Friday, June 25, 2004

Fahrenheit 911, Moore, the Pentagon Spy, the Saudis, and a dead NYC artist

Michael Moore's critically acclaimed anti-Bush saga Fahrenheit 911 opens nationwide in the United States on Friday. (Click here for your local showtimes.) Alleged attempts by conservative groups to censor the award-winning film (most notably the controversial surrounding Disney's refusal to allow its release under the Miramar label) have been a frequent topic on these pages ("Michael Moore receiving death threats").

True to form, conservative groups again made the news today, this time claiming that, since Moore's film is about Bush, Moore would violate federal election laws by advertising the film after July 31, 2004, which is within 30 days of the Republican convention. So they are requested the FEC ban effectively TV advertisement of the film after that date. (The FEC is considering granting their request.) Apparently Moore expected something like this would happen, which is most likely why he was in such a hurry to get the film released before July. (And why his posters and other static ads don't show Bush.) Conservative groups say they don't like this film very much, and are willing to put a lot of money where their mouth is. These same groups are reportedly surprised by all the talk of censorship in the media these days. But this is an old story to DFW readers by now.

There is a connection between Michael Moore film, and some of my classic posts in these pages, including The Pentagon Spy and Me as well as my very first posts in these pages on my theory of democratic government. Moore isn't aware of this connection, so it doesn't show up in the film. Since Moore's film is about to open, it's time for me to state it here.

Moore's film reportedly shows rare archival footage of President Bush and the bin Ladens (including, I believe, a young Osama) dining together. He also talks about how Bush had the bin Ladens whisked out the US following 911, something that has stirred considerable debate in these pages (with the bin Laden debate thread ending most recently here).

The link involves social network analysis and a late NYC artist by the name of Mark Lombardi.

Lombardi would go through newspaper articles, writing down on index cards the names of famous people that appeared casually together in articles. He'd then go through the index cards until he'd memorized them, and he'd visualize the connections in the windmills of his mind until he had an artwork.

The story is made more interesting by the fact that Lombardi died under mysterious circumstances in 2000. If memory serves, Lombardi had been diagnosed with clinical depression, and the official explanation, accepted by the family, is that he committed suicide. (The alternate theory, discredited but still popular in some circles, is, of course, that he was knocked off by one of the subjects mentioned in his art work.)

Lombardi links:
Lombardi's website, which eerily survives him posthumously
More pictures of his works Curtosy of House minority leader Nancy Pierogi's website (D-CA)
A search of the net shows that the Lombardi/FBI story was also described in the May 1, 2002 Wall Street Journal on page D7 (link available to some WSJ subscribers but not free).

Lombardi's inspired other artists to depict social network analysis in artwork. The July 5, 2002 New York Times (free registration req'd) wrote about a group show organized by the Whitney Museum of American Art's Independent Study Program, which took Mark Lombardi's work as a starting point and did similar social analysis networks in a variety of different media, including web sites.

For example, Josh On's website, can be used to show casual social links amongst America's elite in Macromedia Flash (you can add your own maps with your data and get web users to vote) looked pretty cool until I realized the very first map (selected at random) named people I'd met and sort of knew. (Then again, so did today's news). I suppose you probably place DFW somewhere on one of those maps. Hmmm, I guess that means DFW is probably in on whichever massive global conspiracy On is trying to document, so we won't fan the flames of conspiracy theorists by giving it further mention here. ;-) Remember, you didn't hear about it here. (Incidentally, the latest website traffic data suggests that DFW not only rules, it rocks as well. In fact, the server is probably on fire.)

Lombardi even got a mention on the U.S. PBS Newshour TV program. Newshour regular Clarence Page describes the FBI interest in Lombardi's work when it discovered he had drawn links between the Bush family, the Saudis, the bin Ladens, and the Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI scandal related to the massive savings and loan scandal under President Reagan.)

Clarence Page dismisses Lombardi's as conspiratorial (transcript). He points out that there are trivial links between Bush and Kerry as well. Kerry and Bush are members of some of the same exclusive social clubs. I just noticed Kerry even wrote the final BCCI report that I linked above. As Page points out, these links don't mean anything (Presidential candidates are usually well-connected, and are sought out by all sorts of people, crooks included; rising, prominent Senators opposing party would be good choices to write a final report on a major scandal), but these meager facts might be enough for the paranoid to construct conspiracy theories in wild flights of imagination.

The problem with Page's story is that social network analysis is a real science. A casual mention of two famous people in one or more newspaper articles doesn't really mean anything, of course. But at some point these seeming coincident become statistical significant. If two or more famous people are often mentioned together in newspaper or other media articles, it will usually indicate a friendship or business relationship. This technology has already been allegedly abused by criminal gangs -- to ferret out informants from illegal acquired telephone records, for example.

That's where my "friend" The Pentagon Spy comes in. Recall from the article that he wanted to use social network analysis on behalf of the Pentagon to help identify terrorist leaders all around the world. That's great, of course. The problem is that this well-paid government contractor was also was interested in using the same technology to map out key leaders among America's elite (say big Democratic fundraisers, or people involved in the anti-war or other liberal movements that might be detrimental to the contractors' career). This would be sort of like what artist Josh On is doing with his website, except the Pentagon would presumably have access to much better data. And the other problem was that my "friend" was seemed much, much more interested in this part of the task (the test on Americans) than the other part - rooting out the terrorists. (If only he were more interested in testing the system by mapping the links between Bush and the bin Ladens, I might have been made more comfortable.)

So, the connections Michael Moore is making cinematically in Fahrenheit 9/11 between Bush and the bin Ladens -- not surprising given the two families wealth, influence, and common business interests -- nevertheless have also been documented in the artworks of Michael Lombardi and other artists, and essentially scientifically documented through social network analysis. They may not be sinister, but there is a great deal of evidence that they are real.

Which brings us back to the highly controversial issue regarding strict controls on the government's (read the DoD's Total Information Awareness') use of data mining technology (My thoughts on the U.S. Transportation Security Agency and datamining). Americans have been willing to tolerate such intrusions on their privacy, of course, ever since.

As I've repeatedly argued in these pages, democracy is a system for integrating the information contained in diverse points of view to make decisions on social matters too complicated for any single individual to understand. As I argue in Pentagon Spy and Me, some of the government contractors mining our data to construct these social networks (good for finding both terrorists and key players in the Democratic party) were apparently very well paid -- there would be great temptation to misuse their access to this technology in some private political mischief in the interests of job security; this is why privacy protections are needed. (Related article: Senators want more Pentagon Spy types) As long as the memory of three airplanes releasing the souls of 3000 men and women remains vivid, there will continue to be a lively debate on where to draw the line between the privacy and security protections both essential to good government.