House Oversight and Government Reform Committee chair Henry Waxman finally got to the heart of the Blackwater contract-killing scandal when he reviewed emails detailing how the U.S. State Department worked with the private security firm to hide bloody trail of its mercenaries.
Noting that after an intoxicated Blackwater thug shot and killed an Iraqi guard last December, the State Department counseled the corporation on how much to pay the family of the Iraqi to keep silent and then arranged for the Blackwater employee to exit Iraq without facing any consequences for his actions, Waxman produced records of internet communications detailing the cover up.
"It's hard to read these e-mails and not come to the conclusion that the State Department is acting as Blackwater's enabler," Waxman told a hearing that saw Blackwater founder Erik Prince claim with a straight face that his company "acted appropriately at all times" during an incident last month that left 11 Iraqis dead and inspired an effort to force the country to withdraw its mercenaries from Baghdad.
Prince's brazen claim that his teams of paid killers "acted appropriately" begged the question: Who is defining the word "appropriately"?
Waxman pointed to the answer. Blackwater, which has collected more than $1 billion in U.S. government contracts since 2001 to do security work once assigned to Marines, may be indefensible operation. But the firm has not operated in a void.
Blackwater is an extension of the U.S. government.
Blackwater operates at the behest of the U.S. departments of defense and state.
And when the State Department helps the company pay off the families of its victims and helps to extract killers from circumstances in which they might be arrested and prosecuted, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her cronies become for more appropriate subjects of scrutiny than Erik Prince.
Every indication is that Prince is a very bad man.
But evil done by Prince and his employees has been committed on the government dime, and with the advice and consent of the government.
How interwoven are the operations in Iraq of the Department of State and Blackwater? The initial State Department report of last month's killing spree involving Blackwater employees was written by a Blackwater contractor working in the U.S. Embassy's Tactical Operations Center in Baghdad. The report was distributed under the letterhead of the Bureau of Diplomatic Security.
The lines of distinction between the State Department and Blackwater no longer exist.
Yes, of course, it is appropriate to hold Erik Prince to account.
But it is even more appropriate to ask: What did Secretary of State know and when did she know it?
Waxman opened Tuesday's hearing by declaring, "I know many of you believe that Blackwater has been unaccountable to anyone in our government. I want you to know that Blackwater will be accountable today."
That's a great start. But this investigation will not be done until Condoleezza Rice and her top aides have been placed under oath and required to testify about the high crimes and misdemeanors that enabled Blackwater and its employees to kill without consequences.
Today, Senator Barack Obama will propose setting a goal of eliminating all nuclear weapons in the world. This proposal should be be celebrated. It is a sign of Obama's commitment to a sane security and foreign policy -- consistent with an understanding that the US is safer when it respects international rule of law and cooperation.
This is not a radical proposal--a characterization you're likely to hear from many inside-the-beltway pundits and security analysts. They may try to label Obama as a candidate disconnected from reality. But then they could level the same charges at Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, former Secretary of State George Shultz, former Defense Secretary William Perry and former Senator Sam Nunn. All four men, earlier this year, called for a revival of Ronald Reagan's vision of " a world free of nuclear weapons" in an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal.
As our Peace and Disarmament correspondent Jonathan Schell wrote, "the oped marks a sea change in established opinion, which previously (with the hugely significant exception of Reagan) had formed a solid phalanx of opposition to nuclear abolition." What is increasingly clear, Schell goes on to point out, is how "the nuclear danger is ripe and overripe for public rediscovery, which has in fact already begun. This time, it's clear that the goal of all efforts would not just be amelioration--a freeze or reduction or a test ban--but the long-deferred holy grail of all who have struggled against the danger for more than 60 years: the abolition of nuclear arms."
Obama is a leader who appears to understand what is at stake if the US squanders the post-post Cold War opportunity to build a nuclear-free world. What is encouraging is that he is not alone. According to Peace Action, more than 70 percent of Americans support the global abolition of nuclear weapons.
And in May, Senator John Edwards, in an under-reported event at the Council on Foreign Relations, announced his support for a nuclear-free world. Obama and Edwards understand the imperative of ridding our planet of weapons of mass destruction. Isn't it time to ask the other leading Presidential candidate where she stands on the issue?
