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Sunday, October 16, 2005

Fitzgerald Targeting Cheney

Vice President's role in outing of CIA agent under examination, sources close to prosecutor say

Cheney's role in CIA outing not known

Special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald is trying to determine whether Vice President Dick Cheney had a role in the outing of covert CIA operative Valerie Plame-Wilson, individuals close to Fitzgerald say. Plame’s husband was a vocal critic of prewar intelligence used by President George W. Bush to build support for the Iraq war.

The investigation into who leaked the officer's name to reporters has now turned toward a little known cabal of administration hawks known as the White House Iraq Group (WHIG), which came together in August 2002 to publicize the threat posed by Saddam Hussein. WHIG was founded by Bush chief of staff Andrew Card and operated out of the Vice President’s office.


Fitzgerald’s examination centers on a group of players charged with not only selling the war, but according to sources familiar with the case, to discredit anyone who openly “disagreed with the official Iraq war” story.

The group’s members included Deputy White House chief of staff Karl Rove, Bush advisor Karen Hughes, Senior Advisor to the Vice President Mary Matalin, Deputy Director of Communications James Wilkinson, Assistant to the President and Legislative Liaison Nicholas Calio, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley and I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby - Chief of Staff to the Vice President and co-author of the Administration's pre-emptive strike policy.

Rice was later appointed Secretary of State; her deputy Hadley was made National Security Advisor. Wilkinson departed to become a spokesman for the military's central command, and later for the Republican National Convention. Hughes was recently appointed Undersecretary of State.

Several members of the group have testified before Fitzgerald’s grand jury.

Cheney’s role under scrutiny

Two officials close to Fitzgerald told RAW STORY they have seen documents obtained from the White House Iraq Group which state that Cheney was present at several of the group's meetings. They say Cheney personally discussed with individuals in attendance at least two interviews in May and June of 2003 Wilson gave to New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof and Washington Post reporter Walter Pincus, in which he claimed the administration “twisted” prewar intelligence and what the response from the administration should be.

Cheney was interviewed by the FBI surrounding the leak in 2004. According to the New York Times, Cheney was asked whether he knew of any concerted effort by White House aides to name Ms. Wilson.

Sources close to the investigation have also confirmed that special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald is trying to determine Vice President Cheney's role in the outing of Mrs. Wilson, more specifically, if Cheney ordered the leak.

Those close to Fitzgerald say they have yet to uncover any evidence that suggests Cheney ordered the leak or played a role in the outing of Mrs. Wilson. Still, the sources said they are investigating claims that Cheney may have been involved based on his attendance at meetings of the Iraq group. Previous reports indicate Cheney was intimately involved with the framing of the Iraq war.

On Wednesday, The Wall Street Journal confirmed that the Iraq group was under scrutiny.

“Formed in August 2002, the group, which included Messrs. [Karl] Rove and [Lewis] Libby, worked on setting strategy for selling the war in Iraq to the public in the months leading up to the March 2003 invasion,” the Journal reported. “The group likely would have played a significant role in responding to [former Ambassador Joseph] Wilson's claims” that the Bush administration twisted intelligence when it said Iraq tried to acquire yellow-cake uranium from Africa.

Rove's "strategic communications" task force operating inside the group was instrumental in writing and coordinating speeches by senior Bush administration officials, highlighting in September 2002 that Iraq was a nuclear threat.


The White House Iraq Group operated virtually unknown until January 2004, when Fitzgerald subpoenaed for notes, email and attendance records. Bush Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. created the group in August of 2002.

“A senior official who participated in its work called it "an internal working group, like many formed for priority issues, to make sure each part of the White House was fulfilling its responsibilities," according to an Aug. 10, 2003, Washington Post investigative report on the group’s inner workings.

Senior Bush adviser Karl Rove chaired meetings of the group.

The group relied heavily on New York Times reporter Judith Miller, who, after meeting with several of the organization’s members in August 2002, wrote an explosive story that many critics of the war believe laid the groundwork for military action against Iraq.

