The Nation

Clooney Cares

Academy Award winning actor and director George Clooney does not have a new film to promote. He does not want to call attention to a high-profile romance he's involved in. He simply, like so many other Americans, wants there to be more aggressive action on the part of the United States and the rest of the international community with regards to the genocide ongoing in Darfur.

"It's not a political issue," Clooney has said, "It's not about left and right, conservative or liberal points of view. It's only about right and wrong." While the idea of Hollywood movie stars lecturing about the world's dilemmas may make some people cringe or complain the reality is that Clooney has been one of the few consistent and influential voices on this problem. In April he and his journalist father, Nick Clooney, made a highly publicized visit to the region and footage they shot of refugees there helped get the Darfur crisis back in the news again for the first times in months.

President Bush appears paralyzed on this issue by his aversion to the International Criminal Court and his dedication to the quagmire in Iraq. Meanwhile, Sudan's Khartoum government continues to allow the Janjaweed militia to continue mass murder. A recent study by two scientists from the University of Wisconsin and Northwestern University has found that nearly half a million people have perished since the violence began, far more than has been recently estimated.

While all the President seems to be able to do is muster cranky complaints about the UN from the Rose Garden, last week, Clooney, along with Nobel Prize winner and Holocaust survivor, Elie Wiesel has been engaging in talks directly with members of the international community in the hopes that they can provide the pressure necessary to break the seemingly unending deadlock within the African Union's Peace and Security Council about how to act. "The critical hour for Darfur is now," said Clooney.

As a society we tend to roll our eyes collectively when rich and famous celebrities take up causes such as these but no matter what you think of Clooney's work or his intentions, he happens to be right about this. Something must be done.

Deja Vu on Iran

Is the Bush Administration mistaking Iran for pre-war Iraq? Recent events certainly sound eerily familiar.

Intelligence experts and counter-terrorism officials say hawkish Republicans are exaggerating the state of Iran's nuclear program and support for terrorism.

The International Atomic Energy Agency, in particular, said a report by House Republicans contained "erroneous, misleading and unsubstantiated information."

"The dispute was a virtual rerun of the months before the March 2003 invasion of Iraq," Knight-Ridder reported.

Once again, the offices of Cheney and Rumsfeld are "receiving a stream of questionable information that originates with Iranian exiles," Knight-Ridder writes.

The head of the infamous Office of Special Plans, Abram Shulsky, now helms a new Iranian directorate at the Pentagon.

And once again, President Bush is addressing the UN General Assembly, calling for sanctions. "Iran must abandon its nuclear weapon ambitions," Bush said today. (Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, addressing the UN tonight, skipped the speech.)

Bush claimed he's still seeking a diplomatic resolution to the conflict. But a military option is very much on the table.

Retired Air Force Colonel Sam Gardiner told CNN yesterday: "We are conducting military operations inside Iran right now." And US naval forces have been alerted for deployment.

As improbable as it seems, could an attack on Iran be this election season's October surprise?

Rendition Rendered

For some time now we've known about the Bush administration's outsourcing of torture to foreign dictatorships. But for the first time we can see the whole process vividly detailed by a Western governmental source.

A Candadian judicial panel has made public its findings in the case of hapless computer programmer Maher Arar, a Muslim Canadian citizen. Wrongly suspected of terrorist connections by Canadian intelligence, Arar was placed on a U.S. watchlist.

In September 2002, while changing planes in New York City, Arar was plain kidnapped by U.S. agents and essentially "disappeared." After being held in American custody for 12 days, he was flown by the U.S. to Jordan then driven to, yes, Syria. There he was beaten and held in a coffin-sized cell for ten horrific months.

The Syrians. The Syrians we hate. The Syrians we refuse to talk to. The Syrians we will have nothing to do with. Unless, that is, we need them to torture an innocent for us.

Lab Rat for Crony Capitalism

In Sunday's Washington Post, excerpts from Rajiv Chandrasekaran's Imperial Life in the Emerald City reveal the fundamentally corrupt approach this administration took to Iraq Reconstruction.

