Thursday, January 20, 2005

NYT: Endangering Bloggers' Lives Since 2005

Well, it is all over the net. The New York Times reporter, Sarah Boxer, wrote a piece in the "arts" section about blogs. Specifically, the brothers from Iraq The Model. Unfortunately, the piece did not talk about bloggins as a forum, an art, a method of communication and exchanging ideas. Doe not talk about the phenomenom of citizen journalism or creative writing on easily maintained personal journals.

No, what she did was repeat a rumor about the brothers that had been going on for sometime and heated up in the last month with an exchange between the brothers' site and another, extremely anti-war site that claimed the brothers were part of the CIA. Rumors that have been refuted time and again.

Normally, we would probably laugh, as we have always done, at such ignorance, except for the fact that her story was not only printed in the NYT, but picked up by the Time's News Wire, the BBC and assorted other "news" sources. News sources that have a huge readership in the APU (Arab Parallel Universe: Sandmonkey and Iraqi Bloggers Central), where rumors, innuendos and conspiracies are the fair of the day and where we know, the Jihadists read their news as well (how else does OBL know what some loon wrote and quote it in Arabic?)

The NYT requires log in, so I'll put her article here:

hen I telephoned a man named Ali Fadhil in Baghdad last week, I wondered who might answer. A C.I.A. operative? An American posing as an Iraqi? Someone paid by the Defense Department to support the war? Or simply an Iraqi with some mixed feelings about the American presence in Iraq? Until he picked up the phone, he was just a ghost on the Internet.


The mystery began last month when I went online to see what Iraqis think about the war and the Jan. 30 national election. I stumbled into an ideological snake pit. Out of a list of 28 Iraqi blogs in English at a site called Iraqi Bloggers Central, I clicked on Iraq the Model because it promised three blogging brothers in one, Omar, Mohammed and Ali.

It delivered more than that. The blog, which is quite upbeat about the American presence in Iraq, had provoked a deluge of intrigue and vitriol. People posting messages on an American Web site called Martini Republic accused the three bloggers of working for the C.I.A., of being American puppets, of not being Iraqis and even of not existing at all.

Then abruptly, at the end of last month, Ali quit the blog without telling his brothers while they were in the United States attending a blogging conference at Harvard and taking part in a tour sponsored by Spirit of America, a nongovernmental group founded after 9/11 that describes itself as "advancing freedom, democracy and peace abroad."

Ali's last post sounded ominous, a kind of blogger's "Dear John" note:

"I just can't keep doing this anymore. My stand regarding America has never changed. I still love America and feel grateful to all those who helped us get our freedom and are still helping us establishing democracy in our country. But it's the act of some Americans that made me feel I'm on the wrong side here. I will expose these people in public very soon, and I won't lack the means to do this."

What happened?

Ali seemed to have gone through a radical transformation when he found out that his brothers, both described as dentists on their Web site, had met President Bush. Odd. I scrolled down a bit into the past and found that in mid-December a conspiracy theory had emerged about Iraq the Model on Martini Republic.

One of the principal bloggers there, Joseph Mailander, had some questions for the Iraqi brothers. He wanted to know whether someone in the United States government or close to it had set up the blog. (The Web host, based in Abilene, Tex., is called CIATech Solutions.) And what about the two brothers' tour of the United States? Did the American government "have a shadow role in promoting it?"

The questions boiled down to whether Iraq the Model had been "astroturfed." Astroturfing occurs when a supposedly grass-roots operation actually is getting help from a powerful think tank, governmental agency or any outside source with an agenda. Why else, Martini Republic asked, would the brothers have been feted in Washington?

Ali, while he was still at Iraq the Model, tried to quell some of the doubts: "Hi, I would be happy to answer your questions, as you do raise some valid questions." To the question of the Web host in Abilene, he responded, "All I remember is that we started our blog through the free!"

