Inconvenient News,
       by smintheus

Thursday, June 29, 2006

  The Supreme Court on War Crimes and all that

It would be hard to exaggerate the importance of the Supreme Court ruling today in the Hamdan case. The Court invalidated the use of military tribunals in Guantanamo, by means of which Bush & Co. had hoped to keep these prisoners beyond the reach of pesky things like normal rules of evidence and procedure.

But that is just one aspect of this sweeping decision. More fundamentally, the Court ruled that the President’s executive powers are limited even during wartime by statute and treaties; that the Authorization of the Use of Military Force (2001) did not necessarily vest the President with broad new powers neither stated nor envisioned; that unless Congress says otherwise, the President is bound by international treaties on waging war; and that in particular Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions, the minimum or baseline protection prohibiting cruel or demeaning treatment of prisoners, applies also to captives picked up during operations against al Qaeda.

Altogether, this ruling implies some striking things. It means, at a minimum, that the ‘harsh’ interrogation techniques that the US has been using are illegal. In fact, they ought to be classed as a war crime. The ruling may also imply, by rejecting unlimited Executive aggrandizement based upon the AUMF, that the President’s warrantless domestic spying programs would be found to be illegal. When the program was exposed, the only semi-rational justification that Bush Co. advanced was based upon AUMF.

In other words, Bush struck out today.

The best concise overview I’ve seen of today’s ruling is Marty Lederman’s post at Scotusblog.

I have not yet read the complete opinions, but from what I've seen of not only the Stevens majority, but also the Kennedy and Breyer concurrences…it is hard to overstate the principal, powerfully stated themes emanating from the Court, which are (i) that the President's conduct is subject to the limitations of statute and treaty; and (ii) that Congress's enactments are best construed to require compliance with the international laws of armed conflict.

Even more importantly for present purposes, the Court held that Common Article 3 of Geneva ap[p]lies as a matter of treaty obligation to the conflict against Al Qaeda. That is the HUGE part of today's ruling. The commissions are the least of it. This basically resolves the debate about interrogation techniques, because Common Article 3 provides that detained persons "shall in all circumstances be treated humanely," and that "[t]o this end," certain specified acts "are and shall remain prohibited at any time and in any place whatsoever"—including "cruel treatment and torture," and "outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment." This standard, not limited to the restrictions of the due process clause, is much more restrictive than even the McCain Amendment. See my further discussion here.

This almost certainly means that the CIA's interrogation regime is unlawful, and indeed, that many techniques the Administation has been using, such as waterboarding and hypothermia (and others) violate the War Crimes Act (because violations of Common Article 3 are deemed war crimes).

I would not suppose for a moment that any member of Congress will find the nerve to investigate whether administration officials have committed war crimes by authorizing undignified, humiliating and degrading treatment of prisoners. And where Congress dares not tread, respectable journalists will not lead. You’ll find the expression ‘war crime’ only once in this otherwise thorough assessment of the Hamdan ruling in the Washington Post -- and that in regard to Hamdan, not Bush administration officials.

So, call me unrespectable.

There’s also good news regarding the dreams of a ‘Unitary Executive’ that have too long flowed like a putrid spring from the fevered noggins of Dick Cheney and the equally nefarious David Addington. Here’s Marty Lederman’s summary of a relevant bit of Stevens' ruling:

Neither the AUMF nor the DTA [Defense against Terrorism Act] can be read to provide specific, overriding authorization for the commission convened to try Hamdan. Assuming the AUMF activated the President’s war powers…and that those powers include authority to convene military commissions in appropriate circumstances…there is nothing in the AUMF’s text or legislative history even hinting that Congress intended to expand or alter the authorization set forth in UCMJ [Universal Code of Military Justice] Art. 21…. Likewise, the DTA cannot be read to authorize this commission. Although the DTA, unlike either Art. 21 or the AUMF, was enacted after the President convened Hamdan’s commission, it contains no language authorizing that tribunal or any other at Guantanamo Bay. Together, the UCMJ, the AUMF, and the DTA at most acknowledge a general Presidential authority to convene military commissions in circumstances where justified under the Constitution and laws, including the law of war. Absent a more specific congressional authorization, this Court’s task is… to decide whether Hamdan’s military commission is so justified.

Only recently SCOTUS was willing to play along with, or at least not interfere in, the neocon fantasies of an imperial presidency – in which all kinds of inherent powers are possible, and, therefore, desirable for the president to exercise. But now the Court appears to be setting down a marker saying that it will look in future for “specific, overriding authorization” in AUMF and DTA for anything that is not “justified under the Constitution and laws”. It sounds to me like SCOTUS might well have found Bush’s warrantless domestic spying programs to be illegal, at least today, at least for now. If only Chief Justice Roberts would take a powder more often, we might be able to restore some sanity to this government in the longer term.

Crossposted at Unbossed.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

  There’s good money in IEDs

When the excellent bloggers at asked me to join their team, the second question that came up was who I am and how do I define my writing? (I can’t get any mileage at the moment out of the first question - what my pseudonym means – so I’ll leave it to one side.) My immediate response, “a regular, old-fashioned bitch on wheels,” doesn’t seem entirely adequate, after further reflection.

What I really am is proud of the American democratic tradition, and indignant at what our nation has become under the stewardship of George W. Bush. The news media had little time for the concerns of people like me, so I was drawn to communicate them on line.

For my inaugural post at Unbossed, I chose a topic that really ought to make anybody indignant. The Pentagon (yeah, them again) created a small unit three years ago to find solutions to the roadside bombs in Iraq. That budget has exploded and defense contractors are making a killing. But the IED problem is no closer to being solved.

It’s fair to say that these bombs are central to the insurgency. They kill coalition troops, Iraqi police and military, and civilians. Fear of them is paralyzing the country and damaging the economy, and their effects intensify the hostility that Iraqis feel toward the American forces occupying their country. The military recognized immediately the need to combat IEDs. The story of how the Pentagon tried to achieve that goal perfectly illustrates many of its failings in the Bush era.

The Boston Globe’s Bryan Bender had some pretty unflattering things to say about the program in a major report on the 25th.

A special military task force on improvised explosive devices -- launched in 2003 as a 12-person office to develop quick strategies for combating homemade bombs in Iraq -- has quietly expanded into a $3 billion-per-year arm of the Pentagon, with more than 300 employees and thousands of contract workers, according to Pentagon data analyzed by the Globe.

The growth comes amid complaints within the military that the group's emphasis on high-tech solutions -- mainly through big contracts to traditional defense companies -- has not succeeded in stemming the number of attacks.

The expansion of the task force from a small, quick-moving unit intended to bring creative thinking to the IED threat into a larger Pentagon department recently caught the eye of Congress. The House passed a bill earlier this month seeking to know the precise number of employees, where they work, and how much money is being spent on administrative overhead. The bill is pending in the Senate. …

General John Abizaid , the head of US military forces in the Middle East, recently complained to members of the IED group that its emphasis on multimillion-dollar contracts to develop high-tech sensing equipment has been ineffective at curbing attacks by homemade bombs, according to a person who was present.

Abizaid said the office -- which last year was renamed the Joint IED Defeat Organization -- should focus more on nontechnical solutions, such as figuring out where the explosives are coming from and who is planting them, the official said.

A recent report commissioned by the Pentagon, written by a team of counter-insurgency specialists and provided to Abizaid, was blunt: "The response to the IED has been primarily to increase force protection by emphasizing technical solutions which have proven insufficient," said the internal report, a copy of which was obtained by the Globe. "Business as usual will no longer suffice."

Ah, but business is good, and there you have the Bush administration writ large.

Interviews with current and former members of the task force…revealed widespread frustration that money and other resources were going into long-term deals with major defense contractors.

“This is a perfect example of a Cold War mind-set,” said one former official who held a senior post in the office and has since left government. “The office needs to be moved out of Washington and into Iraq if they are really going to solve this problem.”

The ‘Cold-War mindset’ is fueled by an exploding budget, $6.1 billion so far and $3.3 billion for next year alone. For years Congress piled goodies into Iraq War Supplemental bills with abandon, and when recently it decided to wield the power of the purse slightly more aggressively, the Pentagon was quick to complain that programs will have to be cut thus endangering the troops. Only a few weeks ago, the Pentagon tried to stampede Congress by suggesting that any stalling on the omnibus Supplemental bill meant specifically that the Joint IED Defeat Organization (‘JIEDDO’) was under attack.

If it isn’t, it deserves to be. JIEDDO has very few successes to show, has lost its way, has wasted precious time while thousands have died or been injured, and has instead taken the path toward entrenching itself in bureaucracy.

