Commentary Magazine


Topic: Denmark

Michael Scheuer Watch #3: Innocent Until Proven Guilty

We already have incontrovertible evidence that former CIA officer Michael Scheuer, who is now busy with a career equally divided between casting aspersions on American Jews and making a fool of himself, was incompetent at his job running the agency’s Osama bin Laden desk in the 1990’s, and was seen as such by those in charge.

Do we now have evidence of something else?

The Danish daily Politiken ran a story on Sunday reporting that “CIA renditions in Europe date back as far as the mid-1990’s.” The term “renditions” refers to the agency’s highly secret practice, some details of which have previously leaked out, of extraditing terrorism suspects from one foreign state to another for purposes of interrogation and prosecution.

Politiken went on, according to an AP summary, to provide specifics, including the fact that in 1995 U.S. agents seized an Egyptian by the name of Abu Talal, a senior member of the Egyptian terrorist organization al-Gama’a al-Islamiya, who had been granted political asylum in Denmark. He was reportedly nabbed while visiting Croatia and was turned over to Egypt, where he may have been executed. 

Along with other unidentified CIA officials, Politiken cites Michael Scheuer as a source for this information, which is now stirring up anti-Americanism in Denmark.

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We already have incontrovertible evidence that former CIA officer Michael Scheuer, who is now busy with a career equally divided between casting aspersions on American Jews and making a fool of himself, was incompetent at his job running the agency’s Osama bin Laden desk in the 1990’s, and was seen as such by those in charge.

Do we now have evidence of something else?

The Danish daily Politiken ran a story on Sunday reporting that “CIA renditions in Europe date back as far as the mid-1990’s.” The term “renditions” refers to the agency’s highly secret practice, some details of which have previously leaked out, of extraditing terrorism suspects from one foreign state to another for purposes of interrogation and prosecution.

Politiken went on, according to an AP summary, to provide specifics, including the fact that in 1995 U.S. agents seized an Egyptian by the name of Abu Talal, a senior member of the Egyptian terrorist organization al-Gama’a al-Islamiya, who had been granted political asylum in Denmark. He was reportedly nabbed while visiting Croatia and was turned over to Egypt, where he may have been executed. 

Along with other unidentified CIA officials, Politiken cites Michael Scheuer as a source for this information, which is now stirring up anti-Americanism in Denmark.

CIA officers sign an oath not to disclose classified information when they take employment in the agency. The oath holds for life. If they want to talk about things they learned in the course of their work, they need to obtain CIA clearance first.

The Politiken story thus raises a number of questions: 

1. Is the story accurate?

2. Assuming it is accurate, was the information about the rendition of Abu Talal classified?

3. Assuming it was classified, and that Scheuer, as opposed to the other unidentifiied CIA officials, was the primary source, did he have the CIA’s permission to talk about it?

4. Assuming he was the primary source and he did not have permission, and that the two preceding questions are answered in the affirmative, was a crime committed here?

Lawrence Franklin, a Defense Department official, was recently sentenced to more than twelve years in prison for leaking government secrets to two officials of AIPAC. Scheuer’s retired status would not seem to alter the basic elements of the crime. Title 18, Section 793 (d) of the United States Code makes liable for punishment “whoever . . . willfully communicates, delivers, [or] transmits” national-defense information “to any person not entitled to receive it.”

So here is a brace of final questions:

5. If the elements of a crime are in place, will be there an investigation? And is anyone at the CIA or the Department of Justice or in Congress paying attention?

If any readers can help me connect these dots, I would welcome hearing from them. Either post a comment below or, for private correspondence, write to letters@commentarymagazine.com and put Connecting the Dots in the subject line.

A complete guide to other items in this Michael Scheuer Watch series can be found here.

