Capital Games | The Nation


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.

Plamegate Finale: We Were Right; They Were Wrong

Four and a half years ago, after reading the Robert Novak column that outed Valerie Plame Wilson as a CIA operative specializing in counter-proliferation work, I wrote an article in this space noting that this particular leak from Bush administration officials might have been a violation of a federal law prohibiting government officials from disclosing information about clandestine intelligence officers and (perhaps worse) might have harmed national security by exposing anti-WMD operations. That piece was the first to identify the leak as a possible White House crime and the first to characterize the leak as evidence that within the Bush administration political expedience trumped national security.

The column drew about 100,000 visitors to this website in a day or so. And--fairly or not--it's been cited by some as the event that triggered the Plame hullabaloo. I doubt that the column prompted the investigation eventually conducted by special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald, for I assume that had my column not appeared the CIA still would have asked the Justice Department to investigate the leak as a possible crime. But now that Fitzgerald's investigation is long done, the Scooter Libby spin-off is over (thanks to George W. Bush's total commutation of Libby's sentence), and Valerie Wilson has finally published her account, it seems a good time to say, I was right. And to add, where's the apology?

From the start, neocons and conservative backers of the war dismissed the Plame leak and subsequent scandal as a big nothing. Some even claimed that somehow former Ambassador Joseph Wilson and I had cooked up the episode to ensnare the White House. (Oh, to be so devilishly clever--and to be so competent.) But these attempts to belittle the affair (and to belittle Valerie Wilson) were based on nothing but baseless spin. As was--no coincidence--the Iraq war. In fact, the Wilson imbroglio was something of a proxy war for the debate over the war itself. In the summer of 2003, when the Plame affair broke, those in and out of government who had misled the nation into the war saw the need to spin their way out of the Wilson controversy in order to protect the false sales pitch they had used to win public support for the invasion of Iraq.

First they attacked Joe Wilson when he disclosed that he had gone to Niger in February 2002 for the CIA and had reported back that the allegation Saddam Hussein had been uranium-shopping there was highly dubious. Then when Valerie Wilson's CIA identity was exposed during the get-Wilson campaign, they pooh-poohed the leak. They subsequently spent years doing so. Here's a brief list of Plame attacks I've published before:

* On September 29, 2003, former Republican Party spokesman Clifford May wrote that the July 14, 2003 Robert Novak column that disclosed Valerie Wilson's CIA connection "wasn't news to me. I had been told that--but not by anyone working in the White House. Rather, I learned it from someone who formerly worked in the government and he mentioned it in an offhand manner, leading me to infer it was something that insiders were well aware of."

* On September 30, 2003, National Review writer Jonah Goldberg huffed, "Wilson's wife is a desk jockey and much of the Washington cocktail circuit knew that already."

* On October 1, 2003, Novak wrote, "How big a secret was it? It was well known around Washington that Wilson's wife worked for the CIA....[A]n unofficial source at the agency says she has been an analyst, not in covert operations."

* On July 17, 2005, Republican Representative Roy Blunt, then the House majority leader, said on Face the Nation, "This was a job that the ambassador's wife had that she went to every day. It was a desk job. I think many people in Washington understood that her employment was at the CIA, and she went to that office every day."

* On February 18, 2007, as the Libby trial was under way, Republican lawyer/operative Victoria Toensing asserted in The Washington Post, "Plame was not covert."

* In his recently published memoirs, Novak wrote of Valerie Wilson, "She was not involved in clandestine activities. Instead, each day she went to CIA headquarters in Langley where she worked on arms proliferation."

A year ago, in our book, Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War, Michael Isikoff and I disclosed for the first time that Valerie Wilson was operations chief at the Joint Task Force on Iraq of the Counterproliferation Division of the CIA's clandestine operations directorate. She was no paper-pusher or analyst, as Novak and others had said. She was in charge of covert operations on a critical front. (Isikoff and I detailed some of her work in the book.) As part of her job, she traveled overseas under cover. CBS News recently reported that it had confirmed she had also worked on operations designed to prevent Iran from obtaining or developing nuclear weapons. Ironic? Ask Dick Cheney.

And Valerie Wilson was not known about Washington as a spy. Though Cliff May has made this argument, in the years since the Novak column appeared, no one in Washington has come forward to say, "Oh yes, I knew about her before Novak outed her." In fact, Valerie Wilson was a mid-level, career CIA officer--there must be hundreds, if not thousands--and such people are (to be frank) not usually on the radar screen of Washington insiders. They are not known regulars on the D.C. cocktail circuit, such as it is. Ask Sally Quinn.

For her part, Valerie Wilson, who left the CIA at the end of 2005, has only recently been able to challenge the purposefully misleading descriptions of her CIA tenure. Appearing before the House government oversight and reform committee in March, she testified the she was a "covert officer" who had helped to "manage and run operations." She said that prior to the Iraq invasion she had "raced to discover intelligence" on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. "I also traveled to foreign countries on secret missions," she said under oath, "to find vital intelligence." She noted that she could "count on one hand" the number of people outside the CIA who knew of her spy work.

On Sunday, as she launched her new book, Fair Game: My Life as a Spy, My Betrayal by the White House, she appeared on 60 Minutes and repeated her case. Though the CIA has absurdly prevented her from acknowledging that she worked for the agency prior to 2002--she started there in 1985--Wilson told Katie Couric, "Our mission was to make sure that the bad guys basically did not get nuclear weapons." After her name appeared in the Novak column, she said, "I can tell you, all the intelligence services in the world that morning were running my name through their databases to see, 'Did anyone by this name come in the country? When? Do we know anything about it? Where did she stay? Well, who did she see?'...It puts in danger, if not shuts down, the operations that I had worked on."

What damage was actually done by the leak remains a secret. On 60 Minutes, Valerie Wilson said a damage assessment was conducted by the CIA but that she never saw it. She added, "I certainly didn't reach out to my old assets and ask them how they're doing, although I would have liked to have." That damage report has not been leaked. Nor has it been a subject of congressional interest--as far as one can publicly tell. in 2003, the Democrats in Congress who cared about the Plame leak were obsessed with calling for the appointment of a special prosecutor. That fixation proved to be a mistake. A special prosecutor could only focus on criminal matters and could only disclose information necessary for a prosecution--rules that Patrick Fitzgerald would stick by. The Democrats never pushed for a congressional investigation that could have examined (and perhaps made public, even if in a limited fashion) key issues in the case, such as the consequences of the leak. Valerie Wilson said to Couric that the damage was "serious." The public ought to know if this is so. (When I once asked Senator Jay Rockefeller, the top Democrat on the Senate intelligence committee, if he had any intention of probing the Plame leak, he said he no interest in doing so.)

In trying to spin their way out of the CIA leak mess, the neocon gang made much of the fact (again, first revealed by Isikoff and me) that Richard Armitage, who was the No. 2 at the State Department and a neocon-hating Iraq war skeptic, was the administration official who initially told Novak that Wilson's wife worked at the CIA. But the Plamegate deniers often ignore the inconvenient truth that White House aide Karl Rove--during the White House campaign to undermine Joe Wilson--confirmed this classified information for Novak and also passed the same leak to Matt Cooper, then of Time. (It was only because Cooper's editors at the newsmagazine did not care about Wilson's wife that Novak published the leak first.) Libby and White House press secretary Ari Fleischer also shared information about Wilson's wife and her CIA connection with reporters. This was all part of the White House effort to tarnish Wilson by making it seem as if his trip to Niger had been nothing but a nepotistic junket. And as testimony and documents presented at the Libby trial showed, Vice President Cheney had been driving the pushback effort and had early on learned about Valerie Wilson's CIA employment and then conveyed that information to Libby.

Yes, this was a case of putting politics (getting Joe Wilson) ahead of national security concerns (such as protecting the identity and operations of a CIA officer working the WMD beat).

It is true that at the end of the day, no one was charged with a crime for leaking information on Valerie Wilson. Patrick Fitzgerald decided that he could not prove in court--as he would have to under the law--that the leakers knew that Valerie Wilson was a covert officer. But Fitzgerald did pursue Libby and Rove for possibly lying to FBI agents and the grand jury investigating the leak. He nabbed Libby but, after much consideration, opted not to indict Rove.

Still, Rove was caught in a lie. Toward the start of the Plame affair, the White House declared that Rove was not involved in the leak, and Bush indicated that anyone who had leaked classified information would be dismissed. But the White House statement regarding Rove was false (probably because Rove had misled White House press secretary Scott McClellan). Bush's promise was false, too, for Rove remained Bush's master strategist even after Isikoff published an email showing that Rove had leaked classified information about Valerie Wilson to Cooper.

The bottom line: this episode demonstrated that the Bush White House was not honest (the vice president's chief of staff was even convicted of lying to law enforcement officials), that top Bush officials had risked national security for partisan gain, and that White House champions outside the government would eagerly hurl false accusations to defend the administration.

So is anyone apologizing? For ruining Valerie Wilson's career? For perhaps endangering operations and agents? For lying about the leak? For misleading the public about Rove's role? For placing spin above the truth? Armitage did apologize (via a media interview) to the Wilsons. But no one else involved has. And no one--not Bush, not Cheney, not their aides, not their neocon confederates--has admitted any wrongdoing in this saga.

