Follow the Mullahs

The Atlantic Monthly November 2004

With theologians at the center of terrorist strategy, “forensic theology” is rapidly becoming a valuable intelligence tool

by Stephen Grey

…..

Inside the Green Zone in Baghdad last winter I watched a coalition adviser study a 4,200-word communiqué purported to be from Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian suspected of links to al-Qaeda, whose network has claimed responsibility for the recent spate of beheadings and is the United States’ most wanted enemy in Iraq. The essence of the screed had already been broadcast by the media: the author promised to draw the Iraqi people “into the furnace of battle,” in order that “a real war will break out, God willing.” The analyst, however, had little interest in the political content of the communiqué. An Arabist and a scholar of Islam, he was scrutinizing the language and religious references in the text in an effort to determine whether it was in fact written by al-Zarqawi. Many commentators believed that it had been put together by others—perhaps an intelligence agency or the Iraqi National Congress—in order to give credence to U.S. accusations of foreign involvement in terrorist actions within Iraq.
Continue reading Follow the Mullahs

'We have your daughter and we're going to kill her tonight' :

by Stephen Grey

In the thick, sweaty heat of a Baghdad night, a family sit in their garden

under a full moon, and wait for news. They’ve been sitting and talking for

many hours now, smoked too many cigarettes and drunk too many cups of tea.

Now they just sit on plastic white chairs and listen.

Many sounds are familiar and reassuring: the occasional dog’s bark, the buzz

of crickets, the rustling of fronds in the date palm tree, the steady

clack-clack of the electric fan propped up on the lawn. From a distance come

other sounds that would normally have them on edge: the bursts of a

Kalashnikov machine gun and the roar of an American fighter plane. But

tonight, the sounds that fray their already stretched nerves, the sounds

that might mean an end to the waiting, come from the road just beyond the

garden wall: the screech of tyres, the horns, and the slamming of car doors.

Photographer Steve Bent and I are waiting with Harb Nayma and his family for

the return of their 23-year-old daughter, Shayma – kidnapped seven days

previously. This afternoon, 62-year-old Harb went alone to a deserted

backstreet to hand over a ransom. The kidnappers had promised to release

Shayma and send her home within one hour. Five hours later, there is still

no sign of her. Continue reading 'We have your daughter and we're going to kill her tonight' :

America's Gulag

Cover story – New Statesman
Stephen Grey
Monday 17th May 2004

Stephen Grey uncovers a secret global network of prisons and planes that allows the US to hand over its enemies for interrogation, and sometimes torture, by the agents of its more unsavoury allies

8 October 2002. Over the Atlantic, at 30,000 feet, on board a Gulfstream jet, Maher Arar looked out through the portholes of the private plane at the clouds beneath and the red glow of dawn. Stretching out on the wide, upholstered leather seat, he glanced across at the large video screen on which was displayed the path of the plane from its departure point near New York, onwards to Washington, DC and then to its final refuelling point at Portland, Maine, before heading across the ocean. A telecommunications engineer in Ottawa, Canada, Maher was used to air travel – but not to such luxury.

His companions – specialists attached to the CIA – were preparing to switch on another in-flight film, an action movie. Maher could think only of what fate lay ahead of him when he reached the country to where the United States was now sending him for interrogation and from where his family had once fled – Syria.

He recalls: “I knew that Syria was a country that tortured its prisoners. I was silent and submissive; just asking myself over and over again: ‘How did I end up in this situation? What is going to happen to me now?'” Continue reading America's Gulag

Who should we believe?

first published in the New Statesman, Monday 10th May 2004

The more people are victimised, the less account we take of their witness to torture and abuse.

By Stephen Grey

Abdullah crouched down until his knees just about touched the ground, nearly but not quite, and his head rested against a concrete wall. It was in this excruciating position that he was made to stay, blindfolded, for hours on end. “If I touched the floor with my knees,” he explained, “they would come behind me and strike with their boots, or with rods.”Freed after four months in detention, Abdullah was describing his experience of a special US interrogation centre inside the Baghdad airport base. His worst moment, he said, was the electric shock treatment. Drawing a detailed diagram, Abdullah showed how crocodile clips had been attached to his genitals and then wires passed to a device which looked like a wind-up field telephone that generated a painful electric current.”I could not believe they would treat a human being like this,” said Abdullah, who was accused of involvement in the insurgency against US troops. Continue reading Who should we believe?

