Saturday, September 24, 2005

Contractors Get Affirmative Action Exemption

From the NY Times:

Published: September 20, 2005

The Labor Department has temporarily suspended government requirements that its contractors have an affirmative action plan addressing the employment of women, members of minorities, Vietnam veterans and the disabled if the companies are first-time government contractors working on reconstruction in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

While employment lawyers said it was not clear how strong an impact the exemption would have, the move comes as President Bush has tried to address the perception of unfairness in the government's response to the hurricane.

Under the rules that normally apply to companies hired by the government, businesses with more than 50 employees working on contracts for more than $50,000 must develop an affirmative action plan. But according to a memorandum on the Labor Department's Web site, dated Sept. 9, the goal of the exemption in the case of recovery work associated with Hurricane Katrina is to reduce the burden of paperwork on government contractors and so encourage more companies to jump into assisting with rebuilding from the storm damage.

The exemption is to last for three months, unless it is extended.

"It does not waive affirmative action requirements, it does not waive job posting requirements, it does not waive their obligation not to engage in discrimination," said Charles E. James, deputy assistant secretary at the Labor Department. "It's very, very limited."

The announcement by the Labor Department came the day after President Bush announced the suspension of a law that requires employers to pay the locally prevailing wage to construction workers on federally financed projects. The order applies to parts of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida. In explaining the move, the proclamation stated that "the conditions caused by Hurricane Katrina constitute a 'national emergency.' "

The Labor Department affirmative action memorandum, which Mr. James signed, specifically states that laws against discrimination continue to apply to federal contractors, as do requirements that employers keep records and post notices stating that "equal opportunity is the law." The memorandum only affects the requirement that employers develop a written affirmative action program, Mr. James said.

The memorandum received little attention in the media frenzy over the aftermath of the storm and hearings on the nomination of Judge John G. Roberts Jr. to the Supreme Court. Protests against it began circulating online late last week.

"It is not simply a paperwork exercise," said Shirley J. Wilcher, deputy assistant secretary for federal contract compliance in the Clinton administration who is now the interim executive director of the American Association for Affirmative Action. "It is the basis for companies to be mindful of their obligation not to discriminate."
But it is not clear how the exemption may, in practice, affect employment practices at companies, said B. Scott Silverman, an employment lawyer at Morrison & Foerster in Los Angeles. Its impact depends on how much affirmative action plans actually affect short-term hiring, he said.

"The only companies that will end up being completely excused are those that are not doing business with the federal government now and might not otherwise try to do business with the government," Mr. Silverman said.
He added that he thought a three-month exemption would probably not affect employment practices greatly, especially in light of the dire need for employees to rebuild.

"I don't think this exemption is going to restrict those opportunities in any way, shape or form," Mr. Silverman said.

Pattern of Abuse

From Time:

A decorated Army officer reveals new allegations of detainee mistreatment in Iraq and Afghanistan. Did the military ignore his charges?By ADAM ZAGORIN

The U.S. Army has launched a criminal investigation into new allegations of serious prisoner abuse in Iraq and Afghanistan made by a decorated former Captain in the Army's 82nd Airborne Division, an Army spokesman has confirmed to TIME. The claims of the Captain, who has not been named, are in part corroborated by statements of two sergeants who served with him in the 82nd Airborne; the allegations form the basis of a report from Human Rights Watch obtained by TIME and due to be released in the next few days (Since this story first went online, the organization has decided to put out its report; it can be found here). Senate sources tell TIME that the Captain has also reported his charges to three senior Republican senators: Majority Leader Bill Frist, Armed Services Committee chairman John Warner and John McCain, a former torture victim in Vietnam. A Senate Republican staffer familiar with both the Captain and his allegations told TIME he appeared "extremely credible."

The new allegations center around systematic abuse of Iraqi detainees by men of the 82nd Airborne at Camp Mercury, a forward operating base located near Fallujah, the scene of a major uprising against the U.S. occupation in April 2004, according to sources familiar with the report and accounts given by the Captain, who is in his mid-20s, to Senate staff. Much of the abuse allegedly occurred in 2003 and 2004, before and during the period the Army was conducting an internal investigation into the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, but prior to when the abuses at Abu Ghraib became public. Other alleged abuses described in the Human Rights report occurred at Camp Tiger, near Iraq's border with Syria, and previously in Afghanistan. In addition, the report details what the Captain says was his unsuccessful effort over 17 months to get the attention of military superiors. Ultimately he approached the Republican senators.

The Human Rights Watch report—as well as accounts given to Senate staff—describe officers as aware of the abuse but routinely ignoring or covering it up, amid chronic confusion over U.S. military detention policies and whether or not the Geneva Convention applied. The Captain is quoted in the report describing how military intelligence personnel at Camp Mercury directed enlisted men to conduct daily beatings of prisoners prior to questioning; to subject detainees to strenuous forced exercises to the point of unconsciousness; and to expose them to extremes of heat and cold—all methods designed to produce greater cooperation with interrogators. Non-uniformed personnel—apparently working for the Central Intelligence Agency, according to the soldiers—also interrogated prisoners. The interrogators were out of view but not out of earshot of the soldiers, who overheard what they came to believe was abuse.

Specific instances of abuse described in the Human Rights Watch report include severe beatings, including one incident when a soldier allegedly broke a detainee's leg with a metal bat. Others include prisoners being stacked in human pyramids (unlike the human pyramids at Abu Ghraib, the prisoners at Camp Mercury were clothed); soldiers administering blows to the face, chest and extremities of prisoners; and detainees having their faces and eyes exposed to burning chemicals, being forced into stress positions for long periods leading to unconsciousness and having their water and food withheld.

Prisoners were designated as PUCs (pronounced "pucks")—or "persons under control." A regular pastime at Camp Mercury, the report says, involved off-duty soldiers gathering at PUC tents, where prisoners were held, and working off their frustrations in activities known as "F____a PUC" (beating the prisoner) and "Smoke a PUC" (forced physical exertion, sometimes to the point of collapse). Broken limbs and similar painful injuries would be treated with analgesics, the soldiers claim, as medical staff would fill out paperwork stating the injuries occurred during capture. Support for some of the allegations of abuse come from a sergeant of the 82nd Airborne who served in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Human Rights Watch quotes him as saying that, "To 'F____ a PUC' means to beat him up. We would give them blows to the head, chest, legs, and stomach, pull them down, kick dirt on them. This happened every day. To 'smoke' someone is to put them in stress positions until they get muscle fatigue and pass out. That happened every day. Some days we would just get bored so we would have everyone sit in a corner and then make them get in a pyramid. This was before Abu Ghraib but just like it. We did that for amusement.

"On their day off people would show up all the time," the sergeant continues in the HRW report. "Everyone in camp knew if you wanted to work out your frustration you show up at the PUC tent. In a way it was sport. The cooks were all U.S. soldiers. One day a sergeant shows up and tells a PUC to grab a pole. He told him to bend over and broke the guy's leg with a mini Louisville Slugger that was a metal bat. He was the cook."

The sergeant says that military intelligence officers would tell soldiers that the detainees "were bad" and had been involved in killing or trying to kill Americans, implying that they deserved whatever punishment they got. "I would be told, 'These guys were IED [improvised explosive device] trigger men last week.' So we would f___ them up. F___ them up bad ... At the same time we should be held to a higher standard. I know that now. It was wrong. There are a set of standards. But you gotta understand, this was the norm. Everyone would just sweep it under the rug ... We should never have been allowed to watch guys we had fought."

The Captain making the allegations, say those who have been in contact with him, gave lengthy statements to Human Rights Watch only after his attempts to report what he had seen and heard to his own chain of command, were met, he claims, with repeated brush-offs. He is currently in special forces training at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. The two non-commissioned officers served in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and likewise approached the watchdog group, but have not conferred with Senate staff. "The captain is a very sincere officer, and troubled by what he says he has seen," says another senior aide to a Republican senator. "Only an investigation can determine how accurate his account will prove to be."

