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Sweet Victory: Uniting to Clean Up NOLA

Co-written by Sam Graham-Felsen.

Over half a year after Katrina, New Orleans remains in a shambles. But in the face of the federal government's shamefully lackluster reconstruction effort, progressive activists are stepping up.

Last week, the United Steelworkers (USW) union and the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice http://www.2theadvocate.com/news/suburban/2516831.html ">teamed up to address one of New Orleans' most pressing yet unaddressed problems: toxic soil. Currently, yards throughout New Orleans are contaminated with deadly heavy metals such as arsenic--some samples of which were 40 times greater than the permitted level--making it unsafe for residents to return to their homes.

"There are no acceptable levels of contamination for the thousands of hurricane victims now living in what resembles a sludge pit – no matter what state and federal environmental officials say," said Gary Beevers, Director of District 13, which encompasses Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Arkansas. "The government was doing next to nothing to remedy these hazards, so the Steelworkers felt like we had to step in and take some action."

The Steelworker volunteers bring an uncommon expertise to the "Safe Way Back Home" initiative. Their members work in the most dangerous industries of any union-- including oil refineries, chemical plants, and rubber factories--and they have been trained to work in toxic environments. USW's coupling with the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice is the latest in its attempt to create strategic partnerships with the environmental movement.

"Others have done a lot of work in the last 30 plus years to divide labor and environmentalists and its been hard work to break down the barriers," said Jim Fredericks, Assistant Director of the Health, Safety and Environment Dept at USW. "We share more than we differ and we truly need to continue to find our common initiatives."

The Steelworkers have recently announced a national strategic alliance with the Sierra Club, bringing the largest industrial union and the biggest environmental advocacy group together to fight for clean air, fair trade, and chemical plant security.

Out of Katrina's toxic sludge, activists are uniting to rebuild not only New Orleans, but the progressive movement.


Sam Graham-Felsen, a freelance journalist and documentary filmmaker, contributes to The Nation's new blog, The Notion, and co-writes Sweet Victories with Katrina vanden Heuvel.

Reconstruction Corruption Watch Part III

Last week, an Iraqi-American translator was arrested and charged with offering over $60,000 in bribes to win a $1 million contract for providing flak jackets and other equipment to Iraqi police officers.

According to the New York Times, it is believed that Faheem Mousa Salam of Livonia, Michigan, was acting on behalf of others and that more arrests will be made. Mr. Salam was employed by the Titan Corporation, a division of the L-3 Government Services Group.

The Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, Stuart W. Bowen Jr., was quoted as saying that this kind of fraud is limited to "... just a few individuals who took advantage of a chaotic situation early on."

This statement further highlights the need for a bipartisan Independent War Profiteering Commission.

To be sure, Mr. Bowen has done important work such as uncovering $9 billion "lost" by the Coalition Provisional Authority. But according to the Washington Post, Bowen is a lawyer from Texas who worked as Deputy General Council for then Governor George Bush; he worked in Florida for 35 days on the election recount in 2000; and he joined the Bush White House as an Associate Counsel.

These investigations need to be free of any hint of partisanship and empowered to follow any lead no matter how high it goes. That is the only way the public will get the answers it deserves.

Read Part I and Part II of this series for more reasons on the need to create an Independent War Profiteering Commission.

Whose Backlash?

Immigration reform advocates watching the historic Senate debate this past week say they are surprised by the momentum they're sensing in favor of liberalized and comprehensive reform.

There's been some long-awaited help coming this week from George W. Bush on this issue -- one of the only in recent times where the President is actually on the right side of things (if even vaguely so).

The massive immigrant political mobilization of the last week has reminded the GOP of the cresting clout of Latino voters -- and future voters. It's way too early, however, to declare any definitive victory. It's still a long shot that anytime before the mid-term elections the Senate and House will actually agree on a forward-looking bill. But the ball is certainly being moved foreward.

Check these polls just out and released by the National Immigration Forum. TIME Magazine today released a new poll, that shows overwhelming support for the type of immigration reform approach passed by the Senate Judiciary Committee and currently under consideration by the full Senate.

The Forum and the center-right Manhattan Institute, meanwhile, have issued the results of another poll today of 1,000 "likely voters" that indicates solid majorities prefer a plan for future immigrants that includes a path to permanent residency and citizenship (as in the Judiciary Committee's plan), as opposed to a strictly temporary "guest-worker" plan. See the analyses here and here.

