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About media framing • (written by Brian Dean)

Archive for the ‘Iraq’ Category

The strange case of Glenn Greenwald – part 1

This article is also available at medium.com

Guccifer 2.0 – arbiter of “public good”

26 Feb 2020In October 2016, Glenn Greenwald had a conversation with Naomi Klein, in which Klein tried to pose a few criticisms of the ways Greenwald and Julian Assange covered the hacked Clinton/Podesta/DNC emails.

Unfortunately, the two media stars address only one of Klein’s criticisms – about privacy protections when hacked material is released without being “curated”. On the other criticism, which Klein frames carefully – possibly to avoid offending Glenn (they seem good friends) – Greenwald doesn’t take the bait, so nothing of much substance is tackled.

Naomi Klein puts her unaddressed criticism in the following terms: the hacked emails were published in ways to “maximize damage” (to the Clinton campaign); we’re not learning a “huge amount” from them – they’re just used to “reinforce” what we already knew about the venal side of campaigning; The hack isn’t non-partisan or ‘information wants to be free’ – it’s a “political weapon”.

Judging from the transcript date, Naomi’s criticisms came days after an article co-written by Greenwald that published hacked Clinton documents received from Guccifer 2.0. Titled “EXCLUSIVE: New Email Leak Reveals Clinton Campaign’s Cozy Press Relationship”, the material here seems relatively weak (the article concedes that “to curry favor with journalists” is “certainly not unique to the Clinton campaign”), but given Greenwald’s standing, the piece served to reinforce the relentlessly negative focus on Clinton during a crucial period in the election run-up.

Guccifer 2.0 was operated by Russian military intelligence according to the 2018 Mueller indictments, although some evidence for this Russian attribution was publicly established months prior to Greenwald’s October 2016 article. After his article, Glenn continued to claim there was “no evidence” of Russian state involvement (although he later reportedly accepted the Mueller indictments as genuine evidence of Russian hacking).

(Tweets from before and after Greenwald’s Guccifer 2.0 sourced piece)

Greenwald also wrote (a few days after his Guccifer 2.0 piece) that “the motive of a source is utterly irrelevant in the decision-making process about whether to publish”. The only relevant question, Glenn asserts, “is whether the public good from publishing outweighs any harm”.

That seems a nice soundbite, but the “public good” of a story’s publication is often precisely the thing that’s contested in regard to the source’s motive – especially with political stories in the run-up to an election! To ignore the motives behind the creation and timing of political stories is, perhaps, to risk turning journalism into a plaything of the powerful. (If I thought Greenwald understood this, I’d conclude he was disingenuous to suggest that Guccifer 2.0’s motives were “irrelevant” to the decision on whether to publish).

Unrelated, but sort of ‘illustrative’ here, I stumbled on a New York Times story (from 2015) about Bernie Sanders’ alleged cozy relations with wealthy donors. Although not entirely comparable to Greenwald’s story about Hillary’s “cozy press relationship”, it seems on a par in some respects. Both stories attack a political candidate, both rely on an anonymous source with dubious motives, and neither story seems particularly important in its own right. Does Glenn comment on the NYT piece? Yes, he does – on the source’s “cowardly” motives. He also retweets a comment about the NYT “abusing” anonymity to “dump” on Sanders:

(Web archive link to Glenn’s tweet and retweet – both dated 12 July 2015.
Greenwald deleted tens of thousands of his pre-2016 tweets, en masse).

After Wikileaks published material from the DNC hack linked to Guccifer 2.0, Julian Assange unequivocally denied that the source was Russian-state associated (on some occasions he merely said there was “no proof” of this, or gave credence instead to the Seth Rich conspiracy hoax). Like Greenwald, Assange played down the relevance of the source, reportedly telling news media that: “it’s what’s in the emails that’s important, not who hacked them”.

The journalistic equivalent of naïve realism is that there exists such a thing as raw, unmediated “news” – as if publishing is a window (whether clear or distorting) onto this objectively pre-existing “news”. This view certainly makes sources’ motives seem less relevant. But news is created and framed by the act of telling (ie publishing) – that’s what distinguishes it from non-news. Wikileaks asked Guccifer 2.0 for hacked material to create a story apparently timed to “engineer discord between the supporters of Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton during the 2016 Democratic National Convention”:-

“if you have anything hillary related we want it in the next tweo [sic] days prefable [sic] because the DNC [Democratic National Convention] is approaching and she will solidify bernie supporters behind her after […] we think trump has only a 25% chance of winning against hillary … so conflict between bernie and hillary is interesting.” (Wikileaks to Guccifer 2.0 – from Mueller indictment)

When Greenwald (with the help of Guccifer 2.0’s hack) co-created the news story about the Clinton campaign’s “cozy press relationship”, his framing was of nefarious political influence on reporting. Central to the story was the source of this influence – namely, Hillary’s PR operation, with its obvious political motives in feeding stories to favoured journalists. Greenwald and his co-author try to make this sound suitably nefarious and newsworthy by using terms such as “plotted”, “manipulating”, “plant”, “induce”, but the hacked documents don’t live up to this framing – to me, they read just like boring, standard bureaucratic campaign documents (see for yourself).

So, Greenwald gives us a story about a source of stories (Hillary’s campaign) and its tactics to “shape coverage to their liking”. But it’s “utterly irrelevant” to the publication of Glenn’s story that his own source (Guccifer 2.0, Russian military intelligence by all accounts/evidence) had a motive to shape news coverage? As people say on social media: rriiiiiiiiiiiiight.

Tweet within tweet within tweet

Trump-frame reinforcers

A while back, it became clear that my occasional criticism of Greenwald’s output was alienating some of my readers. I hope this post helps to explain why I’m critical of Greenwald, and why I regard his influence on the ‘left’ as a sort of lottery win for projects funded by people on the ‘right’ with an interest in framing debate among burgeoning ‘anti-establishment’ audiences. I’m interested in the analysis of framing, not in speculative conspiracy theories.

The first thing I noticed when I began paying attention to Greenwald’s prolific tweeting was that it seemed to constantly reinforce Trump’s talking points (usually by attacking the same politicians, media and commentators that Trump was attacking, on the same issues, and with more or less the same timing). This was in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election, but it continued after Trump was elected.

Perhaps most obviously, Glenn promoted the notion that Trump was less likely (than Clinton) to start wars. This idea had been encouraged by Trump himself, as part of his anti-Hillary platform. Greenwald wrote that Trump had a “non-interventionist mindset”, and encouraged the generalisation of Democrats as being the greater hawks. His colleague at The Intercept, Jeremy Scahill, took a similar line, saying that Trump represents “the best hope we’ve had since 9/11 to actually end some of these forever wars”.

Relevant links: Scahill quote, Guardian piece

Greenwald and Scahill weren’t the only ones who swallowed the ‘war-averse’ version of Trump. It’s notable, and curious, that those who so closely monitored (and fearlessly reported) Obama’s drone-strike militarism seemed to stop paying so much attention when Trump was the one killing thousands. After Trump took office, there was an increase of US troops deployed abroad. Trump escalated every conflict he’s presided over, ramping up bombing in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Somalia and Yemen, increasing civilian deaths (in some cases to record-high levels) while removing civilian protections and reducing accountability. In the year after Trump became president he oversaw more than 10,000 US-led coalition airstrikes in Syria and Iraq, with a 215% rise in civilian deaths. Trump’s drone strikes far exceed Obama’s. US weapon sales to foreign countries have increased under Trump.

None of this should come as a surprise if you paid attention to Trump’s strongman campaign rhetoric on the use of America’s colossal military force (“I would bomb the hell out of them”, “I would bomb the s— out of them. I would just bomb those suckers”,“take out their families”), outside of his rants against the foreign policy of Obama and the liberal interventionism of Hillary Clinton. But if you were focused on the latter – the anti-Democrat diatribes – perhaps you came away with a different story.

When those who viewed Trump as relatively ‘war-averse’ started citing Trump’s firing of John Bolton as support of their view, I felt we’d entered some really weird zone of cognitive dissonance. After all, Trump appointed Bolton in the first place. We’re supposed to think he fired him as a sort of principled stand, after suddenly realising Bolton wasn’t so averse to war after all?

Links: Greenwald tweet via @charliearchy tweet

Less obviously than with the “non-interventionist Trump” view, Glenn sometimes puts forward the notion of Trump as blunt, honest, straight-talking guy (which is something Trump and his people have pushed, no doubt to counter the widespread impression of Trump as habitual liar). Here’s an example: On 17 November 2018, the media reported that Trump was briefed on a CIA report about the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Greenwald had already commented on this assassination (on a Fox News show), reinforcing typical Fox News messaging about Obama and Washington media elites: “the reason people in Washington suddenly decided that they’re angry about Saudi Arabia is because this time their victim is somebody they ran into in Washington restaurants”.

Trump’s record is worse than Obama’s – as measured by Greenwald’s apparent criteria – when it comes to defending the Saudi regime’s barbarism (Trump also rejected measures intended to prohibit arms sales to the Saudis, and he rejected a bipartisan resolution to end US military involvement in Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen). In fact, Trump’s record on human rights seems shockingly bad across the board – the product of the same shameless, brutal indifference and malice towards “the inferior other” (inhabitants of “shithole countries”, etc) that informs Trump’s whole worldview. So, out of all possible takes on this, what framing does Glenn go with? Well, Trump’s just being more “honest” and “blunt” – we’re seeing his admirable traits:

Link to tweet: just more honest & blunt

It’s not that the Democrats are undeserving of criticism on these issues – it’s that Trump is currently in power, and wielding that power in increasingly brazen authoritarian actions. Greenwald nearly always seems to reframe stories which are rightly Trump-damning as, instead, being about the failing and hypocrisy of “establishment liberals” and “scummy” Washington media. (It reminds me of Frank Luntz’s advice to Republicans to “always blame Washington” – to frame every bad thing as ultimately being the fault of the liberal establishment; to relentlessly repeat that it’s all about elitist D.C. complacency – that was the advice of Luntz, a rightwing spin guru). With occasional exceptions, Glenn’s reframing of controversies in Trump’s relative favour has seemed systematic for around four years.

The tendency hasn’t gone unnoticed by the Trumps:

(Incidentally, the comment from Adam Schiff that Greenwald links to above was from 29 March 2015 [full transcript here], just a few days after the first Yemeni casualties – the full extent of Saudi brutality unfolded over the following years. Cf: the evolution of Glenn’s opinion on hostilities against Iraq – see below)

Of course, the counter-examples shouldn’t be ignored, and this piece by Greenwald stands out as a direct attack on Trump’s escalation of hostilities. It was written after Glenn had been widely ridiculed for his depiction of Trump as “non-interventionist”, and it begins by replaying the shocking catalogue of increased killing under Trump’s presidency. But then it turns into a strange polemic which frames this barbarism in terms of “the clarity of Trump’s intentions regarding the war on terror”. Glenn writes that Trump’s escalation of bloodshed is “exactly what those who described his foreign policy as non-interventionist predicted he would do”.