It's like the war: false statements, false cover stories, and failure to concede the errors in judgment and action that have caused harm to national security. But the meta-narrative of Bush and his neoconservative allies is one of no apology, no surrender. They say and do what they must to shield themselves from the consequences of their actions. Reality be damned. What matters is what they can get away with. In the case of Valerie Plame Wilson, they did escape retribution. In the larger case of the Iraq war, they are still hoping to.


A FAREWELL: This is my last "Capital Games" article for The Nation. After twenty years of representing The Nation in Washington--and five years of writing this web column--I am leaving the magazine to become chief of Mother Jones' new seven-person Washington bureau. It's been an honor to be part of America's oldest political weekly and to write for you. I hope you continue to read and support The Nation--and that you also check out the work I do for Mother Jones. You can read my farewell letter to The Nation here. And a reminder: I will continue to blog at www.davidcorn.com, which is about to become part of an expanded and redesigned CQ.com. Thank you for all the clicks.

Judge Radhi Testifies on Iraqi Corruption; GOPers Attack--UPDATE

On Thursday, former Judge Radhi al-Radhi, Iraq's top anticorruption official until he was recently forced out by the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, appeared before the House government oversight committee and described what had become of people who had worked for him at the Commission on Public Integrity as they investigated crime and fraud within the Iraqi government:

Thirty-one employees have been killed as well as at least twelve family members. In a number of cases, my staff and their relatives have been kidnapped or detained and tortured prior to being killed. Many of these people were gunned down at close range. This includes my staff member Mohammed Abd Salif, who was gunned down with his seven-month pregnant wife. In one case of targeted death and torture, the security chief on my staff was threatened with death many times. His father was recently kidnapped and killed because of his son's work at CPI. His body hung on a meat hook. One of my staff members who performed clerical duties was protected by my security staff, but his 80-year-old father was kidnapped because his son worked at CPI. When his dead body was found, a power drill had been used to drill his body with holes. Waleed Kashmoula was the head of CPI's Mosul branch. In March 2005, a suicide bomber met with Waleed in his office...and then set off his vest [bomb], killing Waleed....My family's home has been attacked by rockets. I have had a sniper bullet striking near me as I was outside my office. We have learned the hard way that the corrupt will stop at nothing.

Minutes later, Republicans members of the committee were suggesting there was nothing unusual or shocking about corruption in Iraq. "Corruption is not a new phenomenon," remarked Representative Tom Davis, the senior GOPer on the panel. Another committee Republican, Representative Darrell Issa, huffed, "We're not surprised a country that was run by a corrupt dictator...would have a pattern of corruption." And Republican Representative John Mica noted that corruption plagues many democratic countries, including the United States. Mica cited Watergate and the prosecution of Reagan administration officials, and he claimed that the Clinton administration had "the most number of witnesses to die suddenly."

Their spin: corruption in Iraq is no big deal.

But Radhi in his testimony reiterated what he said in an interview with me several weeks ago: corruption is "rampant" within Iraq (perverting virtually every ministry and costing tens of billions of dollars); it's undermining the entire government and has "stopped the process of reconstruction"; Maliki has consistently blocked corruption investigations (especially probes involving his associates and family); in some instances corruption is "financing terrorism" by funding sectarian militias; and the situation is getting worse. Radhi noted that of the 3000 corruption cases his commission investigated and forwarded to Iraqi courts for prosecution, only 241 have been adjudicated. Also appearing as a witness at the hearing, Stuart Bowen Jr., the special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction, echoed Radhi, testifying that corruption within the Iraqi government is the "second insurgency." Bowen reported that corruption is on the rise in Iraq--partly due to Maliki's protection of crooked officials. He quoted one Iraqi official who said that "corruption is threatening the state."

That is, this is worse than Watergate. (And back then, no one investigating Richard Nixon's dirty tricks ended up dead and suspended on a meat hook.)

Radhi agreed with the Republicans that corruption was present during the days of Saddam Hussein, but he pointed out that the current corruption "is undermining my country." And he was not fazed when the GOPers tried to discredit his testimony. Republican Representative Dan Burton excitedly pointed out that Radhi had once served as a prosecutor during the Saddam years. (Burton did not mention that Radhi was twice imprisoned and tortured during the Saddam years and still bears the scars.) And Issa suggested that Radhi was appearing at the hearing (and offering testimony inconvenient for the Bush administration) in return for receiving backing from congressional Democrats for an asylum request Radhi recently submitted to the U.S. government for himself and family members.

Radhi came to the United States in August with ten of his CPI investigators for training sessions set up by the Justice Department. While he was in the Washington area, the Maliki government forcibly removed him from his post, accusing him of corruption and essentially stranding him with almost no source of funds. As one of his associates said at the hearing, "If Maliki is right and Judge Radhi stole millions of dollars, why did he have to check out of his hotel here when he couldn't pay the bill?" Christopher Griffith, a State Department official who worked with Radhi, in a pre-hearing interview with the House committee called Radhi "the most honest government of Iraq official that I have met in my 21 months in the country." Arthur Brennan, a former State Department official (and a past New Hampshire state judge) who worked with Radhi in Iraq, has called him "courageous, honest, and effective." Bowen dubbed him, "My most reliable partner....in Iraq."

The Republican attempt to taint Radhi was predictable. Radhi, who has praised the U.S. invasion of Iraq, said he has no political agenda. But his testimony raised a troubling question for the Bush administration: should the United States expend American lives and hundreds of billions of dollars to create "breathing space" for a government that may be too corrupt to achieve political reconciliation or provide essential services to its citizens? As Representative Henry Waxman, the Democratic chairman of the committee, put it, "We need to ask, Is the Maliki government too corrupt to succeed? And if the Maliki government is corrupt, we need to ask whether we can in good conscience continue to sacrifice our blood and tax dollars to prop up his regime."

In response to the Republicans' corruption-is-everywhere defense, Radhi maintained that the "issue is different in Iraq....The infrastructure in Iraq is almost equal to zero. Services in the country is almost equal to zero." He noted that Iraq is a wealthy nation and that its government recently had a budget of $71 billion. Yet, he added, this money has not been used to rebuild and revive the country. David Walker, the comptroller general and another witness at the hearing, tried to spell out why corruption is a significant matter: "When the United States has 160,000 troops on the ground and billions of dollars invested...we ought to be concerned [with corruption] because it can have a direct impact on the Iraqi government's ability to achieve the 18 benchmarks [established by Congress]."

The 62-year-old Radhi left the hearing room quickly after testifying, taking no questions from reporters. Gerry Sikorski, one of his attorneys and a former House member, said, "He took a very risky step coming here"--implying that Radhi or his relatives might face reprisals for his testimony. In a written statement handed out by Sikorski, Radhi said that "real corruption...is destroying my country. It is impossible to have both democracy and corruption at the same time."

At the hearing, Waxman released a committee memorandum indicating that the Bush administration has mounted no serious effort regarding corruption within the Maliki government. After conducting interviews with several State Department officials responsible for anticorruption activity in Iraq, Waxman's committee concluded that "dysfunction and disarray...appear to be frustrating U.S. anticorruption efforts." Former Judge Brennan, who briefly headed State Department's Office of Accountability and Transparency (OAT), told committee investigators there was no coordinated U.S. strategy for combating corruption in Iraq. Michael Richards, the executive secretary of the Anticorruption Working Group, an interagency task force, said that his outfit did not have a coordinator for half a year and that few officials bothered to attend its meetings. And according to the committee memorandum, for a while this summer the State Department's OAT was run by a paralegal who previously had mainly performed administrative tasks within the department. In his prepared testimony, Inspector General Bowen reported that the U.S. embassy in Baghdad has been lackadaisical in its anticorruption efforts.

Yet after Radhi, Bowen and Walker were finished at the witness table, Ambassador Larry Butler, the deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, testified that the "Department of State has devoted considerable effort and resources to helping courageous Iraqi establish mechanisms and procedures to investigate and prosecute corruption." Butler did not have an easy task. But he stuck to his talking points, and--tougher still--he defended his department's refusal to cooperate fully with Waxman's committee.

Prior to the hearing, Waxman asked the State Department to provide witnesses and documents to his investigators. The department responded by claiming that previously unclassified documents about Iraqi government corruption were now classified (including the U.S. embassy draft report detailing extensive corruption within the Maliki government that I first disclosed in this column) and that any information provided by a State Department officials about corruption in Iraq would have to be classified (meaning it could not be discussed at a public hearing).

Writing to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Waxman contended that this was absurd and outrageous. He argued it was ridiculous for the State Department to claim it could not answer even general questions about Iraqi corruption within a public setting. At the hearing, Waxman hurled a series of queries at Butler. What effect does corruption have on the Iraqi government's ability to achieve political reconciliation? Has Maliki obstructed any corruption investigations? Does the Maliki government have the political will and capability to root out corruption? Is corruption funding the insurgency? Again and again, Butler replied that he would be delighted to answer these questions in the proper setting: a classified hearing behind closed doors. This information, he explained, was secret because its disclosure would "endanger" U.S.-Iraqi relations.

