Friday, September 30, 2005

Bush Administration Waives Actions Against Saudi Arabia

About a month ago, JABBS asked why the Bush Administration hadn't followed up, as required by law, on its designation of Saudi Arabia as a "country of particular concern” for “severe religious freedom violations” pursuant to International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 (IRFA).

Under IRFA, the administration was supposed to take action late last year, or 90 days after making its designation. There are 15 potential actions the IRFA allows.

Now, roughly a year after the designation was made, the Bush Administration has taken action -- and that action is no action, at least for another six months.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice notified Congress last week that she had authorized a 180-day waiver of action against Saudi Arabia "in order to allow additional time for the continuation of discussions leading to progress on important religious freedom issues."

The decision came after Rice met in Washington with -- and we have to assume, was impressed by -- the Saudi foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal. Rice and the prince stressed the importance of "continuing to work on this issue," spokesman Kurtis Cooper said.

***

At the time of its designation last year as a "country of particular concern," the action was applauded -- especially given the close ties between the Bush family and the Saudi leadership. But the waivers do little to change the perception that the designation was an empty action -- perhaps done only to score points during a heated presidential campaign.

***

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, a federal agency established by Congress in 1998 to promote religious freedom around the world, had been recommending that Saudi Arabia be designated a "country of particular concern" since its formation. The reasons? Saudi violations of religious freedom within its own borders, and also reports of its propagation and export of an ideology of religious hate and intolerance throughout the world.

Reacting to Rice's decision, the commission issued a statement, saying real progress was absent in Saudi Arabia on religious conditions and that the U.S. government should use the 180 days to achieve real progress. Otherwise, the commission said licenses should not be issued for exports to Saudi Arabia of technology that could be used in military programs, and Saudi officials responsible for religious freedom violations should not be permitted to visit the United States.

***

In a related move also last week, President Bush waived financial sanctions on Saudi Arabia for failing to make significant efforts to stop slave trade in prostitutes, child sex workers and forced laborers. That waiver will last for three months.

Saudi Arabia was one of 14 countries listed by the State Department in June as failing to adequately address the problem. But Bush decided it was not in the national interest of the United States to punish Saudi Arabia, as well as Kuwait and Ecuador.

Why is it not in the "national interest?" We know it's not because of its work on religious freedom. Is it because Saudi Arabia has done so much to fight terrorism? Nope. Bring Al Qaeda to justice? Nope. Stopped fighters from crossing the border into Iraq to join the insurgency? Nope. How about helping the U.S. to keep oil prices in check in the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita? Nope.

I suppose our official policy is that the Saudis will "continue to work" on that issue, too.

Compare the decision to provide the Saudis with a waiver with the praise given the Bush Administration in this 2002 Congressional report:

"The Bush administration and the 107th Congress have continued to give priority to the trafficking problem (and) focus attention on the problem. The State Department issued its first Congressionally mandated report on worldwide trafficking in July 2001. It categorized countries according to the efforts they were making to combat trafficking. Those countries that do not cooperate in the fight against trafficking could face U.S. sanctions, starting in 2003," the report reads.

And, truth be told, Bush has followed through -- on 11 of 14 countries that have been cited.

But Saudi Arabia? Nope.

Thursday, September 29, 2005

DeLay and Friends React To Indictment With Spin, Spin, Spin

House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-TX) had a long day yesterday.

A Texas grand jury indicted DeLay and two associates on charges of conspiracy in a campaign finance scheme. In response, DeLay, who insists he is innocent, has temporarily stepped down from his post as House majority leader.

The charge makes DeLay the highest-ranking member of Congress ever to face criminal indictment while in office.

***

''This is one of the weakest, most baseless indictments in American history," DeLay said in a six-minute statement delivered at his office in the Capitol. ''It's a sham, and ((Travis County District Attorney Ronnie) Earle knows it."

Defending one's innocence should be expected -- after all, an indictment is a far cry from a conviction. But DeLay and friends know that simply saying DeLay is innocent probably won't change public perception, let alone rally the troops.

And that's why DeLay and friends needed to spin.

DeLay's spokesman, Kevin Madden, took the spin against Earle. Issuing his own statement, Madden said: This is just another example of (Travis County District Attorney) Ronnie Earle misusing his office for partisan vendettas. ... However, as with many of Ronnie Earle's previous partisan investigations, Ronnie Earle refused to let the facts or the law get in the way of his partisan desire to indict a political foe."

But is Earle actually a partisan? The facts would say otherwise.

In May, the Los Angeles Times reported that “over Earle’s 27-year tenure, his Public Integrity Unit has prosecuted 15 elected officials, including 12 Democrats.” They include include a state legislator from El Paso in 2000, and two from Waco in 1995; a San Antonio voter registrar in 1992; and the state treasurer in 1982. Earle even prosecuted himself in 1983, paying a $212 fine for tardy campaign finance disclosure filings.

Paul Burka, senior executive editor of Texas Monthly magazine and a longtime observer of the state's politics, told the Post, "I don't think Ronnie is seen here as a total partisan." He added that Earle "didn't look the other way in his own party" when public officials broke or bent laws.

***

DeLay also blamed another favorite conservative target: the media.

DeLay targeted the Austin American-Statesman -- not generally considered a "liberal" newspaper, for an editorial that didn't name DeLay, but said: "time is running out, and on the face of it, the felony indictments returned last week against the Texas Association of Business and the now nonexistent Texans for a Republican Majority Political Action Committee are disappointing.''

"It was this renewed political pressure in the waning days of his hollow investigation that led this morning's action,'' DeLay said yesterday.

Arnold Garcia, editorial page editor for the American-Statesman, put the DeLay spin in persepctive.

"We're commenting on an item of public interest," Garcia said. "But you should never forget the newspaper didn't indict Mr. DeLay. A grand jury did."

***

And of course, it helps that DeLay has friends in the media to help spin the indictment.

Fox News Channel senior judicial analyst Andrew Napolitano, interviewed several times throughout the day, offered that Earle "is openly and notoriously political. Most DAs, though they run for office, sort of take a step back from the rough and tumble of Republican versus Democrat politics once in office. This DA has not. He stayed very active in the Democratic party and, unusual in Texas, in the liberal wing of the Democratic party."

And if ignoring Earle's record weren't enough, Napolitano also told Fox News viewers that Earle was "a little bit of a nut."

How "fair and balanced" of Napolitano.

You Can't Make This Stuff Up ...

FEMA recently signed a cushy $236-million, six-month no-bid contract with Carnival Cruise lines to house evacuees on ships. The half-filled ships are now anchored in the Mississippi River and Mobile Bay.

If you do the math on the contract, even if you had the ships filled to capacity with 7,116 evacuees, the price per evacuee works out to about $1,275 a week. Compare that to the price of an actual seven-day western Caribbean cruise out of Galveston, which costs a mere $599 a person (and “that would include entertainment and the cost of actually making the ship move.”)

In related news, hundreds of lobbyists, corporate representatives, and would-be government contractors met yesterday on Capitol Hill to figure out how to get their share of the federal largess. The so-called "Katrina Reconstruction Summit" was hosted by Sen. Mel Martinez (R-FL) and sponsored by -- surprise, surprise -- Halliburton.

-- Center for American Progress, Sept. 28

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

DeLay Flip-Flops On Returning Pork To Pay For Katrina, Rita

Shifting his commentary on the state of the federal budget, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-TX) now says the government could slash billions in "wasteful spending" to help pay for hurricane recovery.

In an column in the Sept. 26 edition of the Washington Times, DeLay wrote that lawmakers can trim $35 billion or more to pay for Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

It's an obvious flip-flop from what DeLay said on Sept. 13, when he suggested that Republicans could claim an "ongoing victory" as fiscal conservatives, because there was no fat left to cut in the budget.

It's also a flip-flop from statements made a week ago, when DeLay was unenthusiastic about the idea of nixing pork and pet projects from the recent $286 billion federal highway bill -- as had been suggested by Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Tom Coburn (R-OK), and agreed to by several key Democrats, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA).

At the time, DeLay defended the $64.4 million of pork going to his district as "important."

***

Why the change of heart? According to a story in DeLay's hometown Houston Chronicle: "Budget hawks criticized DeLay for even hinting that the federal budget is lean."

DeLay, in yesterday's piece in the Times, pretended he was leading the charge on cutting waste to pay for Katrina.

Spinning himself as a "conscientious fiscal conservative," DeLay blamed Democrats for "outdated polices ... of past decades," and offered that House Republicans would be "advancing a budget initiative that pulls up from the roots billions of dollars of wasteful spending programs that have taken hold in the federal budget for far too long."

Congrats, Tom, you finally hopped on the bus.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

You Can't Make This Stuff Up ...

