Sunday, July 27, 2008

Light Posting

Light posting is a euphemism. As patient (and impatient) readers of this site are aware, I haven't posted anything for weeks. And this situation will persist until the week of August 11. Not that there's a lack of things to write about. It's just that, thanks to a rather mind-melting confluence of events, I'm not able to get in front of a computer long enough to write anything. I hope to remedy the situation in August. All the best, CH

Sunday, July 13, 2008

The Betancourt Blockbuster

Thanks to the LA Times for reminding us of the difference between traditional print media and the Internet...

...after all, you can't wipe your ass with a blog.

That was my first thought as I opened my Sunday LAT and discovered that a piece of entertainment writing had escaped its natural habitat in the Calendar section and was instead lurking on page A4 of what was once known as the news section.

There, Betancourt's tale captivates, an article by Patrick McDonnell and Chris Kraul informs us, “The saga of [Ingrid Betancourt] generating major media interest in the United States...Hollywood sees box office potential in Betancourt's ordeal...”

...Betancourt's tale “has it all,” said Jim McNamara, chairman of Miami-based Panamax films...”Her captors are ugly, ugly villains out of central casting...”

Betancourt is represented by CAA and her “first decision will be whether to agree to co-operate on a “cheap TV movie that's out in two months” or do a comprehensive book and film deal...”She's holding all the cards”.

With my usual corrosive cynicism, I wonder if the photoplay will include dramatic scenes of FARC fattening Betancourt up with food and medical care in anticipation of her negotiated release; the months of talks between European intermediaries and FARC, allegedly culminating in payment of a $20 million ransom; or indications that Colombia's President Uribe hijacked the release helicopters and spun the whole event as a rescue with the help of the United States and a credulous media.

Those buzz-killing angles received considerably less ink in the article than the expert opinion of M*A*S*H scribe Larry Gelbart:

"Once again, life trumps art...[It] seems as though it was ripped from a motion picture screen and rushed with all haste to the 11 o'clock news...Such creative planning led to the best of all possible movie finishes: a happy ending."

But my genuine interest in this article is whether the emergence of this generic piece of Hollywood industry tittle tattle on the news pages represents a desperate effort by the LA Times—newly slimmed down by the severance of 150 staff members and the mandated reduction of 15% of its not inconsiderable printed bulk—to up the infotainment quotient of its coverage to compete with the Internet and TV for the ever-decreasing attention span of the American audience.

I see the Betancourt story as a sign that the traditional US media—its traditional eminence eroded by a proliferation of alternative outlets, erosion of its revenue base, and the subsequent decline of the journalistic coverage and quality that once gave it its distinction and competitive advantage—realizes that promotional partners are needed to give its generic product added prominence.

For US media outlets, the biggest promotional partner is, of course, the US government.

If the US government is willing to give a story legs by providing talking points, talking heads, details, leaks, embed facilities, video feed, statements from the Rose Garden and whatever it takes give the story forward momentum, then that's a story that the LA Times should devote its resources to covering...and keep alive by cross-promoting...while more difficult stories (and angles) wither on the vine.

Of course, it doesn't hurt to have attractive characters in a compelling setting.

In Hollywood terms, I would say the Betancourt story is the tentpole release by the big studio (the US) with the fast food tie-in (War on Terror!) and the charismatic star eager to push the picture on TV, Internet...and in the press.

And the LA Times, instead of reporting the story, is just pathetically happy to be part of it.

And, in trying to beat the blogs, it is becoming just as bad as them.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Colombian Doublecross

A few minutes with the Google leaves the Betancourt rescue story in tatters.

Did the Colombian government push aside European hostage negotiators to take control of the impending Betancourt release, hog the credit, and spin it as a rescue and a victory for counter-terrorism instead of negotiated piece of ransom-for-hostages?

If so, it wouldn't be the first time.

