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Claudia Rosett

Claudia Rosett is journalist-in-residence with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and heads its Investigative Reporting Project. She is widely recognized as a ground-breaking reporter on corruption at the United Nations. Her investigative reporting skills, drawn from three decades as a journalist and editor writing on international affairs, led her to expose the U.N. Oil-for-Food scandal, the worst financial fraud in the history of humanitarian relief. Due in substantial part to her investigation, the U.S. House and Senate launched inquiries into the program. Ms. Rosett has appeared before five U.S. House and Senate Committees and Subcommittees to testify on U.N.-related corruption. Her work on Oil-for-Food earned Claudia the 2005 Eric Breindel Award and the Mightier Pen award.

What’s the Diplomatic Breakout Time for Stopping an Iranian Bomb?

At the Iran nuclear talks, U.S. negotiators have been aiming for a deal that would involve a so-called breakout time of one year — meaning a deal structured so that the Tehran regime, should it cheat, would still need at least a year to be able to produce nuclear weapons. The idea is that this would be a period long enough for inspectors to detect the cheating, and the international community — presumably the “world powers” now negotiating with Iran — to do something about it.

At a background press briefing, held Monday in Switzerland on the sidelines of these nuclear talks, an American senior administration official was asked by a reporter, “Why did you pick one year, instead of nine months, or 15 months?… What’s the reasoning behind that?”

The senior official replied that the U.S. arrived at this goal of a one-year breakout time by using a secret, proprietary model to run “very complicated calculations, which have been validated by our labs and by outside opinion leaders with security clearances because these calculations are based on classified information.” This model, and the information, and the calculations, are all so secret that according to this official the U.S. has not discussed the details with its P5+1 negotiating partners — Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany. They all have their own models, and they negotiate with each other over how to haggle with Iran over arrangements that could yield some collectively acceptable margin of breakout time.

All this secrecy is disquieting, in an era when trust is not the first thing that springs to mind regarding complex government deals designed to be signed and sealed before we find out what’s in them. (If, indeed, we ever discover in full what’s in them. The full terms of the Nov. 2013 Joint Plan of Action that ushered in the now twice-extended Iran nuclear talks have yet to be disclosed by the Obama administration).

Even more disturbing, however, was the initial response of this senior U.S. official to the breakout-time question, before the official got down to such brass tacks as secret proprietary models and complex calculations. The first thing the official said was that the one-year breakout goal had been decided so early in the negotiating process that it was hard to remember: “I actually would have to go back, because it’s so — such a long time now.”

Yes, it is rather a long time. And that is a very important detail. The issue here is not only how long it might take Iran to break out to a bomb, but how long it might take the U.S. and those other world powers to genuinely face up to any such effort (and cheating is likely — Iran’s record to date has been an epic tale of nuclear deceit). Then they would probably need time to gin up the nerve to genuinely do something. Call it the necessary Diplomatic Breakout Time — the time needed for the rest of the world, or the P5+1 world powers cutting this deal, to take decisive action.

Here’s a nonproprietary, non-secret guide to how that might work. Look at the time spent already on these Iran talks. After years of European talks with Iran, and haggling over terms of broader talks… after assorted discoveries of smuggling and global front networks and secret Iranian nuclear facilities (remember Qom, 2009)… after failed talks and back channel talks and talks about talks, there eventually came the Joint Plan of Action in November, 2013, setting the framework for the current talks. Those were supposed to be wrapped up in six months with a permanent and comprehensive deal. But following the announcement of the Joint Plan, it took almost two months to get the talks started (Iran’s lead negotiator, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, took advantage of the break to go lay a wreath in Lebanon on the grave of the late Hezbollah terrorist Imad Mughniyah). By the July deadline, Iranian officials were having a good time declaring their “right” to enrich uranium. The talks were extended through November, 2014. Then they were extended again, with a current deadline of June 30, 2015, and plans to reach a framework agreement for a permanent deal by the end of this month.

During the many rounds of talks, there have by now been countless (OK, I could probably count them, but it could take days) hours of bilateral, trilateral and full court meetings. There have been working dinners, and discussions in capitals. There have been rounds of meetings in Geneva, Vienna, New York, Geneva again, and now the Swiss city of Lausanne. With Iran plus the countries of the P5+1 engaging each other during well over a year of acrobatic permutations, these talks have been a seven-ring circus. Senior U.S. officials have compared the process to doing a puzzle, solving a Rubik’s cube, and at one giddy and perhaps sleep-deprived moment invoked the metaphor of “an amoeba that sort of moves in and out until all of the pieces lock into place.”

