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Afghanistan in Headlines

Afghanistan remains the forgotten war and yet, in an eerie lockstep with Iraq, it seems to be following a distinctly Bush administration-style path toward "the gates of hell." While almost all attention in Washington and the U.S. media has been focused on the President's new "surge" plan in Iraq -- is it for 21,000 or 50,000 American troops? Just how astronomical will the bills be? Just how strong will Congressional opposition prove? Just how bad, according to American intelligence, is the situation? -- Afghanistan is experiencing its own quiet surge plan: more U.S. (and NATO) troops, more military aid, more reconstruction funds, more fighting, more casualties, heavier weaponry, more air power, more bad news, and predictions of worse to come.

The repetitive and dismal headlines, often tucked away in back pages, tell the tale:

On the fighting:

"Airstrike kills up to Seven in Afghanistan"

"12 militants killed in West Afghanistan"

"Nato offensive 'kills 30 Taleban'"

"Group: Over 1,000 Afghan civilians killed" ("More than 1,000 civilians were killed in Afghanistan in 2006, most of them as a result of attacks by the Taliban and other anti-government forces in the country's unstable south, a rights group said Tuesday…")

"Driving the Taleban off Nipple Hill -- again"

"No foreseeable end to assaults facing Royal Marines in Helmand" ("Another day, another attack. Yesterday the barrage of mortars, rockets and rifle fire began raining down on the British base at Kajaki at just after six in the morning…")

"Taleban forces retake town" ("Taleban forces in southern Afghanistan have taken control of a town which British troops had pulled out of after a peace deal with local elders…")

On calls for intensification of the military struggle:

"Britain to increase forces in Afghanistan"

"NATO to step up efforts to control Afghan border: general"

"U.S. lawmakers, back from Afghanistan, say more NATO troops needed"

On the repetitively dismal tale of "reconstructing" Afghanistan and on drugs:

"Afghan rebuilding hit by ‘violence and waste'" ("The international body established to co-ordinate Afghanistan's reconstruction effort marked its one-year anniversary on Wednesday by admitting it was struggling to make progress in the face of rising violence, waste and poor administration.")

"AFGHANISTAN: Girls and women traded for opium debts" ("On 4 November 2006, Nasima, 25, a member of a local women's council, grabbed the AK-47 from the policeman guarding the council meeting in the Grishk district of southern Helmand province and killed herself. She had had enough of the daily beatings by her husband. Like many other women in Helmand, Nasima was given away by her family in 2005. Her father owed a huge amount to an opium dealer…")

On predictions of more and worse to come (with faint hopes of better sooner or later):

"New U.S. commander in Afghanistan expects rise in suicide attacks in 2007" ("The incoming commander of U.S. troops in Afghanistan said Monday he expects Taliban militants to launch more suicide attacks this year than in 2006, when militants set off a record 139 such bombings…")

"NATO general expects offensive, says Taliban beaten" ("The Taliban will launch an offensive within months once the snows melt, but they are effectively a beaten force, according to the outgoing head of NATO forces in Afghanistan...")

So goes the repetitive, if ever deepening, tragedy of our other war- and under such headlines lie massive tragedies that seldom make the headlines anywhere like the plight of Afghanistan's "liberated" women (as recently vividly described by former humanitarian aid worker and author of Kabul in Winter, Ann Jones), who remain "by custom and practice, the property of men," capable of being "traded and sold like any commodity," despite all the hoopla about their improved status offered by the Bush administration.

In the case of Afghanistan, the question remains: What ever made the top officials of the Bush administration think that they could succeed in conquering and occupying Afghanistan, when so many others from Alexander the Great to the imperial British and the imperial Russians failed so dismally at the same task?

Compromising Compromises the Senate

If there was ever a time to embrace Robert M. "Fighting Bob" La Follette's theory that compromise undermines progress it is now.

The pioneering progressive reformer of the first decades of the twentieth century never fell for the calculus that said taking half a loaf was better than nothing. "I believe that half a loaf is fatal whenever it is accepted at the sacrifice of the basic principle sought to be attained," argued the senator who led the dissents against Woodrow Wilson's world war, to great complaint at the time but to such eventual praise that he would be ranked by the Senate itself as one of its five greatest members. "Half a loaf, as a rule, dulls the appetite, and destroys the keenness of interest in attaining the full loaf. A halfway measure never fairly tests the principle and may utterly discredit it. It is certain to weaken, disappoint, and dissipate public interest. Concession and compromise are almost always necessary in legislation, but they call for the most thorough and complete mastery of the principles involved, in order to fix the limit beyond which not one hair's breadth can be yielded."

