PERISCOPE

U.S. Affairs: 'Salvador Option'

The U.S. Army may have closed the books on Spc. Charles Graner, the alleged chief torturer at Abu Ghraib who was convicted last Friday. But a new Red Cross report concludes that abusive practices were still occurring last fall at Guantanamo Bay, well after Graner was charged, NEWSWEEK has learned. The confidential report, delivered to U.S. officials last month, is based on a Red Cross visit to Gitmo in September. Despite some improvements--like the tribunals mandated for prisoners by the U.S. Supreme Court--the report reaffirms a previous finding from June that practices at Gitmo were "tantamount to torture," according to sources who have seen it. (The Red Cross declined to comment on the report.) The latest Red Cross visit occurred a month after two major probes authorized by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld reprimanded the military for such practices. Another one of these probes, led by Brig. Gen. Richard Formica and focused on Special Forces-led interrogations in secret facilities, has been held up for months. And now the government is debating the formation of special squads in Iraq supported by Special Forces or the CIA, the so-called "Salvador option," after tactics used in Central America in the 1980s. Such squads could recruit Iraqis to "snatch" insurgents and sympathizers, hauling them off to such facilities, or to kill them, sources tell NEWSWEEK. Rumsfeld last week labeled the idea of death squads "nonsense." He also denied Special Forces were going into Syria. But he did not deny such an option might be under consideration.

Russia: Has Putin Awakened a Sleeping Giant?

When the Kremlin announced the end of military deferments for university students on Dec. 30, many Russians shrugged it off as an idle threat. Last week reality set in, as recruitment officers launched a series of raids on college dormitories in Moscow in an effort to ferret out youngsters eligible for the draft. The move underscores just how desperate the Russian Army has become. With the number of Russian 18-year-olds declining for the first time and conscription drives coming up short, the Army has a crisis on its hands. "Over 3 million people now have exemptions. We need this as a temporary measure," says Moscow military analyst Viktor Baranets. "The Army is in deep trouble."

Yanking students away from their books may seem like a solution. But the raids could have consequences for President Vladimir Putin. Student deferments have long sheltered the sons of the Russian elite from war. And even though the elite are unlikely to turn on their president--whose approval ratings hover in the mid-60s--their support for Putin's hard-line approach to Chechnya may waver. More dangerous may be the reaction of their kids. Students are among the most apathetic segments of Russian society, always voting in low numbers. If the campus raids continue, the Kremlin might find it has roused a slumbering political force. Already, the Union of Soldiers' Mothers Committees--one of Russia's top opposition forces--has called for a nationwide referendum on the issue. As the grumbles grow louder, Putin might find himself wishing he'd left those students in their quiet libraries.

Argentina: Playing 'A Dangerous Game'

Over the coming weeks, Argentina's road show hits Rome and Milan, where its leader, Finance Secretary Guillermo Nielson, faces an uncertain reception. The problem: Nielson hopes to rehabilitate Argentina's reputation as a deadbeat nation three years after defaulting on $104 billion in debt. That was the largest sovereign default in history, and Argentina is setting another dubious record by offering to pay only about 25 cents on the dollar, the most miserly offer ever. How can Argentina regain credibility in capital markets by leaving bondholders with third-degree burns?

While bondholders and the IMF protest Argentina's imperious bargaining tactics, Argentine President Nestor Kirchner insists his terms are generous, given his country's fragile recovery. Buenos Aires says a 50 percent settlement rate will be enough to compel most other investors to follow suit. Hans Humes, cochairman of the Global Committee of Argentine Bondholders, demurs. "They're trying to intimidate bondholders and it won't work."

In fact, most analysts say Argentina is likely to win in the short term, possibly with a last-minute cash sweetener to sway haggle-weary investors. But this is a very dangerous game, says Mohamed El Erian, managing director at Pimco, the Newport Beach, California-based bond giant. If only a small majority of bondholders agrees to Kirchner's terms, says El Erian, "What do you do with the debt still in default? Can the IMF resume lending to a country that has restructured only half its defaulted debt?" The answer: probably not.