Noting that Rice had previously praised Iraqi anticorruption efforts in public, an upset Waxman declared, "If you say something negative about the Maliki government, it's classified, but if it's positive, then it's not." Representative Stephen Lynch, a Democrat on the committee, angrily remarked, "Do you see the irony here? You've established [for Iraq] a committee on accountability and transparency. But here...you're claiming there is a level of confidentiality...and we cannot tell the American people what we're doing with their money." Butler would not be moved. He kept declining to say anything about corruption in Iraq and its impact on the U.S. efforts there. "Secretary Rice," Waxman warned, "is going to have a confrontation with this committee....The executive branch must answer the questions of the legislative branch."

Well, maybe. In the meantime, it's unclear what will become of Radhi. He has several lawyers working pro bono on his immigration status (and that of his family members). And with the Iraqi government refusing to pay him the retirement benefits usually awarded former government officials of his rank, he will have to find a way to support himself in the United States (assuming he stays here). Moreover, it's not certain what impact, if any, his testimony will have on the ongoing debate in Congress concerning George W. Bush's Iraq policy and the administration's latest funding requests for the war. There were several reporters--but not many--at the hearing.

During his testimony, Radhi said he does not favor a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq. But he did say that the Iraqi government can only function effectively if "professional technocrats...qualified to perform vital government services" are placed in charge. And by his own account, that is not happening. He estimates the Iraqi government is meeting 2 to 5 percent of its obligations--with the rest of its activity committed to waste and fraud.

So Radhi is, as Waxman noted, a man "without a country," and he's also a man caught between his desire (a clean and functioning Iraqi government backed by the United States) and his view of reality (a corrupt Iraqi government that's a threat to him and his family and that does not deserve the support of the United States). By design or not, his testimony does undercut the Bush administration's rationale for the so-called "surge--as would any public examination of corruption within the Iraqi government. Which is why the State Department is in fierce battle with Waxman and why this matter will not end with Radhi's testimony.

According to a Radhi associate, Radhi left the committee room believing he had done the right thing. Even as he was depending on the U.S. government to process his asylum request, he had delivered Congress a straight message that happened to be rather inconvenient for the Bush administration. Then hours later, he received disturbing news: his son, who had been trying to obtain political asylum in England, was ordered by the British government to return to Baghdad. That's where people connected to Radhi have been kidnapped, tortured and killed. "For Judge Radhi," the Radhi associate said, "this put his day on Capitol Hill in a very different light."

UPDATE. From my www.davidcorn.com blog: Two days after former Iraqi Judge Radhi al-Radhi testified in Congress about the rampant corruption within the Iraqi government, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki struck back. On Saturday, Maliki, who weeks ago forced out Radhi as Iraq's anticorruption chief, announced his government will prosecute Radhi for smuggling documents, for libeling Maliki, and for engaging in corruption himself.

This is not a new strategy for Maliki. A year ago, the Iraq government accused Radhi and the Commission on Public Integrity that he ran of corruption, but the charges went nowhere. (According to a now-confidential U.S. embassy draft report, Radhi's CPI passed an audit with flying colors.) And Radhi's work and integrity has been endorsed by a number of U.S. officials who worked with him, including Stuart Bowen, the special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction. By the way, there is documentary evidence showing that Maliki's office has blocked dozens of Radhi's prosecution cases. (Apparently, Maliki is upset that Radhi has copies of these documents and shared them with U.S. congressional investigators.) As for the charge of personal corruption, Radhi shows no signs of having run off with any money. After being stranded in the United States by the Maliki government--which removed him from his post while he was in Washington at the invitation of the Justice Department for a training session--Radhi had to leave his hotel because he could not afford the bill. Friends of his in the United States are now trying to figure out how to raise money for him.

The question is, why is Maliki pursuing Radhi with such vengeance? Yes, Radhi has declared that Maliki's government is so corrupt it ought to be abolished and has accused Maliki of personally stopping corruption investigations targeting his associates and family. And Radhi's appearance on Capitol Hill last week did generate several news stories inconvenient for the Maliki government. But Radhi and his comments have not gotten as much attention as they deserve. From a political perspective, it might have been better for Maliki to ignore Radhi and hope the former judge (who was twice tortured during the days of Saddam Hussein) would slip off into obscurity. Instead, Maliki is pursuing Radhi, and this pursuit will raise Radhi's profile. (I see a 60 Minutes segment in all this.)

Radhi appears to have really gotten to Maliki. More important, Radhi's claims and evidence warrant more notice. As a Washington Post front-page story shows, Iraq's government is unable--and seemingly unwilling--to achieve political reconciliation. If it is also as corrupt and dysfunctional as Radhi says--and the available evidence supports him--then there is no reason for the Bush administration to be supporting the Maliki government and asking American soldiers to die for it. With his anti-Radih crusade, Maliki is digging a deeper hole.

Springsteen's Magic: Darkness in the Center of Town

As I listened to Magic, the new (and maybe last?) album from Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, I thought of a buddy and a movie.

A few days ago, a pal of mine, who had spent about a year in Iraq in a nonmilitary but intense position, told me about a recent episode. He had gone to a bar on a weekend night and had fallen into a dispute with a bouncer--a big bouncer. My friend, who's not that young and not that fit, surprised himself by becoming highly aggressive with the bouncer. He was ready for a fight--eager for it--knowing damn well that if one came his way, he would end up on the downside of the deal. Fortunate for him, the moment was defused, and he moved on intact. "That's not me," he told me. "That's Iraq. After being there, you feel you don't have to put up with anything here and what happens here is nothing compared to what happens there."

In Paul Haggis's new film, In the Valley of Elah, GIs come back from Iraq with a different attitude toward violence and death. The war has changed them--not by robbing them of limbs, but by stealing them of innocence (yes, a cliche) and, more important, by undermining their sense of decency. To say too much would be to give away the mystery in the movie. But Haggis's point is that besides the obvious impact of the war--the death count, the physical wounds, the mental injuries (such as post-traumatic stress disorder), there are other costs--subtle but deep--to turning young men and women into killers forced to make choices no one ought to have to face.

As Haggis's film and my friend's experience illustrate, there is a consequence of war that does not fit into the box scores of lives lost, troops hospitalized, and money spent. It's what warring turns us into. And that seems to have been on Springsteen's mind when he penned the foundational songs of Magic.

Much of the album is imbued with a melancholy and a sense of loss, even when Springsteen deploys the power chords, searing guitars, and cascading piano that once (oh so long ago) underscored themes of youthful exuberance, rebellion and escape. This loaded-with-hooks album has its obvious moments. On "Last To Die," Springsteen sings, "Who'll be the last to die for a mistake?" It's John Kerry's once-famous line rock-and-rollified. (In the last election, Springsteen campaigned with Kerry.) "The wise men were all fools," Springsteen wails, as drums pound. Neocons, take note.

But on other tracks, Springsteen eschews the big picture for the nitty-gritty, chronicling broken souls and detailing lovers lost in grief, all apparent victims of a faraway war. On the elegiac "Devil's Arcade," a gravely wounded soldier lies in bed at home and feels "the glorious kingdom of the sun" on his face, as the song's narrator--probably his wife--asks him to "just whisper the word 'tomorrow' in my ear." In the pop-infused (maybe too infused) "Livin' in the Future," a fellow who's received a letter saying "somethin' 'bout me and you never seein' one another again" feels untethered from the present moment. "My faith's been torn asunder," he says, "tell me is that rollin' thunder/Or just the sinkin' sound of somethin' righteous goin' under?"

Well, the answer is clear. The ship's gone down, and folks are left to deal with the wreckage on their own. And the grand sum of all these individual tragedies marks a societal demise. On the title track--a somber, violin-draped number--Springsteen sings of a magician who moves from making a coin disappear to sawing a volunteer into two. "I'll cut you in half," the sly trickster says, "while you're smiling ear to ear. And the freedom that you sought's driftin' like a ghost among the trees." As Springsteen has acknowledged, this song is about the Bush administration, and the Bush-Cheney magic act ends apocalyptically:

Now there's a fire down below
But it's comin' up here
So leave everything you know
And carry only what you fear
On the road the sun is sinkin' low
There's bodies hangin' in the trees
This is what will be, this is what will be.

There's a lot more than darkness on the edge of town. There's ruin. Yet overall the album's music does not match it's downhearted view. Springsteen creeps along a tight rope, balancing his musical brightness with his belief the nation has lost its soul at the hands of deceivers.

He ties it all together, though, in "Long Walk Home." Against Springsteen's long-perfected anthemic bar-band sound, he sings of returning--that is, trying to return--to his home town. But things ain't the same. The place is full of strangers. The veterans hall is closed: "The diner was shuttered and boarded/With a sign that just said 'gone.'" He recalls his father once telling him,

Son, we're luck in this town
It's a beautiful place to be born
it just wraps its arms around you
Nobody crowds you, nobody goes it alone.
That you know flag flying over the courthouse
Means certain things are set in stone
Who we are, what we'll do and what we won't.

It's no secret; he's talking not about a fine ol' town but about the romanticized American ideal. Whether it ever truly existed on the ground can be debated. (Remember "Born in the U.S.A"?) But what's for sure is that it's promise has been trampled by the current gang. And the war's one helluva tipping point. In this song, Springsteen's narrator sings, "Hey pretty Darling, don't wait up for me/Gonna be a long walk home."

