James Fallows

James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
  • Another traveler to Yunnan

    In my story in the current issue about Xizhou, a small but historically prosperous and architecturally rich village in far southern China, I mention the cautionary example of the city of Lijiang. In the 1990s, Lijiang was also small and charming. Now, most foreign visitors instantly recognize it as a combination of Atlantic City, a discount mall, and a turnpike rest stop. The Chinese domestic tourism industry, which is developing very fast, is in the stage where it is processing huge numbers of necessarily low-end travelers. As sites become popular, many of them end up looking like Lijiang. That's the fate the friends of Xizhou are trying to avoid.


    Kevin Kelly, "Senior Maverick" at Wired, has traveled widely in Asia, including to both Lijiang and Xizhou. That's his picture of "old" Lijiang, to the left. His account:

    "Every regular visitor to China has their own story of headsnapping change. Mine has to do with Lijiang. I first visited Lijiang in the mid 90s on a month-long trip with my two daughters who were 8 and 10 at the time. Lijiang was our starting point for an excursion into the north beyond what is now called Shangrila (Zhongdian back then) into the Tibetan areas around Litang. I've spent a lot of time in the Himalaya and so was quite taken by Lijiang. It seemed to have everything a Shangrila was supposed to -- views, climate, music, and a strong unique, even isolated, culture. One could see how the fantasy began there. I wanted to return with my wife and son someday.

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  • If you thought the Olympic opening ceremony was impressive...

    ... just wait for the parades and public ceremonies in Beijing on October 1, celebrating the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China.

    For the past few months I've heard from university contacts in China about students being marshaled for long drill sessions before the massed exercises for the 60th anniversary celebrations. Courtesy of Glenn Mott, this slide show (text in Chinese) of soldiers, police, and others getting ready for the big day. Eg, soldiers being checked with tape measures and plumb lines to be sure they're standing straight.


    More pictures in the same vein, from Sohu, here -- for instance:

    I can't emphasize enough how much this is not the way most Chinese life seems most of the time. The main mental pictures I recall are people doing their own thing, in their own way, with only reluctant and enforced attention to the "rules." But, as with the Olympics, it is certainly the face that official China wants to present -- even if the effect is to make foreigners unrealistically alarmed about a big, single-minded, perfectly-organized Rising China emerging to crush all in its path. Since so many of the people working in unison on October 1 will be actual soldiers carrying weapons, the international fluster effect will be all the greater. Check out the two minute video here (sometimes slow to load) from the 50th Anniversary commemorations ten years ago, for the general idea.

    If I were a US defense contractor, I'd show that video at every Congressional hearing about the "Chinese threat." But since, as always, the Chinese government cares a million times more about looking strong, successful, and in control to its own people than about whatever foreigners might think, we'll soon see endless waves of goosestepping soldiers. Then life will get back to normal.

  • From the magazine: Field of dreams in China

    The new issue of the Atlantic is worth reading cover to cover -- and IMHO better read on paper than on line. For sometime soon: talking systematically about what kind of material is best read, scanned, absorbed, enjoyed in what kinds of media - handheld, computer screen, "real" print, Kindle-style reader, and so on.

    For the moment, a mention of my own very short article in this issue: a profile of an American family that has ended up in one of the most beautiful parts of China, trying -- against considerable odds -- to put together a coalition of local residents, Communist party officials, businesses, and NGOs to preserve traditional Chinese culture against the onslaught of kitsch-style development otherwise transforming the country's look. Their adopted home town is Xizhou, in the lush, southerly Yunnan province, and this is one view of their "Linden Centre," with local kids biking by.


    More on Brian and Jeanee Linden and their ambitions here, and a four-minute narrated slideshow of the town, the center, the family, and the challenge is below (or here). That is Brian Linden, who first became known in China 25 years ago when cast in a movie about a famous and tragic US-Chinese interaction, in blue jeans and white shirt in the opening shot below.

    If you can make your way to Yunnan, this is very much worth a visit. Below a look at "downtown" Xizhou this spring, with the bean harvest being threshed.