The long-awaited publication of Clarence Thomas's memoir, "My Grandfather's Son," out Monday, makes you wonder: how come none of the presidential candidates have said a word about the Supreme Court in any of their debates? Three sitting justices are expected to resign in the next four years--and they're all on the liberal side: John Paul Stevens, David Souter, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
The publication facts behind Thomas's book ought to be discussed by all the candidates: he received an advance of $1.5 million in 2003 from HarperCollins, which is owned by Rupert Murdoch. If you thought the Court dealt with any issues of relevance to Murdoch, you might call it a conflict of interest for Thomas to accept that payment--far more than any sitting justice ever received from any single source. At least you might mention the fabled "appearance of impropriety." You might call the $1.5 million a thank-you gift from Murdoch for services rendered. You might even wonder if it might be a subtle suggestion to other justices who will be ruling on Murdoch-related issues in the future.
Of course Thomas could avoid that "appearance of impropriety" by recusing himself for the rest of his career from any case raising issues concerning Murdoch, Fox, the First Amendment, copyright law, libel, or any other issues in media or communications law. That would give him a lot of time off.
Yes, it was the first President Bush who nominated Clarence Thomas to succeed civil rights legend Thurgood Marshall - but it was Democrats in the Senate who put him on the court. The teeth-gnashing facts about Clarence Thomas's confirmation can be found in the new book by Washington Post reporters Kevin Merida and Michael Fletcher, "Supreme Discomfort: The Divided Soul of Clarence Thomas." The vote in the Senate on Thomas was 52-48 - the smallest margin for any justice in more than a century. A shift of three votes would have kept Thomas off the court.
Here's the horrible part: at least four senators who voted for Thomas came to regret their vote within a year or two. Merida and Fletcher report that the senators who changed their mind about Thomas after voting for him include David Boren, Democrat of Oklahoma; John Breaux, Democrat of Louisiana; Fritz Hollings, Democrat of South Carolina, and Warren Rudman, Republican of New Hampshire.
Even some of Thomas's most avid defenders stopped saying he told the truth about Anita Hill; Orrin Hatch told Merida and Fletcher that, even if Anita Hill told the truth, what she said about Thomas sexually harassing her wasn't really all that bad.
As for Thomas's memoir, it's a long howl of outrage against the liberals who opposed his confirmation 16 years ago. The book was treated by HarperCollins as if it were the next Harry Potter - "embargoed" until Oct. 1, the first day of the Supreme Court's fall term -- a total clampdown that made it impossible for anyone to buy the book until Monday morning. I tried to buy it at my local Barnes and Noble Sunday night at 10 pm, and was told by a nervous manager that if they sold it to me even two hours before the "embargo" ended, "the publisher would see it on the computer and we'd be fined."
Yet somehow Rush Limbaugh managed to get hold of a copy - Thomas appeared on his show for a full ninety minutes Monday morning. (Maybe the fact that Thomas presided at Rush's wedding was a factor here - an unprecedented act for a sitting Justice.) Murdoch's Fox News was next in line, with a Sean Hannity interview Tuesday.
On the other hand, Nina Totenberg, NPR's Supreme Court reporter, who broke the sexual harassment story during Thomas's confirmation hearing back in 1991, did a piece on the book on Saturday. She's one of Thomas's nemeses; somebody will definitely be in trouble for the fact that she beat the embargo.
Yes, of course, we are all supposed to be very excited above Barack Obama's fund-raising prowess. And the fact that the freshman senator from Illinois raised more than $20 million in the last contribution cycle is impressive. It is even more impressive that the contributions toward his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination came from 93,000 separate donors – suggesting a breadth of grassroots support unparalleled in the current contest.
But politics ought to be about a good deal more than the ability to shake the money tree. And it often is, a fact that can be attested to by presidential also-rans such as former Texas Governor John Connolly -- who spent the then astronomical sum of $11 million on a bid for the 1980 Republican presidential nomination that yielded him one convention delegate: Mrs. Ada Mills of Clarksville, Arkansas.
What should be at least as intriguing about Obama's campaign as its largesse is the conscious effort by the candidate and his aides to grasp for another form of political gold: the Kennedy connection.
It is no secret that Obama is striving for a Camelot vibe. His speeches are thick with the calls to unity and higher purpose that were the essential themes of John Kennedy's stump speeches when, as the even-younger-than-Obama senator from the even-smaller-than-Illinois state of Massachusetts, he grabbed the Democratic presidential nomination in 1960 from the likes of Hubert Humphrey, Lyndon Johnson and Adlai Stevenson. And, at their best, Obama's addresses echo the moral message employed by Bobby Kennedy's in his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination of 1968.
