The Senate Ethics Committee has denied US Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wi., permission to join a lawsuit that asks the federal courts to clarify whether it was appropriate for President Bush to unilaterally end participation by the United States in the thirty-year-old Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.
But that does not mean that Feingold is giving up on the suit brought by 31 member of the House of Representatives, or the cause of pushing the Senate to assert its Constitutionally-defined authority role in deciding whether the US enters and exits international treaties.
"I wanted to be a part of the lawsuit because I think this is a fundamental issue for anyone who cares about the separation of powers. The fact that I am not going to be allowed to be a plaintiff does not make the lawsuit, or the issue, any less important," says Feingold, a lawyer who says he is considering filing an amicus brief in support of the legal action. "I am going to continue to do everything I can to help the members of Congress that are bringing the suit."
The Senate requires that members receive a Ethics Committee waiver from rules regulating gifts before accepting free legal assistance. Senators who are forced to defend themselves against lawsuits are routinely granted waivers. But committee staffers said the rules were read narrowly in regard to Feingold's request because he sought to become a plaintiff in a legal action.
Noting that the suit he sought to join raises an important Constitutional question, Feingold told The Nation, "I really was surprised that the waiver was denied in this case. It seems to me that this was a reasonable request for a waiver, which they should have granted."
The decision to prevent Feingold from joining the suit means that no senator is officially a party to the legal action. Since it is the Senate that approves treaties -- and that Thomas Jefferson and other founders of the nation said should decide when to exit treaties -- some legal observers say the suit's prospects will suffer because there is not a senator among the plaintiffs.
But Feingold says the suit remains vital and necessary.
"This is all very frustrating because none of this should be happening," the senator said of the conflict over the president's withdrawal from the ABM Treaty. "The White House shouldn't be undoing treaties without the permission of Congress. This is shifting a fundamental aspect of our system. If presidents are allowed to withdraw from treaties whenever they want, then we really are changing the relationship between the legislative and the executive branches. That makes this a very sad moment for the Constitution and the country. If this change is allowed to be made, without objection from Congress or the courts, then we will have a very hard time getting back to the proper separation of powers."
Feingold, who heads the Senate Judiciary Committee's subcommittee on the Constitution, has frequently expressed concern about the failure of Senate leaders to defend the role of Congress as it relates to oversight of the White House. In addition to making an unsuccessful attempt in early June to open a Senate debate over Bush's decision to withdraw from the ABM Treaty on June 13, the Wisconsin senator has in recent weeks been saying that the administration should seek Congressional approval before declaring war on Iraq.
Feingold says his concern about Bush's withdrawal from the ABM Treaty extends beyond the Constitutional question.
"I'm very concerned about where this administration is moving in terms of arms control. For thirty years, the ABM Treaty has been the foundation for our strategic relations with the Soviet Union and Russia, and for much of the progress we've made on arms control," says Feingold, who is also a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. In a written statement detailing those concerns, Feingold argues, "At a time when our global strategic relationships are of paramount importance, withdrawing from the ABM Treaty risks undermining the strength and staying power of the global coalition against terrorism. Instead of withdrawing from the ABM Treaty, we should be taking further steps to combat the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and to thwart the attempts of terrorists to acquire nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons and the means to deliver them."
Similar sentiments motivate US Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, who has spearheaded the lawsuit challenging the legality of the administration's decision to withdraw from the ABM Treaty. Kucinich plans to continue to work closely with Feingold on the issue.
Even without a senator's name on the plaintiff list, Kucinich says, the suit remains appropriate and necessary. Noting that the House played a critical role in debates over presidential attempts to scrap treaties in the 19th century, Kucinich says there is plenty of precedent for objections from both chambers of the Congress.
"Look at the Declaration of Independence itself. In that document, the Continental Congress challenged King George for suspending legislatures and simply declaring that his word was law. This country was founded by people who objected to a ruler named George who thought he had the authority to roll over the legislative branch," says Kucinich, the chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. "We have to reassert that founding spirit. The Constitution charges Congress with establishing laws, just as it empowers the president to carry out laws. Congress approved the ABM Treaty overwhelmingly, and it was George Bush's responsibility to carry out that law. Instead, what Bush has done is unilaterally throw out a law -- in this case the ABM Treaty."
To hear Texas populist Jim Hightower and U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. tell it, one of them should be running for president in 2004. Trouble is that each one says the other guy would be the best candidate.
Hightower and Jackson have been star speakers on the Rolling Thunder Down Home Democracy Tour, which rolled into Chicago last weekend. The Chicago event -- the second on a national tour that began in Hightower's hometown of Austin -- drew 5,000 people for workshops of food, agriculture and democracy issues, speeches by the likes of Studs Terkel and Patch Adams, and music from artists such as Grammy Award winning singer Erykah Badu.
At this county fair of the left, where progressives played TrueMajority carnival games ("Knock-a-Nuke/Build-a-School") and downed Organic Valley toasted cheese sandwiches and Ben & Jerry's ice cream, talk of a two-years-off presidential race ranked surprisingly high on the agenda. For the most part, supporters of the 2000 campaigns of Democrat Al Gore and Green Ralph Nader put old arguments behind them and focused on the task of beating Republican George Bush in 2004. While Gore and the predictable crowd of Democratic insiders are already hustling for the next nomination, however, there was no consensus about the identity of the best standard bearer for progressives? There was talk about U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, the chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus who has won high marks for his challenges to the Bush administration on military issues.
On the main stage, however, Jackson and Hightower amused the crowd by trading pitches for another pair of candidates.
After Hightower introduced Jackson, the Illinois congressman asked the crowd: "Wouldn't you like to see Jim Hightower on a presidential ticket?"
That remark drew loud cheers from a crowd in which "Jim Hightower -- Progressive for President" bumper stickers were circulating. The stickers are being distributed by a group that has set up a website (www.drafthightower.com), and that argues only Hightower -- a former Texas agriculture commissioner with a long history of battling the Bush family in the Lone Star state -- understands how to undo the popular president with a populist appeal. Their slogan: "Fight Texans With Texans!"
But Hightower turned the tables on Jackson. "Speaking of presidential tickets..." he told the crowd after the Chicago representative finished speaking. "I'd like to see Congressman Jackson on a presidential ticket. Who's for that?"
The hometown crowd cheered just as loud for Jackson, whose rousing speech updated the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr's "I Have a Dream" address with proposals for Constitution amendments guaranteeing equal rights for women, access to health care and education, and -- in the light of the contested 2000 presidential election result -- the right to vote and have that vote counted.
For the record, both Hightower and Jackson say they are not running. But if the Rolling Thunder event in Chicago had been a nominating convention, the Hightower-Jackson ticket might well have won by acclamation. Or would that be the Jackson-Hightower ticket?
Why are villagers in the Aceh province of Indonesia--or their lawyers--worrying about contributions from Exxon Mobil to George W. Bush and the Republicans?
A year ago, the Washington-based International Labor Rights Fund filed a lawsuit against the energy behemoth, claiming the Mobil half of the conglomerate in the 1990s paid and supported Indonesian military troops that committed human rights abuses in the war-torn province. Representing eleven unnamed residents of Aceh who say they or their husbands were brutalized by troops underwritten by Exxon Mobil, the ILRF maintained that under the Alien Tort Claims Act and Torture Victims Protection Act, the oil company and its Indonesian subsidiary could be held liable for the murder, torture, sexual crimes, and kidnapping conducted by these soldiers. As part of a joint venture with Pertamina, Indonesia's state-owned oil and gas company, Exxon Mobil--which owns 35 percent of this enterprise--operates a major natural gas facility in this province in northern Sumatra, where Acehnese separatists have been fighting Indonesian troops for decades. In the 1990s, Indonesian troops in the area committed extensive abuses, according to human rights organizations. Over 1000 people were killed, tortured or disappeared, reports Human Rights Watch, which noted, "Thousands of Acehnese were detained without charge, often for years at a time, in military camps; many never returned."
The ILRF suit says that, per an agreement with General Suharto, the former strongman-leader of Indonesia, Mobil paid the Indonesian military for providing security for its facilities there. These troops, the ILRF contends, picked up one of the plaintiffs, held him at a structure at a Mobil plant, and for three months tortured him. Before they released him, the soldiers showed him a large pile of human heads. Another plaintiff claims he, too, was tortured by Indonesian soldiers at a building inside the company's compound. The other plaintiffs offer similar accounts of abuse.
