More News — March 9-21, 2004

"Promises, Promises" -- Paul Krugman in The New York Times, 3/9/04:

Graph of jobs data accompanying Krugman article.

Despite a string of dismal employment reports, the administration insists that its economic program, which has relied entirely on tax cuts focused on the affluent, will produce big job gains any day now. Should we believe these promises?

Each February, the Economic Report of the President forecasts nonfarm payroll employment ? generally considered the best measure of job growth ? for the next several years. The black line in the chart above (inspired by a joint report from the Economic Policy Institute and the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities) shows the actual performance of employment, both before and after its peak in March 2001. The gray lines show the forecasts in the 2002, 2003 and 2004 reports. Notice that the February 2004 forecast, which, as in previous years, is based on data only through the preceding October, is already 900,000 jobs too high.

Economic forecasting isn't an exact science, but wishful thinking on this scale is unprecedented. Nor can the administration use its all-purpose excuse: all of these forecasts date from after 9/11. What you see in this chart is the signature of a corrupted policy process, in which political propaganda takes the place of professional analysis.

Numbers crunched by Keith Poole: Senators, 108th Congress, ordered by an "optimal classification" of their voting behavior relative to all members. John Kerry votes in the middle of the Democrats. Zell Miller aside, the two parties are perfectly polarized.

"Medicare Plan Cost Estimates Ordered Withheld" -- Tony Pugh in The Philadelphia Inquirer, 3/11/04:

WASHINGTON - The government's top expert on Medicare costs was warned that he would be fired if he told key lawmakers about a series of Bush administration cost estimates that could have torpedoed congressional passage of the White House-backed Medicare prescription-drug plan.

When the House of Representatives passed the controversial benefit by five votes last November, the White House was embracing an estimate by the Congressional Budget Office that it would cost $395 billion in the first 10 years. But for months the administration's own analysts in the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services had concluded repeatedly that the drug benefit could cost upward of $100 billion more than that.

Withholding the higher cost projections was important because the White House was facing a revolt from 13 conservative House Republicans who'd vowed to vote against the Medicare drug bill if it cost more than $400 billion. . . .

Five months before the November House vote, the government's chief Medicare actuary had estimated that a similar plan the Senate was considering would cost $551 billion over 10 years. Two months after Congress approved the new benefit, White House Budget Director Joshua Bolten disclosed that he expected it to cost $534 billion.

Richard S. Foster, the chief actuary for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which produced the $551 billion estimate, told colleagues last June that he would be fired if he revealed numbers relating to the higher estimate to lawmakers.

"This whole episode which has now gone on for three weeks has been pretty nightmarish," Foster wrote in an e-mail to some of his colleagues June 26, just before the first congressional vote on the drug bill. "I'm perhaps no longer in grave danger of being fired, but there remains a strong likelihood that I will have to resign in protest of the withholding of important technical information from key policy makers for political reasons."

Knight Ridder obtained a copy of the e-mail.

Foster didn't quit, but congressional staffers and lawmakers who worked on the bill said he no longer was permitted to answer important questions about the bill's cost.

Cybele Bjorklund, the Democratic staff director for the House Ways and Means health subcommittee, which worked on the drug benefit, said Thomas A. Scully - then the director of the Medicare office - told her he ordered Foster to withhold information and that Foster would be fired for insubordination if he disobeyed.

Health and Human Services Department officials turned down repeated requests to interview Foster. The Medicare office falls under the control of HHS.

In an interview with Knight Ridder, Scully, a former health-industry lobbyist deeply involved in the administration's campaign to pass the drug benefit, denied Bjorklund's assertion that he'd threatened to fire Foster. He said he curbed Foster on only one specific request, made by Democrats on the eve of the first House vote in June, because he felt they'd use the cost estimates to disrupt the debate.

"They were trying to be politically cute and get (Foster) to score (estimate the cost of the bill) and put something out publicly so they can walk out on the House floor and cause a political crisis, which is bogus," Scully said.

"I just said, `Look, (Foster) works for the executive branch; he's not going to do it, period,'" he said.

Otherwise, Scully said, Foster was available to lawmakers and their staffs.

" ... I don't think he ever felt - I don't think anybody (in the actuary's office) ever felt - that I restricted access. ... I think it's a very nice tradition that (the actuary) is perceived to be very nonpartisan and very accessible, and I continued that tradition."

Scully said Liz Fowler, the chief health lawyer for the Democrats on the Senate Finance Committee, could confirm the actuary's independence. Fowler didn't.

"He's a liar," she said of Scully.

At a Ways and Means Committee hearing last month, HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson all but repudiated Scully's tactics.

"I may have been derelict in allowing my administrator, Tom Scully, to have more control over it than I should have. ... And maybe he micromanaged the actuary and the actuary services too much. ... I can assure you that from now (on), the remaining days that I am secretary you will have as much access as you want to anybody or anything in the department. All you have to do is call me."

Democrats asked Thompson on Feb. 3 and March 3 for a complete record of Foster's estimates. They've yet to get it.

Said HHS spokesman Bill Pierce: "We respond to all inquiries in time and we will do the same" with these. . . .

For years before Scully's arrival in 2001, key lawmakers had direct access to Medicare actuaries.

In 1997, when Republicans were having trouble getting health-care cost information out of the Clinton administration, Rep. Bill Thomas, R-Calif., who's now the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, added language to the Balanced Budget Act conference report to emphasize the importance of free access to Foster.

"The process of monitoring, updating and reforming the Medicare and Medicaid programs is greatly enhanced by the free flow of actuarial information from the Office of the Actuary to the committees of jurisdiction in the Congress," the report says.

