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The Media on Iraqi Oil--Don't Ask, Won't Tell

History… phooey!

Or, more mildly, Americans traditionally aren't much interested in it and the media largely don't have time for it either. For one thing, the past is often just so inconvenient. On Monday, for instance, there was a front-page piece in the New York Times by Elisabeth Bumiller on Robert Blackwill, one of the "Vulcans" who helped Condoleezza Rice advise George W. Bush on foreign policy during the 2000 election campaign, Iraq Director on the National Security Council during the reign in Baghdad of our viceroy L. Paul Bremer III, and the President's personal envoy to the faltering occupation (nicknamed "The Shadow"), among many other things.

He is now--here's a giant shock--a lobbyist. And, among those he's lobbying for (in this case to the tune of $300,000) is Ayad Allawi, former CIA asset and head--back in Saddam's day--of an exile group, the Iraq National Accord. Bumiller identifies Allawi as "the first prime minister of the newly sovereign nation--America's man in Baghdad." She also refers to him as having had "close ties to the CIA" and points out that he was not just Bremer's, but Blackwill's "choice" to be prime minister back in 2004. Now, he's Blackwill's "choice" again. Allawi is, it seems, yet once more on deck, with his own K-Street lobbyist, ready to step in as prime minister if the present PM, Nouri al-Maliki, were to fall (or be shoved aside).

But there's another rather inconvenient truth about Allawi that goes unmentioned -- and it's right off the front page of the New York Times, no less -- a piece by Joel Brinkley, "Ex-C.I.A. Aides Say Iraq Leader Helped Agency in 90's Attacks," published in early June 2004, just at the moment when Allawi had been "designated" prime minister. In the early 1990s, Brinkley reported, Allawi's exile organization was, under the CIA's direction, planting car bombs and explosive devices in Baghdad (including in a movie theater) in a fruitless attempt to destabilize Saddam Hussein's regime. Of course, that was back when car bombs weren't considered the property of brutes like Sunni extremists, al-Qaeda in Iraq, and the Taliban. (Just as, inconveniently enough, back in the 1980s the CIA bankrolled and encouraged the training of Afghan "freedom fighters" in mounting car-bomb and even camel-bomb attacks in a terror campaign against Soviet officers and soldiers in Russian-occupied Afghan cities (techniques personally "endorsed," according to Steve Coll in his superb book Ghost Wars, by then-CIA Director William Casey).

But that was back in the day--just as, to randomly cite one more inconvenient piece of history also off the front page of the New York Times (Patrick Tyler, "Officers Say U.S. Aided Iraq in War Despite Use of Gas," August 18, 2002), years before we went into Iraq to take out Saddam's by then nonexistent weapons of mass destruction, we helped him use them. The Reagan Pentagon had a program in which 60 officers from the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency "were secretly providing detailed information on Iranian deployments" to Saddam's forces, so that he could, among other things, wield his chemical weapons against them more effectively. ("The Pentagon 'wasn't so horrified by Iraq's use of gas,' said one veteran of the program. 'It was just another way of killing people -- whether with a bullet or phosgene, it didn't make any difference.'")

Of course, when it comes to America's oily history in Iraq, there is just about no backstory--not on the front page of the New York Times, not basically in the mainstream. Even at this late date, with the price of crude threatening to head for the $100 a barrel mark, Iraqi oil is--well, not exactly censored out--just (let's face it) so darn embarrassing to write about. In fact, now that all those other explanations for invading Iraq -- WMD, freedom, you name it -- have long since flown the coop, there really is no explanation (except utter folly) for Bush's invasion. So, better to move on, and quickly at that.

Unfortunately, history, even when not in sight, matters. And the deeper you go, as Michael Schwartz proves in a recent piece, "Why Did We Invade Iraq Anyway?", the more likely you are to find that gusher you're looking for.

Frances Moore Lappé's Recipe for Radical Renewal

Frances Moore Lappé has, for the better part of four decades, done her very best to guide the United States toward a more rational relationship with the planet and its inhabitants. It has not been easy work, and the current circumstance would suggest that it has not been nearly so successful as Lappé or the readers of her groundbreaking books would have hoped.