That’s how this deal is taking shape. So, if an agreement is actually reached, with a built-in buffer — as calculated by secret models — of a one-year breakout time for Iran, how does the diplomatic decision process work for the U.S. and its P5+1 partners? Presumably they would all first have to be persuaded that Iran was really cheating, and how, and how much, by whatever standards are set when the amoeba pieces lock into place. Presumably they would then have to debate and decide exactly what action to take, and — since Iran might use its talents to devise a form of cheating that such a deal has not fully anticipated and planned for — the logistics of the when, and the whom and the where and the how.

If, as the Obama administration has been considering, the deal is turned over to the UN Security Council, where Russia and China wield permanent vetoes, how long might it take to authorize and launch decisive action?

Here’s some unclassified information to help model an answer to that question. North Korea has been under UN sanctions for its nuclear and missile programs since 2006, when it conducted its first illicit nuclear test. North Korea is still building missiles and nuclear weapons, and the diplomats of the P5 are still brooding over what to do about it. So in that case there’s already been a diplomatic breakout time of almost nine years, and they haven’t broken out yet. If the P5+1 consummate the nuclear deal now taking shape with Iran, and Iran cheats (as it almost certainly will) what, realistically, would be the diplomatic breakout time for dealing with that? Factor in your own best guess, but all the signs suggest it would take a lot more than one year.


Posted at 12:10 am on March 18th, 2015 by Claudia Rosett

UN Jobs for North Korean Spies

North Korea is a sinkhole so destructive, in so many ways, that even the United Nations has taken to producing some good reports on the myriad abuses of the Kim regime — going way beyond the UN’s usual diplospeak (“deeply disappointed”) to detail some of the appalling specifics.  The latest such report comes from the UN Panel of Experts on North Korea sanctions, a small group of specialists appointed to monitor global compliance with UN Security Council sanctions on North Korea.

The UN has not yet officially released the panel’s new report (that waits upon the agreement of members of the Security Council), but copies have leaked to the press — 76 pages jammed with disturbing information on North Korea’s continuing ballistic missile and nuclear programs, and the smuggling, fronts and falsehoods with which North Korea slithers around sanctions.

There’s lots to absorb, including the failure by 94 of the UN’s 194 member states even to minimally comply with UN requirements that they file reports detailing whatever measures they are taking to enforce UN sanctions on North Korea. (You will no doubt be shocked! shocked! to learn that neither Iran nor Syria — big among Pyongyang’s partners of record in, respectively, missile and nuclear proliferation — has ever submitted any such report.)

But let’s focus here on what the UN’s own Panel of Experts unearthed about North Korea’s exploitation of the UN itself. Top-notch North Korea analyst Joshua Stanton broke this piece of news Thursday on his One Free Korea blog, reporting on the Panel of Expert findings: “North Korean spies infiltratred UNESCO, World Food Program.” As Joshua points out, and documents with an excerpt from the UN Panel’s report, officials of North Korea’s Reconnaissance General Bureau  – basically a Pyongyang clandestine intelligence outfit– ended up working at UNESCO in Paris and the UN’s World Food Program in Rome. More details in the Telegraph, which the next day picked up the story.

The prime problem here is North Korea. But a big dollop of blame should go to the UN as well, for promising culture and food to the world and then hiring nominees of the North Korean government to help make that happen.

Posted at 11:17 am on February 27th, 2015 by Claudia Rosett

Meanwhile, North Korea Threatens America with Nuclear ‘Final Doom’

Now that North Korea is no longer interfering with the release of a Hollywood comedy, Pyongyang’s capers have dropped low in the news — eclipsed by Islamist shootings in Europe, ISIS beheadings and the immolation of a Jordanian pilot, Russian-sponsored carnage in Ukraine and the U.S. administration’s desperate quest for an Iran nuclear deal.

But North Korea has not gone away. The totalitarians of Pyongyang are busy testing more missiles, committing their regime-sustaining human rights atrocities, and issuing more threats to launch nuclear strikes on the U.S. — including,  in case you missed it, the threat released by the state-run Korean Central News Agency on Feb. 4, under the headline “U.S. Imperialists Will Face Final Doom.”

