Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Fat Tuesday

Under normal circumstances, today would be the joyous high point of the New Orleans Mardi Gras season. Tomorrow Lent begins, but for Fat Tuesday the motto is "Let the good times roll!"

That would be under normal circumstances. This year has been far from normal, primarily because of Hurricane Katrina, which wiped out a good part of the city six months ago. Six months during which very little has been done to bring the city and most of that part of the Gulf Coast back to even close to what it was. Less than half of the storm's debris has been hauled off. Basic infrastructure such as electricity is still an iffy proposition. Most schools and courts still haven't opened. The local plan for reconstruction which the federal government insisted upon and then rejected appears to be dead.

Still, a Mardi Gras was put on by the people of New Orleans, albeit one on a far lesser scale. The theme this year was "C'est Levee," which to my mind is a pretty good indicator that the human spirit isn't easily dismissed.

This week, Scout Prime, a young woman and a blogger from Madison, Wisconsin has journeyed to New Orleans to see just what is happening there. The trip, financed in large part by some generous friends at Eschaton began yesterday. She will be blogging via podcasts, video blog, and of course words. In fact, she has already begun.

I urge you to go to her New Orleans blog site all week to learn what's actually going on in one of the most joyous cities in the nation, a city that has been pretty much forgotten by its own federal government.

While it may make you sad, it will be well worth your while.

Again, that's Scout New Orleans.

Monday, February 27, 2006

A Clash of the Titans It Ain't

The job of Scott McClellan, White House Press Secretary, is to provide as little substantive information with as much regime spin during briefings as possible. The job of the White House press corps is to slice through that obfuscation and to get as much information as possible. Given the competing interests, fireworks are to be expected, especially with live cameras rolling. However, to blame the presence of cameras for the lack of real journalism reeks of the worst kind of excuse making, and yet that is what the NY Times suggests in an article appearing in today's edition.

By its nature, the relationship between the White House and the press has historically held an inherent tension. And many say it has been eroding since the Vietnam War and Watergate, when reporters had reason to distrust everything the White House said and made a scandalous "gate" out of every murky act.

But today, those on both sides say, the relationship has deteriorated further, exacerbated by the live briefings.

"It's constantly getting worse," said Ari Fleischer, who preceded Mr. McClellan as Mr. Bush's spokesman. Perhaps surprisingly for a Bush defender, he attributed the soured relationship in part to what he said was a secretiveness within the White House.

"It's accented and compounded now because this administration is more secretive," he said.

...Reporters say they are sometimes driven to aggressive behavior because the White House is so tightfisted with information. But there is a larger context to their frustration.

Two caricatures of the White House press corps have emerged as the nation has watched the sausage-making in the briefing room and then seen it analyzed in the blogosphere. Commentators on the left say that the press is manipulated, and that it failed to challenge the administration enough after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the ramp-up to the Iraq war in March 2003. The right says the press is petty, irrelevant and politically biased against President Bush.
[emphasis added]

Oh, please.

For the past five years, with few exceptions, the White House press corps has been sleep-walking. Reporter Helen Thomas, in an interview given to NPR last year, suggested that the press appeared to be in a coma. Live cameras sure didn't set off fireworks in the lead-up to the Iraq Invasion. It wasn't until McClellan got caught actually lying during his regular briefing that press spines began to stiffen. Up until that point, when hard questions were asked, and the response was a non-answer, the press could be counted on to nod briefly and shut-up.

Look, when the White House is as imperiously secretive as this one is, and as mendacious as this one is, I don't care if the press resorts to rudeness to get the information the public deserves and needs. Live camera or no camera, the job of the press is to get the story, even if that story is no more than "Once again the White House refused to answer questions about 'X'."

I suppose that's asking for too much these days.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

A Canny Strategy

I've got to hand it to Karl Rove: he may be damaged goods right now, but he still manages to salvage disasters when the Emperor in Chief, not known for his attention to the mundane details of governing, screws up. The latest example of Rove's prowress at sucker punching has to do with the dust-up over the sale of the British contract to manage some (6? 8? 21?) of the US ports to a company owned by the government of the United Arab Emirates.

When word leaked out about the new deal, most Americans went ballistic. Those of us who live near ports were aware that port management had been privatized, outsourced (if you will), but most Americans were oblivious to that fact. When the regime was called on the deal, it quickly became apparent that neither the Emperor nor the appropriate cabinet level minions were aware of the deal that, even without knowing anything about it, the Emperor decided would go through anyways.

Ever sensitive to constituents' outrage in an election year filled with GOP scandals, Republican leaders in Congress insisted on more information and threatened legislation to roll back the deal. The Emperor threatened his first ever veto. Republicans pushed back again, pointing to the fact that the United Arab Emirates had some connections to Al Qaeda (mainly through some fancy financial transfers) and to the fact that two of the 9/11 terrorists had come from the UAE.

The Emperor's response was sheer genius: he accused those who opposed the deal of racism. This from a man who has used fear mongering about those Islamofascists who hate us for our freedoms to whittle huge chunks of those freedoms from the citizens of this country! The irony, of course, is that the very regime who appealed to the basest parts of our nature now accuses us of being against the deal because we hate Arabs.

The GOP leaders have now begun backpedaling so rapidly that if backpedaling were a Summer Olympic sport, the US would garner a whole bunch of medals and world records in a couple of years. Unfortunately, not only the Republicans heard Bush's voice. So did countries in the Middle East. In an editorial in the Lebanese paper Daily Star, the opponents of this deal are excoriated for their position on the basis of its blatant anti-Arab racism.

News that a Dubai-based company will soon manage six American ports has sparked an uproar in the United States, with several lawmakers from both political parties vowing to scupper the deal. The reasoning behind the frenzy is that Arab management of the ports could lead to a terrorist attack. This logic is at best flawed, and at worst racist.

Critics of the agreement point out that Dubai Ports World is owned by a foreign government whose nationals took part in the September 11, 2001 attacks on the U.S. But nobody was alarmed when the ports were run by a British firm, even though terrorists have also carried British passports. And no one was worried about the U.K. being involved with U.S. ports, although the British Army once burned Washington.

The real objection to the deal is that the company is owned and run by Arabs. This racist thinking ignores the fact that DPW is a reputable business operating ports in countries around the world, including Germany and Australia, and soon, the U.K. By inking deals with DPW, these countries did not hand over their security to the U.A.E. Likewise, no matter who is managing U.S. ports, American authorities will be the guardians of U.S. security. Customs officers will still inspect cargos, the Coast Guard will still patrol and protect the harbors, the Transportation Security Agency will still do background checks of port employees, and the Department of Homeland Security will still oversee port security efforts.

...It only sends a message to the people of the U.A.E. and other Arab countries is that no matter how much commitment they show toward the war on terrorism, the Americans will always consider them terrorist suspects.
[Emphasis added]

The editorialist overlooks the fact that the British firm was privately owned and not a state owned business as the Dubai Port World is. He also ignores the reality that the US governmental agencies for the most part rely on the managing company to implement most of the security of the port to the extent that the company has access to the security plans. Finally, the editorialist may not be aware that there are US statutes forbidding foreign states from certain investments in the US, but the law is on the books with a detailed description of procedures which must be followed when those investments are proferred, none of which were followed by the current regime.

Regardless of the editorialist's contentions, more than racism is involved, but to his readers across the Middle East, that is all that matters. In other words, for peculiarly political reasons, BushCo has now given the US another black eye in the Middle East just so the regime gets its way even when it gets it wrong.

Astounding, but (I guess) predictable.

Mucking Up the UN

The NY Times has recently been on a real tear when it comes to criticizing the Bush regime for its double-super-secrecy, its general incompetence, and its overall mendacity. Alas, nothing lasts forever. One of today's editorials deals with the shameful state of the United Nations, yet completely overlooks the primary reason for it, the current US regime.

When it comes to reforming the disgraceful United Nations Human Rights Commission, America's ambassador, John Bolton, is right; Secretary General Kofi Annan is wrong; and leading international human rights groups have unwisely put their preference for multilateral consensus ahead of their duty to fight for the strongest possible human rights protection. A once-promising reform proposal has been so watered down that it has become an ugly sham, offering cover to an unacceptable status quo. It should be renegotiated or rejected.

Mr. Bolton, representing an administration whose record is stained by Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib, is awkwardly placed to defend basic human rights principles. But he also represents the United States, with its long and proud human rights tradition. We hope that his refusal to go along with this shameful charade can produce something better.
[Emphasis added]

Oh, come on! The UN world summit, called to reform and restructure the United Nations, was deliberately sandbagged by Mr. Bolton at the direction of his superiors. The summits failure was ensured once this tool at the very last minute came up with pages of changes that would have to be considered if the US was going to commit to any reforms.

The current regime apparently considers the United Nations essentially worthless, except when it wants to cover its backside. Why else would the Emperor appoint a man who made a career out of bashing the UN as Ambassador to that body?

