Inconvenient News,
       by smintheus

Sunday, April 29, 2007

  Cheney begat the illegal NSA spy program

Last May I asked Did Cheney beget the warrantless NSA spying? It seemed a likely interpretation of news reports available at the time, but I had to admit that the theory was speculative. For the President had declared that CIA Director Michael Hayden dreamed up the program.

The publication of George Tenet's memoir next week would appear to put that question to rest. According to advance reviews of the book, Tenet pins the blame squarely on Cheney. That is an important political development, if true.

Ah, but can Tenet be believed? His account of his years at the CIA is highly self-serving and does little to restore his tattered credibility. What's more, reviewers agree that Tenet has it in for Cheney.

~~~


Here is what Michiko Kakutani says in the NYT review of At the Center of the Storm:

On the subject of Mr. Bush’s secretly authorizing the National Security Agency to eavesdrop without a court order on calls and e-mail messages between the United States and other countries, Mr. Tenet suggests that the idea originated with Vice President Cheney, who he says called him shortly after 9/11 to ask “if N.S.A. could do more” than it was then doing under laws in place since the 1970s.


That seems pretty damning. But was Cheney inviting the CIA Director to conspire with him in developing an illegal program, or merely seeking new refinements to NSA policies that would go no farther than the outermost limits of the law?

On the face of it, the former seems more likely. The NSA long stood accused of overstepping prohibitions against domestic spying (for example, by encouraging foreign intelligence agencies to conduct surveillance on NSA targets inside America, and then receiving those results through intel swaps).

Image Hosted by ImageShack.usBesides, already during the Ford administration Cheney had established a record of contempt for the laws prohibiting domestic wiretapping. Indeed, Cheney was no novice to gaming these laws. It would have been out of character for him not to seek to sweep aside the legal restraints imposed on the Executive Branch at the first opportunity.

In the Washington Post Karen DeYoung has this to say about Tenet's allegation against Cheney:

Tenet writes defensively about the controversial program to intercept domestic telephone calls involving terrorism suspects. The program was Cheney's idea, and the vice president briefed "the leaders of the House and Senate Intelligence committees 12 times prior to its public disclosure" in late 2005.


A more definitive statement than what we got in the NYT review, yet it highlights the essential problem with relying upon Tenet. He is highly defensive about the blame heaped upon him by the Bush administration, and determined to settle scores.

Image Hosted by ImageShack.usHe titles one chapter of the 549-page book "Missed Opportunities," but Tenet misses few opportunities himself to settle scores with Cheney and Rumsfeld and their top aides, and with Bush's first-term national security adviser and current secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice...

By contrast, Tenet's treatment of Bush, who presented Tenet with a Medal of Freedom six months after his departure, is relatively gentle.


Scott Lindlaw writing for the AP concurs:

The book is highly critical of Vice President Dick Cheney and other administration officials, who Tenet argues rushed the United States into war in Iraq without serious debate...


The memoir paints a portrait of constant tension between the CIA and the office of Cheney, who Tenet says stretched the intelligence to serve his own belief that war was the right course.

It alarmed Tenet and surprised even Bush, the author says, when Cheney issued his now-famous declaration that, "Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction."

Chastising Cheney nearly five years later, Tenet writes: "Policy makers have a right to their own opinions, but not their own set of facts." Here again, Tenet blames himself for not pulling Cheney aside and telling him the WMD assertion was "well beyond what our analysis could support."


~~~


Image Hosted by ImageShack.usIt's probably fair to say that apart from rehabilitating his reputation, this memoir exists primarily to settle scores, and that the primary target is Dick Cheney (rightly or wrongly). That raises the question, inevitably, of the credibility of Tenet's allegations wherever he is grinding axes.

For one thing, the book is replete with glaring gaps and dubious claims about his management of the CIA.

He reiterates a claim last year by Bush that the CIA's harsh interrogations of captured al-Qaeda figures "helped disrupt plots aimed at locations in the United States, the United Kingdom, the Middle East, South Asia, and Central Asia." He says the agency used "the most aggressive" techniques -- which he does not detail -- on "a handful of the worst terrorists on the planet" and that the questioning was "carefully monitored at all times to ensure the safety of the prisoner."


I find it hard to give credence to either assertion; there's no good independent evidence for the former, and the latter runs counter to overwhelming evidence that the CIA has tortured and killed prisoners in its "War on Terror". The NYT review comments on this subject as well:

Mr. Tenet does not grapple with reports that the C.I.A. has possibly been implicated in the deaths of at least four detainees in Afghanistan and Iraq. He does not grapple with the problem of sorting out the innocent people sometimes swept up in arrests along with genuine Qaeda suspects. And he sheds no light on the secret Justice Department memos establishing interrogation techniques...

As for the C.I.A.’s role in the lead-up to the Iraq war, Mr. Tenet admits that the agency’s reports about W.M.D.’s, cited in the 2002 National Intelligence Estimate, were flawed. He adds, however, that he himself believed Saddam Hussein possessed W.M.D.’s and he contests allegations that the C.I.A. caved to pressure from administration hard-liners on the matter of W.M.D.’s: “Intelligence professionals did not try to tell policy makers what they wanted to hear,” he writes, “nor did the policymakers lean on us to influence outcomes.”

Mr. Tenet also disputes the allegation made by Tyler Drumheller, the C.I.A.’s former head of the European division, that he — Mr. Drumheller — had raised serious questions about the credibility of a key source known as Curveball with top agency officials before the invasion. He does not, however, come to terms with Mr. Drumheller’s other allegation, made on “60 Minutes,” that a C.I.A. source in Mr. Hussein’s inner circle said in the fall of 2002 that the dictator had no active weapons-of-mass-destruction program and that this information was ignored.


You get some idea of Tenet's credibility from his treatment of his "slam dunk" statement to George Bush about alleged Iraqi WMD. Every reviewer agrees that Tenet remains livid that people in the White House leaked this information to Bob Woodward; he views it as a betrayal of him personally. Tenet presents such an elaborate justification for his infamous statement, drawing fine distinctions between actual evidence for WMD and the potential public-case for such evidence, that I find it hard to believe his claim that the "slam dunk" statement didn't really provide aid and comfort to the administration's headlong rush to war. Besides, Tenet has changed his tune several times on this issue:

Tenet initially denied having used the phrase "slam dunk." But, in a 2005 speech at Kutztown University in Pennsylvania, he said he regretted using the phrase to describe the case against Iraq. "Those were the two dumbest words I ever said," Tenet said.


Later that year I spoke at Kutztown about the run-up to the Iraq war, and one audience member told me that Tenet had not seemed at all credible when he spoke there.

The author Ron Suskind reported in his 2006 book, "The One Percent Doctrine," that Tenet did not remember whether he had used the phrase.


So now in 2007 Tenet is back to admitting once again that he did use the phrase. As Paul McLeary comments ...

the former head of the CIA seems to be dancing as fast as he can on this question, and has been for years. It's time someone called him on it.


~~~


Indeed, in today's WaPo former CIA agent Michael Scheuer portrays Tenet as two-faced:

Like self-serving earlier leaks seemingly from Tenet's circle to such reporters as Ron Suskind and Bob Woodward, "At the Center of the Storm" is similarly disingenuous about Tenet's record on al-Qaeda. In "State of Denial," Woodward paints a heroic portrait of the CIA chief warning national security adviser Condoleezza Rice of pending al-Qaeda strikes during the summer of 2001, only to have his warnings ignored. Tenet was indeed worried during the so-called summer of threat, but one wonders why he did not summon the political courage earlier to accuse Rice of negligence, most notably during his testimony under oath before the 9/11 commission.

Image Hosted by ImageShack.us"I was talking to the national security adviser and the president and the vice president every day," Tenet told the commission during a nationally televised hearing on March 24, 2004. "I certainly didn't get a sense that anybody was not paying attention to what I was doing and what I was briefing and what my concerns were and what we were trying to do." Now a "frustrated" Tenet writes that he held an urgent meeting with Rice on July 10, 2001, to try to get "the full attention of the administration" and "finally get us on track." He can't have it both ways.


Scheuer himself has considerable axes to grind, but his portrait of Tenet rings true in this regard:

At a time when clear direction and moral courage were needed, Tenet shifted course to follow the prevailing winds...

He seems to blame the war on everyone but Bush (who gave Tenet the Medal of Freedom) and former secretary of state Colin L. Powell (who remains the Democrats' ideal Republican). Tenet's attacks focus instead on the walking dead, politically speaking: the glowering and unpopular Cheney; the hapless Rice; the band of irretrievably discredited bumblers who used to run the Pentagon, Donald H. Rumsfeld, Paul D. Wolfowitz and Douglas J. Feith; their neoconservative acolytes such as Richard Perle; and the die-hard geopolitical fantasists at the Weekly Standard and National Review.


Other former intelligence officers have written a public letter taking Tenet to task for his self-serving book:

It now turns out that you were the Alberto Gonzales of the intelligence community--a grotesque mixture of incompetence and sycophancy shielded by a genial personality. Decisions were made, you were in charge, but you have no idea how decisions were made even though you were in charge. Curiously, you focus your anger on the likes of Dick Cheney, Don Rumsfeld, and Condi Rice, but you decline to criticize the President.


