Daily Archives: March 13, 2006

The Yale Taliban saga continues

To start with: my Boston Globe article on the subject can be found here.

Imagine if you were in college and found out that the guy next to you in class had worked as a propagandist for one of the most oppressive regimes of modern times.

For some Yale students, this is not a theoretical question. Sayed Rahmatullah Hashemi, a former spokesman for Afghanistan’s Taliban government, was admitted to the university last year as a special student in a nondegree program; this spring, he plans to apply as a regular student.

Hashemi’s story came to light after he was profiled in an article in The New York Times Magazine. In 2001, not long before the destruction of the World Trade Center and the subsequent removal of the Taliban regime by the US military, Hashemi visited the United States on a speaking tour defending the Taliban.

Now, the 27-year-old Hashemi’s presence at Yale is the center of a controversy. Is his admission an example of bridge-building or diversity gone mad?

A person with a bad past may deserve a second chance. Yet Hashemi’s recent statements show a consistent tendency to whitewash his former masters. He suggests that the Taliban regime went bad because ”the radicals were taking over and doing crazy stuff” — as opposed, presumably, to the sane and moderate early days. On the public executions of adulterous women, he explains to the Times of London that ”there were also executions happening in Texas.”

On his 2001 trip to the United States, Hashemi had a public exchange with a woman who tore off a burqa and denounced the plight of Afghan women. His response (preserved for posterity in Michael Moore’s ”Fahrenheit 9/11″) was, ”I’m really sorry for your husband. He might have a very difficult time with you.” What does he think of that incident today? To the Times of London reporter, he noted that the woman did get divorced.

One striking aspect of this controversy is the reaction from Yale’s liberal community. Della Sentilles, a Yale senior, recently wrote a piece for the Yale Daily News denouncing such manifestations of rampant misogyny at Yale as the shortage of tenured female professors and poor childcare options. On her blog, a reader asked Sentilles about the presence at Yale of a former spokesman for one of the world’s most misogynistic regimes. Her reply: ”As a white American feminist, I do not feel comfortable making statements or judgments about other cultures, especially statements that suggest one culture is more sexist and repressive than another. American feminism is often linked to and manipulated by the state in order to further its own imperialist ends.”

John Fund of The Wall Street Journal, who has been following the story, writes that the Yale students he interviewed were unanimous in their opinion that the reaction to Hashemi would have been more hostile if he had been associated with, say, the apartheid regime of South Africa. One senior told Fund that the general feeling was that it wasn’t appropriate to be as judgmental toward non-Western regimes.

And the reaction from faculty? Jim Sleeper, a journalist and political science lecturer at Yale, has responded in the online edition of The American Prospect by attacking Fund (whom I know personally) instead of addressing the issues.

Sleeper also suggests that Hashemi’s ”enrollment was facilitated less by the ‘diversity’ ethos than by yet another of Yale conservatives’ recent, bumbling efforts to revive the university’s old conduit to national intelligence.”‘ (To this end, he gratuitously insinuates that Hashemi’s American patron, filmmaker Mike Hoover, may have intelligence ties.) Perhaps that was a part of the motive. Either way, the fact is that Yale officials thought that Hashemi was someone who, in the words of one former dean, ”could educate us about the world.” Whether coming from conservatives or liberals, that’s a severely blinkered mentality.

If there is a justification for Hashemi’s admission, it’s that he can learn something from us. Chip Brown, the author of The New York Times Magazine story, tells the Hartford Courant that ”America would be a lot safer from terrorists if there were thousands of Rahmatullahs being educated in the US instead of the madrassas of Pakistan.” Good point. But surely, these educational efforts could be directed toward young Muslims who don’t have a record of collaboration with a brutal extremist regime — and don’t make excuses for that regime.


Also today, John Fund has a follow-up piece on the subject, containing a truly remarkable story:

Yale won’t let anyone comment officially, citing student privacy issues and hoping they can keep silent and last out the storm. But unofficially, some Yale administrators are privately trashing critics. One even anonymously sent scathing emails to two critics calling them “retarded” and “disgusting.”

That official–Alexis Surovov, assistant director of giving at Yale Law School–did talk to me. Last Wednesday, Mr. Surovov sent an angry email from a Columbia University account to Clinton Taylor and Debbie Bookstaber, two young Yale grads who are so frustrated at their alma mater’s refusal to answer questions about Mr. Rahmatullah that they’ve launched a protest. Called NailYale, it focuses on the Taliban’s barbaric treatment of women, which extended to yanking out the fingernails of those who wore nail polish. In a column on TownHall.com, they urged alumni “not give one red cent this year, but instead send Yale a red press-on fingernail.”

