At a forum in Iowa this past Saturday, organized by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, most of the Dems angling for their party's nomination finally challenged Bush on his record in fighting terrorism abroad and protecting Americans at home. Bush's opponents need to keep asking American citizens if they feel safer now after the invasion of Iraq? I don't.
Look at the record: Al-Qaeda regrouping, warlords running Afghanistan, Iraq sliding into lawlessness, no sign of those weapons of mass destruction, and the gutting of homeland security funding. Isn't this what any sane person would call a failed national security policy?
It's also time to challenge Terry McAuliffe, Chair of the Democratic National Committee, who earlier this year urged that "the war...not be on the ballot in 2004." But why should Dems cede national security when even Karl Rove has all but admitted that Bush is vulnerable on the issue? It's also time to take on the corporate wing of the party, the Democratic Leadership Council--or, as Jesse Jackson used to call it, the Democratic Leisure Class.
The DLC's recent memo, "The Real Soul of the Democratic Party," purporting to be a strategy for winning in 2004, has received lots of attention for its blast at Howard Dean for being an elitist liberal. (For an intelligent critique of Dean, read Jim Farrell's recent Nation edit.) This memo is must reading for anyone who's forgotten the Democratic debacle in the 2002 midterms. If that disaster taught us anything, it is that Bush is a relentless and effective campaigner, and the only way to beat him and his party will be for the Dems to distinguish themselves as a relentless and effective party of opposition.
Message to Al From and his timid DLC: The Republican-lite Democratic Leadership Council's hard to beat something with nothing. Unless the Dems stand up and lay out a real agenda for the country, with some passion, principles and vision, they can forget about electability.
While the Administration denies media reports that it has given US forces in Iraq the go-ahead to shoot looters on sight, Donald Rumsfeld, testifying last week before the Senate Appropriations Committee, promised that US forces will be "using muscle" to contain the looting. Rumsfeld also called for patience, saying of Iraq: "We can't make it like the United States in five minutes, and we know that."
Some good Senator should have asked Rumsfeld about the looting going on in Washington, DC. Politically-connected corporations with close ties to the Bush Administration are arranging lucrative contracts to rebuild Iraq. (Bechtel has a contract worth up to $700 million and the Halliburton subsidiary has been authorized to take profits of up to $490 million.) And where was the Senator to point out how singularly ill-suited the Bush Administration is to the task of rebuilding Iraq?
Bush Inc.--the most resolutely anti-government Administration since before the New Deal--is brazenly indifferent to the rebuilding--or even the maintaining--of the United States. So Rumsfeld & Co's idea of making Iraq like the US may not take as much time as they think--if it means gutting the infrastructure of a country, while looting its treasury (and oil wealth) to line the pockets of war-profiteering corporations.
Sociologist Herbert Gans has a good idea. "What if the news media reported the best of the monologue material as well as the currently circulating political jokes and connected them with the news stories that inspired them?"
After all, as Gans reminds us in his new book Democracy and the News, many people, particularly those between eighteen and thiry-five, get much of their news from late-night comedy hosts like Jay Leno, Conan O'Brien and Jon Stewart, of Comedy Central's The Daily Show (recently described by Susan Douglas in The Nation as "the medically prescribed antidote to CNN and Fox.")
Here's a joke I'd like to see connected to the news stories that inspired it. It's from one of my favorite comedians--Chris Rock:
"You know the world is going crazy when the best rapper is a white guy, the best golfer is a black guy, the tallest guy in the NBA is Chinese, the Swiss hold the America's Cup, France is accusing the US of arrogance, Germany doesn't want to go to war, and the three most powerful men in America are named 'Bush', 'Dick' and 'Colon'. Need I say more?"
Need I say more?
Introducing a new feature of this web column: Campaign Contortions '04.
