Radio: Andy Worthington Defends Bradley Manning and Whistleblowers on Voice of Russia


Last week, as the trial of Bradley Manning finally got underway at Fort Meade in Maryland, nearly three years after the military analyst was first arrested for the biggest leak of classified documents in US history, I was asked to take part in a radio show on Voice of Russia, the radio station whose UK studio is in St. James’s Square in central London.

The show was entitled, “Bradley Manning and the nature of intelligence,” and involved guests in three studios — in Washington D.C, Moscow and London. It was 45 minutes in total, but the London segment has been made available as an audio file, and can be listened to, or downloaded here.

I appeared in London alongside John Gearson, Professor of National Security Studies, and Director of the Centre for Defence Studies at King’s College London, and our host was Hywel Davis.

I was delighted to have the opportunity to speak about the importance of Bradley Manning’s whistleblowing, and to explain why I believe that, although he obviously disobeyed the rules governing the behavior of US military personnel, the attempt to claim that he was “aiding the enemy” is absurd, and the military — and the Obama administration — should, at most, have settled for the 20-year sentence that is the maximum punishment for the crimes to which Manning has already agreed.

I was also glad to have had the opportunity to speak about how the information made available to WikiLeaks was important in a variety of ways — how the Afghan and Iraq war logs were described by the former SAS soldier turned conscientious objector Ben Griffin as the single most important act of anti-war activism ever, how the diplomatic cables helped people in closed regimes understand what their regimes were doing, and, I believe, helped to inspire popular uprisings in the Arab Spring, and also how the classified military files from Guantánamo were and are hugely important, primarily because they revealed the identities of those who had made allegations about their fellow prisoners, and allowed journalists to establish that many of them — including the most prolific of them — were profoundly unreliable.

Unfortunately, the death of Osama bin Laden, which came just one week after the files were released, swept them off the agenda completely, and there has been no opportunity since then for the files — and their worth — to be highlighted in the media. However, if President Obama ever initiates the periodic reviews he promised for the 46 prisoners he designated for indefinite detention without charge or trial in an executive order in March 2011, it would be a perfect opportunity for researchers to provide important input, even though he continues to drag his heels on that promise, as with so many others regarding Guantánamo.

As Bradley Manning’s trial proceeds, with Chris Hedges on Tuesday describing it as “a judicial lynching,” I will be appearing on Thursday on CCTV-America (China Central TV’s US-based English language channel, which launched in February 2012), to discuss the trials and WikiLeaks, and I also hope to find the time to examine the parts of the trial that deal with the Guantánamo files.

In the meantime, I hope you have time to listen to the London segments of the Voice of Russia show from last week. This is how it was described on the website, with reference also to Edward Snowden — the latest whistleblower to rock the US establishment — whose identity had not been revealed at the time of recording:

With the latest US whistleblower Edward Snowden saying his conscience drove him to spill the beans to “protect basic liberties for people around the world”, VoR’s Hywel Davis and his guests explore intelligence, whistleblowing and government secrets in a discussion on the trial of Bradley Manning.

Disillusioned with the US government, Edward Snowden, the ex-CIA employee-turned-whistleblower whose revelations of vast US surveillance programmes have implicated the UK government’s electronic surveillance wing GCHQ, said: “I had been looking for leaders, but I realised that leadership is about being the first to act.”

Bradley Manning — the US army private who admits leaking US secret documents to WikiLeaks — went on trial in the US last week and looks set to be found guilty by his own admission of leaking thousands of secret US diplomatic cables and war logs. But the man accused of causing his country’s worst ever security breach remains an enigma: hero to some, enemy of the state to others.

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer and film-maker. He is the co-founder of the “Close Guantánamo” campaign, and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. He is also the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (available on DVD here — or here for the US).

To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to Andy’s RSS feed — and he can also be found on Facebook (and here), Twitter, Flickr and YouTube. Also see the four-part definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, “The Complete Guantánamo Files,” an ongoing, 70-part, million-word series drawing on files released by WikiLeaks in April 2011. Also see the definitive Guantánamo habeas list and the chronological list of all Andy’s articles.

Please also consider joining the “Close Guantánamo” campaign, and, if you appreciate Andy’s work, feel free to make a donation.

