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EPA To New Orleans: Relax!

On the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, we're not hearing much about the "toxic gumbo" -- a term reportedly first coined by reporter Ron Nixon, who has written for The Nation -- that flooded New Orleans and surrounding areas. In the months after the storm, there was a plenty of coverage of the chemicals stirred up by Katrina; years of industry's reckless dumping on Louisiana's poor and black communities wrought a horrifying, carcinogenic soup of oil, gasoline, asbestos, raw sewage, cyanide, chlorobenzene and numerous other toxins, according to numerous experts who monitor pollution in the region. As Nicole Makris noted at the timeon Alternet, it was expected to be the EPA's biggest cleanup yet. Much of the sludge was released into Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi River without treatment, which is, clearly, disturbing. Everyone agreed that more study was needed -- after all, in the chaos of humanitarian crisis, who had time to take water and soil samples. But some time has passed. One year later, what has our government discovered about this sludge and its effects on human health?

Going against the tired conventional wisdom yet again, the Bushies have found that, just like global warming, it's no big deal. A report recently released by the Bush Administration's Environmental "Protection" Agency found that the sediments left over from Rita and Katrina were "not expected to cause adverse health impacts to individuals returning to New Orleans." If you're reassured by that, perhaps you're a potential client for FEMA rolling head Michael Brown, who did such a "heck" of a job that he now runs his own disaster relief consultancy. Amazingly, this enterprise -- which you'd think would be about as viable as a daycare center run by Michael Jackson -- is a success. According to the New York Times, "Brownie" has about half a dozen clients and expects to earn "significantly more" in his new gig than he did as FEMA director (for which he scammed a government handout of $148,000 annually).

Course Correction

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The New York Times carried a very important news story today asits front-page lead. It revealed in devastating detail how Americanworkers have lost ground on wage incomes during thisso-called economic recovery. Only it's not news really. You might say,it represents an elaborate "correction" on Page One. Long overdue, butwelcomed and I think of great significance.

Until now, the Times, like most leading newspapers, has stuckwith the orthodox economist's view of what has occurred during thelopsided recovery engineered by George W. Bush and Alan Greenspan atthe Federal Reserve. Profits booming, productivity improving smartly,robust GDP growth. What's not to like?

Times editors did not seem to notice the dark side of thisstory--the negative impact on the wages of Americans in non-supervisoryjobs (that's 82 percent of the workforce). Their wages stagnated andeven declined in real terms, discounted for inflation. This helpsexplain why typical Americans did not join the cheering--they arelosing ground and borrowing more to keep afloat. Last year for thefirst time since 1933, the family balance sheet went negative, that is,negative savings.

I congratulate the two skillful reporters who produced the article--Steven Greenhouse, who covers labor, and David Leonhardt, who coverseconomics--and congratulate the Times for giving it the playthese facts deserve.

But I am left with this question: Why now? These facts have beenvisible for at least three or four years. I have written variations onthe same theme numerous times in The Nation [see for example "The One-EyedKing," on the actual impact of Greenspan's long reign at the Fed.The Economic Policy Institute,probably the most respected think tank with a liberal-laborperspective, has expertly described what going on again and again. Sohave other voices.

What changed at the Times? I think we are witnessing animportant "course correction" in the approved perspective shared andsanctioned among governing elites. "Correct thinking" is changing amongthe influentials. Nothing confirms this so much as the New YorkTimes changing its view of things.

The facts have been quite stark for years, but to recognize what washappening to wages would open a taboo subject--globalization'sdevastating impact on America's broad middle class. If elitesacknowledged that connection, not to mention harsh disloyalties toworkers practiced by the leading US corporations, the policy thinkersand politicians might have to address the larger political question:What, if anything, does the government intend to do to reverse thislong-running trend of deterioration?

The mainstream press, as I have written more than once, mainly takesits cues from the top-approved authorities and orthodox experts. Thisseason, reporters and editors could observe that several heavyweightinfluentials are beginning to acknowledge the wage reality, albeit in acautious, euphemistic manner.

FormerTreasury Secretary Robert Rubin of Citigroup, leading correctthinker for Democrats, launched the Hamilton Project to examine swelling inequality and relatedquestions. Early this month, Bush's new Treasury secretary HenryPaulsen startled the press by also acknowledging the seriousness of thewage deterioration. Even the new Fed chairman Ben Bernanke took a swing at the problem last week.