This threat was spelled out in a paragraph devoted to assorted specifics of North Korea’s arsenal, including, along with cyber warfare, North Korea’s claim to have miniaturized nuclear warheads, which would allow for delivery with ballistic missiles. The language is a bit convoluted, but that is what they are talking about (boldface is mine):

The United States had better clearly know that the smaller, precision and diversified nuclear striking means and ground, naval, underwater, air and cyberwarfare means of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea will be used by the service personnel and through the people’s display of the strongest mental power and indomitable ideology and will, which the gangster-like United States imperialists can never think of, and by the Juche-oriented strategy and tactics and unique war methods unprecedented in human wars.

This would be comic, in a sort of ghastly propaganda-speak way, except that while the U.S. administration is practicing “strategic patience” and reducing the U.S. nuclear arsenal, North Korea is working on nuclear weapons and delivery systems.

In theory, North Korea is supposed to be deterred from this by multiple layers of United Nations sanctions. That makes it all the more interesting that North Korea did not simply issue its recent threat via a state propaganda organ and leave it at that. North Korea took its threat to the UN, loading the same language wholesale into a letter to the president of the UN Security Council from North Korea’s UN ambassador Ja Song Nam, who submitted this letter to be circulated “as a document of the Security Council.”

In other words, North Korea, while under UN sanctions, has just used  this letter, within the UN system, to threaten the U.S. with nuclear annihilation. This follows threats issued by North Korea at the UN last March and November, to conduct a fourth nuclear test — never mind UN sanctions on North Korea’s nuclear program.

Why would North Korea, in flagrant defiance of UN sanctions, dare bring such threats to the UN?

One likelihood is that North Korea is seeking, in its own perverse way, to achieve de facto international legitimacy for its nuclear weapons program, by trotting it out on the UN stage — via these threats. North Korea wants to be recognized by the U.S. as a nuclear power, which the U.S. refuses to do. So North Korea is pressing the issue, by threatening a nuclear attack on America.

That might sound ridiculous. But North Korea is also testing the limits of what it can get away with, and for Pyongyang that has so far been working out pretty well. North Korea has so far encountered no penalty for these threats. They simply enter the record. At a UN Security Council debate last December on North Korea’s monstrous human rights abuses, U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power noted, accurately, that “The DPRK is already shockingly cavalier about dishing out threats of staging nuclear attacks, and has routinely flouted the prohibitions on proliferation imposed by the Security Council.”

Yes, and so what? What action did the Security Council take? Basically, it did nothing. The Council decided to maybe talk some more about North Korea’s human rights record at some later date, and on North Korea’s continuing nuclear threats and sanctions violations, it appears to be patiently waiting, perhaps for something more exciting. Certainly it did nothing to deter North Korea from producing its Feb. 4 letter, presenting the Security Council directly with North Korea’s threat to launch nuclear strikes on America. Nor has the UN, or the U.S. for that matter, done anything likely to stop the next threat.

The cavalier response to this might be that North Korea, for all its nuclear endeavors, does not have the ability to annihilate America. That’s not much comfort. Neither did the Sept. 11, 2001 al Qaeda hijackers pose an existential threat to the entire U.S., but even without nuclear weapons they wreaked horrific damage. North Korea is building weapons of mass murder, has a record of weapons trafficking that has already extended to nuclear proliferation to Syria (the clandestine Al Kibar reactor built in Syria with North Korean help and destroyed by an Israeli air strike in 2007), is adept at nuclear extortion, and consorts with a network of rogue states and terrorists who would be all too likely to dance and hand out candy should any one of them succeed in landing a devastating strike on the United States.

There is also this: In an increasingly dangerous 21st century, North Korea is pioneering the precedent that a nation, while pursuing a rogue nuclear program, can threaten to launch a nuclear attack on the U.S. — it can even present this threat to the UN Security Council — and get away with it. In America, this may not be getting a lot of attention. But in places hostile to the U.S., who else is watching this intriguing development? What comes next?

Posted at 1:38 am on February 16th, 2015 by Claudia Rosett

Shoulder to Shoulder, Watching ISIS Murder Hostages

When ISIS beheaded British hostage David Haines, last September, the White House released a statement by President Obama that the U.S. “strongly condemns the barbaric murder,” and — with reference to Britain — “stands shoulder to shoulder tonight with our close friend and ally in grief and resolve.”

When ISIS beheaded British hostage Alan Henning last October, the White House released a statement by President Obama that the U.S. “strongly condemns the brutal murder” and –with reference to American hostages Jim Foley and Steven Sotloff beheaded by ISIS — “standing together with our UK friends and allies, we will work to bring the perpetrators of Alan’s murder — as well as the murders of Jim Foley, Steven Sotloff and David Haines — to justice.”

