Inside Cheney's Office

As Dick Cheney's approval ratings plummet to a mere 18%, the American Prospect investigates what makes the man who is only "a heartbeat away from the presidency" tick. But that's easier said than done when the VP and his staff are so secretive that they don't even maintain an employee directory. According to the Prospect, until the Valerie Plame leak, "outside the Washington cognoscenti, it's a safe bet that not one in a hundred Americans could name a single Cheney aide."

[Cheney's] press people seem shocked that a reporter would even ask for an interview with the staff. The blanket answer is no -- nobody is available. Amazingly, the vice president's office flatly refuses to even disclose who works there, or what their titles are. "We just don't give out that kind of information," says Jennifer Mayfield, another of Cheney's "angels." She won't say who is on staff, or what they do? No, she insists. "It's just not something we talk about."
Col. Larry Wilkerson, a former top aide to Colin Powell, portrays the vice president's office as the source of a zealous, almost messianic, approach to foreign affairs. "There were several remarkable things about the vice president's staff," he says.
One was how empowered they were, and one was how in sync they were. In fact, we used to say about both [Rumsfeld's office] and the vice president's office that they were going to win nine out of ten battles, because they are ruthless, because they have a strategy, and because they never, ever deviate from that strategy ... They make a decision, and they make it in secret, and they make in a different way than the rest of the bureaucracy makes it, and then suddenly foist it on the government -- and the rest of the government is all confused."
As the Bush administration considers an attack on Iran, Cheney's secretive office is likely again to be at the forefront of internal policy debates.

The Washington Post reports today that a couple of whistle-blowers are making some rather serious allegations against Boeing:

The three whistle-blowers… contend that Boeing officials knew from their own audits about thousands of parts [for their planes] that did not meet specifications, allowed them to be installed and retaliated against people who raised questions. They say the parts, manufactured from 1994 to 2002, fit the Federal Aviation Administration's definition of "unapproved" because they lack documentation proving that they are airworthy. Moreover, they say, forcing a part into place could shorten its lifespan…

One reason the FAA chose not to pursue the whistle-blowers' claims, officials said, was that its engineers believed the parts in question would not present a safety risk even if they failed in flight. There has never been a crash caused by such a failure, the agency said.

But on a number of occasions, the agency has expressed concern about similar parts, albeit on the previous generation of 737s, which Boeing began phasing out in 1996. Last year, prompted by reports from some carriers of cracks, the FAA formally alerted U.S. air carriers that fly the older version of the 737 to inspect for possible fatigue cracks around such parts. Cracks in these areas, the FAA said, "could result in reduced structural integrity of the frames, possible loss of a cargo door, possible rapid decompression of the fuselage."Got that? Boeing's outfitting its jets with unsafe parts, knows the parts are unsafe, and the FAA has expressed concern that planes with these parts could damage the airplanes. Except that no planes have ever crashed because of these faulty parts—yet, that is—so no one's too worried.

By the way, Mother Jones' own Sheila Kaplan broke much of this story half a year ago. See her October article, "Are Boeing's Big Jets Safe?", along with these two follow-ups.

New Abstinence-Only Guidelines

The Department of Health and Human Services has put forward new guidelines concerning grants for abstinence-only education programs. The guidelines specify that programs receiving funds must define abstinence as "voluntarily choosing not to engage in sexual activity until marriage." Marriage, is also strictly defined as "a legal union between one man and one woman as a husband and wife." Both statments send a very clear message that homosexuals should never engage in sex. Period. Because everyone should be abstinent until marriage and conveniently, the definition of marriage does not include gays.

Planned Parenthood says these new restrictions emerge "not from logic or evidence, but from extreme right-wing ideology."

Abstinence-only programs have been allocated $1 billion in federal funds since 1996. None of those dollars go towards providing any information about safe sex or birth-control methods, other than discussing their likelihood of failure. In 2004 Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA), conducted a study examining the accuracy of abstinence-only school curriculums, and found that more than two-thirds of government-funded programs misinform students. Government-funded programs teach young people that a 43-day-old fetus is a "thinking person" and "in heterosexual sex, condoms fail to prevent HIV approximately 31 percent of the time."

According to Planned Parenthood, "sexually active teens have the highest rates for many STIs and the highest unintended pregnancy rates, and are estimated to account for nearly half of new HIV infections." Abstinence-only education does nothing to put these numbers in check.

We don't usually do polls or horse-race stuff around these parts, but hell, there are midterms coming up this fall, and Steve Benen of the Carpetbagger Report has some polling data spelling moderately good news for Democrats. For the past year or so, polls have shown that voters were dissatisfied with Republican rule—not to mention soured the Bush administration in general—but weren't all that high on the minority party either. Now that all seems to be changing, and by very large margins voters are picking Democrats in "generic" congressional ballots and telling surveys that they'd prefer to see the Democratic Party control the House and Senate this fall.