Ali explained the name of the Web host, CIATech Solutions, by pasting in an e-mail message he got from an employee of the company explaining that the C.I.A. in the name is short for Complex Internet Applications and that the company "has nothing to do with the U.S. government."

As for financing, Ali said that Iraq the Model had received private donations from Americans, Australians, French, British and Iraqi citizens. In addition, the brothers were promised money from Spirit of America. But, he added, "We haven't got it yet."

That did not quiet the suspicions on Martini Republic. A man posting as Gandhi reported that his "polite antiwar comments were always met with barrages of crude abuse" from Iraq the Model's readers. His conclusion? The blog "is a refuge for people who do not want to know the truth about Iraq, and the brothers take care to provide them with a comfortable information cocoon." He added, "I hope some serious attention will be brought to bear on these Fadhil brothers and reveal them as frauds."

What kind of frauds? One reader suggested that the brothers were real Iraqis but were being coached on what to write. Another, in support of that theory, noted the brothers' suspiciously fluent English. A third person observed that coaching wasn't necessary. All the C.I.A. would need to do to influence American opinion was find one pro-war blog and get a paper like USA Today to write about it.

Martini Republic pointed out that the pro-war blog was getting lots of attention from papers like The Wall Street Journal and USA Today while antiwar bloggers like Riverbend, who writes Baghdad Burning, had gone unsung. Surely Iraq the Model did not represent the mainstream of Iraqi thinking?

Ali finally got exasperated: "The thing that upset me the most is that if there are some powers that are trying to use us and our writings as a propaganda tool, you and other bloggers as well as some of the media outlets are doing the same with anti-American Iraqi bloggers."

But his "if" seemed to signal that Ali, too, was indeed worried about being used.


That was on Dec. 12. Ali's "Dear John" letter followed on Dec. 19. Then he quietly resurfaced on the Internet as a blogger called Iraqi Liberal and, when that name generated too much online debate about what "liberal" meant, Free Iraqi.

Using an e-mail address listed on Iraq the Model, I got in touch with Ali to see what in the world was going on. And last week I finally got to talk on the telephone to Ali Fadhil, a 34-year-old doctor who was born to Sunni Muslims but said, "I don't look at myself as one now."

Why did he quit Iraq the Model? When was he going to expose the Americans who made him feel he was on the wrong side?

He was surprisingly frank. The blog had changed him. When the blog began, he said, "People surprised me with their warmth and how much they cared about us." But as time passed, he said, "I felt that this is not just goodwill, giving so much credit to Iraq the Model. We haven't accomplished anything, really."

His views took a sharp turn when his two brothers met with the president. There wasn't supposed to be any press coverage about their trip to the United States, he said. But The Washington Post wrote about the meeting, and the Arabic press ended up translating the story, which, Ali felt, put his family in real danger.

Anyway, he said, he didn't see any sense in his brothers' meeting with President Bush. "My brothers say it happened accidentally, that it was not planned." But why, he asked, take such an "unnecessary risk"? He explained his worries: "Here some people would kill you for just writing to an American."

Ali never did expose the people who made him feel that he was on the wrong side, and in fact conceded that he couldn't. As he confided on the phone, "I didn't know who the people were." Instead, he started his own blog. He said he had always wanted to do that anyway.

"Me and my brothers," he said, "we generally agree on Iraq and the future." (He is helping his brother Mohammed, who is running on the Iraqi Pro-Democracy Party ticket in the Jan. 30 election.) But there is one important difference: "My brothers have confidence in the American administration. I have my questions."

Now that seems genuine.

In response, I wrote this reply to the four major editors of the "paper".

To Whom It May Concern,

I read the piece by Sarah Boxer on January 18 titled "Pro-American Iraqi Blog Provokes Intrigue and Vitriol" and I was very concerned about the piece and Ms. Boxer's intent.

