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Clark’s Run Still Clouded

Which of us is the biggest war hero? Which of us has lived the life of a real commander in chief?

Retired general Wesley Clark doesn’t use those specific words as he campaigns in a field of seven for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination. But that is indeed his theme: That the other Democrats—and the president they want to oust—do have certain merits but none but him has the whole kit and caboodle to make a president for this perilous time. Again and again, he says to voters that he’s the real deal—because he has been a successful wartime leader (Kosovo) while also conducting fruitful international diplomacy (the Dayton Accords for Bosnia).

“To me,” he says at Legion halls and small-town diners, “patriotism is not dressing up in a flight suit and prancing on the deck of an aircraft carrier”—a clear reference to President Bush’s romp on the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln last May. “I fought for this flag. I saw brave men and women buried under it. And no Tom DeLay, John Ashcroft, or George W. Bush is going to be able to take that flag away from this party and this country.”

General Clark does have an impressive résumé, and so far, that history and the quite credible duty-honor-flag stump speech has kept this political neophyte in the middle of an ever shifting pack of more seasoned presidential strivers. But a shadow trails his campaign, and it needs dealing with. It’s the question of how much he knew about the preparations for the U.S. attack on Iraq and why he didn’t alert the public to it.

Though he now repeats endlessly that he has “always been against President Bush’s war,” the record shows something else.

While he was a military analyst for CNN during the Afghanistan conflict and the run-up to the Iraq war, he told the public almost none of what he knew about the Bush administration having decided almost immediately after the 9-11 terrorist attack to lay the plans for invading Iraq. His criticisms—which are now full-blown accusations of misleading the nation into war by exaggerating the degree and imminence of Iraq’s threat to U.S. security—were then tentative and almost polite. On CNN and in congressional testimony, he said only that war should be a last resort and that there was still time for multinational diplomacy to work, rather than embarking on a seemingly headlong and risky unilateral course. He said nothing in any CNN commentary, or in articles he wrote occasionally in the press, about the evidence he had been given by former colleagues in the Pentagon right after 9-11 that the decision to proceed to war had already been made.

How do we know that Clark had evidence of full-scale war plans early after the 9-11 terrorist attacks? Because he told us so in his book Winning Modern Wars, published by PublicAffairs last September (a week after he announced his candidacy), in which he says unequivocally that he learned of the Bush war plans in just two months after 9-11. But neither in the book, nor in any forum since, has the general convincingly explained why he didn’t make the information public at the time, when it might have made a difference in the course of events. Would Congress, for example, had it known, so easily have passed Bush’s war resolution?

The nub of what the retired general knew right after 9-11 is on page 130 of the book: “As I went back through the Pentagon in November 2001, one of the senior military staff had time for a chat. Yes, we were still on track for going against Iraq, he said. But there was more. This was being discussed as part of a five-year campaign plan, he said, and there were a total of seven countries, beginning with Iraq, then Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Iran, Somalia, and Sudan. . . . I left the Pentagon that afternoon deeply concerned.”

Elsewhere in the book, Clark calls the Bush plan “a policy blunder of significant proportions . . . [E]vidence and rhetoric were used selectively to justify the decision to attack Iraq. . . . [We] had re-energized Al Qaeda by attacking an Islamic state and presenting terrorists with ready access to vulnerable U.S. forces.”

The Voice disclosed all this in a lengthy article upon the book’s publication. More recently, the general declined to be interviewed for, or to comment on, this piece about his political campaign. Clark’s only explanation for his silence of nearly two years on these matters came in a Q&A session with reporters after a speech last October. First he said that his assignment at CNN was to comment on military matters, not policy issues. “There were other people [at CNN] who worked the policy piece,” he said. “And, um, that may sound like not much of a distinction to you, but for CNN it was significant.” But then he added: “Also, I kept hoping that what I heard [at the Pentagon] wasn’t true . . . I kept hoping wiser heads would prevail.” Hope is not much of a qualification for presidential decision-making.

[

Clark is hardly the only candidate saddled with inconsistencies between old and new positions. Kerry, for one, voted for the Bush war resolution on Iraq, and now he speaks vehemently against the war. So he too has explaining to do as long as his military résumé and his record on national security are part of his campaign platform.


For comparison purposes only, the last career military person to serve as president was five-star general Dwight D. Eisenhower, who led Allied troops to victory in Europe in World War II. But, unlike Clark and the internecine catfight he faces, Eisenhower was virtually handed his nomination by the Republican Party in 1952. Television was an embryonic thing then. Campaigns were not completely about image. That was a different time.

The general has lately been in New Hampshire competing against such rivals as North Carolina senator John Edwards, who was in his junior year in college when the American military role in Vietnam ended; Howard Dean, former Vermont governor and physician who avoided Vietnam through a medical deferment; and Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, who was wounded and decorated in Vietnam, returned disillusioned, and became a fiery advocate against the war.

General Clark—who also was wounded and decorated in Vietnam and closed out his four-star military career as NATO supreme commander (with a victory in 1999 over the Serb ethnic cleansers in Kosovo)—is most focused on Kerry because the Massachusetts senator has the only war record and national security credentials to challenge his own. And Kerry emerged the winner last week in the Iowa presidential caucuses, the first of the 2004 presidential season.

Clark, having entered the race late, opted not to compete in Iowa so as to concentrate on the New Hampshire primary, which takes place just as this paper is going to press on Tuesday, January 27. You’ll know the results by the time you read this, so there’ll be no foolhardy predictions from this corner.

As soon as Clark saw the Iowa returns, he zeroed in first on surprise winner Kerry. To Bob Dole on CNN: “Senator, with all due respect, he’s a lieutenant and I’m a general.”

At a press conference in Manchester, New Hampshire, that same night, when asked about Kerry’s military record, the general said: “It’s one thing to be a hero as a junior officer. He’s done that, and I respect him for that. He’s been a good senator. But I’ve had the military leadership at the top as well as the bottom. . . . Nobody in this race has got the kind of background I’ve got.”

