Political MoJo

A Year After Katrina, Corps of Engineers Lacks a Flood Plan for New Orleans

| Thu Sep. 7, 2006 5:00 PM EDT

Last month, on the anniversary of the Hurricane Katrina disaster, George W. Bush told a New Orleans audience:

I take full responsibility for the federal government's response, and a year ago I made a pledge that we will learn the lessons of Katrina and that we will do what it takes to help you recover. (Applause.) I've come back to New Orleans to tell you the words that I spoke on Jackson Square are just as true today as they were then.

Since I spoke those words, members of the United States Congress from both political parties came together and committed more than $110 billion to help the Gulf Coast recover. I felt it was important that our government be generous to the people who suffered. I felt that step one of a process of recovery and renewal is money.

Today, the Washington Post adds a little nuance to that assessment:

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers lacks a strategic plan to spend more than $7 billion approved by Congress for levee and flood-control projects in greater New Orleans, risking a repeat of the piecemeal approach that led to catastrophic systemic failures after Hurricane Katrina last year, congressional auditors reported yesterday.

While the Corps has spent more than $1 billion to repair southeastern Louisiana's broken levee system by this summer -- more than the $738 million it cost to build over 40 years -- billions more are coming for further work, such as adding pumps and canal gates, raising and reinforcing levees and storm-proofing pumping stations, the Government Accountability Office said in a report.

The money comes before the Corps outlines a long-term strategy to protect the region from the most powerful hurricanes, due to Congress by December 2007, which early estimates said might cost $10 billion to $20 billion, or more.

"We are concerned that the Corps has embarked on a multi-billion repair and construction effort in response to the appropriations it has already received, without a guiding strategic plan," reported the GAO, Congress's audit arm. The Corps is "once again . . . taking an incremental approach that is based on funding."

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Pollster Pleads Guilty to Making Up Poll Results

| Thu Sep. 7, 2006 2:47 PM EDT

Tracy Costin, owner of DataUSA Inc. (now ViewPoint USA) pleaded guilty yesterday to one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud. DataUSA Inc. has conducted polls for George W. Bush and Sen. Joseph Lieberman.

Costin was indicted for telling employees to alter poll data. An employee estimates that 50% of the data sent to Bush's campaign was falsified. An assistant U.S. Attorney says that "Sometimes, the respondent's gender or political affiliation were changed to meet a quota, other times all survey answers were fabricated." These fabrications came about when the polling company was working under the pressure of a deadline.

Costin faces a maximum sentence of five years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000. She has agreed to pay almost $83,000 in restitution to clients.

Lie by Lie...by Lie! Bush Tells a Whopper about Zubaydah

| Thu Sep. 7, 2006 2:37 PM EDT

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In his speech yesterday, the president said this:

In addition to the terrorists held at Guantanamo, a small number of suspected terrorist leaders and operatives captured during the war have been held and questioned outside the United States, in a separate program operated by the Central Intelligence Agency. This group includes individuals believed to be the key architects of the September the 11th attacks, and attacks on the USS Cole, an operative involved in the bombings of our embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, and individuals involved in other attacks that have taken the lives of innocent civilians across the world. These are dangerous men with unparalleled knowledge about terrorist networks and their plans for new attacks. The security of our nation and the lives of our citizens depend on our ability to learn what these terrorists know.

Many specifics of this program, including where these detainees have been held and the details of their confinement, cannot be divulged. Doing so would provide our enemies with information they could use to take retribution against our allies and harm our country. I can say that questioning the detainees in this program has given us information that has saved innocent lives by helping us stop new attacks -- here in the United States and across the world. Today, I'm going to share with you some of the examples provided by our intelligence community of how this program has saved lives; why it remains vital to the security of the United States, and our friends and allies; and why it deserves the support of the United States Congress and the American people.

Those examples include that of Abu Zubaydah, whom Bush called "a senior terrorist leader and a trusted associate of Osama bin Laden."

We knew that Zubaydah had more information that could save innocent lives, but he stopped talking. As his questioning proceeded, it became clear that he had received training on how to resist interrogation. And so the CIA used an alternative set of procedures. These procedures were designed to be safe, to comply with our laws, our Constitution, and our treaty obligations. The Department of Justice reviewed the authorized methods extensively and determined them to be lawful. I cannot describe the specific methods used -- I think you understand why -- if I did, it would help the terrorists learn how to resist questioning, and to keep information from us that we need to prevent new attacks on our country. But I can say the procedures were tough, and they were safe, and lawful, and necessary.