President Bush was supposed to land (in San Antonio) on Friday afternoon on the first stop of a tour intended to make clear that he was personally overseeing the federal government's preparations for Hurricane Rita's landfall. But the weather did not cooperate.

It was too sunny.

In a White House that likes to choreograph the president's appearances days or weeks ahead, it was a reminder that the newest strategy -- to put Mr. Bush close to the center of the action -- had its risks.

Another White House official involved in preparing Mr. Bush's way noted that with the sun shining so brightly in San Antonio, the images of Mr. Bush from here might not have made it clear to viewers that he was dealing with an approaching storm.

-- New York Times, Sept. 24

What's Next For Michael Brown? For Now, He's Still at FEMA

You might remember that FEMA Director Michael Brown resigned on Sept. 12, three days after he was removed from his on-site role overseeing the Katrina disaster response by Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff.

Not so fast, it seems.

Michael Brown is continuing to work at the Federal Emergency Management Agency at full pay, with his Sept. 12 resignation not taking effect until mid-October, Homeland Security Department spokesman Russ Knocke said yesterday.

CNN reported yesterday that Knocke said Brown would be paid for "transitional purposes."

Brown's 2004 salary was $145,600, according to the Plum Book, a congressional reference guide to executive branch salaries.

Daily Show Shines Mirror On Self-Important News Coverage of Katrina

The Daily Show with Jon Stewart is almost always funny. But it’s at its best when it can turn a mirror on those making the news.

Most of the time, that means showcasing the blowhardiness, hypocrisy or stupidity of people in and around the world of politics. But sometimes, the mirror has to be shined on the media.

On the Sept. 26 edition of the Comedy Central classic, host Jon Stewart and correspondent Ed Helms were able to poke fun at the media world, reminding viewers that disaster coverage makes news stars (think former MSNBC 9/11 reporter turned primetime anchor Ashleigh Banfield) and that sometimes news stars think they are the story. (For example, NBC anchor Brian Williams, discussing Hurricane Katrina coverage, was a little self-congratulatory when he told the Washington Post: “We were witnesses, so we drove the story.")

Here's an unofficial transcript of the Daily Show's coverage:

STEWART: Now we’ve become inured with the site of reporters being tossed about by gale force winds during hurricanes, but since Katrina, a new breed of journalists like (CNN's) Anderson Cooper, have upped the ante in their post-storm involvement, actually participating in search and rescue missions.

CNN. Not the most popular cable news channel. But the customer service: outstanding.

Now, Cooper was good. But he barely broke a sweat. Still a distracting whiff of selflessness about his behavior. Is there any way to make a story like that completely about the reporter?

(Cut to footage of Fox News Channel's Geraldo Rivera):

RIVERA: All right here, we are going up, this is the uh, the holy angels rest home. This is an elderly lady. Uh, I’m on the back end of that wheelchair. She’s uh, 76 year old. Her first name is Audrey. She resisted going until we could find her bible.

STEWART: Said the woman later, who was that pompous jackass who saved me?

Cooper and Geraldo: compelling. But my heartstrings remain insufficiently tugged upon. Can anyone pull them for me?

(Shot of CNN’s Miles O’Brien, above the banner “Dog Rescue”):

O’BRIEN: There’s a puppy in there. Come here little puppy. Come here sweetie. Aw, he’s scared but I think he’s going to be ok. We, uh, we will take care of the dog. I promise you that. One way or another. But I’m sure that somebody knows who he belongs to and we’ll make sure the dog gets to his rightful owner.

STEWART: This story has a happy ending. Miles O’Brien was adopted by a nice family in Baton Rouge.

For more on the aftermath of Hurricane Rita, we go to Beaumont, Texas, and Senior Hurricane Analyst Ed Helms. Ed thanks for joining us.

HELMS: Jon, Jon, there is no easy way to draw the line ...

STEWART: Ed, Ed, I’m sorry, Ed, Ed ...

HELMS: What?

STEWART: Are you carrying a person?

HELMS: Yes I am, Jon. It’s a resident of Beaumont that I found wandering the street after the hurricane. I had no choice but to help. After all, I’m a reporter second, but a human being first.

STEWART: Yes. Uh, Ed, uh, you said wandering, uh, this gentleman seems unconscious ...

HELMS: Yeah, about that, uh, he kind of got in the middle of a tussle between me and (Fox News Channel's) Bill Hemmer over who was going to rescue him and uh, I think he caught an elbow.

STEWART: All right. But Ed, you know I understand you helping him out, but do you have any word there, at least about the infrastructure of Beaumont. How much damage ...

HELMS: (interrupting) ... come on poochie, come here, come here buddy, come here buddy. Oh boy, Jon, I would like to introduce you to Quigley. From the swirling trash-strewn waters of Hurricane Rita, life emerged from the devastation. It’s a story of hope that’s dog-gone inspiring. Ain’t that right, Quiggers?

STEWART: Yeah, uh, Ed, I think that’s a stuffed animal actually. I don’t think actually ...

HELMS: Stuffed animal? My friend, you need to get down here on the streets. To be out on the ground rescuing people, and animals, and things that look like animals. And then to be ridiculed from the media elite from the comfort of their studios. I just want to tell these stories.

STEWART: Right, Ed, I’m sorry, they seem to be stories though that you’re making, not really reporting. And I really would prefer it if you could give us some information on the actual conditions ...

HELMS: I’m sorry Jon I can’t talk right now I’m orally siphoning flood water back into the gulf.

STEWART: Ed is that ... Ed? Is that going to do anything?

HELMS: Well, hopefully it will get me my own show.

Monday, September 26, 2005

NBC's Williams Says Era Of Reticent News Coverage Ended With Katrina

Despite shrinking audiences for the network newscasts, Brian Williams, the NBC anchor who succeeded Tom Brokaw and won plaudits for his coverage of the New Orleans floods, says they are "too important a franchise" to fade.

"When tragedy befalls the United States, when the event takes place that demands our attention, viewers come roaring back to the broadcast networks," he says. "It's the resources we can bring to bear on a crisis that sets us apart. We were able to operate in New Orleans in places where the federal government was not. We beat the first responders. We set the agenda during this particular event. We were witnesses, so we drove the story."

Williams says a long period of reticence by news organizations -- which he dubs "the 9/11 syndrome" -- ended with Hurricane Katrina.
-- Howard Kurtz' "Media Notes" column, Washington Post, 9/26

"Waste, Abuse and Mismanagement" Suspected Among Some FEMA Katrina Response Contracts

The New York Times reports that billions of dollars worth of Katrina response contracts have been awarded without competitive bidding, leading to widespread worry of waste, fraud and abuse.

More than 80 percent of the $1.5 billion in contracts signed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency alone were awarded without bidding or with limited competition, government records show, provoking concerns among auditors and government officials about the potential for favoritism or abuse.

Bills have come in for deals that apparently were clinched with a handshake, with no documentation to back them up, said Richard L. Skinner, the inspector general for the Department of Homeland Security, who said 60 members of his staff were examining Hurricane Katrina contracts.

This is old hat for the Bush Administration, of course, following similar awarding of no-bid contracts in the Iraqi reconstruction.

"When you do something like this, you do increase the vulnerability for fraud, plain waste, abuse and mismanagement," said Skinner. "We are very apprehensive about what we are seeing."

Kind of goes against that endless spin that the Bush Administration are "fiscally conservative." Not only is the administration not acting fiscally conservative, it hasn't provided any laadership for Congress -- such as supporting a plan offered by Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Tom Coburn (R-OK) to nix pet projects and other pork to help pay for Katrina's costs.

***

Congressional investigators are looking into the $568 million awarded to AshBritt, a Pompano Beach, Fla., company that was a client of the former lobbying firm of Gov. Haley Barbour of Mississippi.

The investigators are asking how much money AshBritt will collect and, in turn, what it will pay subcontractors performing the work, said a House investigator who did not want her name used because she was not authorized to speak publicly about the matter.

The contracts also show considerable price disparities: travel trailers costing $15,000 to $23,000, housing inspection services that documents suggest could cost $15 to $81 per home, and ferries and ships being used for temporary housing that cost $13 million to $70 million for six months.

For some smaller companies, the recovery work will be an extraordinary test. For example, Aduddell Roofing and Sheet Metal, an Oklahoma City business run by a former steer wrestler, shares with a partner a $60 million contract to install temporary roofing on houses in Mississippi. Aduddell's single biggest contract before this was for $5 million, company executives said.

Some businesses awarded large contracts have long records of performing similar work, but they also have had some problems. CH2M Hill and the Fluor Corporation, two global engineering companies awarded a total of $250 million in contracts, were previously cited by regulators for safety violations at a weapons plant cleanup.

