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John Nichols | The Nation

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John Nichols

John Nichols

Breaking news and analysis of politics, the economy and activism.

FCC is Feeling the Heat

Faced with a national outcry so intense that Congress is moving to reverse his attempt to eliminate controls on media consolidation and monopoly, Federal Communications Commission chair Michael Powell announced Wednesday that the FCC was launching a Localism in Broadcasting Initiative.

Powell says his agency is forming a task force to study how federal policies affect locally-oriented programming. In addition, the chairman says he also wants the commission to issue more licenses to not-for-profit groups seeking to set up low-power FM radio stations in their neighborhoods.

Both of those steps are appropriate. It is atrocious that the FCC has failed to study the impact on local programming of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 and other federal decisions that have promoted consolidation and conglomeration of radio station ownership -- ending hometown control of hundreds of stations and ushering in an era of homogenized music and shuttered local news departments. And the roadblocks erected by the FCC to the licensing of low-power stations have been indefensible.

But Powell deserves no praise. Throughout this spring's debate over whether to allow big media companies to consolidate their control over local markets -- by lifting restrictions that had prevented one firm from buying the daily newspaper, radio and television stations and the cable system in a single city -- Powell rejected concerns about damage to local content and control. "We should have vetted these issues before we voted," says FCC commissioner Michael Copps, who resisted Powell's rush to rewrite the ownership rules to benefit big corporations. "Instead, we voted; now we are going to vet. This is a policy of 'ready, fire, aim.'"

Copps has it exactly right. Powell is talking about localism now only because the House of Representatives has already moved to block one of the key rule changes while the Senate is preparing to consider a proposal to overturn all six changes that were approved June 2 by 3-2 votes of the FCC. There is nothing sincere about the chairman's "commitment" to localism. He is merely trying to avert Congressional intervention that could prevent him from delivering on the Bush administration's promise to make it possible for big media corporations (which also happen to be big campaign contributors) to expand their reach at the local and national levels.

If Congress backs off and the rule changes are implemented, however, localism will be destroyed even as it is studied. As Commissioner Copps says, "We now hear that there may be localism issues after all. But what's going to happen when we study localism over the next year? The answer is: deals, deals and more deals. The answer is more standardized and homogenized programming. The answer is more indecency on the people's airwaves. The answer is less diversity of viewpoint and less coverage of local news."

U.S. Senator Byron Dorgan, D-North Dakota, who has been spearheading Senate efforts to overturn FCC moves to allow consolidation of ownership of local media and the dramatic expansion of the number of television stations nationally that a network can own, echoed Copps' concern. "It is a very curious strategy for the chairman to change the rules in a way that will dramatically damage localism and then, nearly three months later, propose a process to examine how those rules might affect localism," says Dorgan.

Dorgan knows that Powell's study will do nothing to preserve local programming. And the issuing of a few more low-power radio station licenses -- "a very small step in the right direction," says the Prometheus Radio Project's Pete Tridish, a veteran low-power radio activist -- is not going to balance off the loss of diversity and local programming that will result if FCC-approved rule changes are implemented.

Dorgan gets it. He's going ahead with the push to overturn Powell's rule changes, an initiative that is being encouraged by MoveOn.org and other activist groups. "The chairman's statements (Wednesday) do nothing to remove the need to revoke these rules," says Dorgan.

Bogus Blair, Bogus Bush

The headline in Tuesday's editions of London's Guardian newspaper read: "No. 10 knew: Iraq no threat."

The headline in London's Daily Mirror shouted: "NO THREAT -- Revealed: Email from Blair's top man said Saddam was NOT imminent danger." The lead editorial in The Independent newspaper declared, "Now we know that No 10 did order a rewrite of the dossier to justify war."

For the most part, American media is doing a lousy job of following the British investigation of how Blair and his aides spun the case for war with Iraq. From a journalistic standard, that's bizarre because the story of official deceit in Britain is also the story of official deceit in the United States.

When Bush was trying to con Congress into giving him a blank check to launch a war with Iraq last fall, the president's efforts were hindered by his rather serious credibility gap. Veteran members of the U.S. intelligence community were signaling -- from behind the scenes and, in some cases, publicly -- that they did not buy the argument that Iraq posed a serious enough threat to merit military action. And senior members of the House and Senate, including then-Senate Intelligence Committee chair Bob Graham, who had been reading intelligence reports on Iraq since before Bush entered politics, were asking what had happened that would require a dramatic change in U.S. policy. Other members of Congress, such as Senate Foreign Relations Committee members Russ Feingold, a Democrat, and Lincoln Chafee, a Republican, said the U.S. should focus on the war against terrorism, as opposed to squandering valuable resources on a fight to remove a secular Iraqi leader who had always been at odds with the Islamic fundamentalists of the al-Qaeda network.

Bush was even having trouble with some top Senate Republicans, who were talking about the need to attach some strings to the resolution authorizing the administration to use military force against Iraq.

The president was able to evade those restraints, and to thwart serious Congressional debate on the whole Iraq issue, by flashing around a so-called "intelligence dossier" prepared by the office of British Prime Minister Blair. Widely viewed as a more moderate -- and, thus, credible -- player on the international stage than Bush, Blair was supposed to be the sensible partner in the emerging "coalition of the willing." And the report Blair's office published on September 24, 2002, less than three weeks before Congress approved Bush's request for authority to wage war, was taken seriously in Washington.

Dozens of members of Congress who had expressed doubts about the Bush administration's case for war say they were convinced by the Blair team's claim that Iraq was aggressively developing weapons of mass destruction and that those weapons would soon pose a serious threat to the world. Now, however, it turns out that the dossier was doctored. New revelations from Britain are confirming the skepticism of objective members of Congress -- including Graham, Feingold and Chafee -- who last fall rejected the so-called "evidence" as insufficiently credible to legitimize the blank check.

Britain's independent investigation, which is being led by Lord Hutton, a respected senior jurist, was launched to get to the bottom of questions raised by the apparent suicide of Dr. David Kelly, a British expert on chemical and biological weapons, who helped reporters expose the Blair team's manipulation of intelligence data. But it has turned into a broad examination that is considering information not merely regarding Kelly but the whole question of how Blair and his aides made the case for war.