While it is certain that internet blogging is opening a new frontier in communication and exchanging information which has, on occasion, placed it at loggerheads with the press and other media, I cannot fathom why Ms. Boxer has chosen to do her article on a rumor about the alleged CIA connections of an Iraqi blog as opposed to the hundreds of other things that they've covered concerning life in Iraq, elections, finance, etc (including a post about meeting with artists, poets and actors of Iraq, which would have been more in line with your "art" section).

The piece was nothing short of a gossip column. Worse yet, while gossip may damage an author, artist or actor's career or public image, this particular article can be described as more than irresponsible. I don't think it is too hysterical to point out it might even be deadly.

What Ms. Boxer and the editors of the New York Times seem to have failed to understand is the current situation in Iraq and the Middle East in general tends to lend itself to the spreading of such rumors and conspiracy theories. Rumors and conspiracy theories that can effectively lead to the injury or death of the "tainted", particularly as the term "CIA" is closely associated with every terrible incident, man made or by nature, that afflicts the region.

I will give Ms. Boxer some credit for attempting to dispell the CIA rumor with the explanation of the internet host's name, but she barely lends a sentence to it while having spent an entire opening paragraph building these men up to near bogeymen with "CIA" stenciled on their foreheads. Then she closes the article by leaving the question open with her comment "Now that seems genuine" as if anything else that was said or explained is open for question aside from Ali Fahdil's comment about the administration's intentions.

Yes, these men lead semi-public lives with a popular blog and running for elections in their country. Yes, they've given interviews before, had pictures taken and even had an article in the Washington Post picked up by Arab press. And, yes, that may have made them people of interest to the anti-democracy groups in their country. But, as I have tried to explain here and will do one more time, the connotation of "CIA" next to their names will quite likely raise them on the list of "notable people" that the insurgents/terrorists, whatever the popular name for them in the NYT, would be interested in. An interest that, once again, can be quite deadly.

It's not just about the article, which is in the "arts" section and could be considered a back page skip by someone looking for intelligence on the political situation in Iraq, but it was picked up by the BBC and is on their internet site now. Good for Ms. Boxer, but not so good for our Iraqi friends as the BBC has quite a readership in Iraq and the Middle East at large. Your people would know that if they spent anytime looking at the BBC Arabic site and forum which gets quite a bit of traffic, including some commenters who are blatantly anti-American and sometimes even Islamist Jihadist making vague threats against their Iraqi brethern. I'm not just talking some people from Saudi Arabia, either. We're talking Syria, Jordan and Iraq. Yes, the BBC has readership in Iraq and it's not all friendly to the democracy process.

In short, Ms. Boxer has taken a small, moving red target from the internet, expanded it to about three foot in diameter and placed it squarely in the middle of these brothers' shoulders. I'm thinking this was an honest mistake on Ms. Boxer's part and the art editor apparently does not understand the region.

I'm not sure what should be asked of the NYT at this time. An apology would only keep the story alive and so would putting more information up regarding the brothers and the multitude of proofs that prove that they are who they say they are.

In the end, I suppose what one could ask for is that NYT art editor, the NYT editors in general and Ms. Boxer to consider next time, more things than idle gossip or talking about blogs, but possibly the safety of people that do not deserve to die for an article in the arts section.

Thank you for your time.

Here are the addresses I forwarded a letter to:

Feel free to explain to these, ahem, brilliant people and explain about how the real world works.


Leap Frog said...

Excellent Kat, well written!

I will await their response too, but I won't hold my breath!

Cigarette Smoking Man from the X-Files said...

Has the NY Slimes ever done any better than gossip trash?

ÐÇRøçk§ said...

The article by the NYT is not surprising. I doubt that any there have ever though about anything but their bottom line. It is no surprise to me that they would, once again, be so reckless with their reporting.

Robert said...

Oooh, next thing the NYT's going to be finding a mystical "web of connections" between Iraq the Model and George Hitler Bush.

Tom said...

The NYT has become unreadable. Kat, your letter took them down perfectly.