As we enter Year 4 in Iraq, it's getting tougher to track the extent of waste, fraud and war profiteering perpetrated every day. This is the first in a series of entries on The Notion that will attempt to do just that--by featuring revelations made by the media, whistleblowers, the inspector general, and other activists as they emerge. To read my previous posts on the need for an Independent War Profiteering Commission, click here and here.
Entry 1: Root's Dirty Water
Dick Cheney's favorite Halliburton subsidiary, Kellogg Brown & Root, is back in the news, and its already infamous reputation is sinking to even lower, Enron-like depths. An internal company memo recently obtained by the Associated Press reveals that it provided American soldiers in Iraq with tainted water from the Euphrates.
Larry Margasak of the Associated Press reports that Halliburton water expert, Wil Granger, wrote that KBR's failure to use water purification equipment "...should be considered a 'near miss' as the consequences of these actions could have been very severe resulting in mass sickness or death." Granger further cited that throughout Iraq "there is no formalized training for anyone at any level in concerns to water operations," and inadequate or absent records on water quality audits.
KBR's water expert at the base, Ben Carter, initially discovered the contaminated water at Camp Ar Ramandi. Carter said he resigned when his supervisors told him to stop e-mailing company officials off-base and that he was not to inform the military. It was only through the threat of litigation that the event was reported to senior management and Granger investigated.
But last Thursday--on the same day that the Pentagon announced that its internal watchdog will investigate the matter--Halliburton released a second report attempting to cast doubt on Granger's assertions. The new Halliburton report offered such stellar alternative explanations as larvae found in a commode could have actually been an "optical illusion caused by a leak in the toilet fixture."
Indeed. The same optical illusion that caused Harry Whittington to look like a pheasant.
Good to see that the Pentagon is investigating, but how much faith can the American people have in its ability to reach an independent conclusion? Or even if it does, that Halliburton's patron saint won't intervene on the company's behalf? Another case underlining the need for an independent, bipartisan commission on war profiteering if we are to ever learn the truth about any of this waste, fraud and corruption.
Trumpets blared on the loudspeaker. Dozens of members of Congress gathered on a makeshift stage, draped by giant American flags, cops, firefighters and veterans in uniform, and a huge banner reading "Real Security." In advance of the midterm elections, the Democrats were determined to appear both "smart and tough," a phrase used by Indiana Senator Evan Bayh that has become common parlance for the party.
Their national security agenda, released today after months of bickering, pledged to modernize the military, kill Osama bin Laden, kick our oil addition and immediately implement the 9/11 Commission's recommendations for homeland security. But on the issue of Iraq--the most pressing security concern for most Americans--the Democrats remained deliberately vague. Their alternative states:
Ensure 2006 is a year of significant transition to full Iraqi sovereignty, with the Iraqis assuming primary responsibility for securing and governing their country and with the responsible redeployment of U.S. forces.
What that means no one quite knows. As blogger Atrios writes, "If 2006 fails to be 'a year of significant transition' what will Democrats be saying then?"
Mostly, Democratic leaders stuck to poll-tested sound-bites. Namely, one theme: the Bush Administration's incompetence.
Senator Minority Leader Harry Reid: "Dangerous incompetence."General Wesley Clark: "Incompetent leadership."Madeleine Albright: "Rank incompetence."
All the talk of incompetence made me think of an American Prospect article from October entitled "The Incompetence Dodge." Sam Rosenfeld and Matt Yglesias wrote:
The incompetence critique is, in short, a dodge -- a way for liberal hawks to acknowledge the obviously grim reality of the war without rethinking any of the premises that led them to support it in the first place.
Exactly right. If before pro-war Democrats used the incompetence argument to dodge how and why we entered Iraq, today they're using the same language to circumvent any real discussion of how we get out.
In the February 27 issue of The New Yorker, Jane Mayer reported on the efforts of Alberto Mora, outgoing general counsel for the US Navy, to stop the Pentagon from authorizing the use of cruel and unusual punishment beginning three years ago.