The Human Rights Watch report describes the Captain, in particular, as deeply frustrated by his attempts to report the abuse to his own superiors, who repeatedly instructed him to keep quiet, to ignore what he'd seen and to consider the implications for his career. The Captain told Human Rights Watch and Senate staff that he had contacted legislators reluctantly, believing it was the only way he could get the army to take him seriously. He also said that "I knew something was wrong" as he watched Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld on television in 2004 testifying before a Congressional committee that the U.S. was following the Geneva Convention to the letter in Iraq. The Monday morning after Rumsfeld's testimony, he told Human Rights Watch, "I approached my chain of command." Eventually, the captain says, he approached his company commander, battalion commander and representatives of the Judge Advocate Corps (the military justice system), trying in vain to get clarification of rules on prisoner treatment and the application of the Geneva Convention. At one point, the Captain asserts, his Company commander told him, in effect, "Remember the honor of the unit is at stake," and, "Don't expect me to go to bat for you on this issue ..."

The Captain also says he was told there were pictures of abuse that occurred at Camp Mercury similar to photos taken by Military Police at Abu Ghraib prison. It is not clear whether the Captain saw the pictures, but he has said, sources tell TIME, that the photos were so similar to what was depicted at Abu Ghraib that, when the scandal erupted, soldiers burned them out of fear that they too could be punished. The Captain has also told Senate staff that many of the actions he witnessed did not, at the time, violate his personal code of conduct. He was also under the impression that the conduct was in line with military policy. It was only later, Congressional sources tell TIME, that he became aware of what he regarded as a blatant contradiction in official U.S. policy. As the captain puts it, according to the report: "I witnessed violations of the Geneva Conventions that I knew were violations of the Geneva Conventions when they happened but I was under the impression that that was U.S. policy at the time. And as soon as Abu Ghraib broke and they had hearings in front of Congress, the Secretary of Defense testified that we followed the spirit of the Geneva Conventions in Afghanistan, and the letter of the Geneva Conventions in Iraq, and as soon as he said that I knew something was wrong. So I called some of my classmates [from West Point], confirmed what I was concerned about and then on that Monday morning I approached my chain of command ..."

An Army spokesman confirmed to TIME that a criminal investigation has begun into the allegations, and that the Captain has been given permission to speak to members of Congress about his concerns. Since the Abu Ghraib scandal became public, hundreds of cases of alleged abuse have emerged based on reports from the International Committee of the Red Cross, U.S. government documents, prisoner legal filings and other sources. The Army alone says it has conducted investigations into more than 400 allegations of detainee mistreatment. To date, more than 230 Army personnel have been dealt with in courts martial, non-judicial punishments and other administrative actions.

Related Stories From The TIME ARCHIVE
New Abuse Charges Could the abuse of prisoners in Iraq have gone beyond the beatings and sexual humiliation already alleged? Unreleased, classified parts of the report on prison abuse from Major General Anthony Taguba,... [6/28/2004]
Torture: a Worldwide Epidemic HUMAN RIGHTS Amnesty International details abuses in 98 countriesThe victim could be a child of twelve or a man of 60. He could be a factory worker or a missionary. He might have been pulled... [4/16/1984]
A Human Rights Scorecard It was three years ago that members of Congress first asked then Secretary of State Henry Kissinger if he could report on the condition of human rights in countries that receive U.S. aid. Kissinger... [3/28/1977]

Other Articles:

Testimony on Abu Ghraibby THE NEW YORK TIMES23 Sep 2005 at 10:00pmPfc. Lynndie R. England's "overly compliant" personality made her incapable of making an independent judgment, a psychologist testified.
3 in 82nd Airborne Say Beating Iraqi Prisoners Was Routineby ERIC SCHMITT23 Sep 2005 at 10:00pmThe soldiers told a human rights group that prisoners had been beaten and abused to help gather intelligence and for amusement.
More Iraqis Tortured, Officer Says, Richard A. Serrano
More on 82nd AirTorture Squad, HumanRightsReport

Saudi foreign minister says Bush ignored Iraq warning

From the DailyStar:

Kingdom doubts charter will fix problems
Compiled by Daily Star staff
Saturday, September 24, 2005

Saudi Arabia's foreign minister says the Bush administration did not heed Saudi warnings about occupying Iraq, and he doesn't believe a new constitution and elections will solve the emerging nation's problems. Prince Saud al-Faisal also said his country was holding out the prospect of an eventual peace treaty with Israel but could have no diplomatic contact in the meantime as other Arab and Muslim countries have had. He said Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has not acted on opportunities for peacemaking after his withdrawal from Gaza.

"He does something and then immediately goes to the United Nations and makes a speech saying, 'I am not going to do this, I am not going to do that,"' he said.

"We are not establishing relations just for the heck of it," he added. "It would be false,
because we are in a state of conflict." In a wide-ranging interview, Saud said he'd like to see oil prices drop about $20 a barrel from its current $60-plus range, but predicted a lack of refineries will keep consumer prices higher even if crude should become cheaper.

On Iraq, the foreign minister expressed skepticism at Bush administration officials' predictions that coming political events in Iraq will heal the country's divisions.

"Perhaps what they are saying is going to happen," he said. "I wish it would happen, but I don't think that a constitution by itself will resolve the issues, or an election by itself will solve the difficult problems."

U.S. policies in Iraq risk dividing the country into three separate parts: Kurdish, Sunni Arab and Shiite Arab, he cautioned. "We have not seen a move inside Iraq that would satisfy us that the national unity of Iraq, and therefore the territorial unity of Iraq, will be assured," he said.

Faisal also voiced concern at purported Iranian meddling in Iraq's affairs.

"Iraqis are complaining of interference by Iran. If there is indeed such interference, especially in provinces neighboring Iran [in the south of the country], that would be quite serious," he said.

The alleged interference "includes the entry of people, money and weapons as well as meddling in political life," Saud said.

His remarks reflected Riyadh's concern that Shiite Iran could increase its influence in Iraq, where it already enjoys sympathy among the now-ruling majority Shiite community at a time when the once-dominant Iraqi Sunnis feel marginalized.

Faisal said the Saudis were skeptical of the outcome before the United States went to war in Iraq, but its concerns were not always heeded.

"It is frustrating to see something that is clearly going to happen, and you are not listened to by a friend, and soon harm comes out of it," Saud said. "It hurts."

The foreign minister said his kingdom was not ready to send an ambassador to Baghdad because the diplomat would become an immediate target for assassination.
"I doubt that he'd last a day," Saud said.

Saud also made clear the kingdom's offer to Israel of peace with all Arab countries if it relinquished all the land the Arabs lost in the 1967 war remains on the table.

By withdrawing Israeli troops and settlers from Gaza, Saud said, Sharon seemed willing to turn from being "a general who wants to conquer territory" to making peace.

Instead, Saud said, Sharon is making demands of the Palestinian Authority that he knows cannot be met.
"The Palestinian Authority has been decimated by Mr. Sharon himself; they are weak because of what he did to them, and now he is insisting they disarm Hamas and [Islamic] Jihad," Saud said.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas does not have the troops to do it, Saud said.

Ministers from nearly a dozen Arab and Muslim countries, including Qatar, Turkey, Morocco and Tunisia, have met with Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom. Saud said his government would not follow their lead.

"We have not signed a peace treaty. How can you establish relations? How is that conceivable? How can it be trusted?" he said. - AP, AFP

Other Articles:

Arab News

International Herald Tribune

Blackwater Down

From the Nation:

Jeremy Scahill

The men from Blackwater USA arrived in New Orleans right after Katrina hit. The company known for its private security work guarding senior US diplomats in Iraq beat the federal government and most aid organizations to the scene in another devastated Gulf. About 150 heavily armed Blackwater troops dressed in full battle gear spread out into the chaos of New Orleans. Officially, the company boasted of its forces "join[ing] the hurricane relief effort." But its men on the ground told a different story.

Some patrolled the streets in SUVs with tinted windows and the Blackwater logo splashed on the back; others sped around the French Quarter in an unmarked car with no license plates. They congregated on the corner of St. James and Bourbon in front of a bar called 711, where Blackwater was establishing a makeshift headquarters. From the balcony above the bar, several Blackwater guys cleared out what had apparently been someone's apartment. They threw mattresses, clothes, shoes and other household items from the balcony to the street below. They draped an American flag from the balcony's railing. More than a dozen troops from the 82nd Airborne Division stood in formation on the street watching the action.

Armed men shuffled in and out of the building as a handful told stories of their past experiences in Iraq. "I worked the security detail of both Bremer and Negroponte," said one of the Blackwater guys, referring to the former head of the US occupation, L. Paul Bremer, and former US Ambassador to Iraq John Negroponte. Another complained, while talking on his cell phone, that he was getting only $350 a day plus his per diem. "When they told me New Orleans, I said, 'What country is that in?'" he said. He wore his company ID around his neck in a case with the phrase Operation Iraqi Freedom printed on it.

