As Libya spiraled further out of control today, WikiLeaks posted two new cables from the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli detailing the family squabbles of strongman Muammar al-Qaddafi's family. Both are from March 2009, and both are signed by U.S. Ambassador Gene Cretz, the United States' first ambassador in Libya since 1972, who lost his job last month following the release of the infamous "voluptuous blonde" cable (and/or other more serious dispatches) he had signed.
The cables date from an eventful period in the life of the Qaddafi family. The previous July, Hannibal al-Qaddafi, the Qaddafi son best known for getting in trouble in Europe on a semi-regular basis, had been arrested in Switzerland for beating his servants at a Geneva hotel. Meanwhile, Saif al-Islam, Muammar's heir-apparent and the best-regarded Qaddafi outside of Libya, was fuming over the growing closeness between his father and his brother Muatassim (above, with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in April 2009), the elder Qaddafi's national security adviser and Saif's only real competition for the family business. According to the cable, "Saif reportedly bridled at the fact that Muatassim accompanied Muammar al-Qadhafi on the latter's visit to Moscow, Minsk and Kiev last year..., and played a key role in negotiating potential weapons contracts."
All of this, plus a verboten trip to Rome by Qaddafi son Saadi, prompted a family meeting in August, at which the siblings aired their grievances:
At the meeting, Saadi reportedly criticized his father for having ignored him, and specifically cited the fact that his (Saadi's) efforts to establish an Export Free Trade Zone near the western Libyan town of Zuwara had not enjoyed the kind of support that Muatassim's activities as National Security Adviser or Saif al-Islam's high-profile efforts under the Qadhafi Development Foundation and Libya Youth Forum. As reported ref C, Muammar al-Qadhafi subsequently made an unusual visit to Zuwara last September and significant work on the development project began within a few days of his visit.
The cable relates that Qaddafi assigned his daughter Aisha "the task of monitoring the activities of ne'er-do-wells" in the family: Saadi, Hannibal, and the less notorious Saif al-Arab. But interestingly, the cable suggests that Aisha may have been part of the problem in the case of Hannibal's arrest, which blew up into an international incident when the irate Qaddafi pere threw Swiss diplomats out of his country in retaliation. According to the cable:
XXXXXXXXXXXX have told us that Aisha played a strong role in urging a hardline Libyan position with respect to the Swiss-Libyan contretemps over Hannibal's arrest. Separately, the Swiss Ambassador told us that Aisha's less than accurate rendering to her father of the events surrounding Hannibal's arrest and treatment by Swiss authorities helped stoke Muammar al-Qadhafi's anger, limiting the extent to which Libyan and Swiss officials could maneuver to find an acceptable compromise. The Swiss have told us that in the most recent effort between the two sides to resolve the issue in Davos, Saif had approved an agreement that had the Swiss literally bending over backwards to assuage Libyan demands. After making a phone call (to either Aisha or the leader), Saif returned somewhat chastened after several minutes to rescind the aproval.
Meanwhile, back in the present, Saif seems to have embraced his family tradition of giving long, weird, paranoid speeches, and it seems clear that, whatever his Davos and LSE credentials, the Qaddafi apple doesn't fall far from the tree.
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WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange hasn't been charged with any crime in the United States yet, but he is preparing for the possibility that he will be sooner or later -- in a statement released via Twitter on Monday, WikiLeaks announced that Assange had secured the assistance of Harvard University law professor Alan Dershowitz.
Dershowitz has been a staunch civil liberties advocate for decades -- he represented Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel in the Supreme Court in 1972 after Gravel read the Pentagon Papers into the congressional record -- although he's as well known today for his work as a celebrity attorney (he's represented O.J. Simpson, Mike Tyson, and Leona Helmsley, among others) and his outspoken defense of Israel. "This is the Pentagon Papers case for the 21st Century," he told me today. "This is a very important test case, because it tests the reach of the First and Fourth Amendments to new electronic media. It's every lawyer's dream to help shape the law, not just react to it."
Dershowitz says he was enlisted in Assange's legal team by Geoffrey Robertson, an Australian attorney who cuts a similar profile in his own country and Britain -- he helped hide his client Salman Rushdie after the Ayatollah Khomeini issued his fatwa against him in 1989 -- and who signed on to Assange's case in December. "I've been involved for a while now," Dershowitz says. "I've been quietly advising them over the past weeks. I've spoken myself with Assange on several occasions."