China-Taiwan: Time for Strait-Talk

The new year is for fresh starts. Perhaps that was on the minds of bureaucrats in Taiwan and China last week as they reached a historic deal that will allow direct flights across the Taiwan Strait for the first time since 1949. The agreement--which applies only for the Chinese Lunar New Year celebrations throughout February--was lauded as a sign that relations between the two governments may finally be back on track. But in reality, tensions between Taipei and Beijing remain high. Both have recently issued fire-breathing defense white papers. (Taiwan's warned of the mainland's growing military might; China's vowed to develop amphibious forces and a more powerful Air Force, both of which would be necessary to attack Taiwan.) At the same time, the U.S. State Department has confirmed plans to station active-duty U.S. military attaches in Taipei. Although Washington downplays the move, calling it an effort to promote "administrative efficiency," China is far from happy. The moves mark a worrying deterioration of an already tense standoff. "There's a real concern about the situation going totally off the rails before 2008," says Kenneth Lieberthal, a former member of the U.S. National Security Council.

That prognosis doesn't look likely to change in the near future. Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian's intention to revise Taiwan's Constitution by 2006 has enraged Beijing, which calls it a "timetable for independence." Gestures like the direct flights may not mean much. Soon they'll be grounded, and tensions will remain sky-high.

Hong Kong: A Poor Solution?

One of the most compelling ideas for attacking global poverty is to lower the immigration barriers that prevent poor people from moving to where the jobs are. But Hong Kong Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa has turned this idea on its head. Declaring his intent to "break the cycle" of poverty and "mitigate antagonism between different strata," Tung plans to allow Hong Kong welfare recipients to move to Fujian province in China, where their $300 monthly benefit will go a lot further.

The implications of his poverty plan are profound. Welfare recipients will be able not only to move permanently to Fujian, an hour's flight from Hong Kong (they can already move to neighboring Guangdong), but to receive benefits abroad for as long as 240 days, up from 180 days now. This is a nod to the reality that the poor can't pay the sky-high rents and basic-goods prices in Hong Kong. But it's unclear whether subsidizing their outward migration will ease class tensions. Says legislator and opposition leader Lee Cheuk-yan: "It is very obvious that the government wants the rich to come to Hong Kong and the poor to be sent away."

Space: Strange Shores

Saturn appears in the night sky as a point of light, but in fact it is a distant and dark solar system of its own. The space probe Cassini has moved among Saturn's moons, moonlets and spectacularly intricate system of rings for the past six months, and last Friday it penetrated Saturn's most perplexing mystery: its biggest moon, Titan, whose surface has been hidden beneath thick clouds ever since Galileo first set eyes on it. A miniprobe called Huygens, which Cassini had flung toward Titan weeks ago, pierced this thick covering and sent back images and other data to scientists at the European Space Agency's center in Darmstadt, Germany. The images showed that Titan is a bizarre world indeed. The sky is orange, the clouds are made of methane, and the rocks are made of ice. The only time water takes liquid form is when it comes spewing out of icy volcanoes. And yet Titan may have oceans (the images show what may be shorelines). Temperatures are so low that these seas are filled with methane or perhaps some kind of liquid natural gas. But perhaps the strangest revelations of all will come later, as scientists analyze the data. Titan may support the same kind of organic chemistry that spawned life on the early Earth. And there's a chance, if only a small one, that some form of life is now brewing.

Music: Fresh Out Of Paris

In aiming for mass appeal, pop songs too often recycle material that has hit the mark before. That's why listening to 30-year-old Parisian singer-songwriter Keren Ann Zeidel is such a thrill: her compositions flirt with cliche but never cross the line. "Nolita," her fourth album, routinely transforms the recognizable into the revelatory. Take "Que n'ai-je?": its hushed vocal and breezy pace recall the work of Brazilian chanteuse Astrud Gilberto, but Zeidel's spectral production tinges that Ipanema sunshine with just the right amount of shadow. Ditto for "Chelsea Burns," which improves on its Velvet Underground blueprint by inserting a fiddle solo where Lou Reed would've put another electric guitar. It seems Zeidel, who spent her childhood shuttling between Israel and the Netherlands before settling in France, never gets too comfortable for her own good. Now she's gotten more gorgeous pop songs to show for it.