"When information is delayed or circumscribed by the operation of an internal Administration clearance process or the inadequacy of actuarial resources, the Committees' ability to make informed decisions based on the best available information is compromised."

"Bush's Partial History" -- Bill Morlin and Karen Dorn Steele in the Spokane Spokesman-Review, 3/14/04:

Military rules used in 1974 to ground two Washington Air National Guard airmen with access to nuclear weapons also applied to a Texas Air National Guard unit where Lt. George W. Bush was a fighter pilot.

Some military researchers and a former Texas Guard lieutenant colonel believe the stringent regulations -- known as the Human Reliability Program -- may have been invoked to stop Bush from flying Texas Air National Guard jets in 1972.

Bush's military service more than 30 years ago during the Vietnam War has been an issue since his first campaign for president. More recently, some researchers and national media outlets have been investigating the period from May 1, 1972, to April 1, 1973, when Bush left his unit in Texas and moved to Alabama.

Bush's military records from that period are spotty, and have led some to suggest he was avoiding his Guard obligations.

The Boston Globe, on the forefront of the issue, reported Feb. 12 that Bush's acknowledged 1972 suspension from flight status for failing to take a required physical should have generated an investigation and subsequent trail of documents, which have not been found.

To address critics, the White House released Bush's military records in mid-February, asserting he left his Texas Air National Guard squadron two years before the end of his enlistment because he was no longer needed to fly jets.

But if the human reliability rules were invoked, as they were in thousands of other cases, Bush may not have voluntarily stopped flying.

There is no mention of the Human Reliability Program in the documents released by the White House.

The White House documents do show that Bush's military job description, called an Air Force Specialty Code, or AFSC, was listed as "1125D, pilot, fighter interceptor."

Bush's pilot code was among those covered by Air Force Regulation 35-99, a previously undisclosed document recently obtained by The Spokesman-Review. Regulation 35-99 contains an extensive explanation of the Human Reliability Program.

Human reliability regulations were used to screen military personnel for their mental, physical and emotional fitness before granting them access to nuclear weapons and delivery systems.

Under the rules, pilots could be removed immediately from the cockpit for HRP issues, which happened in the 1974 Washington Air National Guard case. The two Washington airmen were suspended on suspicion of drug use, but eventually received honorable discharges.

A second previously unreleased document obtained by the newspaper, a declassified Air Force Inspector General's report on the Washington case, states that human reliability rules applied to all Air National Guard units in the 1970s. From 1968 to 1973, Bush was assigned to the 111th Fighter Interceptor Squadron at Ellington Air Force Base in Houston.

"The Human Reliability Program, in a nutshell, applied to every U.S. Air Force and Air Guard pilot in any aircraft they would fly," said Marty Isham, a former Air Force briefing officer.

Now a military historian and researcher, Isham is writing a book about the Air Defense Command, which controlled Air Guard units nationwide, including the Washington and Texas squadrons.

Isham said there is a "good likelihood" HRP regulations were either applied or about to be applied against Bush and that is why he stopped flying on April 16, 1972.

White House spokesman Ken Lisaius said last week he couldn't answer any questions about HRP. . . .At the National Guard Bureau, now headed by a Bush appointee from Texas, officials last week said they were under orders not to answer questions.

The bureau's chief historian said he couldn't discuss questions about Bush's military service on orders from the Pentagon.

"If it has to do with George W. Bush, the Texas Air National Guard or the Vietnam War, I can't talk with you," said Charles Gross, chief historian for the National Guard Bureau in Washington, D.C.

Rose Bird, Freedom of Information Act officer for the bureau, said her office stopped taking records requests on Bush's military service in mid-February and is directing all inquiries to the Pentagon. She would not provide a reason.

Air Force and Texas Air National Guard officials did not respond to written questions about the issue.

James Hogan, a records coordinator at the Pentagon, said senior Defense Department officials had directed the National Guard Bureau not to respond to questions about Bush's military records. . . .

In May of 1972, the Texas Air National Guard was given an enhanced mission of protecting U.S. borders by then-Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird.

Laird's directive came after a Cuban airliner arrived undetected at the New Orleans airport, nine years after the Cuban missile crisis. Congressional hearings at the time criticized the Pentagon for the Oct. 26, 1971, incident. . . .

The documents also include the Sept. 29, 1972, order suspending Bush from flight status for "failure to accomplish" the mandatory physical.

In a book released last week, "Bush's War for Re-election," Texas journalist James Moore calls the phrase ambiguous.

"Failure to accomplish" the medical exam "can imply that Bush did not show up, or he was examined, and a foreign substance was discovered in his blood," Moore argues in his book.

When pressed by the national media during the 2000 presidential campaign, Bush said he quit drinking in 1986 and hadn't used any illegal drugs since 1974.

The White House records revealed for the first time that as a teenager, Bush had four citations on his driving record for speeding and collisions, which would have required a special enlistment waiver for him to get into the Air Guard. No waiver, however, was found in the records released by the White House, USA Today reported. . . .

Thousands of pilots and other military personnel have lost their job assignments under the human reliability regulations, which were established in the 1960s, according to academic researchers.

The regulations were made stricter in the 1970s when the military started screening for drug abuse, said Dr. Herbert Abrams in a 1991 research paper.

Abrams, a former professor of medicine at Harvard and Stanford universities and a research fellow at Stanford's Center for International Security and Cooperation, has written extensively about the military's Human Reliability Program.

