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Katrina vanden Heuvel

Katrina vanden Heuvel

Politics, current affairs and riffs and reflections on the news.

Spying and Lying

"This shocking revelation ought to send a chill down the spine of every American."

Senator Russell Feingold, December 17, 2005

As reported by the New York Times on Friday, "Months after the September 11 attacks, President Bush secretly authorized the National Security Agency (NSA) to eavesdrop on Americans and others inside the United States to search for evidence of terrorist activity without the court-approved warrants ordinarily required for domestic spying."

A senior intelligence officer says Bush personally and repeatedly gave the NSA permission for these taps--more than three dozen times since October 2001. Each time, the White House counsel and the Attorney General--whose job it is to guard and defend our civil liberties and freedoms--certified the lawfulness of the program. (It is useful here to note "The Yoo Factor": The domestic spying program was justified by a "classified legal opinion" written by former Justice Department official John Yoo, the same official who wrote a memo arguing that interrogation techniques only constitute torture if they are "equivalent in intensity to...organ failure, impairment of bodily function or even death.")

Illegally spying on Americans is chilling--even for this Administration. Moreover, as Kate Martin, director of the Center for National Security Studies, told the Times, "the secret order may amount to the president authorizing criminal activity." Some officials at the NSA agree. According to the Times, "Some agency officials wanted nothing to do with the program, apparently fearful of participating in an illegal operation." Others were "worried that the program might come under scrutiny by Congressional or criminal investigators if Senator John Kerry, the Democratic nominee, was elected President."

It's always a fight to find out what the government doesn't want us to know, and this Administration and its footsoldiers have used every means available to undermine journalists' ability to exercise their First Amendment function of holding power accountable. But compounding the Administration's double-dealing, the media has been largely complicit in the face of White House mendacity. David Sirota puts it more bluntly in a recent entry from his blog: "We are watching the media being used as a tool of state power in overriding the very laws that are supposed to confine state power and protect American citizens."

Consider this: the New York Times says it "delayed publication" of the NSA spying story for a year. The paper says it acceded to White House arguments that publishing the article "could jeopardize continuing investigations and alert would-be-terrorists that they might be under scrutiny."

Despite Administration demands though, it was reported in yesterday's Washington Post that the decision by Times editor Bill Keller to withhold the article caused friction within the Times' Washington bureau, according to people close to the paper. Some reporters and editors in New York and in the paper's DC bureau had apparently pushed for earlier publication. In an explanatory statement, Keller issued the excuse that, "Officials also assured senior editors of the Times that a variety of legal checks had been imposed that satisfied everyone involved that the program raised no legal questions." This from a paper, which as First Amendment lawyer Martin Garbus pointed out in a letter to editor "rejected similar arguments when it courageously pub;ished the Pentagon Papers over the government's false objections that it would endanger our foreign policy as well as the lives of individuals." The Times, Garbus went on to argue, "owes its readers more. The Bush Administration's record for truthfulness is not such that one should rely on its often meaningless and vague assertions."

Readers and citizens deserve to know why the New York Times capitulated to the White House's request? It is true that Friday's revelations of this previously unknown, illegal domestic spying program helped stop the Patriot Act reauthorization. But what if the Times had published its story before the election? And what other stories have been held up due to Adminsitration cajoling, pressure, threats and intimidation?

The question of how this Administration threatens the workings of a free press, a cornerstone of democracy, remains a central one. Every week brings new evidence of White House attempts to delegitimize the press's role as a watchdog of government abuse, an effective counter to virtually unchecked executive power.

Last month, for example, the Washington Post published Dana Priest's extraordinary report about the CIA's network of prisons in Eastern Europe for suspected terrorists. Priest's reporting helped push passage of a ban on the metastasizing use of torture. But, as with the New York Times, the Post acknowledged that it had acceded to government requests to withhold the names of the countries in which the black site prisons exist.

How many other cases are there of news outlets choosing to honor government requests for secrecy over the journalistic duty of informing the public about government abuse and wrongdoing?

Never has the need for an independent press been greater. Never has the need to know what is being done in our name been greater. As Bill Moyers said in an important speech delivered on the 20th anniversary of the National Security Archive, a dedicated band of truth-tellers, "...There has been nothing in our time like the Bush Administration's obsession with secrecy." Moyers added. "It's an old story: the greater the secrecy, the deeper the corruption."

Federation of American Scientists secrecy specialist Steven Aftergood bluntly says, "an even more aggressive form of government information control has gone unenumerated and often unrecognized in the Bush era, as government agencies have restricted access to unclassified information in libraries, archives, websites and official databases." This practice, Aftergood adds, "also accords neatly with the Bush Administration's preference for unchecked executive authority."

"Information is the oxygen of democracy," Aftergood rightly insists. This Administration is trying to cut off the supply. Journalists and media organizations must find a way to restore their role as effective watchdogs, as checks on an executive run amok.

