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Capital Games | The Nation

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Capital Games

 Washington: a city of denials, spin, and political calculations. The Nation's former DC editor David Corn spent 2002-2007 blogging on the policies, personalities and lies that spew out of the nation's capital. The complete archive appears below. Corn is now the DC editor at Mother Jones.

Who's On PFIAB-A Bush Secret...Or Not? UPDATED

Who's on Piffiab? Anyone concerned with spying, clandestine actions, and the war on terrorism should care about the answer. But is the Bush Administration, in a break with the past, attempting to keep this important information secret? If so, the administration is doing a rather bad job.

The President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board--usually referred to by its acronym--is a group of prominent citizens who offer advice to the President on sensitive intelligence matters. It was established in 1956 by President Eisenhower, and past chairmen have included former Senator Warren Rudman, former House Speaker Thomas Foley, and former Defense Secretary Les Aspin. In recent years, PFIAB has conducted investigations (often through its Intelligence Oversight Board) of spy-community controversies. It examined lax security at Department of Energy nuclear weapons facilities, CIA involvement with Guatemalan military officials who committed human rights abuses, US intelligence failures in Somalia, and the CIA's cover-its-ass investigation of CIA director John Deutch, who compromised classified information. PFIAB challenged the charge--popular in rightwing circles--that China had stolen nuclear weapons secrets from the United States. ("Possible damage has been minted as probable disaster; workaday delay and bureaucratic confusion has been cast as diabolical conspiracies," a PFIAB report concluded. "Enough is enough.")

Last year, President George W. Bush selected Brent Scowcroft to lead PFIAB. Scowcroft, who was national security adviser to President Bush I, possessed appropriate credentials for the post. But the choice posed problems. Scowcroft, a onetime consultant for the oil industry, a board member of Qualcomm, and a past director of Global and Power Pipelines (an Enron subsidiary involved in projects in China, Guatemala, the Philippines, Argentina and Colombia), runs his own business, the Scowcroft Group, which sells intelligence and other services to globe-trotting corporations in the telecom, aerospace, insurance, energy, financial, electronics and food industries. As head of PFIAB, Scowcroft has access to secret information that could be valuable to his clients and his own business endeavors. Can the public be certain that Scowcroft's business links do not unduly influence his actions as PFIAB chairman or that he does not exploit his PFIAB position to help his clients and his own company? And his close personal relationship to the Bush family could undermine his ability to appear as an independent reviewer of intelligence activities mounted by the Bush administration. Scowcroft, though, recently proved he could take issue with the President by questioning the need to go to war against Iraq.

But Scowcroft does share a dominant trait of the Bush crowd: secrecy. On August 13, I called the PFIAB office and asked for a list of current board members. "That information is provided only on a need-to-know basis," said Roosevelt Roy, PFIAB's administrative assistant. And he meant, of course, that a reporter had no need to know.

I was surprised. As far as I could recall, PFIAB membership has always been public information. In fact, the Clinton Administration posted the names of the members on a PFIAB web page. (Clinton board members included Zoe Baird, the failed attorney general nominee; Sidney Drell, a renowned scientist; Ann Caracristis, former deputy director of the National Security Agency; Robert J. Hermann, a United Technologies executive; and Maurice Sonnenberg, an international businessman.) The Bush White House web page for PFIAB notes the board now has sixteen members and reveals nothing about the identities of any except Scowcroft.

Who determined this information should be secret? I asked Roy. "The chairman has made this need-to-know," he replied. "But it won't be permanent." When should I call back? Within six months, he said.

I took Roy at his word, and I contacted secrecy-in-government experts who expressed their outrage. I called Scowcroft's office and was told he was unavailable. I did a computer search and found that one member's appointment--that of former California Governor Pete Wilson--had been routinely reported by the San Diego Union-Tribune. I checked back with Roy at PFIAB, and he said that, in response to my original request for information, PFIAB might in the near-future consider releasing the identities of the board members. But, he added, "I can't make that final call." I wrote up a story and posted it. (You can read it by clicking on the link below.)

Now here comes the mystery (or joke): after the article hit the website, someone forwarded to me a White House press release, dated October 5, 2001, announcing Bush's intention to appoint fifteen individuals to PFIAB. They were Scowcroft; Pete Wilson; Cresencio Arcos, an AT&T executive and former US ambassador; Jim Barksdale, former head of Netscape; Robert Addison Day, chairman of the TWC Group, a money management firm; Stephen Friedman, past chairman of Goldman Sachs; Alfred Lerner, chief executive of MBNA; Ray Lee Hunt, scion of the Texas oil fortune; Rita Hauser, a prominent lawyer and longtime advocate of Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation; David Jeremiah, a retired admiral; Arnold Kanter, a Bush I national security official and a founding member of the Scowcroft Group; James Calhoun Langdon, Jr., a power-lawyer in Texas; Elisabeth Pate-Cornell, head of industrial engineering and engineering management at Stanford University; John Harrison Streicker, a real estate magnate; and Philip Zelikow, a National Security Council staffer during Bush I. (Two members of this group--Day and Langdon--were Bush campaign "pioneers," meaning they collected at least $100,000 for W.'s presidential bid. Barksdale raised money for Bush in Silicon Valley. Lerner's MBNA was the single biggest source of contributions for Bush in 2000, and he and his wife each donated $250,000 to the GOP. Hunt, too, rounded up bucks for Bush. Friedman gave $50,000 to the Republican Party in 2000. Streicher is a Democratic contributor.)

So why the secrecy now? Has something changed in the membership of PFIAB? Or is Scowcroft trying to cloak information already released by the White House? If that is the case, this episode suggests PFIAB still has much to learn about operational security.

Scowcroft should confirm whether the individuals named in the White House press release are indeed serving as board members. PFIAB is little-known, but important. After 9/11, the performance and the practices of US intelligence agencies have drawn more attention, and PFIAB can play a key role in overseeing the intelligence bureaucracies. The question remains for Scowcroft: does the public have a need to know who is watching the spies?

NOW FOR AN UPDATE:

Two days after this story appeared, Randy Deitering, the executive director of PFIAB called me. "I owe you an apology," he said. "You got some bad information." He explained that Roosevelt Roy had "grossly misspoken" when he said the membership list was provided only on a need-to-know basis. Deitering acknowledged it is public information. He confirmed that the current roster is the same as the list released by the White House press office last October. He said that when Roy and the rest of the PFIAB staff receive an information request, they are under instructions to "run it by me" before faxing out the material. "I think it's prudent to know who we're faxing to....It had nothing to do with the chairman."