But the truth is that Lappé has succeeded, masterfully.

No popular intellectual has been so very successful in reshaping the character and content of debates about environmental and food policy as this remarkable woman. It is true that there are still deniers of the truths she advances. But they are increasingly isolated in the West Wing of the Bush White House. And their days are numbered.

The future belongs to Frances Moore Lappé -- who in on a national book tour that will take her to Burlington, Vt.; Madison, Wi.; St. Louis and Worcester, Ma., in coming days -- and to those who have been guided by her wise assessments of the most fundamental issues.

Lappé will always be known as the author of Diet for a Small Planet, the 1971 book that reshaped the debate about famines, food shortages and consumption. In it, the author argued that it was not patterns of over-population, bad weather or technological inadequacy that caused human beings to be denied the sustenance they required to survive. Rather, it was the unfair distribution of the world's resources and a deficit of democracy, which undermined the ability of citizens to make that distribution fairer and more responsible.

This simple calculus, which even now is neglected by many policy makers, was revolutionary. It returned the debate about how to deal with famines and related crises to the fundamental issues of inequality and inhumanity.

The response was unprecedented. More than three million copies of Diet for a Small Planet have been sold, and the 15 books Lappé has written in ensuing years have added nuance and perspective to her original arguments while taking the debate about the human condition to new and exciting places.

The value of Lappé's contribution is now broadly recognized. She has received 17 honorary doctorates from distinguished institutions, along with the global Right Livelihood Award and the Rachel Carson Award. "A small number of people in every generation are forerunners, in thought, action, spirit, who swerve past the barriers of green and power to hold a torch high for the rest of us. Lappé is one of those," says historian Howard Zinn. The Washington Post made the same point with the observation that, "Some of the twentieth century's most vibrant activist thinkers have been American women – Margaret Mead, Jeanette Rankin, Barbara Ward, Dorothy Day – who took it upon themselves to pump life into basic truths. Frances Moore Lappé is among them."

It would be easy to rest on such laurels.

But Lappé is not resting. She's out campaigning -- to renew civic and democratic values, to restrain corporate excess and governmental abuse, to stop fearing fear itself and to start embracing the radical responses that will make America and the planet as peaceful, as healthy, as humane and as fulfilled as our knowledge and our technology makes possible.

That's the "gospel" Frances Moore Lappé preaches in her terrific new book, Getting a Grip: Clarity, Creativity and Courage in a World Gone Mad (Small Planet Press), and on the national tour she's now on to herald its publication.

Lappé is saying what every presidential candidate should, and she is doing so with the boldness that is required if we hope to break with Bushism and shape a future worthy of a nation founded on revolutionary promise and a world that will only be set right if that promise is kept.

"I just want to go for it," Lappé asks in the introduction to Getting a Grip. "Why can't we have a nation - why can't we have a world we're proud of? Why can't we stop wringing our hands over poverty, hunger, species decimation, genocide, and death from curable disease that we know is all needless? The truth is there is no reason we can't. They say - whoever the "they" are - that as we age, we mellow. I don't think so. I'm getting less and less patient. Why? Because I realize that humanity has no excuses anymore. In the span of my own lifetime, both historical evidence and breakthroughs in knowledge have wiped out all our excuses. We know that we know how to end this needless suffering, and we have all the resources to do it. From sociology and anthropology to economics, from education and ecology to systems analysis - the evidence is in. We know what works."

Frances Moore Lappé is as right now as she has been in the past. It is time to go for it -- no half steps, no half measures. We have a name for the failures of the past: Bush. Now that the Bush era is ending, we need to name and claim the future.

Is Hillary the Next Grover Cleveland?

"We hope we're about to elect FDR," New York Times op-ed columnist Paul Krugman told me earlier this week, "but we might be about to elect Grover Cleveland." He said he was referring to the front-runner, Hillary Clinton.

Grover Cleveland, for those who don't know their 19th century presidents, was the only Democrat who made it to the White House between 1860 and 1912, the decades when Republican big money ruled the country. Cleveland, elected in 1885 and again in 1893, mobilized the army to crush the 1894 Pullman strike of railroad workers, and joined Wall Street in supporting the gold standard. "He was what they called a ‘Bourbon Democrat,' as in the French royal family," Krugman explained. "He wasn't that different from the Republicans at the time."

