The Nation

If at First You Don't Succeed

Okay, it wasn't on the front page of my hometown paper, but maybe it should have been. How many of you remember the fun folks at the Lincoln Group, an outfit that bills itself as "a strategic communications & pubic relations firm providing insight & influence in challenging & hostile environments." You said it! And the last time around, on a $5 million-plus yearly Pentagon contract to produce a little good news in Iraq, they did a great job of adding to the general hostility of several environments.

Using US military personnel to write "news" stories, they had them translated and (for a price) slipped into the new "free" Iraqi press. It was a fine lesson in the spread of democratic habits, Bush-style. (After all, the same administration was paying columnists at home to slip a little of that good news our way.) The Lincoln Group's modus operandi blew up into a little scandal. The result? According to Rebecca Santana of the Associated Press, based on the Brownie-you're-doing-a-heck-of-a-job school of government -- what US military spokesperson in Iraq, Lt. Col. Barry Johnson, simply terms a "standard contracting process" -- they're back for more. The Group just got a new, two-year, approximately $6.2 million annual Pentagon contract "to monitor a number of English and Arabic media outlets and produce public relations-type products such as talking points or speeches for U.S. forces in Iraq." A Lincoln Group spokesman put it eloquently: They are "proud to be trusted to assist the multinational forces in Iraq with communicating news about their vital work."

Who knows exactly what this means, but it can't be good.

Still, using the same principle on which the Bush administration awarded the new contract -- if at first you don't succeed, try, definitely try again (and spend an absolute boodle on your cronies in the process), let me, for five cents, offer some advice of my own. After all, I've been monitoring the press for a while and military spokespeople as well.

Now, we all know that imagery is important in the process of producing "public relations-type products" that will turn the tide of the media war (especially here at home). So, here are some images and claims that have worked -- for a while, at least -- these last years. They may still be useful for military spokespeople eager to put the best twist on a situation that was, from the beginning, twisting, twisting in the wind:

*Suggest that you want to help the Iraqi child get on that bike of democracy and remove "the training wheels"

*Insist that we are working to "put an Iraqi face on" [choose an Iraqi event]

*[Choose an Iraqi moment or event, but do it quickly before things go sour] and label it a "milestone" or a "landmark"

*Suggest that, thanks to [choose your event], we are finally "turning a corner" (but don't look around that corner, not without body armor anyway)

*Suggest that [choose your enemy method of attack], these are "last ditch efforts" aimed at "bolstering flagging insurgent moral"; speak of whatever disaster has just happened as "predictable" or "an indicator of insurgent desperation"

*Claim that [whatever bad stats may be spiking at the moment] will probably decline in [choose another moment perhaps three to six months away]

*Assert that however bad the news may seem, "we" are "making progress" in certain areas (about which you can remain suitably vague)

But above all, retain anonymity. Insist on being called a "senior military official." You don't want to be held responsible for the ensuing mess.

Now, that'll be $6.2 million dollars, please...

This Is What Waterboarding Looks Like

As Congress has debated legislation that would set up military tribunals and govern the questioning of suspected terrorists (whom the Bush administration would like to be able to detain indefinitely), at issue has been what interrogation techniques can be employed and whether information obtained during torture can be used against those deemed unlawful enemy combatants. One interrogation practice central to this debate is waterboarding. It's usually described in the media in a matter-of-fact manner. The Washington Post simply referred to waterboarding a few days ago as an interrogation measure that "simulates drowning." But what does waterboarding look like?

You can see here. Jonah Blank, an anthropologist and foreign policy adviser to the Democratic staff of the US Senate, was in Cambodia last month and came across an actual waterboard at a former prison turned into a museum that chronicles the horrors of the Khmer Rouge regime. Blank took photos of the waterboard and a painting depicting its use. I cannot post photos in this space, but I've published his photos on my own blog at www.davidcorn.com.

Go there for Blank's photos and commentary. As he notes,

These photos are important because most of us have never seen an actual, real-life waterboard. The press typically describes it in the most anodyne ways: a device meant to "simulate drowning" or to "make the prisoner believe he might drown." But the Khymer Rouge were no jokesters, and they didn't tailor their abuse to the dictates of the Geneva Convention. They--like so many brutal regimes--made waterboarding one of their primary tools for a simple reason: it is one of the most viciously effective forms of torture ever devised.

