Monday, October 31, 2005

What a Surprise!

The GOP, reeling from a month of scandals, investigations, and indictments, has decided to regroup and reach out to its base by doing what it likes to do best: cut government spending on the poor and vulnerable.

The NY Times reports that a a new look at the budget is being planned by the Republicans in Congress.

Congress will embark this week on a major cost-cutting drive that conservative Republicans see as their party's chance to revive its reputation for frugality. But the conservatives face stiff resistance from united Democrats and skeptical fellow Republicans.

With Republican leaders pointing to the need to reduce spending elsewhere to pay for hurricane recovery, the Senate on Monday will begin considering a plan to pare $39 billion over the next five years. The House is assembling its own $50 billion package with an eye toward additional across-the-board cuts this year.

But forcing through the changes will not be easy. Democrats have so far been solid in their opposition, saying that Republicans will apply any savings to an ill-advised series of tax cuts. They contend that the programs to be scaled back will mean less federal help for the people who need it most, including the poor and the elderly.

With no Democrats to count on for help, the House and Senate leadership will need almost all Republicans behind them, and many have already expressed uneasiness about the cuts. The House was unable to put together a majority for a largely symbolic vote endorsing the $50 billion in cuts, and some Republicans, largely moderates, say they just do not see a public clamoring for federal cutbacks.

"Not one person has come up to me and said we have too much spending," said Representative Peter T. King, Republican of New York.

The House plan, to be approved by the Budget Committee this week, will present lawmakers with some tough decisions through its potential reductions in spending on food stamps and school lunch programs, Medicaid and farm subsidies, among others.

In the Senate, the Republican leadership also urged committee chairmen to look for more than $35 billion in savings, and the $39 billion plan to be debated this week before an expected vote on Thursday is a result.

Its architects avoided some of the most controversial areas, like food stamps, but they would enact changes that could hit Medicare, a program the House did not touch. Their plan also generates more revenue from businesses and banks through new provisions, and it increases spending on student aid.
[Emphasis added]

While there certainly is plenty of fat to be cut from the budget, such as the give-aways to the oil companies (who once again reported record-breaking profits this last quarter) and the high-on-the hog pork projects in the highway bill, taking the money from programs that benefit the elderly and the poor just doesn't look like the big win the Republicans are looking for. The moderates of the party recognize that.

Additionally, given the facts that the country is still stuck in Iraq and spending billions (much of which can't be accounted for)there, and the country has just been hit by three catastrophic hurricanes which require massive spending just to put the gulf states back together again, an honest Congress Critter has to admit that those tax cuts for the wealthiest in the nation just don't make sense any longer.

It's time, way past time, for the Democrats to flex their muscles instead of their spines. Not only should they unite (for a change) on the budget cutting, they should start talking loudly to whatever media outlet they can buttonhole about what the Republicans are attempting to do.

Sunday, October 30, 2005

On the Personal Side

Unfortunately, news about a police officer's conduct too often deals with instances of brutality, corruption, racism, or a combination of all three. Occasionally, however, an article is printed about a cop of who gets it right. My home town news paper, the MilwaukeeJournal Sentinal had the latter kind of story one day this week.

It seems the officer, barely a week after being promoted to sergeant, was alone in his patrol car when a car passed him at a high rate of speed. He caught up to the car only after it had crashed and burst into flames. The cop couldn't break any windows with his nightstick, so he used his hands to peel back some of the torn metal on the car door to reach in and unlock the door. Once he got the driver out of the burning vehicle, he raced over to the other side and pulled out the passenger just as the backup he had called for arrived. The young cop saved two lives at considerable risk to his own.

I'm always impressed with human bravery, and this kid was clearly a hero. What especially impressed me about this story is that I know the hero. He's my nephew.

Way to go, Dennis.

Saturday, October 29, 2005

Used, Abused, and then Discarded

The American press now finds itself in an unusual and very uncomfortable position: being a part of the news (and not in a nice way)instead of just reporting it. It is clear that the indictment of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby rested on information provided, however unwillingly, by reporters. It is also clear that should the matter proceed to trial, three journalists (NBC's Tim Russert, Newsweek's Matt Cooper, and the NY Times' Judith Miller)will be called upon to testify. The press will have to report on themselves, and that process has already started.

First, the NY Times:

In pressing his indictment of I. Lewis Libby Jr., the special prosecutor is pitting three prominent journalists against their former source, a strategy that experts in law and journalism say has rarely been used or tested.

It is all but unheard of for reporters to turn publicly on their sources or for prosecutors to succeed in conscripting members of a profession that prizes its independence.

Yet Mr. Libby's trial on perjury and obstruction charges will largely turn on whether jurors are more inclined to believe a government official who played a critical role in devising the justifications for the Iraq war or members of a profession whose own credibility has been under assault.
[Emphasis added]

Next, Howard Kurtz (media 'watchdog') of the Washington Post:

President Bush, who famously says he doesn't read newspapers, has often described his administration as not overly concerned with news coverage. But yesterday's indictment of Vice President Cheney's chief of staff portrays a White House that reacted angrily to media accounts and tried, with stealth and deception, to use journalists to undermine one of its critics. ...

Mark Feldstein, a professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University, said the indictment "strips bare that what reporters often learn is officially managed, spinned news. It tends to make the reporters look like receptacles for very self-interested leaks, which is how the game is often played in Washington. . . . Libby also counted on these same reporters to conceal his role in this propaganda war, knowing that they would have an instinctive desire to protect their confidential sources."
[Emphasis added]

Finally, from one of the prime actors in this drama, Tim Russert:

MSNBC: So, your sole contact with Scooter Libby in the period in question here was he called to complain about programming, something that was said or covered on one of NBC’s cable news programs.

Russert: Correct. And that was the extent of it. I immediately, obviously, called to the president of NBC News and shared the complaint — which is why it was memorable in my mind.

And to the notion that I somehow was the recipient of a leak, which wasn't the case, or that I had shared information that I did not know — the first time I heard of Valerie Plame and the fact that she was a CIA operative is when I read Robert Novak's column the following Monday. ...

MSNBC: Does what is contained in this five-count indictment collide on its face with anything the vice president said to you at a later date, as a guest on your broadcast "Meet the Press"?

Russert: Well, I asked him in September of 2003 about Joseph Wilson. He said he did not know Joseph Wilson, and he went on to say he did not know who sent Joe Wilson to Africa or authorized the trip. ...

But, as you know, it is not a crime to say misleading things on "Meet the Press" or other interview programs.
[Emphasis added]

No, Mr. Russert, it is not a crime to make misleading statements during interviews, but it is certainly disappointing that the press not only doesn't expose the misleading statements by asking the hard questions, but seems to be perfectly willing to repeat those statements as if they were true, even when it becomes clear that they are not.

As Professor Feldstein pointed out in the Kurtz column quoted above, the press has become a willing extension of the administration's propaganda machine by regurgitating the self-interested leaks (attributing the leaks to anonymous sources)as if they were unimpeachably true. And, as the good professor reminds us, this is the way the game is played in Washington. Mr. Libby and other members of the regime chose this way to slime Joe Wilson because they knew they could. The press could be counted on to carry the water for administration.

Is it any wonder why the credibility of the press is under suspicion?

Friday, October 28, 2005

FBI Slapdown

The FBI has once again shown that it is perfectly willing to cross Constitutional lines when it comes to domestic spying. In this case, it involves the use of cellular phones as tracking devices.

The FBI may not track the locations of cell phone users without showing evidence that a crime occurred or is in progress, two federal judges ruled, saying that to do so would violate long-established privacy protections.

In separate rulings over the past two weeks, judges in Texas and New York denied FBI requests for court orders that would have forced wireless carriers to continuously reveal the location of a suspect's cell phone as part of an ongoing investigation. Other judges have allowed the practice in other jurisdictions, but the recent rulings could change that.

The rulings come as controversy mounts over the federal government's ability to conduct domestic surveillance. Privacy advocates continue to criticize the Patriot Act, enacted after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. That law broadened the powers of law enforcement to monitor citizens under suspicion of terrorist activity.

In the New York and Texas cases, the courts approved FBI requests for other information from the wireless carriers, including logs of numbers a cell phone user called and received calls from.

Court orders for that information require law enforcement agencies to show only that the information is relevant to an ongoing investigation.

But the FBI also sought cell-site locations, which the courts said amounted to the ability to monitor someone's movements. The judges ruled that such information requires law enforcement to show "probable cause" that a crime has been or is being committed.

That requirement, which also is required for a search warrant, is a long-standing legal mandate designed to protect against overzealous or improper investigations, both judges said.
[Emphasis added]

The FBI was certainly pushing the envelope on these cases, even if it did claim to be operating under the color of the Patriot Act. If the FBI or any other federal agency operating in the US believes a crime is about to be committed, judges are available continuously to review the evidence already gathered which would satisfy the 'probable cause' requirement. Yes, it's an extra step, but one that has long been recognized as important to the privacy and the freedom of even those under investigation. It's spelled out nicely in that pre-September 11 document, the US Constitution.

