Jun 04 2010

James Zogby on Gaza, Scott Horton on Guantànamo


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On May 31st the Israeli military attacked a flotilla of boats full of civilians attempting to deliver humanitarian supplies to the Gaza strip, and to call attention to the impact of Israel’s blockade. At least 9 and as many as 16

activists were killed—we don’t know in part due to Israel’s tight control over the flow of information. We’ll talk with James Zogby of the Arab American Institute about Gaza.

Also on CounterSpin today: A new U.S. report says that most of the detainees held on
Guantánamo since Obama took office, should be released. That’s after nearly three fourths of those originally held had already been released under the Bush administration. This has enraged many on the right who are conducting a campaign targeting the detainees and even their U.S. lawyers. We’ll talk to Scott Horton, contributing editor at Harper’s, and the magazine’s No Comment blogger.

All that’s coming up, but first we’ll take a look back at the week’s press.

—You might remember the infamous ACORN videos, where right-wing


released heavily edited and misleading tapes of themselves visiting offices


the community organizing group. The hoaxers said they told ACORN that they


a pimp and a prostitute, and ACORN gave them advice on how to cheat on their

taxes. The slightest bit of checking revealed that was a lie—checking


corporate media almost never bothered to do.

But the video maker, James O’Keefe, is still being treated seriously,

judging by

his June 1 appearance on ABC‘s <span

class=”media_outlet”>Good Morning America. Host George Stephanopoulos

introducing the interview this way: “James O’Keefe became a media sensation

after he and a friend posed as a pimp and a prostitute and secretly recorded

ACORN workers giving them advice on how to cheat on their taxes.” Again,


false—you’d think by now journalists would know this. But


went out of his way to praise O’Keefe: “I have to give you credit for this,


ACORN, you did expose people doing things they shouldn’t do.” Journalists

normally don’t give “credit” to people who lie to them—or at least

they’re not supposed to. O’Keefe’s publisher Andrew Breitbart was also on


and when it was mentioned that none of the ACORN workers did anything


he protested: “Is it legal to help set up a prostitution ring in every



But Stephanopoulos let that slide too.

It’s worth pointing out that the point of the <span

class=”media_outlet”>ABCinterview was to tout O’Keefe’s latest


attacking Census workers. So, the guy who created hoax videos that were


like real journalism by a gullible media has a new batch of videos that are…

being taken seriously again by a gullible media.

—For many people the incredible devastation of the Deepwater Horizon


spill and the revelation of patently inadequate oversight of the company and

the process by regulatory agencies are undeniable: Something has to change.


not so fast, say corporate media wise men like the <span

class=”media_outlet”>New York Times’ David Brooks; it’s all much more

complicated than you sorts understand. Brooks’ May 28 column sighed that the

debate over the disaster has fallen into “predictably partisan and often

puerile categories,” one of which is the “liberal” view that the government

should have more control over industry. Actually, Brooks explains, “the real

issue has to do with risk assessment. It has to do with the bloody


where complex technical systems meet human psychology.” He goes on to offer


line, that Matthew Yglesias pointed out is largely cribbed from a 1996 <span

class=”media_outlet”>New Yorkeressay by Malcolm Gladwell, about


psychological pitfalls that contribute to accidents.

So what we really need to do is work on “helping people deal with


catastrophic complexity,” so we can “improve the choice architecture.”

Meanwhile back on earth, the Times ran a


May 27 headlined “BP Used Riskier Method to Seal Well Before Blast,” about


the oil company chose to use a cheaper casing for the well, even though this

could lead to a buildup of explosive gasses—as it seems did happen.


BP make this decision because as human beings they have trouble


complexity? Or did they make that choice because they are trying to pump oil


cheaply as possible so they can maximize their profits? And does that


they need an outside authority watching over them to ensure that their money

grubbing doesn’t lead to disaster? Or would that be puerile?

Newsweek‘s website featured an


by correspondent Stefan Theil, dated May 28, declaring climate change to be

“Uncertain Science.” Giving the Reader’s Digest condensed version of the


warming denialist case, Theil refers to “e-mails and documents suggesting


researchers cherry-picked data and suppressed rival studies to play up


warming”—without mentioning that after the media sensation, subsequent

academic investigations cleared the researchers of wrongdoing.