In short, it's now okay to for the mainstream to talk about thesubject. They won't be called heretics or protectionists orbackward-thinking Luddites. This is genuine progress. We are not thereyet, but the country is at least creeping slowly toward an honestdebate about America's role in the global trading system.

If my analysis is correct, we may soon even see Times columnistThomas Friedman write about the broad deterioration of US wages. He isthe preeminent cheerleader for the global system that exists, but Ihave never seen him address the wage question frontally beyond tellingworkers they need to get better educated. I can't wait to hear what hehas to say.

After the Storm

The anniversary of Hurricane Katrina is approaching on Tuesday and with much of New Orleans still in ruins, many people are asking how so much of a major American metropolis could be abandoned for so long. A year after the costliest natural disaster in US history, vast stretches of the Gulf Coast are still largely vacant, and some are starting to wonder whether the destruction may be permanent.

As the Washington Post reported, tallies of electric bills and school enrollment figures show that less than half of New Orleans's pre-storm population of 455,000 has returned. The population of adjacent St. Bernard Parish has shrunk from 65,000 to less than 20,000. In small towns along the Mississippi Coast from Bay St. Louis to Biloxi, fewer than 5 percent of destroyed homes are being rebuilt. The clean-up has been so slow that nearly a third of the hurricane trash in New Orleans has yet to be picked up, according to federal Gulf Coast Recovery Coordinator Donald E. Powell.

Again, the question: Why? The Black Activist Coalition on Katrina and the People's Hurricane Relief Fund say that the astoundingly incompetent response is an example of "the monumental failure of the US government to protect and respect the lives of blacks and the poor" and "the direct result of the institutional dimensions of race, class, and gender oppression inherent in the US government...throughout its 230 year history."

In response, these two groups, in alliance with a raft of local grassroots organizations, have launched a campaign to convene an International Tribunal on Katrina and the human rights abuses of the US government. This tribunal is expected to be held in New Orleans in early 2007. (A specific date has not been determined, but the committee is investigating March 30th and 31.)

One of this coalition's main demands is for real transparency in the reconstruction process. "Citizens must know where all the monies are being spent and with whom they are being spent." Another big one is the creation of public-works jobs for the displaced workers of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast at union wages "so that our population is no longer characterized by extreme poverty." Click here or call 601-353-5566 for more info, to sign on as an endorser, and to contribute time, resources and funds.

ACORN New Orleans, one of the many institutional endorsers of the tribunal call, has been on the ground in the Crescent City for twenty-nine years. It's provided free tax services, led living wage campaigns, galvanized drives to keep lead poisoning out of schools and lobbied for voting rights and affordable housing. After the levees broke, it created the Katrina Survivors Association, the first nationwide organization of displaced New Orleans residents and other Katrina survivors. The idea is to unite members of disparate affected communities to use public pressure, direct action, and dialogue with elected officials and public policy experts to win a voice for the survivors in future planning and funding decisions in order to build stronger communities for more than just the rich and well-connected.

In fact, as America briefly refocuses on the disaster, it's critical to frame the discussions in terms of class, race and unequal opportunity in America and to build support for real change. That's the mission of the Opportunity Agenda, which has created a nifty activist Tool Kit, designed to highlight vast class differences revealed by Katrina and advance solutions to expand chances for equal opportunity in the Gulf Coast region and beyond.

Here are some of the ideas:

**Visit www.katrinaaction.org to find information, connect with local organizations and learn about actions that affect housing, health, jobs, and other related issues.

**Organize friends, family, and colleagues to watch Spike Lee's HBO documentary, When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts. It will be shown on HBO cable on August 29th. (Or rent it at Netflix.) Afterwards, talk about ways you can take practical actions. Visit www.katrinaaction.org for discussion questions.

**Help ensure that news media tell the real story of Katrina and its aftermath and continue to offer balanced reporting on the issue. Call your local news and radio talk shows, and write letters to the editor. (For pointers, Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting has an online kit with contact information for media outlets and sample letters.)

**Got five minutes a week? Join the Katrina Information Network. KIN members commit to five minutes a week to send emails to their network and to policymakers to keep these issues on the public agenda.

On the creative front, the most innovative project I've seen coming out of the catastrophe is the New Orleans Kid Camera Project. Created to address the psychological and emotional impact of Hurricane Katrina on children returning home to New Orleans, the project fosters photography, creative writing and mixed media as means for children to explore their environment and express themselves, their stories and feelings. Check out the latest gallery of the kids' work here and then click here to support future efforts.

