for the White House.

  • Andrew Sullivan, The Atlantic Monthly, Torture, Moral Vanity, and Freedom

    Even a prisoner in a small cell can stand and walk a little, can breathe on his own, has the capacity to tend to his own bodily functions, and to think or pray. Torture is designed to rob him of all these last shreds of liberty. It takes control of his body and soul and by the use of physical or psychological coercion, rids him of any real freedom at all. It puts him into the abyss of tyranny on a personal scale. And any man or woman who is given the license to torture and any man or woman who grants the right to torture is definitionally a tyrant over another person. There is no state more abject than the man broken on the waterboarding rack, or frozen to near death, or forced to stand for days on end, or hooded and strapped to shackles in a ceiling, or having his legs pulpified by repeated beating, or forced to eat pork and drink alcohol against religious strictures. Everything I have just described has been done by US forces under the command and direction of George W. Bush. They are all acts of absolute tyanny, conducted by people who at that moment are absolute tyrants.

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Look! It’s a terrorist!

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 15th March 2007

Well, well, well. What with Washington going to hell in a handbasket for the Bushies, you just knew they needed some of that old 9/11 magic to get a little return fire going. Thus we have a breathless report that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, has … confessed he was the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks. In “9/11 Mastermind Confesses in Guantanamo,”* the AP’s Lolita Baldor reports details of a Guantanamo military hearing:

“I was responsible for the 9/11 operation from A to Z,” Mohammed said in a statement that was read during the session, which was held last Saturday.

Last Saturday, eh? I hope I won’t learn that hearing was suddenly expedited for some reason. At any rate, this part was darkly amusing:

“‘Is any statement that you made, was it because of this treatment, to use your word, you claim torture,’ the colonel asked. ‘Do you make any statements because of that?’

Portions of Mohammed’s response were deleted from the transcript, and his answer was unclear.

Pick KSM’s most plausible response:

“Well, yeah.”
“Oh certainly not. May I have some more lemon chicken?”

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is a mass murderer, he deserves no sympathy per se. But Bush and his administration have compounded KSM’s first awful “victory” on 9/11 with another: the torture, abuse, and denial of basic legal rights like habeas corpus at Guantanamo and elsewhere. These are not “merely” an affront to human rights, they’ve tainted the evidence produced — both the true and the false. “Of course he confessed! You would too!” is doubtless the refrain throughout the parts of the world where Bin Laden’s popularity is high. And with deep regret that I concede that’s plausible. With Guantanamo, we snatched yet more defeat from the jaws of defeat.

Meanwhile, it may be that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is now just a thing, to be waved at us by his captors like a living, frightening “code red” symbol when the need arises. And I wonder whether he thinks that is a defeat for him — or yet another victory.

NOTE: AP story via Josh Marshall (“Talking Points Memo”).
* UPDATE, 3/15: Ms. Baldor’s story was replaced with Josh White‘s at the Post link given above last night (“9/11 Mastermind…”); to see the report I quoted above, see for example her story as published at the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette web site.

UPDATE, 3/15: Sure enough, a WaPo version of the story by Josh White is on page A1 above the fold in today’s Washington Post — while Dan Eggen’s report on the US Attorneys General scandal gets pushed below the fold. But there’s more re KSM’s answer to the torture question; White reports: “Mohammed answered: “CIA peoples. Yes. At the beginning when they transferred me . . .” The rest of the sentence is redacted from the transcript.” I.e., “yes.”

QUESTION, 3/15: A sincere one, since I sometimes don’t fully understand journalistic conventions, and may well not have all the facts about this case. But remember the ‘single-sourcing’ issue with the Newsweek’s Guantanamo Koran-trashing story? My question is, isn’t this single-sourcing too? It’s all based on one Pentagon transcript, if I understand correctly. Given the restrictions on defense attorneys and journalists at Guantanamo, that seems to be as good as the DoD plans to let it get — but maybe Newsweek’s critics at the time don’t deserve to pick and choose which stories get reported on that basis. And maybe journalists should apply the same skepticism to the Pentagon’s (otherwise unsubstantiated) Guantanamo press releases that they supposedly do to everything else. Add to that the transcribed and reported fact that KSM answered “yes”, he made some of the statements because of torture, and I think you have some real media ethics questions about this story.

