Canadian Liberal party survives confidence vote in tie-breaker

According to the National Post, “With the votes even at 152-152, it took Speaker Peter Milliken’s tie-breaking ballot to give the result to the Liberals — the first time in history the Speaker had to decide a confidence vote.” This followed “a week of intrigue and drama on Parliament Hill leading up to the vote: There were secretly taped meetings and accusations that plum patronage jobs were being bartered in exchange for crucial votes; a sick Liberal MP was rushed out of Question Period to hospital; and the breakup of Ottawa’s most glamourous power couple that left Tory Deputy Leader Peter MacKay heart-broken when Belinda Stronach left him to cross the floor and join the Liberals.”

Newsweek retraction not enough

Remember last year when CBS News 60 Minutes made an error in using documents which couldn’t be verified? Pro-Bush bloggers quickly made the supposedly-falsified documents the story, diverting attention from the “real” issue of Bush’s military service.

It’s happening again, this time with Newsweek’s apparent error in reporting that Guantanamo Bay guards had flushed a copy of the Koran down the toilet. Despite a considerable background of detainee abuse at Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere, the Bush administration wants Newsweek to run “some puff pieces about the U.S. military and how it’s dedicated to treating Islam with care.” Greg Palast puts it this way:

“It’s appalling that this story got out there,” Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said on her way back from Iraq.

What’s not appalling to Condi is that the US is holding prisoners at Guantanamo under conditions termed “torture” by the Red Cross. What’s not appalling to Condi is that prisoners of the Afghan war are held in violation of international law after that conflict has supposedly ended. What is not appalling to Condi is that prisoner witnesses have reported several instances of the Koran’s desecration.

What is appalling to her is that these things were reported.

One of my professors rephrases the argument. He claims that even if the story were true, it shouldn’t have been reported, because it would be so inflammatory. It was insensitive to Muslim sensibilities, he says.

If we had worried about Muslim sensibilities, we wouldn’t have gotten ourselves in this mess in the first place. The mainstream news media’s real sensitivity is to the Bush Administration:

Meanwhile, FAIR has issued an action alert:

Newsweek, the Quran and the "Green Mushroom"

Following the real rules of modern journalism

Action Alert (5/19/05)

Newsweek ran a sensational claim based on an anonymous source who turned out to be completely wrong. While one can’t blame the subsequent violence entirely on this report, it’s fair to say that credulous reporting like this contributed to a climate in which many innocent Muslims died.

The inaccurate Newsweek report appeared in the magazine’s March 17, 2003 issue, on the eve of the invasion of Iraq. It read in part:

“Saddam could decide to take Baghdad with him. One Arab intelligence officer interviewed by Newsweek spoke of ‘the green mushroom’ over Baghdad—the modern-day caliph bidding a grotesque bio-chem farewell to the land of the living alongside thousands of his subjects as well as his enemies. Saddam wants to be remembered. He has the means and the demonic imagination. It is up to U.S. armed forces to stop him before he can achieve notoriety for all time.”

Unlike a more recent Newsweek item (5/9/05), involving accusations that Guantanamo interrogators flushed a copy of the Quran down a toilet, Newsweek has yet to retract the bogus report about the “green mushroom” threat. The magazine’s Quran charge has been linked to rioting in Afghanistan and elsewhere that has left at least 16 dead; alarmist coverage like Newsweek‘s about Saddam Hussein’s nonexistent weapons of mass destruction paved the way for an invasion that has caused, according to the best epidemiological research available (Lancet, 11/20/04), an estimated 100,000 excess deaths.

Newsweek was right to retract the Quran story—mainly because the magazine claimed to have “sources” for the information, when Newsweek‘s subsequent descriptions of how it acquired the story mention only a single source. But it’s far from clear that Newsweek‘s source was inaccurate in saying that U.S. investigators had uncovered abuse of a Quran in the course of a recent investigation; similar allegations have repeatedly been made by former Guantanamo prisoners (Washington Post, 3/26/03; London Guardian, 12/3/03; Daily Mirror, 3/12/04; Center for Constitutional Rights, 8/4/04; La Gazette du Maroc, 4/12/05; New York Times, 5/1/05; BBC, 5/2/05; cites compiled by, 5/16/05).

Denials by the U.S. military that such incidents have occurred mean little; when any government holds prisoners in violation of international law, and denies them access to independent counsel or human rights groups, assertions by that government about how the prisoners are being treated can be given little weight. Eric Saar, a former U.S. Army sergeant who served as a translator at Guantanamo, has accused the Pentagon of engaging in organized efforts there to deceive outsiders: Citing a new book by Saar, the Washington Post reported (4/29/05) that “the U.S. military staged the interrogations of terrorism suspects for members of Congress and other officials visiting the military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to make it appear the government was obtaining valuable intelligence.”