There are innumerable Katrina memorial events over the next few days--in the Gulf region and nationwide. The Human Rights Network has a good list as does United for Peace. The Sun Herald is the place to look for anniversary events in South Mississippi and check WAFB TV's site for a close-to-comprehensive list for New Orleans and Baton Rouge.

Finally, if you want to donate money to help the tens of thousands of Hurricane Katrina survivors still homeless and in great need, see the American Institute of Philanthropy's guide to find the best ways to help the victims, and check out the Network for Good's suggestions on Katrina giving. Habitat for Humanity is also a good recipient. It's been on the ground for virtually the last twelve months helping to rebuild the homes of those way down on the government's priority lists. Giving to Habitat will get your money to the right place.

The Meaning of the Armitage Leak in the Plame Case

One mystery solved.

It was Richard Armitage, when he was deputy secretary of state in July 2003, who first disclosed to conservative columnist Robert Novak that the wife of former ambassador Joseph Wilson was a CIA employee.

A Newsweek article--based on the new book I cowrote with Newsweek correspondent Michael Isikoff, Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal and the Selling of the Iraq War--discloses that Armitage passed this classified information to Novak during a July 8, 2003 interview. Though Armitage's role as Novak's primary source has been a subject of speculation, the case is now closed. Our sources for this are three government officials who spoke to us confidentially and who had direct knowledge of Armitage's conversation with Novak. Carl Ford Jr., who was head of the State Department's intelligence branch at the time, told us--on the record--that after Armitage testified before the grand jury investigating the leak case, he told Ford, "I'm afraid I may be the guy that caused the whole thing."

Ford recalls Armitage said he had "slipped up" and had told Novak more that he should have. According to Ford, Armitage was upset that "he was the guy that fucked up."

The unnamed government sources also told us about what happened three months later when Novak wrote a column noting that his original source was "no partisan gunslinger." After reading that October 1 column, Armitage called his boss and long-time friend, Secretary of State Colin Powell, and acknowledged he was Novak's source. Powell, Armitage and William Taft IV, the State Department's top lawyer, frantically conferred about what to do. As Taft told us (on the record), "We decided we were going to tell [the investigators] what we thought had happened." Taft notified the criminal division of the Justice Department--which was then handling the investigation--and FBI agents interviewed Armitage the next day. In that interview, Armitage admitted he had told Novak about Wilson's wife and her employment at the CIA. The Newsweek piece lays all this out.

Colleagues of Armitage told us that Armitage--who is known to be an inveterate gossip--was only conveying a hot tidbit, not aiming to do Joe Wilson harm. Ford says, "My sense from Rich is that it was just chitchat." (When Armitage testified before the Iran-contra grand jury many years earlier, he had described himself as "a terrible gossip." Iran-contra independent counsel Lawrence Walsh subsequently accused him of providing "false testimony" to investigators but said that he could not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Armitage's misstatements had been "deliberate.")

The Plame leak in Novak's column has long been cited by Bush administration critics as a deliberate act of payback, orchestrated to punish and/or discredit Joe Wilson after he charged that the Bush administration had misled the American public about the prewar intelligence. The Armitage news does not fit neatly into that framework. He and Powell were not the leading advocates of war in the administration (even though Powell became the chief pitchman for the case for war when he delivered a high-profile speech at the UN). They were not the political hitmen of the Bush gang. Armitage might have mentioned Wilson's wife merely as gossip. But--as Hubris notes--he also had a bureaucratic interest in passing this information to Novak.

On July 6--two days before Armitage's meeting with Novak--Wilson published an op-ed in The New York Times on July 6, 2003, that revealed that he had been sent by the CIA to Niger to investigate the charge that Iraq had been trying to buy uranium in that impoverished African nation. Wilson wrote that his mission had been triggered by an inquiry to the CIA from Vice President Dick Cheney, who had read an intelligence report about the Niger allegation, and that he (Wilson) had reported back to the CIA that the charge was highly unlikely. Noting that President George W. Bush had referred to this allegation in his 2003 State of the Union speech, Wilson maintained that the administration had used a phoney claim to lead the country to war. His article ignited a firestorm. That meant that the State Department had good reason (political reason, that is) to distance itself from Wilson, a former State Department official. Armitage may well have referred to Wilson's wife and her CIA connection to make the point that State officials--already suspected by the White House of not being team players--had nothing to do with Wilson and his trip.