Mr. Surovov, a Yale alumnus who has worked in its development office for three years and is on the board of the Yale Club of New Haven, wrote Mr. Taylor and Ms. Bookstaber at their private email addresses with the subject heading: “Y [sic] do you hate Yale.” Here is his email in its entirety: “What is wrong with you? Are you retarded? This is the most disgraceful alumni article that I have ever read in my life. You failed to mention that you’ve never contributed to the Yale Alumni Fund in your life. But to suggest that others follow your negative example is disgusting.”

Intrigued that someone had looked up his wife’s giving record, David Bookstaber, a Yale computer science graduate, used Columbia’s publicly accessible IT account database to trace the anonymous email. The trail led straight to Mr. Surovov’s Yale office. On Thursday Mr. Taylor phoned Mr. Suvarov, who told him he was angry because the furor over the Taliban official was hurting fund raising and could lower Yale’s rankings in the next U.S. News & World Report college survey. He also accused Mr. Taylor and Ms. Bookstaber of “terrorist tactics,” which when challenged he amended to “terror tactics.”

I called Mr. Surovov Friday morning for a candid 30-minute conversation. Why had he sent his blistering attack anonymously? “I’m not sure,” he replied. But he nonetheless stood by a subsequent email he had sent Mr. Taylor using his own name in which he said “I regret nothing” about his previous attack. He did reluctantly concede to me he had made “a poor choice” of one word–“retarded.” When asked if a day earlier he had verbally accused Mr. Taylor of “terror tactics” he paused for several seconds and said “I don’t recall.” He did tell me he viewed their protest as “a reactionary stunt.”

Mr. Surovov made clear that even though he had used Yale equipment to launch his anonymous attack he acted solely in his personal capacity. When I asked how he had known the giving records of the two alumni, he insisted he had gotten them from public records. Despite repeated requests, he did not explain how he had obtained Ms. Bookstaber’s private email address and her maiden name.

According to Fund, no Yale officials will comment on the issue of Surovov’s bizarre behavior — which surely calls for a reprimand and an apology, at the very least! — or on the underlying issue of Rahmatullah Hashemi’s presence on campus.

Curiouser, as they say, and curiouser.

In other developments, over the weekend I have received a private email communication taking me to task for failing to explore Jim Sleeper’s suggestion that Rahmatullah’s admission to Yale had to do with his possible ties to U.S. intelligence. Sleeper (a political science lecturer at Yale) asks, addressing Fund:

And why don’t you look a little more deeply than you did into the provenance and motives of Sayed Rahmatullah Hashemi’s patron Mike Hoover, who commended him to Yale’s admissions office? Why don’t you ask if Rahmatullah’s enrollment was facilitated less by the “diversity” ethos than by yet another of Yale conservatives’ recent, bumbling efforts to revive the university’s old conduit to national intelligence and to framing grandiose “grand strategies”?

Because I myself don’t know the answers to the two questions I’ve just posed, I wish I could rely on you to be “on the trail,” as your column moniker puts it, of the truth rather than of the enemies du jour of your predictable Party line.


The odd thing, though, is that Fund did ask the questions Sleeper accuses him of not asking. Here’s the relevant passage from Fund’s second “diary” piece on the “Taliban Man at Yale” controversy, referenced by Sleeper:

P.J. Crowley, a former official in the Clinton National Security Council, speculated that perhaps Mr. Rahmatullah had been an intelligence asset for the U.S. and his admission was a reward for that help. But my calls to several sources turned up no hint of that. Laili Helms, a former spokeswoman for the Taliban who lives in New Jersey, claims that Mr. Rahmatullah met with officials at the CIA and the State Department during his 2001 tour and proposed the Taliban hold Osama bin Laden in a fixed location long enough so the U.S. could find and kill him. My sources at both agencies say there is no evidence such a proposal was ever made.

So the mystery deepens. Even Mr. Hoover, who frequently visited the Taliban in an effort to secure an interview with Osama bin Laden, is vague about the details of why his charity is paying for his friend to come to the U.S. Indeed, it sounds as if he is shifting responsibility. When asked why Mr. Rahmatullah is here, he told Fox News: “Those are questions for all of the people all down the chain of command that have backed him coming to the country, starting with the American generals who OK’d it for him to come, the people in Islamabad that gave him the visa and the people at Yale who decided to put him on into the campus.”

As for who finances his foundation, Mr. Hoover said it was a group of friends who after finding out “about his background, and heard his ideas, they were behind helping fund him to go to Yale.”

