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Broken Bridges, Lost Levees and a Brutal Culture of Neglect

As rescue workers continued to pull bodies out of the stretch of the Mississippi River that runs beneath the collapsed I-35W bridge in Minneapolis Thursday, U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters released a $5 million grant to help with cleanup and recovery at the site of the disaster.

That will barely be enough to cover the expense of extracting the bodies of the drowned and dismembered commuters who were hurtled into the river when the interstate highway bridge they were traveling on buckled and then fell into the river. And it will not begin to pay for the rebuilding of a vital transportation link in one of America's most populous cities -- an initiative that will cost in the hundreds of millions.

To get the money that is needed to repair the damage, limits on federal aid for infrastructure will have to be lifted.

This will happen now not because the money is needed but because dozens of Minnesotans have been killed and injured.

If the federal limits were not applied with an eye toward denying needed infrastructure funding to states, if the federal government accepted its responsibility to maintain the bridges, roads, levees and sewers of the United States, the death and destruction that comes from neglect might well have been avoided.

The I-35W bridge had repeatedly been identified as suffering from "fatigue cracks." Inspectors had labeled it "structurally deficient."

Yet, as Minneapolis Star-Tribune columnist Nick Coleman noted on the morning after the collapse, "The death bridge was 'structurally deficient,' we now learn, and had a rating of just 50 percent, the threshold for replacement. But no one appears to have erred on the side of public safety. The errors were all the other way."

That's not a unique circumstance. That is the daily reality of America's rapidly aging and decaying infrastructure. Just a few weeks ago in New York City, an underground steam pipe exploded, killing one person and injuring dozens

Natural disasters do occur. Storms, heat, aging steel and concrete can all contribute to horrific turns of events like the Minneapolis bridge collapse, the pipe explosion in New York, or the nightmare that occurred in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina hitting the Gulf Coast.

But there is simply no question that the steady neglect of the crying need for repair and improvement of bridges, levees and other vital pieces of the nation's infrastructure, and the resolute stinginess of a federal government that is much better at finding money to repair the Middle East than the middle west, makes disasters more likely to occur and more extreme in their consequences.

Minnesota Senator Amy Klobucher is right when she says, "Bridges in America should not be falling down."

They will continue to fall, however, just as aging levies will continue to crumble, until the federal government gets serious about investing in the updating, improvement and replacement of decaying infrastructure. The point here is not to absolve state officials, who in Minnesota -- as in Louisiana two years ago -- could and should have done more. But an "interstate highway system" is, by its nature and by the intents of the founders of the American experiment and their wisest successors, a federal priority.

Major infrastructure challenges, such as maintaining bridges over our mightiest rivers and modernizing levies, ought never be the sole or even the major responsibility of cash-strapped state and local governments. That is a recipe for disaster -- deadly, injurious and damaging disaster of a sort that plays out not just in "headline" events like a bridge collapse but in hundreds of below-the-radar infrastructure failures each year.

The American Society of Civil Engineers argues that, "With each passing day, aging and overburdened infrastructure threatens the economy and quality of life in every state, city and town in the nation." Conditions have grown so bad that the ASCE estimates it would cost $1.6 trillion over a five-year period just to bring the nation's infrastructure up to "good" condition. "Establishing a long-term development and maintenance plan must become a national priority," says the group.

That $1.6 trillion figure sounds like a lot of money, unless it is compared with the anticipated cost of $1 trillion or more for completing George Bush's mission in Iraq.

Make no mistake, the money to renew our collapsing infrastructure can be found.

But it will not be spent appropriately until top officials in Washington, led by the president, recognize that maintaining the infrastructure of the United States is as important, and as worthy of investment, as fighting wars in places like Iraq.

There are many costs that come when our leaders divert $2 billion every ten days to occupy a distant land. The first of these is human. Wars cost lives in a war zone, but they also dry up the funding that could save lives on the home front. By drawing resources away from vital social and economic development projects at home -- and maintaining a safe and functional infrastructure is essential to progress on both fronts -- an obsessive focus on warmaking abroad leaves a trail of death, destruction and decay in the U.S.