Exxon Mobil argues it has not "in any way directly caused, intended, conspired to commit, or participated in any of the" acts of brutality alleged and that there is "no basis" under US law for this lawsuit. When the suit was initiated, the president of Pertamina denied the joint venture had financed troops in Indonesia. He did concede it provided health, housing and transportation facilities for the military. But in 2000, Kontras, an Indonesian human rights group, said it had conducted an investigation that determined at least 17 military and police stations in Aceh with a personnel total of 1000 were subsidized by Exxon Mobil. Last August, the Asian edition of Time published an article noting that Exxon Mobil does pay the soldiers that protect its sites and that townspeople "literally lineup to tell stories of abuse and murders committed by the troops they call Exxon's Army." (In 1998, several Indonesian human rights groups accused Mobil of being "responsible for human rights abuses" committed by the military and maintained it provided logistical support to the army, including earth-moving equipment used to dig mass graves. That year, Business Week reported that the tales told by Acehnese who survived military abuse "raise questions about what Mobil knew and when.")
The lawsuit against Exxon Mobil had been moving along slowly (as is normal) in a Washington federal court but took a turn that could threaten its continuation. At a hearing in April, federal district judge Louis Oberdorfer asked the oil company's attorneys whether the State Department had expressed an interest in the matter. Martin Weinstein, an Exxon Mobil lawyer, said that "this is a very difficult time in Indonesian-American relations" because al Qaeda fighters are residing in that large Muslim nation. He argued that if the judge allowed the lawsuit to proceed, Oberdorfer "would be forced to judge the conduct of the Indonesian government, an ally with whom America's relationship has never been more important, in order to determine whether the allegations in this complaint are those of murder or legitimate warfare against fundamentalist insurgents trying to break a country apart by bombings and other terrorist activities." That is, Exxon Mobil was saying the judge might end up interfering with the war on terrorism. Weinstein suggested Oberdorfer contact the State Department and ask for its advice on how to handle the case.
Lawyers for the victims opposed this. "If at any point the State Department believed the litigation harmed the foreign policy interests of the United States," they argued, "it would have made its views known to the Court." Earlier this year, the State Department, in another case, informed a federal court that its pursuit of a lawsuit involving human rights abuses in Papua New Guinea would harm US relations with that country, and the court dismissed the case.
The ILRF's legal team also worried about Exxon Mobil's influence in the Bush administration. It filed a motion with exhibits noting that Exxon Mobil was the second largest campaign contributor, after Enron, in the current election cycle (giving almost entirely to Republicans); that James Rouse of the company's Washington office donated $100,000 to the George W. Bush inauguration; and that the company pressured the White House to oust the head of an international climate panel (and the White House did decide to oppose that fellow). "This is a bad precedent," says Terry Collingsworth, executive director of the ILRF. "If a human rights case has to go to the State Department, that will give defense lawyers another tool to slow it down or dismiss it."
Still, Oberdorfer took Exxon Mobil's suggestion and wrote to the department: "Out of an abundance of caution, in the tense times in which we are living, I inquire whether the Department of State has an opinion (non-binding) as to whether adjudication of this case at this time would impact adversely on interests of the United States." He asked for the department to answer by July 1.
As of yet, there's no sign from the administration how the State Department might reply. Career officials at the department, the plaintiffs' lawyers speculate, are not likely to be sympathetic to the oil company. In 2000, the State Department collaborated with human rights outfits and major energy and mining companies to develop a code of conduct for businesses working in developing nations where governments might engage in human rights abuses. The prominent hold-out was Exxon Mobil, which refused to sign the code--a fact not forgotten by the department's career lawyers. But the decision will probably be rendered at a higher--more political--level. Several human rights organizations and the United Steelworkers of America have requested that State Department not intervene in the case.
So before a federal court can determine whether Exxon Mobil indeed supported troops that engaged in horrific abuses and bears responsibility for that, another important matter must be decided: can a transnational company accused of corporate-sponsored terrorism hide behind the war on terrorism?
Outgoing US Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, was furious when the Senate failed this week to enact his pet project: permanent repeal of the federal estate tax.
"This will be a campaign issue," grumbled Gramm, who decided not to seek reelection as it became clear that his ties to Enron and other crumbling energy concerns were no longer a political asset.
Despite his lame-duck status, Gramm still likes to offer political advice, especially when it comes to lowering taxes for wealthy campaign contributors. And he is not alone. White House political strategist Karl Rove -- who is paid with taxpayer dollars to run George W. Bush's continuous campaign -- told business owners after the vote: "Don't look at it as a defeat. This is a war, and we need to make an ongoing commitment to winning the effort to repeal the death tax."
Progressives can only hope that conservative candidates will, on the advice of Texans Gramm and Rove, try to make an issue of the Senate's failure to shift even more of the federal tax burden onto the shoulders of working Americans. Cutting the estate tax is neither smart policy, nor smart politics. (A Greenberg/Quinlan/Rosner survey found in May that of all possible tax "reforms," repeal of inheritance taxes is the one least favored by voters -- the most popular, a tax cut targeted to low- and moderate-income Americans, was favored by a 6-1 margin over estate tax repeal. If Congress must tinker with the estate tax, the survey found that, by a 58-37 margin, voters favor reform over repeal.)
That may explain why three Democrats who are up for reelection this year shifted from support last year for Bush's tax cut plan -- which included a temporary repeal of the estate tax -- to opposition this week to permanent repeal of the tax.
Yet, it was not just political realism that caused the Senate to stop a high-profile bid by the Bush White House and Republican leaders in the House and Senate to dramatically cut taxes for the richest 2 percent of Americans. Nor did the vote go the way it did because the majority of Senate Democrats got a sudden jolt of courage in the face of pressure from business groups -- and wealthy families, including the heirs to the Mars candy and Gallo wine fortunes -- that have lobbied hard for a decade to eliminate what conservatives dub "the death tax."
The bid to permanently repeal the estate tax was undone over many months by activists who effectively delivered the message that permanent repeal would cost an already strained US treasury billions of dollars, causing a revenue gap that would have to be addressed either by cutting necessary programs or raising taxes on low- and middle-income Americans. (Permanent repeal would have cost $55 billion in tax revenues in 2011 -- the first year of a long-term repeal -- and $800 billion over the years 2012 to 2021.)
Dozens of progressive labor, religious and social-justice groups joined an anti-repeal coalition, Americans for a Fair Estate Tax, that hit on all fronts. It is fair to say that many of the most effective blows were struck by a member of that coalition that most Americans have never heard of: the group Responsible Wealth.
A project of Boston-based United For a Fair Economy -- the people who brought America the satirical Billionaires for Bush (and Gore) campaign of 2000 -- Responsible Wealth came up with the usual rational arguments against eliminating the estate tax: "Nearly half of all estate taxes are paid by the wealthiest 0.1% of the American population -- a few thousand families each year. Repealing the estate tax would result in multi-million dollar tax cuts to this tiny sliver of Americans. The estate tax is our most progressive tax and an important source of revenue, as well as an incentive to recycle wealth through the non-profit sector."
But they delivered the message in a language that Congress could understand: That of the very rich people that most members of the House and Senate strive so zealously to serve.
William H. Gates, Sr., Steven C. Rockefeller, David Rockefeller, Jr., George Soros, Paul Newman, Ted Turner, Norman Lear, Ben Cohen and more than 900 VIRPs -- Very Identifiable Rich Persons -- signed a letter to Congress that began: "We believe that permanent repeal of the estate tax would be bad for our democracy, our economy, and our society. Repealing the estate tax, a constructive part of our tax structure for 85 years, would leave an unfortunate legacy for America's future generations.
"Only the richest 2 percent of our nation's families currently pay any estate tax at all. Repealing the estate tax would enrich the heirs of America's millionaires and billionaires while hurting families who struggle to make ends meet.
The billions of dollars in state and federal revenues lost will inevitably be made up either by increasing taxes on those less able to pay or by cutting Social Security, Medicare, environmental protection, and many other government programs so important to our nation's continued well-being..."
The Responsible Wealth letter, which was released in May and widely circulated on Capitol Hill, did a lot to undermine the argument of Republicans like Gramm, who claimed that repeal of the estate tax was necessary for economic growth. That was critical because, with the Republican-controlled House solidly on board, it was hard work to prevent Senate Democrats in the Senate from embracing the Bush tax agenda. (Last year, 12 Democrats sided with Republicans to back a Bush tax cut plan and its temporary repeal of the estate tax.)