On Sunday, Sept. 8, 2002, Miller wrote a story for the Times quoting anonymous officials who said aluminum tubes found in Iraq were to be used as centrifuges. Her report said the "diameter, thickness and other technical specifications" of the tubes -- precisely the grounds for skepticism among nuclear enrichment experts -- showed that they were "intended as components of centrifuges."

She closed her piece by quoting then-National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice who said the United States would not sit by and wait to find a smoking gun to prove its case, possibly in the form of a “a mushroom cloud." After Miller’s piece was published, administration officials pursued their case on Sunday talk shows using Miller’s piece as evidence that Iraq was pursuing a nuclear bomb, even though those officials were the ones who supplied Miller with the story and were quoted anonymously.

Rice's comments on CNN’s “Late Edition” reaffirmed Miller’s story. Rice said that Saddam Hussein was "actively pursuing a nuclear weapon" and that the tubes -- described repeatedly in U.S. intelligence reports as "dual-use" items -- were "only really suited for nuclear weapons programs, centrifuge programs."

Cheney, on NBC's "Meet the Press," also mentioned the aluminum tubes story in the Times and said "increasingly, we believe the United States will become the target" of an Iraqi atomic bomb. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, on CBS's "Face the Nation," asked viewers to "imagine a September 11th with weapons of mass destruction.”

President Bush reiterated the image of Rice’s mushroom cloud comment in his Oct. 7, 2002 speech.

The International Atomic Energy Agency later revealed that Iraq’s aluminum tubes were never designed to enrich uranium.

In February of 2003, WHIG allegedly scripted the speech Powell made to the United Nations presenting the United States’ case for war.

Powell’s speech to the UN, United Press International reported, “was handled by the White House Iraq Group, which… provided Powell with a script for his speech, using information developed by Feith's group. Much of it was unsourced material fed to newspapers by the OSP. Realizing this, Powell's team turned to the now-discredited National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq. But some of Feith's handiwork ended up in Powell's mouth anyway.”

Miller appears in Jury room again

Miller’s second appearance before the grand jury investigating the CIA leak seems to be tied to her meeting and discussions in June of 2003 with I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, Vice President Cheney’s chief of staff, sources close to the investigation said. The meeting came one year before the New York Times printed a lengthy mea culpa discrediting a half-dozen of Miller’s prewar stories on the Iraqi threat.

Fitzgerald’s investigation resulted when allegations surfaced that Bush Administration officials had called reporters to circulate the name of the CIA officer, Valerie Plame-Wilson, in an attempt to discredit her husband, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, a critic of the administration's Iraq policy.

Wilson went to Niger in 2002 at the request of the CIA to investigate reports that Iraq was trying to buy uranium "yellow cake" to develop nuclear weapons. He found that the reports were not credible.

Until now, Fitzgerald’s two-year investigation has focused on conversations Karl Rove and Lewis “Scooter” Libby have had with individual journalists, including Time magazine reporter Matthew Cooper and New York Times reporter Judith Miller.

That has now changed. Fitzgerald has retraced his steps to an earlier period when he first began to examine the White House Iraq Group.

During its very first meetings, Card's Iraq group ordered a series of white papers showing Iraq’s arms violations. The first paper, "A Grave and Gathering Danger: Saddam Hussein's Quest for Nuclear Weapons," was never published. However, the paper was drafted with the assistance of experts from the National Security Council and Cheney's office.

“In its later stages, the draft white paper coincided with production of a National Intelligence Estimate and its unclassified summary. “But the WHIG, according to three officials who followed the white paper's progress, wanted gripping images and stories not available in the hedged and austere language of intelligence,” according to the Post.

Eight months later, Joseph Wilson began to question the veracity of the Bush administration’s prewar intelligence in private conversations with reporters. His talk threatened to undercut the administration’s successful marketing campaign: that Iraq was an imminent threat to the United States and its neighbors in the Middle East.

Wilson’s allegations threatened to chip away at the credibility of individuals such as Cheney, who, in dozens of speeches just a few months prior had said that Iraq was dangerously close to acquiring a nuclear weapon. It also threatened to ruin Miller’s credibility. It was then that Administration officials started to discredit Wilson.

