Friday, December 21, 2007

Guilty Until Proven Innocent

Welcome to America:
LIMA, Ohio — Two robbers who broke into Luther Ricks Sr.’s house this summer may have not gotten his life savings he had in a safe, but after the FBI confiscated it he may not get it back.

Ricks has tried to get an attorney to fight for the $402,767 but he has no money. Lima Police Department officers originally took the money from his house but the FBI stepped in and took it from the Police Department. Ricks has not been charged with a crime and was cleared in a fatal shooting of one of the robbers but still the FBI has refused to return the money, he said.

“They are saying I have to prove I made it,” he said.
Ricks, who is retired from Ohio Steel Foundry, said he always had a safe at home and never had a bank account.

American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio Legal Director Jeff Gamso said Ricks has a tough road ahead, not impossible, but tough to get back his money.

“The law of forfeiture basically says you have to prove you’re innocent. It’s terrible, terrible law,” he said.

The law is tilted in favor of the FBI in that Ricks need not be charged with a crime and the FBI stands a good chance at keeping the money, Gamso said.

“The law will presume it is the result of ill-gotten gains,” he said.

(H/T to Radley Balko)

Interview with Piedad Córdoba

On Wednesday I spoke with Colombian Senator Piedad Córdoba regarding the hostages currently held by the FARC guerillas in Colombia. Córdoba, an outspoken critic of Colombian President and close U.S.-ally Álvaro Uribe, had been working with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez to negotiate a hostage-prisoner exchange with the FARC guerillas. But late last month, President Uribe put an end to the negotiations, angering family members of the hostages -- which include three U.S. military contractors and former Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt. In our conversation, I asked Córdoba who she felt was to blame for the failure of the negotiations and what her reaction was to the news that the FARC were set to release three of the hostages as a goodwill gesture for her and Chavez's efforts.

Her responses, and my account of the current state of the conflict in Colombia, can be found in this piece that I filed for Inter Press Service.

Monday, December 17, 2007

An Unreasonable Man

Last night I was watching the 2006 documentary on the career of Ralph Nader, "An Unreasonable Man," when I heard something that almost made me fall out of my chair. In order to present a counterpoint to Nader's anti-corporatism, the filmmakers interviewed Daniel Mitchell, a former senior fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation currently employed by the Cato Institute. In what could have passed as satire straight from the lips of Stephen Colbert, Mitchell echoed Ayn Rand's view that big business is really just a poor, persecuted minority with little influence on government policy:
"Corporations don’t have that much power in Washington. They tend to be ineffective, especially on the big-picture issues. They might be able to get a little special loophole in some bill, or a special handout in another bill. But especially in a globalized economy, where you have foreign companies penetrating the U.S. market, U.S. companies are probably the most helpless entities out there."

Now, one needn't be a Nader's Raider to find that statement a little, shall we say, unbelievable. Whether one thinks the influence is good or bad, it's simply an indisputable fact at this point that major corporations play a huge role in not only what laws get passed, but on who gets elected to office. To say otherwise is either incredibly naive or incredibly dishonest.

The following is a brief, painfully incomplete list of government policies that Mitchell would have you believe were not shaped by corporate interests:

U.S. Energy Policy -- The Democratic Congress is set to pass another Energy Bill that includes tax breaks for oil companies and subsidies for everything from nuclear power to ethanol. As the Washington Post describes, it was no different when Republicans controlled Congress in 2005 when they passed an Energy bill that "exempts oil and gas industries from some clean-water laws, streamlines permits for oil wells and power lines on public lands, and helps the hydropower industry appeal environmental restrictions...
It also includes an estimated $85 billion worth of subsidies and tax breaks for most forms of energy -- including oil and gas, "clean coal," ethanol, electricity, and solar and wind power. The nuclear industry got subsidies for research, waste reprocessing, construction, operation and even decommission. The petroleum industry got new incentives to drill in the Gulf of Mexico -- as if $60-a-barrel oil wasn't enough of an incentive. The already-subsidized ethanol industry got a federal mandate that will nearly double its output by 2012 -- as well as new subsidies to develop ethanol from other sources."

U.S. Agriculture Policy -- As with energy policy, the U.S. Congress regularly approves massive farm bills that include billions in subsidies for mega-agribusinesses, as well as protectionist policies, such as the tariff on imported sugar, that benefit certain producers at the expense of overall consumers and industries in the developing world.

The overthrow of the democratically elected government of Guatemala -- In 1954, the government of Colonel Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán was overthrown by a group of Guatemalan military officers in league with the Central Intelligence Agency, which had gained valuable experience overthrowing democratic governments the year before in Iran with Operation Ajax. U.S. involvement had been strongly pushed for by United Fruit, which was unhappy with the Guatemalan government's plan to nationalize part of the company's large land holdings. At the time, the assistant U.S. Secretary of State for InterAmerican Affairs was John Moors Cabot, former president of United Fruit. The Secretary of State was John Foster Dulles, whose law firm had previously represented the company. His brother, Allen Dulles, headed the CIA.

NAFTA, CAFTA, and other "free trade" agreements -- Portrayed by the the United States and other governments as simple "free trade," these agreements are anything but. CAFTA, for instance, requires countries to enforce U.S. copyright laws. That includes banning certain generic prescription drugs, forcing poor Central American countries to pay much more for expensive pharmaceuticals from U.S. drug companies (see this article by Adam Graham-Silverman in Salon).

The Military-Industrial Complex -- Coined by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in his 1961 farewell address, the military-industrial complex is thriving in these here United States. The U.S. military budget accounts for more than half of federal spending, and is roughly equal to what the rest of the world's military spending combined. Despite the lack of a traditional military threat, ala the USSR in the Cold War (at least how it was portrayed in the United States), the Bush administration continues to press for a multi-billion dollar missile defense shield that doesn't actually work. Though it seems quite capable of stoking Cold War-era tensions with Russia, it remains unclear how a working missile defense shield would stop 19 hijackers with box-cutters. Meanwhile, nominally "private" defense contractors, who depend entirely on government spending for their existence, seem to be doing quite well.


This is about all I can handle now as far as examples go, but feel free to add your own in the comments section.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Congress Debates U.S. Aid to Palestine

Earlier today the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia held a hearing regarding the Bush administration's proposed $410 million aid package aimed at supporting the government of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank. None of the aid is directed at Gaza, which is currently suffering a major humanitarian crisis due to an Israeli blockade, because it is under the control of Hamas, which the United States considers a terrorist organization. The situation in Gaza also did not seem of much concern to members of the subcommittee, who only alluded to it in passing.

I filed an account of the hearing and the recent history of U.S. aid to Palestine for Inter Press Service today, which you can find online here.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Interview with Senator Rockefeller

While discussing the CIA's destruction of interrogation tapes that allegedly show the use of torture, Salon's Glenn Greenwald referenced my interview with Senate Intelligence Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) regarding allegations that the Bush administration is backing anti-Iranian extremist groups in Pakistan, something I wrote about here back in April. Jonathan Schwarz at A Tiny Revolution has the transcript of the whole exchange, but those interested in actually hearing the audio of the interview can go here for an mp3. It's worth listening to the interview, which I conducted while Rockefeller and I were walking down the steps outside the Senate chamber, just to hear Rockefeller's tone of voice, particularly when he says the following in response to my asking if there was anything he could do to determine if the allegations were true:
Don't you understand the way Intelligence works? Do you think that because I'm Chairman of the Intelligence Committee that I just say I want it, and they give it to me? They control it. All of it. All of it. All the time. I only get, and my committee only gets, what they want to give me.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Interview with Dennis Kucinich

In the post below regarding Dennis Kucinich's affinity for maverick anti-war Republican candidate Ron Paul, I highlighted a few excerpts from an interview that I conducted with the Ohio Democratic Congressman about his campaign for president. Below are a few more interesting exchanges from the interview (my questions are in bold): 

DAVIS: Why are you running for president?

KUCINICH: Iʼm running for president to take America in an entirely new direction -- to have jobs for
all, health care for all, education for all, to protect our environment, and to end war as an instrument of policy, to reclaim our civil liberties which were lost in the wake of 9/11, to have America work with the nations of the world to achievand more are the reasons that Iʼm running for president.