Whether he had purposefully mentioned this information to Novak or had slipped up, Armitage got the ball rolling--and abetted a White House campaign under way to undermine Wilson. At the time, top White House aides--including Karl Rove and Scooter Libby--were trying to do in Wilson. And they saw his wife's position at the CIA as a piece of ammunition. As John Dickerson wrote in Slate, senior White House aides that week were encouraging him to investigate who had sent Joe Wilson on his trip. They did not tell him they believed Wilson's wife had been involved. But they clearly were trying to push him toward that information.

Shortly after Novak spoke with Armitage, he told Rove that he had heard that Valerie Wilson had been behind her husband's trip to Niger, and Rove said that he knew that, too. So a leak from Armitage (a war skeptic not bent on revenge against Wilson) was confirmed by Rove (a Bush defender trying to take down Wilson). And days later--before the Novak column came out--Rove told Time magazine's Matt Cooper that Wilson's wife was a CIA employee and involved in his trip.

Bush critics have long depicted the Plame leak as a sign of White House thuggery. I happened to be the first journalist to report that the leak in the Novak column might be evidence of a White House crime--a violation of the little-known Intelligence Identities Protection Act, which makes it a crime for a government official to disclose information about an undercover CIA officer (if that government official knew the covert officer was undercover and had obtained information about the officer through official channels). Two days after the leak appeared, I wrote:

Did senior Bush officials blow the cover of a US intelligence officer working covertly in a field of vital importance to national security--and break the law--in order to strike at a Bush administration critic and intimidate others?

And I stated,

Now there is evidence Bushies used classified information and put the nation's counter-proliferation efforts at risk merely to settle a score.

The Armitage leak was not directly a part of the White House's fierce anti-Wilson crusade. But as Hubris notes, it was, in a way, linked to the White House effort, for Amitage had been sent a key memo about Wilson's trip that referred to his wife and her CIA connection, and this memo had been written, according to special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald, at the request of I. Lewis Scooter Libby, the vice president's chief of staff. Libby had asked for the memo because he was looking to protect his boss from the mounting criticism that Bush and Cheney had misrepresented the WMD intelligence to garner public support for the invasion of Iraq.

The memo included information on Valerie Wilson's role in a meeting at the CIA that led to her husband's trip. This critical memo was--as Hubris discloses--based on notes that were not accurate. (You're going to have to read the book for more on this.) But because of Libby's request, a memo did circulate among State Department officials, including Armitage, that briefly mentioned Wilson's wife.

Armitage's role aside, the public record is without question: senior White House aides wanted to use Valerie Wilson's CIA employment against her husband. Rove leaked the information to Cooper, and Libby confirmed Rove's leak to Cooper. Libby also disclosed information on Wilson's wife to New York Times reporter Judith Miller.

As Hubris also reveals--and is reported in the Newsweek story--Armitage was also the source who told Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward in mid-June 2003 that Joe Wilson's wife worked at the CIA. Woodward did not reveal he had learned about Wilson's wife until last November, when he released a statement recounting a conversation with a source (whom he did not name). Woodward acknowledged at that time that he had not told his editors about this interview--and that he had recently given a deposition to Fitzgerald about this conversation.

Speculation regarding Woodward's source quickly focused on Armitage. Last week, the Associated Press disclosed State Department records indicating that Woodward had met with Armitage at the State Department on June 13, 2003. In pegging Armitage as Woodward's source, Hubris cites five confidential sources--including government officials and an Armitage confidant.

Woodward came in for some harsh criticism when he and the Post revealed that he had been the first reporter told about Wilson's wife by a Bush administration official. During Fitzgerald's investigation, Woodward had repeatedly appeared on television and radio talk shows and dismissed the CIA leak probe without noting that he had a keen personal interest in the matter: his good source, Richard Armitage, was likely a target of Fitzgerald. Woodward was under no obligation to disclose a confidential source and what that source had told him. But he also was under no obligation to go on television and criticize an investigation while withholding relevant information about his involvement in the affair.

Fitzgerald, as Hubris notes, investigated Armitage twice--once for the Novak leak; then again for not initially telling investigators about his conversation with Woodward. Each time, Fitzgerald decided not to prosecute Armitage. Abiding by the rules governing grand jury investigations, Fitzgerald said nothing publicly about Armitage's role in the leak.