Chandrasekaran writes,"[Job] applicants didn't need to be experts in the Middle East or in post-conflict reconstruction. What seemed most important was loyalty to the Bush administration."

President Bush's appointee who screened applicants made certain his staff asked such relevant questions as whether an individual had voted for his boss? Even views on Roe v. Wade were explored.

This is how a 24 year-old with no background in finance was tapped to reopen the Baghdad stock exchange. A 60-year old social worker with limited international health experience working for an evangelical Christian NGO was selected to rebuild Iraq's health care system. And then media-darling (and since disgraced) Bernie Kerik – the former New York City police commissioner of 9/11 fame and Homeland Security infamy – was chosen to oversee the training of Iraq's police forces, partly because he had no previous postwar policing experience and "the White House viewed that as an asset."

Frederick Smith, former deputy director of the Coalition Provisional Authority's Washington office, explains: "We didn't tap -- and it should have started from the White House on down -- just didn't tap the right people to do this job. It was a tough, tough job. Instead we got people who went out there because of their political leanings."

"The decision to send the loyal and the willing," Chandrasekaran writes, "instead of the best and the brightest" has had staggering consequences.

The health care administrator, James Haveman Jr., who replaced, according to one USAID official, "the single most talented and experienced post-conflict health specialist working for the United States government" – funded an anti-smoking campaign rather than focusing on "childhood diarrhea and other fatal maladies." He stressed privatizing and selling the drug-delivery system rather than addressing immediate drug shortages. He focused on maternity wards and new fee-based medical clinics ("Haveman didn't like the idea that medical care in Iraq was free") at the expense of hospitals treating the victims of insurgent attacks that "were the country's single largest health challenge."

"When Haveman left Iraq, Baghdad's hospitals were as decrepit as the day the Americans arrived. At Yarmouk Hospital, the city's largest, rooms lacked the most basic equipment to monitor a patient's blood pressure and heart rate, operating theaters were without modern surgical tools and sterile implements, and the pharmacy's shelves were bare. Nationwide, the Health Ministry reported that 40 percent of the 900 drugs it deemed essential were out of stock in hospitals. Of the 32 medicines used in public clinics for the management of chronic diseases, 26 were unavailable."

Kerik's results were equally abysmal. He ventured out on nighttime raids that garnered good press, and slept during the day when the real business of administration needed to be done. According to Chandrasekaran, while officers "needed to be screened for Baath Party connections," due process and interrogations without torture needed to be taught (who taught whom?), new weapons needed to be procured, and new chiefs and officers needed to be hired…. Kerik held exactly two staff meetings. One on the day he arrived, the other when the New York Times was shadowing him.

Kerik left after three months, saying, "I was in my own world. I did my own thing."

The same can be said of this entire administration.

The raw and wanton costs of GOP cronyism have played out in a tragic and obscene way in Iraq, where implementing a flat tax was more important than rehabilitating hospitals… where selling government assets was more important than generating electricity… where allegiance to George Bush was more critical than language fluency or postwar rebuilding experience.

These days it is often said that the Bush administration lacked a plan for reconstruction. In fact, its plan and that of the GOP party-liners is all too clear: Iraq was simply a lab rat for its crony capitalism and savage treatment of the Iraqi people -- not to mention the exploitation of our men and women sent to fight and die for a plan this administration dare not utter.

This administration doesn't have a problem with attention to detail. The injustice lies in the details it selects and pays attention to -- leaving a world of destruction in its wake.

Election Dysfunction

The Sunday Washington Post headline said it all. Echoing a theme that is finally being picked up by print and broadcast media that for too long has neglected the dramatic problems with this country's systems for casting and counting votes, the newspaper's front page announced: "Major Problems At Polls Feared: Some Officials Say Voting Law Changes And New Technology Will Cause Trouble."

Following a disastrous election day in Maryland that was defined by human blunders, technical glitches, long lines and long delays in vote counting so severe that some contests remain unresolved almost a week after the balloting, the Post declared that, "An overhaul in how states and localities record votes and administer elections since the Florida recount battle six years ago has created conditions that could trigger a repeat -- this time on a national scale -- of last week's Election Day debacle in the Maryland suburbs, election experts said."