Legislation backed by Bush and congressional Republicans would Congressional would explicitly permit the use of evidence obtained through waterboarding and other forms of torture. Khalid Sheikh Muhammad and other top al Qaeda leaders have reportedly been subjected to this technique. They would certainly note--or try to note--that at any trial. But with this legislation, the White House is seeking to declare the use of waterboarding (at least in the past) as a legitimate practice of the US government.

The House of Representatives voted for Bush's bill on Thursday, 253 to 168 (with 34 Democrats siding with the president and only seven Republicans breaking with their party's leader). The Senate is expected to vote on the bill today. Its members should consider Blank's photos and arguments before they, too, go off the deep end.


INFO ON HUBRIS: THE INSIDE STORY OF SPIN, SCANDAL, AND THE SELLING OF THE IRAQ WAR: Tom Brokaw says "Hubris, the new best-seller by Michael Isikoff and David Corn, is a bold and provocative book that will quickly become an explosive part of the national debate on how we got involved in Iraq." Hendrik Hertzberg, senior editor of The New Yorker notes, "The selling of Bush's Iraq debacle is one of the most important--and appalling--stories of the last half-century, and Michael Isikoff and David Corn have reported the hell out of it." For more information on Hubris, click here.

Green Wal-Mart Gets Meaner

Recently, I wrote an article for the magazine -- sorry, it's not available on the web unless you subscribe -- on Wal-Mart's recent decision to become a major player in the organic food business. The Cornucopia Institute, a progressive group that advocates for family-scale farming, released a report today showing that an "organic Wal-Mart" may indeed be more Mean than Green.

According to the report, the company has a contract to source milk from Aurora Organic Dairy, which is one of the worst industrial organic offenders -- using cattle confined in feedlots, with little if any access to pasture. Aurora is also being investigated for a number of other violations of the organic standards. While there are plenty of problems with milk sold by Horizon (also available at Wal-Mart) at least Horizon gets about half of its milk from family-scale farms; Aurora's is 100% factory farm.

Cornucopia also reports that Wal-Mart is indeed, as many observers predicted, sourcing some of its organic products from China -- canned chick peas and other beans, for example. This could certainly be good for the Chinese, as the demand may cause many acres of conventional farmland to go organic, cleaning up the surrounding groundwater and soil. But it's also troubling because shipping products such a distance, when they could be grown locally, is a waste of energy, and exacts a formidable toll on the ozone layer; such a practice hardly meets the ideal of sustainability that many customers are seeking when they look for that organic label. Cornucopia also found that Wal-Mart was selling two brands of "organic" infant formula containing synthetic additives that have not yet been reviewed by the National Organic Standards Board, and that have been processed with hexane, a scary neurotoxin.

In other Wal-Mart news, the company is trying to counter its political troubles -- from site fights to "Fair Share" laws to living wage ordinances -- through "voter education" within its own workforce. Of course the company insists that the information it's giving workers is nonpartisan, but in fact, very few of the politicians that publicly criticize the company are Republican, and the company is clearly responding to recent attacks by Democrats hoping to rally their base. A Wal-Mart department manager -- who wished to remain anonymous -- told me the other day that it might backfire. "Oh, of course they want us to vote Republican," she explains, "but you know, I have been talking to some associates and just the mere fact that Wal-Mart is trying to coerce them... is making them vote the other way."


In 2006, 80 percent of voters will cast their ballots on electronic voting machines. As recent elections and tests show, these machines are still far from secure.

"All three of the most commonly purchased electronic systems have significant security and reliability vulnerabilities," says a report by the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU.

As Katrina notes today, e-voting machines are not the only obstacle facing voters on election day. But they remain a major one.

That's why Senators Barbara Boxer, Chris Dodd and Russ Feingold introduced the "Confidence in Voting Act" to ensure that paper ballots are available at every polling place.