When ISIS beheaded Japanese hostage Haruna Yukawa on January 24, the White House released a statement by President Obama that the U.S. “strongly condemns the brutal murder of Japanese citizen Haruna Yukawa, and “we stand shoulder to shoulder with our ally Japan and applaud its commitment to peace and development in a region far from its shores.”

When ISIS (a.k.a. ISIL) released a video on January 31 that appears to show the beheading of Japanese hostage Kenji Goto, the White House released a statement by President Obama that the U.S. “condemns the heinous murder of Japanese citizen and journalist Kenji Goto,” and reiterated that the U.S., while “standing together with a broad coalition of allies and partners… will continue taking decisive action to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL.” Secretary of State John Kerry provided the rest of what is by now the formulaic response: “We share the sorrow and continue to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with our ally Japan in confronting terrorism.”

What are we to make of these statements?

There is much to be said for standing together — including shoulder to shoulder — with a broad coalition of allies and partners to stop terrorism and destroy the butchers of ISIS. But the message that comes through so far is that three of the world’s great powers — the U.S., Britain and Japan — along with other allies and partners, have been standing shoulder to shoulder for months, condemning and resolving and sharing grief and resolve. Nothing in all that standing together has been potent enough to stop these barbaric, brutal, heinous beheadings of American and British and Japanese citizens. That is a dangerous message of impotence for these great powers to be sending, shoulder to shoulder, to the rest of the world.







Posted at 1:47 am on February 1st, 2015 by Claudia Rosett

Uh-Oh: Kofi Annan to the Rescue

The Islamists of Boko Haram rage through northeastern Nigeria with kidnappings, suicide bombings and last week’s mass murder in the town of Baga, acquiring turf in ways that some top-notch experts are comparing to ISIS — with which Boko Haram has a flourishing kinship. Hashtags on Twitter have done nothing to stop this horror, and it gets ever harder to see who or what will. But if there’s one thing that is assuredly not needed, it’s the advice of Kofi Annan. You remember Kofi: former secretary-general of the United Nations from 1997-2006, and joint winner with the UN of the 2001 Nobel Peace Prize.

Annan’s public career should have ended along with his tenure at the UN (or even earlier). But, like another of the Nobel’s more dubious Peace laureates, Jimmy Carter, Annan just keeps turning up, perpetually ready to dispense terrible advice about the next crisis. Right on cue, here he is, telling the BBC that politicians have to find a way to “reach out” to Boko Haram.

Let’s be clear. Boko Haram is not a group of sensitive souls desperate to surrender to politicians or international bureaucrats who come bearing gifts and professing an interest in their grievances. These are terrorists who have been doing quite well for themselves with guns, bombs, abduction, invasion and slaughter. A few days ago they strapped a bomb vest to a girl who may have been as young as 10, and sent her as a suicide bomber into a busy market, to die in an explosion that killed some 20 others. Like ISIS, they are carving out turf for themselves in ways that suggest ambitions unlikely to be addressed by diplomatic group therapy.

Reaching out is not cost free. There may be circumstances in which it will work — but there are also circumstances in which it can be a disaster. It chews up time and entails concessions that can make a horrific problem even worse. Annan’s record in dealing with matters of mortal crisis suggests his advice is probably an excellent guide for what not to do. Recall that way back in early 2012, as the carnage mounted in Syria, Annan was dispatched by the UN-Arab League as a joint special envoy to sort things out. That was clearly a doomed project — as seemed obvious to some of us at the time. Annan’s period of reaching out provided an excuse for the U.S. and others to hang back in hope of some sort of politically brokered settlement. After much high-profile diplomacy — now largely forgotten — Annan finally stepped aside, one of his former UN lieutenants gave it a try and also failed, and events rolled on to staggering death tolls, chemical weapons, and the rise of ISIS. Nor did Annan’s instincts serve humanity well in such instances as his bureaucratically complacent failure while head of UN peacekeeping to heed the warning of impending genocide in Rwanda, or his administration of the UN’s profoundly corrupt Oil-for-Food program in Iraq.

If Kofi Annan feels a need these days for publicity, he could better serve humanity by confining himself to topics far removed from the realms of such mortal threats as Boko Haram. He’d still have plenty to talk about, if he chose. I’d bet he could still generate a headline or two if he ever reached out with some real answers to a host of lingering questions about his role in Oil-for-Food. But please, enough with the Elder Statesman. There are lives at stake.


