Commentary Magazine


Posts For: April 19, 2007

Spying For Country X

On June 4, the AIPAC trial will commence in Northern Virginia. Keith Weissman and Steven J. Rosen, two former employees of the pro-Israel lobbying organization, are charged with violations of the espionage statutes for allegedly passing along “national defense information” to journalists and to representatives of the government of Israel. But before the trial can begin, the court has had to consider a raft of motions, including an important one that was ruled on earlier this week.

Prosecutors had sought to keep much of the classified information at issue in the case from being released to the public. To that end, they had proposed elaborate procedures under which secret evidence would be presented to the jury but kept from broad distribution. T.S. Ellis III, the judge presiding over the case, has explained what this would have entailed.

Witnesses would not be permitted to

speak the names of certain specific countries, foreign persons, or other things, but would instead use a code, “Country A,” “Report X,” “Foreign Person Y,” “Foreign Person Z,” and the like. That code would be provided to counsel, the Court, and the jury. The system of codes would change, moreover, to reflect . . . different alleged overt acts disclosing . . . classified information presumably to prevent the public from inferring the meaning or discerning the meaning of the code that’s being used.

The defendants’ attorneys vociferously protested this approach, claiming it is a clear violation of their clients’ Sixth Amendment right to a public trial.

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On June 4, the AIPAC trial will commence in Northern Virginia. Keith Weissman and Steven J. Rosen, two former employees of the pro-Israel lobbying organization, are charged with violations of the espionage statutes for allegedly passing along “national defense information” to journalists and to representatives of the government of Israel. But before the trial can begin, the court has had to consider a raft of motions, including an important one that was ruled on earlier this week.

Prosecutors had sought to keep much of the classified information at issue in the case from being released to the public. To that end, they had proposed elaborate procedures under which secret evidence would be presented to the jury but kept from broad distribution. T.S. Ellis III, the judge presiding over the case, has explained what this would have entailed.

Witnesses would not be permitted to

speak the names of certain specific countries, foreign persons, or other things, but would instead use a code, “Country A,” “Report X,” “Foreign Person Y,” “Foreign Person Z,” and the like. That code would be provided to counsel, the Court, and the jury. The system of codes would change, moreover, to reflect . . . different alleged overt acts disclosing . . . classified information presumably to prevent the public from inferring the meaning or discerning the meaning of the code that’s being used.

The defendants’ attorneys vociferously protested this approach, claiming it is a clear violation of their clients’ Sixth Amendment right to a public trial.

Even more significantly, they pointed out, it effectively prejudged a fundamental issue lying at the very heart of the case: whether the information passed along by the two lobbyists was truly closely held national defense information. By compelling discussion of the evidence to take place only in code, the procedures would implicitly encourage jurors to conclude that the information was indeed precisely that.

In a critical decision, Judge Ellis ruled in the defendants’ favor, finding that the government’s proposed procedures suffered from a number of “fatal” defects. Among other things, the defendants would be

unfairly hindered in their effort to explain why they believed information that they sought to obtain, and the information they received and disseminated, was not NDI [national defense information]. They should be able to explain precisely what they knew, when, from whom they learned it, why they didn’t have the requisite mens rea, which I have discussed in several of the opinions that I have already written.

Statements like, “I heard from Foreign Person C the fact about Country X, reflected at Exhibit A, page three, paragraph four, line two,” seem to me to be insufficient for fairness.

As I have argued in the pages of COMMENTARY, the United States has a powerful interest in keeping its defense and foreign-policy secrets. But as I have also argued, it must do so in accordance with law.

From beginning to end, the AIPAC prosecution has been rife with government conduct that smells, and which Judge Ellis has treated accordingly. If this most recent ruling by Judge Ellis is a taste of what is to come, my advice to the defense lawyers is to dispense with a jury and let the judge try the case. And if my advice is followed, I would bet heavily on an acquittal.

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Tame “Gators”

In a fascinating essay called “The Ploy” in the current Atlantic, Mark Bowden explains how an elite group of Special Operations troops in Iraq known as Task Force 145 got the information that led to the killing last year of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq. In an online discussion forum regarding military affairs that I belong to (it’s called the Warlord Loop), Bowden’s article has been criticized by current and former intelligence officers for being overly detailed and for revealing our TTP’s (tactics, techniques, and procedures) to the enemy.