Kevin Bankston, staff counsel of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a privacy advocacy group that filed court briefs opposing the government's position, said the framers of the Constitution recognized that sometimes, investigations might be slowed to preserve broader privacy rights.

He also said that the government's arguments make him wonder what other tactics the FBI is employing that might exceed legal authority.

Mr. Bankston expresses a concern that we all should have, especially in light of revelations that the FBI has rather frequently been unlawfully strolling through the Constitutional barriers to excessive police tactics.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Bringing Back the Bacon

Davis-Bacon, that is. In a gift to the construction industry and the anti-union right wing of the Republican Party, George W. Bush lifted provisions of the law requiring contractors to pay the prevailing local wage in federally funded projects as part of the Katrina recovery efforts. Apparently enough folks on Capitol Hill heard the screams of unions and blue collar workers to force the regime to back off on that stance, according to the Washington Post.

The White House yesterday reversed course and reinstated a key wage protection for workers involved in Hurricane Katrina reconstruction, bowing to pressure from moderate House Republicans who argued that Gulf Coast residents were being left out of the recovery and that the region was becoming a magnet for illegal immigrants.

The Bush administration decided in the days after the hurricane to waive a provision of the Davis-Bacon Act that guarantees construction workers the prevailing local wage when they are paid with federal money. The administration said the waiver on hurricane-related work would save the government money and speed recovery efforts.

The decision immediately was criticized by Democrats and labor unions. It also exposed fault lines in the president's party. Conservatives strongly backed the waiver. But a group of moderate Republican members of Congress -- many from districts in industrial areas populated by blue-collar workers -- lobbied the White House and the congressional leadership for the prevailing-wage provision to be reinstated. In recent weeks, the lawmakers wrote to President Bush, met with Deputy White House Chief of Staff Karl Rove and Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman, and persuaded House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert to arrange a meeting with Andrew Card, the White House chief of staff.

Yesterday morning, leaders of that group were summoned to the White House, where Card told them that the administration had changed its mind. The prevailing-wage rule is to go back into effect Nov. 8, two months after the suspension. It will not apply retroactively.

The response to the roll-back was instantaneous from both the construction industry (many of whose members were awarded no-bid contracts for the clean-up and reconstruction of the areas devastated by the hurricane)and their allies in Congress, but apparently the more moderate Republicans (many of whom come from strong union states and are facing re-election next year)prevailed.

Although it won't be retroactive, this move will make it possible for local workers in these projects to get back on their feet. The article pointed to some of the difficulties these workers faced:

Gulf Coast workers and businesses have complained that they are being left out of the recovery. While the federal government spends more than $60 billion on recovery, they say that out-of-state companies receive most of the contracts and that many of those firms pay workers less than the prevailing wage -- which is often the union wage.

For example, 75 unionized electricians said they lost their $22-an-hour jobs rebuilding the Belle Chasse Naval Air Station near New Orleans because a Halliburton Co. subcontractor found workers to do the job for less.

The right decision was made this time, although obviously for questionable motives. Still, it's time that the people who suffered the most in the disaster get some assistance, especially since they're willing to work hard for it.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Image and the Bottom Line

One of the reasons I always cringe when I hear conservative politicians promise to run government like a business is that businesses don't care about the public at large (whether customers or employees), just about the bottom line. That's also why I shudder whenever conservative politicians try to shift a government responsibility to the private sector in order to cut costs. An article in today's NY Times exemplifies my feelings on the issue.

An internal memo sent to Wal-Mart's board of directors proposes numerous ways to hold down spending on health care and other benefits while seeking to minimize damage to the retailer's reputation. Among the recommendations are hiring more part-time workers and discouraging unhealthy people from working at Wal-Mart.

In the memorandum, M. Susan Chambers, Wal-Mart's executive vice president for benefits, also recommends reducing 401(k) contributions and wooing younger, and presumably healthier, workers by offering education benefits. The memo voices concern that workers with seven years' seniority earn more than workers with one year's seniority, but are no more productive.

The memo acknowledged that Wal-Mart, the world's largest retailer, had to walk a fine line in restraining benefit costs because critics had attacked it for being stingy on wages and health coverage. Ms. Chambers acknowledged that 46 percent of the children of Wal-Mart's 1.33 million United States employees were uninsured or on Medicaid.

Wal-Mart executives said the memo was part of an effort to rein in benefit costs, which to Wall Street's dismay have soared by 15 percent a year on average since 2002. Like much of corporate America, Wal-Mart has been squeezed by soaring health costs. The proposed plan, if approved, would save the company more than $1 billion a year by 2011.

Under fire because less than 45 percent of its workers receive company health insurance, Wal-Mart announced a new plan on Monday that seeks to increase participation by allowing some employees to pay just $11 a month in premiums. Some health experts praised the plan for making coverage more affordable, but others criticized it, noting that full-time Wal-Mart employees, who earn on average around $17,500 a year, could face out-of-pocket expenses of $2,500 a year or more.

Eager to burnish Wal-Mart's image as it faces opposition in trying to expand into New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, Wal-Mart's chief executive, H. Lee Scott Jr., also announced on Monday a sweeping plan to conserve energy. He also said that Wal-Mart supported raising the minimum wage to help Wal-Mart's customers.

"It will be far easier to attract and retain a healthier work force than it will be to change behavior in an existing one," the memo said. "These moves would also dissuade unhealthy people from coming to work at Wal-Mart."
[Emphasis added]

In other words, people with diabetes are not wanted as employees (which may be a violation of federal law), nor are workers who are older and more prone to health problems (which may also be a violation of federal law). People with children are OK, primarily because their children can continue to use Medicaid and other government services.

What I found to be hilarious in the article (in a sick sort of way)is the attempt to burnish the image of Wal-Mart by announcing a plan to conserve energy. Clearly this is a nice little nod to environmentalists. Conserving energy is always a good thing, but it also is usually accompanied by a cost-savings. Maybe Wal-Mart could put those savings to use by doing a better job in funding employee benefits.

Maybe Wal-Mart could go even further and lobby the federal government in concert with other large corporations for a national health plan which would remove that cost from the corporate bottom line. Such a plan could be funded by assessments from employers which would probably be far less than what they are paying insurance companies.

Nah, that would make too much sense and would give the government too much power over our lives.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

"But...but we're still learning..."

File this under the "Inexcusable Behavior" category.

Under the Patriot Act and its progeny, the intelligence gathering mechanisms of the federal government have been given broad powers to spy on people residing in the US. Those of us who screamed about the violation of Constitutional guarantees were told to chill out, the government would never abuse these new powers.

Yeah, right!

Yesterday's Washington Post and today's NY Times report on just such problems.

Civil rights advocates called on Monday for Congress to increase its oversight of the Federal Bureau of Investigation's surveillance of suspects in intelligence investigations, in light of newly disclosed records indicating that the F.B.I. had violated the law.

But the bureau defended its record, saying it had been diligent in policing itself and in correcting lapses that it considered to be largely technical and procedural.

The debate was prompted by a set of internal F.B.I. documents made public on Monday that disclosed at least a dozen violations of federal law or bureau policy from 2002 to 2004 in the handling of surveillance and investigative matters. ...

While most of the cases appeared to be related to intelligence and national security investigations in field offices around the country, the bureau blacked out virtually all details about the exact nature of the investigations. The documents were obtained through a public records act request by the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a group that lobbies for greater privacy rights and civil liberties, and were first reported on Monday in The Washington Post.

Officials at the privacy center said the documents suggested abuses of authority by the F.B.I. under the expanded powers granted under the USA Patriot Act, the antiterrorism law that Congress is to consider extending in coming weeks. The privacy group said Congressional oversight committees had never been properly informed of the possible violations, and it called on Congress to exercise greater oversight.
[Emphasis added]

Of course, the FBI had a wonderful excuse just lying around waiting to be used.

It said the lapses cited in the internal reports reflected not an abuse of power, but rather an unfamiliarity by some agents with new protocols on intelligence investigations after the Sept. 11 attacks.

"You have a very steep learning curve," said John Miller, a spokesman for the F.B.I. "The rules changed in midstream, and agents have had to learn how to report these things out and where the lines are. This is probably something that will get better with experience and time, but right now, we're in a period of transition and people are learning."
[Emphasis added]

Sorry, boys, that ain't gonna get it. September 11 did not change the Constitution, last I checked.

And, yes, it's hard work getting trained in new procedures, but it's required when civil rights are involved. Besides, if these cases just involved a few rookie mistakes, then why the heavy-handed editing of the report?

No, the excuses don't fly, nor should a renewal of the Patriot Act. This kind of behavior is inexcusable.

Making an Exception for Torture

Just when I think this regime can't possibly do anything further to shock me, it proves me wrong. This time it has to do with torture (I don't like the euphemism 'inhumane treatment') and the recently passed Senate bill on its ban. Today's Washington Post has the story.