You ran for president in 2004 -- what did you learn from that campaign? What are you doing differently now in 2008?

I think that people know who I am. I think it’s still very early in the campaign, we’re still in a very early stage of organization. But as I get around the country, now as then, I see in America an underlying unity. I see a hunger for peace and prosperity. I see a desire for candidates who really have the experience and the understanding. I mean I started my career in elected politics 40 years ago. I served as a city councilman, an elected clerk of courts, mayor of Cleveland, Ohio state senator, United States congressman now in my sixth term. I know Ohio. I know Ohio better than any of the other candidates. Ohio’s looking for someone who’s going to be concerned about trade. Did you know we’ve lost so many jobs because of NAFTA? And we’ll lose more unless NAFTA is cancelled. So I’ve said that one of the fundamental principles driving this campaign is fair trade. That means the end of NAFTA -- I’ll cancel it in my first act in office, and go back to bilateral trade conditioned on workers’ rights, human rights, and environmental quality principles. I have been across our state and I’ve seen places where grass is growing in parking lots where they used to make steel, they used to make parts, they used to make bicycles, and now there’s grass growing in parking lots. I want to see Ohio restored as an industrial power. I want to see Ohio restored as a communications and transportations center. I want to see Ohio become even more of a center of excellence in education. These are things that are going to drive the repair of our economy in Ohio, and also to see the National Aeronautics and Space Administration grow and prosper because it produces so many high-tech jobs, thousands of high-tech jobs which have a tremendous multiplier and spin-off effect in the economy.

What do you make of the moved-up primary schedule? There’s a lot of people that critique it and say that it’s only going to benefit nationally well-known candidates, and not let people such as yourself build the momentum to have an actual debate within the primary system.

Well lets look at it this way. Just for the sake of discussion, suppose I show a real powerful presence in a state like New Hampshire and I run up really good numbers there -- that’ll have an effect. Then I’ll be the surprise of 2008. So I think the stage is set for an opportunity for my candidacy, provided I do well in some of the early primaries, to be able to break through, and it could work to my advantage.

Could you explain your decision to endorse John Kerry in 2004? That upset some peace activists. And second part of the question: would there be any other candidates in the Democratic field that you would feel comfortable endorsing this time around?

Well first of all, despite the fact that I endorsed John Kerry, I continued to oppose the war, even though I endorsed him. I mean I went from the convention to the streets, at a peace rally, and I travelled the country challenging my own party on the issue of Iraq, and I’ve continued to do that. So I saw the endorsement of John Kerry was simply stating that I made a commitment to support the nominee, so I kept my word. However I didn’t make a commitment to support the war, and I continued to oppose the war.

I was noticing how you were passing out papers yesterday about the Iraq oil privatization law, and I noticed how Rahm Emanuel kind of mocked it and said “yeah, it’s all about the oil.” What do you make of the Democratic leadership kind of being dismissive of your argument there, or just dismissive of the antiwar base in general?

I think that this arrogance that’s being expressed is not going to be appreciated by the American people. The American people voted Democrat in November in order for the Democratic Party to take us out of Iraq. They didn’t vote for a Democratic version of the war. They certainly didn’t vote for what we’re seeing here this week, which is the Democrats caving into George Bush and keeping the war going. This war will go through the end of George Bush’s term unless the Democrats stop it. And my path to stopping it is just simply saying “we’re not going to fund it.” It’s very simple to understand this: no funds for the war. So Democrats have taken a big responsibility here. But my candidacy is the surest path to say the war is over. You know I’ve given hundreds of speeches challenging this war. I’ve given dozens of speeches challenging taking any action against Iran. I’ve show that it’s possible to be here and to challenge by voting against the appropriations. There are candidates running for president who have voted to fund the war, and then they say they’re peace candidates. It’s not credible to say on one hand that you’re for peace and on the other hand you vote to fund the war, because every time you vote to fund the war it’s like reauthorizing it all over again. This war is costing Ohio and every state dramatically, funds that we need for job creation, for health care, for education, are just being lost. We will spend upwards of $800 billion dollars on this war by the end of 2008. And as we continue to stay in Iraq, that sum will reach a trillion to two trillion dollars. So my candidacy for president then stands out in bold contrast from all the others with respect to the leadership I’ve show in the House right from the beginning, my willingness to challenge the funding for the war, and my willingness to challenge this effort to steal Iraq’s oil using the war supplemental as a vehicle, and my willingness to challenge corruption in the White House itself. Because, in the end, what should be the conduct of a president or vice-president of the United States? Should they permitted to lie to the nation to go to war? Should they permitted to wage war against innocent people? Because if that’s the standard now, and we don’t challenge that, then what can we expect of a future president? So I’m talking about setting a high moral tone, a high political tone, of accountability, and of fidelity to public service.

You mentioned the corruption of the White House. Some would say that part of the Democratic establishment itself is somewhat corrupted. Do you see your campaign as kind of a campaign to change the Democratic establishment, or against the Democratic establishment?

Well it’s not against anyone, I’m running for president. And I’m trying to call out the best that this country has to offer, and reach out and ask people to get involved. Because they believe in the ideals of America, the ideals of truth and justice, because that’s what we have to reestablish. And we have to reestablish it in both political parties. This isn’t about one party against another, I don’t buy that. I think that the next president has to be able to relate to Republicans, Democrats, independents, Greens, Libertarians, all parties. And I’ve worked with all parties in this Congress. So my candidacy and my presidency is going to be about a broad reaching out to everybody in the polity, saying lets work together to build this country up. But we have to do it beginning with taking a stand for peace, and taking a stand for truth, and taking a stand for justice and accountability.

And I have a final question for you. If you look at the polls right now, it could be that the nominees for both parties are both war supporters, at least initially. It could be Hillary Clinton, who voted for the war and supported it for many years, against a Mitt Romney. Would that represent a broken political system to you, if both nominees are essentially pro-war?

Sure. Well, I’m not ready to concede that I don’t have a chance to win. I think that my candidacy gives the Democratic Party, clearly, a chance to elect someone who’s for peace, and who has shown consistency in voting against war and voting to challenge the funding for the war and voting against the funding for the war. I think that people are looking for that consistency. So the Democrats will have a chance to vote for peace. Last time people really didn’t understand about the war. This is four years ago. Today people are aware that everything I said turned out to be true, that’s what’s different between now and 2003/2004. People can see that of all the candidates who are running, that I turned out to be not only the one who was right, but the one who has consistently opposed the war, opposed the funding for the war, and rejects war as an instrument of policy.

(Updated 12/19/07 to include exchange that was inadvertently deleted.)

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Kucinich-Paul '08?

Much is being made of a potential Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) and Ron Paul (R-TX) bipartisan ticket for the White House, thanks to comments made over the weekend by Congressman Kucinich while campaigning in New Hampshire.

"I'm thinking about Ron Paul" as a running mate, Kucinich told a crowd of about 70, according to the Cleveland Plain Dealer. The antiwar Ohio Congressman says a Kucinich-Paul ticket could unite Republicans and Democrats and "balance the energies in this country."

Now some may think Kucinich is simply trying to get some free press by attaching himself to the growing support for Ron Paul, who has enjoyed a large amount of media attention after he raised more than $4.2 million for his campaign in just 24 hours. But that's not likely the case, as Kucinich and Paul have long worked closely together on issues concerning war and civil liberties, and Paul has said he would likely vote for Kucinich were he himself not running. Back in May I spoke with Kucinich for a piece that I was working on for Ohio Public Radio regarding his anti-war, anti-establishment campaign. During the course of the interview I asked him what he thought of Congressman Paul:
DAVIS: You guys probably disagree on a lot, but you come together a lot when it comes to issues of war and peace. Could you a little bit talk about your relationship with Ron Paul over the past couple years?

KUCINICH: Ron Paul is a great American. I have tremendous respect for him. He has the courage of his convictions, he’s not someone who goes with the crowd. I like him. I admire him.

