Friday, March 30, 2007
I want to add one point which I think goes to the heart of this matter. When Newsweek's Richard Wolffe recently criticized blogs while chatting amiably with his friend, the White House Press Secretary, and afterwards when he responded to criticisms of his commentary, Wolffe made exactly the same claim that Harris, in essence, makes in his reply here: namely, that media criticisms of journalists are "ideological" or "partisan" -- that what bloggers really want is for journalists to advance the bloggers' partisan agenda -- and those criticisms can and should therefore be dismissed, because that is not the role of journalists.
But that is not the principal criticism of journalists at all. It's a distortion of the media critiques made by most bloggers -- a total strawman.
In fact, virtually all media criticism is based on the exact opposite premise -- namely, that the problem is that journalists are partisan, because they now reflexively spout government claims and right-wing narratives and, worst of all, do so lazily (i.e, uncritically) and often with extreme factual inaccuracies.
For me, there is one fact that illustrates as vividly as possible the crux of the real problem with our political journalistic class. It is this, from USA Today in September 2003:Poll: 70% believe Saddam, 9-11 linkEven six months after this country invaded Iraq, 70% of Americans continued to believe that Saddam helped personally plan the 9/11 attacks. That heinous fact, by itself, should have provoked a major crisis in political journalism -- a desperate effort to find out what went so fundamentally wrong. Yet it did nothing of the sort. Most of the energies of national journalists are devoted instead to defending how they operate and, most of all, condescendingly disparaging their critics as shrill partisans who don't understand the real role of journalists.
Nearly seven in 10 Americans believe it is likely that ousted Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein was personally involved in the Sept. 11 attacks, says a poll out almost two years after the terrorists' strike against this country.
Sixty-nine percent in a Washington Post poll published Saturday said they believe it is likely the Iraqi leader was personally involved in the attacks carried out by al-Qaeda. A majority of Democrats, Republicans and independents believe it's likely Saddam was involved.
I honestly find it unfathomable that any national journalist like Wolffe or Harris can defend their profession, and deny that there are deep-seated and fundamental flaws in it, when this country started a war with the overwhelming majority of citizens -- 70% -- believing an absolute, complete myth, a known falsehood, one which, more than anything else, caused them to support that war. Leaving aside every other issue of gullible, government-propaganda-based reporting, that fact standing alone is a towering indictment of our country's press corps, and the fact that they continue to believe that the way they operate is proper, that they are sufficiently adversarial to the political powers that be, and that it is their critics who are "ideological" and therefore easily dismissed -- all reveals that they have not changed at all.
They may not know it, but the disaster of the Iraq War and the absolute myths which they allowed to take root -- and which they never investigated, exposed or attacked -- is an inescapable indictment of what they do. That is the foundation on which media criticism rests, and there is nothing "partisan" about it. It is the opposite of "partisan." It is instead a demand that the media fulfill their core responsibility -- to serve as an adversarial check on government -- a responsibility which they have profoundly abdicated.
WASHINGTON (AP) -- A billion-dollar-a-year federal reading program that ran into scathing criticism over conflicts of interest now has a new one: The government contractor that set up the program for the Education Department is also part of the team hired to evaluate it.
Reading First -- part of President Bush's signature No Child Left Behind education law -- has been under scrutiny following a string of federal reports that found it rife with conflicts of interest and mismanagement. The program provides intense reading help to low-income children in the early elementary grades.
RMC Research Corp. was the contractor hired to establish and implement the program starting in 2002, under three contracts worth about $40 million.
Recently, the Department of Education inspector general reported that RMC failed to keep the program free of conflicts of interest. For example, RMC did not screen subcontractors for relationships with publishers of reading programs.
Now, Reading First is in the midst of a five-year evaluation under a 2003 contract with a team that includes RMC, which is based in Portsmouth, N.H.
Congress required the review, spelling out that it must be an "independent evaluation."
That didn't mean for the contractor that set up the program to have any role in reviewing it, said Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy, who chairs the education committee.
"It's a classic case of the fox guarding the chicken coop," Kennedy said Friday.
Rep. George Miller, D-California, chairman of the House education committee, raised similar concerns when notified Friday of RMC's role in the evaluation.
"RMC played a significant role in the implementation of Reading First and, according to the inspector general, a sometimes flawed role. If it's true that RMC was also hired to evaluate the effectiveness of the very program it was hired to help implement, then the conflict of interest could not be any clearer," Miller said.
Both lawmakers have been investigating Reading First, and Miller announced Friday he would hold a hearing on the issue April 20.
Reading First also has been the subject of investigations by the inspector general and the Government Accountability Office, Congress' investigative arm.
The inspector general found that federal officials intervened to influence state and local decisions about reading programs, a potential violation of the law. The GAO reported states received suggestions from federal officials or contractors to adopt or eliminate certain programs or tests.
The inspector general also reported that a consultant to the program, working under RMC, may have inappropriately pushed a particular brand of reading assessment when dealing with states.
Expert panels that reviewed state applications for Reading First grants were stacked with people who shared the program director's views, according to the inspector general. In general, favored programs were highly structured and centered around phonics, a technique that relies on sounding out words.
The investigations have raised questions about whether Reading First should be reformed, or even abandoned, when No Child Left Behind comes up for renewal in Congress this year.
The job of evaluating how well the program has performed is being led by Abt Associates, a contractor based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The company hired RMC as a subcontractor.
According to RMC's Web site, the company helped design and implement a method of evaluating how reading is taught in classrooms. Federal officials said RMC assisted in deciding what measures to use to collect information for the evaluation on reading instruction. They said RMC also trained classroom observers.
RMC's share of the $31 million evaluation contract, signed in 2003, is about $1.5 million, said Education Department officials. The department declined to immediately provide a copy of the contract.
"Their role in the overall study sort of is proportional to the amount of money they received," said Ricky Takai, associate commissioner of the National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, part of the department's research arm. "They do have a very circumscribed role."
Neither RMC nor Abt returned calls seeking comment.
Richard Allington, a leading reading researcher at the University of Tennessee, said RMC's involvement in helping evaluate classroom instruction is a crucial one that will have an impact on the overall study's findings.
"As a researcher, if I were to design an intervention (a reading program); if I want to find out if the intervention is working, I need to see whether it's actually being implemented. About the only way I could do that is to observe in classrooms," Allington said.
However, Phoebe Cottingham, the commissioner of the National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, said she isn't concerned about bias in this case.
"A subcontractor who is asked to do this work is given a lot of direction, and they are not freewheeling it," she said.
RMC was tasked with helping states develop plans, submit applications and implement the program.
The inspector general found RMC failed to include required conflict-of-interest clauses in its subcontracts and consulting agreements and failed to screen subcontractors for reading product relationships.
RMC subcontracted out some of its work to officials at universities. Some of those subcontractors had financial ties to reading products used under Reading First.
"RMC had its reputation smudged," said Allington. "They have a stake in demonstrating that the model that's in place -- that they largely created -- they have a stake in showing that it actually works."
Patrick Riccards, who was a senior adviser to the National Reading Panel, which reported on best practices in reading instruction, said he was disappointed to learn of RMC's role in the evaluation.
"Reading First will succeed in improving the reading skills of students throughout the nation," Riccards predicted. "But you provide Reading First critics real ammunition to attack the law when evaluation is not conducted by a completely independent third party, without even a hint of potential conflict."
Can we get Congressional Republicans to pass a bill to reinsert Kyle Sampson's Feeding Tube? I think he might be brain dead.
By Dana Milbank
Friday, March 30, 2007; A02
Kyle Sampson, the former chief of staff to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, was in his fourth hour testifying yesterday about the firing of federal prosecutors when Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy cut him off.
"We've just received word that the Republicans have objected, under the Senate rules, to this meeting continuing," Leahy (D-Vt.) announced before angrily bringing down the gavel.
Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), in the middle of questioning Sampson, was puzzled. "Does it apply to a Republican, too?" he inquired.
It turned out that nobody had really objected -- Republicans blamed a procedural mistake in their cloakroom for the false alarm -- and order in the committee was restored. But not before Democrats turned the gaffe into a PR bonanza.
"The Republicans are the ones that don't want to have the hearing," Leahy inveighed. "What bothers me is if nobody has anything to hide, why not have these hearings, why not have them in the open?" In the senatorial equivalent of the "we shall fight on the beaches" speech, he continued: "We will have the hearings if we have to have them in the evenings or on weekends or during recess!"
In the confusion, Sampson's lawyer Brad Berenson noticed that the witness chair was empty. "Where's Kyle?" he asked reporters.
Republicans had, inadvertently, produced a fitting sequel to the prosecutor imbroglio. The Bush administration's mishandling of the firings of eight U.S. attorneys and the misinformation its Justice Department sent Congress turned an embarrassing story into a full scandal. Yesterday, the Senate Republicans' procedural mishap turned a modestly embarrassing hearing into a spectacle.
That's too bad for the GOP, because Sampson seemed content to fall on his sword rather than naming names when he was questioned about the prosecutor mess. Only the red felt on the witness table concealed the blood. "I could have and should have helped to prevent this," Sampson offered. "I let the attorney general and the department down. . . . I failed to organize a more effective response. . . . It was a failure on my part. . . . I will hold myself responsible. . . . I wish we could do it all over again."