Politicians often find themselves in tight spots. They have to take stands on issues they'd rather duck. They find themselves caught trying to satisfy (or pander to) different constituencies. They want to escape from political and policy indiscretions of their youths (read: previous positions that might not help them now). Remember George W. Bush signing the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill that he had essentially called unconstitutional and pledged to veto while running for president? In the midst of the Enron scandal, he obviously felt he couldn't shoot down a measure billed as a clean-up-politics initiative, despite the pleading from conservative activists to smother it and despite his own beliefs. It will "improve the system," he said at the signing ceremony--as if he were drinking castor oil.
In the months ahead, I hope to honor the more impressive feats of political acrobatics. Had the idea of doing so occurred to me earlier, Senator John Kerry's stance on the war in Iraq might have been worth a nomination. First, he was critical of Bush. He then voted for the legislation authorizing Bush to launch a war. After that, Kerry was critical of Bush again, urging more diplomacy. Once the invasion was launched, he said he supported Bush's decision. Kerry is an intelligent man, and, no doubt, he can offer an explanation that would turn apparent zigs and zags into a straight line of principle. But effective contortions do require deftness.
Alas, the rules committee says, no ancient history qualifies. Consequently, the first CC goes to presidential contender Senator John Edwards, the North Carolinian who is trying to be a populist, to appeal to traditional Democratic liberals, and to exploit his standing as the sole Southerner-with-an-accent in the 2004 pack.
On May 12, he delivered a keynote address at a black tie dinner in Atlanta for the Human Rights Campaign, a leading gay rights organization. Edwards declared he supports the rights of gays and lesbians to adopt children. "I was raised," he said, "to believe...in an America that embraces everybody." He added, "families are at the core of who we are as human beings. And committed families based on love and responsibility deserve to be respected. For me, those families include the families that are in this room tonight." All Democratic presidential contenders have to take this line. But for Edwards, adopting this position does have a risk, since he may still decide to run for reelection in his home state.
So where is the contortion? Edwards' campaign says that though he endorses gay adoption he has reservations about civil unions for gays and lesbians and would leave decisions on this matter to the states. His press secretary noted, "It's an issue he thinks the country--and North Carolina--is not ready for."
The not-ready-for dodge is classic. Is the question the national state of readiness, or what is right and wrong? (It's hard to resist pointing out that Edwards' Southern predecessors hid behind the not-ready-yet argument during the era of the civil rights movement.) But Edwards deserves a CC not for trotting out the it's-not-time excuse. He wins it for saying states should recognize gays and lesbians as parents but not as partners. Which means he believes it is fine for children to be placed within families in which the parents are not granted the same rights and legitimacy as heterosexual parents. If "families are the core of who we are as human beings," as Edwards told the HRCers, then why not strengthen families led by gays or lesbians? At least for the sake of the children.
Edwards' position is a bit out of sync with the laws regarding gay family matters. Only one state--Florida--specifically bans a single gay or lesbian from adopting a child. But many states have laws and policies that discourage adoption by unmarried couples, and these are used to prevent gay couples from adopting. The law is complicated and unclear in many states, but the ACLU notes, "it's generally easier for a gay individual to adopt a child than it is for a [gay] couple to adopt a child together." This sends an odd message: one gay parent is okay; two are not. Gay and lesbian couples need more assistance in obtaining the right to adopt than do gay and lesbian singles. Edwards, though, is "not ready" to assist them via civil unions, which would presumably confer a right to adopt.
Is Edwards hoping to provide himself a slim piece of political cover by asserting gay adoption is important for children ("in a world where far too many children are neglected or unwanted, we need to encourage responsible, loving adults to raise children") but gay partnerships do not deserve official recognition? "Edwards' position on civil unions puts him in a more conservative position than most of the nine-person democratic presidential field," The Charlotte Observer writes. "That could hurt him in the primaries but might limit conservatives' anger during the general election." Perhaps he sincerely believes gay adoption is fine but civil unions are problematic. If that is case, he ought to offer more of an explanation than the we're-not-ready line.