Posted at 1:17 am on January 16th, 2015 by Claudia Rosett

Meanwhile, Saudis Begin the 1,000 Lashes of Liberal Blogger Badawi

On Friday, in Jeddah, Saudi Arabian authorities began carrying out their sentence of 1,000 lashes for Saudi blogger Raif Badawi, co-founder of a web site, now banned, called the Liberal Saudi Network. The whipping began with 50 lashes, a process which according to various reports will be repeatedly roughly weekly until all 1,000 lashes have been inflicted — some 50 lashes per week, over the next 20 weeks. That’s just part of his sentence. As Amnesty International summarizes the case:

Raif Badawi was sentenced to 10 years in prison, 1,000 lashes and a fine of 1 million Saudi Arabian riyals (about US$266,000) last year for creating an online forum for public debate and accusations that he insulted Islam.

Reporters without Borders, which has been calling for Badawi’s sentence to be overturned, released a statement that his “only crime was to start a public debate about the way Saudi society is evolving.” The BBC, drawing on AFP eye-witness quotes, summarizes the scene of the lashing in Jeddah:

Mr. Badawi arrived at the mosque in a police car and had the charges read out to him in front of a crowd.

He was then made to stand with his back to onlookers and whipped, though he remained silent, the witnesses said.

This first bout of the lashing  of Badawi has been greatly overshadowed in the news by the Islamist rampage of terror and slaughter in Paris. But it is also something the free world must reckon with. It is part of the omerta that in so many variations, in so many places, hangs over free speech and open debate about Islam.

Last year, Saudi Arabia won election to a three-year seat on the United Nations Human Rights Council — for the third time since 2006. When the Saudi government filed a Note Verbale with the UN in October, 2013, transmitting the voluntary pledges and commitments that were part of its candidacy, that document included such statements as:

The Islamic sharia, from which Saudi Arabia derives its regulations, stresses the protection of human rights and prohibits the violations thereof.

There are seven pages of this sort of material, with 43 items, culminating in Saudi Arabia’s pledge that it will:

Continue to shoulder its humanitarian responsibility to protect and promote human rights at the national level by enacting legislation and establishing mechanisms that strengthen the institutional framework for human rights, and by adopting best practices in the field of human rights.

Evidently, by these lights, “best practices” include the public whipping every week, for 20 consecutive weeks, of a blogger who tried to exercise what is ever more quaintly known in the West as free speech.

Posted at 7:11 pm on January 9th, 2015 by Claudia Rosett

Terrorist Massacres vs the ‘International Community’


In Paris, terrorist gunmen massacre the staff of a French satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo. Having injured at least 11 people and murdered 12 — including cartoonists, writers, the magazine’s director Stephane Charbonnier, his bodyguard, and a policemen — the killers depart the scene shouting “Allahu akbar.”

And from the top officials of that multilateral empire known as the United Nations — headquarters of the so-called international community — comes the ritual mix of platitudes, hypocrisies and misdirection. There are, of course, the expressions of horror. This event is quite monstrous enough that these expressions may well be heartfelt, even if some of the phrases have been recycled often enough to sound like the product of a diplomatic word extruder. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon pronounced himself “appalled and deeply shocked.” At UNESCO (the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization), which is headquartered in Paris, Director-General Irina Bokova — whose native Bulgaria has nominated her to succeed Ban as UN secretary-general in 2017 — said she is “horrified by this shocking attack.”

Quite. But what will the UN do? Where does the UN really stand? There was no reference in these UN press releases to any form of Islam, despite the jihadi battle cries of the terrorists, and the record of threats, as well as the 2011 fire-bombing of Charlie Hebdo’s offices, after the magazine dared to exercise its right to free speech by caricaturing, among many other religious figures, the Prophet Mohammed.

Instead, Ban defaulted to the generic UN call for global “solidarity.” He called for “we” — the world community — to “stand against forces of division and hate.”  He then took it a step further, to warn immediately against any reaction by generic “extremists” — not just denouncing the attack on Charlie Hebdo (the UN has a habit of denouncing attacks, rather than denouncing the attackers) but, as Ban put it: “I am very concerned that this awful, calculated act will be exploited by extremists of all sorts.”

UNESCO’s Bokova was similarly generic in her effusions: “The world community cannot allow extremists to silence the free flow of opinions and ideas.”