Kurt Lohbeck, who worked with Mr. Hoover as a contract reporter/producer for CBS News in Afghanistan is skeptical about the whole matter. “I worked in the region for 10 years, and there are a lot of people there who should go to Yale before Rahmatullah,” he told me. As for Mr. Hoover’s curious ambivalence today about the Taliban, Mr. Lohbeck said Mr. Hoover would not have been able to go back so frequently as a guest of the Taliban “unless he had kowtowed to them on the first visit. They would have had to grease the skids for him.”


Hampton Stephens
addresses the issue as well:

Mike Hoover, the cameraman who befriended Rahmattullah in Afghanistan and eventually steered him to Yale, has apparently been involved in intelligence activity in the past, according to an Outside magazine article I found. Outside published this 1996 profile of Hoover because, in addition to his experience covering foreign wars, he is a legendary adventure filmmaker. The profile reveals that, after spending much time in Afghanistan in the 1980s following the Soviet invasion, Hoover debriefed U.S. intelligence at the highest level:

Hoover entered Afghanistan 22 times with NIFA to cover the war against the Soviet Union, which invaded the country in 1979. Much of his footage ran on CBS Evening News with Dan Rather. Freelancers like Hoover were among the few sources of information, and he says that twice he was debriefed in Washington by William Casey, then head of the CIA.

With those kind of connections in Hoover’s past and if it’s true, as Sleeper says, that a contingent of Yale professors has been trying to revive Yale’s connection to American intelligence, it’s not far-fetched to imagine that there is more to Rahmatullah’s presence at Yale than meets the eye.

I’m not sure that Hoover’s CIA debriefing translates into “being involved in intelligence activity.” For one, if Hoover was actually working with intelligence, would he be open about it in a magazine interview? But let’s allow for a moment that there is really more here than meets the eye, and that a coveted place at Yale is being used as a reward for cooperation with U.S. intelligence. Surely that’s as scandalous as the scenario of a former Taliban spokesman being admitted to Yale as a diversity mascot. Shouldn’t liberals be outraged even more?

On a tangential note: Sleeper accuses Fund of being disingenuous for characterizing Jamie Kirchick, a Yale senior and Yale Daily News columnist, as a “liberal Democrat” when Kirchick

has been celebrated and defended by conservatives for years for his work with Daniel Pipes and David Horowitz “outing” liberal anti-war professors and for his work for the neoconservative newspaper The New York Sun.

Over the weekend, I found out a little more about Jamie Kirchick. A look at his past columns in the Yale Daily News (some of which are linked from this article) shows that he is hardly afraid to dissent from any kind of conservative party line, and is, if anything, a New Republic-style “liberal hawk.” (See also this column by Kirhick.) His “work with David Horowitz” consists of a single article for FrontPageMag.com, in 2003, criticizing an antiwar rally at Yale. (In an email, Kirchick told me that he is now a registered independent and that he disapproves of Horowitz’s tactics.)

I would say that if it was disingenuous for Fund not to mention Kirchick’s conservative ties when characterizing him as a liberal Democrat, it was equally disingenuous for Sleeper not to mention his own rather loaded history with Kirchik related to the FrontPage article. For more on the subject, go here, here, and here.

I say this with regret, because, as I said in my earlier blogpost, I have always respected Jim Sleeper’s work and his willingness to rise above ideological divisions. I suspect that he is motivated, in this case, by loyalty to Yale and distaste for seeing the school criticized by outside sources, particularly sources on the right known for often exaggerated and histrionic attacks on the liberal academy.

Yet the truth is that if conservatives have been able to use the “Taliban Man at Yale” story as a political weapon against Yale’s liberal establishment, it was the liberals’ silence that enabled them. Rahmatullah Hashemi’s admission to the university — as a prize student, no less — should have caused an outcry from Yale’s liberal community. As Fund’s new story shows, some liberal alumni are, in fact, quite unhappy with the situation. But the silence from the faculty continues, handing more ammunition to the right.


More: I spoke to John Fund earlier today; he tells me that when he identified Jamie Kirchick as a self-described liberal Democrat, he was unaware of the fact that Kirchick had written an article for David Horowitz and had had some affiliation with Campus Watch. As someone who follows the conservative press fairly closely, I can certainly attest that Kirchick is no right-wing celebrity; and, as I previously said, a look at his Yale Daily News columns suggests that he is a pro-war liberal in the New Republic mold. So I’d like to clarify that I am not, as the wording of my post implies, accusing John of being disingenuous in failing to disclose Kirchick’s conservative ties. Frankly, I’m not sure why that’s even an issue. As I said in my earlier post, the point is that liberal Democrats should be up in arms about Rahmatullah Hashemi’s presence at Yale, and if just about the only liberal Democrat willing to publicly speak up against it is not-quite-a-liberal-Democrat, well then so much the worse for liberal Democrats.


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