We may possiblty be standing at the threshold of a new Latino and immigrants civil rights movement. As the mobilizations and demos continue there is sure to be more polarization and more reaction/counter-reaction around the issue. The question will be: who has the momentum? Which was is history flowing? The first preliminary soundings look encouraging.

 

John Dean to Senate: Censure Is Necessary

"[The] president needs to be reminded that separation of powers does not mean an isolation of powers," former White House counsel John Dean told the Senate Judiciary Committee Friday. "He needs to be told he cannot simply ignore a law with no consequences."

Arguing in favor of U.S. Senator Russ Feingold's motion to censure President Bush for illegally authorizing the warrantless wiretapping of the phone conversations of Americans, the man who broke with former President Richard Nixon to challenge the abuses of the Watergate era told the committee that Bush's wrongs were in many senses worse than those of Nixon.

"I recall a morning – and it was just about this time in the morning and it was exactly this time of the year – March 21, 1973 – that I tried to warn a president of the consequences of staying his course. I failed to convince President Nixon that morning, and the rest, as they say, is history," Dean, who famously told Nixon that there was "a cancer growing" on his presidency, explained in testimony submitted to the committee. "I certainly do not claim to be prescient. Then or now. But actions have consequences, and to ignore them is merely denial. Today, it is very obvious that history is repeating itself. It is for that reason I have crossed the country to visit with you, and that I hope that the collective wisdom of this committee will prevail, and you will not place the president above the law by inaction. As I was gathering my thoughts yesterday to respond to the hasty invitation, it occurred to me that had the Senate or House, or both, censured or somehow warned Richard Nixon, the tragedy of Watergate might have been prevented. Hopefully the Senate will not sit by while even more serious abuses unfold before it."

Republicans on the committee attempted to dismiss Feingold's motion as a partisan gesture, rather than a necessary reassertion of the system of checks and balances that has so decayed since Congress ceded its oversight role in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Utah Senator Orrin Hatch was particularly aggressive in echoing Republican National Committee talking points, denouncing Feingold's motion as nothing more than an attempt to "score political points."

But Dean rejected that claim, as did Bruce Fein, a lawyer who served in Ronald Reagan's Justice Department and who joined Dean in testifying in favor of the censure motion.

"To me, this is not really and should not be a partisan question,'' said Dean, who served as chief counsel for the Republican minority on the House Judiciary Committee before joining the Nixon White House. "I think it's a question of institutional pride of this body, of the Congress of the United States.''

Feingold went even further, suggesting that Congress has a duty to hold president's to account for authorizing a secretive domestic spying program that operates without legal authorization, in clear violation the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

"If we in the Congress don't stand up for ourselves and the American people, we become complicit in the lawbreaking,'' Feingold said. ``The resolution of censure is the appropriate response.''

Predictably, Hatch and several of the more aggressive defenders of the Bush administration on the committee fell back on the "talking points" argument that it would be inappropriate to censure Bush while the country is at war in Iraq. "Wartime is not a time to weaken the commander-in-chief,'' growled the Utah Republican.

But Feingold rejected the suggestion that Congress should surrender its oversight responsibilities in wartime.

"Under this theory, we no longer have a constitutional system consisting of three co-equal branches of government, we have a monarchy," explained the senator, who added that, "We can fight terrorism without breaking the law. The rule of law is central to who we are as a people, and the President must return to the law. He must acknowledge and be held accountable for his illegal actions and for misleading the American people, both before and after the program was revealed."

Woodward and Reality--UPDATED

After reading the below piece, Bob Woodward called to tell me that he thought that the article was "dishonest" and "unfair" and that I owed him an apology. During a calm but passionate conversation, I promised to print as long a reply as he would care to write. He said he would send something along soon. So watch this space....

Bob Woodward writes insider accounts of wars and the policymakers who wage them. He does so by talking to the most senior Bush administration insiders, who--obviously--tell him what they wish to tell him. No doubt, Woodward does capture some (maybe even most) of what occurred. But what happens when the insiders try to spin Woodward or share with him a rather selective rendition of an important event? Does he buy it and sell it (literally) to the rest of us? The leak of a British memo recounting a January 31, 2003 conversation in the White House between George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair affords Woodward's readers a rare opportunity to factcheck the fellow who imbues his behind-the-scenes storytelling with an omniscient tone.