In the Senate where La Follette served so honorably and so effectively for two decades, his successors are not even peddling half a loaf today. They are holding up a piece of crust and trying to convince us that they are serving a feast.

Almost four years into a war that should never have been fought in the first place, with all the evidence that anyone could ask for pointing to the fact that things are getting worse rather than better, senators are trying to muster the will to support a non-binding expression of mild distaste for President Bush's troop surge fantasy.

Non-binding resolutions are the political equivalent of room-temperature tap water served up for toasts at a wedding reception. They beg the question: "What the hell are these people thinking?"

If senators wanted to tell Bush he was wrong, they should have moved a non-binding resolution the day he announced his scheme to surge 21,5OO additional troops into a quagmire of his own creation. Then, they should have gotten down to the serious business of obeying their sworn oaths to uphold a Constitution that requires them to check and balance an errant executive.

Instead, the Senate has dithered for the best part of a month and come up with something worse than a simple objection.

In order to forge a bipartisan alliance, Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Carl Levin, D-Michigan, and the ranking Republican on the committee, Virginia's John Warner, have written a resolution that, in order to allow a few scared solons to place some rhetorical distance between themselves and a failed president, threatens to put the Senate on record as favoring more aggressive fighting in some parts of Iraq and opposing any effort to use the power of the purse to constrain the madness of our current King George.

One senator has objected to the Levin-Warner resolution for precisely the right reasons.

That senator, perhaps not surprisingly, represents not only La Follette's home state of Wisconsin but La Follette's progressive tradition.

"I oppose the weak Warner-Levin resolution as currently written because it misunderstands the situation in Iraq and shortchanges our national security interests," says Russ Feingold, the Wisconsin Democrat who has emerged as the chamber's most consistent critic of the war. "The resolution rejects redeploying U.S. troops and supports moving a misguided military strategy from one part of Iraq to another. The American people have rejected the President's Iraq strategy and it's time for Congress to end our military involvement in this war. We must redeploy our troops from Iraq so that we can focus on the global threats that face us."

Feingold, who has fought an essential struggle to get the Congress to recognize its responsibility as a coequal branch of government to check the president, says that the Senate can and should force the President to safely redeploy U.S. troops out of Iraq by enacting legislation that would prohibit further funding of military operations in that country six months after its passage.

Bob La Follette would warn today's senators not to let the crusty Levin-Warner compromise dull the appetite and destroy the keenness of interest in attaining the full loaf that is Feingold's Iraq Redeployment Act of 2OO7. La Follette would, as well, tell today's citizens not to forget or forgive those senators who, when the need to bring the troops home was so evident, chose to engage in non-binding theatrics rather than to act as defenders of the Constitution and the republic for which it was written.

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John Nichols' latest book is THE GENIUS OF IMPEACHMENT: The Founders' Cure forRoyalism.

The Next War Has Already Begun

Last weekend's peace march in Washington was short a few bodies. A plane-load of potential marchers was held up by British Airways on our way back from the World Social Forum in Nairobi. No, we weren't detained, just delayed, by an engine failure discovered late at night on the runway.

There we were, packed, pumped up, and eager for action after a week of talk when the pilot came on the sound system and announced that one of the jumbo jet's four engines had failed and our departure was put off for a day.

We missed the marching, but I've been thinking about our engine failure as I've read the coverage of the demonstration. Turnout wasn't bad. Organizers estimate the crowd at half a million. But after ten days in Kenya, the contrast in priorities between the peace agenda in DC and that in Nairobi couldn't be starker. Dig as I might into the reporting on Saturday's event, I can't find any serious mention of the US intervention in Somalia. While many US activists are quoted talking about the threat of a US operation against Iran (and I think the Iran threat is serious) the US is already engaged in a military intervention in the Horn of Africa, yet it's barely mentioned. It's enough to make you wonder if the US peace movement is firing on all cylinders.

It is the stuff of daily concern and discussion in much of Africa, but here's an update for US readers: American gunships stationed at the US base in Dijbouti carried out two deadly air strikes on Somalia this January. The Pentagon delayed confirming the January 8 attack for more than twenty-four hours but Oxfam claims that US bombs killed seventy nomads as they searched for water near the Kenya border. Two weeks later, a second strike claimed more lives, but still not the supposed targets--suspects wanted for their alleged role in the 1998 attacks on US embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam.

