Entries from August 2006

Counterfeit News

David Frum August 26th, 2006 at 12:00 am Comments Off

Perhaps you saw the images in your newspaper or on television:

“A Lebanese man counts U.S dollar bills received from Hizbollah members in a school in Bourj el-Barajneh, a southern suburb of Beirut, August 19, 2006. Hizbollah handed out bundles of cash on Friday to people whose homes were wrecked by Israeli bombing, consolidating the Iranian-backed group’s support among Lebanon’s Shiites and embarrassing the Beirut government. REUTERS/Eric Gaillard (LEBANON)”

This scene and dozens more like it flashed around the planet. Only one thing was missing–the thin wire security strip that runs from top to bottom of a genuine US$100 bill. The money Hezbollah was passing was counterfeit, as should have been evident to anybody who studied the photographs with due care.

Care was due because of Hezbollah’s history of counterfeiting: In June, 2004, the U.S. Department of the Treasury publicly cited Hezbollah as one of the planet’s leading forgers of U.S. currency.

But this knowledge was disregarded by the news organizations who queued up to publicize Hezbollah’s pseudo-philanthropy. The passing of counterfeit bills was detected not by the reporters and photographers on the spot, but by bloggers thousands of miles away: SnappedShots.com, MyPetJawa and Charles Johnson’s Little Green Footballs. These sites magnified photographs and showed them to currency experts and detected irregularity after irregularity in the bills. (Links to all the sites mentioned here can be found at frum.nationalreview.com)

Maybe it’s too much to expect journalists to be currency experts. But one does expect them to be able to detect a manipulated photograph, especially a crudely manipulated one. Yet it was again Charles Johnson–who is a professional musician by the way–and not a news editor, who caught Reuters distributing faked photographs by its now infamous Lebanese staff photographer, Adnan Hajj.

Hajj used Photoshop software to make fires in Lebanese cities look larger than they were and to transform photos of Israeli signal flares into apparent images of missiles in full flight. For this and other faked pictures, Hajj was fired and Reuters removed almost a thousand of his photographs from its archive.

But the scandal of Lebanese war coverage only begins with Hajj; it does not end there–nowhere close.

In July, respected news organizations like AP, the BBC, Time Magazine, ITN, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and thousands of others broadcast the shocking news that Israeli forces had fired missiles at two clearly marked Red Cross ambulances, igniting intense fires that injured their passengers. Accompanying photographs and then later footage taken by somebody described as a “local cameraman” showed a badly damaged ambulance with a hole in the dead centre of the roof.

Yet as the blogger Zombietime.com has demonstrated, the whole story is a crude hoax. Photographs of the ambulances in question show no signs of blast or burn. Nor was there any damage to the floor of the ambulance–as one would expect if a missile had smashed through the roof. The badly “wounded” and heavily bandaged ambulance driver who appeared in the stories resurfaced in other news footage six days later without so much as a scratch upon him. The hole in the roof was not only perfectly round, but it matched exactly the size and placement of the ambulance’s missing siren. The siren must have been removed some time before, because the edge of the hole was corroded by rust.

Although journalists were not allowed to inspect the ambulances themselves–and had to rely on images supplied by Hezbollah–and although the ambulance drivers’ stories changed and changed again, becoming more dramatic with each retelling, every single Western reporter who covered the story accepted it as unquestioned fact.

So are reporters just gullible? The most troubling of all the blog reports, this posted at EUReferendum.com, strongly suggests a more disturbing explanation.

The authors of the EUReferendum blog painstakingly studied all the available photographic evidence of the damage done by the Israeli bombing of a Hezbollah compound near the village of Qana on July 30. According to many press reports, the Israeli bombs struck a three-storey building, trapping civilians and children in the rubble. The toll was estimated at some 60 people, later reduced to 28. The photographs and television footage from this sad scene became some of the most famous footage of the whole Lebanon war.

At the EUReferendum site, you can see over many Web pages a compilation of evidence that proves beyond all reasonable doubt that the images from Qana were not merely staged–but staged with the active knowledge and complicity of the Western journalists on the scene.

Scenes were enacted and re-enacted; dead bodies were carried from point to point and then back again; Hezbollah spokesmen chatted on cellphones when they believed the cameras were turned away from them–and then erupted in tears and anguish when they believed the cameras had turned on again.