I pointed out that under Clinton, PFIAB had placed the names and descriptions of board members on PFIAB's web pages, yet the board no longer did so. "There was some concern in October, November and December about how much we want to release about the members," Deitering commented. "We've never been through an attack like that before." But he said he would consider such a posting. Next, PFIAB can consider declassifying its historical records, right? I responded. (The board has steadfastly refused to make its documents available for declassification, claiming that could cause board members to feel reluctant about providing unvarnished advice to the President.) With a laugh, Deitering said, "Now that's not what we're going to do."

Who's On PFIAB?--A New Bush Secret

Who's on Piffiab? It's a question anyone concerned with spying, clandestine actions, and the war on terrorism should be asking. But the Bush Administration, in a break with the past, is keeping this important information secret.

The President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board--usually referred to by its acronym--is a group of prominent citizens who offer advice to the President on sensitive intelligence matters. It was established in 1956 by President Eisenhower, and past chairmen have included former Senator Warren Rudman, former House Speaker Thomas Foley, and former Defense Secretary Les Aspin. In recent years, PFIAB has conducted investigations (often through its Intelligence Oversight Board) of spy-community controversies. It examined lax security at Department of Energy nuclear weapons facilities, CIA involvement with Guatemalan military officials who committed human rights abuses, US intelligence failures in Somalia, and the CIA's cover-its-ass investigation of CIA director John Deutch, who compromised classified information. PFIAB challenged the charge--popular in rightwing circles--that China had stolen nuclear weapons secrets from the United States. ("Possible damage has been minted as probable disaster; workaday delay and bureaucratic confusion has been cast as diabolical conspiracies," a PFIAB report concluded. "Enough is enough.")

Last year--prior to September 11--President George W. Bush selected Brent Scowcroft to lead PFIAB. Scowcroft, who was national security adviser to President Bush I, possessed appropriate credentials for the post. But the choice posed problems. Scowcroft, a onetime consultant for the oil industry, a board member of Qualcomm, and a past director of Global and Power Pipelines (an Enron subsidiary involved in projects in China, Guatemala, the Philippines, Argentina and Colombia), runs his own business, the Scowcroft Group, which sells intelligence and other services to globe-trotting corporations in the telecom, aerospace, insurance, energy, financial, electronics and food industries. As head of PFIAB, Scowcroft has access to secret information that could be useful to his clients and his own business endeavors. Can the public be certain that Scowcroft's business links do not unduly influence his actions as PFIAB chairman or that he does not exploit his PFIAB position to help his clients and his own company? And his close personal relationship to the Bush family could undermine his ability to appear as an independent reviewer of intelligence activities mounted by the Bush administration. Scowcroft, though, recently proved he could take issue with the President by questioning the need to go to war against Iraq.

But Scowcroft does share a dominant trait of the Bush crowd: secrecy. On August 13, I called the PFIAB office and asked for a list of current board members. "That information is provided only on a need-to-know basis," said Roosevelt Roy, PFIAB's administrative assistant.

I was surprised. As far as I could recall, PFIAB membership has always been public information. In fact, the Clinton Administration posted the names of the members on a PFIAB web page. (Clinton board members included Zoe Baird, the failed attorney general nominee; Sidney Drell, a renowned scientist; Ann Caracristis, former deputy director of the National Security Agency; Robert J. Hermann, a United Technologies executive; and Maurice Sonnenberg, an international businessman.) The Bush White House web page for PFIAB notes the board now has sixteen members and reveals nothing about the identities of any except Scowcroft.

Who determined this information should be secret? I asked Roy. "The chairman has made this a need-to-know," he replied. "But it won't be permanent." When should I call back? Within six months, he said.

"This is utterly preposterous and insulting to the American public," says Steven Aftergood, director of the project on government secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists. "There is no national security justification. It's bureaucratic pettiness. This is not an intelligence agency. These people do not collect intelligence. They are not under cover. To my knowledge, the members have never been secret."

Loch Johnson, a former congressional staffer who investigated the intelligence community and now a professor at University of Georgia's School of Public and International Affairs, remarks, "I've never heard of the names of PFIAB members being secret. How absurd! A perfect illustration of how this administration has gone secrecy mad."

Does Scowcroft believe PFIAB members, who serve without pay, might be targeted by terrorists? Or reporters? Is he trying to prevent public scrutiny of the board's composition? Scowcroft's office said he was unavailable for comment. But if the PFIAB roster is indeed sensitive, the White House has left at least one of the members out in the cold. Last October, the San Diego Union-Tribune reported routinely that Bush had named former California Governor Pete Wilson to the board.

PFIAB is little-known but important. After 9/11, the performance and the practices of US intelligence agencies have drawn more attention. The question for Scowcroft: does the public have a need to know who is watching the intelligence community?

On August 14, I again contacted the PFIAB office at the White House, and Roy said that, in response to my original request for information, PFIAB might consider releasing the identities of the board members. But, he said, "I can't make that final call." Was he spinning or did he have an indication that Scowcroft is going to yield? If Scowcroft's PFIAB does spill the names, I'll post them here.

Kissinger, Quayle, Gingrich and Perle on a Lie Detector?

Will the Pentagon wire up Henry Kissinger, Dan Quayle and Newt Gingrich--that is, submit them to lie detector tests? And do the same with all other members of the Defense Policy Board? It seems that someone connected with this advisory panel--a neocon-tilting group of prominent ex-government officials chaired by former Reagan Pentagon official Richard Perle--leaked word to The Washington Post of a private briefing. In that session, RAND analyst Laurent Murawiec maintained that Saudi Arabia, due to its support of Islamic terrorists, ought to be considered an adversary of the United States and that Washington should demand that Riyadh cease funding Islamic fundamentalist outlets. If the Saudis do not comply, he argued, its oil fields and overseas financial assets should be "targeted."

After news of this briefing hit the front page, administration officials rushed to put out the firestorm. This was not the message the White House wanted to send to Saudi Arabia and other Arab nations, as the administration was trying to win support for a military move against Saddam Hussein. And with the White House in the process of establishing an Office of Global Communications to improve the image of the United States overseas, now was not a good time for stories reporting that senior advisers to the Pentagon--former defense secretaries James Schlesinger and Harold Brown, former CIA director R. James Woolsey, and ex-House Speaker Thomas Foley sit on this board--were discussing strikes against Arab oil wells. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Colin Powell quickly explained that Murawiec's views did not reflect official US policy.

At a Q&A session with Pentagon employees, Rumsfeld criticized the leak. "I just think it's a terribly unprofessional thing to do and clearly harmful," he said. "It's harmful in this case, for example, because it creates a misimpression that someone then has to figure out a way to correct." Rumsfeld did later say the briefing was not classified, but he was adamant that the leak harmed US interests. So what is he going to do about it?