In seeking purely technical fixes to what is only partly a technical problem, JIEDDO has focused on tactical rather than strategic solutions. It failed to pursue cheaper (because low tech), more effective, and quicker strategies to reducing the number and effectiveness of IEDs – such as identifying the bombers and isolating them from their communities. JIEDDO also ignored the IEDs’ impact upon Iraqis, civilian and military. It evaded the essential but embarrassing problem that the explosives should not have fallen into the hands of insurgents in the first place. The Globe report concentrates on these kind of failings.

The campaign “is poorly focused," stated the Pentagon assessment prepared for Abizaid's command. “A better strategy would focus on preventing Iraqis from becoming involved in the insurgency." It criticized the IED effort for failing to protect ordinary Iraqis from the homemade bombs and suicide car bombs.

The Pentagon “has given little attention to effects of IEDs on the [Iraqi Security Forces], the civilian population, and the Iraqi infrastructure," according to the assessment. “Protecting the population is one of the key precepts of counterinsurgency. …

Last year, at a meeting in Baghdad to discuss new technology to combat IEDs, Abizaid said that he had seen French film footage showing insurgents planting a homemade bomb in full view of Iraqi bystanders.
Abizaid said he was stunned by the “party atmosphere surrounding this event,"…

The commanding general's meaning was clear…Expensive Pentagon devices will not stop the bombings. Only people can stop the bombings.

Perhaps it’s just standard issue incompetence, but with people dieing every day from IEDs the resemblance to Catch-22 can’t go unremarked. Just yesterday three more American soldiers were killed by bombs.

I’d be more willing to cut JIEDDO some slack if all that expensive technology was showing real promise. So far, though, the most successful machinery does little beyond destroying IEDs once they’re discovered - for example a robot termed JIN, which an LA Times report in February somewhat naively touted as an easy fix that just needed to be mass produced (at $200,000 per robot). Yet as one commenter noted at another blog

Unfortunately, the JIN doesn't provide us with any capabilities that we don't already have. It doesn't detect anything -- simply uses a lightening bolt to do what we've been doing all along with C-4 and bullets. It's a more complex, more expensive way to do business, and make a bunch of fat cats richer... We're putting Marines in harms way for that.

As this Associated Press report makes clear, there’s little chance that advances in technology can keep pace with the inventiveness of insurgents in finding new ways to conceal IEDs. And sweeping roads in Iraq of bombs will barely make a dent anyway.

"There's a road we called IED Alley that the ordnance disposal guys would clear regularly," [Sgt. Robert] Lewis, 47, of Carrollton, Ga., said at his current post in western Iraq. "But no sooner would they reach the end of that stretch" eight miles "than the insurgents would be planting IEDs again at the beginning."

To sum up: The Pentagon has lost sight of the original goal of the IED program, and has instead devoted its considerable energies to spending vast sums of money in ways that have little chance of providing more than minimal protection to our troops in Iraq. I wonder if plain old corruption could be involved?

Just by chance so does POGO, the experts in corruption. It appears that MZM Inc. leapt into the IED business sometime in 2005. That would have been before its CEO, Mitchell Wade, pleaded guilty to bribing Randy ‘Duke’ Cunningham.

A mere bump in the road on the path to the IED gravy depot, however. MZM, now called ‘Athena Innovative Solutions’, is even at this moment offering careers for ‘Counter-IED Specialists’. It sounds to me like Athena knows there is money to be made in the IED industry.

Crossposted at Unbossed.

Monday, June 26, 2006

  More theater in Iraq

On the face of it, you might find it hard to reconcile the twin reports in today's NY Times and LA Times concerning the reception of Prime Minister Maliki's reconciliation proposal in Iraq. But the problem is easily resolved. The NYT is serving up some of Maliki's talking points, whereas the LA paper has taken a greater interest in the facts. Anyhow, talking points can be enlightening and are always entertaining.

Together, these two news stories strenthen my suspicion, expressed on Saturday here, that Maliki's reconciliation plan involves a lot of theater and not so much substance. I'd like to be able to hope that it will take hold, but for now the thing appears to be stalled.

Those who have thoughts about how the Democrats ought to react to Maliki's plan might want to take note.

A few days back I advanced the theory that Maliki was trying to convince all interested parties that his plan had momentum; that he was holding all sorts of strings in his hands; and hence that he had strengthened his personal power and authority. Hence is a nice word, when you think about it. In particular, Maliki wants to give the impression that he's close to bringing the Sunni insurgents on board. The problem was, the Sunni insurgents begged to differ.

The plan as finally unveiled on Sunday, however, was gutted of all its most controversial proposals, especially the timeline for the withdrawal of US troops; a promise to revisit the nature of the constitution; a sweeping amnesty; and a recognition that Iraqis resisting the coalition forces were not to be treated as terrorists. In other words, Maliki had abandoned all the things that had been put into the earlier draft in order to entice the Sunnis to join the reconciliation process. There was nothing really new left in the proposal, when it finally did emerge. It was mostly just a package of old proposals and fine sounding sentiments.

The LA Times report about the Maliki proposal suggests it has little credibility among Sunnis active in the resistance.

By diluting any language about a troop withdrawal, the proposal undermines itself, said Wamidh Nadhmi, a Baghdad political scientist sympathetic to the Sunni cause.

"If I were the resistance, I wouldn't talk with a government that depended on a foreign army," he said. "I would talk with the foreign army."

Some Iraqi critics also said the plan failed to address the changing nature of the violence, which they argue has turned more and more from a nationalist fight against U.S. occupation into a sectarian war waged between Arab-backed Sunni extremists and Iranian-backed Shiite militias.

"The whole thing is mixed up," said Sheik Ali Abdullah, leader of the Hamad Jasim, a branch of the Dulaimi tribe in Al Anbar. "We're giving Maliki a full opportunity, but we're sure this government will fail."

Past attempts at luring Sunnis into the political process also were touted as ways of reducing the insurgency, but failed. One analyst, who tracks violent groups in Iraq, said few of the groups engaged in killings and bombings have a toe in the political world, or desire to.

By contrast, the NYT tries to paint a more hopeful picture. Yet the propaganda on offer is painfully transparent. NYT quotes a Sunni political ally of Maliki who wishes us to believe that the Prime Minister's proposal has already convinced some of the Sunni insurgents to join in negotiations.

Ayad al-Samarraie, a hard-line politician from a leading Sunni Arab party, said that the overture by the groups was a significant step in bolstering the legitimacy of Mr. Maliki and possibly drawing other insurgents forward. Members of Mr. Samarraie's organization, the Iraqi Islamic Party, hold some of the top posts in the government and have urged Sunni Arabs to take part in the political process in order to temper the power of the Shiites and Kurds.

"This is a good and affirmative step from the armed groups," Mr. Samarraie said. "We are now looking for other armed groups and militias joined to parties to see how they will work with this project," he added, referring to Shiite militias that are supported by the ruling political parties and accused by Sunni Arabs of abductions, torture and executions.

It sure sounds like Mr. Samarraie has a copy of the very talking points that I surmised Mr. Maliki was trying to promulgate. That is to say, he's having the NYT to know that Maliki's proposal is gaining momentum, and Mr. Maliki's power and standing among Iraqis is growing. Splendid; if only it were true.

It's all too clear that a Shiite ally of Maliki, Hassan al-Suneid, who also is quoted talking up the proposal's success, is determined to avoid being pinned down about how many such Sunni insurgent groups there are, what their influence is, and even when they began negotiating with Maliki.

The groups are made up of Iraqi nationalist fighters and have floated their proposal through Sunni Arab negotiators, Mr. Suneid said in a telephone interview. They "are not implicated in the bloodletting of Iraqis," he added. Mr. Suneid declined to say how many groups want to open talks, who they are and how big or influential they are, though they supposedly have carried out little or no major violent operations. There are indications that seven insurgent factions are involved.

These sound like the same seven groups who were ridiculed by a Sunni insurgent spokesman in the Times of London article I discussed Saturday. Therefore it looks like Maliki's political allies are trying to convince the NY Times today that the "splinter groups" he's been negotiating with for some time are, instead, just now approaching Maliki as a result of the (supposed) momentum that the announcement of his proposal has generated.

In other words, Maliki is desperate at this stage to give the impression that his proposal really does have momentum. Not merely eager to give the impression, but desperate.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

  Iraqi insurgents reject Maliki's peace plan

The peace and reconciliation proposal that Nouri al Maliki plans to announce tomorrow reportedly has extraordinary provisions. The bad news is that tomorrow's Sunday Times, the paper that first described the provisions, reports that the leaders of the Sunni insurgency have said they'll reject the plan.

