Politicians Don’t Decide What Information Illuminates a Story

by Genevieve Long for the Foreign Policy Association

U.S. President Barack Obama reversed a significant decision this past week. He decided to go back on his promise to release photographs of detainees in Iraq and Afghanistan that were taken a few years ago. The popular sentiment among the more conservative-minded might be that Obama is well within his right as Commander-in-Chief to do what he considers in the interest of national security. On the surface this does appear to be a sound argument for the reversed decision.

But dig a little deeper, and the logic that national security and our troops are being protected by thwarting the publication of said photos is actually a hairline crack in the foundation of free speech. And it’s the type of decision that can weaken a democracy.

In 1798, Thomas Jefferson said:

“One of the amendments to the Constitution… expressly declares that ‘Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press,’ thereby guarding in the same sentence and under the same words, the freedom of religion, of speech, and of the press; insomuch that whatever violates either throws down the sanctuary which covers the others.”

The freedom to think, speak, and believe freely is a great source of strength for Americans. But it can also be a great challenge. We are given explicit protection to be free, but no explicit instructions how to use that freedom. Therein lies the genius of the founding fathers’ conclusion in the Declaration of Independence that government must draw it’s “just powers from the consent of the governed”. A consenting citizenry must be an informed citizenry, otherwise it will always be at odds over what exactly it is consenting to.

Photos of detainees in Iraq and Afghanistan, for this very reason, should be released. The world, not just Americans, learned in the worst way that what goes on overseas in dark prison cells in the name of the United States makes the citizens of the United States linked to those events by association. Abu Grahib. Guantanamo. Black sites in Europe. The world will never know the extent of suffering that has been inflicted, only the imagined possibilities based on pieces of the story.

During a press briefing in Washington on May 13, President Obama’s Press Secretary Robert Gibbs made the basic point in the President’s argument to a fiesty press corps confounded by Obama’s decision.

Gibbs’s response, in part:


Must Read Books: Dexter Filkins’ “The Forever War”

Read an excerpt from a recent interview with Dexter Filkins here

by Genevieve Long

If you read only one book about Iraq and Afghanistan this year, make it “The Forever War”, by New York Times foreign correspondent Dexter Filkins. It is full of insightful, lyrical vignettes about the war in Iraq from 2003 to 2006, when Filkins was living there and reporting for the Times. It also includes about forty pages about Afghanistan just prior to the beginning of the war in Iraq.

What Filkins’ book accomplishes, in the short term, is to make a war on the other side of the world come to vivid life. Sometimes it is done in a manner that is startling and unnerving. In fact, when I was reading “The Forever War” for a book review, it gave me nightmares. But it also gave me a deeper understanding about an incredibly complex situation.

Within its pages, the book manages to cover the vast expanse of human experiences encountered in the face of a war like that in Iraq. It moves seamlessly from being so accustomed to suicide car bombings that a human being’s spinal cord on the ground is easily recognizable, to recognizing frustrated indignation in an Iraqi woman’s eyes when she insists on voting day that democracy is “just talking”. You can read my full review of the book at The Epoch Times.

Filkins’ book has won acclaim from readers and reviews. One such review, by George Packer, author of “The Assassins’ Gate: America in Iraq”, perfectly encapsulates the essence of why “The Forever War” is so timeless and a must-read for any American who wants to understand the impact that the war in Iraq has had.

Packer’s review reads, in part:

The Forever War is already a classic—it has the timeless feel of all great war literature. A lot has been written about Iraq and Afghanistan, but no one has seen as much, survived as much, and registered the horror with such sad eloquence as Dexter Filkins. His combination of courage and sensitivity is so rare that books like his come along only once every major war. This one is ours.”

Filkins, who spent the fall of 2008 on tour as his newly-published book climbed the New York Times’ bestseller list, recently returned from spending about six weeks on assignment in Afghanistan. His articles from that trip are must-reads for understanding the deepening crisis there.


Journalist Q&A: Dexter Filkins, The New York Times

Dexter Filkins is a foreign correspondent for The New York Times, and author of the new book, “The Forever War”. I caught up with him in December just days before he left to report from Afghanistan for nearly six weeks. Filkins returned to Afghanistan and Pakistan recently where he has been reporting for The New York Times.

As interviewed by Genevieve Long

If you were reporting in Iraq today, what story/stories would you go after?