By the next day, he had softened his language somewhat but the point was the same. “I’m not trying to draw a distinction between my rank and Senator Kerry’s [but] we need a leader who’s been on the front lines of battle and in the back rooms of diplomacy.” As NATO commander, he has often pointed out, in order to forge agreements, he had to deal with not only the Pentagon and the White House but the civilian and military leaders of the European countries.

By midweek, Clark was grouping Iowa runner-up John Edwards with Kerry in his target equation, saying that he possessed all of Kerry’s and Southerner Edwards’s qualifications—and then some. “People in Iowa,” he told a veterans’ campaign rally in New Hampshire, “were looking for someone who knew national security affairs. They were looking for someone who could go toe-to-toe with the president—a veteran. They were looking for someone who could campaign across the country and carry the South.” (Clark is from Arkansas.) The Iowans, he went on, “split their votes. I am that package, all-in-one vote.”

Clark’s patriotic themes are of course also intended to suggest that he is the most elect-able candidate against President Bush, whose military record was brief. He served for a time in the Air National Guard here at home as a weekend pilot—though now he chooses to wear military gear fairly frequently at ceremonies and photo ops with soldiers.

In some respects, given their clashing biographies, Clark might seem the most electable of the Democrats seeking to evict Bush from the White House.

Bush’s central campaign hologram is the civilian president who rose up after 9-11 and led the country into war against “the axis of evil” in Afghanistan and Iraq. After two years of American combat followed by the expected victories, both countries are struggling to produce a peaceful result. In Afghanistan, security exists only in the capital, Kabul, with warlords and Islamic extremists essentially ruling the outer regions. In Iraq, the American occupation has had mixed results, including tenuous security. Military and civilian casualties continue to rise.

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Clark, on the other hand, has known only success in his 34 years as a soldier, getting high marks both in the classroom and as a field commander. He was first in his class at West Point, then became a Rhodes scholar. Recently, he testified as a prosecution witness at Milosevic’s war-crimes trial before a United Nations tribunal in the Hague.

Last month, as the general walked through the crowd after a town hall meeting in Derry, New Hampshire, he was asked how he would respond if anyone criticized his loyalty or military record.

“I’ll beat the shit out of them,” Clark told the questioner, as C-SPAN caught it live on television.

No one is questioning Clark’s patriotism or his record of service. But reasonable people do think candid explanations are crucial to any candidate’s credibility—especially when a credibility gap is one of the major failings of the sitting president the Democrats are trying to unseat.

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Wink, Wink

For proof that people are fools, look no further than the common staring contest, the bored beer drinker’s game that takes place in every watering hole in the country. In fact, you can look at a whole hour’s worth of film documenting the phenomenon, StareMaster, which takes place in that great cultural mecca of Pensacola, Florida. The same state that, as Jello Biafra points out on the website staremaster.com, gave us Marilyn Manson and Deicide.

But before you get on your high horse about how New Yorkers are far too busy and intelligent to bother with such a lowbrow thing as a staring contest, think again. Because last Monday night at Pianos (I’ve decided that Pianos is the new Pianos), a whole roomful of people, after sitting through the StareMaster documentary and laughing derisively at the stoner contestant who prepared for his matches with a little help from his “friends” and by playing his didgeridoo, bum-rushed the stage for a chance to compete—including one guy who was actually from Pensacola, poor thing.

A few ladies volunteered, but for some reason they were defeated. Maybe it’s because women aren’t programmed to do such banal things, but the boys ended up winning every match. Just as well; it’s a dubious honor, becoming a StareMaster. The rules were pretty simple (no talking, no laughing, no smiling, etc.), but it was the Dry-Eye Death portion of the contest that usually broke one person. (In case you were wondering, two highly trained judges refereed.)

Surely, I thought, the New Yorkers will be no match for characters like the aging punk Elvis, redneck Adam, and creepy StareMaster Dave, the undefeated champion depicted in the film. Nor will the crowd be as drunk, messy, and loud as the hecklers in the Florida audiences. Wrong again—especially considering that most New Yorkers are from places like Pensacola. Up front, a whole posse of extremely hip, extremely inebriated youngsters had a difficult time sitting up in their chairs, but had no problem catcalling the contestants with all sorts of unprintable names. Go, New York!

Most baffling was the presence of CNN and Fox News. I wondered if the news organizations got that the New York audience wasn’t playing this straight. The eventual Pianos StareMaster, William Vernon Lemon “the Third,” a long-haired, beady-eyed bearded man from San Francisco, played to the camera, doing his best Miss America impersonation, mouthing the words “I love you” as he held back his tears. He was as baffled by the presence of CNN as I was, but did his best to impress. When I discovered where he was from, I said, “No way can you be a real hick,” to which he replied, “But it sure is fun to act like one.”

No fool and no hick (even though he’s from the South), Larry Tee has risen again from the ashes of clubland for what must be his bazillionth act. This time, he renovates his Electroclash Festival—giving it a new name, the Outsider Electronic Music Festival—and including bands that weren’t born and bred at Luxx, his old stomping ground. This year’s fest is set to happen in December at Crobar (should that place ever get around to opening), and will feature a few e-clash oldies like Tommie Sunshine, 2 Many DJs, and W.I.T. (notice, dear readers, how I clamp my tongue?). While I like 2 Many DJs, I’ve seen them 2 Many Times, so I’m happy to report that Tee is bringing some London upstarts—Discordinated and Punx Soundcheck—that I’ve never heard but am sure I’ll be totally sick of by this time next year. Tee describes the former as being “closer to Nitzer Ebb than Fischerspooner,” which, admittedly, sounds cool. Also on the bill is Black Mustache, Spencer Product‘s new product, old skool electro-funk LFO doing a live p.a., and new schoolers Fannypack.

