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.

James Fallows: WikiLeaks

  • Leaked U.S. Cables a 'Credible Source' of Information in the Middle East

    The WikiLeaks cables, far from diminishing U.S. credibility, have shown how credible our analyses are

    By Eric Bonabeau

    As I was exploring the timeline of events in the Middle East from recent months (a great visualization can be found here), it struck me that the publication of classified diplomatic cables by WiKileaks, far from diminishing the credibility of U.S. diplomacy, has actually shown how credible its analyses are -- not least to the populations of the Middle East. In an insightful article last week, Romesh Ratnesar of the New America Foundation described how the extreme nepotism found in many of the toppled or endangered regimes was detailed in some of the cables. The cables thus provided validation, in people's revolts against these regimes. Writes Ratnesar:

    On June 23, 2008, a cable arrived at the U.S. State Dept. from the American ambassador to Tunisia, Robert F. Godec. Its subject was corruption, cronyism, and graft in the North African nation, as practiced by relatives of President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali. "Whether it's cash, services, land, property, or, yes, even your yacht, President Ben Ali's family is rumored to covet it and reportedly gets what it wants," Godec wrote. 


    Godec's cable was supposed to remain classified until 2018, but last fall it surfaced in the cache of State Dept. documents made public by WikiLeaks. To Tunisians, the revelations of nepotism were hardly shocking, but never before had they been so publicly detailed by a credible source.

    Thumbnail image for infomous.jpg

    The same credible source of information also played a role in Yemen, Egypt, and more. An Infomous visualization of a Twitter search on "WikiLeaks" and "Tunisia" produces the graph on the right. The situation in some of these countries was arguably volatile (in Egypt in particular), but in an ironic twist, U.S. diplomacy's "reliable information" may have been an unlikely catalyst to the chain reaction we have witnessed.

    Eric Bonabeau is the founder and chairman of Icosystem Corporation, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Follow him on Twitter here.

  • Wikileaks (updated)

    It's a new era, and it will be a long time before we know just how different it is

    The ongoing Wikileaks phenomenon includes so many elements that are obviously good, so many that are obviously bad, and so many that simply are, as huge-scale technological forces of nature, that I am suspicious of any axiomatic "he's a hero" or "he's a villain" judgment about Julian Assange and his associates.

    I mention this as a segue to the very valuable compilation that the Atlantic's Alexis Madrigal posted last night, summarizing and linking to a broad range of the most informed and well-argued attempts to "think about Wikileaks." To spend even ten minutes considering the range of views is to get an idea of how long it will be before we fully comprehend the goods and bads of the new balance of power among governments, "normal" journalists, citizens, hackers, corporations, humanitarian organizations, criminal or terrorist organizations, stateless alliances, and everyone else.

    I am particularly glad that Alexis included a link to "Ten Theses on Wikileaks," by Geert Lovink and Patrice Riemens, which was published last summer after the initial leaks of the "Afghan War Logs" but which applies well to the later larger releases too. I'd suggest starting there, but Alexis points to many other valuable analyses too.

    UPDATE: The Lovink/Riemens article has been updated and the "ten theses" are now twelve. It's here. Three interesting samples:

    >>Thesis 8 Lack of commonality with congenial, "another world is possible" movements drives WikiLeaks to seek public attention by way of increasingly spectacular and risky disclosures, thereby gathering a constituency of often wildly enthusiastic, but generally passive supporters.... Following the nature and quantity of WikiLeaks exposures from its inception up to the present day is eerily reminiscent of watching a firework display, and that includes a "grand finale" in the form of the doomsday-machine pitched, yet-to-be-unleashed "insurance" document (".aes256″). This raises serious doubts about the long-term sustainability of WikiLeaks itself, and possibly also of the WikiLeaks model.

    Thesis 9 WikiLeaks displays a stunning lack of transparency in its internal organization. Its excuse that "WikiLeaks needs to be completely opaque in order to force others to be totally transparent" amounts, in our opinion, to little more than Mad magazine's famous Spy vs. Spy cartoons. You beat the opposition but in a way that makes you indistinguishable from it....

    Thesis 12 We do not think that taking a stand for or against WikiLeaks is what matters most. WikiLeaks is here to stay, until it either scuttles itself or is destroyed by opposing forces.... Despite all its drawbacks, and against all odds, WikiLeaks has rendered a sterling service to the cause of transparency, democracy and openness.<<
  • 'Too Good to Check': Google and the Chinese Propaganda Boss

    A new journalistic 'ethics' issue: how much fact-checking should we do on still-classified information?