Our timeline tells a different story about Al-Zubaydah.

March 28, 2002
Al Qaeda operative Abu Zubaydah is captured in Pakistan. A highly prized target whom administration officials will call a "chief operator," Zubaydah is later found to be severely mentally ill and in charge only of al Qaeda's minor logistics. He arranges travel for wives and children, for example, and has little to do with the "operational," side of the network's activities.

April 9, 2002
Bush: "The other day we hauled in a guy named Abu Zubaydah. He's one of the top operatives plotting and planning death and destruction on the United States." Members of the Administration call Zubaydah a "chief operator" and a "member of Osama bin Laden's inner circle"

When Bush is informed of Zubaydah's true stature within Al Qaeda, Bush says to Tenet, "I said he was important. You're not going to let me lose face on this, are you?" Tenet's reply: "No sir, Mr. President." The CIA has top medical professionals fly to Pakistan to fix up the wounds Zubaydah sustained in his capture. "We got him in very good health, so we could start to torture him," says one CIA official.

As time passes Tenet begins pushing his staff for something he can take to the President, anything to support the President's public statements about Zubaydah. In a comment exemplifying CIA resentment, one top agency officials says, "Bush and Cheney knew what we knew about Zubaydah...why the hell did the President have to put us in a box like this?"

The CIA tortures Zubaydah until he starts talking about plots against shopping malls, banks, supermarkets, water systems, and apartment buildings. Writes reporter Ron Suskind in his book "The One Percent Doctrine," "the United States would torture a mentally disturbed man and then leap, screaming, at every word he uttered."

Just for the record.

This is What Democracy Looks Like? Iraqi Govt Shutters Arab Satellite Station

| Thu Sep. 7, 2006 1:56 PM EDT

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AP is reporting today:

BAGHDAD, Iraq - The Iraqi government on Thursday ordered Arabic satellite network Al-Arabiya to shut down its Baghdad operations for one month, state television reported. Al-Arabiya said Iraqi police later arrived at its offices to enforce the order. ...

Al-Arabiya, which is based in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, at first said its headquarters had not yet been informed of a ban, but later said on live television that police had arrived at its Baghdad offices to close its operations down.

The order apparently was issued by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Cabinet.

Al Maliki's office said AA put out news reports that "capitalize on the footage of victims of terrorist attacks," and called on media outlets to "respect the dignity of human beings and not to fall in the trap set up by terrorist groups who want to petrify the Iraqi people." (Didn't John Ashcroft say something similar about US media a few years back...?) Recall, the Iraqi government shut down the Baghdad news office of Al-Jazeera in August 2004. It remains closed.

In tangentially related news,

Al Arabiya is running a two-week training course for its correspondents in a drive to raise the standards of media professionalism in the region. Local Al Arabiya correspondents, as well as redional staff from Morocco, Sudan and Iraq will be taken through training sessions on subjects such as Arabic language and chief editing.

RadioShack Streamlines the Layoff Process, Emails Pinkslips to 400 Workers

| Thu Sep. 7, 2006 1:42 PM EDT

Last week, at its headquarters in Fort Worth, Texas, RadioShack laid off 400 employees. Layoffs are hardly news these days, but exactly how they laid off the workers is a bit more noteworthy. Employees received an e-mail that read:

"The work force reduction notification is currently in progress. Unfortunately your position is one that has been eliminated."

"The nation's most trusted consumer electronics specialty retailer" has taken heat for the move, with its spokesperson defending the decision saying that employees were forewarned of the method of communication and that using email was both "fast" and "private." True, the company sells phones and could have used those to notify employees, but most of its likely young and expendable workforce is familiar enough with email that the mode of communication may not have fazed them. Instead they had to realize that, as jobless claims are on the decline, they just joined the ranks of the unemployed.

Curiously, the company is currently hiring, using the tagline, R You Ready?, on their career page. They're already using the lingo, maybe layoffs by text message are next?

Study: Bush Raises the Terrorism Fear Factor...And His Poll Numbers Jump Too

| Wed Sep. 6, 2006 9:02 PM EDT

A new study by political scientists at Columbia University finds that three things follow from presidential pronouncements on terrorism: the media repeat the president's remarks; public fear of terrorism increases; and the president's poll numbers rise.