The Newsweek reporter talks about a U.S.

scientist “under investigation for allegedly using exaggerated climate data


obtain public funds”—without mentioning that the scientist, Michael


is being investigated by Virginia’s Tea Party-aligned Attorney General Ken

Cuccinelli, whom the Washington Post has

described as having “declared war on reality.”

Theil also claims that there is a real scientific debate “over the extent


time frame” of CO2‘s greenhouse effect—while glossing over


fact that the actual debate in climate science circles is over whether the

consensus predictions have underestimated how much and how quickly


Earth will warm as a result of the burning of fossil fuels.

—There were protests recently at the Maryland homes of several bank

executives, along with follow-up rallies in Washington, D.C., at bank


and offices. The events organized by the National Peoples Action and the


went largely uncovered by the local daily, the <span

class=”media_outlet”>Washington Post, which led <span

class=”media_outlet”>Postombud Andrew Alexander to wonder why the


missed a major labor and activism story that was covered by <span

class=”media_outlet”>Mother Jonesand the <span

class=”media_outlet”>Nation, among others.

But when you read how Alexander imagines the paper might’ve approached the

story, you might be glad they didn’t do more. Wrote Alexander:

There were numerous ways the <span

class=”media_outlet”>Postcould have gotten back in the game on the

story. For example, how did Chevy Chase neighbors react? Did protesters


trespass laws? When does First Amendment expression infringe on residential

privacy? Does President Obama, who enjoyed SEIU electoral support, sanction

these types of protests? And is a blitz on private residences a new protest


Gee, somewhere in there he could’ve suggested a few differently-angled

questions, like: What were the protesters talking about? Do their complaints

about excessive cronyism between Wall Street and Washington have foundation?

And did people’s loss of their homes, jobs and retirement savings ever

interrupt their dinner time? Just some ideas….

—And finally, witless commentary and breathtaking hypocrisy are no

strangers to Fox News, but Bill O’Reilly


in rare form on June 1. Discussing Joe McGinniss, the journalist who moved


door to Sarah Palin’s family home in Alaska in order to write about her,

O’Reilly declared the move “immoral” and maybe even unconstitutional:

Bill O’Reilly:He is intruding upon her lifeand

the life of her family. He’s doing that that without a doubt by his presence

there, a malevolent presence for them, because they know he’s going to

do—write bad things about them.

Bernard Goldberg: Right.

BO: He’s intruding upon them, all right? Their pursuit of happiness,

which is guaranteed by the Constitution, basically has dropped 100 percent

because he’s there. And it’s—and you use the word creepy. You know,


in a public eye. And if there’s somebody who doesn’t like me around my home,


call the police.

(The “pursuit of happiness” phrase actually appears in the Declaration of

Independence, not the Constitution.)

About now, listeners who have followed O’Reilly’s sordid career are probably

recalling the Fox host’s practice of


his camera crews ambush news subjects at their homes, on vacation, even when

they are with their children—in other words, “intruding on them, all

right?” Of course, by O’Reilly’s lights, only intrusions targeting those he

cares about raise moral or “constitutional” questions. This is the beauty of

being utterly un-self aware.


CounterSpin: The New York Times


for Israel to end its blockade of Gaza. But the paper’s reason seemed to be


blockade’s failure to weaken Hamas, as much or more than its success at

impoverishing and punishing Gaza’s one and a half million people. Is this


best the U.S. press corps can muster, in the wake of the storming of six

humanitarian aid ships headed for Gaza by Israel military commandos, killing


least nine civilians and injuring many more? What ideas, and facts, are


from mainstream reporting and how could coverage be refocused?

We’re joined now by James Zogby, founder and president of the Arab-American

Institute and also a cofounder of the American Arab Anti-Discrimination


Welcome back to CounterSpin, James Zogby!

James Zogby: Thank you. I’d say nice to be back, but it’s actually

sad to

be back because when I’m on it’s because some horrific event is unfolding.