How conscious is Obama's Kennedy vibe?
On Tuesday, as he arrives in what for him is shaping up as the essential state of Iowa, Obama will be joined by Ted Sorensen, the JFK and RFK speechwriter and aide who is one of the last politically active members of President Kennedy's inner circle.
Sorensen, who JFK referred to as his "intellectual blood bank," will introduce Obama in Des Moines and Coralville, Iowa, on a day when the Illinois senator will be highlighting his vocal opposition of five years ago to congressional authorization of an attack on Iraq.
Having Sorensen, who broke with Kennedy's successor, Lyndon Johnson, over the issue of ending the Vietnam War, will portray Obama's opposition to going to war with Iraq as a Kennedy-esque "profile in courage" – even as the candidate's current stance on ending the occupation of Iraq remains disappointingly squishy in the eyes of anti-war activists.
Now almost 80, the man who crafted both words and strategies for President Kennedy, is making the sort of comparisons that no one – save Senator Ted, who has yet to endorse – can conjure with such legitimacy.
"He is more like John F. Kennedy than any other candidate of our time," Sorensen says of Obama, arguing that "the parallels in their candidacies are striking."
"Obama is opposed, as Kennedy was opposed, for being young, for being in his first term in the Senate and, sad to say, for having qualities from his birth on – such as his skin color – which people say will make him tough to support. Well, they said that about Kennedy's religion… That's nonsense," says Sorensen. "The times are too important. We have got to have someone with judgment leading this country."
How much will a Sorensen swing count through Iowa, where new polls suggest that Obama is moving into a position from which he might be able to best both New York Senator Hillary Clinton, the national frontrunner, and former North Carolina Senator John Edwards, until recently the Iowa frontrunner, influence the state's first-in-the-nation Democratic caucuses?
There is no question that, in eastern Iowa, a heavily Catholic, blue-collar region where the Kennedys remain iconic figures, Ted Kennedy's campaigning for Massachusetts Senator John Kerry before the 2004 Democratic caucuses played a significant role in the renewal of Kerry's candidacy.
Ted Sorensen is no Ted Kennedy. But he is a vibrant and articulate link to the Kennedy legacy. And Sorensen's campaigning on Obama's behalf will suggest a historical connection that money can't buy.
Sometime during the demonstrations against the Republican National Convention, which renominated George W. Bush in August 2004, I went on a media protest march down the Valley of the Imperial Media, Sixth Avenue, in the Big Apple. I had certainly been on enough marches in my life, but I was amazed. Back in the Vietnam era, when the police photographed peaceful demonstrators, they tended to do it surreptitiously and out of uniform. Here, police in uniform with video cameras were proudly out in the open shooting what looked like continuous footage of us all. And that was the least of it. We demonstrators were surrounded by a veritable army of police, on horseback, on motorbike, on foot. As I wrote at the time:
"The 'march,' which you might want to imagine as a serpentine creature heading south on New York's Sixth Avenue, had actually been chopped into a series of one-block long segments by the New York Police Department. Each small segment was penned on its sides by moveable wooden barricades and on either end by the wheel-to-wheel bikes of a seemingly endless supply of mounted policemen backed up by all manner of police vehicles… To 'march,' that is, actually meant to step from pen to pen, hemmed in everywhere, your protest at the mercy of the timing, tactics, and desires of the police."
As a light would turn red, your group on your block would be cut off from the group behind and in front of you. There was never a moment when we weren't, quite literally, penned in. If this was the "freedom" to demonstrate, it managed to feel a lot like being jailed right out on the street.
And that was a modest experience indeed. Jennifer Flynn lived through something far more intense, as Newsday revealed only last week. "Jennifer Flynn is not a rabble-rouser," was the way the Long Island newspaper's story began. "She's not an aspiring suicide bomber. She doesn't advocate the overthrow of the government. Instead, she pushes for funding and better treatment for people with HIV and AIDS. Better keep an eye on her. Wait! Somebody already did."
The organization Flynn co-founded was organizing a rally near the Republican convention. The day before it was to be held, while visiting her family in New Jersey, she found her parents' house staked out and then herself followed by no less than three unmarked cars. She wrote down the license plate of one which, according to Newsday reporter Rocco Parascandola, was traced "back to a company -- Pequot Inc. -- and a post office box at an address far from the five boroughs [of New York City]. Registering unmarked cars to post office boxes outside the city or to shell companies is a common practice of law enforcement agencies to shield undercover investigators."