    From a terrace in the Linden Centre.


  • September 11

    Some of the Atlantic's articles from the past eight years, collected here, stand up well as assessments of the moment and its aftermath. As a way to return to the mood, the reactions, the unity, and the incipient disagreements of the attacks on September 11, 2001, William Langewiesche's American Ground will be studied and admired for a long time.

    If you're looking for thematic readings today, you could do very well with the links on this page -- not simply the four articles in the center of the page but the six others in the "From the Archives" column.

    The newspaper story that struck me most today was this one, by N.R. Kleinfield in the New York Times: "A Fortress City that Didn't Come To Be." Its subject is New York, and it explains how, despite its unprecedented loss and trauma, the city recovered not just its vitality but also its deeper sense of balance. It decided to go ahead as a live, open, and inevitably still-vulnerable city, rather than surviving hunkered down, as an armed camp. Having visited New York only once since moving back to the country, I am struck by how much lower is its level of "security theater" than what prevails in Washington. Usually I regard New York as an interesting variation on "normal" American life, rather than as an example to the rest of us. I think in this case it has been the most American part of the country.

  • Two quick updates: flu in China, 64-bit code

    Flu: Over the months, I have frequently remarked on the difference between the Chinese government's approach to H1N1/swine flu and that of many other countries. Difference in brief: the Chinese government has applied sweeping quarantine measures to try to keep the disease out of the country and then to limit its spread; many other countries have viewed the spread as more or less unavoidable and have tried to cope with the consequences.

    Thumbnail image for Quarantine.jpg

    (Photo from this previous post, about visiting Americans quarantined in Shanghai.)  In all countries the emerging view seems to be: the flu has not been that dangerous so far, during this atypical, spring time emergence (in the Northern Hemisphere). But it might be a more serious problem when it comes back in new form during the regular flu season, as the weather gets cold.

    A reader who has recently been in Beijing writes to make a point I have heard from a number of health professionals too:

    "I'm not an immunologist or anything remotely close.  But I wonder if China is actually hurting themselves by so aggressively stopping the spread of H1N1.  The current incarnation of H1N1 seems to be less lethal than the variants that we normally deal with.  Wouldn't it be better to let this variety of H1N1 spread so that people build up immunity to this mild version of H1N1 and then if H1N1 becomes more lethal they will already have some immunity?

    "By the way, while I was at university this summer in Beijing, a student living on the sixth floor of a dorm became ill with H1N1 and the police came with buses and removed about 60 people from that floor."

    The argument from the Chinese authorities is that in a big, poor country with a shaky public health network, they have no choice but to fight a new disease with everything they've got. Memories of the under-reaction to SARS in 2003 also have a Hurricane Katrina-style "let's not make that mistake again" effect. Given the inconvenience many people, Chinese and foreign, have already suffered in the name of flu control, I hope the hyper-aggressive early response to the flu doesn't backfire.

    64-bit code: Last week, I declared a moratorium on discussion of "huge pages" in Apple's operating systems. (Hey, it was interesting at the time.) The reply below, for nerds only, qualifies in the spirit of fair-response. A reader writes:

    "I have nothing to add to the "huge pages" discussion. I promise.

    "But I would like address Mr. [Ken] Broomfield's closing statement which, I believe, is misleading:

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  • Once Again, A First-Rate Speech

    I don't know how many people stayed tuned in to watch the whole hour-plus of this speech, counting intro and so on. But, once again among his major addresses, it will bear long-term study for its range, tone, and clarity:

     - Conciliatory: You Republicans want to talk about tort reform? Let's hear your ideas.
     - Tough: When you tell lies, we will call you out.
     - Clarifying: For the first time ever, I felt as if I glimpsed a "larger idea" behind the Obama plan.
     - Big picture: The role-of-government soliloquy at the end, including the connection to the moral and social-contract histories of Social Security and Medicare.
     - Emotional, sans schmaltz: As he got ready for the end, I feared that he would tell the story of all the Lenny Skutnik figures in the First Lady's box. Instead, he told Ted Kennedy's story, with allusions only to Kennedy's Republican friends.
    - Simple performance dynamics: Well delivered, including at crucial points talking over the applause to keep the rhythm going.
    - Manners: Will it pay off for the Republicans to have booed him and, in the case of Rep. "Gentleman Joe" Wilson of South Carolina, to have yelled "you lie!" at the President? We'll see. Update: An ActBlue site supporting an opponent to Wilson raised more than $25,000 within three hours of his outburst. Via Simon Owens.