In an hourlong conversation I had with four Blackwater men, they characterized their work in New Orleans as "securing neighborhoods" and "confronting criminals." They all carried automatic assault weapons and had guns strapped to their legs. Their flak jackets were covered with pouches for extra ammunition.

When asked what authority they were operating under, one guy said, "We're on contract with the Department of Homeland Security." Then, pointing to one of his comrades, he said, "He was even deputized by the governor of the state of Louisiana. We can make arrests and use lethal force if we deem it necessary." The man then held up the gold Louisiana law enforcement badge he wore around his neck. Blackwater spokesperson Anne Duke also said the company has a letter from Louisiana officials authorizing its forces to carry loaded weapons.

"This vigilantism demonstrates the utter breakdown of the government," says Michael Ratner, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights. "These private security forces have behaved brutally, with impunity, in Iraq. To have them now on the streets of New Orleans is frightening and possibly illegal."

Blackwater is not alone. As business leaders and government officials talk openly of changing the demographics of what was one of the most culturally vibrant of America's cities, mercenaries from companies like DynCorp, Intercon, American Security Group, Blackhawk, Wackenhut and an Israeli company called Instinctive Shooting International (ISI) are fanning out to guard private businesses and homes, as well as government projects and institutions. Within two weeks of the hurricane, the number of private security companies registered in Louisiana jumped from 185 to 235. Some, like Blackwater, are under federal contract. Others have been hired by the wealthy elite, like F. Patrick Quinn III, who brought in private security to guard his $3 million private estate and his luxury hotels, which are under consideration for a lucrative federal contract to house FEMA workers.

A possibly deadly incident involving Quinn's hired guns underscores the dangers of private forces policing American streets. On his second night in New Orleans, Quinn's security chief, Michael Montgomery, who said he worked for an Alabama company called Bodyguard and Tactical Security (BATS), was with a heavily armed security detail en route to pick up one of Quinn's associates and escort him through the chaotic city. Montgomery told me they came under fire from "black gangbangers" on an overpass near the poor Ninth Ward neighborhood. "At the time, I was on the phone with my business partner," he recalls. "I dropped the phone and returned fire."

Montgomery says he and his men were armed with AR-15s and Glocks and that they unleashed a barrage of bullets in the general direction of the alleged shooters on the overpass. "After that, all I heard was moaning and screaming, and the shooting stopped. That was it. Enough said."

Then, Montgomery says, "the Army showed up, yelling at us and thinking we were the enemy. We explained to them that we were security. I told them what had happened and they didn't even care. They just left." Five minutes later, Montgomery says, Louisiana state troopers arrived on the scene, inquired about the incident and then asked him for directions on "how they could get out of the city." Montgomery says that no one ever asked him for any details of the incident and no report was ever made. "One thing about security," Montgomery says, "is that we all coordinate with each other--one family." That co-ordination doesn't include the offices of the Secretaries of State in Louisiana and Alabama, which have no record of a BATS company.

A few miles away from the French Quarter, another wealthy New Orleans businessman, James Reiss, who serves in Mayor Ray Nagin's administration as chairman of the city's Regional Transit Authority, brought in some heavy guns to guard the elite gated community of Audubon Place: Israeli mercenaries dressed in black and armed with M-16s. Two Israelis patrolling the gates outside Audubon told me they had served as professional soldiers in the Israeli military, and one boasted of having participated in the invasion of Lebanon. "We have been fighting the Palestinians all day, every day, our whole lives," one of them tells me. "Here in New Orleans, we are not guarding from terrorists." Then, tapping on his machine gun, he says, "Most Americans, when they see these things, that's enough to scare them."

The men work for ISI, which describes its employees as "veterans of the Israeli special task forces from the following Israeli government bodies: Israel Defense Force (IDF), Israel National Police Counter Terrorism units, Instructors of Israel National Police Counter Terrorism units, General Security Service (GSS or 'Shin Beit'), Other restricted intelligence agencies." The company was formed in 1993. Its website profile says: "Our up-to-date services meet the challenging needs for Homeland Security preparedness and overseas combat procedures and readiness. ISI is currently an approved vendor by the US Government to supply Homeland Security services."

Unlike ISI or BATS, Blackwater is operating under a federal contract to provide 164 armed guards for FEMA reconstruction projects in Louisiana. That contract was announced just days after Homeland Security Department spokesperson Russ Knocke told the Washington Post he knew of no federal plans to hire Blackwater or other private security firms. "We believe we've got the right mix of personnel in law enforcement for the federal government to meet the demands of public safety," he said. Before the contract was announced, the Blackwater men told me, they were already on contract with DHS and that they were sleeping in camps organized by the federal agency.

One might ask, given the enormous presence in New Orleans of National Guard, US Army, US Border Patrol, local police from around the country and practically every other government agency with badges, why private security companies are needed, particularly to guard federal projects. "It strikes me...that that may not be the best use of money," said Illinois Senator Barack Obama.

Blackwater's success in procuring federal contracts could well be explained by major-league contributions and family connections to the GOP. According to election records, Blackwater's CEO and co-founder, billionaire Erik Prince, has given tens of thousands to Republicans, including more than $80,000 to the Republican National Committee the month before Bush's victory in 2000. This past June, he gave $2,100 to Senator Rick Santorum's re-election campaign. He has also given to House majority leader Tom DeLay and a slew of other Republican candidates, including Bush/Cheney in 2004. As a young man, Prince interned with President George H.W. Bush, though he complained at the time that he "saw a lot of things I didn't agree with--homosexual groups being invited in, the budget agreement, the Clean Air Act, those kind of bills. I think the Administration has been indifferent to a lot of conservative concerns."

Prince, a staunch right-wing Christian, comes from a powerful Michigan Republican family, and his father, Edgar, was a close friend of former Republican presidential candidate and antichoice leader Gary Bauer. In 1988 the elder Prince helped Bauer start the Family Research Council. Erik Prince's sister, Betsy, once chaired the Michigan Republican Party and is married to Dick DeVos, whose father, billionaire Richard DeVos, is co-founder of the major Republican benefactor Amway. Dick DeVos is also a big-time contributor to the Republican Party and will likely be the GOP candidate for Michigan governor in 2006. Another Blackwater founder, president Gary Jackson, is also a major contributor to Republican campaigns.

After the killing of four Blackwater mercenaries in Falluja in March 2004, Erik Prince hired the Alexander Strategy Group, a PR firm with close ties to GOPers like DeLay. By mid-November the company was reporting 600 percent growth. In February 2005 the company hired Ambassador Cofer Black, former coordinator for counterterrorism at the State Department and former director of the CIA's Counterterrorism Center, as vice chairman. Just as the hurricane was hitting, Blackwater's parent company, the Prince Group, named Joseph Schmitz, who had just resigned as the Pentagon's Inspector General, as the group's chief operating officer and general counsel.

While juicing up the firm's political connections, Prince has been advocating greater use of private security in international operations, arguing at a symposium at the National Defense Industrial Association earlier this year that firms like his are more efficient than the military. In May Blackwater's Jackson testified before Congress in an effort to gain lucrative Homeland Security contracts to train 2,000 new Border Patrol agents, saying Blackwater understands "the value to the government of one-stop shopping." With President Bush using the Katrina disaster to try to repeal Posse Comitatus (the ban on using US troops in domestic law enforcement) and Blackwater and other security firms clearly initiating a push to install their paramilitaries on US soil, the war is coming home in yet another ominous way. As one Blackwater mercenary said, "This is a trend. You're going to see a lot more guys like us in these situations."