For telling gays and lesbians, you have the right to be a parent but not to be a legal partner, Edwards picks up the first CC of the 2004 election.
I'll hand out other CCs--as long as politicians continue to contort. If you have any nominations, send them along to email@example.com. And, please, do use the word "contortion" in the subject head.
The Department of Homeland Security's Air and Marine Interdiction Division (AMID) says its mission is to "Protect the Nation's borders and the American people from the smuggling of narcotics and other contraband with an integrated and coordinated air and marine interdiction force."
So it is easy to understand why Texans were scratching their heads when they learned that the division's Air and Marine Interdiction and Coordination Center in Riverside, California, played a critical role in tracking down the Democratic legislators who went missing from the Texas Capitol this week.
The revelation that the federal anti-terrorism agency joined the Republican-sponsored hunt for the Texas legislators has sparked a fury in Austin and in Washington. While the Texas Democratic Party is calling for an accounting of all the state and federal resources employed in the partisan dragnet, Congressional Democrats in Washington are demanding to know how and why a Department of Homeland Security tracking center in California was pulled into the service of the Republican leadership in the Texas State House.
The federal angle is the latest twist in the bizarre saga of Republican abuse of power and Democratic counter moves in Texas.
The story of the absent legislators is big news, not just in Texas but in Washington. US House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, was furious with the Democrats, whose absence will prevent enactment of a redistricting plan DeLay had crafted to increase the number of Texas congressional districts likely to elect Republicans from 15 to 19. The legally-dubious gerrymandering scheme has been a top priority of DeLay; the powerful Republican leader admits he has even discussed it with President Bush, a former Texas governor, who reportedly told DeLay, "I'd like to see that happen." As it became increasingly clear that DeLay would not get his way -- the absence of the Democratic legislators has denied the Texas Republican leaders the quorum needed to approve the redistricting plan before a Thursday deadline -- he blew up. The man politicos refer to as "The Hammer" was so angry that he speculated on Tuesday about whether federal law might allow FBI agents to travel to the Oklahoma hotel where 51 Democrats were staying, arrest the lawmakers and return them to Austin before the deadline. U.S. Representative Lloyd Doggett, D-Texas, said it appeared that Republican leaders were trying to make federal law enforcement agencies "Tom DeLay's personal police force."
DeLay's dream was not to be, however. When Texas House Speaker Tom Craddick, DeLay's man in Austin, asked the Federal Bureau of Investigation or the US Marshall Service to do the GOP's bidding, the offical response was "no." US Department of Justice spokesman Jorge Martinez told reporters that responsibility for tracking down the legislators "falls squarely within the purview of state authority, and it would not warrant investigation by federal authorities."
But, according to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, the federal Air and Marine Interdiction Division did get involved in the investigation. The division, a combination of old Customs Department agencies that now operates under the jurisdiction of the Bush Administration's Homeland Security Department, has long used its California facility to monitor efforts to illegally enter the United States via the skies or waterways. The Star-Telegram reports that, after the Texas Democratic legislators went missing early this week, "The agency got a call, it's unclear exactly from when or from whom, to locate a certain Piper Turbo-Prop aircraft."
The Air and Marine Interdiction and Coordination Center in Riverside reportedly tracked the aircraft in question -- which belongs to former House Speaker Pete Laney, one of the departed Democrats -- to Ardmore, Oklahoma.
When questioned, Republican Tom Craddick admitted that the information about the plane's location was critical to solving the mystery of where the Democrats had disappeared to. "We called someone and they said they were going to track it," Craddick said of the plane. "That's how we found them."
As it turned out, Oklahoma authorities laughed off attempts by the Texas Department of Public Safety to extend their authority across the state line. So knowing where the Democrats were sleeping was of little consequence.