    There will come a time when Barack Obama cannot pull himself out of pinch with a big speech. And obviously we don't know how this debate will turn out yet. But he hasn't fallen short on the big-speech front yet. More tomorrow.

  • Once again, a first-rate speech

    I don't know how many people stayed tuned in to watch the whole hour-plus of this speech, counting intro and so on. But, once again among his major addresses, it will bear long-term study for its range, tone, and clarity:

     - Conciliatory: You Republicans want to talk about tort reform? Let's hear your ideas.
     - Tough: When you tell lies, we will call you out.
     - Clarifying: For the first time ever, I felt as if I glimpsed a "larger idea" behind the Obama plan.
     - Big picture: The role-of-government soliloquy at the end, including the connection to the moral and social-contract histories of Social Security and Medicare.
     - Emotional, sans schmaltz: As he got ready for the end, I feared that he would tell the story of all the Lenny Skutnik figures in the First Lady's box. Instead, he told Ted Kennedy's story, with allusions only to Kennedy's Republican friends.
    - Simple performance dynamics: Well delivered, including at crucial points talking over the applause to keep the rhythm going.
    - Manners: Will it pay off for the Republicans to have booed him and, in the case of Rep. "Gentleman Joe" Wilson of South Carolina, to have yelled "you lie!" at the President? We'll see. Update: An ActBlue site supporting an opponent to Wilson raised more than $25,000 within three hours of his outburst. Via Simon Owens.

    There will come a time when Barack Obama cannot pull himself out of pinch with a big speech. And obviously we don't know how this debate will turn out yet. But he hasn't fallen short on the big-speech front yet. More tomorrow.

  • Now this is tempting: ideas for the DHS!


    From a contact within the greater "Homeland Security" community, a link to the Quadrennial Homeland Security Review, an interactive exercise to gather suggestions for what the DHS should start doing, and stop doing.

    Hmmmm! And hmmmmm

    The survey, which can be found here, was initially supposed to end this past weekend. But due to interest and demand, it's been extended through Wednesday, September 9 -- tomorrow as I type.

    From the registration page, here, it looks as if "General Public" is one of the category of "stakeholders" allowed to express views on the DHS's future. Who says this isn't the age of transparency and interaction?



    Over to you, members of the Homeland American public.

  • I was wrong (again)

    I've seen the light. No longer will I complain about the trite hackneyed vacuous portento-pious lazy comforting and beloved three-word ending for all presidential addresses since the time of Ronald Reagan: "God bless America!" I won't complain, that is, as long as the words are always presented in the style of the clip below. See especially from time 2:00 onward.


    From here. Thanks to Gary Puckett.

  • Remaining holiday-festival updates, #9 - 999, all in one place

    Labor Day weekend has, sigh, reached its close, and with it the feeling of summer. To clear out the list of update topics for this weekend-long festival:

    - #9 Striking gold in China. I mentioned previously my skeptical response to the story of Americans showing up in China and suddenly finding great jobs. Seems that this was pretty much the response by the expat community in China too. See this and this from last month -- plus after the jump, a reply today from someone who showed up a year ago in China and has put the  "Chinese streets are paved with gold" hypothesis to the test.

    - #10 Is China (unfortunately) starting to learn from the TSA? Secondly after the jump, an account of a new wrinkle in Chinese airport security: having passengers take off their shoes, just like in the U.S.  Not sure whether this is a local aberration or the beginning of a new policy.