30 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Here are some of my thoughts about Bradley Manning’s trial, and a link to a radio show I took part in on Voice of Russia, discussing “Bradley Manning and the nature of intelligence.” I hope you have the time to listen to it.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Sayyidah Salam wrote:

    Will make the time. Thanks Andy.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    You’re welcome, Sayyidah. Good to hear from you.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Abdulrahman Mansouri wrote:

    Guantanamo Bay: A Medical Ethics–free Zone? — NEJM

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Abdulrahman. I discussed this report in the introduction to my latest article looking at the stories of 19 of the 43 men currently being force-fed:

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Abdulrahman Mansouri wrote:

    you are welcome. I liked the article.

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    I am glad to hear that, Abdulrahman. It is important that these men’s stories are known so that people can realize that they are not the monsters they have been made out to be.

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Abdulrahman Mansouri wrote:

    I agree, we know how the media can be very misleading in many occasions ..
    I also really appreciate your dedication to this cause, Its very noble …

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks again, Abdulrahman. I found that I had become the custodian of the men’s stories, and I can’t give up on them. If that’s noble, then I’m honored, although it might just be that I’m stubborn!

  10. arcticredriver says...

    Andy, as I write this I am watching Inside Washington, a politics show on PBS that I have been watching forever. This week’s segment leads off with a discussion of Snowden, that the moderator started off with a quote about rejecting the sacrifice of liberty, for security.

    The moderator, then revealed the quote was from President Obama’s first inaugural address. He went on to say something like “President Obama was not the first President whose fine ideals were dashed by the realities of his job.”

    I would like to share with you and your readers the story of Herbert O. Yardley. If you have ever heard the aphorism “Gentlemen do not read one another’s mail!” — Yardley was the trigger for uttering that phrase.

    Prior to the USA’s late entry into World War 1 Yardley was just a morse code clerk in the US State Department, with a private interest in codes. In the course of his job with the State Department he saw how primitive the informal use of codes by US diplomats and by the US President were. On his own initiative he approached the War Department (then a co-equal cabinet level department with the Navy Department — in the days before the creation of the Department of Defense). He was a great self-promoter, and talked himself into being in charge of the War Department’s entire efforts in making and breaking codes, and also steganography and invisible inks — at least he was according to his 1932 autobiography, “The American Black Chamber”.

    During the War he described how the chief executives of all the companies that owned international telegraph cables were all approached to turn over all diplomatic telegrams, without a warrant, and to turn over all other telegrams they were requested to turn over, without a warrant — in the interests of National Security. In this he claimed the USA was following the UK example.

    After the war he was able to convince key people in Washington that the services of his precursor to the NSA was so valuable, it should continue to be operated in peace-time. 1/2 or 2/3 of his secret funding came from the State Department, and the rest from the War Department.

    In his autobiography he described his approach to briefing new Secretaries of State. He wouldn’t advise them of the existence of his organization until they had a couple of months in office. Then he would select a handful of the most compelling telegrams from foreign diplomats, and book an appointment. He figured that after a couple of months of frustration due to not knowing what foreign countries’ real intentions were they would be grateful to learn that he could have access to those telegrams.

    According to his autobiography this approach had worked perfectly until he booked that appointment with new SecState William Stimson. He described Stimson not really understanding him, or what his secret department did. He described Stimson becoming outraged, when he learned, and throwing him out of his office.

    “Gentlemen do not read one another’s mail!” is what Yardley says Stimson yelled at him when he threw him out of his office.

    I wonder if public safety would have been improved if every SecState, SecDef, President, and Commonwealth PM since Stimson had been as principled.

    According to his autobiography Yardley’s biggest single coup came when, after a great effort, his department had been able to decode the diplomatic cables sent to the Japanese negotiators during the 1921 Washington Naval Treaty. The treaty was to set the tonnage ratios of all the Great Powers, following World War 1.

    In the end the treaty allowed the USA and the UK to maintain 10 battleships, with 6 battleships for Japan, and smaller numbers for France, Italy, etc. The Japanese cables, when decoded, revealed that the Japanese negotiators were directed to give a show of bluster, to argue that they wouldn’t sign if the agreement didn’t allow them more battleships, but, in the end, if really pressed, 6 battleships was the very minumum acceptable level.

    Yardley’s book was a big seller, and earned him a fortune. Sales were remarkably high in Japan, where there was a lot of outrage as to how they had been manipulated.