~~~


So Tenet's memoir is egregiously self-serving, disingenuous, and dishonest. What are we to make of his allegation—the only revelation of consequence that I've seen in the book—that Cheney was the person who dreamed up the illegal NSA spy program? Is there any independent evidence for that charge?

I believed last May that there was. That post was an extended commentary on this article in the NY Times by Scott Shane and Eric Lichtblau. I think it's worth reviewing their report, given how weak is the evidence from Tenet.

As the reporters themselves seemed to recognize, they were presenting a somewhat confusing picture of the genesis of the warrantless NSA spying. Their sources seem to attribute the idea for the program both to Cheney and to then NSA director Gen. Michael Hayden. Their account can be summed up thus:

In the weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks, Vice President Dick Cheney and his top legal adviser argued that the National Security Agency should intercept purely domestic telephone calls and e-mail messages without warrants in the hunt for terrorists, according to two senior intelligence officials.

But N.S.A. lawyers, trained in the agency's strict rules against domestic spying and reluctant to approve any eavesdropping without warrants, insisted that it should be limited to communications into and out of the country, said the officials, who were granted anonymity to discuss the debate inside the Bush administration late in 2001...

As in other areas of intelligence collection, including interrogation methods for terrorism suspects, Mr. Cheney and Mr. Addington took an aggressive view of what was permissible under the Constitution, the two intelligence officials said.

If people suspected of links to Al Qaeda made calls inside the United States, the vice president and Mr. Addington thought eavesdropping without warrants "could be done and should be done," one of them said.

He added: "That's not what the N.S.A. lawyers think."

The other official said there was "a very healthy debate" over the issue. The vice president's staff was "pushing and pushing, and it was up to the N.S.A. lawyers to draw a line and say absolutely not."


In other words, Cheney was to blame (according to those anonymous sources) for anything that was objectionable about the program. The NSA, by contrast, was to be credited with refusing to violate the law, and for creating instead a very different and legal program.

The problem is that this falls afoul of both logic and the known facts.

For one thing, the federal government is prohibited by law from wiretapping without a court order any communications that begin or end in the U.S. That could hardly be clearer.

Also, the NSA has from the outset been prohibited by Executive Order and by every tradition of the Agency from domestic surveillance. Before 2001, the NSA upheld that prohibition against similar attempts to expand its operations into domestic surveillance.

And in any case, news reports have indicated that the program introduced after September 11, 2001 did (or does) indeed involve wiretapping communications that were purely domestic. The administration's claim that the targeted communications were only international calls appears to be simply a lie intended to blunt criticism.

So the anonymous sources' claim that NSA lawyers saved the day by insisting upon abiding by the law is nonsense. The program is patently illegal. Any internal resistence within the NSA either failed, or concerned the extent to which they would break the law.

Another fundamental problem in the logic of the account presented by Shane and Lichtblau is that it fails to reconcile the competing versions of how the program was first conceived. As their sources tell the story, Dick Cheney conceived of a sweeping new program that he tried to push on the NSA; the NSA refused, but did develop it's own program.

Yet as the reporters acknowledge, in March 2006 George Bush told a very different story. In that version, the idea for the program was Michael Hayden's.

The spying that would become such a divisive issue for the White House and for General Hayden grew out of a meeting days after the Sept. 11 attacks, when President Bush gathered his senior intelligence aides to brainstorm about ways to head off another attack.

Image Hosted by ImageShack.us"Is there anything more we could be doing, given the current laws?" the president later recalled asking.

General Hayden stepped forward. "There is," he said, according to Mr. Bush's recounting of the conversation in March during a town-hall-style meeting in Cleveland.


To my mind, this flatly contradicts the story that has Dick Cheney initiating the idea for the eventual program. The report does nothing to reconcile the two different stories.

Furthermore, as I argued at the time, it really made little sense for the NYT report to give so much prominence to Cheney's role if, in the end, his idea was rejected. At most, a nod in the Cheney's direction was all that was needed. The problem is highlighted in these twin paragraphs:

Image Hosted by ImageShack.usBy all accounts, General Hayden was the principal architect of the plan. He saw the opportunity to use the N.S.A.'s enormous technological capabilities by loosening restrictions on the agency's operations inside the United States.

For his part, Mr. Cheney helped justify the program with an expansive theory of presidential power, which he explained to traveling reporters a few days after The Times first reported on the program last December.


Huh? Neither paragraph coheres with what I've quoted above; according to large sections of the NYT report, Cheney did a heck of a lot more than simply justify the program after it became public. How can Hayden be the "principal architect" of a program that Cheney initiated?

~~~


The basic problem here is that the reporters are trying to meld together competing versions of the facts. Those versions were created with very similar goals in mind:

George Bush wished to convince the public that the program wasn't his own or the White House's idea (it was Hayden's proposal, offered unprompted at a meeting with Bush). Also, it was never the White House's plan to craft an illegal program (Hayden was the expert in what the NSA could get away with).

Image Hosted by ImageShack.usAfterwards some NSA types, seeking to defend both their Agency and Hayden, thrust a different version on the NYT reporters as Hayden was nominated for Director of the CIA. They opted not to contradict Bush openly. Instead, they preferred to deflect Bush's story as far as possible. They argued that: The program wasn't the NSA's idea (it was Cheney's idea, and a really illegal one at that). And it wasn't their goal to violate the law (they did their best to bring it back toward the law, despite all the pressure from Cheney). In other words, they sought to deflect any possible blame back upon Cheney:

By several accounts, including those of the two officials, General Hayden...was the man in the middle as President Bush demanded that intelligence agencies act urgently to stop future attacks...

Both officials said they were speaking about the internal discussions because of the significant national security and civil liberty issues involved and because they thought it was important for citizens to understand the interplay between Mr. Cheney's office and the N.S.A.


The fact that we have competing versions of the events is a tacit admission, by the by, that everybody on the inside knows the program is illegal.

~~~


Is there anything to choose from between the two versions? Cheney of course is a bald-faced liar (and he refused to comment on the NYT story anyway). But there's no particular reason to put any trust in NSA figures either, particularly since they're trying to justify or excuse a monstrously illegal program. It's perfectly possible that neither version of events is accurate.

We're left with the fact that the NSA lawyers somehow accepted a program similar to some earlier proposals that, before 2001, they would never have permitted; and further, it's a program that the NSA now wants to disown initiating. How, exactly, could that have happened without intense pressure coming from the White House?

I think the conclusion is hard to escape, that this program was instituted precisely because it was near and dear to Dick Cheney himself. That coincides with the evidence from George Tenet, as weak as it is, that Cheney approached him early on about violating the wiretap laws. That charge would not make much sense if, as Bush claims, Gen. Hayden immediately offered to do the same thing.

So what will Congress do about Tenet's allegation?

crossposted from Unbossed

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Friday, April 27, 2007

  The question not asked

American news corporations can be proud that they employ the best stenographers in the world.

It's only been two days since the beltway journalists flew into a snit over Bill Moyers' PBS documentary on the massive failures of journalists before the invasion of Iraq. It wasn't their fault, after all, that Americans believed the administration lies that they faithfully transcribed in 2002/2003. The White House press corps certainly wasn't "compliant" in spreading the administration's message.

And yet, here we have another instance of a ridiculously naive press serving up patent nonsense so uncritically that it boggles the mind.

The Pentagon today made what it tried to portray as a major announcement in the "Global War on Terror". A DoD spokesman held a press conference to declare that the US has captured a senior al-Qaeda operative.

The US Defense Department yesterday announced the capture of one of al-Qaida's most senior and most experienced operatives, an Iraqi who was trying to return to his native country when he was captured.

Bryan Whitman, a Pentagon spokesman, said the captive is Abdul al-Hadi al-Iraqi. He was transferred to Defense Department custody this week from the Central Intelligence Agency, Whitman said, but the spokesman would not say where or when al-Iraqi was captured or by whom.