The U.S. Justice Department's case against Assange, if it can make one, hinges on demonstrating some sort of collaboration between the WikiLeaks leader and his alleged source for his cache of U.S. government documents, Pfc. Bradley Manning, who is currently being held in a Marine Corps jail. A federal judge in Virginia agreed today to consider an order from the Justice Department compelling Twitter to hand over account information for Assange, Manning, and several other people associated with WikiLeaks -- which Twitter has so far resisted -- in an attempt to prove that the parties were communicating before Assange received the documents. Dershowitz wasn't involved in today's hearing, but says that "we will do what we can in this country to minimize the chances that [Assange] can be prosecuted here."
"In a situation like this, you're waiting to see what moves the government makes," he says. "But I never wait passively. I always wait actively."
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The near-total destruction of Baghdad's city zoo over the course of the 2003 invasion of Iraq was, in retrospect, a grim portent of the poor planning and disastrous mismanagement that would characterize the early years of the Iraq war. The zoo had been the largest in the Middle East before the invasion, with more than 650 animals; eight days after coalition troops arrived in the city, however, all but 35 were dead. "All the Americans would've had to do is drop off 50 men, with a few vets and a truckload of food, and they wouldn't have lost any of the animals," Lawrence Anthony, a South Africa conservationist who salvaged what was left of the zoo after the invasion, told me last year.
So it's heartening to read a February 2008 cable from the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, signed by embassy staffer Greg D'Elia and released by WikiLeaks over the weekend, detailing the Baghdad zoo's resurgence as "reportedly … the most popular destination for family outings in Baghdad." As of late 2007, security in the city was still dicey enough that most of the zoo's visitors came from the immediately surrounding neighborhoods. But as the worst of the brutal sectarian violence of the preceding years ebbed, some 8,000 Baghdadis were visiting each weekend, and the zookeepers could boast of some one-of-a-kind acquisitions:
[T]he Baghdad Zoo staff took particular pleasure in reclaiming for the Iraqi public the exotic animals formerly possessed by Saddam Hussein and his family. Uday's pampered cheetah is now tame enough for visitors to pet. Two of Saddam's three lions gave birth last year to three cubs each; now the Zoo has nine lions on display. The Zoo also has in its possession Saddam Hussein's former stallion, Al Abor -- "the most famous horse in Iraq," according to Mousa. Saddam Hussein rode Al Abor in countless parades and public ceremonies.
The best part of the cable is its account of the zoo's "highlights and lowlights":
The Baghdad Zoo also featured some primitive practices, including the daily slaughter of two donkeys to feed the lions, and some modern flourishes, such as exotic fish with an image of the Iraqi flag lasered permanently into their scales. (NOTE: These fish sport the old Iraqi flag. Zoo staff could not predict whether they will employ laser surgery to amend these now-outlawed, swimming flags. END NOTE.)
Then there are the alcoholic bears:
To ease the trauma of the brown bears' move from Saddam Hussein's possession into the Zoo, staff reportedly plied them with copious amounts of Arak; visitors repeated rumors that the disheveled bears continue to imbibe this powerful drink.
British diplomatic officials don't exactly mince words about Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari. From a WikiLeaked U.S. State Department cable sent from the London embassy several days before Zardari -- who had replaced his wife, Benazir Bhutto, on the ballot following her assassination the previous year -- won Pakistan's 2008 presidential election:
[British Foreign and Commonwealth Office] Pakistan Team Leader Laura Hickey told us September 3 that HMG [the British government] fully expects Pakistan People's Party (PPP) leader Asif Zardari to win Pakistan's presidency on September 6, but it is unlikely he will retain the position for long. In HMG estimation, Zardari has no popular support, is strongly disliked within his own party, is not trust-worthy, and is unable to deliver on the countless promises he has recently made to win support in his bid for the presidency. Absent popular support or military backing, Zardari will be unable to hold onto the presidency. HMG projects that he will encumber the top position for six to 12 months, and there will be elections before Zardari completes his term.
The cable goes on to note that "As far as [counterterrorism] and security cooperation are concerned, Zardari is not at odds with UK and U.S. interests. [The British government], however, finds it unlikely that he will be able to deliver because he is an ineffective leader who has 'no plans and no strategy.'"
Over the weekend, WikiLeaks decided to drop what (if memory serves) is its largest single release to date from its cache of U.S. State Department emails, almost all of them from the U.S. Embassy in London over the past few years. We'll be picking through the good bits here over the next few days, although at first glance they seem short on blockbusters, which may explain why they haven't commanded much attention in the media. (That, and the whole dumping-hundreds-of-cables-on-a-Friday-night thing.)