Speaking to the East African newspaper January 22, Michael Ranneberger, the US Ambassador to Kenya, cast the US intervention as pro-peace, pro-democracy move. "We want to ensure security on the ground and that includes trying to interdict these foreign terrorists connected with Al-Quaeda that have been operating in Somalia," Rannenberger told the East African. "Second, we want to promote stability in Somalia." The Somalia operation will take a while, the ambassador admitted. "It would be a mistake to put an artificial time line and say it will take four months or six months." All of this sounds dreadfully familiar.

Air strikes are just one face of the US intervention. The US is also backing Ethiopian forces which last month invaded in an effort to drive forces loyal to the Islamic Courts Union out of the Somali capital, Mogadishu. (The operation is said to have been in the planning since the Courts Union took control over the city the last summer.) The Somali political picture is complex--the Courts Union is the closest thing much of Somalia has had to an effective government in more than 16 years--but a few things are clear: the country is situated in a strategic region, with the continent's longest coastline, rich mineral and oil reserves and several deep sea ports. It's no surprise the US wants a client regime there. With US troops stretched thin, the next best way for the administration to fight its wars is with a mobile force (like the one stationed at Djibouti) and proxy ground forces that may not be popular on the ground but will do their paymaster's bidding (like the Ethiopians' and local warlords.)

So far, so bad. While most of us haven't been paying much attention, the US action in the Horn has stirred up Somalia's civil war, sent an armory of new weapons to local warlords and sparked a new refugee crisis. (Last month, the Kenyan government closed its borders those fleeing the bombing.) According to local reports, Courts Union Islamists gain favor with every assault, as they cast themselves as victims of US imperialism.

Welcome to the next war now. The US engagement in Somalia is what the new generation of US wars is likely to look like and it would behoove the US peace movement to pay attention.

The Cost of Escalation

The Iraq war is currently costing American taxpayers $8.4 billion a month. Expect that number to rise when President Bush's escalation fully kicks into effect.

According to the Congressional Budget Office, deploying 20,000 combat forces for four months will cost $5 billion. Keeping the troops there for a year pushes the price tag to $11 billion.

The CBO report, however, suggests that the number of troops needed for the mission--and the cost of deploying them--is even larger than what the Bush Administration is letting on.

In the past few years, a normal combat brigade deployed to Iraq has consisted of 4,000 combat troops and 5,500 support personnel to assist them. The Bush Administration's plan calls for an increase of 21,500 combat troops--but makes no mention of the support personnel needed.

If the Department of Defense follows standard protocol for the escalation, 28,000 support troops will need to reinforce the 21,500 combat troops. Even a smaller footprint could require 15,000 support troops. The real size of the escalation, then, more closely resembles 35,000 to 48,000 American soldiers, at a cost of $9 to $13 billion for four months and $20 to $27 billion for a year.

Naturally, such a scenario has members of Congress concerned. "The cost of the troop increase could be significantly higher than what the Administration has been saying in the press," said Ike Skelton, Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. " We will want to carefully investigate just how big the President's troop increase really is."

Could this be yet another case of the Bush Administration's "fuzzy math?"

From the Basement to Rayburn

On Wednesday, the Congressional Progressive Caucus – now the largest caucus in Congress with 69 members – co-hosted a panel discussion along with The Nation and the Institute for Policy Studies on its new Progressive Promise for America. The event took place in the Rayburn House Office Building, a long way from the Capitol basement where the Caucus was founded fifteen years ago by then-Congressman Bernie Sanders and four colleagues. Even in the last few years when Caucus Co-Chair, Congresswoman Lynn Woolsey, held hearings on Iraq, the Republicans relegated those hearings to the basement.

But now Caucus members chair the majority of committees and subcommittees in the House, and thirteen members participated in the panel even as they came and went to oversee their respective committee hearings. In attendance were: Representatives Barbara Lee, Lynn Woolsey, John Conyers, Dennis Kucinich, Charles Rangel, Sheila Jackson-Lee, Bob Filner, Diane Watson, Barney Frank, Maxine Waters, Maurice Hinchey, Keith Ellison, and Steve Cohen. The Nation's own John Nichols served as a nimble, historically astute, and diplomatic moderator.

