Monday, November 17, 2008

The Sleazy Underbelly of DC Diplomacy

A quick post amidst the sniffles and the piles of work at the new job to point readers to two great new items to read on the dark corners of DC diplomacy:

1) Laura Rozen -- proprietress of the amazing War and Piece blog -- has a wonderful new article up at Mother Jones (where she's a star at the magazine's powerhouse DC bureau) on Shlomi Michaels -- a former Israeli commando who seems to turn up in the oddest places in US foreign policy. For instance, in the spring of 2004, Rozen reports that Michaels met with a former CIA agent in the office of GOP string-puller Ed Rogers, bringing along material that he claimed might help George W. Bush get reelected. Rozen writes that:

He had a well-placed Iraqi source—a former officer in an Iraqi military psychological operations unit, he said—who had gathered hundreds of pages of contracts, maps, and photographs documenting meetings between Iraqi and Ukrainian officials. The information, Michaels said, would prove that Iraq had pursued a covert chemical weapons program. Michaels wanted Bruner to set up a meeting for him and the Iraqi source with the CIA. To turn over the whole dossier, he wanted $1 million.

Rozen weaves a fascinating story about the nexus between spooks and security and reconstruction and runaway capitalism that draws in former CIS director James Woolsey and former FBI director Louis Freeh. It's terrific journalism. Read it here.

2) Ken Silverstein -- the Washington editor at Harper's magazine -- caused a stir in July 2007 when he published a devastating article that showed Washington lobbyists at their absolute worst.

What Silverstein did was undercover muckraking at its very best:

(a) He crafted a fictitious interest group.
(b) He chose a vicious repressive regime that the imaginary firm wanted to rehabilitate. In this case, it was the Stalinist Central Asian "republic" of Turkmenistan.
(c) He went looking for lobbying help to burnish the Turkmen regime in Washington's corridors of lobbying power.

Surprise, surprise. Silverstein found DC lobbying firms jockeying madly to help out a nation firmly on every world human rights watch, despite the odious nature of the regime and the flimsy cover story he concocted to seek their help.

Equally unsurprising is the fact that media scolds --led by lead scold Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post -- actually pilloried the messenger. As Silverstein noted in a follow-up piece, "Earlier this year, when I was working with my editors to plan out a story about lobbyists willing to work for the Stalinist regime in Turkmenistan, I predicted that after the story was published Washington Post columnist Howard Kurtz would write a hand-wringing, tut-tutting column about my tactics. Right on schedule, Kurtz delivers his opinion. 'No matter how good the story,' he writes, 'lying to get it raises as many questions about journalists as their subjects.'"

Yep, that's just the kind of nonsense you'd expect from a media columnist whose wife is a media spinner and lobbyist largely associated with conservative causes. Oooh, pity the poor lobbyists busted as they salivate over Stalinist cash by journalists with gumption and a knack for exploiting the greed and gullibility of the powerful.

Anyway, Silverstein's article is now a terrific book called Turkmeniscam (Random House). You can get a sense of how it's being received in this online book forum at Firedoglake, hosted by journalist Lindsey Beyerstein. You can also buy Turkmeniscam here. Do so.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

More Kundera Kontroversy......

We've had an enforced hiatus here at Balkans via Bohemia. Call it "The Unbearable Heaviness of Workload." Plus, an election.

To make it up to loyal readers, a bit of an update on the twists and turns of "L'affaire Kundera" since last we blogged it in mid-October. In a nutshell, archivists at the Czech Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes (USTR) who were researching the case of a Western spy stumbled upon a record of Milan Kundera denouncing that agent to police in 1950 -- thus effecting his arrest.

In my previous post (and in an article in The American Prospect), I argued that this wasn't really a scandal, considering the context of the times and Kundera's known pro-Communism beliefs in that era. I concluded that the document is likely accurate, and also speculated that his intensity of his fervid denials of the insident now were rooted in his own deeply-held views about art and the privacy of the author.

Now, however, it's becoming a bit of a scandal/ Not only will Kundera not back down from those denials, but he's enlisted a group of 11 literary heavyweights to write the much-dreaded "public letter" about the case.

The letter is sickening, largely because it offers so little scope for truth-telling and free inquiry. Simply doing archival research and reporting the results is transformed by these authors into "an attempt... to stir up a defamatory campaign with the aim of sullying the reputation of Milan Kundera."

Puh-leese. Kundera's relationship with his native country is complex. And while there are many in the Czech Republic who do not like him or his work, the article reporting the denunciation was sober and backed by very firm evidence. The presentation of the documents was no orchestrated campaign. The defense, however, seems very orchestrated. And Kundera is dicing with his legacy.

At the wonderful Sign and Sight website, Anja Seeliger has more wise words on the literary dust-up.

(Photo of Milan Kundera by Fredrik Rafusson from the HarperCollins website.)