For example, at the present time, the US is using the UN for the purpose of punishing Iran. The scenario, of course, looks painfully familiar. Even our neighbors have noticed. In a recent op-ed piece published in the Mexican newspaper El Universal a former Mexican Ambassador to the United Nations (and to the United States) writes about US behavior in ways completely ignored by the NY Times editorialist.

But America's new strategy of shared responsibility has yet to arrive at the United Nations, where the summit of Heads of State [December, 2005] failed to achieve even minimal advances on proposed reforms, especially in the realm of human rights.

The prospect of change in the actual structure and especially the modus operandi of the U.N. doesn't seem even remotely possible. The organization has conceded that selective management, double standards and the obscene politicization of its agenda, all products of the Cold War, are beyond reform.

In the recent weeks of negotiation over Iran, the recommendations of the most well-informed group have been marginalized, resulting in an angry discussion between those in a politically submissive position and those who violate fundamental liberties as a policy of State [those favoring Iran vs. those backing the United States]. The resulting reciprocal accusations have condemned the process to a continuation of the existing (flawed) standards.

The possibility of change has been reduced to almost nil, with the White House's sharp rejection of a report by a committee of five experts, which was endorsed by the High Commission on Human Rights. They recommended the closure of the prison at Guantanamo and said that the treatment of the prisoners there amounted to torture as defined under international law. The report also recommended that personnel at Guantanamo receive U.N.-supervised training.

With this attitude, the United States has committed acts for which it criticizes its most galling enemies every year; for example,...it denied the U.S. team private access to the detainees. Under these conditions, the investigators concluded that for them to even visit Guantanamo would have violated rules of the U.N. Commission of Human Rights.

...Under these conditions, it is simply not feasible for the traditional defenders of human rights [the U.S.] to have authority over those named as long-standing violators of them. They simply corroborate - with a vengeance - the famous double standard, under which Washington does justice for some, but not for others. The rejection of the U.N. report offends countries that had sought to correct such abusive practices, practices that without doubt, the cheerleaders of reform themselves are engaged. And this, with the inexplicable help of Secretary General Kofi Annan, who disassociated himself from the U.N. report, saying that the report’s authors were independent … as if this were a factor that was detrimental to the weight of their opinion.
[Emphasis added]

It has taken the United States just five years to undo decades of work in establishing a viable organization for, among other things, the peaceful resolution of international disputest and the implementation of basic human rights. We shouldn't be surprised. If it can't be intimidated or manipulated, this arrogant regime isn't interested.

Way to go, George.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Treating the Symptom

Congressional corruption quite conveniently got shoved off the media radar screen by other dramatic news over the past couple of weeks. Two weeks ago we learned that the Vice President had shot a man in the face during a hunting trip. This past week we've been inundated with the story of the UAE taking over the management of 6 (or 8 or 21) US ports.

In the meantime, however, the investigation into Jack Abramoff's dealings with various congress critters continues, and another indictment has issued in the Randy "Duke" Cunningham scandal. This story isn't quite ready to die. It's an election year.

The Washington Post has an editorial which comments on the current efforts by Congress to deal with the corruption issue.

TIGHTENING lobbying rules without doing something to improve enforcement would be like overhauling the tax code while abolishing the Internal Revenue Service. The existing rules are too permissive and don't require enough disclosure; more is needed. But such changes need to be coupled with a better system to police compliance.

The best idea so far, in legislation proposed by Reps. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) and Martin T. Meehan (D-Mass.), would create an Office of Public Integrity. This office would serve not simply as a passive repository of filings, as the current system does. Instead, it would be an independent, nonpartisan entity, on the model of the Congressional Budget Office. It would be empowered to review documents, accept outside complaints, refer matters to the Justice Department, conduct investigations and make recommendations to the House and Senate ethics committees.
[Emphasis added]

The problem isn't going to go away even with sweeping reform along the lines suggested by the Shays-Meehan bill. Until we get the big money out of election campaigns, members of Congress will still be spending a whole hell of a lot of time raising funds for the next election instead of tending to the people's business, which means they will still be beholden to those who give them those funds in large chunks.

Instead of treating the symptom, this country should consider public financing of all elections at the federal level. A "Clean Elections" system has worked admirably in several state and local elections, and it has removed the prime source of corruption in public officials. The system basically requires that the only private donations allowed are at the front end. The "seed money" is usually in the $5 range because the point is to demonstrate the candidate's viability. If he/she can collect 1000 or 5000 $5 contributions, than the candidate can get at least that many voters. Once the candidate qualifies, then he/she can no longer accept any private donations.

For more detailed information on how the "Clean Election" system works, go here, here, and here.

Friday, February 24, 2006

After Nearly Six Months...

...still half a mountain to go.

FEMA and the Army Corps of Engineers still haven't removed the tons of debris left by Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana and Mississippi, and until that debris is gone, reconstruction can't really begin. The problem? The NY Times provides the clues to what's holding things up:

Government officials, contractors and workers all describe a complicated and bureaucratic process that wastes money, slows the cleanup and fails to ensure that the economic benefits of the work go to the people who need them most, the residents of the disaster areas.

Indeed, the problems are now so clear that even the Department of Homeland Security and its Congressional critics have decided that the entire process for cleaning up after storms — and paying for the cleanups — needs to be restructured.

Among the many problems that have plagued the $1.3 billion cleanup program are these:

¶Contractors and workers, ranging from individual laborers to a quality-control consulting firm, contend that they have been abused, underpaid or not paid at all. The Southern Poverty Law Center, which recently filed a federal lawsuit in New Orleans accusing two private cleanup companies of shortchanging hundreds of immigrant laborers, says the federal government is turning a blind eye to violations of labor law.

¶Many local government officials complain about the slow pace of the cleanup, which federal officials concede is only half done in Louisiana. Local politicians are also fuming over their lack of control over what happens in their communities.

¶Congressional leaders from Mississippi say that one large and politically connected debris-removal company, AshBritt Inc. of Pompano Beach, Fla., is trying to thwart a plan to give work to small companies in their state. The company says it is the victim of a politically motivated effort to take away its business.

¶Louisiana contractors are so angry about the small quantity and low quality of the work they are getting that their trade organization is asking the state to take over federal debris-removal contracts being handled by the Army Corps of Engineers. Local people say that armies of middlemen do no work but siphon off money, while some big companies contend that they have been forced to hire contractors on the basis of their political connections.

...Local governments were also allowed to hire their own debris-removal companies, with the cost to be picked up by FEMA. But many local officials complain they were discouraged from doing so by threats that they would be audited or have to cover some costs themselves.

It was in part a desire to get work for local people that prompted St. Bernard Parish, the devastated area east of New Orleans, to insist on hiring its own contractor, officials there say. But five months after basically every building in the parish was flooded, FEMA has yet to reimburse the government or its contractor for debris removal costs, which the public works department says have reached $50 million. Local officials say they are being punished.
[Emphasis added]

What I think it all boils down to is that, once again, contracts were directed to politically connected companies with little or no oversight in the execution of those contracts and no connection to the area. Part of the recovery of the region depended on hiring subcontractors and workers from the very region affected so as to start pumping money back into the devastated economies. Instead, outsiders were brought in and the laborers underpaid.

Local governments have had their hands tied by the system, which means they have had no control on how and when the work was done, and by whom. Hundreds of millions have been spent, and yet half the debris still remains on site.

Six months, and the reconstruction hasn't even begun.


Thursday, February 23, 2006

A Deal So Secret ...

...not even the Emperor knew about it. Not that it made any difference: he still intends to veto any legislation that undoes the deal.

For the second week in a row, the White House mouthpieces have been fumbling, bumbling, and stumbling in their attempt at damage control. Last week it was the story of the Vice-Emperor shooting an elderly GOP supporter in the face and then waiting nearly a full day before letting anyone know about it. This week it's the story of a contract allowing the United Arab Emirates to take over the management of six US ports.

The first attempt at damage control came from the Emperor himself. He told reporters on Airforce One that there was no problem in the deal, and if Congress passed legislation to futz with it, he'd issue his first veto. When it became clear that Congress had enough votes at that moment to override the veto, the tactic shifted. Yesterday the White House Press Secretary told the press that the President didn't even know about the deal until just a few days before the stuff hit the fan. From the Washington Post:

Faced with an unprecedented Republican revolt over national security, the White House disclosed yesterday that President Bush was unaware of a Middle Eastern company's planned takeover of operations at six U.S. seaports until recent days and promised to brief members of Congress more fully on the pending deal.

One day after threatening to veto any attempt by Congress to scuttle the controversial $6.8 billion deal, Bush sounded a more conciliatory tone by saying lawmakers should have been given more details about a state-owned company in the United Arab Emirates purchasing some terminal operations in Baltimore and five other U.S. cities.