If the Times report is right, the process of negotiation to date has been some kind of theater. Allegedly, the insurgent 'leaders' whom Maliki's government and Ambassador Khalilzad have been meeting with are insignificant figures in the Sunni resistance. They control mere splinter groups. The actual leaders are rejecting the proposal in advance. Said one Sunni commander:

"The government is very aware that those it says it is negotiating with are not representatives of the main organisations. This whole so-called reconciliation plan is being exaggerated as a breakthrough to help to promote Maliki and his government as well as to aid the Americans to find a face-saving way out of Iraq."

Here is more from the Times:

Representatives of 11 Iraqi insurgent groups told The Sunday Times yesterday that they would reject the peace offer because they did not recognise the legitimacy of the government.

A senior commander authorised to speak on behalf of other groups warned that they would continue to fight. "As long as there is an occupation and an illegitimate government, the resistance and insurgency will continue," he said....

the groups that have taken part in the negotiations are understood to be relatively small. Those rejecting the peace offer include larger organisations such as the Islamic Army in Iraq and the Army of Ansar al-Sunna.

These bodies have drawn up a separate set of demands. They want a more rapid withdrawal of foreign troops, the release of all prisoners from American and Iraqi jails and compensation from the United States and other coalition countries to fund the rebuilding of infrastructure and homes destroyed in the war.

The 11 groups have indicated that any future talks should be conducted with American officials under UN or Arab League supervision, but not with the Iraqi government.

Some observations: Maliki may be trying to give all sides the impression that he's really in charge of the country, the more so if Sunni and Shiite sectarian leaders are not really in the mood to dance to his tune. Maliki may have supposed that he might get momentum, or the appearance of it, by putting together any kind of deal with anybody who was willing to negotiate with him.

The fact that the other, main insurgent groups were able to cooperate and identify a spokesman to talk to foreign journalists, to put their own proposal forward, suggests that they believe they can circumvent Maliki, make him irrelevant, by appealing directly to Britain and the U.S. And in fact the nature of their proposal underscores that apparent desire to undermine Maliki. They want direct talks with the U.S., and in order to marginalize Maliki as completely as possible, they're nominating the U.N. or Arab League as the sponsors of the negotiations.

Some of their demands very probably are for domestic consumption, or mere starting points for negotiation. I imagine that the Sunnis are hoping for reconstruction funds from whatever source they can get them, but what they're really aiming at is a guarantee of income from Iraq's oil revenues.

In any case, it's noteworthy that they say they want a more rapid withdrawal of U.S. troops than Maliki does. This could be an authentic position. It could also be a negotiating ploy, something to hand back to the Bush administration in exchange for more favorable terms in regard to, say, oil revenues.

For we shouldn't forget that although the Sunni insurgency still is fighting U.S. forces aggressively, the Sunnis fear the Shiites much more than they do the U.S. occupation. Sunnis have been targeted for attacks and reprisals, and these might quite conceivably get much worse as soon as the U.S. withdraws. So the demands for rapid withdrawal could be part of the theater.

Why are the Sunnis trying so hard to make Maliki a figure of ridicule in Iraq, by destroying his peace plan in advance and shunting him aside in the negotiations on the future of Iraq? Because he is a notorious Shiite hardliner, as I commented when Maliki's candidacy was announced in April. Here is an AP report from the following day:

The tough-talking al-Maliki, who once managed Shiite guerrillas in Saddam's Iraq from exile in Syria, promised an inclusive government with "all components of Iraqi society."...

In his new role, al-Maliki must make overtures to the disaffected Sunni Arab community, the backbone of the insurgency. Sunni Arab politicians accepted al-Maliki despite his reputation as a hardline champion of Shiite rights.

Al-Maliki was deputy chairman of a committee formed to purge Saddam allies from political life. Many Sunnis believed the committee's goal was to deny them a role in Iraq.

He also was a tough negotiator in deliberations over Iraq's new constitution, passed last year despite Sunni Arab objections. He resisted U.S. efforts to put more Sunnis on the drafting committee as well as Sunni efforts to dilute provisions giving Shiites and Kurds the power to form semiautonomous mini-states in the north and south.

When Maliki was proposed to replace Ibrahim al-Jaafari as Prime Minister, it looked as if he was being shoved down the throats of Sunnis. Here was the NY Times:

Just one day ago, Sunni Arab leaders and Kurdish officials had expressed a preference for the other Shiite politician who had been considered a strong candidate for nomination as prime minister, Ali al-Adeeb. They had described Mr. Maliki as too sectarian and inflexible to win wide support among other political groups.

Well, Maliki did manage to grab the golden ring after all. But in Iraq, what goes around comes around. Maliki is deeply distrusted by Sunnis, and therefore any negotiations where he's running the show are likely to grind to a halt.

  Why I'm not a mainline leftist blogger

After visiting my new blog, several dear friends and one lifelong enemy have commented on this topic. In different ways, they've all expressed the view that I am not and probably never will be considered a significant voice in left blogtopia.

They had things to say about `quality' and `integrity', which I won't pass on. I agreed with their conclusions but not their premises. For reasons that I can no longer quite remember now, I thought this would make a good topic to discuss here.

My basic point to them is that I'll remain outside of the mainstream because I don't have the patience required to state the obvious over and over again. I've barely even tried my hand at it; just can't bring myself to do what needs to be done. It's a personal failing which I can admit to, but not correct. And this is why, more than most other bloggers on the left, my own writing resembles the work of professional journalists.

Heaven knows the obvious needs to be said.

Don't invade that country, it's not ours.

When I first began poking around left-leaning blogs a few years ago, I was struck by the persistence of bloggers in stating the obvious. What I kept seeing were plain, unexceptional observations repeated at site after site. In school, I'd been taught to avoid stating the obvious.

We can't afford a tax break, there's a war on.

So I was struck immediately by the ubiquitous and endlessly repeated truisms in left-wing blogs. They were reading each other, you could tell that by the links, so why were they restating each other's basic points all the time?

They can't torture people, it's illegal.

This kind of thing did not happen on right-wing blogs. In my limited experience, right-wingers eschewed the most obvious questions to concentrate instead upon arcane and trivial details. I get the impression they hold themselves to be great stylists, and the really big names on the right wouldn't be caught dead addressing the obvious.

Don't trust him, he's a proven liar.

But on the left, the big names seem to make a point of gravitating toward manifest truths. They also devote a remarkable amount of attention to the most basic questions. Anyway, I thought it curious; it made the strongest impression on me.

What happened to those 8 billion dollars, anyway?

I say this with no malice. In fact, the more I've thought about it over the years, the more it seems that there really is some value in stating the obvious. It might as well take place in this part of the blogosphere.

Who died and made him king?

Certainly in the last few years, it's become much clearer to me that some things just don't take on the first or second repetition.

No, you can't just arrest millions of people.

And part of the problem, as it turns out, is that many Americans have never once been told these things.

Actually, the U.S. is a secular state.

Or if they were told, then they just weren't listening.

Wait, you can't force your religious views on others.

Anyway, this is where journalists come in.

What happened to that Congressional investigation?

Because journalists, the real professionals I mean, not the on-line activisty types or the folks at the Center for Government Integrity, pretty much stear clear of the big questions and the obvious truths.

But Republicans made this mess in the first place.

Instead, except for a few oddballs like the reporters at Knight Ridder, professional journalists explore stories in the margins, far on the periphery of the larger political and social issues of the day.

Send some boats, those people are drowning!

Few are anxious to be seen asking the obvious question at a press conference, or posing the follow-up question that would take them too close to the heart of the matter.

What happened to bin Laden?

And that is very similar to the way I approach my own blogging. I prefer the offbeat to the obvious story. I look for the kinds of things few others write about, or would ever care to write about. Once in a while, just for kicks, I dig into minutia. But I almost always turn my back on the really big issues. I leave that to the mainstream leftist bloggers. They seem to be the ones handling that area of the news, nowadays.

Crossposted at Daily Kos

Thursday, June 22, 2006

  Pat Roberts ties "Phase Two" up in knots

Today there's a slight break in the virtual news blackout about the state of the notorious "Phase Two" investigation into the White House's use and abuse of intelligence before the invasion of Iraq. Since 2004 the Chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, the notorious shill Pat Roberts, has been promising to let this thing be completed. All the while, he's been throwing up obstacles, though what exactly these were hasn't always been clear.