It’s certainly not the case that the Pentagon has been so attentive to Muslim sensitivities that such treatment of a Quran would be unthinkable. The Pentagon’s deputy undersecretary for intelligence is Lt. Gen. William Boykin, who is notorious for suggesting that Allah was “an idol” and saying that the United States’ enemies were led by “Satan,” and would “only be defeated if we come against them in the name of Jesus.” It was Boykin who reportedly ordered the coercive interrogation methods used at Guantanamo to be used at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib as well (London Guardian, 5/20/04).

It has been repeatedly said—including by Newsweek itself, in its initial apology (5/23/05)—that the magazine’s source erred in saying that the Quran incident was contained in a report for the Pentagon’s Southern Command. In fact, the original report said that the incident was “expected” to be in the report—an expectation that could have easily been altered by the fact that the explosive allegation became public.

Newsweek‘s retraction of the Quran story, contrasted with the lack of any correction of its “green mushroom” claim and other similarly erroneous WMD coverage, is quite illustrative of the actual rules—quite different from the ostensible rules that are taught in journalism school—that govern contemporary journalism:

  • Anonymous sources are fine, as long as they are promoting rather than challenging official government policy.
  • It’s all right for your reporting to be completely wrong, as long as your errors are in the service of power.
  • The human cost of bad reporting need only be counted when people who matter are doing the counting.

ACTION: Please contact Newsweek editors and ask them to review the magazine’s WMD coverage, and urge them to hold it to the same standards they applied to the Quran story.

Phone: 212-445-4000

As always, please remember that your comments have more impact if you maintain a polite tone.

US wearing out its welcome in Afghanistan?

According to a story in the Independent, Afghan protests, inspired by the reported desecration of the Koran at Guantanamo, but fueled by US military tactics, are compelling US puppet President Hamid Karzai to rein in the US military in Afghanistan. “The Afghan leader, installed with Washington’s support in 2001 and often derided as an American puppet, seemed to be bowing to a growing mood of popular anger with American military tactics and uneasiness over how long bases will remain on Afghan soil. He promised to correct ‘mistakes’ made by US forces, especially intrusive searches of village homes by American troops in areas where the Taliban insurgency continues.”

Meanwhile, Newsweek is now saying “it had got its facts wrong on a story alleging that American military interrogators had desecrated copies of the Qur’an, after a week of protests about the article left at least 17 people dead and more than 100 injured… The ferocity of the reaction in the Muslim world caught the magazine and the US government by surprise. ‘Westerners, including those at Newsweek, may underestimate how severely Muslims resent the American presence, especially when it in any way interferes with Islamic religious faith,’ the magazine concludes in an article on the protests.”

Newsweek explains that, “Last Friday, a top Pentagon spokesman told us that a review of the probe cited in our story showed that it was never meant to look into charges of Qur’an desecration. The spokesman also said the Pentagon had investigated other desecration charges by detainees and found them ‘not credible.’ Our original source later said he couldn’t be certain about reading of the alleged Qur’an incident in the report we cited, and said it might have been in other investigative documents or drafts. Top administration officials have promised to continue looking into the charges, and so will we. But we regret that we got any part of our story wrong, and extend our sympathies to victims of the violence and to the U.S. soldiers caught in its midst.”

According to the Guardian, “International aid workers were furious. ‘It’s unbelievable that they could get something so important so wrong,’ said Nick Downie of Anso, an aid agency security body whose Jalalabad offices were looted and set on fire by protesters.” Unbelievable indeed.

8 dead as Afghans protest Koran desecration

“Protesters threw rocks and police shot back Friday as violent anti-U.S. protests spread to more Afghan cities, leaving at least eight people dead and threatening a security crisis for the government,” according to a story being carried in the Canadian press. The protests were prompted by reports that in their efforts to influence detainees, guards on several occasions placed a copy of the Koran on a toilet seat. In one case, they are said to have flushed it down the toilet. “Afghan officials suggested opponents of the country’s painstaking democratic rebirth were stirring up this week’s trouble, while the U.S. government appealed for calm and stressed that the desecration charge was being investigated by the Pentagon.”

Rats don’t desert a ship that hasn’t sunk yet

[Updated] This story begins a while ago, and there are enough threads to it, that I’ve been trying to figure out how to put it together.

On 2 April, the Captain’s Quarters blog breached a Canadian court’s publications ban by publishing inflammatory testimony on a Canadian political scandal. The U.S. blog explained that “[a] political scandal involving the Public Works Ministry, a government effort called the Sponsorship Program, and allegations of corruption in the ruling Liberal Party has Canada abuzz with rumors of payoffs, Mob ties, and snap elections. For the last two years, Canadian politics has been gripped by the so-called ‘sponsorship scandal’ – tens of millions of dollars in government contracts which were funneled into advertizing firms closely connected with the Liberal government for little or no work, but with shadowy rumours that much of the money found its way back into Liberal coffers.” The testimony is indeed ugly and largely confirms the rumors. The scandal is also being referred to as “AdScam.”

