Saturday, May 30, 2009

A Simple First Step Towards Universal Health Care

The New York Times reports this morning that a major split is developing between Sen. Ted Kennedy – back on the Hill as he fights brain cancer – and Sen. Max Baucus over the shape and form of universal health care. Kennedy, long a proponent of a single payer system, is teeing up against Baucus who is negotiating with Republicans over keeping all of health care in the hands of private insurers.

Kennedy and Baucus chair competing committees, and each are racing over creating a plan.

Meanwhile, 47-million Americans remain without any health care while an estimate 20-million more working adults are under-covered. As we reported yesterday, in California alone 1-million people go to Mexico for treatment annually because they can’t afford seeing a doctor at home.

The Kennedy plan is relatively simple, the emerging Baucus plan sounds as if it is being written by Jackie Mason.

First, you take health plans that are tax free now and you make some of them taxable, but not all of it, and not for everybody. But who? We don’t know who! Then, a new tax deduction puts money in the pocket of the people who we don’t know who they are so they can take it out again and buy what they had for free in the first place. Next, the money the states use to pay for medical care for people who don’t have health insurance could be used to pay for people who don’t have health insurance which means they can’t get good health care. But we don’t know who they are, either. Well, maybe we know, but we’re not sure, so we won’t say. Then, three million people who don’t have any health insurance will have money from the tax deduction they didn’t want, to buy health insurance on their own if they have enough income to take advantage of a $15,000 deduction and can actually can buy a policy that provides coverage. There might be six people in America who can do this. So we’re taking money from here, and moving it over there, and then back to here, which where it was in the first place and now let’s have some tuna because I’m exhausted.

The fact is, there is already in place a hugely successful, low cost health care program that could be implemented quickly and efficiently.

Kids First

Put bluntly, as desirable as the goal might be, the reality is that universal health care isn’t going to happen overnight, and it’s not going to cover everybody who needs coverage on Day 1.

But there is a simple step forward towards universal health care and the basis for it already exists: The insurance plan that covers employees of the federal government, from President Obama to the lowliest entry-level file clerk at the Dept. of Agriculture.

The plan could start tomorrow, with few studies and almost no increase in cost or federal bureaucracy.

The first step would insure everyone under age 18 through the fed’s program.

Every uninsured child would receive immediate coverage. Children covered by a parent’s plan would be lifted out of the policy at the anniversary date of their employer’s policy and put in the federal insurance pool. Actuaries will love this because healthy, middle class, suburban kids don’t get sick as often or as seriously as children of the working poor and underclass from inner cities. So, the insurance risk gets spread across an enormous number of youngsters, lowering the cost for everyone.

Insurance industry sources tell me that it would take about 12-to-18 months to enrol every person under 18 in the country. Moreover, the federal plan offers some coverage choices which parents would need time to consider and select.

The cost would be paid by employers, as they do now. Instead of paying a premium to an insurance company on behalf of an employee, the company would pay the same amount to the federal insurance pool. Payroll costs would remain constant and might actually decline a bit: The federal “risk pool,” or number of people insured, would swell, spreading the actuarial risk of the coverage over millions more people. Premiums for the under-18 crowd would decline as a result, most likely eliminating the need for a worker’s contribution to the plan.

At the same time, state Medicaid and SCHIP money spent for covering uninsured kids could be diverted to other medical needs: Providing better treatment for uninsured adults, improving facilities at hospitals and clinics, increasing staff salaries; the list is as endless as the array of needs.

Uninsured Adults

Once children are covered through the fed plan, coverage could be expanded to all currently uninsured adults.

Covering children federally would account for an estimated 15-to-20-million of the uninsured 47-million. Let’s be conservative and assume that there would still be 32-million uninsured adults not covered.

The cost of insuring the currently uninsured would be carried by spreading the risk among all adults. No doubt some number of the uninsured cannot get insurance because of poor health. But many of the uninsured will be healthy, small business owners and employees – the very people politicians love to applaud – so the risk between healthy and unhealthy will be balanced. Small business owners would either divert their current insurance premiums to the federal pool or contribute through a payroll tax reduction made possible through tax credits.

Finally, the fed plan would replace private, employer-sponsored plans. As with dependent children, employers would pay premiums to the federal plan rather than to an insurance company.

Bonus! There are a number of major benefits beyond providing health care for everybody:
• It destroys the myth of “no choice” since people will continue to see their own doctors.
• It finesses potential objection from doctors, whose fees will not be negotiated or set by Washington – as they are with Medicare – but by the generous fee schedules of the current fed plan for doctors treating millions of government employees and dependants.
• Since the federal government plan involves insurance companies, its lobby would have the rug pulled out from under it by still be able to write policies.
• Coverage costs would decline because, in addition to the risk pool expanding to 330-million people, insurance companies won’t have “policy acquisition costs” – a fancy phrase for selling and renewal commissions plus production bonuses paid to agents, underwriting fees and other overhead charges.
• As the VA and Defence Department do already, Washington would be in a position to negotiate formulary prices for prescription medicine, the cost it will pay for medical devices including CT and MRI machines, hospital room reimbursement rates and other forces that contribute to ever-higher medical costs.
• As the VA and Defence Department do already, Washington would be in a position to negotiate formulary prices for prescription medicine, the cost it will pay for medical devices including CT and MRI machines, hospital room reimbursement rates and other forces that contribute to ever-higher medical costs.

The Downside

Admittedly, this idea comes with a downside.

Democrats, lobbyists, think tanks and the chattering classes who are stumbling all over each other to come up with health care ideas of their own, will be reduced to thinking about other important policy issues. Like ending the war in Iraq, dealing with Afghanistan and Pakistan, coming up with a workable, multi-party plan for handling North Korea, fixing the economy and re-regulating the financial industry.

Oh. And reducing the obscene growth in annual health care costs.

Likewise, the Republicans and their insurance industry allies will be caught between attacking the proposal or coming up with an alternative that looks and sounds like universal coverage but won’t be because it will be designed by insurance companies whose principal interest is in not insuring folks who might actually have a big, expensive claim.

Obviously, the devil is in the detail.

But using the existing federal employee insurance program as the basis for universal, single payer, health care offers an approach that will allow the US, so fond of “rapid deployment,” to begin dealing seriously with the one-seventh of its population who have no health care coverage whatsoever.

Friday, May 29, 2009

The GOP Is Becoming A Bugs Bunny Cartoon

According to the loonie chorus on the right, we're all sons of bitches now.

When they’re not bashing Sonia Sotomayor for asking sharp questions from the bench – which would seem to be a pretty basic part of the job description for a judge – or wondering whether her taste in spicy food clouds her judicial judgment, they’ve started blaming Democrats for Cheney’s torture régime. Their argument runs something like this:

Because Democrats in Congress knew about torture and didn't object out loud even though doing so would violate federal law, it shouldn't be investigated now. Anyway, it wasn't illegal 'cause that noted legal scholar John Yoo said it was within the law if you ignore the word “torture” in the statute and international treaties the US signed.

Meanwhile, Alberto Gonzales is running around Washington yowling, "Torture? What torture? I was just White House counsel. I don’t know 'bout no stinkin' torture. Those memos were written to me? I thought they were drafts of law review articles. I just spell checked them."

This is the same crowd that says Justice Benjamin Cardozo, who was actually Portuguese, was really the first Hispanic Supreme Court justice, not Sotomayor. Well, his name sounds Hispanic and it has that suspicious "ozo" combination at the end of his last name so, to Karl Rove’s thinking, this means he must have been a wetback.

Life may imitate art but the Republican Party is starting to imitate a Bugs Bunny cartoon.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

A Tip Without An Iceberg: Americans, Not Canucks, Are The Real Medical Refugees

Once the Senate puts aside the irrational fracas over Sonia Sotomayor’s nomination to the Supreme Court – she eats spicy food, her name doesn’t sound American, she can be quoted out of context, she’s a secret socialist – and confirms her nomination, Congress can turn its attention to dealing with genuine problems such as providing universal health care.

Proponents will remind everyone that Canada’s national health covers everything from routine doctor visits to complicated brain surgery, from birth to death and at far lower costs than Americans pay. And sure as the earth is warming, opponents will scream that the Canadian system is so bad, massive numbers of Canucks flee to the US to obtain care because their own system can’t treat them.

In truth, the real flow of patients is from the US to Mexico, not into America from Canada.