The New York Police Department has denied involvement, but as Nick Turse points out at Tomdispatch.com today ("NYC, the NYPD, the RNC, and Me"), in the year before the convention, the Department's undercover teams had traveled the country, Canada, and Europe, conducting covert surveillance of quite peaceful activists. In practice, this is part of what the Global War on Terror has meant here -- the granting of an endless license for the draconian to become part of normal life, of what passes for "safety." And as Turse reveals, when it comes to "zero tolerance" policing, surveillance, and planning for the suppression of peaceful dissent, things have actually gotten a lot worse since 2004. In the Big Apple where police surveillance from mobile "Sky Towers" to stealth helicopters has become a way of life, fear drives a new, exceedingly profitable industry that feeds off protection money.
"All we want are the facts, Ma'am," Sgt. Friday of Dragnet used to say on the TV screen of my childhood. Well, the facts now are that surveillance and "homeland security" add up to a massive, booming business (and not just in Iraq). Already our second defense department, the Department of Homeland Security, has sprouted a second, mini-military-industrial complex -- and it's not just a domestic matter either. When it comes to the profits associated with surveillance and the crackdown, Chinese surveillance companies, already raising money from U.S. institutional investors, are reportedly about to get their first foothold on the New York Stock Exchange.
Today, a world of "safety" that involves techniques and technology once associated with Orwell's dystopian novel 1984 is fast becoming life as we know (and accept) it. And there's more to come.
Last week, the Senate -- via the Kyl-Lieberman Senate resolution -- handed the Bush Administration a close-to-blank check for military strikes against Iran. The resolution accuses Iran of fighting "a proxy war against the Iraqi state and coalition forces in Iraq." (Hillary Clinton, along with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, voted for it.) Sy Hersh's chilling article in this week's New Yorker ("The Administration's Plan for Iran") shows how the Administration may attempt to use that resolution as it redefines its military and political justifications for attacking Iran.
Hersh reports that the White House has requested that the Joint Chiefs redraw its plans for a possible attack on Iran. Confronted with a lack of public support for a major bombing campaign, with the intelligence community's assessment that Iran is at least five years away from obtaining a nuclear bomb, and the growing realization in Washington that Iran is "the geopolitical winner of the war in Iraq," the Administration has been marketing a new and dangerous line. The view that has taken hold in the White House, Hersh writes, is "that if many of America's problems [in Iraq] are the responsibility of Tehran, then the solution to them is to confront the Iranians." As a result, "What had been presented primarily as a counterproliferation mission has been reconceived as counterterrorism." The focus is no longer broad bombing attacks--with targets including Iran's known and suspected nuclear facilities and other military and infrastructure cites. Instead, " the emphasis is on 'surgical' strikes on Revolutionary Guard Corps facilities in Tehran and elsewhere, which the Administration claims, have been a source of attacks on Americans in Iraq."
The revised bombing plan, "with its tightened focus on counterterrorism, is gathering support among generals and admirals in the Pentagon," Hersh writes. One former senior intelligence official tells Hersh, " Cheney's option is now for a fast in and out--for surgical strikes." Hersh is careful to state that he was "repeatedly cautioned in interviews" that Bush has yet to issue the "execute order" that is required for military operations inside Iran--"and such an order may never be issued." But, he continues, " there has been a significant increase in the tempo of attack planning."
Hersh quotes former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski: "This time, unlike the attack in Iraq, we're going to play the victim. The name of our game seems to be to get the Iranians to overplay their hand. A lot depends on how stupid the Iranians will be. Will they cool off (Mahmoud) Ahmadinejad and tone down their language?" How will the Iranians react to more limited bombing strikes? Brzezinski tells Hersh that Iran would likely react "by intensifying the conflict in Iraq and also in Afghanistan, their neighbors, and that could draw in Pakistan. We will be stuck in a regional war for twenty years."
America's allies have shown mixed reactions to the new plans. Strikingly, Hersh reports that the new British government of Gordon Brown has had the most positive response to the plan--even though, as one retired four-star General tells Hersh, the British believe they were "sold a bill of goods" before the war in Iraq and "the burden of proof is high" for action against Iran. There are a few speaking out against plans that could result in disastrous and unintended consequences for US and world security. Hans Blix tells Hersh, "There are important cards that Washington could play; instead, they have three aircraft carriers sitting in the Persian Gulf."