"The War Against Christmas"   

Not since Iraqi WMD has there been a bogus news story more loved by the conservative media than the quote-unquote "War against Christmas." So complete is their martyrdom-like passion for this myth that you'd think we lived in a time when Christians were regularly being fed to Coliseum lions. Therefore, while I rather like the holiday myself, as editor of The Nation I feel duty bound to provide their empty, bloviated rhetoric with some ammo. Here are my three battles against Xmas.   

1) Family-photo Christmas cards that married people send to their single, childless friends. Would you send a Thanksgiving card to starving people? A Fourth of July card to the Queen? These are not gifts; they are taunts. And they should be banned.   

2) Corporate America's year-end decisions to reduce health and pension benefits to boost their annual earnings statements. Would Santa threaten to open a factory in Shanghai to bring the elf union to the negotiating table? What could be more bah-humbug than the news that daddy can never afford to retire? This Scrooge-like practice should be banned.   

3) Christmas office parties. Sure, they seem fun, but nothing spells sexual harassment lawsuit like an open bar, mistletoe, and the prospect of spending the holidays alone or with an angry spouse. I think this is one area where Bill O'Reilly and I can agree: Christmas office parties should be banned.   

What's really going on? The guys over at Fox, like O'Reilly and John Gibson (author of the new book, The War On Christmas) are using this battle because they'd like to see America trend theocratic. But despite the hours of attention the rightwing media have devoted to this manufactured crisis, they're unlikely to win. And it's not because they're up against a liberal plot. Gimme a break. It's because they're on the side of intolerance.   

Lying, Dirty Tricksters

"We call our stuff information and the enemy's propaganda," says Col. Jack N. Summe, former commander of the Fourth Psychological Operations Group, in Jeff Gerth's masterful, must-read investigation into how the US military is waging a quasi-secret information war in Iraq and the Middle East. Even in the Pentagon, Summe admits to Gerth, "some public affairs professionals see us unfavorably," and inaccurately, he says, as "lying, dirty tricksters."

It turns out that the Lincoln Group, the Washington-based subcontractor hired by the Pentagon to plant stories in Iraq's media was no rogue operation. Instead, as Gerth documents, it was just one of many elements in the Bush Administration's vast, extensive and costly propaganda apparatus.

Recent news stories have documented how the Lincoln group received tens of millions of dollars in Pentagon contracts to plant paid, boosterish articles in the Iraqi and Arab media. Now we learn that while US troops had defective bulletproof vests, US taxpayer money was being used to help Lincoln pitch pop culture ideas as a way to win hearts and minds in the Middle East.

Did you know that Lincoln proposed that the US government fund a version of the satirical paper "The Onion," and an underground paper to be called "The Voice"? It even had the brilliant plan, according to Gerth's article, of trying "comedies modeled after Cheers and the Three Stooges, with the trio as bumbling wannabe terrorists."

I used to think that if Terry Southern (who brought us Dr. Strangelove) were still alive, he'd have a hard time finding material. Reality is now so radically outrageous. An anti-terrorist comedy based on The Three Stooges?

Rush Does Afghanistan

Another nugget from Gerth's article: Courtesy of our very own US AID, Afghan journalism students were treated to a lecture on journalism by a man who has done about as much as any media personality to distort, divide and debase our media landscape.

In February, according to Gerth, Limbaugh was a guest of AID. When asked by an Afghan journalism student about how he balances justice and truth and objectivity, Limbaugh allegedly replied that the answer was to "report the truth." This from Rush Limbaugh! Need I say more?

Annals of Outrage III

Last May, I wrote an Annals of Outrage II chronicling the waste, fraud and abuse in the federal government in the first half of 2004. Plenty of time has passed since my last piece and much has happened. Here, then, is my latest attempt to guide you through the Bush Administration's most egregious corruption scandals. The information comes to us courtesy of the federal government's internal investigations into administration fraud, waste and abuse. The cronyism and corruption have hit a new low. 

1) Bat Mitzvah Corruption: In terms of sheer outrage, millionaire defense contractor David H. Brooks is hard to top. The New York Daily News recently reported that Brooks spent an estimated $10 million on his daughter's bat mitzvah reception. Aerosmith performed at the reception (reportedly earning a cool two million dollars), and Kenny G, 50 Cent, Tom Petty and The Eagles' Don Henley and Joe Walsh also played. Here's the kicker: Brooks has reportedly made more than $250 million in wartime profits as the CEO of DHB Industries-- which has had thousands of defective bulletproof vests recalled by the government! 

