On Sunday night, 60 Minutes aired an important story exposing Iraqi war profiteering that has stolen billions, crippled reconstruction and put the lives of troops at fatal risk.
As Steve Kroft reported, "The United States has spent over one-quarter trillion dollars in three years in Iraq, and more than 50 billion of it has gone to private contractors, hired to guard bases, drive trucks and shelter the troops and rebuild the country." This money, more than the annual budget of the Department of Homeland Security, "has been handed out to companies in Iraq with little or no oversight. Millions of dollars are unaccounted for. And there are widespread allegations of waste, fraud and war profiteering." The segment focused on a company called Custer Battles, which is the subject of a civil lawsuit that goes to trial today.
The $2 million given to Custer Battles was only the first installment--of $100 million--on a contract to provide security at Baghdad International Airport. What's significant is that the company was started by two guys with absolutely no security experience. What one of them had was (a claim of) ties to the Republican Party and connections at the White House. In a memo obtained by 60 Minutes, the Baghdad airport's director of security wrote to the Coalition Authority, "Custer Battles have shown themselves to be unresponsive, uncooperative, incompetent, deceitful, manipulative and war profiteers. Other than that, they're swell fellows."
The company continued to work in Iraq even after one of Custer Battles's main subcontractors went to federal authorities with allegations of criminal misconduct--bilking the government out of $50 million. (The subcontractor and another whistleblower are suing the company on behalf of US taxpayers to recover some of the money.)
What's happened since? Well, as Kroft reports, "To date, the only action that's been taken against [the company] has been a one-year suspension from receiving government contracts. It has since expired."
"I think what's happening over there is an orgy of greed here with contractors," says North Dakota Senator Byron Dorgan, whose committee has held hearings on the giants of war profiteering--Halliburton and its subsidiary, Kellogg, Brown and Root, which has collected half of all the money awarded to contractors in Iraq and, according to the Defense Department's own auditors, has overbilled taxpayers by more than $1 billion.
If there's any chance of oversight, it won't come from Republicans who refuse to hold hearings into the reconstruction racket. Expect to hear more in coming days from Stuart Bowen, the special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, whose staff--in two lengthy reports--has already laid out suspected fraud and incompetence. According to 60 Minutes, it is of "staggering proportions, like the $8.8 billion that the Coalition seems to have lost track of."
War profiteering ties the corruption and cronyism that people have seen in Congress and Katrina to the failure and agonies that they witness in Iraq. It highlights how unaccountable this Republican Congress is. And it shows clearly, despite Karl Rove's core contention--"we'll protect you"--that, in fact, this Administration has undermined the security of this country in the muck of its lethal cynicism, corruption and cronyism.
What 60 Minutes's important exposé also reveals is the need for an independent war profiteering commission, which would investigate the multibillion-dollar, unaccounted-for expenditures in the Iraq War and publish a report for public distribution that includes tough recommendations for legislative action and, if found, criminal action. It would be modeled on the Truman Commission, which then-Senator Harry Truman chaired during World War II to expose and eliminate waste, mismanagement and corruption, and would consist of a group of dedicated, visible current and former public servants--Democrats, Republicans, Independents--committed to examining the financial and military transactions related to the Iraqi war effort.
The Commission's public hearings--although lacking subpoena power to compel the production of relevant documents--could draw significant coverage. It should be a platform for citizen whistleblowers, military families and veterans of the Iraq wars. (By holding public hearings in towns and cities that have suffered disproportionate military casualties, the link between corruption and human lives would be drawn sharply and painfully.) In addition to live public hearings, the Commission could use the Internet as a way of collecting and disseminating its information and findings.
Given the revulsion that decent people--of all political hues--feel about war profiteering, this is a project that could have a real impact in these coming weeks and months. I will be working to explore interest in establishing this war-profiteering commission. I welcome your comments and ideas below.
George Allen, the not-so-bright, tobacco-dipping, football-quoting Senator from Virginia, is quickly emerging as the right wing's potential answer to John McCain come 2008. Allen solidified his standing as an inside the Beltway rising star by winning the Conservative Political Action Conference's '08 straw poll on Saturday, besting McCain 22 to 20 percent. He also won the title of "America's Best Senator" from Muslims for Bush.