Now Fitzgerald is trying to find out whether Cheney was involved.

Jason Leopold
Larisa Alexandrovna contributed research for this report.

A Useful Idiot

Judy Miller and the Neocons

Arrogance, poor editing, and getting too close to her sources -- not ideology -- led to her fall.

New York Times reporter Judith Miller testified again on Wednesday before a grand jury regarding allegations that Irving Lewis Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff, outed an undercover CIA operative in summer of 2003. After spending 85 days in jail for refusing to testify before the grand jury, Miller was released after receiving a personal waiver from Libby -- who turned out to be her confidential source.

Miller's reputation had already been deeply sullied by her inaccurate and one-sided reporting on Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction before the war. Questions have swirled about her relationship with the small coterie of neoconservatives, including Libby, who staffed key positions in the Bush administration, and who were allied with Ahmad Chalabi, a corrupt Iraqi expatriate and notorious liar who became Miller's principal source on WMD issues. Suspicions that Miller had crossed an ethical line and grown too close to her sources increased after the waiver letter she received from Libby was disclosed. That letter ended with this bizarre, highly personal passage: "You went into jail in the summer. It is fall now. You will have stories to cover -- Iraqi elections and suicide bombers, biological threats and the Iranian nuclear program. Out West, where you vacation, the aspens will already be turning. They turn in clusters, because their roots connect them. Come back to work -- and life. Until then, you will remain in my thoughts and prayers. With admiration, Scooter Libby."

All of which raises the question: Should Miller herself be understood as a neocon?

The evidence suggests that she is not. Rather it was a combination of hawkish convictions about Saddam, ambition, arrogance pumped up by her pre-9/11 work on WMD and jihadis, lax editorial oversight, and her long-standing tendency to get too close to her sources, that led her to become a credulous mouthpiece for those who sought to justify war with Iraq.

Miller clearly agrees with the neocons on some subjects. But she is too knowledgeable about the Middle East and Islam, too evenhanded on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and too much of a liberal on domestic U.S. issues, to be considered a neoconservative herself. A veteran Middle East correspondent (she headed the Times' Cairo bureau) who speaks some Arabic, she had a more balanced and nuanced view of the region than the neocons -- at least until 9/11. She probably has more in common with "liberal hawks" such as New York Times columnist Tom Friedman and Harvard professor Michael Ignatieff, who were driven to support a U.S. war on Iraq by fears of Saddam's weapons, a belief that military action could end Arab/Muslim terrorism, and impatience with the glacial pace of political reform in the Middle East.

Although some critics have noted that Miller associated herself with the neocon Middle East Forum, headed by Daniel Pipes, and had a brief relationship with Benador Associates, a neoconservative booking agency, neither association is more than circumstantial evidence for an ideological affinity with the neoconservatives. Rather, her research on radical Muslim movements gave her something in common with the Middle East Forum at a time when such interests were often viewed as eccentric in the Washington policy establishment. Her actual position on figures such as Sudanese Islamist Hasan Turabi is much more nuanced than that of the typical MEF authors. Miller should be judged by what she said, not by what Web pages she allowed her name to be listed at.

Miller's trajectory on major issues departs significantly from that of the neoconservatives. Paul Wolfowitz, deputy secretary of defense 2001-2005, immediately regretted that the U.S. did not go on to Baghdad in 1991, whereas as late as 1993 Miller saw Iraq as defanged. In 1996, in the now-notorious paper titled "A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Defending the Realm," Richard Perle, Douglas Feith and David Wurmser, among others, advised then Israeli candidate for prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu to scrap the Oslo Peace Accords and refuse to withdraw from the Occupied Territories, as well as to support a war against Iraq. In contrast, Miller supported Oslo and stressed that it was important that both Israelis and Palestinians felt secure so as to attract investment. As late as 1998 she was unsure what to do about Iraq, sometimes supporting bombing raids but at others raising questions about what options the U.S. had in the aftermath.