    - #999
    President Obama speaks to the schoolchildren. I was all in favor of this earnest buckle-down, back-to-school pitch until I saw the way the presentation ended. Sigh. And that brings us to the end of this holiday weekend special!

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  • Festival of updates #8: Chinese/US attitudes on race, flu

    These are both big, complicated topics, but to catch up on recent developments in each:

    - I mentioned many times last year that there seemed to be less excitement about Barack Obama's rise in China than in, say, Europe or Africa, and that this was due at least partly to racial attitudes.* Many Chinese people with experience in America appreciate the centrality of black-white relations in the story of America's development. For instance, in a profile of Gao Xiqing, who directs the Chinese government's vast investments in the U.S., I mentioned that he has a small portrait of Martin Luther King over his desk in Beijing. (Gao went to law school at Duke.) But in my experience, many ordinary people with little exposure outside China freely expressed anti-black racial attitudes. During the 2008 primary season, this turned up as a kind of puzzlement about whether a black candidate could plausibly have the skill, sophistication, knowledge, work habits, etc to stand up to veteran opponents like Hillary Clinton or John McCain.

    That's the context in which to read the stories about the hard times faced by a (beautiful) young Chinese model-aspirant whose mother is a Han Chinese from Shanghai and whose father was a black American. The girl, Lou Jing, is at right, and her mother at center in this picture:

    Stories from last week here, in the Straits Times in Singapore (thanks, C. Tan), and from the Shanghaiist site here. A summary (in English) of some of the harsh Chinese on-line chatter at this site, which was also the source of the picture. Discussion of parallel situations in Korea here. The ChinaSmack site, which translates a lot of blog material into English, is said to have a discussion here, but for whatever reason I can't get it to load.

    UPDATE: The China Smack link did finally come up, which has a lot of trenchant material, including what is claimed to be a statement by Lou Jing herself, plus this additional and additionally charming photo:

    To be clear about the context: this is not a "blame China" episode but rather one of many illustrations of the differences in day by day social realities and perceived versus ignored sources of tension in particular societies. That's all to say about it for now.

    - In the same "varying realities" vein, I mentioned repeatedly through this spring how H1N1/swine flu was being taken as a huge public-health emergency in China, leading to extraordinary gestures of what most foreigners considered heavy-handed security-theater. But inside China, the prevalent perception was that the government was taking all necessary and proper steps -- while the US was being self-indulgently and irresponsibly lax, letting infected people roam free to spread disease wherever they went. I'm judging this by what I saw in the Chinese press and by the voluminous complaint messages I received from Chinese readers.

    That is the context for this item by James Areddy of the WSJ last week, concerning an inflight-video on a Chinese airline flight explaining what a "shame" it is that flu virus has been spreading from America. As Areddy points out, the video refers to mei zhou -- 美洲, "the Americas" -- as the source of infection, rather than mei guo, 美国, "America." So maybe it's  Mexico-US-Canada NAFTA-solidarity in blame. On the other hand, the English subtitles say "America." In any case, interesting as a reminder of difference in attitudes. This will matter more, of course, if the flu comes back in a more lethal form this fall. (Photo by Areddy from his item:)


    * In part, it also reflected the long-standing Chinese assumption that Democrats will be tougher than Republicans on trade policy, and the preference for sticking with known figures in US politics. Hillary Clinton was much better known to the Chinese public and officialdom than Obama was, and thus she seemed the safer bet from their point of view.

  • Holiday festival of updates #3A: Back to Snow Leopard and "huge pages"

    I declare this the last posting in this venue on whether Apple's new Snow Leopard operating system does or does not support the use of "huge pages" in memory addressing, as laid out previously in Holiday Update #3 here. But for completeness, I offer this report from the other side of the operating system divide:

    "I'm a Software Engineer at Microsoft.  Apple's smart enough to see how little use 4MB pages are and I doubt they will ever implement support any time soon.  
    "Huge pages hurt when the other factors at play are accounted for like memory fragmentation, additional memory used, cost of reading in 4 MB at a time from the disk.  I think this has been tested on IA64 servers with huge amount of ram and it hurt not helped."

