Was the "gulag" charge a mistake?

When Amnesty International's secretary general, Irene Khan, described Guantanamo as "the gulag of our times," her group got plenty of attention, including a strong response from President Bush. "Absurd," he said, dismissing the group's report as relying on charges from "people who hate America."

The substantive debate over the conditions at Gitmo and elsewhere, the treatment of the Koran and the use of interrogations techniques that approach torture is an important one to have, for it shows that Americans are willing to confront flaws in our system. But now the argument seems to be about an inflammatory word that conjures up a very different political system.

In short, if you're going to toss a loaded grenade of a word like gulag, you'd better be able to back it up.

Which is why the "Fox News Sunday" interview of Amnesty's U.S. chief, William Schulz, was quite revealing.

CHRIS WALLACE: Mr. Schulz, the Soviet gulag was a system of slave labor camps that went on for more than 30 years. More than 1.6 million deaths were documented. Whatever has happened at Guantanamo, do you stand by the comparison to the Soviet gulag?

SCHULZ: Well, Chris, clearly this is not an exact or a literal analogy. And the secretary general has acknowledged that. There's no question. . . . In size and in duration, there are not similarities between U.S. detention facilities and the gulag. People are not being starved in those facilities. They're not being subjected to forced labor. But there are some similarities. The United States is maintaining an archipelago of prisons around the world, many of them secret prisons into which people are being literally disappeared -- held in indefinite incommunicado detention without access to lawyers or a judicial system or to their families. And in some cases, at least, we know that they are being mistreated, abused, tortured and even killed. . . .

WALLACE: Is it possible, sir, that by excessive rhetoric or by your political links, that you have hurt, not helped, your cause?

SCHULZ: Chris, I don't think I'd be on this station, on this program today with you if Amnesty hadn't said what it said and President Bush and his colleagues haven't responded as they did. If I had come to you two weeks ago and said, "Chris, I'd like to go on FOX with you just to talk about U.S. detention policies at Guantanamo and elsewhere," I suspect you wouldn't have given me an invitation.

WALLACE: So you're saying if you make irresponsible charges, that's good for the cause?

SCHULZ: I don't believe that they're irresponsible.

Excuse me, but did Schulz say that it's okay to unleash words like "gulag," even if it's not an "exact or literal analogy," because it gets him booked on Fox News? Is that the new standard? Yes, Chris, I called the president a war criminal because it was the only way I could get on Hardball?

The has produced a rare moment of editorial-page agreement between D.C.'s two top papers. The Washington Post | http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/05/25/AR2005052501838.html: "Turning a report on prisoner detention into another excuse for Bush-bashing or America-bashing undermines Amnesty's legitimate criticisms of U.S. policies and weakens the force of its investigations of prison systems in closed societies."

The Washington Times | http://www.washingtontimes.com/op-ed/20050606-101058-5681r.htm: "There are no defensible comparisons between Guantanamo, or any other U.S. detention center, and the gulag, and the sooner that Amnesty apologizes the better. . . . The tragedy here is that the world needs credible organizations ready to hold governments accountable for human rights abuses. Amnesty International used to be just such an organization. But how will it be able to denounce the real monsters of the world, if now they can just point to the United States as the ultimate abuser of human rights? By waving the bloody shirt, it will be a long time before Amnesty can be trusted again."

Paul Mirengoff at Power Line | http://powerlineblog.com analyzes Amnesty's motive:

"It was a publicity stunt. . . . Dana Milbank . . . .chortled that Schulz, in effect, is laughing his way to the bank, with traffic on Amnesty International's web site up sixfold, donations quintupled and new memberships doubled. However, as the co-proprietor of a web site, I know that the trick isn't getting 'em to visit, it's keeping 'em coming back. So Amnesty International will have to follow its own tough act. . . .

"Not that long ago, Amnesty International represented the gold standard on the issue of human rights abuses. It has now forfeited that position apparently in order to get on television, obtain a temporary spike in contributions, and (of course) scratch the anti-Bush itch of its leaders, including Kerry campaign contributor Schulz."

Andrew Sullivan | http://www.andrewsullivan.com observes that former Clintonite Sid Blumenthal got there first, with this piece | http://www.guardian.co.uk/usa/story/0,12271,1210588,00.html in London's Guardian headlined "This is the New Gulag." "The moral idiocy of Amnesty International comparing the serious issues in Guantanamo with Stalin's monstrous crimes didn't come out of thin air."