Springsteen, whose last album was a romping collection of pumped-up versions of songs associated with Pete Seeger, is not wallowing in nostalgia. (Bodies hanging in the trees? We're way past nostalgia, he seems to be saying.) He's expressing a desire. Rock and roll has always been about yearning. In earlier days, it was about longing for sex, love, a fast car, flight. You know, "it's a death trap, it's a suicide rap," and so on. But as he surveys the horizon and sees a nation in trouble, that small town Springsteen wanted to flee as a young man doesn't look so bad now--that is, as a symbol of America's best values: community, compassion, the rule of law. So he's brought the band together and called upon the rock idiom he knows so well to share his present-day yearnings. At the age of 58, Springsteen knows that it's not about running away, it's about walking back. And though the music soars, his message is mired in realism: this walk is not going to be easy.

State Dept: Corruption in Iraq is Classified

Corruption in the Iraqi government--it's classified information. So says the State Department.

In preparation for a September 27 hearing on corruption within the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, Representative Henry Waxman, who chairs the House government oversight and reform committee, sent a request--and then a subpoeana--to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice for documents and witnesses. He wanted the State Department to turn over various documents, including a copy of a secret report prepared by the Baghdad embassy that details rampant corruption within the Iraqi government. He also demanded that the State Department make available to his investigators three officials in the department's Office of Accountability and Transparency who have worked on the issue of Iraqi corruption. [UPDATE: The hearing has been postponed until October 4.]

The State Department refused to turn over the documents and said no to the interview requests. Then it slightly changed its tune. Joel Starr, the deputy assistant secretary of state for legislative affairs, notified Waxman that his committee could interview the State Department officials, but anything they had to say about corruption within the Iraqi government would be classified--meaning Waxman could not disclose that information to the public.

How can information about criminal waste and fraud in another government be considered a state secret in the United States?

On September 25, an irritated Waxman fired off a letter to Rice, detailing his exchange with her department:

The State Department is taking the position that investigators for the Committee may speak with these individuals, but the investigators may not ask them questions that could embarrass the Maliki government unless the Committee agrees to refrain from any public discussion of their answers. State Department officials explained that any information about corruption within the Maliki government must be treated as classified because public discussions could undermine U.S. relations with the Maliki government.

This absurd position was confirmed in an e-mail sent to Committee staff....In the e-mail, the State Department provided a description of the "redlines" that its employees may not cross in unclassified interviews scheduled....According to the State Department, the following information is now classified:

Broad statements/assessments which judge or characterize the quality of Iraqi governance or the ability/determination of the Iraqi government to deal with corruption, including allegations that investigations were thwarted/stifled for political reasons;

Statements/allegations concerning actions by specific individuals, such as the Prime Minister or other GOI [Government of Iraq] officials, or regarding investigations of such officials.

The scope of this prohibition is breathtaking. On its face, it means that unless the Committee agrees to keep the information secret from the public, the Committee cannot obtain information from officials in the Office of Accountability and Transparency, about whether there is corruption within the Iraqi ministries, how extensive the corruption is, or whether the corruption is funding the insurgency and undermining public confidence in the Iraqi government. The Committee also cannot obtain information about whether Mr. Maliki himself has been involved in corruption or has intervened to block corruption investigations of Iraqi officials close to Mr. Maliki.

There is already plenty of information on the public record about corruption within the Maliki government. I first disclosed that secret embassy report in this column. And former Iraqi Judge Radhi al-Radhi, whom Maliki forced out as chief of Iraq's lead anticorruption agency, has said in an exclusive interview with me that Maliki thwarted many of his anticorruption investigations and that the Maliki administration is so rife with corruption it ought to be scrapped. Radhi also pointed out that corruption within the Iraqi government has produced funding for insurgents.

The State Department--which has abandoned Radhi, whom it once supported--is trying to prevent Radhi's charges from receiving wider notice. It obviously does not want its own records and officials to be used publicly to confirm his claims. (Radhi will be a featured witness at the Waxman committee's hearings.)

In his letter to Rice, Waxman complained that when his staff conducted a phone interview with Vincent Foulk, one of the Office of Accountability and Transparency officials, Foulk was not permitted by other State Department officials on the call to say whether there is extensive corruption in Iraq, whether Maliki and other Iraqi ministers have blocked corruption probes, and what impact corruption within the Iraqi government is having on U.S. efforts. Foulk told Waxman's staff that he had never previously heard of a State Department official being prevented from talking about corruption in Iraq.

During this interview, Waxman's staffers read Foulk a statement Rice had made in October 2006 praising Maliki for taking action against corruption. Foulk was asked if he agreed with Rice's remarks. Foulk replied he could not answer the question because his opinion is classified information. In his letter to Rice, Waxman griped, "Your position seems to be that positive information about the Maliki government may be disseminated publicly, but any criticism of the government must be treated as a national security secret...If there is widespread corruption within the Maliki government, this is information that both Congress and the public are entitled to know."

The Bush administration apparently believes otherwise. It's holding on to documents; the State Department retroactively classified the embassy report on corruption. It has essentially imposed a gag order on State Department officials knowledgeable about corruption in Iraq. In doing so, it has stretched--and possibly abused--its power to classify information. Why go to such lengths? Because George W. Bush's Iraq policy--at least for the moment--depends on the Maliki government. But if that government is thoroughly corrupt and dysfunctional, Bush's policy doesn't make sense. And that's the real secret the Bush administration wants to keep.

An Iraqi "Eliot Ness" Out in the Cold--UPDATED

Three days ago, I called the State Department with a question: what is the Bush administration doing to help Radhi al-Radhi? The answer appears to be this: nothing.

I was referring to the former Iraqi judge who until recently was head of the Commission on Public Integrity, the independent government agency tasked with investigating corruption within the Iraqi government. As I've previously reported, earlier this month Radhi was forced out of his job by the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, while Radhi and several of his investigators were attending a training session in Washington sponsored by the U.S. government. A draft of a secret U.S. embassy report--which was first revealed in this column--depicts Radhi as a diligent and serious (though hobbled) pursuer of the rampant corruption infesting the Maliki government. (You can read the full draft report--which concludes that corruption is the "norm" throughout most Iraqi ministries--here.)

Radhi was apparently tossed out of his job because he pushed too hard on corruption within the Maliki administration. He was replaced with a Maliki ally who last month was arrested on corruption charges. Moreover, the Iraqi government cut off Radhi's funding while he was in the United States--except for a small pension of several hundred dollars a month. (As a former government official who held a minister's rank, Radhi says he is due ten times as much in retirement pay.) Given that Radhi has accused past and present government officials of corruption and has recently said that the Maliki administration is so rotten it ought to be abolished, it would be unwise for him to return to Iraq, where his family remains. "I consider him Iraq's version of Eliot Ness," says Chris King, an American who was a senior adviser to Radhi in Iraq. "Time and time again, he put himself and his family at risk to prosecute corruption and promote the rule of law in a nonsectarian, non-ethnic, non-tribal and nonpolitical manner."

Now Radhi has essentially been stranded in the United States. Last week, the 62-year-old former jurist, who was imprisoned and tortured during Saddam Hussein's regime, had to leave the Alexandria, Virginia, hotel where he was staying because he could not pay the bill.

Up until Maliki and his allies removed Radhi, State Department advisers were working with Radhi and his anticorruption commission. It was the U.S. government that brought him and his investigators to Washington for training sessions conducted by the Justice Department and the Defense Department. But now the State Department, according to Radhi associates and U.S. government officials, is not aiding the former judge. "No U.S. government agency has provided him any help to date," says a Radhi associate. On Monday morning, I asked Nicole Thompson, a State Department spokesperson, if this is true. She promised a quick answer. No reply came quickly. When I called again, she told me she had to check with Bureau of Near East Affairs and the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs. On Wednesday afternoon, Thompson called with an official response:

State Department officials have met with Judge Radhi and are aware of his situation. As a standard practice, we do not comment on private conversations.

But according to Radhi associates, State Department officials met with him about two weeks ago, and Radhi has not heard anything from the department since then. "Judge Radhi is in immigration limbo," says Christopher Nugent, a lawyer who is working pro bono with Radhi. "He is a man without a state, contemplating his options."

It's no surprise the State Department has displayed little interest in assisting Radhi. For the Bush administration, Radhi is an inconvenient Iraqi. And he is speaking out while in the United States. Radhi is scheduled to testify about corruption in the Iraqi government next week before the House oversight and government reform committee chaired by Representative Henry Waxman. (On Tuesday, Waxman released a letter noting that according to seven current and former officials, State Department Inspector General Howard Krongard has repeatedly interfered with investigations to protect the White House and State Department from political embarrassment.)

When Radhi appears before Waxman's committee, his testimony can be expected to shoot a hole in the Bush administration's rationale for its military action in Iraq. George W. Bush has said the point of the so-called surge is to create "breathing space" in which Maliki's government can achieve national reconciliation and provide basic services to the people of Iraq. Yet Radhi says the Maliki government is so sleaze-ridden and so dominated by criminals that it cannot achieve anything. This raises an obvious question: is the current Iraqi government worth dying and killing for?