In the article, Mora describes with chilling detail a meeting with top administration and military officials to discuss whether to "[make] it official Pentagon policy to treat detainees in accordance with Common Article Three of the Geneva conventions, which bars cruel, inhumane, and degrading treatment, as well as outrages against human dignity."
Mora noted the giant pink elephant in the room, saying, "… it's a statute. It exists--we're not free to disregard it. We're bound by it. It's been adopted by the Congress. And we're not the only interpreters of it. Other nations could have US officials arrested."
Nevertheless, this proposal to officially adhere to the Geneva Convention was rejected.
On March 2, Ray McGovern, 27-year veteran of the CIA, joined 15 other activists to walk the halls of Congress. They wore orange jumpsuits similar to those of detainees at Guantanamo, with gags over their mouths that displayed the single word "torture."
McGovern also returned his Intelligence Commendation Award for "especially commendable service," delivering it along with a letter to Rep. Pete Hoekstra, Chair of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.
In the letter, McGovern states simply, "I do not wish to be associated, however remotely, with an agency engaged in torture."
On March 4, truthout.org posted a letter to President Bush from Joseph W. DuRocher, former officer and helicopter pilot in the US Navy. Enclosed with the letter was DuRocher's Naval Aviator wings.
In the letter, DuRocher, a lawyer, explains, "Until your administration, I thought it was impossible for our nation to take hundreds of persons into custody without provable charges…and to ‘disappear' them into holes like Gitmo, Abu Ghraib and Bagram….in my wildest legal fantasy I could not imagine a US Attorney General seeking to justify torture or a President first stating his intent to veto an anti-torture law, and then adding a ‘signing statement' that he intends to ignore such law as he sees fit. I do not want these things done in my name."
Finally, two weeks ago, The Telegraph UK reported that Ben Griffin, an elite SAS soldier with eight years of distinguished service in the counter-terrorist unit, has refused to continue fighting in Iraq due to "illegal tactics of United States troops and the policies of coalition forces."
Griffin's mission was to work with the American Delta Force in targeting Al Qaeda cells and insurgents. He had served previously in Afghanistan but described his 3-month tour in Baghdad this way: "The Americans had this catch-all approach to lifting suspects.…[They] were doing things like chucking farmers into Abu Ghraib or handing them over to the Iraqi authorities, knowing full well they were going to be tortured…You cannot invade a country pretending to promote democracy and behave like that."
These four men have demonstrated great bravery and personal sacrifice in responding to the perpetration of torture. If we are to end this affront to our basic standards on human rights, we will all need to follow their lead in speaking out powerfully right now. The simple and hard truth is this: we are committing torture, and we are doing so with the approval of the very highest levels of our government.
There was a moment, after Abramoff's guilty plea in January, when real reform seemed possible. Everything was on the table, anxious leaders of both parties declared. Everyone wanted to be a reformer. No more.
New Majority Leader John Boehner has nixed the efforts of Dennis Hastert and David Dreier in the House. The Democratic plan stands no chance of passing a Republican Congress. And the Senate has failed to adopt or even consider any of the reforms that would actually make a difference: publicly financed elections, an independent ethics enforcement agency with teeth, a ban on lobbyist fundraising.
"Reform legislation is now crippled," Public Citizen declared yesterday.
The opportunities for overhaul do not appear often. The last time Congress took up lobbying was 1995. Since then the profession has exploded, its influence at an all-time high. See "Billions for Big Oil."
The American people want a dramatic cleanup, as I wrote a few months back:
Ninety percent of respondents in a recent Washington Post/ABC News poll say it should be illegal for lobbyists to give members of Congress gifts, trips or other things of value. More than two-thirds of the public don't want lobbyists giving campaign contributions to Congressmen or Congressional candidates. A majority believe lobbyists shouldn't organize fundraisers on a candidate's behalf.
Tough luck. Banning gifts and meals is enough for most Senators. Refuse a hamburger and call it a day. Abramoff is all but forgotten in Washington--that is, until another indictment hits the front page.