DAVIS: What do you think about his campaign? He’s kind of almost playing the same role [as you] in the Republican Party, in that he’s the only antiwar candidate on stage.

KUCINICH: I can tell you, Ron Paul -- more often than not -- is right. And he’s somebody who’s a great American.

So what are the chances of a joint Paul and Kucinich ticket happening? Not good. The Paul campaign has already shot down the idea, with spokesman Jesse Benton quoted as saying "there are too many differences on issues such as taxes and spending to think a joint ticket would be possible." And, of course, both Paul and Kucinich have a long way to go in terms of getting their respective party's nomination before they could even considering naming a running mate.

That said, I raised the prospect of a Paul-Kucinich ticket when I interviewed Congressman Paul earlier this year:
DAVIS: Congressman Dennis Kucinich is kind of similar in that he is one of the more vocal antiwar critics on the Democratic side of the debates. I know you guys probably disagree on a load of things, but you’ve come together a lot to work on issues of war and peace. So could you talk about your relationship with Congressman Kucinich over the past couple years, what it’s been like, what you think of him?

PAUL: We’re close friends, and we certainly agree [on the war]. And I think we may end up voting closely all the time on the war issue. Sometimes some of these funding bills are a little bit complex, and even Walter Jones and I will disagree even though we agree on what we’re supposed to be doing, but the interpretation will be a little bit different. But I think Dennis and I usually come down on the same side of it. That is, if you don’t want the war you quit the funding, and that’s our responsibility and it’s not the president’s authority to do what he wants because we have the purse strings, so you have to vote against the spending. So we get along very well on that, and since it’s such a major issue I think I will continue to work with him the best we can. And you know, take some of the liberal welfare spending that Dennis might support more than I. But you know, I’m not hostile toward that. If I can save the money from overseas, put some of it against the deficit, end up with a net reduction in the size of the budget, at the same time stopping a war, I may well be very open to funding some of these programs. Because I’m not out to gut some of these programs that have taught people to be very dependant on the government, like medical care. I mean, that’s not my goal. I’ve never run for office with the goal of slashing [those programs] even though philosophically I don’t think it’s the best way to deliver services and prosperity to poor people.

DAVIS: So can we look forward to a Paul-Kucinich 2008 ticket?

PAUL: Not likely, but I think that Paul and Kucinich will continue to work together and do the kind of work that we’ve been doing for a couple years now.

Digg it.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The Triumphant Return of Fiscal Conservatism

The Bush administration has long come under fire from conservatives and liberals alike for its rampant deficit spending. According to a recent report by McClatchy Newspapers, federal spending under President Bush has increased by at least as much, if not more, than it did under Lyndon Johnson.

Now the Bush administration is requesting another $196 billion for the war in Iraq -- a war that could ultimately end up costing taxpayers more than $2 trillion.

But it seems the Bush administration has found a novel way of paying for these expensive military operations while still managing to increase its fiscally conservative credentials: fund the war, just don't pay the soldiers who have to fight it.

As Pittsburgh television station KDKA reports:
The U.S. Military is demanding that thousands of wounded service personnel give back signing bonuses because they are unable to serve out their commitments.

To get people to sign up, the military gives enlistment bonuses up to $30,000 in some cases.

Now men and women who have lost arms, legs, eyesight, hearing and can no longer serve are being ordered to pay some of that money back.

One of them is Jordan Fox, a young soldier from the South Hills.

He finds solace in the hundreds of boxes he loads onto a truck in Carnegie. In each box is a care package that will be sent to a man or woman serving in Iraq. It was in his name Operation Pittsburgh Pride was started.

Fox was seriously injured when a roadside bomb blew up his vehicle. He was knocked unconscious. His back was injured and lost all vision in his right eye.

A few months later Fox was sent home. His injuries prohibited him from fulfilling three months of his commitment. A few days ago, he received a letter from the military demanding nearly $3,000 of his signing bonus back.

"I tried to do my best and serve my country. I was unfortunately hurt in the process. Now they're telling me they want their money back," he explained.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Human Rights Concerns Surround U.S.-backed "Plan Mexico"

On Wednesday the House Foreign Affairs Committee held a hearing on the "Merida Initiative," a $1.4 billion anti-drug aid package that would aid Mexico's war on drugs. 40% of the aid would go to Mexico's military and law enforcement, which has drawn the criticism of human rights groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

My piece describing the Merida Initiative and the criticism it has drawn was published by Inter Press Service earlier today -- read it here.

Digg it.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Senator Webb warns against attack on Iran

Senator Jim Webb sent a letter to President Bush today stressing that the Administration does not have the legal authority to attack Iran without congressional approval. Webb spent the past few days urging his Senate colleagues to sign on to the letter -- in the end 29 did, none of them Republicans. Surprisingly, neither Senator Joe Biden (D-DE) nor Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) signed on, despite their criticism of Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY) for voting for the provocative Kyl-Lieberman resolution calling for Iran's Revolutionary Guard to be listed as a "terrorist organization." In contrast to both Biden and Obama, and in a sign that she has felt the heat over her vote on the Kyl-Lieberman resolution, Clinton signed on to the letter.

As Jonathan Schwarz notes over at Mother Jones, though it has no legal significance, the letter threatens to increase the political costs of a unilateral attack on Iran. The fact that at least 30 members of the Senate are publicly stating that no attack can occur without their consent may weigh on the Bush administration, even if they believe they have the legal authority to attack anyway. As Schwarz says, in the end all wars are ultimately decided less by legality than they are by politics.

Here is the full text of the letter:
Dear President Bush:

We are writing to express serious concerns with the provocative statements and actions stemming from your administration with respect to possible U.S. military action in Iran. These comments are counterproductive and undermine efforts to resolve tensions with Iran through diplomacy.

We wish to emphasize that no congressional authority exists for unilateral military action against Iran. This includes the Senate vote on September 26, 2007 on an amendment to the FY 2008 National Defense Authorization Act. This amendment, expressing the sense of the Senate on Iran, and the recent designation of the Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist, should in no way be interpreted as a predicate for the use of military force in Iran.

We stand ready to work with your administration to address the challenges presented by Iran in a manner that safeguards our security interests and promotes a regional diplomatic solution, but we wish to emphasize that offensive military action should not be taken against Iran without the express consent of Congress.

Signed by: Akaka, Baucus, Boxer, Brown, Byrd, Cantwell, Carper, Casey, Clinton, Dodd, Dorgan, Durbin, Feinstein, Harkin, Johnson, Kerry, Klobuchar, Kohl, Leahy, McCaskill, Mikulski, Murray, Reed, Rockefeller, Sanders, Stabenow, Tester, Webb, Whitehouse, Wyden.

UPDATE: Sam Stein at the Huffington Post received responses from the offices of Senator Biden and Senator Obama as to why they did not add their names to the letter:
"Senator Obama admires Senator Webb and his sincere and tireless efforts on this issue. But it will take more than a letter to prevent this administration from using the language contained within the Kyl-Lieberman resolution to justify military action in Iran. This requires a legislative answer and Senator Obama intends to propose one."
"Sen. Biden voted against the amendment urging the designation of the Iranian Rev. Guard as a terrorist group. He strongly opposed it because he believed it could be used by this President to justify military action against Iran. He has also made clear many times his view that the President lacks the authority to use force against Iran absent authorization from Congress. He didn't need to clarify that position - he's been clear from the start," said Biden spokesperson Elizabeth Alexander.

Neither response seems all that convincing. While Obama's office is probably correct in saying it'll take more than a letter to counteract the Kyl-Lieberman resolution (which Obama neglected to vote on), it doesn't follow that signing a letter opposing an attack on Iran somehow precludes him from introducing binding legislation. As for Biden's claim that he didn't need to clarify his position -- why not? Certainly signing a letter clarifying it again couldn't hurt, could it?

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Dept. of Justice stalls on DNA testing

In 2004, Congress overwhelmingly passed the "Justice for All Act," which established a grant program for states to conduct post-conviction DNA testing in cases where it could prove guilt or innocence. But since the program was established, the Department of Justice has yet to hand out a single dollar. Justice officials claim the problem is with the law itself, which they say is written in such a way that it makes it almost impossible for states to qualify. But others, such as Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT) say the problem is with the Justice Department. I spoke to Leahy about the dispute earlier this week in a piece for Vermont Public Radio, which you can find by going here.

