08 Mar 2007

US and World Opinion Were Rolled on Guantanamo Bay by PR Hired Guns

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Debra Burlingame, at the Wall Street Journal, explains how Kuwaiti oil money successfully transformed Guantanamo Bay detainees from bloodthirsty killers into a human rights worthy cause.

He was the first American to die in what some have called “the real war.” Johnny “Mike” Spann, the 32-year-old CIA paramilitary commando, was interrogating prisoners in an open courtyard at the Qala-I-Jangi fortress in Afghanistan when the uprising of 538 hard-core Taliban and al Qaeda fighters began. Spann emptied his rifle, then his sidearm, then fought hand-to-hand as he was swarmed by raging prisoners screaming “Allahu akbar!”

The bloody siege by Northern Alliance and U.S. forces went on for several days, only ending when 86 of the remaining jihadi fighters were smoked out of a basement where they had retreated and where they murdered a Red Cross worker who had gone in to check on their condition. Spann, a former Marine, is credited with saving the lives of countless Alliance fighters and Afghan civilians by standing and firing as they ran for cover. His beaten and booby-trapped body was recovered with two bullet wounds in his head, the angle of trajectory suggesting he had been shot execution style.

One of the committed jihadis who came out of that basement, wounded and unrepentant, was “American Taliban” John Walker Lindh, now serving a 20-year sentence in a federal prison. Another who was shot during the uprising and pulled out of the basement along with Lindh was Nasser Nijer Naser al-Mutairi. Today, the 29-year-old is living somewhere in Kuwait, a free man.

The true story of Mr. Mutairi’s journey, from the uprising in Qala-I-Jangi to Guantanamo Bay’s military detention camp to the privileged life of an affluent Kuwaiti citizen, is one that his team of high-priced lawyers and the government of Kuwait doesn’t want you to know. His case reveals a disturbing counterpoint to the false narrative advanced by Gitmo lawyers and human-rights groups–which holds that the Guantanamo Bay detainees are innocent victims of circumstance, swept up in the angry, anti-Muslim fervor that followed the attacks of September 11, then abused and brutally tortured at the hands of the U.S. military.

Mr. Mutairi was among 12 Kuwaitis picked up in Afghanistan and detained at Guantanamo Bay in 2002. Their families retained Tom Wilner and the prestigious law firm of Shearman & Sterling early that same year. Arguably, it is Mr. Wilner’s aggressive representation, along with the determined efforts of the Kuwait government, that has had the greatest influence in the outcome of all the enemy combatant cases, in the court of law and in the court of public opinion. The lawsuit filed on their behalf, renamed Rasul v. Bush when three cases were joined, is credited with opening the door for the blizzard of litigation that followed…

Mr. Wilner, a media-savvy lawyer who immediately realized that the detainee cases posed a tremendous PR challenge in the wake of September 11, hired high-stakes media guru Richard Levick to change public perception about the Kuwaiti 12. Mr. Levick, a former attorney whose Washington, D.C.-based “crisis PR” firm has carved out a niche in litigation-related issues, has represented clients as varied as Rosie O’Donnell, Napster, and the Roman Catholic Church. Mr. Levick’s firm is also registered under FARA as an agent of a foreign principal for the “Kuwaiti Detainees Committee,” reporting $774,000 in fees in a one year period. After the U.S. Supreme Court heard the first consolidated case, the PR campaign went into high gear, Mr. Levick wrote, to “turn the Guantanamo tide.”

In numerous published articles and interviews, Mr. Levick has laid out the essence of the entire Kuwaiti PR campaign. The strategy sought to accomplish two things: put a sympathetic “human face” on the detainees and convince the public that it had a stake in their plight. In other words, the militant Islamists who traveled to Afghanistan to become a part of al Qaeda’s jihad on America had to be reinvented as innocent charity workers swept up in the war after 9/11. The committed Islamist who admitted firing an AK-47 in a Taliban training camp became a “teacher on vacation” who went to Afghanistan in 2001 “to help refugees.” The member of an Islamist street gang who opened three al-Wafa offices with Suliman Abu Ghaith (Osama Bin Laden’s chief spokesman) to raise al Qaeda funds became a charity worker whose eight children were left destitute in his absence. All 12 Kuwaitis became the innocent victims of “bounty hunters.”..

Mr. Levick maintains that a year and a half after they began the campaign, their PR outreach produced literally thousands of news placements and that, eventually, a majority of the top 100 newspapers were editorializing on the detainees’ behalf. Convinced that judges can be influenced by aggressive PR campaigns, Mr. Levick points to rulings in the detainee cases which openly cite news stories that resulted from his team’s media outreach.

The Kuwaiti 12 case is a primer on the anatomy of a guerilla PR offensive, packaged and sold to the public as a fight for the “rule of law” and “America’s core principles.” Begin with flimsy information, generate stories that are spun from uncorroborated double or triple hearsay uttered by interested parties that are hard to confirm from halfway around the world. Feed the phonied-up stories to friendly media who write credulous reports and emotional human interest features, post them on a Web site where they will then be read and used as sources by other lazy (or busy) media from all over the world. In short, create one giant echo chamber.

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