Where Bush Will Ride Out Storm Is as Uncertain as Rita

From the L.A. Times:

The hurricane's shifting path throws a wrench in his plan to observe a rescue team in Texas.
By Warren Vieth and Edwin Chen, Times Staff Writers

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — The White House scrambled Friday to find the right place for President Bush to be as Hurricane Rita headed toward the Texas-Louisiana coastline. The task proved just as tricky as predicting the hurricane's path.Bush was all set to fly to the storm area in Texas, where he planned to observe emergency personnel in action at a San Antonio supply depot. But that plan was scrubbed when the emergency operations group was moved closer to the coast.
Instead, Bush wound up going directly to Colorado, where the Defense Department's Northern Command — responsible for domestic troop deployments — is monitoring storm developments.How Bush would spend much of the weekend and when he would return to Washington went unannounced. But for a White House accused of underreacting to the devastation of Hurricane Katrina only a few weeks ago, the scheduling decisions reflected a premium on showing the president engaged in the new problem and demonstrating leadership."If you can give a pep talk and a morale boost to the military and the National Guard and the Red Cross and the local emergency workers, that means a lot," said Republican strategist Charlie Black.Some obvious options for Bush were ruled out. He wouldn't stay in Washington, where demonstrators were massing for a huge protest against the Iraq war. He probably would avoid his ranch near Crawford, Texas, where he was criticized for spending the first few days of Katrina instead of visiting the disaster scene. He would want to show attention to the storm, but not get so close that he could become a distraction to rescue officials."One thing I won't do is get in the way," Bush told reporters before leaving Washington. Planning the president's weekend had rarely presented so many problems.Bush's critics thought the stagecraft might backfire by creating the perception that he was staging photo-ops with rescue workers instead of managing the crisis from Washington."I guess politics is like physics: An underreaction will produce an equal and opposite overreaction," said Democratic strategist James Carville. "What's he going to do in Colorado that he can't do in the White House? You can call anywhere in the world from there."Until it was canceled, the San Antonio stop would have had the president appearing side by side with military commanders and first responders — a different image than the photographs of Bush holding a guitar at a West Coast event on the day Katrina struck New Orleans."This is so the president can have a firsthand account of the federal government's preparedness and response efforts," White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan said. "This will give the president a firsthand look at our operations." But the rescue teams had to move suddenly when the storm's path shifted.Salvaged was Bush's scheduled breakfast Saturday morning with troops in Colorado Springs. He plans to participate in a hurricane briefing and tour the Northern Command's Emergency Operations Center, which was set up after the Sept. 11 attacks to coordinate military operations within the U.S."I'm going to go to our Northcom headquarters to watch the interface between our United States military and … state and local authorities," Bush said before leaving. The White House said the stop in Colorado Springs would help Bush determine how much of a role U.S. military forces could assume in emergency response efforts, including law enforcement functions now prohibited by federal law.Beyond Saturday morning's events, Bush's itinerary remained "in flux," McClellan said. Late Friday, tentative plans were made for a visit to an emergency shelter in Austin, Texas, and an event at Randolph Air Force Base in San Antonio.
Chen reported from Colorado Springs and Vieth from Washington.

CIA director faces questions from employees

From Knight Ridder:

By Warren P. Strobel and Jonathan S. LandayKnight Ridder Newspapers

WASHINGTON - CIA Director Porter Goss faced tough questions Thursday after a speech to agency employees marking his one-year anniversary as head of the troubled spy agency, current and former intelligence officials said.
The unusually caustic session in the CIA auditorium underscored what current and former officials said are serious morale problems caused by the leadership style of Goss and his top aides and the departures of experienced senior intelligence officers from an agency on the front line of the fight against terrorism.

One intelligence official termed the session "bizarre" and suggested it was symptomatic of deeper turmoil at the agency.

Robert Richer, the No. 2 official in the agency's covert Directorate of Operations, the spy service, announced his resignation earlier this month, the latest in a string of top CIA managers who've left since Goss took over.

Another senior officer in the operations directorate who works on weapons of mass destruction issues and whose identity is kept secret informed his staff Thursday that he's also leaving, according to a former top CIA official.
Goss called an "all hands" meeting Thursday at a white-domed auditorium at CIA headquarters known as "the Bubble" to sketch out his vision for the agency's future.

According to a text of the speech provided by the CIA, Goss said that the agency has helped in the capture and killing of "dozens of high-level" al-Qaida operatives and "our efforts have unquestionably saved American lives at home and abroad."

The CIA is becoming "more unilateral" and less dependent on the spy services of other countries and is recruiting more agents, he said. It also has opened more stations overseas, is stepping up the recruitment of foreign-language speakers, including newly naturalized Americans, and is finding ways to put more officers in more places.
In a question-and-answer session, several CIA officers expressed unhappiness, according to an official who witnessed the exchange.

"With all due respect ... I love the agency and respect you. It was a vanilla speech," one officer was quoted as telling Goss, pleading for "meat to chew on."

A second officer raised concerns about Richer's departure and the state of the operations directorate. In November, the top two leaders of the directorate, Steven Kappes and Michael Sulick, quit in a dispute with aides that Goss, a former Florida congressman, brought with him from Capitol Hill.

The current and former officials who described the session spoke on condition of anonymity because of their jobs, but said they were speaking out because of concern over the state of the CIA.

Officials previously have said that Goss has delegated extraordinary powers to his Capitol Hill aides in an effort to revamp the agency after it was stung by failures before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and inaccurate pre-war assessments of Iraq's weapons programs.

Paul Gimigliano, a CIA spokesman, declined to discuss specific exchanges between Goss and his audience.
"These are big issues out there for the agency to tackle. Mr. Goss is a strong believer in open communication within the CIA family," he said.

James Pavitt, Kappes' predecessor as chief of the agency's covert wing, said that while he hadn't yet heard of Thursday's exchanges, he wasn't surprised "that there is great, great unhappiness on the part of the men and women of the CIA," citing what he called a "lack of leadership."

The CIA has faced diminished status since the creation earlier this year of the new post of director of national intelligence, which took over the CIA director's job of overseeing all 15 U.S. intelligence agencies

Leader of the F.D.A. Steps Down After a Short, Turbulent Tenure

From the NewYorkTimes:

Published: September 24, 2005

WASHINGTON, Sept. 23 - Lester M. Crawford, the commissioner of food and drugs, resigned abruptly on Friday, causing further upheaval at an agency that has been in turmoil for more than a year.
Dr. Crawford, who was confirmed just two months ago, on July 18, after serving as acting commissioner for more than a year, did not say why he was stepping down.
Senior officials at the Food and Drug Administration said they were stunned to learn of the resignation in an e-mail message from Dr. Crawford, who also sent a letter to President Bush stating that he was resigning "effective immediately."

A government official said the resignation was related to the fact that Dr. Crawford had not fully disclosed information about his finances to the Senate before his confirmation. The official spoke on condition of anonymity, citing Dr. Crawford's privacy.

Michael O. Leavitt, the secretary of health and human services, accepted the resignation and thanked Dr. Crawford for his service.

Christina Pearson, a spokeswoman for Mr. Leavitt, refused to say whether Bush administration officials had asked for the resignation.

"I can't comment," Ms. Pearson said. "This is a personnel issue."

In recent weeks, consumer advocates and scientists inside and outside the agency had said scientific decisions were being warped by politics.

On Thursday, a commentary in The New England Journal of Medicine titled "A Sad Day for Science at the F.D.A." said that "recent actions of the F.D.A. leadership have made a mockery of the process of evaluating scientific evidence," disillusioned many scientists, "squandered the public trust and tarnished the agency's image."
Mr. Bush said he intended to name Dr. Andrew C. von Eschenbach, director of the National Cancer Institute, to be acting commissioner of food and drugs.

Dr. Crawford, a veterinarian and expert on food safety, was named deputy commissioner of the agency in early 2002 before his tenure as acting commissioner. In that time the agency has been rocked by disputes over many issues, including the safety of painkillers like Vioxx, the regulation of heart defibrillators and other devices, and delays in deciding whether to allow over-the-counter sales of an emergency contraceptive.

The director of the agency's Office of Women's Health, Dr. Susan F. Wood, resigned three weeks ago to protest delays in approving over-the-counter sales of the morning-after pill Plan B.

Critics, including members of Congress from both parties, say the agency has not provided the public with enough information about the risks of drugs and devices.

"In recent years the F.D.A. has demonstrated a too-cozy relationship with the pharmaceutical industry and an attitude of shielding rather than disclosing information," said Senator Charles E. Grassley, Republican of
Iowa and chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.

Senator Barbara A. Mikulski, Democrat of
Maryland, said the agency had been "politicized and degraded" under Dr. Crawford, whose leadership she described as "tepid and passive."