During their recent appearances on Capitol Hill, General David Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker did not address the issue of corruption within the Maliki government. The pair discussed the Maliki administration in hopeful and positive terms. Crocker saluted Maliki's "patriotism." But Radhi's damning conclusions about the Maliki administration challenge Bush's strategy, which is predicated on the notion that the Maliki administration, given a chance, can take meaningful steps to bring peace and security to Iraq.

The Bush White House is apparently not eager to see Radhi testify that the Maliki government is a criminally-run cesspool of fraud and waste. That may explain why the State Department has abandoned Radhi. The State Department also has no plans, according to a spokesperson for the U.S. embassy in Iraq, to release the draft report detailing corruption in the Iraqi government. In fact, according to Waxman, the State Department may try to classify that report retroactively. The copy of the draft I obtained was marked "SENSITIVE BUT UNCLASSIFIED."

The State Department also has withheld this secret U.S. embassy document from Congress. On September 10, Waxman sent a letter to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rive requesting copies of "all reports prepared by the Office of Accountability and Transparency [within the State Department], whether classified or unclassified, relating to the Iraqi Commission on Public Integrity." This request covered the secret U.S. embassy report on Iraqi corruption, for this report was drafted by officials of the Office of Accountability and Transparency [OAT]. The State Department refused to turn over to Waxman any OAT records, but it allowed staffmembers of Waxman's committee to inspect documents at the State Department. After that review, Waxman reiterated his demand that copies be given to the committee. (The 82-page draft report, though, was posted on the Internet this week.)

Waxman's committee also requested interviews with three Office of Accountability and Transparency officials who worked on Iraqi corruption matters. One, James Mattil, showed up for an interview. The State Department refused to make the other two officials--Vincent Foulk and Christopher Griffith--available to the committee.

Yesterday, Waxman sent another letter to Rice demanding that the OAT documents be handed over today and that Foulk, Griffith, and James Santelle, the rule of law coordinator at the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, appear for interviews with the committee. Waxman noted he was prepared to subpoena the State Department if the documents and witnesses were not produced.

Keep Radhi isolated, cover up the draft report and other documents on corruption, sit on witnesses--the State Department is doing what it can to prevent the issue of corruption from undermining the White House's current rationale for the war. Radhi, who would like to return to his job pursuing fraud and waste in Iraq (but who knows that's not likely to happen), says he has no political agenda. He merely wants the truth about the Iraqi government to be known. "His only commitment," says an associate, "is to the rule of law and transparency." But Radhi's truth is trouble for the Bush administration. As he has gone from U.S.-supported investigator to an in-the-cold whistleblower, it looks as if the Bush administration has decided that regarding Radhi the mission is a simple one: cut and run.

UPDATE: As I reported above, Representative Henry Waxman, the chairman of House government oversight and reform committee, on September 19 asked the Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to turn over to him a copy of the secret draft Baghdad embassy report on corruption in the Iraqi government and other documents and to produce three State Department officials for interviews with committee investigators.

Rice had not done so. In response, Waxman has issued subpoenas to the State Department for these records and witnesses.

Meanwhile, Waxman's committee is proceeding with the hearing on Iraqi corruption--scheduled for September 27--that will feature Radhi.

Post-Petraeus, Obama & Clinton Jockey for Antiwar Position

In the aftermath of General David Petraeus' stay-the-course presentation to Congress and as George W. Bush prepared yet another major speech-to-the-nation on Iraq, the top-tier Democratic presidential candidates each tried to position him- or herself as the potential commander in chief most in favor of removing U.S. troops from Iraq. But in doing so, can any of them score political points?

During Petraeus' multiple appearances on Capitol Hill, neither Senator Hillary Clinton nor Senator Barack Obama stood out when legislators questioned the Bush administration's pitchman for the war. When Obama and Clinton had their chances, each speechified against the war, without being too tough on Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker. But Clinton did toss more pointed queries at the pair than did Obama. Given the hype surrounding Petraeus's congressional testimony, Obama missed a chance to outshine Clinton as the Democrat best able to take on Bush's war. (Judge for yourself. See Clinton's performance here and Obama's here.)

But soon after Petraeus had withdrawn from the Hill, Obama and Clinton renewed the fierce competition over their antiwar bona fides. On Wednesday, Obama delivered a speech in Clinton, Iowa, in which he "unveiled" (as his campaign put it) a "comprehensive plan to turn the page in Iraq."

This plan essentially reiterates what Obama has been proposing since early this year: a phased withdrawal of combat troops from Iraq. In January, he introduced legislation to start a pullout with a goal of redeploying all U.S. combat brigades by March 31, 2008. In his Clinton speech, Obama proposed the immediate withdrawal of combat troops at the pace of one or two brigades a month. That would lead to the complete removal of combat forces by the end of next year. Under the Petraeus plan, which Bush backs, U.S. troop levels are projected to be about 130,000 by next summer (the pre-surge level), with no guarantee of any decrease after that.

Though Hillary Clinton has vowed to extricate the United States from Iraq should she be elected president, she has not been as specific in proposing a date or schedule for the drawdown of troops. In July--in a speech in Des Moines--she released her Iraq plan "to end our military engagement in Iraq's civil war and immediately start bringing our troops home." One of her "first official actions" as president, she said, would be to direct the Pentagon and the National Security Council to create within the first two months of her administration a "clear, viable plan" to bring U.S. troops home. Like Obama, she called for a quick start to disengagement. Unlike Obama, she has not offered a target date for the completion of a withdrawal.

Both candidates have proposed new diplomatic and humanitarian assistance efforts in Iraq. Clinton wants to appoint a high-level U.N. representative to help broker peace among the factions there. Obama says he would call for a new constitutional convention in Iraq, convened under the auspices of the U.N., which would not adjourn until a new accord on national reconciliation is reached. (Send out for the mattresses!) But of the pair, only Obama can cite--as he did on Wednesday in Clinton, Iowa--a pace and a deadline for removing combat troops. His message could be (though he didn't say so): if elected president, I won't need to wait 60 days before coming up with a disengagement schedule.

The Obama camp is not making much of this difference. After his Clinton, Iowa, speech, two of his key foreign policy advisers--Samantha Powers and Sarah Sewell--spoke to bloggers in a conference call. I asked them how Obama's Iraq policy differed from those of other leading Democratic contenders, including a certain senator from New York. Neither raised the issue of troop withdrawals. Instead, they noted Obama's ideas for dealing with Iraqi refugees in and out of Iraq. He proposes providing financial assistance not just to the United Nations but to countries neighboring Iraq. While important, that part of Obama's speech did not come across as a candidacy-defining policy that separates him from the others.

Not to be left in any dust in the post-Petraeus phase, the Clinton campaign, about the time Obama was speaking in Iowa, zapped out an email to the media noting that Hillary Clinton had just sent a letter to Bush demanding that he "greatly accelerate the redeployment of U.S. forces from Iraq, and to bring so many troops home so much faster." In the letter, she did not refer to any target date for the completion of a troop drawdown. So between Clinton and Obama, the Illinois senator still has the more specific disengagement proposal.

But as Obama was speaking and Clinton was writing the president, former Senator John Edwards, the North Carolina Democrat fighting to stay close to Clinton and Obama in the polls, released a statement calling for the immediate withdrawal of 40,000 to 50,000 troops "to jump-start the comprehensive political solution that will end the violence in Iraq and will allow a complete withdrawal of all combat troops within 9 to 10 months." He blasted Obama for suggesting a slower pullout that would "essentially mimic the president's own plan to withdraw 30,000 troops by next summer." He called on Obama, Clinton and other lawmakers "to use every tool available to them, including a filibuster, to force the president to change course."

While the top-three Democratic presidential wannabes each advocate removing troops from Iraq, the question (at least, politically) is whether the differences in their positions will matter to any Democratic voters. Obama's plan for Iraq--as described in his Wednesday speech--does not resonate much more than Hillary Clinton's. And Edward's end-it-in-ten-months proposal shaves off only a few months from Obama's suggested timeline. Moreover, such details may not be relevant, considering that none of these folks would be able to implement any policy until 16 months from now. By then, the ground reality in Iraq could dictate a different response.

Still, this is what candidates do: propose future policies based on present situations that could well change. And they maneuver for political position. All of this, though, favors the front-running Clinton. Once upon a time Obama opposed the Iraq war and Clinton (as did Edwards) voted to let Bush start it. This week, there was little in Obama's speech that would not--or could not--appear in a Clinton speech (though Obama's advisers might argue otherwise). Until Obama delivers a speech that Clinton cannot deliver--on Iraq or any other major topic--he will have a tough time portraying himself as a necessary alternative to the leader of the pack.

The war, no doubt, is the issue Democratic voters care most about. And Washington Democrats are about to enter into another difficult period, during which they will have to figure out how to respond to Bush and Petraeus, as additional funding for the war comes up for a vote in the Democratically-controlled Congress. While that occurs, Obama and Edwards each will face a challenge of his own: convincing Democratic voters that his ideas about what to do next in Iraq set him apart from the front-runner and render him a better pick.