Electroclash graduate Peaches—who played last week to a bunch of horny lesbians and Björk (still sporting her weird haircut)—is on her way to opening for Marilyn Manson in Europe. Perfect: He can moon the crowd with his bare ass; she can show her bushy pubes. Now, that’s what I call 2 Much Fun!


tromano@villagevoice.com

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Music

HEAVY EL-PING HAND

Rapper with dense album upstaged by self-important CEO

At the beginning of Aesop Rock’s October 4 Bowery set, El-P bopped out on the stage and promptly declared his own importance. The cut is called “We’re Famous,” and El-P’s portion of it is mostly concerned with the Def Jux CEO flashing his underground pass and arguing for his own centrality in a world where 50 Cent doesn’t know his name. It’s an argument El-P can’t win. But damn if he didn’t spend the night engaging in it—at Aesop Rock’s expense.

On its own merits, Aesop Rock’s performance should have been transcendent. In a world where rappers happily lumber across stage and call it a show, Aesop is that rare visual rapper, an MC so in sync with his own lyrics that every movement seems to accentuate a drum lick. On Saturday, his renditions of “Super Fluke,” “Freeze,” and “Daylight” were more colorful and urgent as Aesop punctuated his scattershot vocals with serpentine steps and flailing hands. Every motion added an extra layer.

But Aesop also had to contend with El-P’s demerits. Whereas Aesop’s live MC’ing gains heft from his frenetic energy, El-P’s actually flattens, burdened by his heavy-handed proclamations. “Patriotism” is hip-hop’s greatest tribute to the double entendre, but not when El-P strips away all mystery by offering a rambling screed against the war on terrorism. For that matter, why was he even performing “Patriotism”? It’s Aesop who has the new album out—the dense and enigmatic Bazooka Tooth. Yet there was his co-star, rummaging five years deep into his catalog.

Maybe it would have been bearable had Aesop’s set not been preceded by three acts of negligible skill. The Fun Action Committee came off like a lesser Majesticons; Hangar 18 were just forgettable. The middling nihilism of S.A. Smash seemed almost refreshing in comparison. For Aesop, the assembled Def Juxers offered more weight than lift. But when the show ended, the crowd was still chanting his name. Hopefully his label was listening. Ta-Nehisi Coates


WAR AIN’T OVER YETI

Yaks? Mammoths? Musk oxen? Bigfeet? None of the above

Undeniably hirsute but otherwise genus-defying, Super Furry Animals are pop’s ultimate hybrid bastards—love children of more phyla than seems biologically possible. For once forestalling the mutations programmed into its genetic code, the Welsh quintet’s psych-prog seizures attained an improbable (if still rowdy) equilibrium amid the extraterrestrial vistas of 2001’s Rings Around the World. The new Phantom Power (also available as a DVD of lysergic screen savers) is both dreamier and messier, and more explicitly concerned with the state of the planet—the anti-war party album of the year.

Assailed with eggs by offended patriots on their last U.S. tour, the Super Furries found a politically kindred audience two weekends ago at Irving Plaza, where they continued their longstanding tradition of upstaging the headliners (in this case, the agreeable though all too docile Grandaddy). They kept the proceedings strictly English-language (i.e., nothing from 2000’s Mwng, let alone 1995’s Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyndrobwl), though frontman Gruff Rhys was self-conscious enough to wonder at one point, “Do you understand anything I’m saying?” Celtic inflection and grubby sound mix notwithstanding, there was no mistaking the sentiments. The Phantom Power songs took on a harried urgency, while the video projections bluntly reinforced the agit component.

“The Piccolo Snare,” a mournful vision of hawkish bloodshed, was accompanied by a cartoon of falling missiles morphing into crosses, hitting their targets as gravestones in a cemetery. For the flailing holy-war deathstomp “Out of Control,” a familiar, sickening hue of night-vision green flooded the backdrop—Baghdad blitz as CNN video game. Rings favorites “Receptacle for the Respectable” and “Juxtapozed With U” got the warmest receptions, but the climactic “The Man Don’t Give a Fuck” left the crowd reeling. A Steely Dan-sampling anti-authoritarian anthem cum ode to pro-pot campaigner (and onetime smuggler) Howard Marks, here introduced with a looped Bill Hicks sample (“All governments are liars and murderers”) while onscreen Bush and Blair wear expressions of evil self-interest, it occasioned a costume change into super furry yeti suits. And for a few surreal moments, it seemed like there was nothing the world needed more than stoner protest rock, especially the kind that wears its broken goofball heart on its very hairy sleeve. Dennis Lim

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Prom Balloons

Nineteen-year-old Manhattanite Peter Cincotti just doubled Diana Krall’s record sales, becoming Billboard‘s top trad-jazz seller of the moment. He burst into national consciousness recently with performances on Late Night With Conan O’Brien, CNN Headline News, and Today, as well as features in People, USA Today, and The Washington Post. Hmm.

Nothing wrong with success. But there’s something pernicious about achieving it through airbrushed swing, deceptively tooled mass-marketing, and helium-balloon rides through TV land, under the guise of strong adolescence. Not to mention:

1. Easy-to-swallow music empty of nutrients. Code Orange has frightened us into parenting the boy next door, whose retro-cool aesthetic falsifies Frank Sinatra’s swagger via Harry Connick’s crooning, by regurgitating both rather than examining either’s implications. On “I Changed the Rules” on his debut album, Cincotti plunks at the piano with a detached stiffness that’s more arthritic than aggressive. On “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” he stretches syllables into self-ridiculing caricatures. And on “Lovers, Secrets, and Lies,” he musters a mild vibrato that betrays his talents, which do include natural breeziness, but which become diluted in his lukewarm mix of mild counterpoint and forced syncopation.

2. Celebrities dig him. Chevy Chase clicked him smiles during the NYC CD release party, which had TV cameras just like the ones at the L.A. release party, where Joe Pesci clicked him winks.

3. Photographs. In every shot, he tilts his head down to convey humility (false humility, given that he invited Jennifer Love Hewitt to his prom by calling her publicist, who sent balloons), crumples his forehead to affect curiosity (though he presumes total knowledge of Connick’s trade), and sports a tie loosely around his neck to imply approachability (despite the Concord executives stapled to his side at public affairs). He also wears suspenders.