The London cables mostly concern foreign policy issues where Britain's interests are closely aligned with the United States', the war in Afghanistan among them; the effort to thread the needle between the British government's commitment to the war and waning support for it among the British public is a common theme. One cable offers a lengthy account of then British Foreign Secretary David Miliband's November 2008 meeting with Afghan President Hamid Karzai in Kabul, in which Karzai tells Miliband (in the cable's paraphrase) that "it would be difficult or impossible to hold a credible Presidential election" the following year in Afghanistan, ticking off five particularly problematic provinces. (On that much, he was right.)
Karzai also expresses optimism about the United States' new president-elect, Barack Obama, but in his conversation with Miliband you can see the seeds of the estrangement between the Afghan and American presidents that would characterize the years that followed. There's the issue of American-employed private contractors, who Karzai would order out of his country in August 2010:
Afghanistan wanted to end the way in which the Americans sub-contracted major parts of their aid program to "doubtful contractors." He was also concerned that many of the private security companies were little more than "criminal organizations." The same applied to some of the transport companies used by the U.S.; it had become apparent to Karzai that the transport companies were responsible for much of the insecurity on the highways, in order to extract higher fees and insurance payments from the Americans.
Karzai also tells Miliband that he's leery about the United States dispatching more soldiers to his country:
Karzai emphasized that more U.S. troops were not the answer. He hoped the Americans would consult the Afghan Government before sending more troops. Karzai said that the U.S. had failed to send the troops for which Karzai had asked in 2002, but now it might be too late.
Miliband brings up the inevitable question of how all of this ends, and according to the cable suggests that "reconciliation" -- presumably with the Taliban -- "subject to strict conditions, would obviously be part of that."
Karzai agreed, saying that he had consulted "the whole Afghan people," and they were all in favor of reconciliation. They wanted to "bring over the good guys, while excluding the bad guys." Karzai realizes that the U.S., Russia and Iran had doubts about reconciliation, but this was something that the Afghan people wanted, and which he was bound to press ahead.
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The U.S. government has justifiably taken a lot of heat for its relative silence regarding -- and occasional complicity in -- the human rights abuses committed by Hosni Mubarak's regime in Egypt. But it's worth highlighting an exception in a recently WikiLeaked November 2008 cable from the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, signed by Amb. Margaret Scobey, in which American diplomats did the right thing -- while Silicon Valley played it safe.
The cable concerns an Egyptian blogger whose name is redacted in the document, but who CNET thinks is most likely Wael Abbas, a celebrated dissident journalist whose efforts to distribute videos of human rights abuses by Egyptian authorities have in one case led to convictions of the perpetrators (and who, incidentally, was arrested on Friday in Cairo, though according to his Twitter feed he's since been released):
Prominent Egyptian blogger XXXXXXXXXXXXX, contacted us November 17 to report that YouTube removed from his website two videos exposing police abuses -- one of Sinai bedouin allegedly shot by police and thrown in a garbage dump during the past week's violence (ref A), and the other of a woman being tortured in a police station. XXXXXXXXXXXXX told us that YouTube is also preventing XXXXXXXXXXXX from posting new videos, and asked us for assistance in urging YouTube to re-post his removed videos and reinstate his access to uploading new material. XXXXXXXXXXXXX said XXXXXXXXXXXXXX has tried to contact Google, but has not received a response.
The cable notes that the same thing happened to the blogger the previous year -- which again suggests that the blogger in question is Abbas, who had his YouTube access restored in December 2007 after getting kicked off for posting videos of Egyptian police brutality. At the time, YouTube explained in a statement that the company's general policy banned videos depicting graphic violence, but that "Having reviewed the case, we have restored the account of Egyptian blogger Wael Abbas -- and if he chooses to upload the video again with sufficient context so that users can understand his important message we will of course leave it on the site."
While the incident was widely reported at the time, there was no mention of any involvement of the State Department in YouTube's decision. But the 2008 cable notes:
In December 2007, DRL [State's Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor] and Embassy Cairo worked to convince Google [which owns YouTube] to restore XXXXXXXXXXXXX' YouTube access after a similar incident. We believe that a similar Department intervention with Google representatives could help in restoring XXXXXXXXXXXXX' access again. XXXXXXXXXXXXis an influential blogger and human rights activist, and we want to do everything we can to assist him in exposing police abuse.
A YouTube spokeswoman wouldn't confirm or deny the cable's account of the two incidents, saying in an emailed statement that "In order to protect the privacy of our users, we do not comment on actions taken on individual videos or accounts."
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