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The Nation

A New Openness

"It has to be said: there has been nothing in our time like the Bush Administration's obsession with secrecy….It's an old story: the greater the secrecy, the deeper the corruption." -- Bill Moyers, December, 2005

As the Bush Administration threatens and bullies the media, it is also engaging in an unprecedented rollback of public access to information that is an affront to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) signed into law forty years ago.

Gary Bass, Director of OMB Watch – a government accountability watchdog group – notes that unclassified information has been sub-categorized into oblivion by the Bush administration. The ambiguous, unclassified-but-inaccessible designations include: "sensitive but unclassified"; "sensitive homeland security information"; "critical infrastructure information"... and approximately 50 other invented obfuscations. Furthermore, Pentagon officials acknowledge that the GAO has rightly criticized the Defense Department for mistakenly marking unclassified matieral as "confidential or secret."

In a recent op-ed in The Washington Post, President Jimmy Carter warned that the impact of this culture of secrecy has "....put the United States behind much of the world in the right to information."

"We are sliding from a right-to-know society towards one based on need-to-know," Bass says. "It's a dramatic shift in our democratic principles."

One Congressional effort to fight the secrecy trend has produced some strange bedfellows – from Grover Norquist to the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. Sen. Tom Coburn and Sen. Barack Obama are co-sponsoring legislation that would create an online public database listing government contracts and grants. It is not so much a left-right alliance as a pro-democracy, pro-openness, and anti-special interest corruption movement.

Not surprisingly, the House version of the bill would reveal only grants on the database, not contracts. Why? Because contracts are awarded to businesses, while grants go primarily to non-profits. Republican Rep. Tom Davis, a sponsor of the House bill, danced around the issue in telling the New York Times: "Contracts are awarded in a much more competitive environment… That makes them more self-policing…. Grants are more susceptible to abuse."

Hmmm….That's one explanation for Davis' position. Another is offered by Bass: "[Davis'] district is among the top 10 receiving contracts--and at least $670 million was not competed. There are only 47 districts that receive less federal assistance awards – grants, loans, direct payments, etc…. In other words, his district gets relatively few grants and lots of contracts. The Times reporter couldn't get that information – it's not public."

The only reason Bass could access the information is because OMB Watch is preparing to release its own online database of federal grants and contracts on October 1. The group is purchasing some of the data from Eagle Eye – a for-profit operation that has provided clients with procurement information since the 1980's.

Transparency advocates are also promoting the idea of reversing the presumption of how information is made available to the public. Currently, the public must initiate a FOIA request and the government must respond as to whether it will make the information available. The idea is that instead the government should have an affirmative responsibility to make the information available – it should have to justify withholding it. This would flip government out of the passive role of simply responding to requests and require government agencies to actively provide information to the public.

"We really should develop a public access framework for the 21st Century," Bass explains. "We are using a 1960's model based on the Freedom of Information Act. The democratic principle for the new model is: government has a responsibility to disclose information to the public; agencies must justify when not to disclose." The FOIA would then become a vehicle of last resort – a part of a "safety net" for information access (along with whistleblower protection).

OMB Watch and other openness advocates are promoting a new informational architecture that would link key databases to build a product greater than the sum of its parts. For example, if government contracts and grants are available online, that information should also be linked to regulatory compliance and legal violations. Similarly, if the contractor database is linked to campaign contributions and lobbying expenditures, a pattern of government spending may emerge that shows influence peddling previously not previously seen.

Mark Tapscott, a conservative advocate for transparency, noted recently that when the FOIA was enacted in 1966, a co-sponsor was Rep. Don Rumsfeld. Rumsfeld commented at the time: "Disclosure of government information is particularly important today because government is becoming involved in more and more aspects of every citizen's personal and business life, and so access to information about how government is exercising its trust becomes increasingly important."

1966 Rumsfeld had no idea what 2006 Rumsfeld had in store for us. Forty years later, it's time to overhaul the system in order to reinvigorate our democracy. Otherwise, we will be forced to accept such arrogant and self-serving official explanations for lies, deceit, and corruption as, "Stuff happens."

Condoleezza "False Promise" Rice

As Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice goes through the charade of meeting with international leaders to discuss the crisis in the Middle East – while showing her true sentiments with a firm rejection of the "false promise" of a ceasefire – observers of the carnage might reasonably ask: Is there anyone in Washington who wants the killing to stop?

