Sunday, July 29, 2007

Today, The New York Times published a letter to the editor I authored. I am going to republish the letter here and break down my thinking. Before I do, however, I will give you the full story.

As noted in this blog, the Times wrote an editorial observer column a few weeks back that criticized its own reporting on Iraq. The Times admitted it was not appropriately defining the distinction between Al Qaeda in Iraq and the Al Qaeda in Pakistan. [This blog is quickly turning into my observations regarding that distinction, by the way.] The summary by Clark Hoyt that prefaces my letter today does an excellent job of summarizing the Times introspection:

The battle over the nature of the war in Iraq is heating up.
The New York Times and other news media have become more aggressive in questioning President Bush’s rationale for continuing the war, and particularly his argument that it is primarily a battle against Al Qaeda.
On Friday, July 13, Michael R. Gordon and Jim Rutenberg reported on the front page of The Times that Bush’s “references to Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, and his assertions that it is the same group that attacked the United States in 2001, have greatly oversimplified the nature of the insurgency in Iraq and its relationship” with Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda, which according to a new National Intelligence Estimate (N.I.E.) has found safe haven in Pakistan.
That intelligence report, released on July 17, concluded that the United States faces a heightened threat of terrorist attacks because Al Qaeda has been able to regroup in the lawless, semiautonomous provinces along Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan. The report said that Al Qaeda would seek to take advantage of the “contacts and capabilities” of its ally in Iraq, which sprang up after the U.S. invasion in 2003. Intelligence officials briefing reporters about the report said that group is led by foreigners.
President Bush isn’t backing down from equating the two Al Qaedas and declaring them the main enemy in Iraq. In a speech Tuesday to a military audience in Charleston, S.C., he said the Iraqi group is a “full member” of bin Laden’s terrorist network and takes its cues from it.
The Times said the president used what aides described as newly declassified intelligence to make his case. “But the White House and intelligence officials declined to provide any detail on the intelligence reports Mr. Bush cited, including their titles, dates and origins,” the newspaper said.
It quoted Edward M. Gistaro, a principal author of the July 17 N.I.E., as saying that Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia is “focused on the conflict in Iraq at this time.”

Now here is what I wrote and what the Times published today, with commentary from me:

I admit I was confused by the classification of “Al Qaeda” as one of the groups involved in the fighting in Iraq. It is reassuring that The Times is going to be less “sloppy” in its reporting from now on.
As to the larger thesis of the complicated nature of the battles in Iraq, I find that the Times is presenting the Iraq situation in clearer terms than might be the reality. In reading coverage on July 9, for example, I saw mention of only two of the insurgent groups involved in the fighting (Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia being the primary one), when in reality there likely were many others.
Now, don't get me wrong. I love the New York Times. I read it every day, and would subscribe to it if a subscription actually saved me money off the newsstand price (for home delivery in Boston, it does not). At the same time, I think reporters and politicians are trying to make the Iraq war understandable. In the process, they are simplifying the war too much. "The insurgency," it would appear, is not defined by one, two or even a dozen different groups of insurgents. In fact, the very nature of the groups is amorphous. The Times has taken a great step in deciphering the President's insistence on a connection between Al Qaeda in Iraq and Al Qaeda in Pakistan, but it has not gone far enough to adequately explain the unexplainable war that has taken hold in Iraq. Now back to my letter, picking up where I left off:

But as a whole, I applaud the Times coverage of the fighting. For example, in the July 8 Week in Review was an informative article that traced the roots of a recent decline in violence in Ramadi. It was not clear whether the decline was the result of the recent increase in American troops, or merely that Sunni groups there are fed up with the fighting. This is an interesting contrast to Senator John McCain, who insisted on July 10 that the drop in violence in that region is directly related to the Bush administration’s surge.
In my discussions with the letters editor at the Times, I noted how many others besides Senator McCain have now advocated that the drop in violence in Ramadi is a result of the surge. In fact, Senator McCain is not even the strongest proponent of that message. But at the time I wrote the letter, Senator McCain was the one advocate I saw.

Also, there is an assortment of views on how the Sunni groups in Ramadi have decided to stop the violence. Some are saying that they have reached agreements with U.S. troops there, while other say they are just "fed up," and it would have happened whether U.S. troops are there or not.

ROSS LEVANTO Waltham, Mass., July 10, 2007

By the way, it's woth noting that the New York Times has an editor whose sole job is to compile letters sent to the Editorial Observer column. She called me this past Thursday, told me the letter was going to run, and even sent me the letter as it would appear. She confirmed the dateline of Waltham-- asking me where I was when I wrote the letter, and not where I live. That's pretty darn thorough....

Note: Excertpts are taken from New York Times, "Other Voices: Al Qaeda and the Enemies in Iraq," by Clark Hoyt. July 29, 2007.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

One would think to rely on the White House to deliver the interpretation of a National Intelligence Estimate, such as the one issued a few weeks back. Given the agenda of our current President, that's probably not a good idea.

For that reason, to find the best interpretation, I looked overseas.

The International Herald Tribune has a great summary, published on July 22. The story focuses on Pakistan, and how the NIE notes that Al Qaeda has "reconstituted" itself there. Why is this important? The Bush Administration claims that the NIE justifies the war in Iraq, because the estimate discusses how Al Qaeda in Pakistan is benefiting from Al Qaeda in Iraq for recruiting purposes. However, this fact should be overshadowed by the fact Al Qaeda is in Pakistan, and the Al Qaeda in Pakistan is the group that attacked the U.S. on 9/11. Here's a telling excerpt from the International Herald Tribune story:

"The western mountains of Pakistan have been the hatching grounds for some of Al Qaeda's deadliest plots. Besides the London transportation attacks in July 2005, the thwarted plot to blow up multiple trans-Atlantic commercial jets last August is thought by British and U.S. officials to have been planned by Qaeda operatives in the tribal areas."