Writing of federal "negligence" when it comes to infrastructure repair, the Star-Tribune's Coleman observed, "A trillion spent in Iraq, while schools crumble, there aren't enough cops on the street and bridges decay while our leaders cross their fingers and ignore the rising chances of disaster.

"And now, one has fallen, to our great sorrow, and people died losing a gamble they didn't even know they had taken. They believed someone was guarding the bridge.

"We need a new slogan and we needed it yesterday:

"No More Collapses."

Amen to that.

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John Nichols' new book is THE GENIUS OF IMPEACHMENT: The Founders' Cure forRoyalism. Rolling Stone's Tim Dickinson hails it as a "nervy, acerbic, passionately argued history-cum-polemic [that] combines a rich examination of the parliamentary roots and past use ofthe 'heroic medicine' that is impeachment with a call for Democraticleaders to 'reclaim and reuse the most vital tool handed to us by thefounders for the defense of our most basic liberties.'"

Saying No To Bush & Saudis

At least one high-profile presidential candidate has come out against the Bush Administration's proposed $20 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia.

"Congress needs to stand firm against the president," John Edwards said in a press release this week. "The administration's proposed arms deal with Saudi Arabia isn't in the long-term interests of our country or the region. This deal has serious shortcomings--it doesn't force Saudi Arabia to stop terrorists from going into Iraq, make a real effort to help stabilize Iraq, lead regional security talks or assure the arms will not be used for offensive purposes. Congress should do the right thing and block the deal."

A group of Democrats in the House are preparing to introduce legislation to block the deal "the minute Congress is officially notified," according to Reps. Jerry Nadler and Anthony Weiner. Democrats picked up their first GOP co-sponsor when New Jersey Republican Mike Ferguson announced his opposition to the deal on Tuesday.

"I am deeply disappointed with the Bush Administration's decision to begin negotiations with Saudi Arabia on a $20 billion arms package of advanced weaponry," Ferguson said at a press conference, "and it is our hope that Congress will take every step necessary to block this transaction."

The deal has members of both parties scratching theirs heads. If Dubai wasn't fit to run our ports, they reason, why should the Kingdom of Saud get our arms?

[UPDATE: 114 members of the House, including 16 Republicans, sent a letter to President Bush this afternoon stating their "deep opposition" to the arms deal and vowing "to vote to stop it."]

For, Against & For The War

Before he was against getting out of Iraq, Michael O'Hanlon was for it.

In May 2004, the foreign policy specialist (and frequent advisor to Democratic candidates) penned a Washington Post op-ed with his Brooking Institution colleague James Steinberg entitled, "Set a Date to Pull Out."

"Unless we restore the Iraqi people's confidence in our role, failure is not only an option but a likelihood," they wrote. "Critical to achieving our goal is an announced decision to end the current military deployment by the end of next year."

But O'Hanlon, for reasons unexplained, seems to have had a change of heart. He supported the escalation of troops. And after a recent eight day tour of Iraq, on the invitation of his old Princeton buddy David Petraeus, O'Hanlon and Iraq war cheerleader extraordinaire Ken Pollack wrote an op-ed in the New York Times on Monday entitled, "A War We Just Might Win."

"We are finally getting somewhere in Iraq, at least in military terms," the two write, contradicting Brookings's own Iraq index, ironically supervised by O'Hanlon. "There is enough good happening on the battlefields of Iraq today that Congress should plan on sustaining the effort at least into 2008."

So O'Hanlon and Pollack are back firmly in the pro-war camp, where they and so many of their colleagues in the foreign policy establishment were before the war. (I wrote a feature about the supposedly liberal think tanks that enabled the war in Iraq back in '05 called "The Strategic Class.")

Only Steinberg (now dean of the school of public affairs at the University of Texas), it seems, has kept to his position. "I'm skeptical" of the O'Hanlon-Pollack op-ed, he told me via email. "On the other hand, they've just been there and I haven't. But in the absence of more compelling evidence (and a chance to talk to them directly) I remain of the view that I held then."

It's little wonder why the White House likes O'Hanlon and Pollack so much. But it's a mystery why prominent Democrats still bother to listen to them.