On Tuesday, Hutton released copies of emails revealed that showed Blair's own chief of staff, Jonathan Powell, had cautioned against using the dossier to claim that Iraq posed anything akin to "an imminent threat."

Seven days before Blair's office released the dossier, Powell emailed top members of the prime minister's team to argue that, "We will need to make it clear in launching the document that we do not claim that he (Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein) is an imminent threat." After reviewing the evidence that had been accumulated, Powell wrote that the information "does nothing to demonstrate a threat, let alone an imminent threat from Saddam."

The most damning line from one of Powell's emails explained that, after reviewing the intelligence data, the prime minister's chief of staff found it so thin that he said it would only be "convincing for those who are prepared to be convinced." As an analysis by The Independent noted, that statement "is extraordinary, and betrays the level of doubt within the Government" about the case that could credibly be made for war.

Blair and his top aides chose to disregard the cautions and hyped the dossier with claims that it confirmed Iraq's WMD program was "active, detailed and growing" and that Iraq might be able to launch a chemical or biological attack within 45 minutes of getting an order to do so. By the time the dossier got to Washington, the Bush team was treating this bogus claim as gospel. And, even after U.S. intelligence agencies warned that Blair's dossier was a dubious document, Bush kept pumping up the supposed evidence.

This week's revelations about the extent to which Blair and his aides massaged and manipulated the intelligence data should suggest to members of the U.S. Congress that simply sitting back and waiting for revelations from the examination of Blair's deceptions is insufficient. It is time for American investigators to determine whether, in the midst of a debate about war and peace, Bush employed weapons of mass deception.

For Democrats, Mr. Right is Mr. Wrong

Anyone who has spent time on the 2004 Democratic presidential campaign trail is familiar with the phrase "Except Lieberman." When grassroots Democrats gather to talk about the crowd of candidates for the party's nomination, there is plenty of disagreement about the merits of the various contenders, but the activists invariably come around to saying, "Of course, I'd support anyone against Bush." Then, as an afterthought, they add, "Except Lieberman."

In reality, most Democrats who attach the "Except Lieberman" qualifier are so angry with Bush that they probably would vote for Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman if he won the party's nod. But not all. And that reality should be a serious concern for leaders of a party that cannot afford to suffer slippage from its base in 2004.

While Lieberman likes to claim that his center-right politics make him the surest Democratic prospect for 2004, the reality is that he is the prominent Democratic contender who would have the hardest time uniting the party. Among the leading contenders, none inspires such antipathy as Lieberman. The latest Iowa Poll of likely participants in that state's first-in-the-nation caucuses found that, in the "least-liked candidate" category, only the Rev. Al Sharpton ranked higher than Lieberman.

While high name recognition from his 2000 vice-presidential bid gave the Connecticut senator a solid position in early polls of Democrats in Iowa and New Hampshire, the first primary state, Lieberman has lost support as Democrats have focused on the 2004 contest. The Iowa Poll, released Sunday, showed him running a weak fourth place behind the frontrunner, former Vermont Governor Howard Dean, and Massachusetts Senator John Kerry and former House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt. The latest Franklin Pierce College poll from New Hampshire has Lieberman falling to fourth place there as well, with only six percent support. In the Field Poll of likely voters in California's March 2 primary, Lieberman dropped from first place in April to third place in July, falling behind Dean and Kerry.

Considering the souring sentiments of the party faithful with regard to his candidacy, there was a measure of pathos in Lieberman's attempt on Monday to identify himself as the candidate "rooted in the tradition of the Democratic party at its best." Speaking in Washington at the National Press Club, Lieberman declared himself to be in "a fight for the future of the Democratic party" with more progressive candidates who, if polls and anecdotal evidence from the campaign trail serves as any indication, are dramatically more popular with Democrats than Lieberman. Desperate to renew a candidacy battered by structural difficulties -- including the recent resignation of his Iowa campaign chief -- Lieberman sought to drag the other candidates down with thinly-veiled shots at Dean, Kerry, Gephardt, Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair Dennis Kucinich and other contenders who have occupied turf to the left of the shared ground from which Bush and Lieberman support military adventurism, corporate-sponsored free trade policies and restrictions on civil liberties.

"I share the anger of my fellow Democrats with George Bush and the direction he has taken this nation. But the answer to his outdated, extremist ideology is not to be found in the outdated extremes of our own," Lieberman declared. "That path will not solve the challenges of our time, and could send us back to the political wilderness for years to come."

Lieberman is, of course, wrong. Democrats were consigned to the political wilderness in 2002, when party leaders chose to follow his counsel and cosy up to the Bush Administration on issues such as war and peace, the USA Patriot Act and corporate welfare bailouts for the airline industry. While Republican turnout went up in 2002, Democratic turnout slackened. A quick analysis of the results led most Democrats -- from presidential prospects to grassroots activists -- to recognize that any further fuzzing of the margins between the parties in 2004 would be disastrous. So it comes as no surprise that the greatest applause line on the campaign trail has been Dean's pledge to represent "the Democratic wing of the Democratic party."

While all the other candidates are trying to pick up on Dean's call to arms -- with varying degrees of success -- Lieberman continues to preach a Republican-lite line that is so out of touch with political realities on the ground in America that it inspires laughter at Democratic gatherings. Lieberman thinks he is in a fight for the future of the Democratic party, but the truth is that he has already lost that fight. As Donna Brazile, the manager of the 2000 Gore-Lieberman campaign, explained to the Washington Post in May, "The bottom line is, he is defined as a conservative US senator."

While Lieberman disputes that definition, his continued defense of the war with Iraq and his refusal to back off his support for Wall Street's free-trade agenda has pegged him in the minds of many Democrats as a candidate who is way out of step with a party that questions the war and complains about the loss of more than two million manufacturing jobs in recent years.

For many Democrats who will play a pivotal role in the early caucuses and primaries, it is not Dean or Kerry or Kucinich who represent what Lieberman describes as "the discredited example of our party at its worst." It is Lieberman, himself.