The Bush administration has proposed exempting employees of the Central Intelligence Agency from a legislative measure endorsed earlier this month by 90 members of the Senate that would bar cruel and degrading treatment of any prisoners in U.S. custody.

The proposal, which two sources said Vice President Cheney handed last Thursday to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in the company of CIA Director Porter J. Goss, states that the measure barring inhumane treatment shall not apply to counterterrorism operations conducted abroad or to operations conducted by "an element of the United States government" other than the Defense Department.

"This is the first time they've said explicitly that the intelligence community should be allowed to treat prisoners inhumanely," said Tom Malinowski, the Washington advocacy director for Human Rights Watch. "In the past, they've only said that the law does not forbid inhumane treatment." Now, he said, the administration is saying more concretely that it cannot be forbidden.
[Emphasis added]

For an administration that implies its legitimacy rests in its moral superiority and Christian values, this move is absolutely shocking, both in the content of the 'discussion' and its sheer hypocrisy. Jesus did not say "Do unto others as you would have them to do unto you, unless they are terrorists, and then you can do whatever you want." His teaching was not that nuanced. He gave out an imperative on this and other issues with great clarity.

Further, the regime has displayed convenient lapses of memory when it comes to such details as the fact that the US is a signatory to the Geneva Conventions and other treaties forbidding the use of torture. These documents to my knowledge did not carve out any exceptions. To violate the provisions of these treaties is to state that the word of the US is worthless, especially when it comes to convenience.

I have long believed and stated openly that many of the actions taken by this maladministration were evil. I am now coming to believe that the members themselves are evil. To state that there are exceptions available only to the US on the issue of torture can only be explained by evil.

I am reminded of the lament of one of the prophets: "How long, O Lord, how long?"

Monday, October 24, 2005

Not Wild About Harry

The Resident's nomination of his long time friend and personal lawyer, Harriet Miers, has certainly kicked up an unusual dust storm in the Senate and in the country at large. The list of potential nominees was fairly short, but it is doubtful that her name would have appeared even on an initial 'long list' of those to be considered. In other words, her nomination was a shocking surprise to just about everyone in the nation.

The nature of the response to her nomination has been equally surprising, as noted in a NY Times article today, and not just because Ms. Miers has no judicial experience.

On Oct. 22, 1971, President Richard M. Nixon nominated to the Supreme Court a corporate lawyer and former bar association president with no judicial experience. On Dec. 6, his choice, Lewis F. Powell Jr., was confirmed with fanfare by a vote of 89 to 1.

Harriet E. Miers, President Bush's nominee to succeed Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, brings a similar résumé, along with five years in the White House and one year as its counsel. But in just three weeks, her nomination has provoked a range of opposition that some scholars say may have no modern precedent.

The problem with Ms. Miers' nomination is that nobody but George W. Bush knows very much about her. The Religious Reich fears that she won't be disposed to support their legal agenda, although several leaders from that wing have been called into the White House for reassurance. Liberals feel that just her proximity to the Resident makes her suspect. Conservatives, no doubt miffed by being left out of the loop in the selection process, already are flinching at the cronyism charges which so far have just been whispered, but which no doubt will be aired fully soon. The fact that reports have emerged that the White House has retained people to give her a "crash course" in Constitutional law hasn't assuaged Republican fears.

It is highly unlikely that the administration will provide any information about Ms. Miers' work in the White House. The White House does not give that information out on anybody, as we have learned from the very start of this highly secretive regime. That means that the Senate Judiciary Committee and then the full Senate will have to make its decision based on very little information.

What they will know going in is that she served George W. Bush as attorney during his campaigns for Governor of Texas and President of the United States as his legal counsel, that she was President of the Texas State Bar, and that she was a managing partner for a large law firm (which, during and after her management, has paid millions of dollars in fines for ethical lapses and legal malpractice), and that she has served Mr. Bush as his counsel in the White House.

With elections coming up next year, Republicans cannot be happy with this nomination, something which is noted in the NY Times article.

Alan Simpson, a former Republican senator from Wyoming, said that the reaction was like "a triple root canal" but added: "It really isn't Harriet in my mind. It is the president." Mr. Simpson blamed a sense of weakness around the White House because of concerns about the C.I.A. leak investigation, the war in Iraq and the handling of the recent hurricanes. "It is like a huge raptor seeing a rabbit running on only three legs," he said.

Poor Harry has a very rough road ahead of her.

As well she should.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

You Think?

In the past month or so, the corporate media finally decided that the Plame affair was a story that was worth covering, but only because one of their own had gotten caught up in the story (rather than reporting it) and went to jail for refusing to cooperate with the Special Counsel's investigation.

Now the coverage has mostly been about which White House personality or personalities will be indicted, presumably for perjury or for obstruction of justice. What has been missing in the blizzard of ink and electrons is what actually the whole sordid mess was about: the extent to which this regime would go to haul this country into the misbegotten war in Iraq.

Finally, two years after the identification of Joseph Wilson's wife as a CIA agent, and more than two and a half years after the start of the invasion of Iraq, the NY Times printed an article which implies (although never states directly)that the background of the scandal was to discredit war critics in the most drastic way possible.

The legal and political stakes are of the highest order, but the investigation into the disclosure of a covert C.I.A. officer's identity is also just one skirmish in the continuing battle over the Bush administration's justification for the war in Iraq.

That fight has preoccupied the White House for more than three years, repeatedly threatening President Bush's credibility and political standing, and has again put the spotlight on Vice President Dick Cheney, who assumed a critical role in assembling and analyzing the evidence about Iraq's weapons programs.

The dispute over the rationale for the war has led to upheaval in the intelligence agencies, left Democrats divided about how aggressively to break with the White House and exposed deep rifts in the administration and among Republicans.

Mr. Cheney's focus on the threat from Iraq has put some of his aides, especially I. Lewis Libby Jr., his chief of staff, in the middle of an investigation by a special prosecutor into the leak of the C.I.A. operative's name. According to lawyers in the case, Mr. Libby remains under scrutiny this week in the investigation stemming from his effort to rebut criticism by Joseph C. Wilson IV, a former diplomat, that the administration had twisted intelligence about Iraq's nuclear program.

Mr. Libby has become emblematic of the broader Iraq debate, cast by supporters as a loyal aide working diligently to set the record straight, and by critics as someone working to smear or undermine the credibility of a politically potent opponent.

...the White House's insistence that there were other compelling reasons for deposing Saddam Hussein, including spreading democracy and denying Al Qaeda a haven, have only inflamed critics of the war.

"There's a daisy chain that stems from the fact that no weapons of mass destruction have been found," said Richard N. Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations.
[Emphasis added]

It's simple folks: when someone dared to point out that the avowed reason for going to war (the "smoking gun as mushroom cloud" meme) was simply not accurate, the WH machine engaged to drastically smear Wilson in such a fashion that other critics, including those in the intelligence community, would find it wise to just shut the hell up.

The result? Nearly 2,000 dead American service men and women, thousands of Iraqi dead, a weakened CIA (offset by a strengthened Pentagon intelligence order now poised to work domestically), a pulverized economy, and a loss of credibility in the world.

This isn't just about 'outing' a CIA agent. It's about letting the US go down the drain just to justify a weak and inept leader's pipe dream about besting his father in Iraq and just to 'secure' Middle East Oil.

Where was the corporate media three years ago when it might have made a difference?

The US As a Good Example...

...of how not to do things.

The cost of health care is not an issue unique to the United States. All nations concerned with the well-being of their citizens have to grapple with the issue. The Netherlands is currently considering a revision of their system, as noted in NRC Habdelsblad.

While Dutch citizens are worried about the phase-in of a new and revised health care benefits system, we have just received a clear message from the United States: things can always get worse. Much worse even. Last Monday, the automobile giant General Motors (GM) settled its differences with the United Auto Workers Union. In the United States, health care benefits for workers and retirees will be cut to the tune of a $1 billion per year over the next 3 years, as GM cannot sustain the current level of benefits. Every car produced comes with a $1,500 healthcare burden. This is another reason that GM is now effectively unable to compete with the Asian manufacturers. The generous benefits package, a legacy of the 70s, is the reason some had started to refer to GM as “Generous Motors.”

GM’s course of action underlines again how dangerous it is when pension and health care benefits all depend on an individual corporation. Employees and the corporation find themselves in the same boat when the company gets into trouble, or closes its gates. The GM issue puts the spotlight again on what has become the American way of organizing healthcare benefits: an impenetrable jungle.

The latest findings by the American Census Bureau found that 45 million Americans are uninsured. This is almost one sixth of the population! At the same time, the Americans are spending more on healthcare than any other country in the industrialized world. In 2003 that number stood at 15% of gross domestic product, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development or OESO.

This type of fragmented healthcare delivery system, completely left to the whims of free market forces, is screaming for reform. Especially when the costs are increasing much faster than general inflation, a higher portion of the population runs the risk of being shut out of the system.

