Calling Colleen Graffy

Colleen Graffy - happy spinning Gitmo

I was once on the receiving end of Colleen Graffy’s attempts to spin conditions at Guantánamo. At the time, Graffy was the US’s Assistant Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy at the time – and she was on a PR offensive for the controversial prison camp. It was, she told a meeting I attended, a much nicer place to be than many British prisons.

It was a strangely undiplomatic line – strikingly cavalier about conditions at the base, while oddly rude about her British hosts. You can get a good idea of her position from this Guardian piece she wrote around the same time.

Graffy lives in London these days and landed at one of the capital’s airports five hours ago, after a long flight from California. Some journalist should call her up and get a comment on this story by Scott Horton, which alleges that three men who were said to have committed suicide at the base on June 9, 2006, were actually tortured to death.

I have no way of judging how robust Horton’s reporting is, but he certainly seems to have done his homework, with eye witness accounts from guards who were on duty that day and backing from this powerful analysis of the military’s cover story by Seton Hall University School of Law’s Center for Policy & Research.

Here’s an extract from Horton’s story – but please take the time to read the whole thing if you haven’t seen it already:

Military pathologists connected with the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology arranged immediate autopsies of the three dead prisoners, without securing the permission of the men’s families. The identities and findings of the pathologists remain shrouded in extraordinary secrecy, but the timing of the autopsies suggests that medical personnel stationed at Guantánamo may have undertaken the procedure without waiting for the arrival of an experienced medical examiner from the United States. Each of the heavily redacted autopsy reports states unequivocally that “the manner of death is suicide” and, more specifically, that the prisoner died of “hanging.” Each of the reports describes ligatures that were found wrapped around the prisoner’s neck, as well as circumferential dried abrasion furrows imprinted with the very fine weave pattern of the ligature fabric and forming an inverted “V” on the back of the head. This condition, the anonymous pathologists state, is consistent with that of a hanging victim.

The pathologists place the time of death “at least a couple of hours” before the bodies were discovered, which would be sometime before 10:30 p.m. on June 9. Additionally, the autopsy of Al-Salami states that his hyoid bone was broken, a phenomenon usually associated with manual strangulation, not hanging.

The report asserts that the hyoid was broken “during the removal of the neck organs.” An odd admission, given that these are the very body parts—the larynx, the hyoid bone, and the thyroid cartilage—that would have been essential to determining whether death occurred from hanging, from strangulation, or from choking. These parts remained missing when the men’s families finally received their bodies.

At the time, Graffy was heavily involved in the public affairs response to the alleged suicides. In an interview with the BBC, she acused the men of hanging themselves as “a tactic to further the jihadi cause.” Their suicide was “a good PR move to draw attention” by men who did not value their lives nor the lives of those around them.

Not so, says Horton. Two of the men (one just a boy really, Yasser Talal Al-Zahrani was just 17 years old when captured) were slated for release. The other could not be returned to Yemen, but analysts had apparently concluded that “there is no credible information to suggest [he] received terrorist related training or is a member of the Al Qaeda network.”

So, journos – now would be a good time to call Graffy for a quote. Has she read Horton’s story? Does she still believe the men committed suicide? And does she still maintain they killed themselves to get a juicy headline?

These are not simply gotcha questions. Maybe, she’s had a change of mind as the evidence about torture has continued to mount. It would be interesting to know…

Does Copenhagen die today?

Most people left Copenhagen thinking the next big crunch date would be the last day in January, when 49 or so countries are due to lodge their commitments for reducing emissions with the UNFCCC (they fill in one of two appendices to the Copenhagen Accord – “quantified economy-wide emissions targets for 2020” for developed countries; “nationally appropriate mitigation actions” for developing ones – China included).

As Barack Obama explained, these commitments “will not be legally binding, but what [they] will do is allow for each country to show to the world what they’re doing… and we”ll know who is meeting and who’s not meeting the mutual obligations that have been set forth.”