E.J. Dionne | http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/06/02/AR2005060201749.html has also weighed in: "Why do President Bush's critics make life so easy for him?. . . . What's maddening is that by reaching for the dramatic, overwrought and, yes, outrageous gulag metaphor, Amnesty's Khan let Bush slip right by the questions raised by American practices in Guantanamo and whether Guantanamo's problems are helping the 'people who hate America' in their battle for world opinion."

Dick Morris | http://www.nypost.com/postopinion/opedcolumnists/47776.htm, in his New York Post column, sees a broader danger for the White House:

"The left has launched a powerful new offensive against the War on Terror by trying to convince Americans -- and Muslims around the world -- that there are rampant abuses at Guantanamo Naval Base where hundreds of terror suspects are being held without attorneys or trials.

"If Bush is not careful, his entire administration -- and the popularity of the war that has come to define it -- will rest on the actions of some kid with a gun guarding some terrorist he hates in a dark jail cell at Guantanamo."

Meanwhile, a Democratic position seems to be emerging:

"Former President Jimmy Carter on Tuesday called for the United States to shut down its Guantanamo Bay prison to demonstrate the country's commitment to protecting human rights," reports the AP | http://www.macon.com/mld/macon/news/local/11836536.htm.

Bush, with Tony Blair at his side, finally gets asked about the Downing Street Memo, but most news accounts lead with African aid. Here's part of the Los Angeles Times | http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/world/la-fg-blair8jun08,1,7181739.story?coll=la-headlines-world story:

"Bush flatly rejected the allegations in the so-called Downing Street memo, written in July 2002 by a Blair foreign policy aide. The document alleged that the White House was fixing its intelligence and facts about the threat posed by then-Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to justify an invasion to oust him.' There's nothing farther from the truth,' Bush said during a brief news conference with Blair in the East Room of the White House. The president suggested that the memo, first reported in the Sunday Times of London and the topic of much discussion on the Internet, had been dropped into the middle of Britain's recent parliamentary elections in an effort to damage Blair and his Labor Party. Blair refuted the memo as well."

So this is how the Bush administration makes environmental policy:

"A White House official who once led the oil industry's fight against limits on greenhouse gases has repeatedly edited government climate reports in ways that play down links between such emissions and global warming, according to internal documents," says the New York Times | http://nytimes.com/2005/06/08/politics/08climate.html?hp&ex=1118203200&en=7079af2e17ad5ceb&ei=5094&partner=homepage.

"In handwritten notes on drafts of several reports issued in 2002 and 2003, the official, Philip A. Cooney, removed or adjusted descriptions of climate research that government scientists and their supervisors, including some senior Bush administration officials, had already approved. In many cases, the changes appeared in the final reports.

"The dozens of changes, while sometimes as subtle as the insertion of the phrase 'significant and fundamental' before the word 'uncertainties,' tend to produce an air of doubt about findings that most climate experts say are robust.

"Mr. Cooney is chief of staff for the White House Council on Environmental Quality, the office that helps devise and promote administration policies on environmental issues. Before going to the White House in 2001, he was the 'climate team leader' and a lobbyist at the American Petroleum Institute."

So much for science.

Wow: I wrote yesterday that some Dems had become uneasy with Dean's rhetoric, from the bad joke about Limbaugh to the premature sentencing of DeLay. Wait till they get a load of this San Francisco Chronicle | http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/chronicle/archive/2005/06/07/MNdean07.TMP piece by Carla Marinucci:

"Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean, unapologetic in the face of recent criticism that he has been too tough on his political opposition, said in San Francisco this week that Republicans are 'a pretty monolithic party. They all behave the same. They all look the same. It's pretty much a white Christian party.'"

Now that Drudge has bannered the story, I predict a rather strong pushback.

Here's how blogs are changing the nature of political coverage. John Edwards | http://blog.oneamericacommittee.com/article.pl?sid=05/06/06/2117240&section=&mode=nested&tid=1, in a posting picked up by Daily Kos | http://www.dailykos.com, tries to clarify his remarks about Dean:

"When I was asked whether I thought that it was fair to say that people who were Republican hadn't done a good day's work. Of course, I didn't think so, and I said that. I don't think our DNC chair, Howard Dean, would put it that way again if asked either. I disagreed with him, and I said so. And, I want to be clear, I would have to say so again if I were asked again. I said a lot of good things about Howard's outreach program and invigoration of the internet as a communication and fundraising tool, but no one wrote about that. Instead the headlines blared that I disagreed with Howard. And then the flap arose: A chasm! A split! A revolt!

"Instead, how about: Nonsense!

"We are both talking about the Republicans and their failure to address the needs of working people."

Sure, it's partially spin, but without a media filter.