Medical Refugees

A massive, peer-reviewed study just published in Health Affairs: The Policy Journal of the Health Sphere debunks the myth that Canada’s system is so broken that massive hoards of Canadian medical refugees flee south for treatment. Eighty percent of US hospitals reported treating 10 or fewer Canadians annually during the five year period of the study; another 15% reported seeing from 10 to 25 patients; only 5% reported seeing more than 25. None – nada, zip, zero – reported treating more than 75 Canadian patients in a year.

The study finds that hospitals in three large US metropolitan areas combined saw 640 Canadian patients for diagnostic radiology services such as CT scans or MRI’s over a one-year period. By comparison, Québec hospitals annually perform 375,000 CT scans.

Put differently, Québec hospitals do twice as many CT scans of Canadians every day than all the hospitals in three large American cities do in an entire year.

Contrast this study with one just published in the journal Medical Care by the UCLA Center for Policy Research.

It reports that, because of unaffordable or unavailable health care at home, nearly 1-million Californians cross the border each year seeking medical treatment in Mexico. This doesn't include the number entering Mexico to buy medication. Add to this total who knows how many tens of thousands of uninsured and underinsured people from Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas scoot across the border to see a Mexican doctor and the real number of American medical refugees would populate a decent sized city.

If more Americans lived closer to the Mexican border, chances are high that the number of medical refugees heading south would swell.

Fixing Medicare

Meanwhile, the right keeps yammering about Medicare going broke in another few decades, using it as an argument against national health as well as for killing off Medicare itself. While all of us aging baby boomers will soon be filling out applications for the service, we aren’t the cause of the problem. The two biggest reasons Medicare has long-term funding issues is the obscene rate of increase in the cost of private health care and Congressional mandates prohibiting Medicare from negotiating prices for drugs, supplies and medical devices the same way as do the VA and Dept. of Defence.

No less an authority than the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office reports that the VA’s cost-per-patient grew by only 1.7% between 1999 and 2005, after adjusting for inflation. That’s 0.3% per year and includes the enormous cost of treating thousands of service personnel hideously wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan starting in 2002. Meanwhile, Medicare’s cost per patient rose a whopping 29.4% over the same period, or 4.4% annually.

It’s tempting to suggest simply turning Medicare over to the Veteran’s Administration – which clearly knows how to treat patients cost-effectively – and use the savings to expand VA facilities into more communities while hiring additional doctors, nurses and support staff.

Oh, wait: That’s socialized medicine. Republicans and their conservative think tank enablers believe Americans would rather do without health care – or go to Mexico – than have a government sponsored, single payer plan. Why does the right never mention the VA model while spouting myths as fact in the health care debate?

For that matter, why isn’t anyone in Washington proposing an expansion of the health care plan that currently covers all non-DoD federal employees to include all Americans? There’s a relatively easy way to do it without creating a bureaucracy, leaving both choice of doctors and the insurance industry alone, and not making physicians employees of the federal government.

I’ll write about this idea tomorrow. Meanwhile, don’t get run over by the 1-million-plus Americans racing to Mexico for their health care.

A deeply appreciative h/t to Paul Krugman

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

When Will The New York Times Stop Believing The Pentagon?

The so-called newspaper of record – and Judith Miller and Jayson Blair – did it again.

Someone at the Pentagon leaked a report about how many former Guantanamo detainees were released only to become active in terrorist activities. Citing the study, the New York Times warned front page readers on Tuesday that fully one-in-seven former detainee’s “reengaged” with al Quaeda, Taliban or other Jihadi groups after being released. That’s a scary 14%

Just one problem: It's not true.

Despite a constantly and wildly fluctuating number of passengers the DoD claims boarded the Gitmo-To-Terrorist express over the years, the Times’ breathless story not only takes the Pentagon at its word, it doesn’t do even basic fact checking. No critical assessment of the report appears in the original Times article:
• The Pentagon news release – and the original Times’ story – uses the term “reengaged” to indicate released detainees were terrorists before being captured. Yet none of the 530 released detainees were ever even hauled before a Gitmo kangaroo court so there’s no way of knowing whether they were “engaged” with terrorism before their arrest.
• The Pentagon report never mentions what any of the 74 alleged terrorists were doing before being disappeared into Bush’s gulag. In reality, many were butchers, bakers and candle stick makers who got sold to the US by bounty seekers, disgruntled lovers, angry relatives, business rivals, warlords extracting revenge for some real or imagined slight, criminal gangs and corrupt Pakistani police officers.
• While the DoD report includes in its survey men who are “suspected” of becoming terrorists, it gives no details on why they are suspected of becoming fighters, suicide bombers or plotters after their release.
• Former Colin Powell chief of staff Lawrence Wilkerson maintains that countless previously apolitical prisoners became radicalised while at Gitmo, having been swept up in Afghanistan and Pakistan, tortured and held on vague charges – often for years.

What happened to the once-irrefutable, indisputable and indispensable Times?

Starting with happily getting its knee tickled over WMDs during the run-up to the 2003 invasion and continuing through refusing to call the 2005-06 violence in Iraq either a “civil war” or “ethnic cleansing” involving Sunni’s and Shiites all the way to complicity in Cheney's plot to out Valerie Plame, not seriously reporting on what Wall St. was doing in the prelude to the global financial collapse and this week’s embarrassing revelation that former FBI director L. Patrick Gray gave a Times reporter the Watergate story long before Woodstein began unravelling the scandal but the newspaper didn’t think it worth covering, the paper became a disgrace.

The New York Times has become its nickname: The grey lady. Now withering, tottering and nearly senile, she still insists on being called Le Grande Dame of journalism. Perhaps this is what happens to une femme d’un certain age.

My apologies to The Nation’s ad slogan, but where is that liberal media bias that the right always accuses the Times of practicing?

When Nerds And Greasers Grow Up

When my Minneapolis high school class graduated about 100 lifetimes ago, a kid everyone called "Froggy" used the gift money given to him by relatives to buy and restore a Model T Ford. This didn't surprise anyone: Froggy was sort of a cleaned-up greaser anyway – he ended up in technology, which is simply an updated, more lucrative, version of being a greaser – so while many of us shook our head at his odd hobby, we weren't totally surprised.

Turns out that he not only kept and maintained the car over the years, he is joining 50 other Model T owners this summer to drive from New York to Seattle to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the first cross-country Model T endurance race sponsored by Robert Guggenheim, then an obscenely wealthy industrialist and now of art museum fame. Yes, the roads are better today but the route will be identical. The group will avoid the interstate except in parts of North Dakota and Montana where the original highways have disappeared entirely.

It'll take roughly six week to cross the country – every four days they stop for rest and repairs – which is how Froggy will spend his summer vacation.

I think the first two or three days will be a lot of fun.

Then, as the group wakes up in, oh, maybe Montclair NJ on the fourth morning – about 40 miles from the starting point in Times Square – it'll dawn on everyone that they have another five-plus weeks of this hot, sweaty, bone-shaking ride and wonder what seemed so appealing about the drive when they signed up.

For those who’ve been reading me for a while, you’ll recall that my high school – now defunct but at the time run by the University of Minnesota – attracted many overly bright nerds and characters. Our class included a lot of weird, sometimes deeply disturbed, children of academics, the guy who went on to found the Utne Reader, a son of Minneapolis' mayor who became a blues musician backing up Bob Dylan for many years, and one of FDR's grandsons whose ambition in life was to own a small town gas station.

Add this information to what I’ve written about being raised by my specific set of parents and sister, and you can see why I ended up as batty as I am. Totally starkers, as the Brits say. Mad as a tick.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Wingnuts Take Aim At Supremes’ Nominee Sotomayor

The right wing was gearing up for this fight even before Justice David Souter thought about retiring. This morning, as Pres. Obama was naming – as expected – Appeals Court Judge Sonia Sotomayor to fill Souter’s chair on the Supreme Court, conservatives were lining up to throw brickbats before the words were out of his mouth. is blubbering that Obama’s nominee means he is covering up for not launching an attack on North Korea after its nuclear test yesterday and the five missiles it test fired today: “No word yet on the reaction from Pyongyang” on the Sotomayor appointment, somehow conflating the two totally unrelated events.

Drudge is beside himself, linking to a New Republic article that questions her intellectual firepower without giving any supporting evidence. The author, Jeffrey Rosen, concedes that “I haven't read enough of Sotomayor's opinions to have a confident sense of them, nor have I talked to enough of Sotomayor's detractors and supporters to get a fully balanced picture of her strengths.”