Responsible Wealth provided details on how permanent elimination of the tax would only serve the very richest Americans -- not the family farmers and small-business owners often portrayed as the likely beneficiaries of this radical shift in tax policy. And Responsible Wealth bluntly reminded the constituents of members of wavering Congress what the elimination of the tax would mean: "If the estate tax is eliminated, someone else will pay. YOU," read full-page newspaper advertisement placed by Responsible Wealth.
Did the aggressive campaigning by Responsible Wealth have an impact? Like the man bites dog story, the "news" that not all rich people favored cutting estate taxes played big. Media outlets from The New York Times to the Washington Post to Newsweek and Business Week covered the story of the billionaires revolt against tax cuts. Citing the Responsible Wealth letter, Business Week even editorialized against repeal, declaring that: "The founding fathers were right to worry about an aristocracy of wealth."
Members of Congress took notice. When Gates, the father of Microsoft chairman Bill Gates and head the Gates family's foundation, testified before the Senate Finance Committee in March, Republican Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Arizona, attacked the Responsible Wealth position. But a number of key senators embraced it as part of their own advocacy against the Bush administration's tax agenda. U.S. Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-North Dakota, a sharp-tongued populist who led the fight against repeal of the estate tax, delighted in noting that even the Rockefellers said the shift would be bad for America.
And six Democratic senators who last year backed the Bush tax plan voted this week against Bush's plan to permanently repeal the estate tax. Among the switchers were Louisiana's John Breaux, California's Dianne Feinstein, Wisconsin's Herb Kohl, New Jersey's Robert Torricelli, South Dakota's Tim Johnson and Missouri's Jean Carnahan. (Torricelli, Johnson and Carnahan are all up for reelection this year, and all have been pegged as vulnerable by political pundits.)
Those six anti-repeal votes mattered. The estate tax repeal needed the votes of 60 senators to be approved. It fell six votes short.
That's a close margin. "We know the forces committed to repeal aren't going to take our victory lying down," says Responsible Wealth organizer Chuck Collins. "That's why we are ready to advance our (own) reform agenda. In the coming months, we will work to advance proactive reform proposal and win co-sponsors in the House and Senate. We will wage a multi-year effort to win reform - with research, media, grassroots advocacy and popular education. This includes efforts to educate the public and key constituencies about the negative aspects of complete estate tax repeal."
In addition to making "the moral case for preserving the estate tax," Collins says, "Working with our coalition partners, we plan to change the terms of the debate on this issue."
This week's Senate victory over the Bush tax agenda offers powerful evidence that they have already begun to do just that.
After September 11, the President of the United States told budget director Mitch Daniels there would be three conditions under which a deficit would be acceptable: recession, national emergency and war: "Lucky me, I hit the trifecta." First the trifecta, now, with the announcement of his new cabinet-level homeland security department, George W. Bush has pulled a hat trick. In one stroke, Bush overwhelmed the mounting questions about his administration's pre-9/11 performance regarding terrorism, placed himself in the forefront of change, and undid the Democrats' 2002 election strategy. Not bad for a President who, of late, was somewhat foundering on the Middle East and 9/11 questions.
The creation of this new federal department--which will result from combining 100 or so agencies--is, in theory, not a bad idea. But all depends on the specifics. The Bush proposal offers members of Congress, policy wonks and pundits much to chew on (and perhaps chew up). The obvious questions were quickly aired in the initial round of analysis. Can agencies of disparate cultures be quickly merged into an entity that functions smoothly? What about the non-homeland security responsibilities of agencies being lassoed into this one big bureaucracy? FEMA is a good example. It spends most of its resources handling crises like hurricanes and floods--not terrorist attacks. But under the Bush plan, it will be managed by people whose mission is to prevent and (if they fail) react to terrorist strikes. Understandably, these officials will likely not care much about FEMA's non-terrorism duties, and FEMA officials can be expected to cater to the desires of their superiors. So will the non-terrorism operations of FEMA deteriorate? If the problem-ridden Immigration and Naturalization Service is folded into the new department, will it turn into an agency with a terrible bias in favor of keeping non-citizens out of the United States? After all, if security becomes the overriding concern of the INS, it can be expected to err drastically in this direction.
Another subject that requires deep-thinking is the intelligence functions of the new agency. Apparently, the homeland security department will conduct its own terrorism-related analysis. But how will it coordinate with the CIA, the FBI, and the dozen other intelligence agencies? Will it be yet one more bureaucratic competitor in a community of agencies renowned for their inability to operate jointly, or will it be a manager that actually is able to force the other intelligence services to work effectively with one another? If the latter, what will be the source of its power to force cooperation? Also, why start up another intelligence analysis unit, especially in an agency that supposedly will not be collecting intelligence of its own? The department's analysis will have to be based on information gathered by other services. That assumes the other services will know what to send to these analysts and be willing to do so. And the issue is not merely sharing. Generally, the further analysts are from the collectors, the harder it is for them to produce good analysis. Will the analysts at the new department end up merely coordinating the various analyses kicked out by the other agencies? That could have some value. But it would not be a change that addresses the serious analysis problems that have been exposed at both the FBI and the CIA by 9/11.
Bush's homeland security will--and should--keep Congress busy for months. It was certainly not sporting of him to dismiss the idea of a new federal agency for months, then push to the front of the parade once he saw proposals of this nature (including legislation being championed by Senator Joseph Lieberman) gaining bipartisan force, and set a tight deadline for Congress, demanding the new department be ready for business on January 1, 2003. But that was his M.O. in Texas. If someone else had a good idea, Bush might start out opposing it, but if the plan started to fly, he would embrace it and eagerly take credit. Such tactics are hard for the opposition to whine about. (It never worked for GOPers who bitched about Bill Clinton swiping their ideas.) And Democrats on the Hill are not in a position to gripe that Bush's proposal hinders their schedule and undermines their political strategy.
It may still be June, but Congress does not have many working days left this year. Elections are coming, and House members and a third of the Senate (that is, those legislators facing the voters in November) want to spend as much time as possible in their home states. To meet Bush's deadline, Congress is going to have to drop much of its other business. Moreover, other issues it might still handle will probably receive less attention, particularly as committee and subcommittee chairmen and chairwomen fight for jurisdiction over the new agency and its creation. (Supposedly, 88 committees and subcommittees now oversee components of the department-to-be.) The media space available for Congress will be consumed by stories related to the birthing of this new agency and the accompanying turf battles.
This is bad for the Democrats. If they had any national strategy heading into the fall elections, it was to raise domestic economic issues (primarily in the Senate) on which they believe they possess an advantage. Maybe health care, maybe education, maybe Social Security, maybe prescription drugs. The point was to use the Senate as a mini-bully pulpit and create a divide between Democrats and the Bush-Republican team. No doubt, many key races will be decided by local factors. But if the Dems are able to create momentum at the national level, that might add wind to the sails of their candidates. With the Senate and the House so evenly divided, every puff this year will count.
Poof--that opportunity is practically gone. Bush has grabbed the national political agenda by the horns and steered it in a direction that--what a coincidence--benefits him. Do the Democrats want to argue that a patient's bill of rights bill ought to be considered before Congress establishes a department vital to the protection of the American homeland? (And Bush has recently made noises about agreeing to a compromise on that subject--which would neutralize another possible Democratic issue.) Bush has pushed what is now his agency--the political equivalent of an 800-pound gorilla--into the center of the national discourse.
The Democrats seem to believe they have no choice but to go along. After Bush's announcement, most Democratic lawmakers hailed his move and pledged to toil hard to meet his deadline. "Can we do this in three months?" one senior House Democrat told me. "Of course, not. But no one will say that in public." (This lawmaker also expressed concern about privacy issues raised by the creation of the new department, but said it was doubtful Congress could thoroughly explore this area in the time it had.) Consequently, the Democrats have the worst of both worlds: their agenda is subsumed, and they now share responsibility for passing Bush's plan on his timetable.
