This week on CounterSpin: When the media talks foreign affairs, there’s generally an assumption that countries have identifiable interests and rationally pursue them as best they can. All that’s thrown out the window when it comes to North Korea. That country’s apparent decision to conduct an underground nuclear test and test-fire several missiles has re-engaged the media discussion about the nuclear-armed dictatorship. But what do we still not understand about that country’s behavior? And is all of this really a “test” for Barack Obama? John Feffer of the Institute for Policy Studies will join us to discuss that.
Also on CounterSpin today: Fourteen years ago Nigeria executed Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other activists who were organizing nonviolent protests against the military government and Shell oil’s exploitation of the Ogoni people and their environment. Shell is long believed to have been complicit in those and other violations and now a lawsuit making that case may soon have its day in court. We’ll hear from Han Shan of the ShellGuilty campaign on this historic and still unfolding story.
— Strategic Dialogue on North Korea, by Brent Choi, Joowoon Jung & John Feffer (Foreign Policy In Focus, 5/22/09)
All that’s coming up, but first we’ll take a look back at the week’s press.
—The confirmation battle over Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor could very well hinge on whether the media want to fact-check her critics. And in one early case, the press is largely failing. Right-wing pundits and politicians have pounced on comments Sotomayor made in 2001 at UC Berkeley. The quote, taken out of context, has been replayed endlessly: “I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life.”
Well that sure sounds like she believes that Latina judges are smarter than white judges. That message has been carried uncritically in the media. In the May 27 Washington Post, Howard Kurtz relayed the sentence and a Fox News host called Sotomayor a reverse racist. On May 28, the New York Times ran that quote, followed by a reaction from Newt Gingrich— he thinks she’s a racist who should withdraw her name—and Republican Senator Orrin Hatch.
That leaves the misinterpretation of this quote intact. But if you actually read her speech, you see that this is totally misleading. Sotomayor was speaking about race and sex discrimination cases, and was wrestling with the argument that wise judges always reach wise conclusions. Her point was that this isn’t always the case; wise white judges have rendered progressive decisions in some cases, and at other times have not. The point was that a person’s background affects how they see the world—a fact that other justices like Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito have acknowledged, without similar controversy. She stressed that this fact should not determine how a actually judge rules—which is why she also spoke of “complete vigilance in checking my assumptions, presumptions and perspectives” and her desire “to be greater than the sum total of my experiences.” If reporters can’t be bothered to read her speech, then right-wingers will be free to misrepresent it.
—If you’ve got a TV, you’ve probably been seeing a lot of former Vice President Dick Cheney, who is on a campaign to push the message that Barack Obama has made the country more dangerous by dropping such Bush era policies as torture.
By giving Cheney such prominent airtime, the media have allowed him to shift the torture debate away from the legal and moral angles, to the more self-serving argument that torture works. Cheney claims that secret intelligence proves that many attacks on the U.S. were averted because of information gleaned through abusive interrogations. These claims go largely unchallenged, even though there’s plenty of evidence that undercuts Cheney. Vanity Fair reported last December that FBI director Robert Mueller says he knows of no such averted attacks. In 2004 the CIA’s inspector general similarly concluded that torture had not been useful. And many experts and historians on the subject torture say that non-coercive techniques are far better at obtaining accurate information than abusive ones.
There is also, of course, the fact that Cheney has a history of telling falsehoods based on alleged secret intelligence—remember Iraq’s nuclear program, WMDs and links with al-Qaeda? But instead of being confronted, the former veep gets a pass. The dean of Washington journalists, David Broder, was respectful of Cheney’s argument, describing him in the May 24 Washington Post as “scornful of the simplistic formulas that politicians tend to favor.” Yes, that’s right, Dick Cheney is averse to simplistic formulas; the one who’s saying that those who don’t follow his discredited policies are endangering the country.
—Well, it wasn’t just Dick Cheney. The New York Times published a front-page article May 21st that bolstered the notion that former
Guantánamo prisoners “return” to terrorist activity—fueling the argument of those who oppose plans to close the prison.