The Bechtel Corporation, awarded a contract that could be worth $100 million, is under scrutiny for its oversight of the "Big Dig" construction project in Boston. And Kellogg, Brown & Root, which was given $60 million in contracts, was rebuked by federal auditors for unsubstantiated billing from the Iraq reconstruction and criticized for bills like $100-per-bag laundry service.

KBR, a subsidiary of Halliburton, got its contract with help from lobbyist Joe M. Allbaugh, President Bush's former campaign manager and a former leader of FEMA.

EPA Proposes Easing Reporting Requirements On Toxic Pollution

The Bush Administration wants to quit forcing companies to report small releases of toxic pollutants and allow them to submit reports on their pollution less frequently.

Saying it wants to ease its regulatory burden on companies, the Environmental Protection Agency on Sept. 21 proposed adopting a "short form" that would excuse companies from disclosing spills and other releases of toxic substances if:

--They claim to release fewer than 5,000 pounds of a specific chemical. That's 10 times the current exemption.

--They store onsite but claim to release "zero" amounts of the worst pollutants, such as mercury, DDT and PCBs, that persist in the environment and work up the food chain.

The EPA also wants to change the annual Toxics Release Inventory from an annual report to every other year. The annual report was launched by the Reagan Administration, under a 1986 community right-to-know law.

Why make these changes? The Bush Administration has always placed corporate "needs" above individual protections.

Ironically, the Associated Press reports that big chemical companies didn't necessarily seek a change in the need for annual reporting.

"We are so in compliance it's not funny," Andrew Liveris, president of The Dow Chemical Company, told the AP. "We've adjusted to it many years ago."

***

Sen. James Jeffords (I-VT) called the proposal "a frontal assault" on one of the nation's most successful environmental laws.

"This proposal would deny communities up-to-date information about local toxic releases, reduce incentives to minimize the generation of toxic waste and undermine the ability of public health agencies and researchers to identify important trends," Jeffords said.

***

How much pollution is released into the air? In the latest inventory EPA released in May, overall chemical pollution fell more than 6 percent from 2002 to 2003, the latest year for which total figures are available, though there were increases in levels of mercury, PCBs and dioxin. Some 4.44 billion pounds of toxic chemicals were released in 2003, compared with 4.74 billion pounds in 2002.

It's a cost-benefit analysis. The EPA proposal saves companies money by reducing the amount of paperwork that has to be filed. And in exchange for that reduction in costs, the American people have less knowledge about what toxic pollutants are being released and what toxic spills have occurred.

Sadly, the Bush Administration considers this a fair trade-off.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Republican Talks Tough On Leaks, Then Helps Vote Down Resolution Asking Bush To Turn Over Documents Relating to Plame Probe

A House committee has begun hearings on unauthorized disclosures of classified information, which may lead to legislation providing more effective ways to prosecute leakers.

House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence chairman Peter Hoekstra (R-MI). told the Washington Post that he wants to find ways "to protect the public's right to know and at the same time protect the intelligence community that needs to be more secure."

It seems Hoekstra's intentions are good -- he has spoken on this subject at length -- but given a chance to back up those intentions with an appropriate action regarding the ongoing investigation into the leak of CIA Operative Valerie Plame's identity, Hoekstra and his fellow committee Republicans failed to deliver.

***

The House committee's first leak hearing took place behind closed doors on Sept. 14 with testimony from an unnamed "representative of the intelligence community," who discussed "repercussions and consequences" of unauthorized disclosures, a committee statement said. Hoekstra said the panel moved from hearing about the damaging impact of leaks to "why we are not prosecuting and why we are not finding the leakers."

But just one day later, Hoekstra and fellow committee Republicans voted down a resolution by Rep. Rush Holt (D-NJ), calling on President Bush to turn over to the House documents relating to a federal investigation into the public disclosure of Plame's identity.

Why the flip-flop? Hoekstra cited a letter from Assistant Attorney General William E. Moschella that said special counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald had advised that production of documents on the Plame case "would interfere with his investigation."

Democrats challenged this spin, pointing out that Republicans, during the Clinton administration, carried out several investigations of alleged espionage at nuclear weapons laboratories at the same time that a criminal investigation was under way.

***

Rep. Jane Harman (D-CA), the ranking Democrat on the panel, said the panel's hearings will look into whether the government is overzealous in classifying information, leading government employees to disregard secrecy rules.

Hoekstra told the Post that "too much information is classified and more should be declassified." Asked why he, along with other members, refused to identify the panel's first witness, Hoekstra said, "We probably have some overclassification situations of our own."

Saturday, September 24, 2005

Republican-Led House Passes Bill Allowing Religious Discrimination

This is what happens when you have Republican leaders who don't respect separation of church and state.

The House voted Sept. 22 to allow religious institutions running preschools to practice religious discrimination when making hiring decisions -- and still receive federal Head Start funding.

The Associated Press reports the amendment passed 220-196, essentially split along party lines.

Rep. John Boehner (R-OH), chairman of the House Education Committee, said the bill ensures that faith-based centers "aren't forced to choose between relinquishing their identities or being shut out of the program altogether."

But that's just empty conservative spin. In reality, Boehner is saying that the bill ensures that faith-based centers aren't forced to choose between religious discrimination and being shut out of the program altogether.

Taken a step further, ending protections against religious discrimination just opens the door for another member of Congress to propose ending protections against racial discrimination. Or discrimination against the disabled. And ending those protections would be just as ludicrous as ending the protection against religious discrimination. The only difference -- conservative Republicans, working on behalf of the religious right, have no interest in fighting the other discrimination protections.

Does one have to be Catholic to teach in a Catholic pre-school? Jewish to teach in a Jewish pre-school? In most cases, yes. And that' s why Catholics apply for Catholic school positions and Jews apply for Jewish school posts. But does an English as a Second Language teacher need to be any particular religion? What about an art teacher? A music teacher? Let's be clear, the provisions don't only affect full-time teachers -- they affect part-time staff, volunteers, and any other "hires."

The Republican-led plan would allow for religious schools to discriminate against worthy applicants of other religions. The schools could ask what religion an applicant is -- going against other federal guidelines -- and then, for the sake of not "relinquishing their identities," could justify not hiring worthy candidates of other religions, solely because of their religion.

***

To be sure, the House (and potentially the Senate, which is considering similar legislation) are following the directive of President Bush, who in May announced an executive order setting such a policy for federal administrative agencies. He then wrote a letter encouraging the House and Senate to remove "hiring rights" restrictions affecting religious schools.

"Hiring rights," as you may have guessed, is the Orwellian (aka Luntzian) term for allowing religious schools to discriminate.

You have to wonder why such a provision was necessary. According to civil liberties experts, in the 33-year history of Head Start, no participants -- religious or otherwise -- have been hindered by the provision.

Why was it necessary? Because our Minister in Chief is beholden to the religious right, which has for more than two decades made a concerted effort to weaken, if not eliminate, separation of church and state.

***

Democrats voiced their displeasure on the House floor.

Rep. George Miller of California, the ranking Democrat on the Education Committee, said the religion provision marred an otherwise strong bill. "That is wrong," Miller said. "It is a violation of our civil rights laws and it has sunk the chances of making this important bill a truly bipartisan bill."

"Congress should not be in the business of supporting state-sponsored discrimination," said Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-FL).

***

Should the legislation proceed as expected, a court battle may follow.

"Head Start should be about putting qualified teachers in the classrooms, and not about using public money to require people to pass a religious litmus test," said Caroline Fredrickson, Director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office.

In addition to the ACLU, and a broad coalition of over 100 religious, education, civil rights, civil liberties and social service providers, the National Head Start Association opposes the attempts to roll back the civil rights protections, and has stated that it will oppose the underlying bill if the amendment is adopted.

Friday, September 23, 2005

And Now For Something Completely Different ...

Senate Budget Committee Chairman Judd Gregg (R-NH) refused to rule out a number of tax-related measures -- including deferring President Bush's desired $70 billion of additional tax cuts -- as a way to offset spending for Hurricane Katrina relief.

"We've got two sides to the ledger," Gregg said on Sept. 21. "I'm willing to look at a revenue solution ... as part of a package."

Unfortunately, when Gregg recommended a "balanced package" of spending cuts and tax cut rollbacks, "he was met with stony silence."

If Gregg can convince his colleagues on the right side of the aisle of the importance of some fiscal responsibility -- the key word being "some," given the possibility of a $500 billion-plus deficit in FY 2006 -- that would be "good news."

You Can't Make This Stuff Up ...

The website Worth1000 -- a forum for Photoshop afficionados -- recently sponsored a "fun with propaganda" contest, inviting people to contribute manipulated versions of propaganda posters from various countries and wars.

