Category Archives: Politics

A strange book: how lawyers helped justify torture.

John Rizzo was the second-highest lawyer in the CIA for much of the 1990s and early 200os. On several occasions he was acting chief counsel, when the top job was unfilled. Rizzo’s book Company Man (published by Scribe) describes how the CIA came to use “enhanced interrogation techniques” after the 9/11 attacks.

company-man-book coverThe first really important capture of an Al Qaeda member after 9/11 was a man named Abu Zubaydah, the head of logistics for future operations against the US. The CIA feared another attack on the US might be immanent, and they needed to get any information out of him. His interrogators found him an “arrogant,… twisted, smug little creep,” (p.182-183) who told them lots of old news, mixed with outright lies.  When using standard legal interrogation methods, and ‘playing by the book,’ Zubaydah’s interrogators were getting nowhere, they sought permission to use a series of nine harsher interrogation steps, from slaps to the face, and escalating measures up to water boarding.

Because the CIA had been stung by previous accusations of illegal activities, those in charge of the interrogations wanted to ‘cover their asses’ by getting a CIA lawyer to tell them their proposed methods were legal. That request came to Rizzo, who in turn sought the opinions of the Department of Justice.  Every proposed action was described in sometimes ludicrous detail. A slap to the face had to be with an open hand, the fingers splayed and hit below the ear.  If he was shoved against a wall, they had to have a fake,  flexible wall installed, so that Zubaydah wouldn’t get bone fractures. Further down the list, he might be placed in a small box that forced him to curl up, and then harmless insects would be dropped into the box. “Why?” asked the lawyer  “Zubaydah hates bugs,” a CIA official replied. “It will be something harmless, but he won’t know that.” (p.184-185) And so it began.

Lawyers in the DOJ managed to somehow convince themselves that something wasn’t torture unless it resulted in  pain associated with “death, organ failure, or serious impairment of body functions.” When the CIA needed to brief the congressional leadership, former POW Senator John Mc Cain sat stony faced and silent, and made a one-sentence comment at the end. “It’s all torture.”

I’ve described above what I consider, from a public interest view, one of the most controversial parts of the book. But much of the book gives an insight into the operational culture of the CIA, and how it changed over time. Covert actions, almost non-existent under President Carter, rose dramatically up under Reagan, and lawyers had to draft a Presidential “Finding” authorizing every last one.

People in the field wanted endless memos from lawyers telling them whether they could legally do various things. Even buying mules to give to the mujaheddin in Afghanistan needed a lawyers approval! ( The mujadeddin were religious muslims fighting the soviet backed government in th 1980s. A field officer had been told he could buy and give material aid to the Mujaheddin, but anything he gave them had to be “non lethal assistance”. The officer wanted to buy mules to help the fighters transport their goods in mountainous territory,  but  mules are often cranky and uncooperative animals. The officer was afraid that if a mule kicked someone in the head (which they sometimes do) , and they died, or if it kicked someone and knocked them off a narrow mountain ledge, he might get blamed for the death. He needed a lawyer to tell him that mules were considered “non-lethal” because the purpose of a mule was not to kill people.  Any such death would be an unexpected and accidental event.)
It’s an interesting book, and I’d recommend it to anyone who has an interest in Guantanamo Bay, how the secret prison system came into existence or the general culture of intelligence organizations.

It’s a five-star book.


Lords, Barons and fox hunting to create millions of jobs in Australia

Australia to re-introduce Knighthoods, Lords and Barons: will create jobs helping rich people go fox-hunting.

[Non-Australians may not know what this article is about. If puzzled, click here ]

Following the Prime Minister’s decision speed up the reintroduction  of imperial honors, newly designated  Lord Clive of Palmerston has announced  that  he will be providing thatched huts for any of his mining workers who currently are living in disused coal mines.  The PM applauded Lord Palmerston

Wikimedia commons / Owain Davies
Wikimedia commons / Owain Davies

“We’re getting things done faster than a catholic priest with an altar boy,” the PM said. “The roll-outs of Lords and Barons won’t be like Labor’s NBN. We intend to have a Lord in every city and two Barons in every municipality by the end of the month.