But the nagging question of how the Department of Homeland Security got pulled into the investigation lingers. Craddick won't say who it was that promised to track Pete Laney's place. And the usually precise Tom DeLay goes a little vague when it comes to answering questions about his meddling in state and federal affairs.
That hasn't stopped Texans from asking questions, however. "I thought the Department of Homeland Security was supposed to be busy monitoring terrorist threats -- especially external terrorist threats," says Sarah Wheat, a Texas abortion rights activist who, like many Texans, says she is glad the Democrats went AWOL. "The only threat the Democratic legislators pose is to Tom DeLay's political agenda and a whole bunch of bad bills."
Texas representatives in Washington from trying to get to the bottom of what appears to be a serious abuse of federal power. U.S. House members from Texas have written U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge and FBI Director Robert Mueller, demanding details regarding federal involvement in the search and seeking an investigation of DeLay's efforts to enlist federal help in the search for the Texas legislators.
U.S. Representative Martin Frost, D-Texas, expressed his outrage by making a historical comparison, explaining that, "Not since Richard Nixon and Watergate 30 years ago has there been an effort to involve federal law enforcement officials in a partisan political matter."
What is it with neocon women? They'll find any opportunity to bash the upper west side. In last Friday's Wall Street Journal, former Dan Quayle speech-writer and charter member of the rightwing, antifeminist Independent Women's Forum Lisa Schiffren shared her sex fantasies:
"I had the most astonishing thought last Thursday. After a long day of hauling the kids to playdates and ballet, I turned on the news. And there was the president, landing on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln, stepping out of a fighter jet in that amazing uniform, looking--how to put it?--really hot. Also, presidential, of course. Not to mention credible as a commander in chief. But mostly 'hot' as in virile, sexy and powerful. You don't see that a lot in my neighborhood, the Upper West Side of Manhattan. (I'm told there's more of it in the 'red' states.)"
Lisa, Lisa, Lisa, where are you hanging out? Not in my neighborhood, my upper west side. Haven't you walked through Riverside Park this spring? Checked out the running paths and soccer fields? What about the basketball courts at 92nd and Amsterdam?
And Lisa, on my upper west side we like our men to be "hot" in real life, not just in photo-ops. Saturday Night Live's Tina Fey (another Upper West Sider) summed it up well when, after subjecting the photographic record of Bush's combat getup to close scrutiny, she wondered if he had stuffed "socks down the front of the jumpsuit." (My gay friend Luccio says that internet images of Bush in uniform titled "Bush's Package" are wildly popular among his friends.)
The White House's Top Gun spectacle distorted reality in all sorts of ways. Why not use the photo-op to give GOP voters like Schiffren something to fantasize about at night?
Preemptive Strike Against Hillary
Can't the Republican Presidential Task Force come up with more imaginative ways of raising money than attacking Hillary Clinton? Last week it sent out a mass mailing seeking funds to stop any prospective Clinton presidential candidacy.
"If Republicans don't take immediate steps to counter her," writes Senator George Allen, chair of the Republican Senatorial Committee, "Senator Hillary Clinton will continue to rise unimpeded to the very pinnacle of power in Washington and we will see the dawning of a new, more liberal Clinton era."
Spare me. The specter of Hillary Clinton as Senator--and now President--may be one of the great rightwing moneymaking gambits of our time. (Also one of the most fraudulent given Hillary's longtime centrist record.) HillaryNo.com helped Rudy Giuliani, her then assumed rival for the New York Senate, haul in an unprecedented 19 million dollars in campaign contributions. Since then, scores of rightwing writers have cashed in by pillorying Hillary. Conservative publishing houses have grown fat from Hillary-bashing. Talk radio's revenues would be cut in half without the Clintons, and Hannity, Scarborough, Savage and O'Reilly could go out of business without Hillary to kick around. (Rightwing attack-journalist turned repentant whistleblower David Brock's Blinded by the Right usefully explained the machinery of the anti-Clinton propaganda machine in which he thrived for many years.)