That seems a legitimate concern, but his essay raises another issue as well: have we handcuffed our soldiers with overly restrictive rules for the handling of detainees? The story repeats claims made in the New York Times, Washington Post, and other outlets that prior to the Abu Ghraib scandal of 2004, Task Force 6-26 (the predecessor to 145) had used some rough tactics: “Interrogators . . . were reportedly stripping prisoners naked and hosing them down in the cold, beating them, employ ‘stress positions,’ and keeping them awake for long hours.”

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In a fascinating essay called “The Ploy” in the current Atlantic, Mark Bowden explains how an elite group of Special Operations troops in Iraq known as Task Force 145 got the information that led to the killing last year of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq. In an online discussion forum regarding military affairs that I belong to (it’s called the Warlord Loop), Bowden’s article has been criticized by current and former intelligence officers for being overly detailed and for revealing our TTP’s (tactics, techniques, and procedures) to the enemy.

That seems a legitimate concern, but his essay raises another issue as well: have we handcuffed our soldiers with overly restrictive rules for the handling of detainees? The story repeats claims made in the New York Times, Washington Post, and other outlets that prior to the Abu Ghraib scandal of 2004, Task Force 6-26 (the predecessor to 145) had used some rough tactics: “Interrogators . . . were reportedly stripping prisoners naked and hosing them down in the cold, beating them, employ ‘stress positions,’ and keeping them awake for long hours.”

All that ended after Abu Ghraib. “Physical abuse was outlawed, as were sensory deprivation and the withholding or altering of food as punishment,” Bowden writes. “The backlash from Abu Ghraib had produced so many restrictions that gators [the nickname for interrogators] were no longer permitted to work even a standard good cop/bad cop routine. The interrogation room cameras were faithfully monitored, and gators who crossed the line would be interrupted in mid-session.”

In the Wall Street Journal, Kyndra Rotunda, a former officer in the Judge Advocate General’s Corps who served at Guantanamo, offers further details on what sort of practices are no longer allowed. Interrogators cannot withhold detainees’ access to Qur’ans or any food or water. (All detainees receive their filling halal meals and their Qur’ans, no matter what they do.) They cannot stop piping in the call to prayer or refuse to tell detainees the direction of Mecca. They are even having a hard time using teams of shrinks (known as Behavior Science Consultation Teams) to monitor suspects for signs of duplicity.

In other words, in the rush to crack down on abuse, practices that would seem to stop well short of any reasonable definition of torture (the good cop/bad cop routine, for Pete’s sake!) have been jettisoned. Interrogators are left with a battery of approved techniques from the new army field manual on interrogation. As described by Bowden these include “’ego up,’ which involved flattery; ‘ego down,’ which meant denigrating a detainee; and various simple con games—tricking a detainee into believing you already knew something you did not, feeding him misinformation about friends or family members, and so forth.”

Bowden’s article describes how, in the hands of first-class interrogators, such “con games” could be used to elicit information from a couple of al-Qaeda operatives—information that led Task Force 145 to pinpoint Zarqawi’s location. But one wonders how much information coalition forces in Iraq or Afghanistan aren’t getting because interrogators aren’t as skilled, or detainees as gullible, as those in “The Ploy.”

Even in the case chronicled by Bowden, one threat was used effectively to elicit information. He writes: “The well-publicized abuses at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere put all detainees on edge, and assurances that the U.S. command had cracked down were not readily believed. The prospect of being shipped to the larger prison—notorious during the American occupation, and even more so during the Saddam era—was enough to persuade many subjects to talk.”

By now, any sentient detainee will know that Abu Ghraib has been shuttered (its replacement is Camp Bucca in southern Iraq) and that there is not much that their American captors can do to them. If they didn’t know that already (and all the smart ones do), they surely will after al Qaeda translates Bowden’s article and places it online as part of their training for handling captivity.