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Dying to Dissent

“There’s no room to die,” complained a woman, surveying the crowd of
several hundred antiwar protesters that by 8 a.m. Wednesday were crammed inside
the metal barricades strung up by police along the perimeter of
Rockefeller Center on Fifth Avenue. Instead of being able to flood
into the plaza and stage a mass die-in to dramatize the death of innocent Iraqis, they
were once again being penned in by the NYPD.


“Break it up, keep moving,” a cop ordered, shoving back the
protesters who spilled into 49th Street. “No war, no profits, no
business as usual!” chanted the demonstrators, circling back and
forth along the cordoned-off sidewalk.


“Peace faggots!” screamed a passerby. “Arrest them all!”


Then an air horn sounded and the protesters kicked down the
barricades and rushed into the street—or as many as could slip by
before the cops hemmed in the crowd again. Scores lay across Fifth
Avenue, intertwining their arms and legs, some wrapped in gauze and
splattered in red paint.


“I’m trying to alert the American public to the criminal action of
this war,” shouted Karen Bethany, a 57-year-old teacher, as she lay
in the road. “Women and children are dying because of the war
mongering of this government! We’re all being put in danger because
of this war!”


Traffic slowed to a crawl for more than an hour as police funnelled
busses and cars down a single lane, while riot cops surrounded and then
carried off the symbolically dead.


Inside the pen, another group “died” on the sidewalk, remaining
solemnly silent as news cameras hovered over them.


“Tell the truth!” the crowd shouted, waving signs
like “Boycott FOX” and “Embedded? or In Bed?”


But with little drama left on the street, the media zeroed in on the
counterprotesters. “You’re a disgrace!” shouted a man holding a sign
that read, “Saddam Sez: Thanks, Suckers!”


“I’m a patriot, I served my country. Did you serve?” countered a man
inside the pen, waving his own placard that read, “Don’t Parrot the
Rightwing Propaganda: Think 4 yourself!”


“We’re slaughtering innocent people!” a woman chimed in.


“Less people will be dead at the end of this war than under one year
of Saddam’s rule,” the counterprotester responded.


And so the debate went, as the cops dragged more than 150 people away.


Another 65 were arrested in sporadic street actions throughout
midtown and Soho, including a trio of women who managed to halt
traffic briefly at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street by flashing their
breasts, and another group who scuffled with police outside the
offices of CNN. At noon, hundreds of New York University students and
faculty supporters walked out of their classes and paraded around
Washington Square, swarming onto the street for an antiwar speakout.


But the rally was once again marred by the heckling of
counterprotesters who accused the demonstraters of being traitors to the
troops. One peace activist was arrested after refusing to back away
from a man holding a U.S. flag who had threatened to “rip him open like
a fucking can opener.”


Though far outnumbered by the antiwar activists, the presence of
these increasingly vocal critics added an edge of anger that until
now has been largely absent from peace demos in New York.


The street debates yesterday indicate the difficulty the antiwar movement may have in
sustaining popular support while U.S. soldiers are getting hammered
abroad. A recent survey shows support for the war in New York City
has jumped 10 points since the invasion began, from 37 to 47 percent.
That’s still far less than the 73 percent of Americans who reportedly
back President Bush’s decision to go to war. But Americans are also
getting antsy as the battle in Iraq gets uglier and the hefty
pricetag ($75 billion and counting) becomes clear.


The task of the peace movement now is to emphasize the costs of the
war that is draining America’s coffers, along with the country’s
moral and political standing abroad. Antiwarriors also need to make
sure those costs don’t get turned back on them by critics, who
accuse demonstrators of wasting their tax dollars to pay for police.


By threatening to disrupt business as usual, the protesters caught
the public’s eye. But they will need to balance the urge to maximize
their outrage with the awareness that a traumatized public may be
difficult to “shock and awe” into dissent.



Lawyers accused police of delaying the release of the 215 antiwar
demonstrators arrested on Thursday in order to discourage further protest.


According to Risa Gerson of the National Lawyers Guild, police did
not begin releasing protesters until late in the evening, even though
the bulk of the arrests were made before 9:30 a.m., and most were
charged with relatively minor offenses like disorderly conduct.


“They’ve been held for more than 12 hours,” Gerson said. “Our
position is that’s punitive.”


Lawyers also complained that police refused to give them access to
their clients.


At 11:17 p.m., New York Supreme Court judge Alice Schlesinger agreed to
sign an order directing police to provide lawyers access to all
demonstrators who had not been released by 12:30 a.m. Friday.


A police spokesperson reached Thursday night said that the
delays were the result of the large number of people arrested. “You
don’t have a right to an attorney during booking,” Detective Kevin
Czartoryski added, “only if you’re going to be questioned.”


But demonstrators complained that they were grilled about their
political affiliations and beliefs.


“They asked me whether I’d been to other demonstrations and what
groups I belonged to and said that if I didn’t answer those
questions, I’d be there all night,” said Stephen Durham, 55, an
organizer for the Freedom Socialist Party who was finally sprung at
1:30 a.m. Friday, nearly 17 hours after his arrest on Thursday.


“This was a real fishing expedition to collect data on people of
conscience,” he said.

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Paint It Black

Civilization is said to have been born between the Tigris and Euphrates, and last week it seems to have crawled back there to curl up and die. On March 19, when President Bush launched his preemptive strike on Iraq, the media responded with their own blitzkrieg, a kaleidoscope of images that shifted quickly from fireworks over Baghdad to forlorn Iraqi children to U.S. prisoners of war. The hawks hoped to inspire “shock and awe,” but no civilized person could watch this drama unfold without feeling sadness and rage.

