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Gordon Campbell: On The Lovely Bones & Other Bombs

Gordon Campbell on how The Lovely Bones affects the credibility of Peter Jackson’s Film Commission review, and on other bombs

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More Images from The Lovely Bones premiere in Wellington.

Co-incidentally, just as Arts Minister Chris Finlayson readies himself to release Peter Jackson’s review of the Film Commission, Jackson’s own film The Lovely Bones will be going through its own trial by fire. Finlayson is due back at work sometime around January 17th. Jackson’s film goes into wide release in the US on January 15th. To date, The Lovely Bones has been on release in only three theatres in New York and Los Angeles, since December 19th.

As of January 10th according to the Box Office Mojo site, it had grossed only $444,000 in the US and just over $3 million elsewhere in the world. Reportedly, Paramount has $155 million riding on this film, in production and marketing costs.

On Christmas Eve, the Los Angeles Times reported that Paramount had decided – in the wake of poor reviews, poor word of mouth and ‘weak” takings at the three theatres concerned – to scrap its original plans to put the film into wide release straight after Christmas. Instead, they would be using the delay to January 15th to devise a new marketing campaign aimed at the one and only tested group that seems to like the film – teenage girls.

… The latest research surveys indicate that girls between 13 and 20 have a strong interest in seeing the picture. Until the heavy advertising campaign for "Bones" rolls out in early January, Paramount is screening the movie aggressively for high school and college girls.

Originally Paramount, which inherited the picture from former subsidiary DreamWorks, had expected "The Lovely Bones" to appeal to a sophisticated adult audience. However, test screenings this fall revealed that it wasn't adults but young females who reacted the most positively after seeing it.

Considering the early bad buzz, it remains to be seen whether young women will flock to "The Lovely Bones" in big enough numbers come January to justify Paramount's investment of $70 million in production and an additional $85 million in worldwide marketing and distribution.

Even the hoped-for Oscar nominations – Stanley Tucci for best supporting actor seems the best chance – may not save Paramount’s investment. After all, Vincent Ward ‘s afterlife melodrama What Dreams May Come won the 1999 Oscar for best visual effects and got nominated for best art direction as well. Neither of which salvaged the film’s critical reputation, or significantly boosted its box office takings.

Should any of this affect how the government reacts to Jackson’s report on the Film Commission ? Well, the film industry is a business that has made a virtual religion out of the saying ‘You’re only as good as your last picture.’ Certainly, it should be embarrassing for the government if the Film Commission does face a stern lecture on how to shape up and sell its wares, from an author whose own latest work seems to be having significant problems with the critics, and in finding an audience.

Keeping Tabs on Terrorists

Supposedly, the intrusions on our civil liberties in the course of the war on terrorism was meant to be a trade-off. Grudgingly, we have allowed the authorities to monitor our bank transactions, emails etc and put up with delays, searches, iris examinations and the like at airports in the name of enhanced security. It was all supposed to keep us safe. Well, the saga of the Nigerian crotch bomber would seem to show the reverse – the more intrusions on civil liberties that we allow, and the more data the authorities amass, the less able they seem to be at processing it, and the more unsafe we become.

Putting together all the pieces, it seems that the US knew of a likely attack emanating from Yemen. It knew that the 23 year old Nigerian, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab had been in Yemen. A few months ago, the US had been warned by the bomber’s father, a prominent Nigerian banker, of family fears that the son had been radicalized by his contacts in Yemen and in Britain. Abdulmattab’s name had been put on a US counter-terrorism list containing a half million other names, as a “P3B”, for “possible terrorist.”

None of this information or the renewed US drone strikes on Yemen had lifted Abdulmattab up the priority list into a ‘no fly’ category of 4,500 certified terrorists, the deadly 3Bs. None of it earned him special attention at Amsterdam airport, where he managed to board the plane bound for Detroit with his explosive ingredients in his underpants. Oh, but the authorities had been planning to talk to him once the plane landed in Detroit, because he was on their wider P3B counter-terrorism list.

As AFP has reported, the problem was not in having enough information : it was in having too much of it to make the necessary connections.