The outing of Armitage does change the contours of the leak case. The initial leaker was not plotting vengeance. He and Powell had not been gung-ho supporters of the war. Yet Bush backers cannot claim the leak was merely an innocent slip. Rove confirmed the classified information to Novak and then leaked it himself as part of an effort to undermine a White House critic. Afterward, the White House falsely insisted that neither Rove nor Libby had been involved in the leak and vowed that anyone who had participated in it would be bounced from the administration. Yet when Isikoff and Newsweek in July 2005 revealed a Matt Cooper email showing that Rove had leaked to Cooper, the White House refused to acknowledge this damning evidence, declined to comment on the case, and did not dismiss Rove. To date, the president has not addressed Rove's role in the leak. It remains a story of ugly and unethical politics, stonewalling, and lies.

A NOTE OF SELF-PROMOTION: Hubris covers much more than the leak case. It reveals behind-the-scene battles at the White House, the CIA, the State Department, and Capitol Hill that occurred in the year before the invasion of Iraq. It discloses secrets about the CIA's prewar plans for Iraq. It chronicles how Bush and Cheney reacted to the failure to find WMDs in Iraq. It details how Bush and other aides neglected serious planning for the post-invasion period. It recounts how the unproven theories of a little-known academic who was convinced Saddam Hussein was behind all acts of terrorism throughout the world influenced Bush administration officials. It reports what went wrong inside The New York Times regarding its prewar coverage of Iraq's WMDs. It shows precisely how the intelligence agencies screwed up and how the Bush administration misused the faulty and flimsy (and fraudulent) intelligence. The book, a narrative of insider intrigue, also relates episodes in which intelligence analysts and experts made the right calls about Iraq's WMDs but lost the turf battles.

And there's more, including:

* how and why the CIA blew the call on the Niger forgeries

* why US intelligence officials suspected Iranian intelligence was trying to influence US decisionmaking through the Iraqi National Congress

* why members of Congress on both sides of the aisle who doubted the case for war were afraid to challenge the prewar intelligence

* how Cheney and his aides sifted through raw intelligence desperately trying to find evidence to justify the Iraq invasion

* how Karl Rove barely managed to escape indictment with a shaky argument.

And there's more beyond that. In other words, this is not a book on the leak case. It includes the leak episode because the leak came about partly due to the White House need to keep its disingenuous sales campaign going after the invasion. Feel free to see for yourself. The book goes on sale September 8. Its Amazon.com page can be found here.

This was posted at my blog at www.davidcorn.com.

Armitage Was the Original Leaker in Plame Case

The first piece of news from HUBRIS: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal and the Selling of the Iraq War, my new book (co-written with Michael Isikoff of Newsweek), has hit. Richard Armitage was the original leaker in the Plame case. The details are in a Newsweek story based on the book. Click here. I'll have more to say about this here and elsewhere on Sunday morning.

Right is Left in Connecticut

Connecticut Rep. Chris Shays, a Republican, is to the left of Joe Lieberman on Iraq.

A longstanding hawk on the war, Shays announced yesterday that the US should set a timetable to withdraw the bulk of its troops. "The only way we are able to encourage some political will on the part of Iraqis is to have a timeline for withdrawal," Shays told reporters yesterday after his 14th trip to the region. As chairman of the House Government Reform subcommittee on national security, Shays will lay out the details of his plan in a series of hearings next month, titled "Iraq: Democracy or Civil War?"

Shays finds himself in a tough re-election battle with Democrat Diane Farrell, so electoral politics may have influenced his change of heart. But either way, his call for withdrawal puts Shays ahead of most of his party--and Lieberman as well, who clings to an increasingly unpopular stay-the-course position.

In recent days, Lieberman has ratcheted up his criticism of opponents of the war. Doesn't Joe know that 60 percent of Americans now fall into that category.

"If you take the position that Ned Lamont is, and a few other Democrats are, that we've got to announce that Congress, politicians have to tell the generals that it's time to get everybody out of there, then I think as bad as the place is, Iraq now, it's going to be infinitely worse, it will be an all-out civil war," Lieberman told Don Imus on Wednesday, virtually parroting RNC talking points.

Lieberman is not a Republican. He's not a Democrat. He's a neoconservative. Perhaps if he loses in November, the Weekly Standard will offer him a column.