A US intelligence official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, said the Iraqi had been captured late last year in an operation that involved many people in more than one country.

CIA spokesman Paul Gimigliano declined to say when and where al-Iraqi was captured. He called al-Iraqi "a veteran jihadist" and said his capture is "a significant victory in the fight against terror - getting him off the street is good news."


Ok, stop right there; that's enough of that. You must have noticed something essential that the reporter (Robert Burns) records but pays little heed to: Abdul Hadi al-Iraqi was captured some months ago...the agencies are mum on the details...and the transfer of his custody some days ago at Guantanamo, from one agency to the other, turns out to be the thing being celebrated.

Burns breathlessly rushes ahead with the business of stenography, unprepared to ask the most basic of questions about what is transparently government propaganda: Why are the DoD and CIA making a big hoopla today about a transfer of custody that occurred several days ago? Or if it is a hoopla about the capture made several months ago, what makes today so special?

In his utter failure to think critically about what he's dutifully recording, Burns is not alone. If you consult the reports produced by Reuters, Bloomberg, CNN, and this Associated Press reporter, you will find that not one of them ever thinks to ask why the heck they're transcribing this nonsense.

The central questions for any journalist exercising critical faculties should have been: What are the CIA and DoD up to, trotting out this stale news and trying to convince us it is "breaking"? And if the capture is really such a great achievement, why announce it on a Friday (of all days in the news cycle)?

A clever journalist, or one who is at least awake, might have noticed also the degree of coordination between the two agencies in trumpeting this "news". Here for example is the CIA cranking up the propaganda mill.

CIA director Michael Hayden, in a note posted today on the agency's internal Web site, said the CIA played a "key role in efforts to locate" al-Iraqi and called his capture "a triumph on which we must continue to build."

Hayden, in his note, defended the CIA's interrogation program.

"The information it has produced has prevented terrorist attacks and saved innocent lives," Hayden said. "Its methods are legal, thoroughly reviewed by our government to ensure that they are fully in accordance with our laws and treaty obligations."


Info about the self-congratulatory, and self-exculpatory, CIA note did not just leak out by accident, did it?

Also hard to miss is the fact that a foreign ally was being roped into parroting this frankly silly domestic propaganda:

In Pakistan, Interior Minister Aftab Khan Sherpao described the arrest of al-Iraqi as a "welcome development" but gave no indication that Pakistan played a role in it.


A "development"? The Pakistani minister knows perfectly well that it's old news, so where do you suppose he got the idea to call it a "development"?

No matter where you look in today's reports, you won't find a single corporate journalist asking the most basic question of all:

"What's this all about?"

~~~


For what it's worth, I suspect that it has to be about something that is near and dear to the CIA, which is after all the agency handing over the prisoner. It also has to be about something that the administration could see coming well in advance; the domestic propaganda stunt was well coordinated.

Hmmm...the Bush administration is known for politicizing the "War on Terror".

I wonder if it could be the fact that former CIA Director George Tenet is releasing a book in a few days that is said to be damning of the Bush administration, Dick Cheney in particular? The fact that Tenet is out and about flogging his book on shows such as 60 Minutes this weekend? A major "new" capture of a terrorist might take the focus off Tenet's allegations just a tad.

crossposted from Unbossed

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  The World's biggest poodles

My friend Milo sent me an interesting article from Australia about a problem with poodles on that side of the globe. What he is doing there I still haven't sorted out. On the phone he was very annoyed that there are no busses running to Hungary. I think there was some mistake with his travel arrangements.

Anyhow, I wouldn't have believed this story from the Sydney paper if Milo didn't vouch for it.

Thousands of Japanese have been swindled in a scam in which they were sold Australian and British sheep and told they were poodles.


The story goes on, rather remarkably (to my mind):

Image Hosted by ImageShack.usThe scam was uncovered when Japanese moviestar Maiko Kawamaki went on a talk-show and wondered why her new pet would not bark or eat dog food.

She was crestfallen when told it was a sheep.

Then hundreds of other women got in touch with police to say they feared their new "poodle" was also a sheep.

One couple said they became suspicious when they took their "dog" to have its claws trimmed and were told it had hooves.

Japanese police believe there could be 2,000 people affected by the scam, which operated in Sapporo and capitalised on the fact that sheep are rare in Japan, so many do not know what they look like.


This is puzzling.

The story seems to have originated with the British tabloid The Sun, and then picked up and repeated by any number of British, Australian, and South African newspapers. That's how Milo learned of it.

He's unaware, because he never listens to that particular fathead, that Rush Limbaugh pontificated on the subject yesterday:

P. T. Barnum said, "There is a sucker born every minute."


True enough (though a bit incautious of Limbaugh to remind his listeners of it). And the mere fact that Limbaugh endorsed the story caused enough concern that I began digging a little more into its background.

It turns out to be a hoax.

The [Sun] newspaper said a police spokesman in Japan had confirmed the company, called "Poodles As Pets", had been shut down.

But a public relations spokesman for Hokkaido police, whose jurisdiction includes Sapporo, said he had not heard of the scam...

The Sun reported that because sheep were rare in Japan, people there were not able to distinguish between a sheep and a poodle.

But sheep have been bred in Sapporo for many years...

"If you like sheep, this is the place for you," a travel website says.


In fact, none of the story's details check out; for starters, the company doesn't seem to exist.

I don't blame Milo for this. He's just too trusting of what he reads in the papers. Come to think of it, the papers are just too trusting of what they read in the papers.

crossposted from Unbossed

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Thursday, April 26, 2007

  Do White House attacks on Sen. Reid violate the law?

The repeated and vociferous attacks upon Senator Harry Reid during the last month demonstrate, if nothing else, that the White House fears him and worries that Reid will succeed in fashioning a solid consensus in the Senate for limitations upon or a reversal of George Bush's nutty and unpopular Iraq policy.

Last week I happened upon what are, in a sense, the most outlandish attacks of all—because they are posted at the White House website. I wish more Americans knew about these. They put the back-and-forth between Reid and the White House in needed perspective. But even more, they suggest to me that the Bush administration has violated federal law in trying to demonize Harry Reid. That puts a much more serious cast on the face of the debate.

~~~


You're surely aware that the Bush administration has politicized virtually every aspect of governance, from gutting the Interior Department's enforcement of regulations, to suppressing scientific findings and doctoring publications, to spying upon peace-activists, to firing US Attorneys who dared to investigate Republicans.

"There is no precedent in any modern White House for what is going on in this one: a complete lack of a policy apparatus," says [John] DiIulio. "What you’ve got is everything—and I mean everything—being run by the political arm. It’s the reign of the Mayberry Machiavellis."


Their world begins and ends with politics, where winning is everything and federal law counts as a weapon for, never as an impediment to, political success.

Today, for example, we learned that in the last three election years (2002, 2004, and 2006) political operatives working under Karl Rove in the Bush White House have given 20 briefings to federal agencies. These were attended by hundreds of federal employees. These appear to be part of a systematic violation of the Hatch Act by the Bush administration.

White House officials conducted 20 private briefings on Republican electoral prospects in the last midterm election for senior officials in at least 15 government agencies covered by federal restrictions on partisan political activity, a White House spokesman and other administration officials said yesterday.

The previously undisclosed briefings were part of what now appears to be a regular effort in which the White House sent senior political officials to brief top appointees in government agencies on which seats Republican candidates might win or lose, and how the election outcomes could affect the success of administration policies, the officials said.