The witness fessed up to an expanding list of sins. He admitted that the Justice Department was trying to circumvent the Senate confirmation process. He confessed that he proposed firing Patrick Fitzgerald, the prosecutor in the Valerie Plame leak case. "I regretted it," he explained. "I knew that it was the wrong thing to do."
But the self-sacrificing witness still managed -- inadvertently, perhaps -- to implicate Gonzales and Bush's chief political strategist, Karl Rove. Sampson, who resigned from the Justice Department earlier this month, admitted that Gonzales "had received a complaint from Karl Rove about U.S. attorneys in three jurisdictions." Asked about the accuracy of Gonzales's claim of non-involvement, Sampson confessed: "I don't think it's entirely accurate what he said."
Walking down the center aisle with no fewer than six lawyers, some carrying heavy briefcases, the witness made a grand entrance. His hair was trim and gelled, his frameless octagonal glasses polished clean. Described in news accounts as a young version of Rove, Sampson was indeed a bit pudgy and jowly, and he spoke in a nerdy voice that sounded strange coming from a man whose combative e-mails had been released by the Justice Department in recent weeks. His tie was a bright yellow -- the same color chosen by Sen. Chuck Schumer, who moved quickly to take control of the proceedings.
The New York Democrat warned there would be "lengthy" questioning, and he made good on his threat. Seven hours into the hearing, Schumer -- ignoring notes from Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) pleading with him to cease and desist -- announced: "We're on Round Four here."
"The purpose is, as they said in 'Dragnet,' just the facts, ma'am," Schumer advised the witness. Sampson, however, was a little fuzzy.
"I can't pretend to know or remember every fact that may be of relevance," he warned at the start -- and he wasn't kidding. He used the phrase "I don't remember" a memorable 122 times.
It may have been a tactical effort to limit his risk of perjury, but Sampson displayed the recall of a man who recently fell off a ladder.
"Since the 2004 election, did you speak with the president about replacing U.S. attorneys?" Leahy asked.
"I don't ever remember speaking to the president after the 2004 election," he said. (He later remembered that he had.) "Did you have further communications with the White House regarding the plan to regard and replace several U.S. attorneys?"
"I don't remember specifically."
"I wish you did remember," Leahy finally said. "I would hope that you would search your memory as we go along."
Sampson searched. He came up empty.
After Schumer elicited three consecutive I-don't-remembers, John Cornyn (R-Tex.) objected to the questioning style.
Leahy overruled him. "We're trying to find what in heaven's name he does remember," the chairman said.
Schumer persisted, eventually asking the witness a question about Rove's role. "I don't remember," Sampson said. "I don't remember anything like that. I don't think so. I don't remember. I don't remember."
These are questions from an October 2003 Debate in Detroit sponsored by Fox News and the Congressional Black Caucus.
Each candidate was asked four questions --- I've selected the worst of these, to show you something about the kind of questions Fox News asks. (Be sure not to miss Lieberman's.)
All of the questions asked were not skewed, but this actually makes things worse. Instead of smearing all of the candidates equally, among the major candidates: Lieberman was favored, Kerry and Edwards each received two decent questions, Dean received one decent question, and Clark received no decent questions. Yet the talking heads took no notice of this, instead blaming the candidates, as Fox manipulated our primary.
I wonder if you could take a moment and explain to us why, at the end of your time as the supreme allied commander of NATO, you were not re-upped and why such folks as Retired General Hugh Shelton have suggested you were effectively fired for what he called character and integrity issues.
Senator Edwards, the rap on you, you're a one-term senator. You are a trial lawyer and, therefore, you're supposed to be compromised by that somehow. The expectations for you were so high in the beginning that you were on the cover of Newsweek magazine, yet in the latest Newsweek poll out today, you're in the bottom of the pack.
Congressman Kucinich, you have proposed changing the name of the Department of Defense to the Department of Peace, but in a world in which our enemies are willing to kill themselves to kill us, is it not better that we stand and fight? And is it not better that we wage that battle on foreign shores and not here in America?
We are attempting to imagine each of you in the White House in the Oval Office, and in that spirit, Governor Dean, I have this question for you.
You have been unstintingly critical of this war, yet, with all due respect, you have commanded nothing more than the Vermont National Guard. You did not serve in the military.
How would you, as president, be able to exert any credibility, any command over a post-war Pentagon?
Senator Kerry, I want to direct the next question to you, in part because you voted for the Iraq resolution but have also opposed the $87 billion. To many, that speaks to an inconsistency that your candidacy has been criticized by, for having a difficult to explain position on the Iraq war.
Is it inconsistent for you to support the resolution and not the reconstruction money?
Congressman Gephardt, here in metro Detroit, we have one of the largest concentrations of Arab-Americans in this country. By and large, they love America. They're willing to die for this country.
But at the same time, some of them will tell you they do not see the world as we see it. In fact, in the eyes of some, groups like Hamas and Hezbollah are not terrorist groups, they are freedom fighters or defenders.
My question to you, would you be willing to negotiate with groups now labeled as terrorists if such an effort would end the suicide bombings in Israel and also possibly resolve the Middle East crisis?
Reverend Sharpton, along the lines of budget politics, it's fairly evident that all of you up there would prefer to see the wealthiest Americans shoulder a greater part of the burden.
What sacrifice would you put upon averaging working families to carry their share of the burden in the coming Sharpton economy?
Ambassador Braun, you've urged the current administration repeatedly to negotiate peace and to deal with other nations, and an opportunity for you, perhaps, to go back and clear the record over something in the past.
It has been reported repeatedly that in 1996, as a senator, against the wishes of the U.S. government, you visited Nigerian dictator Sani Abacha, someone who, at the time, was recognized worldwide as a murderous dictator.
How does that association play to your ability to be a peace- minded commander in chief?
Senator Lieberman, you've certainly not called the positions that your rivals have taken on the war and on the funding unpatriotic, but you have called it inconsistent. You've suggested that it's weak and that it sends a duplicitous message to the world.
You've heard a variety of opinions expressed by your rivals. Why are they wrong?
The rising international tensions over Tehran’s capture and refusal to release 15 Royal Navy sailors and Royal Marines last Friday cannot help but produce a swelling knot in the gut of anyone who has even cursorily followed the news about Iran for the past few years. As the situation continues to unfold in what seems ever more like the worst possible way, not a few of us have wondered if the war that has been predicted since 2003 could soon break out over what pundits and politicians alike are labeling a dangerous provocation.
Trying to decide with any certainty who is telling the truth about where the Brits actually were when they were surrounded by vessels of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Navy is mucked up because the war which placed those sailors and marines in the gulf was based on a plethora of lies, and because Iran’s leadership is itself often a stranger to honesty when it comes to international affairs.
Equally murky is what may be behind the Iranian action. Could it be a tit for tat against America’s staunchest ally for the netting of Iranian officials in U.S. raids like this one just before Christmas, which even irked Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, and this one in January? Or a premeditated retaliation for the clandestine American activities in Iran that Seymour Hersh and others have written about over the past two years? Or did Iran really believe the Brits were in Iranian territorial waters, and it's just protecting its sovereign rights?
Whatever the case, Iran, already diplomatically isolated, made a major mistake with its broadcast of Royal Navy sailor Faye Turney, dressed in hijab, and confessing that she and her fellow Brits had made an incursion into Iranian territory. Her first letter of apology for her part in this matter has now been followed up by another:
The letter said: "Isn't it time to start withdrawing our forces from Iraq and let them determine their own future?" The overtly political language supposedly used by the 26-year-old servicewoman led British officials immediately to declare that it was written under duress and dismiss it as crude propaganda.
The letters and the broadcasting of video of the sailors and marines have outraged the British government and, of course, the British tabloids. It’s hard to imagine that the British populace will be take a different stance. Publicly parading military captives before the cameras in the way that has been done is a clear violation of the Third Geneva Convention. The sort of thing that really pisses people off.
Sadly, there was a time when we took the Geneva Conventions seriously before Alberto Gonzales wrote in a January 25, 2002, memo that "the war on terrorism is a new kind of war, a new paradigm [that] renders obsolete Geneva's strict limitation on questioning of enemy prisoners and renders some of its provisions quaint."
The British government did not attempt to write itself out of the Geneva Conventions. However, as America’s chief ally in the war Tony Blair helped George Bush concoct, it certainly tainted itself with abuses of the sort given the seal of approval by Gonzales. So the cognitive dissonance that sounds when we hear Tony Blair trying to take the moral high ground in this matter is deafening. As Ronan Bennett writes in this morning’s Guardian:
Turney may have been "forced to wear the hijab", as the Daily Mail noted with fury, but so far as we know she has not been forced into an orange jumpsuit. Her comrades have not been shackled, blindfolded, forced into excruciating physical contortions for long periods, or denied liquids and food. As far as we know they have not had the Bible spat on, torn up or urinated on in front of their faces. They have not had electrodes attached to their genitals or been set on by attack dogs.
They have not been hung from a forklift truck and photographed for the amusement of their captors. They have not been pictured naked and smeared in their own excrement. They have not been bundled into a CIA-chartered plane and secretly "rendered" to a basement prison in a country where torturers are experienced and free to do their worst.