In politics, the best ammunition is a good idea. A Department of Homeland Security sounds reasonable. But if, as the cliche goes, the devil is in the details, the creation of this agency will be devilishly difficult. There are thousands of details, if not more, to weigh. Congress, which already is supposed to be scrutinizing the FBI's own reorganization, the new (looser) guidelines for FBI domestic snooping, and the pre-9/11 cluelessness of the national security community, ought to not rush to create this new department. That won't solve the political problem Bush's proposal poses the Democrats. On that front, they're deep in the hole. But though they have lost on the politics--bigtime--they still have obligations regarding the substance. Government reorganizations of this type come along only every few decades. And this new department could last a long spell. After all, the war on terrorism, the administration says, might match the Cold War in duration. It would not be inappropriate for Democrats (and Republicans) in Congress to tell the president, after you wasted months fighting this idea, we're going to take as long as necessary to get this right.
In Texas, where he managed George W. Bush's political rise, Karl Rove was often referred to as "Bush's brain."
In fact, Austin reporters used to note that crazy notions Rove expounded upon at the bar on Saturday night had a funny way of popping out of his candidate's mouth on Monday morning.
The Bush White House has gone to great pains since George W. assumed the presidency to downplay the influence that Rove has over the administration's political and policy agendas. But the Republican faithful know the real story, and they have made Rove a star of the Grand Old Party's national fund-raising circuit. Rove regularly appears at $500-a-head, closed-door "VIP receptions" around the country. Republican operatives say he rates a bit above Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, R-Mississippi, and far above House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Illinois, on the list of most desired after-dinner speakers at gatherings of the faithful.
Rove's message in recent weeks has been an interesting one. He is telling Republicans that, as the party gears up for 2002 congressional and gubernatorial elections, its candidates must stop sounding so mean and greedy. At a May appearance before Republicans in Wisconsin, he explained that Republicans must "raise our sights and lower our voices."
Astute political observers will recognize this as a return to the "compassionate conservatism" that Rove used in 2000 to make Bush's right-wing stances more palatable to a country that stands well to the left of the GOP on most issues. With mid-term elections posing challenges and opportunities for the Bush White House, Rove is buffing up the mantra, suggesting that "compassionate conservatism" is now about shaping "a different kind of politics" that eschews the "blame culture" for a "responsible culture."
The message is that Republicans aren't about cutting needed programs in order to give tax breaks to the rich, said Rove. Rather, he explained, the point is "not to spend more or spend less, but to spend on what works."
If it wasn't Rove talking, that would be dismissed as the incomprehensible gobbledygook of pop psychology and political spin that it is. Because Rove was saying it, however, there was some demand for a translation into something more akin to a political slogan.
And so, in what must be recorded as a great moment in the history of spin, Rove declared of the new-model "compassionate conservatism": "It's Ronald Reagan meets Bobby Kennedy."
Now this is a twist. Reagan was, indeed, a conservative. But Bobby Kennedy?
Isn't Bobby Kennedy the guy who, shortly before his death 34 years ago, on June 6,1968, said:
"Too much and too long, we seem to have surrendered community excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things. Our gross national product - if we should judge America by that - counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for those who break them.
"It counts the destruction of our redwoods and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and the cost of a nuclear warhead, and armored cars for police who fight riots in our streets. It counts Whitman's rifle and Speck's knife, and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children.
"Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country; it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. And it tells us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans."
Rove is a political pro, no doubt about that. But he is going to have a hard time selling the American people on the notion that the Republican Party of today is equal parts Ronald Reagan and Bobby Kennedy. And he certainly will not want to be reminded that, when Kennedy spoke in his 1968 campaign "forging a new politics," he embraced compassion not as a companion to conservatism but as a necessary alternative to it.
There are those who wrongly believe that the debate over civil liberties in this country breaks along ideological grounds. It's an easy mistake to make: Especially when Attorney General John Ashcroft, a certified -- and, arguably, certifiable -- conservative is treating the Constitution like it was a threat to America.
The important thing to remember is that Ashcroft's misguided war on individual rights has been supported at key turns by top Democrats, including Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-SD, and House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Mo. Both Democrats backed the draconian USA PATRIOT ACT last fall, as did the overwhelming majority of their fellow Congressional Democrats. And both Daschle and Gephardt have been troublingly mild in their criticism of Ashcroft's recent attempt to interpret that legislation in a manner guaranteed to undermine Constitutional protections.
To be sure, criticism of Ashcroft's excesses has not fit into the easy stereotypes that are often used to analyze Congress. US Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., who broke with Democrats to back Ashcroft's nomination for attorney general, cast the sole Senate vote against Ashcroft's anti-terrorism legislation. Georgia conservative Bob Barr and California liberal Maxine Waters, bitter foes during the Clinton impeachment fight of 1998, held a joint press conference to condemn the Bush administration's disregard for civil liberties.
That opposition to Ashcroft's assault on the Constitution does not follow predictable patterns became evident last week, when House Judiciary Committee Chair James Sensenbrenner, R-Wi., emerged as one of the most outspoken critics of the administration's latest initiatives in the ever-expanding domestic "war on terrorism."
Sensenbrenner, an old-fashioned conservative Republican who has represented a suburban Milwaukee district since 1979, has forged a remarkably solid working relationship with the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, Michigan's John Conyers. Sensenbrenner and Conyers attempted to temper the anti-terrorism legislation when it came before their committee last fall, only to have some of their most important efforts thwarted by Republican and Democratic leaders in the House and Senate.
In his recent condemnations of Ashcroft's scheming, Sensenbrenner was sounding a lot like the liberal Conyers.
After Ashcroft issued new surveillance guidelines that would permit FBI monitoring of Internet sites, libraries, churches and political groups, Sensenbrenner said: "I believe that the Justice Department has gone too far."
While the Republican attorney general said new surveillance powers were needed to fight terrorism, the Republican House Judiciary Committee chair said those powers could return the United States to the "bad old days" of civil liberties abuses by the FBI.
Sensenbrenner has gone out of his way to remind the current Republican administration that the protections against FBI abuses of civil liberties that Ashcroft is now seeking to override were written under a Republican president, Gerald Ford. Arguing that the existing surveillance guidelines have served the country well, Sensenbrenner says he wants Ashcroft and FBI Director Robert Mueller to appear before the Judiciary Committee to justify proposed shifts.
"(The) question that I ask, and which I believe that Mr. Ashcroft and Mr. Mueller have to answer, is, Why do we need to change (the guidelines) now?" insists the conservative congressman.
"We want to make sure that the FBI, which hasn't had a good track record lately, doesn't go on the other side of the line," adds Sensenbrenner, who recently told CNN it was absurd "to throw respect for civil liberties into the trash heap" in order to strengthen the hand of the FBI.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., is currently holding FBI oversight hearings. To his credit, Leahy says, "There is no institution of our government that should be above question."
But it would be nice if Leahy and other Democrats were as blunt as Sensenbrenner, who recalls former FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover's surveillance of civil rights leaders and says, "I get very, very queasy when federal law enforcement is effectively saying (they are interested in) going back to the bad old days when the FBI was spying on people like Martin Luther King."
Is it the CIA's turn?
For weeks, the FBI has been excoriated for having failed to follow 9/11-related leads unearthed by field agents months before the airliner attacks. In response to the criticism, FBI Director Robert Mueller III was recently compelled to announce an extensive reorganization of the FBI and to embrace Coleen Rowley, an FBI agent in Minneapolis, who wrote Mueller a scorching letter--later leaked--that detailed numerous problems within the bureau. (The changes at the FBI will provide more latitude--perhaps too much--to field agents, even though a key foul-up occurred because FBI headquarters failed to coordinate two different field investigations.)
While Mueller and the FBI have been in the hot seat, other key agencies that contributed to the US government screw-up on September 11--most notably, the CIA and the Pentagon--have not drawn much fire. The Agency failed to act on intelligence from the mid-90s indicating Osama bin Laden's network was interested in a 9/11-type plot. The Pentagon did not prepare for such an assault. But George Tenet and Donald Rumsfeld, and their respective bureaucracies, escaped crucifixion, let alone harsh words. There were no demands for reorganization or an examination of the bureaucratic culture at either CIA headquarters or the Pentagon.
Now comes the news the CIA engaged in its own boneheaded move. As first reported by Newsweek this week, the CIA, having spied on a meeting of al Qaeda operatives in Kuala Lumpur in January 2000, tracked one of these suspected terrorist to the United States and discovered another already possessed a multiple-entry visa allowing him to enter and leave the United States at will, and the agency did nothing with this information. The two men--Nawaf Alhazmi and Khalid Almihdhar--went about their business in the United States for months, opening bank accounts and obtaining driver's licenses in their own names, enrolling in aviation schools, before they walked on to Flight 77 on September 11 and presumably helped crash it into the Pentagon.