“I was just there in September [2008], and I wrote a number of stories. The one thing that struck me was just how much things have changed, and mostly for the better, I wrote about that. I think if I were to going to go back today, I guess there are two big questions: what’s likely to happen when the presence of American troops is reduced substantially? That’s a big story. Which is to say, how durable are some of these changes we’ve seen? The second one, which is kind of related to that—there is a lot of evidence to suggest that what the Americans would be leaving behind is a kind of Shiite-authoritarian state. The United States is helping to midwife that. I don’t know if that’s entirely true because I’m not there but it’s a question that I’d like to answer. By Shiite authoritarian state I mean a state that doesn’t share power very willingly and doesn’t share resources very willingly, doesn’t tolerate dissent very well, doesn’t share power. I don’t know the answer to that question, but I would try to answer it.”

How well informed does the general public seem to be about the war in Iraq?

“I think people are pretty well informed. I’ve just got done touring around the country on my book tour and went to 22 cities. I’ve found people are pretty well informed. The war is still a very polarizing thing and people have pretty much made up their minds about it. Having said that I think that people are pretty well informed about what’s going on there.”

What do you think about the impact of the surge in Iraq?

“It seems to me that the violence has come way down, and the reasons for that are complicated. The surge is one of the reasons—it’s one of the main reasons, but it’s not the only reason. I don’t want to give the impression that the United States came in and did the surge and the violence came way down. I think its way more complicated than that. I think the surge helped, and I think there are a number of other things. For example, the Sunni Awakening was instrumental in bringing the violence down and the exploitation of that by the U.S. The Iraqi army is much better than it used to be, exhaustion on the part of the people, overreaching by al Qaeda, there’s a whole bunch of different factors.”

Following the surge and security improvements in Iraq, do you think access for journalists has gotten worse?

“The situation on the ground—when I was there in August and September [2008] I could safely visit places that I had not been able to [between 2003 to 2006]. I think too many people have the impression that American journalists working in Iraq in 2005, 2006, 2007 weren’t able to go anywhere so they just sat in their hotel rooms and sent Iraqis out. I never did that, the New York Times never did that. I can’t really speak for other people. The idea that no one could move around the country or the capital was false, and it was always false. A lot of people say that and they usually have some other point they are trying to make.”

What kinds of places have you gone when reporting in Iraq?

“I went to Adamiyah in 2006, it was really dangerous. It was pretty much under the control of the insurgency. I still went there—it was just really, really dangerous. I able to go back in September [2008], and it was much, much safer. I was able to go at night, I was able to walk around, I saw a wedding, and there were restaurants open. It was a lot easier to work. I just want to emphasize that it was not impossible to work in 2005 and 2006.”

Why do you think journalists get fingers pointed at them for not going out to report the story themselves?

“My own sense is that when people say journalists can’t go anywhere, that’s usually followed by some political point that they make about the war. Which is—‘It’s much better than is being been reported, and the reason why you don’t know that is the journalists don’t go out’, or ‘It’s much worse than is being reported, and the reason why you don’t understand the point I’m trying to make is because the journalists sit in their hotel rooms’. Again, it’s usually a political point that people are trying to make. It’s much easier in this case to kind of attack the messenger and say that ‘You have the wrong impression because you’ve been mislead by these people in the press, and here’s the real truth’. The [accusation that] journalists sit around in hotel rooms and don’t leave is usually followed by some overarching political point about the situation.”

How did you get around when you were reporting in Iraq?

“Every situation was different. In 2006 when things were really, really bad, there were some neighborhoods that you couldn’t really go to, or if you went to them there were some cases when I took an armored car, there were some cases when I didn’t, there were some occasions when I took guards, there were some occasions when I took a chase car, there were some cases when I didn’t. There were some places I felt safe to go at night, there were other places that I didn’t. It’s not like Switzerland there now, so you don’t want to get the wrong impression. There was just a gigantic suicide bombing there the other day in Kirkuk, they killed a bunch of people. So the danger there is still very real, what calm there is still pretty fragile. It’s not like reporters are walking around there in shorts on the sidewalk advertising their presence.”

As the U.S. winds down its presence in Iraq, where do you think the most important stories will be—possibly in countries nearby?