I see via Greg Sargent that Byron York has a piece up at NRO that reveals a fair amount about the Committee's work. His pen is dipped in poison for a Committee staffer, but once you get beyond that there's real news about what has been done on the five parts of the investigation.

It looks like the two most politically sensitive parts could be tied up indefinitely, and one could well be mangled by the Pentagon.

The first three parts, York reports, are nearly completed. The facts are pretty cut and dried, and already known, so there's little to be gained by stonewalling here.

Part One is a survey of the pre-war intelligence. What intelligence agencies eventually came up with was a crock, as Republicans too are happy to report.

Part Two examines how much credence was given to the junk being fed to the administration by the Iraqi National Congress. Partisan Republicans have wanted to downplay the influence of these rascals (see Robb-Silverman). Sensible Republicans and Democrats recognize that Bush was going to welcome support for an invasion of Iraq from any quarter, so it comes as no surprise that there's said to be agreement here as well.

Part Three looks at pre-war planning for the occupation of Iraq. Nobody can dispute that the rosy scenarios were somewhat off the mark; again, most of the work is completed.

Part Four, on the Office of Special Plans, is where things begin to get messy. This unit located in the White House existed to stovepipe questionable intelligence directly to Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld. Of Part Four, York states:

This area is virtually the sole project of Sen. Levin, who has been acutely interested in the work of the office's former chief, Douglas Feith. Levin has accused Feith of distorting, exaggerating, inventing, or manipulating intelligence about the connections between Iraq and al Qaeda and about Saddam Hussein's weapons capabilities -- and then deceiving Congress about it. Committee chairman Pat Roberts has said his panel found no credible evidence to support Levin's charges and referred the matter to the Pentagon's inspector general for review. Now, nothing will be done in this area until the Pentagon gives its findings to the committee -- which could take months.

It's highly likely that the Pentagon Inspector General will put the kabosh on this part of "Phase Two". Three weeks ago the White House nominated David Laufman to become the next Inspector General of the DoD. As I reported at the time, it was a curious choice. Laufman has no background that would truly qualify him for such a job. I surmised that Bush chose him because Laufman appears to be a loyalist, even an extremist, in carrying out administration policies in the war on terror. I speculated that his appointment might serve to keep a lid on any potential investigations into scandals like the NSA warrantless spying.

By good luck, one of the few bloggers who paid any attention whatever to my post was Cernig at NewsHog. He did some further digging on Laufman and found a piece I had missed, written by Robert Parry. Here, Parry mentions that a group of Republican lawyers including Laufman were considered to be partisan hacks. They served on the 'October Surprise' commission, downplaying all the evidence of wrongdoing by the Reagan/Bush team. Then as soon as that whitewash was wrapped up, they were hired to do the same on the Clinton-passport investigation.

Later, one senior Clinton administration official reviewed the whitewashing of the October Surprise issue and similar handling of the passport case. The official shook his head in disgust. "They're the cleaners," he said about the investigative team, a reference to ruthless intelligence experts who are brought onto the scene of a botched operation to clean up the incriminating evidence.

I think Cernig has it right. Laufman was nominated to be the Inspector General at DoD precisely because he has a record of reliably whitewashing scandals associated with the Bush family. I believe that any investigation dropped on Laufman's desk at DoD regarding the Office of Special Plans will be dry cleaned and starched.

Part Five of "Phase Two" is the section that Sargent focuses on. It concerns the public pronouncements about intelligence by Bush Co. before the invasion of Iraq. Here is York again:

This area is said to be a matter of such deep division and contention that it might never be completed. Originally, committee Democrats wanted to examine only the statements made by White House and administration officials, comparing those statements to available intelligence to determine whether they were exaggerated. But Roberts pointed out that many lawmakers, Republican and Democrat, had made statements before the war, too. For example, Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy said, in September 2002, that "We have known for many years that Saddam Hussein is seeking and developing weapons of mass destruction." Why not examine statements like Kennedy's, too? Roberts asked. Democrats resisted, especially when Roberts proposed that senators evaluate each statement on its substance without knowing the identity of the speaker. That course would have been fraught with danger for Democrats: What if they condemned one of their own? A standoff ensued, and it is not clear when, or if, it will be resolved.

York seems to take pleasure in Roberts' gamesmanship, and characteristically does not notice, or care, that the result may be to delay or block the completion of an already long overdue report.

Roberts' position is of course nasty and ridiculous. It doesn't matter whether members of Congress believed that Hussein still had WMD. They had only as much accurate intelligence as Bush Co. was willing to give them. Likewise, Roberts' proposal to investigate as well the statements made by Clinton administration officials in the 1990s demonstrates what a partisan hack he is. Clinton did not order an invasion of Iraq based upon what they thought they knew.

The issue in question is whether Bush and his "people" represented the state of intelligence accurately and completely, or cherry-picked intel to make a case for war. If Senators like Kennedy were mistaken in over-estimating the amount of chemical and biological weapons that Hussein retained, they were not President and did not drag the country to war. In fact, Kennedy opposed the war.

Furthermore, the existence of stocks of chemical and biological weapons did not per se threaten the United States. Bush built his case for war not primarily on the notion that Hussein still possessed mustard gas shells, but rather on the basis of an alleged nuclear weapons program; an alleged ability to deliver those weapons in the United States; an alleged intent to do so; and alleged ties to al Qaeda. Props to ALevin and Bob Somerby for making those points over at American Prospect.

Also worth noting is this: Bush was told that all American intelligence agencies agreed that Hussein posed no threat to attack the United States. As Murray Waas reported in March, Bush received a one-page summary of intelligence in January 2003:

According to interviews and records, Bush personally read the one-page summary in Tenet's presence during the morning intelligence briefing, and the two spoke about it at some length. Sources familiar with the summary said it was highly significant that the president was informed that it was the unanimous conclusion of the intelligence agencies participating in the production of the January 2003 NIE that Saddam was unlikely to consider attacking the U.S. unless Iraq was attacked first.

This is the kind of thing that matters, Mr. York, not whether Democrats can be discombobulated by outrageous demands from Chairman Roberts.

Crossposted at DowningStreetMemo.Com

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

  Rick Santorum makes a fool of himself, again.

Senator Santorum held a breathless news conference today (along with the hapless Rep. Hoekstra) to announce that the Army had discovered WMD in Iraq, finally. The ever vigilent junior Senator from Pennsylvania has been pushing for the release of this information for months, he tells us.

Just as you'd suspect, the facts were trivial. The military in Iraq discovered around 500 artillery shells with degraded mustard gas and sarin, dating from the Iran-Iraq War. Santorum and Hoekstra could not explain why they still considered it news that a few ancient chemical weapons yet existed somewhere in Iraq. Nor had the two statesmen bothered to inquire why the White House had not trumpeted this "incredibly" important revelation when it first turned up.

Even Fox News is having a hard time trying to decide whether run with or away from this nonsense.

Offering the official administration response to FOX News, a senior Defense Department official pointed out that the chemical weapons were not in useable conditions.

"This does not reflect a capacity that was built up after 1991," the official said, adding the munitions "are not the WMDs this country and the rest of the world believed Iraq had, and not the WMDs for which this country went to war."

And the AP report is utterly dismissive.

With some Democrats saying the decision to go to war was a mistake, Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., and House Intelligence Chairman Peter Hoekstra, R-Mich., tried to dispel arguments by Democratic lawmakers that no weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq.

Santorum and Hoekstra released a newly declassified military intelligence report that said coalition forces have found 500 munitions in Iraq that contained degraded sarin or mustard nerve agents, produced before the 1991 Gulf War.

But a defense official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the weapons were not considered likely to be dangerous because of their age. Also, Democrats said a lengthy 2005 report from the top U.S. weapons inspector contemplated that such munitions would be found.

I commented on the "news" as it broke here. See also Think Progress for more, if you have the stomach.

Update: The Washington Post today can't find anybody in DC who takes this seriously, besides the dynamic duo.

Update two: The report from Warren P. Strobel of Knight Ridder ought to put the matter to rest. Santorum and Hoekstra sound pretty defensive about the matter now:

But the intelligence officials said the munitions dated from before the 1991 Persian Gulf War and were for the most part badly deteriorated. "They are not in a condition where they could be used as designed," one intelligence official said.

"There is not new news from the coalition point of view," one official said...

Santorum and Hoekstra didn't return calls requesting comment Thursday in response to the intelligence officials.

"This is an incredibly - in my mind - significant finding," Santorum told a news conference Wednesday. "It is important for the American public to understand that these weapons did in fact exist, were present in the country and were in fact and continue to be a threat to us."