The Capital Research Center – which had nothing to do with the Capital, legitimate research or anything remotely connected to the center in American politics – fumes that she has “ties to a race-obsessed, left-wing grievance group/shakedown operation.”

The Conservative Comeback simply proclaims, “This chick scares the bejeezus out of me.”

Naturally, the wingnut blogs are giving wide replay to an out-of-context video in which Sotomayor says the Court of Appeals is where “policy is made.” A poor word choice but, uhm, that’s the point of an appeals court as it decides what the law means, not just what it says.

All of this thunder on the right sounds to me like pretty decent endorsements.

Meanwhile, the left is busy attacking Obama for not appointing a dogmatic, progressive liberal to the Supremes.

Yet two things seem to escape both the right and the left.

First, no one can predict how someone will decide cases once they’re on the Supreme Court. While at university about 100 lifetimes ago, I attended a seminar led by Justice Thurgood Marshall – as credentialed a liberal as ever sat on the Supreme Court – who said, “Until you sit on that bench, you cannot grasp the weight sitting on a Justice’s shoulders ever time a case is argued.” In other words, political leanings fly out the window once someone is confirmed.

Except for Clarence Thomas, that it, but I’m writing about people who actually think.

Remember, Dwight Eisenhower whined that his worst decision as president was nominating Earl Warren – a died-in-the-wool, right wing, California Republican governor – to be Chief Justice. Warren wrote the landmark Brown decision desegregating schools and opening the door to the entire civil rights movement.

Second, Thomas Jefferson – the Founding Father as far as I’m concerned and the leading intellectual among the Constitution's authors – wrote about what he saw as the Supreme Court’s future role. Basically, the idea of a “living Constitution” that breathes the air of the day is Jefferson’s, not some modern-day lefty interpretation.

So whether Sotomayor is far left, middle liberal or a moderate is almost irrelevant. Once the silk gown is slipped onto her shoulders for the first time, hopefully she will be a Supreme Court Justice who feels the weight and understands the import of her decisions.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Hot Docs In Cool Toronto

Its better known and slicker cousin, the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), attracts the celebrities, glitterati, paparazzi and red carpets arched by searchlights circling the Canadian night sky. Held in September, TIFF kicks off the industry’s festival season that continues until Cannes, which concluded this past weekend. Coming first means that, over the years, TIFF screening rooms have debuted numerous major motion pictures – as Hollywood puts it – such as Sicko and Slumdog Millionaire.

It’s a must stop on the festival circuit for the world’s film industry, as important an event as any. But TIFF isn’t the only major film event Toronto hosts each year.

Less well known and considerably down market in glitz appeal than TIFF, the Toronto International Documentary Film Festival – known as Hot Docs – draws far more aging vans and beat-up clunkers than Beemer's and limousines to theatre parking lots. But it’s of much greater importance to documentary filmmakers than TIFF. Hot Docs marked its 16th anniversary this month, screening a remarkable line-up of 177 documentaries during its 11 day run from filmmakers working around the world.

Dazzling Films, Prestigious Awards

Unlike many big name film festivals, Hot Docs awards both jury prizes and awards voted on by the public, all 122,000 attendees – a whopping 42% increase in 2009 over 2008 ticket sales.

The 10 audience award winners in 2009 were:
1. The Cove (Director: Louie Psihoyos; USA)
2. 65 Red Roses (D: Philip Lyall, Nimisha Mukerji; Canada)
3. Inside Hana’s Suitcase (D: Larry Weinstein; Canada, Czech Republic)
4. Best Worst Movie (D: Michael Paul Stephenson; USA)
5. A Hard Name (D: Alan Zweig; Canada)
6. Over The Hills and Far Away (now titled The Horse Boy) (D: Michel Orion Scott; USA)
7. Winnebago Man (D: Ben Steinbauer; USA)
8. Burma VJ (D: Anders Høgsbro Østergaard; Denmark)
9. Rough Aunties (D: Kim Longinotto; UK)
10. Prom Night In Mississippi (D: Paul Saltzman; Canada)

Simon El Habre’s “The One Man Village” and Hubert Davis’s “Invisible City” were the recipients of the festival’s two big prizes. “Village” took the Best International Feature Award and “City” won the Best Canadian Feature Award. Special Jury Prize winners in both categories were Peter Kerekes’ Czech Republic-Slovakis co-production “Cooking History,” which won for International Feature. Kevin McMahon’s “Waterlife” won the jury prize for a Canadian Feature.

Ten awards, including those for films in competition and those recognizing emerging and established filmmakers, were presented. More than $60,000 in cash prizes were handed out to filmmakers.

Boosting Filmmakers

The festival is more than a showcase of the world’s best documentaries.

Hot Docs makes itself an intimate, on-going part of the documentary world, giving a major financial and educational leg-up to filmmakers. Underwritten by corporate media donors, it sponsors $4-million worth of completion and development grants each year, providing support to filmmakers facing financial gaps at critical stages of their projects.

It also hosts forums for filmmakers including “Doc Lab” and “Doc U.”

Doc Lab is intensive, five-day creative development workshop where 15 early-to-mid-career documentary writers and directors take part in a specially designed master class. Meanwhile, Doc U gives recent Canadian film school graduates an introduction to the workings of a large festival and how to market their project to distributors. It also helps co-ordinate scholarships and fellowships to aspiring documentary writers, directors and producers.

The Hot Docs website provides information on all of the festival’s programmes, including details on how to submit films and apply for funding, and a subscription form to receive e-mail updates.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Why TV Is The Pits

I am increasingly distressed by, and unhappy with, BBC Canada. And BBC America isn’t any better, based on the programme schedule on its website.

When BBC Canada launched as a stand-alone, speciality channel by subscription service several years ago, it offered a truly remarkable array of programmes. Now that it is established as part of a multi-channel, want-one-take-'em-all, package, it has become a warmed over re-hash of inexpensive British reality shows, cooking programmes, DIY makeovers, middle aged men driving cars, and bizarre housewife swapping extravaganzas.

What happened to the network that once offered a solid line-up of crime drama’s every Monday night? Cutting edge Britcoms on Tuesdays and Thursdays? Experimental drama’s on Fridays? Always interesting, sometimes weird, little films on Sundays?

Now, every weeknight, BBC Canada wedges just one prime time drama series it’s aired countless times before between episodes of profane, abusive chefs and dysfunctional, irritating families. It sometimes tops off the night with a talk show hosted by someone who is famous only for being famous who keeps his audience and guests tittering with anal sex references.

BBC America offers viewers even less.

The real BBC doesn't own either the American or Canadian networks. So, without much say-so from London, it seems evident that owners of the two North American networks main goal is to spend as little money as possible on programming and churn as much cash as possible from commercials. Worse, the network shows little regard for its “social contract” with viewers or its license agreement with federal regulators. Just because hosts speak with a British dialect and many have bad teeth does not mean it is showing “The best and boldest of British television” as it advertises.

Far from it.

BBC Canada and BBC America are living examples of the decline of network television; explanatory proof of what is wrong with so much of TV today. It explains why the medium continues to lose viewers to DVDs, the web and – for as much entertainment value as BBC Canada and BBC America offers these days – playing a game of Whist with a lonely, aging and incontinent auntie who smells of mothballs, feral cats and too much cheap perfume.

What it doesn’t explain is why my cable bill keeps rising.

Yes, the economy plays a role in television’s business problems. But idiotic and unfathomable programming decisions are playing as great, if not greater, role.

Friday, May 22, 2009

“Of Course (The CIA) Misled Congress. We Were Trained How.”

The voice of the former CIA briefer on the phone is strong and direct, unapologetic in either tone or words.

“Of course we misled Congress on torture. The White House and (George) Tenet demanded it, and we were trained how to do it without lying,” he says to me. “People (former Vice President Dick) Cheney sent over taught us how to do it without violating the ‘lying to Congress’ statutes.”

I ask the man, who – like the three others interviewed for this article – insists his name not be used because he still has a business relationship with various American intelligence services a pointed question: Does it occur to him that in avoiding committing one felony, he actively encouraged another, torturing prisoners of war.

“If that was going on, it was above my pay grade,” he replies with typically cold, bureaucratic indifference. “I was a foot solider. My job was to tell Congress what the top of the CIA wanted it to know, and the way they wanted to frame the information.”

All I can think of is the late John Banner, Sgt. Schultz on the old Hogan’s Hero’s TV show, insisting, “I zee nussing! I know nussing!” in that stage German dialect he perfected as he rolled and averted his eyes.