    James Bamford wrote a very good more detailed book, The Puzzle Palace in the 1980s. Not surprisingly he described how the chiefs of telecommuncations companies agreed to hand over information to security agencies, without a warrant, in the 1970s.

    So, that record is clear. Security officials seem to have always been able to secretly access information from telecomms, even when accessing it was illegal.

    Bamford’s book has a final chapter about Yardley. He attributes the rise of Japanese militarism to Yardley. They would have found the information he published in his autobiography infuriating, all by itself.

    But, it turns out that, prior to publishing his autobiography, after Stimson fired him, he contacted Japanese Intelligence officials, and negotiated a payment from them for a big secret. In the end he negotiated a payment of $30,000 from them — this would have been decades of salary for an ordinary working guy at the time — so I will call this a fortune.

    And, of course, the big secret was that the USA read the Japanese negotiator’s instructions during the negotiating for the Washington Naval Treaty.

    If I recall Bamford’s account properly Japanese militarists were first outraged that the USA had outsmarted them — and then they were outraged all over again that he published this information for the world to see, when they had to pay $30,000 to see it. And they were outraged that after they paid him $30,000, he didn’t keep his mouth shut, so the Japanese public and the world in general also learned about their humiliation.

    So, in retrospect, did secretly reading the Japanese secret cables enhance public safety, or erode it, given how their outrage over learning they had been fueled had been a powerful trigger for the militarists? Maybe Japan’s militarist would have exhausted the Japanese public’s patience with the militarists, if the USA and the UK had allowed Japan to build 10 useless and expensive battleships.

    Those battleships turned out to be of very little value during World War 2. So allowing Japan to build them would not have really damaged public safety.

    Some people say Reagan won the Cold War by daring the Soviet Union to try to match the USA, dollar for ruble, in building a massive, fry-in-the-sky super whammo system for shooting down ICBMs. Some people claim Reagan knew the actual SDI system could never work, and that by merely bluffing, he bankrupted the USSR when they tried to spend at a level beyond what the Soviet economy could afford.

    If that was his plan I think it was outrageous, because the plan required duping the American public into also believing SDI could work. Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, etc — their fingerprints are all over the cynical SDI program.

  11. arcticredriver says...

    When coverage of Snowden comes on TV I think of Bensayah Belkacem.

    I think the allegation against him that has had the most profound influence on keeping him detained when the other five Bosnians described as “The Algerian Six” have all been let go.

    The USA told the Bosnians they had proof that Belkacem and Abu Zubaydah exchanged dozens of phone calls in the weeks immediately following al Qaeda’s attacks of 9-11.

    At the time, of course, American security officials were all still describing Abu Zubaydah as a senior member of al Qaeda’s leadership circle. Thank goodness some of the more responsible members of the US military-intelligence establishment will quietly acknowledge they now realize that Abu Zubaydah was not only not in al Qaeda’s leadership circle, he wasn’t even an al Qaeda member.

    Dogged Bosnian journalists looked into this allegation, and determined that Belkacem was flat broke, and couldn’t afford a phone. His landlord was a nice guy, and would allow him to come downstairs and make the occasional call on the phone in his kitchen. But clearly he wasn’t making dozens of calls discussing terrorist plots from his landlord’s kitchen.

    When Bosnian officials arrested the Algerian Six they trusted the USA’s claims that they had evidence linking them to terrorism, and this claim that Belkacem and an “al Qaeda leader” had exchanged dozens of calls was a key claim.

    When the Bosnian Justice system gave the 6 men the Bosnian equivalent of a habeas corpus the USA did not produce any evidence.

    I mentioned James Bamford’s “The Puzzle Palace”. He described how agencies with a signals intelligence mission, like the NSA, GCHQ and the CSE, can suck in a vast amount of what is now being called “metadata”. Back in the 1980s a lot of long distance telecommunications was transmitted via microwaves. Telecommunications companies had computers that picked apart the signals, isolated the package information — the sending and receiving phone numbers, before they place a telephone call. Bamford described how the NSA placed covert reception antennae near the Telecomms actual reception antennae. The NSA’s own computers could also pick apart the package information, just like the telecomm’s computers had. They could then recognize the package info, the initiating and receiving phone number. They could log it. They could record the actual call.

    Was doing this, in the USA, technically illegal then? Yes. The NSA’s mandate then only allowed them to monitor foreigners. They weren’t supposed to operate in the USA or against Americans. So, what was their justification for doing so? Are you ready? “Well, some of those callers will turn out to be foreigners.”