I mentioned Hillary Clinton's red-meat speech at a fundraiser in yesterday's column. Turns out Hillary wasn't aggressive enough for Arianna Huffington | http://www.huffingtonpost.com/theblog/archive/arianna-huffington/hillary-attacks-the-gop-a_2210.html:

"The trouble with Hillary's speech was that for all the partisan speechifying, it was almost exclusively empty rhetoric that she was dishing out. 'We can't ever, ever give in to the Republican agenda . . . it isn't good for America,' she declared. This from a United States Senator who voted to confirm Condoleezza Rice, supported the invasion of Iraq, and came back from a March trip to Iraq sounding more like a White House flack than a potential standard bearer of the opposition party.

"Indeed, throughout the speech, Hillary adopted the tone of a powerless activist whining about those in power rather than a high-profile member of the World's Most Exclusive club. The low point came when she blamed much of the Republicans' success on a too timid press corps ('Where are the investigative reporters today? Why aren't they asking the hard questions?') and suggested that reporters should look into such issues as the $9 billion missing in Iraq.

"Of course she's right about the mainstream media abdicating their investigative role... but, c'mon, it's not like Senator Clinton and her congressional cohorts are powerless to look into such things. In fact, that's what the constitution says they are there for. It's called Congressional Oversight, HRC. . . . I'm sure it was in the introductory packet they handed you when you first arrived."

A CNN programming move has gotten some good reviews, one from Annie Lamott | http://www.tpmcafe.com/story/2005/6/6/16227/51749 at Josh Marshall's new TPM Cafe:

"You will never believe in a million years what I just saw on the CNN morning news: NEWS! You could have blown me over with a feather. I always turn on the news at 9:00 am (PT) before sitting down at my desk, and can usually predict the order of the stories. Today I was guessing 1) the missing woman in Aruba 2) Michael Jackson's bad back and 3) how the Runaway Bride is coping with probation, and the bad hair cut.

"The new Wolf den runs at noon here on the west coast, and CNN is now running a show called Your World Today. God, what a concept, the mere suggestion that there is more going on out there than George Bush's America."

Columbia Journalism Review | http://www.cjrdaily.org is also ecstatic:

"It speaks to the state of cable news that we sat in shock and awe for the better part of an hour, as anchors Zain Verjee and Jim Clancy did nothing more than deliver the news like it's supposed to be done.

"The newscast kicked off with an in-depth report on the latest developments in Sudan, as the International Criminal Court announced today that it would begin an investigation into alleged war crimes. Yes, that would be the same genocide that CNNI's U.S. counterpart hasn't found the time to bother with for pretty much all of 2005. For eight minutes -- nearly an eternity in cable news -- CNN turned to correspondent Nic Robertson for the story on the ICC and then to Pultizer prize-winning Professor Samantha Power to address the obvious question -- will the ICC's intervention do anything to curb the violence?

"Throughout Robertson's report CNNI ran stock footage of burned villages, famished refugees and sick children to emphasize the severity of the crisis.

From Sudan, 'Your World Today' moved on to a speech by Syria's President Bashar Assad to the Syrian Baath Congress. . . . Next up was a quick report on Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's trip to Asia to deal with North Korea's nuclear threat, amidst published reports that the United States might try to initiate UN action against the rogue Communist state. Rumsfeld denied those reports on-camera.

"Stunned by 15 straight minutes of actual news, we heard an equally incredulous CJR colleague in the background quip, 'It's weird to be watching news.' And indeed it was."

And for those who haven't had enough of the Deep Throat saga, this Albany Times Union | http://www.timesunion.com/AspStories/story.asp?storyID=367183 piece says there were other throats:

"At the height of the Watergate investigation more than three decades ago, three high-ranking FBI officials conspired with the agency's deputy director to leak information about their probe to the press.

"The revelation of that collaboration by a retired FBI agent in conversations in recent days with the Times Union casts W. Mark Felt -- who admitted last week to being the media source known as Deep Throat -- not as a disgruntled maverick, as some have suggested, but rather as the leader of a clandestine group that fought White House efforts to contain the sprawling investigation.

"Paul V. Daly, 64, who joined the bureau in 1965 and went on to head field offices in Albany and North Carolina, told the Times Union last week that he learned in 1978 that Felt was Deep Throat and that he had not acted alone: At least three other FBI officials helped Felt secretly disclose information about the Watergate investigation to The Washington Post.

"The FBI officials met regularly in their Washington, D.C., offices to discuss what information they would reveal to fuel media interest. Their motive, according to Daly, was to counteract the Nixon White House's efforts to quash the FBI investigation of the Watergate burglary and related wrongdoing linked to the Oval Office. 'They wanted to protect the integrity of the FBI,' Daly said."