Elisabeth Bumiller’s piece, based on a leaked Pentagon report, emphasized the idea that former prisoners “returned to terrorism or militant activity”—without adequately defining either term, or examining whether the detainees were ever “terrorists” in the first place. Even the headline “1 in 7 Freed Detainees Rejoins Fight, Report Finds,” glossed over the Defense Department’s own distinction between “confirmed” and “suspected” cases.
Also missing: a full explanation of the Pentagon’s history of releasing such studies, which have been widely challenged. As Mark Denbeaux of Seton Hall has explained, the Pentagon has been forced to correct numerous errors in these studies—including naming people who were never in
Guantánamo, or counting people as “returning to the fight” for writing a New York Times op-ed or appearing in a documentary. His examination of the Pentagon’s own tribunal records also found that only 4 percent of the summaries even alleged that the detainee “had ever been on any battlefield” in the first place.
Bumiller went on MSNBC and seemed to walk the story back, acknowledging that “there is some debate about whether you should say ‘returned’ because some of them were perhaps not engaged in terrorism, as we know—some of them are being held there on vague charges.” Too bad about that front page article then, I guess. The Times itself tried to close the barn door by changing the story for the website, to say that former detainees “are engaged in terrorism or militant activity” rather than having “returned” to it.
But Washington bureau chief Dean Baquet told Politico that those changes weren’t significant. So… your front-page story about people “returning” to the “fight” was wrong on the “return”-ing part and on the “fight” part, and based on a leak from an agency with a history of lying on this issue… but everything’s fine.
—Well, it’s good when newspapers do correct their mistakes, but sometimes you’d like a bit more in the way of explanation. On May 21, the New York Times notified readers that in their first reports about the so-called Newburgh terrorist plot—four guys in New York who were seemingly egged on by an FBI informant to hatch a plan to bomb synagogues—they identified the suspects as Arabs. Turns out that exactly none of them are, though. That’s a mistake, to be sure. I wonder how that happened? But a bigger error was in the Washington Post; on the same day the paper corrected its report on a speech by Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The paper had claimed that he had “linked his country’s test-firing of a medium-range missile to its nuclear program. Ahmadinejad made no such link and maintains that the nuclear program is for strictly civilian purposes.” Well, it’s troubling that the Times would make their error; the Post‘s mistake, though, is hard to fathom, since Iran has always maintained that they have no nuclear weapons program. If their president had admitted they did, that would be rather big news.
—And finally—Time magazine’s “10 Questions” feature spotlights Larry King in the June 1 issue. King has a new autobiography out—though it might be somewhat fictional. The New York Times has already taken apart one of his anecdotes: A filly he says he won a trifecta on at the track wasn’t born the year he says it happened… But never mind, King’s in the spotlight and reminding us of his strange definition of the work he does. Asked in Time about the heat he gets for using his show to feature “‘tabloid guests,” King answers, “I don’t know that I deserve the heat, because I don’t pick the guests. Never pick the guests. And a lot of times, I don’t like it either. However, when the light goes on, I’ve got a job to do. So if we have to discuss the missing child or the beauty star who’s divorcing her husband, it’s the nature of the beast. You have to do it.”
If here he makes his job sound like some sort of work release program, King has made clear that he tries to make it as easy as possible. He famously told the Washington Post in 1996 that he doesn’t trouble to read the books his guests come on to discuss; indeed, King says he “prepares as little as possible for each interview, and speaks proudly of the nights when he finds himself, as he drives into CNN‘s Washington studio, unable to remember who his guest will be.” “If I know too much, I feel inhibited,” he said.
Presumably that’s his concern for his viewers as well.
CounterSpin: When North Korea re-emerges on the media radar, it’s usually because there is some sort of crisis. That’s what has unfolded in the past week or so, as North Korea has apparently conducted an underground nuclear test of some sort, and test-fired several missiles. The story is often framed as a test of some sort for the Obama administration, with plenty of space given to those who argue that the lesson here is that the White House must pursue something other than diplomacy. Is ratcheting up the tension really a wise strategy right now? And how do media misread North Korea generally? Joining us now to talk about this is John Feffer, he’s co-director of Foreign Policy in Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies and he’s author of North Korea / South Korea: U.S. Policy at a Time of Crisis.
Welcome back to CounterSpin, John Feffer.