    Although some responsible US security officials now realize and will quietly acknowledge that Abu Zubaydah had never been an al Qaeda member, let alone an al Qaeda leader, I think the record is clear that no one told US District Court Judge Leon, the Judge responsible for ruling that while the detention of the other five Bosnians wasn’t justified, the detention of Belkacem was justified.

  12. Andy Worthington says...

    What a fascinating account, arcticredriver. Thank you for providing it.
    I was fascinated by your comment that, in his book The Puzzle Palace, James Bamford “described how the chiefs of telecommuncations companies agreed to hand over information to security agencies, without a warrant, in the 1970s,” and your additional comment that “Security officials seem to have always been able to secretly access information from telecomms, even when accessing it was illegal.”
    That seems to be a very important point to bear in mind as people obsess about what is happening now.

  13. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, arcticredriver, for raising the case of Belkacem Bensayah, the only one of the so-called “Bosnian Six” who is still held. I had not heard before those details about how poor he was at the time he was supposed to be on the phone to Abu Zubaydah on a regular basis, but I did read up about the hysteria of the US and how they exerted extraordinary pressure on Bosnia – even threatening to cut massive financial support – if they didn’t arrest the six. The Bosnian government never “trusted the USA’s claims that they had evidence linking them to terrorism,” but they had no alternative but to arrest them and investigate their cases, which they did, over a three-month period, in which they turned up no evidence whatsoever. They men were then kidnapped in Sarajevo by US agents and rendered to Guantanamo immediately after the Bosnian court freed them all through a lack of evidence in January 2002.
    Judge Leon made a mistake, of course, but the checks and balances that are supposed to prevent miscarriages of justice in Bensayah’s case led to an appeal that he won. The denial of his habeas petition was vacated by the DC Circuit Court, but the real injustice for the last few years has been that he hasn’t had his petition reviewed, and, although he was cleared for release by President Obama’s Guantanamo Review Task Force, he is still held.

  14. arcticredriver says...

    Thanks Andy. Sorry, I left some grammar errors in my note about telecomms quietly agreeing to hand over information without a warrant, even when doing so was illegal. From Herbert O. Yardley’s autobiography we know this was routine during WW1 and during the 1920s as well.

    When I think of Yardley I think of a character from a Raymond Chandler film, like Nick Charles, from the Thin man series — a cynical, wise-guy, operator type. After Stimson fired him the book on his career in Intelligence wasn’t his only book. He also wrote a successful book on how to win at Poker.

    One of the advantages of heading a secret agency is you can get away with pretty loose accounting on your secret budget. One of the questions he glossed over in his autobiography was why he didn’t just scale back his agency’s operations, so they could continue to operate with the War Department’s share of the budget? The answer was that even though his agency employed dozens, the salary he paid himself was a huge fraction of the entire budget and he would have had to lay off practically his entire staff.

    I think we see all kinds of clues to spooks masking massive spending on luxuries, knowing they can escape serious budget scrutiny, claiming secrecy was necessary to protect National Security.

    When the CIA snatched that Egyptian cleric off an Italian street they had a huge team on hand, who stayed at expensive hotels, and “lived large”.

  15. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, I dread to think how much money was spent on the whole “black sites” and “extraordinary rendition” program, arcticredriver.

  16. arcticredriver says...

    I am glad to hear that Belkacem was eventually cleared, even though it came after Congress complicated transferring men cleared for release.

    About him being broke, I did read that elsewhere, but there is even confirmation of it in the CSR Tribunal documents. One of the other five men had personal loans he made to Belkacem cited as examples of his “support for terrorism”.

  17. arcticredriver says...

    Mark Shields, an older long-time political commentator in the States made an excellent point about Snowden. A lot of commentators have been making comments intended to blacken his name or otherwise reduce his credibility. Among those comments are that he was a high school dropout. Shields listed a bunch of other highly admired Americans who were high school dropouts. I forget some of the names, but he listed both George Washington and the Wright Brothers. On the other hand he pointed out that George W. Bush has an MBA from Harvard, and that Wolfowitz and some other members of that crowd had PhDs, but it didn’t keep them from ordering deeply immoral acts.

  18. arcticredriver says...

    Snowden made comments about how he had the capability to monitor just about anyone, including President Obama.