I inquire whether my source feels betrayed by his former masters, or has any remorse about his role in undermining the American political system. He pauses a moment to consider the question before revealing that his only worry was personal.

“My concern was that this might come out someday,” he says brusquely. “If it did, I wanted to be on the right side of the law.”

I realise I am speaking to a man as unrepentant and amoral as Dick Cheney himself.

Yet he is not an isolated example, a lonely, Joe Friday-like “Just the facts, ma’am” functionary who emerges from the bowels of the CIA’s huge Langley VA campus to spread the gospel to Congress as seen by Bush. Two other former intelligence officers and one current CIA employee confirm what he says – and go even further.

“I’m convinced that the so-called ‘timeline’ of what and when was told to Congress … was forged after-the-fact, probably fairly recently when the pressure was turned up,” a current employee reveals. “Otherwise, the dates and who was briefed would be accurate, the topics covered would be correct, and acronyms that weren’t created for another two or three years wouldn’t have been noted as being used at the wrong time.”

So is the CIA is scrambling fast and hard to cover its very exposed asses, and being careless about it in the process?

“It’s exactly what’s happening,” he assures me. Some assurance.

Pelosi And Boehner And Cheney, Oh My

Meanwhile, the only reason Nancy Pelosi and Congressional Democrats are under attack by Republicans for accusing the CIA of lying to Congress is because she tripped herself up in a knotty web of facts before truly understanding what happened when, and who was told what by whom.

Even with several members of both parties in Congress and the Senate rushing to her aid with their own accounts of being misled, John Boehner demanded she apologise to the CIA – letting slide the fact that Mr. Man Tan himself admitted the CIA lied to him a few days later. And then said it wasn’t what he meant before re-stating how he was misled.

Muddling matters even further is Dick Cheney’s on-going, full-throated defence of war crimes including illegal torture which, it turns out, is still filled with his own lies.

After Cheney stood before the American Enterprise Institute on Thursday accusing Pres. Obama of libelling the CIA in Obama’s own speech on national security – actually, it would have been slander, which is spoken, and libel occurs in print; turns out Cheney doesn’t know those laws any better than he knows torture laws – McClatchy’s crack team of national security reporters, Jonathan S. Landay and Warren P. Strobel, fact-checked 10 specific lies Cheney told his audience.

“From what I could observe,” a former CIA insider tells me, “Cheney was both de facto president and the real head of the CIA. Tenet may have run things day-to-day but Cheney was the man in charge of everything, including torture. He got field reports every time someone was waterboarded, or was undergoing sleep denial and other of the ‘harsh interrogations’ that the vice president ordered.”

So did Vice President Cheney direct the CIA to mislead Congress in the intelligence updates mandated by law?

“I couldn’t swear to it in front of a grand jury,” a source claims, “but he was the only guy with the power to do it. Tenet would never go out on a limb on something like lying to Congress without Cheney ordering him to do it.”

Thursday, May 21, 2009

A Growing Sense Of Anger At Obama – And Others

I’m so angry I feel like concealing a loaded hand gun and walking into a national park.

No, I’m not going postal. Once Pres. Obama signs the new credit card law, it will be legal for anyone to march around Yellowstone packing heat just for the fun of it. Although it’s usually angry, bitter, little men who need the security of feeling cold steel against their body, and I’m 6’2” and not bitter, I sure as hell am angry.

I am angry at Congressional Democrats – especially those in the Senate – who are so afraid of the National Rifle Assn. than they allowed the gun amendment to be tacked on to a consumer protection reform bill. Watch: As soon as some deranged lunatic toting an AK-47 wipes out half the crowd waiting for Old Faithful to erupt, the NRA will shrug its shoulders and claim it’s what the Founding Fathers intended.

I am furious at Pres. Obama for getting all testy, even shirty, yesterday when civil liberty and human rights advocates complained to him during a meeting in the Cabinet Room about reinstating kangaroo courts at Guantanamo and not investigating war crimes or crimes against humanity committed by senior members of the Bush administration.

I’m livid with Nancy Pelosi for not having her facts straight before speaking out about the CIA lying to her and deliberately misleading Congress about torturing prisoners of war – and who knows what else – thus handing the Republicans an issue to divert the nation’s attention from the real issue of who, what, when, where, why and how turned the beacon of liberty, freedom and the rule of law into a modern day equivalent of the Spanish Inquisition, complete with self-righteous, all-knowing, high priests.

I am infuriated with Republicans for deliberately turning themselves into a late night talk show joke instead of being a constructive opposition party. The US needs two vibrant political parties yet the GOP thinks Rush Limbaugh, Sarah Palin and Bobby Jindahl are leading thinkers on its come back trail.

I am angry at Wall St. and the financial services industry for shuffling their feet while giving half-hearted apologies for plunging the world into economic chaos while shouting full-throated defences of its other-worldly compensation structure that encourages its executives to create a multi-trillion dollar trading scheme built on nothing more than computer entries.

I am furious with the medical business for saying one thing publicly but behind the scenes play lobbyist games over providing the nation with decent, affordable health care, allowing its surrogates to raise the same spectre of “socialised medicine” as the American Medical Assn. used back in the 1960s when Medicare was proposed.

I am incensed by a physician acquaintance in Ohio who is a highly regarded specialist with a seven figure income who complains to me that any of the current health reform proposals will cut his income in half, at least, as if his life would disintegrate if he had to live on only five or six hundred thousand dollars a year. Better 47-million people not have access to his training, skills and expertise than he drops one of his two country club memberships because of personal financial hardship.

Oh. And I’m really pissed off at my cable company – but who isn’t? My six year old remote fried its insides so I went to the cable store and it was replaced. Fine. But in the last six years, some buttonhead decided to move all of the buttons around on the remote, including where the on-off, channel, mute and last viewed buttons are located – the ones I use all the time. Why? What was the point? To make people angry and drive them insane?

I’ll cut this off here. A six hundred word rant is enough. I am increasingly angry at a lot of people right now, so much so that I’m reminded of the 17th century French philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal who once wrote, “The more I know of people, the better I love my dog.”

Monday, May 18, 2009

Obama Meets Netanyahu: Time To Tell Israel The Facts Of Life

For those too young to have been alive at the time or whose memories became fogged with age, in June 1961 – less than six months after being inaugurated – a very young Pres. John F. Kennedy met Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev at a summit in Vienna. By the end of the session, the wily Russian peasant concluded that the wealthy, well-bred Kennedy was weak, indecisive and accommodating.

As a result, Khrushchev decided he could alter the balance of power in the world by stationing missiles in Cuba aimed squarely at the United States as leverage to get the West to abandon Berlin. Fifteen months later, the world teetered on the brink of nuclear annihilation.

Today, Pres. Obama meets Israel’s Prime Minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, with nearly as much at stake. If Obama does not forcefully tell Israel the new facts of life in the Middle East, it is very likely there will likely be a region-wide war before the end of Obama’s first term, according to the authoritative Juan Cole.

AIPAC’s Long Shadow

The two men come to today’s meeting with very different agendas.

Obama wants to reach an accord with Iran to help ensure stability in both Iraq and Afghanistan, something that won’t happen unless Israel stops colonising the West Bank, reaches a peace deal with Syria so it stops meddling in Lebanon and backing Hezbollah, and becomes serious about negotiating a two-state solution with the Palestinians.

Netanyahu wants to destroy Iran’s nuclear potential, push Israeli settlement and control over the West Bank all the way to the Jordan River, ignore Syria, isolate Gaza and leave the Palestinians without a state to call their own.

Lurking unseen in the Oval Office making Obama’s situation even more complex than it is already is the ever-present shadow of AIPAC, the enormously powerful neo-con lobbying force that essentially dictated America’s Israeli policy all during the Bush presidency. It also has many friends – and recipients of its lush campaign contributions – on Capitol Hill.

As a result, AIPAC insists framing any Washington discussion of Middle East policy in a way that equates rationality with being anti-Israel. In effect, discussing Israel in any terms other than those mandated by AIPAC is akin to arguing economics with a Communist who insists that the debate begin with the premise that capitalism is evil per se.

That’s not a policy debate; it’s Kabuki theatre.

Notorious Bully

Obama has his work cut out for him. The president looks for common ground while Netanyahu is a notorious bully; indeed, Bill Clinton complained that Netanyahu thought that he was the superpower.