Governor Robert Ehrlich of Maryland, a Republican, last week endorsed the paper ballot alternative, concluding after the primaries that his state's new $106 million electronic system wasn't up to the test.

There are only two days left before Congress adjourns and members spend the rest of their time campaigning for re-election.

You can click here to urge Congress to take up the emergency legislation before it's too late.

Suppressing the Vote

With Election Day around the corner, and concerns about another voting debacle of Florida 2000-proportions running high (especially given problems at primaries this year in Maryland, Ohio, Illinois and several other states) – Republicans in Congress are on the job and doing everything they can to further disenfranchise voters.

Rather than taking the necessary steps to strengthen, expand and improve the democratic process, the GOP has launched a new effort to create modern-day Jim Crow exclusionary practices through new voter ID requirements.

The House recently passed a bill along party lines requiring voters to present a photo ID beginning in 2008. Starting in 2010, voters would need to pay for a government-issued proof of citizenship – a virtual poll tax. This shameful legislation was passed just months after the reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act when President Bush declared "the right of ordinary men and women to determine their own political future."

"If the [House] Bill passed the Senate and became law, the electorate would likely become more middle-aged, whiter and richer – and, its sponsors are anticipating, more Republican," the New York Times wrote in a recent editorial.

Demos, a national public policy organization, reports that the legislation would disproportionately impact people of color, individuals with disabilities, rural voters, people living on reservations, the homeless, and low-income people – all of whom studies show are less likely to carry a photo ID and more often have to change photo ID information.

Senate Democrats have asked that Majority Leader Bill Frist not bring the bill to the floor. In a letter to Frist, Senators Reid, Kennedy, Dodd and Obama wrote: "The burdensome and costly requirements of obtaining [citizenship] documents not only could prevent many eligible voters from participating, but… Worst of all, this bill recalls a dark era in our nation when individuals were required to pay a poll tax to cast their ballot and has been termed a 21st century poll tax." Frist's next move remains to be seen.

States, too, are getting into the voter suppression act. Georgia, Missouri and Indiana have passed similar ID requirements. The laws were overturned by the courts in Georgia and Missouri while in Indiana, the law was upheld by district court and is now under appeal. The right- wing pins hopes on appealing all the way to the Supreme Court where decisions by Scalia and the Supremes seem to fall in their "1 Man, 1 Vote – sort of" favor.

"This is the most sinister scheme I've ever seen," said former Georgia Governor Roy Barnes, "and it's going on nationwide." "Voter suppression doesn't happen with intimidation on election day," said Michael Waldman, executive director of The Brennan Center for Justice, "but rather through silent and sometimes secret government actions in the weeks leading up to an election."

If the Republicans are truly concerned about "the integrity of our voting process," as Rep. John Boehner claims, they should take a look at flawed voting machines that, according to the Washington Post, "scientists have shown they could manipulate… to report a vote total that differed from the actual total cast by voters." Or they could address the fact that the Diebold machines tested in Cuyahoga County, which includes Cleveland, rendered a paper trail "nearly 10 percent of [which was] destroyed, blank, illegible, or otherwise compromised." Or they could explain why a Princeton professor was able to hack into a voting machine as an experiment. Or they could reform the administering of elections, so that partisan secretaries of state with lofty political ambitions such as Katherine Harris and Ken Blackwell are no longer running the show. Or they could try to stop the purges of valid voters from the voter rolls…

The blueprint for what to do is out there. Robert Pastor, director of a commission on electoral reform organized by former President Jimmy Carter and former Secretary of State James Baker, told the Washington Post, "The Carter-Baker commission identified 87 steps that need to be undertaken. Regrettably, almost none of them are being done right now. I would start by establishing statewide, nonpartisan election administration."

And Americans can start by voting Democrat this November, and then pressing a new Congress to give us common sense reforms that create a truly democratic, transparent and legitimate electoral system.

Just hope your vote is counted – correctly.

A Sovereign Iraq?

In Wednesday's Washington Post, reporter Amit Paley reveals what the Iraqi people want from their sovereign state: "A strong majority of Iraqis want U.S.-led military forces to immediately withdraw from the country, saying their swift departure would make Iraq more secure and decrease sectarian violence, according to new polls by the State Department and independent researchers."