    Several friends and sources in China have written in to say that one of the most vivid details in the new Google/China/Wikileaks saga sounds slightly too neat and convenient to be accepted as settled fact without further exploration. This is the report that Li Changchun, head of China's entire propaganda operation, searched for his own name -- 李长春 -- on Google; got mad when he saw some of the results; and thus set about trying to rid his country of this troublesome search engine.

    After a first pass through the NYT report of the redacted cables, I said this afternoon that Li "reportedly was incensed to discover 'critical' remarks when he did a Google search of his own name (a mistake even if you're not a senior Chinese Communist official) and was inspired to kick off a campaign to make Google's life difficult inside China." But in the cables this is based on a single source. Presumably the source was not Mr. Li himself; and other scenarios are possible but a little strange (an aide saw him Googling, noticed he was upset, and told friends? Or perhaps Li found this on his own and complained to his colleagues? Perhaps). Even the author of the State Department cable is careful to say that the U.S. government cannot confirm the report. A Chinese reader wrote to say that when he searched for Mr. Li's name just now, he didn't find anything bad. Of course, the reported episode was from early 2009 or before, when results could have been very different.

    The Li story, while the juiciest, is not the most important aspect of the recent China cables; still it's worth noting its single-source provenance. It also kicks off the next stage of journalistic debate about the whole Wikileaks situation: the rococo ethics of how far journalists are obliged to go in re-reporting accounts from leaked but still-classified cables before summarizing those accounts in the paper. Related question: people take this kind of anecdote for granted and on trust in, say, a Bob Woodward book. What are the standards for sourcing in a classified cable? This will keep us all busy.

  • Backlog: WikiLeaks, Dylan in China, and So On

    More WikiLeaks reactions, including links to a large number of other videos.

    The nightmare of, sigh, "work" means that I have done nothing with large numbers of interesting and important responses about a number of open topics, especially the WikiLeaks footage of the shooting of civilians in Baghdad three years ago, and, on a whole different plane of implications, the mystery of why Bob Dylan will not be making a concert tour of China. (Previous items on WikiLeaks start here and here and here. You know what I'm going to say next! Will have a general link when our site supports "categories" again.) The complexity of the first is obvious; in the second case, there are a lot more Rashomon aspects than I could have imagined.

    For the moment, several more WikiLeaks reflections on the rules of engagement, what is inevitable and what is avoidable during urban war, and what if anything can be learned from this grim episode.

    1. Unit Leadership Matters.
    A reader writes:

    In your posts you speak of a string of responsibility. I notice that within that string, the all-important role of unit commanders is almost never mentioned. It's either bad apples at the bottom, or Bush/Cheney at the top.

    The problem with cover-ups is not just that people get off scot-free. It's that the lie has to be absolute. If every dead civilian is branded an insurgent, or a terrorist, then logically you have to give a medal to the soldier who killed  them - or at least a pat on the back. You certainly can't discipline him. This creates a terrible incentive structure wherein war crimes actually have to be rewarded - or else the cover-up fails.

    From the Winter Soldier testimonies I gathered that it made all the difference what unit soldiers belonged to. In the worst units it was apparently expected of soldiers that they kill civilians - and they were congratulated when they did it. In others, the opposite. I don't think the Bush administration ever gave the order to kill "amazing numbers" of civilians. But they did make clear that they didn't really mind, either. And so units and their commanders were free to develop their own policies, in a skewed situation where - because of the cover-up culture - they knew beforehand that every war crime would be branded a heroic deed.

    2. There Can Be No Excuse. From another reader:

    Neither the 'context' nor the specific situation seem to justify the trigger happiness I've observed.  And I've reviewed a few videos of pilots in combat -I've never seen anything close to this - except where the operating area was plainly hostile territory and virtually anything that moved was considered an enemy (as in the first wave of the first gulf war as well as the 'turkey shoot' on the retreating Iraqi army at the end.)  While it's easy enough for us to say 'that's a camera' vs. their ID of an AK-47 and while the crew did have reports of small arms fire that I suppose led them to that location in the first place, they plainly did not feel that they were threatened or under attack and could have orbited and observed for a long time.

    3. Why Aren't We Noticing All The Other Grisly Videos? Below and after the jump from reader Chip Moore, details of similar footage that has long been available online. I have checked the links to see that they are real (ie, not RickRoll etc) but have not yet watched to see what they reveal:

    What a 30mm cannon does to a human body is brutal. What surprises me is that most people writing about this video did not say that footage like this is available and easy to find online, including official video from American gunships. No one has mentioned combat porn in anything I have read or heard about the wikileaks video. Of course, these videos usually do not include journalists being splattered, but nothing else is unusual. The radio transmissions are similar. The results of the gunfire is similar. The point of view of the American combatants is similar. 

    More »


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