As to the drumbeat for war, Blix says that his "impression is that the United States has been trying to push up the accusations against Iran as a basis for possible attack--as an excuse for jumping on them." David Kay, the former CIA adviser and chief weapons inspector in Iraq for the United Nations, tells Hersh that "questions remain about the provenance of weapons in Iraq, especially given the rampant black market in arms." His inspection team was astounded, Kay says, in the aftermath of both Iraq wars, by the 'huge amounts of arms' it found circulating among civilians and military personnel throughout the country. He recalled seeing stockpiles of explosively formed penetrators, as well as charges that had been recovered from unexploded American cluster bombs. Kay also says, "I thought Petraeus went way beyond what Iran is doing inside Iraq today."
Hersh's important and alarming article is a warning that the Administration is intent on taking us into another military disaster--which will destabilize the region and the world and make the US less secure. And actions like the Senate's Kyl-Lieberman resolution, while only symbolic, could be used as a pretext by a White House determined to use military confrontation to avoid blame for the catastrophe in Iraq. It must be repealed. In its place, the Senate should introduce and pass a resolution stating that there are no good military options for solving our disagreements with Iran. Military action will only result in disastrous and unintended consequences for US, regional and global interests. It is time for tough-minded and astute diplomacy and engagement with Iran--so as to weaken the hardliners in that country's government. One tragedy among many: At a time when a majority of Americans appear to have learned that there are limitations to the use of military force, it appears increasingly likely that the hardliners in our country are intent on taking us into another fiasco.
The latest reports from Myanmar say that soldiers are blockading Buddhist shrines and authorities are restricting phone and Internet access, as the military leadership appears at least temporarily to have quelled the democracy movement that has shaken the country.
The relative calm comes after sustained demonstrations led by Buddhist monks and aimed at ending nearly half a century of military control were violently repressed by the ruling junta. The violence has killed nine people and injured 31, according to an account read on official Burmese television. Exile groups say they have information suggesting that the death toll is considerably higher.
The crackdown has come despite virtual worldwide condemnation. On the diplomatic front, a special UN envoy, Ibrahim Gambari, was expected to confer with Burma's military leaders on Sunday to urge restraint and national reconciliation.
Amnesty International has been a leader in focusing attention on the rampant human rights abuses in Myanmar. This Monday, October 1, Amnesty International members around the world are holding a series of demonstrations outside Burmese embassies and high profile public locations calling for the Myanmar authorities to respect the right to peaceful protest.
In New York City people are assembling at 12:00pm at the Permanent Mission of the Union of Myanmar (Burma) to the United Nations at 10 East 77th Street (near 5th avenue, east side of Central Park). Check the AI website for info on rallies nationwide and other ways you can help.
John Dean knows something about White House abuse of power. He wrote a bestseller in 2004 on the Bush White House called "Worse Than Watergate." In a recent interview I asked him what he thinks of that title now. Now, he replied, a book comparing Bush and Nixon would have to be called "Much, Much Worse."
"Look at the so-called Watergate abuses of power," he said. "Nobody died. Nobody was tortured. Millions of Americans were not subject to electronic surveillance of their communications. We're playing now in a whole different league."
And how does Bush compare with the Republicans seeking to succeed him? "If a Rudy Giuliani were to be elected," Dean said, "he would go even farther than Cheney and Bush in their worst moments."
What about the rest of the pack? "I'm very concerned about the current attitude in the Republican party," he said. "However there are candidates on the Republican side who are not quite as frightening as Giuliani." When I asked who he had in mind, he laughed and said "Ron Paul." He conceded that "there's no chance he's going to be president."
Dean's new book is "Broken Government: How Republican Rule Destroyed the Legislative, Executive, and Judicial Branches." It's a massively documented and thorough indictment, arguing that, over the last 30 years, Republicans have broken or ignored laws, rules, and the Constitution. He's especially critical of the growth of presidential power under Bush II, and what he calls the "corruption" of the courts by "radical conservatives."
I asked Dean to imagine the moment when Bush leaves office on Jan. 20, 2009, presumably to be replaced by a Democrat, presumably Hillary -- will it then be possible to say "our long national nightmare is over"? Dean replied with one word: "Yes."
He quickly added, "I do feel strongly that the Republicans have so abused the law and embedded so many people within the system, within the executive branch, that's it's going to take a couple of terms of Democratic presidents before you have people there who are representing the American people."