Panelists were joined in the conference room by allies from the NAACP, Progressive Democrats of America, Code Pink, Hip Hop Caucus, Peace Action, Campaign for America's Future, Association of Farm Workers Opportunity Program and other progressive groups and people. The room was filled with energy and idealism, and it reflected the Caucus' understanding that the Democratic party's finest hours have come when it has worked alongside popular movements… that democracy works when citizens are inspired to claim it as their own. One of the caucus members set the tone for the gathering, saying we should all have smiles on our faces – we are kindred spirits who helped to change the course of our country and win the last election. It's a new day for a new way.

It was clear from the discussion that caucus members are under no illusions about the struggles ahead – to end the war in Iraq (which Caucus co-Chair Rep. Lee called "the number one marching order" from the people); to bring economic fairness and justice to our nation; and to safeguard our constitution from a Bush administration and its Republican accomplices, who continue to trample upon it. But members are also clearly determined to seize the moment. These strong and decent representatives intend to provide a marker of opposition to the perilous policies of the Bush administration, and also offer alternatives that have the support of the majority of Americans and will inspire a sense of a new direction and new priorities. From ending the war and promoting peace, to fighting for universal health care, to demanding real energy independence and environmental protection… this Caucus and its members will offer bold initiatives.

Rep. Conyers, Chair of the Judiciary Committee, promised to look into the Bush doctrine of preemptive, unilateral action; treatment of detainees at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo; and the rendition of suspects to nations that practice torture. Conyers highlighted the importance of such investigations, saying, "We are living under an administration that has taken unto itself more Executive powers than anyone in history… Much of it under the radar and deliberately avoided by the media."

Lee offered an important perspective shared by other Caucus members on how they will conduct hearings. "We have to go where the people are," she said. "Not everyone can get to D.C." Caucus members understand the importance of directly connecting with the people – that the people are ahead of the politicians and the pundits. That same commitment to the grassroots was evident in most committee chairs pledging to go to New Orleans with their members.

Rep. Frank repeated his charge that the administration's Katrina-response (or lack thereof) was "ethnic cleansing by inaction." Frank will invite members of the Financial Services Committee, which he chairs, to join him in visiting New Orleans during the February recess – a visit which will in part inform hearings on affordable housing that he will hold with Rep. Waters. Frank will also challenge the Bush administration's trade agenda. He had just returned from Davos, where elite circles believed the next (Doha) round of WTO negotiations would move smoothly along – further illustration, Frank told the room, of not only this administration's denial but also US and global corporate myopia when it comes to recognizing the shift represented by the recent election.

Threading through almost all of the caucus members' talk was a commitment to rebuilding a city the Bush administration has virtually forgotten – in words and deeds. Rep. Filner, chair of the Committee on Veterans Affairs, pledged that he would also visit New Orleans. Filner cited that there are 200,000 homeless veterans on any given night – half of whom are Vietnam vets – and how this speaks to the importance of getting the Veterans Administration to treat post traumatic stress disorder and other forms of mental illness. He spoke eloquently about why we cannot expect our soldiers to watch their friends get blown up, or mistakenly shoot an innocent, and come home without emotional struggles and challenges. Filner pointed to several hundred cases of suicide committed by soldiers returning home, and he has tried unsuccessfully to obtain the corresponding documentation. His message to soldiers in Iraq is this: "We're against the policy that sent you to war but we're going to give you every bit of care we can." Part of Filner's caring for soldiers is through his co-sponsorship of the Bring Our Troops Home and Sovereignty of Iraq Restoration Act, which – in addition to funding a 6-month orderly withdrawal – would guarantee full health care funding, including mental health, for U.S. veterans of the Iraq war and other conflicts.

Indeed that piece of legislation now has 29 co-sponsors, and legislation has also been introduced by Rep. Kucinich, and Representatives Jerrold Nadler and James McGovern – also Caucus members. These legislators have provided the alternative that the Bush administration and its dwindling allies still claim doesn't exist, including: funding for a 6-month orderly withdrawal of troops and contractors; no permanent bases in Iraq; Iraqi control over their own oil; and participation in international peacekeeping and diplomatic efforts. Caucus members are also fighting the myth that voting to bring the troops home and funding a withdrawal is tantamount to not supporting the troops. As Conyers said, the power of the purse exists for times such as now – to rein in an Executive who is out of control.