Harry Truman warned that, when given a choice between a Republican and a Democrat imitating a Republican, voters would not hesitate to vote for the real thing. And, with his support for the Bush Administration's agenda on foreign policy and trade -- fundamental issues not just for Democratic activists but for millions of disenchanted citizens who need to be drawn to the polls if the Democratic nominee is to prevail in November, 2004 -- Lieberman has positioned himself as the pale imitation of Bush that grassroots Democrats fear will depress turnout.

Lieberman's National Press Club speech signaled his intention to echo the conservative Democratic Leadership Council's theme that nominating a Democrat who shares the values of the party faithful would be dangerous. Like the DLC, he is trying to paint more liberal candidates as 2004 versions of 1972 Democratic nominee George McGovern. But the comparison that comes to mind when Lieberman bashes candidates who are popular with the party's base voters is not to the 1972 race, but rather to the 1980 contest for the Republican presidential nomination.

That year, moderate Republicans were horrified by the prospect that the party cadres were preparing to nominate former California Governor Ronald Reagan for president. Reagan's foes warned that if the conservative icon became the nominee, the November election results would be as disastrous as the 1964 campaign where standard-bearing conservative Barry Goldwater got trounced.

The pundits repeated the Goldwater-Reagan comparison constantly; even after Reagan's campaign took off, Time magazine declared that, "His biggest problem may be that the very hard-line conservative positions that appeal to the enthusiasts who vote in G.O.P. primaries are exactly those that might not attract the much larger body of people who vote in November." There was even talk that former President Gerald Ford might have to be drafted into the primary competition in order to stop Reagan. But the party faithful could not be dissuaded. They followed their principles and their hearts and went with Reagan. The November election results proved them right. Even if Americans did not agree with Reagan's ideology, they preferred his confident style to the more nuanced and centrist offerings of Jimmy Carter and John Anderson.

Democrats who counsel compromise going into the 2004 contest are likely to find themselves disregarded in much the same way that Republican compromisers were in 1980. And rightly so. If the party chooses a candidate who is confident enough to aggressively challenge George W. Bush, Democrats might well find that steering a bold course is far more appealing to the great mass of American voters that the circumnavigations proposed by Joe Lieberman.

Media Giants Get Slapped

In an unprecedented rebuff to the agenda of big media, the House of Representatives on Wednesday approved by a 400-21 vote an appropriations bill that includes languarge blocking implementation of a Federal Communications Commission rule change designed to allow a single corporation to own television stations that reach up to 45 percent of American viewers. That FCC rule change, for which Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation and other media giants had mounted a fierce lobbying campaign, also faces broad opposition in the Senate. With the House echoing that opposition, Congress is currently positioned to block implementation of a rule change that is near and dear to the hearts--and bottom lines--of America's media giants.

While the Bush White House continues to promote the big-media agenda as part of an overall strategy of reworking regulations to favor large corporate campaign givers -- raising the prospect that the president might veto Congressional moves to prevent the FCC from implementing this rule change -- veteran Capitol Hill observers say public opposition to the FCC rule changes has grown so powerful that even the president could change his tune. "If the White House is threatening a veto on this, they offer that at their own peril," explained Andy Davis, an aide to US Sen. Ernest Hollings, the powerful South Carolina Democrat who is a key player behind the Senate effort to reverse the FCC's June 2 decision to raise the television ownership cap from 35 percent to 45 percent. "This is an issue that has enormously broad bipartisan support. People are very passionate about this issue."

Republican leaders in the House felt that passion this week, as many members of their own caucus signaled that they would support reversal of the FCC's decision to raise the ownership cap. That caused the leadership to back off efforts to strip the appropriations bill language that prevents the FCC from implementing the change.

But the real measure of the extent to which the dynamic in Congress is shifting came in one of the first serious floor fights in recent years on a media ownership issue.

The ownership cap is just one of a number of rule changes approved by the FCC and it is not the worst of them. The most troubling rewrite of the rules by the commission is a measure that allows a single company to own television and radio stations, the local daily newspaper and the cable system in the same city. The FCC's move to lift limits on "cross-ownership" poses a genuine threat to competition, diversity and local programming and it is opposed by religious, labor, civil rights and community groups, as well as conservatives such as New York Times columnist William Safire.

In the Senate, there is bipartisan support for reversing the FCC's cross-ownership rule change. But in the House, Republican and Democratic leaders blocked efforts to amend the appropriations bill to include language that would prevent the FCC from implementing this industry-backed rule shift. That led to a remarkable revolt on the House floor Tuesday, and provoked the most engaged debate on media and democracy issues that the Congress has seen in modern times.

Representatives Maurice Hinchey, D-New York, a leading figure in the Congressional Progressive Caucus, and David Price, D-North Carolina, a member of the Appropriations Committee, introduced a resolution to roll back the cross-ownership rule change. Opposed not just by top Republicans but two of the most powerful Democrats in the House, Michigan's John Dingell and Wisconsin's David Obey, the assault on the high-priority agenda item for big-media lobbies was not expected to win a significant number of votes. A decision by House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, to schedule an earlier than expected vote on the amendment dimmed its prospects further.

But, on Tuesday, a strong push from the activist networks of MoveOn.org, Consumers Union, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, Free Press and labor groups, as well as deft strategic moves by Hinchey, Price and Representative Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, pulled together an unexpected bipartisan coalition that suggests it may yet be possible to reverse the cross-ownership rule. With phones in House offices ringing off their hooks -- many members estimated that they received as many as 100 calls an hour urging support for the Hinchey amendment -- a bipartisan cross-section of members trooped to the floor to condemn media monopoly.

Oregon's Democrat Peter DeFazio described the FCC's loosening of media ownership controls as "perhaps the most radical usurpation of the public interest in the history of regulation," while Massachusetts Democrat Ed Markey called the commission's June 2 votes "the worst decision ever made by the Federal Communications Commission." Markey said that the cross-ownership change would create a situation where, "The kind of power that one company is going to have in your hometown is going to make Citizen Kane look like an underachiever."

Warning that loosening existing limits on cross-ownership would limit discourse and undermine democracy, Washington Democrat Jay Inslee declared that, "A monopoly ideas is ultimately more destructive to American democracy than a monopoly of money." California Democrat Barbara Lee echoed his frustration and added a note of concern about how further monopolization of media ownership would shut out minority voices. Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, described the rule change as "totally against the interests of democracy," while Inslee urged Congress to "give American what they want, which is less consolidation of the media."