Does that mean he is supporting Hillary? "She's obviously the one the other Democrats have to beat," he said, "but I don't take any position."
How then would he describe his political position? He says in his new book that he's left his "former tribe" - does that make him a Democrat today? "It doesn't," he replied. "I carry water for nobody. My only interest is being an honest information broker about what's happening. I have no agenda other than explaining - and being shocked at my former tribe."
"I've had invitations to become involved with Democrats," he added, "and have turned them all down. I'm an independent. That happens to be the largest group of voters in the country today - we're about 40 per cent strong."
When I pressed Dean to comment on the Democratic candidates, he said he was more interested in whether any Democrats would raise what he called "process" issues - "kind of a dull-sounding word, but actually it's about the machinery of democracy. I was stunned when the Kerry campaign in 2004 totally ignored the remarkable secrecy of the Bush administration. I called the Kerry campaign after the election, and asked them why they hadn't raised this issue. The Kerry people told me, 'We didn't raise it because it's a process issue.'"
"I began making inquiries," he continued, "and found that lots of Democratic party campaign consultants believe that the candidates shouldn't mention process issues. Democrats thought it would make them look wimpy to say 'we're being excluded from the legislative process.' Kerry didn't want to raise secrecy for the same reason - he thought it would sound wimpy."
Was Kerry right about the electorate? "I found that's exactly 180 digress away from the truth," Dean replied. "Most people can't tell you what a motion to recommit is. They don't know about that kind of process. But they know when they're getting screwed. And process is designed to protect the public interest. So people get it when the game of politics is not being played fairly, when one party is using the process for their own benefit. These kinds of things are of great interest to about 20 to 30 million voters."
What about the many more who are apathetic and ignorant -- doesn't that make him pessimistic about political change? Dean conceded that "large segments of the American public are turned off and tuned out from the democratic process. They can't name their senators. They don't know who's the Chief Justice. But the reason I'm optimistic is that I think we have enough proxies in those who are interested. They are fairly representative of those who are not. When you give them the information they need, they do the right thing. That's why I'm trying to give people good information and hard facts to show people what's gone wrong."
The Senate agreed on Thursday to increase the federal debt limit by $850 billion -- from $8.965 trillion to $9.815 trillion -- and then proceeded to approve a stop-gap spending bill that gives the Bush White House at least $9 billion in new funding for its war in Iraq.
Additionally, the administration has been given emergency authority to tap further into a $70 billion "bridge fund" to provide new infusions of money for the occupation while the Congress works on appropriations bills for the Department of Defense and other agencies.
Translation: Under the guise of a stop-gap spending bill that is simply supposed to keep the government running until a long-delayed appropriations process is completed -- probably in November -- the Congress has just approved a massive increase in war funding.
The move was backed by every senator who cast a vote, save one.
Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold, the maverick Democrat who has led the fight to end the war and bring U.S. troops home from Iraq, was on the losing end of the 94-1 vote. (The five senators who did not vote, all presidential candidates who are more involved in campaigning than governing, were Democrats Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and Joe Biden and Republicans John McCain and Sam Brownback.)
Said Feingold, "I am disappointed that we are about to begin the 2008 fiscal year without having enacted any of the appropriations bills for that year. I am even more disappointed that we voted on a continuing resolution that provides tens of billions of dollars to continue the misguided war in Iraq but does not include any language to bring that war to a close. We need to keep the federal government operating and make sure our brave troops get all the equipment and supplies they need, but we should not be giving the President a blank check to continue a war that is hurting our national security."
In the House, the continuing resolution passed by a vote of 404 to 14, with 14 other members not voting.
The "no" votes in the House, all cast by anti-war members, came from one Republican, Ron Paul of Texas, and 13 Democrats: Oregon's Earl Blumenauer, Missouri's William Clay, Minnesota's Keith Ellison, California's Bob Filner, Massachusetts' Barney Frank, New York's Maurice Hinchey, Ohio's Dennis Kucinich, Washington's Jim McDermott, New Jersey's Donald Payne, California's Barbara Lee, Maxine Waters, Diane Watson and Lynn Woolsey.
That means that, of the 2008 presidential candidates, only Republican Paul and Democrat Kucinich voted against giving the Bush administration a dramatic -- if not particularly well publicized -- infusion of new money for the war.