Submissions include Joseph Stalin as a pitchman for FedEx, and a Chinese communist poster turned into a call to "gouge imperialist gas guzzlers."

It's worth a look. Who knows ... contest winners may have a future as government or military propagandists.

GAO Report Says Pentagon Misstated Cost Of War on Terror

The Pentagon has no accurate knowledge of the cost of military operations in Iraq, Afghanistan or the fight against terrorism, limiting Congress's ability to oversee spending, the Government Accountability Office concluded in a report released yesterday.

The Defense Department has reported spending $191 billion to fight terrorism from the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks through May 2005, with the annual sum ballooning from $11 billion in fiscal 2002 to a projected $71 billion in fiscal 2005. But the GAO investigation found many inaccuracies totaling billions of dollars.

"Neither DOD nor Congress can reliably know how much the war is costing and details of how appropriated funds are being spent," the report to Congress stated. The GAO said the problem is rooted in long-standing weaknesses in the Pentagon's outmoded financial management system, which is designed to handle small-scale contingencies.

The Pentagon agreed "generally" with the GAO's recommendations, and announced it would take "immediate action" to strengthen procedures for reporting war costs, according to a letter from Undersecretary of Defense Tina W. Jonas.

***

"The GAO report confirms what many of us trying to track the cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have expressed concerns about for some time now: the reliability of DoD's estimates,'' Steven Kosiak, a defense budget analyst for the Washington research organization Center on Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, told Bloomberg.

"After nearly five years of war, one would have expected DoD to have a better handle on these costs,'' Kosiak said. "They should have a strong incentive now for improving their accounting in this area. In the wake of Katrina and the worsening deficit picture, congressional and public scrutiny of war costs is likely to intensify in coming months and years.''

***

The report said the Pentagon overstated the cost of mobilized Army reservists in fiscal 2004 by as much as $2.1 billion. Because the Army lacked a reliable process to identify the military personnel costs, it plugged in numbers to match the available budget, the report stated. "Effectively, the Army was reporting back to Congress exactly what it had appropriated," the report said.

The probe also found "inadvertent double accounting" by the Navy and Marine Corps from November 2004 to April 2005 amounting to almost $1.8 billion.

The report turned up aberrations in imminent-danger pay -- $225 a month offered to military personnel serving in Iraq, Afghanistan and other countries -- which had "little correlation with the numbers of deployed personnel." That pay totaled $38 million in April 2004, implying that 170,000 military personnel were receiving it, but by August 2004 it had mushroomed to $231 million, suggesting that more than 1 million U.S. troops were serving in danger zones.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Taranto, Predictably, Targets Post-Katrina Reaction of "Angry Left." But Republicans Were Critical, Too

OpinionJournal.com editor James Taranto has this shtick.

He talks about the "angry left." Rarely is there a Taranto column, or a Taranto radio or television appearance, in which he doesn't slip in that phrase several times.

In Taranto's world, the "angry left" is not just Michael Moore, Daily Kos or Randi Rhodes. It's anyone who criticizes President Bush or his policies. No matter how legitimate the claim, if someone on the left side of the aisle dares dissent, they're "angry."

It's a variation of an empty conservative spin line, offered over and over, that liberals and Democrats "hate Bush." When you start at that point, a conservative pundit doesn't have to go far before making the claim that liberals and Democrats are rooting for Bush to fail, which in turn implies that liberals and Democrats hate America.

You might remember during the presidential election campaign that some right-wing pundits were saying that liberals and Democrats were rooting for the insurgents to keep pushing up the U.S. death toll in Iraq. Some right-wing pundits tossed red meat to conservatives, saying that liberals and Democrats cheered when former President Reagan died.

It's insulting when right-wing pundits lie like this, making gross stereotypical myths solely for the purpose of connecting with -- for lack of a better term -- the "angry right." But let's not kid ourselves -- this empty conservative spin resonates with voters. Go take a look around the right-wing blogosphere, and you'll find a seemingly endless number of posts repeating these vulgarities about the "angry left."

It also gets these pundits more radio and television gigs. It increases the number of newspapers reading their columns. Screw the truth.

***

Taranto was at it again on the Sept. 16 edition of Fox News Channel's Hannity & Colmes. (Rich Lowry was sitting in for Sean Hannity):

LOWRY: What's been amazing about this debate over the last couple of weeks is conservatives used to joke, you know, Bush haters are going to blame Bush for the weather, and the next thing, you know, and they've actually been doing it the last couple of weeks. And it's not as though conservatives, you know, jumped all over Bill Clinton and blamed him for the deaths in the heat wave in Chicago [in 1995]. It just seems as though this president is in a uniquely poisonous, partisan environment.

TARANTO: Well, I don't know about uniquely. I mean, the -- there was a pretty poisonous partisan environment with FDR was president, when Lincoln was president. You know, we go through these periods in American history. I will say I think that the behavior of the angry left when the hurricane first struck, and they saw an opportunity to beat up on Bush, it was really shameful. I mean, to some people in this country, Hurricane Katrina was this month's Cindy Sheehan, it was this month's excuse to pound President Bush. I argued --

But, as JABBS readers know, it's empty conservative spin to suggest that the "angry left" alone was upset with the federal response to Hurricane Katrina.

There was no shortage of Republicans criticizing the response. And, as we all know, President Bush himself offered a mea culpa, and vowed to investigate his administration's shortcomings in handling the crisis.

But those are actual facts. And for people like Taranto, it's so much easier to just offer empty conservative spin. Toss some red meat to a conservative audience, and hope it resonates the next time that audience heads to the polls. Make some gross stereotypical claims, and hope it lands a few more radio and television gigs.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Pelosi Offers To Nix Pet Projects To Help Pay For Katrina. DeLay's Response? Nah.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) said yesterday that she would return to the federal Treasury $70 million designated for San Francisco projects to help pay for Hurricane Katrina recovery efforts.

"I would give them up to help Katrina victims," she told the San Francisco Chronicle. "The people of San Francisco would be very proud of that.''

The federal cost for Katrina recovery has been estimated at $200 billion. To help pay the cost, some have targeted the $286.4 billion transportation bill, passed in July, which contains about $24 billion in "earmarks'' for individual members' projects -- assailed as pork barrel spending at its worst.

Most of the bill's money is distributed to states according to funding formulas for highways, bridges and mass transit. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay's suburban Houston district is slated to get $64.4 million under the bill, and DeLay (R-TX) has said that he brought home an additional $50 million for freeway projects in the metropolitan area. He also helped secure $324 million in funding credits for Houston's light rail construction.

Pelosi's district received $129 million from the legislation. Pelosi would return money for all projects, with the exception of $59 million for the Golden Gate Bridge earthquake retrofit project, which she termed vital for national security and public safety.

***

Commenting on Pelosi's thoughts, DeLay told reporters "I'll take a look'' at returning the members' individual transportation projects to pay for Katrina. But reporters suggested he sounded unenthusiastic.

"My earmarks are pretty important to that region,'' the Republican leader said, defending the money heading to his district. "The bill creates hundreds of thousands of jobs. It's an economic engine.''

***

In spite of DeLay's lackluster response, the idea of trimming pork to pay for Katrina has had bipartisan support.

As reported by JABBS, numerous anti-waste groups are on board with the idea. And Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Tom Coburn (R-OK) suggested earlier this month: "In the past year Congress has found a way to fund thousands of projects of questionable merit. Perhaps a few of those dollars could have been better spent on activities that might have limited the impact of this tragedy."

As House Majority Leader, it's up to DeLay to do the right thing? Or will he continue to offer the empty spin that there's no fat left to cut in the budget?

Senior HHS Official Lies On Resume, Has Medical License Suspended and ... Doesn't Get Fired

A high-ranking Medicare officer, whose medical license was suspended because he falsified documents concerning his continuing education, was reassigned to another government agency, officials said yesterday.

It's the latest example of how no one gets fired by the Bush Administration. People can lie, they can be incompetent, they can break rules. But they won't get fired. Sometimes, they even get promoted.

Oh what a wonderful world it must be to have a job in that administration. What job security!

Oh sure, some in the administration resign under pressure, like the recently incompetent FEMA Director Michael Brown. But the Brownies of the world are the exception.

More often are people like Sean R. Tunis, who was the chief medical officer at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. In that role, he helped determine what services and medical devices Medicare would reimburse.

Tunis had been placed on paid administrative leave in April. He was reassigned within the Department of Health & Human Services yesterday, and will now serve as a senior biomedical research scientist at the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. It's unclear whether his salary, estimated at as much as $162,000, will drop with his new title.

Oh what a wonderful world it must be to have a job in that administration. What job security!

What did Tunis do?