Recently, classified information spilled from the 9/11 investigation being conducted by the House and Senate intelligence committees. In response, the chairmen of the committees called in the FBI to find the leaker. But when the FBI asked the 37 members of the committees to undergo lie detector tests, nearly all of the legislators refused, citing the inaccuracy of polygraphs and the separation of powers between the legislative and executive branches of government. Conservative pundits--and a few members of Congress--derided the committee members for this. The argument was, in time of war, any patriotic citizen should do what he or she can to plug leaks. Will the Defense Policy Board members accept such reasoning?

The leak about the briefing not only demonstrated that slips-of-the-lips come from all directions. It showed how reckless this board could be under the leadership of Richard Perle, a hawk who earned the sobriquet "Prince of Darkness" when he served in the Reagan Pentagon. Not that geopolitical correctness ought to prevent the group from considering any and all theoretical possibilities. But Perle should have stopped to wonder what might happen if word got out Pentagon advisers were pondering a move against Saudi Arabia. The Defense Policy Board is a prestigious outfit, and Rumsfeld has paid attention to its membership--a sign that it is important to him.

The briefing reflected growing sentiment within neocon circles that a US-Saudi showdown is inevitable--and, moreover, somewhat desirable. (Both The Weekly Standard and Commentary have published pieces to this effect recently.) From a historical perspective, this is peculiar, for it was the hawks who have pushed policies in the past that enabled the odd-couple relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia. In the 1980s, the Reagan Administration encouraged the Saudi government to finance the Islamic fundamentalist guerrillas fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan. (A Saudi named Osama bin Laden earned his stripes in that war.) In the early 1990s, the first Bush Administration partnered up with Saudi Arabia to wage Saddam War One and ignored the regime's human rights record (including its institutionalized misogyny). Oil mattered more, as Washington fought a war to protect the interests of the kleptocratic regime of the Saudi princes.

Well, things do change. And now the neocons are promoting Saudi Arabia as a looming adversary in the region. (Kissinger, though, calls this "reckless.") The unfinished war in Afghanistan, the war to come in Iraq, the other two-thirds of the "axis of evil" (Iran and North Korea)--you'd think that would be enough to keep the neocons busy for the time being. Instead, they're committed to expanding the enemies list. And they even maintain that once Washington takes care of Saddam and installs a democratic government in Iraq (it will be a snap!), the United States will be better positioned to confront the Saudis.

Ultimately, the leak is less important than the briefing itself. But why does Rumsfeld--the decrier of all leaks--not vigorously pursue the leaker in this instance? Doing so would be a signal to all government employees. Imagine Perle, Gingrich and Quayle on the box. (Could they also ask Kissinger about his role in the overthrow of a democratically-elected government in Chile in the 1970s?) The war on terrorism deserves nothing less.

W. and the Coal Miners: Photo-op Cover for Anti-worker Policies

George W. Bush is crass.

Before heading to Texas for a month of vacation--longer than the average worker's--the President stopped at the local fire station in Green Tree, Pennsylvania, to (very publicly) visit with the nine miners recently rescued from a flooded coal mine. As could be expected, Bush hailed the episode as evidence of "the spirit of America, the great strength of our nation." He praised the people "who heard the call that one of my neighbors is in trouble," and he thanked the rescuers for "showing our fellow citizens that by serving something greater than yourself is an important part of being an American." As for the miners, Bush observed, "It was their determination to stick together and to comfort each other that really defines kind of a new spirit that's prevalent in our country, that when one of us suffer, all of us suffers." (Syntax in the original.)

That spirit, though, was not present earlier this year when the Bush administration proposed cutting the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) by $7 million. The administration defended the 6-percent reduction by noting the number of coal mines has been decreasing. Yet coal mining fatalities have gone up for three years in a row. There were 42 mining fatalities in 2001, 29 in 1998. In March, Senator Jay Rockefeller, a West Virginia Democrat, maintained the funding cut would cause a 25 percent reduction in the government's mine-safety inspection workforce. As of March, 612 federal mine inspectors were responsible for enforcing safety regulations in 25 states, and there were signs the system has not been functioning well.

Last September, thirteen workers died in a coal mine 2,140 feet below Brookwood, Alabama. A spark caused by a rock hitting a piece of machinery ignited a methane-fueled inferno. The disaster, coming 12 days after September 11, did not draw much media notice. But it did prompt serious criticism of the MSHA. In March, the United Mine Workers of America accused the MSHA of treating "serious violations such as thousands of feet of combustible materials...and disruptions in the mine's ventilation system (which can lead to mine explosions)" at the Brookwood site as "minor infractions." The union claimed that federal inspectors failed to return to check on violations at this mine, which is owned by Walter Industries, that the MSHA did not respond to "requests by the miners for increased inspections when serious hazards existed," that the MSHA provided the company advance notice of inspection locations, and that a "MSHA supervisor divert[ed] an inspector away from an area of the mine that had known ventilation problems just prior to the explosion." At the time of the explosion, the mine had 31 outstanding violations and federal inspectors had not bothered to determine whether they had been corrected. As of mid-July, the MSHA had not responded to these accusations.

The Bush administration's less-than-ardent concern for mine safety is in step with its general attitude toward occupational safety. Fretting about regulatory burdens and calling for flexible standards, the Bush crowd has demonstrated more empathy with business owners than with workers. Twice, Bush has proposed decreasing the budget for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. In its most recent budget, it called for reducing 64 slots in OSHA's enforcement division. The White House has also decreased funding for the National Institute for Occupational Safety. And it deep-sixed workplace safety rules for ergonomics, replacing them with voluntary guidelines for certain industries.

Yet there was Bush--with Labor Secretary Elaine Chao and MSHA administrator David Lauriski in tow--basking in the glow of the mine workers, while saying nothing about mine safety issues. He was exploiting a near-tragedy of the kind his administration has done little to prevent. "I want to thank you for the example you set," Bush told the nine. Too bad, the miners could not return the compliment.

Springsteen Rising: Preparing for 9/11-Plus-One

September 11-Plus-One approaches. And so does remembrance and commemoration. Media envoys will visit with survivors and relatives of those murdered that awful day. Video footage will air, and towers and bodies will fall once more. President George W. Bush will, according to the White House, "talk to the country in a way that is serious" (and do so exclusively on 60 Minutes II with correspondent Scott Pelley). Firefighters, police officers, rescue workers will retell harrowing tales. Rudy Giuliani will shine once more. The traditional start of the off-year congressional campaigns will be overshadowed; politicians will steal what they can of this God-bless-America moment. Some might wonder--but not too many people will do so aloud--what happened to US efforts to capture or kill Osama bin Laden. Commentators will share their thoughts--wise and foolish, meaningful and Hallmarkian--on what the attack wrought, how the country has been altered, how the war on terrorism has fared and what lies ahead.