Former and current intelligence officials say the problem was not a lack of information but a failure to manage it, with the spy bureaucracy overlooking the link between the "chatter" from Al-Qaeda and the concerns raised over Abdulmutallab.

Intelligence work "is not a science, it's an art," said former CIA officer Bruce Riedel. "In retrospect it's always simple. You just look at a couple of dots that all made sense from the beginning and it all adds up. But in the real world, it's never that simple."

The Hindustani Times put it even more clearly:

"The intelligence fell through the cracks. This happened in more than one organisation," Deputy National Security Adviser John Brennan told reporters after President Barck Obama spoke Thursday…."Though all of the information was available to all-source analysts at the CIA and the NCTC (National Counter Terrorism Centre) prior to the attempted attack, the dots were never connected, and as a result, the problem appears to be more a component failure to 'connect the dots', rather than a lack of information sharing," the report said.

According to the report, US counterterrorism officials had information about AbdulMutallab, Al Qaeda threats to Americans "and information about an individual now believed to be Mr. AbdulMutallab and his association with AQAP [Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula] and its attack planning."

But "the dots were never connected" - not because information wasn't shared among US agencies but because it was "fragmentary and embedded in a large volume of other data." Once the threat was discovered, the intelligence community leadership failed to increase resources working on the "full AQAP threat." The report said the counter-terrorism apparatus "failed before December 25 to identify, correlate, and fuse into a coherent story all of the discrete pieces of intelligence" that the US government had in hand about "the emerging terrorist plot."

The lesson is obvious. To enable US security services and airline staff to tell the wood from the trees, our government should be providing less information – not more – to these kind of authorities. The system failures go well beyond a mere inability to process data and connect the dots. Incredibly, the US authorities even seem to lack the basic skills and capacity to carry out fuzzy logic name-checks – something Google and other search engines can routinely carry out – and/or the automatic trialling of spelling variants.

A timeline provided by the State Department officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, showed that an initial check of the suspect based on his father's information failed to disclose he had a multiple-entry U.S. visa. The reason was that AbdulMutallab's name was misspelled. "That search did not come back positive," said one official, who called it a quick search without using multiple variants of spelling.

The spelling mistake was corrected two days later, and the State Department notified the National Counterterrorism Center of the correct spelling, the officials said.

Again, you have to ask - why should we put up with intrusions on our civil liberties in the name of the war on terrorism, when the people demanding the information are incapable of using it competently?

The CIA bomber

As Middle East expert Professor Juan Cole says on his invaluable site, the life story of Humam al-Balawi, the double (or triple?) agent and suicide bomber who killed his handler and seven other CIA agents at a base in Khost, Afghanistan can be seen as a virtual history of neo-colonial aggression in the region. You can read the full story here.

Again, the dots in al-Balawi’s life were not properly connected. A product of Jordanian-Palestinian refugee camps, a man radicalised by events in Fallujah and Lebanon, and by the suffering in Gaza that had led him to volunteer to work there as a doctor – this guy was thought to be a reliable double agent likely to lead the US forces to Osama Bin Laden’s hideout? Cole’s skepticism about this credulity is bang on, and so is his conclusion :

Neither the US nor Israel is morally responsible for violent crackpots being violent crackpots. Al-Qaeda or a Taliban affiliate turned al-Balawi to the dark side. Gandhi and Martin Luther King taught us the proper response to social injustice (and it should not be forgotten that Gandhi had a significant following among the Pashtuns).

But….what we have to remember is that there can be a handful of al-Balawis, or there can be thousands or hundreds of thousands. It depends on how many Abu Ghraibs, Fallujahs, Lebanons and Gazas the United States initiates or supports to the hilt. Unjust wars and occupations radicalize people. The American Right wing secretly knows this, but likes the vicious circle it produces. Wars make profits for the military-industrial complex, and the resulting terrorism terrifies the clueless US public and helps hawks win elections, allowing them to pursue further wars. And so it goes, until the Republic is bankrupted and in ruins, and its unemployed have to live in tent cities.


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