[Emphasis added]

While an argument can be made that GM and other corporations have reneged on the deals they made to their employees in all sorts of ways (including pensions) mainly to accomodate the bottom line, it is a fact that health insurance is a significant cost of doing business and it does have an impact on the cost of products and services.

One reason health insurance and health care is so expensive (15% of the the gross domestic product) is that the free market forces are concerned only with profitability. The days of "competition will drive prices down" are long gone. One need only look to the obscene profits of the multinational oil corporations to see that. Adequate health care is simply one area that should not be left to those whose only concern is the bottom line.

While I believe a national single-payer system would be the most equitable and, in the long run, most effective way to control the costs of health care, I have no illusions about the US going the way of Canada and the UK. I do believe, however, that the sensible blending of private enterprise and government oversight might stop the upward spiral.

It will be interesting to watch the Dutch program evolve. I just hope the Democrats are among those watching. We need to start facing this problem head on yesterday.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

Bigfoot-In-Mouth Disease

Karen Hughes, the regime's International Minister for Propaganda, whiffed again, this time in Indonesia. Her meeting with students in Indonesia turned out to be yet another international embarrassment.

Bush administration envoy Karen Hughes visited Indonesia on Friday as part of her campaign to repair U.S. standing with the world's Muslims and defended the invasion of Iraq by telling skeptical students that deposed president Saddam Hussein had gassed hundreds of thousands of his own people.

Her remark was an impassioned answer to familiar criticisms of U.S. policy raised by her audience at one of Indonesia's leading Islamic universities. But it was also wrong.

State Department officials later acknowledged that Hughes, tapped by President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to set the record straight on U.S. policies in the Muslim world, had misreported history.

Although at least 300,000 Iraqis are reported to have died during Hussein's 24 years in office, his government's use of chemical weapons against Iraqi Kurds cost the lives of only a small proportion, most notoriously an estimated 5,000 people who died in a 1988 military campaign in the northern town of Halabja.
[Emphasis added]

Now, I'm sure the Indonesian students will agree that gassing even 5,000 people is a terrible thing to do. Most would also agree that Saddam Hussein was an evil dictator who murdered hundreds of thousands of his own people. Ms. Hughes had a chance to make her point, if only she had known what that point was. Unfortunately Ms. Hughes is another example of cronyism in the regime, so it is no surpise that she got the facts wrong.

"It's something that our U.S. government has said a number of times in the past. It's information that was used very widely after his attack on the Kurds. I believe it was close to 300,000," Hughes said when questioned the first time. She added, "That's something I said every day in the course of the campaign. That's information that we talked about a great deal in America."

Though a longtime political adviser and confidante of Bush, Hughes is a relative newcomer to international affairs. She was appointed this year to energize the State Department's public affairs efforts and burnish the U.S. image, which has been badly tarnished in the Muslim world by the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan and support for Israel in its conflict with the Palestinians.
[Emphasis added]

What we have here, folks, is the "Michael-Brown-ing" of the State Department. Unfortunately, it's happening at a time when the US desperately needs some expert international diplomacy to assist us in getting out of the morass of Iraq.

Sadly, no surprise here.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Qualified Loyalty

Put this one under the "They Eat Their Own" category. Arnold Schwartzenegger was so miffed that the Resident was poaching funds while the Governator was trying to raise money for a media blitz for his special election project that Arnold snubbed George when the Resident came to Southern California. The governor of one of the bluest states in the US indicated that he would not attend the fund raiser George had scheduled in Beverly Hills. LA Times columnist George Skelton analyzed the situation yesterday.

Don't expect to see happy photos of President Bush with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger when the president visits Los Angeles tonight for a Republican fundraiser. The governor doesn't plan to go near the president. He's upset.

Schwarzenegger is miffed because Bush is dipping into the California money pot less than three weeks before the governor's special election. Schwarzenegger still is tapping contributors for his own political needs, trying to salvage a "reform" agenda crucial to his governorship and to him politically.

Now why either man would want to be seen in each other's company is a mystery to me. We are, after all, talking about two of the most unpopular leaders in the history of US politics.

A statewide poll last month by the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California showed that the president and governor are about equally unpopular in the state. Their job ratings among likely voters: Bush, 38% approval, 60% disapproval; Schwarzenegger, 38%-55%.

Still, the word out of Sacramento is that Arnold is angry that the White House scheduled the fund raiser when it did, especially because he had requested the White House delay the event for a couple of weeks until after the special election. A leader in the California Republican party made clear the state's displeasure:

"What California needs from the Bush administration are more federal dollars, not fundraisers, at a time when we're just weeks from a crucial statewide election that could have a significant impact on the governor's administration," Hanretty says.

...the Schwarzenegger camp considers the White House a bunch of ingrates, noting that the governor campaigned in Ohio for the president last fall and helped him narrowly carry the state, securing his reelection.

"A little respect and courtesy for what Schwarzenegger is doing out here would be appreciated," says a gubernatorial aide. Or, to put it another way: a little appreciation for what Schwarzenegger did for the president in Ohio, which included alienating California Democrats and turning himself into a full-fledged partisan.

"This is a president who values loyalty probably to a fault," says a state GOP official. "But he's showing absolutely none to Arnold Schwarzenegger.
[Emphasis added]

Apparenty Arnold doesn't actually understand this regime. Loyalty is for long time friends, not for tools to steal another election.

Silly Arnold.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Good News/Bad News

The first article I read in today's NY Times gave me some hope that today's Congress would tread lightly around social programs when it came to cutting federal spending. It was clear that such programs as Medicaid and other programs to support the poor and vulnerable would likely be the number one target, followed closely by cuts in programs to insure clean air and water. The House Republicans soon discovered that as we near the formal election season, such cuts could be damaging:

Acknowledging that they were short of the necessary support, House Republican leaders Wednesday abruptly put off a vote on their plan to cut federal spending by $50 billion and said they would go back to the drawing board to draft a fuller proposal that could win majority backing.

"Obviously we want to do everything we can to ensure that we successfully bring about cuts," said Representative David Dreier, the California Republican who is chairman of the Rules Committee, after an evening meeting of the leadership to try to find a way out of their budget struggle.

Mr. Drier and other leaders said the vote initially scheduled for Thursday would be delayed until next week. They said lawmakers would be presented with a new plan that would include not only $50 billion in cuts in major programs over five years, but also a pledge to enact later this year an across-the-board cut of current federal spending and eliminate some federal programs.

However, the next article I read dispelled my initial good cheer. This regime doesn't let a little thing like Congress get in the way of lopping off funding for social programs.

The Bush administration approved a sweeping Medicaid plan for Florida on Wednesday that limits spending for many of the 2.2 million beneficiaries there and gives private health plans new freedom to limit benefits.

The Florida program, likely to be a model for many other states, shifts from the traditional Medicaid "defined benefit" plan to a "defined contribution" plan, under which the state sets a ceiling on spending for each recipient.

Children under the age of 21 and pregnant women will be exempt from the limits.

The Florida plan says, "The state will set aside a specific amount of money for each person enrolled in Medicaid," based on the person's medical condition and historic use of health care.
[Emphasis added]

The warning tocsin sounded in my uncaffeinated brain just as soon as I realized that a lot of the decision making would be left to the private insurance companies who are essentially taking over the Florida Medicare program.

Joan C. Alker, a senior researcher at the Health Policy Institute of Georgetown University, said: "Florida's proposal is one of the most far-reaching and radical proposals we've seen to restructure Medicaid. The federal government and the states now decide which benefits people get. Under the Florida plan, many of those decisions will be made by private health plans, out of public view."

For each beneficiary, Florida will pay a monthly premium to a private plan. Insurance plans will be allowed to limit "the amount, duration and scope" of services in ways that current law does not permit.

Conveniently, the Bush regime has waived those sections of the law so that the Resident's brother, Governor Jeb Bush, can accomplish what Congress has blocked the regime from doing. It is clear that Medicare does need restructuring and tinkering, but to do it on the backs of the most vulnerable of our population rather than on the medical industry which is responsible for the stunning growth in medical care costs is scandalous.

Nope, no surprises here.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

The Plame Affair as Symbol

I have deliberately chosen not to blog much on this topic for several reasons, not the least of which is the fact that other bloggers were doing such a fine job at crafting posts that gave both a broad over-view of the whole sick story and a nice tie up of all the sordid details that I couldn't possibly have added anything. That doesn't mean I haven't been tracking the story and pondering its implications. It would be hard for any thinking person to avoid doing so once the press finally (after nearly two years) began giving the story the coverage it deserves.

As October winds down, the media in all its forms (including the internet versions) are filled with rumors, with predictions, and with promises. The word is that either this week (perhaps today) or next, Patrick Fitzgerald will be issuing indictments and/or a final report on his investigation into the unlawful identification of an undercover CIA agent. That members of the White House staff were involved in this despicable form of punishment of someone who dared disagree with the official regime in its push for war in Iraq is clear. Just how far up the operation went is still a matter of speculation, but it is conceivable that the Vice President and President were involved, either before or after the fact.