Whether that translates into an actual change in who controls Congress remains to be seen. This country does, after all, have a highly gerrymandered House set-up, which makes it very hard for the balance of power to change, even when the national mood favors the minority party so heavily. Seats are won district by district, and the Washington Post reported recently that the Democrats may not have enough competitive candidates to win the 15 seats they need to retake the House, barring a truly massive anti-incumbency atmosphere come 2006. I guess the proper thing to do at this point would be to add, "But who knows?," so make of this all what you will.

Here's a sign of how little progress this country has made:

[W]hite Republicans nationally are 25 percentage points more likely on average to vote for the Democratic senatorial candidate when the GOP hopeful is black, says economist Ebonya Washington of Yale University in a forthcoming article in the Quarterly Journal of Economics. White independents are similarly inclined to vote for the white Democrat when there's a black Republican running, according to her study of congressional and gubernatorial voting patterns between 1982 and 2000, including five Senate races in which the Republican nominee was black...

But racially motivated crossover voting is not just a Republican phenomenon. Democrats also desert their party when its candidate is black, Washington found. In House races, white Democrats are 38 percentage points less likely to vote Democratic if their candidate is black.I'd only note that two of those five Senate races, I believe, involved Alan Keyes running on the Republican ticket—and it's possible that it was his actual lunacy, rather than his skin color, that drove voters away. That could skew the results a bit, although the actual study isn't available. Still, it's a depressing finding. And this next tidbit, from a different study, is also disheartening, albeit to a much lesser extent:

[A research team headed by demographer Jonathan Kelley, of Brown University and the University of Melbourne] found that not all books are created equal. "Having Shakespeare or similar highbrow books about bodes well for children's achievement," they wrote. "Having poetry books around is actively harmful by about the same amount," perhaps because it signals a "Bohemian" lifestyle that may encourage kids to become guitar-strumming, poetry-reading dreamers.
Well, then.

Over at the Sierra Club site, Marilyn Berlin Snell has a story about how corporations use bankruptcy to discharge their environmental obligations. In particular, she follows the story of Asarco, a massive copper conglomerate whose smelters were poisoning towns. After being found guilty in court and racking up $500 million to $1 billion in environmental liabilities, the company declared bankruptcy in 2005—and the public was stuck with the bill for cleaning up the mess. It's not an uncommon tactic:

Reorganization under the Bankruptcy Code's Chapter 11 helps companies wipe the slate clean of environmental liabilities, giving them a fresh start. In the United States--a country that has based its keystone environmental laws on the principle that polluters, not taxpayers, should pay to clean up the poisons they spew--Asarco is just one example of how corporations use Chapter 11 to slough off massive environmental liabilities, reorganize, and then emerge leaner and meaner to operate another day.

Asarco's parent company, Grupo México, is benefiting too. A few months after Asarco filed for bankruptcy, Grupo México announced that net profits had doubled--largely because Asarco's environmental liabilities had been removed from its books. Of course, the liabilities remain, but now they are borne by U.S. taxpayers.

Last year, Congress cracked down on personal bankruptcy, making it harder for consumers to erase their debts. But legislators have done nothing to get tougher with the approximately 38,500 businesses that declare bankruptcy each year. A 2005 report to Congress spelled out steps the EPA could take to ensure such companies fulfill their environmental obligations. But as that study sits on a shelf, Asarco and an untold number of other polluting enterprises are getting a free pass.No one really knows how many companies do this. Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA) asked the GAO to look into it, and the agency found the following: " While more than 231,000 businesses operating in the United States filed for bankruptcy in fiscal years 1998 through 2003, the extent to which these businesses had environmental liabilities is not known because neither the federal government nor other sources collect this information." Companies with environmental liabilities don't always notify the EPA -- ostensibly a creditor -- when they file for bankruptcy. Snell, for her part, makes some guesses as to which companies are doing just this, however; it's worth reading her whole story.

Well here's at least one semi-sane Republican voice speaking up (not that anyone needs to be a fan of Richard Armitage):

Richard Armitage, deputy secretary of state during President George W. Bush's first term, has urged the Bush administration to hold talks with Iran over its nuclear programme.

Mr Armitage said Washington would benefit from talking to Tehran on a range of issues, including Iran's nuclear aspirations. The Bush administration has so far resisted calls from its European allies to engage Iran directly over its alleged nuclear weapons programme.