As far as we know, Turney and her comrades are not being "worked hard", the euphemism coined by one senior British army officer for the abuse of prisoners at Camp Bread Basket. And as far as we know all 15 are alive and well, which is more than can be said for Baha Mousa, the hotel receptionist who, in 2003, was unfortunate enough to have been taken into custody by British troops in Basra. There has of course been a court martial and it exonerated the soldiers of Mousa's murder. So we can only assume that his death - by beating - was self-inflicted; yet another instance of "asymmetrical warfare", the description given by US authorities to the deaths of the Guantánamo detainees who hanged themselves last year.
And while the families of the captured marines and sailors must be in agonies of uncertainty, they have the comfort of knowing that the very highest in the land are doing everything they can to end their "unjustified detention". They can count themselves especially lucky, for the very same highest of the land have rather different views on what justifies detention where foreign-born Muslims in Britain are concerned. In the case, for example, of the Belmarsh detainees, suspicion justified arrest; statements extracted under torture from third parties justified accusation; and secret hearings justified imprisonment.
Whether Tehran was justified in taking the sailors and marines captive last week is something that can’t be ascertained fairly under the circumstances. What’s clear is that Iran deserves condemnation for its treatment of the 15 captives, even if that treatment doesn’t measure up to some of what Yanks and Brits have done in the past four years. What’s also clear is that we desperately need some mediator, someone with influence with the Iranians to urge them to put down the kerosene they keep pouring onto this crisis and figure a way to put out the fire before we all get burnt.
In today’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, former chief of staff to Atttorney General Alberto Gonzales confirmed that Gonzales was involved in the prosecutor purge.
“I was not involved in seeing any memos, was not involved in any discussions about what was going on.”
UPDATE: According to E&P, Sampson said Gonzales was involved in “at least five” discussions about the U.S. attorney firings. (via Atrios)
“I don’t think the attorney general’s statement that he was not involved in any discussions of U.S. attorney removals was accurate.”
Times Staff Writer
March 30, 2007
WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said Thursday that he had been pressing others in the Bush administration to move war crimes trials of suspected terrorists from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to courts inside the U.S. because the military tribunals may appear tainted in the eye of the international community.
No matter how open the trials are under a new law, Gates said, they may not be deemed credible by the outside world because of prior military practices at the U.S. naval prison at Guantanamo, which included interrogation techniques that involved physical coercion.
"My own view is that because of things that happened earlier at Guantanamo, there is a taint about it," Gates testified before the House Appropriations Committee's defense subcommittee.
He continued: "I felt that no matter how transparent, no matter how open the trials, if they took place at Guantanamo, in the international community they would lack credibility."
Gates repeated his support for closing down the prison and has expressed concern before that abuses there have harmed America's reputation abroad. But his comments come at an awkward time for the administration, with the trials resuming this week after a year's hiatus.
The first man to plead guilty in the trials, Australian David Hicks, is scheduled to appear before a tribunal at Guantanamo today to admit to specific crimes and receive his sentence. Hicks, a 31-year-old former kangaroo skinner, will be asked about 24 specific allegations on a Pentagon charge sheet, which involve weapons and tactics training with reputed terrorist groups in Albania, Pakistan and Afghanistan, as well as meetings with Osama bin Laden and would-be "shoe bomber" Richard Reid.
Hicks entered a plea of guilty Monday in a surprising reversal after his lawyers spent more than four hours wrangling with the military judge, Marine Col. Ralph H. Kohlmann.
The administration cites Hicks' conviction as a sign the new tribunals are legitimate, but Gates' comments could hamper the effort.
Gates has been widely credited by senior Pentagon officials and members of Congress for a more open and pragmatic style than his predecessor, Donald H. Rumsfeld.
His views on Guantanamo have been the most visible example of substantive differences. By some accounts, his stance on treatment of terrorism suspects may be the most significant policy break from Rumsfeld in Gates' tenure.
Within weeks of taking office in December, Gates killed a $102-million plan to build a large courthouse facility at Guantanamo, a proposal first made while Rumsfeld was still in charge at the Pentagon. Gates called the proposal "ridiculous" and instead ordered existing buildings to be refurbished, at about a tenth of the cost.
His views on the military tribunals could be more consequential. In the past, top administration lawyers have pushed for retaining most existing procedures, including the use of evidence gathered through coercion, despite adverse court rulings.
But Rumsfeld and his chief lieutenant on detainee issues, Stephen A. Cambone, both have left. That leaves Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales — who, as White House counsel, urged Bush to ignore the Geneva Convention when dealing with detained Al Qaeda suspects — increasingly isolated on the issue.
In his Capitol Hill testimony, Gates said there were "some number of people at Guantanamo that, frankly, based on their own confessions, should never be released."
"Now, I'm not the attorney general; I'm not a lawyer," Gates noted, saying he wanted to work with Congress to find a way to use the military prison system for some Al Qaeda suspects.
"It may be that it requires some kind of a statutory approach to deal with it in terms of how do you keep these people — who are self-confessed terrorists, who will come back and attack the United States if they're ever released — for the long term."
Times staff writer Carol J.
Williams in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, contributed to this report.
By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 30, 2007; A05
A senior Bush political appointee at the Interior Department has repeatedly altered scientific field reports to minimize protections for imperiled species and disclosed confidential information to private groups seeking to affect policy decisions, the department's inspector general concluded.
The investigator's report on Julie A. MacDonald, deputy assistant secretary for fish and wildlife and parks -- which was triggered by an anonymous complaint from a Fish and Wildlife Service employee and expanded in October after a Washington Post article about MacDonald -- said she frequently sought to reshape the agency's scientific reports in an effort to ease the impact of agency decisions on private landowners.
Inspector General Earl E. Devaney referred the case to Interior's top officials for "potential administrative action," according to the document, which was reported yesterday in the New York Times.
The IG noted that MacDonald "admitted that her degree is in civil engineering and that she has no formal educational background in natural sciences" but repeatedly instructed Fish and Wildlife scientists to change their recommendations on identifying "critical habitats," despite her lack of expertise.
At one point, according to Fish and Wildlife Service Director H. Dale Hall, MacDonald tangled with field personnel over designating habitat for the endangered Southwestern willow flycatcher, a bird whose range is from Arizona to New Mexico and Southern California. When scientists wrote that the bird had a "nesting range" of 2.1 miles, MacDonald told field personnel to change the number to 1.8 miles. Hall, a wildlife biologist who told the IG he had had a "running battle" with MacDonald, said she did not want the range to extend to California because her husband had a family ranch there.
In another incident described in the report, MacDonald argued with Hall over the Kootenai River sturgeon, a fish in Montana and Idaho that needs a certain level of river flow in order to spawn. Field biologists determined that the sturgeon's needed flow level ranged between 2.3 and 5.9 cubic feet per second, but MacDonald instructed them to cite only the 5.9 figure, which would have aided dam operators. After Hall demanded she put the request in writing, the report noted, "she ultimately relented and they kept the 2.3 to 5.9 range."
Devaney reported that several Fish and Wildlife officials said MacDonald yelled and cursed at them, quoting the assistant manager for California and Nevada operations as saying that his employees "were definitely stressed, pushed and yelled at by MacDonald."
The report also said MacDonald "misused her position" by disclosing confidential documents to "private sector sources" such as the Pacific Legal Foundation and the California Farm Bureau Federation, both of which have challenged endangered-species listings.
On Feb. 4, 2004, MacDonald sent the Pacific Legal Foundation a 147-page document on Interior's critical habitat policies. In an e-mail exchange with one of the foundation's lawyers, MacDonald wrote: "I will send you a copy of the draft but please do not share it with anyone else. It's still undergoing revision, although the fundamental legal/policy approach will not change. Does that work for you?"
MacDonald acknowledged to Devaney that the policy document would not have been released under a Freedom of Information Act request but "said that did not mean she could not release it to a personal friend, the PLF attorney, as long as the attorney would not post the document on the PLF's Web site."
MacDonald was not available for comment yesterday, and Interior Department spokesman Hugh Vickery said he could not comment on the report because it was "a personnel matter."
Kieran Suckling, policy director for the advocacy group Center for Biological Diversity, said the report documented MacDonald's close relationship with industry.
"She has demoralized the entire U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service by deriding its scientists, overruling its decision-makers, and showing complete disregard for professional channels of decision making," Suckling said in an e-mail.
Thursday, March 29, 2007
Sen. John McCain's "Straight Talk" Express.
Yesterday, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) told radio host Bill Bennett that President Bush’s escalation is working. “There are neighborhoods in Baghdad where you and I could walk through those neighborhoods, today,” he said. Today, when CNN’s Wolf Blitzer asked McCain why Americans still aren’t able to safely leave the Green Zone in Iraq, the senator replied that Blitzer was giving three-month-old talking points:
General Petraeus goes out there almost every day in an unarmed humvee. I think you oughta catch up. You are giving the old line of three months ago. I understand it. We certainly don’t get it through the filter of some of the media.