In recent weeks, reporters “embedded” with U.S. troops seemed to think they were off on an excellent adventure. But just a few days of war shattered that illusion. As ground troops raced toward Baghdad, U.S. and British helicopters crashed, the U.S. shot down a British plane, and a U.S. soldier threw a grenade into his supervisors’ tent. Iraqi soldiers fought back, and the bodies piled up day by day. Then on Sunday, Iraqi TV broadcast tapes of P.O.W.’s and dead American soldiers. In an effort to suppress the images, Donald Rumsfeld denounced the Arab press for violating the Geneva Convention (which struck some as ironic, given that the U.S. displayed shackled prisoners at Guantánamo Bay). While the government seemed to want embedded reporters to depict the war in pastels, the sudden setbacks left them no choice but to paint it black.

U.S. media companies had agreed to accept censorship in exchange for battlefield access, but the jury is still out on whether this pact serves the public interest. On the afternoon of March 20, the day troops pushed into Iraq, MSNBC’s Brian Williams noted that the U.S. was censoring everything. (The embargo was later lifted.) The next day, Iraqi officials expelled CNN’s Nic Robertson and his crew from Baghdad, accusing them of toeing the American line. Producer Ingrid Formanek, who was with Robertson in Baghdad, told CNN, “It’s been a great propaganda campaign. I mean, all sides want to control the media as much as possible. . . . And [the Iraqis’] concern was they weren’t getting their message out.”

Propaganda and censorship went hand in hand. By the weekend, a number of embeds had been reportedly kicked out for compromising the security of their units, while some of those who remained began prefacing their bland TV dispatches with phrases like “There’s not much I’m allowed to tell you.” Then around 1:30 a.m. on Sunday, British journalist David Bowden was allowed to broadcast live combat scenes from Umm Qasr, which ran on CNN for hours and struck some as pornographic.

In addition to psychological pressure, the press faced sudden death. An Australian cameraman was killed by a car bomb, and the British TV company ITN reported that three journalists were missing, including correspondent Terry Lloyd. What happened to the Brits was a mystery. According to the Mail on Sunday, a cameraman who was with the group said they were driving away from Iraqi soldiers near Basra when they were fired on by “allied tanks.” (He later said he wasn’t sure.) A Kuwaiti police lieutenant told the Arab News that the bodies had been found in Umm Qasr—shot dead by Iraqi snipers. On March 23, ITN concluded that Lloyd’s dead body remained in a hospital behind enemy lines in Basra.

The U.S. military has warned journalists not to go to the front lines in Iraq without an escort, while denying that our troops will target journalists. But by the end of last week, the rumor going around Baghdad was that coalition forces planned to bomb the Hotel Al-Rasheed, a known residence for foreign correspondents. Ironically, one of the reasons Iraq said it expelled CNN was for spreading that rumor—and causing journalists to evacuate the government-owned Al-Rasheed. Both sides of this conflict seem to view the media as tools to be used and abused.

Even as reporters were running for their lives in Iraq, some colleagues at home still acted like sportscasters. One had only to turn on the TV over the weekend to see some talking head, safely ensconced in an East Coast studio, grinning and bobbing over the latest news from the battlefield. On Saturday night, Larry King offered a vivid example of studio disconnect. As CNN aired a live shot of Baghdad, King gushed, “It’s dawn, coming up on what looks like the beginning of a beautiful day.”

King could take a lesson from Dan Rather, who said he had practiced rigorously to acquire the necessary gravitas for war news. Wolf Blitzer and other CNN correspondents rarely allowed a smile to cross their faces, which contributed to their authority. MSNBC and CNN seemed pro-war at times, especially when they trotted out the retired generals, but at least they were not Fox, where talking heads discussed the fine line between “air dominance” and “air supremacy” and showed a slavish devotion to the censors. Many Americans preferred the BBC to any U.S. outlet.

Advancing with the troops last week, reporters frequently had to don gas masks under threat of chemical attack, but some seemed to have left their bullshit detectors at home. NPR’s John Burnett, who is embedded, told WNYC’s On the Media that when he encountered some non-embedded journalists on the road, he envied their freedom to wear jeans and T-shirts and felt like he was with his parents on vacation. But listening to them ask which roads to take, he realized that “when you’re with the marines, you feel safe!” Burnett swore that if the time came, he would “rake them over the coals.”

One presumes the press will get the truth out. But the Pentagon now has the power to broadcast to millions of people instantly, and the embeds have turned into virtual hostages whose safety depends in part on their acquiescence. The spectrum of available truth must be severely limited when the embeds cannot always report what they know, and their independent colleagues are rarely given anything to report.

Meanwhile, the Bush administration repeats its empty claims like a mantra: War is justified because Saddam has weapons of mass destruction. We have no ambition but to liberate Iraq. We will return the oil fields to the people. We will be welcomed by cheering crowds. Civilian casualties will be minimal. Saddam is already dead.

With so much hype in the air, any show of skepticism is welcome. Last week on CNN, Aaron Brown seemed incredulous when Bush professed to care about Medicare and education. Christiane Amanpour scoffed at the claim that the U.S. has more allies than we did for the Gulf War. On Sunday, Blitzer pressed Rumsfeld on how he can be so sanguine about his ability to limit civilian casualties.

Now that the hawks are asking taxpayers for up to $80 billion, journalists should treat them like investors who are issuing “forward looking” statements about an IPO that may or may not come to pass. The next time Rumsfeld says he doubts “there’s ever been the degree of free press coverage” as there is now, will someone please ask for his definition of a free press?


cc@villagevoice.com

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Inkblot Integer-Hop

Regan Farquhar, a/k/a Busdriver, rhymes like a syncopated giggle, sine-curve-scrambling words jockeying for position even as the foundation they springboard from disintegrates into nothingness. On most of the songs on the knowingly titled Temporary Forever, the center doesn’t even try to hold. Passing thoughts, complex rhymes, oddball metaphors, and hella non sequiturs all buzz around some indeterminate point.