The intelligence officials offered a less alarming view.

They said the old munitions had been found in groups of one and two, indicating that they'd been discarded, not that they were part of an organized program to stockpile banned weapons.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

  How bad are things in Iraq? Here are two documents you should know.

Today Rep. Jane Harman posted a diary at Daily Kos arguing that the next 3 to 6 months will be critical for building a viable state in Iraq, after which the U.S. might be able to leave the country "in better shape than when we found it." That is not far from the position that the Bush administration has been forced back upon, as it becomes ever harder to deny that Iraq is in "bleak" condition, to borrow Tony Snow's term.

I'm not convinced. Iraq is in meltdown, and though they won't let on to the public, the Bush administration knows it full well. In the past, Bush has "known" things and still not permitted them to impinge on his policies. Now, however, it seems likely that the truth about Iraq looms so large that it's actually having practical effects upon Bush's Iran policy.

There are two documents you ought to know about, if you don't already. One is a cable from May 6 by Ambassador Khalilzad. No, not the cable published on Sunday. This was an earlier, equally bleak assessment that got little attention.

The other, an Iranian letter from 2003, was an offer to cut a deal over Iran's nuclear program. Bush's recent shift in Iran policy, in the context of this rejected deal, suggests that he's all but given up on succeeding in Iraq.

Document A (and A Prime)

First, the cable. It was reported two weeks ago by Al Kamen in the Washington Post, who evidently got a copy directly from Khalilzad. Kamen quotes salient bits of the text. I reproduce seven extracts:

(1) Crime, terrorism, and warfare are a significant threat in all parts of Iraq. Active military operations are ongoing....Remnants of the former regime, transnational terrorists, criminal elements and numerous insurgent groups remain active.

(2) Attacks against military and civilian targets continue throughout the country, including inside the international zone. These attacks have resulted in deaths and injuries of American citizens. Planned and random killings are common as are kidnappings for ransom and political reasons.

(3) Overall security in Iraq is worsening, with kidnapping by criminal gangs and insurgents a particular problem. These bold, well-equipped, and sophisticated groups/gangs are terrorizing . . . businessmen [and] contractors...

(4) Outspoken critics of the war who painted themselves as allies of the insurgency have been kidnapped, mistakenly believing that by aligning themselves with . . . the hostage takers, they could guarantee themselves an exemption from being targeted.

(5) armed militia, loyal to various non-governmental entities, have limited to extensive control of parts of Baghdad and some cities in Iraq.

(6) Shootings, kidnappings, suicide bombings (both pedestrian and vehicular) and mortar or rocket attacks are a constant threat in Baghdad.

(7) The local police are poorly trained, poorly equipped and corrupt.

The May 6 cable purports to be a general overview of the situation in Iraq. The grim cable from June 6 (PDF), as vivid as it is, focuses largely on what Embassy staff are reporting to Khalilzad about their own problems. Some of it could be dismissed as mere anecdotal evidence.

There are of course a few statements in the now famous cable that definitely tell a larger picture, especially this in section 6: "An Arab newspaper editor told us he is preparing an extensive survey of ethnic cleansing, which he said is taking place in almost every Iraqi province." Khalilzad also states in section 15 that they are shredding documents that name Embassy employees, and he remarks that some staffers are asking "what provisions would we make for them if we evacuate."

Not to minimize the importance of the June 6 cable, but the one from the previous month is an essential complement to it. Kamen would do us a considerable favor if he would publish the full text.

So, the Bush administration has known for at least a month and a half that the Ambassador himself is depicting Iraq as unraveling quickly. That may partly explain Bush's willingness, virtually unparalleled, to sit down and talk to critics of his Iraq policies, a few days before he dashed in and out of Baghdad.

Document B

The blunt talk from Khalilzad, perhaps along with other evidence about the deteriorating condition of Iraq that was accumulating in the White House, also seems to be partly responsible for Bush's sudden reversal in late May regarding Iran. After years of posturing - refusing to talk to Iran, rejecting diplomatic overtures, or insisting upon pre-conditions that everybody knows the Iranians would not accept - Bush finally began to show some flexibility and agreed conditionally to join multilateral talks with Iran.

Now, it's true that the reversal of course is largely due to U.S. failure to get an agreement at the U.N. for international sanctions against Tehran, as Gareth Porter argued last week. American diplomatic efforts to build support for tough sanctions fell apart during May, even though as a negotiating tactic Rice offered to join EU talks with Iran.

Despite claims that US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has regained the diplomatic initiative from Iran with a conditional offer to join multilateral talks with Tehran, the real story behind the policy shift is that the US administration has suffered a decisive defeat of its effort to get international sanctions for possible military action against Iran....

The New York Times reported on April 30 that US officials had described a plan by Rice to get agreement on a UN Security Council resolution requiring that Iran cease enriching uranium that would be enforceable under Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter. Chapter VII authorizes the use of penalties, and if those are ineffective, of military force.

It now is clear that Rice hoped to get the agreement of the five powers to her plan by making a concession the US administration had been resisting for weeks - the agreement to join the talks between the EU-3 (Britain, France and Germany) and Iran....

Thus the real story behind Rice's dramatic May 31 announcement and the proposal announced in muted terms the following day in Vienna is that the US had backed down and accepted a package without the threat of Security Council sanctions that Rice and Bush had wanted going into New York.

Yet the failure of Rice's diplomacy seemed like a foregone conclusion, to me at least, and in any case it did not require that Bush agree to join EU talks. His administration has remained aloof for years from European efforts to talk Iran down from its nuclear posture. The reversal was about more than just accepting a different diplomatic venue. It was about accepting actual diplomacy per se.

Bush Co. has almost always treated diplomacy as the sissy's option. For five years, any attempts in DC to work toward an agreement with Iran about its nuclear interests have been systematically thwarted for the simple reason that the primary and overriding goal for Cheney, and therefore also for Bush, has been regime change in Iran.

It's widely acknowledged that earlier overtures from Iran were rebuffed because the Mayberry Machiavellis, Cheney in particular, believed that they were on the verge of overthrowing the Iranian regime. In fact, the invasion of Iraq was supposed to facilitate that, either by destabilizing Iran or by serving as a base to support incursions by all those Iranian dissidents who were supposed to flock to Cheney's banner.

Well, Cheney's star has drooped and Rice has gained enough influence to convince Bush to try a new way. That much is pretty well agreed.

I would add that one of the main grounds for this power shift has been Bush's increasing awareness that Iraq is falling apart. Far from being a basis of leverage to use against Iran, Iraq increasingly has become leverage for Iran to employ against the U.S. We have definitely lost Iraq, in the sense that Cheney and Rumsfeld thought we could seize it, use it, and despoil it. If any country has won the Iraq War, it is Iran.

Therefore I would argue that the decision in late May to reverse course and agree to negotiate directly with Iran, was also based in part on a (so far tacit) admission by Bush that Iraq is falling apart and probably is beyond salvaging in any meaningful sense.

There's a document that can help us to measure just how far Bush has retreated in his posture on Iran, the offer to negotiate sent to Bush by Iran in 2003. It's been talked about in general terms for a long time, but very recently the same Gareth Porter has published significantly more details about the letter's contents in American Prospect.

The Iranian offer was remarkable in itself, not just because in 2001-2 the new administration had made its hostility to Iran very clear, but also because it was sweeping in the way that Gorbachov's offers to Reagan were. It put virtually every significant issue up for negotiation simultaneously, in a grand package. Iran was convinced that the U.S. planned to attack it as soon as Iraq was under control, so they hurriedly tried to cut a big deal. Here is Porter:

As the United States was beginning its military occupation of Iraq in April, the Iranians were at work on a bold and concrete proposal to negotiate with the United States on the full range of issues in the U.S.-Iran conflict. ...

The proposal, a copy of which is in the author's possession, offered a dramatic set of specific policy concessions Tehran was prepared to make in the framework of an overall bargain on its nuclear program, its policy toward Israel, and al-Qaeda. It also proposed the establishment of three parallel working groups to negotiate "road maps" on the three main areas of contention -- weapons of mass destruction, "terrorism and regional security," and "economic cooperation." ...

The proposal offered "decisive action against any terrorists (above all, al-Qaeda) in Iranian territory" and "full cooperation and exchange of all relevant information." ...