    Let's add this to the list of "how big is the universe"-style endlessly debatable questions.

    So many more updates, so few remaining holiday weekend hours.

  • Festival of updates #7: NYT hit-and-miss

    Catching up on one NYT item that rang exactly (and surprisingly) true, and another with a different effect:

    Sounds true to me: A "good news" item that stayed on the "most popular" list for a very long time. Its news was that years and years of running can actually protect and strengthen your knees, rather than inevitably pulverize and destroy them. I am here as a one-man long-term-longitudinal study to say: yessir!

    IMG_6684.jpgExcept for the past three years-of-smog in China -- lest we forget: Easter Day, 2009, in Beijing, shown at left -- I have been running many times a week for many decades. I shudder for various reasons to realize that I ran my first Boston Marathon 40 years ago. As the body-odometer has gotten into the tens of thousands of miles, I've logged problems with: Achilles tendon (too often -- hmmm, I wonder if there should be some term for a point of chronic weakness); hamstrings or calf muscles (periodically, including now); shin splints or ankle issues (rarely); etc. But knees, which I'd always been warned would be used up by running? No problems, at all. (As opposed to my dad -- who played college football and for the next 60 years coped with trick knees.) Now that actual medical research has confirmed that this is the expected result rather than a fluke, my knees feel even better.  So can yours!

    On the other hand: we have this story last month, which suggested that if young Americans couldn't find jobs at home, all they had to do was move to China and they'd shortcut into positions of responsibility. I'm here to say: Well, sort of.

    Is China exciting enough that people should go there? It sure is. Can young people with no background in China or Chinese find work quickly? Probably so -- if they're willing to teach English. (And can get a visa -- whole different topic.) And if they stay and learn the language, lots of other opportunities often do turn up. Really, for Westerners in their 20s it's hard to think of a better investment of a few years than going to China, learning what it's like, becoming comfortable with Chinese ways and Chinese people, facing its discouraging realities but also sharing its sense of possibility.

    But the idea that many non-trained grads will find "good" jobs -- eg, ones where the Chinese employer regularly pays them? Or that it's realistic to go from zero to "highly proficient" in Chinese language in a short time? Or that young foreigners will be insulated from the, ummm, idiosyncrasies of typical Chinese accounting and business practices? Those all seem a stretch. This kind of "land of gold!" account of today's China has a touching parallel to the "gold mountain!" accounts of prospects in America that have historically drawn Chinese migrants across the Pacific. Both are accurate in spirit, but potentially misleading on details.

  • Festival of updates #6: TSA vs. the toddler menace

    No, this doesn't prove anything, but the picture is too interesting not to share. It's from a reader who describes his experience at BWI airport. It was back in 2005, before the BWI-specific improvements mentioned here, so maybe this would never happen again. But...

    "Attached is a picture of my daughter (15 months old at the time) being frisked by a TSA security screener at BWI....

    "I had been carrying her through security after putting the stroller through.  Of course the metal detector detected something. You can see in the picture that I am holding my pants up with my hand rather than my belt and have no shoes on so who knows what it was.  Maybe it was her shoes - they didn't make her take them off.  I got the feeling when they called a woman over that they were going to frisk her so I called to my wife who had already gone through to get a picture.  Sure enough they gave her the wand metal detector and pat down treatment."

    If all of this were part of a shrewd, realistic, threat-based strategy of imposing inconvenience and occasional humiliation only when necessary, then -- great! But in reality....
  • Festival of updates #5: Wolfowitz and Iraq


    For the rest of his life, Paul Wolfowitz will face questions about the invasion and occupation of Iraq. You can hear that realization sinking in on him during the course of his ten-minute interview with Guy Raz of NPR, broadcast this evening on on All Things Considered. Wolfowitz had come on the show to discusss his essay on foreign policy "realism" in Foreign Policy magazine -- about which more in a moment. Through the ten minutes, you can hear Wolfowitz sounding startled, then testy, then something like resigned when Raz keeps coming back to the questions he obviously had to ask, about how Wolfowitz's current theories match the record in office for which he will always be best known.