From Venezuela Analysis, November 30 of last year:

Caracas, November 30, 2007 ( - Colombia announced today that authorities arrested three people presumed to belong to urban militias of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in Bogotá late Thursday, who were found in possession of five videos and seven letters and a digital memory card with photographs demonstrating proof of life of five civilian and eleven military hostages held by the FARC, including French Colombian citizen Ingrid Betancourt and three US defense contractors. The videos and other documents showing proof of life were addressed to Colombian Senator Piedad Cordoba and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

The son of Ingrid Betancourt, Lorenzo Betancourt, said the proof that his mother is alive is thanks to the mediation of President Chavez. However, he expressed concern over her health and asked that Chavez's mediation be renewed to secure her release as soon as possible.

The proof of life of the hostages appears only a week after Colombian president Alvaro Uribe unilaterally terminated the mediating role of Chavez and Cordoba, who were working to secure the release of the hostages and had assured that "proof of life would arrive any minute."

In an interview with Telesur, Codroba, who is now under investigation by the Supreme Court for "crimes of treason against the homeland and collusion," defended her role and said that the proof of life of the hostages demonstrates that the mediation of herself and the Venezuelan president was being undertaken with complete seriousness and responsibility. [emph. added]

Let's recap.

Chavez and Cordoba successfully negotiated with FARC to obtain proof of life for Betancourt.

Just as everything was going so well, Uribe unilaterally terminates Chavez and Cordoba's role as mediators, seizes control of the operation, arrests the FARC representatives delivering proof of life, and spins the double cross as a “war on terror” victory. For good measure, Cordoba is investigated for treason.

Compare that with the present case, where it is alleged that European negotiators struck a deal with FARC, the Colombian government shouldered aside the negotiators, seized the rescue helicopters, arrested a couple of FARC guys, and spun the whole operation as a repudiation of the Chavez approach to defusing tensions with FARC. For good measure, Jean Pierre Gondart, one of the key European negotiators, is accused of being a FARC bagman.

Clearly the release of Betancourt (as opposed to rescue) has been brewing for several months, as this interesting report from April 2008 on Colombia Reports makes clear:

France is to launch a fresh bid Monday in its campaign to free Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt, but here's disagreement with the Colombian government about the involvement of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez.

Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner will meet Colombian President Álvaro Uribe in Bogotá before visiting Ecuador and Venezuela, whose left-wing President Hugo Chávez has sought to play a mediating role in hostage releases.

Kouchner “will re-evaluate the hostage situation with the three heads of state and stress the urgency of a humanitarian solution leading to the freeing of those held by the FARC,” the French foreign ministry said in a statement.

Uribe expressed that there's no place for Chávez in possible negotions, after French President Sarkozy Thursday asked the Venezuelan President to be available for negotiations. “The only institutions that can help negotiations are the Catholic church and European delegates,” the President said on LA FM. “We love to talk to the French Foreign Ministe, but we can only repeat this point of view” he said later, after meeting the country's High Commissioner of Peace.
The FARC rejected one French plan to release Betancourt this month, expressing annoyance with Uribe's handling of the proposed handover.[emph. added]

So. There was already one deal to release Betancourt back in April that got screwed up by Uribe.

Monsters and Critics has more on the June deal, with indications that at the same time FARC was negotiating through the Europeans, some FARC guys were negotiating with the Colombian army:

According to the report, one of two FARC commanders in charge of the hostages - they are named Aguilar and Gafas - opened indirect contact with Colombian authorities on March 20 to ask for details about the offer, which involved money and asylum in either Venezuela or France.

As sources for its report MediaPart cited local journalists and close associates of Ingrid Betancourt's former party, Oxygeno Verge (Oxygen Green Party), which ceased to function in 2005 due largely to Betancourt's abduction.

Last week, MediaPart and the Swiss radio station Radio Suisse Romande had reported that the FARC released the hostages in exchange for the payment of a large ransom.

The negotiations between those who controlled the hostages and the Colombian Army were 'particularly tortuous,' MediaPart reported, and succeeded largely because of the intervention of a Catholic priest who had already served as intermediary between authorities and rebels.

After agreement was reached, the rebels were able to procure medicines and food for the hostages, which explains Betancourt's surprisingly good condition after six-and-a-half years in jungle captivity.