Citing statistics from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, Abrams said military personnel are twice as likely as their civilian counterparts to drink heavily.

From 1975 through 1984, Abrams' research shows 51,000 personnel, or about 4.5percent a year on average, were decertified from the Human Reliability Program.

Most of those investigated and decertified were in the Air Force.

"The military takes this very, very seriously," said Lloyd Dumas, professor at the University of Texas at Dallas. He is the author of "Lethal Arrogance," a 1999 study of human foibles and dangerous technology.

"People of a lesser rank can even remove their superiors (under HRP). It's one of the few areas where rank doesn't matter," Dumas said.

Bush's suspension, his spotty final year of military service and his failure to take his flight physical are puzzling, Dumas said.

"If Bush was under the Human Reliability Program, there should be a paper trail. And if there's not, that's very, very unusual," the University of Texas professor said.

Bob Schieffer and Thomas Friedman interview Donald Rumsfeld on CBS's Face the Nation, 3/14/04:

SCHIEFFER: Well, let me just ask you this. If they did not have these weapons of mass destruction, though, granted all of that is true, why then did they pose an immediate threat to us, to this country?

Sec. RUMSFELD: Well, you're the--you and a few other critics are the only people I've heard use the phrase `immediate threat.' I didn't. The president didn't. And it's become kind of folklore that that's--that's what's happened. The president went...

SCHIEFFER: You're saying that nobody in the administration said that.

Sec. RUMSFELD: I--I can't speak for nobody--everybody in the administration and say nobody said that.

SCHIEFFER: Vice president didn't say that? The...

Sec. RUMSFELD: Not--if--if you have any citations, I'd like to see 'em.

Mr. FRIEDMAN: We have one here. It says `some have argued that the nu'--this is you speaking--`that the nuclear threat from Iraq is not imminent, that Saddam is at least five to seven years away from having nuclear weapons. I would not be so certain.'

Sec. RUMSFELD: And--and...

Mr. FRIEDMAN: It was close to imminent.

Sec. RUMSFELD: Well, I've--I've tried to be precise, and I've tried to be accurate. I'm s-- suppose I've...

Mr. FRIEDMAN: `No terrorist state poses a greater or more immediate threat to the security of our people and the stability of the world and the regime of Saddam Hussein in Iraq.'

Sec. RUMSFELD: Mm-hmm. It--my view of--of the situation was that he--he had--we--we believe, the best intelligence that we had and other countries had and that--that we believed and we still do not know--we will know. David Kay said we're about 85 percent there. I don't know if that's the right percentage. But the Iraqi Survey Group--we've got 1,200 people out there looking. It's a country the size of California. He could have hidden his--enough chemical or biol--enough biological weapons in the hole that--that we found Saddam Hussein in to kill tens of thousands of people. So--so it's not as though we have certainty today.

"Furious Voters Oust Spanish Government" -- Giles Tremlett in The Guardian, 3/15/04:

Spanish voters punished prime minister José María Aznar's People's party for the bloodshed of last week's Madrid terrorist attacks yesterday, throwing it out of government in an angry reaction to his handling of the aftermath.

In one of the most dramatic elections of the post-Franco era, voters turned on the ruling party, convinced that the multiple bomb attack on Madrid's packed commuter trains had been carried out by al-Qaida and with a growing sense that the People's party had tried to hide the truth.

With intelligence agencies around the globe trying to identify a man who, in a videotape found in Madrid, claimed responsibility for the attacks for al-Qaida and with three Moroccan suspects in police custody, most voters believed the Spanish capital had suffered its equivalent of the September 11 attacks in the United States.

Socialist leader José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero swept to a surprise victory that was a blow to the Bush administration. He has pledged to withdraw Spain's 1,300 troops from Iraq if the UN does not take control by June 30 when Washington plans to hand power back to Iraqis.

Mr Zapatero started his victory speech with a minute's silence for the victims of Thursday's attacks before vowing to fight all kinds of terrorism. "Together we will defeat it," he told supporters outside his party headquarters in Madrid.

Angry protests on the streets of large cities overnight had set a tone of brooding resentment and bitterness for a vote in which the deaths of 200 people and the injuries of more than 1,500 had inflamed some already sharp divisions in Spain.

Protesters accused the government of trying to hide the fact that violent Islamism was to blame and demanded explanations for Mr Aznar's backing of the Iraq war against the will of some 90% of Spaniards.

Those worries helped drive a huge turnout that had reached 62.9% of voters by mid-afternoon, 7% higher than at the same stage of the last election in 2000. They produced a reverse in the fortunes of a People's party which led in opinion polls by three to five points a week ago. With almost all ballots counted, Mr Zapatero's Socialists had won 42.6% of the vote, gaining 164 seats in the 350-seat parliament. The Popular Party took 37.7%, 148 seats. No other party won more than 5% or 10 seats.

It was also the first example of a single terrorist attack having a direct affect on the outcome of an election in a leading western country.

Mr Zapatero, a 43-year-old lawyer, had pledged during campaigning to swap Mr Aznar's pact with Mr Bush for a return to a European alliance with France and Germany.

"U.S. Videos, for TV News, Come Under Scrutiny" -- Robert Pear in the New York Times, 3/15/04:

WASHINGTON, March 14 ? Federal investigators are scrutinizing television segments in which the Bush administration paid people to pose as journalists praising the benefits of the new Medicare law, which would be offered to help elderly Americans with the costs of their prescription medicines.

The videos are intended for use in local television news programs. Several include pictures of President Bush receiving a standing ovation from a crowd cheering as he signed the Medicare law on Dec. 8.

