November 30, 2007


A very interesting bloggingheads on Israel between Daniel Levy, a former negotiator under Barak, and David Frum, a former speechwriter for President Bush, and very well worth watching and listening to.

November 29, 2007

Public Sector Rich Lists

I have just taken a look at the concept of a public sector rich list over at the Liberal Conspiracy- its an interesting idea and worth taking seriously, especially as regards its implications.

November 28, 2007

Moral Failings of Hearts and Minds

In a Yes Minister episode, Sir Humphrey and Jim Hacker debate whether it is better to be heartless or mindless. The Minister argues for mindlessness, the civil servant for heartlessness. Perhaps it isn't surprising that Hollywood films have tended to laud the heartless over the mindless- but they and Sir Humphrey have a point. Its a point that goes all the way back to theology from the seventeenth century and earlier- where the leading argument was that anyone who was mindless risked losing their mortal soul, whereas heartlessness in the acheivement of God's purposes was a virtue to be encouraged. The great Hollywood film noir enables us to understand some of the virtues of such approaches- it enables us to see the contrast between a failed human and a flawed human.

The Big Heat is one of the great films made in the fifties, that came out of the film noir and gangster traditions. The film counterpositions the lonely cop, played by Glenn Ford against a vast criminal organisation. At its most fundemental though it plays off different types of moral behaviour, different types of moral individual against each other. I want to concentrate on two of those individuals- the main male and female characters, played by Glenn Ford and Gloria Grahame, the cop Rick Bannion and the gangster's moll Debbie. Both encapsulate different forms of good character- Bannion is righteous, the kind of policeman who has no cares in the world except to locate and destroy criminals. Bannion's wife is killed during the film to leave him almost without adult ties. Bannion doesn't care whether he survives or not, heartlessly he is determined to destroy the criminal gang that he faces.

Debbie isn't heartless but she is mindless. She can see perfectly well that she has created a gilded cage, but she seeks to enjoy the cage and the moment. She is vivacious, mocking the gangsters even as she sleeps with one of them to make her way in the world. She is caring enough to know that when a gangster beats up a woman its a bad thing, and to talk to Bannion afterwards, but she still goes back to the gangsters. She lives in the world, sister under the mink, to anyone who lives in that world. She is one of the most lovable femme fatales in film noir because of that naivete and that feeling. She cares and ultimately she joins in with Bannion to destroy the criminals, ultimately she does that though through an act of heartfelt rage and she is the one that breaks the gang. But Bannion of course survives the film.

After Bannion's wife dies, he loses his heart, he cares for noone, manipulates a series of people to their individual disasters in order to destroy the villains. And these are no ordinary villains, a corporation of hoodlums produces sympathetic people- bosses with daughters, thugs who have a kindness about them. Bannion doesn't care- for him they are scum, he never even gives them names he just calls them thief. He identifies them by their job and by their evil, for him there is no forgiveness, for him there is no compromise. Debbie though is different, for her there is always compromise- thanks friend she says to a kind gangster and she is willing to talk to a policeman who is trying to put away her boyfriend. She takes risks and yes she is mindless in the way that she gets in bed (literally) with the gangsters, but she has a heart and sympathises with people. Bannion doesn't care- doesn't care when Debbie gets hurt, when people get shot, for him there is only the certainty of righteousness.

And how about the film. Well the film leaves us with an interesting contrast. Ultimately we don't like Bannion, too ferocious and too hard, he leaves a sharp taste in the mouth- he gets 'his kicks out of insulting people'. We like Debbie, she is fun and flirtatious, vivacious and friendly. But Bannion gets the decisions right- Bannion is uncompromising enough to see that the gangsters are gangsters not human beings and deserve to be put away. He sees that the murderer is a murderer- Debbie thinks he is a human being and 'you gotta take the bad with the good'. In that sense the distinction between heartlessness and mindlessness becomes a distinction between two moral vices- the vice of indulgence and the vice of self righteousness. Debbie ultimately is over indulgent to her boyfriend and the others- perhaps for selfish reasons as well as unselfish ones. Bannion's crusade is irresponsible, leading others to their deaths, veers into self righteousness but is impecably moral.

The film illustrates the way that heart and mind must work together- to beleive in either on its own is to make a real moral mistake. Debbie makes one, but she redeems it by the end when she turns against evil and brings it down. Bannion makes one, but at the end of the film killing the evil outside enables him to rediscover the human within. Debbie though loses her life because of her compromises, Bannion is guiltless for losing other people's lives- I wonder if that's an image of the price of sympathy.

November 26, 2007

Screen Violence

Both Fabian and James have posted articles over the last few days about screen violence. I was meaning to respond immediatly but have been busy applying for jobs so left it. Both of them make interesting points. Both of them are worried about what violence does to the watcher. I learn some responses to others off the screen and so am more likely to repeat them. Casual violence breeds a culture in which casual violence is accepted- and possibly there is a truth to that. However I do think its worth in this context putting in two comments- the first is a historical one and the second a partial defence of violence.