“Lords will be people of impeccable credentials,” said the PM. “Oil industry entrepreneurs who exposed climate change fraud, journalists who have exposed fake aborigines, and manufacturers of the suppositories of all wisdom.

“In time, we’ll have a House of Lords to replace the senate,” said the PM.  “The senate spent most of its time arguing about stuff no one really understood. Human rights or something. Our new House of Lords can be like the English one, and reintroduce fox hunting.  That would give a boost to the farming industry, and give jobs to unemployed serfs who could help rich people on and off their horses. They could form groups and go into the bush beating drums to scare the foxes into the open. On top of that, there’ll be jobs for costume makers, ermine and sable farms, and work for decorative jewellers. After all, to give the nation the lift in spirits it needs, the scheme has to look right.”

Lord Palmerston agreed the plan would create jobs. “It will take at least three people full time to get me on and off my horse. And the new Baroness Gina Rheingold would probably need the same.”

The Institute of Public Affairs has estimated the new honors system could create 2.6 million new jobs in its first twelve months.

Why Andrew Bolt will never be Sarah Palin.

Australians will be familiar with a journalist named Andrew Bolt, who seems to have a “thing” about whether people of mixed Aboriginal Caucasian descent can truly claim to be aboriginals, or whether they just “discover” their aboriginality to get career advancement and grants that should be given to “real” aboriginals. He was taken to the Federal Court a couple of years ago for racial vilification, and lost.

Australia suffers a shortage of truly crazy politicians, compared to the US. But the US has 15 times more people than us.  Australians, by various measures, are only half as religious as Americans, and we don’t have young-earth creationists here.  No one much cares about a politician’s religious beliefs. The former PM, Julia Gillard, was an atheist, and most Australians couldn’t even be bothered to shrug their shoulders and say, “so what.” So I guess that puts us behind the eight ball. This is not surprising.

So could Andrew Bolt ever become Australia’s Sarah Palin?  No.

Firstly, Sarah Palin once said that Putin might invade Crimea. This puts her on the same level as a genuine prophet of God, or people who say enough crazy things that one of them eventually turns out to be right, or people who pay other people to retrospectively create news clips and blog entries to prove they predicted things. (I don’t think she – or he -are in the last category, but I mention it for completeness.)

To my knowledge, Bolt has never predicted the invasion of one country by another. Also most of his early work appeared in print journals, and (unlike the internet) they are hard to retrospectively falsify. George Orwell got that bit wrong in ‘1984’.

Second, he doesn’t know how to field dress a moose, because we don’t have moose in Australia. This ability was touted by conservative commentators as a great point in favor of Palin being a real down-to-earth person when she was nominated for VP in 2008. No one talks about field dressing a kangaroo.

Third, Bolt has never been a state Governor and quit half way through his term of office. In fact I don’t think he’s been elected to anything. There have been some journalists who have run for public office (Maxine McKew, but she lost after one term.) But let’s be realistic. No political party wants a loose cannon in the Forecastle of the ship. They’d rather have him on the outside spaying it around than on the inside spraying it around.

Fourth, Bolt speaks in grammatically complete sentences. He’s need some serious dental anesthetics and some amphetamines at the same time to sound like Sarah.

So although some readers of the Herald Sun might wish otherwise, it’s never going to happen.

There’s more chance of Cardinal George Pell entering into a gay marriage and wanting to adopt kids than there is of Andrew Bolt being our next Deputy PM. Sorry. I just can’t see it But what about you? Do you think having someone like Bolt in public office would brighten up the landscape? Remember, HE wont have his finger anywhere near any launch codes. What do you reckon?

Crazywatch Part1: Could Obama be the Antichrist? I’m only half joking :-)

Could Obama be the Antichrist? Obama’s date of birth was 08041961. If you add all the digits in his birth date together you get 1973. if you subtract the last digit of that from the second digit you get 1673. If you subtract the first digit of that from the third digit you get 1663. Now add the last digit to itself and you have 1666. Now the first digit is telling us there’s only one beast, the Antichrist, so we can ignore that because we already know that. So we are left with one person who is 666.