In the shock-ridden and depressing days following 9/11, there was talk that the horrific event would transform the country. That Americans might embrace a stronger sense of community. (Drivers did seem less aggressive for weeks.) That Americans might gain a newfound appreciation for union workers and public servants, after watching firefighters and police officers lose their lives in gallant service to others. Some left-of-center, politically-minded people hoped that out of the ashes and rubble would rise an environment friendly to progressive and populist politicians who pitch for-the-common-good government activism.

Evidence of such change, though, is not abundant. In fact, it is damn hard to find proof that American life--whatever that may be--is much different. Sure, Bush was reborn in the polls, and the political equation shifted. The military budget has become even more untouchable and bloated. In Washington, there are more concrete flowerpots, and the nervous jokes about living in a bull's-eye city remain. But are people in Cincinnati still on-edge? There are indeed new laws, new regulations, new precautions. Several hundred non-citizens apprehended in post-attacks sweeps by federal officers saw their lives dramatically altered. As did Afghan civilians struck by errant US weapons; as did the relatives of US military and intelligence personnel killed overseas. But has 9/11 changed us? Snatched children, corporate scandals, Wall Street's wild ride, rescued miners, Ted Williams' frozen head--American life is, in most ways, what it would be without 9/11.

Which brings us to Bruce Springsteen. Six weeks before the first anniversary, Springsteen and his E Street Band have issued a new album, The Rising, an explicit response to 9/11. With this effort--launched with a multimedia blitz including a Time cover story and appearances on the Today Show, Nightline, and Letterman--Springsteen is getting a jump on the 9/11 recallathon to come. And he has chosen a quotidian route to challenge an impermeability that, with time, can conquer even an event such as 9/11. Song after song details the loss of that day. Springsteen focuses upon individuals who woke up on September 12--assuming they were able to sleep the previous night--and realized their love-partner was gone forever. Across most of the tracks, his protagonists crave one more kiss, one more touch, one more taste. And the dead wish for the same. With this series of songs--some gritty and gripping, a few sappy and sentimental--he has produced an epistle of yearning. In doing so, he reminds his listeners that 9/11 did spark desires among those not directly hit by the assaults--yearnings for family, for community, for safety, for connection, for time. As Bob Dylan once wrote, "Either I'm too sensitive, or else I'm gettin' soft," but for a while after the assaults, it was my belief (or was it a wish?) that a collective yearning of this sort did arise.

And Springsteen knows yearning. It has been the essence of his music--from his early, breakout days as a let's-blow-this-town loner/greaser-with-a-Telecaster to his middle period as a rock-star chronicler of working-class challenges to his later gig as an overtly socially conscious musician penning anti-Gingrich tunes about immigrants and their travails. At the start, it was a first-person yearning for a way out of his own deathtrap town. Once that was accomplished--thank you, rock and roll--he sang about the yearning of others (hard-pressed workers, the out-of-luck unemployed, AIDS sufferers, stressed-out Vietnam vets, undocumented immigrants) who longed for escapes from their troubles and for havens of safety, joy, love, community, or dreams--ideally, all of the above.

Is there any spot where that collective post-9/11 yearning actually took root? Write me, if you can point to such a place and please send directions. In any event, that communal yearning is not on Springsteen's map. He's exploring the bedroom of the bereaved. A widow or widower sings about making it through a "lonesome day." The spouse of a fallen firefighter says to the departed, "May your strength give us strength." Another of his nameless characters notes, "I woke up this morning to an empty sky." One fellow complains he is now but "half a party in a one dog town." On the gospel-flavored title track, a dead-and-gone firefighter pines for his wife and asks her to "come on up for the rising." The songs are as heartfelt as it gets--even if, on occasion, less-than-inspired melodies support the sad vignettes. Two of the more intriguing cuts look--poetically, not politically--at the clash of cultures marked by 9/11. On "Worlds Apart"--as Pakistani singer Asif Ali Khan wails--lovers from different backgrounds meet "in this dry and troubled country" (Afghanistan?) and try to surmount the external circumstances of their lives. ("Sometimes the truth just ain't enough/ Or it's too much in times like this/ Let's throw the truth away.") "Paradise," a moody and somber track, juxtaposes a suicide bomber ("in the crowded marketplace/I drift from face to face") with an individual who lost his or her partner at the Pentagon. Both are waiting for paradise--one to find Allah, one to regain love--and paradise, Springsteen notes, may well be empty.

Having assumed a large and possibly risky task--responding to 9/11 with pop music--Springsteen works small. He keeps his eye on the coffee cup on the counter left behind from a last breakfast. He offers no hope for the grieving--some death traps cannot be escaped--but he nobly recognizes the search for hope. The last song, "My City of Ruins," ends with one of his lonely survivors asking, "Tell me, how do I begin again?" and praying for strength and faith.

No questions, no answers. No calls for understanding this or that. No politics. No jingoism. (This is the opposite of country singer Toby Keith singing, "And you'll be sorry that you messed with the U.S. of A./ 'Cause we'll put a boot in your ass/ It's the American way.") Springsteen obsesses over the painful and passionate mourning that followed the attacks. It's the latest--and deepest--yearning he has explored. Not every song succeeds--which won't matter to the survivors. But if he does prompt others to recall the enhanced yearnings for love, family and community they experienced last year, he will have provided a public service, as preparations for September 11, 2002, proceed.

Cultural Treason?--The Right Targets Musician Steve Earle

During wartime--and, officially, it's still wartime--the super-patriots are ever more watchful for acts of cultural treason. And the latest victim of the red-white-and-blue lynch mob is musician Steve Earle, whose offense is writing and recording a song entitled "John Walker's Blues." Before the tune was released, the cowpies were being hurled. First, Steve Gill, a conservative talk-show gabber in Nashville, denounced the song. Then Fox News Channel and The New York Post picked up the story. The website of the latter headlined its dispatch, "Twisted Ballad Honors Tali-Rat" and claimed "American Taliban fighter John Walker Lindh is glorified and called Jesus-like in a country-rock song...by maverick singer-songwriter Steve Earle." Another Nashville DJ, Phil Valentine, called the song "politically insane." Gill declared, "This puts [Earle] in the same category as Jane Fonda and John Walker and all those people who hate America."

Wire services and The Washington Post covered the fuss, with the Post's Richard Harrington, usually a fine music critic, reporting the "song offers a sympathetic view of Lindh." Reuters echoed this sentiment: "It offers a rare sympathetic view of Lindh." The New York Post noted that the ballad is "backed by the chanting of Arabic prayers and praises Allah." While the phones went berserk at the Nashville office of Earle's manager, Earle was on vacation in Europe and declined to respond to the attacks.