The materials were produced by the Department of Health and Human Services, which called them video news releases, but the source is not identified. Two videos end with the voice of a woman who says, "In Washington, I'm Karen Ryan reporting."

But the production company, Home Front Communications, said it had hired her to read a script prepared by the government.

Another video, intended for Hispanic audiences, shows a Bush administration official being interviewed in Spanish by a man who identifies himself as a reporter named Alberto Garcia.

Another segment shows a pharmacist talking to an elderly customer. The pharmacist says the new law "helps you better afford your medications," and the customer says, "It sounds like a good idea." Indeed, the pharmacist says, "A very good idea."

The government also prepared scripts that can be used by news anchors introducing what the administration describes as a made-for-television "story package."

In one script, the administration suggests that anchors use this language: "In December, President Bush signed into law the first-ever prescription drug benefit for people with Medicare. Since then, there have been a lot of questions about how the law will help older Americans and people with disabilities. Reporter Karen Ryan helps sort through the details."

The "reporter" then explains the benefits of the new law.

Lawyers from the General Accounting Office, an investigative arm of Congress, discovered the materials last month when they were looking into the use of federal money to pay for certain fliers and advertisements that publicize the Medicare law.

In a report to Congress last week, the lawyers said those fliers and advertisements were legal, despite "notable omissions and other weaknesses." Administration officials said the television news segments were also a legal, effective way to educate beneficiaries.

Gary L. Kepplinger, deputy general counsel of the accounting office, said, "We are actively considering some follow-up work related to the materials we received from the Department of Health and Human Services."

One question is whether the government might mislead viewers by concealing the source of the Medicare videos, which have been broadcast by stations in Oklahoma, Louisiana and other states.

Federal law prohibits the use of federal money for "publicity or propaganda purposes" not authorized by Congress. In the past, the General Accounting Office has found that federal agencies violated this restriction when they disseminated editorials and newspaper articles written by the government or its contractors without identifying the source.

Kevin W. Keane, a spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services, said there was nothing nefarious about the television materials, which he said had been distributed to stations nationwide. Under federal law, he said, the government is required to inform beneficiaries about changes in Medicare.

"The use of video news releases is a common, routine practice in government and the private sector," Mr. Keane said. "Anyone who has questions about this practice needs to do some research on modern public information tools."

But Democrats disagreed. "These materials are even more disturbing than the Medicare flier and advertisements," said Senator Frank R. Lautenberg, Democrat of New Jersey. "The distribution of these videos is a covert attempt to manipulate the press."

Mr. Lautenberg, Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts, and seven other members of Congress requested the original review by the accounting office. . . .

"Video news releases" have been used for more than a decade. Pharmaceutical companies have done particularly well with them, producing news-style health features about the afflictions their drugs are meant to cure.

The videos became more prominent in the late 1980's, as more and more television stations cut news-gathering budgets and were glad to have packaged news bits to call their own, even if they were prepared by corporations seeking to sell products.

As such, the videos have drawn criticism from some news media ethicists, who consider them to be at odds with journalism's mission to verify independently the claims of corporations and governments.

Government agencies have also produced such videos for years, often on subjects like teenage smoking and the dangers of using steroids. But the Medicare materials wander into more controversial territory.

Bill Kovach, chairman of the Committee of Concerned Journalists, expressed disbelief that any television stations would present the Medicare videos as real news segments, considering the current debate about the merits of the new law.

"Those to me are just the next thing to fraud," Mr. Kovach said. "It's running a paid advertisement in the heart of a news program."

"Weak on Terror" -- Paul Krugman in The New York Times, 3/16/04:

Polls suggest that a reputation for being tough on terror is just about the only remaining political strength George Bush has. Yet this reputation is based on image, not reality. The truth is that Mr. Bush, while eager to invoke 9/11 on behalf of an unrelated war, has shown consistent reluctance to focus on the terrorists who actually attacked America, or their backers in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.

This reluctance dates back to Mr. Bush's first months in office. Why, after all, has his inner circle tried so hard to prevent a serious investigation of what happened on 9/11? There has been much speculation about whether officials ignored specific intelligence warnings, but what we know for sure is that the administration disregarded urgent pleas by departing Clinton officials to focus on the threat from Al Qaeda.

After 9/11, terrorism could no longer be ignored, and the military conducted a successful campaign against Al Qaeda's Taliban hosts. But the failure to commit sufficient U.S. forces allowed Osama bin Laden to escape. After that, the administration appeared to lose interest in Al Qaeda; by the summer of 2002, bin Laden's name had disappeared from Mr. Bush's speeches. It was all Saddam, all the time.

This wasn't just a rhetorical switch; crucial resources were pulled off the hunt for Al Qaeda, which had attacked America, to prepare for the overthrow of Saddam, who hadn't. If you want confirmation that this seriously impeded the fight against terror, just look at reports about the all-out effort to capture Osama that started, finally, just a few days ago. Why didn't this happen last year, or the year before? According to The New York Times, last year many of the needed forces were tied up in Iraq.

It's now clear that by shifting his focus to Iraq, Mr. Bush did Al Qaeda a huge favor. The terrorists and their Taliban allies were given time to regroup; the resurgent Taliban once again control almost a third of Afghanistan, and Al Qaeda has regained the ability to carry out large-scale atrocities.

But Mr. Bush's lapses in the struggle against terrorism extend beyond his decision to give Al Qaeda a breather. His administration has also run interference for Saudi Arabia ? the home of most of the 9/11 hijackers, and the main financier of Islamic extremism ? and Pakistan, which created the Taliban and has actively engaged in nuclear proliferation.

