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Monthly Archives: February 2008

Orchestrated in Pyongyang

February 26th, 2008 - 2:04 am

With scores of western journalists in tow, the New York Philharmonic is now touring Pyongyang. Thus the crescendo of commentary about the “historic” and “unprecedented” nature of this event, the meaning of music, and the nuances of “cultural exchange” with totalitarian regimes — all implying some sort of great breakthrough in the long standoff with North Korea.

It’s a breakthrough all right, but it’s only Kim Jong Il and his cronies who should be applauding — as they open a new account in their fat ledger of extortionist schemes. In a photo that says it all, the AP has captured the Philharmonic’s Music Director, Lorin Maazel, at a Pyongyang banquet, surrounded by North Korean chefs who look as if they are about to serve up Maazel himself as the main course.

This is a regime which according to the U.S. government has been counterfeiting U.S. currency; has yet to make amends for kidnapping Japanese citizens; runs a Stalinist gulag in which its own people are starved, tortured and worked to death (these prison camps are not on the Philharmonic’s itinerary); was responsible for a famine that in the 1990s killed an estimated one to two million North Koreans; conducts periodic public executions of people caught trying to flee the country; has been selling missiles and missile technology to terrorist-sponsoring regimes in the Middle East; and has in recent times tested a ballistic missile designed to hit targets such as Los Angeles and a nuclear device designed, not least, to extort continuing payoffs from the free world.

Since promising last year to make a swift and full declaration of all its nuclear programs and give them up, Pyongyang has reneged on the terms of the deal, missed a series of deadlines, and while refusing to come clean about uranium enrichment has made a grand show of oh-so-slowly disabling the Yongbyon nuclear reactor — which Kim re-started in 2003 after promising nine years earlier, in exchange for billions worth of rewards, to shut down for good.

And what has the U.S. done? In recent years, America has rewarded Kim Jong Il, again and again. U.S. special envoy Chris Hill (who has taken to referring to North Korea’s regime as “we”) last year enlisted the U.S. Treasury and Federal Reserve to help transfer to Kim’s regime some $25 million in allegedly crime-tainted money frozen in Macau –thus easing the way for North Korea, despite sanctions, to continue its illicit business via the global financial system. North Korean negotiators have been welcomed in the U.S., hosted by Hill for a tippling sesson at the Waldorf in New York, and dignified as envoys of a regime which the Condi Rice State Department is evidently itching to remove from the list of state sponsors of terrorism — Kim’s terror-based rule, Japanese abductees and Middle East weapons projects notwithstanding.

And now the New York Philharmonic has arrived to serenade the tyrant on his home turf. If Maazel really wants to do something historic, it’s not Dvorak and Gershwin the Philharmonic should strike up for Kim & Cronies; it’s the theme song from the Sopranos.

Maybe President Bush should simply scrap the entire machinery that grinds out U.S. National Intelligence Estimates, and instead take out a subscription to Der Spiegel — which, contrary to last fall’s NIE on Iran, is reporting that European Union experts estimate Iran could have enough enriched uranium to build a nuclear bomb by the end of this year.

The Mystery Commissar of UN Media Coverage

February 21st, 2008 - 3:32 am

After a week in the cold, and protests from various quarters, Inner-City Press with its coverage of the United Nations has been restored to Google News — more about this on Fox and Inner-City. But the mystery remains. The complaint that persuaded Google to de-list Inner-City from its News base reportedly came from one person. That person found it worth protesting to Google that Inner-City Press, run by Matthew Russell Lee, might have too few staff to qualify as a news outlet.

So who made the complaint? The clues suggest the complainant knew enough about the UN and its press corps to home in on Inner-City, and tally its manpower; and for some reason cared enough to check that against the criteria imposed by Google for listing an outfit in its News base. At the same time this was a complainant apparently influential enough so that Google, having received one complaint, acted upon it to remove Inner-City.

This is of course a world of many mysteries, and we cannot rule out there there is an online shepherd somewhere on the Mongolian steppe who fits this profile. But the probabilities point to someone much closer to home. If this complainant has nothing to hide, then why not come forward, speak up by name, and allow for a fair debate?