Before the Senate confirmed Dr. Crawford, a Senate committee looked into accusations that he was having an affair with a woman who worked in his office and that he had wasted government money by taking her on official trips when she was not needed. An anonymous letter also suggested that Dr. Crawford had helped the woman secure a promotion to a higher-paying job.

An inquiry by the inspector general of the Department of Health and Human Services found some contradictions in statements by Dr. Crawford and the woman. Investigators found a close personal relationship between them but no evidence of an extramarital affair.

The committee chairman, Senator Michael B. Enzi, Republican of
Wyoming, said at the time that the inspector general had found no merit to the charges leveled at Dr. Crawford. No senator wanted to pursue the issue then.
In his message to colleagues on Friday, Dr. Crawford said that after three and a half years in top positions at the agency, "it is time, at the age of 67, to step aside."

Senator Richard J. Durbin, Democrat of
Illinois, who voted against Dr. Crawford's nomination, said Friday: "The Food and Drug Administration is facing nothing short of a crisis in leadership. The controversy surrounding Vioxx and other pharmaceuticals has exposed weak oversight, conflict of interest and poor management at the F.D.A."

Ira Loss, senior health analyst at Washington Analysis, which studies federal issues for investors, said he had been told by someone in the White House that Dr. Crawford had been asked to resign for a reason not yet known to the public.

"Something new has arisen that has led to this," Mr. Loss said. It was not the controversy over the morning-after pill, he said, because Dr. Crawford "did what they wanted on Plan B."

Under Dr. Crawford, the agency was buffeted by fierce debates over drug safety.

Critics, including many in Congress, said the agency had tried to stifle one of its own scientists who had found evidence that the use of antidepressants could cause children and teenagers to become more suicidal.
The agency was also criticized as slow to recognize that Vioxx and similar pain medicines could increase the risk of heart attacks and strokes. Merck withdrew Vioxx from the market a year ago and is facing thousands of lawsuits from people who say they were harmed by the drug.

Under pressure, Dr. Crawford and the agency have started to release more information about potential safety problems of drugs and devices, rather than waiting, as in the past, until they had a fuller picture.
"I think he started to lift the veil on how the F.D.A. does business, which was long overdue," said Peter Pitts, a former associate commissioner under Dr. Crawford.

While many critics say drugs are approved too quickly, the F.D.A. has also come under fire from pharmaceutical companies and some patient advocates for not approving drugs quickly enough.

Pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies had generally welcomed Dr. Crawford's appointment, partly because of his long experience at the agency, but also because they wanted a full-time commissioner. Many industry officials say that under an acting commissioner, the agency tends to put off difficult decisions.

The agency has had a full-time commissioner for only about 18 months out of the four and a half years that President Bush has been in office.

The president's first appointee, Dr. Mark B. McClellan, did not take office until November 2002 and then left about 16 months later to run the Medicare program.

It now appears that the agency will be without a permanent commissioner for some time. Experience shows that it is difficult for any nominee to obtain broad support in the Senate, because the agency handles so many volatile issues.
Dr. von Eschenbach has been director of the National Cancer Institute, part of the National Institutes of Health, since January 2002. Before that, he had a long career as a doctor and executive at the M. D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.

James C. Greenwood, president of the Biotechnology Industry Organization, which represents biotech companies, described Dr. von Eschenbach as an "excellent choice" who would provide strong leadership.
Mr. Greenwood had no comment on Dr. Crawford's resignation. Nor did the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, which represents big drug companies.

Friday, September 23, 2005

Colombia, France in hostage row

Ingrid Betancourt is my hero. I appreciate and support any effort to get her released.

From BBC:

A diplomatic row has broken out between Colombia and France over efforts by Paris to free a Colombian hostage held by left-wing rebels.
Bogota accused France of holding unauthorised talks with Farc rebels regarding politician Ingrid Betancourt, who is also a French citizen.
It said the talks constituted an interference in its internal affairs.
A French diplomat in Bogota said France had an agreement with Colombia to carry out its own investigation in the case.
'Annoyed and angered'
"Colombia has not authorised any contact between the Farc and the French government," a letter from the Colombian foreign ministry said.
It said Bogota was "annoyed and angered" by the clandestine talks.
In response, a spokesman from the French embassy in Bogota said "the [Colombian] government authorised the French government to intercede on behalf of the people who have been kidnapped".
The spokesman said that in July a French envoy travelled to a secret location to meet top Farc commander Raul Reyes.
Mrs Betancourt was a candidate in Colombia's 2002 presidential elections when she was seized by the rebels.
Farc guerrillas are holding at least 60 hostages, including three US intelligence operatives.
The Colombian government is trying to negotiate a swap of hostages for imprisoned rebels.
But correspondents say it is unlikely that the Farc leadership will accept the government's terms.

Are Bush's speechwriters using a computer's copy-and-paste function?

From Salon:

From Gulf to shining Gulf
Bush's responses to the crisis in Iraq and the aftermath of Katrina are jarringly repetitive. Are his speechwriters using a computer's copy-and-paste function?

By Sidney Blumenthal

Even the words are the same. On Iraq, President Bush declared on Feb. 4, 2004, "We will do what it takes. We will not leave until the job is done." On post-Hurricane Katrina reconstruction, on Sept. 15, he eerily echoed, "We will do what it takes. We will stay as long as it takes." It was reassuring for the nation to be told by the president in his televised address that he intends to "stay" in the United States and not cut and run. Perhaps a White House speechwriter hit the copy-and-paste function on his computer or the word "stay" simply popped into the president's mind as he contemplated the crisis, straying into improvisation.
The jarring reverberation of repetitive rhetoric suggested a presidency on a feedback loop. Analogies, of course, are imperfect. Bush's speech, which junked the whole of conservative ideology and channeled the spirit of Lyndon Johnson, might be taken as evidence that his frequent trips to New Orleans have worked some voodoo on him. But there are enough elements in common between the catastrophes in Iraq and New Orleans to be able to grasp the underlying similarities in the Bush approach from Gulf to shining Gulf.

Just as the Iraq war was predicated on the distortion, falsification and suppression of intelligence, so was the administration's preparation for Katrina marked by the refusal to register information contrary to its prefabricated beliefs. Bush's censoring and dismissal of science on global warming helped lull him about the growing severity of hurricanes as a consequence. It was a possibility he did not want to know because it ran contrary to his dogmas. But his passivity extended to the eve of Katrina's landfall, when Max Mayfield, the director of the National Hurricane Center, briefed him by teleconference video about the likelihood that the raging storm would breach the levees of New Orleans. Under Bush, the Federal Emergency Management Agency had been reorganized from a professionally proficient operation into a political dumping ground, and since 2001 FEMA had been studiously ignoring precise warnings of a potentially disastrous hurricane hitting New Orleans.

Before the invasion of Iraq, Bush refused to listen to senior military commanders that the light force poised for attack would be insufficient to secure the country under occupation. Then Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki's Senate testimony on the dangers of the Bush planning earned him a publicly humiliating rebuke from then Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz (since rewarded by elevation to the
presidency of the World Bank). Wolfowitz, a prominent neoconservative who had been advocating an invasion of Iraq from the earliest days of the administration, before Sept. 11, and who entertained theories that Saddam Hussein might have been behind the bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993 and the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, was acting as a point man for Bush in denying difficulty. Wolfowitz, along with the president, the vice president and the secretary of defense, subscribed to the notion that the invasion would be a "cakewalk," a smiley face of a word affixed by Wolfowitz friend and fellow neoconservative Ken Adelman. Dick Cheney waxed rhapsodic about the flowers that would be strewn in the path of our soldiers.

Similarly, Bush, still on his monthlong vacation in August, during which he devoted press availabilities to explaining why he would not meet with Gold Star Families for Peace mother
Cindy Sheehan ("I think it's also important for me to go on with my life, to keep a balanced life"), greeted Katrina as a cakewalk. "When that storm came through at first, people said, Whew. There was a sense of relaxation," he said. The record, however, reveals Gov. Kathleen Blanco of Louisiana frantically and unsuccessfully attempting to reach him or his chief of staff, and the levees being breached before Katrina's eye passed over New Orleans. Four days afterward, Bush's staff considered him so ill-informed on the basic facts that they prepared a video of network news reports for him to watch as Air Force One carried him back to Washington.