Faced with powerful arguments for the Hinchey-Price amendment, Obey, who wrote the spending bill provision rolling back the ownership cap to 35 percent, said he agreed with "every word" of the arguments from foes of the cross-ownership rule change, But he expressed his fear that adding the Hinchey-Price amendment to the appropriations bill would guarantee a Bush veto that Congress probably could not override. "We have a tactical disagreement," said Obey, who indicated support for alternative moves to block the cross-ownership rule. But, noting the public pressure on the issue, other members argued that Obey had made a tactical error by not throwing his support behind the Hinchey-Price amendment.

Sanders told the House that public indignation over media consolidation has grown so strong that even the Bush administration would feel the pressure. Members of the FCC and Congress have received an estimated 2.3 million communications from Americans saying they oppose loosening of controls on media ownership. And Inslee said that if a bill containing the roll back of the cross-ownership rule change got to the president's desk, White House phone and email systems would "melt down" with calls from Americans supporting the measure.

In the end, pressure from DeLay, Dingell and Obey, as well as big-media lobbyists, was sufficient to block the Hinchey-Price amendment. But the vote was a far closer than expected 254-174 -- a margin Senate foes of the FCC rule changes say will strengthen their hand in negotiations with the House. Significantly, the 139 Democrats who backed the Hinchey-Price amendment were joined by 34 Republicans, including House Judiciary Committee chairman James Sensenbrenner, R-Wisconsin. That means that, on the committee charged with examining anti-trust and monopoly issues, the ranking Republican and the ranking Democrat, Michigan's John Conyers, have expressed their opposition to cross-ownership.

After years in which media companies have rolled their agenda over Congress with few objections, Inslee said a "tsunami" of public pressure was starting to change the course of Congress. He was right. With the House endorsing efforts to roll back the FCC's rule change regarding television ownership caps, and with Obey and other members who voted against the Hinchey-Price amendment saying they are ready to move in other directions to roll back the cross-ownership rule change, the Congressional fight against not just the FCC but the broader crisis of media consolidation has only just begun.

Blair's Crisis, Bush's Crisis

Only hours after British Prime Minister Tony Blair told a cheering US Congress that history would forgive the United States and Great Britain for using dubious data to make the case for a preemptive war with Iraq, history was catching up with Blair. And it did not look as if forgiveness was in the offering.

As the man British newspapers describe as George W. Bush's "poodle" was flying from his cheerleader-in-chief appearance before Congress to a meeting in Tokyo, Blair learned of the suspicious death of a British expert on weapons of mass destruction. The dead scientist had been hounded by the prime minister's aides and allies for apparently assisting a BBC investigation into manipulation of intelligence data by the Blair team.

The news of the death, an apparent suicide, has created a crisis for Blair, and perhaps for his partners in Washington. Within minutes after the body was discovered, Washington observers were referring to Dr. David Kelly, the dead scientist, as "the British Vince Foster." That reference to the mysterious death of Clinton White House lawyer Vince Foster, which launched a thousand conspiracy theories that remain fodder for right-wing talk radio hosts in the US, was a wide stretch. Foster's death, while certainly as tragic as Kelly's, was never so closely linked to immediate and internationally significant questions as that of a former United Nations weapons inspector who had become one of the British Ministry of Defense's most highly regarded experts on chemical and biological weapons.

Blair knows full well that there is no debating the somber assessment of London's Daily Telegraph newspaper, which declared Saturday that the prime minister has been "plunged into the biggest crisis of his premiership." Already, the prime minister has conceded that that there will have to be a judicial inquiry and other investigations into the death. The leader of Britain's Conservative opposition to Blair's Labour government has suggested that the parliament may have to be called back into session to examine the matter. Amid mounting speculation that some of Blair's closest aides – including Alastair Campbell, the man charged with doctoring the intelligence data – could be forced to resign, London's Guardian newspaper declared: "Tony Blair's government was last night shaken to its foundations by the apparent suicide of Dr David Kelly." How shaky are the foundations? Blair has been forced to personally answer questions from reporters about whether he has "blood on (his) hands" and whether he sould resign. Glenda Jackson, a member of Blair's Labour party majority in the Parliament and a former Blair Cabinet minister, called on Saturday for Blair, Campbell and the Minister of State for Defence to step down. Descibing the actions of the Blair government in the weeks before Kelly's death as "an absolutely shameful, shameful episode," Jackson said, "There should be resignations and they should come as quickly as possible."

The shock waves that have caused the foundations of Blair's government to shake are being felt in Washington. Bush Administration aides who had hoped Blair's appearance before Congress would silence at least some of the questioning about the American president's use of dubious British intelligence to make a "case" for war with Iraq, suddenly found themselves lashed to a British leader whose credibility was sinking by the hour.

Because the Bush Administration relied so heavily on dossiers developed by Blair's spin doctors – even after their dubious claims were challenged by American intelligence agencies – Blair's crisis could well become Bush's crisis. After all, Bush's poll numbers have been dropping in recent days as media and Congressional attention has focused on his use of discredited information about Iraq's supposed efforts to obtain uranium in Africa. According to Andrew Kohut, director of the non-partisan Pew Research Center, Bush "is being seen for the first time in his presidency as a president under fire." And he is under fire, at least in part, because of his decision to build his case for war with Iraq on British intelligence data that US intelligence agencies had rejected as unsound. "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa," Bush said in his State of the Union address.

Blair's trip to Washington was supposed to make Congress more comfortable with Bush's decision to treat claims from the British prime minister's spin doctors more seriously than information from US intelligence agencies. With questions about Blair's credibility growing in Britain, Bush and his aides are going to have a much harder time quelling the controversy in the US.

Things could get even tougher for the Bush camp, as details of the British controversy are revealed. Kelly came into the limelight during an investigation of whether Blair aides had inserted into the introduction of a September, 2002, dossier a questionable claim that the Iraqi military was capable of launching weapons of mass destruction "within 45 minutes."

On September 28, 2002, in a radio address to the American people that President Bush used to make the case for Congressional authorization of the use of force against Iraq, he said, "The danger to our country is grave and it is growing. The Iraqi regime possesses biological and chemical weapons, is rebuilding the facilities to make more and, according to the British government, could launch a biological or chemical attack in as little as 45 minutes after the order is given."