    Those aiming to reduce his credibility challenged this, saying essentially, “He is a liar! He was just a junior guy! There is no way he was authorized to monitor the President.”

    There is an odd thing about “authorization”, both in the military, and in computer system administration.

    I am going to invite you and your readers to cast your mind back to Stanley Kubrick’s wonderful film, Dr Strangelove. President Miffly, asks the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, how a one star General could have launched a nuclear attack, when he thought only he, in his capacity as Commander in Chief, had the authority to launch a nuclear attack.

    The CJCS reminds the President, “It’s Plan W sir — you approved it yourself!” In the event Washington is destroyed, and the Cabinet all dead, an individual Wing Commander has the authority to launch a counter-strike on his own authority.

    “But General, Washington hasn’t been destroyed! The Cabinet isn’t dead!”

    And the CJCS replies with a classic line, worth repeating in other contexts. “Sir, I am reluctant to say this, without a proper investigation, but it is beginning to look like General So-and-so has exceeded his authority…”

    In computer system administration it is the system administrators who enforce whose computer accounts have special privileges, and whose don’t. In order to change privileges they need to, occasionally, go into a mode where they have ALL privileges. When in that mode Snowden could have executed any capability the system was capable of — without regard to his formal, paper authorization or his nominally junior status.

    “It’s Plan W sir — you approved it yourself!” — that is another classic line from that movie, worth memorizing and repeating in other contexts.

  19. arcticredriver says...

    About dreading to think about the money squandered on the black sites — have I mentioned Dana Priest’s book Top Secret America? PBS Frontline devoted an hour to it.

    In Bush America every dues paying member of the Republican party figured having paid his dues he was entitled to take a deep draught at the trough — at great cost to America’s grandchildren, as the wars were all financed with borrowed money.

    Priest’s book describes a whole separate top secret economy, with all kinds of private corporations promising to be able to do things in the private sector that the spooks used to do in house.

    The end result is massive duplication, where every company that gets a billion dollar contract to do secret work has their employees re-invent the wheel, duplicating secret work that in a properly run secret world would have been done just once, but done properly, with sanity-checking, and red teams, and other reviews. Instead, each separate empire re-invents the wheel, plagiarizes stuff, and doesn’t know any better, and doesn’t purge bad intelligence that has been debunked back at the CIA, DIA, NSA, FBI, or at some other private corporations’ private spooks.

    Meanwhile, they are all congratulating themselves on what a great job they are doing, while riding first class, dining first class.

    It is a huge contrast to WW2 Britain, where war-time shortages, and the need to borrow from America in a period of much tighter credit, meant making do with inventiveness, not gold-plated tools.

    The CIA, DIA, NSA, FBI — although I have known it for decades I still find it hard to believe that the USA has 16 official intelligence agencies.

  20. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks for the extra info about Belkacem Bensayah, arcticredriver. I had not noticed before that being lent money was “support for terrorism.” Only in Guantanamo …

  21. Andy Worthington says...

    Excellent, arcticredriver. Thanks for that. I feel slightly guilty now about not having dropped out of university …!

  22. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks for the comparisons of our dangerous and ludicrous reality with the satirical premonitions of Stanley Kubrick, arcticredriver. Very good points!

  23. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks for the mention of “Top Secret America,” arcticredriver. I remember when the book came out. The Washington Post ran a big online project based on the book, but really, of course, it should have been a special edition of the newspaper, with nothing else in it that day!
    Your succinct analysis of the problems with America’s bloated intelligence services is excellent. In a nutshell, I could see one compelling reason – to add to the warmongering, the environmental myopia and the colossal disdain for its own people – why America is lost and out of control.

  24. arcticredriver says...

    My reaction to Richard Clarke’s writing and utterances is unpredictable. Sometimes I disagree with what he said as much as any other senior member of the Bush administration. Other times he makes excellent points, as he did here.

    Clarke wrote:

    The argument that this sweeping search must be kept secret from the terrorists is laughable. Terrorists already assume this sort of thing is being done. Only law-abiding American citizens were blissfully ignorant of what their government was doing.

    Secondly, we should worry about this program because government agencies, particularly the Federal Bureau of Investigation, have a well-established track record of overreaching, exceeding their authority and abusing the law. The FBI has used provisions of the Patriot Act, intended to combat terrorism, for purposes that greatly exceed congressional intent.