CS: Exactly, we were speaking with you in 2006 about Gaza, and I’m


to say I could almost have cut and pasted that interview into this one, so little


changed, in terms of media. Well, in a June 1 report the <span

class=”media_outlet”>New York Times’ Isabel Kershner wrote, “Despite

sporadic rocket fire from the Palestinian territory against southern Israel,

Israel says it allows enough basic supplies through border crossings to


any acute humanitarian crisis.” I wonder what you make of the paper of


if you will, contextualizing this event by saying Gaza is not in crisis?

JZ: They are reflecting talking points, liberal talking points, not


more hardline pro-Likud talking points, and pretty much the poles of the


here in this country have wavered between the two. The Palestinian side of


narrative is not found, and basically has almost never been found in


circles, and by that I mean mainstream press and among political leaders. So

the best you do is you sort of get the argument that you gave in the


about how the difficulty here is that it hasn’t worked; it hasn’t weakened

Hamas, that it’s only harmed the people—but not all that bad because,


know, there’s really no major crisis, it’s just an inconvenience and a


The problem is is that if you think about the way that’s framed: “there’s no

crisis because basic subsidies are getting through,” what you’ve got is a

strategy designed to limit the caloric intake of people in Gaza to the bare

minimum. And fundamentally it’s a racist concept. They’ve trapped 1.5


people in a reservation of despair and poverty, and they allow in, like an

eyedropper, enough to keep them alive. What you’ve got is 80-plus percent of

the people today get their food subsidy simply from the United Nations. It’s


welfare state. Secondly, you get 48 percent of the children in Gaza are


And poverty levels have climbed into the 80 percent range. People are living


bombed out houses because construction material hasn’t been in. It’s a

disaster. But, technically, the Israelis are right and the <span

class=”media_outlet”>New York Timesis right: people are surviving.


if survival is what’s acceptable, then I guess the <span

class=”media_outlet”>New York Timescan be happy.

CS: This has been a popular take on the assault on the boats: that it

couldn’t “really” have been about aid—the flotilla—because they


aid. I wonder, would other routes of possible access for materials, in any

event, justify Israel’s assault, to your mind?

JZ: No, I mean look, the fact is that a year ago the president spoke


Cairo and encouraged the Palestinians to pursue nonviolence. This was a

nonviolent approach. The Washington Post

didn’t get that. The Washington Post and


members of Congress made the argument that the Israelis were ambushed. I’m


quite sure that coming down from helicopters with black hoods and weapons


constitutes tripping into an ambush. But, you know, the fact is that this


largely a nonviolent effort. Sure, some people attacked the folks who


the boat, but I think that’s a purely logical response to fear, to anger, to

frustration on the part of some. But what the Israelis have done, cleverly,


control the narrative, so this was an Al Qaeda supporting ship. They used


language, that 50 people were Al Qaeda supporters; they were extremists.

Interesting that they ended up freeing them all and sending them away. I


that means that Israel is now complicit in Al Qaeda in letting go some of


terrorists. But that has been echoed here by Congress and by some of the

newspapers who’ve argued, as the Washington

Postdid, that these were terrorists of borders and that they were a

dangerous group of people and the Israelis were defending themselves. That’s

the way that they shaped the story, and that’s the way the story ends up

playing out.

CS: Well, let’s do a little bit of history here. The <span

class=”media_outlet”>Associated Pressreported June 1, that “Israel


Egypt sealed Gaza’s borders after Hamas overran the territory in 2007,


control from Abbas-loyal forces”—that referring to Fatah forces


with Mahmoud Abbas. Should readers accept that explanation, that history?