Yet over time Miller came to subscribe to key neocon ideas -- and began increasingly to rely on neocons and their allies for sources. As a June 2004 profile of Miller in New York magazine makes clear, perhaps the pivotal moment in this evolution came in the '90s, when Miller began focusing on the link between terrorism and WMD. She was particularly interested in al-Qaida's plans to acquire WMD. Her work on this subject put her in contact with Ahmad Chalabi, whose party line she began to recite as early as 1998. Before 9/11, her beat made her look obsessed; afterward, as the piece's author, Franklin Foer, notes, "she seemed more like Cassandra, the only one who'd been right. And this fact gave her tremendous power at the paper."

In any case, Miller began to uncritically parrot even some of the neocons' loonier claims. On CNN's "American Morning With Paula Zahn" for May 14, 2002, Miller explained the controversy that had broken out about allegations that Cuba had a biological weapons program. She told Zahn, "And there are a lot of very unsavory contacts, as the administration regards them, between Cuba and especially Iranians who are involved in biological weapons." Such frankly weird assertions raise questions about where in the world Miller got her so-called information. No serious intelligence professional believes that either Iran or Cuba has a significant biological weapons program, much less that a communist Latin American dictatorship was being helped by a Shiite Muslim fundamentalist state with deadly microbes.

Miller's statement only makes sense in light of the speech given by John Bolton, then undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, in May of 2002, in which he alleged that Cuba had a biological weapons program. Thomas Fingar, head of the State Department's Intelligence bureau, along with a retired national security officer, demurred from the charges in Bolton's speech. When Christian Westermann at the State Department intelligence bureau raised questions about the intelligence on which Bolton was basing his campaign, Bolton called him into his office, chewed him out, and then allegedly tried to have him fired, according to the April 18, 2005, edition of the Washington Post. Miller was channeling Bolton in her comments to Paula Zahn, and very likely was simply repeating whatever Bolton himself had told her. Washington political analyst Steven C. Clemons asserted that Bolton was a regular source for Miller in her reporting on national security and weapons of mass destruction issues. Bolton has a special interest in getting up a U.S. war against Iran, accounting for the bogus charge that it was active in Havana.

While Miller was in jail, John Bolton, now U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, came to visit her.

Miller's reporting on this subject, as with so many other subjects involving the claims of the hawks and neocons, was embarrassingly bad. Since Bolton had so many detractors in the intelligence community, it would have been easy for a good reporter to double-check his claims and to discover with what suspicion they were viewed by the professionals. (Bolton is merely a bad-tempered lawyer who did political work for the Republican Party, including helping Bush-Cheney stop the Florida recount in 2000, and has no special knowledge of chemical, biological or nuclear weapons programs, much less of the Middle East.) That Miller neglected to seek out the whole story but rather contented herself with serving as a stenographer for figures such as Bolton and Iraqi fraudster Ahmad Chalabi suggests either a conviction on her part of an ideological sort, or an excessive trust in her sources -- probably both.

Miller was not always a dupe of far-right-wing hawks. After the Gulf War, she responded on CNN to a 1993 speech by Saddam Hussein in which he claimed that Iraq was stronger and wiser since the 1991 war. On Jan. 8, 1993, Miller told anchor Donna Kelley, "I don't think that the allied forces at this stage face any real threat from Saddam Hussein. He has suffered a real body blow through the Gulf War. His nuclear capability, for the moment, has been eradicated. The U.N. has destroyed thousands of chemical munitions. They continue searching for biological and other weapons of mass destruction. I think a lot of this is just bravado. This is the mother of all rhetoric, that's Saddam Hussein, and I don't think anyone believes it, inside Iraq or outside of the area." Miller's description of the state of Iraq's weapons programs in 1993 was entirely accurate, though the biological program was not completely shut down by Hussein Kamel, head of Iraq's WMD program (and Saddam's son in law), until 1995. In this interview she was still functioning as a balanced news reporter who did not allow her obvious hatred for Saddam to interfere with her analytical judgment about the sort of threat he posed.