If the western mountains of Pakistan are responsible for deadly plots, why is the Bush Administration pressing that the NIE justifies a near laser-like focus on Iraq as the front-line of the war on terror?
I went to Connecticut today to visit with some of my high-school classmates. My freind Kate Canada made the trip up from Baltimore with her husband Chris and their daughter Lily. Alison Jones, her husband Howie and their daughter Elizabeth offered to host Kate for brunch. Subsequently, they invited Jason Joly, his wife Natasha and their son Aaron-- they live in Hoboken, New Jersey. Lastly, Alison invited Connie Curtis (I need to check with Alison on Connie's married name), her son Curtis and daughter Grace.

Basically, the brunch included a lot of kids, thier parents, and me. It was nice to see everyone, especially since I had not visited with Jason and Alison since last July.

From left to right: Jason (Aaron on his lap), Alison (Elizabeth on her lap), Kate (with Lily), and Connie (with Grace). For those reading this that do not know, the four parents in this picture went to high school in the same class with me at Norwich Free Academy. Despite the fact we graduated 13 years ago (sigh), we all manage to see each other once a year or so.

[pause] It seems weird to use the word "parents" in the previous paragraph. Doesn't everyone look great? Thanks to Alison for hosting and inviting me-- even though I did not pass the "with baby" requirement.

One week to my vacation. I will be at the cottage in South Lyme from August 4 until August 11.

Monday, July 23, 2007

On the Esplanade, Boston, July 3, 2007.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Wedding season!!!

I had the privilege of attending three weddings in June. First, I officiated the ceremony of Tom and Victoria Hopcroft in Winchester, Mass.

Second, I attended Chris and Tracy's wedding in Watertown, Mass. (Tracy and I below.)

Finally, I went to San Diego for the wedding of one of Kim's cousins.
I have started listening to a few different podcasts that keep me up to speed on politics. One is the Slate daily podcast, which includes a weekly "gabfest" each Friday-- a nice run down of the big stories of the week. John Dickerson, Emily Plotz and Emily Bazelon are a nice trio. Second is the NPR story of the day, which is one insightful story from the various NPR news shows.

However, by far the most interesting podcast of late has been from ABC News, and Jake Tapper. I was not familiar with Jake and his work before I signed up for the podcast, but I find him very insightful and thorough-- much like my favorite Tim Russert.

A week ago, Jake invited a conservative radio talk show host Hugh Hewitt to his show. The discussion is an insightful and provacative case study into the current conservative criticisms of the media. Mr. Hewitt used an artful socratic method to turn the interview on Jake and claim that he was a member of the liberal media elite. He believes strongly that the media are liberals at heart and therefore, whether they want to or not, tend to report with a liberal bias. He believes this is why people are no longer looking to the mass media for their news.

Hewitt delivers his oversimplifications with authority-- No doubt this is how he performs his talk show on the radio. After listening to the podcast a few times, here's my take:

There's no doubt we all have biases, and the media have their biases as well. We must give reporters the benefit of the doubt when they say they are trying to be objective, but at the same time, we have to assume that reporters have a point-of-view. We cannot rely on one reporter-- or even a couple of reporters-- to give us an accurate picture of what's happening. We should rely on a variety of sources.

My mom is a good example. She is a loyal listener of Rush Limbaugh, except she is an independent who voted Democratic in the recent election. By listeining to Rush, she can see through a lot of his arguments.

By the same token, getting reports from a variety of sources is hard. Case in point: me. I read the New York Times, watch the Today Show, rely on MSNBC pretty regularly, enjoy Tim Russert, and also download the podcasts noted above. By definition, my news tilts slightly left. I really should try to read something conservative for balance, but unfortunately, it doesn't interest me... Perhaps I should start listening to Mr. Hughes' show? : )

Here's me with my new nephew David... Scott and Gina's son. This is at their house in North Stonington, Conn.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

I am planning a vacation in early August and will be at the beach cottage in Old Lyme, Conn. I am there from Saturday, August 4 at 11 a.m. or so until Saturday August 11 about the same time.

If you would like to join me, you are more than welcome. Just drop me a line (

I am also planning a Fall vacation, most likely to Europe. And the day after Thanksgiving, I am taking a road trip with the 'rents to West Virginia to watch WVU play UCONN at Mountaineer Field.


Monday, July 16, 2007

For those who are avid readers of the New York Times, it has been a very interesting week. Read on...

I have been amazed by some of the spin coming from the White House lately-- most alarmingly, the insistence that the insurgents American troops are fighting in Iraq are part of the same group as the terrorists that attacked the U.S. on 9/11.

The NYTimes last Sunday admitted in an editorial that the paper had been "sloppy" in investigating the connection between Iraqi insurgents and Osama Bin Laden's Al Qaeda, and said it would be much more careful by not accepting White House spin at face value...

On Thursday, the paper ran this story:

Basically, the story noted that Al Qaeda in Iraq was not formed until after the U.S. invaded Iraq and also quoted many analysts who say that the White House's personification of Al Qaeda as being our number one opponent in Iraq is an over-simplification of the situation.

No wonder that a large percentage of Americans still think Osama Bin Laden's Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein were linked.