At least retailers are no longer reporting brisk sales in nine-inch Hillary voodoo dolls or doormats bearing her likeness. And maybe someday the Presidential Task Force, whatever that is, will similiarly retire its tired pitches and find a new scapegoat to try to exploit.
Where are the WMD?
With each passing day it appears more likely that Saddam Hussein did NOT possess usable weapons of mass destruction, and therefore did not pose an urgent threat to US, regional or international security. The UN inspectors could have been given more time to complete their job. Ironically, while Saddam rarely, if ever, cooperated fully with UN inspectors, he did let them in. The Bush Administration is currently denying them access into postwar Iraq altogether.
I was surprised when the producer from Chris Matthews' MSNBC show Hardball said they wanted me to talk about the controversy surrounding sportswriter Bob Ryan. Maybe I shouldn't have been, what with Michael Jordan as front page news in the Washington Post, and the increased politicization of sports generally--remember Manhattanville College basketball player Toni Smith's now-famous antiwar protest? And, more recently, there was the delicious controversy over the banning of a showing of "Bull Durham" by the Baseball Hall of Fame because of Tim Robbins' antiwar statements. Plus, the NBA playoffs are currently in full-swing, as I know from my basketball-obsessed family. (My twelve year old daughter begins every morning by reading the sports pages.)
It seems Ryan, a venerable Boston Globe sports columnist, set off a firestorm when he said on a local sports TV show that he'd like to "smack" Joumana Kidd, wife of New Jersey Nets star point guard Jason Kidd, whose team, is currently locked in a bitter playoff battle with the Boston Celtics. The comment was particularly insensitive because two years ago Kidd was arrested for striking his wife in a widely-publicized domestic violence incident. After criticism mounted, the Globe quickly suspended Ryan for one month without pay. "Bob Ryan's comments were "offensive and unacceptable," said Martin Baron, the editor of the Globe.
Speaking as a woman, I do find Ryan's comment offensive, cruel and insensitive to the issue of domestic abuse. But, as an editor, I am troubled by suspending a columnist for mean and offensive language. It seems to me that columnists have a certain license, and nothing Ryan said made it impossible for him to continue his work. And while his comments--made on talk radio, not in his column--made the Boston Globe look bad that's not a reason, to me, to suspend him.
As I pointed out on Hardball, there's also the irony of talking about offensive and unacceptable language on a cable TV talk show. (The segment I was on that night ended with Michael Graham, a radio talk show host, telling the audience what he wanted to do to Hillary Clinton after hearing her speak on patriotism: "I wanted to bludgeon her with a tire iron. That's what I wanted to do." )
If the Boston Globe's standards were applied to today's cable news shows and talk radio programs, I think we'd see a helluva lot of suspensions. Take rightwing radio host Michael Savage who also has a weekly MSNBC show. He recently labeled NBC correspondent Ashley Banfield a slut, a porn star and an accessory to the murder of Jewish children because of her reports on the radical Arab point of view. (Doesn't Tom Brokaw care that he is on the same network with this man?)
What action did NBC News take to reprimand Savage? Nada. Instead, when Banfield subsequently criticized NBC News for its sanitized and skewed war coverage, as well as for hiring Savage, the network attacked HER by issuing a statement saying it was "deeply disappointed and troubled" by her remarks. Meanwhile, Savage continues to pollute our airwaves, Michael Graham suffers no reprisals for his ugly misogyny and Bob Ryan lives on his savings for the next month
LONDON - Frustrated by the failure of US-based broadcast networks to provide a realistic account of the political machinations that led to the Iraq war, millions of Americans tuned in British news reports - which were picked up on public broadcasting and community radio, the internet and television stations.
Already high American audience figures for BBC World News bulletins spiked by 28 percent in the first weeks of the war, and BBC officials delighted in e-mails like the one from a New York viewer who wrote, "The BBC seems to be the only decent source of news on this conflict. American networks are appalling."