The Bush-Blair meeting came as Bush was moving closer to launching the invasion of Iraq. UN weapons inspectors were back in Iraq--thanks to a resolution passed by the UN Security Council the previous November--but the hawks of the Bush administration, including Bush himself, were by this point eager to declare the inspections a failure and to get on with the show. At issue was whether the Bush administration needed a second resolution from the UN that would authorize military action against Iraq. Blair wanted one. The prospect of war was unpopular in England; he needed the cover of a second resolution. Bush and his senior officials were not enthusiastic about going back to the UN once more. Bush had just delivered a State of the Union address that lay out the WMD case for war, and Colin Powell was about to make a more detailed presentation at the United Nations on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction and purported ties to al Qaeda. With the war preparations picking up speed, Bush and Blair met at the White House.

Now let's turn to Woodward. This is how he described the conversation between Bush and Blair in his book Plan of Attack:

Blair told Bush that he needed to get a second UN resolution. He had promised that to his political party at home, and he was confident that together he and Bush could rally the UN and the international community.

Bush was set against a second resolution. This was a rare case in which Cheney and Powell agreed. Both were opposed. The first resolution had taken several weeks, and this one would be much harder. Powell didn't think it was necessary....

But Blair had the winning argument. It was necessary for him politically. It was no more complicated than that, an absolute political necessity. Blair said he needed the favor. Please.

That was the language Bush understood. "If that's what you need, we will go flat out to try and help you get it," he told Blair. He also didn't want to go alone, and without Britain, he would be close to going alone. The president and the administration were worried about what Steve Hadley termed the "the imperial option."

So they were back in the briar patch as far as Cheney was concerned.

That's a rather straightforward description of a significant meeting. Earlier this week, New York Times correspondent Don van Natta Jr. published a front-page piece disclosing portions of a classified British memo that summarized this particular discussion. The memo was written by David Manning, Blair's chief foreign policy adviser at the time and one of two Blair aides who were in the meeting. According to this document--which was stamped "extremely sensitive"--a different sort of conversation had occurred. Here are some of the key points in the memo:

* Manning wrote, "The start date for the military campaign was now penciled in for 10 March. This was when the bombing would begin."

* Both acknowledged that no WMDs had been found in Iraq. Bush raised the possibility of provoking a confrontation with Saddam Hussein. One idea he proposed was placing UN colors on an American U-2 spy plane that would fly over Iraq and draw fire from Iraqi forces. Bush also discussed the possibility of assassinating Saddam Hussein.

* Bush did say that he would help Blair win a second UN resolution--and "would twist arms and even threaten," as the memo put it--but that if that effort failed he would still invade Iraq.

* There was tension between Bush and Blair over what might be a legitimate legal argument for going to war and what would be accepted by other nations.

* The two leaders talked about post-invasion Iraq, and Bush said that it was "unlikely there would be internecine warfare between the different religious and ethnic groups." Blair agreed.

* Blair asked Bush about planning for the postwar period. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, who was in the meeting, assured Blair that much work had been done on this. Bush, the memo noted, "said that a great deal of detailed planning had been done on supplying the Iraqi people with food and medicine."

Read Woodward's account and you get the impression that Bush was doing all he could to help a buddy and that Bush was willing (more so than Cheney or Powell) to stick with the United Nations a little longer. Read the Times' account of the memo and you see that Bush had already set a date for war--despite saying in public that he hoped to avoid war--and that he had raised the prospect of staging an event to make it easier to sell the war. (Does a fellow looking to avoid a war talk about what could be done to provoke a war?) The memo also indicates that Bush and his aides were not fully prepared for the postwar challenges and that Bush and Blair had misjudged the sectarian divides within the Iraqi population.

Woodward likes to say that his best-selling books--which are good reads--are the first drafts of history. That's true. But they can also be tilted drafts--especially when his high-level confidential sources have an interest in tilting the facts. Whoever gave him the details of this Bush-Blair session--Rice, perhaps?--left out the best and most important stuff. The net result was a less-than-full but Bush-positive account of the event. This goes to show that Woodward is only as good as his sources and that those insiders are not always so good when it comes to disclosing the real story.

Please check out David Corn's personal blog at www.davidcorn.com.

Reconstruction Corruption Watch Part II

Yesterday, I reported on the current controversy surrounding Halliburton's poor performance and cover-up on its water treatment contract in Iraq. Now add oil to the mix.

In the Washington Post Wednesday, Griff Witte writes of overcharges and obfuscation by Halliburton subsidiary--you guessed it--Kellog Brown and Root on a $1.2 billion contract to restore oil services in southern Iraq.