In other words, this is ‘pledge and review’ – the non-binding, bottom up approach that the United States favoured in the run up to Kyoto, before it surprised everyone by announcing that it was prepared to accept a legally binding protocol at the Geneva climate conference in 1996.

The US then agreed at Kyoto to a 7% cut in its emissions by 2012 on a 1990 benchmark, but failed to ratify the treaty. It is now offering a 17% cut on 2005 levels by 2020, on a non-binding basis – which would take its emissions more or less back to where they were in 1990. (The EU is promising a 20-30% cut on 1990 levels by 2020.)

But the US has a credibility problem. Not only did it use the Kyoto years to pump out as much CO2 as it could, the Senate is yet to pass domestic legislation and, with healthcare stalled, and financial regulation next in the queue of ‘big bills’ – there’s long been a big question mark on whether it will ever will.

The Copenhagen Accord, and especially China’s willingness to accept some kind of international monitoring of its emissions reductions, was supposed to make it easier for the President to push the bill over the line, but that depends heavily on (a) his political credibility; (b) whether he can keep together a very shaky Democrat alliance on the bill, perhaps bolstered by the odd Republican prepared to commit political suicide.

Which brings us to today – when the Democrats face, according to Nate Silver, a 75% chance of losing Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat in a special election. If the hapless Martha Coakley does lose (I actually think she may scrape it, but she’s clearly now the outsider), it’s going to make a climate bill seem a very long way away indeed.

One thing is sure. Scott Brown won’t be voting for emissions reductions any time soon. He’s solidly in the mainstream of Republican thinking on the issue. Asked recently if global warming was a fraud, he answered:

It’s interesting. I think the globe is always heating and cooling. It’s a natural way of ebb and flow. The thing that concerns me lately is some of the information I’ve heard about potential tampering with some of the information.

I just want to make sure if in fact . . . the earth is heating up, that we have accurate information, and it’s unbiased by scientists with no agenda. Once that’s done, then I think we can really move forward with a good plan.

And if the Democrats lose the seat and their super-majority in the Senate, will the US still feel able to pledge a 17% emissions cut in their submission on Copenhagen on Jan 31st? And, if they do, will anyone believe they have the political will to meet the commitment? The answers to those questions are – probably yes; almost certainly not.

Alex and I have wondered for some time whether the climate risks becoming a zombie process (shuffling and groaning, but never quite dying) – but perhaps we’re wrong. Maybe Copenhagen is going to be dead sooner than we thought. It certainly doesn’t look good if the Democrats lose a Senate seat that Kennedy held for them from 1962, just a year after Obama was born.

Caveat elector

ConservativeHome and ConservativeIntelligence have just polled the 250 Tory candidates in the party’s most winnable seats.

The survey finds that in terms of personal priorities, cutting the deficit is top-of-the-league. Helping small businesses is priority two and reducing welfare bills is priority three. Interestingly, three issues associated with the modernising agenda (civil liberties, defending the NHS and fighting poverty) score above winning powers back from Europe and reducing the level of immigration.

At the bottom of the league table of personal priorities is a reduction in Britain’s carbon footprint. Just eight adopted candidates said it would be a top priority for them in the next parliament. It was the only policy goal that fell below 3.0 (the middle ranking). If the Tory leadership presses ahead with a decarbonisation strategy it will need to redouble Greg Clark’s tactic of emphasising the wider benefits of all green measures (eg in terms of energy security or household fuel bills). Candidates’ ‘green scepticism’ is shared by the Tory grassroots. 76% of Conservative members want Cameron to focus on energy bills above climate change.

FBI: Bin Laden cunningly disguised as Bin Laden

The big problem with catching Osama bin Laden is that everyone has forgotten what he looks like.  That, or he’s hiding in an ungoverned quarter of Pakistan.  One of those two.  Just in case it’s #1, the FBI has put out new photos of what the world’s most wanted man might look like today.  Here’s the FBI’s best shot of our man pre-9/11:

And here he is as he might be today… perhaps living on your street, caring for your children, or maybe just hiding out in some ungoverned corner of Pakistan:

Whoa! I mean… who’d have believed it?  Look at the guy.  It’s almost impossible to think it could be the same person.  For a start, he has got rid of the blanket over his shoulder.  And everyone (MI6, CIA) thought that the Bin-man wouldn’t go anywhere – like, for example, a well-guarded cave in an ungoverned quarter of Pakistan – without his beloved safety blanket.  He’s like Linus in Peanuts: no blanket, no identity.