Going in light with the military in Iraq was replicated in New Orleans -- to similar effect. "Stuff happens," remarked Donald Rumsfeld in response to the looting of Iraqi government ministries and the Iraqi National Museum. From the electric grid to oil pipelines, the infrastructure was trashed. In New Orleans, the National Guard was belatedly sent into the looted city, where the infrastructure had been wrecked by the storm. Unlike the Iraqi army, which was disbanded, the New Orleans Police Department was overstressed and undermanned. Lt. Gen. Steven Blum, the top commander of the National Guard, told
USA Today, "We were underequipped. We don't need tanks and attack helicopters and artillery, but we must have state-of-the-art radios and communications." The equipment needed was deployed in Iraq and the administration had not planned for its use in natural disasters at home.

Amid the ruins, Gen. Jay Garner was appointed the first head of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq. From the start the Pentagon curbed his authority while raising expectations of instant results in conformity with its scenario of liberation. When Garner was incapable of producing the desired pictures, he became the fall guy. Garner was poorly prepared for his mission, but he was not a thorough incompetent like recently resigned FEMA director
Michael Brown. While Bush defended "Brownie" as doing "a heck of a job," Garner was undercut. But both became scapegoats for the misfeasance of higher-ups -- in Garner's case, the Pentagon, and in Brown's his superior, Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff. Throwing Garner and Brown overboard were attempts to foster impressions that they alone were responsible for the failures of policy.

Onto these fresh post-invasion, post-hurricane scenes of wreckage, the president swooped down dressed in appropriate costumes. He alighted on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln in May 2003 attired as a fighter pilot while a banner arranged by the White House advance team gleamed behind him: "Mission Accomplished." That Thanksgiving, wearing an Army jacket, a jovial president turned up at a mess hall in Baghdad, hoisting a large turkey with all the trimmings for the troops. Only later was it reported that the turkey was a decoration. In New Orleans' Jackson Square to deliver his major speech, Bush appeared in an open-collared shirt, sleeves rolled up, as the man of the people ready for work. The square was brilliantly lit for his speech, but when he left the electricity was turned off and the deserted city plunged again into darkness.

In 1787, Prince Grigori Potemkin, the chief minister of Catherine the Great of Russia, supposedly built façades of prosperous towns in the Crimea to impress her with his management. Historians now regard this story as apocryphal. But Bush's Potemkin villages are not legends. To the extent that he believes they represent his actual surroundings, his faith-based system of belief triumphs over the reality based, and the president who poses in Potemkin villages has become the Potemkin villager.

Behind the high-flown rhetoric of "freedom on the march," the Coalition Provisional Authority imposed conservative nostrums such as the flat tax and broke Iraqi labor unions. The CPA also served as a political clubhouse for right-wingers. It called upon the Heritage Foundation as a resource for youthful (and inexperienced) applicants. Now, the Iraqi government has issued an arrest warrant for its former defense minister for stealing $1 billion, and an additional $8 billion is said to be missing. On HBO's Bill Maher show last week, the comedian interviewed Dan Senor, the former CPA press secretary, and asked him where the money went. "We didn't have first-world accounting standards when we distributed that money," Senor explained. He did not mention who exactly was in charge of the finances: Michael Fleischer, the brother of Ari Fleischer, Bush's former press secretary.

Like former CPA chief L. Paul Bremer, Karl Rove, Bush's senior political advisor and deputy chief of staff, who has been appointed as head of the hurricane reconstruction effort, has drawn on the Heritage Foundation for ideas. The conservative think tank's hastily slapped-together policy compendium for the occasion,
"From Tragedy to Triumph," has become one of Rove's playbooks. Under the cover of Bush's sudden acknowledgment in Jackson Square that "poverty has roots in a history of racial discrimination" and a sweeping promise to "rise above the legacy of inequality," the administration has promulgated a series of reactionary acts, from suspending affirmative action in granting contracts to cutting prevailing wages for construction to proposing to use federal funds for vouchers to enable Katrina evacuees to reenroll in parochial and private schools.

Rove's appointment as reconstruction czar puts him in charge of distributing federal largess. The budget for reconstruction is estimated to run at about $1 billion a day, for a total of at least $200 billion. With that treasure chest, Rove directs a gigantic K Street project, combining lobbyists and the administration. Already, firms with intimate ties to the Republican Party, such as Halliburton and Bechtel, are major beneficiaries, as they have been in Iraq. And
Joe Allbaugh, the former FEMA director, Bush's chief of staff as governor of Texas and his 2000 campaign manager, acts as the middle man in the Gulf states.

With every speech, appearance and policy announcing his good intentions, Bush accelerates the law of diminishing returns. After his speech in Jackson Square, support for his reconstruction efforts fell by 4 percent. Every promise of a new government program angers his right; every hollow pledge alienates everyone else. The incredible shrinking domestic president can find no safety in reassuming his outfit as the "war president." Less than one-third of the American public now supports his policy in Iraq, according to a CNN/Gallup poll. The poll also reports that Americans have become bitterly pessimistic, with 54 percent saying they believe the United States "won't win."
In response, the Pentagon publicizes body counts of insurgents killed, the metric from the Vietnam War that Rumsfeld once said he would never use. Meanwhile, the Government Accountability Office reports that since the beginning of the cakewalk the U.S. military has used 1.8 billion rounds of small-caliber ammunition.

None of these reality-based measurements discourages Rove, "the architect" of stretches of Potemkin villages. Last week, he attended a private conference of high rollers in Aspen, Colo., where he reportedly dismissed Bush's current standing as a problem of communication. "We have not been good at explaining the success in Iraq. Polls go up and down and don't mean anything," he was quoted as saying on the
Huffington Post. On the hurricane, while Bush was accepting "responsibility," Rove was conceding no error: "The only mistake we made with Katrina was not overriding the local government." And on public disillusionment with the Iraq war, he said: "Cindy Sheehan is a clown. There is no real antiwar movement. No serious politician, with anything to do with anything, would show his face at an antiwar rally."

Another minister of state perhaps best captured the state of mind reflected by Rove's comments. On the Bourbon kings, Talleyrand said, "They have learned nothing and forgotten nothing."

Too many free passes

From the L.A. Times:

NOW THAT all but the most partisan and stubborn defenders of President Bush agree that he screwed up his response to Katrina, and nearly as many agree that he screwed up the occupation of Iraq, it probably seems unnecessary to continue beating up the administration over those failures of the past.

Instead, I say we dwell on some other administration foul-ups from even further in the past that most people have forgotten about by now. You know, in the spirit of magnanimity.

I'm thinking specifically of two controversies. First, the administration's failure to act on intelligence that could have stopped the Sept. 11 attacks. And second, its refusal to commit ground troops to the battle of Tora Bora in 2001, leading to the escape of Osama bin Laden and his lieutenants.

In both cases, the administration received the benefit of the doubt. In light of what we now know about the administration's incompetence, however, this benefit is wholly unwarranted.

Start with 9/11. Beginning in May 2001, it began to come to light that the administration had considerable intelligence about possible terrorist attacks. The FBI had warned the administration that terrorists were planning to hijack airplanes. Bush received a memo in August 2001 titled, "Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S."

The administration insisted that none of the warnings focused on the possibility that terrorists would hijack planes and crash them into buildings. As Condoleezza Rice insisted at the time: "I don't think anybody could have predicted that these people would take an airplane and slam it into the World Trade Center, take another one and slam it into the Pentagon, that they would try to use an airplane as a missile, a hijacked airplane as a missile. All of this reporting about hijacking was about traditional hijacking."

This defense was, first of all, completely insipid. If you suspect terrorists are going to hijack planes, then you step up security to keep them off the planes. What they plan to do with the planes is pretty secondary. Suppose you knew they planned to fly them into buildings. It's not like your response would be to let the terrorists on board but cover all the major landmarks with enormous foam-rubber cushions.

Anyway, this ludicrous defense wasn't even true. It came out earlier this month that U.S. aviation officials were warned as early as 1998 that Al Qaeda sought to "hijack a commercial jet and slam it into a U.S. landmark."

And yet, while the administration took some heat, in the end it got a pass. An L.A. Times editorial in 2002 typified the reaction: "So intelligence sources informed President Bush in August that Osama bin Laden's terrorists might attempt to hijack airplanes? Excuse us, but administration officials have good reason to look perplexed as they wonder aloud what the increasingly indignant chorus of critics would have had the president do with that amorphous warning."