POSSIBLE ANSWER, 3/16: Two Senators Secretly Flew to Cuba for Alleged 9/11 Mastermind’s Hearing (Dafna Linzer, Josh White, Washington Post). I imagine Senators Levin (D-MI) and Graham (R-SC) could confirm the substance of the Pentagon’s transcript of the KSM hearing; I don’t know yet if they will, although the report indicates they plan to issue a joint statement about their trip today. Even if they do confirm the accuracy of the transcript, I doubt if Senators are planning to attend every tribunal hearing. I continue to question the uncritical dissemination of (a) arguably coerced testimony and (b) single-sourced Pentagon communiques about proceedings at Gitmo.

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Al Qaeda: "Indeed, prolonging the war is in our interest"

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 5th October 2006

Following up on the post below about DeWine’s “we’re in it for us” statement, it looks like we’re also apparently in Iraq for Al Qaeda, judging by this October 2005 message from Al Qaeda lieutenant “Atiyah” to Zarqawi:

The most important thing is that the jihad continues with steadfastness and firm rooting, and that it grows in terms of supporters, strength, clarity of justification, and visible proof each day. Indeed, prolonging the war is in our interest, with God’s permission.

The message was among the documents captured after Zarqawi was found and killed in June. The English translation was released in late September by the “Combating Terrorism Center” at West Point. Via Steve Benen and Marc Lynch (“Abu Aardvark”)*, who has a August 29 post that looks pretty spot-on in view of the Atiyah-Zarqawi message:

If the Americans left, al-Qaeda would likely soon follow because killing other Iraqis does them little good – it is fighting and killing Americans which sells videos and wins recruits. As Hezbollah’s experience demonstrates, resistance to a perceived occupation resonates in ways which a sectarian player in a civil war does not. While some of the most extreme jihadis may see killing Shia as an end unto itself, for bin Laden and al-Qaeda Central Iraq is a means to a wider end of mobilizing Arab and Muslim attitudes against America, against secular regimes, and towards Islamism. Without a major American presence, the insurgency would continue, but Iraq would lose its pride of place in the current jihadi universe. I’d go so far as to say that the homegrown Iraqi insurgency does indeed want the US out of Iraq, but al-Qaeda wants us in.

Stay the course?

* A.k.a. associate professor of political science at Williams College and author of Voices of the New Arab Public: Iraq, Al Jazeera, and Middle East Politics Today.

EDIT, 10/4: “about…statement” and link to “post” added.
UPDATE, 10/5: Not surprisingly, Kevin Drum (a.k.a. “Washington Monthly”) got there before I did with Whose Interest? He adds the Suskind One Percent Solution kicker — the CIA concluding Bin Laden’s pre-election message was intended to help Bush win — to his post. Bush also thought that message helped him win, but didn’t appear to draw the additional conclusion.

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"All right. You’ve covered your ass, now."

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 20th June 2006

More from Barton Gellman’s review of the new Ron Suskind book, “The One Percent Doctrine“:

The book’s opening anecdote tells of an unnamed CIA briefer who flew to Bush’s Texas ranch during the scary summer of 2001, amid a flurry of reports of a pending al-Qaeda attack, to call the president’s attention personally to the now-famous Aug. 6, 2001, memo titled “Bin Ladin Determined to Strike in US.” Bush reportedly heard the briefer out and replied: “All right. You’ve covered your ass, now.”

Now beat it. But wait — there’s more!

Three months later, with bin Laden holed up in the Afghan mountain redoubt of Tora Bora, the CIA official managing the Afghanistan campaign, Henry A. Crumpton (now the State Department’s counterterrorism chief), brought a detailed map to Bush and Cheney. White House accounts have long insisted that Bush had every reason to believe that Pakistan’s army and pro-U.S. Afghan militias had bin Laden cornered and that there was no reason to commit large numbers of U.S. troops to get him. But Crumpton’s message in the Oval Office, as told through Suskind, was blunt: The surrogate forces were “definitely not” up to the job, and “we’re going to lose our prey if we’re not careful.”

“All right, Crumpton. You’ve covered your ass, now.” Now beat it.