But one can support Israel’s right to exist – as I do – and still push it hard to adopt a more realistic view of the region. If the nation’s long-range goal is to secure a safe and lasting peace with its neighbours, then Israel has to be willing to see the world from the other side of the negotiating table as well as from its own. Not since Menachim Begin has Israel had a government willing to do so.

The first step would be to get Israel to tone down its rhetoric against Iran and stop making plans to attack under the guise of stopping President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s supposed desire to wipe Israel “off the face of the map.” The problem is that Ahmadinejad never said any such thing. For one thing, an Iranian friend assures me there is no such idiom in Farsi. For another, the Iranian president was speaking of the ideological collapse of Zionism and he equated it to the fall of Communism under the old Soviet regime.

Contrary to the view of Israeli right-wingers, an attack on Iran would not bring about its collapse but engulf the entire region in flames. Hopefully, Rahm Emanuel will attend the meeting so he can use his penchant for colourful language – remember, at the White House Correspondent’s Dinner the night before Mother’s Day, Obama said Emanuel is not accustomed to using the word “day” after the word “mother” – to drive home forcefully a point Obama undoubtedly will make more subtly.

The key to today’s meeting is Obama getting Netanyahu to agree to negotiating a Palestinian state. This morning at his blog, Informed Comment, Dr. Cole writes:

“Netanyahu's talk of improving the economic lives of Palestinians instead of giving them a state is nonsense. Statelessness prevents economic security and progress. And people aren't just motivated by material things. Palestinians want a concrete manifestation of their national identity, just as everyone else does.

“Only a viable Palestinian state resolves this huge decades-long mess in the short to medium term. I think it may be too late but am willing to see what Obama has in mind.”

No doubt the joint news conference will be filled with conciliatory words and pledges of co-operation. But don’t be fooled by the diplomatic niceties: If Jerusalem will not budge on its denial of a Palestinian state, Washington’s hope for peace in the region will be short-circuited by Israel's short-sighted thinking and lack of courage.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Wait, Wait, And The Party Of The Psychotic No

– Guest post by Denis Campbell, Editor of

The Republican Party needs an intervention.

When a comedy news quiz show makes them apoplectic with rage, I worry that their stressors to try and remain relevant – big movie trailer voice here – “in a world where only 20% of the people identify with them …” are overloaded to the breaking point.

As a recent mini-stroke survivor, I’ve become evangelical about diet, exercise and reducing stress. While I’ve lost 50 pounds since November, exercise and run four-to-six times weekly and, being on a strict, medically supervised programme at 51, feel fitter and healthier than at any other time in my life.

By contrast, Republicans are overloading on Cheetos, moose burgers and Red Bull. They need to seriously chill.

Headlines abound with them lining up to defeat President Obama’s as yet-unnamed Supreme Court Nominee to replace David Souter. Former vice president Dick Cheney will not shut up over torture, thus creating the impression he is either completely deranged or embarking on a defence strategy so brazen as to actually think he has backed Team Obama into a corner, daring them to prosecute him.

While I normally enjoy indulging the paranoid fantasies of the American right, this could be a sign an intervention may be needed.

The right wing blog burst a vein behind their eyes yesterday when Obama senior advisor David Axelrod joked that he was not involved in the Obama family selection of Bo the dog until the final three. His vote was to name the dog Miss California – she of the “opposite marriage” pageant blunder who’s now more famous than any 10 major policy Administration announcements.

The actual Miss USA pageant winner – Quick can you name her? The answer is at the end of the post and you need more than just the state. No Googling! – seems to be in the Witness Protection Programme because of the headline grabbing Carrie Prejean. Her globally covered press conference this week with “The Donald” was broadcast live around the world as we all clung to the edge of our seats worrying if the poor thing would keep her title.

Was it ever really in doubt? Trump loves attention and on Larry King Live he boasted of the new pageant contract with NBC and the fact that the next Miss California pageant won a national cable television contract for the first time ever. As graduates of his PR school understand his philosophy is “call me anything you want, just spell the name T-R-U-M-P.”

Prejean was thrown into the deep end of the pool by Perez Hilton three weeks ago and, like a true media Jedi Knight, she learned how to use the medium. She’s even learned a trick or two from politicians. The excuse, “the deceitful cameraman caught my titties in a sudden burst of wind” was classic political doublespeak. Divert attention from your own behaviour and call out the media or opposition in a giant plot.

Democratic Plot Exposed!

Axelrod’s quiz answer evoked hilarious laughter, a sheepish grin from the Puckish bad boy and complete outrage from the right! Let’s look at what exactly are they so upset about.

National Public Radio has a weekly quiz show in Chicago called Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me. Every Sunday morning the podcast arrives in my iTunes mailbox and I spend an hour on the treadmill at the gym laughing at the brilliant writing built around the week’s news headlines.

This week, the programme took a road trip to the campus of George Washington University. Wait, Wait opened a Twitter account recently @waitwait and asked for questions from their audience for Axelrod in advance.

This show is ubiquitous in Chicago, so much so that even Senator Obama was a guest answering questions from host Peter Sagal. Show announcer Carl Kassell has become an iconic cult hero as call-in players compete weekly to win public radio’s prize of prizes, Carl’s voice giving the welcome recording on their home answering machine - something I am still seeking if only they would call Wales and let me play.

Carl is the perfect radio foil for Peter as he reads limericks, creates news category questions, participates in the weekly News Quiz “Who’s Carl this Time?” and other bits of news frivolity. The programme has singularly re-ignited the comedy careers of Paula Poundstone, Mo Rocca, P.J. O’Rourke, Roy Blount, Jr., Tom Bodett and others as frequent celebrity guest panellists.

So here’s how bad the Axelrod drama actually was!

PETER SAGAL, HOST: So, let’s take the President’s dog. Obviously, that was focus-grouped, you really wanted to appeal to the Portuguese-American community with the choice. Seriously, do you, is it part of your job to worry about that, how things will play politically. How they’ll look, how they should be framed?
DAVID AXELROD, WHITE HOUSE SENIOR ADVISOR: I only, I only got called in for the final three on the dog.
SAGAL: Really?
AXELROD: I wasn’t there at the beginning of the process.
SAGAL: Seriously, were you consulted?
AXELROD: I was not consulted.
SAGAL: Really?
AXELROD: I was not consulted.
SAGAL: Really?
MO ROCCA: But who were the other two? Were there really two others?
AXELROD: One was Miss California. (Audience applause and laughter)
SAGAL: Dude, you just lost the carelessly topless demographic for 2012.

It was this that sent the right wing blogosphere nuts. Here’s a word of advice: Republicans, if your party ever wants to come in from w-a-a-y out of the wilderness, you need to lighten up, suck it up and shut the hell up for at least a few weeks while you figure out your strategy or your numbers will drop to the teens.

While that prospect would normally excite most progressives, I want the benefit of two-party debate and discussion like in the good old days of 25 years ago when we had something called a political middle ground. Wait, wait.

Oh. Did you know the answer to who is the reigning Miss USA? She is Kristen Dalton of North Carolina.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Suppressed Abu Ghraib Photos Published Down Under; DoD Has Video Of Kids Screaming While GI's Sodomize Them

Somehow, the Sydney Morning Herald obtained some of the additional Abu Ghraib photos that the Obama administration is in a US court trying to keep hidden as it fights an ACLU Freedom of Information lawsuit. Fifteen of the 60 are published on-line Saturday (Sydney time) by the newspaper.

And New Yorker investigative journalist Seymour Hersh says the Dept. of Defence has previously-undisclosed videos of children screaming as they're sodomized by GI's at the Iraqi prison. Attention Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld: This is what happens when you authorise torture and tell GI's that "the gloves are off."

Is it because we’ve become inured to photos of Americans torturing prisoners of war that I don’t have the same violent, angry reaction to this latest batch as I did when the first Abu Ghraib pictures were leaked?

Have I watched that same video loop of a jump-suited Army volunteer being waterboarded too many times to feel the same intense nausea at images of what George Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and the rest of the Inquisition priests authorised in my name?

Did seven years of the constant drip-drip-drip on my head as each new piece of information leaked out of yet another crime against humanity desensitise me to the horror of what we became?

America finally jump the shark, dooming us and our time to be remembered in history as the moment when we joined a long list of nations whose self-betrayal led to our own collapse. And why do I not feel an Arctic chill blain down my back when I think of this horrific possibility, or how and why it happened? Why we let it happen?