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Cold(er) War

Yesterday, a submersible lowered a titanium Russian flag onto the Arctic seabed, near the North Pole, at a depth of almost 14,000 feet. Canada immediately mocked Moscow’s stunt. “This isn’t the 15th century,” said Ottawa’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Peter MacKay. “You can’t go around the world and just plant flags and say ‘We’re claiming this territory.’ ”

International law permits Russia, Canada, the United States, Denmark, and Norway, the nations with coastlines inside the Arctic Circle, to enforce 200-mile exclusive economic zones north of their shores. The Kremlin, however, claims a bigger zone that includes the seabed under the North Pole. It maintains that the Lomonosov Ridge, which runs under the Pole, forms part of Siberia’s continental shelf. Canada and Denmark maintain competing claims to the same ridge. (Why do so many nations want the Ridge? Because a receding polar cap may someday make drilling for hydrocarbons there feasible.)

Russia is not the only nation to make outsized claims on continental shelves. China, for instance, believes it has rights to a good portion of Japan’s coastline. China also maintains claims on the continental shelves of the Philippines, Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Vietnam (as well as the entire South China Sea).

The United States is party to few economic-zone disputes. Nonetheless, it is the final guarantor of the international system. As such, it should be taking a greater interest in making sure that claims are settled peacefully—and that the rights of free passage are protected—whether or not the Senate sees fit to ratify the controversial Law of the Sea Convention, as the Bush administration wants it to do. And the first item on our agenda should be to talk openly and pointedly to Beijing and Moscow about their grand claims and methods of bolstering them.

Yesterday, a submersible lowered a titanium Russian flag onto the Arctic seabed, near the North Pole, at a depth of almost 14,000 feet. Canada immediately mocked Moscow’s stunt. “This isn’t the 15th century,” said Ottawa’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Peter MacKay. “You can’t go around the world and just plant flags and say ‘We’re claiming this territory.’ ”

International law permits Russia, Canada, the United States, Denmark, and Norway, the nations with coastlines inside the Arctic Circle, to enforce 200-mile exclusive economic zones north of their shores. The Kremlin, however, claims a bigger zone that includes the seabed under the North Pole. It maintains that the Lomonosov Ridge, which runs under the Pole, forms part of Siberia’s continental shelf. Canada and Denmark maintain competing claims to the same ridge. (Why do so many nations want the Ridge? Because a receding polar cap may someday make drilling for hydrocarbons there feasible.)

Russia is not the only nation to make outsized claims on continental shelves. China, for instance, believes it has rights to a good portion of Japan’s coastline. China also maintains claims on the continental shelves of the Philippines, Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Vietnam (as well as the entire South China Sea).

The United States is party to few economic-zone disputes. Nonetheless, it is the final guarantor of the international system. As such, it should be taking a greater interest in making sure that claims are settled peacefully—and that the rights of free passage are protected—whether or not the Senate sees fit to ratify the controversial Law of the Sea Convention, as the Bush administration wants it to do. And the first item on our agenda should be to talk openly and pointedly to Beijing and Moscow about their grand claims and methods of bolstering them.

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PBS’s Islam Problem

On Tuesday evening the film Islam vs. Islamists: Voices from the Muslim Center, a documentary, was screened for a standing-room only audience in Lower Manhattan. Billed as “the film that PBS doesn’t want you to see,” it studies the intense friction between moderate Muslims and Wahhabi radicals. Profiles of Muslims in Denmark, France, Canada, Michigan, and Arizona demonstrate how moderate voices, devoted to the idea of integrating Islam with democracy, are threatened and marginalized by Islamists intent on establishing Islamic law (shari’a) in the West.

Although it deals with a topic of national importance, and offers a much-needed platform for moderate Muslim voices—such as the embattled Danish lawmaker Naser Kader; the head of the Arizona Medical Association, Dr. M. Zuhdi Jasser; and the intrepid Parisian filmmaker Mohamed Sifaoui—PBS has decided to suppress the film.

Originally created for the America at the Crossroads documentary series currently airing on PBS, the film was nixed upon completion and kept off the air. Before the screening on Tuesday, Frank Gaffney and Alex Alexiev, two of the filmmakers behind Islam vs. Islamists, joked that theirs was one of the first films “roundly attacked by the people who commissioned it.” Gaffney added, “The nicest thing they [PBS] said about it was that it was ‘alarmist.’”