In fact, there are a few dozen brave members of Congress who have leant their names to a call for halting the violence and allowing diplomacy to replace the bombs and bullets that are ripping apart whole regions of Lebanon, Israel and Palestine.

Twenty-four members of the House of Representatives have endorsed House Continuing Resolution 450: "Calling upon the President to appeal to all sides in the current crisis in the Middle East for an immediate cessation of violence and to commit United States diplomats to multi-party negotiations with no preconditions."

Submitted by Ohio Democrat Dennis Kucinich, the measure resolves that Congress:

(1) calls upon the President to--

(A) appeal to all sides in the current crisis in the Middle East for an immediate cessation of violence;

(B) commit United States diplomats to multi-party negotiations with no preconditions; and

(C) send a high-level diplomatic mission to the region to facilitate such multi-party negotiations…

The resolution also "urges such multi-party negotiations to begin as soon as possible, including delegations from the governments of Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Lebanon, Iran, Syria, Jordan, and Egypt; and supports an international peacekeeping mission to southern Lebanon to prevent cross-border skirmishes during such multi-party negotiations."

The members of the House who have signed onto Kucinich's resolution include:

Neil Abercrombie of Hawaii

Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin

Emanuel Cleaver of Missouri

John Conyers Jr. of Michigan

Danny Davis of Illinois

Bob Filner of California

Raul Grijalva of Arizona

Maurice Hinchey of New York

Mike Honda of California

Marcy Kaptur of Ohio

Carolyn Kilpatrick of Michigan

Barbara Lee of California

Betty McCollum of Minnesota

Jim McDermott of Washington

Gregory Meeks of New York

James Moran of Virginia

Charles Rangel of New York

Bobby Rush of Illinois

Louise Slaughter of New York

Hilda Solis of California

Pete Stark of California

Maxine Waters of California

Lynn Woolsey of California.

"Everyday this Administration sits on the sidelines the chance for a peaceful resolution becomes less likely," says Kucinich. "Every day this Administration sits on the sidelines more innocent civilians on all sides are dying. Every day this Administration sits on the sidelines America's already poor reputation in the world community gets worse."

Kucinich is right. But is it not also true that every day members of Congress sit on the sidelines – refusing to pressure the Bush administration to get serious about a ceasefire -- they too make the chance for a peaceful resolution less likely.

Two dozen members of Congress are doing something. What about the other 411 representatives? What about the 100 senators?

Peace Action is urging Americans to contact their Congressional representatives to: Demand that they do everything in their power to effect an immediate ceasefire in the current hostilities in the Middle East. For more information, visit their website at www.peaceaction.org

Progressive Democrats of America has launched a campaign to get members of the House to cosponsor the Kucinich resolution. For more information, visit their website at: www.pdamerica.org

Says PDA Executive Director Tim Carpenter: "It is unacceptable to stand and watch as the violence escalates."

It's more than just unfortunate – it is tragedy writ large -- that Condoleezza Rice does not share this sentiment.

The Swift Boating of Sherrod Brown

Rove Rule #1: When in doubt, exploit 9-11 and swift boat the hell outof your opponent.

In his latest advertisement, a desperate Ohio Senator Mike Dewine has adopted this most base brand of Rovian politics by not only using images of the Twin Towers burning, but actually doctoring them as ifthe reality didn't suffice for needed shock value. The tasteless ad goes on to smearRep. Sherrod Brown in an effort to portray him as "weakening American security."

We're revisiting the dirty, divisive, shameful Bush-Cheney playbook of 2004 with its mushroom clouds, swift boat lies, and false patriotism.

Senator Dewine's ad ends with the assertion that Sherrod Brown is "out of touch with Ohio values." Maybe it's time to let Senator Dewine know that what is out of touch is his use of gutter politics.

Bush and the NAACP

President Bush finally got around to speaking to an annual convention of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Thursday, and he did a reasonably good job of making amends for failing to build a relationship with the nation's most influential civil rights organization during the first five years of his presidency.

To his credit Bush opened his remarks by acknowledging the inappropriateness of his refusals of past invitations from the group – a pattern that made him the first president since Warren G. Harding to so snub the NAACP.

Referring to his introduction by NAACP president Bruce Gordon, the president joked, "Bruce was a polite guy. I thought what he was going to say, 'It's about time you showed up.' And I'm glad I did."

Bush also acknowledged the extent to which his Republican Party has neglected and insulted the African-American community in recent years.