...Republican lawmakers have been flooded with phone calls and letters from constituents encouraging them to fight Bush over the port deal, even at the expense of GOP unity on combating terrorism -- possibly their best political issue. As a result, Bush and Republicans are divided over a national security issue as never before and bracing for a possible showdown that could force Bush to either delay the sale or veto a Republican bill against it according to congressional and White House officials.
[Emphasis added]

It took an election year, poor poll numbers for the White House, and some serious challengers to the incumbents for Congress to finally push back. As I said yesterday (scroll down to "Missing the Point"), the regime's policy of demonizing all Arabs as murderous terrorists worked too well for them. The electorate, now more concerned with security than with liberty, hit the phones and fax machines to make certain that their representatives got the message.

What is most interesting, however, is the official excuse: the Resident didn't know about the deal. Neither did Jack Snow or Donald Rumsfield. The major players were out of the loop.

More popcorn, please.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Missing the Point

One topic seemed to dominate the discourse in the blogworld and the mainstream media yesterday, that of American port management being handled by a company now owned by the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Six US ports had been managed by a British company, but that business was sold to the UAE company. Apparently the sale was duly reported several months ago in the financial media, but it finally hit the American consciousness over the past few days, and the predictable howls of outrage raced across the political spectrum. Port security, known to be deficient in the post-9/11 world, would now be compromised further because a country with various kinds of ties to terrorist organizations was now involved.

In all probablility, our ports will be no less secure under the UAE firm, but the political storm continues. A Washington Post editorial attempts to call bullshit on the whole story, but for the most part fails to see the real dynamic in play.

YOU KNOW THERE'S something suspicious going on when multiple members of Congress -- House, Senate, Democrat, Republican, future presidential candidates of all stripes -- spontaneously unite around an issue that none of them had known existed a week earlier. That appears to be what happened last weekend after politicians awoke to the fairly stale news that the London-based P&O navigation company, which has long managed the ports of New York, New Jersey, Baltimore, New Orleans, Miami and Philadelphia, had been taken over by Dubai Ports World, a company based in the United Arab Emirates. Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) called the deal "tone-deaf politically at this point in our history." Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) called for the White House to put a hold on the purchase. Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) seconded him, implying that Arab owners posed a major security threat -- as did everyone from Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) to Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) to Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.) to Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R).

At stake -- in theory -- is the question of whether we should "outsource major port security to a foreign-based company," in the words of Mr. Graham. But those words, like that of almost all of the others, sound, well, tone-deaf to us. For one, the deal cannot "outsource major port security," because management companies that run ports do not control security. The U.S. Coast Guard controls the physical security of our ports. The U.S. Customs Service controls container security. That doesn't change, no matter who runs the business operations. Nor is it clear why Mr. Graham or anybody else should be worried about "foreign-based" companies managing U.S. ports, since P&O is a British company. And Britain, as events of the last year have illustrated, is no less likely to harbor radical Islamic terrorists than Dubai.

None of the U.S. politicians huffing and puffing seem to be aware that this deal was long in the making, that it had been reported on extensively in the financial press, and that it went through normal security clearance procedures, including approval from a foreign investment committee that contains officials from the departments of Treasury, Commerce, State and Homeland Security, among other agencies. Even more disturbing is the apparent difficulty of members of Congress in distinguishing among Arab countries. We'd like to remind them, as they've apparently forgotten, that the United Arab Emirates is a U.S. ally that has cooperated extensively with U.S. security operations in the war on terrorism, that supplied troops to the U.S.-led coalition during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, and that sends humanitarian aid to Iraq. U.S. troops move freely in and out of Dubai on their way to Iraq now.
[Emphasis added]

What the Washington Post missed contains at least three parts. The first is that Americans suddenly woke up to the fact that the federal government has been just as active in outsourcing as the most global of corporations. Why any part of port management should be handled by anything other than the federal government directly is mystifying.

The second part of this dynamic is that Congress was caught by surprise, which itself can hardly be surprising. This regime has from the start had little use for congressional oversight. It tells Congress what the regime wants it to know, usually after the fact, and Congress has willingly allowed this practice. Why should this issue be any different, even if it is an election year? And this ties in nicely with the third part.

This regime has spent every day since even before 9/11 demonizing the Arab world, raising and lowering the color coded terror alert, manipulating the country to war against those "who hate us for our freedom", and generally trash talking against "Islamofascists" at the drop of a hat. By playing the race card so blatantly, it should not come as any surprise that the American public would be outraged that an Arab country, any Arab country would somehow be involved in running major entry points to America. Congress, and I mean both sides of the aisle, have also permitted this to go on. The regime should have seen this coming, but apparently it did not, believing that its imperial rightness would cover all contingencies.

The only thing I find surprising in all of this is how badly the White House is handling the news. Several cabinet members, most notably Defense Secretary Rumsfield, claims not to have known anything about the deal until this past weekend, and he claims he still hasn't fully reviewed the situation. Similar hedges were offered by several other officials. The response of the Emperor was typical for him: "There's nothing wrong with the deal and I'll veto any legislation that tries to undo it."

Karl Rove must have taken the long holiday weekend off.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Medicare Part D: Still Not Flying

The highly touted prescription drug plan written by Big Pharma for Big Pharma has been plagued by disasters almost from the day it was misbegotten. The first bit of bad news was the so-called donut hole that exists after the first $2,500. Not only is the next several thousand dollars not covered, no other insurance could be obtained that would cover that gap. Next there was the incredible complicated array of plans, some of which covered one prescription drug, but not another also required by the patient. Then there was the paper work disaster that prevented those seniors who had enrolled in a plan from getting their medication under that plan during the first month of the coverage.

Now we learn that that those who might actually benefit from the plan haven't enrolled because they are ignorant of its details or because they are afraid to give up financial information for fear it will affect their other benefits. From the Washington Post:

A $400 million campaign by the Bush administration to enroll low-income seniors in prescription drug coverage that would cost them just a few dollars per prescription has signed up 1.4 million people, a fraction of the 8 million eligible for the new coverage.

At this rate, by some calculations, the government is on track to spend about $250 for each person it enrolls, and even then it would have only 2 million poor senior citizens taking advantage of what is perhaps the most generous government benefit available today.

When Congress enacted the first-ever drug plan for Medicare's 42 million beneficiaries, it created a tiered system in which the poorest and sickest seniors pay the least. About 6 million elderly and disabled people were switched from state Medicaid programs to virtually free Medicare coverage. Retirees at the high end of the income scale have the option of purchasing a plan with standard out-of-pocket costs such as monthly premiums, deductibles and co-payments.

The group sandwiched in between -- those earning too much for Medicaid but less than $19,000 -- qualify for coverage with no premiums, no deductibles and co-payments of less than $5. Congress gave the Social Security Administration $500 million primarily to identify and enroll them.

...The task has proved to be so daunting for the Social Security Administration (SSA) that one high-ranking official wrote a desperate e-mail this month describing overwhelmed telephone lines, heavy backlogs, and visits to field offices that jumped from 140,000 people a day in the fall to 200,000 in January.

"Those of you on the front line have been expressing your deep concern that SSA is not positioned well to help people understand, enroll in and negotiate" the discount drug program, wrote Linda McMahon, deputy commissioner of operations. "Now we are seeing the consequences of that fact.

"It's not a rosy picture, and the news doesn't get better," she continued, warning that other projects, such as processing disability reviews, will be cut back as a result. "I won't try to kid you. This is going to be a very difficult year."
[Emphasis added]

In other words, the government has just pissed away $500 million dollars in trying to extend a benefit without having the workforce in place to assist in enrollment. I would say that it almost looks deliberate, but that would be unkind. I mean, surely this regime wouldn't play games with some of the most vulnerable of Americans, would it?

Opacity in Government

The current regime has long been considered the most secret in history. Apparently that attribute has filtered down to other parts of government, especially the intelligence agencies (of which there are many). Today's NY Times carries an article exposing the reclassifying of documents that were declassified years ago.

In a seven-year-old secret program at the National Archives, intelligence agencies have been removing from public access thousands of historical documents that were available for years, including some already published by the State Department and others photocopied years ago by private historians.

The restoration of classified status to more than 55,000 previously declassified pages began in 1999, when the Central Intelligence Agency and five other agencies objected to what they saw as a hasty release of sensitive information after a 1995 declassification order signed by President Bill Clinton. It accelerated after the Bush administration took office and especially after the 2001 terrorist attacks, according to archives records.

...After Mr. Aid and other historians complained, the archives' Information Security Oversight Office, which oversees government classification, began an audit of the reclassification program, said J. William Leonard, director of the office.

Mr. Leonard said he ordered the audit after reviewing 16 withdrawn documents and concluding that none should be secret.

"If those sample records were removed because somebody thought they were classified, I'm shocked and disappointed," Mr. Leonard said in an interview. "It just boggles the mind."

If Mr. Leonard finds that documents are being wrongly reclassified, his office could not unilaterally release them. But as the chief adviser to the White House on classification, he could urge a reversal or a revision of the reclassification program.