The piece also includes interviews with Congressman Peter Welch (D-VT) and Stephen Saloom, the Policy Director for the Innocence Project.

The cost of war

Back in 2003, the Bush administration's Office of Management and Budget Director Mitch Daniels estimated that the war in Iraq could cost between $50 and $60 billion dollars. That prediction followed an earlier estimate from Bush economic advisor Larry Lindsey that the war could cost $200 billion dollars; Lindsey was soon thereafter out of the White House, which dismissed his estimate as "the upper end of a hypothetical."

Five years later President Bush is now asking Congress to approve another $196 billion dollars to continue the war through 2008. And in a new report, the Congressional Budget Office now says that the total cost of the war in Iraq over the next 10 years could be as high as $2.4 trillion dollars. That study was the focus of a House Budget Committee hearing yesterday that I covered for Capitol News Connection -- you may read and/or listen to the piece by going here.

What I found particularly interesting is that the Committee's Ranking Republican, Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan, gave an opening statement that sounded an awful lot like something antiwar activist Cindy Sheehan might say:
"[Since Democrats took over Congress] we’ve heard comparisons about how much we are spending on the war as opposed to children’s health insurance or education programs, or what have you. But nothing has really changed. The President continues to send his war funding requests to the Hill, and in the end, he continues to get what he asks for.”
Ryan also noted that none of the Democratic frontrunners for president would pledge to remove all troops from Iraq by the end of their first term in 2013. Congressman Ryan's purpose was not to point out the Democratic Party's complete unwillingness to oppose the war in Iraq in anything but a rhetorical sense, but to highlight the need for Congress to be aware of the long-term costs of the war. That said, it's easy to see how some, particularly those opposed to the war, might see his statement differently.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Who ya gonna call?

Terrorist Busters!

This is the CIA's official counterterrorism logo:

Of course, it should not to be confused with the one found in the hit 1980s comedy starring Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd:


Friday, October 19, 2007

Senate increases funds for mine safety

Yesterday Senator Robert Byrd (D-WV) introduced an amendment to a major appropriations bill that increases funding for the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) by $10 million dollars. In a speech on the Senate floor, Byrd said the money was needed to pay for more mine inspections and to speed up MSHA's certification process for potentially life-saving emergency rescue technologies, such as a wireless communication system. I filed a story on Byrd's amendment, which passed the Senate by a vote of 89-4, for West Virginia Public Radio. To listen to an mp3 of the story, click here.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Compare and Contrast

Washington Post editorial on Sunday, October 14th:
A congressional study and several news stories in September questioned reports by the U.S. military that casualties were down. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), challenging the testimony of Gen. David H. Petraeus, asserted that "civilian deaths have risen" during this year's surge of American forces.

A month later, there isn't much room for such debate, at least about the latest figures. In September, Iraqi civilian deaths were down 52 percent from August and 77 percent from September 2006, according to the Web site The Iraqi Health Ministry and the Associated Press reported similar results. U.S. soldiers killed in action numbered 43 -- down 43 percent from August and 64 percent from May, which had the highest monthly figure so far this year. The American combat death total was the lowest since July 2006 and was one of the five lowest monthly counts since the insurgency in Iraq took off in April 2004.
[I]t's looking more and more as though those in and outside of Congress who last month were assailing Gen. Petraeus's credibility and insisting that there was no letup in Iraq's bloodshed were -- to put it simply -- wrong.

McClatchy article from October 10th, "Increased violence continues in Iraq":
BAGHDAD — A recent jump in violence across Iraq continued Wednesday, with at least 16 people killed and 45 wounded in various attacks, including seven involving improvised bombs. More than 55 people were killed and more than 110 were wounded on Tuesday.

Maj. Gen. Kevin Bergner, the top U.S. military spokesman in Iraq, said the attacks were part of what's become an annual increase in violence during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which ends this weekend. He said the attacks were mounted mainly by al Qaida in Iraq, which he said is trying to reverse a growing movement among fellow Sunni Muslims who are turning against it.

"This spike in violence largely targets those it sees as most threatening to it — Iraqi security force leaders, concerned local citizens and other local citizens in areas that are in the process of rejecting al Qaida," he said.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Michigan Primary

Earlier this week, the leading Democratic candidates for president -- with the notable exception of Hillary Clinton -- withdrew from competition in the Michigan primary set for January 15th. This comes after the Democratic National Committee threatened not to seat Michigan's delegates at the nominating convention because the state violated the official DNC primary schedule.

I asked Michigan Democratic Congressman Dale Kildee for his reaction. He stood by his state's decision, saying the primary system is "broken," and that Iowa and New Hampshire have unfairly benefited from their "first-in-the-nation" status in the presidential primary process.

My full report on the story, which aired on WMUK in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and on WUOM in Ann Arbor, Michigan, can be found here.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Blackwater hearing

Earlier today the House Oversight committee questioned Erik Prince, the founder and CEO of defense contractor Blackwater USA, over reports that employees of his company routinely acted recklessly and with little concern for civilian life. The hearing was prompted by an incident that took place on September 16h in which Blackwater employees opened fire on a crowd of Iraqi civilians, killing 11 people. But before the hearing began, Committee Chairman Henry Waxman (D-CA) announced that there would be no specific questions about the incident, citing an ongoing investigation by the Department of Justice. Still many Republicans objected to the hearing anyway, even attempting to force the committee to adjourn -- a motion that was rejected. Representative Darrell Issa (R-CA) was typical of the Republicans in attendance, attempting to paint criticism of Blackwater as merely a continuation of the antiwar group's criticism of General Petraues, saying Democrats were just interested in attacking the war in Iraq. Earlier in the morning, Issa went on C-Span's "Washington Journal," where he went so far as to suggest that Chairman Waxman was placing his own life in jeopardy by even holding the hearing:
"If Henry Waxman today wants to go to Iraq and do an investigation, Blackwater will be his support team. His protection team. Do you think he really wants to investigate directly?" (link -- 1:07:20 into clip)

The exception among Republicans was Representative Jimmy Duncan (R-TN), a staunch conservative who has long opposed the war in Iraq (something I discussed with the Congressman back in May). He pointed out that Blackwater derives more than 90% of its income from the federal government, and argued that fiscal conservatives should be concerned about the ever-increasing amount of money private contractors are receiving in Iraq. Democrats, for the most part, pressed Blackwater CEO Erik Prince over what steps his company took to ensure accountability among its employees.

I filed a full account of the hearing for Capitol News Connection, which you may find by going here.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Is General Petraeus a Liar?

Is General Petraeus a liar? That was the message I got during an interview with Senate Intelligence Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) early this afternoon. In the midst of discussing Senator Jim Webb (D-WV) and Senator Claire McCaskill's (D-MO) legislation establishing an independent commission to examine wartime contracts in Iraq and Afghanistan, Senator Rockefeller took the opportunity to combat the notion that all military generals are immune to politicization and are to be universally deified as Right and Honest men. Rockefeller:
The thing that is really important, the point I really want to make, is that when you hear a general speaking in front of an Armed Services committee or an Intelligence committee or something of that sort, he or she is not speaking his or her mind. Every word that they say has been vetted, has been gone over, has had to pass approval of the administration. And this is something the American people don’t know.

Last week Rockefeller was one of just 25 senators to vote against a resolution condemning the liberal antiwar group for its ad criticizing General Petraeus. Hearing Rockefeller speak, it's clear why he voted the way he did.
Rockefeller: I’m chairman of a committee. I start out every single one, I say, ‘did you write this last night? Did you stay up until three o’ clock sweating bullets figuring if could you get it done in time? Did you write it a week ago so you could put it away and then come back and look at it? Or did you give it to the Office of Management and Budget?' And the answer is always the latter. And they’re angry at me for asking the question, but it’s important for the American people to understand that’s the way it works. And it’s not just a Republican phenomena, it’s also a Democratic phenomena.