No fooling!

Some of us have been writing and talking about this country's almost fully dysfunctional electoral systems for the better part of a decade. And the one thing that every serious observer of the electoral meltdown recognizes is that the people who have managed the mess ought not to be trusted to clean it up.

That's the message that underpins the candidacy of John Bonifaz for the Democratic nomination for Massachusetts Secretary of State.

Bonifaz, the founder of the National Voting Rights Institute, is one of a number of activists and advocates who are running in races for secretary of state positions around the country this year. They have recognized that these posts, which in most states are responsible for conducting elections, can no longer be trusted to Republican partisans -- such as Florida's Katherine Harris and Ohio's Ken Blackwell -- or Democratic hacks. They have to be occupied by champions of democracy who believe that protecting and the promoting the right to vote must be the central function of local and state election officials.

Some of these champions have already secured secretary of state nominations, including Minnesota Democrat Mark Ritchie and California Democrat Debra Bowen. But in Massachusetts, where the primary is Tuesday, Bonifaz faces a tough challenge. He must overcome an entrenched incumbent, William Galvin, who at one point was considered a serious contender for governor but dropped back to seek reelection as secretary of state.

That decision by Galvin made Bonifaz's job much harder. But he has persevered with a primary campaign that has spoken well and wisely of the need to fix our broken election systems. His small "d" democratic commitment has earned Bonifaz enthusiastic endorsements from newspapers such as the Boston Phoenix, one of the nation's premier alternative weeklies, and the New Bedford Standard-Times, which declared last week that, "Mr. Galvin has not used his office enough to push through voting reforms that make Massachusetts a shining example and a leader in reviving democracy at the local level. Mr. Bonifaz will be that champion for the voter."

Bonifaz has also won the backing of national figures who have been active on behalf of voting rights, including U.S. Representatives John Conyers, D-Michigan, and Jesse Jackson Jr., D-Illinois., along with the support of the state's many Progressive Democrats of America chapters.

What appeals about Bonifaz is the seriousness of his uphill campaign, a seriousness that is highlighted by the candidate's commitment to a Voters' Bill of Rights that ought to be the platform on which progressives stand as they address this country's democracy shortfall.

Bonifaz's Voters Bill of Rights promises to:

1. Count every vote

The right to vote includes the right to have our votes properly counted.

We must ensure that every citizen's vote will be counted. This includes a guarantee of open and transparent elections with verified voting, paper trails, hand-recorded paper ballots, and access to the source codes for, and random audits of, electronic voting machines. It also includes a guarantee that we the people, through our government, will control our voting machines -- not private companies.

2. Make voting easier

We should enact election day registration here in Massachusetts, removing the barrier of registration prior to Election Day. Seven states have election day registration. They have a higher voter turnout in their elections and have no evidence of voter fraud. We should be encouraging greater participation in the political process, starting with election day registration.

We should also ensure absentee voting for all, allow for early voting, and remove other barriers that make it difficult for people to vote.

3. End the big money dominance of our electoral process

In a democracy, public elections should be publicly financed. In Maine and Arizona, publicly financed elections have enabled people to run for office who would never have dreamed of running under a system dominated by big money interests. We, as voters, need to own our elections, rather than allow the process to be controlled by the wealthy few.

We also need to enact mandatory limits on campaign spending. In 1976, the Supreme Court wrongly struck down mandatory campaign spending limits for congressional elections. Massachusetts should help lead the way with campaign spending limits for our elections.

4. Expand voter choice

Instant run-off voting: Voters should be able to rank their choices of candidates, ensuring majority support for those elected and allowing greater voter choice and wider voter participation.

Cross Endorsement Voting (Fusion voting): Voters should be able to cast their ballots for major party candidates on a minor party's ballot line, placing power in the hands of the people and broadening public debate on the issues of the day.

Proportional Representation: Voters should be allowed their fair share of representation, ensuring that majority rule does not prevent minority voices from being heard.

5. Ensure access for new citizens and language minorities

The right to vote does not speak one specific language. It is universal. No one should be denied the right to vote because of a language barrier.