...Under existing guidelines, government documents are supposed to be declassified after 25 years unless there is particular reason to keep them secret. While some of the choices made by the security reviewers at the archives are baffling, others seem guided by an old bureaucratic reflex: to cover up embarrassments, even if they occurred a half-century ago.

...the historians say the program is removing material that can do no conceivable harm to national security. They say it is part of a marked trend toward greater secrecy under the Bush administration, which has increased the pace of classifying documents, slowed declassification and discouraged the release of some material under the Freedom of Information Act.

Experts on government secrecy believe the C.I.A. and other spy agencies, not the White House, are the driving force behind the reclassification program.
[Emphasis added]

The federal statutes regarding the classification of materials make it clear that the process is not to be used to cover up embarrassing incidents, but because the whole classification process is itself secret, there really is no oversight outside the intelligence agencies themselves and the president. We all know how much the Emperor loves a good secret, so this rush to reclassify old documents is no surprise, no matter how foolish it is.

The effect, of course, is that historians are now left holding some documents they can't use and are shut out of access to documents which by this time have no value beyond the historical. And the effect of that is the general American public is being deprived of its own history.

What's next? "We have always been at war with East Asia?"

Monday, February 20, 2006

Reining in the Netocracy

The internet has been perhaps the most significant technological development of the late twentieth century. It certainly is the most powerful tool of grassroots communication, and it continues to burgeon and blossom like kudzu alongside a southern highway. One subset of the phenomenon known as the net that has really taken off is that of the blog. Anyone with a connection can now easily put opinions and information about anything. Blogs can also raise $100,000 for a candidate in a matter of days. It is no wonder that those used to traditional sources of power are feeling a tad nervous and therefor use every opportunity to snipe at the blogsters.

Recently the NY Times carried a snarky piece on the blog phenomenon.

THE rise of blogging is often cast in black-and-white terms: blogs versus the "MSM" (the derisive term some bloggers apply to the mainstream media).

But things may shake out more along the lines of journalism versus armchair yammering. Both can be, and are, presented on Web sites that call themselves blogs. Both have been presented in the mainstream media all along.
[Emphasis added]

Under this analysis, web sites run by the Washington Post and NY Times are journalism. Web sites run by individuals tend to be armchair yammering. To some extent, that is true. I admit to being a yammerer, quite proudly in fact. I doubt that Media Matters or Firedoglake or much of HuffingtonPost qualify as yammering, though, and they have a huge and influential following.

Us yammerers, most of whom have daily hit counts that rarely rise above double digits, still have something we feel compelled to say, and the internet provides a wonderful medium for us to say it. We follow in the tradition of pamphleteers of the 18th century and the samizdatists of the 20th. It works out quite nicely, or it has at least up to this point. That appears to be changing. The Nation has an incredible article that details the upcoming attempt to wrest the internet away from us common folks.

The nation's largest telephone and cable companies are crafting an alarming set of strategies that would transform the free, open and nondiscriminatory Internet of today to a privately run and branded service that would charge a fee for virtually everything we do online.

Verizon, Comcast, Bell South and other communications giants are developing strategies that would track and store information on our every move in cyberspace in a vast data-collection and marketing system, the scope of which could rival the National Security Agency. According to white papers now being circulated in the cable, telephone and telecommunications industries, those with the deepest pockets--corporations, special-interest groups and major advertisers--would get preferred treatment. Content from these providers would have first priority on our computer and television screens, while information seen as undesirable, such as peer-to-peer communications, could be relegated to a slow lane or simply shut out.

Under the plans they are considering, all of us--from content providers to individual users--would pay more to surf online, stream videos or even send e-mail. Industry planners are mulling new subscription plans that would further limit the online experience, establishing "platinum," "gold" and "silver" levels of Internet access that would set limits on the number of downloads, media streams or even e-mail messages that could be sent or received.

To make this pay-to-play vision a reality, phone and cable lobbyists are now engaged in a political campaign to further weaken the nation's communications policy laws. They want the federal government to permit them to operate Internet and other digital communications services as private networks, free of policy safeguards or governmental oversight. Indeed, both the Congress and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) are considering proposals that will have far-reaching impact on the Internet's future. Ten years after passage of the ill-advised Telecommunications Act of 1996, telephone and cable companies are using the same political snake oil to convince compromised or clueless lawmakers to subvert the Internet into a turbo-charged digital retail machine.

...At the core of the new power held by phone and cable companies are tools delivering what is known as "deep packet inspection." With these tools, AT&T and others can readily know the packets of information you are receiving online--from e-mail, to websites, to sharing of music, video and software downloads.

But these tools are also being promoted as ways that companies, such as Comcast and Bell South, can simply grab greater control over the Internet. For example, in a series of recent white papers, Internet technology giant Cisco urges these companies to "meter individual subscriber usage by application," as individuals' online travels are "tracked" and "integrated with billing systems." Such tracking and billing is made possible because they will know "the identity and profile of the individual subscriber," "what the subscriber is doing" and "where the subscriber resides."

...Phone and cable companies claim that the government shouldn't play a role in broadband regulation: Instead of the free and open network that offers equal access to all, they want to reduce the Internet to a series of business decisions between consumers and providers.
[Emphasis added]

What this means is that only those with the big bucks will be able to play in this heretofor free playground. And it also means that money (which equals power in this society) will determine content. And that means that most of us will successfully be shut up.

Go the The Nation and read the whole article. And then sign up to do something about this.

Reclaiming Elections

One of the victims of the 2005 Congressional year was a bill requiring (among other reforms) a paper receipt when computerized "touch screen" machines are used in voting. It, like the Stem Cell Research bill never made it to the Senate floor. Time ran out. As a result, any bill introduced this year will have no effect on the November elections. That means that any reform will have to be done at the state level.

Today's Washington Post has an editorial on Maryland's struggle to bring credibility back to elections.

AFTER DAWDLING for a good two years and defending a certifiably untrustworthy voting process in Maryland, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) announced last week that he, too, has lost confidence in the state's ability to conduct fair and secure elections this fall. A curiously tardy call, Governor, but welcome aboard: Time is short, but now an all-out effort to clean up the system before the elections can and should begin.

Lawmakers in both parties have warned repeatedly that the touch-screen machines that have been in use are seriously flawed. Voters cannot know for sure whether their choices are correctly recorded and tallied because the machines do not produce any paper trails showing each vote cast; that makes an audit impossible. Computer experts note, too, that results can be rigged without risk of detection.

Now Mr. Ehrlich has joined the paper-trail chorus, echoing concerns raised not only in Annapolis but also in dozens of states about machines manufactured by Diebold Election Systems. The governor's newfound angst just might have been stirred by a defeat he suffered on an election issue only last month; the Democratic-controlled legislature overrode his veto of measures that allow votes to be cast five days before a scheduled election and voters to cast provisional ballots at any polling place. In his latest announcement he cited Maryland's lack of readiness for the next elections, adding that early voting should be delayed.

State elections administrator Linda H. Lamone insisted Thursday that all is well, that the machines are reliable and that "you are asking for a catastrophe if you try to change" the system. After all, who needs audits or some paper record of how votes were cast? Just take it on faith that your vote was duly recorded and that the results are right.

...Still, machines that produce paper trails are a must. The political dickering and dueling that compounded this mess has got to be cut short. The integrity of Maryland's voting process is at stake. It must not be imperiled as voters prepare to record their preferences in some of the most important state and local elections in years.
[Emphasis added]

Key to restoring trust to a system run by machines that are demonstrably not secure is a paper trail which can be used to verify results by audit. The proposed federal bill included that concept and it is a shame that the GOP would not get behind it and pass it before the various scandals and disasters struck. While it is clear that the governor is playing a little "gotcha" game in response to the Maryland legislature's veto over-ride, the Democratic legislature should run, not walk, with the governor's idea and get those voting machines equipped properly. They have nothing to lose, and a whole lot to gain by holding trustworthy elections.

One hopes that Ohio can also pause long enough from their governmental scandals to also pass a comparable bill. It might make a huge difference this November and the November two years from now.

Just sayin'.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Our Allies Are Getting Tired of Us

Yesterday, I posted excerpts from a Jordanian editorial critical of the US policies in dealing with prisoners at Guantamo Bay. I suppose an argument can be made that an Arab newspaper might be just a tad biased about the subject, especially since there are probably Jordanian citizens held at Gitmo.

The Netherlands, however, has no particular bias in that sense, yet the Dutch are equally appalled by the current US policy in the Global War on Terror and People Who Dress Funny. From a recent editorial in NRCHandelblad:

The Dutch government has a lot more explaining to do regarding the secret CIA flights, than initially was thought. From information assembled by the Dutch Transportation Department, obtained by this newspaper under the government's Freedom of Information Act, it appears that there were many flights, potentially carrying terror suspects, that landed on Dutch soil or flew through Dutch-controlled airspace.