John Feffer:Thanks for having me on the show.
CS: Now the coverage of North Korea seems to more or less start with the proposition that the country’s actions are irrational. A New York Times editorial begins: “Erratic, frightening and hugely self-destructive. Those are the words we would use to describe North Korea’s behavior.” And that’s in a piece that calls for more diplomacy. Is there a better way to interpret North Korea’s actions—particularly some way the media here aren’t interpreting them?
JF:Well, North Korea’s actions in many respects are entirely rational. North Korea’s looked at the diplomatic record over the last 15 years, and it has seen that only when it has made a big fuss, only when it has acted as the West has decided is provocative, has it gotten any response, has it been able to get a seat at the table, has it gotten any kind of action on the agenda it wants to see pushed forward—which is naturally to get some kind of a deal with the United States, with South Korea, and with Japan. And in terms of being erratic, well, North Korea said that it was going to do this. It said it was going to launch a rocket; in April it said that a month before it did. So, it said it was going to conduct this nuclear test as soon as the U.N. issued a condemning statement. So it’s not quite as erratic as the Western press would portray it.
CS:Troubling, I guess, but maybe not erratic. I want to ask you about that diplomatic record. Also in the New York Times there was this story that conveyed the message from the White House, and the White House was saying that every policy option over the past 12 years has been “fruitless in stopping North Korea.” There is this line of thinking in the Times and elsewhere that the Bush Administration really changed course in 2006, started pursuing diplomacy, and look, it hasn’t gotten us anywhere.
JF:Right, well, obviously it’s not easy to work with North Korea and the reason why is because it is what we might call the tyranny of the weak. North Korea’s actually quite a weak country and because it’s in a weak position, it is prone to brinksmanship because it has no other levers at its disposal. However, I would say that a number of the techniques that we’ve followed in the past showed promise—if they didn’t succeed entirely, the blame lies not simply on North Korea but with ourselves. For instance, the agreed framework: we were able to freeze North Korea’s plutonium facilities and that freeze held for eight years. Unfortunately, the United States did not fulfill its side of the bargain entirely; in North Korea also there were some problems meeting its obligations. Also, in 2006 we saw some progress, we saw North Korea actually dismantle 70-80 percent of its nuclear program, its plutonium program, before we got into some disagreements over verification. Again, here too, you could say the United States did not entirely fulfill the obligations. We were supposed to provide an enormous amount of fuel oil. Well, we did, the United States did, but our allies, South Korea and Japan, did not actually fulfill our side of the bargain. North Korea also expected us to take them off a series of sanction lists, and we did remove them from one important sanction list—a terrorism-supporting nations sanctions list—but it didn’t translate into what North Korea expected, which was a significant inflow of capital into the country. So basically North Korea didn’t get what it wanted or it expected, and therefore felt it had to resort to other strategies.
CS: There is one way the story seems to be framed as a test for this new White House. There’s a headline in the Washington Post: “An Early Test for Obama’s Engagement Policy”—the New York Times: “Tested Early by North Korea, Obama Has Few Options.” There is this sense that the foreign policy establishment is kind of sending a message to the White House to say “You wanted to talk to the bad guys, well here’s your chance.” Is it really that dramatic right now?
JF:Well, the Obama administration came into the White House really without any strategy on North Korea. The six party talks were basically stalled over this issue of verification and the assessment of North Korea’s declarations of its nuclear program. The Obama administration came in and basically didn’t know what to do. And had too much else to deal with—a huge foreign policy agenda that basically pushed North Korea down in the list of priorities. I think that the Obama administration was rather hoping that they could get to the North Korea issue eventually, and perhaps then the issue of talking with North Korea substantively would be addressed over the summer or in the fall, but North Korea was not interested in waiting. North Korea is in, we can talk about the internal situation there, but they’re operating according to a different timeline, and I think this conflict between these two timelines has produced this rather unfortunate set of events over the last couple of months.