For months, in 2016, Greenwald had a pinned tweet asking, ‘Is it really necessary to spend next 6 months pointing out that “criticism of Clinton” ≠ “support for Trump”?’ – no doubt to save him the bother of responding to all those who noticed that he seemed overwhelmingly focused on Hillary Clinton and the “lib”/”dem” establishment, while leaving Trump relatively unscathed. (Incidentally, I never noticed anyone arguing that Clinton was undeserving of criticism, or that criticism of her in itself implied support for Trump).

In August 2016, The Intercept’s Robert Mackey noticed a similar thing with Wikileaks: “In recent months, the WikiLeaks Twitter feed has started to look more like the stream of an opposition research firm working mainly to undermine Hillary Clinton than the updates of a non-partisan platform for whistleblowers.”

Both Greenwald and Assange rationalised their constant, relentlessly hostile focus on Clinton’s Democrats (in the 2016 election run-up) by claiming that Trump was already “prevented” from becoming US president. Assange said “Trump would not be permitted to win”. Greenwald said the US media was “preventing him from being elected president”. (After Trump won, Greenwald said the media “played an important role, as well, in ensuring that he could win”).

Greenwald’s style of political framing, with hyperbolic and sweeping denunciations of “liberals”, “Democrats”, “Washington”, NBC and MSNBC (and “liberal media” in general) – and with Hillary Clinton, Obama and the “liberal establishment” typically presented as the greater evils (relative to supposed outsiders such as Trump) – reminds me of so-called ‘alt-right’ framing – the kind of anti-liberal fuck-you message engineered by Steve Bannon and Breitbart (and seen also on 4chan, InfoWars, etc) to appeal to a younger “anti-establishment” audience. (See Joshua Green’s book, Devil’s Bargain, on Bannon’s project to capture this audience. Incidentally, Greenwald praised Breitbart for its “editorial independence”, of all things).

Democrats are full of hatred and always need to have a heretic to demonize.
They have no ideology, so that’s their fuel.
(Glenn Greenwald, 23 November 2019)

‘Repulsive progressive hypocrisy’ (Title of February 2012 Greenwald article)

“NBC News and MSNBC have essentially merged with the CIA
and intelligence
community and thus, use their tactics…
This is who they are. It’s also what the
Democratic Party is”
(Glenn Greenwald, 8 July 2018)

“What are Greenwald’s politics, exactly?”

Back in January 2014, The New Republic published an article by historian Sean Wilentz which documented various views espoused by Greenwald, Edward Snowden and Julian Assange that seemed at odds with public portrayals of these men as broadly left/progressive dissidents.

For example, it cited a December 2005 blog post in which Greenwald writes the following:

“Current illegal immigration – whereby unmanageably endless hordes of people pour over the border in numbers far too large to assimilate, and who consequently have no need, motivation or ability to assimilate – renders impossible the preservation of any national identity.” (Glenn Greenwald, 3 December 2005)

“Hordes” of immigrants threatening “national identity”? Not a very progressive outlook – although many of Greenwald’s fans questioned the relevance of these political beliefs to the more recent NSA whistleblower stuff. So what if Greenwald and Snowden once had some rightwing views and hated socialism? Wasn’t this just another attempt to smear them?

Professor Wilentz’s article perhaps makes more sense in hindsight, following Trump’s ascendance to power. Wikileaks, for example, secretly offered to help Trump’s campaign, privately favoured the Republican Party over Clinton’s Democrats, and openly boasted of how influential it had been (via Facebook metrics) on the US election. Greenwald, with over a million followers on Twitter, and regular appearances on Fox News (on which he responds to the anti-liberal emphasis and framing of Tucker Carlson, usually with reinforcement rather than challenge), seems just as influential.

According to Wilentz, Greenwald envisaged uniting rightwing “paleoconservatives and free-market libertarians” with leftwing “anti-imperialists and civil-liberties activists” in a sort of popular revolt against an establishment composed of “mainstream center-left liberals and neoconservatives”.

This uniting of heterodox left and right against an odious liberal establishment, in order to shake up the status quo, seems a common enough trope. To the extent that it reframes libs/dems/”centrists” as the greater evil, it reinforces a political worldview of the right. Contrast a view expressed by Noam Chomsky in an interview following the 2016 election. Chomsky had been saying that Trump posed an existential threat, and that the main thing was to stop him. When asked if Slavoj Žižek had a point (that Trump would shake-up the system and be a positive force in undermining the status quo), Chomsky replied:

“Terrible point. It was the same point that people like him said about Hitler in the early thirties. He’ll shake up the system in bad ways… If Clinton had won, she had some progressive programmes. The left could have been organised to keeping her feet to the fire and pushing them through. What it’ll be doing now is trying to protect rights that have been, gains that have been achieved, from being destroyed. That’s completely regressive.” (Chomsky in interview with Mehdi Hasan, November 2016)

Although he often quotes the MIT professor approvingly, Glenn’s output regarding Trump-vs-Democrats seems to consistently push in the opposite direction to Chomsky’s advice. As I’ve noted previously, Glenn tends to frame the MAGA, Brexit, “yellow vests” movements, etc, as popular revolts against the elite establishment status quo, rather than as regressive projects that cynically exploit social discontent.

By the way, nothing controversial is implied here by drawing attention to differences/similarities
in the primary framing and emphasis of influential people with similar/different political personas.

Greenwald’s anti-left views?

In contrast to Greenwald’s recent positive framing of the “yellow vests” protests, etc, here’s his reaction to anti-Bush demonstrations (Latin America, 2005), which he says were “depraved” – he describes the protesters as “truly odious”:-

As is true in U.S., the Latin American socialist agitators who have captured the attention and affection of the American media are as substance-less as they are inconsequential. They are lovers of Fidel Castro. The[y] insist that the source of their severe economic woes is not their collectivist policies or national character, of course, but the evil economic policies of the U.S. (Glenn Greenwald, ‘Unclaimed Territory’ blog, 4th November 2005)

Their “national character” is partly to blame for their economic woes? I won’t speculate on what Greenwald meant by this, but it doesn’t sound good. Meanwhile, Glenn denounces the US media in sweeping fashion (“As usual, the truth is vastly different than what the U.S. media is reporting”) – but it’s a denunciation of the type one usually hears in rightwing circles:

Unsurprisingly, the attention-craving [Hugo] Chavez’s principal ally in these escapades seems to be the American reporters and correspondents reporting on Bush’s trip. They instinctively regurgitate stories of supposedly widespread anti-Bush sentiment based upon nothing but a handful of socialist stragglers defacing public property with anti-war cliches and jobless Latin American hippies gathering for some music, celebrity-gazing and chants. (Glenn Greenwald, ‘Unclaimed Territory’ blog, 4th November 2005)

Greenwald hammers the US media for exaggerating the scale of anti-Bush protests, and for suggesting that the “[Bush] Administration’s policies are flawed because people in other countries dislike Bush”. He writes that the US media are doing this because large-scale anti-Bush rallies are “consistent with their ideology”.

In the same post, Glenn argues that because the September 11th attacks didn’t occur in Latin America, “Latin Americans do not perceive the need to change the Middle East as being as critical and urgent as Americans perceive that need to be.”

Although Greenwald had become critical of Bush by this point, the ‘conservative’ framing/tone remains (on the topic of US national security). The whole post reads to me as if Glenn is implicitly defending Bush’s policy in Iraq against the protests of these “socialist stragglers” (and their friends, the US media), who don’t understand the threat posed by Al Qaeda because they haven’t experienced it for themselves, unlike the good American citizens who support Bush because they understand the dangerous reality he’s fighting. As Greenwald puts it: “It should be axiomatic that the risks posed to American national security will best be understood and appreciated by Americans, not by those in other countries.”

In another blog post, Greenwald writes that the protestors are “hard-core Communists” (his italic emphasis). That’s right: commies!:

“These demonstrators hate the United States because they are genuinely opposed to economic freedom and individual liberty, and they seek to impose the collectivist authoritarianism of Fidel Castro onto the entire Latin American continent. It really is that simple.” (Glenn Greenwald, ‘Unclaimed Territory’ blog, 5th November 2005)

Incidentally, Glenn was nearly forty when he held these views.

Greenwald’s deep moral-political worldview?

As the cognitive linguist, George Lakoff, demonstrated at length in his book, Moral Politics, our political opinions are rooted in complex moral worldviews which we form over the course of our lives, starting in childhood. We each have what he calls a “strict” moral outlook in some areas, and a “nurturant” outlook in others, leading to “conservative”, “rightwing” political opinions in the former and “progressive”, “leftwing” opinions in the latter. (See my extended summary of the Moral Politics thesis).

Lakoff uses the term “biconceptual” to refer to this dual outlook in an individual. When semantic framing of a ‘rightwing’ outlook is constantly repeated, it reinforces that outlook in our biconceptual minds, while neurally inhibiting the progressive outlooks (and vice versa). Our self-identity in any area is often most clearly expressed by what we fight against – someone with a well-established “conservative” moral outlook may be disgusted by, and fight against, liberals and lefties, and vice versa. And contrary to flattering opinions we have about ourselves, we tend not to change our established moral-political outlooks based on our changing evaluations of facts alone.

Having said that, people can radically change – it’s possible that a middle-aged adult with an established ‘conservative’ outlook in important (but not all) areas, and exhibiting a deep dislike of dissident lefties and socialist views, could invert this worldview, together with their own self-identity, in a few years. Maybe. Perhaps in Greenwald’s case you don’t need to make that argument if there is, in fact, no deep reversal of worldview, just a shift in hostile rhetorical targeting away from lefties/socialists, to focus more on establishment/liberals.

Glenn’s explanations of some of his earlier ‘conservative’-sounding views make interesting reading. Here’s how he accounted for his views on illegal immigration (he’d complained in his political blog that “nothing is done” about the “parade of evils” caused by such immigration):

“I had zero readers … there were many uninformed things I believed back then, before I focused on politics full-time – due to uncritically ingesting conventional wisdom, propaganda, etc. … nobody was reading my blog; it was anything but thoughtful, contemplative, and informed, and – like so many things I thought were true then – has nothing to do with what I believe now.” (Glenn Greenwald, 24 April 2011)

I find this unconvincing. By his own account, Glenn wound down his litigation practice in 2005 in order to pursue other things, “including political writing”. He was no “uninformed” youth when he started writing a political blog – he was (to quote Wilentz) “a seasoned 38-year-old New York lawyer”, who had, among other things, represented a white supremacist neo-Nazi leader (a remarkable story). Greenwald’s writings on immigration weren’t just isolated “uncritically ingested” factoids – they expressed an established, conservatively-framed worldview on that particular issue. His opinions and framing on other issues in his blog at this time – eg the anti-socialist views discussed above – consistently express this worldview (although it’s important to note that he had liberal views on other issues – what you might call a “partial progressive” in Lakoff’s terminology).

It also seems irrelevant to his political outlook that “nobody” was reading his blog at the time (this seems a strange point for him to emphasize – and one that’s echoed in his argument that his private support of the Iraq war didn’t really count as support because he had no platform as a writer at the time – see below).