Krugman said it appears that the key issue in the 2008 election will be health care, and that the Democrats have a health care plan that will work. His "biggest concern," he said, was "whether the next occupant of the White House will triangulate it into oblivion." He reiterated that he was talking about Hillary.

Earlier that day, the New York Times had reported on page one that the health care industry has already contributed $2.7 million to Hillary, more than any other candidate in either party. Krugman indicated he was concerned that she might do too much compromising and negotiating with the insurance, pharmaceutical and hospital companies, as she did as First Lady in 1993.

Krugman pointed to one big difference between the Clintons' triangulation over health care in 1993 and the situation today, when "we have a self-conscious, aggressive progressive movement in a way we did not when Bill Clinton came into office. I think that does at least somewhat change the calculus," he said. If Hillary does concede too much to the other side, "there is an organized group that will make it clear that this is not what you're supposed to do."

On health care, Krugman said that, speaking as an economist -- which he is --the best plan would be a single payer system, like the "Medicare for All" bill introduced by John Conyers. That would have the lowest administrative overhead and thus provide the most cost-effective system. In his book, "The Conscience of a Liberal," he writes "America loves Medicare; let's give it to everyone." But politically that would be a struggle, because it would require a substantial tax increase.

Thus "the perfect can be the enemy of the good," Krugman says. The most politically feasible plan is the one proposed first by John Edwards and then by Barak Obama – a universal health care system run though private insurance companies. It mandates coverage for everybody and prohibits insurers from denying coverage to anyone or charging different premiums to different people, and it provides government subsidies for low-income people.

The main advantage is that it could be paid for without a tax increase, simply by reversing the Bush tax cuts for the rich. That's the one the Democrats will be pushing after the 2008 election, Krugman says, and that's the one Hillary must be prevented from triangulating into oblivion.

Krugman spoke with me at a public event, ALOUD at Central Library, a free series at the Los Angeles Public Library presented by the Library Foundation of Los Angeles.

CPSC Not Protecting Children's Safety

Thirteen million toys have been recalled in the last two months due to unsafe levels of lead. The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) -- the watchdog agency charged with protecting consumers from such risks -- has exactly one full-time toy inspector. That's right, one. It has 15 inspectors who oversee all of the imports under the agency's jurisdiction -- a $614 billion market.

So when the Senate took up legislation to double the agency's budget, beef up its staff by 20 percent, impose stiffer penalties for company and executive violations, and "give the commission broad new powers to police the marketplace," it of course would have no greater advocate than acting chair, Nancy Nord, right?

Who are you kidding -- not in this White House.

According to the New York Times, the former lawyer for Eastman Kodak sent not one, but two, letters opposing the bill . Whistle-blower protection (which not even industry opposes), increased transparency for reports on faulty products, and raising the cap on penalties from $1.8 million to $100 million are just some of the measures Nord finds most objectionable.

"It was remarkable to send a letter like that to a committee, when you're in dire straits and you need increased funding and you've acknowledged that," Ellen Bloom, director of federal policy at Consumers Union, told the Times.

The Bush administration's ideological contempt for any government role in protecting the public interest is limitless. So, even though Americans are already more vulnerable, for example, than other developed countries when it comes to the safety of our children's toys, you can count on the Bushies to continue to gut the government so that their cronies in Big Business continue to have their run of the place.

Fight GOP Tricks with Courage

Thanks to Nation writer and Occidental College professor Peter Dreier for tipping me off to the following item with which California Nation readers are likely already familiar.

It's Halloween season and the Republicans have launched another "dirty tricks" effort to try (again) to steal the White House. Under the guise of good government, the GOP is trying to change California election rules so the state's electoral college votes can be split according to Congressional district. The end result would be to deprive the Democratic nominee for president about twenty of California's Electoral College votes next fall.

According to the San Jose Mercury News, Republican presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani's gang of out-of-state consultants are behind this Rovian dirty trick, having "already raised $2 million" to hoodwink Californians into subverting the Constitution by ballot initiative. Consultants Ed Rollins and Anne Dunsmore are leading this ugly mob. Both have strong connections to Giuliani and, more ominously, former Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris.