But according to CNN reporter Michael Ware, who has been in Iraq for four years, McCain is “way off base.” He stated, “To suggest that there’s any neighborhood in this city where an American can walk freely is beyond ludicrous. I’d love Sen. McCain to tell me where that neighborhood is and he and I can go for a stroll.”Ware also rebutted McCain’s assertion that Petaeus travels in an unarmed humvee: “[I]n the hour since Sen. McCain’s said this, I’ve spoken to military sources and there was laughter down the line. I mean, certainly the general travels in a humvee. There’s multiple humvees around it, heavily armed.”
Wednesday, March 28, 2007
Whatever one thinks of how convincing the available evidence is thus far, nobody who has an even basic understanding of how our government functions could dispute that the accusations in this scandal are extremely serious. Presumably, even those incapable of ingesting the danger of having U.S. attorneys fired due to their refusal to launch partisan-motivated prosecutions (or stifle prosecutions for partisan reasons) at least understand that it is highly disturbing and simply intolerable for the Attorney General of the U.S. -- the head of our Justice Department -- to lie repeatedly about what happened, including to Congress, and to have done so with the obvious assent and (at the very least) implicit cooperation of the White House. Even the most vapid media stars should be able to understand that.
And yet so many of them do not.
There is a true danger in the current vapidity of the national pundit class. Surely, a pundit corps that could rally itself to be outraged over Arkansas land deals could manage to eke out a bit of interest in the thought that staffers to the President of the United States and other Republicans were, as it now appears, using their government offices to encourage criminal indictments of their foes and protect against the indictment of their friends. The evidence suggests that McKay and Iglesias, at minimum, were removed from their jobs in large part -- and that "in large part" is itself being exceedingly generous to the administration -- because they refused to file politically motivated indictments against Democrats intended to help Republicans skew election results.
Despite befuddled mutterings to the contrary, that's a big deal. Corrupting a foundational principle of our democracy -- that the police forces of a state will not be used as political weapons against the opposition? Demanding that prosecutors hound your political rivals or be fired? It was, in earlier times, considered not just legitimate news, but of the kind that the press has created elaborate altars to itself over. The press as prime defenders of democracy; the ultimate check against such corruptions and manipulations.
It's at least as big a Constitutional deal as breaking into the offices of the other party, one would think. It's as big a deal as the Presidency sabotaging the investigators who are investigating the presidency (in fact, given Bush's shutdown of the investigation as to whether Gonzales and the administration violated federal laws against domestic espionage, it is _exactly_ that big a deal.) Sending the Attorney General of the United States and others up to the Hill to apparently flatly lie about the entire effort seems as significant a development as "accidentally" erasing the records of similar awkward moments in horsethievery.
In short, it would seem to have every central element of, oh, say, a Watergate, other than, you know, members of the punditry who give a flying damn. (In truth, we cannot say that the Watergate years were exactly monuments to pundit integrity either, not until it was all essentially over except for booking a helicopter ride out of town.) As with all previous administration scandals, we've indeed still got solid reporters on the story -- efforts by McClatchy have been especially notable. What we don't have is a pundit class with two goddamn brain cells to rub together to figure out why, exactly, any of the listed corruptions might be a negative thing on its face. They don't, apparently, spend much time thinking about things like that.
But why? What, and pardon my French, the flying baguette is going on, in our media, when large swaths of the pundit class, lethargic and addled, can't figure out that the manipulation of our very system of justice itself -- and this is far from the first incident, the fire alarm on these issues has been ringing since 2001, so there have been ample opportunities for all parties to familiarize themselves with the basic issues -- is not merely a political concern, but one with rather substantial implications towards the very way American democracy is practiced?
It would be tempting to chalk it up in many cases to blatant partisanship on the part of the pundit corps. In fact, it is so easy, I'll do just that for the moment, and explore where the premise gets us. Clinton was hounded at every turn by investigations and press "scandals" that seemed to be produced on an assembly line, many of them demonstrably false, some of them simply painful in thier absurdity (anyone remember Haircutgate?) Gore's 2000 campaign was hounded by pundits far more interested in fake propaganda claims that he said he "invented the Internet", and in the political meanings of "earth tones", and in fretting over his "wooden" demeanor, than they were in any more substantive comparisons of the two candidates.
(Oh, and a note, here: there is a special place in hell for anyone who, at any point, figured that America should elect their President according to who they'd like to "have a beer" with, or opined in the national media that such reasoning was anything but a godforsaken sophistry. By God, if there is any justice in the afterworld, each of you can spend eternity in a warm, comfortable bar with George W. Bush, alone with nothing but you, a bowl of peanuts, two mugs, and that barren moonscape of a mind.)
It was mere political Heatherism, respected and gloriously ascendant and praised as actual sagacity. Punditry as practiced by 16 year old North Hollywood mall rats could not have been more insipid, and would at least have been more inventively colorful. And it has continued, unabated, as the dominant theme of punditry. Mind you, an entire town full of Alice Roosevelt Longworths would be impressively interesting, if done well and with grace, but that's an impossible if, and the vast majority of the televised, paid gossips of the press do not exude either the wit or the insight that they pretend at. Like comedy, cynicism is best left to experts.
Bush got little of the same treatment, in comparison, and it stopped almost entirely when Bush got into office. Stopped dead, even before 9/11. It was not that such Heatherism had vanished -- far from it, as the Kerry campaign found out four years later -- but that Republicans were oddly immune not simply from tawdriness but from media investigation as well, especially considering the scale and scope of the targets. The Bush administration, from Enron onward, managed to sail steadily onward through damning investigations that, in the Clinton years, would have resulted in national pundit grand mal seizures. After 9/11, patriotism was suddenly and precipitiously refined as synonymous with Republicanism, with nary a peep from the pundit class and in fact a whole hell of a lot of support for the notion, both tacit and explicit. As it turns out, you'd have to do something really bad, unimaginably salacious and drop-dead three-word understandable to get the national pundit corps' extended attention if you're a Republican. Something like "propositioning sex from teenage children working at the Capitol" might do it, for a few weeks. Subverting the laws of the nation -- that's a harder fish to fry. That's gonna require a little pizzaz if it's going to make it down the national punditry gullet.
Perhaps if the Constitution was finally remanded to the custody of a lawyer, to be buried six feet under and fancy-side-up in the Bahamas, we'd get more interest? I am sure I could script it appropriately, if need be: The United States Constitution is survived by eleven of its twenty seven young children. Larry Birkhead claims to be the father of twelve of them. Join us next hour: we'll have live helicopter coverage of Nancy Grace attempting to ride the decaying corpse of our cherished legal frameworks like a surfboard.
So is the divide between the Heatherism directed at Democrats and the boredom with which Republican scandals are begrudgingly attended to actual bias, or merely an insipid blandness? One would think the answer would be transparent from a decade of uncanny patterns of alternated attack and acquiescence, depending on the party in power. Evidence, too, could possibly be found from any weekly rundown of the cable shows, which continue to somehow populate themselves primarily with Republicans and conservatives despite the valiant efforts of the terribly nonpartisan shows themselves. During the years when the House, Senate, and presidency were all controlled by conservative Republicans, the networks insisted that the discrepancy could be attributed to the imbalance in Washington itself; those in positions of power were naturally more newsworthy faces.
So what about now? When Democrats control both House and Senate, why do conservative Republican voices continue to disproportionately dominate the media discourse? Were the networks in fact more accurate than they intended, when they attributed the imbalance to power, but perhaps the power imbalance is less in the ballot boxes, and more in the control rooms?
Hmm. It is either that, or the horror of Creeping Rolodexism: a set of index cards sitting in a producer's office has finally achieved sentience, and the phone numbers call themselves, through sheer force of conscious will... all other shows and networks corrupted in turn by a viruslike exchange of complementary fruit baskets?
No. We must continue searching. Neither Network nor Little Shop of Horrors can fully explain this. Partisanship plays a role -- at this point, it seems difficult to argue with the weekly televised evidence -- but there is something else going on here. I think, at long last, that the plain folks of the land have reached their hearts' desire at last, and the pundit media has been adorned with a collection of downright morons.
Ah, there may be something there. The Rise of the Booboisie, we might call it, with deference to Mencken.
Let's be frank -- we've got possibly the least intelligent, most buffoonish President we've had in a generation (elevating all others as paragons of comportment and adroitness in the comparison), a man whose daily struggles with English are a window into a mind untarnished with complex thought, a man whose lack of understanding of foreign policy issues has knocked the wind from even those brought in to educate him on the subjects, a man whose daily pronouncements give trembling comedians ice cream headaches as they try to ingest the glory of it all. He is, simultaneously, a man aching under the confines of the presidency, a man who moves with tense, jerking rigidity whenever a stray nonconforming question requires his brain to shift, clutch smoking, into second gear, as if the tension of the thought process involved has caused his muscles to physically cramp from lack of oxygen. And to the punditry, this guy's, well, "Presidential", which roughly means he fills out a codpiece well. (You don't even want to_know_ what "inspirational" is codespeak for.)
Comedy Central can get two shows a night over the asininity of politics. It's made their network, and the entire premise of both The Daily Show and the Colbert Report is (1) to report something in the news, and (2) to dissect how and why what the government and media are saying about it is so flatly wrong, so devoid of meaning or substance or intelligence, as to be comical. He may not be a "newsman" -- and I would strenuously argue that he in fact is, though that is a subject for another time -- but Jon Stewart accurately reflects a certain mood, in this country, among those who are forced to laugh at all of this because to contemplate it seriously would, for more than a few of us, result in a decade-long panic attack.