I admit that a part of me is thirsting for indictments. That part of me wants to see these arrogant pissants taken down for believing that they were above the law, above decency,and could do whatever they wanted, including destroying a career, just to get whatever they wanted. That part of me reveled in the indictment of Abramoff because the investigation of that lobbyist has to be making a whole slew of elected politicians nervous that they will be mentioned as recipients of Mr. Abramoff's largesse. That part of me chuckled with the indictments of Tom De Lay because his brand of sleaze compromised the electoral process in Texas and the legislative process in Congress. That part of me laughed out loud when the news hit that Bill Frist is being investigated for insider trading of stock supposedly held in blind trust while he serves as a Senator and Senate Majority leader because of the sheer hypocrisy exposed.

Still, a larger part of me is feeling an incredible sadness over those matters and the larger matter of the Plame Affair, which I believe stands as a symbol of the sickness that has taken over American politics and the American landscape itself. I don't believe America is a "special" nation, "ordained by God" to lead the world in anything. We are a comparatively young, certainly brash nation made up of human beings, some of whom actually believe in democracy and the principle that a free and responsible nation has much to contribute to the world. Instead of being an example of hope, however, we have become the antithesis: a nation to fear because we have become the world's bully.

Our so-called free press, which our founders envisioned would be the source and protector of all our freedoms, instead has been reduced to the role of water carriers for the regime. It is no accident that the Plame Affair involved the press. From Robert Novak's column outing Valerie Plame by name to Judith Miller's incarceration for contempt, reporter after reporter have been directly involved in Grand Jury testimony. The White House staff knew that they could get at least someone in the press to do the dirty work, and they were right. Then, after a few articles about the coming investigation, the press got quiet. Little was published about the alleged crime until Judith Miller found herself in jail. Now, the papers, magazines, and television news are filled with stories about the pending indictments. It took two years. The story did have legs.

Unfortunately, this same press, which should be embarrassed both by its role in the scandal and its failure to cover that scandal honestly, is now giving ink and time to those who would justify what may be a major crime as simply evidence of "the criminalization of politics." The equation runs like this: compromising a CIA's cover and the cover of the agent's sources with the possible compromise of a program investigating the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (including nuclear weapons) is simply "hardball politics." The security of the nation be damned.

The press was supposed to alert us when the government engaged in behavior designed to harm us all. Instead, it was complicit with the government. It was no different than the organs of the state in the old USSR or in the most brutal of dictatorships.

Sad. Tragically so.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005


[One of the running gags at Eschaton is Atrios' failure to blog on biofuels. One hapless poster complained that the host's refusal to deal with this subject was a black mark against his liberalism. The usual crowd went crazy with laughter, and thus the gag arises several times a week, usually when an "Open Thread" appears. So,for NTodd and Eli, here's your steenkin' blog on biofuels.]

Because of the high cost of oil, prices for gasoline and diesel have skyrocketed, which means the costs of products trucked and trained to market have also risen, as have the costs of construction. This rise in costs has been evident world-wide, and the European Union is exploring the use of biofuels as an adjunct (although not a complete replacement) for diesel. At least one Asian nation is moving more quickly on the issue, according to the LA Times.

Malaysia may become the first Asian country to require the replacement of diesel fuel with biofuel for vehicles and machinery, in an effort to cut fuel subsidies and boost the local palm oil industry.

Malaysia's ministry of plantation industries and commodities wants to include the mandatory sale of biodiesel in a proposed biofuel bill expected to be submitted for cabinet approval this month, a ministry official said.

Biodiesel, a mixture of 5% palm oil and 95% diesel fuel, would be sold beginning in 2007 if the law is approved. Malaysia is the world's leading producer of palm oil.

The decision would be a win-win situation for Malaysia because it would not only decrease the cost of fuel in the country, it would also add to the export of one of its major home grown products. Europe would be the primary target for the biodiesel.

As the article notes, no modifications of existing diesel engines would be necessary, and the fuel itself is cleaner burning so air pollution would be lessened.

What is most interesting about the article, however, is the following:

Since the 1980s, the Malaysian Palm Oil Board and Petroliam Nasional Berhad, the state energy company, have been developing technology to convert crude palm oil into a diesel substitute.

At least one government has been forward thinking for twenty years. Unfortunately, that country has not been the US. In the meantime, the big oil corporations are raking in billions each quarter and Americans are paying close to three dollars a gallon for that precious fluid.

Sad, really.

Monday, October 17, 2005

More Potential Breakthroughs on Stem Cell Research

Today's New York Times has some hopeful news for those hoping that stem cell research will provide help for those with certain catastrophic conditions and diseases.

Scientists have devised two new techniques to derive embryonic stem cells in mice, one of which avoids the destruction of the embryo, a development that could have the potential to shift the grounds of the longstanding political debate about human stem cell research.

The destruction of embryos is a principal objection of anti-abortion advocates who have strenuously opposed federal financing of the research.

The second new technique manipulates embryos so they are inherently incapable of implanting in the uterus, what some see as a possible ethical advantage in the proposed therapy, which converts a patient's skin cell into embryonic cells and then new tissues to repair the body. Both methods are described in today's online edition of Nature.

The technique for making embryonic stem cells without compromising the embryo has yet to be adapted to people, but the two species are very similar at this level of embryonic development. "I can't think of a reason why the technique would not theoretically work in humans," said Brigid L. M. Hogan, an embryologist at Duke University.

The main objections to stem cell research to date have been ethical ones. Cloning of people and parts of people is one major issue that concerns most serious minded people. The destruction of a human fertilized blastocyte is objectionable to a significant number of anti-abortion people who believe that even at this stage the blastocyte is an embryo and a human life, the destruction of which is murder.

At first glance, these breakthroughs appear to overcome the objections of the second group because the stem cells are derived in such a fashion that the blastocyte is not destroyed. Unfortunately, that is not the case.

If it does work in people, which could take many months to find out, the technique might divide the anti-abortion movement into those who accept or reject in vitro fertilization, because the objection to deriving human embryonic stem cells would come to rest on creating the embryos in the first place, not on their destruction. ...

Only a procedure that generated embryonic stem cells without creating or destroying embryos "would address the Catholic Church's most fundamental moral objection to embryonic stem cell research as now pursued," Mr. Doerflinger [of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops] said in testimony last December to the President's Council on Bioethics.
[Emphasis added]

While these developments are exciting, they still do not pass the test for those who believe that the creation of embryos for anything other than making living, breathing babies is sinful. While the theology is consistent (and not actually a moving of the goal posts), the result is the same. Researchers who might finally be able to find effective ways of fighting diabetes, Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, and spinal cord injuries will continue to be hamstrung, and those afflicted with those conditions will continue to wait.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Moving Along the Axis

The US once again appears to have been thwarted in its attempt to prevent Iran from developing nuclear capabilities of any kind, peaceful or no. Although the US regime has backed off somewhat from its original white hot approach and has allowed Europe to negotiate with Iran in the hopes of finding a diplomatic solution, Iran's insistence that it has a right to nuclear development as a sovereign nation has basically brought the diplomatic approach to a standstill.

Europe and the US now want the matter referred to the UN for possible sanctions, so Secretary of State Rice flew to Russia to get approval for such a referral. Unfortunately, according to the New York Times, she did not meet with success.

Russia's leaders told Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Saturday that they did not support sending the issue of Iran's nuclear program to the United Nations Security Council, and they reaffirmed their view that Iran had the legal right to enrich uranium. ...

Still, Ms. Rice, speaking to reporters later, made it clear that the United States and its European allies would still refer Iran to the Security Council, for admonishment or sanctions, if it did not shut down its nuclear fuel reprocessing program. But with Russia opposed, the prospects in the Council look bleak, as Russia holds a veto. "We do not agree that this matter should be sent to the Security Council," said Sergei Kislyak, the deputy foreign minister.

Iran says it needs to process nuclear fuel for civilian nuclear-power stations. But Washington and its European allies argue that Iran wants the fuel for nuclear weapons.

Ms. Rice said for the first time on Saturday that Washington might not push for a vote on a referral during the November meeting, suggesting that the United States may not have the votes it needs to win a second vote on the agency's board. Some members of the board who voted in favor of last month's resolution are rotating off the board. Among those rotating on in their place are Belarus, Cuba and Syria, three nations that are unlikely to support the American position.

Officials said the vote could also be postponed if Iran appeared to be moving toward compliance with the board's demands.

"There will be a referral," Ms. Rice said, but "we're going to keep the referral option alive at a time of our choosing."

Even as an opponent of the current US regime, I have to admit that this is a very complicated situation and that I appreciate the US using diplomacy and its allies in the matter before going off for another military misadventure along the "Axis of Evil." Clearly, Iran does have the right to develop peaceful nuclear capabilities, i.e. nuclear power plants. However, Iran also has fairly substantial oil and natural gas reserves, so, at least in the short run, nuclear power plants do not seem necessary. I think it probable that Iran does in fact intend to develop nuclear weapons, which certainly does not make for any kind of real stability in the Middle East.