While most mainstream media outfits go light on coverage of the epic vistas of corruption, malfeasance and conflicts-of-interest that are the United Nations, one of the most dogged and prolific reporters in recent years on UN in-house doings and mis-doings has been Matthew Russell Lee of Inner-City Press (referenced on this blog earlier this month for his terrific coverage of what might best be called the UN’s Financial Cover-Up Program). But as of last week, you won’t find Lee’s latest Inner-City Press articles by searching Google News. Following a complaint from an unnamed malcontent, Google removed Inner-City Press from its list of Google News sources. You can read about it in this dispatch from Fox News, or on Inner-City Press itself, in this article which Google evidently did not deem worthy of treating as news.

Much of the blame for this outrage has fallen on Google. But we should not forget the role in this story of the UN itself. UN officials — and in particular, the UN Development Program, on which Inner-City has broken many highly unflattering stories — have denied making any complaint to Google about Inner-City. Unless Google discloses the name of the confidential complainant, there may be no more chance of getting to bottom of this than there is of seeing the financial statements of all the husbands, wives, sons, daughters, brothers, sisters third cousins and business pals of UN senior officials who refuse to disclose even their own finances to the public.

Even so, the setting for this drama is the UN, where hundreds of millions of tax dollars are spent every year on “public information,” on “oversight,” on “investigations,” on “good governance” initiatives, on “media” programs… on promises and glossy brochures and pricey conferences all purporting to support free speech and integrity and UN reform and transparency. Despite all that, the main impetus for UN reform — if such we should call it — has been the result of media exposure of the sleaze behind the UN’s public facade.

In this, Inner-City Press in recent years has been playing an important role. Ban Ki-Moon (the Secretary-General who, despite his promises way back in January, 2007, has somehow failed for more than a year to get UN auditors into North Korea to check on site into the Cash-for-Kim scandal) should be thanking Matthew Russell Lee of Inner-City Press for his astounding toil in the evidently doomed cause of trying to keep the UN honest.

Regardless of where that mysterious complaint to Google originated (let’s be generous and assume it came from a disgruntled internet cafe proprietor on Mars), it’s a disturbing scene in which one of the best-informed news outlets on backroom shennanigans at the UN — and not coincidentally, one of the most critical of these intrigues — has now been sidelined on the web. Not that the UN has an official, taxpayer-funded program to censor its critics. But if it did, this sure does seem an illuminating sample of what it would look like.

A summary here for those not yet tuned into this saga of a senior Pentagon aide and his vanishing profile. By some accounts, the man himself will soon be leaving the Defense Department. But when I called to check that with the office of Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England, where Hesham Islam works, a spokesman denied it. So, what to believe? We shall see…

That’s a quote from a must-read article in today’s Wall Street Journal, co-authored by Basseim Eid (a Palestinian) and Natan Sharansky (an Israeli), on “Bush’s Mideast U-Turn.” Together, they are taking the Bush administration to task for betraying the vision presented by President Bush in 2002 for a true Israeli-Palestinian peace. They remind us that Bush proposed an end to U.S. support for corrupt, terror-compromised Palestinian leaders such as Yasser Arafat, and said the U.S. would instead back genuine democratic, market-economy, anti-terrorist reform of Palestinian society as the only viable path to peace, and prelude to a Palestinian state. Instead, U.S. policy has reverted to “quick and foolish solutions” — to waving aside genuine Palestinian reformers in order to prop Arafat’s heirs, such as Abu Mazen; to snap elections that brought Hamas to power in Gaza; to ignoring “the vital link between freedom and peace.”

I’d add that it is not only in the Israeli-Palestinian arena that the Bush administration has been defaulting to the failed policies of the past. In dealings with — to name just some of the worst — North Korea, Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Libya — the administration has been increasingly ignoring that vital link between freedom and peace, in favor of old, failed notions that we can cut deals with tyrants and on the basis of parleys and paper promises expect to enjoy peace. Within the administration, the chief agency sounding this retreat — and leading us toward new wars — is Condoleezza Rice’s State Department, subject of a scorching memo now making the rounds about the State Department bureaucracy in Iraq. The point there is that the American military has been fighting so well for genuine progress, which we cannot afford to see squandered by the State Department.