“I think the press goes where the story is. Iraq has gotten a lot of attention because the United States invaded Iraq in 2003 and Afghanistan in 2001, and there are Americans who are fighting and dying there. That’s the principal reason why people are interested in it—the American press. I don’t like to predict the future—not in Iraq and not in the Middle East. It’s not a good idea because it’s impossible to do. Are American troops going to be out in 2011? I wouldn’t hold your breath. There’s a very precarious situation, there’s still a war in Afghanistan and it’s deteriorated pretty remarkably. I think there will be a lot of attention in both places, as long as there are Americans are there.”

What is reporting in Afghanistan like?

“It’s very difficult. The terrain of the country is very forbidding, and there’s basically no infrastructure to speak of, so it’s like going back in time in a lot of places. It’s very hard to move around, even under the best of circumstances, and the circumstances are pretty bad in a lot of places given the resurgence of the Taliban. I think it’s really hard to work there. I think the combination of security and the geography make for a pretty difficult place to work.”


The View from the Ground in Iraq and Afghanistan

By Genevieve Long for Quill Magazine

When journalists watched American bombers strike Taliban positions in northern Afghanistan weeks after 9/11, Iraq wasn’t part of the story. But the Middle East can be like a kaleidoscope: a slight shift and the whole picture changes.

Seven years later, both Iraq and Afghanistan remain difficult, dangerous places for journalists to work. Iraq is especially deadly.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, from 2003 to 2008, 136 journalists were killed in Iraq; 129 died while not embedded, and most were Iraqi.

Last year, security conditions eased in Iraq, due in part to a U.S. troop “surge,” Sunni Awakening security forces and improvements in the Iraqi army. But things are by no means completely peaceful. In December alone, a suicide bombing in Kirkuk killed 48 and wounded 96; another in Baghdad killed 18 and injured 52.

“It’s not like Switzerland there now. The danger is still very real; what calm there is is still pretty fragile,” said Dexter Filkins, a New York Times foreign correspondent who worked in Iraq from 2003 to 2006.

“It’s not like reporters are walking around there in shorts on the sidewalk, advertising their presence.”

Filkins’ new book, “The Forever War,” paints a vivid and unvarnished picture of the war in Iraq. He notes that although the life of a journalist there is not easy, there was never a time when he relied solely on Iraqi journalists, embedding or second-hand information to get stories. In fact, Filkins refutes criticisms that journalists there are unwilling or unable to get out and report.

“It’s much easier to attack the messenger and say that ‘You have the wrong impression because you’ve been misled by these people in the press, and here’s the real truth,’” Filkins said. “The [accusation that] journalists sit around in hotel rooms and don’t leave is usually followed by some over-arching political point about the situation.”

Filkins said that even at the height of tensions and violence in 2006, he would find ways to report. Backed by the well-funded and heavily committed New York Times, he could use an armored car, a regular car, a chase car, no chase car or guards. He even went some places at night, depending on the circumstances.

But some journalists must rely heavily on embedding, a practice sometimes criticized for putting objectivity at risk.

“For about two or three years now, this has almost been like a challenge thrown at western journalists — what would they have them do, be murdered?” said Jon Lee Anderson, a staff writer for

The New Yorker who has reported on

Iraq and Afghanistan extensively but personally prefers not to embed. “I’ve covered over a dozen conflicts, and I’ve never been in such a murderous environment [as Iraq].”

Anderson said journalists should not be faulted for trying to preserve their lives, especially when they have continued to report such an unpopular story.

“There are very few westerners reporting on Iraq,” he said. “It’s less a reflection of journalists or media themselves than of popular interest.”

Anderson added that it’s a challenge for Americans to fasten their attention on so many different headline-grabbing crises at once.

“In the minds of most people, Iraq has moved away from near apocalypse and back from the brink, and that has been reflected by a sigh and move away from it by the media,” he said, predicting that news coverage will shift back toward Afghanistan.

Many reporters who have covered the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have found both countries to present unique challenges, especially for freelance journalists.

“It’s changed so much since the early days of the occupation when you could still move around by yourself,” said Scott Wallace, a freelance reporter and photographer. In mid-2003, Wallace followed Iraqi police special agents and their U.S. advisers on missions to capture kidnappers and fedayeen commanders on the streets of Baghdad.

“You cannot cover that story unless you’re with a news organization that has made that commitment to security, personnel, blast walls,” Wallace said. “Even if you are a member of that very reduced number of people, you are largely confined to the U.S. military.”

