Political MoJo

Colonel Accused of Corruption in Iraq

| Wed Apr. 19, 2006 4:53 PM EDT

The Los Angeles Times has a story today about Kimberly D. Olson, an Air Force colonel now accused of using her high position in the Coalitional Provisional Authority in Iraq for financial gain (she's the highest-ranking officer to be accused of wrongdoing in connection with reconstruction):

One of the first female pilots in the Air Force, she was a hard-charger with an unblemished reputation for honesty, a high profile in the Pentagon and a commitment to the U.S. goal of creating a democracy in the Middle East.

Today, Olson is at the center of accusations of audacious impropriety in the corruption-plagued reconstruction of Iraq….

Pentagon investigators allege that while on active duty as one of the most powerful figures in Iraq, Olson established a U.S. branch of a South African security firm after helping it win more than $3 million in contracts to provide protection for senior U.S. and British officials, as well as for KBR, a subsidiary of Halliburton Co.Disgusting, I guess, although you sort of have to strain to find any meaningful difference between what Olson did and what passed for "business of usual" throughout the reconstruction. Basically, an American-run administration was installed in Iraq and tasked with privatizing the country's industries and handing off reconstruction contracts to whoever had the slickest and best-connected lobbyists. In early 2005, government watchdogs reported that $9 billion worth of reconstruction funds had somehow up and vanished. Without excusing Olson, the invasion created the perfect atmosphere for looting and corruption; stories like these are the inevitable result.

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The Tax Credit Trap

| Wed Apr. 19, 2006 4:33 PM EDT

Tax fraud by the poor amounts to some $9 billion a year. Corporations and the very wealthy, meanwhile, manage to avoid taxes to the tune of some $340 billion a year.

Nevertheless, the IRS spends a disproportionate amount of time and resources hunting down the former set of taxpayers—partly because they don't have high-priced lawyers to argue their case, and partly because it's just easier to determine fraud for the former group. A person claiming undue credits under the EITC isn't going to be resorting to fancy loopholes or ultra-complex financial schemes. In fact, the agency was recently found freezing tax refunds for hundreds of thousands of poor Americans deemed "fraudulent"—most of whom were owed all of the money they claimed.

But here's the thing. Part of the problem with low-income tax credits is that they're unreasonably complex, as Dorothy Brown pointed out in the New York Times yesterday. The EITC's instruction book runs to 50 pages, and even seasoned tax preparers often make mistakes calculating it. Nevertheless, low-income families are supposed to have this stuff down cold—and if they don't, they risk being labeled "fraudulent" and persecution by the IRS. (Another problem, Brown might've noted, is that a whopping 40 percent of low-income taxpayers have never even heard of the EITC.)

As Brown says, the entire system is perverse, and instead of wasting money prosecuting low-income workers, Congress could simplify the tax credit and spend its time going after the corporations robbing the country of $340 billion a year—an amount, keep in mind, that could essentially close the federal budget deficit. Not that the Republicans in Congress are planning anything of the sort, but still.

Donald Rumsfeld: Genius or Hero?

| Wed Apr. 19, 2006 4:05 PM EDT

New at Mother Jones:

Art Levine tries to imagine what Donald Rumsfeld might have hoped Iraq would look like, three years after the invasion. Call it a personal fantasyland.

Michael Klare sees the Bush administration putting China in its strategic sights, and argues that containment of the country is "govern[ing] key decisions regarding the allocation of long-term resources."

And Rami G. Khouri wants to know how long the old, failed ways of thinking will persist in the Israel-Palestine conflict.

"All options are on the table."

| Wed Apr. 19, 2006 3:44 PM EDT

Bush at his press conference yesterday:

Q Sir, when you talk about Iran, and you talk about how you have diplomatic efforts, you also say all options are on the table. Does that include the possibility of a nuclear strike? Is that something that your administration will plan for?

THE PRESIDENT: All options are on the table.As Belle Waring observes, the déja vu surrounding this latest pounding of the war drums is utterly surreal; we already have the Weekly Standard ready to lock and load all the way to Tehran, the New Republic doing the spadework to support a potential attack, a requisite Mark Steyn column, and "moderate liberals" on TV saying that no options should be off the table. (And of course, there's Joe Lieberman.) It's absurd, it's ludicrous, and it's almost tempting to laugh—surely no one would take these people seriously again, would they?—but Bush sounds quite serious. In the run-up to the invasion of Iraq he stressed that he "had no war plans on [his] desk," despite the fact that this was a lie, and, as we now know, he had war on his mind all along. It would be a grave mistake not to think the worst this time around. Nothing is too ridiculous anymore.

Fred Kaplan has a good column today asking "Why not negotiate with Iran?," something we've been saying over and over. Not clear that there are clearer heads listening to this sort of thing, though (when Bush says "all options are on the table," that may include a potential nuclear strike, but it almost certainly doesn't include face-to-face negotiations with Iran); read Billmon on this.