The competitive contract awarded in 2004 followed a $2.4 billion no-bid deal in 2003. Prior to settling on the newer contract, the Defense Contract Audit Agency requested that the Army Corps of Engineers speak with its auditors about "significant deficiencies in KBR's ability to estimate its costs"--the DCAA had challenged $200 million in fuel delivery charges on the first contract--but the Corps failed to do so.

Rep. Henry Waxman released a statement saying, "Halliburton has pulled off the impossible: it has actually done a worse job under its second Iraq oil contract than it did under the original no-bid contract. This new round of overcharges and dismal performance would have been avoided if the Bush Administration had listened to its own auditors."

KBR's profit in the newer contract is determined as a percentage of its costs. In challenging $45 million of the $365 million in reviewed costs, Pentagon auditors cited instances such as KBR's "paying a supplier more than it was due"; cutting cost estimates in half when "pressed on its true expenses"; and billing "for work performed by the Iraqi oil ministry."

As questions about costs and performance were raised, "federal officials in Iraq reported KBR was being ‘obstructive' towards officials trying to investigate what had gone wrong." One contracting officer described "…numerous attempts to work with KBR to bring their cost reporting procedures into minimal acceptable standards." And the New York Times reports of an officer writing to the company, "you have universally failed to provide adequate cost information as required."

William Nash, a retired Army General and senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, summarizes, "This a continuing example of the mismanagement of the Iraq reconstruction from the highest levels down to the contractors on the ground."

It is also an example of why only an independent, bipartisan commission will get to the bottom of the waste, mismanagement and corruption related to the Iraqi war effort.

Russ Feingold's Legal Firepower

Congressional Democrats have pretty much abandoned their Constitutionally-mandated responsibility to check and balance the excesses to the executive branch – so much so that the one Democrat who seeks to hold President Bush to account for ordering the warrantless wiretapping of American's telephone conversations accuses for party's leaders of "cowering."

So where is Wisconsin Democrat Russ Feingold finding support?

Among Republicans. Or, more precisely, among prominent alumni of past Republican administrations.

When the Senate Judiciary Committee convenes as extraordinary session on Friday to consider the Feingold's motion to censure the president for ordering federal agencies to engage in eavesdropping in violation of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act's requirement that judicial approval be obtained for wiretaps of Americans in the United States, the dissenting senator will call two witnesses.

Making arguments about the extreme seriousness of the warrantless wiretapping issue -- and the need for a Congressional response -- will be noted constitutional lawyer Bruce Fein, who served in President Ronald Reagan's Department of Justice as Deputy Attorney General, and author and legal commentator John Dean, who served at Richard Nixon's White House counsel before breaking with the president to reveal the high crimes and misdemeanors of the Watergate era.

Fein has testified before Congress a number of times since leaving the Reagan White House, most recently at a February 28, 2006, Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on President Bush's eavesdropping initiatives.

Dean's testimony will be somewhat more historic in nature. According to the Senate Library, the man who before joining the Nixon administration served as Chief Minority Counsel to the House Judiciary Committee, has not testified before Congress since 1974, the year that his former boss resigned in order to avoid impeachment.

For Feingold's Senate colleagues – defensive Republicans and cautious Democrats alike --- the testimony of Fein and Dean may come as a shock to the system. These veterans of Republican administrations past offer little quarter when it comes to the presidential wrongdoing of the moment.

Fein has argued, with regard to this president's penchant for illegal spying schemes, that: "On its face, if President Bush is totally unapologetic and says I continue to maintain that as a war-time President I can do anything I want – I don't need to consult any other branches' – that is an impeachable offense. It's more dangerous than Clinton's lying under oath because it jeopardizes our democratic dispensation and civil liberties for the ages. It would set a precedent that … would lie around like a loaded gun, able to be used indefinitely for any future occupant."

Dean has echoed those concerns, explaining that: "There can be no serious question that warrantless wiretapping, in violation of the law, is impeachable. After all, Nixon was charged in Article II of his bill of impeachment with illegal wiretapping for what he, too, claimed were national security reasons."

Dean does make a distinction between the misdeeds of the Nixon and Bush administration, however. He has argued for some time that the current administration's reckless disregard for the Constitution and the rule of law is "worse than Watergate."

Reconstruction Corruption Watch

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.

Competence Won't Get US Out of Iraq

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.