...It has to be stated again: prisoners do have rights too. In our society, there is no place for illegal practices such as kidnapping, extraordinary rendition, or worse: torture. The Americans deny they are guilty of torture, but have confessed that in the fight against terrorism they do occasionally use extraordinary renditions. By the way: strictly speaking, secret detention without access to legal counsel is also a form of torture.

Providing clarification offers an opportunity for the Dutch Government to state where the line needs to been drawn between well-intended acts of friendship between two sovereign nations and obscure cooperation with an ally that is in the midst of its own human rights problem. The time has come to start the debate over how to keep one's hands clean while fighting a shadowy, dirty war.
[Emphasis added]

There are a couple of things going on in this editorial, so I urge you to click on the link and read the entire text. First of all, the disgust at the US policies of 'extraordinary rendition' (the Emperor's euphemism for kidnapping) and torture is laid out clearly by the editorialist.

Second, and in some ways even more disturbing, is the writer's deep anger at the fact that the US has subverted his government to the point that it has become complicit in the criminal behavior of the Bush regime. How frightening that must seem to decent people, as frightening as it is to those of us who see our own government's actions as deplorable, disgusting, and, frankly, unAmerican.

Perhaps our own salvation will come only when other nations finally put their feet down and their indictments to the World Court in writing.

Hiding the Salami

To be honest, David S. Broder is not the first person I would go to for information regarding the mendacity of the current regime. I was surprised, however, by his column in today's Washington Post. Apparently even the Dean is appalled by BushCo's hiding the true cost of the tax cuts for the wealthy.

Back when the late John Mitchell was attorney general in the Nixon administration, he advised reporters, "Watch what we do, not what we say."

That advice certainly applies to the Bush administration as well. The latest bit of evidence to come to my attention is what you might think of as the Case of the Disappearing Trillion.

The tip-off arrived last week in an e-mail from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. It is a Washington research organization with a distinctly liberal point of view but a deserved reputation for accuracy in its figures.

In this case, the information the center cites was confirmed to me -- though with a very different interpretation -- by officials of the White House Office of Management and Budget. It involves the treatment in the budget of the Bush tax cuts passed by Congress in 2001 and 2003.

...This year, however, the budget the president submitted on Feb. 6 simply assumes that the tax cuts have been made permanent -- and thus includes them in the "baseline" for all future years.

The effect, according to the center's analysis, is that "legislation to make these tax cuts permanent will be scored as having no cost whatsoever."

...To fail ever to count the cost of the tax cuts in the years after the sunset dates . . . would represent one of the largest and most flagrant budget gimmicks in recent memory."

How large? The Congressional Budget Office scores the cost of making these tax cuts permanent at $1.6 trillion over the next decade. The administration's estimate is somewhat less -- $1.35 trillion.

...And those "inappropriate procedural roadblocks to extending them"? Translation: If you tell Congress the cost of making those tax cuts permanent, lawmakers might have second thoughts about doing it.

In fact, it turns out that Bush tried to get Congress to go along with this bookkeeping switch back in 2004, actually submitting legislation to authorize the change. The House refused to accept it. He put it back in his budget last year, with the same result. But this year he's back again, with more urgency, as he presses the case to make these tax cuts permanent.
[Emphasis added]

Over a trillion dollars: that's the true cost of these tax cuts for the top 1% of Americans with money. In the meantime, as I pointed out here, the Republican Congress has cheerfully cut funding for such community based health programs as providing defibrillaters for rural areas and for public information to educate the public on Alzheimer's disease.

As if that weren't bad enough, the White House presented a budget which actively hides the salami of the actual numbers involved lest even the most conservative of Republicans feel some budgetary compunction as to raising the national debt that high. Oh, the numbers are there, but they are buried in collateral charts written in the arcane (and mostly unintelligible) language of the budget that only the economic wonks of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities were able to locate and translate.


Saturday, February 18, 2006

"America" and "Torture" In the Same Sentence

How shocking is that?

Sadly, using those two words in the same sentence has become nightmarishly frequent since 9/11, and even more frequent in the rest of the world than in this country. The United Nations has released a report on the treatment of prisoners being held at Guantanamo Bay, and the findings suggest that the conjoining of those two words is appropriate. Other nations, including those who are our traditional allies, agree. Here is an assessment from the Jordan Times.

The UN has finally joined the chorus of protests long raised by the international civil society against the US-run prison in Guantanamo.

According to a report by five independent experts commissioned by the UN, the detention centre for terror suspects in Guantanamo Bay should be shut down immediately and all detainees should be either tried before an independent tribunal or released.

The report documents a long list of gross human rights violations committed in Guantanamo, from arbitrary detentions to torture.

The 54-page document rightly affirms that force-feeding the detainees on hunger strike and regular resort to excessive violence are also tantamount to torture.

...That Guantanamo was meant to provide US authorities with a screen to carry out the dirty business away from public scrutiny has been clear since shortly after Sept. 11, when the Department of Defence authorised the adoption of “special interrogation techniques” there.

...It is immensely sad and disarming that the US should end up imitating the worst aspects of the very systems it says it wants to “democratise.”
[Emphasis added]

That eminent American philosopher Walt Kelley had it right: "We have met the enemy, and it is us."

May whatever stands behind the universe forgive those who have brought this country to such a pass.

I cannot.

Pressure? What Pressure?

Senator Pat Roberts seems to be singing a slightly different tune than he was when he called off a vote on whether to actually investigate the illegal NSA spying on Americans. No, he hasn't moved on the issue of the investigation, but he has changed the emphasis of his remarks about working with the White House in crafting legislation on the NSA program. His shift in attitude apparently annoyed the White House because BushCo has decided that Sen. DeWine's ideas are more suitable. Sen. DeWine is of the opinion that the President has the inherent powers to spy on us, so naturally, the White House is more interested in his approach. The NY Times has suggested the general lack of consensus on any legislation currently being contemplated.

The chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee said Friday that he wanted the Bush administration's domestic eavesdropping program brought under the authority of a special intelligence court, a move President Bush has argued is not necessary.

The chairman, Senator Pat Roberts, Republican of Kansas, said he had some concerns that the court could not issue warrants quickly enough to keep up with the needs of the eavesdropping program. But he said he would like to see those details worked out.

Mr. Roberts also said he did not believe that exempting the program from the purview of the court created by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act "would be met with much support" on Capitol Hill. Yet that is exactly the approach the Bush administration is pursuing.

"I think it should come before the FISA court, but I don't know how it works," Mr. Roberts said. "You don't want to have a situation where you have capability that doesn't work well with the FISA court, in terms of speed and agility and hot pursuit. So we have to solve that problem."

...Another senior Senate Republican, Arlen Specter, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, has proposed legislation that would allow the FISA court to pass judgment on the program's constitutionality. And Senator Olympia J. Snowe, Republican of Maine and a member of the intelligence panel, said Friday that she believed the eavesdropping must come under the purview of the judiciary.

"I think we do have to have judicial review," she said, adding, "Whether it's the FISA approach or not I think remains in question, but it can't go on in perpetuity, and it can't be unfettered warrantless surveillance."
[Emphasis added]

I find it curious that the NY Times reporters could only find Republicans willing to speak on the record regarding the issue, but it may very well be that the Democrats in both the Senate and the House are sitting back to see just how far apart their Republican colleagues really are in this matter before making any kind of move. That seems to be the only strategy the Democrats have any faith in right now, which is both deplorable and dangerous. I mean, it's not like the strategy has worked the past five years.

That said, however, it is heartening that at least some Republicans believe that the program cannot continue in the current fashion of no oversight whatsoever. Many seem to think that judicial review of some kind is essential. If judicial oversight is required, then the warrantless search is dead. And that is the very least that is required under the Constitution.

What I also find curious is the shift in Sen. Roberts' tone, because that may be important. Rumors are out that pushing back against the White House may result in a lessening of support for incumbents facing re-election this year. Maybe some incumbent Republicans have finally figured out that if they don't get the dollars needed to run successfully, it is entirely possible that Democrats will win enough contested seats to shift the balance of power on the Hill, and that could make for a very uncomfortable two years for the Emperor and his minions. In other words, some of the Republicans have decided that the threats are hollow.

I just wish the Democrats would seize the opportunity now, rather than later, and would start speaking up. They really have nothing to lose.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Someone Finally Called Bullshit

Yesterday I complained about the Washington Post completely missing the point on what was wrong with the regime's illegal warrantless spying on Americans (scroll down to "Looking For Ways..."). Today, the NY Times gave me a glimmer of hope that someone was paying attention to what is so terribly wrong with that NSA program in a very direct (and somewhat snarky) editorial.

Is there any aspect of President Bush's miserable record on intelligence that Senator Pat Roberts, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, is not willing to excuse and help to cover up?