How to account for this massive distortion? Yesterday, Annia Ciezadlo detailed in these pages Hezbollah’s attempts to deceive the press. But why is the press so horribly susceptible to manipulation? Anti-Israel ideology plays its part. So too must competitive zeal. Photo-journalists want to win prizes–and news organizations want scoops: If that means hiring local Hezbollah sympathizers to carry cameras where more objective journalists are forbidden to go, that is a price that news organizations will too often pay.

Finally, let’s not underestimate the power of fear: Hezbollah is the terrorist organization that held the AP reporter Terry Anderson hostage in Lebanon for six years. As the stories of Jill Caroll of the Christian Science Monitor, Steve Centanni and Olaf Wiig of Fox News, and of course Daniel Pearl remind us, Middle Eastern terrorist groups do not scruple to seize and murder journalists.

Terrorism’s Enablers

David Frum August 19th, 2006 at 12:00 am Comments Off

Attention nervous flyers: Don’t think you can escape the terrorists by taking the train.

On July 31, an alert German train conductor spotted an abandoned suitcase on a regional train as it passed through the city of Dortmund, in western Germany. That same day a similar suitcase was found near Koblenz, in the German south. The two suitcases contained bottles of gasoline, propane gas and detonators–a deadly effective firebomb that could have killed or horribly burned hundreds of travellers. They were wired to explode at the same time, with at least as much force as the 7/7 bombings in London.

At a press conference yesterday, German police announced they had identified two suspects in the case: Two men were photographed by surveillance cameras carrying the suitcases into the Cologne railway station–the station from which the Dortmund and Koblenz trains had departed. The suitcases had been stuffed with clothes to prevent the gasoline bottles from rattling. On examination, the clothes proved to contain little pieces of paper covered in Arabic lettering.

With London and Toronto, the German suitcase bombs raise to three the number of mega-murder plots exposed in this single summer. Had police been less vigilant or less lucky, we could well now be mourning the deaths of thousands of American and British air travellers, Canadian office workers and German commuters.

But let’s not get carried away by relief and enthusiasm.

For even as Western police forces become more capable, our terrorist enemies become in their way more dangerous.

Increasingly they are born on native soil. They speak the language with a local accent–and are protected by all the legal rights of citizenship.

Three of the 24 British suspects arrested have turned out to be converts to Islam. Daniel Pipes has long warned that extremist Islam might replace radical leftism as the default ideology for angry and alienated young people looking for an alternative to democratic capitalism. Those warnings seem now to be coming true.

It might have been hoped that the spread of extremism among Western Muslim communities would jolt those communities into soul-searching and self-criticism; into a rejection of violence, intolerance and anti-Semitism. Some suggested that Western Muslim communities would develop a new democratic Islam that might be re-exported back into the Middle East.

No doubt there are individual Muslims in the West working hard at these vital tasks even as we speak. But at the same time, it has also become evident that many of the organized Muslim groups in the West have reacted in exactly the opposite way. For some of these groups, terror has ceased to be (if it ever was) a community disgrace–and has come to be seen instead as an exploitable opportunity.

On Aug. 12, for example, 38 British Muslim groups as well as three of the four British Muslim MPs published an open letter to Prime Minister Tony Blair, blaming his government for bringing terrorist attacks upon Britain:

“It is our view that current British government policy risks putting civilians at increased risk both in the U.K. and abroad. . . . The debacle of Iraq and now the failure to do more to secure an immediate end to the attacks on civilians in the Middle East not only increases the risk to ordinary people in that region, it is also ammunition to extremists who threaten us all.” The letter writers demanded immediate changes to British policy toward both Iraq and Israel.

(The full text can be read at http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/4786159.stm.)

United Kingdom Home Secretary John Reid brusquely dismissed the letter as dressed-up extortion. The left-wing newspaper The Observer eloquently editorialized:

“If young British Muslims are alienated, that is sad and their anger should be addressed. But anyone whose alienation leads them to want to kill indiscriminately has crossed a line into psychopathic criminality. Policy cannot be dictated by the need to placate such people.