Liberal stalwart Bradley Whitford of West Wing fame has made a YouTube video on behalf of the Courage Campaign to spread the word on the GOP's dirty trick. Watch it now.

Then check out the Courage Campaign website to find out what you can do to help combat this blatantly pro-Republican "reform."

Eh, No Big Deal: Reports Show Still No Plan To Rebuild Iraq

With President Bush's original goal of establishing "a beacon of liberty in the Middle East" no longer operative, what, exactly, is the administration's goal for Iraq?

An independent government report released yesterday said there isn't one. The U.S. doesn't have a "National strategy for victory in Iraq" and, more specifically, a plan to rebuild the country's government and oil-based economy.

The Government Accountability Office report assailed "the lack of strategies with purpose, scope, role and responsibilities and performance measures" in securing and stabilizing Iraq. And the U.S. is not following through on the three broadly agreed upon strategies it previously outlined:

1. A unified U.S. Government: The State Department and Department of Defense continue to wage fierce bureaucratic battles for rebuilding, leading to a lack of coordination of what the GAO's Joseph Christoff calls the "basic, operational level."

2. An engaged Iraqi Government: Of the $10 billion the Iraqi government dedicated toward reconstruction in 2007, only 24 percent has been spent. And next year the Iraqis plan to spend only $4 billion toward a more stable government and economy.

3. International Support: With the U.S. already having spent more than $40 billion on reconstruction projects, a grand total of $15.6 billion in non-U.S. money has been pledged to rebuild Iraq, $11 billion of which is loans. The GAO could not say how much, if any, of this money has actually been granted.

So a divided U.S. government going at the rebuilding alone has predictably led to waste, fraud and abuse. The GAO's Christoff says there is "bad bookkeeping" which has most dramatically led to "190,000 missing weapons" and a "Ministry of the Interior with a different militia for each of their floors."

The Iraq news is not all bad. An Iraqi Inspector General's report also released yesterday showed that American casualties are at their lowest since February 2006. And Iraq's electricity output has reached its highest daily level, in megawatts, since the 2003 invasion. In fact, the trends described circa the Petraeus report to Congress have clearly continued: the surge has made Iraq relatively more secure but there is no indication of the political calm it was supposed to bring.

Congress has yet to approve Bush's request of $196 billion on war funding. And the President has- surprise, surprise- equated their reticence with a failure to support the troops. But if the government reports are correct, even if the troops are being "supported" they have not been given a plan to succeed.

No Treats for FCC Chair and Media Monopolists

Federal Communications Commission chair Kevin Martin is doing everything he can to prevent public input that would challenge his rush to have the commission radically rewrite media ownership rules before Christmas. His latest tactic was to schedule a last-minute Halloween hearing on the proposed rule change -- which would allow one media conglomerate to own the daily newspapers, weekly newspapers, television and radio stations and primary internet news sites in a community.

But Martin's trick earned no treats for the media monopolists he seeks to serve, as the sneaky chairman was called on the carpet by his fellow commissioners, members of Congress and one of the nation's largest and most vigilent religious groupings.

Dissident commissioners Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein appeared at a rally outside the FCC's office in Washington to object to Martin's chicanery. "Neither we nor the public received any confirmation that the hearing would occur until ... just 5 business days before the event," the commissioners said before entering the building for the hearing. "This is unacceptable and unfair to the public."

Joining Copps and Adelstein were political, labor and community leaders who condemned Martin's assault not merely on media diversity but on the basic standards for making regulatory shifts.

"We cannot and we will not let the FCC shove new media ownership rules down our throats. It is our constitutional obligation to stand up and demand that we see greater media ownership diversity, not less," said Congressman Maurice Hinchey, the New York Democrat who chairs the Future of Media Caucus in the U.S. House. "Chairman Martin's efforts to curtail debate and quickly advance a media consolidation proposal raise numerous warning signs that he wants to further shrink an already limited diversity of opinion found among American news outlets. His expected plan is the exact opposite of what is needed in this country."