I am revolted by my own lack of revulsion.

Mourning In America

Meanwhile, Daily Kos is reporting Seymour Hersh saying the US government has videotapes of boys being sodomized at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

"The worst is the soundtrack of the boys shrieking," the reporter told an ACLU convention last week. Hersh says there was "a massive amount of criminal wrongdoing that was covered up at the highest command out there, and higher." For "and higher," read: The Pentagon and The White House.

It is strongly suspected that the videos are the reason why Pres. Obama opted for fighting their release.

Hersh was speaking to the ACLU’s 2004 America At A Crossroad membership conference last week. According to Kos, Hersh also said,

Some of the worse that happened that you don't know about, ok. Videos, there are women there. Some of you may have read they were passing letters, communications out to their men. This is at Abu Ghraib which is 30 miles from Baghdad [...]

The women were passing messages saying 'Please come and kill me, because of what's happened.' Basically what happened is that those women who were arrested with young boys/children in cases that have been recorded. The boys were sodomized with the cameras rolling. The worst about all of them is the soundtrack of the boys shrieking that your government has. They are in total terror it's going to come out.

It's impossible to say to yourself how do we get there? who are we? Who are these people that sent us there?

Dick Price of The LA Progressive wrote to me saying, "Whatever moral high ground we once occupied, we no longer hold." It's gone, maybe forever. We should all be in mourning.
- - - - -
A Terrific Related Article
: It's called Why The Caged Bird Sang by William Rivers Pitt and appears at Truthout.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Sorry Folks: Happy Days Are Not Here Again

“Demonizing the bankers as if they and they alone created the financial meltdown is both inaccurate and short-sighted,” Citigroup chairman Richard Parsons whined to reporters recently. “Everybody participated in pumping up this balloon and now that the balloon has deflated, everybody has some part in the blame.”

Oh no we don’t.

Talk about dissembling. The truth is that the top subprime lenders whose loans are largely blamed for triggering the global collapse were owned or backed by giant banks – including Citigroup, whose chairman feels vilified so unjustly – that are now collecting hundreds of billions of dollars in bailout money. Even worse, several paid huge fines to settle predatory lending charges for their direct, sub-prime activity. So, big banks funding the subprime industry weren’t hapless victims of an unforeseen financial collapse as they portray themselves; they were enablers who were bankrolling the lending that all-but brought down the world’s financial system.

Who says so?

Not some lefty, fringe, bank hating, consumer activist group but The Center for Public Integrity (CPI), a highly respected, non-partisan research organization. It released a massive report this week on its analysis of government loan data. CPI scoured nearly 7.2-million subprime mortgages made from 2005 through 2007, a span between the peak and collapse of the boom, and its findings are depressingly dismal.

It turns out that big American banks truly are the demons here.

They poured billions into the subprime lending market due to a never-ending demand for high-yield, high-risk bonds backed by home mortgages. The banks – including household names like the late Lehman Brothers, Merrill Lynch, Citigroup and Goldman Sachs – made huge profits for fuelling the sub-prime engine while executives collected bonuses reaching hundreds of millions of dollars until the bottom fell out of the real estate market, a bubble they were largely responsible for creating in the first place by generating artificial demand for homes the banks knew buyers could not afford.

Stressed Out Test

Meanwhile, the so-called “stress tests” of the 19 largest banks released Thursday by Treasury says everything is almost hunky-dory. Thursday night, Steve Bartlett of the Financial Services Roundtable was on the PBS NewsHour insisting “it's good news for the economy, good news for the financial sector.”

Well, not quite, as it turns out; not if you look more closely.

How can a stress test be trusted when the final audit reports were negotiated between Treasury and each bank, more than half of the humongous banks put under a microscope need to ante up tens of billions of dollars in new capital and quickly, and the toxic assets – such as subprime loans – that keep banks from lending are still on their books and they're balking at selling them?

In effect, we’re in about the same financial pickle brine as we were last fall except billions are propping up a trembling financial system and it’s still not healthy.

My reaction to the Treasury report was, “Oy, gevault!” Paul Krugman, writing in today’s New York Times, was more elegant: “While bankers may find the results of the stress tests ‘reassuring,’ the rest of us should be very, very afraid.”

If Krugman is afraid, I am terrified.

Media Nonchalance

While the news media was busy reporting “it ain’t so bad,” Dean Baker was writing at The American Prospect that overlooked in all the cheerleading are new Bureau of Labor Statistics findings that growth of salaries and benefits in the private sector fell to only 0.8% last quarter – well below the rate of inflation – and represent another sharp drop from the previous quarter.

Since wage and benefit income make up 60% of all national income, Baker writes, “This is a piece of really bad news that swamps by an order of magnitude the items presented as good news …”

He goes on to say, “If reporters would focus more on reporting the news rather than repeating what the Fed chairman says the public would be much better informed.”

Here we go again.

One reason we’re in this financial mess is because too few business and financial reporters at Authoritative And Respected Publications such as the Times, Business Week and The Wall Street Journal as well as CNBC, the NewsHour and even the usually deliberate BBC World drank gallons of Wall Street’s Kool-Aid all through the Bush years. With the occasional exception of Bloomberg News, few journalists bothered to scrounge beyond news releases and PR-flacked interviews with sometimes dissembling, often lying, CEOs to bother noticing the shaky house of cards on which the Republican’s “robust” economy was built.

What isn’t being covered – not even now, after all we’ve been through since September – is the raft of financial stories that will keep bolo punching us:
• How about the tens of millions of our dollars the banks are spending on lobbying against measures that would help beleaguered taxpayers who are bailing them out.
• No attention is paid to the fact that banks still aren’t lending, not to consumers, small businesses, home buyers or folks brave enough to buy a new car.
• Nobody is writing about the rising default rate on credit cards, a sure sign people are out of cash.
• There’s nothing about the fault line to about split the earth open again when another round of sub-prime mortgages adjust beyond the home owner’s ability to pay.

Meanwhile, Pres. Obama and Congress are dithering over re-regulating the financial markets, shying away from clamping down on predatory credit card practices, failing to exercise control over the banks and auto companies we all now own, shying away from forcing banks to sell off their toxic assets – something that TARP was supposed to be all about – and acting as if they’re forgetting about how poor we all are.

Maybe this is why the mournful, opening lines of a Janis Joplin song keep echoing in my head today:
“Busted flat in Baton Rouge, waitin’ for a train,
And I’s feelin' near as faded as my jeans.”

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

America’s Christian Soldiers Fight For Jesus In Afghanistan

Why does the military attract so many religious nuts, loonies who think their real mission is to convert Moslems – and everyone else – to Jesus?

Born again officers at the Air Force Academy were so busy proselytizing to Jews, Catholics, agnostics and atheists, they didn’t have time to worry about minor irritants like numerous rape charges filed by female cadets. The US Army tried spreading the “Word” in Iraq and then wondered why locals kept blowing them up. Now, America’s Christian soldiers – who seem to know the Bible better than they know the history of the Crusades or why the very word still infuriates Moslems – are doing the same thing in Afghanistan.

Thanks to American free-lance filmmaker Brian Hughes, who was on a Pentagon-approved and supervised trip to Afghanistan, al Jazeera-English broadcast a report showing American army officers stationed at Bagram Air Base near Kabul giving marching orders to the troops on how to reveal the light to Afghans while on patrol. Alas, few US cable systems carry al Jazeera-English so, if not for YouTube, the report would be lost in the ether.

When the Pentagon dismissed the charge by saying edited footage was shown out of context, al Jazeera responded by airing all seven minutes of raw, unedited tape showing even more-damning material that didn’t make air. Whoops!

War Doubts

Meanwhile, Carolyn Lochhead writing at reports that Congressional Democrats are willing to give Pres. Obama the benefit of the doubt right now on his Afghan policy but are signaling that their patience is not unlimited:

"The problem is not the administration's policy or its goals. The problem is that I doubt that we have the tools there that we need to implement virtually any policy in that region," (House Appropriations chairman David) Obey said.

"When I came here in 1969 I was opposed to the Vietnam war. But President Nixon pointed out that he had inherited it and deserved some time to try and make his policy work, so I decided to keep my mouth shut for a year. At the end of the year, Nixon had not moved the policy and so I began to oppose the war. I am following that same approach here."

Obey said Democrats are "giving the administration everything that they want and then some to maximize their chance of succeeding," but at the end of this year, he wants "an honest, tough-minded evaluation of the chances of success."