McCain a Pro-Choicer? Please.

| Wed Apr. 19, 2006 3:05 PM EDT

Scott Lemieux rips apart the conceit that John McCain is somehow a closet abortion rights activist who only plays a pro-lifer on TV. See, for instance, Jacob Weisberg in Slate, or Jon Chait in the New Republic. Among other things, McCain's liberal defenders want us to believe that despite a lifetime record in the Senate of voting against abortion rights—including a zero rating from NARAL in 2004—the "maverick" would somehow pull away the mask and reveal his liberal colors if he ever made it to the White House.

That's all very quaint, but come on. Look: In 2008 this country will elect a new president. Presumably sometime shortly thereafter the 86-year-old John Paul Stevens will retire from the Supreme Court. Replacing Stevens with a pro-life judge would provide the fifth vote to overturn Roe v. Wade. Do we really think that as president John McCain, a man who voted without hesitation to confirm Robert Bork, Clarence Thomas, and Samuel Alito despite serving in a pro-choice state—and a man who, as president, would be under unimaginable pressure from conservative interest groups and would need to satisfy "the base" to win re-election—would really nominate a pro-choice justice?

No, he wouldn't. Whatever McCain's "private" views might be, he will never be a pro-choicer when it counts. I can't even see the theoretical case for thinking otherwise.

U.S. Ignored Militia Warnings

| Tue Apr. 18, 2006 3:24 PM EDT

Every now and again it's tempting to become "reasonable" and imagine that the Bush administration isn't quite so insular and close-minded and impervious to common sense as it's usually portrayed to be. But then comes along an article like this telling us that, no, it's all true:

U.S. officials were warned for more than two years that Shiite Muslim militias were infiltrating Iraq's security forces and taking control of neighborhoods, but they failed to take action to counteract it, Iraqi and American officials said….

"The American politicians couldn't understand the deepness and complications of the region," said Falah al-Nakib, the interior minister from June 2004 to April 2005, who said he raised the militia problem and the growing Iranian influence in Iraq with U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld. "They didn't take us seriously."...

Senior officials dismissed the reports as "nay-saying" and "hand-wringing," said two former senior officials in Washington who were responsible for Iraq policy through most or all of that period and one top official who remains in government.Any complaints that went against the steady drumbeat of triumphalism were waved aside. Sound familiar? (Maybe they figured the "biased" media was inflating the strength of the Badr Corps.) Granted, stopping the infiltration of Shiite militias was a difficult task in any case, but stories about senior officials ignoring steady streams of dire warnings about this or that have also become much too common to be chalked up to mere coincidence.

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Will Nuclear Power Save Us?

| Mon Apr. 17, 2006 8:18 PM EDT

Patrick Moore writes in the Washington Post over the weekend that the U.S. needs to start ramping up production of nuclear power plants if we ever want to reduce carbon emissions. And he's certainly not going to let a bunch of tree-hugging Naderites get in the way:

When I attended the Kyoto climate meeting in Montreal last December, I spoke to a packed house on the question of a sustainable energy future. I argued that the only way to reduce fossil fuel emissions from electrical production is through an aggressive program of renewable energy sources (hydroelectric, geothermal heat pumps, wind, etc.) plus nuclear.

….Here's why: Wind and solar power have their place, but because they are intermittent and unpredictable they simply can't replace big baseload plants such as coal, nuclear and hydroelectric. Natural gas, a fossil fuel, is too expensive already, and its price is too volatile to risk building big baseload plants. Given that hydroelectric resources are built pretty much to capacity, nuclear is, by elimination, the only viable substitute for coal. It's that simple.Well, that's nice. But I want numbers first. How many power plants are we talking about? In 2004, Stephen Pascala and Robert Socolow argued in a much-discussed Science article that the world's carbon output will rise from about 7 billion tons today to 14 billion tons in 2054. In order to keep carbon concentrations under 500 ppm by mid-century, and avoid bad global warming scenarios, the world should be emitting only 7 billion tons of carbon by 2050.

Now in order to replace one billion tons of those emissions with nuclear energy, Pascala and Socolow estimate that the world would have to add an additional 700 GW in nuclear capacity, double what's produced at present by 440 reactors. So that means 880 new reactors, unless technology makes our plants much more efficient and the like. Since the United States is responsible for roughly a fourth of all carbon output, we'll say that the U.S. would need to build around 220 new nuclear reactors by 2050. Just to cut future emissions by a seventh.

Inside Cheney's Office

Mon Apr. 17, 2006 6:00 PM EDT

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.

Boeing Story Hits the Post

| Mon Apr. 17, 2006 3:47 PM EDT

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

Mon Apr. 17, 2006 3:21 PM EDT

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.