For more than a year, Mr. Roberts has been dragging out an investigation into why Mr. Bush presented old, dubious and just plain wrong intelligence on Iraq as solid new proof that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and was in league with Al Qaeda. It was supposed to start after the 2004 election, but Mr. Roberts was letting it die of neglect until the Democrats protested by forcing the Senate into an unusual closed session last November.

Now Mr. Roberts is trying to stop an investigation into Mr. Bush's decision to allow the National Security Agency to eavesdrop on Americans without getting the warrants required by a 27-year-old federal law enacted to stop that sort of abuse.

...Mr. Roberts said the White House had agreed to provide more briefings to the Senate Intelligence Committee — hardly an enormous concession since it is already required to do so. And he said he and the White House were working out "a fix" for the law. That is the worst news. FISA was written to prevent the president from violating Americans' constitutional rights. It was amended after 9/11 to make it even easier for the administration to do legally what it is now doing.

FISA does not in any way prevent Mr. Bush from spying on Qaeda members or other terrorists. The last thing the nation needs is to amend the law to institutionalize the imperial powers Mr. Bush seized after 9/11.
[Emphasis added]

The Democrats have just been handed the language and the cover for raising all sorts of hell over this shocking display of party over country. While they are the minority, forty-two of the forty-five of them can stop by filibuster any legislation which grants the Resident even more imperial powers, if they will just stick together. And, by pointing out what is so dreadfully wrong with the NSA program and the way it is being used, the Democrats might actually gain some respect from the electorate during an election year.

Time to hit the phones again, my friends.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Looking For Ways to Give In To the Regime

I simply do not understand why Congress and the press just don't get what is wrong with the NSA spying on Americans without a warrant. Have our schools been so bad for so long that even rudimentary understanding of the US Constitution is lacking by adults who didn't have the glorious benefits of No Child Left Behind? Or has this nation been so humbled by fear that the Bill of Rights is now irrelevant because it refers to citizens instead of sheep? Sadly, the Washington Post in an editorial seems to think that all will be well if Congress and the White House just talk to each other more often on this issue.

CONGRESS IS feeling its way gingerly as it contemplates the Bush administration's extralegal program of domestic surveillance. That's not surprising. The administration, which kept the program secret from all but eight members of Congress until recently, insists that any congressional inquiry could help the terrorists who are the ostensible targets of the surveillance.

One essential prerequisite to finding a solution is to have enough information. The administration, after a period of resistance, gave House and Senate intelligence committees some information last week, but it's far from clear that legislators know enough to act responsibly -- or that they are willing to insist on getting the information that they need. What does the program entail and why is it not, as the administration contends, feasible to comply with the requirements of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act? How many Americans have been subjected to surveillance? For how long? Has the program proved valuable, or has it inundated investigators with too many false leads? What agencies are privy to the information that is collected? What steps are taken to minimize dissemination of surveillance that doesn't bear fruit -- and to scrub the record of leads that prove to be blind alleys? What procedures are in place to make certain the intelligence is not abused?

...a thorough scrubbing, by members and staff cleared for and versed in intelligence-gathering, is essential to achieving the truly critical goal: bringing the operation under a legal framework that includes sustained and rigorous outside oversight. To argue that an investigation is warranted under these circumstances is not to presuppose wrongdoing but simply to point out that Congress cannot effectively do its job in the dark.

While it's premature to consider what legislation might be appropriate, some proposals that have already been put forward strike us as heading in the right direction -- if not quite there yet. Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) wants the special court that oversees FISA to review the program and determine its constitutionality -- an odd role for an admittedly unusual court. Sen. Mike DeWine (R-Ohio) wants to exempt the program from FISA and merely have the administration regularly brief a small group of lawmakers; this strikes us as not nearly rigorous enough.

But they are right to be groping for legislative solutions. As much as the administration would prefer otherwise, it is not acceptable simply to have this program continue in the existing legal and regulatory vacuum.
[Emphasis added]

First, the program is not "extralegal," it is illegal insofar as it allows warrantless searches. Legislation which allows for that is itself unconstitutional.

Second, while the editorialist has asked a lot of good questions, it is doubtful that this regime has any intention of answering any of them. Even with the answers, however, Congress cannot and should not even try to cooperate with a program that by its very nature is a violation of the Bill of Rights.

Third, the program does indeed require vigorous outside oversight, which the current FISA law provides. Guidelines for that oversight are provided for in the Constitution and by two hundred plus years of Supreme Court interpretation. The oversight of an administration program is granted to the courts, not to Congress. There is a reason for that pesky third element of government.

Fourth, this program does not exist in an "existing legal and regulatory vacuum." That may be what the current regime would like us all to think, but it is simply not true, and to frame the issue in the regime's language of choice is to admit that democracy is simply not viable in the face of a nebulous threat.

The editorialist suggests that any such investigation need not "presuppose wrongdoing." When the President of the United States freely admits that he has authorized warrantless searches of Americans, contrary to the FISA law and contrary to the US Constitution, and states that he will continue to do so, Congress had better go into these hearings with the presupposition of wrongdoing. And if this Congress doesn't, then I surely hope the sheeple wake up from their post 9/11 drowse long enough to throw all of those Congress Critters out come November.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Budget Priorities

It's clear from his budget just where the Emperor's priorities lie. Tax cuts for the wealthy remain in place, defense monies increase, but smaller, more community based health initiatives are cut or even zeroed out. From yesterday's Washington Post:

President Bush has requested billions more to prepare for potential disasters such as a biological attack or an influenza epidemic, but his proposed budget for next year would zero out popular health projects that supporters say target more mundane, but more certain, killers.

If enacted, the 2007 budget would eliminate federal programs that support inner-city Indian health clinics, defibrillators in rural areas, an educational campaign about Alzheimer's disease, centers for traumatic brain injuries, and a nationwide registry for Lou Gehrig's disease. It would cut close to $1 billion in health care grants to states and would kill the entire budget of the Christopher and Dana Reeve Paralysis Resource Center.

...The spokesman for the American Heart Association said he cannot fathom why the administration has recommended eliminating a $1.5 million program that provides defibrillators to rural communities and trains local personnel on how to use the machines to restart hearts that go into cardiac arrest.

To meet his twin goals of taming a rising deficit and increasing spending on national security, Bush proposed $2.2 billion in cuts to discretionary programs elsewhere in the budget. The Department of Health and Human Services would absorb $1.5 billion of that total, in part to direct more money to mandatory programs such as Medicare.

Some of the proposed cuts are familiar Bush targets that in previous years were rescued by congressional backers. Others are new and could be harder to restore this year. Leavitt said his team slashed programs that were duplicative or underperforming. But in every case, physicians, patient advocates and policy analysts argue, it will cost taxpayers more in the long run.
[Emphasis added]

What is so outrageous about these cuts is that they all were pretty much small ticket items. In no way do these cuts even begin to offset the tax cuts: they are symbolic gestures, and cynical ones at that. Also included in programs reduced to the point of elimination are some connected with Alzheimer's, a disease which is predicted to increase to the point of an epidemic by 2050. Programs which provide law enforcement assistance for locating patients who have "wandered off" and which provide information on ways to stave off the horrors of the disease have been left in the dust. Neither program can honestly be described as inefficient or duplicative.

And the real stupidity of this kind of budgetary planning is that it brings home an old saying my grandmother was fond of: penny wise and pound foolish. The costs to Medicare and Medicaid will increase as people with cardiac and cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer's, and paralysis will enter the federal programs earlier and with more advanced illnesses than they otherwise might have.

How stupid and shortsighted is that?


Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Bringing Democracy to the Middle East...

...and then subverting it.

One of the probems this regime has is a failure of intelligence. By that I mean it just isn't too bright. Given the profound ill will and distrust of the United States in the Middle East because of the invasion of Iraq and the recent sabre rattling at Iran and Syria, why would BushCo be surprised that the Palestinians would vote in a government openly hostile to the US and Israel? And yet the maladministration was shocked at Hamas's election victory. Secretary of State Rice expressed what is apparently a favorite regime excuse over the elections: "Who could have imagined a Hamas victory?" ("Who could have imagined terrorists using passenger jets as missiles?" "Who could have imagined the levees would fail?")

This failure of "imagination" is apparently not going to deter the Emperor in Chief. He is demanding a do-over, a mulligan, if you will. From the NY Times:

The United States and Israel are discussing ways to destabilize the Palestinian government so that newly elected Hamas officials will fail and elections will be called again, according to Israeli officials and Western diplomats.

The intention is to starve the Palestinian Authority of money and international connections to the point where, some months from now, its president, Mahmoud Abbas, is compelled to call a new election. The hope is that Palestinians will be so unhappy with life under Hamas that they will return to office a reformed and chastened Fatah movement.

...They say Hamas will be given a choice: recognize Israel's right to exist, forswear violence and accept previous Palestinian-Israeli agreements — as called for by the United Nations and the West — or face isolation and collapse.

Opinion polls show that Hamas's promise to better the lives of the Palestinian people was the main reason it won. But the United States and Israel say Palestinian life will only get harder if Hamas does not meet those three demands. They say Hamas plans to build up its militias and increase violence and must be starved out of power.