According to a government investigation into the faulty vests that was uncovered by the Marine Corps Times, DHB's equipment saw "multiple complete penetrations" when 9mm pistol rounds were fired into the vests. One government ballistics expert quoted in the government's findings said he had "little confidence" in DHB's equipment. Meanwhile, the SEC is looking into Brooks' 2004 sale of $186 million worth of company stock. Institute for Policy Studies' Sarah Anderson, who co-authored a report called "Executive Excess 2005," called Brooks a "world champion war profiteer," concluding, he has "no shame." 

2) CPA's Bribes: The war in Iraq continues to churn out profiteering scandals on a weekly basis. The New York Times reported in November that the special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction had uncovered a scheme involving a US comptroller in the Coalition Provisional Authority, Robert J. Stein, and other co-conspirators who accepted "kickbacks and bribes…to steer lucrative construction contracts" to an American-run company. According to the criminal complaint, Stein and his wife spent the bribes he received on cars, jewelry, and home improvements. In the meantime, the contracted work either wasn't performed or was shabbily done. Most outrageous of all, Stein was given control over eighty-two million dollars in funds for Iraq rebuilding despite the fact that he had spent eight months in jail in the 1990s on a felony fraud conviction. 

More broadly, the special inspector faulted the CPA for failing to adequately account for 8.8 billion dollars in funds designated for Iraqi rebuilding projects. As the Boston Globe reported this month, "11 investigators in Iraq [are] looking into more than 50…cases of graft involving civilians and the US military." 

3) Halliburton Redux, Redux: Annals of Outrage just wouldn't be the same if Cheney's ex-company didn't make my list. The company, of course, has spawned a cottage industry of government investigations into the corporate construction giant's nebulous billing and spending practices. Halliburton remains under intense scrutiny today. Just last month, CNN.com explained how whistleblower Bunnatine Greenhouse who had worked for the US Army Corps of Engineers charged that Halliburton's subsidiary Kellogg, Brown and Root was operating under government contracts rife with "the most blatant and improper contract abuse I have witnessed." Waste was ubiquitous. Greenhouse told a Democratic hearing sponsored by Sen. Byron Dorgan that instead of fixing $85,000 trucks in need of relatively minor repairs like flat tires, KBR decided to torch them. The Justice Department told Dorgan that it was looking into the mounting allegations of widespread fraud at Halliburton.

4) No-bid contracts: The effort to rebuild after Hurricane Katrina has created a massive amount of new work for the government's inspectors general. One example, according to the Washington Post, was the Department of Homeland Security's inspector general's report that the government had awarded an $80 billion no-bid contract to an Alabama company, Clearbrook LLC, for building camps for emergency work, but that the company had "mathematically inaccurate [billings] indicating over three million dollars in overcharges" and a "complete lack of documentation supporting price reasonableness." 

That's just the tip of the iceberg. The Post also reported that over at the Pentagon, the Inspector general's office is examining an Army Corps of Engineers contract to distribute ice in Katrina's aftermath and a contract for putting temporary roofs over damaged homes. In fact, by late October, a whopping 92 investigations had been initiated into allegations of corruption, overpayments and other improprieties associated with the federal response to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. By early November, the website Govexec.com was reporting that investigations had already led to 23 arrests, 12 indictments, and more than 400 investigators reviewing "3,000 contracts worth more than $5.1 billion...."

5) Manna from FEMA: In response to questions from the South Florida Sun-Sentinel in October, the Dept. of Homeland Security's inspector general Richard Skinner said that he was investigating complaints that FEMA wily-nilly provided checks for $2,000 to residents of Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana unaffected by Katrina's destructive path. "In three Louisiana parishes," the paper reported, "FEMA issued more checks than there are households, at a cost to taxpayers of at least $70 million." One Mississippi official told the Sun-Sentinel that folks "made a ton of money." "We're talking plasma TVs...stereos...bicycles." While FEMA has told Congress that the disbursement problems have been fixed, Skinner said that he couldn't confirm FEMA's claim. By mid-October, 14 people faced charges of fraud in relation to the $2,000 payouts. Skinner said that "we expect many more" to be indicted. 

6) Bilking TSA: As I reported last May, the Transportation Security Administration has its own share of fraud, waste and abuse problems. And so in late October, Rep. Henry Waxman pointed to news reports citing "egregious waste under contracts awarded and administered by the Department of Homeland Security [and TSA]."

Pentagon investigators have found, for instance, that one contractor--the technology company Unisys--might have over-charged TSA by some 171,000 hours in labor and overtime by billing out their employees to TSA "at up to twice their actual rate of compensation," as Waxman's statement put it. One former TSA official told Congress that senior administration officials had ordered him to deflate cost estimates of TSA's deal with Unisys to mislead the public about the true costs of the contract. 