JZ: No, but if you control the history and define the starting point


the history, then basically the rest of it flows perfectly. There was a


war, and to some degree it was prompted by the United States that thought


we could encourage and support Fatah into winning and Hamas ended up


You know, they won an election, they’ve been punished for winning. I believe

that Hamas behaved very badly once they won. They should’ve acted more

responsibly as a government and they didn’t. But aside from that, the fact


that what the U.S. did was it couldn’t take yes for an answer. There was a

Hamas-Fatah agreement on how to move forward in Mecca. The U.S. refused to

honor the agreement. Aid was frozen. The closure of Gaza did not begin in


of 2007. In reality, the closure of Gaza and the sort of eeking, the letting

limited amounts of aid in and limited amounts of people out began in the

mid-1990s. And it has continued ever since. It was kind of a stranglehold in

2007, and it did come after Hamas beat Fatah in what had amounted to a

mini-civil war. The Egyptian role, however, needs to be understood, and it


not been understood, in part because Egypt is in a bind and doesn’t know how


explain itself and feels awkward about explaining itself. I’m not a fan of


they’ve handled their situation, but nevertheless the Egyptians understand


what Israel has tried to do is seal off Gaza as the occupying power, control


sea lanes, dominate the airspace, and control all access and egress, and


say to the Egyptians, you know what, you got it, it’s yours. And the


have said, we don’t want to take control of Gaza; Israel has the


as occupying power. We’re not willing to relieve them of the burden of


with this. And so the Egyptians are in kind of a bind. If they open it up


free it and link it economically and every other way to their territory,


they’re going to own it, and the Israelis will simply walk away. And 20


from now, it’ll be absorbed into Egypt, and it will have nothing to do with

Palestine. Israel thinks in the long term, and the Egyptians are trying to

avoid this becoming a fait accompli.

CS: Finally, one of the things most characteristic of U.S. coverage


its focus on what the Israeli assault or even the blockade itself mean for

“U.S.-Israel relations” or for the Obama White House. We would always say,


course, it should start and end with human beings and human rights, but if

we’re going to follow that diplomatic angle, well, the news today says the

White House finds the blockade “untenable”—that’s not exactly a


call. Do you, briefly, see change in the U.S. role?

JZ: I see the U.S. today, one week later, being where they should


been on the first day, and they should have been evolving since then. They

started in a horrifically ambiguous place, they end up a little bit better

today, but they have a long way to go. The blockade has to end, Israel has


be held accountable for what they did, and the Palestinians have to be able


breath free. All three things must occur if the U.S. is to deliver on the

promise of the president’s speech in Cairo. I don’t hold any hope for that.


I think that if there’s any clarion call, it’s that Palestinians should be


the blockade should end, and Israel should be held accountable for its


And it’s murder on the open seas, of nine innocent people.

CS: We’ve been speaking with James Zogby, president of the


Institute, and author of the forthcoming book, Arab Voices: What They Are

Saying to Us, and Why it Matters.

Thank you for being with us today on <span


JZ: Thank you very much.


CounterSpin: The U.S. detainment camp at
Guantánamo is in the news


On May 29 the Washington Post ran a story

about a new U.S. report that concludes that most of the remaining

detainees should be released, and recommending that only about a third of


be held for trials, military commissions, or indefinite detention. These

findings, which echo earlier reports and studies, have not gone down well


many on the right, who insist on the old Bush propaganda line that


is still home to the terror war’s “worst of the worst.” Indeed former Bush

officials and supporters have mounted a formal campaign targeting the


and even the lawyers who have represented them.

Joining us to talk about
Guantánamo, the government report and the right’s

response, is Scott Horton. Horton follows the
Guantánamo story closely at


Harpers legal issues blog, No Comment.

Welcome back to CounterSpin, Scott Horton!

Scott Horton: Great to be with you.

CS: Well, I’d like to begin with the detainees. This latest report is

really concerned with the 240 or so detainees that have been held since


became president. But you did a story recently on your <span

class=”media_outlet”>Harper’sblog that looked at the disposition of


779 detainees who have been held on
Guantánamo since it opened. What did you


SH: Well it’s really a fascinating case study because though we find


579 of them have been released, and most of those releases were by the Bush

administration itself, which is a tacit accepting of the fact that they

shouldn’t have been detained in the first place. And then with respect to


balance, we have a large number of habeus corpus cases pending. So far we’ve

had 50 of them decided, and the government has lost 36 out of those 50


So that means 72 percent of the cases going against the government. And


with respect to just the little bit less than 200 remaining detainees who


not released. So that suggests that the government’s case against the


population overall is extremely weak. Although we do have to recognize after

September 2006, President Bush took the worst of the worst, who were not


held at
Guantánamo but in fact in black sites operated by the CIA, and he


them in
Guantánamo. So of those since 2006, we have had a population of 16

serious terrorist offenders in

CS: Well by now there’ve been several studies and reports suggesting


the great majority of
Guantánamo detainees were far from the worst of the


But the right won’t let go of this. Former Bush aide Marc Thiessen, for

instance, attacked the new government study in a <span

class=”media_outlet”>Washington Postcolumn that began like this:

For years the left has spun the myth that hundredsof

Guantánamo detainees are really innocent goatherds and dirt farmers wrongly

swept up in the war on terror. In an interview last year, Admiral A.T.