I mention this remarkable and odious presidential doofustry not simply to take yet another gratuitous swipe at Bush -- and by all means, I enjoy it immensely -- nor to point out the richness of conservative targets for mockery in general (adulterer Newt Gingrich returns from the political wilderness? Be still, my grateful heart!) but to note that the elevation of forceful incompetence is now a major American spectator sport, and there is little evidence that the Washington pundit media ranks any higher on the competence scale than the fool-riddled government they purport to cover. Intelligence, is, shall we say, not held in high regard, in our national debate. Intellectualism is scorned: knowledge, such as the environmental knowledge that Gore was able to rattle off with little difficulty during the millennial American campaign, is seen as pushy, or snobbish, or gauche. It is decidedly unappreciated. Having a keen grasp of an issue, or stringing together more than a bare minimum of bland, pasteurized sentences in a debate or response, is considered pretentious, and dull, and talking above the level of the people: pondering whether or not a candidate's red dress or new hairstyle is a stroke of manipulation: that we can do on a monetary and cerebral budget. That, in fact, anyone can do on a budget, which may give some small indication of its value.
To hear the pundits speak, the people of the country are pudding-brained idiots, capable of discerning only the basic shapes and colors of issues. The Attorney Purge may be to complex a notion for them, and may therefore be deemed uninteresting and pedantic (though the intricacies of Hillary Clinton's finances were certainly worth years of attention, and those same pundits were baffled when the public interest and earnestly required outrage never managed to percolate.) Who knows: perhaps they are right, and we are a nation of the addled and bored, but it seems a rather more testable notion that the pundits themselves suffer from more than a touch of the tapioca fog. There is nothing terribly controversial about presuming that within any group of individuals on this planet, a certain large percentage of them will be pudding-brained idiots, after all, and anyone who as worked in corporate America can vouch for the fact that at least in this country, the lightest and most bubble-filled minds tend to float to the top. Evidence would seem to suggest that the upper ranks of punditry are hardly exceptions to this rule.
We are not testing the intricacies of Sunni vs. Shia here, after all, nor debating the upsides and downsides of pollution credits in fostering environmental health; we are instead formulating a very basic question. If the Justice Department of the United States of America does not treat all Americans equally, if it engages in manipulations of the machinery of law, is that, perchance, a bad thing? Not from an electoral standpoint, God help us all, but from a raw governmental one? It is a fundamental political notion -- the one thing they are purported to be good at. It should seemingly gather rather more interest than horserace pronouncements of who might stay, or might go. It is not a question that should pinch the intellect of anyone in a position of purported media leadership.
Those questions, however, are not probed, and the thought that such questions should be investigated to determine the facts meets with surprising resistance from some wrapping themselves in the stolen mantle of journalism. The journalists report; the Congress investigates; the Bush administration shudders; the punditry sails obliviously with the winds, the only group of the four not quite sure why any of us are discussing this.
So if we are presuming that they have little interest in the story due to an underlying partisan reluctance to batter Republicans with the same unbridled glee with which your average anti-Democrat Drudge smear is picked up and tossed onto television screens, we might be well served to consider this simpler, though profoundly more insulting, explanation. Never ascribe to malice what simple dimness can more readily explain: the pundit media has for the last decade been fed the stories they discuss by conservative voices intent on making every land deal, every misspoken word, every failed joke, every innuendo into the scandal of the moment, whether evidence exists or not. There is little evidence to suggest that the pundit press can operate effectively within stories not handfed to them on a silver platter, with a garnish of appropriate, politically targetted catchphrases to use in opining on them.
Even stories of war, or illegalities, or administrative deceit may be a bridge too far for the congenitally stupid to cross. Like the D.C. politicians they cover, the record of the pundit press paints a fairly devastating account of their own competence: the more important the story, the more substantially the Washington pundit press has bungled it. Foley asking the penis size of his teenage charges, that they do well: in explorations of the rationales for the nation to go to war, they do poorly. That seems evidentiary of something, certainly, and nothing good.
Could this seemingly enforced dullness be a mere aftereffect of conservative bias, or slightly differently, an allergic reaction from the pundit corps to the omnipresent and laughable accusations of liberal bias. Maybe the easiest way to avoid the issue is to simply not cover the issues with any depth at all -- to never scratch any farther into the inconvenient facts of a case than absolutely necessary, so as to never have to come to that uncomfortable, distinctly discussion-ending conclusion as to what the actual facts are, and what the implications must, as a natural consequence, be?
So so far we have three tightly interconnected estimations of why national punditry has, well, devolved: Heatherism, bias, or rank stupidity, either real or pretended at. Compelling, perhaps, but oversimplifications to be sure. There are other dynamics at work here, and ones that I think ring truer, when it comes right down to it.
To Be Continued
By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 28, 2007; A01
Federal and state lawmakers have launched a new drive to pass the Equal Rights Amendment, reviving a feminist goal that faltered a quarter-century ago when the measure did not gain the approval of three-quarters of the state legislatures.
The amendment, which came three states short of enactment in 1982, has been introduced in five state legislatures since January. Yesterday, House and Senate Democrats reintroduced the measure under a new name -- the Women's Equality Amendment -- and vowed to bring it to a vote in both chambers by the end of the session.
The renewed push to pass the ERA, which passed the House and Senate overwhelmingly in 1972 and was ratified by 35 states before skidding to a halt, highlights liberals' renewed sense of power since November's midterm elections. From Capitol Hill to Arkansas, legislators said they are seizing a political opportunity to enshrine women's rights in the Constitution.
"Elections have consequences, and isn't it true those consequences are good right now?" Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) asked a mostly female crowd yesterday at a news conference, as the audience cheered. "We are turning this country around, bit by bit, to put it in a more progressive direction."
The amendment consists of 52 words and has one key line: "Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex." That sentence would subject legal claims of gender discrimination to the same strict scrutiny given by courts to allegations of racial discrimination.
Although more states are considering ratifying the ERA now than at any other time in the past 25 years, activists still face serious hurdles. Every statewide officeholder in Arkansas endorsed the amendment this year, but the bill stalled in committee last week after Eagle Forum President Phyllis Schlafly came to Little Rock to testify against the measure.
In the 1970s, Schlafly and others argued that the ERA would lead to women being drafted by the military and to public unisex bathrooms. Today, she warns lawmakers that its passage would compel courts to approve same-sex marriages and deny Social Security benefits for housewives and widows.
"It's very retro. It had 10 years of debate, very passionate debate for 10 years, and it was defeated," Schlafly said in an interview yesterday. "Anytime you get a fair forum where both sides are heard, we win."
The ERA, originally introduced in Congress in 1923, gained popularity in the mid-1960s. In March 1972, it cleared the first of two hurdles: passing both chambers of Congress by the required two-thirds vote.
Thirty state legislatures ratified it the next year. Congress extended by three years its seven-year deadline for ratification, but the decade passed without approval by the required 38 states. ERA backers have since introduced the resolution in every Congress, but only now do they believe they have a realistic chance of success.
Legal scholars debate whether the 35 state votes to ratify the amendment are still valid.
In 1997, three professors argued in the William and Mary Journal of Women and the Law that the ERA remained viable because in 1992 the Madison Amendment -- which affects congressional pay raises -- became the 27th constitutional amendment 203 years after it first won congressional approval. Under that precedent, advocates say, the ERA should become part of the Constitution once three-quarters of the states ratify it, no matter how long that takes.
Even backers of the amendment such as Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) expect a legal battle on that question. They are reintroducing the amendment in Congress and hope to start the ratification process again from scratch.
Idella Moore, executive officer of Atlanta-based 4ERA, said she and other supporters are trying to convince Americans that it makes sense to adopt the amendment, even though people have not focused on the issue for years.
"It's a hell of a challenge," Moore said. "We're trying to reposition it back into the mainstream."
ERA backers have enjoyed limited success so far -- Florida's House speaker has yet to assign the bill to committee, and the Arkansas House Committee on State Agencies and Governmental Affairs deadlocked 10 to 10. But the drive has sparked a new national discussion on women's rights.
"I think we've made a lot of people think about this and say, 'Yes, this is the right thing to do,' " said Arkansas state Rep. Lindsley Smith (D), who sponsored the ERA and has vowed to bring it up again when the legislature reconvenes in 2009. "The question I get most frequently is 'Lindsley, I thought this already was in the Constitution.' "
Jay Barth, a professor of politics at Hendrix College in Conway, Ark., said the recent debate shows both the advances the women's movement has made in the South and its limitations.
"Gender equity has definitely become a no-brainer aspect of Democratic Party ideology, even in Southern states. Thirty years ago, that was not the case," Barth said. But he added that when it came to ratifying the amendment this year, "it certainly wasn't a priority for Democratic Party officials."
Opponents warn that enacting the amendment could produce unintended consequences. Arkansas state Rep. Dan Greenberg (R) said he opposes the measure because courts in two states have ruled that equal-rights amendments in state constitutions justify state funding for abortion.
