Category Archives: reviews

Activists supporting Julian Assange in London's Piccadilly Circus with banners declaring 'Free Assange' and '2023 - Time to Set Him Free!'

Behind closed doors: A fresh look at Julian Assange and WikiLeaks

In December 2018, the United Nations special rapporteur on torture, Nils Melzer, received an email from a group of lawyers headed “Julian Assange is seeking your protection”. Melzer, a Swiss international lawyer, asked himself: “Was this not the founder of WikiLeaks, the shady hacker with the white hair and the leather jacket who was hiding out in an embassy somewhere because of rape allegations?” As he recalls,

I was overtaken by a host of disparaging thoughts and almost reflexive feelings of rejection. Assange? No, I certainly would not be manipulated by this guy.

Three months later, Assange’s legal team contacted him again. Ecuador intended to expel Assange from its embassy in London, where he had taken refuge in 2012 to avoid extradition to Sweden and from there to the US. “A question started forming in my mind”, Melzer writes in The Trial of Julian Assange: A story of persecution. “Had I overlooked something when I dismissed this case the last time around?” Thus began a two-year investigation that uncovered the lengths to which the US – and the UK, Sweden and Ecuador – went to silence and punish Assange. Melzer changed his mind. This book should change others’.

The story begins in 2006, when Assange, together with fellow tech prodigies and free-speech advocates, founded WikiLeaks as a safe depository for inside sources to reveal wrongdoing without fear of retribution. Encryption prevented governments and corporations, not to mention WikiLeaks itself, from detecting the identities of whistleblowers, thereby protecting them from prosecutions of the kind that tormented many who had confided in traditional media, among them the Foreign and Commonwealth Office official Sarah Tisdall, who was jailed in 1984 for leaking British government documents to the Guardian, and the GCHQ translator Katharine Gun, who in 2003 was charged under the Official Secrets Act for leaking top-secret information to the Observer. A year into its existence, WikiLeaks published the US army’s protocols for detainee treatment at Camp Delta in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, including the denial of access to Red Cross delegates. It also released documents related to the ruling Moi family’s corruption in Kenya. In 2008 came the Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin’s emails, then in 2009 intercepts of government pager messages about the attacks on New York and Washington in September 2001. It was a measure of the trust sources placed in WikiLeaks that so many were…

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Confronting Saddam Hussein by Melvyn P. Leffler review

An apologist seeks to justify an ‘abomination of a war’

In 1899 President William McKinley explained to a delegation of Methodist clergymen why he had decided to occupy the Philippine Islands. Conscience prevented him from returning the archipelago to Spain following the Spanish–American war, turning it over to another colonial power or granting the Filipinos independence, because “they were unfit for self-government”. A long night of prayer had convinced him “that there was nothing for us to do but to take them all, and to educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and Christianize them”. The churchmen accepted McKinley’s rationale. The Filipinos, about 90 per cent of whom were Christian already, did not. Nor did Mark Twain, who condemned the military onslaught that would go on to kill 20,000 rebels and up to 200,000 civilians. History has judged McKinley harshly, despite the domestic popularity that won him a second election to the White House in 1900.

Like McKinley, George W. Bush professed a moral imperative for invading and occupying Iraq in 2003. He too won re-election. Yet by the time he left office he was a laughing stock. Even his most ardent cheerleaders had distanced themselves from a military adventure that was nothing short of disastrous for Iraq, the US military and America’s global reputation. A rare exception is Melvyn P. Leffler, whose Confronting Saddam Hussein exonerates Bush and goes so far as to praise his “energy, discipline, self-confidence and good humor”. Can this be the same president who gave his name to the word “Bushism”, which the New Oxford American Dictionary defines as “a verbal error made by and considered characteristic of former US president George W. Bush”, eg “They misunderestimated me” or, on the Taliban, “They have no disregard for human life”?