"I understand that racism still lingers in America -- it's a lot easier to change a law than to change a human heart. And I understand that many African-Americans distrust my political party," Bush admitted, adding that, "I consider it a tragedy that the party of Abraham Lincoln let go of its historical ties with the African-American community," Bush said. "For too long, my party wrote off the African-American vote, and many African-Americans wrote off the Republican Party."

Those were statements that had to be made if Bush was to be taken seriously at the podium. And the president and his aides deserve credit for recognizing and responding to that requirement.

The president also deserves credit for recognizing that apologies are not enough.

Bush needed to display an understanding that baseline commitments must be made by a political leader who seeks any kind of working relationship with the NAACP and with the tens of millions of Americans who share the group's belief that the struggle for social and economic justice is far from complete. On Thursday, he offered just such a commitment, and he did so with proper enthusiasm.

Speaking of legislation to reauthorize the Voting Rights Act – which some Congressional Republicans have openly opposed and others have sought to undermine with amendments – Bush told the crowd, "Soon the Senate will take up the legislation. I look forward to the Senate passing this bill promptly without amendment so I can sign it into law." (Within hours, the Senate passed the legislation unanimously.)

The president earned a round of loud and sincere applause for that statement.

That was as it should be. Though there is still too much distance between this president and the civil rights community, George Bush has finally taken a first small step to bridge the gap. Of course, he should have done so sooner. But his decision to do so at this point – and to offer both good words and good deeds – ought not be diminished.

There are plenty of reasons to criticize this president and his administration. But when George Bush does something right – even if it is late in the game, and even if his motivations may be tinged with politics – he deserves the measure of praise that might encourage him to continue trying to walk the higher ground.

Neonuts

For them, Afghanistan and Iraq will not suffice. They want to take out Syria and Iran, and speed full steam ahead towards World Wars III and IV. The Weekly Standard asks simply, "Why wait?"

According to Newt Gingrich, there is no need to wait at all. On Meet the Press this past Sunday he offered that the Israel-Hezbollah conflict "… is, in fact, World War III" and "the U.S. ought to be helping...."

And how might the US help fight Newt's World War? The Weekly Standard provides the answer: "It would be easier to act sooner rather than later. Yes, there would be repercussions – and they would be healthy ones, showing a strong America that has rejected further appeasement."

George Will – not exactly your run-of-the-mill, card-carrying liberal – describes the neocons as "so untethered from reality as to defy caricature."

But what has caused them to become so completely unhinged (even more so than before, if one can imagine that possibility)?

With the deteriorating occupation in Iraq and a resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan the neocons have been completely discredited. Meanwhile, the Bush administration is engaging in a "muddled multilateralism" – not quite pursuing diplomacy but not acting unilaterally at the whims of the Decider et al., either.

And this simply infuriates them. As Danielle Pletka of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) told The Washington Post, "I don't have a friend in… any part of the conservative foreign policy establishment who is not beside themselves with fury at the administration."

Well, perhaps The Weekly Standard staffers, editors, and allies at the likes of AEI will harness some of their "fury", put on flak jackets and (poorly) funded armor (is there enough to go around after Iraq?), and go fight their own failed war in defense of their own failed ideology.

Meanwhile, the rest of us will remain here on this planet.

Lamont Over Lieberman

Joe is down. And for the first time in his eighteen year Senate career, he may be going down.

A new Quinnipiac University poll released today finds Ned Lamont holding a 51 to 47 percent lead over Lieberman among likely Democratic primary voters. Just six weeks ago, Lieberman was up by fifteen points. And a month before that, Lieberman's lead was three times that size.

Talk about a surge for Lamont. In a state where 83 percent of the population disapproves of the Iraq war and only 31 percent approve of President Bush, Lieberman's in big, big trouble with Democratic voters.

If he loses the primary, Lieberman plans to run as an Independent. The Quinnipiac shows him winning handily in that scenario; 51 percent, to 27 percent for Lamont and 9 percent for likely Republican candidate Alan Schlesinger.

The new party would be called "Connecticut for Lieberman." Funny how it's not "Lieberman for Connecticut." When it comes to his state and his party, it's all about Joe.

Lebanon In Crisis; Bush, Most Democrats In Denial

A little more than a week of Israeli bombing and American neglect has created a humanitarian crisis in Lebanon. In a country that just months ago was being written up in travel magazines as one of the world's next great tourist destinations, and where a fragile democracy was beginning finally to define itself as something real, hundreds of civilians now lay dead; thousands have been injured; airports, ports, bridges and roads have been destroyed; and an estimated 500,000 men, women and children have been forced to flee their homes.

