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Independent War Profiteering Commission (Continued)

Payments to ghost employees. Contractors overcharging by hundreds of millions of dollars on no-bid contracts. And billions in reconstruction money gone missing. The list of reasons for an Independent War Profiteering Commission just keeps on growing.

The Pentagon's Defense Contract Audit Agency (DCAA) disputed $263 million in charges from Halliburton subsidiary Kellog, Brown and Root for its $2.41 billion no-bid contract. Normally, the Army withholds between 55 to 75 percent of the monies flagged by the auditors.

So what did the Army do in this case? It withheld 3.8 percent of the payments. Yes, you read that correctly, 3.8 percent – meaning it paid all but $10 million of the charges in question despite the alleged corruption.

A spokesman for the DCAA told the New York Times that the decision was based on "broader business considerations" than the audits alone. A senior manager in the Defense Department translated this ambiguous statement, saying, "That's as close as DCAA can get to saying, ‘We're not happy with it either.' "

Could it be that "Sure Shot" Cheney was once again right on target when it comes to helping his Halliburton friends? Never mind that the company was charging three times more than its competitors for fuel transportation costs. It was a no-bid contract, after all, so who cares about the competition?

A few weeks ago I called for an independent war profiteering commission composed of current and former public servants drawn from across the political spectrum. Frankly, the Halliburton travesties alone justify such a commission. But the problems go well beyond Dick Cheney's former company.

Custer Battles, ordered on March 9 by a federal jury to pay $10 million in damages, is accused of bilking the government out of $50 million. Bechtel has hired three subcontractors who were fined more than $86 million in the past four years but are still somehow eligible for new contracts. And 60 Minutes revealed that $50 billion of taxpayer money – more than the entire annual budget of the Department of Homeland Security – "has gone to private contractors hired to guard bases, drive trucks, feed and shelter the troops, and rebuild the country…with little or no oversight."

And let's not forget that $9 billion was simply lost – that's right, lost, gone, nowhere – by the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA). Stuart Bowen, the inspector general for Iraq reconstruction, reported the possibility that thousands of "ghost employees" were funded and that the CPA "failed to establish financial controls and transparency."

Sen. Patrick Leahy seems to understand why this is such an affront to all Americans. "[It's] clear that the Bush-Cheney Administration's approach to reconstruction in Iraq has been a formula for mischief," Leahy said. "Waste, fraud and abuse in the name of defense is doubly destructive and doubly offensive, and it should never be tolerated. It saps resources needed by our troops and it plays the taxpayers for fools, all the while hiding under the cover of national defense."

Leahy recently introduced the War Profiteering Prevention Act that would make these overcharges a felony punishable by up to 20 years imprisonment and fines of $1 million or twice the gross proceeds of the crime – whichever is greater. Furthermore, any person who makes false statements about these contracts could be sentenced to 10 years in prison and the same aforementioned fines.

It's well worth supporting this legislation. But don't hold your breath that this bill will pass. Similar legislation introduced by Leahy was already killed in 2003 by the Halliburton White House and Republican House leadership.

And while the Custer Battles verdict is encouraging, it is unrealistic to think that whistleblower action alone will uncover the extent of the war profiteering. There is one way – and one way only – to get to the bottom of this: through a War Profiteering Commission led by public servants of all stripes -- Republicans, Democrats, and Independents--and let's include former veterans and members of military families.

At this moment of great division in our nation, let's unite against the kind of criminal and moral corruption that all decent citizens agree has no place in our nation.

Still Looking for that Smoking Gun in Iraq

Doesn't the Republican chairman of the House intelligence committee read? In a Washington Post article by Walter Pincus in Friday's edition, Representative Peter Hoekstra, who has succeeded in pushing the Bush administration to start releasing some of the 2 million documents captured in Iraq, said,

Whether Saddam Hussein destroyed Iraq's weapons of mass destruction or hid or transferred them, the most important thing is that we discover the truth of what was happening in the country prior to the war.

Conservatives and war-backers have been howling for the release of all these documents because they believe--or hope--that they will contain a smoking-gun memo showing that Saddam had oodles of WMDs or was buddy-buddy with bin Laden. But so far, no soap. At least not from the first nine documents posted by the military. One actually shows that Iraqi intelligence in August 2002 was looking for Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Iraq. This suggests Zarqawi was not given office space in Baghdad by Saddam, which is what some war supporters practically have claimed.