7) No Science Allowed: The Government Accountability Office found in mid-November that the FDA, according to the Los Angeles Times, had "compromised their usual science-based decision making process when they ruled in 2004 against letting the morning-after birth control pill be sold without a prescription." The GAO issued a report saying that the FDA's review process for the Plan B pill was "unusual," "not typical," "novel," "did not follow FDA's traditional practices." Before the scientific review had even concluded, senior FDA officials allegedly told mid-level employees that Plan B was not going to be approved for over-the-counter sales, regardless of the scientific findings. Henry Waxman concluded that the "GAO's final report describes an appalling level of manipulation and suppression of the science. It appears that the decision…was preordained from the outset." 

8) Politicizing Public Programming: The Corporation for Public Broadcasting's Inspector General Kenneth Konz recently delivered a report in which he found that CPB's former chairman, Kenneth Tomlinson, was trying to politicize PBS's programming by urging PBS to put a conservative talk show on the air and by hiring lobbyists and consultants without the CPB board's approval. Konz's devastating report concluded that Tomlinson (who resigned shortly before the report was publicly released) had "directly violated the agency's statutes and procedures," as the Washington Post put it. 

9) Abramoff: I could have devoted an entire Annals to chronicling the government investigations spawned by the notorious GOP super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff. But in brief, there's a Justice Department criminal probe into allegations that Abramoff bribed lawmakers and their staffs, bilked millions of dollars from Indian tribal clients, and committed assorted other frauds and abuses. The Inspector general's office in the Dept. of Interior (which is part of the DoJ's Abramoff task force) has been interviewing witnesses to determine whether former Deputy Interior Secretary J. Steven Griles had agreed to prevent the Gun Lake Indian tribe from building a casino in Michigan in deference to Gun Lake's competitor, an Abramoff client. Apparently, Abramoff had also talked to Griles about giving him a job with Abramoff's firm, and if there was a quid pro quo, it would violate conflict-of-interest laws. 

10) Abramoff II: Former General Services Administration Chief of Staff David Safavian was arrested on charges that he made false statements and obstructed the investigation by the GSA's Inspector General's office into his connections to Abramoff. Safavian told the IG, according to a Justice Dept. news release, that Abramoff "had no business with GSA prior to the August 2002 golf trip" Safavian took to Scotland with Abramoff, Bob Ney, Ralph Reed and others. But Safavian's claims weren't true: "Safavian concealed the fact that the lobbyist had business before GSA prior to the August 2002 golf trip," and he had apparently assisted Abramoff's bid to acquire federally-controlled property in the Washington area. 

Government investigators have their work cut out for them in the new year. Already, House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi has urged the House's inspector general to review Bob Ney's House Administration Committee's decision to award a big contract to a wireless company, Foxcom Wireless, an Abramoff client, to improve cell phone reception for the House of Representatives. 

And Edward Kennedy recently urged the Pentagon's Inspector general to investigate the Pentagon contractor, the PR firm Lincoln Group, that reportedly paid Iraqi newspapers to publish favorable news stories written by US soldiers without acknowledging the article's origins -- blatant propaganda that erodes America's stated commitment to defending a free press. Kennedy called planting news stories part of a "devious scheme." 

Here's one bet you can take to the bank: The Pentagon's propaganda scandal will appear on my next Annals of Outrage top ten list, so stay tuned in 2006. 

Dictionary of Republicanisms Sequel

I want to thank again all the loyal readers whose outpouring of interest and words of kindness have made The Dictionary of Republicanisms such a rewarding experience. All of us must continue to fight to reclaim our political discourse, so we can reclaim our politics.

In my last post, I suggested that readers might want to organize house/book parties to work on submissions for a sequel to The Dictionary of Republicanisms, or simply to take a moment for a little levity in this period of right-wing darkness. And that is exactly what you have done.

We've heard from several of you who have hosted parties and we've been inundated with sharp, funny new submissions. I have included some of my favorites below. Please keep it up. Each one brightens our work at the magazine and portends the dawning of a new America. If we receive enough new definitions, we may gather them in a follow-up book. If you want to submit a definition, just click here.

ARABIAN HORSE ASSOCIATION, n. Homeland security training camp [Bill Schwartz].

BEACH FRONT PROPERTY, n. Place to drill for oil [Quentin Blanchette, St. Louis, MO].

BROWNIE, n. 1) That stinky stuff stuck on Bush's boot [Paul Trepes]. 2) Piece of feces, which clogged federal government's response to Hurricane Katrina [Lucy Stephens, San Diego, CA].

CORPOCRACY, n. The form of democratic government practiced in the United States [Tom Sutter, Madison, WI].

ENTANGLEMENT, n. Power breakfasts at expensive hotels [Matthew Polly, Topeka, KS].

FEDERAL INDICTMENT, n. Criminalizing politics [Kirby Records, Los Angeles, CA].

GOP BASE, n. The haves and the have-a-lots [Thomas Hartley, Rosendale, NY].