It is also State Department diplomacy that has been rolling out a red carpet for the regime of Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi, regardless of the nasty portents involved in his continuing rule of terror at home. More thoughts on that in my recent column for The Philadelphia Inquirer, on Libya’s leading democratic dissident, Fathi Eljahmi. Praised by Bush in 2004, Eljahmi has since been held at Gadhafi’s pleasure in solitary confinement in the prison system of Libya –a matter evidently of small concern to a State Department, which last fall raised no objection to Libya taking a seat on the UN Security Council. If all this above is State’s road to peace, it’s time to reverse gears, and head back to the future.

The U.S. State Department of North Korea

February 8th, 2008 - 2:43 am

In the Six-Party Talks with North Korea, it gets ever more difficult to tell which side of this erstwhile hexagon Condi Rice’s State Department is negotiating for. On Feb. 6, the U.S. special envoy to these talks, Chris Hill, gave the Senate Foreign Relations Committee an update on the North Korea denuclearization agreement reached almost a year ago, which keeps running into snags such as North Korea’s insistence on first receiving a refund of some $25 million in allegedly crime-tainted funds frozen in Macau (which Hill arranged for Kim Jong Il to receive last spring, but Hill did not bother to mention that in his testimony), and North Korea’s missing the Dec. 31, 2007 deadline for giving a full declaration of its nuclear program (which Hill did mention, but he doesn’t want that to get in the way of the deal with North Korea).

Glance down in this link for a video of Hill’s spoken testimony, now posted prominently on the State Department web site. It’s about 23 minutes long, so if you have better things to do than watch the entire performance, the part to catch is the opening statement in which Hill mentions the Dec. 31 deadline missed by North Korea. Except he doesn’t put the blame squarely on North Korea, where it belongs. What he says is: “We have not met that deadline.”

Stop that tape. Who is “we”…?

Later in Hill’s testimony, he does it again. “We are not at all happy that we’ve missed our deadline.”

Right-o, but who is “we” working for?

That’s just a sample of the statements here that start to sound like out-takes from The Manchurian Candidate. There are such stunning moments as Hill’s mention in passing that North Korea needs to improve its human rights record -which is true in spades. But then, presumably lest he offend what is arguably the world’s most brutal regime, Hill adds, in that same spirit of “we” (yes, you, me, America, North Korea, and perhaps any future nation state established on Mars, all of us striving together): “Every country needs to improve its human rights record.”

There are also such gems as Hill’s mention of signs that North Korea, most inconveniently, has a clandestine uranium enrichment program, and (get ready for it): “Obviously, if it continues, we need to ensure that it is terminated.”

Thus, the latest utterances of the main man of the Condi Rice State Department for dealing with the veteran nuclear extortionists of Kim Jong Il’s North Korea. Meanwhile, the speech in which the U.S. special envoy for human rights in North Korea, Jay Lefkowitz, courageously — and accurately — noted that the Six-Party Talks have been a failure, remains erased from the State Department web site. Of course, Lefkowitz was clearly way off message. Not once did he refer to the regime of Kim Jong Il as “we.”

You have to hand it to the United Nations: Even if top officials are making a mockery of the UN’s own promises of financial disclosure (see post below), when it comes to fighting corruption, the UN-ocrats are ready to go the extra mile… or, in the case of the Vienna-based UN office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), they’ve just gone thousands and thousands of extra miles — all the way to yet another UN conference at the plush Nusa Dua resort on Bali. (See photo above for a sample of the amenities).

If that location sounds familiar, Nusa Dua is the same balmy Bali beach resort and convention center (“Where business is a pleasure”) to which Ban Ki-Moon summoned UN staffers and delegates of member states from far-off climes in coldest December for a giant pow-wow on fine-tuning global weather — an endeavor in which Ban proposes in effect to have the wealth of the world managed by the same UN bureaucrats who won’t disclose their own assets.