To meet the U.S. concern about an Iranian nuclear weapons program, the document offered to accept much tighter controls by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in exchange for "full access to peaceful nuclear technology." It proposed "full transparency for security [assurance] that there are no Iranian endeavors to develop or possess WMD" and "full cooperation with IAEA based on Iranian adoption of all relevant instruments (93+2 and all further IAEA protocols)." ...

The document appears to have assumed that the United States would be dependent on Iran's help in stabilizing Iraq. It offered "coordination of Iranian influence for activity supporting political stabilization and the establishment of democratic institutions and a nonreligious government." In return, the Iranians wanted "democratic and fully representative government in Iraq" (meaning a government chosen by popular election, which would allow its Shiite allies to gain power) ...

The list of Iranian aims also included an end to U.S. "hostile behavior and rectification of status of Iran in the U.S.," including its removal from the "axis of evil" and the "terrorism list," and an end to all economic sanctions against Iran.

It all looks pretty attractive, especially in retrospect. But even at the time, this should have been greeted as a major diplomatic success, a windfall from all the saber-rattling. The reception, however, was chilly in Washington in May 2003.

Iran's historic proposal for a broad diplomatic agreement should have prompted high-level discussions over the details of an American response. In fact, however, the issue was quickly closed to further discussion. [CIA analyst Flynt] Leverett believes the document was a "respectable effort" to provide a basis for negotiations. Yet he recalls that there was no interagency meeting to discuss it. "The State Department knew it had no chance at the interagency level of arguing the case for it successfully," he says. "They weren't going to waste Powell's rapidly diminishing capital on something that unlikely."

The outcome of discussion among the principals -- Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Powell -- was that State was instructed to ignore the proposal and to reprimand Guldimann [the Swiss ambassador] for having passed it on.

In other words, the administration was actively hostile to negotiating with Iran just after the invasion of Iraq, even when the Iranians were seen to be eager to cut a deal. And what a deal it would have been.

Contrast that document with the small concessions that Bush is fighting so hard now to obtain, in multi-lateral rather than bi-lateral negotiations. What has changed? Iraq has become a quagmire, and Bush is looking to get out rather than to stay in.


North Korea presents a simultaneous and parallel failure in diplomacy, as toys pointed out today. An arrogant and foolish Bush administration dismissed real chances whenever they arose to make actual progress in negotiating an end to the North Korean nuclear program. This article from Washington Monthly is worth reading in full for the gruesome details.

Bush has neither threatened war nor pursued diplomacy. He has recently, and halfheartedly, agreed to hold talks; the next round is set for June. But any deal that the United States might cut now to dismantle North Korea's nuclear-weapons program will be harder and costlier than a deal that Bush could have cut 18 months ago, when he first had the chance, before Kim Jong-il got his hands on bomb-grade material and the leverage that goes with it.

The pattern of decision making that led to this debacle--as described to me in recent interviews with key former administration officials who participated in the events--will sound familiar to anyone who has watched Bush and his cabinet in action. It is a pattern of wishful thinking, blinding moral outrage, willful ignorance of foreign cultures, a naive faith in American triumphalism, a contempt for the messy compromises of diplomacy, and a knee-jerk refusal to do anything the way the Clinton administration did it.

Monday, June 19, 2006

  Crude awakening: Treasury losing tens of billions to oil companies

Royalties from oil and gas companies are a huge element in federal revenues. You'd think in an era of soaring deficits that the government would take some care to maximize income from mineral rights. You'd be wrong. The failure by oil and gas companies to pay the full royalties they owe is one of the largest and longest-running scandals in recent history. Underpayments in recent years appear to run into tens of billions of dollars of lost revenues.

Every now and again, Congress decides to stop embarrassing itself and rein in the oil companies. 2006 may be one of those years. As I describe below, the House has passed a bill that is awaiting Senate action. If enacted, this legislation might bring an additional $10,000,000,000 into the US Treasury.

And there's a lot more at stake than that $10 billion. Worth talking about, then?

The experts in the field of mineral-royalty fraud and abuse are at The Project for Government Oversight (POGO). Incidentally, their website deserves to get a lot more attention from left blogtopia. Anyway, if you'd like to get caught up on some of the simmering controversies about oil royalty underpayments, there was an excellent segment Friday evening on NOW, which built upon POGO's activism.

The NOW program, Crude Awakening, argues that the U.S. treasury is losing tens of billions of dollars because of shady practices by oil companies operating on public lands, as well as sweet-heart deals from Congress. This page will give you the video, and also has a series of links at the bottom that are worth exploring. One of the most important is a link to a recent GAO briefing on the subject (you might want to look over pages 9-10 in particular before viewing the NOW segment).

Another good read is this post by Beth Daley at the POGO blog; she was one of the experts interviewed by NOW. Her post provides several other links that fill out the story.

Problems by sea...

There are several key issues addressed by both NOW and Daley. First, a sweet-heart deal was created in 1995 for oil companies leasing the right to drill in deep water in the Gulf, under the so-called Deep Water Royalty Relief Act. Under DWRRA, oil/gas companies paid less than the full royalty rate (i) up until a given well had produced a specified amount of oil/gas, and (ii) unless oil/gas prices topped a specified threshold. But the Interior Department forgot (!) to include the royalties-threshold-clauses in the deep-water leases they wrote in the years 1998 and 1999. Interior has done nothing to correct that `oversight'.

Further, George Bush has handed out royalty breaks like popsicles (termed Discretionary Royalty Relief), and has even extended them to shallow-water wells. On top of this, the upper limits of oil/gas that can be pumped at the lower royalty rates has been extended.

Altogether, the nation is going to lose tens of billions of dollars from lost oil and gas royalties for wells drilled at sea during the last ten years. The GAO briefing estimates that the failure to set price thresholds in 1998 and 1999 alone will cost us $10 billion.

Meanwhile, a somewhat notorious oil company, Kerr-McGee, has filed suit against the government regarding the leases it signed from 1996-7 and 2000, which did have the intended price thresholds as legislated by DWRRA. Kerr-McGee claims that the price thresholds should be disallowed. Kerr-McGee has a shady record; it has been sued more than once for failing to pay the royalties it owes. Yet there is great fear that it may win this lawsuit. If it does win and the price thresholds in all industry leases get thrown out, the GAO estimates that may cost the US Treasury another $60 billion.

So last month the House, with bipartisan support (such things can happen), passed a bill to force the oil companies to renegotiate those leases. If the companies refuse to renegotiate, then they'll be denied any further leases in the future. The Senate, however, has so far failed to take up S. 2314, a version of the bill introduced by Sen. Feinstein, Schumer, Kerry, and Boxer.

One thing we could usefully do is urge our Senators to insist that the bill be brought to the floor for a vote.

...and by land

In addition, there are many accusations from former employees of the Interior Department, as well as from people in the oil industry, that oil companies are illegally failing to pay the full royalties they owe for leases on public lands. Land-based wells are not subject to royalty relief, thankfully. Yet there is no end to the devious means that oil/gas companies can find to avoid paying what they owe.

Sometimes, the companies fail to report that they're pumping oil from a site at all, or they under-report the amount of oil. Often, they pull strings in Congress or in the Interior Department to lower the effective royalty rates in government leases, or blunt or eliminate government audits. The oil companies have also advocated novel ways to pay their royalties, such as payment in kind (which POGO has been fighting for years). The lobbying power of big oil is such that government oversight of them has become significantly less aggressive under the Bush administration.

POGO has been investigating such allegations since 1994. Here is a revealing report from 1996 on the underpayment of mineral royalties around the U.S. As this overview of POGO's first five years of oil-royalty work (up to 1999) shows, for every bit of progress reformers make toward holding oil companies accountable, a new loophole is opened up by legislators on the make, or by the Interior Department; or a new means of evasion or falsification is discovered by the oil companies themselves.

What is worse, it appears that the auditing systems for oil/gas leases have been gamed under Bush. Further, honest and effective managers in the Interior Department's Mineral Management Services, who are tasked with auditing and overseeing the oil/gas leases on federal and Indian lands, have been pressured not to dig deeply, and in some cases not to pursue wrongdoing they've uncovered. POGO has obtained documents showing that the number of Interior Department audits of oil-companies has dropped by about 50% in recent years.

One man who used to work as a manager for MMS, Kevin Gambrell, alleges that beginning under the Bush administration, when he investigated these illegal practices (as was his job), he was told by his bosses to tone down or abandon the effort to get the money the U.S. treasury was owed. He tells NOW that under Bush the restrictions placed upon his audits turned them into something more like reviews, rather than actual audits. Eventually, Gambrell was fired, in what his supporters among the Navajos consider to be retribution for doing his job well and honestly.