HARRIET MIERED, v. 1) To flip-flop [Lucy Stephens, San Diego, CA]. 2) To be Borked by one's own allies [Matthew Polly, Topeka, KS].

HECK OF A JOB, n. President Bush's favorite compliment, see FUBAR [Bill Schwartz, Buffalo, NY].

PANDEMIC, n. Nature's system of population management [Bill Schwartz, Dayton, OH].

PAT ROBERTSON, pr. n., Pandemic foot-in-mouth disease [Stephen Weinstein, Pulaski, NM].

POLITICS, n. The continuation of war by any means [Martin Richard, Belgrade, MT].

REVISIONISM, n. Republican revival of Soviet era epithet [John Llewellyn, Elizabeth, NJ].

RESPECTING THE FLAG, slang. Not letting it be shown draping caskets [Neil Hoey, Missoula, MT].

SCOOTER n., Mode of transportation used to dodge indictment/impeachment [Menno Eelkema, New York, NY].

SELF-DETERMINATION, n. Right of Iraqis to select a government acceptable to us [Matthew Cross, Tulsa, OK].

STAY THE COURSE, n. Stuck between Iraq and a hard place [Joshua Vizer, San Francisco, CA].

SUPPORT THE TROOPS, slang. Outsource, to favored corporations, using no-bid contracts, what earlier generations of troopes hated, namely, KP, guard and latrine duty, and policing the perimeter, in order to facilitate maximum troop exposure to the enemy and enhance corporate profits [John Llewellyn, New York, NY].

SWIFT BOAT, v. To undermine someone's record with falsehoods [Larry Andriks, Eugene, OR].

TED STEVENS, n. Bridge to nowhere [Stephen Weinstein, San Diego, CA].

TEXAS HOLD 'EM, n. Federal government jobs fair [Michael Joyce, Austin, TX].

TORTURE, n. X-Treme research [Matthew Polly, Topeka, KS].

WMD, acronym. We Meant Democracy [Todd Andresen, St. Louis, MO].

John Murtha's Johnstown

If you want to better understand how public opinion on the war in Iraq has reached a turning point, visit Johnstown in Pennsylvania's 12th Congressional district. It's a socially conservative, blue-collar district whose once thriving steel mills now languish. Bush lost the district by only 8,000 votes in 2004 and John Murtha has represented it for 16 terms. One wouldn't expect to find rising opposition to the war here.

Yet, after Murtha's courageous and emotional statement on Thanksgiving eve insisting it's time for US troops to come home within six months, his constituents seem to be siding with him in increasingly large numbers.

Given the district's large veteran population and conservative political tendencies, a surprising number of constituents -- including veterans -- expressed virtually unqualified support for Murtha's newly-stated position that the Iraq conflict has no military solution.

A Vietnam veteran said that he felt, "like Murtha, [that] we should stop [the war] and bring them home and get them out of there." One Army veteran of World War II applauded Murtha's candid assessment of the absence of progress in Iraq, saying that American soldiers should have pulled out of Iraq "a long time ago." The Tribune-Democrat listed the results of an unscientific poll on its website revealing that 63 percent of respondents supported Murtha's arguments that we should withdraw from Iraq within six months while 37 percent disagreed with their Congressman's position.

While polling for opinion in Murtha's district is hard to find, a slew of articles, editorials, interviews and other commentary has appeared in state and local papers and wire services to suggest that public opinion is trending in Murtha's direction across not just his district but also his entire state.

"Many constituents side with Murtha on troops leaving Iraq," one Knight Ridder News story said. The Tribune-Democrat declared: "Murtha's stance on troops generally wins support at home." The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette announced: "Johnstown stands behind Murtha in wake of his call for Iraq exit."

Indeed, phone calls flooding Murtha's main district office in the aftermath of his announcement ran about two-to-one in favor of Murtha's position, Murtha's district director said. Murtha's constituents know him so well that they instinctively trust his judgment and instincts especially on matters of war and peace.

Another factor at work is that at least some of Murtha's constituents have also reached the conclusion that Bush Administration strategy in Iraq has failed, that military victory is not achievable and that the best thing is to withdraw as soon as possible. A few people called Murtha's office and called him a "traitor." For the most part, though, his constituents "in west Pennsylvania signaled weariness for the war," Knight Ridder reported. "It's a conservative area. But we don't support this particular war," one veteran interviewed in Johnstown's American Legion Hall told a reporter. "Most of the people around here are in accord with [Murtha] on this [war]."

Sure, "not everyone in Johnstown is comfortable with Mr. Murtha's new role," David S. Cloud wrote in the New York Times a few days before Thanksgiving. For example, the head of the local Republican party is "kind of perplexed" about Murtha's about-face. "If we would leave right now, I think al-Qaeda's people would be more winners than losers," a Vietnam Veteran told Johnstown's local paper, the Tribune-Democrat, in voicing his opposition to Murtha's new antiwar stance.