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Master of the Game by Martin Indyk

He’ll have ye smilin’

Time​ magazine called him ‘Henry of Arabia’ and featured him on a cover in 1974. The headline read ‘Mideast Miracle’. Newsweek depicted him that same day as ‘Super K’ in a fluttering blue cape. The New York Times, Washington Post and the television networks piled on their own encomia. Henry Kissinger, already a media darling, had become the Middle East’s saviour, whose ‘shuttle diplomacy’, then a neologism, had ended the Arab-Israeli War of October 1973.

Nixon had appointed him secretary of state a month before the war broke out. Born Heinz Alfred Kissinger, the German-Jewish Harvard professor didn’t fit the State Department stereotype: all 55 of his predecessors were native-born WASPs. His Dr Strangelove accent remained a lifelong reminder of his émigré status. (Golda Meir, Israel’s prime minister at the time, told him that her foreign minister spoke better English than he did.) Yet after becoming a naturalised American at the age of twenty he liked to describe himself in terms of his adopted country’s folklore. He told a reporter that he was ‘a cowboy who rides alone into town with his horse and nothing else’. He also resembled another American frontier archetype: the pedlar whose wagonload of patent medicines promised to cure every ailment. By the time the rubes realised that his bottles contained snake oil, he had left town. ‘He’ll have ye smilin’,’ an old Irish saying goes, ‘while he takes the gold out of your teeth.’

In Master of the Game, Martin Indyk shows Kissinger at work before, during and after the October War, and highlights his most acclaimed achievements in its aftermath: persuading Israel to cede small patches of occupied territory and convincing Egypt and Syria to recognise the ‘Zionist entity’, at least de facto, by negotiating with it through him. Indyk’s account, while adding little to the historical record, makes exciting reading. And despite his veneration for Kissinger, Indyk acknowledges that the elaborate diplomatic manoeuvring was an exercise in damage control. After all, if it hadn’t been for Kissinger, there would have been no October War…

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The Fate of Abraham by Peter Oborne

The West’s scapegoats: the long history of Islamophobia

The journalist Peter Oborne once cherished a faith in British rectitude. His columns for publications including the Daily Telegraph and the Spectator marked him out as one of conservatism’s more erudite spokesmen. Then came Britain’s complicity in the invasion of Iraq – broadly supported by both Labour and the Conservatives – and the Labour government’s mendacity over the death in suspicious circumstances of its scientific adviser David Kelly. The double deception prompted him to renounce his beliefs: “I went mentally into opposition to the British state”.

In The Fate of Abraham he turns his attention to some victims of the system he has rejected: Muslims in Britain and abroad. Western civilization’s apologists divided Muslims into the “good”, who collaborated with the imperial project, and the “bad”, who resisted. As a religion with adherents spanning the globe, Islam could be targeted as a disruptive force in the Philippines in the same terms used to deride Muslims opposed to the royal family in Saudi Arabia or military regimes in Egypt. In this sense Muslims assume the role of communists during the Cold War: the enemy without and within. Oborne argues that the Cold War model is both wrong-headed and harmful.

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Review of Sensing Injustice Michael E. Tigar

Prestige and honor: the legal life of Michael Tigar

In 1920, Clarence Darrow, America’s great “defender of the damned”, told a Chicago jury, in defence of freedom of speech: “You can only protect your liberties in this world by protecting the other man’s freedom. You can only be free if I am free”. Michael Tigar, in this account of his fifty years of legal practice, does not quote Darrow’s famous maxim, but he has surely lived by it.

After graduating first in his class at the University of California Berkeley School of Law in 1966, he embarked on a legal odyssey to defend victims of state persecution, from the free speech activists at Berkeley to the Chagos islanders displaced to make way for the American naval base on Diego Garcia. On the way, he represented nearly every American dissident whose name appeared on the FBI and CIA wanted lists. Despite the injustices Tigar witnessed, he retains his faith in American jurisprudence.