CHECK OUT David Corn's recent interview with the anticorruption chief of the Iraqi government who was forced out of his job by Prime Minister Maliki and who claims the Maliki regime is so corrupt it ought to be abolished. Click here.

OUT IN PAPERBACK: HUBRIS: THE INSIDE STORY OF SPIN, SCANDAL, AND THE SELLING OF THE IRAQ WAR by Michael Isikoff and David Corn. The paperback edition of this New York Times bestseller contains a new afterword on George W. Bush's so-called surge in Iraq and the Scooter Libby trial. The Washington Post said of Hubris: "Indispensable....This [book] pulls together with unusually shocking clarity the multiple failures of process and statecraft." The New York Times called it, "The most comprehensive account of the White House's political machinations...fascinating reading." Tom Brokaw praised it as "a bold and provocative book." 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.

Petraeus: I "Don't Know" If Iraq War Makes U.S. Safer

Did General David Petraeus today suggest that the war in Iraq may not make the United States safer?

During his second day of appearances on Capitol Hill, Petraeus this afternoon appeared before the Senate armed services committee. Fortified with charts and graphs, he presented the same we're-on-the-right-course pitch he delivered to the House armed services and foreign affairs committees (on Monday) and to the Senate foreign relations committee (this morning). During the Q&A round at the armed services committee, Senator John Warner, the Virginia Republican who used to chair the committee and who has called for beginning a disengagement in Iraq, took a few sharp (albeit respectful) jabs at Petraeus, noting that one intelligence report after another has said that political reconciliation in Iraq could be a bridge too far. He then asked Petraeus a pointed question: "Do you feel that [Iraq war] is making America safer"?

Petraeus paused before responding. He then said: "I believe this is indeed the best course of action to achieve our objectives in Iraq."

That was, of course, a non-answer. And Warner wasn't going to let the general dodge the bullet. He repeated the question: "Does the [Iraq war] make America safer?"

Petraeus replied, "I don't know, actually. I have not sat down and sorted in my own mind."

Don't know? Is it possible that the war is not making the United States safer? Petraeus went on to note that he has "taken into account" the war's impact on the U.S. military and that it's his job to recommend to the president the best course for reaching "the objectives of the policy" in Iraq. Yet he did not say that the Iraq war is essential to the national security of the United States. Warner did not press the general any further on this point. The senator's time was up.

That was quite a statement from the fellow who is supposed to save Bush's war. He advocates pursuing Bush's course of action in Iraq but he cannot attest that this effort is crucial for America's safety. Is that being a good soldier?


CHECK OUT David Corn's recent interview with the anticorruption chief of the Iraqi government who was forced out of his job by Prime Minister Maliki and who claims the Maliki regime is so corrupt it ought to be abolished. Click here.

OUT IN PAPERBACK: HUBRIS: THE INSIDE STORY OF SPIN, SCANDAL, AND THE SELLING OF THE IRAQ WAR by Michael Isikoff and David Corn. The paperback edition of this New York Times bestseller contains a new afterword on George W. Bush's so-called surge in Iraq and the Scooter Libby trial. The Washington Post said of Hubris: "Indispensable....This [book] pulls together with unusually shocking clarity the multiple failures of process and statecraft." The New York Times called it, "The most comprehensive account of the White House's political machinations...fascinating reading." Tom Brokaw praised it as "a bold and provocative book." 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.

Top Iraqi Graft-buster: Maliki's Government Must Go

With Congress and the White House engaging in yet another round of debate on the Iraq War, a former Iraqi judge who was--and who still may be--the chief anti-corruption officer of the Iraqi government has a tough message for anyone concerned about Iraq: The government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is so riddled with corruption it ought to be totally scrapped. Radhi al-Radhi, who since 2004 has headed the Commission on Public Integrity (CPI), an independent Iraqi institution that tries to investigate and prosecute corrupt Iraqi officials, offers this damning indictment of the Iraqi government at a time when Maliki and his allies are mounting a fierce attack against him and attempting to replace Radhi with a Maliki loyalist who himself has been arrested on corruption charges.

Last week I posted an article disclosing that a team of officials at the US embassy in Baghdad had drafted a secret report detailing rampant corruption and criminality throughout the Iraqi government. The embassy report notes that corruption is "the norm in many ministries" and that Maliki has consistently blocked the work of Radhi and the Commission on Public Integrity. Four days later, Maliki held a press conference in Baghdad and fiercely denounced Radhi. He accused Radhi of corruption--without offering any specifics. Maliki announced that Radhi would be prosecuted and that the Parliament was about to forcibly retire him. The prime minister also claimed that the CPI chief had fled the country. Three days after that, the Iraqi government named Moussa Faraj to replace Radhi.

While all this was happening, Radhi, who is depicted in the secret embassy report as a diligent and brave investigator, was in the United States, not fleeing but leading a delegation of CPI investigators attending a training session in Washington. I spoke with him yesterday about his own predicament and that of his nation. He laughs off Maliki's charges as a bogus and transparent attempt to end investigations probing Maliki's political allies, and he is quite blunt in his assessment of the Maliki government.

Radhi, a secular Shia, is a compact, 62-year-old man with a salt-and-pepper mustache and receding gray hair. It's easy to see the dent on his head where he was smashed by a rifle butt one of the two times he was imprisoned during the Saddam Hussein years. He rolls up a sleeve to show a long deep scar that he says he received during torture sessions and notes that his back is covered with similar marks.

The first point he wants to make--and he does so emphatically--is that he did not slip out of Iraq to escape prosecution, as Maliki has implied. Radhi explains that he came to the United States with ten CPI investigators who are being taught how to use a lie detector. (I've confirmed that such training is under way.) He takes out his passport. It contains an Iraqi stamp indicating he legally departed the country on August 22. "Maliki is making up stories to blame me for stuff," Radhi remarks. The prime minister's press conference, Radhi says, was a stunt designed to pressure Radhi not to return to Iraq: "They want to get rid of me because I have lots of important files that could be used to indict his ministers."

Radhi confirms that the secret embassy report's description of widespread corruption within the Maliki government is accurate: "This is what's going on. The government has failed in doing its job." He estimates that the various ministries, hampered by fraud and waste, are only meeting between 2 and 5 percent of their obligations. He says that $7 billion has been pocketed or wasted at the Ministry of Defense, that the same has happened to $4 billion at the Ministry of Electricity. "At other ministries," he adds, "it's half a billion dollars here, a quarter of a billion dollars there. You can imagine the whole number. It works like the Mafia."

Radhi's problem, he maintains, is that he wants to do something about all this--and that means trouble for the Shia-dominated government led by Maliki. "When I prosecuted Sunni ministers, they clapped for me," he remarks. "When I prosecuted Kurdish ministers, they clapped for me. But when I went after Shia ministers, they came after me and said I'm the corrupted one."

Maliki's campaign against Radhi is nothing new. Last year, Maliki sent Radhi a letter essentially accusing him of not accounting for hundreds of thousands of dollars spent by the Commission on Public Integrity. According to the secret embassy report, an initial audit of the CPI uncovered management problems (not criminal conduct) and a subsequent audit was "glowing."

Sabah al-Saidi, a Shia leader who heads the Parliament's anticorruption committee and who has joined Maliki in the latest campaign against Radhi, has also been trying for a year to undermine the CPI by charging Radhi with graft. Radhi maintains that he earned Saidi's wrath because the CPI was investigating oil smuggling in Basra and its investigators believed this criminal activity was linked to Saidi's Fadillah party. Radhi's CPI pursued about 90 cases involving oil smuggling and corruption in Basra, and these cases were blocked from reaching court. The secret embassy report corroborates this point, noting that investigating corruption in Basra has been nearly impossible. The report describes an occasion when Radhi asked Maliki to support probes in Basra targeting the Fadillah party and Shia militias and Maliki "just went quiet." (According to a Radhi associate who asked not to be identified, oil smugglers in Basra routinely pay militias to safeguard oil pipelines and some of this protection money ends up with anti-American insurgents.)

Radhi says he has never had a case that directly involved Maliki. But he maintains that he has initiated several investigations of officials close to Maliki--including a minister of oil and a Maliki relative who used to head the Ministry of Transportation--and Maliki's office and other ministries shut down these cases, citing a law known as Article 136B. This provision in Iraq's criminal code--a provision that Maliki revived-- allows the prime minister or a minister to order a court to end a prosecution.

And earlier this year, Radhi notes, Maliki's office issued a secret order that forced the criminal courts to close all ongoing cases against past and present ministers and deputy ministers. (I have a copy of that memo.) About three dozen investigations were shuttered. With another secret memo, Radhi says, Maliki's office ended the prosecution of a key Maliki adviser on oil policy. And as we talk, Radhi pulls out yet one more secret memo, dated June 18, 2007, in which the prime minister instructed Radhi to dismiss one of the CPI's best investigators. Radhi refused. A month later, Maliki's office sent Radhi another memo reiterating this order. "I kept him," Radhi says.

Radhi notes that last year he had a "big case" involving one of Maliki's top national security aides. The official was given a large amount of money to fund a weapons buyback program in Sadr City, a Baghdad neighborhood controlled by the militia of Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. According to Radhi, the Maliki aide was suspected of having pocketed some of the money to buy a building for himself in London and of having passed weapons he had collected to militias. "When we looked into this," Radhi recalls, "the prime minister's office closed the case--using Rule 136. We had evidence in this case. And that's when they started to attack us."