Doing the Right Thing

One year after Katrina, another hurricane season is upon us, this time as a flurry of "anniversary" specials, documentaries, packaged articles, book anthologies and multimedia web features. As New Yorkers who've endured September 11 and now Oliver Stone's World Trade Center well know, mass media revisitations of trauma -- whether documentary or fictionalized -- can be curiously apolitical. All too often, the disaster memorial takes a living, hurting wound, washes it clean and stitches it up, only to consign it to the archive of film history. Thankfully, this is not the case with Spike Lee's essential When the Levees Broke -- a ragged, uneven, boiling documentary that aired this week on HBO (with rebroadcasts on August 29 and September 1).

Clocking in at four, uninterrupted hours, it is perhaps too unfocused and unwieldy to intervene politically in the way that Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth did. But unlike that reasonable film, Lee's work seethes with anger. Dissent is the one connective thread, tying together the 100+ talking heads who range from Mayor Ray Nagin to CNN anchor Soledad O'Brien to the unforgettable Phyllis Montana Leblanc, a resident of the 9th Ward who drops the documentary's most biting one-liners. Often considered an "opinionated" filmmaker, what shines forth in When the Levees Broke is in fact Spike Lee's ability to listen. His remarkable ear captures the humor, sadness, looniness, hostility, suspicion, resignation and optimism that underlie and differentiate the common outrage of New Orleans' residents.

In its most affecting moments, the film also lingers on their silences and stumbles, the moments of inarticulateness when the full scope of the disaster (which, as the film points out, outstrips September 11 in so many ways) exceeds any one person's ability to achieve sense. In one such instance, Garland Robinette, the radio host who conducted the oft-replayed interview in which Mayor Nagin angrily denounces the lack of federal aid, listens to a tape of the broadcast. Robinette begins to explain, "This is the thing that people have to understand, that America can no longer..." He never finishes the thought. "Sorry...it's been a long few months," is all he can muster through the sobs.

In another such moment, University of New Orleans student Paris Ervin recounts how, months after Katrina struck, police discovered his mother's corpse under her refrigerator, even though FEMA had concluded the house was free of victims. Distressed by FEMA's incompetence and the months of waiting for an official DNA test to establish her identity, he too breaks down before returning to conclude dryly, "According to the medical logs she did drown, in her own home."

Moments like these mitigate Lee's frenetic, sometimes obtrusive editing and transcend the genre of cable news from which much of the familiar footage is culled. At its best, When the Levees Broke recontextualizes and enlivens such stock material. The bloated, floating corpses that became emblems of government neglect are given names, histories, struggles to survive that ended tragically. "That guy's name was Eddie," says one witness. "He floated on beer cans for three days...I wanted to feed him but I couldn't swim," explains another of a neighbor whose body has yet to be found.

Lee himself does not attempt to arrive at a sensible, singular conclusion. This restraint is the film's strength, and if it also constitutes its weakness, then it is not in the way most mainstream critics have identified. Lee has been criticized for reducing "Katrina to a black problem," as Nicholas Kulish wrote in the New York Times. While Lee's eye -- and the medium of film in general -- accentuates racial difference, it is also surprisingly attentive to the economic and physical vulnerabilities that shaped the fate of Katrina's victims. Casually but insistently, the film emphasizes how the elderly, the sick, the disabled, the obese, the very young and mostly, overwhelmingly the poor bore the brunt of Katrina's fury. Dilapidated wheelchairs abound, but vital medication is absent. To suggest that When the Levees Broke is only a "race film" is to ignore this stunning visual evidence.

Kulish and others have condemned one sequence in particular in which Lee "presents the utterly unfounded charges that the failed levees were blown up to flood poor black neighborhoods." But this scene is in fact one of the film's best, not because it endorses such theories, but because it unpacks the long history of neglect and enmity (from Hurricane Betsy in 1965 to recent redevelopment schemes) that makes such racial paranoia, if not factually accurate, at least understandable. A less confident director might have instantly dismissed such conspiracy theories, and the result would have been a less probing, less complicated film.

Where Lee falters is not in his multi-faceted account of race and class, but in his examination of the politics and economics that set in play this unnatural disaster and continue to mangle New Orleans' reconstruction. The usual suspects are, of course, deliciously skewered: George Bush's sinister disinterest, Michael Brown's incompetence (he gets roasted by Soledad O'Brien who asks how her 23-year-old research assistant can have better intelligence than FEMA), Chertoff, Cheney, Condi and her Blahniks, Barbara Bush (the "President Momma" as Al Sharpton puts it), the insurance industry, the Army Corps of Engineers. But others, like Nagin who has consistently sided with business and property interests in the reconstruction, are largely absolved or made into heroes. With the exception of a brief query into Louisiana's oil and gas industry, the film seems to suggest that Hurricane Katrina happened because bad people made bad decisions, rather than because of the systematic gutting of urban infrastructure and the heartless pursuit of neoliberal economics.