Back to Hoekstra. He's suggesting that that wily ol' Saddam destroyed his WMDs or sent them to Syria minutes before the US invaded. But if Hoekstra had bothered to read either the report from David Kay or the one from Charles Duelfer--the two pro-war fellows who headed the postwar search for WMDs--he would know that both concluded there were no significant amounts of WMDs in Iraq before the war and that Iraq's WMDs program were moribund. So there was nothing to hide or destroy. But let's wish Hoekstra well as he looks at each and every one of the two million documents for killer evidence to support the discredited prewar case for war.

Three Years of War With No Checks, No Balances

With the third anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq approaching, Congress rejected reality once more and provided another infusion of funding to continue the open-ended occupation of that increasing disordered and volatile land. Nothing, not even the Bush administration's deception and intransigence, has done so much to continue the quagmire as the failure of Congress to check and balance the madness of President George.

Even as Iraq has become the "Bloody Kansas" of the Middle East, with a horrific explosion of sectarian violence that even some of the administration's most ardent apologists admit could well be a precursor to civil war, Congress remains the rubberstamp that it has always been – a fact confirmed Thursday by the lopsided House vote to meet another of the president's demands for more money to pay for his military misadventure.

By a vote of 348-71, the House approved a $91.9 billion supplemental spending bill, with the lion's share of the new funding earmarked for Iraq. Three years into a war that 60 percent of Americans now tell pollsters has not been worth the cost in lives and dollars that it has extracted from the United States, overwhelming majorities of both the Republican and Democratic caucuses in the House backed a measure that demands no real accountability of the administration – and that perpetuates a war that, according to a new Gallup Poll, 58 percent of Americans believe has had a generally negative effect on life in the United States generally.

The new money for the Iraq occupation comes on top of the $50 billion in supplemental war funding that the Congress had already approved for the current fiscal year, after spending $100 billion last year. And the administration says it will be back soon seeking another $50 billion for the coming fiscal year. All of this spending is in addition to the record $439.3 billion defense budget the president submitted to Congress.

This additional spending will push the federal budget deficit to a record $423 billion in fiscal year 2006, up more than $100 billion over the past year. That fact, along with concerns about the attachment of $19 billion for Hurricane Katrina relief to what started as a military supplemental, led roughly a dozen Republican fiscal hawks to oppose the measure – including Judiciary Committee chair James Sensenbrenner and Budget Committee stalwart Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas. It was also opposed by several Republicans who have rejected past war supplementals, such as Texan Ron Paul and Wisconsin's Tom Petri.

But the bulk of the opposition votes came from 52 Democrats, most of them members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, who believe as Ohio Representative Dennis Kucinich said before the vote: "After three years arrogance and incompetence, contempt and lies, death and destruction, Congress should say enough is enough and provide not one more dime for this Administration's ill-conceived, ill-advised, misguided and failed Iraq policy. Iraq has held three elections and is now a sovereign nation. Meanwhile, our troops are caught in the middle of a civil war that our own generals say cannot be won by military force. To funnel more money into this failed misadventure would serve only to throw good money after bad. Congress should not serve as a rubber stamp of this Administration's failed policies. Congress should reject this Supplemental request, along with the Administration's failed policy in Iraq, and work to bring all our troops home."

Missing from the list of those calling the administration to account were House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-California; House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Maryland; and, of course, the militantly pro-war chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Illinoisan Rahm Emanuel.

Most voters won't have a chance to send a signal to Emanuel anytime soon. But, in Illinois's 6th Congressional District, Democratic primary voters will have a chance to choose on Tuesday between the DCCC chair's handpicked candidate, Tammy Duckworth, who does not live in the district, and grassroots Democrat Christine Cegelis, who lives in the district and who stunned analysts by winning almost 45 percent of the vote as the Democratic nominee in 2004.

Duckworth, an Iraq veteran, has a compelling personal story, but she has refused to endorse a clear timetable for bringing the troops home. Cegalis supports a timetable, saying, "I have opposed this war from the start. But revisiting what brought us to this disastrous point does not solve the problem. It is time for us to bring our troops home." Cegalis explains that: "The failures of this war must prevent the United States from making similar mistakes in the future. And the only way we can make sure that lesson is learned is to elect leaders who understand that lesson."

After Thursday night's vote in the House, it is more evident than ever that the inability to understand that lesson is not merely a Republican infirmity. And it is equally evident that the appropriate response to the crisis will require voters, not just in Illinois but nationwide, to follow their own good judgment – as opposed to the dictates of Democratic "leaders" in Washington.