Worse Than You Think

The non-stop violence in Iraq is overshadowing a humanitarian crisis, with eight million Iraqis--nearly one in three--in need of emergency aid, says a new report released by the international agency Oxfam and NCCI, a network of about 80 international and 200 local NGOs established in Baghdad in 2003 to help assess and meet the needs of the Iraqi population.

The report, based on research from the United Nations, the Iraqi government, and nonprofit organizations Oxfam works with or finances, offers little original data. But it provides one of the most comprehensive pictures to date of the human crisis within Iraq and what it describes as a slow-motion response from Iraq's government, the United States, the United Nations, and the European Union.

The numbers presented by Oxfam offer a stark contrast to the picture of steadily improving conditions painted by the Iraqi government and the US military over the past several months, as Megan Greenwell notes in the Washington Post.

According to the report:

•Four million Iraqis – 15 percent - cannot buy enough to eat.

•70 percent are without adequate water supplies, compared to 50 percent in 2003.

•28 percent of children are malnourished, compared to 19 percent before the invasion.

•92 percent of Iraqi children suffer learning problems.

•43 percent of Iraqis live in "absolute poverty," earning less than one dollar a day.

•More than two million people have been displaced inside Iraq.

•A further two million Iraqis have become refugees, mainly in Syria and Jordan.

Watch this brief BBC report on the report for a visual sense of the depths of the crisis.

Up until 2004, Oxfam had staff working inside Iraq but withdrew them due to chronic security problems. It now supports domestic and international aid agencies which are able to operate in Iraq from an office in Amman, Jordan.

Many humanitarian organizations refuse to accept money from governments with troops in Iraq for fear of jeopardizing both their security and independence. Therefore the report urges international donor governments that have not sent troops to Iraq to provide increased emergency funding for humanitarian action.

The solutions proposed by Oxfam, which opposed the American invasion, include far more aid by the Iraqi government and from abroad and the decentralizing of the distribution of food and medical supplies. The group also called for a doubling of the monthly $100 cash allowances to households headed by widows.

The best way to halt this growing humanitarian crisis is, of course, to end the war and occupation. Toward that goal, activists are spending August putting pressure on members of Congress when they are on recess in their home districts; are planning for a week of coordinated nonviolent actions in September and are organizing a raft of local and national actions on October 21 to highlight the connections between the war in Iraq and the global warming crisis. There are also a series of good bills well worth supporting being put forth by those few Democratic legislators who actually want to end the war.

But in the interim before this bloody war is finally over a donation to Oxfam will help the group continue to provide relief to the people of Iraq.

Wall Street Journal Gone Wild

There will be plenty of formal responses to the news that The Wall Street Journal will soon join the "stable" of Rupert Murdoch's "media properties.

But few will top that of MoveOn.org Civic Action, the grassroots activism wing of the popular internet forum.

MoveOn will dispatch newsboys and newsgirls to the streets of New York City tomorrow to hand out Murdoched versions of The Wall Street Journal in front of the venerable financial newspaper's Manhattan headquarters.

The parody papers will feature actual headlines from Murdoch's Fox News network -- and, with them, the suggestion that the Journal will soon be the latest reflection of Murdoch's one-size-fits-all approach to media.

That approach, it should be noted, is resolutely neo-liberal when it comes to economics -- all for free trade, privatization, deregulation -- and neo-conservative when it comes to superpower politics. It is wholly deferent to the presidents and prime ministers with whom Murdoch willingly and willfully allies himself. And it has a tendency to reduce serious matters to the sort of tabloid takes favored by Murdoch's New York Post newspaper.

Among the actual Fox headlines that will be featured on the Murdoched Journals to be distributed Wednesday:

"All-Out Civil War In Iraq: Could It Be a Good Thing?"

"Is The Liberal Media Helping To Fuel Terror?"

"The #1 President on Mideast Matters: George W. Bush?"

"Study: Some Trees Contribute To Global Warming"

"Have Democrats Forgotten The Lessons of 9/11?"

The headlines are as silly as Fox.

But there point is an important one.