    The answer is that he inherited this vacuum cleaner approach to telephone records from Bush. When Obama was briefed on it, there was no forceful and persuasive advocate for changing it. His chief adviser on these things at the time was John Brennan, a life-long CIA officer. Obama must have been told that the government needed everyone’s phone logs in the NSA’s computers for several reasons.

    I linked to the copy from RISKS a mailing list mainly aimed at computer security types, but with some very funny items accessible to the public in general. Anyhow, this issue has other comments on Snowden’s leak. So I would encourage anyone who found Clarke’s article interesting to look at other articles in the issue.

    The April fools issue is generally pretty funny — (but not the 2013 issue). I fell for some of the y2k hoaxes when I forgot about April Fools.

  25. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, arcticredriver. Those are very persuasive arguments by Richard Clarke.

  26. arcticredriver says...

    Andy, with your permission, I would like to connect y2k, a RISKS comment about the foolish use of spreadsheets for serious work, the terrible work of Jerry Bremer in Iraq.

    In the message above I mentioned RISKS, a mailing list I have found very informative, and occasionally hilarious. I mentioned it described some pretty funny y2k hoaxes, but the funniest y2k story I read wasn’t a hoax. The writer worked for a merchant bank — I think it might have been in the UK.

    I’ll tell this story as it relates to Jerry Bremer’s shocking, shocking mismanagement of the Iraqi ecomony during the 15 months he had vice-regal powers there.

    The RISKS respondent described how the directors on the executive floor of the merchant bank he worked for would have regular meetings, review their upcoming earnings, and then have a drink to celebrate — unless projected earnings were down. In that case someone was assigned to look into it, find out why earnings were down, and report back at the next board meeting.

    Well, in the 1990s they had a series of board meetings where they noticed their projected earnings were down, consistently in a trend towards eventual bankruptcy, and none of the executives assigned to find out why could figure out the reason. When looked at in detail all their individual investments looked profitable. They had started to question whether someone had figured out a clandestine way to rob them.

    It got to the point where they decided to call in the dedicated IT department. They hadn’t used to IT department to generate the reports they crowed about — their earnings were considered too sensitive for the people in IT to know about.

    This is when our hero gets called in.

    The first thing he checks is, how do these genius executives know their projected earnings are down?

    Well, it seems they maintain a spreadsheet.

    The first spreadsheet program wasn’t invented by a computer scientist, it was invented by a clever business guy. Real computer types hate spreadsheets, because it is too easy to prepare one that looks right, but isn’t right. Real computer languages have features designed to help prevent and help find programming errors — and spreadsheets don’t.
    Unlike a real computer language, you can’t look at the whole thing, at once, to try to trace logic errors.

    Well, he methodically goes through this spreadsheet, a cell at a time — the only way you can determine what a spreadsheet is doing. He determines it calculates the projected earnings in a very simple minded fashion. It added up the individual payments expected, for the next 1000 working days, for all their investments. Then it divided by 1000.

    The spreadsheet did not store dates in a way that was y2k compliant. Instead of storing dates as 1999-12-31 they were stored as 99-12-31. The result was that when the next 1000 working days edged past 1999-12-31, into 2000, dates in 2000 weren’t counted as being within the next 1000 working days.

    Well, fixing this bug properly would have been a lot of work, a thankless task — and he didn’t like working there anyhow. He was looking for another job, so he made a very simple change to the spreadsheet, that merely appeared to make it work properly again, satisfying the genius executives.

    He changed it so that instead of averaging over the next 1000 working days it would average over the next 500 working days — a date over a year away. So exactly the same mystery problem would hit the firm at that point.

    Spreadsheets really suck, and no-one should ever use them to manage a serious amount of money, as this story illustrates.

    But when KPMG went in and audited how Bremer and the subordinates he hired spent tens of billions of dollars they found a “lone contractor” was in charge of keeping track of all the expenditures on one big spreadsheet.

    Since spreadsheets really suck, this should have been terrifying all by itself, but what made it even more terrifying was that he wasn’t using “double-entry bookkeeping”. He was treating the entire Iraqi government budget like one huge petty-cash.

    For any of your readers who don’t know, using “double-entry bookkeeping” is an extremely important technique to prevent fraud and waste. If I am not mistaken it was invented by Italian merchants hundreds of years ago. If I am not mistaken it was invented in Venice, and was already old hat when Shakespeare wrote The Merchant of Venice.