The administration got a similar pass on Tora Bora. This happened at the end of the Afghanistan campaign, when we had Bin Laden and about 800 of his top men surrounded. Rather than use the 4,000 U.S. troops that were in the area, Army Gen. Tommy Franks instead relied on poorly trained, ill-equipped Afghan tribesman of dubious loyalty. Predictably, Bin Laden got away.

Here, too, the excuses were always absurd. "We don't know to this day whether Mr. Bin Laden was at Tora Bora," wrote Franks (who since retired and endorsed Bush) a year ago. In fact, according to a document on the Pentagon website, we did have intelligence that Bin Laden was there. But even if we weren't certain, was that a good reason not to do our best to try to capture him? Should you avoid using your best troops to surround the enemy because, hey, the top bad guy might not be inside?

I suspect Tora Bora never seriously hurt Bush for the same basic reason the 9/11 stuff didn't hurt him: There was a basic presumption of competence surrounding the administration. Everybody assumed there must have been some ambiguities; that they couldn't have screwed up that badly.

The Bush administration probably wouldn't have enjoyed this presumption if these stories came out after Iraq and Katrina. Because all of a sudden the thesis that it screwed up just that badly — that a minimally competent administration would have acted differently — looks pretty compelling.

US lets Saudi royalty escape

From HinduTimes:


The Saudi High Commission for Relief and two Saudi princes were granted immunity on Wednesday from litigation in three lawsuits stemming from the September 11 attacks on the United States.

US District Judge Richard Casey found that Prince Salman, president of the High Commission, and Interior Minister Prince Nayef were not personally liable since they were acting as agents of the Saudi government.
The lawsuits charged that the High Commission and the princes had sponsored terror with Saudi funds under their direction.

In January, Casey ruled that Saudi Arabia, the Saudi defence minister and the country's ambassador to Britain all had immunity from the litigation. The cases are among eight consolidated before the Manhattan federal judge that were filed on behalf of more than 3,000 plaintiffs including family members of those killed in the September 11, 2001, attacks as well as survivors and insurance carriers.

The complaints said more than 200 defendants helped support and fund the September 11 mastermind Saudi-born Osama bin Laden and his Al-Qaeda network.

Fifteen of the 19 hijackers in the three September 11 plane attacks on New York, Washington and Pennsylvania were Saudi nationals.

Bush Waives Saudi Trafficking Sanctions

From YahooNews:

President Bush decided Wednesday to waive any financial sanctions on Saudi Arabia, Washington's closest Arab ally in the war on terrorism, for failing to do enough to stop the modern-day slave trade in prostitutes, child sex workers and forced laborers.

In June, the State Department listed 14 countries as failing to adequately address trafficking problems, subjecting them all to possible sanctions if they did not crack down.

Of those 14, Bush concluded that Bolivia, Jamaica, Qatar, Sudan, Togo and the United Arab Emirates had made enough improvements to avoid any cut in U.S. aid or, in the case of countries that get no American financial assistance, the barring of their officials from cultural and educational events, said Darla Jordan, a State Department spokeswoman.

Cambodia and Venezuela were not considered to have made similar adequate improvements. But Bush cleared them nonetheless to receive limited assistance, for such things as combatting trafficking. In the case of Venezuela — which has had a tense relationship with the United States under the leadership of President Hugo Chavez, one of Latin America's most outspoken critics of U.S. foreign policy — Bush also allowed funding for strengthening the political party system and supporting electoral observation.

In addition to Saudi Arabia, Ecuador and Kuwait — another U.S. ally in the Middle East — were given a complete pass on any sanctions, Jordan said. Despite periodic differences, oil-rich Saudi Arabia and the United States have a tight alliance built on economic and military cooperation.

That left Myanmar, Cuba and
North Korea as the only nations in the list of 14 barred completely from receiving certain kinds of foreign aid. The act does not include cutting off trade assistance or humanitarian aid, Jordan said.
The White House statement offered no explanation of why countries were regarded differently. Jordan also could not provide one.

As many as 800,000 people are bought and sold across national borders annually or lured to other countries with false promises of work or other benefits, according to the State Department. Most are women and children.

Sorry, Mr President, homilies won't stop the hurricanes

From the Guardian:

We Americans need to get out of our SUVs and learn the harsh lesson of Katrina and Rita: we are all to blame
Jeremy Rifkin
Friday September 23, 2005
The Guardian

First there was the deafening roar as Katrina bore down at 145 miles an hour on the Gulf coast of the United States. Then the eerie silence as New Orleans was turned into a giant ghost town. Now, a second deadly hurricane, Rita, is hurtling toward the Texas coast with killer winds, forcing a second mass evacuation of population in less than four weeks. And, as more and more people begin to wonder what's happening to the weather, it seems that all of official Washington is holding its breath, lest the dirty little secret gets out: that Katrina and Rita are the entropy bill for increasing CO2 emissions and global warming. The scientists have been warning us about this for years. They said to keep our eyes on the Caribbean, where the dramatic effects of climate change are first likely to show up in the form of more severe and even catastrophic hurricanes.

A new scientific report out this past week in Science Magazine, a prestigious American journal, gives fresh impetus to the connection between oceans warming as a result of climate change and the increased severity of hurricanes. Scientists report that the number of major - category four and five - hurricanes has nearly doubled in the past 35 years. Tropical storms, say the scientists, draw their energy from warm ocean water. As the global rise in temperature heats the world's oceans, the intensity of hurricanes increases.

Katrina and Rita, then, are not just bad luck, nature's occasional surprises thrust on unsuspecting humanity. Make no mistake about it. We Americans created these monster storms. We've known about the potentially devastating impact of global warming for nearly a generation. Yet we turned up the throttle, as if to say: "We just don't give a damn." What did anyone expect? SUVs make up 52% of all the vehicles owned in America, each a death engine, spewing record amounts of CO2 into the earth's atmosphere.

How do we explain to our children that Americans represent less than 5% of the population of the world but devour more than a quarter of the fossil-fuel energy produced each year? How do we say to the grieving relatives of the victims of the hurricane that we were too selfish to allow even a modest five-cent tax increase on a gallon of petrol in order to encourage energy conservation? And when our neighbours in Europe and around the world ask why the American public was so unwilling to make global warming a priority by signing up to the Kyoto treaty on climate change, what do we tell them?

In the coming weeks and months, millions of Americans will reach out to assist the victims of Hurricane Katrina with offerings of food, shelter and financial assistance. Natural calamities tend to bring out the best in the American character. We pride ourselves on being there for our fellow human beings when they cry out for help. Why can't we muster up the same passionate response when the Earth itself is crying out for help?

Shame on the United States of America and the peoples of other countries - we're not alone - who have put their personal, short-term whims, desires and gratifications ahead of the welfare of the rest of the planet.

Of course, even Americans are now paying the price. We're caught up between two storm fronts. On the one hand, global oil demand is, for the first time in history, eclipsing global oil supply. The price of a barrel of oil is hovering at $70 on world markets; gasoline and heating oil are rising as fast as the flood waters in the Gulf states once did, in part because the storm knocked out oil rigs across the Gulf of Mexico and crippled a large portion of the US refining facilities.

We are entering the last few decades of the oil era, with ominous consequences for the future of a global economy that is utterly dependent on fossil fuels. While our petro-geologists are not sure when global oil production will peak - the point when half the world's recoverable oil is used up - it is clear to all but the few delusional souls in the oil industry that the beginning of the end is now in sight.

Meanwhile, our biosphere is convulsing from the build-up of CO2, and there is nowhere to hide or escape. Our planet is heating up, and the repercussions are trapping all of us in an unpredictable new period in history.

There will be thousands of memorial services in coming weeks to pay respects to the dead and the missing. There will be hand-wringing and recrimination. The public will demand to know why the dykes protecting New Orleans and the Gulfport region failed; why necessary precautions weren't taken to lessen the impact of Katrina and its aftermath; and why the relief effort was too little, too late. Still, what we are not likely to hear from George Bush and the White House or from business leaders - or for that matter from all of us still driving our SUVs - is a collective "We're all to blame!".

President Bush has called on the American people in this hour of our grief to rally to the task, to help restore the dykes and the causeways, to patch up the streets and to rebuild the homes and the communities that were lost in the devastation. But to what end, if we leave the demon of global warming unchecked? The danger is that next time it will be a series of category-five storms, or something even far worse and unimaginable.