This memoir is also a modern history of American legal practice. In Tigar’s world there is no substitute for hard work, lengthy research of law and precedent, understanding the psychology of judges and juries, and putting the client first in all cases. For most of his career this has worked, though one of his regrets is that the government continues to use illegal electronic surveillance, despite statutes and judicial prohibitions against the practice. He has argued seven cases before the Supreme Court, and the reasoning in his briefs made their way into judicial history. He has taught law in California, Texas and elsewhere, assisted on cases in Africa and Israel, and written plays, including one about Clarence Darrow. Tigar is not self-effacing, admitting that one of his students wrote in an assessment that his ego was “as big as the Asian continent”.

Sensing Injustice is an adventure tale that makes the law seem as fascinating as any saga. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas wrote that Clarence Darrow, “working through the law, brought prestige and honor to it during a long era of intolerance”. The same can be said of Michael Tigar…

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Cautivos & Quichotte

Anything Can Happen

Notions of authorship, creator, and creatures, as well as of love, folly, and imagination, dominate Salman Rushdie’s and Ariel Dorfman’s retellings of Don Quixote.

“I don’t think I understand what Don Quixote is about, and I don’t think anybody knows what Don Quixote is about.”—Keith Dewhurst, author of the play Don Quixote (1982)

Miguel de Cervantes concluded The Ingenious Hidalgo Don Quixote of La Mancha in 1605 with a phrase in Italian from Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso: “Forse altro canterà con miglior plettro” (Perhaps another will sing with a better [guitar] pick). While his book was selling in record numbers, Cervantes turned to short stories and pastoral poetry. In 1614 the pseudonymous Alonzo Fernández de Avellaneda published an unauthorized sequel to Don Quixote, prompting a furioso Cervantes to publish his own second volume of the novel a year later. Attributing its authorship, as he had that of volume 1, to the mythical Arab scholar Cid Hamet Benengeli, Cervantes exacted revenge. In chapter 70, devils battered the presumptuous Fernández’s manuscript with tennis rackets so “that the very insides flew out of it”:

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The Quiet Americans – LRB review

Hush-Hush Boom-Boom

Alexander Cockburn​ blamed Ian Fleming for the creation of the CIA. Without Fleming, Cockburn wrote on the fiftieth anniversary of the first James Bond novel, ‘the Cold War would have ended in the early 1960s. We would have had no Vietnam, no Nixon, no Reagan and no Star Wars.’ As adjutant to Britain’s chief of naval intelligence, Lieutenant Commander Fleming undertook a secret mission to Washington in May 1941. He was ‘whisked off to a room in the new annexe of the embassy, locked in with a pen and paper and the necessities of life’, a colleague recalled, and there he wrote, ‘under armed guard around the clock, a document of some seventy pages covering every aspect of a giant secret intelligence and secret operational organisation’. This, the CIA’s official history reports, was the genesis of ‘the nation’s first peacetime, non-departmental intelligence organisation’.

Fleming delivered the report to William ‘Wild Bill’ Donovan, a much decorated First World War veteran who had been lobbying Roosevelt to establish an American spy agency separate from the Navy, War and State Departments. A month later Donovan submitted his ‘Memorandum of Establishment of Service of Strategic Information’ to the president. It recommended an organisation that would collect and analyse information and make it available to the president as commander-in-chief, and would also disseminate propaganda. It made no mention of covert operations. Donovan acknowledged his debt to Fleming by presenting him with a .38 Police Positive Colt revolver engraved ‘For Special Services’.

Scott Anderson recounts the careers of four OSS agents whose underground war against the Axis turned into a crusade to ‘roll back’ communism in Eastern Europe and Asia. One was Frank Wisner, a corporate lawyer who enlisted to work in naval intelligence early in 1941. When the US entered the war he was consigned to the tedium of the navy’s cable and censorship office in New York. Donovan rescued him from that backwater at the end of 1943 and sent him to monitor OSS’s Balkan operations, which were directed from Istanbul. OSS Istanbul was running an apparently successful espionage network, Operation Dogwood, but its intelligence, especially about bombing targets, had become increasingly flawed. OSS had yet to discover that the Germans had captured, tortured and turned some of its agents. Wisner found a shambles in Istanbul, where everyone knew that the OSS chief, Lanning ‘Packy’ MacFarland, was an American spy. MacFarland’s two lovers were reporting to German and Soviet intelligence. At least eight of OSS Istanbul’s 67 agents worked for Germany, while one driver was reporting to the Soviets and another to the Turks. ‘For weeks,’ Anderson writes, ‘Wisner worked nearly around the clock to try to reorganise the OSS Istanbul office, and to salvage the Dogwood intelligence network.’ Nothing was worth saving, and Wisner began to build a new network. Then, on 23 August 1944, King Michael of Romania ended his alliance with Germany…