    When using this technique one prepares a budget projecting income and expenses. Each separate kind of income and kind of expense should have a separate account. It is called “double-entry” because when funds are moved around it should be subracted from an income account, when it is added to an expenditures account. The “balance sheet” is a summary that makes sure subtractions and additions do balance.

    When double entry bookkeeping is not used detecting fraud is almost impossible.

    In 2005 I reviewed quite a few of the documents from Iraq. Jerry Bremer hasn’t received anywhere near the approbation he deserves.

    Prior to the US invasion of Iraq there was a freeze on Iraqi’s oil exports. Iraq was allowed to export just enough oil to earn funds for humanitarian projects. “Oil for food” I think it was called. Challengers to Saddam claimed that exemptions that allowed Saddam access to oil revenue were granted for fraudulent projects, and that Saddam had diverted something like a billion dollars, benefitting his family’s Swiss bank acounts, and paying for perks for the Republican Guard.

    During the period from 1991 to 2003 the UN had held Iraqi oil revenue in trust, on behalf of the Iraqi people. By the time the USA occupied Iraq those funds the UN managed added up to $19 billion dollars.

    The UN handed over day to day administration of those fund to Bremer. There was supposed to be a committee that made recommendations to Bremer, and, nominally a couple of Iraqis were supposed to be given input on how these Iraqi funds were being spent.

    You may remember during the lead-up to the invasion Wolfowitz kept promising the war wouldn’t cost the USA one red cent. He thought that $19 billion dollars the UN was holding in trust would pay for it.

    But the UN insisted that if the funds were going to be spent by the coalition provisional authority, they had to be spent on things that benefitted Iraqis — ie not security.

    And the UN helped set up a blue ribbon international committee to over-see how the funds that had been held in trust were spent. Well some of the minutes of the meetings of Bremer’s committee that recommended expenditures were online, and some of the minutes of the blue ribbon committee were online. They made for shocking and heart-breaking reading.

    Andy I am sure you and most of your readers have sat on committees, and you know the basic elements that should be present in minutes, so later readers can tell what went on. For the minutes that were present, they were often deeply inadequate, like not recording who was present.

    It took six months or so to appoint Iraqis to the committee, and even then they often weren’t present.

    But it was the info from the toothless oversight committee that was the most heartbreaking.

    Bremer was authorized to issue decrees, in the Coalition’s name, and his decrees had the force of law. I think he ended up issuing hundreds, some of them ludicrous, some of them scandalous.

    Dissolving the Iraqi army, putting hundreds of thousands of young men, recently trained for combat, out of work? That was one of his earliest decrees. He issued a decree giving Iraq a new copyright code, the kind of deeply conservative copyright code deeply conservative American corporate types would love, and wanted America to institute.

    One of his really bad decrees barred Iraqis from using the Iraqi court system from suing American contractors. This is why Blackwater mercenaries thought they could run Iraqi vehicles off the road, or shoot up vehicles with Iraqi civilians. They had this blanket immunity. Bremer’s decrees would remain in effect until amended or withdrawn by an Iraqi legislature. It took years for the one restricting using Iraqi courts against contractors to happen.

    But, getting back to Bremer’s responsibility for the fraudulent way Americans stripped Iraq of Iraqi resources — in his very first decree Bremer said that in addition to a year-end external accounting (the one eventually done by KPMG) he was going to set up an internal accounting that would do internal month-end accounting. Month end internal reconciliation of income and expenses is pretty standard. It is why banks send month end statement to all their customers.

    Bremer never took any steps to implement the crucial internal accounting.

    Another key concern of the toothless International oversight committee was the metering on the oil pipelines. The invasion damaged Iraq’s infrastructure, so oil could not, at first, be exported. Well, the pipelines were repaired, and the pumps were repaired — but the meters that kept track of how much oil was exported during the occupation? They were never repaired. Consequently there was no official record kept of how much oil was exported when the Coalition was in charge. Oil was selling for what, $40 a barrel at point? So a huge supertanker full of oil might have been carrying hundreds of millions of dollars of oil?

    KPMG tried to meet with Bremer and his senior financial people — who blew them off.

    About four months before Bremer came home I guess he figured out his term was going to end sooner than he had originally anticipated. So he accelerated the spending of the Iraqi funds he administered. The US Treasury was flying out huge pallets full of $100 bills, shrinkwrapped in bundles of 1000 bills. Footballs the Americans called them, which were being hauled around with essentially zero accounting.