The Sound of Freedom

First published in the New Statesman, Monday 22nd March 2004

Across much of “liberated Iraq”, you can search in vain for irony. Despite

what conspiracy theorists may say about America’s designs over oil, most US

officials really do want to make a success of a free Iraq. They believe in

it with that kind of deep stare that makes you want to start fidgeting.

On completion of their time in Iraq, senior officials are presented with a

signed certificate from L Paul Bremer III, thanking them for bringing

democracy and freedom to the country. The Brits sometimes giggle at the back

of the room, murmuring “inshallah” (“God willing”). The near-Messianic

commitment extends to the US military. The other day, an Iraqi journalist

asked a military spokesman what should be said to children scared by

low-flying US helicopters. “Tell them it’s the sound of freedom,” he

replied, without batting an eyelid. Continue reading The Sound of Freedom

Turn to the lawyers for justice

first published in New Statesman, Monday 8th March 2004

Stephen Grey argues that when governments are so feeble, unions so weak and corporations so powerful, we should welcome the “compensation culture”

Everyone has their favourite story of the American culture of compensation.
Mine came towards the end of last year from the Iowa court of appeals, which
upheld a jury’s award of $41,267 to a shopper, Judy Krenk, who slipped on a
grape at a supermarket checkout. The parties agreed that “a customer, other
than Krenk, dropped the grape while bagging groceries”, reported the Des
Moines Register. The judge, while noting that “the evidence in support of
Krenk’s claim is less than overwhelming”, said that supermarket employees
“should have known” there was a smashed grape on the floor.
Are we, too, developing a compensation culture? Continue reading Turn to the lawyers for justice

US learns the Bogside lessons

first published in the New Statesman, Monday 8th March 2004

Observations on Iraq by Stephen Grey

The first sound was a low roar; then the windows began rattling. Families

woke up and looked outside to see the tanks, armoured cars, trucks and

bulldozers of the British army. It was 4am on 31 July 1972, and 20,000

troops were sweeping into the IRA’s “no-go zones”.

The launch of Operation Motorman brought an end to “Free Derry” in the

Bogside and to IRA control of parts of West Belfast. Twenty-two years later,

as insurgents cause havoc across northern Iraq, most recently with the

blasts in Karbala and Baghdad, US commanders are preparing for operations

similar to Operation Motorman in an attempt to defeat the resistance.

I have just returned from seven weeks in Iraq, and my impression from

talking to US military officers, resistance fighters and ordinary people in

the Sunni Triangle is that there are two distinct threats. Most Iraqi

resistance fighters will tolerate almost any attack on Americans and their

local “collaborators”. But they do not support the cells of mainly foreign

fighters who kill civilians indiscriminately with the kinds of attacks seen

on Tuesday. Continue reading US learns the Bogside lessons

Dunya's WAR: Fallujah, Feb 2004.

By Stephen Grey, Falluja.

THE WAR for little Dunya Hamid began and ended in a warm afternoon last

autumn. She was playing with her sisters in a dusty palm grove when the

American army opened fire on her hamlet.

Just two years old, Dunya had no words to utter but ”mama”’ and ”dadda,”

when just after 4pm, the soldiers approached her village from two sides in

armoured Humvees cars. Dunya ran for safety but she was cut down, shot in

the head with a machine gun bullet before she could reach the back door of

the family’s squat four-bedroomed bungalow.

Her sister, Manal, aged seven, who was injured from shrapnel, recalled: “I

saw Dunya playing outside. When she heard the shooting she wanted to go

inside but then I saw her falling to the ground. Then I was hit. I didn’t

feel anything bu I saw my blood come out. We were very afraid.”

In the fast-moving pace of events in Iraq, Dunya’s death and the injuries of

four other children in the hamlet merited just a brief paragraph in

newspaper accounts of a bloody day of fighting between American forces and

guerrilla fighters. A day earlier, in the same town of Fallujah, US troops

also shot dead ten Iraqi policemen by mistake. Continue reading Dunya's WAR: Fallujah, Feb 2004.