Support of the Iraq War – and later denial

Glenn has often attacked ‘libs’ and ‘dems’ for any support they expressed for George W. Bush’s policy of invading Iraq in 2003. This is also attenuated in posts in which he mocks “Resistance” figures for referring to the Bushes in positive terms generally. In one recent example he sarcastically mocks Nancy Pelosi for making a casually friendly remark about the Bush family (somewhat off-target given that Pelosi was a vocal opponent of the Iraq war and a critic of Bush’s policies).

Greenwald also writes scathingly of the “rehabilitation” by Democrats and media of Bush-era hawks, claiming there is “little to no daylight between leading Democratic Party foreign policy gurus and the Bush-era neocons who had wallowed in disgrace following the debacle of Iraq”.

I can understand this – I’m of a similar age to Glenn, and I remember writing, in January and February 2003, to my UK Member of Parliament, Christine Russell (a loyal Blairite), pointing out that invading Iraq would result in humanitarian catastrophe and would increase rather than deter international terrorism threats. I still have the replies from Russell, and I still find it difficult to think of Blair or Jack Straw without a residue of anger.

So, it came as a big surprise when I read claims that Glenn Greenwald had actually supported the Iraq war. I checked this claim, of course. One of the first things I found was a somewhat defensive and repetitive denial from Glenn, who says the people making these claims are “fabricating” by making a “distortion” of the preface to his 2006 book, How Would a Patriot Act?. So, what’s the truth here?

In the preface to that book, Greenwald describes his reactions following the September 11, 2001 attacks in Manhattan:

“I was ready to stand behind President Bush and I wanted him to exact vengeance on the perpetrators and find ways to decrease the likelihood of future attacks. […] And I was fully supportive of both the president’s ultimatum to the Taliban and the subsequent invasion of Afghanistan when our demands were not met.” (Glenn Greenwald, ‘How Would a Patriot Act?‘)

During the later lead-up to the invasion of Iraq, Glenn was concerned that policy was being driven by “agendas and strategic objectives that had nothing to do with terrorism or the 9/11 attacks” and that “[t]he overt rationale for the invasion was exceedingly weak”. But, he goes on to write:

“Despite these doubts, concerns, and grounds for ambivalence, I had not abandoned my trust in the Bush administration. Between the president’s performance in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the swift removal of the Taliban in Afghanistan, and the fact that I wanted the president to succeed, because my loyalty is to my country and he was the leader of my country, I still gave the administration the benefit of the doubt. I believed then that the president was entitled to have his national security judgment deferred to, and to the extent that I was able to develop a definitive view, I accepted his judgment that American security really would be enhanced by the invasion of this sovereign country.” (Glenn Greenwald, ‘How Would a Patriot Act?’)

The bottom line, then, is that even though Greenwald had concerns over Bush’s invasion policy, he accepted it anyway. He evidently also supported Bush’s “American security” rationale for this act of aggression, despite apparently being aware of its weakness.

Given his own words quoted back to him, how then does Greenwald deny that he supported the invasion of Iraq? Well, his argument is that since he didn’t actively promote, or publicly argue for, the policy of war (as he was neither a writer nor activist at the time) it follows that he didn’t support it. Those who claim he did are, he says, “fabricators” who make a “complete distortion” of the preface he wrote to his book (by accurately quoting it?).

Links for above: Greenwald tweet, Daily Kos piece

I don’t often use the term “horseshit”, but that’s what this sounds like to me. Greenwald denies supporting the war essentially by redefining “support” to mean something else. Public “support” is quite an important idea in democracies – we register our “support” for policies at elections and referendums; our “support” is measured by opinion polls or inferred in other ways. You don’t have to be a writer, activist or politician to support (or oppose) a war policy. Millions of US citizens misguidedly supported the invasion of Iraq by accepting Bush’s “national security” rationale and by giving his administration the “benefit of the doubt” – and that’s precisely what Greenwald did.

Most of those who point out that Glenn supported the war (Glenn says they’re liars) aren’t claiming he publicly promoted war. They’re quoting his 2006 book to show he supported the war in exactly the same way that countless other Americans supported the war – by not being neutral or opposing it; by accepting the case for it, on balance, and trusting those who waged it.

Greenwald repeatedly protests that, before 2004, he was “politically apathetic and indifferent”, “not politically engaged or active”, “was basically apolitical and passive”, “had no platform or role in politics”, “wasn’t a journalist or government official”, etc. You get the picture. But in all these respects he was like the vast majority who supported the war.

It’s obviously possible to be relatively “apolitical”, “passive”, etc, and still support a war. That’s how most people with pro-war views do support any given war policy – since most people aren’t hugely active politically as writers, campaigners, etc. Most, like Glenn, were engaged in other activities, such as full-time jobs, but were still able to form an opinion in support of the war – as Glenn did.

Incidentally, it’s not really true that a passive, acquiescing support of war is “apolitical”. On the contrary, any such acceptance of war requires underlying political beliefs, including what Lakoff calls the ‘Fairy Tale of the Just War’, built on ‘conservative’ framing of ‘self-defence’ or ‘rescue’ scenarios – see my Iraq War Framing for Dummies. The views that Greenwald describes himself as having on Iraq and Afghanistan, following 9/11, use the framing of a typically conservative political worldview: “American security really would be enhanced by the invasion”, “my trust in the Bush administration”, “my loyalty is to my country and he was the leader of my country”, “I wanted him to exact vengeance on the perpetrators”, etc.

The pre-2004 attributes that, according to Glenn, disqualified him from “supporting” the Iraq war (political apathy, no public platform, etc) oddly didn’t disqualify him from supporting the US invasion of Afghanistan. Perhaps the last word on this is a nice quote from Glenn, in which he admits supporting the war in Afghanistan, and then compares himself to Martin Luther King over his stance on Iraq:

“It is true that, like 90% of Americans, I did support the war in Afghanistan and, living in New York, believed the rhetoric about the threat of Islamic extremism: those were obvious mistakes. It’s also true that one can legitimately criticize me for not having actively opposed the Iraq War at a time when many people were doing so. Martin Luther King, in his 1967 speech explaining why his activism against the Vietnam War was indispensable to his civil rights work, acknowledged that he had been too slow to pay attention to or oppose the war and that he thus felt obligated to work with particular vigor against it once he realized the need…” (Glenn Greenwald, 26 January 2013)

Update – 19 Oct 2020: I notice this post is currently getting a lot of hits, seemingly related to social media activity arising from a piece by the independent researcher/journalist Marcy Wheeler (@emptywheel), which is also critical of Greenwald, and which has some interesting updates on Greenwald’s publication of Guccifer 2.0 material, as discussed above. Marcy Wheeler’s piece is available here.

Written by NewsFrames

February 26, 2020 at 8:14 pm

Nafeez Ahmed’s smear piece on IBC – part 2

ibc-nafeez-ahmed-part-2-compJuly 23, 2015Earlier this year, Nafeez Ahmed made some absurd conspiracy-flavoured allegations about Iraq Body Count (IBC). I responded in part 1, highlighting his errors and double standards. I’ve waited a while before writing anything more, partly because of responses such as the following (which made me want to shave my head, adopt the upside-down lotus position and chant for Universal Love):-


One good thing, however, was that George Monbiot read my article and promoted it on Twitter – it ended up being read by a lot of people. The following is an update, with some additional comments on recurring witchhunts.

The Bourne Ultimatum or the boring facts

A few days after my article got exposure via Twitter, Nafeez Ahmed posted a long response (which Monbiot described as “a frantic attempt to justify unfounded assertions/associations stretched beyond breaking point”), and tweeted this link to it:

ahmed-monbiot-tweet-7-6-2015“Hiding” war casualties? To me this statement seems right up there with “Elvis is living in my neighbour’s fridge”. Perhaps Ahmed could point to data on all the casualties that Monbiot and IBC are “hiding”? Or perhaps not – he appeared to “clarify” his position in yet another, later diatribe:

“While there is no indication that IBC has deliberately undercounted violence in Iraq…”
(Nafeez Ahmed, ‘IBC: undercounting death with pro-war cash’) – My emphasis

So, to summarise Ahmed’s position, there’s “no indication” that IBC has “deliberately undercounted” while “hiding Iraq war casualties” for the purpose of “undercounting death with pro-war cash”!

The comic absurdity of this stuff is exceeded only by Ahmed’s description of an apparently sinister “off-the-record” meeting organised by the United States Institute of Peace (USIP):

“In January 2007, Colin Kahl and John Sloboda were together in Washington DC at an off-the-record USIP panel, where Sloboda delivered a presentation about IBC’s views of the Iraq War death toll at an off-the-record USIP panel.”

secret-meeting6xEverything that Ahmed tells us about the meeting was already on the public record, including IBC co-founder John Sloboda’s presentation (which is on IBC’s website). The USIP web page for this event lists participants, subjects discussed, and helpfully tells us that it was “off-the-record”.

After informing us that IBC’s John Sloboda was “together” with Colin Kahl (a villainous US propagandist in Ahmed’s narrative) at the meeting, Nafeez Ahmed informs us that Les Roberts (co-author of the ‘Lancet’ Iraq studies) was also a participant – and thus, presumably, also “together” with Kahl in the same sense that Sloboda was. But not to worry, because, as Ahmed tells it, Les Roberts was “outnumbered at the USIP meeting three-to-one”. By “outnumbered”, I don’t think Ahmed means Roberts was forced to participate against his own free will. But you never know – perhaps he was bound and gagged by the “US Army counterinsurgency sub-contractor”, Michael Spagat. (Those are the actual words that Ahmed has used to characterise Prof Spagat, in case you were wondering).

Who needs Jason Bourne? Less amusingly, Ahmed tells us that John Sloboda “disavowed his own anti-war credentials” at the off-the-record USIP meeting. In his earlier piece, Ahmed writes that Sloboda did this “sycophantically”, and that his “statement before USIP and its pro-war panel contradicts the IBC’s official rationale”.

I find this kind of thing from Ahmed not only misleading, but gratuitously so. He is referring to a part of Sloboda’s presentation which is published on IBC’s website. I’ve heard Sloboda make a similar argument before, in the early days when IBC was sometimes characterised by pundits as ideologically “antiwar” in a politically “biased” sense (eg: “a hard-left anti-war group with a clear agenda“). Sloboda in fact makes it clear that IBC is “passionately opposed” to the Iraq war, but that he doesn’t impose any kind of ideological conformity on his colleagues (“where individual IBC members stand on other wars is a matter for them and them alone”). I see nothing “sycophantic” about this, and, in any case, it’s not tailored to “USIP and its pro-war panel” as Ahmed seems to insinuate. It also – obviously – doesn’t “contradict” IBC’s rationale (which states that “War’s very existence shames humanity”) as Ahmed obtusely asserts.

So, Ahmed is hopelessly wrong to say that Sloboda “disavowed his own anti-war credentials”. Perhaps Ahmed thinks that one acquires such “credentials” by conducting ideological purges to ensure that one’s colleagues have the “correct” beliefs?