Michele Bachmann: a prophet for out times!
Michele Bachmann: a prophet for our times!

Where did I get this crazy idea? I owe it all to a US Congresswoman. Although I did the calculation myself, I was inspired by Michele Bachmann, who knows we are living in the end times, and that actions of Barack Obama’s are  proof!

So: Will the Fed start printing dollar bills that have serial numbers ending in 666?
What secret building lies at 666 Pennsylvania Avenue? And what secrets can we find hidden in Michele Obama’s date of birth?

I am so grateful for this inspiration, I want Michele Bachmann for Prime Minister of Australia. We need somebody down under to wake us up! Australian politicians are mostly boring. A couple of crazy people would make it much more interesting.

My novel Fire Damage, an action thriller, is available on Amazon Kindle, here. The novel is based on the Japanese religious cult Aum Shinrikyo, which released Sarin nerve gas in the Tokyo subway system in the 1990s. If you don’t have a Kindle, you can download the app to read it on your computer or phone from here. A paperback version is available here. It’s also available as a Kindle on Amazon UK .    twitter: @Richard_A_Snow


Should murders ever be forgiven and forgotten?

Should there ever be a statute of limitations on murder?

Image from the memorial at the Killing Fields, Cambodia, form Wikipedia Commons.
Image from the memorial at the Killing Fields, Cambodia, from Wikipedia Commons.

Tonight I went to see the film ‘The Company You keep”, with Robert Redford and Shia le Beouf. Le Beouf plays a journalist who exposes the identity of one of the Weather Underground, a real-life group of  radicals who opposed the Vietnam War, and who bombed several US federal buildings, and robbed cash deliveries to  banks in the late 1960s and early 1970s, killing several people.  In real life, three members of the group also blew themselves to pieces by accident on 6 March 1970while building a bomb in New York. The bomb was destined for a Non-Commissioned Officers’ (NCO) dance at the Fort Dix U.S. Army base. Some of the real-life weathermen were charged with various offences, some had charges dropped in 1973 after a court decision meant that evidence obtained by illegal electronic surveillance could not be used in court. Several members of the group have ‘rehabilitated’ themselves and re-integrated into society. Yes, I have used the term ‘rehabilitated’ in inverted commas, since I can’t be sure to what extent the surviving members of the group have really changed their views, or to what extent the group simply became irrelevant after the Vietnam war ended.

In the film, Robert Redford is a suspect in a bank robbery carried out in the 1970s, although, as far as I can tell, the specific robbery depicted in the film is fictional. In the movie, Redford was in fact not involved in the robbery, and goes on the run while trying to find someone who could establish his innocence.

As Redford  meets up with former members of the Weatherman group, some unpleasant questions came to my mind.

I was in Cambodia teaching English in 2010, when the trial of a former Khmer Rouge leader named Duch took place. (The Khmer Rouge were the Chinese-backed communist group that ruled Cambodia for four years, from 1975 to 1979.) Duch had overseen the Toul Sleng torture centre in Phnom Pehn, where 15,000  people were held and made to ‘confess’ to various crimes  being sent to the ‘killing fields’ just outside the city. When I visited Toul Sleng, there was a very rough English translation of the prison rules on display. The first rule was, ‘When I ask you a question you must answer me immediately, or you will get ten hits of the stick, and five shocks of the electric.’ It’s not a nice place.

On 26 June 2010 Duch was found guilty of crimes against humanity and sentenced to 35 year’s jail, or about 9 hours for every person whose torture he oversaw. The sentence was later increased to life imprisonment. The Cambodian government said at the time that only half a dozen more of the old Khmer Rouge leadership would go on trial. The current Prime Minister of Cambodia, Hun Sen, is a former Khmer Rouge leader who defected to Vietnam, and to put every ex-Khmer Rouge leader on trial would probably leave the country with not much of its leadership left.

In other countries that have had civil wars, people have had to make compromises. In South Africa, the ‘Truth and Reconciliation Commission’ heard confessions from former white police officers and prison officers about their activities against blacks during the apartheid era, as well as violations of human right by (black) ANC members who fought the regime. About 900 people were given amnesty for their crimes. The general justification for the commission’s approach was that the country had to acknowledge what had happened in order to have healing, in order to be able to move forward.