As an unofficial companion to When the Levees Broke then, I heartily recommend reading, cover to cover, Unnatural Disaster, The Nation's collection of essays on Hurricane Katrina edited by Betsy Reed. Largely focused on the reconstruction, this fine volume begins to answer the question that Lee's film so forcefully asks: What will it take to do justice to New Orleans?

Plan B: A Semi-Sweet Victory

The Food and Drug Administration finally approved over-the-counter sales of the "morning-after pill." Sweet victory, right? Not exactly.

The approval is only for women ages 18 and older, and the drug will only be sold from behind pharmacy counters, according to the Center for Reproductive Rights.

New York State Senator, Liz Krueger, urging the passage of a bill that would make emergency contraception available to women of all ages, released a statement yesterday saying, "If the government were serious about reducing unintended pregnancies, they would follow the science and recognize that the medicine is equally as safe for those under the age of 18 as it is for those older. This sends the wrong message about the safety of this product. This is politics trumping science."

In fact, the President of the Center for Reproductive Rights, Nancy Northup, says that her organization filed a lawsuit against the FDA alleging "that the agency never intended to fairly consider the scientific evidence that Plan B is safe and effective for women of all ages and that high-level officials engaged in an intricate cover-up that culminated with today's decision."

According to Krueger, "The New England Journal of Medicine reported that as many as half of all unwanted pregnancies may be prevented with unfettered access to emergency contraception, which does not interrupt, disrupt or harm already existing pregnancies, but instead prevents pregnancy before it has been established."

So, while the FDA's recent decision represents some progress in standing up to the Bush Administration and right-wing extremists, the agency still needs to hear that its job is to take action based on sound science, not paternalistic notions of women's health.

Wal-Mart's Rainbow Connection

Citing Sam Walton's legacy, and vowing to shop elsewhere, a coalition of grass-roots organizations -- with a broad base of support -- is furious with Wal-Mart. That's, of course, nothing new, but this time the recriminations aren't coming from the progressive labor and community activists concerned about issues like living wages, community benefits agreements, health care and sex discrimination. The folks mad at Wal-Mart this week are the right-wing Christian groups like the American Family Association and the Family Research Council. Wal-Mart has for years been viewed as friendly to conservative Christians, banning racy men's magazines, and refusing to carry books that might offend fundie customers (like Jon Stewart's America: The Book, with its imaginative rendering of naked Supreme Court justices) or George Carlin's When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops?

But this week, Wal-Mart has disappointed the cultural hard right by announcing that its membership in the National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce. This mild nod to cosmopolitan capitalism inspired howls of pain, with the Family Research Council calling it "outrageous" and an "offensive move," "an affront to the millions of traditional families that patronize Wal-Mart."

It's fun to see these intolerant cretins suffer. But let's take a look at the context. Probably taking advice from its highly paid flacks from Edelman, an elite PR firm -- and from the Clinton Administration alums now working for Wal-Mart, who are, of course, triangulation experts extraordinaire -- the retailer has been working to distance itself from its right-wing customer base, probably reasoning that many fundies live in places where they have no choice but to shop at Wal-Mart, while folks in more liberal, densely-populated areas need to be courted, after all the bad things they've heard and read about this company's practices. That's, most likely, why Wal-Mart recently decided to carry Plan B, the morning after pill, after being, for years, the only national pharmacy chain refusing to do so. It's also why Wal-Mart has been going green. Steps like this represent a triumph for the progressive groups that have been seeking to reform Wal-Mart; they also show how politically savvy Wal-Mart is.

The labor-backed groups criticizing Wal-Mart need to tread carefully here, and play well with others, because the retailer is trying to win over every imaginable stripe of liberal and progressive, hoping to paint labor as an isolated "special interest" group. This strategy doesn't have to succeed; the labor critique of Wal-Mart has impressive traction right now and has been winning substantial victories. But to keep up the momentum, unions will have to treat their allies with respect and listen carefully. That's not something that has always come easily to them.