 

 

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Bookshelf

• Most modern biographies are vexingly long, and it vexes me even more when they’re so well written that I feel compelled to read them from cover to cover, taking in all sorts of brain-cluttering information along the way. I could have cut two hundred pages out of Hermione Lee’s Edith Wharton (Knopf, 869 pp., $35) without breaking a sweat, and another hundred without noticeably diminishing the book’s usefulness. Lee is the kind of biographer who feels obliged to tell absolutely everything she knows about her subject—and then some. Was it really necessary to devote half a page to a listing of the contents of the wine cellar of a woman who didn’t drink wine herself? Yet I never once felt tempted to abandon ship in midstream, for Edith Wharton is one of the most intelligent biographies of an American artist to come my way in years, and I read it with an interest almost entirely unaffected by its unselectivity.

Lee is sound on pretty much everything, including the touchy subjects of Wharton’s anti-Semitism and snobbishness, both of which she describes fully and frankly without feeling the need to reassure the reader of her own sensitivity (though I wonder whether she would have been quite so unostentatious about it had her subject been a man). I was especially pleased to learn that the supposedly stodgy Wharton was an admirer of Cézanne, Colette, Proust, The Rite of Spring, and Vile Bodies, not to mention Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

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• Most modern biographies are vexingly long, and it vexes me even more when they’re so well written that I feel compelled to read them from cover to cover, taking in all sorts of brain-cluttering information along the way. I could have cut two hundred pages out of Hermione Lee’s Edith Wharton (Knopf, 869 pp., $35) without breaking a sweat, and another hundred without noticeably diminishing the book’s usefulness. Lee is the kind of biographer who feels obliged to tell absolutely everything she knows about her subject—and then some. Was it really necessary to devote half a page to a listing of the contents of the wine cellar of a woman who didn’t drink wine herself? Yet I never once felt tempted to abandon ship in midstream, for Edith Wharton is one of the most intelligent biographies of an American artist to come my way in years, and I read it with an interest almost entirely unaffected by its unselectivity.

Lee is sound on pretty much everything, including the touchy subjects of Wharton’s anti-Semitism and snobbishness, both of which she describes fully and frankly without feeling the need to reassure the reader of her own sensitivity (though I wonder whether she would have been quite so unostentatious about it had her subject been a man). I was especially pleased to learn that the supposedly stodgy Wharton was an admirer of Cézanne, Colette, Proust, The Rite of Spring, and Vile Bodies, not to mention Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

Lee believes that Wharton was a great writer—she uses the word unapologetically—and it is a tribute to her persuasiveness that even if you disagree, you will likely put down Edith Wharton wondering whether you might be wrong. I regret to admit that I am more or less the kind of reader she has in mind when she writes dismissively of those who accept “the version of Wharton—which has proved extremely hard to shift—as a female Henry James, a more superficial and middlebrow imitator of the Master, using the same kind of plots, characters and society, but with less depth and subtlety.” I love The Age of Innocence and The House of Mirth, but I’d hitherto considered them exceptional among Wharton’s large and uneven output. Now, though, I’m feeling the itch to go out and read all the Edith Wharton I can get my hands on. Is there anything better to be said about a literary biography than that?

• I never saw Carolyn Brown dance—she retired from the stage in 1972, long before I moved to Manhattan and saw the Merce Cunningham Dance Company for the first time—but there is plenty of filmed evidence to show that she was one of the finest modern dancers of the 50’s and 60’s, and a great beauty to boot. As if that weren’t enough, it turns out that she’s also a very good writer. Chance and Circumstance: Twenty Years With Cage and Cunningham (Knopf, 645 pp., $37.50) is nearly as overlong as Edith Wharton. But the first half, in which Brown describes what it felt like to be at the center of the postmodern movement in American art, is both readable and important. No one has written more acutely about Cunningham, John Cage, or Robert Rauschenberg, and even if—like me—you have mixed feelings about their legacy, you will find the story of how they got started to be wholly engrossing.

Brown has some odd gaps in her sensibility—she doesn’t get George Balanchine at all, for instance—but she writes about Cunningham and his choreography with perfect comprehension and a sense of proportion rarely to be found among acolytes. No less acute are her reflections on the act of public performance: “The essence of performance is its ‘now-ness’—no mind, no memory. Just that brief time when one has the chance to be whole, when seemingly disconnected threads of one’s being are woven and intertwined into the complete present. No other. No past. No future. No mind as an entity distinct from the body.” I’ve never heard it put better.

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