Since we're likely to be hearing Allen's name more and more in the coming months, let's take a look back at what he thinks of the pressing issues of the day, starting with the selection of Ben Bernanke as Chairman of the Federal Reserve. From the New York Times, January 31, 2006:
Here is what Senator George Allen of Virginia, who is considering a bid for the Republican presidential nomination in 2008, said when asked his opinion of the Bernanke nomination.
Told that Mr. Bernanke was up for the Fed chairman's job, Mr. Allen hedged a little, said he had not been focused on it, and wondered aloud when the hearings would be. Told that the Senate Banking Committee hearings had concluded in November, the senator responded: ''You mean I missed them all? I paid no attention to them.''
The heir to Bush, only dumber.
Sure, it's been fun joking about the fact that Dick Cheney obtained five -- count them, five -- deferments to avoid serving in the military during the Vietnam War. Sure, its been amusing to recount his limp claim that the man who served as George Bush I's Secretary of Defense had "other priorities" than taking up arms in defense of his country. Sure, it was a laugh when the chief cheerleader for the war in Iraq mocked John Kerry for having actually carried a weapon in a time of war.
But it is time to stop laughing at Dick Cheney's expense.
Now that the vice president has accidentally shot and wounded a companion on a quail hunt at the elite Texas ranch where rich men play with guns -- spraying his 78-year-old victim, er, friend, in the face and chest with shotgun pellets and sending the man to the intensive care unit of a Corpus Christi hospital -- it has become clear that Cheney was doing the country a service when he avoided service.
Despite the best efforts of Cheney's apologists to have it otherwise, the man the vice president misstook for a quail, millionaire attorney Harry Whittington, was in plain sight, wearing a bright orange vest at the time the vice president blasted him.
U.S. troops had enough problems in Vietnam without letting a trigger-happy incompetent like Dick Cheney start shooting things up from behind the lines.
Those deferments were well and wisely issued.
It seemed like the Air Force knew it had a problem with religious intolerance.
A "Team Jesus Christ" banner was hung by the head football coach in the team locker room. Cadets of various faiths reported conversion attempts and harassment by superiors as well as evangelical prayer at official academy events. And a Lutheran minister confirmed a systemic evangelical bias by administrators, faculty, and upperclassmen.
So a draft of new guidelines on religious expression discouraged sectarian prayer at public gatherings, and warned superiors against proselytizing to subordinates. But Focus on the Family and other evangelical groups would have none of it.
According to the Washington Post, "They launched a nationwide petition drive, sounded alarms on Christian radio stations, and deluged the White House and Air Force Secretary Michael W. Wynne's office with e-mails calling the guidelines an infringement of the Constitution's guarantees of free speech and free exercise of religion."
The result? The Pentagon released a new draft of guidelines emphasizing the freedom of superiors to exercise their faith when it is "reasonably clear discussions are personal, not official."
Americans United for Separation of Church and State put it well: The revisions "focus on protecting the rights of chaplains, while ignoring the rights of nonbelievers and minority faiths."
The bottom line: the military caved to evangelical pressure and reaffirmed, rather than reformed, the continual eroding of the separation of church and state. One more victory for the right wing, one more slap at the Constitution.
On Saturday night, Stephen Crockett, Co-host of Democratic Talk Radio, had an interesting blog about a "typical missed news story" and what it reveals about the "liberal media" myth.
I'm posting it to The Notion not because it's about an event The Nation was involved in, but because I believe it's another sign of how skewed our so-called mainstream media coverage is. Too many media outlets--especially television--focus on the beltway, on the horse-race stories, and echo the administration's line. As a result, they fail to reflect the real and broad range of views in this country. I'd argue that the mainstream media is missing what is mainstream.
As Paul Krugman recently pointed out, "You'd never know it from the range of views represented on the Sunday talk shows, but a majority of Americans believes that the administration deliberately misled the nation about W.M.D.'s and that we should set a timetable for withdrawal [or]... For example, that the public believes by two to one that we should guarantee health insurance for all Americans."
I've always believed that there are millions of progressives/liberals in this country, who may not agree on everything, but whose concerns and values are basically ignored by broadcast media and radio--which is where a majority of Americans still get their news. Poll after poll shows shows that most Americans share what one could call core progressive or liberal values--investment in health care and education over tax cuts, fair trade over free trade, a speedy end to the disastrous war in Iraq, corporate accountability over deregulation, preserving clean air and water instead of rolling back environmental protections, defending social security and medicare over privatizing them, raising the minimum wage instead of increasing CEO payouts. But because people don't hear their views, concerns reflected on television or on the local radio, they begin to think that their views are weird, unpopular, even, deviant.