The study found that since 9/11 increases in terror alerts always made the top of the news on the three major networks while decreases got far less play. Reports the San Francisco Chronicle:

The official with the greatest ability to shift opinion on terrorism, the researchers found, is Bush, whose statements in the media about terrorism correlated highly with increases in the public's perception of terrorism as a major national problem -- and with increases in his approval ratings.

At the beginning of July 2002, for example, approval of the president's handling of terrorism was around 79 percent. After television coverage of one statement by Bush and seven public statements by administration officials about the terrorist threat, the president's rating rose to 83 percent.

In June 2004, approval for the president's handling of terrorism had fallen to 50 percent. One month later, after an increase in television coverage of Bush's comments on terrorism, that number had risen to 57 percent.

As I mentioned earlier, our handy interactive timeline can be a great tool for putting the day's news in context. So, for example, if you click on the "Terror Alert" link you get a list of all the times between 9/11 and March, 2003 when the government scared the bejesus out of us with dark warnings of impending attacks.

Now, of course...

The Columbia study does not conclude the White House intentionally used terror alerts to influence the president's popularity.

But, ahem, ...

...[I]t is unlikely the White House is ignorant of the effect, said Nacos, who added that former Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge has complained publicly that he was sometimes pushed to raise the threat level on the basis of flimsy intelligence.

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A Timeline of Torture

| Wed Sep. 6, 2006 7:59 PM EDT

In the September/October CJR, Eric Umansky has an excellent and lengthy account of the reporting done on torture in the War on Terror. He recaps the scoops and the way many reporters advanced the story (notably Carlotta Gall, Seymour Hersh, and Dana Priest), but what is most striking is the lack of attention paid to these revelations. Scoops were not followed up, stories were buried, official investigations were deliberately limited in scope, and, most shamefully, Congress was uninterested in using its power of subpoena to fully connect the dots of the reported incidents and the administration policies that enabled them. It was not until the stark evidence of the Abu Ghraib photos surfaced that everybody piled on the story and by then the damage had been done.

Of course, the abuse first uncovered by Carlotta Gall for the NYT was exported from Bagram to Abu Ghraib and it is sobering to consider, as Umansky gets ex-Times editors to do, what might have happened had they played Gall's scoop more prominently:

Her piece was "the real deal. It referred to a homicide. Detainees had been killed in custody. I mean, you can't get much clearer than that," remembers Roger Cohen, then the Times's foreign editor. "I pitched it, I don't know, four times at page-one meetings, with increasing urgency and frustration. I laid awake at night over this story. And I don't fully understand to this day what happened. It was a really scarring thing. My single greatest frustration as foreign editor was my inability to get that story on page one."
Doug Frantz, then the Times's investigative editor and now the managing editor of the Los Angeles Times, says Howell Raines, then the Times's top editor, and his underlings "insisted that it was improbable; it was just hard to get their mind around. They told Roger to send Carlotta out for more reporting, which she did. Then Roger came back and pitched the story repeatedly. It's very unusual for an editor to continue to push a story after the powers that be make it clear they're not interested. Roger, to his credit, pushed." (Howell Raines declined requests for comment.)
"Compare Judy Miller's WMD stories to Carlotta's story," says Frantz. "On a scale of one to ten, Carlotta's story was nailed down to ten. And if it had run on the front page, it would have sent a strong signal not just to the Bush administration but to other news organizations."
Instead, the story ran on page fourteen under the headline "U.S.Military Investigating Death of Afghan in Custody." (It later became clear that the investigation began only as a result of Gall's digging.)

One quibble with Umansky's piece is that he says it was the NYT story of May 20, 2005, that linked the Bagram abuse to Abu Ghraib by reporting that an officer from Bagram was transferred to help oversee interrogations at Abu Ghraib. For an earlier account of that, see Emily Bazelon's fine piece, From Bagram to Abu Ghraib, in the March 2005 Mother Jones.

(Full disclosure: Umansky, a former editor of motherjones.com, is a friend. Despite that and the fact that he is Lakers fan, the piece is worth reading in all of its 9,000 word plus glory.)

CIA Secret Prisons and the Future of Guantanamo

| Wed Sep. 6, 2006 7:30 PM EDT

Why is President Bush coming clean about the CIA secret prisons? Time offers one explanation.