The accusations that oil-companies are cheating on royalty payments have been echoed by private citizens as well, most famously by Jack Grynberg. Here is an excellent report on him from NPR. Grynberg has brought a series of private suits against oil/gas companies alleging fraud. From High Country News:

Meanwhile, a far bigger false-claims case is playing out in Wyoming. Jack Grynberg, the president and CEO of Denver-based oil and gas producer Grynberg Petroleum, has brought 73 separate lawsuits against some 300 companies in his own industry, including Kerr-McGee, Shell and ExxonMobil.

Grynberg says that when he discovered the extent to which oil and gas companies underreport production, it "just pissed the hell out of me." He turned to the False Claims Act in 1997, after reading about it in The Wall Street Journal, and used it to sue a carbon dioxide producer called the BOC Group for cheating on Colorado state royalties; BOC eventually settled the case for $6 million. Grynberg's 73 cases in Wyoming allege some $30 billion in underpayment, which, under the triple-damage provision of the False Claims Act, could total the biggest false-claims penalty ever.

It seems to me that if the federal government has failed to collect $30 billion dollars owed from wells in Wyoming alone, the Interior Department has very big problems. So, is this chump change as far as Congress is concerned?

Crossposted at Booman Tribune and Daily Kos

  Republicans have no plans

Republicans in Congress have no plans to stand up to George W. Bush. Republicans in Congress have no plans to fix the damage he's done. Republicans have no plans to balance the budget or recover the money stolen and squandered under Bush. Republicans have no plans to take responsibility for the mess we're in. Republicans have no plans to hold anybody accountable. Republicans have no plan to move the country forward, to improve our lives, or heal the divisions they've sown. Republicans have no plan; they have only empty rhetoric.

Republicans have no plans to bring our troops home. Republicans in Congress have no plans to end the bloodshed. They have no plans to rebuild what has been destroyed; to investigate the billions that went missing in Iraq; to restore an army stretched to the breaking point. Republicans have no plans to fund Veterans' care adequately. Republicans have no plans.

Republicans have no plans to send their own children to fight in Iraq. Oh no. Republicans in Congress have no plans to look into why we invaded Iraq in the first place.

Republicans have no plan to fund Social Security. Republicans have no plans to stop spending money we don't have, giving away taxes we need, borrowing against a debt we soon won't be able to repay. Republicans in Congress have no plans to recover unpaid royalties from oil companies. Republicans have no plans to start governing responsibly.

Republicans in Congress have no plans to provide good jobs at decent wages for working Americans. Republicans have no plans to permit oversight of corporate thieves and polluters. Republicans have no plans to prevent war profiteering. Republicans in Congress have no plans to let anything come between them and their wealthy donors. They have no plans to investigate corruption or uphold basic ethical standards. None whatever.

Republicans have no plans to exercise oversight of the Executive Branch. Republicans in Congress have no plans to roll back abuses of power. They have no plans to put a stop to torture in the name of the United States. Republicans in Congress have no plans to demand that the President uphold the laws that he signs. Republicans have no plans to defend the Constitution from fellow Republicans.

They have no plans to fix the health care crisis. They have no plans to encourage conservation of resources, to develop renewable energy sources, or support innovation. Republicans have no plans to defend science from the attacks of fundamentalists. Republicans in Congress have no plans to stand up to their extremist base.

Republicans have no plans to restore a healthy balance of trade with China. Republicans have no plan to relieve the "birth tax" falling upon the young because of ballooning deficits. Republicans in Congress have no plans to keep their noses out of your private affairs.

Republicans in Congress have no plans to restore limited government, fiscal responsibility, and respect for the citizen's liberties.

Republicans have no plans to make their words conform to their deeds.

Now, who says Democrats have no plans?

Crossposted at Daily Kos

  President's spokesman insults the 'greatest generation'

On Late Edition Sunday, Wolf Blitzer gave Tony Snow a good pranging. Quite a few excellent lies escaped Snow's jaws, as well as a pleasing assortment of absurdities. But right off the bat, for whatever reason, he decided to belittle everybody who was alive during World War II.

The president understands people's impatience -- not impatience but how a war can wear on a nation. He understands that. If somebody had taken a poll in the Battle of the Bulge, I dare say people would have said, wow, my goodness, what are we doing here? But you cannot conduct a war based on polls.

The idea that my parents or grandparents would have wanted to bring our troops home during the Battle of the Bulge strikes me as so far from the mark that I have to wonder what kind of tea was being served in the green room at CNN today. This is a political blunder of magnitude. It shows the kind of strain the White House and Snow in particular are under to find a better way to sell this war to a public that refuses any longer to buy it.

Part of the idea here is that tired tactic of drawing parallels between the reckless invasion of Iraq and past wars forced upon us, especially WWII. But when you insult the intelligence of those who lived through that war, you've lost the tactical advantage.

The larger problem is that WWII was bloody, but otherwise very unlike the failed occupation and civil war Bush is directly responsible for. Snow can try to shake off the past failures in Iraq in order to spin yet more of the tattered fantasies about progress and light at the end of the tunnel, but ultimately the administration cannot blot out the historical record. For years Bush Co. has been touting its successes in rebuilding Iraq, so how do you convince anybody now that we're about to see the signs of progress?

Polls, I think, are an accurate reflection of people's anxieties. But one of the things, I think, Wolf, as the American people begin to see that we're actually dealing with a reliable partner in Iraq and you've got an Iraqi government that not only is standing up but committing its forces in lead roles in troublesome places like Baghdad, like Ramadi, going into Basra -- and those are trouble spots within Iraq...

In other words, all those partners Bush was touting in the past few years--they were just troublemakers, riff raff...forget about them. Now we've got a guy we can actually rely upon.

Blitzer was reasonably aggressive with Snow today. He gave Snow a pass when he claimed (absent any evidence, as far as I know), that Nuri al Maliki has stated that prisoners who've killed Americans will not be released under any amnesty. But Wolf did press him on the cable sent to Bush by Ambassador Khalilzad, which he described as "gloomy". Snow tried to evade the problem, but ended up giving the impression that things in Iraq are "bleak".

Well, that's taken in mid-May. Here we are, we are a month later, and I just told you, you've got 50,000 Iraqi troops that are now focusing on those problem areas in Baghdad.

The president didn't go there with rose-colored glasses, Wolf. We've been at Camp David the day before and received briefings from Generals Casey and Abizaid and from Ambassador Khalilzad. He had talked with scholars, some of whom have somewhat bleak views of what's going on.

And again, whatever the bleakness is, whatever the facts may be on the ground, the most important thing is you figure out how to win....

What's interesting is ... it was said, "Hours before President Bush left on a surprise trip for an upbeat assessment of the situation" -- he didn't go there for an upbeat assessment of the situation. He went there for a realistic assessment....

So this was not the president trying to do a victory lap. No, it was the president now realizing you got somebody you can work with to deal with problems like this.

In other words, bleak is realistic; and President Bush has (finally?) learned the truth about how bleak the situation in Iraq is. On the face of it, that does not seem like the kind of corner I would want a press secretary to paint me into. Perhaps there is some subtlety to Snow's approach that I don't understand. But he does seem to emphasizing, intentionally or not, that the first three years of the occupation of Iraq, until al Maliki assumed power, have been wasted.

Blitzer also kept flinging polls at Snow, who despite his professions of disdain for polls, gave in and responded to these questions. Blitzer's next to last question had a bite:

A little politics before I let you go. How is the president handling his job as president, in our CNN poll, it's at 37 percent right now. An interesting question we asked: If Bush supported a candidate in your area, would you be more likely to vote for that candidate? Twenty-seven percent said yes. Less likely to vote for him? Forty-seven percent said yes. No difference, 20 percent. How active is the president going to be going out for Republican candidates over the next several months leading up to November?

And the final question put to Snow?

Here are some of the recent comments that you made before you became the White House press secretary. In September of last year, you said, "No president has looked this impotent this long when it comes to defending presidential powers and prerogatives." In November, you wrote, "The newly passive George Bush has become something of an embarrassment." Tony Snow in March: "A Republican president and a Republican Congress have lost control of the federal budget."

A bad outing for Mr. Snow.

Crossposted at Daily Kos

Friday, June 16, 2006

  Yet another version of events from Haditha

One month ago I commented (Why Iraq is not like Vietnam) that the marines who killed some 24 Iraqis in Haditha apparently have given an extraordinary series of explanations of what happened. None of those versions of events have much relation to the physical evidence or to the testimony of Iraqi eyewitnesses, to judge by published reports.