While Americans expressed admiration for the BBC's straight take on the news, British viewers who caught reports from US broadcast and cable networks have been shocked by the bias that permeates coverage of the Bush Administration and its military adventurism abroad. The general director of the BBC bemoaned the "gung ho" coverage of the US networks while a veteran British Cabinet minister dismissed US news coverage of the war as "old-fashioned propaganda."
"What the US networks give you is just a rehash of Bush Administration announcements, and worse. There's no news in it," says Tony Benn, one of the best-known political figures in Britain and a frequent commentator on international news programs. "Does anyone take them seriously?"
While Britain's many press critics found plenty to object to about BBC coverage of the war, the network got high marks from most for asking tough questions about British Prime Minister Tony Blair's alliance with George W. Bush, the supposed presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and the governance of cities captured by the so-called "coalition of the willing."
In contrast, American networks dismissed dissent, openly questioned the intellect and patriotism of those who questioned Secretary of State Colin Powell's "evidence" regarding Iraqi weapons of mas destruction and degenerated into rah-rah coverage of presidential pronouncements once the war began.
So embarrassing was the US coverage of the war - and so conscious was the rest of the world of the collapse of basic journalistic standards - that BBC director general Greg Dyke found it necessary to promise that, "In the area of impartiality, as in many other areas, we must ensure that we don't become Americanized."
Dyke, who is generally seen as an ally of Blair, admitted that he was "shocked while in the United States by how unquestioning the broadcast news media was during the war." He added that, while in the US, he was "amazed by how many people just came up to me and said they were following the war on the BBC because they no longer trusted the American electronic news media."
Sincere criticism from abroad - along with the unprecedented abandonment of US news outlets for foreign sources - ought to make this a point at which US journalists, regulators, politicians and citizens pause to reflect on whether too few owners are running too much media in too greedy and irresponsible a manner.
Instead, with a strong push from the Bush White House, Federal Communications Commission chair Michael Powell is moving to enact ownership rule changes that will allow big media companies to get dramatically bigger. Promising the Newspaper Association of America convention last month that the FCC would eliminate the 1975 rule that prevents owners of newspapers from buying up radio and television stations in the towns where they publish, Powell told the newspaper executives, "We have finally taken this by the reins."
If Powell and the other commissioners pull those reins tight and enact the proposed rule changes - a step the chairman wants the FCC to take by June 2 - the vast majority of American newspapers could become as vapid and unquestioning as American television and radio. If that happens, Americans who want to know what is going on in the world will have to import British newspapers to read while listening to their morning BBC reports.
Why has it taken so long for the Pentagon and the Bush Administration to seriously search for weapons of mass destruction?
At a Pentagon press conference yesterday, Stephen Cambone, under secretary of defense for intelligence, noted that prior to the war the Pentagon had compiled a list of about 600 suspected WMD sites. "As it stands now, we have been to about 70 sites that we were looking to cover," he said, adding that US military teams had also visited another 40 that were not on the original list.
This hardly seems like an anti-WMD blitzkrieg. It's been nearly a month since Baghdad fell, and most potential WMD sites have not been visited. Moreover, Cambone reported that the Pentagon was still at work assembling what it is calling the Iraq Survey Group, which will be sent to Iraq to search for individuals, records and materials related to WMD. This unit will be composed of 1300 experts and 800 support staff. But the hunt for WMD will only be one of its tasks. Its mission will also include uncovering information related to Saddam Hussein's regime, his intelligence services, terrorist outfits that might have had a presence in Iraq, any connections between the regime and terrorist organizations, war crimes and POWs. Cambone emphasized that the Iraq Survey Group's WMD responsibilities will be "only a part" of this "very large undertaking." And this unit will not begin to arrive in Iraq until the end of May.