Davis: Do you think that was the case with General Petraeus’ testimony? That it was kind of meant to provide political cover for the White House?

Rockefeller: I think that when he said that he had written it all himself, he was really saying, ‘I didn’t write it all myself.’

In other words, when General Petraeus testified before Congress and said this:
At the outset I would like to note that this is my testimony. Although I have briefed my assessment and recommendations to my chain of command, I wrote this testimony myself. It has not been cleared by nor shared with anyone in the Pentagon, the White House or the Congress until it was just handed out.

He was lying. Or at least that's what the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee believes.

Digg this.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Profile of Retiring Congressman

Representative Terry Everett (R-AL) has represented Alabama's 2nd congressional district since first being elected to Congress in 1992. Now the 70 year old congressman is retiring, citing lingering health problems. Today I filed a profile on Congressman Everett for Alabama Public Radio, which you can read or listen to by going here.

So what did Everett learn about Congress in his eight terms?
“That the place doesn’t run like it says it does in the school books.”

That's for sure...

Iran Features

Earlier today the Senate voted 76-22 to approve the controversial Lieberman-Kyl sense of the Senate resolution, which calls for Iran's Revolutionary Guard to be listed as a "terrorist organization." I filed a story on the bill for WSHU in Fairfield, Connecticut, which you can read and/or listen to here. The story deals with recent talk that the Bush administration may attack Iran before leaving office, and features interviews with Senator Joe Lieberman (I-CT), Representative Joe Courtney (D-CT), Juan Cole (author of the popular blog on Mideast issues), and Steve Simon (a former senior member of the National Security Council).

I also filed a story for WCPN in Cleveland, Ohio, in response to the House voting to increase sanctions against Iran, which is available here. This story features Representative Dennis Kucinich (D-OH), Representative Steve LaTourette (R-OH), and both Cole and Simon.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

CENTCOM Head: No war with Iran

This is interesting. While some in Washington feel the United States should adopt a more aggressive stance toward Iran, and while prominent neoconservatives such as Norman Podhoretz argue the U.S. should actually bomb Iran, it seems that view isn't shared by top military leaders -- namely, the military's top official in the Middle East, Admiral William Fallon:
"This constant drum beat of conflict is what strikes me which is not helpful and not useful," Adm. William Fallon said in an interview with Al-Jazeera television, which made a partial transcript available Sunday.
"I expect that there will be no war and that is what we ought to be working for," said Fallon during the Friday interview at Al-Jazeera's headquarters in Qatar. "We should find ways through which we can bring countries to work together for the benefit of all .... It is not a good idea to be in a state of war. We ought to try and to do our utmost to create different conditions."

Fallon's more diplomatic tone seems consistent with reports over the years that the military leadership opposes a military confrontation with Iran. In fact, earlier this year General Peter Pace, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said there was "zero" chance that there would be a war with Iran. The statement is also consistent with earlier reports that Fallon opposes military action. As Inter Press Service's (IPS) Gareth Porter reported back in May:
"Admiral William Fallon, then [February '07] President George W. Bush’s nominee to head the Central Command (CENTCOM), expressed strong opposition in February to an administration plan to increase the number of carrier strike groups in the Persian Gulf from two to three and vowed privately there would be no war against Iran as long as he was chief of CENTCOM."

Fallon's presence at CENTCOM could be a sign that rumors of a war with Iran may just be an attempt to compel countries like Russian and China to go along with another round of economic sanctions against Iran. It could also signal that Vice President Cheney's influence is on the decline, and that President Bush may instead be listening to Admiral Fallon and Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

Digg this.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Can President Bush Attack Iran?

In April 2006 I interviewed Scott Ritter, the former chief UN Weapons Inspector in Iraq from 1991-1998, in a piece for At the time I asked him about whether he felt the Bush administration would attack Iran, and if they did, whether they would consult Congress, which at the time was in Republican hands. In light of recent rumors that the Bush administration may decide to attack Iran before leaving office, I decided to take another look at the interview and found a section I find particularly relevant today:
Davis: Even if we had a Democratic majority, a lot has been talked about how Bush believes in the "unitary executive theory," where he can basically go on and just authorize [military action] himself. Do you think he will even consult Congress if we start a bombing campaign on Iran?

Ritter: No, unless the Democrats are able to take over the House and compel him to do this, then no, Bush has no intention. [Secretary of State] Condoleezza Rice has already let the cat out of the bag where she said she will say nothing that ties the hands of the chief executive, commander-in-chief to do that which he feels is necessary for the security of the United States of America.

Davis: All options are on the table.

Ritter: Yeah, except consulting Congress.
Since I spoke to Ritter, Democrats have taken over both houses of Congress. But they haven't done anything to challenge the Bush administration's authority to preemptively attack Iran. Earlier this year Democrats did include a measure in an Iraq war funding bill that would have required the administration to seek Congress' approval for an attack. But that language was removed after intense lobbying from the pro-Israel group AIPAC. And despite promises that the issue would be voted on separately in a standalone bill, more that six months later, that hasn't happened. Now some may think that's not important. After all, Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution states in no uncertain terms that Congress reserves the sole power to declare war. But that neglects the fact that the United States hasn't declared war since World War II. All military action taken since then, from Korea to Vietnam to Iraq, has been considered to be a "police action," or has taken place under the auspices of the United Nations. So the idea that President Bush could attack Iran without Congress declaring war, or even consenting in some other manner, isn't just fear mongering coming from the outer limits of the blogosphere. In fact, as I learned this week, it's apparently a view shared by the Democratic leadership in Congress. Representative John Larson (D-CT) is the 4th highest ranking Democrat in the House. Earlier this week I asked him how Congress would respond if President Bush decided to take military action. His response was revealing. He and other Democrats apparently share the view that the President could take Iran based on the authorizations to use military force passed after 9/11 and in October 2002 prior to the Iraq war.
Under the bill that was passed, and this is the problem for a lot of members of Congress that voted for the proposal -- I did not, I opposed this war, and I opposed it primarily on the basis that it gave him unilateral and preemptive capability. So, the question is, if this transpired what would the Congress do? Well, A, the president under the current law could do this, unless that law is repealed.
To followup, I asked Larson, why, if the President has the power to attack Iran under current law, Congress has yet to vote on a bill requiring him to seek their approval prior to taking military action. According to Larson, Congress has been too busy with other issues. He also revealed that the promise to hold a standalone vote on a bill requiring the administration to consult Congress is apparently dead. He did say that the Democratic leadership would try to attach it as an amendment to an array of defense-related bills, but his statement confirms that earlier promises by Speaker Pelosi to vote on the issue separately won't be kept. Larson did say that he supports repealing the original authorizations to use force:
I say repeal the authorization, just like Congress did during Vietnam. They repealed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. They repealed the resolution that got us there in the first place. That takes away the president’s power with respect to unilaterally invading other countries -- preemptively striking other countries, not just Iran.
However, Larson offered no timeline as to when, or if, Congress would ever vote on the proposal. And considering the number of leading Democrats who have supported sanctions and other war-like policies towards Iran, the whole issue of the President seeking Congress' approval might be a moot point. As several Mideast experts I interviewed about the issue told me, Democrats can be just as hawkish as Republicans when it comes to Iran, and as the several bipartisan measures condemning Iran for "inciting genocide" and "meddling" in Iraq show, many of them would likely support military action if it were to take place.

The Democrats' general unwillingness to challenge President Bush's authority to attack Iran is one of the reasons antiwar Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul (R-TX) cited for Congress' dismal 11% approval rating:
The Democrats now that they’re in charge are doing a lot of grandstanding. They could’ve done a lot more [to end the war]. We had a provision that would have prohibited the president from bombing Iran without congressional approval, and that was deliberately removed from the [Iraq war supplemental funding] bill. So even though the Constitution should prohibit him from doing that, the Democrats didn’t want to put any restraints on the president at all, and I think the people see through this.
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Why Does Everyone Hate Congress?