If you want more evidence of how increasingly skewed our media landscape is, check out Media Matters' valuable new report, "If It's Sunday, It's Conservative." (It's embargoed until Tuesday, but we'll be posting it here that morning.) The report documents, through rigorous content analysis, how over the last five years Republicans and conservatives have found their voices amplified by the Sunday debate-setting talk shows. Confirming Krugman's point, Media Matters' report shows that, "As a result of the skew of the Sunday shows, our national debate--with all of its consequences for policy and public opinion--has been pulled unmistakably to the right."
And check out Stephen Crockett's blog of Democratic Talk Radio.
To truly understand conservatives, you need to experience them in their element. The largest such gathering of true believers is the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), which took place this weekend in Washington, DC. CPAC is a rite of passage for young conservatives, graced by the likes of Dick Cheney, John Bolton and Bill Frist.
I and The Nation's Max Blumenthal stopped by on Friday, hoping to catch Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback, the subject of Jeff Sharlet's masterful profile in this month's Rolling Stone. Brownback didn't show, but luckily Ann Coulter was on the menu later in the day. She didn't disappoint--characterizing Muslims as "ragheads," comparing moderate Republicans to slave plantations and wishing she'd assassinated Bill Clinton. Go read Max's blog for the full account.
Before Coulter's speech we strolled around the exhibit hall, home to such vendors as the "ex-gay is OK" table and "Muslims for Bush." We stopped by the booth of one man opposed to affirmative action in South Africa, of all places. Much to our surprise, he was not a fan of the current Republican Party or its followers. When Max told him to go see Coulter he responded, "my friend warned me about her."
Even white nationalists from South Africa are more mainstream than Republican activists in this country.
Americans ought be listening to Russ Feingold in these defining days for the Republic, because what the Democratic senator from Wisconsin is saying goes to the heart of the question of whether a nation founded in revolt against monarchy will be ruled by laws or by the crude whims of an intemperate sovereign and his out-of-control administration.
Feingold has been fighting for weeks to get the Congress to address the issue of President Bush's illegal approval of warrantless wiretapping of Americans. A small but growing group in Congress, including some prominent Republicans -- most recently, U.S. Rep. Heather Wilson, R-N.M., the chair of the House Subcommittee on Technical and Tactical Intelligence, who this week called for a "complete review" of the National Security Agency domestic spying program -- have begun echoing Feingold's demand that the Constitutional crisis created by the president's wrongdoing be taken seriously.
But too many major media outlets continue to treat the eavesdropping scandal as little more than a political game. They chart the progress of the critics and then measure the extent to which the administration's spin has limited the damage to the president's approval ratings.
Frustrated by the game playing, Feingold went to the floor of the Senate last Tuesday in an effort to break through the spin and speak the blunt truths of the moment.
"Last week the President of the United States gave his State of the Union address, where he spoke of America's leadership in the world, and called on all of us to 'lead this world toward freedom.' Again and again, he invoked the principle of freedom, and how it can transform nations, and empower people around the world," Feingold told the chamber. "But, almost in the same breath, the President openly acknowledged that he has ordered the government to spy on Americans, on American soil, without the warrants required by law. The President issued a call to spread freedom throughout the world, and then he admitted that he has deprived Americans of one of their most basic freedoms under the Fourth Amendment -- to be free from unjustified government intrusion."
The Wisconsinite who emerged as the Capitol's most diligent defender of the Constitution when he cast the sole vote in the Senate against the Patriot Act in 2001 delivered a blistering indictment not just of the president but of those who are treating the debate over the administration's assault on basic liberties as just another fight between political partisans.
"The President was blunt. He said that he had authorized the NSA's domestic spying program, and he made a number of misleading arguments to defend himself. His words got rousing applause from Republicans, and I think even some Democrats," Feingold continued. "The President was blunt, so I will be blunt: This program is breaking the law, and this President is breaking the law. Not only that, he is misleading the American people in his efforts to justify this program."
Noting that many Republican members of the House and Senate cheered the president's defense of his illegal acts, Feingold asked, "How is that worthy of applause? Since when do we celebrate our commander in chief for violating our most basic freedoms, and misleading the American people in the process? When did we start to stand up and cheer for breaking the law? In that moment at the State of the Union, I felt ashamed."