Last week, Hans Blix, the former head of United Nations weapons inspections team, said the British government – and, by extension, Bush -- made a "fundamental mistake" when it claimed the Iraqis could deploy weapons of mass destruction so quickly. And, earlier this month, a British parliamentary committee chided Blair aides for giving "undue prominence" to the claim in their dossier on Iraqi threats.

The unraveling of another claim made by Bush in his arguments for war with Iraq points to the challenge the administration faces because of its high level of reliance on Blair's dossiers. As Blair is questioned, questioning of Bush is sure to follow. Indeed, while British papers refer to Blair as Bush's "poodle," it appears that the British prime minister may have been the master when it came to peddling questionable information.

Kelly's death and the controversy that has arisen should serve as a cautionary tale for defenders of the Bush Administration who, in their desperation to protect the president from questioning, have mimicked many of the worst excesses of what now appears to have been an out-of-control Blair team. It is still common for Republicans in Congress and conservative commentators to explode with anger when anyone -- especially a vteran intelligence analyst or diplomat -- expresses concern about whether the administration misled the country regarding threats posed by Iraq. GOP majorities in the House and Senate continue to block a full-scale investigation of the use -- or misuse -- of intelligence data by the Administration. And there are still those who question the patriotism of Americans who seek to get to the bottom of the question of whether American really needed to go to war when it did.

The Blair government's determination to prevent and punish this sort of questioning led it into the current crisis.

In recent weeks, Blair's government has conducted a full-scale witchhunt with the goal of discrediting top journalists – and their sources in the British government – who have produced reports on the manipulation of information regarding the supposed threat posed by Iraq on the eve of the US-led attack on that country. After the BBC's respected defense correspondent, Andrew Gilligan, revealed that the Blair's aides had "sexed up" information from the intelligence community, the Blair team unleashed a fierce assault on the BBC and Gilligan. After Kelly acknowledged he had spoken with Gilligan, the top scientist faced an equally fierce assault from Blair's spin doctors and their minions. Just this week, Kelly was subjected to a public grilling by members of parliament loyal to Blair, in an attempt to get the scientist to cast doubt on the BBC reports for which it now appears he may have been one of several high-ranking sources.

The Blair government's efforts to discredit the BBC, Kelly and any other institution or individual willing to question the prime minister's peddling of dubious data have been broadly referred to in Britain as a vendetta. After Kelly's body was discovered, the Guardian referred to him in a headline as "The Vendetta's Victim."

Checks and Balances Anyone?

When it was proposed during the Constitutional Convention of 1787 that the sole power "to make war" be vested in the Congress, the measure carried overwhelmingly. Only one delegate favored granting the authority to the executive branch, South Carolina's Pierce Butler and his proposal was greeted with horror by his fellow delegates. Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts said he "never expected to hear in a republic a motion to empower the Executive alone to declare war." George Mason of Virginia explained that he was against empowering a president to declare war because an individual could "not be trusted with it." Charles Pinckney of South Carolina closed the debate by declaring, "In a democratic republic, it is essential that the decision to go to war be made by the most broadly representative body: the legislative."

Fully conscious of the threat that an executive bent on illegitimate warmaking could pose to the republic, the founders took great care to structure a governing system based on checks and balances. The Congress was charged with the task of declaring wars; the president, as commander-in-chief, was given the power to pursue military action.

Each of those duties came with profound responsibilities. The Congress was required to analyze all the arguments for sending American troops into combat, review the costs and consider the long-term diplomatic, political and moral consequences of so serious a decision. The president's role, as head of the executive branch, was to serve as a guide and a resource -- providing insights on the best approach and assuring that the legislative branch had the information in needed to determine whether war is necessary.

Last fall and winter, as the Bush administration agitated for war with Iraq, the too-powerful leadership of the Congress failed to live up to its most basic responsibility: the checking of a presidential rush to war. Despite demands from millions of citizens, Republican and Democratic leaders of the House and Senate allowed their chambers to serve as little more than rubber stamps for a president who desperately needed to be checked and balanced. And they ultimately pushed through a vague resolution that was presumed to require the White House to work with the United Nations to address questions of whether Saddam Hussein's Iraq posed a threat to the rest of the world.

Millions of Americans demanded that Congress take seriously its responsibility to balance the executive, and some members of the House and Senate listened. U.S. Senator Robert Byrd, D-West Virginia, U,S, Senator Russ Feingold, D-Wisconsin, Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chairs Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, and Barbara Lee, D-Cal., and representatives such as Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, Jan Schakowsky, D-Illinois, and John Conyers, the Michigan Democrat who is the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, made valiant attempts to get the Congress to do its duty. In particular, Byrd, Kucinich and Conyers continued to challenge the administration. But, while they asked the right questions, they were isolated in a Congress where leaders refused to give official sanction to a necessary dialogue about the Bush administrations arguments and "evidence" for warmaking.

Throughout the months leading up to the start of the war, leaders of the House and Senate accepted the White House line with little or no questioning. They effectively steered the Congress out of commission.

Now, as Americans learn that the White House line was crooked, the question is whether those Congressional leaders will assert the Constitutional authority of their chambers or remain the pawns of the administration. New revelations by security advisors regarding what appears to have been a pattern of deliberate deception by the administration -- right up to and including the insertion into the president's State of the Union address of discredited claims about Iraq seeking to buy uranium in Africa -- have confirmed the concerns of the millions of citizens who said before the war started that George W. Bush had failed to make a credible case for the preemptive invasion of another country.

In the face of these revelations, there can be no doubt regarding the intent of the founders, or their charge to the current Congress. The Congress is required by the Constitution to police the president. The revelations regarding the fabrications, fantasies and falsehoods on which the arguments for war were based must be investigated. The investigations must be immediate, they must be thorough, they must be conducted in the open, they must follow the obvious lines of questioning that have been raised, and they must determine who in the administration was responsible for any and all deceits. And every indication from the founders is that the leaders of the Congress should have no qualms about advancing the investigation as the occupation of Iraq continues. Indeed, as John Marshall explained, "the whole powers of war being, by the Constitution of the United States vested in Congress, the acts of that body alone can be resorted to as our guides."