Officials of the International Committee of the Red Cross say they are "extremely concerned" that the situation in Lebanon is degenerating into chaos and dysfunction.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, is expressing horror at what is becoming of Lebanon.

"The distress felt at the destruction not only of life but also the infrastructure so painstakingly rebuilt after years of conflict will, I know, be acute and reinforce the sense of helplessness at being caught up in a wider regional struggle," writes the archbishop in a letter to Lebanese churches. "My condemnation of this resort to violence is unequivocal."

Unfortunately, neither the International Committee of the Red Cross, nor the Archbishop of Canterbury, nor the Israeli anti-war community, which rallied several thousand critics of Prime Minister Ehud Ohlmert's policies in Tel Aviv last Sunday, has sufficient international presence or authority to demand a halt to the destruction of Lebanon and of northern Israel – where the rockets of Hezbollah, which has so cynically and successfully provoked Israel, have killed civilians and done lesser but not insignificant damage to infrastructure.

President Bush, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and other U.S. leaders who have that presence and authority have chosen a hands-off approach that effectively encourages the expansion of violence in the region. Their neglect of the crisis is the foreign-policy equivalent of the White House's initial response to the Katrina catastrophe of last year in New Orleans. By failing to move quickly or responsibly, they make a bad situation worse.

Most Congressional Democrats have been the president's willing accomplices in this neglect of duty. But a handful of House members, led by Ohio Democrat Dennis Kucinich, have stepped up. A House resolution, sponsored by Kucinich and cosponsored by close to two dozen other representatives urges "the President to appeal to all sides in the current crisis in the Middle East for an immediate cessation of violence and to commit the United States diplomats to multi-party negotiations with no preconditions."

"The continuing violence in the Middle East is spiraling out of control and is on the verge of being full-out regional war in which there will be no winners," says Kucinich. "The US has a moral obligation to become immediately engaged and to try to seek a peaceful resolution to the situation. This Administration must seek an immediate cease-fire and return all sides to the negotiating table."

"The region urgently needs diplomatic assistance," the congressman adds. "The only way the US can reclaim its role, as a mediator is to speak and act like a mediator. Unfortunately, the Administration is making statements that only will contribute to escalation."

Kucinich is right. This is a testing time for members of Congress. Those who join Kucinich in calling for action to ease the conflict will be remembered as leaders – and as the true friends of Lebanon, Israel, Palestine and a battered peace process. Those who fail to do so will deserve to be remembered – and vilified -- for their failure to act when a humanitarian crisis unfolded before the eyes of the world.

Iran and Gay Rights

Last year I wrote a long article on the execution of two teenage boys in Mashhad and the firestorm that erupted when they were identified by some gay activists and bloggers as "gay teenagers." Suffice to say, since homosexuality and radical Islam are irresistible topics these days, the story did not end there.

Sometime Nation contributor Doug Ireland has written often on his blog and in Gay City News about what he considers a "vicious pogrom against Iranian gays." The New Republic's Rob Anderson chirped up and attacked US gay rights groups for not taking a harder line. Britain's Peter Tatchell (who publicized the original story) has organized a global protest against Iran. He's been supported by Anderson, Ireland, Michael Petrelis and a bevy of other activists (see Ireland's blog for the full list).

Missing from this list are Paula Ettelbrick of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission and Scott Long of Human Rights Watch's LGBT Rights Division. They've both been criticized by Tatchell in an open letter for their non-endorsement. (Full disclosure: I serve on the advisory board of HRW's LGBT rights program). Some of the dispute centers, still, around whether or not the two teenagers were gay and were executed for consensual gay sex (see my piece). But in the larger sense, the controversy represents two different strategies for pursuing sexual rights in precarious and fraught locations such as Iran. As Long puts it in his response to Tatchell, "I urge people to think very carefully about what the demonstrations are meant to achieve...What happens after July 19? How are these demonstrations meant to affect the Iranian government? How are they going to be seen in Iran? Are they only about publicity, consciousness-raising, the self-purifying effect of protest? Do you have a plan for change, or just for catharsis?"

It would take me another 5,000 words (and more strong coffee, cigarettes and vodka than my stomach can handle) to describe and explicate how the story has moved since I last wrote. So instead I urge readers to make up their own mind. New Yorkers can attend the protest outside of the Iranian Mission to the UN (622 Third Avenue at 40th St.). It's happening, like, now (5PM), so start lacing up those shoes.