The to-do says more about Earle's detractors than his song. The track, which is part of Earle's forthcoming album, Jerusalem, hardly glorifies Lindh. Nor does Earle compare him to Jesus. The tune is "sympathetic" only in the sense it seeks to understand how Lindh viewed himself. It praises neither Lindh nor his choices. It does not recommend that others emulate him. The anti-Earle criticism shows that those eager to root out traitors often don't have time to think. Here are the complete lyrics to "John Walker's Blues":

I'm just an American boy--raised on MTV/And I've seen all those kids in the soda pop ads/But none of 'em looked like me/So I started lookin' around for a light out of the dim/And the first thing I heard that made sense was the word/Of Mohammed, peace be upon him

A shadu la ilaha illa Allah/There is no God but God

If my daddy could see me now--chains around my feet/He don't understand that sometimes a man/Just has to fight for what he believes/And I believe God is great/All praise due to him/And if I should die I'll rise up to the sky/Just like Jesus, peace be upon him

We came to fight the Jihad/ And our hearts were pure and strong/As death filled the air we all offered up prayers/And prepared for our martyrdom/But Allah had some other plan/Some secret not revealed/Now they're draggin' me back with my head in a sack/To the land of the infidel.

Earle's song--which features his growling voice over sparse, guitar-driven instrumentation--explores what Lindh was thinking. Earle speculates Lindh believed he would receive Jesus-like treatment if he sacrificed his life for jihad. It is Lindh who is praising Allah, not Earle--not that there would be anything wrong with Earle doing so. And the ending--mullahs reciting a Koran passage--is eerie, not an endorsement. This is storytelling. In fact, Lindh ends up screwed in the song. He expects holy reward but finds himself shit-out-of-luck in chains and a sack. If you had to squeeze a morale out of the song--and I doubt Earle set out to preach--the lesson could well be, kids, don't try this at home. But since the song does not blast Lindh--what rhymes with scum-sucking maggot?--it's deemed a pro-Taliban anthem. Apparently, 9/11 killed nuance, as well as irony.

Earle is a lefty redneck. Once a rising country-rock star, he became a close-to-dead junkie and then resurrected himself and his career as a gritty, eclectic, whiskey-voiced singer-songwriter. He has long been a passionate foe of the death penalty. "I'm somewhat to the left of Mao," he told me five years ago. (See "Death-House Troubadour," The Nation, August 25, 1997.) And he's no fool. He foresaw the storm. When he performed "John Walker's Blues" at a Canadian folk festival earlier this month, he cracked, "This song just may get me fucking deported."

In the PR material for the new album, Earle says of the track, "I'm happy with the way the song came out, but I'm nervous, not for myself, but I have taken some serious liberties with Walker, speaking as him, in his voice. I'm trying to make clear that wherever he got to, he didn't arrive there in a vacuum....My son Justin is almost exactly Walker's age. Would I be upset if he suddenly turned up fighting for the Islamic Jihad? Sure, absolutely. Fundamentalism, as practiced by the Taliban, is the enemy of real thought, and religion too."

The new album, due out September 24 on the Artemis Records label, contains several topical or political songs. On "Amerika v. 6.0 (The Best We Can Do)," Earle pokes at HMOs, walled communities and the war on drugs. "The Truth" questions the over-reliance on incarceration to fight crime. The title track challenges the belief that conflict in the Middle East is inevitable and ends on a hopeful note. The album reflects Earle's worry that post-9/11 fear has trumped democratic principles. He calls the USA Patriot act "an incredibly dangerous piece of legislation. Freedoms, American freedoms, things voted into law as American freedoms, everything that came out of the 1960s, are disappearing, and, as any patriot can see, that has to be opposed."

In a statement he wrote on July 4--before he started catching flak--Earle declared, "Lately, I feel like the loneliest man in America. Frankly, I've never worn red, white, and blue that well. I grew up during the Vietnam War and whenever I see a flag decal I subconsciously superimpose the caption: AMERICA--LOVE IT OR LEAVE IT across the bottom stripe. Back then, as now, it was suggested by some that second-guessing our leaders in a time of crisis was unpatriotic if not downright treasonous....In spite of our worst intentions and ignorance of our own history, our Constitution has, thus far, proven resilient enough to withstand anything that we throw at it, including ourselves....It was framed by men whose names we are taught to remember by rote: Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Patrick Henry, Aaron Burr....In times like these, it is also important to remember the names of John Reed, Emma Goldman, Abbie Hoffman, Bobby Seale, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King...those who defended those same principles by insisting on asking the hardest questions in our darkest hours. God bless America, indeed."

Any rightwing commentator who pays true attention to what Earle writes, sings or says--which is often over-the-top--can find plenty of material worth a debate. But "John Walker's Blues"--neither anti-American nor pro-Taliban--does not warrant the hair-pulling. The hyperbolic reaction to it, though, confirms Earle's fears about post-9/11 America. He might want to thank his critics for making his point for him.

Bush and the Billionaire: How Insider Capitalism Benefited W.

It's awfully tough to be Mr. Corporate Responsibility after you have profited from the actions of an irresponsible corporation that engaged in a shady deal. George W. Bush is finding that out, for as he tries desperately to stay ahead of the assorted corporate scandals, his own past as a failed oil man has emerged as an issue for reporters, columnists, and the cable-news crowd. What's drawn the most attention is Bush's handling of his 1990 Harken stock deal. Much of that story was public during the presidential election of 2000 (and it had been a minor issue when Bush first ran for governor of Texas in 1994). But two years ago, few seemed to care that Bush had made a bundle through his association with an oil company that employed phony accounting, that he benefited by selling shares in this troubled company (in which he happened to be a director) before these problems became known publicly, and that he failed to meet the federal deadline for disclosing this stock dump (as well as several others).

Now, reporters jump on any new factoid they can unearth. A few days ago, it was reported Bush had received a "flash report" in early June 1990--sixteen days before he sold his Harken holdings--that might have indicated the company was facing a huge loss. The White House says Bush believed the company was going to lose $9 million that quarter--not $23 million, as the losses turned out to be. The latest news, courtesy of Associated Press, is that Bush signed a "lockup" letter on April 3, 1990, pledging not to sell his Harken stock for six months after a proposed public stock offering. Yet two months later, he cashed out his Harken shares for nearly $850,000--a transaction that bolstered his financial position at a crucial time, for he had to cover a loan he earlier used to purchase the Texas Ranger baseball team.

With the public offering unconsummated at that point, perhaps Bush had a loophole to slide through. But here's another question: who bought his Harken securities? Supposedly, an institutional investor that has not been identified. The White House maintains it is in no position to release the minutes of Harken board meetings from this period, but it has not explained what prevents Bush from publicly requesting that Harken disclose these records or that the institution that purchased his stock identify itself.