But with Busdriver—a man whose first group was called 4/29, after the date of the L.A. uprisings—there’s always a point. Busdriver’s technique is an anti-apathy strategy, a stylistically absurd response to politically absurd times. On “Gun Control,” he spot-rushes the “white conservatives/who form the oligarchy.” On “Idle Chatter” he cautions, “Go ahead and spend/but the dollar bill is nature’s suicide notes.” It’s leftist rap, but not didactically so (à la the Coup or Public Enemy). Instead, call Busdriver a humanist, or at least humane, or at least aware. Stints living in Sedona and rapping in a bluegrass band called Popcorn Goddess will do that to a teen who never cared that he had stereotypes to live down to (empathy is so much a part of his fiber that the adult Busdriver even samples CNN doughboy Aaron Brown). “When I improvise,” he raps on “Along Came a Biter,” “Showers rinse the skies from brainstorm rainclouds/I’m Coltrane and Kurt Cobain’s brainchild/and you’re soaking wet.” Not all of Busdriver’s routes are so Rorschach, though. “Unplanned Parenthood” is a short-short musing on the pleasant tribulations of seed nurturing, and “Opposable Thumbs” among the album’s best moments, is a cruel skewering of fauxhemians. Slipping into the role, our man snickers, “I decorate my speech with Taoism and karma/but I don’t know Walt Whitman from Walt Disney.” Wise stuff, but awfully unforgiving. What was once wide-eyed optimism begins to sting after too much exposure.

So Busdriver keeps hope alive in math-rap time. At the drive-thru window (on “Stylin’ Under Pressure”), he needles the attendant with off-the-cuff Snagglepuss-style verse about the food that bears as much actual relationship to the matter at hand as the average Cockneyism does: “I’m a tall, lonely teddy bear/who occupies empty air/I’m not a millionaire/I’m a pennyaire/Yes!”

And when he’s at his best, Busdriver all but leapfrogs the utility of words. Produced by O.D. (he of the sublime Beneath the Surface compilation), “Jazz Fingers” is a tangled jangle of snare rolls and horn inquiries, a thicket offering absolutely no point of entry for dissent. Or rhyme. But Busdriver doesn’t whip out a machete. Instead, the man whose vocal hero is advanced-placement scatter Jon Hendricks (of Lambert, Hendricks & Ross) name-drops Horace Tapscott and Billy Higgins in a syllabic fusillade so intense, so everywhere, that he’s left to muse to his jazzbo compadre, “white people can’t find your coordinates on a laptop.”

He can dream, can’t he? Outside of the imagined community that is modern-day Project Blowed, computerland is probably where Busdriver is best known. But it’s hard to rep for a cause when the audience is virtual, and so is its collective identity. That anger pops out on “The Truth of Spontaneous Human Combustion,” as he shits on an eager young fan of a lighter shade: “Sorry, I don’t cater to the whim of every white college student/who finds a little bit of truth in the movement/but fails to acknowledge his or her bourgeois background/and acts like they’ve been that down/for that long/just because they’ve been inspired by some tired-ass underground rap song.” Busdriver say you a wanksta, and you need to stop fronting. Odds are you can’t even understand him, though.

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Opposing Forces

AUSTIN—A week and a half ago, only blocks from the gargantuan capitol dome, tourists en route to Dubya’s former workplace paused to inspect a curious two-channel video in the window of a coffeehouse. Installed for the Cinematexas International Short Film Festival, taking place in the café’s theater, Palestinian American artist Nida Sinnokrot’s Al-Jaz/CNN was a simple but compelling spectacle: side-by-side live satellite feeds of Al-Jazeera and CNN. Alternate Arabic and English soundtracks blared back and forth in the café’s foyer, greeting patrons as they entered the festival’s main venue.

Clever, low-fi, internationalist, and politically sharp, Al-Jaz/CNN served as a fitting welcome to Cinematexas’s six days of avant-radical programming, which closed on September 22. Scrappy, smarter younger cousin to Austin’s better-known and more commercial SXSW, the seven-year-old Cinematexas has speedily earned a reputation as one of the largest and most distinctive experimental media events in the U.S., conceived, nevertheless, on a tiny budget with volunteer staff. Beyond an international competition and student screenings, some of the goings-on included installations by Leslie Thornton, Tom Zummer and furry noise freaks Forcefield; a work in progress by nervy girl performance artist Miranda July; Terrence Malick introducing his favorite silent short films; and a series of screenings and lectures on the Israel-Palestine conflict. In scope, ambition, and down-home hospitality, it’s a film festival with the brain of an art gallery, the soul of a rock show, and the backbone of an activist collective.

Bereft of the calling cards that pad out typical shorts fests, Cinematexas stretches further afield for strange bits of no-budget poetry. The best examples presented a kind of Dada ethnography, like Emil Jumabaev’s unforgettable Ordo, a fuzzy video document of a traditional Kyrgyz pastime, in which winter-clad menfolk play a gruesome game of marbles with tiny animal bones. But the American entries were no less enigmatic. Perhaps the most talked-about was Chicagoan Deborah Stratman’s In Order Not to Be Here, a 16mm symphony of nighttime scenes that lurks through its half-hour like death-metal James Benning.

Retrospectives teased at the connections between political history and image innovation. At the Alamo Drafthouse, Austin’s movie house-cum-beer hall, the Tin Hat Trio performed a countrified score to the films of Wladyslaw Starewitz, a Lithuanian who fled the Russian Revolution to create bizarre, proto-surrealist fables by animating the costumed corpses of bugs, frogs, and bats. Later, Santiago Alvarez’s Cuban agit-docs presented the Marxist flip side of American history, like Vertov set to a ’60s Caribbean beat: jittery critiques of U.S. civil rights struggles and Vietnam.

But even the most DIY events need a moment of unabashed starfucking. Cinematexas delivered—with shoe eater Werner Herzog on hand for a series of his short quasi-documentaries, including the now more relevant than ever Lessons of Darkness, his Wagnerian 1992 helicopter sweep through the Gulf War’s burning oil fields. Though the surprisingly well behaved Herzog insisted that his films were apolitical, he took a stance of solidarity with Cinematexas’s mission to preserve an oppositional cinema. “We have to look that events like this do not fade away completely,” he declared. “We are not going to hand over every single screen to the mainstream movies.”