Freshman Rep. Cohen, from Memphis, spoke of how ending the war was a key issue in his election and for his district. The caucus, he said, plays a key role in recognizing the urgency of ending this war and not backing off. Cohen cited the lyrics of Jackson Browne's Lives in the Balance (Where a government lies to a people/And a country is drifting to war/… There are lives in the balance/There are people under fire/There are children at the cannons/And there is blood on the wire).

Another freshman, Rep. Ellison of Minneapolis (the first Muslim elected to Congress), closed the panel discussion with a brevity and a clarity that I hope captures the ascendant new progressive spirit. He recounted that during his campaign he told the voters that he wanted to "go to DC to end the war and hold those who took us to war to account. But we also need to stop the next war." He said that the United States must use its power to promote justice and peace.

Perhaps the most personal perspective on the gathering was offered by Rep. Rangel. 76 years old and referred to as "one of the old bulls," Rangel said that he had considered leaving Congress because he actually feared that his grandchildren in the future might say, "You were there. Why didn't you do anything?" But he stayed, in hopes that a Democratic majority would soon come to power, and that he would, in fact, be able to do something about "the most dangerous presidency in my lifetime." Rangel drew a parallel between recent years and a civil rights march that he participated in when he was a boy. He said he complained every step of the way that his feet hurt but then, afterwards, he was glad that he had done it. The last few years have indeed been tough ones for progressives. But brighter days now lie ahead as good elected representatives offer alternatives for a more decent country.

At the end of the evening, tribute was paid to Molly Ivins. I know that she would have loved the gathering – though she might have infused it with a bit more humor. I figure she would have told that room--full of agitators and organizers-- something John Nichols in his spirited tribute to Molly tells us she delighted in telling local ACLU groups across this country: "So keep fightin' for freedom and justice, beloveds, but don't you forget to have fun doin' it. Lord, let your laughter ring forth. Be outrageous, ridicule the fraidy-cats, rejoice in all the oddities that freedom can produce. And when you get through kickin' ass and celebratin' the sheer joy of a good fight, be sure to tell those who come after how much fun it was."

A podcast of this event will be posted on TheNation.com on Monday.

Libby Trial: Lawyers Clash Over Motive

Scooter Libby was thrown under the bus. No, Scooter Libby gave the bus driver false directions.

On Thursday, the prosecution and the defense in the trial of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby spent much of the day clashing over evidentiary matters, but, as they battled, each side laid out its core theory.

The initial dispute concerned special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald's effort to enter into evidence video clips of White House press briefings held in October 2003 shortly after the news broke that the Justice Department, at the CIA's request, was launching a criminal investigation of the leak that outed Valerie Wilson, the wife of former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, as a CIA officer.

Here's the background: in mid-September 2003, White House press secretary Scott McClellan responded to a remark made by Joe Wilson, in which the former diplomat said he looked forward to the day when Karl Rove would be "frog-marched" out of the White House for having been involved in the CIA leak. It was "totally ridiculous," McClellan said, to suggest that Rove was a party to this leak. (Reality break: as was revealed years later, Rove had slipped information on Valerie Wilson's CIA connection to rightwing columnist Robert Novak and Time's Matt Cooper.) After the criminal investigation became public in late September 2003, McClellan again told reporters Rove had nothing to do with the leak. But when he was asked about Scooter Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff, McClellan declined to offer a similar denial.

Libby freaked out. According to Ted Wells, one of Libby's attorneys, Libby went to McClellan and White House chief of staff Andrew Card asking for the same treatment that Rove got. They "blew him off," Wells exclaimed in court. Then Libby went to his boss, with talking points he wanted McClellan to recite:

I've talked to Libby. I said it was ridiculous about Karl and it is ridiculous about Libby. Libby was not the source of the Novak story. And he did not leak classified information.

Cheney took the paper on which Libby had written these lines and added his own note:

Has to happen today. Call out to key press saying same thing about Scooter as Karl. Not going to protect one staffer + sacrifice the guy that we asked to stick his neck in the meat grinder because of the incompetence of others.

Lo and behold, during press briefings on October 7 and 10, McClellan declared that Libby, like Rove, was "not involved" in the CIA leak. A reporter asked if either had "told any reporter that Valerie Plame worked for the CIA." McClellan replied, "they assured me that they were not involved in this." He also said that any White House official who had leaked classified information would be booted out of the administration.