But if the editorial pages of the Tribune-Democrat, the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Post-Gazette are indicative of the mood in Murtha's district and the state, it's fair to conclude that Pennsylvanians are now opposed to President Bush's handling of the war in Iraq. In Johnstown, the local paper's editorial page urged those defending Bush's war to "hear Murtha out" and argued that the combat "has gone on far too long." The Inquirer's editorial page faulted Murtha's critics for smearing the former Marine while the the Post-Gazette's page explained that Murtha's declaration that the US should pull out "linger[s] in the air with authority" and should not simply be dismissed out of hand.

The growing disillusionment with the war has many roots, including the large costs to the state's communities. In September, five Pennsylvanians died in a single day in a roadside bombing near Ramadi. As of late September, 104 Pennsylvanians had died in combat in Iraq, and the state ranks third behind only Texas and California in the number of fatalities for any single state.

Pennsylvania has also been financially hurt, spending some $10.1 billion of its money to pay for the Iraqi conflict. With over 3,200 of its National Guardsmen serving in Iraq, the state has the highest per capita deployed of any state. The result: Pennsylvania is poorly equipped to handle the kind of natural disaster that hit Louisiana and Mississippi earlier this year.

Murtha's not a lone hawk turned against the war, either; other hawks have had changes-of-heart on Iraq reminiscent of his recent conversion. North Carolina Republican Rep. Walter Jones, who has many military bases based in his district, (and coiner of the "freedom fries" phrase) announced this past June that he had decided that our troops should leave Iraq. Jones even joined Dennis Kucinich and Neil Abercrombie, two leading members of the Progressive Caucus in sponsoring a resolution urging Bush to withdraw troops from Iraq beginning in October 2006. Like Murtha, Jones has seen up-close the devastation of the war on his district's communities and families.

The turning point for Jones came at a funeral for a Marine who left behind a wife and three kids, when Jones heard the Marine's widow read her husband's last letter. Jones said: "This was an event in my life that it actually had spiritual ramifications, because I became part of the family. I was emotional, and I think from that day, my feelings have evolved. I mean, we have to defeat terrorism. I just think that we have achieved the goals in Iraq, and maybe it's now time to consider what we need to be doing down the road."

Jones has displayed pictures of US fatalities in the hallway outside his office. "When I think about what happened in Vietnam -- we lost 58,000 -- I wonder, 'Wouldn't it have been nice if, two years into the war, some representatives would have said, 'Mr. President, where we going?'" Jones explained.

Murtha, of course, has reached similar conclusions about the absence of progress in Iraq and about the mounting human costs of our failed strategy. Murtha, for instance, keeps track of how many of his constituents have died in Iraq (13) and frequently visits the wounded recovering at Walter Reed Medical Center.

One of his constituents, the New York Times reported, is Private Salvatore Ross Jr., who lost part of his leg and is now blind because of a landmine explosion. Murtha helped the soldier receive special treatment at John Hopkins Medical Center, and the Times reported that Murtha "arranged a ceremony in Private Ross's hometown, where he received a Purple Heart."

Murtha is a compelling figure: The first Vietnam veteran elected to Congress, he has been a good friend to the military for decades, and he is the furthest thing from a dove in the US Congress. The Washington Post referred to Murtha as the "Democrats' soldier-legislator." It seems clear that Murtha is close to those in the military who understand this occupation is unwinnable. Because of who he is, what he stands for, Murtha has served his nation well in demanding an end to a reckless war.

Nation's Strongest Campaign Finance Bill Passes in CT.

"At the national level, we are seeing the most outrageous string of pay-to-play scandals in a generation," wrote Nick Nyhart, co-founder and Executive Director of Public Campaign, on TPMCafe. "Unfortunately, in Congress, no one is focusing on the kinds of reforms that would shift power away from well-healed lobbying interests." 

At the state level, however, it's a different story. On Wednesday night, after seven hours of debate, the Connecticut Senate voted 27 to 8 in favor of passing the most comprehensive  campaign finance reform bill in the country.  The breakthrough legislation comes on the heels of a deeply damaging corruption scandal in Connecticut, where former Governor John Rowland is serving a one-year prison sentence for accepting gifts from state contractors. 

Taking effect in December of 2006, the bill bans political contributions from lobbyists and state contractors and creates a publicly funded election system that encompasses all statewide races.  What's truly remarkable about Connecticut is that, for the first time, a legislature passed a campaign finance bill that affects its own seats. "It will truly make Connecticut's elections about the voters and not about the donors," said Sen. Gary LeBeau, D-East Hartford. 