Firstly it is worth recognising that as violence on screen has risen, society has got less violent. That might seem odd to many who see levels of crime which are higher than they were fifty years ago. But going back a hundred or two hundred years, violence is definitely diminished. Partly that is a result of urbanisation- anyone living on a farm is much closer to death than your modern day urban horror fan, they see a lot more of it a lot more realistically. Furthermore domestic violence was more common, though less commonly a crime all those years ago. Partly violence on screen may have replaced violence off screen. Don't forget that violent films began wiht the breakdown of Hollywood censorship in the sixties and seventies, a generation split by the experience of Vietnam came back to watch these films and partly that was an act of attempted remembrance and an act of communication- people wanted to communicate what went on out in the field to those that had not fought.

Secondly, as someone who has written about some of the most violent films ever made, violence can be indispensible to art of a movie. In all three of the cases I have just linked to (Casino, Bonnie and Clyde and Scarface) the violence is neccessary to convey the vision. Its neccessary for very different reasons. Scorsese wants to convey the results of corruption, Bonnie and Clyde is about the narcissm of its leading characters and their callousness and Scarface is about madness and its callousness. In all three cases the violence adds something- without it you wouldn't understand the point as well. One of the most violent films I have ever seen is Downfall- but its also a film for which violence is absolutely neccessary- because without it you don't understand the horror of the Third Reich. Ultimately I think films tell us something, often something important. They can corrupt of course. But the test of that I think is whether the violence is essential to the vision, there are very violent films where it is essential. There are others where it isn't essential and where violence seems to be the only point- the Hills have Eyes 2 would be a great example, a film which should never have been made.

I share some of Fabian and James's concerns but I think they are wrong to aim at all violence. Violence can do good things on screen, reminding us of reality or illustrating an idea. But it can be purposeless and a kind of masturbatory pleasure and then it deserves every denounciation. In truth it is the purpose behind the violence which matters, and whether the violence has a point to it, a context which explains it and something we can learn by it.

New thoughts on Curveball

I've posted a more analytical treatment of the Curveball case at the Liberal Conspiracy. Basically I suggest that what this case shows is that the defects in prewar Iraq intelligence were all to do with a lack of international cooperation and a lack of non-politically influenced discussion at the centre of government. Essentially Curveball demonstrates that we need more cooperation in international affairs, particularly intelligence upon which anything in modern warfare depends and we need to be more thoughtful about the politicisation of our civil service.

November 25, 2007

Bob Drogin, Curveball

In 2003 Colin Powell laid out to the Security Council a series of facts about the Iraqi program to build weapons of mass destruction that he claimed the United States and its allies had discovered. Powell's statement was at its most convincing when he referred to the construction of numerous trucks by Saddam to carry biological agent around Iraq. All of that depended Powell said upon three sources, but the three sources swiftly became one when it was found that two of them were frauds. Indeed as Bob Drogin proves in a recent book, almost everything Powell said about Biological weapons depended on things that the CIA had inferred from one source. Everything he said about chemical weapons depended on that evidence being so strong and the chemical analysts presuming that if Saddam had a biological program he must have a chemical one. Ultimately the conviction of the CIA and of Colin Powell himself in the case depended upon one source- one solitary man who was held not by the Americans but by the Germans in Munich. The man's name is still a secret and noone knows it- his codename was Curveball. Bob Drogin has just written a fascinating book about the case.

Curveball arrived in Germany in 1999 and claimed asylum. Once there as an Iraqi he naturally gravitated towards the German intelligence service, the BND, who interviewed him intensively about his past in Saddam's Iraq. They had noticed that he claimed on entry to Germany to having been a chemical engineer and when they interviewed him, he told them he had been part of Saddam's biological weapons program and gave them details of it. The Germans were persuaded and told other intelligence agencies about Curveball, though they refused to let anyone else interview him- particularly the CIA. The BND and the CIA had historically had awful relations with each other- since the second world war the CIA beleived that the Germans were filled with communist spies and the Germans resented the Americans' obvious lack of trust in them. Personal matters such as CIA privileges after 1990 in Germany and their efforts to force out a German attache in Washington didn't make things better either.

Bad relations between the intelligence services of the two countries meant that Curveball was interviewed by the Germans on their own- only one American came into contact with him until 2004. The Germans interviewed him over a two year period running from 1999 until 2001, by 2001 Curveball was going through a mental breakdown and his story was unravelling. He was inconsistant and seemed to be confusing things. The Germans told other intelligence agencies about him, they told them that he was unreliable and then let it lie. Things had gone cold- Curveball settled in Germany and everything went quiet.