Some of the administration's actions have been so strange that those who reported them were initially accused of being nutty conspiracy theorists. For example, what are we to make of the post-9/11 Saudi airlift? Just days after the attack, at a time when private air travel was banned, the administration gave special clearance to flights that gathered up Saudi nationals, including a number of members of the bin Laden family, who were in the U.S. at the time. These Saudis were then allowed to leave the country, after at best cursory interviews with the F.B.I.

And the administration is still covering up for Pakistan, whose government recently made the absurd claim that large-scale shipments of nuclear technology and material to rogue states ? including North Korea, according to a new C.I.A. report ? were the work of one man, who was promptly pardoned by President Pervez Musharraf. Mr. Bush has allowed this farce to go unquestioned.

So when the Bush campaign boasts of the president's record in fighting terrorism and accuses John Kerry of being weak on the issue, when Republican congressmen suggest that a vote for Mr. Kerry is a vote for Osama, remember this: the administration's actual record is one of indulgence toward regimes that are strongly implicated in terrorism, and of focusing on actual terrorist threats only when forced to by events.

"Iraq on the Record" -- a searchable collection of public statements by George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Colin Powell, and Condoleeza Rice maintained by Rep. Henry Waxman.

"Welcome to the Titanic" -- Timothy Garton Ash in The Guardian, 3/18/04:

This has been a terrible week for what remains of the west. After a few moments of moving solidarity - the great demonstrations in Spain, the three minutes' silence observed right across Europe - we have again tumbled into bitter disarray. That happened within months of America's 9/11, as Europeans and Americans disagreed on how to respond to the assault launched by Osama bin Laden. Now it's happened within days of Europe's 9/11. . . .

So far as the Spanish voters' intentions are concerned, the election result was not subjectively a victory for al-Qaida. But it is, as Marxists used to say, an objective victory for al-Qaida. The Madrid bombings look likely to do exactly what a message posted on a radical Islamist website months ago said they should do: exploit the election moment to knock Spain out of the "Crusader-Zionist" coalition in Iraq. Conclusion: terror works. . . .

How can we improve police and intelligence cooperation across Europe and across the Atlantic? What changes should we all accept? I think, for example, that we should now have identity cards, to be carried at all times. And what kind of limitations to civil liberties should we never accept? Answer: Guantánamo, or any European equivalents.

How can we make Muslims feel more at home in Europe, thus draining the swamp in which terrorist mosquitoes breed? We have at least 12 million Muslims in the European Union already. The vast majority of them are peaceful, law-abiding citizens, horrified by such acts, but a significant minority are also impoverished, unemployed, alienated. To meet them, you have only to hang around one of the small squares in the Lavapies neighbourhood of Madrid, which was a haunt of Jamal Zougam. I remember talking there to a 20-year old, unemployed, illegal Moroccan immigrant, who told me that "the Jews" were probably responsible for the attack on the twin towers in New York. He admitted frankly to earning his living by petty crime, since, he said, he could not get the papers required to work.

How do we integrate such Muslim immigrants into our societies? By telling their daughters they can't wear headscarves at school? A group calling itself the Servants of Allah has just sent an open letter to the French prime minister, denouncing the veil ban as "a declaration of war to the Muslim world". Yet to retreat in the face of such threats is bad, too.

Then there's the whole agenda of reform in the wider Middle East, from Morocco to Iran. Yes, we should have started with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which is a recruiting sergeant for al-Qaida, rather than Iraq. Nothing much will happen on this front until after the American presidential elections, but on November 5 Europe should be on the telephone to the president-elect - whether he's called Kerry or Bush - saying with one voice: that's what you have to do next. . . .

These are just a few of the things we should be talking about. But we're not. They say the band carried on playing as the Titanic went down. Well, we're not holed yet; we've just been brushed by a small iceberg. But the look-outs and the crew are all staring at the bridge, where the Spanish first lieutenant is having a stand-up row with his British mate, the Italian cook is badmouthing the American engineer, and the French midshipman is admiring himself in the mirror, while much larger icebergs loom ahead.

"Alleged GOP Ethics Abuses" -- Washington Post, 3/17/04:

BRIBERY

  • The House ethics panel opened an informal fact-finding Dec. 8 concerning charges made by retiring Rep. Nick Smith (R-Mich) that Republican members had offered to direct $100,000 to his son's House campaign if Smith supported Medicare prescription drug legislation. Smith has since indicated there were no specific references to money.

CONFLICTS OF INTEREST

  • Rep Curt Weldon's daughter's public relations firm won a $240,000 contract to represent a humanitarian foundation controlled by a Serbian family after the Pennsylvania Republican pressed the State Department to lift a ban on U.S. visas for members of the family, the Los Angeles Times reported. Weldon's office says the congressman had "nothing to do" with any contractural relationship between his daughter's firm and the foundation.
  • House Majority Whip Roy Blunt (Mo.) tried to slip a provision benefiting the Philip Morris USA tobacco company into a bill establishing the Department of Homeland Security, the Washington Post reported last year. His son Andrew works for the company in Missouri. Blunt at the time had a close relationship with Abigail Perlman, a lobbyist for the Altria Group, which includes Philip Morris. They subsequently married. Once alerted, an aide to Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) had the provision -- which Blunt defended as "good policy" -- pulled from the bill.