According to an investigation by the Maryland Board of Physicians, Tunis in 2002 used government supplies to falsify continued medical education certificates. He falsely claimed that he had completed 50 hours of courses. (Under Maryland law, physicians must complete continuing education to keep their licenses current. Often the requirements can be met by attending professional conferences, completing online courses or reviewing academic journal articles.)

The board suspended Tunis' medical license for at least one year, fined him $20,000, and ordered him to complete an ethics course and 35 hours of continuing medical education.

At the time of his suspension, Bush administration officials said they did not plan to take any action until the Maryland board completed its investigation.

And now the administration has taken action. It's reassigned him. An HHS spokesperson described Tunis' work yesterday as "stellar."

Go figure. He was a "stellar" liar.

Tunis, in an April interview with the Baltimore Sun, blamed "lapses of memory" for his error. He later told the Washington Post that he was guilty of "careless record-keeping."

Oh what a wonderful world it must be to have a job in that administration. What job security!

For what it's worth, Tunis seemed more than happy yesterday with the Bush Administration's firing policy -- or lack thereof.

"I regret having made mistakes in handling my (continuing education) records, but I am now pleased to be moving forward into a new phase of my career," he was quoted by the Associated Press.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

For Latest Bush Nominee, It's Not What She Knows. It's Who She Knows.

"(U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency Nominee) Julie Myers does know people in all the right places. She was chief of staff to Chertoff in the Justice Department, associate under Kenneth W. Star, special assistant to Bush on personnel issues, recently married to Chertoff's current chief of staff John F. Wood, and is the niece of (Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) Gen. Richard B. Myers.

Myers largest management experience comes from her time at Commerce, where she oversaw 170 employees and a $25 million budget; ICE (the second-largest investigative agency in the federal government) has more than 20,000 employees and a budget of approximately $4 billion."

-- Center for American Progress, Sept. 20

What Does Capturing Bin Laden Mean To The Bush Administration? Not As Much As In 2001, Or During The Election Campaign

From Newsweek's interview with Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice:

Q Tell us about Osama bin Laden and how important you think his personal capture would be. How thrilled are you going to be if you all leave office in ’09 and he’s still in a cave and the President’s in Crawford?

RICE: Well, look, I would like nothing better to get the phone call that says we captured Osama bin Laden. I mean, in a sense, I think it’s, you know, it’s a kind of issue of closure about-I was at the September 11 commemoration on Sunday and the one thing that did occur to me as I was talking to families as they came through is that, you know, I wish that there were more closure for what happened to us because what happened was that that launched a long war against terrorism, it launched a war to root out something that had been growing for a long time, and we’re more at the beginning of that than at the end of it. And so I think in that sense it’s very important. And perhaps in terms of a kind of spiritual presence, philosophical presence in their movement, maybe it has—it probably has—but in terms of the operation itself, I’ve always argued, and I argued from the very beginning, and in fact, the fact that the President argues, reflected in his September 20 speech, we decided in that speech he’d only mention bin Laden once because nobody wanted to give the impression that this was about a single person. This is about, first of all, a network of organizations that have to be broken down. But it’s also that it’s now spawned an ideology of hatred, an ideology of extremism that has to be dealt with. And that’s why it’s a long struggle.

***

Is that all capturing Osama bin Laden means? Closure?

It's just a reflection of the evolution this administration has undertaken in how it talks about bin Laden -- and the fact that four years later, bin Laden is still at large.

Compare Rice's answer to what President Bush said on the night of Sept. 11, 2001:

"The search is underway for those who are behind these evil acts. I've directed the full resources for our intelligence and law enforcement communities to findthose responsible and bring them to justice. We will make no distinction between theterrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them."

But within a few months of Sept. 11, President Bush began offering the spin that bin Laden wasn't as important as stopping the greater terrorist movement -- a justification for the Iraq War that was soon to come.

From a March 13, 2002, press conference:

Q Mr. President, in your speeches now you rarely talk or mention Osama bin Laden. Why is that? Also, can you tell the American people if you have any more information, if you know if he is dead or alive? Final part -- deep in your heart, don't you truly believe that until you find out if he is dead or alive, you won't really eliminate the threat of --

BUSH: Deep in my heart I know the man is on the run, if he's alive at all. Who knows if he's hiding in some cave or not; we haven't heard from him in a long time. And the idea of focusing on one person is -- really indicates to me people don't understand the scope of the mission. Terror is bigger than one person. And he's just -- he's a person who's now been marginalized. ... So I don't know where he is. You know, I just don't spend that much time on him, Kelly, to be honest with you.

By last year, Bush was resigned to the idea that we may not capture bin Laden. Speaking to Tim Russert on the Feb. 8, 2004 edition of Meet the Press, Bush said:

"I have no idea whether we will capture or bring him to justice, may be the best way to put it. I know we are on the hunt, and Osama bin Laden is a cold-blooded killer, and he represents the nature of the enemy that we face. "

***

No doubt, it's an embarrassment to the administration, especially when Al Qaeda strikes, as it did this summer in London and in Egypt. You could almost draw a matrix -- the frequency of administration references to bin Laden has declined as the number of Al Qaeda attacks has risen.

In fact, the one time that Bush really has changed his tone on bin Laden was when it mattered most -- during the 2004 presidential race. A new matrix formed -- the frequency of administration references to bin Laden increased the longer Democrat John Kerry kept the race close.

Bush, during the third presidential debate, Bush took a defiant tone:

BUSH: Gosh, I just don't think I ever said I'm not worried about Osama bin Laden. It's kind of one of those exaggerations. Of course we're worried about Osama bin Laden. We're on the hunt after Osama bin Laden. We're using every asset at our disposal to get Osama bin Laden.

But now, capturing bin Laden would bring "closure." Sad.

Monday, September 19, 2005

You Can't Make This Stuff Up ...

As a journalist for nearly two decades, there are times when I feel ashamed to be in the same industry as the television talking heads.

Following the exchange below on yesterday's edition of the syndicated Chris Matthews Show between faux liberal Matthews and apparent Bush cheerleader (and MSNBC anchor) Lisa Daniels, I wondered, do I know anyone who would have such a morbid, cynical conversation?

Liberal? Conservative? Communist? Is there anyone in my universe who would suggest that Mayor Ray Nagin incorrectly predicting the death toll in New Orleans is "going to be a win" for President Bush? Is there anyone so cynical as to think that a death toll of 2,000 or less -- "lowballed ... brilliantly," as Matthews put it -- has any effect on voter sentiment?

Here's the brilliant exchange:

DANIELS: All right. Being down in New Orleans for two weeks, I think it's actually worse than the TV pictures actually show. But that said, expectations are so bad right now -- that it's going to take so long for the water to be pumped out, that there are 10,000 dead bodies there -- that this is actually, Howard [Fineman, fellow panelist], going to be a win for President Bush.

MATTEWS: Because there won't be 10,000 bodies?

DANIELS: Right. It's going to be much better.

MATTHEWS: They've lowballed it brilliantly.

DANIELS: And that's exactly what President Bush does best.

Bipartisan Panel Calls For Election Overhaul

In a report presented today to President Bush and congressional leaders, a bipartisan panel headed by former President Jimmy Carter and former Secretary of State James A. Baker III are recommending a widespread overhaul of election practices.

Seeking to overcome the flaws that brought election turmoil to Florida in 2000 and to Ohio last year — and that cast doubt on the outcome nationally — they are calling for election oversight to be removed from politicians and given to nonpartisan election professionals.

If the states adopt the recommendation that nonpartisan officials run elections, the process would be removed from offices such as that led in 2000 by then-Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris, who was at the same time a co-chair of Bush's Florida campaign. Her dual role raised questions about the integrity of the vote, just as the partisanship of Ohio Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell, a co-chair of Bush's 2004 campaign in that state, raised some doubts about the fairness of the presidential voting there last year. As in Florida in 2000, if Bush had lost the Ohio vote he would have lost the election.

Supporting its call for nonpartisan election offices, the report said that "we cannot build confidence in elections if secretaries of State responsible for certifying votes are simultaneously chairing political campaigns."

The recommendations run against "the tremendous vested interest of local election administrators" by moving control of elections "out of the hands of partisan, self-interested actors," Richard Pildes, an expert on voting rights and election law at the New York University School of Law, told Newsday. He called the findings "extremely important."

***

The former president, a Democrat, and the former secretary of State, a Republican, are the co-chairmen of the private Commission on Federal Election Reform, a 21-member bipartisan panel that spent five months studying the most pressing problems with the nation's electoral system.

The report concludes that despite changes required under the Help America Vote Act of 2002, far more must be done to restore integrity to an election system that suffers from sloppy management, treats voters differently not only from state to state but also within states, and that too often frustrates rather than encourages voters' efforts to participate in what is considered a basic American right.