Of Maliki, Radhi says, "he's not corrupt, but the group around him--all of them are corrupt. And he has to support them, because he's of their party."

Corruption within the Iraqi government, Radhi says, "is increasing day by day." The government's budget for 2007 (including funds left over from 2006) is $71 billion, he remarks, yet "you see no reconstruction, and we still don't have oil or electricity and no security from the Ministry of Defense or the Ministry of the Interior, and they're each spending billions of dollars." Five million Iraqis have left the country, he says, yet the Ministry of Trade is still spending the same amount of funds for ration cards--apparently for people who no longer live in Iraq: "Where is the money going? No one knows." The Ministry of Health, he complains, has imported billions of dollars in medicine and medical equipment, "but we don't see medicine and equipment in hospitals. It's going to political parties or militias."

Please check out David Corn's personal blog at www.davidcorn.com for recent postings on Fred Thompson, Iraq, missing White House emails, Larry Craig, and other subjects.

Radhi still considers himself chief of the Commission on Public Integrity. His forcible retirement, he says, is illegal--and so is the appointment of his successor. (In a letter sent to Maliki two days ago, Mahmoud al-Mashhadani, the Sunni speaker of the Parliament, declared Radhi's removal "illegal and unconstitutional.") Regardless of the legality of Radhi's ouster, Moussa Faraj, who has been named Radhi's replacement, is an odd pick for the job. He was once a deputy at the CPI--having been installed at the commission by the ruling Shia Alliance Party. According to the secret U.S. embassy report on corruption, Faraj regularly prosecuted and delayed cases on "sectarian bases." Worse, the report notes that Faraj, a political ally of Sabah al-Saidi (the Parliament leader who has assailed Radhi), once "allowed a Shia Alliance member [charged in a multi-million-dollar corruption case] to escape custody." And after Faraj was dismissed from the CPI, the report says, he stole "literally a car load of case files." An arrest warrant was issued for him.

Several weeks ago, according to Radhi and his investigators, Faraj was arrested, placed in prison, and subsequently released on bail. "How can he be in jail and then be head of the integrity commission?" Radhi asks. Putting the CPI in Faraj's hands, Radhi says, will allow Maliki's office and Saidi to control its actions and prevent the commission from conducting investigations that inconvenience them and their political confederates. It will mean, he claims, the end of any meaningful anticorruption effort in Iraq.

Radhi says he hopes to return to Iraq and the CPI: "I want to go back and work because Iraq needs and deserves a clean government. You cannot rebuild Iraq without fighting corruption. We cannot stop the insurgency without blocking its source of funding, and corruption produces funds for the insurgents." But he has no clear strategy for undoing his forcible removal or for countering Maliki's moves against him. Radhi concedes he does not have a lot of options: "I don't have a political party or a gang supporting me."

This summer, there were two rocket attacks on his home. And the Iraqi government has informed him that his retirement benefits (80 percent of his salary) will be based on the pay of low-level government functionary (about $700 a month) not the income of a government minister (about $8000 a month), even though the CPI chief is considered the equivalent of a minister. For the time being, he may be stranded in the United States. And it's unclear how much the US government will help him, if at all.

"The people now running Iraq are corrupted themselves," Radhi says. "The only solution left is a new government, with a secular government of technocrats, not a religious government politicized by certain groups. Iraqi society is a civil society. The people deserve a civil government." He hopes the Bush Administration will pressure the Maliki government to follow the law "so no new dictatorship will be born." But is it realistic to expect any of this? A wholesale change in the Iraqi government? The Bush administration leaning on Maliki and forcing an end to systemic corruption? After all, the secret corruption report--which the Bush administration has not yet acknowledged--notes that the US Embassy in Baghdad has done little to bolster anticorruption programs and that Defense Department officials have blocked investigations of certain Iraqi officials. "I know it's difficult," Radhi says with a deep and sad sigh. "I'm not a political guy."


OUT IN PAPERBACK: HUBRIS: THE INSIDE STORY OF SPIN, SCANDAL, AND THE SELLING OF THE IRAQ WAR by Michael Isikoff and David Corn. The paperback edition of this New York Times bestseller contains a new afterword on George W. Bush's so-called surge in Iraq and the Scooter Libby trial. The Washington Post said of Hubris: "Indispensable....This [book] pulls together with unusually shocking clarity the multiple failures of process and statecraft." The New York Times called it, "The most comprehensive account of the White House's political machinations...fascinating reading." Tom Brokaw praised it as "a bold and provocative book." 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.

Secret Report: Corruption is "Norm" Within Iraqi Government

As Congress prepares to receive reports on Iraq from General David Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker and readies for a debate on George W. Bush's latest funding request of $50 billion for the Iraq war, the performance of the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has become a central and contentious issue. But according to the working draft of a secret document prepared by the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, the Maliki government has failed in one significant area: corruption. Maliki's government is "not capable of even rudimentary enforcement of anticorruption laws," the report says, and, perhaps worse, the report notes that Maliki's office has impeded investigations of fraud and crime within the government.

The draft--over 70 pages long--was obtained by The Nation, and it reviews the work (or attempted work) of the Commission on Public Integrity (CPI), an independent Iraqi institution, and other anticorruption agencies within the Iraqi government. Labeled "SENSITIVE BUT UNCLASSIFIED/Not for distribution to personnel outside of the US Embassy in Baghdad," the study details a situation in which there is little, if any, prosecution of government theft and sleaze. Moreover, it concludes that corruption is "the norm in many ministries."

The report depicts the Iraqi government as riddled with corruption and criminals--and beyond the reach of anticorruption investigators. It also maintains that the extensive corruption within the Iraqi government has strategic consequences by decreasing public support for the U.S.-backed government and by providing a source of funding for Iraqi insurgents and militias.

The report, which was drafted by a team of U.S. embassy officials, surveys the various Iraqi ministries. "The Ministry of Interior is seen by Iraqis as untouchable by the anticorruption enforcement infrastructure of Iraq," it says. "Corruption investigations in Ministry of Defense are judged to be ineffectual." The study reports that the Ministry of Trade is "widely recognized as a troubled ministry" and that of 196 corruption complaints involving this ministry merely eight have made it to court, with only one person convicted.

The Ministry of Health, according to the report, "is a sore point; corruption is actually affecting its ability to deliver services and threatens the support of the government." Investigations involving the Ministry of Oil have been manipulated, the study says, and the "CPI and the [Inspector General of the ministry] are completely ill-equipped to handle oil theft cases." There is no accurate accounting of oil production and transportation within the ministry, the report explains, because organized crime groups are stealing oil "for the benefit of militias/insurgents, corrupt public officials and foreign buyers."

The list goes on: "Anticorruption cases concerning the Ministry of Education have been particularly ineffective….[T]he Ministry of Water Resources…is effectively out of the anticorruption fight with little to no apparent effort in trying to combat fraud….[T]he Ministry of Labor & Social Affairs is hostile to the prosecution of corruption cases. Militia support from [Shia leader Moqtada al-Sadr] has effectively made corruption in the Ministry of Transportation wholesale according to investigators and immune from prosecution." Several ministries, according to the study, are "so controlled by criminal gangs or militias" that it is impossible for corruption investigators "to operate within [them] absent a tactical [security] force protecting the investigator."

The Ministry of the Interior, which has been a stronghold of Shia militias, stands out in the report. The study's authors say that "groups within MOI function similarly to a Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization (RICO) in the classic sense. MOI is a 'legal enterprise' which has been co-opted by organized criminals who act through the 'legal enterprise' to commit crimes such as kidnapping, extortion, bribery, etc." This is like saying the mob is running the police department. The report notes, "currently 426 investigations are hung up awaiting responses for documents belonging to MOI which routinely are ignored." It cites an episode during which a CPI officer discovered two eyewitnesses to the October 2006 murder of Amer al-Hashima, the brother of the vice president, but the CPI investigator would not identify the eyewitnesses to the Minister of the Interior out of fear he and they would be assassinated. (It seemed that the killers were linked to the Interior Ministry.) The report adds, "CPI investigators assigned to MOI investigations have unanimously expressed their fear of being assassinated should they aggressively pursue their duties at MOI. Thus when the head of MOI intelligence recently personally visited the Commissioner of CPI…to end investigations of [an] MOI contract, there was a clear sense of concern within the agency."

Over at the Defense Ministry, the report notes, there has been a "shocking lack of concern" about the apparent theft of $850 million from the Iraqi military's procurement budget. "In some cases," the report says, "American advisors working for US [Department of Defense] have interceded to remove [Iraqi] suspects from investigations or custody." Of 455 corruption investigations at the Defense Ministry, only 15 have reached the trial stage. A mere four investigators are assigned to investigating corruption in the department. And at the Ministry of Trade, "criminal gangs" divide the spoils, with one handling grain theft, another stealing transportation assets.

Part of the problem, according to the report, is Maliki's office: "The Prime Minister's Office has demonstrated an open hostility" to independent corruption investigations. His government has withheld resources from the CPI, the report says, and "there have been a number of identified cases where government and political pressure has been applied to change the outcome of investigations and prosecutions in favor of members of the Shia Alliance"--which includes Maliki's Dawa party.