"The more general language you have in a constitutional amendment, the more unpredictable the policy impact will be," Greenberg said.
Caroline Fredrickson, who directs the Washington office of the American Civil Liberties Union, said that "it's hard to predict" how courts would interpret the amendment. But she said it is more likely the ERA would allow women to sue for higher pay and other benefits.
"It has really hampered women's ability to get fair treatment in the workplace and other aspects of their lives," she said.
It remains unclear whether the amendment -- which has 194 House co-sponsors and 10 Senate co-sponsors and no longer includes a deadline for ratification -- can get a two-thirds vote in Congress. Nadler, who chairs the Judiciary subcommittee on the Constitution, civil rights, and civil liberties, said the bill will receive its first hearing in more than two decades and "is going to be one of the items at the top of the agenda."
In many ways, yesterday's news conference on Capitol Hill underscored how much has changed since Congress last voted on the ERA. As Digital Sisters Inc. chief executive Shireen Mitchell announced that her online site is working to marshal support for the bill, Feminist Majority President Eleanor Smeal quipped: "The last time around, we didn't have Digital Sisters."
Staff researcher Rena Kirsch contributed to this report.
Monday, March 26, 2007
BUSH'S SHADOW ARMY
Jeremy Scahill reports on the Bush Administration's growing dependence on private security forces such as Blackwater USA and efforts in Congress to rein them in. This article is adapted from his new book, Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army (Nation Books).
On September 10, 2001, before most Americans had heard of Al Qaeda or imagined the possibility of a "war on terror," Donald Rumsfeld stepped to the podium at the Pentagon to deliver one of his first major addresses as Defense Secretary under President George W. Bush. Standing before the former corporate executives he had tapped as his top deputies overseeing the high-stakes business of military contracting--many of them from firms like Enron, General Dynamics and Aerospace Corporation--Rumsfeld issued a declaration of war.
"The topic today is an adversary that poses a threat, a serious threat, to the security of the United States of America," Rumsfeld thundered. "It disrupts the defense of the United States and places the lives of men and women in uniform at risk." He told his new staff, "You may think I'm describing one of the last decrepit dictators of the world.... [But] the adversary's closer to home," he said. "It's the Pentagon bureaucracy." Rumsfeld called for a wholesale shift in the running of the Pentagon, supplanting the old DoD bureaucracy with a new model, one based on the private sector. Announcing this major overhaul, Rumsfeld told his audience, "I have no desire to attack the Pentagon; I want to liberate it. We need to save it from itself."
The next morning, the Pentagon would be attacked, literally, as a Boeing 757--American Airlines Flight 77--smashed into its western wall. Rumsfeld would famously assist rescue workers in pulling bodies from the rubble. But it didn't take long for Rumsfeld to seize the almost unthinkable opportunity presented by 9/11 to put his personal war--laid out just a day before--on the fast track. The new Pentagon policy would emphasize covert actions, sophisticated weapons systems and greater reliance on private contractors. It became known as the Rumsfeld Doctrine. "We must promote a more entrepreneurial approach: one that encourages people to be proactive, not reactive, and to behave less like bureaucrats and more like venture capitalists," Rumsfeld wrote in the summer of 2002 in an article for Foreign Affairs titled "Transforming the Military."
Although Rumsfeld was later thrown overboard by the Administration in an attempt to placate critics of the Iraq War, his military revolution was here to stay. Bidding farewell to Rumsfeld in November 2006, Bush credited him with overseeing the "most sweeping transformation of America's global force posture since the end of World War II." Indeed, Rumsfeld's trademark "small footprint" approach ushered in one of the most significant developments in modern warfare--the widespread use of private contractors in every aspect of war, including in combat.
The often overlooked subplot of the wars of the post-9/11 period is their unprecedented scale of outsourcing and privatization. From the moment the US troop buildup began in advance of the invasion of Iraq, the Pentagon made private contractors an integral part of the operations. Even as the government gave the public appearance of attempting diplomacy, Halliburton was prepping for a massive operation. When US tanks rolled into Baghdad in March 2003, they brought with them the largest army of private contractors ever deployed in modern war. By the end of Rumsfeld's tenure in late 2006, there were an estimated 100,000 private contractors on the ground in Iraq--an almost one-to-one ratio with active-duty American soldiers.
To the great satisfaction of the war industry, before Rumsfeld resigned he took the extraordinary step of classifying private contractors as an official part of the US war machine. In the Pentagon's 2006 Quadrennial Review, Rumsfeld outlined what he called a "road map for change" at the DoD, which he said had begun to be implemented in 2001. It defined the "Department's Total Force" as "its active and reserve military components, its civil servants, and its contractors--constitut[ing] its warfighting capability and capacity. Members of the Total Force serve in thousands of locations around the world, performing a vast array of duties to accomplish critical missions." This formal designation represented a major triumph for war contractors--conferring on them a legitimacy they had never before enjoyed.
Contractors have provided the Bush Administration with political cover, allowing the government to deploy private forces in a war zone free of public scrutiny, with the deaths, injuries and crimes of those forces shrouded in secrecy. The Administration and the GOP-controlled Congress in turn have shielded the contractors from accountability, oversight and legal constraints. Despite the presence of more than 100,000 private contractors on the ground in Iraq, only one has been indicted for crimes or violations. "We have over 200,000 troops in Iraq and half of them aren't being counted, and the danger is that there's zero accountability," says Democrat Dennis Kucinich, one of the leading Congressional critics of war contracting.
While the past years of Republican monopoly on government have marked a golden era for the industry, those days appear to be ending. Just a month into the new Congressional term, leading Democrats were announcing investigations of runaway war contractors. Representative John Murtha, chair of the Appropriations Committee's Subcommittee on Defense, after returning from a trip to Iraq in late January, said, "We're going to have extensive hearings to find out exactly what's going on with contractors. They don't have a clear mission and they're falling all over each other." Two days later, during confirmation hearings for Gen. George Casey as Army chief of staff, Senator Jim Webb declared, "This is a rent-an-army out there." Webb asked Casey, "Wouldn't it be better for this country if those tasks, particularly the quasi-military gunfighting tasks, were being performed by active-duty military soldiers in terms of cost and accountability?" Casey defended the contracting system but said armed contractors "are the ones that we have to watch very carefully." Senator Joe Biden, chair of the Foreign Relations Committee, has also indicated he will hold hearings on contractors. Parallel to the ongoing investigations, there are several bills gaining steam in Congress aimed at contractor oversight.
Occupying the hot seat through these deliberations is the shadowy mercenary company Blackwater USA. Unbeknownst to many Americans and largely off the Congressional radar, Blackwater has secured a position of remarkable power and protection within the US war apparatus. This company's success represents the realization of the life's work of the conservative officials who formed the core of the Bush Administration's war team, for whom radical privatization has long been a cherished ideological mission. Blackwater has repeatedly cited Rumsfeld's statement that contractors are part of the "Total Force" as evidence that it is a legitimate part of the nation's "warfighting capability and capacity." Invoking Rumsfeld's designation, the company has in effect declared its forces above the law--entitled to the immunity from civilian lawsuits enjoyed by the military, but also not bound by the military's court martial system. While the initial inquiries into Blackwater have focused on the complex labyrinth of secretive subcontracts under which it operates in Iraq, a thorough investigation into the company reveals a frightening picture of a politically connected private army that has become the Bush Administration's Praetorian Guard.
Blackwater was founded in 1996 by conservative Christian multimillionaire and ex-Navy SEAL Erik Prince--the scion of a wealthy Michigan family whose generous political donations helped fuel the rise of the religious right and the Republican revolution of 1994. At its founding, the company largely consisted of Prince's private fortune and a vast 5,000-acre plot of land located near the Great Dismal Swamp in Moyock, North Carolina. Its vision was "to fulfill the anticipated demand for government outsourcing of firearms and related security training." In the following years, Prince, his family and his political allies poured money into Republican campaign coffers, supporting the party's takeover of Congress and the ascension of George W. Bush to the presidency.
While Blackwater won government contracts during the Clinton era, which was friendly to privatization, it was not until the "war on terror" that the company's glory moment arrived. Almost overnight, following September 11, the company would become a central player in a global war. "I've been operating in the training business now for four years and was starting to get a little cynical on how seriously people took security," Prince told Fox News host Bill O'Reilly shortly after 9/11. "The phone is ringing off the hook now."
Among those calls was one from the CIA, which contracted Blackwater to work in Afghanistan in the early stages of US operations there. In the ensuing years the company has become one of the greatest beneficiaries of the "war on terror," winning nearly $1 billion in noncovert government contracts, many of them no-bid arrangements. In just a decade Prince has expanded the Moyock headquarters to 7,000 acres, making it the world's largest private military base. Blackwater currently has 2,300 personnel deployed in nine countries, with 20,000 other contractors at the ready. It has a fleet of more than twenty aircraft, including helicopter gunships and a private intelligence division, and it is manufacturing surveillance blimps and target systems.
In 2005 after Hurricane Katrina its forces deployed in New Orleans, where it billed the federal government $950 per man, per day--at one point raking in more than $240,000 a day. At its peak the company had about 600 contractors deployed from Texas to Mississippi. Since Katrina, it has aggressively pursued domestic contracting, opening a new domestic operations division. Blackwater is marketing its products and services to the Department of Homeland Security, and its representatives have met with California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. The company has applied for operating licenses in all US coastal states. Blackwater is also expanding its physical presence inside US borders, opening facilities in Illinois and California.