I can't say that it came as a surprise, then, to find that the Bush administration is carrying its political dispute with the Democrats in Congress to seemingly illegal extremes. The following are the facts, and I urge you to read the documents in their entirety. Also, if you've never done so, explore the White House "News" page and consider whether these documents really belong there amongst the other, actual, news items.

~~~


On three separate occasions during April, in an astonishing display of partisanship and outright nastiness, the White House website posted on its "News" page exceptionally sarcastic documents attacking Harry Reid's expressed views about Iraq.

(1) Most recently, there is this post from April 23:

Reid vs. Reid: A State Of Confusion

This document includes the frequent refrain: "IN CASE SEN. REID MISSED IT" In fact, that is the very title given to the document at the White House propaganda page, "Setting the Record Straight": "In Case Sen. Reid Missed It: Reid vs. Reid: A State Of Confusion"

The document begins by quoting Bush's spokeswoman, Dana Perino, commenting dismissively on Reid's views and implying that his political disagreements with the President amount to a mental defect:

"Sen. Reid seems to be in a state of confusion. Today, he said the President 'ignored' the Iraq Study Group by sending more troops to secure Baghdad when the Iraq Study Group report said it would support this step. Sen. Reid also called for a regional conference when one is already set to begin in days, called for emphasizing political reconciliation in Iraq when the Senate's own bill cuts $243 million vital for political reconciliation, and said his meetings with the President are unproductive despite characterizing his discussion with the President last Wednesday as a 'good exchange' minutes after the meeting concluded."


The rest of the document is devoted to cherry-picking evidence so as to suggest that Perino's statement is based upon fact, rather than a hyperbolic and selective (mis)interpretation of Reid's views. For example, it quotes the Iraq Study Group's statement that it could support a "short-term" surge in Iraq for a few purposes. It neglects to mention, however, that Bush has refused to state that the "surge" will be short-term; if anything, he's made it clear that he won't accept any terminal date. More could be said about the disingenuousness of the WH on this and other points it tries to score against Reid in this document, but the whole operation is pretty transparently flimsy.

The point of the document is either (taking the dripping sarcasm at face value) to demonstrate that Reid is ignorant of facts; or else to savage his reputation, undermine his political standing, or shatter Democratic unity on the issue of Iraq.

(2) Three days earlier, from April 20, this was posted:

Sen. Reid's Inconsistent And Conflicting Statements

This document, oddly, is excluded from the propaganda page, "Setting the Record Straight".

Anyhow, it too is grossly disingenuous. It again uses a statement by Perino as a pretext for savaging Reid:

"Yesterday, Sen. Reid said the war 'is lost.' Today, Sen. Reid has tried to back off from that egregious comment using smoke and mirrors. It's impossible to figure out where the Democrats stand and there's no telling what Sen. Reid will say tomorrow."


All three sentences are outlandish. The first sentence is deliberately misleading. Here is what Harry Reid actually said.

"The (Iraq) war can only be won diplomatically, politically and economically, and the president needs to come to that realization," Reid said in a news conference.

Later Thursday on the Senate floor, Reid said: "As long as we follow the president's path in Iraq, the war is lost. But there is still a chance to change course -- and we must change course." The war funding bill should contain a timeline to "reduce combat missions and refocus our efforts on the real threats to our security," he said.


The April 20 document nowhere quotes Reid's actual statement. Instead, it proceeds to attack Reid for allegedly stating that the war "is lost", as if the verb "is" were not conditional. (In languages other than English, the form of the verb would have made it clear that the verb is being used conditionally.)

Thus the charge in the second sentence from Perino is demonstrably false; Reid was not trying to "back off" from a statement he did not make.

Perino's third sentence is merely an opinion, and a sarcastic one that is predicated upon a deliberate distortion of what Reid said. And yet it is the theme that unifies the rest of the document presented on the WH "News" page. The document presents Reid as "inconsistent", in contrast to George Bush who we are told is "consistent".

Again, there is no "news" being presented here. The point of the document is to savage Reid's reputation, undermine his political standing, or shatter Democratic unity on the issue of Iraq.

(3) And there's this document from April 3:

Sen. Reid's Misleading Comments About Iraq Funding

This heavily politicized document is broadly similar to the other two already described. I'll highlight only the opening salvo from Perino, which provides the excuse for savaging Reid and the Congressional Democrats:

"Instead of listening to the Democratic Party's extreme fringe, Sen. Reid should listen to the Generals who have made clear the consequences facing our military if Democrats in Congress continue to play politics instead of passing an emergency troops funding bill the President can sign."


This, the first of the special attacks on Reid, is perhaps the most blatantly political. It's clear from this document in particular that these screeds are directed not merely at undermining Sen. Reid personally, but more generally at the Democratic opposition in Congress.

~~~


A few points about this flurry of attacks on Sen. Reid and the Democrats:

(a) Although this is not the first time the WH propaganda page has singled out Congressional Democrats for criticism, the frequency and the mocking hostility in these three attacks are nearly unprecedented. Except for a few ill-advised things posted in 2005, the WH propaganda page has (thankfully) steered clear of personal invective against members of Congress, concentrating instead on rebutting news reports, and demonizing reporters, the WH doesn't care for.

It has always been a foul and repulsive operation, reminiscent of Nixon at his worst. But this month, the WH propaganda page got that much worse.

Now, suddenly, it is being used to ridicule the Senate Majority Leader. This is grossly undignified and inappropriate. I think the American people would side even more readily with Sen. Reid in his standoff with Bush, if they knew that the WH has initiated a series of attacks upon him on line.

(b) These posts at the WH website appear to violate federal law, as well as common sense and decorum.

First of all, since 1952 Congress has attached riders to appropriation bills prohibiting any money from being spent on domestic publicity and propaganda. That is exactly what these three documents are, and since they are being hosted on a website paid for by taxpayers, every day that they remain on the site they are in violation of the "publicity and propaganda" provisions of appropriations bills.

These three documents are in no sense "news". They represent opinions that the WH wishes Americans to adopt. In so far as there are facts and quotations being conveyed in these posts, relatively few of them concern the activities of anybody in the Executive Branch. They are aimed at providing negative "publicity" to Sen. Reid and the Congressional Democrats.

Secondly, the documents in question might violate the Hatch Act, which prohibits inter alia the use of government resources, including computers, for political activities. As the Office of Special Counsel states, federal employees may not...

engage in political activity while...in a government office


The three posts are nothing if not part of a political campaign by the White House, particularly given that this administration has transformed governance into a permanent political campaign.

To repeat, the documents do not convey "news" about the President or other members of the Executive Branch. Their purpose is clearly to undermine political support for Democrats and for the leader of the opposition in the Senate.

This is politicking, using the WH website. That, it seems to me, could well be a violation of the Hatch Act. I'm pretty sure that the American public would reject it.

crossposted from Unbossed

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Wednesday, April 25, 2007

  Looking for a journalist

Yesterday I commented on the failure of the corporate news media to mention anything about Scott Bloch's notorious lack of integrity when reporting that his Office of Special Counsel has begun an investigation of Karl Rove. The news of this "investigation" provoked a small fire-storm on line, and several public interest groups (such as POGO and CREW) posted scathing commentaries. A few bloggers also reviewed Bloch's shabby career at OSC (I like to believe that the analysis here is the most thorough of them).

Well, the national news media responded to that pressure today by acknowledging that some groups have certain reservations about Bloch's record. And yet, disturbingly, even this clean-up operation was performed sloppily. The most important issues, once again, go ignored.

~~~


For example Tom Hamburger, whom I singled out yesterday for criticism, has a second story about Bloch in the LA Times that attempts to salvage the first one. Hamburger points to a few instances of Bloch's mistreatment of OSC personnel, but he ignores the core issues that are most relevant to the credibility of Bloch's current "investigation". Hamburger also distances himself from the credibility of the complaints about Bloch:

Even as Special Counsel Scott J. Bloch moved forward with plans for a sweeping probe of the Bush administration, several advocacy groups complained that his ties to the administration and to conservative groups, as well as his record on gay rights and whistle-blowers, made him the wrong man for the job...

A spokesman for the Office of Special Counsel, communications director James Mitchell, waved away the complaints, saying agency staffers have already begun to form an internal task force, led in part by career staff, to probe three broad areas of activity involving the White House and senior advisor Karl Rove....

The advocacy groups charge, among other things, that Bloch initiated a policy that made it more difficult for gay employees to allege discrimination.

A whistle-blower group said Bloch had a poor record of protecting those reporting wrongdoing. And, these critics pointed out, the Office of Personnel Management is investigating alleged improper employment practices including intimidation of workers at the Special Counsel agency.

"This is a job where you don't have a lot of friends," Mitchell said. "You don't make people happy when you zap them for violations or reject their whistle-blower complaints."


You might be excused for thinking that the complaints are merely about poor management practices by Bloch. We're also informed adjectivally that Bloch's probe will indeed be "sweeping", rather than as many commentators have surmised, simply a smokescreen.

Image Hosted by ImageShack.usAnd what core issues are entirely absent from this clean-up operation? If you read my post from yesterday, you'll recall that Bloch has been accused of many improprieties that go well beyond mere personnel disputes—the most important of which is the allegation that his office has (a) put enforcement of the Hatch Act into the hands of a political appointee, and (b) actually enforced the Hatch Act in grossly partisan ways in 2004 (in order to favor the Bush administration and to disfavor John Kerry).

Today I discovered another example of Bloch's politicization of the Hatch Act:

In a January decision on another Hatch Act controversy, Bloch decided not to seek sanctions against NASA Administrator Michael D. Griffin for telling a Houston Rotary Club in March 2006 that "the space program has had no better friends in its entire existence than [then-Rep.] Tom DeLay. He's still with us, and we need to keep him there."
Bloch concluded that Griffin "should have exercised better judgment" but decided to issue only a warning letter to Griffin.


The Hatch Act, of course, is intended to prevent federal officials from using their offices for political purposes. Urging an audience to help an embattled Republican leader could scarcely not qualify as a political message. So Bloch's decision in this case was to refuse to uphold the Hatch Act.

As I documented yesterday, Bloch has been accused as well of politicizing his office by getting rid of (yes, sacking) career staffers in order to replace them with partisan loyalists. Indeed, the allegation is that Bloch dreamed up an elaborate scheme to push out the top-level staffers which was designed to provide him with the excuse that they were fired for cause. Bloch then tried to cover up what he'd done as it came under scrutiny; allegedly he falsified the history of how and why he dreamed up the scheme in the first place.

All these things are directly relevant to Bloch's credibility in investigating violations of the Hatch Act and of the replacement of US Attorneys with partisan hacks.

In his second article, however, Hamburger mentioned none of this.