For about nineteen months, according to Newsweek, the CIA did not notify the FBI, the State Department or the Immigration and Naturalization Service about the pair. The two men were not added to the watch list used by the State Department and INS to screen visa applicants. Neither name was red-flagged until August 23, 2001--when the CIA did contact the other agencies about Almihdhar, who, by then, was already in the United States. (Almihdhar's visa had expired in late 2000, but the State Department, left clueless by the CIA, had okayed a new one for him.) The FBI only then began searching for the two men, not realizing it had but nineteen days to locate them.
Before the latest news broke, it was publicly known that Almidhdar had been at the terrorist summit in Malaysia. Apparently his attendance there was not sufficient to place him on the watch list. Yet the new report notes the CIA was aware Alhazmi had flown from the meeting to Los Angeles, and the CIA later learned Almihdhar had done the same. It also knew then that Almihdhar had frequently entered the United States--a factor that could have qualified him for placement on the watch list.
The day after the Newsweek story made front-page headlines, the CIA struck back. Citing internal email, unnamed CIA officials, speaking to The Washington Post, noted that the agency had routinely told an FBI counterterrorism contact in January 2000 that Almihdhar was on his way to the al Qaeda meeting in Malaysia and that he possessed a US visa that would permit multiple entries. (This information, though, presumably was not shared with the State Department and the INS.)
The Post placed the CIA's rebuttal on the front-page. But the CIA's defense contained several holes. By its own account, it still had not informed the FBI that Almihdhar flew to the United States right after the Kuala Lumpur confab. Nor did the CIA tell the FBI that Alhazmi was in the United States, after the agency learned that in March 2000 from a foreign intelligence service. "No one picked up on that," a senior official told the Post. The headline on the Post article--"CIA Gave FBI Warning On Hijacker"--was slightly misleading. It turns out the CIA had passed a piece of information--not a warning--to the bureau about one of the two men. But the agency had not told the FBI that either were in the United States. The headline could have as easily read, "CIA Failed To Follow Intelligence on 9/11 Hijacker."
The United States, it seems, missed out on two possible actions that might have changed the course of events. Had the CIA told the FBI that two foreign nationals who had attended a terrorist convention had entered the United States, the bureau could have attempted to track the men and uncovered who-knows what. During their time in the United States, Alhazmi and Almihdhar had frequent contacts with at least five other 9/11 hijackers, two of whom had their 9/11 airline tickets purchased by alleged mastermind Mohamed Atta. Perhaps a close watch of the two would have led the bureau to suss out something was up. That is, if the bureau could have effectively handled such an investigation.
The other action the United States never had the opportunity to take was to deny Alhazmi and Almihdhar entry to the United States after they had participated in the terrorist get-together. Maybe bin Laden and Atta would have replaced them easily. Maybe not.
This latest revelation prompted an inevitable round of recriminations. "There's no question we could have tied all 19 hijackers together," an unnamed FBI official told Newsweek. The not-too-hidden message: we at the bureau are not the only ones who messed up. But a senior intelligence official huffed to the Post, "The notion that we were withholding information from the FBI is absurd." On ABC's This Week, Attorney General John Ashcroft said, "The information we now have does not indicate that there was a substantial likelihood of detecting this." Note his prudent, CYA use of the word "substantial." How about a "reasonable chance"? It would have been nice if the United States law enforcement, intelligence and security apparatus had had a fighting chance against the 19 mass-murderers of September 11. But Ashcroft was echoing the official line. In February, Tenet testified before Congress that the CIA had done no wrong and that 9/11 was not due to a "failure of attention, and discipline, and focus, and consistent effort." Except for Senator Richard Shelby, a Democrat-turned Republican from Alabama, few members of Congress have raised any 9/11-linked questions about the CIA and Tenet's leadership there.
Would Tenet now say the CIA deserves no criticism for mishandling the Alhazmi/Almihdhar leads? Will the congressional intelligence committees force him to explain this episode publicly? For years, the spies have received an easier ride on the Hill than their comrades-competitors in the bureau. Senator Charles Grassley, an Iowa Republican, has long had the FBI in his crosshairs. He's called for an investigation of senior FBI officials and has said "their heads should roll," if it turns out they failed to properly warn Mueller, who took over the bureau a week before 9/11. What of the CIA? Will there be a similar accounting of actions in Langley?
To date, the Bush White House has done nothing but embrace Tenet and has not encouraged a vigorous investigation of the intelligence community's pre-9/11 performance. Majority Leader Tom Daschle says that both President Bush and Vice President Cheney asked him to oppose any inquiry into pre-9/11 intelligence failures. The White House denies this and claims it supports the mostly-secret probe by the congressional intelligence committees. But even if that is true, there is no indication that after September 11, Bush was dismayed by the intelligence community's pre-9/11 record and ordered an examination of its failings. He's the President, he doesn't have to wait for or rely upon Congress. He could have instructed the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, the Intelligence Oversight Board or the CIA's own inspector general to assess what had happened. As far as we know, he took a pass and decided to concentrate on the war at hand. In his view, it didn't matter whether--and how--the $30-billion-a-year intelligence community had botched its primary mission, not even as billions in extra dollars were being appropriated for the CIA and other agencies.
As a dazed and confused FBI attracted flak for months, the senior managers at CIA headquarters--officially dubbed the George Bush Center for Intelligence in 1999--skated by. Now they have hit a rough patch. Let's see how much political protection comes from naming a building for the president's father.
On March 25, during a Pacifica radio interview, Representative Cynthia McKinney, a Georgia Democrat, said, "We know there were numerous warnings of the events to come on September 11.... What did this Administration know, and when did it know it about the events of September 11? Who else knew and why did they not warn the innocent people of New York who were needlessly murdered?" McKinney was not merely asking if there had been an intelligence failure. She was suggesting--though not asserting--that the US government had foreknowledge of the specific attacks and either did not do enough to prevent them or, much worse, permitted them to occur for some foul reason. Senator Zell Miller, a conservative Democrat from her state, called her comments "loony." House minority leader Dick Gephardt noted that he disagreed with her. White House spokesman Ari Fleischer quipped, "The congresswoman must be running for the Hall of Fame of the Grassy Knoll Society." The Atlanta Journal-Constitution called her a "nut." Two months later, after it was revealed that George W. Bush had received an intelligence briefing a month before September 11 in which he informed told Osama bin Laden was interested in both hijacking airplanes and striking directly at the United States, McKinney claimed vindication. But that new piece of information did not support the explosive notion she had unfurled earlier--that the Bush Administration and/or other unnamed parties had been in a position to warn New Yorkers and had elected not to do so.
With her radio interview, McKinney became something of a spokesperson for people who question the official story of September 11. As the Constitution's editorial page blasted her, its website ran an unscientific poll and found that 46 percent said, "I think officials knew it was coming." Out there--beyond newspaper conference rooms and Congressional offices--alternative scenarios and conspiracy theories have been zapping across the Internet for months. George W. Bush did it. The Mossad did it. The CIA did it. Or they purposely did not thwart the assault--either to have an excuse for war, to increase the military budget or to replace the Taliban with a government sympathetic to the West and the oil industry. The theories claim that secret agendas either caused the attacks or drove the post-9/11 response, and these dark accounts have found an audience of passionate devotees.
I learned this after I wrote a column dismissing various 9/11 conspiracy theories. I expressed doubt that the Bush Administration would kill or allow the murder of thousands of American citizens to achieve a political or economic aim. (How could Karl Rove spin that, if a leak ever occurred?) Having covered the national security community for years, I didn't believe any government agency could execute a plot requiring the coordination of the FBI, the CIA, the INS, the FAA, the NTSB, the Pentagon and others. And--no small matter--there was no direct evidence that anything of such a diabolical nature had transpired.