Its largest obtainable government contract is with the State Department, for providing security to US diplomats and facilities in Iraq. That contract began in 2003 with the company's $21 million no-bid deal to protect Iraq proconsul Paul Bremer. Blackwater has guarded the two subsequent US ambassadors, John Negroponte and Zalmay Khalilzad, as well as other diplomats and occupation offices. Its forces have protected more than ninety Congressional delegations in Iraq, including that of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. According to the latest government contract records, since June 2004 Blackwater has been awarded $750 million in State Department contracts alone. It is currently engaged in an intensive lobbying campaign to be sent into Darfur as a privatized peacekeeping force. Last October President Bush lifted some sanctions on Christian southern Sudan, paving the way for a potential Blackwater training mission there. In January the Washington, DC, representative for southern Sudan's regional government said he expected Blackwater to begin training the south's security forces soon.
Since 9/11 Blackwater has hired some well-connected officials close to the Bush Administration as senior executives. Among them are J. Cofer Black, former head of counterterrorism at the CIA and the man who led the hunt for Osama bin Laden after 9/11, and Joseph Schmitz, former Pentagon Inspector General, who was responsible for policing contractors like Blackwater during much of the "war on terror"--something he stood accused of not doing effectively. By the end of Schmitz's tenure, powerful Republican Senator Charles Grassley launched a Congressional probe into whether Schmitz had "quashed or redirected two ongoing criminal investigations" of senior Bush Administration officials. Under bipartisan fire, Schmitz resigned and signed up with Blackwater.
Despite its central role, Blackwater had largely operated in the shadows until March 31, 2004, when four of its private soldiers in Iraq were ambushed and killed in Falluja. A mob then burned the bodies and dragged them through the streets, stringing up two from a bridge over the Euphrates. In many ways it was the moment the Iraq War turned. US forces laid siege to Falluja days later, killing hundreds of people and displacing thousands, inflaming the fierce Iraqi resistance that haunts occupation forces to this day. For most Americans, it was the first they had heard of private soldiers. "People began to figure out this is quite a phenomenon," says Representative David Price, a North Carolina Democrat, who said he began monitoring the use of private contractors after Falluja. "I'm probably like most Congress members in kind of coming to this awareness and developing an interest in it" after the incident.
What is not so well-known is that in Washington after Falluja, Blackwater executives kicked into high gear, capitalizing on the company's newfound recognition. The day after the ambush, it hired the Alexander Strategy Group, a K Street lobbying firm run by former senior staffers of then-majority leader Tom DeLay before the firm's meltdown in the wake of the Jack Abramoff scandal. A week to the day after the ambush, Erik Prince was sitting down with at least four senior members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, including its chair, John Warner. Senator Rick Santorum arranged the meeting, which included Warner and two other key Republican senators--Appropriations Committee chair Ted Stevens of Alaska and George Allen of Virginia. This meeting followed an earlier series of face-to-faces Prince had had with powerful House Republicans who oversaw military contracts. Among them: DeLay; Porter Goss, chair of the House Intelligence Committee (and future CIA director); Duncan Hunter, chair of the House Armed Services Committee; and Representative Bill Young, chair of the House Appropriations Committee. What was discussed at these meetings remains a secret. But Blackwater was clearly positioning itself to make the most of its new fame. Indeed, two months later, Blackwater was handed one of the government's most valuable international security contracts, worth more than $300 million.
The firm was also eager to stake out a role in crafting the rules that would govern mercenaries under US contract. "Because of the public events of March 31, [Blackwater's] visibility and need to communicate a consistent message has elevated here in Washington," said Blackwater's new lobbyist Chris Bertelli. "There are now several federal regulations that apply to their activities, but they are generally broad in nature. One thing that's lacking is an industry standard. That's something we definitely want to be engaged in." By May Blackwater was leading a lobbying effort by the private military industry to try to block Congressional or Pentagon efforts to place their forces under the military court martial system.
But while Blackwater enjoyed its new status as a hero in the "war on terror" within the Administration and the GOP-controlled Congress, the families of the four men killed at Falluja say they were being stonewalled by Blackwater as they attempted to understand the circumstances of how their loved ones were killed. After what they allege was months of effort to get straight answers from the company, the families filed a ground-breaking wrongful death lawsuit against Blackwater in January 2005, accusing the company of not providing the men with what they say were contractually guaranteed safeguards. Among the allegations: The company sent them on the Falluja mission that day short two men, with less powerful weapons than they should have had and in Pajero jeeps instead of armored vehicles. This case could have far-reaching reverberations and is being monitored closely by the war-contractor industry--former Halliburton subsidiary KBR has even filed an amicus brief supporting Blackwater. If the lawsuit is successful, it could pave the way for a tobacco litigation-type scenario, where war contractors find themselves besieged by legal claims of workers killed or injured in war zones.
As the case has made its way through the court system, Blackwater has enlisted powerhouse Republican lawyers to defend it, among them Fred Fielding, who was recently named by Bush as White House counsel, replacing Harriet Miers; and Kenneth Starr, former Whitewater prosecutor investigating President Clinton, and the company's current counsel of record. Blackwater has not formally debated the specific allegations in the suit, but what has emerged in its court filings is a series of legal arguments intended to bolster Blackwater's contention that it is essentially above the law. Blackwater claims that if US courts allow the company to be sued for wrongful death, that could threaten the nation's war-fighting capacity: "Nothing could be more destructive of the all-volunteer, Total Force concept underlying U.S. military manpower doctrine than to expose the private components to the tort liability systems of fifty states, transported overseas to foreign battlefields," the company argued in legal papers. In February Blackwater suffered a major defeat when the Supreme Court declined its appeal to hear the Falluja case, paving the way for the state trial--where there would be no cap on damages a jury could award--to proceed.
Congress is beginning to take an interest in this potentially groundbreaking case. On February 7 Representative Henry Waxman chaired hearings of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee. While the hearings were billed as looking at US reliance on military contractors, they largely focused on Blackwater and the Falluja incident. For the first time, Blackwater was forced to share a venue with the families of the men killed at Falluja. "Private contractors like Blackwater work outside the scope of the military's chain of command and can literally do whatever they please without any liability or accountability from the US government," Katy Helvenston, whose son Scott was one of the Blackwater contractors killed, told the committee. "Therefore, Blackwater can continue accepting hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer money from the government without having to answer a single question about its security operators."
Citing the pending litigation, Blackwater's general counsel, Andrew Howell, declined to respond to many of the charges levied against his company by the families and asked several times for the committee to go into closed session. "The men who went on the mission on March 31, each had their weapons and they had sufficient ammunition," Howell told the committee, adding that the men were in "appropriate" vehicles. That was sharply disputed by the men's families, who allege that in order to save $1.5 million Blackwater did not provide the four with armored vehicles. "Once the men signed on with Blackwater and were flown to the Middle East, Blackwater treated them as fungible commodities," Helvenston told lawmakers in her emotional testimony, delivered on behalf of all four families.
The issue that put this case on Waxman's radar was the labyrinth of subcontracts underpinning the Falluja mission. Since November 2004 Waxman has been trying to pin down who the Blackwater men were ultimately working for the day of the ambush. "For over eighteen months, the Defense Department wouldn't even respond to my inquiry," says Waxman. "When it finally replied last July, it didn't even supply the breakdown I requested. In fact, it denied that private security contractors did any work at all under the [Pentagon's contracting program]. We now know that isn't true." Waxman's struggle to follow the money on this one contract involving powerful war contractors like KBR provides a graphic illustration of the secretive nature of the whole war contracting industry.
What is not in dispute regarding the Falluja incident is that Blackwater was working with a Kuwaiti business called Regency under a contract with the world's largest food services company, Eurest Support Services. ESS is a subcontractor for KBR and another giant war contractor, Fluor, in Iraq under the Pentagon's LOGCAP contracting program. One contract covering Blackwater's Falluja mission indicated the mission was ultimately a subcontract with KBR. Last summer KBR denied this. Then ESS wrote Waxman to say the mission was conducted under Fluor's contract with ESS. Fluor denied that, and the Pentagon told Waxman it didn't know which company the mission was ultimately linked to. Waxman alleged that Blackwater and the other subcontractors were "adding significant markups" to their subcontracts for the same security services that Waxman believes were then charged to US taxpayers. "It's remarkable that the world of contractors and subcontractors is so murky that we can't even get to the bottom of this, let alone calculate how many millions of dollars taxpayers lose in each step of the subcontracting process," says Waxman.
While it appeared for much of the February 7 hearing that the contract's provenance would remain obscure, that changed when, at the end of the hearing, the Pentagon revealed that the original contractor was, in fact, KBR. In violation of military policy against LOGCAP contractors' using private forces for security instead of US troops, KBR had entered into a subcontract with ESS that was protected by Blackwater; those costs were allegedly passed on to US taxpayers to the tune of $19.6 million. Blackwater said it billed ESS $2.3 million for its services, meaning a markup of more than $17 million was ultimately passed on to the government. Three weeks after the hearing, KBR told shareholders it may be forced to repay up to $400 million to the government as a result of an ongoing Army investigation.