~~~


As I remarked yesterday, he's not alone in ignoring the central concerns about Bloch's credibility and integrity. All the major reporting on the "investigation" of Karl Rove avoided mentioning Bloch's notoriety.

Today, Neil Lewis of the NY Times tried to provide a more critical assessment of Bloch.

But the head of the Office of Special Counsel, Scott J. Bloch, is himself under investigation by the inspector general of the Office of Personnel Management over accusations of politicizing his agency.


That's a good start. But where does it lead? Practically nowhere:

A group of employees who work for Mr. Bloch has filed a complaint saying he tried to dismantle the agency, illegally barred employees from talking to the news media and reduced a backlog of whistle-blower complaints by simply discarding old cases. Debra Katz, a Washington lawyer representing the employees, said it was obvious that Mr. Bloch was trying to use the investigation to divert attention from his own problems.


That's it for any concerns about Mr. Bloch's record of politicizing his office.

R. Jeffrey Smith of the Washington Post does somewhat better. He actually devotes a few sentences to Bloch's disdain for enforcing the Hatch Act. However discussion of this "controversial" (rather than, say, "corrupt" figure) is postponed until the end of the article and focuses on Bloch's record before arriving in DC and (yes) his management decisions at OSC.

Smith's article is the only genuinely critical appraisal of Bloch's "investigation" of Rove that major news outlets have produced to date, and at that, it is rather inadequate.

~~~


A final point, which I myself ignored yesterday and which all the corporate news reports have neglected: Any investigation of Bush administration wrong-doing has to involve lawyers. So what kinds of lawyers has Bloch hired at OSC?

As we learned recently, the Bush administration has a nasty habit of hiring large numbers of new lawyers from fourth-rate religious law schools such as Pat Robertson's Regent University. Bloch, a crusading ultraconservative Catholic, has been doing his part in hiring marginal legal talent (h/t to em dash for this link).

Bloch has stacked the OSC with graduates of Ave Maria, an ultraconservative Catholic law school in Michigan, and signed the former headmaster of his son's Catholic high school to a no-bid consulting contract (a crony hire that flies in the face of the very anti-nepotism laws Bloch is also required to enforce as special counsel, says [executive director of PEER, Jeff] Ruch).


These political appointees have moved in to the positions that were vacated when Bloch purged so many career staffers. Thus any "investigation" of the Bush administration, even if it were meant to be above-board, would be led by half-witted Bush-loyalist lawyers.

~~~


The aforementioned profile of Bloch by Sam Graham-Felsen, as well as this current article in Mother Jones by the always insightful Daniel Schulman, are the kinds of things that reporters should have been reading before breathlessly writing up the latest Bush administration "investigation" of itself.

crossposted from Unbossed

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Tuesday, April 24, 2007

  Fox takes charge of Hen-house inquiry

Image Hosted by ImageShack.usQuite a stir on line today about the report in the LA Times that the Office of Special Counsel has started an investigation of Karl Rove's politicization of his office, the firing of at least one US Attorney, the abuse of RNC email accounts, and the transformation of several Cabinet-level Agencies into branches of the RNC during 2006.

So, unmitigated good news for all those who care about government integrity, openess, and the rights of federal employees--except for one troubling little detail. The head of OSC, Scott Bloch, is a notoriously partisan hack who should have been fired years ago.

Odd that the Times' reporter, Tom Hamburger, couldn't find any space whatever in his story to convey information about Bloch's background and thus the likely nature of the "investigation" into Rove's activities. Instead, he approaches the matter with an astounding lack of critical insight.

Here is Hamburger:

[T]he Office of Special Counsel is preparing to jump into one of the most sensitive and potentially explosive issues in Washington, launching a broad investigation into key elements of the White House political operations that for more than six years have been headed by chief strategist Karl Rove.

The new investigation, which will examine the firing of at least one U.S. attorney, missing White House e-mails, and White House efforts to keep presidential appointees attuned to Republican political priorities, could create a substantial new problem for the Bush White House.

First, the inquiry comes from inside the administration, not from Democrats in Congress...

"We will take the evidence where it leads us," Scott J. Bloch, head of the Office of Special Counsel and a presidential appointee, said in an interview Monday. "We will not leave any stone unturned."

Bloch declined to comment on who his investigators would interview, but he said the probe would be independent and uncoordinated with any other agency or government entity...

"This is a big deal," Paul C. Light, a New York University expert on the executive branch, said of Bloch's plan. "It is a significant moment for the administration and Karl Rove...

The growing controversy [about the firing of US Attorneys] inspired him to act, Bloch said.

"We are acting with dispatch and trying to deal with this because people are concerned about it … and it is not a subject that should be left to endless speculation," he said.


"Trying to deal with this"? Putting an end to "speculation"? This sounds more like the language of a coverup, than the words of a crusading investigator leaving no stone unturned.

However it doesn't seem to have occured to Hamburger that Karl Rove might have chosen to be "investigated" by Bloch's OSC, perhaps to blunt Congressional investigations, perhaps to provide the Bush administration with cover while OSC drags its feet. Instead, Hamburger takes the announcement by Bloch at face value.

Here are some of the well-documented aspects of Scott Bloch's tenure at OSC that Hamburger might have taken the trouble to inform his readers about. From The Nation:

It's been an inauspicious start for Scott Bloch, head of the government's Office of Special Counsel (OSC), the agency charged with protecting federal whistleblowers. After moving from the Justice Department's Office of Faith-Based Initiatives in January 2004, Bloch suggested that federal employees could essentially be fired for being gay. Then, directly contradicting his organization's purpose, Bloch complained of "leakers" within the OSC and issued a gag order for employees. In a speech last fall Bloch admitted he knew little about the Counsel's work before Bush nominated him. Now he's pushing forward a controversial agency "reorganization" plan that watchdogs liken to a purge.


Bloch is so hostile to gays that as soon as he took over at OSC, the agency in charge of guaranteeing the fair treatment of federal employees, he tried to reverse the longstanding policy of non-discrimination against gays. From Stephen Barr:

A newly arrived Republican appointee has pulled references to sexual orientation discrimination off an agency Internet site where government employees can learn about their rights in the workplace.

The Web pages at the Office of Special Counsel, an independent agency whose mission is to protect whistleblowers and other federal employees from retribution, has removed references to sexual orientation from a discrimination complaint form, training slides, a brochure titled "Your Rights as a Federal Employee" and other documents.


This transcript of a Congressional news conference about Scott Bloch's discriminatory actions makes interesting reading as well. Eventually Bloch was forced by Democrats in Congress to reverse course, but not until he had dragged his heels for a full half year and tried to clamp down on those who were blowing the whistle against him (irony of ironies).

But then Bloch has never demonstrated any real affinity for the agency he leads. He had virtually no relevant training or background before taking over OSC, aside that is from his hard-line conservative views on the role of religion in public life and his contempt for gays.

Bloch ... recently admitted during a speech at his alma mater, the University of Kansas, he really didn't know much about the job when he was nominated.


After his first attempt to undermine the goals of OSC failed, Bloch charged ahead with further schemes. In particular, he devised this doozy. He proposed to transfer many of the top staffers at OSC headquarters in DC to regional offices around the country, and any who refused to be sent into forced exile he fired. In January 2005, a joint letter from POGO, PEER, and GAP to the Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs asked for an investigation of Bloch's activities:

In light of Mr. Bloch’s most recent actions, described in detail below, we strongly urge that you conduct oversight hearings and order an independent investigation of Mr. Bloch’s illegal personnel practices and the culture of fear he has created at OSC. We also believe Congress should consider whether continued efforts to amend the Whistleblower Protection Act should be modified to compensate for the weak link that the OSC has become under Mr. Bloch’s anti-leadership. For all practical purposes, his office is the only remedy available for emergency interim relief, or any at all against common forms of harassment. For now, whistleblowers or others who need and deserve that support have nowhere to go...