At the end of two weeks of Harken-ish news (and don't forget Vice President Dick Cheney's troubles, as Halliburton, the company he once chaired, faces investigation for accounting irregularities), conservative journalist William Kristol was left saying (hoping?) it was unlikely Bush would suffer political repercussions, for the recent details did not prove the Harken deal was illegal. (Remember when conservatives scoffed at an it-wasn't-illegal standard for the president?)

Details, of course, matter. But the story is already complete enough to justify a judgment, for the issue isn't merely the legality of Bush's Harken stock sale. It's Bush's record as a beneficiary of insider capitalism. Whether he sold his Harken stock due to insider knowledge or not, he was only in a position to conduct this transaction because Harken had rescued his sinking oil business. In 1986, Bush's own oil firm, Spectrum 7, was collapsing. Before it went belly-up, Harken purchased Spectrum for $2.25 million worth of Harken stock and made Bush a Harken director and consultant. That is, Harken saved Bush from ruin.

Why? It wasn't Bush's record as an oil man. He had run two oil companies into the ground. Could it have been Bush's insider credentials as the son of a vice president?

At the time, Harken was owned by global billionaire George Soros, the Harvard Management Corporation, and others. A few weeks ago, I was at the opening of the new Washington offices of the Open Society Institute, a nonprofit policy and advocacy organization founded by Soros. OSI reflects the left-of-center beliefs of Soros. In the United States and overseas, it promotes campaign finance reform, government openness, drug policy reform, abolition of the death penalty and many other issues. At the party, practically the entire liberal policy community of the capital was present. Well-wishers (and grant-seekers?) were eagerly congratulating Soros. While chatting with one of his employees, I said to her, "One day, you should ask Soros what he knew about the Harken deal and why his company took on Bush." She blanched and mumbled that she could never raise that with Soros.

Later, when I saw the billionaire almost alone, I sidled up to him. "Nice offices," I said. "But can I ask you about some ancient history?" Sure, he said, with a good-natured smile. What was the deal with Harken buying up Spectrum 7? I inquired. Did Soros know Bush back then?

"I didn't know him," Soros replied. "He was supposed to bring in the Gulf connection. But it didn't come to anything. We were buying political influence. That was it. He was not much of a businessman."

Then my time with the billionaire was up. If Soros--who disagrees with most Bush policies--is telling the truth, it means Bush only survived in the corporate jungle because of his surname and connections. Yes, that hardly comes as a surprise. But it does render Bush a purebred embodiment of the central issue of the current business scandals: those on the inside play by a different set of rules than the rest of Americans (including workers and small investors). The market works for Bush--as well as for Martha Stewart and the execs of WorldCom and Enron--in ways others can only imagine, or read about, once in a great while, in an indictment.

Had it not been for Soros and his Harken partners, what might have become of George the Younger? Because a liberal billionaire and his corporate allies sought political juice in 1986--for they knew the business world is no meritocracy--Bush's corporate career was artificially inflated. Consequently, he was able to enter politics, citing his business experience, and land in a position where he could implement policies that make Soros gag. (O. Henry would enjoy this turnabout.)

Even if Bush did not trade on inside information, he fully exploited insider capitalism. If it takes a crony to bust up crony capitalism, the nation has the right man for the job.

Bush's Faux Peace Plan for the Middle East

Here's a question for George W. Bush. Do you believe your June 24 speech on the Middle East crisis would give a Palestinian living in a refugee camp--perhaps in a town where Israeli forces shelled a market, killing women and children, and destroyed parts of a hospital--any solace, any hope?

Bush's remarks were not--as they had been billed--an attempt to present a peace plan. The headline on the White House transcript said it all: "President Bush Calls for New Palestinian Leadership." In very explicit terms, Bush declared that the fundamental problem in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict rests with the people in charge of the Palestinian Authority, notably Yasser Arafat. The Israeli occupation of the West Bank, the conditions of the Palestinians--none of that is the main deal. Sure, these are matters that ought to be addressed. But before anything else can happen, Bush said, the Palestinians have to elect different leaders, create "entirely new political and economic institutions," build a market economy, end all corruption, and stop every act of terrorism. Then--maybe then--the United States will support a "provisional" Palestinian state of uncertain borders and uncertain sovereignty. And Bush is looking at backing such a "state" several years from now.

This is a tremendous leap backward from the position of pro-Israel hardliners--here and in Israel--who had been arguing that there should be no Israeli-Palestinian peace talks until all terrorism against Israel ceased. Bush dramatically expanded the list of conditions. Any Palestinian who bothered to pay attention to Bush's speech--which was not broadcast on Palestinian television--might well say, "Previously, they only wanted us to stop the terrorists before talking about establishing a Palestinian state. Now, they want us to totally rebuild our society, develop a new political elite from scratch, establish government bureaucracies that actually work, develop a Western-style economy, and--while we're busy with all this--prevent the worst extremists from striking at Israel. Once we've done that, they'll deal with our primary grievances."

What a deal. If they jump through all these hoops, the Palestinians, as Bush noted, "can count on American support for the creation of a provisional state of Palestine." Bush might have as well come out and endorsed House majority leader Dick Armey's suggestion to pack up all the Palestinians and move them elsewhere. (Where? Armey didn't say.)

As pro-Palestinian author/activist Edward Said has noted, the crony-ridden and inept Palestinian Authority is in dire need of extensive reform. But Bush's concern for democracy, transparency and good-government in Palestine is a smokescreen. (Does he call for such change, in say, Pakistan? Or China?) How does his approach respond to the desperation that leads Palestinians to cheer on suicide bombings? It is unrealistic to assume that any policy a US president adopts is going to cause most suicide-bomb plotters to pause and reconsider. The extremists behind these horrific actions are not interested in a negotiated two-state solution. But one goal of US policy should be to change the way suicide bombings and other forms of terrorism are received by the Palestinian populace. If such actions are widely seen as unproductive and a threat to tangible economic and political advances for Palestinians, there is a chance these strikes can be limited or, at least, isolated culturally. But there must indeed be gains that are threatened. Bush's plan holds out nothing of the sort. His speech provides sustenance to the suicide-bombers and those Palestinians who argue negotiations are useless, for Bush is not even offering real-time negotiations.

This is a triumph for the pro-Israel hawks in the Bush administration--people like Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz--who have been wrestling with the let's-get-negotiations-going crowd led by Secretary of State Colin Powell. When Powell went to the Middle East a few months back, he said that justice for the Palestinians was as important as security for the Israelis. In his speech, Bush did recognize the deprivations of the Palestinians, criticize permanent Israeli occupation of the West Bank, and call for an end to further Israeli "settlement activity" in the occupied territories. But this was all secondary to his main thrust: Palestinians, it's up to you to change. Moreover, when Bush in April requested that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon end Israel's military incursion into the West Bank, Sharon ignored him and paid no price. The demands Bush presents to Sharon seem much more flexible than those he issues to the Palestinians.