We declared a "Sweet Victory" in Connecticut back in June, when Governor Jodi Rell announced the sweeping proposal but months of deadlock in the legislature followed. Thanks to a massive and persistent grassroots effort led by the Connecticut Citizen Action Group, Connecticut Common Cause, the Connecticut League of Women Voters, civil rights, labor, and environmental organizations, the call for reform was finally met.  "The Connecticut law is the strongest campaign finance law in the nation," says Nyhart, "[It] gives ordinary people, without connections to big money, a greater role in the electoral process while ratcheting down the clout of lobbyists and powerful state contractors." 

[Note: Rob Richie of Fair Vote praises the victory but warns of the bill's "terrible anti-third party provision." To see the full text of the bill, click here.] 

We also want to hear from you. Please let us know if you have a sweet victory you think we should cover by e-mailing nationvictories@gmail.com.

Co-written by Sam Graham-Felsen, a freelance journalist, documentary filmmaker and blogger (www.boldprint.net) living in Brooklyn.

Doing Time

Republicans may want to reconsider their current efforts to curtail habeas corpus, since it looks like they are intent on taking over yet another branch of government, the federal prison population. Leading the GOP charge is San Diego Republican Congressman, Randy "Duke" Cunningham, who pled guilty Monday to charges of bribery, fraud, and tax evasion. Duke says he plans to make amends. He'd be better off planning how he's going to make friends with his cellmate.

Who that might be is the question buzzing around DC since former DeLay aide and lobbyist Michael Scanlon's plea deal. Federal prosecutors are charging that Scanlon and Jack Abramoff provided a stream of bribes to Republican Congressman Robert Ney of Ohio and members of his staff, including a "lavish Scotland golf trip in 2002," in return for legislation that favored their lobbying clients. Ney says he was duped. Let's hope he's not as gullible in prison.

And then there's Scanlon's former boss, Congressman Tom DeLay, the Energizer Bunny of K-street corrupt conservatism. He's already being indicted in Texas. Having his boy turn rat puts him in potential legal jeopardy on a second front.

But as every lobbyist knows for a good golf game you need a fourth. Here's a quote from Bloomberg News: "Senator Conrad Burns, a Montana Republican, helped win a three million dollar government award for the Saginaw Chippewa Tribe of Michigan to build a school. The Interior Department ruled the tribe was ineligible because its Soaring Eagle casino makes it one of the richest. The tribe, an Abramoff client, donated $32,000 to Burns from 2001 to 2003."

At this rate it won't be long before Leavenworth has enough Republican Congressmen for a quorum.

The Plight of Public Universities

There's a crisis in this country in higher education--and the House GOP's reckless fiscal policies are making it worse. To pay for the rebuilding costs associated with Hurricane Katrina, House Republicans just last week passed $50 billion in budget cuts, eviscerating student loan programs, Medicaid and food stamps while simultaneously seeking to enact a five-year $57 billion tax break for millionaires and corporations. ("The beauty of taking the cuts out of Medicaid and student loan programs...is that it doesn't reduce the flow of funds to the Republican campaign committees by a single dime," Washington Post columnist Harold Meyerson observed.)

Make no mistake: the loan cuts could be devastating for low- and middle-income students. The Emergency Campaign for America's Priorities which fought to build opposition to the GOP's budget cuts said that New York students and their families would be looking at a $6,000 hike in costs for higher education should the GOP cuts take effect.

This assault on the poor and the middle-class comes at a low moment in higher education in general. Republicans' fiscal policies have made college less affordable for many. And with less money available at the state and federal level, schools have had to raise tuition and impose other costs on families least equipped to bear the burden.

The New York Times recently reported that for the year starting July 2004 inflation increased only slightly, by 2.2 percent, while tuition at public universities rose by 7.1 percent (it increased by 5.9 percent at private colleges.) If you want to send a child to public university in your own state, you'll now pay an average of $15,566 per year. If your child wants to attend a private college or university, you're looking at an average annual cost of nearly $32,000. Predictably, the enrollment gap between rich and poor has widened in recent years.

While costs are rising, affordable student loans are getting harder and harder to find. The website insidehighered.com reported that students are relying on higher-interest private loans which saddle them with debt for many years after graduation. Colleges are also using merit-based aid as opposed to need-based tuition assistance, which traditionally has helped the neediest students afford the costs of attending college.

At the same time as costs are rising, the quality of what those costs are paying for is decreasing. Colleges are using part-time professors to teach their classes. Course size is swelling, and universities, a professor at Cornell who wrote a book about rising education costs told the Times, "are having great difficulty maintaining the quality of the education they provide."

Take Wayne State University, in Detroit. According to Insidehighered.com, the state government cut the school's funding forcing Wayne State to eliminate 200 staff jobs and "close one college and combine two others to save on adminstrative costs."

The University's provost told the website "We literally couldn't pay our bills," and Wayne State increased tuition by 18.5 percent this year alone because the situation was so desperate. And what's happening at Wayne State is happening nationwide as state colleges are victimized by a federal government which is shortchanging education, and state governments which are slashing funding year after year.