But by the late 1990s, Miller had emerged as a hawk on the Iraq issue again. The heating up of the conflict had been provoked by the replacement of Rolf Ekeus as head of the United Nations weapons inspection team, UNSCOM, with Australian Richard Butler, who made a series of wild allegations against Iraq with little or no evidence. He demanded access to Saddam's presidential palaces in early 1998, which Saddam at that time refused. Saddam, a germophobe, is later alleged to have told his U.S. captors that he feared the U.N. inspectors would make his palaces "dirty." No unconventional weapons were discovered in them. Miller commented on the crisis on CNN & Co. on Jan. 28, 1998, saying, "Well, I think the Israelis are busy buying gas masks after Richard Butler made his remarks about Saddam Hussein possibly having enough biological agents to blow Tel Aviv and other cities off the map." Miller was uninterested in the dissenters among the weapons inspectors who deeply disagreed with Butler. She admitted that it was not clear what the U.S. options were after an airstrike. But then in another interview on Jan. 29, 1998, Miller said on MSNBC's "News at Issue" that an airstrike against Iraq might force Saddam to comply with U.N. Security Council resolutions.

In mid-August of 1998, at a time when some observers suspected that the Clinton administration might engage Iraq militarily to take the focus in Washington off the Lewinsky scandal, Miller dropped a new bombshell. She published an article in the New York Times based on an interview with Khidhir Hamza, who claimed to be "the highest ranking scientist ever to defect from Iraq," and who had come to the U.S. in 1994. Hamza asserted that Iraq continued to have a viable nuclear weapons program and that only half of it had been destroyed by the Gulf War. One of Hamza's critics, Iraqi nuclear scientist Imad Khadduri, maintains that Hamza had only been given the lead position in the Iraqi nuclear program for six months in 1987, but was soon dismissed for petty embezzlement. He left the Iraqi Atomic Energy Commission in 1989, became a college lecturer and businessman, then went to Libya in 1994. Khadduri says that Hamza established links to the Iraqi National Congress of Ahmad Chalabi and began publishing articles in the British press on Iraq's alleged nuclear program in 1995. He alleges that the Times on Sunday sent documents provided by Hamza to the International Atomic Energy Commission, which declared them false, but that the newspaper published Hamza's pieces anyway. Coming to the United States, Hamza was picked up by Benador Associates, a public relations firm and speakers' bureau closely associated with neoconservatives and their causes, including support for the expansionist Likud Party in Israel.

Miller gave an interview with National Public Radio about her piece on Hamza, on Aug. 17, 1998, with Linda Wertheimer. Miller gushed, "In fact, Linda, I think what struck my colleague and I when we were listening to Dr. Hamza talk, was Saddam Hussein's determination at all costs to have a nuclear bomb." She reported that the Gulf War bombings of Iraq's nuclear sites only hit about half of them, according to Hamza. In fact, Iraq's nuclear facilities were found and ordered destroyed after the war by the United Nations inspectors, and they were extremely thorough, as inspector and former U.S. Marine Scott Ritter insisted. When Wertheimer asked if Hamza was credible, Miller said, "Yes. We were able to speak to people, intelligence officials, administration officials, nuclear experts, a great variety of people, all of whom found Dr. Hamza very credible."

In fact, the story that Hamza was telling was extremely controversial and was controverted by knowledgeable persons. Either Miller was lying when she reported unanimity in the judgment of Hamza's credibility, or she only talked to a handful of hawks. Wertheimer adds, "I gather that the CIA almost missed him. The story of his defection and his attempts to find a safe haven in the United States reads sort of like a cross between a thriller and a farce." The transcript reports "LAUGHTER." Of course, the reason that the CIA "almost missed him" was that he was a minor bit player who had not been involved in the Iraqi nuclear program at all since 1989 and had no new information aside from baldfaced lies. (In 2001 Scribner published Hamza's mendacious book, which described him as "Saddam's Bombmaker," and thereafter he became a constant presence on American television news, flacked by Benador, purveying his lurid and completely false tales of an Iraq near to having a nuclear bomb.