Before the war, President Bush and his lieutenants repeatedly said that the United States had absolutely no choice but to move quickly against Iraq to prevent Saddam Hussein from passing WMD to anti-American terrorist groups like al Qaeda. But the Pentagon has not been acting as if it took the threat of WMD transfers seriously. If there were WMD present in Iraq and there were terrorists in Iraq shopping for WMD and Saddam Hussein was an al Qaeda "ally" (as Bush said during his speech on the USS Lincoln), then it would seem that the White House and the Pentagon should have been damn scared that, as a result of the war, these terrorists would have the chance to grab WMD-related material and skedaddle. Certainly, it would have been reasonable to assume that if Saddam Hussein believed his final hour was approaching he would be more likely to greenlight a hand-off of WMD to al Qaeda. Yet the Bush White House and the Pentagon seem not to have planned for such contingencies. They have been geared more toward finding evidence of WMD (which would help Bush justify the war) rather than thwarting the threat supposedly posed by Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.
Why was the Iraq Survey Team not assembled by the start of the war and ready to rush in as soon as possible in an attempt to locate and secure these items that menaced the United States? The war, after all, came as no surprise. And the news from Iraq has not been encouraging. Looters cleaned out Iraq's nuclear facilities long before US investigators reached them. Were they only scavengers who unknowingly grabbed radioactive material posing health and environmental dangers? Or were some terrorists looking for dirty-bomb material? In either event a fair question, for Bush, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and other administration and Pentagon officials is, why didn't you try to secure these sites immediately? On May 4, Barton Gellman in The Washington Post reported that a specially-trained Defense Department team was not dispatched to the Baghdad Nuclear Research facility until May 3, after a month of "official indecision." The unit found the site--which was the home to the remains of the nuclear reactor bombed by Israel in 1981 and which stored radioactive waste that would be quite attractive to a dirty-bombmaker--ransacked. The survey conducted by the team, Gellman reported, "appeared to offer fresh evidence that the war has dispersed the country's most dangerous technologies beyond anyone's knowledge or control." Sometime in mid-April, US Central Command had sent a detachment to guard the gate to the facility. But for two weeks--until the special team arrived--this security detail allowed Iraqis who claimed to be employees of the research center to come and go. The detachment had no Arabic speaker and could not question those entering and leaving. Nor was it able to handle the looters, who some days numbered in the hundreds. A mile away, the Tuwaitha Nuclear Research Center, where UN inspectors in years past had found partially-enriched uranium, was also looted.
There have been other signs that the Pentagon's anti-WMD effort has been less than intense. In April, two of the four mobile exploitation teams (known as METs), equipped and trained to assess suspected WMD sites, were reassigned to investigate war crimes. And on May 6, one of the METs that had been searching for WMD spent the day in the bombed-out and flooded secret police headquarters in Baghdad looking for one of the oldest copies of the Talmud in existence. Finding and preserving antiquities is all well and good, but what about those chemical and biological weapons that Bush claimed could be turned over to terrorists at any given moment? Should any of the METs have been diverted from that mission, while at least 500 of the suspected sites were still unexamined?
As this MET searched for the seventh-century Jewish text (which it never found), it was also looking for records related to weapons of mass destruction. And it did, according to The New York Times, uncover one such document: a 2001 memo from an Iraqi intelligence officer reporting an offer to sell Iraq uranium and other nuclear material. But the memo said the bid was declined because of the "sanctions situation." Was this evidence that Iraq actually had been to some extent minding the UN sanctions? Who knows for sure?
The discovery of what the Pentagon says might be a bioweapons lab has drawn far more attention. The administration, after weeks, may have finally found one piece of evidence that backs up the UN presentation made by Secretary of State Colin Powell, in which he declared that Iraq--no doubt--had WMD. But even if more vestiges of WMD are unearthed, that will not excuse or justify the irresponsible delays in the WMD search-and-secure operations.