“British Muslim leaders are entitled, along with everybody else, to raise questions about the conduct and consequences of Mr Blair’s foreign policy. But they have a more immediate responsibility to promote the truth: that Britain is not the aggressor in a war against Islam; that no such war exists; that there is no glory in murder dressed as martyrdom and that terrorism is never excused by bogus accounts of historical victimization.”

That is well said, but it is only the beginning of what needs to be said. There is something more: The willingness of many Muslims in the West to accept “anger” as a justification for terrorism is itself one of terrorism’s most important and immediate causes.

The success of police in Germany, London and Toronto offers real hope that the West is making progress against terrorism in North America and Europe. But we are making disturbingly little progress against terrorism’s enablers: not just the killers who carry the bombs, but the larger community that while pretending to condemn them, seeks to make use of them.

Flying Blind

David Frum August 12th, 2006 at 12:00 am Comments Off

So now we’re to ban lipsticks and hand sanitizers from airplanes? The success of British security services in stopping a terrorist plot has unleashed all the most perverse and unavailing instincts of transportation safety authorities.

They already banned nail scissors after 9/11. They require passengers to remove shoes in perpetual remembrance of Richard Reid’s attempt to smuggle explosives on to a plane in his trainers. Now once again they will impose a massively costly new rule on all passengers in order to protect them from the violence of a few.

And make no mistake: If made permanent and universal, the rule will be massively costly. Four billion people travel by air every year. Four billion people go through passenger screening. If we conservatively assume that the average air passenger’s time is worth $50 an hour, then every minute we add to the screening process costs passengers $3.35-billion per year. Ten extra minutes is $33.5-billion. Twenty minutes: $67-billion. The fact that the costs fall directly on the passenger rather than upon the industry or the public treasury does not make them any less real.

Compare, please, how we do airline security to the way in which the British authorities do real security. Did they kick open the door of every house in London to search for terrorists? Obviously not. Did they wiretap every British home, send agents into every church, synagogue, Christian Science reading room, and Quaker meeting house in the land? Again, no. They focused enforcement resources where they were most likely to get results, identified a threat–and pounced.

It’s possible to do something similar to protect airline safety. It’s possible, for example, to take four or five basic pieces of information about somebody (such as name, address, phone number, date of birth) and match them against the commercial databases used by mortgage companies and credit card issuers to arrive at a surprisingly sophisticated terrorist risk profile of each passenger.

If, for example, you are a 38-year-old-woman, married and the mother of three, who has lived at the same address for nine years, has travelled to Barbados with her three children at Christmas for the past three years and is about to go again: Well, you present a fairly low risk. Airline security might still ask you to walk through a metal detector just to be on the safe side, but it should not waste too much time on you beyond that.

Another approach: Perhaps if you fly often from New York to London, you might be willing to volunteer a whole mass of information to British Airways in return for a “trusted traveller” card that will allow you to walk on the plane with minimal fuss. Your name might be Omar Abdullah, but if they know that you are 57 years old, director of the Middle East collection at the Metropolitan Museum, own an apartment in Manhattan and a brokerage account at Merrill Lynch, carry a Visa card with a $50,000 limit, fly to London six times a year with tickets paid for by the museum, and so on and so on … well, they can pretty confidently let you on the plane with minimal formalities.

Please notice that neither program–neither risk profiling nor trusted traveller–would make any use of information about ethnicity or religion. They would not in any sense of the term be “racial profiling.” Please note as well that both would use only information that the individual himself had voluntarily provided either directly to the airline or to other commercial entities–no government coercion would be involved.

Yet both these approaches have been effectively banned in the United States; the first by the U.S. Congress, the second by informal pressures placed upon the airlines by the Transportation Safety Agency.

Why? Congress and the TSA have surrendered to pressure from advocacy groups who fear that if we concentrate enforcement resources where they will do the most good, we will end up concentrating them upon unattached young Muslim men. Very few Muslims are Islamic terrorists, but all Islamic terrorists are Muslim. Our prescreening process may be ethnically neutral, but the results will not be.

But isn’t that precisely the way security is supposed to work?

The British police are excruciatingly fair-minded: At their press conference this week, they stressed that the suspects are “British Asians,” strenuously avoiding mention of the words “Muslim” or “Islamic.” Yet even they manage somehow to reconcile themselves to dealing with terrorism by narrowing their attention to the most likely potential terrorists. Why can’t aviation security do likewise?