Mr. Bloch advised the affected employees that they must to report to their new assignments within 60 days. He has advised them that they will be fired if they do not indicate their willingness to relocate within ten days.

In a January 7th press release filled with misleading statements, which Mr. Bloch issued as the media and others began making inquiries, he asserted that the new Detroit field office was created “after extensive discussions with staff and an outside assessment team’s review of the Agency’s structure.” In reality, however, none of the affected staff, including the affected senior executives, was notified in advance, let alone a party to “discussions” about the move...

There are still more reasons to question the bona fides of the management justification offered for this “reorganization.” Under the new structure, assuming that they accept the forced geographic reassignments to Detroit and Oakland, the two career senior executives with the most litigation experience will be reporting to the career senior executive at headquarters with the least litigation experience. OSC’s Hatch Act Unit will, for the first time in OSC’s history, report directly to a political deputy. Further, OSC’s highly successful ADR program will inexplicably be run out of Detroit.

In fact, the way that the “reorganization” is being implemented leads to the inescapable conclusion that existing career staff are being purged...

Equally, if not more disturbing, there is every reason to believe that the employees directly affected by the “reorganization” have been deliberately targeted to make way for Mr. Bloch’s own hand-picks. Virtually all of the employees affected are individuals who either work under, or have themselves dared to engage in even mild private discussions with Mr. Bloch over the advisability of management and policy decisions he has made over the last twelve months...

As you may be aware, despite the fact that he has been in his position for only slightly over a year, Mr. Bloch has already received some very unfavorable attention (as well as a public rebuke by the White House) for suggesting that federal employees are not protected against discrimination based on sexual orientation, and for issuing a gag order to OSC staff, directing them not to speak to anyone outside of the agency about agency policies. In the wake of these incidents, Mr. Bloch (whose job it is to protect whistleblowers) has been publicly quoted as deriding what he calls “leakers” at OSC. Even before this latest purge, OSC staff, whose morale is now at an all-time low, were living in a culture of fear.

Thus, Mr. Bloch is widely perceived by his staff as a dictatorial figure that considers any dissent (even when expressed internally) to be an act of “disloyalty.”


That information does not exactly bode well for any investigation of wrongdoing by Karl Rove and the DoJ in the firing of US Attorneys. Let's tote up the allegations in the letter to the Senate: Bloch is vindictive, manipulative, reckless toward enforcement of the Hatch Act, determined to sideline career workers in order to bring in partisan loyalists. Oh, yes, he's also unscrupulous and dishonest.

In short, Bloch has certain personal qualities that might be thought to disqualify him from leading such a sensitive investigation.

There's more about his 'purge' of OSC in this press release from POGO. In March of 2005, POGO issued a report on the complaint filed against Bloch by OSC employees and others regarding a "litany" of complaints.

Through a stinging complaint filed today, employees at the Office of Special Counsel are attempting to spark an independent investigation into a series of actions taken by Scott Bloch, the Bush-appointed Special Counsel who is supposed to be the principal protector of federal whistleblower and merit system rights. By law, Bloch’s office is supposed to review such complaints of illegal transfers and removals but the complaint asks that he recuse himself and refer it to an outside body.

The complaint filed by a group of unnamed OSC employees, three national whistleblower protection organizations (the Government Accountability Project, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility and the Project on Government Oversight) and the country’s largest gay, lesbian bisexual and transgender equal rights organization (the Human Rights Campaign) outlines a litany of illegal gag orders, cronyism, invidious discrimination, and retaliation. In addition, the complaint seeks to stop an unfolding purge of OSC headquarters staff, in which a number of attorneys and investigators have been ordered to resign for refusing to accept involuntary transfers to Detroit or Dallas .

“Scott Bloch as Special Counsel is like discovering that your fire chief is a closet arsonist,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, whose organization is suing Bloch in federal district court to obtain information about the “special consultant” job Bloch gave to his son’s former Catholic boarding school headmaster and about other no-bid contracts. “This complaint asks Scott Bloch to do the bare minimum – step aside so that his own employees can exercise the same rights that other civil servants enjoy.”


Later that month, POGO also reported that the FBI had begun investigating Bloch's actions at OSC, particularly allegations that his enforcement of the Hatch Act had followed partisan lines.

The FBI will investigate allegations of malfeasance and cronyism at the U.S. Office of Special Counsel (OSC), according to a Wall Street Journal article today. Two Senate Committees are also looking into the allegations and hearings have been promised. The allegations were made in a complaint filed in early March by employees at the agency and concerned nonprofits.

Today that group amended their complaint to charge that Special Counsel Scott Bloch, who runs the federal agency, has embarked on a campaign to politicize enforcement of the government’s Hatch Act, which prohibits federal employees from engaging in political activity on the job. The OSC is tasked with enforcing the Hatch Act, protecting government whistleblowers against retaliation and looking into personnel violations, among other responsibilities.

According to today’s filing, Bloch and his political cronies deliberately delayed investigating alleged Hatch Act violations by then-National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice prior to the 2004 election. In contrast, during the same period, allegations concerning a visit to a federal facility by Presidential candidate Senator John Kerry were expedited...

According to the complaint, “the deliberate decision to sit on the allegations until after the election while expediting the investigation of the Kerry matter, flies in the face of the Hatch Act itself, which was designed precisely to prevent partisan politics from undermining the impartial conduct of official government business.”


Image Hosted by ImageShack.usNow, this is pretty darned relevant to Hamburger's report, isn't it? And it's not as if any of this was unknown to the coporate media. Here is a the WaPo from May 25, 2005 on some the controversies swirling around Scott Bloch.

Nor did Bloch mend his ways thereafter. In July 2005 Reps. Frank and Conyers asked the GAO to investigate his activities at OSC. In October, the Inspector General in the Office of Personnel Management opened an investigation of Bloch. And as recently as February 2007 the WaPo carried a major story on the OPM investigation of Bloch.

A trouble-plagued whistle-blower investigation at the Office of Special Counsel -- whose duties include shielding federal whistle-blowers -- hit another snag this week when employees accused the special counsel of intimidation in the probe.

The Office of Personnel Management's inspector general has been investigating allegations by current and former OSC employees that Special Counsel Scott J. Bloch retaliated against underlings who disagreed with his policies -- by, among other means, transferring them out of state -- and tossed out legitimate whistle-blower cases to reduce the office backlog. Bloch denies the accusations, saying that under his leadership the agency has grown more efficient and receptive to whistle-blowers...

The 16-month investigation has been beset by delays, accusations and counter-accusations. The latest problem began two weeks ago, when Bloch's deputy sent staffers a memo asking them to inform OSC higher-ups when investigators contact them. Further, the memo read, employees should meet with investigators in the office, in a special conference room. Some employees cried foul, saying the recommendations made them afraid to be interviewed in the probe...

The OSC's memo, the group [PEER, POGO, and GAP] said, "was only the latest in a series of actions by Bloch to obstruct" the investigation. "Other actions have included suggestions that all witnesses interviewed . . . provide Bloch with affidavits describing what they had been asked and how they responded."


The notoriety of Scott Bloch has been so great for so long that it's frankly astounding to find Tom Hamburger ignoring the fact in his LA Times article about the "investigation" of Karl Rove. Evidently, POGO thinks so as well.

In another example of the coziness of Washington politics, it turns out the same government official who is reported to be undertaking a wide-ranging investigation into the White House is himself the subject of an investigation commissioned by the White House’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB).

Articles published in the April 24, 2007 editions of The Washington Post and Los Angeles Times report that the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, headed by Scott Bloch, will investigate whether the White House violated the Hatch Act when it held politically-oriented briefings at the General Services Administration and whether the firing of a U.S. Attorney was politically motivated.

Yet, Mr. Bloch himself is under an investigation ordered by OMB Deputy Director Clay Johnson into allegations of cronyism, whistleblower retaliation, among others. This fact appears to present a conflict of interest that compromises Bloch’s ability to do the “fair, effective and thorough” job he says he will do.

“It’s hard to believe that the Office of Special Counsel will be able to conduct a thorough investigation into the White House while Scott Bloch is under investigation himself,” said Project On Government Oversight’s director of investigations Beth Daley. “You have to wonder if the people’s interest will outweigh one person’s desire to protect his own skin.”