Fitzgerald wanted to play the video clips of these and another White House press briefing for the jury. Libby's legal team objected--vociferously.

The McClellan statements, Fitzgerald argued, were important because they provided Libby a motive to lie. Libby, Fitzgerald contended, had "put down a marker." He went to Cheney and had the White House issue a statement that he had not leaked classified information. Days later, he was interviewed by the FBI. He couldn't contradict what he had just forced McClellan to say. So, Fitzgerald maintained, Libby lied. Libby told the agents that he had merely picked up scuttlebutt about Valerie Wilson and her CIA connection from Tim Russert of Meet the Press and had passed that gossip to other reporters. No big deal.

During the trial, though, Fitzgerald has presented testimony and evidence indicating that at least five government officials--including Cheney--had provided Libby with official information about Wilson's wife. Former press secretary Ari Fleischer, former New York Times reporter Judith Miller and Matt Cooper have testified that Libby shared this information with them. (And Fitzgerald pointed out in his indictment of Libby that Valerie Wilson's employment status at the CIA was "classified.") But, Fitzgerald said on Thursday, when questioned by the FBI, Libby had "to say that what he leaked to reporters was not [from] an official source....He [had] to tell a story that is consistent with what he just had the White House tell the world." Thus, he cooked up a false account: Russert had been his source and at the time of the leak he possessed no certain and official (a.k.a. classified) information about Wilson's wife. And because McClellan had said that anyone involved in the leak would be canned, Fitzgerald maintained, Libby had further cause to concoct a cover story.

There's a weird wrinkle. At his first FBI interview, which happened on October 14, 2003, Libby acknowledged that in early June 2003--before the Wilson affair erupted and the leak occurred--the vice president had told him that Valerie Wilson worked at the CIA's Counterproliferation Division, which was part of the agency's clandestine operations directorate. There are notes of that call--and Libby shared them with the FBI. Yet Libby told the FBI that shortly after speaking to Cheney about Wilson's wife he completely forgot that conversation and that when weeks later he heard about Valerie Wilson's CIA employment from Russert, he believed he was learning about it for the first time. (Russert denies saying anything to Libby about Valerie Wilson). This is a hard-to-believe scenario. But it tracks with Fitzgerald's theory: Libby lied to hide the fact that he had possessed and spread official information about Wilson's wife.

The prosecutor wanted the McClellan statements entered into the record to demonstrate that Libby had reasons to mislead the investigators.

No, its just the opposite, declared Wells, who opposed showing the jurors these McClellan clips. Libby, he claimed, was not concerned about losing his job: "he was concerned they were scapegoating him." They? Wells meant the White House. Who in the White House? Wells hasn't said, but he's hinted that Rove was at the center of a get-Libby conspiracy that was trying to turn Libby into Washington-scandal roadkill. "The government," Wells argued, "says what motivated him to lie was that he thought he would be fired.....My response is that he didn't care [about losing his job]...He acted like an innocent person...Only an innocent person would go to the vice president and say what they're doing is unfair," regarding clearing Rove but not Libby. And Bill Jeffress, another Libby lawyer, maintained that the clips of McClellan would be prejudicial to his client, for they show reporters fiercely grilling McClellan and suggesting that serious wrongdoing had occurred.

Fitzgerald counter-argued: the fact that McClellan did clear Libby indicates there "was no effort to throw him under the bus...Mr. McClellan was standing in front of the bus."

After much back and forth, federal district Judge Reggie Walton ruled that excerpts of McClellan's press briefings could be shown to the jury. Fitzgerald had won this skirmish. And once more, Wells and Jeffress had telegraphed the case they may try to present when the prosecution concludes. The logic of Wells' argument is not yet evident. Libby feared he was being hung out to dry. Perhaps. Even if that were true, though, the White House publicly cleared him before he spoke to the FBI. So why would a White House plot against Libby (that apparently failed--if it existed) affect what Libby would say to the FBI regarding what he had known and said about Valerie Wilson three months earlier?

It doesn't track. But if the defense calls Cheney to the stand--as it has said it might--jurors, no doubt, will want to hear the vice president discuss this sacrifice-Libby-for-Rove skullduggery. They may also want to learn more about the phone call in which Cheney clued in Libby on Valerie Wilson's gig at the CIA. What was Cheney doing gathering information on Wilson at that early point? (Libby told the FBI that he believed Cheney had obtained this information from CIA chief George Tenet.) And after Deborah Bond, an FBI agent, testified for the prosecution on Thursday, there was another matter a juror might want Cheney to explain.