Until that is CIA officers after September 11th and particularly in 2002 began digging up their own files about Saddam's WMD and came across Curveball. They found his evidence interesting and contacted the BND who were non committal, telling the CIA not to trust Curveball. The CIA analysts pressed ahead, what they saw from Curveball they asserted could work, the idea of biological weapons trucks had been referred to once before in 1995 by an Iraqi, there were other sources (later found to be fraudulent) even if they contradicted Curveball and it could be done. There were battles in Langley between the analysts and the operations people. The analysts asserted it could be done, the operations team wanted to know more about the source. Those battles went right up into the heart of the bureacracy and ultimately George Tenet's immediate staff decided that the analysts won, they needed to produce WMD for a White House which was readying for war and this was the peice of evidence they needed.

Collin Powell arrived in the beggining of 2003 to work over his speech with Tenet and his staff. Powell dismissed almost all the intelligence that he had received from the White House, he and the CIA thought it was laughable relying on evidence from the discredited Ahmed Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress. Powell needed evidence and he wanted it to be rock solid, so he turned to Tenet and Tenet gave him Curveball. Tenet told Powell that Curveball had been checked out, that he had been passed as a good source despite the fact that Tenet's Director of European Operations, Tyler Drumheller, had phoned him that morning to tell him that the source was unreliable. Tenet assured Powell that it could go in the speech and Powell made the famous speech, using artist's impressions to convey the scale of one of these bio warfare trucks.

In the German intelligence agency the reaction was one of stunned fury. They sat there in absolute astonishment as Powell produced evidence that they knew was wrong and furthermore had told the Americans was wrong. The top German spy in Washington had gone as far as to phone his American contact- Tyler Drumheller- to tell him this. But Drumheller had lost the bureacratic battles inside the CIA, lost them because Tenet and his juniors knew that the message that Curveball was a fake would be unacceptable to a White House that was geared up for war. If the Germans couldn't beleive it then neither could the weapons inspectors- especially when they started looking at the sites Curveball had named. Curveball named seven sites and Blix's team went to everyone and found nothing. At the central site he named, they found a wall that prohibited the movement of any large vehicle- a wall that they knew had been there since 1997 because they had satallite photographs.

After the war was over, the US eventually organised a team to start inspecting the sites that they had identified as possible stores for WMD. Some of those sites had been identified from satallite evidence- often the satallite images were just of circular chicken coops- so much so that weapons searchers had t shirts engraved with 'Ballistic Chicken Farm Inspection Team' on the front. At other times steel drums for drying corn had been identified as silos filled with missiles. The Vice President's Chief of Staff Scooter Libby woke David Kay, the chief US weapons inspector, up at 2 in the morning demanding that he search a place in Iraq for WMD- Kay looked at a map and the coordinates Libby had given him were in Libya. Everything kept coming back to Curveball and his evidence but no evidence for his point appeared (save for two trucks originally labelled by none other than George Bush as trucks for the transport of biological agent, and later found to be trucks used for the transport of seeds).

So David Kay and his team started to investigate Curveball himself and what they found stunned them. He hadn't been a chemical weapons engineer, he had been a chemical engineer working in agriculture. He had described meticulously the Iraqi method of distributing seed not anthrax and everything he said about trucks was true only they were never used for WMD, just for agriculture. He had been sacked in the mid nineties and had become a taxi driver. He had a reputation for lying, had spent time in jail for robbery and was an untrustworthy individual. He had made his way to Germany to claim asylum, and wanted to be there to get a mercedes and a nice lifestyle. Everything that they had presumed about him was absolutely and completely wrong. At least one CIA agent almost had a nervous breakdown over the story.

The fact that Drogin has got all this evidence and there is more is stunning. His work is truly impressive as is his skill in telling the tale. Commentators from George Will to Judy Miller have been impressed with what he says. The problem as ever is what it means. Largely Drogin is right in my view to draw attention to the fact that this was a crisis created by an institutional framework. The CIA's heirarchical bureacractic battlefighting meant that people were working towards the will of those at the top. They wanted to impress- finding WMD would impress in the Washington battle. Furthermore the CIA was in constant conflict within itself- operations and analysis despised each other and worked against each other. The Pentagon was seen as the enemy and quite frequently through this the Pentagon and CIA could have seen that Curveball was a fake had they only worked together. Furthermore the CIA was suspicious of the Germans- were they working against the CIA to embarrass it throughout was a question recurring through the minds of various CIA operatives.

This is a fascinating book and story, I reckon there is much more to say about it than we can probe here but it is something that needs talking about. Curveball was a disaster for the CIA, a disaster for the United States because he encouraged a false confidence that WMD were somewhere in the sands of Mesopotamia. The failure of American intelligence in this case not to follow the pictures that they wanted to see, to not fall in love with a story, is something that is very true about the Iraq war.

We are in an uncertain world- and this book reinforces how hard it is to gather good intelligence about that world, and furthermore how much the CIA and Western Intelligence agencies have failed up till now in doing so.