It's hard to reach any other conclusion. So how did Tom Hamburger neglect entirely to mention Mr. Bloch's checkered history?

This is not an idle question, for I see that Associated Press report by Deb Riechmann and the Post's own article by Scott Higham and Robert O'Harrow Jr. also manage to avoid mentioning anything whatever about Bloch's troubled background, much less his record of gross partisanship.

Just another day in the Hen-house.

crossposted from Unbossed

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Monday, April 23, 2007

  Bush awarded a Purple Heart for wounded feelings

My friend Milo sent me this story, which he'd noticed on a recent trip to Texas, but I was already onto it.

It turns out that a veteran who was decorated with three Purple Hearts in Vietnam decided to award one of them to the President, in recognition of all the harsh assessments of his many signal failures that Bush has had to endure. Or possibly it was the heart-ache of having ruined the nation's standing in the world?

Anyhow, this Texas veteran appears to be a perfect example of the irony-impaired Republican loyalists who put Bush in the White House and then kept him there after four years of hard experience had demonstrated conclusively that Bush was nearly the last person who ought to entrusted with the keys to the Oval Office.

Here is the Killeen Daily Herald's description of veteran Bill Thomas' thinking on the matter:

Thomas said he and his wife came up with the unprecedented idea to present the president with the Purple Heart over breakfast one morning a few months ago as they discussed the verbal attacks, both foreign and domestic, the commander in chief has withstood during his time in office.

"We feel like emotional wounds and scars are as hard to carry as physical wounds," Thomas said.

The medal was awarded to Thomas on Dec. 18, 1965, following injuries he sustained while serving in heavy combat with the 173rd Airborne Brigade in Vietnam.

It is one of three he was awarded during his service.

Thomas said the Purple Heart he is presenting the president has special meaning to him because the injury he suffered to earn it occurred just after a friend, Richard Peterson, lost his life attempting to save him.


Image Hosted by ImageShack.usNot content merely to dream up such an insulting use for this award, Thomas actually carried out his plan. And Bush, far from being humiliated to be offered a combat decoration that he had not merited, was so delighted with the Purple Heart that he wanted to draw further attention to the 'award'.

Thomas said he drew up a citation and he and his wife signed it before dropping it and the medal off with Rep. John Carter, R-Round Rock, to forward to President Bush.

"Congressman Carter called me last week and said the President was very moved by it, and would like us to present it in person," Thomas said.


Evidently nobody in the White House had the courage to tell Bush that this was an appallingly bad idea. The same paper has the details of the grand presentation:

Bill and Georgia Thomas reported they were elated Monday when they met in the Oval Office with President George W. Bush to present him with a Purple Heart.

"We were just absolutely bowled over. Without reservation, it was one of the highlights of our life. He was such a gracious host," Thomas said. "It was just an incredible, incredible experience."

The couple was able to meet with President Bush for about 20 minutes to present him with one of three Purple Hearts that Bill Thomas received during his service in Vietnam.

Image Hosted by ImageShack.us"He said he didn't feel like he had earned it," Thomas said, noting the president looked thinner in person than on television.

The Thomases also were able to meet Barney, the president's Scottish terrier...

He has drawn criticism from some locals who have learned of his actions, Thomas said. Nevertheless, he said he earned the Purple Heart and it is his to do with it as he sees fit.

"I feel the President deserved one," he said.


Sadly, the President was never in a position to earn his own Purple Heart because by chance Bush avoided the draft during the Vietnam War.

"I'm saying to myself, 'What do I want to do?' I think I don't want to be an infantry guy as a private in Vietnam. What I do decide to want to do is learn to fly."


That meant, inevitably, serving in the Texas Air National Guard rather than in Vietnam where, in retrospect, there was a war going on.

"I was not prepared to shoot my eardrum out with a shotgun in order to get a deferment. Nor was I willing to go to Canada. So I chose to better myself by learning how to fly airplanes."


His dedicated service to Texas, ironically enough, got in the way of Bush's earning his own Purple Heart--much as he would have liked to have had one in 2004.

"I don't want to play like I was somebody out there marching when I wasn't. It was either Canada or the service.


Again, by a stroke of bad luck, by the time Bush decided to go AWOL from the National Guard, the draft had ended and any malingerers and such in the Guard were no longer being shipped over to fight in Vietnam.

''It appears that no one wanted to hold him accountable," said retired Major General Paul A. Weaver Jr., who retired in 2002 as the Pentagon's director of the Air National Guard.


And there's nothing like an unearned Purple Heart award to say "All is forgiven." Odd that there are still so many supine Republicans to be found who want to do George Bush favors...however ridiculous. Maybe it's the honor of meeting Barney.

crossposted from Unbossed

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Monday, April 16, 2007

  The Vice President: Two out of three Americans know who he is.

Image Hosted by ImageShack.usI kid you not. And you've been wondering, lo these last six years, how Cheney ever became Vice President.

That and other depressing facts are revealed in the latest Pew Research Center poll, which compares public knowledge of current affairs in 2007 with the results of a similar poll taken in 1989.

Pew tries to spin the bad news: "a new nationwide survey finds that the [cable news] and digital revolutions and attendant changes in news audience behaviors have had little impact on how much Americans know about national and international affairs." The fact of the matter is that Americans know even less in 2007 than in 1989, which is really saying something.

It Pays to be Ignorant.

In 1989, the VP was a nonentity and a laughing stock. Today, he is a monster and a laughing stock. Cheney is booed in baseball stadia, he's reviled on late-night shows. How is it possible for 31% of the public not to know his name? What does it say for American democracy that in 1989 more people knew that Dan Quayle was VP?

Image Hosted by ImageShack.usIt's not simply that some of our fellow citizens would prefer to forget this one representative of our basest instincts. Almost right across the board, Pew's survey finds that Americans know less about public affairs than they did 18 years ago. Consider the array of questions in this chart, selected (it appears) to suggest that public awareness is up in some areas while down in (most) others.

But the four questions where public knowledge has actually gone up are easily explicable by the changed political situation. Why, for example, would most people in 1989 feel the need to know the name of the new Defense Secretary? The U.S. wasn't bogged down in a war at that time.

By contrast, the chart shows how public knowledge has dropped in more essential areas—the names of leading political figures, and basic economics such as the existence of a trade deficit.

Image Hosted by ImageShack.usOther things which stand out in the survey are the effects of race, gender, wealth, education, and age. Baby boomers are better informed than those who are between 30-49 years old. That's my generation, and I say with a moderate amount of pride that we're fairly clueless. But the 18-29 year old crowd are on the whole remarkably, amazingly, spectacularly clueless. It's as if they got a huge, very unfair head-start upon us older types in the clueless-marathon.

Those who have completed a college education are significantly better informed than everybody else. I suppose that's not particularly surprising. And yet they're not remotely as aware as they ought to be; more than a third of college grads are seriously deficient.

Pew also found that the poor are stunningly ignorant of public affairs. The middle class are, well, evenly divided between the well-informed and the befuddled. The wealthy, by contrast, are noticeably less badly informed than everybody else. That, good reader, is a large part of the reason why the tax codes are all written to favor the rich; they're paying close attention.

A very striking finding is that women are much more likely than men to be poorly informed. Some of this must be due to the fact that women make up a higher proportion of the poor. Still, I have to wonder whether that is sufficient to explain what is going on?

The relatively poor showing of blacks in this survey is probably attributable largely to the twin factors of wealth and education, where minorities still lag behind whites.

Image Hosted by ImageShack.usYou won't in any case find major differences in awareness by region of the country or by political affiliation.

Those who depend upon Fox News, naturally, score very poorly relative to those who use actual news outlets. Perhaps the most remarkable finding of all, though, is that the audiences for Rush Limbaugh and Bill O'Reilly are very far from being the most ignorant people in the country.

So, is the latter a good thing, or a mark of how far we have fallen as a society?

crossposted from Unbossed

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Sunday, April 15, 2007

  Thousands, or millions, of dollars in compensation?

Image Hosted by ImageShack.usToday my friend Milo entered the debate about the level of compensation being offered by the U.S. to the civilians killed accidentally in Iraq and Afghanistan by American troops. People have been much too harsh in the past regarding Milo's credibility. As I think even his critics will agree after reading this, he's come up with quite a good news story from a Florida paper.

Milo preferred not to divulge what he was doing in Florida this weekend (I think it had something to do with buying an orange plantation). Anyway, in the Orlando paper he noticed a story showing that the government paid out millions of dollars in compensation to a group of passengers riding in a single vehicle blown up in 2003.