One of America's most respected journalistic voices is in danger of becoming the print version of a certain fairly-imbalanced news network.

"This may be the beginning of the end for the Wall Street Journal," says Adam Green, the civic communications director for MoveOn.org Civic Action. "No sane businessperson or investor will tolerate the type of unreliable, partisan news that Murdoch serves up at Fox and his other media outlets."

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John Nichols' new book is THE GENIUS OF IMPEACHMENT: The Founders' Cure forRoyalism. Rolling Stone's Tim Dickinson hails it as a "nervy, acerbic, passionately argued history-cum-polemic [that] combines a rich examination of the parliamentary roots and past use ofthe 'heroic medicine' that is impeachment with a call for Democraticleaders to 'reclaim and reuse the most vital tool handed to us by thefounders for the defense of our most basic liberties.'"

"The President Cannot Ignore an Impeachment"

After months of revelations about his ham-handed attempts to politicize investigations and prosecutions by U.S. Attorneys and sections of the Department of Justice he heads, after his repeated refusals to cooperate with Congress and his deliberate attempts to deceive the House and Senate judiciary committees, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales has invited impeachment to an extent rarely seen in the long and sordid history of executive assaults on the rule of law.

And Congressman Jay Inslee is answering the invitation.

The Washington Democrat moved Tuesday to introduce a resolution that directs the House Judiciary Committee to investigate whether Alberto R. Gonzales, Attorney General of the United States, should be impeached for high crimes and misdemeanors.

Inslee's initiative is a serious one, and he is in many senses precisely the right member of the House to be making this push.

As a former prosecutor, he is well acquainted with the requirements of the oath that all House members swear to "support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign or domestic." He is, as well, a member of the Democratic establishment in the House, a relatively moderate representative who is on good terms with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. But, most significantly, he is a representative from a state with an active impeachment movement.

For more than a year, the Washington for Impeachment campaign has demanded that Congress act to hold members of the Bush-Cheney administration to account for their high crimes and misdemeanors. Inslee has heard those demands, loud and clear, and he recognizes their broad appeal. Thus, his move to open an impeachment inquiry is proceeding on the precise lines that the founders intended.

Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, George Mason and their compatriots believed that impeachment should be an organic process, driven by public outrage over executive excess. They intended that the people would raise the call for accountability and that the federal legislators closest to the grassroots, members of the House, would take it up.

Pelosi -- who today admitted that as member of her caucus, as opposed to its leader, she "would probably advocate" for impeachment -- upset the organic process with her declaration last year that "impeachment is off the table." She was speaking specifically about President Bush, but her words chilled efforts to hold any members of the administration to account.

The chill began to come off in a meaningful way when a maverick member of the Democratic caucus, Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich, introduced articles of impeachment against Vice President Cheney. Fourteen House members, most of them stalwart progressives who are made of sturdier stuff than Pelosi and her lieutenants, have agreed so far to cosponsor Kucinich's resolution. They have taken the right stand and their numbers will grow.

But Inslee's initiative is of a different character. He is no maverick. And he has attracted cosponsors from the mainstream of the caucus, including a number of former prosecutors. Initial cosponsors included Xavier Becerra of California, Michael Arcuri of New York, Ben Chandler of Kentucky, Dennis Moore of Kansas, Bruce Braley of Iowa and Tom Udall of New Mexico. And as word of the initiative spread, more members indicated that they would sign on, including Oregon Democrats Earl Blumenauer and Peter DeFazio.

Inslee's initial plan was to solicit support from former prosecutors, many of whom serve on the Judiciary Committee. But his resolution is attracting attention from many of the 122 members who in May cosponsored a resolution by California Democrat Adam Schiff "expressing no confidence in the performance of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, and urging the President to request his resignation."

It has become clear that the administration has no intention of abandoning Gonzales -- especially with Vice President Cheney's Monday declaration that "I'm a big fan of Al's." So Inslee has offered the appropriate response.

"It's indefensible to allow the continued violation of American privacy, and it's indefensible to treat the truth with such cavalier disregard when talking to the American people and Congress," the congressman says. "So if the president won't do his job (and either seek the Attorney General's resignation or fire him) we'll do ours."