Once again, Canada’s fragile unity is supposedly threatened. The sponsorship program was “an important part of the battle against Quebec sovereigntists in the wake of the 1995 referendum.” But “Quebec sovereignty is now a virtual certainty thanks to Gomery commission revelations and general Liberal ineptitude, says former public works minister Alfonso Gagliano.” Calgary Sun columnist Licia Corbella wrote on 1 May, “Support for sovereignty in Quebec broke through the 50% barrier to its highest level since 1998 last week amid growing controversy over the sponsorship scandal, according to a Leger Marketing survey,” but goes on to explain that the question was worded poorly, allowing respondents to think that Quebec sovereignty “would simply mean Quebec would negotiate a better deal within Confederation — that they would continue to use Canadian passports, receive Canadian pensions and send MPs to Ottawa. In effect, 30% of the yes vote was clearly delusional.”

Fuzzy questions haven’t stopped Tory MPs from seeking to exploit the situation. “Bob Mills, Tory MP for Red Deer and the party’s environment critic, said some of his constituents are contemplating separatism and may have no other choice should the federal Liberals win the next election.” Many others are unimpressed. “‘It’s kind of like blackmail — vote for us or we’ll leave,’ said David Taras, political analyst at the University of Calgary.” The Saskatoon StarPhoenix reports that “A majority of Canadian voters believe Stephen Harper’s Conservatives are motivated by a sheer thirst for power — not a sincere desire to dump a corrupt government — when they argue it’s time for an early election.”

Not that the Libreals aren’t also motivated by “a sheer thirst for power.” According to the Montreal Gazette, “The government will face a vote today [10 May] in the House of Commons calling on it to resign, but it is unlikely to do so whatever the outcome.”

“This is a procedural motion and as such it is empirically not a matter of confidence,” said Scott Reid, senior adviser to the prime minister. He accused the opposition parties of dishonouring Canada’s war veterans by trying to force a vote while the leaders were in Holland for the 60th anniversary of VE Day.

Jerry Yanover, a procedural adviser to Liberal House leader Tony Valeri, said the motion, which would change the wording of a public accounts committee report, must first be amended by the committee itself before it can be considered for a confidence vote.

“That’s our view,” Yanover said, adding that two respected scholars agree with the government’s interpretation. “There’s no real precedent on this.”

The Liberals and New Democrats have the majority on the Commons public accounts committee and can successfully kill the proposed amendment.

According to a CBC story:

“Constitutional experts, procedural experts are saying this is nothing more than a procedural motion,” Liberal House leader Tony Valeri told Newsworld on Tuesday.

The Liberals have already dismissed a similar motion – involving the finance committee and scheduled to be voted on next week – as a procedural matter and not a matter of confidence.

If the opposition really wants to bring down the government, Valeri said, it will have a number of chances this month as the House debates the budget bill and an amendment adding changes the Liberals negotiated with the New Democrats in return for that party’s support of the budget.

Bill C-38, the bill establishing same-sex marriage standards across the country, will also be debated in the coming days.

“The Conservatives and their new separatist friends could decide to defeat that legislation, and if they do, there will be an election because those are issues of confidence,” said Valeri.

So what might be happening is that Conservatives might be exploiting the arrogance of the Liberals, who are clearly clinging to power only on procedural grounds. If the poll respondents are right, Conservatives will surely do what Valeri has effectively challenged them to do. Having made such a fuss, they may have put themselves in a corner where they will have no choice but to do what Valeri has challenged them to do.

All this might seem reassuring to those who worry for the future of Canada’s unity. After all, one might argue, if Canada were truly falling apart, would people argue so over power in a disintegrating nation? Alas, the answer is yes. In fact, the odds are that as the situation becomes more desperate, we’ll see much more squabbling over ever smaller gains.

GayDAR explained?

“Gay men showed a strong preference for the body odour of other gay men in the scientific test of how the natural scent of someone’s body can contribute to the choice of a partner,” according to a story in the Independent. The “‘findings support the contention that gender preference has a biological component that is reflected in both the production of different body odours and in the perception of and response to body odours,’ Dr [Charles] Wysocki [of the Monell Chemical Senses Centre in Philadelphia, a non-profit research institute] said.”

Guantanamo detainees refuse to speak; Pakistanis outraged

Just to prove they really wanted information, guards at Guantanamo Bay reportedly “on one occasion flushed a copy of Islam’s most holy book ‘down the toilet,'” with the result that “a number of Arab prisoners had still not spoken to their investigators after three years to protest at the desecration of the Koran by guards.” Newsweek is cited by two other sources for this report. According to Reuters:

Newsweek magazine, in its latest edition, quoted sources as saying that investigators probing abuses at the military prison had discovered that interrogators “had placed Korans on toilets, and in at least one case flushed a holy book down the toilet”.

A high-profile member of the Pakistani parliament said, “This war on terrorism is self-defeating if, on the one hand, you are demanding that we help them (the United States) and, on the other hand, they are desecrating the book on which our entire faith is based. The entire world knows that; even the Americans know how sacred that book is.” Pakistan, of course, is a “front line state” in the Bush Administration’s “war on terrorism,” at least to the extent it really cares about apprehending Osama bin Laden, Mullah Omar, or about defeating the Taliban.

But this never has been about winning the “hearts and minds” of Muslims, has it?