Bond disclosed that during Libby's second FBI interview he said he believed that after he had spoken to Russert (and supposedly had learned anew that Wilson's wife was CIA) he and Cheney discussed whether to disclose Valerie Wilson's CIA connection to the press. But Libby told the FBI he wasn't sure such a conversation had happened.

Still, this was news. That statement probably caused FBI agents and Fitzgerald to wonder during the investigation if Cheney and Libby had conspired to leak information on Joseph Wilson's wife. If Cheney takes the stand, a sharp juror ought to be interested in hearing whether the vice president has anything to say about this. (The safe bet: no.)

On Thursday evening, as the court recessed for the week, Fitzgerald noted that once Bond finishes testifying on Monday, he will play for the jury the seven hours of testimony Libby gave the grand jury. After that, he will call Russert and perhaps one other (unnamed) witness before concluding his case.

Wells and Jeffress then will present their witnesses (should they choose to do so). Will Rove be called to the stand, so they can question him about the plot against Libby? Will Cheney be called to bolster the Single Scapegoat Theory (and to explain other mysteries)? Will Libby's lawyers trot out witnesses who testify about the bitter feuding that went on between the White House and the CIA over the WMD controversy, so they can suggest Libby was an innocent caught in this crossfire? Will they present witnesses who claim the intelligence Wilson attacked was really correct, so Wells and Jeffress can depict Libby as a defender of the truth? Will they offer witnesses who testify that Richard Armitage, the former deputy secretary of state, was the guy who first leaked to Novak, so the defense can argue that Armitage, not Libby, should be the fall guy in this caper?

Maybe Wells and Jeffress will merely stick to witnesses who challenge the credibility of prosecution witnesses. Then again, they might turn toward the jurors and blast them with paint guns--that is, overwhelm the jury with a mess of confusion. Libby's lawyers have presented a foundation for doing anything and everything. The bus could go flying off the road.

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DON"T FORGET ABOUT HUBRIS: THE INSIDE STORY OF SPIN, SCANDAL, AND THE SELLING OF THE IRAQ WAR, the best-selling book by David Corn and Michael Isikoff. Click here for information on the book. The New York Times calls Hubris "the most comprehensive account of the White House's political machinations" and "fascinating reading." The Washington Post says, "There have been many books about the Iraq war....This one, however, pulls together with unusually shocking clarity the multiple failures of process and statecraft." Tom Brokaw notes Hubris "is a bold and provocative book that will quickly become an explosive part of the national debate on how we got involved in Iraq." Hendrik Hertzberg, senior editor of The New Yorker notes, "The selling of Bush's Iraq debacle is one of the most important--and appalling--stories of the last half-century, and Michael Isikoff and David Corn have reported the hell out of it." For highlights from Hubris, click here.

Biden Blunders, Again

The remarkable thing about Joe Biden's botched announcement of his second presidential run is not that he said something outrageously inappropriate and, if we are to assume that Democratic caucus and primary participants retain even minimal standards with regard to the competence of contenders, electorally lethal.

The senator from Delaware has a very long history of lodging metatarsals in his oral orifice. And his reference to a more attractive and articulate senator and presidential contender, Illinoisan Barack Obama, as a "clean" African American was, while spectacular in its senselessness, oddly Bidenesque. This is not to suggest that the senior senator is a racist, nor even that he's some kind of neatness freak. (Biden says that, by "clean" he meant "fresh," which seems about right.) Rather, this is to suggest that Joe Biden is still Joe Biden, the linguistically lumbering, intellectually inelegant Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman whose "plan" for solving the Iraq mess is so convoluted that even he has trouble explaining it.

So, no, there was nothing all that astounding about the fact that the politician who got himself kicked out of the 1988 Democratic contest for plagiarism would, with another two decades of practice, come up with an even more sensationally disqualifying gesture this time around.

The remarkable thing about the Biden blow out is the notion that some pundits are actually discussing the extent to which the senator's "clean" comment may have harmed his chances – as if the guy's vanity candidacy ever had a chance.

Biden is, according to several recent polls from the first caucus state of Iowa and the first primary state of New Hampshire, having a hard time competing with Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich among the party faithful. In another early caucus state, Nevada, the Foreign Relations Committee chair is tied with 76-year-old former Alaska Senator Mike Gravel. While it is true that Gravel – who says he would "raze (the) Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib prisons to the ground" – is more frequently right on the issues than Biden, the Alaskan is not often identified as a frontrunner.