Still, I can certainly understand Iran's desire for those weapons. That Israel has such weapons is an open secret. That the US continues to see Iran (a member of the previously mentioned "Axis of Evil")as a threat is not even a secret. With US forces right next door in Iraq, Iran has every reason to be nervous. It is this latter point, however, that might very well be the key to resolving the issue.

Because Iran has close ties to the majority Shia in Iraq, the two nations have become very close since the removal of Saddam Hussein. It is clearly in Iran's interest to have a stable and friendly neighbor. I believe the withdrawal of US forces will be possible only with the engagement of Iran to support such a move, and I believe diplomatic efforts by the US in that direction will be absolutely necessary. It may be possible to join the two issues by making the same offer to Iran that Russia has made: assistance in developing nuclear power plants with the promise to take back spent nuclear fuel for a promise from Iran to assist in the development and training of Iraqi security forces and an agreement to provide Iranian security forces in the interim so that the US can begin disengaging its forces.

In the meantime, I think the US has no choice but to leave the current dispute with Iran with the IAEA and to continue supporting the European and Russian diplomatic efforts to resolve the nuclear issue.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Word Travels Fast... and Far

The thing about modern communications is that when the President gives a speech intended for a targeted audience, his words still reach far beyond that intended audience. His recent speech on Iraq, that "major policy speech" that sought to shore up support in America for the misadventure in Iraq, reached far beyond these shores and was picked up by that part of the world most directly affected by the hegemony-driven policies of this regime.

Pakistan, billed by Bush as one of our greatest allies in the Great War On Terror, was listening as well, and here's what TheFrontier Post had to say about the speech.

...President Bush's lament is that after three years of war in Iraq, he has not been able to subjugate a tiny helpless Arab country, despite being the sole superpower of the present era.

A crest-fallen superman with his ratings in the tank and desperately in need of a boost, he fell back last week on what had worked so successfully for him in the past: fostering fear and promoting war.

His oft-repeated speech about the War on Terrorism constituted a sobering showcase, both of his government's desperate political situation and the new threats that it will seek to extricate itself from the present crisis through yet more militarism.

His address to The National Endowment for Democracy (NED) was a recap of lies that have so often been delivered with the goal of terrorizing the American people and rallying his radical rightwing base. In remarks that at times bordered on delusion, Bush invoked the unlikely bogeyman of an al-Qaeda terrorist network poised to establish a radical Islamic empire that would reach from Spain to Indonesia.

Opposition to the Bush Government has never been greater, with polls showing barely 37% of the population supporting the administration and majorities believing that the Iraq war was a blunder and that U.S. forces should be withdrawn. Washington was lying when it launched the war, and it is lying now, but under changed political conditions.

The New York Times quoted an unnamed White House official as saying that Bush had given his speech to remind Americans after “a lot of distractions” over recent months, that the country remains under threat and has no choice but to remain in Iraq; a well-tailored ambition but completely without foundation.

...all indications are that the glorious invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq have only managed to increase the threat of terrorism – and not only to the U.S., but the rest of the world. By occupying Iraq, the U.S. has managed to so radicalize the Arab and Muslim world, that many are ready to join the terrorist cause.
[Emphasis added]

Two things struck me about this editorial. First, it's clear that at least some Pakistanis have better critical thinking skills than our regime thinks Americans have. To a certain extent, that may be true, especially since our own vaunted press has largely followed the regime's talking points. Still, poll numbers in this country show that a growing number of Americans just aren't buying the message any longer.

Second, when one of the countries allegedly joined with us in the Great War on Terror starts viewing America as the source of the very terrorism we are purporting to fight, we've already lost. I don't think even Karen Hughes will be able to cure that problem.

Friday, October 14, 2005

Well, Duh!

For some reason, this regime hasn't managed to put a cork in the General Accountability Office, a governmental watchdog. The GAO has issued a draft report on the Food and Drug Administration's refusal to approve a contraceptive drug for over-the-counter distribution raised a lot of howls, and it now appears that the howlers were absolutely correct in their outrage. The fun part of the GAO draft report is the refusal to cooperate by the former head of the FDA, as noted in the Washington Post.

The former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration declined to cooperate with an inquiry by the Government Accountability Office into the agency's controversial decision to reject nonprescription sales of an emergency contraceptive.

According to congressional staffers who have read the draft GAO report but were not allowed to copy it, the document has several footnotes indicating Lester M. Crawford did not respond to requests for an interview.

The draft report, which is being reviewed by the FDA and members of Congress, describes the agency's decision-making process on Plan B as highly unusual because officials in the commissioner's office were directly involved and the FDA office directors who normally rule on applications refused to sign the rejection letter. An FDA advisory panel earlier voted overwhelmingly in favor of the proposal.

In its draft report, the GAO says FDA advisory panels had reviewed 23 applications to switch a prescription drug to over-the-counter status, and that the Plan B application was the only one where the agency did not follow the experts' recommendation.
[emphasis added]

Mr. Crawford denied any White House pressure, but it is clear from the article that the main reason for the initial rejection of the drug as over the counter was that the drug might lead to increased sexual behavior by teenaged women. That argument is one that the religious reich made in objecting to yet another form of contraception. The odd decision by the agency not to follow the recommendation of the advisory panel in this single case suggests that the pressure came from somewhere, a conclusion that appears to be buttressed by Mr. Crawford's refusal to speak with the investigators.

The GAO cannot compel Mr. Crawford (who, it should be noted, resigned abruptly recently) to speak with them as part of the investigation, but some other governmental agency (such as Congress or a Special Prosecutor) certainly does have that kind of subpoena power.

Like I said yesterday in the post entitled "God Talk": I don't care about people's personal religious beliefs. I just don't want a governmental official using those beliefs to run my government.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

God Talk

Like most of my progressive friends, I am firmly committed to the separation of church and state in this country. I really don't care what religion folks in government are; that's their business. I just don't want them using their sectarian beliefs to run the country.

I am, in my own way, a deeply committed Christian. I suppose that fact informs my behavior in various ways, but I have plenty of friends who are neither Christian, nor believers, who maintain pretty solid moral value systems and who live by them quite successfully. Those friends and I agree on all sorts of things. Killing is bad. Lying and cheating is bad. Helping those who need help (family, friends, strangers) is good. Making things better than when we found them is good.

Folks who talk a great deal about how close they are to God, how saved they are, and how much better off I would be if I just followed their system make me nervous, except when they are government officials. Then they scare me half to death. President Bush and his minions scare me half to death.

That's why I thoroughly appreciated this op-ed piece from Pak Tribune (out of Pakistan).

...the President claims that all peoples worship the same God. He told the visiting leader of Turkey that they both believe in "the Almighty." Answering a British reporter's question about the God of Islam being the same as the God of Christianity, President Bush replied: "I believe we worship the same God." Then, in an October 26, 2004, Good Morning American interview with Charles Gibson, he was asked: "Do we all worship the same God, Christian and Muslim?" His reply: "I think we do."

If true, this means two things. One, President Bush, the Taliban and Bin Laden & Co. all pray to the same God. Two, all the killing and dying is done in His name. The only difference is that George Bush strikes them in God's name and they retaliate in God's name. He invades their countries in God's name, they resist in God's name. He kills in God's name, they die in God's name. George Bush eliminates a few 'terrorists' in God's name, countless more come forward to take their place in God's name. There are more 'terrorists' now fighting America in God's name than ever were at any point in time before.

If his God is different, then his God is unique. His God orders him to kill other Gods' children. Especially, if those children are of a different hue and color and are found in the near vicinity of a liquid called oil. That, to say the least, is being very vengeful.

Next, President Bush's God does not forbid him from lying. That is very disturbing because one hears Gods do not take kindly to liars. Take, for example, the case of Iraq war. God told him to make war on Iraq but forgot to tell him not to tell humongous lies in the process. Had He informed the President that lies don't travel far for the simple fact that they don't have legs, or had He shown the full future to the US President, George Bush would have been saved the equally huge embarrassments of his own September 11 Commission officially acknowledging that Iraq was not involved in the terrorist attacks on America, the US Military giving up the search for the non-existent WMDs and him having to shamefully shift to 'freedom' as the current war cry.

I think the writer has nailed it. I don't know who or what is speaking to George W. Bush, but if it's his God, I want no part of that religion. And if it's not George W. Bush's God, then the man is either delusional or a liar. Neither quality is a particularly good one for a president, and we need to seriously consider removing him from office via whatever legal means available.

It's the moral thing to do.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

So, Powell Was Right?

After four years of 'go-it-alone-cowboy-style' diplomacy, there appears to be signs of a shift in State Department approaches, according to the LA Times.

For four years, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and his team faced off against administration hawks on one foreign policy issue after another, and usually went down in defeat.

These days, his successor, Condoleezza Rice, is pushing nearly identical positions, and almost always winning.

An administration that was criticized in the first term for an assertive, go-it-alone approach has reversed ground again and again, joining multinational efforts to keep nuclear arms from North Korea and Iran, mending ties with Europe, and softening a hard line on the United Nations and International Criminal Court.