That's the message of the new group Vote for Peace, which is asking voters to take a pledge before they go to the polls: "I will not vote for or support any candidate for Congress or President who does not make a speedy end to the war in Iraq, and preventing any future war of aggression, a public position in his or her campaign."

Visit the Vote for Peace website at www.votersforpeace.us and learn more about this nonpartisan anti-war campaign.

Three Years Too Many

Last week, Katrina vanden Heuvel and Sam Graham-Felsen pointed to the wave of antiwar resolutions coming from America's cities, labor organizations, and religious groups as a sign of the mainstreaming of antiwar sentiment.

The local character of the more than 500 antiwar events planned nationally this weekend to mark the third anniversary of the invasion is yet another example of the widening of dissatisfaction with the president's war. From potlucks in Fairbanks to a rally by a recruitment station in Tucson to Barbara Lee's Iraq Town Hall in Oakland to interfaith peace prayers in Denver to a march to Rep. Katherine Harris' office in Sarasota to Congressional office visits in Boise to a peace march in Tulsa, there are far too many signs of popular unrest with Bush's Iraq policy for, hopefully, even the politicians to ignore. (Read Ari Berman's new Notion post for more on that.) Check the United for Peace & Justice website for a good calendar of events nationwide organized by state. And click here to sign UFPJ's petition to Congress to vote to stop funding the war.

One of the glitzier events on the slate--the Bring 'Em Home Now! concert--takes place Monday, March 20, at the Hammerstein Ballroom in New York City. Speakers, including RadioNation's Laura Flanders, Cindy Sheehan, Susan Sarandon, Margaret Cho, Chuck D and Anthony Arnove will join musical guests Michael Stipe, Rufus Wainwright, Peaches, Steve Earle, Devendra Banhart, Bright Eyes and Fischerspooner in what should be a long but entertaining (and certainly worthwhile) evening. Doors open at 7:00 for the 8:00 show. For ticket info go to TICKETMASTER.COM or call 212-807-7171. The gate will be split by Gold Star Families, Veterans for Peace and Iraq Veterans Against the War.

Get Your War Out

On the day the Bush Administration renewed its commitment to preemptive war--and conveniently launched the largest air strikes in Iraq since March 2003--a conference of security experts assembled at the Center for America Progress to examine just how that preemptive test case is going.

The verdict?

Not so hot. And conditions on the ground threaten to move from bad to worse.

"Where are we?" asked Dr. Zbigniew Brzezinski, former National Security Advisor under Jimmy Carter and the day's keynote speaker. "We are in a mess," he said, echoing comments he told me recently.

"American legitimacy has been undermined...American morality has been stained...American credibility has been shattered."

Where are we headed?

The US is caught in two wars in Iraq: insurgents against occupiers and Sunnis against Shiites.

"The US umbrella, designed to stifle them, but so porous it perpetuates them, keep these wars alive."

What should we do?

The Bush Administration "is not capable to make a cold judgement or look at alternatives because of their stake in past misjudgments: in some cases, lies, in some cases, crimes."

According to Brzezinski, the US should ask Iraqi leaders to ask us to leave. And we should set a date for our departure, roughly by the end of this year.

The Democrats, through their silence and evasiveness, have made themselves largely irrelevant from this debate. Even though dissatisfaction with the war is causing President Bush's approval ratings to plummet, a new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll finds. Even though "a congressional candidate favoring withdrawal of all US troops within a year would gain favor by 50%-35 percent, while one who advocates staying 'as long as necessary' would lose favor by 43%-39 percent," the WSJ writes.

How bad do the numbers have to get before the Democratic Party, as a whole, takes a clear stand on the war, or a prominent Republican utters Senator George Aiken's famous words: "The best policy is to declare victory and get out."

Censure Update

The editors at the New York Times belatedly decided that SenatorRuss Feingold's censure resolution is front-page news after all. Onlytheir storytoday has a cute twist: Censure is actually good news for the Republicans. The very notion that Bush should be called to account inflames the right-wingers and this will get the "conservative base" tovote in the Fall.

That is the logic being peddled by the White House, Republican NationalCommittee, right-wing frothers and other authoritative sources.

The Times swallowed whole, without chewing. Play it out. IfBush got impeached, bingo for the GOP. If indicted by a renegadeprosecutor, even better. If he is subpoened by a Spanish magistrateinvestigating "crimes against humanity," well, you couldn't top that.Meanwhile, the Warrior President is sinking of his own soggy substance.