As a former prosecutor, Inslee is doing things by the book.

His resolution does not feature explicit articles of impeachment. Rather, it initiates a process that should lead to the writing of articles by the House Judiciary Committee -- along lines similar to those seen during the period before the committee voted for three articles of impeachment against Richard Nixon. "Our resolution follows the careful procedure of conducting a thorough investigation before the House would decide on articles of impeachment -- a fairness the attorney general did not afford to his fired U.S. attorneys," explains Inslee.

If the committee chooses to free itself from Pelosi's grip and do its work, and if it approaches the task seriously, it will have no difficulty developing articles of impeachment against Gonzales. Politicizing federal investigations and prosecutions and lying to Congress are classic examples of impeachable offenses. So too, by any reasonable measure, should be faking up flimsy justifications for torture, warrantless wiretapping and other abuses of civil liberties.

The clear evidence of wrongdoing will not lead allies of the administration to roll over and let an impeachment move against Gonzales advance easily. Texas Congressman Lamar Smith, the Bush partisan who is the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, hastily denounced Inslee's initiative. "The call by Democrats to impeach Attorney General Gonzales is a misuse of congressional power for purely political reasons and a waste of the American publics' money and time," grumbled Smith.

The Texan is wrong. If House Democrats were to avoid proposing the impeachment of Gonzales -- presumably out of a desire to let the Attorney General "twist in the wind" and further discredit a Republican administration and its congressional allies -- that would be a "misuse of congressional power for purely political reasons."

Impeaching Gonzales is not merely an appropriate use of congressional power. It is the only appropriate use of congressional power in this circumstance.

It is, as well, what Inslee's constituents want. Washington for Impeachment director Linda Boyd hailed the introduction of the impeachment resolution and declared, "We will impeach to restore the rule of law!"

Boyd's got it right.

Impeachment is not merely about Gonzales. It is about renewing the Constitutionally-dictated system of checks and balances that virtually collapsed during the first six years of the Bush-Cheney interregnum. President Bush's disregard for the rule of law, and for the cautious assertions of the House and Senate up to this point, has created a Constitutional crisis. Impeachment, alone, is the proper response to that crisis.

"The president cannot ignore an impeachment," says Inslee, who correctly explains that, "This is the only option available to the American people."

But this may not be the only use of the option. The investigation of Gonzales will, necessarily, touch on Bush and Cheney. And, as it does, the issue of how Congress must deal with the impeachable offenses of a lawless president and vice president will, finally, be placed on the table.

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John Nichols' new book is THE GENIUS OF IMPEACHMENT: The Founders' Cure forRoyalism. Rolling Stone's Tim Dickinson hails it as a "nervy, acerbic, passionately argued history-cum-polemic [that] combines a rich examination of the parliamentary roots and past use ofthe 'heroic medicine' that is impeachment with a call for Democraticleaders to 'reclaim and reuse the most vital tool handed to us by thefounders for the defense of our most basic liberties.'"

A Reply to Dave Zirin

In The Nation's web-letters, Dave Zirin repliesto my post about his column on Michael Vick. In the nicest possibleway, he suggests that I'm out of my depth in tackling a sportssubject. He's certainly right that I'm no expert on sports or sportsmedia. How big an expert you need to be in this case is anotherquestion.

Zirin's big point is that Vick and other football stars do not havethe moral agency I attribute to them, because they come from poorbackgrounds and have few alternatives : "Vick and others are free notto play professional football. They are also free to work inMcDonalds, or go to a public school that treats them like prisoners."

That may be so. I wasn't condemning Vick for playing football, though,but for allegedly running a barbaric and illegal dogfighting business.What does dogfighting have to do with escaping from a life flippingburgers? Or -- Zirin's other distracting topic -- with the prevalenceof sports injuries? True, as Zirin notes, there are greater evils inthe world than animal torture, and animal torture does not exist in avacuum: "We are carrying out two military occupations, spend $500billion on "defense" and have over 300 million guns in circulation. Itshouldn't surprise us that violent sports, from the NFL to UltimateFighting, find a wide audience. It also shouldn't surprise us thatplayers in these sports engage in past times [sic] that one would deemanti-social."