Obey’s concerns are well-founded. After all, before George Bush pulled American resources out of Afghanistan to fight his macho cowboy war in Iraq, Special Forces troops in Tora Bora had Osama bin Laden in their night scope sights and were ready to pull the trigger when Bush and Donald Rumsfeld ordered the unit to stand down, as the 2008 book written by an officer who was there, Kill Bin Laden, documents. Then, Bush ignored the real war on terror for seven years to focus on destroying America’s image, standing and moral authority in the world while breaking US law and international treaties.

Now, Pres. Obama has to try putting the toothpaste back in the tube.

Besides roughly 1,000 or so years of history arguing against any lasting American success, the dual problem of Afghanistan and Pakistan may be insurmountable regardless of how many “constructive discussions” special envoy Richard Holbrook has in the region or the pleasant words that get spoken today in the Oval Office when Obama meets with the two nation’s presidents.

Reality Bites

The reality is that the problems are so complicated, only an unconventional solution – and a sudden emergence of a pair of modern day Menachim Began’s and Anwar Sadat’s to lead the two countries – is likely to produce any meaningful progress.

History – One of the Bush Administration’s countless foreign policy mistakes was thinking it could impose “democracy” on a country with no tradition of a central government responsive to its citizens. For nearly its entire history, Afghanistan has been ruled by violent, corrupt, tribal war lords who’ve never had a shred of loyalty to a central government. Moreover, Afghan children are taught to hate other tribes about the same time as they’re toilet trained so peace between various rival factions is a long shot.

Opium – It’s Afghanistan’s main cash crop. Since there are no other buyers, farmers sell it to Taliban elements that do the first cut at refining and then sell it on to European dealers. For a while, NATO troops tried burning the crop which went over well with farmers who were deprived on a living. For some reason, the US and NATO are reluctant to adopt the very successful anti-opium strategy used in Turkey: Buy the poppy crop at market rates, sell some to pharma companies who need it in medicine compounds and burn the rest. Until there is a real solution to the opium problem, there’ll be no realistic way to [a] clamp down on the Taliban and its ability to use drug money to buy arms and [b] obtain the allegiance of Afghan farmers.

Corruption – Karzi. Nothing more need be said except it’s been ubiquitous in Afghanistan for centuries.

Pakistan’s Army – Its officer corps remains divided between men loyal to the government and those who are in cahoots with insurgents; many government loyalists refuse to drop their belief that the real enemy is India, not insurgents. And despite attempts to reform it, the ISI – the military’s intelligence service – is still dominated by officers who feed information to al Qaeda and the Taliban in Pakistan.

Pakistan’s Government – The government is about as popular as Michelle Bachman at a meeting. It cannot deliver security, services or social reform to the vast majority of its citizens; worse, it doesn’t seem to know how to even try.

Meanwhile, with that region of the world riding to hell in a camel’s saddle, members of our Army think their real job is to convert Moslems to born again’s. No matter how smart, ingenious and creative Obama’s solutions to the region might be, none of the ideas will gain any traction as long as Afghan villagers see the US military approaching with a gun in one hand and a Bible in the other with orders to torch the poppy fields in a pocket.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

DoJ Torture Report Goes Soft On Crime

Both the Washington Post and The New York Times are reporting Tuesday afternoon that the much-anticipated report of the Justice Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR) on how the torture memos came to be national policy will recommend not prosecuting Federal Appeals Court Judge Jay Bybee, Steven Bradbury and John Yoo for enabling the Bush Administration to torture prisoners in violation of US law and international treaties.

According to the Times, the OPR report says that while bad judgement and sloppy lawyering were involved by men who swore to uphold the Constitution when they took their places as loyal Bushies, none should face criminal prosecution. The only disciplinary action suggested referring the report to state bar associations for possible charges.

As if this is not bad enough, former high-ranking Bush officials are actually lobbying the DoJ to soften the already namby-pamby report even further. Lobbying? Is someone making a funny? Why would anyone in Attorney General Eric Holder’s office even take a phone call from John Ashcroft, Alberto Gonzales and Michael Mukasey or anyone who worked for them, let alone listen seriously to what they said?

Put bluntly, the Department of Justice is now on record as being officially soft on crime.

“This’ll Happen Again”

When Gerald Ford pardoned Richard Nixon for his role in Watergate, it raised a hew-and-cry across the land. The argument supporting Ford’s pardon went something like this: The nation is exhausted from two years of the scandal, Nixon has already been humiliated by being forced to resign and the country won’t be served by a drawn-out trial that only might result in The Trickster doing hard time.

The counter-argument came from people like my mother, who wasn’t a lawyer but truly understood rapacious politicians. She told me the night Nixon got his get out of jail free card, “If Nixon doesn’t go to prison, this’ll happen again. Some other president will do something even more outrageous and figure he’ll get away with it.”

My hunch is that Joyce, who died 10 years ago, is somewhere weeping. When she was alive, nothing pleased her more than being right; I cannot imagine mother taking any pleasure from her foresight that hot August evening more than 30 years ago.

The next time I visited my parent’s home west of Minneapolis. I wandered up the road to drop in on their neighbour, former Vice President Hubert Humphrey. He was already ill with early stages of the cancer that would claim his life five years later. I interrupted his quiet because I wondered what the man who thundered in 1948, "The time has arrived in America for the Democratic Party to get out of the shadow of states' rights and walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights" felt about pardoning the man who narrowly defeated him for President.

"A Bad Precedent"

We sat on the patio overlooking Lake Waverly sipping on lemonaide his wife brought us. A couple of Humphrey’s grandchildren were running around so after leaving the drinks, Murial went to keep watch on them as they played on the dock.

“I can’t imagine the pressure put on Gerry to pardon Nixon,” Humphrey said of Ford. “But if you’re president, you have to stand up to pressure.”

I remember chuckling and saying something like, “And as someone who served as LBJ’s VP for four years, you probably know a lot about standing up to pressure.”

“It might be good for the country right now,” he went on, smiling to acknowledge the truth in my retort. “But it’s a bad precedent for the future.”

It was the last conversation I ever had with Humphrey but his words came ringing back to me this afternoon: “It’s a bad precedent for the future.”

Sunday, May 3, 2009

When Barry Speaks, We Better Listen

David Leonhardt has a long interview with Pres. Obama on the economy in todays New York Times Magazine. Leonhardt is an economics columnist for paper and a staff writer for the magazine.

You'll find it at which you can reach by copying-and-pasting the URL into your browser.

Read it and weep, Republicans: An intelligent adult is in charge of things at The White House.

Inside Joe Arpaio: AZ Deputy Calls Him A “Disgrace To The Department”

“It ain’t right,” the man with the soft, desert cowboy drawl says slowly into the phone. “These folks are human beings and he treats ‘em like swine. Well, actually, Joe treats everyone who ain’t white and rich like swine.”

”Here in Maricopa County, he thinks it’s a crime to be poor or have brown skin and mebbe a ‘z’ in your name.”

The “he” is Joe Arpaio and the cowboy drawl belongs to one of his deputies, a man who is growing increasingly appalled by the Maricopa (Arizona) County sheriff’s sometimes violent, frequently disgusting and generally mortifying war on anyone suspected of being Mexican.

“I went into law enforcement to protect people and catch criminals,” the deputy speaking to me on the phone from Phoenix continues. “Joe went into it ‘cause he’s a sadistic S-O-B.”

The man who bills himself as “America’s toughest sheriff” and runs the nation’s fourth largest sheriff’s office may also be America’s meanest degenerate. He probably should be charged with civil rights law violations – federal crimes – instead of being allowed to walk around loose wearing a badge and a gun.

150’ Prison Tents

The story of Jailin’ Joe is well known.

He boasts of housing prisoners outdoors in tents during Arizona summers where temperatures hit 150’ in top bunks inside the flimsy canvas shelters; when he opened his Tent City, Arpaio moved an entire floor of prisoners housed adequately in the main jail into the tents to give the news media a photo op. Arpaio shrugs off the inhuman and inhumane treatment by saying American soldiers in Iraq live in similar conditions. Actually, GI’s don’t live that way except on overnight patrols; generally, they are housed in air conditioned trailers and barracks but Arpaio never seems to let truth or reality get in his way.

He proudly chain-marches 700 prisoners through the streets of Phoenix wearing only underwear and flip-flops in an exercise explicitly designed solely to humiliate inmates. "It's a security issue," Arpaio rationalises the inmates near-nudity, an argument as flimsy as the prisoner’s flip-flops. "If you let them wear their clothes, they can conceal fake keys.”