I’d prefer to think this is just run of the mill (for Bush/Cheney) extreme fecklessness and incompetence, rather than yet more high crimes and misdemeanors by our ruling duumvirate. But it seems important — for their sake! — to try to rule out darker explanations for why Bush didn’t care much about an imminent attack, and didn’t heed warnings the attacker would elude capture.*

Come November, there should be some investigations. Make them happen. Call your Democratic Congressman, or your Democratic challenger and let them know you want these matters — the August 6 memo, the Downing Street memo, NSA warrantless surveillance, Tora Bora, torture, Abu Ghraib, Haditha, Katrina, and more — investigated, with a view to impeachment if warranted.

* Reminds me of the recent Atlantic Monthly article about al-Zarqawi by Mary Ann Weaver:

During my time in Jordan, I asked a number of officials what they considered to be the most curious aspect of the relationship between the U.S. and al-Zarqawi, other than the fact that the Bush administration had inflated him.

One of them said, “The six times you could have killed Zarqawi, and you didn’t.”

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Gotcha, you bastard. Repeat endlessly.

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 9th June 2006

So Ahmad Fadhil Nazzal al-Khalaylah (a.k.a. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi) is dead. Will he be missed?

Not by me, certainly, nor by the vast majority of Shiites in Iraq, nor perhaps even by most Sunnis there, in their decent heart of hearts. The question is, will he be missed by his fellow jihadists, and the wider insurgency in Iraq? From what I’ve read about him and Iraq, my guesses are “yes, for a while,” and “no.”

Accounts like the one by Mary Ann Weaver in the Atlantic Monthly (prescient title: “The short, violent life of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi“) suggest he was a charismatic leader and a very successful recruiter of those admiring his brutal Salafist outlook. Also, his death wasn’t the only thing that happened yesterday — other people and evidence were reportedly captured in simultaneous raids. There may also have been an insider informant who pinpointed Zarqawi’s presence when the time came.

Together, that may mean that Zarqawi’s particular network is in for hard times. Fine; good riddance. But there are plenty more where they came from, and Bin Laden and Zawahiri — remember them? — are no slouches at mayhem, either.

Meanwhile, just about everyone agrees the foreign jihadists Zarqawi led are a relatively small part of the insurgency facing American troops and their Iraqi allies. More are home grown fighters with perhaps more straightforward nationalist or sectarian aims: kick the Americans out, wrestle for control of the country or region. As Ivo Daalder points out, “Much of the killing in Iraq today isn’t the result of Zarqawi’s men, but of Sunni and Shite militias engaged in a big fight for control of neighborhoods, towns, cities, and the resources they control.”

A different question — for Americans, at least — is whether Zarqawi would have become a household name if the U.S. hadn’t invaded Iraq. I don’t know for sure, of course, but I suspect not — he was an advocate of the “near war”, and was originally focused on the fall of the Jordanian monarchy. Without the stage of Iraq, he’d have been a minor figure in the larger scheme of things.

Our king and vice king are known to enjoy hunting and fishing, of a sort, in preserves stocked with fish and game (or lawyers). While I’m not saying Zarqawi was “stocked,” exactly, we certainly turned Iraq into a place where he would flourish, and we certainly managed to save him up for another one of our “most powerfully staged photo ops in the world” — recall that an opportunity to bomb him in a camp in northern Iraq before the war was passed up, in order to not undercut the case for war, such as it was.

Once upon a time, I would put up these “Gotcha” posts with more unalloyed satisfaction, and some day, if they ever get their hands on Bin Laden or put a bomb on Zawahiri’s pup tent, I’ll put up another one. I feel about Zarqawi’s demise, though, a little like how I’d feel about taking out some nasty garbage I left in the house too long: glad that’s done, sorry I helped make the mess in the first place.

OTHER REACTIONS: Pablo Shounin: “finally some good news”, Gary Farber (early news roundup), eRobin (“beginning of a very long and bloody road”), Natalie Davis (“He who lives by the sword… Every death is a diminishment, but the really sad news is that the “war” goes on”), Stygius (“May he roast in hell“), WorldWideWeber (“The hydra loses a head”) ; see also Steve Benen (“Carpetbagger”), John Robb (“Global Guerilla”): “Unfortunately, Zarqawi proved to be rather good at his role.”; Juliette Kayyem (“TPM Cafe”).
NOTES: Robb via James Wolcott, Weaver, Daalder, Kayyem via Josh Marshall.