The State Department poll shows that 65 percent of Baghdad residents favor an immediate pullout. And polling by the Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland indicates that 71 percent of Iraqis want U.S. led forces out within a year. Even 57 percent of Sunni Muslims – who might fear reprisals from a Shiite majority – favor a U.S. withdrawal within 6 months.

According to the State Department report titled Iraq Civil War Fears Remain High in Sunni and Mixed Areas: "Majorities in all regions except Kurdish areas state that the Multi-National Force-Iraq (MNF-I) should withdraw immediately, adding that the MNF-I's departure would make them feel safer and decrease violence."

If we truly believe in democracy in Iraq and it is now clear that the Iraqi people want us to leave, why not allow the country's citizens to vote on the issue? Perhaps a simple ballot proposition: "Should U.S. troops remain in Iraq or leave within a year?" – with a stay or leave option.

The new polling refutes the notion dominating today's Washington Post op-ed page – and its editorials every week--that we have the right to stay in Iraq as an occupying force.

Bin Laden 'Not Our Priority'

Pop Quiz!

Who said this?

"I don't know where bin Laden is. I have no idea and really don't care. It's not that important. It's not our priority."

Or this?

"I don't know where he is. I'll repeat what I said. I truly am not that concerned about him."

Or this?

"Deep in my heart I know the man's on the run, if he's alive at all...I just don't spend much time on it, really, to be honest with you."

And who disbanded the CIA unit dedicated to finding bin Laden?

Hint: It wasn't Bill Clinton.

Foot-Long Hot Dog in Mouth Disease

Even by dysfunctional family reunion standards, last week's UN Summit was a blowout. There were the Presidents of Iran and the United States avoiding each other like estranged cousins, the President of Venezuela calling Bush the devil, and the Prime Minister of Thailand discovering he had been deposed back home.

The only reunion that could rival this for pyrotechnics was the one between Senator Allen and his mother, Etty Lumbroso, when she told him she was, in fact, Jewish. After the revelation, she cried, "Now you don't love me anymore"--and swore him to silence.

What could have been a powerful opportunity for Allen to bury the Macaca-inspired questions about his sensitivity was instead blown by his handling of the revelation. Specifically: his insistence that, quote, "I was raised as a Christian and my mother was raised as a Christian," even after he knew this wasn't the case; his (faux) outraged "making aspersions" response when asked by a TV reporter at a debate about his heritage, as if the reporter was Torquemada; and his awkward stereotypical quips: "I still had a ham sandwich for lunch. And my mother made great pork chops."

Now Allen faces accusations from three college football teammates that he was a racist, who was overly fond of the "N" word and placed a severed deer head in an African-American family's mailbox, supposedly inspired by the famous horse-head scene in the then just-released first Godfather movie.

The senator, who a few months ago was a shoo-in for reelection and a front runner for the Republican presidential nomination, is discovering with each misstep that the public just doesn't love him anymore. Maybe he should stick to silence.

Bow to the King

Just as Senators McCain/Graham/Warner largely capitulated to Bush on torture, another group of dissident GOP Senators are bowing to the Administration on another critical national security issue: warrantless wiretapping.

Senators Larry Craig, John Sununu and Lisa Murkowski, who helped delay the reauthorization of the Patriot Act, yesterday struck a deal with the Administration. The agreement would alter Bush's powers ever so slightly, while allowing him to continue bypassing the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) courts and conducting "massive warrantless surveillance of Americans," says Kate Martin, director of the Center for National Security Studies.

While the Senators dealt Bush another victory and the constitution another blow, a group of thirteen former high ranking national security officials, including past directors of the FBI and CIA, came out against the legislation.

"This legislation would return a complex subject to the murky waters from which FISA emerged," the letter states. "It leaves it to the President to decide when he has the authority to conduct warrantless surveillance of Americans or foreigners. Whether he has made the right determination will not be known unless and until it is challenged in court.

As individuals with extensive experience in national security and intelligence, we strongly urge that the requirements of FISA remain just that--requirements, not options."