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John Edwards Should Do a Truman

In her "Editor's Cut" call for the establishment of an independent commission to investigate war profiteering by U.S. corporations -- operating on the ground in Iraq and on the homefront -- Katrina vanden Heuvel makes reference to the role U.S. Senator Harry Truman played in cracking down on war profiteering during World War II.

The Truman model is a good one for today's muckrakers.

The senator from Missouri was blunt. Truman did not fall for the line that words needed to be watched in wartime. Rather, he accused corporations that engaged in war profiteering of "treason."

He was also proactive. When Truman heard rumors of war profiteering, he got into his Dodge and, during a Congressional recess, drove 30,000 miles across the U.S., paying unannounced visits to corporate offices and worksites. The Senate committee he chaired launched aggressive investigations into shady wartime business practices and found "waste, inefficiency, mismanagement and profiteering," according to Truman, who argued that such behavior was unpatriotic. Urged on by Truman and others in Congress, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt supported broad increases in the corporate income tax, raised the excess-profits tax to 90 percent and charged the Office of War Mobilization with the task of eliminating illegal profits.

Truman, who became a national hero for his fight against the profiteers, was tapped to be FDR's running mate in 1944.

As has been duly noted, it is unlikely that Republican leaders in the Senate will allow a Truman-style committee to operate under the Capitol Dome. But that does not prevent an intrepid contemporary pol from following Truman's lead.

But who will go down the trail Truman blazed?

Why not John Edwards? He's a skilled trial lawyer who knows how to go after corporate misdeeds. As a former member of the Senate Judiciary Committee and a former presidential and vice presidential candidate, he's prominent enough to draw media attention to the hunt for profiteers. And Edwards has been on the right side of this issue for a long time.

When he was campaigning for the 2004 Democratic presidential nod, Edwards delivered a stump speech featuring a riff on war profiteering that was well received by voters in early caucus and primary states.

"We need to end the sweetheart deals for Halliburton and stop the war profiteering in Iraq," declared Edwards, who made pointed references to Vice President Dick Cheney's former firm but also to a list of other defense contractors that have contributed heavily to George w. Bush's campaigns and that have profited heavily from his war.

"The American people know there is something wrong going on with war profiteering and Halliburton and the contracts in Iraq," said Edwards, who promised to examine every contract handed out by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and his aides "with a magnifying glass" in a hunt to halt "the fleecing of the American people."

Edwards wanted to wield the magnifying glass as president -- and it is no secret that he is still interested in occupying the Oval Office.

What Edwards needs ought to recognize is that the best way to get there is to go down the road Truman took.

Edwards should hop in his Dodge, or, better yet, his hybrid, and take that 30,000 drive across the country. He should bang on the doors of Halliburton and the other profiteers. Sure, critics will call him ambitious. But they said the same thing about Harry Truman. Truman didn't care. He just kept banging away at the profiteers, and the American people kept cheering him on -- the way they always do when a prominent figure has the courage and the conviction to defend the national treasury against the ravages of corporate criminals who use the excuses of wartime to line their deep pockets.

Remind You of Something?

Few events are as tailor made for Comedy Central's The Daily Show as Dick Cheney's accidental shooting of 78-year-old Harry Whittington, a moment that had Jon Stewart exclaiming "Thank you Jesus!"

Stewart, via Crooks & Liars:

 

Don't let your kids go hunting with the Vice President. I don't care what kind of lucrative contracts they're trying to land or energy regulations they're trying to get lifted. He'll shoot them in the face.

 

Though there were more than a few bird jokes, the show's Vice Presidential Firearms Mishap Expert Rob Corddry invoked an eerily similar Administration defense:

 

Jon, tonight the Vice President is standing by his decision to shoot Harry Whittington. Now according to the best intelligence available, there were quail hidden in the brush. Everyone believed at the time there were quail in the brush. And while the quail turned out to be the 78 year old man, even knowing that today, Mr. Cheney insists-he still would have shot Mr. Whittington in the face.

 

Corddry continued:

 

He [Cheney] believes the world is a better place for spreading buckshot throughout the entire region of Mr. Whittington's face.

 

 

In a post 9/11 world, the American people expect their leaders to be decisive. To not have shot his friend in the face would have sent a message to the quail that America is weak.

 

 

Hackett Exited Ohio Race After Bad Poll

Paul Hackett, who has dropped out of the race for the Democratic U.S. Senate nomination with his usual theatrical flourishes, says he quit the contest because of the pressure he claims he felt from national Democratic bigwigs.

That may well have been a factor in Hackett's decision.