Maybe there’s a grand logic to it all. The global central-planning schemes envisioned by the UN in the name of controlling the climate — under which wealth and productivity get re-channeled worldwide via the black box and many toll gates of the UN bureaucracy — have the potential to make Oil-for-Food corruption look like a mere drop in the broad Pacific. Maybe in the interest of synergy, the UN should simply move all its offices, agencies and meetings to Bali, and the corruption fighters and climate controllers, and all the rest of the gang could consolidate the corruption and the corruption fighting, the cash and the cover-ups, all around the same swimming pool. It would save a lot of money on UN air travel, free up valuable real estate in Manhattan, and move UN headquarters a safer distance from the mighty moneypot of Washington. And while such a scenario might not be what the UN founders back in 1945 had in mind, it might just come closer than what we’ve got today.

Remember all those promises about UN transparency, from Kofi Annan and his deputy, Mark Malloch Brown? In 2006, they launched a financial disclosure program for top UN officials in which they never actually disclosed their own finances to the public. Then in 2007, Ban-Ki-Moon arrived, and announced a new era of lots more transparency, in which he released his own disclosure form and urged other top UN officials to follow suit. Well, it’s been some time in the making, but as 2008 gets underway, the UN has finally begun posting on its web site the financial disclosure statements of top UN officials, or at least some of them.

There’s just one catch, or two, or three, or — hey, who’s counting, anyway? There’s almost no information in all this “disclosure.” Senior UN officials are now supposed to file a financial statement in-house, but there is no requirement that any information therein be disclosed to the public. Among officials who have volunteered to disclose, there is an option on the public disclosure form which consists of (stay with me, this gets good) choosing “to maintain the confidentiality of the information disclosed by me in order to comply with the Financial Disclosure Program.” Translation: public disclosure at the UN can consist of signing a statement in which the only information imparted to the public is that you refuse to disclose anything except… your refusal to disclose.

So, for example, here is what the financial statement looks like for Iqbal Riza, Special Adviser to Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon (you remember Iqbal Riza, Kofi Annan’s former chief of staff who retired in late 2004 after it turned out he had approved the shredding of loads of UN executive suite documents potentially relevant to the Oil-for-Food investigations; he then returned to the UN in 2005 to act as Kofi’s “liaison” in setting up the UN’s Iranian-grandfathered “Alliance of Civilizations”; and last year was one of the first to lunch with newly arrived U.S. ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad). Here’s another one, just like Riza’s (apart from the signature) from the head of the UN Peacekeeping Forces in Lebanon, or UNIFIL — Claudio Graziano. And another one, from the commander of peacekeeping forces for the UN Mission in Liberia, or UNMIL — Chikadibia Obiakor.

From those who do choose to actually disclose anything in their disclosure forms, there are a few generic strands of information to be gleaned, but no specific dollar amounts. For instance, here’s Sergei Ordzhonikidze, director-general of the UN in Geneva, whose entire disclosure of assets amounts to one three-word phrase: “Bank Savings accounts.”

And despite the UN’s rich history of familial financial entanglements — wives with swollen offshore bank accounts, offspring with out-sized incomes — the “Disclosure Summary” form does not even have a category for spouses, sons, daughters, cousins, aunts…

Oh, and there’s another catch. Among the disclosure forms submitted, many have yet to be processed, so in many cases there are no live links so far to pull up anything — scroll down here to see the entire current list. For more detail, Matthew Russell Lee of Inner-City Press has been combing through and among many intriguing discoveries makes the excellent observation that among the 190 UN senior officials urged by Ban to fling themselves under the 10-watt glare of public disclosure described above, less than half were even as forthcoming as, say, Iqbal Riza. They wouldn’t even put their names on the site — or, as Matthew neatly put it, they have “not even consented to disclose their decision to maintain confidentiality.” This group includes — to name just a sampling — UN poverty guru and Under-Secretary-General Jeffrey Sachs; Ban’s special envoy for Burma, Ibrahim Gambari; and UN Controller Warren Sach.

Lest we forget, the purpose of this disclosure exercise, as Ban’s spokesperson announced last week, is to show that UN staff members “understand the importance” of assuring the rest of us “that in the discharge of their official duties and responsibilities, UN staff members will not be influenced by any consideration associated with his/her private interests.”