Bush has not been forced to explain the slow pace of the WMD search or the lack of prewar planning on this crucial front. Fortunately for him, the Democrats have spent more time howling about his tailhook-enabled photo-op speech on an aircraft carrier (which has caused the news channels to show the Top Gun-ish footage over and over). But at the May 7 White House briefing, press secretary Ari Fleischer was pressed on whether the United States failed to act to prevent weapons of mass destruction (if they existed) from being dispersed. The exchange was illuminating.
Question: Ari, everybody's getting into this trap a little bit about whether WMD will be found, which may not be the issue, because, A, you may not find them, they may have been destroyed, whereas the president said they may have been dispersed, which raises the question that they could have somehow been spirited out of the country by terrorist groups and the like. What information do you have about that eventuality happening? I mean, isn't it presumptuous to presume that the American people are safer when you can't account for whether weapons have been taken out of the country or weapons materials have been taken out of the country?
Fleischer: Well, I think the real threat here came from a nation-state headed by Saddam Hussein and his henchmen who showed they were willing to use weapons of mass destruction before....That's the basis for saying that people are safer. If you're asking the question, on what basis does the president conclude people are safer, that's the answer.
Question: I thought the concern was [weapons of mass destruction would] fall into the hands of Al Qaeda. Wasn't that the rationale?
Fleischer: Well, I'm continuing. The president said that the removal of the regime has diminished the threat and increased our security, and I think that's unquestionable. It was, after all, the regime that used weapons of mass destruction in attacks previously. Of course we always have concerns about any place that has weapons of mass destruction passing them along. But given the routing of the Iraqi regime, it certainly makes that much harder to do....
Question: I know that, but you're making these pronouncements without answering the direct question, which is, what does this administration know about not only what has been found -- you're still checking -- but what weapons materials or actual weapons may have been taken out of the country?
Fleischer: Well, we don't have anything concrete to report on that.
Precisely. And the White House has not had much to report on its efforts to prevent WMD-related material from being given to or snatched by terrorists. The risk identified by the White House before the war was not, as Fleischer suggested, that Saddam Hussein would use WMD against the United States, but that he would slip them to terrorists who would do so. Now Fleischer is saying the danger to the United States is less because the fellows who would arrange a WMD hand-off are out of commission. But can he claim that such transfers have not occurred during or after the war? He definitely could not honestly state that the US military has acted assiduously to prevent this sort of nightmare scenario. In fact, the destruction of the command-and-control structure for whatever WMD material might have been in Iraq only increased the likelihood that this dangerous stuff could end up in the mitts of evildoers.
On April 10, Fleischer remarked, "As I said earlier, we have high confidence that they have weapons of mass destruction. This is what this war was about and is about." Yet the Bush administration woefully under-planned. If only the White House had paid as much attention to the WMD search as it does to photo-ops. Then perhaps the American people would actually have reason to feel safer.
On June 2, the Federal Communications Commission is scheduled to vote on whether to relax the rules for owning American news media. Further relaxing of the rules is the absolute last thing we need unless you happen to want more Clear Channel and Fox News. Increased deregulation is sure to make it easier for the Rupert Murdochs of the world to buy up existing cable channels, radio frequencies and print publications, frequently in the same region of the country. The negative effect this sort of thing has on civic democracy is well documented.
There are a number of groups working hard to resist the drive toward further deregulation, including the Media Reform Network and the Center for Digital Democracy. (Click here for a list.) Check them out if you want to get involved in media reform. Also see Jeff Chester and Gary Larson's Twelve Step Plan for Media Democracy, which offers useful talking points and activist opportunities.
You can also contact your elected reps and tell them to preserve current media ownership rules for the sake of competition, market fairness and diversity of ideas. It'll take about ninety seconds using the Nation's new online activism kit. And, as much as they don't seem to listen, it could help make a difference.
Finally, The Nation's own John Nichols has been carefully tracking the politics at the FCC and has written numerous Nation articles on why the stakes are so high in the current battle. See five selected pieces, all by John, for background and further info.