"She's clearly trying to accomplish a number of the goals that Powell was going after, until he found himself stymied," said Stewart Patrick, who served in Powell's policy planning office.

A former senior State Department official put it more bluntly: "It's Powell's policy without Powell."

One interpretation of the reversal might be that the US is now willing to work with the world because it has established its bona fides as the lone superpower. I think that interpretation is hogwash, mainly because the opinion of the US has never been lower among our allies and the rest of the world.

I suspect one of the real reasons has to do with the fact that Iraq has become such a bloody quagmire that the US finally realizes that it needs the help and cooperation of the rest of the world in order to extricate itself from the disaster. Another reason might have to do with the fact that the White House is clearly in disarray after the debacles of the federal response to Hurricane Katrina, the falling poll numbers of Dear Leader, his ridiculous appointment of Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court,and the whole Plame scandal which appears at this point to implicate at least one White House official in the outing of a CIA agent.

PlameGate is an interesting part of the equation, since at its roots the matter deals with the run-up to the Iraq Invasion, done on the basis of what most believe to be lies and 'cooked facts.' Buried deep in the article is an irony that BushCo may not be able to appreciate at present.

Another important foreign policy shift came in April, when the administration for the first time set aside its strong objections to the International Criminal Court.

Administration officials, led by U.N. Ambassador John R. Bolton, then the State Department's arms control chief, had taken an unyielding line on the court, which was created to judge war crimes and genocide cases. Bolton and other officials argued that the tribunal infringed on U.S. sovereignty and could lead to foreign judges' trying U.S. troops and military and civilian leaders.

But in April, U.S. officials abstained from voting on a U.N. resolution, thus allowing the United Nations to recognize the court's jurisdiction over cases arising from the fighting in Sudan's Darfur region. Powell had recommended an abstention months earlier, former aides noted.
[Emphasis added]

Now, with any luck at all, that shift in policy just may come back to bite the regime in the not too distant future.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Flu Season

Last night I dropped by my neighborhood drug store to pick up some vitamins and found the parking lot nearly full. The sign in front of the store announced the reason why: "Flu Shots: 4pm to 8pm." Like many clinics, hospitals, and other drug stores, flu shots were being offered to seniors and infants first, and the line for the injections snaked out the door.

This year, unlike last year, authorities believe there will be adequate supplies of the vaccine, according to the New York Times.

As worries increase about the possibility of a flu pandemic, public health officials are hoping that this year's flu season will be the first in years with an abundance of vaccines.

Four companies are approved to produce seasonal flu vaccines in the United States this year, and together they are expected to deliver about 90 million doses - about as many as have ever been used in a single season.

But as in previous years, that supply is not yet guaranteed. So federal officials have asked doctors and clinics to vaccinate only people age 65 or older, babies and the infirm until Oct. 24, when all people will be encouraged to get vaccinated.

Influenza kills an inordinate number of people each year, and lost wages and time for those too sick to work does affect the economy, so one hopes the optimism struck by the companies producing this year's variety of the vaccine is well-founded.

Buried in the story, however, is an interesting bit of information about the potential for the Avian flu pandemic that has finally crept into the consciousness of the world.

In Thailand, Michael O. Leavitt, secretary of health and human services, began a four-nation tour of Southeast Asia this week in hopes of increasing international cooperation to combat a possible global epidemic of avian flu.

"For all of us, the best defense is containment," Mr. Leavitt said, "to find it and find it soon and then work as an international community to contain it. That requires all of us to act in a way that is both transparent and cooperative."

The Bush administration's flu plan, a draft of which was obtained by The New York Times, predicts that international cooperation will end as soon as a pandemic begins. The administration hopes to encourage domestic production of vaccines, the plan says, because "other countries are likely to prevent the export of vaccine to the U.S. or elsewhere until national needs are met."

The plan also suggests that many nations are likely to ask the United States for help in a pandemic. "However, current limitations of global vaccine manufacturing capacity, drug production and stockpiling," the plan says, "and limited stocks of relevant medical equipment, will make it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to provide any materials from any one country."

Mr. Leavitt urged leaders to increase their own capacities for making vaccines.
[Emphasis added]

The World Health Organization has been recommending for a long time now that the key to avoiding the pandemic has been to stop it at its source, generally believed to be in the poorer countries in East Asia. So Secretary Leavitt's comments are definitely on target. What is disappointing is the assessment of the Bush administration that cooperation will go out the window once the discovery of human to human transmission of the avian flu is made.

While that assessment may be accurate, and calling for each country to develop its own source for vaccines is prudent, in the long run it is short sighted and self-fulfilling. I would have preferred that world leaders instead develop a plan for quick and massive response in those countries which are too poor to fund the production of vaccines instead. And I would have preferred that this nation take the lead in such an effort.

I appear to be doomed to disappointment by this regime.

Monday, October 10, 2005

More Creative Uses of the Military

Has anybody else noticed the marked 'mission creep' contemplated for the US military on US soil? First it was the use of the active military during times of natural catastrophe (hurricanes and the like), then to use as 'guards' during quarantines necessitated by pandemics (Avian Flu). Now the Defense Intelligence Agency, a part of the Pentagon, wants authorization to spy on people here in America without them knowing about it. The information comes from a Walter Pincus piece in the Washington Post.

As part of the expanding counterterrorism role being taken on by the Pentagon, Defense Intelligence Agency covert operatives need to be able to approach potential sources in the United States without identifying themselves as government agents, George Peirce, the DIA's general counsel, said yesterday.

"This is not about spying on Americans," Peirce said in an interview in which he defended legislative language approved last week by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. The provision would grant limited authority for DIA agents to clandestinely collect information about U.S. citizens or emigres in this country to help determine whether they could be recruited as sources of intelligence information.

"We are not asking for the moon," Peirce said. "We only want to assess their suitability as a source, person to person" and at the same time "protect the ID and safety of our officers." The CIA and the FBI already have such authority, he added, and the DIA needs it "to develop critical leads" because "there is more than enough work for all of us to do."...

The DIA and other Pentagon agencies are increasing their human intelligence activities in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and threats to U.S. military bases and facilities at home and abroad. Peirce said one reason the new authority is needed is that there is "evidence the enemy is inside the U.S. perimeter."
[Emphasis added]

If the 'enemy' is indeed "inside the U.S. perimeter" (military-speak for "here, inside the country), then we already have a governmental agency to do the work. It's called the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which could drop its current obsession with adult pornography web sites and go back to doing the investigation of potential terrorist threats inside the United States.

The Central Intelligence Agency is supposed to do the intelligence gathering outside the United States. Now that the FBI and the CIA are allowed to talk to each other and to compare notes, I fail to see why the military intelligence gathering organization is even needed in terrorist spy-game. Surely the military has more appropriate things to do, like try to figure out where Osama bin Laden is and where the insurgents are hiding. Why is the DIA even considering operations on US soil, and why is Congress even considering giving them that option?

I'm beginning to think that this regime is perfectly willing to militarize our civilian society, and that's even with my tin-foil helmet in the closet. Things do not look good for the Republic, not good at all.

[Thanks to kelley b. for the tip. Read his take on this outrage at his blog.]

Sunday, October 09, 2005

This Month's Golden Fleece Award Goes To...

...the Federal Government.

The Transportation Safety Administration suddenly can't remember why a contract to hire passenger screeners suddenly cost $343 million dollars more than it should have, according to the Washington Post.

In the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the government changed a contract to hire federal airline passengers screeners in a way that cost taxpayers an additional $343 million. More than three years later, officials cannot explain exactly why.

Homeland security officials say they have no memos, e-mails or other paperwork to document the reason for the change, as required by federal contracting regulations.
They have also offered accounts of the decision that conflict with internal government documents obtained by The Washington Post.
[Emphasis added]

The company involved had intended to use their own testing centers for the job, but apparently the government thought using pricey hotels might be more appropriate.

By March 29, 2002, the decision had been made to start using hotels. Within months, the program would include some of the nation's finest. Among them: the Waldorf-Astoria in Manhattan; the Hawk's Cay Resort in Duck Key, Fla.; the Wyndham Peaks Resort and Golden Door Spa in Telluride, Colo.

Think about it: instead of using the company's already existing and staffed buildings, the company had to set up and dismantle centers in large hotels. Of course that costs money. The decision by the TSA contracting department is at best stupid. However, the fact that there is no evidence as to why and how the decision was made, coupled with the fact that the TSA is now giving out rather nebulous excuses can only mean more than stupidity was involved.

Read the whole Wapo story. It'll make you laugh, even while it makes your pocket book ache.

Saturday, October 08, 2005

The Rude Guest

Karen Hughes, recently appointed to the State Department as head of "Public Diplomacy" didn't fare so well during her recent visit to the Middle East. Her job, ostensibly, is to improve the image of the US, especially in foreign policy matters. Unfortunately, due to her diplomatic inexperience and to her Bushite arrogance, her visit apparently had the opposite effect.