The 2002 federal legislation grew out of the disputed election of 2000 and is not yet fully implemented. But the Carter-Baker commission said that even with some important changes in place, the 2004 election was marred by many of the same errors as the 2000 election. "Had the margin of victory for the [2004] presidential contest been narrower, the lengthy dispute that followed the 2000 election could have been repeated," the report states.

Implementation of the rules also varied from state to state, the panel found.

For example, the 2002 act required the use of provisional ballots for any eligible voter who shows up at a polling place but whose name is not on a registration list, but the 2004 election produced disparate standards for determining which of those ballots were counted. Alaska counted 97 percent of its provisional ballots, but Delaware counted 6 percent, according to the commission. The group recommends that states set uniform standards.

***

Congressional action would be needed to implement some of the panel's 87 recommendations; states could enact others. The expected cost for all the recommendations would be $1.35 billion, the report said.

After Carter and Baker present the 91-page report to Bush and then to Congress, it will be posted at http://www.american.edu/Carter-Baker. The two men hope that some of their goals can be achieved before the 2008 presidential election.

"The American people are losing confidence in the system, and they want electoral reform," Carter said in a statement accompanying the report. He said the changes the commission had proposed "represent the best path toward modernizing our electoral system."

***

Other recommendations:

-- In response to concern that votes cast on electronic machines might not be counted — one of the factors that surfaced in Florida — the panel recommended a system that would create a paper record of the vote, to give voters confidence "that their votes will be counted accurately."

-- Establishment of a "universal voting registration system." States, rather than local jurisdictions, would be responsible for the accuracy of voter lists. State lists should be interchangeable so that "people would need to register only once in their lifetime, and it would be easy to update their registration information when they move."

-- Implementation of a uniformly accepted photo identification system to ensure that a would-be voter is the person on a voting list. States should establish more offices, including mobile facilities, to make it easier for non-drivers to register and receive photo IDs.

-- A greater role for states in registering potential voters. In addition, states should make it easier for ex-felons who have met their sentencing and parole requirements to register to vote, with the exception of registered sex offenders.

In Wake of Katrina, GOP Senator Seeks "Mother of All Environmental Rollbacks"

The chairman of the Senate’s environment committee is drafting legislation that would allow the Environmental Protection Agency to suspend any anti-pollution regulations for 120 days to help in the recovery from Hurricane Katrina.

But a spokesman for EPA Chief Stephen Johnson told senators he "couldn't project" yet that he would need any such consideration, suggesting the anti-environmental legislation was unnecessary.

But that isn't stopping Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) from proposing what environmentalists are calling the "mother of all environmental rollbacks." The fact that it would help big Republican contributors in the energy industry is hardly coincidental.

The bill would give the EPA head the power for 120 days to waive or modify agency laws and rules if needed to respond to the hurricane. Governors would have to be consulted, but the administrator would have final say, according to the bill. The EPA has already suspended some of its clean-air requirements in the aftermath of Katrina to ease the flow of gasoline supplies.

***

Inhofe proposed the legislation after he and other senators were briefed by Johnson on Sept. 14. A day later, spokesman Bill Holbrook, responding to Inhofe's proposal, told the Associated Press “there are still a number of unknowns and (Johnson) couldn’t project what he would need considering those unknowns.”

Others were more blunt in their distaste for the proposal.

“If adopted, this waiver could undermine public health protections. We should be focusing our energy on protecting the health and safety of people impacted by this hurricane, not paving the way for environmental abuse,” said Sen. James Jeffords (I-VT).

Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) also said he would fight Inhofe’s “sweeping, unnecessary and ill-conceived” plan, and any attempt to attach it to a bill authorizing relief from Katrina.

Environmentalists also denounced the emerging proposal. “Here comes the mother of all environmental rollbacks,” Frank O’Donnell, president of the Clean Air Watch advocacy group, told the AP. “This could become a blank check for big polluters. It would also be a terrible precedent.”

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Even After FEMA Embarrassments, Bush Makes Another Questionable Political Nomination

In the days leading up to FEMA Director Michael Brown's resignation, it became clear that not only was Brown not qualified for his job, but the #2 and #3 appointees at FEMA also lacked emergency management qualifications.

How does this happen? Because the White House and its cabinet secretaries rewarded political friends, placing party before country. In past administrations, fund-raisers like Brown would have been given ambassadorships to countries with little chance of upheaval -- like New Zealand or Fiji.

So, after the limp federal response to Hurricane Katrina, which led to Brown's removal and a rare mea culpa from President Bush, wouldn't you think the Bush Administration would learn from such an obvious mistake?

Not so, apparently.

Julie Myers was nominated by Bush to head Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the agency that is charged with hunting down money launderers, sanctions busters and human traffickers and that is the sole enforcer of U.S. immigration laws. ICE, with 20,000 employees, is the second-largest investigative agency in the federal government.

Myers is a Brooklyn attorney and former chief of staff to Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, when he ran the Criminal Division at the Department of Justice. Some think she was nominated as a reward for her work with Chertoff, rather than for her qualifications.

During her confirmation hearing Sept. 15 before the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs, her resume was found lacking.

"I'm really concerned about your management experience," said Sen. George V. Voinovich (R-Ohio), a leading critic also of Bush's nomination of U.N. Ambassador John Bolton. "I think that we ought to have a meeting with Mike Chertoff ... to ask him ... why he thinks you're qualified for the job. Because based on your resume, I don't think you are."

***

The law establishing the Department of Homeland Security specifies that the head of ICE should have at least five years management experience in law enforcement. Myers just gets over that bar.

But Voinovich told United Press International after the hearing that he was concerned that -- aside from two years in Brooklyn -- she had spent little more than a year in each of those positions. "So often you really don`t get into the depth of managing until you been some place more than a couple of years," he said.

Is Bush Commander In Chief, or Minister in Chief?

From Saturday's Weekly Radio Address:

"Our citizens have responded to this tragedy with action and prayer. We ask God's comfort for the men and women who have suffered so much. We pray that the missing find safe return, and those who were lost find holy rest. And we sought the strength of the Almighty for the difficult work that lies ahead.

In the life of our nation we have seen that wondrous things are possible when we act with God's grace. From the rubble of destroyed homes we can see the beginnings of vibrant new neighborhoods. From the despair of lives torn asunder we can see the hope of rebirth. And from the depth of darkness we can see a bright dawn emerging over the Gulf Coast and the great city of New Orleans."

***

Isn't that a bit heavy handed? Even for Bush?

I admit, I'm not the most religious person. But I was raised in a conservative Jewish home, bar-mitzvahed, married in a synagogue by a rabbi, and have my son in a Jewish pre-school. So I'm not some "G-dless Liberal," either.

Still, I have always found President Bush's frequent references to G-d a little unsettling. I have since a 1999 debate, when candidate Bush -- asked to identify the political philosopher he found most inspirational -- answered "Jesus Christ."

Bush, no doubt as a reward to the religious right that helped get him elected and re-elected, has mushed together religion and politics since becoming president. Separation of church and state? As pointed out by The American Prospect: "With the help of evangelical speechwriter Michael Gerson, Bush lards his speeches with code words directed at Christian conservatives. In (the 2003) State of the Union address, Bush mentioned the "wonder-working power" of the American people, an allusion to an evangelical Christian song whose lyrics cite the "power, wonder-working power, in the blood of the Lamb" -- i.e., Jesus.

Maybe House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-TX) said it best when, calling Bush's idea for federal support of faith-based initiatives "a great opportunity to bring God back into the public institutions of the country. God has been removed from all of our public institutions."

Of course, DeLay wasn't real sound on his history, talking about "this notion of separation of church and state that has been imposed upon us over the last 40 or 50 years" -- failing to recognize that "this notion of separation of church and state" actually dates back to the formation of the United States. The Constitution doesn't mention G-d.

***

Displays of the Ten Commandments in public buildings. Religious school vouchers. Teaching "Intelligent Design" or even the Bible in public schools. Placing religious opinions above scientific fact on a host of issues, from evolution to stem cell research. These are the steps an emboldened Religious Right has undertaken nationwide -- empowered by words of support from Bush and-or other conservative politicians.

The non-profit Americans United For Separation of Church and State has devoted some of its resources to fighting efforts by the Religious Right at the local level to teach religion in schools -- and at that, I mean Christianity.

We don't live in a Christian nation, even if Bush and other conservative leaders keep dropping hints (some not so subtle -- Paul Weyrich, who coined the term "Moral Majority" in 1979, said at a speech a year later: "We are talking about Christianizing America. We are talking about simply spreading the gospel in a political context.")

I have a suggestion for those who want to teach Intelligent Design or Bible history in public schools: Can we also teach our kids Biblical archaeology? Because biblical archaeologists have been able to show -- with the same amount of scientific certainty as say, proponents of evolutionary theory -- that many of the stories of the Bible are just that ... stories.