This is no peace plan. It is more akin to a wish list. If only those unruly and unfortunate Palestinians would transform themselves into a democratic and prosperous community--without a trace of Arafat--wouldn't life in the Middle East be less complicated? Then, of course, they could have a quasi-state of their own.

Days before Bush spoke, Arafat told the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz that he was now willing to accept a peace plan put forward by Bill Clinton in December 2000. The plan allowed Israel to keep control of the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem and to retain some of its settlements on the West Bank. It also required Palestinians to forego returning to homes they left in 1948. The plan went nowhere originally, as Clinton was heading out of office, violence had already broken out in the Middle East, and Prime Minister Ehud Barak was about to be defeated by Sharon. Perhaps Arafat's nostalgic invocation of this missed-chance peace plan was merely a cynical ploy meant to buy him more time. (Over the years, he has been a master at acquiring time.) But it is unfortunate that he cannot be put to the test in a meaningful forum, for there is currently no process for settling the conflict. And if Bush has his way, there will be no talks until the Palestinians recreate themselves on his terms. This is not diplomacy, this is dictating. And it likely will do nothing to prevent future tragedies and acts of hatred.

ExxonMobil-Sponsored Terrorism?

Why are villagers in the Aceh province of Indonesia--or their lawyers--worrying about contributions from Exxon Mobil to George W. Bush and the Republicans?

A year ago, the Washington-based International Labor Rights Fund filed a lawsuit against the energy behemoth, claiming the Mobil half of the conglomerate in the 1990s paid and supported Indonesian military troops that committed human rights abuses in the war-torn province. Representing eleven unnamed residents of Aceh who say they or their husbands were brutalized by troops underwritten by Exxon Mobil, the ILRF maintained that under the Alien Tort Claims Act and Torture Victims Protection Act, the oil company and its Indonesian subsidiary could be held liable for the murder, torture, sexual crimes, and kidnapping conducted by these soldiers. As part of a joint venture with Pertamina, Indonesia's state-owned oil and gas company, Exxon Mobil--which owns 35 percent of this enterprise--operates a major natural gas facility in this province in northern Sumatra, where Acehnese separatists have been fighting Indonesian troops for decades. In the 1990s, Indonesian troops in the area committed extensive abuses, according to human rights organizations. Over 1000 people were killed, tortured or disappeared, reports Human Rights Watch, which noted, "Thousands of Acehnese were detained without charge, often for years at a time, in military camps; many never returned."

The ILRF suit says that, per an agreement with General Suharto, the former strongman-leader of Indonesia, Mobil paid the Indonesian military for providing security for its facilities there. These troops, the ILRF contends, picked up one of the plaintiffs, held him at a structure at a Mobil plant, and for three months tortured him. Before they released him, the soldiers showed him a large pile of human heads. Another plaintiff claims he, too, was tortured by Indonesian soldiers at a building inside the company's compound. The other plaintiffs offer similar accounts of abuse.

Exxon Mobil argues it has not "in any way directly caused, intended, conspired to commit, or participated in any of the" acts of brutality alleged and that there is "no basis" under US law for this lawsuit. When the suit was initiated, the president of Pertamina denied the joint venture had financed troops in Indonesia. He did concede it provided health, housing and transportation facilities for the military. But in 2000, Kontras, an Indonesian human rights group, said it had conducted an investigation that determined at least 17 military and police stations in Aceh with a personnel total of 1000 were subsidized by Exxon Mobil. Last August, the Asian edition of Time published an article noting that Exxon Mobil does pay the soldiers that protect its sites and that townspeople "literally lineup to tell stories of abuse and murders committed by the troops they call Exxon's Army." (In 1998, several Indonesian human rights groups accused Mobil of being "responsible for human rights abuses" committed by the military and maintained it provided logistical support to the army, including earth-moving equipment used to dig mass graves. That year, Business Week reported that the tales told by Acehnese who survived military abuse "raise questions about what Mobil knew and when.")

The lawsuit against Exxon Mobil had been moving along slowly (as is normal) in a Washington federal court but took a turn that could threaten its continuation. At a hearing in April, federal district judge Louis Oberdorfer asked the oil company's attorneys whether the State Department had expressed an interest in the matter. Martin Weinstein, an Exxon Mobil lawyer, said that "this is a very difficult time in Indonesian-American relations" because al Qaeda fighters are residing in that large Muslim nation. He argued that if the judge allowed the lawsuit to proceed, Oberdorfer "would be forced to judge the conduct of the Indonesian government, an ally with whom America's relationship has never been more important, in order to determine whether the allegations in this complaint are those of murder or legitimate warfare against fundamentalist insurgents trying to break a country apart by bombings and other terrorist activities." That is, Exxon Mobil was saying the judge might end up interfering with the war on terrorism. Weinstein suggested Oberdorfer contact the State Department and ask for its advice on how to handle the case.

Lawyers for the victims opposed this. "If at any point the State Department believed the litigation harmed the foreign policy interests of the United States," they argued, "it would have made its views known to the Court." Earlier this year, the State Department, in another case, informed a federal court that its pursuit of a lawsuit involving human rights abuses in Papua New Guinea would harm US relations with that country, and the court dismissed the case.

The ILRF's legal team also worried about Exxon Mobil's influence in the Bush administration. It filed a motion with exhibits noting that Exxon Mobil was the second largest campaign contributor, after Enron, in the current election cycle (giving almost entirely to Republicans); that James Rouse of the company's Washington office donated $100,000 to the George W. Bush inauguration; and that the company pressured the White House to oust the head of an international climate panel (and the White House did decide to oppose that fellow). "This is a bad precedent," says Terry Collingsworth, executive director of the ILRF. "If a human rights case has to go to the State Department, that will give defense lawyers another tool to slow it down or dismiss it."

Still, Oberdorfer took Exxon Mobil's suggestion and wrote to the department: "Out of an abundance of caution, in the tense times in which we are living, I inquire whether the Department of State has an opinion (non-binding) as to whether adjudication of this case at this time would impact adversely on interests of the United States." He asked for the department to answer by July 1.

As of yet, there's no sign from the administration how the State Department might reply. Career officials at the department, the plaintiffs' lawyers speculate, are not likely to be sympathetic to the oil company. In 2000, the State Department collaborated with human rights outfits and major energy and mining companies to develop a code of conduct for businesses working in developing nations where governments might engage in human rights abuses. The prominent hold-out was Exxon Mobil, which refused to sign the code--a fact not forgotten by the department's career lawyers. But the decision will probably be rendered at a higher--more political--level. Several human rights organizations and the United Steelworkers of America have requested that State Department not intervene in the case.