The report's authors note that the man Maliki appointed as his anticorruption adviser--Adel Muhsien Abdulla al-Quza'alee--has said that independent agencies, like the CPI, should be under the control of Maliki. According to the report, "Adel has in the presence of American advisors pressed the Commissioner of CPI to withdraw cases referred to court." These cases involved defendants who were members of the Shia Alliance. (Adel has also, according to the report, "steadfastly refused to submit his financial disclosure form.") And Maliki's office, the report says, has tried to "force out the entire leadership of CPI to replace them with political appointees"--which would be tantamount to a death sentence for the CPI officials. They now live in the Green Zone. Were they to lose their CPI jobs, they would have to move out of the protected zone and would be at the mercy of the insurgents, militias, and crime gangs "who are [the] subjects of their investigations."

Maliki has also protected corrupt officials by reinstating a law that prevents the prosecution of a government official without the permission of the minister of the relevant agency. According to a memo drafted in March by the U.S. embassy's anticorruption working group--a memo first disclosed by The Washington Post--between September 2006 and February 2007, ministers used this law to block the prosecutions of 48 corruption cases involving a total of $35 million. Many other cases at this time were in the process of being stalled in the same manner. The stonewalled probes included one case in which Oil Ministry employees rigged bids for $2.5 million in equipment and another in which ministry personnel stole 33 trucks of petroleum.

And in another memo obtained by The Nation--marked "Secret and Confidential"--Maliki's office earlier this year ordered the Commission on Public Integrity not to forward any case to the courts involving the president of Iraq, the prime minister of Iraq, or any current or past ministers without first obtaining Maliki's consent. According to the U.S. embassy report on the anticorruption efforts, the government's hostility to the CPI has gone so far that for a time the CPI link on the official Iraqi government web site directed visitors to a pornographic site.

In assessing the Commission on Public Integrity, the embassy report notes that the CPI lacks sufficient staff and funding to be effective. The watchdog outfit has only 120 investigators to cover 34 ministries and agencies. And these investigators, the report notes, "are closer to clerks processing paperwork rather than investigators solving crimes." The CPI, according to the report, "is currently more of a passive rather than a true investigatory agency. Though legally empowered to conduct investigations, the combined security situation and the violent character of the criminal elements within the ministries make investigation of corruption too hazardous."

CPI staffers have been "accosted by armed gangs within ministry headquarters and denied access to officials and records." They and their families are routinely threatened. Some sleep in their office in the Green Zone. In December 2006, a sniper positioned on top of an Iraqi government building in the Green Zone fired three shots at CPI headquarters. Twelve CPI personnel have been murdered in the line of duty. The CPI, according to the report, "has resorted to arming people hired for janitorial and maintenance duty."

Radhi al-Radhi, a former judge who was tortured and imprisoned during Saddam Hussein's regime and who heads the CPI, has been forced to live in a safe house with one of his chief investigators, according to an associate of Radhi who asked not to be identified. Radhi has worked with Stuart Bowen Jr., the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, who investigates fraud and waste involving U.S. officials and contractors. His targets have included former Defense Minister Hazem Shalaan and former Electricity Minister Aiham Alsammarae. And Radhi himself has become a target of accusations. A year ago, Maliki's office sent a letter to Radhi suggesting that the CPI could not account for hundreds of thousands of dollars in expenses and that Radhi might be corrupt. But, according to the US embassy report, a subsequent audit of the CPI was "glowing." In July, the Iraqi parliament considered a motion of no confidence in Radhi-a move widely interpreted as retaliation for his pursuit of corrupt officials. But the legislators put off a vote on the resolution. In late August, Radhi came to the United States. He is considering remaining here, according to an associate.

Corruption, the report says, is "one of the major hurdles the Iraqi government must overcome if it is to survive as a stable and independent entity." Without a vigorous anticorruption effort, the report's authors assert, the current Iraqi government "is likely to loose [sic] the support of its people." And, they write, continuing corruption "will likely fund the violent groups that our troops are likely to face." Yet, according to the report, the U.S. embassy is providing "uncertain" resources for anticorruption programs. "It's a farce," says a U.S. embassy employee. "There is a budget of zero [within the embassy] to fight corruption. No one ever asked for this report to be written. And it was shit-canned. Who the hell would want to release it? It should infuriate the families of the soldiers and those who are fighting in Iraq supposedly to give Maliki's government a chance."

Beating back corruption is not one of the 18 congressionally mandated benchmarks for Iraq and the Maliki government. But this hard-hitting report--you can practically see the authors pulling out their hair--makes a powerful though implicit case that it ought to be. The study is a damning indictment: widespread corruption within the Iraqi government undermines and discredits the U.S. mission in Iraq. And the Bush administration is doing little to stop it.


OUT IN PAPERBACK: HUBRIS: THE INSIDE STORY OF SPIN, SCANDAL, AND THE SELLING OF THE IRAQ WAR by Michael Isikoff and David Corn. The paperback edition of this New York Times bestseller contains a new afterword on George W. Bush's so-called surge in Iraq and the Scooter Libby trial. The Washington Post said of Hubris: "Indispensable....This [book] pulls together with unusually shocking clarity the multiple failures of process and statecraft." The New York Times called it, "The most comprehensive account of the White House's political machinations...fascinating reading." Tom Brokaw praised it as "a bold and provocative book." 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.

Gonzales: Not a Man of His Word?

Is Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, who today announced his resignation, a man of his word? Consider his comments of recent months.

March 13, 2007:
I've overcome a lot of obstacles in my life to become attorney general. I am here not because I give up. I am here because I've learned from my mistakes, because I accept responsibility, and because I am committed to doing my job. And that is what I intend to do here on behalf of the American people.

March 14, 2007:
I work for the American people and I serve at the pleasure of the president of the United States. That's adecision for the president to make [whether I remain attorney general]. Obviously I am focused on looking to see what happened here in this particular case with respect to these U.S. attorneys and making sure that it doesn't happen again, making sure that Congress understands what happened....But I'm also focused on the other issues that the American people care about, like child predators and gangs and drug dealers, things of that nature. So I've got a lot of responsibilities as attorney general, and I'm focused on those responsibilities.

March 22, 2007:
I'm not going to resign. I'm going to stay focused on protecting our kids. There's a lot of work that needs to be done around the country. The department is responsible for protecting our kids, for making our neighborhoods safe, for protecting our country against attacks of terrorism, to going after gangs, going after drug dealers. I'm staying focused on that.

April 19, 2007:
I believe I can continue to be effective as the attorney general of the United States.

April 21, 2007:
[I will remain attorney general] as long as I can continue to serve effectively....There are a series of priorities, a series of objectives, that I want to see accomplished, and we are working as hard as we can to achieve those objectives.

June 1, 2007:
I know that I only have 18 months left in my term as attorney general, and that really does not feel like a lot of time to accomplish all of the goals that are important to me. So often Washington seems to run at a marathon pace, but I intend to spend the next year and a half in a sprint to the finish line.

June 11, 2007:
I'm focused on protecting our kids....I am focused on the next 18 months. I don't expect the department to crawl or walk slowly toward the finish line.

July 24, 2007:
From my perspective, there are two options available in light of these allegations [regarding the firings of the U.S. attorneys]. I could walk away or I could devote my time, effort and energy to fix the problems. Since I have never been one to quit, I decided that the best course of action was to remain here and fix the problems. That is exactly what I am doing.

While fending off attacks, Gonzales declared (1) he was not a quitter; (2) it was up to George W. Bush whether he stayed on as A.G. or left; and (3) he was committed to working hard as attorney general to protect the American people, particularly safeguarding the nation's children from Internet predators.

Well, he is quitting. And in a brief public statement today--no questions, please!--Bush said he was "reluctantly" accepting Gonzales' resignation, suggesting that Gonzales had decided to skedaddle on his own. Though Gonzales in a brief statement gave no reason for his resignation--as if one was needed--Bush explained his consigliere's departure by saying "his good name was dragged through the mud for political reason." Bush did not explain what partisan motives have spurred Republican Senators Tom Coburn, John Sununu, Chuck Hagel, John McCain, Jeff Sessions, Norm Coleman, Susan Collins, Olympia Snowe, Gordon Smith, George Voinovich, Charles Grassley, Lamar Alexander, Arlen Specter, and Lindsey Graham to question Gonzales' credibility and performance, with several of them calling for his resignation. And, finally, what about the children Gonzales was so committed to protecting? Sadly, they will have to get on without him.

With research assistance from Matthew Blake.


OUT IN PAPERBACK: HUBRIS: THE INSIDE STORY OF SPIN, SCANDAL, AND THE SELLING OF THE IRAQ WAR by Michael Isikoff and David Corn. The paperback edition of this New York Times bestseller contains a new afterword on George W. Bush's so-called surge in Iraq and the Scooter Libby trial. The Washington Post said of Hubris: "Indispensable....This [book] pulls together with unusually shocking clarity the multiple failures of process and statecraft." The New York Times called it, "The most comprehensive account of the White House's political machinations...fascinating reading." Tom Brokaw praised it as "a bold and provocative book." 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.

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