It is time, Feingold explained, for his colleagues to recognize its shame and begin to act honorably.
"Congress," the senator said, "has lost its way if we don't hold this President accountable for his actions."
Feingold is right. But it is not only Congress that must act. The American people need to get into this fight.
The defense of the Constitution against executive lawbreaking is not merely the work of elected legislators.
It must be the work of patriots. Feingold is leading the defense of basic liberties, but we all have a place in this struggle to preserve both the Bill of Rights and an American experiment that is now gravely threatened. Only an outcry from the people will assure that Congress -- and America -- does not lose its way.
Think the Internet will always be the freewheeling, democratic information superhighway you've grown to rely on? Well, think again. Corporate media giants are working hard behind the scenes to convince a clueless and compliant Congress to privatize the Internet. The telecom and cable giants want to fence off the Internet with one area for the haves--who will pay a premium to enjoy life in the fast lane--and the other for the have-nots.
As digital democracy expert Jeff Chester wrote on The Nation's site, "The nation's largest telephone and cable companies are crafting an alarming set of strategies that would transform the free, open and nondiscriminatory Internet of today to a privately run and branded service that would charge a fee for virtually everything we do online."
To ward off the prospect of "virtual toll booths on the information highway," an interesting coalition of public-interest groups like Common Cause and Free Press, along with new media companies like Amazon.com, are calling for new federal policies requiring "network neutrality" on the Internet. This would prohibit broadband providers from discriminating against any forms of digital content. In this way internet service providers would be regulated like telephone companies used to be, and couldn't simply decide to block their customers' access to legal websites.
Net neutrality wouldn't completely neuter the threat of Internet privatization but it would be an important victory in maintaining the Internet's public sphere. Congressional hearings took place last week. Congress will vote on the issue sometime relatively soon. Now is the time to make your voice heard. Free Press has a good action letter. Click here to tell Congress to protect freedom and openness on the Internet by supporting net neutrality. And click here to read and circulate background info detailing why the stakes are so high in this battle.
Twenty-two members of the House have now signed on as co-sponors of the call by Representative John Conyers, D-Michigan, to establish a select committee of the Congress to investigate whether the Bush administration's actions before and after the invasion of Iraq violated Constitutional requirements, statutes and standards in a manner that would merit impeachment of the president or vice president.
Conyers introduced the resolution last December, and only a handful of members agreed to cosponsor the measure before Congress went on its long holiday break: California's Lois Capps, Maxine Waters and Lynn Woolsey, New Jersey's Donald Payne, New York's Charles Rangel and Texan Sheila Jackson-Lee. The list of cosponsors swelled after the long holiday break, when ten members from around the country -- California's Barbara Lee and Pete Stark, Hawaii's Neil Abercrombie, Illinois' Jan Schakowsky, Minnesota's Jim Oberstar, Missouri's William Lacy Clay, New York's Jerry Nadler and Major Owens, Washington's Jim McDermott and Wisconsin's Tammy Baldwin -- came back to Washington convinced that the American people are a good deal more interested than most DC insiders recognize in reasserting checks and balances on an administration that has spun out of control.
In the past week, six additional members have signed on: California's Mike Honda and Sam Farr, Georgia's John Lewis and Cynthia McKinney, and New York's Carolyn Maloney and Maurice Hinchey.
There's a reason why this measure is beginning to draw broader support.
In addition to seeking a review of whether the administration began planning to go to war before obtaining authorization from Congress, along with investigations of the White House's manipulation of pre-war intelligence and encouragement and countenancing of torture, the Conyers resolution proposes to examine steps taken by the administration to retaliate against critics.
It is that final concern that could prove to be the most immediate threat to a member of the administration -- now that National Journal is reporting that Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff, I. Lewis (Scooter) Libby, has told a federal grand jury that he was "authorized" by Cheney and other White House "superiors" to disclose classified information to journalists as part of a scheme to defend the Bush administration's manipulation of prewar intelligence in order to make the "case" for going to war with Iraq.
No one who has followed the workings of this White House has ever doubted that Cheney -- the administration's most over-the-top proponent of the war -- would turn out to be the ripest target for impeachment. But the leap from Scooter Libby's charges, if they are confirmed, to actual articles of impeachment is not a long one.