The Rev. Jesse Jackson said in his role as president of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition,"We have a media diversity crisis -- too few, own too much, at the expense of too many. Stopping media consolidation is the most important way to help minority ownership. But the FCC is trying to fast-track media consolidation instead of creating policies that expand ownership opportunities. The FCC should be serving people, not profit."

Echoing Jackson's point was National Organization for Women President Kim Gandy, who said, "Despite the fact that together we represent two-thirds of the country, women and people of color are woefully under-represented in media ownership. Massive consolidation and market concentration is one of the key factors keeping this vital population from access to the public airwaves."

Some of the toughest criticism of Martin's moves came from the religious community, which objected to the fact that the chairman had made it virtually impossible for citizens who rely on the media for the information they need to participate in American democracy -- and who, for that reason, own the airwaves -- to participate in a vital decisionmaking process.

"The members of the UCC and other faith communities should not have to call their lives to a halt on a moment's notice to participate in civic discourse," said Cheryl Leanza, managing director of UCC's Office of Communication, which since the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and 1960s has been one of the most dogged defenders of public input in the development of media ownership rules.

Added the Rev. J. Bennett Guess, who serves as acting managing director of the UCC's media-justice agency: "Church members communicate with each other on Sundays, so the limited notice meant we could not inform our members easily. People with work commitments, family responsibilities, and community obligations are not on the same time table as corporations and trade associations whose only concern is media regulation, and thus can rearrange their schedules at will."

Guess got to the heart of the matter. Kevin Martin is organizing hearings with an eye toward serving media owners -- and delivering on their demands -- rather than with an interest in meeting the need of the citizens the FCC is supposed to serve.

Immunity Watch: Senate Considers Illegal Spying

Today the Senate Judiciary Committee convened a hearing on President Bush's spying bill, which could validate warrantless domestic surveillance, immunize potential crimes by telecommunications companies and preempt related state investigations. The legislation was already approved by the Intelligence Committee, and Harry Reid said he wants a full floor vote "before the end of this year." But the FISA Amendments Act also faces filibuster threats from several Senators, including presidential candidates Dodd, Biden, Obama and Clinton, who oppose letting companies off the hook for their allegedly illegal surveillance of American citizens. Immunity is also a huge issue for Democratic and civil liberties activists – today the ACLU delivered petitions signed by 250,000 voters organized by MoveOn.org, People for the American Way and several liberal blogs.

The big news in today's hearing was Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy came out against immunity for the first time. (As recently as yesterday, his spokeswoman told The Nation he had not yet reached a position.) "A retroactive grant of immunity or preemption of state regulators does more than let the carriers off the hook. Immunity is designed to shield this Administration from any accountability for conducting surveillance outside the law," said Leahy. Many legal experts agree that retroactive immunity would fortify the administration's strategy to shirk accountability and maintain secrecy around domestic spying. Yet other Senate Democrats who have criticized Bush's spying still support immunity, including the majority of Democrats on the Intelligence Committee.

Intelligence Chairman Rockefeller has been waging the legislative battle on behalf of Bush. He not only pushed immunity through his committee, but last week he came very close to officially endorsing the administration's radical legal claim that the 2001 authorization of force (AUMF) against Afghanistan also authorized domestic spying – even though the legislation does not contain any reference to surveillance or spying. (Under this theory, administration officials have even cited the AUMF as a basis to invade Iraq and Syria without any congressional approval. Get ready to hear the same theory for attacking Iran.) Rockefeller's legislative report, which can guide judicial interpretation if the bill becomes law, appears to raise the AUMF as a possible basis for Bush's domestic spying. This drew a sharp rebuttal from several members of his committee, including Republican Senators Hagel and Snowe, who used the report's minority section to break down the issue:

We do not believe that the AUMF provided this authorization. We have seen no evidence that Congress intended the AUMF to authorize a widespread effort to collect the content of Americans' phone and email communications, nor does the AUMF refer to the subject. Furthermore, FISA already contained a provision that clearly governed surveillance actions in a wartime situation – a 15-day authorization for warrantless surveillance following a declaration of war. So this was not an uncontemplated question following September 11 and the passage of the AUMF.