UPDATE, 6/12: Will Bunch (“Attytood”) reminds his readers of an April 10 Thomas Ricks article in the Washington Post, “Military Plays Up Role of Zarqawi,” which discussed a coordinated military propaganda or PSYOPS campaign — aimed in part at Americans. Ricks: “Although Zarqawi and other foreign insurgents in Iraq have conducted deadly bombing attacks, they remain “a very small part of the actual numbers,” Col. Derek Harvey, who served as a military intelligence officer in Iraq and then was one of the top officers handling Iraq intelligence issues on the staff of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told an Army meeting at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., last summer.” In a transcript of the meeting, Harvey said, “Our own focus on Zarqawi has enlarged his caricature, if you will — made him more important than he really is, in some ways.

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False premises

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 28th October 2004

In the immediate aftermath of the war in Iraq last year, a poll by the University of Maryland’s Program in International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) showed that Americans overwhelmingly advanced two reasons they believed the war had been waged: Iraqi WMDs and Iraq’s possible links with Al Qaeda.*

It’s worth repeating before the election: both of these reasons were dead wrong. First, WMD — my own primary reason. From the Key Findings of the Comprehensive Report of the Special Advisor to the DCI on Iraq’s WMD (the Duelfer report):

Iraq Survey Group (ISG) discovered further evidence of the maturity and significance of the pre-1991 Iraqi Nuclear Program but found that Iraq’s ability to reconstitute a nuclear weapons program progressively decayed after that date.

• Saddam Husayn ended the nuclear program in 1991 following the Gulf war. ISG found no evidence to suggest concerted efforts to restart the program.

• Although Saddam clearly assigned a high value to the nuclear progress and talent that had been developed up to the 1991 war, the program ended and the intellectual capital decayed in the succeeding years. […]

While a small number of old, abandoned chemical munitions have been discovered, ISG judges that Iraq unilaterally destroyed its undeclared chemical weapons stockpile in 1991. There are no credible indications that Baghdad resumed production of chemical munitions thereafter, a policy ISG attributes to Baghdad’s desire to see sanctions lifted, or rendered ineffectual, or its fear of force against it should WMD be discovered.

In practical terms, with the destruction of the Al Hakam facility, Iraq abandoned its ambition to obtain advanced BW weapons quickly. ISG found no direct evidence that Iraq, after 1996, had plans for a new BW program or was conducting BW-specific work for military purposes. Indeed, from the mid-1990s, despite evidence of continuing interest in nuclear and chemical weapons, there appears to be a complete absence of discussion or even interest in BW at the Presidential level.

(first emphasis in original)

Thus, neither WMD (including chemical or biological ones, which I considered sufficient) nor WMD programs (a fallback I insisted on) were present to any significant degree. The Duelfer report found plenty of intent to reconstitute WMD programs, but little-to-no ability to do so. True, containment was being undermined, but apparently not in ways serious enough to give Saddam what he wanted.

On to the purported Iraq/Al Qaeda links. If the 9/11 Commission’s conclusion — “no credible evidence” — seemed too partisan and biased for you, no less an authority than Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld has permanently discredited the idea. According to a Defense Department press release,

Rumsfeld said he has not seen any strong evidence that direct ties existed, he stressed that he does not work in the intelligence field and that then-CIA Director George Tenet had presented solid evidence of ties between Iraq and al Qaeda.**

As Rumsfeld observes, Iraqi officials were clearly not “Little Sisters of the Poor.” But mere contacts do not rise to the level of a casus belli when we should have been keeping our powder dry for stopping more serious threats — like North Korea, A.Q. Khan, or — remember them? — Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda.

It wasn’t just Bush
I was no better at reading the tea leaves. I was swayed from a conservative to a liberal evaluation of the available evidence — not in the partisan meanings of those words, but in their fundamental meanings: how to evaluate risk.

Sure, I wasn’t alone in my belief that there were WMD and/or WMD programs in Iraq. I thought the German BND intelligence agency, for example, was a reliable second opinion about Iraqi nuclear weapons development. But the BND, too, was probably just another victim of Chalabi “curveballs.” And there was never any clinching, definitive evidence — after all, how could there be? Others noticed; see most notably “RonK”‘s summary “Operation Desert Snipe.”