UPDATE: The legislation passed this afternoon 90-8. I'm assuming Sens. McCain, Graham, Obama, Feingold and Kerry voted against the bill because it was too weak. Sens. Coburn, Inhofe and DeMint presumably voted nay because they oppose the entire concept of lobbying reform.
Looks like the $2.3 billion standardized testing industry forgot to devise a much needed self-examination.
Two weeks ago, after two students paid fees to have their SATs rescored by hand, it was discovered that 4,000 students had received scores that were incorrectly low. A week later, the College Board announced that another batch of 1,600 exams had to be rescanned.The Washington Post now reports that another 27,000 exams still need to be rechecked.
Also two weeks ago, CTB/McGraw-Hill acknowledged that questions from sample tests were mistakenly placed on the actual exam used by the NCLB regime to assess schools and students for 400,000 7th & 8th graders in New York.
And the banner month for the industry ended with the Educational Testing Service reaching an $11 million settlement with 27,000 people who were wrongly scored on their teacher certification exams, including 4,100 who were failed incorrectly.
As Robert Schaeffer, Public Education Director of the National Center for Fair & Open Testing (FairTest) puts it: "If you're waiting for the other shoe to drop – this is more like a centipede."
The testing establishment has predictably responded with calls for more oversight, as reported by Karen Arenson in the New York Times.
"We need accountability," said George Madaus of the Center for the Study of Testing, Evaluation and Educational Policy.
"It's pretty clear, I guess, that the quality control issues need to be looked at again," said College Board advisory committee member, Dr. Robert Linn.
"We need accuracy and security and all these things," added New York State senator Kenneth LaValle.
But are we even asking the right questions about standardized testing? For starters, consider how dramatically standardized testing has been transformed of late.
Diane Ravitch writes in The Chronicle of Higher Education that until recently high school teachers and college professors wrote, graded, and periodically revised the tests. Now state and federal governments under bureaucratic pressures set and change the standards regularly rather than professional educators.
Ken Himmelman, Dean of Admissions at Bennington College, also notes a contemporary economic bias: "The college board was designed to level the playing field in 1900. But the more important the test has become, the more wealthier students and schools pay to prepare for it…so now it just reinforces the economic divide."
Schaeffer concurs with this assessment, noting that some families pay as much as $20,000 for individual testing coaches.
Educators describe the pressures surrounding the tests as "hysteria," "a frenzy," and "a vicious circle." Parents want their kids to attend schools that rank highly in magazines like the U.S. News and World Report. The magazines use test scores to determine the rankings. And schools want higher scores in order to attain a higher ranking.
Colman McCarthy reports on a similar phenomena in the lower grades fostered by the NCLB regime. "Most everyone is fearful of someone in power right above," McCarthy writes in the Washington Post. "Students worry about teachers, teachers worry about principals, principals worry about school boards, school boards worry about politicians, and politicians worry about the voters…a deviator must ask: Will I be whacked by that power-wielder just above me? Caution reigns."
"No Child Left Behind is a classic example of testing abuse," Schaeffer says. "These standardized tests are used to rate schools, fire people, transfer kids to other schools. The Joint Standards for Education and Psychological Measurements say no test should ever be used as the sole factor to make educational decisions but politicians and institutions are doing just that."
And with this omnipresence of fear the impact on learning is clear. McCarthy offers, "Tests represent fear-based learning….Desire-based learning happens when teachers deal in combustibles, when fires are lit and students burn to explore ideas that have nothing to do with what testocrats require."
Himmelman recognizes a similar loss, "Who is thinking about the student in this debate? Nobody. They're thinking about the business of higher education. That's the tragedy here. We need to be asking, ‘How do we teach people? How do we encourage thinking and learning?' And we're not doing that enough."
Bennington has decided to abandon the test score requirement beginning next year. "We want interesting kids who are engaged in what they are learning," Himmelman said.
