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Syria – The Strange Tale of Ambassador Ford and the Email Debate

October 25, 2011

The return to Washington of US Ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, as reported by the BBC yesterday, caught my intention.

Ambassador Ford is not exactly a proponent of quiet diplomacy, despite an admiring profile in the Washington Post that suggests otherwise. A few weeks ago, I heard a radio interview in which he lambasted the Syrian government about their tactics in suppressing the unrest around the country. He has since been the recipient of various foodstuffs thrown in his direction by government supporters in Damascus. His forthright style is quite a contrast to that of ambassadors of other countries in the region, who tend to leave the tub-thumping to their political bosses.

When I read the BBC report yesterday, I went to Wikipedia to see what it had to say about him. I was a bit gobsmacked to see a long email exchange between him and Mohamed Tamalt, an Algerian journalist living in the UK. It was not the most friendly exchange. Over four emails he and Tamalt argue over Tamalt’s claim he is a covert CIA agent, and Tamalt’s alleged links with an Algerian Islamist faction.

It also dealt with an article Tamalt had written about “the wikileaks cable sent by Ford when he was an ambassador in Algeria requesting a military plane to transport a sick child to the USA in order to promote the image of the American army after what happened in Abu Ghrib and Guantanamo”. The passage quoted is from the Wikipedia profile of the Ambassador.

The whole exchange was a rather undignified ding-dong – what some of my American friends would describe as a pissing contest. At one stage Tamalt claims that Ford lost his temper with him. Ford replies “you have never seen me lose my temper”! Ford more than once asks to be removed from Tamalt’s email list.

My original reason for posting about the brouhahah was that it illustrates my long-held belief that email is not a good medium for debate – much better to confine yourself to exchanges of information and documenting  transactions. But then a strange thing happened.

I have no idea how the exchange found its way into the Wikipedia profile, but there it was. Yesterday. When I went back to the profile today, lo and behold, the whole exchange had disappeared! What remained was a reference to Tamalt’s claim that the Ambassador was a CIA agent.

I find the CIA allegation to be profoundly irrelevant. After all, one would expect senior US State Department officials to be working pretty closely with their CIA colleagues, would one not? So why Ambassador Ford would be sufficiently sensitive about the issue to enter into a long email debate with a journalist when he knew that there was a danger the exchange would go public is beyond me. Unless the whole episode was a piece of mischief-making by persons unknown.

So I then tried to find a reference to the exchange elsewhere on the web. I happened upon a YouTube video in which Tamalt seemingly makes the same accusation. Surprise, surprise, YouTube said “an error occurred, please try later”.

Is it a coincidence that these strange happenings coincide with the Ambassador’s return to Washington? Perhaps not, or perhaps I was imagining yesterday’s email exchange…..

From → Middle East, Politics, USA

  1. someone permalink

    You were not imagining. Here is the full text of the exchanged emails between Ford and Tamalt as published by different websites

    Robert Ford’s first response


    Your articles lack objectivity. For example, in the article about the unfortunate Mounib child, you didn’t mention that the Algerian family came to us and asked the U.S. Embassy for help with the transport to the United States – it was their original request to us for help with an airplane. I had to justify to the United States government why it should pay for an airplane. Strange that you left that part out.
    And your articles that suggest that I am some kind of CIA agent are not only completely wrong but they are insulting. My biographic information is abundantly available even on the internet if you took the time to do such basic research.
    I would appreciate your removing my email address from your email distribution list.
    Thank you,
    Robert ford
    Mohamed Tamalt’s first response back


    Instead of judging my objectivity you should have explained why you specifically requested a military aircraft as the only choice and left no space for any other options.
    It was you who linked this humanitarian proposal to the need for improving the image of the US army AND NOT ME. I did not make you saying what you did not say.
    If you were not intending to use the child in a PR campaign, then you are accusing the US government to deal with humanitarian cases on the bases of narrow interests only. ARE YOU?
    In the leaked cable there was no single indication that the request for a plane came from Mounib’s FAMILY, you only mentioned that a group of (unknown) Algerians approached you.
    I did not accuse you to be a CIA agent; I raised concerns about your suspicious activities all around the world which cannot be OBJECTIVELY described as diplomatic activities. Referring me to your official biography is meaningless; thousands of people who work for the CIA do not mention this fact in their CVs.
    One of them for example is the US-British chairman of Chatham House DeAnne Julius; another one is Valerie Plame the wife of one of your most prominent diplomats, information about Plame’s work with the CIA were leaked by Bush administration as you know.
    As for requesting to remove your two emails from my list, you will not receive anything from me unless it is related to you or to your embassy. Sorry to see you losing your temper, this is unusual for me.
    Mohamed Tamalt