CAMPAIGN FINANCE

  • A grand jury in Austin is investigating whether a political action committee set up by House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (Tex.) may have launderred $190,000 in corporate campaign donations through the Republican National Committee to skirt a Texas ban on the use of corporate money in state elections. Texans for a Republican Majority (TRMPAC) funded state candidates in 2002 as part of a successful effort to control the Texas House. The victory set the stage for redistricting Texas congressional seats in a way favorable to the GOP.
  • Topeka-based Westar Energy directed $56,500 in political contributions to DeLay, Rep. W.J. "Billy" Tauzin (La.), Rep Joe Barton (Tex.) and other key lawmakers to "get a seat at the table" during the writing of an energy bill, according to newspaper reports citing internal company documents. Barton inserted an exemption provision sought by the company, but it was later removed.
  • The Campaign Legal Center and Democracy21.org have asked the Internal Revenue Service to deny tax-free status to a children's charity sponsored by DeLay that offers donors a chance to spend time with DeLay at this year's Republican National Convention. A DeLay spokesman said at least three-fourths of the proceeds will help "abused and neglected kids."
  • The Washington Post reported that former DeLay aide Michael Scanlon received more than $30 million in fees from four casino-rich Indian tribes after leaving the majority leader's office. He teamed up with lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who has close ties to DeLay. Abramoff directed the tribes, which wanted access to Congress on gambling and tax issues, to step up political contributions to Republicans. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) is leading an investigation.

MISUSE OF A GOVERNMENT AGENCY

  • Texas Democratic officials said DeLay's office used the Federal Aviation Administration to track down a suspected planeload of Democratic Texas legislators who were planning to avoid a vote on a GOP congressional redistricting plan. After an official in DeLay's office contacted an FAA official seeking information about the plane, at least 13 FAA officials jointed the search for it.

ABUSE OF POWER

  • Common Cause called for an ethics probe after The Washington Post reported that aides to Rep. Michael G. Oxley (Ohio) told a trade association representing the mutual funds industry that a congressional probe might ease if it replaced its Democratic lobbyist with a Republican. Oxley is the chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, which oversees the industry.

"Scandal after Scandal after Scandal" -- a list at thecarpetbaggerreport.com, 3/18/04:

  • Cheney's secretive Energy Task Force was investigated by the GAO and the case is currently pending at the Supreme Court.
  • The Plame Game is under investigation by the Justice Department.
  • Bush's Medicare scam and the circumstances that led the administration to lie to Congress about the cost of the legislation is under investigation by the HHS inspector general's office.
  • The massive intelligence failure that led Bush to lie to the world about the Iraqi threat is under investigation by a congressionally-authorized independent commission (which Bush fought the creation of).
  • Bribes offered on the House floor to Rep. Nick Smith (R-Mich.) in exchange for his vote on Bush's Medicare plan are under investigation by the House Ethics Committee and the Justice Department.
  • Attorney General John Ashcroft was under investigation by the Federal Election Commission for violating campaign finance laws in 2000, and the FEC concluded that Ashcroft accepted $110,000 in illegal contributions.
  • An investigation into House Majority Leader Tom DeLay's criminal fundraising schemes in Texas -- which allegedly used corporate funds to help state GOP lawmakers -- is already before a Texas grand jury.
  • Republican staffers on the Senate Judiciary Committee were investigated for stealing thousands of confidential memos from Dem computers, a matter that has now been referred to the Justice Department for a possible criminal probe.
  • Republican Connecticut Gov. John Rowland is under a criminal investigation (and an impeachment investigation) after he lied about prominent state contractors and several government aides paying for refurbishments to his lake-front cottage.
  • Former Rep. Bill Janklow (R-S.D.) was under investigation for vehicular manslaughter, a crime for which he was later convicted.
  • The Pentagon launched a formal investigation into well-armed evangelist and three-star General William "Jerry" Boykin, Bush's pick for deputy undersecretary of defense for intelligence, and his record of extreme religious rhetoric.
  • The circumstances that led to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 are under investigation by a congressionally-authorized independent commission (which, again, Bush fought the creation of and then later resisted cooperating with).
  • And honorable mentions should go, of course, to investigations into Halliburton (Dick Cheney's former company) and Enron (George Bush's biggest corporate supporter).

"Will Bush Be a Casualty of War?" -- Tome Grieve at salon.com, 3/18/04:

An all-war, all-the-time strategy is clearly a risky one for Bush: If Iraq goes south, Bush may go down with it. And every time Bush mentions Iraq, a significant percentage of mistrustful voters will be reminded of the misrepresentations the administration made in the run-up to the war. But given the sad state of the U.S. economy, what other issue can he hope to exploit? "I think this is the only path he can take," Rutgers University political science professor Ross Baker said Wednesday. "The problem is, it leaves him at the mercy of a lot of crazy people. If Bush wants to take credit for defending the nation against terrorism, he also assumes the burden of anything that may happen."

As the nation heads into a weekend of looking back at a year in Iraq, both Bush and Kerry are establishing general-election campaigns predicated on the idea that something will happen between now and November. In a speech delivered just before the bombing Wednesday, Kerry attacked the administration for not doing enough to make American citizens and American soldiers safer. It was Kerry's most detailed discussion to date of the war and terrorism, and he used the moment to slam Bush for not working more closely with other countries, for leaving the military stretched too thin, and for sending soldiers to Iraq without the body armor they need to protect themselves. If terrorists attack the United States or if the U.S. begins to suffer massive losses in Iraq, Kerry has laid the framework for blaming Bush.

The new White House campaign, meanwhile, almost seems designed for the moment when things get much worse. If dangerous times require the "steady leadership" of George W. Bush, as Bush's TV commercials say, then really dangerous times must require his help even more.