I let my fears influence me towards a “better safe than sorry” view of Iraqi WMD. I still feel a recurring, low-level variety of those fears here in D.C. — I think you’re either crazy or lying if you claim you don’t think about the next 9/11-squared around here. (It was noticeable to me how it went away while I was in Germany, and returned by about the time I was wending my way through customs at Dulles Airport.)

But I did myself no favor on that score by supporting getting into the war as much as I did. Given the smug dunces in charge who apparently aren’t even aware there’s a problem, with huge weapons caches missing, with terror groups gaining recruits and experience, with the U.S. military tied down in a war that could have waited, and with even more serious threats gathering elsewhere, I’m worse off than I was before.

* 60% said WMD were the main justification for the war, and 19% said Al Qaeda links were; the two reasons also combined for 66% of respondents’ next most important choices. The poll was taken May 14-18 among 1265 respondents, the margin of error was +/- 3% for questions posed to the entire sample.
** Rumsfeld subsequently tried to backpedal, saying that “linkages” were observed, but the notion that these were operational allies instead of “let’s do lunch sometime” contacts was clearly never one that Rumsfeld or his administration colleagues shared.

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Blast from the past

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 20th August 2004

The New York Times reports “Bush Promotes His Plan for Missile Defense System“:

“I think those who oppose this ballistic missile system really don’t understand the threats of the 21st century,” he said. “They’re living in the past. We’re living in the future. We’re going to do what’s necessary to protect this country.”

Bush is on to something — if (1) the North Koreans get a missile that can hit the U.S., (2) they decide there’s some very compelling reason they actually want to hit the U.S., and (3) we had a missile defense system that, oh, I don’t know, ACTUALLY WORKS — in which case (4) the North Koreans unaccountably decided not to just load the bomb into a shipping container and float it into San Francisco Bay instead or (5) failed to just add two or three $1 Mylar balloons to the missile payload for a multi-million dollar ABM to choose from. Sure, that sounds like a good reason to spend $53 billion, $10 billion in FY 2005 alone.

There are so many better things to do with that kind of money for real security problems. Here’s one, suggested by Nick Kristof in a New York Times op-ed piece yesterday: increase funding for the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction program, which has deactivated thousands of nuclear weapons in the former Soviet Union, and which could continue to buy or secure weapons-grade uranium and plutonium there.

Earlier this year, Bush actually proposed cutting back this program from $451 million to $409 million. That is, Bush was dickering about $42 million for something that actually works now, as opposed to spending $10 billion for something that may never work.

Why would those extra $42 million be well spent? In a prior article, Kristof wrote:

…Al Qaeda negotiated for a $1.5 million purchase of uranium (apparently of South African origin) from a retired Sudanese cabinet minister; its envoys traveled repeatedly to Central Asia to buy weapons-grade nuclear materials; and Osama bin Laden’s top deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, boasted, “We sent our people to Moscow, to Tashkent, to other Central Asian states, and they negotiated, and we purchased some suitcase [nuclear] bombs.”

…But the White House has insisted on tackling the most peripheral elements of the W.M.D. threat, like Iraq, while largely ignoring the central threat, nuclear proliferation. The upshot is that the risk that a nuclear explosion will devastate an American city is greater now than it was during the cold war, and it’s growing.

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Preemptive absolution, Al Qaeda style

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 18th April 2004

A month ago, I mentioned Philip Pullman’s great fantasy trilogy “His Dark Materials.” In the final book, the “Church,” fearing that the heroine will commit heresy, sends out a priest to assassinate her. The priest has undergone “preemptive penance” as part of his training:

Preemptive penance and absolutions were doctrines researched and developed by the Consistorial Court*, but not known to the wider Church. They involved doing penance for a sin not yet committed … so as to build up, as it were, a store of credit.