Ahmed’s new falsehoods

Ahmed adds new falsehoods in his two response pieces. He’s also quietly corrected some of his earlier errors (the ones I’d pointed out). For example, he withdrew his claim that “USIP selected IBC for funding” and backed away from what he’d implied about IBC’s own funding (“My story does not claim that the IBC as an institution received funding from US and European governments…”). But then, in his latest piece, he goes back to claiming (falsely) that USIP funded IBC and that, “In total, four pro-war governments are currently involved in funding IBC and IBC personnel since 2009, none of which has been declared in the scientific journal articles related to the Iraq War by IBC authors.”

Related to these new falsehoods, Ahmed also misrepresented what I wrote (he’s now removed this):

In Brian Dean’s defence of IBC, which received a resounding endorsement from Dougherty, Dean claimed repeatedly that the IBC had not received any funding from the governments of the US, Switzerland, Germany or Norway.

He’d asserted this near the start of his piece, setting me up, as it were, for the revelations to follow which would contradict the claim he’d (wrongly) attributed to me. Remarkably, even his supposedly new revelations are false. IBC openly discloses some recent (2015) German government funding on its “About” page, which I’d linked to – but none of the government agency (eg USIP) funding which Ahmed makes claims about went to IBC (it was specifically for work by ORG/Every Casualty, eg research into international law as it applies to casualty recording, globally – not restricted to Iraq).

These supposed revelations, which Ahmed introduces in his latest piece, are based entirely on his reading of (and lack of fact-checking regarding) a “10th Anniversary Impact Report” by The Funding Network (TFN), which has been publicly available since 2012, and which contains a one-page case study titled “Iraq Body Count”. Ahmed seems to get excited about this because of the blurring of distinctions between “IBC” and “ORG” in the case study. He jumps to erroneous conclusions – all of the claims from Ahmed’s piece that I’ve underlined here are false.

Ahmed’s misrepresentations

Ahmed’s long response frequently misrepresents me, and it would take a long time to correct every case. I’ll restrict myself to a few examples – the clearest and (to me) most annoying ones…

At one point, Ahmed declares that, “The problem is that Dean is either lying, or plain dumb. Burnham’s Afghanistan study was not about mortality rates as such in Afghanistan (Ahmed’s bold emphasis). This was in response to a point I’d made about double standards, in which I cited a study of post-invasion Afghanistan, by Gilbert Burnham, which suggested a huge number of lives saved from health improvements. The study contains a whole section on child mortality-rates – indeed the page I linked to, which summarises this section of the study, talks explicitly about the mortality rates that I’m referring to. Ahmed somehow missed this, looked up the wrong study (the page I’d linked to summarises two separate studies) and formed the wrong conclusion – that I was “either lying, or plain dumb”. (On the basis of his mistake, he also referred to my point as “flagrant lies”).

The next example makes me think Nafeez Ahmed has a low estimation of his readers. Here’s a paragraph from his original article which I’d quoted in full. Please read it carefully:

Spagat’s early career connections to IREX and NCEEER, both conduits for US State Department propaganda operations, as well as to Radiance Technology, USAID, and USIP, raise serious ethical questions, as well as questions about the reliability and impartiality of his work, and that of IBC.

I noted that despite the obvious irrelevance to IBC of Spagat’s “early career connections to IREX and NCEEER” (which Ahmed wrote at length about), Ahmed asserted here that it raises “questions about the reliability and impartiality” of IBC’s work. I noted this because it’s precisely what Ahmed asserts in the above paragraph. In response, Ahmed simply denies that he asserts it:

Um, no I don’t, but if you quote repeatedly and entirely out of context, even English language night school won’t help you.

Presumably Nafeez hopes his own readers aren’t paying full attention to what he’s written?

The final example is clearest when shown as a graphic (click to enlarge to readable size). It concerns another point about double standards – this one involving an undisclosed OSI grant for “public education” relating to the 2006 Lancet Iraq study. The example demonstrates that no matter how careful I was to get the detail right, it didn’t matter, because Ahmed simply asserts something that isn’t true:-


Recurring witchhunts

One of the things I’ve found creepy about Nafeez Ahmed’s recent attacks on IBC is that the ludicrous, unsupported, overstretched allegations about Pentagon “propaganda” and “whitewashing war-crimes”, etc, sound similar to the rhetoric from another campaign against IBC – the one started in 2006 by Medialens (which I wrote about here). Medialens claimed that IBC was “providing powerful propaganda for people responsible for horrendous war crimes”, but the supposed basis for this claim was nothing to do with IBC’s funding. Initially, Medialens’s main (and false) premise was that IBC was a “Western Media Body Count” (and thus inherently propagandistic), although Medialens later shifted their focus to other forms of “criticism” (eg deriding IBC as “amateurs” in emails to journalists).

The term, witchhunt, is overused, but I think there can hardly be a clearer case than we have here. George Monbiot was right to characterise it that way:

monbiot-witchhuntNot only is it sustained, recurring, and based on assertion and moral outrage rather than evidence – it also takes the form of morally pre-framed allegations in search of anything that can be used, or spun, as reinforcement. It’s the already-pointing finger looking for an excuse to point. Any excuse. That’s why you have the same allegation of pro-war “propaganda”, but periodically recurring with a different “reason” for that allegation each time. (And it doesn’t even make sense – IBC’s tally of violent deaths approximately matches a violent deaths estimate from the 2013 UCIMS epidemiological study, which was vaunted as an improvement on the 2006 Lancet Iraq study. If you can’t refute the detailed case that IBC makes on this – and nobody has, to my knowledge – then you don’t even have a shaky premise as an excuse for a witchhunt).

You’d think Medialens would have learnt their lesson after all the things they got so badly wrong on IBC previously – but they’ve been the main cheerleaders for Nafeez Ahmed’s wild conspiracy theories and smears. Recall for a moment that Ahmed alleged, with no supporting evidence, that “the IBC’s directors are selling casualty recording as a way to legitimize military operations, and increase the effectiveness of counter-insurgency responses to armed resistance”.

This really is through the looking glass.

Note (2/8/2015): One thing I left out of the above (since I credit my readers with having a decent memory) is the point about USIP funding of Gilbert Burnham (lead author of the 2006 ‘Lancet’ Iraq study), which I brought up in part 1 to illustrate the double standards underlying these attacks on IBC. So, after making extreme, and probably libellous, claims about IBC based on his assertions about USIP funding, etc, Nafeez Ahmed, in his response, dismissed as a “non-issue” the fact that his own sources have been funded by USIP – including Burnham, who has repeatedly collaborated with USIP on conflict research, including on Iraq. Ahmed had to bend over backwards to make this seem a “non-issue” in Burnham’s case, after he made it such a big issue with IBC.

Written by NewsFrames

July 23, 2015 at 7:53 am

Nafeez Ahmed’s smear piece on IBC – part 1

ibc-nafeez-ahmed-compressedJune 2, 2015I’ve read many ugly smear pieces, from both right and left – but few worse than Nafeez Ahmed’s recent article on Iraq Body Count (IBC). This was circulated as “investigative journalism”, but most of the material presented has been available on the web for years, and the shocking, conspiratorially-framed claims that Ahmed makes about IBC rely more on misleading rhetoric than on facts.

One of Ahmed’s sources, a statistics professor who writes for the Washington Post, has since complained that he was selectively quoted and misrepresented by Ahmed’s article. Another source has complained of exaggerations and errors, suggesting that Ahmed was engaged in “personal attacks” on IBC and its researchers. Ahmed has now written a second piece which responds to these criticisms. I quote from both of his pieces in what follows.

Before I go through Ahmed’s false and misleading assertions, I’ll list some of the rhetorical phrases that he uses against IBC and “IBC-affiliated scholars”. You should read these in context, of course (if only to convince yourself that Ahmed is serious) – these snippets give some idea of the type of framing we’re dealing with:-

“IBC’s metric to whitewash war-crimes”, “fraudulent attacks on standard scientific procedures”, “statistical manipulation to whitewash US complicity”, “dubious ideological alliances”, “subordination of academic conflict research to the interests of the Pentagon”, “misleading pseudoscience”, “the IBC’s directors are selling casualty recording as a way to legitimize military operations, and increase the effectiveness of counter-insurgency responses to armed resistance.”

Ahmed’s misleading assertions & falsehoods

Ahmed repeatedly conflates IBC and its output with “IBC-affiliated” persons and projects, leading to false claims about IBC’s funding, misleading assertions about “fraud” and nonsensical inferences which read more like conspiracy theory than logic. Remarkably, he asserts that “all” of IBC’s publications breach ethical standards by not disclosing certain funding:

“The breach is committed with such systematic impunity throughout their academic publication record that it does, indeed, raise serious and fundamental and perfectly legitimate questions about the integrity of their research.”

The funding (from sources “connected to US and European government foreign policy agencies and departments”) which Ahmed believes should have been “disclosed” by IBC and/or its publications was not, in fact, received by IBC or any of its publications. IBC’s funding is listed on its website. The “IBC”(-related) funding which Ahmed refers to has been openly disclosed by the publications/organisations which it funded – all non-IBC. There are no “egregious ethical breaches” by IBC here, but there is a lot of seriously misleading rhetoric from Ahmed. (Occasionally, Ahmed slips from specious bombast into clear falsehood, as when he writes of “USIP’s selection of IBC for funding”. USIP has never “selected” IBC for funding – more on this below).

Ahmed is also selective in the extreme, setting up a sort of “heroes vs villains” narrative, but failing to apply his reasoning consistently to both the “villains” of his piece (IBC) and the “heroes” (eg the authors of the Lancet 2006 Iraq survey). For example, he claims – falsely, as it turns out – that IBC’s work is influenced by funding from the United States Institute of Peace (USIP), and builds a picture of USIP as a “neocon front agency” whose “entire purpose is to function as a research arm of the executive branch and intelligence community”. He concludes, as a result of such claims, that IBC “is deeply embedded in the Western foreign policy establishment”.

But Ahmed doesn’t mention that USIP has funded and repeatedly collaborated with Gilbert Burnham, lead author of the 2006 Lancet Iraq study. Presumably his investigative journalism didn’t stretch that far. Most of the shocking inferences which Ahmed draws from “connections” with agencies such as USIP would also apply to Burnham, as we’ll see. (USIP has also funded other researchers used by Ahmed as authoritative sources – eg Professor Amelia Hoover Green).

Another example of Ahmed’s selective treatment of the “evidence” is provided when he cites the 2013 UCIMS epidemiological study (published in PLOS Medicine) as “corroboration” of the 2006 Lancet Iraq survey, but fails to mention that its estimate for violent deaths is far closer to (ie approximately matches) IBC’s figure. This fact alone tends to undermine the central premise of Ahmed’s article, since if IBC’s role is to “whitewash war-crimes” (Ahmed’s words), why would its violent-causes body count be in approximate agreement with the PLOS study (which was co-authored by Gilbert Burnham and vaunted as a methodological improvement on Burnham’s 2006 Lancet study)?