"It merits talking to the Iranians about the full range of our relationship... everything from energy to terrorism to weapons to Iraq," Mr Armitage told the Financial Times in an interview. "We can be diplomatically astute enough to do it without giving anything away."Yes, exactly. Why not try? At worst, talks with Iran fail, and the U.S. is right back where it is now, at an impasse. So why not? The Bush administration reportedly doesn't want to negotiate with Iran because that would amount to appeasement of an evil regime. But we already appease evil regimes. We send (innocent) terrorist suspects to Syria to be beaten with electrical cables. We give $1 billion a year to Egypt, home of "widespread and systematic" torture. Our dear friends in Saudi Arabia have 126 children on death row, among other atrocities. And let's not get started on Dubai. You can disagree with the decision to support these countries so strongly—I certainly do—but either way, it's not like appeasement is unprecedented for this administration. And there's a better case for making nice when it comes to Iran, because it could be the only way to avoid a very catastrophic war. So again: why not try?

Matthew Yglesias points out that the Weekly Standard is gearing up for war with Iran. As he notes, the two articles he cites are a combination of fantasy (would air strikes actually destroy Iran's nuclear program? No one knows. Oh well…) and insanity (thousands and thousands of people could die? Oh well…) But for sheer nuttery, it's hard to top William Kristol's editorial on the subject:

Given Iranian president Ahmadinejad's recent statements and actions, it should be obvious that it is not "a sign of humanity's moral progress"--to use Blum's phrase--to appease the mullahs. It is not "moral progress" to put off serious planning for military action to a later date, probably in less favorable circumstances, when the Iranian regime has been further emboldened, our friends in the region more disheartened, and allies more confused by years of fruitless diplomacy than they would be by greater clarity and resolution now.
Virtually no one, of course, thinks it's unequivocally moral or non-problematic to "appease the mullahs," as Kristol terms it. The people making the case for engagement just think it's the rational thing to do—the thing that will get fewer people killed and cause fewer catastrophes. (Plus, engagement is far more likely to help Iran eventually liberalize than bombs and sanctions will—we've seen how well that worked for Cuba.) Sometimes foreign policy just doesn't have a "pretty" choice that will make everyone feel warm and fuzzy inside. But notice also that Kristol says we need to act right this very instant. Bombs can't wait. Yet right before that, he says this:
That action would be easier if the situation in Iraq improved--which implies an urgent push to make progress there, with the deployment of more troops if necessary. Planning for action in Iran would be somewhat easier if the president finally insisted on a far-too-long-delayed increase in the size of the military. It would be easier, too, under the leadership of a new, not-discredited defense secretary in whom the president would have confidence, since he has surely (if privately) lost faith in the current one.
That's a nice fantasy. Set aside the fact that there aren't "more troops" we can magically send to Iraq, and even if they were, they likely wouldn't do much good—the ongoing civil war almost certainly isn't something that "more troops" can quell. But how on earth would an "increase in the size of the military" help with Iran? Training troops and expanding the active service takes years and years. If we need to act immediately, as Kristol demands, then any expansion of the military is completely irrelevant. Iraq isn't going to get better immediately. A newfound invasion force isn't going to materialize immediately. I can't tell if Kristol's truly insane or just badly confused, but either way, it's disturbing that this sort of stuff gets taken seriously.

Fred Kaplan has a good column about the recent spate of retired generals calling for Donald Rumsfeld's head. On the one hand, no one wants to see a repeat of the 1960s, when the Joint Chiefs of Staff, against their better judgment, failed to speak up and dissuade Johnson and McNamara from hurtling the country into Vietnam. If military leaders think something has gone badly awry in the Pentagon, the public should probably know.

On the other hand, it's perfect reasonable to get a bit leery when generals suddenly start speaking out against civilian government. During the 1990s the military became quite politicized—a development that Bill Clinton, ironically, helped start when he took the unprecedented step of getting endorsements from 20 retired generals in his 1992 campaign, to counteract his image as a pot-smoking draft-dodger. Just like they do now, Democrats made a fetish of men in uniforms. The flipside was that once in office, Clinton was loathe to challenge his generals—they had more credibility on security issues, after all.

Down at the bottom of Knight Ridder's coverage of Iran's announcement that it has enriched uranium is this optimistic take:

Saeed Laylaz, a political analyst in Tehran, said he expects Tuesday's political fanfare will soon be followed by another announcement suspending all enrichment activities, as requested by the IAEA. Such a move, Laylaz said, would be a savvy way for all sides to save face and avoid escalating the crisis.

"They wanted this big ceremony to show that nuclear technology is not a goal - it's an achievement. This is enough, and now we can go back to negotiations," he said. Predicting anything when it comes to Iran is a mug's game, but that's a hopeful possibility. The UN Security Council has already given Iran 30 days, starting March 29, to suspend its uranium-enrichment program. Perhaps, as Laylaz says, the Iranian government just wanted to make an announcement, get people at home excited, and then comply with the UN to show that it had peaceful intentions all along. Who knows? It's just as likely, of course, that the situation will only continue to get worse, especially since, according to the Financial Times the Bush administration now seems to be rejecting overtures by Iran to negotiate. (Those reports, naturally, could well be false or mistaken.)

UPDATE: Okay, guess not.