Yes, yes: violence in, violence out. Not only am I not surprised thatour warlike and violence-loving society produces lots of, um,violence, I've made the same point myself. But every now and then, acrime is so gratuitously horrible it stands out. To blame Vick'salleged crimes on society and outrage against them on racism feelslike an evasion, like political boilerplate.

I do have trouble seeing sports stars -- zillionaires idolized bymillions and held up as role models to children (and how idiotic isthat?) --as mere victims of the system. To me they seem more likely tobe testosterone-poisoned narcissists who think they can get away withanything, and often do. The celebrity culture of entitlement -- that'sthe system they operate in, not the Old South. It may be true, asZirin says, that only poor kids become professional players, becausethe work is so hard and the struggle so great -- but whatever Vick'sorigins it's hard to see as a peon someone who is making $13 milliondollars a year. As for racism , that may be true of the radiofrothers-- maybe one day a white star will be accused of animaltorture and we can compare the public response. But it doesn'tdescribe me, or the many Nation readers who've written in to expresstheir outrage.

If charging racism doesn't play at The Nation, you probably need abetter argument.

Why Pelosi Opposes Impeachment

If she were not in the House--and not Speaker of the House--Nancy Pelosi says she "would probably advocate" impeaching President Bush.

But given her current role as party leader, at a breakfast with progressive journalists today (named after our great friend Maria Leavey) Pelosi sketched her case against impeachment.

"The question of impeachment is something that would divide the country," Pelosi said this morning during a wide-ranging discussion in the ornate Speaker's office. Her top priorities are ending the war in Iraq, expanding health care, creating jobs and preserving the environment. "I know what our success can be on those issues. I don't know what our success can be on impeaching the president."

Democratic Party leaders do not have the votes to pass an impeachment resolution. And Democrats could be judged harshly for partisan gridlock, just as the American people turned on Congressional Republicans in the 90s for pursuing the impeachment of President Clinton.

In the first question of the morning, Pelosi was asked if she supported a proposal by Washington Rep. Jay Inslee to impeach beleaguered Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.

The Speaker looked down and rubbed her temples wearily. "I would like us to stay focused on our agenda this week," she said. Today the entails finalizing ethics and lobbying reform. Tomorrow it will mean expanding children's health care and boosting Medicare benefits. By the end of the week the House will likely pass an energy bill and legislation will be brought to the floor that reins in the Bush Administration's warrantless wiretapping program.

Pelosi's no fan of Gonzales or his bosses. "The Administration wants the Attorney General to sign off on what can be collected," she says of the wiretapping proposal. "Absolutely not."

She is greatly disturbed by the lawlessness of this Administration and its contempt for checks and balances. "I take an oath to defend and protect the Constitution, so it is a top priority for me and my colleagues to uphold that." She notes the vigorous oversight hearings held by committee chairman like John Conyers and Henry Waxman.

But Pelosi sees impeaching Gonzales and his superiors as a distraction from the ambitious agenda she has crafted for the House. [UPDATE: Pelosi's staff notes she only said that she opposes impeaching Gonzales this week and did not comment on the larger policy. Listen to the recording for yourself at 19:30.]

"If I can just hold my caucus together," she says, "I can take them to this progressive place."

As to whether she fears a primary challenge from pro-impeachment activist Cindy Sheehan, the topic sadly never came up.

Vitter's Close Call

Imagine this scenario: A young congressional aide who moonlights for an escort service receives a call from her madam. The woman who owns the service asks her to meet a customer at a certain spot and time. When the aide/escort arrives, she sees that the client is a member of Congress and sits on the very same committee where she works. Embarrassing? Uncomfortable? A potential scandal? They now each know a big secret about the other. She knows he is using an escort service. He knows she is working for that same service. What do they do? Is his--or her--political career in peril?

The records of Deborah Jeane Palfrey, a.k.a. the DC Madam, suggest that Republican Senator David Vitter came close to experiencing such an awkward moment when he served in the House of Representatives. These phone records indicate that Palfrey may have set Vitter up with an escort who was a staffer for a congressional committee that included Vitter as a member. But if the two did meet for an escort experience, Vitter escaped being found out by his (indirect) subordinate.