Now that would be an interesting classroom discussion.

Friday, September 16, 2005

Bush, Like Chertoff, Tries To Spin Surprise That Levees Broke

On Tuesday, JABBS was surprised and modestly pleased that President Bush took on responsibility for the ineffective federal response to Hurricane Katrina. The president offered similar words in his nationally televised speech last night.

Yes, the line may have scripted by Karl Rove, who it was learned yesterday is "in charge of the reconstruction effort." But it was an improvement over the spin-and-deny style of the Bush Administration.

Still, the press conference on Tuesday wasn't a "no-spin zone."

President Bush, like Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff before him, tried to spin the odd reaction he gave to ABC's Diane Sawyer on Sept. 1, when he said: "I don't think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees."

Chertoff told Tim Russert he "opened newspapers (Aug. 30) and saw headlines that said 'New Orleans Dodged The Bullet.'" The statement was ridiculous -- we'd have to assume Chertoff woke up to the morning papers on Tuesday not realizing a two-block breach had occurred the night before, and had been reported as of 1:30 a.m. Aug. 30. And the statement was almost certainly a lie: Newseum has 477 archived front pages from Aug. 30 -- and none of them have anything close to "New Orleans Dodged The Bullet." The best JABBS could find were three on-line headlines, two from Aug. 29 (before the levee broke) and a factually inaccurate headline from 11:37 a.m. Central time Aug. 30.

But that didn't stop others in the administration, including Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, from repeating the lie.

And now comes President Bush, with a variation of the story on Tuesday.

Q Did [briefers] misinform you when you said no one anticipated the breach of the levees?

BUSH: No. What I was referring to is this: When that storm came by, a lot of people said we dodged a bullet. When that storm came through at first, people said, "Whew." There was a sense of relaxation. And that's what I was referring to.

And I myself thought we had dodged a bullet. You know why? Because I was listening to people probably over the airwaves say, "The bullet has been dodged." And that was what I was referring to.

***

Now, as The Daily Howler points out, "That answer is weak — but it isn’t as factually bogus as some have suggested. On the day Katrina hit, some people did say, 'over the airwaves,' that New Orleans had just dodged a bullet."

The Daily Howler then cites comments from Brian Williams of NBC's Today Show, Aaron Brown of CNN, an MSNBC meterologist, and National Public Radio.

But are we to believe that President Bush was glued to his television in Crawford, Texas, at just the right moments to view these comments? Remember, this is a man who has said he doesn't read newspapers -- instead relying on the infamous presidential daily briefings -- and who had to be provided with a DVD of newscasts so he could understand the initial critical reaction to the federal Katrina response. The image of the Bush inner circle gathered around a television or radio for primary information on Katrina doesn't ring true -- just like it didn't ring true that Chertoff relied on newspaper headlines as his source of information.

Isn't it more likely that in the 12 days that followed -- 12 days that included widespread criticism of Chertoff's ridiculous comments -- that some White House staffer did a Lexis/Nexis search to find examples of anything including the concept "New Orleans Dodged a Bullet," found a handful of television and radio comments, allowing Bush to offer a defendable excuse for his weak statement to Saywer? Certainly, the White House should have known the question would come up.

The Daily Howler had to do a Lexis/Nexis search to find the examples. Odds are, so did someone prepping the President for Tuesday's press conference.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

You Can't Make This Stuff Up ...

Check out this photo.

Nice to know President Bush took vigilant notes yesterday at the United Nations. I know I feel more secure knowing the key issues he and Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice discussed ...

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Regarding Al Qaeda Using Airplanes As Missiles: Did Rice Lie (Multiple Times), Or Was She Just The Most Out-Of-The-Loop National Security Advisor Ever

American aviation officials were warned as early as 1998 that Al Qaeda could "seek to hijack a commercial jet and slam it into a U.S. landmark," according to previously secret portions of a report prepared last year by the Sept. 11 commission and reported in today's newspapers.

A 1995 National Intelligence Estimate, a report prepared by intelligence officials, "highlighted the growing domestic threat of terrorist attack, including a risk to civil aviation," the commission found in a blacked-out portion of the report.

And in 1998 and 1999, the commission report said, the F.A.A.'s intelligence unit produced reports about the hijacking threat posed by Al Qaeda, "including the possibility that the terrorist group might try to hijack a commercial jet and slam it into a U.S. landmark."

The release of this information calls into question statements made by then-National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice, in a 2002 press briefing and in her 2004 testimony to the 9/11 Commission.

The new information matches a previously known 1999 report, written for the National Intelligence Council and shared with other federal agencies, that said: "Suicide bomber(s) belonging to al Qaeda's Martyrdom Battalion could crash-land an aircraft packed with high explosives (C-4 and semtex) into the Pentagon, the headquarters of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), or the White House."

That report noted that an al Qaeda-linked terrorist, Ramzi Yousef, first arrested in the Philippines in 1995 and later convicted in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, had suggested such a suicide jetliner mission.

So, given the newly released information, and the earlier known information, there are only two conclusions that can be drawn:

1) Condoleeza Rice lied to the press and the 9/11 Commission.
2) Condoleeza Rice is the least-information, most out-of-the-loop National Security Advisor ever.


I honestly don't know which to believe. Don't forget, Rice was scheduled to give a speech on Sept. 11 regarding U.S. security. The speech, never presented, only mentioned terrorism in passing, and did not reference Al Qaeda.

***

Here are the relevant Rice quotes from 2002 and 2004. You make the call.

Q Why shouldn't this be seen as an intelligence failure, that you were unable to predict something happening here?

RICE: Steve, I don't think anybody could have predicted that these people would take an airplane and slam it into the World Trade Center, take another one and slam it into the Pentagon; that they would try to use an airplane as a missile, a hijacked airplane as a missile. All of this reporting about hijacking was about traditional hijacking.

-- Rice Press Briefing, May 10, 2002

RICE: To the best of my knowledge, Mr. Chairman, this kind of analysis about the use of airplanes as weapons actually was never briefed to us.

I cannot tell you that there might not have been a report here or a report there that reached somebody in our midst.

...

All that I can tell you is that it was not in the August 6 memo, using planes as a weapon. And I do not remember any reports to us, a kind of strategic warning, that planes might be used as weapons. In fact, there were some reports done in '98 and '99. I was certainly not aware of them at the time that I spoke.

-- Rice testimony to 9/11 Commission, April 10, 2004

DeLay Spins That Republican Congress Is Fiscally Conservative (Stop Laughing ...) Even Some Conservatives Disagree

House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-TX) said yesterday that Republicans can claim an "ongoing victory" as fiscal conservatives.

There is no fat left to cut in the budget, he suggested.

Not surprisingly, anti-waste groups laughed, then rattled off the thousands of pieces of pork the Republican-led Congress has approved. But they weren't alone. Fiscal conservatives had the same reaction. So did the conservative Washington Times. You're probably laughing now.

How empty is DeLay's spin? Since 2000, the Republican-led Congress has added $2 trillion to the federal deficit, including $303 billion (since 2001) for nonmilitary, non-homeland security spending. You may recall that there was a budget surplus prior to 2000.

This year's expected deficit is $331 billion, not including any money supporting areas ravaged by Hurricane Katrina ($62.3 billion thus far).

But that's didn't stop DeLay from offering empty conservative spin. "(A)fter 11 years of Republican majority we've pared (the budget) down pretty good."

Republican leaders have been under pressure to find ways to pay for Katrina relief. Some Republicans wanted to offer an amendment, including cuts, to pay for hurricane spending but were denied the chance under procedural rules.

"This is hardly a well-oiled machine," Rep. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) told the Times. "There's a lot of fat to trim. ... I wonder if we've been serving in the same Congress."

American Conservative Union Chairman David A. Keene told the paper that federal spending already was "spiraling out of control" before Katrina. "Excluding military and homeland security, American taxpayers have witnessed the largest spending increase under any preceding president and Congress since the Great Depression."

Tom Schatz, president of Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW), told the Times that if Mr. DeLay wants to know where to cut, "there are plenty of places to reduce."

His group soon will release a list of $2 trillion in suggested spending cuts over the next five years, and he said Congress also could cut the estimated $20 billion to $25 billion in pet projects that make their way into must-pass spending bills each year.

CAGW and the conservative Heritage Foundation also suggest rescinding the 6,000-plus earmarked projects in the recently passed highway bill. That was also suggested last week by Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Tom Coburn (R-OK).

Senate Backs Bush (obo Utility Industry), Failing To Overturn Mercury Emissions Rules

The Senate, by a 51-47 margin, defeated a challenge to the Bush administration's strategy on mercury pollution, leaving intact Environmental Protection Agency rules established in March that give power plants flexibility in how they reduce emissions of the dangerous toxin.