An October 6 editorial in Arab News details some of Hughes' gaffes.

The problem here is not American popular culture — beloved and emulated everywhere — or even American political culture, imbued with the richest ideas about freedom, democracy, and individual rights, ideas embraced by a people who, since 1776, had valued diversity and openness in their lives, and continue to expect candor and accountability from their elected officials.

The problem rather is American foreign policy, that remains, where it is not bellicose, overtly and unabashedly moralistic in tone. Unless you live like us, they seem to be saying, yours is an inferior species of social formation.

Hughes, a former reporter for a local television station in Texas, and close confidante to Bush when he was governor of the state, was an improbable ambassador. She has little foreign policy experience and her pedestrian, at times vapid, responses to questions raised by people in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey showed she knew precious little about the region’s social concerns and political preoccupations.

Let the record show that no one has identified the gushy Hughes as an “ugly American,” just an inane one.

The source of anti-American attitudes in the Middle East, and elsewhere in the Muslim world and in Western Europe, is clearly not American culture or American values, but, as Edward P. Djereijan, a retired diplomat who had served as ambassador in Damascus, said in an interview last week, “It’s the policies, stupid.”

Karen Hughes’ visit to the Middle East would not have merited a column here were it not for the egregious remarks she kept making, especially in Saudi Arabia, about how Hamas militants are essentially a bunch of terrorists and how when Israel hits at them, it is hitting back in retaliation. She said that right there, as a guest, in the heartland of our world.

Thanks, Karen, message master, communications guru and undersecretary of state for public diplomacy. You came to our part of the world to aim at the public’s heart, and you ended up hitting it in the stomach.
[Emphasis added]

Two things:

First, the fact that Ms. Hughes was not properly briefed and prepared for a visit to a part of the world that not only does not trust us but also has a different set of cultural values than we have speaks volumes about the current state of the State Department.

Second, the fact that Ms. Hughes managed to openly insult Arabs everywhere by referring to Hamas simply as terrorists indicates that she does not have the sense or the grace to realize that insulting one's host is considered rude in all cultures.

It's clear that in this maladministration, the amateurs are in charge.

Friday, October 07, 2005

A Plan

One of the most popular Republican memes is that the Democrats don't have a plan for anything. All the Democrats do is carp and complain and obstinately refuse any ideas the Right comes up with.

Well, I have an idea. Let's come up with a plan for ending the butchery clusterfuck known as Iraq. It really isn't impossible if the Democrats just quit ignoring that particular eight-hundred pound gorilla.

Howard Dean should call the Carter Center and ask Jimmy to step up to the plate on this one. Then the good doctor should call Madeline Albright and invite her to the Carter Center for a meeting, and make sure she brings her old rolodex and the one on her current desk with her. His next call should be to Bill Clinton, but he should be told to leave his wife at home on this trip.

When all of these folks meet up in Jimmy Carter's headquarters, they should start by brainstorming the names of people in Jordan, Iran, and Syria who are not necessarily government officials, but who have contacts within government circles that might be helpful, and who are wise enough to know that the Iraq problem is an even more serious threat to Middle East stability than the Palestinian issue. Clinton, Albright, and Carter surely know not only who those people are but also how to quietly contact them.

Once that list is formulated, members of this ex officio committee should invite the people on that list to a quiet meeting at a neutral site: Oslo, Stockholm, perhaps even (shades of VietNam) Paris.

At that first meeting abroad, the committee members should explore with their counterparts what kind of pressure or incentives will be necessary to interest these governments in assisting in getting the US out of Iraq in such a fashion that Iraq would not immediately descend into civil war. The assistance would involve not only yanking on the leashes of the factions of Iraqis that these countries have sympathies with (Iran-Shi'ites, Syrian-Sunnis)but also troops to assist with order-keeping and training, and funds for reconstruction.

Once this kind of quiet (and completely un-official)diplomacy has gotten a decent start, Mr. Dean should privately advise Democratic leaders what the possibilities are and inform them what steps will have to be taken at home.

Getting out of Iraq is going to be no more of a cakewalk than getting out of Viet Nam was, but quiet diplomacy done outside formal government circles got the ball rolling then. I think this is as good as any way to get started in coming up with a plan that is both workable and sellable to the American public. And it needs to be started yesterday. Too many people are dying.

Where the Rhetoric Meets the Road

The Resident gave what was billed as a 'major speech on Iraq' yesterday. While it was mostly a reprise of all the cliches that he has used for the past four years to justify going to war in Afghanistan and then in Iraq, it did have some interesting language. I was particularly struck by this line:

The terrorists are as brutal an enemy as we've ever faced. They're unconstrained by any notion of our common humanity, or by the rules of warfare. [Emphasis added]

I thought to myself "Why yes, yes they are." I found it interesting that the Resident used that kind of language because it seemed to imply that we were different. We abided by the rules of warfare, especially those codified in the Geneva Convention. Further, we operated from the basic 'notion of our common humanity,' or at least that was our intention. Unfortunately, that idealistic goal is one that we have obviously fallen short of over the past four years, as evidenced by the horrendous stories emerging about our treatment of 'illegal combatants,' 'detainees,' and prisoners taken from the battlefield.

The cognitive dissonance was deepened by the response to Senator John McCain's bill on the treatment of prisoners and detainees which passed the Senate just the day before, as noted in the New York Times.

Defying the White House, the Senate overwhelmingly agreed Wednesday to regulate the detention, interrogation and treatment of prisoners held by the American military.

The measure ignited a fierce debate among many Senate Republicans and the White House, which threatened to veto a $440 billion military spending bill if the detention amendment was tacked on, saying it would bind the president's hands in wartime. Nonetheless, the measure passed, 90 to 9, with 46 Republicans, including Bill Frist of Tennessee, the majority leader, joining 43 Democrats and one independent in favor.

More than two dozen retired senior military officers, including Colin L. Powell and John M. Shalikashvili, two former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, endorsed the amendment, which would ban use of "cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment" against anyone in United States government custody.

Opposing the effort, Senator Ted Stevens, Republican of Alaska, said that requiring American troops to follow procedures in the Army manual was not practical in the current war environment. "The techniques vary upon the circumstances and the physical location of people involved," Mr. Stevens said

The measure faces stiff opposition in the House. And the White House spokesman, Scott McClellan, said, "If it's presented, then there would be a recommendation of a veto."
[Emphasis added]

So there it is: a notion of common humanity and the rules of warfare are good, but they don't always apply. The moral relativism inherent in war extends even to basic issues of good and evil. Apparently Mr. Bush's Christian beliefs are flexible. This nation can be as brutal as any enemy we face.

The barbarians are not just at the gate. They're already in the White House and the Congress.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Tin Foil Helmet Time?

Now, here's an oddball article, especially for the Washington Post.

Area health officials were not notified for five days that sensors on the Mall had detected a potentially dangerous bacterium there last month because subsequent tests were not conclusively positive, a federal official said yesterday.

The Department of Homeland Security delayed in alerting the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the same reason, said Richard Besser, who directs the CDC's coordinating office for terrorism preparedness and emergency response. More than half a dozen sensors showed the presence of tularemia bacteria the morning after thousands of people gathered on the Mall for a book festival and antiwar rally, yet the CDC was not contacted for at least 72 hours.
[Emphasis added]

How odd that the Washington DC sensors (which theoretically are always active) should have registered the presence of a bacterium that is considered a likely agent for bioterrorism the day after over 100,000 Americans gathered to protest the Invasion of Iraq. Even odder is the fact that the CDC was not notified of even the potential existence of that bacterium for a couple of days. Perhaps the sensors were all just being flippy that day.

Still, for those on the Mall that day, here is some information from the Center for Disease Control web site:

Q. What are the signs and symptoms of tularemia?
A. The signs and symptoms people develop depend on how they are exposed to tularemia. Possible symptoms include skin ulcers, swollen and painful lymph glands, inflamed eyes, sore throat, mouth sores, diarrhea or pneumonia. If the bacteria are inhaled, symptoms can include abrupt onset of fever, chills, headache, muscle aches, joint pain, dry cough, and progressive weakness. People with pneumonia can develop chest pain, difficulty breathing, bloody sputum, and respiratory failure. Tularemia can be fatal if the person is not treated with appropriate antibiotics.

Q. Why are we concerned about tularemia being used as a bioweapon?
A. Francisella tularensis is highly infectious. A small number of bacteria (10-50 organisms) can cause disease. If Francisella tularensis were used as a bioweapon, the bacteria would likely be made airborne so they could be inhaled. People who inhale the bacteria can experience severe respiratory illness, including life-threatening pneumonia and systemic infection, if they are not treated.

Q. How quickly would someone become sick if he or she were exposed to tularemia bacteria?
A. The incubation period (the time from being exposed to becoming ill) for tularemia is typically 3 to 5 days, but can range from 1 to 14 days.

Now I'm sure the US Government would never dream of using anti-war protestors to test some lethal biological weapon, right?

I am right, am I not?