All that might sound good, conjuring visions of some amorphous and benevolent world community, its shocked and horrified members standing shoulder-to-shoulder against “extremists of all sorts.” But the vaunted world community is neither entirely benevolent, nor, I would wager, are all its members entirely shocked. The world community — if community it is — runs the gamut from free nations to terrorist sponsors to failed states. Among the members of this community, with seats and votes at the UN, are such states as Iran (world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism, according to the U.S. government) and North Korea (which in November responded to criticism of its horrific human rights violations by threatening to conduct a fourth illicit nuclear test), as well as Syria (which was shocked! shocked! to be accused in 2013 of using chemical weapons against its own people). The world community is composed of highly self-interested players, and in too many cases their schemes have nothing to do with defending freedom of expression, or freedom of any other kind. To recruit the world community is to recruit everyone, and therefore, in reality, no one. It is, at best, grandstanding without substance. And when Ban warns against extremists of all sorts, who or what is he really talking about? Anyone who might take action to genuinely confront a menace that manifests itself not with UN-style abstractions, but with a bloody trail of bullets and bombs?

Similarly, what are we to make of the hypocrisy of UNESCO’s Bokova? In her declaration of horror, she declaimed that “UNESCO is ever more determined to stand for a free and independent press.” Seriously? Is that what UNESCO stands for? This is the same Bokova who in recent years has sympathized with the terrorists of Hamas, lavished praise on the highly censored, communist-party-indoctrination-driven school system of Cuba, and this past April paid a cordial visit to the censorship-loving, terror-sponsoring regime of Iran, where UNESCO’s Tehran office last month put out a press release noting “Iran’s longstanding and excellent relationship with UNESCO.”

Posted at 3:40 pm on January 7th, 2015 by Claudia Rosett

So, Whatever Happened to the Special Tribunal for Lebanon?

We interrupt the mayhem of the hour for an update on what is becoming one of those eternal United Nations-backed creations — yes, it’s still out there —  the Special Tribunal for Lebanon.

The immediate news is that on January 2, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon extended the Tribunal’s mandate for another three years, so it looks likely to be with us until at least 2018.

Just in case anyone is by now finding it hard to remember what this Tribunal is doing:

Its origins hark back almost a decade, to the assassination on Valentine’s Day, 2005, of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. He was murdered, along with 22 others, in a huge bomb blast on a road near the Beirut waterfront. The Lebanese responded with massive demonstrations, blaming Syria, and demanding that Syria end its occupation of Lebanon. At the request of the Lebanese government, the UN Security Council mandated the creation of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) to bring to justice those suspected in the attack.

Since that 2005 bomb blast in Beirut, a lot has happened in the world. In Lebanon, Syria withdrew, but Hezbollah — terrorist client of Iran and Syria — tightened its grip, provoked a summer war with Israel in 2006, and has since rearmed. In 2011 came the Arab Spring, soon drenched in blood. The Syrian rebellion turned into the Syrian civil war; amid the carnage, Syrian refugees poured into Lebanon. By 2013 came the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons, President Obama’s vanishing “red line,” and Russia’s intervention. Iran had its 2009 uprising and brutal crackdown. North Korea was caught helping the Syrian government build a secret nuclear reactor (destroyed in 2007 by an Israeli air strike), and carried out three nuclear tests, in 2006, 2009 and 2013. China changed presidents. America elected a new president, and then reelected him. In Libya came the overthrow and death of Muammar Qaddafi, the Benghazi attack and the death of a U.S. ambassador. In Russia, Vladimir Putin went from being president to being prime minister, then went back to being president, in which capacity he hosted the Olympics and invaded Ukraine. The U.S. pulled out of Iraq; ISIS arose; the U.S. went back into Iraq (though officially without boots on the ground). The era of cyber warfare began to dawn, from Stuxnet in 2009-2010, to the hacking of Sony in late 2014.

Meanwhile, at stately pace, the Special Tribunal for Lebanon set up shop, and carried on. Today, the STL has a nice building in the Netherlands, near the Hague. It has officials, administrative staff, and by 2012 had completed its transition to an electronic job recruitment system. It’s hard to tell at a glance just how much has been spent on this operation, because on the STL web site the most easily located budget figures are included in a timeline of key events, which appears not to have been updated since 2008. But the total cost by now must be well upwards of $120 million — given that as the Tribunal was being organized, in 2007, the UN Secretary-General estimated the costs (“exclusive of costs related to the preparation of the premises”) at $35 million for the first year of operation, $45 million for the second year, and $40 million for the third year. (With 49% of the funding to be contributed by the government of Lebanon, and 51% provided by voluntary contributions — for which the U.S. serves as a source of “strong financial support,” according to a 2013 State Department press release, though this press release did not provide any information on the actual amounts).