"The Apparat: George Bush's Back-Door Political Machine" -- Jerry M. Landay at mediatransparency.org, 3/18/04:

In its latest report, called The Axis of Ideology, the . . . [National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy] has identified at least 350 tax-exempt, ostensibly non-partisan organizations within the right-wing's activist front, many operating at regional, state, and local levels. They have penetrated the three branches of the federal government, and dominate the political debate. They guide and oversee the agenda that directs White House action (or inaction). Two of these organizations housed the planners who invented the Iraq war.

Rob Stein, an independent Washington researcher, follows the money flow to the radical activist establishment. He estimates that since the early 1970s at least $2.5 to $3 billion in funding has been awarded to the 43 major activist organizations he tracks that constitute the core of the radical machine.

He terms the big 43 the "cohort" -- an "incubator of right-wing, ideological policies that constitute the administration's agenda, and, to the extent that it has one, runs its policy machinery."

He calls the cohort "a potent, never-ending source of intellectual content, laying down the slogans, myths, and buzz words that have helped shift public opinion rightward." The movement's propulsive energies are largely generated within the cohort.

Stein describes it as movement conservatism's "intellectual infrastructure" -- multiple-issue, non-profit, tax-exempt, and supposedly non-partisan. The apparatus includes think tanks, policy institutes, media-harassment enterprises, as well as litigation firms that file lawsuits to impose their ideological templates on the law.

They mastermind the machinery of radical politics, policy, and regulations. They include campus-based centers of scholarship, student associations, and scores of publications. The shorthand of their faith is well known: less government, generous tax cuts for the privileged, privatization or elimination of Social Security and Medicare, rollbacks of environmental safeguards, major curbs on the public's right to go to court, and a laissez-faire free market system unfettered by regulations or public-interest accountability. Bush campaigns to advance the ideological agenda of the right, and the radical front in turn campaigns for Bush.

"For Children of Gays, Marriage Brings Joy" -- Patricia Leigh Brown in The New York Times, 3/19/04:

SAN FRANCISCO, March 18 -- On a recent rainy Sunday morning, Gabriel Damast had planned to laze around the house, watching cartoons and eating French toast. Instead, he snapped his favorite chain-mail key chain to his belt loop, grabbed his MP3 player and headed to City Hall to watch his two moms, Fredda Damast and Birch Early, marry.

"It was so cool," said Gabriel, 13, who served as the ringbearer, after standing in line overnight with his parents. "I always accepted that `Yeah, they're my moms,' but they were actually getting married. I felt thick inside with happiness. Just thick."

The explosion of same-sex wedding ceremonies here and around the country has catalyzed a national debate over gay marriage. As the legal and rhetorical battles rage in county clerks' offices, on the presidential campaign trail and in the courts, one group is watching with more than casual interest: the children of same-sex couples. . . .

"Before it was, `Oh, your parents are just partners,' " said Max Blachman, the 13-year-old son of lesbian parents in Berkeley. "Now, they're spouses. So it's a bigger way of thinking about them."

The 2000 census reported that 594,000 households in the United States were headed by same-sex partners, a figured considered by some experts to be conservative. Of those, about 33 percent of lesbian couples reported having children 18 years old or under, while 22 percent of male couples did. . . .

Studies show that children of gay and lesbian parents are developmentally similar to those with heterosexual parents, said Charlotte J. Patterson, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia who has studied gay and lesbian families. In general, Professor Patterson noted, parenthood for gay and lesbian couples is a conscious choice, but there are as yet no adequate studies measuring stress levels in their children.

Like members of other minorities, children of gay and lesbian parents have to negotiate social and economic differences, which can be "big emotional freight," Professor Patterson said, adding, "Knowing your parents have made a commitment to stay together and take care of you forever makes children feel more secure."

"On Anniversary of a Divisive War, Italians Cry to Withdraw Troops" -- Jason Horowitz in The New York Times, 3/21/04:

ROME, March, 20 ? A sea of Italian antiwar protesters took to the streets of Rome Saturday demanding that their government withdraw its troops from Iraq, while protesters throughout Europe staged demonstrations to mark the first anniversary of the American-led invasion.

Tens of thousands of Italians, many draped in rainbow-colored peace flags, accused President Bush and Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi of Italy of waging an unjust war that had become increasingly perilous for their own national security.

Many pointed to the March 11 commuter train bombings in Spain, which claimed 202 lives, as evidence that the war had increased the threat of terrorism rather than quelled it.

"We want all of the soldiers back home and an end to this war," said Raffaella Bolini, an official of the Italian group Stop the War, which organized Saturday's demonstration.

"The Madrid attack shows that the peace movement is right, that Bush's policies put us all at risk."

Similar sentiment pervaded antiwar rallies in Spain, Britain, Germany, Greece, and France.

"Thousands in Manhattan Protest War" -- Michelle Garcia in The Washington Post, 3/21/04:

NEW YORK, March 20 -- Marking the one-year anniversary of the U.S. invasion in Iraq, tens of thousands of people converged in Manhattan to protest the military occupation and called for the U.S. government to withdraw its troops.

Under clear, blue skies, demonstrators filled 20 blocks on Madison Avenue waving flags, placards and banners that read: "Bush Lies, Who Dies" and "Bring the Troops Home." . . .

An estimated 250 demonstrations took place around the country in sizes varying from thousands in California's Bay Area to several hundreds in New Mexico and Maine. Police in riot gear marched down the streets of Chicago, where Jesse L. Jackson addressed a crowd.