The strategy has many risks, especially given that Hamas will try to secure needed support from the larger Islamic world, including its allies Syria and Iran, as well as from private donors.

It will blame Israel and the United States for its troubles, appeal to the world not to punish the Palestinian people for their free democratic choice, point to the real hardship that a lack of cash will produce and may very well resort to an open military confrontation with Israel, in a sense beginning a third intifada.

The message from the US is clear: yes, you must have a democracy, but only if you elect the people we tell you to elect. Otherwise we will destabilize your government and you'll have to do it all over again until you get it right. Democracy? Hardly. More like imperial domination at its most cynical.

The effect will be to draw the Islamic Middle East more tightly together against the West, especially against the US and against Israel. How intelligent is that?

Way to go, George.

Monday, February 13, 2006

More Katrina Misery

Yesterday, I posted on the House report that will issue on Wednesday which will confirm what we all suspected, the federal response to Hurricane Katrina was itself disasterous (scroll down to "Vertical Incompetence"). It's disheartening to note that the same incompetence continues, making the suffering of the storm's victims even more hellish: emergency housing is being cut off without any longer-term housing in place. From the NY Times:

The worst natural disaster in modern United States history has turned into our collective national shame. When the most powerful nation on earth cannot find long-term housing for its own hurricane victims in almost six months, there is no other word to describe it.

Last Tuesday the government stopped paying for about 4,500 hotel rooms for storm evacuees. By March 1, all but a few people with extenuating circumstances will have to leave their hotels. So will those staying aboard cruise ships, many of whom are the police officers, firefighters and other government employees keeping the city from dying once and for all.

...What is needed is work that solves the immediate problem and also contributes to the long-term solution. That means rehabilitating existing housing. FEMA is working on a pilot program to refurbish a 325-unit apartment complex. The agency says that the mayor's office has identified 20,000 apartments that could potentially be rehabilitated. Federal, state and local resources should be brought to bear in getting those homes fixed and reoccupied. Not next year, but right now. The same goes for the trailers.

As the editorial points out, the initial plan was to use trailers as an interim measure while permanent housing gets put into place via new construction or reconstruction. Trailer parks are not the best of all worlds, but they could serve temporarily. Unfortunately, local officials and local utility companies have been dragging their collective feet in identifying sites and providing the necessary infrastructure. As a result, thousands of quickly built trailers are still sitting at their staging points far from their intended destination.

While local officials bear some of the blame for this, it is also true that the federal officials have complicated matters for the locals. The feds demanded a workable plan for reconstruction. Louisiana complied by developing the "Baker Plan," which was a reasonably constructive measure designed to rebuild New Orleans, but which would take federal cooperation and the release of funds. Only after the plan was completed did FEMA and the White House made it clear that the plan was now unacceptable. Everything ground to a halt when the White House announced that the Baker Bill would not even be brought to the House floor for consideration. In other words, no bill, no money.

Stop-gap housing is supposed to be temporary, but without a plan for permanent reconstruction, the fear is that the trailer parks would become permanent slums. Once again, FEMA fails in its mandate, as does the federal government.

Way to go, George.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Vertical Incompetence

Well, well, well...

A draft report of the House investigation into what went wrong in the Katrina disaster is being released Wednesday, and the Washington Post got a sneak peek at it. The blame got spread around, from top to bottom.

Hurricane Katrina exposed the U.S. government's failure to learn the lessons of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, as leaders from President Bush down disregarded ample warnings of the threat to New Orleans and did not execute emergency plans or share information that would have saved lives, according to a blistering report by House investigators.

A draft of the report, to be released publicly Wednesday, includes 90 findings of failures at all levels of government, according to a senior investigation staffer who requested anonymity because the document is not final. Titled "A Failure of Initiative," it is one of three separate reviews by the House, Senate and White House that will in coming weeks dissect the response to the nation's costliest natural disaster.

The 600-plus-page report lays primary fault with the passive reaction and misjudgments of top Bush aides, singling out Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, the Homeland Security Operations Center and the White House Homeland Security Council, according to a 60-page summary of the document obtained by The Washington Post. Regarding Bush, the report found that "earlier presidential involvement could have speeded the response" because he alone could have cut through all bureaucratic resistance.

...The report portrays Chertoff, who took the helm of the department six months before the storm, as detached from events. It contends he switched on the government's emergency response systems "late, ineffectively or not at all," delaying the flow of federal troops and materiel by as much as three days.

The White House did not fully engage the president or "substantiate, analyze and act on the information at its disposal," failing to confirm the collapse of New Orleans's levee system on Aug. 29, the day of Katrina's landfall, which led to catastrophic flooding of the city of 500,000 people.

..."If 9/11 was a failure of imagination then Katrina was a failure of initiative. It was a failure of leadership," the report's preface states. "In this instance, blinding lack of situational awareness and disjointed decision making needlessly compounded and prolonged Katrina's horror."
[Emphasis added]

There are a couple of things about this report which makes it so astonishing. First, this was not a bipartisan investigation. Democrats refused to take part because there were to be no subpoena powers. (Two Louisiana Democrats did informally work with the committee for obvious reasons.) This is a Republican report.

Second, the White House did not cooperate, and all of this information was garnered without a subpoena being issued. That these conclusions could be reached under these circumstances raises the question of what would have been found if there had been some teeth in the investigation.

From the Warlock* In Chief to Chertoff to Brown: everyone screwed up, people died, a city was destroyed.

(*Oathbreaker. Scroll down to the next post.)

Still No Mention of the "I" Word

The NY Times surprised me today. In one of the hardest hitting editorials to date, the Times really lambasted the Emperor in Chief and his regime.

We can't think of a president who has gone to the American people more often than George W. Bush has to ask them to forget about things like democracy, judicial process and the balance of powers — and just trust him. We also can't think of a president who has deserved that trust less.

...DOMESTIC SPYING After 9/11, Mr. Bush authorized the National Security Agency to eavesdrop on the conversations and e-mail of Americans and others in the United States without obtaining a warrant or allowing Congress or the courts to review the operation. Lawmakers from both parties have raised considerable doubt about the legality of this program, but Attorney General Alberto Gonzales made it clear last Monday at a Senate hearing that Mr. Bush hasn't the slightest intention of changing it.

...THE PRISON CAMPS It has been nearly two years since the Abu Ghraib scandal illuminated the violence, illegal detentions and other abuses at United States military prison camps. There have been Congressional hearings, court rulings imposing normal judicial procedures on the camps, and a law requiring prisoners to be treated humanely. Yet nothing has changed. Mr. Bush also made it clear that he intends to follow the new law on the treatment of prisoners when his internal moral compass tells him it is the right thing to do.

...THE WAR IN IRAQ One of Mr. Bush's biggest "trust me" moments was when he told Americans that the United States had to invade Iraq because it possessed dangerous weapons and posed an immediate threat to America. The White House has blocked a Congressional investigation into whether it exaggerated the intelligence on Iraq, and continues to insist that the decision to invade was based on the consensus of American intelligence agencies.

Like many other administrations before it, this one sometimes dissembles clumsily to avoid embarrassment. (We now know, for example, that the White House did not tell the truth about when it learned the levees in New Orleans had failed.) Spin-as-usual is one thing. Striking at the civil liberties, due process and balance of powers that are the heart of American democracy is another.
[Emphasis added]

The Emperor, when he was merely the Resident, took an oath to defend defend and uphold the Constitution when he was sworn in, yet he has taken every opportunity available since then to violate what he obviously considers little more than a piece of paper. He is an oathbreaker. In times past, such oathbreakers were known as "warlocks." what is especially troubling about this warlock is that he is openly and unashamedly defiant about his malfeasance.

The editorialist did a good job in marshalling the evidence against this corrupt and evildoing regime. It just left out one word: Impeachment.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

When the Other Side Says, "Bring It On"

The US regime continues to use Iran as a whipping post. Iran, with Syria, is being blamed by the State Department for fomenting the protests generated by the hateful cartoons published and republished in Europe. The US continues to push the UN and IAEA over the nuclear development planned by Iran in a fashion very reminiscent of the lead-up to the Iraq invasion, and, once again, the Emperor in Chief referred disparagingly to Iran and its leaders in his recent State of the Union Address, indirectly urging Iranians to overthrow their own elected government.

While an argument can be made that all of this sabre rattling is made primarily for US consumption, the rest of the world, including some of our "allies" have been watching carefully. A recent "open letter" to the US and its neocons recently appeared in the Pakistani newspaper The Pak Tribune. The author is a former fighter pilot for Pakistan.

Dear Neocons,

It is showtime over Iran. You are in a bind of your own making and, boy, am I glad to see it!

Allow me to explain.