What about justice? After assorted delays, the Lebanon Tribunal began its trials in January, 2014. There is now a grand total of five Hezbollah members under indictment. None are in custody. As Lebanon’s Daily Star reports, Hezbollah “has refused to acknowledge the trials or turn over the defendants.” In sum, almost 10 years after the bombing, huge resources have been spent, plenty of officials have been employed, but the delivery of justice remains a distant and elusive goal.

Note: It’s not as bad as the court created in conjunction with the UN in Cambodia to try leaders of the Khmer Rouge, though that sets an awfully low bar. The genocidal rule of the Khmer Rouge ran from 1975-1979. The court did not begin its work until 2006, as NRO’s Jay Nordlinger reported in a column on “A Court in Cambodia.” One of the top Khmer Rouge leaders, Ieng Sary, was not indicted until 2010. He died in 2013, at the age of 87, before his trial had been completed.



Posted at 1:32 am on January 7th, 2015 by Claudia Rosett

Bravo to The Interview

Yes, bravo to Hollywood’s comedy about North Korea.

After the epic furor of the past six months, including the early pre-release denunciation of the movie and threats voiced against it in June by North Korea’s ambassador to the United Nations, the hack attack in November on Sony Pictures Entertainment, the hackers’ threats in December against American movie-goers, the cancellation by Sony last week of the movie’s scheduled Christmas Day release, the scolding of Sony by President Obama in between his embrace of Cuba and his departure last Friday for a Hawaii vacation — OK, take a deep breath — Sony finally released the movie both in theaters and for rental online. So, on Christmas eve, we watched.

And yes, The Interview is crude, vulgar, silly, tedious at times and crammed with what we might politely call locker-room gags, presumably meant to appeal to the lowest common denominator of modern pop culture. If you’re in the market for a brilliant comic and cultured takedown of tyranny, era no object, then you’d do much better to spend an evening with Carole Lombard and Jack Benny, in the 1942 classic about a Polish acting troupe versus the Nazis, To Be or Not to Be.

But as a graphic jab at North Korea’s totalitarian system, including its third-generation current tyrant, Kim Jong Un, The Interview — despite its lavish dose of rubbish — is a standout achievement. It is a burlesque laced with moments of truth that anyone can understand.

OK  – spoilers ahead. There is a scene at the end, in which North Korea’s Kim regime has fallen, and Kim’s former chief of security, a comely woman named Sook (played by Diana Bang), who turns on her totalitarian boss and helps the clueless heroes free her country, is skyping freely and happily from North Korea to the U.S. For that scene alone, the movie is worth it. This depiction of a North Korea free of the long nightmare of the totalitarian Kim dynasty is a vision that seems to endlessly elude legions of extremely serious international leaders and diplomats, who are forever talking about engaging, reforming or containing North Korea’s regime — which is structured at its core to resist such efforts and carry on brutalizing its people and menacing the free world. The Interview may be short on sophistication, but it cuts to the basic truth: that regime has to go.

The plot of The Interview, in brief:  Two TV- tabloid journalists, sad sack producer Aaron Rappaport (played by Seth Rogen) and ditzy celebrity talk show host Dave Skylark (played by James Franco) land an exclusive interview with Kim Jong Un in North Korea. They are asked by the CIA to assassinate him, and after various misadventures in Pyongyang they fumble the mission. Instead, with the help of Sook, they do something even more damaging to the Pyongyang regime: in an interview televised not only internationally, but also to a North Korean audience, they expose Kim as an insecure and murderous fraud — nothing like North Korea’s official propaganda and totalitarian myth of a godlike figure presiding over a happy and thriving nation. They end up fleeing for their lives, along with Sook,  in a tank given to Kim’s grandfather, founding tyrant Kim Il Sung, by Stalin (in my country, it’s pronounced “Stallone,” Skylark tells Kim Jong Un, earlier in the movie). Kim pursues them, in a helicopter gunship. To save their own lives, they fire at him with the tank, blowing him up (and so save the world from the nuclear weapons, which Kim, in his rage, is about to launch).