Already by 1998, Miller was reporting Iraqi National Congress propaganda, purveying an image of Iraq completely different from that she gave in 1993, when she admitted that the country's weapons of mass destruction programs had been dismantled. On Dec. 29, 1998, she commented to Diane Dimond of CNBC's "Upfront Tonight" about the Clinton administration's bombing of Iraq and the $100 million that the U.S. Congress had appropriated to support the Iraqi expatriates who were attempting to overthrow Saddam. She complained, "But I did notice that just before the bombing, Ahmed Chalabi, who was one of the leaders of the opposition, told me that he only had about four hours notice. The administration called him and said, 'Oh, by the way, we're going to start bombing in a few hours.' This doesn't leave the opposition with a lot of time to prepare a kind of internal action, if it has the ability to do that. And we're not sure if the Iraqi opposition could stage a coup or start a rebellion at this point. It may be a weak reed, but it's the only reed the administration has at the moment."

Miller was already talking to Chalabi, and was willing to act as a conduit for his grouses about not being kept in the loop by the Clinton administration. It was the start of a beautiful friendship. Leaked New York Times memos showed that Chalabi was Miller's principal source for stories she later did on Iraq's fabled and in fact nonexistent weapons of mass destruction. According to Foer, Miller also relied heavily on the neocons' intelligence-fixing outfit, the notorious Office of Special Plans headed by Douglas Feith. Almost all of its "intelligence" was completely bogus.

Miller was a consistent critic of Saddam's regime, but before 1998 she was capable of making nuanced judgments about the problem it posed for the United States. At some point after that, she apparently began to believe that she, with her prescient expertise about WMD and radical Islam, and her hawkish and neocon sources were right. This was when her fateful decline began. A minor scientist and sometime college teacher such as Khidhir Hamza became "the highest ranking scientist" to defect from Iraq. She relayed complaints from Gucci revolutionaries like Chalabi that they had been left out of the loop by the Clinton administration, and retailed Iraq National Congress tall tales to her unsuspecting audience. By the late 1990s, she had laid the ground for her subsequent path, of becoming stenographer to a motley crew of neoconservative hawks and Iraqi expatriate wheelers and dealers. The aluminum tubes story, in particular, which she co-wrote and which helped pave the way to war, will likely be taught in journalism classes for years as a textbook study of flawed reporting.

In the end, Miller's decline seems due more to professional ambition than ideological conviction -- although her own beliefs clearly grew closer to the neocons'. "While Miller might not have intended to march in lockstep with these hawks, she was caught up in an almost irresistible cycle," Foer writes. "Because she kept printing the neocon party line, the neocons kept coming to her with huge stories and great quotes, constantly expanding her access."

In the end, it seems that Miller will go down in history not so much as a true believer as a useful idiot.

-- By Juan Cole

Copyright 2005 Salon.com

Innocent Voices

"Children were born to play."

When Oscar Torres saw a Venezuelan band perform the song "Casas de carton" ("cardboard houses") in 2001, he knew that he wanted to "write something about the song" that he remembered so well from his childhood days growing up in war-torn and impoverished El Salvador. Soon after, Torres started working on a screenplay that ultimately served as the basis for the film Innocent Voices which will begin playing in 11 US cities on October 14.

The film has received critical acclaim after being released in Latin America and shown at this year's Amnesty International Film Festival. It deserves a wide audience in the United States. Directed by the talented Mexican filmmaker Luis Mandoki, Innocent Voices tells the story of Torres' embattled youth. The narrative is exquisitely told through the eyes of an 11-year-old boy named Chava whose character is based on Torres' boyhood. (Chava, appropriately, is a nickname for "Salvador.") Innocent Voices depicts the horror of war and its impact on children caught in the middle of El Salvador's civil strife in the 1980s.

There are no "good guys" in this conflict (though it's fair to say that the government paramilitary militias are definitely the "worse guys.") The film shows the government's soldiers hunting down and conscripting all 12-year-old boys in the village to serve in the military. But the bullets of the rebel-led Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) kill children just as effectively as the guns of the right-wing government's forces. And then there are the US soldiers who train and arm the government's military and who come across as depraved and without remorse.