III—the former Navy inspector general who investigated detainee


Guantánamo—told me this charge was “bull crap.”

Now, Thiessen goes on to say that there’s proof that 95 percent of those

detained are confirmed terrorists. Now of course the right’s

campaign is far bigger than a column or two. Can you tell us a little bit


the right’s campaign and why former Bush people like Thiessen, Bill Kristol,


the Cheneys seem to see so much at stake here?

SH: Well, I think we have to go back to the original idea for


and we know now from documents released from the Bush era that as the


plan was formulated for this prison camp, it was designed to hold roughly

600-800 commanders, serious leadership figures from Al Qaeda and the


And these plans were concluded early in 2002, and in fact late in 2001,

American forces believed that they have surrounded exactly this population,


people who should be held in
Guantánamo. In two redoubts in

Afghanistan—one was at Tora Bora, and the other, where the larger


were, was in the city of Kunduz. Kunduz was encircled, it was being


and then something strange happened: the U.S. bombardment ceased, an air

corridor was opened, and Pakistani transport planes came in and evacuated


of Kunduz a number of people, probably about 1,500 altogether. We now know


information that’s been collected from the Pakistani ISI—a large part


it the work of Ahmed Rashid, prominent journalist—that that included

600-800 Al Qaeda and Taliban leaders, in fact the very people for whom the

Guantánamo camp was built. Who authorized this evacuation? Well, we know the

answer. Dick Cheney did. So Dick Cheney made the decision basically to allow

these people to escape and hide out in Pakistan, where most of them still


today, the target of this drone campaign. That’s the dark secret that sits


the background of the
Guantánamo camp’s history. In fact, the administration

stepped in and began filling the camp with nobodies—I mean with people

who certainly were not the sorts of Taliban and Al Qaeda leadership figures


whom it was built. And the Bush administration itself acknowledged that when


released 500, I think about 540 of these prisoners, the majority of the


historical prison population.

CS: So you’re saying that Thiessen, Bill Kristol, and the Cheneys are

hanging on to this because they’re afraid of that dark secret getting out.


tell us a little bit more about the campaign. What are Kristol and the


and Thieseen doing here?

SH: Well, it’s definitely vulnerability. In fact I think if you look


Cheney and his own attempts to address this issue, he’s always adopted the

position that the best defense is an offense, but his position clearly is

extremely defensive. He knows that there are these dark secrets, which are

highly embarrassing, highly embarassing to him. And I think this agressive

campaign is designed to cover. And Mark Thiessen, I think one of the

fascinating points here, he is sprending pretty much all his time working on

this project. His work and his writing parallels perfectly work that the


America Safe group, which is headed Liz Cheney and Bill Kristol, he writes

column after column backing up what they do. How does Mark Thiessen earn a

living? Well we know when he left speechwriting for the White House, he set


a publicist office, Oval Office Writers, and he’s not disclosed who his


are, but I think if you look at what he writes and what he advocates, it’s


obvious for whom he’s working. But he’s not disclosing this client


even though he seems to be devoting all of his energy and his writing at the

Washington Post to the service of his


CS: Scott Horton, what is the lesson of the U.S.’s


of letting the White House decide who our enemies are, while discarding due

process and the rule of law?

SH: Well, I think the original concept of
Guantánamo is a completely

defensible and reasonable concept, that is holding 600-800 leadership


there. The problems began when political figures began to dictate how it


be operated, and moved to a rejection of traditional military rules and

military procedures. So it was the intense politicization of
Guantánamo and


detention process that’s lead to all of our headaches and embarrassments.

CS: We’ve been speaking with Scott Horton, a contributing editor at


class=”media_outlet”>Harper’smagazine and the No Comment blogger on

Harper’s website.

Thanks again for joining us today on <span

class=”media_outlet”>CounterSpin, Scott Horton!

SH: Great to be with you.