So before a federal court can determine whether Exxon Mobil indeed supported troops that engaged in horrific abuses and bears responsibility for that, another important matter must be decided: can a transnational company accused of corporate-sponsored terrorism hide behind the war on terrorism?

Bush's New Dept.: Rushing for Security or Politics?

After September 11, the President of the United States told budget director Mitch Daniels there would be three conditions under which a deficit would be acceptable: recession, national emergency and war: "Lucky me, I hit the trifecta." First the trifecta, now, with the announcement of his new cabinet-level homeland security department, George W. Bush has pulled a hat trick. In one stroke, Bush overwhelmed the mounting questions about his administration's pre-9/11 performance regarding terrorism, placed himself in the forefront of change, and undid the Democrats' 2002 election strategy. Not bad for a President who, of late, was somewhat foundering on the Middle East and 9/11 questions.

The creation of this new federal department--which will result from combining 100 or so agencies--is, in theory, not a bad idea. But all depends on the specifics. The Bush proposal offers members of Congress, policy wonks and pundits much to chew on (and perhaps chew up). The obvious questions were quickly aired in the initial round of analysis. Can agencies of disparate cultures be quickly merged into an entity that functions smoothly? What about the non-homeland security responsibilities of agencies being lassoed into this one big bureaucracy? FEMA is a good example. It spends most of its resources handling crises like hurricanes and floods--not terrorist attacks. But under the Bush plan, it will be managed by people whose mission is to prevent and (if they fail) react to terrorist strikes. Understandably, these officials will likely not care much about FEMA's non-terrorism duties, and FEMA officials can be expected to cater to the desires of their superiors. So will the non-terrorism operations of FEMA deteriorate? If the problem-ridden Immigration and Naturalization Service is folded into the new department, will it turn into an agency with a terrible bias in favor of keeping non-citizens out of the United States? After all, if security becomes the overriding concern of the INS, it can be expected to err drastically in this direction.

Another subject that requires deep-thinking is the intelligence functions of the new agency. Apparently, the homeland security department will conduct its own terrorism-related analysis. But how will it coordinate with the CIA, the FBI, and the dozen other intelligence agencies? Will it be yet one more bureaucratic competitor in a community of agencies renowned for their inability to operate jointly, or will it be a manager that actually is able to force the other intelligence services to work effectively with one another? If the latter, what will be the source of its power to force cooperation? Also, why start up another intelligence analysis unit, especially in an agency that supposedly will not be collecting intelligence of its own? The department's analysis will have to be based on information gathered by other services. That assumes the other services will know what to send to these analysts and be willing to do so. And the issue is not merely sharing. Generally, the further analysts are from the collectors, the harder it is for them to produce good analysis. Will the analysts at the new department end up merely coordinating the various analyses kicked out by the other agencies? That could have some value. But it would not be a change that addresses the serious analysis problems that have been exposed at both the FBI and the CIA by 9/11.

Bush's homeland security will--and should--keep Congress busy for months. It was certainly not sporting of him to dismiss the idea of a new federal agency for months, then push to the front of the parade once he saw proposals of this nature (including legislation being championed by Senator Joseph Lieberman) gaining bipartisan force, and set a tight deadline for Congress, demanding the new department be ready for business on January 1, 2003. But that was his M.O. in Texas. If someone else had a good idea, Bush might start out opposing it, but if the plan started to fly, he would embrace it and eagerly take credit. Such tactics are hard for the opposition to whine about. (It never worked for GOPers who bitched about Bill Clinton swiping their ideas.) And Democrats on the Hill are not in a position to gripe that Bush's proposal hinders their schedule and undermines their political strategy.

It may still be June, but Congress does not have many working days left this year. Elections are coming, and House members and a third of the Senate (that is, those legislators facing the voters in November) want to spend as much time as possible in their home states. To meet Bush's deadline, Congress is going to have to drop much of its other business. Moreover, other issues it might still handle will probably receive less attention, particularly as committee and subcommittee chairmen and chairwomen fight for jurisdiction over the new agency and its creation. (Supposedly, 88 committees and subcommittees now oversee components of the department-to-be.) The media space available for Congress will be consumed by stories related to the birthing of this new agency and the accompanying turf battles.

This is bad for the Democrats. If they had any national strategy heading into the fall elections, it was to raise domestic economic issues (primarily in the Senate) on which they believe they possess an advantage. Maybe health care, maybe education, maybe Social Security, maybe prescription drugs. The point was to use the Senate as a mini-bully pulpit and create a divide between Democrats and the Bush-Republican team. No doubt, many key races will be decided by local factors. But if the Dems are able to create momentum at the national level, that might add wind to the sails of their candidates. With the Senate and the House so evenly divided, every puff this year will count.

Poof--that opportunity is practically gone. Bush has grabbed the national political agenda by the horns and steered it in a direction that--what a coincidence--benefits him. Do the Democrats want to argue that a patient's bill of rights bill ought to be considered before Congress establishes a department vital to the protection of the American homeland? (And Bush has recently made noises about agreeing to a compromise on that subject--which would neutralize another possible Democratic issue.) Bush has pushed what is now his agency--the political equivalent of an 800-pound gorilla--into the center of the national discourse.

The Democrats seem to believe they have no choice but to go along. After Bush's announcement, most Democratic lawmakers hailed his move and pledged to toil hard to meet his deadline. "Can we do this in three months?" one senior House Democrat told me. "Of course, not. But no one will say that in public." (This lawmaker also expressed concern about privacy issues raised by the creation of the new department, but said it was doubtful Congress could thoroughly explore this area in the time it had.) Consequently, the Democrats have the worst of both worlds: their agenda is subsumed, and they now share responsibility for passing Bush's plan on his timetable.

In politics, the best ammunition is a good idea. A Department of Homeland Security sounds reasonable. But if, as the cliche goes, the devil is in the details, the creation of this agency will be devilishly difficult. There are thousands of details, if not more, to weigh. Congress, which already is supposed to be scrutinizing the FBI's own reorganization, the new (looser) guidelines for FBI domestic snooping, and the pre-9/11 cluelessness of the national security community, ought to not rush to create this new department. That won't solve the political problem Bush's proposal poses the Democrats. On that front, they're deep in the hole. But though they have lost on the politics--bigtime--they still have obligations regarding the substance. Government reorganizations of this type come along only every few decades. And this new department could last a long spell. After all, the war on terrorism, the administration says, might match the Cold War in duration. It would not be inappropriate for Democrats (and Republicans) in Congress to tell the president, after you wasted months fighting this idea, we're going to take as long as necessary to get this right.

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