It took more than two years for Waxman to get an answer to a simple question: Whom were US taxpayers paying for services? But, as the Falluja lawsuit shows, it is not just money at issue. It is human life.
A Killing on Christmas Eve
While much of the publicity Blackwater has received stems from Falluja, another, more recent incident is attracting new scrutiny. On Christmas Eve inside Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone, an American Blackwater contractor allegedly shot and killed an Iraqi bodyguard protecting a senior Iraqi official. For weeks after the shooting, unconfirmed reports circulated around the Internet that alcohol may have been involved and that the Iraqi was shot ten times in the chest. The story then went that the contractor was spirited out of Iraq before he could be prosecuted. Media inquiries got nowhere--the US Embassy refused to confirm that it was a Blackwater contractor, and the company refused to comment.
Then the incident came up at the February 7 Congressional hearing. As the session was drawing to a close, Representative Kucinich raced back into the room with what he said was a final question. He entered a news report on the incident into the record and asked Blackwater counsel Howell if Blackwater had flown the contractor out of Iraq after the alleged shooting. "That gentleman, on the day the incident occurred, he was off duty," Howell said, in what was the first official confirmation of the incident from Blackwater. "Blackwater did bring him back to the United States."
"Is he going to be extradited back to Iraq for murder, and if not, why not?" Kucinich asked.
"Sir, I am not law enforcement. All I can say is that there's currently an investigation," Howell replied. "We are fully cooperating and supporting that investigation."
Kucinich then said, "I just want to point out that there's a question that could actually make [Blackwater's] corporate officers accessories here in helping to create a flight from justice for someone who's committed a murder."
The War on the Hill
Several bills are now making their way through Congress aimed at oversight and transparency of the private forces that have emerged as major players in the wars of the post-9/11 period. In mid-February Senators Byron Dorgan, Patrick Leahy and John Kerry introduced legislation aimed at cracking down on no-bid contracts and cronyism, providing for penalties of up to twenty years in prison and fines of up to $1 million for what they called "war profiteering." It is part of what Democrats describe as a multi-pronged approach. "I think there's a critical mass of us now who are working on it," says Congressman Price, who represents Blackwater's home state. In January Price introduced legislation that would expand the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act of 2000 (MEJA) to include all contractors in a war zone, not just those working for or alongside the armed forces. Most of Blackwater's work in Iraq, for instance, is contracted by the State Department. Price indicated that the alleged Christmas Eve shooting could be a test case of sorts under his legislation. "I will be following this and I'll be calling for a full investigation," he said.
But there's at least one reason to be wary of this approach: Price's office consulted with the private military lobby as it crafted the legislation, which has the industry's strong endorsement. Perhaps that's because MEJA has been for the most part unenforced. "Even in situations when US civilian law could potentially have been applied to contractor crimes, it wasn't," observed P.W. Singer, a leading scholar on contractors. American prosecutors are already strapped for resources in their home districts--how could they be expected to conduct complex investigations in Iraq? Who will protect the investigators and prosecutors? How will they interview Iraqi victims? How could they effectively oversee 100,000 individuals spread across a dangerous war zone? "It's a good question," concedes Price. "I'm not saying that it would be a simple matter." He argues his legislation is an attempt to "put the whole contracting enterprise on a new accountable footing."
This past fall, taking a different tack--much to the dismay of the industry--Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, an Air Force reserve lawyer and former reserve judge, quietly inserted language into the 2007 Defense Authorization, which Bush signed into law, that places contractors under the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), commonly known as the court martial system. Graham implemented the change with no public debate and with almost no awareness among the broader Congress, but war contractors immediately questioned its constitutionality. Indeed, this could be a rare moment when mercenaries and civil libertarians are on the same side. Many contractors are not armed combatants; they work in food, laundry and other support services. While the argument could be made that armed contractors like those working for Blackwater should be placed under the UCMJ, Graham's change could result in a dishwasher from Nepal working for KBR being prosecuted like a US soldier. On top of all this, the military has enough trouble policing its own massive force and could scarcely be expected to monitor an additional 100,000 private personnel. Besides, many contractors in Iraq are there under the auspices of the State Department and other civilian agencies, not the military.
In an attempt to clarify these matters, Senator Barack Obama introduced comprehensive new legislation in February. It requires clear rules of engagement for armed contractors, expands MEJA and provides for the DoD to "arrest and detain" contractors suspected of crimes and then turn them over to civilian authorities for prosecution. It also requires the Justice Department to submit a comprehensive report on current investigations of contractor abuses, the number of complaints received about contractors and criminal cases opened. In a statement to The Nation, Obama said contractors are "operating with unclear lines of authority, out-of-control costs and virtually no oversight by Congress. This black hole of accountability increases the danger to our troops and American civilians serving as contractors." He said his legislation would "re-establish control over these companies," while "bringing contractors under the rule of law."
Democratic Representative Jan Schakowsky, a member of the House intelligence committee, has been a leading critic of the war contracting system. Her Iraq and Afghanistan Contractor Sunshine Act, introduced in February, which bolsters Obama's, boils down to what Schakowsky sees as a long overdue fact-finding mission through the secretive contracting bureaucracy. Among other provisions, it requires the government to determine and make public the number of contractors and subcontractors (at any tier) that are employed in Iraq and Afghanistan; any host country's, international or US laws that have been broken by contractors; disciplinary actions taken against contractors; and the total number of dead and wounded contractors. Schakowsky says she has tried repeatedly over the past several years to get this information and has been stonewalled or ignored. "We're talking about billions and billions of dollars--some have estimated forty cents of every dollar [spent on the occupation] goes to these contractors, and we couldn't get any information on casualties, on deaths," says Schakowsky. "It has been virtually impossible to shine the light on this aspect of the war and so when we discuss the war, its scope, its costs, its risks, they have not been part of this whatsoever. This whole shadow force that's been operating in Iraq, we know almost nothing about. I think it keeps at arm's length from the American people what this war is all about."
While not by any means a comprehensive total of the number of contractor casualties, 770 contractor deaths and 7,761 injured in Iraq as of December 31, 2006, were confirmed by the Labor Department. But that only counts those contractors whose families applied for benefits under the government's Defense Base Act insurance. Independent analysts say the number is likely much higher. Blackwater alone has lost at least twenty-seven men in Iraq. And then there's the financial cost: Almost $4 billion in taxpayer funds have been paid for private security forces in Iraq, according to Waxman. Yet even with all these additional forces, the military is struggling to meet the demands of a White House bent on military adventurism.
A week after Donald Rumsfeld's rule at the Pentagon ended, US forces had been stretched so thin by the "war on terror" that former Secretary of State Colin Powell declared "the active Army is about broken." Rather than rethinking its foreign policies, the Administration forged ahead with plans for a troop "surge" in Iraq, and Bush floated a plan to supplement the military with a Civilian Reserve Corps in his January State of the Union address. "Such a corps would function much like our military Reserve. It would ease the burden on the armed forces by allowing us to hire civilians with critical skills to serve on missions abroad when America needs them," Bush said. The President, it seemed, was just giving a fancy new title to something the Administration has already done with its "revolution" in military affairs and unprecedented reliance on contractors. Yet while Bush's proposed surge has sparked a fierce debate in Congress and among the public, the Administration's increasing reliance on private military contractors has gone largely undebated and underreported.
"The increasing use of contractors, private forces or as some would say 'mercenaries' makes wars easier to begin and to fight--it just takes money and not the citizenry," says Michael Ratner, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights, which has sued contractors for alleged abuses in Iraq. "To the extent a population is called upon to go to war, there is resistance, a necessary resistance to prevent wars of self-aggrandizement, foolish wars and in the case of the United States, hegemonic imperialist wars. Private forces are almost a necessity for a United States bent on retaining its declining empire."
With talk of a Civilian Reserve Corps and Blackwater promoting the idea of a privatized "contractor brigade" to work with the military, war critics in Congress are homing in on what they see as a sustained, undeclared escalation through the use of private forces. "'Surge' implies a bump that has a beginning and an end," says Schakowsky. "Having a third or a quarter of [the forces] present on the ground not even part of the debate is a very dangerous thing in our democracy, because war is the most critical thing that we do."
Indeed, contractor deaths are not counted in the total US death count, and their crimes and violations go undocumented and unpunished, further masking the true costs of the war. "When you're bringing in contractors whom the law doesn't apply to, the Geneva Conventions, common notions of morality, everything's thrown out the window," says Kucinich. "And what it means is that these private contractors are really an arm of the Administration and its policies."
Kucinich says he plans to investigate the potential involvement of private forces in so-called "black bag," "false flag" or covert operations in Iraq. "What's the difference between covert activities and so-called overt activities which you have no information about? There's no difference," he says. Kucinich also says the problems with contractors are not simply limited to oversight and transparency. "It's the privatization of war," he says. The Administration is "linking private war contractor profits with warmaking. So we're giving incentives for the contractors to lobby the Administration and the Congress to create more opportunities for profits, and those opportunities are more war. And that's why the role of private contractors should be sharply limited by Congress."