From Thursday’s New York Times: Spain Says Bombers Drank Water From Mecca and Sold Drugs

“The leaders of [the] operation, evidently concerned about the effects of their plot on their souls, ‘swallowed holy water from Mecca,’ [Spanish Interior Minister Acebes] said, adding, ‘They met periodically to carry out purification acts that would legitimize the committing of acts that could offend Islam.'”**

Of course, this kind of thing guts any pretense to moral authority of the “beliefs” such criminals hold: to say that yes, something is bad, but some variety of ritualistic hocus-pocus absolves you of blame in advance is to simply say “I can do whatever I want whenever I want to.” That they don’t see that themselves is part of the end stages of the psychological, or if you will the spiritual disease, that afflicts them, whether they are nominally Muslim, Christian, or something else.

This doesn’t necessarily mean, as Pullman can seem to suggest, that religion itself is simply a lie dressed up as a priest, or that churches or religious orders inevitably prefer self-preservation to moral idealism. But as the Archbishop of Canterbury implied in a (surprisingly favorable) review of Pullman’s work, the story is on to something else: people who seriously fear the death of their own religion or God are capable of the greatest crimes to avert that fate — however illogical the prospect may seem. Both the stakes and the rewards seem infinite, while the boring demands of everyday morality seem petty by comparison.

I think much more should be made of of the profoundly unIslamic and faithless elements of Al Qaedists’ own beliefs and actions. Al Qaeda can, should, and ultimately must be discredited in the Islamic world, on Islamic grounds. People who drink Mecca water to make their crimes go away in advance shouldn’t just face prison or death on the battlefield (although that’s a good start). They should also become objects of derision and contempt among the true and moral followers of the creed they’ve forsaken.

* In Roman Catholic usage, the word “consistory” itself turns out to mean “an assembly of cardinals presided over by the pope for the solemn promulgation of papal acts, such as the canonization of a saint.” The Catholic Encyclopedia provides a detailed account of the term, showing that these assemblies were once an integral part of the Catholic Church in helping manage ecclesiastical affairs, but now seem to be more or less ad hoc congresses of the principal cardinals of the church. In his use of the term, Pullman imagines an organization that resembles the Dominican order and its Inquisition. The term has also been used elsewhere; for example, “Consistorial Courts” in the Church of Ireland were charged with administering wills and the like, and may thus have also achieved a degree of worldly power.

** The wikipedia entry for Mecca says that “The water of [the Meccan well] Zamzam is believed to have special properties. Few pilgrims return from the Hajj without a large plastic bottle of Zamzam water.” An Islamic web site, “Soundvision,” says that Zamzam water is believed to have medicinal and even nutritional value, but makes no mention of conferring absolution from future sins.

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Missions from God

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 19th March 2004

KnopfVia the ever-interesting Interfaith Nunnery, I was fascinated to read that the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, has written a quite remarkable review of His Dark Materials, a play based on the book series by Philip Pullman.* The play is apparently quite the rage in London. If it’s half as good as the books, I can imagine why: reading them was a genuinely exciting, provocative, and fun reading experience for me, I can’t recommend them enough.

His Dark Materials is a fantasy trilogy** set in an alternate but in some respects recognizable world where a “Church” with otherwise unspecified theological leanings is cast as a ruthless, near-Orwellian ruler of England and Europe. From an early aside in the first book (The Golden Compass):

Ever since Pope John Calvin had moved the seat of the Papacy to Geneva and set up the Consistorial Court of Discipline, the Church’s power over every aspect of life had been absolute. (chapter 2)

That’s by no means the only or even the most interesting aspect of Pullman’s world — my vote there would go to the daemons and the daemonless panserbjorne. But it’s an integral part of Pullman’s polemic about religion, which is skeptical to put it mildly, and hostile not to put too fine a point on it.

Williams’ review, though, is such a neat reply to Pullman that … I may re-read the series. From his conclusion:

A modern French Christian writer spoke about “purification by atheism” – meaning faith needed to be reminded regularly of the gods in which it should not believe. I think Pullman and Wright [who adapted the books to the stage –ed.] do this very effectively for the believer. I hope too that for the non-believing spectator, the question may somehow be raised of what exactly the God is in whom they don’t believe.***

It was in the course of developing this response that Williams said something that really interested me:

But what kind of a church is it that lives in perpetual and murderous anxiety about the fate of its God?

What the story makes you see is that if you believe in a mortal God, who can win and lose his power, your religion will be saturated with anxiety – and so with violence. […]

What would the Church look like, what would it inevitably be, if it believed only in a God who could be rendered powerless and killed, and needed unceasing protection? It would be a desperate, repressive tyranny. For Pullman, the Church evidently looks like this most of the time; it isn’t surprising that the only God in view is the Authority.