A recent Zogby/Reuters poll finds that public opinion of Congress is at an all-time low. In fact, Congress' approval rating of 11% is so low that it almost makes President Bush look popular. So why does everyone hate Congress? That's the question I posed to several members of the Texas congressional delegation in a story for KUT in Austin, TX. Lawmakers I interviewed include Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX), Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX), Rep. Mike McCaul (R-TX), and Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-TX).

To listen and/or read the story, go here.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

13 Lawmakers Subpoenaed in Defense Contractor Bribery Case

The Associated Press reported earlier today that 13 congressmen have been subpoenaed to testify by the defense attorneys for Brent Wilkes, the California contractor charged with bribing disgraced former Congressman Duke Cunningham (R-CA) for millions of dollars in defense contracts. But those lawmakers who were subpoenaed say the reason is a mystery to them, and all are refusing to testify until Mr. Wilkes' defense gives them a specific reason as to why they their testimony is needed.

As I reported for KPBS in San Diego, California, several of the lawmakers, including Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-CA) and Rep. Darrel Issa (R-CA), took campaign contributions from Wilkes, though there is no evidence that they did anything improper. That said, Rep. Issa was defensive when I asked him why he wasn't going to honor his subpoena:
"I didn't work with Mr. Wilkes, I didn't have any kind of contact with him at all. I met him before I was a congressman. I went to a foundation event while I was a congressman in which I contributed to a warrior foundation. So I don't have the kind of link that would ever be appropriate, as far as I know."

To read and/or listen to the story, click here.

To Fund or Not to Fund

Senator Ken Salazar (D-CO) is about as close as you can get to a careful, middle-of-the-road, centrist lawmaker -- he's not a liberal antiwar firebrand, by any means. That's why his newfound openness to cutting funding for the war in Iraq could be pivotal. Before now, Salazar has consistently opposed any efforts to cut the war's funding. Like most other Democrats, he seemed to accept the Republican framing of the war funding issue -- that any vote against funding for the war was a vote against the troops themselves. This sentiment was perhaps best expressed by Senator Joe Biden (D-DE) when Congress voted to continue funding the war in Iraq earlier this year:
"As long as we have troops on the front lines, it is our shared responsibility to give them the equipment and protection they need."

But the fact that a moderate senator like Salazar is even considering cutting funding for the war could signal that Democrats may attempt to reframe the issue, something they haven't typically been very good at. If that's the case, then they may want to follow Salazar's lead and portray their stance as pro-military. As the Senator said to me earlier today, he only came to his position on funding after visiting Iraq. There he says actual soldiers in the field recommended that he consider cutting funding as a way of ending the war. He said their position was clear: "They want to come home."

But like any politician, Salazar has left himself ample room to change his position when it comes time to actually vote. He says he still wants to find some sort of bipartisan consensus on ending the war. Only if that fails, he told me, would he then consider other options, such as cutting funding:
"It’s trying to find a new way forward, and it may be that what we fund are the limited missions. But the concept is still very much under discussion."

As Democrats realized when dealing with the Iraq supplemental funding bill, it requires 60 votes in the Senate to pass almost any bill related to Iraq -- and 67 to overturn a presidential veto. But to end the war, Democrats don't actually need to pass anything. Rather, they simply need 41 senators to publicly commit to not vote for any funding bill that doesn't contain a firm timeline for withdrawal. That would force President Bush to accept a withdrawal or face the prospect of having no money with which to continue the war -- either way, Democrats succeed in ending the current mission in Iraq. While we're not a that point yet, the openness of those like Senator Salazar to cutting funding may be a sign that more and more moderate lawmakers may be willing to take more radical steps to end the war.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

The Real Iraq

Aljazeera English has an interesting report on Iraq which includes some figures not included in General Petreaus' recent report to Congress.

Number of Iraqi civilians killed since the invasion: +750,000
Number who have fled Iraq since March '03: 2.6 million
Number forced to flee their homes every month: +50,000
Number of homeless within Iraq: 2.2 million
Number kidnapped in Baghdad every day: 40
Hours of electricity per day: 2 to 6

The report also takes a look at the American strategy of backing Sunni groups in the city of Abu Ghraib as a counterbalance to the American-backed Shiite central government. Unsurprisingly, the report finds that this strategy of pitting one sectarian group against another could severely backfire in the wake of an American withdrawal. Check it out below:

(via Juan Cole)

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Toy Safety Hearing

Earlier today the Senate Appropriations Committee held a hearing regarding the recall of millions of Chinese-made toys that contain dangerous levels of lead. The hearing included testimony from toy company CEOs and consumer advocates, with much of the blame for the recalls placed on China. I covered the story for Capitol News Connection, and you can read and/or listen to the piece by going here.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Petraeus Report

In testimony earlier today before Congress, General Petraeus -- in what should come as a surprise to no one -- claimed that the so-called "surge" in Iraq is working. I've discussed the multitude of reasons as to why that is not the case in earlier postings, but for now lets consider what the Iraqis themselves have to say about the "surge" and whether, as Petraeus claims, it is "working."

According to a new ABC/BBC opinion poll, the answer is a resounding no: more than 70% of Iraqis say security has actually deteriorated in areas covered by the military "surge." Below is a graphic from the BBC detailing the results of the poll:

But don't expect this to get in the way of war supporters' claims that the surge is "working" (however they define that term this month), and don't expect the poll results to impact much of the public debate either. After all, last September the State Department found in their own poll of Iraqis that 65% supported an immediate withdrawal of American forces and 75% said they would feel safer if foreign troops left.

A few months ago I recall asking Michigan Republican Congressman Pete Hoekstra, the ranking Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, about similar poll results finding that most Iraqis wanted American forces to leave their country. His response -- amidst claiming that the "surge" was working and that the overall environment in Iraq was improving -- was that there is no way to accurately poll Iraqis because of all the ongoing violence, sectarian and otherwise. Naturally this level of skepticism did not present itself last June when, alongside now former Pennsylvania Republican Senator Rick Santorum, Hoekstra claimed that the US had found Saddam's weapons of mass destruction. His claim was immediately dismissed by the Pentagon.

Of course the practical effect of Hoekstra's and other lawmakers' stance on polling is that the Iraqi people will never have a voice in the future of their own country as it pertains to an American military presence, because all poll results will be immediately dismissed as illegitimate. "The Iraqi people," at least as a rhetorical device, can then be made to support any American action painted by its supporters as an attempt to further "progress" in Iraq. The only acknowledged "Iraqi voice" is that of the US-backed, "sovereign" Iraqi government, whose members -- knowing they would likely not be in power otherwise -- are unlikely to demand a withdrawal of American troops anytime soon.

One might argue that there is an undeniably reliable measure of whether the situation in Iraq is getting worse or getting better: whether Iraq's more than four million refugees are returning to their homes or not. But as CBS News reports, Iraq's refugee crisis is only getting worse -- forcing the Syrian government, which has taken in more that 1.5 million refugees, to begin issuing visas to just Iraqi professionals, thus blocking one of the few options left to many displaced Iraqis.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Story on Utah mine disaster

Yesterday, the head of the Mine Safety and Health Administration, Richard Stickler, testified before a Senate panel regarding his actions following the Crandall Canyon mine collapse in Utah that trapped six miners and killed three rescue workers. While he faced tough questioning from most of the committee, Utah Senator Orrin Hatch had only praise for his response to the disaster.

Mine owner Robert Murray didn't show up, first citing a scheduling conflict and then claiming that he was "too sick." The Committee is expected to issue him a subpoena to force him to testify.

To listen to the story, which aired on KUER in Salt Lake City, Utah, click here.

Cooking the books -- Pentagon style

According to recent press accounts, General Petreaus is expected to claim a rather dramatic fall in violence in Iraq -- supposedly a drop of 17% since last December. Of course once you look closer, the story's just a little, shall we say... different. In their own investigation, the Associated Press found that rather than dropping, civilian deaths have actually increased for the second straight month. By their count, 1,809 civilians died in the month of August alone -- and this doesn't include anyone deemed an "insurgent" by the US military (and as this AFP story about a recent US air strike recounts, there is an awful lot of debate over the designation). And the organization Iraq Body Count, which only includes deaths reported on in the media, has found that civilian deaths are remaining fairly steady. They report a total of at least 71,000 deaths since the war began, though the only peer-reviewed study on Iraqi deaths, published in the British medical journal The Lancet, put the number at around 655,000 -- and that was from last October. So how is the Pentagon claiming "success"? Apparently by simply narrowing their definition of "sectarian violence" and excluding everything else. All that Shiite-on-Shiite violence occurring as part of a power struggle in southern Iraq? Doesn't matter. The same goes for Sunni-on-Sunni violence. Nor is simple criminal violence perpetrated by armed gangs included in their count. It's really kind of easy to claim reduced civilian deaths when you don't actually count civilian deaths.