Hundreds of angry e-mails poured in. Some accused me of being a sophisticated CIA disinformation agent. Others claimed I was hopelessly naive. (Could I be both?) Much of it concerned two men, Michael Ruppert and Delmart "Mike" Vreeland. Ruppert, a former Los Angeles cop, runs a website that has cornered a large piece of the alternative-9/11 market. An American who was jailed in Canada, Vreeland claims to be a US naval intelligence officer who tried to warn the authorities before the attacks. Ruppert cites Vreeland to back up his allegation that the CIA had "foreknowledge" of the 9/11 attacks and that there is a strong case for "criminal complicity on the part of the U.S. government in their execution." My article discounted their claims. But, I discovered, the two men had a loyal--and vocal--following. They were being booked on Pacifica stations. Ruppert was selling a video and giving speeches around the world. (In February, he filled a theater in Sacramento.) I decided to take a second--and deeper--look at the pair and key pieces of the 9/11 conspiracy movement.
The Ex-Cop Who Connects the Dot
By his own account, Ruppert has long been a purveyor of amazing tales. In 1981 he told the Los Angeles Herald Examiner a bizarre story about himself: While a cop in the 1970s, he fell in love with a mysterious woman who, he came to believe, was working with the mob and US intelligence. Only after she left him, Ruppert said, did he figure out that his girlfriend had been a CIA officer coordinating a deal in which organized crime thugs were transporting weapons to Kurdish counterrevolutionaries in Iran in exchange for heroin. In an interview with the newspaper, the woman denied Ruppert's account and questioned his mental stability. Whatever the truth of his encounter with this woman, the relationship apparently extracted a toll on Ruppert. In 1978 he resigned from the force, claiming that the department had not protected him when his life was threatened. According to records posted on Ruppert's site, his commanding officer called his service "for the most part, outstanding." But the CO also said Ruppert was hampered by an "over-concern with organized crime activity and a feeling that his life was endangered by individuals connected to organized crime. This problem resulted in Officer Ruppert voluntarily committing himself to psychiatric care last year.... any attempts to rejoin the Department by Officer Ruppert should be approved only after a thorough psychiatric examination."
In 1996 Ruppert showed up at a community meeting in Los Angeles concerning charges that the CIA had been in league with crack cocaine dealers in the United States. There Ruppert claimed the agency had tried to recruit him in the 1970s to "protect CIA drug operations" in South Central Los Angeles--an allegation that was missing from the guns-and-drugs story published in 1981. In 1998 he launched his From the Wilderness alternative newsletter, which examines what he considers to be the hidden currents of international economics and national security untouched by other media. On March 31 of last year, for instance, he published a report on an economic conference in Moscow where the opening speaker was a fellow who works for Lyndon LaRouche, the conspiracy-theorist/political cult leader. "I share a near universal respect of the LaRouche organization's detailed and precise research," Ruppert wrote. "I have not, however, always agreed with [its] conclusions." Ruppert claims that twenty members of Congress subscribe to his newsletter.
Ruppert is not a reporter. He mostly assembles facts--or purported facts--from various news sources and then makes connections. The proof is not in any one piece--say, a White House memo detailing an arms-for-hostages trade. The proof is in the line drawn between the dots. His masterwork is a timeline of fifty-one events (at last count) that, he believes, demonstrate that the CIA knew of the attacks in advance and that the US government probably had a hand in them. Ruppert titled his timeline "Oh Lucy!--You Gotta Lotta 'Splaining To Do."
In the timeline he notes that transnational oil companies invested billions of dollars to gain access to the oil reserves of Central America and that they expressed interest in a trans-Afghanistan pipeline between 1991 and 1998. He lists trips made to Saudi Arabia in 1998 and 2000 by former President George Bush on behalf of the Carlyle Group investment firm. On September 7, 2001, Florida Governor Jeb Bush signed an order restructuring the state's response to acts of terrorism. There's a German online news agency report from September 14 claiming that an Iranian man had called US law enforcement to warn of the attack earlier that summer. The list cries out, "Don't you see?" Oil companies wanted a stable and pro-Western regime in Afghanistan. Warnings were not heeded. Daddy Bush had dealings in Saudi Arabia. Brother Jeb was getting ready for a terrible event. It can only mean one thing: The US government designed the attacks or let them happen so it could go to war on behalf of oil interests.
Space prevents a complete dissection of all Ruppert's dots. But in several instances, he misrepresents his source material. Item number 8 says that in February 2001, UPI reported that the National Security Agency had "broken bin Laden's encrypted communications." That would suggest the US government could have picked up word of the coming assault. But the actual story noted not that the US government had gained the capacity to eavesdrop on bin Laden at will but that it had "gone into foreign bank accounts [of bin Laden's organization] and deleted or transferred funds, and jammed or blocked the group's cell or satellite phones." Item number 9, based on a Los Angeles Times story, says the Bush Administration gave $43 million in aid to the Taliban in May 2001, "purportedly" to assist farmers starving since the destruction of their opium crop. Purportedly? Was the administration paying off the Taliban for something else? That is what Ruppert is hinting. The newspaper, though, reported that all US funds "are channeled through the United Nations and international agencies," not handed to the Taliban. Unless Ruppert can show that was not the case, this dot has no particular significance. What if Washington funded international programs assisting Afghan farmers? With his timeline, Ruppert implies far more than he proves. It is a document for those already predisposed to believe that world events are determined by secret, mind-boggling conspiracies of the powerful, by people too influential and wily to be caught but who leave a trail that can be decoded by a few brave outsiders who know where and how to look.
The "Spy" Who Tried To Warn Us?
Ruppert can claim one truly original find: Delmart "Mike" Vreeland. He is the flesh on the bones of Ruppert's the-dots-show-all timeline. On December 6, 2000, Vreeland, then 34, was arrested in Canada and charged with fraud, forgery, threatening death or bodily harm, and obstructing a peace officer. At the time, he was wanted on multiple warrants in the United States--for forgery, counterfeiting, larceny, unlawful flight to avoid prosecution, narcotics, reckless endangerment, arson, and grand theft. Months earlier, the Detroit News, citing law enforcement authorities, had reported that Vreeland was an experienced identity thief. While Vreeland was in jail in Toronto, law enforcement officials in Michigan began extradition proceedings.
On October 7, 2001, Vreeland, who was fighting extradition, submitted an exhibit in a Canadian court that he says shows he knew 9/11 was coming. And, Ruppert argues, this is proof that US intelligence was aware of the coming attacks. The document is a page of handwritten notes. There is a list that includes the World Trade Center, the Sears Tower and the White House. Below that a sentence reads, "Let one happen--stop the rest." Elsewhere is a hard-to -decipher collection of phrases and names. Vreeland claims he wrote this in mid-August 2001, while in prison, and had it placed in a locked storage box by prison guards. He says the note was opened on September 14 in front of prison officials. Immediately, his lawyers were summoned to the prison, according to one of them, Rocco Galati, and the jail officials dispatched the note to Ottawa.
Vreeland's believers, including Ruppert, refer to this note as a "warning letter." It is no such thing and, though tantalizing, holds no specific information related to the 9/11 assaults. There is no date mentioned, no obvious reference to a set of perpetrators. In a telephone interview with me, Vreeland said this document was not written as an alert. He claimed that throughout the summer of 2001, he was composing a thirty-seven-page memo to Adm. Vernon Clark, Chief of Naval Operations, and that this page contains the notes he kept during this process. What of the memo to Clark? Vreeland won't share it, maintaining that he wrote in such a manner that only its intended recipient would truly understand what it said. Who can confirm the note was indeed what he had placed in storage prior to September 11? Is it possible some sort of switch was pulled? Vreeland maintains that during court proceedings, five officials of the Canadian jail affirmed that he had passed this document to the guards prior to September 11. When I asked for their names, Vreeland said the judge had sealed those records. Kevin Wilson, a Canadian federal prosecutor handling the extradition case, and Galati, Vreeland's lawyer, say no seal has been ordered.
The note is one small piece of Vreeland's very big Alias-like story. He claims he was a US naval intelligence officer sent to Russia in September 2000 on a sensitive mission: to obtain design documents related to a Russian weapon system that could defeat a US missile defense system. He swiped copies of the documents and altered the originals so the Russian system wouldn't work. As one court decision states, "According to [Vreeland], he was sent to Russia to authenticate these documents because he had originally conceived of the theory behind this [anti-Star Wars] technology, when working for the US Navy in 1986." While in Moscow, he also snagged other top-secret documents that, he claims, foretold the September 11 attacks. And now the US government, the Russian secret police, organized crime and corrupt law enforcement officials are after him. As one Canadian judge noted, "No summary of the complex allegations of multiple concurrent conspiracies...can do justice to [Vreeland's] own description."