“Tapestry of connections” (aka conspiracy)

Ahmed attempts to implicate IBC and “IBC affiliated researchers” in what he calls a “tapestry of connections”. And he certainly weaves a remarkable conspiracy – his cast of characters includes “Senator Hugh Burns’ Fact Finding Committee on Un-American Activities”, “The Pentagon’s counterinsurgency geographer”, “Colombian paramilitary groups involved in drug-trafficking”, “Colombia’s state-run Central Bank”, “the Nazis” and “Nazi scientists” (among others). I struggled to see how there’s any connection between these and IBC, and, to be fair to Ahmed, he doesn’t imply there’s any real link with the Nazis. He simply mentions how the Nazis achieved success in the “abuse of science to legitimize war and sanitize death” – no doubt to give us some “precedent” for IBC’s work.

Most of this stuff is spun by Ahmed from “connections” to research by Professor Michael Spagat which has nothing to do with IBC (other than that Spagat has been an advisor to IBC). Ahmed attempts to (falsely) implicate IBC in these “connections”. For example:

Spagat’s early career connections to IREX and NCEEER, both conduits for US State Department propaganda operations, as well as to Radiance Technology, USAID, and USIP, raise serious ethical questions, as well as questions about the reliability and impartiality of his work, and that of IBC.

The grants to Spagat from IREX and NCEEER, which Ahmed refers to here, are from 1994-1996 (years before IBC existed) and relate to research on the “Transition to a Market Economy in Russia”. This research funding is listed on Spagat’s CV, which takes about five seconds to find on Google. Despite the obvious irrelevance of this to IBC, Ahmed asserts that it raises “questions about the reliability and impartiality” of IBC’s work.

Ahmed goes into some detail on IREX and NCEEER, presumably to convince us that they are “intimately related to US government propaganda operations”. For example, NCEEER’s Board of Directors includes one Richard Combs, and, “from 1950 Combs was chief investigator, counsel and senior analyst for Senator Hugh Burns’ Fact Finding Committee on Un-American Activities”. Ahmed continues:

Combs’ anti-Communist witch-hunt, supported by US intelligence agencies, led him to target black people and Muslims in America. As documented by Indiana University historian Claude Andrew Clegg, in the Burns Committee’s eleventh report to the California legislature, Combs’ report found the “Negro Muslims” to be “un-American” purveyors of anti-white sentiment in schools for African American children.

Combs played a major role in inaccurate and unwarranted persecution of the black civil rights movement and the Nation of Islam, which was mischaracterized as a conduit for a “Communist conspiracy” fostering “progressive disillusionment, dissatisfaction, disaffection and disloyalty.”

Recall that this is part of the material provided by Ahmed to convince us of something about NCEEER, which once gave a grant to Spagat (years before IBC existed) for research relating to the Russian economy. At the end of a section which is mostly about such non-IBC “connections” to Spagat’s research funding – eg from the 1990s, non-Iraq (except for a digression on the National Iraqi News Agency, which is one of IBC’s media sources) – Ahmed concludes:

This tapestry of connections between IBC affiliated researchers and the militaries of key NATO members, demonstrates that IBC’s characterization of itself as an independent anti-war group doing reliable and credible research on civilian casualties is false.

This type of tenuous guilt-by-association “logic” runs throughout Ahmed’s article. It’s the “logic” of smear. With similar rhetoric one could just as easily “implicate” the “heroes” of Ahmed’s piece. Gilbert Burnham, for example, has received research funding from the World Bank, the Afghanistan government, USAID (another agency which Ahmed depicts as nefarious), Procter & Gamble, etc – in addition to his collaborations with “neocon front agency” USIP, mentioned above (including on Iraq and Afghanistan). Imagine the “connections” here. What does all this say about “the reliability and impartiality” of Burnham’s work, including the 2006 Lancet Iraq survey? What does it say about the people he’s “affiliated” with?

Of course, it says very little by itself. It says even less when seen against Burnham’s work in its entirety. But that wouldn’t stop someone writing a rhetorical smear piece on Burnham by expanding on all the “suggestive”, “suspicious” connections in a misleading way – as Ahmed has done with IBC. In some ways – as we’ll see – there’s even more of this type of material available to throw at Burnham than there is to hurl at IBC.

One of the “connections” that Ahmed’s website detective work reveals regarding “IBC-affiliated” Professor Michael Spagat is the following:

In the acknowledgements to his 2010 critique of the Lancet study in Defence and Peace Economics, Spagat thanks Colin Kahl, indicating that a senior member of Obama’s Pentagon reviewed his manuscript before submission and publication.

It’s a pity that Ahmed didn’t apply the same “investigative” technique to the UCIMS/PLOS Iraq study (the one that was co-authored by Gilbert Burnham and vaunted as an improved update to the 2006 Lancet study). He would have found that a certain Skip Burkle “reviewed the manuscript” of that study “before submission and publication”. Burkle was appointed by the Bush administration as Interim Minister of Health in Iraq in 2003. (Of course, one could probably also find things in Burkle’s favour, but why bother if the main purpose is to list a series of “connections” to warmongers).

Continuing with the “investigation” into a “tapestry of connections”, what could we say about Gilbert Burnham’s Afghanistan study, whose “assessments were funded by the Ministry of Public Health through grants from the World Bank”. A ZNet article from 2009 made an interesting observation about this study:

A case in point is Afghanistan, where the war dead are measured “only” in the thousands, and where the “excess deaths” calculation can be interpreted as favouring the NATO invasion, if numbers are taken to be the sole criterion. For example, a Johns Hopkins University study (run by Gilbert Burnham, co-author of the 2006 Lancet Iraq survey) found lower infant and child mortality rates, due to improved medical care, following the invasion. The implication here is that the number of lives saved exceeds both tallied and estimated death tolls from the fighting.

So, if we used a distorting, exaggerating, overheated rhetorical style, we would say that Burnham’s study (funded by the World Bank and a US puppet-government) “whitewashed” the crimes of US/NATO occupiers in Afghanistan by hawking the “life-saving” (in “excess deaths” terms) and “health-improving” benefits and “improvements” of bloody military intervention imposed by imperialist Western foreign policy.

This is doubly ironic considering Burnham’s – and Ahmed’s – critical comments on so-called “passive surveillance” (a common misnomer for the journalistic “surveillance” used by IBC-type projects). This approach to casualty recording (eg as utilised by Professor Marc Herold) more or less showed the bloody mass slaughter in Afghanistan for what it was, in contrast to the epidemiological “excess deaths” whitewashing calculation, which “scientifically demonstrated” – with statistical “number-crunching” – some spurious “net benefit” of war crime.

“The delivery of public health service is improving steadily in Afghanistan as the Ministry of Public Health makes progress towards meeting its goals” – Gilbert Burnham (quoted in 2007 press release: ‘Substantial Improvements Achieved in Afghanistan’s Health Sector’)

“The percentage of women in rural Afghanistan receiving antenatal care during pregnancy from a skilled provider increased from an estimated 4.6 in 2003 to 32.2 in 2006. […] More children are receiving vital childhood immunizations, according to the assessments.”

“The assessments were funded by the Ministry of Public Health through grants from the World Bank.” (From same 2007 press release quoted above)  

Continuing with the Ahmed-style rhetoric, we could add the fact that Skip Burkle (named Interim Minister of Health in Iraq in 2003 by Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, as mentioned above) is a longtime associate of Burnham (whose Afghanistan research has been repeatedly funded by the Afghanistan Ministry of Public Health) and that Burnham has collaborated with USIP (the “neocon front agency”) on its 2007 “Rebuilding a Nation’s Health in Afghanistan” symposium, and also that the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health (Burnham’s school) has continually collaborated with USIP on “conflict research” (including Afghanistan and Iraq) – and you have a “tapestry of connections” (or something) which certainly looks “deeply embedded in the Western foreign policy establishment”.

Or, rather, you don’t. What you have is a relatively innocuous bunch of facts which can probably be woven into something by someone who cherry-picks and embroiders with rhetoric – with the purpose of discrediting the target of that rhetoric.

False claims about IBC’s funding

Careless readers of Ahmed’s rhetoric might come to the conclusion, as someone posting to Twitter did, that IBC has “dodgy imperialist military funding sources”. In fact, Ahmed doesn’t reveal any “imperialist” or “military” funding for IBC, although that doesn’t stop him making assertions such as these:

This investigation confirms that Spagat and the IBC are part of a pseudoscientific campaign financed by the US and Western governments, that is undermining confidence in epidemiological surveys, and discrediting higher death toll estimates of US-led wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Colombia, and beyond. […]

Rather than being the product of genuine, independent academic inquiry, this investigation confirms that the IBC’s output, often with support from leading academic institutions, has largely been performed under the financial and organizational influence of the very same powerful vested interests that have fostered armed conflict in Iraq, Afghanistan, Colombia and beyond.

These claims are false. Ahmed does not demonstrate that IBC (or “IBC’s output”) is “financed by” or “performed under the financial and organizational influence of” these interests. Instead, he documents some funding of projects undertaken by the Oxford Research Group (ORG) and others “affiliated” to IBC. Here’s what Ahmed provides regarding this funding:

(On ORG’s Every Casualty program) “The two-year initiative that ran from 2012 to 2014, ‘Documenting Existing Casualty Recording Practice Worldwide,’ was funded by a US government-backed agency [USIP] which played a key role in the 2003 Iraq War.” […]

“ORG’s Annual Report filed with the Charity Commission for the year ending 2010 confirms IBC as a “partner” of ORG’s USIP-funded ‘Recording the Casualties of Armed Conflict.’ ” […]

“Every Casualty now lists its core funders as USIP, the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs, the German Federal Foreign Office, and the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.”

These examples are as close as Ahmed gets to supporting his claims of “financial influence” on IBC – and they are not very close. Let’s look at each instance, starting with the most recent. Every Casualty was initially an ORG project (initiated in 2007) and then became an independent charitable organisation from October 2014, with co-directors Dardagan and Sloboda. Its work is separate – and separately-funded – from IBC, although, as Ahmed notes, IBC is listed as a member of its ‘International Practitioner Network’ (or ‘Casualty Recorders Network’ as it’s now named).

Ahmed doesn’t mention the other members of Every Casualty’s peer network (apart from CERAC), so I’ll put this particular “connection” to IBC in perspective by listing all of them:

Action on Armed Violence (AOAV)
Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission
Afghanistan Rights Monitor (ARM)
Amnesty International, Pakistan Team
The Bureau of Investigative Journalism
Centre for Study of Political Violence, Jindal School of International Affairs
Colombian Campaign Against Landmines
Conflict Analysis Resource Centre (CERAC)
Conflict Monitoring Center
Center for Statistics and Research – Syria
Darfur Peace and Development Organisation
Elman Peace
Guatemala Forensic Anthropolgy Foundation (FAFG)
Hakikat Adalet Hafiza Merkezi
Handicap International
The Human Rights Center
Humanitarian Law Centre, Kosovo
Humanitarian Law Centre, Serbia
Iniskoy for Peace and Democracy Organisation
The Institute for Conflict Management
International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP)
Iraq Body Count
Kaah Foundation for Community Concern
Liberia Armed Violence Observatory
LRA Crisis Tracker
Nigeria Watch
Nuestra Aparente Rendición
The National Violence Monitoring System
Observatory for Conflict and Violence Prevention
Organisation for Human Rights Activists
Organisation for Somalis’ Protection and Development
Pak Institute for Peace Studies
Pakistan Body Count
Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (PCHR)
Peruvian Forensic Anthropology Team (EPAF)
Research and Documentation Center of Sarajevo
Somali Human Rights Association
South Sudan Action Network on Small Arms
Syria Justice and Accountability Centre
Syria Tracker
Syrian Network for Human Rights
Syrian Shuhada
Tamil Information Centre
Violation Documentation Center (VDC)

Ahmed fails to produce any evidence that IBC’s output (which, of course, started in 2003) has “been performed under the financial and organizational influence” of “powerful vested interests” (eg as a result of IBC being one of the many members of the above peer network).