And the turban!!! Where’s the cheeky bit of extra cloth flapping about? Gone. Is there nothing this man won’t do to hide his whereabouts?  He’s even started wearing (look closely) a brown shirt with a silver floral pattern!  Lucky the FBI put that photo out.  Without it, hell, anyone could have stumbled upon a well-guarded cave somewhere in, ooh, the Afghan-Pakistan border area, and met this blanket-free, small-turbaned, crap-shirted dude and thought “hey, isn’t that… no, my bad, that’s definitely not OBL. No resemblance.   Sorry about that fine sir, I’ll be on my way…”.

Haiti: how many Europeans does it take to assess an earthquake?

Yesterday – not long before news of the awful earthquake in Haiti – there was a rumpus in Brussels over whether the European Commissioner-designate for humanitarian aid (Bulgaria’s Rumiana Jeleva) has been fully honest about her business relationships.  There’s a chance that MEPs may try to claim Jeleva’s scalp as the price of voting in the new Commission.  I don’t know the rights and wrongs of her case, but events in Port-au-Prince have rammed home the need for properly-coordinated humanitarian response mechanisms – and shown that the EU has a lot more to do on this front.

Here’s how some of the Union’s leaders reacted to the news from Haiti:

Today, the Spanish Secretary of State for the EU, Diego López Garrido, stated, on behalf of the ministers for Europe that are taking part in the meeting in La Granja (Segovia), that they have been informed about ‘the horrific earthquake that has hit Haiti and that the EU has immediately mobilised to help the victims’.

‘All the EU’s institutions, especially those most involved with humanitarian affairs, such as ECHO, are working to provide an efficient response to this situation,’ he said during a press conference.

‘Spain,’ he went on, ‘as the Presidency of the EU Council, is in close contact with the High Representative, Catherine Ashton, and there will therefore be the most coordinated response possible to the tragedy in Haiti from the EU.’

The most coordinated response possible?  The Spanish announced that an assessment team would be flying out of Brussels for Haiti on Wednesday afternoon.  So there’s a single EU response here?  Not according to the NY Times:

France said it would send three military transport planes, including one from nearby Fort de France, Martinique, with aid supplies, and that 100 troops based in the French West Indies would be sent to help, according to TF1, a French television network. Britain and Germany were sending governmental assessment teams, and Germany said it would make 1.5 million euros, or about $2.2 million, available for emergency assistance.

There were some doubts if the British would be able to make it out of snow-bound Gatwick. But we now have four European assessment teams (to say nothing of the U.S., UN, a Chinese rescue squad, etc.). Or 5… the Italians are on their way:

Following the earthquake that yesterday afternoon shook the Democratic Republic of Haiti, on Minister Frattini’s instructions the Directorate General for Development Cooperation (DGCS) went into immediate action.

Two financial contributions were earmarked for international agencies operating on the ground [500,000 euros for WFP and the same for the Red Cross/Crescent]. The DGCS will also be participating in a coordinated Italian mission made possible by a flight arranged by the Civil Defence Department scheduled to leave soon for Haiti.

I’m not an aid expert.  It’s possible that we need as many assessment teams in Haiti as possible right now. The people getting on all these planes are brave and committed individuals.  And I’m certainly pleased that European governments are signing up to throw money at the problem (assuming that they pay up, and it’s used properly, which can’t be guaranteed). But is this really the most coordinated EU response imaginable? Or just an ad hoc rush to do some good? Ms. Jeleva may or may not be the right person to take on these challenges. It’d be nice if someone did.