That doesn't seem to fit at all with the other news stories we've been seeing this past week, based on documents released by the ACLU. These state that compensation payments are capped at a few thousand dollars. So which is it? Thousands, or millions, of dollars?

The ACLU obtained their documents from a FOIA request:

Most of the Iraq claims range from early 2003 to late 2006; the majority are from 2005. Most claims from Afghanistan are from May 2006, with one dating back to 2001. Based on the number of deaths represented and the variation in number and location of claims per year, the ACLU said it believes there are additional documents being withheld and is pressing the Defense Department to disclose them all.

Of the 496 files, 198 [about 40%] were denied because the military found that the incidents arose "from action by an enemy or resulted directly or indirectly from an act of the armed forces of the United States in combat," which the military calls "combat exclusion."

Of the 496 claims, 164 incidents resulted in cash payments to family members. In approximately half of the cash payment cases, the United States accepted responsibility for the death of the civilian and offered a "compensation payment." In the other half, U.S. authorities issued "condolence" payments, which are discretionary payments capped at $2,500 and offered "as an expression of sympathy" but "without reference to fault."...

The files provide a window into the lives of innocent Afghans and Iraqis caught in conflict zones. In one file, a civilian from the Salah Ad Din (PDF) province in eastern Iraq states that U.S. forces opened fire with more than 100 hundred rounds on his sleeping family, killing his mother, father and brother. The firepower was of such magnitude that 32 of the family's sheep were also killed. The Army acknowledged responsibility and the claim resulted in two payments: a compensation payment of $11,200 and a $2,500 condolence payment. In another file, a civilian in Baghdad states that his only son, a nine-year-old (PDF), was playing outside when a stray bullet hit and killed him. The Army acknowledged responsibility and paid compensation of $4,000.


Incidentally, the NY Times reported today on one of those situations that the Army normally deems a "combat exclusion":

American marines reacted to a bomb ambush with excessive force in eastern Afghanistan last month, hitting groups of bystanders and vehicles with machine-gun fire in a series of attacks that covered 10 miles of highway and left 12 civilians dead, including an infant and three elderly men, according to a report published by an Afghan human rights commission on Saturday...

One victim, a 16-year-old newly married girl, was cut down while she was carrying a bundle of grass to her family’s farmhouse, according to her family and the report. A 75-year-old man walking to his shop was hit by so many bullets that his son said he did not recognize the body when he came to the scene.

In its report, the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission condemned the suicide bomb attack that started the episode, striking a Marine Special Operations unit convoy and slightly wounding one American. And the report said there might also have been small arms fire directed at the convoy immediately after the blast. But it said the response was disproportionate, especially given the obviously nonmilitary nature of the marines’ targets long after the ambush.

“In failing to distinguish between civilians and legitimate military targets, the U.S. Marine Corps Special Forces employed indiscriminate force,” the report said. “Their actions thus constitute a serious violation of international humanitarian standards.”


In this case however, given that an investigation was made, the victims' families may get compensation payments after all—despite the fact that they'd had the bad luck to be near an exploding bomb and thereby managed to get gunned down.

In 2003 and 2004, according to this report on NPR, many of the valid requests for compensation were turned down by the Army because it lacked funds to pay more than a few. And that despite the fact that many Iraqi children were being injured by cluster bombs that the U.S. had dropped during the 2003 invasion.

Army Captain John Tracy, who oversaw compensation claims in those years, tells of one instance where he was permitted to authorize a $3000 payment in compensation for the gruesome injuries inflicted on three children of one family. He seems to have found the payment memorable, perhaps just because of the fact that it was made? During his time in Iraq, he was allowed to authorize only a trickle of condolence payments.

The NY Times also interviewed Tracy:

“I know plenty of lawyers who did not pay any condolences payments at all,” said Mr. Tracy, who is now a legal consultant for the Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict. “There was no reason for it. It was clearly not combat, and the victim was clearly innocent, all the facts are there, witness statements, but they wouldn’t pay them.”...

In his year judging claims, Mr. Tracy said he paid 52 condolence payments, most for deaths. “I had three to four times more,” Mr. Tracy said, “I just didn’t have enough money.”


The Times also has further details based upon the ACLU documents:

In February 2006, nervous American soldiers in Tikrit killed an Iraqi fisherman on the Tigris River after he leaned over to switch off his engine. A year earlier, a civilian filling his car and an Iraqi Army officer directing traffic were shot by American soldiers in a passing convoy in Balad, for no apparent reason.


Of these three men, only the family of the civilian at the gas station received compensation ($5000).

In another incident, in 2005, an American soldier in a dangerous Sunni Arab area south of Baghdad killed a boy after mistaking his book bag for a bomb satchel. The Army paid the boy’s uncle $500...

In Haditha, one of the most notorious incidents involving American troops in Iraq, the Marines paid residents $38,000 after troops killed two dozen people in November 2005.

The relatively small number of claims divulged by the Army show patterns of misunderstanding at checkpoints and around American military convoys that often result in inadvertent killings. In one incident, in Feb. 18, 2006, a taxi approached a checkpoint east of Baquba that was not properly marked with signs to slow down, one Army claim evaluation said. Soldiers fired on the taxi, killing a woman and severely wounding her daughter and son. The Army approved an unusually large condolence payment of $7,500.


All of this has been troubling, because it seems to suggest that the U.S. has grossly undervalued the lives of civilian victims in these wars. The evidence we've been hearing about points toward condolence payments on a very small scale indeed. The Times reports that "The total number of claims filed, or paid, is unclear, although extensive data has been provided in reports to Congress." It adds that a Pentagon spokesman puts the total for all compensation payments made in Iraq and Afghanistan, for deaths, injury, and property damage, at just $32 million.

Equally troubling, the mercenaries serving in Iraq seem to be permitted to indulge in every conceivable variety of mayhem without any significant restraint, much less accountability. There doesn't appear to be any compensation at all for most of the victims of mercenaries who take it into their heads that they "want to kill somebody today".

~~~


With all this in mind, I was startled when out of the blue Milo calls to tell me about this article from the Orlando Sentinel:

The federal government paid $26.6 million to the families of seven passengers who died aboard a minivan in Baghdad -- a settlement that has been kept secret for more than 2 1/2 years.

The administration recruited former FBI Director William Webster, also a former federal judge, to act as a mediator and adviser in negotiating the out-of-court settlements, according to documents released to the Orlando Sentinel through a federal Freedom of Information Act request...

In an interview with the Sentinel, Webster, also a former CIA director, said he was bound by confidentiality and couldn't discuss details of the agreements, but defended the process as proper.

"The members of the [survivors'] families wanted this to be a private matter," said Webster, a consulting partner in Washington with the international law firm of Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy. "They were healing, and they were ready to discuss, properly, their rights. . . . Everyone felt it had a better chance of coming together without seeing their name in lights."...

"We were in a state of shock," [the widowed husband of one victim] said. "To go the lawsuit route, it's very painful and very protracted. So we settled."...

[One government letter obtained by the Sentinel] called the disaster a "tragic loss" and said his office had performed a "privileged and confidential" review of "potential legal exposure" for the Pentagon and its contractors. It said the DoD had advised family members to retain lawyers and that early discussions had been "positive and constructive."...

Webster said his team met with the seven families and their attorneys, both collectively and individually, in 2004. The families made emotional presentations with videos, computerized slide shows and economic projections for lost income.

Each family presented its own view of the financial damages they were due, but all agreed to receive the same award for pain and suffering of the passengers during the accident, Webster said.

"It was a moving experience," Webster said. "And as a total family, they all accepted the settlements.

"It was really an honor to do it. I didn't give the government's money away but tried to be fair to everyone."...

"It wasn't a lot of money. A few million [dollars] isn't much," [one relative] said. "We had to prove our loved ones were worth something."... To him, the government settlement means little. "Give me my wife back, keep the money and we'll call it even."


I don't for a moment begrudge these grieving relatives a reasonable compensation for the accidental deaths of their family members. I'm just puzzled how in the world this story from the Orlando Sentinel can be reconciled with all the reporting in the past regarding the paltry sums awarded to the families of victims in Iraq and Afghanistan. There's also the fact that in this one case the U.S. government was exceedingly solicitous and perhaps showed genuine concern in the way it treated the families of the victims.

Milo was right, I think, this is sensational news. Evidently, ABC News agrees, because it has now picked up the Sentinel story. We'll have to see if Americans notice the gross disparity in the record.

crossposted from Unbossed

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