An essential step in that process has already been taken. One of the cosponsors of the Conyers resolution, Maurice Hinchey, is calling for an aggressive Congressional inquiry into the issue, arguing that, "[The] revelation in National Journal that Vice President Cheney and other White House superiors authorized Scooter Libby to disclose classified information to the news media in order to defend the Administration's use of pre-war intelligence on Iraq is alarming. That the vice president would put his own political gain before the safety and security of the American people by approving the release of classified information to the press warrants a full congressional investigation, including testimony from the vice president himself."
Hinchey has been dogged in demanding that Cheney come clean about his role in the scandal that has arisen with regard to the administration's leaking of classified information in an attempt to discredit Ambassador Joseph Wilson, who had raised damning questions with regard to the administration's pre-war claims about the threat posed by Iraq.
In a statement released after the latest revelations about Cheney, Hinchey said, "While many of us in Congress had long suspected that Vice President Cheney played a central role in the leaking of Valerie Wilson's name to the press, today's news report confirms that there is merit to that belief. The leaking of Valerie Wilson's identity as a covert CIA agent is a very serious crime that jeopardized national security and everyone who was involved must be held accountable and brought to justice. No one, including, Vice President Cheney, should be shielded from prosecution."
Hinchey, who actually believes in a system of checks and balances where the legislative branch embraces its responsibility to hold the executive branch to account, argues that Cheney -- who began his career as a White House aide in the administration of former President Richard Nixon -- can no longer be allowed to stonewall this investigation.
"On November 3, 2005, I, along with Congressmen Conyers and Waxman, sent a letter to Vice President Cheney asking that he come to Congress to testify about his involvement in the CIA leak case. The vice president disregarded that letter and never responded. Congress and the American people deserve more than silence from the vice president about such a serious matter. Now is the time for the Vice President Cheney to step forward and answer questions, under oath, as to what his involvement was in the CIA leak case and whether he ever authorized the disclosure of classified information to the press in order to justify going to war in Iraq," says Hinchey.
"I also renew the call I made in September with 40 House members for Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald to closely examine the motive behind the White House's disclosure of Valerie Wilson's name, which I believe was to discredit her husband, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, who was refuting the White House's claim that Iraq had sought uranium from Niger. The National Journal article reports that Libby testified to the grand jury in the CIA leak case that he worked closely with Deputy National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley and White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove to determine what information the White House should leak to the press in order to gain support for the war in Iraq. It is clear that Libby, Hadley, and Rove worked together to twist, manipulate, and selectively release the intelligence on Iraq in order to gain public approval for the war. All those who leaked classified information and deliberately misled the American people and Congress into thinking Iraq had weapons of mass destruction must be brought to justice so the world can see that the United States holds those accountable who break the law."
John Nichols' book, The Rise and Rise of Richard B. Cheney: Unlocking the Mysteries of the Most Powerful Vice President in American History (The New Press) is available nationwide at independent bookstores and at www.amazon.com. Publisher's Weekly describes it as "a Fahrenheit 9/11 for Cheney" and Esquire magazine says it "reveals the inner Cheney. The Rise and Rise of Richard B. Cheney includes an interview with Joseph Wilson and details the inner workings of the vice president's office at the time of the Plame-Wilson leak.
Following up on Ari's post about the Band of Brothers, those military veterans running for Congress as Democrats.
The theory is that as former soldiers they will be immunized against Republican charges that Dems are unpatriotic girly-men who are "soft on defense." (As "Mask" points out in the comments section of Ari's post, running as a vet worked so well for Max Cleland and John Kerry!)
One thing the Band of Brothers strategy will do if it succeeds is to help keep Congress white and male. Of the 56 candidates currently marching under the brotherly battle flag, only three are women. (One of the three, Mishonda Baldwin, is also the only African-American).
So I guess the Dems are giving up on that whole gender-gap equality thing. Remember when Patty Murray ran for Senate as a "mom in tennis shoes"? A mother had better wear combat boots if she hopes to attract the attention of the DNC today!
Do we really want to promote the idea that military service is some kind of necessary item on apolitical resume? That personal machismo is a qualification for office? The BOB strikes me as a gimmick, if not an outright pander to militarism and sexism--time for the daddies to retake the mommy party! Chaaarge! And yet more proof, ladies, that the Dems are writing you off.