MediaPart said the FARC commanders were eager to improve the health of their hostages because they were afraid that they would be deprived of their part of the bargain if they delivered them in bad physical condition.

In June, Uribe had publicly announced he would provide an overseas haven without threat of extradition for any FARC members who assisted in Betancourt's release, which dovetails with the report of asylum for those involved in the release.

At the time, observers wondered why Uribe would go public on such a sensitive matter. Apparently he was sending a message to renegade FARC members ready to deal.

Note Uribe's insistence on dealing through the Catholic Church and not Chavez, and compare the central role reportedly played by a Catholic priest in the MediaPart report.

And further note that provision of health care to the ailing Betancourt while in FARC hands had already been the subject of in-depth negotiation, with France having prepositioned a medical jet in anticipation of her release in March.

Clearly, FARC was anticipating a negotiated release and was providing Betancourt with health care and better food so she wouldn't emerge an emaciated scarecrow and an advertisement for FARC cruelty.

It looks like that arrangement wasn't to Uribe's liking, presumably because it would provide greater stature to FARC and the European intermediaries.

In the realm of speculation, either Uribe muscled in on the negotiations between the European team and the FARC leadership and took over the operation, or the Colombian army convinced a couple of FARC renegades that it was a better idea for them to glom onto some ransom, get asylum in France, and push a couple of gormless FARC suckers on the helicopters to take the fall so the Colombian government could crow about the brilliant rescue.

I would have to say the brilliant rescue narrative is pretty much DOA.

What's left is ransom-for-hostages or bribery-for-hostages...and a Colombian double-cross.

Fishy, Fishy, Fishy...

More Problems Emerge for the Betancourt Rescue Story

[I am also grateful to a reader who pointed out that Betancourt and the other hostages appear to be in good physical condition after their ordeal, in contrast to the photograph documenting Betancourt's ill health while in captivity. Advance preparation by FARC to deliver healthy hostages would also be consistent with a planned, negotiated release--CH]

Hot on the heels of allegations on Swiss radio that Ingrid Betancourt was freed through payment of a $20 million ransom instead of clever Colombian special forces derring do and US backup, we get a couple more data points:

In Counterpunch, Clifton Ross reports that the South American media has an interesting twist on the ransom story:

The story entitled "There was no such rescue but a media 'show'" that appeared in today's Diario Vea was drawn from the work of Bolivarian Press Agency writer Narciso Isa Conde and the Popular News Agency of Venezuela. According to the article the Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC) had agreed to turn over Ingrid Betancourt and the other hostages to Swiss and French negotiators who agreed to arrange to pick up the hostages from various locations in two helicopters. The Colombian military got wind of the upcoming release and took control of the helicopters. The collusion of the U.S. in the media spin, while yet to be proven, is quite likely, especially since McCain just "happened" to be in the neighborhood and would be able to take the spotlight in a crassly opportunistic attempt to boost his pathetic presidential campaign.[emph. added]

Apparently, Diario Vea is a pro-Hugo Chavez paper in Venezuela.

One might say “consider the source” and say these allegations are sour grapes from pro-Chavez forces resentful that their guy was sidelined and the Colombian government scored a big win.

But put that together with a report by Patrick McDonnell and Chris Kaul in today's LA Times on the Colombian government's attempts to knock down the ransom story as “absolutely false” by pinning responsibility for the leak to Swiss radio on one John Pierre Gontard, who it alleges is tainted by data on a notorious captured FARC laptop as a FARC bagman.

A few problems.

First, Gontard denies the allegation.

Second, Gontard is not some FARC fellow traveler. He's one of the key Colombian peace negotiators for the European governments, so acknowledged by the Colombian government.

Third, Gontard might have been the guy who negotiated the Betancourt release in the first place.

From the LA Times:

Gontard has been coming to Colombia for years as the Swiss representative of a three-nation team, including Spain and France, that has acted as facilitator for possible talks between the FARC and the government.


On June 30, the government announced that Gontard and French diplomat Noel Saez had arrived in Colombia to resume those efforts. Two days later, onetime presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, three American defense contractors and 11 Colombian police and soldiers were rescued after more than five years in rebel captivity.