There is reason to hope that Bennington is part of a growing trend. FairTest reports that in 1987, 51 schools did not require applicants to submit SAT scores. Now over 730 schools are test score-optional. These colleges emphasize factors such as high school academic record, essays, recommendations, personal interviews and student interests instead of standardized testing. Schaeffer anticipates that an additional 6 to 10 schools will soon announce that they are going this route as well.
"This is a wake-up call that we put far too much faith in these fallible tests," Schaeffer says. "They were never designed to make high-stake education decisions. The tests can never be fair, accurate, and precise enough to be used in that manner."
Maybe it's time more schools leave the $2.3 billion testing industry behind and move on from its fear-based, profit-driven, mind-closing culture.
After Karen Hughes stepped down as a counselor to the president in 2002, White House chief of staff Andy Card, in a rare moment of candor, told Esquire: "She's leaving when the president has one of the highest approval ratings on record. From here, it can only go down. And when it does, you know who they're going to blame."
Then, Card tapped his chest and added, "They're gonna blame Andy Card!"
As it happens, Card was wrong.
No one blamed him. Few even remembered that he was, technically, in charge of managing the Bush White House.
Card will forever be remembered for one thing: Wandering into camera range and then whispering into the ear of President Bush that terrorists had attacked the United States -- and for not, apparently, imparting the information with sufficient force to get the most powerful man in the world to respond with anything more than a quizzical look for the seven agonizing minutes portrayed in Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9-11.
As Bill Maher has suggested: "Watergate was outrageous but it still did not carry the possibility of utter devastation, like a President's freezing at the very moment we needed his immediate focus on an attack on the United States."
Well, Card was the senior aide, who had been placed at the president's side by none other than Father-in-Chief George Herbert Walker Bush, in order to make sure that George II did not freeze at moments such as this. And he failed, miserably. Not only did Bush fail to respond to the whispered news that "America's under attack" for the seven minutes seen on screen, he then spent another twenty minutes posing for "photo-op" pictures afterward.
Bush has taken his share of criticism for fumbling the moment, and then for flying off around the country on a wild goose chase that took him to air bases further and further from where Dick Cheney was actually running things. But Card, as the man the Bush family had positioned to assure that the president didn't fall apart in just these circumstances, was the real fumbler. He did not get the president refocused, he did not rise to the challenge.
As a result, the president was not the president that day. Nora Ephron summed things up well when she wrote last year that, "[If] you remember September 11, 2001 -- and I'm sure you do -- the President had no idea what to do, but the Vice President did. The Vice President took over. He didn't even consult with the President. He put the President on Air Force One and the President spent the day flying from one airport to another, which was something that even the President eventually understood made him look as if he wasn't in charge."
"Cheney was the dominant figure on September 11," observed James Mann, the brilliant analyst of U.S. foreign policy and policy makers who serves as senior writer-in-residence at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Even wire service reports noted that dominance, with United Press International suggesting that it "reintroduced nagging questions about who was realy in charge in the Bush White House." Those questions grew louder after Cheney delivered a minute-by-minute account of the actions he took to secure the nation during an appearance the Sunday after the attacks on NBC's Meet the Press.
Presidential historian Douglas Brinkley summed up the point of that appearance in an interview with UPI: "It was Cheney telling the world, 'Don't worry about Shrub, I know what's going on.' "
The question that history will ask with regard to Card -- the only question -- is this: As the senior aide at Bush's side on the most significant day in recent American history, did he fail to get the president to focus on the crisis at hand? Or did he do what he was supposed to do: Get a weak and unprepared president out of the way so that the real boss could take charge?
That's a question for historians to ponder.
In the end, however, no one will spend too much time on Andy Card's role. He won't be blamed, as he once feared, for the decline in Bush's fortunes. His will be, by and large, the forgotten service of a man who managed a White House where powerful players -- Cheney, Donald Rumseld, Karl Rove -- constructed a presidency of their own design, while the elected commander-in-chief vacationed and exercised and generally ambled through history.