CS:In talking about internal politics, it is one of the themes, and you do get the sense that reporting on North Korea has always been somewhat of a puzzle. It’s so difficult to get access to the country, that explains some of it, but you do see these curious stories. The New York Times, for example, had one piece that was trying to explain the different interpretations of pictures of Kim Jong-Il—are the North Koreans trying to show that he looks sick but he’s still in charge, or are they trying to say he’s ill and he’s trying to pass the baton to his son or son-in-law? We see this analysis that says this is really—both of these tests are really about internal politics, but we also see, “Oh, but also North Korea’s trying to send a message to the rest of the world.” What are we supposed to make of all this tea leaf reading?
JF:Well, you’re right. I mean, we don’t have really much access in North Korea even compared to say the Soviet Union in the 1970s when also people would scrutinize photographs and positions of people in the Politburo lineup to figure out what the relationships were and who was in and who was out. We don’t even really have the kind of access we had back then. It means we resort to rumors. We depend a great deal on hearsay. Looking at the situation internally in Pyongyang, we can safely say that, yes, Kim Jong-Il had some kind of a health problem, probably a stroke, back in the fall. He’s clearly recovered to a certain degree, but it has accelerated the discussions of succession—who’s going to come after Kim Jong-Il. I think also the fact that there’s been a tremendous turn in politics in South Korea—a turn towards a conservative approach to North Korea, under new president Lee Myung-Bak—that that has also affected the discussion in Pyongyang. I think that anything that the leadership does right there is going to have an internal and an external message. The internal message is clearly going to be “Look we are still a strong country, regardless of what you might hear from the rumor mill within North Korea,” and the message outside is very similar: “We are a strong country.” You may compare our military spending, for instance. North Korea spends about a half a billion dollars a year on its military. South Korea alone spends 40 times that amount. So, you know, North Korea’s in this position where it constantly has to prove that it is a powerful country. It’s nuclear test in 2006 was generally assessed to be a dud. It’s rocket launches have all been declared failures. In that environment, North Korea feels that it must somehow give the impression that it is a strong country or else it will be treated as a weak country and the consequences could be devastating.
CS: We’ve been speaking with John Feffer, he’s the co-director of Foreign Policy in Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington. He’s the author of numerous books, including North Korea / South Korea: U.S. Policy at a Time of Crisis. You can read his work at FPIF.org or JohnFeffer.com. Thanks for joining us this week John Feffer.
JF:Thank you for having me on the show.
CounterSpin: Fourteen years ago CounterSpin reported on the story of Nigerian organizer Ken Saro-Wiwa, founder and leader of a group that used nonviolent activism to protest their exploitation and that of their land by the Nigerian government and by the oil industry giant Royal Dutch Shell. It was called MOSOP, the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People. Saro-Wiwa and eight other Ogoni activists were hanged in 1995 and one year later a lawsuit was filed charging Shell with complicity in those executions and other acts of repression against the Ogoni. That trial was scheduled to begin May 26; it’s been delayed, but that it has come this far is despite years of vigorous effort from the oil company, which is still the largest multinational operating in Nigeria and which is still charged with environmental and human rights violations. We’re joined now by phone by Han Shan, coordinator of the ShellGuilty campaign, which is a coalition initiative of the groups Friends of the Earth, Oil Change International, and PLATFORM/Remember Saro-Wiwa. Welcome to CounterSpin, Han Shan!
Han Shan: Thank you for having us.
CS: Well, those with a cursory knowledge of Wiwa v. Shell may believe it to be a merely “symbolic” trial—to call Shell to public account for taking advantage of, or generally showing insufficient concern for, the Ogoni in Nigeria. I know some of the legal details are a little bit complicated, but give us a sense of what the actual charges are here?
HS: There are a number of charges. They include crimes against humanity, summary executions, torture, arbitrary arrest and detention, and the reason for these very serious sounding charges is because what Shell did is very serious. They actively colluded with the Nigerian miliary dictatorship to suppress MOSOP, to suppress this popular nonviolent movement for environmental justice and human rights, and they did it in a variety of ways. They literally armed, financed, requested soldiers to incidents of nonviolent protest at which soldiers shot people, and later praised them for their restraint—paid them. They also of course, in the most famous case, conspired with the military in the prosecution of Ken Saro-Wiwa and his colleagues, leading of course to their execution.
CS: And the charge there is they actually bribed people, right?