Another version of events is unveiled in tomorrow's New York Times. If the report is right, this version has no relation to the physical evidence or eyewitness testimony either. It looks like some of the accused marines are attempting to walk back from their earlier version(s), which had the Iraqis dying from a bomb blast or a firefight.

Where stories change, I rarely follow.

  Put this in your souvenir collection.

Did you know that Donald Rumsfeld has memorabilia in his office at the Pentagon snatched from the wreckage of the Sept. 11 attacks in New York and Washington? Several other government officials, including one top FBI official, have taken similar souvenirs according to the AP. For the moment, however, I'm not concerned with the question whether ghouls are running our country.

The fact that these people had swiped the material illicitly had wider consequences, as you've come to expect with the Bush administration. In this instance, it was enough to cause the FBI to drop a charge it was set to bring against a company that had stolen 45 tons of supplies donated by the public for the rescue effort at the Twin Towers.

The lead investigators for the FBI and the Federal Emergency Management Agency told AP that the plan to prosecute KEI for those thefts stopped as soon as it became clear in late summer 2002 that an FBI agent in Minnesota had stolen a crystal globe from ground zero.

That prompted a broader review that ultimately found 16 government employees, including a top FBI executive and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, had such artifacts from New York or the Pentagon.

"How could you secure an indictment?" FEMA investigator Kirk Beauchamp asked. "It would be a conflict."

While the globe's discovery had been widely reported, its impact on the Sept. 11 thefts had remained mostly unknown.

Prosecutors "and the FBI were very conscious of the fact that if they proceeded in one direction, they would have to proceed in the other, which meant prosecuting FBI agents," said Jane Turner, the lead FBI agent. She too became a whistleblower alleging the bureau tried to fire her for bringing the stolen artifacts to light.

Turner was treated shabbily, to judge by this overview of her Minneapolis investigation, from We learn here, among further details, that KEI (a disaster supply company based in Minnesota) was raided by the FBI initially because its employees had stolen as a trophy the door from a firetruck crushed at Ground Zero. Caught red-handed, the ghouls accused FBI agents of swiping artifacts too. An investigation followed, leading to an FBI cover-up, and then mistreatment of Ms. Turner when she refused to play along.

Two other whistleblowers in this case, employees of KEI, were badly treated as well. One witnessed the theft of the 45 tons of supplies from New York,  but when they complained to a KEI executive, they were told to keep quiet. Instead they went to the FBI, which began investigating. Per the AP:

The two whistleblowers eventually lost their jobs, received death threats and were blackballed in the disaster relief industry. But they remained convinced their sacrifice was worth seeing justice done.

Except that the FBI office abandoned the prosecution when it became clear that they would have to prosecute government officials as well for theft of artifacts from the disaster sites. The two whistleblowers feel abandoned too. They were hounded and harassed after the FBI raided the KEI warehouse. Death threats; phone calls in the middle of the night; houses smashed open.

To be fair to the former U.S. attorney in Minnesota, Thomas Heffelfinger, he has a cockamamie story to explain away the failure to prosecute the KEI theft.

"At the heart of the KEI case was financial fraud," Heffelfinger said. "It was so bad we didn't need the theft."

Pffehh. What is 45 tons of relief supplies stolen, after all?

"It's illogical" not to prosecute KEI because of the agents' stolen artifacts, said E. Lawrence Barcella, former chief of major crimes in the U.S. attorney's office in Washington. "The fact that FBI agents stole trinkets is an order of magnitude different than a company selling things they steal."

It really does not make a lot of sense to drop the larceny charge against KEI because a lowly FBI agent had swiped a cracked crystal globe from the wreckage. You don't suppose the failure to prosecute had something to do with wanting to avoid embarrassing more important people? In the course of investigating all the souvenirs grabbed by government employees, the Inspector General's Office of the Department of Justice confirmed that Donald Rumsfeld had added several to his collection, including part of one of the highjacked planes.

So the theft of the 45 tons of donated relief supplies was just dropped by the FBI. Some things, they're just better forgotten.

As a result, most Americans were kept in the dark about a major fraud involving their donated goods even as new requests for charity emerged with disasters like Hurricane Katrina.

Artifacts; memorabilia; mementos; art objects; souvenirs; trophies. Pieces of shattered lives.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

  Rumsfeld can't handle the truth

Talk about inconvenient news. Yesterday I wrote about the series of reports this week by Michael Gordon in the Charlotte Observer about conditions in the Guantanamo prison. His stories portrayed the camp commander in a less than positive light, by the tried and true method of quoting his actual words.

Today, as if on cue, Rumsfeld abruptly ordered two reporters present at Guantanamo, from the LA Times and the Miami Herald, to leave the island immediately. Gordon has left as well, since by Rumsfeld's order he's being denied any further access to the prison - though he was invited by the military in the first place. What's more, the excuse given by DoD for running the reporters out of town is absurd.

A Pentagon spokesman, J.D. Gordon, confirmed the order to leave the island this morning, but told E&P it was unrelated to the stories produced by the journalists, while admitting that Gordon's piece had caused "controversy." He asserted that the move was related to other media outlets threatening to sue if they were not allowed in. He did not say why, instead of expelling the reporters already there, the Pentagon did not simply let the others in, beyond citing new security concerns.

Other news organizations, such as the AP, have said they asked after Saturday's three suicides for permission to send their own reporters to Guantanamo. But they denied that they threatened to sue for access. I hate to sound harsh, but it looks as if the DoD has been caught in a fib.

"All three have been screaming [about the order to leave] like it is going out of style," he said. All of the journalists, including Gordon, were reportedly en route to Miami late this morning.

A curt e-mail to reporters Carol Rosenberg of the Herald and Carol Williams of the L.A. Times mentioned a directive from the office of Rumsfeld, and stated: "Media currently on the island will depart on Wednesday, 14 June 2006 at 10:00 a.m. Please be prepared to depart the CBQ [quarters] at 8:00 a.m.''...

Still, J.D. Gordon said the decision was made that all of the media had to leave the island. But he denied any accusation that such expulsions were in reaction to any of the tough-minded reporting.

"No, totally not true," he said. "Some of the things [Gordon] wrote caused controversy, about changing detainees clothes and forced entry. But we are not into content management. The issue was that other media were threatening to take us to court."...

The Committee for Constitutional Rights in New York, which was representing the three men who committed suicide, released a statement today: "At a time when the administration must be transparent about the deaths at Guantanamo, they are pulling down a wall of secrecy and avoiding public accountability. This crackdown on the free press makes everyone ask what else they are hiding down there. This press crackdown is the administration's latest betrayal of fundamental American values. The Bush Administration is afraid of American reporters, afraid of American attorneys and afraid of American laws."

That comes close to being a truism, I suppose.

The editors of the newspapers whose reporters were expelled have reacted angrily. Here is a second report by Editor & Publisher.

Tom Fiedler, executive editor of the Miami Herald, and Rick Thames, editor of the Charlotte (N.C.) Observer, said the decision to expel the Herald's Carol Rosenberg and the Observer's Michael Gordon, along with Carol Williams of the Los Angeles Times, was a clear denial of press access....

Thames echoed that view in statement e-mailed to E&P today. "The Pentagon appears to have panicked when it discovered it couldn't manipulate a first-class reporter, so it shoved him and all other press out," the statement said. "Michael Gordon was invited by the commander to report on the base for six days, and he was doing that in a very professional manner.

Here is a report in the Charlotte Observer on the expulsion of their reporter Michael Gordon, whose stories probably were the main reason for Rumsfeld's ire.

Gordon said the Observer journalists had a full itinerary on Tuesday, touring the base with their military escorts. After a lunch with Col. Bumgarner, their escorts told them the afternoon itinerary had been cancelled, Gordon said, and he and Sumlin were ordered aboard a ferry.

"When we got back to the other side, they said, `You will be on the plane tomorrow,' " Gordon said.

Oddly, I found no mention of this incident at the DoD website, nor in Stars and Stripes. Not even a curt press release. Increasingly, the DoD gives the impression that it just can't handle the truth.

Incidently, you will discover on the front page at DoD this very useful page on Country Music & Troops. You won't, however, find any information there about the recent survey of the audience for Armed Forces Radio, which revealed that AFR loses nearly all its listeners every time it plays Country music. You'll be relieved to learn that AFR plans to ignore the recommendations that it drop unpopular programming. All of that information cannot be found on the Country Music & Troops page, just as the information about the expulsion of journalists from Guantanamo cannot be found anywhere on the DoD site. Because there's only so much truth that can be fit onto the internet.