At the heart of the investigation must be an understanding that the Constitution charges the Congress with no greater duty than that of checking and balancing the executive branch in a time of war. The Congress failed in that duty during much of the past year. Now, it must reassert and redeem itself. It should do so with a consciousness of the warning the primary author of the Constitution itself, James Madison, gave America at its beginning:

"Of all the enemies of true liberty, war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other. War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debts and taxes; and armies, and debts, and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few. In war, too, the discretionary power of the Executive is extended; its influence in dealing out offices, honors and emoluments is multiplied; and all the means of seducing the minds, are added to those of subduing the force, of the people. The same malignant aspect in republicanism may be traced in the inequality of fortunes, and the opportunities of fraud, growing out of a state of war, and in the degeneracy of manner and of morals, engendered in both. No nation can preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.

"War is in fact the true nurse of executive aggrandizement. In war, a physical force is to be created; and it is the executive will, which is to direct it. In war, the public treasuries are to be unlocked; and it is the executive hand which is to dispense them. In war, the honors and emoluments of office are to be multiplied; and it is the executive patronage under which they are to be enjoyed; and it is the executive brow they are to encircle. The strongest passions and most dangerous weaknesses of the human breast; ambition, avarice, vanity, the honorable or venal love of fame, are all in conspiracy against the desire and duty of peace."

Bottom of the Ninth on Capitol Hill

The American people have already changed the character of the debate over media consolidation and monopoly. Now, they may well be on the verge of winning a historically unprecedented victory in Congress. Many thought the FCC's 3-2 vote on June 2 permitting media conglomerates to own more TV stations in every market and nationally, as well as permitting the same firm to own multiple TV stations, the daily newspaper, and multiple radio stations in the same community -- the dreaded cross-ownership -- settled the matter.

Now it appears dissenting FCC members Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein hit the nail on the head when they said the June 2 vote was so deeply absurd and corrupt -- it was payback time for the huge media conglomerates that traditionally have their way with regulators -- that it would provoke an onslaught of public outrage that would not recede until the FCC's changes were overturned.

How much public outrage? It is arguable that more Americans want to see Osama bin Laden's bust enshrined on Mount Rushmore than wish to allow fewer and fewer media companies the right to gobble up what remains of our media system.

An absurd statement, you say? Well consider this. When FCC Chairman Michael Powell refused to hold more than one official public hearing on whether to relax media ownership rules this winter and spring, he urged Americans to send him, the other commissioners, and members of Congress their thoughts via post, telephone and email. According to the FCC's Adelstein nearly two million people have done so. And by the FCC's own calculations, over 99.9 percent of these citizens demand that the FCC keep the existing media ownership rules, or tighten them.

Congress got the message that Powell and his fellow Republican pranksters on the FCC somehow missed as they were polishing off their resumes for their post-FCC careers in industry. In three Senate Commerce committee hearings chaired by John McCain (Rep., AZ) since June 2, the FCC has been attacked mercilessly and most of the rules overturned. Now there is legislation in both the Senate and the House to throw out what the FCC hath wrought. Senator Byron Dorgan (De., N.D.) is considering using the Congressional Review Act to have the Senate toss out the FCC's rules relaxation.

As we go to press, the situation is white hot on Capitol Hill, and may well be settled before the end of July. The corporate media lobbies have been reduced to depending on a few tried and true corrupt leaders, most notably Billy Tauzin and Tom DeLay, to carry their water. Even Karl Rove and the Bush administration, which absolutely adores letting Clear Channel and Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation own more media, are keeping a low public profile on this topic, because they know that with leading independent media owners, the NRA, William Safire, and the much of the Christian right opposing the FCC -- heck, as we said, just about everyone -- this is political dynamite.

And that is why the people may well win this one. What is crucial is for Americans to flood their members of Congress with telephone calls, letters and emails in the next two weeks telling them to junk the FCC media rules changes. For easily accessible information on how to do that, go to www.mediareform.net/stopthefcc. If supportive members hear from enough people, it will strengthen their backbones; if those on the other side hear from many people, too, it may help them change their minds or at least that it is not worth sacrificing their political careers to enhance Mel Karmazin's and Rupert Murdoch's net worth.

*****

ACTIVIST NOTE:Call your Congressional representatives and demand that they support a rollback of the FCC decision. One phone call from a constituent is more effective than scores of email petitions.

Click here and follow the easy steps for more information.(Don't worry, you don't need to know your Senators' or Rep's names, only your zipcode.)

With Robert W. McChesney

Dean, Kucinich, Kerry Top MoveOn Vote

Former Vermont Governor Howard Dean's scored another publicity coup this week, finishing a solid first in the MoveOn.org PAC online primary that became a high-stakes test of the appeal of the contenders for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination.

Dean won 139,360 votes, almost 44 percent of those cast in voting Wednesday and Thursday by members of the progressive online activist network. Dean was expected to run well in the voting, which took place the week of his official announcement of candidacy and that was played to his strengths among younger, more web-savvy Democrats. Dean backers focused a good deal of energy on the virtual primary, dispatching tens of thousands of emails urging supporters to register at the site and vote for the increasingly high-profile candidate.

"On Monday, I stood in Burlington, Vermont and said that my campaign -- our campaign -- was built on 'mouse pads, shoe leather, and hope.' Today, we see just how far that combination can go: We have won the Moveon.org primary by a landslide," Dean said while campaigning in California Friday.

But Dean did not score the 50 percent of the vote needed to secure a coveted endorsement from the MoveOn.org PAC. MoveOn.org PAC helped raise more than $4 million in online contributions for progressive candidates in 2002, and has come to be seen as one of the most effective grassroots fund-raising vehicles on the left.

Dean's appeal to MoveOn members, who share many of the anti-war and socially progressive stances he has taken so far in the campaign, was blunted by the appeal of Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, who has worked hard to identify himself as the most aggressively anti-war contender in the race. In the computer-driven campaigning before the vote, Kucinich backers sent thousands of emails urging MoveOn members to "Vote for the Genuine Peace Candidate," and their efforts appear to have had a significant impact on the process.