But it appears that an even bigger factor was a poll that showed Hackett trailing far behind his progressive primary opponent, U.S. Representative Sherrod Brown. With the filing deadline for the May Democratic primary rapidly approaching, Hackett was confronted with new numbers from his own pollster, which showed Brown was ahead among likely voters by an almost 2-1 margin -- 46 percent for the congressman to 24 percent for Hackett.

Despite the fact that Hackett had been campaigning for the Senate seat since last fall -- while Brown had been tied up in Washington leading the fight against the Central American Free Trade Agreement and other administration initiatives -- the poll, details of which were obtained by the Cleveland Plain Dealer, revealed that Hackett had made few inroads among Democrats outside his southern Ohio base.

This is not to say that Hackett was a bad candidate.

An Iraq War veteran gained national attention with his blunt criticism of President Bush during the campaign for an Ohio U.S. House seat that he almost won in a special election last summer, Hackett would have been serious contender in a Senate race against just about anyone else. But Hackett had a hard time convincing most Ohio Democrats -- particularly more liberal voters in the northern Ohio counties where the party is strongest -- that he would be a bolder or better candidate than Brown, an early and consistently outspoken critic of the Bush administration's rush to war in Iraq who is one of the House's leading foes of corporate excess.

Media's Aim Misses Real Cheney Misdeeds

The White House press corps, taking a break from its usual stenography duties, actually roused itself to ask truth-impaired spokesman Scott McClellan some tough questions about Dick Cheney. Unfortunately, while it was good to see a few reporters rise from their bended knees, they were asking the wrong questions about the wrong issue.

What got the press corps all hot and bothered was the fact that Cheney and his aides kept details about the vice president shooting a man secret for the better part of 24 hours, and then slipped the story to a local paper in the city nearest the Texas dude ranch where the incident took place.

Most of Monday's 41-minute-long White House press briefing was taken up with questions about the gun-slinger-in-chief's penchant for secrecy and the bloody details of the shot Cheney's hunting buddy took to the face. But what was especially clear was that the members of the press corps do not like to get scooped on the story of a vice presidential shooting sprees by the Corpus Christi Caller-Times.

McClellan was peppered with pointed questions and sharp asides from the likes of NBC reporter David Gregory, who grumbled about the fact that: "the vice president of the United States shoots a man, and he feels that it's appropriate for a ranch owner who witnessed this to the local Corpus Christi newspaper, not the White House press corps at large or notify the public in a national way."

When Gregory accused McClellan of "ducking and weaving," rather than responding frankly to the questions he is paid by the taxpayers of the United States to answer, the press secretary suggested the NBC reporter was grandstanding.

An angry Gregory retorted, "Don't accuse me of trying to pose to the cameras. Don't be a jerk to me personally when I'm asking you a serious question.''

McClellan told Gregory not to yell. The reporter then pointed to the press secretary's lectern and shouted, "If you want to use that podium to try to take shots at me personally, which I don't appreciate, then I will raise my voice, because that's wrong.''

The pair sputtered back and forth until, finally, McClellan said, "I'm sorry you're getting all riled up about," to which Gregory replied: "I am riled up, because you're not answering the question."

More power to Gregory, and to several other members of the usually somnambulant White House press corps, for trying to get McClellan to answer a few questions about the misdeeds of the most powerful vice president in American history.

The only frustrating thing is that Gregory and his compatriots were all excited about the secretive handling of details regarding a hunting accident that – while troubling – can hardly be described as the most serious matter of concern with regard to Cheney.

To be sure, a trigger-happy vice president makes for good feature stories – not to mention good comedy. But where were the demands for answers, where was the cries for accountability, where were the shows of righteous indignation last week, when it was revealed by the National Journal that Cheney's former chief of staff, I. Lewis (Scooter) Libby, had told a federal grand jury he was "authorized" by Cheney and other White House "superiors" to disclose classified information to journalists as part of a plot to defend the Bush administration's manipulation of prewar intelligence to make the "case" for going to war with Iraq.

In the scheme of things, the many unanswered questions about whether the vice president of the United States engaged in a conspiracy to deceive Congress and the American people about reasons for entering a war that has now killed more than 2,200 Americans and tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians would seem to be a bigger deal than the same vice president's involvement in a hunting accident.

True, it would be foolish to assume that Scott McClellan would be any more forthcoming about the administration's manipulation of pre-war intelligence -- and evidence of Cheney's involvement in efforts to attack those who exposed that manipulation – than he has been about the manipulation of information regarding the vice president's gunplay.

But if the press corps is going to rise from its slumber when it comes to Dick Cheney's secrecy and chicanery, would it make sense to get excited about the Constitutional crisis – as opposed to the veep's itchy trigger finger?