Ahmed doesn’t provide any links when he mentions the funding by the “US government-backed agency” (ie USIP) of ORG’s “two-year initiative that ran from 2012 to 2014” – perhaps because of the obviously innocuous nature of this work and the fact that not a single penny of the USIP funding went to IBC.

As for IBC being a “partner” of “ORG’s USIP-funded ‘Recording the Casualties of Armed Conflict’”, it’s worth citing the entire section which Ahmed refers to (from ORG’s Annual Report, year-ending December 2010). Ahmed doesn’t provide a link to this, but there is a scan available of the document. The paragraph on IBC is actually about IBC’s work with Wikileaks.

Recall that Wikileaks’ Julian Assange and IBC’s John Sloboda spoke together at the press conference covering the Iraq War Logs. Assange commented: “Working with Iraq Body Count, we have seen there are approximately 15,000 never previously documented cases of civilians who have been killed…”. What can we infer from this? Perhaps Julian Assange, in this instance, “performed under the financial and organizational influence” of USIP? There’s certainly a “link”, so it’s possible. And if we follow the conspiriological mode of inference, then it’s surely our moral obligation to conclude that this remote possibility is a definite certainty which should be “exposed”. All in the name of “investigative journalism”.

Parody aside, we can see that the “supporting” material provided here by Ahmed doesn’t add up to the shocking rhetorical “conclusions” he infers. These examples (ORG and Every Casualty) are the best that Ahmed can come up with to “support” his claims about “financial influence” on IBC’s output. The rest (largely describing funding for projects by Professor Michael Spagat, eg on Colombia) seem irrelevant to IBC’s work.

Conspiriologically transferable “conflicts of interest”

As we’ve seen from his (IBC-accusing) inference about 1990s grants to Spagat from NCEEER and IREX, etc, and from his (IBC-accusing) inferences about USIP funding for ORG/’Every Casualty’, Ahmed’s reasoning is based on a premise that the perceived taint, or “compromise”, from a given piece of funding is transferable to research with completely different funding – even to research from different decades, on different countries and topics, or by different people. As long as some association or “connection” can be asserted, then a perceived “conflict of interest” can be (and should be) transferred.

It’s curious, then, that in Ahmed’s follow-up piece, in which he replies to his critics (including statistics professor Andrew Gelman), he writes the following:

In this case, the fact that Gelman at some time in his career received some NSA funding for some specific research is neither here nor there – it reveals little if nothing about the general validity of his research on statistics, and certainly the same applies to his views on the Iraq question.

Firstly, one might ask how Ahmed can know for certain – without a thorough “investigation” – that Gelman’s NSA funding wasn’t as relevant to the “general validity” of his work as Spagat’s NCEEER funding (for example) was to the “reliability and impartiality” of IBC’s work? In a moment of temporary reasonableness followed by spectacular falsehood, Ahmed then writes:

The point here is that Gelman would be under obligation to have disclosed his funding to publications with respect to the specific research being funded and published, in order for readers and evaluators of the researchers to be aware of the relevant context.

This is precisely what didn’t happen in relation to all of the peer-reviewed publications put out by the IBC team and those associated with the IBC, Spagat included. In not a single one of those publications did they disclose that a significant portion of funding for their conflict research, including specifically on Iraq, came from US and European government agencies which happen to be closely linked with foreign policy.

Given the seriousness of the allegations that Ahmed makes here, it’s worth scrutinising what he says closely. When he asserts, “This is precisely what didn’t happen” with “the IBC team”, he is of course referring to the obligation to disclose funding with respect to “the specific research being funded and published” (his words). To repeat, the specific research being funded and published. Not some other, non-specified “conflict research” which has been funded separately.

In other words, Ahmed clearly appears to be claiming that for “all of the peer-reviewed publications put out by the IBC team”, funding received “from US and European government agencies” was not disclosed “with respect to the specific research being funded and published” in “a single one of those publications”.

This, of course, would be a huge and serious falsehood. To clarify, I asked Ahmed to “please list the IBC publications which you think were funded by these agencies, so that I can check directly with IBC to see if your assertion is true”. His response was defensive and failed to answer my question:

This may be challenging for you to understand, but by “their conflict research” I did not mean the singular publication in question, but “their conflict research.”

His phrase, “their conflict research” (eg on Iraq), was as “specific” as he would get. It could, of course, refer to the ORG or ‘Every Casualty’ research, whose funding was openly disclosed by the publications of those groups. Ahmed continued:

Do you dispute that throughout the period in which these IBC-linked publications emerged, IBC researchers who authored them have received funding for their conflict research from USIP and other government agencies?

This should indeed be disputed, as it’s misleading – aside from the fact that it’s irrelevant to whether funding for “the specific research being funded and published” (Ahmed’s wording) was disclosed (it was). The main period in which “IBC researchers” (eg Sloboda, Dardagan, Hicks) received such funding (ie for Every Casualty, 2012-2014) doesn’t coincide with their published “IBC-linked” journal output (2009-2011, mostly in 2009). Of course, Ahmed’s wording is so vague (“their conflict research”) that he might argue there’s a bit of overlap somewhere (eg with some ORG funding in 2010). But his statement, “throughout the period in which these IBC-linked publications emerged”, is misleading. Note, also, the fairly obvious fact that IBC’s ongoing work (not their journal publications) began in 2003, a decade or so before this non-IBC funding is supposed to have “influenced” IBC’s output.

Ahmed repeatedly slams “IBC researchers” with accusations of “undisclosed research funding”, “conflicts of interest” and “breach of ethics” regarding their journal publications. But his accusations in this regard are typically couched in vague and non-specific rhetoric. The journal-published material by “IBC researchers” is easy enough to list and access, as is the openly-disclosed funding for ORG and Every Casualty, etc. If the journal publications (mostly from 2009) were guilty of “egregious ethical breaches”, as Ahmed asserts, then it would be easy enough to check and confirm (or, rather, refute) – given specific claims which he doesn’t provide.

Note that the earliest USIP funding of “IBC-affiliated researchers” which Ahmed documents is for a 2010 ORG project. If this funding somehow “influenced” IBC’s 2009 journal publications, then Ahmed should probably add “clairvoyance” to the list of things that he accuses IBC of. The more one looks at specifics and bare facts on this matter, the more one gets an idea of the extent of Ahmed’s rhetorical distortions. Here’s a good example of the latter:

In the case of Spagat and IBC executives receiving funding, and having a close institutional relationship with, the US Institute for Peace (USIP), the matter is even more alarming, given USIP’s deep involvement in Iraq War policymaking under the Bush administration. Not only is the lack of such disclosure unethical, it tends to confirm legitimate suspicions about deep-seated conflicts of interest behind the IBC’s and Spagat’s work, which in turn does raise legitimate questions about the integrity of the research methodologies.

Given that the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health has a “close institutional relationship” with USIP (arguably “closer” than “IBC executives” have – as mentioned above), including collaborations on conflict research (Iraq, Afghanistan, etc), perhaps all Johns Hopkins “linked” publications should declare a conflict of interest? Indeed, to paraphrase Ahmed’s rhetoric, “lack of such disclosure is unethical and it tends to confirm legitimate suspicions about deep-seated conflicts of interest behind Johns Hopkins’ work, which in turn does raise legitimate questions about the integrity of conflict research carried out at, or by, the Johns Hopkins school”.

Dirty War Index (DWI)

Ahmed makes a series of misleading claims in a section which even has a deeply misleading (not to say hysterical) title: “IBC’s new metric to whitewash war-crimes”.

The “Dirty War Index” (DWI) which he discusses in this section is, in fact, not “IBC’s” in any sense. It’s a completely separate piece of work, by Madelyn Hsiao-Rei Hicks and Michael Spagat (published in PLOS Medicine in December 2008). I can’t see how anybody who reads the PLOS paper would seriously entertain the notion that it’s an extension of IBC’s casualty recording work – although, obviously, data from conflicts (whether from IBC’s database or from other sources, including epidemiological surveys) can be used as input to the DWI tool.

Ahmed begins by quoting the first sentence of a paragraph from PLOS Medicine Senior Editor, Amy Ross. Here’s how the full quote from Ross should read:

While the reliability of the DWI is tied to the reliability of the data sources available, which tend to be poor from areas of armed conflicts (read more about limitations of its uses here and here), it’s a flexible tool that has shown to be acceptable to multiple types of audiences concerned with war and civilian protection. As summed up nicely by the lead author of the paper, Madelyn Hsiao-Rei Hicks: “The DWI approach that connects public health, civilian protection, and international humanitarian law seems able to enter discussions and the ongoing, active formulation of norms, standards and practice in warfare.”

Of course, it doesn’t require Ahmed’s “investigative journalism” to point out the obvious fact that the usefulness of DWI depends on the quality and reliability of data used with it. Ahmed cites a study which claims that DWI relies on assumptions about the data utilised which are “seldom, if ever, met in a conflict situation”. Professor Nathan Taback (also cited by Ahmed) comments on a use for DWI originally proposed by Hicks and Spagat – namely, drawing attention to war-related rapes:

Selection bias impedes the generalizability of a DWI, but the DWI could nevertheless be sufficient for policy or legal purposes. For instance, if a biased sample of rape victims has a rape DWI of 10%, then this information might, for example, be useful in planning a prevention program or gathering evidence for a criminal investigation, even if the magnitude of the bias is not readily quantifiable.

In a separate PLOS Medicine piece, Egbert Sondorp concludes as follows:

[A] whole range of DWIs can be constructed, from rape to the use of prohibited weapons to the use of child soldiers, as long as acts counter to humanitarian law can be counted. The authors hope that the ease of use and understanding of DWIs will facilitate communication on the effects of war, with the ultimate goal being to moderate these effects, a similar aim to that of humanitarian law.

But here’s how Nafeez Ahmed characterises DWI:

It is not surprising that IBC’s DWI is seen as such a useful tool by NATO. The inherent inaccuracy built into the DWI means that it systematically conceals and obscures violence in direct proportion to the intensification of violence. In the hands of the Pentagon, DWI provides a useful pseudo-scientific tool to mask violence against civilians.