There’s been a lot of debate about whether it’s appropriate to make a comedy, or any kind of movie, about the assassination of a sitting head of state. Whether Kim deserves to be classified as a legitimate ruler (he is not actually the titular head of the state; he is the monolithic supreme leader of the Korean Workers’ Party, which enjoys pervasive monopoly control over the state, utterly crushing all rivals), and whether the movie is actually about an assassination, are the more relevant questions here. In this plotline, the downfall of Kim, and his regime, comes not with the final kaboom, but with the interview in which he is exposed before a collective TV audience in his own country as a brutal fraud.

And amid the vulgarities, there is a scene that deserves to be excerpted and shown on big screens everywhere…

Posted at 1:58 am on December 25th, 2014 by Claudia Rosett

Hacked by North Korea? Just Call the President

From Hollywood back-biting to North Korean terrorist threats against American movie-goers, the hacking-of-Sony saga by now includes so many stupefying elements that it’s hard to know where to begin. But let’s focus on President Obama’s remarks at his end-of-year press conference Friday, when he criticized Sony Pictures Entertainment for canceling its planned Christmas Day nation-wide release of The Interview, the movie that incurred the wrath of Pyongyang by making fun of one of the 21st century’s most ludicrous tyrants, Kim Jong Un.

A reporter asked Obama if Sony had made a mistake in pulling the movie.  Obama summarized part of the background: “Sony is a corporation. It suffered significant damage. There were threats against its employees. I am sympathetic to the concerns that they faced.”

Having staked out his ground as a sympathetic observer, he hit the punch line: “Having said all that, yes, I think they made a mistake.”

He went on to say: “I wish they had spoken to me first. I would have told them, do not get into a pattern in which you’re intimidated by these kinds of criminal attacks.”

Pause the tape right there. What did the president leave out? Why, he omitted the terrorist threats of physical assault issued by the hackers, who — having cyber-attacked, robbed and humiliated Sony for more than three weeks — finally sent emails captioned “Warning.” These emails threatened that a “bitter fate” awaited anyone who might go to a screening of The Interview, and drove home the point with the message: “The world will be full of fear. Remember the 11th of September, 2001. We recommend you to keep yourself distant from the places at that time. (If your house is nearby, you’d better leave).”

These emails surfaced in media reports on Tuesday, Dec. 16. The threats came from hackers who had already demonstrated considerable destructive power and intent with their massive cyber assault on Sony. Movie theaters took the threat seriously (so did the police departments in Los Angeles and New York, according to Reuters), and scrapped plans to show The Interview. With no one willing to show the movie, Sony — already hit with costly destruction — pulled the plug on the release.

This was not merely a criminal attack. It was a terrorist threat issued by hackers whom, at that stage, the administration had evidently identified as working for North Korea. Look at the timing. By the evening of the next day, Dec. 17, newspapers such as The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal were carrying stories sourced to anonymous “senior administration officials” who were saying the administration had concluded North Korea was behind the attacks — but government insiders were not yet sure when or how to officially release that information, or what to do about it. According to The Wall Street Journal, the debate had already been going on inside the administration for days. But confirmation of North Korea’s role did not start seeping out, via these anonymous tips, until after Sony had canceled the release. (Official confirmation did not come until Friday morning, three days after the threats on theaters.)

In other words, both Sony and the movie theaters were left to twist in the face of a terrorist threat, while the White House knew that North Korea was behind it, but did nothing to take the lead.  Now the president blames Sony, on the grounds that because they pulled the movie, the terrorists won. Though in the case of Sony, he did not impute the threat to terrorists. He basically implied that the problem was — to borrow a phrase — workplace violence. He said: “Imagine if, instead of it being a cyber-threat, somebody had broken into their offices and destroyed a bunch of computers and stolen disks. Is that what it takes for you to suddenly pull the plug on something?”

With that, he neatly shifted onto the private sector the job of coping with terrorist threats from North Korea, and downgraded an act of war by a nation-state to a criminal attack.

Actually, it is the federal government, not the movie industry, that is richly empowered by U.S. citizens and lavishly funded by U.S. taxpayers to protect the country against terrorist threats. It is the job of President Obama, not the head of Sony Pictures, to lead — from in front — when a state-sponsored terrorist threat is issued against Americans. And if Obama has conducted his foreign policy in such a way that North Korea is emboldened to launch this kind of assault against a company in the U.S., and issue threats invoking Sept. 11 against Americans who choose to go to a movie theater in America, then it is Obama’s job to take responsibility for his failure, and fix it.

Posted at 1:28 am on December 20th, 2014 by Claudia Rosett