Supporters of the repeal argued the strategy was too slow and too weak in dealing with a pollutant that can cause serious neurological damage to newborn and young children. Environmentalists said they would continue to fight the rule via the courts. The EPA has been sued by 15 states and various environmental groups in an effort to reverse the strategy.

The bill, introduced by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), was co-sponsored by 29 Democrats, Independent James Jeffords of Vermont, and Republicans Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine. Had the Democrats voted en masse, the bill would have passed. In the final vote, 37 Democrats, nine Republicans and Jeffords voted in favor. Voting against: 46 Republicans and five Democrats. Sens. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) did not vote.

But, even if the Senate had come through, the White House insisted that President Bush would veto any legislation that overturned the EPA rules.

''In reality this is a political exercise in futility,'' Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman James Inhofe (R-OK) told the Associated Press. ''Who in this chamber would truly believe that the president would sign legislation to repeal his own administration's rule?''

And with that defeatist attitude, Inhofe voted against the legislation.

***

The administration rules, backed by the utility industry, set a cap on mercury emissions. But individual plants, through a cap-and-trade system, can avoid cleanups by buying pollution credits from plants that are under allowable levels.

The rules reversed an EPA position established in 2000 that list electric power plants as a source of toxic mercury and other pollutants subject to the air-toxics provisions of the Clean Air Act. According to those provisions, electric power plants are required to install pollution control equipment that would result in the maximum achievable reduction in toxic mercury and other toxic emissions.

The Bush Administration, following its "industry-over-individual" (aka "pro-business") approach playbook, created the rules following heavy lobbying from utility concerns.

"The rule wasn't even written by the EPA -- it was written on K Street," Jeffords said last year, referring to the Washington street lined with lobbyist offices. "The Bush Administration has lost sight of its obligation to protect public health and safeguard the natural environment."

In public sessions last year New York State environmental chief Peter Lehner said the proposed rules are "far too lax" and take effect too late to protect public health. Lehner also said the rules were "fundamentally flawed" for ignoring the fact that coal-fired plants are the nation's largest producers of CO2. The Bush administration and the power industry's lobbying organizations have opposed mandates to cut CO2 emissions.

"The proposed emission standards do not appear to be based on sound science or technology -- but rather on politics -- a vehicle to enable the administration to claim that it is reducing emissions without requiring the power companies to depart from 'business as usual,'" said Lehner.

***

Mercury is a potent neurotoxin that causes mental retardation, developmental deficiencies and motor impairment in children. One-in-six women of childbearing age have enough mercury in their bodies to damage the children they may conceive. Mercury has also been found to cause in increase in the rate of heart attacks in adult men.

Mercury enters the food chain when smokestack mercury is deposited in rivers, streams and coastal waters, and accumulates in the seafood we eat.

***

What now?

Environmentalists are hoping for a victory via the courts.

“Once again, the courts will be the last line of defense against an illegal rule that would leave many thousands of Americans unprotected against toxic pollution,” said Jim Cox, Legislative Counsel for environmental group Earthjustice.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Bush on Katrina: "I Take Responsibility"

President Bush said at a press conference this afternoon that "I take responsibility" for failures in dealing with Hurricane Katrina and said the disaster raised broader questions about the government's ability to respond to natural disasters as well as terror attacks.

"Katrina exposed serious problems in our response capability at all levels of government," Bush said at joint White House news conference with the president of Iraq. "To the extent the federal government didn't fully do its job right, I take responsibility."

If your jaw just dropped or you fell off your chair, be advised: you read correctly. If you are a conservative who has spent the last two weeks vigilantly trying to convince others that only Democrats -- New Orleans Mayor Nagin and Louisiana Governor Blanco -- were to blame, be advised: what Bush said today doesn't match your spin.

In all honesty, my respect level for Bush just rose a notch. The entire purpose of this blog is to react to the constant drumbeat of empty spin and propaganda from the Bush Administration and its far-flung cadre of political and pundit supporters.

Today's admission by Bush may have been scripted by Karl Rove, and it may have been made simply to stop the freefall Bush's popularity has taken since Katrina hit. But even it serves a political purpose, Bush's statement today is far better than patronizing the press and the American people, by suggesting that questioning -- let alone criticizing -- the administration is playing some unfair "blame game."

***

The president was asked whether people should be worried about the government's ability to handle another terrorist attack given failures in responding to Katrina.

"Are we capable of dealing with a severe attack? That's a very important question and it's in the national interest that we find out what went on so we can better respond," Bush replied.

He said he wanted to know both what went wrong and what went right.

As for blunders in the federal response, "I'm not going to defend the process going in," Bush said. "I am going to defend the people saving lives."

He praised relief workers at all levels. "I want people in America to understand how hard people worked to save lives down there," he said.

On this, JABBS and the president agree.

***

Americans are a forgiving people. Some conservatives portray Bush Administration critics -- this blog included -- as "Bush haters," or worse, "America haters." The suggestion that criticizing the president is un-American is ridiculous; dissent is an important component of free speech, and without dissent, we cannot claim to live in a free country.

Democrats and liberals aren't rooting for Bush to fail -- certainly not when people's lives are at stake, either along the Gulf Coast or in Iraq or Afghanistan.

No one expects Bush to offer mea culpas on every administration failure or disappointment. But a bit of honesty can go a long way in opening a dialogue with administration critics, in Congress and in the dreaded (among conservatives) media.

You Can't Make This Stuff Up ...

In the first days of the Hurricane Katrina crisis, White House staff became worried that President Bush was out of touch with of the dire reality of the situation.

Newsweek reports: "Some White House staffers were watching the evening news and thought the president needed to see the horrific reports coming out of New Orleans. Counselor [Dan] Bartlett made up a DVD of the newscasts so Bush could see them in their entirety as he flew down to the Gulf Coast the next morning on Air Force One."

Bartlett's plan seemed to work -- the next morning, Bush made his first critical remarks about the disaster relief efforts.

Unfortunately, after two and a half years, no one seems to have made President Bush a similar DVD about Iraq. Just before his focus turned to Katrina, Bush was likening the war in Iraq to World War II and claiming again that U.S. forces are making "progress."

Another reality check is needed.

-- Center for American Progress, Sept. 13

What's Next For Michael Brown?

What's next for Michael Brown?

The embattled FEMA director quit yesterday, just three days after being relieved of duty heading the federal response to Hurricane Katrina. In one of the great understatements of the year, Brown admitted his resignation was "in the best interest of the agency and best interest of the president."

President George W. Bush initially ducked questions about Brown's resignation yesterday on his third and most extensive tour of the Gulf. "Maybe you know something I don't know. I've been working," Bush told reporters in Gulfport, Miss.

In truth, Bush knew about the resignation, and had already selected a successor -- but he didn't want to pre-empt an official announcement.

This time, Bush actually selected someone with emergency management experience, tapping David Paulison, a 30-year firefighting veteran who heads the U.S. Fire Administration. Huzzah!

***

So what's next for Brown?

What can he do now? Who knows. It was learned recently that Brown padded his resume.

So it's unlikely that Brown will go back to overseeing the emergency services divisions of Edmond, Okla., because, as TIME magazine reported, Brown never held a position of authority for the city. He was an assistant to the city manager, though -- a position that local officials say was little more than an intern.

But what about going back to being a political science professor at Central State University, in Ohio? Nope. Charles Johnson, a member of the university's public relations office, said Brown "wasn't a professor here, he was only a student here."

Ok. But certainly Brown could return to his position as a director of the Oklahoma Christian Home, in Edmond, right? The nursing home doesn't have a board of directors anymore and when it did, no one remembers Brown being on it. According to a veteran employee Brown "was never director here, was never on the board of directors, was never executive director. He was never here in any capacity. I never heard his name mentioned here."

Yikes, where did Bush find this guy?

***

In all seriousness, Brown, a member of the Oklahoma State Bar, could ultimately be disbarred for violating state rules of professional conduct. Oklahoma state law specifies that "any lawyer violating these rules is subject to discipline including "disbarment, suspension of a respondent from the practice of law for a definite term."

***

So what's next for Brown? Even if he is disbarred, history would suggest that Brown will have a soft landing, within the loving arms of the administration's conservative friends.

That may mean making the rounds as a public speaker. Heck, even Jeff Gannon is reportedly making money as a public speaker, in between invitations to conservative-friendly events. Or perhaps a comfy job at a corporate friend of the administration, like Philip Cooney. Cooney, chief of staff of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, stepped down on June 10 after being involved in a damaging controversy over his deleting of dire climate change warnings from U.S. government reports. He wound up at ExxonMobil.

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