Public universities are being targeted for privatization as a result. "Taxpayer support for public universities, measured per student, has plunged more precipitously since 2001 than at any time in two decades," the Times reported last month. Faculty members are devoting more time to research often funded by private interests; college presidents are raising billions of dollars in private funds, and some of the buildings being built on public university campuses now bear the names of corporate donors.

The Right's immoral fiscal policies are bankrupting the very principles we claim to cherish like access to public education and the possibility of upward mobility for lower- and middle-class Americans. To reverse this trend that we've witnessed over the past five years, we can take five common sense steps.

First, as Sen Edward Kennedy proposed this past January, one bold idea for vastly expanding educational opportunity for all is to offer every child a contract that they, their parents and Uncle Sam will sign when a child reaches eighth grade. Kennedy said "the contract will state that if you work hard, if you finish high school and are admitted to college, we will guarantee you the cost of earning a degree." He added that "We should make undergraduate tuition free for any young person willing to serve as a math or science teacher in a public school for at least four years."

Second, Congress should enact the bipartisan Student Aid Reward Act (Kennedy and Rep. George Miller are co-sponsors) which would provide students with $17.2 billion in new college scholarship funds without costing taxpayers a single penny. The STAR Act will encourage colleges to take advantatge of less expensive federal student loan programs instead of relying on and enriching middlemen--the banks and other private lenders. The stakes are high; as Kennedy said, "We cannot allow 400,000 college-ready students to be held back from going to college full time and 200,000 students to be shut of college completely every year, because they can't afford the cost."

Third, as MoveOn and other progressive organizations have pointed out, pressure should be applied to Congress to roll back Bush's tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans and increase resources for student loans and other programs that offer broader access to oppportunity to Americans.

Fourth, let's encourage all private institutions to steal a page out of Princeton University's playbook. In 2001, the University did away with student loans and replaced them with "grants" that, it said, "need not be repaid" and it made getting an education at Princeton affordable for all enrolled there.

Fifth, and finally, our nation needs to put a new emphasis on the educational principles that the Washington Monthly identified in its groundbreaking First Annual College Rankings issue published this past September. The magazine said that "three central criteria" should determine how we judge the success of a college in fulfilling its public mission to the American people.

"Universities should be engines of social mobility," the Monthly wrote, "they should produce the academic minds and scientific research that advance knowledge and drive economic growth, and they should inculcate and encourage an ethic of service." The survey produced some surprising results. UCLA ranked 25th in the US News College Guide but on the Monthly's list it finished second because it "excelled in research and...social mobility...because of its astoundingly high graduation rate given its large number of lower-income students." Penn St. finished sixth and Texas A&M seventh because they met the Monthly's service-oriented, opportunity-expanding criteria more successfully than Yale (15th) and Harvard (16th).

Democratic Rep. Chet Edwards told the Houston Chronicle that the GOP's effort to eviscerate student loan programs is akin to "taking the most from those who have the least and nothing from those who have the most."

The same, sadly, could be said of our country's deeply uneven commitment to higher education for all Americans. If the country wants to live up to its vaunted principles, the GOP's drive to enact policies that put the privileged few before people-in-need must be ended.

Cities to End the War

As the Iraq war debate rages in the capital, and polls show growing public frustration with the war, keep an eye on the growing groundswell of opposition in cities across the country. The DC-based Institute for Policy Studies is a key player in organizing city councils, towns and municipalities to pass resolutions calling for US withdrawal, in hopes of forcing the hand of the Bush Administration and fence-sitting Democrats in Congress.

To date, 67 cities--including Chicago, Sacramento, Chapel Hill, Gary (Indiana) and dozens of towns in Vermont--have done so. The resolutions usually call on the US government "to commence an orderly and rapid withdrawal of United States military personnel from Iraq," while also shipping non-military aid "necessary for the security of Iraq's citizens and for the rebuilding of Iraq." (Disclosure: I am a longtime IPS board member.)

As IPS Director John Cavanagh concedes, cities alone cannot make foreign policy. But, he adds, "we're at a fascinating tipping point." He "can imagine a majority within a year to 18 months that would vote to cut off the money for the war. That is a goal.There are different ways to end the war, but that's the one that feels clearest."

For more, click here to read today's Washington Post story on Cities for Peace.

And in another heartening sign that opposition is growing to a war and occupation which undermines our security, this past weekend more than 2,000 delegates at the national convention in Houston of the Union for Reformed Judaism voted overwhelmingly to call on the Bush Administration to produce an exit strategy for American forces in Iraq and to begin withdrawing troops after the December 15th elections there. The union, with 1.5 million members, represents the largest branch of Judaism in the US and it joins a host of other religious groups in calling for an end to Bush's war.

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