This is misleading in nearly every respect. As pointed out above, DWI is not “IBC’s” in any sense. There’s no “inherent inaccuracy built into the DWI” – any inaccuracy present derives from the data used with it. It’s obviously false – and absurd – to assert that DWI (which is a simple ratio, in itself neutral) “systematically conceals and obscures violence in direct proportion to the intensification of violence”. DWI could, of course, be used by the Pentagon for all kinds of nefarious purposes – but that’s not saying much (pretty much anything could be used by the Pentagon for nefarious purposes, including, as we’ve seen, the epidemiological method to provide “excess death” figures for Western imperialist wars).

Nafeez Ahmed’s characterisation of DWI as “IBC’s new metric to whitewash war-crimes” says more about Ahmed’s purpose in writing his article than it does about IBC or DWI.

Double standards regarding “valid” criticism

It’s worth noting that the two main ‘Lancet’ studies on Iraq mortality received criticisms relating to the political motivations of the studies’ authors and publishers. For example, questions were asked about the politics of the Lancet journal’s editor, Richard Horton, and about the timing of the studies – proximity to US elections, etc.

“Les and Gil [lead authors, respectively, of 2004 and 2006 Lancet studies] put themselves in position to be criticized on the basis of their views,” Garfield concedes, before adding, “But you can have an opinion and still do good science.” Perhaps, but the Lancet editor who agreed to rush their study into print, with an expedited peer-review process and without seeing the surveyors’ original data, also makes no secret of his leftist politics. At a September 2006 rally in Manchester, England, Horton declared, “This axis of Anglo-American imperialism extends its influence through war and conflict, gathering power and wealth as it goes, so millions of people are left to die in poverty and disease.”

Advocates of the Lancet studies were dismissive of this type of criticism (which is from a January 2008 National Journal article cited by John Tirman), pointing out that the work had been judged on its own merits as part of the peer-review process. It seems ironic, then, that advocates of the Lancet studies now use the same type of criticism to rubbish peer-reviewed work which they dislike.

Nafeez Ahmed, for example, writes that the journal (Defence and Peace Economics) which published Spagat’s 2008 paper is “ideologically slanted toward promoting and defending US global hegemony”, and that it is a journal “whose editors and peer-review network would lean ideologically toward publishing a fraudulent paper” (specifically one which was critical of the 2006 Lancet Iraq study).

You wouldn’t think the rhetoric and double-standards regarding peer-reviewed journals could be ratcheted up more than that, but in the next paragraph, Ahmed writes that there should be “a formal investigation” into IBC’s “capacity to garner legitimacy by publishing in scientific journals”. Perhaps such an investigation would show that the editors of journals which publish material by “IBC-affiliated researchers” (including The Lancet, PLOS Medicine, New England Journal of Medicine, Nature, etc) have “ideological leanings” which Ahmed doesn’t approve of.

(Incidentally, some conflict research which Professor Michael Spagat co-authored made the cover of the prestigious Nature journal. Recall that Ahmed gratuitously refers to Spagat as a “pseudoscientist”. Perhaps the editorial board of Nature should be subject to a “formal investigation” by Ahmed).

In order to appreciate the degree of hypocrisy in Ahmed’s allegations about “IBC-affiliated” funding and “propaganda”, consider a purely hypothetical situation in which IBC receives a $46,000 grant from USIP for “a public education effort to promote discussion of the mortality issue”. Consider, further, that this grant relates to a specific IBC paper which “fails” to disclose this funding – and that IBC’s reason for non-disclosure is that the funding was for “public education” only, and didn’t influence the research itself. One can imagine the colourful rhetoric about “propaganda” and “conflict of interest” that such a scenario would give rise to from those who wished to discredit IBC.

However, if you substitute George Soros’s Open Society Institute (OSI) for USIP, then this scenario is precisely what occurred with the 2006 Lancet Iraq study, according to comments from John Tirman (who commissioned the study). Tirman has said that a $46,000 OSI grant was received on 4 May 2006, and that the Lancet survey itself was started in “late spring [2006]”. He comments that the funding was for “public education” on the “mortality issue” addressed by the Lancet study, but had “no influence over the conduct or outcome” of the research itself. The published Lancet paper (October 2006) didn’t disclose this OSI funding.

There was much outrage from advocates of the 2006 Lancet study over the fact that its critics had used the non-disclosure of the OSI funding as a way of attacking the overall integrity of the study and its findings. Ahmed alludes to this, and seems fairly outraged himself – particularly when he accuses the “IBC-affiliated” Michael Spagat of repeating a “falsehood” about the OSI funding. (Spagat had merely mentioned that “Munro and Canon [2008] revealed that the Open Society Institute of George Soros was an important funder of L2, a fact that was not disclosed in the L2 paper”).

Of course, critics of IBC (such as Nafeez Ahmed) would never use claims about non-disclosure of funding (spurious or not) to attack the overall integrity of research. Of course not:

The context of this sort of institutional funding bias provides important context in understanding the serious and egregious statistical misinformation that is replete throughout IBC’s and Spagat’s conflict work. (Nafeez Ahmed, follow-up piece) 

“Exclusive investigation” or old, recycled claims

For some reason which I can’t fathom, Ahmed’s article includes a very long section which recycles an old one-sided “debate” about a peer-reviewed paper by “IBC-affiliated researcher” Michael Spagat – complete with selective quoting and false claims lifted straight from Ahmed’s sources.

The paper in question is Ethical and Data-Integrity Problems in the Second Lancet Survey of Mortality in Iraq (which I’ll abbreviate to EDIP-L2). It has little – if anything – to do with IBC, except that it references content from various Iraq mortality studies including IBC. One of Ahmed’s main sources for criticising this paper is a section of a “science blog” called Deltoid, written by blogger Tim Lambert and dating mostly from 2006-2008.

Lambert was a strong advocate of the Lancet Iraq studies, and had already made a series of attacks on both Spagat and IBC by the time EDIP-L2 was published. For example, he’d claimed that a vast majority of press coverage misreported IBC’s figures and that IBC “don’t even seem to be trying” to correct it. But it turned out that Lambert’s “analysis” of these press reports contained numerous errors – and, remarkably, he admitted that he hadn’t even read to the end of the reports he was supposedly analysing.

In order to attack Spagat, Ahmed lifts claims straight from Lambert’s blog, without realising that Lambert was later shown to be seriously in error. For example, Ahmed claims that Lambert “demolished” a paper on “main street bias”, or “MSB” (which was critical of the Lancet 2006 study, and co-authored by Spagat). Ahmed writes:

Lambert pointed out, citing Dr. Jon Pedersen — head of research at the Fafo Institute for Applied International Science — that “if there was a bias, it might be away from main streets [by picking streets which intersect with main streets].” Pedersen, Lambert noted, “thought such a ‘bias,’ if it had existed, would affect results only 10% or so.”

This is horribly wrong in several ways. First, it was Stephen Soldz – not Dr Pedersen – who was being cited here. Soldz was commenting on what he “thought” Pedersen said to him – wrongly, as it turns out. Pedersen later confirmed that Soldz (and by implication Lambert, and Ahmed, in turn) misrepresented his views:

“Yes, probably Stephen Soldz confused the issue somewhat here. There are actual several issues:
1) I very much agree with the MSB-team that there is some main stream bias, and that this is certainly an important problem for many surveys – not only the Iraq Lancet one.
2) I am unsure about how large that problem is in the Iraq case – I find it difficult to separate that problem from a number of other problems in the study. A main street bias of the scale that we are talking about here, is very, very large, and I do not think that it can be the sole culprit.
3) The MSB people have come up with some intriguing analysis of these issues.”
(Jon Pedersen, email to Robert Shone, 4/12/06)

With Pedersen’s permission, this email was publicly posted, back in December 2006. Lambert was made aware of it at the time, but has never corrected his blog to indicate that he’d misrepresented Pedersen (by regurgitating Stephen Soldz). Hopefully, Nafeez Ahmed will correct his own article so that misrepresentations like these aren’t “churnalised” any further.

Incidentally, Dr Pedersen (who is a respected authority in this field, and on Iraq) has elsewhere commented that the Lancet 2006 mortality estimates were:

“high, and probably way too high. I would accept something in the vicinity of 100,000 but 600,000 is too much.” (Source: Washington Post, 19 Oct 2006)

(It should be noted that Dr Pedersen said this independently of any “influence” from “neocon” funding sources or “counterinsurgency” conspiracies involving IBC.)

There’s much more in this section which Ahmed seems to lift from the “debates” which raged between 2006 and 2008, including further (inaccurate) comments on “main street bias”, “conflict of interest”, etc. Certainly nothing new. And yet Ahmed claims, in his follow-up piece, that “My investigation showed, for the first time, that Spagat’s work itself is false, fraudulent, and unreliable, and that its publication in scientific journals appears to have been enabled through unethical and undeclared conflicts of interests”. (My Bold)

Allegations of “fraud”

Ahmed repeats his assertion that Spagat’s work is “fraudulent” several times, presumably to ensure that his readers get it: “fraud”, “fraudulent attacks”, “fraudulent distortion”, “fraudulent paper”, “statistically-fraudulent claims”. Perhaps if one can throw the word “fraud” at Spagat enough, the mud will stick? And perhaps it will also stick, by association, to IBC. Note, also, that in his introductory paragraphs, Ahmed writes:

IBC has not only systematically underrepresented the Iraqi death toll, it has done so on the basis of demonstrably fraudulent attacks on standard scientific procedures.

But the only references one can find in Ahmed’s article to “fraud” or “fraudulent” attacks, etc, are those directed at Spagat’s EDIP-L2 paper (plus a few referring to Spagat’s own charges within that paper). It’s clearly nonsense to assert that the “Iraqi death toll” is represented by IBC “on the basis of” the material in Spagat’s paper (which is about problems with the 2006 Lancet study).

So, what is the basis (if any) for Ahmed’s claim that his “exclusive investigation” has demonstrated “fraud”? The first reference to fraud (after the introduction) is in a quote from blogger Tim Lambert, which refers to a graph in Spagat’s paper: “Since Spagat didn’t produce the deceitful graphic, he isn’t guilty of fraud, just of incompetence”. It’s on this point that Ahmed quotes statistics professor Andrew Gelman (who later complained that Ahmed had selectively quoted him and misrepresented his views). Here’s Gelman’s quote, in full, regarding Lambert’s point:

Spagat has clearly done a lot of work here and I haven’t read his paper in detail, nor have I carefully studied the original articles by Burnham et al. Also, some of Spagat’s criticisms seem less convincing than others. When I saw the graph on page 16 (in which three points fall suspiciously close to a straight line, suggesting at the very least some Mendel’s-assistant-style anticipatory data adjustment), I wondered whether these were just three of the possible points that could be considered. Investigative blogger Tim Lambert made this point last year, and having seen Lambert’s post, I don’t see Spagat’s page 16 graph as being so convincing.

So, Gelman doesn’t find the graph “so convincing” – that’s all. Moving on, Ahmed’s next reference to “fraud” is this:

Spagat’s modus operandi is to begin from highly questionable (and usually quite ignorant) assumptions about what ‘ought’ to happen in a conflict zone, and then to generate speculative statistical artifacts of improbability to prove high chances of falsification or fabrication.