6. Level the playing field for challengers

Redistricting reform -- Incumbent legislators should not have the power to draw their own district lines. We must transfer this power to independent non-partisan commissions and create fair standards for redistricting, thereby promoting competition in our electoral process and improving representation for the people.

7. Ensure non-partisan election administration

The Secretary of the Commonwealth must be a Secretary for all of us, regardless of party affiliation. The Secretary should not be allowed to serve as a co-chair of campaigns of candidates. To ensure the people's trust in the integrity of our elections, the Secretary must conduct the administration of elections in a non-partisan manner.

8. Make government more accessible to all of us

Democracy is not just about our participation on Election Day. We need to participate every day and our government needs to be accessible to us every day. This means a government that is open and transparent, that encourages people to make their voices heard, and that enlists citizen participation in addressing the major issues of our time.

9. Amend the US Constitution to ensure an affirmative right to vote

One hundred and eight democratic nations in the world have explicit language guaranteeing the right to vote in their constitutions, and the United States -- along with only ten other such nations -- does not. As a result, the way we administer elections in this country changes from state to state, from county to county, from locality to locality. The Secretary of the Commonwealth must fight for a constitutional amendment that affirmatively guarantees the right to vote in the US Constitution.


John Nichols is the author of Jews for Buchanan (The New Press), an account of the Florida recount fight following the 2000 presidential election, and numerous articles on America's dysfunctional electoral systems.

Iraq for Sale

The Bush Administration appointed political cronies to run Iraq and gave lucrative no-bid contracts to the former employer of our Vice President.

No wonder the occupation is turning out so badly.

Of the $18 billion spent on the now-halted Iraqi reconstruction, half is still missing. Since October 2004, the Department of Defense has not had one internal investigator on the ground.

Corruption has run rampant under such circumstances, with Halliburton the leading beneficiary.

Today, the Senate Democratic Policy Committee held its tenth hearing on contracting abuses in Iraq. An earlier hearing found that Halliburton had been unable to substantiate $1.4 billion in charges to the government. Today's hearing focused on how Halliburton billed taxpayers for a Super Bowl Party, among other luxuries--and also knowingly sent truck drivers into hotspots without warning or protection.

Yet the Bush Administration has done nothing to curtail such conduct, refusing to investigate these abuses under the False Claims Act. "The last thing the Administration wants, it appears, is more bad news out of Iraq, and it is willing to throw a monkey wrench into the machinery of justice to prevent that," testified attorney Alan Grayson, who Taxpayers Against Fraud recently named lawyer of the year.

Many of the revelations from today's hearing--and more--are featured in Robert Greenwald's new film, "Iraq For Sale." The film opens tonight. Go see it.

Full Disclosure

Question: What activity burns through money "like jet fuel," involvesthree armored cars, forty-five full-time, Kalashnikov-toting securityguards, and two blast-wall-enclosed houses with belt-fed machine-gunsmounted on their roofs?

Answer: Reporting from Iraq. This comes from New York Timesjournalist Dexter Filkins, now home from Baghdad on a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard University.

According to an article by David S. Hirschman ofEditor & Publisher Online, he added as well that, essentially, if you're a Western reporter in Iraq, you can never go out. Filkinsclaimed that "98 percent of Iraq, and even most of Baghdad, has nowbecome ‘off-limits' for Western journalists."

Here's the problem. I've been reading New York Times reportagesince the invasion of Iraq began and I don't remember running across afigure like that -- and neither has just about anyone else who happens to have been reading a major paper in the US for the last year. When, way back in September 2004, an e-mail fromthe Wall Street Journal's fine reporter Farnaz Fassihi slippedinto public view, suggesting that "[b]eing a foreign correspondent inBaghdad these days is like being under virtual house arrest," it wastreated as a scandal in the media; her "objectivity" was called intoquestion; and (if memory serves) she was sent on vacation until afterthe presidential election. While there was a vigorous discussion in the British press of what came to be called "hoteljournalism," it was hardly a subject here, once you got pastThe New York Review ofBooks.

It seems to me that it should be news when Filkins reports that Western journalists can no longer even go to the scene of a car bombing and that there are many situations in Iraq "even too dangerous for Iraqi reporters to report on."