So, on June 30 Gontard is a welcome emissary of the European governments.

On July 7, he's some creepy FARC hack.

That story line doesn't make a lot of sense.

Unless, as I infer from Ross's report, the Colombians hijacked Gontard's ransom-and-release operation.

Which makes you think that all the vaunted surveillance operations that the US (and apparently Israel, according to Haaretz—h/t to LR) are claiming credit for were not directed against FARC (which, if news reports are to be believed, realize their communications are compromised and now pass messages mainly through human couriers); they were targeting the hostage negotiators in order to figure out their plans.

As reported by Ross, then the Colombian military could have zipped up to the airfield at the critical moment, commandeered the rescue helicopters, and grabbed the hostages and the glory.

Now, to cover their tracks, the Colombian and US governments attempt to swamp the true story of the release with a coordinated international media blitz.

And, when somebody, plausibly some disgruntled European negotiator who knows the real story, does leak the story to Swiss radio, the Colombians react by sliming Gontard—who was possibly on the FARC computer because he was delivering a downpayment on the ransom—to discredit the European negotiating team and squelch the whole ransom story.

That's a pretty persuasive hypothetical.

The emerging outline of this story is one of FARC being willing to deal with the Colombian government, but the Colombian (and US) governments being averse to any explicit compromises that would give credibility to Hugo Chavez, European do-gooders, ransom payments, and negotiations in general and detract from the zero-sum “War on Terror” narrative.

Certainly, if the Betancourt rescue was actually a world-class double-cross by the Colombian government, FARC (and, by the way, the European governments represented by Gontard) now realizes that any good faith negotiations involving Uribe's government are impossible.

If FARC is truly flat on its behind, this approach might work.

Then again, even if FARC still has some fight left in it and prospects for a peace—negotiated or imposed--evaporate, I expect the downside for Uribe is still limited.

After all, if the Uribe government doesn't bring peace to Colombia, it can console itself with the billions of dollars of US aid that an uncompromising and open-ended COIN operation demands.

Friday, July 04, 2008

Ingrid Betancourt--This Year's Jessica Lynch?

South American affairs is obviously not China Hand's bailiwick, but I had the funny feeling that the the “rescue” of Betancourt and the other hostages from the hands of FARC by the Colombian government looked, walked, and quacked more like a negotiated release than a genuine piece of special ops derring do.

It looks like I might have been right.

Swiss radio is reporting that it cost $20 million to spring the hostages.

For those of you interested in how unworthy suspicions flower in the mind of an incorrigibly cynical blogger, I will regale patient readers with a rundown of the official story's fishier elements.

First, the Betancourt story got huge—suspiciously huge—play in US papers. In my hometime paper, the LA Times, it was the big A1 right-column, banner headline lead.

Well, Ingrid Betancourt, like Jerry Lewis, might be huge in France—she holds dual Colombian-French citizenship—but, quite frankly, before July 2 I had never heard of her.

Obviously, the US press was primed to push this story.

That's not by itself indicator of something fishy going on.

The US government has a strong interest in boosting the kinda-fascisty guys who run Colombia while running down kinda-commie Hugo Chavez in Venezuela.

It also has a strong interest in discrediting and sidelining Chavez as a regional leader who can serve as a go-between and extract hostages and concessions from FARC.

So the story that the Colombians--with indispensable US support--sprung the hostages would have received some play in any case.

However, the orgasmic and uncritical US press coverage of the action, combined with the gratuitous jibes at Chavez (including energetically interpreting some neutral-sounding statements from Betancourt as veiled Chavez criticism), appeared so promptly, ubiquitously, and hyperbolically it appeared to me we were witnessing the previously-planned orchestration of a media event rather than the reaction to a slick rescue.

Another indicator was that getting Betancourt released was a big thing for President Sarkozy of France. The French pay for hostages. Full stop.

So there was a strong incentive to get Betancourt out by any means possible--including a ransom--to steal Chavez's thunder and save Sarkozy's political bacon.