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On Tuesday evening the film Islam vs. Islamists: Voices from the Muslim Center, a documentary, was screened for a standing-room only audience in Lower Manhattan. Billed as “the film that PBS doesn’t want you to see,” it studies the intense friction between moderate Muslims and Wahhabi radicals. Profiles of Muslims in Denmark, France, Canada, Michigan, and Arizona demonstrate how moderate voices, devoted to the idea of integrating Islam with democracy, are threatened and marginalized by Islamists intent on establishing Islamic law (shari’a) in the West.

Although it deals with a topic of national importance, and offers a much-needed platform for moderate Muslim voices—such as the embattled Danish lawmaker Naser Kader; the head of the Arizona Medical Association, Dr. M. Zuhdi Jasser; and the intrepid Parisian filmmaker Mohamed Sifaoui—PBS has decided to suppress the film.

Originally created for the America at the Crossroads documentary series currently airing on PBS, the film was nixed upon completion and kept off the air. Before the screening on Tuesday, Frank Gaffney and Alex Alexiev, two of the filmmakers behind Islam vs. Islamists, joked that theirs was one of the first films “roundly attacked by the people who commissioned it.” Gaffney added, “The nicest thing they [PBS] said about it was that it was ‘alarmist.’”

PBS was wrong about this: the film is not alarmist, but alarming. The footage of radical imams calling for sha’ria in Denmark and Arizona, the segment explaining how Saudi money enables the spread of Wahhabi Islam, and numerous other examples of the aggression directed against rational voices in the Muslim community are illuminating and disturbing.

The testimony of actual participants in this struggle makes up the core of the film; both sides are allowed to have their say. Abu Laban—the Danish imam largely responsible for inflaming the Arab world over the Jyllands-Posten cartoons—is accorded ample screen time to explain how the stoning of adulterers is a non-negotiable feature of the shari’a he endorses. Of course, Laban seems like little more than a thug when an undercover video (shot by Mohamed Sifaoui) shows a member of the imam’s entourage “joking” about murdering Naser Kader.

It wasn’t just the content of the film that PBS objected to. During filming, Gaffney was told to fire some of his colleagues because “they [were] conservative.” After Gaffney refused, PBS set up an advisory panel to oversee production—including a member of the Nation of Islam, who demanded the deletion of a portion of the film describing his own group’s efforts to build a Wahhabi mosque in Chicago using Saudi money. The replacement film PBS aired—The Muslim Americans—was so shoddy that even the New York Times called it “dull” and “misleading.”

Happily, Islam vs. Islamists is creating public-relations headaches for PBS. On April 25, a bipartisan group of lawmakers organized a private screening for members of the House and Senate. Perhaps they can do something about what Gaffney calls “the pocket of corruption” at PBS.

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Cleaning Up Israel

The sorry spectacle of Israel’s political system going through one financial scandal after another—the latest involves finance minister Abraham Hirchson, accused of embezzling large sums of money when he headed an HMO in the 1990’s—is more than just an embarrassment. Coupled with the growth of organized crime and frightening rumors of its inroads into politics and law enforcement, these scandals are making Israelis feel these days as if they were living in a Jewish Sicily.

Is it that bad? Probably not, although it’s hard to say. Corruption in Israel is something that, even today, you’re far more likely to read about in the newspapers than to experience personally. Israel is still a country whose citizens assume, when dealing with government officials, the police, or business contacts, that they are facing someone honest. It’s not some third-world state or banana republic where you routinely slip money into your car registration papers when you’re asked for them by a traffic cop, leave a gift on the desk of the official you’ve applied to for a building permit, or promise a kickback to the executive you’re negotiating a contract with. But then again, I don’t suppose that routinely happens in Sicily, either.

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The sorry spectacle of Israel’s political system going through one financial scandal after another—the latest involves finance minister Abraham Hirchson, accused of embezzling large sums of money when he headed an HMO in the 1990’s—is more than just an embarrassment. Coupled with the growth of organized crime and frightening rumors of its inroads into politics and law enforcement, these scandals are making Israelis feel these days as if they were living in a Jewish Sicily.