    The idea that we'll "always" be known for a moment in the unchangeable past, no matter how the rest of our lives turn out, is a proposition so fatalistic that that we all naturally resist it. (Except maybe Michael Phelps, Sandy Koufax, perhaps Tom Brady and Neil Armstrong, etc.) The earnest post-Vietnam career of Robert McNamara is a testament to how much he struggled with that reality. Remarkably and rarely, Al Gore will "always" be the man at the losing end of Bush v. Gore, but he made a new identity after that.

    In the ten minutes of his interview, whenever Wolfowitz says "Look!" what he's really signaling is: I don't want to talk about this Iraq stuff any more, so why do you keep coming back to it? The reason for coming back, of course, is that Wolfowitz does and always will occupy a unique role in the intellectual history of the decision. Dick Cheney will apparently never reveal a doubt or second thought; George W. Bush has (with some dignity) backed off the public stage for now; Colin Powell has made sure to signal that he was never that enthusiastic; and who knows what Donald Rumsfeld will come up with. But Wolfowitz was the one who from the start had the sweeping vision of the historic rationale for removing Saddam Hussein.

    The public case for invading Iraq was purely negative. ("Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction." Dick Cheney, speech to national VFW Convention, August 26, 2002.) But the "enlightened" case that Wolfowitz in particular had made for years in articles, interviews, and speeches involved the broader, Wilsonian prospect of bringing democracy to the Arab world, as it had largely come to much of Asia and Latin America. I did a profile of him in early 2002 that emphasized this theme. I also had a sense of its origins, having lived in Southeast Asia in the 1980s, when Wolfowitz helped swing U.S. policy against Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines, and then was a very popular U.S. ambassador to Indonesia. By all accounts, Wolfowitz was a prominent voice telling a rattled President Bush, during the first, nervous strategy session at Camp David days after the 9/11 attacks, that for positive and negative reasons alike he had to get to the root of the terrorist problem by moving against Iraq. (For more on Wolfowitz's role in war planning, see here and here.)

    In its way it was an honorable vision, as were most of Robert McNamara's beliefs through the early days in Vietnam. But it did not -- OK, has not so far -- turned out anything like what Wolfowitz advertised publicly and within the government. To his credit, Guy Raz of NPR played back to Wolfowitz the tape of his notorious Congressional testimony just before the invasion, in which he said "We can't be sure that the Iraqi people will welcome us as liberators ... [but] I am reasonably certain that they will greet us as liberators, and that will help us to keep requirements down." And "It's hard to conceive that it would take more forces to provide stability in post-Saddam Iraq than it would take to conduct the war itself and to secure the surrender of Saddam's security forces and his army. Hard to imagine."

    It's worth listening to -- along with the full 37-minute unedited interview, here. Among other reasons, I suspect it will be a while before we hear Paul Wolfowitz in such a setting again. The first 15 minutes or so of the "long" version involve what he did want to talk about -- his new Foreign Policy article warning against excessive "realism" in America's approach to the world. Judge for yourself, but it strikes me as a concerted argument against a non-existent or straw-man foe. When an American president has given a major speech in an Arab capital saying that the U.S. needs to engage in the modernization of the Islamic world, it's hard to argue that the U.S. is showing a steely indifference to social and political conditions outside its borders.

    It took more than twenty years after Robert McNamara's departure from the Pentagon for him to begin talking seriously about Vietnam. I look forward to what Paul Wolfowitz eventually says about his war.

    In an on-air colloquy with Guy Raz after this interview, I made my own mistake. I said that a recent ruling by a panel of judges from the 9th Circuit held that John Ashcroft, former Attorney General, "was" personally liable for illegal detention of a U.S. citizen. Actually, the ruling said that he "could be" personally liable. My apologies.


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