HS: Well yeah, there are a couple of witnesses that spoke at the military tribunal that tried Saro-Wiwa and his colleagues, who signed affidavits saying that they were offered bribes with Shell lawyers present—bribes of money and job at Shell to testify against Saro-Wiwa. And of course ultimately they’re found guilty and hanged—nine of them.
CS: Well, now the trial Wiva vs. Shell has been delayed. What do you know or hear about that, and what does it mean for organizing?
HS: Well, I think, you know, with such a landmark trial that has been on the way for 13 1/2 years, a lot of us are waiting with baited breath. It’s really difficult to know, and it’s impossible not to speculate because it is something that we’re following so closely and so carefully, but the truth of the matter is we really have no idea. The plaintiffs’ attorneys, the defense counsel, and the court are all being very, very tight lipped. Certainly rumors are swirling that there’s an eleventh hour attempt by Shell to try to escape some of the negative publicity that’s already begun as people reckon with what Shell did back in the ’90s in Nigeria and of course what’s still going on in the Niger Delta today. As we’ve seen in the last couple weeks, there’s been an uptick in violence by the Nigerian military against oil producing communities. Obviously for organizing purposes, we think it’s critical to just try to keep a spotlight on the issues at hand and try to tell the story of what happened and make sure that people do understand what is the true price of oil—something that my colleague Steve Kretzmann at Oil Change likes to talk about.
CS: Well, and of course there’s a concern from a publicity standpoint that if there is no trial, from some journalists’ perspective, that may mean there’s no story. I want to bring you up to the present-day concerns because the Shell trial is very much about justice for the killing of Ken Saro-Wiwa and others, but the activism around it is also about not just what happened 15 years ago, as you’ve just suggested, but what’s happening today in Nigeria and elsewhere—and I’d like to just give you a chance: What are the major issues of concern that people shoud know about, specifically still going on in Nigeria with Shell?
HS: Well, specifically, and Shell is still the major operator in Nigeria but Chevron is a huge operator there, Total, Agip, other companies—and in the Niger Delta particularly but across Nigeria communities continue to face human rights abuses, horrific degradation of their land, unremediated oil spills that have been there for decades that are threatening their very lives, certainly their livelihoods. One of the key issues for the ShellGuilty coalition is gas flaring: burning off the associated gas that’s released through oil extraction activities in massive fires that send toxins into the air and also emit massive amounts of greenhouse gases, which are fueling our climate crisis. We’re talking about 24/7 giant fires that are done basically because it’s cost efficient. Capturing that gas and using it provide power for these oil producing communities that have given so much oil wealth to both the Nigerian federal government and of course to Shell, which made 30 billion dollars last year—it would be a little bit more expensive to pump that back into the ground or to capture it for power, so instead they just burn it off in these toxic fires that make night into day for some villagers unlucky enough to live next to one of these operations.
CS: It’s hard to fathom. Well finally, Oil Change International president Steve Kretzmann said recently that Shell’s strategy for decades has been to “starve this issue of oxygen”—that phrase actually comes from company documents. I take it the strategy of the ShellGuilty campaign is to do just the opposite of that. Just let us know what you’re doing going forward to keep the spotlight on this?
HS: Well, exactly, we’re trying to—in our very name, you can obviously imagine that we’re partisan on a certain level. We know that Shell is guilty of human rights abuses or environmental degradation, of putting profits before people and the planet. And whether they’re held liable in the courts for what they did in Nigeria, what they did to Ken Saro-Wiwa and his colleagues, we’ll have to wait and see how the jury sorts that out. But we also believe that it’s critical at this moment to turn up the heat on Shell, demand an end to gas flaring and demand an end to the kinds of human right abuses and environmental degradation that it considers a part of its standard operating procedure, business as usual. So you know, I think one of the key things is just keeping an eye on this trial and raising awareness about the fact that this is finally happening, 14 years after the abuses took place, a truly historic event possibly, for corporate accountability and something that could send shockwaves of the very best kind through corporate boardrooms around the world.
CS: We’ve been speaking with Han Shan, coordinator of the ShellGuilty campaign; they’re on the web at ShellGuilty.com. Thank you very much for joining us today on CounterSpin.
HS: Thanks so much for having us.