The face of aid

“The nature of the ties linking the African with the European has not really changed since the first Portuguese ships went sailing down the west coast of the continent: the sophisticated magic of the white man remains irresistibly alluring to the black.” (Shiva Naipaul)

In all the debates about aid, its visual impact is rarely remarked upon. In rural areas, aid probably looks like a good thing. When you see that a donor has dug a well for your village, you may feel grateful to and enthusiastic about the donor (that is, if you don’t feel embarrassed that your community has failed to dig its own well – a fact rammed home in nearly every village in Guinea-Bissau by a billboard placed next to each well proclaiming that it was a gift of the Kuwaiti, Spanish, Portuguese or American people).

But in cities, to which young Africans are migrating in droves, the visual effect is more ambiguous. When the urban African looks at aid, he sees aid workers and missionaries driving around in brand new Toyota Land Cruisers or Hiluxes. He sees them staring at laptops or chatting on snazzy mobile phones. He sees them dining in expensive restaurants or drinking in smart cafes. And he sees their glittering air-conditioned offices and villas, with iron gates and security guards.

In countries like Senegal, where there are tourists and Western businessmen, aid workers do not stand out. But in poor, remote, unvisited Guinea-Bissau they play an important part in shaping perceptions of the developed world (Guinea-Bissau has no cinemas, precious few internet cafes or televisions, and no press to speak of). And, as they have done for centuries, Africans see all this opulence and want a part of it. Guinean politicians, grown rich on drug money, purchase Land Cruisers and build gated villas. Ordinary citizens spend more than they can afford on mobile phones. And young Guineans, who until recently have not joined the West African exodus to Europe, have begun to talk about taking the boat to Spain – a journey which at least one in six of the many Senegalese who attempt it does not survive.

Of course, foreign aid workers are not the only cause of this new yearning, but it is likely they play some role. Many young Guineans I spoke to, who do not want to risk the trip to Spain, are desperate instead to work for foreign NGOs or the UN. It could be argued that giving young Africans something to aspire to will hasten progress and encourage hard work. Maybe so, but is owning a mobile really progress when you can’t afford your daughter’s $10-a-month school fees (as one mobile-owning mother in Bissau complained to me recently)? And in a country like Guinea-Bissau where aspiration is outpacing people’s capabilities and even well-intentioned governments are struggling to manage expectations, are ostentatious displays of affluence the best way of promoting peaceful development rather than the violent upheavals Nigeria, Guinea-Conakry and others are beginning to experience?

Beat the recession (Punch it! Kick it!!)

New York State’s constantly-on-the-ropes Governor David Paterson has just come up with an excellent plan to boost economic recovery:

Gov. Paterson is pushing to legalize ultimate fighting in New York, claiming the unrestrained mixed-martial arts events will make a quick buck for the state’s troubled economy. If he gets his wish, the cage fighting exhibitions, which have been banned in the area since 1997, could take place not only in upstate arenas but in Madison Square Garden.

The controversy over the Brazilian-inspired fighting championships began when John McCain called the blood sport “repugnant” thirteen years ago. The practice was banned in 36 states, including NY, and some reforms were adopted. The UFC introduced weight classes and gloves and made kicks to a downed opponent, hair pulling, fish-hooking, headbutting, and groin strikes illegal. The championship also dropped its “There Are No Rules!” tagline.

Now proponents claim that the PG-13 version of the ultimate fighting is appropriate and necessary. “A study done in 2008 by the Ultimate Fighting Championship organization estimated one event would generate $11.5 million in economic activity in New York City and $5.2 million in Buffalo. Ultimate Fighting Championship estimates there could be two or three events a year in New York,” according to the NY Daily News. Paterson is slated to propose the legalization in his January 19 budget announcement.

Seriously? Why stop there, Governor? If we were to boot the Mets out of their lovely new Citi Field ballpark and turn it over to Roman-style gladitorial combat – possibly involving live tigers mauling slaves – then (i) we wouldn’t have to put up with the Mets being rubbish any longer, and (ii) you’d raise way over $11.5 million.

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