The Washington Post has a good article on this whole issue in today's paper that includes the following quote, highlighting the absurdity of the whole situation:

Intelligence analysts computing aggregate levels of violence against civilians for the NIE puzzled over how the military designated attacks as combat, sectarian or criminal, according to one senior intelligence official in Washington. "If a bullet went through the back of the head, it's sectarian," the official said. "If it went through the front, it's criminal."

Read the rest here.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

The latest surge in spin

Supporters of the war in Iraq are pointing to reduced American casualties in Iraq over the past three months as evidence that the Bush administration’s so-called “surge” is working. But as others have noted, U.S. casualties fall every summer during Iraq’s warmest months, because, as Middle East expert Juan Cole writes, “it is hot as hell.” And former CIA analyst Larry Johnson points out on his blog "No Quarter," (with an accompanying visual aid) that even with the recent drop, American casualties are still well above the numbers from previous years:
“For the first eight months of 2007 there have been 735 American troops killed and 4430 wounded. This is significantly higher than the casualty rate in 2005 or 2006. We have 1000 more dead and wounded this year than last year for the period January-August.”

In addition, according to the website, which tracks the number of Coalition casualties in Iraq, 261 Americans died in Iraq over the past three months. Comparatively, 169 Americans died over the same period last year. That means the supposed "reduction" in American casualties currently being heralded by war supporters actually represents an increase in American deaths in Iraq by more than 50%.

McClatchy news service also notes in their report on the figures that many analysts don’t see the recent slight reduction in American casualties as having any affect on the overall security situation in Iraq, which needless to say, remains dire :
'Others, however, noted that as U.S. combat deaths have dropped, deaths among Iraqi civilians have remained constant, and the “ethnic cleansing” of Baghdad’s neighborhoods has continued almost unabated.'

Despite the dishonesty in claiming that American casualties are down in Iraq when they are actually higher than in the past, expect this to be the one of the key pro-war talking points come General Petreaus’ report to Congress later this month. Of course one might ask, if the number of casualties is still higher than last year, how is this evidence that the “surge” is "working," much less doing anything to alter the overall security situation in Iraq? How has it improved the lives of the Iraqi people? And if one believes it has improved their situation, then why are more and more Iraqis fleeing their homes every day?

Saturday, September 01, 2007

The latest spin on "the surge" vs. reality

First, lets begin with General Petraeus. From Associated Press:
SYDNEY, Australia - America's troop buildup in Iraq has sharply reduced sectarian killings and roadside bombings and lowered al-Qaida's influence, the top U.S. general in the country said in an interview published Friday.

"We say we have achieved progress, and we are obviously going to do everything we can to build on that progress and we believe al-Qaida is off balance at the very least," The Australian newspaper quoted Gen. David Petraeus as saying.

Petraeus said there had been a 75 percent drop in ethnic and religious killings since last year, a doubling in the number of seizures of insurgent weapons caches between January and August, a drop in the number of coalition deaths from roadside bombs, and an increase in the killing and capture of al-Qaida fighters, the newspaper said.

Now for the actual figures. From Reuters:

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Civilian deaths from violence in Iraq rose in August, with 1,773 people killed, government data showed on Saturday, just days before the U.S. Congress gets a slew of reports on President George W. Bush's war strategy.

The civilian death toll was up 7 percent from 1,653 people killed in July, according to figures from various ministries.

Meanwhile, the LA Times reports on a cholera outbreak in northern Iraq caused by poor living conditions and lack of access to clean, drinkable water:
SULAYMANIYA, IRAQ -- A cholera outbreak in northern Iraq, where thousands of people have sought refuge from sectarian violence, is overwhelming hospitals and has killed as many as 10 people, health officials said Friday.

The outbreak in Sulaymaniya and Kirkuk is seen as the latest example of the displacement and deterioration of living conditions caused by the Iraqi conflict.

Yet how is the elite mainstream media reporting on the "surge?" Here's CBS's National Security Correspondent David Martin:

The Pentagon believes it has broken the cycle of violence in Iraq, and there are a lot of statistics to support that -- decrease in American casualties, in roadside bombs, in car bombs, in sectarian killings; increase in numbers of al Qaida killed or captured, weapons caches discovered, tips from the local population. The only negative trend cited by military officers is a continuing increase in the number of sophistcated roadside bombs smuggled in from Iran and the number of mortar and rocket attacks using Iranian weapons and training.

The surge is working. Now what do we do? Militarily, it's a no-brainer -- U.S. troops have seized the momentum and they should continue to exploit it. That means continuing the surge until next April when the first of the five brigades sent in as part of the surge will have completed their 15 month tour. [Emphasis mine]

That's right -- no mention of increased civilian deaths, the internal displacement of perhaps a million Iraqi civilians with more than two million living in refugee camps in countries like Syria and Jordan. Instead, the senior correspondent at one of the nation's leading news outlets relies solely on Pentagon news releases to come to the determination that "the surge is working." Consider this yet another example of why inside-the-beltway pundits and reporters may be good at propagating the latest in Pentagon spin and "conventional wisdom" on Iraq, but they're out of their element when it comes to relaying the actual reality on the ground.


Be sure to check out Patrick Cockburn's latest report for a realistic view of life in Iraq and for more details on the collapse of the country's health services.

Friday, August 31, 2007

New GAO Report on Iraq

A new report from the Government Accountability Office seems to support what most objective observers of Iraq have long realized: the country as a whole has fallen apart and there is little reason to believe that the so-called "surge" can doing anything to turn it around. The GAO report itself finds that the Iraqi government has failed to meet all but three of 18 congressionally mandated "benchmarks" -- after the White House claimed earlier this summer that eight had been met. Of course, as University of Michigan professor and Middle East expert Juan Cole points out at his blog, the debate over the these ambiguous benchmarks and the accompanying argument over whether the "surge" is "working" is rather absurd considering how little it has to do with actual conditions on the ground for the Iraqi people.

I personally find the controversy about Iraq in Washington to be bizarre. Are they really arguing about whether the situation is improving? I mean, you have the Night of the Living Dead over there. People lack potable water, cholera has broken out even in the good areas, a third of people are hungry, a doubling of the internally displaced to at least 1.1 million, and a million pilgrims dispersed just this week by militia infighting in a supposedly safe all-Shiite area. The government has all but collapsed, with even the formerly cooperative sections of the Sunni Arab political class withdrawing in a snit (much less more Sunni Arabs being brought in from the cold). The parliament hasn't actually passed any legislation to speak of and often cannot get a quorum. Corruption is endemic. The weapons we give the Iraqi army are often sold off to the insurgency. Some of our development aid goes to them, too.

The average number of Iraqis killed in 2007 per day exceeds those killed in 2006. Independent counts by news organizations do not agree with Pentagon estimates about drops in civilian deaths over-all. Nation-wide attacks in June reached a daily all-time high of 177.5. True, violence in Baghdad has been wrestled back down to the levels of summer, 2006 (hint: it wasn't paradise), but violence levels are up in the rest of the country. If you compare each month in 2006 with each month in 2007 with regard to US military deaths, the 2007 picture is dreadful.

Iraq as a country has ceased to exist. By any reasonable measurement it is a failed state. But turn on any Sunday talk show and the same discredited pundits and think-tank ideologues are there, obfuscating and distorting the painful reality on the ground for political reasons. If you're instead looking for a realistic view of conditions in Iraq look to people like Professor Cole, British journalist and reporter for the Independent (UK) Patrick Cockburn, and one of the few outlets to not buy into pre-war hysteria about Iraq WMD's, McClatchy news service -- not cable news. Not only will you save money on your utilities, but you might actually learn something.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Dick Cheney argues against invading Iraq

Oh, how time changes everything. In this 1994 interview with the American Enterprise Institute, Vice President Dick Cheney explains why he and President George H.W. Bush decided against overthrowing Saddam Hussein and occupying Iraq after the first Gulf War.