Though his candidacy has been largely ignored by major media outlets that have given considerable coverage to Dean and other "first-tier" contenders, Kucinich ran a solid second in the MoveOn voting, winning 76,000 votes for almost 24 percent of the total. "I don't think the media can continue to ignore Kucinich after this," said Lee Brown, co-chair of Kucinich's campaign in Wisconsin, which will hold a critical primary on February 17. "Even though Dennis Kucinich's campaign has gotten a lot less attention than the Dean campaign, people are getting the message. Kucinich is the real peace candidate, and the real progressive in this race."

Third-place went to Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, who is often portrayed as the frontrunner in the increasingly intense Democratic contest. Kerry's vote to authorize President Bush to use the military in Iraq put him at odds with the position of many MoveOn members, but he has scored points since with aggressive criticism of the administration's handling of international relations. The Massachusetts senator won 49,973 votes, or about 16 percent.

None of the other candidates got more than 3.5 percent of the vote in the virtual primary, which drew more voters – 317,639 members participated -- than the 2000 Iowa Democratic caucuses and New Hampshire Democratic primary. The top-three finishes by Dean, Kucinich and Kerry were expected, as they were the candidates who were allowed to make direct pitches to MoveOn members in the days before the voting. The trio were given that opportunity by MoveOn organizers after they a poll last month of members showed them to be the favorite contenders.

Backers of former House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt, D-Missouri, made noise about pulling out of the competition, but decided in the end to remain in the running. Gephardt ended up in fifth place (2.4 percent), behind the top-three candidates and North Carolina Senator John Edwards (3.2 percent), but ahead of Florida Senator Bob Graham (2.2 percent) , former Illinois Senator Carol Moseley Braun (2.2 percent), Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman (1.9 percent) and the Rev. Al Sharpton (0.5 percent.) Retired General Wesley Clark, who was not on the ballot but who is pondering a candidacy, received almost 3,000 votes and close to 1 percent of the vote.

While MoveOn.org PAC will not endorse a candidate at this time, the online primary process saw 49,132 participants pledge $1.75 million in contributions to their favorite candidates. Some 54,730 participants pledged to volunteer for the candidate they supported, while 77,192 authorized MoveOn to pass on their e-mail address to their candidate.

"Participation far exceeded our expectations," said Wes Boyd, the treasurer of MoveOn.org PAC. "Our most important objectives have already been met: Early Democratic grassroots involvement; increased contributions and volunteer support for each campaign; and mobilization of the Democratic base to defeat George Bush."

Judge Resigns Over Congressional Meddling

The announcement this week by U.S. District Judge John S. Martin of the Southern District of New York that he would leave the bench because he was fed up with Congressional meddling in federal sentencing decisions highlights growing judicial resentment at the blurring of the separation of powers.

The founders of these United States established an independent federal judiciary with the intent that it would temper the excesses of the executive and legislative branches of government. In recent years, however, Congress has sought to restrict the ability of federal judges to make decisions based on law and reason.

Federal laws set mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes, for using a gun in relation to various drug or violent crimes, and for numerous other offenses. Judges have for a number of years argued that adhering to sentencing mandates limits their ability to employ legal knowledge and discretion in determining appropriate punishments for men and women who have been convicted of crimes.

Federal jurists have become increasing agitated over Congressional mandates regarding sentencing, which Supreme Court Justice David Souter says jurists fear will make them "instruments of injustice."

But Congress has continued to move in recent years to increase the injustice by forcing judges to accept mandatory minimum sentence but to strictly obey federal sentencing guidelines. While judges were departing from the sentencing guidelines only in about 18 percent of cases, conservatives in Congress this year attacking even that level of discretion. The House and Senate passed legislation dictating to federal judges what sentences must be imposed. That legislation was criticized by jurists and legal scholars as a dramatic erosion of the lines of separation between the branches of government; and as a power grab by Congress.

Even conservative jurists such as Chief Justice William Rehnquist complained, but the legislation passed and was signed April 30 by President Bush. That's when Martin says he made his decision to quit.

"Congress is mandating things simply because they want to show how tough they are on crime, with no sense of whether this makes sense or is meaningful," explained Martin, who said he particularly objects to the removal of judicial discretion in cases where non-violent criminals face harsh sentences if convicted.

Martin argued that adherence to strict sentencing guidelines has led to the packing of federal prisons with people -- such as low-level drug dealers -- who simply should not be serving sentences of 30, 40, 50 or more years.

"Sentences should be just. We shouldn't be putting everybody in jail for the rest of their life," the 68-year-old judge complained.

In an opinion column that appeared this week in The New York Times, Martin said he was concerned about pay scales for federal judgeships, which he noted are now lower than for second year associates in top law firms. But, he argued, "While I might have stayed on despite the inadequate pay, I no longer want to be part of our unjust criminal justice system."

Appointed to the federal judiciary in 1990 by former President George Herbert Walker Bush, Martin is one of many jurists from across the political spectrum who have objected to Congressional-mandated minumum sentences and to pressure to obey sentencing guidelines. A 1996 survey of more that 700 federal jurists by the Federal Judicial Center found that almost 70 percent of those questioned objected to mandatory sentencing.

The following year, in testimony before a U.S. House committee, two Supreme Court justices condemned mandatory minimum sentences for federal crimes. "I do not think judges should have their sentencing discretion controlled by a mandatory sentence," declared Justice Anthony M. Kennedy. "I don't not like mandatory sentences," he said. "I think they can lead to injustice."

One measure of that injustice is the fact that, according to 2000 testimony given by U.S. Sentencing Commission vice chair John Steer, before the House Governmental Reform Subcommittee on Criminal Justice, Drug Policy and Human Resources, African American defendants made up 30 percent of those subject to five-year mandatory sentences in 1999, 43 percent to 10-year mandatory sentences, 60 percent to 20-year mandatory sentences and 80 percent to mandatory life in prison. (To learn more about injustices resulting from mandatory minimum sentence rules and federal sentencing guidelines, and about judicial objections to Congressional pressure on the federal courts, check out the website of the national group Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) at www.famm.org)

While Judge Martin is leaving the bench, other jurists who remain are also speaking up.