By transferring name-brand al-Qaeda prisoners recognized as dangerous men — such as alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Muhammad — to Guantanamo from secret detention abroad is likely to strengthen the rationale for the off-shore facility, and for dispensing justice via military courts. It is also precisely because the Supreme Court has ruled that military tribunals do not offer detainees sufficient legal rights that the President has now urged Congress to pass legislation to address those concerns.

But the detainee transfers and the legislative intervention sought by President Bush is unlikely to end the legal and political controversy over Guantanamo. It may, however, strengthen the case for a policy of holding detainees off-shore and trying them in military courts. And by making the announcement in the form of a dramatic break into national television schedules before a handpicked audience that included some families of 9/11 victims, it also aimed to position the President and his Administration in the minds of swing voters as the guardians of the nation's security in the face of a clear and present danger.

Why Rumsfeld Should Be Sacked (A Very Long But Incomplete List of Reasons)

| Wed Sep. 6, 2006 5:51 PM EDT

How many times have I heard some piece of breaking news, usually reporting a fresh outrage of the Bush administration's, and asked myself, "Wouldn't it be great to have handy an interactive timeline of the Bush years -- sortable by category -- so I could whip up a quick blog post furnishing helpful context?" I'll be honest: Not many. But it's good to be able to do just that, thanks to our (nonpartisan, fact-based) Lie by Lie timeline!

As Senate Democrats push (futilely) for a resolution to have the Defense Secretary canned, I can simply click the "Rumsfeld" link on the timeline, and here (below) is what comes up: a fairly extensive catalogue of lies, obfuscations, idiocies, and screw-ups; an impressive enough record, one would think, to have gotten him fired long ago. Bear in mind, the time period covered by Part I of Lie by Lie ends at the start of the Iraq war, in March, 2003 -- that is, before Abu Ghraib, the torture memos, "stuff happens," "Heck, I'm an old man," the utter disaster of the post-war period.... Stay tuned for further installments.

September 11, 2001
A note from an aide who was with the Secretary of Defense at the National Military Command Center shows that just five hours after the attacks Rumsfeld says, "Best info fast. Judge whether good enough to hit S.H. at same time. Not only UBL… Go massive. Sweep it all up. Things related and not."

December 1, 2001
According to Bob Woodward, Rumsfeld orders Franks to begin work on an Iraq war plan. Bush will meet with military leaders regarding the plan on a regular basis starting late December, despite public assurances that the administration is seeking a diplomatic solution to its showdown with Saddam.

January 22, 2002
After a Defense Department photo is released showing detainees in goggles and masks, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld defends the detentions of "committed terrorists," saying, "We are keeping them off the street and out of the airlines." Besides, he says, "To be in an eight-by-eight cell in beautiful, sunny Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, is not a — inhumane treatment. And it has a roof."

April 17, 2002
Reports emerge that American forces could have caught or killed bin Laden at Tora Bora. Reporters confront Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld with the story. He says he does not "know today of any evidence" that bin Laden "was in Tora Bora at the time, or that he left Tora Bora at the time." Later reports will make clear that the military was asked by the CIA at the time to supply troops to help close off bin Laden's escape routes. The military declined.

Can Iran Be Negotiated With?

| Wed Sep. 6, 2006 3:32 PM EDT

Great (long) post by Kevin Drum starting from observation that hawkish types, such as Andrew Sullivan, who supported the Iraq war but now question the wisdom of a military-first approach to foreign policy, are nevertheless sounding mighty belligerent on the topic of Iran.

And now it's Iran, yet another country that can't be negotiated with. Why? Religious fanaticism is the excuse this time. But while the Iranians may seem scarier simply because they're today's enemy, that doesn't mean they can't be dealt with just like any other nation state can be dealt with.

Not every problem can be solved by diplomacy. Sometimes, as in the currently fashionable right-wing obsession with 1938, negotiation really is useless. But far more often than not, our enemies can be negotiated with, despite all the convincing reasons the hawks adduce for confrontation and war as the only possible solution. So ask yourself: With a track record this bad, why should we pay attention to the same old hysterical siren song this time? Shouldn't we send the hawks packing and instead figure out more sensible ways to react to our global problems? Shouldn't we have learned our lesson by now?