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Saddam and the Petunias

JAFFA—Do you think CNN would want to rent my roof? I read in the newspaper that they’re looking for a roof with a good vantage point for filming incoming Iraqi Scuds.

My place would be perfect. In fact, my house is only a block from Tel Zevel, Garbage Hill, so named because that’s where people used to dump their trash. The Israeli military positioned Patriot missiles there the last time we had an Iraqi scare, so obviously we expect the Scuds to pass right overhead.

From a security point of view, it would be nice to have CNN on the roof. The Iraqis aren’t dumb. They would never target CNN or risk interrupting the broadcast of their “glorious” deeds by aiming a Scud too close. Only Israelis are stupid enough to shoot at journalists.

There is one problem. I just put in over 100 petunias in the garden up there and you know how cameramen stomp all over everything to get that “perfect shot.”

I guess I won’t offer CNN the roof. I’m more worried about the petunias than I am about the Scuds.

Gosh, there sure is a lot of anxiety in Israel these days and a lot of it is over Iraq. A friend of mine, a shrink, says her business is booming and tranquilizer sales are skyrocketing throughout the country. I also heard that sales are brisk for those machines that protect your bomb shelter (we all have one, by law) from biological weapons and poison gases. Otherwise, just about every other business in the country is skidding downhill fast.

“People can’t sleep,” said my friend. “My patients tell me they feel as if they were in Europe in the 1930s, that kind of fear and insecurity. People with kids in the army or teenagers are the most anxiety-ridden. And kids don’t laugh anymore; you see them on the street looking so somber.

“Then, there’s the problem of elderly parents getting Holocaust flashbacks,” she said. “Many think it is the end.”

In contrast, many Israelis have become exuberantly militant since the crisis began. Thousands of young professionals have abandoned jobs and family to rejoin their reserve army units without a qualm.

So what about Iraq? Is it such a big menace to Israel?

Actually, Iraq has never been exactly friendly to us. I won’t go back to the days of the Babylonian exile since I wasn’t there, but 1947 is a good starting point. Remember UN Resolution 181? It called for the partition of British-ruled Palestine into two states—Jewish and Arab. The Brits said, “OK,” the Jews were happy as larks but the Arab Palestinians said, “No way, José.” Boy, they should have taken that deal instead of starting a war. Under the UN plan, they would have had a helluva lot more than they’ll ever get now. Looking at the maps, I see they even would be living in my house.

Anyway, the Arabs didn’t like the offer and Iraq sent thousands of “volunteers” to help drive the Jews into the sea. A lot of them are still here—in the “martyrs” cemeteries you find in Palestinian towns.

Our relations with Baghdad have been the pits ever since. They were especially ugly during the Gulf War when Saddam Hussein sent us a present of 39 Scuds. Luckily, he’s a lousy shot.

Saddam portrays himself to the Arab world as the leader most willing and able to “liberate” Palestine. He swears he has 6.5 million volunteers in a “Jerusalem Liberation Army” ready to fight for the Palestinian cause. All he needs, he says, is a teeny bit of land border with Israel so he can march on in. He doesn’t understand why the Jordanians won’t give it to him.

But, the Hashemite Jordanians do not like being reminded that their country sits on 81 percent of historic Palestine, a nice chunk of land the Brits gave them when the Hashemites were thrown out of Arabia by the Saudis. And Saddam forgets that Amman has its own problems with Palestinians, who make up 60 percent of Jordan’s population. Palestinian hostility to the Hashemites comes out every now and then and the Jordanians deal with it sternly. Remember “Black September” in 1970? What the Jordanians did to the Palestinians then makes Israel’s Jenin incursion look like a Boy Scout rally. Historians agree that at least 2000 Palestinians were killed by Jordanian troops, but the Palestinians, who have a penchant for adding zeros to all their casualty figures, claim the deaths numbered between 10,000 and 25,000.

Saddam Hussein, who one sage said is “willing to fight Israel to the last Palestinian,” has now upped the blood money paid suicide bombers. Their families used to get $10,000. Now it’s $25,000. That was a bit over a month ago and the incentive seems to work—some 13 Palestinians have blown themselves to smithereens since.

Then we hear that Saddam is training “kamikaze pilots” for missions à la Osama bin Laden. Word has it that Israeli intelligence is watching a group of 200 Iraqi pilots specially tutored in “desert-hugging” flights, barely detectable by radar. The supposed target? The Dimona nuclear facility in the Negev desert—you know, the one we pass off to visitors as a “textile factory.”

I don’t know if it’s true. If you want facts, go ask Saddam. But I kind of believe it. After all, we took out their nuclear bomb factory, the one at Osirak, in 1981. Remember? At the time, the whole world expressed public outrage at our “unwarranted” attack on a sovereign state.

Now we have this oil business. Saddam, hoping to make everyone in the world more pissed off at us than they already are, announced that he is suspending oil exports for a month to protest Israeli military operations against the Palestinians. Oil prices soared, as did international protests against Israel.

Saddam’s strategy makes sense. As long as everyone is preoccupied with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, no one is going to be in the mood to cooperate with an attack on his regime. It would be especially difficult for Arab states, no matter how much they hate him, to support an attempt to topple the man who gets billing as the “Palestinian Patron Saint.”

The Israeli government has become very grumpy over what it considers Washington’s obsession with Iraq. Some officials think focusing on Iraq is a mistake because the real threat is from Iran. Tehran, they say, has major weapons factories manufacturing even ICBMs and it bankrolls the world’s main terrorist networks.

Some in the Israeli cabinet complain that the U.S. is putting so much pressure on Israel to settle the conflict only because Washington wants support for its oft promised actions against Iraq.

One obviously naive government official was overheard complaining, “Can you believe it? The United States is trying to get us to stop the war in order to preserve its own interests.” Hello?