If I could get the ear of George Bush, for just a moment, I would say: "Mr President, if you had looked deeply into the eye of the storm, what you would have seen was the future demise of the planet we live on." It's time to tell the American people and the world the real lesson of Katrina: that we need to mobilise the talent, energy and resolve of the American people, and of people everywhere, to wean ourselves off the oil spigot that's threatening the future of every creature on earth.

President Bush, spare us your homilies about American determination to "weather the storm and persevere". Tell us the truth about why Katrina and Rita really happened. Ask us to consider a change of heart about our profligate, energy-consuming lifestyles. Call on us to conserve our existing fossil-fuel reserves and make sacrifices. Provide us with a game plan to move America to a new, sustainable energy future based on renewable sources of energy and hydrogen power. We're waiting.

· Jeremy Rifkin is the author of The Hydrogen Economy: the Creation of the World Wide Energy Web and the Redistribution of Power on Earth

Agency Calls on Frist About Timing of Stock Sale

From New York Times:

Published: September 23, 2005

WASHINGTON, Sept. 22 - A spokesman for Senator Bill Frist, Republican of
Tennessee, said Thursday that the Securities and Exchange Commission had contacted Mr. Frist's office about the sale in June of his shares in HCA, the giant hospital company founded by his family.

Mr. Frist, whose brother Thomas F. Frist Jr. is chairman emeritus and the largest individual shareholder of the company, disclosed earlier this week that on June 13 he asked the managers of blind trusts controlling many of his assets to sell any of his remaining shares in HCA.

The sales occurred just as the share price reached a new peak and shortly before the company's announcement in mid-July of lower-than-expected quarterly results sent the price tumbling.

Mr. Frist, the Senate majority leader and a potential presidential candidate, initially placed more than $10 million in shares of the company in his trusts, but his spokesman said he could not determine how much remained at the time of the sale.

Mr. Stevenson, the spokesman, said the securities commission had contacted Mr. Frist after news organizations published articles this week raising questions about the profitable timing of the sale. Only a few such contacts lead to formal investigations or penalties.

"The majority leader will provide the S.E.C. any information that it needs with respect to this matter," Mr. Stevenson said. "Senator Frist had no information about the company or its performance that was not available to the public when he directed the trustees to sell the HCA stock. His only objective in selling the stock was to eliminate the appearance of a conflict of interest."

Mr. Stevenson said on Wednesday that Mr. Frist's holdings in HCA had been the subject of at least 19 news articles or public accusations about a possible conflict of interest.

Spokesmen for the S.E.C. could not be reached for comment on Thursday night; the agency customarily does not comment on its inquiries.

Also from New York Times:

Senator Frist's Stock Sale

It's long been known that the Senate majority leader, Bill Frist, a man deeply involved in rewriting the nation's health-care and medical-malpractice laws, derived most of his wealth from HCA, the hospital company his father and brother helped found. For years, Mr. Frist assured critics that there was no conflict of interest because his HCA money was held in a blind trust.

Blind trust is a term frequently tossed around in political circles. It suggests a complete severing of ties with investments that might create conflicts of interest. Once inside, the money is supposed to lie forgotten, until a fortune pops up at retirement like a wrinkled $5 bill found in the wash.

But that won't happen in Mr. Frist's case because he decided on June 13 to sell the shares. HCA stock, which had plunged below $20 a share back in 1999 because of a federal fraud investigation, had been climbing steadily, reaching a high of $58.22 on June 22, nine days after Mr. Frist told his managers to start selling. By July 8, all the shares of HCA held by Mr. Frist, his wife and his children had been sold.

Five days later, a bad earnings report drove the price down 9 percent in a single day. Since then it has dropped even further.

Mr. Frist's office claims that the sale was intended to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest as he pursued his legislative agenda. But the emergence of this concern seems strangely convenient for a man who's been pursuing the same agenda throughout his Senate career. The Securities and Exchange Commission should look into this sale.

Buzzflash details Bush Harken Trade

From Buzzflash:

The Bush Harken Insider Trading Collection
Don't let Bush fool you, he's as slimy a businessman as any that ran Enron.
Harken Energy Chronology
October 25, 2002

The purpose of this chronology is to show plainly and clearly that:
1. President George W. Bush did indeed have material non-public knowledge of adverse financial conditions at Harken Energy Co. prior to the sale of his Harken stock and therefore violated 15 U.S.C. § 78u-1 , insider trading of securities based upon material non-public information.
2. The Securities and Exchange Commission was indeed aware of Bush’s insider trading violation and chose to stand down.
3. While serving on the Board of Directors at Harken Energy Company, George W. Bush’s performance, motives and ethics were no different than those of the corporate executives and officers of Enron, Worldcom or any other national corporation being criticized by Bush for doing what he did.
4. The Aloha Petroleum sale was an act of fraud and Bush was in a position to know it and prevent it.
5. George W. Bush sought business dealings with people strongly connected to and involved with BCCI, the empire of fraud and crime.

Harken Energy Corporation Internal Documents
October 31, 2002
"The documents the Center [for Public Integrity] has obtained do not unambiguously resolve the question of what Bush knew about the sale of the Aloha subsidiary."http://www.public-i.org/...

Board was told of risks before Bush stock sale
October 30, 2002
"One week before George W. Bush's now-famous sale of stock in Harken Energy Corp. in 1990, Harken was warned by its lawyers that Bush and other members of the troubled oil company's board faced possible insider trading risks if they unloaded their shares."http://www.boston.com/...

Harvard invested heavily in Harken
October 30, 2002
"Back then there was relatively little focus on one major reason for the loss: Harvard Management's large and ill-timed bet on little-known Harken Energy Co., whose board included George W. Bush, then the son of the US president and now the president himself. Even as losses mounted, Harvard Management bailed out the troubled company, first by splitting up Harken and then by sheltering Harken's liabilities in a partnership"http://www.boston.com/...

Bush Oil Firm Did Enron-Style Deal - Report
October 9, 2002
"President Bush's former oil firm formed a partnership with Harvard University that concealed the company's financial woes and may have misled investors, a student and alumni group said in a report on Wednesday."http://story.news.yahoo.com/news...

Memos: Bush knew of Harken's problems
July 12, 2002
"When President Bush sold more than 200,000 shares in Harken Energy Corp. in June 1990, he said he did not know the company was in bad financial shape. But memos from the company show in great detail that he was apprised of how badly the company's fortunes were failing before he sold his stock -- and that he was warned by company lawyers against selling stock based on insider information."http://www.salon.com/politics/...

Bush: Don't do as I did. President's proposals would bar type of loans he got from Harken EnergyJuly 11, 2002
"President Bush borrowed money from oil company Harken Energy Corp. while he was a member of its board, a practice he condemned this week as part of his plan to curb corporate abuse and fraud, the White House acknowledged Thursday."http://money.cnn.com/2002/07/11/news/bush_loan/

Bush and Harken Energy
July 10, 2002
"Although the law requires prompt disclosure of what are called insider sales, or sales by senior executives, Mr Bush did not inform the securities and exchange commission (SEC), the US market regulator, until 34 weeks later. So technically Mr Bush was at fault."http://www.guardian.co.uk/bush/story/0,7369,752706,00.html

Bush and Lay: A Common Pattern of Stock Dumps?
February 2, 2002
"In June of 1990, Bush sold two-thirds of the Harken stock he had received in the Spectrum 7 deal--and collected $318,430 more than it was worth when he first obtained it. Get low, sell high? Anything wrong with that? The month before this sale, Harken appointed Bush to a committee to determine, as Ivins and Dubose put it, "how restructuring [of the firm] would affect ordinary shareholders." According to Ivins and Dubose, who note the previous reporting work of "U.S. News and World Report," when Bush served on this committee, he was privy to information indicating the company was in trouble. He then dumped his stocks before this news became public. "U.S. News" concluded that at the time of the sale there was "substantial evidence to suggest that Bush knew Harken was in dire straits.""http://www.thenation.com/capitalgames...

Bush Name Helps Fuel Oil Dealings
July 30, 1999
"By the end of September 1986, the deal was done. Harken assumed $3.1 million in debts and swapped $2.2 million of its stock for a company that was hemorrhaging money, though it had oil and gas reserves projected to produce $4 million in future net revenue. Harken, a firm that liked to attach itself to stars, had also acquired Bush, whom it used not as an operating manager but as a high-profile board member."http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-

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