An especially threadbare, embattled, vicious one might look like Al Qaeda. Williams’ question reminded me of Paul Berman’s discussion, in Terror and Liberalism, of Sayyid Qutb, the intellectual forefather of Al Qaeda. Berman describes Qutb’s reaction to the ‘catastrophe’ that the Islamic Caliphate — the rule on earth by the Prophet’s successors — had been ended by the secular Turkish state. Qutb believed that this portended the worst,

“a final offensive which is actually taking place now in all the Muslim countries… It is an effort to exterminate this religion as even a basic creed, and to replace it with secular conceptions having their own implications, values, institutions, and organizations.” (Berman, ch. 4)

Cobbling together Islamic and European reactionary thought, Qutb called for a “vanguard” of the faithful, charged with waging jihad against false Muslims and outside corruption alike. And, in time, the calling to desperately defend an almighty god twisted itself into a worship of death for its own sake. Qutb, on martyrdom and jihad:

“But the death of those who are killed for the cause of God gives more impetus to the cause, which continues to thrive on their blood. Thus after their death they remain an active force in shaping the life of their community and giving it direction. It is in this sense that such people, having sacrificed their lives for the sake of God, retain their active existence in everyday life…

There is no real sense of loss in their death, since they continue to live.” (Berman, ch. 4)

A philosophy like this would be tailor-made for self-appointed prophets with a taste for blood and divinely based power. Enter, years later, Bin Laden and Zawahiri, and their authority via ever-greater acts of terror as jihad.

Christianity could of course be equally murderous when it considered itself threatened. Consider, for instance, the fate of the Cathars, a Christian sect in Southern France in the 12th and 13th centuries. Catharism was brutally repressed by Pope Innocent III’s Albigensian Crusade and the beginnings of the Inquisition. At Beziers alone, at least 20,000 were massacred, Cathars and Catholics alike. (When the fate of the non-Cathar inhabitants was protested, the attending papal legate famously said, “Kill them all. God will know his own.”)

These kinds of examples might serve as the nucleus of a counterpoint for Mr. Pullman: one may wish religion were about Faith and Morality, but in practice it often turns out to be about Authority instead — and Authority “on a mission from God” to boot.

Pullman’s books are about more than that: protecting childhood, the (desirability of an) afterlife, and what might be called the virtues of materialism are all themes. The trilogy’s title comes from Book II of Milton’s Paradise Lost:

Chaos Umpire sits,
And by decision more imbroiles the fray
By which he Reigns: next him high Arbiter

Chance governs all. Into this wilde Abyss,
The Womb of nature and perhaps her Grave,
Of neither Sea, nor Shore, nor Air, nor Fire,
But all these in thir pregnant causes mixt
Confus’dly, and which thus must ever fight,
Unless th’ Almighty Maker them ordain
His dark materials to create more Worlds,
Into this wild Abyss the warie fiend
Stood on the brink of Hell and look’d a while,
Pondering his Voyage …

Mr. Pullman and the Archbishop had a public discussion of His Dark Materials on Monday. I’m with Sister Andrea: that’s a discussion I’d have loved to attend.

* As “Sister Andrea” writes, there are spoilers in the review — all but inevitable, given the reviewer — so handle with care.
** The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, The Amber Spyglass
*** Judging by his speech of a week earlier, Williams means Olivier Clement, a French Eastern Orthodox theologian. The idea of “atheism as purification” can also be traced to Simone Weil (via Naked Writing). According to some, Weil’s beliefs and death echo those of the Cathars.
**** (Whoa, heavy! Couldn’t resist. — ed.) Via “His Dark Materials [an unofficial fansite]”

PS: I’d be remiss in not pointing out Michael Chabon’s review of “His Dark Materials” in the New York Review of Books, and Gary Farber’s interesting discussion of same. Gary also mentions the Archbishop’s review, and was also impressed with Williams. I also should say that for detailed, knowledgeable discussion of Sayyid Qutb, you should visit Bill Allison’s Ideofact blog.

UPDATE, 5/2: More, based on the transcript of the Pullman-Williams conversation.

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