    $8 billion dollars was spent without any receipts.

    Bremer went on the College lecture circuit after his return. He got 5 figure appearance fees, and sweet-heart deals, at these colleges — no press allowed. Of course there was reporting, in student newspapers. And I read his answer, in one student newspaper, to a question about that missing $8 billion. He told his audience not to worry about the missing $8 billion dollars — as it was only Iraqi money — it wasn’t American money!

    As for the inept way the Coalition managed money — in other venues he blamed the inexperience of his staff. But this too was a pitiful and intellectually dishonest excuse.

    The Washington Post wrote a very interesting article about how Bremer picked his staff.

    Bremer was a member of a deeply conservative think tank. I should probably check, but I think it was The Heritage Institute. Anyhow, not long after he was chosen to be CPA all these very young and inexperienced Americans, most of them just out of college, or only a few years out, started receiving strange job offers to go to Iraq to work for the CPA. When they arrived, and talked to the other young and inexperienced people whose hiring Bremer had authorized, and compared notes, although their backgrounds were different, where and what they had studied was different, what they all had in common was that they had all sent a resume to the Heritage Institute at some time in the recent past.

    So the hiring policy of Bremer, who would later blame his staff’s youth and inexperience? He told someone to hire — without even interviewing them, all these kids who sent their resume to a right-wing think tank.

    Leaving aside the outright theft Bremer was responsible for billions were paid to big American corporations that didn’t outright steal, merely had the typical DoD style of contract where the corporation could get paid even if the goods or services weren’t satisfactorily delivered.

    Bechtel (I think it was Bechtel) got a huge contract to repair the water plants on the Tigris and Euphrates. Almost all the fresh water in Iraq comes from these rivers. When the war destroyed the water plants the domestic water supply to almost everyone in Iraq was no longer safe. Bechtel got this huge sweetheart contract to repair those plants. They made inadequate attempts to repair the plants — attempts that failed, and which they blamed on poor security. Its contract enabled them to collect a huge pay day, even though they left the plants unrepaired.

    So, how does the mismanagement in Iraq relate to Guantanamo, intelligence, the NSA wiretapping?

    From all accounts the morale was high among Bremer’s young recruits — his nation builders. I predict that, if we got to peel away the secrecy that cloaks Booz Allan, where Edward Snowden worked, we would find that secrecy protects the very same kind of incompetence, cronyism, and bad accounting we found in Iraq. I predict that many of Bremer’s nation builders ended up getting jobs in what Dana Priest called “Top Secret America” based on their experience with the CPA in Iraq.

  27. arcticredriver says...

    Oops I left out a key detail. When Bremer realized he had only months left, he accelerated the pace of his spending so almost every dollar of the $19 billion Iraqi fund was spent or allocated prior to his departure, leaving the Iraqi treasury empty for the new government.

  28. Andy Worthington says...

    Excellent report, arcticredriver. Thanks. Unfortunately, the plunder of Iraq now seems like ancient history, as do the hundreds of thousands of lives lost. I remember once watching a brilliant documentary about Bremer’s theft of Iraq’s billions, which had footage of shrink-wrapped pallets of cash arriving, and then being kicked around like footballs, and which also featured detailed analysis of the kind of crooks who turned up to be allocated tens of millions, or more, often simply for turning up. I don’t recall that they were all from the right-wing think-tank, as they were portrayed in the film more as a collection of bent opportunists, which of course they were, but the figure of Bremer presides over all of this, and it is horrendous that he got away with it. The disdain for Iraq is almost beyond measuring.

  29. arcticredriver says...

    Andy, I believe you were right about the contractors. It was to fill his civil service that Bremer hired inexperienced and unqualified kids. Here is the Washington Post article about those kids.

    I think you and your readers might find it fascinating, as an example of blinkered right-wing thinking and how a sense of entitlement can lead to monumentally incompetent behaviour.

    I just checked the wikipedia’s article on the Development Fund for Iraq — — it says Bremer’s resolution committing the CPA to employ internal auditors was his [i]2nd[/i] resolution.

  30. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, arcticredriver. Fascinating article. I also seem to recall noticing at the time – or not too long afterwards – how the most self-serving aspects of Bremer’s lawlessness were prioritized by him. It’s so shocking that this is all like ancient history now to western audiences.

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers).
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