John Nichols' book, The Rise and Rise of Richard B. Cheney: Unlocking the Mysteries of the Most Powerful Vice President in American History (The New Press) is available nationwide at independent bookstores and at www.amazon.com. Publisher's Weekly describes it as "a Fahrenheit 9/11 for Cheney" and Esquire magazine says it "reveals the inner Cheney. The Rise and Rise of Richard B. Cheney includes an interview with Joseph Wilson and details the inner workings of the vice president's office at the time of the Plame-Wilson leak.

Staggering Recklessness

In a larger sense, I think Dick Cheney's hunting accident is emblematic of the staggering, reckless incompetence that has been the hallmark of this administration. It is also emblematic of how Bush & Co. have worked to manipulate and suppress news--usually in the belief that they can pretty much get their way--and always to the detriment of public record and interest.

As the Frank James of the Chicago Tribune points out, "When a vice president of the US shoots a man under any circumstance, this is extremely relevant information. What is the excuse to justify not immediately making the incident public? Why did the VP's office not immediately report this--but, instead, wait 24 hours?" And now we learn that in this security-obsessed administration, the president did not know the shooter was Cheney until Sunday morning? Then there is the striking disdain for accountability which Cheney (Dick, Cheney, n: lesser of two evils) has come to embody. As Sunday's New York Times editorial stated, "There is a gaping trust gap when it comes to this administration."

Doug Ireland noted today, "The entire Cheney hunting incident story stinks." (Check out his blog for the explanation.)

Why was there a 24 hour delay in reporting the news? Was Cheney drinking, or under the influence of (we-trust-prescribed) drugs, which marred his judgment?

How could it be that in a security-obsessed country, the President didn't even know--until Sunday morning--that his VP had shot a man on Saturday afternoon?

And doesn't Texas law--as in many states--require that hospitals report gunshot victims to police--immediately?

Why We Need an Independent War Profiteering Commission

On Sunday night, 60 Minutes aired an important story exposing Iraqi war profiteering that has stolen billions, crippled reconstruction and put the lives of troops at fatal risk.

As Steve Kroft reported, "The United States has spent over one-quarter trillion dollars in three years in Iraq, and more than 50 billion of it has gone to private contractors, hired to guard bases, drive trucks and shelter the troops and rebuild the country." This money, more than the annual budget of the Department of Homeland Security, "has been handed out to companies in Iraq with little or no oversight. Millions of dollars are unaccounted for. And there are widespread allegations of waste, fraud and war profiteering." The segment focused on a company called Custer Battles, which is the subject of a civil lawsuit that goes to trial today.

The $2 million given to Custer Battles was only the first installment--of $100 million--on a contract to provide security at Baghdad International Airport. What's significant is that the company was started by two guys with absolutely no security experience. What one of them had was (a claim of) ties to the Republican Party and connections at the White House. In a memo obtained by 60 Minutes, the Baghdad airport's director of security wrote to the Coalition Authority, "Custer Battles have shown themselves to be unresponsive, uncooperative, incompetent, deceitful, manipulative and war profiteers. Other than that, they're swell fellows."

The company continued to work in Iraq even after one of Custer Battles's main subcontractors went to federal authorities with allegations of criminal misconduct--bilking the government out of $50 million. (The subcontractor and another whistleblower are suing the company on behalf of US taxpayers to recover some of the money.)

What's happened since? Well, as Kroft reports, "To date, the only action that's been taken against [the company] has been a one-year suspension from receiving government contracts. It has since expired."

"I think what's happening over there is an orgy of greed here with contractors," says North Dakota Senator Byron Dorgan, whose committee has held hearings on the giants of war profiteering--Halliburton and its subsidiary, Kellogg, Brown and Root, which has collected half of all the money awarded to contractors in Iraq and, according to the Defense Department's own auditors, has overbilled taxpayers by more than $1 billion.

If there's any chance of oversight, it won't come from Republicans who refuse to hold hearings into the reconstruction racket. Expect to hear more in coming days from Stuart Bowen, the special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, whose staff--in two lengthy reports--has already laid out suspected fraud and incompetence. According to 60 Minutes, it is of "staggering proportions, like the $8.8 billion that the Coalition seems to have lost track of."

War profiteering ties the corruption and cronyism that people have seen in Congress and Katrina to the failure and agonies that they witness in Iraq. It highlights how unaccountable this Republican Congress is. And it shows clearly, despite Karl Rove's core contention--"we'll protect you"--that, in fact, this Administration has undermined the security of this country in the muck of its lethal cynicism, corruption and cronyism.