Books: Monumental 'Collapse'

Everyone knows ethnic hatred between Hutus and Tutsis was the main reason for Rwanda's 1994 genocide. Everyone but Jared Diamond, that is. In his new book, "Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed," the UCLA geography professor and Pulitzer-winning author of "Guns, Germs, and Steel" acknowledges the ethnic strife but insists that a more elementary factor was ecological. A vast population explosion had left Rwandan farmers unable to feed their families, making them desperate and primed for violence. To prove his point, Diamond cites a study from the Kanama district, where farms had shrunk to postage-stamp size and rampaging Hutus murdered more than 5 percent of the local populace. The number of Tutsis among the victims: one.

"Guns, Germs, and Steel" charted the environmental factors that allowed European and Asian societies to conquer the world. "Collapse" explores the reverse: how some complex, successful societies have courted ecological suicide by abusing their natural resources. Most Easter Islanders starved to death after a competitive frenzy between chiefs to erect the famed giant stone statues led them to cut down every tree on the island. Descendants of the Vikings who settled Greenland died out after they squandered valuable fields for sod houses and hay to feed impractical cows rather than copy their Inuit neighbors and eat fish. When the climate turned colder, the Vikings perished. The Inuit survived.

Diamond looks to the past and present to sound a warning for the future. "These cases raise the question: if they collapsed, what about us?" he says. (The book cites instances where foresight prevented disasters: the 17th-century Japanese shoguns stopped rampant deforestation caused, in part, by the building of ostentatious wooden palaces.) Diamond also warns against thinking that advanced technology leaves us immune. Several years ago, he says, Bill Gates told him he believed technology would prevent environmental disaster. Diamond disagreed, but at the time he hadn't formed a solid rebuttal. Now he has.

Movies: Moore on Drugs

It seems "Fahrenheit 9/11" director Michael Moore is doing his next documentary on the health-care industry, and six American pharmaceutical companies, including GlaxoSmithKline and Pfizer, recently told their employees to watch out for what a Pfizer spokesman called "a scruffy guy in a baseball cap." If he approaches, employees are apparently supposed to tell him to peddle his papers over at corporate communications. (How about just dosing him with Vioxx?) "Being screwed by your HMO and ill served by pharmaceutical companies is the shared American experience," Moore has said. When his film, to be called "Sicko," comes out a couple of years from now, it ought to spread the pain around more equitably.

The rumors have started already. Moore sightings have been reported at multiple locations--at the same time--and he's having to deny paying doctors to help set up hidden cameras. ("I didn't need to. So many doctors have offered to help, for free.") As a flack for AstraZeneca puts it, "Michael Moore is becoming an urban legend."

But don't get the idea that Moore has given up on politics. Lately he's been saying that the Democrats should run Tom Hanks or Paul Newman for president in 2008. (Something like this worked for the Republicans back in the '80s.) And he plans to film Bush's Inauguration this week as part of his footage-gathering operation for a "Fahrenheit" sequel, called "Fahrenheit 9/111/2."

Robert Downey Jr.

For years, Robert Downey Jr. was in the news for his problems with drugs and his stays in jail. Now he's healthy and happy, and has a CD out called "The Futurist." He talked with NEWSWEEK's Nicki Gostin.

When did you decide to do an album?

I probably decided when I was 9, but it took me a while to figure out how to play and sing and compose and all that.

Do you find it hard to write songs?

I don't. I find it lucky when the elements line up and allow you to be relaxed enough to let the song come through.

Did you write any songs in prison?

No, I did not.

Why, was it too noisy?

Well, I was in the prison band. Honey, it was all about cover tunes.

Were you worried about being just another actor who sings?

Wouldn't I be quite insane if I wasn't? You're asking if I'm insane. No, I'm not insane. Plus I've done this for a really, really long time.

Do you think you're getting extra press because of your past troubles?

This is a trippy thing to say, but on a PR level it couldn't have been any better planned. Now if someone had said, "If you'd like to get some additional attention for an album that might otherwise be overlooked, you're going to have to post up at the gates of hell for five years," I don't know that I'd have agreed.

Do you miss drugs at all?

There's not a lot to miss.

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