It's easy enough to poke fun at the NYT's brittle grasp ofpolitics, but give them credit. At least they put Senator Feingold'sstory out front. Quoted Rush Limbaugh and Paul Weyrich, the WallStreet Journal editorial page, the RNC spokesman, even gave thesenator a few sentences. The Times also mentioned "ImpeachBush" activists on the left, though evidently didn't talk with any ofthem.

Let me play assignment editor: For a follow-up story. go out andactually talk to some of those lefties, ask them for their particularsand then interview some constitutional scholars on whether theseaccusations have any merit, given the facts we know.

Then go back to your right-wing sources ask them to compare the chargesagainst Bush with the impeachment charges Republicans launched againstBill Clinton. Do they now regret putting the country through thatsordid spectacle? Mightn't they want to apologize?

This story has legs. A smart newspaper will get out in front.

The Standard-Bearers

In a 1990 cover story for The Nation, Contributing Editor Kai Bird called Jimmy Carter "the very model of an ex-president." He described his work on human rights, education, preventive health care, and conflict resolution as a "return to the populist warpath, telling people what he perceives to be the hard truths on the larger issues."

Bird noted that his take on Carter wasn't altogether too common: "…he was never a liberal as defined by the party's traditional liberal constituency groups."

Yet more than 25 years later, Carter has become the moral standard-bearer for the progressive Democratic flank. As Patrick Doherty's recent Tompaine.com blog "Carter on A Roll," points out, this ex-President is courageously "calling a spade a spade today," breaking "the unwritten rule that former Presidents shall not contradict sitting Presidents on major issues of policy."

Just the other day, the former President called the Iraq war unjust, unnecessary and based on false pretenses. (He's been saying that for some three years now.) The next day, Carter published an op-ed ("Colonization of Palestine Precludes Peace") arguing that the main obstacle to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process is Israel's occupation of Palestinian lands.

Many progressive Democrats today stand with Carter as he speaks out on the toughest issues of our time, like torture, Iraq, the Middle East conflict and domestic surveillance. Yet it is equally clear that there is another kind of Democrat who ducks and dodges where Carter engages. And when it comes to calling out those so-called "leaders" who triangulate, capitulate, and calculate, Carter shares the mantle as standard-bearer with a fearless, tireless, truth-telling warrior of a reporter: Molly Ivins.

In her recent column, "Enough of the D.C. Dems," Ivins characteristically pulls no punches in writing of Washington Democrats' "sheer gutlessness and spinelessness" on Iraq, public campaign financing, and national healthcare.

She urges progressives to find a candidate and start organizing now in order to lock-up the nomination. "What happens now is not up to the has-beens in Washington who run this party. It is up to us. So let's get off our butts and start building a progressive movement that can block the nomination of Hillary Clinton or any other candidate who supposedly has ‘all the money sewed up.' "

When it comes to style of delivery, Jimmy and Molly couldn't be more different. But as for substance, these two kindred souls are blazing a trail for every good small d democrat to follow.

Who Knew? GOP says Feingold's Setting Dem Agenda

The Republican National Committee has made a remarkable discovery. U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold, the Wisconsin Democrat who has long been thought to be an outsider in the Senate Democratic Caucus, is not a maverick at all.

It turns out that Feingold is a "Democratic leader" who, according to RNC researchers, is pretty much setting the party's agenda.

In one of a series of talking-points memos distributed from the Republican headquarters in Washington since Feingold proposed on Monday that the president should be censured, the senator's photo appears next to a bold headline that declares: "THE DEBATE IS OVER: DEMS FIND THEIR AGENDA." A subhead reads: "Dem Leaders 'Ecstatically' Embrace Sen. Feingold's Plan To Weaken The Tools To Fight The War On Terror."

Apart from the fact that the underlying premise of the memo is inaccurate - there's no Democratic plan to weaken the tools to fight the war on terror, which has already been effectively undermined by the misguided invasion and occupation of Iraq and determination of the White House to treat "homeland security" as a slogan rather than an imperative - the RNC's announcement makes what, even in these hyperbolic times, is a remarkable claim.

Not only has Feingold proposed censuring President Bush for authorizing illegal eavesdropping on the telephone conversations of American citizens but, according to the Republican memorandums, this is now the "agenda" of the Democratic Party.

In a breathless headline, the RNC announces: "Dem Leaders (Are) Embracing (Feingold's) Plan To Censure President For Intercepting Foreign Terrorists Before They Hit Us Again."

It would probably be a bit picayune to note that Feingold does not want to stop intercepting foreign terrorists. He just wants the president to follow the law when listening in on phone calls placed by American citizens on American soil.