The Ghost Patients

 

More than 250,000 people languish on hidden NHS waiting lists. Some die

before even appearing in official statistics. Insight investigates.

(Published in the Sunday Times, May 5, 2002)

 

When Iris Bailey suffered chest pains and was diagnosed with angina, she was

told that she needed a test to show how well her blood was circulating. The

waiting list for the thallium scan was three months – a delay not included

in published government figures.

 

Bailey, having worked as a hospital porter, accepted it with good grace and

put her faith in the National Health Service. The grandmother from Harlow,

Essex, kept busy helping to plan her son Gary’s wedding and hoped her

condition was not serious. Three weeks before she was due to have the scan,

she again suffered chest pains. This time it was decided that she needed an

angiogram, a heart test, at St Bartholomew’s hospital in London and that the

wait would be two weeks – another delay that many hospitals do not count in

the official waiting list figures.

 

David, another son, was so concerned that he sought assurances that his

mother would not die waiting for the angiogram. On the day he handed a

letter to the hospital’s management his mother, 75, had a fatal cardiac

arrest. It was more than four months since she had first felt ill in October

2000 but none of her waits counted in official statistics.

 

“For anyone to die waiting for a test is atrocious,” said David Bailey.

 

Independent health groups, such as the King’s Fund, say it is an indictment

of the waiting list system – a key measure of hospitals’ performance. Bailey

was an invisible patient left to languish.

 

What is even more shocking is evidence that hospital trusts are discreetly

moving patients from the published waiting list to the hidden ones.

Wittingly or not, it helps the government to trumpet improvements in NHS

performance.

 

The truth is, however, that many thousands of patients, perhaps similar to

Bailey, will still be waiting for tests and treatment that could save their

lives. An investigation of the way hospitals and the Department of Health

count NHS waits has revealed that an estimated 250,000 patients do not

appear in published figures.

 

To be fair, some will be waiting for scans or tests that will reveal nothing

untoward. For them the delay will not matter clinically, despite the anxious

wait. But for others, such as those needing radiotherapy for cancer, the

wait could be lethal.

 

As Joseph Meirion Thomas, a consultant surgeon at the Royal Marsden

hospital, puts it: “I would want to give pre-operative radiotherapy to

between 5% and 10% of my patients with sarcoma (cancerous tumours) to give

them a surgical advantage, but none gets it because of the waiting list.

 

“It’s disgraceful. It’s a waiting list that is creeping up and it’s a

waiting list you don’t know about – the hidden waiting list.”

 

IN opposition, Labour castigated the Conservative government over its

failure to publish details of patients waiting to see a consultant after

referral from a GP. Things would be different, it promised, if Labour was

elected.

 

Subsequently two published waiting lists set the standard. The first is the

outpatient list which shows the waits from referral by a GP to the first

appointment with a hospital consultant. The second is the wait for treatment

in hospital as an admission or a day case.

 

These figures, however, still do not cover the whole pathway from “pain to

scalpel”. Missing are waits for diagnostic tests, often to see whether

surgery is required; they can be as long as 20 months. The government says

these figures are not collected centrally and are not available.

 

Indeed, John Hutton, the health minister, told the House of Commons in

February: “Data is not collected on the number of patients waiting for

angiograms.”

 

The reality is that angiogram waiting lists – and lists for other diagnostic

tests – are being compiled in hospitals across the country. They are just

not being published.

 

One manager at the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital Trust said, “I’ve

got these waits on the wall in front of me”, but refused to release the

figures. Other trusts also declined to reveal the figures after seeking

guidance from the health department.

 

Yet some hospitals are willing to release the figures on request; some even

include these delays in their official waiting list figures. They are now

finding themselves under pressure from the NHS Executive to remove them.

 

“They tried to persuade us to remove angiography off the waiting list but we

refused,” said one manager at a hospital which records angiograms in its

figures. “We think it’s a proper surgical procedure.”

 

The second category of tests being excluded from the official lists are

endoscopies, used to help to diagnose cancer among other things. Those

hospitals that have been counting patients waiting for these tests are now

being instructed to remove them.

 

In a letter to chief executives of trusts in southeast England last October,

Bob Ricketts, then an NHS regional director, advised that the removal should

be gradual to “avoid sudden lurches in figures”.