In some cases, even access to a high-profile figure or a military unit can come down to news organization or a personal connection. Wallace experienced both such cases.

On assignment in 2003 for a program that airs on Fox television, he found that getting close to former New York City Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik, in Baghdad training the new Iraqi police force, rested on his affiliation. He also gained “extraordinary access” to a mechanized infantry company through a hometown connection with the company’s first sergeant.

Wallace said the working conditions in any war zone can challenge a journalist’s motivation.

“That takes conviction in your mission, that what we’re doing is of the utmost importance and we’re there to shed light on the story,” he said.

Robert Nickelsberg, a contributing photojournalist with TIME magazine for 25 years who syndicates his photographs

with Getty Images, has been documenting Islamic fundamentalism’s rise in Afghanistan, Pakistan and India’s Kashmir. For Nickelsberg, the challenges facing journalists in Iraq make it near-impossible to do the job.

“I do not think it’s a workable environment for any journalist,” he said. “It’s just too dangerous. You almost need a small network of local people to get you from the airport to your hotel.”

He said Iraq requires journalists to work with the options they have, even if not ideal.

“There have been times when I only got a picture from a car with a window down,” Nickelsberg said. “There are people on rooftops with cell phones and walkie-talkies [watching you]. A rolled-down window could be all you get for the day.”

Nickelsberg was embedded with U.S. Marines in 2003 during the invasion of Baghdad. In May 2008, he reported from Sadr City, Iraq, the center of support for the radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. He said he thinks things have changed.

“In both places, [Iraq and Afghanistan] coverage has gone down,” Nickelsberg said. “The only way to see the urban and rural areas is with the military. We’re also finding there are fewer people who are willing to go.”

Regardless of the risks, the need to get the story remains.

“Luck is always involved,” Nickelsberg said. “But you set out to do certain things, face into the wind.”

In Afghanistan, luck may indeed play a part when journalists encounter harsh terrain, a poor infrastructure and a resurgent Taliban. Some think journalists will face a steep learning curve as they refocus on Afghanistan.

“The level of engagement, investment, blood and money were so extraordinary that the media were fixated on reporting that conflict [in Iraq],” said Bill Gentile, an independent journalist and filmmaker teaching at American University in Washington, D.C. He has covered inter-national conflict for almost 30 years. “The coverage of Afghanistan fell by the wayside, as did the administration’s focus. And now we are reaping the bitter fruits of that policy.”

Gentile was in Afghanistan when the bombs fell on the Taliban in 2001, and he was embedded in mid-2008 with the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. His documentary of his most recent trip, produced for PBS’s program NOW, is called “Afghanistan: The Forgotten War.”

He said he thinks there are underreported lessons to be learned from the human suffering wrought by both wars.

“Americans don’t have a sense of the physical damage that this has done to some of its finest sons or daughters,” Gentile said. “I think it’s primarily because of the lack of aggressive media coverage.”

This damage gets to the heart of what Gentile thinks is the fundamental goal of the journalist reporting on conflict, whether in Iraq or Afghanistan.

“I think human loss is the main point,” Gentile said. “If you are not reporting on human loss, you are not covering conflict.”

While Gaza Burns, Trouble Brews in Afghanistan

By GENEVIEVE LONG for the Epoch Times

read it here

News Analysis

The past few days the public has been bombarded by news of tragedies in the Gaza strip. If you consume your news like most Americans, you’re likely to hear or see at least one story about the battle raging between Israel and Palestine. It’s important on the world stage, but a singular fixation on what’s happening there could be distracting us from impending doom in other countries.

Consider if you will, Afghanistan. In 2001, the U.S. moved swiftly into the country to bring down the Taliban. All eyes were on the Middle Eastern country, waiting and watching for the capture or death of Osama bin Laden, who was believed to be hiding there at the time. Today, Bin Laden still eludes and even taunts his would-be captors, as evidenced in a recent tape believed to be him, calling for more war against the west.

What also eludes us is a peaceful and prosperous Afghanistan. With the current trend in military spending and troop commitments, there seems to be no end in sight.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates puts the estimated total for 2009 at $136 billion, according to the Associated Press. In a letter earlier this month to congressional leaders, Gates said his “personal assessment” is that $70 billion more will be needed in addition to the $66 billion already approved last year.