What 60 Minutes's important exposé also reveals is the need for an independent war profiteering commission, which would investigate the multibillion-dollar, unaccounted-for expenditures in the Iraq War and publish a report for public distribution that includes tough recommendations for legislative action and, if found, criminal action. It would be modeled on the Truman Commission, which then-Senator Harry Truman chaired during World War II to expose and eliminate waste, mismanagement and corruption, and would consist of a group of dedicated, visible current and former public servants--Democrats, Republicans, Independents--committed to examining the financial and military transactions related to the Iraqi war effort.

The Commission's public hearings--although lacking subpoena power to compel the production of relevant documents--could draw significant coverage. It should be a platform for citizen whistleblowers, military families and veterans of the Iraq wars. (By holding public hearings in towns and cities that have suffered disproportionate military casualties, the link between corruption and human lives would be drawn sharply and painfully.) In addition to live public hearings, the Commission could use the Internet as a way of collecting and disseminating its information and findings.

Given the revulsion that decent people--of all political hues--feel about war profiteering, this is a project that could have a real impact in these coming weeks and months. I will be working to explore interest in establishing this war-profiteering commission. I welcome your comments and ideas below.

A Fitting Heir to Bush

George Allen, the not-so-bright, tobacco-dipping, football-quoting Senator from Virginia, is quickly emerging as the right wing's potential answer to John McCain come 2008. Allen solidified his standing as an inside the Beltway rising star by winning the Conservative Political Action Conference's '08 straw poll on Saturday, besting McCain 22 to 20 percent. He also won the title of "America's Best Senator" from Muslims for Bush.

Since we're likely to be hearing Allen's name more and more in the coming months, let's take a look back at what he thinks of the pressing issues of the day, starting with the selection of Ben Bernanke as Chairman of the Federal Reserve. From the New York Times, January 31, 2006:

Here is what Senator George Allen of Virginia, who is considering a bid for the Republican presidential nomination in 2008, said when asked his opinion of the Bernanke nomination.

''For what?''

Told that Mr. Bernanke was up for the Fed chairman's job, Mr. Allen hedged a little, said he had not been focused on it, and wondered aloud when the hearings would be. Told that the Senate Banking Committee hearings had concluded in November, the senator responded: ''You mean I missed them all? I paid no attention to them.''

The heir to Bush, only dumber.

Cheney Gets His Gun

Sure, it's been fun joking about the fact that Dick Cheney obtained five -- count them, five -- deferments to avoid serving in the military during the Vietnam War. Sure, its been amusing to recount his limp claim that the man who served as George Bush I's Secretary of Defense had "other priorities" than taking up arms in defense of his country. Sure, it was a laugh when the chief cheerleader for the war in Iraq mocked John Kerry for having actually carried a weapon in a time of war.

But it is time to stop laughing at Dick Cheney's expense.

Now that the vice president has accidentally shot and wounded a companion on a quail hunt at the elite Texas ranch where rich men play with guns -- spraying his 78-year-old victim, er, friend, in the face and chest with shotgun pellets and sending the man to the intensive care unit of a Corpus Christi hospital -- it has become clear that Cheney was doing the country a service when he avoided service.

Despite the best efforts of Cheney's apologists to have it otherwise, the man the vice president misstook for a quail, millionaire attorney Harry Whittington, was in plain sight, wearing a bright orange vest at the time the vice president blasted him.

U.S. troops had enough problems in Vietnam without letting a trigger-happy incompetent like Dick Cheney start shooting things up from behind the lines.

Those deferments were well and wisely issued.

 

Air Force Flies Right

It seemed like the Air Force knew it had a problem with religious intolerance.

A "Team Jesus Christ" banner was hung by the head football coach in the team locker room. Cadets of various faiths reported conversion attempts and harassment by superiors as well as evangelical prayer at official academy events. And a Lutheran minister confirmed a systemic evangelical bias by administrators, faculty, and upperclassmen.

So a draft of new guidelines on religious expression discouraged sectarian prayer at public gatherings, and warned superiors against proselytizing to subordinates. But Focus on the Family and other evangelical groups would have none of it.

According to the Washington Post, "They launched a nationwide petition drive, sounded alarms on Christian radio stations, and deluged the White House and Air Force Secretary Michael W. Wynne's office with e-mails calling the guidelines an infringement of the Constitution's guarantees of free speech and free exercise of religion."

The result? The Pentagon released a new draft of guidelines emphasizing the freedom of superiors to exercise their faith when it is "reasonably clear discussions are personal, not official."

Americans United for Separation of Church and State put it well: The revisions "focus on protecting the rights of chaplains, while ignoring the rights of nonbelievers and minority faiths."

The bottom line: the military caved to evangelical pressure and reaffirmed, rather than reformed, the continual eroding of the separation of church and state. One more victory for the right wing, one more slap at the Constitution.