A park in Crawford, Tex., was the site of a small rally, but it was out of sight from President Bush's ranch. Fayetteville, N.C., home of Fort Bragg, one of the largest U.S. military bases, drew protesters and counter-demonstrators.

In perhaps the largest assembly, a demonstration in Rome drew about 1 million people. Two antiwar activists in London scaled the Big Ben clock tower and unfurled a banner saying "Time for Truth." Australian demonstrators carried an effigy of a caged Prime Minister John Howard. And thousands of Japanese flooded the streets of Tokyo to denounce their government's military presence in Iraq. . . .

The antiwar movement has maintained a drumbeat of opposition in the last year. In the run-up to the invasion, protesters braved the frigid weather to pressure the government to give U.N. weapons inspectors more time. Once the bombs started falling, protesters flooded the streets again in March. The crowds in New York exceeded 100,000, and ended in clashes between protesters and police, resulting in nearly two dozen arrests.

This year, the protest drew an estimated 60,000 people in a relaxed and festive atmosphere, organizers said. The demonstrators marched down several blocks before gathering for a closing rally.

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg (R) and Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly briefly walked with the crowd. Police reported four arrests for disorderly conduct but no altercations. Police helicopters hovered above the site, and officers videotaped the demonstration from nearby rooftops.

"Iraq: Blair and Bush Seek New UN Backing" -- Kamal Ahmed in The Observer, 3/21/04:

The United Nations is to be given a lead role in post-occupation Iraq under British and American plans to shore up crumbling international support for the continuing military presence in the country.

UK officials told The Observer there will be a sustained push for a fresh UN resolution 'mandating' the continued military presence in Iraq after the handover to the transitional government in June.

The move comes a week after the new Spanish Prime Minister, Jos? Lu?s Rodriguez Zapatero, threatened to withdraw troops from the coalition force unless it was given a greater degree of international legitimacy. British officials said Republican claims from America that Spain had 'appeased' terrorists were unhelpful and wrong.

The Polish government, which also supports the military action in Iraq, has now also suggested that it was misled on the reasons for war.

The resolution, which British sources believe will be backed by the Security Council, will also allow the UN a role in overseeing Iraq's first democratic elections and the judicial and legal framework which the new government will rely on to protect individual freedoms.

Britain will then suggest a Nato role in security matters in Iraq, as happened successfully in Afghanistan. . . .

'When we need a resolution is fairly clear - when we are coming up to May and June. We will then need to address the prospect of a transitional government,' said one senior British official closely involved in the negotiations.

'We will have to cover the continuing multinational force and endorse that as being the clear wish of the Iraq people. And we'll need to look forward to what is going to be this enhanced UN role post 30 June.'

He said the UN could ratify decisions made by the transitional government, help it prepare for elections and enshrine democracy.

'My sense of the Security Council dynamic now is that we are all agreed on an increasing UN role,' the official said. 'We are all agreed we should transfer responsibility to the Iraqis on 30 June, and that is the moment when we say you have a transitional government.'

"What Exactly Does al-Qaeda Want?" -- Jason Burke in The Observer, 3/21/04:

As the shock of the Madrid bombings turns to a more profound sense of insecurity, one question is repeatedly asked of the militants behind the wave of terror: what do they want? . . .

[W]e have to redraft our question. 'What do they want?' implies a Western concept of acting to achieve specific goals. Instead we should be asking: 'Why do they feel that they have to act in the way that they do?' The answer is that, from their twisted standpoint, they believe they have no choice.

In every militant statement you can see a mix of the general and the specific. Imam Samudra, the Bali bomber referred to above, saw the night clubs of Bali as part of a general cultural assault mounted by the West against the Islamic world. This is typical.

In Kashmir, locals speak of their repression as part of a global campaign against Muslims. In Chechnya, the war with Russia is seen as a manifestation of the same push to eliminate Islam.

Last week a previously unknown group threatened violence in France and listed the banning of the veil from schools alongside continuing American support for Israel, the war in Iraq and the killing of civilians in Afghanistan as evidence that the West never abandoned the Crusades.

This perception that a belligerent West is set on the humiliation, division and eventual conquest of the Islamic world is at the root of Muslim violence. The militants believe they are fighting a last-ditch battle for the survival of their society, culture, religion and way of life. They are fighting in self-defence and understand, as we in the West also believe, that self-defence can justify using tactics that might be frowned on in other circumstances.

In addition, an explanation for the parlous state of the Middle East must be found. If Islam is the perfect social system, the militants' logic runs, then something else must be to blame for the second-rate status, economically, militarily, politically, of their lands. They blame the West - and the failure of most Muslims to practise their religion with sufficient discipline and devotion. The bombs are designed to restore the pride of Muslims worldwide and, by weakening the 'Crusaders' and their allies, hasten the eventual return to the golden age of a thousand years ago when the lands of Islam were the world's leading power.

The cosmic scale of the militants' aims make them very difficult to counter. But somehow we must halt the spread of their worldview, deny them political oxygen and strip away the legitimacy that allows them to operate. There is no silver bullet.

But there are things that can be done. Peace in Israel-Palestine, for example, might not end Islamic terrorism immediately but it would deny them a key piece of 'evidence'. So would forcing reform on the Saudi Arabian regime and other repressive governments.

The most powerful weapon in countering the radicals' violence is the goodwill and moderation of 95 per cent of the world's 1.3 billion Muslims. We must fight to keep it, and to use it, if we are, one day, to be free of fear and violence.

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