Is it that bad? Probably not, although it’s hard to say. Corruption in Israel is something that, even today, you’re far more likely to read about in the newspapers than to experience personally. Israel is still a country whose citizens assume, when dealing with government officials, the police, or business contacts, that they are facing someone honest. It’s not some third-world state or banana republic where you routinely slip money into your car registration papers when you’re asked for them by a traffic cop, leave a gift on the desk of the official you’ve applied to for a building permit, or promise a kickback to the executive you’re negotiating a contract with. But then again, I don’t suppose that routinely happens in Sicily, either.

In this sense, Israel is in the third and murkiest of the three categories that you can divide the world’s countries into. There are countries in which corruption hardly exists and no one would dream of trying to solve his problems by resorting to it. There are countries in which it is omnipresent and everyone understands that it is the only way to get things done. And there are countries, like Israel, in which the rules are simply not clear, and you never know if a bribe will pay off, be dismissed by whoever it is offered to with an indignant glare or weary smile but no worse, or land you in jail. Most people would never run the risk, but most people have also heard rumors or stories of others who have run it successfully. This makes corruption a phenomenon that everyone is aware of but of whose true dimensions no one has a clear idea.

The fact of the matter is that, even in cleaner times, Israel was always a country in which the rules were never quite clear. I’ve heard it said that there are countries, like Japan, in which “yes” never means “yes.” But in Israel, “no” has never meant “no.” It has always meant, “Let’s argue and negotiate.” And in Israel, you negotiate with everyone: the phone company about its bills, the storekeeper about his prices, the teacher about his marks. You don’t generally do this by offering bribes. You do it by reasoning, wheedling, shouting, crying, pleading, threatening, joking. Only suckers take “no” for an answer.

It took me a while to learn this when I immigrated to Israel in 1970. One of my first lessons came when filling out my first Israeli income-tax return. When it came to house expenses such as electricity and water bills—on which, as a self-employed writer living at home, I had a right to a partial deduction—the accountant scratched his head and said, “You know what? Let’s try deducting 50 percent.”

“What do you mean, let’s try?” I said. “What are the rules?”

“There are no rules,” said the accountant. “And even if there are, they’re too complicated to figure out.”

“Then why don’t you call the tax authorities and ask?” I suggested.

My accountant looked at me with astonishment. Clearly I had been born, not yesterday, but sometime in the previous hour. “If I ask, they’ll tell me it’s 10 percent,” he said. “Let’s put in for 50.”

We put in for 50, and it worked. Since then, I’ve deducted 50 percent of my house expenses from my tax returns every year. Is that what the law permits me to do? Don’t ask me, I just do it.

All this has a certain charm. It can be frustrating and unnerving, of course—there’s something to be said for knowing where you stand, instead of having to find out ad hoc each time—but it has made Israel in many ways a much more flexible place to operate in than other countries. Although people complain about Israeli bureaucracy, Israeli bureaucrats are models of human kindness compared to bureaucrats I’ve encountered in other places. You can actually get them to change their minds or make an exception for you if you’re skillful enough in presenting your case.

Such a modus operandi becomes deadly, however, the minute corruption enters into it. It’s one thing for an official behind a desk to give you the permit he really shouldn’t have given you because you’ve burst into tears or turned out to be his third cousin once-removed. It’s another thing for him to give it to you because a wad of cash has fallen unnoticed from your wallet while you were leaving. And this, once rare, is becoming a more and more accepted practice.

If Israel is not going to end up in corruption category 1, it is going to have to change its ways of doing things and learn to go by the rules—everywhere. In some ways this will be too bad. Just last week my wife phoned the cable TV company and got it to lower the rates it charges us by threatening to move to a rival. An Israel you can no longer do this in will be a less simpatico place. But it will also be a cleaner one.

Indeed, if one wants to be optimistic, this is what is happening in Israel right now. Case after case that might have gone unprosecuted before is now ending up in the courts, the cases of ranking politicians not excepted. It looks bad, and it is bad. But eventually, the lesson may sink in. There may be a golden mean between Denmark and Nigeria, but if you have to choose, it’s a lot better to be Denmark.

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