And when you are done there, please attend the following event at the LGBT Center.

THINKING GLOBALLY, ACTING LOCALLY:HUMAN RIGHTS, IRAN, AND LGBT ADVOCACY

WHAT:The International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC), Human Rights Watch (HRW), National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, Amnesty International OUTfront, Al-Fatiha and SoulforceNYC invite all interested advocates to participate in Thinking Globally, Acting Locally: Human Rights, Iran, and LGBT Advocacy, a community dialogue about the persecution faced by LGBT people in Iran and how activists in the West can responsibly engage in supporting our colleagues in Iran as well as Iranian lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people in New York and elsewhere.

WHO:* Scott Long, Director of LGBT Rights Program, Human Rights Watch* Paula Ettelbrick, Executive Director of IGLHRC* Parvez Sharma, Director of the new documentary film "In the Name of Allah"* Hadi Ghaemi, Iran Researcher, Human Rights Watch* Kouross Esmaeli, Iranian filmmaker* Ayaz Ahmed, Al-Fatiha* Moderated by Hossein Alizadeh, IGLHRC

WHY:Numerous reports and stories of persecution faced by gay men and lesbians in Iran have been circulating. In particular, the executions of two young Iranian men last year on July 19 have been reported as gay-related deaths, prompting some activists to call for demonstrations in local communities to draw attention to these issues on the year anniversary of their hangings. This call raises important questions for human rights and LGBT advocates concerned about human rights violations globally, but unsure of how best to engage and respond.

* How do we situate campaigns for LGBT rights in the context of other human rights issues such as the death penalty and women's rights? * How do we respond in situations where facts are contested and documentation difficult? * What are the responsibilities--and dangers--for Western campaigners wanting to think globally and act locally? * How do we avoid reinforcing stereotypes and playing into hostilities prompted by our own government?

These are not abstract questions or ones relevant only to activists for sexual rights. While Iran will be emphasized in this discussion, the questions are relevant for all human rights advocates as we grapple with how global calls for justice can be made meaningful in the face of persecution and global hostilities.

While IGLHRC had initially offered to coordinate a public vigil to protest the use of the death penalty as a punishment for sexually-based crimes in Iran and elsewhere, conversations with colleagues have made clear that in New York City, dialogue, not demonstrations, would be the most productive way to build longer term strategies and understandings of how best to respond to human rights violations around the world.

WHEN: Wednesday, July 19, 20066:00 PM – 8:00 PM

WHERE: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center208 West 13th Street between 7th & 8th AvenuesNew York, New York

Iraqi Oil Theft Drives Up Reconstruction Costs

According to James Jeffrey of the State Department's Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, at $21.9 billion the Iraqi reconstruction program is "the largest since the Marshall Plan."

If only it included the PLAN part.

Assessing the Bush Administration's "2005 National Strategy for Victory in Iraq," a newly released Government Accountability Office report criticizes the Bush administration's failure to identify "which U.S. agencies are responsible for implementation" as well as "current and future costs…."

Last Tuesday, U.S. Comptroller General David Walker told a House Government Reform subcommittee of "massive corruption" and "theft" in the Iraqi oil industry – including the stealing of 10 percent of refined fuels, and 30 percent of imported fuels. Walker noted the "tremendous incentive" for theft given that subsidized gas sells for 44 cents per gallon in Iraq, compared to 90 cents per gallon elsewhere in the region. And with oil production down from prewar levels, the invasion-justification-assumption that these revenues would largely pay for reconstruction has proven wildly off target.

Joseph Christoff, GAO's director of international affairs and trade, also spoke of wasted payments to a "bloated bureaucracy" and "ghost employees."

The GAO report concludes with the staggering assertion that neither the Defense Department nor Congress "can reliably determine the costs of war, nor do they have the details on how appropriated funds are being spent or historical data useful in considering future funding needs."

The Congressional Budget Office added to the grim picture revealed last week by estimating that – even in the case of a rapid withdrawal – "an additional $166 billion would be needed… on top of $290 billion already allocated."

But the American people have been misled on the costs of this war at every stage, so why what possible reason do we have to believe that these are real numbers? Nobel prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz places the costs at $1 trillion to $2 trillion, depending on how long this madness continues.

And this is the reckless, uncharted course that the administration and its GOP accomplices (and Joe Lieberman) continue to ask our nation to follow? To use Mr. Bush's own words, unwittingly captured by a microphone at the G-8 Summit, "That seems odd."