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.

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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.

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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.