In Northern Ireland, there has been a peace process, and Catholics and Protestants are working together in a government. I venture to suggest that if every murder committed during the Northern Irish ‘Troubles’ were fully investigated and prosecuted today, the degree of progress that has been made there might soon evaporate.

I’ve seen American documentaries on the real weathermen, some of whom today still won’t comment on which ‘operations’ they or other members took part in.

I have mixed feelings about all of this. If one of my kids were murdered, I’d want the killer bought to justice, even if it weren’t in the ‘national interest’ of reconciliation. There are people walking around today in the US who have almost certainly participated in murders, but for legal reasons cannot be prosecuted. South Africa, Cambodia, and Northern Ireland appear to have made decisions not to reopen old wounds for pragmatic reasons.

But should murder ever be subject to a forgive-and-forget policy? what do you think?

Would North Korea really fire a missile at the US?

This week North Korea had a mental spasm. They decided to test anther long-range missile, and said it was aimed at the United States. Some Americans I know got very concerned. Could the North Koreans really attack the US?

How North Korea behaves

Map of North Korea from CIA Fact BookNorth Korea spends about 40 per cent of its GDP on military expenditure, while the common people are impoverished. It has enriched uranium, and conducted underground nuclear tests. Every time the North Koreans chuck a mental, a six-country conference meets to hammer out the problem: the US, China, Russia, North Korea, South Korea and Japan.  Often they provide food aid and oil to North Korea, in exchange for them scaling back their nuclear programs. The US has frozen and unfrozen various assets of North Korea abroad, as North Korea has cooperated or not with international pressure to cease their nuclear program.

North Korea, China, and the US

I’m speaking now as an ex-economist  of 25 years, who is now studying politics part-time. It’s a current belief among economist and people involved in political science that major trading partners don’t tend to go to war with each other, since the outcome is bad for both of them. It’s like cutting of you own nose to teach your face a lesson. Both parties lose. This was part of the principle between the integration of the French and German coal, iron and steel industries at the end of WWII, which ultimately lead to the free trade zone in Europe.

China is North Korea’s major financial benefactor.  Although the US is concerned about China’s build-up of fleet, (e.g., a Chinese aircraft carrier on the way), China and the US are becoming more economically linked to each other and are developing a “Siamese twin” relationship. The US imports a lot from China, and the Chinese hold about one and a half trillion dollars’ worth of US government bonds (about 11 per cent of the total.) The Chinese don’t want the value of their US government bonds to be degraded, (which seemed possible during the debt ceiling debate of 2012,) and which would happen in a new US war, since any new war  would lead to even bigger budget deficits than the US already has, and lower the value of their bonds. Strange as it may sound, the Chinese want the Americans to fix their budget problems, and said so during the debt-ceiling crisis. At the same time, the US needs to keep importing manufactured goods from China, since they would be more costly if made in the US. China doesn’t want an armed conflict with the US over Korea.

But what happens if the North Koreans really were to make a strike at the US? If the North Koreans provoked the US to the point where the US took some type of military action against them say— airstrikes on their military facilities—this might destabilize the regime, and the results could be anybody’s guess.

It’s not in China’s interest for there to be a major armed conflict between the US and North Korea. If there were major destruction in N. Korea, China would probably get a major influx of North Korean refugees, which they presumably wouldn’t want.

If the North Korean state collapsed, the re-unified Korea would probably be allied with the US, which China also wouldn’t want.

At the same time, South Korea wouldn’t want a disorderly disintegration of North Korea, since some sectors of the North Korean Military may not be under anyone’s direct control while that happens.