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Khaled Khalifa. Photo Credit Aiham Dib

Scheherazade in a Syrian Cell

Khaled Khalifa is Syria’s biographer, much as Gore Vidal declared himself America’s. While Vidal gave fictional life to Aaron Burr, Abraham Lincoln, William Randolph Hearst, and other American deities, Khalifa avoids real names: no Assad, father or son, only “the President”; no Baath, only “the Party”; Alawis are “the other sect,” Sunnis “our sect.” Yet their presence dominates the lives of his imagined characters, as in the real Syria.

Known in the Arab world primarily as the author of scripts for television and film, the fifty-five-year-old Khalifa has published five novels in Arabic, three of which have been sensitively translated by Leri Price. The first to appear in English was In Praise of Hatred, a complicated García Márquez–like chronicle of an unnamed, decaying family with aristocratic pretensions enduring the clandestine war between security forces and Islamist militants that erupted in Aleppo in the late 1970s. With its labyrinthine souks, decrepit stone palaces, medieval monuments, and heterogeneous populace, Aleppo serves as an apt setting for In Praise of Hatred’s unraveling mystery…

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Too late to be lucky

December 7 was the anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 and of the birth thirteen years earlier of Noam Chomsky. Pearl Harbor led to American global dominance at the same time as Chomsky’s insights into the nature of language were beginning to have an impact on linguistic theory, philosophy and psychology. Chomsky is also an outspoken critic of his country’s foreign policy. Expanding his critique of B. F. Skinner’s and W. V. O. Quine’s behaviourist determinism to the political realm, he has developed a libertarian and socialist vision of free will, opposition to concentrations of private and state power, and resistance to the abuse of power at home and abroad.

Throughout his adult life, from his moral opposition to America’s invasion of Vietnam to his country’s more recent adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq, Chomsky has argued that the US behaves much as its Spanish, British and French imperial predecessors once did. Moreover, he notes, the US has employed the same moral language to cover what appear to be global atrocities. Like Marlow in Heart of Darkness, he believes, “The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much”. Those Chomsky has consistently condemned must feel that he has looked into it too damned much…

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Marie Colvin Dedicated Her Extraordinary Life to Describing “What Really Happens in Wars”

The extraordinary life of war reporter Marie Colvin would have merited a biography even if she had survived the Syrian army’s bombardment of Homs in February 2012. Long before her fatal trip into the city’s rebel-held Baba Amr quarter, producers had proposed turning her life into an action-packed movie. It was only after her death that two films, a documentary and a drama, appeared. Now, Lindsey Hilsum has written the book “In Extremis: The Life and Death of the War Correspondent Marie Colvin,” and it is one of the best biographies I have read about any journalist. Colvin’s trajectory, personal as much as professional, was fascinating by any standard for the passion and turmoil that shadowed her from birth to untimely death. This is a great story, well told.

The controversy surrounding Colvin’s death partially overshadowed her achievements in life. Her family, friends, and Syrian opposition believe that the Syrian government assassinated her by targeting the Homs Media Center, where she and other correspondents were sending vivid reports of civilian suffering. Yet countervailing narratives persist. One is that the insurgents put journalists in harm’s way to create Western martyrs for their cause. Another is that Colvin and 28-year-old French photographer Rémi Ochlik were unlucky casualties of a military campaign that took thousands of civilian lives.

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