Ruppert and Vreeland assert that Canadian court records back up Vreeland. But court decisions in his case have questioned his credibility. In one, Judge Archie Campbell observed, "There is not even a threshold showing of any air of reality to the vast conspiracy alleged by the applicant." Judge John Macdonald wrote, "I find that the Applicant is an imaginative and manipulative person who has little regard for the truth.... the testimony that he developed the theory for anti-Star Wars technology in 1986, based on high school courses, personal interest and perhaps a law clerk's course and a 'Bachelor of Political Science' degree is simply incredible." Nor did he he believe Vreeland was a spy or that he had smuggled documents out of Russia. Macdonald, though, did state that the US records submitted in court regarding Vreeland's criminal record were "terse, incomplete and confusing," and he noted that the sloppiness of the filing might suggest the Michigan criminal charges were "trumped up." But he was not convinced of that, explaining "I see no reasonable basis in the evidence for inferring that the Michigan charges are 'trumped up.'"
It's not surprising those records might be a mess. After I first wrote about Vreeland, I received an e-mail from Terry Weems, who identified himself as Vreeland's half-brother. He claimed Vreeland was a longtime con man who had preyed on his own family. Weems sent copies of police reports his wife had filed in Alabama accusing Vreeland of falsely using her name to buy office supplies and cell phones in August 2000. Weems provided me a list of law enforcement officers who were pursuing Vreeland in several states. I began calling these people and examining state and county records. There was much to check.
According to Michigan Department of Corrections records, Vreeland was in and out of prison several times from 1988 to 1999, having been convicted of assorted crimes, including breaking and entering, receiving stolen property, forgery and writing bad checks. In 1997 he was arrested in Virginia for conspiring to bribe a police officer and intimidating a witness, court records say. He failed to show up in court there. In Florida he was arrested in 1998 on two felony counts of grand theft. In one instance he had purchased a yacht with a check written on a nonexistent account. He was sentenced to three years of probation. The Florida Department of Corrections currently lists him as an absconder. In 1998 he was pursued by the Sheffield, Alabama, police force for stealing about $20,000 in music equipment. Charges were eventually dismissed after some of the property was recovered and Vreeland agreed to pay restitution. In the course of his investigation, Sheffield Detective Greg Ray pulled Vreeland's criminal file; it was twenty pages long. "He had to really try to be a criminal to get such a history," Ray says. A 1999 report filed by a Michigan probation agent said of Vreeland, "The defendant has 9 known felony convictions and 5 more felony charges are now pending in various Courts. However, the full extent of his criminal record may never be known because he has more than a dozen identified Aliases and arrests or police contacts in 5 different states."
Michigan state police records (sent to me by Weems, Vreeland's half-brother) show that in 1997, while Vreeland was in jail after being arrested on a bad-check charge, he wrote a letter to the St. Clair Shores Police Department warning that his brother-in-law was going to burn down his own restaurant. The letter was dated five days prior to a fire that occurred at the restaurant, but it was postmarked three days after the fire. "Do you see a pattern here?" Weems asks.
Judge Campbell called Vreeland a "man who appears on this evidentiary record to be nothing more than a petty fraudsman with a vivid imagination." But Ruppert dismisses Vreeland's past, noting he has "a very confusing criminal arrest record--some of it very contradictory and apparently fabricated." When I interviewed Vreeland, he said, "I have never legally been convicted of anything in the United States of America." And, he added, he has never been in prison.
There are two odd bounces in this case. Vreeland claims that in Moscow he worked with a Canadian Embassy employee named Marc Bastien. Unfortunately, this cannot be confirmed by Bastien. He was found dead in Moscow on December, 12, 2000--while Vreeland was in jail in Toronto. At the time of his death, Canadian authorities announced Bastien died of natural causes, but Vreeland later claimed Bastien had been murdered. Then, this past January, the Quebec coroner said Bastein died after drinking a mixture of alcohol and clopazine, an antidepressant, and he noted that Bastien may have been poisoned--or may have been offered the medication to fight a hangover. Had Vreeland really known something about this death, or had he made a good guess about a fellow whose death was covered in the Canadian media? And during a courtroom proceeding, at Vreeland's insistence, the judge allowed his counsel to place a call to the Pentagon. The operator who answered confirmed that a Lieutenant D. Vreeland was listed in the phone directory. Afterward, Canadian prosecutors claimed that information from the US government indicated that a person purporting to be Lieutenant D. Vreeland had earlier sent an e-mail to a telephone operator at the Pentagon, saying he would temporarily be occupying a Pentagon office and requesting that this be reflected in the listings. Could a fellow in a Toronto jail have scammed the Pentagon telephone system?
In March the Canadian criminal charges against Vreeland were dropped, and he was allowed to post bail. Explaining why charges were removed, Paul McDermott, a provincial prosecutor, says his office considered the pending extradition matter the priority. Vreeland's extradition hearing is scheduled for September.
To believe Vreeland's scribbles mean anything, one must believe his claim to be a veteran intelligence operative sent to Moscow on an improbable top-secret, high-tech mission (change design documents to neutralize an entire technology) during which he stumbled upon documents (which he has not revealed) showing that 9/11 was going to happen. To believe that, one must believe he is a victim of a massive disinformation campaign, involving his family, law enforcement officers and defense lawyers across the country, two state corrections departments, county clerk offices in ten or so counties, the Canadian justice system and various parts of the US government. And one must believe that hundreds, if not thousands, of detailed court, county, prison and state records have been forged. It is easier to believe that a well-versed con man got lucky with the Bastien death/murder, was able to arrange a stunt with the Pentagon switchboard and either wrote a sketchy note before September 11 that could be interpreted afterward as relevant or penned the note following the disaster and convinced prison guards he had written it previously. Michigan detective John Meiers, who's been chasing Vreeland for two years, says, "The bottom line: Delmart Vreeland is a con man. He's conned everyone he comes into contact with. That's why he's wanted.... He keeps going back into court for hearings because he doesn't want to come back here. He knows he's going to prison, and he's fighting. In the interim, he's coming up with a variety of stories."
The Rest of It
The Vreeland case--despite the attention it has drawn--is not the centerpiece of all 9/11 conspiracy theories. There is much more: A CIA officer supposedly met with bin Laden in July 2001 in Dubai. Before September 11, parties unknown engaged in a frenzy of short-selling involving the stock of American Airlines, United Airlines and dozens of other companies affected by the attacks. The Pentagon was not actually hit by an airliner. Flight 93--the fourth plane--did not crash in Pennsylvania; it was shot down. The Bush Administration, in talks with the Taliban, warned that war was coming. And that's not a complete run-down.
Some of the lingering questions or peculiar facts warrant more attention than others. There was a boost in short-selling. But does that suggest the US government ignored a clear warning? Or might the more obvious explanation be true--that people close to Osama bin Laden were tipped off and took advantage of that inside information? Ronald Blekicki, who publishes Microcap Analyst, an online investment publication, says most of the short-selling occurred overseas--and escaped notice in the United States. If that type of trading had happened in the US markets, he explains, it would have stirred rumors about the companies involved. "Everyone on the exchanges would have known about it," he explains. "My best guess is that the people who profited were reasonably wealthy individuals in the inner circle of bin Laden and the Taliban." What is curious, though, is that news of the investigations into the short-selling has taken a quick-fade. Neither the Securities and Exchange Commission nor the Chicago Board Options Exchange will say whether they are still investigating trading practices prior to September 11. And there has been no word from Congress or the Bush Administration on this topic. Suspicious minds, no doubt, can view the public absence of government interest as evidence of something amiss. In this instance, the lack of a credible official investigation creates much space for the disciples of conspiracy theories.
No airliner at the Pentagon? You can find websites devoted to that thesis. Another site, called www.flight93crash.com, offers a sober look at the anomalies that have led people to wonder if that last plane, the one in Pennsylvania, was blasted out of the sky.
The alleged CIA-bin Laden meeting in Dubai has attracted intense notice in alternative-9/11 circles. The story first appeared In Le Figaro, a French newspaper, on October 31, 2001, in an article by freelancer Alexandra Richard. Citing an unnamed "partner of the administration of the American Hospital in Dubai," she maintained that bin Laden was treated at the hospital for ten days. Her story also asserted that "the local CIA agent...was seen taking the main elevator of the hospital to go to bin Laden's hospital room" and "bragged to a few friends about having visited bin Laden," but she provided no source for these details. The hospital categorically denies bin Laden was there. Even if a meeting occurred, that would not necessarily indicate the CIA was aware of bin Laden's plot. Such news, though, would be a huge embarrassment and prompt many awkward questions. But the meeting's existence--unattached to a single identifiable source--can only be regarded as iffy.