You will have plenty of time to ponder that question as you stand in the long, long, long lines that will stretch all through this traveling summer.

How Far Will Obrador Take This?

David Frum August 5th, 2006 at 12:00 am Comments Off

At first, it seemed like a mariachi version of Bush v. Gore. On July 2, the Mexican presidential election ended in a teeth-chatteringly close final result: 35.89% of the vote for winner Felipe Calderon to 35.32% of the vote for loser Lopez Obrador.

As in the United States, the left-of-centre loser had started with a big lead over the eventual right-of-centre winner. As in the United States, the loser disputed the result and demanded a recount. As in the United States, the loser lost the recount, too. As in the United States, the loser then demanded a new kind of recount, one more favourable to himself. And as in the United States, the courts told him he could not have it.

But here’s where the Mexican story begins ominously to diverge from the American.

Bush v. Gore went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. On Dec. 8, 2000, that court delivered a ruling that finished Gore’s hopes. Gore privately reviled the decision. But nonetheless, within a very few minutes he stepped before the television cameras to deliver a gracious speech accepting the result. The United States lives by law, and no politician can hope to survive outside the law.

In Mexico, however, the rule of law is newer and weaker. Undaunted by his legal defeats, Lopez Obrador has launched a struggle for power in the streets of Mexico.

From the 1930s until the 1990s, Mexico was governed by a single political party, the Party of the Permanent Revolution (PRI). In the 1990s, a modernizing faction within the PRI led a transition to a more open economy and to multi-party democracy. Along the way, they reformed Mexico’s once fraud-plagued electoral system. Today, Mexico can claim one of the most sophisticated and honest voting systems on earth, overseen by an independent election tribunal of unquestioned integrity.

Under these new rules, the PRI lost the presidential election of 2000 to Vicente Fox, the candidate of the right-of-centre National Action Party–and the PRI modernizers triumphantly surrendered power. Their defeat was their greatest achievement.

But not everyone within the PRI supported this move to modernity. Many still cherished the party’s nationalist, populist, and authoritarian traditions. They split off to form a new party, the Party of Revolutionary Democracy, or PRD.

They found a leader in Lopez Obrador and elected him mayor of Mexico City.

As mayor, Obrador showed himself to be a classic Mexican caudillo, or local boss. He engaged in showy displays of solidarity with Mexico’s poor–while doing nothing about the governmental incompetence and corruption that keeps Mexico in poverty.

Under Obrador, Mexico City has become one of the most dangerous and lawless metropolises on earth. Underpaid cops and corrupt officials look the other way as gangs rob, steal, and kidnap; as business is frightened away by shakedown rackets; and as municipal funds are wasted and stolen. Obrador himself defied courts and laws when they got in the way of his vision of social justice or limited his own power.

And now Obrador is bringing his caudillo methods to national politics. For weeks, he has been calling out his supporters in waves of increasingly menacing protest.

Last Sunday, he summoned a huge crowd to Mexico City’s central square, the Zocalo, to urge a campaign of civil disobedience. The next day, his followers closed Mexico’s grand boulevard, the Paseo del Reforma, to traffic. All week, they have launched rotating street protests. On Thursday, they blocked the entrance to Mexico’s stock market. On Friday, they tried to close two of the most important international bridges that span the Rio Grande.

Obrador says that all he wants is one more recount, a national recount this time. But even without the benefit of the count, Obrador has begun to describe himself in television interviews as Mexico’s elected president. He has produced videotape that purports to show ballot stuffing by his opponents. But when examined by outside experts, it was the tape itself that turned out to have been faked.

Mexico’s institutions are probably strong enough to resist Obrador. A survey conducted in the third week of July by Ipsos-Bima found that 52% of Mexicans believe that Calderon won the July, 2 vote.

But Calderon had campaigned on pledges to resume Vicente Fox’s stalled campaign to open Mexico’s over-regulated economy. Will Obrador’s threats and protests now frighten Calderon away from the path of reform?

Mexico’s economy has performed miserably over the past decade. Despite NAFTA, Mexico remains a protected, regulated, backward economy. The crowds Obrador has summoned into the streets are demanding more of all that impoverishes Mexico–and less of everything that could save it.

Those crowds may not succeed in imposing their bad leader upon Mexico. But they may well succeed in imposing his bad policies.