Cigarette packs have their warning labels, as do vitamin supplements.Shouldn't our news have the equivalent? How about little pie-charticons before each Iraqi story suggesting what percentage of the news pie had been available that day. Or a warning label that might say: "This ordinary piece was put together by American reporters locked in their well-guarded and barricaded buildings from scraps of information delivered by Iraqi reporters who can't even tell their families where they work for fear of assassination."

My own theory, based on a 1 percent pie slice of knowledge about that missing98 percent of Iraq, is that that must be where the "good news" is -- you know, the stuff that the Bush administration has so long insisted the media doesn't cover. And it's undoubtedly zealously guarded by Shiite and Sunni militants, who aren't about to share all the wonderful things Bush/Cheney reconstruction has done for Iraq with the rest of us.

Lamont Gets Key Union Endorsement

Last Friday, I predicted that AFSCME'S Council 4--Connecticut's largest AFL-CIO union--would endorse Ned Lamont for the US Senate. While the union backed Lieberman in the primary, its delegates now realize that "it boiled down to a simple question: Which candidate will stand up to George Bush and Dick Cheney." Not a tough choice considering Lieberman, on the stump and at a recent speech at Fairfield University on Friday, sounded an awful lot like the White House and Defense Secretary Rumsfeld.

AFSCME'S delegates were also critical of Lieberman's "lackluster at best" support for the three Democratic candidates challenging Republican incumbents in the state. Those races--and others in the Northeast--are critical if Democrats are to take back the House.

AFSCME's Council 4 represents more than 35,000 state and federal employees. For more on this crucial labor endorsement, read the press release the union issued this morning:

"Since the August 8th primary, we paid close attention to the remarks of both men," said Sal Luciano, executive director of Council 4. "We saw Lieberman moving closer and closer to Bush while Ned Lamont held firm in his strong opposition to the direction Bush is taking us." "In the end, our delegates realized that it boiled down to a simple question: Which candidate will stand up to George Bush and Dick Cheney," Luciano said. "That candidate is Ned Lamont and only Ned Lamont."

"The Bush administration is driving this country into a ditch," Luciano said. "We're spending $250 million a day on the war in Iraq while doling out billions of dollars in corporate welfare and tax breaks for the rich. That's money we should invest in education, healthcare and job creation. And that's why we're supporting Ned Lamont."

"With nearly 400,000 Connecticut citizens going uninsured, our state is facing a serious health care crisis," said Luciano. "Ned Lamont supports universal health care that will provide high quality health care for all."

"Connecticut is losing good-paying jobs at an alarming rate," Luciano continued. "We need real leaders in Washington to fix our flawed trade and tax policies. Ned Lamont will be that kind of leader."

"Endorsing Mr. Lamont was not an easy decision in light of Joe Lieberman's distinguished years of public service," Luciano finished. "Over the years Joe was with us much more that he was against us, but his positions since the primary have not been good. The delegates unanimously endorsed Courtney, Farrell and Murphy," referring to the three challengers to Connecticut's Republican Incumbent Congressmen, "and Mr. Lieberman's support of them has been lackluster at best.Connecticut citizens are fed up with business-as-usual politics in Washington, and Joe just wouldn't listen."

As I wrote last Friday, AFSCME's size and power inside the AFL will make a difference in this race.

Remembering Afghanistan

Let's talk about Afghanistan, since no one else will. The nation is once again in crisis. The Taliban is resurgent. Opium production is soaring. Suicide bombings are on the rise. And the US and NATO-led coalition is feeling the strain.

Last week, NATO leaders issued an urgent call for more troops to stabilize the country. Thus far only one member of the twenty-six country alliance has offered assistance. The US has more than six times as many troops in Iraq as we do in Afghanistan.

As security takes precedence, reconstruction is halting. Afghanistan's collapse after the mujahideen repelled the invasion of the Soviet Union led to the rise of the Taliban. Another return to lawlessness and extremism would be a disaster for the country and a huge seatback for the US campaign against terrorism. We neglect Afghanistan at our own peril.