But what's really intriguing about the "news" that Democratic leaders have gotten on board for the Feingold plan is the fact that, well, they haven't done so. Indeed, there is little evidence that Washington Democrats are in any more of a fighting mood this year than they were in 2002 or 2004.

Only two senators, Iowa's Tom Harkin and California's Barbara Boxer, have expressed clear support for Feingold's censure proposal.

The statements of support from Harkin and Boxer quoted in the RNC memos, which have been widely circulated to reporters, pundits and politicos in Washington and beyond. But so too are statements from Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, Minority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, and Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry that are portrayed as endorsements even though Reid, Durbin and Kerry have only said that Feingold is a "man of principle" and that the censure motion is "interesting" as a "catalyst" for debate.

Feingold read those comments as a tepid response from Democratic leaders and said so. "I'm amazed at Democrats ... cowering with this president's numbers so low," he told reporters. "The administration ... just has to raise the specter of the war on terror, and Democrats run and hide."

MoveOn.org, similarly concerned, launched an online campaign to get Democratic senators to back the censure motion. The campaign proved so popular, gaining more than 200,000 signatures on pro-censure petitions in a day, that MoveOn upped its goal from 250,000 signatures to 350,000 signatures. But MoveOn still expresses concern: "Right now it's unclear how many of Senator Feingold's colleagues will stand with him in this important fight."

The online activists must not have gotten the memo from the RNC.

Of course, the MoveOn folks are a cynical bunch. They may think that these RNC memos suggest a "they-doth-protest-too-much" scenario in which the Republicans are trying to "spin" the censure debate in a manner that causes the actual if spineless leaders of the Democratic Party to distance themselves from the one member of the Senate Democratic Caucus who has decided to raise fundamental questions about the illegal actions of the administration.

Really cynical folks might even conclude that -- with polling showing Americans do want the president and his administration held to account -- the Republicans have an ulterior motive. By scaring Democratic leaders off and forcing the censure issue back into the closet before, the White House political team can again spin away a serious threat to the president -- much like the threat that Karl Rove admitted he feared could have emerged in the 2004 presidential election if, instead of Kerry, Democrats had nominated a presidential candidate who aggressively challenged administration's Iraq policies.

But the Republicans need not worry. As long as most congressional Democrats continue to "cower," the wedge that divides those "leaders" from the party's base voters, as well as the many Republicans and independents who worry about warrantless wiretapping, will remain firmly in place. And prospects for the fundamental political debate about this administration's misdeeds remain almost as slim as in the 2002 and 2004 election cycles.

California's Cannibal Republicans

Want another way, other than Bush's rock-bottom poll numbers, to measure the depth of the Republican crisis?

Take a look at what happened late Wednesday night out here in California. Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's centerpiece proposal for re-election went down in smoking flames -- mostly because of Republican opposition.

During his January State of the State address, Arnold had proposed an FDR-scale $222 billion plan for the rebuilding of California's infrastructure. The ambitious and popular plan, the most massive in state history, which would have built new roads, levees, schools, bike and foot paths, parks and rail lines was a shrewd political move to the center by a governor whose previous set of conservative "reform" proposals were shredded last fall in a special election.

While the past few weeks had seen furious off-and-on negotiations between the Governor and the legislature's majority Democrats to put an infrastructure agreement on the June ballot, Schwarzenegger never did get his own party on board.

Actually, that's a gross understatement. To get the 2/3 majority vote he needed to succeed, the Republican Governor only had to secure the support of two GOP state senators and only six GOP assembly members. Democrats were ready to support a deal.

But the governor failed to deliver his own party. As the clock ticked toward a midnight deadline last night, the legislature hung Arnold out to dry and purposefully reached no agreement. It's possible that some future and vastly trimmed-down deal will be struck. But for the moment, the governor has been stranded with virtually nothing left to run on in his November re-election quest.

The whole episode raises serious questions about what, if any, strategic sense California Republicans have. Already a big underdog party in a very blue California, the only thing Republicans had going for them was the movie star governor.

But ideological dogma has, apparently, gotten in the way of realpolitik. California's Republican legislators have succumbed to their chronic taxaphobia and have seriously jeopardized, if not torpedoed, their own governor's chance of re-election.

Former Sacramento-based Democratic political consultant Bill Bradley is all over the developing story. Bradley says the whole affair reveals what a "rookie" Schwarzenegger still is after nearly three years in office. A rookie who now might be headed right for the showers.