Arpaio sends midnight SWAT raids to wrong addresses and a SWAT loonie once forced a pet dog back into a burning house that caught fire during one such botched foray. The dog died a horrid death, his cries of pain audible for at least a block. Arpaio shrugs off the incident with a sort of “shit happens” dismissal.

He even borrows a page from pre-civil rights era Southern prisons, pressing chain gangs to work on county projects. Not content with limiting the gangs to hapless male prisoners, Arpaio also empresses chain gangs of female and juvenile prisoners to “volunteer” for chain gang duty in scenes that must look as if they come straight out of Cool Hand Luke. Or Guantanamo.

For a while, Arpaio webcast a prisoner intake center, showing legally innocent people being frog-marched in handcuffs into detention cells. Fortunately, a Federal court shut down what Arpaio called “Jail Cam,” slapping the sheriff whose argument ran that the webcast is a deterrent by chiding “… we fail to see how turning (innocent) pre-trial detainees into the unwilling objects of the latest reality show serves any legitimate goal. As the Supreme Court has recognized, ‘[i]nmates … are not like animals in a zoo to be filmed and photographed at will by the public ...’”

His reputation is so bad and far-flung that an Icelandic court refused to extradite two people wanted in Maricopa County after hearing evidence about Arpaio’s jail and his treatment of prisoners.

Growing Protests

Although Arpaio has been re-elected numerous times since 1992, the tide may be turning against him.

On Saturday, thousands of people marched seven miles through broiling Phoenix streets protesting Arpaio’s reign of terror and his one man battle against Hispanics and illegal immigrants.

Salvador Reza, who helped organize the Walk for Respect, says he wants Pres. Obama or Homeland Security Sec. Janet Napolitano take away Arpaio's authority to enforce immigration laws, which he got through an agreement with the federal government during George Bush’s own Reign of Terror on the American people.

"In his hands, it's empowering someone with no regard for civil rights, no regard for human rights, no regard for humanity," Reza says. The White House referred questions about Arpaio’s authority to enforce immigration laws to DHS.

Moreover, a growing number of Arpaio’s deputy’s are beginning to agree, according to and some are going public. One notes that the sheriff has a history of abusing his power, beginning long before he became Maricopa County sheriff.

“My old man knew Joe years back,” one such disgruntled deputy told me, “when they were in the Army together in France. To Arpaio, a good Saturday night was getting drunk and beating the shit out of Algerians or queers or anybody different. It was a great night if he could send one or two of them to the hospital.”

Arpaio was an MP at the time.

Another officer tells me Arpaio terrorizes his own staff of deputies. Like others on the sheriff’s force interviewed for this story over the past two weeks, he asks that his name not be used out of fear of reprisals.

“When (Arpaio) was given the go-ahead by the feds to round up illegals,” the deputy states, “we all thought it was a fairly straight-forward law enforcement assignment. We’d arrest them and turn illegals over to ICE for processing and deporting or whatever.

“But the sheriff had his own ideas,” he continues. “He saw a chance to make a big splash that’d give his own political career a push.

Harsh Reprisals

As public pressure and scrutiny on Arpaio mounts, he’s reportedly reacting the way any bullies does: He’s lashing out at the people closest to him.

Some deputy’s say when a small group of officers went to him protesting the way he was treating suspected illegal aliens, he assigned them to what is some call the “vomit patrol” – either cleaning up the jail’s drunk tank in the morning or assigned to patrolling areas that have a high number of drunk-and-disorderly 911 calls. Or he’d assign unhappy officers to chain gang duty, guarding prisoners in the hot Arizona sun with no respite from blistering heat.

“Joe’s worse than a mean drunk,” I was told by an officer. “He’s petty, angry and vindictive.”

But no one ever complained to him again.

Instead, often one at a time and with a good deal of hesitation and reluctance, they slowly seek out journalists and websites willing to listen to their story. Not all deputies are as cooperative; more than a few told me to fuck off when I got them on the phone; one threatened me with death if I ever step foot in Maricopa County and a second told me “the damn wetbacks get what they deserve” before slamming down the phone.

Still, one willing deputy with a conscience told me, “I was contacted by a web site looking for the ‘inside scoop’ on Arpaio. It took me a month, maybe longer, to finally speak with somebody from there. Loyalty is a big deal in policing. You have to be able to count on the guy next to you. But my wife finally convinced me if I don’t speak out I’m as bad as Arpaio.”

The officer pauses and I hear his short, quick breaths coming down the phone line, a sign of somebody who’s struggling with an intense, internal tug or war over what he is doing.

“What the sheriff is doing is wrong,” he finally admits. “Mexican haters and racists love him but he ought to be voted out of office. He’s a disgrace to the department.”

A Costly Disgrace

Joe Arpaio is a disgrace alright and he’s a costly one.

So far, Maricopa County paid out more than $50-million to settle lawsuits filed by people who crossed his path and were made sick, crippled, hurt or died as a result. In fact, there are so many lawsuits the county’s liability insurance carrier upped the jurisdiction's deductible five fold, to $5-million per action. Yet many of the suits were easily avoided: One diabetic prisoner died in custody after Arpaio’s jailers denied the woman access to her prescribed insulin.

Part of the problem is that Arpaio tolerates violence by his officers against prisoners; in fact, one deputy with whom I spoke says he actively encourages it. He told me, “If you don’t rough up prisoners, Arpaio doesn’t think you’re doing your job.

“And we (the sheriff’s department) seem to attract a lot of violent officers,” he adds ruefully.

As a result, the list of victims is sickeningly endless:

• Charles Agster, a 33-year-old mentally handicapped man, died in the county jail three days after being forced by sheriff's officers into a restraint chair and placed in a “spit hood” when he suffered a seizure. He was declared brain dead three days later and a jury awarded his parents $9-million.

• Scott Norberg, a former Brigham Young University football player, died after detention officers shocked him several times with a stun-gun. According Amnesty International, Norberg was already handcuffed and face down when officers dragged him from his cell and placed him in a restraint chair with a towel covering his face for the electrocution. After Norberg's corpse was discovered, deputies accused Norberg of attacking them, overlooking the fact that he was handcuffed at the time. The county settled a lawsuit for $8.25-million.

• Brian Crenshaw, a legally blind and mentally disabled inmate, suffered fatal injuries while being held in Maricopa County Jail. Crenshaw's family filed a lawsuit which resulted in a $2 million award. As in the Norberg case, Arpaio's office was accused of destroying evidence.

• Richard Post was a parapalegic inmate arrested for possessing marijuana. He was placed in a restraint chair by guards and his neck was broken in the process. The event, caught on video, shows guards smiling and laughing while Post is being injured, which cost him the use of his arms. The now-qualrapelegic Post settled for $800,000.

• Jeremy Flanders, an inmate at Tent City, was attacked with rebar tent stakes which were not concreted into the ground. Although these stakes had been used as weapons in a previous riot at the facility, Arpaio chose not to secure them properly. During the trial, Flanders argued successfully Arpaio and his deputies knew that prisoners used rebar as weapons and did nothing to prevent it. Flanders suffered permanent brain damage from the attack and was awarded $635,532; Arpaio was held personally responsible for 35%.

Many Bad Apples

These are not isolated incidents resulting from the excesses of “a few bad apples.” Much of the department is as rotten as its sheriff and the Maricopa County court files are stuffed full of literally hundreds of similar cases involving sheriff office abuse.

As a result, the Justice Dept. is now conducting an intense investigation of Arpaio and his department. The DoJ refuses comment but Arpaio claims the enquiry is politically motivated.

The real question is whether residents will continue to support their local sheriff or vote him out of office in the next election. Given the county’s political and racial make-up, and Arpaio’s unending stream of re-elections, a defeat at the polls seems a long shot although an emerging coalition of Hispanic, civil rights, civil liberty and other activist groups may have a chance of stopping him.

Law in the Wild West has always been harsh and un-tempered by any real notion of justice. After all, we’re talking about a region of the country where a cowpoke was fined $25 recently for a riding horse through town while drunk. But Joe Arpaio seems to feel he’s a sheriff, judge, jury and executioner all unto himself and he follows own version of “the law West of the Pecos.”

It might be what some white residents of Maricopa County want but it’s not what justice in the United States is about. I'd call Joe Arpaio a pig but that would honor him and insult millions of noble swine everywhere.