But many Israelis would be perfectly happy if Washington pursued its own interests a bit more forcefully. Like by jumping in with guns blazing to settle this mess. That would force us both into a cease-fire and back to the negotiating table. We could use some peace and quiet too—and time to smell the petunias.

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CNN in the Crossfire

CNN had a big scoop on December 19, when the network broadcast a half-hour interview with John Walker Lindh in a hospital bed, pledging his allegiance to the jihad. But according to Robert Young Pelton, the freelancer who spoke to Lindh in Afghanistan, CNN decided to broadcast the full interview shortly after the FBI began threatening to subpoena the tape in mid December. And now, whatever CNN intended, the extensive media coverage of the case appears to have cost Lindh his right to a fair trial.

Recall that Lindh became famous overnight. Before December 2, when CNN reported that he had been taken into custody, he was a faceless minion behind enemy lines. Just two months later, Lindh has replaced bin Laden as the face of evil, and CNN’s interview has become a key piece of evidence in the criminal case that kicked off in Virginia last week. He has not yet been indicted.

The Lindh interview may turn out to be a case study in how the government can put the squeeze on the media. Here are some of the facts known so far: Pelton, the author of several travel books, had no experience as a journalist until last fall, when he got an invitation to spend time with a warlord who was fighting with a team of Green Berets in Afghanistan. He called CNN, which immediately sent him a cameraman, after which he filed several stories. One of them was his Lindh interview, which he conducted in a hospital near Mazar-i-Sharif and which first aired on December 2—around the same time Lindh was taken into military custody.

When Pelton sent the two-minute segment by satellite, “It was a big deal for CNN,” he told the Voice. “CNN’s going through a lot of troubles financially, and they’re driven as much by viewers as by news judgment. So when this tape came over the transom, they were saying, ‘We’ve got a scoop!’ ”

Pelton returned from Afghanistan on December 17. About a week before that, he said, he heard that the FBI was talking to CNN, and a top CNN exec told the cameraman, “Don’t lose that tape!” However, it is standard for news organizations to resist turning over raw reporting material for use in a court of law. To avoid the subpoena, Pelton says, CNN worked out a deal whereby it broadcast an edited tape and posted an all-but-complete version on the Internet.

By placing the tape in the public domain, legal experts say, network execs pulled off a neat trick. They gave prosecutors the evidence they wanted—and avoided being served the subpoena. That way CNN could duck the bad publicity from either resisting or complying with the subpoena.

A CNN spokesperson issued the following statement: “In certain investigations, federal criminal rules often do not allow parties to discuss whether they’ve been served with a subpoena. CNN understands that this is that type of investigation, so we cannot talk about it one way or another.” Pressed to explain a broadcast that became so prejudicial, he said, “We aired the interview because it was newsworthy and it was exclusive.”

Marc Garber, a former prosecutor turned defense attorney, said that it’s natural for the Justice Department to want to “keep a tight lid on the evidence” and for CNN to want to “get out in front of the story.”

“I don’t think CNN or the government would want to be seen as getting in bed in something as sensitive as this,” said Garber. “This is the system that’s being attacked by terrorists, so if you’re the government, you want this to be the fairest trial. If you saddle up to CNN or put the screws to them, you’re going to cause yourself more harm in the long run.”

Again: Lindh has not yet been indicted. So far, according to Pelton, the only evidence being cited by the government are Lindh’s statements to CNN and to FBI agents, and Pelton’s statements to the media. Last week, Lindh’s lawyer James Brosnahan questioned the admissibility of Lindh’s FBI statements because, he said, his client was denied the right to counsel for 54 days after he was taken into custody. (The government says Lindh signed a waiver of his right to counsel.)

It’s unclear what evidence will turn up at trial. Some legal insiders seem to feel that the CNN interview will be admitted, based on the government’s argument that it was a voluntary statement given to a third party. But they say Brosnahan will try to undermine the CNN interview by arguing that Lindh did not fully consent to the interview, that he was being given morphine at the time, or that CNN was acting as an arm of the U.S. government. Brosnahan did not return calls for comment.

According to defense attorney Mark Geragos, the FBI’s failed attempt to subpoena the tape suggests that CNN was “not in cahoots with the government.” The bigger question, he said, is “How did CNN get access to somebody who was supposedly in military custody?” To get the answer to that enigma, Geragos predicted, Brosnahan will want to depose Pelton, the CNN cameraman and producers, and whoever was in command of the Special Forces at Mazar-i-Sharif. Finally, because prosecutors need witnesses to support Lindh’s statements, Geragos said they may end up using some of the prisoners currently being held in Guantánamo Bay to testify against him.

For his part, Pelton insisted, “I have never had any connection with any U.S. government agency.” Rather than trying to incriminate Lindh, he said, he only wanted to make sure the American received medical care and that he wouldn’t be killed. He suggests the tape has been misused by prosecutors whose case against Lindh relies heavily on TV interviews, instead of facts provided by firsthand sources. Instead of using the CNN interview to turn Lindh into a convenient “symbol of hatred,” Pelton said, the Bush administration should be focusing on Saudi and Egyptian terrorist suspects currently at large in America.

But Pelton doesn’t just blame the government. He said the pundits (including certain guests on Larry King Live and myself) have twisted the facts of the case, using it for target practice, while Lindh has done nothing but tell the truth so far.

Pelton said he shares Lindh’s devotion to the truth.”I’m not a journalist,” he said, “and I have no interest in sensationalized stories. What I do is meet with combatants on each side, try to understand why they’re doing what they’re doing, and let the readers make up their own minds.” He said that initially, he was glad CNN “was running a raw, gritty tape and trying to get some insight” into Lindh, because “as long as we demonize the phenomenon of young jihadis, they’re going to be angry and do violent, irrational things.”

Of course, these questions may soon be moot. If prosecutors can get other prisoners to testify, they may never formally introduce the CNN interview into evidence, in which case the defense will never have an opportunity to investigate its provenance. If that happens, the government and CNN will once again come out ahead—and Lindh will once again be the loser.