The truth is that Andy Card may well have failed not just his president but his country by allowing power and responsibility to drift so far from the hands of the elected president. But such failures are the stuff of footnotes and sidebars, not of the main storyline. Indeed, if Card is remembered at all by the great mass of Americans, it will be for that bit role in a Michael Moore film.
The White House doesn't seem to understand the meaning of the term "fresh blood." It usually refers to new blood that is introduced into an anemic entity--not blood taken from one organ of an unhealthy body and placed in another organ of that unhealthy body.
But that's what the surgeons at the White House have done in the transplant operation that removed Andrew Card (a former lobbyist for the automobile industry) as White House chief of staff and replaced him with Joshua Bolten, the White House budget director. George W. Bush did not select someone who might have a slightly different perspective on his administration. Bolten has been in the White House since Bush was first inaugurated. Moreover, he has overseen one of the larger disasters of the Bush presidency: its fiscal policy. Here's how those radicals at The Washington Post editorial board recently described the situation:
President Bush has presided over a 46 percent increase in the federal debt, from about $5.6 trillion [to about $8.8 trillion]. By contrast, during President Bill Clinton's two terms, the debt grew from less than $4 trillion to $5.6 trillion, a 28 percent increase -- and during the last few years of his presidency, Mr. Clinton actually began to pay down the country's "real" debt....
Mr. Bush has managed to rack up more new debt during his five years in office than the entire debt amassed by the United States through 1988. And there is more to come: The president's budget envisions the debt rising to $11.5 trillion by 2011. This means that an increasing share of an increasingly tight budget must be devoted simply to paying interest -- an estimated $220 billion this fiscal year alone. Remember: This is the president who entered office promising to pay off $2 trillion in debt held by the public over the next decade.....
[A]s the debt ceiling approaches $9 trillion, it's time to pause and consider the unabashed recklessness of the Bush administration's fiscal policies and its unwillingness to alter its tax-cutting course to accommodate new budgetary realities. "Future generations shouldn't be forced to pay back money that we have borrowed," Mr. Bush said in March 2001. "We owe this kind of responsibility to our children and grandchildren." Where is that responsibility now?
Of course, Bush is most responsible for that lack of responsibility. But sharing the responsibility for being that irresponsible is Bolten. And his office has done its best to hide the true impact of Bush's budget decisions. So says the Center on Budget Policy and Priorities in its analysis of the White House's last proposed budget:
A standard part of the President's budget each year is a summary table that shows the impact of the Administration's proposed policies on the deficit. (See Table S-12 on page 364 of last year's budget.) This year, however, the Administration has eliminated that table from its budget publications, presumably to deflect attention from the deficit-increasing impact of its proposals.
Not just the liberals at CBPP believe Bolten's Office of Management and Budget at the White House has been dishonest. The centrist budget hawks of Concord Coalition have also complained:
Bush's budget fails to account for policies the Administration clearly and repeatedly has staked out as goals policies that would significantly increase the short-term and long-term deficit. In addition, the budget resorts to a familiar combination of unrealistic assumptions and scorekeeping gimmicks that understate likely expenses, overstate likely revenues and hide the costs of certain initiatives. Lastly, the budget's five-year window and limited goal of cutting the 2004 deficit in half by 2009 serve to divert attention from the fact that current policy is unsustainable over the long-term.
For weeks, Republicans and pundits have been moaning about the need for change at the White House. On Monday, Sally Quinn, the grand-dame of Georgetown, had an "essay" in The Washington Post that was an open letter to Laura Bush, calling on her to save her husband's presidency by forcing a shake-up at the White House. (The First Lady knows staff changes: she is on her second chief of staff, her second policy director, her second social director, and her third press secretary.) Quinn even mentioned bouncing Card--but in favor of some Washington poohbah with credibility on Capitol Hill and among the commentariat.
That's not Bolten. He is merely another Bush loyalist, whose stewardship of the administration's budget policy hardly inspires confidence in his integrity. Couldn't the White House get a better donor for the needed transfusion? I suppose David Gergen wasn't available. Fred Thompson is too busy making television shows and raising money for Scooter Libby's defense fund. And James Baker? Well, Bush the Younger may still be smarting over his dad's secretary of state's opposition to the invasion of Iraq.