Of course, the rescue story was something that, in the context of special ops rescues, sounded ridiculous, involving some scheme where FARC unwittingly gathered the dispersed hostages and loaded them on a helicopter that fortuitously turned out to belong to the Colombian government.

However, the story sounded completely plausible if somebody had made a deal with FARC and said, hey, we're sending a helicopter for the hostages. Load ‘em up!

When Betancourt got out, she refrained from direct criticism of FARC, calling for a peace process instead of some no-holds barred war on the SOBs who imprisoned her for six years—another indication that a deal was involved.

For inquisitive reporters, I would consider another red flag the fact that nobody got killed. Indeed, not a shot was fired.

One would think that the Colombians would have taken advantage of an extraordinary intelligence and infiltration coup not just to helicopter out some hostages but also helicopter in some commandos and put a nice corpse-filled punctuation point on a signal victory in the war on terror.

So, a big media push would be needed not only to capitalize on a deal that was in the works; it would obscure the suspicion that a deal was involved and also dissuade the press from taking a hard second look at the official story it had already splashed all over its front pages.

The press—apparently having forgotten the manufactured bruhaha over Jessica Lynch's rescue and eager to confirm the suspicion that it is more interested in any narrative that the government is willing to provide legs for than messy, facty, and critical reportage--happily obliged.

Add to that the allegations of a ransom appearing in the European media, and that's something that looks like it's worth pursuing.

Here's how the Guardian reported the Betancourt ransom story.

Ingrid Betancourt arrived in France today after being held captive for six years in the Colombian jungle, amid claims that a ransom was paid to free her.

The Colombian government said that she was freed in an audacious operation after the military tricked Farc into handing the French-Colombian politician over without a shot being fired.

But quoting "reliable sources", Swiss Radio reported that a ransom was paid of around $20m (£10m).

It said that the US, which had three citizens among those freed, was behind the deal and that "the whole operation afterwards was a set-up".

The station reported that the wife of one of the hostages' guards was the go-between, having been arrested by the Colombian army.

If proved true, the allegations would be hugely embarrassing for the Colombian government which was showered with praise for the efficiency of the operation. Many commentators had predicted that it would even spell the end of Farc as a credible force.

However, I wonder how much play, serious investigation, or popular attention the Betancourt story will merit, now that its propaganda value as a one-day headline sensation has been realized.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Full Circle

Hat tip to Daily Kos for linking to Jason Rood's report about treatment of Chinese Uighur prisoners at Guantanamo:

Buried in a Department of Justice report released Tuesday are new allegations about a 2002 arrangement between the United States and China, which allowed Chinese intelligence to visit Guantanamo and interrogate Chinese Uighurs held there.

According to the report by Justice Department Inspector General Glenn Fine, an FBI agent reported a detainee belonging to China's ethnic Uighur minority and a Uighur translator told him Uighur detainees were kept awake for long periods, deprived of food and forced to endure cold for hours on end, just prior to questioning by Chinese interrogators.

And, via the Washington Monthly, the New York Times tells us this:

The military trainers who came to Guantánamo Bay in December 2002 based an entire interrogation class on a chart showing the effects of "coercive management techniques" for possible use on prisoners, including "sleep deprivation," "prolonged constraint," and "exposure."
What the trainers did not say, and may not have known, was that their chart had been copied verbatim from a 1957 Air Force study of Chinese Communist techniques used during the Korean War to obtain confessions, many of them false, from American prisoners.

....The recycled chart is the latest and most vivid evidence of the way Communist interrogation methods that the United States long described as torture became the basis for interrogations both by the military at the base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and by the Central Intelligence Agency.

....The only change made in the chart presented at Guantánamo was to drop its original title: "Communist Coercive Methods for Eliciting Individual Compliance."

Also thanks to Kevin Drum, the original 1956 chart (click to enlarge).

In summary: we used Chinese torture techniques to soften up Chinese prisoners for Chinese interrogators.

Talk about outsourcing!

Instead of "Full Circle", maybe the title of this post should be "Scraping Bottom".