Some refugees may end up in South Korea, or Japan. The Japanese sure as hell don’t want North Korean refugees. In the 1980s and 90s, there was a major political tension between North Korea and Japan. The North Koreans had been kidnapping Japanese citizens off isolated beaches, and taking them to North Korea to teach Japanese language and customs to North Korean spies. North Korea denied it. The issue helped destroy the career of Takako Doi, the first female head of a Japanese political party, (the Socialists). Doi nailed her colors to mast in defending the North Koreans and supporting their denials of these accusations. When North Korea finally confessed it did have kidnapped Japanese in North Korea, Doi’s career was severely damaged. Japan doesn’t really like the Chinese and Korean minorities they already have, and they wouldn’t want any more.


Last I heard, Russia was building a railway line from Khasan in Siberia to the North Korean port of Rajin, to export more easily to counties around Korea. Therefore, the Russians wouldn’t want a conflict between the US and North Korea, or the disintegration of the North Korean state, since it would mess up their nice new trade corridor.

So what’s stopping a war?

The North Koreans know that if they behave provocatively every so often, then promise to be good, other countries give them oil and food for a while. Then they go back on their promises and do it all again.  But there are powerful forces around them who are likely to hold them back from committing suicide by attacking the US. No one wants the chaos the refugees and the possible military realignment that would follow if North Korea collapsed. I suspect that North Korea knows this, which probably gives them some feeling of safety: while their government is reprehensible, too many people have a stake in it not collapsing. This kind of gives the North Korean leadership a licence to behave provocatively up to a point, without fear of consequences.

All up, I think North Korea may talk crazy from time to time, but there are powerful forces that would keep their behavior in check. I doubt they are really going to fire a missile at the US. It might be the end of their food and oil aid.

So, have any of you got any impressions of North Korea? Has anyone lived in South Korea or China and heard this topic discussed? Did you hear about their threat to fire a missile at the US? What do you think?

Speaking up for women in Afghanistan. A remarkable story.

I’ve been reading “Raising My Voice” by Malalai Joya, an Afghanistan woman who was
expelled from the Afghan parliament in 2007 for criticizing the presence of
warlords. When she was only a few months old, her family had to flee to Iran
while her father fought the soviet occupation which began in 1978. She grew up
in refugee camps in Iran and Pakistan. Iran did not let girls in the camps go
to school, and her family eventually moved to Pakistan to a town that had a girl’s
school. She intersperses her own story with bits of recent Afghan history: how
the CIA funneled money into mujaheddin groups chosen on the advice of Pakistan’s
intelligence services. When the soviets were defeated many of the groups began
fighting each other for power.

In ninth grade she became a school teacher, which gives us some idea of the level of
education of many of the other women she was teaching; in a word, ZIP.

At sixteen, having completed year 12, she returned to Afghanistan. The Taliban were in power. Girls were not allowed to go to school (again!) and she began a girls’ school
in a basement of sympathetic householder, teaching women the unthinkable: how
to read and write. She smuggled books in under the Burqa she was forced to wear
in the streets. (In an amusing aside she describes how you eat ice cream while
wearing a Burqa: with great difficulty.) The Taliban forbade music and films,
but copies of the movie Titanic circulated among people who secretly had video
players. Street vendors began naming their products after the film: Titanic
shampoo, Titanic onions, Titanic potatoes. But the world is an even stranger
place than most of us would imagine. Even as late as May 2011, America paid the
Taliban $43 million as a reward for limiting opium growing. (Seriously! Just Google

I’ve noticed that although there are a lot of references to Islam in the book, Joya
doesn’t speak about her own religious beliefs or whether she has any. Unlike ‘I
am Najood, Aged 10, divorced,’ (reviewed on one of the pages at the top of this
blog) she doesn’t claim to draw strength from her religion. Nor, like Aayan Hirsi
Ali in ‘Infidel” (also reviewed above) does she describe a religious period in
her teenage years, followed by disillusionment. Here are no references (so far)
to her visiting a mosque for religious purposes, or praying by herself.

So far I’m only up to page 100, where she has been expelled from the Loya Jirga (the council that was to frame the Afghan constitution in 2003.) I know she gets elected to
the parliament in 2005, and expelled from that later in the book. So I’m
waiting to see what else happens.

I’ll do another post by next Friday. For more – Wikipedia has an article on her. This
book is published as “A Woman Among Warlords” in the US and Canada, and “Raising
my Voice” in other English-speaking countries.