Cheney: "Everyone was impressed with the fact we were able to do our job with as few casualties as we had. But for the 146 Americans killed in action, and for their families, it wasn't a cheap war. And the question for the president, in terms of whether or not we went on to Baghdad, took additional casualties in an effort to get Saddam Hussein, was how many additional dead Americans is Saddam worth? Our judgement was, not very many, and I think we got it right."

(Via Jon Schwarz at A Tiny Revolution)

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Ron Paul Interview

With the GOP Straw Poll currently taking place in Ames, Iowa, now seems a good time to shamelessly promote this June interview I conducted with Texas Republican Congressman Ron Paul. We discuss everything from why he is running for president, to his relationship with antiwar Ohio Democrat Dennis Kucinich.

The interview was cited by Reason magazine's Brian Doherty in an article on Ron Paul's strong online presence and his potential appeal to Democrats.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Propaganda Then and Now

On August 6th, 1945, the United States dropped a nuclear bomb nicknamed "Little Boy” on the city of Hiroshima, instantly killing more than 70,000 people -- the overwhelming majority civilians. Three days later, the nuclear bomb “Fat Man” was dropped on the city of Nagasaki, killing at least another 70,000 civilians. The anniversary of the bombings serves not only as a reminder of the of the indiscriminate destruction wrought by nuclear weapons -- particularly relevant in light of recent political disputes -- but also of the complicity of some media outlets in spreading and perpetuating U.S war propaganda. As Amy and David Goodman discuss in this article from 2005, "The Hiroshima Cover-Up," the U.S. government desperately wanted to block any information regarding the devastating consequences of the nuclear attacks on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. “More than 200,000 people died in the atomic bombings of the cities,” write the Goodmans, but because of an embargo placed on the media by General MacArthur, “no Western journalist witnessed the aftermath and told the story. Instead, the world's media obediently crowded onto the battleship USS Missouri off the coast of Japan to cover the Japanese surrender.”

Yet as the article notes, there were a few intrepid reporters willing to break the U.S. military’s blockade. One was William Burchett, whose account of the devastation was published in the September 5, 1945 issue of the London Daily Express: “In Hiroshima, 30 days after the first atomic bomb destroyed the city and shook the world, people are still dying, mysteriously and horribly - people who were uninjured in the cataclysm from an unknown something which I can only describe as the atomic plague." He continued: "Hiroshima does not look like a bombed city. It looks as if a monster steamroller has passed over it and squashed it out of existence. I write these facts as dispassionately as I can in the hope that they will act as a warning to the world."

Naturally, U.S. military authorities were displeased with his account, and attempted to smear Burchett as a purveyor of Japanese propaganda. To counter his article, the military turned to one of their own: William Laurence, lead science reporter for the New York Times -- and a paid employee of the U.S. War Department.

Here’s how the Goodmans describe the relationship: “For four months, while still reporting for the Times, Mr. Laurence had been writing press releases for the military explaining the atomic weapons program; he also wrote statements for President Harry Truman and Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson. He was rewarded by being given a seat on the plane that dropped the bomb on Nagasaki, an experience that he described in the Times with religious awe.”
Just days after the damning account of “the atomic plague” was published in the London Daily Express, Laurence wrote a front-page story in the New York Times “debunking” the article. “The Japanese are still continuing their propaganda aimed at creating the impression that we won the war unfairly,” wrote Laurence, “and thus attempting to create sympathy for themselves and milder terms. ... Thus, at the beginning, the Japanese described 'symptoms' that did not ring true."
While Laurence’s atomic reporting for the Times won him a Pulitzer Prize, it since has become yet another black mark on “the paper of record.” From Walter Duranty -- another Pulitzer winner -- shilling for Stalin in the 1930s, to Judith Miller’s breathless, alarmist reporting on nonexistent Iraqi “weapons of mass destruction,” the Times is a case-study in what happens when journalists allow themselves to become uncritical conduits for government misinformation and propaganda.

Friday, August 03, 2007

State and local officials lobby against war

In this piece for Vermont Public Radio, I speak to Vermont state legislator Mike Fischer, the author of a resolution passed earlier this year by the Vermont state legislator calling for an immediate withdrawal from Iraq. He was in Washington as part of a "Cities for Peace" effort to present Congress and President Bush with more than 300 state and city resolutions expressing opposition to the war.

To listen to the story, click here.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Crack/Powder Cocaine Sentencing Disparity

I recently filed a piece for KGOU in Norman, Oklahoma, regarding the disparity in sentencing between the crack and powder forms of cocaine. Under current federal law, possession of five grams of crack cocaine is punishable by a mandatory five year sentence. Yet it would take 100 times that amount in powder cocaine to receive the same sentence.

To listen to an MP3 of the story, click here.

From KGOU's website:

Let’s say you’re an African American, you live in Oklahoma, and you’re caught possessing five grams of crack cocaine. According to mandatory sentencing guidelines, you’d receive a ten year prison sentence, even if it was your first offense. On the other hand, if you’re white, affluent and you’re charged with possessing powder cocaine – which is chemically identical to crack, albeit more concentrated -- you’d need to have nearly six times as much to receive a similar sentence. The Oklahoma Sentencing Commission has called for the elimination of the disparity between the sentences, and Senators Joe Biden (D-DE) and Orrin Hatch (R-UT) have teamed up to reduce the disparity on the federal level. Charles Davis reports from Capitol Hill.

Guests include former State Senator and Sentencing Commission member Ged Wright, Ethan Nadelman of the sentencing reform group the Drug Policy Alliance, Senator Tom Coburn and State Senator and Sentencing Commission Chair Richard Lerblance.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Duncan Hunter challenges claims of "broken Army"

This past Friday, the House Armed Services Committee held a hearing on two bills -- one that would require the Pentagon to develop a comprehensive strategy to redeploy troops from Iraq and report back to Congress, and another that would require all active-duty troops to receive time at home equal to the time they spend deployed overseas. Currently, members of the Army complete 15 month tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, but only receive 12 months at home before being redeployed.

Many, such as retired General William Odom, former head of the NSA under President Reagan, have criticized the long deployments. Lawrene Korb is another former Reagan official criticizing the long deployments and the war in Iraq. He served as an assistant Secretary of Defense during Reagan's first term. In the hearing he repeatedly suggested that the war in Iraq was "breaking" the military, in terms of causing low reenlistment and morale, and most importantly, an inability to respond effectively to a future threat. But as I reported for KPBS in San Diego, CA, California Republican Duncan Hunter took issue with Korb's statement that several generals, including retired General Barry McCaffrey, have used the word "broken" when speaking of the state of the military. Korb stood by his claim, quoting McCaffrey referring to the Army's ground combat capability as "shot." But Hunter didn't accept that, arguing that "ground combat capability" was not the same as "Army." But Hunter's interpretation of McCaffrey's stance seems rather implausible in light of the highly critical report McCaffrey wrote on the Iraq occupation after returning from the country in March. In the report he stated:
Stateside US Army and Marine Corps readiness ratings are starting to unravel. Ground combat equipment is shot in both the active and reserve components. Army active and reserve component recruiting has now encountered serious quality and number problems. In many cases we are forced to use US contractors to substitute for required military functions. (128,000 contractors in Iraq—includes more than 2000 armed security personnel.) Waivers in US Army recruiting standards for: moral turpitude, drug use, medical issues, criminal justice records, and non-high school graduation have gone up significantly. We now are enlisting 42 year old first term soldiers. Our promotion rates for officers and NCOs have skyrocketed to replace departing leaders. There is no longer a national or a theater US Army strategic reserve.

Whether he prefers the word "shot" or "broken," it's clear that McCaffrey believes the war in Iraq is hurting the Army, and that it is in a state of serious trouble.