Throughout, these arguments demonstrate a degree of willful dishonesty, and worse, fraudulent distortion and misrepresentation. There can be no doubt, as the doctors group PSR has conceded, that there are legitimate criticisms of the 2006 Lancet survey, and that scrutiny of the survey’s design and methodology is a welcome path to improving knowledge.

There’s a lot of general assertion here, but no specific claims. Moving back to the paragraph immediately preceding this, to see if it sheds any light, we get:

Spagat’s paper, like much of his previous conflict analysis work, is not just fundamentally unethical and politically compromised, but repeatedly rigs, manufactures and manipulates data to reach his desired objective of dismissing the Lancet survey with finality. His verdict that the 2006 Lancet survey makes no reliable or valid contribution to knowledge about the Iraqi War death toll is not sustained.

This is just more general assertion, with nothing specific that’s capable of being checked. In fact, it’s impossible to know which specific claims (if any) Ahmed is referring to when he asserts “fraudulent distortion”. In his next reference to “fraud”, Ahmed gives up any pretense of providing specific, refutable claims to back up his charge, and instead suggests that the paper itself is “fraudulent”:

If ever there was a journal whose editors and peer-review network would lean ideologically toward publishing a fraudulent paper critical of The Lancet’s 2006 estimate of 655,000 excess Iraqi deaths due to the war, it was Defence and Peace Economics.

The next, and final, reference to “fraud” is in Ahmed’s conclusion:

In particular, questions must be asked as to how and why elements of the scientific community have irresponsibly allowed statistically-fraudulent claims about conflict trends derived from convenience samples to be published in serious journals.

Again, tracing back through his article, it’s impossible to know which “claims”, specifically, Ahmed is referring to here. Of course, he does make various specific claims about Spagat’s paper, but they are mostly recycled opinions and assertions from a one-sided debate which occurred between 2006 and 2008 (as mentioned above), and they don’t come remotely close to making a case about “fraud”. Ahmed never asserts “fraud” where he’s writing about these specifics – presumably because such assertions could easily be checked and refuted.

The authors of the 2006 Lancet study didn’t respond to Spagat’s paper when offered the chance to do so, even though they have responded to most other published criticisms of their study. In the header of Spagat’s published paper, there’s an “editor’s note” from the journal, which reads:

“Editor’s Note: The authors of the Lancet II Study were given the opportunity to reply to this article. No reply has been forthcoming.”

As Professor Andrew Gelman commented, “Ouch.”

(Part 2 of this article is now available here.)

“Our data suggests that the (March 2003) shock-and-awe campaign was very careful, that a lot of the targets were genuine military targets. So, I think it is correct that in 2006, probably in almost any month, there were more civilians dying than during shock-and-awe.”
Les Roberts, co-author of the 2006 Lancet Iraq study [quoted in 2008]

“Shock and awe invasions using massive air power and overwhelming force caused a far higher concentration of deaths, injuries and child fatalities than even the intense insurgency we are experiencing now”
John Sloboda, IBC co-founder [quoted in 2005]

Written by NewsFrames

June 2, 2015 at 7:24 am

Posted in Iraq, Moral outrage, Smears

Framing poll questions & results

crimepollJuly 10, 2013Research has shown that metaphors shape the way people reason about social & political issues – with most folk having no awareness that metaphors are influencing their thinking. This is relevant to polling, of course.

For example, one study found that if crime is framed metaphorically as a “virus”, survey respondents proposed “investigating the root causes… eradicating poverty and improving education (etc)”. But, when crime is framed as a “beast”, participants prefer enforcement and punishment.

Notably, in this study, there was only a one word difference (“virus”/”beast”) in the questions asked. Most participants said the crime statistics (which were included in the question, and the same in both cases) influenced their reasoning most. The authors of the study remarked: “These findings suggest that metaphors can act covertly in reasoning.”

“Majority say X”
“Majority say NOT X”

YouGov tested how a question’s wording shapes responses by asking different groups essentially the “same” question (but with different wording). For example:

  • “The BBC licence fee costs £145.50 a year. Do you think this is good or bad value for money?”
  • “The cost of the BBC licence works out at 40p a day. Do think this is good or bad value for money?”

Since 40p x 365 = £146, you’d expect roughly similar responses. In fact there was a massive difference. The poll asking the first question found that twice as many people thought the BBC was bad value (27% good, 54% bad). The poll using the second question found a majority saying the BBC was good value (44% good, 36% bad).

There’s no obvious difference in terms of metaphor here, but the large shift in response suggests that different cognitive frames are activated in each case – perhaps the larger (yearly) sum “reminds” people of money they need (eg to pay utilities bills). Work in ‘behavioural economics’, by the likes of Dan Ariely, has catalogued similar examples.

Here’s another example, reported by the New York Times, of a simple change in poll wording that dramatically changed the responses:

“Seventy-nine percent of Democrats said they support permitting gay men and lesbians to serve openly [in the military]. Fewer Democrats however, just 43 percent, said they were in favor of allowing homosexuals to serve openly.” (NYT, 11/2/2010)

As has been commented, this example probably isn’t surprising, as the wording evokes different frames, one about human rights, and the other about sex.

Framing poll results

So, small changes in wording can produce very different responses. And that’s just in the question asked. What about different framings of the results (eg by the news media)? Peter Kellner, the journalist & President of YouGov, makes the following comment:

The results frequently arouse media interest. Indeed we are often commissioned to ask stark questions in order to generate bold headlines and stark findings […]. It’s not that these headlines or allegations are wrong, but they are often too crude. A single question, or even a short sequence of questions, will seldom tell us all we need to know. (Peter Kellner, 24/10/2011)

But it’s not just the mass media which promotes simplistic conclusions based on crude polling. The “public interest” website, Spinwatch (of all people) recently did something similar…

Even SpinWatchers spin?

A Spinwatch blog commented on a poll which asked people in the UK to estimate the number of Iraqis who “died as a consequence of the war that began in Iraq in 2003”. The poll itself seems genuinely shocking: 59% of the respondents estimated that fewer than 10,001 Iraqis died as a result of the war.

An obvious question: Where did these low estimates originate? – since they are far lower than figures reported from Iraq Body Count or the Lancet-published surveys, etc. (Or were they just ignorant guesses from people too embarrassed to select the “Don’t know” option?)

Unfortunately, the poll doesn’t provide any answers to these questions, as it was limited (for cost reasons) to just two poll questions, neither of which indicates sources of estimates or media preferences of respondents, etc. But this didn’t stop the Spinwatch blogger from making a sweeping conclusion:

“The poll results are a striking illustration of how a ‘free press’ imposes ignorance on the public in order to promote war.” (Spinwatch, 4/6/2013)

Of course, it doesn’t follow. The poll says precisely nothing about the press. The blogger’s conclusion that the press “imposes ignorance” is based on his own presumptions about the effects of the press – not on the poll findings.

I return to notion that the press “imposes ignorance” below.

(Spinwatch published a follow-up piece with some media searches, apparently showing unbelievably few mentions of the Lancet Iraq studies – eg only 13 results for “All English Language News”, since 1/12/04, from a Lexis-Nexis search. This is clearly wrong, and, in fact, the last paragraph – of an addendum to the piece – briefly notes that “searching ‘Lancet AND Iraq’ with Lexis Nexis turns up 2602 articles since December 1, 2004”. But the Spinwatch author doesn’t present this as a correction to his earlier seemingly botched search-term format which yielded just 13 articles. Rather, he writes: “As with any search, the results can be tweaked by modifying search terms slightly”!)

Causal metaphors – a digression

Reports of poll results (in common with headlines in general) often use direct causation metaphors to frame complex social issues. All such metaphors have their own logic, which is transferred from the physical realm of force to the more abstract social realms of institutions, politics, beliefs, etc. The effect is inescapably “reductive”, but not necessarily illegitimate (some metaphors – and their imported logics – are more appropriate than others). Here are some examples of such metaphorical causal expressions:

  • Public generosity hit by immigrant wave
  • 72% believe Iraq on path to democracy
  • Obama’s leadership brought the country out of despair
  • Majority fear Vietnam will fall to communism

Each of the causal logics here is different – for example, the notion that one country “falls” to communism, while another takes the right “path” (to democracy). Of “falling to communism”, Lakoff & Johnson remark (Philosophy in the Flesh, p172) that the ‘domino effect’ theory was used to justify going to war with Vietnam: when one country “falls”, the next will, and the next – unless force (military might) is applied to stop the “falling”. The metaphor of taking a “path” has very different political entailments. A nation might not even resemble a democracy, but if it chooses the “right path”, it “deserves” US military and economic “aid”, to help overcome any obstacles put in its “way”. (Incidentally, rightwing ideologues regard any “move” towards “free market” economics as taking the “path” to democracy).

The different types of causal logic resulting from each metaphor may seem obvious when spelt out like this. But the point is that the reasoning in each case is evoked automatically by the metaphorical frame; it takes effect without being spelt out, without being “made conscious”. Rather, the logic – including political inferences – is an entailment of a frame that’s simply activated by the language used.

“Imposes ignorance”

The notion that the press “imposes ignorance on the public” is also metaphorical (although this perhaps isn’t as obvious as in the above examples). The question is whether we regard it as valid and appropriate for 21st century media – given the increasing levels of information access. It takes less than a minute, for example, for anyone with an internet connection to google “Iraq war deaths”. Such a search immediately returns the BBC article, Iraq war in figures, which cites Iraq Body Count, UN-backed IFHS, and Lancet studies, and their figures.

(BBC headlined with the 2006 Lancet study – on BBC1 News and BBC2 Newsnight – on the day of its publication, published a “question and answer” piece with one of the study’s authors (Les Roberts) and conducted an investigation – using a Freedom Of Information request – showing that the government’s scientific advisers privately stated that “The study design is robust and employs methods that are regarded as close to ‘best practice’ in this area”.)

None of this fits the notion of a media which “imposes ignorance on the public”. That’s not to say that the “news” media isn’t a determining factor in “public ignorance” (in various complex ways – several of them explored in the cognitive framing literature and in the work of Tversky, Kahneman and others on heuristics and biases, etc). But to conceive of it as forceful restriction (“imposes”) seems a fundamental misunderstanding of how the media works in the 21st century – not to mention how people acquire knowledge and form opinions in an information-saturated world of competing frames.

The Spinwatch piece notes that “Rumsfeld AND Iraq” yielded more search results in a 3-week period than “Lancet AND Iraq” did over 8.5 years – and the author concludes that, “There is simply no honest way to absolve the establishment media for imposing ignorance on the public”. But if there were a simple (inverse) correlation between number of media mentions and public ignorance, you’d expect the “public” to be relatively knowledgable about what Donald Rumsfeld said and did regarding Iraq.

That would take another poll to determine, but I suspect that public indifference/ignorance on Iraq (if that’s what the above poll illustrated) extends to what Rumsfeld said and did – regardless of the media’s apparent over-representation of Rumsfeld.

Graphics by NewsFrames

Written by NewsFrames

July 11, 2013 at 8:02 am