The truth is that, before the "clean" comment, Biden had about as much chance of winning the Democratic nomination for president as, well, Mike Gravel.

Now, Biden has a little less chance of securing the nod than Gravel.

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John Nichols' latest book is THE GENIUS OF IMPEACHMENT: The Founders' Cure forRoyalism.

Stopping the Next War

The Bush Administration has a new one size fits all scapegoat for everything that ails Iraq: Iran.

To listen to the Administration recently, you'd think Iran was solely to blame for US soldiers dying, reconstruction stopping and the Iraqi government faltering. The recent US attacks on Iranian targets in Iraq and accusations leveled at the government in Tehran have members of Congress and foreign policy experts increasingly concerned that the Administration is rushing the US into another war, under false pretenses and blind to the consequences.

"The White House has established a Media Outreach Working Group whose mission is to establish international outrage against Iran," Colonel Sam Gardiner testified yesterday on Capitol Hill. "We're seeing a pattern very much like the run up to the invasion of Iraq."

At a hearing convened by Rep. Barbara Lee, military and foreign policy experts stressed the need for Congress to exert its constitutional check on the White House.

"Congress can play a decisive role to prevent the situation from escalating out of control," said Dr. Trita Parsi, President of the National Iranian American Council. "If the President refuses to engage in diplomacy, then perhaps Congress should take on that responsibility."

A bipartisan group of Congressmen have introduced legislation requiring President Bush to get Congressional approval for any military action against Iran. Barbara Lee has gone one step further, sponsoring a bill that blocks the use of funds for "any covert action for the purpose of causing regime change in Iran or to carry out any military action against Iran in the absence of an imminent threat, in accordance with international law."

At a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on January 11, Senator Jim Webb asked Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice a simple question: "Is it the position of this administration that it possesses the authority to take unilateral action against Iran, in the absence of a direct threat, without congressional approval?" He received, via the Assistant Secretary of State for Legislative Affairs, what a Webb staffer called an "unacceptable response" that was "unresponsive to the question."

Don't Fumble the Football to Al Qaeda

Here's the good news, Super Bowl XLI fans, the air war at home is going just grand! Yes, you'll see the usual crack team of Air Force Thunderbirds performing over Miami's Dolphin Stadium in thrilling pre-game ceremonies.

But that is not all… oh no, that is not all at all. In fact, as an estimated 1,000-plus private jets fly the rich and famous into local south Florida airports this week for the highest holy day on the American entertainment calendar, the Continental U.S. North American Aerospace Defense Command Region is gearing up its area patrols, part of Operation Noble Eagle--NORAD's response to the fact that it couldn't get armed planes off the ground back on September 11, 2001.

In its own version of pre-game ceremonies, NORAD fighters are planning to "make low approaches at several local airports Feb. 2, including Boca Raton, Pompano Beach Airpark, Fort Lauderdale Executive, Opa Locka, and Kendall-Tamiami Executive." And then, of course, they will be "increasing sorties" over, and patrolling of, the potentially al-Qaeda-ridden skies over the Super Bowl itself. This is proof, as Maj. Gen. Henry C. Morrow, the commander of both the 1st Air Force and the Continental U.S. North American Aerospace Defense Command Region, put it in an American Forces Press Service release bursting with pride, "of our continuing resolve to protect our homeland and citizens during these major events."

All of this is meant "to ensure public safety while demonstrating NORAD's rapid response capability" (useful undoubtedly in future intra-Pentagon budget battles). In the process, the Federal Aviation Administration is also "prohibiting all general aviation aircraft from flying within about 11 miles of the stadium from two hours before kickoff until about midnight."

Even the Goodyear blimp will be missing. After all, military planners have to assume that the leaders of al-Qaeda, in those camps along the Pakistani border stocked with DVDs (and probably resupplied by Netflicks via some jihadi website), have seen the 1977 action flick Black Sunday and watched that ominous blimp head for the Super Bowl bent on mayhem. You can't blame the Goodyear Blimp people either. Based on checkpoint behavior in Iraq, this could be a shoot first, ask questions later situation for any blimp in sight.

And let's hope that Sunday kickoff doesn't fly too high and kick off any NORAD warning signals.