During a Jan. 13 press briefing, Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell told reporters that the U.S. government’s plan to send four more brigade combat teams, a combat aviation brigade and their enablers “will make a real difference on the ground in Afghanistan”.

The additional 20,000 to 30,000 troops will basically double U.S. forces in Afghanistan. That means Americans will shoulder half of the responsibility for the almost 100,000 coalition forces in-country. There are currently about 70,000 NATO and American troops there today.

“That [troop increases] cannot help but make a difference,” Morrell said during the briefing.

It is all part of a plan that includes recruiting local militias in a move borrowed from the ‘surge’ in Iraq. The premise was that former Sunni insurgents could be brought around, for the right price. The practice was that about 100,000 Sunnis, part of Awakening Councils, have been armed, put on patrol, and put on the U.S. payroll. Subsequent security improvements aside, Afghanistan is a different animal, and similar efforts might not work there.

A Familiar Threat

Despite hopeful predictions about an Afghanistan surge, there is still a creeping menace in Afghanistan—the Taliban.

A survey by the International Council on Security and Development determined that the Taliban has established a permanent presence in 72 percent of Afghanistan. Just a year ago, it was only about 54 percent.

Reports filed from the field by the New York Times, the Washington Post, and other media about the current state of affairs in Afghanistan are painting a bleak picture. The country is rife with corruption from top to bottom. The middle class is disappearing. Women and girls going to school in rural areas are being threatened and attacked with acid thrown in their faces. Although the Taliban has not claimed responsibility for every such attack, they are infamous for being against education for women.

Notable recent coverage of Afghanistan comes from New York Times foreign correspondent, Dexter Filkins. His recent book, The Forever War, describes the joy of the people after the fall of the Taliban in 2001. Filkins’ recent reporting is much bleaker—chaos, corruption and a Taliban force snaking its way through the country, trying to control the hearts and the minds of the people.

“The ‘bad war’ in Iraq has become much better, while the ‘good war’ in Afghanistan has gotten much worse,” commented Filkins during a stop on book tour this past fall. Filkins also says that in light of the forbidding terrain, lack of infrastructure, and a resurgent Taliban, it is an incredibly difficult place to report and gather news.

“The circumstances are pretty bad in a lot of places given the resurgence of the Taliban,” says Filkins.

Then there is the issue of corruption. A recent report filed from Afghanistan by Filkins notes: “Kept afloat by billions of dollars in American and other foreign aid, the government of Afghanistan is shot through with corruption and graft. From the lowliest traffic policeman to the family of President Hamid Karzai himself, the state built on the ruins of the Taliban government seven years ago now often seems to exist for little more than the enrichment of those who run it.”

Unknown Challenges

The New York Times is not alone in their assessment of the brewing dangers in Afghanistan. Jon Lee Anderson, a veteran war correspondent and staff writer for The New Yorker, says it’s worse there than the general public might imagine.

“Afghanistan remains a big unknown in many ways—it never got the attention that Iraq did, and it’s going to get very bloody before it gets better,” says Anderson. “In some ways we’re back to where we were in Iraq in late 2003 and 2004, in that the crux of that conflict has yet to come.”

6 years of heavy fighting in nearby Iraq is not an automatic indicator of what troops, both U.S. and NATO, can continue to expect in Afghanistan. The terrain of the countries is vastly different—Afghanistan’s is far more forbidding and difficult to navigate.

According to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, there are also intense ethnic and tribal divisions there.

All of this adds up to a country that is fractured along social, cultural, and economic lines.

“I think this coming year you’ll see a huge increase in military activity [in Afghanistan] and therefore political and journalist interest,” says Anderson. “It’s going to be difficult—you’re talking about a much more wild environment [than Iraq].”

Estimated War Costs for 2009 is $136 Billion


By Genevieve Long for The Epoch Times

The cost of fighting two wars in Iraq in Afghanistan will cost taxpayers dearly in 2009. An estimate by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates puts the estimated total for the coming year at $136 billion, according to the Associated Press. In a letter to congressional leaders, Gates said his “personal assessment” is that $70 billion more will be needed in addition to the $66 billion already approved last year.

Days before the letter, which was sent at the beginning of January, the Department of Defense (DoD) also released its updated Unified Command Plan. The Command Plan, which is updated every two years, is a key strategic document that establishes the missions, responsibilities, and geographic areas of responsibility for commanders of combatant commands.