Senator Feinstein also endorsed this point, while Senators Feingold and Durbin are expected to continue the fight in the Judiciary Committee. House Democrats have fought harder for accountability, with a bill rejecting immunity, but Republicans have managed to obstruct a floor vote thus far. Jerrold Nadler, Chair of the House Subcommittee on the Constitution, says retroactive immunity is a totally inappropriate response to the "lawless" Bush administration.

The Senate Judiciary Committee could mark up the FISA Amendments Act as early as next Thursday, preparing it for a floor vote. Then the current bill would still face a "hold" or filibuster from several Senators, portending a clash between the Bush-Reid-Rockefeller alliance and the progressive-civil liberties wing of the Democratic Party.

DEM DEBATE: Edwards, Not Obama, Hits Clinton Hardest, Smartest

It was supposed to be the night Barack Obama took Hillary Clinton down.

But, when all was said and done, Obama was a bystander.

The opening question in Tuesday's Democratic presidential debate was a softball pitch from NBC's Brian Williams to the senator from Illinois. Noting Obama's interview in the Sunday New York Times, in which the senator from Illinois promised to get tough with Clinton for acting like a Republican, Williams asked him detail the votes and statements from Clinton to which he objected.

Obama should have been ready to knock that one out of the park. Instead, he swung and missed.

"Some of this stuff gets over-hyped," said Obama, who then tried to tell a boxing joke before rambling on about his support for "big meaningful change."

Finally, the Illinoisan suggested that Clinton had flip-flopped on trade, torture and Iraq -- moving in each case from bad positions to better ones -- while admitting that her evolutions might have been "politically savvy."

Asked for a rebuttal, the frontrunner seized the opening, noted the many attacks on her by GOP presidential candidates and then delivered a classic debate one-liner: "I don't think the Republicans got the message that I'm voting and sounding like them."

Touche!

Were it left to Obama, Clinton would not only have escaped the night unscathed, she might actually have come out ahead.

But this is a multi-candidate race. Where Obama was unfocused and ineffectual, John Edwards landed plenty of blows. The former senator from North Carolina began by suggesting that "it's fair" to talk about essential differences between the candidates. Then he highlighted a big one. "(Clinton) says she'll stand up to George Bush," argued Edwards. "In fact, she voted to give George W. Bush the first step to war on Iran..."

Ouch! That reference to Clinton's vote in favor of the Kyl-Lieberman resolution declaring Iran's Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization, which read an awfully lot like a signal to Bush that he has congressional support for an attack on attack Iraq, opened up a highly engaged discussion that saw several of the candidates, led by Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd -- saying in reference to Clinton's vote of five years ago to authorize Bush to attack Iraq: "What you didn't learn by 2002, you should have learned by now" -- aggressively question Clinton's judgement. It was a smart, at times intense dialogue. Kucinich even got in a call for impeaching Bush and Cheney in order to restore the balance of power between the legislative and executive branches on questions of war-making.

But Edwards owned the moment. Accusing Clinton of voting for an Iran resolution that read like it was "written literally by the neo-cons," the 2004 vice presidential nominee declared, "We need to stand up to this president. We need to make it absolutely clear that we will not let Bush, Cheney and this administration invade Iran."

Edwards was identifying himself "as the clear, sharp alternative," observed NBC commentator Domenico Montanaro. "This is wedging going on. (Edwards) might be elbowing Obama out of the way on this issue. (Obama's), albeit reasonable, but tepid answer on this, just wasn't grabbing the spotlight."

"In the competition to see who would be the sharpest Clinton attacker, Edwards won by far," said Newsweek's Howard Fineman, referring to the North Carolinian's reference to Clinton and the neo-cons.

It wasn't just a fight about Iran, however. Edwards hit hard, and effectively, on every front. After detailing the front-runner's contributions from defense contractors and other corporate interests, he said. "If people want the status quo, Senator Clinton's your candidate."

That's tough talk. Blunt talk. The sort of talk that Barack Obama seemed to suggest that he was going to deliver Tuesday night.

But it came from John Edwards, who ended the night as the candidate who had done the best job of defining himself as the alternative to Hillary Clinton.