According to the aide/escort--whose name I'm not revealing--she would not have recognized Vitter. "It's entirely conceivable," she says, "that I encountered him [while working as an escort for Palfrey] and did not know it." This woman notes that she had been with the committee a brief time, had attended only a few of its meetings, and was not familiar with all of its members. "I wouldn't know him if I saw him," she says. Throughout her stint working for Palfrey, this woman notes, "I did not come across anyone I recognized, no public figures....We [escorts] didn't know them. They didn't know us."

Vitter has acknowledged calling Pamela Martin and Associates, the escort service Palfrey ran until 2006. "This was a very serious sin in my past," he said in a statement released to the Associated Press on July 9, after Time magazine notified his office that Vitter's phone number was on Palfrey's billing records. (A Hustler editor contacted Vitter's office minutes after a Time reporter did.) But Vitter, who has campaigned on family values and who argued in 1998 that President Bill Clinton had to be impeached for his immoral conduct, has refused to say anything specific about his use of the escort service, and he has declined to resign from the Senate. Vitter's office did not respond to a request for a comment for this story.

According to Palfrey, this is how her business worked. A prospective client would call a local Washington phone number. She would answer the call at her Vallejo, California, home. (Most of her billing records do not show these incoming calls.) The man would ask for an escort and perhaps make special requests. Palfrey would then phone her employees in Washington to find someone appropriate for the customer. Next, she would call the client back and confirm the session. These long-distance outgoing calls to her escorts and to the customers are listed on her phone bills. As she explains it, in certain instances one can determine which woman was dispatched to a client by looking at the phone numbers that appear before the phone number of the customer. On one phone bill, the number of the aide/escort appears before a phone number for Vitter.

The phone records are not conclusive evidence that this congressional aide and Vitter had a professional meeting outside the committee room. But Palfrey says that would be a reasonable reading of the documents. (Palfrey says she has no direct knowledge that Vitter was a client because she knew most of her customers by first names or aliases. She no longer has detailed records showing which escorts visited which clients.)

I am not naming the aide/escort because this woman, unlike Vitter, has not engaged in public hypocrisy. Also, I have no evidence she broke the law. (Palfrey claims her women engaged in fantasy role-playing with their customers; the government, in its prosecution of Palfrey, maintains she ran a prostitution ring.) This woman left Capitol Hill and Palfrey's business years ago. With the help of investigative reporter Dan Moldea, who first discovered Vitter's number on Palfrey's telephone bills while working with Larry Flynt, I found her. When I contacted her, she was unaware that Palfrey had been busted, that Palfrey had posted the escort service's telephone records on the Internet, or that Vitter had been caught in the scandal. She asked me not to use her name: "It was a long time ago."

It's a curious episode. Vitter might have hired an escort with whom he worked in Congress. In most circumstances, committee aides can recognize the lawmakers they serve. What might have happened had this aide done so with Vitter? Exposure? Intrigue? Danger? "It was apparently a very close call," the woman says. "This could make a great a screenplay." But in this situation--if it did come to pass--Vitter was lucky. He was not on her radar screen. The congressman would have been just another john.

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JUST OUT IN PAPERBACK: HUBRIS: THE INSIDE STORY OF SPIN, SCANDAL, AND THE SELLING OF THE IRAQ WAR by Michael Isikoff and David Corn. The paperback edition of this New York Times bestseller contains a new afterword on George W. Bush's so-called surge in Iraq and the Scooter Libby trial. The Washington Post said of Hubris: "Indispensable....This [book] pulls together with unusually shocking clarity the multiple failures of process and statecraft." The New York Times called it, "The most comprehensive account of the White House's political machinations...fascinating reading." Tom Brokaw praised it as "a bold and provocative book." Hendrik Hertzberg, senior editor of The New Yorker notes, "The selling of Bush's Iraq debacle is one of the most important--and appalling--stories of the last half-century, and Michael Isikoff and David Corn have reported the hell out of it." For highlights from Hubris, click here.