    Robert Ford’s second response


    You ought to understand that the U.S. government does not own a fleet of civilian airplanes (except the CIA) and the two planes used for the President and the Secretary of State. One is a 747, the other a 757.
    Neither is equipped to transport persons with medical conditions. Only US military airplanes were available. And why do I need to explain that airplane situation in a telegram to my own government ? After you read the internal American government cable, If you had bothered to ask the American embassy, or the State Department’s Office of Public Affairs, they would have told you about our airplane situation.
    Do we deal with humanitarian cases on narrow issues ? Be realistic: millions of people need help every week. No country, not the U.S., not Algeria, not the UK, has the resources to provide all the assistance needed. You criticize me and my embassy for justifying the costs for a flight for a sick child on the grounds that it would help the American image, and the image of the military. I make no apologies for that. The U.S. military’s image was not so good in Algeria at the time, as you well know. The U.S. military wanted a strong justification for a flight that was going American taxpayers – who have their own sick children – to cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.
    As for my diplomatic activities, maybe you don’t objectively think that they are diplomatic. You are not a diplomat and you are not pushing for change in this part of the world. (Indeed, you take refuge in Britain, benefiting from the British laws that protect freedom of speech and due process. Why aren’t YOU in Algeria where the battle for free speech and due process are ongoing ?)
    But then, you have defended before the repressive actions of governments, whether in Algeria or Syria – from the safety of Britain and behind its solid grounding in the rule of law. I’m happy to be on the front line defending efforts of local people, whether in Iraq, Algeria or Syria, who want what you enjoy in Britain.
    Lastly, it is easy to throw around the accusation that someone works for the intelligence services. Do you know anyone twice appointed as an ambassador who worked with the CIA? anyone in American history? Many people in Algeria told me to beware of you and your possible connections to the Algerian DRS. I don’t know if it is true or not, but it would never have occured to me to put the accusation up on the internet. I guess you and I have different professional standards.
    You’ve never seen me lose my temper. I still have not.
    But I do request that you take my name off your mailing list.
    Thank you,
    Robert Ford
    Mohamed Tamalt’s second response back


    Thank you for recognising that your main interest was not to help the child but to improve the image of your government.
    Please don’t blame me for not having contacted you before publishing the article and blame yourself; as you have ignored my previous question regarding your non diplomatic activities.
    Improving the image of your army could have worked more effectively, if this army had stopped its cruel crimes in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo. It would have been better than selecting one child from the millions whom you have mentioned and make from him a PR tool. And it would have been much better than brazenly ask for immunity for the US soldiers.
    I am not a diplomat but I know that diplomats may be subject to extradition if they keep contacting terrorist groups LIKE YOU DID, attempt to manipulate local political actors LIKE YOU DID, or recruit people to collect security information LIKE YOU DID.
    You should have militated for human rights and freedom in your country instead of doing it in other people countries. A diplomat like you, who serves a state occupying two sovereign states, aggressing a third, and making from the land of a forth country a big prison: such a diplomat cannot teach the host country principles of human rights and freedom.
    You are not in Syria to defend those principles, you are there to represent your government interests and you will get paid and promoted for this
    There are many countries in the world where human rights are abused, but your government does not move a finger to stop those abuses simply because the rulers of these countries are allied to the US
    As for me, you know VERY WELL that I always militated for justice, freedom and human right in my country. You know VERY WELL also that I wrote and still write dozens of articles against corruption, police state, human right violations etc. And you know that I was arrested many times, charged and sentenced to jail once, as a result of my writings against the Algerian regime.
    I declined an open offer from president Bouteflika to work as one of his press officers, and several attractive offers from the Algerian DRS to work for them.
    If I am in the UK it’s ONLY because of the ban of one my two books, the refusal of the government to approve my project to launch a magazine, and the continuous attempts from the DRS side to recruit me. Both the Algerian and the British governments know this VERY WELL.
    Residing in Britain for me is exactly like having contacts with foreign embassies in Algeria as I had in the past, it aims to mitigate any damage caused by the regime oppression but not to work against my people’s interest
    When I was arrested in August 1999 after a book signing, the first thing which I did after my release was to call my parents; the second thing was to go to see friends in the French embassy. Days after, the head of the police Ali Tounsi asked me about the reason of my visit to the French, my answer was: it’s because that your regime shows more fear of the French than of God himself.
    Having done so, I am consciously able to make the difference between using legitimate platforms to continue my struggle for real and constructive reforms in my country, and re-bringing colonialism in the name of freedom and human rights.
    I am not ready to support the devastating desire of your government to duplicate other Iraqs and Afghanistans and will never be
    As for taking your name off my mailing list, I have already done it just after your first request
    Mohamed Tamalt

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