 

A third large category of excluded diagnostic tests are computerised

tomography (CT) scans and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans, which can

be used to diagnose cancers, cardiovascular diseases and bone disorders.

 

Previously unpublished data from more than 30 trusts, obtained by The Sunday

Times, reveals long delays and huge regional variations for such scans.

 

At the Blackpool, Fylde and Wyre Hospitals NHS Trust there were 523 patients

waiting up to 14 months for a CT scan at the end of March and 1,753 patients

waiting up to 20 months for an MRI scan. But at Hillingdon Hospital NHS

Trust there were just 89 patients waiting a maximum 21 days for an MRI scan.

 

 

At South Devon Healthcare NHS Trust there were 227 patients waiting up to 18

months for angiograms on March 31. But the maximum wait at Bradford

Hospitals NHS Trust was five weeks.

 

Hospitals point out that urgent cases can be given priority. The health

department claims that because such scans may be for preventive purposes, or

show nothing wrong, it is not meaningful to include them in the published

waiting list figures. Try telling that to a patient who finds, via a delayed

scan, that his cancer has become inoperable.

 

BUT perhaps the most damning omission from the official lists is for

radiotherapy cancer treatment. Alan Milburn, the health secretary, has made

tackling cancer a priority. But hundreds of radiotherapy patients are on

hidden waiting lists of up to six months.

 

Some cancer centre managers complain that their “invisible” patients are

given lower priority because their treatment does not count towards official

waiting list targets. “We asked for in excess of Pounds 1m (for this

financial year). It was reduced to Pounds 650,000 and has now been reduced

again,” said Jo Yardley, general manager of Kent Oncology Centre in

Maidstone.

 

“The waits cause immense anxiety yet I have never reported on radiotherapy

waits for any (national) performance programme. It’s something that we have

been crying out for for years.”

 

Guidelines from the Royal College of Radiologists stipulate that breast

cancer patients should receive post-operative radiotherapy within a month.

But it is not uncommon for patients to suffer delays of up to three months –

a delay that appears on no published government waiting lists.

 

There are cases such as Joy Barthorpe, 72, of Battle, East Sussex, who was

diagnosed with breast cancer last October and had her operation on December

28. She has been told that her radiotherapy will not start until June 24.

 

Thomas Liston, 46, from west London, was put on a three-month wait for

radiotherapy for a brain tumour. His waiting time was reduced but he died

earlier this year before he received treatment.

 

These are not isolated incidents. The dangers of delay are reflected in a

report published in the British Medical Journal in January 2000. It said:

“Six weeks is the approximate volume doubling time for many tumours and

introducing an additional delay of four weeks between planning and starting

radiotherapy must prejudice outcomes.”

 

THEY are calling it Not The Waiting List. That is the title of a report that

the Association of Community Health Councils for England and Wales is

preparing to illustrate how many different types of waits are excluded from

government figures. Whether all of them should be part of published waiting

lists, or can be collected in practical terms, is debatable. What is clear

is that waits for certain diagnostic tests and treatment for some serious

illnesses are at present hidden from public scrutiny.

 

As Liam Fox, Tory health spokesman, said: “If you are interested in clinical

outcome, then one of the critical factors is access to diagnostics. The

horrendous delays in getting access may often mean that patients may die

before they get the treatment that they require.”

 

Hospital managers admit the disarray. Several, such as Plymouth Hospitals

NHS Trust, say they do not count angiograms, while several others, such as

the Newcastle upon Tyne Hospitals NHS Trust, say they do.

 

It creates a system that is both confusing and distorting, skewing managers’

attention away from life-threatening diseases to treatments for mundane

conditions that happen to reduce published waiting lists.

 

“When the money comes in, the chief executives want to put the money into

achieving the targets over which they will get sacked,” said Hilary Thomas,

professor of oncology at the Royal Surrey County hospital. That means

concentrating on published waiting lists.

 

“The public should know that one patient might be getting their varicose

veins surgery done to meet some silly target in a manifesto and another (who

does not appear on the waiting list) might not get radical treatment for

cancer and that may make a difference to whether they live to old age or

not.”

 

That, says Thomas, is “morally wrong”.