Increasing Iranian belligerence vis-à-vis your pressure on Iran's nuclear program indicates that decision time has finally arrived. The words of your spokesman, the President of United States, having earlier included Iran as part of the "axis of evil" in a rush of blood, will not allow you to do nothing. You now must put up or shut up, once and for all.

Let us examine your options.

To start off, you could impose unilateral sanctions on Iran.
There is no evidence, however, that unilateral sanctions have ever worked. Your country imposed over 80 unilateral economic sanctions on foreign nations from 1995 to 2001, and those sanctions cost U.S. companies up to $19 billion in 1995 alone. There are few items of international commerce over which your country has a monopoly. Target countries simply buy what they need elsewhere, while big American businesses lose sales to foreign competitors.

The next option involves multilateral sanctions on Iran through the U.N. Multilateral sanctions have a better chance of success, but they are hard to maintain. With China and Russia, Iran's two major trading partners, sitting on the U.N. Security Council, these are unlikely to materialize. ...

Next, you could get Israel to attack Iran's nuclear facilities. There are, however, some deep-seated problems attached to this option too. Based on its known military capabilities, the Israeli Air Force can possibly conduct surgical strikes at the 1000km plus range, but it is incapable of a sustained air campaign against a full range of targets at such a distance. ...

In a nutshell, the option of getting Israel to attack Iranian installations is difficult because the probability of success is low, the risks are high, and reprisals are certain.

Next, you could go it alone in a direct military confrontation.

Remember please that Iran is no Iraq. It is large, populous, rugged, and its nuclear facilities are spread throughout the country, some deep underground. A full-scale invasion would be a too-hot-to-handle venture for you. When one compares Iran to Saddam's Iraq, where you thought you would be greeted as liberators, it's not too difficult to guess the level of ferocity and popularity of a post-invasion Iranian resistance.

That brings us to your final option: a bargain with the Iranians. Here you have really become captives of your own bombast. Bargaining with Iran would mean offering the present regime incentives for disarmament while dropping the mad rhetoric of regime change. However, any overt bargain with Iran will surely be read as a retreat from your much-touted project of democratization and regional transformation.

In short, you are in a bind of your own making and we can see you squirming.
[Emphasis added]

I think that summarizes things nicely, even though there was no mention of the fact that regardless of Mr. Rumsfield's assertions to the contrary, the US military is already strained to the breaking point, and absent a draft, cannot possibly take on another war. The Emperor has painted himself, and this nation, into a corner, a very expensive one.

Way to go, George.

Noticing the Obvious: A Start

Yesterday (scroll down to "A New and Improved Patriot Act"), I pointed out that the 'improvements' to the Patriot Act offered by the White House were cosmetic only and that American civil liberties were still threatened by this foul piece of legislation. I used an article in the NY Times to make my point. Today, the NY Times printed an editorial which noted the same deficiencies in the so-called "compromise' bill.

The Patriot Act has been one of the few issues on which Congress has shown backbone lately. Last year, it refused to renew expiring parts of the act until greater civil liberties protections were added. But key members of the Senate have now caved, agreeing to renew these provisions in exchange for only minimal improvements. At a time when the public is growing increasingly concerned about the lawlessness of the Bush administration's domestic spying, the Senate should insist that any reauthorization agreement do more to protect Americans against improper secret searches.

...One of the most troubling aspects of the Patriot Act is the "gag order" imposed by Section 215, which prohibits anyone holding financial, medical and other private records of ordinary Americans from saying anything when the government issues a subpoena for those records. That means that a person whose records are being taken, and whose privacy is being invaded, has no way to know about the subpoena and no way to challenge it.

Rather than removing this gag order, the deal keeps it in place for a full year — too long for Americans to wait to learn that the government is spying on them. Even after a year, someone holding such records would have to meet an exceedingly high standard to get the gag order lifted. It is not clear that this change has much value at all.

The compromise also fails to address another problem with Section 215: it lets the government go on fishing expeditions, spying on Americans with no connection to terrorism or foreign powers. The act should require the government, in order to get a subpoena, to show that there is a connection between the information it is seeking and a terrorist or a spy.

But the deal would allow subpoenas in instances when there are reasonable grounds for simply believing that information is relevant to a terrorism investigation. That is an extremely low bar.
[Emphasis added]

The editorial exposed the'fixes' to the bill, and noted their clear deficiencies. While the editorial closed on a pessimistic note as to whether the Congress would continue to push back on the issue of domestic spying, at least the nation's "Newspaper of Record" noticed the obvious and said something about it. That's a start.

Now it's our turn. Those of us who are concerned about the violation of our civil liberties by this vile regime should start hammering our senators, especially Dick Durbin and Dianne Feinstein for signing on to this sham 'compromise.'

Friday, February 10, 2006

A New and Improved Patriot Act...


The Patriot Act, one of the most egregiously dangerous statutes in American history, appears closer to passage after some mild tinkering acceptable to the White House. The 'fixes' have satisfied the civil libertarian Republicans who joined with the Democrats in filibustering the initial bill. Apparently a couple of Democrats, surprisingly including Dick Durbin, are also satisfied. That means that at the very least, there are 59 Senators ready to sign off on the bill, one shy of the 60 needed to block any further filibuster attempt. From the NY Times

Four recalcitrant Senate Republicans said Thursday that they had reached agreement with the White House on the broad antiterrorism law known as the USA Patriot Act, and two leading Democrats said they would now support the bill. The moves possibly clear the way for passage of the legislation, which has been bottled up in a dispute over civil liberties.

...The deal focused on three particular areas. The new measure would give recipients of subpoenas the right to challenge an accompanying judicial order not to discuss the case publicly, though they would have to wait one year. In the meantime, they would have to comply with the subpoena. That would prevent the F.B.I. from demanding the names of lawyers consulted by people who receive secret government requests for information and prevent most libraries from being subject to those requests.

Critics said the changes were cosmetic.

A few insignificant changes just doesn't cut it," Senator Russell D. Feingold, Democrat of Wisconsin, said in a statement. "I cannot support this deal, and I will do everything I can to stop it."

The administration would still have the power to obtain information about terror suspects who use libraries to gain access to the Internet by seeking that information not directly from libraries, but from their Internet service providers.

...The compromise does not, however, address one of their chief complaints, that the revised bill would allow the government to obtain private records of Americans with just loose connections to a terrorism investigation. Mr. Sununu and the others had originally insisted that the government prove a direct connection. In its current version, the bill simply says the records have to be relevant to a terrorism investigation, a standard that Mr. Feingold said was "not adequate protection against a fishing expedition."
[Emphasis added]

You would think that the latest furor over government spying on Americans by illegal NSA wire taps might cause senators some unease in expanding further erosions on privacy, but apparently you would be wrong. The Patriot Act as now 're-written' still allows for the fishing expedition Russ Feingold properly decries. Why Sen. Durbin and Sen. Feingold are willing to settle for what can only be seen as mere cosmetic fixes is a real puzzle.

I think both senators need to hear from their constituents and all of the rest of us concerned about the Emperor's big ears and big eyes.

In fact, all of our senators need to hear from us. Some of them are up for re-election this year.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Dispelling Some FOG*

(*Friends of George)

On January 31 of this year, I posted on the shameful mugging of science going on at NASA. It turns out that the mugger himself was not exactly the champion of truth and exactitude he held himself out to be. From the NY Times editorial page:

The Bush administration long ago secured a special place in history for the audacity with which it manipulates science to suit its political ends. But it set a new standard of cynicism when it allowed NASA's leading authority on global warming to be mugged by a 24-year-old presidential appointee who, quite apart from having no training on that issue, had inflated his résumé.

...The administration has sought to influence the policy debate by muzzling the people who disagree with it or — as was the case with two major reports from the Environmental Protection Agency in 2002 and 2003 — editing out inconvenient truths or censoring them entirely.

In this case, the censor was George Deutsch, a functionary in NASA's public affairs office whose chief credential appears to have been his service with President Bush's re-election campaign and inaugural committee. On his résumé, Mr. Deutsch claimed a 2003 bachelor's degree in journalism from Texas A&M, but the university, alerted by a blogger, said that was not true. Mr. Deutsch has now resigned.

The shocker was not NASA's failure to vet Mr. Deutsch's credentials, but that this young politico with no qualifications was able to impose his ideology on other agency employees. At one point, he told a Web designer to add the word "theory" after every mention of the Big Bang.
[Emphasis added]

While it is refreshing to see the NY Times note that Mr. Deutsch's padded resume was uncovered by a blogger, one wonders not only why NASA didn't "vet Mr. Deutsch's credentials," but also why the NY Times or any other paper of record didn't. Still, at least that inconvenient fact of no degree at all was uncovered.

Over the last year, the headlines have screamed of the incompetence of this regime, caused in most instances by the Emperor's appointment of total incompetents to various posts, from the head of FEMA, to MSHA, and now to NASA. All of these appointments were geared not just towards promoting the regime's agenda, but also to hide and obfuscate the truth.

Heckuva job, George: both of you.