"As a consequence of the mandatory sentences, we (judges) know that justice is not always done," explains U.S. District Judge Joyce Hens Green, of the District of Columbia. "(You) cannot dispense equal justice by playing a numbers game. Judgment and discretion and common sense are essential."

U.S. District Judge Spencer Letts, of the Central District of California, summed up judicial objections when he argued,"Statutory mandatory minimum sentences create injustice because the sentence is determined without looking at the particular defendant," says "It can make no difference whether he is a lifetime criminal or a first-time offender. Indeed, under this sledgehammer approach, it could make no difference if the day before making this one slip in an otherwise unblemished life the defendant had rescued 15 children from a burning building or had won the Congressional Medal of Honor while defending his country."

Senate Committee Rebukes FCC

When the Federal Communications Commission voted June 2 to remove key restrictions on media consolidation, dissident Commissioner Michael Copps warned, "This Commission's drive to loosen the rules and its reluctance to share its proposals with the people before we voted awoke a sleeping giant. American citizens are standing up in never-before-seen numbers to reclaim their airwaves and to call on those who are entrusted to use them to serve the public interest. In these times when many issues divide us, groups from right to left, Republicans and Democrats, concerned parents and creative artists, religious leaders, civil rights activists, and labor organizations have united to fight together on this issue. Senators and Congressmen from both parties and from all parts of the Country have called on the Commission to reconsider. The media concentration debate will never be the same."

Barely two weeks after Copps uttered those words, he was proven right, as the Senate Commerce Committee responded with rare haste to the public outcry that followed the FCC decision. In a sweeping rejection of the agency's decision to provide already large media conglomerates with opportunities to extend their dominance of the nation's political and cultural discourse, the committee on Thursday endorsed a legislative package that reverses the worst of the rule changes. The legislation also orders the FCC to open up the closed and corrupted process by which it considers rule changes.

While the Commerce Committee action is just the first step toward reversing the FCC decision, Gene Kimmelman, Consumers Union's Director of Advocacy and Public Policy, says, "Today's vote creates enormous momentum to block further mergers among media giants. It represents a victory for those who support more competition and diversity from local and national media. But the fight is not over. Now we are going to carry this momentum to the full Senate and House."

The legislation that cleared the Commerce Committee Thursday would:

* Bar individual corporations from buying up television stations that reach more than 35 percent of the nation's households. Under pressure from big media companies such as Rupert Murdoch's News Corp., which owns the Fox networks, and Viacom Inc., which owns the CBS and UBN networks, the FCC had voted to lift the ownership cap to 45 percent.

* Bar individual corporations from buying up the daily newspaper and television and radio stations in local markets. By restoring key aspects of the old "newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership" rule, the committee made it harder for the Gannett, Tribune and Knight-Ridder media corporations to gain control of most media in a community and then create a single newsroom to feed one-size-fits-all news to newspaper readers as well as radio listeners and television viewers. (This measure still needs to be strengthened to assure that a loophole that allows for some cross-ownership in small markets is not exploited.)

* Eliminate an exemption that would have allowed radio conglomerates, such as Clear Channel and Infinity, to maintain control of radio stations in markets where they are in violation of ownership caps. Sponsored by Commerce Committee chair John McCain, R-Arizona, this measure could force Clear Channel and other media giants to sell off many of its more than 1,200 radio stations.

* Require the FCC to open up its decision-making process by holding at least five official public hearings, at locations around the country before changing media ownership rules. This is a clear rebuke to FCC chair Michael Powell, who allowed only one official public hearing before the June 2 vote.

* Indicate that Congress wants the FCC to consider not just proposals to loosen ownership rules that are promoted by big media corporations but also steps to strengthen and broaden limits on consolidation and monopoly. This is a signal to the federal courts that Congress wants them to define the public interest more broadly, rather than simply pressuring the FCC to ease ownership rules.

"The airwaves belong to the people," declared U.S. Senator Byron Dorgan, D-North Dakota, as the committee approved key components of the "Preservation of Localism, Program Diversity, and Competition in Television Broadcast Act of 2003" (S.1046) initiative. "Broadcasters use them, under licenses that require localism and a diversity of voices. The actions taken by the FCC to raise the national ownership cap and virtually eliminate the previous ban on broadcast-newspaper combinations ignores that requirement, and advances corporate interests at the expense of the public's interest."

Hailing the committee vote as a firm Congressional response to FCC moves he described as "the fastest, most complete cave in to big corporate interests" he had ever seen, Dorgan said the legislation "restores some sense of reason to this process."

The legislation, which was endorsed by a solid voice vote of the committee, gained bipartisan support from senators who had been flooded with emails, letters and petitions urging them to reverse the FCC's moves. While the total number of communications to members of the committee is not yet clear, it is known that members of Congress have received more than 300,000 messages from foes of the rule changes in the period since June 2. This follows on the unprecedented 750,000 communications that the FCC received from opponents of the rule changes.

Dorgan and other critics of the FCC's moves say their hand has been strengthened significantly by the level of public indignation. But they still have work to do before citizen anger and legislative action restores limits on media consolidation. With support from key senators such as Appropriations Committee chair Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, the legislation has a change to move forward in the Senate. But barriers are likely to be erected by members of the leadership who are close to the Bush administration, which pressured the three Republicans on the FCC to enact the rule changes.

The task will be even tougher in the House of Representatives, where House Energy and Commerce Committee chair Billy Tauzin, R-Louisiana, has indicated his determination to preserve the rule changes. Tauzin, like several other key GOP players in the House, has been a major recipient of campaign contributions from the communications industry, and the Louisiana representative has a record of playing hardball when his corporate allies are threatened.

But Rep. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, says the momentum on behalf of legislation to reverse the FCC is growing. "The Democrats in Congress have started to take these issues a lot more seriously," says Sanders, a veteran advocate for media diversity. "And I am now being approached on a regular basis by Republicans, some of them very conservative, who say the FCC went way too far this time."

Ultimately, Sanders said in recent meetings with his Vermont constituents, the question of whether the FCC changes are reversed rests with the American people. If the level of opposition that has been witnessed in recent weeks is maintained, Sanders says, "If the mail keeps coming, if people keep complaining, members of Congress are going to recognize that they can't hide from this issue."

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