Anyway, the problem at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is not who's managing the staff. The problem is the combination of policies, priorities and visions of the fellow who lives there. The mess in Iraq cannot be undone by better staff work. Nearly $12 trillion in debt cannot be erased by a more effective communications strategy. Bush cannot be removed from the bubble of his own policies--and certainly not by a Bush lieutenant. This staff change is not about new blood. It's just the recycling of thin blood already low on oxygen. And the patient remains the same.
So much for "straight talk." If you needed any more proof that the maverick John McCain will run as the ultimate insider come 2008, scroll down.
McCain, February 28, 2000, Virginia Beach, Virginia:
I am a pro-life, pro-family fiscal conservative, an advocate of a strong defense, and yet Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell and a few Washington leaders of the pro-life movement call me an unacceptable presidential candidate. They distort my pro- life positions and smear the reputations of my supporters.
Why? Because I don't pander to them, because I don't ascribe to their failed philosophy that money is our message.
Neither party should be defined by pandering to the outer reaches of American politics and the agents of intolerance, whether they be Louis Farrakhan or Al Sharpton on the left, or Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell on the right.
Press release from Jerry Falwell's Liberty University, March 28, 2006:
American military hero and Arizona Sen. John McCain will deliver the Commencement message at Liberty University on May 13, at 9:30 a.m., in the Liberty University Vines Center.
While Sen. McCain and Liberty University Chancellor Jerry Falwell have had their share of political differences through the years, the two men share a common respect for each other and have become good friends in their efforts to preserve what they see as common values. This will mark his first ever appearance at Liberty University.
More from the Lynchburg, Virginia News & Advance:
Falwell said McCain's appearance at LU's graduation is another sign that McCain is wooing evangelical Christians.
"He is in the process of healing the breech with evangelical groups," Falwell said.
Falwell said McCain has expressed a willingness to support a Federal Marriage Amendment, an issue dear to conservative Christians.
Our cover story on McCain back in November showed him juggling images of Teddy Roosevelt and Falwell. The "agent of intolerance" has become his new best friend.
As immigrant protests continued to ripple through the country on Monday--22,000 students walking out of classes just in LA County--the Republican-dominated Senate Judiciary Committee voted to approve sweeping and liberalized comprehensive immigration reform.
With three GOP Senators voting with Democrats, the key Senate panel approved the broad outlines of what's become known as the McCain-Kennedy bill.
The measure still faces a fierce and uphill battle on the Senate floor, with full debate scheduled for Tuesday. And approval of the measure pits the Senate directly against a starkly anti-immigrant House.
Monday's vote, nevertheless, registers as a historic victory for reform advocates who have been fighting against the hypocrisy and denial that have marked border and immigration policy for decades.
Read the whole story here.
You would think that V for Vendetta, a movie jam-packed with post-9/11 themes, deserved a serious response. Instead, some of the most prominent media outlets have chosen to insult anyone who might believe the film worthy of debate.
The New York Times' review opened with the line: "Thumb-suckers of the world unite." It concluded by wondering how anyone over the age of fourteen could find the movie subversive. David Denby in the New Yorker speculated that the movie would mainly appeal to "aging kids."
This infantilizing line of attack is sadly nothing new.
Those of us who objected to the results of the 2000 presidential election were told to, quote, "get over it." Those of us who were outraged by the outing of Valerie Plame were condescendingly told that this was "how the game is played." Those of us who question the continued occupation of Iraq are accused of being quitters or "cut-and-runners."
It never ceases to amaze me how desperate many members of the media are to appear cool, to show they "get it"--their eye-rolling cynicism masquerading as maturity. Government surveillance, torture, fear-mongering, media manipulation, corporate corruption--this is how the world works, they shrug.
Well, they may be comfortable in such a world. But for those of us who are not, V for Vendetta is a movie to savor.