Two French authors, Jean-Charles Brisard, a former intelligence employee, and Guillaume Dasquie, a journalist, have written a book, Bin Laden; the Forbidden Truth, in which they maintain that the 9/11 attacks were the "outcome" of "private and risky discussions" between the United States and the Taliban "concerning geostrategic oil interests." As they see it, Washington, driven by fealty to Big Oil, threatened the Taliban with military action and replacement, as it was pursuing Osama bin Laden and seeking a regime in Afghanistan that would cooperate with oil firms. In response to Washington's heavy-handed tactics, the two suggest, bin Laden and the Taliban decided to strike first. This double theory--it's-all-about-oil and Washington provoked the attack--has resonated on anti-Bush websites. To prove their case, the French men attach sinister motives to a United Nations initiative to settle the political and military strife in Afghanistan. Citing a UN report, they depict this effort as "negotiations" between the Taliban and the United States, in which the Americans aimed to replace the Taliban with the former King. Yet a fair reading of the UN report shows that the endeavor--conducted by the UN Special Mission to Afghanistan--was a multilateral attempt to resolve the conflict in Afghanistan that involved discussions with the various sides in that country. It was not geared toward reinstalling ex-King Mohammad Zahir Shah.
Brisard and Dasquie's most dramatic charge is that former Pakistani foreign minister Niaz Naik, who attended one of a series of international conferences held by the UN Special Mission to Afghanistan, says that at the July 2001 meeting a "US official" threatened the Taliban, "Either you accept our offer of a carpet of gold, or we bury you under a carpet of bombs." (This portion of the book is similar to an earlier article in the British Guardian, in which Naik additionally noted that the Pakistani government relayed Naik's impression of this US threat to the Taliban.) The Taliban, though, were not present at the session, which was held in Berlin, and the three American representatives there were former US officials. One of the reps, Tom Simons, a past US Ambassador to Pakistan who spent thirty-five years in the foreign service, recalls no such threat but acknowledges that the Americans did note that if Washington determined bin Laden was behind the USS Cole bombing in Yemen, the Afghans obviously could expect the Bush Administration to strike bin Laden. That would hardly have been a remark to cause bin Laden to arrange quickly a pre-emptive assault. Simons--who says he was not interviewed by the French authors--believes Naik misheard the Americans on this point. Whether Naik did or not, the French authors, at best, suggest a line of inquiry rather than come close to validating their contention. (Brisard and Dasquie also argue--without offering an abundance of evidence--that the United States, by design, did not vigorously pursue bin Laden and the Al Qaeda network because doing so clashed with other diplomatic priorities, most notably, cozying up to the oil autocrats of Saudi Arabia.)
Official accounts ought not to be absorbed without scrutiny. Clandestine agendas and unacknowledged geostrategic factors--such as oil--may well shape George W. Bush's war on terrorism. And there are questions that have gone unaswered. For example, on September 12, 2001, a brief story in Izvestia, the Moscow-based newspaper, citing unnamed sources, reported that Moscow had warned Washington of the 9/11 attacks weeks earlier. Was such a warning actually transmitted? If so, who issued the warning and who received it? But questions are not equivalent to proof. As of now, there is not confirmable evidence to argue that the conventional take on September 11--bin Laden surprise-attacked America as part of a jihad, and a caught-off-guard United States struck back--is actually a cover story.
Without conspiracy theories, there is much to wonder about September 11. The CIA and the FBI had indications, if not specific clues, that something was coming and did not piece them together. Government agencies tasked to protect the United States failed. US air defenses performed extraordinarily poorly--even though there had been signs for at least five years that Al Qaeda was considering a 9/11-type scheme. Afterward, neither the Bush Administration nor Congress rushed to investigate. In fact, Senate majority leader Tom Daschle maintains that Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney both told him in January they opposed any Congressional investigation of 9/11. (The White House denies this.) Congress finally greenlighted an inquiry, but the investigation bogged down as the Congressional investigators complained that the CIA and the Justice Department were impeding their efforts.
One problem with conspiracy theorizing is that it can distract from the true and (sometimes mundane) misdeeds and mistakes of government. But when the government is reluctant to probe its own errors, it opens the door wider for those who would turn anomalies into theories or spin curious fact--or speculation--into outlandish explanation. Not that all who do so need much encouragement. September 11 was so traumatic, so large, that there will always be people who look to color it--or exploit it--by adding more drama and intrigue, who seek to discern hidden meanings, who desire to make more sense of the awful act. And there will be people who want to believe them.
It is no secret that grassroots Democrats around the country oppose the free-trade regimen advocated by the Bush administration and the corporate lobbyists who have shaped the debate on trade issues inside the beltway.
The Democratic party's core constituencies well understand that the North American Free Trade Agreement, the normalization of trade relations with China and other corporate free-trade initiatives have led to the shuttering of American factories, depressed prices for family farmers and the use of trade policy to assault laws protecting the environment in the U.S. and abroad. Even the most conservative estimates suggest that NAFTA has cost at least 360,000 Americans their jobs -- and that is merely the easiest measure of the impact of free-trade agreements that allow multinational corporations, as opposed to citizens and their elected officials, to write the rules for protection of workers, farmers and the environment.
Recognizing the flaws in a corporate-dictated free-trade system, groups with a history of good relations with the Democratic party have been among the loudest foes of the Bush administration's attempts to gain Fast Track authority to negotiate a sweeping Free Trade Area of the Americas agreement that critics refer to as "NAFTA on steroids."
The AFL-CIO and its affiliate unions have actively opposed Fast Track, as have the Sierra Club and other major environmental groups, and the National Farmers Union and organizations that represent family farmers as opposed to corporate agribusiness interests. So too have human rights and religious groups concerned about poverty and social justice in the U.S. and internationally.
In the House of Representatives, where Fast Track passed by a 215-214 margin in December, 194 Democrats opposed the legislation while just 23 backed it.
In the Senate, however, where Democrats are in charge, a marginally modified version of the Fast Track legislation won passage Thursday by a 66-30 margin. While 25 Democrats opposed Fast Track, 24 Democrats and one Independent who caucuses with the Democrats -- Vermont's Jim Jeffords -- backed the legislation. (The last Democrat, Hawaii's Daniel Inouye missed the vote.)
So who were the free-trade Democrats in the Senate? Many were southern conservatives such as Georgia's Zell Miller, but many more were Democrats who portray themselves as friends of labor, family farmers, environmental groups and other Democratic constituencies that lobbied against Fast Track. Indeed, several of the Fast Track-backing Democrats are potential contenders for the party's 2004 presidential nomination.
Among those voting for Fast Track was Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D- South Dakota. Joining Daschle in voting for the measure was Connecticut's Joseph Lieberman, who in recent weeks has stepped up efforts to position himself as a 2004 contender, North Carolina's John Edwards and Delaware's Joe Biden. Even Massachusetts' John Kerry, who sought to add a good amendment to the legislation, ultimately joined the vast majority of Senate Republicans in backing Fast Track.
Among senators whose names have been floated as potential 2004 Democratic presidential contenders, only Connecticut's Chris Dodd and Wisconsin's Russ Feingold voted against Fast Track. They were joined by another senator whose name is often mentioned but who regularly takes herself out of contention -- Hillary Clinton.
Fast Track was amended sufficiently in the Senate to mean that it will go to a House-Senate conference committee, where a compromise version of the legislation is expected to be be crafted and then sent back for votes in both chambers. Fast Track could yet get beat in the House, where opposition could actually grow in an election year.
Most of the Democratic senators who harbor presidential ambitions are no doubt hoping that the House will clean up the Fast Track mess. Then they will be able to continue to collect contributions from corporate interests that want unregulated free trade, while publicly presenting themselves as contenders who are in touch with the party's base.
The Democratic party's base would do well to remember how the voting went when the Senate could have derailed Fast Track, however. It is a good measure of how reliable a Democratic president might be the issues that workers, farmers, environmentalists and supporters of international human rights take a lot more seriously than do many Democratic senators.