Innocent Voices is Mandoki and Torres' reminder that "No child should ever bear arms." As Mandoki recently said in an interview, "Children were born to play." One question that Chava poses to himself at the beginning of the film--as he is being held prisoner by government soldiers--haunts the rest of the film: "Why do they want to kill us if we haven't done anything?"

Much of the film's tension stems from the government's policy of conscripting 12-year-old boys. We see the soldiers arriving at Chava's middle school, shouting out the names of the school's 12-year-olds and rousting them out of their classes. Chava, 11, understands that his turn is next, and that If he is lucky, he has just one year of innocence left, one year before he, too, will be conscripted to fight the government's battle against the peasant rebels of the FMLN.

The soldiers patrol the streets, invade the village's church and menace the children in the village center. As the children stroll along in neatly pressed white school shirts, the soldiers hover in the background with rifles slung over their shoulders. The children could fall prey to the combatants at any moment, and the atmosphere is claustrophobic.

Other scenes reveal the painful ways in which war shortens the lives of every child unlucky enough to be caught up in it. Chava and his friends must climb onto the roofs of their homes to evade detection by soldiers who ransack the village in search of recruits. When Chava and his friends encounter an old classmate by the banks of a river who is now a soldier, they see him transformed into a trained killer who has been instructed in warfare by "gringos" who had served in Vietnam.

Torres and Mandoki have made a film that is both gripping and highly entertaining, interspersing moments of laughter and light and scenes of beauty with the inhumanity of war itself. They pit Chava's childhood, his relationship with his family and his falling in love for the first time against a backdrop of horrific violence. And we see him struggling amid the bloodshed to hold onto his innocence.

Chava flies paper fireflies at night with his friends. He pretends to be a bus driver rumbling through the streets of his village. He smears lipstick on his face to make his screaming younger brother burst into laughter as bullets fly through the family's cardboard home. And Chava sings and dances in the street while serenading his first love. These episodes of what should be a normal childhood make the plight of children in war all the more poignant. It's clear that Chava, like all children, shouldn't be caught in the middle of this or any other armed conflict.

Innocent Voices, however, is more than just the story of how Oscar Torres survived El Salvador's civil war. The movie reminds us that more than 300,000 children are serving in armies in some 40 nations and that hundreds of thousands of children have their childhoods destroyed by wars.

Torres recalled in a recent interview that prior to beginning work on his screenplay, the story of his boyhood was a "story that he always wanted to forget." But, as Torres, Mandoki, and the film's politically astute producer Lawrence Bender understand, Innocent Voices was a story that had to be told. Bender said in an interview that the film combines his passion for film with his political activism. Above all, it shows pictures that we never see on TV or in the movies--"pictures of children" and parents struggling to survive amid war.

Torres' story could be happening "anywhere in the world," Bender said. He hopes that the United Nations and UNICEF will put a spotlight on the issue of recruitment of children as soldiers and that we will be able to "shame countries" that allow children to be conscripted to fight in wars into ending this horrible practice.

Ultimately, Innocent Voices makes us understand that war exacts its most awful toll on the most vulnerable people in any society. It is an antiwar classic.


P.S. Innocent Voices could not only draw attention to the issue of child soldiers, but the film also could help force compliance with the United Nations Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict. (It's a mouthful, but it's a crucial document.)

The Protocol entered into force in 2002. It outlaws the use of children under 18 in armed conflict, and it requires its signatories to raise the age of compulsory recruitment and fighting in conflicts to 18, along with other common-sense provisions. While the United States ratified the UN's principal treaty on child soldiers in December 2002, it is, incredibly, one of only two countries, along with Somalia, that has still not ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child. (Right-wing opponents in the US are afraid that the Convention will cause the US to promote abortion and sex education.) If you want to get active in the campaign to stop the use of child soldiers in war, click here to check out The Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, make a donation to its work, and learn more about what steps the world can take to put an end to one of the horrors of our times.

Katrina vanden HeuvelFri Oct 14, 9:04 PM ET


The Nation --