"Each year this war is getting more and more costly --- both in the amount of money spent and in the number of lives lost. Now this Congress is providing more funds so the administration can continue down a path of destruction and chaos," said Kucinich, who noted the essential role of House and Senate Democratic leaders, such as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, in passing the continuing resolution. "The Democratic leadership in Congress needs to take a stand against this President and say they will not give him any more money. That is the only way to end this war and bring our troops home."
Based on the work of Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph E. Stiglitz and Harvard public finance lecturer Linda J. Bilmes, the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) recently determined that the Iraq war costs $720 million per day, $500,000 per minute – enough to provide homes for nearly 6,500 families, or health care for 423,529 children in just one day.
AFSC is using ten, seven-foot banners displayed at legislative and congressional offices around the country to illustrate the costs of the war and the human needs that could be addressed with those same resources. The National Priorities Project (NPP) also has a new report on the Bush Administration's latest $50 billion spending request, which would bring the total cost of the Iraq War to $617 billion.
In addition to these staggering costs, we're also learning more about how this war has served as a boondoggle for defense contractors, with war profit-making gone out of control. The Nation's Jeremy Scahill was way ahead of the curve in reporting on Blackwater's role in the most radically privatized, outsourced war in history. (Last week, Jeremy was asked to testify before the Democratic Policy Committee about his work and reporting--which may well lead to some good reforms. )
The Institute for Policy Studies and United for a Fair Economy has done important research in this area. Here are some of the more disturbing facts: CEOs of defense contractors are paid more in four days than a general earns in a year; since September 11, CEOs at top defense contractors have received annual pay gains between 200 percent to 688 percent; between 2002 and 2006, the seven highest paid defense contractor CEOs made nearly $500 million – General Dyanmics' CEO, Nicholas Chabraja, alone was paid $97.9 million, averaging $19.6 million per year. (David Lesar of Halliburton pocketed a mere $16 million per year during that period, and Lockheed Martin's Robert Stevens has cashed in on stock options to earn over $19 million so far this year.) Many of the CEOs profitted from stock options as their companies' stock prices soared with the increased revenues from the Defense Department.
Sarah Anderson, Director of the Global Economy Program at the Institute for Policy Studies, and Charlie Cray, Director of the Center for Corporate Policy, suggest that defense contractors' CEO pay be addressed directly by conditioning contracts on reasonable pay practices. For example, requiring that the CEO not make more than 25 times the lowest paid worker within the company or, alternatively, not more than 10 times the pay of a military general. This could be combined with other eligibility criteria such as no companies that relocated offshore, have a history of significant violations, or do business with states that sponsor terrorism. (Also, the disclosure rules for defense contractors should be broadened. Right now, privately held corporations are not required to make public their executive compensation. Thus, major players like Bechtel and Blackwater can keep their pay figures secret.) But Anderson and Cray believe that CEO pay is a symptom of a much broader problem – one that will only be addressed if we recognize that the entire defense and war contracting system is out of control.
"Companies like Halliburton/KBR and Blackwater are only the tip of the iceberg," Anderson says. "We now have contractors conducting intelligence background checks, processing Freedom of Information Act Requests, writing the President's daily brief, helping run prisons like Abu Ghraib, etc."
After years of almost zero oversight, these broader questions are finally being examined – at least to a degree. Certainly Representative Henry Waxman is doing his part as Chair of the House Committee on Government Oversight and Reform, looking at Iraq reconstruction corruption. And Senators Claire McCaskill and Jim Webb introduced legislation to establish a Commission on Wartime Contracting – a Truman-like Commission – to investigate waste and fraud in contracting. (Anderson and Cray suggest that the mandate for the Commission be broadened to look at the corporatization of war, intelligence, and other inherently governmental functions.) Other common-sense pieces of legislation include: the "Transparency and Accountability in Security Contracting Act", introduced by Rep. David Price, to ensure that private security contractors like Blackwater are accountable; and two 2006 contract reform bills – Rep. Waxman's "Clean Contracting Act" and Sen. Byron Dorgan's "Honest Leadership in Government Contracting Act" – both bills would limit no-bid contracts, provide criminal sanctions for fraud, and address conflicts-of-interest, revolving door and other issues.
It is a systemic problem for a democracy to link corporate profits and war-making, and it has metastasized as this war has been increasingly privatized (there are now more contractors than soldiers in Iraq). Good small-d democrats need to keep watch on current legislation, hold our representatives accountable and and demand that they take bolder action to bring this system to an end.